cochini jew

How I Became a Cochini Jew (April 2015)

Cochin, India. The author in the sanctuary of the historic Paradesi Synagogue on the eve of Simhat Torah (Photo courtesy of Arun Viswanath)

Chennai, a large city on the southeastern coast of India, was the place I called home for nine months last year.  I was an English teacher with the Fulbright-Nehru program run jointly by the American and Indian governments. Although I enjoyed my time in the classroom, my three main reasons for traveling to India and living in Chennai were personal in nature.

First, my father was born in India, and most of his family still lives in Bangalore, located some six hours from Chennai by train. (This is a short distance by Indian standards, where a trip to another city can mean a three-day journey.) I grew up in the United States and had traveled to India for a few short visits, but was not there long enough to establish close relationships with my family members. Living nearby would give me a chance to visit and get to know them better.

My second reason was a linguistic one. I grew up speaking Tamil, a South Indian language, with nobody to speak with besides my father and the occasional relative visiting from abroad. Living in Chennai presented me with the opportunity to gain fluency in my father-tongue.

My third reason for living in Chennai was to be close geographically to one of India’s oldest Jewish communities, in Cochin. There are indications of a Jewish presence in India during the First Temple period (c. 950 BCE), when King Solomon engaged in trade with India for its exotic flora and fauna. Over the course of the next two millennia, a number of Jewish communities developed and flourished, primarily in the cities of Kolkata, Pune, Mumbai and Cochin.** With the establishment of the State of Israel the majority of these Jews packed up their belongings and moved to Israel.

One reason for this move was the importance of Zionism in these communities. Former members of the Cochini community recently released a disc entitled Oh Lovely Parrot, containing folksongs sung in Judeo-Malayalam, the unique dialect of the Cochini Jews. The album reflects the community’s strong Zionist sentiment, with tracks such as “Herzl the Great”, “The Fifth of Iyar” (Israeli Independence Day), and “The Israeli Flag”. There is even an old custom that is practiced to this day: at the very end of Simhat Torah, community members dance in the street with the Torah scrolls and sing not only the Indian national anthem but Hatikvah. In other words, even those Cochini Jews who did not emigrate to Israel maintain strong feelings for the Jewish national homeland.

Cochin. Jew-Town was once populated entirely by Jews (Photo by Arun Viswanath)

In time, Indian Jewish communities grew smaller and weaker. The situation today is critical. Barely anyone is left in Kolkata, and the Cochinis rarely scrape together a minyan (ten Jews needed for communal prayer). Although there is still a sizable population of Jews in Mumbai and Pune, the future remains unclear. Most active community members belong to the older generation, and younger families who want traditional observance and a rigorous Jewish education for their children are forced to seek it abroad. It was clear to me that if I wanted to get to know Indian Jews personally I needed to do it now. And the community of Cochin was only a few hours away.

Chennai itself has no Jewish population (not counting a defunct Jewish cemetery), and observing Shabbat alone each week was a challenging and solitary experience. By the time the High Holidays came around, I was ready to do anything for a greeting of “Shalom Aleichem” or for someone to say “Amen” to my kiddush on Shabbat morning. So I did the only thing that made sense: I packed my things and got on a plane for Cochin. Selfish as my intentions were, I also knew that the Jewish community in Cochin would appreciate visitors.

My host there was an elderly woman named Queenie Hallegua, who has spent her entire life in Cochin. Besides a few elderly cousins and friends living nearby, she is alone. Queenie’s husband passed away several years ago, and both of her children have married and moved to the United States. Interestingly, Queenie lives on Jew-Town Road, a street once inhabited solely by Jews.

Although most of the Jewish population of Cochin is gone, one can see the Magen David (Star of David) still visible on many store facades, a testament to the once vibrant Jewish community, which made its home there. The tourist shops that line the road still sell “Jewish” souvenirs trying to lure Jewish tourists who have come primarily to see the beautiful historic Paradesi Synagogue. They gain the attention of passersby with calls of “Shalom!” and other phrases they have learned over the years.

One Jewish store remains, reached through the entrance to Sarah Cohen’s house. Sarah is known not only as an artist, but as the “community elder” who knows Cochini folklore and traditions. Although her old age has clouded her short-term memory, she continues to make Jewish art. Browsing her wares, I searched in vain for something that encapsulated the unique Jewish-Indian nature of the community. I ultimately settled on a challah cover, embroidered with a Star of David and a dove. I also purchased a silver mezuzah-cover, knowing full well that it was imported from abroad. It seemed important to give the community business.

At the very bottom of the street stands the majestic Paradesi Synagogue. Paradesi means foreigner; most of the Jews who used to pray at that synagogue were descended from immigrants in the last 600 years, some from Arab lands seeking business opportunities and others escaping persecution in Portugal.

Cochin. Queenie Hallegua keeps the Torah scrolls company while the maniara is deconstructed following Simchat Torah. (Photo by Arun Viswanath

I arrived in Cochin shortly before sunset on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. I quickly showered and changed into festive garb before heading to the synagogue. Queenie had mentioned to me that a young Chabad couple were staying in Cochin for the duration of the High Holidays. In addition, two or three men were expected to come from Ernakulam, a nearby town that also was once home to a large Jewish community. After tallying up the numbers, I didn’t quite see how we would have a minyan But then again, I hadn’t counted on the dozens of Jewish tourists who would drop by for a glimpse of the ancient synagogue. Many were Israelis exploring Asia after completing their military service; others were families of Indian-Jewish origin who had come back to explore their roots. Queenie’s son David had come from the US to spend the holiday with her.

Once we had enough for a minyan, the service began. It soon became apparent, however, that we were not on the same page. The Cochinis demanded that prayers be done according to their tradition, but the Chabad rabbi insisted that it was not permitted by Halacha (Jewish law). The rabbi wanted to lead the prayers, but none of the community members were too keen on that. As I watched the back and forth between the elderly community members and the young Israeli rabbi, I felt that I had to step in as translator. The rabbi’s English was weak, and I was able to interpret from Hebrew into English and vice versa. But the real translation was between the two cultures. Being both a Yeshiva-educated Orthodox Jew and an Indian with an appreciation for the diverse traditions of our Diaspora, I was in a unique position to mediate between the two sides.

In some cases I successfully demonstrated to the rabbi that the local tradition took legal precedence over the mandates of the Shulchan Aruch, seen as the major decisor in Jewish law today. In other cases, I was able to convince community members to capitulate on some minor detail. But for the most part, I tried to keep the service going, for the sake of those poor tourists. When services ended, the congregants dispersed and I followed David to his mother’s house.

The next morning, we went back to the synagogue. Since no one had arrived yet, David taught me how to lead prayers in the Cochini tradition. As we practiced the tunes, congregants arrived one by one. Fewer men came from Ernakulam than the previous evening. The number of congregants would continue to diminish over the course of the three days that I spent there. That meant that we had to rely more and more on tourists stopping by.

We finally got a minyan at 10:30 and began the prayers, which were once again interrupted by debates and quibbling over how to lead the service. Once again, I played the middleman, with varied levels of success. The entire scene was comical: on the bimah, an Israeli Chabad rabbi; all around, the Cochini congregants; in the back, the confused tourists; and then there was me, a half-Indian 23-year-old Modern Orthodox Jew. What a minyan!

Througout my visit in Cochin, I felt welcomed and comfortable. I listened as David and Queenie exchanged greetings and news. Although I couldn’t understand every word of the conversation, I was able to follow most of it since the Judeo-Malayalam language is closely related to my native dialect of Tamil. It is unique among other dialects of Malayalam in its vocabulary, which draws on Hebrew, Aramaic, Portuguese and other languages. Just as in Yiddish and other Jewish languages, the Hebrew component of Judeo-Malayalam is not restricted to ritual contexts./p>

Cochin. Author stands in front of the maniara, or “wedding room”, a platform built in front of the ark for Simhat Torah. (Photo courtesy of Arun Viswanath)

Queenie obliged my requests to hear about her childhood and communal traditions. She told me about the biggest holiday among Cochini Jews: Simhat Torah.

In preparation for the holiday, congregants build a wooden platform in front of the Ark called a maniara, literally “wedding room”. (Simhat Torah is often described in Jewish tradition as the marriage between the Jewish people and the Torah.) Each Torah scroll is moved into a special festive casing, adorned with gold, silver and precious stones. Unlike the soft Torah vestments among Ashkenazi Jews, these casings are hard, as in other Oriental Jewish traditions. The scrolls are placed onto the maniara, which is then covered by a beautiful curtain.

Throughout the year, only a small number of the lamps and chandeliers in the main sanctuary are lit, but for Simhat Torah, every lamp is filled with oil and lit. In addition, a large candelabra is set up outside the entrance of the synagogue. Those entrusted with lighting the lamps are not Jews, but rather Hindu patrons of the synagogue who, in exchange for financial support, request only that they be allowed to kindle these lights once a year. The devotion of these non-Jews is particularly remarkable in light of the fact that the Jews who left for Israel and other countries are barely involved in the community.

Queenie’s description of Simhat Torah intrigued me and I knew that I had to return to Cochin to experience the holiday for myself. Two weeks later, I returned to Cochin and the Paradesi Synagogue.

Immediately, I was struck by the unique nature of the hakafot, or parading of the Torah scrolls around the synagogue, which contrasted greatly with the wild and spirited hakafot in Ashkenazi communities. The women entered the main sanctuary from the women’s section and lined up along with the walls of the synagogue together with the men. The Torah scrolls procession proceeded along the edges of the sanctuary while everyone clapped and sang hymns in honor of the holiday, and each person kissed the Torah scrolls as they passed. It was a memorable experience.

Although Queenie and I had started off our conversations as strangers, the more time we spent together, the more she treated me like one of her own. She joked with me, honored me with leading the Kiddush in her home, and even tried to set me up with girls in Ernakulam and Mumbai. David taught me several zemirot (songs) for Shabbat, as well as an authentic Cochini toast, which incorporates several words from Portuguese.

During my stay, I felt a deep closeness both to Queenie and David as well as to the entire community, almost as though I had been a Cochini Jew in another life and was now learning everything all over again. I lay awake that night, taken by a sense of nostalgia for something I never had.

On Saturday night, we bid each other farewell. Queenie sent along a bottle of Cochini wine, and I promised I’d be back soon.

I kept my promise. Three months later, I visited Queenie during my school’s Christmas vacation. She was happy to see me, and I was glad to be back. I set my things down and went straight to the synagogue. But this time, there were no Cochini Jews, and the Israeli rabbi had long since returned to Jerusalem. But there were plenty of tourists, all waiting for somebody to take charge and lead the prayers. The book of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) teaches us, b’makom she’ein ish, hishtadel lihyot ish. Liberally translated: “Where there is nobody to stand up and do the right thing, it is up to you.”

I got up and turned to face the group. After some opening greetings, I said a few words about the community and its long history. I asked if anyone wanted to lead the service. Silence. I realized that I was going to have to fill all the roles: rabbi, gabbai, usher and chazzan. I led the congregants in a Carlebach-style Kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath), but reserved a special Cochini tune for the closing Yigdal prayer that I had learned from David. Nobody was able to sing along, but it seemed appropriate to sing at least one Cochini song in a Cochini synagogue…

As we exited the synagogue, several tourists thanked me. I wanted to thank them back: “Thank you for coming, thank you for honoring the community and the synagogue, and thank you for giving me the opportunity, at least for one evening, to really be a Cochini.” But instead, I just smiled. When everyone had left, I closed the doors to the synagogue and walked to Queenie’s house to make a toast.