The last Jews of Kochi

Sarah Cohen: Wearing a traditional kippa and in her pale yellow dress, Sarah is 90 years old. Sitting in the front room of her old house, which doubles up as a store, she embroiders Jewish motifs on caps. Tourists who visit the store like looking at the old sepia photographs of her family. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat  

The Jewish quarters of Mattancherry, the area around the Paradesi Synagogue (1568) was once the centre of the White Jews or Cochin Jews, who are said to have settled here after fleeing persecution. Today, there are just nine surviving members of the community, all of them over the age of 75, except one.

Jew Town once flourished with trade, Hebrew culture and prayer. Today, it has given way to a row of antique shops and a thriving spice market. As a quorum of 10 male members is required for prayer service at the synagogue, the dwindling community had to acquire the services of a rabbi from Israel. Most of them have relatives in Israel.

They speak fluent Malayalam and follow their customs and rituals diligently. The stories they like telling are about the old times, when there were large community weddings, when Hanukkah, Passover, Yom Kippur, and Jewish New Year were all observed in full regalia, when the women dressed in traditional finery and made traditional food, and when they could buy kosher meat from a Jewish butcher.

Jew Street has witnessed those times. Today, you can find them looking, almost in puzzlement, out of their windows on the crowded and tourist-packed street below. The city has changed as they look out at a space that was once their cradle and hear the old clock in the tower ring out, marking time.

Text and Photographs by Thulasi Kakkat

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2022 1:28:56 PM |

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