Who is Rachel Jacobs? The question grips Sadia Shepard from the moment she discovers the pin in her grandmother Rahat’s dresser inscribed with that name. Soon, in pieces, the story tumbles forward: years ago, for the love of her husband, Rachel became Rahat, lived as a Muslim in Pakistan, and buried her ancestry as a member of the Bene Israel, a rapidly dwindling community of Indian Jews. What was her grandmother’s previous life like, and where is this culture that she left behind? These are the twin topics that inspire The Girl from Foreign, Sadia Shepard’s thoughtful and tender account of her search for her grandmother’s religious and cultural identity and, through that, the path toward her own.
Traveling to India to study the Bene Israel on a Fulbright Scholarship, Shepard’s journey moves beyond the crumbling synagogues and small towns of Jewish India and into the homes and lives of the people she meets. Affectionate and often funny, The Girl from Foreign is in many ways a love letter to India, with all its rich colors and vibrant energy, and to its warm and idiosyncratic citizens, from the Bene Israel community who welcomes Shepard with open arms to her charmingly odd housekeeper Julie. Most especially, Shepard is shaped by her relationship with Rekhev, a friend and fellow filmmaker who challenges and inspires her, and helps her unravel the mysteries of Indian culture.
Studying histories large and small, Shepard’s search for Rahat’s life and beliefs leads her to question her own, and soon her identity becomes as elusive as that of her grandmother. Her Jewish ancestors in India, her Muslim relatives in Pakistan, her Christian family in America—Shepard is the product of a diverse heritage, but as an adult she is forced to answer a question she never thought she would face: Is it possible for her to truly embrace all three faiths?
While the history of the Bene Israel is fascinating, the story Shepard tells is more than a piece of scholarship; she is searching for her beloved grandmother’s life story and an essential piece of her own ancestry and her emotional investment in the project imbues her writing with a dynamic vitality. Her professional experience also serves her narrative well. Her skill as a documentary filmmaker enriches the book in the lovely photographs that illustrate the chapters as well as the careful attention to detail and thorough background research. A balance of history and heart, The Girl from Foreign is a compelling read and a careful meditation on the multiplicity of identities and merging of religions in today’s ever shrinking world—all captured in the lives of two fascinating women, two generations apart.
Sadia Shepard is a writer and filmmaker who resides in New York City. In 1997, she graduated from Wesleyan University and in 2000 from the Stanford Documentary Film Program. In 2001 she traveled to India on a Fulbright Scholarship to research the Bene Israel; her film In Search of the Bene Israel was the result of her work there and premiered at the 2009 New York Jewish Film Festival at Lincoln Center. She has taught writing at the Wesleyan Writers Conference and at Columbia University and lectures widely about religious tolerance, the Bene Israel community, and growing up in an interfaith home. Her most recent documentary as producer, The September Issue, won the Excellence in Cinematography Award at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.
Q. You traveled to India to document the Bene Israel on film and in photographs, some examples of which are included in the book. Have you had the opportunity to screen your film or have a showing of the photos? What has the response been?
When I was beginning my research on the Bene Israel I stumbled across a photograph in a book of a woman sitting on an old oil press in a rural region of Maharashtra, near a town called Revdanda. When I visited the area, I brought that book with me and showed it to people, and they were so amazed—many knew her personally and didn’t know that her image had ended up in a book. I’m fascinated with the ongoing life of images and enjoy working collaboratively with the subjects of my pictures. As I began to photograph Bene Israel places of worship, celebrations, and daily life I asked each person how they would like to be photographed and returned on subsequent visits with prints. I love the idea that some of those photos adorn their walls now, and some are in The Girl from Foreign. Towards the end of my time in India, I exhibited my photographs at Cymroza Art Gallery in Mumbai, and more recently, at the Roy and Frieda Furman Gallery at Lincoln Center in New York City. It was wonderful to have the chance, in Mumbai and in New York, to answer a question visually that I’m frequently asked: “What do Indian Jews look like?”
My documentary film In Search of the Bene Israel tells the story of the community at this pivotal moment in their history, as its members struggle with the difficult decision of whether to stay in India or join the world’s Jews in Israel. Structured like a travelogue, the film interweaves impressionistic film footage with video interviews and observational material, through which we come to know a family who takes care of a rural synagogue, a Jewish Indian filmmaker working in Bollywood, and a young couple on the eve of their marriage and departure for Israel. The film has screened widely at film festivals in the United States and Europe, at all my public appearances in the United States and India, and will soon be broadcast on NDTV in India. It is also available at www.sadiashepard.com. Many people have told me that after reading about the characters in the book they were excited to see them walking and talking on screen.
Q. What prompted you to write a book detailing your search for your grandmother’s roots? How is storytelling in print different from storytelling on film? What is lost and gained by moving between the mediums? How does your approach to writing compare to that of filmmaking?
As a teenager, I learned that my Pakistani grandmother Rahat was originally born Rachel Jacobs, a member of Mumbai’s Bene Israel Jewish community. I discovered that she left her community and her faith when she eloped with my Muslim grandfather at seventeen, raising her children in Pakistan and later moving to the United States to join my parents when I was born. Before she died in 2000, she asked me to promise that someday I would return to the city of her birth. In 2001, I left New York for Mumbai, with very little idea of what I was getting into. What I found, and what I learned about myself, was far more complicated than I had anticipated, and as I waded through my first few months in India I began to keep a journal, take photographs, and shoot video footage. I thought of all three as forms of note taking, just trying to make sense of what I was seeing and experiencing. At the end of eighteen months I had an entire suitcase filled with diaries, film rolls, and shot videotapes.
My work in India has ultimately taken three forms—a photo essay, a documentary film, and The Girl from Foreign. Each medium allows for different aspects of the story to be told, but none of these mediums are the whole narrative. In the photos, I was able to explore the imprint of India on the Bene Israel and vice versa and create a contemporary photographic record of the community. I’m fascinated by how people present themselves to be photographed; I’m interested in what aspects of our lives and identities we choose to highlight. In my documentary film In Search of the Bene Israel I was able to explore the tension I see in the community between their desire to stay in India versus joining their co-religionists who settled in Israel; many of the people I interviewed told me that India is their motherland, but Israel is their fatherland, and they feel torn between the two. And in the book I was able to show aspects of the story that are much more personal, less linear and more intimate in scale.
Much of my writing process was an act of reconstruction; not just of my own memories, but of the various impressions and experiences I had gathered in film, video, and scribbled notes. Both writing and filmmaking involve gathering sketches and impressions and then distilling them into a cohesive narrative. Both require creating scenes, which become the building blocks of the larger story. Film requires a more linear, quicker path; what I often think of as a train speeding on a track. Prose allows you more room for left turns and tangents, but your charge is to bring the reader with you in words; your toolbox doesn’t include images and sound. Film and photography, as well as nonfiction writing, are acts of constructing reality out of found materials. So for me, each informs the other.
Q. While your search was focused initially on your grandmother’s life and religion, much of the book deals with how that search shapes your own life and approach to religion. Do you see this book as more about your grandmother or yourself? Where is the line drawn between the two?
When I arrived in Mumbai, much of my family history, and India itself, was a mystery to me. My grandmother had asked me to “tell her story,” but I didn’t know what that story was. It was only through months of study–and the opportunity to visit the places that shaped her–that I came to understand her story, how to tell it, and how it might inform my own life. The secrets that I uncovered, as well as the smaller details of her life in Mumbai, have had a profound impact on me. I was surprised to discover that my journey, although it takes place primarily in India and Pakistan, is in some ways a very American one—what I call in the book “that most American of journeys: a search for the roots of my own particular tree.” Simultaneously, I discovered a deep sense of connection with India, a country that I had grown up hearing about but had never lived in.
While living in Mumbai, it was comforting to recognize that though my grandmother was no longer alive, that it was still possible to maintain and nurture a meaningful connection with her through understanding her story. This experience transformed my first awareness of grief into a kind of silent conversation that stays with me until this day. So much of what I had heard about India growing up felt like a myth—my grandmother told me about the bazaars, silver markets, and beaches of her youth—and here was the chance to experience them firsthand, as an adult. This book is an exploration of her life and its effect on my own, but is very much the story of a young woman’s journey; I’m certain that my grandmother would have written a different book, would have included different stories.
Q. In what ways does your grandmother continue to influence your life? What do you think her response to your book would be?
I think many of us have mothers or grandmothers who shy away from the spotlight, who choose to devote their lives to supporting their children and grandchildren’s studies, careers and households. My grandmother was one of these women, and the nearly two years I spent in India afforded me the chance to recognize all of the other roles she inhabited–as daughter, sister, nurse, wife, mother, Jew, Muslim, Indian, and Pakistani. I think my grandmother would be initially embarrassed, but secretly deeply pleased, that this book has explored some of the central issues of her life that so many others face; of feeling caught between religious and cultural identities, of how the identity of your girlhood and young womanhood can be supplanted by marriage and family life. I think that she would be very happy to know that the culture she left behind as a teenager has become such an active part of my life. And I think that she would be excited by the opportunities available to her granddaughter; to live a life that is informed by multiple traditions without the fear of being ostracized. My grandmother has served as a kind of guide for me, and I often feel that she’s watching out for me. I felt it keenly during my early days in India and at certain moments still. Very rarely, she still appears to me in dreams.
Q. Some of the relationships you formed in India, in particular with your friend Rekhev, seem incomplete, or could be interpreted in multiple ways. Was this intentional, and are you in contact with any of the friends you made while living there?
My hope was to represent my relationships in India in the episodic and incomplete ways that connections between people often develop. I was very interested in exploring the ambiguity that can exist between two people from different worlds who are attempting to navigate largely unchartered territory. How does one meeting affect the next? What are the consequences if an idea or a mannerism is lost or changed in translation? In the case of Rekhev, our relationship has become clearer over the passage of time. We have now arrived at a comfortable, close friendship, and continue to trade ideas about projects and ideas.
I think there is always a danger when someone comes from far away to create a project about a culture they are not familiar with—even if they have ties to the culture. There’s always a possibility that their commitment may not be as lasting or as penetrating as even they might like. It’s something that I’m very aware of in my work, and remain grateful to Rekhev for consistently reminding me of. My life continues to be enriched by relationships such as those depicted in the book that far outlasted the length of my stay in India, and I feel very grateful for that.
On a recent trip to India I attended a Malida ceremony to celebrate the birth of my friends Sharon and Sharona’s new baby girl, Emunah. I looked around the room and felt very lucky to share in this ritual, and to be considered part of their network of family and friends. Sharon continues to indulge my questions about religion—only now, via e-mail.
Q. Could you explain how Bene Israel Judaism compares with other forms of Judaism? With the steady migration to Israel, how much longer can the Bene Israel community exist in India? Do the Indian migrants to Israel maintain a life that centers on Indian traditions or are they assimilated into the larger culture?
Most of the Bene Israel community’s Jewish practices are the same as one might find in Jewish congregations elsewhere, but there are of course regional variations and traditions that are a result of their long immersion in Indian society. It is fascinating to see how Bene Israel culture has been strengthened, not diluted, by their relationship with India and their harmonious relationships other religious traditions. India is one of the only places in the world where Jews have escaped anti-Semitism.
One of the most unique aspects of Bene Israel Jewish culture is their music—the words are Hebrew but the melodies distinctly Indian. Many of these songs they were taught by the Cochin Jewish community of Kerala. Before a wedding, Bene Israel brides and grooms always have a henna ceremony, where their hands are decorated with colorful, intricate designs to bless them for their upcoming union, much like Hindus and Muslims in the region. During holidays it is not uncommon to find synagogues decorated with flower garlands, the way you might find in a Hindu temple or Sufi shrine. One of the most unique Bene Israel practices is the Malida ceremony, where a sweet dish of flattened rice and coconut decorated with five symbolic fruits is prayed over and offered to the prophet Elijah. This is a ritual that takes place when a person wants to ask prophet Elijah for a wish, or to thank him for the fulfillment of a wish, and it is a tradition that continues to be practiced by Bene Israel in Israel.
I have read that as late as the early 1800s, Bene Israel used to abstain from eating beef out of deference to their Hindu neighbors, for whom the cow is sacred. On Saturdays, their village neighbors would tend their livestock for them, knowing that the Bene Israel did no work on this day in observance of their religion. In certain parts of Western India, you will occasionally find Bene Israel graves in Muslim burial sites, in places where perhaps there was no accessible Bene Israel graveyard available. Today, almost all of the synagogues in Bombay are located in predominantly Muslim areas. This is a factor of changing demographics; when the Jews relocated to other parts of the city or to Israel, others moved in. But it’s significant to note that to this day, the Indian Jews have not experienced any kind of persecution in India. A synagogue caretaker in Mumbai told me one day, during the height of the Arab-Israel War in 1967, a line of Muslim shopkeepers held hands across the gate of the Magen David synagogue, worried that it might come to some kind of harm. Nothing happened.
Jews have risen to the highest levels of Indian society and played a small but significant role in Indian culture. Mumbai had an Indian Jewish mayor, Dr. Elijah Moses, in the 1930s, nurtured the work of celebrated Bene Israel poet Nissim Ezekiel, and boasted its own supermodel, Rachel Reuben, in the 1980s. My grandmother feared that with the steady migration from India to Israel her community might no longer exist in India, and I arrived with this same preoccupation. While there are only about 5,000 Jews currently living in India today, I see a less linear pattern of migration than I initially did. In small but significant numbers, I am now seeing a much greater flow of populations between the two countries; our increasingly globalized world means that it is possible to go back and forth between identities and national borders in ways that are unprecedented. Leah and Daniel, the young couple who get married towards the end of the book, now have a young son who divides his time between India and Israel. So he is truly growing up with a foot in multiple worlds, something that would not have been possible even one generation ago. I think that there will be a Bene Israel presence in India, small but significant, for years to come.
The degree to which Bene Israel adapt and assimilate to life in Israel of course varies widely from family to family, and has a great deal to do with when they migrated from India. Some of my grandmother’s family members moved to Israel in 1948; the youngest members of their families are third generation Israelis. Others, who moved just a few years ago, may naturally have more immediate ties to India. There are a number of Bene Israel synagogues in Israel, where those who wish to worship in the style they grew up with in Mumbai can do so. But Bene Israel Jews attend other kinds of synagogues as well. There are a number of outlets, both secular and religious, for the Indian Jewish community settled in Israel to connect with Indian culture if they wish to—in the Indian grocery stores where they buy spices, in the DVD shops where they find the latest Bollywood films, and of course, in the homes of their friends and relatives, where Marathi and Hindi is spoken alongside English and Hebrew.
Q. You considered not returning to the United States—what brought you back? How often do you return to India?
In writing this book I learned a great deal about my grandmother’s life, but also about the importance of storytelling to preserve traditions, history, and memory—about the importance of learning about our past in order to create an informed present. Living in India, I was able to reconnect with the places that meant the most to her and that informed her as a person. As I began to spend more and more time in Bombay, the city transformed for me from a city of memory to a city very closely tied to my own life and to my future. During this time, toward the end of the eighteen months I spent living in India, I strongly considered making Bombay my home. But one of the most important things that I learned in India was the importance of family and of community. My parents and brother live in the United States, as well as the friends and places that I have grown up with. Ultimately, I decided to base myself in New York, with the hope that I might continue to spend time and create projects in India. I now try to go back about once a year.
Q. You were labeled “the girl from foreign” in a literal sense while in India, but is that how you would describe yourself in a metaphorical sense? Do you feel foreign or familiar within all the countries that combine to create your family’s history, or do you inhabit a middle ground between them? Do you see strength in having such a varied ancestry?
While I was living in India I noticed that people would often refer to places outside of India as “it’s in Foreign” or “she’s from Foreign,” and that always intrigued me; the idea that “Foreign” was a singular entity, somewhere unfamiliar that you could visit or be from. Much of the book is an observation of contemporary India through my eyes, that of a young Western woman and I wanted to preface this inquiry with a phrase that stems from how I was seen as that observer. The notion of translation, and what gets lost or transformed in communication, is a running theme throughout the book, as is a repeated questioning of what it means to be “foreign.” The Jews of India are foreign to India yet have been settled there comfortably for two millennia. My grandmother’s Jewish background made her foreign in the context of her husband’s Muslim family and yet she was wholly a part of it. And when my mother arrived in the American Midwest in 1964 she did so through a foreign exchange program. While I was in India and Pakistan, I often felt that I was “foreign,” and yet I also felt deeply and increasingly tied to my surroundings.
As Americans, I think we are all products of a hybrid culture, and are always fashioning an identity out of the disparate elements that have formed to create us. When we travel, certain aspects of our senses of self are highlighted, or come more sharply into focus. The strength of having a varied ancestry is to have an opportunity to share ideas and experiences with those who might be different from us, whom we might not always agree with, or whom might not agree with one another. I have cousins settled in both Israel and Pakistan—two very different countries established at almost the same time. Because of my grandparents’ marriage, their descendants, both Jews and Muslims, are tied to one another, in some small way. When I read the news, I’m reminded of the different viewpoints behind each story, the human side behind every headline. This strikes me as an unexpected gift of having a mixed background.
My family may be unusual, but this plurality is something we all share as Americans, no matter what our backgrounds are. What my experience in India taught me is that there is a great deal to be learned from communities such as the Bene Israel with plural or hybrid identities. In order to move beyond this idea of a clash of cultures we must recognize that no religion—whether it be Judaism, Christianity, or Islam—is a monolith. There is a tremendous diversity in the way that faith is practiced.
Q. What was your family’s response to your book?
My mother, father, and brother have been a remarkable source of support throughout this entire process—I feel blessed to have had the chance to explore hidden aspects of our history with their permission and encouragement. Now that more of my family is reading the book it is becoming a source of reconnection and impetus for discussion. Like many families of the South Asian diaspora, we have relatives settled across the globe from India and Pakistan to the United States, Canada, the U.K., and elsewhere. In recent months I’ve been contacted by cousins and distant cousins settled all over the world. Many of them tell me that they never knew many aspects of the family memories I explore in the book. Every family has secrets or stories that are retold in different ways by different people.
Many of my younger cousins in Pakistan, including some who are in the book, weren’t familiar with the histories of our grandparents and great-grandparents, and reading about them has prompted them to ask their older relatives to tell them more. When I went to visit my uncle Waris after the publication of The Girl from Foreign he told me: “I may not agree with everything you wrote, but you made clear that this was a story told from your own perspective, and no one can take that away from you. I’m very proud of you.” My cousin Sartaj, whom my grandmother consulted on religious matters toward the end of her life, told me: “Honoring the promise you made to your grandmother is a blessing.” In the Jewish tradition, what might be called a mitzvah. It meant a great deal to receive these affirmations from my relatives, whom I continue to learn from.
Q. How has the Jewish community in Mumbai been affected by the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November of 2008?
Nearly two hundred people died in the attacks on Mumbai, most of them Indians—Hindus and Muslims alike. The terrorists also targeted foreign tourists, international businesspeople, and Israeli and American Jews, killing six at the city’s Chabad center—the first time that Jews have been singled out and massacred on Indian soil. When the terrorists walked unimpeded into the heart of Mumbai, they exposed the vulnerability of this famously hospitable city.
While the Chabad house targeted by the terrorists served mostly Israelis and other visitors passing through Mumbai, there are also two distinct Jewish communities with deep roots in the city. In addition to my grandmother’s community, the Bene Israel, there are Jews known locally as Baghdadis, who immigrated to India from Iraq as merchant traders during the period of the British Raj. While no Indian Jews were targeted in the attack, certainly some Bene Israel and Baghdadi Jews, including my friend Sharon, knew Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife Rivka well and feel their loss especially keenly.
There was a period of time after the attacks where Jewish organizations, congregations, and schools felt the need to be on higher alert, but I was happy to see, on a recent visit, that the doors of the community are open once more. In this age of turbulence we all need to be careful, but the spirit of cooperation and commerce across cultural and religious lines that has long characterized the city of Mumbai continues on.“