Until I moved to India, I’d never viewed being Jewish as something unusual. I grew up in an upper middle class Boston suburb, where Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were public school holidays for the entire district. The cafeterias in middle school and high school served matzoh all week long every Passover. We grew up thinking that Hanukkah was just as big of a deal as Christmas.
After college, in New York City, my husband and I synagogue-hopped with friends during the High Holy Days and ate kosher Chinese with his Orthodox cousins in Queens. We were as easily, transparently Jewish as we were young and ambitious and naive about the world. We took our religion, and the community that came with it, for granted. We didn’t know any better. We had never been “other.” I couldn’t even imagine what that felt like…until “other” became the very essence of my relationship with the world around me.
In India, we were seen as different the minute we stepped off the airplane. Hyderabad hadn’t yet experienced the influx of Westerners so many other Indian cities had. Seventy percent Muslim, the city had wanted to secede and become part of Pakistan (look on a map and you’ll see why such a wish was impossible). We were not only white; we were Jewish in a predominantly Muslim city. I saw women in burkas and felt even more like an outsider than I had just being an American in India.
But no one we met knew what “Jewish” was. As white people, we were automatically categorized as Christian. My driver, Venkat, with limited education and English skills but endless enthusiasm for learning about Western culture, simply could not wrap his head around the fact that Jay and I went to temple to observe our faith. The only temples he knew were Hindu; the only white people he knew went to church.
During the holidays, strangers would stop us on the street and shout “Happy Merry Christmas, Sir and Ma’am!” We received dozens of Christmas cards and gifts from friends and colleagues. It was clear our new community wanted to celebrate with us, but most attempts we made to explain “Jewish” and “Hanukkah” were met with confusion. We were Western, therefore we must celebrate Christmas. End of story. In the end, we stopped trying to swim upstream and graciously accepted our Merry Christmas wishes and bouquets of daisies dyed red and green.
It wasn’t until we traveled to Kerala and visited the Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi that I realized how deep and intrinsic Judaism was to my identity—and how much I’d missed feeling connected to my faith. Located in “Jew Town,” the orthodox Paradesi synagogue is one of only a handful of functioning synagogues in all of India and one of the only ones with a minyan. No rabbi is present, but their services are led by community elders.
Setting foot in that synagogue, in the middle of India, I felt home in a way I still can’t quite describe. Even though we were still so firmly and obviously in India, a sense of home washed over me like warm, calming rain. I looked at the Hebrew letters with eyes that had grown accustomed to Sanskrit and Hindi and felt connected again to a part of me I’d been ignoring since we left the United States. Being Jewish wasn’t just about what I believed, but an intrinsic part of who I was.
It was truly amazing how this religion I’d often neglected, had taken for granted or passed over in favor of working and playing and being young in New York, had suddenly grounded me in faith and familiarity right in the middle of a country I’d been struggling for months to find my place in. India, so foreign and beautiful and confusing, was also—at least for that moment, in that tiny, ancient white synagogue in Kerala’s Jew Town—a place that felt like home.
I was sitting on the couch in my tiny apartment, trying to decide between takeout Thai and takeout sushi for dinner, when my husband walked in with a strange, glazed look in his eyes and announced we were moving to India.
India, the country.
We were newlyweds. I was finishing my graduate degree and dreamily planning a future that involved a writing career, a couple of kids, and a brownstone in Brooklyn, not necessarily in that order. My life was defined by the categories I fit into: a writer, a newlywed, a city girl. Being a housewife in a foreign country ten thousand miles from home was not supposed to be one of them.
Still, I’d promised to love and trust and follow my husband to the ends of the earth. I got my diploma, quit my job, and stepped onto an airplane with my eyes wide shut, naive and ill-prepared for the journey I was about to take.
Everything I did in my new role as an expat housewife was wrong. My attempts to fit into my new culture were awkward and half-hearted. I spent too much money on groceries ($20 dollars for an expired jar of Ragu pasta sauce), let the laundry pile up, stared sullenly into space at my husband’s work dinners instead of being the charming, sunny corporate wife I thought I’d be. Without my job and my city to define me, I became nobody, a parasitic hanger-on in a very foreign world. The new categories I’d imagined for myself—housewife, jet-setter—turned out to not fit so well. And without those labels to define me, I lost myself.
Except “lost” isn’t the right word. India taught me a lesson about identity that was equal parts painful, profound, and life-changing: I hadn’t really known myself at all. I was so busy painting a picture of who I thought I was supposed to be, a set of perfect labels to live up to, that I never learned to look in the mirror and see who that person actually was.
When I set myself free from all those labels—even the ones I loved, like writer and daughter and wife—I began to understand the bigger picture. I learned to blur the lines between those black-and-white boxes I’d spent much of my life believing I needed to fit into.
With so much debate about “leaning in,” and the insurmountable tasks of finding balance and having it all that have become part of today’s conversation, I look back on the lessons I learned in India, and I am grateful. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking you need to choose one of the different worlds you actually float between.
Fitting snugly into the “housewife” box or the “expat” box didn’t happen for me. And, later on, the “mother” box and the “writer” box didn’t turn out to be perfect fits either, though I’d spent my whole life dreaming they would be. Those roles are largely defined by what we make of them, not what the fine print reads on the official descriptions. Sense of self comes from the choices we make and the things we do. When I stopped fighting against all the things I wasn’t, and the things India wasn’t, and learned to celebrate the things we were, I became whole again.
As it turned out, I didn’t need to choose between being a writer and a housewife, or to give up loving New York City in order to love Hyderabad, too. A little bit mango, a little Big Apple, a little bit “write”” and a little bit “maker of awesome turkey lasagna”: the real me was a collection of the pieces I’d chosen to be.
As a part-time working mom, I struggle to justify my choices and balance my priorities, but the essential first step is to know and remain true to myself. I still consider myself a part-time housewife, even though I never did learn to roast a chicken or iron my husband’s shirts. I have a career—not identical to the one I’d have if I dedicated all my resources to working, but one that makes me feel successful and fulfilled. I am a mother—not the same one I’d be if I dedicated all my resources to parenting, but still a mother I’m proud to have become.
Getting on that plane to India and becoming an accidental housewife changed my life forever, and in more ways than one. I learned lessons about expectations, and sacrifice, and perspective. But losing myself in India, and then finding myself again, was the best part of my journey. My path toward self-discovery remains fluid and perpetual, but my choices aren’t black or white anymore. Now when I look in the mirror, I can see the small parts as they come together to make up my whole.
My mother wasn’t the only Jew in our small town in India. There was Aunty Ruby and her family before they immigrated to Israel, and there was always Aunty Sarah. Aunty Sarah was a wonderful seamstress, and when I was taking Bharat Natyam classes, she made me a bag to hold the bells that went around my ankles when I danced. Sewn at the bottom, in a loop, were a string of bright blue beads. I kept the bag long after I stopped dancing, because she had parted with the beads – so precious because they were from Israel – for me, and so they were doubly precious.
When her niece and nephew visited from Bombay, I played with Rivka and Rueben. Years later, when I was studying toward my first master’s degree at Bombay University, Rivka’s grandparents, whom I called Granny and Grandpa, became my guardians (every student from out of town needed a guardian who could take care of her should the need arise). Grandpa died while I was there, and that was the first Jewish ceremony I attended. No one celebrated the high holidays; it was usually birth and death that brought out our Jewish faith.
When I came to study at Berkeley, my involvement and knowledge of all things Jewish grew exponentially. Mom’s cousin, Uncle Bob and his wife Barbara, took me to the synagogue in San Francisco, and I had my very first Passover with their family. It was at a lovely hotel, and I was starving by the time the waiters served the plates. I saw this pale green, flower-shaped puree in the middle of the plate, and popped it into my mouth. Next thing I knew, my eyes were smarting and I was reaching for water. It was horseradish…and how we all laughed, because reading about it isn’t the same as seeing it – or tasting the bitterness.
By the time I was writing The Invitation, I felt very comfortable having a Jewish character. Confession: I am very lazy about researching, but everything, from Jonathan Feinstein’s name to his sudden interest in having a Bar Mitzvah for his son, came right out of my own knowledge and experience. When I did a reading in San Francisco, Aunty Barbara came along with her caretaker. She hadn’t read the novel yet, and I hoped she would get a kick out of seeing her daughter’s name, Ellen Krueger, who appears as a minor character.
“Jew town,” Mom directed the autorickshaw driver.
“Where in Jew town?” he asked in Malayalam.
My mother and I had made a special trip to Cochin to see the synagogue. Mom was excited because she had last been in a synagogue forty years earlier, when she lived in Berkeley with her parents. After she married my father and moved to India, she discovered that our small town had churches, mosques, a Buddhist stupa, but no synagogue. I had read about synagogues, had seen pictures, but I had never been inside one, so I, too, was very excited.
I knew about the Cochin Jews, knew, too, that there weren’t enough for a minyan, because most had immigrated to Israel. Still, it was a tremendous disappointment when we arrived at the synagogue and discovered the doors were firmly shut.
“It has been empty for a long time,” the driver informed us. “I thought you simply wanted to see the clock tower,” he pointed to the sky.
We looked up at the bell and clock tower, which, Mom explained, approximated a dome.
“Back to the train station now?” the driver asked.
“No,” Mom responded. “We are going inside.”
“Not possible,” the driver insisted.
“There has to be someone who can open it for us,” Mom said, and turning around, walked into the shop that was across the road.
“Do you know the man who has the keys to the big church?” she asked the shopkeeper.
The shop keeper took in my mother’s 5’10″ frame, the blue eyes, the white skin, and asked, “You are Jewish?”
“Yes,” Mom said, “my daughter and I are both Jewish. We want to pray in our church.”
The man glanced at the brown skin I inherited from my Indian father and shrugged. He wasn’t going to question kinship. “I will call the man,” he said, and half an hour later, the doors swung open.
We were the only two in the synagogue, and yet we whispered. We marveled at the blue tiles from China, the Belgian chandelier, the brass that glinted.
“Just imagine,” Mom said, “It used to be filled with people.”
I thought about the generations who had worshipped here, the men who had built the synagogue, all the way back to the ones who had arrived in Cochin on a ship centuries earlier.
I recalled that very moment when I was writing The Invitation. My character Lali is a female version of my father: Jacobite Syrian Christian, comes to America for graduate school, marries a Jew. What if, I wondered, Lali’s ancestors had once worshipped in the synagogue? Locals must have converted to Judaism, for how else had that first ship load married, kept their faith? It was entirely plausible, then, for a Jewish family to decide to become Christians at some point, and so I wrote it into my story.
This was the part of the novel that worried me the most when Mom read an advanced copy.
“I love it,” Mom’s words were sure, her accent still American. “What I like best is Lali’s Jewish ancestor, which means she is Jewish. I’ve never read that in any novels, but it makes perfect sense.”
I heaved a sigh of relief. I had Mom’s approval. And for me, that mattered the most.