Sunday , 26 May 2024

Cochin Jewry Heritage Center *

The Cochin Jewry Heritage Center incorporates Jewish tradition and exotics: learning about the rich heritage of the Cochin Jewry and its customs. Visiting the museum includes original artifacts (utensils, spices, costumes, jewelry), and a visit to the special Nevatim synagogue.

In the permanent exhibition at the center, the visitor sees a panorama of the atmosphere and life of the Jews in Kerala before their immigration to Israel: daily life, celebration of Jewish holidays, especially Hag Simchat Tora which was the highlight of holidays in Kerala, and transitional rituals (wedding, circumcision, bar mitzvah etc). Most of the artifacts came from Kerala and were donated by members of Kerala Jewish families. Signs in English and Hebrew tell the history of the Jews in Cochin with maps, and some pictures of the old community.

Wheelchair accessible? Yes,
Is there a parking? Yes,
Is it sutable for children? Yes.

Cochin Jews in Living in Nevatim

Nevatim נְבָטִים‎ is a moshav in the northern Negev area of Israel, about 10 minutes from Beersheva by car. To the northeast lies Nevatim Israeli Air Force Base, named after the moshav.

בית הביטחון בנבטים הישנה Photo:Uksz 

Nevatim was originally established in 1946 by Jewish olim from Hungary as one of the “11 points in the Negev”, its name taken from the Bible. In the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, the surrounding area, including the city of Beersheba, was briefly captured by the Egyptian Army.

מראה נבטים Jewish National Fund photo archive

The Egyptians besieged Nevatim, along with the neighboring village of Beit Eshel which was destroyed and subsequently abandoned. Nevatim managed to hold on throughout the siege, as the villages received air-dropped supplies and most Egyptian efforts were concentrated on continuing northwards.

The entrance to Nevatim Photo:  Yehudit Garinkol

Although both were dismantled after the war, Nevatim was re-established at a slightly different location in 1954 by Cochin Jews, who had immigrated from India.

Nevatim in the Negev Photo: Nevatim in the Negev Photo:Nevatim in the Negev Photo: Yehudit Garinkol

Over 6000 Cochin Jews live in Israel now, of which 620 people live on an agricultural Moshav Nevatim.

The Cochin Synagogue in Nevatim

The synagogue was built as a model of the ancient Kerala synagogue that was located in Cochin in south-west India. It has a Holy Ark and ritual objects from the 16th century. 

The Bimah and Torah ark were brought from the Cochin suburb of Ernakulam by community members. The bimah is in the center of the main floor with a secondary one on the 2nd floor above the entry. The posts of the synagogue are painted with the 7 Biblical species.

Cochin synagogue, Nevatim מצילומי יהודית גרעין-כל
Cochin synagogue, Nevatim Photo: אלה פאוסט
Relief of Seven species. The seven Species of the Land of Israel are listed in the biblical verse Deuteronomy 8:8 : a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and [date] honey Photo:Yehudit Garinkol
Nevatim in the Negev, the Hebrew initials כ ת stand for כתר תורה “Crown of Torah” (based on Mishnah, Avot 4:13). Photo:  Yehudit Garinkol

The Story of Cochin Jews in India

The Jewish community of Cochin, also known as Malabar Jews, in south-west India, was one of the oldest and smallest Jewish communities in the world.

Arrival of the Jewish pilgrims at Cochin, 71 CE Public Domain

Several waves of Jewish immigration to Kerala have resulted in ethnic , but not linguistic, diversity for Cochin Jews. Three groups of Kochin Jews were distinguished: “white” Jews, “black” Jews, and “brown” Jews. The dark-skinned descendants of the first waves of settlers were called “black” Jews. The “white” Jews of Kerala (“pardeshi”, “foreigners”) are the descendants of Jewish settlers from Europe who arrived in South India since the 16th century. The “browns” (“Meshuhrarim”, “liberated”) are most likely descended from the Jewish servants of the first two groups converted to Judaism 

Cochin Jews, c. 1900. From the 1901-1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, now in the public domain

As early as the 12th century, mention is made of the Jews in southern India. The Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela, speaking of Kollam (Quilon) on the Malabar Coast, writes in his Itinerary:

“…throughout the island, including all the towns thereof, live several thousand Israelites. The inhabitants are all black, and the Jews also. The latter are good and benevolent. They know the law of Moses and the prophets, and to a small extent the Talmud and Halacha.

They are known to have developed Judeo-Malayalam, a dialect of Malayalam language.

Photo identified as “White Jew town”, Cochin, 1913 Public Domain

Before the community of Cochin made aliyah in the 1950s, it only had some 2,800 members. According to tradition, Jews reached the Malabar Coast during the days of king Solomon, some 3,000 years ago. They came as merchants and settled there.

After India gained its independence in 1947 and Israel was established as a nation, most Malabari Jews made Aliyah their home and moved from Kerala to Israel in the mid-1950s. In contrast, most Pardesh Jews (originally Sephardi) preferred to migrate to Australia and other Commonwealth countries, similar to the choices made by Anglo-Indians . 

Judeo-Malayalam speaking communities in Kerala (largely historical) and Israel (current) Noahedits – Source  “Jewish Malayalam in Southern India.” Languages in Jewish Communities, Past and Present, Walter De Gruyter, 2018.

About Israel and You

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