Last month, while researching an article for The Forward about Indian Jewish cuisine, I spent the afternoon in Montclair, New Jersey with Siona Benjamin. A home cook who grew up in Mumbai’s Jewish community, Benjamin demonstrated how to prepare a traditional Shabbat coconut curry and a sweet rice and coconut dish called malida that Indian Jews make in honor of the Prophet Elijah. But, as often happens when I cook in other people’s kitchens, I learned about much more than food.
Benjamin’s home is filled with art — specifically her own technicolor paintings and multimedia pieces, which weave together Jewish and Indian images. A classically trained artist (she has two MFAs in painting and theater set design), who is inspired by “traditional styles of painting, like Indian/Persian miniatures, Byzantine icons, and Jewish and Christian illuminated manuscripts,” her work has been exhibited across the United States, Europe and Asia.
In 2011, Benjamin traveled to India on a Fulbright scholarship to interview, photograph, and document the lives of more than 70 of Mumbai’s remaining 5,000 Jews. Back at home, she transformed these stories into a stunning collection of oversized photo collage paintings called “FACES: Weaving Indian Jewish Narratives.”