India for Me…Shabbat (Days Nine and Ten)

I believe it is a fact of life that there comes a time on any vacation when you have to face up to the inevitable: it’s almost over, and you had better start thinking about your first day back at work – or whatever it is that you do. I didn’t ask around, but that Friday afternoon was when it struck me. Sunday would be our last day of exploration, and Monday we would be heading to the airport for our final series of security checks on our way back to The Land. But before we set foot on another boat or another plane, there was still one more Shabbat to spend together, one more experience that would prove to be memorable, something to tie together all the loose ends of our journey.

Although the Gateway Hotel we were staying at in Ernakulam was part of the same Taj chain, this one was more Shabbat-convenient than the President Hotel in Mumbai. It was much smaller, and we were able to use the regular carpeted staircase that normal guests might go up and down, rather than the emergency exits that only staff would be expected to use. Two flights down to the area where our meals would be served; another two flights down to the lobby. Piece of cake! Plus there was usually a staff person on duty at each floor, so there was never a problem finding someone to use an electronic card to open the door to your room.

We all assembled in the hotel lobby a little before 6PM and boarded the bus to take us to the synagogue. The bus made a left turn out of the parking lot, went three or four blocks, made a right turn across the divided road, made another right turn (Remember: in this former British colony, they drive on the left!), and let us off about two blocks from where we started! We would walk the rest of the way: two blocks down a narrow commercial street jam-packed with pedestrians overflowing the sidewalks, trying to avoid the motor bikes weaving in and out. We then made a left turn, walked half a block and we were there. In front of a fish store. No, not that kind. I also assumed it would be a place to buy something for dinner. It was indeed a tropical fish store, the ones that go back and forth in a tank, hoping someone remembers to pour in some fish food once in a while. Well, I had to stop and inspect. We had tropical fish when we were growing up, and I usually recognize most of the common varieties – they have a lot of the same kinds in India as we had in The Bronx. I tried to explain to a few of the guys about the Siamese Fighting Fish, the males bred to be a) gorgeous and b) instinctively hostile to any other male. Hence, each of these three inch long creatures was kept by itself in a separate goblet. No one seemed interested in this ichthyologic information, but I believe there is a moral to be learned somehow.

We later learned that this building had not started out life as a fish store. It was in fact the yeshiva connected to the shul we were about to enter, and there was a time when a collection of lads would assemble Shabbat afternoons to review the Torah portion that had been read that morning. Heaven help them should they make a mistake! Enough of these musings; it’s time to daven. Let’s go inside! No surprise: the basic layout was the same as we had seen several days before: an ornate ark in the front, a raised platform in the middle where the prayer leader would stand, benches along the perimeter walls, a women’s section in the balcony with a stairway leading up to it.

But how is it that the place looked so nice – considering that the last time there was a minyan in this beit knesset was in 1972? There was red carpeting all over the men’s section (clearly, the original flooring had either been removed or destroyed). The walls and ceiling had been freshly painted, replicating the original décor. There was not a speck of dust to be seen anywhere. How could this be? The answer, although prosaic, was pretty amazing. A whole crew of the hope-to-be Jews had come over from Erode and had spent a week or more whipping this abandoned building into shape – in time for our arrival. In a word: Wow!

So for one Shabbat, this place would come alive; the Torah (the Sephardic scroll in its ornate wooden case that Ari G. had been schlepping everywhere we went) would be read. What an eclectic minyan we had assembled! There were all of us from our group, Samuel and Ann, along with a small contingent of folks from Erode, Rabbi Yishai (the one Michael Freund sent to work with the Erodians) and family, one or two local Jews who had not been inside this building in decades, and, of course, Babu.

That’s not his real name, but that’s the moniker he is known by – Babu. And this is his story: When the community of Cochini Jews in Ernakulam left for Israel in the 1950’s, he was forced to stay behind and take care of somebody (I don’t remember who; maybe his mother or some other close relative). And he kept missing the boat; always something. By 1970 or so, there was nobody else left. (Last one out, turn off the lights!) Whether or not he planned it this way, Babu became the caretaker for an empty synagogue and a community bereft of Jews. Have you heard a similar tale before? If you’ve done any traveling to out-of-the-way Jewish communities, you may have come across a man or a woman who was the last Jew around, who became responsible for maintaining something: a synagogue, a cemetery, a tradition – because there was nobody else left to do it. And you’re thinking: “I’m glad it’s not me!”

It goes without saying that Ralphy knows Babu. If I understand correctly, Babu is related to Ralphy’s wife, Yael. At any rate, you can imagine Babu’s excitement. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, he’s hosting a throng of people in his synagogue, which has been repainted for the first time since ???. Can you blame him for being a little over-enthusiastic, for talking about creating a cultural center, and so forth? Nobody – certainly not me – had the heart to tell him that this was all smoke and mirrors, that we would all go our separate ways and leave him alone with his dreams. That the Jewish presence had come and gone once and for all in Ernakulam. Maybe the government could be persuaded to turn the building into another museum like the one we had been to on Thurs., a place where tourists could come and gawk; but that’s about it.

Shabbat morning after the davening, Babu took us on a short tour of the neighborhood. Instead of making a right turn out of the premises to return directly to the hotel, we went left and down the next street. Same as the others, filled with shops and crowded with pedestrians and motor bikers. But this street is to this day called “Jew Street.” That’s its name. Just look at the street sign! It was hard to imagine, but there was a time back in the day when each of the little shops on that street was owned and operated by someone in the Cochini community – someone whose descendants I might bump into these days in The Land. There is actually another shul on that street, behind a gate that is permanently locked. We were supposed to be able to get in, but that never worked out. It seems that there is another Jew who is supposed to be in charge of that synagogue, but he seems to get his jollies from keeping people out. Takes all kinds.

Shabbat came and went. Plenty of davening; plenty of good food (even without the Israeli wine we would have had back home); plenty of opportunity for the two Ari’s to speak. But, like every Shabbat since the dawn of time, it would end. We would all gather Saturday night in our area on the second floor for what would serve as a final ceremony of sorts. Ralphy functioned as the M.C., because that is his role in life. He had something nice to say about everybody on the trip, and he gave each person or couple a token of his esteem, a wooden model of an Indian ship (something we definitely didn’t need; but how the heck could we have said no!). By this time, most of us had gotten the hint and paid him in advance for a copy of one or more of the books he had produced about Jewish life in India. We had also contributed to a fund to purchase books for the good folks in Erode to assist them in their quest for Jewish literacy.

I have to make a confession. In the middle of all the hoopla, I decided to call it a night. It was only fitting that Barbara, the one who really wanted to go to India, be the one to accept Ralphy’s trinket. And so it was. Sunday would be our final boat ride, and I sensed a major photo opportunity in the making. As is often the case, I was right.

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