Thursday, December 24, 2009

Tamil Nadu Pictures

Click here to see our latest pictures from Kodai and Auroville

For Jeremy's Birthday today we are taking a scooter ride to a kibbutz-like forest community and hunting down some banana pancakes for lunch. Ali has also worked out a deal with the kitchen staff who will make chocolate cake for all the guests tonight in Jeremy's honor- but shh...its a secret.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

London Jewish Chronicle

There's no link yet, but here's Jeremy's article about Cochin, published in London's Jewish Chronicle last week.

In the old days, Hanukkah in Cochin, India, was more than a festival of lights; it started—and ended—with a bang. “We used to light the lamp in the synagogue and set off fireworks,” says 88 year-old Isaac Joshua, an avid cricket fan and one of approximately 30 Jews left in the southernmost Indian state of Kerala. “It was like Diwali or Vishu,” he adds—Indian holidays celebrated with massive displays of pyrotechnics. “Now, we light the candles in our homes, say a few prayers. Hanukkah is not so important anymore.”

Just about every Jew in Kerala agrees that after centuries of peace and prosperity in the tropics, the aging Jewish community of Cochin is dying. The so-called black Jews, whose ancestors came here perhaps 2,000 years ago, are scattered across the district's main island, Ernakulam, and their synagogues are in disrepair. Samuel Hallegua, the leader of nearby Mattancheri's white—European—Jewish community, passed away in September. “There is virtually no one left in Cochin,” says Nathan Katz, professor of Religious Studies at Florida International University and an expert on the Jews of India. “The very few who remain are dispirited.

Even as the Jewish population dwindles—only 10 are left in Mattancheri's Jewtown, home to the 16th century Paradesi (“foreigner”) synagogue—the centuries-old dispute between black and white, some say, continues to fester. “To me, the Mattancheri community is dead,” says Elias “Babu” Josephai, 52, who refuses to step foot in the Paradesi synagogue. The last shohet in Kerala, Babu stopped slaughtering chickens for the whites a year ago following a dispute with the late Mr. Hallegua; today, the whites import kosher meat from Mumbai.

Others contend that the feud ended half a century ago when the ban on intermarriage was breached and blacks were permitted to pray alongside whites in the Paradesi synagogue. “When I go to Jewtown I am one of them,” says Ernakulam's Isaac Joshua. Reema Selam, a white Jew and the only intermarried woman in Jewtown, adds that the community is “tired of hearing about black and white.”

Still, interaction between the two minuscule groups is minimal, and there are rarely enough men to make a minyan, except during high holidays or tourist season. Although ten men were assembled last Friday night—the first of Hanukkah—not a single Jew from Ernakulam attended.

Samuel Hallegua's brother, Johnny, lit the menorah and led a chorus of backpackers in a half-spirited version of Ma'oz Tzur, followed by a brief Shabbat service. This was succeeded by a second candle-lighting ceremony for tourists (and the Indian press) at Koder House, an upscale hotel once owned by a wealthy Paradesi Jew of the same name. Chaim Weismann, a middle-aged American who teaches English in Cochin, has arranged the function—which includes complementary muffins and ginger beer—for four years straight. Across the canal, Babu, Isaac Joshua, and the other Jews of Ernakulam celebrated Hanukkah in their homes.

Babu, who operates an exotic plant and fish shop in the lobby of Ernakulam's Kadavumbhagam synagogue, is working hard to ensure that some day, services will be held there, too. To date, he has spent over 100,000 rupees to restore the dilapidated building, which fell into disuse following a wave of emigration to Israel in 1972. Isaac Joshua, for his part, has all but resigned the community to history: “It's not worth it anymore,” he says. “The younger generation knows nothing, not even the aleph bet. There is no future.” The only hope, he believes—barring a miracle—lies with Chabad. “Something is better than nothing,” he says, smiling wryly.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Trouble with Internet Explorer

If you are having trouble reading our blog, use Mozilla Firefox or something other than Internet Explorer they all work fine. We are trying to fix it, but its weird.

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Surprising New Development

For the second time in a month we find ourselves in an international community guided by a charismatic “Mother” figure. Instead of the Hugging Mother Ashram's spiritual focus, Auroville is an experiment in utopianism: an international community of 2,000 residents from over 40 countries striving to overcome boundaries of nationality, color, and background and realize their common interconnected humanity in a money-less, class-less, property-less, and cooperative “universal township.” Residents and other Indian citizens are split on the project's success and merits, and of late, economic strain within Auroville has disqualified those without independent resources from becoming members of the community.

Because Auroville is spread out over many miles of Tamil Nadu countryside—it's located in a rural area about 150 km south of Chennai—the only reasonable way to get around is by motor scooter. We arranged to rent one through our guesthouse for two dollars a day including fuel, with the strict instructions to not under any circumstances leave Auroville's premises. Thanks to Jeremy's persistent questioning, we later learned that although the rental was illegal we would not be at risk with the local authorities. Fortunately, within the vicinity, the empty dirt roads lend themselves to learning and the tree-lined streets make for picturesque cruising. At least when it is not raining.

After several hours of exploring the “township,” getting lost in the densely forested neighborhoods of Miracle, Silence, and Certitude, chatting with and eavesdropping on loquacious Aurovillians in places like Dreamer's Cafe and the Solar Kitchen, we scheduled a three-hour guided shamanic journey for Ali with Divya, who lives in Revelation. As we were driving over to a short introductory seminar on the concept of Auroville, however, the skies opened and we received a proper drenching. We were forced to skip the seminar and battle the monsoon rains on the half hour scoot back to our guesthouse, where the cheerful receptionist informed us that our laundry (all our clothes except the ones we were wearing) had been caught in the rain and wouldn't be dry until tomorrow afternoon at the earliest. Luckily, we have a sweet little cabin in the rainforest and several dry blankets in which to huddle.

From this spot of comfort we reflected on the fact that we have been traveling for nearly three months and have a little more than four to go. Besides the often comedic difficulties of adapting to different cultural norms (putting toilet paper in buckets, more elaborate greeting rituals, the moratorium on public displays of affection), the main effects of the trip so far concern our own personal and mutual growth. It's hard to say what the lasting impact will be, and it probably will remain that way until some time in the distant future, but both of us believe that we are growing wiser and that we are increasingly connected to each other and ourselves. There is also a distinct possibility that Jeremy is getting fatter.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cold at Last

We are sitting in a small wooden hut with two computers. There is a definite draft; actually it's about 40 degrees and there is no central heating in India. We are damp and our bones are cold. Yesterday, Ali bought a hat. But we are not sad. Oh no, the cold and constant rain is quite rejuvenating. Especially after two weeks in the extreme heat and humidity of Cochin which we fled Monday on the night bus. At about 6 am the next morning we arrived in the small and strangely delightful hill station of Kodai.

In addition to escaping the heat and humidity we were trying to flee from the viral fever which had Ali bed-ridden and in lots of pain for five days. Despite Jeremy's pleas that we stay put until she recovered Ali insisted we depart. "I must get to the mountains!" she said. And sure enough the fever subsided upon arrival.

Kodai may have charms besides its miraculous healing properties but it has generally been raining too hard for us find out about them. We did take a quick jaunt around the lake in a mistless moment and have been relishing the good cheer of the people here who seem to appreciate Jeremy's jokes. We also checked into a nicer hotel, Hilltop Towers, and have been making the most of the HBO-providing TV and huge glass windows. This morning Jeremy even ordered a large container of "Day Coffee Day" via room service.

The pictures in the post are actually from Munnar, a different hill station/tea plantation we visited on a day trip from Cochin.

In other news, we are extremely agitated about the potential division of Andhra Pradesh.

More importantly, Ali got into Smith School of Social Work and will be starting there next June!

Lastly, click here to see pictures from Kerala.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Jew Town

As Guru Amma's return neared, the atmosphere at the Hugging Mother ashram grew increasingly cultish. Promising the residents that we would be leaving for only a couple of days before coming back to accept our hugs, we fled to the relative safety of Cochin's Jew town. Not many Jews remain here (11, to be precise), and the ones who do are generally well over 80 years old. On the other side of the canal, Cochin's main island, Ernakulam, is home to a slightly larger and younger community of 20 or so darker-skinned Jews.

The origins of Cochin's Jewish community are, as Adam P. Kimmell once put it, mysterious. Here's what we've learned so far: The black Jews say they have lived in Kerala since the second temple was destroyed in Jerusalem in 70 CE, explaining that the white Jews arrived from Europe much later, during the colonial era, while the white Jews say that the black Jews are "impure," attributing their dark skin to intermarriages between white Jewish men and their slaves. Both parties claim to be the rightful heirs of the community led by one Joseph Rabban, who was deemed prince of the Keralan Jews and granted special privileges by a Hindu king possible as early as the 4th century. Whatever the reality, the "black" Jewish community has for hundreds of years faced discrimination at the hands of the white one (intermarriage was prohibited and until the middle of the 20th century blacks were barred from entering the famous Paradesi synagogue in Jewtown). To this day they are generally neglected by the international Jewish community and, in part as a result, most journalistic accounts of life here ignore them.

In our attempt to unravel the mystery we teamed up with our hotel-mate Tova, a retired Israeli police officer whose mother hails from the tiny town of Chennamangalam, 25 km north of Cochin (which we visited together a few days back), and who speaks a few words of Malayalam. (The predominant language on the Malabar Coast, we were particularly impressed to learn that Malayalam is the only language whose English name is a palindrome). Tova also took us to the tomb of a 17th century poet/Kabbalist who has long been worshiped by Hindus, Muslims, Christian and Jews alike. According to Tova, the tomb once stood in the middle of a Jewish cemetary which was at some point demolished. When the villagers tried to raze Nehemiah Mota's grave, a great fire broke out and the earth shook, or something like that. Deciding that he must be a saint (Hindu villages often had their own special gods), they let his tomb stand. Today, it rests in the center of a residential area, and locals often come to light candles and ask Mota to help them recover losts items, heal them, and other such favors.

Yesterday, we paid a visit to "Babu," the dedicated caretaker of an old and underfunded Ernakulam synagogue, where he operates a booming plant and exotic fish business in the anteroom. He is the last shohet (ritual slaughterer) on either side of the water, though he says he stopped slaughtering chickens for the white Jews after being humiliated by their late leader, Sammy Hallegua, last year. Although the whites supposedly import their kosher meat from Mumbai, if all goes as planned, we will accompany Babu to a ritual slaughter of a chicken next Thursday on the first night of Hanukah.

When not visiting sites such as "Jew cemeteries" in various states of decay, we have been thoroughly enjoying the wider and unpolluted streets, fine food, and thriving art and dance community in Cochin. And although our health is good, we have both been suffering of late from minor cases of prickly heat, which we naively assumed existed only in Orwell's India.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


Some of our favorite treats:

Thali (Jeremy's favorite): an all-you-can-eat plate-full of spicy but nourishing vegetarian fare. Chappatis, the whole wheat pita-bread-esque thing in the middle and white basmati rice (not pictured) are constantly refilled, as are the the little tin cups with various curries, chutnies, pickles and sometimes, curd (aka yogurt) or an onion-heavy salad. Some restaurants, including this one, have “thali-only floors.”

Vegetable Thukpa (Ali's favorite): a delicious and spicy Tibetan soup made from leafy greens, carrots, scallions, bamboo shoots, and thick noodles- vegetarian chicken soup for the soul.

Mutton Curry with Appam: We feasted on this chuck in a “working-man's diner” in Kollam (a working-man's town). It was the only item on the menu that day, and it was damn good. Ali loves appams. At first glance, with their spongy centers and flaky outsides, they appear to be fried eggs without yokes; in fact, they are fermented rice pancakes. Mutton (goat or lamb or some sort of combination), is a meat of choice here in India, and especially so in the south.

Chicken Biryani: Many places claim biryani is their specialty, but it is served indiscriminately in restaurants and other food venues throughout the country. We are surprised that we have not yet found it in vending machines. On rare occasions, it can be quite good. Here, it came with chicken, raita (spiced yoghurt with chopped cucumbers, onions and tomatoes) and spicy pickles in addition to rice, and was served on a banana leaf instead of a plate (how about that ya eco-maniacs!). And, for good measure and those with a taste for modern art, a boiled egg was perched on top of it all.

Vegetable Pakora with mango and cilantro chutney: We coated vegetables in chickpea flour and then fried them. And then, we dipped them in these chutnies, which we also made, and then we ate them. Sadly, we forgot to take pictures of the finished feast (too hungry and busy eating), but at least we remembered to take one of the appetizers.