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Sentinel of a shrinking community

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FOND MEMORIES: Samuel Hallegua, chief warden of the synagogue in Mattancherry. —
FOND MEMORIES: Samuel Hallegua, chief warden of the synagogue in Mattancherry. —

S. Anandan

Samuel Hallegua reflects on the heydays of the Jewish families in Kochi

KOCHI: Samuel Hallegua, Sammy to the Jewish neighbourhood in Mattancherry, is a sad man. Looking at the Jew Street that is lined with shops selling curios, the septuagenarian reflects on the heydays of the community when the street had endless rows of Jewish households. He resents 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. Hallegua, however, has a sense of history and takes pride in emphasising his hyphenated identity.

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

Hallegua’s worries are multi-fold. The brazen demands of tourism, to name one. “Sadly, it has become a religion and an irresponsible one at that,” he laments. “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 says 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,” says 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. 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 Hallegua, history is very important and the history of his family in Kochi dates back to 1592.

As for 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 says.

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 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. The last marriage that was solemnised in Mattancherry Synagogue was perhaps in 1980. Before that, Hallegua’s niece got married here in 1978.

He saw Mattancherry leave the ferry for the bridge that linked it to the mainland. He has 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 has been asked if he wouldn’t want to go to Israel.

But for him, Malayalam is his mother tongue. Home is where his feet are.

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