How One Town Is Preserving the History of India’s Oldest Jewish Settlers

Indian Jews are one of the few Jewish communities in the world that never faced persecution and anti-semitism in their adopted land.
January 14, 2021, 9:57am
jew town, sarah cohen, kerala, cochin, India
Jew Town road in Mattancherry, Kerala. Photo by Sivaram V.

On a narrow lane leading to the synagogue in Jew Town in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Thaha Ibrahim, 50, is busy arranging the belongings of a famous Jewish woman who occupied the quarters till a year ago. She was the friendliest, the oldest and perhaps the most photographed Jew in the Jew Town. Sarah Cohen was a skilled seamstress whose intricately embroidered kippahs (skull caps that Jews wear), challan covers and Jewish wedding attires earned her fans among the community across the world. 

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Sarah passed away in August 2019, a few days shy of turning 97. Thaha was like a son to her. A young boy selling postcards outside her house to tourists in the 80s, he was welcomed by the childless Cohens who nurtured a desire to never have their nest empty. Son of a tailor, Thaha took to Sarah’s business of tailoring and embroidery. “They were like family. They loved me more than I loved myself,” Thaha, a devout Muslim, told VICE World News, remembering the Cohens' unfeigned love and care for him. 

Sarah was a Cochini Jew—an indigenous migrant community clustered around seven synagogues in and around Cochin city in Kerala. Cochini Jews are broadly divided into two groups—the Paradesis (or foreigners) and the Malabarees (of the Malabar coast, a region of the southwestern shoreline of the mainland Indian subcontinent). While the Paradesis landed on the Kerala coast in the 15th century from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition, the Malabaree Jews’ existence in Kerala dates back to 2000 years. Some stories say Malabarees reached then Muziris port in Kerala during the time of King Solomon, though no evidence exists as to clearly mark the date of their arrival. In fact, Cochini Jews are the oldest Jewish settlers in India. The other Jewries in India include Bene Israel and Baghdadi Jews. 

jew town, sarah cohen, kerala, cochin, India

Some of the belongings of Sarah Cohen at her embroidery store that is being turned into a museum. Photo by Sivaram V.

The Cohens are some of the Jews who chose to stay back in Cochin when most of them immigrated to Israel after the country was formed in 1948. Now, it’s a fast-dwindling population in Kerala with just two Paradesi Jews in Jew Town and a handful of Malabaree Jews in other parts of Kochi remaining. With the passing of the most familiar Jew in Jew Town, the town is now Jew in its name only.  

Thaha is in the process of turning Cohens’ house and the warehouse into a museum which he said could help “not just preserve traces of history but also serve as an educational tool to various students who visit the Jew Town for research”. Inside the unassuming Sarah’s embroidery shop, you’re welcomed by a large-sized monochromic image of a gregarious Sarah in a wide, toothless grin. Among the exhibits are old books, photographs, utensils from Sarah’s grandmother’s time, a sewing machine which was the first wedding gift from her husband in 1943, and a young Sarah’s embroidery project book. The most remarkable of all the exhibits is a photograph of Sarah as a young bride in a saree (a traditional garment worn by Indian women) lost in the warm embrace and kiss of her husband on the wedding day. 

jew town, sarah cohen, kerala, cochin, India

Thaha Ibrahim in front of Sarah's embroidery store. Photo by Sivaram V.

The photographs are a testimony to a foreign community that integrated well in Indian society. While remaining orthodox in their faith, they adopted a fair bit of Indian customs and traditions in their everyday lives, spoke Malayalam (the local language), sang prayers in a mix of Malayalam and Hebrew, removed their footwear before entering the synagogue (which is practised by Indians as a mark of respect to the divine) and on special occasions, lit their lamps with coconut oil and festooned the synagogue with jasmine flowers. 

A few metres away from Sarah’s house, the Paradesi synagogue built in 1568 wears a deserted look under the shadow of the pandemic. The keeper of the synagogue for the last 30 years, KJ Joy said that it was closed to visitors for several months and was reopened in November 2020. There were no celebrations this year. One of the major tourist attractions in Kerala, the synagogue receives 150-200 tourists per day during the peak season, said Joy. The head priest Rabbi Jonathan Francis Goldschmidt couldn’t come back from the UK due to the pandemic. Over a WhatsApp call, Jonathan said he and his wife rebbetzin Elisheva miss the Jew Town and want to return to serve the Cochini Jews as soon as it is possible. “It’s a beautiful synagogue. We are missing Kerala very much.” 

jew town, sarah cohen, kerala, cochin, India

The keeper of the synangogue K J Joy seen with visitors. Photo by Sivaram V.

Jew Town is a small locality in Mattancherry, a town in Cochin. One of the stories around Mattancherry ties it to its early Jewish settlers. The story has it that the name Mattancherry is derived from Mattan (Hebrew for donation) and Cherry (Malayalam for settlement). Tanya Abraham, author of the book Fort Cochin: History and Untold Stories told VICE World News that this tale is both accepted and debated. “The legend has it that the area of Jew Town in Mattancherry was granted to the Paradesi Jews by the Raja (king) of Cochin when they escaped Portuguese tyranny in Kodungallur (another settlement in Kerala) and fled to Cochin.

Despite their early arrival and seamless integration into their adopted land, Malabaree Jews in Kerala were discriminated by the Paradesi Jews purely by virtue of their skin tone and were overlooked by European researchers and chroniclers who were eager to document the life of jews in Kerala. The Malabaree Jews were called karutha juthan (translated as “Black Jews”) while the Paradesi Jews who were mostly rich traders were called white Jews, noted researcher and member of Kerala Public Service Commission Dr Ginu Zacharia Oommen in a 2004 research paper.

Almost 90 percent of the Kerala Jews were Malabarees and they had seven synagogues. The Paradesis had one.

By the 60s, around 2500 Cochini Jews had migrated to the state of Israel in search of prosperity in their newfound Holy Land. But the reality awaited them was different, documented Dr Ginu. In Israel, the white Ashkenazi elite enjoyed prominence. The Cochini Jews were traumatised by the discrimination in Israel. They had to earn a living through daily wage work in agricultural farms or construction sites for many years. 

Israeli artist Meydad Eliyahu, a second-generation Cochini jew born and raised in the Moshav (a settlement) of Mesillat Zion, said that his father Avi Eliyahu and other Cochini Jews underwent severe hardships, a reality his father’s generation has chosen to hide from the world. “But my generation is curious about our roots and are more accepting of a difficult past,” Meydad told VICE World News. 

Indian Jews are one of the few Jewish communities in the world that never faced persecution and anti-semitism in their adopted land. And the multicultural society of Kerala that exhibits high tolerance for all religions was the perfect haven for them. Perhaps a reason why a handful of Jews like the Cohens couldn’t be lured by the promise of the Holy Land.

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