Over 150 Jews lived comfortably near this synagogue in the Kottayil Kovilakam area of Chendamangalam. Photo from keralatourism.org
Over 150 Jews lived comfortably near this synagogue in the Kottayil Kovilakam area of Chendamangalam. Photo from keralatourism.org

For centuries, Jews lived peacefully alongside people of all faiths in southern India’s Kerala. Then came the call of the Promised Land. Hundreds of Jews sold all their assets and began migrating to Israel in the mid-1950s.

Novelist Sethu’s Aliyah: The Last Jew in the Village, admirably translated into English from Malayalam by Catherine Thankamma, tells the story of this migration through the complex and textured relationships between Jews and gentiles alike in Chendamangalam village.

“Aliyah is close to my heart since I have a first-hand experience of this migration as a youngster,” Sethu said in an interview. “When our intimate friends in the school departed, there were emotional scenes in the village as we were sure we were not going to see them again.”

But, over the years, many made sporadic visits back to their ancestral village as tourists, and Sethu said he cherished the chance to rekindle the association whenever he got an opportunity to meet them.

“Do you regret the decision to leave the land?,” he would ask them.

Their reply: “No, never! But we do want to visit the land of our birth occasionally with our kin, since this is our motherland and Israel is our fatherland.”

One migrant, Eliahu Bezallel, 84, even bought a plot where his ancestral home stood and built a new house there.

“It is for my next generation… This is the soil under which our forefathers sleep,” he said.

Aliyah is close to my heart since I have a first-hand experience of this migration as a youngster

Aliyah opens with a dream of a ship surrounded by sea crows that disturbs the young and sensitive protagonist Salamon.

The dream may be the creation of his agitated mind, still undecided about the journey to the Holy Land and worried over what awaits Jewish families from his village there. But his 70-year-old grandmother Eshumma sees it as a divine sign pointing to the unseen world they are set to enter.

The novel draws on the conflicting emotions of Salamon and especially his attachment to his mother Rebecca, his grandmother, aunt Esther, and Elsie.

Salaman is especially anguished over the thought of leaving Elsie, his childhood friend. Nor can he bear the thought of leaving people like the book binder Daveed Chettan, an elderly Jew on whom his grandmother had a crush in her teens; Varuthutty, the master who changed his name from Solomon to Salamon; comrade Pavithran, who spoke to him about class struggle; and his classmate Ramanandan, who wants to settle in Israel despite being a Hindu.

Other questions disturb Daveed Chettan too. Isn’t there a world outside of being Jewish? Is “Aliyah” – the migration of Jews from the diaspora to the Land of Israel – truly a “return”? In a telling detail, when Eshumma is preparing to leave for Israel, she takes some soil from the ancestral village to be placed on her eyes when she dies.

Some of the family are destined to never make the journey. Salamon’s mother, Rebecca, a progressive and educated woman from the sophisticated city of Kochi who rides a Hercules bicycle, easily makes friends with the villagers after her marriage to Eshumma’s middle son Evron. Salamon inherits this personable trait from his mother, despite being a taciturn dreamer.

The book’s Malayalam cover

Eshumma regards Rebecca as if she were her own daughter. When Rebecca sacrifices her life to save the chronically ill Salamon, Eshumma becomes his proxy mother. Having struggled to raise her own sons – Menahem, Evron and Elias – after the death of her husband, she spoils Salamon with her love.

It is only when his chronic indecision and inability to commit leads Elsie to attempt suicide, tainting the family, that his grandmother gets angry with him. Elsie loses hope in Salamon because of his indecisiveness and lack of courage to declare his love for her. When she leaves hospital after her suicide attempt, she asks Salamon’s closest friend Ouso to tell him to leave the village if he wants to make his name as an artist. This shows her true love for him.

Aliyah’s emotional currents are further whipped up when the vivacious, passionate and beautiful Esther, married to Salamon’s uncle Menahem, is shocked to find her husband is no longer the man she fell for in Mumbai. His transformation from a lover of art to someone obsessed with religion bewilders her. Ailing, lovelorn and childless, Esther seduces Salamon only in order to get even with her husband and relieve her frustration.

Torn by guilt and a storm of conflicting emotions, will Salamon join his family’s exodus to Israel? Therein lies the tale.

As Sethu puts it, Aliyah is a healthy mix of fact, fiction, myth and legend woven into a compelling narrative.