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Cochin’s Jews:  History’s Last Gasp

Vinay Lal

Samuel Hallegua, 79 years old, has died at his home in Fort Kochi.  The Hindu, which reported his death yesterday, described Mr Hallegua as a ‘community leader’ and, more poignantly, as someone who resented, not without reason, the transformation of Cochin’s once flourishing Jewish community into a tourist relic.  Mr Hallegua’s family is said to have been present in Cochin since 1592, and it is his family members who, in the mid-eighteenth century, helped to reconstruct the famous synagogue in Mattancherry that Mr Hallegua had, not without considerable misgivings, been showing, as the Warden of the Cochin Jewish Synagogue, to the tourists who flock to Cochin. 

A number of scholars, among them Nathan Katz and Joan Roland, have done much justice to the extraordinary history of the Jewish presence in India.   The story of Jews being sheltered in Shanghai – which I have described in a previous blog -- while they were being butchered wholesale in the home of what is charmingly described as the Enlightenment is remarkable enough, considering that their protector was the Japanese commander of the ghetto who refused to implement orders for their final extermination, but still more remarkable is their centuries-old sojourn in India.  India is one country where they did not only not face persecution, but where, much as adherents of many other religions have found, they could openly practice their faith and signal their own distinct contributions to the making of Indian civilization.  India remains singular in the worldwide Jewish experience, and Professor Katz justly wrote some years ago, in his book Who Are the Jews of India?, that “Jews navigated the eddies and shoals of Indian culture very well.  They never experienced anti-Semitism or discrimination.”  He goes on to describe in what respect India could have served as a model for the world:  “Indians Jews lived as all Jews should have been allowed to live:  free, proud, observant, creative and prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host country.”

Among the three distinct Jewish communities that have been present in India, the Cochin Jews numbered about 2,500 shortly before the independence of India in 1947.   Only a dozen Jews remain in Cochin today, none of them under the age of 50.  How and why their numbers dwindled will seem no mystery to those who, citing the creation of the state of Israel, the horrendous experience of European Jews, the long history of anti-Semitism in many parts of the world, and the passage of the Law of Return, deem it but natural that India’s Jews also sought to migrate to Israel.  But surely the matter cannot be allowed to rest there, unless one is prepared to concede that the modern nation-state is the only entity capable of commanding the loyalties of human beings, and that primordial ties, of blood and religion for instance, reign supreme in human affairs.  This part of the story, it appears to me, has been inadequately understood.  Just what is this thing we call home, and does the geography of the landscape that might be called ‘home’ correspond to the psychogeography of home?  In their passage from India to Israel, many Indian Jews may have gained much – solidarity with other Jews, new employment prospects, and the sense of freeing themselves from their hitherto eternal diasporic condition.  But, equally, it should also be understood that they may have lost much, just as India lost much from their departure.  With the decimation of Cochin’s Jewish community in the aftermath of independence and the creation of Israel, we might say that the logic of the nation-state has triumphed over the possibilities of civilization, and that the modern arithmetic of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ has triumphed yet again.  How are those who are in the majority ever to learn about the traditions, norms, civilities, and graces of hospitality?

The Hindu has reported Mr Hallegua as recently saying of India, "It has been more than tolerant. The Santa Cruz High School I went to was run by Jesuit priests. My sister studied in a school which was managed by Italian nuns. But we were never under pressure to shun Judaism. The country accepted us as we have been. I am a proud Indian. I’m also a Hindu in an apolitical sense."  Mr Halleguaresisted the arithmetic of modern politics to the last.  That, among many other reasons, is why he should be honored as he now become among those who are departed.

Copyright:  Vinay Lal, September 2009