( article appeared in Times of India, Kochi edition 31st August 2019)
On Friday, before Sara Cohen could light the shabath candles; and before Monday, when the call of Selihot, for festivities of the Jewish festivities begin on Monday, Sara; one of the last few Pardesi Jews of Kochi, closed her eyes and left for her heavenly abode at 96. She will be laid to rest at the cemetery near the synagogue at Mattancherry.
Sara was married to Jacob Cohen and became synomimus with Cochin Jews, as Sara was a living legend. Prof. Shalva Weil, senior researcher, RIFIE, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Israel; who has extensively researched Indian Jews, writes – “Sad. I knew her for 40 years. Everyone loved her. She was dearly looked after by Muslim caretaker for many years now. He expanded her embroidery cottage industry. There is no visitor to Cochin who didn’t pop in to buy a challah-cover (shababth-bread cover) or a kippa (yarmulke).”
A year back, when I was in Kochi, at Jew Town, Synagogue Street, Kochi, amidst spice shops, antique warehouses, old Jewish homes with railings and grilled windows with the Star of David, I saw Sara Cohen, one of the oldest Jews of this small community of Cochin Jews; sitting at the window of her home, watching tourists, as her craftsperson Celine embroidered ceremonial hamotsi covers, kippas, Jewish sacred textiles trimmed with lace borders and other ritualistic objects, which were on display in the foyer. Thaha, Sara’s caretaker and Man Friday was looking after Sara’s Embroidery shop in the hall of her house. He became part of her life, like a family member as outside her window with the grill of the Star of David, his uncle sold post cards.
He started helping her and set up the sales-center, which resembles a museum. It preserves the rich heritage and essence of a Jewish home, as it gives a rare insight into Jewish life, with Sara’s artifacts and a few black and white photographs of her family. Sitting at the window, as Sarah chants Hebrew prayers and keeps a watch on her kitchen, as her cook makes traditional Jewish dishes, which she had taught her, when she was in good health. Earlier, I had met Thoufeek Zakariya from Kochi, a chef by profession, who is also known for Hebrew calligraphy, which he learnt, as he often visited Sara Cohen, because, he lived in Jew Street at Fort Kochi, near the Pardesi Synagogue. Thoufeek had shown me the recipe of ‘pastel,’ shot on his cell-phone in Sara Cohen’s kitchen as he had grown up near her house. It is said; she also relished Kerala dishes, dhosa, idli, the Jewish chalalh bread and other dishes made by Cochin Jews.
Sara’s endeavour in the area of ceremonial Jewish embroidery began in 1984, when she started making kippas in satin and embroidering them, along with other textiles used for Jewish festivals. She also made runners for dining tables, handkerchiefs, asked some crafts-people to make coconut shell goblets, cups, hannukah candle stands, menorah-stands, mini-wood-toys of animals, as her multi-coloured kippas in shimmering satin or velvet, were displayed beautifully on a tree-shaped-stand. The kippas were known as “Souvenirs of the Past.” It was a favourite shopping destination for most tourists. She was inclusive of everybody she met; and this is seen in her embroidery of the map of India.
Sara preferred hand embroidered textiles. I noticed her craftsperson Celine embroidering these textiles, as Sara sat nearby; looking out of the window. In this room, there was a bedstead with a portrait of Sara wearing her late husband’s bright pink kippa, along with a poster of Prophet Moses with the plaque of the Ten Commandements.
As I think of Sara, I feel, it is the end of an era, which was a part of the history of India.