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Growing up Jewish in India

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Growing up Jewish in India: Synagogues, Customs, and Communities from the Bene Israel to the Art of Siona Benjamin

Editor: Ori Z. Soltes 

Publisher: Niyogi Books

This is a wonderful anthology of non-fiction on Jews in India. The gorgeously produced book offers a historical account of the primary Jewish communities, their synagogues, and unique customs. It traces how Jews arrived in the vast subcontinent at different times from different places, both inhabiting diverse locations within the larger Indian community, and ultimately creating a diaspora within the larger Jewish diaspora by relocating to other countries, particularly Israel and the United States.

Edited by Ori Z. Soltes, who teaches art history, theology, philosophy and political history at Georgetown University and who is also a former Director of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum having curated more than 85 exhibitions on history, ethnography and modern and contemporary art, this book gives a veritable account of the Indian Jews who have retained their distinctive physiognomies. He shows Jews have been integrated into the larger Indian diaspora because of their receptive, flexible and inimitable traits.

The text and its rich complement of more than 150 images explore how Indian Jews retained their unique characteristics despite being well-integrated into the larger diaspora of Indians and have continued to offer a synthesis of cultural qualities wherever they reside. Understandably, the editor Ori Z. Soltes, contends 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.

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 on which Soltes elaborates to bring clarity to the matter.

The book has an elaborate discussion on the unique art of Siona Benjamin, who grew up in the Bene Israel community of Mumbai and then moved to the US. Her work reflects Indian and Jewish influences as well as concepts like tikkun olam (Hebrew for ‘repairing the world’).

In a sense, the book is a memoir on growing up Jewish in India with essays on Siona’s Fulbright work in India and Israel, plus her other series of works. It offers a portrait of a unique slice of the Indian world for readers interested in history, art, religion, and culture, worldwide.

In combining discussions of the Indian Jewish communities with Benjamin’s own story and an analysis of her artistic output, this volume offers a unique verbal and visual portrait of a significant slice of Indian and Jewish culture and tradition.

The book begins on an existent note: “Indian Jews have historically lived across diverse parts of the Indian subcontinent over the centuries without experiencing the sort of anti-Semitism that has been so common in many other parts of the world, particularly Christian Europe, which exported its anti-Jewish sensibilities into the Muslim world eventually, particularly in the context of European colonialism and post-colonialism in the Middle East, culminating with World War I and its aftermath. Indeed, the most obvious exception to the rule of Jewish experience in India arrived with the control of Goa in the early 16th century by the Portuguese, who brought with them not only anti-Jewish feelings, but the specifics associated with the development of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition that would affect New Christians suspected of secretly continuing to practice Judaism-and continue until the formal abolition of the Inquisition authority in 1812.”

The introductory chapter throws light on the non-violence Hindu culture in India which allowed Jews to live in harmony with other communities as opposed to European countries: “The general lack of hostility and persecution may be understood in part as a cultural phenomenon, but also as a function of the nature of Hinduism, by far the dominant religion across India, and its embrace of diverse perspectives regarding how, specifically, one might understand and address divinity. Within the singularity of Brahman-Being-what we term ‘Hinduism’ recognises a nearly infinite possibility for divine manifestations: Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Devi, Krishna (and many other more minor figures) are both separate from each other and all understood to be part of each other and subsumed into a singularity that is Brahman.”

It further contends that India is as diverse with religions as it is linguistically. It is, as most people are aware, the country in which Hinduism was born, in fact the word ‘Hindu’ refers to the place, India, not to the form of faith. According to the author, “Hinduism’ is also a misnomer in being used as if there is a monolithic form of faith that goes by that name, just as it is often misunderstood to be polytheistic: there are, after all, any number of gods and goddesses, it would seem, that occupy its pantheon. In truth, (to repeat), an Indian who is part of this spiritual tradition understands all of these ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ to be particularised manifestations of a single god of Being.”

What is Hinduism? Soltes argues: “Hinduism’ may be understood by Westerners as a more complex version, in a sense, of Christianity in its understanding of God as triune, for instead of a threefold, Father/Son/Holy Spirit Godhead, ‘Hinduism’ offers a poly-une Brahman (Being) expressed as Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, Devi, and others. So, one is typically a Saivite, say, or a Vaishnavite, believing that Siva or Vishnu represents the consummate expression of God, but embracing the legitimacy of other expressions, as well. Moreover, among the 10 avatars assumed by Vishnu over history, one of them is as a dark-skinned (blue or black) anthropomorphic, Krishna, and over time, a growing community of Krishna’s followers or Krishnaites views him as the consummate manifestation of God-not as an avatar of Vishnu: on the contrary, Vishnu is viewed as a manifestation of Krishna.”

The book has in all six chapters with a foreword by Ralphy Jhirad. There’s a chapter on Kerala synagogues by Orna Eliyahu-Oron and Barbara C. Johnson; another on the synagogues of Calcutta Baghdadi Jews by Jael Silliman. 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. Benjamin writes a memoir, ‘How I Turned Blue and Other Stories I Remember Growing up Jewish in India’.

 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. 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. Soltes writes on ‘Refocus and Return’. Benjamin’s multi-layered art dots the book. Soltes also pens the epilogue on the community’s past.

The book is a must read for all as it addresses a complex issue in a rich scholarly way while making it eminently readable. It would be of interest to Jews and non-Jews, Indian and non-Indian alike, as well as to history enthusiasts and the general reader interested in art and culture.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of UnbiasedNo Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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