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Joshua Cogan April 25, 2013

Posted by Geoffrey Hiller in India.

Jewish Graveyard in Cochin, Kerala State, India 2011

Joshua Cogan (b. 1984, United States) is a photographer and anthropologist whose work focuses on documenting vanishing cultures, and those in transition.  He has also used technology and traditional storytelling for exploring social issues with photography and new media. In addition to his personal work on Diaspora Judaism in India, Ethiopia and Israel, Joshua has pioneered a number of innovative projects with ad agencies and NGO’s alike. He has won an Emmy in New Approaches to Storytelling for his collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting; Live Hope Love, a revelatory look at the silenced voices of HIV-positive Jamaicans enduring the stigmas of their society. His work has been published in the New Yorker, VQR, GQ, Washington Post, and the New York Times among others.

About the Photograph:

“Sometimes there is a experience that changes the whole story, and allows you to understand the purpose of the story you might be “trying” to tell. The picture is from Cochin, India in the state of Kerala. I had gone there to explore the community of Jews that had settled there as spice traders around the time of King Solomon. The members of the community had become quite small in number and I was struggling with how to tell the story of the remaining members and the impact the community had on the area.  I began to look for remnants of material culture, and I found them. Abandoned Synagogues, grown over Mikvehs and old pieces of Judaica scattered about curio shops. It was at  the Jewish Graveyard that I met four young men playing cards along the wall. They took an interest in me, and began to ask me questions about the project. I told them what I was up to and they assured me that they had something interesting to show me. It was Friday night, and I had been desperate to spend a sabbath with the Jewish Community, and spent most of the day asking them if there would be the required number of Jew’s for a service in the synagogue that night. Often it would require travelers and tourists to fulfill the needed ten, and it seemed to me that this was a very important part of the story.”

“I told the young men I would come with them, but only if the there would be no service that night. I ran back to the shul and saw from the dim lights that indeed there would be no service. And so I wandered back to where the men were playing and they led me to a grave that was far outside the walls and inside one of the chawl villages. Once there I saw this grave, it had Hebrew script but had essentially been “Hindu-ized” painted with bright colors, a stupa added to the top, and candle burnish and marigolds covered it. This was different than the way Jewish graves are generally treated and I immediately was fascinated by what I was observing, I asked my guides, but they could provide little context. It was then the these young men, of both Hindu and Muslim faith came over to begin lighting candles. When I asked them why…the simply replied “Shabbat”. About a week later I took an Israeli friend to translate that writing on the grave for me. It was a holy man named Avram Motah, a Kabbalist from somewhere in the middle east that had traveled to Cochin in the 16th century. It was revealed that he was considered such a pious man, that he has become a symbol to all faith communities of the island.”