In the heart of Kochi’s Mattancherry area is a section called Jew Town, where, perhaps more than 2,000 years ago, Jews settled and thrived as traders. Today, all that is left of the community is a few members, a neglected synagogue, centuries-old cemeteries and antique showrooms.
One of these souvenir shops is run by 95-year-old Sarah Cohen, the oldest Jewish person in the area and one of the community’s few representatives in the city. When Israel was formed in 1948, thousands of Indian Jews migrated there.
Cohen is looked after by a middle-aged Muslim man named Thaha Ibrahim. Their heartwarming relationship is captured in the video The Last Jews Of Kochi.
“Before he passed away, Mr Cohen told me that Sarah Aunty doesn’t have any children and that I should take care of her,” says Ibrahim as he stitches kippahs, a brimless cap traditionally worn by Jews that are sold in the souvenir shop. “We are supporting Sarah Aunty so that she can follow the Jewish way of life like she always has”
As Ibrahim reminisces on the days when Kochi had a vibrant Jewish community, Sarah Cohen tears up.
Nostalgia and grief also reflect on the face of Joseph Elias Josephai, who took it upon himself to look after a synagogue in Ernakulam in the north of Kochi.
“There is no life for Jewish people here...that’s why I want my children to go back to Israel,” he says in the video below.
Affectionately known as Babu, Josephai explains how he single-handedly manages the security of Kadavumbagam Synagogue – using the money he earns from maintaining a nursery and an aquarium.
Although Cohen and Josephai consider themselves as separate communities – Paradesi (white) Jews and Malabari Jews, respectively – the two videos show how they bound by their efforts to keep alive a fading heritage.