Between the straits

Between the straits

Indian Jew from Teaneck visits two very different Jewish locales during the Three Weeks

Meylekh Viswanath, at right, with members of the Jewish community in Gathundia, a village in rural Kenya, in front of their makeshift synagogue.
Meylekh Viswanath, at right, with members of the Jewish community in Gathundia, a village in rural Kenya, in front of their makeshift synagogue.

This year, I spent the Seventeenth of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av, the two fast days that bookend the Three Weeks of mourning (Beyn haMetsarim, literally, between the straits) in two very different communities on two different continents.

The first one was in a nascent Jewish community in Gathundia in rural Kenya, and the second one was in Kochi (formerly Cochin), India, in a very old but vanishing Jewish neighborhood.

I arrived in Gathundia — a small village about 100 miles from Nairobi — on Friday night. The community is a group of some 20-plus families who live within five miles or so of a makeshift synagogue. At this point, it would be difficult to call it a Jewish community. A few of the members of the group have been converted by Rabbi Gershom Sizomu of the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda, which consists mostly of converts from the Conservative movement; Rabbi Sizomu was ordained at the Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies, a Conservative seminary in Los Angeles. What unites the members of the Gathundia community is a shared background of Pentecostal and messianic Christianity and enthusiasm for a Jewish future. Like most Africans I have met, they are traditional and quite serious about issues of faith. Mostly farmers, their approach to religion is a combination of the natural faith of a people tied to land and a learned faith absorbed from translated African understandings of the Jewish Bible.

The community feels close to Israel, and many members want to make aliyah. Still, during my limited interaction with them, this connection to Israel felt more like a formalized, ritualized connection. This, in many ways, is similar to how most Orthodox Jews relate to the Beth Hamikdash. Visiting Israel and the Jewish quarter makes the Temple a bit more concrete, but even so, Jewish life in Temple times is not very real, even to most frum-from-birth Jews. Imagine, then, how new Jews like those of Gathundia might view the Temple. As a result, commemorating the destruction of the Temple sitting in Gathundia was certainly a more detached experience for me than it usually is in my Orthodox shul in Teaneck.

Even though the fast of the seventeenth of Tammuz does not have the austerity of Tisha B’Av, in my Teaneck shul we do feel the sorrowful and almost physical presence of the destruction of the Temple that day, introducing as it does the three week period leading up to Tisha b’Av. Even when I am in India for the Three Weeks, the synagogue experience in the Sephardic community there brings the sadness of the day home to me.

In Gathundia, however, I had no external reminders of the melancholy that I can feel palpably in Teaneck. Whatever fast-day emotions I experienced I had to dredge out of my own self. While almost smack on the Equator, Gathundia is 8,400 meters high, and July is winter in southern-hemisphere Kenya. The morning was a balmy 70 degrees Fahrenheit. So the usual dreary and often sticky heat that I would experience in Teaneck or in Bombay — and that added to the feeling of forlornness — were missing.

The Shabbes service in the synagogue was something of a makeshift affair. There was a lot of skipping. There were only about five men and five women, and about seven or eight children. On Sunday morning, the day of the actual fast, there were no services at all. My hosts had called a meeting, however, to provide me with an opportunity to meet four or five other members of the community who live too far away to walk to Gathundia for Shabbos.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss how the community might improve its economic circumstances. Because I have worked in microfinance, which concerns itself mostly with providing financial services, including microloans to asset-poor people in rural communities, I thought I might be able to help the community improve its situation. During this encounter, I had a chance to talk to some community members about their daily life. While the discussion was fascinating, a 17th of Tamuz discussion it wasn’t.

On the other hand, Jewish post-Temple life could be described for the most part as a series of efforts to cope with difficulties; particularly after the Bar Koch revolts, the Romans wanted to make sure that there would not be another Jewish nationalist insurrection. Against such a background, you could argue that a discussion about rural livelihoods in a Jewish context is nothing less than a continuation of the Jewish existential struggle.

Three weeks later, ere Shabbes before Tisha B’Av, I found myself in a very different place. This time I was in southern India, in the city of Kochi, in the state of Kerala. Kerala is a place where Jews have lived for more than 2,000 years. There has been a documented Jewish community in Kerala for at least 1,200 years and in Kochi itself for about 600. The Parades synagogue, which still stands on Jew Street in the Mattancherry or Jewtown neighborhood, was completed in 1568. Nearby Fort Cochin, another Jewish neighborhood, was built by the Portuguese in 1503, then fell to the Dutch and was ultimately captured by the British and held by them until Indian Independence in 1947.

While Mattancherry and Fort Cochin have had a Jewish presence for more than 500 years, the Kerala Jewish community that moved to this area actually pre-dates this settlement. That community was from Cranganore (present-day Kodungallur), further up the coast, and eventually moved to Cochin, driven first by the silting-up of the port in Cranganore and then by attacks of the Portuguese.

If the Gathundia community is barely born, the Kochi Jewtown community is almost dead. I have been visiting Jewtown since 1987. I was very friendly with Sammy Hallegua, the patriarch of the Kochi White Jewish community. Sammy always invited me to Shabbat meals at his house after prayers. Friday night and Saturday night, after Shabbat, Sammy would hold court before a dozen Jewish and non-Jewish guests, the whisky flowing freely. With time, however, the Jewish presence on Jew Street palpably decreased, and the number of Kashmiri Muslim tradesmen who set up shop on Jew Street increased. Selling Jewish and non-Jewish merchandise, they have become, oddly enough, the face of Jewry on Jew Street.

Still, as long as Sammy was around, there generally was a minyan on Shabbat. After Sammy’s death, it grew more and more difficult to get a minyan. Even though Sammy was a White Jew, he always had good relations with the other local Jewish group, the Malabaris; his departure robbed Jew Street of its majesty as well as the Malabari Jews’ already fleeting connection with Jewtown. A couple of Chabad rabbis tried to revive Jewish life in Mattancherry, but they were unsuccessful — it would have to be an unusual Chabad rabbi who could appreciate the special character of Cochin Jewry and integrate it with Chabad enthusiasm. There were no such rabbis.

There might have been a prayer for some sort of Jewish revival on Jew Street 10 years ago, but it is impossible today.

Last year, my son, Arun Viswanath, spent Simchat Torah in Jewtown. Sammy’s son David also was visiting. With the help of Jewish visitors and some locals, they made up a minyan and conducted services using some of the traditional prayer tunes and piyyutim. The bimah and the Aron Hakodesh were decorated with traditional silken gold-brocaded South Indian silk decorations.

But this was a rare event. In 2013, just a year before, I had visited Jewtown for Shavuot. In contrast to my son’s Simchat Torah experience, I davened by myself in an entirely empty synagogue. Tisha B’Av, this year, I was going to be in India again and Sammy’s widow, Queenie Hallegua invited me to Jewtown for the preceding Shabbat.

Meylekh Viswanath in the Paradesi synagogue.
Meylekh Viswanath in the Paradesi synagogue.

Just as it had been for Shavuot in 2013, the synagogue was deserted. On Friday night there was one other person; for Shabbat morning prayers there was just me. Going out for a walk in the afternoon, I overheard some young Frenchwomen discussing a visit to the synagogue. They didn’t seem to know that it was closed on Sabbaths and Jewish holidays. When I told them so, one of the women replied that she was Jewish. I told her that if she wanted to, she could come to participate in the Tisha B’Av prayers later than evening.

Sunset in Kochi in late July is around 7 p.m., and Shabbes ends about an hour later. Although I wouldn’t be saying the evening prayer until after 8, I went in to the synagogue a bit early. The young woman, whose name was Telma, was waiting for me. She accompanied me into the synagogue and we chatted for a while. By then it was 8, and I davened Ma’ariv while she waited. Once I was done, she sat down cross-legged on the floor beside me and I read from Eicha, Lamentations, which contains five different dirges for the destruction of Jerusalem. She followed the English translation in my ArtScroll copy, along with my brief explanations in French. Then she listened to me read the kinot, the Tisha B’Av elegies that were composed over centuries to reflect sorrow over the continuing loss of Jerusalem.

In the Paradesi synagogue, the tradition is for the ornate decorations of the Aron Hakodesh, the Torah ark, to be replaced by somber black coverings. Black cloth is hung over the chandeliers, the lights are extinguished, and candles are lit. This year, though, the change of coverings was symbolic. There were just a few black cloths hanging from the chandeliers. Even without the customary elaborate funereal drapings, the atmosphere was sorrowful — perhaps even more than in a Teaneck synagogue, where the commemoration of the destroyed Temple is balanced by the crowded synagogue, full of life.

Here in Kochi, though, the historic synagogue was empty — completely devoid of life except for a 60-year-old Indian Jew and a barely-20 year-old French Jewess. The presence of the young Jewish woman was a reflection of what might have been. It underscored the lack of vitality in the Kochi community.

I will never forget this Tisha b’Av, Telma told me. For me, too, our presence there was full of meaning; a displaced older Jew from India and a younger Jew from a European Jewish community under threat — together in a forlorn, darkened, dwindling community, on a night commemorating the burning and obliteration of a way of life.

The next day, I prayed by myself in Queenie’s house, since the synagogue was closed. The caretaker would be back around ten o’clock to perform the ritual of the “ari vitharal” — the strewing of the rice — even though normally this would be done in the afternoon. The ritual’s significance was not clear to me. Although the fast continues until sunset of the Ninth, several of the stringencies of the day cease at noon; hence it is possible that the strewing of the rice is a symbol of the future rebuilding of the Temple and the prosperity to come. Unfortunately, by the time I got to the synagogue, the rice already had been strewn. I could see grains of rice all over the steps in front of the wooden doors. I went in, recited a few psalms, kissed the Aron Hakodesh, and went back out.

I started the three weeks in a very new, small community of people who very much want to be Jewish, though they have hardly begun their Jewish experience. They live in a part of the African continent where Jews have lived for no longer than a century at most, and whose connections and ties to the land of Israel are tenuous. I ended the three weeks in one of the oldest continuous Jewish communities outside the Middle East, a place that used to be full of ritual and tradition and where now there are fewer than 10 Jews, most of whom simply are waiting out their days.

The period of the Three Weeks commemorates some of the greatest misfortunes and upheavals of the Jewish people, and it represents the uncertainty of Jewish life. We end the period of the Three Weeks with a promise of renewal. The seven Sabbaths between Tisha B’Av and Rosh haShana are called Sheva De Nechamata or the Seven of Comfort. During these seven Sabbaths, we read messages of consolation and promises of redemption from the prophet Isaiah.

Even as some Jewish communities decline, the concomitant rise of new communities is part of God’s promise of the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people.

Meylekh (P.V.) Viswanath of Teaneck teaches finance at Pace University, where he’s now involved in research innvolving strategies for bottom-of-the pyrmid-communities in India and East Africa.

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