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Across the Jewish World Cochin’s Last Kohen Dies, Another Blow to Dwindling Indian Community

The Jewish community of Cochin has witnessed a series of “ends of eras” during its 500-year history on India’s southwestern coast. Last Friday marked yet another sad milestone: Shalom Cohen, 87, the community’s last Kohen, or member of the priestly caste, died just two weeks before he would have blessed the dwindling congregation on Rosh Hashanah.

With Cohen’s passing, 13 Jews remain in Jew Town, the section of Cochin famous for the Paradesi Synagogue, one of the oldest synagogues in continuous operation in the world.

The shul was built and dedicated in 1568, just one generation after Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama discovered, on the same stretch of coastline, the sea route from Europe to India.

All the Jews of the Fort Cochin neighborhood of Mattancherry turned out for Cohen’s funeral — as did an equal number of Jews from the mainland Ernakulam side of greater Cochin — as well as neighbors and shopkeepers from Jew Town Road. A local newspaper was on hand to cover the story.

Perhaps due to their isolation, Jews here have some unusual customs. For example, homes have mezuzot affixed to doorposts, but the synagogues do not. Nor do the Jews of Cochin have any tradition of rabbis serving the community: The religious leaders were called hachamim, or sages.

Cohen came from the last family to have a member who could lay claim to being a hacham: His older brother, who died a few years ago, was the shochet, or ritual slaughterer for the community. Though he managed to pass the skill along to a younger man, the present shochet — who is not religiously observant and runs a flower shop on Shabbat out of one of the unused synagogues — has proven controversial

Cohen is survived by a sister. There are hardly any Jews of marriageable age left in Cochin and no children, since a mass migration to Israel in the 1940s and 1950s.

A few families linger, remnants of a once-influential merchant and landowning community that maintained excellent relations with the local maharajahs of pre-independence India. A lucky visitor today might be shown one of the synagogue’s rare treasures: a gold Torah crown donated by a generous maharajah.

The funeral was held in the Sasson House, a former community center-turned-senior citizens’ home across from the Paradesi Synagogue.

The funeral procession was short: The Jewish cemetery is around the corner from the synagogue, and everyone except for the very aged — who rode with the coffin — followed behind the slow-moving vehicle on foot. Though the monsoon season is virtually over, as soon as the cortege reached the gates of the cemetery, which had been refurbished in 1848, it began to drizzle.

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