Thursday, July 03, 2014

Cochin Heritage Museum at Moshav Nevatim

After meeting a member of the Cochin community through one of our partnership programs, Ethnic Flavors, I have wanted to visit the Cochin Heritage Museum at Moshav Nevatim, about 15 minutes east of Beersheva.  Although the moshav was originally settled in 1946 by immigrants from Hungary during the one-day push the night Yom Kippur ended to establish 11 rural settlements in the northern Negev and then survived a siege by the Egyptians in 1948, it was dismantled after the War of Independence.   In 1954 it was re-established in a nearby location by Jews who had immigrated  from Cochin (Kochi), India.  Today, 620 people live on the moshav, many family members of the Jews from Cochin.

So on a Wednesday in June, 2014, I drove 40 minutes to my friend Haim's kibbutz north of Beersheva, picked him up and then drove  another 20 minutes to Moshav Nevatim.  Although the museum is open Sundays through Thursdays, it is best to call ahead in advance to arrange the tour with Mira, the docent and staffer of the Museum, and also to get directions to the museum once we entered the moshav grounds.  We joined a group of retired Israeli men who, it turned out, had been co-workers with my friend years ago!

In 2010, only 40 Jews remained in Kerala, India with over 6000 living in Israel today.

The Heritage Center consists of 2 buildings, the museum and the moshav synagogue.  The pictures of the synagogue are toward the end. Be sure to scroll down to see them.  The synagogue is stunning!  I wish I could recreate in photos the feeling I had when I walked in.

We began our visit at the Heritage Center.  Mira tailors the tours to the groups, so with some groups she talks about food customs but not to this group of guys!

Mira talking to group with photo of Cochin street
First she showed us a 16-minute video of the Cochin past, with photos of life in India, and interviews with people who had lived there.
Movie room with pictures of community on wall
Cochin on the map, on the coast
 The Cochin region is on the fertile plain of Malabar in SW India, bordering on the east by a range of mountains.  The region's rich soil and tropical climate have made it a certain of growth of spices such as pepper, cinnamon and ginger, attracting traders from around the world.  Locally farmers have grown rice, sugar can, tapioca and also produce and export rubber.  The area is heavily populated, but the 3,000 Jews kept their separate identity as they mainly lived in the port cities and worked in trade.  A very few were landowners and farmers.  The next 3 pictures are from the movie.
A close-up of Cochin location and surrounding cities, in Hebrew
Outside a home in Cochin
Ark (aron kodesh) in synagogue in Cochin

Cochin was the oldest Jewish community of India, with Jews arriving there as traders as early as 562 BCE and more coming after the destruction of the Second Temple. The continued as traders, especially as spice traders, specializing in pepper, throughout the centuries.  There is evidence that Jews had reached India in Talmudic times.  There was definitely a well-established Jewish community in Cochin in the 10tj century CE. 

After the movie, we movied into the main room of the museum which housed artifacts from the community and also had signs explaining in Hebrew and English the historical background of the community and the items on display.

The first hard evidence of Jews in southern India was in the tenth century when they were granted certain civil rights.  Copper plates substantiating that fact were given to the Jewish leader, Joseph Rabban.  A large synagogue in the area built in the 12th century and still standing today offers hard evidence of the community's existence.   The Jews flourished economically under the Dutch in the 17th and 18th centuries, with many attaining high positions.  Under the British rule in the next two centuries, Jews assumed managerial roles in the public arena.

As of the 18th century, there were 8 communities of Cochin Jews, independently run by a council of sages, which corresponded with the rabbis of Jerusalem and Cairo.  

  In modern times, they maintained a comfortable lifestyle and were quite religious. The men continued to work in businesses and the women took care of the homes and the families.  They lived in towns.   The children attended public schools in the morning and studied Judaism in the afternoon in the local synagogues.  With the creation of the State of Israel, many of the 3,000 Cochin Jews began making plans to move to Israel.

The Jews lived in two cities, Cochin and Ernakulam, and in three towns, Parur, Chendamangalam, and Mala. In each, the Jews tended to live in an area called "Jews Town" or "Synagogue Street.

Residential area
 Their homes were built in the local style but were distinguished by the mezuzot on each door and the candles carved into the facade of the home.  Each home had a Sabbath lamp, hung from the ceiling, which held seven oil lamps set in tin or brass and often decorated with a Star of David.  Two-tiered lamps with 13 cups were used on holidays.

Holiday Lamp Holder

Pictures of special lamps in use
Hanukkah Menorah

 Special lamps to mark the end of the Sabbath were lit using flames from the synagogue brought by children.  The museum tells about the style of housing, the food they ate and special foods for the holidays, and their clothing.  The Jews, like other cultural groups, were distinguished by their color of clothing.

Grinding stones for making matzah for Passover

Grinding stones for spices
Daily Clothing

Holiday Clothing
Wedding Clothing
The wedding festivities used to last for three days and then were pared down to two.  In Israel today, they now are about three hours. Below are shoes worn during a wedding.  It was extremely difficult to walk in these shoes and people (I think they were for men) had to take very very tiny steps.

Stones for making and grinding matzah

Stones for grinding spices
 Items of jewelry were also on display and shown in the movie.
Jewelry shown in the movie
Eventually the weddings were reduced to three days....then two in Israel and now one evening mostly.

The synagogues of Cochin were the centers of community affairs as well as centers for prayer and ritual.  They all were the same style:  a long two-story stone building decorated with wood carvings. The bimah (pulpit) was in the center on the ground floor and the Torah ark on the wall opposite the entrance. The second story was for the women in the rear and also included an additional bimah  used by the hazzan on Shabbat and holidays.  The building was decorated with many beautiful objects, many of them made of gold or silver.  The Torah scrolls were kept in wooded cases overlaid with velvet or silver leaf and topped with silver or gold crowns.

 Each synagogue had a selection of Torah ark curtains which were changed for holidays. On Simhat Torah, red or orange ones were used and on Yom Kippur, white ones replaced the daily ones.  An array of lamps and candles lit the sanctuary.  The Cochin Jews wrote prayer books for each day of the year, according to the "Shingly" (Cranganore) tradition.  Their Hebrew book of songs and prayers is called "Kolas."

We then walked outside toward the synagogue. We passed gardens that were funded by the JNF of Australia.

The synagogue at Nevatim was based on the style of the synagogues in Cochin.

Approaching the synagogue
Bench & mural in front of synagogue
The synagogue's interior  layout was based on the ancient Kerala synagogues.  The Bimah and Torah Ark were brought from the Cochin suburb of Ernakulam by community members. 
I was astounded by the beauty of the synagogue.  It is hard to leave out photos as the sanctuary is so stunning.
Women's section upstairs
Close up view of bimah with Nila talking to our group

Bimah on right with Ark in back
Ark and decorations on walls around it
Close up of ceiling

Bimah on second floor
The staircase on the left of the above photo is for the Torah reader to climb to get to the bimah.  Women have another staircase, I believe.

The pillars on the main floor are adorned with paintings of the 7 species.  

Pomegranates on pillar with ark in background
Matching pairs on side of ark

Memorial plaque--Etz Hayim--on same wall as ark but to the side

"Kee Metzion Tezeh Torah--stunning art work on front wall, elevated
Afterwards, Haim and I went back to the cultural center and I took photos of pictures of people who arrived in Israel and had annual gatherings at the moshav as well as some photos from a book of families before they left for Israel.  I got a book on the synagogue in Hebrew and English written in 2001 entitled The Jews of Cochin:  In Search of Roots by Eliyahu  Barmouth. היסטוריה ופולקלוד של יהודי קוצ’ין . 
1938 Jews of Cochin

1952 Jews in cochin

Jewish family in Cochin

The center opened during Hanukkah, 1995 and a year later, on Dec. 28, 1996 thieves broke into the cultural center,, using a bulldozer to break down the wall of the center, causing huge damage to the display hall, and steal silver artifacts as well as the Torah Ark curtain (Parochet) and a standing oil lamp.  The center was able to reopen the following summer.  Then,  about 5 years ago  someone broke a window in the synagogue and stole crowns and other Torah adornments from up to 450 years ago.   They were probably melted down for the silver.   All are irreplaceable.

for more information on Cochin Jewry, go to:

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Jerusalem Museum of Islamic Art....and a bit more around Jerusalem

My hostess Amalia and I traveled to Jerusalem for a day outing.  Along the way we could see the work being done to connect Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by train.  I think the route should be in place in another 3 years. The highway is also being widened and different sections will be finished in the next two years.  Heavy machinery is used to dig through rocky hills.
Our main stop was the L. A. Mayer Memorial Museum of Islamic Art. It was created to help create a bridge between Muslims and Jews.   I had heard about it in the past, and my interest in going there was raised after I met the watch repair person in charge of the amazing clock and watch collection at the museum.  It turned out that the watch, which originally belonged to my great-grandmother who died before my mother was born in 1918, was not very special as a watch.  
Watches with that kind of mechanism were made in France between 1860 and 1920.  They were expensive at the time but not very valuable now and replacement pieces for getting it fixed were most likely non existent. 

 I should still check to see if the watch is an antique, however.  My grandfather used it as a pocket watch until he died in 1963.

This small, three-story museum in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem is definitely worth the visit. Parking is very difficult in the area, however, though Amalia found a spot about 3 blocks away, partially shaded to boot!  The fee is 40 shekels for adults, but since I could prove that I was a senior citizen by showing my passport, I got the reduced fee of 20 shekels. 
We were given a handout/map of the three floors of the museum:

The art work is divided by eras of Islamic history, with each section having a very good explanation of the events in Muslim history at that time in Hebrew, Arabic, and English: 
The eras were:
First Floor:

Story of Islam  (This exhibit opened in Sept. 2013)
In this room, there were also several videos of Muslim life including the visit to Mecca for the Haj. I had read about the Haj experience but seeing it made a very different impact.
The Early Period
Coptic Art (4th--7th centuries)
Pre-Islamic Sassanian Art (Iran/Iraq, mostly silver)
I was surprised to see a silver drinking vessel with hearts embossed all over it!
Influence of Byzantine Art (Turkey)
Split in Islam
Abbasid--750+ with central government in Baghdad
Chinese porcelain had reach this area and the influence in local art was clear. By
the 10th century Baghdadis had learned to do similar porelain.

There was some exquisitely delicate gold jewelry in this part of the exhibit. The earrings were so delicate and so beautiful with a very special color of told not common today.

The Middle Ages
1055-1255 Seljuq Period (There is some amazing Kashan Tilework on display.)
1250-1517 Mamluk
1251+ Mongol art (Iran)
Late Iranian Art (1369--1502)
Moghul Art
Ottoman Art (1300--1924)

I was surprised to see that before the 1300s, there were ceremic figures, etc. with shapes of humans and animals on them but learned that after this time, they were much less common as considered disrespectful to Allah.

Photos are not allowed in the museum. The "art" photos below are from the handout we got mapping the museum. The Harari Hoard  is from the 11--12th centuries. 
There was a collection of chess pieces from the 9th century. 
The Muslims brought chess to Spain. The king was the "shah" and capturing the king meant "shah-mat," hence the word checkmate.

I enjoyed another video with 1-2 minute clips of mosques of the Middle East (and Spain).

The second floor also had some very heavy North African jewelry on display, and we wondered how people could wear it! Much was from Yemen.

There were a few rugs on display on the main floor but not many. I was also interested to see an ancient ivory domino set on display and did not realize the game was so ancient.

We skipped the Islamic weapons exhibit in the basement but did go to the watch display as we had met the watch repairman for the museum at another time. In the early 20th century, Sir David Salomons collected almost 200 incomparable watches and clocks. He later donated them to the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem.  There are many watches and clocks owned by the museum, but only some are on display, mostly watches. In 1983, when a thief discovered that the museum's alarm system was not working and there was only one guard at the front door, the thief broke in through the back and stole over 100 rare watches. Almost all were recovered starting in 2006 when one or two appeared on the market. They are now back under special glass security displays, including the extremely valuable so-called Marie Antoinette watch made by Breguet, probably one of the top watchmakers of all time. 
 We did watch a video on the robbery too, one of the only videos in the bottom floor that is not in English or with English subtitles.

While we were there, two groups of Muslim 7th graders visited the school, so I was happy to see that it was used for educational purposes.

The English handouts were out-of-stock. There were ones available in either Hebrew of Arabic.

We visited for a little over an hour and a half. We saw that there was a coffee shop, but we did not got in. 
If you want to see a bit more of the artwork, go to the website at:

By the way, down the road toward where we had parked, we found a great card and toy store, with three spinners of greeting cards in Hebrew and English and a huge selection of toys, including some wonderful Melissa and Doug items. The owner of the shop at been a kindergarten teacher and loves her job! 
We tried to go to the shuk, but parking was impossible and traffic was at a standstill, quite unusual for a Tuesday mid-day.    We did stop at the Menorah in front of the Knesset.  I had not been on the Knesset hill for almost 40 years.  The last time I was there, I think, was with my father, and I sat in front of the menorah as he photographed me.  I tried to take a similar shot, but the menorah was surrounded by a fence and no one else was around so the best I could do was to take the picture myself.

 The Knesset was across the street. The photo below was taken in front of the Rose Garden, which was created in the 1980s.

 The Rose Garden is a great place to picnic and several families were doing so.

We did stop at Malka, the largest mall in Jerusalem, and split a salad at Cafe Aroma.  At least there, parking was definitely possible. 
As we left Jerusalem around 3:00 p.m., the road turned into a giant parking lot.  It turned out that there was a fire near the road, so the highway was closed.  Instead of 1 1/4 hours, it took us almost 3 1/2 hours to get back to Amalia's home.  We took a brief detour to Mevatzeret to stop at a health food store called Anise in the town mall in search of a special 100% chocolate bar (for a friend) called Holy Cacao. 
I am delighted that we were able to get to the Islamic Museum, however.  It definitely was worth the trip!