Celebrating Hanukkah, Kerala style

It was a rough start to Hanukkah this year. Thanks to some moderately poor planning on my part as well as travel the first three nights were more or less a blur. The first was celebrated at home but we were in the midst of packing for our trip to India and Sri Lanka so there was less actual celebrating than there probably should have been. Nights two and three would have likely resulted in arrest had we tried to light the menorah, thanks to the fact that we were on airplanes at the time. Cue night four.

The caretaker, lighting some of the oil-burning lamps in the chandelier

By the time the fourth night rolled around we had finished our thirty-odd hour trek from New York City to Kochi. Sure, we were horribly jet lagged, but we still headed out to see some of the local sights, including theParadesi Synagogue, the oldest in India and one of the older continually operating congregations in the world. It was a Friday, however, and that meant no tours available (despite the advice of the guide book, though I should’ve known better). But there was a phone number on a paper taped to the wall mentioning services.

Six years ago, when planning our first trip to India a visit to this synagogue was one of the things I was very excited by. Sadly, I couldn’t make it work that time around. This time, however, we were here and it was both a Friday night and a holiday. There was no way I was going to miss the opportunity. Yeah, I made the call.

The local Chabad house runs services with a small group of ex-pats who live in the area and whatever visitors they happen to have in town that week. In our case the group numbered about 40, though only 20 counted according to their traditions. Still, we were invited inside to celebrate Hanukkah and the Sabbath, and we did in a very Indian way.


Inside the synagogue

The synagogue building dates to 1568 so there is more than a little bit of history inside the walls. The story of the Cochin Jews is actually pretty well documented elsewhere and I don’t have anything new to offer to that context so I’ll save that part of the story for others to tell. But we did get to experience the synagogue in a rather different way than most tourists, and not only because we got to keep our shoes on.

Normally visitors are required to remove their shoes to help protect the floor tiles. There are several hundred of the tiles, each hand painted and unique, imported from China. They’re just one of many beautiful and distinctive bits that contributes to the overall character of the building.

There are the chandeliers, many of which are still oil-burning rather than electric. At one point during services the power went out and we had a couple minutes by candle-light that was truly inspiring. There is the double pulpit, one upstairs and one in the middle of the ground floor. And there is the impressive collection of torahs, one of which is crowned by an actual gold crown gifted to the community by one of the local maharajah.


IMGP5390And, of course, we were there for Hanukkah, so there was the lighting of the menorah that night prior to shabbat starting. They’re old school, with an oil-burning model that was pretty cool. And unsurprisingly, it was a bit of a pain to get lit. Still, the sound of the community singing the prayers and songs together was a very uplifting moment.

We met a few of the others in the group that night, in no small part due to the fact that everything was conducted only in Hebrew and there were some issues following along with the service. No matter the reason, it was still a great way to meet a few locals, some tourists and a couple of guys who are making a documentary about the community. I’m pretty sure I’ll be in some of the B-roll footage.

There was a 5th night coda to the celebration; the restaurant we dined in tonight happened to be the where the public menorah is lit every night so we got to share that experience again. And this time I had a beer with me. Still, it had nothing on the experience of celebrating the holiday in a 450+ year old building and with a community that runs back well longer.

Read more from the India/Sri Lanka New Years adventure here.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.