The Magnes’ magnificent red and gold Torah ark from India is now on display in the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s year-long exhibition “As it is Written.” It has not been displayed since the museum’s Telling Time exhibit in 1999-2000 and the CJM show gives it a spectacular setting.
A little background:
The Jews of Cochin were a very old community who built numerous synagogues in the Cochin area during the 16th-17th century. The synagogue ark, known as a heikhal in Indian and Sephardic communities, reflects the influence both of Sephardim who came to Cochin by way of Holland and Italy as well as that of local Indian churches and Hindu temples; though the buildings continued to be altered and renovated over the centuries they preserved their original style.
After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 a large part of the Jewish population of India went voluntarily to Israel and the Cochin synagogues were gradually abandoned. During the 1960’s Seymour Fromer and his associate Rabbi Bernard Kimmel rescued as much as they could of the remaining Indian Jewish books and ceremonial art. They discovered this dismantled and crated synagogue heikhal in an Ernakulam synagogue and had it shipped to the museum where it was reassembled and restored.
Orna Eliyahu-Oron, author of the definitive study, Heichalot (Torah Arks) from the Synagogues of Cochin Jews in India (Jerusalem 2004) kindly shared the following information about the Magnes ark, based on her research of its style and on the documents and oral testimonies of the synagogue’s congregants:
• The Heikhal’s origin is the Tekumbagum Synagogue in Mattancheri-Cochin, the same neighborhood where the famous Paradesi Synagogue is found … there is also a Tekumbagum Synagogue in Ernakulam. These identical names most likely stem from an ancient synagogue by the same name in Cranganore, north of Cochin, a place that had been the center of Jewish life in Kerala during the Middle Ages.
• The Tekumbagum Heikhal is dated by its style and other historical evidence to the last major renovation that synagogue underwent – in 1647.
• The Heikhal was probably identified as originating in Ernakulam because it had been dismantled and stored at the Kadavumbagum Synagogue there. It had belonged to the only one of eight Kerala synagogues which had been physically demolished by the last members of its congregation upon their emigration to Israel (sometime after 1954) but the Heikhal itself was not destroyed. Storing de-commissioned Heikhalot in synagogues was apparently regular practice among Kerala Jews, and Eliyau-Oron found the remnants of three even older Heikhalot in the attics of synagogues.
If you’re in the Bay Area, please come and see the ark – if not, enjoy it online.