Slouching towards Jerusalem: Cochinni Jews in the promised land
Meydad Eliyahu, a descendant of Malabari Cochinni Jews, is an Israeli citizen based in Jerusalem. Belonging to the second generation of Indian immigrants to Israel, Eliyahu is deeply attached to his ancestry – both in Israel and in Kochi. His work as an artist reflects his heritage and the juxtaposition of two different cultures, two histories, two worlds. His work is about human movement and memories in charcoal, pigment and tempera on paper.
Currently in Kochi, on his first trip to India, the nostalgia and mixture of emotions the 32-year-old is experiencing is obvious. Accompanying him in Fort Kochi are his wife, little daughter and parents. “My father was six years old when he left Cochin with his parents for Israel. Coming back here, for him, has been an immense personal effort,” Eliyahu says.
Part of it has to do with his father who doesn’t want to remember. “It is a mystery, this whole migration story. There were 2,000 people who left Cochin to Israel. I still have not found one person who would narrate their connection to Kerala. They won’t even say why they don’t want to speak about it. I am aware they lived well here, had established themselves here; a prosperous and happy community. But it looks like they have left those memories behind, never to be invoked. It was very emotional to hear my father speak in Malayalam for the first time, on this trip. Remember, he was only six years old when he left,” Eliyahi explains.
However, there is another work of his, an installation at Hansen Hospital historical building in Jerusalem, in oil and Formica that refers more directly to the silence that Cochinni Jews have surrounded themselves with. In this work, Eliyahu speaks of ‘Patient A.E.’. This person brings to light atrocities committed against children based on racial discrimination by a doctor named Sheba to young children of Cochinni Jew immigrants, who were forcibly separated from their families upon arrival in Israel. “For months they were subject to treatment for ringworm (a disease which was then treated using natural methods).The treatment included strong radiation of the scalp, smearing the children’s heads with liquid wax and pulling out the remaining hairs with tweezers,” Eliyahu says.
At the end of each treatment, the children’s heads were cleaned and disinfected and bandaged. Patient A.E. underwent this treatment and suffers Parkinson’s disease today, at the age of 40. But there is no attribution of this early barbaric treatment having contributed to his Parkinson’s.
Now, in search of the remnants of his ancestry, Eliyahu is making small discoveries. Like finding his great-grandfather’s grave and the reliving of many lives whose stories echo from within the walls of the ancient Jewish structures in Kochi. “I am afraid that the historic details left behind here are not understood in their full magnitude. A part of it now lies far away, in Israel. Yet amidst these many veiled secrets there are large questions that need to be answered. If not today, someday soon,” Eliyahu hopes.