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Sunday, August 26, 2007

JEW TOWN, COCHIN, INDIA

I'm busy making reservations for a trip to India this winter. Everything seems so much more expensive than I remember it. And it wasn't that long ago that I visited Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta. The first time I went to India, though, that was like a whole different world and a whole different age. I had just graduated from college and I drove across Europe and Asia to India. It was still 1969 when I got there-- December 1, 1969, in fact. I remember because it was a major day in my life. I was waiting for my paper work-- or my van's paper work-- to get processed at the Pakistan-Indian border (Wagah, I think) and it was very hot in the sun. I had spent a year being very frustrated about not being able to stop smoking pot and hash. But suddenly at that remote, desolate border crossing I felt a hand reach inside me and rip away the desire for drugs. Gone; forever. I never desired to use a drug again after that. What a great way to start my trip inside India.

Eventually I made my way down to Goa and rented a house on the beach. When I left I decided to drove to Sri Lanka. In between was Kerala, a very green and beautiful state. I remember they had the most Christians and the most Communists. In fact they had a Communist state government that was working far better than any of the other state governments. I was pretty carefree and drove wherever my fancy took me. I wound up one day in Cochin, a seaport on the Arabian Sea. Today's Washington Post has a story about the city, now (since 1996) called Kochi, In India, A Jewish Outpost Slowly Withers.

When I visited in 1970 is was a real outpost with nothing going on at all. I don't remember it as a city, just more as a village. Now there are around a million people and it's a major port and historically it was a place filled with traders from all over the world: Greeks, Arabs, Romans, Chinese, Portuguese, and Jews. And Cochin has been somewhat famous in the west as an oddity, a Jewish enclave in Hindu India.

I was curious about Jews living in such a place and I decided to investigate. I found very little-- an old synagogue but no actual Jews around. The Indians boys eager to take the three or four visitors a day on a tour weren't Jewish and they said the Jews had all moved to Israel. Legend says the first Jews to have settled in Cochin came when Solomon was King of Israel. A thousand years later there were Jews from Europe arriving and at the time of the Inquisition, more Jews from Spain and Portugal arrived. In the middle 1500's the Jews of the area sought protection from the Hindu king against Muslim oppression and he let them build their own "Jew Town" in Cochin.

It was still called Jew Town when I visited, although I didn't see a single Jew. According to the story in the Post there are only 13 elderly Indian-born Jews left. "In Kochi, there is concern that Jew Town soon will be little more than a quirky tourist destination." That's certainly what it was in 1970 when I visited. Occasionally Jewish tourists from the U.S. or Israel come by but it's the kind of place that's not worth more than a pleasant afternoon on the way somewhere.

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