Community and belonging in Indian Jewish literature
12 May 2014
Indian Jews have contributed culturally despite their small, and dwindling, numbers.
2013 was an exciting year for Indian Jewish literature: two works of fiction were published, one in Hindi, the other in English. Sheela Rohekar’s Miss Samuel: Ek Yahudi Gatha (Miss Samuel: A Jewish Saga) is one of only two Hindi novels depicting Indian Jewish life, and the first Hindi novel in 52 years to explore the Bene Israel community, the largest Jewish group in India. Jael Silliman’s The Man with Many Hats, on the other hand, is the first novel by a member of the Baghdadi community, the latest Jewish settlers in India, and one of the only two novels to depict Baghdadi Jewish life there. Both authors are women, legatees of a rich tradition of women’s writing among Indian Jews.
Considering the numerical insignificance of Jews in India – the highest the population ever reached was 30,000 in 1951, when India’s total population was 300 million; today it is around 5000 out of 1.3 billion – the community has left its cultural mark on Indian society. Most of the earliest female stars of silent cinema were Jewish: they were the first group to break the taboo associated with women in the performing arts, and thus paved the way for women of other communities to follow suit.
Yet Indian Jewish culture remains underexplored. Bahais Joseph Talkar’s Marathi novel Gul and Sanobar (1867) is considered the first published work of literature by a Bene Israel Jew. It was soon followed by M D Talkar’s Bagh-o-Bahar. But the best known Jewish writer from India has been Nissim Ezekiel (1924-2004), who wrote poetry and plays and is acknowledged as the father of modern English poetry in India. The first Indian Jew to publish a novel in English depicting the Bene Israel community was Esther David, whose The Walled City was published in 1997. Since then she has emerged as the most published Indian Jewish novelist in English, with a number of novels to her credit: Book of Esther (2002), Book of Rachel (2006), Shalom India Housing Society (2007), My Father’s Zoo (2007), The Man with Enormous Wings (2010), and a collection of short-stories, By the Sabarmati (1999). Another Bene Israel author, Sophie Judah, is known for her collection of English short stories, Dropped from Heaven (2007), in which she traces the recent history of Indian Jews from the 1930s until the present (at a point when the river in Judah’s fictional town has dried up, the Jewish population almost vanished, and the town’s only synagogue was transformed into a pickle and chutney factory.)
Identity and community
Rohekar’s and Silliman’s works are, therefore, particularly welcome developments in Indian Jewish literature. Through Miss Samuel’s protagonist, Miss Seema Samuel, Rohekar looks back at the Bene Israel Jews’ existence in India. According to tradition, a ship-wreck two millennia ago brought the community to the west coast of India, between present-day Mumbai and Goa (official documents detailing their arrival, however, date only from the 17th century). The 63 year-old Miss Seema spends her days in an old-age home two hours away from Pune, thinking about the last six generations of her Bene Israel family in Ahmedabad (the same community from which Rohekar originates).
According to the Bene Israel legend, the people are descendants of seven Israelite men and seven Israelite women who survived a shipwreck off the village of Navgaon on the Konkan coast of Maharashtra circa 175 BCE, after they fled Israel during the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes. The legend is often suspected of being an attempt to scale the social hierarchy, as it resembles the origin-legend of the Chitpavan Brahmins, who traditionally enjoyed the highest status in Maharashtrian society. The Bene Israel, in contrast, were traditionally oil pressers. According to Chitpavan legend, Chitpavan Brahmins are descended from 14 foreigners who perished in a shipwreck but were brought back to life by Parshurama (one of Vishnu’s incarnations) who then taught them Brahmin rites. An alternative version of this legend is given by the Bene Israel, attributing to themselves the same origin as the Chitpavans. According to their version, when they were washed ashore, some of them were mistaken for dead. As they were about to be cremated by the local people they regained consciousness, after which they converted to Hinduism and eventually came to be known as Chitpavan Brahmins. The Bene Israel are the descendants of those shipwreck survivors who did not convert to Hinduism. Yulia Egorova, author of Jews and India: Perceptions and Image, argues that this belief of the Bene Israel community resembles the practice of sanskritisation within Hindu communities: “The Bene Israel were ready to imitate the style of life of higher castes, but adhered to their own theory of origin: they did not claim that their ancestors had been Chitpavan Brahmans but dwelt on the Jewish origin of the Chitpavans. This gave them a blood link with this high caste group.” No historical evidence has as yet been found to support the Bene Israel claim.
Rohekar’s literary career began in 1968 with the publication of a story in the Hindi literary journal Dharmayug, along with a collection of Gujarati short stories, Lifeline nee Bahar. Later, she wrote two novels: Dinānt (1977), which won the Yashpal Award, and Tāvīz (2005). However, Miss Samuel is the first novel in which she portrays her own community. During an interview with Heinz Werner Wessler, a German Hindi scholar, it dawned on her that she was the only living Jewish novelist writing in Hindi. In an interview she gave to me in 2011, she said:
I felt ashamed and embarrassed when I was asked by Professor Wessler if I had ever written any story or poem or essay or novel with Jewish characters or a Jewish theme in my literary career in Hindi and Gujarati spanning over a period of forty years. The question ‘why?’ repeatedly kept echoing within me. Was it my apprehension that nobody would be able to understand the concerns and sensibilities of a community as small as mine in this huge sea of humanity? However, this question kept troubling me and now my [latest] novel Miss Samuel: Ek Yahudi Gatha has the story of a Jewish family as its theme.
Jael Silliman’s The Man with Many Hats, on the other hand, focuses on the Baghdadi Jewish community, and is set in post-Independence Calcutta. It deals with the protagonist Rachel’s love-hate relationship with her father, whom she completely adores until she witnesses him physically assaulting her mother. This estranges her from him, an estrangement compounded by geographical distance when Rachel leaves India for higher studies. The estrangement only increases when her father disapproves of her decision to marry a Hindu. A gradual reconciliation takes place after she learns of her husband’s infidelity and turns to her father for emotional support. The novel is as much about Rachel’s strong bond with Calcutta as it is about her turbulent relationship with her father, who she realises is a “man with many hats”. Silliman is the first Baghdadi Jewish novelist to write about the community in Calcutta. The only other writers from this community are Moses Aaron, a short story writer based in Australia, and Shelley Silas, author of the play Calcutta Kosher (2004).
Due to their size, Baghdadi Jews are slightly less well-known than the Bene Israel community. They started settling in India from the 1780s onwards, in different waves of migration, which reached a peak in the 1830s. They came to India not only for better economic prospects but also to escape the plague and floods in Iraq. Later, many Baghdadis migrated to escape military service, made compulsory for all young men in the Ottoman Empire in 1909. In time, the community emerged as intermediaries between the British rulers and their Indian subjects, and as a result they remained relatively self-contained and insular within Indian society. Despite the fact that these Jews came from across the Middle East, colloquially they came to be known as Baghdadis.
Identity and the obligations of community are themes common to all Indian Jewish literature, and the same can be said of these two new novels. Rohekar and Silliman transport the reader into the heart of the Indian Jewish dilemmas of homeland and belonging, and evoke the everyday condition of these communities. In A Man with Many Hats Silliman writes: “In India Rachel felt a Jew among Indians. When she attended her first event at Hillel House, she felt an Indian among Jews.” And later:
Rachel would remember Granny’s words. ‘Israel has always been our spiritual home. Even when we were scattered around the world, a part of us always remained in the Holy Land. Jerusalem has always had Jews living there. Through the ages those Jews kept the flame burning, and the connection to Israel alive.’ Granny had told Rachel how, in those early years, when the plane touched down in the Holy Land, all the passengers would clap. On setting foot on the soil they would bow their heads and kiss the holy ground. In her heart that is exactly how Rachel felt each time she landed in Calcutta. When the plane dipped to land, and when she saw the familiar dense green foliage, tall palms, and glistening waterbodies, her eyes drank in the lush landscape in great big greedy gulps. Her heart would skip a beat, and she always had to stop herself from letting out a squeal of delight in case her co-passengers thought she was nuts.
Despite feeling connected to India, many Jews simultaneously felt a sense of trepidation and alienation. In Miss Samuel, Roheka discusses in detail the fear Indian Jewish men have of being mistaken for Muslims, as they are similarly circumcised. Esther David too writes about it in her novel Shalom India Housing Society:
During the riots, some of them saw an angry mob armed with spears and swords stripping a young boy to see if he was circumcised. He had been burnt alive. The Jews had been terrified, as they were also circumcised.
Sadia Shepard, in her auto-ethnographic book The Girl from Foreign, recounts the story of David who, upon being chased by a Muslim mob in Mumbai, saves himself by revealing his circumcised penis in order to convince his attackers that he is not Hindu. David is conscious of the fact that the physical mark that saved him could have been the reason for his murder, had he been chased by a Hindu mob. This is the fate of the protagonist’s brother in Miss Samuel. Indian Jewish men’s fear of being mistaken for Muslims is portrayed in Aparna Sen’s film Mr & Mrs Iyer. Indian Jewish writer Robin David writes about the film:
I was majorly offended by a scene in Aparna Sen’s Mr & Mrs Iyer. There is this part where rioters enter a bus scouting for Muslims to kill and randomly pull down pants of passengers to check if they are circumcised. One man gives away the identity of an old Muslim couple because he was Jewish, circumcised and there was no way in hell that he would have been able to explain to the rioters that he was not Muslim. This was his way of distracting them from him. If I was in his place, I don’t think I would have given away the identity of the old couple. … I had been put in the same situation in 2002.
It was only the intervention of someone who knew Robin that saved his life. This was just one of several instances that left Robin acutely conscious of his vulnerability.
In everyday life, however, violence against Jews in India is rare. Feelings of apartness come from other factors. Rohekar explores this in her novel:
India neither ever exiled the Jews nor persecuted them. They were never discriminated against for being Jewish. They got equal rights as citizens of India. But they were always seen as different and thus deprived of the joy of full integration in the Indian society … They were always seen as fellow human beings, but could never be included among ‘our own people’. It is for this reason only that they remained rootless and could never muster enough courage to play any significant role in Indian politics and culture. And it is perhaps for this reason only that successive generations went to their graves with the unfulfilled desire of reaching the land they had set out from.
These novels help bring nuance to this sense of Jewish difference in Indian society – it is possibly the careful and unhurried portraits of these communities that are their greatest strength. We see that Jewish communities often forged strong connections and emotional bonds with other Indian communities. For example, Silliman describes how Jews would regularly form emotional relationships with their Muslim cooks, attend Christmas parties, and celebrate the Simchat Torah festival in the same way that Hindus celebrated Holi, spraying water at each other with water pistols. About Passover, she writes:
Granny loved giving presents. Each year, Rachel and Jacob looked forward to the Easter eggs she brought them. If Easter and Passover coincided, the painted chocolate filled eggs from Nahoum’s would come before Passover started, so they could enjoy eating them while still observing the holiday. At Christmas time, she brought each of them brightly coloured boxes filled with crepe paper bonbons trimmed with silver paper.
Interactions with other communities didn’t often extend to marriage, however. Intermarriage was frequently looked down upon, so much so that characters in these novels often avoid contact with non-Jews. In Meera Mahadevan’s 1961 novel Apna Ghar, when Maizie’s Jewish sports club plays against a non-Jewish club, most of the Jewish parents do not allow their daughters to participate. Discrimination against children of intermarriages is also reflected in Miss Samuel. They were called ‘Kala Israel’ (Black Israel) and considered impure by the rest of the Bene Israel community, not allowed near the cooking utensils of the ‘Gora Israel’ (White Israel). Miss Samuel’s grandfather resented not being permitted into a synagogue in Pune as he was considered a ‘Kala Israel’, because his grandfather had married a Hindu.
Social division also existed within the different Jewish communities. The Baghdadis kept a distance from the Bene Israel synagogues and cemeteries, believing them to be less orthodox. Bene Israel communities practiced divorce and remarriage of childless widows, whereas Baghdadis considered these invalid. Any progeny of such marriages were regarded as tainted and unfit to enter ‘the Assembly of the Lord’ for seven generations. However, since it would be hard to distinguish the progeny of valid marriages from invalid ones, the Baghdadis imposed a ban on marriages between Baghdadis and the Bene Israel until about the mid-20th century. Since Bene Israel communities also tended to be less affluent than Baghdadis, some of them could not afford the two sets of eating and cooking utensils needed to keep kosher food regulations. Hazans (readers or cantors) from Cochin and the Baghdadi Cohanim (descendants of priestly families) who officiated in Bene Israel synagogues refused to eat in Bene Israel homes because they did not consider these households kosher enough. This type of reluctance, though common to ultra-orthodox Jews across the world, attained caste overtones in India. Jewish historian Joan G. Roland notes: “It is not clear whether or not the Baghdadis in Bombay at this time felt the Bene Israel were actually non-Jewish. If they did, it may have been because of the Bene Israel’s Hindu customs, the Baghdadis not seeing that the same could be said about their adoption of external Islamic customs.” This theme has remained absent in Indian Jewish fiction to date.
Between past and present
The only Hindi novel on the Bene Israel other than Rohekar’s Miss Samuel is Meera Mahadeva’s Apna Ghar (1961), published in English in 1971 with the title Shulamith. In this, the eponymous heroine experiences a “sense of dual fidelity” to her husband and to her way of life. She chooses her way of life and remains in India when her husband leaves for Israel, but she withers away in the agony of this separation, and eventually dies as he returns. It is significant to note how distinct the two novels are from one another – owing perhaps to the gap of half a century between them. Unlike Apna Ghar, Miss Samuel deals with the ostensible absence of anti-Semitism in India. Apna Ghar presents a rosier picture of Jews in India:
“There is no such nation in the world which could equal India in what it has given to the Jews. India has nourished us with affection for two millennia. No restrictions were ever imposed on the observance of our religion. We got land for our synagogues. We received such warmth that we started considering ourselves children of India. Now returning to Jerusalem is like turning our back towards our mother.”
“But is it not bad to not return to one’s mother?”
“Yes, of course! But can we forget what India has done for us. Everyone will have to admit that Jews have never been able to live in peace anywhere except India. Our religion was never defiled, on the contrary every deserving member of the community has been appropriately honoured.”
“I accept that.”
“As far as I know,” Shulamith starts speaking, “We have been living here for two thousand years. Just think that in all of this long period we have never been persecuted or discriminated against and this is despite the fact that there is no commonality between our religion and Hinduism. …It is necessary for Jews from Germany to return to Israel, for what happened there can happen again. But here? What never happened in more than two thousand years will never happen here. Is this one reason not enough for us to continue to stay in India?”
In sharp contrast to the passage above, Rohekar adopts a much bolder tone. This is evident in the way she draws our attention to the difficulty Jews face in finding accommodation in predominantly Hindu neighbourhoods in Gujarat. She also brings into sharp focus the discrimination Jews sometimes face in finding employment, a phenomenon which may be limited to Gujarat:
They had laughed at him. Successful in interview, yet unsuccessful in getting the job. Despite being Indian you are not Indian. Like other minorities you too are exploiting our country, while you have your loyalties for your own country. Go back to your nation and to your land, so that the vacant position can be had by any truly needy Hindu citizen of the country.
Perhaps Rohekar was emboldened to write the way she did because of the precedent set by Esther David, India’s best-known Jewish writer. Further, two decades of diplomatic relations between India and Israel, during which India has emerged as the biggest purchaser of Israeli-manufactured arms, with annual civilian trade between the countries worth six billion dollars could be a contributing factor. India has also become a favourite tourist destination for Israeli youth. In contrast, when Apna Ghar was published in 1961 there were no diplomatic relations between the countries.
Despite – or perhaps, because of – Apna Ghar being the only Hindi novel for over 50 years to depict the communal life of the smallest religious community of India, it has never gotten the attention it deserves. It has not been included in syllabi of Hindi literature anywhere in the country. Whether Rohekar’s Miss Samuel meets a similar fate remains to be seen. Unlike Rohekar lack of visibility, Silliman has received invitations to read from The Man with Many Hats since its release in June 2013. The novel has been received not only as a poignant story about the warmth and drama of a Calcutta Jewish family, but also as a work of great historical significance for its evocation of a cosmopolitan city in India that was home to a once-thriving Jewish community. It has also been felt that the novel charts the changes in the city and its Baghdadi Jewish community from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Fiction produced by any community depicting itself provides an invaluable insight into its sensibilities and sensitivities that fields like anthropology, sociology and history can only do to a limited extent. Indian Jewish literature deserves more attention, and this could be done by introducing it into Indian academia within the larger framework of Indo-Judaic Studies. This field has been neglected for far too long, perhaps due to the absence of Indo-Israel diplomatic ties for over four decades. There has generally been a widespread lack of awareness of the Jewish presence in India, with Jews often mixed up with Muslims, Parsis and Christians. That they constitute just 0.0004 percent of the Indian population does not help their cause. Scholars, too, including Jews, have been so pre-occupied with Jewish vicissitudes in the West that they have largely neglected the study of Indian Jews. Southasia would undoubtedly be much poorer without the historical and contemporary presence of this ancient community.
~Navras Jaat Aafreedi is a scholar of Indo-Judaic Studies and a social activist, currently an Assistant Professor in the School of Humanities & Social Sciences, Gautam Buddha University, Greater NOIDA, India. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.