When I was growing up in India I was always referred to as the "Girl From Foreign". This could have been for two reasons, one, I was born in the UK and do have Scottish ancestry, but more likely I was referred to in that way because I was paler than most Indians and had (still have, lol) blue eyes which again is not a common feature amongst us Indians. (In India people often refer to places outside of India as 'it's in foreign' or 'she's from foreign'," 'foreign' simply denotes something or somewhere unfamiliar.) So when I spied Sadia Shepard's book "Girl From Foreign", the title seemed to be calling my name and I knew I just had to read it!
Sadia Shepard got that moniker when she traveled to India from the US in search of her maternal grandmother's Indian-Jewish ancestry. You see, growing up Sadia always believed her grandmother Rahat was a Muslim. She didn't know that she was originally Jewish (from India) and had converted to Islam to become her Muslim-Pakistani husband's third wife (Sadia's grandfather) and that her birth name was Rachel Jacobs. When Sadia accidentally found out one day about her grandmother's birth religion, it complicated her own...she was now the product of a Jewish-Indian grandmother, a Pakistani-Muslim mother and an American-Christian father. So, who was she really? This is a conundrum many kids from inter-religious marriages face: Who are we?
To avoid this many parents decide before hand what religion their child is going to follow. While this may result in fewer headaches when it comes to choosing a school, a name etc. is it really fair to the child to pick out a religion for him/her? Shouldn't the child be exposed to both religions and then allowed to choose one when they are able to make an informed decision? For that matter, if a person is born into two religious traditions is it imperative to pick one over the other? Is there that much conflict between religions that we're unable to embrace more than one?
Anyway, to come back to the book, as Sadia's grandmother lay on her deathbed she made Sadia promise to learn more about her family heritage and therein lay the genesis of Sadia's trip to India to find out more about the Bene Israeli community of Indian Jews (thought to be one of the lost tribes that fled Israel two thousand years ago and landed, shipwrecked, on the shores of India.)
Although this is very much Sadia's grandmother's story( a love story at that), it is also a book about heritage and if and how it shapes you as a person. This made fascinating reading for me because, like Sadia, I have mixed ancestry, although, unlike her, I don't feel compelled to choose one or the other, for I believe it is possible to belong to more than one place and to be part of more than one culture. However, I, too, have struggled with identity, often feeling like a foreigner in my own country because of how I am perceived. However, as the world becomes one global village, hyphenated identities and mixed religious traditions are going to be more the norm than the anomaly.
Since the Mumbai terrorist attacks which carries the dubious distinction of being the first one in which Jews have ever been attacked on Indian soil, people cannot read enough about Bombay's Jews. This book will help the reader understand who they are, where they come from and where their future might lie.
A thoughtful read.
To gain more insights into the lives of India's Baghdadi Jews please tune in to this segment of Kamla Bhatt's highly informative show,"The Kamla Bhatt Show"