As a child, my name was a matter of great distress to me. It was unlike the names of my class-mates. To add to the confusion, I was told, our family had an Indian surname – Dandekar. It had been given to us in memory of Danda our ancestral village where we had first landed after a shipwreck, two thousand years back while fleeing from persecutors, who had taken over The Promised Land. Israel.
But, my family had discarded this surname like an old garment, folded it and put it away like a family heirloom. Sometimes brought out to be aired and remembered.
Some Bene Israel families used their Indian surnames, others didn’t, some still do.
For years, I did not know the meaning of my name, anyway, it became the reason for the search of the Jewish ethos, hidden somewhere within me and waiting to be discovered.
This search drove me to write.
We were not practicing Jews, although some rituals existed in our daily life, which were followed like reflex actions, for example, we had an almost forgotten mezuzah at the door. And, I wrote in my first novel The Walled City – “They cover his eyes with the earth from Jerusalem. I take some and sprinkle it over his eyes. Brown, dry earth of the Promised Land, textured exactly like that of my surrogate motherland….hands dusty with the earth of both lands, and wet with my tears, I wonder about Jerusalem. Samuel stands still like a statue over the grave, the wax burning his hands.
I want to ask him from where we come and where we go. We do not know from where. But we know why. From sure death. Expulsion. Exile. Homes broken, disrupted burnt, from ruin to ruin with the hidden Book. The Book lost in the shipwreck…a long journey into the dark night, following the silk route from Yemen, Rome Spain, Navgaon….Before Christ? After Christ ? The story of exile, the book lost in the Arabian Sea. Closing on the freedom of our minds, our breath, our thoughts, our prayer to the god without a face in the land of eyes.”
I was always envious of my Gujarati friends, for the verve with which they celebrated their festivals. I was attracted but uncomfortable and wrote in The Walled City – “In March, the air is thick with pollen from the mango flowers…the colours fascinate Danieldada. He says that he is too old to play Holi but would like me to. He takes some sindoor from Mohun’s puja room and dabs my cheeks with it. We look on with horror as a sprinkling of orange specks stains my powder blue dress. We try to wash it off but a deep pink stain remains.
We are running in the tunnel below Kali’s feet and Naomi seems to chase us in the dark with a sword.”
Slowly, my long forgotten Jewish-ness started seeping into me at different points of life. It all started with a painful divorce. The family was in a state of shock and unable to comfort me. Perhaps this was the first divorce in the family. About this feeling I wrote in, By The Sabarmati – “She looked like an old book whose pages were stuck together by damp. Had I tried to pry open the pages, I was afraid she would fall apart. Between the leaves, I saw shadows of a past which was best kept hidden in the book. To me, her sorrow was almost holy, like an old Hebrew scroll at the synagogue, kept behind a curtain in a vault that faced Jerusalem and the wailing wall.”
I felt abandoned by family, society, community. That is when I met Diana. She had come from Mumbai and was employed as a nurse for the ailing head of a well known mill-owner family of Ahmedabad. Mother invited her often to our house and on one such visit, she gave me a book of psalms.
Every night, I read fairy tales for the children and made it a habit to also read a psalm before they fell asleep.
Those were difficult days, as there were no finances, no comfort, no affection, no understanding. But, the psalms comforted me, as I tried to understand “…thou art my shepherd, I shall not want…”
Few years later, I met a Jewish family from America, living in Ahmedabad. They were on a fellowship to study urban problems of the city. I was often invited to their home to celebrate Jewish festivals. As the children played, we cooked together, laughed and joked as they taught us Hebrew songs.
This was the beginning.
And, everything changed, when I met Abraham. Abraham changed my life. I wrote about him in Book of Esther.
Like most Jewish tourists, he had come to Ahmedabad to meet father and see the zoo. As usual, father invited him for dinner.
That evening, when I returned from college, I saw him walking in the garden. It was winter and he was wearing a black sweater over jeans. He looked like a bald headed crow as he greeted me with a warm “Shalom.”
Abraham must have been past eighty, was thin, sprightly and had long knotty fingers.
I shook hands and entered the house, planning the evening meal.
I saw father standing on the verandah and asking Abraham if he would like some whiskey?
Suddenly, Abraham stopped walking and answered rather brusquely, “ No, I cannot accept this.”
His eyes were watery when he turned to me and asked in a strong Israeli accent – “Do you know today is the Sabbath.”
“Yes, today is Friday,” I said, a little unsure about his reaction.
“Then, where is the kiddush.”
“Kiddush?” I repeated, confused, looking at father for an answer.
“Kiddush is the prayer said over a glass of wine to thank god for his mercies, especially during the Sabbath or the festivals. I am sorry, but I can neither eat nor drink without doing the Sabbath prayers.”
My father tried to say – “I am sorry, but we don’t…and you cannot leave without eating. “
“Then dear friend, do you mind if I do the prayers, here in your house..?”
“ Yes, you can,” father was relieved. In fact, he seemed to like the idea.
“Thank you. Can I please ask your daughter to set the Sabbath table?” I was embarrassed as I had never prepared a Sabbath table. As a child, I remembered grandmother arranging the Sabbath table.
It was a distant memory.
Abraham asked me for a clean white table cloth and spread it on the dining table. He, then asked for a Sabbath candle stand, but as we did not have one, I gave him a decorative brass plate and a candle. Abraham stood there smiling, asking me to light the candles.
I protested, as I did not know how to say the prayers, but, felt reassured when Abraham wrote the Hebrew sound of the prayers in English and asked me to light the candle while reciting the prayer.
I covered my head with a dupatta, because grandmother used to cover her head with her sari while performing rituals.
I remembered her face as I read – “Barukh ata adonai alehenu melekh ha olam, asher kiddeshenu, ha elehenu ha ner shel shabath…”
I looked up in surprise as I heard my father saying the prayers.
He smiled awkwardly.
Later, he told me, the words had suddenly come back to him.
By then, Abraham had taken a clean wine glass from the kitchen cabinet, poured a glass of Port wine from father’s collection of bottles and gave the kiddush cup to my father. Father held the glass in his hand and together they recited – “Barukh ata adonai elehenu melekh ha olam, asher kiddeshenu bori peri ha hefen…”
With the men, my son was repeating the words and my daughter was also whispering the words, looking pleased that she was saying the prayers in Hebrew!
Abraham was saying – “I am not religious and I have not taught you anything. Look, your father knows everything. One never forgets what one learns as a child. Let your children learn from their grandfather.
I like the Sabbath and when I travel, I often find a Jewish home, like yours. If not, I just light a candle in my hotel room. I feel good. Don’t you…?“
Abraham was asking me.
I shook my head happily. The house seemed to have a certain aura.
Since that evening, I started the custom of preparing the Sabbath table, saying the prayers and cooking an elaborate dinner, whenever we were all together under one roof.
In a month, I received a package from Israel. Abraham had sent us two Bibles. One for my father, the other for me. Both Bibles were inscribed in Hebrew – “I feel, it is my duty as a Jew to send the Torah to you, as I did not see it in your house.” I was deeply touched by this gesture.
While growing up, I always felt I was deaf to the sound of music in Hebrew prayers. Truthfully, I was often bored. But, years later, some sounds had a great influence on me. Like, when the Shofar or Ram’s horn was blown at the synagogue or I heard the klezmer by Giora Friedman, a music CD my son brought from Israel or when I saw the musical Golem by Moni Ovadia. It was the same when I saw a performance by the Israeli Baat Dor dance company in France. The chants were in Hebrew and I was in tears, as the sound was similar to the Hebrew prayers I had heard as a child, while sitting in the softness of grandmother’s sari at the synagogue in Ahmedabad.
I was nostalgic.
These abstract Jewish sounds affected me deeply and my confusion seemed to dissolve within me.
I felt, I had always known the sound.
The music was emotive. It stirred something ancient within me.
And, I understood the meaning of the psalm….thou maketh me lie down in green pastures; thou leadeth me besides still waters…thou restoreth my soul….thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup runneth over…
** Appeared in British council website in fiction issue on Faith – 2006