The year is 1948, a year after India’s independence, and the newly formed state of Israel has announced that Jews from all over the world can come and live in the holy land. Aliyah: The Last Jew in the Village, a novel by Sethu, charts the psychological journey of a young Jewish man, Salamon, his family and his village community in Kerala, all of whom must make a momentous decision: Should they migrate to Israel? Or should they remain in India?
In the fictional community of Jew Street, in the village of Chendamangalam, centuries after the Jews have fled Syria and been granted sanctuary by the king of Kochi, the Jews are now natives of India. The feeling of being exiles has dissolved into nothing more than a vague longing to return to the holy land, in the belief that God will one day call his people back to Jerusalem. The saying “careful what you wish for” comes to mind — for the clarion call of Israel throws the folk of Jew Street into confusion and doubt. Which country is home? On the one hand there is India, where generations of Jews have lived peacefully and where they have never been persecuted for their faith. And on the other hand, there is the promised land of Israel, which they know very little about — and going there means that suddenly there are possessions be sold, money to be paid to an agency, ships to board, and a final, overwhelming cutting of all ties to their homes.
There are grave doubts about the reasons for going: “What was the advantage in selling, at a throwaway price, everything that had been acquired through generations, and leaving with just what they could take for a land across the sea?’ There is the worry, too, about racism and turning into second-class citizens in the new land — what chance will the dark-skinned Malabari Jews have against European Jews? There is the pull of the native soil of India, and this is not felt simply as an abstraction: Salamon cannot bear to think of his coconut trees turning dry and parched because there will be no one left to water them if he migrates. But then there are doubts about staying: Salamon’s uncle, Eliacha, wants to leave not for religious reasons but because Israel represents a final refuge from the historic persecution of Jews: “Our survival lies in numbers. Wherever we are, we Jews have to be together… That is why I say, even though I love this land and its people a lot, I will certainly go.”
The Hindu and Christian neighbours of the Jews are bewildered at this turn of events, and rather suspicious. Nobody can comprehend why the Jews feel that they are foreigners in India — which is not surprising, since most of the Jews are not necessarily able to articulate why they want to leave. Nor do they know much about Israel. One day the disbelieving Hindu villagers surround Moses master, the Jewish teacher, thrust a map of the world in front of him and challenge him to show them this new country called Israel and the place called Jerusalem. Completely ignorant of the location of Jerusalem he stares at the map, on the verge of humiliation, and finally says, rather feebly, that since it is a new country it will be shown only in the next updated Oxford atlas. It is a profoundly moving scene.
The central conundrum of the novel — so pertinent to our times — is that the idea of Israel urges Jews to identify themselves solely on the basis of their faith. The reality, of course, is far more complicated. The inhabitants of Chendamangalam are not only Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Christians — they are also neighbours, business partners, rivals, lovers, consumers of popular culture and voters of all political persuasions. The one character in the novel who is unwavering in his decision to remain in India is Daveed, the poor book binder: “I am a Jew through and through, and I am proud of being one. But I cannot be just a Jew, can I? There is a world outside of being a Jew.”
All of this creates a fascinating premise for the novel — more so because the history of India’s Jewish community remains relatively little known in the larger national narrative. There are intriguing cultural details too, such as the wonderful image of a Jewish teacher making bread in the shape of Hebrew letters and dipping them in honey. There is also a very interesting interview with the author at the end of the book about the personal and historical context of the novel.
Unfortunately the novel falls short of being the gripping read it could have been. It is difficult to relate to the main character, Salamon because he functions primarily as a passive listening device — someone for other characters to talk to, and thereby present their opinions to the reader. He listens, nods, gapes, but rarely says much.
There are several instances of awkward translation, such as the description of a “milk-froth-like smile”, meant as a compliment but which brings to mind someone frothing at the mouth, or Salamon’s relief that “dirty flakes fell off each time he shook his head”, which is presumably a reference to the doubts in his mind, as opposed to dandruff.
The greatest drawback of the novel is its meandering structure. There are too many flashbacks and lengthy digressions, such as the details of communist politics, or an unexpected chapter on European painters which has no clear connection to the novel’s trajectory. This makes the timeline rather confusing — for example, 190 pages into the novel, it is a revelation that only two days have elapsed since the novel’s opening scene.
However, every time the novel returns to its central theme about the anticipated migration to Israel, the story comes alive. It requires great perseverance to hold a steady course through the meandering narrative, and this is a real pity. But the reward for doing so is an extraordinary insight into the Jewish community of Kerala.
Tejaswini Apte-Rahm is a full-time writer from Mumbai and the author of These Circuses That Sweep Through the Landscape. She has also worked as a journalist and an environmental researcher....