Friday, October 12, 2012

Ma Navu, The Cochini Chant That Everybody Loves

By Bala Menon

It was Elias (Babu) Josephai (pictured here), the ebullient caretaker of the Kadavumbagam Synagogue of the Cochin Jews  in Ernakulam, who first told me about the enchanting Hebrew song Ma Navu. Josephai asserted that the music was composed by a member of the Kadavumbagam congregation. (The Kadavumbagam synagogue is not in use today).

Josephai's claim is true. I have come across many articles where the credit for the uplifting composition is given to 'Jews from Cochin'.  This Sephardic song in Aramaic is sung by every Jewish person from Kerala. Josephai says it was popular during the Simchat Torah celebrations in Cochin - because the lilting tune made all participants dance with abandon.

Today, Ma Navu is sung worldwide, and in the United States it is popular at various dance festivals, including the Universiy of California and with church choirs across the country.  A search on YouTube will show the many variants of the original Cochin tune, with dancers going round and round in circles, holding hands. There are also uploads of the song by the Cincinnati Folk Dancers, the Crowley Honour Choir, Newark Folk Dancers and  several Israeli folk dancers singing and dancing to the same tune. This video of a song based on the Cochini tune features shots of the interior of Cochin synagogues, including the Ark from Paravur, the ceiling from Kadavumbagam, the Cochin synagogue in Nevatim in Israel and some pictures of Kerala.

The words of the Ma Navu song are taken from Isaiah: Chapter 2, line 7.

Ma navu al heharim
raglei mevaser,
mashmia shalom, mashmia tov, mashmia yeshua,
omer letziyon
malach Elohayich

How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of the messenger of good tidings,
proclaiming peace,
proclaiming good,
proclaiming salvation;
saying to Zion, your God reigns.

The Cincinnati Folk Dancers perform Ma Navu
Recently, a a group of 12 singers from Estonia - Vox Clamantis - with interest in ancient songs, picked the Cochini chant, for their path-breaking CD Filia Sion.

One review of the CD reads: "Vox Clamantis' imagination and musicality makes for an absorbing and inspiring spiritual encounter. The reviewer says:"The Ma Navu track, a chant from the Jewish enclave of Cochin, India, that has its own kind of uplifting harmonies, leaves you wanting more..."
The Clamantis music group from Estonia
In July this year, the Central Arkansas Children's Choir learnt and sang Ma Navu as part of a 20-song repertoire, the idea being to open 'their eyes to different cultures", according to University of Central Arkansas music advisor Jann Bryant.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Philanthropist Fred Worms And The Cochini Connection

By Bala Menon

Israeli philanthropist Fred Worms, who died in Jerusalem on Monday (July 30) at the age of 91, had a wonderful connection with Cochin.  Fred and his wife Della Worms were instrumental in the transportation to Israel and restoration of a synagogue interior from Cochin in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Fred Worms and Della were ardent supporters of the Museum since its establishment in 1965 - although they were at the time  British citizens. The story goes that, in 1990, they were visiting Jerusalem and joined in the 75th birthday celebrations of legendary Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kolleck.  Kolleck expressed a wish that he 'wanted to pray in the Cochin synagogue."

The Kadavumbagam  interior. Pic: Israel Museum
Worms said he would pay for Kolleck's trip to Kerala - but Kolleck explained he wanted to pray in the  Cochin Synagogue in Jerusalem. Worms, who was very attached to Koleck  (who founded both the Israel Museum and the Jerusalem Foundation), did not hesitate. He immediately arranged for the dismantling and transport of the interior of the famed Kadavumbagam synagogue in Mattancherry from Kerala (India).

Located at the south end of Synagogue Lane, the synagogue, which was built in the mid-16th century was abandoned after the entire congregation made aliyah in the 1950s.   (Kadavumbagam means "By the Side of the River" in Malayalam, the language of the Cochin Jews).

(The synagogue is only a shell today in Mattancherry; it was once used as a factory for making rope and later as a general warehouse. Today, it is dilapidated, with its roof tiles broken and windows boarded up, its grounds overgrown with brush and weeds.

The interior arrived in Israel in 1991. The beautiful ark from the synagogue  had already reached Israel in the 1950s, but the congregation couldn't get it released from the Israeli customs in time. It was taken away by a community of German Jews who had a synagogue in Moshav Nehalim - and they refused to return it to the Cochinis.

The Kadavumbagam Synagogue  in Mattancherry: Picture: Bala Menon

The rich teak interior structure has intricate decorative work believed to have been done sometime in the 17th century - and includes lotuses in many stages of bloom, which was part of the structure. The ceiling itself weighed around seven tonnes, with the beams weighing some 700 kg. each.

The interior was preserved in a climate-controlled storage area for five years, so that it could adapt to the dry Jerusalem temperature after enduring the tropical  humidity of the Kerala atmosphere for centuries. Kolleck had to redo the concrete museum  roof to enable the erection of the structure's  beams. The old paint was removed, revealing the majesty of the carvings.
  Picture taken at the Israel Museum during a big exhibition on the Jews of India
in 1995 and the public display of the Kadavumbagam Interior.  
Along with Abe David (on left), are Mr. & Mrs. Fred and Della Worms and the late
Ruby Daniel ( a close relative of Abe's), who was a speaker at the celebrations. 
Her book "Ruby of Cochin: An Indian Jewish Woman Remembers" was released that year.
Picture courtesy: Abe David
The reassembled synagogue interior was opened to the public in 1995 as part of the Synagogue Route wing of the museum in the presence of Jews from Cochin and Bene Israelis from Bombay and Indian diplomats. The ark in the Israel Museum exhibit was the one used by the congregation of Paravur, an ancient Jewish settlement north of Cochin. The Worms also endowed the museum's Delta and Fred Worms Gallery's European Art wing.

Worms was decorated with the Teddy Kolleck award by the Israeli parliament in June 2011 for his services to the Israel Museum.


Fred Worms was born in Frankfurt on November 21, 1920 (the name Worms comes from a town on the Rhine River where his ancestors lived). At the age of 16, his mother sent him to London, where he later settled. Becoming an industrialist involved with automobile engineering, Worms made a fortune which he used generously to fund several educational, cultural and arts projects in Great Britain and Israel through two trusts.
Fred Worms in Jerusalem: Courtesy: Jerusalem Post

As chairman of the B'nai B'rith Housing Association of Great Britain, he pioneered housing for the elderly and in 1958, he was conferred with the title of Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for this effort.  He also held several positions in the Maccabi Sports Club and the British Maccabi and Maccabi World Union. He was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, of which he was a member of the Board of Governors for 35 years.

While he maintained close ties and travelled to Israel often, Fred and Della Worms only made aliyah in 2009. He had earlier purchased a ruin in Yemin Moshe and built a house. After settling in Jerusalem, they moved into a two-floor apartment in  King David's court - from where he could see the city walls -  "one of the most famous views in the world."  His three children - Nadia, Hillary and Caroline - however, had all left their London home years earlier as each attained the age of 18 to settle in Israel. One of his grandsons served in the Golani Brigade and a granddaughter worked in an IDF intelligence unit.
The Delta and Fred Worms Gallery's European Art wing,  Israel Museum

“I had a remarkably lucky and wealthy business career, and I knew I had to pay something back to ‘Medinat Yisrael’ [the State of Israel] and to Hashem [God], so I’ve been busy for many years doing just that,” Worms once said.

Books written by Worms include  "A Life in Three Cities: Frankfurt, London and Jerusalem",  "Meir Gertner, An Anthology" and the recent "A Worms' Eye View".

Sunday, July 22, 2012

'There Was A Jerusalem Before There Was A New York'

By Bala Menon

Where have all our Jews gone?  Like most people in Kerala, I used to often wonder what happened to the 2,000-year-od Jewish community in Cochin and Ernakulam.

It was, of course, the call of Zion. When Israel was born in 1948, the Cochinis were among the first to heed the call for aliyah - the ingathering of exiles - and by 1955, the majority of the Cochin Jews were in Israel, helping settle and rebuild the land of their ancestors. (They, however, maintain deeply sentimental ties with the land that welcomed them whenever they needed refuge over the centuries).

 Jerusalem - Panoramic view - © 2012 Picture by Bala Menon

I got this article from my friend David Davidson from Petah Tikvah in central Israel. It  explains the emotions behind that powerful and evocative toast "Next Year in Jerusalem!" (L'Shana Haba'a B'yerushalayim) and exalts the spirit of the Jewish people.

"A Letter to the World from Jerusalem" appeared in the first issue (August 1969) of the now defunct  Times of Israel,  founded and edited by Elizer ben Yisrael aka Stanley Goldfoot soon after the Six Day War. (There is a new Times of Israel online magazine today which is not related to the old one.) Stanley was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. After hearing a speech about the Zionist vision by one of the founders of the Haganah (the Israeli paramilitary unit before the 1948 war) Ze'ev Jabotinsky, when he was 18 years old, Stanley left for Palestine where he joined a HaShomer HaTzair (Youth Guard) kibbutz.  Stanely died in Jerusalem on November 24, 2006 at the age of 92.

The article generated interest worldwide when it was published and remains as relevant today as it was during the tumultuous war years following the birth of Israel. 

There is some speculation that it was written by Eliezer Whartman of the Jerusalem Post who couldn't get his paper to publish it. He approached Stanley to use it in his first issue and the pen name Eliezer ben Yisrael was adopted. It is argued that the syntax and the structure of the words show Whartman's style, not Goldfoot's. Whartman's son Moshe was killed in 1975 while leading a patrol in south Lebanon and Whartman pays tribute to Moshe in reprints of the article. But it is the fiery spirt of the article that really matters in the end....

A Letter to the World from Jerusalem

by Eliezer ben Yisrael 

I am not a creature from another planet, as you seem to believe. I am a Jerusalemite, like yourselves, a man of flesh and blood. I am a citizen of my city, an integral part of my people.

I have a few things to get off my chest. Because I am not a diplomat, I do not have to mince words. I do not have to please you or even persuade you. I owe you nothing. 
You did not build this city, you did not live in it, you did not defend it when they came to destroy it. And we will be damned if we will let you take it away.

There was a Jerusalem before there was a New York. When Berlin, Moscow, London, and Paris were miasmal forest and swamp, there was a thriving Jewish community here. It gave something to the world 
which you nations have rejected ever since you established yourselves - a humane moral code.

Here the prophets walked, their words flashing like forked lightning. Here a people who wanted nothing more than to be left alone, fought off waves of heathen would-be conquerors, bled and died on the battlements, 
hurled themselves into the flames of their burning Temple rather than surrender, and when finally overwhelmed by sheer numbers and led away into captivity, swore that before they forgot Jerusalem, they would see their tongues cleave to their palates, their right arms wither.

For two pain-filled millennia, while we were your unwelcome guests, we prayed daily to return to this city. 
Three times a day we petitioned the Almighty: "Gather us from the four corners of the world, bring us upright to our land, return in mercy to Jerusalem, Thy city, and swell in it as Thou promised." 

On every Yom Kippur and Passover, we fervently voiced the hope that next year would find us in Jerusalem.

 Your inquisitions, pogroms, expulsions, the ghettos into which you jammed us, your forced baptisms, your 
quota systems, your genteel anti-Semitism, and the final unspeakable horror, the holocaust (and worse, your terrifying disinterest in it) - all these have not broken us. They may have sapped what little moral strength you still possessed, but they forged us into steel. 

Do you think that you can break us now after all we have been 
Do you really believe that after Dachau and Auschwitz we are frightened by your threats of blockades and sanctions? 
We have been to Hell and back- a Hell of your making. What more could you possibly have in your arsenal that could scare us?

I have watched this city bombarded twice by nations calling themselves civilized. In 1948, while you looked on apathetically, I saw women and children blown to smithereens, after we agreed to your request to internationalize the city. It was a deadly combination that did the job - British officers, Arab gunners, and American-made cannon.

And then the savage sacking of the Old City - the wilful slaughter, the wanton destruction of every synagogue and religious school, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries, the sale by a ghoulish government of tombstones for building materials, for poultry runs, army camps, even latrines.

And you never said a word.

You never breathed the slightest protest when the Jordanians shut off the holiest of our places, the Western Wall, in violation of the pledges they had made after the war - a war they waged, incidentally, against the decision of the UN. 
Not a murmur came from you whenever the legionnaires in their spiked helmets casually opened fire upon our citizens from behind the walls. Your hearts bled when Berlin came under siege. You rushed your airlift "to save the gallant Berliners". But you did not send one ounce of food when Jews starved in besieged Jerusalem. You thundered against 
the wall which the East Germans ran through the middle of the German capital - but not one peep out of you about that other wall, the one that tore through the heart of Jerusalem.

And when that same thing happened 20 years later, and the Arabs unleashed a savage, unprovoked bombardment of the Holy City again, did any of you do anything?

The only time you came to life was when the city was at last reunited. Then you wrung your hands and spoke loftily of "justice" and need for the "Christian" quality of turning the other cheek.

The truth - and you know it deep inside your gut - you would prefer the city to be destroyed rather than have it governed by Jews. No matter how diplomatically you phrase it, the age old prejudices seep out of every word.

If our return to the city has tied your theology in knots, perhaps you had better reexamine your catechisms. 
After what we have been through, we are not passively going to accommodate ourselves to the twisted idea that we are to suffer eternal homelessness until we accept your savior.

For the first time since the year 70, there is now complete religious freedom for all in Jerusalem. 
For the first time since the Romans put a torch to the Temple, everyone has equal rights (you prefer to have some more equal than others.) 

We loathe the sword - but it was you who forced us to take it up.
 We crave peace, but we are not going back to the peace of 1948 as you would like us to.

We are home. It has a lovely sound for a nation you have willed to wander over the face of the globe. We are not leaving. 
We are redeeming the pledge made by our forefathers: 
Jerusalem is being rebuilt. 
"Next year" and the year after, and after, and after, until the end of time - "in Jerusalem "!


Nadine Goldoot from Portland, Oregon, who is related to Stanley Goldfoot, tells in her blog that Stanley's family were  from Telsiai, Lithuania, and moved to Ireland. From Ireland they moved to South Africa. Stanley went to Israel when he was 18 years old. "He  (Stanley) was tall and slender and good looking and had a terrific English accent.  He has been to the United States many times and has spoken about Israel to huge crowds of people in stadiums. He spoke about starting the Third Temple, which he was very much involved in..." 

For more on Goldfoot's role in the Jewish irregulars, Fighters for Freedom of Israel (LEHI), and the assassination in 1948 of UN Mediator Count Folke Bernadotte during the late 1940s,  go to this site:

For a gentile reply to the Letter from Jerusalem go to: 

John Little from Jerusalem wonders who wrote this article:

Friday, June 1, 2012

Canadian Weekly Features Cochin's Linda Hertzman as 'Spice Chef'

By Bala Menon

The Canadian Jewish News,  an independent community newspaper read by more than 200,000 people each week, has a feature in its latest issue about Linda Hertzman (née Salem), pictured here.

 The article titled "Chef influenced by spices of Native India" focuses on Linda's culinary successes  and how she "routinely wows Vancouver's Jewish Community with exceptional food that goes far beyond ordinary Ashkenazi fare".

Linda grew up in Cochin's (Kochi) Jew Town. The article gives a biographical sketch - she made aliyah in 1983 but came to Toronto soon after marriage - and about her studies in food service and restaurant management in Canada and her family's first venture - the Raisins, Almonds & More kosher food store in Toronto.  The Hertzmans later moved to Vancouver with their three children -  where they purchased a restaurant and called it Aviv's Kosher Meats, with Linda working in the kitchen and then branching out into catering. She now runs the very successful company called Classic Impressions,  specializing in gourmet kosher cuisine for any occasion, from "elaborate b’nei mitzvah receptions to intimate brisses, luncheons, weddings and everything in-between," according to her website. "Our reputation is for food that lingers in memory long after the last forkful has been consumed." Her Toronto-born husband Steve manages the Kosher Food Warehouse in Vancouver.

The article quotes her: "“I put a lot of Indian fusion into my dishes, making items like kubegh, a dumpling with a meat filling, and pastels, similar to blintzes but more savoury,” she says. “I love playing around with flavours, trying out different things and then having the satisfaction of seeing people enjoy my food.”

It's all about themes these days - as Linda says: “We’ll still have salmon on the menu, but it’s more likely to be miso salmon than lemon pepper.”

Linda has shared the miso salmon recipe for readers of this blog:

For 6 portions:
1 cup miso paste
1/2 cup brown sugar or honey
2 tsp sesame oil
2 tsp fresh minced ginger
2 tsp fresh minced garlic
1/4 cup rice vinegar
Bring the sauce up to boil -  cool down.
Marinate the salmon for up to 24 hours.
Grill or bake the salmon. 

Note: Miso  is a savoury, fermented bean paste made from soybeans; sometimes mixed with rice, barley, or wheat which has been fermented with yeast. The mixture is sometimes aged for up to three years. Miso is high in sodium.

The full article from the CJN can be read here.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

When Queen Elizabeth II Visited The Paradesi Synagogue

By Bala Menon

The Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry  (Kochi) is the oldest functioning synagogue in the Commonwealth today - and considered one of the most beautiful. It was, therefore, fitting that when Queen Elizabeth II made an official visit to India in October 1997, she kept aside some six hours to make a maiden visit to Cochin and its synagogue. The British press reported that the Queen had heard so much about the Jews of Cochin that she insisted her aides arrange this out-of-the-way itinerary.
Queen Elizabeth II is received by Queenie Hallegua and Sammy Hallegua.
Press reports at the time said that security was extremely tight in Cochin (Kochi) that day (October 17) with "strict controls on the movement of people two hours before Her Majesty's arrival in the city," the city Police Commissioner Jacob Thomas was quoted as saying.
Sammy Hallegua escorts the Queen into the Synagogue.
British personnel were to take care of the personal security of the Queen and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh - especially after some organizations planned to hold protests against her visit to the tomb of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama at the St Francis Church in the city, the oldest European church in India.
The Queen presents a silver wine cup to the synagogue.
(She did visit the St Francis church and Vasco da Gama's tomb and heard a prayer in Malayalam by the church choir. She saw a palm leaf title deed of the church dating back to 1503, and the 18th century Dutch marriage register kept in the church, which is managed by the Church of South India, a sister church of the Anglican church.) The roads were, of course, blocked off by the Rapid Action Force and Kerala Armed Police.
A history in pictures --- looking through the synagogue album.
The Kerala visit went off without any trouble with the Queen arriving at  Cochin Naval Airport  around noon and heading straight to the Taj Malabar Hotel for a lunch hosted by then Governor Sukhdev Singh Kang and a Mohiniyattam dance performance.  (Only nine people, including the late Kerala Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar and his wife were introduced to the Queen at the time.)
The ancient Torah scrolls and one of the gold crowns
The Queen then drove to the Paradesi synagogue in a military green Range Rover without any number plates - flying the Indian and British flags. She was welcomed at the synagogue by then warden Sammy Hallegua and his wife Queenie, representing the  Jews from Cochin and Ernakulam.
Greeting members of the Cochini Jewish community.
"The Queen fell in love immediately with the blue porcelain tiles in the synagogue. She said it was a shame to walk on it," Queenie Hallegua told reporters later,  referring to the 18th century hand-painted tiles imported from Canton (Guangdong) in China. "The Queen later told her sister Princess Margaret that when she went to India, she had to go and visit the Jewish synagogue in Cochin," which, of course Princess Margaret  did later.
Community members arriving at the synagogue.
 On behalf of the Cochin Jews, Sammy Hallegua presented the Queen with several gifts, including a silver salver, a replica of the 1000-years-old copper plates granted by Kerala's fabled emperor  Cheraman Perumal to the Jews, an album of photographs, copies of valuable documents and a hand-stitched satin cap. On behalf of the people of the United Kingdom, the Queen then presented a silver Kiddush (wine) cup to the synagogue.
Babu Josephai of Ernakulam's Kadavumbhagam Synagogue with his family.
She was also shown the silver Torah cases and the gold and jewel-encrusted crown given to the synagogue by the Maharaja of Travancore in 1805.  Queen Elizabeth signed the Visitors' Book and later greeted members of the Cochini Jewish congregation.
Replica of the ancient copper plates dating to 1000 AD.
Later, the Queen made a brief halt at the Pepper Futures Exchange in Mattancherry and at a British-aided urban poverty alleviation project at Mini Colony.
The Queen's signature in the Visitors' Book.
Talking about pepper, we can quote here a paragraph from Salman Rushdie's famous book "The Moor's Last Sigh" - "I repeat: the pepper, if you please; for if it had not been for peppercorns, then what is ending now in East and West might never have begun. Pepper it was that brought Vasco da Gama's tall ships across the ocean, from Lisbon's Tower of Belm to the Malabar Coast: first to Calicut and later, for its lagoony harbour, to Cochin. English and French sailed in the wake of that first-arrived Portugee, so that in the period called Discovery-of-India-but how could we be discovered when we were not covered before?-we were 'not so much sub-continent as sub-condiment', as my distinguished mother had it. 'From the beginning, what the world wanted from bloody Mother India was daylight-clear,' she'd say. 'They came for the hot stuff, just like any man calling on a tart."

Thursday, May 17, 2012

'Gramophone' - A Malayalam Movie Set in Jew Town of Cochin

By Bala Menon

On Tuesday, May 14, when I switched on my TV and surfed to the Malayalam satellite channel Kiran TV, I found the movie being telecast was 'Gramophone'. Although I had seen it before, it was still a fun movie  to watch.
Actor Janardhanan as Gregory in Jew Town.
The story of Gramophone swirls around Jew Town in Mattancherry.  Many of the antique shops and the bustle of the street are background frames and some of the ambience has been captured on camera by director Kamal, who also wrote the story along with Ikbal Kuttipuram.. The movie begins with dawn breaking over Jew Town and later in the movie, there is a shot of the interior of the Paradesi Synagogue (although it looks like an old photograph). There is also a Hebrew prayer.
Oduvil Unnikrishnan as Settu Papa and Dileep as Sachi in the record shop.
 'Gramophone' was made in 2003 and had a reasonably successful box-office run and has been available on DVD for some time.  (The 24-hour  Kiran TV channel telecasts a Malayalam film every day to 27 countries including the United States, Canada, to Europe and throughout the Middle East.  Many of the Cochinis in Israel must have had a chance to see it on Tuesday).
Dileep, Revathy and Meera on the street.
The plot revolves around a few old and struggling Jews, who are shown as having got left behind after the  exodus of the Jews of Cochin to Israel.  (The truth is that they chose to stay!) Some sharply drawn characters include an old Jew named Gregory (played by veteran Janardhanan),  his daughter Sarah (Revathi) and granddaughter Jennifer (Meera Jasmine). Gregory still dreams of emigrating to Israel with his family - in the hope that somebody from there would marry his granddaughter.
Actor Salim Kumar (in the blue shirt and white folded 'mundu' - sarong).
On Jew street lives Sachidanandan (Dileep, one of the leading film stars in Kerala), who runs an antique shop selling mainly vinyl gramophone records. Others who people the plot include Hindus, Christians and Muslims - reflecting the mosaic that Cochin once was and is still is… Well-known character actors, the late  Oduvil Unnikrishnan, the late Murali, the National Award-winning Salim Kumar, along with popular actress Navya Nair, add strength to the story.
Meera Jasmine and Navya Nair.
The comedy-drama, however, sticks to the 'romantic formula' of commercial Malayalam cinema and there are songs and dances and a love triangle all thrown in. Then, news arrives that a young Israeli soldier is coming to Cochin from Jerusalem to marry Jennifer. Gregory is delighted, while Jennifer pines for Satchi.
Another scene in the gramophone shop.
The film ends with a delightful twist. A highlight of the film is Vidyasagar's Hindustani classical mix. There are a couple of good songs by Yesudas as well.

(Although several documentaries have been shot in Jew Town to record the history of the community, it seems strange that there has not been a serious full-length feature film. The Malayalam film industry is one of the most prolific in the country and the story of the Cochinis could have been made into a heart-pounding classic. There have been wars, high finance, diplomacy and intrigue, kings and princes, religious fervour, romance and everything else needed for a high-octane drama in the 2000-year-old story of the Jews of Cochin. Plus, there have been music and dance, too!).
The full movie Gramophone can be seen in 13 segments on

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

Friday, February 17, 2012

Recalling the Visit of Ezer Weizman to Cochin Synagogue - 1997

The Weizmans are welcomed by Sammy Hallegua
 By Bala Menon

Thursday, January 2, 1997 was a big, big day in Jew Town, Mattancherry. The flamboyant, Middle Eastern war hero and President of Israel, Ezer Weizman, landed in Cochin to visit the Paradesi Synagogue.

Indo-Israeli ties were beginning to warm after diplomatic relations were established in 1992 and Weizman's 7-day India visit, at the head of a 24-member delegation was intended to cement these ties.

Synagogue caretaker K. J. Joy recalls that there were about 5,000 security guards and police deployed in the narrow streets around Jew Town on the day of the visit.  The security men also marched to and fro in the synagogue and Joy's biggest concern was the possible damage to the antique blue porcelain tiles by the heavy boots of all the president's men.
A gift for the First Lady
The entire Jewish community of Cochin, headed by the late Sammy Hallegua, gathered to welcome the president and his wife Reuma. In his welcome address, Hallegua, who was also warden of the synagogue, said: "....this synagogue is built on land given in 1558 by Keshava Rama Varma, one of the most celebrated of the Cochin Maharajas...the location is near the vicinity of the palace...and successive rulers showed their benevolence."

And Weizman, in reply, hailed Cochin as a "symbol of the persistence of Judaism and of aliyah...I pay tribute to India for taking care of the Jews and their places of worship..." Speaking in both Hebrew and English, Weizman said: "May you all live happily ever after in all the world and in India." A video recording made on the
A 'battlefield' gift for the President
day shows Mr. Weizman telling invitees inside the synagogue that Israeli ties with India were blooming...

Standing alongside him was Bezalel Eliyahu, who emigrated to Israel in the early 1950s from the small Kerala village of Chennamangalam and was instrumental in turning Israel into one of the major flower exporters to  Europe.  (Bezalel has been hailed as the man who made the Israeli desert bloom and was showered with awards by the Israeli Government).

Gifts given to the Weizmans included a carved, wooden jewellery box and a sculpture  inside a glass case depicting the famous scene from the Mahabaratha with Krishna as the charioteer taking Arjuna into battle. Weizman then signed the visitor's book.

It was also a sentimental journey for the Israeli president, who served in India as a Royal Air Force fighter pilot, operating out of the Yehlanka air base near Bangalore. He told high-ranking Indian officers, who gathered to give him a spectacular welcome at the base, about his career in the RAF.
"May you all live happily ever after"

"Those of us from Palestine, as it was then called, were considered more native than you in India and it took a long time to get into British flying school. After training in what was then-Rhodesia and later Egypt, I volunteered to fly a Thunderbolt  in the hope of catching the tail end of the war in Burma ... Unfortunately, after about half a year of  training in Bangalore they took the war away from us."

(In an interview, he recalled with nostalgia his weekly Sabbath visits to some Jewish homes in Bangalore. An Indian defence-related website (  reported: "...these visits tended to be noticeably more to one family than the others and everyone was  left guessing which family it was and, more importantly, why. All that could be gathered was that the President was indeed unmarried at the time!"). Incidentally, the Yehlanka air strip was built by Italian prisoners of war incarcerated in India.
Signing the synagogue's Visitors' Book
Ezer Weizman, (who was the nephew of Israel's first president Prof. Chaim Weizmann), was born in Tel Aviv on June 15, 1924, and raised in Haifa. He learned to fly at the age of 16, beginning his military career by joining the Royal Air Force in 1942 at age 18 as a fighter pilot. Weizman was one of a handful of pilots who founded the “Air Service” of the Haganah Jewish militia in Mandatory Palestine. He saw combat as a fighter pilot during the Israeli War of Independence, commanded a squadron, and later (1958-66) was commander of the  Israeli Air Force from 1058-1966. During the Six-Day War, which established Israeli supremacy in the volatile region, he was Chief of Operations of the General Staff, and later Deputy Chief of Staff. He retired in 1969 with the rank of major-general, and turned to politics. He became president of Israel on May 13, 1993.
Jew Town residents in the synagogue

His wife Reuma Schwartz was the sister of Ruth Dayan, wife of former Defence and Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan.   Weizman died April 24, 2005, at his home in Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast, at the age of 80.

Weizman wrote three acclaimed books: On Eagles' Wings: The Personal Story of the Leading Commander of the Israeli Air Force (1975)   The Battle for Peace (1981); Ruth, Sof (2002) (Hebrew)
Windows in Jew Town festooned with Indian and Israeli flags to mark the historic visit.

K.J.Joy, Mattancherry
Pictures: Courtesy - Kenny Salem of Mattancherry