Seder at a Jewish Home in Cochin 2 April 2007
First Night of Seder
2nd April 2007
I am honored to have been present at the table of Josephai Elias tonight, with his wife Ofera and children, Avithal and Leah
In a quiet suburb of Ernakulum
Which was lonely like an abandoned village
When he took me home as a pillion passenger
Back to the Hotel Metropolitan
Just a breath away from Ernakulum South Station of the Southern Railways
Where I had arrived on a train with 24 coaches
On air-conditioned second class A sleeper
The most comfortable seats one could procure on this overnight trains
Bringing people home from their various exiles
Four couchettes portioned off
Each passenger maintaining a silence
Similar to that one sees in prison mates brought together
With no common interest among them
Here our desire to reach
Various sonorous railway stations still bearing the architectural signatures of the long departed colonial master.
Irinjalakuda, angumali. Alwaye. Ottapalam
Almost characters out of the novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Along the river Magdalena which I hope to sail in the not too distant future
An extremely well prepared Malayalee lunch at the Palms at Hotel Metropolitan, more on that later
Suresh the owner of Travel Land Tourist agency a stone throw away from the hotel
Very good friend and accommodating, had sent a car with a driver to pick me up and also drove me around to the bank and to the erstwhile synagogue of the departed Jews at Market street near the Jews Street in Ernakulum
Where I was happy to see the face of babu, Elias Josephai
The people of Ernakulum and Cochin in particular and of Kerala in general are so congenial and non pretentious and genuinely friendly
After the pretentious, nerdish Bangalore with its growing fakeness and abdominal girth
It was a relief to be in Cochin, a town I have come to like more and more with each succeeding visit
This one, after the frustrating air Deccan flight of 1 January 2007, when Morgan and I left for Mumbai on our way back to Paris. Never again on Air Deccan, that is for sure. I rather be a “sanyasi” (a fakir ) and walk to my destination in India than take Air Deccan, or is it Air Decay? Or Air Decay in?
The staff at the front desk at Hotel Metropolitan is professional and polite, unlike the casual and unhelpful ones at Casa Linda in Fort Cochin, the professionalism here to Ft Cochin, the comparison is the food at Palms Restaurant to the food at the various touristy places in Fort cochin… why do we have to suffer for the sake of tourists to this “ god forsaken country”?, oh sorry, Gods own country, if you believe in such things, any more than Coca Cola is good for you…
Babu came to pick me up and very soon, we were at the doorstep of his modest home, soon to be equally modest but more spacious befitting a man of his financial status. Hebrew Lettering, oriental Jewish charms to ward off the evil on the door, nice to see mezuzah one can kiss on the door, in my opinion, this is the last of the cochin Jewish families.
Oferah has been busy preparing the pesach dinner. The table has been set up with embroidered religious matzoth and Seder plate covers.
The fragrance and taste for this Seder is different to a western palate and taste: chrain and its taste is replaced with hand made date paste, cabbage to replace maror, nobody to kosher lamb, and only Josephai is left to casher Chicken.
I had brought an English version of the haggada (thanks MM for copying), and I surprised myself by being able to follow the service in my copy of English Haggadah, while Babu chanted away in Hebrew. The melodies are distinct from Ashkenazi melodies but then again, in each of the countries, Jews easily adapted the local tone and voice to the Jewish tunes. The prayers are the very same prayers, the rituals are very different. Incredible it seemed to me and also it was very comforting and strengthening at the same time, this unity in diversity of the Jewish people. The mizrachi Jews are a bit more rigid than the Ashkenazi Jewish traditions, since the former had more to loose in historic terms, living under various rules, some benevolent and others not so. India has never known locally grown anti-Semitism, unlike any other country ( I am sure Jews in Singapore, Kai Feng Fu, Hong Kong and Yangon all will claim the same, I suppose Asian Jews have always been under benevolent protection of their countrymen who did not share the Jewish faith. In India, both Hindu and Moslem rulers were accommodating, not just tolerating the Jews and Jews have suffered in India, only under the Portuguese and their fanatic Christendom
Here is in one of the furthest corners of the Jewish world, a pepper haired Jew was reciting prayers which are at least three thousand years old, our ears are reborn with new sounds and hope that these prayers would be around for many more years for ourselves and others to follow. Josephai alias Babu did not skip any passages, as is our custom when we are in a hurry to finish the Seder or eager to begin our repast, but then again, by the time we get to the grace after meals, most of us are slightly drunk, anyway, having leisurely drunk our portion of the wine, while leaning to the left. But drinking alcohol is not a custom here, but pouring of the wine, is; washing of the cups, washing of ones hands after pouring wine to be thrown away after chanting all the names of the plagues which the Pharaohs suffered.
We sipped our wine when our turn came , just symbolic enough to say our prayers for the fruit of the wine.
I am so glad to have participated and felt very honored, by the time we reached the last phrase
La shanah ha ba a b yerushalayim
Next Year in Jerusalem, a plea in those distant centuries when seeing Jerusalem existed no more than as a figment of the imagination of the exiled Jewish people
But to me, surrounded by the Kerala night, at this village like atmosphere of Ernakulum suburb, with Elias chanting, Ofera, saying the appropriate Amens and the girls looking on, as they have all their lives at various Seders,
The last sentence had a special significance…
Avithal Elias is the third Avital in my life
First is the daughter of my dearest brother, Eliayahu, she is a favourite of mine
Another is constantly on lips, more than in the literary sense, of my little brother friend, Shimon Siman Tov, son of Shmuel Siman Tov of Haifa
She who recently graduated with a PhD in the biochemistry of Infertility along with an MBA (why not?) and has turned the brains of my little brother friend into a mush, Avital Rogev of Haifa, who at this very moment, finishing off the first night of the Seder will be packing her bags for the long and non stop flight from Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv to Miami, Florida where Shimon lives, currently, but not too long, he too may have to move to Haifa, like, our third Avital
A bright girl who has her mind set on studying at Technion
Which all of us must assist
To complete that dream of hers
She is capable, that goes without saying
Having always done well at school and at pre university and now at the initial stages of her university career
To Haifa, with Love
We have to send her, she going there and graduating with honours, we all can take pride, for
Like all our Avitals,
Spread over the distance of this planet
Our connections never cease
Through centuries and through distances
And I, Maqroll El Gaviero Judio
The Jewish Look Out
Who without trying find the struggling Jews of genuine historical communities
Rhodos, Kingston, Curacao
Think of each one of you, the regular circle of love that elevates me into this life of magic and oblivion
From Cape Town, from Sao Paolo, Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap where I spent a Khmer Non Kosher Seder of my own making last year this time when the full moon was shining over Angkor Wat
Among the Native people who are mistakenly called Indians
Ancient lands of Mallorca and Brittany
I am grateful for the Seder tonight
I am grateful for your love
I am grateful for the UmonHon and Kickapoo and the Hocank
I am eternally grateful to the Great Spirit for sending MM my way….
Shabbat Shalom with Pablo on 6th April 2007. I was so happy to recognize this eternal poet, from our sister southern country, Chile, the raconteur of the misery of unsung people all over the world. The book was written in Malayalam, but that did not matter, it is nice to know that in Kerala, some one or other in the nights quiet after tropical drenching of monsoon, will be reading Pablo Neruda..
"On this visit a visit to a tribe..of forest people"
I was very proud to tell the forest dwelling tribe of Kadu, near Cochin, up in the mountain ranges, I too belonged to a tribe, that we too had been oppressed and that we will not forget those who oppressed them but remembering the days oppression, we will not give the others a chance to continue to do so...
My last visit to Cochin was five years ago. I was overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people. The standard of living has improved: thanks to IT and Slave Labour in Arab Countries. Ernakulam has hijacked the name Cochin so that it can attract more tourism, I suppose. But to me Cochin would always be Fort Cochin or Mattanchery.
The boat rides up and down the bay, delicious food in various places, I was surprised that even Indian Airlines Staff were friendly ( offered me a 40% discount on the spot, thank you..)
For visiting Jew, there is sadness of course to know that the jewish community is no more.. reduced to 43 souls, no minyan on shabbat or other holydays.. The long history of jews in Kerala coast would end soon.. with the White Jews' synagogue in Mattanchery going to the Government as a museum.
The original jews of Cochin are not the white jews of Mattanchery but descendants of jewish merchants from the Middle East who may have arrived 1900 years ago. Only two families ( husband, wife and children ) survive but there are about 29 members of this sect.
End of February 2005: i am back from my fourth visit in sixteen months to cochin and i love cochin even more. this time around once again i couldnt get over the sweet disposition and innocence of the people and i met some great people about whom i will write later