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 book degenerates 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.