Prof. PM Jussay

Kerala Jews and their songs

A Tribute to Prof. Jussay
Chennamangalam - a village with a Jewish history
Kerala Jews and their songs
Books written by Prof. Jussay
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The Kerala Jews and their traditional women folk songs


Before their mass immigration to Israel, which began in the early 1950s, Jews lived comfortably for well over a thousand years on the coast of southwest India, now the state of Kerala. They descended from early Jewish traders who had settled on the Kerala Coast, a green land of coconut palms and fertile rice paddies, and an ancient crossorads of international commerce. They shared a relatively high status as merchants along with larger Christian and Muslim minorities,dwelling together among a tolerant Hindu majority. Kerala Jews organised themselves in to different communities,each with its own synagogue and sense of cultural identity, each with its special Hebrew and Malayalam musical traditions. By the begining of the 20th century there were approximately 2500 Malayalam - speaking Jews in Kerala, living in eight communities located within a twenty-five mile radius of each other - three on one street in the city of Kochi, two in the city of Ernakulam across the harbour, and one each in the villages of Chennamangalam, Mala, and Parur. All but Parur were in the former princely state of Kochi and thus the term "Kochini Jews" ( Kochinim in Israeli Hebrew) was applied to the entire group, distinguishing them from two other Indian Jewish groups( the Bene Israel and the Baghdadi or Iraqi Jews) in the vicinities of Bombay and Calcutta much farther to the north.
While Kerala Jewish women and men shared and sang together a unique repertoire of Hebrew piyyutim religious songs, it was the women alone who performed Malayalam language Jewish songs. They preserved the words of these songs in hand-written notebooks, which they passed on from one generation to the next, copying new songs as they learned them taking them along to parties where the songs would be sung. Fortunately the texts of approximately 300 Malayalam Jewish songs - some with many variants - have been collected in thirty - two photocopied notebooks, now housed inm the Ben - Zvi Institute in Jerusalem. The oldest notebook dates back to mid 19th century in Kochi and the latest ones are a few that were copied in the 1970s in Israel. The women's literacy displayed in these old notebooks in not surprising in the historical context of Kerala, a region of India unique both in its emphasis on literacy in general and in the relatively high status of its women in particular.
The social life of the Jewish community in Kerala had centred on rituals in the synagogue and festive meals at home. The women sang during these celebrations. There are songs about wedding processions, gold-clad brides with colourful flowers in their hair, an illustrious ancestor arriving by sea from Jerusalem in a wooden ship and "parrot songs" addressed to the lovely, tropical birds. Many songs are based on Biblical narratives. As with many oral traditions, it is not clear who wrote all the songs. The melodies vary in style and origin and from community to community. Some are based on regional folk tunes, popular film and drama songs, while others are borrowed from Hebrew liturgy and some original music.

The Malayalam Jewish songs were unknown outside the community till the 1970s. Anthropologist Barbara Johnson of Ithaca College, New York, first began recording the women's songs of Kerala's Jewish community. Together with her colleague, late Shirley Berry Isenberg, Johnson began recording and collecting written texts. Prof. P. M. Jussay translated numerous songs from Malayalam to English, published several articles about them and made valuable contributions to this project.


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