Book Review: Shalom India Housing Society: On Gibeon, or in Ajalon

Shalom India Housing Society
By Esther David, Kali/Women Unlimited, $17.95
Order your copy here

Esther David portrays a Jewish community in Gujarat after the 2002 riots, caught between integration and isolation and wondering where home is.

Towards the end of Shalom India Housing Society, Judith, one of the building’s flat owners who has emigrated to Israel, writes to the Society’s president to ask him to stop looking for a buyer for her flat, since she and her husband are returning to live in Ahmedabad.

“We live very near the Valley of Ajalon and Mount Gibeon. On some evenings we see the sun and the moon suspended on the horizons of the east and the west. Often I catch myself thinking, are we on Mount Gibeon or in the Valley of Ajalon?… [India and Israel] are like the sun and moon for us… As a Jew, sometimes I wonder, are we coming or going? Where are we going? Where is home? Is our home within us or somewhere else?”

In these 19 chapters, each focusing on one Bene Israel (Children of Israel) character, Esther David assembles a restless portrait of a tiny, little-known, unique community of Jews from western India. The self-named Bene Israels are apocryphally descended from 14 survivors of a Jewish shipwreck off the Konkan coast over 2,000 years ago. They lived in isolation from other Jewish communities until the 18th century, developing their own blend of Maharashtrian and Jewish traditions, and in the 1950s emigrated in large numbers to Israel. The few thousand Bene Israels left in western India today continue to occupy a sometimes uneasy space between generations of integration with the rest of India, and a unique Jewish heritage.

David’s novel focuses on a handful of Bene Israels who live in Ahmedabad. In the fear-riven aftermath of the 2002 riots, they’ve been driven from their houses, once dotted around the Magan Abraham Synagogue in Bukhara Moholla in peaceful integration with other communities, into a Jewish ghetto centred on the Shalom India Housing Society, which also reserves one building for other minorities such as Parsis and Christians.

The novel hangs what is essentially a collection of personal histories, most of them women’s, on three pegs: the characters live in the building at one time or another; their homes are visited on the night of Passover by the Prophet Elijah, or Eliyahu Hannabi, who decides whether or not to grant their wishes; and they are involved in the fancy dress competition at the synagogue which caps the Simhat Torah festival.

Through the interconnections between the flat owners, and through their relationship to their heritage, we get an insight into the trials of, say, a young girl like Yael, whose widowed mother won’t let her wear a sexy garba dress; or the patriarch Samuel, whose parents came from Israel to India to find him a bride; or Leon who, to the horror of his parents, likes to cross-dress; or Hadasah, the friendly but distant novelist who never talks about her traumatic past. There are as many stories of contentment as there are of pain, as much talk of leaving for Israel as of returning to India, as much anguish about finding a Bene Israel spouse as about intermarrying with Hindus and Muslims.

Possibly the most unsuccessful character in the novel is the prophet Eliyahu Hannabi himself, imagined as a fun-loving but prickly fellow whose decisions about people’s fates seem disproportionately influenced by the quality of the wine poured into the goblet reserved for him at the Seder table. The prelude to the novel names him as the protagonist, but happily he quickly fades into the poster of the Prophet invariably hung up in the flats of the other characters.

David is an utterly uninspired writer, so it’s a bit of a coup that she is able to not just keep one’s interest but also nurture it. It has everything to do with an interesting subject, and nothing at all to do with novel-writing; but somehow it all comes together. If you’ve never heard the words “Bene Israel” or “malida”, don’t know the story of the Prophet’s footprints at Khandala, or think that Indian Jews only eat kosher meat, read Shalom India Housing Society. It’s not a great work of art, but it is a nice piece of social anthropology, with a good deal of heart thrown in.

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