The daughter, granddaughter and niece of fishermen, Tova Simon was never far from fresh, flavorful food during her childhood in Cochin, in southern India. One of nine children, Tova grew up in a mixed neighborhood of Christians, Muslims and Jews. On Jewish holidays, the Muslim and Christian neighbors would fill their porch with gifts of fruits and vegetables.
Tova’s family was part of the small, close-knit Cochin Jewish community, an observant community whose practices were influenced by the sights, sounds and tastes of India. On holidays, members of the community would celebrate by dressing in different colors: red and white for Rosh Hashanah, green for Sukkot and mixed colors for Simchat Torah. Women wore saris, and men wore long, loose, colorful garments. Though local schools were open on Saturday, Cochin Jews didn’t attend, and instead, the men and boys would spend the afternoon studying Torah with the rabbi.
Shabbat also stood out from the rest of the week because it was the only day on which Tova’s family ate meat. Throughout the week, they ate fish—fresh and hand-delivered by the patriarchs of the family—with stews, beans, lentils, peas and cooked vegetables. Rice, not bread or the well-known Indian naan, accompanied every meal, and India’s tropical fruits such as papaya, pineapple and mango also featured prominently.
In the 1950s, a Jewish Agency emissary visited Cochin to encourage aliyah (immigration to Israel). In 1954, Tova and her family were part of the first migration, about 100 people, who traveled for three days by train to Mumbai, stayed there with the other families in a large hall for about a month and then flew to Israel, settling in five moshavim (villages) in the Judean Plains.
In Israel, the family initially settled in an immigrant camp, where life was very difficult. They were eventually moved to Moshav Nevatim, a village that was home to many Cochin Jews. An exact replica of the Cochin synagogue was later built in Nevatim.
After living in a large house with extended family in Cochin, life in Israel was challenging. The family shared a small house that was sweltering in summertime, cold and heat-less in winter. Food was kept in iceboxes, and they cooked on a kerosene burner. As a second-grader, Tova adjusted quickly, but her parents had a harder time with the agricultural work and bare-bone conditions.
After studying at an agricultural high school in the south, then one in the north, Tova trained to become a secretary. Sjhe married a fellow Cochin Jew. They have lived on Moshav Makhasiya in the Mateh Yehuda region for over 30 years, along with 15 other Cochin families. Their community has also grown to include Moroccans and Israelis of diverse backgrounds.
Fifty years after leaving, Tova and her family visited Cochin and the Jewish community there. These days, only two Jewish families remain and, although life is peaceful there, Jewish cultural and religious life is waning.
In Israel, however, Tova keeps Cochin Jewish traditions alive. She hosts Shabbat dinner every week for her three children and their Indian, Kurdish and Moroccan spouses, preparing Cochin food and always serving fish as the first course, an homage to Cochin’s waters and the fishermen in her life.
Throughout the week, Tova joins other women in the region to sing songs and practice dances from Cochin. After years of rejecting traditional Indian clothing, Cochin Jews in Israel now embrace saris and panjabis.
Far from India, the flavors, colors and traditions of Cochin come full circle and live on.