Book Review: My Mother’s Spice Cupboard: A journey from Baghdad to Bombay to Bondi

Elana Benjamin has written a warm, highly readable and engaging account of her family over three generations, Iraqi Jews who settled in British India late in the 19th Century and early 20th, making their way to Sydney Australia during the 1960s. Growing up myself as a member of the Iraqi Jewish community in Sydney, I have known members of her family for most of my life and am well aware of the significant roles they have played in the community’s central institution, the Sephardi Synagogue, over the 50 years that it has been functioning. I therefore found it particularly interesting to read their stories from Elana’s perspective and to obtain a deeper understanding of their personal histories, the events and influences which have shaped their behaviours and attitudes.

While the focus in Benjamin’s book is on the members of her own family, their experiences simultaneously reveal developments taking place in the Iraqi community, in India and then in Australia, over time. One observes the gradual shift in language from Arabic, to the use of Hindustani as a lingua franca in Bombay while English had become the sole language used for communication within the community by the 1940s, sprinkled with certain choice words from Arabic and Hindustani. I found delightful the vignette concerning her Iraqi-born great-grandmother Habiba, seeking to “keep up with this move to English” and “proud to speak English like the younger generations”. Benjamin’s father recalls “his Nani Habiba picking up English newspapers and reading from them, albeit slowly. ‘Am I reading English correctly?’ she would ask her grandson” (p. 56).

One notes the gradual westernisation of the Iraqi Jews’ dress in India, first in the men and more slowly in the women, whereas in food tastes, the book reveals a lingering fondness for various traditional Iraqi foods – kakas, babas, hamim, zalata, coobas, combining with Indian specialties, aloomakala, chitarney, aloo bhaji, chat patay and chapatis – all of which feature prominently to create a sense of pride and belonging to an identifiable community through the culinary experience.

Benjamin is struck by how cramped her parents’ homes had been in India, and how few possessions – toys among them – that her parents had, compared to what she had grown up with in Australia. This she sees as at least a partial explanation for her father’s frugal tendencies. The fact that his father had died when he was under the age of Bar-Miswah and had left behind a widow with nine children – the youngest of whom was only three years old – undoubtedly also contributed to such life-long habits.

A historical misunderstanding on Benjamin’s part concerns her grandfather Jacob Benjamin’s flight from Baghdad for Bombay. She writes that his father had been conscripted into the British army during World War I. “He was never heard from again, presumed killed at war. Having lost her husband, Jacob’s mother Habiba feared for her eldest son’s life; Jacob was at an age where he too could soon be conscripted into the British army” (p.10). While the interesting details of Jacob’s flight, dressed as an Arab are no doubt otherwise accurate, in fact it was the Turkish army that was conscripting Jews for the first time. Having become “citizens” under the recent Young Turk reforms, shedding their previous status as dhimmis, Jews were no longer exempted from army service by paying the jizya head tax. Many Baghdadi Jews therefore fled to Basra after its capture by the British, or farther afield, as in the case of Benjamin’s father to British India. Indeed, the Rabbis declared 17 Adar, the anniversary of the day that Baghdad fell to the British, 3 February 1917, as a Yom Ness, an additional Purim to be celebrated by the Jews in Baghdad.

An important sociological issue which Benjamin looks at is the way in which decisions on marriage were made over the generations. With both sets of her grandparents, the bride simply had no say in the decision concerning whom to marry. The decision for her paternal grandmother, “Nana” Hannah, was made by her mother, Aziza, her father being deceased, while for Benjamin’s maternal grandmother, “Grandma” Hilda, her elder brother Joe, in the absence of the father, decided that she should marry a man whom he had befriended, Eze Jacob, a Baghdadi Jew who had fled from Rangoon with his family during World War II, to avoid the Japanese invasion. Joe had decided this would be a good match because “Eze was religious, responsible and came from a good family” (p. 116).

Already by 1929, Benjamin observes that there had been a change of marriage practice among the Baghdadi Jews in Bombay, when her paternal grandparents married, her grandmother then aged 17 and grandfather 27. Until then, Aziza had “rejected all the early proposals to marry. Remembering Aziza had been only fourteen years old when she married, it speaks volumes that Aziza didn’t want her daughter to become a child bride like she had been” (p. 14). As an aside, in earlier generations Baghdadi Jewish girls were married at nine years of age, until this practice was banned by the Rabbis, who made 13 the minimum age for marriage.

Although she had no say in the process of selecting her husband, Nana Hannah seems to have been pleased with the choice as she had once seen Jacob, her future husband, at a party and found him to be quite handsome. Yet how different Nana’s view of family relationships were from Benjamin’s values today is illustrated in the following observation, where Benjamin writes:

I asked Nana whether she liked Jacob’s immediate and extended family. She replied, “Yes, I respected them.” Interestingly, this response didn’t directly answer my question, but it showed that for Nana, it was respect rather than feelings of “like” or “dislike” which were important.

Nana’s response was also indicative of the changes which had occurred within two generations: for Nana, respect was a fundamental element in family relationships. Over time, however, the value of respect had declined in importance and has been replaced with concepts of “like”, “admire” and “love”. The mantra of “respecting your elders” is no longer blindly followed. Respect must now be earned (pp. 15-16).

As to Benjamin’s parents, Abe and Sheila, we find that their marriage had not been built on romance, though it has proved to be one where love did develop later. Here at least, unlike the women of the previous generation, her mother was able to decide for herself on whether to accept a marriage proposal, formalised by a request from the suitor to her father. Whereas Abe and his family had left Bombay and settled in Sydney, Sheila’s family had relocated from Bombay to Los Angeles, where Sheila had never felt at home. While she was spending a year in Israel, a mutual friend encouraged Abe to visit to meet up with Sheila. Sheila and Abe knew of each other from Bombay but had not had much involvement with one another. After spending 3 days together in Jerusalem, Abe proposed to Sheila and she accepted, knowing that he was gentle and caring, family oriented and responsible. Benjamin describes the way that her parents decided to marry as “a foreign concept to me” (p. 148) although she comes to accept it made sense within their cultural milieu. Certainly it would have been out of the question for them to consider living together to determine their compatibility before marriage.

Unlike that of her paternal grandparents and of her own parents, the marriage of her maternal grandparents was not a happy one, with their very different personalities and Grandpa Eze insisting on making all decisions. In discussing her situation with Benjamin, Grandma Hilda’s response was summed up in the words “What to do?” signifying resignation and acceptance of her situation, an expression Benjamin had heard many times from Nana Hannah. Benjamin comments:

The Baghdadi Jewish women of my grandmothers’ generation resigned themselves to their lot in life without much fuss. Thankfully, their reluctance to challenge the status quo is an attitude that no longer prevails (p. 117).

Sheila’s uneasiness in Los Angeles was linked to a lack of a sense of community there. While certainly more Jews lived in the city than there had been in Bombay or Australia, they were widely dispersed, and those of a similar cultural background were relatively few. In Sydney, living within the suburb of Bondi, she was to find herself in the bosom of a large, welcoming family and as a member of a congregational community with whom she could easily socialise, the Sephardi Synagogue, many of whose members had also come from Bombay, and others from Calcutta, Singapore, Rangoon or Shanghai, who also shared a Baghdadi heritage. It was easier for her to feel at home here.

Eventually, Grandma Hilda and Grandpa Eze also settled in Sydney, though Benjamin records that they always seemed to compare Sydney with Los Angeles rather unfavourably, regretting having left the city where they had lived close to 20 years. Granted that they may have felt everything was more advanced in America, in my personal contact with her grandfather through the Synagogue where he attended services daily, I felt that he was pleased to be able to do so, in a congregation which followed the customs and the tunes with which he was most familiar. After my mother passed away and I was attending Synagogue daily to recite the qaddish, I was grateful for his vigilance, always keen to alert me when it was time for me to say the mourner’s prayer; for me then, the Synagogue with Eze Jacob present was an oasis of comfort, where the congregants could understand my grief and provide advice on mourning customs, while outside at my workplace I felt that people generally were insensitive to my feelings.

The Sephardi Synagogue has been an important factor in my life, as it has been for Benjamin’s parents and many members of her extended family. As to her own feeling about the Synagogue, she writes:

…going to the Sephardi Synagogue takes me back to my childhood, a place where I feel completely protected and safe. To me, going there still feels like going home. I love sitting upstairs in the women’s section next to my mother with my children by our sides, with my Aunty Florrie close by and my father, my husband and my brother downstairs. I love seeing the familiar faces of people I have known all my life (p. 219).

As small as each of the Baghdadi Jewish communities across Asia had been, they somewhat remarkably managed to develop and maintain all the facilities for Jewish life in each city where they had settled, with synagogues, schools, hospitals, charitable funds to assist the needy, cemeteries, burial fraternities and kosher establishments. Yet here in Australia, the only institution they have succeeded in creating has been the Sephardi Synagogue. Admittedly the communities across Asia in those days relied upon the beneficence of a few wealthy families who could endow and provide for the upkeep of these valuable resources, while here the community does not have the luxury of such benefactors to create such institutions.

Furthermore, with a wider Jewish community in place, albeit predominantly Jews from a very different cultural background and a separate liturgical tradition, Baghdadi Jews have been able to make use of facilities developed in the wider community, though this has been to the detriment of the preservation of a distinct and proud heritage, stretching back well over 2,000 years in Iraq and preserved relatively intact in the daughter communities across Asia. Benjamin identifies that this dependence on the facilities of the wider Jewish community such as schools and youth groups has for her resulted in “conflicting forces: Sephardi versus Ashkenazi, Australia versus India (which have) pulled me in different directions and were always difficult for me to reconcile. Particularly the Sephardi/Ashkenazi one” (p. 214).

Although all her schooling had been in Jewish schools, very few of the children were of her background. Furthermore, “The school curriculum did not encompass the history of Iraqi-Sephardi Jewry, the prayer tunes sung were Ashkenazi and the Jewish laws and customs taught were those of Ashkenazi Jewry” (p. 214), contrasting starkly with what was practised at home, among her relatives, and in the Sephardi Synagogue. Benjamin comments that:

I don’t think my parents even realised the inconsistency or how torn I felt. They sent me to a Jewish school which they presumed would provide me with a Jewish education and reinforce the Jewish values and traditions I was brought up with at home. But the Jewish education I received did not echo a lot of what was going on in my home (p. 215).

Perhaps mindful of such concerns, at the launch of Aaron Aaron’s book The Sephardi Jews of Australia and New Zealand in 1979, an announcement was made that proceeds from the sale of the book would go towards the establishment of a Sephardi school. While such a project never did get off the ground, the extent of the criticism from the wider Jewish community was remarkable, with arguments raised that the community could not sustain another Jewish school, and concern that the Sephardim sought to cut themselves off from the rest of the Jewish community. In reality, however, as Benjamin records from her own experience, the existing Jewish schools offered nothing to enhance the self-esteem of Sephardi children who attended them, failing to teach their history or to acknowledge their distinctive customs and melodies.

The fact that Benjamin’s formal Jewish education took place in an Ashkenazi-oriented school is evident from her understanding of her grandmother Hannah saying “barmiswa” rather than the more familiar “barmitzvah”, explaining that “this interchanging of ‘v’ and ‘w’ sounds in English is a hallmark of the Baghdadi Jews, and indeed, of many Indians” (p. 62). While there is a tendency for many Indians to make no distinction between those sounds, in fact the pronunciation of the word “barmiswa” is consistent with the Baghdadi Jewish – and historically earlier – pronunciation of the Hebrew letter [?] like English “w” rather than “v”, while the letter [?] is pronounced not like Ashkenazi and modern Israeli “tz”, but as a “?”, or among Jews from India who are unable to make that sound, simply as an “s”.

As to the Synagogue itself, it has been unable to inculcate the traditions on which it was built to the younger generation, many of them children of “mixed” marriages between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Benjamin, herself married to an Ashkenazi man, comments that “as much as the Sephardi Synagogue is part of me, I love it for the place it occupies in my heart rather than what it has to offer me and my family today. Due to the absence of young families on a regular Shabbat morning, we rarely attend services there” (p. 220). “Sadly”, she muses, “I believe that in the not so distant future, the richness of my heritage will be relegated to a mere chapter in the long history of the Jewish people” (p. 217). Regrettably, Benjamin may well be correct in this assessment.

I would recommend this absorbing book to anyone interested in family histories and those seeking an understanding of issues relevant to Sephardim in Australia.


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