When history knocks on your door: Preserving a fading history of the Jews of Kochi 

Jaideep Sen Published :  25th September 2019 06:17 PM   |   Published :   |  25th September 2019 06:17 PM
Sarah Jacob Cohen

Sarah Jacob Cohen

When Sarah Jacob Cohen (born September 4, 1923), the oldest living member of Kochi’s Jewish community, died on August 30, 2019, tributes described her passing as ‘the end of an era in Kochi’.

Sarah’s story, of having lived for 96 years in the Jew Town of Mattancherry, Kochi, has in turn sparked off an interest that far exceeds her own lifetime, and encompasses history that dates back over 500 years.

The book One Heart. Two Worlds: The Story of the Jews of Kochi is a result of such interest, soaking in Cochin’s waning Jewish culture, and the community’s lore, life, faith and dreams.

Colourful, insightful and neatly edited, the book is engrossing in every turn of the page. Yamini Nair, co-author of the book, gave us a sense of the project’s immense scope, even as only a handful of the community remains in God’s Own Country. 

The book makes a moving and very poetic plea for the dwindling community of Jews in Kochi. The sentiment at the end strikes home: Could true love bring it back? How do you hope to take that last message further - to the people who matter - who might come back in search of their roots, and spark some new life in these dying cultural embers?
The publication and launch of the book was executed by Stark World, in collaboration with the Kerala Tourism, in time for the International Tourism Mediterranean Mart (IMTM), the largest annual professional tourism fair of its kind in the eastern Mediterranean, and the only official professional exhibition for the tourism trade market in Israel.

This year, a Kerala state-led delegation attended IMTM for the first time and held a series of discussions with various stakeholders of Israel’s tourism and hospitality industry.

Marking the occasion, One Heart Two Worlds was formally launched in Tel Aviv, Israel, on February 12th, 2019, by the (then) Hon Ambassador of India to Israel Pawan Kapoor, by handing over the first copies to Jerusalem based Malabari Jewish artist of repute Meydad Eliyahu and Tirza Lavi, founding curator of The Cochin Jewish Heritage Centre & Museum in Nevatim (whose stories form an integral part of the book) in the presence of the Hon Director of Kerala Tourism, P Bala Kiran.  

In a breakthrough move in line with the book’s release, a new direct flight was announced, from Tel Aviv to Kochi, to be launched in September by Arkia Israeli Airlines, furthering the efforts to promote tourists from Israel to Kerala.

Undoubtedly, this move, will for the first time in years, ease travel to and fro Kochi and Israel, for the Cochin Jewish community members.

It is heartening to note that for the 450th anniversary celebration of the still active Paradesi Synagogue in Jew Town, Mattancherry and for the Torah welcoming ceremony post revival of the centuries-old Kadavumbhagom Synagogue, Ernakulam, last December, hundreds of community members, young and old alike and many well-wishers flew down from countries worldwide. 

Cochin Jewish artist Meydad Eliyahu whose recent street art project reminiscing Kerala’s forgotten Jewish heritage adorns the cover of the book, flew down from Jerusalem a while ago to trace his great grandfather’s resting place in Cochin (his father left Cochin for Israel as a child) and has returned several times since to continue his search for ancestral roots and to bring alive these forgotten stories through collateral, collaborative initiatives at the Kochi Muziris Art Biennale.

Now with the direct flight being launched, there is hope that more community members from Israel too shall follow suit.


A page from One Heart. Two Worlds: The Story of the Jews of Kochi


Of the last surviving Jewish synagogues in Cochin, a few have come under the purview of the Archaeological Survey of India and the government’s Muziris Heritage Site Project and have been declared as protected monuments thanks also to the relentless efforts of a few local activists.

A few years ago, The Synagogue in Chendamangalam was restored and partially converted to a museum of Jewish history with the help of a foreign research scholar and other well-wishers. 

Kaplan Prize and Pravasi Bharatiya Samman award-winning Cochin Jewish horticulturist Bezalel Eliyahu along with his wife Bat-Zion whose contributions were integral to transforming the entrepreneurial landscape of early day Israel post immigration in the 1950s, have come back and set up base in his reconstructed ancestral home facing the old Chendamangalam synagogue in Cochin.

Today, the couple divide their time between his native village and their home and enterprise in Israel, and fondly reminisce growing up in a peaceful multicultural neighbourhood in Cochin, absolutely free of anti-semitism unlike anywhere else in the world at the time, and surrounded by a mosque, a church, a temple and a synagogue, hearing the simultaneous ringing of the ‘shankhu-vangu-kombu-mani’ oftentimes, back in the days of the Cochin Raja. 

The unique Hebrew-Malayalam Jewish songs that the Cochin Jewish women sang and passed down through handwritten diaries were all nearly lost and forgotten over time, but persistent revival efforts by a couple of eminent scholars, translations by the late Ruby Daniel (a Cochin Jew who migrated to Israel), and select women’s singing groups in Israel have helped preserve some of these 100-year-old songs. 

It is, however, gratifying to note that the community has, over the years (over various phases of immigration since Israel was formed in 1948) grown to an 8000+ strong member base in Israel – who still fondly call themselves the ‘Cochinis’.

While the younger generation Cochinis born in Israel are only perhaps barely aware of their ancestral Cochin roots; and the older ones are too old to tell the tale – let alone record it for posterity or travel across continents; a fair number of the middle generation Cochinis, alarmed by the starkness of the situation, have begun to take stock, and take steps, however little, on an individual as well as collective front (managing FB groups, cuisine collectives, community meets & heritage museums displaying authentic Cochin Jewish artefacts) – in order to keep these fading memories and traditions alive. 


A page from One Heart. Two Worlds: The Story of the Jews of Kochi


Many of the Cochin Jewish homes and streets in Israel still bear Malayalam names, some even enjoy a banana leaf festive Kerala style meal (but always Kosher), and take efforts to expose their young ones to Malayalam. Outside the Cochini Jewish synagogue in Nevatim there is a heartwarming Hebrew inscription: “If I forget my Cochin, may my tongue stick to my palette.”

And yet, a lot remains to be done to help secure these vanishing traditions, forgotten monuments and vibrant festive memories back in Cochin, to bring back more community members and well-wishers in search of these roots and hopefully, spark new conversations for revival and preservation. 

In 1792, Cochin one of the oldest Jewish settlements on Asian soil had 2000 Jews and 9 synagogues, while New York had only 72 Jewish families and 1 synagogue. In contrast, the last few survivors of the once-flourishing Kerala Jewish community today number less than 30 currently.

Only a mere handful of the older generation remain in Cochin while a majority of their families have all migrated to Israel over time. The parties and celebrations have ceased, and there are no longer young hopefuls looking forward to prospects of marriage; not even enough members to hold a ‘minyan’, a quorum of ten men aged over 13 required for public Jewish worship.

As we speak, the figures have further plummeted to 25 (not families, merely 25 Jewish individuals), and with the passing of 97-year-old Sarah Cohen, the last of the Cohens and the oldest of the Jews in Mattancherry a fortnight ago (whose affable face and story features prominently in the book), the stark reality has become alarmingly apparent than ever before.


A page from One Heart. Two Worlds: The Story of the Jews of Kochi


Could you take a step back and tell us how this project was conceived - where and when was the germ idea first planted? How did that core idea begin to involve other people, through photography, historical and other creative projects - to ultimately take shape in this magnificent book?
One Heart Two Worlds was born of a genuine intent to portray a poignant story that was meant to be told, and heard, but was inadvertently lost in the sands of time.

Had this integral slice of history covering the distinctive life, lore, dreams, faith, trials, immigration tales and unique personal narratives of the Jews of Cochin not been captured now, it would have, in all probability been too late; perhaps even faded without a trace.

As a publishing house that has explored exceptional Kerala-based historic-socio-cultural themes for its books in the past, zeroing in on this nearly unexplored part of Cochin’s history for its upcoming project was a natural choice for Stark World.

Yamini’s innate capacity to paint stories that smell of life as a writer-creative director-storyteller, and Mathew’s extensive academic acumen as a research guide and historian, coupled with award-winning photographer Ajay Menon’s discerning eye for the extraordinary and veteran art director George Jacob’s design prowess, instinctively drew the team to the storyline that lent itself to a stunning visual narrative odyssey, spanning nearly 2,000 years of Kerala Jewish history. 


A page from One Heart. Two Worlds: The Story of the Jews of Kochi


The process was not entirely smooth sailing however and peppered with challenges, considering that only the last few surviving community members (most of whom are aged, some well into their 80s) remain in Cochin to tell the tale, with the rest of the community gone without a trace or spread across the diaspora and Israel, or different parts of the world.

And yet, as though the universe had conspired, the pieces fell in place over time and over zillion conversations and interviews, extensive research and scouring through academic discourses, the odd (sketchy) memoir and scholar interviews.  

The book also features exclusive excerpts from 100-year-old Cochin Jewish songs with translations, thanks to the generous contribution of scholars across India, US and Israel. 

The 200-odd breathtaking images that bring alive the riveting 2000 year story were exclusively shot on location, covering historic landmarks, Jewish homes, streets, cemeteries, spice markets, churches, backwaters, active and extant synagogues; or sourced through rare private collections, scholar contributions and vintage museum archives across India, US, Europe and Israel.


A page from One Heart. Two Worlds: The Story of the Jews of Kochi


Could you also give us an idea of how some of the public art initiatives at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale helped inform this project. Did you happen to be involved with the art projects during their conception and installation? Could you give us a sense of the manner of research that went into the art projects at first, and then how they evolved into material for you to include in the book?
The fabulous public art project, Red Crown Green Parrot, reminiscing Kochi’s forgotten Jewish heritage, a collaborative initiative of Jerusalem based artist of repute Meydad Eliyahu and acclaimed Dubai-based Hebrew Calligrapher Thoufeek Zakriya unfolded in Mattancherry, little before the book’s completion, lending its unique flavour to the book’s cover, thanks to the generous contribution of the artists, whose distinctive personal narratives and memoirs too form an integral part of the book. 

Born in Israel to a Cochin Jewish father who left Kerala as a little boy, Meydad, flew down first to Cochin from Jerusalem in 2015 to trace his great grandfather’s home and resting place in Cochin and has returned several times since to continue his search for ancestral roots and to bring alive these forgotten stories through engaging (collateral/collaborative) initiatives at the Kochi Muziris Art Biennale (more details on page 132-133 of the book) Thoufeek Zachariya, South Asia’s only Muslim calligrapher proficient in Hebrew and eight Semitic languages (more on page 148 of the book) and Meydad’s collaborator for Red Crown Green Parrot, has maintained very close ties with the Jewish community of Cochin, right through his growing up years as a child in Cochin, till date.


A page from One Heart. Two Worlds: The Story of the Jews of Kochi


There's a great sense of peace, and ease of cultural existence, conveyed in the book - between the Jews living in harmony with the Hindus, Muslims and Christian people of the region. And yet, the Jewish traditions seem to be losing their presence on our cultural calendars. Was this, in some way, a willful letting go of the past, by the Jews themselves? How much has been compromised and forsaken, in terms of traditions and history, for the larger, general cause of peaceful, urban life?
Almost all Cochin Jews have been great sticklers for tradition and orthodox Jewish prayers, Kosher diets, lifestyle rituals and practices, throughout their growing up years all the way through adulthood.

Post the formation of Israel in 1948, a majority of the community, however, began immigrating back to their homeland, the biblical Promised land, in the hope of realizing of a 2,000-year long dream.

Life in immigration camps and the moshav and kibbutz settlements in Israel soon after the immigration was not an easy one – with Jews from all over the world and multi-cultural backgrounds coming together, many of the orthodox practices, including Kosher ceased to be followed strictly. This came as a culture shock for the orthodox Cochin Jews.

Those who remained in Cochin, while being masters of celebration and partying, stuck to the traditional way of life, spending hours in synagogue prayers and following strict codes of conduct and kosher laws as prescribed in the religious texts.

However, the various waves of migrations to Israel, led to an unfortunate dwindling of the community over time. Adhering to strict kosher laws (and insisting on kosher meat and eating/ cooking habits) became extremely hard for the few surviving members (mostly aged), with fewer skilled/trained shohets at their disposal over time. For many years, kosher chicken was ordered and flown down in bulk by plane from Mumbai, for the last surviving members of Jew Town.

Age was not in their favor either. There weren’t enough members left often times in later years to even form a minyan, the minimum quorum of 10 Jewish adults above the age of 13 required to hold a public Jewish worship. With the gradual passing away of a number of elders and more and more youngsters in the community migrating to Israel over time in search of better prospects and marriage partners, the celebrations and customary rituals too have come down heavily. 

In Israel, in the meantime, the community, however, has grown in numbers adding up to 8000+ members currently spread across Cochin Jewish strongholds. And yet intercultural marriages and adapting to a cosmopolitan way of life has over time reduced the extent of orthodox codes of conduct and ritualistic practices. 

The celebrations of Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Purim and Hanukkah, in particular, seem worthy of greater attention and further documentation - of the food and drink, the rituals and customs, the costumes and dresses and, of course, the music. Some of the dishes like Kiddush and the intricately assembled Seder Plates - need to be popularised among more urban diners. How would you envision some of these cultural practices permeating into a general consciousness, perhaps through increased pop culture references, greater representation in arts & cultural festivals, and so on? How else can we hope to preserve these fading traces of a diminishing community?
Representations in art & cultural fests, opening of Cochin Jewish heritage centres/museums in Israel, India and elsewhere, documenting & revival of important traditions, lore, songs, cultural practices and more – will all serve to preserve these fading traces. 


A page from One Heart. Two Worlds: The Story of the Jews of Kochi


We can't help but point out a huge difference between Jewish communities in other parts of the world, and the Jews of Kochi - especially in terms of comedians emerging from a Jewish upbringing. Is there any hope for funny guys from among the Jews of Kochi, to perhaps bring some laughter and fun into their lives? Apart from the many festivals, how do the Jews stay entertained? 
This is certainly a thought to ponder. But as of now, not much is known of comedians emerging from a Cochin Jewish background.

There are however extremely talented younger generation Cochin Jews among those settled in Israel and other parts of the diaspora, who may help bring in laughter and cheer to the otherwise old and lonesome bunch. 

The Cochin Jewish wedding - a fabulous chapter in the book - also captures some really charming traditions from the Ketubah to the Chuppah, the breaking of the glass, and more. Have you found any designers looking to explore new fashion trends and style statements within this community? How are the weddings, in particular, evolving in the new age?
The stark reality remains that there are hardly any/no more Cochin Jewish youngsters left in Cochin today to explore new trends or let alone get married.  

We were a little taken aback by the piece of trivia about the Jewish origins of Star Trek's Leonard Nimoy and his well-known Vulcan salute originating from a Jewish Cohanim priestly blessing. Are there any more pop culture references and origin stories like this that we need to know about, to share with our readers?
The Jewish ceremonial and lifestyle rituals apart from the songs, cemetery symbols and ritual artefacts of worship... are all rich with symbolism and meaning.

Many are rife with interesting interpretations, symbolic meanings or fascinating origin stories. There are several references to these across various sections of the book.


A page from One Heart. Two Worlds: The Story of the Jews of Kochi


Tell us a little about the song keepers of the community. We witnessed some of this heritage being preserved and documented in various art projects at the Biennale. The big concern remains - how do you hope to see this particular tradition becoming popular with youngsters from the next generation? Are there any initiatives you know of, dedicated to documenting the lyrics, the songs and perhaps even the life histories of some of these musicians? 
Yes, details of preservation efforts, recordings available and new age womens’ singing groups making revival efforts on page 109 and 111 of the book. 

For some readers, it might be a grim note to make note of the many synagogues associated with the Jewish community of Kerala - many of which are the state's last surviving temples of the kind. While some of these synagogues on the ground do seem like relics from a bygone past, do you expect to foster new initiatives to preserve and perhaps restore the structures to their former glory? Will that, in a sense, help preserve the spiritual history of the community for the next generation?  
Yes. Of the last surviving Jewish synagogues in Cochin, a few have come under the purview of the Archaeological Survey of India and the government’s Muziris Heritage Site Project and have been declared as protected monuments thanks also to the relentless efforts of a few local activists.

A few years ago, The Synagogue in Chendamangalam was restored and partially converted to a museum of Jewish history with the help of a foreign research scholar and other well-wishers.

However, there are many synagogues that have gone to ruins or been forgotten/ neglected and vandalized over time or used for purposes that are against Jewish sentiments, post the migration of the majority of community members.

A lot remains to be done to help secure these vanishing traditions and forgotten monuments.

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