Book Review: From Word to Canvas: Appropriations of Myth in Women’s Aesthetic Production


Siona Benjamin
From Word to Canvas: Appropriations of Myth in Women’s Aesthetic Production
Edited by V.G. Julie Rajan and Sanja Bahun-Radunovi
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, $52.99.

The featured essays and artistic contributions address a variety of contemporary female productions, including literature, performance, and visual art, in a markedly global scope. Representing a wide range of cultures, languages, geographic locales, and social contexts – from Jewish-Hindu and Kenyan-German, through Irish, Italian, American, to Vietnamese folktales – this diversified selection underscores the agency of “the feminine gaze” across a historical and geopolitical span, a gaze through which myths from various cultures and different cultural amalgams speak to us with force and with significance.

Excerpt from the essay “Blue Like Me” by Siona Benjamin:

In my paintings I raise questions about where the place we call “home” may be, while evoking issues such as identity, immigration, motherhood, and the role of art in society.1 I am a Bene Israel Jew from India. Although my family has gradually dispersed out of India, mostly to Israel and America, my parents remained in India. I am now also an American, living and working in New Jersey. With such a background, the desire to “find home,” spiritually and literally, has always preoccupied me – a concern to which I feel many Americans can relate, as this comparatively young nation was largely formed by immigrants and their descendants.

I have never been able to set deep roots into the space where I am at any given moment, no matter where I am. This is unnerving, but there is also something seductive about the spiritual borderlands formed by the “displacements” in which I seem to find myself. In my paintings I explore those displacements by combining the imagery of my past with the role I play in America today, making a mosaic inspired by both Indian – Persian miniature paintings and Sephardic icons, by the oil lamps, the velvet-and-silver-covered torahs, and a chair left vacant for the prophet Elijah in our Bombay synagogues. For I have always had to reflect upon the cultural boundary zones. Raised Jewish, I grew up in the predominantly Hindu and Muslim society of India, and was educated in Catholic and Zoroastrian schools; and I live in the US now. My family has married American, Yemenite, French, Ethiopian, Cochini, and other Jews. I am married to a Connecticut native who was raised Russian Orthodox, but who also has the Jewish faith as part of his family mix. In the 1970s he became a Buddhist and studied Indian classical music for some years with an Indian maestro in California. We now try to raise our children in the mosaic of all that we can bring to them from our backgrounds.

I should like to present to the reader the portion of this fruitful diversity that most significantly influences my work. There are three distinct Jewish communities in India: the Bene Israel, who have remained the largest; the Cochini Jews, who once formed the second largest group (but who have now mostly immigrated to Israel); and the Iraqi Jews, who now form the second largest community. All three sections follow the same religious rituals and recite prayers in Sephardi intonations. Some customs vary among them, because the place in which they reside has influenced their rituals. Mostly one will find Jews in the coastal parts of India: Bombay, Cochin, and Calcutta, although there was also a small community of Jews in Delhi, which had one synagogue. There are also synagogues in Pune (in the state of Maharashtra) and Ahmedabad (Gujurat). Smaller synagogues can be found in some of the coastal villages in the Konkan (i.e., the west coast of India, south of Bombay). The community from which I come, the Bene Israel community of Maharashtra, is ancient. According to the story that has been handed down through the generations, the Bene Israel were said to be shipwrecked on the Konkan coast, near the Kenneri islands (about 6 miles south of Bombay), about 2,000 years ago. As related in the Books of Maccabees, after the Greeks conquered what is today Palestine in 332 B.C., life there became extremely oppressive for the orthodox Jews. The situation became insufferable when, in the year 167 B.C., the king Antiochus IV Epiphenes of Syria tried to impose Hellenistic religious practice on the orthodox Jews, an event which would eventually lead to what is known in Jewish and Christian traditions as the Maccabean revolt and the story of Chanukkah. It is said that, prior to these events, a group of Jews from Galilee managed to flee into Egypt. In 175 B.C. they boarded a ship, probably sailing for Cheul, a major port city on the Maharashtra coast of west India. When they were within a couple of hundred yards off the port of Konkan, about fifteen miles from Cheul Creek, the ship ran aground and sank. Most of the people on board, together with all their possessions, including the Torah scrolls and prayer books, were lost. Out of all those on board, legend has it, only seven men and seven women managed to swim ashore. After being given shelter by some Hindus from Navgaon (a village twenty miles south of what would later become Bombay), the Jews found permanent abode on the Konkan Coast. The bodies of the people washed ashore were buried separately in large graves. There is a monument marking this site at Navgaon, India.

Another version of the legend states that the ancestors of the Bene Israel came from northern Palestine. According to Biblical history, that area was inhabited by the ten tribes which formed the ancient Kingdom of Israel in the 8th century B.C. When the Assyrians captured the capital Samaria in 722 B.C., most of these people fled the country for fear of persecution and conversion by the Assyrians. It is said that some people belonging to the tribes of Asher and Zebulun boarded a ship, sailed via Egypt to the Indian Ocean, and were ship-wrecked on the west coast of India. They were offered shelter by the indigenous population, and they continued living there for centuries, as the Indian people have been welcoming. The Jews of India are one of the few communities in the world that did not face anti-Semitism in their “home” state. They adopted the mode of dress, some customs, and the local language (Marathi). They derived their family names from the names of the villages in which they settled (i.e., Kehim – Kehimkar; Pen – Penkar; Cheul – Cheulkar). The Bene Israel have certain rituals that are uniquely their own, such as the Malida ceremony, an event structured around the recitation of the Eliyahu-ha-navi prayer and a ceremonial offering of sweetened rice and dry fruits to the Prophet Elijah. There are now about 5,000 Bene Israel left in India, as most have immigrated to Israel, Canada, and the Unites States of America. My destiny has been similar…

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