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What Do You Get When You Cross a Jewish Diaspora With an Indian Partition?

We don't often think about Jews in India. Well, I don't anyway. But  two years ago I was at a 20th-Century Literature conference in Louisville, Kentucky, and I discovered some things I didn't know. I had driven down from West … Read More

By / April 18, 2007

We don't often think about Jews in India. Well, I don't anyway. But  two years ago I was at a 20th-Century Literature conference in Louisville, Kentucky, and I discovered some things I didn't know. I had driven down from West Lafayette, Indiana to chair a panel on Philip Roth's literature for a friend of mine. One of the three panel participants was a man from India (who was not Jewish) – it was his second time in the States, if I remember correctly, and he had made this particular trip just to present a paper on Philip Roth.

Now, if I were making a trip like that, I would wait for a conference to pop up in, say, Boston or New York, or San Francisco or Los Angeles. Can't see making the trip for Louisville. But that's neither here nor there. At any rate, there he was, beaming as he told me about all of his work on Philip Roth and pumped me for information on other Jewish American writers. But, importantly, I learned two things:

1.) Philip Roth is all the rage in India, particularly among non-Jewish people. And who can blame them — Portnoy is just too irresistable to not get sucked in for the long haul. This Indian gentleman had, indeed, devoted most of his scholarly research to Roth's work, which I thought was really cool, but somewhat surprising — not that it makes any sense, but I'm always slightly surprised when people outside of the US are scholars of Jewish American or Latino American or any other ethnic American literature.

2.) There is a substantial Jewish community in India, much bigger than most people realize. And I was reminded of this today when I saw an essay over at Nextbook about the writer Sophie Judah from Jabalpur. Her stories deal with the tight-knit Jewish community called Bene Israel, which migrated to Jabalpur from India's southwestern coast in the late-19th century.

Not much fiction has been written about the Bene Israel, and the group's actual history is shrouded in myth. The earliest record of their presence in India, near what is now Mumbai, dates back to the 11th century, but some scholars say that they settled in India earlier, around the second century BCE, when they fled the Assyrian invasion of Galilee. Judah's collection traces a more recent history, proceeding chronologically from the 1930s, when Britain still ruled India; through the Partition of 1947, when India, Pakistan, and what is now Bangladesh became—violently—modern, independent nations; to the present day, when the river in Judah's fictional town has dried up, the Jewish population has nearly disappeared, and the old synagogue has become a pickle and chutney factory. As for the real Jabalpur, where at their peak the Bene Israel numbered about 200, Judah says there are now just four Jewish residents: her cousin, his wife, who converted from Hinduism, her husband's cousin, and his 80-year-old aunt. Judah herself lives in Hod Hasharon, a town in central Israel.

Talk about giving the notion of diaspora a new meaning — between Jewish diaspora and Partition-related diasporic movements of people, this sounds like a complicated situation. It occurs to me that this is an area of Jewish literature that is yet untapped . . . . and would be a great project. In the meantime, you may find these sites on Jews and India useful:

Jewish India

Jewish Virtual Library

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