Kochi synagogue, the oldest in the Commonwealth, turns 450

Kochi: Around 200 members of the Jewish community, who had migrated from Cochin to Israel and other countries years ago, have found time to return to their roots to participate in the 450th anniversary celebrations of a synagogue in Kerala.

Tucked in a small lane in the Jew Town of Mattancherry, about nine km from here, the Paradesi Synagogue is considered to be the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth – countries that are mostly former territories of the British Empire.

A three-day function at the synagogue, which began on Thursday, turned out to be a rare occasion for the 'visitors,' who had migrated to the US, Canada, UK and Australia, and Israel, to revive old memories of the Jew Town, where many of them grew up.

The functions at the synagogue, decorated with ancient colourful clothes preserved for ages, included a prayer meet, remembrance meet and a day of celebrations.

The Jewish community members, who flew down here to attend the event, have fond memories of old friends and friendly neighbours, while for some, this was their first visit to the land of their forefathers.

Ninety-six-year-old Sara Cohen, who lives in the town, also attended the prayer meet on Thursday.

Fifty-six-year-old Kenny Salem, one of the participants, said many were in their sixties, seventies and eighties.

"The oldest member to reach here is an 86-year-old and the youngest member a two-year-old infant," Salem told PTI. He had left Mattancherry in search of greener pastures to Canada in 1987 at age 27.

For Essi Sasson, a gynaecologist who had migrated to Israel, the occasion was also a time to meet her old friends and their relatives, said K J Sohan, former Kochi mayor, who participated in some of the festivities.

It was also a trip down the memory lane for 58-year-old Deborah Kodar from Manchester, who had visited Kochi about 35 years ago. Visiting the town, where which she grew up hearing stories about Kochi, the synagogue and Kerala culture, was an occasion she will always remember.

Deborah is in Kochi with her son and husband, for whom it is a maiden visit.

The last time such a congregation assembled was on the 400th anniversary of the synagogue, according to Jose Dominic, a prominent hotelier in Kochi.

The Jew Town community, comprising of antique dealers, spice traders, Kashmiri shopkeepers and the new crop of boutique hoteliers, had a celebratory event at which many of the visitors talked about their memories when they were young, and also expressed aspirations for its future, Dominic said.

Constructed in 1567, it is one of the seven synagogues of the Jewish community in the erstwhile kingdom of Cochin. The community was a prosperous trading community of Kerala and they controlled a major portion of spice trade.

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