When history bifurcates, as it does time and again, and conjoins later, sometimes, somewhere, it gives rise to human tales of stoicism and success. This is a tale of discovery of a shared ancestry and a common past.
Yehuda Hai has no memories of the time when he was immigrating with his parents to Israel in 1956. His mother often narrated the story of his sudden disappearance when they were to board the flight from Mumbai, then Bombay. “I was three years old and did not want to leave my friends and go,” he says with a smile. Yehuda and his wife Sara are in the city, along with their youngest son, 27-year-old Ormi to visit the land of their ancestors. It is an emotional return .
It was the concept of Zion, a call for a national home for Jews from all over the world that took many Cochin Jews to Israel in the 50s. It was a political and religious exodus. Two families, both with the same surname, Hai, migrated from Chendamangalam and from Jew Street in Ernakulam then. The families intermarried, “because my father, Yehuda Hai became fond of my mother, Sara Hai,” and they settled down to a new changed life.
It was Ormi, the third generation Hai, who was dogged by questions of his roots and ancestry, of the land from where he originally came. Fed on a diet of stories about Cochin, by his two grandmothers, about fish, coconut and their trade of yore, Ormi was curious. His research led him to modern Kochi three times and this time he is back with his parents, who are visiting the city they left 53 years ago.
“We are Malabari Jews and are orthodox hence we moved to Israel during the Zionist movement. We were traders here but we had to take to farming in Israel. Initially we stayed in communes called ‘kibbutz' near Haifa. It was a farming commune and had Jews from all over the world. As we were orthodox we were not so comfortable with the ways there and we soon moved to a settlement called Yuval,” explains Yehuda.
The 50s and the 60s saw huge migration into Israel and the government organised habitats called ‘Mosavs' to settle the inflow of migrants. Around 120 and more were built. Majority of the Cochin Jews were settled at Yuval. House, animals and farming equipment were provided to the families to begin life afresh.
“It took us nearly 10 years to really settle down,” says Yehuda recalling his growing years. His parents, he says, conversed in Malayalam but he speaks a mixture of Hebrew and Malayalam. Ormi does not speak Malayalam but understands “the context”. Ormi says his grandmother would call him “ponnu mon”. They would regularly eat what he terms, “traditional food,”- like kootans, appam and add ‘vepala' in the curries.
Yehuda says that in the settlement of the Cochinim (Cochin Jews) each house has a curry leaf tree and other tropical trees, like mango and papaya. These are trees that grow in Kerala and a speciality only to us.
After a visit to the synagogue in Ernakulam Ormi surmises that his ancestral house must have been “more or less” within 10-metre radius of the synagogue. He says that with such visits he is filling a black hole in the history of his life as he discovers his roots. The questions that often nag him of how and why he looks the way he does, of how and why he talks the way he does or just the way that he is are being answered.
The Cochinim has integrated well with Israeli society. They are into business and armed forces as well. “But we are different in our tradition, in food, ways of worship, in a few rituals and in the ‘look' of course,” adds Ormi.
Among the distinctions he cites are of their wearing ‘white' at funerals as against ‘black' worn by the other Jews from elsewhere. Their lyrics and the music in their prayers are more Indian. Earlier, his grandparents would wear ‘mundus' and saris but now his mother sometimes wears the ‘Punjabi' dress.
Ormi's own feelings about the Indian connection are very strong. “My grandparents talk about the place all the time…my parents feel the same now. I feel very connected, drawn to the roots. We are different. I feel it myself.” But where in lies the real difference? He says it is in the mentality. “It is this thing of non-violence, of shanti…shanti…shanti, that's very Indian, we are peace loving.” Yehuda and Sara run a homestay ‘Bezl Hmihnaf' in Yuval.