- The Last Jews of Kerala: The 2,000 Year History of India's Forgotten Jewish Community
This review begins with the obvious. This book's title, indeed much of the work itself, is highly derivative of the 1993 book by me and my wife, Ellen S. Goldberg (The Last Jews of Cochin, University of South Carolina Press). Perhaps I ought not even be writing this review, as we all tend to be possessive about our words, ideas, and painstaking years of research.
Nevertheless, one can still appreciate Ms. Fernandes' vivid writing. A British journalist of Indian origin, she happened into Jew Town, Kochi, in 2002, became interested in the few remaining Jews there, and returned in 2006 for a visit. She interviewed people, visited a few of the remaining Jewish sites, and even attended a long-distance wedding celebration. Her descriptions of familiar places and people are sharp and bring memories to life. Her descriptive prose does justice to her perceptions, and the reader sees Jew Town come alive through her eyes.
That much being said, Ms. Fernandes' eyes see everything through the perspective of race. She is obsessed with the oft-repeated "Black Jew/White Jew" characterization, so much so that it not only blinds her to subtleties of Judaic law and Kochi Jewish history, but even leads to mischaracterizations.
In fact, the Black/White dichotomy was a European superimposition onto Kochi Jewish life, as Barbara Johnson, David Mandelbaum, and my wife and I—indeed all scholars who have taken the time to understand this community—have abundantly demonstrated. But racial categories are simpler and, for one so inclined, seem to explain everything. Fernandes introduces this sensitive subject by saying this so-called Black/White racial system "proved to be their undoing" (p. xv), a claim that is excessive.
Indeed, the reasons for the demise of this proud and fabled community include the loss of patronage from local rajahs after Indian independence, the opportunity to emigrate to Israel for religious, economic, and other reasons, the sense of becoming politically inconsequential after the amalgamation of the Princely States of Cochin and Travancore into the Republic of India, land redistribution policies of the Communist Government of Kerala, and restrictions on the import of "luxury goods" that had been an economic mainstay of the community, as well as nationalization of the electric, water, and ferry monopolies that had been private Jewish-owned companies. Animosities between the so-called Black and White subgroups may well have played a significant role, but one cannot reasonably reduce social, political, economic, religious, and cultural complexity to one sole explanatory factor. [End Page 182]
Modern scholars most often opt for indigenous terms Malabari (from the Malabar Coast of southwest India) and Paradesi (foreign) to describe the sub-communities that Fernandes clumsily terms Black and White. Of course, the reality on the ground is more complicated. Both Malabari and Paradesi Jews (like virtually all middle class Indians of the time) were slave owners, and those slaves, many of whom they manumitted, were part of the community of their masters. So when Fernandes claims that the Salem family members are "Black Jews," she not only gives offense, she promulgates inaccuracy. The Salems are and always have been members of the Paradesi community, which Fernandes insists on oversimplifying as White. Skin pigmentation has never been the primary criterion for membership in one or another of Kochi's Jewish subcastes, but Fernandes seems consumed by her racial presuppositions. It pervades her descriptions.
Having spent a short time visiting Kochi, Fernandes caricatures rather than portrays the people there. She does not "get" Gamliel Salem's wit, taking his sometimes acerbic comments far too seriously. She presents the community's leader, Sammy Hallegua, as an irascible boor, Keith Hallegua appears as a depressive recluse, and her version of Sarah Cohen is a swindler who takes merciless advantage of Hindu visitors. No doubt, everyone has bad days, but one simply cannot fathom another human being and pronounce firm judgments after only a...