Friday, January 26, 2007

The Twilight of Cochin's Jews

Down the inverted pyramid that is India, nestled on the Spice Coast of Malabar, the Jewish community of Cochin resides. Sadly, it is a Jewish community in the twilight of its days. There are varied accounts of the history of Cochin's Jewish community. Some sources claim that the Jewish community dates back to the times of King Solomon, and after the division of the Kingdom of Israel. The earliest Jews to Cochin were known as the "Black Jews," while later inhabitants from Europe and the Middle East (Spain, Holland, Germany and Aleppo) were termed "White Jews" or "Pardesi." Later waves of Jews came in the 16th century from Portugal and Spain to escape the Inquisition.

Also during the 16th century, Cochin’s Jewish community was buoyed by the influx of Jews from Craganore, a port city that was home to one of the earliest Jewish settlements on the Malabar Coast. The Jews of Craganore fled to Cochin after they were attacked by Muslim inhabitants of Kerala backed by the ruler of Calicut, over their role in the lucrative spice trade. The Hindu Raja of Cochin offered the Craganore Jews protection and asylum in an area of town now famously known as “Jew Town.” In 1568, the Jews of Cochin constructed the Paradesi Synagogue, which is still in use today.

With the Portuguese takeover of Cochin, the Jewish community was subject to persecution. With the initial appearance of the Dutch, in the form of the Dutch East India Company in 1660, the Jewish community openly campaigned against the Portuguese Empire. When the Dutch were forced to withdraw from Malabar to Ceylon, the Portuguese carried out a campaign of retribution against the Cochin Jewish community, including the sacking of the Paradesi Synagogue in 1662. In 1663, the Dutch returned to displace the Portuguese, and ruled with tolerance toward the Jewish inhabitants. Meanwhile the Pardesi Synagogue was rebuilt in 1664. This tolerance continued after 1795, when the British East India took control and later under the British Empire.

After India gained her independence, the Jewish community of Cochin numbered approximately 3,000, and there were eight independent synagogues in Cochin. With the founding of the State of Israel, the exodus of the Jews of Cochin began, and increased after 1954. The majority of Cochin’s Jews moved to Israel, and there is now a large community of Cochin Jews in Moshav Nevatim, near Be’er Sheva.

In Cochin, the area officially named Jew Town still bustles with excitement and the smell of sweet spices. The block is littered with faded houses bedecked with Magen David ornaments in the windows and mezuzot on the doors. Stores like Sarah’s Handicrafts sells challah covers and yarmulkes. The elderly matron Sarah still runs the shop, and I spoke with her briefly as she gently kneaded her Shabbat challah.

Before we were greeted by the Sabbath, I spoke with Samuel Hellegua, an elderly member of the Cochin Jewish community. Of Sephardic descent, his family came to Cochin in 1592. In discussing communal particulars, since it is India, there is no kosher beef, but the community has kosher chicken. While there is no mikvah, Mr. Hellegua noted that the Cochin Jewish homes had wells that served as such. Although there is no rabbi in the community, he asserted that the congregation knew Jewish laws and customs, and is able to manage itself.

Mr. Hellegua stated that today only about fifty remain of the formerly sizable Cochin Jewish community, although I have read figures that the community is even smaller. Most of the community is elderly, and Mr. Helga painted a bleak picture of the community’s prospects for the future. He frankly surmised that within twenty years, there would be nothing left of this historic community and that the area that comprises Jew Town would probably be maintained by a foundational trust to preserve the legacy of this storied community.

Visiting the Paradesi Synagogue for Shabbat was truly a special experience. Over 70 Jews from all over the world came to celebrate the Sabbath at this unique synagogue. The floor of the Paradesi Synagogue is covered in blue-and-white tiles brought from China in 1762. Of the 1,100 hand-painted tiles, no two are alike. Crystal chandeliers and delicate colored glass lamps adorn the building, and illuminate the gilded ark. Over 500 Jewish tourists visit the synagogue every day during tourist season— the synagogue is not open to non-Jews or it would be overrun.
Yet according to Mr. Hellegua, tourism has been a double-edged sword for the community. The Cochin Jewish community is traditional, and conservative in its ways. Mr. Hellegua spoke of the frustration of the community at Jewish tourists’ inability to respect the synagogue and the community, by dressing immodestly or sneaking pictures— something that is prohibited. He bluntly stated that the community would rather not have a minyon than allow for someone immodestly dressed enter the shul. Sure enough, I watched Jewish tourists clad in shorts turned away, and frantically search for pants in the market. Meanwhile, I watched in shock as an Israeli next to me blatantly snapped pictures of the synagogue after the Sabbath had begun.

There was an unexpected surprise to the Sabbath evening in the form of one Israeli girl who was at the synagogue. In attendance that Shabbat was Etti Eleyahu, a mid-twenties Israeli of Cochin descent. Her father left Cochin for Israel in 1954, when he was 9 months old. She had returned to Cochin to visit, and to try to find remaining family. She said that although her place is Israel, it was wonderful to see the community and her own roots. Etti’s story is so much like the story of so many Jews; feet firmly planted in Israel, but a curiosity to see what once was hers. There was a time for the Cochin Jewish community, but that time has sadly passed; meanwhile the legacy and spirit of Cochin’s Jews will remain alive in Israel, in Moshav Nevatim and in Etti.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Post-Army Backpacking Israelis in Southeast Asia

In Israel, there are essentially three rights of passage: the bar mitzvah, the army and the post-army backpacking trip. When it comes to the post-army backpacking trip, the tiyul shehroor, Israelis go either "south" or "east." Going south entails a trip to South America, to places like Colombia, Brazil and Peru. Many more opt for east, as in Southeast Asia. In Southeast Asia, Israeli backpackers are ubiquitous. I have encountered Israeli backpackers all throughout Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and especially Thailand. Perhaps if the British had offered Thailand rather than Uganda, the offer would have been accepted.

The sound of Hebrew fills practically every hostel and guesthouse across the Orient. There are even places that cater to Israelis. I was in Vang Vieng, Laos, a pleasant town 150km north of Vientiane known for its relaxing tubing on the river. While I was there, I found a restaurant called "Sababa" (Groovy), complete with a Hebrew menu. They served chicken schnitzel that would make any kibbutznik homesick. Also ala carte were falafel, humus and Israelis salad.

Meanwhile Bangkok is chock full of Israelis. Kho San Road is complete with numerous guesthouses with not just signs in Hebrew, but also whole storefront windows in Hebrew offering rooms, tours and treks. There are restaurants like Shoshana's that cater to the Israeli diet. Shoshana's is owned by a Thai woman who speaks Hebrew and makes a mean shakshouka. Meanwhile, her wait staff of Thai girls all speaks a little Hebrew. Shoshana's was the original place in Thailand for Israelis, she predates the buildup of establishments that cater to Israelis. It used to serve as the focal point for Jewish life in Thailand. Now there is a Beit Chabad as well. When I stopped in, the Beit Chabad was abuzz with Israelis checking their emails and eating at the kosher restaurant.

Israelis come to Southeast Asia, not only because it is cheap, but also because it is neutral ground. Many in Southeast Asia have never heard of the conflict in the Middle East, and do not take sides. Whereas Israelis traveling to Europe or America can expect some discussion of the situation in Israel, in Southeast Asia it is beyond the scope of daily life.

I have met a few other travelers who did not speak as highly of Israeli backpackers. Those endearing Israeli qualities that some Israelis possess such as being straightforward and sometimes impatient have resulted in the creation of unfavorable stereotypes of Israelis. The most troubling example of this that I found was in a guesthouse on Kho San Road which had a sign at the check-in that said, "We don't accept Israelis (impolite and steal)." Notwithstanding these stereotypes, in reality, all of the Israelis that I have met have been warm, welcoming, and utterly respectful of cultural norms and values; even more than some Europeans and Canadians that I encountered (I haven't seen enough Americans out here to judge).

Backpacking Southeast Asia for Israelis equals an opportunity for freedom and a chance to decompress from army life. I have heard similar sentiment from many Israelis. Some compared their army service to the novel "Catch 22" by Joseph Heller, while others painted a much grimmer and more difficult picture of their service. This time for them represented a chance to leave it all behind.

On my way out of Thailand, I shared a minibus to the airport with an engaging Israeli named "Levi," who had just finished his army service and was on his post-army trip. He had been an officer in the intelligence division. Levi noted that the army is a very restrictive place, based on discipline and routine, while the life in Southeast Asia is the complete opposite. It is a life of freedom and opportunity for a little soul-searching. On the Israelis abroad in Southeast Asia, Levi stated that some come to travel for the sake of traveling, the chance to see new things. Some come to find themselves after an experience that stifles individuality; they come to find themselves after functioning as a soldier for multiple years. Others come for the party life, the drugs, drinking and dancing on a beach till the wee hours of the morning. Some simply come because it is the normal progression of Israeli life, and since everyone else is doing it, they come as well.

Levi asked a pointed question of himself and all Israelis doing their post-army trek, “why should I fly so far away to find something that is already in me?” The idea of looking for yourself in your travels is a question that I can acutely understand. The phenomenon of post-army Israelis backpackers will be a topic I return to, as I am now in India, the other favorite destination abroad.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

A Wandering Jew in Luang Prubang

As I was searching for a place to stay in Luang Prubang, Laos, I passed by the Beit Chabad. As it was Friday night, I quickly stopped in to find out when Shabbat services started. After I dropped my stuff off at my $3 palace, I returned for Shabbat. When I arrived, I was the 8th person, not enough for a minyan. I thought I might be the last to arrive, but a steady stream of Israeli backpackers trickled in and we had more than enough.

After services, we gathered together for a lovely Shabbat meal. There were more than 30 people at the Beit Chabad, all of whom were scruffy Israeli backpackers, either coming over from Thailand or up from southern Laos as I had. Together, we enjoyed a lovely kosher meal of Israeli salads (including humous and matbouha), soup, challah and schnitzel. Songs of the Sabbath filled the air, as we sung "hennai mah tov" among numerous other melodies.

I didn't mean for my series to turn into a public relations piece for Chabad, but they are really the only ones out here maintaining any sort of Jewish communal institutions. The Beit Chabad in Luang Prubang serves as an outpost of Judaism, a place to find the familiar in a far-flung land. It is a beacon for Jewish travelers and Israeli backpackers, all of whom are quite thankful to find community and a kosher meal in the middle of Southeast Asia.

In Luang Prubang, there are 4 permanent Jewish residents, not including those connected with Beit Chabad. Because of the multitude of Jewish travelers as well as Israeli backpackers that pass through Luang Prubang Chabad Thailand opened a satellite branch in Laos. Luang Prubang was chosen over Vientiane, as travelers tend to spend more time in Luang Prubang while just pass through the sleepy Lao capital.

The Beit Chabad opened in Laos some nine months ago, just before Passover. For the first Passover Seder, there were 120 people in attendance. Nearly 70 people came for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Meanwhile, Shabbat services have a weekly attendance between 30 to 60 people.

The Beit Chabad provides Jewish communal services for the Jewish travelers that pass through. It offers a place of study, provides kosher food and assists travelers in numerous other ways such as contacting relatives abroad if need be. There is no mikvah for women, but there is a bamboo mikvah that men can use. The kosher meat is brought from Bangkok, where there is a shochat. A container of kosher milk products and other sundries is sent to Bangkok every year, and distributed to Beit Chabad in Laos. Meanwhile, some western kosher products can be obtained in the stores.

I spoke with Avraham Leiter, an amiable 22 year old from Tzfat. He has been in Luang Prubang for three and a half months, doing shaliach work at the Beit Chabad. Avraham explained the work that Chabad does, helping people without knowing them, as a basic precept and tenet of Judaism. He mentioned that the Beit Chabad would like to open a kosher restaurant in the future, and also possibly a tourist center. For now, the Beit Chabad in Luang Prubang ably carries out its mission as being a place of assistance for Jewish travelers, one that this wandering Jew happily appreciates.