Cochin, Kerala, India
Pick a road— any road— connecting Cochin International Airport with the coastal communities around Kerala’s largest city, and you will drive past a lot of churches. The Hindu temples are equally numerous, and as long as you’re not expecting the soaring minarets of the Middle East (or north India), you’ll spot your share of mosques too. When it comes to religion, Kerala has a reputation for being one of the most tolerant states in India, and it’s not a hard thing to see for yourself. Most neighborhoods appear mixed between two or more major religions, and incidents of violence are rare compared to other parts of the country where Muslim-Hindu relations in particular are strained.
Confronted with Kerala’s Big Three (Muslims, Hindus, and Syrian Christians) no one is going to wonder Where are the Jews? India? Jews?
Yet, here they are, comprising an infinitesimal minority in the middle of Old Cochin.
While “Jew Town” has a little bit of a Third Reich ring to it, the moniker is genuine and refers to a long period of voluntary inhabitation by Jewish people in a small neighborhood with the Paradesi Synagogue at its center. “Paradesi” means “foreign” (“not desi”) in more than one Indian language, and refers to the community of Sephardic Jews that built it in the mid-1500’s. But they were not the only Jewish community in Kerala at the time. Malabari Jews, referred to as “Black Jews” by the “White (Paradesi) Jews” had already been in South India for centuries, and had established their own customs and communities in the area. The two groups did their best not to inter-marry, and most of both populations left for Israel after 1948. Though Jews in Kerala have almost always benefitted from that good old Kerala religious tolerance— stunning in contrast to routinely violent anti-Semitism in Europe— their numbers have dwindled through conversion and immigration over time. The remaining Jewish population in the city (as of 2014) is:
Still, the synagogue continues to hold services for a handful of people who come in from all over the greater Cochin area. And it retains a healthy income from a small fee charged to tourists who want to go inside. In fact, it is tourism that may save the neighborhood from sinking completely into obscurity.
Heading into the neighborhood on foot, the noise level decreased so suddenly I felt like my ears were clogged. Car traffic filtered out by the increasingly narrow streets, I soon found myself on a pedestrian block lined with shops set into colorful two-story buildings. The peace was sporadically broken by the friendly hassle of merchants pitching discounts on souvenirs. I disappointed them all. A little bird told me there are cheaper places in Cochin for tchotchke shopping, and that the nearby Market Road is the place to find the spice stalls that Jew Town was known for in the pre-tourist era.
The apartments above the shops are still very much inhabited though, which prevents the place from feeling like a tourist trap or a ghost town. If you’re patient you could talk to someone who’s lived there for decades. In my case, it was the ticket collector at the synagogue, who told me she is the youngest remaining Paradesi Jew, and is likely to be the last. Fluent in English, Malayalam and Hebrew, she welcomes new visitors daily and shares her corner of the world with them.