Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

Jewish Community Studies


The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India

Daniel J. Elazar

The Jewish people is often referred to in Hebrew as am olam, which has been translated as "a world people," but, in fact, means much more than that. Olam can be translated "world," but is better translated "universe" in the fullest sense that the universe includes both space and time. Indeed, olam as a word entered the English language at the time of the Protestant Reformation to mean just that combination of space and time. It is now obsolete but is still recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary as having that meaning.

The Jewish character as an am olam takes on particular significance when we look at the Jews of Cochin and the Malabar Coast, the Jewish community most distant from the heartland of Jewish settlement that succeeded in surviving for hundreds, probably more than two thousand, years, not only physically but as a full-fledged Jewish community with a Jewish way of life recognizable by Jews from any other part of the world. Nathan Katz and Ellen Goldberg, who emphasize the role of place and time in the shaping of that community, have done an excellent job in presenting it to us within a context that gives us a sense of its special character, and, at the same time, locates it squarely within the Jewish world. They have judiciously combined what we know about the history of the Jewish community of Cochin with a detailed portrayal of the traditional yearly cycle of life in that community as it closes out its long history.

What comes out of their account is that while Cochin Jewry was very much a part of India, it was also very much part of the whole Jewish world, that as far as it was from the main centers of Jewish life it was never out of contact with them. Not only did Jews from the Arabian Sea littoral maintain regular contacts and commerce with them, but so did the Jews of the Mediterranean world throughout the centuries before and after the Spanish Expulsion. Not only Sephardim were in close touch with the community, but more than a few Ashkenazim as well, some of whom actually settled in Cochin and became pillars of the community. Their family names were to be found among the community notables until the very end.

At the same time the community has been "rediscovered" every century for over a millennium. For a time in the Middle Ages the Malabar Coast Jewish communities served as stations on the way to other Jewish communities in China. Subsequently, Cochin became the "end of the line" for Jewish life in the east.

While the authors naturally emphasize what was unique about Cochin Jewry, the outside reader cannot help but being impressed by what was ordinary about them, the way in which they lived like any other traditional Jewish community within much the same framework of tradition, with one or two exceptions. Having grown up in the American Middle West and West hearing about the "exotic" Jews of India, it was something of a revelation to discovert exactly how unexotic they were to one who observed Jewish tradition. This is not to say that there were not some significant differences in style.

The authors have come to an understanding that the classic expressions of Judaism were prophetic, priestly and royal, what later became known in rabbinic tradition as the division of Jewish life into three ketarim (crowns): torah, kehunah (priesthood), and malkhut (royal or civil). They argue with considerable merit that part of the adjustment of individual Jewish communities to time and place is to be found in which of these dimensions (or combinations) they emphasize. They suggest that the Jews of the United States emphasize the prophetic dimension, a Judaism of ethics with a minimum of ritual and ceremony, while the Jews of Cochin emphasized the priestly and royal dimensions in keeping with the Hindu environment of India which also emphasizes those dimensions. They see the extensive ritual, especially the rituals of purity and purification, which are present throughout the cycle of the associated with the priestly domain, with the added dimension of homage to God as king providing the dimension of royalty.

Reading their descriptions of the community, one can see this emphasis in the communal institutions as well. As this writer and his colleagues have demonstrated elsewhere, these three domains are made manifest through the institutions of governance of the Jewish people and their communities. Historically, the governance of the Cochin communities combined instruments of the keter kehunah, especially as represented by the hazzan, who also filled the functions of shohet and mohel and was the religious leader of the community, and the keter malkhut, particularly in the sense of civil rule as the community was led by its notables usually including a leading notable who had the ear of the local maharajah. Keter torah, on the other hand, was weak in a community which never had indigenous rabbis and rarely had rabbis who came in from the outside to serve it. What there was of the keter torah was present in the form of elementary teachers who were very important but who were no more than that. Still, the community organization preserved the classical division into three domains as did every Jewish community, although most mainstream communities in other parts of the world emphasized torah rather than malkhut and kehunah.

While reading this book I also had occasion to read a recent study of the Jews of Surinam at the other end of the Jewish world from Cochin Jewry. Unlike the Jews of Cochin, they were not an ancient community but rather a distinctly modern one formed by Jewish exiles from Spain, Marranos who had returned to Judaism from Spain and Portugal, and Ashkenazi Jews who fled from persecution in Eastern Europe, all of whom passed through Amsterdam on their way to this Dutch colony in the New World in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Nevertheless, the institutional and sociological similarities between the two communities are immense. Institutionally, Surinam Jewry also suffered from a lack of leadership from the keter torah and reemphasized the combination of kehunah and malkhut as a result. Reading the two works together, reinforced ones sense of the Jewish people as am olam.

The authors raise numerous points of interest to ordinary readers and scholars alike. Who is not curious as to how the Jews of India survived for so long in an atmosphere of tolerance when other Jewish communities such as that in China, benefitting from similar toleration, assimilated so thoroughly. Their argument is that India as a host society combined tolerance with culturally enforced diversity which made the difference. Indian society, with its several major religions and further division within Hinduism into four major castes, a fifth of outcasts, and over 3,000 subcastes, tolerates wide diversity but does not permit people born into one group to cross over into another or even to associate with the others beyond the public square, since the food taboos of every religious community, caste and subcaste mean that they cannot eat with one another. Nothing separates more than that. The Jewish community could fit into India as another caste and even developed its own subcastes, as the authors explain, properly denoting this as the Cochin Jews' one great (and sad) departure from halakhic Judaism.

This book is especially important because the authors document the last year of complete life of the organized Jewish community when they were in residence in Cochin. It was during that year that for the first time in hundreds of years or more the Jews were unable to muster at least a minyan (a ten-man prayer quorum) to conduct Sabbath services in their synagogue. Thus the authors record the last gasps of a once-flourishing community. They devote the last part of their book to describing the dissolution of that community, principally as a result of aliya to the State of Israel.

In doing so, intentionally or not, they make the case for Zionism in the modern and postmodern worlds. All too often, the case for Zionism is made out to be one of finding a refuge for persecuted Jews. While this was true of much of the Jewish world, the case of the Cochin Jews is a very different one. These Jews, like those of the contemporary West, were not persecuted. Rather, modernity, which destroyed of traditional society, everywhere it touched, destroyed theirs as well, making it impossible to maintain their old way of life in the diaspora.

As the authors indicate, it was the very success of modernization and secularization in Indian society that threatened the survival of the community as young people began to be attracted into the Indian mainstream and it became impossible for the community to live in the old ways and thus preserve the old traditions. Thus those who wanted to remain Jews felt the necessity to move to the Jewish state where being Jewish was protected by the fact of living within a politically separated and independent civil society. The Jewish way of life which the Cochin Jews found in Israel was not the traditional way of life that they knew. Indeed, as the authors indicate, they felt that they had been better Jews from the perspective of religious tradition in India than they had become in Israel, where even for those who wanted to fully maintain traditions, the pace of life according to the modern tempo denied them the "luxury" of doing so, but they could survive as Jews, something that had become increasingly difficult in the "old country" as a tiny minority.

Today, in the wake of documented reports of massive assimilation in the United States and other countries of the Western world, the same reality is coming to much larger concentrations of Jews who see themselves as in the mainstream of Jewish life, not on its peripheries. In the end, the same positive reasons for Zionism and aliya are presenting themselves where there are millions of Jews, that did where there were only thousands.

Five years after the Author's research, the number of Jews remaining in Cochin is even fewer. The corporal's guard remain on watch over the sites of Jewtown and promise to do so until there are no more of them. Tourists come and go, marveling at the physical presence that marks the once-substantial Jewish community of Cochin and the Malabar Coast. Another chapter in the history of the Jewish people is about to be closed, but this one, unlike so many others, has a happy ending -- the return to Zion and the reunification with other segments of the Jewish people in the established Jewish state. May the memory of Cochin Jewry remain a blessing for Jews the world over. This book certainly helps make that possible.

Elazar Papers Index / JCPA Home Page / Top of Page