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‘Growing Up Jewish in India’ review: Here, there, and everywhere

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Not many communities feel a sense of belonging with two countries they view as their own — the Jews call India their motherland, and Israel, their fatherland. So says Ori Z. Soltes in a book he has edited on Bene Israel, Baghdadi and Cochini Jews in India, their customs and lives, Growing Up Jewish in India . Offering a historical account through several articles, the complexity of the topic can be gauged from the fact that the preface runs into 18 pages, followed by an introduction on Indian Jews as a diverse diaspora which is almost as long.

The arrival

The Bene Israel Jews are the largest Jewish Indian community and there are a number of theories regarding the timing of their arrival on the western coast, some dating back to the reign of King Solomon, 3,000 years ago. Another theory is that they were part of the lost 10 tribes that disappeared from north Israel and from history in the aftermath of the conquest of the Israelite kingdom by the Neo-Assyrian Empire. And there are other theories too, which Soltes elaborates on to bring clarity to the matter.

The book comprises six chapters including an epilogue aside from a foreword by Ralphy Jhirad. There’s a chapter on Kerala synagogues by Orna Eliyahu-Oron and Barbara C. Johnson; there’s another on the synagogues of Calcutta Baghdadi Jews by Jael Silliman. Soltes writes on ‘Refocus and Return’, Siona Benjamin’s multi-layered art, which dots the book; he also pens the epilogue on the community’s past. Benjamin writes a memoir, ‘How I Turned Blue and Other Stories I Remember Growing up Jewish in India.’

Silliman weaves her narrative around the three synagogues of Baghdadi Jews of Calcutta, giving deep insights into the lives of the city’s Jewish community whose numbers have dwindled from 4,500-odd in the mid-20th century to 700 or so in the 1970s and about 20 now.

Across the globe

Benjamin’s piece gives a snapshot of the life of a diasporic Jew. She writes about her grandmother Elizabeth’s long and interesting life journey. Born in Quetta in Pakistan, Elizabeth’s family later migrated to India’s west coast. Her children dispersed to Asia, Africa and North America, perpetuating the idea of the diasporic Jew in a personal way. The distance between the families seemed to widen with her parents in India, most of the family in Israel, a few relatives in the U.S. and Canada, and some in Africa.

She remembers that while in India, “I got called everything from a Parsi to Punjabi and even occasionally a cocktail...” In America (she later settled in the U.S.), she was often posed a similar question: ‘Where are you from?’ “So not surprisingly, in my paintings, I also raise the question about what and where is ‘home’ while evoking issues about identity, immigration, motherhood and the role of art in social change,” she writes.

Soltes feels, and rightly so, that Benjamin’s array of work and her memoir illuminates and carries forward the narrative of the three major Jewish communities in and now outside India. The book is a must read for all as it addresses a complex issue in a rich scholarly way while making it eminently readable.

Growing Up Jewish in India ; Edited by Ori Z. Soltes, Niyogi Books, ₹1,500.

The reviewer is an independent journalist based in Kolkata.


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