Finding Vibrant Remnants of Jewish Life

Photographer's Passion for Diaspora Communities

joshua cogan

By Allison Good

Published November 22, 2011, issue of December 02, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When photographer Joshua Cogan traveled to Cochin, India, and northern Ethiopia in search of lost Jewish communities, he was not interested in approaching his subjects as symbols of decay and decline. “Every six months you’ll find articles that say, this is the last minyan, or this is the last Shabbos; but it’s never the last, there’s always something more that happens,” said Cogan, a documentarian who contributes to the Travel Channel. “I thought there must be some way to get their story across, so I looked at the culture that was left.” Cogan, 35, won an Emmy in 2009 for his photography in the “Live Hope Love” project about living with HIV in Jamaica. But he credits his grandmother with instilling in him a passion for Jewish Diaspora communities. “My grandmother traveled all over the world, so she taught me about the Jewish communities she visited,” he said.

The vision for his first project originally involved photographing Tunisia’s Jewish community, but those plans were derailed after an Al Qaeda bombing in front of the El Ghriba synagogue — the oldest in North Africa — on the island of Djerba in 2002.

Instead, he focused on his fascination for India and set out for Cochin. Cochin’s Jews use several different stories to explain their existence, but the most popular narrative centers on King Solomon, who established commercial relations with the Malabar Coast in what is now known as the southern Indian state of Kerala. His merchants and sailors intermarried with Indian women, and the Indian Jewish community was born.

At its peak, the Cochin community numbered 2,500. Today, most of the community has emigrated to Israel — a trend that began in 1948 — and less than 50 Jews remain. Still, Cogan did not encounter a dying community, but rather a rich dynamic of religious coexistence. He visited abandoned mikvahs, synagogues and gravesites, and befriended locals of various faiths.

Photographing the Falash Mura in Ethiopia in 2008, on the other hand, was an entirely different experience. “I went there looking for what was considered to be a lost Jewish community, so I had to do a lot more groundwork in order to find them,” Cogan said.

The extent to which religious plurality blurred the lines was both awe-inspiring and confusing, he added. “Ethiopian Orthodox is the dominant religion, but it’s a very Semitic-based, Old Testament Christianity,” Cogan said. “They have dietary laws, priests are called kahen and they believe they have the Ark of the Covenant, so a lot of their practices are similar to Judaism. Then you have the Jews, who have a lot of Ethiopian Orthodox practices.”

Cogan’s travels have resulted in exhibitions in New York and Washington. But his ultimate goal is to turn his passion into a full-time job. During a recent conversation, Cogan took the Forward on a photo journey of his work. To see more, go to www.joshuacogan.com.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.