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.