Jewish Kochin


Jewish Kerela

I land in Kochin and the curry and smoke smell of India hits me as I step off the plane. I’ve been to India twice before, but this is the first time to the long awaited south. The airport is new and clean, with lots of light reflecting off the polished marble, a staple of Indian high class. It’s like the usual India but better, a stark difference to previous trips. A life-size statue of a decorated elephant greeted me before I reached the immigration. The electronic visa area was set up to the side of regular visa area. It had plush couch seats and a gentleman was talking to me in a chair of a desk that was not quiet done well, with a railing and a camera strangely in a way. A superior came over and they asked me questions about my business and what I would be doing. Once I gave them my business card, they let me through.

I was out of the airport and when I didn’t see a sign for Sam, I was slightly disappointed. I also realized that I did not know what my guide looked like! I thought of alternatives, maybe the Mariya, the Russian steward from Qatar Airways might help? All of a sudden, a man with short hair who looked a bit like Mohannad, asked if I was Sam. It was Deepak! I was saved!. Our driver came to get us and we plunged into the mess that is Kerela streets. The road was an ever present city with cars , motorcycles, trucks and busses passing eachother . No stop signs, no dividers, no stoplights. Just ever moving chaos, the only thing possible in a country with so many people.

After about an hour we reached our first destination. A quiet village with an old old cemetery near an old quarry. Overgrown and slowly disappearing except for the few tombs at the entrance. A few headstones around the perimeter as well with hewbrew inscriptions. I couldn’t make most out but I could now read names. Very different from my previous travels.

We drove over to the synagogue nearby. The village was buitlt around it. The village didn’t have a road before, it had a ferry station which was the village port and how all villages began back in the day, by being next to a waterway. The synagogue, white with angled roof. You had to pay an entrance fee as they are under the care of the government and the cultural authority. It was small with seating according to Masorti tradition, on the sides with a slated beemah in the center. Not too hot and windows made such that air would pass through and cool. The ark was wood and decorated. Woman’s section was at the top. The circular window that usually at the front was a Bharati wheel.

Next to the synagogue is the home of Bezalel Eliahu and his wife Bat Zion. They met in Israel, both emigrated there, made a living in Ashqelon working in developing the agriculture capability of Israel. The dining room wall in his home was covered with pictures of his family and dignitaries. Him with Ben Gurion, Narendi Modi and many other officials. He bought this house next to the synagogue after decades being away, which was the house he grew up in and he comes here for the summers. His daughter lives in Vancouver and grand daughters passed up American college for service IDF and Hebrew University.

He said he taught them all to give, as he was brought up and was asked by the President of India: “give back something to the motherland”. In this town four religions lived side by side in peace. The Muslims built a mosque on the side o of the street as to not disrespect the synagogue. He said once a group of Americans came and asked how this was possible. He said: “Four words: we give respect to all, and all give respect to us.” She was a holocaust survivor.

We drove to the next largest synagogue about 40 minutes away. It was in another river town with a Jewish street where hundreds of Jews lived. The synagogue had several parts, an entrance around which rabbis house was built, a store room with a women’s study above, from which there was an elevated walk way to the main women’s section. There was access to a secret room above the hall. From the women’s section you could walk down a staircase into a large hall with an intricately carved wooden ark with a crown top. There was a simple carved beam made out of slots and a wooden carved and flower decorated ceiling, a staple of their architecture.

Coppies of copper plates that made the contract with the Kerela king and the community were on display.

This synagogue was rebuilt in 1600’s after destruction by the Portuguese even before the inquisition. The Kerela people called it a shame and abomination. Synagogue was rebuilt according to Kerela architectural style with wooden ellipses under the sloped roof, just like the Taj. The street with similar houses used to be where many Jews lived. Who all left in 1948.

We made an hour drive to new Kochin which lined the river and bay with large new buildings where we got onto a ferry to old cochin. Old Cochin was on other side of the wide bay with the Taj in the middle, made in the Kerela architectural style. We passed large transport tanker ships docked waiting to relieve their load and for new ones. The old Kochin was all small one or two story buildings and narrow chaotic streets. Our rick shaw navigated the chaos with honks of the horn, sometimes getting stuck. As we neared the jewish area, more and more Muslims appeared. We reached “Jew Town” with a large sign. The street was wide with foreigners being seen for the first time. We walked through one of the trinket shops that became a cafe then a bookstore and turned out to be a shortcut to the parades synagogue. The entrance again was apart from the main building. In front of the building was a large clock tower with a distinctive watch tower above it. To the side of th entrance was a room with large panels showing the history of the Kochin Jews with back ground on who they were and how they settled in Kochin, and how they were nearly wiped out in 1100’s in a great event where 40,000 Jews were killed, only 11,000 surviving.

The synagogue was a beautiful blue with gold embroidered cloth on the beemah and an intricately carved ark and roof but with bright colors. Blue ceramic tiles on the ground with pictures. There were many people in this one. With a group of Israelis on a side praying and giving Kadish. No pictures were allowed, the man in charge, not Jewish was collecting money for a copy of copper plates and small crapy pictures.

We walked down the street lined with trinket sellers and found Sarah, the 97 year old last living Jew in Jew town. She was nice and smiled. She looked even older. She said “you bring us food and we will eat it” Her helper Tada was there with her. I took pictures of them. He had been helped by Ralphy and other Jews in town and was now taking care of Sarah and her legacy. He showed us the living accommodations showing that same floorr plan was for most Jews in Kochin. He gave me a copy of history of Jews and signed it and then took us to an old synagogue that was taken apart and now sits in the Israel Museum. There was some Jewish street art with hebrew writing on it and inside, stripped bare, holes in the roof allowed the hundreds of pidgeons to make it a home. We also stopped by the post office where I got a stamp stamped with a date and a magen david. The only post office in India that has a magen david as their official stamp.

We got back on a rickshaw and made for the ferry. The driver had lived here among the Jews when they were still here. I asked what people felt after Jews left. I assumed it was a stupid question. I assumed he would say nothing happened, things were same. But that’s not what he said. “Jewish people were nice and friendly people. When they left, the happiness left with them.” He said. This profoundly struck me.. I felt that somehow Jewish people abandoned their Indian hood. We got off the rickshaw, got a ticket for the ferry in the mens line and then got into the waiting cage for the people who are getting on the ferry. The ferry, or a boat that is like a water bus, came over. We got on. At this point we had an issue, Deepak’s phone was no longer working. How do we contact the driver? We got a safety pin from a woman in a sari sitting across from us to pop the sim card from his phone and put it into mine. But I didn’t have his contacts. We decided we’d wait for his driver to call and in the mean time we would go to the last stop to meet Babu at his synagogue. The synagogue was a five minute ride by rickshaw. We walked down a marketplace alley where everything is sold that comes from the dock at much cheaper rate than when it is sold in mumbai or other stores. As we walked down a narrow alley, it opened up. On the right side among all the shops, behind a fence was a interesting looking building with red bricked outlines around windows. This was a synagogue. We walked around and entered an alley way where the entrance was under a red roof. At the entrance were different plants, part of Babu’s plant store. Once we enter, there were dozens of aquariums. Babu ran the aquarium store in the front room. Then we walked in and entered a beautiful synagogue. Unlike Pradesi synagogue which was accented with blue colts inside, this one was accented in red. With red cloth magen david decorated Beema, red tiles on the floor and red carvings on the ceiling.

At the synagogue was Babu and an old couple who we saw in the outskirts of cochin synagogue. The balding white haired man was hunched and took many pictures with his SLR while his wife talked to Babu. The old man and his wife live in Minaseret Zion, where my uncle lives. They were visiting because the old man was born in India and saw himself as an Indian Jew. The synagogue moved him to tears and he thanked Babu for keeping it open and for restoring it. Babu showed how a Hindu master donated important things as did a Muslim man donated the beautiful lights. He told us how a friend of a friend made oil lamps just as the ones that used to light the synagogue. I talked to him about why Jews left. I said Jews were persecuted in so many places, why would they leave this place if they are happy. “They were not happy, they were at peace but not happy.” “They never purchased land or made large investments. They were very religious and knew that one day they could move back. “

This made so much sense. Babu then spoke of a few other Jews who live around India, each with a large business today and that is why they stay. He also talked about his hope that this synagogue, would be replicated in Israel where 500,000 Jews live. He hoped that this beauty would be appreciated there because nearly no one shows up to this one.

I asked about the Chabad and Babu said the Chabad rabbi was kicked out by the Muslims who are in much control of the city and are not as friendly as they once were. Sadly and ominously, the day after the Chabad rabbi left, the muslim cleric’s sons died in an auto accident. Hopefully god is not so callous, but if he is, the cleric may need to rethink his actions.

We left with much feeling after such a beautiful synagogue and such heart felt conversations. We walked down the market street, bought a Cochin delicacy, of coconut oil fried bananas and spicy nuts. We got me some cash and a sim card and met with the driver as Deepak had a chance to charge his phone at the synagogue. We got in the car at 18:55. I thought I had an hour, plenty of time to catch the train. But I checked the time and was shocked to realize that my train left at 19:00! Deepak tried to relax me saying the train is always late, but Danesh stepped on it and the two of them got me to the trainstation where my train was waiting for me and began to move as I stepped onto the train car. My stay was brief, but my stay and experience was as rich as the culture of Jewish people in the state of Kerela.

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