In Hindi / Urdu, pardesi means foreign or foreigner - as opposed to desi which stands for native Indian or south Asian.
Ever since I read Nathan Katz's detailed and interesting account of Indian Jews, I have wanted, whenever the opportunity presents itself during my trips back to India, to seek out the markers that chronicle the history of the once thriving but now drastically dwindling Jewish community of India. Historic evidence of a Jewish presence in the form of people and edifices are few and far between on the vast Indian landscape. A handful of synagogues that once served as centers of religious as well as social lives of Indian Jews are scattered in different corners of India. They remain a scant reminder of the now almost disappeared community which was once a tiny part of India's colorful and diverse social fabric. For details of the ethnicities and dates of arrival of the different diasporic Jewish communities of India, please see the review of Katz's book that I have linked to at the beginning of the post.
During my last trip to India, my sister and I took a short vacation in the city of Cochin in Kerala, on the southwestern coast of the Indian peninsula along the Arabian Sea. There we visited the oldest standing Indian synagogue built by Sephardic Jews who first arrived on the Kerala coast in the 16th century, fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Well before their arrival, a small but established Jewish community was already living in peace and prosperity on the Malabar Coast of Kerala, believed to have settled there since the 10th century. The immigrants from Spain expected (correctly) and found safe haven among fellow co-religionists of India. Although the Spanish Jews were warmly welcomed by their Indian hosts, the two Jewish communities, distinguished by the color of their skins, remained socially apart. The original group of Malabari Jews had become racially integrated within the larger Keralite community and were therefore dark complected like others of the region. The new comers from Europe who chose not to intermarry with the Indian Jews retained their relatively light complexions. The synagogue in Cochin built by the newly arrived Sephardic Jews in 1567-68, is called the Pardesi Synagogue - "the synagogue of foreigners."
Located at the end of an alley backing up to a Hindu temple on the compound of the Mattancheri Palace (or the Dutch Palace), the abode of the former kings of Cochin, the Pardesi Synagogue is a quaint little reminder of Kerala's past. It remains a functional synagogue to this day and attracts numerous tourists, many of them from Israel. Arts/ crafts / antique shops and spice markets lining the Synagogue Lane thrive on tourist trade although most of the artifacts sold are not related to Judaism. The Mattencheri post office located on the same street will post mark your mail, upon request, with the Star of David. The post master claimed that it is the only post office in the world with that unique postal facility. I don't know if that is true.
The Pardesi Synagogue is currently under the supervision of eleven (yes eleven persons, not families) Cochin Jews who must be rather formidable folks because the shopkeepers seemed quite terrified of them. They took care to speak with us in whispers on the street during the afternoon siesta hours for fear of disturbing the mostly senior Jewish residents who occupy the lovely old homes lining the alley. "Do Not Disturb Between 1-4 PM" signs hang on several front doors. I don't know what will happen to the synagogue after the current proprietors are gone or become enfeebled by old age. I expect the Indian Archaeological Society or the state government of Kerala will take over and maintain it as a historic public monument. The World Heritage Foundation already contributes to its upkeep. As of now, visitors' access to the interior of the synagogue is controlled solely by its crusty custodians. The story of the remaining eleven Cochin Jews has recently been recorded in a book by author Edna Fernandes.
YAHEH HALLEGUA is the last Jewish woman of child-bearing age in Mattancheri. Her cousins Keith and Len are the last eligible bachelors. But she is not keen on either of them. So within a few decades the extinction of the 400-year-old Jewish community in the port-village in India’s southern state of Kerala is assured.
Mattancheri is Indian Jewry’s most famous settlement. Its pretty streets of pastel-coloured houses, connected by first-floor passages and home to the last 12 sari- and sarong-wearing, white-skinned Indian Jews, are visited by thousands of tourists each year. Its synagogue, built in 1568, with a floor of blue-and-white Chinese tiles, a carpet given by Haile Selassie and the frosty Yaheh selling tickets at the door, stands as an image of religious tolerance. India’s Jews have almost never suffered discrimination, except from European colonisers—and each other.
Despite what some of them claim, Mattancheri’s Jews are not Kerala’s last Jewish community, nor its oldest. In nearby Ernakulam there are about 40 Malabari Jews, of dark, Keralite complexion. Survivors of a community over 1,000 years old, with seven synagogues, now disused, and once extensive landholdings, the Malabaris were the privileged stewards of Kerala’s ancient kings. But they were usurped by the white Jews, who arrived from Europe in the 16th century.
Until the mid-20th century, the white Jews, who prospered as bookbinders and traders, enforced a cruel apartheid. Defying top European rabbis, they barred the Malabaris from their synagogue. The first white Jewess to marry a dark Jew, in 1950, was ostracised. Unsurprisingly, the two communities still dislike each other. Yet the whites now depend upon the Malabaris to make a quorum in their synagogue and supply them with kosher meat.
In caste-attuned India, there was always a Jewish pecking order. At the bottom was India’s biggest community, the Bene Israel. They arrived in western Maharashtra state many centuries ago, but in the 18th century were “rediscovered” and re-educated in the faith by Keralite and Baghdadi Jews (Arabic-speakers who arrived in India around the same time). Under the British, the Bene Israel were granted privileges and, like their Jewish compatriots, prospered. By 1940 there were some 25,000 Bene Israel, 5,000 Baghdadi Jews and perhaps as many Keralite Jews. Most have since migrated to Israel. Indeed, it was migrants from Kerala who first planted roses in the Negev desert and made it bloom. There are now some 5,000 Bene Israel Jews left in India and perhaps a few dozen Baghdadis.
Edna Fernandes’s material is fascinating. Alas, she tends to relate it in cliché-ridden and sometimes annoyingly gushy prose. To say the feuding Keralites resemble “a quarrelling old couple” is criminally unimaginative. And her insinuation that their looming extinction stems from internal rifts, not simply emigration, seems spurious. Yet the story of these Jews is so compelling, and the author’s reporting of it so assiduous, that she deserves leniency.
Indeed, she has unearthed gems. These include the tale of a pair of poor Tamils, who regularly cross India to deliver free vegetables to one of Mattancheri’s aged Jews. They have their eye on her house. In a futile effort to ingratiate themselves to her, one even gets circumcised. They are known in Mattancheri as “Fools Number One and Two”.
And then there is Anil Abraham, a lighthearted young Malabari, who does not want to leave Kerala but fears that he must. He wants “a Jewish wife who will not give me a headache”. Yaheh, it seems, does not fit the bill.
So, how was our visit to the Pardesi Synagogue? Very nice, I would say, considering the little we saw from the street. We didn't get to enter and see the interior at all! It was the week of Sukkot and the temple was closed, except for evening prayers when no outsider was permitted within the temple premises. Dozens of tourists were turned away disappointed. My sister and I hung around Synagogue Lane, doing some shopping and talking to the shop owners. Some of the shops were in old homes converted into businesses. Just as we were about to leave, we saw the caretaker / handyman (a non-Jewish local, as it turned out) employed by the synagogue, unlocking the door to enter. We went up to him and asked if he'd allow us just a glimpse of the inside or at the very least, hand out a brochure or two for a friend in Houston who wanted a memento of the place. The caretaker considered our request for just a few seconds and replied in rapid Malayalam with a vigorous shake of his head. A helpful shop owner translated his aggressive denial of entry as, "Do you want my throat slit?" He was scared alright. Or perhaps he is Fool Number Three.
Note: Fortunately, just one other experience during the rest of our stay in Cochin ended in a similar anti-climax. (Perhaps that too is blog-worthy) Although my camera ran out of battery on the very first day and I had forgotten to pack the charger, my sister and I had a wonderful time. Great food, lovely people, ayurvedic massages and the retreating monsoon of the month of October contributed to a lively, yet relaxing vacation. For more on the city of Cochin and the Pardesi Synagogue, see Namit Arora's travel essay and photographs at Shunya.net.