How the Cochin Jewish Community in Israel Is Preserving Its Traditions

This unique culture from the South of India, of which my mother's family is a part, is staying alive thanks to a community-wide effort.

In Israel, you’ll find a patchwork of different communities. Most Israeli Jews originate from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, but some come from other regions, such as India.

According to the Indian Embassy in Tel Aviv, there are about 85,000 Jews of Indian origin in Israel — so Indian Jews make up just 1.2% of Israel’s Jewish population. This small community is divided into four groups: the Bene Israel from Maharashtra, the Cochin Jews from Kerala, the Baghdadi Jews from Kolkata, and the Bnei Menache from Mizoram and Manipur.

Although I grew up in the U.S., my mother’s family is from the Cochin Jewish community in Israel. I wanted to find out more about how this community is preserving our unique Jewish traditions from the South of India.

Many of these traditions are at a risk of dying out. For example, the language of the Cochin Jewish community is called Judeo-Malayalam. Today, this dialect has only a few dozen native speakers left (you can hear it spoken in this video).

According to legend, the first Jews arrived in Cochin during the time of King Solomon. The oldest physical evidence of their presence is a set of engraved copper plates dating from around 379-1000 CE, which were given to community leader Joseph Rabban by the Chera Perumal dynasty ruler of Kerala.

Jewish sailors originally arrived in Kodungallur (Cranganore), an ancient port city known as Shingly by Jews, before shifting to Cochin following a flood in 1341. These Jews became known as the Malabari Jewish community. After the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, a group of Sephardic Jews also came to Cochin, and became known as the Paradesi (Foreign) Jews. The Malabari and Paradesi Jews historically lived separately and maintained their own traditions, although in modern times this division has become less important.

Today, the vast majority of Cochin Jews live in Israel. I spoke with several community members to learn about current projects in Israel to preserve Cochini Jewish culture.

Hadar Nehemya, a jazz musician and performer, runs a food delivery service sharing traditional Cochin Jewish recipes. Hadar learned the art of cooking from her mother, who learned it from her paternal grandmother.

Cooking her dishes from scratch and selling them at markets and for delivery, Hadar’s goal is to introduce Cochini cooking into the mainstream of Israeli culture. “Many Israelis don’t know much about Cochin Jewish culture. Maybe they met a Cochini person in the army,” she said. “But Indian food is popular in Israel, because Israelis love to visit India after they finish their army service.”

Cochin Jewish cuisine is similar to other types of South Indian cuisine, but also has influences from Iberian and Middle Eastern cooking. One example is pastel, pastries with a spicy filling that are similar to empanadas. Other staples include fish and egg curries, chicken stew, black-eyed pea stew, dosa (thin rice pancakes) and dishes cooked with coconut and mango.

Hadar’s favorite dishes to cook are idli and sambar, which are often eaten together. Idli is a type of savory rice cake, while sambar is a spiced lentil stew. Although Hadar says it’s difficult to maintain an Indian food business from an economic perspective, she’s passionate about cooking and enjoys creating homemade dishes with the right balance of spices.

Along with cooking, music is also important in Cochini culture. In most religious Jewish communities, women aren’t permitted to sing in front of men who aren’t their immediate relatives. However, this prohibition was not part of the Cochini tradition.

In the Cochin Jewish community, women have sung in Hebrew and Judeo-Malayalam for centuries. Piyyutim (liturgical poems) were sung in the synagogue or at people’s homes during holidays. Judeo-Malayalam folk songs were sung at weddings and special occasions, and the lyrics of these songs were recorded in notebooks to hand down to future generations. Later, many women also learned Zionist songs in preparation for moving to Israel. I have memories of my own grandmother singing these songs at home.

In recent years, audio recordings have been produced of Cochini songs, including a collection called “Mizmorim” (Psalms) featuring Hadar’s grandmother, Yekara Nehemya. Hadar then created her own version of one of the songs, “Yonati Ziv.”

Today, community leader Tova Aharon-Kastiel has organized a choir which meets once or twice a month at different locations. In the choir, Cochini and non-Cochini women, mostly aged 65-85, sing songs in Hebrew and Judeo-Malayalam. The older generation is eager for the younger generation to get involved, but since most younger Cochin Jews have a mixed background and are assimilated into mainstream Israeli culture, this is sometimes proving a challenge.

Still, many young Cochin Jews are eager to connect with their roots. The community maintains several Facebook groups, including one specifically geared towards the younger generation. The group description reads: “If you are a young Cochini, you surely know (at least partially) the wonderful heritage of our forefathers and mothers…  the sad truth is that this heritage is currently on its way to pass from the world.”

Shlomo Gadot is the CEO of Inuitive, a semiconductor company, and is actively involved with Cochini community projects. His nephew, Ori, runs the Facebook group for the younger generation. Shlomo says events are regularly held at the Indian Embassy in Tel Aviv for young Cochinis. “Normally the embassy gives them their office in Tel Aviv, and they invite the young Cochini people to come there and do a trivia contest,” he said. “They do it twice a year, once at Hanukkah and once at Passover.”

According to Shlomo, the embassy also has initiatives to create connections between Indian and Israeli tech companies. “Sometimes they invite people to the ambassador’s house or office to see how they can create connections between Israeli and Indian companies,” he said. “They also have a program to bring young people to India to help them get to know India better.”

Anil Abraham is one of the few Cochin Jews with recent memories of life in India. Born in Jerusalem, his family returned to India when he was 8 years old, and he lived there until age 35 before migrating back to Israel. He says he found growing up Jewish in India difficult, but rewarding. “It was very difficult to move there from Israel and learn Malayalam,” he said. “But it was amazing to be part of the community and enjoy Cochini food prepared from scratch. We used to attend prayers in the Paradesi Synagogue, because right now there are fewer than 20 Jews in Kerala.”

Today, Anil runs tours of Kerala for the Cochin Jewish community and others. “The kids travel with their parents and grandparents to India,” he said. “That’s how our traditions are passed down.”

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