By Deborah Rubin Fields
Motivated by love of Zion rather than hate (read anti-Semitism-which has plagued Jews in Europe and in the Middle East), a significant percentage of India’s Jewish population has resettled in Israel. Those who’ve stayed in India have become lone rangers, maintaining the community’s institutions.
In Revdanda, Benjamin Waskar is the cantor and caretaker of the charming, well-kept Beit El synagogue. His village is important as according to local narrative, a boat left ancient Israel at the time of the Second Temple’s destruction-whether for trade reasons or to escape besieged Jerusalem, is unknown. Just outside Navgaon, there was a shipwreck. Only six or seven Jewish couples survived. They settled in Navgaon. Their offspring, collectively referred to as Bnai Yisrael, eventually moved to Revdanda and other nearby communities.
Just as the Jews of the Konkan coast started off few in number, so they have returned to be today. There are almost no local synagogue members left. Waskar has played in Israel’s Maccabiah Games (in which the world’s top Jewish athletes compete every four years). But he does not want to leave his coconut oil farm and the peaceful existence he has with his neighbors. When he daily prays in this over 100 year old synagogue, it is by himself, unless there is the occasional gathering of either foreign Jewish tourists or Bnai Yisrael community members who live in surrounding towns and villages.
The Jewish connection to southern India is also very old. It first began during King Solomon’s time. It was based on commerce and maritime activity. Following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jewish refugees settled along the Malabar coast. There they lived under the tutelage of supportive local rulers. By 1000 CE, the Jews had become such a thriving, wealthy and loyal community that on the famous Copper Plates, King Parkaran Iravivanmar outlined the rights he’d granted his Jewish subjects. Between 1500-1600, the Malabar Jews (frequently referred to by the general name Cochin Jews, as almost all the state of Kerala synagogues were built in the kingdom of Cochin) built cemeteries and eight or nine synagogues. When the Malabar Jewish community moved to the new State of Israel, they left behind their institutions.
The Malabar Jewish community’s presence is still felt, but with mixed results. On the one hand, the Kerala governing body took upon itself to restore the Malabar Jews’ Chennamangalam Synagogue and Parur Synagogue. They are now museums. On the other hand, some empty Jewish institutions are now being used for offices, storerooms, handicraft and antique shops.
Unfortunately, much of Mala’s Jewish cemetery has been allocated for constructing a stadium which in turn might be converted into the K. Karunakaran Sports Academy. Significantly, this Iand-grab violates the cemetery and synagogue preservation agreement the Malabar Jews signed with the Mala panchayat before leaving for Israel in 1955.
Graves have been desecrated. According to Professor Emeritus C. Karma Chandran, a Hindu lone ranger, historian and head of the Heritage Protection Society (Paithruka Samrakshna Samithymala in Malayalam), there are Christians, Muslims and Hindus fighting to save what they consider not just their former neighbors’ Jewish heritage, but what they maintain is their common-ground Indian heritage. With this in mind, the HPS is trying to preserve the Mala Jewish cemetery and to save two abandoned area synagogues. It seems time for the Indian diaspora and world Jewry to assist the cause.
For more information about assisting the HPS, contact Prof. C. Karma Chandran by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Facebook pages of Mala Jewish Heritage Society and MALA Jewish Monuments.