Sarah Cohen, one of the oldest members of the Paradesi Jewish community, died in 2019. A year later, her Muslim protege turned her business site into a museum.
On any regular day in the coastal Indian city of Kochi, Thaha Ibrahim can be seen stitching colourful kippahs, the traditional skull caps worn by members of the Jewish community.
The 50-year-old devout Muslim loves to tell the story of how he came to know a Jewish couple around 35 years ago and ended up becoming a part of their family. As a child, he used to sell postcards and souvenirs to tourists on the footpaths of Mattancherry, a spice hub of Kochi in those days. One day, a ship carrying tourists did not arrive as expected and he needed to park his postcards somewhere. His uncle introduced him to a Jewish couple living nearby - Sarah and Jacob Cohen. “Sarah Aunty was reluctant to help; she did not like me,” he says, laughing. “But Jacob Uncle agreed and allowed me to keep my postcards at their home.”
The Cohens belonged to the city’s Baghdadi Jew community whose ancestors are believed to have migrated from Iraq several generations ago. Jacob was a lawyer, and Sarah was a seamstress. She used to stitch and embroider challa covers (a cloth used to cover bread loaves), table clothes, bridal clothes, and kippahs.
“Once she needed help with stitching something,” Ibrahim says. “And I offered to help, having some knowledge of tailoring.” Eventually, Sarah hired him as an assistant to work at her embroidery shop, next to the Cohens’ ancestral residence in Mattencherry’s Jew Town. She taught him embroidery and stitching while he managed the daily chores at the shop.
Before Jacob Cohen passed away, around 20 years ago, Ibrahim says that he had asked him to always be by Sarah Cohen’s side, as the couple didn’t have children. Thus, several years later, an ageing Sarah Cohen could often be seen walking to a nearby synagogue, supported by Ibrahim and her Christian caretaker Celine. She died in August 2019, five days short of turning 97.
A Jewish museum in India
Ibrahim continues to run her shop. Last month, he turned her house and shop into a museum. Here, one can get a glimpse of the Jewish culture preserved in a Hindu majority city, with considerable populations of Christians and Muslims.
On the display are old black-and-white photographs of the Cohens, books on Jewish literature and history, some copies of the Torah owned by the couple, kitchenware, and Sarah Cohen’s notebooks containing Jewish songs written in the local language, Malayam. Aside from that, there are kippahs, embroidered challahs, and table covers for sale.
“It’s not a big museum. It’s very small,” Ibrahim says. “It’s just to keep alive the memory of Sarah Cohen and other Jews in the town.”
Located on a colourful street, with shops selling antiques, brass items, Kashmiri handicrafts and shawls, the museum is 100 metres away from a 16th century synagogue built by the city’s “White Jews”.
Jewish history in Kochi
Locally known as “Paradesi (foreigner) Jews”, the “white Jews” are believed to have first arrived in Kochi in the 15th century from Europe after suffering persecution by the Portuguese and Spanish. They were later joined by other Jews who came from the Middle East. The King of Kochi, Kesava Varma, provided them with asylum, and a land that was later developed into Jew Town. “One year after the building of Jew Town, the Paradesi Synagogue was built, in 1568,” writes local historian Bony Thomas in his book Kochiites. Thomas writes that according to some locals, even Mattancherry was a land donated by the king to the Jews, as “mattan” means “donation” in Hebrew, although this claim is contested.
There is another community of Jews in the city that arrived even earlier and is believed to have been living in the country since the time of King Solomon. They are locally known as the “Black Jews” or the “Malabari Jews”, named after the Malabar coastline. Various records suggest that they were exiles or captives taken by King Nebuchadnezzar after the destruction of the Temple, who managed to escape and sail to India.
Both the communities have separate synagogues and several personal and cultural differences. “While many Malabari Jews married Indians and got assimilated into the local community, the Paradesi Jews chose to marry amongst themselves,” Ibrahim says.
Thomas writes that the Paradesi Jews, being rich traders and having proximity to the political rulers, always enjoyed a stronger social standing, and discriminated against the Malabari Jews. “This discrimination has no relationship with the actual tone of the skin. A White Jew need not be fair-skinned or a Black Jew need not be dark-skinned. The White-Black dichotomy is based on racial purity… Paradesi Jews take pride in the fact that they are Mayookasims (Pure Jews),” he writes.
Sarah was the oldest member of the Paradesi Jew community. Her death has meant there are only two of them left in Jew Town, as per Ibrahim. Together with the Malabari Jews, who live in another part of the city, there are around 25 Jews left in Kochi.
Ibrahim recalls the period when the neighbourhood used to bustle with Jews. “It was in the early 1980s. Everywhere you turned, there was a Jewish family. I knew so many of them. But all of them were not as friendly as Sarah Aunty.”
A Times of Israel report says that there were around 3,000 Jews in Kochi in the 1950s. Most of them later immigrated to Israel. The Cohens were among the few families that chose to stay back. “Many of Sarah Aunty’s relatives live outside India,” Ibrahim says. “But she would say, “Why should I leave Kochi to move to any other place? It’s my home.””
He says that the museum would be emblematic of the relationship that the Jews formed with the city over the years. Talking about the global tensions between Jews and Muslims, he says, “I eat halal food and Sarah Aunty used to eat kosher food. Our religious books are different. Our laws are different. And yet, there are so many common things between the two religions. Nobody understands that.”