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.
The first title of a book that I remember with clarity is QB VII. It seemed so odd, with letters instead of words. My mother is an avid reader, and because there were no public libraries in our town, she saved every book. I grew up with bookcases lining the hallways, the shelves weighted down with novels. From the time I was very young, Mom would, on occasion, give me books she thought I needed to read. I was about 12 when she handed me QB VII, and then all the other novels by Leon Uris. Mom said that family members she had never met in Germany had died during the Holocaust, and because I did not know their names, every victim I read about in the novels became my family.
I never imagined, when I was reading Uris, that one day I would actually write – and publish – novels.
I like to joke that my first novel, A Good Indian Wife, is pure fiction…it is also purely Indian. The second novel, The Invitation, is more personal because my character Jonathan is Jewish, like my mother; is a doctor like my grandfather; and lives in Marin, which is across the bay from Berkeley, where my mother grew up. Jonathan also gave me an entrée into the Jewish Book Council. I almost did not send in my application for the JBC Network, because I feared that though I am Jewish, I had not been brought up celebrating Jewish holidays, which mirrors Jonathan’s experience, but left me feeling I wasn’t Jewish enough. I calmed down when I realized that many of my friends in the US had been raised the same way. They, too, had not been to a synagogue until their twenties.
Mom was very excited when I told her I was going to New York to make a 2 minute presentation. She didn’t ask me what I was going to say. She only said: “Be proud. I want you to stand there and be proud.”
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.