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From Barnes & NobleOur Review
In Fragile Branches, James Ross takes us on voyages that some of us never knew were possible, to far-flung arms of the Jewish diaspora in the Amazon River basin, in Brazil, in Uganda, in northeast India, in Chile, and, most mysteriously, even in the heart of Israel itself. If the book were a mere travelogue it would be fascinating enough, but political and religious elements enliven each chapter and bring important questions to bear on the very nature of Judaism.
Each diaspora community practices rites common to all Jews, in addition to rites recorded in the Bible but unobserved by modern Jews in most places. The origins of these communities and their very claims to being part of worldwide Judaism are often hotly disputed. These are not solely religious questions. Many members of the diaspora groups use their jewish identity to claim the right to emigrate to Israel in order to escape religious and political repression in their own countries. As Ross describes most piercingly in his chapter about the Children of Manasseh, the Jews of the Indian provinces of Mizoram and Manipur, the Israeli government has a vested interest in evaluating the accuracy of these claims.
Ross cites the example of the autonomous Indian group called Mizos, who claim to be descended from one of the ten lost tribes of Israel and whose forefathers ended up as slaves in China under the harsh rule of the first Qin emperor, Qin Shihuang, in 330 B.C.E. After Emperor Qin's death, so go the ancient Mizos legends, the group dispersed all over Asia, some of them eventually coming to rest in Burma, Thailand, and India. However, as Israeli authorities sent to investigate quickly pointed out, these origins have been permanently veiled by history, and all that remains is essentially folklore. Although members of the Mizos uphold kosher laws, practice circumcision, perform a version of the Passover seder, and bury their dead in what appear to be prayer shawls, they have also, in their long history, adopted many Christian rituals -- including belief in Christ -- that missionaries pressed upon them, thereby complicating their claim to be Jewish.
The travails of the Jews of Peru, Uganda, and Brazil who claim to be the descendants of the Marranos (Spanish Jews forced to convert during the Inquisition who bravely continued to practice Judaism in secret) are no less absorbing and provocative for what they say about the plight of worldwide Jewry, about religious control in the State of Israel, and, fundamentally, about what it means to be Jewish. Especially since so many Jews are ignorant of the existence of their brothers and sisters in these far-off and often quite troubled countries, Mr. Ross's excellent book allows us to see and to ponder their fates and understand how they reflect our own.