||Cochin (Queen of the Arabian Sea now known as Kochi), a port city on the southwest coast of India, is home to the oldest Jewish community east of Persia. According to local historical traditions, when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 C.E., a number of Jews set sail on recently discovered monsoon shipping lanes. They reached Shingly, which was known to them as the source of spices and other luxury items since the time of King Solomon. They were welcomed by the local king, who gave them land for synagogues and for coconut estates. Another king, called Cheraman Perumal, had two copper plates inscribed with a charter for the community, granting the Jews material rights and the symbolic trappings of royalty, which he presented to the Jewish leader, Joseph Rabban. Thereafter, Cheraman Perumal and Joseph Rabban became archetypes of the cordial lord-vassal relationship between Hindus and Jews in Kochi. The copper plates are stored in the ark of the Cochin Synagogue.
Simhat Torah is considered Kochi's most distinctive festival. Circumambulations (hakkafot) are added during the afternoon service, accompanied by unique Hebrew songs. Torah scrolls are displayed on a temporary ark especially constructed in front of the aron ka-kodesh, the scrolls are carried out of the synagogue and into the street, and the temporary ark is ritually demolished at the conclusion of the festival. All of these activities are attributable to rites found in nearby Hindu temples. All reflect the symbols of Hindu royalty. But none of these practices is in violation of any halakhic principle. Similarly, Kochi's elaborate wedding rites parallel those of their Hindu neighbors, which also embody the symbols of royalty, but with no compromise of halakhah.
The ascetical tendencies inherent in the Hindu priestly ideal find expression, for example, in the community's fastidious Passover preparations. Avoidance of gentiles mirrors avoidance of low-born Hindus; annual repainting of houses parallels Hindu practice; and activities and jokes pertaining to the festival's stringent dietary concerns resonates well in a culture in which hierarchy is closely connected with diet. Jews in Kerala occupied a high rung on India's strict hierarchy known as the caste system. Furthermore, Jews divided themselves into subcastes, which is typical of Indian castes, and now that their numbers have been so severely reduced, these subcastes have been amalgamated in group behavior also found among attenuated Hindu groups. The Kochi Jews evolved a pattern of social organization that reflected Indian values. Some of the Kochi Jews joined a liberal rabbi from South Africa in contemptuously describing this social system as "Jewish Apartheid," after the system of racial oppression in South Africa. From as early as the beginning of the 16th century and perhaps before then, a rivalry emerged within the Jewish community based on who had attestable Jewish descent (yiḥus, those with yiḥus being known as meyuḥasim) and who did not (the meshuḥrarim, those in possession of a shiḥrur, a bill of manumission from slavery). In other words, one group of Kochi Jews considered themselves to descend from Israel, and they considered their rival group to be descendants of slaves. As early as 1520, Kochi Jews sought rabbinical adjudication of their rivalry and, when the response was not to their liking, ignored it.
Kochi's Jewish women are strikingly well educated in Hebrew and generally exhibit autonomy and freedom beyond what might be expected in a traditional Jewish community. This cultural theme reflects the values of the local Hindu culture, in which the matrilineal Nayar caste is dominant. Another avenue for women's participation in religious life is through their Malayalam-language folk songs. These songs, copied into notebooks and passed on from generation to generation, often narrate biblical themes in a richly tropical setting, replete with elephants, parrots, and palanquins. Other songs praise the archetype of Hindu-Jewish amity, Cheraman Perumal and Joseph Rabban. These songs are sung on festivals and at circumcisions, weddings, and other joyous occasions. They have become identity markers for Cochinim resettled in Israel, where groups of women gather monthly to sing and transmit these songs to the next generation.
The 20th century in Jew Town was marked by four unprecedented events. The first was Indian Independence in 1947, enthusiastically welcomed by the Jews. Second was the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, cause of another joyous celebration in Jew Town. Third was the gala celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Cochin Synagogue, as the Paradesi Synagogue has come to be known. The fourth event was painful: one Sabbath during July 1987, for the first time in its glorious history, there were no formal prayers in the synagogue; the prayer quorum could no longer be mustered, symbolically noting the death of communal life in Kochi.