It is March 1984. Sarah Cohen and Ellen S Goldberg were at the Cochin Paradesi Synagogue when Cohen heard the temple prayers next door. “We can hear their prayers and they can hear us too,” says Cohen, now referred to as the “grand dame of the Jews in Kochi”. Nathan Katz, a scholar on Indian Jewish communities, mentions this incident in his book Who Are The Jews of India? (2000) to exemplify the lives that Cochin Jews led in their adopted home town. “They were both fully Indian and fully Jewish. They finely balanced their identity and yet embraced the cultures of their Hindu, Christian and Muslim neighbors,” writes Katz.
A recent book One Heart. Two Worlds: The Story of the Jews of Kochi (Stark World, Rs 2,500) presents the stories of a community that arrived on Kerala shores in 1000 CE. Chronicled by scholar and historian KS Mathew and creative director and writer Yamini Nair, the anecdotes come together through “handwritten song diaries, memoirs, kosher recipes, Hebrew plays and synagogue rituals”.
They came in as traders with diamonds and gold that helped them gain the favor of the kings of the time, and knowing European languages played to their interest in times of war and trade. Over the years, persecution in other countries led the Jews to find safe refuge in Kerala, where they could earn a living and practice their own religion without compromise.
Mathew and Nair record the seven synagogues in Kochi — Paradesi, Kadavumbhagom, Paravur, Mala, Chendamangalam and the lost Thekkumbhagom synagogues in Ernakulam and Mattancherry. The book takes us through the festivals — Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah, Simchat Torah, Purim — the rituals, the lifestyle and the people who called Kerala their home. The great migration, aliyah, back to Israel in the 1950s, soon after its independence, left barely 50-odd Jews in Kerala. Today their numbers are less than 30.
The oldest of them is Cohen, on whom documentaries have been made and where the world stops to see her embroidery at her store in Jew Town, Fort Kochi. Her exquisite wedding gowns are on display at the Cochin Jewish Heritage Museum in Israel. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was shown one such exhibit when he visited the country in July 2017.
In the book, there’s Bezalel Eliyahu, a pioneering horticulturalist, who grew up “swimming in the Periyar” but made the desert bloom when he returned to Israel, growing gladioli and roses, and thus promoting exports of flowers all the way to Holland. He was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman by the Indian government in 2006. Guarding the Kadavumbhagom synagogue in Kerala is Elias Josephai, who was instrumental in helping Jerusalem-based visual artist Meydad Eliyahu revive the memory of his great grandfather. The artist used elements given to him in Box of Documents, an art project at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2016. As a continuation of the project in 2018, the synagogue was used as a site for Eliyahu and calligrapher Thoufeek Zakriya’s public art project Red Crown, Green Parrot.
While the Jews may have made their home in Kerala, they were not oblivious to caste divisions. It showed up in their social hierarchies as well — of White Jews (Paradesis, who migrated from Iraq, Europe and Yemen), Black Jews (earlier settlers in the Malabar, from King Solomon’s times) and Brown Jews (or Meshuchrarims, who were freed slaves from the Paradesi community). It could possibly be the reason they melded into the Indian setting, besides their assertion of Judaic symbols and rituals, that marked them as different yet same.
While their songs took on the adaptation of part Hebrew and part Malayalam — the Jews have a song for every occasion — it was peppered with folklore and dreams of the community. There are close to 300 such songs. The book records how a Hebrew poem Our Hope that became Israel’s national anthem, was adapted to Keralite tunes and was sung long before the community migrated.
But living in Kerala as a Jew is not as easy anymore. Having moved from being so intrinsic to the land to withdrawing from it, Nair says, “Very few of the younger generation of 8,000-odd Cochin Jews in Israel today have perhaps heard of their ancestral motherland, Cochin. Most of them do not even know Malayalam, unlike their great grandparents who spoke fluent Malayalam and Hebrew. The celebrations have long gone, nearly all the synagogues and cemeteries are in a state of deterioration. Even access to daily kosher food has become a challenge for the community.”
While the book tells us a lot of what we already know, the trivia it records is interesting, be it the syncretic lifestyle of the Jews or the pop culture references. It could have been more intensive in its research to tell us how the lives evolved over the two-century history, and the conversations people had.
On the part of the community, besides its scholars, blogs and social media keep memories alive. In December last year, the 450-anniversary celebration of the Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry, the oldest active in the Commonwealth of Nations, had nearly 200 Cochin Jews visit Kerala. Around the same time, the Kadavumbhagom Synagogue was restored and reopened. However, when you walk down the streets of Jew Town today, it takes a lot of imagination to relive the days of songs and feasts that established an entire diaspora, along the Kerala coast, for over 2,000 years.