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vendredi 31 juillet 2015

THE LAST JEW OF COCHIN

THE LAST JEW OF COCHIN
Elias Josephai 

When and if  this gentleman goes to Israel to join his children, the last of any Jewish lived in knowledge and history would end
A sad personal note for many of us, but in the light of the history of Jews, another chapter has closed.
I remember meeting an Israeli lawyer in Fort Cochin during my early visits, and she asked me, if there are Jews here, what are they doing here? They should be in Israel.
That was what happened in 1950 with the mass exodus of the majority of Jews who inhabited Fort Cochin, Ernakulum, Paroor, Chengamangalam and Mala. Edifices and cemeteries are now historical monuments and with one exception all in the state of neglect. Fortunately there are Hindu, Christian scholars who are interested in the maintenance of the history of Jews in this area. So these ancient edifices, synagogues of peculiar Kerala architecture, might have a second life as memorial to the wonderful history of Jewish People in this part of the world.
I became interested in isolated Jewish communities and as I became an Anthropologist, the reasons for them wanting to be there and their reasons for survival and disappearance. What happened to the Jews of Penang? Rangoon? Batavia? Calcutta? Surat? All of them trading communities were predominantly of immigrant Iraqi Jews of recent vintage.
In my travels, I come across small number of people, claiming their long lost heritage as Marranos or forgotten Jews, or claiming to be Jews through some DNA studies or more commonly claiming to be members of the lost tribe. In fact there are many books written about them. But my interest is historic Jewish communities which have maintained their contact with the Jewish world throughout centuries and carried on the traditions.
We learned a lot about Beta Israel of Ethiopia and the majority of them now live in Israel. There are five other exotic Jewish communities three of which are on the brink of extinction.
The small Jewish community of Indonesia formed during the rule of the Dutch. The synagogue of Surabaya was destroyed by fanatics in 2013, when a government such as Indonesia or Malaysia or Brunei, on the basis of their religion, adopts an antagonistic attitude towards Israel and by its extension to all Jews everywhere, the chances of survival as a community is dimmed; there is a small Jewish community in Manado. These are all recent migrations, possibly from 19th century. In a way this community much resembles the Jewish communities of Singapore and Hong Kong, where merchants settled down, and now during the time of liberation and independence, augmented by Jewish businessmen. While Singapore and Hong Kong lie on the crossroads of world commerce, Surabaya and Manado are more isolated.
The truly exotic Jewish communities are the following three:
The Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan
They speak JUHURI, a Farsi based language with Hebrew remnants. Azerbaijan is notable among its Moslem neighbours in that it maintains good relationship with Israel.
The Bukharan Jews of the old silk route of Bukhara. They have migrated to Jerusalem and Bronx in New York but fiercely maintain their style of worship and rituals.
The Jews of Cochin. Many books have been written about them but the outsiders who came to study them did excellent studies on their rituals, music but a good anthropological study was never done and now it is too late.
7 Jews (5 elderly and 2 in their forties) live in Fort Cochin; the community which was vibrant once upon a time has long ceased to be. The synagogue is taken over by the Archeological Commission of India and has become a tourist attraction. A run down skeleton of another synagogue and a cemetery are nearby.
In Ernakulum, there are individuals but with the exception of Elias Josesphai there are no practicing Jews. Elias and his wife Ofra, with their two daughters Avital (Haifa) and Lea (Bombay, hopefully soon Israel) has been the last Jewish family in Cochin for many years. Elias is the only person who can give a coherent history of his people. For telling the truth he has gotten into trouble more than once.
Strangely enough those who migrated from Cochin to Israel seldom return and certainly have not cared for the synagogues and cemeteries left behind. The two synagogue buildings in Ernakulum are in a dilapidated state and we would need the help of our fellow sympathizers if these buildings are to survive,
A Jew cannot exist alone; he needs a community to exist as a Jew. While some individuals of Cochini Jewish origin or Baghdadi Jewish origin may continue to live in India, the illustrious, long, exotic history of the Jewish Community of Cochin is at an end,

As a historical addendum, new research shows that the majority of Jews who settled in the Malabar Coast originated in the Middle East, in what are now Syria and Iraq and Yemen. The migration from Spain or Portugal was minimal. The adoption of Hindu status and caste system as well as European idea of race was introduced much later into the history of Jews here. This was not a Sephardi community but a Mizrahi Jewish community.