Sign for the Jew­ish Ceme­tery and Jew Town Road in Old Cochin, Kochi, India. Pho­to by Adam Jones adamjones​.freeservers​.com

Like every­thing pro­found­ly beau­ti­ful that trans­formed my life, I dis­cov­ered Jew Town when I was out search­ing for some­thing else. Back in 2016, when my nov­el The Sea Ele­phants was a work-in-progress, one of its key char­ac­ters, Marc Singer, the love inter­est of the pro­tag­o­nist, was an Amer­i­can expat liv­ing in India. I sought to deep­en his pres­ence in the text by giv­ing him a his­tor­i­cal asso­ci­a­tion with his new geog­ra­phy. I start­ed to study the his­to­ry of migra­tions to the sub­con­ti­nent, and learned about the long his­to­ry of Jew­ish migra­tions to India. So I decid­ed I want­ed Marc’s fam­i­ly to migrate from New York to Jew Town, locat­ed in the south­ern coastal town of Kochi. And in the sum­mer of 2017, I made a research trip to Kochi.


Jew Town is flanked by the Ara­bi­an Sea on one side, the Kaveri riv­er on the oth­er. I walked into one of the many antique shops in the dis­trict on my first day. I was on a grad­u­ate stu­dent salary and couldn’t afford to buy any­thing but that didn’t dis­suade the friend­ly own­ers from hold­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with me. The shops, I learned, were for­mer res­i­dences of Jew­ish fam­i­lies. Now the own­ers live upstairs and the down­stairs, once a res­i­den­tial court­yard, host­ing large fam­i­ly gath­er­ings, is where they ply their trade.

I learned, pri­or to my tip, that the first writ­ten records of Jew­ish migrants in Kochi date to after the destruc­tion of the Sec­ond Tem­ple. The leg­endary Jew­ish trav­el­er Ben­jamin of Tudela wrote about these ear­ly set­tlers dur­ing his trav­els in the late 1100s and the ceme­tery of Jew Town still holds some of their gravestones.

As a trans­la­tor and writer, I was espe­cial­ly thrilled to dis­cov­er that they devel­oped their own lan­guage, Judeo-Malay­alam, a mix­ture of the local lan­guage and Hebrew, and over time, tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish sto­ries changed in Judeo-Malay­alam folk­lore to include the Mal­abar land­scape. In the cli­mac­tic bat­tle of David and Goliath, for instance, a mos­qui­to enters the hel­met of Goliath and when he removes it, David flings a coconut at his head. It explodes on his tem­ple and drench­es his face with its water and kills him.

Near­ly every­one I spoke to in Jew Town men­tioned one name. Sarah Cohen. And I knew I had to meet her. I found her sit­ting near the win­dow of her home fac­ing the street, wear­ing a bright red house dress and match­ing kip­pah. She wel­comed me into her home. Sarah, who was nine­ty-four at the time, was born in Kochi. After the near­ly simul­ta­ne­ous free­dom of India and Israel,1947 and 1948 respec­tive­ly, many Jew­ish fam­i­lies left Kochi and migrat­ed to Israel, but she decid­ed to stay. With a sweep of her hand, she point­ed to the bustling street and said, This is my home.”

She showed me her col­lec­tion of prayer books, the meno­rah that she lit every Fri­day for Sab­bath, and pic­tures of her with her hus­band, who’d passed away in 1999. I also saw the kip­pahs and chal­lah cov­ers that she’d hand-embroi­dered, dis­tinct in the way they incor­po­rat­ed tra­di­tion­al Indi­an pat­terns onto tra­di­tion­al­ly Jew­ish fab­ric. I thought of my nov­el after I left her place — I thought of Marc. His par­ents would’ve been friends with Sara Cohen. She might’ve made Marc, clos­et­ed and feel­ing dis­placed by his par­ents’ unex­pect­ed deci­sion to migrate from New York to Jew Town, feel at home.

I saw the kip­pahs and chal­lah cov­ers that she’d hand-embroi­dered, dis­tinct in the way they incor­po­rat­ed tra­di­tion­al Indi­an pat­terns onto tra­di­tion­al­ly Jew­ish fabric

Two years after I vis­it­ed her, in 2019, Sarah passed away. She had no chil­dren. Tha­ha Ibrahim – who became, after her husband’s death, her care­giv­er – turned her home into a museum.

A sec­ond wave of Jew­ish migrants came to Kochi in the six­teenth-cen­tu­ry. They were flee­ing forced con­ver­sion in Iberia and reli­gious per­se­cu­tion in Spain and Por­tu­gal. They became pros­per­ous by way of the spice trade and built the Parade­si Syn­a­gogue in 1568. It was destroyed dur­ing the Por­tuguese attack on Kochi, but under the tute­lage of the Raja of Kochi, it was rebuilt in 1665. I was sur­prised to note that the syn­a­gogue requires you to take off your shoes when you enter, a prac­tice typ­i­cal in Hin­du tem­ples. The inte­ri­ors are dec­o­rat­ed with lat­ter day addi­tions to the sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry struc­ture: a Bel­gian chan­de­lier, the ner tamid that burns above the podi­um where the torah is read, and the blue tiles on the floor, import­ed from Can­ton in the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, each depict­ing a dif­fer­ent image. These were tiles that Salman Rushdie calls, in The Moor’s Last Sigh, the ceram­ic ency­clo­pe­dia of the mate­r­i­al world” where plea­sure gar­dens were laid out in blue, blue horse­men pranced beneath lam­plit win­dows and blue-masked ladies swooned in arbors” (84).

Dur­ing my stay in Kochi, I learned that there were ten­sions between the ear­ly set­tlers, whom the British called Black Jews’, and the lat­er set­tlers who were called White Jews’ and giv­en promi­nent posi­tions in the Empire. Nowhere else was there a caste sys­tem with­in a Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. There was a time when Black Jews sat at the back of the syn­a­gogue. Abra­ham Barak Salem, a Zion­ist lawyer, led a peace­ful protest out­side the syn­a­gogue, demand­ing equal rights — which were grant­ed. He was called the Jew­ish Gand­hi by the locals. Soon after, a Black Jew became the synagogue’s rab­bi, and over time, the social divide between the groups decreased.


The inter­sec­tion I found in Sarah Cohen’s embroi­dery and in the prac­tice of tak­ing your shoes off to enter Parade­si Syn­a­gogue is also found in the art of Siona Ben­jamin, an Indi­an Jew­ish artist. Her art­work, Find­ing Home”, for instance, depicts a god­dess-like fig­ure — rem­i­nis­cent of Kali — her many hands turn­ing into the han­dles of a meno­rah. The paint­ing intro­duced me to the idea of tikkun olam which stems from a cre­ation myth in Jew­ish mys­ti­cism: a ves­sel con­tain­ing the divine light is bro­ken and Adam is tasked with repair­ing the bro­ken ves­sel and restor­ing its light. Today, it con­notes the social act of repair­ing a bro­ken world. And it inspired me to, in my nov­el, cel­e­brate com­mu­ni­ty: for even when the two main char­ac­ters are shunned for being Oth­er, their found fam­i­ly holds, heals, and cel­e­brates all their frac­tured selves.

Art by Siona Benjamin

Shas­tri Akel­la holds an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing and a PhD in Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Amherst. His writ­ing has appeared in Guer­ni­caThe Mas­ter’s ReviewElec­tric Lit­er­a­ture, the Los Ange­les Review of BooksThe Rum­pusPANKThe Com­mon, and World Lit­er­a­ture Review, among oth­ers. The Sea Ele­phants is his debut novel.