As a child, I was always amazed, as to how, the Mezuzah on the doorpost of our house, reminded me that I was a Jew. It had the power to transform into a line-of-control; making me feel; like an outsider in India, the land of my birth.
A Mezuzah is a parchment with Hebrew words placed inside a brass casement and affixed on the doorpost of a Jewish home. Besides, such sacred ritualistic objects, there are some other restrictions to keep the family structure together.
I belong to the Bene Israel Jewish community of India, but unquestionably, I am an Indian, as I look like one, I speak Gujarati, Hindi, a little Marathi, our mother tongue, wear Indian clothes, eat Indian food, see Hindi films and behave like an Indian in more ways than one, so, in a crowd, it would be difficult to differentiate me and say; that I am a Jew.
Yet, there are moments, when I do feel like a minority living amidst a large majority community. This realization immediately isolates me and I seek comfort by hiding in the cocoon of my minority mind. This feeling reaches its peak during Indian festivals or even communal riots, like the one in 2002. When, my house was caught between two communities. I felt like a complete outsider, standing on the sidelines, watching the bloodshed. Afraid of my surroundings, I was forced to leave my family house and move to a cosmopolitan housing society.
Sometimes, when I participate in Indian festivals, I freeze. I do the right things and nobody notices that I am uncomfortable, out of place and feel different, as I do not belong…I feel isolated, even in the crowd of well-meaning friends.
This also happens, when a stranger asks my name. It immediately creates a barrier of sorts. This is one moment, when I wish my name was as simple as Asha Patel. Often, they assume, I am a Parsi or Christian. I squirm and say Bene Israel Jew or Yahudi , almost apologetically and feel unsure about my story.
I start wondering, where exactly is my homeland, even if I believe India is my motherland and wear a bindi, to be part of India, as a power point presentation of my Indian identity.
I did not know that a little maroon sticker bindi, would become the dividing-line between me and the Jewish community. It raised questions, as they wondered, if I followed a Hindu way of life. It took me many years to convince them that, I wore it, as it suited my face.
Besides that, it is just a sticker.
If I wear it, I did not become a Hindu.
And, if I remove it, I do not become a Jew.
Today, the Jewish community accepts it as my fashion statement. But, as a mark of respect, I do not wear it during Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.
This bindi has created many problems, like some Jews from abroad ask leading questions about it and I am forced to give long explanations as to, why I wear a bindi? To make matters worse, I am also asked, “How can you be a Jew, when you have lived in India for so many years. Are you a convert?”
Angry, I try to convince them, that I am a Jew and give them a concise history of Indian Jews. Yet, they ask, “why do you look like an Indian.”.
Suddenly, I am in “No Man’s Land.”
I delete this feeling with my novels. They are my saviours, as I have earned love as a Jewish Indian author, by opening some doors of our lives. I wrote in The Walled City, “…the story of exile, the book lost in the Arabian Sea. Closing in on the freedom of our minds, our breath, our thoughts, our prayers to the god without a face in the land of eyes.”
But, then there are also some other issues I face, as it is true that I belong to the Jewish community and feel emotional when I hear the Shofar at the Synagogue or hear the Hebrew chant of our prayers, even as we converse with each other in Marathi; along with Gujarati and English.
Yet, the outsider syndrome continues to hound me at the Synagogue, as I am not fully conversant with rituals.
I can pinpoint many occasions, when I have been uncomfortable amongst my own people.
I am the insider who feels like an outsider…
But, then I am also uncomfortable at temples, mosques, churches or any other place of worship. I may like the art, architecture, heritage, history and folk lore of religious sites, but dread participating in rituals connected with organized religion.
This insider-outsider issue raises its head, when people ask, if I am a non-vegetarian and if I answer in the affirmative, there are no major reactions from most Indians..
In contrast, this piece of information is greeted with raised eyebrows in the Jewish community, as we are supposed to follow strict dietary laws, which means, an animal has to be slaughtered according to the prescribed laws of kosher food and for this very reason; most of us are vegetarians, while it is a well known fact that I buy meat from my friendly neighbourhood butcher.
This play continues, as in spirit I am a liberal Jew, but am part of an orthodox community. So, when it comes to rituals, I am always on pins and stay still, till the prayers end.
For years, I assumed that I suffered from this conflict, only in India, but when I experienced the same in Israel, I came face to face with my dilemma, when I met non-religious and ultra-orthodox Jews.
I could not connect with both life-styles.
I do not live in Israel, but when I was in Israel to participate in a literature festival to mark 20 years of diplomatic relations between India and Israel, I remember, as soon as I landed at Ben Gurion Airport, my body relaxed and I knew; I was in a land; my ancestors had known for ages.
A similar feeling gripped me, when I was in Alibaug in Maharashtra, to research for my novels.
I had never been there.
It is believed that, about two thousand years back, Bene Israel Jews had been shipwrecked here and my ancestors were the survivors, who had kept us together through oral traditions and later received religious education from the British and Dutch in early 18th century, so most of our prayer books are also in Marathi.
In Alibaug, where my ancestors are buried, I felt at-home in the shadow of ancient gnarled trees and lit candles on that very earth, where my elders had drawn the line-of-control around our lives, which encircle me, to this very day.
They were farmers, growing coconut trees, using the milk from its kernel, to follow the dietary law and not “…cook the lamb in its mother’s milk.”
It was here, that I discovered Prophet Elijah, which changed my life; blurring the lines of being an outsider. This experience started drawing me towards the rock of Elijah or Eliahu Hanabi Cha Tapa. The prophet had landed there, while flying in his chariot of fire, from his cave in Israel; towards the House of the Lord, as his horses’ hooves cut through the rock in Alibaug, when he decided to stop for a while and connect with a Lost Tribe, maybe of Zebulum.
Then, suddenly; this feeling of belonging disappears when I am in France and am again the outsider, when I meet Holocaust survivors and feel traumatized. I chide myself, saying, with all my problems, I live a comfortable life as a Jew; because we have never faced persecution in India.
To counter this feeling, the rock of Elijah has found a place in my mind and a small fragment of my being reaches out towards this jagged rock, next to a pond, where a turquoise blue kingfisher flies over the still waters…
Similarly, these conflicts appeared to end, when I was in Paris for the launch of the French translation of my first book. It was well received as the audience was fascinated to meet an Indian Jew and I felt comfortable with myself.
Later, on my return back home, to Ahmedabad, my eyes fell on the Mezuzah and…
– This article was published in Indian Quarterly Magazine, New Delhi – June 2015.
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