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A Joyous Past, a Silent Present, an Unknown Future: Lesser Known Tales of a Paradesi Jew

One would find it rather difficult to imagine a person residing in an ancient home that is ‘squeezed’ between boutiques and antique shops. Then again, her house is perhaps one among the few households that continue to exist in the area.

Gitanjali Diwakar |

Updated:July 5, 2017, 10:46 PM IST
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A Joyous Past, a Silent Present, an Unknown Future: Lesser Known Tales of a Paradesi Jew
Queenie Hallegua lives in a house that is situated about 100 metres from Kochi’s most prominent landmark, Paradesi Jewish Synagogue.
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Kochi: She sits beside the grilled window of her ancestral home, observing tourists and a few youngsters who have come to visit the historic area. Queenie Hallegua lives in a house that is situated about 100 metres from Kochi’s most prominent landmark, Paradesi Jewish Synagogue.

One would find it rather difficult to imagine a person residing in an ancient home that is ‘squeezed’ between boutiques and antique shops. Then again, her house is perhaps one among the few households that continue to exist in the area.

Homes of many Jewish families residing adjacent her house have either been demolished or sold. With only 11 members of the Jewish community residing in the state of Kerala, one does wonder about the day when a community whose 2000-year-old association with India might cease to exist.

But it is in a spirit of hope and happiness that Hallegua talks to News18 about her experience as a Jew growing up in Kochi, and gives her views on the historic summit between Prime Ministers of India and Israel currently underway.

But meanwhile, as Prime Minsters Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu meet, Hallegua talks to News18 about her experiences as a Jew growing up in India and gives her view of the historic summit.

Hallegua hails from Mattancherry, Ernakulam district. She completed her Bachelor’s in Botany from the St. Theresa College in Kerala’s Ernakulam district in the late 1950s. “I was married off soon after. Life was very different back then,” Hallegua said. Her children - a daughter and a son - are currently living in the United States of America (USA).

A member of the Paradesi Jew community, she is also one of the trustees of the Paradesi Jewish Synagogue located here. As she narrates the tales of her past, of Jewish festivals, customs, her family and Israel, one is bound to be stumped by the harmony that exists between the families from various backgrounds living here.

A past that only know

Judaism like many religions involves a regular holy service at the place of the worship – the Synagogue. For many years, according Hallegua, the tiny area of Kochi’s Jew Town had three Synagogues. The holy service requires 10 men above the age of 13 to recite the hymns and devotional songs.

“Our community is rather conservative. As a result, the women and men do not sit together during the service. They sit in separate, designated spaces,” explains Hallegua.

Interestingly, unlike the practice followed in several other Jewish communities, the service at the Paradesi Synagogue was often conducted by the community elders. “We did not have a Rabbi during our services. The elders from the community were very knowledgeable and could interpret the ancient scripture too,” she added.

However, the official establishment of the Israel in the year 1948 brought about significant changes in the lives of the Jewish Community residing in Kochi. Some members of the community chose to abandon all that they owned in their tiny township and immigrated to Israel.

Over the years, many families have left their homes and decided to start their lives afresh in a place that many claimed to be the land of the Jews. As a result, there are fewer men above the age of 13 to be part of the group or quorum to conduct the service.

The few Jews residing in the area continue to pay visits to the synagogue on several occasions – including occasions like Yom Kippur and the Fast of Gedalia. But the community has not witnessed a full-fledged service for years.

A home in Israel

Hallegua claims that the Jews in Kerala were among the more fortunate members of the community. Not only were they allowed to practice their religion, they were also given due regard and made an integral part of the society.

She does have relatives residing in Israel and visits the place often. However, she herself never wanted to emigrate for she is used to life she lives in India. Her late husband too was a patriot and was keen on residing in Kochi until his dying day.

Then again, Hallegua believes that the land of Israel has a ‘force’ that draws the ommunity to the nation. “Many Jews were killed and tortured during the World War. As children, residing in Kerala, we were clueless about these unfortunate incidents. Here, we had the pleasure of listening to the Hindu devotional song Venkatesha Suprabhatam in the mornings when we headed to the synagogue for our prayers,” Hallegua says.

She adds that the experience, as she was growing up, of listening to prayers from the mosque next door was truly wonderful. We lived in such harmony. But those Jews living elsewhere were not so lucky.

“So, it is lovely to know that there is a home or a land that Jews could call their own. It is special indeed,” Hallegua explains.

Culture that is lost

Fewer schools around Fort Kochi conduct classes in Hebrew and the scriptures. When asked about the possibilities of forming a quorum in the present scenario, Hallegua commented that it is possible to do so. But it would not be a complete service, for no one in the community has an in-depth knowledge of the ancient scriptures including the Tora or the Tanakh.

The unknown tomorrow

Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Israel has stirred a lot of joy among the Indian Jews residing in the country. Not only is the visit, the first by an Indian Prime Minister to the country, it is also being viewed as an opportunity for Israel and India to bridge ties and build trust.

“Both Modi and Netanyahu have problems to tackle, related to national security. This meeting could help them,” stated Hallegua.

As she gears for the rest for a visit to the bank and her game of SUDOKU, she also reminisces those days when she and her friends could walk about the streets of Mattanchery fearlessly in their casual attire late night as well.

“Things have changed. This street become pitch dark post 7 pm,” Hallegua added. Queenie and a few other trustee members are working towards establishing a museum to showcase the community’s heritage. But would that be the beginning of an end?
| Edited by: Mirza Arif Beg
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