In Kochi, a Jew returns home to tell the story of a black pen

Artist, whose father migrated to Israel from Kerala at age of six, is showcasing that journey, and those of others before him, at the Kochi Biennale

Written by Vandana Kalra | Kochi | Updated: December 27, 2016 12:43 pm
kerala, kerala artists, kerala art gallery, Kochi Biennale, Kochi Biennale artists, Kochi Biennale art exhibitions, Meydad Eliyahu, Meydad Eliyahuart, Meydad Eliyahu exhibition, Kerala news, India news Meydad Eliyahu chronicles the life of Cochin Jews. (Express Photo by Arjun Suresh)

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.

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  1. K
    Kumar
    Jan 21, 2017 at 5:32 am
    I watched many youtube on jews migrated from India and other african countries. Treatment to these black people are are inhuman and want that jews cannot be black and whites are. Considering this they want to kicked them out from ISRAEL. So there is discrimination heavly due to the colour. This concept is only Brahmin concept of living. I lived in Saudi Arabia where hundreds of the black people lives together, prays together in one masjid and even they married, eat together they wish each other who even see first, this is the only culture I see where no discrimination prevails with the blacks. Since I am also a black from Kerala so appreciate the hospitality.
    Reply
    1. N
      Nitin.Badkari
      Dec 27, 2016 at 2:10 am
      Jewish terrorist party of Israel should collaborate with Brahmin terrorist group RSS to implement Brahmin agenda by sacrificing Hindus by tricking them to fight against Muslims.
      Reply
      1. R
        Rah
        Dec 27, 2016 at 1:36 am
        Jews are brothers of blood-e brahmins. They both need others help to even make something happen in their home for expanding their ilk.
        Reply
        1. S
          Sudeep Sharma
          Dec 27, 2016 at 4:10 am
          You are a .
          Reply
          1. H
            hitender
            Dec 27, 2016 at 7:22 am
            Indian jews in israel refer to india as their mother. Their graude towards india is commendable.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;On other hand, this story teaches us that India is very accomodatinga and Indians are very tolerant people. Its a wonderful country where people from different background, color and religion accommodate each other. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;I truly believe and proud to say "Bharat is sare jahan se acha".
            Reply
            1. T
              Toni
              Dec 27, 2016 at 10:36 am
              I have talked to many News from Israel and they always feel very Happy to talk about India . They had Feeling of Bering accepted in India as fellow indian
              Reply
              1. Y
                Yodha
                Dec 27, 2016 at 6:53 am
                If a Argentinian can become a Pope, why not an Indian?
                Reply
                1. O
                  Opinion
                  Dec 27, 2016 at 9:58 am
                  Thanks Vandana Kalra for the article. Growing up close to Cochin during 1980's , the minuscule Jewish potion has always intrigued me. There is a small art gallery at the synagogue depicting history of Jews in Kerala. It is very lonely for the very elderly remaining Jews (about 17 then) as they had seen a relatively decent numbers moving out to promised land in the years gone by. As per Meydad Eliyahu (article above) things were not that easy for Cochin Jews at Israel either. Wonder if things would have been better off for them had they chosen to sta back.World over thru the ages , human potions have migrated , co-existed and thrived in triumph of humanity !!
                  Reply
                  1. A
                    arati
                    Dec 27, 2016 at 8:52 am
                    Hindus belong to the universal religion where jungle is a part of the god's creation. You belong to the destructive religion of the desert who does not see god in all creation and only pick on the habit of snobbing others and forever fighting. If the animal's pee is given as a tablet or mixed in syrups with vanilla flavour by any pharma company for any of your health problems, you will definitely have it praising the western culture - but the raw knowledge of the same provided by Hindus is mocked by you hyppocrites.
                    Reply
                    1. V
                      vijay
                      Dec 27, 2016 at 5:24 am
                      Don't be so pessimistic. The fact that the rednecks US of A can have a black man, whose father was a muslim,as their president for two terms and an equally black man as their chief of the Army, surely renders some hope for a non white to become the pope.May be it will take the best part of 200 years yet, but it will happen.
                      Reply
                      1. V
                        vijay
                        Dec 27, 2016 at 5:10 am
                        It is very refreshing and emotional to see that a young man celebrates his roots with the place where his parents were born so much feeling andd pride. I know of people, who moved out of their birth place recently, have difficulty recollecting anything about their roots.
                        Reply
                        1. S
                          samsonaseervatham
                          Dec 27, 2016 at 4:15 am
                          Discrimination is every where all over the world it is human nature and human weakness as well . Among Hindus , Christians ,Muslims there are factions and discriminations.Educated younger generations who are financially independent are above the caste and race and choose their partners .
                          Reply
                          1. D
                            Danish
                            Dec 27, 2016 at 2:05 am
                            A model minority. I never heard of Jews committing terror attacks or running planes into buildings chanting praises to their God. Why do all Muslims hate them and want to kill them? I read 20% of Israel potion is Muslim. Is there any Muslim country where Jewish potion is even close to 5%?
                            Reply
                            1. I
                              ilana shazor
                              Dec 28, 2016 at 7:22 pm
                              המסע שמידד עשה אינו חזרה לשורשים אלא בנייה של עתיד בו האנשים לא קשורים לדרכון אלא למהות אמיתית בחייהם. יישר כוח!
                              Reply
                              1. F
                                FSA
                                Dec 27, 2016 at 4:35 am
                                Have you ever heard Bharuch Goldstein? Just Google it. Another King David Hotel Bombing at Jerum. Or you may just google Levon affair. Another is Khan Yunus macre. Meir Kanha Group?
                                Reply
                                1. F
                                  FSA
                                  Dec 27, 2016 at 9:33 am
                                  Macre by Bharuch Goldstein at Cave of Patriarch Mosque happened on 25th February 1994 by American born Jewish doctor on Purim day. Myth about Purim Day is that Jews used the blood of Goyim (non Jew to purify them) on this day. lt;br/gt;Second Lavon affair took place in 1954 summer at Egypt.lt;br/gt;In recent, 31st July 2016, in the village of Duma, Daabsheh family's home was burnt by Jewish extremist. Ali, a 18 month old toddler, burned to death immediately. His father, Saad and his mother, Reham, died subsequently. His one brother Ahmed, 4 years old, escaped the death by serious wound. And IDF is there to carry out the task. F-16 is being used in place of blow up Gazan boy pla football at sea beach. UAV is doing blowing people then why it is necessary to deploy man?
                                  Reply
                                  1. G
                                    Guru
                                    Dec 27, 2016 at 6:17 am
                                    Both these are prominent in their faiths and do not yield on the core principles of their religion. So you are targeting them. Get lost mozzie lover.
                                    Reply
                                    1. G
                                      Guru
                                      Dec 27, 2016 at 6:16 am
                                      Mozzies never do honorable business and contribute to the tax coffers - They are either flying planes into buildings, driving trucks into crowds, running hawala or gangs. It is not your tax money, so leave it to us to spend it as we wish.
                                      Reply
                                      1. G
                                        Guru
                                        Dec 27, 2016 at 6:19 am
                                        That was part of the war that happened when the state of Israel was setup. Let us talk recent stuff - Have the jews blown up people, shot their way thro civilians in a city? There is only the religion of peace, that keeps doing that.
                                        Reply
                                        1. G
                                          Guru
                                          Dec 27, 2016 at 6:14 am
                                          Who are you sacrificing your mozzies for, most of the time fightinh among yourselves?
                                          Reply
                                          1. S
                                            suresh menon
                                            Dec 27, 2016 at 2:29 am
                                            Hard to believe that Kerala Jews were discriminated in Israel. It is after all not religion that discriminate, but the race you belong to that does all the damage. An Arab Muslim will not accept a stani Muslim into his family neither will a stani muslim accept a Bangladesh Muslim into his family. The unity of religion ends where race begins.
                                            Reply
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