When the State of Israel was declared by David Ben Gurion on 14 May 1948, the Jewish community of Cochin, in southwestern India, were ready to immigrate. “Their whole purpose was to immigrate to Israel and that was their goal”, says Mira Elia of the Cochin Jewish Heritage Centre in Nevatim, in the Negev.1

The first members of the community to move to Israel in 1949 had to endure a three day train journey to Bombay (now Mumbai), followed by months waiting for a plane to take them to Israel. Nevertheless, by 1953 about 2800 people, almost the entire community of Jews from Cochin, had settled in Israel and were living in moshavim (agricultural communities) or urban neighbourhoods. There are now about 8000 Cochin Jews living in Israel, while today only eight Cochin Jews remain in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala.

According to tradition, the Jews of Cochin trace their roots back to the time of King Solomon. The Bible records that Solomon traded with a Tarshish to the east of Israel: “For the king had at sea a navy of Tharshish with the navy of Hiram: once in three years came the navy of Tharshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks” (1 Kings 10:22). As Brother Thomas writes in Elpis Israel, “These products point to India as the Eastern Tarshish”.2 It is, then, very likely that Jews settled in India as a result of the trade between Israel and Tarshish in the east.

But scholars maintain it is more likely that the Cochin Jews came from Babylon and Persia and settled in India between the fifth and eighth centuries AD.3 Copper tablets dating from the 10th century have been discovered which detail the rights given to the community by a local king. Their presence in India was noted by Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, who lived in the12th century, Marco Polo a century later, and the explorer Vasco da Gama in the 5th century.4

The Cochin Jewish community was very religious and held a rich heritage that included unique traditions. Being a devout community is what preserved its Jewishness over the centuries.

Although they enjoyed positive relations with other Indian communities, the Cochin Jews worked independently from the rest of the population to enable them to observe the Sabbath and the religious holidays. Their homes were also close to the synagogue. Most of the Cochin Jews worked as traders and, in the past, they were engaged in international trade but in recent times, local commerce became more usual.

Despite the lush surroundings the Cochin Jews left behind in India, they have adjusted well to the arid desert conditions of the Negev. “They arrived from a beautiful, green and tropic land, but they wanted to settle in a place where they could work and establish the state,” says Elia.

Thus, as Yahweh has declared: “Therefore, behold, the days come, saith Yahweh, that they shall no more say, Yahweh liveth, which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; But, Yahweh liveth, which brought up and which led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all countries whither I had driven them; and they shall dwell in their own land” (Jer 23:7-8).

The return of the Jews to the Land is truly the great sign of Christ’s coming, for “when Yahweh shall build up Zion, he shall appear in his glory” (Psa 102:16).

References:

  1. Chief source for this article: Naama Barak, “Meet the Cochin Jews – Israel’s oldest Indian community”, Israel21c, January 24, 2021, online at: https://www.israel21c.org/meet-the-cochin-jews-israels-oldest-indian-community/?utm_source=The+Weekly&utm_campaign=weekly-2021-01-27&utm_medium=email
  2. John Thomas, Elpis Israel, 14th ed. revised, Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1958, p.434.
  3. Solomon Grayzel, A History of the Jews, New York: New American Library, 1968, p. 636.
  4. “Cochin”, in Valentine’s Jewish Encyclopaedia, London: Shapiro, Valentine, 1950, p. 148.