“Is this true?” my then newly acquired 13-year-old niece asks me, pointing to a passage in her textbook. I sit in her living room in Bangalore, a city south of the one I live in with my husband, Mumbai, and read a description of Jews celebrating Passover by not eating anything fermented. Like so many things I’ve encountered since arriving in India, it takes me a moment or two to parse out this logic. Yeast does convert sugar into carbon dioxide and alcohol through fermentation, of course, and yeast is the leavening agent in most breads, and Passover does prohibit eating leavened products, as we all know, so the chain of thought has a certain kind of sense to it, if you ignore a lot of important things along the way.
I look up at her, feeling helpless. There is so much I would need to explain to her, from how yeast works — as this is a country in which the majority of the population doesn’t bake, or eat leavened breads, anyway — to the story of Passover, which my niece, who has grown up in a world without Biblical storytelling or references, has no context for.
“Not quite,” I respond, and, knowing the poor kid has gotten a lot more than she signed up for, start wading in. After all, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. (This saying is, I hope, purely rhetorical.)
It’s a good, if exhausting, philosophy, and one I’ve learned to live by in my five years here in India. And of course, it is one that cuts both ways. Years ago, before we moved to Mumbai so my Indian Hindu husband could fulfill his dream of becoming a Bollywood screenwriter, I would quickly become extremely frustrated by his responses to my questions about his own religion and cultural context, irritated by their lack of clarity, how they confused me rather than illuminated something for me. But the longer I’ve lived in India, the more I’ve realized how easy and quick answers to questions of culture and religion are not only hard to come by, but also reductive, and do a real disservice to the subjects.
When it comes to talking about Jewish religion and culture, every conversation between me and my husband, my in-laws, and the people I meet here, must begin at the beginning. Everything requires complete explanation. After all, in the beginning, there was the word. But then there were many more words from many more people, along with many more qualifications and contexts, stretching out in every direction until a tiny bit of something like truth is established. And even then, all Jews will never agree on that truth, anyway.
It can be exhausting to be the only person like you in the room, a lesson that is both extremely useful to learn, for it teaches empathy, warns against tokenism, and breaks apart complacencies. It also forces you to define yourself, over and over again, in ways I had never had to do before I moved to Mumbai.
I learned this firsthand my first year here, as I watched Yom Kippur come and go, too disoriented to pursue services, too shy and uncertain of the city to travel two hours away from my new apartment to the Chabad house at the southern tip of Mumbai. It’s easy to feel like a bad Jew, but to miss Yom Kippur felt more painful than I had realized.
And so my next year in Mumbai, I was determined to not let that happen again, which led me to the pretty powder blue doors of Knesset Eliyahoo, a synagogue built by the wealthy Sassoon family, Baghdadi Jews, in 1884. I sat behind a folding screen with the only other woman there as a handful of people chanted and prayed words that I knew in tunes and cadences and pronunciations that I didn’t. The Sephardic Jews around me sang with a beautiful lilt, their tunes closer to flamenco than klezmer.
Although I was a stranger to them, I was welcomed at the break-fast afterwards in the basement, plied with red peppers stuffed with rice and spices and challah, the food a mix of flavors I had never experienced in one place before, Spanish and Middle Eastern and Indian all at once. I left buzzing but feeling clean, my sins inscribed in the Book of Life. The holiday that I had loathed and dreaded as a child now felt like the best day of my year.
An old joke I’ve heard time and again is that Jews are the only people to qualify our religion with the apathetic “ish” on the end, that this speaks to an ambivalence many Jews feel about their relationship to their religious identity. I’ve yet to feel a sense of ambivalence in being Jewish, but I’ve certainly felt a deep sense of loneliness, which I have to imagine many Indian Jews have felt here since the majority of the scattered communities in this country emigrated to Israel after Indian Independence.
So much of our religion is in the mind, of course — the philosophies, the required readings, the contemplation. But it has been easy for me to take for granted how much of Jewish religious practice is communal, collective, and unified. And it’s been even easier for me, a Jewish person growing up in spaces along the East Coast, saturated with historic Jewish communities, to succumb to the false concept that “everyone” knows about Passover and bagels and Anne Frank’s diary, and the meaning of the word kosher, and what a bar mitzvah is. Starting from scratch over and over again with every Indian I meet here can be draining. But it can also remind me of the things I love, and have chosen, as an adult, to commit to, not just because they are the traditions of my ancestors, and not just because it’s what people in my community are doing, but because they are meaningful to me, here and now.
I cannot say I will be unhappy to return to a place one day where I am surrounded by other people who both practice Judaism and have the context for it. But I also cannot say that my own understanding of my religion has not been fundamentally altered by living in a place of solitude. There is no separation in Judaism between the why and the what. Our rituals are meaningless without their explanations. Having to explain them to others has imbued them with new meaning for myself.
Leah Franqui’s new novel, Mother Land, is the story of a Jewish woman who moves to Mumbai with her Indian-born husband and ends up living with her mother-in-law. It is one of our favorite books for summer 2020.
Header image design by Emily Burack. Shapes by Muralidharan Alagar Arts and Photography/Getty Images, and photograph of Gateway To India Against Sky by Vignesh Kamath/EyeEm.