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Traces Of Jerusalem – Visiting The Jew Town In Mattancherry, Kerala.

Traces Of Jerusalem – Visiting The Jew Town In Mattancherry, Kerala.

 

Conde Nast Traveler India 2012 Travel Writing Contest – Third Runner Up.

On Mattancherry in Fort Kochi, Kerala, India – and its fading Jewish heritage.

Hebrew letters are painted atop the front door of the first door I see. An old, shriveled woman in a flower-patterned skirt peers

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out without curiosity from this house’s window. I peep inside the open door. Just inside is a board with a grid of postcard-like images across it. Most are cartoon-like scrawls of animals or stick figures – they look like childhood memories from long ago.

I am in Mattancherry in Fort Kochi, Kerala, where the streets are filled with memories of a once prominent community – the Jews. Apart from about 10 Jew families that continue to live here, all others have immigrated to Israel, leaving only traces of a once burgeoning culture.

The Jew Street is a pinched narrow street culminating in a dead-end, allowing entry only to pedestrians. It has old Jewish houses on both sides. These look uninhabited and sparse. Yet these houses are clean enough to not look abandoned. Near the dead-end is the Jewish synagogue. Built in 1568, this is the oldest synagogue in Asia. The exteriors unassuming and white – it’d be easy to mistake this for another old uninhabited house.

Outside the walls is a board saying “Please dress modestly”. The passage next to the synagogue is closed by chains with a board saying “no one is allowed here”. Inside the synagogue other boards read “no one is allowed inside the pulpit” and “no one is allowed upstairs”. The synagogue seems to resent being converted into an object of tourist curiosity – and appears to jealously guard itself from outside eyes.

Just inside an arched, fading entrance, I hear a female voice reprimanding , “Don’t you see the board outside? You have to keep your bags out there!” Uttering the words is a pale, freckled woman in a pink skirt – this is Yaheh Hallegua. At 36, she is the youngest of the remaining Jews in Fort Kochi.

The Wikipedia page about her cites Hallegua’s refusal to marry her cousin to help keep the community flourishing. Because she is the only Cochin Jew of marriageable age, “this has been said to guarantee the extinction of the Cochin Jews within a few decades.” The Wikipedia page goes on to describe this as emotional blackmail.

I approach Hallegua to ask if I can speak with her for some time. She quickly retorts “I’m sorry. I don’t give interviews,” and immediately turns her attention to her pet dog Baby Doll. She and the man handling the baggage room seem to be the only staff at the Synagogue.

The synagogue’s main hall is quiet; there are only five others, silently seated on the fading brown wooden benches to the left and right flanks. There are two rows of chairs to the back of the hall. The floor has a grid of blue tiles brought from China, each distinct and dissimilar from the others. The clean tiles, even with their unclear imagery, feel cool to stand on.

In the centre of the hall is a brass pulpit, looking like a court’s witness stand. Above, a grid of glass lamps crowds the ceiling. Much of the floor is empty, so I walk along barefoot, soaking in the cool of the tiles.

By now, on one row of chairs is a man in a bowler-like hat, a long white beard and a clean black flowing dress. The rabbi holds a book in Hebrew and has a quiet conversation with a young, bespectacled woman who listens intently to him.

The conversation is interrupted by footsteps. Some 10 tourists come in. The loud, no-nonsense voice of their woman guide fills up the hall: “This synagogue was built in 1568 …”

After a five-minute monologue unmindful of the calm and silence that prevailed before her, she waves the tourists out. “That’s about the Synagogue. Please send the next group in.”

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