Metrotainment: Looking at the Jewish-Indian divide

Author Esther David, who will be visiting here for the first time in 25 years for the India Festival, talks about her religious awakening.

Esther David 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
Esther David 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
Young Israelis, and a few not-so- young ones, have been traipsing up and down the Indian subcontinent for decades, and for many of them, their time there has had a lasting impact. Award-winning writer Esther David underwent a transformation of her own, but in the opposite direction.
Sexagenarian grandmother David is now an acclaimed author and, in that capacity, will take part in several panel discussions that go by the name “Words on Water: India and Israel in Conversation,” which will take place as part of this year’s India Festival at the University of Haifa (May 17) and at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem (May 18).
“I was brought up without religion,” declares David from her home in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, in northwest India. “You could say that had I not had this transformation, if I had not discovered Judaism, I would not have become an author.”
David’s literary career took a while to get going. Now 67, David started her working life as a professor of art history and art appreciation at CEPT University in her hometown and began writing about art, becoming the Times of India art critic. She was also an active sculptor.
She started work on her first novel, The Walled City¸ when she was 46. The book came out six years later, in 1997.
David says that in addition to her Jewish roots, her hands-on experience in the world of aesthetics helped fuel her debut offering. “The Walled City brought in much of the imagery that I had practiced as a visual artist, and it received critical acclaim. This was the story of several generations of Bene Israel Jewish women living in the city of Ahmedabad,” she explains.
The writer says she has been contending with a cross-cultural divide all her life, even though she was not always aware of it. “My paternal grandparents were religiously observant, but my father wasn’t at all,” she notes. “He said he had no religion, and that’s how he brought us up.”
Still, there were some early religious seeds waiting to germinate. “I went to synagogue, with my grandmother, from the age of seven, but I had no contact with Judaism from the age of about 14,” David recalls. “But just look at my name. Esther David is obviously not a typical Indian name. The Jews of India normally dress like Indians and look Indian, but there is something else in our cultural background, something non-Indian. Sometimes as a Jew you feel very isolated in Indian society.”
David has been addressing that divide, and confluence, in her literary work. The Walled City, which has been translated into French and Gujarati and is listed in the Library of Modern Jewish Literature, has been followed by a clutch of other tomes, including By the Sabarmati, The Book of Esther and The Book of Rachel. In 2007 she wrote a book aimed at youth, entitled My Father’s Zoo, which alludes to her late father’s profession. David’s father also underwent a dramatic change of profession when he gave up hunting to become a veterinarian.
IN FACT, the turning point in David’s life in religious and professional terms came from our part of the world. “It was in 1985 when an old Israeli man – I only remember his name was Avraham – came to visit my father,” David recalls.
“My father was quite well known, and quite a few Jews from around the world, including from Israel, would come to see him.”
Avraham unwittingly reawakened David’s religious consciousness. “I came home to find Avraham there, and it was a Friday,” she recalls. “He said something about having kiddush and having a Shabbat meal and that we couldn’t eat without making kiddush first.”
Her mother had died some years earlier, so David needed some paternal help on that score. “I didn’t know anything about all that, but my father was brought up religiously and he explained things to me,” she continues. “I was in a frenzy because we didn’t have any candles in the house.”
It all worked out in the end and became a life-changing experience for David. “At the Shabbat meal, my father sang Shabbat songs with our visitor, the songs he remembered from his childhood, and it was so beautiful. I thought maybe I should do this more regularly.”
By then David was a divorced mother of two, and she and her children began making kiddush and having Shabbat dinner every week. “We didn’t stop working on Shabbat or anything like that, but we prepared the house for Shabbat, and it had a sort of nice glow about it,” she says. “There was a good energy about it.”
Her religious roots reawakened, her literary instincts kicked in, and The Walled City soon followed. “There is abstract questioning in the book about what it means to be Jewish in India,” says David. “The book is about five generations of my family. That was the beginning of the searching for my background and where I belong.”
She soon became known as “an Indian Jewish author” and delved into all areas of her life. “I don’t like labels, but there have been Jewish Indian authors before, but they never wrote about the conflict [between Indian and Jewish culture]. I explore the whole cross-cultural conflict of being Indian, of being Jewish, of being a woman and of having a strong connection with Israel and having a grandmother who used to say, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’” David has visited Israel before, although the last time was more than 25 years ago, and she even considered making aliya. “But my father was ailing with cancer back then, so I couldn’t leave him,” she says.
Her father also rediscovered his own Jewish roots towards the end of his life.
“He showed me a cupboard where he kept his tallit, and he asked me to bury him in it in the Jewish way,” David recounts.
With her rich cultural heritage and life experience, David is in an ideal position to enlighten us about common ground between Israeli and Indian culture. “I don’t see a lot of similarities between Jewish and Hindu culture,” she says, although adding that there is the odd meeting point.
“The prenuptial henna ceremony of the Brahmins, with the flowers and bangles and all that, is exactly the same as the Jewish Moroccan ceremony,” she notes.
There are also differences in the literary efforts of the two cultures, she says.
“Indian writers don’t address the past very much, but Israeli writers do that. Indian writing can be happy and very current, but I feel that Israeli literature always has some element of pain, a subtle pain, not an obvious wound. By the way, I am a big fan of Amos Oz.”
For more information about the “Words on Water: India and Israel in Conversation” sessions: and