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Jew Town in Kochi

Does a small city in India come to your mind, when you hear the name ‘Jew Town’? But, it will be interesting information that the southern Indian port city of Cochin, which is today known as Kochi, gained this title.

The Jew town came into existence after the Hindu Raja granted the Jews their own area during the middle ages. Till then the Jewish community here enjoy and maintain their religious freedom. The Cochin Jews constitute one of the smallest Jewish communities in the world and they originate from the Malabar Coast in India. The Jews in Cochin are traditionally divided into two caste-like subgroups, which are White (Paradesi) and Black (Malabari). The term “Paradesi” means foreigner. The white Jews are the descendants of Portuguese, Spanish and Iraqi from the sixteenth century on. Most of the Black Jews have been transplanted to Israel and they have integrated into Israeli society successfully.

Jew town in Kochi

The settlement of Jews on the Malabar Coast happened in ancient times. According to one theory, the ancestors of today’s Cochin Jews reached in South India as King Solomon’s merchants. But another theory states that Cochin Jews are the descendants of captives taken to Assyria in the eighth century. The most popular supposition is that Jews reached in southern India after the destruction of Solomon’s second temple. Local South Indian Christian legends also confirm this theory.

Jewish Christians migrated to Kerala in early 5th or 6th century bringing their own set of Arab and Jewish traditions. But later their culture was incorporated into local Christian culture. The Jews established a town named ‘Jew Town’ at Mattancherry and it was bustling with spice trade by prominent Jewish traders. A very own niche was established in the heart of the city by the close-knit Jewish community. You can see the vintage wood houses in the streets of Mattancherry. The Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry that was built in 1568 is one of the oldest synagogues in Asia.

The Jews did experience some religious persecution, when India was under Portuguese rule. They burned culminated with the burning of the Paradesi Synagogue. But, the Ductch and the Hindu Raja helped the Jews to rebuild it later. After Independence of India, most of the Jews left Cochin and migrated to Israel.

Even though the social relationships of Jews in Cochin were influenced by the Hindu social values and the caste system, they were not themselves divided into separate castes. All of them shares in a common culture.  Cochin Jews are mainly engaged in petty trading in the areas in which they live. They often trade in food goods, like vinegar, eggs. In general, Paradesi Jews have a higher standard of living.

Even though there were around 2000 Jews in Cochin, now very few Jews left here. Now only a handful of Jewish families remain here. These families are in the fear that their Jewish community will be extinct soon and their history of centuries old may be forgotten. That is why they welcome tourists with open arms and with food on the table as an effort of remaining “Jew Town” in Cochin.

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