Call her the woman in the window. Seeing Sarah Cohen sitting by the window of her Cochin home was always one of the highlights of all our tours.
Sarah Aunty was 96 when she passed away on August 30, 2019. She was the oldest member of the Jewish community in Mattancherry.
The first time I visited Cochin, in 1997, I met Sarah and her husband Jacob, a lawyer. accountant and former journalist who often conducted services at the Paradesi Synagogue. I was struck by the window, which displayed blue wrought-iron Stars of David. To me it was a sign that the Jews of India were not afraid to express their identities openly.
Most of the members of the prosperous and respected Cochin community made aliyah in the 1950s, but Jacob and Sarah were among the few Jews who chose to remain. Jacob's words will forever ring in my memory: “My heart burns. This was a little Jerusalem," he said. "Israel is my spiritual land, the land of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, but India is my motherland; the only land that offered tolerance, scholarship and prosperity.” Jacob passed away in 1998.
Sarah is legendary for never having missed voting in an election! An example for us all! She has left a legacy worldwide, as many visitors bought her hand-embroidered kippot and hallah covers that she sold in a small shop. They are being used in homes around the world.
My daughter's wedding! Beautiful and unforgettable, filled with love and radiance.
Mazal tov, Shoshana and Ian! (No, it was not in India, but hey, Connecticut is lovely in the summer.)
Below, one particularly poignant and joyous moment before the wedding.
Since weddings have been uppermost in my mind, I decided to write a little more about wedding customs in the Baghdadi Jewish community of India.
Things have changed since my great-grandmother was married to my great-grandfather in 1887. She was 12. He was 19. Obviously it was an arranged marriage—with a professional matchmaker as the intermediary. It was common for girls as young as 10, and usually between 12 and 13, to become engaged. Boys were between 18 and 20. The matchmakers were usually women: their standard fee was a complete outfit, from head to toe. Only once a match was negotiated did the boy and girl meet for the first time. Shades of Fiddler on the Roof!
The engagement itself took place at the girl's home. The master of ceremonies was a dakaka, a woman who was an expert drummer and tambourine player. She didn't just play: she showed her skill while balancing a glass full of liquid or a candy tray on her head!
During every holiday during the engagement period, the boy's family sent trays of sweets to the girls family. Both families contributed to the couple's new home. The groom's mother gave the bride-to-be a substantial piece of jewelry. The bride's family supplied the trousseau, jewelry, furniture and gold-embroidered house shoes, and a tallit bag and kippah for the groom. The groom's family paid for the mattress, wedding gown and suit,
and wedding expenses.
A night or two before wedding the family held a henna celebration: henna was placed on tips of the bride's fingers and the small finger of the groom. The bride changed gowns after henna ceremony as many times as her trousseau would allow. In later years, even when an official matchmaker was not involved, parents or relatives usually initiated the match. Sometimes, however, it was purely a love match.
As is universal in Jewish communities worldwide, we have a huppah (wedding canopy); ketubah (marriage contract); sheba berakhot (seven wedding blessings), and breaking of the glass. At the wedding dinner and seven nights following, a large candle was lit, and there was lots of singing and ululating! The candle was preserved in case the couple had a son. Then it would be used again at the night preceding the brit milah, the circumcision.
On the first Shabbat after the marriage the groom was given special seat in front of synagogue. A special pizmon (song) was chanted in his honor. Women gathered in the bride's home to honor her.
My father and mother went on their first “date” with my mother’s older sister as a chaperone. My mother sat in the back seat, her sister sat in the front, and my father looked at my mother through the rear view mirror! They got married not long after, and here they are with their wedding cake! Sept 11, 1955.
When we travel to Calcutta on our tours, we stay at the Great Eastern Lalit Hotel, the site of my parents' wedding reception. I'm pretty sure I have found the very spot where this photo was taken!
I love old books, especially the ones from my father's library. They were printed all over the world, many in Baghdad, Livorno, Italy; Calcutta, or Bombay. Their leather covers in black, browns or maroons are often embossed with gold designs or stamped with the owner's name.
Recently, I was asking my father about our customs for Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah. There is a universal custom to hold a tikkun on Erev Shavuot (the first night). We called it a hatimah (sealing, as on Hoshanah Rabbah that precedes Simhat Torah).
Our hatimah was conducted after dinner (not a dairy meal) at home with friends and family. It was literally a night of Torah reading that featured a mind-boggling survey of the Torah...kind of an ancient religious version of speed-dating: The beginning and end of each of the 54 parashiot of the Torah and the beginning and end of the remaining 19 books of the Tanakh (Bible) were read aloud!
I asked him, how did you know exactly which verses to read? And he showed me this amazing volume called Keri'ay Mo'ed, (readings for holidays, which delineates exactly which portions were to be read. For the Torah, usually it's the first few verses of the parashah, and the maftir (ending).
They didn't study all night on an empty stomach...there was some yummy food involved! A fluffy layered Baghdadi bread called Kahi, similar to Indian paratha, was eaten with sweet halwa (not halva) made from fine semolina.
After the Torah reading, sections of the Zohar, the classic mystical text, were read, even though no one understood them, followed by chanting the entire book of Psalms! Finally, when all this concluded, they would go to the synagogue for services at 4 am, when the sun rose.
I get goosebumps when I am reminded of the deep commitment to Torah that is bound up in the pages of this book. I wonder how to revive even a measure of that dedication in our world today?
How many of us remember when the State of Israel was NOT a reality?
Seventy years ago, in May 1949, my Uncle Meyer, who had made aliyah to Israel in 1945, sent a letter home to his father (my grandfather) in Calcutta, enclosed in this special envelope. It features the emblem of the state, the badge of the army, and image of a coin issued by Rome on the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.
He included a newspaper account of the incredible celebration of the first anniversary of the state.
“In the cities, villages and settlements of Israel, the people will celebrate the first anniversary of the Day of Independence tonight and tomorrow. As a symbol of redemption, the Shofar will be blown in all synagogues in Israel. Worshipers will recite the HALLEL (Psalms of Praise) and LEKHA DODI, a religious poem chanted on Friday night that calls for national and spiritual regeneration. Such passages from the poem as Awake, arise from the dust, and Enough have you sat in the vale of weeping are included. Congregations will recite the sheheheyanu that they were fortunate to see this day, and that they will see the coming year in Jerusalem rebuilt. Following services, evening meals will be conducted as they are on holidays, and candles will be lit.
A memorial service for those who died during the war will be held. In some synagogues, HAKAFOT (processions with the scrolls of the Torah) will take place as in ancient times when Jewish soldiers carried the Holy Ark with them to and from battle. Portions of the Torah will be read, and replicas of the Menorah on Titus’s Ark will be lit.”
Many, many years after this letter was sent, on one of my parents’ visits to Calcutta, my father found a treasure trove of letters from Uncle Meyer and his sister, my Aunt Ruby, that my grandfather had saved. The letters document life in Palestine–as Israel was known before statehood--and then Israel–in remarkable detail. With incredible foresight and no copying machine handy, my grandfather had copied by hand some of the letters he had written in reply.
Uncle Meyer's and Aunt Ruby's first-hand testimony and photos are part of a presentation I offer to JCCs, synagogues, schools and other organizations. It's called Facing West: One Family's Journey from India to Israel, 1945-1955.
Wandering Cows seem to be everywhere in India. Don't be cowed by their ubiquitous presence. They are, literally, Sacred Cows, symbolizing motherhood, and it’s a mitzvah to feed them!
The cow’s gentle nature, milk-giving, and practical importance in rural food production have raised its status to that of Mother, a symbol of caretaking, divine bounty, nature, and non-violence. It is called Gaumata, mother cow, because it selflessly provides milk to all.
Most Hindus worship cows and shun the eating of beef. Slaughtering cows is illegal in India today. Milk and dairy products are considered highly nutritious in Ayurveda, so most Hindus are vegetarian, but not vegan. Cow dung is not only used for fuel but also in rituals. Special festivals all over India honor cows: they are decorated and dressed in colorful finery, bells and garlands.
Lord Krishna, one of the most important Hindu gods, grew up as a cow herder and is often depicted playing his flute among cows and dancing milkmaids! Krishna also goes by the names Govinda and Gopala, which literally mean “friend and protector of cows.” Another primary god, Shiva, rides a sacred bull.
A dairy delight called Panchamritis is prepared for many rituals. This “sacred ambrosia” or “nectar of the gods” consists of five ingredients: milk, yogurt, ghee, honey and sugar that is supposed to infuse a person with divine energy and healing.
Here is a simple recipe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q59zNzLmfvI
Our travelers love the luxury of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel in Mumbai! It has just won the Hotels.com Award in the 'Loved by Guests - Most Wanted' category. And, for the second year in a row, it has achieved the highest guest satisfaction score worldwide among its peers on TrustYou, the world's largest guest feedback platform. It has also been highlighted in the new film, Hotel Mumbai, about the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Since then, the hotel has taken meticulous security precautions. No car enters without being thoroughly checked, hood and trunk opened. No guest or bag passes inside without being screened. Its rooms, views, cuisine and hospitality are the stuff of memories! The Taj is both safe and splendid!
The hotel's iconic history goes back to the turn of the 20th century. It was built by Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, founder of the Tata Group, in 1903. It's said that Tata was refused entry to British-owned Watson's Hotel--Bombay's first five-star hotel--where a sign read, "No dogs or Indians allowed." So Tata decided to set up his own shop! Taj Mumbai was the first of the chain's 100 hotels around the world. Watson's? It's now a vacant, dilapidated building in Mumbai's Kala Ghoda district.
If you are surprised there are Jews in India, you'll be even more surprised to learn that one Indian Jew was among the country's greatest military heroes. Lt. Gen. Jack Jacob served as chief-of-staff of the Indian Army and successfully led its Eastern Army during the liberation of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971 (he is pictured standing, fourth from left). With courage, strategic thinking, and daring, he enacted a bold plan to negotiate Pakistan's surrender and stopped the bloodshed that had taken thousands of lives. His actions changed the course of Southeast Asian history. He later served as Governor of Goa and Punjab, battling corruption, fighting for the poor, and helping to forge the diplomatic bond with Israel that has become so crucial to the region today.
Born in Calcutta in 1923, Jacob's Baghdadi-Jewish family adopted a family of Jewish refugees escaping the Nazis. Appalled by their stories of atrocities, he enlisted in the British Indian army in 1942. He continued to serve in the Indian Army after India won its independence in 1947.His books include: Surrender at Dacca: Birth of a Nation, and his autobiography, An Odyssey in War and Peace.
Jacob, who died in Delhi in 2016, will be honored posthumously on April 30, 2019 at Jerusalem's Ammunition Hill, where a special Wall of Honor commemorates Jewish soldiers who served with distinction in foreign armies.
India is home to all sort of "marbleous" art! The families of the artisans who adorned the Taj Mahal with their exquisite work continue to craft marble inlaid with minerals and stones that include malachite, lapis, jasper and carnelian, which is translucent when you shine a light on it. The amazing artistry requires meticulous attention as the stones are often tiny. In addition, the marble is so durable that you can spill anything on it and it will not stain!
Merav Darzi, 31, is a Physician Assistant who lives in Brooklyn and works in the Bronx. She went to India with us partly to deepen her knowledge about her Baghdadi roots.
Q: How was this tour different from all other tours?
A: We didn't just stop at a couple of synagogues in Mumbai and then on to the Taj Mahal; we visited Jewish communities in Mumbai, Cochin, Calcutta and Delhi, and heard stories about our ancestors’ legacies that we must preserve and pass on to the next generations. In Cochin, for instance, we learned that on each holiday the ark curtains were changed to a special color (For Pesah it was blue). There was a special hollow rolling pin for the matza dough. It had a metal bead inside so it made a bell-like sound. Just listening to the stories was like being transported in time!
Q: How did the tour help you connect to your Baghdadi roots?
A: The tour was an intense and immense experience. There is a special spiritual atmosphere in India as well as great history that shows in the beautiful architecture of the synagogues. It was emotional seeing the Magen David synagogue in Mumbai, a near-replica of the synagogue in Baghdad (Merav is pictured above at Magen David). While it is still impossible to attend prayer services in Baghdad, we are fortunate to have Baghdadi-Indian services still being practiced today in India.
Q: What was the experience like from a young person's perspective?
A: It was an honor and a privilege to be a part of a group of people who are more knowledgeable about the world and have experienced so much of life. It was fascinating to hear what brought them to explore Jewish India and how it connects to their own Judaism and spirituality. I felt a deep connection to everyone on the tour just by listening to their stories!
Q: What experience do you think no traveler to India should miss?
A: That is a truly difficult question! It’s almost impossible to pin down one experience when there is no shortage of so many memorable and joyful ones! Bombay, Cochin, Calcutta are at the top of my list for their Jewish life and Udaipur has the most exquisite natural vistas. India is a place where each person will find a unique connection.
Folke and Noomi Flam, both physicians from Stockholm, Sweden, joined us on our February 2019 tour. We asked them for their thoughts about the tour.
Q: Why did you choose a tour of India? Why a Jewish tour?
A: For several years we have wanted to go to India. In school we learned about faraway India with all its religions and old culture. Today India is emerging as a powerful democratic nation. Virtually all people who have visited India and have told us about their experiences are enthusiastic. Thus we wanted to see this with our own eyes. We have been on Jewish heritage tours to Ethiopia as well as Peru/Bolivia and we find it interesting to learn about Jewish history in faraway countries. It is amazing how Jews have kept their identity for thousands of years in India.
Q: How did you find out about our tour?
A: A non-Jewish friend who has visited India many times found your tour on the Internet and thought it would be perfect for us. It didn´t take long after reviewing the program for us to sign up!
Q: What was surprising or eye-opening about India?
A: We were astonished by the warm and generous attitude of the Indian people. It was interesting to learn about the coexistence of all religions and that anti-Semitism never existed. We were astonished to see what people could accomplish in building beautiful palaces and worship places many hundreds of years ago.
Q: What memories will you cherish?
A: We will always remember the people we met: the lovely family in Mumbai whose daughter wants to become a doctor; Mrs. Silliman and her daughter in Calcutta; the home hospitality in Jaipur. We will remember the marvelous teamwork and knowledge provided by our two guides… not to mention Rahel’s singing.