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Book Review: Shalom India Housing Society by Esther David

I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised to learn that there were Jewish communities in India. After all its close enough to the Middle East that it would have been easy for people to end up there accidentally or on purpose during one of the many times of forced exile. According to legend over 2,000 years ago a shipwreck landed a group of Jews fleeing Greek persecution off the coast of India. Although they lost many of their books during the ship wreck they preserved an oral tradition of major prayers like the declaration of faith, Shema Yisroel, and the prayer to Eliyahu Hannibi or the prophet Elijah.

As strict adherents to the laws dictated by God to Moses, Jews are prohibited from worshipping idols or graven images of anything or anyone. However in her introduction to her most recent novel, Shalom India Housing Society published by The Feminist Press, Esther David informs us that the Bene Israel Jews (Children of Israel) of India had taken the prophet Elijah to their hearts. Perhaps, she speculates, that on finding themselves living in a country surrounded by images of a multitude of gods, elders created the cult of Elijah in order to help preserve Judaism.

Elijah not only will herald the coming of the Messiah, but each year he visits every Jewish household during the Passover feast to drink from the glass of wine left as his offering. At one point during the Seder, as the ritual Passover meal is known, the door to the house will be opened to let Elijah know that it's all right for him to enter and have his drink. In Bene Israel houses, unlike those of other Jews, there's usually a picture of the prophet on a wall of the house. It's common practice for these families to offer prayers to Elijah, asking him to intervene in their lives to help them with everything from their love lives to making sure their children do well in school. Sometimes he answers and other times he doesn't, and sometimes his answers don't come in quite the way hoped for.
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In the twenty-first century the descendants of those shipwrecked have seen their numbers depleted by immigrations to Israel, but they continue to attend synagogue, fall in love, and live their lives watched over by the spirit of Elijah. Following the religious riots of 2002 the Bene Israel in Ahmedabad created a distinct community for themselves by constructing the Shalom India Housing Society apartment complex. While not specifically targeted by either Muslim or Hindu, the Jews felt at risk from mob violence when it was observed how a group of radical Hindu's stripped a Muslim boy and then killed him when they found he was circumcised. It was hoped that by living in an area designated as Jewish they would be safe from being mistaken for Muslims.

David guides us through the Jewish community in Ahmedabad by introducing us to the various inhabitants of the Shalom India Housing Society. It's only fitting, because of the importance that the Bene Israel people place on him, that we first see their households through the eyes of the prophet Elijah. It's the first night of Passover and Elijah is making the rounds of all the Jewish households in the world in order to drink the glass of wine left for him. As his spirit enters each of the various apartments in the building he comments on the quality of the offering left for him (he's not above jogging the occasional elbow here and there if it looks like somebody is being less than generous). While his pleasure at such offerings of Chivas Regal, neat gin, and a good red wine are quite genuine, he's also disturbed by the disquiet he senses in more than a few apartments.

The first few chapters focus on the preparations being made for the costume competition being held at the synagogue for the younger people. As is the case in so many families conflicts differences between the more traditional older generation and the modern younger generation are causing no end of problems. Leon wants to dress as his favourite Bollywood starlet, complete with skirt, a blouse of his mother's, and a padded bra. However his father takes one look at him, adjusting his breasts and shaking a hip, and he's reaching for his cane to beat his child. Leon's mother had hoped that her son's fascination with women's clothes and make-up as a boy was just a child's playing, but when he continued to experiment with her clothes and cosmetics as a teenager, even the most doting of mothers can't help but realize it's more than just a phase.
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Rivka and Yehuda aren't the only ones to be troubled by their child, as parents through-out the complex look on aghast as their children push against convention. While it's one thing for Yael to disobey her mom and aunt by wearing a backless shirt that also shows off her waist and a dancing girl's skirt, it's another thing altogether when Juliet wanted to marry Rahul. As there weren't enough Jews for all the apartments in the Shalom India Housing Society, it had been decided that Block B would be made available to sympathetic non-Jews like Rahul's family the Abhirams. The Abraham and Abhiram families were close, and their children had played together since they were toddlers, but it was still a shock to everyone when Juliet was caught in bed with Rahul.

Of course it's not only young people who have troubles in the Shalom India Housing Society. Mother-in-laws quarrel with their son's wives, husbands worry about what their wives are getting up to when their away, and a lonely widow debates about whether she could possibly date a non-Jew. While there's something genuinely exotic reading about Jews wearing Saris and talking about Bollywoood movies, the people in this book aren't made out to be anything extraordinary. This is their life and they have been leading it for two thousand some years. David has done such a wonderful job in bringing these people to life that while we may not be able to identity with the idea of an arranged marriage, or the need to marry within one's own community, we can still relate to the feelings of the characters we meet.

Shalom India Housing Society brings a community alive through the lives of its people. David has opened the doors of the apartments in this Bene Israel complex, and like the prophet Elijah we are able to slip in unseen and sit at their tables and observe their lives. While we may not get the opportunity to imbibe quite as much as the prophet does, (and boy is he hung over the day after the first Seder) we are treated to a healthy feast for the senses as we become everybody's confidant and party to all of their secrets. By the end of the book you'll know all about this group of Indian Jews and their unique circumstances which sees them having both maintained their traditions and embraced the culture of the country they've settled in. A delight to read, and an education as well, Esther David's new book is like being dropped down into the midst of an extended family's reunion. You might not know everybody when you first get there, but it's only a matter of time before you feel right at home.

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