Kerala

Sarah Cohen and kindred spirits

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Thaha Ibrahim is as keen on maintaining the sanctity of shabbat as he is of his Friday namaz. The devout Muslim spends almost all day taking care of a nonagenarian Jewish woman, Sarah Cohen, whom he calls aunt.

A strong bond of love binds them together in the sunset years of the Jewish community in Mattancherry in west Kochi, where Jews lived in the thousands in the past, contributing substantially to the city’s growth. The strength of the community waned over the years, with a large number of them migrating to Israel. A few like the Cohens stayed put, determined to live in the land of their birth that gave them the identity of Cochin Jews.

Mr. Ibrahim found a place in the hearts of the Cohens and the Jewish community as a whole. The middle-school dropout used to earn a few rupees selling souvenir postcards to tourists arriving by ship at the nearby port a quarter century ago. One day, a ship docked and Mr. Ibrahim discovered he had no cards to sell as the place where he had stacked them had been locked by its owner. An inconsolable Mr. Ibrahim found a mentor in Ms. Cohen’s husband, Jacob, who allowed him to store the cards at his place. It soon developed into a familial tie, which got Mr. Ibrahim to take care of Ms. Cohen after Jacob’s death some 15 years ago.

Mr. Ibrahim and his wife have been a pillar of support for Ms. Cohen, who runs an embroidery shop at the mouth of the narrow alley leading up to Pardesi Synagogue. They take care of the household and run errands for her. They are like children to the childless matriarch, who is as much a Jew as she is part of the multicultural mosaic of west Kochi. Seli, Ms. Cohen’s Christian maid, who has been by her side for over a decade, adds to the mix.

Text and images by Thulasi Kakkat

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