Losing My Religion (in India)

Jew Town, Kochi, Kerala, India

Kerala in April was a furnace of diabolical proportions, the air a humid stew. The locals wouldn’t stop telling us each day how unusually warm it was. (Yes, we’d noticed.) If Kerala truly is “God’s Own Country” as the state slogan reads, then apparently God likes it hot.

So we spent our time in the ancient city of Kochi, aka Cochin, trying our best to stay cool. We wandered the Fort’s back alleys, dotted with centuries-old mosques and basilicas. We ducked into art galleries and spice shops and hidden cafes, every building a secret find, elaborate wood and glass work dating from the Portuguese and Dutch and British periods. At high tide, we found patches of shade by the sea where clutches of men operated giant Chinese fishing nets with ridiculously complicated systems of cantilevered weights, ropes, and pulleys.

But what captured my interest most in Kochi was “Jew Town.” Yes, that’s the official name. There’s Jew Town, and Jew Street, and a host of other descriptors that all sound surprisingly, well, offensive if you think about them the right way.

Jew Street in Kochi, IndiaAs the story goes, after the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the Jews, having been expelled by the Romans, scattered around the world and began to wander. By the third century, one group of these castaways had landed on the shores of Kerala, and a small Jewish kingdom was founded in India. Over the following centuries, new waves of Jewish merchants and spice traders grew the population, and the remains of half a dozen ancient synagogues still pepper the countryside. The oldest “still functioning” synagogue in India is the most famous site in Kochi. The day we arrived we sought out the early fifteenth-century structure, the interior studded with dark wood beams, and inscriptions in both Hebrew and Malayalam, a rainbow of oil lamps dangling from the ceiling. As with all Indian religious establishments, you check your shoes at the door.

As we explored the synagogue and the adjacent cemetery, it dawned on me that the next day would be Friday. Shabbat. I asked the Keralan man who worked at the synagogue about services. Was it possible for foreigners to attend? “Six-thirty sharp,” he replied. “But only if there’s a minyan.” (A quorum of ten Jews–typically men.) There was a sort of cryptic inflection in these last words.

I hadn’t been to a synagogue in ages. But here we were face-to-face with Jewish antiquity–on the Malabar coast in southern India of all places. I was hell-bent on bringing the boys to Shabbat at an Indian shul.

We arrived Friday evening at 6:15, just to be safe, and found the door to the synagogue bolted with a massive bronze padlock. The same Indian gentleman hovered outside next to a motorbike, helmet strapped to his head. He glanced at his wrist watch every few seconds, and it was clear to me now that he was praying no minyan would materialize. It was Friday night after all. He’d had a long week ushering tourists through the synagogue, a building with which he shared no religious affiliation. It was the weekend. He was ready to get home for Christsake.

It turns out the last time there’d been a minyan at the synagogue in Kochi was three weeks earlier when a cruise ship carrying packs of Israelis and Brits happened to dock nearby for the night. In fact, these days, whenever there’s a minyan in Kochi, it’s composed entirely of foreigners. The five remaining Keralan Jews are ill and old, the youngest in her late-seventies, the oldest now ninety-five.

That’s Sarah Cohen, whom we’d met briefly the day before when we stopped into a little shop selling hand-stitched yarmulkes and brightly painted challah covers. There were pictures of Sarah plastered across the shop’s walls, newspaper clippings, and an older reference to a documentary about her life. We assumed that she was dead. But the Indian woman who worked there told us that Sarah Cohen was not only alive and kicking, but rocking away in her chair in the very next room. Really? We padded gingerly into view and smiled broadly at the old lady, excited to make conversation, to tell her about our travels, to learn about her life.

But the poor woman is suffering from failing eyesight and dementia, we learned later. When she saw us, Ms. Cohen let out a fierce guttural sound, an animal sort of growl, then said something severe and dismissive in Malayalam. We decided to make a run for it.

So the thing is, Sarah Cohen and the four other Jews still living in Kochi apparently never come to the synagogue anymore. All of their children and grandchildren have now moved out of the country—to Europe, and Israel, and the U.S. We were witnessing first-hand the end of a nearly two-thousand-year-old era. Within a decade, the ancient line of Keralan Jews would be mere memory, an arcane footnote in a handful of history books. I found this all terribly sad, resonant somehow with the larger struggles of Jewish history.

And now we stood in front of the padlocked Kochi temple, no other Jew in site, just minutes before the witching hour of six-thirty. “No minyan tonight,” said the Indian man.

“Maybe others will come,” I said hopefully. “There’s still time.”

“There won’t be a minyan tonight,” he said more sternly. And so we wandered away, a sinking sense of disappointment at the finality of it all.

But I wasn’t quite ready to give up, I realized. “We’re going to check one more time,” I said. It was just minutes after 6:30. I grabbed Jonah’s hand and the two of us started running back up Jew Street.

“Do you think there will be a minyan?” he asked me, panting.

“I don’t.”

He looked confused. “Then why are we going back?”

“What I want to remember about tonight is rushing back with you along these cobblestone alleyways, knowing that we tried to go to services on Shabbat.”

Jonah took this in for a moment and smiled. “Me too.” Then he whispered, “but I also hope there’s a minyan. I want to go inside one more time.”

So the two of us hurried along Jew Street, caught up in the blistering heat, hoping for a miracle. (Hey, it’s happened before.)

But on this particular Shabbat, we had no such luck. The Indian man had already pulled away from the synagogue. What we found instead was a sole American woman—a young Los Angelena, now living in Ethiopia, cotton scarf swept around her neck. She too was hoping for a miracle. But all we’d found was each other.

Still, I was convinced, it was the trying that mattered—the struggle in the face of impossible odds, the longing to connect with a group of people with whom I shared virtually nothing, apart from certain features and ropy strands of DNA and a set of ancient traditions.

As we padded back along Jew Street toward home, chatting with the young woman whose name we never learned, we peeked through the grill of painted iron work that secures Sarah Cohen’s little apartment, a mosaic of blue, six-pointed stars. Sarah was still seated in her chair, rocking by the window in the fading, dusky light. She had a kipa-like headdress pulled down over her hair, Shabbat prayer-book in her hands. She was mouthing ancient Hebrew words silently to herself. Words that I also know.

Sarah Cohen, Jew Town, Kochi, India

For a while, we watched together in silence. Then the Los Angelena headed toward a tuk-tuk waiting at the end of the street. Before climbing in, she turned back to us. “Shabbat Shalom,” she called, smiling.

Jonah waved at her, delighted as always to have made a friend. “Shabbat Shalom,” I called back. The snapshot in my mind: a trio of American Jews, wandering in the world, passing in the humid, Indian night.

26 Comments on “Losing My Religion (in India)

  1. Loved this post, Seth, and the accompanying photos. Been following your journey from the beginning and enjoying every piece, even though I haven’t had time to comment on every one.

    Thanks for taking us all along.

    • So glad you’re following us, Sarah! Next adventure starts tomorrow morning when we set out on an 8-10 day trek up toward Annapurna….

  2. Beautiful Seth – Wonderfully funny, evocative and poignant. Would make a nice submission to the New York Times! Love to the gang, Peter

    • Thanks, Peter. If you happen to know someone who knows someone at the Times just let me know 🙂 Hope you guys are well!

    • Thanks, Matt! Btw just had a great dinner with Steve Estelle in Kathmandu two nights ago.

  3. Wow!! I remember when my family visited Jew town. We arrived there and it was just deserted 🙂

    • Hey Marc, we were thinking about you all as we rambled along the streets of Fort Kochi. Hope you’re doing great!

  4. Can’t wait for Peter to read this, Seth. We visit all the jewish places we can–Prague, Krakow, Venice–you name it. Peter complains that in many cases the Jews are not there. Only memories of them.

  5. I’m enjoying these posts. I shared this one with a friend from Kerala who shared that the original synagogue was destroyed by the Portuguese colonizers and the current one built under the protection of the local Raja on the land given by him and adjacent to his palace.

    • Hey Scott, so great to hear from you. Really glad to know that you’re following along. We heard a similar account re: the destruction of the original synagogue by the Portuguese and the rebuilding under the patronage of the local raja. An incredible piece of history!

  6. Hi Seth- I have been following along your amazing journey. Truly an inspiration. Please send my best to your family.

  7. Love reading your adventures. This one is very interesting and funny.

  8. Thanks to LT and SA for pointing me in the direction of your blog–and now I’m all caught up! What a funny, poignant, beautiful, inspiring, trip full of growth you all are having. I’ve found myself both laughing out loud and tearing up as I’ve followed your journey, thank you for sharing your experiences. I head home tomorrow after my 3 1/2 months of adventure, and I look forward to continuing to follow yours.

    Adventure on!

    • Anna! So glad you found us. Here’s to your adventures too–hope they have been great. We can’t wait to hear about tour trip. Sending you greetings from steamy Cairo (111+ degrees Farenheit today!) for a safe trip home and easy re-entry 🙂 See you soon….

  9. Lovely story and I love the writing. I remember a Jew Street in London — former Jewish market area. How wonderful to be able to share in your travels through these stories!

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