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In India, a Jewish Outpost Slowly Withers

Handicraft markets line a street in
Handicraft markets line a street in "Jew Town" in Kochi, India. The Jewish community that had flourished here for centuries has dwindled to a few elderly residents. (By Jason Gale -- Bloomberg News)

Cohen displayed her frilly white bread covers, used on the Jewish Sabbath during a blessing over the bread. The covers were stamped with her name: "Sarah Cohen: Kochi, India."

"We are kosher, but also Indian," she said, adding that she uses chapati, an Indian flatbread, rather than the braided challah bread of European Jews.

The Jewish community here eats no beef, out of respect for the Hindu prohibition on eating cow meat. But they do keep kosher, eating chicken cooked with cloves, chickpeas and cardamom and fish curry steeped in coconut milk along with pineapple and mango for dessert, Cohen said. "Why not? Fruit is kosher."

She shuffled into her small living quarters next to her shop for some ginger tea and cookies.

Outside, some tourists were lining up to visit the synagogue. In Kerala, there are still three synagogues, but the one here is the only one still open and is a protected heritage site.

A series of large oil paintings in an entry room of the synagogue tell the history of the Jews in Kochi. The first painting depicts King Solomon's merchant ship greeting Indian leaders and trading peacocks, ivory, spices and teak wood.

The inscriptions under the paintings say that the Book of Esther in the Old Testament contains the first written mention of Jews in India. The Jews blended many of their customs with their host country's. For instance, a dialect called Judeo-Malayalam, a mix of Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and Hebrew, was spoken. In Kochi, shoes are taken off before entering the main prayer room, as in Hindu tradition, and flowers are used as a part of prayer.

K.J. Joy, the Hindu caretaker of the synagogue for 25 years, said it's only a matter of a short time before the Jews of Kochi disappear, and with them the unique mix of Indian and Jewish culture. "This will become a monument, not a working synagogue," he said. "For that, we feel really horrible."

He showed a visitor a small pamphlet written by members of the community in the 1980s, which tells the history of Jew Town. The booklet praises India for giving shelter and respect to the Jews throughout history.

"After some years the story of the Jews of Malabar may come to an end," reads the small book handed out to visitors for 10 rupees, or about 20 cents. "If this happens, history can record that their emigration was not motivated by intolerance or discrimination by India."

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