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CUBA IS THE FUTURE FOR LATIN AMERICA AND PERHAPS THE WORLD

CUBA IS THE FUTURE FOR LATIN AMERICA AND PERHAPS THE WORLD On my way out of Cuba, from La Habana, on COPA airlines flight to Panama, I w...

dimanche 5 avril 2015

WHO IS THE OTHER IN JEWISH COCHIN?

Who is the OTHER in COCHIN?
Anthropology is about the study of THE OTHER and until recently it has been chez l’autre (in the OTHER’s home). But in light of the influx of the OTHER, into the European and American homes, Anthropology now has become Chez Soi (at home)
I am writing this sipping Malabar Coffee at KASHI ART CAFÉ in Burgher Street in Fort Cochin. I am staying at Cochin Club built during the British Colonial Administration, acriss from Queros Street, a Syrian Orthodox church, the remnants of Portugese homes from the times of Vasco da Gama. The Muezzin is ever present to remind you of the time of Muslim prayer. Amidst this cacophony of cultures, is the rapidly vanishing Jewish community which does not easily fit into the broad categorization accepted in the west: Ashkenazim, Sefardim and Mizrahim. 
TALKING TO SARAH COHEN AGED 92 THE LAST OF THE SEVEN JEWS OF JEWTOWN IN FORTCOCHIN. THANKS TO TAHA IBRAHIM AND HIS FAMILY WHO ARE MUSLIM FOR LOOKING AFTER THIS JEWISH LADY WITHOUT A FAMILY 

The Jews of Cochin has attracted a great curious crowd of academics and attention as an Exotic Jewish Community in the Diaspora.
Initial mentions and studies were done by foreigners, but they couldn’t understand the nuances of the social structures of the Indian society the Jews lived in, and applied that among themselves and others. Scholars from the USA, like their counterparts 150-200 years earlier, gulped down the history of the privileged latecomers (Paradesis or Foreigners) to this ancient Jewish Community.
Anthropology is about context (Maurice Merleau-Ponty) and scholars of Religion or Journalists, even if they had stayed and analyzed the situation, wrote wonderful, erudite volumes always stressing on the exotic aspects, always off the mark
Who are the Chez Soi observers of Cochin Jewish life?
I have travelled a fair bit among the vanishing Jewish communities of the world, and lived among some of them. I appreciated the sense of survival and the internalization of the local culture, whether it was among the last 8 Jewish souls of Rangoon (now Yangon) Iraqi Community, and amidst the vanishing outposts of Ashkenazim in the New World.
Cochin Jews are very different in their attitude to observance of the Religion when compared to the European/American/Australasian Jews.
One question I am frequently asked is:
How can you call yourself Jewish, if you rarely go to the Synagogue no more than a couple of times a year and virtually ignorant of the Bible?
Cochin Jews are extraordinarily religious. Just look at their attempt to adhere to Kashruth (only one person left to kasher the meat, and that too just chicken) and their rigid attendance at the synagogue and the celebrations to the letter of the law of Jewish holidays such as Simchat Torah. In this they somewhat resemble the Hassidim in the west (a very small percentage of the world Jewry)
THIS CHURCH WAS ABOUT TO BE DYNAMITED BY THE DUTCH IN 1662 BUT SAVED BY A RELIGIOUS LOCAL CHRISTIAN SOLDIER WHO REFUSED TO LIGHT THE DYNAMITE

This morning at 7 am, a Wednesday morning, walking past the Santa Cruz Basilica (first erected in 1505, ten years before Mexican conquest, long before Philippines, the largest Christian country in Asia came under European influence), it was full, the priest extolling, the congregation kneeling and responding.
I stood there in amazement.
In which capital city in the West, in Europe or America, would you see people filling up a church at 7 am on a Wednesday morning?
This happens not just at random, but regularly. I miss Sunday masses occasionally, said an elderly informant, but I never miss the twice daily week day masses!
That is some obedient attendance!
The muezzin calls are a regular feature like the chirping of birds at 4 am or happy cocks making their presence felt with crowing. I can detect dark marks on the foreheads of many local Muslims from the act of praying and touching the earth.
So Judaism here is yet another religion, like the dominant religions of this region, Christianity and Islam, to be observed at the fullest extent of the law.
So when the state of Israel was proclaimed, as they had been religiously longing to return to Zion, they packed up and left, lock stock and barrel, leaving behind a smattering of Jews behind. The buildings that housed the ancient synagogues both at Fort Cochin and Ernakulam were sold, bartered and fell into disuse and with the exception of Paradesi Synagogue, all fell into disrepair and disrespect. Very soon there would be no indigenous Jews left and the maintenance of these buildings may return to public domain, to the Archeological Survey of India, as mementos of the glorious history of this coastal city.
There has been a great interest in local Hindu and Christian scholars about Jews and the preservation of their history. The torrential influx of tourists to see this exotic piece of Judaica in the land of the Monsoons has also increased the chance of its physical survival.
Local Jews claim that they live in harmony or have lived in harmony for centuries (for most part true. The Arabs, the Chinese did not persecute the Jews, the Portuguese did), when they do that they are not talking about tolerance among themselves or with others, but talking about the society in which they live, where Muslims and Christians intermingle and live in harmony, each respecting the other, every one obsessed with the practice of their religion. I thought that if the people of one faith are extremely participatory they may find the practice of other religions acceptable and respectable, thus not giving rise to the mentality currently in Europe among the observant Muslims who find the non-religious Europeans Infidel. Could it be true that tolerance to other religions can rise from the extreme adherence to your own? If that is the case, Jews, Christians, Hindus and Muslims lived in total harmony and peace in Fort Cochin.
So when a Cultural Jew arrives here, he or she appreciates the exotic history of this fugitive branch of Judaism, but also sees no more than a group of local people practicing Judaism, and rather faithfully.
Feeling Jewish and Practicing Jewish are distinct and may be dissimilar in communities as a whole. In the Jewish Community in Kingston, one could see Practicing Jews and Feeling Jews (descendants of Portuguese Jews, mainly).
I don’t expect to find the kind of affection I felt when I entered the  Synagogue of Libyan Jews in Milan or meeting Jewish student colleagues from Costa Rica at the conferences of World Union of Jewish Students. In these instances I “felt” I was among Jews, felt a sense of “solidarity”, “nationhood”, a “people”, a US rather than THEM attitude. Much of these feelings are rather polemic to explain, and they are lived in experiences rather than written about or searched for.
I used to wonder why Israeli tourists to Fort Cochin didn’t show great interest more than the usual curiosity in the local Jews. Some years ago, I was in Fort Cochin for the Jewish festival of Simchat Torah and we were short of few men for the quorum of Minyan. I was told to look for some Israeli tourists. I would approach someone who looked Israeli and would ask in Hebrew, are you Jewish? They were very surprised, Are there Jews here? Or I have not been inside a synagogue since my bar mitzvah and now?
When I am in Israel, I feel a great solidarity with the Jewish people. I have to say that I feel no such solidarity with the Jews of Cochin or Bombay or Rangoon, no more than the solidarity and friendliness I feel toward the Christians and Muslims and the Hindus of Fort Cochin or the Bamars of Rangoon.
So WE are the OTHER, trying to study Chez Soi, along with Christians and Muslims who feel great solidarity with the Jews here.
I will visit the ancient Synagogue at Mala in the company of two historians of Cochin: a Hindu Professor and a Christian History Enthusiast.
MALA SYNAGOGUE IS WORTH SAVING, THANK YOU PROFESSOR KARMACHANDRAN

That sums up the centrality of Jewish life here in Cochin. (the history of the community is very interesting)
Soon, like Penang, Rangoon and Calcutta they too will be forgotten.
Working with American Indians, I realize how easy it is for communities to disappear into the historical folds. It is difficult to resurrect, even with seeds of descendants, communities which have disappeared, a list that would add Cochin to its long list.
What happened to once surviving Jewish community of Iquitos, at the confluence of the Amazon River?
THE ERSTWHILE HOUSE OF MR COHEN A WEALTHY MERCHANT OF IQUITOS IN PERU, NOW A SUPERMARKET

Casa Cohen, where the wealthy Mr Cohen who imported goods from Europe and exported Rubber, is now a Supermarket. (Much reminiscent of Samuel Koder who was a prominent merchant in Fort Cochin and now his house is a restaurant and hotel)
KODER HOUSE WHERE THE WEALTHY MR SAM KODER LIVED IS NOW A HOTEL 

My brother was visiting Jerusalem , got into a taxi, the brown skinned Jewish taxi driver was d’origine Hodu. The taxi driver knew nothing of Cochin or of his ancestors. He was born in Israel! It is not unusual in Israel, a country faced with the gargantuan task of assimilating Jews from 130 different nationalities. (Congratulations on a job well done, Israel)


Cochin Jewish History is not lost, it is safe in the hands of the enthusiasts, local Hindu, Christian and Muslim historians.