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Passover In Jewtown

Gabe Levenson

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.
April 7, 2006

Possibly a last hurrah for the tiny Jewish community of Cochin is the first-night seder to be held next Wednesday in the home of Queenie Hallegua on Synagogue Lane in Jewtown.

Now numbering less than a dozen elderly members, the dwindling community will celebrate the festival of deliverance as it has done for perhaps 2,000 years, since the first Jewish settlers landed here in southern India upon the destruction of the Second Temple in 72 C.E. Such dates are shrouded in legend, as are the cherished reports that the merchant ships of King Solomon traded goods with merchants from this part of India as early as the sixth century BCE.

Cochin is a small town in Kerala, India’s southern province on the coast of the Arabian Sea, and Hallegua is a descendant of the Sephardic families who eventually landed in that town and others in the province after their expulsion from Spain.

Synagogue Lane is the narrow, busy street lined with bicycles, pushcarts, shops and open-air stalls that was the main thoroughfare of the Jewish quarter of Cochin. Jewtown is the name Cochin has given, with only affection, to this section of town centered on the palace of the former maharajah, now a public museum, and immediately adjoining it on the 550-year-old Paradesi Synagogue, the most beautiful I have seen in 30 years of travel around the Jewish world.

“Cochin Diary: Jewish Life in Southern India” was the opening-night lecture and the corollary photo exhibit running through June at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan.

Kenneth Robbins, an expert on Indian art and history, spoke on his own recent visit to Cochin and showed items from a personal collection of Cochin Jewish artifacts. Joshua Eli Cogan is a documentary photographer whose work spans Israel, the Middle East, Europe, the Caribbean and now the Jewish and Muslim communities of southern India.

Ambassador Neelam Deo, consul general of India in New York City, introduced the program, which has been sponsored by the American Sephardic Federation with Sephardic House.

“Cochin Diary” is a record of the past, but today’s Jewish visitors to Cochin can expect the same warm hospitality from its Jews that I enjoyed on a trip 15 years ago, when our group of travelers shared a dinner in a Hallegua household crowded with the 30 Jews then still living in the community.

The highlight of our trip was a Sabbath morning visit to the Paradesi Synagogue, where we helped form a minyan, at the northern end of Synagogue Lane a few hundred yards away.

The thousands of non-Jewish visitors from all parts of India come to admire the chandeliers illuminated with colored lights, the polished mahogany benches that line three sides of the sanctuary, the two bimas, the blue-and-white floor tiles imported from China four centuries ago and the 10 oil paintings in the lobby that illustrate Cochin Jewish history.

Jews come to the synagogue to admire and to worship. Their presence is a mitzvah, and a possible minyan, for the handful of congregants. The elderly shamash who explains the 10 paintings will also show them the two copper plates, stored in the holy ark, inscribed in Malayalam, the language of Kerala which the Jews speak as fluently as they do Hindi, Hebrew and English.

The plates contain the declaration by King Cheramanperumal, ruler of Kerala, that a certain Joseph Rabban, leader of the Jewish community, become its prince, with all the attendant privileges — the use of such royal symbols as the parasol and the elephant, the trumpet salute and the commercial prerogative to levy duties and tolls.

Scholars debate whether the proclamation was written in the fourth century C.E. or much later, in 1079. Whatever the authentic dating, the fact remains that as Robbins said in his lecture, the Jews of Kerala Province, including Cochin, have lived harmoniously and under the same conditions as their Hindu, Muslim and Christian neighbors ever since.

The Cochin seder will recall the liberation of the Israelites from slavery, but it will not be fraught with hints of the tragedy of pogroms, persecutions and anti-Semitism that have haunted Jewish history for the past 2,000 years.

Despite the frequent positions India has taken against the modern state of Israel, anti-Semitism has never taken a foothold in that vast country, in which 5,000 Jews, in a total population of almost 1 billion, enjoy equality.

Nonetheless, the Jews of Cochin, like Jews elsewhere in India, have left the country in droves, particularly for the United States and Israel. Cochin seders, even when transplanted to the Holy Land, reflect a rigorous Orthodoxy.

“Pesah work,” as it was called in Cochin, would begin immediately after Chanukah. In the Cochin community, it was believed that if a Jewish woman were to make even the slightest mistake in Passover preparation during the 100 days before the actual seder, then the lives of her husband and her children would be endangered.

The pursuit of chametz was a serious business. To ensure purity, the Jews of Cochin kept special rooms in which all Passover utensils, thoroughly scrubbed, were stored. Houses would be scraped and repainted immediately after Purim. Wells would be drained and scrubbed, lest they be polluted. Each grain of rice — an essential staple even during Passover — would be examined to ensure that it was free from cracks into which polluting chametz might find its way.

Cochin Jews, with an intense belief in the biblical injunction to return to Israel, have largely abandoned the land in which they have enjoyed a happy existence for 2,000 years and resettled there. Sometimes they have endured hardships they could not have imagined.

But Cochin is alive and well in Israel. Cochin-style seders are conducted in villages like Binyamina, midway between Haifa and the Galilee. It is in Binyamina that Cochinese Jews from all over Israel will gather for Passover.

As one returnee explained, “There is more of a Jewtown here than the actual Jewtown back in Cochin!”

Lotus Tours of New York will run several trips to Cochin next January. For those going on their own, pick up a copy of “The Last Jews of Cochin” (University of South Carolina Press). It is a fascinating study written by a husband and wife — Nathan Katz, professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida, and Ellen S. Goldberg, a journalist and former editor of the Jewish Press of Tampa — that spent a year in Cochin.