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".


  1. Good post..I enjoy reading this

  2. "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"
    This sounds like a pagan festival to me- clearly not something for Jews to participate in or celebrate. Kind of similar to a Jew celebrating Christmas. Also, having the ceremony in a church clearly emphasized this event's non Jewish influences.

  3. Onam has been for a long time now a non-denominational festival in Kerala. It is celebrated by Malayalis of all religions settled in many countries around the world with gusto. It is today more like a socio-cultural gathering of a people speaking the same language, enjoying the same foods and other aspects of a unique culture. Your argument belongs to the Dark Ages.

  4. The Anonymous poster has missed the point of Onam. All people in Kerala, regardless of cast or creed, celebrate onam because it is the celebration of a (fictional) place and time when all people were equal and lived in peace. I think it is the essence we all long for - peace!

    Why cant we celebrate our similarities rather than focus on differences?

  5. This is eye-opening for me! I am enjoying this entire blog, as I am interested in learning more about the Jews of Kerala. My dad grew up in Kochi, and he told me of his childhood friendship with a Jewish girl - I was so surprised! Then he told me about Jew Town, and how after the formation of Israel, many of the Jews left for Israel. This girl's family moved to Israel, and then she herself married and resettled in Amsterdam. Well, many, many years later, my father and mother decided to visit Amsterdam, and they stayed with this childhood friend. My mom loved it! She had never seen a Jewish person wearing Indian clothes, speaking Malayalam, cooking Kerala food, I wish I could have met her, too! :-) Anyway, this post was eye-opening, because I always thought of Onam as a Hindu festival. I am guessing it was being celebrated secularly as well, just for the joy of it. I did not know that!

    1. Could you please send me an email - I would like to know more about this interesting meeting...