Going home again, to Jewish Bombay
Sadia Shepard: I went to fulfill a promise to my grandomother before she died. To her, there was once a vibrant Jewish life in Bombay that was on a trajectory of decline, so I had this idea I must go before it’s gone.
As a small child growing up outside Boston, filmmaker Sadia Shepard felt torn between two cultures: the WASP Episcopalianism of her father’s family in Colorado and the more exotic Muslim traditions her Pakistani mother had grown up with in Karachi.
It wasn’t until Shepard was on the verge of becoming a teenager that she discovered the third thread woven into her family’s history: Her maternal grandmother, whom she knew only by the Arabic name Rahat, had grown up in Bombay as Rachel Jacobs, the favorite daughter of a prominent Bene Israel businessman.
The revelation that her grandmother – who even as a widow recited her daily prayers from the Koran, a habit she adopted after secretly eloping with one of her father’s Muslim business partners – was in fact Jewish could have been just another wrinkle in an already complicated multicultural identity, but for Shepard, it eventually prompted a quest not just to get to know the mysterious Jewish girl Rachel Jacobs, but to find out what became of the community her grandmother left behind.
In 2001, just days after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York, Shepard arrived in India, armed with a satchel full of camera equipment and a Fulbright scholarship to underwrite her travels among the Bene Israel, a community that has shrunk to about 3,500 Jews from upward of 30,000 in Rachel Jacobs’ youth, when street criers went up and down Samuel Street announcing the news of births, deaths and marriages.
“I went to fulfill a promise I made to my grandmother before she died,” Shepard says. “To her, there was once a vibrant Jewish life in Bombay that was on a trajectory of decline, so I had this idea I must go before it’s gone.”
Instead, Shepard found a remnant community as dynamic and varied as any in the Diaspora, caught between devotion to the familiar patterns of life in India and the pull of children and extended families in Israel, now home to about 90,000 Bene Israel. On film – both in an exhibit of still photographs and in a new documentary, In Search of the Bene Israel – Shepard has captured a community torn between staying and going, and struggling to define itself in the new, globalized India.
In the film, children in kippot ride to Hebrew lessons on two-stroke scooters adorned with Stars of David, while their elders fret about losing their minyan every time another family emigrates.
Some Bene Israel tell Shepard they dream of going to Israel, where they can be among other Jews; others say they can’t fathom leaving everything they know, for a place full of unknowns.
“Israel is not like my village, it is not like here,” says one woman, speaking in Hindi. She shows off a small black notebook full of itineraries from a trip she took to Israel to visit her siblings and sons – “very salty, not sweet,” she says of the Dead Sea, laughing – but says she refused her sons’ requests that she and her husband sell their traditional oil-pressing business and join them.
“There are lots of problems,” she says, as her husband, David Waskar, chimes in about fighting and bombings. David, one of the last Bene Israel still selling hand-pressed oil in his rural village, tells Shepard he will stay where he is, to watch over the synagogue and the Jewish cemetery.
“I think it will be better to stay here,” he says, dandling his grandson, named Israel, on his lap. “We will not leave, we will stay, right here.”
He says, with a note of doubt, that his eldest son may return, joining a small stream of reverse migrants looking to profit from India’s rapid economic growth – a factor that has given the most pragmatic-minded Bene Israel a reason to stay put.
“One thing is being satisfied, and hope – they are two different things, right?” says one man, who speaks English with a marked accent as he throws Passover matza patties into a communal oven, built to be free of hametz. “I’m satisfied and I’ve got good work and here I will flourish, so I am here. You can find out from my face that I am happy here.”
The film was shot in 2002, long before last fall’s terrorist attack in what is now called Mumbai targeted Western Jews, but Shepard is quick to point out in interviews and before audiences that the Bene Israel are among the only Jewish communities to have lived without fear of anti-Semitism.
“They were lucky to land in a place of overlapping cultures, where every family had a different practice – what they could or couldn’t eat, or how they prayed,” Shepard says.
According to the legend Shepard’s grandmother told her as a girl – and which nearly every Bene Israel can recite – the community sprang from seven couples who were shipwrecked off the Indian coast 2,000 years ago. Over time, and without a Torah for reference, their descendants forgot every prayer except the Shema, but they observed the Sabbath and kept a form of kashrut – again, according to legend, they were identified as a “lost tribe” after a Jewish traveler saw the women would not prepare eel for a feast of fish.
Christian missionaries and Jews from Cochin, a distinct community established in southern India, offered religious training to the Bene Israel in the 19th century, but the cosmopolitan, wealthy community Rachel Jacobs knew as a girl, at the height of British colonialism, was highly assimilated into the colonial system.
It wasn’t until the messy aftermath of World War II that the Bene Israel found reason to leave at all. In the late 1940s, amid rising tensions between Hindus and Muslims in newly independent India, as many left Bombay for the newly formed Pakistan as for Israel or America. Shepard’s grandfather, Ali Siddiqui, moved his immediate family – including Rachel, by then known as Rahat – to Karachi, and he also helped bring his wife’s extended family to escape the violence. Four of her six siblings wound up leaving shortly thereafter for Israel; Shepard’s cousins mostly settled in Haifa, home to a significant Bene Israel community.
But the story of those who stayed – Rachel’s brother Nissim, along with more distant relatives – reflects the degree to which the remaining Bene Israel were able to preserve their social status. In Shepard’s achingly lovely memoir, The Girl From Foreign – written after the documentary was shot, but published last fall, before the film’s release – she describes going to meet her Uncle Moses, a cousin by marriage who lives in Pune, and discovering by accident that his son, Benny Isaacs, runs the ORT facility in Bombay.
Another cousin, Rachel Reuben, became famous as a professional model and is now a successful Bollywood film director. In the film, she talks of her ambivalence about religion in general, noting that she lost interest in following her older sister to live temporarily on a kibbutz because she didn’t want to become more observant.
“I feel my faith, and I feel the pride and the need to be Jewish,” she says. “It means a lot to me in a very straight line, because it connects me with my mum and my grandmum and her grandmum before her, but it’s not a broad sense, my Jewishness, it’s very focused and has a very tight string to my direct heritage.”
Yet Reuben sheepishly says that, as an adult, she regrets not knowing enough to pass her religion on to her children – “I’m a bit silly when it comes to my own religion,” she admits. “I don’t know enough to pass it on. If I had a child, I’d have to study a bit – but I would, because I’d be interested in sharing that.”
Rachel Jacobs, in becoming Rahat Siddiqui, agreed to raise her own children as Muslims – but was always promised by her husband she would have a Jewish burial. After his death, once she had emigrated from Pakistan to join her daughter and grandchildren in Boston, Rachel traveled to Israel to visit her siblings there.
“She always said that when she arrived in Israel she felt at home instantly, that when she landed in Jerusalem she could walk forever without getting tired,” Shepard says.
But Rachel remained in the US with her daughter, ultimately moving to Miami, where she died in 2000. In grainy Super-8 footage included in Shepard’s documentary, she appears, smiling, walking determinedly on a cane. Shepard recounts the promise she made to go visit her grandmother’s birthplace, which she says now wasn’t “about theology” – though at every screening, someone in the audience stops to ask whether she’s become a practicing Jew.
For Shepard, who describes herself as a “person of faith” but who isn’t particularly observant of any of the three religions she has claim to, the act of going to find her grandmother’s people was in a way an act of faith – by performing that most Jewish of duties, bearing witness to the past, before it can be forgotten, and the present as it slips by.