The old Jew raised his wooden walking stick at the top of the ancient clocktower, holding on to his once-white felt hat with the faded black ribbon on his head with the other hand. “That’s how it is,” he shrugged, pointing at the two sun-bleached biblical inscriptions looking down on the day’s pack of sweaty tourists at the synagogue:
“Our days are like passing shadows” (Is:144.4)
“We bring our years to an end like a tale” (Psalm: 90.9)
A fortnight after the cops carried out the dead from Mumbai’s Nariman House, the 440-year-old synagogue in Kochi’s Mattancherry is quietly mourning Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg and his wife Rivka — parents of the orphaned little Moshe.
There is something intensely personal about it, for the last of the Kochi Jews. Five weeks before the Mumbai terror strike, the US-based, 29-year-old, soft-spoken Holtzberg was in Kochi eagerly discussing with them a Chabad Centre there, a replica of the one he and his wife ran in Nariman House. They had gladly offered him free land in the city and he had promised to be back soon, with the plans. Then, one evening, they watched on TV a sobbing Moshe in his Indian nanny’s arm,coming out of the terror den. Only Moshe.
For the remaining 48 Jewish men and women in Kochi, the Pardesi synagogue, as they call it, is still the fulcrum of their existence. An unseverable umbilical cord of glass, brick and much polished metal, to a past that many love tracing back to King Solomon’s traders from beyond the seas. But unlike for their timeless synagogue which survived even a Portuguese shelling in 1662, the shadows are lengthening fast for the community. More than half of them are past their mid-seventies, resigned to bringing their years to an end in Kochi, far from the Promised Land many may never see.
There have been no marriages in this ageing, fading, community for 21 years; the last was in 1987. They hope to drown their shock and pain at the synagogue next fortnight, when local lad 28-year-old Shelomo will hand a ritual silver coin to 25-year-old Susan, under the old Belgian chandeliers and Italian glasswork beside the ancient scrolls of the Old Testament and the hoary copper plate scripts. The entire community will be there to watch the young couple fish out their wedding rings from goblets of red wine before drinking up to the cheers, as armed cops stand guard — yet to get over Mumbai and the Holtzbergs, their parents fear a terror strike and have decided to apply for protection.
But this marriage, if it indeed draws the whole community, may be a rare leveller too. Elsewhere, caste or race may not really figure in the scheme of things Jewish, but not in Kochi. The community had stood trifurcated into White Jews, Black Jews and Meshuchrarim. The White “Pardesi” Jews love tracing their ancestors to much of Europe, including Spain, Holland and Germany. The Black Jews, next in the community pecking order and mostly local converts besides those claiming to be there from Solomon’s time from Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Iran, once had to go to their own separate synagogues. The Meshuchrarim at the bottom are the supposed descendants of the one-time slaves, traditionally made to depend on the two higher segments for a living —they had no right even to sit in a synagogue or take part in the rites till as late as 1932. Even that was after a tenacious, self-made Meshuchrarim lawyer, Abraham Barak Salem, took the Gandhian satyagraha route to agitate, shrugging off taunts of ‘Jew Gandhi’.
But the Kochi Jews have been around for about 500 years. The first wave of their ancestors moving in from nearby Kodungalloor after the Portuguese decimated their settlement there in 1524. Soon followed the Jews from Spain, Germany and Portugal, with the local king readily playing a compassionate host. A year after Independence, most of the 3,000-odd Jews began migrating to Israel, many to even the US, and Kochi was left with fewer than than 100 of them — mostly rich local traders, and others who had sprouted too strong local roots and attachments. Some of the ancient Jewish homes along Fort Kochi streets are now small heritage hotels and resorts, while young Jews sit selling trinkets to tourists in shops leveraging the Star of David and Hebrew signboards, along the narrow Jewish street in town.
There are only 11-odd remaining White Jews in Kochi now, led by octogenarian Sammy Hallegua, living in an old Spanish hacienda-like home with ancient chairs and fading photographs on the walls, at the beginning of the Jew street. Like most of his community trying to live down the Mumbai terror strike, Hallegua is a withdrawn man. He doesn’t want his community to draw attention. “Just let us be, I have nothing to say, please leave,” he says.
No one else wants to talk, either. “You want to make us out into museum pieces,” says a woman doctor, refusing to talk or be quoted.
Her protests over phone are drowned in the chatter of a bunch of British tourists chattering down Jew street to look up a bronze Shiva in a shop with a copper plaque in Hebrew above a Star of David.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines