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Songs of My Foremothers

By Suzanne Selengut, The Jerusalem Post, September 5, 2011

On a typical quiet morning in Mesillat Tzion, a small moshav near Jerusalem, Zippora Eliyahu is singing in her living room. Holding a well-worn book of piyutim (liturgical poetry), she sings a line in the Cochin regional language of Malayalam and stops to translate it to Hebrew, then moves on to the next line. She has a loud, clear alto voice that seems to know the tune without trying. The song she is singing concerns itself with the building of a synagogue and culminates in wistful renderings of the land of Israel.

Eliyahu is a sprightly grandmother in her seventies with a ready smile and a constant stream of insightful comments. Like many other Jewish women from the Kerala-Cochin region of India, she has the delicate features and smooth tan skin associated with her country of origin. Having earned her status as community elder, she speaks from a place of confidence and is eager to share her wisdom, her songs, and the star-shaped Indian pastries that are her baking specialties.

She remembers hearing this particular song as a girl growing up in the Kerala- Cochin coastal area of India. That was back in the early 1950s, before her family, along with many Jews in the region, immigrated to Israel. Many of them found their way to Mesillat Tzion, now home to about 100 families who pride themselves on efforts to preserve the unique customs of this ancient Jewish tradition.

Among those treasured customs are the songs of the Jewish Cochin community, which include selections in both Hebrew and Malayalam. Many of the Malayalam songs are traditionally sung by the community’s women and have a special place in Indian Jewish tradition as a part of the feminine domain of ritual life.

“I can clearly remember our whole extended family gathered and singing to a bride on the Shabbat before the wedding. Singing went together with special festive foods and clothes, and it was always a very important part of any family event,” says Eliyahu.

Today, Eliyahu is a member of a women’s chorus in Mesillat Zion that gathers to sing these old songs together. The group performs occasionally, but for the participants, it is the act of singing that is important. Their sessions have become a means to hold on to a way of life that exists now only in their memories.

THE COCHIN JEWISH COMMUNIty, which is at least one thousand years old and included the populations of nearby cities, Ernakulum, Parur, Chennamangalam, and Mala, is one of three well-documented Indian Jewish communities.

The other two groups, the Baghdad community, whose members hail from Iraq, and the Bene Israel, an indigenous Indian Jewish community, many of whose members also immigrated to Israel in the 1950s, have differing Jewish traditions.

Almost all the members of the once vibrant Cochin community live in Israel today. Much of the population that still identifies as “Cochini” is centered in a few key areas: a cluster of towns right outside of Jerusalem; Ramat Eliyahu in the country’s center; and several settlements in the north of Israel. Many younger Israelis of Indian heritage have ventured out of the community’s confines. “They’ve become more Israeli than the Israelis” is a common refrain among the older generation.

But in Mesillat Zion, especially on Shabbat and holidays, time seems to stand still. The moshav is usually bustling, with nursery schools, shops and a public swimming pool, as well as a diverse population of Israelis of every ethnic origin. However, a quiet area with many families hailing from Cochin still exists. Even the streets and public squares in that quarter are named after well-known names and places associated with India. The synagogues are still filled with older folk who remember the prayers and tunes sung in India. And while some customs, such as elaborate wedding ceremonies that stretch over several weeks, are no longer practiced, you can still find Indian baked goods flavored with cardamom in most kitchens and Indian music on the stereo.

The Cochin Jewish musical tradition is rich, varied and quite complex. It includes Hebrew piyutim set to music and often sung in synagogue on Shabbat and holidays, as well as translations of these pieces and other original songs, all sung in the Cochin regional language of Malayalam. While both men and women sing the traditional piyutim, the thousands of songs in the Malayalam canon are considered the realm of women.

Indeed, women are the principal singers at family celebrations such as circumcision ceremonies, ceremonies to welcome baby girls, and the elaborate, lengthy celebrations that accompany traditional Cochin weddings.

Older women have an honored role as the initiators of song; they choose the tune and set the pace, and are only later joined by the rest of the women present in chronological age order.

“In our tradition, there was no idea of a woman’s singing voice being so erotic as to be avoided by males,” says Tova Aharon-Kastiel, who leads the women’s chorus in Mesillat Zion, referring to the notion in the Talmudic legal tradition that Jewish men are forbidden to listen to a woman’s singing voice, or kol isha, as it may inspire sexual thoughts. “No, no, a woman had a place and she sang! There were even occasions when the men would sing a line in Hebrew and the women would respond in Malayalam,” she adds.

The chorus is the second such group to spring up in Israel in recent years. Another similar group, called Nirit and spearheaded by Galia Chaku, is still active in the Ramat Eliyahu area.

SOME 10 YEARS AGO, AHARONKastiel decided to create a women’s chorus to celebrate and help revive the Cochin Jewish art of women’s songs. Her goal was twofold: to spark new interest in this ancient art form, and also to modernize the music and keep it relevant. Both aims derive from an ages-old family tradition. A native Israeli who now resides in Beit Shemesh, Aharon-Kastiel comes from a particularly musical family from the Cochin region. The name “Kastiel” is of Sephardi Jewish origin and suggests that her ancestors were Spanish Jews who made their way to Cochin in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition. Well known as community leaders as well as paytanim (composers of piyutim), the family eventually made their home in the town of Parur, where Aharon- Kastiel’s father was born.

“I developed my love of this music through my father. He sang the songs in a slightly different tempo, a little bit more upbeat, than many in the Jewish community.

Now I take the songs, add a little beat here and there, and pass it on to the next generation,” she explains.

Aharon-Kastiel, a youthful 50-something, is aware of the importance of preserving this waning legacy. Full of energy, it is hard to believe that she’s a grandmother several times over. Since taking early retirement to study and do musical arrangements of Cochin Jewish music, she has completely immersed herself in the tradition. With no budget and no formal musical training, Aharon-Kastiel relies heavily on her memories of growing up in Israel in a traditional Cochini family and her current connections with older members of the community.

Her memories of rising early in the morning during the High Holiday period to sing piyutim with her family are especially dear to her. “My mother was in charge of the religious education of the children. We would get up early, get special treats to eat, and sing the prayers,” she remembers.

“I started to study Cochin Jewish music in order to revive the art form, and also out of a love for the songs,” says Aharon- Kastiel. In her attempts to gather information about the songs, she has interviewed 30 older members of the community. In addition she reads all she can find on Cochin Jewish and general Indian history and contemporary life, from academic works to popular Indian fiction.

“My house has become an archive. All I do is music, but I love it,” she says.

The intense research has helped her to adapt the music while also preserving its essence. “Our Jewish songs are influenced by Indian culture. The Indians have a lot of time. They are relaxed. That’s a part of the culture. As a result, many of the songs have a very wandering beat. I add a more contemporary sound to some of them,” she says.

She adds that the slow quality of the songs may also be due to the fact that they were traditionally sung without musical accompaniment. “This, I have learned, was because in many Jewish communities, people refrained from playing instruments as a show of mourning after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem,” she says.

Her aim now is to contemporize while still preserving a given song’s original mood. In one arrangement, for example, she has added harp music to a song about longing for Jerusalem.

THE MEMBERS OF THE WOMEN’S chorus she founded at Mesillat Zion provide her with the feedback she needs as she walks this line between preservation and modernization. Most of the women range in age from 65 to 85 and immigrated to Israel in the 1950s. Their memories help Aharon-Kastiel keep the music grounded in tradition.

The chorus, which meets about twice a month to sing together, has also assumed a crucial role in the lives of the participants. It provides a welcome opportunity for creativity and socializing, and also allows the women to bridge the cultural gap that immigration to Israel created. Without Aharon-Kastiel’s group, there would be no opportunity to revisit the special ceremonies that the women remember so well.

Chorus participants Eliyahu and her friend, Sara Elias, both in their seventies, have fond memories of growing up in India and listening to the women singing. Both immigrated to Israel in 1954 and are longtime members of the Mesillat Tzion community.

Today, as the two women sit together recalling old times, the enthusiasm engendered by these long ago family occasions is still palpable. They describe the setting as if it occurred yesterday, and it is easy to imagine these older women as young girls again, swept up in the fun of a party. Eliyahu, lively and outspoken, conjures up word pictures, while Elias quietly smiles and nods, sometimes adding a memory of her own.

“The women would sing to the bride and it helped her,” exclaims Eliyahu. “Many of the songs say to the bride: ‘We are with you. We will help you.’” “The older women knew the songs the best. They led. Young girls before marriage didn’t really sing. The men didn’t really know the songs in Malayalam,” she remembers.

“Some did,” counters Elias.

“Those who knew how to, sang too,” agrees Eliyahu.

“The songs at the Shabbat Kallah [Shabbat of the Bride] described the beauty of the bride and her dowry. Some were about biblical characters, Abraham and Sarah, for example,” says Eliyahu. One wedding song centered on the story of Ruth and her close friendship with mother-in-law, Naomi. A peaceful relationship with a mother-in-law was crucial for women in a culture where brides left their childhood home to join their husband’s family.

“There were those women who had it hard with their mothers-in-law. You have to imagine – one household, with all these members. People didn’t always get along.

The mothers-in-law dominated and there was no such thing as divorce,” Eliyahu says emphatically.

“Once you were married, that was it,” echoes Elias, who was newly married and pregnant when she came to Israel from Bombay. Both women chuckle at how family life has changed since then.

Eliyahu recalls the not uncommon instance of a woman who was unhappy with treatment by her mother-in-law. “Family members would sit the young woman down and explain to her that she had to learn to accept the situation and live with it,” says Eliyahu. The songs aimed at the bride before her wedding had a similar function – helping the bride cope, giving her encouragement at a vulnerable time.

It seems clear that, for Eliyahu and Elias, traditional singing represents a zone of warmth and moral support that has helped carry them through life and still provides comfort today.

According to Ophira Gamliel, a philologist who did her graduate work at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and is the author of the book-length study, “Jewish Malayalam Women’s Songs,” women regaled the bride with songs offering support to her. These songs also honestly referred to the social realities of young married life, telling truths about the lives of women. Such songs were often based on biblical stories, and were meant to impart messages to the bride. The biblical story of Joseph, sold by his brothers and forced to acclimate as a low-status stranger in a new country, was told to the bride in musical form. Gamliel sees a parallel here to the experiences of young brides, who were on the brink of becoming new members – with junior status – in the families of their grooms. By comparing the bride’s experience to Joseph’s difficult fate, such songs acknowledged the hardship involved in women’s lives. And yet, perhaps in the process of telling truths, they also made such experiences more bearable – and even joyous.

WOMEN TODAY MAY HAVE more choices than the brides of yesteryear, but Aharon-Kastiel feels the need to stand up to the gender inequality she experiences as a female singer of ritual music.

The world of Jewish folk music has shifted to what she refers to as the religious right. At the annual piyutim conference in nearby Moshav Taoz, women singers are barred from performing in front of mixed male-female audiences, a situation that Aharon-Kastiel hopes to help change in the future.

She is inspired, she says, by the powerful position of Jewish women in Cochin. “The Cochin Jewish woman was not a subservient woman,” she explains. She is proud of the fact that historically girls in the community learned to read and write Hebrew at the local study hall alongside boys, stopping only at the onset of menstruation. Even today, she says, one can hear older women in the women’s section of the synagogue chanting the haftarah (the weekly portion from the prophets) in tandem with the reader.

But employing academic study to the matter, Gamliel is more cautious about this characterization. “Cochin Jewish women had all the same problems as women from other places,” she tells The Report.

She also questions whether men in other locales actually avoided women’s singing voices, suggesting that the practice may not have been widespread. “We know that women also sang publically in some Middle Eastern Jewish traditions,” she says.

Gamliel has spent years studying the Malayalam language and is an expert on the lyrics of scores of songs as well as how and when they were performed. She has specifically concentrated her work on the oldest songs in the canon, many of which have been forgotten and are no longer familiar even to the women of the Mesillat Zion chorus.

DESPITE IMPRESSIVE ACADEMic preservation by Gamliel and her colleagues, the songs are largely lost on young women. Eliyahu acknowledges that while her own children and grandchildren enjoy the songs, they have not shown significant interest in actively continuing the singing tradition. The rituals are no longer observed, she explains, and so the songs that accompany the rituals have also gone out of fashion. The Shabbat Kallah, traditionally held in the week before the wedding, fell out of practice sometime in the 1980s, she says.

“When the kids see a Shabbat Kallah with all the cooking and everything, they see that it is fun and they want to participate and sing too. But if you don’t do the Shabbat Kallah, they don’t want to learn about it,” says Eliyahu.

Aharon-Kastiel describes a similar phenomenon at the Mesillat Tzion synagogue, where women of the younger generation are also inspired by the observance of older traditions, but are not proactive in preserving them. “When young women see the older women singing on Shabbat, they want to join in.” However, she adds that the younger women don’t initiate such singing themselves.

Repeated tries to interest women in their thirties and forties in joining the chorus have not been successful. However, she is committed to changing this trend. “It hurts me to see the disinterest. But I am trying to do what I can to work on this.”

In addition to arranging the music and directing the chorus, Aharon-Kastiel occasionally books the women’s group at local concerts and small events. Most recently, they performed at the wedding of a young man of Cochin Jewish descent and a woman from a different ethnic Jewish background.

Although the Cochin customs were not fully observed, the chorus’s performance allowed the groom’s family to maintain a feeling of connection to the tradition.

Could this be an example of a move towards greater interest in these disappearing rituals? Perhaps, says Gamliel. She sees a larger social trend in Aharon-Kastiel’s mission to keep Cochin Jewish culture alive.

Currently, she says, after a long period in which Kerala’s Brahmanic Hindu elite controlled the cultural climate of the region, numerous minority groups living in the area are now undergoing a cultural renaissance.

Various forms of folk music and dance are being rediscovered throughout the area.

Rituals no longer practiced as part of daily life are now being revived as nostalgia.

In far-away Israel, something similar may be happening with the quiet revival of Cochin Jewish singing.

Indeed, the members of the Mesillat Tzion chorus seem poised between nostalgia for a distant past, and pride in their current lives as elder members of their families and community. For example, when Eliyahu was asked to point to her favorite song in Malayalam, her answer was surprising, but telling.

Instead of the older songs being analyzed in academic circles, she chose the modern Zionist songs she was taught in India in the early 50s.

With a twinkle in her eye, she recalls gathering with other children in Cochin, when the State was in its infancy, to learn Malayalam songs about longing for Israel and returning to Zion. She remembers, too, the shock of aliyah, living in a temporary dwelling in Mesillat Tzion, then only sparsely populated.

On a recent recording by the chorus, featuring a small sampling of their singing, the final selection is a Cochin Jewish song in Hebrew expressing longing for Jerusalem.

The fact that the women now live a 20 minute car ride from that holy city is not lost on any of them.

Originally published here.