Cochin Jews

Doctrines The Jews of Cochin in Kerala, South India, do not seem to have been so totally cut off from other Jews as the Bene Israel, although they developed some distinctive features. In a form of caste system, they were organized in three clearly defined groups. Two of these have their own distinct communities and synagogues: the "Black Jews" are physically similar to the local Indian population and presumably descended from the earliest Jewish settlement; the "White Jews" (or Paradesi "foreigners") are a mixed community mostly of European and Middle Eastern origin. The third group is made up of the Meshuhrarim, freed slaves who had no synagogue of their own and distinct from other Jews by having, until the present century, no communal rights.
The main synagogue in Cochin was the celebrated Paradesi Synagogue. White Jews, who came mainly from the professional and merchant classes, were full members; Black Jews who were mostly tradesemen and craftsmen, could pray there but were not eligible for membership; and the Meshuhrarim sat on the floor or on the steps outside. Following Hindu and Muslim custom, worshippers take their shoes off before entering. Distinctive features of Cochin Jewish worship include circumcision ceremonies at public worship, the wearing of clothes of a special colour for each festival, and the distribution of grapes soaked in sweet-smelling myrtle leaves on certain festive occasions. Cochin Jews have no rabbis: leaders of the community are called elders.

History The origins of the Cochin Jews are obscure although their history can be traced as far back as the 10th century CE when the king of Malabar granted certain rights and privileges to a Jew named Joseph Rabban. The charter, written in Tamil on two copper plates, is proudly preserved in the Paradesi synagogue to this day. The earliest known synagogues are dated to the sixteenth century. In the seventeenth century Dutch merchants brought printed Torah scrolls and Prayerbooks for the Cochin Jews, and there is some Cochin Jewish literature, printed in Amsterdam in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Cochin Jews showed their support for the Zionist movement in a letter sent to Theodor Herzl in 1901, and since 1948 the majority have emigrated to Israel. In 1968 a ceremony in the Paradesi Synagogue commemorating its 400th anniversary, was attended by the Indian prime-minister, Indira Gandhi.

Symbols In the Paradesi Synagogue special prominence is given to a "Chair of Elijah" and to the two copper plates of the Tamil charter, known as Sasanam.

Adherents There were about 2000 in the 18th century. Today a few small communities remain in the Cochin area and there are about 5000 living in Israel.

Main Centre
 Paradesi Synagogue, Cochin, Kerala. Council of Indian Jewry, c/o The Jewish Club, Second Floor, Jeroo Building, 137 Mahatma Gandhi Road, Bombay, 400023. Telephone: 271628