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A futile search for the elusive singing Jews of India

March 2012

Oh yes, even in a country dense with cows and priests and temples, mosques, vast jungles, elephants, minarets, arduous bus rides and busybody bureaucrats who drove my girlfriend and I totally insane after two weeks, we knew that we needed Fort Cochin.

Deep in the backwaters of Kerala—a province better-educated, denser, more left-wing and poorer—called. We had to rest in Cochin, because India was driving us to the loony bin.

“Why Kerala?” Stella asked.

“Spices!” I exclaimed. “Vasco da Gama came here to get spices. He was buried until the Portuguese took the body away. Spices! The Dutch were here to plant coffee and harvest spices. And then they went away.”

“And the Jews?” Stella asked.

“I guess spices. I don’t know yet. We’ll find out.”

The Jews were a footnote to Fort Cochin in the textbooks. But I knew they had a synagogue amid what was still called Jewtown, on Fort Cochin island. I knew that in the main market on the mainland was Jew Street. And I’d heard of other places.

Picture of Paul Robeson at the National Archives. Photos: Harry Rolnick

I made the mistake of asking the landlord of our inn about the Jews. Like Archie Bunker, Bernard, of Portuguese descent, hated everybody. “Don’t trust the Hindus,” he said. “The Moslems are all Al-Qa’ida.” And the Jews? “The worst of all. They come here and sit on the balcony and sing all night.”

“Every Jew sings all night?”

“Yes, all of them.”

Making a new note to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, I did my own research, starting in the famed Jewtown Temple. But a manuscript from the Kerala History Association gave some interesting hints. The Jews arrived sometime around the 5th century, probably driven from today’s Babylon and Persia.

This was not legend. For in an ancient synagogue far from Fort Cochin, I discovered a monument dating back to the 12th century. The date was an understatement. A first-century poem of southern India speaks of a Jewish merchant who lived there and Saint Thomas himself spoke of his neighbours the Jews when he came to convert the “natives.”

This was in what is now a town called Cranagore, where the Jews were given license to live—and probably helped govern. The Portuguese and Moors, jealous of the success of the Jews, massacred almost all of them in 1524.

That was when they turned to the settlement of Cochin and the spice trade. Today, walking through Jewtown, you can see the old warehouses where the Jews and Portuguese stored cumin and peppers, where the scent of cardamom haunts the air.

But now come the monuments. Most obvious were the synagogues in Jewtown. No photos are allowed, which is a shame, for every one of the Chinese tiles here tells a different story. (Salman Rushdie tells of a delusional Jew recalling the history of his people through the tiles.)

The synagogue holds services, and the cemetery is nearby, but nobody could tell me if Jews still lived in the area.

I found more in Jew Street on the mainland, opposite the island. There, amid shops selling shmattas and candles, hardware and saddles, was a tiny building with a grated door and some Hebrew lettering along with a sign: “To open the synagogue, please go to the candy store two lanes from here.” There was no candy store. But the mantra of India, whenever you wish to find something, is: “Go to the end of the block, turn right and ask anybody.”

The most extraordinary synagogue was two hours from Cochin on a bumpy bus ride. No English was spoken, but when I reached the end of the line, somebody understood the word “synagogue.”

“Ten kilometres, by the water, near the mosque.”

A man in a horse cart drove me eight kilometres through the jungle. I walked the other two kilometres to a village, and at the end of the village was a lane leading to a lagoon, one of Kerala’s famed backwaters. I was nowhere.

“Synagogue?” I asked a flock of herons. No answer.

Walking back, I saw the sign with an arrow pointing to mosque and synagogue and went down a path into Chennamangalam Synagogue. The ancient stone epitaph with Hebrew was outside.

It was built in 1614. If the pictures displayed on the walls are true, the Jews intermarried with the Indian population and on the holiday of Simchas Torah, the Books of the Pentateuch were paraded through the village, with the Hebrew translated into Malayalam, the language of Kerala.

Hitchhiking back from the village that breathed the palms and waters and verdant greenery of the Book of Solomon, I was guided to an old street inhabited only by Brahmins, the highest caste. I asked one about the Jewish community.

He remembered his grandfather, who told of conversing with “those strange people” but enjoying the talk of god, gods and men. Today, he said, they probably have gone abroad.

The buildings remain, hidden in the metropolis and out in the jungle. That was my favourite.

Nearby, a boy played a flute, a few women walked by, and a boat with spices slowly made its way through the water. The Jews had come, prospered, left …

But in this part of India, they were nothing except a small spoke on the Eternal Wheel of Life.



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