The Indian Jewish community remains largely unfamiliar to modern Jews; it was therefore quite a surprise to have discovered “Ruby of Cochin: An Indian Woman Remembers,” a memoir by Ruby Daniel.
Daniel was from a long line of Jews born in Cochin, which today is called Kochi, in the state of Kerala. These Jews were also known as the Malabar, or “black” Jews. No one knows precisely when Jews came to India, though some claim their arrival dates back to King Solomon’s days. The area in which Daniel and her ancestors lived was known colloquially as Jew Town. The Paradesi synagogue that her family attended for holidays and life events was built in 1568; the synagogue is primarily a museum but still in use occasionally today, despite a drastic reduction in that area’s Jewish population.
In this book, published in 1995 with co-author Barbara C. Johnson, Daniel recounts her upbringing as well as the uniquely Jewish-Indian customs that were a part of the fabric of her life.
The house she grew up in had been standing for 300 years by the time of her birth in 1912. She lived with extended family members, including her grandfather, who was the town’s shochet.
The Jews of Cochin were very much immersed in Indian culture, reflected by their clothing and food. Her family was observant and kept all of the Jewish traditions; they used Sephardi prayer books.
Daniel writes about the Jewish customs followed by the community. While many are familiar, some were unique to India, such as games played with a coconut during the Fast of the Ninth of Av. And apparently, Simchat Torah was a sight to behold: “In no other part of the world is this Feast celebrated so grandly as in Cochin.” The Cochin Jews also had unique birth and wedding customs.
Daniel said that the Jews in Cochin were free from persecution from Hindu and Muslim neighbors. However, there was a lot of dissension in the Jewish population among the three separate Jewish communities, often between “black” and “white” Jews. She relates how she was made to feel inferior by the upper-class “white” Jewish girls with whom she went to school.
Some of the stories that Daniel relates were oral histories passed down to her from her grandmother and other relatives; she admits that not all are verified, but she recounted them as memory allows. She also is fascinated by Cochin folktales, ghost stories and portentous dreams, many of which she weaves into the narrative.
Accompanying the book are wonderful black-and-white photos of India and lyrics to traditional Indian Jewish songs for which she had never before found a written record.
In addition to her family dynamics, Daniel writes about everything from Jewish-Indian traditions, the situation of women in Cochin, educational opportunities and, eventually, her life on a kibbutz in Israel.
Daniel questioned why the Cochin Jews, who lived a peaceful existence, were longing for a Jewish homeland. “There in the southernmost part of India we kept up the Jewish tradition, always longing for the Land of Israel in spite of the quiet and peaceful life we led in Malabar.” She said that when Israel became a nation, they went to the synagogue and carried around the Sefer Torahs in Simchat Torah style.
Soon after, the Cochin Jews began to make aliyah. Daniel herself went in 1951 at the age of 39 with the vast wave of Jewish immigration taking place in 1954, though she said that the majority of the Paradesi community did not come over until the 1970s.
Daniel writes about her time in the kibbutz, initially a miserable existence, as the kibbutz was new and made of mud. She had a hard time adapting, both from a social and a work standpoint, and she missed the Cochin communal life. Things got easier when her family made aliyah years later. Her mother was “… the first daughter of India to be buried in Neot Mordecai.”
Today, the vast majority of the remaining Cochin Jews live in Israel. “Some people write that the Cochin community of Jews is dying. They don’t realize that a root from that tree is shooting up in Israel and starting to blossom. As long as we keep up some of our traditions, I hope that this community will never die.”
Daniel passed away in 2002 at the age of 90.
The co-author, Barbara Johnson, painstakingly researched Indian Jewish history, vsiting Cochin several times, and interviewed Daniel over the course of several years.
The book is at times a little tedious, with excessive detail that does not consistently add value to the reading experience; nonetheless, it is a compelling glimpse into a rapidly fading world.
“Ruby of Cochin” should be read not for its literary value, as the narrative rambles at times, but as a treasure map to a bygone era, a firsthand account of a time when Indian Jews flourished. Daniel was not only a witness to Indian Jewish history, but a participant and an observer. She effectively captured the flavors and nuances of being a Jew in India.
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at email@example.com.