Shabbat solo in Kochi
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Shabbat solo in Kochi

In India, Len Williams met a man with the single-minded dedication to run his shul alone

Elias Josephai at the Kochi synagogue in Kerala which he runs all alone
Elias Josephai at the Kochi synagogue in Kerala which he runs all alone

“Every day I come here to pray,” says Elias

Josephai, trustee of the Kadavum Bagam Synagogue in Kochi, India. That would not be such a striking statement were if not for the fact that he’s been doing so virtually alone, for the past four decades.

Babu, as Mr Josephai is known, is one of just 19 Jews still living in Kochi, a port city in southern Kerala. The community was once several-thousand strong and is believed to have been in the region for some 2,000 years. However, with the creation of Israel, most of Kochi’s Jews emigrated, leaving just a handful behind.

“Most Shabbat it is just me and my wife worshipping; it gives a deep pain in my heart,” he says. Nevertheless, Babu has energetically maintained and improved the synagogue single-handedly over the past few decades. How does he keep going alone?  In 1978, the year Babu began managing the building ,it was burgled and most of its valuables stolen. But, over the years he has painstakingly restored the synagogue which was first built around 1200 AD.

The successful restoration is testament to India’s interreligious tolerance. “Those chandeliers were donated by the Hindus” he explains, pointing at colourful lamps hanging from the ceiling. New windows were given by local Muslims, while a Christian organisation helped restore the bimah.

The interior of the synagogue includes many local touches – the cabinet around the ark is decorated with tropical fruit, while the floor tiles were designed by artisans from the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu.

As a young man, Babu wanted to head to Israel too, but family circumstances prevented him. Since then he has gone on to build a successful aquarium business which is housed in the entry hall of the synagogue. Now he has no interest in going to Israel: “what would I do there? It is a country for young people”.

And is he proud of his achievements? “It is HaShem who did it” he replies modestly.

There is also a back story which may partially explain Babu’s efforts. Journalist Edna Fernandes’ book The Last Jews of Kerala traces the unique history of Kochi’s Jews. Although Jews have probably been living in India for 2,000 years, a second wave arrived in the 16th century. The new group came from Europe and were known as the white Jews, their older counterparts as black Jews. Over time, white Jews claimed greater legitimacy than older inhabitants and received patronage from local royalty and the colonial powers who later arrived in India.

As a consequence, the story of Kerala’s white Jews became the ‘official’ version – while the older black Jewish community were written out of history (for example, you won’t find Babu’s synagogue in guidebooks, while the white Jews’ building is a top attraction in the Lonely Planet).

Could his dedication to the synagogue be an attempt to reclaim that past?

Babu reports he is “only 60 percent done” with his works. There are plenty of upgrades still to be made and he plans a small museum too. “I wish this synagogue to remain until the sun and moon stop shining” he says.

And once he’s gone? “HaShem will take care”.

 

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