We don't repossess the shul, we just destroy it

By Lawrence Joffe, August 7, 2014
Kadavumbhagom shul: under threat

Kadavumbhagom shul: under threat

Down the road from more famous, 16th century Paradesi Synagogue of Cochin, south-west India, stands a dilapidated yet even older house of worship.

The Kadavumbhagom Synagogue was founded in 1551 and once housed a Talmud Torah and an adult yeshivah. But it was sold off when most congregants emigrated to Israel decades ago.

At first, the new landlord stored distinctly un-kosher prawns there; today it is a cattle shed.

Last month, disgruntled loan sharks destroyed part of the building after Kadavumbhagom's current owner, known as Regina, fell into debt.

"Private persons have carted away whatever was inside", a local resident told the Indian newspaper, The Hindu. "It's an important monument. Shouldn't the government protect this synagogue?"

Alarmed by this news, the Association of Kerala Jews signed a petition to protect the site and a Jewish cemetery in nearby Kathrikadavu. The director of Kerala's archaeology department responded by approaching local police who, in turn, asked the government to take over the building. But who will pay to restore it?

Some help has now arrived from an unexpected outside source. STMEGI, a charity for Azerbaijani Mountain Jews, claimed that they have pushed Indian authorities to list the two sites for preservation under the Culture Ministry's Archaeological Survey of India. The process began last month.

Local scholar Aharon Daniel said that, according to folklore, Jews first arrived in south-west India during the time of King Solomon. Others came with Greek and Arab traders, and were granted the princely local status of Meyuhassim ("privileged" in Hebrew), he said. By the 16th century, "foreign" or "Paradesi" Jews alighted on the Malabar Coast from Egypt, Iraq and even Germany. Colloquially named "White Jews", they contrasted with freed slaves who converted to Judaism. At their peak in the 1940s, Cochin's Jews numbered 3,000. Today, some 8,000 live in Israel while just 70 remain in India.

Last updated: 7:45pm, August 7 2014