Discovering Jewish Life in India

I first became interested in travelling to India while reading Rushdie’s “The Moor’s Last Sigh.” In it, he describes, with his dizzying magical realism, the ancient community of Jews in Cochin, and the famous blue tiles in the Pardesi Synagogue, adjacent to the Majarajah’s palace. I wanted to see the community he described–Indian Jews enjoying freedom of religion and high status in the community for about one thousand years, that had begun to disintegrate with the beginning of Israel in 1948–just after India’s independence also.

Once in Kerala, Dan and I have been taking turns reading Nathan Katz’s book, “Who are the Jews of India”…he’s Chair of the Jewish studies dept. at Florida Int’l U, and an AMAZING writer. He describes the Jewish community as the perfect symbiosis between Indian (Hindu/Maharajah) society and Jewish society. Apparently, (and in a very abridged version), according to legend/myth/facts, the Jews arrived in a place called Cranganore, which is just north of Cochin after the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE. They were welcomed in the community by the Hindu majority, and enjoyed freedom and contributed to the economy via seafaring trade. The arrival of the Portuguese conquerers in around 521 CE brought the purposeful destruction of the Jewish community, and they fled to Cochin, where they were welcomed by the Maharajah, who not only afforded them protection (and called them “his” Jews), but elevated status and a charter. since the Jews had come with money, they became important in the economy, and built a synagogue next to the Raj’s palace.

How this harmonious relationship continued is really cool. Katz explains it by comparing Judaism to baseball. In baseball, as in Judaism around the world, all the rules are the same no matter where you play, or where you practice. However, if you play baseball in the States, we value the most valuable player, RBIs, etc…individual statistics. If you play in Japan, you value teamwork. The rules are EXACTLY the same, but with the change in cultural context comes a change in what is highlighted. So, in the states, Jews value monotheism and social welfare–very American, Christian, “society at large” type values. So in India, what was valued by the Jews was *Purity and Lineage*. So interesting to think about!

Anyway, the community is totally, literally, dying out. There are approx. 20 or so “true” Jews of Cochin left, as most left to be in Israel (there’s a great picture from 1949 of the last Raj saying Goodbye to the head of the community once India had independence…it signalled the demise of the community, though people might not have realized it at the time…). The youngest person we met was about 35ish, most are sept-and octogenerians. We visited the shul (synagogue) on Wednesday, and came back to spend Friday night there for services. It was funny, because the rickshaw drivers kept saying, “Closed! Closed!” bc it’s closed to the public, of course. But, we were allowed in, and I felt like I was witness to cultural/religious living relics, in a way. It was so amazing.

The shul itself reminds me of one of the old Sephardi shuls in Tzfat. It’s different shades of blue, with a bimah in the center. What’s cool was that there is also a bimah on the second floor, where they read Torah. There are colored glass laterns everywhere, and it’s really quite beautiful. One by one, the members started to file in, and they started when they had a minyan (10 men required to hold a service and read Torah.) Of course, I felt uncomfortable in such a “traditional” shul (not being counted as a person is really a pain in the ass) but I sucked it up for the experience. The men and women (about 10 men, 3 women) sang Sephardi tunes that were totally foreign to me, and I had some trouble following–partly bc I was in the back, and partly bc the fans were whirring so loudly. (Pragmatically, though traditional, the members drive and use electricity on Shabbat…) It was such a great experience.

We were invited back to Ernakulum, the next community over, where some of the younger members of the shul live. The Ernakulum Jews are not Cochin Jews, but pray at the Pardesi shul to help keep it alive. It was a very surreal dinner…more on that later.

It was definitely a powerful experience, and if you’re interested, definitely look up Katz’s book. We’re back in Bombay, and are going to do more sightseeing after celebrating with the Bene Israel community for their 119th anniversary of their shul. Hmm…it’s kind of the Jewish tour of India!