Reflections from a Visit to the Jews of Kochi and Mumbai

    May 2008            
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Examining Multiculturalism and Homogenization in the Indian Jewish Community

By Sephora Matzner

I first came to India two years ago as a college undergrad — out to experience the world at its fullest and most exotically foreign. In some ways my intention was to "discover myself," as is so often the ambition of young, 20-something travelers. And, in large part, my purpose found fulfillment, if not in the venue I anticipated. For, while I was aware that India harbored one of the world's oldest Jewish populations, at that time my interest in it was in a guise more academic, as a scholar of religion, if anything. However, what I found as I approached the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue of Mumbai, and later the Pardesi Synagogue of Kochi, was a deep evocation of the spiritual grounded in my own Jewish upbringing. Indeed, as I heard "Shalom" uttered in my direction while walking down the street towards each synagogue, I reflected that this word eternally evoked, and signified, the essential Judaism engrained within, and thus my essential spiritual home.

Part of what I found so moving about each of my experiences was the fact that in country so utterly different from my own, my religious background afforded me some small parcel of total belonging; though on the Sabbath they may consume chapatti (a traditional tortilla-like bread indigenous to India) rather than challot. To be sure, growing up I was raised to believe it was Jews' multi-cultural aspect that made it such a prize community with which to be identified. Numerous books about world Jewry lined our bookshelves at home while my sister and I were told with pride that our heritage spanned as many civilizations as it did centuries.

What I did not recognize at that time, and have only come to truly realize recently in subsequent visits to these two populations, is the jeopardy of survival in which they now find themselves entrenched — especially in Kochi, though at this time their small group boasts a history 400 years old. To a great extent, the cause of this is the draw of Israel, or the United States, which promises relief from the sort of cultural isolation that seems to weigh upon Jewish youth in these places. This is at the cost of these communities' perseverance. In my last visit to Kochi, about 6 weeks ago, the synagogue was filled with more tourists than the total Jewish population there to date and the tour guide spoke casually about the fact that, in coming years, the population would die out completely and the synagogue would become a museum.

To date, the Pardesi Synagogue is without a rabbi and is only able to hold a minyan and observe the Sabbath if there are enough Jewish tourists in the area to enable a service. And while I do not begrudge the natives' desire to make themselves part of the larger Jewish community so resolutely established in the West, I have begun to wonder about the surety of Jews' essence as a multi-cultural people; about our embrace of its global attributes, as it seems to become, ever more clearly, an increasingly homogenized group.

Moreover, I begin to worry about the premium placed on seemingly "white," or Ashkenazi forms of worship and practice. I am lead to question whether it is possible, and if as a community Jews really desire the opportunity to rescue our faith's global flavor? Doing research for an internship in the summer of 2006, I discovered that the struggle faced by Ethiopian-Jewish immigrants to Israel was, firstly, being recognized as Jews at all, secondly, as being recognized as Jews worth assisting out of political turmoil, and, finally, has been surviving racist attitudes relating to both their appearance and their potential for integration as a "backward" people. As a result, many have been relegated to the margins of Israeli society—a fate suffered by many Indian Jewish immigrants as well.

The apparent truth here, to me, is an unfortunate propagation of the "globalization" epidemic, localized amongst our very own people. The West in general, and Western Jewry specifically, has made itself attractive as the 20th century home of Jews the world-over; yet when they abandon, or are compelled to leave their indigenous homes to join ranks with the majority of their brethren abroad, they are met with apathy, or worse, antipathy.

If we as Jews are to maintain our classically diverse aspect, as a faith without borders, bearing a historically exceptional aptitude for integration in foreign lands, and beautifully syncretistic in our practice of ancient traditions, then we must learn not only to accept the many faces of Jews worldwide, but assist in its global preservation. It must become a priority to allow the Jewish experience, in its multitudinous modalities, to flourish and thrive—if no longer in the streets of their origination, in the very least, in the homes and communities we have come to share.


from the May 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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