Sunday, 22 November 2009

Book review: "The Last Jews of Kerala" by Edna Fernandes

This is a fascinating and touching account of the dying Jewish community in Kerala, India. The book is well researched and skilfully written by Edna Fernandes, who is a British Indian journalist, pointing a spotlight on a community largely unknown to the rest of the world. The author explores the racial divide in the community between the White and Black Jews, the major landmarks in their history and what the future holds. The author’s direct meetings and conversations with members of the community adds a true sense of authenticity, which makes the book so much more interesting.

The Black or Malabari Jews trace their ancestry to the days of King Solomon in biblical times when Jewish traders would come to Kerala in search of spices, sandalwood and other exotic commodities. The White or Paradesi Jews came during the Inquisition in Europe. Unlike many other Jewish communities in the western world, the Jews never suffered persecution in Kerala. In fact, they were a privileged community with special favours bestowed upon them by princely rulers during the ages.

The divide between Black Jews and White Jews came about due to a fight for pre-eminence in Cochini society, resulting in a “Jewish apartheid in India that would last four centuries and eventually lead to the decline and fall of both Black and White.” The Paradesi Jews linked their skin colour to religious purity, alleging that the Malabari Jews were the offspring of slave converts. As Fernandes explains, this undermined the standing of Black Jews: “In caste-based India, where the concept of religious purity is prominent, the taint of slavery eventually undermined the Malabaris’ standing in the royal court of Cochin. Loss of status and economic influence was only part of the cost they had to bear. Dubbed the sons of slaves, the Black Jews were then barred from marrying the White Jews, barred from the Paradesi Synagogue, barred from forming their own place of worship in their homes.”

All this went against the tenets of Judaism, in which the link between justice and shalom are inviolable. As news of this discrimination reached overseas, foreign rabbis such as Rabbi ibn Zimra ruled that the Black Jews “did have the right to intermarry and enter the synagogue as equals, provided all the proper conversion rituals had taken place.” However, the Paradesi leaders did not listen and carried on with their discrimination. “If the segregation was ever challenged by the Blacks, the Whites would call upon the raja or local colonial powers to intervene on their behalf and quell any resistance.”

Eventually it took the bold efforts of a low-born, brilliant lawyer from Ernakulam, A. B. Salem, known as the “Jewish Gandhi”, to bring about change. Inspired by Gandhi’s non-violent methods of protest in the fight for Indian Independence, he applied similar tactics with the Paradesi community. One day he refused to sit in the antechamber designated for the Blacks and strode into the Paradesi Synagogue, dragging his sons behind him. Being a top lawyer, writer and knowing Gandhi and Nehru the Paradesi elders were powerless to stop this man. “Blessed with formidable patience as well as intellect, he relentlessly chipped away at the edifice of prejudice, piece by piece, until it came tumbling down.” Finally, within a few years of the creation of the state of Israel, the last taboo was broken when Balfour, the second son of A. B. Salem, fell in love and married Seema ‘Baby’ Koder, a beautiful White Jewess.

Fernandes briefly describes the other Jewish communities in India including the Bene Israel, who are based in Mumbai, and the Baghdadi Jews, who have now all but disappeared. “While British rule lasted, the educated Bene Israel did well. By the 1940s the community had reached a peak of 25,000 people in India. The Bene Israel were like the Cochinis in that they, too, differentiated between light and dark-skinned Jews, mirroring the indigenous society, which also put a premium on fairness.” However, the Bene Israel still number around 5,000 today which is evidence of their ability to put aside their differences unlike the Cochinis.

Faced with an uncertain future and the lure of Zionism many of the Jews of Cochin, and India, migrated to Israel after Indian Independence and the creation of the Jewish state. Fernandes visits a few Cochini Jews in Israel, most of whom have settled in the Negev, where the dry, barren, desert landscape contrasts with green, verdant Kerala. Despite the harshness of the land many of them have settled well, doing well in horticulture and agriculture. “After fifty years, the Cochini Jewish way of life was thriving in the Middle East just as it was dying in southern India. The community here took every opportunity to push things forward to the next generation. They were ruthless in their in their pragmatism, as one would expect of a desert people. If they could not marry a Cochini, they would marry another Jew and show them the Kerala Jewish life. It was better than the alternative.”

For some Cochinis, however, Israel wasn’t the paradise they had envisaged. Not only was it a “void of loneliness and rejection,” the constant conflict between the Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land was a far cry from their peaceful co-existence in Kerala. As Fernandes explains, the Malabari immigrants “sensed an echo of their own tragedy in the Palestinians.” “They too knew what it was to be usurped in their historical narrative, to face separation. In Kerala, division led to destruction. Perhaps their fear was of the cycle repeating itself.” One such person is seventy-eight year old Abraham Eliavoo, who came not for Zionism but the love of his faith, yet he wanted to return to Kerala to die there because he could not reconcile faith with conflict. “In the end, it was an age-old tolerance that drew him.”

The book is a touching and compelling tale of the Jews of Kerala whose existence, stretching back thousands of years, certainly looks bleak despite a prosperous past. There are some wonderful conversations with various people, as well as descriptions of the Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancheri and places such as Cranganore, Cochin, Chennamangalam, Parul, the Negev and Jerusalem which are important for the Cochinis. In the twilight of their existence in Kerala, at least, there is a belated bonhomie between the Black and White Jews, the latter depending on the former for life support. But as the last few Paradesi Jews come to the end of their lives, and a despondent resignation hangs over them, they will be questioning whether their own attitudes led to their plight, for without justice there can be no shalom.

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