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The History of Hannukah

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With the advent of December and the festive season setting in, the small close-knit community of Jews in Kochi are gearing up to celebrate Hannukah, the Jewish festival of lights at Koder House, Kochi. Kochiites are given a chance to be part of the Jewish customs through this festival.

The story of the celebration dates back to over 2000 years ago when Judea, the land of Israel was part of the Greek Syrian Empire. Under the tyrannical rule of the Syrian King, Judaism was outlawed, Jews were persecuted and the soldiers of the kingdom descended upon Jerusalem and desecrated the Holy Temple of the Jews. The Jews rose up in retaliation and successfully drove the Syrians out of Jerusalem during the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd century BC. Their leader Judah decreed the rebuilding of the altar and cleansing of the Holy Temple by the lighting of Menorah, the Jewish candelabrum using the meager amount of untainted olive oil that remained, enough to keep the candles to burn for a day. However, in a wondrous turn of events, the flames continued to burn for eight nights at the end of which the sages proclaimed the celebration of a yearly eight-day festival. Thus the Jewish tradition of Hannukah was born to commemorate the rededication of the temple and as a celebration of Jewish permanence. It is a festival contrary to the acclimatization and conquest of the Jewish religion.

The venue, Koder House is the reinstated dwelling of one of Kochi’s eminent businessmen, S Koder, who is keeping the ancient tradition of Jews together Yayal Halakhah is the only Jewish person existing to achieve the day-to-day affairs of the temple constructed in 1567 for a prosperous Jewish community in the Mattancherry area of Kochi. “We scarcely have six people here” in Mattancherry and “four of them are over 70, and two are in their 40s,” said Yayal. Two thousand years later and almost 3000 miles away, in a land where the air is infused with the fragrance of cloves, the festival finds a new light. The Jews of Cochin are preparing to celebrate the festival of Jewish permanence even as their population dwindles. “There are about 30 of us in Ernakulam and we plan to celebrate the festival together this year,” says Joseph Abraham (Sam) the president of Kerala Jews Association. “According to the Jewish Calender, the festival begins on December 12 this year and will last for eight days. We plan to light candles and pray at the Synagogue on the first day and gather together to pray at my house on the sixth day”, he said.

Hannukah celebration involves the lighting of Hannukiyah, a nine-branched candelabrum over eight days. On each night, a lighted candle is added to the candelabrum over which prayers are recited. Jewish festivals and traditions were revered and observed by the Jews as well as the other communities before the large-scale migration of the Jews from Kochi in the 1950s. “In those days the whole of Jew Town in Ernakulam would observe Sabbath and all the festivals with utmost reverence,” Josephai reminisces.

Only about thirty Jews remain in the state as most of the younger crowd has left for Israel. The symbols and monuments of the community, the evidence of a millennia-old culture, face the threat of desecration. Even as the Jewish tradition and culture in Kerala stand at the brink of extinction, the community has come together to celebrate the festival of permanence.

A disappearing community

While some historians assert that the Jewish people have been migrating to south-western India since the time of King Solomon, historical archives show the first colonizers came after the obliteration of Jerusalem’s Second Temple in 70 AD, at Cranganore, a prehistoric harbor near Cochin. But “there are only 27 Jews now” in the state and “only four of them can read the Jewish law called the ‘Torah’,” said Meluha Josephai, who is in his 60s.

India was once a home for the Jewish community, who settled at different cities like Kolkatta,Mumbai, and Chennai. It was from there these settlers carried out their commercial business. But now the scenario is changed. India’s Jewish community has fallen to about 100, Joseph added.

Almost a century past there were more than 70 synagogues in India. “Over the years hundreds have drifted, and several hundred have got wedded to folks from other religions. We are a declining community. In a few years there will be nobody,” he said.One of Joseph’s two spawns — Keya, 25, is the youngest Jewish person in Kerala and the elder one is in Ezrael. Joseph said he also tried to move to another place “but the Almighty had his plans,” said Joseph.

“It was in 1972, that the last Sabbath prayer in the synagogue was held. But I still light the Hanukkah lamp here,” Joseph said indicating to the locked wooden doors of the synagogue.

Inside the synagogue, there are ciphers of abandonment, with cobwebs drooping from the walls. Old and idle bleachers are collected on both sides and the tatty curtains of the Holy of Holies suspends are covered in dust and grime.

In spite of this, Yayal and Josephai are strong-minded to rejoice the festival. “We prepare distinctive food,” Joseph said defining the distinct oily cooked dishes related with the Hanukah festival.

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