The Last Jews of Kerala: The Two Thousand Year History of India's Forgotten Jewish Community

Overview


Two thousand years ago, trade routes and the fall of Jerusalem took Jewish settlers seeking sanctuary across Europe and Asia. One little-known group settled in Kerala, in tropical southwestern India. Eventually numbering in the thousands, with eight synagogues, they prospered. Some came to possess vast estates and plantations, and many enjoyed economic privilege and political influence. Their comfortable lives, however, were haunted by a feud between the Black Jews of Ernakulam and the White Jews of ...
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Overview


Two thousand years ago, trade routes and the fall of Jerusalem took Jewish settlers seeking sanctuary across Europe and Asia. One little-known group settled in Kerala, in tropical southwestern India. Eventually numbering in the thousands, with eight synagogues, they prospered. Some came to possess vast estates and plantations, and many enjoyed economic privilege and political influence. Their comfortable lives, however, were haunted by a feud between the Black Jews of Ernakulam and the White Jews of Mattancherry. Separated by a narrow stretch of swamp and the color of their skin, they locked in a rancorous feud for centuries, divided by racism and claims and counterclaims over who arrived first in their adopted land. Today, this once-illustrious people is in its dying days. Centuries of interbreeding and a latter-day Exodus from Kerala after Israel's creation in 1948 have shrunk the population. The Black and White Jews combined now number less than fifty, and only one synagogue remains. On the threshold of extinction, the two remaining Jewish communities of Kerala have come to realize that their destiny, and their undoing, is the same.

The Last Jews of Kerala narrates the rise and fall of the Black Jews and the White Jews over the centuries and within the context of the grand history of the Jewish people. It is the story of the twilight days of a people whose community will, within the next generation, cease to exist. Yet it is also a rich tale of weddings and funerals, of loyalty to family and fierce individualism, of desperation and hope.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Like many far-flung Jewish communities, the community in Kerala in southern India has dwindled to a mere 50 because of emigration since Israel's founding in 1948. British-Indian journalist Fernandes (Holy Warriors) portrays today's Keralite Jews as she relates her efforts to learn their history. There are two groups of Keralite Jews: the "Black," or Malabari, Jews, who trace their roots in India to at least A.D. 70, and the "White," or Paradesi, Jews, who arrived later, perhaps during the Middle Ages. Fernandes doesn't sugarcoat the two groups' embattled relationship. The Paradesi Jews believed their lighter skin showed their racial purity, calling the darker-skinned Jews descendants of slave converts. As late as 1950, marriages between the two communities were highly controversial. Despite the intriguing story Fernandes tells, she keeps readers waiting too long to uncover the history, and she concludes with the story of one elderly Keralite who had moved to Israel decades earlier; disillusioned by the fast-paced, secular life there, he returns to India-an anomalous ending for a book about a community that has overwhelmingly moved in the other direction. (July)

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Library Journal

British Indian journalist Fernandes (Holy Warriors) has a knack for locating little-known but intriguing subjects but doesn't always seem certain what to do with the result. This book sheds light on the near-invisible and tragically divided communities of "White" and "Black" Jews of Kerala in southwestern India. Their story, characterized by the bitterness unique to family quarrels, is one of racism and petty squabbling over primacy that extended through their years of impressive prosperity to their current dismal situation, as they have dwindled to a single synagogue and fewer than 50 souls, "White" and "Black" together. While fascinating, the book is less a history than an uneasy mixture of reportage, thin research, interviews, and impressions.
—Graham Christian

Kirkus Reviews
Repetitious history of a vanishing community. The title refers to the fewer than 50 remaining Jews living in the province of Kerala, on India's tropical southwest shores. The Paradesi, or "white" Jews, live in Mattancherry; across the river at Ernakulam live the Malabari, or "black" Jews. Both groups' ancestries date as far back as the great Jewish Diaspora of 70 CE. For centuries these Jews prospered in religiously tolerant India, playing important parts in business and at court, until their numbers grew to thousands. The crux of the story, writes journalist Fernandes (Holy Warriors: A Journey Into the Heart of Indian Fundamentalism, 2007), is the long-running argument between the white and black Jews regarding who arrived in Kerala first; this has made all the difference as the community nears extinction. The author chronicles soured relations between black and white, the establishment of an apartheid system and the interbreeding that prevented the maintenance of a "pure" Jewish community. Fernandes's attempt to depict their demise as tragic is unpersuasive. As one elder Paradesi summed up, "Now after the others left, gone to Israel, gone overseas, or just gone-the Kashmiris, the Muslims, the Christians have come." This is the oft-told story of many small towns: The younger generation was no longer committed to living in a backwater, upholding traditions of the older generation just to keep the town alive. Furthermore, there is nothing "forgotten" about the Kerala Jews' story. Political and spiritual world leaders have walked down their dusty streets for decades, visiting the enclave in a show of homage to the ancients who succeeded handsomely, but whose time has gone. The bookdegenerates into a series of interviews in which anecdotal evidence, opinion, rumor and redacted history supersede thoughtful accounting. Spirited prose and often entertaining personal testimonies can't save an uneven narrative that too often lapses into bland travelogue. Agent: Ayesha Karim/Gillon Aitken Associates
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781602392670
  • Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
  • Publication date: 6/1/2008
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Edna Fernandes is a British-Indian journalist who has worked for many leading international news organizations, including AP-Dow Jones and Reuters. Her articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and the International Herald Tribune. She is the author of Holy Warriors and The Last Jews of Kerala.
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Table of Contents


Introduction     ix
The White Jews of Synagogue Lane     1
King of the Indian Jews     21
The End of Shalom     39
The Gentle Executioner     53
Land of Black Gold and White Pearls     75
Opium Traders and Oil Pressers: The Lost Tribes     101
Son of Salem     111
Segregation in the Synagogue     129
Taboo Love     143
"A Wife Who Will Not Give Me Headache"     157
Roses in the Desert     171
Home     201
Acknowledgments     223
List of References     225
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