Dutch artist Joseph Semah is in Kochi for the Biennale, but the other day he chose to take a sabbatical from the work. The Iran-born Jew set out for the city’s eight-century-old Baghdadi Synagogue, that had slipped into slumber for long.
“Hug Zamia”, the hosts chanted in Hebrew as they embraced the tall and hefty artist at the synagogue in the bustling Ernakulam market area, as 64-year-old Semah, his wife and son walked into its vintage precincts. The flurry of activity was in complete contrast with its general character.
For, the place of worship is typically sleepy, as it conducts no rituals despite a facelift over the past two decades.
The shrine, built in the 1200s and renovated three centuries later, had fallen into disuse and dilapidation by the late 1980s following the migration of Kerala’s Jews in batches to Israel since the Middle East nation gained Independence in 1948.
Today, Kochi has some 45 Baghdadi Jews left - and most of them were assembled at the Kavumbhagam synagogue to embrace Semah, who was raised in Tel Aviv and is living in Amsterdam. The artist, who lived in Iranian capital till he was two years old, lit the traditional Hanukkah lamp yesterday.
“Yeah, I lit two wicks; it has eight in total,” said Semah, whose installation based on a 9th-century declaration by the last Chera king of Muziris (Kodungallur) is exhibited at Aspinwall House.
The hosts, led by the synagogue’s caretaker Elias Josephai, then ceremonially placed the kippah cap on the head of the guest.
“After this, Semah and Babu (as Josephai is called) read aloud from the holy text. The others at the congregation repeated the lines,” said writer Bonny Thomas, who, as the research coordinator for the Kochi Biennale, tipped Semah about the existence of the Kavumbhagam synagogue.
“My grandmother was a leading figure among the Baghdadi Jews,” recalled Semah. “That is what wooed me to visit the synagogue.”
Before returning, Semah partook off a light-meal session with his family.
“On the eight day from today, all the wicks of the Hanukkah will be lit,” informed Babu.