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.

1 comment:

ArielleFaith said...

This was really fascinating. Thank you for your insight. (and how cool to be published!!)