Sometimes a religious holiday can turn into a great catalyst for adventure. Granted, adventure and Yom Kippur don’t usually go together in my book. After all, this is the Day of Atonement we’re talking about here – it’s not a go-out-and-celebrate kind of day.
This year, living in Hyderabad, I realized Yom Kippur could be turned into an opportunity to peek into the small Jewish community left in Cochin, on India’s southwestern Malabar coast. Making matters easier, the holiday fell on a Friday and Saturday, which meant I could take a weekend and go to Cochin relatively easily.
According to legend, the first Jews arrived in Cochin after the destruction of the second temple, around 70 BCE. Welcomed by the emperor of Kerala, they established a community and began to thrive. Later, in the middle ages, they were joined by European Jews from Holland and Spain. Wikipedia has a great overview and I won’t waste time re-writing it – here’s the link.
Until the mid 20th century, Cochin boasted a small but stable Jewish community. But after Indian independence in 1947 and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, many Cochin Jews migrated to Israel, leaving only a handful of community members behind. Those who remain have maintained their 16th century synagogue – the Paradesi Synagogue – as a functioning institution, despite dwindling numbers. It’s one of seven buildings in Cochin that were once synagogues; only Paradesi still functions as such today.
I booked my flights to Cochin early in the week and began to think about where to stay during my visit. A friend through work, Shaffi, once mentioned that his family is from Cochin, so I wrote him to ask his advice on hotels or guest houses. Almost immediately, he emailed me back with instructions – I would stay with his family, and there would be someone to pick me up from the airport; send flight details ASAP. There was no way I could decline this amazingly generous offer.
On Friday, erev Yom Kippur, I arrived at Shaffi’s home and met his wife, daughter and parents. What was my plan for the weekend, they wanted to know, probably thinking I would be interested in a houseboat trip through Kerala’s backwaters or a similar tourist agenda. I smiled, and explained that a religious holiday had brought me to Cochin, and that I hoped to visit the synagogue in Jewtown.
Shaffi’s family is Muslim, and while they hadn’t heard of Yom Kippur before, the holiday resonated with them. After all, from its focus on atonement, to fasting, to wearing white garments, the holiday is similar to Ramazan.
At 7:00 AM exactly on Saturday morning, I found the Paradesi Synagogue at the end of (not joking) Jewtown Road. I passed through an antechamber and removed my shoes, in the Hindu tradition, before entering the sanctuary. It was if I had walked into the 16th century.
The large, square sanctuary was bordered by benches along the walls; a brass-railed pulpit stood centered, two-thirds of the way from the back wall towards the bimah. More than twenty lamps and chandeliers – most of them oil lamps and many of them of colored glass – burned brightly, having been lit the night before. Small carpets covered the hand-painted Chinese floor tiles, while a white embroidered cloth was strung across the ark.
A few synagogue members had already arrived; I had been told the service would start at 7:00, but we were well short of a minyan and it didn’t appear anyone was in a rush. I put on a kippah and tallis and picked up a machzor and waited. It was already hot and muggy early in the morning, but the windows were open and a bit of a breeze flowed through the ancient building.
The rabbi walked in 10 minutes later. A Hasidic Jew, from Israel, sent by Chabad to help look after the remaining Jews of Cochin, he and his young wife lived down the street in a small apartment that doubled as the Chabad House. We chatted a bit and then he also sat down to wait until at least 10 men were present.
There were far more prayerbooks than there were people, so I took two. The first, published in 2006, came from Brooklyn – a Hebrew/English translation of the Orthodox high holy day liturgy. The second, a small red book, was well-worn. Opening the front cover, I saw that it had been published in Vienna, in 1881. The first page of the book had been inscribed: “Elias A. David, Bombay, 1889.” I was holding history in my hands.
I started paging through the older prayerbook, which was all in Hebrew. Some smaller letters were written in the footnotes of various pages – I looked at them and noticed they weren’t actually Hebrew words. I sounded out a few, and realized that the notes were Hebrew letters forming Spanish words – instructions to a Sephardic Jew about when to insert a particular clause (i.e., during Shabbat, include this phrase).
At 8:30, the minyan was complete and services begin. The 10th member for the minyan was the 86 year old elder of the synagogue. Entering in a wheelchair, carried up a few stairs by his younger neighbors, he proceeded to hold court over the proceedings throughout the day. There is no rabbi left in Cochin, other than the young Hasid sent by Chabad, so two chazzans took charge of the service, supported by the Israeli rabbi.
And so we began. Suffice it to say, it was 12 hours from when I first walked into the synagogue to when I walked out, with a 90 minute break at 2:00 PM, during which the two dozen people present (men and women) mostly spread out on various benches for a short snooze, myself included. It was certainly the longest service I had ever attended, and also one of the most interesting.
I broke fast with those who had joined the service – a mix of locals and primarily Israeli tourists (along with a Jewish Indian from Bombay and me) down the street, then drove back to Shaffi’s house, where his wife had painstakingly prepared a meal of traditional Keralite dishes.
Laying in bed that night, I couldn’t help but smile, realizing how similar we all are – regardless of ethnicity, religion, language or caste. If nothing else, it was my spiritual take-away from the weekend.