Saturday, 24 September 2011

Jewish Gandhi

Anna Hazare, hailed as “21st century Gandhi”, “Gandhi of modern era” and Martin Luther King Jr, known as “American Gandhi”, Rehavam Ze'evi, Israeli Poilitian with nick name Gandhi, almost all are aware about these names. Have anyone heard of a “Jewish Gandhi” from India?

Sounds pretty different huh?

Not talking about Mahatma Gandhi wearing a kippah but about an unnoticed leader who had used sathyagraha, the tool of non violence to eradicate the final traces of racism from a community, later called as “Jewish Gandhi”

Abraham Barak Salem, 
Photo courtesy to Gamliel Selam.

Abraham Barak Salem (1882–1967) was an Indian nationalist and Zionist, one of the most prominent leader from Cochin Jewish community of the 20th century. Born in 1882 to a meshuchrarim ( Hebrew word used to denote  manumitted slave) family in Cochin. He was “Salem Kocha” to Cochin Jews and Cochinites, “A.B.Salem” to others.

Against racism.

Similar to the fourfold caste system of Kerala, the Jews of Kerala also had a system, according to my observation it would have evolved of its own and later deviated to a different level where no one can be blamed. The inferiority complex of Malabari Jews being dark in their complexion and the superiority complex of the Paradesi Jews or so called foreign Jews being a foreigner and fair by their complexion would have been the main reason, it can be explained as simple as that. But as the days went it had expanded to a phase of racism within the Jewish community of Cochin.

And the situation was like, A few meshuchrarim belonging to the Paradesi Jewish community, were discriminated against by other Paradesi Jews, being relegated to a subordinate position in the Paradesi Synagogue in Cochin. The Paradesi Jews also considered themselves racially distinct from the more numerous Malabari Jews who had preceded them on the Malabar Coast.

The Malabari Jews had more than seven places of worship; the Paradesi Jews had only one, the Paradesi Synagogue, which for centuries had been barred to those whom they considered impure. The stratification in the Jewish community prevented the meshuchrarim from marrying other Paradesi Jews and forced them to sit in the back of the synagogue with the Malabari Jews in a manner resembling the discrimination against converts from lower in India.

To be clear all the Paradesi Jews sat inside the synagogue and other were only let to sit in the Azara or The Ante chamber.

Salem fought against this by boycotting the synagogue for a time and utilised satyagraha as a means of combating discrimination within the community. This led some people to later refer to him as the "Jewish Gandhi".

Other activities

Salem served in the Legislative Council in the princely state of Cochin from 1925 to 1931 and again from 1939 to 1945. A supporter of the nascent trade union movement in Kerala and active Indian nationalist, at the end of 1929 he attended the Lahore session of the Indian National Congress which passed a resolution calling for complete independence from the Raj. However, especially after visiting Palestine in 1933, Salem came to focus more on the Zionist cause. After Indian independence, he worked to promote aliyah to Israel among the Cochin Jews, visiting Israel in 1953 to negotiated with Israel on behalf of Malabari Jews who wanted to migrate.

Negotiation between Issac Ben Zvi (Israel's former president) and A.B.Salem in Israel, 
Photo courtesy to Gamliel Selam.

This also helped to diminish the divisions among the Cochin Jews. Although most of Cochin's ancient Jewish community eventually left for Israel (and, in the case of many Paradesi Jews, for North America and England), Selam remained in Cochin.

He use to talk regarding almost all the subjects to the public and in Ernakulam near the Durbar Hall Ground and the Gandhi square, there was a place named “Salem Mount” a small heap were he used to address the public. But now the exact location is not known but according to Gamliel Salem his youngest son, it was inside the Irwin Park, Ernakulam, (Opposite to Ernakulathappan temple, near Old Husoor Jetty, now this name is unknown to most of the people).

The famous Cochin electrical company (First private electric company) and Ferry & Co (Ferry service), owned by Koder Family was his idea and he made all the legal paper works.

Just opposite to the Paradesi synagogue, third house was later owned by Salem. There near the outer wall existed “Salem’s looking glass,” his own concept were he use to put the english news paper cuttings of various topics. And interested peoples can have a talk or discussion with him.


Born to a poor family, he was similar to Abraham Lincoln, he studied sitting under the street light (it was a black granite receptacle stuck into all Jewish house in Cochin, lighted in the evening. Still those can be found in Jew Town, Cochin).

He has done his Pre-degree in Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam and then moved to Chennai to earn his Bachelors degree in Arts, he became the first college graduate among the meshuchrarim.

Reema Salem, (wife of Gamliel Salem) said, He use say that he traveled in small boat to Ernakulam, before the Wellington Island was made. From there he uses to get a bullock cart and head to Shornur, and from there to Madras. The journey to this modern context will be the most hectic.

Gamliel Salem, My father attended his college in Presidency college of Madras and took BABL, with C.Rajagopalachari and other 4 members who later became famous public figures in Indian politics.

But he had got many invitations from the Government of India to become the Advisory committee and personal messenger of Mahathma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru came to Cochin to invite him. But he hided himself inside the Paradesi synagogue and stayed back in Jew Town and attended the religious services.

But he had many other designations and ornamentation to read along with his name
·        Advocate, Municipal Chairman, Mattancherry,

·        Member of legislative council, Cochin.

·        Executive Committee member of the Indian states peoples.  Conference for establishment of responsible government.

·        Delegate to the Indian National Congress session at Lahore (1929)

·        The first labour leader in Cochin.

·        Founder of Indo-Palestine Co.

·        Visited Palestine & Israel as the representative of the Cochin Jewish Community to fight for Aliya.

·        Vice-president of Malabar Jews association (1932-47).

·        Secretary of Cochin Zionist Association.

He married Ms.Ruth, (She was a Doctor) it happened to be in Culcutta, even though she was also from Cochin.

Ruth Selam, his wife. 
Photo courtesy to Gamliel Selam.

Ketubah (Marriage contract) of A.B.Salem and Ruth Salem, 
Photo courtesy to Magnes Museum.

Malkah, Mino, Balpher, Raymond and Gamliel were their children. Salem remained in Cochin until his death in 1967.  He was buried in the Paradesi Jewish cemetery in Jew Town in Cochin, and subsequently the road adjacent was named after him as "A.B.Salem road". As a tribute to him there is a small resting hub for laborers in the next street owned by Center of Indian Trade Union.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

The Hebrew chronicles of Jews of Cochin

The scribe dried the parchment and took his ink box to prepare new ink and he started scribing their history, he started with their forefathers history and reached present time events and as days went he recorded their daily events and happenings, and that was passed down to generations to generations with new parchments sewn to…

Compiled in different periods from different places surviving many treacherous situations it finally reached Kerala all the way from Judea, Assyria and Yemen, and it found its destiny but those celebrated days were turned to miserable again when Portuguese stepped into the Jew town of cochin… from there the picture is unclear was it burned or survived by any copies if yes where is it????

 It is about the “Hebrew chronicles of Jews of Cochin”, (ספר הישר sefer ha yashar,  this particular book have no link with the religious book or Rabbinical treaties ) always an interesting topic to the people who learn about Cochin Jewish history deeply. How it became popular among the scholars of Germany?

We are in clear ambiguity about this book, what was it?

According to me this has to be considered as a conceptual factor. Where there exists different idea about this book.

In Prof. Nathan Katz's book, “Who are the Jews of India” he mentions about sefer yashar, as the communities chronicles, of Jews of Cochin. Which is a Historical record, but it is also mentioned that it was destroyed among many other books, when Portuguese burned Paradesi synagogue in 1662 A.D.
Even mentioned that the Jews of Cochin explains to Moses de Paiva, in 499 C.E another large group of Jews had arrived, but “they could not say from which part of the world they had came, as the knowledge they have is much confused because of the loss of the book name sepher Ayashar…..

This incident took place in happened in 1686, exactly 24 years after the destruction of the Paradesi synagogue.

But “In the year 1757, a Jewish Christian, whose name was Leopold Immanuel Jacob Van Dort, obtained access to the “Hebrew record” kept by the Jewish Rabbi of Cochin, of which he made an epitome. Maecellus Bles, a director of the Dutch East India Company, visited that part of the world about the same time. The Dutchman was a person of acute observation, keen discernment, and of a very curious disposition. He was, moreover, in the habit of noting down in his diary every interesting incident coming in his way. On his return home, whilst in the isle of Ceylon, he met with Van Dort, who furnished him with a dutch translation of the above mentioned document, which Maecellus Bles inserted in his journal. After the death of the worthy gentleman, his MSS. Fell into the hand of celebrated preacher of The Hague, Rutz by name, who was a good Orientalist, and therefore took a particular interest in the narrative referring to Cochin. He at once set about obtaining more information on the subject, and by the means of a rich Jewish banker of the Hague-well known Boaz- he contrived to forward, in the month Of November, 1787, a letter of inquiry to the son of Ezekiel Rahabi, but kept an account in Boaz’s bank. However, before Rutz received any answer, he translated it into German, and sent it, on the 25th of September, 1789, to Eichhorn, for insertion in his “Universal Library of Biblical Literature,” which Eichhorn did in 1790. It exited a good deal of interest at the time. Naphtali Hirtz Wizel (Wiesel), as soon as it printed- before it was even published- translated it into Hebrew, which was published in מאסף of the same year: but no proper investigation was instituted, the excitement subsided and subsequent travelers furnish us with scanty, we had almost said with worthless, information.
(The star of Jacob, edited by Moses Margoliouth, Incumbent of Glasnevin, Dublin.)

The question is which was this Hebrew Record, subjected by Van Dort???

Was this is the same historical record Sefer Ha Yasher which survived the fire or a copy of it?

Where is MSS Van Dort’s Dutch Translation?

These questions are some seeds that I am sowing to the mind of the people…..
(To find out the answer for these questions first and foremost thing to be done is to fetch details about Van Dort and Maecellus Bles,  for this I had contacted Cultural Anthropologist Dr. Bauke Van Der Pol, who is researching on Dutch legecy for several years but he couldn't fetch details, But Malayinkil Gopalan Krishnan who owns a website named Dutch in Kerala, he had forwarded my mail to Dutch embassy. Hope I will get the reply soon.)

Eichhorn’s German translation and the Weisel’s Hebrew translation has got maximum attention. Scholars like Meir Bar Ilan had done studies and written papers on that in Hebrew. But below given quote shows that even a history record existed till the arrival of Dr. Buchanan in 18th century.
(The Christian journal, and literary register, Volume 10, 1826, page 100)
 “On the 15th of April when he (Thomas Fanshaw Middleton 1769-1822 ) was preparing to leave Cochin Napthali Rottenberg, the Jew, called upon him with copy of the Jewish Plates and had much conversation with him. He said that they had an “Account of their arrival in that country after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus”: but that it was lent to Dr.Buchanan, who carried it away with him.”
And it is believed that Buchanan had deposited all the manuscripts fetched from India in Cambridge university library and it is still there. (But the authorities from Cambridge University says they don’t have any such books mentions about the history of Jews of Cochin in their possession)

As this text is also not available next data is history of Cochin Jews by Claudius Buchanan in his book “Christian research in Asia: with notice of the Translation of the scriptures into the Oriental Languages,” but when we compare the abstract of Van Dort’s Dutch abstract of Hebrew record and Buchanan’s history it proves that the sources were different. Buchanan’s history is similar to the history provided by the Ezekiel Rahabi, and other later Cochin Jews. Van Dort’s abstract is an exception where the history is mentioned as,

“In the ninth year of Hoshea, King of Israel, came Shalmaneser , King of Assyria and carried away the Israelites captive, and made them dwell in Halah, Habor, by the river Gozan, and in the cities of Medes. In the year 894, Shalmanazer the third sent as a present to Puurawoo, King of Teman ((as per the translator it is Mocha, But Prof.Meir tells it isYemen), four hundred and sixty families of jewish captives: whom on their arrival there, the king ill-treated, and dealt with as slaves.”

“Later the Jews from Yemen were expelled and they fleed to Puna and Gujarath, Van dort then explains about the arrival of Rabbi Joseph (Joseph Raban) with 72 families to India. He then mentions about Sheram Perimal (Cheraman Perumal), copper plates and about Joseph Hallegua (Son-in-law of Ezekiel Rahabi), and about a land of 16 miles of circumference in the name Batekar, (possibily talking about Anjuvannam) granted by the King to Joseph their Rabbi, which was still in possession of Joseph Hallegua the present Nasi (Prince).

“Also mentions Joseph Hallegua preserves two epistles, which King Ahasuerus (as is to be found in the Book of Esther) sent respecting their the affair of Haman and Mordecai, and they are written in Tamuly (Tamil) language. The descendants of the aborigines of Malabar, who go by the name of Caieryns or Cannaryns, have still in their pagodas or their idol temples, copies of those letter…”

These are some points from the abstract of the Hebrew chronicles, from German as it stands in Eichhorn’s work. This piece of information had got attention because of the above mentioned interesting facts clustered in Van Dort’s Dutch abstract.

Even though it is a finalized fact that the sefer ha yasher had destroyed in fire in 1662 AD, according to me it would have survived by a copy of it which served as the historical source for Van Dort to make a Dutch translation or an Abstract of it. Or else which was the historical record Van Dort translated ?

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Mysterious tiles of Paradesi synagogue

Any tourist stepping into Paradesi synagogue of Cochin is fascinated by the 250 year old handmade Chinese porcelain tiles, each tiles are unique.In Abraham Barak Salem (1882 - 1967)’s book, Cochin Jew town synagogue it is mentioned

“Many a visitor has carried away these things on their visits to adorn their own walls or drawing rooms. Lord Curzon is said to have carried away a tile from the Synagogue. A Manager of the National Bank of India Ltd., also secured one tile.”

Why is it so fascinating ? what is the specialty of these tiles 

These exquisite handmade “willow pattern” tiles were imported from Canton, China by Ezekiel Rahabi, paved in 1762 AD. There were 1,100 tiles consisting of basically four different patterns. These tiles are sharing a great love story to each of us, as narrated in an Old Chinese poem
Two pigeons, lover's flying high,
A Chinese vessel was sailing by,
Weeping Willow hanging o'er,
Bridge with lover's, father sore
Koong-Shee and Chang did fly,
To a small house not close by,
Happy lovers, ne'er a frown,
Little house was burn't to ground.
Ne'er no more were lover's seen,
Weeping Willows, sorrow, trees.
Empassioned love birds in the sky
Their love, true love, ne'er will die
Explained as :
 “In a bygone age a wealthy and powerful Mandarin of the Chinese Empire lived with his lovely daughter Knoon-se in a grand palace surrounded by ornate, exotic flowers and trees. Chang, a low born but intelligent and personable young man, was employed as secretary to the Mandarin and fell hopelessly in love with the exquisite and captivating Knoon-se.

But the father of Koong-Shee wanted her to marry Ta-jin, a rich man and because she wouldn't give up Chang her father sent her away to a little house at the end of the garden. Outside Koong-Shee's window was a willow tree, and just beyond that a fruit tree and Koong-Shee sat all day watching the fruit tree bloom. She was very lovely and unhappy, until one day Chang asked her to flee with him.

Chang dared not post the letter lest it should fall into the hands of Koong-Shee's father, but he found a coconut shell, dropped it into the lake, and watched it sail across.
Koong-Shee read the letter, and sent back her answer. She said she would go if her lover were brave enough to come and fetch her. Chang went boldly up to the little house and took her away. They had to cross the bridge to get out of the garden and as they were half way across Koong-Shee's father saw them, and hurried after them.

Koong-Shee went first with her distaff; Chang followed carrying her jewel-box, and behind them ran the father with a whip. But the father did not catch them, and they escaped to a little house on the other side of the lake, where they lived happily.

But Ta-jin was so angry that he set fire to the pretty little house. Tragically, the lovers perished in the flames. Revenge and bitterness had seemingly prevailed as the fire raged and engulfed all.

Cosmic winds howled as the ever-watchful gods took pity on the doomed lovers and blessed their undying devotion by granting them immortality. From the charred ruins of their home, the souls of Knoon-se and Chang soared into the sky as turtledoves and kissed again; beyond fear, beyond danger, forever free and symbolizing eternal love.”

But there exists other version of explanation for this willow pattern ie in relation with the Secret Shaolin Message: The Shaolin Monastery is burned by the Imperial troops of the Manchu rulers, called invaders by Chinese nationalist and later communist factions. Souls of the dead monks take a boat to the isle of the Blest. On the bridge are three Buddha awaiting the dead souls:
Sakyamuni, the Buddha of the Past;
Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future; and,
Amitabha, the Ruler of the Western Paradise.
Beyond them is the City of Willows – Buddhist Heaven. The doves are the monks' souls on the journey from human to immortal life.

According to expertise in this field of Glass and porceline Gonneke en Jaap Stavenuiter and Trudy Laméris-Essers ( he droves an art gallery in the Spiegelstraat in Amsterdam)

" The impressive floor is paved with some 1100 hand-painted Chinese porcelain tiles measuring c. 29 x 29 cm. It is composed of horizontal rows of tiles with a repeating design. There are four different designs, that of the first row being identical with the fifth, the second with the sixth, and so on.
The bottommost row depicts a lotus and a prunus, which symbolize summer and winter, and at the same time express a contrast such as that between man and wife in marriage. The tree peony on these tiles points to love and is considered a good omen. The row of tiles above shows a chrysanthemum together with a willow and boulders. Chrysanthemum and willow symbolize autumn and spring, another contrast between husband and wife in marriage. The rocks symbolize fidelity and a long life. In the third row we see a tree peony and a boulder, together representing the queen of flowers. It is a sign of good fortune, to be relied on for ever. Finally there is a row of rural scenes with the familiar willow pattern, which was adopted by Minton for his transfer print on English creamware and thus became world famous.
It is a moot point whether the images of the tiles in this synagogue were intended symbolically, considering that a synagogue is the place where marriages are solemnized".

Apart from the willow pattern's stories there is another story, that these tiles originally came from Canton in China, to embellish the palace of the Rajah of Cochin, that the Dutch built for him in the compound next to the Synagogue on its northern side. After their arrival some astute Jew who was familiar with the Rajah and who coveted these tiles, put it into the head of the orthodox Hindu Rajah that in the composition of these tiles there was an element of the forbidden blood of the cow. The cow of course, is a sacrosanct animal in India and it horrified the simpleton of a Rajah, to think that he should step upon a floor in which the blood of the cow that he worshipped was killed and mixed. He at once, told his friend, the Jew that he might remove them altogether and in this way, these tiles have found their way into the Synagogue. But this is an incredible story, and the internal evidence strongly militates against the acceptance of an otherwise clever invention.

Whatever the story be tiles were customized for the purpose of paving in Synagogue, the proof is blurred figures of the living things from the tiles as those are forbidden by Commandments. But inside the Pulpit there are a few tiles, much bigger than the ones on the floor and in these tiles the human figures are not blurred at all this is still a mystery…

Even if we look into the history of the Willow pattern it is even interesting.

Willow pattern (proceed reading after the referring the link)

So it is interesting to know that this willow pattern is one of the most authentic one. Because the person who is hailed as the patron of this design that is Thomas Minton (1765-1836) was born after three years from this tiles were paved in Paradesi synagogue, This might be a tip off to the history of origin of Willow pattern, isn’t interesting???