Thursday, December 8, 2011

Paradesi Synagogue at Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People

A perspective view of the display in Beit Hatfutsot
By Bala Menon

There is a 'Gate of Faith' in Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, located  within the campus of Tel Aviv Univerisity in the northern suburb of Ramat Aviv.
Recently, I had an opportunity to step through this 'gate' and onto the gallery and come upon the magnificent display of 18 miniature synagogue reproductions from across the Jewish world. (Miniature here means about 5 ft x 4 ft x 4 ft on average).

The illuminated interior of the model synagogue
The display covers almost three-quarters of a floor. The reproductions are made to precise dimensions, each scaled down to table size, exquisitely detailed and enclosed in clear, tempered glass.
Another view - with the cut-off wall
And guess what? One of the synagogues on show is the fabled Paradesi Synagogue of Mattancherry, Cochin, representing India's Jewish heritage from among the 33 synagogues of India (although many no longer function as such and today vary in their levels of preservation).
Picture of interior of the synagogue in Mattanchery
Part of the wall has been cut out to reveal the magnificient, illuminated interior - complete with chandeliers, the bimah, arc, the bench along the wall and the blue Chinese tiles!

The Paradesi synagogue is, of course, the oldest functioning synagogue in India and in the  Commonwealth.

View from the back..
It was built in 1568, damaged heavily by the Portuguese, and rebuilt in 1664 after the Dutch took over the Malabar coast. (For more on the Paradesi Synagogue see Prof. Jay Waronker's article - Also see Paintings).

Beit Hatfutsot is more than a museum. Opened in 1978, under the aegis of Dr. Nahum Goldmann, then President of the World Jewish Congress, the institution soon established a reputation for telling the extraordinary story of the Jewish people using the latest in museum and display technology. 

The Israeli Knesset (parliament) passed a law in 2005 defining Beit Hatfutsot as "the National Center for Jewish communities in Israel and around the world".

The gate is the entrance to the playground
The core exhibition allows us to go on a virtual  journey across "eras and lands of Jewish life, exploring the unique story of Jewish continuity, creativity and unity in diversity".

The exhibition uses murals, reconstructions, dioramas, documentary films and interactive multimedia presentations to present a panorama of the Jewish people.

Beit Hatfutsot also houses a unique geneology centre to trace Jewish family trees (with more than 3 million entries), a Jewih music centre (with Cochini Jewish music CDs as wsell) and The International School for Jewish Peoplehood Studies. (More about the museum in another blog).

Dr. Shalva Weil of the Hebrew University of Jerusalam worked  for 10 years as curator at the Beit Hatfutsot  in addition to her work at the  University. Dr. Weil was instrumental in the creation of the current model of the Pardesi Synagogue - to be more accurate according to plans provided  by I. S. Hallegua of Jew Town in Cochin.  Hallegua was an engineer. Dr. Weil also curated a small exhibition with photographs by Carmel Berkson on the Jews of the Konkan and later curated a very big exhibition entitled Beyond the Sambatyon: The Myth of the Ten Lost Tribes, featuring Indian Jews, inter alia.

Plans are now well-advanced for a new and bigger Museum of the Jewish People, expected to open in the same premises by early 2014.  The new Beit Hatfutsot will celebrate the multiculturalism of Jewish diversity today and focus on an inclusive and  pluralistic approach. It is expected to showcase the 4,000 year-old story of the Jewish people – past, present and future - with the theme: A Story Thousands of Years Old - Ever New!
© All pictures by Bala Menon, 2011. All rights reserved. Please ask for permission to reproduce.


  1. Very beautiful pics. Nice miniatures. Reminds me of Mattacherry:)

  2. The work you are doing is so important and beautifully executed. I learn so much every time I read your posts and see your photos. Thank you.