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Jewish Kochin-Portuguese India

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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 coming through large windows reflecting off the polished black marble floors, a staple of Indian high class. It’s like 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 the regular visa area. It had plush couch seats and a gentleman was talking to me in a chair of a desk that was not quite right, with a railing and a camera situated such that neither one of us could see each other without straining our necks to see above the railing or squishing in the see to see bellow. A superior came over and then a few others as there were no other people to question and they didn’t have anything else to do. They asked me questions about my business and what I would be doing. Once I gave them my business card, they let me through. It’s always good to be a CEO, even of a company that no longer exists.

Jewish Kerela Click on image to view album.

I was out of the airport and when I didn’t see a sign for Sam, I was slightly disappointed. I had grand visions of having a sign and being lead out of the airport like a VIP. When I didn’t see the sign I realized that I did not know what my guide looked like! I thought of alternatives, maybe Mariya, the Belorussian steward from Qatar Airways might help? But she and all other crew were gone, and I was realizing that I am all alone. 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 roads. The country road was an ever-present city with cars, motorcycles, trucks, and buses passing each other banked by large trees and intermittent shops. No stop signs, no dividers, no stoplights- just ever moving chaos, the default 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 abandoned quarry. Overgrown and slowly disappearing into nature. Slowly we started to make out the graves and headstones camouflaged in the brown and tan growth around the perimeter, each marked with Hebrew inscriptions. I couldn’t make most out but I could read names. There was a sense of peace and quiet, but also of abandonment. I snapped pictures and we moved on to the next stop.

We drove over to the synagogue nearby. The village was built 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 an angled red-tiled 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 as the windows were designed to allow the air to pass through and cool the building. The ark was wood and intricately carved. The woman’s section was at the top where there was also a room for studies and storage. The circular window that usually at the front was a Bharati wheel.

While we were there, three Indian girls came in. I asked if they were Jewish. They were not.

“What brought you guys here?” I asked

“We have heard of this place and Jewish people, we were curious.”

The synagogue museum, was doing its job.

Next to the synagogue is the home of Bezalel Eliahu and his wife Bat Zion. They met in Israel, both emigrated there and 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, Narendra 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 granddaughters passed up American college for service IDF and Hebrew University. He told me that he taught his children to give, just as he was brought up and he said that he was asked by the President of India: “give back something to the motherland”.

“Four words: we give respect to all, and all give respect to us.”

In this town, four religions lived side by side in peace. The Muslims built a mosque on the side of the street as to not disrespect the synagogue. Eliahu said how 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 and she broke into tears upon hearing this.

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 once lived. The synagogue had several parts, an entrance around which the rabbi’s house was built, a storeroom with a women’s study above, from which there was an elevated walkway to the main women’s section. There was also 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 the ceiling, a staple of their architecture.

Copies of copper plates that made the contract with the Kerela king and the community were on display, signifying the long tradition between Jews and the people of Kerela. An Indian woman who worked there was showing us around. She seemed to know a lot about the Jewish people having studied History in college. She was employed by the government of India which ran the synagogue as a government museum. It was nice to see how well the government took care of the Jewish past, even in this tiny small town far from any tourist attraction.

She told me how this synagogue was rebuilt in the 1600s after destruction by the Portuguese before the Inquisition. The Kerela people called the destruction and massacre a shame and abomination. Thus after the Portuguese left, the synagogue was rebuilt according to Kerela architectural style with wooden ellipses under the sloped roof, just like the Taj hotel. The street with similar houses was a vibrant Jewish community until 1948, when most of them left for Israel.

We made an hour drive to new Kochin passing fishermen and rice farms which lined the river. The city was on the large bay with new buildings where we got onto a ferry to the old colonial Cochin. Old Cochin was on another side of the wide bay with a Taj Hotel on an island in the middle of the bay. We passed large transport tanker ships docked waiting to relieve their load and awaiting new items to ship. The old Kochin was composed of small one or two-story buildings and narrow chaotic streets. Our rickshaw navigated the chaos with honks of the horn, sometimes getting stuck with other rickshaws, requiring us to get out and push them apart. As we neared the Jewish area, more and more Muslims appeared. We reached “Jew Town” demarcated a large sign and throngs of tourists. The street was wide with and filled with foreigners that we saw for the first time. We walked through one of the trinket shops that became a cafe and then a bookstore and turned out to be a shortcut to the famous Paradesi Synagogue.

The entrance to the synagogue was again apart from the main building. In front of the building was a large clock tower with a distinctive watchtower above it and a Jewish cemetery to facing the entrance. To the side of the entrance was a room with large painted panels showing episodes from the history of the Kochin Jews with the background on who they were and how they settled in Kochin. One of the panels told the story of Jews were nearly wiped out in the 1100s in an event where 40,000 Jews were killed by Muslims with only 11,000 surviving and swimming to safety to find safety from the king of Kerela.

The synagogue itself was beautifully blue walls and tiles with gold embroidered cloth on the beemah and an intricately carved ark and roof but with bright colors. Every ceramic tile on the floor was decorated with pictures. Unlike other synagogues, there were many people visiting this one. When we entered, we saw a group of Israelis on the right side praying and giving Kadish. No pictures were allowed as the man in charge, (not Jewish) was collecting money for a copy of copper plates and small poor quality pictures.

Afterward, we walked down the street lined with trinket sellers and found Sarah. Sarah is 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 floor plan was for most Jews in Kochin. He gave me a copy of the 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 pigeons to make it a home. We then stopped by the post office where I got a stamp stamped with a date and a Magen David. Tada proudly told me that this is the only post office in India that has a Magen David as their official stamp.

“Jewish people were nice and friendly people. When they left, the happiness left with them.”

We got back on a rickshaw and made our way back to the ferry. The driver talked to my guide about how had lived here among the Jews when they were still here. I asked what people felt after the Jews left. I assumed it was a stupid question. I assumed he would say nothing happened, things remained essentially the 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. That they in a way abandoned people who valued them. At the same time, Jewish people like Indian people seek their homeland, a place that is theirs, surrounded by their culture, their land, and their history.

We got off the rickshaw, got a ticket for the ferry in the men’s line and then got into the waiting cage for the people who are getting on the ferry. The ferry or a boat that feels more like a water bus came over and we got on. At this point we had an issue, Deepak’s phone battery died and we had to contact the driver. As we fumbled, the woman across from us without a word gave us a safety pin off of her sari with a smile, helping us 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 meantime, in the meantime we would go to the last stop to meet Elias Josephai or 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 a 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 an interesting looking building with red-brick outlines around windows. I began to take pictures of it and unbeknownst to me, this was the synagogue. We walked around and entered an alleyway where the entrance was under a red sloped 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 Paradesi 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.

As we entered the synagogue, I saw Babu and the older 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 I also have relatives. They were visiting because the 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 lead us through a photo album that cataloged the restoration of the synagogue, showing how a Hindu master donated to the synagogue and 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.

“They were not happy, they were at peace but not happy.”

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. “

Babu then spoke of a few other Jews who live around India, each with a large business today and that is why they continue to stay. He told me about his hope: that this synagogue, would be replicated in Israel where 500,000 Indian Jews live. He hoped that this beauty would be appreciated and that the culture that Jewish Indians created could continue to live on in Israel.

I asked about the Chabad. According to Babu, the Chabad rabbi was forced to leave by the Muslim Imam’s who are in much control of the city and are not as friendly as they once were. Perhaps the East European Orthodoxy just did not gel as well with locals as the Mizrahi Jews who lived here for centuries. Ominously, the day after the Chabad rabbi left, the Muslim cleric’s sons died in an auto accident.

We left with much feeling after such a beautiful synagogue and such heartfelt 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 another hour, plenty of time to catch the train. But when I checked the time on my printout and was shocked to realize that my train departure was 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 through the serpentine of Cochin streets to the train station where my train was waiting for me. As I stepped onto the train car, the car began to move, we didn’t have a second to spare. My visit was brief, but the experience was as rich as the culture of Kerela’s Jewish people.

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