By Ariana Siegel
The Jerusalem Post reported that a synagogue in Parur, a city in the southern state of Kerala, is currently undergoing a “massive restoration.” The effort is funded principally by the government of local South-Indian state called Kerala, with some help from the national Indian government in Delhi. Dr. Venu V. Ias, the Kerala district government’s secretary of tourism, told the Post that, “The restoration work of the Parur synagogue symbolizes the eagerness of Kerala’s people to celebrate their multi-religious heritage.”
It would be wonderful to note that the Indian government was taking an interest in the Jews, if in fact there were Jews in Kerala to take an interest in. Sadly, however, the vibrant community of around 3,000 Jews in southern India that existed a century ago has largely disappeared, as all but about 35 have emigrated to Israel, according to the Post. All that is left of this Jewish anomaly are a handful of empty synagogues and locations with names like “Jew town” or “Jew Street.” It seems, then, that what the Indian government is really taking an interest in is not the local Jewish community, but foreign Jewish tourism.
Having visited a number monuments to defunct Jewish communities in the American south, Poland, Italy, and India, I can attest that the experience is not an altogether happy one. Certainly visiting reliquary synagogues has its merits: to wander through dusty pews and admire bimas crumbling beneath long unlit Ner Tamids ignites fanciful imaginings. One can wonder what the Shabbat melodies sounded like ringing through church-like Italian arches, or what the Rabbi would have said to the congregation on Yom Kippur in an abandoned Polish shtetl. And yet it is unnerving to witness these ghosts. As tour guides or aged congregants recall days gone by, Jewish listeners may be jarred by the similarities between the extinct community and their own, and wonder if their synagogues will one day be reduced to museums.
These questions seem particularly haunting when considering historical Jewish geography. Jews have often proven to be quite good at disappearing; Jewish presence disappeared from ancient Egypt, diminished in Israel at various points, dissipated in Eastern Europe and the former USSR, (though mostly by force, not choice). Since 1945 Jewish communities have shriveled with alarming rapidity from any Middle Eastern country outside of Israel. It’s become hard to imagine that there were once incredibly prosperous Jewish communities in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Lybia, and others nations now considered toxic environments for Jewish life. It’s no wonder Houdini was such a talented escape artist– his people had been doing it for generations.
And yet, as our sages have repeatedly reminded us, it is important to recall where we have been in order that we may know where we are going. Our tradition has long pointed towards “never forgetting” rather than shunning our past, for forgetting only helps those who wish to hasten our disappearance. So while we always encourage Aliyah to Israel, the work of organizations such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, (and now, apparently, the Indian government) to preserve the remnants of formerly vibrant Jewish communities is in fact vital. These organizations help to maintain the idea that it is in fact possible to be a Jew anywhere in the world. If this were not true, we would no longer be able to sing, “wherever you go, there’s always someone Jewish.”