Balak and Balaam in India

This week’s Torah portion, Balak, has new meaning for me since our recent trip to India. We visited two synagogues in Kochi (Cochin) that are not currently active and two in Mumbai (Bombay) that still are, and these visits were deeply moving. But it was a museum visit in Kochi that made me see this week’s parshah in a different way.

We followed a guide through the Hill Palace, the royal seat of the kings of Kochi for centuries. The Palace crowns a hill with a long wide terraced flight of steps through exquisite gardens. The museum within has scores of valuable artifacts, but my attention was arrested in a semi-darkened room by what turned out to be a six century old Torah scroll.

The parchment too was darkened, and there were only four columns visible, the remainder rolled into a pair of carved hemicylinders typical of the way Torahs are kept in Sephardi synagogues. I began studying the text as best I could—I would miss a lot of the scribe’s work in the best conditions—and read some of it aloud, trying to identify the portion.

A museum guard behind me said something to our guide in Malayalam, the language of Kerala state, and the guide said the guard wanted to know if the text was oriented properly—if it read from right to left, if it might be upside down. I reassured the guard, and meanwhile I saw the names Balaam and Balak in the text.

But what jumped out at me was, Ma tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mishkenotekha Yisrael, words I had said every day in my morning prayers in childhood and adolescence: How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy dwelling places O Israel! These are the words of Balaam after God opens his eyes. Ironically, Balak, the Moabite king the Torah portion is named for, has brought Balaam to curse Israel, but Balaam would not do it for Balak’s “house full of silver and gold.”

I don’t know what motivated the museum officials to keep the glass-enclosed Torah open to this portion, but I like to think that the ancient Jewish community of Kochi donated it and suggested the arrangement. It seems somehow fitting that these words would be displayed to commemorate the admiration of Kochi’s kings for the Jews who settled in his domain, and even symbolic of the larger tolerance of India for its Jews.

This tolerance, in its duration and quality, has never been matched by any other diaspora country throughout the history of the Jews. It was as if India’s kings followed Balaam, while others followed Balak. Perhaps it is also meaningful that God speaks to Balaam through the mouth of a donkey he is riding and beating, symbolic of the Hindu reverence for life. Yet, inspired by Zionism, almost all the Jews of Kochi left India for Israel after both gained their independence from Britain in the late 1940s. Most were gone by 1955.

The next day, we walked into one of the two well-kept synagogues on the other side of Kochi, in “Jew Town,” and met the now-famous caretaker Elias “Babu” Josephai, who had his bris and bar mitzvah there. We had had to follow our (very knowledgeable) Christian guide Thomas through Babu’s pet fish shop, which allows him to maintain the shul.

Babu was davening in tefilin before the Aron Kodesh, the holy ark—facing West toward Jerusalem, not East—which now contains a recently donated Torah. Beside him was a much younger man in tefilin, who offered to lend them to me after he finished. So I put them on for the first time in years (see photo), and said the Shema, the Amidah, and the Aleynu in this centuries old synagogue in India.

The young man who helped me, Ofer, turned out to be an Israeli of Yemeni descent, while his wife (far left) was the daughter of two Indian-Israelis who had made aliya from Kochi with their families when they were around ten years old. She had been back once or twice before, but this was the first time she brought her husband and children.

The girl, around twelve, wore a t-shirt saying in English, “Girls can do anything.” I read it out loud and then said to the slightly older son, “Boys can too.” The claim is as Israeli as it is American—and in future time, Indian too.

Thanks to Ofer’s thoughtfulness, I found myself saying the words, m’arba kanfot haaretz—from the four corners of the earth—and v’tekhezena eyneynu b’shuv’kha l’Tzion b’rakhamim—may our eyes behold your return to Zion in mercy—with a poignancy I could not have imagined. Here was a family formed in Israel from roots in 1500 or 2000 years of honored and honorable Indian diaspora, now reduced to a carefully kept but little-used synagogue behind a pet-fish store.

The tents of Jacob may have been admired in Kochi, but they were almost all taken down and re-erected in Zion. Even now the exodus continues. We saw the empty home of a schoolmate of one of our guides; he checked for the mezuzah, which was gone. His friend and her mother had finally moved to Israel three months ago.