Unusual Occupations

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

J - Jew Town of Mattancherry


Been there ... Done that ...

Jew town of Mattancherry 


1170: When the traveler Benjamin of Tudela visited India, he reported that there were about a  thousand Jews in the south.
1686:   Moses Pereira de Paiva listed 465 Malabar Jews.
1781: The Dutch governor, A. Moens, recorded 422 families or about 2,000 persons. In
1948:  2,500 Jews were living on the Malabar Coast.
1953 : 2,400 emigrated to Israel, leaving behind only about 100 Paradesi Jews on the Malabar Coast.

Amongst all the must see tourist destinations in Cochin is the ‘Pardaesi’ Synagogue . Paradesi in native Malayalam means the Foreigner.  The Synagogue which is the main tourist destination is a small place of Jewish worship.

The bylanes that approach the Jewish synagogue are strewn with Antique shops selling tourist souvenirs  and real as well as fake Antique Trinkets, furniture and bric a brac from the era gone by .
They are all not necessarily genuine, but if you really have an eye for the antiques you can find them.  On the face of it they are exorbitantly priced, and a good deal of haggling is absolutely necessary unless you want the shop keeper  to laugh his way to the bank.

This is the Jew Town of Mattancherry which until 1953 was home to about 100 hews whose descendants had made this neighbourhood their home over the centuries.

Today hardly six of them remain.  The youngest Yael Halleguan is in her mid forties.  She is the care taker for the Synagogue which charges five rupees as the entry fees. The money goes in maintaining the synagogue. 

It is an ornately decorated synagogue.  Its tiled floors were imported from China in 1762, the handknit Oriental rug from the last emperor of Ethiopia and the cadle lamps from Belgium. 

Sadly though, there is no Rabbi to sand at the bimah, the Pulpit. The place itself is a small museum that is visited by travellers specially Jews from all over the world. Services are held only when there is a minyan - a group of 10 Jewish men needed to form a prayer service.  It is now only possible with the inclusion of Jewish male visitors.  So the beautiful Synagogue is usually empty, save for tourists who some to marvel its beauty.   

As you finish looking around the synagogue, you would inevitably visit the adjacent exhibition that has some artefacts that explain the history of the Jews in Malabar. During Portuguese persecution in the 16th Century, they were granted sanctuary by the Hindu Rajah of Cochin, Keshava Rama Varma. The present day Paradesi synagogue was built in 1568 on land granted by Varma, and the Jew Town neighbourhood built up around it.

By 1953 when Israel declared independence many Jews from Mattancherry emigrated back to their ome land, although most of them had been living in the ocast of Malabar for generations.

Of the few who remained in Mattacherry is Sarah Cohen. 

When you walk past the Synagogue you cannot miss the quaint ‘Sarah’s Embriodery shop’ in the outer verandah of what once must have been a quaint Jewish home.

As I  look through the window I see an incredibly old woman sitting up in a four poster bed calling out in a feeble voice when the house keeper comes and props her pillow down for her to sleep. 

I enter the shop and look around for the things.  I am not exactly a customer looking to buy a challah  the jewish Ritual Bread covers  or the Mezuzah , intricately embroidered with Hebrew writings on them.

I must say I am  tempeted. But my main attraction is the lady of the house, now probably resting down for her siesta. She speaks fluent Malayalam to the house keeper.

The house keeper is a middle aged muslim lady.  

She and her son are doing the day duty today looking over Sarah’s aunty as well as the occasional customer to the shoppe.

Her husband Thaha Ibrahim , when he was a young boy  was a frequent visitor to the house of Sarah and her husband to the extent that the childless Sarah Cohen considers him her adopted son. His father used to work next door at the post card shop and he would visit them as a young boy and was intrigued by all things Jewish.

When Jacob Cohen died it was his wish that Thaha Ibrahim take care of his wife. It has been nearly two decades since then and the Ibrahim family is the caretaker of the shop as well as Sarah Cohen.
Thoufeeq Zakriya, a friend of Sara Cohen maintains a blog that Chronicles the Jewish Heritage . A Chef by passion and a calligrapher by profession, Zakriya, learnt the Hebrew language and helps tourists decipher some of the Hebrew script at the Paradesi Synagogue.
    
Sarah Aunty’s memory has been relapsing on and off in the last few months says Thaha Ibrahim’s wife. Her son who was showing me around the shop is now sitting and studying.

Sarah is now listlessly gazing at the ceiling, as I take her photopgraph.  I ask if I may click her photograph and I am told that she would hardly understand.  In better days she has entertained many a curious  visitor and explained to them a lot about the interesting history of Jew town.  

Today she hardly remembers things happening around her.  

A nurse comes and stays in the night when the Ibrahims get back home which is just at the end of the lane.    
As I look around the shop I see many quaint black and white photographs that talk about a vibrant social life that must have existed in the 50s and 60s in Jew town among the Jews.
Sara & Jacob Cohen on their wedding day 
    

Today Sarah Cohen is too old to do her own embroidery. Her hands shake and her memory relapses too often. 

Most of the embroidery in the shop comes from a village in Andhra Pradesh.  Many Jews and non –Jew tourists who come to Fort Kochi inevitably visit Sara’s Embriodery Shoppe where you still can buy some very delicately embroidered Mezuzah and Challah covers.


It is one of the last remnants of a once industrious and thriving Jewish community in this region.   





Stay tuned for more from Kochi  

To be continued


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