Today I met one of the last living Jews in Cochin, India. Her name is Sarah Cohen and she's 95. Her eyes lit up when she heard that I was a Cohen too (she's the last Cohen in Cochin), and then we sang the sh'ma prayer together. It was pretty amazing…especially considering I'd started the day at Catholic mass.
Sunday morning mass
I'm currently in Cochin, a seaside city in the southern Indian state of Kerala. This is where Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama first landed in 1498, and where his countrymen proceeded to create the first European colony in India in 1500. The Dutch arrived soon after and overthrew the Portuguese (which is why an old Portuguese palace is now called the Dutch Palace). In between that change of hands, British missionaries had floated over to preach the word of Jesus, and that's why most of Cochin's residents are still devout Catholic as opposed to Hindu which is the most common religion in the North of India.
I find this colonial and religious history very intriguing, so I was all for it when my friend Colleen suggested we start our Sunday with an early visit to St. Francis Church, to see what Indian Catholic mass would be like. Colleen is Catholic herself and she reports that it's pretty much the same: The hymns were all familiar, as was the rhythm of the service. Since Indians are some of the nicest, warmest people you'll ever meet, it was no shock that we were welcomed into the fold without any hesitation, and the priest even stopped by our pew as he led the initial procession up the aisle to the altar to sure we had a hymnal (a lovely parishioner named Annette handed us her own personal volume).
We saw another side of the local Catholic community with a little later when we met up with our walking tour guide. He made a stop at Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica and we caught the tail end of the Sunday service, where his brother-in-law was singing in the choir and his wife and son were among the parishioners. Unlike at our own mass experience, this place was packed—it was standing room only at the back of the church. I found it a little surreal to watch all the people in saris pouring out of a very Catholic-looking church, and even more surreal to see the Virgin Mary chapel outside with its awning that looked just like Portuguese tiles.
Catholics are the majority in the state of Kerala, but they're not the only religion. I knew there was also fascinating Jewish history here—it was one of the reasons Cochin made it onto my itinerary, rather than the more-popular beach destination of Goa. Jews in India?? Who were they? How'd they get here? Are they still around? We signed up for a walking tour that would give me some insight into that.
So I was really looking forward to our next stop: Jew Town (I kid you not, that is what the neighborhood has been called for centuries), to see the Paradesi Synagogue and find out some history. Turns out, no one really knows exactly when the first Jews arrived. The museum at the synagogue says they arrived here in the first century after the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. But a pamphlet handed out at that same museum, written by a scholar on this subject, says the real date of their arrival in India is one of the "unsettled problems of [the Jewish people's] ancient history." I'm also reading a book that posits that 7 couples swam ashore after a shipwreck in the 1300s, becoming what was known as the Bene Israel of India.
What we do know for sure is that the Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin was built in 1598 by European Jews who'd convinced the king of Cochin to let them stay here. It is still used occasionally…when the locals can get enough men together to constitute a minyan (a quorum of ten Jewish men required to hold services). Today there are only three Jewish families left in Cochin, and only four living members of those families.
As we walked the narrow lane leading up to the synagogue (called Jew Street), our tour guide pointed out two houses where those families still live. When we got to Sarah's Embroidery Shop, he saw that she was in her rooms inside, and offered to make an introduction.
The first thing I noticed about her shop was that it was connected to the house I'd taken a picture of the day before. The window screen is Jewish-star-themed. How beautiful is that? What I didn't realize when I took that picture was that Sarah was sitting just inside the window, on the left side.
The second thing I noticed was a piece of her embroidery work displayed on the wall outside the shop. It had her name stitched into it. Her last name is Cohen. I'm a Cohen! Now I was even more excited to go in.
In a small room off the main shop, Sarah was sitting in the window with a Hebrew prayer book open in her lap. She'd been reading and/or napping; it was hard to tell.
It took her a few minutes to figure out we were there and for my presence to click (she is 95 after all), and at first she only spoke to me in Malayalam (the local language here). But eventually, she understood I was from the US and that I was Jewish too—and then she immediately lit up and switched to English.
We started to chat and a man named Thaha Ibrahim soon came out to help facilitate conversation; he was ecstatic that Sarah had a visitor. So was she. It broke my heart when she said that no one comes to visit her anymore. But she was plenty alert and cheery for us, and Thaha helped interpret, because even though Sarah speaks a fair bit of English, I don't speak any Malayalam.
Thaha explained that he's known the Cohens since he was a 14-year-old kid running around on the street outside the shop. He met Sarah's husband, Abraham, first, and they bonded because even though Thaha is Muslim, he and Mr. Cohen shared a name (Ibrahim/Abraham). He's been a good friend to the family ever since. He still takes care of Sarah today—helping her prepare her kosher meals (which is mostly veg and fish because, he noted, the kosher butchers are few and far between), and she has taught him to embroider kippahs that they sell in the shop. Basically, he's a total mensch.
With his help, I found out that Sarah's family came over from Baghdad several generations ago, that she grew up here, married a man named Abraham, and ran the hand-embroidery shop where she still lives. There are a few old pictures of them hanging in the store.
I was really excited to tell Sarah that I was a Cohen too—to me, that meant we were family.
From that moment, we were bonded. Sarah had been reading her prayer book when I came in, and it was open to the sh'ma. That's a prayer that every Jewish person knows because it's used at every service and recited before the reading of the Torah. At one point she asked if I sang well (you all know I do not), but I gave it a shot anyway and we chanted the sh'ma together. The tunes we know are slightly different, but it's the same words and the same prayer. And singing it with her, here in a tiny lane in the south of India, thousands of miles from where I grew up, and where she is a one of four remaining Jewish people — it was a mind-blowing and heart-bursting experience. I could not stop smiling.
Our guide said Rosh Hashanah is celebrated for ten days here, and that Jewish people come from all over India, Israel, and the UK to observe it, so I'm thinking of coming back next fall. I hope Sarah is still around to share it.