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:

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