Celebrating Hanukkah in one of Asia's oldest Jewish settlements

Only a few people remain to keep their faith alive in Kochi, India
Celebrating Hanukkah in one of Asia's oldest Jewish settlements

Synagogue caretaker, K.J. Joy, lights a flame on the "menorah" lamp during the Jewish Hanukkah festival in Kochi.  (Photo: Christopher Joseph) 

At 93, Sarah Cohen is almost always asleep inside her house on a narrow road leading to the synagogue in the Indian port city of Kochi in southwestern Kerala state.

Cohen doesn't seem much bothered about the ongoing Jewish Hanukkah festival commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem 21 centuries ago. Nor does it bother the motley crowd of tourists that throng the 16th century synagogue, now a protected World Heritage building in Kochi, one of oldest Jewish settlements in India.

Cohen is expected to light the flames on a nine-branched Jewish candelabrum called a menorah during the eight-day festival that this year ran from Dec. 6-14. One flame is lit on each night, progressing to the eighth on the final night. The ninth in the center is the holder from which other branches are lit.

However, inside the synagogue, Yayal Halakhah prepares to light the lamp as Cohen is still asleep. "When all the visitors are gone, we will close the synagogue and I will light the branch," the women in her 40s told ucanews.com.

When the last visitor leaves, the synagogue's caretaker K.J. Joy closes the main door. Yayal puts on a skullcap and from a prayer book recites a prayer that hardly lasts two minutes and lights the branch.

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Yayal is the only Jewish person available to manage the day-to-day affairs of the temple built in 1567 for a thriving Jewish community in the Mattancherry area of Kochi. It is reportedly the only active synagogue in South Asia.

"We barely have six people here" in Mattancherry and "four of them are over 70, and two are in their 40s," Yayal said.

The synagogue is now shut with the oil lamp of Hanukkah burning inside the old structure. "It will go out when the oil is finished," Joy said.

"The festival is more a ritual then anything else. Even the Sabbath prayers are not held as there are not enough men to do it," he said explaining that 10 Jewish men are required for a public prayer.

Most Jewish festivities are like this. "When there are no people to celebrate, what is a festival," said Joy, a local Christian.


A dying community

While some historians claim that the Jewish people have been coming to southwestern India since the time of King Solomon, historical records show the first settlers came after the destruction of Jerusalem's Second Temple in 70 AD, at Cranganore, an ancient port near Cochin. But "there are only 27 Jews now" in the state and "only four of them can read the Torah [Jewish law]," said Elias Josephai, who is in his 50s.

India was home to Jewish settlers who at different points in history made different cities such as present-day Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata their home and from where they carried out commercial businesses. But now India's Jewish community has dwindled to about 100, Josephai said.

Almost a century ago there were more than 60 synagogues in India. "Over the years hundreds have migrated, and several hundreds have got married to people from other religions. We are a dwindling community. In a few years there will be none," he said sitting inside his aquarium shop near another now-closed synagogue inside Ernakulam market.

One of Josephai's two daughters — Leya, 25, is the youngest Jewish person in Kerala and the elder one is in Israel. Jospehai said he also tried to migrate "but the Almighty decided otherwise," without explaining.

"The last Sabbath prayer inside this synagogue was in 1972. But I still light the Hanukkah lamp here," Josephai said pointing to the closed wooden doors of the synagogue.

Inside the synagogue there are signs of neglect, with cobwebs hanging from the walls. Old and unused pews are collected on both sides and the worn out curtain of the Holy of Holies hangs covered in dust and dirt.

Despite this, Cohen and Josephai are determined to celebrate the festival. "We cook special food," Josephai said describing the special oily fried dishes associated with the Hanukah festival.

Cohen cannot cook now but follows the Sabbath and other festivals as strictly as possible.

"She has trained a local woman as her kitchen help," says Thaha Ibrahim, a local Muslim who manages her home shop in one of row of houses near the synagogue.


Elias Josephai, one of the few remaining Jewish people living in Kochi, sits in his aquarium shop near the Ernakulam synagogue. (Photo: Christopher Joseph)


Christmas and Hanukkah

Hanukkah falls around the time of Christmas as it begins on the 25 day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar and usually falls in November or December and celebrates the triumph of light over darkness and of purity over adulteration.

The event commemorates the Jewish rededicating of the Jerusalem's Holy Temple in 165 BC after they defeated the Syrian king, Antiochus, who desecrated their temple and forced them to abandon their culture and faith.

"If Antiochus was not defeated and the temple rededicated, a Jewish culture would not have been there for Jesus to be born," Josephai said.

Hanukkah pretty much goes unnoticed among local people in Kerala, Joy said. "Not even Christians are aware of it. It is much more a ritual ... not comparable with Christmas," he added.


* In the 19th paragraph, the identity of Thaha Ibrahim was changed to "a local Muslim." He was initially identified as a member of the synagogue.

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