March 24th 2018
Jewish New Year – this year is 5778
In a few days, Jews all over the world will be celebrating the festival of Passover – literally meaning Pass-over from the Red Sea, when the Jewish patriarch Moses led the Jews to freedom from slavery when they were in Egypt, as graphically seen in the film The Ten Commandemnets and other films. After that, Moses received the Ten Commandements, which is celebrated with the festival known as Shavouth. But, after a series of events, God banished them to the deserts in the Middle East, where they were in search of their Homeland, which they eventually found in a land, close to today’s Israel.
This is how, the concept of the wandering Jew is connected to Jews and was like a thin streak within me. It was a feeling I never understood for a long time, till I was almost in my mid-forties and became conscious of my Jewish traditions.
During, my first avatar as an artist, art critic, I was already writing as a columnist, first about art, then the old city of Ahmedabad, because, I grew up there and am attached to it.
I am a Bene Israel Jew. There are five Jewish communities in India. As, most communities have immigrated to Israel, the largest group is the Bene Israel Jews, who live in western India, Mumbai, Alibaug, Ahmedabad and Pune. Cochin Jews came from Spain and live in Kochi and Kerala, Baghdadi Jews came from Iraq and live Kolkatta, Bene Ephraim Jews are from Andhra Pradesh, Bene Menashe Jews belong to Mizoram. There is also a small Synagogue in Delhi, for a few Indian Jews and Jews from other countries who work in the embassies.
Bene Israel Jews are known to have come to India, some two thousand years back, as they were fleeing from Greek persecution and after a shipwreck, landed on the coastal region of Alibaug in India, where they worked as farmers and oil pressers and also added the name of the village they belonged to, so that their names had an Indian ring, like those from Navgao had a name like Joseph, Samuel, Benjamin Navgaokar.
Being a columnist for a long time, helped me develop my skills at writing and led me towards my first novel THE WALLED CITY. It was an abstract search about being a Jew, with a name like Esther, which is often pronounced in different ways. I titled it as the walled city, as that is a place I know best.
Another similarity is that, when we came to India, so many years back, after the fall of King Solomon’s second temple. I have read, it was like a walled city.
Jews still worship at the last wall there, known as the Western Wall, which is also known as the Wailing Wall. Jews from all over the world pray at this wall. Between the rocks of this wall, Jews insert slips of paper or letters to the Lord asking him to fulfill secret wishes.
Later, I wrote BY THE SABARMATI, a collection of short stories, which were based around the lives of women, while working on the theme of Intuitive art or Outsider Art with uneducated artists living in underprivileged areas.
The city is almost like my grandmother, I lost long back. She taught me many lessons about life and heritage, not only about cities, city stories, family stories, but also food, she forced us to help her, when she made various foods for Jewish festivals. When my grandmother died, our joint family in the old city disintegrated and was divided into nuclear homes. Our family was no longer religious, but once in a while, we all did go to the Synagogue, that is when I was at a loss, as I could not understand the prayers which were in Hebrew. Actually, they were beautifully sung and somewhere stayed within me. But, I still have difficulties in following Hebrew prayers. I prefer my English prayers books.
During various periods of my life, I often attended prayers at the Synagogue, but when I started writing BOOK OF ESTHER, I often went there to research and study, tradtions and rituals from Joseph Pingle, whom I call Johny bhai and understood the Kosher dietary law from his wife Julie. With her, we set up a stall of Jewish food at IIM’s Satvik food fair for three years and it was a success.
We do not have a Rabbi, but we have a cantor, known as a Hazzan, as any elder in our community, who has had a Bar-Mitzvah, can lead the prayers.
Book of Esther is about five generations of a Jewish family living in India. To research for this novel, I went to Alibaug, my native place to understand the landscape and meet some Jewish families, who still live there. As, soon as I landed there, I felt at home. I have the same feeling, when I am in the walled city of Ahmedabad. This was the beginning of trying to understand the concept of Homeland, as since a young age, grandmother, would hold us in her arms and whisper in our ears,
“Next year in Jerualem.”
Later, even, if we were not religious, there was a certain pressure, that we live Jewish lives and leave for Israel.
I never understood, How? It unsettled me.
Even today, Indian Jews always say, India is their Motherland and Israel is their Fatherland or Homeland. In this context, the Mother-Tongue of Bene Israel Jews is Marathi and in Israel they have a newsletter in Marathi known as Mai-Boli.
Today, there are 145 Jews in Ahmedabad. Maybe 2000 in Maharashtra. So, there are 4000 Jews in India and 80, 000 Indian Jews in Israel. Indian born Israeli Jews know Hebrew, but older people have difficulty with the language.
Yet, Bollywood is a bonding factor amongst all Indian Jews and also Indophhile Israelis and have a large scale Bollywood festival known as Hodu-Yada, as according to the Bible, India was known as Hodu and shows both countries had connections since ancient times.
Long back, when I showed the manuscript of The Walled City to the poet Nissim Ezekiel, he explained to me, that as Jews living in India, we do go through moments of a certain cross-culture conflict. Suddenly, everything fell into place. Yes, I am very Indian, and very Gujarati, yet there are moments, when I am invited to various religious events held by different Indian communities and am not always comfortable. But, then, it is the same, when I am amongst Jews at the Synagogues in India and abroad. The reason being, that these Temples, as Jews also refer to their Synagogues as Temples are orthodox, while in some western countries, there are liberal Synagogues, where I am comfortable. Yet, in India and elsewhere I discovered that Jews have a right to question about some laws or traditions and that we are a Matriachal society, where the women have a certain power about making decisions, are respected and important in preserving Jewish rituals in family and community.
My journey as an author began with The Walled City, when it was launched, it reached out to readers in India, abroad and the Jewish Diaspora. Then, the French translation was launched in Paris and when people came to see and meet an Indian Jew, I became known as an Indian-Jewish-Author. I suddenly felt comfortable and in a way, ‘At Home.’
With this novel, the concept of homeland was getting clear.
By then, I was educating myself and studying the Jewish way of life, rituals, traditions, artefacts and food. I also realized that, I belong to a community, which is on the verge of extinction. So, I became part of a team when a small section of Jewish objects were to be displayed at Sanskar Kendra’s City Museum and also made sure that the Synagogue was listed as a heritage monument in Ahmedabad. Then, I was also part of a citizen’s initiative with the FRIENDS OF ISRAEL and Times of India, so that we could save an old Jewish cemetery in Vadodara’s Nizampura area; from real estate agents who wanted to make a mall there. But, we were not successful in saving the Surat cemetery. These are some of the ways, I participate in the community, as form of a “Mitzvah,’ which is the Hebrew word foor doing a good turn and am always present for any other difficulties, which the Jewish community maybe facing.
With the launch of BOOK OF ESTHER, I received emails and letters from a Pakistani journalist about a certain Aunty Rachel, who lived in Karachi and protected the cemetery there, as the Synagogue had been destroyed.
She was a Bene Israel Jew, a school teacher and spoke fluent English, Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati. When, she was very old, with help from the American embassy, she was flown to Israel, where she died and the cemetery in Pakistan was taken over by others. With the Vadodara story, Aunt Rachel and some unused Synagogues I had seen in Alibaug, these became the seed of my novel BOOK OF RACHEL. In Alibaug, I had been invited to many Jewish homes, where I discovered food, which was similar to the food my grandmother used to make. Somehow, these fragrances came back to me; and I included them in BOOK OF RACHEL, starting each chapter with an old Jewish recipe, which we rarely make today. This is how Rachel became a realty for me, as she preserves the heritage of Synagogues and food.
In continuation, another publisher suggested, I write Jewish short stories, I agreed, but, while working on this collection, I set the characters in a housing society, confronting the various social problems and cross cultural conflicts faced by a mini-micrcroscopic community living in India, surrounded by so many attractions and yet trying to preserve the Jewish heritage. This is how SHALOM INDIA HOUSING SOCIETY was created, where the protagonist is Prophet Elijah, whom I discovered in Alibaug.
Bene Israel Jews believe in the Prophet and it is said, on his way to heaven, Prophet Elijah passed through India, Alibaug on the Konkan coast and left a mark of the hoof marks of his horses and chariot wheels on a rock. So, Bene Israel Jews start all events as a thanksgiving to the Prophet and ask him to fulfill secret wishes and once these are realized, that particular person or family, holds a Malida ceremony and feeds the entire community. So, in my novel SHALOM INDIA HOUSING SOCIETY, the Prophet visits Jewish homes, during the festival of Passover, all over the world. During a certain prayer, a chair is kept aside for him, and he is offered a goblet of wine. I loved this concept and belief and enjoyed writing about it. In Gujarat, he is offered black currant sherbet, as Gujarat is a Dry-State.
Indian Jewish life has many Indian influences, like the offering of a Malida is made with flaked rice or poha mixed with sugar and grated coconut, dates, petals of red roses, apples and bananas. A Mehendi or Henna ceremony is also held and garbas have been recently included, but during a wedding bride and groom wear western clothes.
A word about the Jewish dietary law or Kosher – the Law says, “Thou shalt not cook the lamb in its mothers milk.” And, so in the absence of Kosher meat, which is available only during festivals, Jews prefer to remain vegetarians almost the whole year around. The same with wine, in the absence of kosher wine, we make a sherbet with black currants, which looks similar to wine.
And, to keep the law, Indian Jews use coconut milk instead of dairy, so there is a Maharstrian and Konkani influence in our food habits. We also love Gujarati snacks.
We have a lunar calendar, so our festivals arrive during Indian festivals, like Purim is on Holi and our New Year Rosh Ha Shana is celebrated during Navratri.
After writing Shalom India Housing Society, I could work on the documentation of the Jews of Gujarat and now I am studying Jewish cuisine. And, as I have a collection of old photographs of my family, I also studied these photographs, interviewed Jewish women of Gujarat and Mumbai and wrote a chapter, SARI-SUTRA for a friend’s book on Indian Jews.
This is how my journey continues, but, before I end, I would like to say the old city of Ahmedabad is equally important to me. I use Ahmedabad as a stage on which, I set almost all my novels. Eventually, I wrote AHMEDABAD:A CITY WITH A PAST.
If you saw me in the street, you would not believe that I am a Jew, but once at the Synaagogue, we cover our head, men wear prayer shawls, with skull-caps or kippas and we say our prayers in Hebrew, so, I refer to our Jewish life, as a secret life…
This is how created my Homeland, as now, I just have to open my books and I know, I have reached my homeland….