*Cochin’s Jews: History’s Last Gasp

Samuel Hallegua, 79 years old, has died at his home in Fort Kochi. The Hindu, which reported his death yesterday, described Mr Hallegua as a ‘community leader’ and, more poignantly, as someone who resented, not without reason, the transformation of Cochin’s once flourishing Jewish community into a tourist relic. Mr Hallegua’s family is said to have been present in Cochin since 1592, and it is his family members who, in the mid-eighteenth century, helped to reconstruct the famous synagogue in Mattancherry that Mr Hallegua had, not without considerable misgivings, been showing, as the Warden of the Cochin Jewish Synagogue, to the tourists who flock to Cochin.

A number of scholars, among them Nathan Katz and Joan Roland, have done much justice to the extraordinary history of the Jewish presence in India. The story of Jews being sheltered in Shanghai – which I have described in a previous blog — while they were being butchered wholesale in the home of what is charmingly described as the Enlightenment is remarkable enough, considering that their protector was the Japanese commander of the ghetto who refused to implement orders for their final extermination, but still more remarkable is their centuries-old sojourn in India. India is one country where they did not only not face persecution, but where, much as adherents of many other religions have found, they could openly practice their faith and signal their own distinct contributions to the making of Indian civilization. India remains singular in the worldwide Jewish experience, and Professor Katz justly wrote some years ago, in his book Who Are the Jews of India?, that “Jews navigated the eddies and shoals of Indian culture very well. They never experienced anti-Semitism or discrimination.” He goes on to describe in what respect India could have served as a model for the world: “Indians Jews lived as all Jews should have been allowed to live: free, proud, observant, creative and prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host country.”

Among the three distinct Jewish communities that have been present in India, the Cochin Jews numbered about 2,500 shortly before the independence of India in 1947. Only a dozen Jews remain in Cochin today, none of them under the age of 50. How and why their numbers dwindled will seem no mystery to those who, citing the creation of the state of Israel, the horrendous experience of European Jews, the long history of anti-Semitism in many parts of the world, and the passage of the Law of Return, deem it but natural that India’s Jews also sought to migrate to Israel. But surely the matter cannot be allowed to rest there, unless one is prepared to concede that the modern nation-state is the only entity capable of commanding the loyalties of human beings, and that primordial ties, of blood and religion for instance, reign supreme in human affairs. This part of the story, it appears to me, has been inadequately understood. Just what is this thing we call home, and does the geography of the landscape that might be called ‘home’ correspond to the psychogeography of home? In their passage from India to Israel, many Indian Jews may have gained much – solidarity with other Jews, new employment prospects, and the sense of freeing themselves from their hitherto eternal diasporic condition. But, equally, it should also be understood that they may have lost much, just as India lost much from their departure. With the decimation of Cochin’s Jewish community in the aftermath of independence and the creation of Israel, we might say that the logic of the nation-state has triumphed over the possibilities of civilization, and that the modern arithmetic of ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ has triumphed yet again. How are those who are in the majority ever to learn about the traditions, norms, civilities, and graces of hospitality?

The Hindu has reported Mr Hallegua as recently saying of India, “It has been more than tolerant. The Santa Cruz High School I went to was run by Jesuit priests. My sister studied in a school which was managed by Italian nuns. But we were never under pressure to shun Judaism. The country accepted us as we have been. I am a proud Indian. I’m also a Hindu in an apolitical sense.” Mr Hallegua resisted the arithmetic of modern politics to the last. That, among many other reasons, is why he should be honored as he now become among those who are departed.

6 thoughts on “*Cochin’s Jews: History’s Last Gasp

  1. Thanks for reminding me about your blog Vinay. Just read the one on Jews in India. It was very moving. had no idea. have visited the matancherry synagogue twice. It suddenly achieved a different significance.



  2. “But surely the matter cannot be allowed to rest there, unless one is prepared to concede that the modern nation-state is the only entity capable of commanding the loyalties of human beings, and that primordial ties, of blood and religion for instance, reign supreme in human affairs.”

    To me, what is more important is the unitary historical lens through which blood and religion is looked at – when the question of “real” loyalties come. Foundational myths of nation states possibly all have a point of break – or more importantly a start with a grandeur, ascent or innocence.This fable, which then permeates elite discourses also wants to negate other strands that connect the past to the present, the people to the land and each other.I think, Bengal, during the 1971 Liberation war is a very interesting example – certain solidarities that were formed between people of the 2 Bengals – were not of religion and I would like to argue, not expressly of blood ( this bit needs elaboration. In many elite to even non-elite Muslim circles, the Namashudra roots of most of Bengal’s Muslims is a strand that has fallen victim to myths- whereas there are created myths among elite Hindus of them being more “Aryan”, in essence, underscoring – the difference in “blood”).May be in gore and when the chips are really down and when the naked assault to a people comes from within foundational myth, we do have brief flashes of such forgotten, trans-national loyalties. Of course there are problems in blanket romanticisation of solidarities, but that does not take away the kernel at hand – for they exist without the romanticisation of the subject.The results of such fractures predictably are fractured selves – and foundational myths serve to underscore curiously strong self-hates or sad initiatives to stretch an incomplete self to an illusory completion by appropriation without acknowledgement of “own” heritage – “Our hummus is different from Palestinian hummus” and so forth.Vinay babu, for such a spark of loyalty- I would point you to a documentary called Khayal Darpan – an interview of a lawyer possibly in Lahore-via-Lucknow, who says his musical inspiration comes from the Indian musical tradition and hastens to add “not the government of india music, no.”


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  4. excellent post, very informative. I wonder why the other specialists of this sector don’t notice this. You should continue your writing. I’m sure, you’ve a great readers’ base already!


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