When we hear the word 'Synagogue', the first thing that comes to our minds is the Jewish Synagogue at Mattancherry. The truth is that those few remaining Jews of Kerala and their memories are not confined to just Mattancherry. The descendants of the Jews who found sanctuary in Kerala can be encountered on the other side of the Kochi backwaters too. One such Jew is Elias Josephai who mans the Kadavumbagam Synagogue in the Jew Street behind the Sridhar Cinemas. Known to his friends and the visitors as Babu, Elias Josephai runs a shop selling ornamental fishes nearby. History may mark Elias Josephai as the man who restored the declining fortunes of the Synagogue. It was the long years of efforts of Josephai which saved the Synagogue from dereliction and restored it to the present condition.
An active Synagogue
Sitting on a long bench at the Kadavumbagam Synagogue, Josephai reminisces, “My father and younger brothers used to sit on this bench. This Synagogue is 800 years old. Till about the 1970s people used to come here and offer prayers. It was then that my father passed away. He was the Hazzan of the Synagogue. After that many from the community went back to Israel. My younger brothers and their family too followed suit. They had no nostalgic attachments to Kerala”. Josephai though felt a special bonding with the Synagogue and the premises which carried memories across generations. He remained in Kochi doing small business. He married Ophera from Mumbai.
Memories do not age
Josephai first visited the Jewish Synagogue in Mattancherry as a child accompanying his father. That was in 1968. Josephai was a 12 year old boy then. The Chinese floor tiles of the Synagogue impressed Josephai. He developed a desire to have similar floor tiles at the Kadavumbagam Synagogue where his folks assembled for prayers. It took Josephai four and half decades to realize that wish. Before that he needed a safe and secure house for him and his family. It took long years of hard work for that to materialize. Even during these years, Josephai was closely attached to the Synagogue. He was always wondering how to meet the huge expenses required for saving it from dilapidation.
“In December every year, we have a festival called Hanukkah. In the Hanukkah of 2014, like every other year, I was praying after lighting the lamp. After the prayers, when I was sitting by the lamp, I felt an inner call that three people were looking for me. When I went out, I saw three people waiting for me. I asked them whom they were looking for and they replied that they were looking for Babu. They were tourists by the names Dr Ari Greenspam, Dr Nathan and Zivtovsky. We talked about the Jews in Kerala. The topic of the renovation of the Synagogue also came up during the talk. Our talk ended with a decision that the Synagogue will be renovated collecting fund from the Jews across the globe.”
Sabbath after many years
Some of the renovation works could be carried out but not before 2016. The spark for this came from a phone call from Dr Ari Greenspam. He informed that he was bringing some Jews to Kochi to restore the Sabbath which had been discontinued for years. The Jewish tenets dictated that at least 10 adult males are required for conducting any sort of prayers or rituals in the Synagogue. The prayers etc. had to be discontinued since so many Jews were not there in Kerala anymore. The Synagogue was in a pitiable state with rats running around inside. It was thus decided to carry out some of the restoration works before the congregation suggested by Dr Greenspam. Jews from across the globe contributed. Samuel, a Jew from Erode sent a set of volunteers from the community to Kochi. Thanks to such cooperation and contributions, the planned restoration could be completed for Rs 65,000 whereas the budgeted amount was Rs 1.5 Lakhs. Josephai gave a red-carpet welcome to Dr.Ari Greenspam and his friends on the freshly concreted floor. The Kadavumbagam Synagogue thus again reverberated with prayers after a gap of several years.
Tiles from Chettinadu
Even after his friends had gone back after the Sabbath, Josephai continued the restoration works. Josephai still harboured the desire to pave the Synagogue floors with the kind of priceless Chinese tiles that adorned the Jewish Synagogue at Mattancherry. A lot of complicated procedures were involved in the import of similar designer tiles from China. Samuel from Erode again came up with help. He introduced Josephai to Chettinad tiles. Josephai was quite impressed by the well-crafted Chettinad tiles with their colours, antique-feel and aesthetic appeal. That was how the Chettinad tiles became a big part of the Kadavumbagam Synagogue.
The story of the glass lamps
Inside the Synagogue, there are many glass lamps with a variety of colours. These were contributed by Baker from Malappuram and Swami Hariprasad from Chennai. Swami Hariprasad who came to visit the Synagogue decided to contribute these lamps in the loving memory of his mother. Baker got the quotation to supply these lamps. Baker himself contributed with lamps in addition to those suggested by Swami Hariprasad. The Synagogue was on its way back to the former glory. To complete this journey, Josephai travelled to Israel in 2018 and brought back the Jewish holy book ‘Sefer Torah’. Presently, the Kadavumbagam Synagogue is fully equipped to conduct prayers except for that the required number of Jews are not currently living in Kerala. Josephai however wants to maintain the Synagogue for its rich Jewish heritage.
After Josephsai, who?
Elias Josephai is now 63 years old. His children are in Israel. Josephai may have to join them sooner or later. “It is impossible to live here as a Jew since none of my folks live here anymore”, laments Josephai. “Traditions cannot come up overnight. It takes generations. I got attached to these traditions and values since I have been thinking of these things from my childhood. If you ask me why my children do not follow these traditions, the answer is that they need Jews to propagate the race. So they went back to Israel. I will have to go there too. But I do not know what I will do there”. Josephai is leading his life now without any answer to this question. About one thing Josephai is certain. As long as he is here in Kochi, the Kadavumbagam Synagogue will hold its head high.