When visitors come to the city to catch a glimpse of Kochi’s Jewish heritage, they head straight for the Jewish synagogue at Mattancherry. The city, however, has a couple of other synagogues that are not on tourist brochures.
In the very heart of the city, on the busy Market Road, are two synagogues that have been standing here for centuries. The Kadavumbhagom and Thekkumbhagom synagogues, a few metres apart on Market Road, are named similar to the synagogues at Mattancherry. Both synagogues, however, have fallen silent as they have not hosted prayers since 1972. Most members of the synagogues have left for Israel and only six families remain in the State.
The Thekkumbhagom synagogue, originally built in 1580 and rebuilt in the 20th century, remains locked up most days. The Kadavumbhagom synagogue, sees some life as Elias Josephai, who currently looks after the synagogue, runs a fish and plant store here.
“This hall used to house a school until a few years ago,” says Mr. Josephai, sitting in the large hall in front of the synagogue from which he runs his store. Towards the back are a set of teak doors that open to a small azara or anteroom, where latecomers or women could pray. The azara leads to the spacious prayer hall, built similar to other synagogues in Kerala. Though now covered in dust, the structure’s original grandeur is easily imagined. The prayer hall has a high ceiling and 10 large windows, signifying the 10 Commandments. The gilded pillars and lotus motifs on the ceiling are all intact, though some of the contents of the synagogue have been lost or stolen.
The synagogues seem to have missed not just the tourist circuit, but also the attention of the State government and its archaeologists and historians. The Kadavumbhagom synagogue is maintained by the few remaining members of the community who still keep the old customs. While Mr. Josephai has come in for some criticism for running a commercial establishment in the synagogue, his business is what pays some of the bills for maintaining the building.
The Cochin Jews are a community forever torn between customs. Their memories are those of their times in Kochi and their life here. Their customs that still largely retain their traditional style also have local elements in them. Their future, however, awaits them in Israel.
Mr. Josephai remembers his mother’s delicious kubbeh and yayin, and many happy times spent with family and friends at the Kadavumbhagom synagogue. Most of the members of his community are in Israel. His eldest daughter too is a student in that country. He has visited synagogues in Israel, where he says the old ‘Cochini Jews’ get together and talk about their home in Ernakulam. But for now, Mr. Josephai lives in Kadavumbhagom, taking care of the centuries-old monument, surrounded by the busy noises of Ernakulam market.