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The Last Jews of Kerala: The Two Thousand Year History of India's Forgotten Jewish Communityby Edna Fernandes
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"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)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Book News Annotation:
While in India in 2002, British-Indian journalist Fernandes encountered the Indian Jews of Cochin, Kerala, who claim a lineage dating back to King Solomon's era. With the numbers of Kerala's Jews fast dwindling, this history of two little-known diaspora Jewish communities is especially timely. It is also ironic given that the White Jews (or Paradesi) of Mattancherry and the Black Jews of Ernakulum live in peace with their neighbors but feud among themselves over who was the first to settle in India. The book includes references but no photographs or index. Annotation ©2009 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
When a people die out, can their story survive?
About 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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