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Celebrating 500 years of Jewish presence in Kochi

Staff Reporter
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Historic occasion:Former Judge of the Supreme Court Cyriac Joseph honours Sarah Cohen, the oldest living member of Kochi’s Jewish community, and Queenie Halleguah (centre) at a function in Mattancherry.— Photo: Thulasi Kakkat
Historic occasion:Former Judge of the Supreme Court Cyriac Joseph honours Sarah Cohen, the oldest living member of Kochi’s Jewish community, and Queenie Halleguah (centre) at a function in Mattancherry.— Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Members of the Jewish community in Mattancherry, near here, are celebrating the 500th anniversary of their arrival here from Europe.

With younger members of the community settling in Israel and other parts of the world, only eight Jews belonging to four families reside in the Jew Town in Mattancherry today. The eight comprise four members of the Hallegua family, two belonging to the Cohens, and two from the Salem clan.

Kerala’s tryst with the Jews dates back to over 2,000 years, when they arrived here for trade in spices and other commodities. The arrival of Jews from Europe began in 1513.To commemorate the anniversary, the International Forum for Cultural Heritage and Tradition (IFCHAT) organised a seminar titled ‘The 500th year of the arrival of Jews at Mattancherry in Kochi and their contribution to the development of Mattancherry and Fort Kochi’, at the Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ICCI) hall in the heritage town.

“The Jews from Spain arrived in Kodungaloor through Baghdad. The then Kochi king welcomed them and even gave them land to set up a synagogue (the paradeshi synagogue in Jew Town),” said Austin Paul, the president of IFCHAT.

The synagogue’s 400th anniversary was inaugurated in 1968 by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. “The late S. Koder led the Jewish community then. He played a key role in establishing Kochi’s first electricity company—the Cochin Electrical Company.

It was later amalgamated with the KSEB. He also introduced ferry services from Mattancherry to mainland Kochi and from Fort Kochi to Vypeen,” Mr. Paul said.

The function saw Queenie Halleguah, S. Koder’s daughter, and Sarah Cohen, the oldest living member of Kochi’s Jewish community, being honoured. Incidentally, the late S. Koder had served as president of the ICCI.

Mathew Antony, a member of Kochi’s Jewish community said Kerala had many Jewish settlements, including the ones in Mattancherry, much before the arrival of the European Jews. “The youngest person among the European Jews in Kochi is well past 50 years, while most others are aged 70 and above.”

Mr. Antony vividly remembers his cousin’s wedding that took place at the Mattancherry synagogue, in the 1970s. He spoke of how the synagogue again shot to limelight when Queen Elizabeth visited it in the late 1990’s. The rendezvous with Jews played a key role in making Mattancherry a key tourist attraction in Kerala.

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