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 ╩╣Saraph 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