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Kerala's dwindling Jewish community ponders its fate

Without enough members, some synagogues do without Sabbath prayer

Shawn Sebastian, Kochi

Shawn Sebastian, Kochi

Published: September 03, 2014 05:09 AM GMT

Updated: September 02, 2014 06:38 PM GMT

Kerala's dwindling Jewish community ponders its fate

A wall inscription in the Jewish quarter of Kochi, formerly referred to as Cochin. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

In an unmarked cemetery in the southern Indian state of Kerala, a handful of Jews congregated for the burial service of Sippora Soniya.

For members of the dwindling Jewish community here, the 39-year-old woman’s death late last month was another sign of the changing times. Jews in Kerala used to number close to 2,500 during the community’s heyday; with Soniya’s demise, only 40 remain.

In Mattancherry, a part of coastal Kochi where a sprawling Jewish community once thrived trading spices and timber, only seven people are left.

They live near a 300-year-old synagogue, but regular Shabbat prayers stopped long ago because there were rarely enough residents to meet the 10-person quorum required to conduct prayers.

“I normally don’t go to the synagogue, as we hardly have prayers,” says Sarah Cohen, who, at 93, is the eldest member of the community.

Tourists occasionally come to look for her at her home in the shadows of the synagogue, though she says her memory problems make it difficult for her to remember what it was like growing up amid the vibrant Jewish community of her childhood.

Historians believe the first Jews arrived in India more than 2,000 years ago. Some were fleeing religious persecution; others sought out trade and better economic opportunities. The oldest immigrants, known locally as Malabari Jews, represent the majority of those who remain. Another group, known as White Jews or Paradesi Jews, have only seven members left, making them among the smallest Jewish communities in the world.

However, following the formation of Israel in 1948, a large numbers of Jews in India left the country, marking the rapid decline of the once thriving community.

In Kerala, many of the remaining members believe their culture is quickly eroding from a land that once saw the first immigration of Jews to India.

The community’s demise is “inevitable”, say elders like 58-year-old Elias Josephai, who runs an aquarium beside a closed synagogue in Kochi.

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“Youngsters are not interested in keeping the tradition alive,” he says. “But they are not to blame, as there is no community bonding anymore.”

In the last five years, there have been 10 deaths in the community. As the community fades, Josephai says, many have also shifted away from certain traditions. Some people have even started marrying outside the community—which is not permitted in many interpretations of the Jewish faith.

“During my childhood on the Sabbath day, we were not even allowed to turn the lights on,” he says.

Though many Jews from Kerala have long since departed for Israel, Josephai says most of his relatives chose to remain living in the land where he and his family were raised.

Still, even Josephai can see the writing on the wall. His own brother left for Israel years ago and his eldest daughter departed in 2011. He knows he will follow eventually.

“If I have to leave this land, it will be with a broken heart,” he says. “But I am sure even I will leave for the holy land one day.”

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