On invitation of the The Asiatic Society of Mumbai, for the online lecture series ‘Shalom Bombay.’ This is an excerpt from her talk –  

“If you were to meet me in the street, you would never guess that I am a Jew. But, I am an Indian Bene Israel Jew with a very Biblical name like Esther. Maybe, most of us feel this, but at home, for shabath prayers or at the synagogue, the women cover their head, men wear kippas and prayer shawls, and together we say our prayers in Hebrew, so, I refer to our Jewish life, as a secret life…and with diminishing numbers, as our families live in Israel and other countries, Bene Israel Jews of India prefer to celebrate festivals together, like one big family. While I was writing and researching for my novels, ‘Book of Esther’ and ‘Book of Rachel,’ I realized that in a multi-cultural country like India, where Bene Israel Jews are a mini-microscopic minority community, they have retained a strong Jewish identity; with their rites, rituals, traditions and lifestyle. Indian influences can be seen in dress, food habits, choice of jewellery; wearing flowers in the hair, the mehendi ceremony, before a wedding and using coconut milk instead of dairy products to keep the dietary law. Maharashtrian influences can be seen in their lifestyle, for example, puran-poli is made during the festival of Purim. They also make an unusual sweet during the Jewish New Year, known as ‘chik-cha-halwa,’ made with wheat extract and coconut milk, which is different from Indian milk based sweets.Traditional dishes are made during festivals or weddings or at community gatherings. Poha or beaten rice is used by Bene Israel Jews for preparing a malida as an offering for wish fulfilment to Prophet Elijah. Poha is washed, mixed with grated coconut, sugar, raisins, chopped nuts along with dates, dates, bananas and seasonal fruits. The Malida is followed by a community dinner. As a follow-up of my research for my novels, when I went to Alibaug and stood at the ‘Rock of Elijah’ or ‘Eliahu Hananbi cha Tapa,’ I was fascinated with the abstract concept of the Prophet. The malida ceremony for Prophet Elijah is held; only by the Bene Israel Jews. So, the Prophet appears in most of my novels, like ‘Book of Rachel’ as a divine intervention and in ‘Shalom India Housing Society,’ where he arrives to keep the Bene Israel Jewish community together. Here, I have also explored the cross-cultural conflict of staying back in India or immigrating to Israel, where they have family and community. Most Bene Israel Jews have Maharashtrian surnames, which indicate the village, which adopted them, after they were shipwrecked in the coastal area near Alibaug. They are fluent in Marathi, but, prayers are said in Hebrew. Much earlier Hebrew prayer books were translated into Marathi and are often seen at some Jewish homes and synagogues. More recently, I have noticed Bene Israel Jews are well versed in Hebrew, as they attend Hebrew classes and often travel between India and Israel, yet; I have heard them saying, ‘India is our motherland…”      

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