Wandering Mother, Wondering Daughter: Part 1

“Jew town,” Mom directed the autorickshaw driver.

“Where in Jew town?” he asked in Malayalam.

“The big church,” Mom responded, because she did not know the word for synagogue in Malayalam. 

My mother and I had made a special trip to Cochin to see the synagogue. Mom was excited because she had last been in a synagogue forty years earlier, when she lived in Berkeley with her parents. After she married my father and moved to India, she discovered that our small town had churches, mosques, a Buddhist stupa, but no synagogue. I had read about synagogues, had seen pictures, but I had never been inside one, so I, too, was very excited.

I knew about the Cochin Jews, knew, too, that there weren’t enough for a
, because most had immigrated to Israel. Still, it was a tremendous disappointment when we arrived at the synagogue and discovered the doors were firmly shut.

“It has been empty for a long time,” the driver informed us. “I thought you simply wanted to see the clock tower,” he pointed to the sky.

We looked up at the bell and clock tower, which, Mom explained, approximated a dome.

“Back to the train station now?” the driver asked.

“No,” Mom responded. “We are going inside.”

“Not possible,” the driver insisted.

“There has to be someone who can open it for us,” Mom said, and turning around, walked into the shop that was across the road.

“Do you know the man who has the keys to the big church?” she asked the shopkeeper.

The shop keeper took in my mother’s 5’10” frame, the blue eyes, the white skin, and asked, “You are Jewish?”

“Yes,” Mom said, “my daughter and I are both Jewish. We want to pray in our church.”

The man glanced at the brown skin I inherited from my Indian father and shrugged. He wasn’t going to question kinship. “I will call the man,” he said, and half an hour later, the doors swung open.

We were the only two in the synagogue, and yet we whispered. We marveled at the blue tiles from China, the Belgian chandelier, the brass that glinted.

“Just imagine,” Mom said, “It used to be filled with people.”

Posted on September 19, 2012

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