Unearthing a historic migration from Kerala to Israel

Artist Meydad Eliyahu whose forefathers migrated from Kochi to Israel.  

KOCHI: An Israeli artist having Kochi roots is set to make a strong statement on the migration of Kochi’s Jews with his installation that is part of a collateral project alongside the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

The installation by Meydad Eliyahu, spread over three rooms at Kashi Art Gallery in Fort Kochi will have photos, letters, artefacts, and documents — indelible parts of history which speak of ‘Aliyah’, the immigration of Jews from the diaspora (in this case, Kerala) to Israel. His work is part of a larger community-based project titled ‘Artist, the Public Intellectual’, curated by Tanya Abraham.

The ‘Aliyah’

The 33-year-old artist hails from a wealthy family in Kochi. It left Kochi in 1954 during the Aliyah. His grandfather Moshe Avraham Chai was one of the most important figures among Kochi Jews.

Eliyahu, who arrived in Fort Kochi this week to participate in the biennale and to learn more of his family and community, spoke of how the experience of travelling to Kerala in search of Jewish tradition was both emotional and dramatic. During his last visit, he was surprised to hear his father speak chaste Malayalam with a taxi driver. “I hadn’t heard my father speak Malayalam for about 25 years, and we used to even laugh at him that he forgot the language,” said Eliyahu.


Post-immigration, his father’s family was sent to Mesilat Zion, a village near the Jordanian border, where his father became its general manager. “Life during the first chapter in history of the Israeli State was very hard for most Kochi Jews. While some of them do not want to remember those hard years, some prefer to idealise that period,” he added.

To a question as to how different life was in Israel and the alleged discrimination they faced as Jews from India, Eliyahu said scholars linked the discrimination with the dark skin of Kochi Jews. “I can defiantly say that in intimate conversations, many, including my father, spoke of facing discrimination during the initial years. Nevertheless, Kochi Jews succeeded in creating the image of ‘quiet and nice’ people,” he said.

The artist is the youngest of four sons of AVI (Abraham) and Rachel. He is married to Nili and has a three-and-a-half-year-old son Tamar.

Recalling Kerala providing a safe refuge to Jews who were fleeing persecution centuries ago and also being home to a few of the oldest synagogues in Asia, he said Kochi’s Jews were still proud that they did not suffer discrimination or persecution in Kerala. “Though Kochi Jews sold most of their properties here and opted to settle in Israel, I see more and more Kochi Jews who travel back to Kochi and stay here for longer periods,” Eliyahu said.

On Art

On the involvement of Kerala communities in his biennale project titled ‘Box of Documents’, Eliyahu said: “I felt the best and the only option to revive the memory of the Jewish cultural presence here will be by reviving the ancient dialogue that the Jews had with the other communities in Kerala. My research is focused on the Kochi Jewish community through the eyes of non-Jewish communities.”

“The project was an unexpected journey which took me to Kochi and back to Jerusalem through archives, museums, private collections, synagogues, and interviews with members of the community, scholars, activists, artists, and more. The project is an adventure for understanding the past and to fill the gaps in the history of Kerala’s Jewish links,” he said.

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Printable version | Apr 14, 2021 2:44:27 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Kochi/Unearthing-a-historic-migration-from-Kerala-to-Israel/article16756206.ece

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