Finding History Where Least Expected
By Judi Kloper
Photos by Judi Kloper or courtesy of Davvid Levy
Judi Kloper has been visiting Jewish communities in India (both established and emerging) since 1994 and has been a member of Kulanu’s board since early 2015.
Note: The names Chennai and Madras are used inter- changeably in this article. While there are several versions of how the city acquired these names, Madras was the name of this city from the 1500s through 1996 when its earlier name of Chennai was restored. Chennai is the capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and is India’s 4th largest city.
It was Passover 2015 and I was in Goa, India at a Chabad seder with Jews from around the world. The woman sitting next to me shared that she was from Kerala on the southwestern India coast. I was intrigued. “Oh, the Cochini Jewish community,” I said. “I’ve been there a number of times.” She responded, “No. I’m Yemeni. We are the Kerala Jews that no one talks about.” She was doing research on her ancestors and her community and hoped to write a book with her findings. I became curious to learn more about the Yemeni Jews in India but could find very little about them.
A year and a half later, on an afternoon in September 2016, I opened an email that made me feel as if I was discovering a new world. New to me, at least! For in all my years of visiting India, and in particular the city of Chennai (formerly known as Madras), never did I realize that there was once a small but thriving Jewish community there. Amidst the hustle and bustle in Chennai, a city of 10 million people located on the south- eastern coast of India on the Bay of Bengal, lives a very small community of Jews who trace their heritage to The Netherlands, Portugal, France, Germany, Romania, Iraq, Yemen, and Kerala. I’ve been traveling through India for the past 32 years and while I have visited Jewish communities in other parts of this vast country, I never realized there was a Jewish history here in Chennai where I’ve spent so much of my time. That is until Iopened that email that Kulanu received from Davvid Levi. Interestingly, Davvid contacted us to ask how he and his family could support Kulanu. Sharing his family’s story with me has been a unique gift.
Davvid grew up in this city, and his family has, for generations, called Chennai home. We started exchanging emails and he extended an invitation for me to come and meet his family and some of the remaining Jews in Chennai, as well as to visit some of the sites that were part of the history of the Madras Jews. So little had been known about this community and until now, that’s how the Jews here wanted it to remain. Yet, over the past few years, Davvid has been researching his family’s history in India sorting through letters, government certifi- cates, photos, and numerous items that date back to the 1700s. He explained that it’s very difficult to research the history of theJews in Chennai because the records were lost in 1934, 1968, and 1983 when the synagogues and cemeteries were razed. The remaining local Jewish and civil records from Chennai, including accounts and ledgers, were lost in the floods of 2015.
Fascinated and eager to meet Davvid, I took him up on his offer and spent time with him, his mom, and a Jewish couple from Kerala and Mumbai.We spent time at the cemetery, and I also enjoyed a Shabbat evening at the home of Davvid’s mom, where I was shown many items of Judaica that date back to at least the 1700s. This included Haggadot, siddurim, mezuzot, candelabra, silver dreidels, besamim (spice box), a yad, shofarot, and hanukkiyot (photos within this article and back page of Fall 2018 Kulanu Magazine www. bit.ly/KulanuMag18Fall). Additionally, Davvid carefully placed on the table in front of me very old and large books that hold original documents and photos of Davvid’s relatives, some of whom settled in Madras, and others from Romania and the Netherlands who died in the Holocaust.
From Yemen and Europe to India
Davvid shared that his maternal ancestors were expelled from Portugal in 1496 by the Alhambra Decree (the Inquisition). After the Inquisition, they settled in England, Holland, and Italy, and began trading with businessmen from around Europe. Davvid’s ancestors who were traders included the De Castro, Franco, Paiva, and Porto families. By 1640, soon after the founding of Madras, many of these Portuguese Jews had settled there and in Cochin (now Kochi) in Kerala. Most of them were tradersin diamonds, precious stones, and coral. Many of the Portuguese
Jews who were traders and living in Madras used their Jewish names when in Madras. However, they used their Portuguese names when they traveled to Goa (in western India), which was now under Portuguese rule where the long arm of the Inquisition had reached. Other relatives who did not travel to India had settled in Romania, Germany, and France. Davvid’s paternal ancestors came from Yemen, as did the family of his maternal great-grandmother Rebecca Cohen, whose father was Rabbi Daniel Yakov Cohen of Cochin. Rebecca was married to Rabbi Salomon Halevi, who came to Madras in the late 1800s, possibly from France. Davvid’s other maternal great-grandparents, Isaac and Rosa Henriques De Castro, perished atAuschwitz in October 1944. A street in Chennai — Isaac Street — was named after Isaac, who traded in diamond, coral, and precious gems. Isaacand Rosa’s only child, Levi Henriques De Castro (Davvid’s maternal grandfather), was traveling in India at age 23 and therefore avoided being murdered in the Holocaust. He traveled to what is now Israel in 1947 to fight against the Arabs in what was known as the War of Independence.
After the Holocaust and fighting in the war in Israel, Levi suffered emotionally and mentally. He found that life in Israel was not what he envisioned and he had no family there, and when Rabbi Salomon Halevi called him back, he returned to India where he owned property and had savings, becoming a businessman there once again. He married Rachel Halevi, who was Rabbi Salomon Halevi’s daughter and of Yemeni and European descent. Rachel became a professor at Kerala University, though they lived in Madras and Bangalore as well. The emotional toll of losing his entire family in the Holocaust shattered his life and impeded his ability to thrive again as a businessman.
Sarah (Davvid’s mom) was born in Bangalore, the only child of Rachel and Levi. While the family was of considerable financial means, Levi donated so much of his money to Israel during its founding that consequently, between that and his lack of success as a businessman, the family lived at poverty level and Sarah eventually hadno choice but to sell vegetables on the street tohelp earn a living. Levi died in 1978 at age 57, and Rachel in 1982 at age 56. They are buried at Beit Ha Haim, the Jewish cemetery on Lloyds Road.
Sarah, however, flourished as a businesswoman. As Davvid explained, “From a roadside vegetable vendor, she became the first woman union leader for vendors, and later she became instrumental in controlling the prices of vegetables in Chennai. She founded the HDC (Henriques DeCastro) group of companies (trucking, commodity, and finance businesses) which she sold in 2007 for a substantial amount, as I and my brother were not capable to handle business as well as she did.” Sarah worked hard, saving every rupee so that eventually she not only helped pull her family out of poverty, but she was able to purchase homes to be lived in by her grandchildren when they’re older. Davvid explained, “Once shesold her business, she donated a part of her savings to organizations in Israel and gave the rest to her sons, her daughters-in-law, and her grandchildren.”
Jewish Settlers in the 1600s
One of the earliest settlers of this community was Jacques de Paiva, who came from Amsterdam and died in 1687. He was buried in the original Jewish cemetery which he had founded in the
Peddanaickenpet area of Chennai. Most of the Jews who had come to Madras in the 1600s lived on Coral Merchants Street in Muthialpet district, which is where the first synagogue in Chennai was built, on Mint Street. The second synagogue, a much larger one, was built next to where the Central Railway Station is located today on land given to de Paiva by the British. The first synagogue and cemetery, established in 1600, were demolished by the government in 1968, and the land used to build a school. However, in 1934, the first set of gravestones were moved from this first cemetery to the Central Park of Madras cemetery with the gate which was inscribed with Beit ha-Haim in Hebrew, and the second set of tombstones from this cemetery were moved in 1968 to an area called Kasimedu. In 1983, due to the Harbour Extension Project, the cemetery was once again relocated to its current location on Lloyds Road.While the synagogues and the original cemeteries are no longer there, Davvid took me to theJewish cemetery on Lloyds Road where most of the 30 or so headstones had been moved to and where a few of the more recent Jewish residents of Chennai had been buried. It is said thatthere were about 78 Jews buried in the original cemeteries. Davvid took it upon himself to search for some of the original headstones. After much effort he found them, some having been used by local homes as flooring laid face down, and he had them moved to the new cemetery which was established in 1983 and renovated in 2016.
Davvid is still searching for the missing tombstones of some of the community’s oldest Jewish residents, such as Bartolomeo Rodrigues and Jaques de Paiva.
Davvid, now in his early 40s, his wife Divya and their two daughters Rebecca and Rachel, his mother Sarah and father Chanan, and his brother Asher and his family, live in Chennai and Kochi, Kerala. The family celebrates Shabbat and the high holidays at their condo away from their home in the city. Davvid explained that where their other home is, no one cares about what other people do or wear or what their religious beliefs are; they feel safe, and security is good.Davvid is a captain in the Merchant Navy, and he and his family are the last of the Paradesi (Sephardic Jewish immigrants to India) Jewsin Chennai; his family goes back more than 500 years in this area.
A few days after spending a delightful Shabbat evening with Davvid and his mom, Sarah, at their home, I was invited to lunch with them and his niece, and with their friends, Gershon and Elizabeth Joshua. Gershon is a Cochini Jew and Elizabeth is of the Bene Israel from Mumbai, a community in Maharashtra state that dates back between 600-1000 years according to a study published in 2016 in the scientific journal PLOS (Public Library of Science), though the community itself believes their ancestors arrived between the 8th century BCE and the 6th century CE. The Bene Israel community is officially recognized by Israel, as are the Cochini Jews .Learning about the history of the Jewish community in this southern city gave me a glimpse into the history of the Yemeni Jews of India. As I continue my journeys through India,I hope to learn much more about Yemeni Jewish history there, as well as more about their culture, past and present. Then, when I meet other Indian Jews of Yemini heritage, I can assure them, “Yes, we will talk about you along with the other Jews of India. Your history here matters too.”
Israelite tradition identified YHWH (by scholarly convention pronounced Yahweh), the God of Israel, with the creator of the world, who had been known and worshipped from the beginning of time.When did first Jews came to India? ›
The oldest of the Indian Jewish communities was in the erstwhile Cochin Kingdom. The traditional account is that traders of Judea arrived at Cranganore, an ancient port near Cochin in 562 BC, and that more Jews came as exiles from Israel in the year 70 AD, after the destruction of the Second Temple.Why did the Jews come to Kerala? ›
Many Jews are believed to have migrated here following the Roman attack of the tabernacle in Jerusalem. The other theory is that the Jews came to Kerala when extensive trade relations were established between the Malabar Coast and the Middle East during the time of King Solomon.How many Jews are there in the world? ›
Jews traditionally do not pronounce it, and instead refer to God as HaShem, literally "the Name". In prayer, the Tetragrammaton is substituted with the pronunciation Adonai, meaning "My Lord". This is referred to primarily in the Torah: "Hear O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One" (Deuteronomy 6:4).Can Jews eat pork? ›
Both Judaism and Islam have prohibited eating pork and its products for thousands of years. Scholars have proposed several reasons for the ban to which both religions almost totally adhere. Pork, and the refusal to eat it, possesses powerful cultural baggage for Jews.Are Jews vegetarians? ›
Today most Jews eat meat, but the high ideal of God, the initial vegetarian dietary law, still stands supreme in the Torah for Jews and the whole world to see, an ultimate goal toward which all people should strive. 1. Rashi's commentary on Genesis 1:29. 2.Where did the Jews come from? ›
Jews originated as an ethnic and religious group in the Middle East during the second millennium BCE, in a part of the Levant known as the Land of Israel.How many Jews are left in Kerala? ›
|יהודי קוצ'ין കൊച്ചിയിലെ ജൂതന്മാർ|
|A Malabar Jewish family (1930)|
|Regions with significant populations|
Travancore was known for its relatively high literacy rate and its progressive government. After Indian independence, Travancore and Cochin (now Kochi) merged to form the state of Travancore-Cochin; boundaries were redrawn, and it was renamed Kerala in 1956.
Two years after India's independence was achieved in 1947, Cochin and Travancore were united as Travancore-Cochin state. The present state of Kerala was constituted on a linguistic basis in 1956 when the Malabar Coast and the Kasargod taluka (administrative subdivision) of South Kanara were added to Travancore-Cochin.How did Kerala get its name? ›
One folk etymology derives Kerala from the Malayalam word kera 'coconut tree' and alam 'land'; thus, 'land of coconuts', which is a nickname for the state used by locals due to the abundance of coconut trees. The earliest Sanskrit text to mention Kerala as Cherapadha is the late Vedic text Aitareya Aranyaka.What city has the most Jews? ›
Judaism is the second-largest religion practiced in New York City, with approximately 1.6 million adherents as of 2022, representing the largest Jewish community of any city in the world, greater than the combined totals of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Nearly half of the city's Jews live in Brooklyn.Where do Jews live? ›
Geographically, Jews are concentrated primarily in North America (44%) and the Middle East- North Africa region (41%). The remainder of the global Jewish population is found in Europe (10%), Latin America and the Caribbean (3%), Asia and the Pacific (between 1% and 2%) and sub-Saharan Africa (less than 1%).Where do Jews worship? ›
synagogue, also spelled synagog, in Judaism, a community house of worship that serves as a place not only for liturgical services but also for assembly and study.Can Jews say amen? ›
Although amen, in Judaism, is commonly used as a response to a blessing, it also is often used by Hebrew speakers as an affirmation of other forms of declaration (including outside of religious context). Jewish rabbinical law requires an individual to say amen in a variety of contexts.Do Jews say God bless you? ›
The phrase has been used in the Hebrew Bible by Jews (cf. Numbers 6:24), and by Christians, since the time of the early Church as a benediction, as well as a means of bidding a person Godspeed.What are the 7 Hebrew names of God? ›
The tradition of seven divine names
According to Jewish tradition, the number of divine names that require the scribe's special care is seven: El, Elohim, Adonai, YHWH, Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, Shaddai, and Tzevaot.
Jewish tradition permits controlled alcohol drinking, whereas Muslim tradition prohibits the use of any alcohol. Increasing exposure of the traditionally conservative Arab sector to the Western culture of modern Israel might impact on and be reflected in the drinking patterns of these two populations.Can Jews eat cows? ›
Any animal who has cloven hooves and chews its cud may be eaten; such animals as the camel, badger, hare and the pig then may not be eaten. Sheep, cattle, goats and deer are all kosher and may be eaten. From the water, anything that has fins and scales may be consumed; prohibiting all shellfish.
Summing up, Muslim buyers can consume kosher products. Jewish buyers cannot do likewise with halal. For many Muslim buyers, non-alcoholic kosher food products are considered halal.Do Jews eats chicken? ›
Certain domesticated fowl can be eaten, such as chicken, geese, quail, dove, and turkey. The animal must be slaughtered by a shochet — a person trained and certified to butcher animals according to Jewish laws. The meat must be soaked to remove any traces of blood before cooking.Why do Jews avoid pork? ›
Prohibition in Jewish law
The Torah (Pentateuch) contains passages in Leviticus that lists the animals people are permitted to eat. According to Leviticus 11:3, animals like cows, sheep, and deer that have divided hooves and chew their cud may be consumed. Pigs should not be eaten because they don't chew their cud.
Plant-based eating is deeply rooted in three of the prominent religions practiced in India – Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. All these religions believe in the concept of Ahimsa, which means kindness and non-violence towards all living things.Who are famous Jews? ›
- Albert Einstein. Born in Wurttemberg, Germany in 1879 to a German Jewish family, Albert Einstein went on to become one of the world's most influential scientists. ...
- Gloria Steinem. ...
- Irving Berlin. ...
- Jerry Lewis. ...
- Elizabeth Taylor. ...
- Mark Rothko. ...
- Stan Lee. ...
- Stephen Sondheim.
The oldest fossils of anatomically modern humans found outside Africa are the Skhul and Qafzeh hominids, who lived in northern Israel 120,000 years ago. Around 10th millennium BCE, the Natufian culture existed in the area.What do the Jews believe? ›
Judaism thus begins with ethical monotheism: the belief that God is one and is concerned with the actions of mankind. According to the Hebrew Bible, God promised Abraham to make of his offspring a great nation.Why did Jews leave Kochi? ›
Unlike other dwindling Jewish communities around the world, the Jews of Kochi did not leave their country due to persecution or hardship. Rather, it was the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 that attracted many from the mostly Orthodox community to emigrate and start a new life in the Jewish homeland.Who bring Islam in Kerala? ›
According to the Legend of Cheraman Perumals, the first Indian mosque was built in 624 AD at Kodungallur with the mandate of the last the ruler (the Cheraman Perumal) of Chera dynasty, who converted to Islam during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad (c. 570–632).Who spread Islam in Kerala? ›
570–632). Perumal's proselytisers, led by Malik ibn Dinar, established a series of mosques in his kingdom and north of it, thus facilitating the expansion of Islam in Kerala.
You would be surprised to know that the Indian subcontinent has been flourishing for around 5,000-6,000 years and its peoples joined together to form a civilization in roughly 1500 BCE when they created the Vedic Civilization, which laid out the foundations of Hinduism.What is India old name? ›
Jambudvīpa (Sanskrit: जम्बुद्वीप, romanized: Jambu-dvīpa, lit. 'berry island') was used in ancient scriptures as a name of India before Bhārata became the official name. The derivative Jambu Dwipa was the historical term for India in many Southeast Asian countries before the introduction of the English word "India".Why is Kerala famous? ›
Named as one of the ten paradises of the world by National Geographic Traveler, Kerala is famous especially for its ecotourism initiatives and beautiful backwaters. Its unique culture and traditions, coupled with its varied demography, have made Kerala one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.Is Kerala land of God? ›
Kerala is a southern state of India, which is known as God's Own Country. Thiruvananthapuram is the capital of Kerala. It is located on the Western Coast of India, and the coast is known as the Malabar Coast.Why Kerala is best in India? ›
Ecotourism hot spot. Boats travel along the backwaters near Alleppey, Kerala, India. On the southwest coast of India, Kerala is one of India's most beautiful states. With spectacular beaches and lush backwaters, temples, and palaces, it's known as “God's own country” for good reason.Who came Kerala first? ›
Jewish and Arab traders were amongst the first traders to arrive in India via Kerala. Even thought there were several diversities in the country, the people of India united for the freedom struggle.Why Kerala said God's own country? ›
“God's Own Country' is the tagline of Kerala Tourism which was coined by Walter Mendez, the Creative Director of an Indian advertising agency in 1989 at the request of the Tourism Department, Government of Kerala. This was used by agencies to showcase Kerala's natural beauty and not-so-explored places across the state.Are Kerala Hindu? ›
Hinduism is the most widely professed faith in Kerala. According to 2011 Census of India figures, 54.7% of Kerala's residents are Hindus. Hindus represent the biggest religious group in all districts except Malappuram. The mythological legends regarding the origin of Kerala are Hindu in nature.Is Kerala rich or poor? ›
Economy of Kerala.
|GDP per capita rank||8th|
|GDP by sector||Agriculture 12% Industry 23% Services 66% (2021-22)|
|Population below poverty line||0.71% in poverty (2015–16)|
|Human Development Index||0.779 high (2018) (1st)|
History of Israel
The nation of Israel is the world's first Jewish state in two millennia. It represents for Jews the restoration of their homeland after the centuries-long Diaspora that followed the demise of the Herodian kingdom in the 1st century ce.
Heavy taxes on agricultural land forced many Jews to migrate from rural areas to towns. Social and economic discrimination caused significant Jewish emigration from Palestine, and Muslim civil wars in the 8th and 9th centuries pushed many Jews out of the country.Do Jews worship home? ›
In Judaism the home is often regarded as the most important place of worship and includes prayers, observing Shabbat , celebrating festivals and studying the scriptures. Many Jews believe that praying regularly at home helps to build their relationship with God.Why do Jews pray? ›
Prayer builds the relationship between God and human beings. Jews, like other people of faith, pray in many different ways. The important things about prayer are: You should do it with total concentration on God-there should be nothing else in your mind.Do Jews pray directly God? ›
Instead, a Jew prays at home and in the synagogue: they invite God into their daily lives in the blessings they recite each day, and they are reminded of and connect to the will of God while also studying and discussing – on a daily basis – the Word of God.Which is world's oldest religion? ›
The word Hindu is an exonym, and while Hinduism has been called the oldest religion in the world, many practitioners refer to their religion as Sanātana Dharma (Sanskrit: सनातन धर्म, lit.What do Jews believe in God? ›
Jewish people believe there's only one God who has established a covenant—or special agreement—with them. Their God communicates to believers through prophets and rewards good deeds while also punishing evil. Most Jews (with the exception of a few groups) believe that their Messiah hasn't yet come—but will one day.What is the main religion of Jews? ›
Judaism, the first and oldest of the three great monotheistic faiths, is the religion and way of life of the Jewish people. The basic laws and tenets of Judaism are derived from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.What's God's name in the Bible? ›
Yahweh, name for the God of the Israelites, representing the biblical pronunciation of “YHWH,” the Hebrew name revealed to Moses in the book of Exodus. The name YHWH, consisting of the sequence of consonants Yod, Heh, Waw, and Heh, is known as the tetragrammaton.How do Jews worship? ›
Instead, a Jew prays at home and in the synagogue: they invite God into their daily lives in the blessings they recite each day, and they are reminded of and connect to the will of God while also studying and discussing – on a daily basis – the Word of God.Why do Jews worship? ›
Public worship is very important to Jews for many reasons: it gives Jews an opportunity to listen to and reflect on readings from the Torah and the rest of the Tenakh. it unites the Jewish community. it allows Jews to show love to God, which is a requirement of the Torah.
Geographically, Jews are concentrated primarily in North America (44%) and the Middle East- North Africa region (41%). The remainder of the global Jewish population is found in Europe (10%), Latin America and the Caribbean (3%), Asia and the Pacific (between 1% and 2%) and sub-Saharan Africa (less than 1%).