Were 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.