There were only two dubious moments on our OU Adventure, when the outcome unquestionably failed to meet the expectation. One of these you already know about (assuming you have been reading these articles all along), the decision to do our morning prayers on the top deck of a small boat in the Arabian Sea. The second one also seemed like a good idea at the time, but it turned out to be the absolute low point of our trip. Unfortunately it came the day after the high point, our visit to the former-Christian community in Erode, sort of like going from the sublime to the abysmal.
The original plan had been to drive to the Coimbatore airport and take a charter flight to Cochin, one hour away. But… by the time we would ride to the airport, go through security, wait to board the plane, disembark at the other end, find our luggage, get back on another bus, and ride to our hotel, we might as well just stay on the first bus and head up the new highway to Cochin – about a four hour journey. If we were to do that, we could stop along the way at a place with elephants. As I said, sounded like a reasonable plan, better than going through the rigmarole at the airport any more than was absolutely necessary. Plus, elephants being such a big feature of the Indian landscape, it sort of fit into the scheme of things.
So, what went wrong? The elephant place was nowhere near the main road, so we spent considerable time on back roads getting there. And, unfortunately, we did arrive at this loathsome place. What they had there was a dozen or so elephants, each in a separate enclosure, each with a shackle on one of its legs, so it couldn’t wander off. And from the moment we entered, there were guys yelling at us, “No pictures; no pictures.” I can understand why. If you were involved in some sort of animal cruelty, would you want somebody photographing it?
I have a thing about elephants. One of my first photographic projects – going back about thirty-five years – was at “The Bronx Zoo,” and I spent a lot of time watching the elephants. Some of my elephant photographs were included when I had my first solo exhibit – thanks to Cy Rubin at the Midtown Y gallery. (But I digress; wouldn’t be the first time!) The point being, that I have come to realize that elephants are a) extremely intelligent; b)social animals, used to being with other elephants; c) in need of stimulation, something to do. So what these morons at the elephant place were doing was, in effect, placing each elephant in solitary confinement. By the time I heard the second guy yell at us, “No pictures, no pictures,” I was out of there. Better to wait outside on a deserted street for the rest of the group to wander about. I wasn’t the only one. One of the women lasted about one minute inside before she burst into tears and ran out to the relative civility of the lonely street. Finally, everyone had enough; we got back on the bus and headed north to Cochin, many of us suitably depressed. Having nothing better to do, I sat by the window and photographed some of the billboards along the way.
It was the middle of the afternoon when we arrived in “Cochin,” although we were actually staying at the TAJ Gateway Hotel in the nearby city of Ernakulam. This is only the second best TAJ hotel in the area, but it was closer to where we needed to be. That’s what Ralphy told us, and if Ralphy said so, who were we to complain? – especially as it was up to the five star standards of the other TAJ hotels.
The whole point of this, the last stop on our excursion, was to visit the synagogues of the Cochin Jews, scattered through a number of small communities in state of Kerala. Of course, the Jews themselves wouldn’t be there to welcome us. In the early 1950’s, one by one, each community of several hundred souls picked up en masse and made their way to Israel, leaving their synagogues behind. (Not 100%; some of the interiors were taken to Israel; there is a replica of a Cochini beit knesset in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.)
So after we checked in and played our new favorite game, “Who’s got whose luggage” (It was possible to have five strange suitcases in your room, but be missing your own.), we got on a small boat and headed across the bay to Mattancherry to visit “Jew Town” (that’s still what it’s called!) and its main attraction, the “historic” Paradesi synagogue. All of the synagogues of the Cochini communities were very old, no doubt because the Jewish community in those parts had been there a very long time; all of the synagogues were destroyed at one time and then subsequently rebuilt. This one was destroyed in 1662 and rebuilt in 1664. But when was it first built? Good question. And is it really the oldest synagogue in India? Another good question.
We waited until the tour group that was there ahead of us cleared out, and then it was our turn to go into the synagogue. Or what used to be a synagogue. I’m sorry, but it’s now another place where someone collects rupees to let you in. I admit that the interior is quite striking. All of the Cochini synagogues followed the same basic design: a beautifully decorated building, large enough to meet the needs of a community of 100-200 families; an ornate aron kodesh (where the Torah scrolls are housed) with a few steps in front of it; a raised platform in the middle of the floor where the guy leading the prayers would stand; benches for the men around the interior walls; a balcony for the women; and one distinctive feature. To make certain that women could hear the Torah reading (imagine that!), the scrolls would be brought up via a stairway up to a separate section in the balcony and read from there. Of course, the last time anybody actually walked up those stairs with a Torah scroll, and the last time any women were waiting to hear the reading from the scroll was seventy years ago. Now there is just a parade of tourist – few of whom are Jewish – looking at the tiled floor and the decorations on the ceiling, whipping out their smartphones to take pictures at the now empty interior.
I know I was supposed to get some sense of the antiquity of the place, and how many generations of Jews had ,prayed in this building. But, as the girl sang in the Sondheim musical 42d Street, “I felt nothing.” Try as I might, I could not feel the aura of a boy celebrating his bar mitzvah in this space, or the presence of a young couple getting married. And wasn’t that the point of this whole excursion? To experience something important about Jewish life in a far corner of the planet, to be energized, spiritualized? I was glad the community of worshippers had left of their own volition rather than being kicked out. But I didn’t have to be sitting there to feel that. Outside the building was “one of the synagogue’s most distinctive features, an 18th century clock tower with dials in four languages.” OK, that was interesting. Fascinating, no; but interesting. Somehow, I had not gotten with the program. For me, the highlight of the journey to this island was my foray through the large store on the way to and from the pier, where I found what I had been looking for, some packages of high grade Indian teas to bring back to The Land.
We did have time to wander up and down the main drag of “Jew Town,” a narrow street with tourist shops on both sides. A good place to buy a full-sized, authentic Hindu idol – if one were so inclined. Otherwise, keep on walking. Don’t let a store owner get you inside his premises. You may not come out alive; or if you do, you may be clutching ….. (Let’s not even think about it!) We did have time to take a detour up one of the side streets to stand outside the Jewish cemetery and look in. Well yes, countless generations of Jews lived there, died there, and, no surprise, were buried there. Time to get back on the boat and return to our five-star hotel. Ravi, our Indian chef, would be waiting with another of his superb meals. Thank you Ralphy for “borrowing” this guy – because armies and tour groups travel on their stomachs!