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Cheeku & Chikootichoo

Cheeku liked to watch squirrels in the park near his house. When he was tired of playing with his friends, he would lie on the grass and watch the squirrels.

He always carried peanuts in his pocket and left some on the ground, hoping that the squirrels would come down and eat them. They did just that, and Cheeku even noticed a particularly plump squirrel that was bolder than the others. She often came close to him and quickly picked up a nut in her mouth, before running back to the tree.

Slowly, she came to recognise Cheeku and every evening when she saw him, she would call out to him with a shrill “Chikootichoo”. Gradually she even learned to accept nuts from his palm. Cheeku named her Chikootichoo.

It was the beginning of a long friendship between Cheeku and Chikootichoo. Cheeku always recognised Chikootichoo, as her ears were darker than the other three striped squirrels in the park.

One day, when Cheeku was helping Baa clean the courtyard, he saw Chikootichoo sitting on the terrace and calling out to him. Happy and surprised, Cheeku told Baa, “Look, Chikootichoo has come to our house!” Baa smiled and said, “Maybe, she reached the terrace by climbing the drain pipe.”

As Baa was speaking, Chikootichoo jumped into the courtyard, ate some crumbs and scampered away to the park.

Cheeku told Baa excitedly, “I am so happy that Chikootichoo came to meet me!”

Baa thought for a while and answered: “It should be all right, as long as she does not build a nest in the house.”

Soon, Baa forgot all about Chikootichoo, but Cheeku was sad. For the past few days, he had not seen her in the garden.

Then, one day, Cheeku opened the door to his room and heard a rustle. Frightened, he closed the door immediately and called out to Baa.

She held his hand and said, “Come let us look in your room. Maybe it is just a bee.”

Baa opened the door and saw the shadow of a squirrel behind the window curtain. The squirrel peeped out from behind to see what was happening.

Cheeku recognised her and jumped with joy, “Oh, it’s my Chikootichoo!” But, Chikootichoo was frightened and ran out of the room.

Baa lifted the curtain and informed Cheeku, “Chikootichoo has built a nest in a niche on top of the door.”

She asked Cheeku to climb a chair and bring the nest down. The nest was a huge ball of coconut fiber that the squirrel had woven with strings and rags, but it was empty. Baa picked it up and went to the park with Cheeku. Then, Baa left the nest near a tree. They hid behind a tree and saw how Chikootichoo picked up her nest in her mouth and carried it up the tree, placing it on a branch.

Two weeks later, Cheeku went back to the park to find Chikootichoo. This time, she was not alone but had two tiny baby squirrels by her side! Baa gave a bag of peanuts to Cheeku, saying, “Chikootichoo may have a brain no bigger than a jowar seed, but she has the memory of an elephant!”

Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd has publishied a new series of English language textbooks for classes 1–8. 

Esther David’s story ‘Cheeku and Chootikichu’ from their ‘Storytellers’ series; will be included in their Literature Reader for class 2.


Naik Nama by Esther David

It is a well known fact that sculptors draw differently, as they create volumes within the inner life of a drawing. This feeling is best seen in Jayanti Naik’s drawings of an acrobat with flowing lines; moving and creating strong semi-circular forms. While on another wall, his drawings have softer lyrical lines of human figures moving with a slow inner rhythm, almost reminiscent of the Bengal School of art.

In contrast, Naik’s drawings of cats are vigorous as they appear to bristle with anger, as they transform into Porcupines ready to shoot their thorny quills into the stark white format of the paper. These drawings based on innumerable subjects extend to his sketchbooks, which are also exhibited at Archer Art Gallery, which is the venue of his retrospective exhibition. His sketchbooks overflow with sensitive sketches, like the symbolic drawing of Mahatma Gandhi, portrayed with a stick and chappals.

In quite another context, his sculptures are rounded forms, languorously spread out on the floor. Yet, once in a while, he does use pedestals, when he feels it necessary; say for a portrait or a form which needs to be seen from a certain height.

Also, on view are his photographs, where he has documented traditional potters at the wheel, and also shows an eye for colour in his other works.

But, Jayanti Naik surprises the viewer with his brilliant ceramics, which have a certain feeling of the earth, as they have a touch of the artist’s hands…


Ab Tera Kya Hoga Kaliya’

This narrative is about Amit Ambalal and his paintings… No, not about “Shrinathji,” “Pichwais” or “Nathdwara…”

They exist together in the landscape of Amit’s being.

He experiences pleasure – “Ananda” – as he paints in his studio. From there, he can see the “Leela” of life and “Vrindavan,” where the child Krishna is playing a game of ball with his cowherd friends. The ball suddenly spins and falls into the river Yamuna. Krishna runs to retrieve it. The river is the lair of the many-headed venomous serpent, Kaliya, and his consorts persuade Krishna not to disturb him. Fearlessly, he jumps into the river, harnesses the serpent and throws the ball towards his friends.

Magically, the ball lands in Amit’s paintings.

Interestingly, this has a magnetic pull, which draws Amit to create a magical pictorial world of his own. 

Painted in red, the ball transforms into an orb and the connection between the ball and Kaliya unfolds with the title, ‘…ab tera kya hoga Kaliya,’ where water splashes from the river, as startled langurs jump over the ball and fall into a bed of lotus flowers.

“Just Missed” also focuses on the ball, where langurs run helter-skelter, frightening fish and turtles, so that they hastily swim away in the shallows.

Although, Amit knows they are all waiting for the child Krishna to appear…

With such anecdotes, Amit reveals his thought process, technique, stories, fables, myths and day-to-day happenings, which give form to his paintings. 

Amit paints his tigers in different colours. In “Testing Times,” he paints a tiger in ferocious blue, gently licking dew-drops from the heart of a lotus and majestically trampling a lotus-bud even as an impudent turtle bites his tail. But then, tigers also have their moods; a pink-tiger with folded paws, almost cat-like, sits on his hind legs, hypnotized by the bulb-eyes of a giant dragon-fly.

In these paintings, the lotus-crazy tigers breathe deep into their fragrance, gently nibbling at lotus-stems and foraging in their private paradise. Stories and interpretations keep changing. There is always an element of surprise, as a langur is almost hit on the head with the ball and leaps over it. A turtle swims away and the ball falls into the river, causing a fountain of water to rise and fall around them. Quickly, langurs and turtles scuttle helter-skelter as they know what will happen next, that the serpent is coiled in deep slumber on the river-bed.  

The animal world knows he should not be disturbed.   

Like Amit, they also know, this is no ordinary ball.

It is a moment of magic.

It is the child Krishna’s ball.

The Blue God is unseen, but Amit knows that somewhere nearby, he is playing with his friends. The ball spins; bounces and falls into the lotus leaves and glides deeper into the river Yamuna. This particular story has many connotations, sans the visible forms of Kaliya, Krishna, Vrindavan or Yamuna.

Once, when Amit Ambalal was in Mathura, he stood on the banks of river Yamuna, contemplating about “Kaliya’s” poisonous venom, which had spread in the river. He felt, it was similar to the present-day river, as it was no longer exuberant, but polluted by toxic waste. These are the sources of Amit’s paintings

Similarly, the colours of Nathdwara enter Amit’s paintings with bright pinks, blues, greens and deep yellows, which connect him to his life-long passion for “Pichwais.” His forms stand out on the canvas with vigorous lines, and the pink lotus almost always appears as a metaphor of his pictorial world, which has become part of his artistic sensibilities.

Amit gives another dimension to his work, when his satire and humorous style emerge in his paintings of elephants, which have quite another story to tell. Covered with ceremonial trappings they resemble temple elephants. They appear to be weightless, lithe and energetic, playfully spraying water on a jackass in “Raag Malhar.’ Gleefully with mischievous eyes, these elephants flap their lotus-leaf-like-ears at a Godman who boasts about the miracles he can perform. The elephant appears to be laughing, while swatting a grasshopper; spraying the Godman with water and exposing his arrogance and deceit, as shamefacedly he walks away; in the painting, “Water Wizard.”

In the same tone, Amit makes a light-hearted comment on the human condition in the painting ‘Trunk and Tail’ where a man in a tiger-mask balances himself precariously on an elephant’s trunk. In the same tone, Amit makes a light-hearted comment on the human condition in the painting ‘Trunk and Tail’ where a man in a tiger-mask balances himself precariously on an elephant’s trunk.  

The title of the painting ‘Monkeys of the Blue God’, raises a question, “where is the Blue God?”

Where is Krishna as Shrinathji?

Maybe, in Nathdwara, in a Pichwai or in Amit’s heart…. 


Symphony – by Esther David

Paintings by Shefali Nayan

(This exhibition was curated by Esther David – 31st January to 5th February at The Gallery – Amdavad ni Gufa

She is like a river of colours.

When she paints, her eyes light up with the spark of a distant rainbow.

This is Shefali Nayan.

Silently, she absorbs everything around her. Be it people, nature, folk arts, a mela or the market place. Everything stimulates her and she pours her entire being into her work. She allows herself to flow with her themes, as her palette compliments her forms, which transform into imaginary landscapes of her aspirations. These are best seen in ’Glow,’ as a portrait lights up from within and in  ‘Petals,’  where a face emerges from layers of transparent blue painted with a sensitive touch of green, which lends a dream like quality.  

In contrast, Shefali captures the rhythm of life in her linear abstractions, which are constructed with tightly woven forms and intermingling colours; always moving, changing into multiple images, interwoven with intricacies of her thought process that surfaces in her work with lines and colours, often creating multiple-colour compositions with the elements of the universe, which resemble icons of nature, as they appear to float towards unknown destinations.   

Esther David at Amdavad in Gufa

Shefali shifts effortlessly between recognizable forms and abstractions. This method of working with different techniques and mediums has led her towards photo installations. The viewer experiences a certain empathy for the lone pigeon, titled ‘Odd-one-Out.’

In the genre of digital art, her workmanship is flamboyant and bold, as she uses luminous colours like bright pinks, vermilions, greens, which are stringed together with a yellow line, creating forms that are seen and unseen.   

She finds a path between these multiple expressions with her artistic explorations and delves deeper into diverse subjects, forms, colours, while constructing rhythmic movements in her abstractions, as seen in ‘Underwater,’ painted with intertwined linear blues, which flow like a musical note.

Her artistic sensibilities absorb all that is beautiful in life; as she reacts to everything that catches her eye with an  element of surprise and elation as seen in ‘Salsa’ with its dancing lines in reds, vermilions, blues, against a background of vigorous brush-strokes.

 Shefali Nayan’s ‘Symphony’ of colours is a playful series of works.These appear in her pictorial language, similar to different ‘ragas’ and lend a totality to her forms with a harmonious ‘Oneness

Shefali Nayan and Esther David

Heart – Esther David featured in Inspiring Indian Women

01. What is your favourite word?

“HEART” – My heart draws me to see everything beautiful – in the visual arts, performing arts and nature; with love and compassion.

02. What was the moment in your life that made you Blossom into the person you are today?

My early exposure to art, literature and the performing arts happened because of the artistic atmosphere in our family house, when we lived as a joint family in the old city of Ahmedabad. I developed a love for nature and wildlife from my father Reuben David who created the zoo complex around Kankaria Lake. While in Vadodara; I received greater exposure to arts, as I imbibed Tagorean values, the essence of Satyajit Ray’s films, theatre, folk music and world art. Through the years, I have become close to our small close-knit Bene Israel Jewish community, as we often met at the Magen Abraham Synagogue in Ahmedabad, which has inspired me to create Indian Jewish literature.

03. What would you want the young boys & girls to learn from your journey?

Believe in yourself. Keep on working and be creative. The rest will fall into place. 

# Esther David was featured in 1000 Inspiring Indian Women list. The Q&A section was part of it.


Reviews – Bombay Brides

FIRST POST – Review by Shikha Kumar (2019)

In the late 50s, Esther David was in Mumbai for a cousin’s wedding when she discovered a housing society in Jacob Circle, where a lot of Jews lived. Born and brought up in a house in Ahmedabad, she was intrigued by this concept – members of her community living in different apartments in the same complex. Over five decades later, in 2012, she was in the city again when she stumbled upon another such housing society, near a synagogue in Thane. Given their diminishing numbers – many Indian Jews had immigrated to Israel and other countries in the decades since – the society stood for a wonderful sense of preservation.

A similar housing society forms the base of ‘Bombay Brides,’ David’s latest work. The novel takes us into ‘Shalom India Housing Society,’ a fictional complex in Ahmedabad inhabited primarily by members of the Jewish community….Through interlinked stories, we’re introduced to a host of characters like Ezra, the building secretary; Salome, the caretaker; Sharon, a music teacher, and the various tenants who move in and out of A-107, an apartment owned by Juliet and Romiel (Rahul) a Jewish-Hindu couple who get married and move to Israel. David decided to place the society in Ahmedabad, as it’s a city she knows best….A common thread running through many of the stories is marriage – as members of the society get together to match-make, with some moving to and from Ahmedabad to Mumbai, Alibaug, Panvel and Pen…. “In the 1850s, a lot of young Jewish men moved from Alibaug to Ahmedabad, as part of the British services. And when it was time for them to get married, they started looking for brides in Bombay. Soon Jewish women from Bombay were moving to Ahmedabad. Today, many Jewish women in Ahmedabad are from Bombay,” says David, over a phone interview from Ahmedabad. ‘Bombay Brides’ takes an evocative look at the rites, rituals and traditions of the Bene Israel Jews….. “Prophet Elijah is a relatively new entry in my life… since the last 15 years…It’s believed that he used to be in Haifa, Israel and on his way to heaven, he passed through India, leaving a mark on a rock in Alibaug”

It’s the women’s stories in ‘Bombay Brides’ that draw you in – there’s Myra, who arrives in Ahmedabad on an American programme of Torah studies, and later becomes Maa Myramayi after meeting a guru at a yoga centre… Golda, a talented musician, leaves her controlling husband Moses when he tries to raise his hand on her for singing in public…On her travels to Israel, France, and certain southern and north-east Indian cities, the author interacted with scores of Jewish women. “I’m always on the side of the women. I structured the stories around the human condition… how difficult it’s getting for women to try to keep a profession. They’re all highly educated – music and education are a big part of Jewish upbringing – but the rituals and traditions are quite strict,” she says. “In fact, with any religion, it’s the women who preserve traditions. How do they cope? With every character, I created a situation where I have tried to solve some such problem.” Every chapter begins with an illustration of the character, sketched by David. The windows; the women are peeking out of on the cover are also illustrated by her and inspired from the many synagogues she has seen over the years…It was only when she was well into her 40s that her interest in Indian Jewish traditions developed. This stemmed from a need to understand herself better, and make sense of the insider-outsider conflict. “India is the only country where Jews were never persecuted. We have the freedom to practice our religion. How do you maintain that balance of being Jewish in India?” She was 50 when her first novel, ‘The Walled City,’ was published. It was a chronicle of three generations of Jewish women in Ahmedabad, set after Independence. “I was not sure if it would work, but it did. And suddenly there was an explosion when it was translated into French, and I was introduced to a lot of people. That I came from Ahmedabad was surprising, as most people thought Jews are in Bombay. I realized that very few Indian Jews had written about their community, the little there was by foreign Jews.” Nissim Ezekiel, the late ‘Sahitya Akademi Award’-winning poet, also a Bene Israel Jew, was David’s role model….”We live in the land of four million gods and goddesses and yet, retain our identity.” On the outside, they’re often mistaken for Maharashtrians… “But the minute we enter a synagogue, we cover our hair, men wear the ‘kippah’ and we say our prayers in Hebrew,” which she terms as the “Jewish secret life.”


WOMENS WEB – Bombay Brides (2019)

When Juliet and Romiel get married and relocate to Israel, they rent out their Apartment 107 in Ahmedabad’s ‘Shalom India Housing Society’ to Jews. Each character that inhabits the house has a story to tell: about run-ins with the other residents, the diminishing community of Jews, cross-cultural conflicts, and the difficulty of choosing between India and Israel. Prophet Elijah, whom the Bene Israel Jews of western India believe in, plays an important role in their lives, appearing at critical or amusing moments and wreaking havoc with his mischief, but ensuring that ultimately peace prevails. This book was titled‘ Bombay Brides’ as most Jewish men of Ahmedabad are married to women from Mumbai… drawn from Jewish homes in Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Kochi, Kolkata and Alibaug. This stories are about home, heritage, rites, rituals, roots and what it means to be one of the last surviving members of a community in a vast multi-cultural country like India.



Esther David’s “Bombay Brides” talks about what it means to be one of the last surviving members of a community in a multicultural country like India. An extract: “Ilana had trained as a police officer. Since then, she had decided that Jewish suitors were not for her. She felt that she was stronger than most men. Whenever she agreed to meet a suitor to respect her parents’ feelings, she was certain that he would not be good enough for her. With hard work, Ilana had risen to the post of deputy superintendent of police and wanted a husband to match her education and status. Being a policewoman was part of her family tradition. She had grown up listening to stories of her powerful grandmother Sara, who had been the superintendent of Sabarmati Jail. She had been honoured with the President’s Medal for prison reforms. And Aunt Rose held pride of place in the family, as she had trained as a policewoman in Israel after she lost her husband in a shootout. With such a background, Ilana was looking for a person who could stand shoulder to shoulder with her in the long journey of life. She was doubly careful, as she did not want to be burdened with a man who did not respect her achievements. Past thirty, she lived a busy but uneventful life with her parents Noah and Leah in A-105 at ‘Shalom India Housing Society.’ Like her grandmother Sara, she loved to dress up in her uniform and feel powerful. She had a room to herself in her parents’ home. A police jeep was at her disposal, which she never used for personal work, only official duties. Lana’s life changed when she received a marriage proposal from Amos. He was Salome’s nephew from Mumbai. He was also a police officer and that was the reason Salome had suggested he meet Ilana. Leah prayed to Prophet Elijah that he play the matchmaker for her beautiful but hot-headed daughter. Although they were both police officers, Amos was fun-loving and different from Ilana. So Salome had her doubts that they would get along. Ilana never smiled, unless there was a good reason. She was tall, well built, had a square jaw, large black eyes, a small mouth and short hair. Salome had convinced Ilana’s parents that Amos was the perfect match for her. He had the same post as Ilana in Mumbai, and he was also tall and lean and had a pleasant round face. Amos came from Mumbai to meet Ilana. He was staying with Salome, who had informed Noah and Leah about his arrival. So they invited him for tea when Ilana returned from work. They had informed her about the proposal and she had agreed to meet him to please her parents and Aunt Salome, whom she liked because she was simple, large-hearted and had been close to Grandmother Sara. That evening, when Ilana and Amos were introduced, she did not particularly like him. But after Leah had served tea and biscuits, she suggested that they go out to a café. Ilana agreed, as she did not want to sit opposite Amos and her own family all evening. During the outing, she was sure to put him off and refuse the marriage proposal. To gain time, she excused herself, went to her room, took off her uniform, and folded and put it away. She carefully dressed up in a bright pink kurta over black tights, combed her hair in an upward sweep, applied eyeliner, wore brown lipstick and dabbed her favourite perfume behind her ears. When she came out Amos smiled, pointed at her photograph in uniform kept on the mantelpiece and asked, ‘Are you the same person?”……Next morning, when Leah asked Ilana if she would consider Amos as a prospective groom, as he was leaving for Mumbai that evening, Ilana nodded her head in the affirmative, as though it was the most natural thing on earth. Amos smiled when he was told this. He knew he could never have convinced Ilana to accept his proposal had he not taken her café-hopping. That night, Ilana had fallen in love with Amos….When Leah informed Salome about Ilana’s decision, Amos came over to Ilana’s house, smiled and saluted his fiancée with a twinkle in his eyes. Salome rushed down to her apartment and lit a candle for Prophet Elijah, as he smiled down at her.


HINDUSTAN TIMES – Review by Kushalrani Gulab (2019)

Because life is like this only, I started reading Flora, the 13th story in Esther David’s collection ‘Bombay Brides,’ immediately after I returned from my first consultation with a dietician to whom my sister had hauled me with a gun to my head.

Flora, the heroine of this story, is a lovely woman in early middle age: pretty, kind, smart, unequivocally adored by children and instant friend of almost everyone she meets. But she has never had an offer of marriage because she is fat. When she meets Joseph, a jolly, handsome, smart man in early middle age who has also never had an offer of marriage because he is fat, she gets along with him brilliantly. Before long, the matchmakers (or meddlers) of Ahmedabad’s ‘Shalom India Housing Society’ spring into action and next thing Flora and Joseph know, they are engaged to be married.

Because life is like this only, I started reading Flora, the 13th story in Esther David’s collection ‘Bombay Brides,’ immediately after I returned from my first consultation with a dietician to whom my sister had hauled me with a gun to my head.

Flora, the heroine of this story, is a lovely woman in early middle age: pretty, kind, smart, unequivocally adored by children and instant friend of almost everyone she meets. But she has never had an offer of marriage because she is fat. When she meets Joseph, a jolly, handsome, smart man in early middle age who has also never had an offer of marriage because he is fat, she gets along with him brilliantly. Before long, the matchmakers (or meddlers) of Ahmedabad’s Shalom India Housing Society spring into action and next thing Flora and Joseph know, they are engaged to be married.

The matchmakers (or meddlers) then make a massive mistake. They insist that Flora loses weight so she’ll be a pretty bride. As she gets slimmer, Joseph begins to think he must be slimmer too, to deserve this beautiful woman by his side. And after they marry, their focus on their looks drives the couple apart. Joseph begins an affair, Flora leaves him though she is pregnant, and they only get together again when Joseph arrives for the baby’s naming ceremony, now clearly too distraught and unhappy without Flora to care about his weight. Yes, they are both stout again, and now they together again and happy.

I don’t suppose my sister will accept this story as evidence that my first consultation with the dietician should be my last since I never wanted to marry even when I was slim. But Flora is just one example of the kind of charming story David has put together in Bombay Brides and it can certainly be used as evidence that you will enjoy this book as much as I did.

Of course, the story of Flora is not as simple as the author has made it appear. When you read the actual story rather than the summary I have presented you with, you will understand there’s more to Flora and Joseph’s relationship than the way they look. That’s what you’ll find in every story in ‘Bombay Brides’ – David’s writing is so simple that we almost miss the complexities behind her tales. She presents her stories the way our mothers and teachers told us stories when we were very young and had no idea we were imbibing ethics and world views and perspectives along with mischievous rabbits, wild adventures and endless fun. This is why her books feel so comforting, when actually they are not. ‘Bombay Brides’ strings together the different stories of some of the people who temporarily inhabit or pass through the ‘Shalom India Housing Society’ in Ahmedabad. The title, David explains, is based on the fact that many of the brides who arrive and depart from this complex are from Bombay or thereabout since the Bene Israel community, to which most of the characters belong, is very small in Gujarat. The stories all have women’s names as titles, but each is just as much about the people who live among these women as about the women themselves. Some stories are sweet and have happy endings, some are rather melancholy, some downright tragic, and some uplifting. All the stories are about ordinary events: the woman police officer who believes that in keeping with her position, she should always be serious, the singer whose parents marry her to the man who’ll ignore her one physical flaw as long as she never sings again, the widow who meets the man who was her first love and hopes he will now be her last love – none of these stories are out of the ordinary. Even their resolutions are what you expect; there are no twists in these tales. But the sense of comfort they give their readers makes them pleasing. What I loved the most about this book however is David’s depictions of the lives of the Bene Israel community in India. This is a very old community, as much a part of the culture of India’s upper western coastline as any other community in terms of looks, lifestyles and lusciousness of food. David may or may not have intended it when she collected these stories in a book, but to me reading ‘Bombay Brides’ in this period of communal divisiveness that India is going through, the book is a shining example of hope for the country all over again. The Jews of India may be a tiny minority, getting smaller with every flight that departs India for Israel, but they’re just as Indian as everyone who was born, lives, and works here. For that alone I would read this book. That the stories are charming as well is simply the silver topping on the ‘gulab jamun.’


Bombay Brides –2019 – Review

Esther David’s Bombay Brides showcases the fictional life of Jewish women living in Ahmedabad. It’s a Bollywood love story. Jewish Juliet falls for the Hindu Rahul Abhiram at a catering school in Ahmedabad. The families are against the match. Juliet is sent to Israel, but Rahul follows her there. They return to Bombay, get married and move to Ahmedabad. Though furious, the families now accept them.  The couple is not the lead in a film, but is the main character in Bombay Brides, the new book by ‘Sahitya Akademi Award’ winner, Esther David. Known for her writings on the Jewish experience in India, David sets her stories in Ahmedabad. Bombay Brides is set in the fictional ‘Shalom India Housing Society.’ In this book, newlyweds Romiel-Rahul and Juliet-Priya buy an apartment in the society, then leave for Israel and rent it to a series of Jewish tenants. Each chapter talks about one Bombay-bride – for that is where most Jewish men in Ahmedabad found their wives. Though the stories are about Jewish women, their problems are familiar, unfaithful and violent husbands, women treated as servants, their lives stifled and bound by convention and their innocence used against them. These stories if ongoing are of the romantic nature but also for a better life. David captures their struggle for an identity and their search for home; in prose that is simple but evocative.


THE INDIAN EXPRESS – Review by Alaka Sahni (2019)

Esther David pieces together a picture of the Bene Israel Jewish community like India – It’s a balancing act to retain the Jewish ethos in a multicultural country like India.” In her latest book ‘Bombay Brides’ Harper Collins, Jewish author-artist Esther David 73, strings together 18 stories of love and loss set in a flat in a housing society in Ahmedabad that is rented out to tenants from the Bene Israel Jewish community by a young Jewish couple who has moved to Israel. Through these fictional and quirky accounts; David won the 2010 ‘Sahitya Akademi Award’ for ‘Book of Rachel,’ describes what it means to be the last members of a diminishing community.

David says,” the characters came to me, as I met Indian Jews and their families in Mumbai, Alibaug, Kochi, Kolkata and other places. I noticed that most Jewish brides settled in Ahmedabad came from Bombay (now Mumbai), like my grandmother, mother and aunts. Thus my narrative moves from Ahmedabad, Bombay and sometimes onward s to Israel.”


AHMEDABAD MIRROR – Review by Shruti Panicker

  • Love in Flat number 107”

The Jewish festival of lights is a conversation starter; at author Esther David’s cosy home on Gulbai Tekra on Friday afternoon. We are meeting to chat about her newest offering Bombay Brides stories of love and loss in a transit flat. While titles of most of her stories are a giveaway of the story…“The cover itself took six months in the making,” informs the author. The arresting yellow, one of her favourite colours serves as a backdrop to David’s beautiful back and white illustrations of women looking out of different windows…Her novel ‘Bombay Brides’ talks of stories – a Shah Rukh Khanesque tale no less. No doubts then, the two main characters are called Juliet-Priya Abhiram and Romiel-Rahul Abhiram….the story travels constantly changing scenery from Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Alibaug, Israel and back….they buy an apartment in the fictional ‘Shalom India Housing Society’…which then they have to rent out, when they decide to leave for Israel for lucrative jobs. The changing tenants in their apartment 107- are Myra, Ruby, Ilana, Sangita – and their varied stories of love makeup the book. David says, “In my head, this society is situated in the Satellite area…Bombay Brides speaks of the diminishing community of Bene Israel Jews, their sense of loss…their conflict and struggle to preserve their identity in a multi-cultural space like India.


Reviews and Interviews – Bene Appetit

THE TRIBUNE – Book Review by Puneetinder Kaur Sidhu

Esther David’s book showcases culinary heritage of Jews in India.  Esther David’s latest book showcases Jewish life in India. She traces the culinary heritage of this miniscule community, the 5,000-odd members of which live in tiny pockets around the country. Replete with recipes, historical snippets and peppered with illustrations, ‘Bene Appetit’ is a quick, easy read and every bit as appetising as its instructive contents. Following the opening notes on Jewish culture are introductory chapters about the Jewish communities that call India home. The author, herself a Jew, takes readers to the Bene Israel Jews of Western India, to the Cochin Jews in Kerala, the Baghdadis in Kolkata, the Bene Ephraim of Andhra Pradesh, and the Bnei Menashe of Manipur and Mizoram… Prominent festivals and historically symbolic foods form an important component of the book. We learn that apples dipped in honey, signifying a sweet year ahead, are mandatory on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. In Kerala, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) is observed by consuming wheat flour halwa after a day of fasting. Like elsewhere, Passover marks the exodus of Jews from Egypt. In Western India, matzo, the unleavened bread carried across the Red Sea, has been replaced with the bin-khameer-chi-bhakhri. A platter of assorted fruits edged with sweetened poha, nuts and dried fruits, called malida, is another essential part of celebrations. Scores of similar nuggets, with detailed recipes, are packed between the covers of ‘Bene Appetit’. A delicious read.


THE HINDU – Book Review by Shonali Muthalaly

Author Esther David travels across India, collaborating with Jewish communities to learn how to cook traditional, closely guarded recipes for her new book – ‘Bene Appétit: The Cuisine of the Indian Jews’.  Her latest book, Bene Appétit: The Cuisine of the Indian Jews, published by HarperCollins, opens with the lines “Food is memory. Food is culture. Food bonds families and communities.” Hence, in the face of a rapidly fading collective memory of the Indian Jewish experience, Esther decided it was time to travel across the country to record their traditions…”All these communities found ways to adapt local recipes and ingredients, in keeping with our dietary laws. Meat must be kosher and you cannot eat it with dairy – so you cannot even put ghee on a chappati,” says Esther…To record the recipes from each community, Esther travelled to synagogues and Jewish homes across the country, starting with Machilipatnam, Andhra Pradesh….“Everywhere people were really wonderful. There is a fraternity, a family feeling. They were not only happy to cook these recipes for me, but also to translate and write them down,”…. While most of the recipes are simple, with tweaks, like using coconut milk instead of dairy in keeping with Jewish dietary laws, the collection is also a fascinating account of a diaspora that blended into India harmoniously, yet managed to retain a unique identity…. Explaining why she decided to plunge into food writing, she says, “My sources are beginning to forget some of the older recipes. Everyone is now into quick cooking and fusion…. Our taste buds are forgetting our heritage.”


HINDUSTAN TIMES – By Cherylann Mollan

Food, faith and Jewish tradition: Esther David on her new book

See how local influences mingled with ancient beliefs have resulted in morphed matzo bread and a feast of poha, among other treats, in Bene Appetit.  Esther David, 76, is an Indian Jew who grew up in a large joint family in Ahmedabad and made a career as an art critic, columnist and visiting professor in art history at CEPT University, before writing her first book at the age of 45. The Sahitya Akademi awardee’s previous works include the novel Book of Rachel (about a lone Jewish woman trying to preserve her community’s heritage in coastal Maharashtra) and the non-fiction work, Ahmedabad: City with a Past. David’s latest book, Bene Appetit, takes readers into the kitchens of five Jewish communities across India — the Bene Israel Jews of western India, the Cochin Jews of Kerala, the Baghdadi Jews of Kolkata, the Bene Ephraim of Andhra Pradesh and the Bnei Menashe of Manipur and Mizoram. Released by HarperCollins in April, it explores the elements of faith and tradition that have moulded Jewish cuisine in India, and documents how the dwindling community (down to about 5,000 from about 50,000 in 1940) has found ways to preserve its food heritage.



(Pass on those jumping potatoes and celebrate Jewish diaspora delicacies. Jews in India and their food practices have not had to face persecution. But modernization and the passing of the old guard are fast eroding their unique culinary heritage.)

An itinerant people often leave behind more things than they can carry with them. However, their stories and their food may end up sneaking into their scant baggage and becoming significant markers of their identity in their adopted homelands. In “Bene Appétit”, Esther David curates a range of mouth-watering recipes that the Jewish diaspora has brought to this country from their native Israel; having landed in the melting pot of cultures that is India, these have now acquired flavours of their own. 

Traditional Indian Jewish food is a dying art,” writes David, as she emphasizes the need to transcribe these recipes from the kitchen to the page. Until the 1940s, she notes, India was home to some 50,000 Jews, an aggregate that has now dwindled to only about 5,000, tucked away in five disparate pockets — certain regions in western India, Bengal, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Manipur and Mizoram in the Northeast. In her quest to save the moribund culinary practices, David ends up doing much more than merely collecting recipes — she journeys across the land, chronicling the curious  histories of different Jewish communities, the sites that their members have come to inhabit in India, as well elements of their cultures — attire, festivals, rituals, and traditional feasts.

Besides providing a number of recipes of delectable dishes – the South Indian “meen pollichathu”or green fish curry, the “chak-hao”or black rice pudding of the Northeast, the “aloo makala” or “jumping potatoes” brought to Calcutta by the Baghdadi Jews, among many others — and their variations, David identifies authentic Jewish food joints that she discovers on the road — be it the Jewish bakery in Calcutta or D’Samson’s Cold Drinks near Alibaug.

David vividly captures soulful vignettes that characterize the places she visits — the roadside “chai in clay pots” in Calcutta, the “idyllic” seaside town of Alibaug,  the “tall mountain tops amidst floating clouds” in Mizoram. Interestingly, she chooses to use illustrations instead of photographs to capture scenes and cuisines that she writes about, giving the book a delightfully quaint appearance.  In spite of being a rather insular community, Indian Jews, David observes, seem to have adapted to local cultures to a great extent — although idol worship is prohibited in Judaism, many Bene Israel Jews in western India have happily taken to worshipping posters of Prophet Elijah.  This confluence of cultures is also reflected in the cuisine, which forms the crux of the book.  David focuses on the ‘dietary laws’ of Indian Jews that they adhere to rather strictly.  For instance, at no cost can dairy products and meat dishes come together — even their utensils are kept separate.

There is also a strict rule about which animals can be eaten and the “kosher”method of slaughter. Yet, local flavours have seeped into these traditional recipes, especially in the form of regional herbs and spices.

Jews in India and their food practices — unlike those of some other minority communities in recent times — have not had to face persecution. But modernization and the passing of the old guard are fast eroding their unique culinary heritage. It is, therefore, all the more necessary to document these traditions now — what better way to do this than to bring people together around the dinner table ?


THE NOSHER – by Rachel Myerson and Varsha Torgalkar (October 11, 2021)

 Each community’s traditional recipes are unique, aligning with Jewish dietary laws but also influenced by locally available ingredients. These traditional recipes, however, are becoming lost to a younger generation who adopt shortcuts. David, a Bene Israel Jew, set out to document these disappearing recipes — and translate them into English — in the hope that she will inspire all generations of Jews to return to their roots.

This was a mammoth task, involving travel across cities and villages, visiting synagogues and meeting community members….David offers us a fascinating, delicious glimpse into a world that is at once familiar and completely foriegn.

“Bene Appetit – The Cuisine of the Indian Jews” is a celebration of the breadth and  intricacies of Indian Jewish cuisine — and Judaism in general, while serving as a cautionary tale, reminding its reader of the importance of preserving tradition and of taking the time to learn the stories and practices of our ancestors.


THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS – by Anushree Madhavan (29-05-2021)

CHENNAI: Food is a memory for Sahitya Akademi awardee Esther David. Of family members assembling at one place, women in the household cooking together and a large table filled with Indian Jewish delicacies.

“Food is also all those different flavours that used to come from the kitchen.

We make a sweet puri where the dough is made with coconut milk and jiggery and it goes with a spicy curry. These combinations of flavours you will not understand if you haven’t tasted it,” says Esther. While she offers such titbits on Indian Jewish cuisine from Ahmedabad over a phone call, with her book Bene Appétit: The Cuisine of Indian Jews, she takes readers on a gastronomic journey of recipes from five Jewish communities across India Bene Israel Jews of western India, the Cochin Jews of Kerala, the Baghdadi Jews of Kolkata, the Bene Ephraim Jews of Andhra Pradesh and the Bnei Menashe Jews of Manipur and Mizoram.

The book walks us through their dietary law, festivals, recipes, and how each of their cuisines is influenced by Indian cuisine…Esther’s books, “The Book of Esther,”

“Book of Rachel,” “Shalom India Housing Society,” to name a few — have revolved around the Indian Jewish community. The juxtaposition of the plot and her recipes builds a rousing appetite for the story and the tummy. “It was never conscious.

In one story, I used a popular recipe by Indian Jews, a black pepper sauce to create a dark moment between the characters. Likewise, I use food to take the plot ahead,” she offers…One question and several years of research led Esther to write this book.

“I attend a lot of literary conferences meant for Jewish writers. At one such conference, in France, I was asked ‘Is there something called Indian Jewish cuisine?’

And this made me more curious,” she says. So from 2017 to 2019, Esther travelled, meeting members of the different communities…It is hard for Esther to pick out a favourite dish, but two recipes stay etched in her memory for different reasons.

 “In the synagogue in Machilipatnam, where I was the host family’s guest, they made fish eggs. This is a delicacy and it is only made for special guests, so I was deeply touched. I was reminded of my childhood when we ate fish eggs, but now they are rare.

This dish is a form of respect given to a person. And the other favourite is the black rice pudding chak-hao. I was amazed. I am not very much into sweets but in this case I was carried away. The whole idea of black rice and coconut milk cooking for hours, and the play of colours as the black rice slowly turns deep purple…the memory  is very close to me,” she details…“When a community decreases in number, its traditional food becomes a memory,” writes Esther in her book. But what she also heartily notes is that the elders and the youngsters of the Indian Jewish families she met are trying hard to preserve every last bit of their culture and cuisine.



In Esther David’s book ‘Bene Appétit: The Cuisine of the Indian Jews,’

Indian Jewish communities record their traditions with recipes, widely examined, with heart-warming anecdotes and mouth-watering recipes, Bene Appetit gives a holistic picture of a little-known community.

Packed with recipes, traditional snippets, and peppered with pictures,

 ‘Bene Appetit’ is a fast, simple read, and every part as appetizing as its informative contents.  Following the opening notes on Jewish culture are opening sections about the Jewish communities that describe India home…. Like elsewhere, Passover points to the emigration of Jews from Egypt. In Western India, matzo, the unleavened bread brought across the Red Sea, has been reinstated with the bin-khameer-chi-bhakri.

A platter of assorted fruits edged with…sweetened poha, nuts and dried fruits, called malida, is another necessary part of celebrations. Scores of similar nuggets, with detailed recipes, are packed between the covers of ‘Bene Appetit’. A delicious read…


SCROLL – by Vivek Menezes

I’ve been an enthusiastic fan of Esther David’s enviably light touch, and eye for detail. Now aged 76, she’s still got it, as in this description of Fort Kochi: “The entire evening had a magical feeling, as seagulls and other birds circled above while the fish got caught in the Chinese nets. Hidden amidst the trees, along the seashore, there were birds like coppersmith barbets and green bee-eaters.

We watched in amazement as the vibrant blue of a kingfisher’s wing stood out against the evening sky, amidst the cargo ships anchored along the coastline with the sound of their horns and flickering lights.”


THE JERUSALEM POST – Israel (20th January, 2022)

Esther David’s cookbook “Bene Appétit: The Cuisine of Indian Jews” won the council’s award for food writing. A member of the tiny Bene Indian Jewish community, David uses her book to explore the culinary practices of India’s 5,000-member Jewish population.


THE NEW YORK TIMES – by Florence Fabricant (21st November, 2021)

The Bene, the Bene Israel is a group of Jews in India, said to have arrived there many centuries ago. Esther David, who is a member of the community living in Ahmedabad, India, will discuss its food and traditions in a virtual event for the Museum of Food and Drink in New York City. Those food ways and customs have been preserved over time, as she describes in her book “Bene Appetit: The Cuisine of Indian Jews.” There will be a pre-recorded session with Krishnendu Ray, a professor of food studies at New York University, followed by a live conversation between Dr. Ray and the food writer and New York Times contributor Joan Nathan.


TIMES OF INDIA – Interview by Surabhi Rawat

Indian Jews live a very secretive life: Esther David on writing a book on Indian Jews’ recipes ‘Bene Appetit.  India is a land of diverse cultures and religions, and one such diminishing community is that of the Indian Jews with less than five thousand Jewish people in the country. In her latest book ‘Bene Appetit’, author-art critic-columnist-artist Esther David captures and gives the readers a unique glimpse of the Bene Israel Jewish community of India and their largely unknown cuisine. Esther David won the Sahitya Akademi Award for English Literature in 2010 for her debut novel ‘The Book of Rachel’. An Indian Jew herself, she documents the life and experiences of Jews in India through her books. ‘Bene Appetit’, published by HarperCollins India, is Esther David’s 11th book which was released in 2021.

1.   What inspired you to write ‘Bene Appetit’?

1-Writing this book happened by chance. While researching for all my fiction books based on Jewish themes, I came to the conclusion that Indian Jews’ cuisine is least known to people. Jews came to India when they were fleeing persecution in Israel and other countries; as they began living in India their traditional cuisines were influenced by India. The main base of Jewish food is the dietary laws. For instance: they say ‘Thou shall not cook the lamb in its mother’s milk’, and so we cannot use dairy products with non-vegetarian food items. Vegetarian and non-vegetarian food have to be kept separately. To maintain this, Indian Jews discovered coconut milk which I thought was very fascinating. There are five Jewish communities in India and I’ve written about some of their popular recipes in my book ‘Bene Appetit’. These dishes are cooked on special festivals, as each festival has a definite food item associated with it. The festivals are based on an event from the Bible which took place and so it’s more than 5800 years of Jewish history. Also, I realised that Western Jewish food is more popular in the world because of cinema and TV series. Their Jewish food is different (from ours) which people know of, like the Challah bread or plaited bread but people don’t know that Indian Jews also follow similar traditions and how! For instance, except for the Kolkata Jewish community which has a Jewish bakery, the plaited bread wasn’t available in India and we didn’t know how to bake it. We didn’t even know that we needed to have Challah bread (since we can’t have leavened flour)! Instead Indian Jews use chapati or bhakri and sprinkle it with salt for the Shabbat prayers. I thought this was a big contrast between Indian and Western Jews when it comes to their cuisine. Similarly in Europe, wine is very common but here in India we don’t get Kosher wine. So instead we make a sharbat by soaking black currant in water, and use it as a perfect substitute for Kosher wine. Or, Khajur ka Sheera which is used for a festival is easily available in the West but not in India and so we have to make everything from scratch. Over the years, Indian Jewish food is becoming a dying art as most Indian Jews are migrating to Israel and other Western countries. Most of us are not really making these food items anymore or only have some oral memories of it. So I thought this is a good time to start documenting these interesting recipes of Indian Jewish food in my new book.

Also, in one of my previous novels- ‘The Book of Rachel’- I had decided that each incident starts with a recipe which is connected to the story and the emotion… Somehow, I’m fascinated by food.

2. While working on this book, did you too as an Indian Jew discover anything new about your community’s food habits that you didn’t know of earlier?

2.   Yes! For example, there are platters prepared during festivals or celebrations– this is one of the Indian influences I noticed. Just like Prasad is served at festivals in India, we have adopted it in a different way in our cuisine. We prepare a big thali on occasions and add different kinds of food to it as an offering to the festival or Prophet Elijah. After the prayers are said over the platter and Prasad is distributed, then the main meal is served as a Thanksgiving. This I thought was a very strong Indian influence.

Also, we can’t have dairy products with meat items and so we can’t have most mithais with our meals. Only when there is Jain food, we are okay with having mithais with it but even those we make on our own for festivals. The biggest surprise that has come to me is how do you make a sweet which follows the dietary laws of Jews, besides using a lot of fruits? So the solution to it is Chik-Cha Halwa, which is wheat extract or chik with coconut milk which is cooked for about 7-8 hours.

I noticed that the Indian Jews from North-east India have very strong influences of their local cuisine on their food. They make dishes like bamboo noodles, rice flour pancakes with honey, or smoked fish in bamboo hollows, among others. They also use a lot of local food items like ginger, chili, yams, roots and fermented meats in their cooking.

3. Which are your favourite Indian Jewish dishes from this book?

3- From my area, the Bene Israel Jews of Western India, I like Chik-Cha Halwa. Down south, I’m very fascinated with Fish Eggs recipe and Chicken Curry with Gongura or Sorrel Leaves recipe, Dumplings made by the Bengal Jews, and Chak-hao or Black Rice Pudding made by the Bnei Menashe Jews of Manipur which was delicious and interesting! My table is no longer what I knew.

4. Talking of your previous novels and non-fiction books, you mostly have Indian Jew characters and you mainly write about the community. What does home, identity, and being an Indian Jew mean to you?

4- It is very conflicting as there is a cross-cultural conflict that we experience. I think we Indian Jews live a very secretive life. Most Jewish celebrations happen after 7 PM. On the streets we all look like Indians, but the moment we enter a synagogue we wear the kippah (the Jewish skull cap) and we pray, there are celebrations, etc. Even in our homes, most festivals are celebrated after sunset, and so it’s like a transformation that takes place in the evenings. These two conflicting emotions– of being a Jew and an Indian- I find it very difficult. In my books I write about Jewish themes to understand myself, where I come from, where I belong, and yet at heart I’m an Indian.

5. ‘Bene Appetit’ is your 11th published book. You have written fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, etc before. What do you enjoy writing the most out of these?

5-Fiction- Jewish! You asked me about the cross-cultural conflict– that interests me the most. Our community is getting smaller and there would be problems. Our children go out for education, they meet people of different communities, and they want to get married out of the community– so how does the community handle all of this? In most of my books, like ‘Bombay Brides’ or ‘Shalom India Housing Society’, I’m trying to solve these problems.

The second thing that interests me is how do the Jews here accept Indian and Jewish life? How does it accept and deal with all the social issues we face now as a very microscopic community? I’m not an academician, scholar or researcher and I won’t be able to do justice to it. But the only way I can deal with it is through stories and so fiction is liberating in a way.

6. You are an artist, illustrator, sculptor and writer. How do you express yourself the best?

6-Now it’s only through words and drawings, and when I’m talking to people like you who understand. When I’m talking I feel relieved… Drawing liberates me. I use some 50-60 pens of different types, and I’m constantly thinking while drawing. Even in earlier books, I used to draw my characters and then built the story around them. I visualize first and then write, as that’s my art training.I have removed the word “block” from my life. I’m continuously constructing– situations, characters, etc in my mind. I usually work on two novels at the same time– a light novel and a heavy one.

7. And writing tips for aspiring writers?

7-Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing– there is no other way! Also, a lot of young writers don’t want to rewrite or edit their work, which I think is very important.

8. Lastly, any book recommendations?

8-I have a tendency to read about communities and how they survive. I like the works of Orhan Pamuk, Ismat Chugtai, and Rushdie.



1-   When did your journey of writing this book begin?

1- Food and memory are connected in one way or another. Recently, I found an old bottle of saffron and when I tried to open it, the fragrance spread all over the house and brought back memories of my grandmother and how she hid it in a coin-size-box in various places of the house, using it sparingly for some dishes. And, when I was seven, she forced me to cut frills around the ‘Kippur chi Puri,’ which is made to break the fast of Yom Kippur. So, in most of my novels, which are based on Jewish life in India, these images often surfaced, when I wanted to create a certain mood in my narrative, like using a recipe of black sauce to create a dark mood. But, with time, these traditional recipes disappeared from our table. Much later, when I was in Paris during the launch of the French translation of one of my novels, I was invited for a Jewish New Year dinner party. I was fascinated with the amazing variety of Jewish cuisine of the west. I felt, it was different from Indian Jewish food. Soon after the launch of my novel, a reception was planned for a small audience and I was asked to make Indian Jewish food for the guests. I agreed and reached early with the ingredients and as my host’s family helped me, I made Bene Israel Jewish fish curry, coconut rice and black currant sherbet, which was appreciated. Maybe, at that very moment, I started thinking about Indian Jewish cuisine, which is not as popular as western Jewish cuisine. During this period, I collected many unknown recipes from Julie Pingle, wife of the cantor Joseph Samuel Pingle of the Magen Abraham Synagogue, Ahmedabad and for my next novel; I started each chapter with a recipe. 

2-   You highlight that each Indian Jewish community has a different culinary method, yet they are bonded by their ‘heritage of food.’ Can you briefly touch upon some commonalities?

2-Indian Jewish communities follow the ‘Dietary Law,’ which says, “Thou shall not cook the lamb in its mother’s milk.” So, Jews do not mix milk with meat dishes and keep separate vessels for both. And, as a substitute to dairy products they use coconut milk to make curries and sweets. With meat dishes, Indian Jews prefer to end their meals with fruit and do not have milk based sweets, like ‘mithai.’  In accordance to the dietary law, Indian Jews have fish with scales along with rice.

3-   Dealing with different languages across regions seems like it was quite a task for you. Were there any other challenges you faced during your travels?

3-During this journey, I had to deal with languages spoken in various regions. In western India, Maharashtra and Gujarat, Bene Israel Jews speak in Marathi, but having lived in Gujarat, I do not. But, the women were cooperative and helpful, as they explained in Hindi or Gujarati, the finer points of traditional food. Telugu is spoken in Andhra Pradesh, so my conversations with most Jewish women were translated by Jaya Kumar into English. In Kochi, my Jewish friends spoke both Malyalam and English. It was the same in Kolkata. In North-East India, Mizoram and Manipur, although Yonathan, Tamar and Akiva spoke English, I realized that I had to understand their ingredients and recipes. So, on my return to Ahmedabad, I had to make innumerable phone calls and asked them to send emails with photographs.

It is important to mention here, that although many Indian Jews speak English, along with regional languages, they say their prayers in Hebrew.

All over India, whenever I met Indian Jews, we bonded like one big family.

4-In addition to your travels, were there any secondary sources you sought for research for this book? 

4- I wrote about Jewish food, as it is made today; in India.


Bene Appetit- The cuisine of Indian Jews’ – Esther David

I have often thought why I wrote ‘Bene Appetit- The cuisine of Indian Jews.’ It was during the launch of the French translation of my novel, when I was in Paris and incidentally during Jewish Festivals, which I celebrated with family and friends. I was fascinated with the amazing variety of Jewish cuisine of the west. It was delicious and different. Soon, I became addicted to gefilte fish, matzo ball soup and Challah bread. I enjoyed walking in the Jewish quarter at Rue de Rosier in Paris and watching the varieties of Jewish food and bakeries. Soon after the launch of my novel, a reception was planned for a small audience and I was asked to make Indian Jewish food for the guests. I agreed and reached early with the ingredients and as my host’s family helped me, I made Bene Israel Jewish fish curry, coconut rice and black currant sherbet, which was appreciated.

Maybe, at that very moment, I started thinking about Indian Jewish cuisine, which was not as popular as western Jewish cuisine. But, it took me a long time to write this book and discovered the food traditions of Jews from Kochi, Andhra Pradesh, western India, Kolkata, Manipur and Mizoram. The title ‘Bene Appetit- The cuisine of Indian Jews’ is based on the French greeting ‘Bon Appetit’ and also because most Indian Jews are known as ‘Bene Israel,’ ‘Bene Ephraim’ and ‘Bnei Menashe,’ so Bene Apettit sounded perfect. The beginning of this book can be traced to the time, when I wrote a novel, where each chapter began with a recipe. Sometimes, in my novels; I set the tone of my narrative with some Jewish recipes, which surfaced in my memory in context to the mood of the text. Slowly, I started thinking seriously about this subject, which meant travel and research. So, I wrote to Hadassah Brandeis Research Institute. USA, but after my proposal was accepted, I got cold feet. So far, I had briefly documented the cuisine of the Bene Israel Jews of western India, not other Jewish communities, so I took this search as a challenge. But, much to my surprise, when I made contact with Jews of different regions, they were happy to know that I was also an Indian Jew and offered as much help as possible. This is how ‘Bene Appetit- The cuisine of Indian Jews,’ became a reality. I felt enlightened, enriched and proud of the Jewish heritage of preserving the dietary law. When I was working on this book, I was deeply touched, that Jewish communities of different regions connected easily with me, as we bonded over food, traditions, rituals and much more. I discovered Cochin Jews and their ‘pastels,’ Baghdadi Jews and their ‘jumping potatoes,’ Bene Ephraim Jews and their ‘chicken curry with Gongura leaves,’ Bnei Menashe Jews of Mizoram and Manipur with their fiery chili based soupy curries, along with the Bene Israel Jews of Maharashtra and Gujarat with their rose flavoured ‘chik-cha-halva.’ But, for New Year, Indian Jews dip apple slices in a bowl of honey and savour the simple yet varied flavours of Jewish cuisine.  While writing ‘Bene Appetit- The cuisine of Indian Jews,’ I felt that, we were like one big family, as we belonged to the same source…


Soft, pink and light like a flower: Chik-cha halwa and Grandmother Shebabeth – The Hindu

I always make it a point to visit the synagogue on the Jewish new year or Rosh-Hashanna, when the shofar, a ram’s horn, is blown: it resounds with a sound as ancient as time. To mark the occasion, we eat apples dipped in honey along with a sweet called chik-cha halwa, which is the essence of Bene Israel Jewish cuisine. This halwa, made with coconut milk, wheat extract and sugar, has a smooth and silky texture, a jelly-like consistency. Its subtle sweetness increases with each bite.

Last year, on Rosh-Hashanna, as I prepared to leave the synagogue in the evening, before curfew was imposed, my friend Julie slipped a small cardboard box into my bag. When I opened it at home, I was touched to see a few pieces of chik-cha halwa, which she had made for her family and kept aside some for me. Chik-cha halwa is rarely made now, since preparing it needs time, patience and expertise.

Whenever the shofar is blown in the synagogue, we, the Bene Israel Jews, remember our history. Some 2,000 years ago, we arrived from Israel in a ship, fleeing from the sword of the Greek warlord Antioch, who had established supremacy over King Solomon’s second Temple. Some survived, some didn’t. The latter were buried at a graveyard in Alibaug near Mumbai. We also lost our Books in the shipwreck. But our ancestors retained their oral memory of Hebrew prayers, some rituals, and the dietary law, ‘Thou shalt not cook the young lamb in its mother’s milk.’ With this as background, they tried to preserve their Jewish heritage in India.

According to the dietary law, they could not mix dairy products with meat dishes. So our matriarchs decided to use coconut milk in their cuisine, creating a variety of curries. Whenever I cook a Jewish dish, I feel the presence of the matriarchs around me.

My earliest memory of the Jewish new year is associated with grandmother Shebabeth and the chik-cha halwa she made for the family. She employed young women of different communities who lived around the family house as her kitchen assistants. Affectionately known as Maa, grandmother was small, petite and plump.

When she laughed, her eyes filled with tears and her pink cheeks resembled chik-cha halwa. Her laughter was so infectious that her assistants laughed along, for no reason at all.

Making the halwa was a ritual. First, Maa would hold a coconut to her ear like a conch shell and listen to the sound of sweet water in its belly. She would then break it on the floor and her maids would grate it, sitting on a morli, a short stool with a crescent-shaped metal scythe fitted to it. The grated coconut was ground with water in a stone mortar and strained twice through a muslin cloth to extract the milk; the first press kept apart from the second. Meanwhile, a wheat extract was prepared by soaking wheat grains for three consequent nights, then pounded it in a stone mortar, and drying the grains in the sun on a soft muslin cloth until they turned into granules. Called chik,this is now available in some speciality shops in Mumbai.

Maa would take a big, heavy-bottomed vessel, fill it with coconut milk mixed with sugar and a pinch of salt, and set it on the stove. She dissolved the chik in a bowl of water, added it to the coconut milk and brought it to a rolling boil while adding the second press of coconut milk, stirring continuously. Four hours later, Maa would dissolve edible rose-pink colour in a bowl of coconut milk and pour it in the bubbling mixture.

The halwa, blushing like her flushed cheeks, was almost ready. She would smile triumphantly as the aroma of the halwa filled the house. She would stand over it, majestically sprinkling it with cardamom powder, chopped pistachio and almonds. Her eyes never left the halwa, which had to be of the right consistency. Once the vessel was taken off the fire, her assistants poured the halwa into greased thalis.

Maa always said, “Halwa has to be soft, pink and light like a flower.” On new year nights, we ate halwa till we burst at the seams.

Although I make Jewish dishes, I cannot make halwa. But while researching for one of my novels, I met Julie Joseph Pingle at the Magen Abraham Synagogue in Ahmedabad. She is an expert at making halwa, which is similar to my grandmother’s. Thus I regained a whole tradition of Jewish food.

On new year’s eve, we cover platters of offerings and chik-cha halwa with silken ceremonial textiles embroidered with Hebrew words, which are symbolic of joy, happiness and a new beginning.


Bene Appetit – Cuisine of Indian Jews – Haddasah Brandeis Institute, USA

When my book ‘Bene Appetit – Cuisine of Indian Jews,’ was published by Harper Collins publishers, readers wanted to know, why I decided to write it.

My answer was very simple, that there are five thousand Jews in India, so when a community decreases in numbers, its traditional food becomes a memory. With this book, I have tried to preserve the heritage of Indian Jewish cuisine.

Because, food is memory, food is culture; food is connected with bonding of families and communities. Food is also part of our childhood.

The Jewish community, has been living in India since 75 CE, comprises a tiny but important part of the population. Over the years, its members have stuck to their dietary laws and have integrated Indian habits with their customs, leading to some unique ceremonies and rituals that have been passed down from one generation to another.

There are five Indian Jewish communities – the Bene Israelis of western India, the Bnei Menashe Jews of the Northeast India, the Bene Ephraims of Andhra Pradesh, the Baghdadi Jews of West Bengal and the Cochin Jews of Kerala. Despite living in different corners of India, they are still bound by a common thread of food and religion. However, with modernization and immigration, many of the traditions and recipes are fast being forgotten.

This narrative began like a journey to the five main centers, where Indian Jews live in different cities and states of India. This became a possibility, when I received the Hadassah Brandeis research award, U.S.A.

I used the word ‘Bene’ in the title of the book, as it means ‘Children of Israel’ in Hebrew.

Most Jews came to India, as they were fleeing from from persecution. They came to India through different routes and settled in different regions; choosing coastal areas.

It was fascinating to note that Indian Jews of these five regions have different facial characteristics. And, when I photographed them, they became like a kaleidoscopic collage of contrasts and colours. Yet, a common thread bonds them together, with their belief in Jewish traditions, rites, rituals, lifestyle and the dietary law. I also discovered; how Indian Jews preserve their food habits in a multi-cultural country like India, which has diverse food habits.

Like Jews of the diaspora, Indian Jews follow the dietary law, ‘Thou shall not cook the lamb in its mother’s milk.’ So, Jews do not mix milk with meat dishes and keep separate vessels for both. As yogurt is made with milk, ghee is clarified butter and used almost everyday in Indian homes, many Jews are vegetarians, because, kosher meat is rarely available; in the absence of a shohet.

Curries are often made with coconut milk, while Jews of Mizoram and Manipur make soupy curries with meat, chicken and vegetables.

Indian Jews have derived ways and means of using the correct regional ingredients to make festive food. Each community has a different culinary method, which is influenced by regional Indian cooking, along with a distant memory of their country of origin.

I observed, each community had a different way of following the dietary law and rules of kosher in their food habits. Yet there is a common thread, which links each Jewish community to the other. Indian Jews, follow the law, by not mixing dairy products with meat dishes. They have fish with scales and there is a taboo on pork. With meat dishes, they prefer to end their meals with fruit.  And, as a substitute to dairy products; Indian Jews use coconut milk to make curries and sweet dishes.

Most Indian Jews live close to water-bodies, which influences their cuisine. They live around sea-shores, lakes and rivers and have a preference for fish and rice. Much before, Indian Jews took to the urban way of life and moved to cities; they were farmers and owned paddy fields, along with coconut, banana plantations, while the

Bene Israel Jews were oil-pressers, they did not work on Shabbath and were known as ‘Saturday-Oil-People. They settled in Maharashtra near the Arabian Sea. In Gujarat, they settled along rivers. Cochin Jews chose the Kerala coastline. While Baghdadi Jews, first arrived in coastal Surat in Gujarat, then moved to Mumbai and eventually settled in Kolkata, along the Hoogly River in west Bengal. Bene Ephraim Jews chose the seashores of Andhra Pradesh, while Bene Menashe Jews of Mizoram and Manipur chose lakes and mountains.

An important factor of Indian Jewish cuisine is that many festive and ceremonial foods are made by the women at home or at the synagogue, under the guidance of a woman who knows the recipes. For example, kosher wine is not available in India; so dried-grape-sherbet is made for Shabbath and festivals. Earlier, challah bread was available at a Jewish bakery in Kolkata for Baghdadi Jews and not available elsewhere. So, Indian Jews make flat bread or buy freshly baked white bread or buns. More recently, some women have learnt to bake their own challah bread. In the same way, for the Passover Seder, our women make flat-bread-matzo, haroset with dates and many other ceremonial foods.

Indian Jews are proficient in English and regional languages, but chant their prayers in Hebrew. And, since most Jews have immigrated to Israel, they celebrate festivals together at the synagogue or at a rented hall and eat together like one big family.