Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Short History Of The Jewish Community Of Cochin

By Bala Menon
One of the tiniest and most ancient of all Jewish communities in the Diaspora is the Cochinim or the Cochin Jews in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala. They trace their history on the Malabar coast 2,000 years ago, first landing on those pristine shores as sailors in the fleets of King Solomon to purchase spices, apes, peacocks and precious metals.
Songs and oral traditions of this community give us a glimpse of their early settlements in Malabar in places like Paloor, Madai and the port of Cranganore (today’s city of Kodungalloor), soon after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. They call this the ‘First Diaspora’. One of the stories suggests they are descendants of Jews taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century BCE and came to India after being freed by Persian king Cyrus the Great.

The community is today disappearing quickly with only about 40 left in Kerala state, seven in the town of Mattancherry in Kochi and the rest spread around the city of Ernakulam and surrounding areas. There are no services or prayers although one of the most famous of the synagogues, the Paradesi in Mattancherry, is still open and functional during festival days when Israeli tourists gather or when a Chabbad Rabbi visits from Mumbai. Most members of the seven Jewish congregations left en masse for Israel during the 1950 with the stragglers following them in the ensuring decades.

Recorded history shows that Jews were present in Kerala in 849 CE. Hebrew names were engraved on copper plates granted by a Kerala Hindu King Ayyan Adikal Thiruvadikal of Venad (near modern-day Kollam or old Quilon) to Syrian Christian settlers, led by one Mar Sapir Iso, who were part of a trade guild called Manigramam. The Jews signed these Tharissapalli plates as witnesses, along with others who signed in the Pahlavi and Kufic languages. The plates were given on behalf of the Chera ruler Sthanu Ravi Varman.*

In 1000 CE, the legendary Kerala emperor Cheraman Perumal Kulashekhara Bhaskara Ravi Varman, from his palace at Mahodayapuram in the Cranganore area, issued two copper plates to a Jewish merchant Issappu Irrappan ( Joseph Rabban), believed to be of Yemeni descent. The plates conferred on the Jewish community 72 proprietary rights equivalent to those held by the Nairs, the then nobles of Malabar.** This was during the 100-year war between the Kerala Cheras and the Imperial Cholas of the Tamil kingdoms and it is believed that the Jewish community contributed men and material (especially naval forces) to help the Chera emperor in the war efforts.***

Replicas of these plates were presented to a delighted then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres on September 09, 1992, when he visited India6 - a heart-warming piece of evidence that there was a safe haven for Jews in this little corner of India, centuries before the dream of Israel became a reality.•

The original copper plates are preserved in the magnificent 460-year  old Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin, the oldest functioning synagogue in the Commonwealth. (Israeli president Eizer Weizman visited the synagogue in January 1997, hailing Cochin as a “symbol of the persistence of Judaism and of aliyah ... I pay tribute to India for taking care of the Jews and their places of worship ...”).••

The copper plate inscriptions mention that several land rights and other honours were being given to the Jews in perpetuity “as long as the earth and the moon remain”. Rabban was also made chief of a powerful trade guild called Anjuvannam. (Many early Western writers believed Anjuvannam to be a princely state.) Thus began the privileged existence of the Jews in Kerala. For almost five centuries, they thrived in their major settlement of Cranganore as traders and artisans.

By the 17th century, there were 11 congregations with their own synagogues – three in Mattancherry (Kadavumbhagam, Thekkumbhagam and Paradesi), two in Ernakulam (Kadavumbhagam and Thekkumbhagam- yes, same names!), one each in Chennamangalam, Mala, Paloor,  Muttam and Tirutur, and a splendid one in Paravur (at that time under the control of the King of Travancore). Cochin Jewish songs also tell of a synagogue in a place called Southi (this has not yet been identified!)†

In his 1920 book Jews of Asia, Sidney Mendelssohn tellingly wrote: “While the Jews of Europe, from the 10th to the 16th centuries, were living under conditions, which, for a portion of the period, were stigmatized by Milman14 as the ‘Iron Age of Judaism’, and while persecutions drove the scattered race in turn out of England, France, Spain, Portugal, Holland and Germany, as well as other less important regions, their brethren in the Far East, in the lands of the ... potentates of India, were living  a life of peace and plenty, far away from the bigots, the robber kings, the conversionists, the Inquisitors, and the Crusaders."††

It is of interest to note here that in the late 18th century, Cochin was more important to the Jews than New York.Walter Fischel, a scholar of Oriental Jewry, wrote: “Cochin, one of the oldest Jewish settlements on Asian soil, had a much larger Jewish community than New York and surpassedit not only numerically, but also culturally. The Cochin Jewish community in 1792 had about 2000 Jews ... and 9 synagogues of considerable antiquity, while New York had only 72 Jewish families and only one synagogue."†††

Today, there are several flourishing Cochini moshavim (settlements in Israel) - Nevatim and Shahar in the south, Aviezer, Mesilat Zion and Taoz. near Jerusalem and Kfar Yuval in the far north. (Mesilat Zion boasts signs like Rehov Cochin and Rehov Malabar - rehov means street in Hebrew - dating to the early 1950s.) Sizeable numbers of Cochinis live in Binyamina,Petah Tikva, Rishon Le Zion, Ashdod, Jerusalem and Haifa. Moshav Nevatim also boasts a beautiful Cochini synagogue. The interior is a copy of the Kadavumbhagam synagogue of Ernakulam and the Holy Ark and the Torah scrolls were all brought from various synagogues in Cochin. A Cochin Heritage Museum has been set up near the synagogue.

* Aiyya, V. N. Nagom, Travancore State Manual, p. 244.
 ** Menon, Sreedhara A., A Survey of Kerala History, p. 45.
***  M.G.S. Narayanan, Cultural Symbiosis in Kerala, Kerala Historical Society, Trivandrum, p .34.
•• From video of Weizman’s visit to the Paradesi Synagogue. In possession of Bala Menon
  This was documented by a delegation of Jews from Amsterdam, led by Moses Pereyra de Paiva, that visited Cochin in 1685. Pereyra wrote about this visit in his Nostesias os Judeos de Cochin in 1687. (The synagogues  of Paloor, Muttam and Tirutur have disappeared - believed to have been abandoned or destroyed.)
††  Mendelssohn, Sidney, The Jews of Asia, Chapter VIII, p. 99. 
††† Walter Fischel - From Cochin, India, to New York, pp. 265-67, cited by Katz on page 102. Harry Austrynn Wolfson Jubilee Volume. Jerusalem: American Academy for Jewish Research, pp. 255-75.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Mala Jewish Cemetery To Make Way For Congress Memorial

By Bala Menon

The centuries-old Jewish Cemetery in the town of  Mala, some 53 km north of Cochin (Kochi),  is slated for demolition, under pressure from the local Congress representative in the Kerala Assembly T.N. Prathapan, the online newspaper Marunaadan Malayali has reported. The plan is to build a memorial for former Congress chief minister K. Karunakaran. The cemetery is located in the heart of the town's upscale residential area.

The Mala Jewish Cemetery - the sign says Mr. Karunakaran is the Member of Parliament for Mala.
It was in 1955 that the entire Mala congregation emigrated to Israel, leaving the synagogue and the cemetery in the hands of the local panchayat (ruling body). The conditions of the transfer deed was that the properties could not be sold or altered. It was agreed that the synagogue could be used as a community meeting place for the residents of Mala, but that the sanctity of the cemetery be preserved. It is said that there are more than a hundred graves in the cemetery. Three tombs are visible and stands above ground.
A plaque on the cemetery wall, handing over the propery - dated April 01, 1955.
(Mala was one of the towns that the Jews sought refuge after being driven out from Kodungalloor by the Portuguese in the early 16th century.)

In clear violation of legal and binding documents, local Congress leaders first encroached on the 4-acre burial ground carving out one and half acres for a park and soccer field. One of the clauses in the title deed reads:"…there will be no trespass or molestation of the tombs. Nor shall any portion of the cemetery be dug or unearthed. The compound wall bounding the cemetery on all sides and the gate in it shall be preserved…"

The process began in 1994, but the Jews of Ernakulam heard about the plan and approached the Kerala High Court which granted a stay on all construction until 2005. However, the local governing body went ahead and constructed an open-air stage. Neither the Jews from the Mala congregation in Israel and the Jews in Ernakulam knew anything about this event until later.

The new plan, recently launched by MLA Prathapan and his supporters is to use the remaining 2 1/2 acres of land to build a memorial for  Karunakaran, who died on December 23, 2010. (Karunakaran was born in Mala in 1918 and represented the constituency for many terms.)
Workers and equipment on the cemetery grounds. - Pic: Marunadan Malayali.

The project - which has already commenced - calls for $2 million to be invested first in a Karunakaran Sports Academy in the cemetery. Two Ernakulam Jews Dan Elias and Aby Abraham have now approached the High Court again asking for an injunction against to all construction. The project also calls for the construction of a shopping complex and washroom facilities on the cemetery grounds.

Several residents in Mala and the town of Kodungalloor (the ancient Shingly of the Cochin Jews) have also banded together to oppose the project, saying it is a desecration and a move to erase an important part of Kerala history. It is also ironic that the project is being pushed through in total contradiction to the international publicity being given by the Kerala government to the Muziris and the Spice Route projects, it has been pointed out.

Mala was one among the eight major congregations of the Cochin Jews - the other seven being Chennamangalam, Paravur, two in Ernakulam and three in Mattancherry (including the Paradesi).

Friday, November 22, 2013

"Where The Heart Is" - Film on Cochin Jews premieres in Kochi

By Bala Menon

A documentary film on Cochin Jews and shot in Kerala and Israel - "Where The Heart Is - Jerusalem, Byzantium and Then...Ernakulam" - had its world premiere at the David Hall Art Galllery and Cafe in Fort Cochin on Friday, November 22.

Directed by my friend Rohan Sabharwal and co-produced with Irshad Daftari, the 50-minute film tells about the wonderful experience that the Jews had in Kerala over the past 2000 years.

As Rohan puts it: "Unlike virtually every other place in world where Jews have lived, the Jews of India have never experienced persecution, discrimination, and massacres from Indians for being Jewish. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that, despite the community being relatively microscopic in size compared to other minorities in India, it's socio-economic contribution has been very high."

This clip is Chapter 1 (The Introduction) of five that goes to make the complete film. More than a dozen interviews were conducted in Kochi, Ernakulam and in many cities of Israel with Cochini Jews who have settled in the Holy Land - and these have been incorporated into the film.

The narration begins with the time the Jews began arriving in Kerala and the grant of the famous copper plates by the Chera Emperor Bhaskara Ravi Varman in about 1000 CE, in which the Jews were granted several privileges 'for as long as the world and the moon endure."

It then goes on to interview some members of the Jew Town community from Mattancherry (Sarah Cohen, Mathew Anthony), the caretaker of the Kadavumbhagam Synagogue in Ernakulam (Babu) Elias Josephai and then to community members in Israel. Some of them include Dr. Essie Sassoon (who recently co-authored a book "Spice & Kosher - Exotic Cuisine of the Cochin Jews"), Saul Basil Koder, Avithal Elias, Eshter Hallegua-Simon, Yaniv Koder etc.

View the main trailer of "Where the Heart Is" here:

In Rohan's words:"I must confess that this is not my first rendezvous with Cochin, particularly the Fort Cochin and Mattancherry areas. Sometime ago I had the pleasure of interacting with the famed and now nearly extinct Jewish community in Jew Town, Mattancherry. I visited and spoke to the last remaining members of the community and interviewed their descendants now settled in Israel. It was a journey of great historic importance to our country and the world. It spoke about prosperity and acceptance. It spoke about conflict, struggle, preservation and equality..."

Filmkaker Rohan Sabharwal (left) and the poster for the film.
"In retrospect, one can see how the Jews thrived in Kerala. It is a state where cultures prevailed and communities thrived, a state that’s abundant in natural resources, flora and fauna. It’s an intellectual state that has the highest literacy rate in the country. There are more college and university graduates in Kerala than anywhere else in India and perhaps the world. People are civic-minded and considerate, agriculture thrives, capitalists are humane and community well being is of utmost importance."

"Where the Heart Is" (See Website here) was completed in October 2012 but release was held up because Rohan wanted to premiere the film in Kochi. One of the biggest companies in Kerala, CGH Earth Group, offered one of their major properties David Hall for the screening.

Rohan Sabharwal is an award-winning documentary filmmaker. He is well known in the short film arena both in India and the UK with his films having been screened at the Festival de Cannes, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, The Regency Fairfax Cinema, Hollywood and the Kalaghoda Arts Festival, Mumbai. His work has been picked up for distribution by Journeyman Pictures, Europe’s largest distributor for factual entertainment.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Prince Charles in Synagogue Lane and in Paradesi Synagogue

By Bala Menon

Prince Charles and his wife Camilla Parker Bowles, Duchess of Cornwall, was in Jew Street, Mattancherry on November 14 - which was also his 65th birthday.


He walked the length of Synagogue Lane, stopping to accept birthday wishes from people who lined the street. In the Paradesi Synagogue, the Prince was received by warden Queenie Hallegua, who talked about some historical aspects of the Cochin Jewish community.

A traditional Jewish prayer of blessing was held for the Royal Family. The Prince and Duchess were then shown the ancient Torah scrolls and the ancient copper plates given by Emperor Cheraman Perumal to Jewish leader Joseph Rabban in 1000 CE.

"The prince examined the copper plates presented by the Raja of Cranganore to Joseph Rabban... These plates granted special privileges to our community, which included the waiver of taxes and the right to use palanquins and parasols. Written in ancient Tamil, these plates say that the Jewish community could enjoy these rights till the time the sun and moon exists," said Hallegua to media persons later.

They were also shown the gold and silver crowns that adorn the Torah cases. The Royal Couple spent more than 30 minutes in the synagogue and they were presented with a photograph of Queen Elizabeth when she visited the synagogue in 1997, along with photographs of the famed blue Chinese tiles and a replica of the copper plates.

Present in the synagogue were members of the Cochin Jewish community from Mattancherry, Aluva, Paravur and Ernakulam, along with Dr. Kocha Varma of the Cochin Royal Family, who is also the founding-patron of the Cochin Royal Family Historical and Heritage Society. The Prince was also greeted by P.P. Mathew, president of the Kerala Chapter of the Indo-Israeli Friendship Society.

It has been reported that  Prince Charles (although not Jewish) was circumcised as a child by a "royal mohel" - a person trained in the the practise of brit milah, the 'covenant of circumcision'. There is also said to be historical data linking the English royal family to ancient Jewish roots - through the royal house of the Mergovingians in Europe. Mary, Queen of Scots, acknowledged her Jewish ancestry.

Video Courtesy: The Daily Mail online.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

'Onam' In The Land of Israel: Nostalgic About Kerala

By Bala Menon

The main festival of Kerala is known as Onam† and is celebrated by Keralites with food and cultural programs wherever they settle.  However, it took around 50 years for the Cochinis in Israel to begin public Onam celebrations. Many say they marked it in their own homes even through the early years of hardship and the difficulty of getting the required ingredients for the various recipes.

It was the late Sima Molly Muttath Pal of Hadera, a town close to Haifa, who first organized a community Onam feast. In her book, Being Indian, Being Israeli, Prof. Maina Singh Chawla, quotes Sima as saying in 2008: “We have been talking nostalgically about Onam as we celebrated it with our childhood friends in Kerala and in 2004 we decided to call in a few friends ... and more people joined in every year.”* Chawla adds that Onam “became an occasion for the Jews of Cochin to bond together along ethnic lines and reconnect symbolically with an Indian past.”

Over the next few years, the festival grew exponentially and in 2011, the Onam celebrations, with a variety entertainment program and a traditional feast, attracted more than 2,000 people at the Central Bus Terminal hall in Tel Aviv. Apart from the Cochin Jews, there is also a sizeable population of non-Jewish Keralites working in Israel today in the health and long-term care sector on work permits. Onam feasts are strictly vegetarian with food served on banana leaves. The spread is sumptuous and comprise 14 or more dishes, ending with one or two desserts called payasams.•
A section of the audience at the Jaffa Onam celebrations
Recently, the  Israel Malayalees Tel Aviv Community held a grand Onam celebration at the St. Anthony' s Church in Jaffa in the southern and oldest areas of Tel Aviv. Jaffa - known as the Queen of the Sea, is a cosmopolitan city of about 50,000, with sizeable Jewish, Arab and Christian populations.
A song and dance sequence at the celebrations
Prof. Ophira Gamliel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (who is  a fluent Malayalam speaker and scholar on Cochin Jewish traditions) was a special guest at the event. Here is what she has to say: "Hundreds attended, prepared food and shared it, prepared a lovely program of laughter and songs, and recreated Kerala in my native place (how exciting!). 
Keralites in Israel at the St. Anthony's Church in Jaffa
"I was asked to say a few words, utterly unprepared, and basically what I could think of off hand in Malayalam (of course!) was to say something like: This old city of Jaffa is kadal-amma (sea goddess), and She brought over here King Maveli all the way from Kerala to meet his people in this land. It was an awesome function."

There were  many Cochin Jews also in the gathering, along with Indian embassy officials with "all of us sitting respectfully in the first row…"

Apart from this public gathering, there were private Onam celebrations in many Cochin Jewish homes. As one of them, Sini Shifra Mutath-joshua commented on social media:"Onam in Holy Land!!! A tradition built by my dearest sister-in-law Molly…her love and dedication for her motherland Kerala …your family and friends are continuing the tradition with lots of happy memories of you on this day…"

 †Onam is a harvest festival falling in August/September. Legend has it that a demon-king called Mahabali once ruled over a prosperous Kerala. The Gods were envious and connived to push him down into the netherworld, allowing him to visit his people only during Onam. Keralites celebrate this homecoming.) 
*Chawla, Singh Maina, Being Indian, Being Israeli, Manohar, New Delhi, 2010, p. 185. 
• Paragraph is excerpt from a recent book "Spice & Kosher: Exotic Cuisine of the Cochin Jews".

Friday, November 1, 2013

Mourning In Mattancherry: Rachel Sassoon Cohen Passes Away

By Bala Menon

Jew Town, Mattancherry, is in mourning. One of its members Rachel Sassoon Cohen passed away early on November 1 after a long and debilitating illness. The funeral is on Sunday and she will be buried at the Jewish cemetery on A.B. Salem Road just off Synagogue Lane.

Rachel (pictured) or 'Patha' as she was known affectionately in the community, was in her early 80's and lived alone in a house opposite the Paradesi Synagogue. Her husband Sunny Cohen passed away several years ago. They had no children.

Rachel had one brother Haim Sassoon, who lived in Ashdod (Israel). Haim died a few years ago. Her sister-in-law Ruby and nephews and nieces live in Ashdod.

With the death of Rachel Sassoon Cohen, there are only seven people left among the Paradesi Jewish Community in Cochin.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Prince Charles To Visit Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi

By Bala Menon

Prince Charles of Great Britain will visit the Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry, Kochi, on November 11.

Charles and his wife the Duchess of Cornwall Camilla Park Bowles are scheduled to tour India from November 6 to 14, ahead of the Commonwealth Summit in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Their itinerary includes visits to Dehradun, New Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Kochi.

However, Charles will be visiting Kochi alone while Camilla will be at the Doon School in Dehradun at the same time. Charles will be meeting with the  remaining members of the Kerala Jewish community at the synagogue and sign the Visitors' Book. He will also make an 'off-road' trip into what officials called 'an elephant corridor'. The Paradesi Synagogue is the oldest functioning synagogue in the Commonwealth.

Prince Charles's love of elephants is well-known and is attributed to the influence of Mark Shand, Camilla's brother, who runs a charity in London called Elephant Family. Shand is also a noted travel writer and has visited Kerala several times. The Kerala Elephant Corridor is a 2,200-acre (6 x 1.5km) strip of land within the largest stronghold of Asian elephants in the world. It is officially known as the Tirunelli-Kudrakote Corridor and is part of the Wyanad Wildlife Sanctuary.

The interior of the Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry.
It was in October 1999 that his mother Queen Elizabeth made a memorable trip to Synagogue Lane and met members of the Kerala Jewish community at the Paradesi Synagogue. She was received at the time by then warden of the synagogue the late Sammy Hallegua and his wife Queenie.

Prince Charles' Clarence House residence officials told media in London that this will be his eighth official visit to India and the third with Camilla. ""They will undertake a broad range of engagements to promote the strong UK-India partnership in key areas such as conservation, education, growing business links, women's empowerment and training," the statement said.

"They will also have the opportunity to celebrate religious diversity, creativity and the vibrant individual family ties between the two countries."

Prince Charles  will be celebrating his 65th birthday in Colombo with 'some singing and a cake' (and there will be a small birthday eve party in Kochi)  and royal sources insisted the Prince “doesn’t want any fuss” about the fact that he will be eligible for his free seniors'  bus pass once he returns to Britain. Charles will be representing Queen Elizabeth, the head of the Commonwealth at the 53-member heads of government meeting in Colombo.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

'Western Jews in India' also talks of Cochin Jews & A.B. Salem

By Bala Menon

Noted American psychiatrist, collector of south Asian art and Jewish scholar, Dr. Kenneth X. Robbins MD, has just published his new book, along with co-author Marvin Tokayer, "Western Jews in India", with some chapters devoted to the Jews of Cochin.

I have been in contact with Dr. Robbins for a long time now, especially with regard to his knowledge of the erstwhile Cochin Kingdom, its Jewish population and their artifacts and the martial traditions of Kerala. (Marvin Tokayer was Rabbi of the Jewish community of Japan and Vice-President of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Southeast Asia and the Far East. He has authored more than 20 Japanese books on Judaica.)

Dr. Robbins' book is the first of its kind describing the role of Western Jews in South Asian political affairs, medicine, painting, architecture and religion and is part of a 8-volume project about Indian Jews, including the military history of the Bene Israelis, Holocaust refugees and Jews in Bollywood.

In a personal communication this week, Dr. Robbins said: "The opening chapter is an extensive timeline dealing with all Jews in South Asia, summarizing the contributions of European and Indian Jews to the Indian Subcontinent. Many of the foreign Jews left behind their Jewish identities after coming to Inda. Others remained Jews, but functioned as individuals unconcerned with implementing any 'Jewish agenda'”.

Dr. Robbins adds: "The Mother, a great mystic and leader of the famed Aurobindo Ashram, was a French artist with a Turkish Jewish background. Maurice Frydman (Bharatananda), an important associate of Nisargadatta Maharaj and other gurus, tried to create a Gandhian democracy in Aundh. Muhammad Asad (Leopold Weiss) was an important Islamic political thinker and government official in Pakistan. (The Mother of Aurobindo Ashram was born Mirra Alfassa in Paris in 1878 and ran the Aurobindo Ashram for nearly 50 years.)

"Jews provided the Portuguese, who persecuted them, with language skills and access to trading networks. Jean-Baptiste Ventura became commander of the Sikh armies. In 1921, Lord Reading and Edwin Montagu were the two highest British officials governing India.

"Garcia da Orta was a founder of tropical medical botany in the sixteenth century. Waldemar Haffkine, who created anti-cholera and plague vaccines, undertook large-scale vaccination programs in India. Louis Kahn created the iconic National Parliament House in Bangladesh. The buildings of Moshe Safdie, Joseph A. Stein, and Stanley Tigerman are very well known in India and Bangladesh."

A.B.Salem at the Simchat Torah celebrations in the Paradesi Synagogue in 1965.
The book has articles written by a distinguished international group of scholars along with hundreds of illustrations - paintings, photographs, maps, medals, stamps,  documents and pictorial essays on painters and architects.

There are two wonderful colour pictures in the book of Abraham Barak Salem, the foremost Cochin Jewish leader of the 20th century.

Dr. Robbins has published more than 60 articles dealing with Indian history, art, religion, philately, numismatics and medicine. He has also served as curator of more than a dozen exhibitions on these themes, some of them on the Jews of Cochin and South India. In 1989, he gifted a valuable collection of 45 photographs of Mahabat Khanji Rasukhanji Babi Bahadur, who was the last ruling Nawab of Junagadh in British India from 1911 to 1947 to the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C

Dr. Kenneth Robbins addressing the Cochin Royal Family at the 2005 event.
In 2005, Dr.  Robbins led a delegation of B'nai B'rith International to Cochin to present an award to the curent members of the Cochin Royal Family in honour of their ancestors who welcomed and protected the Jewish community for centuries.

In a foreword to the "Western Jews In India", Dr. Kocha Varma, Founder of the Cochin Royal Family Historical Society, says: "Over the centuries, my ancestors in the Ruling Family of Cochin accorded to Jews a status unheard of elsewhere. The Rajas befriended, protected and  favoured Jews and encourage them to settle in Cochin and openly practice their religion…"

Another foreword has been written by Lt. General J.F.R. Jacob, PVSM (Retired), one of the heroes of India's 1971 war with Pakistan which created the country of Bangaldesh. Gen. Jacob is a Baghdadi Jew from Calutta.

Dr. Robbins is now working on organizing an exhibition on the Jews of India for New York's Rubin Museum of Art in 2015, collecting photographs and objects from various Jewish communities of the sub-continent. The museum is centred on themes related to Himalayan Asia.

"Western Jews in India" is priced at $85:00 plus $5:00 postage and handling for American addresses. No credit card payments. Price of postage to other countries not yet set. Payments to be sent to Kenneth X. Robbins 5055 Seminary Road Suite 108 Alexandria, VA 22311.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Magnes releases Mandelbaum film clip on Cochin Jews

By Bala Menon

The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, one of the world's best-known repository of Judaica, has just released a video on 'Scenes of Jewish Life in Kerala', giving a glimpse of outdoor life in Jew Town, Mattancherry in the early 20th century.

The 16 mm, silent, black and white film, archived at the Bancroft Library of the University of California in Berkeley, was made by anthropologist David Mandelbaum  in 1937 when he visited the then Kingdom of Cochin to document the life and rituals of the Jews of the Cochin.  (Note: not all the people shown in the film are Jews; the Simchat Torah celebration sequence was filmed at the Paradesi synagogue in Mattancherry.)

It also looks like Mandelbaum has filmed the entire Synagogue Lane on which there were three synagogues at the time. At the north end was the Paradesi, at the south end was the Kadavumbhagam and in the middle there was the Thekhumbagam. Most of the Jews in the north end were small merchants and poultry sellers as opposed to the wealthier Jews of the Paradesi congregation. Mandelbaum has not filmed the Jews of Mala, Paravur and Chennamangalam, many of whom were wealthy farmers and owned coconut, rice and pepper plantations.)

David Goodman Mandelbaum, who was born in  Chicago in 1911, was among the earliest of western scholars to undertake field trips to India for ethnographic studies. Before his focus on India, he studied the San Carlos Apaches of Arizona and later the Plans Cree First Nations in Saskatchewan, Canada.  He also spent about two years (1937-1938) studying the Kota and Toda tribes in the Nilgiri Hills in the then Madras Presidency.

Most of the research material and photographs he collected in Cochin were published in "The Jewish Way of Life in Cochin" (Jewish Social Studies Vol 1, No. 4 - Oct. 1939) and in other articles. In the main article, Mandelbaum wrote of "life in Cochin is conducted strictly according to the precepts of the Shulhan arukh, the orthodox codex" and again "Judaism flourishes in Cochin because the syna- gogue complex embraces every phase of the culture and serves all the needs of social life."2

During the Second World War II he served in the army as an officer in Southeast Asia. In 1946, he joined the Berkeley Department of Anthropology, working there until retiring in 1978. He, however, continued as Professor Emeritus, until his death on April 19, 1987, after a long battle with cancer.  He was instrumental in the creation of the Kroeber Hall and the Lowie Museum of Anthropology and also played a key role in establishing the University's Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies.

Mandelbaum's interests covered a wide spectrum of research areas, 'but India remained his greatest love and it is for his contributions to Indian studies that he is particularly well known."4

The Magnes collection was known earlier as the Judah L. Magnes Museum. Founded in 1962 by Seymour Fromer (who died in 2009 at the age of 87) and his wife Rebecca Camhi, the Magnes has  secured and restored several articles from Jewish Cochin. Among the treasures is the Torah Ark from the  demolished Thekkumbhagam Synagogue  (which was located near the Paradesi Synagogue) at Mattancherry. Dating to the early 17th century, the ark has elaborate carvings in red, green and gold colours. A draped central cartouche on top of four wooden pillars is inscribed with the words 'Crown of the Torah' in Hebrew.

2. The Jewish Way of Life in Cochin, David Mandelbaum, Jewish Social Studies/JSTOR

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Cochin Jewish copper plates - theme of installation at Biennale

By Bala Menon

The priceless copper plates of the Cochin Jews was a major topic of discussion at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. (The Biennale ran from December 12, 2012 to March 13, 2013 with a series of live performances, art shows, lectures, films and cultural events throughout the three months.)
One of the copper plates - in the Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry

Jewish artist Joseph Semah made these plates the theme of an intriguing installation at the famed Aspinwall House (once a warehouse that stocked coconut, pepper and other valuable spices  - commodities that the Jews of Cochin traded in for centuries.)

It was in 1000 CE that the legendary Kerala emperor Cheraman Perumal presented the set of plates to a Jewish leader named Joseph Rabban, granting him 72 proprietary rights equivalent to the Nairs who were then nobles of Malabar.

Emperor Kulashekhara Bhaskara Ravi Varman received Rabban in his palace at Mahodayapuram (near today's Kodungalloor) and made him the head of a powerful trade guild called Anjuvannam, conferring on him the special privileges "as long as the world, sun and moon endure."
Joseph Semah - with part of his installation at Aspinwall House.
The privileges included the use of aristocratic symbols like riding an elephant or palanquin, carrying weapons, lighting of special lamps, walking on a carpet, blowing trumpets and beating drums and the commercially important right to levy duties and tolls and exemption from taxes. The plates, written in the ancient Vattezhuthu script of Malayalam, were signed by seven governors of the provinces under the Chera emperor. The two rectangular plates are today preserved in the Holy Ark of the Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry. (Look out for a future blog on the copper plates.)
Semah's installation - the table with copper plates and threads running through 22 holes.
Semah's installation featured a 22-metre wooden table (representing the 22 letters in the Hebrew language), with 72 copper plates wedged in rows. Five thousand metres of thread (representing the circumference of the Old City of Jerusalem) were woven through holes (corresponding to the constellations above Jerusalem) and left snaking on the floor. The wall facing the installation displayed 72 drawings, each measuring 42 cm x 32 cms, done in Indian ink on tracing paper and sewn together with white thread into a sheet of music notes: the drawings made for a visual guide to the 72 privileges granted to Joseph Rabban. The whole installation dominated one entire warehouse on the second storey of the building.

Joseph Semah was born in Baghdad, but grew up in Tel Aviv and later moved to the Netherlands. The 64-year-old is a self-taught artist and "today runs the Makkom Foundation in Amsterdam and executes projects based on interdisciplinary research in the arts."
Art enthusiasts light up the 'privileges' which were then placed in wine glasses.
The installation was a major cultural event in Kochi, and the opening day saw "believers of the Islamic, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish and secular traditions, standing back to back and reading from their holy texts." This was followed by an extempore dance by 72 children holding wine glasses. A recording of the performance (along with the glasses with a flame inside them) was later made part of the installation.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale attracted more than 400,000 people. As the organizers said: "Art was taken out the galleries and onto streets and everyday places." In Kochi, it was bungalows and ancient warehouses that became art centres, hosting 80 artists from 24 countries." The exhibits were located at 14 places, including Jew Town in Mattancherry, Fort Kochi, Ernakulam and Kodungalloor, the site of the legendary port of Muziris.

Malayala Manorama Online -

Friday, March 1, 2013

Famous 'Jerusalem Pattanam' song performed at Kochi concert

By Bala Menon

Jerusalem Pattanam, a famous Judeo-Malayalam song of the Cochin Jews, was one of the attractions recently at the ongoing Kochi-Muziris-Biennale.

The song was performed at a live concert organized at Changampuzha Park in Edapally (Ernakulam) on January 20. The Biennale began on December 12, 2012 and will end on March 13 and events are held at various venues in and around Kochi in Kerala.

The Jerusalem Pattanam song was rendered along with a traditional nauka (boat) song by Carnatic vocalist and composer Dr. Sreevalsan Menon.

The song talks of :
"Glorious Jerusalem,
It will renew again...

rise in all it glory and shine ..
...(in the land) you gave us, let us thrive
...all who praise you, protect every one..

Dr. Nathan Katz, Professor and Founding Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Florida International University (FIU) in Miami, posted a  Facebook note that he and his wife Ellen Goldberg had heard this song when they lived in Kochi in the early 1990s while gathering material for their book The Last Jews of Cochin. "The song was a favourite of the Jewish women there."

At the concert, in a brief introduction, Dr. Menon thanked Dr. Aju Narayanan of U.C. College in Alwaye for assistance in getting the lyrics and Sarah Cohen of Mattancherry who sang this song for Next Year in Jerusalem,  a 1991 documentary on the community. 

The Kappalile Kolum Kattum boat song talks about the arrival of the Jews on the Kerala coast and their subsequent prosperity.

Dr. Sreevalsan Menon
Braving the storms and the waves,
we came on a ship…
now the bride gets into the bridegroom's boat
...the bridegroom gets into the bride's boat,

…there are colourful silk clothes
in bright green and red 
...there are pearls
...and with great happiness we all board the boat

Dr. Sreevalsan Menon was accompanied on stage by Edapally Ajithkumar on the violin,  Changanacherry B. Harikumar on the mridangam and Vazhappally R.  Krishnakumar on the ghatom (the last two are percussion instruments).

Dr. Menon was an Oscar nominee this year for original music score for the movie Saint Dracula, a new interpretation of the original Bram Stoker tale of the Transylvanian prince.

He  is an Associate Professor at the Kerala Agricultural University in Thrissur, and got his Ph D in Agricultural Extension from Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi.  He  lives in the temple town of Thripunithura near Kochi. Dr. Menon has given Carnatic music performances and lecture demonstrations throughout India, the Middle East, UK, US, Canada and Africa. His albums include Vanaprastham, based on a celebrated short story by M.T. Vasudevan Nair; Monsoon Anuraga a take on Kerala's wonderful rains and Vismaya, a fantasy video album.