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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Lost in Kandy ... A Passing Encounter

I received this email from a blog reader "JP", and he has agreed to have me share it with you. Obviously the encounter took place in the early 1980's. The Jewish man concerned may not be alive - any update to this story please add them to the comments below.

I came across your blog and thought to share my anecdotal experience with respect to jews in sri lanka as to this day it remains a unique event in my life.

Upon graduating university in 1982 I set out on backpacking journey that took me through the south pacific, australia, and ultimately into Indonesia and asia.  After about a year and a half into my journey I found myself in Sri Lanka.Though I landed in Colombo, the only thing I can remember about the city is the dusty bus station that took me immediately out into the countryside.  I moved from beach to beach around the perimeter of the island until I finally decided to head inland toward Kandy. 

Whatever vestiges of western clothing and look i had at the time I left los angeles had long been discarded by the time I reached Kandy.   My hair was to my back, my skin dark, and my clothing was local shorts and sandals.  I share this only to say that there was nothing about my appearance that would give much about me away.  In fact, all throughout this part of world, “travelers” like myself were relatively common and we looked like each other more than anyone else from anyplace else.

During afternoons in Kandy there would be a procession of people making offerings of flowers and incense in the local temple.  People would line up, there coal black faces contrasted against their traditional white wraps.  I enjoyed this and like other travelers would join in this and other local customs.One afternoon, no different than any other, I was in line waiting my turn to bring  flowers into the temple when a very old man approached me.  Like every other Sri Lankan, he was dressed in white, his skin as dark as coal, yet there was still something different about his look. 

Sri Lankans had for the most part very consistent facial features, large brown eyes, oval yet defined facial structure, average noses.  This man’s face was far more angular, with a nose my uncle larry would be proud of.  He looked for all intents and purpose like an extraordinarily tan version of one of the old guys from my father’s golf club.

You see, I’m jewish, and I know an old Jew when I see one, heck I grew up around them.  To be clear, my nose is small, I am tall and athletic, and there was nothing about my outward appearance that would suggest religion at all.  What was amazing is that this very old Sri Lankan came up to me and the first words he said to me, in thick sri lankan accent was, “I know your jewish, right?” 

“Right”, I responded, though completely dumbfounded.  “How did you know?” I asked.

“I just know.  I am too.  Can you help me?”  He asked.

“How?” I asked.

He asked if when I went back home if I could arrange for Torah the Talmud to be sent to him and his people.  That they did not have them and that they’re Jewish tradition was passed along orally.  He told me that he and his family had lived there for hundreds of years. Tears formed in his eyes as he shared stories with me and about the excitement of getting the books he had long hoped form  He gave me the address where  to send it and left.

When I returned to the U.S. I had spent so much time in and out of South East Asia, going back and forth between countries that the customs officials viewed my with caution and went through every micro possession I had including giving me a strip search.  By the time I collected everything, left the airport, and finally unpacked I realized to my sadness that the slip of paper with the address on it had gotten lost.

I went to my families’ temple to inquire about jewish community in sri lanka and sending what I had promised.  I was told that there is no indigenous jewish community to contact and that the only jews to speak of are the ex-pats from Israel, America, Australia, etc.  I explained that there is a historical community there, but no one here had any knowledge of it.

It was my hope to fly back and fulfill my promise, however, very shortly after my return to the states the conflict with the tamils really erupted which lasted until now.  I found your blog because the event still resonates with me and  I would still love to fulfill my promise if it’s needed, but even now in 2010 there little if anything that can be found written or mentioned about a group of people I know are there.   Hopefully this story finds you and you find it interesting.

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