By Ann Rose Greenberg, Marketing Coordinator
I’m currently reading Sadia Shepard’s memoir, The Girl from Foreign. Sadia grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, the child of a Christian father from Denver and a Muslim mother who was born in India and grew up mainly in Pakistan. Her maternal grandmother, Nana, lived with the family. Sadia always knew that her Muslim grandmother grew up in India and as an adult, during Partition, moved to Pakistan, but one day, when Sadia was 13, she discovered that her grandmother, Rahat Siddiqi, was born Rachel Jacobs, a member of Bene Israel. The memoir takes place after Sadia’s grandmother’s death, when Sadia journeys to India to explore her roots.
Bene Israel is a group of people in India who claim to be descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel. The story is that a group of Jews were leaving Israel and got ship wrecked off the coast of India. Thirteen couples survived, and they settled in India. They remembered their heritage and observed many Jewish practices. Another group of people claiming to be one of the lost tribes is Bnei Menashe, a group from India’s North-Eastern border states, who have been in the news lately because a large number of them recently immigrated to Israel. Reading about these lost tribe communities fascinates me.
I grew up with a strong Jewish background, and observant Judaism has always been my way of life. I’ve always been surrounded by other Jews living Jewishly, and I’ve always felt that this made me part of a broader community.
Living as one of the only Jews in a place such as India, is beyond my realm of comprehension. Bene Israel landed in India in the 2nd century BCE. They were “discovered” as Jews in 18th century CE. For the hundreds of years in between, they didn’t know that they were Jews the way we know the term, because they were completely cut off from any other Jews and any evolution of the religion. All they knew is that they were different from the people around them, and that they were carrying on their ancestors’ traditions. I give them huge props for maintaining their traditions, and for embracing our traditional Judaism once it was taught to them.
I practice Orthodox Judaism, and though it’s something I’m committed to, it’s also sometimes hard to stick with it. Sometimes I want to go out with friends on Friday nights or attend concerts and events that are on Saturdays. It would be nice to be able to go out to lunch with my friends in any restaurant on the block and order more than a Diet Coke. I’m of the opinion that everyone should do what they are comfortable with when it comes to religious observance. What’s right for me is Orthodox Judaism; it may not be what’s right for you. I think what’s most important is that the heart of the traditions carry on from generation to generation, because if we don’t have that anymore, what are we left with?
I respect the members of the Bene Israel and Bnei Menashe, because though they didn’t have the Talmud interpreting the minute details of Jewish practices, they remembered their parents’ traditions, and they passed them down from generation to generation. They were alone in India, a small group surrounded by people who were not like them. And instead of fully adopting the traditions of their neighbors, they found a way to live together with their neighbors while carrying on their differentness. They took great pride in their Judaism and their Synagogues. They made do with the resources they had in terms of observing Jewish customs, and they are their non-Jewish neighbors respected each other for their different traditions.
In The Girl from Foreign, it’s mentioned that the Bene Israel Jews didn’t eat beef out of respect for their Hindu neighbors. Another part of the book talks about a time when there was fighting in a town, and the non-Jewish residents stood in front of the Synagogue and made a chain to protect it. I’m not, by any means, an expert on these groups, but it seems to me that they found the balance that so many Jews today struggle with. They found a way to be part of their geographic community and culture while staying true to their heritage and religion. So kudos to them- I consider them an inspiration.