When one thinks of the name Jew Town, a small city in India certainly doesn’t come to mind. However the southern Indian port city of Cochin (known today as Kochi) gained this title after the Hindu Raja granted the Jews their own area during the Middle Ages.
Surprisingly, here in India, the Jewish community generally enjoyed and maintained its religious freedom throughout the ages, when Jews across Europe experienced brutal anti-Semitism regularly.
The origin of the Jewish community in India is not certain. Traditionally Kochi Jews trace their lineage back to the time of the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Some even claim to go as far back as the Assyrian exile in 722 B.C.E. The Book of Esther actually contains the first written mention of Jews in India when King Ahashverosh refers to the Jews dispersed across his wide empire from Hodu (Hebrew for India) to Kush (Ethiopia).
Before being absorbed by India after it declared independence in 1947, Kochi was under multiple colonial powers: the Portuguese (1498–1663), Dutch (1663–1795), and British (1797–1947).
The original Indian Jews are known as the Malabar Jews from Kerala. In contrast, the Sephardi Jews who fled the Inquisition from Spain, Portugal, and Holland were known as Pardesi or Paradesi (means “foreigner” in Malayalam).
When India was under Portuguese rule, the Jews did experience some religious persecution, culminating with the burning of the Paradesi Synagogue. However, this was later rebuilt with the help of the Dutch and the Hindu maharaja.
Today, only a handful of Jewish families remain as most have moved to Israel post-1948. The few families who do remain fear that their Jewish community will soon be extinct and centuries of history forgotten. As a result of this fear, tourists are welcomed with open arms and with food on the table in the hope that Cochin shall remain known as “Jew Town.”
– compiled by Simon Fidler