The Last Crumbs of Jew Town
Queenie wears a gold housedress and oversized bifocals. A pink embroidered floral arrangement blossoms on the collar beneath her jowls and runs down her front. On the second floor of Queenie’s home on Synagogue Lane in Kochi’s Jew Town, a spacious dining room is set up for the Sabbath meal.
This room’s former grandeur is evident in the fine rugs and the carved wooden chests, but now Queenie’s family photos cover every tabletop, shelf and counter as well as much of the room’s ample wall space. She doesn’t hesitate to display her real valuables. A son and daughter – both married and living in America – smile from puffy haired 80s wedding portraits. A sole granddaughter poses with a hula hoop in some faraway Long Island portrait studio.
A Hindu servant heaps food onto my styrofoam plate and pours some kosher grape juice. The Friday night meal is a mix of foods that would not be out of place on my grandmother’s Shabbat table – coleslaw, potato salad and braided challah bread. Having lived in Asia for over a year, it’s been a while since I’ve eaten challah. The sweet crumbs speak to my soul, chanting the Friday night blessings in grandmothers’ kitchens worldwide. Queenie’s feast is accented with fragrant biryani, chicken curry and coriander chutney. Some of the dishes are made from ingredients brought over to India by a middle aged American whose company monitors kosher food products manufactured in India. The rest were cooked according to old Paradesi Jewish family recipes and are as tasty as one would expect in this world famous city of spice. (Queenie’s recipes have been in the New York Times!)
The meal and Sabbath blessings are presided over by a Hasidic Chabbad Rabbi with a bushy red beard who has come from Israel with his Bombay-born wife and two kids. They are here on a short assignment, from Purim until Passover, to keep the synagogue running on holy days and play host to a handful of elderly Jewesses and the occasional businessman or backpacker. Kochi must be a bottom of the barrel posting for this uncharismatic Lubovitcher. While Indian Chabad houses in Dharamsala and Rishikesh are buzzing with young wandering Jews, this one – home to an actual historical community – is ignored by the swarms of Israelis on the tourist trail.
Earlier this evening I took a rickshaw from Fort Kochi to Jew Town to attend Sabbath services in the heritage synagogue down the street. It was locked when I arrived, so I sat on the curb chatting with the Kashmiri shop owners and watching a little alleyway cricket. When the time for the evening service arrived, a caretaker unlocked the building, but there was no quorum for prayers. Only one Jewish man lives in Kochi these days.
The Rabbi’s wife and her preteen daughter Devori Leah were getting dressed, so I sat in the women’s section with one other tourist admiring the hand-painted blue and white Chinese tile floor. Multicolored glass lamps hanging over the central bimah have illuminated this community’s prayers since the Paradesi Synagogue was built in the 1560s. Jews may have lived in this region since the time of Solomon, and a community of intermarried brown skinned Jews speaking its own Judeo-Malayalam language has been living on the malabar coast for at least a millennium.
Different waves of Jews came to this busy spice route port from Iraq, Portugal, Holland, Spain and England. There were merchant princes and mystic poets. Families like the Sassoons, Cohens and Koders ammassed forutnes and held positions of influence. In the 1500s, the Hindu Raja of Cochin granted the Jews a protected tract of land adjacent to his palace, and for hundreds of years they lived, studied, traded and prayed in this portside pocket still known as Jew Town.
And now, says Queenie, “It’s over.” A community of 5000 reduced to seven: four widows and three of their unmarried middle-aged offspring.
The Rabbi mumbles incomprehensible biblical parables to the businessman and I study the faces of the women at the table. One of the daughters is here. She is in her forties and has a drawn, hollow-eyed look and frizzy black hair. She works as a ticket seller at the synagogue museum and is dying to emigrate to Israel, where an estimated 5000 Indian Jews live.
Looking around this table is like being in Jurassic Park. Face to face with the extinction of this small corner of global Jewish culture, I stare it down defiantly. There is one other young Canadian traveller here, and we whisper excitedly about our schemes to bring about a Jewish revival, discussing our vision for hours back at my hotel.
But Queenie is resigned to her fate. She will die soon, and Jew Street will belong to Muslims selling fake pashminas. The spice warehouses will still smell of cardamom and clove. The synagogue lamps will illuminate a museum. Queenie’s children will fly from America to pack her family photos in boxes. Jewish Kochi’s mark will hang like the blank spaces on Queenie’s walls, slowly fading into the colour and noise of India.
*Sorry no photos in this one…cameras are prohibited on the Sabbath! For more on Jewish Kochi see Who are the Jews of India?