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Reviewed by:
  • Oh, Lovely Parrot!: Jewish Women's Songs from Kerela
  • Miriam Gerberg (bio)
Oh, Lovely Parrot!: Jewish Women's Songs from Kerela. One compact disc, 69:38. Selections and notes by Barbara C. Johnson. Song translations by Scaria Zacharia and Barbara C. Johnson. No. 18 in the series: Anthology of Music Traditions in Israel, edited by Edwin Seroussi. Published by the Jewish Music Research Centre at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, using recordings from the National Sound Archives at the Jewish National and University Library. Digital mastering by Ben Bernfeld, technical supervision and studio recording at the NSA by Avi Nahamias and graphic design by Studio Flyers. Cover illustration is detail from a marriage contract (ketubbah) from Cochin, courtesy of the Israel Museum.

This CD with 126 pages of notes, which is actually a small (5 × 5.5) hard-bound 126-page book with an accompanying CD, is a wonderful collection of a surprising, delightful and barely known repertoire. It is fascinating not only for these reasons, but for the women who kept it alive for centuries and for the collective work that has gone into the research behind this product. The CD [End Page 149] contains 42 complete or abridged songs (one song is offered twice in different versions, resulting in 43 tracks), derived from field recordings made between 1972 and 1981 plus recordings made at the National Sound Archives in Jerusalem in 2001– 2002 by contemporary Kochini women reviving the repertoire. As stated in the foreword, it is a product of a research project on Malayalam Jewish songs from Kerela that is the first of a number of products intended for release. It will be a companion to an upcoming volume in the Yuval Music Series of the Jewish Music Research Center expected to be an "encompassing volume of Malayalam Jewish songs in their original language and script with English translations, musical transcriptions, and scholarly analysis of texts and music."

The songs in this excellent collection represent a number of little-looked-at corners of Jewish musical culture. One of these corners is the Jewish community of South Asia itself, as well as an often overlooked and misunderstood subset of the Jewish community in India, the Jews of Kerela. This collection also brings the realm of Jewish women's music to our attention. Of the first, many people, Jews and others worldwide, are often surprised to learn that there are Jewish communities in India at all. And, further, to learn that there are actually three major Jewish communities in South Asia, the Bene Israel and Baghdadi Jews of Bombay and Calcutta and the Jews of Kerela, otherwise know as the Jews of Cochin or Kochini Jews.

Kerela is a state along the southwest coast of India where Jews have lived, happily, for over 1400 years (actually different sources give the range from 1000 to 2000 years). Early Jewish traders settled in this fertile coastal land that also was home to a major port in global commerce at the time (Cochin). Legend, imbedded in the lyrics of one of the songs, tells of an ancestor arriving by sea from Jerusalem in a wooden ship. In later centuries, Jews from the Middle East and Europe immigrated to the region, though they remained in separate communities from the earlier arriving Jews. This earlier Jewish community remained distinct through many cultural traditions, including social behaviors, language, and music. The subsequent colonizers of the Indian subcontinent (the Portuguese, the Dutch, and then the English) identified this older Jewish community as "Black Jews"; the newer communities of Middle Eastern and European Jews were known as "White Jews." This labeling was offensive to all the Jews in Kerela who describe themselves by the places they lived (various cities in Kerela, including Cochin) and the synagogues they belonged to. Adding to the confusion and misunderstandings of these communities, the little research and documentation about Kerela Jews done outside India in more recent times have actually focused on the Pardesi Jews (the Foreign Jews or rather the Middle Eastern and European community). The overall combined Kerela communities were reported to be 3000 people in 1170 and ca. 2500 people in 1940, with most immigrating to [End...


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