“Do you know who is Jacob Sassoon? Do you know about his contribution to Bombay? Have you heard of Operation Magic Carpet?,” Elias Josephai quizzes me rapidly on Jewish history. When my responses are all in the negative, he proceeds to answer each of them himself, with a hint of exasperation.
At 61, Josephai is one of the last surviving members of the Jewish community in Kochi. A census taken in 1948, the year when Aliyah (immigration of Jews across the diaspora to Israel) began, showed there were 1,998 Jews and 252 Paradesi (foreigner) Jews in Kochi. Today, the cumulative number has dwindled down to 26, which includes Josephai and his wife Ofera. All of Josephai’s family migrated to Israel in the ’70s. But he stayed on in Kochi, for he had an enormous responsibility to bear: protecting the 800-year-old Kadavumbhagom synagogue, one of the oldest in India, the upkeep of which was passed into his hands in 1979, when he was a young man of 21.
“Of course, I want to go to Israel. All our family members are there. There’s no communal life here. There are no get-togethers,” mumbles Josephai, sitting in the middle of his nursery and aquarium shop, at the entrance to the synagogue. “But I have to make sure the synagogue falls in the right hands,” he pauses to add.
Supported by small donations from locals and generous funding by Swami Hari Prasad of the Shri Vishnu Mohan Foundation, Josephai has been able to start the laborious process of restoring the synagogue to its former glory, and converting it into a museum — regular prayers at the synagogue had ended in the early ’70s due to lack of a minyan (quorum of ten men above the age of 13 required for traditional Jewish worship). A vicious storm that struck the city in 1975 also caused a lot of damage to the roof and walls. Two years later, a series of robberies resulted in expensive chandeliers and brass lamps getting stolen and destruction of the pulpit.
Today, the Kadavumbhagom synagogue stands almost hidden at the centre of a labyrinthe of tiny lanes that dot Kochi’s famous Broadway market. Small flowering plants line up on either side of a narrow path that leads to Josephai’s nursery at the entrance. The first floor used to be a Hebrew-medium school for Jewish kids in the neighbourhood — it shut down in the late 1940s. Past the wooden doors of the main sanctuary, inside the hall, the early results of the restoration work is telling. Wooden benches have been polished and painted with melamine and chandeliers have been bought to replace the stolen ones. Colourful tiles have been laid on the floor, but the major task of restoring the large windows and the bhima (pulpit) remains unfinished.
Unlike the Paradesi synagogue in nearby Mattanchery, the Kadavumbhagom synagogue rarely gets tourists. Most people who walk through its doors are Josephai’s customers, looking to buy fish or plants. His wife, Ofera, born and brought up in Mumbai, regrets not having a Jewish life or friends, especially during festivals. “The Jews here fight all the time,” she says, “I would have liked to go back (to Israel) long ago, but now Josephai’s involved with the synagogue.”
As a young boy who grew up in the city, Josephai has vivid memories of celebrating festivals like Hanukkah and holding traditional prayers in the synagogue. “I have a mental picture of the synagogue. My childhood was spent here. It’s in my head. I can’t describe that emotion to anyone,” he says.
Ask him if the synagogue can host regular prayers in future, and Josephai says he is aware that the chances are bleak. But he says, “I believe in miracles. Some miracle will happen.”