Protestant, Muslim, Jew

One convoluted family of believers

Sadia Shepard, author of the memoir Girl From Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Lost Loves, and Forgotten Histories (The Penguin Press, $25.95), was raised near Boston by a white Protestant American father, a Pakistani Muslim mother, and her maternal grandmother, Nana. She grew up comfortable with her complex identity until, at the age of 13, she discovered that her grandmother had been born and raised Jewish in Bombay’s Bene Israel community, the tiny Indian Jewish community that traces its roots back to the Lost Tribes of Israel. Just before Nana’s death, Shepard promises her that she will return to her grandmother’s homeland. This book is the moving account of how she fulfilled that promise.

Shepard goes to India both because she longs to connect with her grandmother in a deeper way and because she feels that she must understand the Judaism of Nana in order to choose which religion is hers. She becomes involved in the Bene Israel community, teaching in the local Jewish school, going to services and celebrations at the synagogue her grandmother once attended, and tracking down Nana’s family in Bombay and her ancestral village on the Konkan coast. Her exploration is not a search for a theological Truth, but a quest to unpack what it means to belong — to family, to community, to country. As she says, “I want to be accepted here more than anything… I want to understand the story of the Bene Israel and find a way to tell it. I want the grocer and the vegetable man… to recognize me when I approach. I want to make myself understood in Hindi. I want to fit in, to live here and feel at home.”

Shepard’s narrative intertwines her relationship with her grandmother and the rest of her family in Boston, her grandmother’s past, and her own sojourn in India. Her engrossing storytelling pulls the reader deeply into the heat, color and chaos of India, and enmeshes us in the family’s intimate personal relationships. This is a memoir with novelistic qualities, in particular a hint of magical realism, as Shepard recounts Nana’s prophetic dreams of family deaths, and her own dreams, premonitions and feelings of déjà vu.

As evocative as her narrative is, Shepard’s ear for dialogue is awkward, and she often stumbles when she becomes analytical or philosophical. The falsest note in the book is the inclusion of a young Indian man, Rekhev, who becomes Shepard’s guide and confidant. His longwinded and not very insightful opinions and musings leave us wondering why the delightful Shepard is attracted to his company.

However, The Girl From Foreign is much greater than the sum of its parts. This book will appeal to anyone curious about the Bene Israel Jews of India or who has struggled with her or his own identity. Moreover, it will resonate with readers who regret not asking their own grandparents more about their past. Shepard’s search reads as a beautiful paean to her grandmother, who, toward the end of her life, indicated that perhaps she regretted her choice to leave the religion of her parents for the religion of her husband. Shepard’s search, therefore, is a posthumous and vicarious effort to return to the branch point at which Nana made that choice.

Elizabeth Mandel is a documentary filmmaker living in New York.