Thursday, December 8, 2011

Paradesi Synagogue at Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People

A perspective view of the display in Beit Hatfutsot
By Bala Menon

There is a 'Gate of Faith' in Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, located  within the campus of Tel Aviv Univerisity in the northern suburb of Ramat Aviv.
Recently, I had an opportunity to step through this 'gate' and onto the gallery and come upon the magnificent display of 18 miniature synagogue reproductions from across the Jewish world. (Miniature here means about 5 ft x 4 ft x 4 ft on average).

The illuminated interior of the model synagogue
The display covers almost three-quarters of a floor. The reproductions are made to precise dimensions, each scaled down to table size, exquisitely detailed and enclosed in clear, tempered glass.
Another view - with the cut-off wall
And guess what? One of the synagogues on show is the fabled Paradesi Synagogue of Mattancherry, Cochin, representing India's Jewish heritage from among the 33 synagogues of India (although many no longer function as such and today vary in their levels of preservation).
Picture of interior of the synagogue in Mattanchery
Part of the wall has been cut out to reveal the magnificient, illuminated interior - complete with chandeliers, the bimah, arc, the bench along the wall and the blue Chinese tiles!

The Paradesi synagogue is, of course, the oldest functioning synagogue in India and in the  Commonwealth.

View from the back..
It was built in 1568, damaged heavily by the Portuguese, and rebuilt in 1664 after the Dutch took over the Malabar coast. (For more on the Paradesi Synagogue see Prof. Jay Waronker's article - Also see Paintings).

Beit Hatfutsot is more than a museum. Opened in 1978, under the aegis of Dr. Nahum Goldmann, then President of the World Jewish Congress, the institution soon established a reputation for telling the extraordinary story of the Jewish people using the latest in museum and display technology. 

The Israeli Knesset (parliament) passed a law in 2005 defining Beit Hatfutsot as "the National Center for Jewish communities in Israel and around the world".

The gate is the entrance to the playground
The core exhibition allows us to go on a virtual  journey across "eras and lands of Jewish life, exploring the unique story of Jewish continuity, creativity and unity in diversity".

The exhibition uses murals, reconstructions, dioramas, documentary films and interactive multimedia presentations to present a panorama of the Jewish people.

Beit Hatfutsot also houses a unique geneology centre to trace Jewish family trees (with more than 3 million entries), a Jewih music centre (with Cochini Jewish music CDs as wsell) and The International School for Jewish Peoplehood Studies. (More about the museum in another blog).

Dr. Shalva Weil of the Hebrew University of Jerusalam worked  for 10 years as curator at the Beit Hatfutsot  in addition to her work at the  University. Dr. Weil was instrumental in the creation of the current model of the Pardesi Synagogue - to be more accurate according to plans provided  by I. S. Hallegua of Jew Town in Cochin.  Hallegua was an engineer. Dr. Weil also curated a small exhibition with photographs by Carmel Berkson on the Jews of the Konkan and later curated a very big exhibition entitled Beyond the Sambatyon: The Myth of the Ten Lost Tribes, featuring Indian Jews, inter alia.

Plans are now well-advanced for a new and bigger Museum of the Jewish People, expected to open in the same premises by early 2014.  The new Beit Hatfutsot will celebrate the multiculturalism of Jewish diversity today and focus on an inclusive and  pluralistic approach. It is expected to showcase the 4,000 year-old story of the Jewish people – past, present and future - with the theme: A Story Thousands of Years Old - Ever New!
© All pictures by Bala Menon, 2011. All rights reserved. Please ask for permission to reproduce.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A piece of Cochin on a wall at Ben Gurion Airport

By Bala Menon

Earlier this week, as I was riding a walkway in Terminal 3 at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, to catch my return flight to Toronto, I saw a wall full of art depicting the Jewish Diaspora. I stepped off the walkway onto the corridor to admire the pictures. There were scores of them - big, glorious pictures highlighting Jewish history and heritage from around the world. And there suddenly in front of me was a vivid Cochini connection to modern Israel!
A  bold, brown photograph titled "Panel of the Holy Ark  Cochin Synagogue." A sign on the wall said all the pictures on show were of original artifacts now on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
The Ark from Paravur at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem
The picture is of the panels on the Ark of the Paravur Synagogue (from the former Kingdom of Travancore) - and which is now in the Israel Museum along with the Paravur bimah (pulpit), adorning the exhibit depicting the interior of the Kadavumbhagam Synagogue of Mattancherry in Cochin -  built in 1544. (It's a little mixed up, really!) The synagogue interior was restored in 1991.  Work is, of course, fast nearing completion on the restoration of the Paravur Synagogue  (see my earlier blog)  and local Kerala craftsmen have used pictures of this panel and other pieces to create a new Ark for the synagogue.
The airport is located 12 miles southeast of Tel Aviv and 31 miles west of Jerusalem and was formerly known as Wilhelma Airport during the British Mandate and later as RAF Station Lydda. In 1973, it was renamed in memory of David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel. (Ben Gurion was also an ardent supporter of Cochinis during their aliyah and was a frequent visitor to their many settlements in Israel). The centrepiece of the elegant Terminal 3 where passengers wait for their flights is the star-shaped rotunda, ringed with cafes, restaurants and duty-free shops.
The rotunda in the departure lounge in Terminal 3 of Ben Gurion International Airport. Pics by Bala Menon

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Restoration of the Paravur Synagogue

By Bala Menon

The ambitious restoration work on the Parur Synagogue in the town of North Paravur, some 23km north of Cochin International Airport, is fast nearing completion.  A report presented to the Kerala Assembly in October said that 'Renovation of Jewish Synagogue, North Paravur (KITCO- Rs.12116000/  Physical Progress: 85 % of the work is completed. Expected to be completed by 31/1/2012."

The way it 2009.
The total cost is estimated to be about $1.8 million, contributed by both the Kerala and the federal governments. 
Special funds have been earmarked for setting up a synagogue museum,   being developed by a committee headed by Dr Scaria Zacharia, retired professor of Sri  Shankaracharya University of Sanskrit in Kaladi, and assisted by Aju Narayanan, Malayalam Professor of Union Christian College, Aluva.
The transformation 2011.
Advice on the project also came from American architectural historian Prof. Jay Waronker  and Dr. Shalva Weil of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

View from the gatehouse of the 'cobra ground' 2009.
The restoration project, which began in May 2010,  is part of a massive archaeological-tourism project of the Kerala government, with the aim of recording and restoring the historical heritage of the N. Paravur-Kodungallur region with a combination of heritage management initiatives. Project Muziris is centred around the hamlet of Pattanam,  located in Chittatukara Panchayat -Vadakkekkara village, between Kodungallur and North Paravur in the Periyar Delta in Ernakulam district.

Two views - from front and back (bottom)
Many historians believe that this could be the legendary port of Muchiripattanam or Muziris as described by the ancient Romans, and the seat of the great Cheraman Perumals.

(There are also historians who believe that the project is an attempt to hijack history and rewrite it in line with the thinking of the Communist Party of India (M) which ruled Kerala when the project was announced. They argue the new excavations and theories are meant to diminish the glory of Kodungalloor).

 Coming back to Paravur, the synagogue, located on Jew Street, close to the Paravur market was built in 1615 CE, but Cochin traditions say it was built on top of a ruined synagogue built in 1165 CE and which was burned down by the Portuguese in the 16th century.

The magnificent first-floor breezeway
David Yaacov (Jacob) Castiel, the fourth mudaliyar or community leader of the Kerala Jews, is credited with rebuilding the synagogue, according to a Hebrew inscription on the synagogue wall.

The synagogue saw prayer services until 1988 when the last of the  Paravur Jews left for Israel. The synagogue was declared a protected monument in 1996,  soon after the original bimah (the elevated wooden platform from which the Torah was read) and the ornamental Ark, were taken from Paravur to Israel in 1995. These are now in the Israel museum.

In 2009, the Kerala government reached agreement with the Association of Kerala Jews to assume ownership of the Parur synagogue while the Jewish community maintained the right of use. Restoration efforts formally began in April 2010.

Work on the interior pulpit and Ark.
Prof Jay Waronker, of the Southern Polytechnic State University in the US, who has been studying the architecture of Indian synagogues, says the Parur synagogue is unique because it represents “the most complete and elaborate example of a Jewish house of prayer incorporating the many influences of building design from this region of Kerala.”

Fine detail from the first floor.
The entrance to Jew Street, from the main road to Paravur is guarded on either side by two tall pillars built by order of the Viceroy and Governor General of India Lord Reading (1921-1926) and the Maharajah of Travancore to earmark it as 'Jewish territory'. 

Apparently, the Christian community in the locality used to hold disorderly processions frequently along Jew Street and causing  disturbances. These were jarring to the sensitivities of the Jews and they complained to the Maharajah and the Viceroy. The Jews were then allowed to attach a heavy metal link chain to the pillars to prevent entry to outsiders whenever they chose to.
The interior baclony and ceiling.
There are still some old-style Jewish houses standing in the street but many have been modified and have flat concrete roofs.

The short street ends at a canal. At the entrance of the synagogue is an imposing padipura or gatehouse with two storage rooms. The floor above was used to conduct Hebrew classes. The Synagogue is beyond the small courtyard, which  harboured several nests of cobras before the restoration began, according to villagers.
Tombstones in the synagogue compound.

The main synagogue is separated from the gatehouse by an open space. A pillared corridor leads from the two rooms at the main entrance to the prayer area, which contains two rooms; a rectangular meeting and the main prayer room.

A balcony, supported by decorated timber columns and beams, overlooks the main room and behind this balcony is the women's gallery.  The pulpit and the Ark are being rebuilt according to the earlier style.

The conservation consultant is Chennai-based architect Benny Kuriakose., who said in a personal communication that his team had to get photographs from Paravur Jews in Israel to reconstruct some parts of the synagogue, including the main doors which were missing. The archaeological research for the synagogue is headed by Dr. S. Hemachandran.

Many of the Paravur Jews had farmlands and it is interesting to note that the Paravur countryside is still famous for its unique variety of rice known as Pokali and its eco-friendly backwater fishing. The beloved Periyar river flows through this region and over the centuries has created many small islands and made the  region into one of the most fertile areas in central Kerala.

Inscription on the wall of the Paravur Synagogue.

He who dwelt in rock and bush,
Let him live for His sake in my house,
Let there be light in the House of Jacob
Alas, darkened in my exile,
Said David Jacob's son,
Renowned noble seed of Kastiel, At the completion of the holy sanctuary. May it be His will  that the Redeemer come - (Courtesy of Dr. Nathan Katz)
On right: The  pillared corridor, like in Hindu temples.


Saturday, November 5, 2011

Judaica of the Cochin Jews

By Bala Menon

Museums and collectors worldwide have been quietly acquiring valuable belongings of the Cochin Jews over the past couple of decades. Articles of interest include clothing, religious pieces, life-cycle related materials, historical and literary items etc., which all come under the general definition of Cochin Judaica. Some of the pieces are valued at several thousands of dollars.
The Hanukkah lamp at Skirball
Many of these wonderful pieces are now appearing on auction sites like eBay, while some have become part of treasured collections at institutions like the fabled Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, the Skirball Cultural Centre in Los Angeles, the Jewish Studies collections at Columbia University Libraries, University of Cambridge and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

One of the prized exhibits at Skirball's At Home series is a Hanukkah lamp from Cochin. This exquisitely designed work of utilitarian art, made of hammered brass was donated to the centre in 2005 by Dr. David Hallegua (California) and his sister Fiona (New York) of Mattancherry in memory of their grandparents Satto and Gladys Koder.  The  lamp was used in the Koder home in Cochin during Hanukkah celebrations for over 90 years. (Koder House today is a boutique hotel.)

The Ark of the Thekkumbhagam Synagogue
The Skirball Cultural Centre is one of the foremost dynamic Jewish cultural institutions in the world today, featuring a great museum, series of exhibitions, music, theatre, comedy, film, family, and literary programs. The centrepiece at Skirball is an exhibition called Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America. The Centre is  named after the  philanthropist-couple Jack Skirball and Audrey Skirball-Kenis.

The Magnes Collection, considered one of the world's best -  is a repository of Judaica,  ranging from costumes to metalwork, synagogue pieces, photographs and ritual books, from the entire Jewish Diaspora.

The institution proclaims: "Our countless objects document the intersection of the material and spiritual dimensions of the Jewish experience in the realm of personal and family rituals, in the context of synagogue and communal life, and in the social interactions among Jewish and host communities." The focus is on vanishing Jewish settlements in various countries.

A memorial lamp from Parur, 1670.
Known earlier as the Judah L. Magnes Museum, it was founded in 1962 by Seymour Fromer (who died in 2009 at the age of 87) and his wife Rebecca Camhi.  Seymour Fromer was instrumental in securing and restoring several articles from Cochin.

Among the treasures he collected was the Torah Ark from the  demolished Thekkumbhagam Synagogue  (which was located near the Paradesi Synagogue) at Mattancherry. Dating back to the early 17th century, the ark has elaborate carvings and is coloured red, green and gold. A draped central cartouche on top of four wood pillars is inscribed with the words 'Crown of the Torah' in Hebrew.

Fromer said in an interview in the late 1960s that he sought help from the U.S. embassy in New Delhi to get around Indian laws related to the export of antiques. The Ark was dismantled at a place called Koovapaadam Shanti Nagar in Cochin and taken away in 30 burlap bags (jute bags, chakku in Malayalam), packed in crates and labelled as diplomatic material.  Fromer said he got the Ark free of cost from the Thekkumbagham congregation. The pieces were later re-assembled, refurbished and put on display in California.
A beautiful item of Cochin Judaica at the Magnes is a memorial lamp from Parur (Paravur). This is an oil lamp, made of bronze and with Hebrew inscriptions, lit for the Day of Atonement.  There is a drum with a conical top and four pans for the oil. The lamp, designed to burn for 24 hours with one filling of oil, was donated to the synagogue by one David Ashkenazi in memory of his mother in the year 1670.

In the Synagogue of the White Jews, Cochin. 1876.
Other Cochini items at the Magnes:
• A woman's wedding blouse, donated by anthropologist Dr. David Mandelbaum. (There is also a collection of Mandelbaum papers about India and Canada at the Bancroft Library).
• A podava (bridal skirt) - 1901 - white silk with  metal embroidery, gold thread flora leaf with cotton cloth backing.
• A Ketubbah (marriage contract) with gold leaf on paper. This document was also a gift from Dr. Mandelbaum and says that the groom is Eliyahu bar Rabbi Hayim and his bride is Rivka bat Rabbi Eliyahu, dated 1864.
Cochin prayer book at the Klau Library
• Another Ketubbah, dated May 24, 1921. Marriage contract between Efraim ben Ya'aqov Kohen and Rivqah bat Sasoon, On sepia paper, hand-written in black ink with water color decorations.
• A rectangular page from the weekly journal The Graphic, published in London, England from 1870 to 1932; page 133 contains "Sketches from India by our Special Artists"; with the engraving "In the Synagogue of the White Jews, Cochin". Dated, February 5, 1876. Artist unknown. The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life will open in a spanking new facility on January 22nd, 2012 at 2121 Allston Way in downtown Berkeley.

Manuscript based on Yosef Hallegua's Kutonet Yosef
The Klau Library in Cincinnati has an acclaimed collection of Judaica, considered to be second only to the valuables at the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. One of the items from Cochin, dated 1690, is a paper manuscript in the liturgy section.

The work contains prayers, hymns and private petitions made in the synagogue. The picture belongs to a collection of ceremonial wedding songs. The manuscript was donated by the Stuart Rose Foundation of Ohio book collector and business leader Stuart Rose.

At the Columbia University Libraries, the Judaica collection consists of more than 100,000 manuscripts. One  from Cochin is a Spanish work written in the 17th century by the emissary sent by the Dutch Jews to Cochin,  Moses Pereyra de Pavia - Relacion delas noticias delos Judios de Cochin. The book, in Portuguese, was first published in Amsterdam in 1678 and then again in Spanish translation in 1687. De Paiva was the among the earliest to establish a link between the Cochin and Amsterdam Jews.  Another rare manuscript is on parchment in Rabbanic square script, about the "history of the White Jews and Black Jews of Malabar" by Yiḥya ben Avraham ʹSaraph ha-Levi of Baghdad.  The work is based on a book called Kutonet Yosef written by Yosef Hallegua of Mattancherry.

Modern works include: Cochin Jewish Records by Ben Eliyavoo of Haifa and Cochin Jewish religious poetry Sharim aḥar nognim : Piyuṭe Ḳots'in by Eliyahu Barmut of Jerusalem, along with books by Western scholars like Dr. Nathan Katz, Dr. Barbara Johnson and Dr. Shalwa Weil.

The Kadavumbhagom Interior
The Cambridge University Library, of course, became famous for its Cochin link with the depositing of manuscripts and facsimiles of the legendary Cochin copper plates by Dr. Claudius Buchanan in the early 19th century. (More about these in these in future blogs). These include the  goat-skin Pentateuch taken from Cochin by Buchanan in 1806 along with the Book of Esther, which is a vellum roll covered with silk and mounted on a roller. Another rare Book of Esther is a small parchment roll with 26 columns and only a hand breath in length - again taken from Cochin. (Pentateuch means the Five Books of Moses - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy).

The  Israel Museum opened in Jerusalem in May 1965. The Judaica Wing of the Museum has religious objects from Jewish communities across the world. These include Hanukkah lamps, Torah ornaments and shofars (ram's horns) along with a huge collection of clothing and ritual pieces which were once a part of everyday Jewish life in the lands where they lived. 

A fabulous exhibit here is the teak wood interior strucuture of the Kadavumbhagom synagogue, located at the south end of Synagogue Lane in  Jew Town,  Mattancherry (Cochin). The decorative work is thought to have been completed in the 17th century. Part of the structure is a carved ceiling of great beauty featuring various motifs. Picture: Courtesy, Israel Museum by Oleg Kalashnikov.

Cochin Jewish Women. Engraving,, 1883.
The interior was brought to Israel in 1991 when there was a threat of the building being demolished. It was donated to the museum by Della and Fred Worms of London and Jerusalem.  The Ark in the synagogue was taken away in the  1950's - but apparently was not claimed on time by the Kadavumbhagom congregation members from the Israeli customs.  It was then given away to become part of the synagogue at Moshav Nehalim, a religious community of mainly German Jews in central Israel, who later refused to part with it.  The ark in the Israeli Museum is from the synagogue in Paravur. There are also wonderful articles from Cochin at the Cochin Jewish Heritage Centre in Moshav Nevatim in Israel (more of it in another blog).

Several Cochin Judaica have begun to appear on eBay and other auction sites like Artfact of New Hampshire and AntiquePrints of Hamburg, Germany. One of the items sold by AntiquePrints recently was an original hand-coloured wood engraving of two Cochin Jewish women made by the French painter A. de Neuville in 1883.

eBay has also been advertising several kinds of 'mezuzah' from Cochin. A recent one, an antique brass mezuzah case, dated 1930, was being offered for US$650. Artfact offered a Cochin document, dated July 8 1793, of handmade paper. This was a Power of Attorney given by a Jewish woman Rachel Cohen, widow of Abraham Samuels, to two other Jewish merchants who were tradesmen of the Dutch East India Company Meir Rahaby and Solomon Norden, authorizing them to conduct transactions on her behalf. 

Also offered on eBay and other auction sites are First Day Covers of the 400th anniversary of the Paradesi Synagogue, specially minted coins, Torah Ark curtains and small artifacts of everyday use, like wooden jewellery boxes and ceramic containers.

Institutions of interest:
• The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, University of California, Berkeley. CA 94720-6300 .
• Skirball Cultural Center 2701 2701 North Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90049, United States.
• Columbia University Libraries, 535 West 114th St.
• Klau Library,  3101 Clifton Avenue - Cincinnati, Ohio 45220-2488
• Cambridge University Library, West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DR, United Kingdom
• The Israel Museum, Ruppin Rd. Givat Rum, West Jerusalem, Israel
• The Cochin Jewish Heritage Centre, Moshav Nevatim, Israel

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Paintings in the Paradesi Synagogue

By Bala Menon

The Paradesi synagogue complex in Mattancherry's Jew Town comprises several different structures connected in various ways to the main worship hall.  Many of these are not in active use. Once you enter the first inner room of the synagogue (thallam in Malayalam)  - through a doorway in a wall connected to the clock tower -  there is a small corridor leading to a rectangular  room on the right.  This was earlier intended and used as a store-room. Today, it is a gallery of emotionally valuable, framed canvasses dating to 1968, commissioned to mark the 400th anniversary of the building of the Paradesi synagogue.

The then warden of the synagogue and unofficial 'Mudaliyar' (headman, a title which was first conferred by the Maharajah of Cochin and later abolished during British control) of the Paradesi community Sattu Koder asked a local artist S.S. Krishna to highlight the 2000 years of Jewish history in Kerala in ten paintings.

During the anniversary celebrations, guests who saw the paintings included then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi, and other dignitaries of the day - Governor of Kerala V. Viswanathan, Chief Minister E.M.S. Namboodiripad, his cabinet ministers, vice-chancellors and professors from various universities from India and abroad, diplomats, filmmakers and journalists. It was estimated that more than 100,000 people viewed the paintings and an exhibition of Cochin Jewish artifacts that were put on show. 

The first painting  is of a typical Kerala marketplace (angadi) by the sea, obviously in Shingly (modern day Kodungalloor which was once known as Muziris, the entrepot of the world). Shingly was the beloved and legendary ancestral home of the Cochin Jews. Goods being traded include spices, coconuts and ivory and the caption goes like this: "There was trade between King Solomon's Palestine 992-952 B.C.) and Malabar coast. The Biblical name for India was 'Odhu (Hodu). Teak, ivory, spice and peacock were exported to Palestine."

The caption for the second painting reads: "Destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD by the Romans and the consequent dispersal of the Jews to the four corners of the earth from Palestine." The Second Temple was built by Herod the Great on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem - and  soldiers are shown killing Jews with  many fleeing in small boats.
The third painting shows a ship with Jewish people on the deck, including a woman with a baby in her arms, sailing towards the Malabar coast. A small arrow points to a map of peninsular India and the port of Shingly with the caption stating: "Landing of the Jews at Shingly (Cranganore in 72 AD)".

The fourth shows a Maharajah with his Nair retinue receiving the Jews. A palanquin and parasol (signs of privileges which the Jews also later received) can also be seen. The caption reads: "The Rajah of Cranganore receives the Jews.."

The fifth painting is one of historical significance for the Cochin Jews. The caption says: "Joseph Rabban, leader of the Jews, receiving the copper plates from Cheraman Perumal. He was made Prince of Anjuvannam and thus a Jewish kingdom was established in Cranganore in 379 A.D." (Of course, historians have now concluded that Rabban got his plates  in 1000 AD, during the reign of Kulashekhara Perumal and that Anjuvannam was most likely a trade guild.)

Conflict is the theme of the sixth painting.  "Two of the original silver trumpets, used in the Temple of Jerusalem, with the Ineffable Name carved on them, were brought to Cranganore and were blown by Levites on the eve of Sabbath.  Once the Levites were late and the laity (non-Levites) usurped their privileges and in the resulting quarrel, the trumpets were unfortunately destroyed." There is no written or other evidence (except oral traditions) of these trumpets having come from Jerusalem and scholars think it could have been a quarrel between two groups of Jews seeking to establish superior credentials in Cranganore.

The seventh painting shows the Maharajah of Cochin welcoming the Jewish refugees from Cranganore and allowing them to settle in Cochin. The caption reads: "Construction of  Cochin Synagogue next to the Maharajah's palace and temple in 1568." The palace is now a museum.

The eighth painting harkens back to the Shingly of 1524 and states: "Destruction of Cranganore by the Moors and Portuguese in 1524. Joseph Azar, the last Jewish Prince, swam to Cochin with his wife on his shoulders. The Jews placed themselves under the protection of the Maharajah of Cochin."  (The word Portuguese is mis-spelt as "Portugese" in the caption). There are Jewish houses shown burning in the background as Joseph Azar is shown swimming in an 'inset'.

"The Maharajah of Travancore presenting a gold crown for the Torah in 1805" - says the caption for the ninth painting. The crown is made of 22 carat gold and encrusted with precious stones and today adorns one of the cylinders holding a Torah inside the Ark. (Other records say the crown was gifted in 1803 by Maharajah Avittom Thirunal Balarama Varma who also had Jews living in his kingdom - in the village of Paravur. Balarama Varma was only 21 years old at the time!).

The tenth painting shows residents of Jew Town in the middle of the 20th century meeting with the Maharajah of Cochin His Highness Rama Varma Pareekshith Thampuran. "The last reigning Maharajah of Cochin addressing Jewish subjects in the synagogue before relinquishing his throne in 1949."

The Cochin and Travancore kingdoms merged to become Tiru-Kochi on July 1, 1949 and the Maharajah of Travancore, Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, became Rajapramukh (Royal Chieftain) of the new state. The ruler of Cochin refused to accept any title - except that of Valiya Thampuran (a respectful title of Big Lord) and surrendered all his royal powers. On November 1, 1956 the district of Malabar joined Tiru-Kochi to become the new state of Kerala.)

It is  poignant that today, there are more paintings hanging on these walls than there are Cochin Jews in Jew Town.

© 2011, Bala Menon - All rights reserved. Please write to me if you want to reproduce the pictures.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Cochin Kabbalist - Nehemia Mota

By Bala Menon

In 1957, when the first communist government took power in Kerala and rushed through with the Land Reforms Act, scores of people occupied the Jewish cemetery in Mattancherry. The graveyard, which belonged to the Malabari Jews of Cochin, was in a state of neglect after the community had all left for Israel in the early 1950s.

The land was unofficially declared 'poramboke' or land without any claimants by politically vested interests in the area.  Squatters broke open the locked gate, destroyed the gravestones and built a shanty town of bamboo, tin and tarpaulin. The shanty town later gave way to shoddily constructed small homes of brick and mortar, sitting cheek by jowl, and is occupied today mainly by the Chrisitan community. The only grave that was left untouched in the cemetery was that of Nehemiah ben Abraham Mota, known to Western scholars as the Cochin Kabbalist. There are stories told about how the earth  shook near the tomb and there was a sudden fire when the encroachers tried to break the headstone.

"Here lies the Kabbalist and famous old man of sanctity
who emanated the light of his knowledge ..."

- so goes the inscription on the tombstone. The tomb of  Mota is considered sacred by the local Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus. Candles and lamps are lit there, asking the 'saint' for favours, cures to sterility, easy childbirth and for grant of yogic powers.

Washington photographer and anthropologist Joshua Eli Cogan has written how during a visit to Cochin he was astounded to see the condition of tthe tomb. "The grave had been 'Hinduized' -- it had been painted. There was a church close to the grave, and Christians came to light candles next to the grave. Then some Muslims and Hindu children came to light candles." (Cogan's work featuring colour photographs and historic objects called the Cochin Diary: Jewish Life in Southern India, was organized as a popular exhibit by the Bínai Bírith Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington, DC in October, 2006 and shown in many other places.

So who is this Nehemia Mota?

Mota (also called Namya Motta and Nomi Muttan - Muttan is 'old man' or 'grandfather' in Malayalam) was a Yemenite Jew, although some say that he came to Cochin sometime in the late 16th century from Iraq or Turkey, Morocco or Babylonia. Some others say he was Italian or Polish.  J.B. Segal, who was Professor of Semitic Languages at the University of London, said in an article in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (No 2, 1983) that the 'Yemenite Nehemiah ben Abraham Mota was a 'notable' recruit in the ranks of the 'Black Jews ' of Cochin." Mota, who is believed to be have been born in the 1570s, settled in Cochin in the latter part of the 16th century, and married a woman from the Malabar Jewish community.

Mota, whose scholarship and religious writings earned him the status of a rabbi, died in 1615. Soon after, he was elevated to the position of a patron saint and stories began circulating about his miracles, one of which said he could fly in the air to reach home in time for Sabbath prayers. Even today, the  anniversary of Mota's  death is celebrated on the first day of Hanukkah by a ceremonial hillula (festivity) during which the hashkavah (prayer for the dead) is recited along with the  qaddish (memorial prayer). Hanukkah or the 'Festival of Lights' generally falls in late November or early December.

Jewish belief does not have much to say about ideas like resurrection, and a belief in supernatural beings and intervention of holy persons are not part of the religion. In fact, most Cochini Jews also do not admit to belief in the supernatural or seeking 'blessings' from saints - although at an individual level many of them still do. Many Cochin Jews who settled in Israel in the 1950s still ask their relatives/friends in Ernakulam to light candles for various health and other problems related to their lives in Israel.

(In Judaism, Kabbalah is a set of mystical teachings explaining the relationship between an eternal and mysterious Creator and the mortal and finite universe (His creation). In Kabbalistic concepts,  God is neither matter nor spirit, but the creator of both. Kabbalists envision - in highly abstract terms - two aspects of God: (a) God Himself, who is ultimately unknowable, and (b) the revealed aspect of God that created the universe, preserves the universe, and interacts with mankind.. It also talks of the downward flow of Divine Light through the 'chain of creation' and emanations from God...).

In their fascinating book The Last Jews of Cochin, Dr. Nathan Katz and Ellen Golberg have written: "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".

Mota was a Kabbalist, a mystic who was frowned upon by the leading rabbis of the day in Europe and it is interesting to note that the 1757 edition of the  Shingli Maḥzor contained some 20 songs written by Nehemia Mota songs which were deleted from the 1769 edition. It is believed this was done  because of pressure from European Jews on the Cochinis.  Katz notes that the songs have reappeared in recent Israeli editions of the Shingli  (Cochin Jewish) rite. (Mahzor is the prayer book used by Jews during the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur),

Mota's sister Saidi is said to have made generous contributions to help build the Pardesi synagogue - but not much is known about her life in Cochin.

Mota is credited with composing several of the Cochini songs, which became a part of the Jewish liturgy. Most of them were collected in the kola or books of unique Hebrew writings, which are in the possession of members in the community.

 The full inscription on Mota's tombstone:
(as translated by the Late Itzhak Hallegua of Matttancherry's Pardesi Jews)
 He shines everywhere in the Jewish Dispersion
(He is) the perfect wise man
(and) the righteous person of divnity
(he is) the rav and teacher.
Nehemia, son of the rav and teacher, the wise and beloved
Abraham Muta (old person) of blessed and saintly memory
And he passed on his life to the (late) rabbanim ( expired)
On Sunday 28th of the month of Kislev
In the year of creation 5376 (1616AD)

The Jewish Virtual Library translation goes thus:
 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.

The tomb is on Mattancherry's Jew Street in the middle of the densely populated Chakkamadom colony just in front of  a house owned by a Christian. To reach it, one has to enter a narrow side street on the left, just before reaching the Pardesi synagogue. The road runs parallel to A.B. Salem street.  Located nearby are the Sree Subramanyam Hindu temple and St. Jacob's Chapel.

Dr. Katz says the tomb is reminiscent of the many  "village deity" (gramaadevata) shrines of South India, except for the absence of any images or symbols of  Mota.  The cost of maintaining the tomb is borne by one of the Pardesi Jews.
Suggested Readings:
N. Katz and E.S. Goldberg, The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India
J.B Segal, A History of the Jews of Cochin
Jewish Virtual Library (a division of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The 'Song of Evarayi' & Other Cochin Jewish Songs

By Bala Menon

The famous 'Song of Evarayi' tells the story of a Jew name Arivalen Evarayi who travelled from Jerusalem, accompanied by a Rabbi Avaroh, sometime in antiquity, to Malanad (land of the mountains - modern-day Kerala ). He apparently had an adventurous voyage, passing through Egypt and Yemen before landing at Palur Bay (where there was a community of Jews  - Kerala Christians also claim Palur as one of their founding settlements.)

The song goes thus:
From Jerusalem came he, wise Evarayi
The learned , the teacher, the moliyaru (community leader)

from his father he requested
Let me go Vava, to see Malanadu….
(Cochini Jews still call their fathers Vava…

…With a minyan ot ten he boarded a ship…
….A ship to to Malanadu…
Evarayi (the name is  considered to be the same as Ephraim) is made welcome by the noblemen and people of Palur and he sells the goods he brought with him for handsome profit. Evarayi then expresses a desire to build a synagogue. Soon, the synagogue rises...and the local Nair chieftain goes out on a hunt and kills a deer to organize a feast to celebrate its building.

Scholars say this song is a 'historic tradition' song which connects the Kerala Jewish settlers directly to Jerusalem and the warm welcome they received from the people of Malabar. (Historically, everything seems to tally with the song - only the Nairs were allowed to hunt in those days and their attitude to foreigners were a welcoming one! Foreigners - then called Yavanas - came in as traders and filled a niche in the caste-ridden Kerala community - that of the Vaishyas of which there was no group recognized in society. The  Namboodiris and Nairs were not allowed to ply trade on the high seas for fear of losing caste status and others seldom ventured far from their places of habitation and work.)
In observant Jewish societies, men are not permitted to hear women sing. This ban is called koi isha and applies only to singing outside of synagogue prayers. (Because, it is believed that in the synagogue, the women's voices will be not be heard separately from that of the entire group of male and female worshipers.). There have been, of course, several interpretations of this prohibition, from various rabbis (we won't get into that discussion here.) In modern-day Israel, with its Westernized population and mixed-sex youth groups and a lively cultural and music milieu, such prohibitions are no more an issue.

However, among the Kerala Jews, considered very orthodox, there was a clear deviation from this practice. Mixed singing was a matter of everyday life, with the distinction that women sang only religious songs (Hebrew Piyyutim) in the synagogue - while sitting in a different section.

Outside, in their homes and various life cycle functions likes weddings, childbirth, circumcisions and festivals, the Cochini women had a wonderful repertoire of songs - ranging from Biblical tales to singing praises of their ancestor-prince Joseph Rabban and the Cochin Maharaja. Women's lives in medieval Kerala revolved around the rituals in the synagogue and festivities in the community and the songs reflected the social life of the times. Some songs, with many unique Tamil words are believed to be very old, because Malayalam came into popular usage only by the 15th century. Almost all the songs are original, written and set to tune by Cochin Jews. Songs in praise of Joseph Rabban, the merchant who was given princely privileges by Cheraman Perumal Bhaskara Ravi Varman in 1000 A.D., talk of palanquins and old traditions, testifying to their antiquity.

Some songs were blessings, some kallipattu or play songs, some kilipattu - songs about a parrot (as a messenger) - and many about the impending birth of Israel. Wedding songs, with a lot of clapping and exaggerated accounts of the beauty of the bride and the royal gait of the bridegroom, were very popular in the repertoire. Most melodies resemble the many ancient folk songs of Kerala and the modern ones are straight lifts from Tamil and Malayalam film hits.

As Martine Chemama, a scholar of South Indian arts at the CNRS - French Unites Langues-Musiques_Socieities of Paris, wrote in a research article "Women Sing, Men Listen": "The opportunities for performances were during family celebrations associated with ceremonies which preceded and marked weddings, which in the past lasted as long as 2 weeks; name-giving for newborns (akin to Hindu custom); berit-milah; bar mitzvah; before or after religious holidays and festivals such as Passover, Purim, Hanukkah, Succoth, Simhat-Tora; related to the construction or inauguration of synagogues…"

Noted anthropologist Dr. Barbara Johnson, who was professor at Ithaca College in New York and who has spent three decades studying Malayalam Jewish songs, writes: "Jewish women sang in Hebrew together with men, joining in full voice to sing piyyutim in the synagogue, at the Shabbat family table and at community-wide gatherings to celebrate holidays and life cycle events. In contrast to many other traditional Jewish communities.

One of the parrot songs is the delightful 'Palotu pazham tharuven', accompanied by women dancing in a circle, clapping their hands.
Milk with fruit I shall give - aiyaya
To you, oh my lovely parrot - Aiyaaya
And kovil (guava) fruit I shall pluck for you
(Paalum pazhavum tharuven, painkiliye ..
parichu tharam njan thathe.

A wedding song:
Njangde manavalam neeradan pokumbol
aya, mazhe nee aa neram peyathe
When our bridegroom goes for his bath.
Please don't fall, oh rain…
One of the songs pays tribute to the Paliyath Achans, traditional prime ministers in the Kingdom of Cochin.
"Tel me, ye workmen, who goes there,
With drums beating, striking and tapping,
It is Pantheerachan, with Nairs and retinue…

It is Paliathachan, who gives gifts and boons,
To all those who come,
and title to foreigners,
It is Paloor, charming Paliathachan,
The Komaranachan of Paliam.

There is also one song - a prayer for the Cochin Raja, composed during the coronation of Vira Kerala Varma in 1663. Another is about the birth of Israel on the fifth day of the Hebrew month of Iyyar in May 1948. This song is set to the 1950s Tamil song Enni enni parkum manam and the Malayalam song Ennum ennum molil chinni mineedunnu Keralam:
Enni enni theerthu dinam
vannallo Iyarran
aa dinnathe aadi addi naam akosham kondanam

The Fifth of Iyyar has arrived,
counting, counting, counting the day
The country of Israel, the nation of Israel, the flay of Israel may rise into the air.

Set to the tune of the famous KPAC drama song Ponnarival ambiliyile..., one song goes thus:
Ponnaliya, prasnam vannu ponkivarum neram

aa marathil zion kodi paaridunu nammal...
…anku pokaam, anku pokam, israelil pokaam, thokedukkan

nammude nattinu

The flag is now flying high
of the golden aliya
let us go to Israel to pick up the gun for our land.

Jewish women in Cochin wrote scores of these songs down in notebooks, some of which are more than 150 years old - (fortunately most of them have been photocopied in India and Israel and archived at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem). There are about 300 songs listed so far from about 30 notebooks in the possession of women from Ernakulam and Cochin who have settled in Israel, but Dr. Johnson and other scholars believe that many may have been lost forever.

The songs are also being digitized and preserved at the Sound Archives of the Jewish Music Centre in Jerusalem and the notebooks are treasured items at the Ben-Zwi Institute in Tel Aviv with copies also archived at the Phonoteque Archives of the Israel National Library.

Although the songs were sung for centuries in Cochin, the first systematic effort to collect them was done only in 1947 by A.I. Simon of the Pardesi synagogue in Mattancherry, who printed a small pamphlet of the songs. This task was later taken up by the late Professor P.M. Jussay (pictured, left) who was then Head of the Dept. of Humanities, Regional Engineering College, Calicut. in the late 1970 and through the 80s. He translated and indexed many of the Malayalam songs. Shirley Isenberg, the late anthropologist and Dr. Barbara Johnson,  collected many of the hand-written texts in Cochin, Ernakulam and Israel.

In Cochin, where there were eight Jewish congregations, many of the songs were common to all groups, with some variations in tunes. Some have strong Kerala folk music overtones. A Cochin Jew from Mattanchery Ruby Daniel (pictured on right) published a booklet of nine songs - transliterated in Hebrew - in association with Isenberg and Miriam Dekel. Working prodigiously through the 1990s, Ruby translated some 130 songs into English - and 13 of them were included in the classic work by Ruby Daniel and Dr. Barbara Johnson (pictured on left) in 1995 - Ruby of Cochin: An Indian Jewish Woman Remembers. (Dr. Johnson taught in the Anthropology Department and was Coordinator of Jewish Studies at Ithaca College before retiring in 2007. She continues her active research on the Kerala Jews as a visiting scholar at Cornell University.)

The project gathered steam in the waning years of the 20th century when Dr. Scaria Zachariah of the Shree Shankaracharya University of Sanskrit in Kalady joined a team of scholars to make an in-depth study of the songs, its structure, meaning and other elements. Dr. Zachariah found several  strange grammatical usages peculiar to Jewish Malayalam and was able to translate the garbled mix of Tamil, archaic Malayalam and Hebrew words into a coherent Malayalam text. Another researcher Dr. Ophira Gamliel of Hebrew University in Jerusalem (who has a a doctorate in Malayalam studies from the University of Calicut and is a scholar of Kerala and Indian spiritual traditions) assisted Dr. Zachariah in analysing the songs. They jointly co-authored a definitive work on Malayalam Jewish songs - Karkuzhali/Yefiyah/Gorgeous: Jewish Women's Songs in Malayalam with Hebrew translations.

In 2004 , as part of the anthology of Music Traditions in Israel, the Jewish Music Research Centre of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem published an enchanting 126-page booklet and CD combo called Oh Lovely Parrot!, Jewish Women's Songs in Malayalam. The translations of the 42 songs on the CD are by Dr. Zachariah and Dr. Johnson and there are notes in English and Hebrew. The songs on the CD have been sung by the Nirit Singers, a group of Cochini women in Israel, led by Gallia Hacco who went from Kerala to Israel while a teenager and who is now retired. Ruby Daniel's sister Rahel Kala and niece Venus (Seporah) Lane are the other lead singers. Some of the songs are typical Kerala “parrot songs” addressed to colorful birds like the one that appears on the Ketubba, pictured on the cover design of the Oh Lovely Parrot CD.

The Nirit singers (pictured on left) have appeared on stage at several prestigious events - at the Vane Leer Institute in Jerusalem, at a conference on the Jewish Heritage of Kerala in India and in the Library of Congress, Washington D.C at an event aptly called "The Women who Saved the Songs."

In an article in the Hindu in May 2003, Sarah Cohen who is the oldest Jew in Mattancherry today was quoted as saying:"No one really taught us these songs. There was an old lady who used to come every Saturday and take me to the synagogue. She used to force me into singing the hymns. There were a few seniors who used to lead the song sessions.  Once they left, I  used to gather a few women and sing these songs during  special occasions. Now, there is no one here to sing them anymore..."

As Dr. Scaria (on left)  points out, Jewish Malayalam is in steep decline in Israel because of infrequent use of the language and the fewer number of traditional get-togethers and joint celebrations. The language and the songs will  disappear within a generation, with only the invaluable recordings available in the Israeli archives and on rare CD collections.
This Shavuot song is included in the JMRC album "Oh, Lovely Parrot: Jewish Women's Songs from Kerala." Performed by Rahel Nehemia, Toba Sofer and others. Recorded by Avigdor Herzog, Moshav Taoz, December 23, 1982. It is in the public domain and can also be heard on the site of the Jewish Music Reserch Centre of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Muyimpāya Tampirāntĕ (When Moses Received Knowledge)

The Lord Who is the First gave all knowledge to Moshe,
And with that knowledge he gave praises to God.
On Sinai Mountain God appeared in royal splendor.
On Seir Mountain, there the fire was burning.
All the incense of this world was thrown into the fire,
So that the smoke would rise with a pleasant fragrance.
"Oh let that smoke go up-up into heaven."
Then that smoke went up-up into heaven.
And Mutaliyār Moshe went and spoke about it.
He spoke to his brother, Aaron Hacohen.
"Oh Moshe, receive it into your hands."
Mutaliyār Moshe took it without looking at it.
It feel down from his hands because it became heavy.
"Oh Moshe, make the effort; try to write it down."
So he made the effort and he wrote it down.
And that was for the good of the Children of Israel,
It was for their good and for their freedom.
Blessed, blessed be Mutaliyār Moshe.
Blessed, blessed be the children of Israel.
The Lord God lives forever and forever.
May His holy name be blessed forever and forever.

Another song from the  JMRC website is the Blessing Song, recorded in Cochin.

Suggested Readings:
Johnson, Dr. Barbara, Ruby of Cochin, A Jewish Woman Remembers, Jewish Publication Society, Philiadelphia, 2002
Katz, Dr. Nathan & Goldberg, Ella S., The Last Jews of Cochin, University of California Press, 1993.
Jewish Music Research Centre, Oh Lovely Parrot - CD-Book combo, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2004