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Kerala showcases its Jewish history, treasures

Little town has reunion with former citizens as delegation of Cochin Jews returns to bless renovated synagogue

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THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Chendmangalam was once home to waves of Jewish migrants fleeing persecutors in West Asia and Europe. The little town in Kerala had a reunion with its former natives and their descendants who had returned to the Promised Land after the establishment of Israel.

Around 100 Jews assembled in Chendamangalam last week to bless the renovated synagogue and visit a permanent museum that houses invaluable historical documents. The synagogue, built in 1614, was renovated by the Kerala archaeology department in association with the Israel government and Jewish trusts.

The permanent exhibition - Chendamangalam Synagogue: Jewish Community in a Kerala Village - which opened on Friday, features the oldest Hebrew inscription in India and a copy of the English-Malayalam-Hebrew primer. Wooden reliefs and pictures depict Jewish life and rituals.

Among the ancient graves outside the synagogue, stand a tombstone which dates from 1264, making it the oldest Hebrew inscription found in India. The oldest such document is regarding a wedding that took place in the synagogue in 1812. The exhibition is organised by the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs, Koret Foundation, the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture and Kerala's archaeology and tourism departments.

Daniel Zohar Zonshin, the consul general of Israel, led a delegation of about 100 Jews to this town near Kochi, one of the oldest Jewish settlements in India. He said his government appreciated the gesture by the Kerala government in renovating the synagogue and bringing the two people together. "This is a coming together of the past and the present," he said. Most of his companions on Friday had left Kerala for Israel about 50 years ago.

The archaeology department has been in constant touch with Jewish groups, led by "Shalva Weil," a cultural anthropologist of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, and Jay Waronker, professor of architecture, North Dakota University, US. "They approached us after paying a visit to the synagogue a few months ago with the idea of a museum. The forum has also offered to restore a much older synagogue in neighbouring North Paravur," archaeology director V Manmadhan Nair said.

The synagogue was handed over to the archaeology department five years ago. It was renovated at a cost of Rs 40 lakh. The number of Jews in Kochi and its surroundings has come down drastically after the formation of a Jewish state in 1948. Yet the synagogues continue to be a historical heritage of Kerala as well as a place of worship.

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