At 61, Elias Josephai is in high spirits despite the discrimination he faces as a “Malabar Jew,” the dwindling Jewish community in Kerala and the sad prospect of leaving his “motherland” for the Holy Land.
As caretaker of one of India’s oldest synagogues in Ernakulam, Josephai, known as “Babu” among his friends, plans to organize Sabbath service at least once a year after it had remained suspended for 44 years in the absence of a minyan or quorum of 10 adults.
Besides the restoration of the centuries-old Kadavumbagam (translated as “by the side of the landing place”) synagogue, this will be discussed at an international seminar of Jews he is planning in June.
Participants will also discuss the setting up of a museum and the proposal to establish a Chair in Jewish Studies at the Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, 51km from Enakulam.
For years, Josephai had prayed and often wept alone at the synagogue remembering the group of worshippers and the song-filled evenings. His prayers were finally answered when he met a visitor Ari Greenspan in December 2014.
Greenspan, a Brooklyn native who lives in Israel, was touched when Josephai told him the Kadavumbagam synagogue had not held prayers for 44 years. He came back in 2016 and organized the first Sabbath service in decades in February.
“For me it was a dream come true. The synagogue filling with worshippers was something I’ve been waiting for for years. I strongly believe Hashem [God in Hebrew] had sent the 35 men here,” Josephai told Asia Times.
The Jews came from four continents. They prepared the Shabbat meal, prayed and praised Josephai for organizing the service.
“That evening, I cried a lot and thanked Greenspan and others for making the event happen. I’ll cherish the memories of that night,” said Josephai while attending to customers visiting Cochin Blossoms, his fish and plant store on market road.
The space where he does business was once used for teaching students Hebrew. He started Cochin Blossoms in 1985 after the guardianship of the synagogue was passed to him by the Malabari Jewish community in 1979.
Over the years, Josephai had been renovating the synagogue located behind the store. But more work has to be done and more funds are needed.
“The next stage is flooring. Athangudi tiles commonly found in Tamil Nadu’s Chettinad homes will be used. I’m also planning to install solar panels to keep the synagogue lamp eternally burning even in the absence of attendants,” he said.
For a man who wants to keep the Jewish faith burning strong, life had not been smooth as he felt discriminated against by Paradesi (foreign) Jews because of the dark color of their skin. “Some Jewish settlers are fair-skinned, others have a tan. But what is in a color,” he said.
The fair-skinned Paradesi Jews, just five in number, most of them very old, live in the Mattancherry locality of Kochi city, while most of the 21 Malabari Jews live in downtown Ernakulam.
Sara Cohen, 94, the oldest Paradesi Jew, lives near the 16th century Mattancherry synagogue, the only functioning shrine among the eight in Kerala. The synagogue, which is a big draw for tourists, witnessed the largest congregation – 252 worshippers – in 1952.
When Asia Times visited Cohen’s hand embroidery shop for an interview, her assistant Taha Ibrahim said she was “indisposed.”
When asked what has prevented Cohen from leaving for Israel, Ibrahim, who has been taking care of her, said: “She loves India and its people. So this is her home.”
The origins of this Paradesi-Malabari divide can be traced to the 16th century when Sephardi Jews, fleeing the Inquisition from Spain, Portugal, and Holland, landed in Kochi. Soon after their arrival, they began to claim themselves as the earliest Jewish settlers in Kochi and regarded Malabar Jews as descendants of their slaves.
This upset the local Jews who claim their roots stem back to the time of King Solomon 2,000 years ago. Indeed records show the first Jews sailed to the ancient port city of Muziris (which the Jews called Shingly, while the locals referred to it as Kodungallur) for ivory, monkeys and parrots which they sent to King Solomon’s temple.
The king of Kodungallur was benevolent towards Jewish settlers, giving them land and wood to build a synagogue as well as bestowing them other privileges. This inspiring story might have made European Jews pour into Kochi during the Inquisition centuries later.
In the early 20th century, a young lawyer, Avraham Barak Salem, better known as Jewish Gandhi, tried to bring the two groups together by conducting the first intermarriage in 1959. But it was held in Bombay instead due to fierce opposition from the groups.
Everything changed with the formation of Israel in 1948. Thousands of Jews from Kochi left for Israel in the 1950s and 1960s seeking more material benefits or spiritual fulfilment. The first to make “Aliyah” – immigration of Jews from the diaspora to the Land of Israel – were from Mala in 1948. The last Jewish families from Mala left for the Holy Land in 1956.
Today about 4,000 Kerala Jews live in Israel’s agricultural settlements, known as moshavim, like Nevatim, Taoz, Mesilat Zion, Aviezer and Kfar Yuval. Paradesi Jews are settled in small groups in Binyamina and Petah Tikva. Some from these groups have also moved to big cities.
Like all Jews, Josephai wants to make Aliyah, but he does not know when. Twice he wanted to go, but he could not because of family responsibilities.
“It’s inevitable. One day I’ll go, but I will be leaving my heart here [India], which is my motherland,” he said.