Linda and Steven Hertzman possess rare copies of books on Jewish law, inherited from Linda’s grandfather A.B. Salem. They tell of their plans to restore the precious collection
For Linda Hertzman, 55, from Vancouver, Jew Town in the city is home. As a young girl she has played on Synagogue lane, hopped in and out of homes of aunts and uncles and has prayed and celebrated together with her community of Cochini Jews. At one such revelry that follows the conclusion of Simath Torah, a holy day, she remembers splashing water and chucking eggs as part of tradition. She remembers the water and egg landing on Steven, a visitor to the synagogue. Few years later Linda went on to marry Steven.
This year at the Simath Torah, held last week, the couple recounted their first encounter during the celebration, over a laid out dinner table at her parent’s Gumbriel and Reema Salem’s home in Jew Town.
Of late their visits to Kochi have become more frequent and more discerning.
Every trip is filled with nostalgia and with a sense of enormity of the change that has come about in the lives of the people of their community. The slow migration of Cochini Jews has left very few old timers and no newcomers. Everything in their house evokes a memory. From each piece of inheritance - furniture, book, photo - hangs a tale; and with it a need to decide. This time they are deciding about the “very old and ancient” books that the cupboards hold.
These belong to Linda’s illustrious grandfather, A.B. Salem who was popularly called the Jewish Gandhi. His work within the community, with local government bodies, and with the freedom movement made him a distinguished personality of his time. An advocate, he held many positions of power and is remembered by old timers for his fiery speeches against discriminatory laws. He is credited for facilitating the first wave of migration of Cochini Jews to Israel.
A sepia photo of him with Chaim Weizmann (1948-49), the first President of Israel, hangs proudly on the time-worn walls of Linda’s house.
“These books are a family collection belonging to A.B. Salem and his brothers,” says Steven, who is a Canadian and a self-proclaimed Indophile. Steven first came to India on travel and business. Driven by curiosity about the Jewish settlement in Mattancherry he visited Jew Town.
He plans to cart the books with him to Vancouver and restore them. “These books are commentaries on Jewish law, part of rabbinic literature. These writings were about the time of the Jewish Babylonian captivity. The rabbis codified oral law. Some of these are those books,” surmises Steven who is keenly interested in history. The time-weathered tomes contain prayers, interpretations, opinions and songs, which are taught in Jewish schools.
Two of the large books clearly show the edition year to be 1870 and the place of print to be Warsaw, Poland. Another one is printed in Germany. “There was large scale burning of our books during World War II and during anti-Jewish pogroms. Many such books would have been lost during that. These have survived because they were in India, which is one of the only places in the world where Jews have not faced discrimination. That’s why they have integrated well into society,” says Steven who finds it hard to put a price on the books. “Nobody knows the value. They belonged to my grandfather and hence are very precious for me,” says Linda gently turning the fragile pages of a book. Restoring them is their first priority.
Offering them to museums or taking them to Israel are some of the other options.
Some of these books are handwritten informs Steven who has plans to catalogue the collection. “A lot of them are Cochini books,” he says, “And I’ve found a few handwritten Hebrew texts in the antique stores of Jew Town as well. There were people here who were skilled in writing in Hebrew. They were called Sofers,” says Steven, adding that these books were not written by a single author and many have passages in Aramaic too.
Back in Canada, Steven runs a Kosher food store and Linda has a catering business. The two keenly follow the change that has overtaken Jew Town. “It is a very unique story of Cochini Jews. It arouses a lot of interest,” says Linda offering a slice of vattayappam with banana slices. “As I cater to European Jews I cannot introduce any of the dishes from here in my catering,” she says with a tinge of regret. Their three sons go to Jewish school in Vancouver.
Linda’s brother Kenny lives in Toronto and the two meet sometimes, when invariably the talk is about their parents and their childhood spent miles away in Kochi’s quaint little Jew Town.