Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Hanukah an Indo-Jewish experience

The sun was on his way to sleep, the queen of Arabian Sea with a cool and gentle breeze gave her vale to the sun. The elegant red coloured bungalow that bears a lot of histories is celebrating the Hanukah, the Jewish festival of lights. The Menorahs (Jewish candelabrum) was kept ready to be lighted for rituals of the Hanukah to start with......

Here I narrate a bit of history about the beautiful bungalow and my experience of attending Hanukah there, a Jewish festival in the restaurant named Menorah in Cochin. It stands in Cochin’s one of the oldest bungalow The Koder House, it was reconstructed over an early nineteenth-century Portuguese mansion by the Koder family’s patriarch, Samuel Koder, it is believed to have been structured and gabled in Europe and shipped to Cochin. Its windows are said to be made of glass imported from Belgium and the stories go on like it.

The Koders family immigrated to Cochin from Iraq a few centuries ago. Samuel Koder ran the Cochin Electric Company which was eventually sold to the government. Also, the Koders had a huge chain of department stores across Kerala, which too, were sold. The Koders could be relied on to stock luxury goods such as alcoholic beverages from the UK, fine clothes, and chandeliers from Europe. The owners, of course, were like mini-royalty.
As Samuel Koder was the honorary consul to the Netherlands, the Dutch ambassadors visited the house often. He also began the Freemasons’ organisation in Cochin.
In its heydey under the Koders, the house was known for its famous Friday Open houses. This was a big event on the Cochin social calendar. Though informal, anticipation of the event would build up in mid-week itself. It became a focal point of anyone who wished to meet the Koders or know about Indian Jewish lifestyle. Visitors could be as many as 45, or just a handful - among them ambassadors, celebrities or heads of state! Conversation and food was the order of the day.

The house presently turned to a Boutique hotel with a Jewish restaurant, The Menorah conducts this 8-day long Jewish festival as an Indo Jewish festival for last 4 years. The American Jew Mr. Chaim Weissman is the host for the festival, he is actually an American as apple pie. The Menorah or hannukia (Jewish candelabrum with 9 branches) were kept ready for lighting for the ritual to start with. After enjoying the beauty of beach I and my friend Vishnu entered to the restaurant where the action is, we were escorted to our reserved seat, to the very next there was a small crowd of some people who were talking to each other. There were two Indians and 3 foreigners.  I could identify Mr. Chaim Weismann even though I am having only a nodding acquaintance with him. I introduced me and my friend to him. Mentioning that I know Hebrew language and have a very good relation with cochin Jewish community. Suddenly he asked me whether have you earned a blog. I told yes I do. Then he explained to others that I had made a very good and sensitive portrayal about the Samuel Hallegua, the son in law of Mr. Satu Koder the owner of this Bungalow. By saying this he introduced me to the crowd who was present over there. He asked whether you know Queenie, Samuel uncles wife. I told, Yes I do, and told that she gave me many cochin Jewish recipes and I am a frequent visitor to Sarah Cohen (the eldest among the community).

By 7 pm a group of people entered the restaurant by their appearance itself we can read they are Israelites. Mr. Chaim wished them and had a small word with them as a host, then he introduced me to them in Hebrew language, I didn’t understand it fully but what I understood is that I am a person who read and writes Hebrew language very well. They were amazed to hear that and they excitedly asking how I became curious towards their culture and language.

Then came many people to the scene and the ceremony started, Mr. Chaim explained about the history of the bungalow and then the conducting of ritual, he asked me whether can I loudly read this prayer in Hebrew I was excited and so nervous, honestly I said I can read but I could not do it right now because I would like to be an audience. He told no problem, and he gave the book to one of those who was standing in front of him. He covered his head with a white cloth and started with the blessing. The candles were lighted one after one, a candelabrum lighted by people from different part of the world with a pretty different experience. Then there were other traditional oil lamps for lighting it, Mr. Chaim called a young lady who was a cochin Jew settled in Israel her name was Aadi. The lighting ceremony was finished succeeded by the hanukah songs. To the scene, came a family they were a bit late. The ceremony concluded, some people went out after it and others settled down on their respective places for the hanukah dinner. Mr. Chaim came to us and introduced that family who came late that they came from Israel but they were emigrants from the Kerala’s oldest Jewish settlement in Mala, in Thrissur. We wished them and asked whether they had been to other synagogues in Thrissur. They told yes but not to Parur. They told they couldn’t contact with the Namiah family who has the key of the synagogue. I told I can help them by giving the contact number. Then I showed them some picture of the synagogues and cemeteries of the Mala, Parur, Chennamangalam fortunately one tombs picture in my mobile was of their grandfathers. Erela was happy to see it and the synagogue. She called her sister Lea and showed those pictures to her she was also happy and asked for my contact number and address.

Then we just went to our seat and ordered for some Indian Jewish dishes and we were discussing about the scenes that happened, then we thought of seeing the bungalow interior as it may take time to the food to get ready. So with the help of the operational manager we had a brief session. Where the each nook and corner have some to say about the past Indian Jewish history. The three storied building has good wooden flooring in the first and second the room was large and spacious and each holds a well furnished coat and other utilities. The ground floor which holds the restaurant has good flooring which resembles a chess board. The chandeliers and other fixtures had an antique touch which all together gave an endurance of a lofty visual feast for us.

The food was ready and the waiter seeks for our approval. First our table was occupied by “Oaf Marak”, which literally means chicken soup but it is a chicken based broth with vegetables and meat ball. That actually tasted well with dominating flavor of coriander leaves which is one of the main ingredients in cochin Jewish cuisinette

That was followed by the “Kubba” stuffed chicken dumpling in Jewish gravy, this least spicy curry went well with the chapattis and “Plav” (cochin jewish coconut rice dish) and the dinner to end with I ordered for “Queenie aunties fruit salad”, cut fruits with whipped cream in Queenie auntie’s style.

I was surprised to read the name of the dish, because I personally knew Queenie auntie very well and I was proud to say that to my friend and was too interested to explain about her, She is the daughter of Mr. Shabdai Samuel Koder the last owner of the bungalow and even she is the wife of late warden of the cochin pardesi synagogue Mr. Samuel Hallegua, who was also my friend actually an adorable Crichton. When I went to visit her, out of my interest she used to give a long lectures on Cochin Jewish cuisinette and Jewish dietary laws which is valuable for me as this cuisinette and the community is at its labefaction phase. It’s sad to say only ten members are remaining alive and well in the cochin Jewish community and rest emigrated to Israel years ago, as a cochinite I took an intention to preserve it ,for that she helped me out by giving some recipes and even Sarah Aunty also helped me out by sharing her valuable experience.

As my home is only a walk able distance from the Koder house we walked, I was recollecting the incidents which gifted me a lot of memories and memoirs about Cochin Jews............................


Mikewind Dale said...

Wow, fantastic! Thank you for posting all of this! This really is extraordinary, how interested you are in all this. Thank you so much!

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Usha said...

Thoufeek, I totally share your sentiments! The memories in that house hit me with a bang when I was reading your article.. Satoo uncle, Gladys Aunty, Lily Aunty, we kids talking about ghosts lurking in some rooms :)....those were really the days.. A true blast from the past..love it..