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.The state of Kerala turned out to be incredibly different than the regions we had been travelling in so far–we seemed completely removed from the clamor of Dehli and Rajasthan.
So, I’d never imagined that simply walking down a street would not only take about 3 hours, but be an activity that gave me so much vision as to how some people live in India. Imagine thousands, literally thousands of people crowded into a street that was probably 50 meters wide, selling everything from spices to wedding invitations to carberators to goat heads. (All in their respective section, of course, kind of like the lower east side, you know…the shmata district, the delis, etc.) People are EVERYWHERE, and I can’t really look in the shops because someone is either 1. pushing me forward 2. trying to get my attention to look somewhere else 3. grabbing me. It’s pretty wild.
But, in the chaos, the people in India that we are meeting are so amazingly kind, welcoming, friendly. Like the woman in the sari shop that explained which saris are worn when, and bid me a good day, and told me to be careful, but I’d be fine. Or the guy at the Sikh temple (on that same street) who invited Dan and I to come in and see how they pray (no shoes, purify yourself in water first, then kneel on carpets while elders sing prayers).
India is absolutely amazing, and it’s only our 3rd day here! We landed in Mumbai, and spent the morning kind of looking around, getting acclimated, which for me, ususally takes a couple of days to get into true “travel mode”. Then, we immediately took a plane to Delhi, where we have been staying with friends in a suburb. Now, isn’t that crazy….we take cabs into the old city where all of what I described goes on, (the goat heads, the flies, the grabbing) and then retire to our home away from home with our amazing hosts Ken and Carmen (she works for this amazing health promotion group based in DC and he is a journalist for Knight Ridder) where the middle class Bengalis in their neighborhood shoot hoops in the park in the center of an apartment complex and middle aged ladies go for morning walks in their sneakers and western clothes. It’s surreal!!!!
We went to see the Taj Mahal and surrounding forts yesterday…picture is worth athousand words, and to Fatapour Sikhri (sp?) …a structure that was to be the “perfect city” until the engineers couldn’t figure out how to bring water in to the place!
Today, we head to Rajastan …to Jodpur, Jaipur, Udaipur and Jaisalmeer. Say that five times fast!I’m so oooo excited for Rajastan…I hear the colors are AMAZING. AND…I have to do some shopping!!!
Well, I think I’m acclimated…it’s equally rough and easy travel…we’re no longer on a shoestring budget which changes your life immensely.