Kochi

‘Sarah Cohen’s death marks the end of an era in Kochi’

Old photographs at Sarah Cohen’s home in Jew Town, Mattancherry.   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Sarah Cohen is mourned both by the small, closely-knit Paradesi Jewish community and the people she met when she sat by her window and tirelessly greeted those who dropped by her embroidery store in Mattancherry’s Jew Town.

“She was a Paradesi Jewish celeb in her own sweet way. She was friendly and outgoing and liked to talk to people who visited, no matter how tired she might have been. Nearly everybody who visited the synagogue would stop to chat with her,” said Yaakov Finkelstein, Ms. Cohen’s grandnephew and Consul General of Israel in Mumbai.

“Since she did not have any children of her own, we were the closest she had to children. She loved to spoil us with food and take care of us,” he said.

Nephews and nieces

Ms. Cohen is survived by over a dozen nephews and nieces and their families scattered across the world. The community came together in December last year to commemorate the 450th anniversary of the Paradesi synagogue in Mattancherry.

“The Paradesi Jewish community is only a few hundred members strong and spread out in parts of Canada, Israel and Britain. Her death is like the end of an era in Kochi where only two more Paradesi Jews remain,” said Mr. Finkelstein. He recalls that while they had their evening meal in December, she could sing an entire Sabbath song by heart in Hebrew.

Embroidery store

Ms. Cohen’s embroidery store in Mattancherry sold traditional challah covers used to cover loaves of bread, headscarves and shawls. Before her age got to her, she would embroider decorative pieces of cloth for the synagogue and for Jewish brides.

For chef Thoufeek Zakriya who first met Ms. Cohen in 2009 while working on a project on Jewish food and history, she was both a grandmother figure and a wealth of information on Jewish traditions. “She kept history alive. She would tell us about Jewish weddings, functions and food. Religion was no bar for her and she embraced me as a friend of the community.”

Though several Paradesi Jewish families moved to Israel, Ms. Cohen chose to stay in Mattancherry. “Going back around 200 years, at least four generations of her family lived in Mattancherry before her. She wanted to rest here and was emotionally connected to this land and people,” he said. As per the 1951 census, there were over 2,500 Paradesi and Malabari Jews in Kerala, said Mr. Zakriya. With the formation of Israel, many families moved out.

Though the synagogue was set up 450 years ago, the (Mattancherry Jewish) community claims that they arrived in Kerala earlier, along with the Portuguese, said Meydad Eliyahu, a Jerusalem-based artist, some of whose work dealt with the Jews in Kerala.

The word ‘Paradesi’ itself means foreigner and they are likely to have come from Portugal, Syria and Iraq, he said. A few Paradesi Jews might have even come from Spain, there are Spanish influences in their food, said Mr. Eliyahu.


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Printable version | Oct 16, 2021 1:36:47 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Kochi/sarah-cohens-death-marks-the-end-of-an-era-in-kochi/article29303672.ece

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