Monday, May 28, 2007

What's in a Name?

After freshening up, Daniel and I set off a for a day of sight-seeing in Kochi. We decided to go see the famous Paradesi Synagogue. However, on the way, Daniel wanted to check out the Mattancherry Palace, built in 1555 by the Portuguese as gift to the local raja, and then renovated by the Dutch in 1663. I was not all that keen on stopping for this, but the Lonely Planet promised that is had murals with ancient Indian pornography, so I agreed to go. We had to join a short queue to enter. In front of us in the queue was a middle family who spoke with strong American accents, dressed like Californians, but were clearly of Indian heritage. The father, who might have been close to 50, was making fun of the local Indians who were running the place, especially for their ban on photography. It was kind of a curious scene. I got the impression of a man fully educated in America who now looked down on these ‘backward’ folks from the mother country. I couldn’t really blame him either. I failed to see the harm in allowing people to engage in non-flash photography. “Just don’t let them know that you have a photographic memory” I said to him, and he laughed, “…or that’ll have to be switched off too.” As it turned out, the pornographic murals did not live up to expectations.

The next stop was the famous Paradesi Synagogue. It was built in 1568, apparently making it the oldest synagogue amongst the old British Commonwealth. It was partially destroyed in 1662 by the anti-Semitic Portuguese occupiers, and in what I feel is something of a common theme in Jewish history, was rebuilt two years later under the patronage of the far more tolerant Dutch who had seen off the Portuguese to become the reigning power. The Synagogue located in an area of Kochi officially called Jew Town, on a long street called Synagogue Lane. There is evidence all over Jew Town of a once thriving community, from the Jewish names of the streets to the Jewish emblems found on the buildings.

There are three synagogues still standing in Kochi, but the Paradesi Synagogue is last quasi-functioning one. That is to say they have services there on Shabbat and Yomtovim, with Jewish tourists helping to make up the minyan together with the dwindling local population. There are only a few Jewish families left now, as most Cochin Jews have either immigrated to Israel, or migrated to a larger Indian city such as Mumbai. During the week, the Synagogue functions as a kind of museum. In the town of Kochi, every local knows where this synagogue is – it’s arguably the town’s greatest tourist attraction – it’s clearly what Richard Court wished “The Bell Tower” to have been for Perth.

A strict dress code is enforced by the non-Jewish Indians to whom the tourists pay their money (only a token sum by western standards) in order to enter. However, they seem to do this by their own customs rather than Jewish customs. For example, all entrants must have their legs fully covered, but men are not even requested to have their heads covered. Daniel was initially not permitted to enter, as he happened to be wearing ¾ pants on what was a stiflingly hot and humid day. He returned minutes later having purchased a cheap pair of cotton trousers from a nearby merchant. Inside the Synagogue, we met a tourist from Israel who had taken the opportunity to lay tefillin that he had brought with him. When he spoke English, I detected a faint South African accent, and indeed he had been born in South Africa. Daniel was once again impressed by my ability to distinguish between different accents which all sounded the same to him. I in turn found it rather curious how a guy who spoke four languages incomparably better than any second language I had was nonetheless continually impressed by my mundane ability to derive the geographic origins of various English language speakers from their accents.

Along with the actual Synagogue, tourists also enter an adjoining room in the building that has a number of pieces of artwork and accompanying information plaques documenting the history of the Jews of Cochin. Underneath one of the paintings was a plaque stating something like: The First Jews to Arrive in Kerala were spice traders who came from Palestine during the time of King Solomon’s temple. “What the? Does that say Palestine!” It was the type of historical linguistic revisionism that I was determined not to put up with. I warned Daniel (much to his amusement) that up to that point he had only seen the laid back Mahatma Gandhi side of my personality, and now he was about to witness me as the ugly tourist on the warpath. I looked around to find someone who might be responsible for this, to whom I was going to indignantly explain that the term Palestine had not even been invented at the time referred to, and was only invented by the Romans in order to offend the Jewish population. Unfortunately, it was about 2pm, which was closing time for the siesta, and the people in charge disappear circa 1.59pm. I found a mature aged Jewish man who I had noticed earlier serving as a guide for a group of tourists. He was trying to get home on foot, while conducting a conversation on his mobile phone. I somewhat pitifully pursued the elderly gentleman down the street, politely putting forward my argument and asking him to take up my complaint with whoever might have the power to change the plaque. While he seemed to have understood my argument, to the point that he was interested, he was rather defeatist about the whole matter. I got the strong impression from him that he would not be able (nor willing) to get them (whoever “them” was) to change anything.

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