Saturday, April 21, 2012

Dr. Johanna Spector's documentary on the Jews of Cochin

By Bala Menon

In 1976, a 'tiny lady with gentle eyes, but with a piercing gaze' from New York landed in Cochin to film the story about the Jews of Kerala.
Faces of Jewish Cochin - now they are all in Israel
 Dr. Johanna Spector was at the time a renowned ethnomusicologist and one of the pioneers to initiate research into the realm of Jewish Malayalam songs, then almost unknown to the Western world. The result of her visit was the documentary "About the Jews of India: Cochin", which became a blockbuster in scholarly circles in North America and generated widespread interest in the traditions and lifestyles of far-flung and fascinating segments of the Jewish diaspora.
 Dr. Spector wrote several books and contributed to several encyclopaedias and produced documentary films. Besides two films on the Jews of Cochin, she also produced acclaimed works on the Jews of Yemen, the Bene Israeli of India and on Middle Eastern music.
One of her scholarly articles was  "Shingly Tunes of the Cochin Jews" in the journal Asian Music in 1972 in which she used Jewish Malayalam music as a heuristic tool to discuss the history of the community,  taking the many songs and connecting it to oral and other origin traditions.
She described how the Cochin intonation was  Sephardic in origin and in many places resembled the cantillation found in Yemen. There was also some relationship with  Kurdish sounds, which is 'one of the oldest elements of all Babylonian cantillation.' However, this is a subject for another study.
The film About the Jews of India: Cochin begins with chanting by Ernakulam Jews and the statement "For 2000 years, Jews lived in freedom and prosperity in the south of India. Today, they are gone. They have returned to Israel, the land of their forefathers.  With their departure, the rich culture which was theirs, has disappeared. These pictures show…their life on the Malabar coast."
There is some historical narration - about the arrival of the first Jews in Malabar as part of King Solomon's fleet and later how the legendary Kerala ruler Cheraman Perumal named the  Jewish leader Joseph Rabban  Prince of Anjuvannam granting him all titular rights and privileges in perpetuity.
  (Historians have, however, now clarified that there was no Jewish kingdom - Rabban was made chief of a powerful trade guild called Anjuvannam and the Jews were elevated to the status of the Nair caste, the dominant nobles of the day).
The camera takes the viewer to Paravur,  the Jootha Kulam (Jewish Pond) and the Jootha Kunnu (Jewish Hill) in Kodungalloor, through Jew Town, the Paradesi Synagogue, a Friday night with a Cochini family, along with scenes of the beautiful Kerala coast and boats in the backwaters.
The tomb of Namiah Mota in Mattancherry is shown - where a Hindu is shown lighting a lamp - along with the keel-laying ceremony for a vessel belonging to the Cochin Ferry Service (a venture of the Koder family, one of the wealthiest merchant families of Cochin at the time).
A wedding scene (although it was enacted specially for Dr. Spector by a couple who was already married earlier in the synagogue) is a highlight of the film. There are beautiful shots of individuals in the community, almost all of them now settled in Israel.
The film ends with an acknowledgement of the assistance given by the community and its leaders. Dr. Spector adds: "I am particularly grateful to Satto and Gladys Koder, Sammy and Queenie Hallegua, Sammy and Simi Koder and Jack and Sara Cohen."
In 1992, Dr. Spector made another documentary - Two Thousand Years of Freedom and Honour: The Cochin Jews of India as a follow up to the 1976 film.
Dr. Johanna Spector 'Gania'
Dr. Spector's early life was a tragic one: she was the only one in her immediate family to survive the Holocaust. Born in Libau (Latvia), on March 23, 1915, in an upper-class family. she was privately tutored at home. Her parents, brother and husband Robert Spector were all killed by the Germans in 1941. She lived for several years, taken from one concentration camp to the other, surviving through sheer grit.
After the war, Johanna emigrated to the United States - in 1947, earning her doctorate in 1950. Dr. Spector then taught at the Rubin Academy of Music and was a Fellow at the famed Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
She became an American citizen in 1954 and taught at the Seminary College of Jewish Music where she was named Professor Emeritus in 1985. She also founded the founded the department of of Ethnomusicology at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Known as  'Gania' to  her friends,  contemporaries often spoke about her  optimism and her ready laughter, despite her tragic past. As the Jewish Women's Archive said in a tribute after she died on January 14, 2008 : "Johanna Spector has helped hundreds of students to understand the ancient cultures of non-Western Jewish communities. Her writings, recordings and film projects have documented the music of those now-shrinking communities for posterity...."
© Bala Menon, 2012


  1. i knew mrs spector personally. i met her in madras when i was doing my post graduate in gynaecology . latr she visited israel and prodused another filmwhere i had the previlage to particepate. she was a wonderful person very intelligent and it was a plesure to converse with her

    1. dr sassoon, you were in calicut? staying near tagore theatre? if so, you were my wife's doctor when we were expecting our first child. we were in all india radio.
      thank you. govindan kutty-saradamony.

    2. ofcourse i remember you and your wife. nice to know that some of the people i treated still remembers me

  2. Hi, Is it possible to get/buy her documentaries anywhere?

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Ergo Media own About the Jews of Yemen and 2000 Years of Freedom and Honor: The Jews of Cochin (1992) see:

  4. Bala, I enjoy your site very much and I'm not sure if I've contacted you before, but Dr. Spector's papers and audio/visual materials have been left to the Jewish Seminary where she taught, and we are currently processing them. Please take a look at the website for more information: best, wishes,