Jewish Journal

Jewish apartheid in India

Pavel Pustelnik

October 29, 2012 | 9:49 am

Photo by Pavel Pustelnik

The cultures that are about to die have always been catching a lot of attention. Partly because of the fact that the reasons of their decay are usually exceptional and partly because we want to grasp this touch that will not be achievable in the future. Edna Fernandes in her “Last Jews of Kerala” provides a broad picture of a shrinking Jewish community whose history is unparalleled. To some extent due to certain kind of apartheid going on in Kerala.

Edna Fernandes went to gather material for her book while being pregnant. If you think of a cliché image of India that people have, it seems that this was not the brightest idea. However, as Fernades claims in her book that being an expecting mother was rather a key to open people's mouths and hearts. And this was not an easy task as the Jews living in Kerala are not too forthcoming. As she uncovers, the reason for that were the inadequacies in the literature based on interviews with the people of Kochi (Kochin).

The city she writes about is located some 1400 kilometres South from Mumbai. Today it's densly populated by tourists who usually come for couple of days to a pretty European-looking town full of restaurants serving fresh fish (Kochi is a harbour). Some come just for a day to see the synagogue and so called “Chinese nets” which are used by the fishermen in the area. Fernandes goes deeper, much deeper to understand what has happened to a flourishing Jewish community that has almost disappeared. She does not have a ready hypothesis that she comes with to India. She is just a curious person who wants to touch the truth. If the whole tourist image of the town is build on Jews, where are they and why there are mostly Muslims trading in the Synagogue Lane?

The author tries to approach the last Jews of Kerala in various ways. She embodies the most stubborn journalist in the world when she tries to get to people and make them talk. She never crosses certain borders though. Her persistence is well-awarded as when people start to talk, Fernandes is able to uncover the reasons of decay. It is not about antisemitism or trade issues with the local people. It is nothing else than Jewish apartheid between the White Jews and Black Jews, who struggle to prove who has been first in Kerala, whose blood is more pure and who should feel inferior. The story that is behind the tired walls of Synagogue Lane is painful to unwind and does not leave space for allusions. The discourse of ethnicity used to be extremely powerful in the relation between White and Black Jews in Kerala. The marriages between the communities were forbidden and the use of the Paradesi synagogue restricted. Those who were discussing the rules were becoming enemies. Some of the young Jews disregarded the “apartheid law” with regards to marriages and therefore they had to move to Mumbai or elsewhere. As it is easy to imagine, the whole situation led to a gradual weakening of the community and at the moment when the book was published there were only 12 White Jews in Kochi and around 50 Black Jews.

Given the fascinating circumstances, not only does the book offer a rich historical background but her story develops in a wider context of Israel becoming a country and situation of Jews originating in Kerala who left their homeland. The book is perhaps not to linear, there are certain jumps in between the stories told by the interviewees but this makes it even more compelling and informative. It seems though a bit redundant to include a travel diary parts in a book that actually aims at explaining a problem of a community. Not necessarily a reader wants to know about that much of the interviewer's feelings and plans if the interviewees' stories are so invaluable.

Fernandes's books for sure cannot be treated as a textbook for ethnography students who are preparing themselves to research the issues related to conflict between groups or even Judaism itself. And this was not the aim of the author. It is rather a rich portrayal of a complex situation that has been caused by misunderstandings, envy and lack of communication. Sounds like a scenario for a movie? The content is definitely well-worth filming.

Edna Fernades The Last Jews of Kerala,Portobello Books Ltd, 272 pages, 8,99 GBP (paperback)

More about the author: http://www.ednafernandes.com/

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