Dramatizing the History of Indian Jews

Dropped From Heaven
By Sophie Judah
Schocken Books, 243 pages, $23.

Members of the Bene Israel, the ancient Indian Jewish community, claim they are the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, that they escaped persecution in the Galilee in the second-century BCE, and that their ancestors were shipwrecked on the southern coast of India. Like many remnant communities, subsequent generations practiced dietary laws and celebrated holidays without a direct knowledge of the Torah. The first reliable reference to the Bene Israel dates back to the 11th century, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that traders from Baghdad recognized them as fellow Jews and identified some of their practices — such as circumcising their sons at 8 days old — as distinctly Jewish. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Bene Israel completely identified as Jews, spoke a Judeo-Arabic and observed traditional Judaism. In fact, Jewish history in India has been marked most starkly by the absence of antisemitism. Jews practiced their religion freely throughout the centuries, without fear of persecution. Though India was always tolerant of its Jews, the establishment of Israel led to the mass exodus of a community that once numbered 20,000. Today there are fewer than 5,000 Jews in India.

Sophie Judah, an Indian Jew who has lived in Israel for more than 30 years, dramatizes many of these facts in “Dropped From Heaven,” her intriguing collection of short stories that begin in 1890 and end at the inception of the 21st century. Set in the Jewish community of Jwalanagar, a suburb of New Delhi, these loosely linked stories, particularly the earlier ones that take place at the beginning of the 20th century, sag under the weight of romance and myth. In many of them, the narrative competes with the lore and fascination that have surrounded the Bene Israel; however, Judah hits her stride in the later stories, when most of the Bene Israel community has relocated to Israel following Israel’s War of Independence. Many of those stories are evocative in the way they show old and new worlds colliding. In one such story, a Bene Israel returns to India to find that the old synagogue is now a pickle-and-chutney factory.

In “Shame Under the Chuppah,” an early story, the 1930 diary entries of a deceased grandmother — named Malka, the Hebrew word for “queen” — are read aloud by her progeny. Disfigured by smallpox, Malka reveals that her parents are desperate to marry off their 30-year-old daughter. A marriage is hastily arranged, and Malka wears the traditional white sari at her wedding. But she is veiled beyond recognition, and the groom’s parents are distraught when her face is revealed during the ceremony. Despite the potential for tragedy, Malka’s story has its own happy ending. Eli is an honorable groom, and he will not allow his betrothed to be shamed like Leah. “I am not the biblical Jacob,” Eli says. “I am not fleeing my brother, and I shall not live in my father-in-law’s house, either. Unlike Jacob, I have lifted your veil before the wedding ceremony is complete.” The imagery resonates, but couching the story in Malka’s diaries begs the question of verisimilitude. Malka’s summarizing and presentation of her early life erase the inherent intimacy of a diary.

Judah’s stories are stronger when she directly addresses the life and times of Jews in India. She is particularly clear-eyed when it comes to presenting a Jew’s place in India’s complex social stratification. The stories that are set against the backdrop of the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan are more successful for the way she conjures place and feeling. Throughout the upheaval, Jews were looked upon as neutral and essential in escorting Muslim and Hindu refugees between India and Pakistan. In “Nathoo,” so named for the Muslim orphan whom a Jewish captain in India’s army wishes to adopt, Judah delineates a Jew’s status in India: “The captain had been chosen to accompany the refugees because he was Jewish. Although there were Hindus in the group, most of the other soldiers were either Christian or Zoroarstrian so that they did not feel partial to either Muslims or the Hindus.”

The book’s last stories take place in a more contemporary time and place and concentrate on relationships between Bene Israel who have become Israelis and on the Jews they left behind in Jwalanagar. When one of the few remaining members of the Bene Israel community dies, there are not enough men to make up the traditional minyan of 10 that is required to recite Kaddish for her. The woman is buried in a Jewish cemetery littered with the human feces of squatters. Her grave is plundered for the material of her shroud, and the mayor announces that the cemetery will soon be paved over to build apartments. Such is the current state of affairs for the Jews of Jwalanagar.

For all their inherent exoticness, some of the stories in “Dropped From Heaven” are told in the stilted language of a choppy translation, despite having been written by the author in English. Nevertheless, the Bene Israel that populate these stories are intriguing and memorable as characters and as a community. The reader is left wanting to know more about these Jews who flourished among Muslims, Hindus and Christians for centuries, and who infused their history with the fantasy of descending from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

Judy Bolton-Fasman is at work on a memoir and writes a weekly column for The Jewish Advocate in Boston, Mass.

This story "Dramatizing the History of Indian Jews" was written by Judy Bolton-Fasman.

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