As a child of 12, Meydad Eliyahu remembers his excitement when his father, Abraham Eliyahu, gifted him a pen that he had always seen him keep with utmost care. The black pen with a silver-coloured cap was rather ordinary looking but Meydad knew it was dear to his father — it was among the few objects from Kerala that his family had carried with them when they were migrating to Israel in 1954. Abraham was six then. He had migrated with his parents and three siblings, leaving his grandparents in India.
In a quiet lane in Fort Kochi, around 2 km from Mattancherry, the Jewish quarters, Meydad, 33, is now narrating stories of his family and other Cochin Jews who immigrated to Israel from Kochi — in a collateral exhibition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale at Kashi Art Gallery.
Here, the Israeli artist has hundreds of photographs, letters and documents that attempt to chronicle the life that they led in Kochi in the 1940s and 50s and in Mesilat Zion — located in the middle en route from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv — where several of them settled on their arrival in Israel.
It was only last year that Meydad embarked on this exploration. The trigger was a trip to India with his family in December 2015. This was Abraham’s maiden trip to Kochi since he left in 1954. “It was very emotional to hear my father speak in Malayalam for the first time, as soon as he landed in Kochi,” says the Jerusalem-based artist.
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The 12-day trip had them search for neighbourhoods familiar to his father in his distant recollections. The family could not locate their ancestral home, which was in Ernakulam, but Meydad did manage to find his great-grandfather Moshe Avraham Chai’s grave in the New Jewish Cemetery in Ernakulam.
“He held an important position in the Kadavumbagam Synagogue,” says Meydad. In the exhibition, he stands in a group photograph with other men from the community.
Meydad builds his narrative through such photographs taken in India before the departure of the Kochi Jews. There is also documentation of their arrival in Israel and the settlement during the initial years in Mesilat Zion. The jubilation is evident in a photograph that Meydad identifies as the first marriage among the migrants. There are also mundu-wearing men sowing seeds in the fields. The attire, Meydad notes, becomes more western in a few months.
“It could have been to assimilate with the European Jews,” says the graduate in art from Jerusalem studio. The spices, though, came from India for years, carefully wrapped in letters written by family members.
Financially well-settled in Kochi, the Jews made Aliyah or “the journey to their homeland”, from the early 1950s, after the creation of Israel in 1948. Meydad notes that in India they resided in peace, with no persecution, and the growing presence of the Zionists in Kochi might also have influenced their migration.
“Several of them were traders and led comfortable lives here. There were two distinct communities in Kerala — the Paradesi Jews who had immigrated from Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries, and Jews who had been here. Their numbers were reportedly upto 3,000 at one time. Now, there are around five-six Paradesi Jews and less than 30 Cochin Jews in Kerala,” says historian B Thomas.
Life in Israel, though, was difficult. The first complication arose when the Israeli government restricted the number of migrants from Kochi, citing incidence of filariasis among them. “Some children were separated from their families and subjected to treatments that included strong radiation of the scalp. A number of them suffer from Parkinson’s and cancer today,” says Meydad.
The bitter memories of those years, he says, haunts the community till now. “No one wants to talk about those years. There were 1,500-2,000 people who migrated, but with a lot of effort I could find a few willing to discuss their journey from Kerala or talk about the early years after they moved,” he says.
The exhibit in Fort Kochi meanders between personal and community-based. Meydad’s sources include the Ben-Zvi Institute, National Library and the Zalman Shazar Center in Jerusalem as well as the personal archives of the numerous families. So the display features a family photograph of Shara Shabat, who immigrated to Israel in the 1970s, and now teaches Malayalam to a group of young women in Jerusalem. There is also a photograph of Tsipora Daniel, who moved from Mattancherry to Israel in the mid-1950s.
“She is among the few willing to discuss about the Kerala Jews in Israel. She also sings the traditional songs sung in weddings of the Kerala Jews. She was even part of my wedding,” says Meydad.
Most physical material in the exhibition comes from Israel, but Meydad says it has been his research in Kochi — which includes meetings with C Karmachandran, former associate professor at C Achutha Menon Government College, Kuttanellur, historian Thomas and Yosef Elias, keeper of the Kadavumbagam Synagogue in Ernakulam — that has been more revealing.
“The painful thing is that the dark-skinned Kerala Jews suffered from discrimination and racist attitude from the Israel government and institutions. They are completely ignored in the history books, even though they are a more integrated community today,” says Meydad, who is still adding material to the project.
Meanwhile, in his family home in Mesilat Zion, the meals now include authentic Kochi Jew dishes such as Hubba and Pastel, prepared from spices his mother, an Israeli Jew, purchased during her trip to India last December. The pen is a heirloom, which appears in a photograph in the exhibition, along with other souvenirs that the Eliyahu family travelled with, including silver-coloured boxes and a kippah.