“The Last Jews of Kerala” By Edna Fernandes (2008); 222 pages- Started March 1, finished March 14.
This was another one for our local Jewish Book Discussion Series, and it was just OK. The group met to discuss this one on March 8, before I was even halfway finished, and it took me a fair amount of energy to actually make myself complete this after hearing the discussion. The general concensus was: good topic, poorly written book. I can’t say I really disagree, although I did actually think it got better as it progressed. One very irritating thing about this book was the glaring lack of images: no maps, no gorgeous landscapes of India, no photos of the people described in the book. So it seems to have been published on a low budget, was poorly edited, and parts of it were boring and confusing. The book group concluded that this have been a few long articles instead of dragged out into a full length “history”.
But despite all that– I didn’t hate it. Some sections were better than others. Fernandes is OK at interviewing peeople and describing personal histories, it’s just that when she tries to tie together the big picture things start to fall apart. The story is sad, but also interesting: two separate communities of Jews in Kerala (a region in the southwest of India, that I would have been able to tell you more about if there had been a map in the book. ugh.) are both dying out. One is a group of native Indians (The “black” Jews) and the other is a community of Europeans ( the “white” Jews) who migrated to India hundreds of years ago. According to this account, the white Jews treat the black Jews pretty horribly, and Fernades’ theory is that if they had only been willing to intermarry, it would have saved both populations from their imminent extinction. My own opinion is that it only would have postoned the inevitable… there are less than a dozen white Jews left, and maybe 50 black Jews. Although if the white Jews hadn’t been so exclusionsary, it certainly wouldn’t have hurt. Curiously though, in the past generation these communities did start to intermarry (although not without a lot of horrendous behavior from their families) and it doesn’t seem to have helped much. On the bright side, though, many of the offspring of the Kerala Jews have migrated to Israel and are doing OK there– they are at least trying to keep their unique Jewish/Indian culture from dissapearing entirely.