On the Cochin Jews and Judeo-Malayalam

Jun 8, 2010 by

While there are many interesting Jewish communities around the world, many of whom have been subject of recent genetic studies, I will write today about one group in particular that I have been asked about — the Cochin Jews of India. Other groups such as Samaritans, Kurdish Jews and others will be subject of later postings.

In India, there are five Jewish groups of different antiquity. The most recent are the Bene Ephraim (also caleed “Telugu Jews” because they speak Telugu, a Dravidian language spoken also by 70 million people on the eastern coast in Andhra Pradesh); their observance of Judaism dates to 1981. Another group is the Bnei Menashe, who are Mizo and Kuki tribesmen in Manipur and Mizoram, claiming descent — as their name suggets — from the tribe of Menasseh. Then there are the Baghdadi Jews who arrived in the city Mumbai from Iraq (hence their name), Iran, and Afghanistan, and Arab countries about 250 years ago. Among the more ancient groups are the Bene Israel who arrived in the state of Maharashtra 2,100 years ago. Finally, the oldest Jewish group in India is the Cochin Jews who arrived to the Indian subcontinent 2,500 years ago (according to recordings by Jews, the date of the first arrival is given at 562 BCE) and settled down in Cochin (in the province of Kerala). These were Jewish traders from the ancient kingdoms of Judea and Israel. Later waves of exiles joined them from Palestine (around 70 C.E.), after the Islamist conquest of Persia (7th century C.E.) and after expulsion of Jews from Spain (1492 C.E., these are also known as Paradesi Jews).

Traditionally the Cochin Jews spoke Judeo-Malayalam. There is still a debate as to whether Judeo-Malayalam is a separate language or a dialect of Malayalam: the Ethnologue states that “Cochin Jews in Kerala speak Malayalam”, but many others consider it a distinct language. After all, there is no clear-cut boundary between language and dialect. The classical linguistic definition is based on mutual intelligibility: from this point of view, Judeo-Malayalam is the same language as the non-Jewish Malayalam. But other linguists take into account not just purely linguistic factors but also the way the speakers themselves view their language. For example, Austrians and the Swiss consider their linguistic variety to be a dialect of German despite the low degree of mutual intelligibility with other German dialects and the Standard German. But typically when religion is at stake, speakers view their linguistic varieties as different languages. This is particularly true of mixed Jewish languages: not only do Cochin Jews consider their Judeo-Malayalam to be a different language, but similarly Mountain Jews of the Caucasus consider Judeo-Tat to be a different language from the Muslim variety of Tat.

One way or another, a few words are in order about Malayalam and its mixed Jewish cousin, Judeo-Malayalam. Malayalam is a Dravidian language, related to Telugu (mentioned above), but not very closely: Malayalam and Telugu belong to different branches within the Dravidian family. The closer relatives of Malayalam are Tamil and Kannada. Curiously, Malayalam is the only language whose name can be read the same forwards and backwards.

Judeo-Malayalam, like Malayalam proper is written in a special Malayalam script (most languages of India have their own distinct scripts). But Judeo-Malayalam also differs from Malayalam proper in several ways. As can be expected from a mixed Jewish language, it contains many Hebrew loanwords; furthermore, it contains a number of lexical, phonological and syntactic archaisms, in this case, from the days before Malayalam became fully distinguished from Tamil.

The Cochin Jews are scrupulously observant of Judaism in their private and public lives; yet, they emphasized certain beliefs and invented practices to mirror the religious beliefs of their Hindu hosts. For example, they introduced a tradition of circumnavigating the synagogue with the Rabbi carrying the torah and the congregation following in a procession, much as the Hindus do around a temple with offerings for the residing deity. They may even have practiced a form of caste system by limiting social intercourse between dark and fair skinned members of their community.

Today, there are 53 practicing Cochin Jews left in Kerala, with about 8000 now practicing in Israel. The synagogue in Cochin, built next door to a Hindu temple, is a protected heritage site and is a popular tourist destination.

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