Thursday, November 14, 2013

Prince Charles in Synagogue Lane and in Paradesi Synagogue

By Bala Menon

Prince Charles and his wife Camilla Parker Bowles, Duchess of Cornwall, was in Jew Street, Mattancherry on November 14 - which was also his 65th birthday.


He walked the length of Synagogue Lane, stopping to accept birthday wishes from people who lined the street. In the Paradesi Synagogue, the Prince was received by warden Queenie Hallegua, who talked about some historical aspects of the Cochin Jewish community.

A traditional Jewish prayer of blessing was held for the Royal Family. The Prince and Duchess were then shown the ancient Torah scrolls and the ancient copper plates given by Emperor Cheraman Perumal to Jewish leader Joseph Rabban in 1000 CE.

"The prince examined the copper plates presented by the Raja of Cranganore to Joseph Rabban... These plates granted special privileges to our community, which included the waiver of taxes and the right to use palanquins and parasols. Written in ancient Tamil, these plates say that the Jewish community could enjoy these rights till the time the sun and moon exists," said Hallegua to media persons later.

They were also shown the gold and silver crowns that adorn the Torah cases. The Royal Couple spent more than 30 minutes in the synagogue and they were presented with a photograph of Queen Elizabeth when she visited the synagogue in 1997, along with photographs of the famed blue Chinese tiles and a replica of the copper plates.

Present in the synagogue were members of the Cochin Jewish community from Mattancherry, Aluva, Paravur and Ernakulam, along with Dr. Kocha Varma of the Cochin Royal Family, who is also the founding-patron of the Cochin Royal Family Historical and Heritage Society. The Prince was also greeted by P.P. Mathew, president of the Kerala Chapter of the Indo-Israeli Friendship Society.

It has been reported that  Prince Charles (although not Jewish) was circumcised as a child by a "royal mohel" - a person trained in the the practise of brit milah, the 'covenant of circumcision'. There is also said to be historical data linking the English royal family to ancient Jewish roots - through the royal house of the Mergovingians in Europe. Mary, Queen of Scots, acknowledged her Jewish ancestry.

Video Courtesy: The Daily Mail online.

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".