The fractious Jews of Cochin

 The white Jews of Cochin are relatively recent immigrants from Iraq and Syria. They don’t recognise the Malabari (black) Jews, who in turn call the white Jews ‘idiots’. Depending on whom you define as Jewish, there are either six Jews, or 26, left in the Indian city. Danna Harman reports for Haaretz:

Sarah Cohen’s wedding photo


At 93, Sarah Cohen is Cochin’s oldest Jew. Depending on what time of the day one catches her in her little home-turned-embroidery-and-trinket-store in Jew Town, she can sometimes seem a little confused.

But when asked how many Jews remain in Cochin today, she doesn’t hesitate: “Six,” she says. This is because she doesn’t count the Malabari Jews downtown. She does count herself and the members of the Hallegua family three doors down — not enough for a minyan at the famous 1568 Paradesi Synagogue down the street.

“But we come together and sing songs,” she says, putting on her glasses to see who she is speaking with.

“Those Jews [in Mattancherry] are idiots,” snorts Josephai Elias, known to all as Babu, who is the unofficial leader of the Malabari Jewish community in Ernakulam. Babu, 60, owns the Ernakulam pet fish and flower shop and single-handedly cares for the Kadavumbagam Synagogue behind it, which has sat at this spot since the 16th or 17th century and has not been used since the 1970s.

Josephai Elias, known as Babu, the unofficial leader of the Malabari Jewish community in Ernakulam.

A trained kosher butcher, he says he refuses to “cut chicken” for the tiny white Jewish community, referring to Cohen and her neighbors. They reject him; he rejects them.

Relations between Babu and the other Malabari Jews — most of them his own brothers — are not perfect either, he admits with a shrug. He is ready to pack up and leave.

“Twice I wanted to move to Israel,” he says. Once, his grandmother begged him to stay. The next time, his mother made it clear she couldn’t do without him. Of his nine siblings, four have made aliyah, and the rest have stayed in Kerala, but either married non-Jews or are no longer interested in Jewish community issues.

Babu prays alone most Shabbats, he says, sitting on one of the wooden synagogue benches, with orange, blue and green lamps lighting the room from above. “What can I do?” He asks. “At least I pray from the heart.”

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