Title: The Girl From Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories, and a Sense of Home
Author: Sadia Shepard
Genre: Nonfiction: Memoir; Travel
Sadia Shepard grew up in a joyful, chaotic home just outside of Boston, Massachusetts, where cultures intertwined, her father a white Protestant from Colorado and her mother a Muslim from Pakistan. Her childhood was spent in a house full of stories and storytellers, where the customs and religions of both of her parents were celebrated and cherished with equal enthusiasm. But Sadia’s cultural legacy grew more complex when she discovered that there was one story she had never been told. Her beloved maternal grandmother was not a Muslim like the rest of her Pakistani family, but in fact had begun her life as Rachel Jacobs, a descendant of the Bene Israel, a tiny Jewish community whose members believe that they are one of the lost tribes of Israel, shipwrecked in India two thousand years ago. This new knowledge complicated Sadia’s cultural inheritance even further, intimately linking her to the faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and to the customs of India, the United States, and Pakistan.
At her grandmother’s deathbed, Sadia makes a promise to begin the process of filling in the missing pieces of her family’s fractured mosaic. With the help of a Fulbright Scholarship and armed with a suitcase of camera equipment, she arrives in Bombay, where she finds herself struggling to document a community in transition. Her search to connect with the Bene Israel community and understand its unique traditions brings her into contact with a cast of remarkable characters, tests her sense of self, and forces her to examine what it means to lose and seek one’s place, one’s homelands, and one’s history. In the process, she unearths long-lost family secrets, confronts her fears of failure, and finds love in places that surprise her. Sadia beautifully weaves together the story of her grandparents’ secret marriage and the haunting legacy of Partition with an evocative account of a little-known Jewish community and a young woman’s search for self. The Girl from Foreign is her poetic and touching attempt to reconcile with her family’s past and help determine her future. When offered the choice, will she be able to choose among the religious and cultural identities that have shaped her? It is an unforgettable story of family secrets, buried identities, lost histories, forbidden love, and, above all, eye-opening self- discovery (from Goodreads).
Thoughts: OK GUYS, I have a terrible confession to make in regards to this book. This past summer I went to the library, loaded up my arms with a ton of books, and went to the front desk to check out. But when I put my books down and pulled out my card I was told that the circulation system was down. My immediate reaction was dismay, as I assumed that I wouldn’t be able to check out any of the books I had spent so much time pouring over and pursuing (seriously, I’ve been known to spend an hour or more in the depths of the library’s shelves and emerge with only one or two books to take home). But then i was told that I could take the books home as long as I promised to return them on time. Of course, I said yes. This was near the end of August. AUGUST PEOPLE. Like 5 months ago! I returned most of them on time (more of less) but this one I kept til two weeks ago! I admit that I do feel a little bad, but I had always planned to return it once I read it and, coupled with the fact that I knew that there was no fine waiting for me, I took a little (OK, a lot) longer then I should have to get around to it. And, when I FINALLY got around to reading this book, it only took me two days to finish it which actually made me feel all the worse that I had waited so long. The Girl From Foreign is finally back where it belongs, on my local library’s shelf, and I do feel a little better now that I’ve aired my little ‘secret’ SO- on to the book!
Sadia Shepard grew up near Boston with her father, a white American Protestant, and her mother and grandmother, both Pakistani Muslims. Sadia enjoyed an open-minded and accepting childhood where both religious and cultural traditions of her heritage were celebrated. She was especially close to her grandmother, Rahat; born in India, she married her husband before the partition of India and Pakistan and moved to Karachi with him when the two countries separated to raise her family in his home along with his three other wives. One day, Sadia finds a brooch in her grandmother’s drawer engraved ‘To Rachel Jacobs.’ Upon questioning her grandmother, Sadia learned that her beloved ‘Nana’ did begin her life as Rahat; she was Rachel Jacobs, born into a small Jewish community in India called the Bene Isreal who believe that they are the descendants of Jews who were shipwrecked off the West coast of India 2,000 years ago. Christian, Muslim, Jewish- Sadia travels to India on a scholarship after her grandmother’s death to discover the lost world of her Jewish grandmother and the community she left behind.
This was the first book I read this year- I finished it on January first, in fact! But, as soon as I finished it. I rushed it back to the library as it really had been gone too long, so I do not have the book in front of me, which is too bad as there were a ton of cool facts in there. The Girl From Foreign is really a personal memoir dealing with Sadia’s memories of her grandmother, the facts of her life, and how Sadia feels about being descended from all three religions of ‘the people of the Book.’ While I appreciated Sadi’s journey, what I was really interested in was the Bene Isreal themselves. What has been written about these people- their history and customs- is no great amount, but what HAS been written down is fascinating. When Christian missionaries went down the Konkan coast of India near Bombay in the 1800s they were astonished to find a group of people who did not work on Sundays, ate kosher, celebrated religious ceremonies with a remarkable similarity to Jewish religious Holy Days, and even could recite the first few lines of the Shema Yisrael- one of Judaism’s most important prayers taken from the first few lines of the Torah-, and who claimed to be one of the Lost Tribes of Israel.
When the Bene Israel were ‘discovered,’ they lived along the coast in small villages along their Muslim and Hindu neighbors. They were mainly oil pressers and a part of the wider community; other villagers would turn out their stock on Sundays as they understood that their religion prohibited them from working then. With the arrival of the missionaries, the Bene Israel were drawn into the worldwide Jewish community and most of them moved to Bombay (which Shepard uses instead of Mumbai in her book, as that was what it was called in her grandmother’s time) and became an urban community. However, in recent years a large number of Bene Israel, especially the younger generation, are moving to Israel, and the community is shrinking. It is not unreasonable to suppose that within a generation or two the Bene Israel will cease to exist in any meaningful capacity in India. This is especially sad to me, that 2,000 years of culture, language, and tradition could vanish so quickly, but it could easily happen. As such, I wanted to know as much about the Bene Israel and their lives now as possible. And while this is obviously discussed, much of the book deals with Sadia and her memories of her grandmother and her childhood and thoughts about a potential romantic relationship with a young Indian man. This wasn’t a downside, per say; I enjoyed the whole book, but I did want to read more about the Bene, their history and traditions, then I was provided with. That being said, this was a very readable book about a melding of traditions, the question of ‘choosing’ a faith, and an interesting look at a unique and sadly fading cultural tradition.
All in all, quite a good start to the New Year! — What was the first book you read this year?