Author Esther David opens her charming book of stories with
the arrival of the prophet Eliyahu Hanabi on the first day of Passover.
David’s Elijah is an earthy being with strong opinions about the quality of
beverage left in his “e-goblet” on seder tables around the world.
As he supernaturally floats through the Shalom India Housing Society, we meet
the book’s characters – the young man Leon who prefers dressing in women’s
colorful clothing; Yael, whose mother and spinster aunt bandage her up as a
mummy for a Hanukkah costume contest; Ben Hur, who loves and loses and loses
again; and Romiel-Rahul and Juliet-Priya, who overcome an interfaith romance,
Romiel’s conversion, emigration to Israel and a return to India.
David – and most of her characters in this book – are members of the Bene Israel
Jewish community. The Bene Israel were one of several waves of Jews who settled
in various parts of India. They believe themselves to be descended from seven
Jewish families from Galilee who were shipwrecked at Navagaon, south of Mumbai.
In the 18th century CE, Baghdadi traders recognized them as Jews from their
customs. They had no scholars of their own. Teachers from Baghdad and Cochin
came to teach them mainstream Judaism in the 18th and 19th centuries.
They look and behave much like their Maratha neighbors. They observe Jewish
dietary laws, circumcision, Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
Being neither Hindu nor Moslem often allowed them to do well under British rule,
particularly in the army. But with India’s independence from Britain on Aug. 15,
1947, they had more to lose than gain. When Israel came into existence in 1948,
it was a natural move to leave India to make a new home in Israel. From a peak
of 20,000 in 1948, only about 5,000 Bene Israel live in India today.
When David’s story opens, Ezra the businessman has built the Shalom India
Housing Society in response to the 2002 riots in Ahmedabad that pitted Hindus
and Moslems against each other. Living together at the Shalom India Housing
Society provides a measure of safety and security.
The book tells the story of 16 residents. Written simply, the stories seem
almost like folk tales. The underlying issues that each character faces –
asserting individuality, religious identity, national identity, fulfilling
expectations, striking out on an unmapped course, growing up and loss – are
Romiel and Juliet’s story recurs throughout the book. While Juliet is Bene
Israel, Romiel is Hindu. Their families have lived together and been friends
throughout the young couple’s lives. Only the parents are shocked when the young
couple announces their intention to be together. With the help of Juliet’s aunt
in Israel, they overcome one obstacle after another. Romiel converts. They get
married and return to their families, who welcome them back. They emigrate to
Israel and then deal with the stresses of mismatched work hours, not enough food
to eat and being outsiders.
Juliet sends an email to her uncle Ezra: “. . . when you live in a country like
Israel, which is yours but not exactly yours, you have to work harder.”
She then tells Ezra that they have decided to return to India, which they know
will be difficult, “But keeping all the possibilities in mind, we plan to keep
both doors open. The two countries are like the sun and the moon for us. As a
Jew, sometimes I wonder, are we coming or going? Where are we going? Where is
home? Is our home within us or somewhere else? As we prepare to return to India,
in a way, we are making our own law of the return . . . “
Esther David is a sculptor, an art critic and an art history professor. Her
first book, The Walled City, was published in 1997. It tells the story of
three generations of Bene Israel Jewish women living in Ahmedabad.
©Jeannette M. Hartman, 2011