A pioneering exhibition on the Jews of Malabar that opened at the art gallery of The Ethnic Passage, a curio and souvenir shop in Mattancherry’s Jew Street, will be on till December 10
“You can take a Jew out of India, but you can never take an Indian out of a Jew,” says Dr. Essie Sassoon, her voice choking with emotion.
Originally a member of the Mattancherry Jewish community, Ms. Sassoon — a gynaecologist who Dr C.K. Ramachandran recalls as a popular tutor at the Government Medical College in Kozhikode — migrated to Israel in 1973, but has since made several sojourns to her native place, whose collective memory refuses to let her go.
On Sunday, what made her cheerful and pining at the same time was a pioneering exhibition on the Jews of Malabar that opened at the art gallery of The Ethnic Passage, a curio and souvenir shop in Mattancherry’s Jew Street. On a holiday, Ms. Sassoon said the event, which had participation from people across religions, cultures and social standing, made her proud and happy “as I grew up here”.
“I am proud to be an Indian. Although I live in Israel, I love India and the freedom it has granted to all sects,” she said, remembering how during her childhood the local government took special care not to conduct examinations on important dates on the Hebrew Calendar.
Interestingly, ‘Spice & Kosher: Ethnic Cuisine of the Cochin Jews’, a volume she co-authored with journalist Bala Menon and Kenny Salem, of her ilk, finds a place among the exhibits.
Notably, the exhibition as such is a confluence of several religions, as its organiser Thoufeek Zakriya — chef, Hebrew calligrapher and ‘freelance researcher’ on Kerala’s Jewish history — is a Muslim youth mentored by, in his own words, his “Jewish grandmother” Sarah Cohen, the oldest living member of Mattancherry’s Jewish community who was present on the occasion; and host Rockey C. Neroth is a Christian entrepreneur who enjoyed guardianship of the late Jewish scholar Samuel Hallegua in his formative years. Thaha Ibrahim, a long-term associate of Ms. Cohen and Mr. Zakriya, took care of the exhibition logistics. As the exhibition is held concurrently with the Jewish festival of lights when the nine-wicked Hanukkah Menorah (candelabrum) is lit over eight days of festivities, a special Hanukkah Menorah has taken pride of place in the gallery. Photographs juxtaposing the glorious past and shredded present of Kerala’s synagogues and Jewish settlements, mostly in central and northern Kerala; Hebrew inscriptions together with their English rendering; videographs; Cochin Jews’ artefacts, particularly their musical instrument shofar; sacred texts including the Torah; a cylindrical case used to keep Ketubah (marriage agreement); Cochin Jews’ special prayer songs and delicacies; manuscripts delineating the chronology of events that shaped their history; texts written on and by Kerala’s Jews; and a replica of the Torah calligraphed by Mr. Zakriya shed light on the State’s time-tested tryst with Jews.
Several less-known facts, on vestiges of Jewish presence in Kozhikode and at Madayi near Ezhimala in Kannur, contribute to mapping the contours of Jewish influence on Kerala’s life.
Fascinated by Jewish customs and rituals, Mr. Zakriya, hailing from a Muslim family in Fort Kochi, learnt Hebrew at a young age and earned a name for himself as a Hebrew calligrapher of international standing.
If anything, the exhibition reflects his depth of understanding of the culture and customs of Kerala’s Jews.
Historian M.G.S. Narayanan said it was only right that the spirit of Jewish community in Kerala was held together by people from different religions. Kerala pioneered in grant of nobility privileges to the Jews, Syrian Christians and Muslims. In 849 AD, the Hindu chieftain under Cheraman Perumal granted permission to build a Syrian Christian church in Kollam and bestowed nobility privileges on the community in an edict endorsed by people across communities.
Mr. Narayanan said scientific research had unambiguously shown that the copper plates announcing grant of similar privileges to the Jewish community were issued by then Cheraman Perumal Bhaskara Ravi at his capital Muciricode (maybe Muziris) to Jewish trader Joseph Rabban in the year 999 AD, almost 550 years before the advent of the White Jews of Mattancherry.
The plates somehow reached the Paradesi synagogue in Mattancherry, where they were being kept. The White Jews of Mattancherry, he said, were the last to arrive in Kerala from Spain and Portugal. They must have given something substantial to the King, who showered his largesse on them by awarding them an area close to the Mattancherry Palace.
Linguist Scaria Zacharias, who along with Jewish scholar Ophira Gamliel compiled Karkuzhali, an anthology of Malayalam Jewish songs, said Jewish contribution to Kerala’s history and heritage was immense.
The exhibition will be on till December 10.