ETHNONYMS: Cochin Jews, Cochinis (Israel), Malabar Jews, Paradesi Jews, Black Jews
Identification and Location. The Cochin Jews constitute one of the smallest Jewish communities in the world. They originate from the Malabar Coast in India and traditionally were divided into two caste-like subgroups: “White” (Paradesi) and “Black” (Malabari, although this entire group of Jews is from Malabar) Jews. The term “Paradesi” means “foreigner, ” and the “White” Jews are the descendants of Spanish, Portuguese, Iraqi, and other Jews who arrived on the Malabar Coast from the sixteenth century on. The “White” community has all but disappeared; a total of fifteen Paradesi Jews resided in Kerala in 2001. Almost all of the “Black” community has been transplanted to Israel, where these people have integrated successfully into Israeli society. Less than forty Cochin Jews live in Kerala.
Demography. When the traveler Benjamin of Tudela visited India in about 1170, he reported that there were about a thousand Jews in the south. In 1686 Moses Pereira de Paiva listed 465 Malabar Jews. In 1781 the Dutch governor, A. Moens, recorded 422 families or about 2,000 persons. In 1948, 2,500 Jews were living on the Malabar Coast. In 1953, 2,400 emigrated to Israel, leaving behind only about 100 Paradesi Jews on the Malabar Coast. In 2001 there were only about 80 “White” Jews in the world, in Israel, the United States, and elsewhere. Conversely, the “Black” Jews in Israel are increasing in numbers by marrying Jews of other origins and accepting them within their community. There are approximately 8,000 Jews of Cochini origin in Israel and less than 50 in all of India.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Cochin Jews, like their neighbors, speak Malayalam, a Dravidian language. In Israel they also speak modern Hebrew.
History and Cultural Relations
The settlement of Jews on the Malabar Coast occurred in ancient times. One theory holds that the ancestors of today’s Cochin Jews arrived in southern India as King Solomon’s merchants, who brought back ivory, monkeys, and parrots for his temple. Sanskrit- and Tamil-derived words appear in I Kings. Another theory suggests that Cochin Jews are descendants of captives taken to Assyria in the eighth century b.c.e. The most popular and likely supposition is that Jews came to southern India some time in the first century c.e., after the destruction of Solomon’s second temple. This theory is confirmed by local South Indian Christian legends.
Documentary evidence of Jewish settlement on the southern Indian coast can be found in the Cochin Jewish copperplates in the ancient Tamil script (vattezuthu). These copperplates are the source of numerous arguments both among scholars in regard to their date and meaning and among the Cochin Jews in regard to which particular caste-like subgroup of Cochin Jews are the true owners. Until recently, the Jewish copperplates were dated 345 c.e., but contemporary scholars agree on the date 1000 c.e. In that year, during the reign of Bhaskara Ravi Varman (962-1020 c.e.), the Jews were granted seventy-two privileges including the right to use a day lamp, the right to erect a palanquin, the right to blow a trumpet, and the right to be exempt from and to collect particular taxes. The privileges were bestowed on the Cochin Jewish leader Joseph Rabban, the “proprietor of the ‘Anjuvannam’, and his male and female issues, nephews, and sons-in-law.”
The meaning of the word “Anjuvannam” is also the subject of controversy. The theory that the word refers to a kingdom or a place has been superseded by theories that it was an artisan class, a trade center, or a specifically Jewish guild.
From the eighteenth century on, emissaries from the Holy Land began to visit their Cochin Jewish brethren. Indirectly, they helped Cochin Jewry to align with world Jewry and to become part of the “ingathering of the exiles” and request a return to Zion.
In 1949 the first Cochin Jews—seventeen families in all—sold their property. Urged on by religious fervor and deteriorating economic conditions in postindependence India, community elders wrote to David Ben-Gurion, prime minister of the newly established state of Israel, requesting that the whole community be allowed to emigrate to Israel. In 1953—1954, 2,400 Cochin Jews, the vast majority of whom belonged to the “Black” or Malabar subgroup, went to Israel. A small number stayed behind on the Malabar Coast, and at the beginning of the new millennium, very few remained there.
In India the Cochin Jews lived in several towns along the Malabar Coast in Kerala: Attencammonal, Chenotta, Ernakulam, Mallah, Mala, Parr, Chennemangalam, and Cochin. Today, individual Jews remain in Ernakulam and in “Jews Town” in Cochin. In Israel, Cochin Jews have settled in moshavim (agricultural settlements), the largest of which is Nevatim in southern Israel. Other large agricultural settlements exclusively inhabited by Cochin Jews are Mesillat Zion in the Jerusalem corridor and Kfar Yuval on Israel’s northern border. Other Cochin Jews live in small urban concentrations in Ramat Eliahu, Ashdod, and Jerusalem.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. In India the Cochin Jews mainly engaged in petty trading in the towns in which they lived on the Malabar Coast. They often traded in food goods, such as eggs and vinegar, although they rarely grew their own produce. In general, the Paradesi Jews had a higher standard of living and numbered among their ranks several merchants, including international spice merchants, and professionals (lawyers, engineers, teachers, and physicians).
In Israel the Cochin Jews are employed largely in agriculture. The first of these Jews to arrive in Israel were herded from place to place. In an early attempt to isolate them (for fear of contagious diseases), they were taken to outlying moshavim such as Nevatim. Their attempts to make a success of Nevatim failed. By 1962, when a Jewish Agency Settlement Studies Center sociologist conducted a survey of the moshav, he described the situation as one of “failure” and “economic and social crisis” manifested in declining output and emigration from the moshav.
Industrial Arts. The Cochin Jews did not tend to sell or trade industrial goods but did make ritual objects.
Trade. In the 1970s, Nevatim turned into a thriving moshav, producing avocados, olives, citrus fruits, pecans, cotton, potatoes, flowers, and chickens. Today Nevatim (with over six hundred Cochinis) is one of only fifteen successful Cochini moshavim. Some of these, such as Mesillat Zion (with over two hundred Cochin Jews), are populated by a majority of Cochin Jews, while smaller settlements, such as Fedia and Tarom, are heterogeneous.
Division of Labor. In Cochin, men usually had small shops that carried various goods. These shops were situated on the verandas of their houses. The women engaged in domestic pursuits. In Israel the Cochin Jews have taken professional or clerical jobs and are evenly distributed in a variety of occupations. In the younger generations both men and women work to contribute to the family income and work in many different professions.
Land Tenure. In Cochin, families owned their own land and built houses on it. The synagogues also owned large tracts of land, which were share-cropped. The moshavim in Israel are farming communities where each family owns its own plot of land.
Kin Groups and Descent. Cochin Jews observed strict caste endogamy, marrying only other Jews. However, there was no intermarriage between Paradesi and other Malabari Jews. Even within the “White” Jewish subgroup, the “White” meyuhasim (privileged), who claimed direct descent from ancient Israel, did not accept their meshurarim, or manumitted slaves, as marriage partners, although such unions did take place. In the twenty-first century in Israel more than one in every two Cochini marriages is contracted between Cochin Jews and other Israeli Jews.
Kinship Terminology. Each person’s name was made up of the first initial of the chamullah, the first initial of the father’s name and the individual’s first name. Kinship terminology reflects local Malayalam terminology, while in Israel dod (uncle) and doda (aunt) refer to one’s mother’s and father’s siblings without specification.
Marriage and Family
Marriage. In the past Cochin Jews tended to encourage cross-cousin marriage. Marriage is the most important Cochini social occasion and is celebrated in India for a complete week. In Israel celebrations are shorter due to the demands of the working week. Cochin Jews build a manara, or aperion, for the wedding, usually at the groom’s house. After a ritual bath the bride receives a tali, an Indian pendant, in imitation of local Nayar practice. The groom enters the synagogue on a white carpet —a custom apparently observed by Malabari but not Paradesi Jews—and sits near the podium until the bride’s procession arrives. The groom himself—not a rabbi, as in other Jewish communities—announces his betrothal and marriage to his bride.
Domestic Unit. The basic domestic unit is the patrilineal joint family.
Inheritance. Inheritance is patrilineal in accordance with Jewish law and local custom. The family name is passed on through the father.
Socialization. The young couple sets up a new household and in Israel attempts to socialize their children to become Israelis who are proud of their Cochini heritage.
Social Organization. “Black” Jews claim that they were the original recipients of the copperplates, proving their high status in the South Indian context. However, the copperplates are kept in the Paradesi synagogue.
After the “White” Jews built the Paradesi synagogue in 1568, no “Black” Jews were qualified to pray there. The “Black” Jews had several synagogues that no “White” Jew would enter.
One “White” Jew who rose to prominence under the Dutch, who had taken over in 1668, was Ezekiel Rahabi (1694-1771). For forty-eight years he acted as the principal merchant for the Dutch in Cochin. He had contacts all over the East as well as in Europe, and he signed numerous memoranda in Hebrew.
Political Organization. The Jews’ lives on the Malabar Coast were centered on the synagogue, which corporately owned estates in each settlement. The congregation was known as the yogam and administered communal affairs collectively.
Prominent Cochin Jews in Israel have been among the leaders of the moshav movement.
Social Control. The yogam acted as a social control device that determined the fate of its members. In extreme cases, where social taboos were ignored, the congregation could excommunicate a member.
Conflict. One of the earliest records of the division in the community was recorded in 1344, when some of the Jews of Cranganore moved to Cochin, three years after the port of Cranganore was silted up and Cochin was founded. But it was only after Vasco da Gama’s expedition, when the Portuguese came to rule Kerela, that some European Jews settled in Cochin. They became the first “White” Jews. By the time Pereira de Paiva visited Cochin in 1686 on behalf of Amsterdam Jewry, he could report that “the ‘White’ Jews and the ‘Malabarees’ were neither intermarrying nor inter-dining. ”
A famous conflict was the case of A. B. Salem, a lawyer who became the leader of the meshurarim in his fight for equal rights for his group. As late as 1952 the “White” Jews would not let his son marry a “White” Jew in the Paradesi synagogue. When his son and new daughter-in-law returned from their marriage inBombay, all the women in the ladies’ gallery of the Paradesi synagogue walked out in protest. Divisions between Cochin Jews all but disappeared after the transplantation of the community to Israel.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Cochin Jews believe in a single deity. Their religious observances conform in every way to the Jewish norms established by the halacha (Jewish legal code), and they kept contact with mainstreamJudaism through many generations. While they were fully integrated into Kerala society, they were influenced by Hindu (and Christian) practices and beliefs (e.g., the emphasis on purity of descent, the wedding customs and canopy, and the “asceticism” associated with Passover preparations). The Cochin Jews have never suffered from anti-Semitism on the part of their Hindu neighbors.
Religious Practitioners. Cochin Jews never had any rabbis, but several men served as shochetim (ritual slaughterers) and hazanim (cantors) both for their own communities and for another community of Indian Jews, the Bene Israel in Bombay.
Ceremonies. Both the “White” and the “Black” Jews perform their ceremonies separately in their own synagogues and homes. However, the ceremonies are similar and distinctly Cochini, according to the Shingli (Cranganore) custom. Daily prayers were chanted according to the Shingli custom, a unique version of the standard Jewish prayers. Cochin Jews have incorporated many unique customs into some of the universal Jewish holidays. For example, the festival of the Rejoicing of the Law, which celebrates the conclusion and new beginning of the annual cycle of Torah reading, is celebrated with special liturgy and a majestic procession with the Torah scrolls.
The various stages of the lifecycle are also marked with ceremonies. The circumcision ceremony takes place on the eighth day after the birth of a baby boy. The father carries his son to the main synagogue, where he is circumcised and named after one of his grandfathers. When a baby girl is about six months old, she is named after one of her grandmothers during a Sabbath or festival service. At the age of eight or nine, Cochin boys read the weekly section from the Prophets and at the age of thirteen a boy attains religious majority.
In Israel, the Cochin Jews enact their religious ceremonies according to Cochin custom, but also are influenced by general Israeli Jewish trends.
Arts. The Cochin Jews have a large number of folk songs that the women in particular sing regularly. Some are sung at weddings, some are lullabies, and some specifically recall the return to Zion. In 1984 the Cochin Jews in Israel staged a huge pageant, relating in song and dance the story of their emigration from India and their integration into Israeli society.
Death and Afterlife. The Cochin Jews belief in an afterlife has been influenced both by Jewish and Hindu beliefs. Many of their death and bereavement customs are also connected to Hinduism as well as Middle Eastern Sephardic traditions. The family surrounds the deathbed to witness the departure of life and then the oldest son closes the eyes of the deceased. The dead body, although impure, is respected, and burial in a special Cochin Jewish cemetery takes place within half a day. In Israel the Cochin Jews are buried in regular Jewish cemeteries.
For the original article on the Cochin Jews, see Volume 3, South Asia.
Kate, Nathan and Ellen S. Goldberg (1993). The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India. South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press.
Mandelbaum, David G. (1975). “Social Stratification among the Jews of Cochin in India and Israel,” Jewish Journal of Sociology 17: 165-210.
Valayudhan, P. A., et al. (1971). Commemorative Volume: Cochin Synagogue, Quarter centenary Celebration. Cochin: Kerela Historical Association.
Weil, Shalva J. (1982). “Symmetry between Christians and Jews in India: The Cnanite Christian and the Cochin Jews of Kerela,” Conttributions to Indian Sociology 16: 175-196.
—— (1984).From Cochin to Eretz Israel. Jerusalem: Kumu Berina (Hebrew).
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