Kerala’s Jewish legacy is widely celebrated in India and Israel, and is seen as a bridge between the countries. There has been a fair deal of research about the Jews of Kerala and their lifestyle in the state. However, there are no well-known narratives of Kerala life and customs written by Jews who lived in the state.
One rare account by a travelling rabbi from Jerusalem gives some interesting glimpses of how non-Kerala Jews saw the state.
A Hebrew-language travelogue from 1860 titled Even Sapir, written by Jacob Sapir, documents life in places like Cochin and Alleppey.
Parts of the travelogue, virtually unknown to those who don’t read Hebrew, have been translated by Richard G. Marks, a professor at the Washington and Lee University in Virginia, US. These excerpts feature in an essay that is part of a brilliant collection titled Malabar in the Indian Ocean, edited by Mahmood Kooria and Michael Naylor Pearson.
The rabbi was sent as an emissary by one of the Jewish communities in Jerusalem to raise money from wealthy Indian Jews, Marks wrote. He arrived in Bombay in November, 1859, and spent six months in the city, before boarding a ship to Cochin. He spent two months in Cochin before travelling through the backwaters through Alleppey and Trivandrum and moved on to Madras and Calcutta. His travelogue was published in two volumes in 1866 and 1874.
Joseph Sapir “portrayed himself as an explorer searching out and telling the story of ‘our brothers and our people’ in distant lands.” A lot of the India section is dedicated to the customs of the so-called ‘Black Jews’ and ‘White Jews’ but 40 per cent of the book’s Indian section describes the history, customs, culture and nature of India, according to Marks.
The rabbi had the misfortune of arriving in Cochin in the month of May and had to battle the extreme heat and humidity as a consequence. “The heat is quite exceedingly great in this land (it is 10 degrees in latitude, 101 in longitude), and the wealthy among the people go out in the summer to dwell far from the city, about one day’s distance, in gardens and orchards on a river of sweet waters,” Sapir wrote.
The heat is quite exceedingly great in this land, and the wealthy go out in the summer to dwell far from the city, about one day’s distance, in gardens and orchards on a river of sweet waters.
“Also, their houses are airy and built with only lower and second floors, and for the breeze of the day, and behind their houses are gardens and orchards with shady trees in whose shade they seek shelter most of the day as a defence and shield from the sun and burning heat, and wells of sweet fresh water are there for all their needs, and they go down into them to wash and to cool off during the heat of the day.”
The rabbi found the Cochin summer nights unbearable as well, claiming that the heat remained unbearable and that flies and fleas came into bedrooms in “battalions.”
Like many foreign visitors to Kerala before him, the rabbi was surprised to see that most people walked bear-chested on the streets. This was a custom followed also by the Jews, except when they entered the synagogue. The rabbi said people did not feel embarrassed about being seen in public without covering the upper half of their bodies.
He added: “All of them carry in their hands a sun-shield (parasol) for defence and shelter over their bare heads from the burning of the sun which pierces down upon them, and it is a thing of woven craft from tree leaves which are wide, long, and large here, and in it are also inserted some of the leaves upon which they write with a common stylus.” The rabbi was fascinated with the way people wrote on palm leaves with a knife.
Abundance of food
“The necessities of human life here are inexpensive, because the whole land is watered, fruitful, and verdant, and the produce of the land is like the fruit of the trees: all in surfeit,” he wrote.
He noticed that Malayalis were mainly rice eaters and the Jews also seldom ate wheat, (was available in plenty) except when they baked a special bread for the sabbath. He also wrote about the “nuts of ‘coco,’” which were used for food, drinks and other necessities, and dwelt about the possibilities of using coconuts.
The traveller seemed impressed with the variety of fruits and vegetables available in Kerala. After writing about coconuts, he added, “And the other kinds of fruit from trees (except the apples which they bring from America) and beans and vegetables are found here in plenty, and nothing like them has been seen or found in the lands of Europe.”
The rabbi spoke of the variety of spices, and also of how easily available fish and meat were. “But they do not eat them to their fill because of the strong heat which nullifies the appetite for food and (these foods) are also difficult for the body’s health,” he wrote, describing meat and fish dishes in Kerala.
And we passed through this way for a night and a day and a night, to the delight of our souls because we were passing through a land which is like the Garden of Eden, fruitful and verdant, with gardens and orchards on this side and that.
Jacob Sapir on areas near Alleppey and Quilon
People seemed to live long in the state, he observed claiming he had seen many more old people there than in other lands, including a 145-year-old woman!
As Jacob Sapir travelled south to Trivandrum from Cochin, he seemed to fall even more in love with Kerala. Describing the areas near Alleppey and Quilon, he wrote: “And we passed through this way for a night and a day and a night, to the delight of our souls because we were passing through a land which is like the Garden of Eden, fruitful and verdant, with gardens and orchards on this side and that. And all year long the fruit does not fail and the plain is green with vegetation and lovely to the sight, and all day could be heard the joyful shouting of people and animals within the gardens and orchards where their homes are, in summer and winter.”
Thanks to the efforts of Richard G Marks, those who don’t know Hebrew can read excerpts from Sapir’s travelogue. However, a full translation would be extremely insightful and build even more bridges between Kerala and the global Jewish community.