Since becoming part of the University of California, Berkeley, in 2010, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life has embarked in a multi-year project aimed at unveiling its extensive holdings that document the history of the Jewish community in Kerala, South India, one of the oldest in the world. The collection includes over 1500 items, which are being catalogued, digitally photographed, and displayed in rotating exhibitions.
Thanks to a dynamic collecting campaign initiated in 1967 by the late Seymour Fromer (1922-2009), in conjunction with Rabbi Bernard Kimmel (1922-1991) and scores of volunteers, The Magnes became one of the world’s most extensive repositories of materials about the Jews of Southern India, taking on an important role in the preservation of their culture alongside the historic Jewish sites in the State of Kerala, as well as national and private collections in Israel, where most of the Kerala Jews settled after the founding of the State in 1948.
These efforts are by no means the only connection between Kerala and Berkeley. David Mandelbaum (1911-1987), Professor of Anthropology at UC Berkeley (1946-1978), visited Kerala in 1937 and published a seminal scholarly article about its Jewish community two years later. Walter Fischel (1902-1973), Professor of Semitic Languages and Literature at UC Berkeley (1945-1970) and an authority on the history and culture of the Jewish communities in India, was the only North American scholar invited by the State of Kerala to take part in the celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the Paradesi synagogue in 1968.
The complete collection housed at The Magnes includes hundreds of ritual objects, textiles, photographs, archival documents, books, manuscripts, liturgical texts, illustrated ketubbot (Jewish marriage contracts), and amulets in Hebrew, Aramaic, Malayalam, Judeo-Spanish, and English. These materials constitute an invaluable source of information on the Kerala Jewish community and its deep connections with India’s society and cultures while also reflecting the global Jewish Diaspora across India, the Middle East, and Europe. Among its most notable items are the Torah Ark from the Tekkumbhagam synagogue in Mattancherry, Kochi, an extremely rare amulet on parchment designed to protect newborn children as well as women in childbirth, and the diaries of Abraham Barak Salem (1882–1967), a lawyer and politician active in the causes of Indian independence and Zionism, and one of the most prominent Cochin Jews of the twentieth century, which provide a vivid account of Jewish life in Kochi throughout the 20th century.
This project builds on years of curatorial work devoted to assessing and documenting the holdings of The Magnes, in collaboration with experts in Israel and the US. Its aim is to place these important holdings of The Magnes on the global map that historically connects Kerala, Israel, and Berkeley, inaugurating new season of research engagement with the scholarly community at UC Berkeley and beyond, and highlighting an important intersection between Jewish and Asian Studies.
Dr. Francesco Spagnolo is an Associate Adjunct Professor at UC Berkeley and the Curator, of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life.