Saturday, April 19, 2014

Focus on Jews of Cochin at Florida University lecture

By Bala Menon

For more than 2000 years, a small community of Jews in Cochin, then a small kingdom in a remote corner of South India, "enjoyed security and prosperity, fully accepted by their Hindu, Muslim and Christian neighbors."
This story of the Cochin Jews was the theme of a presentation by one of the leading scholars of Jewish communities in Asia, Dr. Nathan Katz, when he spoke about the three interrelated strategies for constructing and enacting the unique identity of the Cochin Jews. "This identity is at the same time, fully Indian (Malayali, to be exact) and Jewish (Sephardi)," Dr Katz stressed at a 'full house' conference at the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach recently.
Pictures of late 20th century Jewish Cochin, taken by Ellen Goldberg
Dr. Katz, a Florida International University distinguished professor and academic director, has extensively researched the Cochin community. He lived in the Mattancherry settlement of the Paradesi Jews for more than a  year, making him the first foreign Jew to do so for that length of time, in more than a century.

Arriving in India in 1986 as a senior Fulbright research scholar, Katz spent a year experiencing and documenting life in Cochin’s “Jew Town,” as it is widely referred to. His experience yielded two award-winning books about the community, as well as other volumes on Jewish communities throughout the subcontinent where he travelled.

This was the gist of Dr. Katz's lecture:

Dr. Nathan Katz
"They (the Cochin Jews) spoke of themselves have having originated in Jerusalem and fled to Cranganore after the destruction of the Holy Temple. They were welcomed by Maharajas (kings of Cochin), held positions of authority as merchants, soldiers and diplomats, and lived fully as Jews in the affectionate embrace of their neighbors.

"Touching on the two anchors of their identity - Jerusalem and Cranganore - and emphasizing the high social position, they were well-acculturated in local society."

"Second, they skillfully adapted Hindu temple behaviors in the autumn High Holiday celebrations, especially for Simhat Torah, the Festival of Rejoicing in the Law. They adapted Hindu practices, but always within the framework of Judaic Law or Halakhah. Thus, their neighbors came to know them, and they came to know themselves, as fully Indian and fully Jewish."

"Finally, they adapted to the local social structure, the caste system. To outsiders, the Jews were accepted as a caste, and like many castes, they were divided into endogamous subcastes. On this point, they violated Halakhah. But if this violation was Indian in origin, so was its resolution, as people from the lower subcaste adapted Gandhiji's satyagraha technique, eventually overcoming these discriminatory practices."

In this far-flung Indian corner of the Jewish diaspora, the community flourished. Yet when their two homelands attained independence from Britain, India in 1947 and Israel in 1948, virtually all of the community emigrated to Israel. Today, there are only about 40 or so Jews left in Cochin (Kochi) and the surrounding areas. In Mattancherry, which has the only functioning 446-year-old synagogue, there are only seven elderly Jews.
Ellen Goldberg, photojournalist and Dr. Katz's wife, had an exhibition of her photographs from Cochin, taken in 1986-87, as part of the lecture.

Presented by Flordia International Jewish Studies Initiatives, the program was co-sponsored by the university’s Initiative for Global Jewish Communities and the President Navon Professorship of Sephardi Mizrahi Studies. The  Jewish Studies Initiatives educates university students and faculty and the general South Florida community about Jewish history, culture, religion, literature, political science, and international relations.
The Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU is located at 301 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. For more information: call 305-348-3909.