Homi Bhabha’s


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It is from those who have suffered the sentence of history- subjugation, domination, diaspora, displacement- that we learn our most enduring lessons.

Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture.

Writing as an art has helped man to speak about himself and his world. Contemporary Indian English writing has indeed grown into a significant aspect of World Literature. The writings that were nationalistic in one time have now become a literature of immense aesthetic and socio-cultural significance. Indian writing in English has earned admiration, both in India and abroad. It has carved out its place with its new track and new vision that has under its belt a completely new range of issues that cater to our land’s faith, hope, myths, traditions, customs and rites. Amar Nath Prasad believes that, “If we dive deep into the works of the great Indian stalwarts of English fiction, it is revealed that their works are not an imitation of English literary pattern but highly original and intensely Indian in both theme and spirit” (1).

B.R Agarwal in her article “Recent Indian English Novel and Changing Tradition” has discussed precisely the themes used by Indian novelists. The Indian English novelists have a whole range of themes- debate between old and new, clash between male chauvinists and modern feminists, clash between orthodoxy and modernity, conflict and compromise of the East and West, search for one’s identity.

Diasporic writing is one such area in which authors have spoken about the minority communities. The term diaspora is a commonly used term nowadays in literature. It is used to refer to people who have emigrated from their native lands, out of their freewill or on compulsion and have scattered thereby settling in their adopted lands across the globe. In literature it denotes writing of literary scholars who have settled in a country not native to them. Indian Diaspora, Black Diaspora are some of the labels that have been used to refer to people who relate to their mother land inspite of being citizens in foreign lands. Sheobhushan Shukla in his article “Migrant Voices in Literature in English” states that, “Diaspora, … was originally used for the Jews, dispersed after the Babylonian captivity, and then with the passage of time for the Jews living outside or dispersed among the Genitles”(1).

Diaspora could mean immigration or exodus; repatriation or rehabilitation. In literary context, it carries added meaning, it does not merely refer to immigration of foreign nationals, but also relates, “ to group identity, cultural assimilation, racial and sentimental similarity that pervade with it” (Boyarin 693). It also includes aspects of “cultural retention or its loss” (Boyarin 705) and “acculturization and the re-inventing of identity” (Boyarin 703).

The immigrants are exposed to several problems- social, cultural and psychological. They are torn between two cultures- hereditary one and the one they are exposed to in the foreign land. W.E.B. Dubois refers to this as ‘duality’ or double consciousness.Diaspora is a term that revoles around the problem of political and personal identity. The two senses of Diaspora are clearly differentiated by Paul Gilory as, the former, “a conceptual tool or referential term denoting a specific group of people” and the later, “as a term to denote a certain kind of identity formation, the feeling of belongingness to a community that transcends national boundaries” (158-59).

The perennially engaging theme of diaspora has acquired an increasing resonance in the contemporary world and Indian writers have not been hesitant in contributing to this field. Indian writers like Bapsi Sidwa, Rohinton Mistry, Dina Metha, Boman Desai, Keki Darwalla have written about the Parsi community in India. The Jewish community is a miniscule minority in India, but it has not been represented much in Indian writing in English. Jewish literature has, down the ages, displayed a unique ability to flow in continuity like an underground river. From the prophets, visionaries, storytellers and psalmists of the holy books, down to the twentieth century and the works of writers and poets like hole Yaken Abramovitch, Ber Horovitz, S.Z. Raoport, Der Nister, Moyesh Kulbak, T. Carmi, Aba Kovna, Yosef Agnon, Issac Singer and Nelly Sachs, the Jewish literary tradition has retained its distinctive spirit. The Commonwealth Jewish writers,like Judah Waten, David Martin, Morris Lurie, have written on the problems of Jewish life. They share the sense of loss, “the loss of childhood, the deaths of parents and grandparents, the destruction of European Jewry by the Nazis and the decline of a once vital cultural, ethnic and religious heritage”(Gerson 104). The theme that Jewish emigrants ended up in the wrong place and the sense of dislocation reverberates through their fiction. The writers also feel that Israel is just a viable option for their characters and so have made their characters come to terms with their identity in the adopted land.

Shulamith written in the year 1975 by Meera Mahadevan, a Bene Israel Indian Jewish writer, is the earliest piece of representation of this community in Indian English literature. Esther David is a contemporary writer who has written extensively about the Bene Israel Jews in India.

Esther David was born into a Bene Israel 1945 in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Her father Reuben David, a hunter turned veterinarian, founded the Kamala Nehru Zoological Garden and Balvatika in Ahmedabad. Her mother Sarah was a schoolteacher. She started writing about art and became the art critic Times of India, a prominent national daily. Later she became a columnist for Femina, a women’s magazine and other leading national dailies. Her first novel was written in 1997 entitled The Walled City. Her next work was a short story collection By the Sabarmati in 1999 , followed by the novels The Book of Esther (2002), The Book of Rachel (2006). In 2007 she wrote a book for teenagers, which was a tribute to her father , titled My Father’s Zoo. Shalom Indian Housing Society, another short story collection was published in 2007. She is also an artist and sculptor. The Walled City, has been translated into French by Sonia Terangle titled La Ville en ses Murs and in Gujarati by Renuka Sheth. The French version was shortlisted for the Premier Liste de Prix Femina in France. The Book of Rachel has also been translated into French by Sonja Terangle titled Le Livre de Rachel.

The Walled City is about a young Bene Israel Jewish girl (whose name is never mentioned) living in Ahmedabad- the city of walls. The young girl narrates the story of her struggle to reconcile her Jewishness. The novel also traces the lives of three generations of women in an extended Jewish family. The narrator recounts small incidents in the life of her family members and brings out lager issues of concern. It is also rich in observation and insight and written in a highly individualistic style. There is a detailed study of the forces that act upon the community and that divide and unite generations.

The Book of Rachel is a tale about an old woman, Rachel, who is left behind in India by her family that has immigrated to Israel. The novel records the struggles of Rachel to preserve her Jewish heritage. In her loneliness, she takes care of the village synagogue and prepares traditional Bene Israel Jewish food. The synagogue was to be sold to developers with the consent of the synagogue committee. Rachel was opposed to this idea and with the help of her daughter Zephra and Judah the lawyer, who later proposes to marry Zephra, she fights for the synagogue and in the end saves it.

The Book of Esther is loosely based on family history, covering five generations and over two hundred years of a Jewish family living in India. Mingling reality with imaginary world, the novel begins in the nineteenth century with Bathsheba, as she waits for her husband to return from his long absence at their home in Danda, a village on the Konkan coast. The story manoeuvres its way from the Konkan coast to Ahemadabad. Joseph and David inherit Bathsheba’s empathy for things living, beside possessing a remarkable talent as a doctor in Ahemadabad. In his exuberant son the ability to heal is directed towards animals. He establishes a zoo and there are stories about these animals. The novel is a search into the roots . It has a fresh perspective on the Jewish experience in India as it chronicles the fortunes of a gifted family and the search for roots.

The novels highlight the experience of the patriarchal Bene Israel Jewish diaspora in India and some characteristics of diaspora as suggested by William Safran (as stated by Vijay Mishra in “New Lamps for Old”), which are – a dispersal of people or ancestors, retention of collective memory, vision, myth about the original homeland, a feeling of non-acceptance, alienation or insulation in the host society, a strong feeling that the ancestral homeland is their true homeland and a self-conscious definition of one’s ethnicity in terms of their homeland. Esther David probes the various issues with unusual depth and perspicacity. Nona Walia writes that her world has no boundaries, the Jewish experience in India is what she knows best.

Esther David’s characters cover many generations of Bene Israel Jews who have lived, from the time of British Raj to modern communal riots in Gujarat. The main characters grow in each of the novels and bring out their Jewishness effectively. It is through their lives that the cultural, religious beliefs and practices of the community are brought out. “The triumph of Esther David’s novel doesn’t merely lie in the scale of the story but also in her ability to create unforgettable characters and evoke the sights, smells and feelings that go to make a multicultural society” ( Khare 30).

Every writer has a piece of himself written in his novels; Esther David’s novel has a larger representation of her family and life in her novels. “The novel as a literary form offers ample space and scope for writer’s ramblings and self indulgence” (Khare 30).There is autobiographical element in all her novels. She is part of the stories she writes. The crisis faced by the characters in her novel are an extension of the crises she faced in her life as a Jew. The Book of Esther and The Walled City is about her family and herself with a little fictional element.

There are approximately fourteen million Jews in the world and they are considered the wealthiest people in the world. Jews have been the only people who have faced hostility in every country they have settled. The holocaust is one of the most dreaded and terrifying example of anti-Semitism faced by the Jews. The only country they found ambience and were welcomed was India. “India has been the model host country for several communities of Jews, who have never suffered from anti-Semitism at the hands of their fellow country men” (Weil 18).There are several legends related to the arrival of Jews in India. One of them is related to king Solomon’s times, when there was trade relationship between India and Israel, and Jews arrived as merchants. There is Biblical reference in the book of Esther, were it can be cited that King Ahaseurus’s empire extended from Hodu (India in Hebrew) to Kush. There are three major groups of Jews in India: Cochin Jews, the Bene Israel Jews and the Baghdadi Jews. The question still remains unanswered on who among these three groups arrived first in India. The Cochin Jews are said to have arrived from several places- Egypt, Turkey, Palestine, Germany, and even Spain. The Bagdadi Jews had arrived from Iraq and Syria.

The Bene Israel Jews are the largest of Indian Jewish communities. ‘Bene Israel’ literally means the “Children of Israel” and they claim that they came from the “north” as early as 175 BCE. According to them, their ancestors, seven men and seven women, were shipwrecked off the Konkan coast and took refuge in the village of Navagoan, were the local Hindus accepted them. They where drawn to the practices of the Hindus and even followed them. They took up the occupation of oil pressing and came to be known as Shanwar Telis or Saturday Oilmen, because they refrained from working on Saturdays. They lost all their holy books, only remembered their prayers and declare their faith is monotheism. “Today, more than 5,000 Bene Israel live in India, the greater Bombay area. A further 50,000 reside today in the State of Israel” (Weil 18).

Esther David’s writings have been compared to Rohinton Mistry and Bashevis Singer. In her review titled “At Home in India” Rivka Israel opines that through her novels Esther David has done for the Bene Israel community what Mistry had done for the Paris, in her own style. She finds her characters entertaining and the elements of humor and tragedy are equally mixed without any exaggerations. Namita Gokhale in her article “Smudged Boundaries” observes that Esther David examines the multiracial, multiethnic society in a vivid manner. Her novels are cultural examination of the Bene Israel community. In his review of Shalom India Housing Society, Sam Naidu praises her ability to create feisty female characters who flourish in a traditionally patriarchal context.

The introduction focuses on Indian diasporic literature with specific reference to Jewish literature and Esther David as a writer. The first chapter titled “Crises Unleashed” discusses religious and cultural conflict existing in the Jewish community. The second chapter titled “Reinventing Roots” dilates on the search for roots. The third chapter titled “Assertion of Identity” examines the identity crises encountered by the characters. The final chapter summarizes the issues and ideas discussed in the respective chapters.

Esther David has effectively brought out the cultural and religious conflict, identity crises and search for roots encountered by the Bene Israel diaspora which would be discussed under the topic Jewish Experience in India in the Select Novels of Esther David. Randhir Khare is of the opinion that,

It is indeed rare,…, to find a writer in Indian English who has been able to respond both to her immediate environment as well as to a cultural and spiritual heritage that goes beyond recorded history (as Esther David)…(and) it is through such writing that memory is kept alive and individuals and communities can strengthen themselves, retain their special identities and resist the pressures of cultural colonisation (29).

Very little has been said and written in the area of research about the Jews in Indian writing in English. Research has been done from the feministic and gender point of view in the novels of Esther David, so, this would be an attempt to unravel the Jewish diaspora and their experience in India.

The areas on which further research can be done are on feminism or gender studies and relationship in the Bene Israel community.

Chapter I

Crises Unleashed

Crisis is a process of transformation where the old system can no longer be maintained.

S.J.Vinette in Risk Communication in a High Reliability Organization.

Crisis has four defining characteristics. Seeger, Sellnow and Ulmer explain that crises are “specific unexpected, and non-routine events that (create) high levels of uncertainity and threat or perceived threat to an… high priority goals” (21). Thus the first three characteristics explain the fact that crisis is unexpected, creates uncertainties and is seen as a threat to existing norms. Esther David in her novels has dealt with this theme of crisis. The characters face cultural and religious crises in her novel.

Culture, “includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, laws, custom and any other capacities and habits acquired by man(Taylor 1). Sociologists refer to culture as a shared way of thinking and believing that grows out of a group experience and passed on from one generation to another. The Jews were orthodox about their beliefs and customs. During the exodus period, they were scattered all over the world. They assimilated with the people of the foreign lands but held on to their unique cultural and religious practices.

Religion is a feeling that one inculcates from one’s childhood. Sulbha Devpurkar says, “Religion gives a person a sense of belonging, often forming an impenetrable circle around him. It also gives an identity” (26).

The Jewish society is patriarchal. Invisible walls of culture, tradition and religion protects the community, but they are slowly cracking and giving way. This experience is similar to the colonized people’s experience. Esther David has probed this experience in her first novel The Walled City. The novel is set in Ahmedabad, the city of walls. The walls do not just protect the city but also surround the different communities and it’s people. The Jewish community is her concern. “She has explor(ed) the life of the community…(and) reflect(ed)its dynamic interface with neighbouring communities, within a wholly Indian context” (Khare 29).

The first contact with religion in a person’s life takes place while performing rituals. Max Muller has said that the history of religion itself is the history of mankind. Esther David immerses religion with the daily pattern of life of the characters. The ceremony of Kuddish is faithfully observed at the Dilhi Darwaza house, the narrator’s paternal house, were the whole family gathered around the table that was laid with rich traditional dishes. “A white silk tablecloth embroidered with the word shalom is kept aside for Shabbat and the kaddish prayers” (TWC 29).Uncle Menachem said prayers and everyone covered their heads, after which the Sabbath candles were lit and everyone kissed the flame one by one. Simhath Torah, the occasion when the Books are brought out and people danced around the teva, is observed.

The rituals of birth and death is strictly followed. Bar mitzvah is a religious initiation ceremony for a Jewish boy into the community at the age of thirteen. Benajmin, the protagonist’s cousin underwent it. Emmanuel circumcised his son though he did not follow the Jewish religion. In accordance with the rituals at the time of death, Danieldada is covered with earth from Jerusalem, “brown, dry earth of the Promised Land, textured exactly like that of my surrogate motherland” (TWC 104).

The Jews believed in inter-cousin marriage, as it enabled their tribe to increase. Uncle Menachem forbids inter cousin marriage and spoke, “about the genetic effects of inbreeding” (TWC 75). Nobody listens to Granny when she justifies the tradition of cousin-marriages. This is the first act towards modernization and also is a scientific notion of the West. The Bene Israel Jews were breaking age-old practice.

The food habits of the people make the cultural distinction obvious. Food is closely associated with religion. The Jewish dietary laws are strictly followed, wherein the meat of certain animals are forbidden and milk products are not mixed with meat. The Sabbath food is special:

flaked rice, washed well and mixed with rose petals, raisins and sugar. There are dates to remind us of the desert, bananas and apples, unsalted omelettes and sweet puris made of wheat flour and jaggery, deep fried in pure ghee. The jar is full of wine made from black currants soaked the night before, then boiled, cooled and crushed with Granny’s own hands. The bread, freshly baked in the clay oven, is on the table and the salt in a small blue plate (TWC 30).

The narrator’s paternal grandmother prepared delicious modaks stuffed with coconut gratings and gud.

The dressing style of the Bene Israel was more Indian:

Black hats, fez caps, turbans, long beards and tight black suits dominate the family photograph… The girls are in long flowering dresses with large bows in their hair and chains of beads around their necks, and the women in nine-yard saris secured between the legs. They wear nose-rings and heavy anklets, and under the frilled sleeves of their blouses their armlets gleam (TWC 9-10).

The narrator’s paternal grandmother wore nine-yard sari, spoke flawless Marathi, as “Marathi was the language of exile” (Devpurkar 28).They had adopted to the native style that was a mixture of the Gujarathi and Marathi style.

The Council of elders of the family set the standards and made decisions. They considered many things as taboos and un-Jewish like playing with colour on Holi, painting nails, wearing jewellery, fashionable clothes, bindis, anklets. Naomi considers these as vanities and forbids her daughter from following them. She believes “there was something terribly un-Jewish about celebrating the festival of another religion because it meant being unfaithful…” (TWC 36), but Danieldada and the narrator are enthusiastic in celebrating the festival of colours, Holi.

Danieldada, the protagonist’s maternal grandfather, is obsessed with “being like the British” (TWC 27). He works for a British company and is very much affected by the mannerisms of his bosses, he “insisted on eating with a knife and fork” (TWC 37). He “lived without the discipline of Jewish family life” (TWC 37). He is also drawn to the customs of the Indian life. Danieldada in his younger days looks like a:

…pucca British officer in a well-tailored suit, sitting regally on an elaborately carved wooden chair. A short coat, tight at the waist, a tie held with a diamond pin, a rose in his lapel. His tiny dagger- shaped moustache turns up at the corners and his hair is lacquered and combed in waves. He says he used to wear patent leather shoes specially made by a Chinese shoemaker on Relief Road (TWC 37).

Danieldada is attracted to the Hindu culture. He likes celebrating the festivals of the Hindus, but this was considered unJewish. He also follows the practices of the Jews and felt more Jewish than ever, when he celebrates Jewish festivals.

The life of Jewish women is to an extend difficult. “Jewish women should be self-effacing” (TWC 59), was a general rule, which the protagonist is constantly reminded by her mother.. Jewish girls had to take quick baths, “should wear no ornaments, except perhaps a chain, a brooch, a watch or bangles” (TWC 27). Granny lamented, “how difficult it is to be a woman. She feels women are imprisoned within rules, traditions and appearances. It is impossible to crush all your desires and live. The only escape is in forgetfulness” (TWC 155). She drinks whiskey in the evening as her medicine to forget her past.

The girls are preserved for looking after the family. The elders are relieved when their daughter’s refuse a proposal, as they “will be free to look after them” (TWC 156). Naomi, the protagonist’s mother was the protector of her daughter’s virginity.Her mother said that if she questioned everything she would suffer.

Her mother had proposed her father. “In a Jewish community where the unions are between families and not those actually concerned, that must have been an act of rebellion” (TWC 97). She was “a bride who had a mind of her own” (TWC 101) and her mother-in-law dislikes her for this attitude. The protagonist’s “mother broke all conventions” (TWC 100) by working.

The protagonist tries hard to keep away from Subhadra, her best friend. They grow up together.

But the meat of dead animals sticks to my teeth and the camphor on her breath rejects me. Between us there is a wall of dead animals and birds. On hot summer afternoons she comes to my house and then runs back to her own to drink water. Her nose twitches at our kitchen smells. I am ridden with guilt for the ways of my ancestors. I wish I had been born to Subhadra’s mother, I would have then been accepted (TWC 21).

The animosity she faced from other people because she was a Jew made her feel left out. Her classmate Elizabeth looked strangely and accused her of being the ‘you people’(TWC 29). The culture and religious conflict awakens in her when she faces rejection.

The protagonist’s close friends were strict vegetarians and her association with them makes her feel guilty and abhor meat eating. This kindles in her a spirit of detest for her religious practices and the religious conflict erupts. The ways of Judaism confuse her, as there is no image or shape for her God. There was a deep religious conflict raging in her. She is fascinated by the idols of her Hindu friends. She secretly makes an idol of Hanuman out of clay and satisfies her fantasy. She connects Moses with Krishna and her dream boy plays flute like Krishna.

She feels uncomfortable that her God has no form .The protagonist does not feel comfortable because “the synagogue has no idols, while a temple has human figures with weapons and flowers” (TWC 29) and she found “colourful and noisy Hindu temple an easier place to pray in” (TWC 29).

The silence of the synagogue did not appeal to her. Granny suggested a solution “Say the Shema to drive away the bhoots in your mind. Kiss the mezuzah when you enter the house. With the mark on the door, the bad spirits cannot enter.’” (TWC 105) but the scrolls do not help her. She feels a void in their religious practices. The prayers chanted by them were just empty words without meaning. She memorizes Hebrew prayers but “the words mean nothing” (TWC 30), whereas her Hindu friends chanted slogas and knew their meaning.

Leah is the protagonist’s maternal grandmother and her married life is at stake because of her husband’s illicit love affair. She wanted to save her marriage at any cost, so, she consultes a Hindu baba. When she decides to do this she, “was crossing the thin line that had always separated her from things that were not Jewish” (TWC 64). The Banyanbaba had gives her a coin, which she has to place under her husband’s pillow, and she ties a black thread to her neck. These are superstitious beliefs prevalent among the natives and Leah tries it. “[T]he traditions were a raft … to hold on to” (TWC 58) between Leah and dada, but once that broke she was unable to save her marriage and committed suicide.

Samuel, the protagonist’s cousin faces a spiritual crisis. He is, “not interested in any of that Jewish stuff” (TWC 140). He tries to work out his problem with the help of other religions. Mandakini is a Jain friend of the protagonist and Samuel spent time with her, trying to gain help from her. He becomes a vegetarian like her and tries to understand God and religion through her. He is unable to find answers to the questions that were inside him.

The younger generation “love(s) the glamour of the Hindi cinemas” (TWC 79). The protagonist and her cousin imitats the dressing style, dancing and the actions of Hindi heroines. The attraction to the opposite gender is natural for the young Jews, Malkha is attracted to Joel and Samuel is attracted to the protagonist. The elders are vigilant and prevent cousins from falling in love. The protagonist is attracted to Raphael, a Bhagdadi Jew and, “amidst the Hebrew intonations of the congregation,… (she) murmur(s) a Krishna song under …(her) breath.” (TWC 89). She considers the relationship as a ‘Raas Lila’.

Boys are considered the guardian of their family but there is a change in the Bene Israel community. The girls realise that if they did not marry:

…the daughters, must live with our ageing parents and become their walking sticks. For this, we must educate ourselves. The family seems to be losing faith in the boys. There are more rules for us than for them, it is clear that boys will go away and the girls will stay on. They do not want to lose the girls, because we would never dare to go against them as the boys might. The girls must be preserved for the house (TWC 77).

The sons are not forced to carry out their responsibilities and so automatically, the daughters take their place.

The protagonist’s father was not very religious. He respected the belief of the others. Hasmukh Mistry, her father’s assistance brought a “dharm sankat, a religious crisis” (TWC 121),, by asking them to come for a thanks offering to the temple. Her father obliges to him, while her mother did not want to bow to another god. Her father did not revel in other religions but did not reject them. When she questions her father about his religious beliefs he was open to answer her. The narrator’s father never thought of God because he never felt the need to. “He felt Jewish and that is enough for him”(TWC 96) and he felt the presence of God when he met her mother and the day she was born.

Uncle Menachem, the protagonist’s paternal uncle, had a spell of eccentricity. He wanted Prophet Elijah to appear to him. His request was not granted which “made him lose faith and feel cheated” (TWC 129).

Emmanuel, the name means God with us, but he seeks God. He returns to India from London. He faces a religious crisis and wrote letters to Uncle Menachem “about being a Jew in a strange land”(TWC 182). He becomes devoted to other Gods, wears rings of semi-precious stones, becomes vegetarian, fasted, practices yoga and goes around in a purple bathrobe with a shawl thrown over his shoulder. He had two wives, a Jewish and a Hindu. His married life goes topsy turvy due to his activities. In the end he is stabbed to death in the riots. The elders are helpless and could not save him.

Aunt Jerusha is an example of the influence of the West. She is, “fair and slender, in shoes with square heels, narrow black skirt, beige silk shirt, a string of pearls, a bright pink scarf and a neat French roll, she looks just like a picture from one of the English magazines”(TWC 107). Her English mannerism are mixed in her blood and she was unable to let go of it. She refuses to wear sari. Despite her fancy clothes she is spiritual. Unlike the other women of the household who are given away in marriage to increase the community, “she was brought up to be the breadwinner of the family because her father had no faith in the boys” (TWC 108). Proposals are rejected without her consultation. She serves her family and humanity.

The protagonist’s aunts married outside the community. Julie alias Julekha marries a Muslim, while Aunt Sinora marries a Christian. Emmanuel marries a Hindu. The children of the community fall in love outside their religion and community. The elders are unable to stop them and lament “One more of us has gone astray” (TWC 187).

The council of elders feel the effect of cultural influence and have to differ with their beliefs. They feel the “Weakening fortresses” (TWC 103), of Jewish community. The council of elders are split between choosing careers or wedding for girls. The number of children leaving their community was on the rise so they decide that if the mother was a Jew then the child was automatically Jew. The change in their attitude was forced by the apprehension that their community would disappear if they are not flexible in their thinking.

In her foreword to the novel Esther David has written:

I created an imaginary but magical walled city and set it in Ahmedabad, a city of walls, which became symbolic of walls of the city, walls of Indian communities, walls of the Jewish community, walls of the family, and the wall of just being a woman (TWC viii- ix).

The city of Ahmedabad is not left behind in the religious crisis. The walled city is under curfew and the questions asked to individuals are, “What is your religion? Who are you? From where do you come? (TWC 117).The land of peace of Gandhiji is transformed into a river of blood and “the distances between houses extended into the hearts” (TWC 118) of the people. The city was in chaos.

The cross-religious and the cultural crisis affect the city and the characters,

There is communal clashes in the city of Ahmedabad. The protagonist states that, they are burning in the fires of hell. The older Jews are trying to hold on to the integrity of the community while the younger Jews are working their own solutions for their crisis. The influence of the English is very strong. The women characters carry on the tradition and culture while the men were inconsistent. “The burden of Jewish house” (TWC 155) fell on them and they were struggling to retain it.

Esther David’s Book of Rachel throws light on the culture of the Bene Israel Jews who settled along the Konkan coast. The novel “not only portrays the community from within but also examines the pushes and pulls, economic and cultural, which impinge upon it” (Achar 32). The author through the eyes of a lonely widow Rachel schematizes the shrinking Jewish community and the dying culture. Rachel is bound by her cultural, traditional and religious beliefs.

The synagogue is a vital part of her life. The synagogue is an epitome of the Jewish culture. It is not just a monument but stands for the traditions and culture of the Jews. The synagogue “belonged to the community” (BOR 35) and is managed by a committee. Important religious ceremonies of the community take place at the synagogue- marriages, child-naming ceremony, the Sabbath service, circumcision of male child and other festivals. The synagogue is vital to the Jews like the temple is to the Hindus, the church to Christians and the mosque to Muslims.

The synagogue at Danda, where Rachel lived, is comparatively smaller than the synagogues at Thane, Alibaug, Pen or Panvel and it was slowly going to the debris. Rachel mentions the state of the synagogues:

Most synagogues on the Konkan coast were locked and abandoned. Their respective communities held innumerable discussions about their fate, yet most synagogues were slowly turning into ruins. Rachel often heard about thefts of chandeliers, light bulbs or even benches and was relieved that so far there had been no theft from her synagogue (BOR 35-36).

The ruining state of the synagogue is an issue of great concern as it indirectly pointed to the fact that the Jewish culture was in danger of extinction and thus the cultural conflict triggered off.

The food habits of a community also throws ample light on their culture and tradition. The ingredients for the different dishes were a combination of the rich Jewish food and the spice of Indian food. “Coconut (is) the king of Jewish cuisine” (BOR 11). The chief ingredients for each food is of connotative value, like tamarind- a natural cleanser, egg- symbol of life, womb, fertility and creation of life, rice- symbol of fertility, reiterate the imperative value of food in the lives of the Jews. The menu for certain auspicious occasions is specific and there were certain guidelines to be followed while preparing them. Kavita Chinoy is enchanted by the bombils made by Rachel.

Rules and regulations were indispensable in a woman’s life. Women stay in a separate room called Rajodarshan during their menstrual cycle and childbirth. Topics about the body are regarded as taboo. Women are forbidden from touching the ‘teva’, in the synagogue, as they are considered impure because of their menstrual cycle.

Marriage in the community is a time of jubilation. The elders of the family are the authoritative figures in matters related to marriage in the Rachel’s generation, whereas, in her children’s generation there is a shift. The children are responsible for their choices and decisions which reiterates the influence of the West. Among Rachel’s children Aviv agrees to marry Irene, the girl his mother had chosen for him, Jacob fell in love with Ilana a famous singer and married her, while Zephra went in and out of non-committal relationships and finally falls in love and chooses to settle down with Judah.

The Jews are accommodative to some of the ways of the people of the land, as there is close affinity with the Hindu rituals and traditions. The Bene Israel Jews have adapted to the Marathi culture but have held on to their own religious practices. Marathi is their language for communication. Rachel experiences the ambience of her neighbours, “The villagers were caring and affectionate toward her (Rachel) and they appreciated the fact that although she was a Bene Israel Teli she spoke Marathi and knew all the Maharashtrian customs and introduced her as a Konkanasth Brahmin (BOR 5). The touch of the native religion is felt in the songs sung by women at the news of the birth of her first grandchild. The song sung about Prophet Moses is set in “the tune of a popular Marathi kirtan about the birth of Krishna” (BOR 49). Women adapted to the Marathi way of dressing in nine-yard saris. Influenced by Indian rituals, Jews also believed that coconut is auspicious for new beginnings.

The impact of western culture is evident in the generation of children who have migrated to Israel. Zephra’s clothing and habits are westernized. She wore, “…her trademark blue jeans and white tee shirt” (BOR 96). It is considered “a crime to be intimate with a man before marriage” (BOR 137), but Zephra “was not a virgin”(BOR 137) and she had lived with Zvi for five years without exchanging marital vows with him. She is hesitant to discuss this issue with her mother. Young people are not hesitant to publicly display their love, Judah kissed Zephra on the beach.

Zephra faces a cross-cultural conflict. She is unable to let go her inherited culture and is drawn to the new culture of her immigrant land. Her mother “liked her to (be), covered from neck to heel” (BOR 97) and so when in India she tries to wear Indian dresses just to please her mother. On the other hand “it had taken Rachel a couple of years to get adjusted to seeing Zephra in shorts” (BOR 97). However, the real conflict surfaces when Zephra’s relationship with Judah is questioned, where Rachel voiced out her anxiety.

Rachel is open to other cultures and not bound by diminutive culture. Zephra asks her mother if she really minded her wearing western clothes, to which Rachel replied:

‘Does it matter any more?’ she snapped. ‘Yes, it does matter in the Jewishcommunity. For them, you are a juicy topic of conversation, wearing such clothes, showing your legs, walking hand in hand with Judah, kissing him on the beach and what not. What are you up to? This is India, not Israel.’ (BOR 138)

Rachel has adapted to the Konkani culture but has not given up her Jewishness. Her attempt at making a new recipe every day is a way of keeping the Jewishness alive.

The Jews are very religious and Rachel was no exception. She observes the rites of the Sabbath day and other important religious days. The Jews have strong faith in praying to Prophet Elijah, both Rachel and Zephra pray to the prophet, and their prayers are answered. They offered a malida, “an offering to the Prophet Elijah, Eliyahu Hannabi, for a secret wish fulfillment” (BOR 142).

The religious conflict erupts with the decision of the synagogue board to sell it. The synagogue stands as a symbol for the Jewish religion. It the temple of worship of the Jews and the very decision to sell it stands for the loss of religious believes in the community. Religious rites are closely related to the synagogue because many of the family ceremonies take place in the synagogue. The synagogue was in disuse, as “the synagogue had no minyan, no cantor, no service” (BOR 6). Rachel faces the task of safeguarding the religious belief of a whole community.

The shrinking population of Bene Israel Jews in India due to mass migration to the Promised Land helped Mordecai to design his devious plan to sell the synagogue and benefit from the money for his emigration. “Without a community, what was the use of a house of prayer? It was just a monument, a relic of the past” (BOR 13). The conflict arises when there is trade of religious beliefs. The conflict is between Rachel’s Jewish religious faith and Mordecai’s idea to trade religion for personal comfort.

All the characters recite Hebrew prayers but are unable to comprehend the meaning of those prayers. Rachel preferred “Marathi bhajans to the complicated Hebrew prayers” (BOR 13). Judah faces a crisis that is internal and he is not able to comprehend his Jewishness in terms of his religion. He “was uncomfortable with Jewish rituals” (BOR 66) and traditions of the community. He stays aloof to the affairs of the community and only when his help was sought by Rachel he starts to show some interest in the community. He revisits the memories of his childhood days when his parents had been ardent practitioners of Jewish traditions and festivals. The demise of his parents made him an outsider to the community and he had lost all faith in his religion. Judah’s “grandfather had chosen to be cremated, (so) the community had ostracized his family” (BOR 66).

The minyan of ten men that had been a distant dream for Rachel at the beginning becomes a reality when Zephra decided to offer Eliyahu Hannaabi prayers at the synagogue to thank Prophet Elijah for saving her mother’s life. The synagogue is given a face-lift for the ceremony with curtains changed, cobwebs removed, the mezuzah was polished, electric fittings were checked to ensure safety and it was decorated with rose. Judah was part of the minyan of ten men and he “looked like a decent Jewish gentleman” (BOR 155).

The cultural and religious conflicts faced by the characters were minimized by the synagogue being saved. Judah came up with the alternate plan to save the synagogue:

The synagogue could be an ideal place to exhibit Jewish artifacts…our synagogues in India have a lot of material stored away…old shofars to curtains to candle stands to old mezuzahs, Passover plates, kosher knives, circumcision knives and the hazzan robe,…We could collect everything to make our museum (BOR 131).

The conversion of the synagogue into a museum is an act of preserving the Jewish culture and beliefs. Judah and Zephra prove to be resourceful torch bearers of the Jewish culture. Thus The Book of Rachel Amrinder Sandhu of The Tribune writes

that like an intricate tapestry, David weaves all the characters who spread over places, cultures and generations and the book is a document of social and cultural history and covers a wide range of themes and situations.

Esther David probes the history of an entire Bene Israel family in The Book of Esther. She has chronicled the life of the characters in such a way she brings out the culture and religion of the Jews and the life of the characters. “Jewish literature has down the ages, displayed a unique ability to flow in continuity like an underground river. Esther David catches mystical and magical rhythms of life with an individual voice, which enriches the novel” (Khare 23).

The Shabbat, Saturday, is the only day the Jews did not work. The Shabbat “meant festivity extending into the night” (BOE 9), and actually begins from sundown on Friday and continues until sundown on Saturday. On Friday, lamps or candles are lit and prayers are said in Hebrew.

The laws of Kosher of how to cut the birds and animals is followed. They also follow the law of buying land from gentiles. Joseph pay eleven rupees to buy a land from Parbhatbhai to bury his grandfather Solomon and that later becomes a burial ground for the Bene Israel community of Ahemadabad. The Rosh Hashanah, the New Year of the Jews, Yom Kippur— the Day of Atonement were also observed. Baraka, a thanksgiving ceremony, was observed after a good harvest, birth of a child, lamb, calf, or bird, for a new job or for a recovery from illness. When Solomon safely returned from the army a baraka, was organized followed by a malida, ceremony of wish fulfillment prepared for the prophet Elijah.

Marriages in the Bene Israel community are decided by elders and took place in the synagogue. The first civil wedding takes place between Joshua and Naomi marriage and the community opposes it. He stays away from the community because of this and only after he received the Padmashree he is invited to a synagogue and was reconciles with the community. In India, after independence inter caste marriages became common and the Bene Israel community were a part of if. Esther was married to Shree a Hindu in accordance with this practice.

The Bene Israel Jews had certain beliefs like the myth of misleading snakes. Bathsebha had encountered a cobra that chases her like a flying ogre and when she threw a red handkerchief it left her alone. She thinks that “Twilight words sometimes become a reality” (BOE 26) and forbid Solomon from talking about death. The Bene Israelites prayed at the grave of their ancestors. When Solomon returned safely, seven coconuts were broken and the Shema Israel was chanted at their graves at Navgoan.

The Dandekars began breaking many of the laid norms of the community. Bathsheba, is the eldest daughter-in-law of Abraham Dandekar. When she expresses her desire to make quilt on Saturday, the Shabbat day, her father-in-law permitted her. “With this,” according to the narrator, “for the first time, a tradition was broken in the Dandekar house. Many more were to be broken in the years to come” (BOE 9). According to Jewish beliefs, the son’s were supposed to sprinkle handful of earth on the father’s body. Esther was David’s only daughter and on his death she wished to sprinkle earth on her father’s body. The Bene Israel men agreed and another law was broken.

Menashe, Abraham’s second son, wanted to be a painter but “the Bene Israel did not make idols and images— that was the law” (BOE 44). However, he painted the walls of his room with the scene of the prophet descending the rock near Kandala. Another law tumbled in the Dandekar house and this was kept as a secret from the community.

The religious crisis in the family was spured by a number of incidents. It was unJewish to pray to other Gods than Parameswar. When a cobra almost attacked Bathsheba she was struck with fear. The family thought that God was punishing her for working in the fields. Sombhau, their help, consoles her, “Nagdev is the guardian of our fields. He will never harm us as you have dedicated your life to Gauri – the goddess of fertility. The one who gives us an abundant harvest” (BOE 22). He drew her attention to the snake god, Shesh Nag, telling that they could make a wish to the deity for her husband, Solomon’s safe return from the army. She mysteriously was drawn to the deity and wished that “she would offer five coconuts and light a lamp at the shrine” (24) if her husband returned safely and later fulfills it.

The tale of the Shesh Nag did not stop with Bathsheba, her grandson Joseph also has a story related with the snake. During his lonely visit to the forests he befriended the Kolis, the tribal people of the Marathi forest. He is once drawn to a beam of bright light and when he followed it he came face to face with a king cobra. The Kolis believe that only once in hundred years the Shesh Nag could be seen and the person who saw it was blessed. It is also said “A child born to such a family would be nature’s miracle man” (BOE 99). Joseph was considered blessed. The women of the family believed this prophecy, especially Shebabeth, Joseph’s daughter-in-law and Esther’s grandmother.

The Jews consider praying to idols and other God’s a sin. Bathsheba committs it and brought a religious crisis for the family and the village. She is superstitious and bought Shiva, a bullock, because she considered it “was her good omen” (BOE 39). When there was a drought in the village a community yagna was conducted to appease the God’s. It is found through the witch doctor that the pregnant woman, in the Dandekar family was the reason for the lack of rain. The Dandekars were troubled and as a solution “like the rest of the Bene Israel women of the Konkan, they were not to step beyond the threshold alone,…they could leave the house in the company of other women or men of the family” (BOE 60). The religious crisis put a full stop to the freedom of the women.

Strict laws bind the life of women in the Jewish community. Tamara the daughter of Bathsheba sufferes in her mother-in-law’s house by the strict laws imposed on her. “The Dandekars were flexible where the law was concerned” (BOE 70) and Tamara had grown up in such an environment. Abhigail her mother-in-law insisted on her following the rules of menstruation, staying in the Rajodarshan room, but she did not like it. “She was treated like an impure animal for five days, eating from separate plates for the monthly periods” (BOE 74) and on the final day she had to immerse herself head to toe in a tank of cold water to purify her and then enter the household. She is forced to wear gold jewellery which she did not prefer wearing. She is an just an example of the rules that bound the women of the community.

A number of factors also endangered the culture of the Jews. In the earlier times, the men dressed formally like the Englishmen or the Muslims or the Parsis. The girls wore frock and ribbon while the women wore nine-yard saris in the Gujarat or Marathi Paris style. Later the women wore chiffon saris in the style of modern women, with the pallav draped over the left shoulder. The wedding attire has western influence, where women wore veil with their sari and gloves over bangles with high-heeled shoes with anklets. Shebabeth, Esther’s Granny wore six-yard saris and the other women followed her. Esther’s mother, Naomi wore starched cotton and her Aunt Hannah preferred silk. Jerusha wore English clothes. Esther faces the dress crisis. She wore sari, then shifted to jeans and shirt as her life shifted to different parts of the world but she finally feels comfortable in a sari. “The costume change with the generations – from nine-yard saris tied around the waist in a kela where money, or documents can be hidden, to strawberry pink silk saris, diamond pins, silver anklets, kurtas, jeans and sleeveless shirts” (Weil 26).

Joseph was the first to break the traditional form of dressing in dhotis, angarkhas and turbans. He was taken up by the dresses worn by Muslims and parsis “loose, flared pants, a long-sleeved shirt and a long, flowing coat” (BOE 86). He broke the laid codes of dressing, like if everyone wore a mono colour turban he wore multicolored stripped turban. He led the generations to choose their style of dressing. David wore Western clothes even when he became a politician, “he preferred to look like King George” (BOE 119).

The Dandekars spoke Marathi, Konkani or Gujarat but as the younger generation began going to English medium schools, the Bene Israelites started speaking English. Simha, Joseph’s wife learns the Hebrew prayers and their meanings and passes it on to her children.

Esther David narrates an interesting incident about the co-existence of religions in India. In Sagav, near Alibaugh, a hoof mark is found. The Hindus, Muslims and the Bene Israel Jews find it a divine spot. The Hindus consider it a relic of Ghodakdev, the hore-headed divinity, the tenth avatar of Vishnu in the kalki era. The Muslims consider is as the hoof mark of burakh, the human-headed winged horse. While the Bene Israel consider it as the hoof mark of the white stallion that prophet Elijah flew on. People from all the three religions made offerings at this spot, and “the hoof mark was special because it linked together the people of various communities” (BOE 43).

The Bene Israel community was culturally assimilating with the natives. The influence of education and the west is evident. The laws of their ancestor’s were broken and their culture became hybrid. Women were liberated from the clutches of patriarchy and created identities for themselves. The cultural and religious crisis brought out the best in the community.

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