Two years ago, on December 12, 2014, I met Sarah Cohen, India’s oldest surviving Jew, in the port city of Cochin. I was on a research trip for a show I was presenting for the History Channel, and the name Jew Town was enough to tickle my interest.
Curious to connect the dots from the past, I walked through the trinket-filled streets in the Mattancherry area, just a few metres from one of the world’s oldest places of Jewish worship – the Paradesi (foreigner’s) synagogue. I wondered why, after thousands of years, this community is still considered ‘foreign’.
To this, a friend advised me to meet Sarah Cohen, who is ‘a personification of Kerala’s multicultural history. She was someone who was born before India and Israel were India and Israel. She is a wealth of wisdom.’
I visited Sarah’s charming Jewish quarter, which doubled as her embroidery store. She squinted at me through her glasses, then broke out into a smile. Through the window, a sliver of sunlight cast itself on Sarah’s silver hair as she sat comfortably on a wooden chair, in her pink nightgown and blue chappals.
Sarah Cohen was born in an era when India and Israel were both colonies of the British, and neither had independent identities of their own. Now 93, she is the oldest member of Cochin’s Jewish community, who settled here centuries ago, fleeing persecution.
Cochin’s Jews were once a thriving trading community. The then-King inscribed their rights to the land on a copper edict, with the following poetic lines:
For as long as the sun and the moon exist, this place shall be yours.
Generations later, a small minority of them continue to stay here, a continuum of the past that is almost fading away. Only 26 Jews remain in Cochin.
Through nine decades of her life, Sarah has witnessed many changes. In Malayalam, she recounted the days when the Jewish community in Cochin was able to celebrate Jewish festivals (such as Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur), where Jewish weddings were held with women dressed in traditional attire, of days when they could buy Kosher meat from the butcher. Now, their numbers are too small to hold such events – not enough to hold festivals, weddings or to incentivise butchers to stock Kosher meat. For Sarah Cohen, it’s a distant dream, something lost to the memory of time.
Even at 93, she keeps herself busy, stitching and embroidering Jewish artefacts for the community – Kippas and Yarmulkes for the head, Challah cloths for their bread. There were two things, I thought, I could do in her honour.
One: Buy a Kippa or Yarmulke, I could wear for my Jewish brother’s (best friend) wedding.
Two: Buy a fine muslin piece of embroidery, hand-woven by Sarah Cohen, as part of my art collection.
To my inner collector’s delight, I managed to get both.
Our conversation was abruptly cut short by a tourist from Israel. Sarah! She called out, apologised to me for intruding, and introduced herself to Sarah as a distant relative – daughter of a cousin of a cousin. She had baked a cake for Sarah and brought it all the way from Israel.
As I rose to say goodbye, Sarah adjusted her glasses, held my hand in a soft grip and said, “let’s meet again”, with a gentle smile. Although we did not meet since I read of her in a news report in 2015. I was chuffed to find that Sarah had voted in Kerala’s 2015 local body elections.
She was one of the few Jewish people I met in Cochin, who shared stories of their life, longing and belonging with me. As I look back, my rendezvous with Sarah opened the doors to India’s multicultural past, offering a rare glimpse into a memory that was shut from the world.
I am grateful for that extraordinary opportunity.
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