Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Magnes releases Mandelbaum film clip on Cochin Jews

By Bala Menon

The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, one of the world's best-known repository of Judaica, has just released a video on 'Scenes of Jewish Life in Kerala', giving a glimpse of outdoor life in Jew Town, Mattancherry in the early 20th century.

The 16 mm, silent, black and white film, archived at the Bancroft Library of the University of California in Berkeley, was made by anthropologist David Mandelbaum  in 1937 when he visited the then Kingdom of Cochin to document the life and rituals of the Jews of the Cochin.  (Note: not all the people shown in the film are Jews; the Simchat Torah celebration sequence was filmed at the Paradesi synagogue in Mattancherry.)

It also looks like Mandelbaum has filmed the entire Synagogue Lane on which there were three synagogues at the time. At the north end was the Paradesi, at the south end was the Kadavumbhagam and in the middle there was the Thekhumbagam. Most of the Jews in the north end were small merchants and poultry sellers as opposed to the wealthier Jews of the Paradesi congregation. Mandelbaum has not filmed the Jews of Mala, Paravur and Chennamangalam, many of whom were wealthy farmers and owned coconut, rice and pepper plantations.)

David Goodman Mandelbaum, who was born in  Chicago in 1911, was among the earliest of western scholars to undertake field trips to India for ethnographic studies. Before his focus on India, he studied the San Carlos Apaches of Arizona and later the Plans Cree First Nations in Saskatchewan, Canada.  He also spent about two years (1937-1938) studying the Kota and Toda tribes in the Nilgiri Hills in the then Madras Presidency.

Most of the research material and photographs he collected in Cochin were published in "The Jewish Way of Life in Cochin" (Jewish Social Studies Vol 1, No. 4 - Oct. 1939) and in other articles. In the main article, Mandelbaum wrote of "life in Cochin is conducted strictly according to the precepts of the Shulhan arukh, the orthodox codex" and again "Judaism flourishes in Cochin because the syna- gogue complex embraces every phase of the culture and serves all the needs of social life."2

During the Second World War II he served in the army as an officer in Southeast Asia. In 1946, he joined the Berkeley Department of Anthropology, working there until retiring in 1978. He, however, continued as Professor Emeritus, until his death on April 19, 1987, after a long battle with cancer.  He was instrumental in the creation of the Kroeber Hall and the Lowie Museum of Anthropology and also played a key role in establishing the University's Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies.

Mandelbaum's interests covered a wide spectrum of research areas, 'but India remained his greatest love and it is for his contributions to Indian studies that he is particularly well known."4

The Magnes collection was known earlier as the Judah L. Magnes Museum. Founded in 1962 by Seymour Fromer (who died in 2009 at the age of 87) and his wife Rebecca Camhi, the Magnes has  secured and restored several articles from Jewish Cochin. Among the treasures is the Torah Ark from the  demolished Thekkumbhagam Synagogue  (which was located near the Paradesi Synagogue) at Mattancherry. Dating to the early 17th century, the ark has elaborate carvings in red, green and gold colours. A draped central cartouche on top of four wooden pillars is inscribed with the words 'Crown of the Torah' in Hebrew.

2. The Jewish Way of Life in Cochin, David Mandelbaum, Jewish Social Studies/JSTOR


  1. Mr.Menon, I salute you for this unparalleled collection and commentary. I have been reading them for hours. It is wonderful to look into a world so unfamiliar yet familar, and perhaps attempt to see what they saw and feel what they felt.
    Thank you and a salute from my heart. History, legacies and memories live because of your work.