13 August 2008

Jews in South India - Part 2: Cochin and Kerala

I started working on this post several months ago, but with so much to do and so little time, I never finished it. Now it is the festival of Pesach (or Passover) during which we celebrate the exodus from Egypt and commemorate it by removing all leaven from our houses (the Jews didn't have time to let anything leaven when they left Egypt, the bread baked flat on their backs, so the story goes and so goes our tradition). It seems to me that my arriving again in the promised land on this Pesach holiday is an appropriate time to write about the Jews I left in India.

So I've written previously about the beginnings of modern Jewish life in the new, dynamic tech city of Bangalore. Now I'll tell you about the opposite - my brief encounter with what seems to be the final days of one of the most ancient Jewish communties in the world due West and slightly South in the city of Cochin, the major port of the Indian state of Kerala.

The Jews of Kerala have been there for a very long time, the first of them may have arrived in 72CE, as refugees right after the destruction of the 2nd Temple and subsequent exile. This unique community persisted, maintaining its Jewish identiy observing the same holiday, laws, and traditions (with their own unique twists) as those of Jews thousands of miles away, while welcoming new waves of Jews who arrived over the next two thousand years. This makes them one of the oldest Jewish permanent Jewish communities anyway (only the Italian, Greek, and perhaps Iranian communities are older to my knowlege) . The Jews of Cochin now look like Indians (or at least many do) but when I prayed with them, the prayers were surprisingly familiar - their liturgy is even more similiar to my own Ashkenazi (Eastern European) tradition than that of the Jews of Rome.

Now that you've got an idea of the historic context of things I can tell you about the fun stuff. Our friends Roni and Ilana (Roni was a visiting professor at MSRI while I was there), invited us to come along on their weekend trip to Cochin. As we'd been really interested in seeing Cochin for a long while and had determined that it would definitely be one of the places we visited while in India, Linda and I were delighted to accept their invite.

We flew from a dry, cool Bangalore early morning and arrived in a sultry, rainy Kerelan late morning. An old, British taxi drove us to our destination in Fort Cochin (a mildly touristy area) - the car looked like it was made out of cast iron. After an hours ride we made it to Fort Cochin, dropped our bags of at a quaint 200 year old Dutch-style inn, and then met Roni and Ilana for breakfast.

Later that day we visited Jew Town - the area of Cochin that the Jewish community has inhabited for several hundred years, possibly since the very founding of the town around 700 years ago. Although the Jewish community of Cochin was robust (numbering between 1000 and 2000 Jews) as recently as several decades ago (preceeding the mass migration of Cochin Jews to Israel after the founding of the State), there are now only 13 Jews in Cochin proper and perhaps three times that many in the surrounding area (who generally only come in three times a year for the main holidays). Consequently being there was a bit melancholy for us. It was amazing to be in one of the oldest continuous Jewish settlements but sad to think that that continuity will almost certainly be broken within my lifetime. Although the Jews of Cochin have lived little persecution for a longer period than almost any other Jewish population worldwide, the economic realities made aliyah (moving to Israel) the clearly right choice for the vast majority of Jews here. The few that remain are almost all elderly. There are no children and of the several synagouges in the area, most have been taken over by the government and turned into museums.

We spent a bit of time wandering about in Jew Town. Mostly we saw old buildings and lots of souvenir shops set up by immigrants from the various *stan countries to the north of India. But we were able to get a peek at the outside of the synagouge and find out what time services would be that night. We then stopped at the post office where we wrote a whole bunch of postcards since, at this post office the India government offers a special "Magen David" (Jewish Star of David) for tourists. Although apparently it is essential to make sure that all postcards are very clearly canceled - otherwise people will peel the stamps off the postcard and resell them! So we spent a bunch of time running around to buy postcards, fill them out and then get exact change to buy the stamps. Good fun.

We had hired a car, and from Jew Town the car took us north some 36 kilometers to an old synaguogue in Chendamangalam, now a government museum. Although 30 kilometers isn't much of a distance in the West, it took us a bit over one and a half hours each way. We dozed during much of the drive as we watched the lush foliage, people, animals, and waterways pass by.

The synagouge at Chendamangalam was really neat. On the front lawn, before the entrance lies what the lonely planet claims in the oldest grave in all of India. The rock was incredibly weathered, but we could still make out some of the hebrew writing. Interestingly, although old, the grave isn't terribly old compared to many we saw in Europe in Israel - perhaps 800 years or so. The reason why it is so old for India (a place full of the ancient) is that before the arrival of Muslims and Christians, Jews were the only group to practice burial in the ground (native Indian religious choosing cremation or "sky burial"). Hence this gravestone being perhaps the oldest remaining in India.

We really enjoyed visiting the synagogue. It was surrounded by a wall on three sides that joined to the buildings facade in the front. When we entered we were instructed to take off our shoes in the courtyard and then proceeded through a second set of doors into the synagogue proper. What was inside was half house of worship and half museum but still beautiful. The ceiling was covered by a wonderfully restored pattern (apparently the building was in quite bad shape before it was taken over by the government) and the atmosphere seemed to me both holy and sad. I spent a while standing on the bimah thinking.

Upstairs on the balcony where the women prayed was a second bimah. This was very interesting and unusual. Whereas in most traditional houses of Jewish worship the Bible (Torah) reading was always conducted from the men's section, here a couple of times a year the scroll was brought upstairs to where the women prayed and read from there. This struck me as really thoughtful and something we western Jews could use to learn from.

We stayed for a while, but couldn't dally too much as we wanted to get back to town in time for afternoon and evening services. We hoped that perhaps we might make a minyan or quorum of 10 men needed for services (in more liberal circles, of which I wholeheartedly approve, it can be any 10 Jews regardless of gender) - currently there are only 5 men of the elderly 13 remaining Cochin Jews. In the end there were actually 17 men and slightly fewer women! We were privleged to pray with the first minyan the community had had in 5 months or so. As it was sabbath we have no pictures, but it was a beautiful service in a beautiful building. The room was lit by dozens of floating colored lights, handing from the high ceiling and the floor was covered by dutch-oriental tiles, each of which had a picture only slightly different than the others, but still with some unique detail. I prayed without shoes, even though here I was not a tourist (who during tours had to remove their footwear) but a guest of the community. I attended only two services during my time in India, but what they lacked in abundance they more than made up for in meaning.

After synagugoue ended we stayed for a while in the dark street outside (power outage) and talked with other travelers and natives. We stopped at the house of Sarah, who has lived there (her house is shown in the first picture of this post) since before partition. She told us stories of the community and we wished her a good shabbos before walking home for the evening. Later Linda and Ilana returned to speak with her and buy some judaica (Lin got me the neatest purple Cochin kippa with crazy gold magen davids :-)

Later in our trip we also were able to stop by the Jewish cemetery. It was gated and locked, but the proprietors of the store across the street let us go us on the roof from which we could overlook the cemetery. Like the gate, it was beautiful and old.

But the sun begins to set here and I find I've got to end. Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.

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