Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Shabbath Shalom from Cochin


Traveling has made me feel at times that the world is too huge to grasp, that the difference between me and others is vast and insurmountable. At other times, it has done the opposite: my heart has been warmed by similarities and little showers of kindness from local strangers, fellow travelers and new friends.

Standing around the Shabbath table of the KR family in Cochin, India, listening to Mr. KR recite the blessings and sing the songs I have sung all my life on Friday nights with only a slight variation to the familar melodies, I found myself whispering along with him, culling the words from a part of myself I so rarely access these days. He blessed the Sabbath and the wine and then invited me to sit around the table with him and his family. They went back and forth between Malayalam and English in much the same way as the community I come from switches between English, Spanish and French or German, snacking on spicy, fenugreek-infused finger-food.
"Did you hear, Sarah's husband died. The funeral was today."
"Who?"
"Sarah, Sarah, remember, she used to live three doors down from your cousin."
A middle-aged couple, M and A, from Israel, whom I had met at the synagogue, had brought news of old friends and Mr. KR, sitting on my left, was getting louder and more agitated as they told him about this person and that -- who had died, who had married, who had how many grandchildren. Though I couldn't understand most of the conversation, it had the exact timbre of my grandmother and her friends when they get together. Though Mr KR kept apologizing, he needn't have.

I had decided to come to Cochin spontaneously and had hurried to the synagogue upon arrival so as not to miss the Friday night service. When the services had not been held due to a lack of people (only four men -- not enough to have a minyan, an official service -- and three women including myself), I had contented myself with sitting in the women's area, taking in the atmosphere while trying not to succumb to my usual discomfort with religious institutions. I guess that's part of it for me, however -- be it in Antwerp or Cochin, London or New York. The two other women prayed quietly, each speaking the words at her own pace.

Though I was three years old when we left El Salvador and too young to remember the synagogue, sitting in Cochin, I thought this was what it must have been like: simple, with rows of seats facing the Torah scrolls hidden behind the typical deep blue velvet curtain with the ten commandments embroidered on the front. The synagogue in El Salvador had served as a social gathering place as much as a religious institution. This seemed to be the case in Cochin as well. In the men's area, two octogenarians talked animatedly in hushed tones.

I don't know what I expected to find at the synagogue, whether I was looking for comfort, a sprirtual epiphany or somewhere to anchor myself for a moment. As the other women prayed, I opened the book they had handed me and spoke the only words I really remember:
"Shma Israel Adonai Eloheinu ... Baruch Shem Kevod ..."
They were as void of significance as ever, but the familiarity of the words felt like plush pillows against my back after having sat on wooden benches for a while. I didn't continue. Instead, I took in the room, its effect similar to the words I had just mouthed.

Described in the guidebooks with superlative flamboyance and awe, the Pardesi synagogue in Jewtown is simple and as restrained and meticulous as its few members. In the centre of the men's area is a white podium surrounded by banisters on three sides where they supposedly read from the Torah scrolls. Dangling from the ceiling are tens of typically Keralan glass balls that served as lampshades at one time; and I counted no less than twelve chandeliers, each one different, some with candles, some with lightbulbs, none in use. Instead, harsh fluorescent lights coat everything in the room with a flat, white veneer.

The same was true of the KR house. Spacious and filled with photographs of children and grandchildren, the fluorescent lights gave the large room the impersonal feel of a restaurant or a museum.

When I had first approached him, Mr. KR had been extremely abrupt:
"I have no time for you. I'm ging to America. I'm very busy."
But then he had invited me to his home for kiddush (Sabbath blessings) after prayers. I realized when I returned a few days later how many people like me must appear on a daily basis to ask questions and make requests from these people. When I returned to their house two days later to write down a recipe from Mrs KR (writing is not permitted on Shabbath, so I convinced her to give me ten minutes of her time on Sunday morning -- not an easy feat!), there were no less than thirty tourists, waiting in front of the synagogue for a chance to speak to whomever they could about the Jews of Cochin. Mr. KR barrelled through the crowd without paying anyone any heed.
"I'm busy now," he kept saying to no one and everyone, "I have no time for you, I'm going to America."

I felt a rush of secret pride: unlike everyone else, I knew that he was going for Passover and his daughter's wedding, and that they would only be returning at the end of May. My trip to India had been a last-minute decision as I had originally been planning to save it for the final leg of my trip in May -- exactly the dates Mr and Mrs KR would have been away. I have to keep reminding myself of these serendipitous gifts during the difficult moments when I feel lonely, or question what I'm doing and why I'm on this journey -- as I wonder where to go next and fear that I'm not going in the right direction.

When D and I decided to get married, no one in my family mentioned the fact that he isn't Jewish. On the contrary, they have been encouraging and supportive of our relationship and the joy he has brought to my life. They love D, regardless of his cultural and religious background. Interestingly, it is mostly religious Jews -- those who choose to segregate themselves from other cultures, to isolate themselves in their little Jewish micrososms in order, they say, to preserve and protect their Judaism -- who have been the harshest and most judgmental. There have been those who have tried to point out the positive:
"Well at least he looks Jewish"
or
"[D's last name] -- it sounds Jewish" (D's last name sounds as Jewish as Goldberg sounds Muslim)
A few times, however, people have been quite rude. M and A, the middle-aged Israeli couple who had come back to the KR house with me were visiting Kerala for a couple of weeks. Originally born in Cochin, both had emigrated to Israel in the nineteen-fifties at age three and seven respectively. Though A still speaks Malayalam and has a slight accent in Hebrew, M sounds completely Israeli and only has a basic understanding of the language.

On their last visit to Cochin, they had journeyed to the school where M's father had been a teacher sixty years before. One of the people they had met there had started to cry when M had told him who she was.
"When you left, our luck left with you," the man had told her as he'd pressed her hand strongly in both of his, "since the Jews left, our lives are not the same."
M and A had related the anecdote with pride, but it had made me very uncomfortable; as if the Jews were looked upon not as individuals, but more like some sort of charm, a mascot with a bald head or a golden foot that one could rub for luck.

When A asked about my partner's background, I admitted that D is not Jewish. "But we're getting married in Israel," I told him, as if that would make up for the obvious flaw.
"That's terrible!" he said.
"Why is it terrible?" I didn't want to argue in a stranger's house, but I couldn't acquiesce without mounting a basic defense, "I have met a wonderful man who treats me well, who loves me. How can that be terrible?"
A shrugged obviously as aware as I was of his surroundings. "There's always conversion."
We left it at that. I found out later that A had worked for the Jewish Agency all his life -- an institution set up to bring Jews back to the "Homeland". He and M have five children, all of whom are extremely religious, all of whom have refused, on principle, to leave Israel.

The next night, wanting to learn more about the Cochin Jewish community, I arrived at M and A's hotel (by Shabbath-desecrating taxi) in time to bless the new week. Over the most flavourful, aromatic South Indian pea masala and root vegetable "cutlet", we talked about the Jews of Cochin and their long history. Unlike Mr and Mrs KR, who are light-skinned and almost European looking, A and M look Indian.
"The Jews of India are unique." A explained, "Nothing was wrong with our life here, there were no pogroms, no anti-semitism. We did well, we got along with our neighbours, we had money. But when the State of Israel was declared, we left with little more than the shirts on our backs in order to go support the Jewish State."

The irony of the situation was extremely poignant. For the first time in a month, I had been able to get past an uncomfortable situation and get to know the person. The simple facility of common language had made it so that we could explain our points of view instead of waving the other person away.

For the past month, I have gone from place to place -- Hong Kong, Koh Pan Ngan, Bangkok, Cochin -- enjoying many exchanges with local people but enduring too many of them. My inability to converse, to ask questions, to understand directly from the person in front of me what they are trying to say has been one of my most fundamental challenges. I have wanted, more than anything, to penetrate that simple barrier, to be able to say more than "how much?", "good day" and "thank you".

As a result of this basic shortcoming, whenever any kind of conflict has arisen, the outcome has been quick and severe: a wave of the hand, a disgusted look, a few bitter, incomprehensible words, and that's it, we're done. Sitting across from M and A, I realized that I probably had less in common with these orthodox right-wing uber-Zionists than I would have with so many of the people I have been unable to communicate with in the past few weeks. Like the masseuse on Koh Pan Ngan who giggled and squeezed my hand when I returned for a second treatment, or the Indian yoga teacher who kept commanding me to "Exile" (exhale) and demonstrated the postures rather than talking me through them. But it was these people that I was getting to know, with them that I was pushing past those first impressions rather than moving on.

By the end of the meal, A and M had invited D and I to stay with them:
"Why drive all the way back to Tel Aviv or Haifa from the Dead Sea? No, no, when you go down to plan your wedding, come stay with us."
When M added that she would show me how she cooks typical Indian Jewish food, I couldn't refuse.

The basis of my culture is exactly that: an open house, a welcoming attitude, a human connection. If I ever see Mr and Mrs KR again, they will most probably treat me like a stranger. Nevertheless, for one evening, they opened their home to me, welcomed me in for Shabbath, shared their food and their stories. On a similar note, A and M didn't think twice about asking me to stay in their home even though I'm a "smolanit" (left-winger), a Chilonit (secular, non-practising Jew), and I'm marrying a goy.

Jews come from everywhere. We have customs that vary to different degrees, but our culture is what binds is, makes us all part of the Jewish people, whether we practice or not. For me, it is about a basic humanity, an acceptance and understanding which is the essence of my culture; and that is something that D not only grasps but possesses, by the bucketload -- whether he's circumcised or not, baptised, christened or dunked in cow dung.

A note about the food:
As I write this, sitting on my little 9 quid a night balcony, listening to the sounds of birds, trucks, goats, children and a man who retches about once every twenty minutes, the smells wafting up make it extremely difficult to concentrate. Sweet chillies, mace, turmeric -- the scents are as mesmerizing as the dishes themselves.

The other night, the lady of the guesthouse where I'm staying shared a few of her recipes with me. She also explained basic curry-making secrets like the need to fry masala spices in oil before adding them to food, and how that is best accomplished by using a heavy pot with a round bottom (similar to a wok but without the handle) in order to minimize the amount of oil needed.
"When the oil rises, the spices are cooked and you can add them to the dish" she repeated again and again, "so you don't get an upset stomach."
That night she happened to be going to the supermarket and insisted I come along. As we walked through the spice isle, she pointed out the different ones and how she used them.

Until now, I have been very careful to keep my purchases to a minimum, both for budgetary reasons as well as the need to keep the weight of my backpack down. Needless to say, I have probably added at least five pounds of cumin, black cardamom and various masala mixes to my load and can pretty much guarantee that upon my return, the first Shabbath dinner will be a curry -- either chickpea and vegetable or fish.

1 comment:

Andréa N. said...

Beautiful post!! I love your writing and that I finally have the opportunity to read it!
Love and beijos with spices.