Book: Last Jews of Kerala

Tracing the Tribe seems to be on a bit of an India kick today. This fascinating book on the Jews of Kerala was reviewed in the Bangkok Post by Anuraj Manibhandu.

While many readers know that India is home to Jews of Baghdadi origin, as well as the Bene Israel and the Cochin communities, this book points up some inter-community problems that the wider Jewish world may not be familiar with – specifically problems between the white ( the Bagdadi community) and black (the Cochini) Jewish communities in the region.

British-Indian journalist Edna Fernandes traces their history, and the quarrels of “blacks” and “whites,” and sees this as a reason for the diminishing of this particular branch of the Jewish diaspora.

The communities also quarrel over who arrived first in India, who shared common ancestry with Jewish leaders of the subcontinent and whose religious purity was higher.

Fernandes says that these were survival tactics for a minority group in India, which places great importance on purity, social hierarchy, political and economic privilege.

She first found the Jews of Cochin on a 2002 visit and went back again in 2006 to see how the two sides lived. She interviewed people in India and in Israel, consulted archives and diaries. The reviewer writes that “she has produced a book that brings alive the predicament of a diaspora weighed down by tradition and prejudice.”

In the book, she relates the history, culture and beliefs of two groups that were separated although they lived only about 40 minutes away from each other. The pardesi (foreign, or white, generally the Bagdadi community) Jews arrived later than the Malabar (black) Jews, but used the Hindu caste system as a model for privilege.

Fernandes goes back to King Solomon to tell the story in the context of the bigger history of the Jewish diaspora, noting the trade of exotic goods between Israel and India, adventures of explorers such as Vasco da Gama and the Cochin Jews’ survival during colonial days.

She notes Joseph Rabban, whom both groups claim as an ancestor, as well as Abraham Barak Salem, known as the “Jewish Gandhi,” the first black Jew to become a lawyer and who won some rights for his people. Read about the “mixed” marriage between a (white) Koder bride and a (black) Salem bridegroom in 1950 and what transpired after the wedding in Bombay, when they returned to Kerala.

Today, writes Fernandez, there are fewer than 50 Jews in Kerala; only 12 are white. A particularly poignant quote is from K.J. Joy, of the Paradesi Synagogue, “Imagine: To be old, to be the last of your kind, to know your time has come.”

Read the complete review here of Last Jews of Kerala, by Edna Fernandes (Penguin Books India, 2009, 250pp).

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