Jumping for the Torah
About Barbara Baer
About Jumping for the Torah
Barbara L. Baer
6195 Anderson Rd
Forestville CA 95436
Jumping for the Torah
My first Simchat Torah in Cochin, Kerala, was the turning point in my secular Jewish life though secular doesn’t begin to describe how my family lived in Orange County, southern California in the 1950s. Anti-Semitism and anti-Communism were an ugly brew that scared my liberal parents into keeping their faith out of their politics until they no longer could and we were forced by anti-Semitic acts, a cross burned in front of our home, to leave the beach town. Concealment, if only by omission, was catching: the last thing I wanted in college was to identify, to embrace, to stand up for my Jewishness. Concealment caused me such emotional complications that I headed off to India to seek spiritual solace. How could I have known that I wouldn’t find answers in ashrams nor at shrines but in an ancient synagogue in southern India that was about to be abandoned by its worshippers?
I arrived in Madras in 1964, age 24, out of grad school to teach English literature in a missionary college. I was fleeing not only my conflicted Jewish identity but existential dread after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, as well as bad choices with men. I did write to my future department head in the college that I was Jewish, not Christian. She replied that they’d never had a Jew and looked forward to the ‘experience’, making me feel like a curiosity. “Hope you’ll join us in Chapel,” she wrote. I didn’t reply that my intention was to sample India’s many spiritual paths.
I attended the small Chapel services a few times and listened to the carillons chime hymns on the quarter hour along with monkey cries and bird whistles many nights. To my colleagues’ dismay, I let students make a lipstick bindi, the Hindu sign of well-being, between my eyebrows. When I wore my first sari, there were whispers, “She’s gone Indian.” I was disapproved of by the missionary staff but in a honeymoon phase with everything Indian. Madras, at the time, was a slow-moving gracious, lushly green city on the Bay of Bengal, 12 degrees above the equator, decades before the Tamil capitol would rename itself Chennai and become a hi tech hub. Though I caught Dengue Fever, I was young and able to teach and explore through months of chills and sweats.
At the Theosophical Society along the sea, I listened to white-robed Krishnamurti lecture beneath a great banyan tree and watched rapturous faces who surrounded him but I didn’t become a devotee. A Fulbright scholar, an intelligent young Jewish woman I knew from Stanford, found nothing strange in crawling on her hands and knees scattering rose petals as she approached, head to the floor, calling out Ma Ma. I could never have worshipped the old Frenchwoman Mirra Alfassa, herself born a Sephardic Jew in Paris, who had renamed herself The Mother and reigned over an ashram in Pondicherry.
On holidays I braved long train and bus trips to visit ashrams and holy places in the Himalayan foothills seeking a spiritual guide, answers to my fear of death. Many bearded mendicants in orange robes offered me their promise of enlightenment if I would give myself, abandon my ego, almost always with sexual surrender as part of their proposals. All one night in Rishikesh beneath the Himalayas, a naked old man with a beard down to his navel banged on my door; when I didn’t open, he passed notes, “Give yourself to God, “Let Krishna your Lover come to you.” I barricaded with chairs.
When I returned to Madras, I threw myself into dance lessons in the classical form of Bharatanatyam. I taught Shakespeare or Jane Austen all day in western clothes, then changed into Indian trousers and top, got on my bicycle and rode to class where I mimed the courtship of Radha and Krishna, Siva and Parvati, the lovers of the Hindu pantheon. I came closest to becoming a devotee of my teacher except she didn’t want idolatry. She was one of the last of the vanishing caste of Devadasis, girls dedicated to temples who had been prey to priests and patrons of the temple.
The English department assigned me a lecture series on Judaism. No Jew could have been less qualified to give these lectures so I went to the American Consulate library for materials. There I met the consul, Gabe Wertheim, who did more than provide me with materials. He coached me and invited me to Shabbat dinner with his family. “Ruth manages to find kosher chicken,” he said. At supper, Debbie, nine years old, concentrated so hard on getting Hebrew right that I followed prayers I didn’t know.
The Wertheims then asked me to come along on their annual Simchat Torah pilgrimage to the ancient Paradisi synagogue on the Malabar coast of Kerala. We rattled all day heading west across the vast eroded Deccan delta with its dry rivers that would soon flood with monsoon, climbed into the Blue Mountains where the smells of pine forests and cold spray from waterfalls were a wonderful change from tropical heat. Dark green tea plantings clotted the hillsides as workers in white head cloths clipped wet leaves. We stopped for a night at a pillared mansion like a plantation in the Old South replete with a British Colonial hold out, a pukka (real,true) Englishman in pith helmet and jodhpurs. At dinner, the accents, the stewed mutton and trifle could have been a Raj meal.
We descended again into the equatorial heat, steaming green rice paddies and coconut groves, took a ferry across coastal backwaters from the mainland to Cochin. I stood on the prow of our skiff beside Debbie who couldn’t believe I hadn’t brought new tennis shoes for Simchat Torah. “New shoes?” I asked. “Oh yes,” Debbie answered, “We always jump higher in new shoes.”
Head and shoulders above dark faces that waited for our craft to tie up on the dock, stood two huge identical white men in white suits. These Sidney Greensteet look-alikes, twice the height and girth of Indians around them, were the Koder twins, coconut oil exporters, honorary Dutch consuls, the heart and pocket book of the shrinking Jewish community of Cochin. With diplomatic flags flying from the Koders’ white Ambassador, we avoided rickshaws, foot traffic, animals to arrive in Jew Town where white-washed houses leaned inward, their balconies with fretted iron and wood work. India, I was told, was one of the few places on earth where Jews never experienced prejudice.
Mazel Tov, old men in yarmulkes, dark suits and prayer shawls greeted us at the intricately carved door of the Paradisi Synagogue. Velvet and satin hangings embroidered with gold threads hung along the walls, candle flames rose in niches, fragrances of jasmine and sandalwood mixed with the small of wax. Old women moved embroidered skirts out of the way, tightened scarves under chins, to give Ruth Wertheim and myself a place on the women’s side. Some had very white skin like the Koder twins, several had red hair. There were darker-skinned women with saris covering their heads sitting apart. A red-haired young woman wearing large glasses took my arm. “I’m Sarah,” she said.
As I looked around, it seemed a few men and women were gazing and nodding in a peculiar way to the prayers. I would later learn that the community’s decline from 2500 Jews in the 1940s to fewer than 100 had resulted in too much intermarriage; I’d also learn that those who married outside the Cochin community with ‘black’ or converted Jews had endured a caste system much like the Hindus. Until recently, the white Jews, claiming to be descendents of the Babylonian Diaspora, had excluded black and brown Jews, mixed progeny, from the Paradisi—except on Simchat Torah.
As men in their prayer shawls recited prayers and touched the Torah wrapped in silver and gold cloth, Debbie whispered to me, “Get ready. When hear Torah, JUMP!”
Seconds later the synagogue resounded with every voice shouting Torah! Torah! The whole congregation, young and old, leapt up from their seats. Even the Koders seemed to rise balloon-like in their white billowy suits. Two ancient ladies in gold threaded finery skipped like sparrows; old men spun and bobbed at angles. Debbie and Mike bounded like wild rabbits in their new tennis shoes. Humidity had to be 100% and I was dripping sweat, jumping and shouting every time the Torah was called, losing myself in the waves of up and down, part of an ecstatic tribe of bodies and souls, joined together.
When I was so tired I could barely lift one foot off the floor, an old man crooked a finger at me from behind a grille. “Come girlie, have a little schnapps.” I drank a shot of fiery liquor. “Now eat.” He popped a spiced fish ball into my mouth. After that nourishment and drink, I jumped and shouted until the scrolls were carried from the synagogue into the street where we paraded, singing, dancing, the Torah held high until sundown, when the sacred scrolls returned to their rich casings.
I followed the Wertheims down Jew Street glowing with lamps and candles, fragrant with gardenias, orange blossoms, jasmine mixed with cooking smells. Doors, green or blue, muzuzahs above entrances, were open to us. We ate fried chicken, bananas and coconut curries, tamarind soup, sweets of all kind. “If you have not seen Simchat Torah in Cochin, you have not seen happiness in your life,” a Koder brother told me.
Sarah Cohen, the red-headed woman with glasses, invited me to sleep in her home while the Wertheims went to the large Koder compound. She shared small rooms with her mother, Esther, who lived by herself while Sarah was in New Delhi studying medicine. To reach Cochin for the holiday, Sarah had sat up for two nights and days in third class train carriages. Still, she insisted I take her bed with starched white sheets.
“Of course I had to come. We don’t know how many holidays we will have remaining to celebrate in our beloved Paradisi.”
Before we fell asleep, Sarah reached up from the cot she was sleeping on and took my hand. “Good night, Sister,” she said, leaving me with a rush of feeling. As I slept and woke during the night, I heard the tides lapping the shore. It was here, the place I’d been searching for. Here I belonged, far from home, among my own people. Here, over a day and night of prayer and celebration, I found calm in myself.
In the morning, Sarah prepared me coffee and a special Kerala treat, idyappum with coconut curry and yogurt.
“Mother is looking for a suitable husband for me, maybe in Israel,” she said.
“You won’t marry someone here?”
“I would prefer that but choices are limited. Soon I’ll be too old.”
“You’re only a student. Perhaps you’ll meet a doctor and fall in love.”
“That might happen, meanwhile I’ll study. I would most like to return here. Our old people need a physician. But, as I said, choice is limited. So many are leaving. You didn’t see young men in shul, did you?”
“Too busy dancing!”
Sarah and I hugged and promised to stay in touch. She had called me sister..
Years later, I saw a video that Fred de Sam Lazaro (a reporter for the PBS News Hour and director of Under-Told Stories in Minnesota) had made about the last Jew in Cochin. I remembered how I found my sense of belonging, my joy that October evening in Jew Town, and from that time on, I never questioned my Jewishness. I went on to bring my son to celebrate holidays with a small congregation on the Russian River in northern California, and rejoiced that he continued a Jewish tradition with his family. However, Sam Lazaro made clear the fate of the Paradisi synagogue, for 900 years the center of worship in a vibrant community on the Malabar Coast of south India. The lone caretaker told the reporter that soon, he would soon making his aliyah to Israel, and after he’d gone, the Paradisi would become a curiosity for visiting Jews, no longer a living house of worship. I’d been witness to history and a rejoicing that has never left me.
Note: Jews claim to have lived for two millennia in and around Cochin, Kerala. St Thomas the Apostle, arriving on the Malabar Coast in the first century AD, claimed to have converted Jews. In the year 1000, records show that the Raja of Cochin granted Jews rights and privileges shared only by highest castes among the Hindus. Two copper plates in the Paradisi record the synagogue’s founding.