Fragile Branches: Travels Through the Jewish Diaspora

James R. Ross
Riverhead Books
New York

This book is Ross’s account of his journeys among the world’s most far-flung Jewish communities in countries including Uganda, India, Peru, and Brazil. Ross’s accounts of the ways that each community discovered Judaism, and the ways that geographical isolation allows for both preservation and evolution of Jewish traditions, demonstrate a sophisticated grasp of theology and anthropology. His vivid anecdotal style (which grips the reader from the book’s first scene—set “inside the gates of a small Jewish cemetery in Parintins, a dusty island town between the banks of the Amazon River”) is that of a skilled literary journalist.

Fragile Branches is not merely picturesque, however. Its concise introduction establishes the political and moral stakes of Ross’s travelogues. Despite Israel’s law of return (which permits immigration of anyone with one Jewish parent or grandparent), Ross notes that “Indians, Peruvians, and black Africans who practice Judaism face bureaucratic barriers and long delays from political and religious officials.” Ross believes such harassment is unconscionable, considering that many of the Jews he visited have “sacrificed their jobs, friends, and even their families in their struggle to become Jews.” In Fragile Branches Ross forcefully argues for the integrity of his subjects’ religious identity, and against parochial notions of Judaism that would exclude them. “These disparate communities are searching for their places in the world. How we […] respond to them is nothing less than a reflection of how we look at ourselves.”

The question of who is a Jew has perplexed, troubled, and angered people around the world for as long as Jews have existed. In some cases, it has been a matter of life and death. Among Jews, it is a source of endless frustration and dispute: The question is one of the central current debates among the Israeli rabbinate, who determine who may marry, divorce, and be buried as a Jew, and who may be granted citizenship and asylum.

And yet, as difficult as it can be to be a Jew in an often hostile world, Jewish communities around the world have endured. From a small outpost in the Amazon to a Ugandan village, these fragile branches of Jewish culture, cut off from mainstream Judaism, exist on every continent and in nearly every country. While such isolated communities are part of the tree of Jewish life, they have retained and reshaped rituals and traditions that have been lost elsewhere.

Through descriptions of his visits to six unusual Jewish communities—in Peru, Brazil, India, the Amazon, Israel, and Uganda—James Ross offers a new perspective on ancient questions, thoughts, and rituals. In Fragile Branches, he challenges us to reexamine our own relationship to tradition and provides us with an inspiring reminder of the diversity and richness of Jewish life.

About the Author

James R. Ross is the director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern University; and is the author of Escape to Shanghai.

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