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Class and Caste: Jewish Women of India

FOR THE JEWS OF BAGHDAD and their descendants, of which I am one, the community exists as a weave of myth and ancient history. It is the root source for a fluid and now romanticized diaspora of Asian Jewry that spread its aristocratic culture and prosperity to Shanghai, Bombay, Basra, Calcutta, Rangoon and Singapore. It existed throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries—and continues to exist, though now as an “imagined community,” as Jael Silliman calls it in her new book, Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames: Women ‘s Narratives from a Diaspora of Hope (Brandeis University Press/ University Press of New England).

Baghdad—that is, the Baghdad that wasn’t Saddam’s, cloaked off from the world and menacing—no longer exists, except in the telling. My “memories” of those days are grand. Grandpa’s childhood in Iraq has the glamour of a simpler time in a hot, Arab climate. It’s a story of sleeping on the roof in summer, riding horses in the morning; eating foods straight from the land; speaking Arabic, French, and Hebrew; travelling with goods between Asia and the West. And Grandma, whose merchant family had transplanted to Bombay: eating tea sandwiches at The Club, shopping for lovely Indian fabrics and jewels. Not only did they do well. They did good: The Jews of Baghdad built schools, hospitals, and other institutions that to this day—long after most of the Jews are gone—still serve native populations. The diaspora of this culture is as much a club as a community, and one whose members, especially the older ones, do not let you forget. In London, a man who calls himself the “Exilarch”—the prince of the diaspora—still publishes The Scribe: The Journal of Babylonian Jewry, as if half a century had not passed.

It is this very same world that Silliman describes in her family history (though her Bagdhadi Jewish family made its diasporic home in Calcutta) through the story of four generations of women, from her great-grandmother down to herself But Silliman’s is not an ordinary memoir, filled with compassion for her forebears and curiosity about their lives. Instead, it is an exercise in post-colonial criticism—a test-case for contemporary theories on race, class, gender, and identity—the subject of which just happens to be Silliman’s relatives.

They are these: Farha, her great-grandmother, who at the end of the 19th century was sent by ship from Baghdad to Calcutta to marry a man 35 years her elder. Mary, her grandmother, who was religious but also secularly educated, a teacher, among the first generation of Calcutta Jews not to have an arranged marriage, who left Calcutta for Jerusalem in 1978. Flower, Silliman’s mother, who attended university in India and there became part of the youth culture celebrating Indian independence from Great Britain. And Silliman herself, who came to the United States for her higher education, has lost much connection to her Jewish and Baghdadi roots, and teaches in the Women’s Studies Department at the University of Iowa.

It is clear that those women’s studies help direct this retelling, Silliman’s themes not far removed from the theoretical constructs of academic discourse. Her understanding of her foremothers deals with race and class, their various identifications and privileges as (sort of) white and (sort of) English in an Indian land, as Baghdadi elite, as Jews. In the most interesting turns in the book, she writes of her family members’ need to confront these identities in the “moment of crisis for the Baghdadi Jewish community,” when British rule ended in 1947. That was, Silliman believes, when they had to face the challenge Indian independence offered to their “multiple privileges,” when they became neither white nor Indian, masters nor subjects, clinging to their Bagdhadi pedigree. Her own chapter is called, “Indian Portrait, Jewish Frame,” an inversion of the book’s subtitle, and is intended to show us how far she has come. She writes of her years at an American university as a “political awakening,” steeped in Noam Chomsky and leftist politics, where she learned to recognize racism and class privilege, where she came to identify as a non-white South Asian and a Third World feminist. “I now mount these family portraits,” she concludes, “on a much broader canvas, shifting my narrative into a dialogue with contemporary discourses on colonialism, postcolonialism, nationalism, diaspora, and identity formation for travelling communities.”

What is the trouble with such distancing? Isn’t that, indeed, the very purpose of scholarship? It is, and Silliman does trace fascinating arcs through different lands, economies, identities. But also it isn’t—or at least it isn’t alone—the purpose of scholarship. Because of those very radical transitions of place and race and class, of religious opening and feminist development, in part indeed because Baghdad and the British empire are culturally so very far away, Silliman’s first task ought to have been to recreate and understand that world, to tell us what these women’s lives were like, and what those lives meant—to them. There are no imaginative leaps we can make, because there is so ‘little we know. And the polite reminiscences Silliman includes to pad out her theory are no more than shadows.

But the bigger trouble with such theoretical distancing is that it allows the author to sit in judgment of her foremothers, and not with a compassionate eye. Surely Silliman would say that I am being sentimental, would feel her book successful for challenging me to see my own relatives as they really were, privileged and key players in an “infamous and unfair triangular trade that impoverished China and India,” “thriv[ing] on the underside of the colonial enterprise.” And I am aware, no doubt, of the least savory sides of family history; to me, the worst of it is an indomitable patriarchy whose impact on my own family I see to this day. But there’s something—does the word sound strange?—authoritarian about Silliman’s analysis, and also—another strange word— Marxist. For the larger arc of her narrative is one of Utopian progress from whiteness, (or at least Britishness, as her grandmother might have put it) to Indianness (the identity that Silliman has taken on, despite her actual ethnic heritage), from extreme wealth to something less than wealth, from elitism to (shall we call it) proletariatism itself.

From the get-go, Silliman reminds us of how far she has come: “Although I maintain tenuous ties with the Baghdadi Jewish diaspora community through my mother and through this act of writing, I am not part of the diaspora to which my forefathers and mothers belonged.” There is in there, already on page four, echoes of the rasha, Passover’s wicked child, who asks, what does this have to do with me? Such language is illuminating. It is condescending, and somewhat unbending. And it goes some way toward explaining why even the family analysis Silliman offers is devoid of intimacy. It is, essentially, her materialist history, its players certainly family, but more so symbols of the slow and steady erosion of privilege for which she is grateful.

Sarah Blustain is the managing editor of The New Republic.


Female and Jewish in Bombay Today

There’s another segment of Jewish women s lives in the Indian diaspora: the Bene Israel, who have lived in India for 2,000 years. ELIZABETH MANDEL recounts some of her experiences of a year spent working for the Joint Distribution Committee in Bombay, where 5,000 Jews live today.

There are very significant differences between the Baghdadi community and the Bene Israel. The feeling is that the Baghdadis discriminated against the Bene Israel, who are ethnic Indians, for a variety of reasons—including social and economic class, race, and religious background. The grand synagogue in Bombay is still called the Bahgdadi synagogue; the Bene Israel did not go there. They had separate schools, separate everything.

The majority of Bene Israel are middle class, by Indian standards, and many of the women work. A lot of the girls and younger women talk about going into computers and medicine, and they looked at me like I was out of my mind when I asked if it was a struggle for females in science and technology. They don’t anticipate any gender barriers in that area.

While the attitudes in the Jewish community are modern in many ways, some thinking is still locked in tradition. “Is it true that girls and women are not allowed inside the synagogue when they are menstruating?” I was asked shyly, but only after I had been there for almost a year. I had to have a delicate conversation about the difference between Jewish law and custom. In a recent edition of the community newsletter, however, this issue was openly addressed, possibly indicating a shift in attitude.

I held the torah for the first time in my life in India, at the Reform congregation’s Simchat Torah celebration (funny that an Orthodox Jewish girl from America had to flee to India in order to hold the torah). Later, I got into a little trouble holding the torah in one of the more traditional congregations. Some young women had asked me to, saying “We don’t have the courage to take the torah—it would mean a lot to us if you would.”

A colleague and I started a Rosh Hodesh group with encouragement from some of the women in the community, which is still going on. In Bombay, it is a women’s group to which men are invited. If men are not included there are two problems. One, the women would have a hard time getting home at night. “It is neither safe nor seemly for women to be out alone at night,” I was told. The second problem is that if men are not included it delegitimizes the program. So . . . it became a Rosh Hodesh program where we would talk about women’s’ issues and speak of the women important in the holidays coming up. It was torah study with the women, and the men sat next to them. And there was nobody saying women should not be studying torah. Still, I know some families who did not make aliyah because they were afraid of having their daughters “run crazy wild” in Israel; some sent their sons but stayed in India with their daughters for this reason. And I had teenage boys say to me “My father beats my mother all the time and I wish he wouldn’t do it, but she is his wife, so what can you do?”

The vast majority—70 to 80 percent— of marriages are arranged. One shabbat we had a debate among teens about what is better, love marriage or arranged marriage. Most were on the side of arranged marriage! “You know better what you are getting into,” they said. Still, many of them expressed a desire to be involved in a love relationship, perhaps another sign of changing times.