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.

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