The Last Jews of Kerala by Edna Fernandes [A Review]

The history of the ancient Jewish community which resided in Kerala on India’s south-western coast is a fascinating one. And, though this book has flaws, it will satisfy those curious to learn more.

In Kerala, on India’s south-western coast, lives one the world’s oldest Jewish communities. One that claims to trace its roots back thousands of years to the first contact between traders from the Arabian Peninsula and India. According to their legends, more permanent settlement in India came as Jewish exiles arrived after the destruction of the First Temple. A second major wave of Jewish settlement occurred in the 16th century as European Jews fled the Inquisition.

Unlike Jewish communities almost everywhere else in the world, the Jews of Kerala enjoyed a mostly peaceful existence as a religious minority. They even enjoyed some privileges and protections from local rulers. Peace and equality within the Jewish community, however, was another matter.

By the early 21st century, the Jews of Kerala were facing extinction. Partly because the independence of India and the establishment of Israel, some 60 years earlier, stripped the community of their protected status while simultaneously offering them an alternative home. Impossible to ignore, though, are the inequities of their own community, which have also had a significant role in its final destruction after perhaps two thousand years of continued existence.

In The Last Jews of Kerala: The 2,000 Year History of India’s Forgotten Jewish Community, journalist Edna Fernandes seeks answers to the demise of this once thriving community. Where did this Jewish community come from and when was it established? What are the unique aspects of their culture? What are the causes and effects of the division within their community? What are the causes of their demise, what is it like to witness the end of a culture and, most of all, how do those few remaining Keralan Jews feel about it all?

Where together they once numbered in the thousands, with eight synagogues and vast estates of plantations and houses that stretched across the tropical coastal plains of Cochin, today there are fewer than fifty Jews, and just one working synagogue remains with not enough men to form a quorum needed for prayer on the Sabbath. The other synagogues have fallen into disuse, crumbling into dust, annexed by jungle and home to nests of cobras.

[…] This is the end of history for the Jews of Kerala. Sixty years after the formation of the state of Israel, sixty years after the birth of the Indian republic, the clock is ticking for India’s oldest Jewish Diaspora, and it is one minute to midnight.

The early chapters of The Last Jews of Kerala set the scene for the reader. Fernandes provides snippets of what is to come. She describes Kerala and its unique and diverse history and culture. She describes the key locations, such as the Paradesi Synagogue, and her early encounters some of the key individuals in the community. Great consideration is given to the fact that she is a witness to the demise of a culture with hints of the causes behind it.

In the next part of the book, the narrative settles somewhat to discuss the history of this community. Fernandes cites Biblical and Roman references to trade with the western coast of India and considers the possibility of Hindu influence on Jewish theology. She shares the settlement in Kerala of the major waves of Jewish migration to India, their relations with local Indian rulers and dynasties and the impact of European colonisation.

Unlike Diaspora elsewhere in the world during history, the Jews of Kerala were a feted people, embraced by neighbours of all creeds. While other faiths in India were susceptible to sinister seductions of communal violence, the Jews of Kerala remained immune to the troubles that periodically threatened to endanger India’s delicately-poised religious equilibrium. Part of the reason for this was sheer lack of numbers: they were simply too small in number, too insignificant a lobby to be perceived as a threat to Hindu, Muslim or Christian. They were never a proselytising people but cultural chameleons who adapted easily. Over the centuries they proved to be exceptionally adept at surviving the volatile shifts in the political order of the region, from the Cochini royal dynasty to the Portuguese, Dutch and British invading colonial powers.

In order to tell this history, Fernandes must explain the origins of what one Jewish observer referred to as an ‘apartheid’ in the community. Those Jews who emigrated from Europe, fleeing the Inquisition, sought to establish a superior status for themselves, above that of Jews already established in India. They claimed to possess greater knowledge of their faith, more direct descent from Jewish Patriarchs and higher sophistication among other distinctions. Fernandes argues that in Hindu India, such distinctions of purity of heritage were essential for obtaining economic and political power. The Jews of Kerala were effectively segregated along racial lines, with those Jews descended from ancient connections, who intermarried with Indian converts, referred to as ’Black Jews’; while the more recent arrivals who strove to maintain their ‘racial purity’, referred to as ‘White Jews’.

Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz said in his writings in Far East Mission that the situation in Cochin was comparable to apartheid-era South Africa, where “irrational prejudices take precedency over law and logic and ethics.”

This leads to the third part of the book which tells the story of the Black Jews civil rights struggle and fight for greater equality. The pivotal parts of the story were concurrent with the Indian Independence movement and features a leader referred to as the ‘Jewish Gandhi’. Despite a number of barriers broken and battles won, the damage of centuries of division was done. Change came too late and the establishment of Israel became the final factor in the community’s downfall.

The last few chapters are devoted to the experiences of those Keralan Jews considering moving to Israel, those who moved and have no regrets and those in Israel considering a return to India. Fernandes explored the difficult choices they all made; trading orthodoxy for Western secularism, security for conflict and the fertile tropics for desert. Israel, though, had the powerful draw of better opportunities for employment and marriage.

He had fulfilled the religious duty to return to the Holy Land. But three decades on, it was not enough. Israel failed to fill the emotional and spiritual vacuum in his heart after he left India. He was saddened to see the lack of religious observance in the Holy Land, he felt neglectful of his own duties as a Jew because he was too busy working and prayed less than he did in Cochin. He saw how modern ways were taking his own family further away from the traditions of the faith that had ruled their lives in Cochin. Last, the political violence corrupted his peace of mind. He was still a man of the village. He remembered how Jew, Muslim and Christian had lived as friends and neighbours and in his new life he could not reconcile the clash between the ethos of his faith and culture and the political cost of realising the dream of the Promised Land.

I feel like I have read enough books like this to have developed a theory of sorts. It seems to me that while there are some great popular non-fiction books out there, written by some very talented writers with academic backgrounds, these writers tend to stick to the grand topics – cosmology, quantum mechanics and evolution; Emperors, Empires and World Wars; etc. Outside these topics, and even more impressive, they are sometimes able to weave together miniscule threads and produce a work on a subject previously considered too broad to condense into a volume of inspection. Outside of that are topics that could be called micro-history or micro-science. Subjects that more academic writers, from the best institutions who can attract the top publishers, seem less interesting in writing about for a popular audience. Some still do, but you have to scour the independent and university books stores to find them.

Instead, the people who discover these subjects and decide to write books about them for popular audiences are invariably not academics but journalists. Which is a problem. For various reasons manifest in The Last Jews of Kerala.

First, even though there may be a fascinating historical or scientific story to tell, journalists tend to focus on the ‘human story’. Priority is given to interviews, anecdotes and legends rather than recorded history. Emphasis is given to how people feel rather than what can be known. There must be a market for such narrative given how common it is, but for readers who want history it is a bit of a let down. In The Last Jews of Kerala I also sensed a deliberate attempt to delay the telling of the history from the first few chapters in an effort to make the story sound more mysterious than it was.

Second, as if to flout even the semblance of objectivity, the writers of these books seem intent on inserting themselves into the story. It is perhaps a natural progression from telling the ‘human story’ that we, not only focus on how people close to the subject feel, but must also hear how they feel about the writer, how the writer feels about them and generally about how the writer experiences the whole project.

Third, these books are prone to waffling. Much space is expended on scene-setting. Good narrative history also devotes time to giving he reader a sense of the time and place, but it is a question of scale and purpose. In The Last Jews of Kerala it is noticeably excessive. Fernandes takes the reader through long passages describing the sights, smells and sounds of the markets, streets and houses; the appearance, expressions and demeanour of the people she visits. The Last Jews of Kerala is a short book even with this superfluous material, so this scene-setting feels like a transparent effort to add a little more meat to what would otherwise be a very thin book.

The problem I dislike the most about these sorts of books is that they are written with a clear effort on the part of the writer to appear impartial. Impartiality is understandably an important part of the ethos of journalism. Journalists are not experts themselves, they must not appear to carry any bias, and so they attempt to record the testimony of experts and others of divergent views in an effort to provide balance and allow the reader to decide for themselves. In issues that are matters of opinion or experience, or where unbiased views are untenable, this attempt at impartiality is important.

The available history is a patchwork of folklore, fable and historical fact.

By the subjects of history and science are matters of fact. Striving for some sort of impartial balance risks creating the false impression that divergent views are equally valid. This is where you want a writer who is also an expert to take a position and justify it with arguments and evidence. In The Last Jews of Kerala, I found Fernandes to be a bit credulous. She speaks of events from the time of Solomon, even providing dates, with a confidence that can be mistaken for certainty. She quotes from sources, like the books of Karen Armstrong, which are not known for their adherence to sceptical inquiry that the subject demands.

As I said, I feel like I have read a number of books like this, written by journalists or other non-academics, that have similar flaws. Books like The Genius Factory by David Plotz and In Search of Zarathustra by Paul Kriwaczek. I am inevitably drawn to them because these sorts of micro-history/science topics are potentially fascinating. It is a shame that the books are left wanting. One exception is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot which kept the subjective and objective, the personal and impersonal, parts of the story strictly separated while doing each justice.

While The Last Jews of Kerala has some issues common to its genre, it had some specific ones too. It badly needs a map or two. Locations and proximities are an important part of the story and it would have been good if it less was left up to the imaginations of the reader. Some photos, and an index, would have been helpful too. It bizarrely contains spelling mistakes. Not many, but since it is normal to read books of hundreds of pages without a single error, a short book that contains four or five is glaring.

I found the way Fernandes chose to order her material strange too. This is especially true for the mid-book chapters covering the civil rights movement of the Black Jews. One chapter would serve as a biography of the most important civil rights leader. The next chapter would cover the movement itself, including the period covering that leader’s life, while also giving the essential events that brought that period of history to a close. The next chapter would go into those final events in more detail though we’ve already heard the important parts. So, the chronology is muddled and the key information is separated and delivered in an odd order.

And, for a book whose main theme seemed to be about witnessing the demise of a culture in India, the book instead ends with a focus on those who have escaped that demise by immigrating to Israel.

Despite all this, there were a few things I enjoyed about The Last Jews of Kerala. The history, when Fernandes got around to telling it, is fascinating. This history was the main reason I wanted to read this book and, though I would have liked a lot more of it, I suppose it satisfied my curiosity on this topic.

Although I would have liked Fernandes to be more discerning about her sources, I liked that she named her sources in the text when she referred to them. It might prove more useful than a bibliography for those who wish to read further.

And while I don’t believe impartiality is beneficial when discussing matters of fact, Fernandes shows the strength of this approach when discussing matters of experience. Her coverage of diverse individuals who cannot part with Kerala though they know there is no future for them there; those who made a new future for themselves in Israel, partly abandoning and partly modifying their culture; and those who tried but failed to make Israel their new home and are even considering a return to India; was one of the highlights of the book.

Despite this book’s shortcomings, its brevity means it can quickly satisfy your curiosity on this interesting subject while offering some direction if you want to learn further.

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