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JLF 2018: No cutting this umbilical cord, says author Sethu on India’s bond with Israel

A session featuring Jewish Indian writing focused on the twin pulls of India and Israel.

JaipurLitFest Updated: Jan 25, 2018 18:13 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Poulomi Banerjee
Hindustan Times
JLF 2018,Jaipur Lit Fest,Jaipur Literature Festival
Esther David (left), author of Shalom (an Indian Jewish Fiction) in conversation with A Sethumadhavan also known as Sethu (right) during the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) 2018 at Diggi Palace, Rajasthan.(Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

One is a member of India’s Bene Israel community, mostly concentrated in western India, and the other is a writer from Kerala whose works have revolved around the Malabari Jews. Together, during a session titled Shalom: Indian Jewish Fiction, they turned the focus on a community, whose numbers may be dwindling in India, but who have been in the news recently because of the country’s growing bond with Israel.

“India is the only country where Jews have not been persecuted. But there are still moments when they are not part of the main thing,” said author and artist Esther David, as she spoke of, both the influence of Indian culture and traditions on Jews here, as well as their attempts to hold on to their own customs and practices. These are themes she has dealt with in her books Walled City and Shalom India Housing Society.

Esther David during the session. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

While David belongs to the Bene Israel community, Kerala-born A Sethumadhavan or Sethu’s representation of the community in books like Aliya, is based completely on his observation of Malabari Jews and their emotional conflict as they decide to move to the Promised Land but remain attached to India. “The first is their fatherland, the other their motherland,” he said talking of the man who moved to Israel but still visits his Kerala village, where his ancestors lived, at least once in two years. “He always wanted to buy a piece of land here and build a house, which he eventually did. I once asked him why he did it, since no one from his community lived there anymore. He said it was the place of his ancestors and he wanted to have a house here so future generations could live there when they visited,” Sethu recalls adding that “the umbilical cord with this country has not snapped.”

Perhaps that’s the kind of emotional connect that 11-year-old Moshe Holtzberg felt when he visited Mumbai for the first time since he lost his parents in the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack in 2008. The boy was saved by his Indian nanny, and now lives in Israel with his grandparents. While there have been accusations of the governments of India and Israel manipulating a child for political gain, Moshe had expressed a desire to visit India when he had met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June last year.

Of course, the child’s feelings are vastly different from those expressed by Jews with an ancestral connection to India. Still, despite the obvious bond, why does “Next Year in Jerusalem” continues to be the pledge made during the Jewish festival of Passover? “I think initially when the migration started, it was for better opportunities. Also, 99 per cent of the Indian Jews had families either in Israel, Europe or the US, and they wanted to move closer to them. Also, they had holidays on Jewish festivals unlike in India,” says David. “But I have noticed on my trips to Israel that Indian Jews have made a kind of little India there – they need the comfort of being close to India,” she says. The younger generation of Indian Jews are definitely closer to their roots. “Most of us speak Indian languages and English. But our prayers are in Hebrew. There was a time when many of us didn’t understand the language. But the younger generation has travelled to Israel. There are also many Hebrew classes in India now. So many speak the language,” she says.

The ties with Israel need not be at the cost of the bond with India. David believes the future of most Indian Jews is likely to look like that of the family that divides their year between Israel and India.

And what about the future of Jewish writing in India? As session moderator Malashri Lal puts it, referring to Pico Iyer’s morning address: “There is a plurality of voices in Indian writing today. Jewish writing is a part of that.”

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First Published: Jan 25, 2018 17:51 IST