Clad in a silk maxi dress, her head covered with a green scarf, 94-year-old Sarah Cohen was wheeled into the Paradesi synagogue in Jew Town in Kochi’s Mattancherry on December 6. She was accompanied by Ifat, a Jewish woman from Israel whose father had lived in Mattancherry, and her family. This was the first time in many years that Cohen had entered the synagogue.

Cohen, the oldest member of the Paradesi Jewish community in Mattancherry, is a figure of much respect. Her entry inside the synagogue caused a flurry. Cohen’s relatives gathered there demanded photographs with her, which she obliged, before being wheeled to a chair reserved for women. A quiet descended on the synagogue as the prayer service began.

Cohen and her relatives, along with other members of the Jewish community in Mattancherry, had come together to celebrate a special occasion: the 450th anniversary of the Paradesi synagogue. There was an air of festivity and celebration as greetings were exchanged and memories revisited. For many of the nearly 200 members of the community who had flown down to Kochi from Israel, Canada, US, UK and Australia, it was a chance to relive the past. For others, it was an opportunity to acquaint their spouses and children with their hometown.

Ninety-four-year-old Sarah Cohen.

It was the first group prayer at the synagogue in many years. In Judaism, group prayers can only be offered if there is a quorum of 10 men. For more than a decade, there have only been five Jews in Mattancherry, four of whom are women. They include Juliet Hallegua (87), Queni Hallegua (84), Keith Hallegua (60), Yael Hallegua (40), and of course, Cohen, all of whom were present at the celebrations.

Memories revisited

Among the visitors were 67-year-old Cynthea Ruth Salem and her childhood friend 64-year-old Matilda Hallegua Davidson. Cynthea was overjoyed when she met Cohen. “Do you remember me Sarah aunty?” she asked. Without waiting for the reply, she continued: “I am the daughter of your best friend, Ruth.” Cohen’s reply in the affirmative came after a while. “Please sing that old song you used to sing with my mother,” Cynthea pleaded. “I don’t remember the words,” Cohen replied quickly. Their conversation continued for more than two hours.

Cynthea had migrated to Israel in 1980 after graduating in medicine. “My brother settled in Israel in 1975,” she said. “I went to see him with my mother on a visit visa. My plan was to come back after a few months. But it didn’t happen.” But her “heart is still Mattancherry”. “Not a single day passes in my life without thinking about this place,” she said. “That is why I came back to visit my friends and relatives.”

Rich history

Built in 1568 by Spanish-speaking Jews, the Paradesi synagogue is the oldest active Jewish place of worship in Kerala. The word paradesi means foreigner in Malayalam.

After the Portuguese persecution of the Jewish community in Cranganore (present-day Kodungallur) in the 16th century, the community sought refuge in Cochin, now Kochi. The Raja of Cochin gave them a piece of land next to his palace to build a place of worship, where the existing synagogue came up. Abraham Barak Salem, the first Kochi Jew to become an attorney, writes in his book titled Cochin Jew Town Synagogue: “When the Dutch withdrew from Malabar to Ceylon, [the] Portuguese attacked the Jews once again, plundered the street and houses and burnt the synagogue in 1661 or 1662. With the burning of the synagogue mots, their books and chronicle of events were also destroyed. The houses and the synagogues were repaired and rebuilt after the reappearance of the Dutch about 1665.”

The synagogue’s wrought-iron gates sport the Star of David. The building has white walls with a tiled roof. The inner courtyard features Hebrew-inscribed gravestones. The floor is paved with hand-painted porcelain tiles from China. Other notable features include gold and silver decorated Torah scrolls, an oriental carpet in front of the ark, two brass columns and two pulpits. Crystal chandeliers and brass and glass oil lamps hanging from the ceiling add to the beauty of the structure.

The synagogue is historically important as it was at the epicentre of a struggle within the Jewish community around 1927. The White Jews – or Paradesi Jews from Spain, Portugal and Netherlands – were considered the elite class and they enjoyed the right to worship as well as full membership at the synagogue. The Black Jews were the settlers from Kochi who were allowed to worship but were not given full membership. Then there were the Meshuchrarim, the community of freed slaves, who accompanied the Paradesi Jews when they came to India from Spain. They were not allowed to enter the synagogue and had no communal rights.

Abraham Barak Salem, who belonged to the Meshuchrarim community, launched a non-violent agitation against this discrimination based on skin colour, including a prayer boycott. It earned him the sobriquet Jewish Gandhi. He died in Mattancherry at the age of 85 in 1967.

Preservation efforts

For all Paradesi Jews, Jew Town remains close to their hearts. Though Matilda migrated to Israel 35 years ago, she still describes herself as “a proud Mattancherry Jew and a Malayali”. “I talk to my relatives and friends in Israel over phone at least once in a week,” she said. “I talk to them only in Malayalam. It helps me get a feel of the Jew Town in Israel.”

One of the biggest concerns of the community is the upkeep of the historic monument. Fifty-six-year-old Kenny Salem, who lives in Canada, felt that the ever-shrinking Mattancherry Jewish community alone should not be burdened with the responsibility. “It [the synagogue] has given me many fond memories,” he said.

Hoping to preserve the synagogue, Salem and a few other senior members of the community came together in 2008to form the Cochin Synagogue Trust. The trust had largely remained inactive, until efforts were made to revive it after the celebrations.

Kenny Salem (top row, extreme left) along with other members of the community.

“Our objective is to find ways to preserve the synagogue,” said Salem, who is the grandson of Abraham Barak Salem. “It is a prestige monument for us. All of us are settled in different parts of the world. No one is going to come back to Jew Town. So the trust has taken the lead to preserve the synagogue.”

The trust is currently mulling two options. The first is to expand by including non-Jewish members. “Our plan is to include trustworthy friends from other religions who are based in Mattancherry to look after the synagogue,” said Salem. The second is to establish a museum to showcase the history of the Jews in Mattancherry. “It will come up in a building on the synagogue premise,” said Salem.

The museum, he says, will teach younger generations about the “glorious life of Jews in Mattancherry, who once controlled the merchandise of Kochi”. “It will help them learn about people like Cohen, who decided to stay in Mattancherry despite the pressure to migrate to Israel, the Promised Land,” said Salem.

All photos by TA Ameerudheen.