Cochin Jew - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. The "Black" Jews claim that they were the original recipients of the copperplates, thereby proving their high status in the South Indian context. However, the copperplates are today in the hands of the "White" Jews in the Paradesi synagogue. The term paradesi means "foreigner," and the "White" Jews are the descendants of Spanish, Portuguese, Iraqi, and other Jews who arrived on the Malabar Coast from the sixteenth century on, later than the first appearance of the copperplates.

After the "White" Jews built the Paradesi synagogue in 1568, no "Black" Jews were qualified to pray there. The "Black" Jews, for their part, had several synagogues that no "White" Jew would enter. To complicate matters, both "White" and "Black" Jews were internally divided into meyuhasim and nonmeyuhasim (privileged and nonprivileged).

It is not entirely clear when divisions within the Community came into being. One of the earliest recorded splits was in 1344, when some of the Jews of Cranganore moved to Cochin, three years after the port of Cranganore was silted up and Cochin was founded. But it was only after Vasco da Gama's expedition when the Portuguese ruled Kerala that some European Jews settled in Cochin. They became the first "White" Jews. By the time Pereira de Paiva visited Cochin in 1686 on behalf of Amsterdam Jewry, he could report that "the 'White Jews' and the 'Malabarees' were neither intermarrying nor inter-dining."

One "White" Jew who rose to prominence under the Dutch, who had taken over in 1668, was Ezekiel Rahabi (1694-1771). For forty-eight years he acted as the principal merchant for the Dutch in Cochin. He had contacts all over the East as well as in Europe, and he signed his numerous memorandums in Hebrew.

Political Organization. The Jews' lives on the Malabar Coast were centered on the synagogue, which corporately owned estates in each settlement. The congregation was known as the yogam and it administered communal affairs collectively.

Social Control. The yogam acted as a social control device determining the fate of its members. In extreme cases, where social taboos were ignored, the congregation could excommunicate a member. A famous example was the case of A. B. Salem, a lawyer, who became the leader of the meshurarim in his fight for equal rights for his group. Even as late as 1952, the "White" Jews would not let his son marry a "White" Jew in the Paradesi synagogue. When his son and new daughter-inlaw returned from their marriage in Bombay, all the women in the ladies' gallery of the Paradesi synagogue walked out in protest.


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