Monday, October 3, 2011

The Cochin Kabbalist - Nehemia Mota

By Bala Menon

In 1957, when the first communist government took power in Kerala and rushed through with the Land Reforms Act, scores of people occupied the Jewish cemetery in Mattancherry. The graveyard, which belonged to the Malabari Jews of Cochin, was in a state of neglect after the community had all left for Israel in the early 1950s.

The land was unofficially declared 'poramboke' or land without any claimants by politically vested interests in the area.  Squatters broke open the locked gate, destroyed the gravestones and built a shanty town of bamboo, tin and tarpaulin. The shanty town later gave way to shoddily constructed small homes of brick and mortar, sitting cheek by jowl, and is occupied today mainly by the Chrisitan community. The only grave that was left untouched in the cemetery was that of Nehemiah ben Abraham Mota, known to Western scholars as the Cochin Kabbalist. There are stories told about how the earth  shook near the tomb and there was a sudden fire when the encroachers tried to break the headstone.

"Here lies the Kabbalist and famous old man of sanctity
who emanated the light of his knowledge ..."

- so goes the inscription on the tombstone. The tomb of  Mota is considered sacred by the local Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Candles and lamps are lit there, asking the 'saint' for favours, cures to sterility, easy childbirth and for grant of yogic powers.

Washington photographer and anthropologist Joshua Eli Cogan has written how during a visit to Cochin he was astounded to see the condition of tthe tomb. "The grave had been 'Hinduized' -- it had been painted. There was a church close to the grave, and Christians came to light candles next to the grave. Then some Muslims and Hindu children came to light candles." (Cogan's work featuring colour photographs and historic objects called the Cochin Diary: Jewish Life in Southern India, was organized as a popular exhibit by the Bínai Bírith Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington, DC in October, 2006 and shown in many other places.

So who is this Nehemia Mota?

Mota (also called Namya Motta and Nomi Muttan - Muttan is 'old man' or 'grandfather' in Malayalam) was a Yemenite Jew, although some say that he came to Cochin sometime in the late 16th century from Iraq or Turkey, Morocco or Babylonia. Some others say he was Italian or Polish.  J.B. Segal, who was Professor of Semitic Languages at the University of London, said in an article in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (No 2, 1983) that the 'Yemenite Nehemiah ben Abraham Mota was a 'notable' recruit in the ranks of the 'Black Jews ' of Cochin." Mota, who is believed to be have been born in the 1570s, settled in Cochin in the latter part of the 16th century, and married a woman from the Malabar Jewish community.

Mota, whose scholarship and religious writings earned him the status of a rabbi, died in 1615. Soon after, he was elevated to the position of a patron saint and stories began circulating about his miracles, one of which said he could fly in the air to reach home in time for Sabbath prayers. Even today, the  anniversary of Mota's  death is celebrated on the first day of Hanukkah by a ceremonial hillula (festivity) during which the hashkavah (prayer for the dead) is recited along with the  qaddish (memorial prayer). Hanukkah or the 'Festival of Lights' generally falls in late November or early December.

Jewish belief does not have much to say about ideas like resurrection, and a belief in supernatural beings and intervention of holy persons are not part of the religion. In fact, most Cochini Jews also do not admit to belief in the supernatural or seeking 'blessings' from saints - although at an individual level many of them still do. Many Cochin Jews who settled in Israel in the 1950s still ask their relatives/friends in Ernakulam to light candles for various health and other problems related to their lives in Israel.

(In Judaism, Kabbalah is a set of mystical teachings explaining the relationship between an eternal and mysterious Creator and the mortal and finite universe (His creation). In Kabbalistic concepts,  God is neither matter nor spirit, but the creator of both. Kabbalists envision - in highly abstract terms - two aspects of God: (a) God Himself, who is ultimately unknowable, and (b) the revealed aspect of God that created the universe, preserves the universe, and interacts with mankind.. It also talks of the downward flow of Divine Light through the 'chain of creation' and emanations from God...).

In their fascinating book The Last Jews of Cochin, Dr. Nathan Katz and Ellen Golberg have written: "The earliest reference in scholarship devoted to Nehemia Mota is found in the 1907 edition of the Jewish Encyclopedia, where it is stated rather misleadingly that in 1615 a false messiah appeared among the Jews of Cochin in the person of Nehemia Mota".

Mota was a Kabbalist, a mystic who was frowned upon by the leading rabbis of the day in Europe and it is interesting to note that the 1757 edition of the  Shingli Maḥzor contained some 20 songs written by Nehemia Mota songs which were deleted from the 1769 edition. It is believed this was done  because of pressure from European Jews on the Cochinis.  Katz notes that the songs have reappeared in recent Israeli editions of the Shingli  (Cochin Jewish) rite. (Mahzor is the prayer book used by Jews during the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur),

Mota's sister Saidi is said to have made generous contributions to help build the Pardesi synagogue - but not much is known about her life in Cochin.

Mota is credited with composing several of the Cochini songs, which became a part of the Jewish liturgy. Most of them were collected in the kola or books of unique Hebrew writings, which are in the possession of members in the community.

 The full inscription on Mota's tombstone:
(as translated by the Late Itzhak Hallegua of Matttancherry's Pardesi Jews)
 He shines everywhere in the Jewish Dispersion
(He is) the perfect wise man
(and) the righteous person of divnity
(he is) the rav and teacher.
Nehemia, son of the rav and teacher, the wise and beloved
Abraham Muta (old person) of blessed and saintly memory
And he passed on his life to the (late) rabbanim ( expired)
On Sunday 28th of the month of Kislev
In the year of creation 5376 (1616AD)

The Jewish Virtual Library translation goes thus:
 Here rest the remains of
the famous kabbalist,
The influence of the light of whose learning
shines throughout the country,
The perfect sage, the hasid, and
God-fearing Nehemia, the son of
The dear rabbi and sage Abraham Mota.
Our Master departed this life on
Sunday, the 25th of Kislev, 5336.
May his soul rest in peace.

The tomb is on Mattancherry's Jew Street in the middle of the densely populated Chakkamadom colony just in front of  a house owned by a Christian. To reach it, one has to enter a narrow side street on the left, just before reaching the Pardesi synagogue. The road runs parallel to A.B. Salem street.  Located nearby are the Sree Subramanyam Hindu temple and St. Jacob's Chapel.

Dr. Katz says the tomb is reminiscent of the many  "village deity" (gramaadevata) shrines of South India, except for the absence of any images or symbols of  Mota.  The cost of maintaining the tomb is borne by one of the Pardesi Jews.
Suggested Readings:
N. Katz and E.S. Goldberg, The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India
J.B Segal, A History of the Jews of Cochin
Jewish Virtual Library (a division of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise)