Shabbat in Fort Cochin and Sri Lanka

On my last (and most memorable) night in India, I attended a Shabbat service at the 400-year old Pardesi Synagogue in the Jew Town section of Fort Cochin.  The synagogue was so much more beautiful at night than it was during the day. The tourists were all gone, as was the stale and lifeless air inherent in places turned into museums.  It was no longer just a building, a space, and a story for people to come into and learn about, then leave and forget.  It was transformed back into what it was made for– a place of worship.  They lit the oil lamps in the glass chandeliers in the same way they did every Friday night for hundreds of years.  The Rabbi sang the Hebrew prayers, his voice filling the room, and he and the two other males in attendance danced.  And as per tradition, we woman sat in the back and followed along.  The service was short, simple, and intimate.

Unfortunately, none of those 10 remaining Jews made it to the service itself– their health does not allow for it.  But when it was over we called on the last 4 old ladies living nearby.  I feel very lucky to have had the chance to meet and talk with them in their own homes, especially because I might be of one of the last generations to meet them in person. Plus, I’m happy to report that Jews are Jewish everywhere—Sarah Cohen, at 93 the oldest Jew in town, had a strong, feisty spirit and managed to give me a grade-A guilt trip during the 7 minutes I was in her home: she scolded me for traveling on a Friday night and asked why I hadn’t come to see her earlier.  I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the sheer amount of shellfish I’d eaten in Kerala was probably more offensive to God than breaking shabbos*, so I kept my mouth shut and complimented her on her sequined yamakas instead.


My flight to Sri Lanka the next morning was smooth sailing and I’ll leave you with two things about this country I realized on my first bus ride: 1) the people here are small and 2) they are ridiculously friendly.  Now, image stuffing a hyperthermic giraffe into a dollhouse: this is me sitting in a Sri Lankan bus seat.  My shoulders are too broad, limbs too long, butt too big to fit, no, cram, comfortably in seats built for people half my size.  It’s hot and the cushions are covered in plastic, so I spent most of the 7-hour journey soaked in a pool of my own sweat.  Now compound that with constant lurching, bumpy roads, and Sri Lankan pop music (sounds like a fusion of island reggae, bad 80’s techno beats, and a Sinhalese-speaking Raffi) blaring on the sound system.


The good news is that what the ride lacked in comfort my bus companions made up for in absurdly nice gestures.  The bus driver said “Good morning!” to me every time I woke up from a snooze and threw snacks in my lap when he thought I looked hungry.  When I was hesitant to eat an apple he gave me, the woman next to me took it out of my hand, washed it with bottled water, and cut it up for me with a knife she pulled out of her purse.  The bus crew even shuffled me into the back of the rest stop restaurant to share a massive dinner prepared for them with me.  When I finally arrived at my destination, all of them handed me their phone numbers and asked me to call them if I needed anything.


I’ve been in Sri Lanka for only four full days and I’ve seen ancient ruins, a leopard (I can die happy now), heard horror stories about the Tamil Tigers and the civil war that ended two years ago, and swam in the gorgeous beaches on the eastern coast.  I’m writing this now from a beachside restaurant and the front of my body looks like a lobster from too much sun this morning.


Photos here:

*for all the non-Jews reading, shellfish is not kosher according to Jewish dietary laws, the same way with eating pork and mixing milk and meat.

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