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Lecture Notes: Indian Jews? Who knew?

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Indians and Jews live almost side by side on Devon Avenue. But where are the Indian Jews? Even in India there aren't many.

Never a large group, the population has dwindled to fewer than 6,000; over the past 50 years, most have emigrated to Israel. Only 34 synagogues survive, and in 1994 Jay Waronker, an Atlanta architect, was given a grant by Chicago's Graham Foundation to document the last temples. As he rode the bus from Cochin to North Parur through a wall of rain, he thought he should have known better than to go tromping through southern India during the monsoon season. He didn't know for sure if the synagogue he was after would still be there; the pamphlet listing it had been written during the 1980s.

Dropped off in front of a large, official-looking building, Waronker asked a man standing on the veranda for directions to the local synagogue. The man said, yes, just a minute, and led him to an office to meet another man who would take him there. Waronker was suspicious--perhaps there'd be a fee for the service or, worse, a dim lecture from an itinerant guide and then a request for a fee for the service. Thanks, but no thanks. "There's really no need," he told the men. "Just tell me how to go and I'll find it." But both men insisted, and Waronker followed the second one out.

His timing turned out to be fortuitous: his guide lived right across the road from the synagogue and had the only key to the place. "He was the head of the only Jewish family left in the town," Waronker recalls. "He'd just been conducting some business when I arrived." They trekked half an hour to a stucco gatehouse that looked pretty much like every other building in the area. There was nothing particularly Jewish about it, no identifying marks or style to proclaim it a synagogue.

A covered breezeway led to a courtyard, and within the courtyard was a freestanding house of worship. The compound, Waronker says, dates to 1616 and is the oldest synagogue in India. It was in pretty bad shape. "The ark was still there, but the furniture was all gone, and the rain was leaking in through the roof," he says. But he also found the place charming. "There's no better word to describe it."

Though the building was ancient, it wasn't the first synagogue built in North Parur. It replaced one that had been established there sometime in the 12th century, Just how long Jews have lived in India is a matter of some speculation. Two groups--the Cochin Jews in the south and the Bene Israel in the west--claim an arrival that dates back to the first centuries of this millennium. Legend holds that one of India's earliest Jews was also one of the earliest Christians: Thomas the Apostle ("Doubting Thomas") allegedly traveled to India in 52 AD; an ancient cross near Madras still marks his supposed grave. Another traditional story has the first Jews landing on the Malabar Coast much earlier, fleeing the occupation of Jerusalem by Nebuchadrezzar in 587 BC.

Waronker will give a talk, "In Search of Indian Synagogues: Their Architecture and History," at 6 PM this Tuesday at the Graham Foundation, 4 W. Burton Pl. An exhibit of his watercolor renderings of the 34 synagogues will go up at the same time and continue on display through June 24. Admission is free; call 312-787-4071 for more information.

--Jeffrey Felshman

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