February 26, 2008
Fragile Branches: Travels Through the Jewish Diaspora by James R. Ross
Judaism and Jewish culture have been interests of mine for quite some time. This book was lent to me by a neighbor, and it reveals groups of people who identify as Jewish- regardless of how the rest of the global Jewish community might think, tucked away in seemingly unlikely places. Ross, a journalist travels everywhere from the South American Amazon to parts of Africa and India to find people practicing Judaism. In some cases, like the Ayabudaya tribe in Africa, a visionary leader led his people to emphasis the practices of the Hebrews in the Old Testament. Though they had converted to Christianity, they stripped away belief in Jesus, began observing the Sabbath and holidays and keeping kosher to a degree.
The Karaites in the southern state of Kerala, India, again converted to Christianity but turned to Jewish practice. Karaites are a sect of Judaism which accepts the Torah but not the Talmud- the later writings and commentaries of the rabbis as being authoritative. In South America we find people who believe they are descendents of marranos- Spanish Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity but continued to secretly practice Judaism.
James Ross sensitively depicts the struggles of these often isolated minorities- the “fragile branches” of the title- who try sustain their faith often without many resources or contact with the outside Jewish world. Who is a Jew, and who determines Jewishness? Once this was a simple question, but as Jewish people have spread throughout the world, and non-Jews become intrigued by the religion, the question becomes more complex. Some of these far-flung diasporans have gone through official conversions with rabbis and have become accepted as Jews while others do not have access to rabbis, or the rabbis they can find refuse to convert them. The Marranos (they use the pejorative term with pride) may insist that they are already Jews, that they do not need conversion, while anthropologists are skeptical that the religion could have survived in secret.
All in all, Fragile Branches was a fascinating and eye-opening journey through the hidden and obscure corners of Jewry.