Jews in Kerala-A Tinge of Tradition and Class

4 min read

By: Klinsa Kurien, Bureau Chief-ICN Kerala

Jews are an ethno-religious group a major rampant force and religion, not only within the books of history but in reality too. It is one of the oldest religions of the world with lots of historical evidence. Records have it that these Jews were the original descendants of Jacob, who was one of the forefathers in the Biblical tradition and times. This religious group has strict adherence to religion and rituals at all times. The Jews in Kerala are a very vibrant community and they came to India after the destruction of their holy temple in Jerusalem. They adhere to the teachings of the Prophet Moses and others. Indian Jews are also known as Paradesi Jews or Malabari Jews. They settled on the coast of Kollam or Quilon and came to India as early as the 12th century. Some of them have migrated back to Israel after it gained independence. They also speak a Judeo- Malayalam dialect developed by their own cultural interactions with the local Kerala people. These Jews were expelled from Iberia, a country located at the south of Europe. 

There are three classifications of Jews in Kerala. Firstly, the Paradesi Jews are the white Jews who came in the 16th century from the far coast of Israel. They are the ones who escaped the religious persecution in Spain, maintained relations with Europe and traded with them. Gradually they started becoming friends with the Portuguese people for trade and commerce as a result of which they shared the same language and culture. Tensions escalated again when the Portuguese people began attacking the ruler or the Raja of Cochin. 

The next group of Jews is the Baghdadi Jews who are the traditional Arabic Jews. They also aligned themselves with the Paradesi community. There are many synagogues in Fort Cochin. Due to the communal tension in Iraq, Jews entered into the city of Surat and then to Kerala. The earliest migration was as early as 1730 in Surat. There are synagogues and cemeteries in the town of Surat. They practiced trading and were good at business dealings and slowly their grip was lost. They started establishing their Jewish presence in other places like Kolkata, Mumbai and Goa. 

The Malabari Jews are the ones who came to Kerala. The oldest among all the Jews in the Indian continent are the Kerala Jews. The city of Cranganore or Kodungalloor bears testimony to this fact as early as 70 AD and 70 AD. There were many residential areas of the Jewish people known as ‘Anjuvannam’. A Hebrew school was also built in that city for Jewish children to study. They built seven synagogues in the city of Cochin. The Kerala Jews would only recognize and worship the code of Maimonides, but did not consider the other basic traditional tenets of Judaism. The Black and White Jews have the same customs. They have a tradition of singing hymns and other devotional songs which are called piyyutim. Women were also allowed to recite prayers and narratives inside the Jewish synagogue. They also possess a cremation ground and a synagogue in Mala of Thrissur district. 

Since ancient times Kerala has been a hub of Jewish population and activities. They have origins in Yemen too, for the Jews of the town of Palur came from there. Way back in 1000 AD, Joseph Rabban who was a Jewish leader received copper plates from the ruler of Cranganore. It is still preserved in the Jewish Museum in Kerala. Jewish business men are known as ‘Radanites’ who travel between the Mediterranean regions and China in the 9th century. A religious law called halakhah was being abided to and the religious leaders were being addressed as ‘Hakhamim’ or ‘Rabbanim’. The greatness of the Kochi Jews lay in the fact that they did not build any system of hierarchy but retained the same culture. The ruler of Cochin managed to protect the Kerala Jews during his rule. Repeated conquests by the Dutch men and the Portuguese further weakened the stronghold of the Malabari Jews. Slight economic slowdown was witnessed due to the development of new commercial trade centers to the North and East. Despite lot of political and psychological disturbances, the Kerala Jews have carved a new niche for themselves in professions like teachers, lawyers, poultry merchants. 

There came a trying period for the Kerala Jews and some of them fled to Bombay and Calcutta. But they could retain their identity while living in India and marriages were also performed within the same community. The Cochin Jews are still a vibrant community who celebrated the 400th anniversary of building their synagogues in the year 1968. The numbers of Jews total up to 200 till recently. They meet and greet each other during various occasions and maintain their love for one another. Their numbers have reduced drastically but the camaraderie remains!

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