As for Mr. Hallegua himself, India has done well to preserve its mosaic culture. "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."

Samuel Hallegua, Sammy to the Jewish neighbourhood in Mattancherry in Kerala, breathed his last at a private hospital in Fort Kochi at 2 a.m. on Thursday. He was 79 and leaves behind a son and a daughter.

In an interview to The Hindu here in July 2008, Mr. Hallegua had poignantly recalled how he resented that the community, which has shrunk to six households in Mattancherry, and its Synagogue are being thought of as exhibits to attract tourists. It is this labelling that renders ageing members of his community reticent, Mr. Hallegua had said. He , however, had a deep sense of history and took pride in emphasising his hyphenated identity.

“I belong to here as much as I am Jewish,” he had said.

Mr. Hallegua’s worries were multi-fold. The brazen demands of tourism, to name one. “Sadly, it has become a religion and an irresponsible one at that,” he lamented. “As the warden of the Synagogue, there is pressure on me to keep it open throughout the day. Hundreds of feet pounding the blue and white hand-painted Chinese tiles, which were paved as long back as 1762, may cause the colour to fade,” he had said with concern.

Currently, the Synagogue is open on five days a week between 10 a.m. and 12 noon and 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Judaism, as a rule, doesn’t permit taking photographs of festivals and the Shabbat. “But even Jewish tourists come banging the doors of the Synagogue when the prayer is on,” bemoaned Mr. Hallegua.

History has it that the Synagogue — one of the eight in and around Kochi and the only one which continues to have congregational prayers — was built in 1568. The war of 1662 left it partially destroyed, but was rebuilt it in the mid-18th Century by two members of the Caster family and Hallegua family.

Living in clusters

Cochin Jews, as they used to be referred to, were about 2,500 in number in the 1940s, but India’s Independence and the creation of Israel saw most of them migrate. At present, the community, living in tiny clusters in Mattancherry, Ernakulam and Aluva, comprises some 50 elderly people, with the younger generation migrating to pastures anew. For the likes of Mr. Hallegua, history was very important and the history of his family in Kochi dates back to 1592.

Mosaic culture

As for Mr. Hallegua himself, India has done well to preserve its mosaic culture. “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,” he had told this reporter.

When his son and daughter went for studies abroad, Mr. Hallegua and his wife Queeny realised they would never come back to settle here. World over, the Jews have a common liturgy, with minor changes. But what sets the Cochin Jews apart is that they have close to 1,000 songs composed in Malayalam.

Three religious phrases, articulated on important occasions such as marriage, have also been translated into Malayalam from Hebrew. When Mr. Hallegua’s son David got married in the United States, he took pains to convince the Rabbi of this unique tradition which requires the bridegroom to say the blessings. Last year, on December 28, a Jewish wedding was solemnised at the Synagogue. Before that, Mr. Hallegua’s niece got married here in 1978.

He saw Mattancherry leave the ferry for the bridge that linked it to the mainland. He had been witness to the Periyar, which he would swim across as a child during the summer holidays, being ravaged by the sand mafia into a treacherous puddle.

So many times he had been asked if he wouldn’t want to go to Israel. But for him, Malayalam was his mother tongue. Home is where his feet were.