The Cochin Jews in Israel
At the turn of the twentieth century, the Pardesi and the Malabari Jews around Cochin were a reasonably content lot. But as days went by and as the only country which never persecuted the Jews, became independent from the British, the entire Jewish community of the region started to leave on their Aliyah or calling. Today there is less than a handful left. Books have been written about them, anthropologist studies have been completed and films have been made. People who arrived in Israel wrote books of their past in Kerala and their present, while others wrote about them and a few still trickle back to see their old homes in India and satisfy their last longings before they move on to the next world. Why did this all happen? Whatever happened to the people who left? We track regularly the stories of Indians who moved to USA, Europe and the Middle East Arab countries, but there are so few references about these Malayalees in Israel. Are we upset with them, perhaps the Malayali ego is still hurt? I decided to do a little study, armed with Ruby’s, Edna’s and Jussay’s books as well as scholarly articles from Nathan Katz and Ellen Goldberg.
First the reader should realize that there were two types of Cochin Jews, historically divided: the Black Jews, or Malabaris, the descendants of the original settlers, and the White Jews, or Paradesis, the fairer descendants of immigrants from various Middle East and European countries. There are also a few Brown Jews, or Meshuhurarum (orumakars), descended from emancipated slaves. That they all had problems with each other during their lives in Cochin goes without saying, and discrimination was rife. But it was something they lived with and somewhat minor in the larger context. (I must clarify now that when I use the term Cochin Jews, I encompass the Jews of Ernakulum, Mattanchery, Parur, Chendamangalam and Mala).
Cochin was their little Jerusalem, but it was clear that they did think about the bigger Jerusalem even though they lived a life of harmony, ensconced among the other subjects of benevolent Cochin raja. The British entrenched themselves and made sweeping changes implementing, a standard education system where all children studied. The Pardesi Jews soon found that the chasm between them and the poorer Malabari Jews was reducing, a sort of equality was creeping up and the caste distinction was being slowly broken up, with the imparted education. Also, Pardesi Jews, who had lucrative agency contracts with the Dutch lost out as the British directly took over trade and its administration. Within a few decades, the fortunes had reversed with the Pardesi Jews remaining where they were and many of the hardworking Malabari Jews becoming wealthier.
Also gone was the time when Malabar and Cochin were very important for the European settlers like the Dutch and the Portuguese as the trade once concentrated on spices and wood changed to other commodities. As the new metropolises of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta as well as Rangoon came up, the economic centers shifted to these cities and some of the first movers to these places were the Jews of Cochin, for they not only understood the trading systems, but also the languages, much more than the traditional Chettys and Gujaratis.
Those who migrated north to metropolises found easy employment amongst well-heeled Jewish businesses in those cities. But what is interesting is the observation by a few families that they no longer enjoyed the special favors which they used to get in businesses from the Dutch, and they found that the natives had started to get involved in general business, competing with them, after the fall of the feudalistic society. Both the Malabari and the Paradesi Jews suffered and interestingly the Malabari Jews proved to be more religious and interested in a potential Aliya to Israel. The petty traders faced difficulties, and all the affluent families had moved on. The community lacked intellectuals and entrepreneurs except for the Koders who created the first department stores, ran the Cochin electric company as well as the local ferry, and of course they provided employment to many members of their community. As this was a temporary situation of stability, the Malabari Jews started studying the possibility of lesser servitude and better entrepreneurship if they moved to Israel, now oft mentioned by their university educated offspring.
Interestingly the Cochin Electric Company, of which the Cochin royal family was the major shareholder, was the power suppliers to the Mattancherry and Fort Cochin areas up to Palluruthy, and was maintained quite well, with hardly a failure in distribution. If indeed power supply to a house or office was disrupted, the consumer could call Samuel Koder, the director of the company, directly and he made sure that power was promptly restored. Koder’s management was very liberal and none of the employees ever wanted for money, with the organization hiring some 130 people.
The Indian government’s nationalization drive did not help either when they took over the ferry service as well as the Cochin electric company run by the Koder’s. Land ceiling acts coming from the latter day communist governments led to loss of coconut and other farms held by these families. It soon became an islanded community though still capable and funded, if so required, by the more affluent. But the pride in their life had gone away and that was the crux of the whole matter. While there was the problem of shortage of offspring and the difficulties faced by families in finding spouses for their children, you would also hear about the curse. There was talk of this mysterious curse on the community, the Thekumbhagam synagogue curse is oft mentioned, but I won’t go too much into that other than state that the destruction of that synagogue in 1964 is attributed to a lot of problems among the Cochin Jewish populace. Was it because of the quarrels between the black and white Jews? Was it gods curse because of the silly discrimination the community followed, for decades?
Starting from the early 40’s import restrictions were tightened in India and the situation continued in 1947 with the imports and exports control act since the trade deficit needed strict control. The luxury goods import business conducted by the Cochin Jews were severely affected. Then came the Second World War, the devastating Jewish holocaust and the ideology created by the new state of Israel in 1948. The migrations which occurred after those periods and into the 70’s took away more than 90% of the Cochin Jewish population. Today less than a handful remain. The need to rebuild the Promised Land was primary in many of the departing minds, but was that really it? In India, they could do what they wanted, without fear of any form of persecution, why go on Aliyah to a land fraught with all kinds of danger? Was it also because of other hardships?
Leaders of the Cochin community had started to take notice of the Zionist movements early in the 20th century, as evidenced by the enthusiastic letters of people such as NE Roby. He spread the word around to relatives in the metropolises too. Many of them felt the Zionist pull and took the decision to leave and join their brethren in Israel stressing that it had always been part of their daily prayers, so, it was but natural. Smaller problems such as lack of Jewish holidays and lack of possibilities in raising observant children were cited by some. Insecurity among the members of the community increased as their numbers continued to fall and as the more affluent Jews were the first to leave taking the figure down from 16,000 in the 19th century to 1,100 in the 20th and perhaps under 10 in the 21st.
In 1948, the first wave started as a number of members approached authorities in Bombay stating their intention of selling off everything they had and emigration to Israel, enmasse, utilizing their own funds. Dr. Immanuel Olswanger, an emissary from Israel, visited these places in 1950 and met with the Jewish communities of Cochin, Ernakulam, Mala, Parur and Chennamangalam offering them the opportunity to help realize the Zionist dream. The Malabari’s were apparently more enthusiastic than the Paradesi Jews, the latter being the richer and owners of landed property which they were reluctant to leave behind or sell at low prices. The new Indian government had restricted the amount of money that could be repatriated from such a sale. A Cochin Aliyah fund was started money was collected and it finally took over 7 years for the 3,000 or so people to move to Israel from Cochin. A small complication rose when the Israel government restricted the number citing an incidence of filariasis amongst the émigré’s. It took a good amount of persuasive arguments from their emissary and representative AB Salem with Israeli Prime Minister Ben Gurion to secure their passage.
Dr Reitler was asked to formulate the appropriate medical treatment and the government made steps to ensure that these Malabari’s were settled in cooler and dry areas so that the disease would not be ‘perpetuated’ and that they would not become a financial burden to the fledgling Israeli government.
A 1969 newspaper report reveals a quote from Nappy and Elais Koder- Nappy who had by then become a engineer said – We want to say thank you to India and then Goodbye – Elias added that he was not happy in India, that they were taking too much taxes and that they would not let him expatriate his proceeds to Israel, restricting the total outflow to $5000. The youngsters interviewed by the newspaper complained of too few suitors and pointed out that the community was already too much intermarried and somehow related to each other. While the Bene Israel and the Cochin Jews moved to Israel, the richer Baghdadi Jews mainly migrated to Britain and America.
Now we move to Israel to track the stories of those who migrated. Starting from the 40’s some 25-30,000 Jews migrated from India. A vast majority, close to 20,000 were the Bene Israelis from Maharashtra. Some 3,500 were said to have come from Cochin. When they first reached the Promised Land, they came across communities run on the terms of the Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and struggled to make their own niche amongst them. Ruby’s accounts about these early days are quite poignant and by most accounts most of the Cochin Jews took to farming and horticulture. In 1954, the first 27 Jewish families from Cochin arrived in Israel. Majority of the Cochin Jews were settled at Yuval. House, animals and farming equipment were provided to the families to begin life afresh. This was the first contingent of the 620 people who today call the Nevatim moshav, home. These new arrivals now had a roof over their heads, but finding work presented a more difficult challenge. The men all started as day laborers for the Jewish National Fund; one day there was work, the next day there might not be. At one point, they had to remove rocks and the snakes that lived beneath them. Those years, until 1960, were the most difficult ones.
So as we see, their reception was not rewarding. The Indian Jews were among the darkest of all the new immigrants and experienced a kind of racism. Reuben Raymond, a Bene Israel community leader, explained (New Statesman 9-10-04) that the reality of life in Israel differed from what they imagined it to be. ‘In India, we never had to fight for our rights but in Israel we did, and this was something new for us,’ he says. ‘In the early '50s, people had a problem because of their color. They were subjected to differential treatment in everything. In employment, they got bad jobs and had less money’.
The Malabari Jews are known as the Cochinim and the Pardesi Jews the Cochinites and identified themselves with the Mirzachi or oriental Jews. The Cochinim were mostly settled in the cooperative farms or Moshavim. Five of them, where over 75% of the Cochinim can be found, are Nevatim in the Negev, Mesillat Zion, Taloz and Aviezer in the Jerusalem corridor and Kfar Yuval in the Northern border with Lebanon. Today the total community totals to some 4,000 people and many have moved to urban neighborhoods for different and better prospects. The Paradesi Jews on the other hand settled in small groups in Binyamina and Petah Tikva. Some Cochin Jews who emigrated from the village of Chendamangalam live at Givat Koach, near the Ben-Gurion airport.
The story of Eliahu Bezalel, 82, (quoting from the Hindu article) a widely recognized horticulturist, decorated by the Israeli government on various occasions, explains those early days where his life started after he got married to Batzion, from Mattancherry, who had arrived a year earlier. Initially Bezalel worked in road maintenance, forestry and as a shepherd, with both husband and wife taking turns to graze the 500 to 600 sheep while their child was sequestered in an inverted stool. The next stage, in 1962, was a turn to agriculture. Community members had to fight the bureaucracy to get the necessary allowances to enable them to grow vegetables, fruit and flowers.
Bezalel as his story continues, became part of Prime Minister Ben Gurion's farming vison and was allotted land in a village in Negev Desert, south of Israel where he started a rose farm. When he was conscripted in the army, his wife took over the responsibility of running the farm, looking after the children and paying the taxes. Later Bezalel studied techniques of growing flowering plants in greenhouses and set up Israel's first modern greenhouse, along with two other Indian Jewish partners, signaling the start of a virtual revolution in the field of horticulture. He mastered the technique called ‘fertigation', where every drop of water provided to a plant is supplemented with a proportional percentage of fertilizers. In 1964 he was awarded the Israeli PM's award for best exporter of flowers to Europe; in 1994, he was conferred with the prestigious Kaplan Prize for contribution to horticulture, and in 2006 India honored Bezalel with the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman.
If you travel to Moshav Nevatim, the dust-blown, palm-tree studded community on the northern edge of Israel’s Negev desert, you can now see a humble little synagogue with that enormous past. The Kerala Synagogue, as it is known by, was built in the style of the synagogues of India’s Cochini Jews. And they made sure of one thing, no more intercommunity marriages, they all married outside linking up with Ashkenazi, Moroccan, or other Jews. The Bene Israel Jews, the bigger community, once liberated by their Cochin brethren in India, did not fare that well in comparison.
Some who remember their old abode mention a desire to live their last days in Kerala, still remembering lines from the Indian national anthem and a few old Malayalam film songs. It is said that most Cochin Jew houses have a curry leaf tree and other tropical trees, like mango and papaya. Some are proud to state that they are different in tradition, in food, ways of worship, in a few rituals and in the ‘look' of course. In the early days, they would regularly eat what is termed “traditional nadan food,”- like kootans, appam and add ‘vepala' in the curries. Among the other distinctions of the community is their wearing ‘white' at funerals as against ‘black' worn by the other Jews from elsewhere. Their lyrics and the music in their prayers are more Indian. Some of the earlier arrivals continued to wear ‘mundus' and saris but now women sometimes wears the ‘Salwar kameez’. Sometimes they celebrate festivals like Onam and of course, remember to popularize the food - Matamey Cochin (“Cochin delicacies”) is a business operated by eight local women between the ages of 55 and 65 who host Cochin-style meals in their homes or in the local hospitality tent. For more about this read the fine article linked here
And they meet once a year, in March, when they get together near the Dead Sea. They sing, narrate stories of their ‘motherland' Kochi, and share memories. Even though they are now a mixed race, Bezalel continues – “The trend is that no Cochin Jew marries another from the same group. None of us talk Malayalam at home so my children don't know the language at all. We are united by one language, Hebrew. It is mandatory for any emigrant in Israel to learn Hebrew for which the government even provides an allowance.” Sometimes they think back of the land they left, of the serene backwaters and the freedom they enjoyed. A place where planes don’t scream through overhead or rockets blow up, where they perhaps lacked the excitement, but where they were equals.
Ruby will always have the last word in this article – She said – Some people write that the Cochin Community of Jews is dying. They don’t realize that a root from that tree is shooting up in Israel and starting to blossom. As long as we keep up some of our traditions, I hope that this community will never die…
Ruby of Cochin – Ruby Daniel
Leaving Mother India – Ellen Goldberg, Nathan Katz
The Sephardi Diaspora in Cochin India - Ellen Goldberg, Nathan Katz
Daytona Beach morning journal – Jan 19, 1969
The Last Jews of Kochi by Joshua Newton - Jewish Journal
Women sing, men listen - Malayalam folksongs of the Cochini, the Jewish Community of Kerala, in India and in Israel - Martine Chemana
He made deserts bloom – Hindu article Jan 18th 2012
Kerala’s Cochini Jews Meld into Israel - Debra Kamin
Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture, Volume 1 By Mark Avrum Ehrlich