[See SAJAforum posts, sources and resources on the 2008 presidential race]
Gulu Ezekiel, one of the leading sportswriters in India, sent me a link this morning to an unusual story from Indian Express. It has an intriguing headline about a city in the state of Kerala: "Barack Obama's Kochi Link":
Barack Obama and Barak Salem share more than the similar-sounding first names. The US presidential candidate’s struggle in a racial America has parallels with Salem’s fight against bias in Kerala’s Jewish community
By E.P. Unny
Of all places Indian, Barack Obama might find a particular resonance with Kochi. Here in the Jewish quarter from 1882 to 1967 lived Abraham Barak Salem. The sound-alike middle name apart, “Jewish Gandhi” as Salem was known in these parts created the kind of little history that should engage America’s first black Presidential candidate. As one with the most dissected first, middle and last names, Obama can let the pundits quibble a bit more over the Arabic/Swahili ‘Barack’ and the Hebrew ‘Barak’ and turn to the Salem story for easier parallels.
Born into a poor family, Salem went on to become the first graduate from his disadvantaged Jewish subgroup dubbed meshuchrarim meaning freed slaves by the local “white” Jews. Jews came to Kerala over the centuries in waves and the late arrivals considered themselves genetically and religiously purer and whiter than the early ones. They had an even sharper bias against the likes of Salem who were technically part of their own congregation at Kochi’s Paradesi Synagogue, where today tourists vastly outnumber the dwindling Jewry.
In Salem’s days the congregation was sizable enough to perpetuate what historians saw as apartheid and visiting Jewish scholars themselves disapproved of. The Salem subgroup had no right to chant prayers in full and had to sit mostly silent in the synagogue’s anteroom.
The list of don’ts stretched from marrying into the ‘white’ families to being seen wearing gold in Jew Town.
[You can read the rest of the story of Barak Salem in the Express piece.]
Yes, the Jewish area of Kochi (formerly Cochin) is known as "Jew Town," but it doesn't have the kind of negative connotation the term has in the U.S.
More about the Cochin Jews here in a Wikipedia entry; in "Who are the Jews of India?" by Nathan Katz; in Salman Rushdie's "The Moor's Last Sigh" (Amazon link; New York Review of Books review); and this entry in Lime Soda, a blog.
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