India – Black and White Jews

Cochin_JewsWere you to visit the idyllic   Karela state of south-west India,   you would discover apes, pepper   plants (the spice), monsoons, and   the remnants of what some consider   the oldest Diaspora kehillah   in the world. Cochin, a beautiful   port town of this state, was once   home to a Jewish community so   influential that all banks closed   down on Rosh Hashanah and Yom   Kippur. Its densest Jewish streets   were known as Jewtown.

The Jewish Rajah  
The origins of Cochin’s Jewish   community is shrouded in mystery.   Local tradition claims that   Jews first arrived in India when   Shlomo Hamelech’s ships sailed   there for apes, parrots, and peppers.

The medrash (Kohelles 2:5)   indeed says that pepper came from   India, albeit through miraculous   means. Commenting on the verse,   I made for myself gardens and orchards,   and planted in them trees   of every fruit (Kohelles 2:5), the   medrash says, “I planted in them   trees of every fruit — even pepper.   Said Rav Aba bar Kahana: Shlomo   used the winds, sending them to   Hindiki (India). They brought him   water from there and with it he   watered here [in Eretz Yisroel] and   it produced fruit.”

According to some traditions,   the Cochin Jews arrived after the   first Churban. Some historians   theorize they arrived after the second   Churban or came from Turkey   or Yemen during the fourth century.   According to another theory,   they are descendant of Radhanite   traders — Jewish merchants who   crisscrossed North Africa and Asia   until 1,000 CE reaching India and   China.

The oldest physical evidence of   Jews in the vicinity is the ancient   tombstone of Sarah bas Yisroel   dating from 1269. Also, the Rambam   may have been referring to   the Cochin community when he   wrote in the 12th century, “Only   lately some well-to-do men came   forward and purchased three copies   of my code [the Mishneh Torah]   which they distributed through   messengers…Thus the horizon of   these Jews was widened and the   religious life in all communities as   far as India revived.”

A sign of distinction among   Cochin Jews was to be descended   from Yosef Rabban whom a local   king appointed ruler over an independent   principality in the village   of Anjuvannam thirty miles from   Cochin. Four “copper plates” inscribed   in the extinct language of   Tamilit delineated Yosef Raban’s   rights:

“We have granted to Yosef Rabban   the village of Anjuvannam   together with the 72 proprietary   rights, tolls on boats and carts, the   revenue and title of Anjuvannam,   the lamp of the day, a carpet spread   in front to walk on, a palanquin, a   parasol, a Vaduga drum, a trumpet,   a gate way, a garland, decoration   with festoons, and so forth.

“We have granted him the land   tax and weight tax; moreover, we   have sanctioned with these Copper   plates that he need not pay the   dues which the inhabitants of the   other cities pay the Royal palace,   and that he may enjoy the benefits which they enjoy. To Joseph   Rabban the Prince of Anjuvannam   and to his descendants sons and   daughters and to his nephews, and   to the sons-in-law who married his   daughters in natural succession. So   long as the world and moon exist,   Anjuvannam shall be his hereditary   possession. Hail.”

When did this happen? Cochin   Jews push the date of this event   back to 379 CE, while historians   believe it happened some time   during the tenth century CE. The   principality collapsed in the 15th   century.

The Great Divide  
Indians were very tolerant of   Jews. Except for a century and   a half of persecution under the   Catholic Portuguese, Cochin Jews   suffered virtually no external discrimination.

Their troubles arose   from within.

Mainly during the 16th century,   European Jews poured into Cochin   after their expulsion from   Spain and Portugal. For one reason   or another, this split the community   into two main groups. There   were Black Jews (actually coppercolored   like local Indians) who   claimed to be the area’s earliest   indigenous Jews, and White Jews   (mainly descendants of European   immigrants) who claimed that the   Blacks were descendants of their   slaves. Some time in the past, the   Whites claimed, the Blacks had   thrown off the White Jews’ shackles   and now they were falsely   claiming to be regular Jews. Little   united the two factions except   that both were Torah observant   and both spoke Judeo-Malayalam,   a Judaized form of the local Malayalam   language.

Each faction regarded itself superior.   The Whites regarded the   Blacks as their former slaves and   the Blacks prided themselves as   possessing a pure Jewish lineage   stretching back to the times of Shlomo   Hamelech.

During the 16th century, the   Whites sent a shailah to the Radbaz   (Rav David ben Zimra, Chief   Rabbi of Cairo). Describing Cochin   as having nine hundred Jewish   householders, one hundred of   them regular Jews and the rest descendants   of slaves, freed or otherwise,   they asked how they should   handle the situation. Basically, the   Radbaz (and later his talmid, the   Maharikash, Rav Yaakov de Castro,   Ohalei Yaakov 99) ruled that   if the Blacks toveled for the sake   of gerus they could be regarded as   regular Jews.

Despite this advice, the problem   persisted. The famous traveler Rav   Yaakov Sapir found Cochin divided   as ever when he visited there in   the 19th century. In his book, Even   Sapir (volume II chapter 23) he described   the community in detail:

“The Jews of this town are divided   into two groups or communities,   Whites and Blacks. They   do not intermix or intermarry and   do not have the same appearance.   The Whites are white, handsome   and dignified, knowledgeable, well   mannered and learned in Torah.   They are like Europeans in every   way. They have about fifty families   and live in peace, wealth and   happiness. Most of them support   themselves with ease and honor   from their toil, trading the land   with every type of product and   merchandise.

“They do not have a rav of av   beis din and are led by five wise elders…   There are six principle families….   More recent arrivals from   Baghdad and Yemen live with the   whites and are considered part of   them.”

He described the six White families   in detail. The Zakkai family   was the oldest and was said   to have arrived from the nearby   port of Cranganore in 1219. There   was the Castillia family that was   exiled from Spain in 1492 and arrived   at Cochin in 1511, while the   Ashkenazi and Rothenburg families   came from Germany during   the sixteenth century. The Rahabi and Haligua families arrived from   Aleppo about 1680.

He also noted that the Whites   were outnumbered by about three   hundred Black families living in   Cochin and its environs.   “This is the description of the   black Jews here in Cochin and   its environs who outnumber the   whites,” he wrote. “In this street   below live about sixty families of   black Jews… They have two separate   shuls as the whites will not   mix with them for any dovor shebikdusha   even though they keep   all the laws of Moshe and Yisroel,   and the laws and customs of   the Torah like the whites… Most   of them make a diffi cult living   through agriculture and few in   trade and crafts. They too are led   by five elders…

“If a Black comes to the home of   a White he will not allow him to   sit in his house but stands like a   slave before his master. If he happens   to come to the shul of the   Whites they will not allow him to   sit on a chair; they sit like slaves   on the ground near the entrance.   They will not call them up to the   Torah and will not include them   in a minyan… and will not marry   them under any circumstance.”   Rav Sapir mentions the Blacks’   claim that they were “the most   pedigreed Jews descended from   the first ones who came or were   brought from the exile of Yerushalayim   and Eretz Yisroel to live in   this land and that they were first.   The Whites came after them from   Europe and do not have the same   yichus as them.”

In addition, he mentions what   the Whites regarded as proof of the   Blacks’ lack of yichus, the fact that   they had no Kohanim or Levi’im:   “Among the black Jews there is no   Kohein or Levi. They hire poor Kohanim   who come from Yemen and   Persia to pray with them and bless   them with birkas kohanim. (But   recently they married with two   Kohanim from Yemen and they   now have Kohanim).”

This state of affairs continued   until the early 20th century when   a young lawyer, Avraham Barak   Salem (remembered as the Jewish   Gandhi), devoted himself to   ending the disunity by organizing   a boycott of the White Paradesi   Shul. He also utilized the tactic   of Satyagraha (passive resistance)   developed by Mahatma Gandhi   to fight British control of India.   Salem’s success was limited. The   first intermarriage between the   two communities in 1959 needed   to be held in Bombay due to fierce   opposition from both camps.   India’s and Israel’s almost simultaneous   independence (in 1947 and   1948, respectively) dealt a double   blow to Cochin’s 2,000-3,000   Jews. The new Indian government   banned luxury goods the Jews had   traded in and nationalized Jewish   owned utilities (such as electricity,   water, and transport) that had provided   Jews with jobs, resulting in   a lowering of the Jews’ prosperity.   Emigration to the newly founded   Israel began almost immediately.   Within decades the Whites and   Blacks were forced to unite as   each camp had too few Jews to   maintain a minyan. The last Cochin   wedding took place in 1987.

Nowadays, the hundreds of Jews   pouring into Cochin during tourist   season are greeted by a dying community.   Shalom Cohen, the last of   Cochin’s Kohanim, died in 2006,   and perhaps thirty Jews survive in   the entire region.

In Israel the Cochin Jews have   maintained their identity so far;   about 8,000 of them are concentrated   in a small number of settlements   and towns (the largest group   in Moshav Netavim near Be’er   Sheva). Now they face the challenge   of maintaining their identity   in a melting pot where they   are outnumbered by a thousand to   one. As for the Halachic status of   their yichus, before marrying one,   consult with a competent halachic   posek.

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