Book Review: The Last Jews of Kerala

Ms Edna Fernandes, a British Indian journalist, has written The Last Jews of Kerala which is about the Kerala Jews ‘charting their rise and fall, from their heyday to a decline in the twentieth century and the twenty first century denouement.’ The account, in the words of the author, is ‘a mixture of interview and confession, archive and diary.’ (Page 9)

Weaving history with story telling, the author recounts how the fortunes of this once vibrant community were destroyed by apartheid, inter-breeding, mental illness and the exodus from Kerala after the creation of Israel in 1948.

Ms Fernandes takes us on a fascinating journey through the maze of history spanning more than two thousand years when the first Jews landed on the Indian shores, sailing from Israel on trade missions from the court of King Solomon. According to the author the early Biblical accounts depict sailors and merchants docking at Kerala’s main harbour, charged with procuring spices and exotic treasure such as elephant’s tooth, peacocks and apes. Nathan Katz and Ellen Goldberg in their work The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India note that the Hebrew Bible contained a number of words which were similar to Sanskrit and Tamil, indicating that there were contacts between Solomon’s kingdom and India. (Page78)

Though the available history is obscured by folklore and fable, historians say that the Jews came to Kerala as merchant traders and settled as early as 700 BC for trade. A further trickle of settlers came to India several centuries after the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar razed the First Temple to the ground in 586 BCE. The foundation for the Second Temple was laid by 520 BCE. Some five hundred years later in 19 BCE, Herod restored it to its original grandeur. But the Romans crushed the Jews again and smashed the Temple to pieces and leaving only the sacred Western Wall or Wailing Wall standing. The Jews of Cochin in Kerala came in large numbers to Cranganore – an ancient port near Cochin- after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. As the author says ‘Out of the fire and devastation of Jerusalem, thus a community of Jews was delivered on the west coast of Kerala.’ (Page 81)

The Jews who were tradesmen enjoyed a good relationship with the Hindu Royalty. The Chera Emperor of Kerala, Bhaskara Ravi Varma II granted Jewish chieftain, Joseph Rabban, a principality over the Jews of Cochin. The Rights of the Jews, called the Magna Carta, were set out in copper plates which now lie in the Paradesi Synagogue. It is said that Joseph Rabban helped the Chera Emperor by placing men and assets at his disposal during the long Chera-Chola conflict fought in the south during 1000 CE. ‘Rabban’s reward for such fealty’ adds the author ‘ was a kingdom of his own, in perpetuity.’ This was the beginning of good relationship between the Jews and the Cochin’s line of kings which lasted centuries. ( page 84)

In 1524 the Muslims attacked the Jews of Cranganore on dispute relating to pepper trade. Most of the Jews fled to Cochin and went under the protection of the Hindu Raja there. He granted them a site for their own town that later acquired the name “Jew Town” (by which it is still known).

In the chequered history of the Kerala Jews fate intervened adversely in the shape of the Portuguese occupation of Cochin. The Portuguese persecuted the Jews mecilessly until they were displaced by the Dutch in1660. The Jews of Cochin enjoyed a period of great happiness and tolerence under the Dutch Protestants.In 1795 Cochin came under the control of the British Empire. During the 19th Century, the Cochin Jews lived in the towns of Cochin, Ernakulam, Aluva and North Paravur.

Soon after India became Independent in 1947 the State of Israel also came into existence. For many Jews in Kerala, Jerusalem was their spiritual homeland and Kerala was an interim paradise. The Kerala Jews migrated to Israel in large numbers abandoning their places of worship in Kerala. Large groups of the Jews from Kerala settled in the moshav of Nevatim in the Negev ( Southern Israel). Some settled down in the neighborhood of Katamon in Jerusalem, in Beer Sheva, Dimona and Yeruham.

The Jews who came to Kerala are referred to as the Black Jews. The Paradesi Jews, also called “White Jews”, settled later, coming to India from European and Middle Eastern nations such as Holland and Spain and bringing with them the Ladino language. Spanish and Portuguese Jews (Sephardim) settled in Goa in the 15th century, but this settlement eventually disappeared. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Cochin had an influx of Jewish settlers from the Middle East, North Africa and Spain. ( refer Cochin Jews- Wikipedia)

Jews called the Bene Israel came to India 2000 years back and settled in Western Maharastra along the Konkan coast and later moving on to Bombay and to other cities such as Pune, Ahmadadbad and Karachi. In the Eighteenth Century Jews from Iran, Syria, Yehmen and mostly Iraq arrived in India. Called the Baghdadi Jews, they were prosperous merchants who later settled down in big commercial cities such as Surat, Bombay, and Calcutta.

The Jews of Cochin did not follow the Talmudic prohibition against public singing by women unlike other Orthodox Jews. The rich tradition of Jewish prayers and narrative songs sung by women in Judeo- Malayalam is preserved today by the Jewish Music Centre at Hebrew University.( refer Cochin Jews- Wikipedia)

Apart from tracing the history of the Jews of Kerala from Biblical times, the author also explores the colour apartheid between the Black Jews and the White Jews. This forms a dominant narrative in her book . As she explains ‘The two communities , the Blacks and whites, had suffered a bitter feud for centuries, their relations marked by apartheid, discrimination, claim and counter-claim over who arrived first in India..’ She adds ominously ‘this lay at the heart of the split within the Jewish community, evident for the last four centuries, polarising them when there should have been much more to unite them. It also proved to be their undoing.’ (page 6).

As the Black and White Jews rufused to intermarry, the Kerala Jews who once numbered thousands with eight synagogues and vast estates of plantations dwindled to fewer than fifty. Just one working syngogue remains ‘with not enough men to form the quorum needed for prayer on Sabbath.’ (page 7) She says sombrely ‘the other synagogue have fallen into disuse, crumbling into dust, annexed by jungle and home to writhing nests of cobras.’

The other factor which relentlessly cut down the number of Jews living in Kerala was the exodus of the Jewish people from Kerala. Part of the decline could also be attributed to conversion to Christanity. These Jews who were converted during the time of St Thomas and later were called Nasarani or St Thomas Christians.

A characteristic feature of her book is her strong story telling. She infuses life in her sombre topic by penning the portraits of unforgetable people. There is Gamey Salem, a self confessed cynic and scourge of convention whose father fought for equality for Black Jews, there is Babu the local butcher with gentle eyes whose job is to slit the bird’s jugular with his knife, then there is Anil who wants to marry a wife who will not give him headaches. Another unforgetable person in her book is Sammy the last Warden of his syngogue who is mercurial, irritable and elusive.

In the last chapter of her book titled Home the author captures the pain, desolation and the inner turmoil of Cochini Jews who left the peaceful and tolerant shores of Kerala for the rough and tumble of modern Israel riven with conflicts and violence. She describes the poignancy of a Cochini Jew Abraham who encountered only pain, sorrow and alienation in the promised land and wants to return to Kerala – a place where the Jews of Kerala flourshed for thousands of years without the fear of pogroms and persecution.. As the author mentions in the last lines of her book ‘ This desire to return provided an unexpected epitaph, compelling Abraham to find rest in a land that had given much, a peace that history has rarely bestowed. In the end it was the age old tolerence that drew him.’

It is said that the cruel fate that awaits all dying tribes is human forgetfulness. The best antidote to the fraility of human memory is recorded history which prevents dying communities from disappearing into the blackhole of oblivion. Books like The Last Jews of Kerala lend dignity to tribes that die out by preserving their rich culture, and tradition for posterity.

Along with another memorable book Ruby of Cochin:An Indian Jewish Woman Remembers, the author’s book should find a special place in our bookshelf..

C.R.Sridhar is a lawyer practising in Bangalore. His articles have appeared in Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) and Monthly Review.

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