MOTA, NEHEMIA (d. 1615?), poet whose influence in *Kochi (Cochin) remains very tangible to this day. The Malabari Jews honor the anniversary of his death on the first day of Hannukah with a special banquet followed by singing his hashkavah (Sephardi memorial prayer). But his religious significance extends to the Paradesis as well, and his tomb in Jew Town functions as the focal point of many vows, a spot for consolation in times of distress, and as an object of pilgrimage for Christians, Muslims, and Hindus as well as Jews.
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. Most authorities accept that Mota was from the Yemen; others say he was an Italian Jew who came to Kochi via Yemen, and still others hold that he was Polish. He married a woman from the black Jewish community. The 1757 edition of the Shingli Maḥzor contains about 20 of Nehemia's songs which, for reasons unknown, were deleted from the 1769 edition. They have reappeared in recent Israeli editions of the Shingli rite.
Nehemia's tomb is located down an alley in a poor area just south of Jew Town. It resembles the "village deity" (grammatadevata) shrines of South India, except for the absence of any images or symbols of the saint. The presence of Nehemia inspires fear as well as blessings – such ambivalent feelings typify the cults of the village deities. Women, Jewish and Gentile, make vows and light candles at the tomb whenever they face a crisis of health, an employment opportunity, or a long journey.
The incorporation of a foreign saint into the Hindu pantheon is not uncommon, and this mechanism serves to acculturate the foreign community into Hindu society.
Nehemia's tomb bears the following Hebrew transcription:
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.
N. Katz and E.S. Goldberg, The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India (1993); J.B Segal, A History of the Jews of Cochin (1993).
[Nathan Katz (2nd ed.)]