The Jews of Madras

L to R: Rachel (Davvid’s daughter), Davvid Levi, Dharshini (Davvid’s niece), Rebecca (Davvid’s daughter), Sarah Levi (Davvid’s mother)

Finding History Where Least Expected

By Judi Kloper

Photos by Judi Kloper or courtesy of Davvid Levy

Judi Kloper has been visiting Jewish communities in India (both established and emerging) since 1994 and has been a member of Kulanu’s board since early 2015.

Note: The names Chennai and Madras are used inter- changeably in this article. While there are several versions of how the city acquired these names, Madras was the  name of this city from the 1500s through 1996 when its earlier name of Chennai was restored. Chennai is the capital of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and is India’s 4th largest city.

It was Passover 2015 and I was in Goa, India at a Chabad seder with Jews from around the world. The woman sitting next to me shared that she was from Kerala on the southwestern India coast. I was intrigued. “Oh, the Cochini Jewish community,” I said. “I’ve been there a number of times.” She responded, “No. I’m Yemeni. We are the Kerala Jews that no one talks about.” She was doing research on her ancestors and her community and hoped to write a book with her findings. I became curious to learn more about the Yemeni Jews in India but could find very little about them.

New Discoveries

A year and a half later, on an afternoon in September 2016, I opened an email that made me feel as if I was discovering a new world. New to me, at least! For in all my years of visiting India, and in particular the city of Chennai (formerly known as Madras), never did I realize that there was once a small but thriving Jewish community there. Amidst the hustle and bustle in Chennai, a city of 10 million people located on the south- eastern coast of India on the Bay of Bengal, lives a very small community of Jews who trace their heritage to The Netherlands, Portugal, France, Germany, Romania, Iraq, Yemen, and Kerala. I’ve been traveling through India for the past 32 years and while I have visited Jewish communities in other parts of this vast country, I never realized there was a Jewish history here in Chennai where I’ve spent so much of my time. That is until I opened that email that Kulanu received from Davvid Levi. Interestingly, Davvid contacted us to ask how he and his family could support Kulanu. Sharing his family’s story with me has been a unique gift.

This hanukiyah from the 1800s belonged to Davvid’s great-grandmother Rebecca Cohen. Oil would burn in the bowlshaped miniature cups

Davvid grew up in this city, and his family has, for generations, called Chennai home. We started exchanging emails and he extended an invitation for me to come and meet his family and some of the remaining Jews in Chennai, as well as to visit some of the sites that were part of the history of the Madras Jews. So little had been known about this community and until now, that’s how the Jews here wanted it to remain. Yet, over the past few years, Davvid has been researching his family’s history in India sorting through letters, government certifi- cates, photos, and numerous items that date back to the 1700s. He explained that it’s very difficult to research the history of the Jews in Chennai because the records were lost in 1934, 1968, and 1983 when the synagogues and cemeteries were razed. The remaining local Jewish and civil records from Chennai, including accounts and ledgers, were lost in the floods of 2015.

Fascinated and eager to meet Davvid, I took him up on his offer and spent time with him, his mom, and a Jewish couple from Kerala and Mumbai. We spent time at the cemetery, and I also enjoyed a Shabbat evening at the home of Davvid’s mom, where I was shown many items of Judaica that date back to at least the 1700s. This included Haggadot, siddurim, mezuzot, candelabra, silver dreidels, besamim (spice box), a yad, shofarot, and hanukkiyot (photos within this article and back page of Fall 2018 Kulanu Magazine www. Additionally, Davvid carefully placed on the table in front of me very old and large books that hold original documents and photos of Davvid’s relatives, some of whom settled in Madras, and others from Romania and the Netherlands who died in the Holocaust.

From Yemen and Europe to India

This cabinet filled with Judaica dating as far back as the 1700s is displayed at the home of Davvid’s mother, Sarah. All items belonged to Rabbi Salomon Halevi and his wife, Rebecca Cohen (Davvid’s greatgrandparents). Davvid’s parents have made sure to carefully preserve them. It is their hope to donate these items to a local museum so that the original Jewish community of Madras will always be remembered. Photos of some of the contents follow this article.

Davvid shared that his maternal ancestors were expelled from Portugal in 1496 by the Alhambra Decree (the Inquisition). After the Inquisition, they settled in England, Holland, and Italy, and began trading with businessmen from around Europe. Davvid’s ancestors who were traders included the De Castro, Franco, Paiva, and Porto families. By 1640, soon after the founding of Madras, many of these Portuguese Jews had settled there and in Cochin (now Kochi) in Kerala. Most of them were traders in diamonds, precious stones, and coral. Many of the Portuguese

Rabbi Salomon Halevi and Rebecca Cohen (Davvid’s great-grandparents; Sarah’s maternal grandparents), July 1919, in Rusciuk, Romania.
Levi Henriques De Castro (Davvid’s grandfather; Sarah’s father) after the Holocaust, on board a small naval ship

Jews who were traders and living in Madras used their Jewish names when in Madras. However, they used their Portuguese names when they traveled to Goa (in western India), which was now under Portuguese rule where the long arm of the Inquisition had reached. Other relatives who did not travel to India had settled in Romania, Germany, and France. Davvid’s paternal ancestors came from Yemen, as did the family of his maternal great-grandmother Rebecca Cohen, whose father was Rabbi Daniel Yakov Cohen of Cochin. Rebecca was married to Rabbi Salomon Halevi, who came to Madras in the late 1800s, possibly from France. Davvid’s other maternal great-grandparents, Isaac and Rosa Henriques De Castro, perished at Auschwitz in October 1944. A street in Chennai — Isaac Street — was named after Isaac, who traded in diamond, coral, and precious gems. Isaac and Rosa’s only child, Levi Henriques De Castro (Davvid’s maternal grandfather), was traveling in India at age 23 and therefore avoided being murdered in the Holocaust. He traveled to what is now Israel in 1947 to fight against the Arabs in what was known as the War of Independence.

Sarah Levi and Chanan Levi, Davvid’s parents, in 1976

After the Holocaust and fighting in the war in Israel, Levi suffered emotionally and mentally. He found that life in Israel was not what he envisioned and he had no family there, and  when Rabbi Salomon Halevi called him back, he returned to India where he owned property and had savings, becoming a businessman there once again. He married Rachel Halevi, who was Rabbi Salomon Halevi’s daughter and of Yemeni and European descent. Rachel became a professor at Kerala University, though they lived in Madras and Bangalore as well. The emotional toll of losing his entire family in the Holocaust shattered his life and impeded his ability to thrive again as  a businessman.

Sarah (Davvid’s mom) was born in Bangalore, the only child of Rachel and Levi. While the family was of considerable financial means, Levi donated so much of his money to Israel during its founding that consequently, between that and his lack of success as a businessman, the family lived at poverty level and Sarah eventually had no choice but to sell vegetables on the street to help earn a living. Levi died in 1978 at age 57, and Rachel in 1982 at age 56. They are buried at Beit Ha Haim, the Jewish cemetery on Lloyds Road.

The entrance to the Beit Ha Haim cemetery. The trust which established this current cemetery and which maintains it was founded by Davvid’s mother, Sarah, to honor her paternal grandparents (her father Levi’s parents), Isaac and Rosa (Rosenberg) Henriques DeCastro, who were born in Amsterdam and died in the Holocaust at Auschwitz.

Sarah, however, flourished as a businesswoman. As Davvid explained, “From a roadside vegetable vendor, she became the first woman union leader for vendors, and later she became instrumental  in controlling the prices of vegetables in Chennai. She founded the HDC (Henriques DeCastro) group of companies (trucking, commodity, and finance businesses) which she sold in 2007 for a substantial amount, as I and my brother were not capable to handle business as well as she did.” Sarah worked hard, saving every rupee so that eventually she not only helped pull her family out of poverty, but she was able to purchase homes to be lived in by her grandchildren when they’re older. Davvid explained, “Once she sold her business, she donated a part of her savings to organizations in Israel and gave the rest to her sons, her daughters-in-law, and her grandchildren.”


Jewish Settlers in the 1600s

One of the earliest settlers of this community was Jacques de Paiva, who came from Amsterdam and died in 1687. He was buried in the original Jewish cemetery which he had founded in the

Peddanaickenpet area of Chennai. Most of the Jews who had come to Madras in the 1600s lived on Coral Merchants Street in Muthialpet district, which is where the first synagogue in Chennai was built, on Mint Street. The second synagogue, a much larger one, was built next to where the Central Railway Station is located today on land given to de Paiva by the British. The first synagogue and cemetery, established in 1600, were demolished by the government in 1968, and the land used to build a school. However, in 1934, the first set of gravestones were moved from this first cemetery to the Central Park of Madras cemetery with the gate which was inscribed with Beit ha-Haim in Hebrew, and the second set of tombstones from this cemetery were moved in 1968 to an area called Kasimedu. In 1983, due to the Harbour Extension Project, the cemetery was once again relocated to its current location on Lloyds Road. While the synagogues and the original cemeteries are no longer there, Davvid took me to the Jewish cemetery on Lloyds Road where most of the 30 or so headstones had been moved to and where a few of the more recent Jewish residents of Chennai had been buried. It is said that there were about 78 Jews buried in the original cemeteries. Davvid took it upon himself to search for some of the original headstones. After much effort he found them, some having been used by local homes as flooring laid face down, and he had them moved to the new cemetery which was established in 1983 and renovated in 2016.

Davvid is still searching for the missing tombstones of some of the community’s oldest Jewish residents, such as Bartolomeo Rodrigues and Jaques de Paiva.

Gershon Joshua and Judi (the author). Gershon came to Chennai many years ago from the Cochini Jewish community in Kerala
This memorial stone is located in the Jewish cemetery, Beit Ha Haim, on Lloyds Road in Chennai. It is written in Tamil, the language of the state of Tamil Nadu, and translated into English it reads: In loving memory of my beloved friend and his family who were murdered by Adolf Hitler, Germany. Isaac Henriques De Castro also known as Isaac Anna [Anna is a Tamil term of endearment meaning “elder brother”]. Isaac Anna was always ready to help us and considered to be one among us. Rosa Henriques De Castro also known as Rosa Anni [Anni is a Tamil term of endearment meaning “wife of elder brother”]. Rosa Anni was named with a Tamil name, showing the love her parents had for Tamil people. “They Will Never be Forgotten.” Placed by CN Annadurai, Former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu
Davvid, now in his early 40s, his wife Divya and their two daughters Rebecca and Rachel, his mother Sarah and father Chanan, and his brother Asher and his family, live in Chennai and Kochi, Kerala. The family celebrates Shabbat and the high holidays at their condo away from their home in the city. Davvid explained that where their other home is, no one cares about what other people do or wear or what their religious beliefs are; they feel safe, and security is good. Davvid is a captain in the Merchant Navy, and he and his family are the last of the Paradesi (Sephardic Jewish immigrants to India) Jews in Chennai; his family goes back more than 500 years in this area.

A few days after spending a delightful Shabbat evening with Davvid and his mom, Sarah, at their home, I was invited to lunch with them and his niece, and with their friends, Gershon and Elizabeth Joshua. Gershon is a Cochini Jew and Elizabeth is of the Bene Israel from Mumbai, a community in Maharashtra state that dates back between 600-1000 years according to a study published in 2016 in the scientific journal PLOS (Public Library of Science), though the community itself believes their ancestors arrived between the 8th century BCE and the 6th century CE. The Bene Israel community is officially recognized by Israel, as are the Cochini Jews . Learning about the history of the Jewish community in this southern city gave me a glimpse into the history of the Yemeni Jews of India. As I continue my journeys through India, I hope to learn much more about Yemeni Jewish history there, as well as more about their culture, past and present. Then, when I meet other Indian Jews of Yemini heritage, I can assure them, “Yes, we will talk about you along with the other Jews of India. Your history here matters too.”

The tombstone of Davvid’s maternal grandmother, Rachel reads: The Body Of Rachel Halevi Cohen Head Of Physics Department Kerala University And Madras Hebrew Merchant Lies Under The Stone. Born 4th October 1926 Died 15th July 1982
The tombstone of Davvid’s maternal grandfather, Levi, reads: The Body of Levi Henriques De Castro A Native of Amsterdam And An Eminent Hebrew Merchant Of Madras Lies Under The Stone Born 12th March 1921 Died 08th February 1978
















This tombstone from 1745 reads: Here lyeth the body of Abraham Salomns His diligence, industry, honesty, and punctuality in all his dealings justly gained him the reputation of a good merchant. His courtesy and benevolence to all degrees of mankind made him to be both beloved and respected. After a course of 19 years residence in this place, he departed this life on the 5th June in the year 1745 of the Christian era. David & Solomon Salomons, in publick testimony and regard to the memory of their deceased brother caused this monument to be erected. Abraham was originally buried in the first Jewish cemetery but as the burial ground was taken over by the government, it was eventually moved to the Jewish cemetery located on Lloyd’s Road
This silver besamim (spice box), from 1873, was used in the Madras synagogue.