Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Jews of India

The humidity hits us like a wall as we exit the airport in Cochin, a town in southern India. It had recently rained -- a lot -- and there are huge puddles everywhere. The warmth is a welcome relief after the chill of northern India.

The city is having a strike the day we arrive and we’re told all the shops will be closed and we'll have to walk because no cars are allowed until after 6pm. That’s ok with us; we’re tired of being driven everyplace. We tell our guide that we’re New Yorkers -- we like to walk!

The morning starts off just mildly steamy. We have breakfast at the hotel along the water. It reminds me a bit of Bangkok; with small boats ferrying goods back and forth along a liquid highway. Then it’s time to head out. We’re drenched in sweat in 10 minutes -- now we know why the guide looked a bit concerned.

Still, we solider on because we’ve been looking forward to visiting Cochin’s neighborhood called Jew Town. There are about 20 “white” Jews still living here and another 20 “black” Jews living in another neighborhood of Cochin. Our first stop is the synagogue. We have to remove our shoes, not for religious reasons, but to preserve the blue and white tile floor. Hundreds of tiles were shipped from China and no two designs are alike. Pictures are forbidden, but in typical fashion, Melissa and I take a few without flash. There are dozens of glass globe lights hanging from the ceiling and an upper balcony where women sit during service. There’s an eternal light near the front; unfortunately the Torah isn’t available for viewing.

It’s different from any temple I’ve ever seen.

When we leave we covertly check out the girl taking tickets. She’s clearly Jewish and looks like she’s from Bay Ridge. But she doesn’t look like she wants to talk so we don’t approach her. I suspect Jews approach her all the time asking the same questions over and over.

We wander around the narrow lanes of Jew Town, snapping pictures of signs in Hebrew, plaques saying Shalom, street signs. There are shops selling matzoh covers and yarmulkes. One shop is run by a old woman. Sarah Cohen. She looks like she’s from Borough Park. We ask her where she’s from originally. She says Cochin. Even though her English is accented she has the mannerisms of any Jewish person from New York. It’s odd to think that’s she was born here, grew up in India and is Jewish. We never get a chance to ask, but I think they must have to travel to Israel or another country in order to find a Jewish husband or wife since the Jewish population is so small, and they clearly aren’t having interracial marriages.

I’m impressed and a little proud of them, just like I was of the Jews in Cuba. It takes a lot of nerve to carry on in what you believe in when the surrounding community is largely something else. There is a huge population of Muslims in southern India. But strangely we don’t see very many Mosques. What we do see are hundreds of churches. Cochin and Goa (a city to the north) were founded in large part by the Portuguese. As such there is a large Christian population in Cochin and around every corner there’s a church or mini alter to Jesus. It’s a strange sight after seeing so many Hindu temples.

But there is a Hindu temple next to the Synagogue that's preparing for a festival where two elephants are being honored. One of the Hindu gods, Ginesh, has the head of an elephant on a human body and elephants are revered in this country. There are dozens of locals milling about, taking pictures with the elephants.

We take an auto rickshaw back past our hotel to the other side of town. There fishermen catch their daily load with gigantic nets strung up between several wood poles. The entire contraption looks like a huge spider on a web. They are lowered into the water and pulled up when they are full of fish. Fish of all sizes are spread out on tables as people mill about deciding what to buy. Men yell out to us saying we can choose a fish and they will cook them on the spot for us. I’m not that brave, but the idea is intriguing.

Cochin was once a major stop along the spice route to Asia and spices are sold everywhere out of large buckets. The city strike has shut down the wholesalers which is a shame because I imagine that would be exciting to see. But the spice retailers are open and one woman with a beautiful face lets us sniff different kinds of powders and nuggets. In an open courtyard, ginger is being dried out in the open.

It's not just the hot weather that makes southern India so different from the north. They have a 98% literacy rate here, which probably accounts for less people begging on the streets. We do run across young budding entrepreneurs who have set up a Santa Claus and are charging for pictures. Their smiles are captivating and well worth the few rupees we give them. Another boy rides by on a bike and stops to say hello and ask for a pen. We don't have one to give him so we offer a piece of gum. Then he lets Melissa ride his bike while taking pictures of her with my camera. Another moment in travel where laughter breaks through any language barriers.

Men also dress in traditional outfits called lungis, which look like beach sarongs. They wear them long and short. When they're short they look like mini skirts and it's a funny sight that never fails to make us snicker.

We only have a few more hours in Cochin before we have to leave, but it’s midday and the heat is taking it’s toll. We decide to break for lunch at this place that serves chocolate samosas. I am much more excited by the idea of this than Melissa. Southern India is also know for it’s spectacular seafood; I get a mixture of different seafoods while Melissa gets stuffed peppers. Both are delicious. But it’s the dessert I’m here for and I tell the waiter I already know what I want before he brings the dessert menu. The look like little fried ravioli, floating in a mango sauce. I’m a bit disappointed to discover it’s more like chocolate sauce than fudge. But they’re still yummy and the mango sauce is tangy and offsets the sweetness of the chocolate.

Now it’s off to our three days of rest and relaxation!

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