Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Girl From Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories and a Sense of Home by Sadia Shepard

Book: Hardcover | 384 pages | ISBN 9781594201516 | 31 Jul 2008 | The Penguin Press | 18 - AND UP

When I was growing up in India I was always referred to as the "Girl From Foreign". This could have been for two reasons, one, I was born in the UK and do have Scottish ancestry, but more likely I was referred to in that way because I was paler than most Indians and had (still have, lol) blue eyes which again is not a common feature amongst us Indians. (In India people often refer to places outside of India as 'it's in foreign' or 'she's from foreign'," 'foreign' simply denotes something or somewhere unfamiliar.) So when I spied Sadia Shepard's book "Girl From Foreign", the title seemed to be calling my name and I knew I just had to read it!

Sadia Shepard got that moniker when she traveled to India from the US in search of her maternal grandmother's Indian-Jewish ancestry. You see, growing up Sadia always believed her grandmother Rahat was a Muslim. She didn't know that she was originally Jewish (from India) and had converted to Islam to become her Muslim-Pakistani husband's third wife (Sadia's grandfather) and that her birth name was Rachel Jacobs. When Sadia accidentally found out one day about her grandmother's birth religion, it complicated her own...she was now the product of a Jewish-Indian grandmother, a Pakistani-Muslim mother and an American-Christian father. So, who was she really? This is a conundrum many kids from inter-religious marriages face: Who are we?

To avoid this many parents decide before hand what religion their child is going to follow. While this may result in fewer headaches when it comes to choosing a school, a name etc. is it really fair to the child to pick out a religion for him/her? Shouldn't the child be exposed to both religions and then allowed to choose one when they are able to make an informed decision? For that matter, if a person is born into two religious traditions is it imperative to pick one over the other? Is there that much conflict between religions that we're unable to embrace more than one?

Anyway, to come back to the book, as Sadia's grandmother lay on her deathbed she made Sadia promise to learn more about her family heritage and therein lay the genesis of Sadia's trip to India to find out more about the Bene Israeli community of Indian Jews (thought to be one of the lost tribes that fled Israel two thousand years ago and landed, shipwrecked, on the shores of India.)

Although this is very much Sadia's grandmother's story( a love story at that), it is also a book about heritage and if and how it shapes you as a person. This made fascinating reading for me because, like Sadia, I have mixed ancestry, although, unlike her, I don't feel compelled to choose one or the other, for I believe it is possible to belong to more than one place and to be part of more than one culture. However, I, too, have struggled with identity, often feeling like a foreigner in my own country because of how I am perceived. However, as the world becomes one global village, hyphenated identities and mixed religious traditions are going to be more the norm than the anomaly.

Since the Mumbai terrorist attacks which carries the dubious distinction of being the first one in which Jews have ever been attacked on Indian soil, people cannot read enough about Bombay's Jews. This book will help the reader understand who they are, where they come from and where their future might lie.

A thoughtful read.

To gain more insights into the lives of India's Baghdadi Jews please tune in to this segment of Kamla Bhatt's highly informative show,"The Kamla Bhatt Show"


M said...

I heard about this book awhile ago but this is the first blogger review I've read of it. It certainly seems to be an intriguing subject and although my parents have frequently told me there are Jewish communities in India, I don't know much else about them. Thank you for your thoughts, I'll have to pick this up soon.

jenclair said...

Your review certainly catches my attention. I'm adding it to my list, for both the specific stories and the larger one of mixed ancestry and religion. Thanks, Lotus.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, M!

Yes there is a small community of Jews left in India (about 5000 or less). What a lot of people don't know is that the Bene Israelis are not the only Jewish community in India. Bombay was host to quite a large number of Baghdadi Jews (Arabic speakers) but so many left for Israel that the remaining Baghdadi Jews have been more or less swallowed up by the slightly larger Bene Israeli community.

Thanks so much for visiting!

Lotus Reads said...

@Jenclair ~ Lovely to see you here, hope you've been well! Yes, I find the book raises many interesting questions about heritage, one's religious traditions and identity...a fascinating read.

d gypsy! said...

Though the idea sounds a li'l cliche, owing in to a lotta Bollywood movies that I have been watching, it might make up for a good read.

But I agree with the 'from foreign' phrase, which is usually the only thing one has to say about foreigners in most of the parts.

Nonetheless, we are improving :)

iselldreams said...

Your review just made me feel like buying and reading this book as soon as possible. You know i am already interested in such kind of topics and the way you picturize it is also lets see when i will be able to find the book in istanbul:)

J at said...

What an interesting idea. I had no idea that there were Jews in India, or how they came to be there, and I'm ashamed to say that I didn't even know that the Mumbai bombings had anything to do with Jews. A sad commentary on my knowledge on this subject, I would say.

The question of heritage and identity is a complex one. We are made up of the culture and mores that we learn from our parents, and their traditions inform our beliefs and ideas. And yet, we at the same time are capable of branching out, rejecting or accepting these traditions and beliefs. Fascinating stuff.

Happy Reader said...

Lotus, What an interesting book it should be! I never even heard about the Bene Israeli community in India. Everytime I come here, I learn something new..I should look out for this book. Thanks for your review.

Lotus Reads said...

@d'gypsy ~ Would love some Bollywood recommendations, what are you watching these days? :)

@Choti ~ What are the bookstores like in Istanbul? Probably like anywhere in Europe, nah? If you can't find it, "Bookdepository" in the UK will deliver it to your place with free shipping! Wish we lived closer, I would have given you my copy.

Lotus Reads said...

@J ~ There's so much unrest going on in the world right now it's hard to keep track of what's going on and where. I just happen to be more informed on all that goes on in India because we watch almost every newscast on the Indian channels.

I agree! So many factors go into making us the person we are. It's all quite complicated but fascinating too! I don't think there is a simple explanation for the term "identity". What is it really? I'm still trying to figure it out!

@Chitts ~ So lovely to see you here! How's the little one? Not so little anymore I suppose. I know you will like this book...I would definitely recommend it.

Id it is said...

I identify with that 'foreign' identity too. In fact people I'm close to often tell me that i ought to have been born in ______ which obviously is not my place of birth! What is it that makes one foreign
in/to ones native land? Is it people's perceptions that color this foreignness or is it some inherent quality/ies in an individual that make him not belong and appear 'foreign'.
Thanks for the heads up Lotus; I would definitely want to read this one!

Sanjay said...

Hey Lotus, how are you? Loved this post of yours. It began with the intriguing title of your selection and continued through my reading of both how this book spoke to you and the story of the protagonist Sadia Shepard.
Perhaps some of us who hail from India (especially from places like Bombay) are familiar with the presence of Bene Israelis or even Baghdadi Jewish people in India. But I was surprised by some who didn't know that there are Jewish people in India. An orthodox Jewish colleague at work was surprised when I mentioned to her this fact once when we were talking about India.
Anyway I digress.
I am glad that this book will help in some way shed light on the Jewish folks in Bombay and in India. And as such I agree with you that it will help those who wish to find out more. And Sadia's story is truly fascinating.
What identity did Sadia end up choosing? Did anything tip things for her one way or another? Only answer if you think you are not giving away something important about the book. :)
Like you I do not believe that anyone's identity religious, cultural or otherwise has to be set in stone. You cannot avoid who you were born to but you certainly can find your own place in the world and it can be different than what you were born with. I am not sure how many kids from inter-religious marriages face this dilemma. And I believe that it is not a given that anyone who comes from a non mixed marriage does not face issues over their identity either, but I could be wrong.

I am sorry to hear about your struggles with identity and that you felt as a foreigner in your own land. But perhaps there were social/cultural factors at work. Some people in India do have a fascination with fair skin and that could have played a role? Perhaps there was some envy too, for in some eyes you were a child of privilege, the holder of a British passport and in their eyes you were having the best of both worlds?
And I am sure you found a lot of people too who accepted you for who you were, an Indian but also someone whose Indianness was made up of more that one identity.
Perhaps you have a story of your own to tell. Someday perhaps?
Again thank you for a most wonderful review and I enjoyed reading both about Sadia and a bit more about you.

Laju K. said...

Hi Angelique, enjoyed reading your review. I know what it means to feel like a foreigner, just as you do. I also know what it means to not belong, period.
A global village (community) is indeed important.
Will read the book,regards.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Id!

As always you pose some wonderful questions! True, I, too, have often wondered whether it's the external appearance or something else that makes one a foreigner in his or her own land. In my case, I didn't always look Indian, but I spoke like one, felt like one, acted like one...and yet, my own people felt I was "foreign", which leads me to believe that external appearances play a huge part in this.

But you might have a point about that "inherent" something that makes an individual seem to belong to a land to which he has no birth connection. Eric Weiner makes reference to such a person in his book "Geography of Bliss", he calls them "hedonic refugees".

These are people that move to a new land, a new culture, simply because they fit better there. THis usually happens after a moment of great clarity when they realize, beyond a doubt, that they were born in the wrong country.

Ofcourse, now having lived abroad for so many years perhaps I unconsciously have picked up traits from this side of the world and that could have further alienated me from my homeland. Most immigrants experience this I believe.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanjay!

Thank you for your lovely comment!

India has so many diverse religious traditions it just boggles the mind, doesn't it? I'm also fascinated by Israel and the number of cultures that settle in its lands. There are Jews in almost every country on earth and many of them move to Israel to live...can you imagine all those rich cultural traditions that move with them?

Many of Bombay's Jews blended in so well with the Maharashtrian community that it would be quite difficult to tell them apart...only their first names would give them away, because, from what I can tell, even their last names are Hindu Maharashtrian names, right?

Ahhh, Sadia does not let on whether or not she actually picks one religious tradition over another, but if I were to guess I would say I found her most enthusiastic when she discussed Judaism...

Yes, Sanjay, you are right when you say that one's identity is not set in stone...I suppose our identities undergo several transformations as we go through life,no?

Well, when we were growing up I have to admit that India was extremely homogenized. It was very rare to see or know someone of mixed ancestry and maybe that is why I stood out so much even though India and being Indian was all I knew! I'm sure things are quite different now.

Again, thanks so much for the input. ALways nice to read your thoughts.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Laju!

So happy for the visit, thank you! I'd love to have you elaborate on your comment sometime. Perhaps when we meet for coffee? We can exchange will be interesting I am sure!

Id it is said...

Your answer brought Isabel Allende's "My Invented Country" to mind! According to her, immigrants carry an essence of 'home' within no matter where they go. However, that's not what this foreignness is about it's about feeling foreign in one's own land which makes me want you to read a poem I wrote quite some years ago after returning from a visit to my native country that I hadn't been back to for over a decade!

my land, my soil, the earth that defined me
yet, I cannot but shrink from thee.
my blood,genes, the DNA that identifies
yet,my alienation from them,all logic defies.
my home,hearth,the hang outs and colorful bazaars
yet,do I want to visit there through, and in those matchbox cars?
my rubber plant, crotons,money plants and roses
yet, my heart sinks at all the questions their dusty beauty poses.
my love,longing,and desire to be amidst the 'we'
yet,escape is all I sought, since I was now the tourist 'me'.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi again Id,

How beautifully expressed! Thanks so very much for sharing! Can you remember when you started to feel this way? After you left your home country or before?

Rambunctious WhipperSnapper said...

Hi Lotus. I have been a lurker on your blog for some time now. I am addicted to reading and your blog has helped me find some very good books to spend time with. Thank you for that.

I picked up this book today and I am looking forward to reading it.

I have always struggled with identity for a lot of reasons. I have often been accused of being of some nationality or another by strangers and loved ones alike. So although I might not compltely be able to identify with all those who come to India to find who they are, I can understand the emotion they go through.

Alright, enough rambling for one day.

Take Care.

Lotus Reads said...

@Rambunctious ~ Welcome, welcome! I'm thrilled to know the blog has been of some assistance...thanks very much for writing to let me know!

I, for one, am so glad I had the opportunity to vent about this identity issue in a post..I have had quite a few people write in to tell me that they feel the same way...which leads to be believe that the "Who Am I" question is alive and well. What I would like to ponder over more is this: how much control do we have in shaping our own identities? Do we choose or are we chosen?

BTW, I just visited your blog. Love your candid and beautifully- written posts...I'm a fan already!

Beloved Dreamer said...

Hello my sweet friend. I hope you are well.
I have awarded you with The Honest Scrap Award. You can find out the information on my web page. I will be back.

love you, Melanie-bd

Rambunctious WhipperSnapper said...

I think the "Who Am I" question will always be alive and well. I think our identities start taking shape the minute we are born. The present is always a sum total of all our past experiences. But we do have some part to play in shaping our identity.

Thank you for the the kind words. They mean a lot coming from someone whose opinion I hold in high esteem.

Prixie said...

you have a beautiful heritage!

Lulu said...

hi there! do you have any idea how many books you have inspired me to buy and read? just bought this one!
am back to work soon and i hope i find the time to read it before life becomes super hectic again.

Id it is said...

Sorry for the delayed reply...
I went back to my native country after a gap of over 10 years, and that's when I experienced this disconnect, the pain of which surfaces every now and again.

starry nights said...

Hi Lotus, I enjoyed reading your wonderful review and I am definitly going to read this book.I have visited the Jewish temple in Cochin which I think was built in the 1500's.A beautiful place and the town that the Indian Jews call home.I think there are many who have identity problems ,but I think people are more educated now and think differently .

A Reader from India said...

"As the world becomes one global village, hyphenated identities and mixed religious traditions are going to be more the norm than the anomaly"

How very true! Even now, most of us in the global village have multiple places and cultures that we identify as our own, it seems just a matter of time when each person will call the whole world, home.

Thanks Lotus, for a great review of a book with a fantastic theme.

Nanditha Prabhu said...

enjoyed your review as always...
would love to lay my hands on this book.... now that i have relocated to chennai ... i have to browse the shops rather than libraries.... wish there were more libraries here.....

i have visited a very beutiful jewish town and the jew streets in kerala , cochin. this book review reminded me of that....

in today's world where we r living in a global community ... where world seems to be a much smaller place ...people might start to identify less with their religious traditions....the mixed heritage can give a better perspective towards life... i feel you are really lucky to have gone through an identity crisis .... it would have made you grow as a human being...and as a spiritual being!

Lotus Reads said...

@Prixie ~ Thank you, a mixed blessing is what I like to call my heritage! ;)

@Lulu~ You have no idea how thrilled I get when you let me know that a post sufficiently moved you to buy a book. I really hope you enjoy this one. Good luck with your return to the workplace...I am sure the adjustment will take a couple of weeks, but you'll do fine!

@Id ~ I suspected as much. I think once a person leaves his country for another, there is simply no way he/she can go back to what was. You're not the same person you were when you left and nor does a place stay the same. For me, it was a little different in that I felt like a foreigner even before I left.

Lotus Reads said...

@Starry ~ Hi! Always lovely to hear from you. When we visited Cochin the synagogue was closed for the day...I was so disappointed! You're right, things are quite different in India now...I think if I were growing up there now my experiences would be entirely different.

@Reader ~ True! Many of us have several identities,so if I were to break mine down it would read like this: I am a Mumbaikar and Canadian by virtue of geography; a Hindu-Christian by birth, but spiritually promiscuous by choice; I grew up in a very Jain neighborhood but attended a convent school, so I like to think that those two communities have become my cultural heritage...and it goes on and on, but the one identity that threads these multiplicities together is the fact that I am an Indian and that is all that matters! :)

Lotus Reads said...

Thank you Nandita! You are right, I never really thought of this experience as being a learning tool, but I see how it can become one!

How are you liking Chennai...I am told it is a very happening city at the moment. Lots and lots of really good bookstores...I envy you!

Thank you so much for continuing to stay in touch...I truly value your insights and comments.

Lotus Reads said...

Sorry for misspelling your name in my previous comment Nanditha!

gs said...

hi lr
when i read your review,i realised i had seen the book somewhere. now i know where.i have also read another makes a compelling reason to read the book.thanks.

hari said...


nice article, really very interisting while reading and I agree with the 'from foreign' phrase, which is usually the only thing one has to say about foreigners in most of the parts.

CECIL said...


Thank you for your comment in my blog! :) I need to update it more often, really. Just visited your other blog and love your India photos! I need to work up courage to take photos in public.

Ahh..I am so glad that to hear you visited Indonesia and loving it!! If you don't me asking, where in Indonesia did you visit?

Hope the Congee turns out good for you. Lemme know! :)

Oh and always good to find fellow Ontario in this blog world.

Lotus Reads said...

@gs ~ I hope you enjoy the read! There's a lot of Bombay in the book so that made it doubly enjoyable for me.

@Hari ~ THank you for the comment!

@Cecil ~ Hi!!! Nice of you to drop by my blog, thank you! I am going to bookmark your lovely food blog and return more often. I would love to learn more Indonesian recipes from you. We visited Jakarta...I wish we had made the time to see more though...Indonesia is such a fascinating place! And YES, I did make the congee (this afternoon) and it turned out absolutely sumptuous!!!!! Do you happen to have a recipe for Gado-Gado? I'd really love to try making that. Thanks Cecil!

NJ said...

what i like about your reviews is that apart from reflecting a candid view, there is always a right amount of personal touch in your writings;

might sound funny, but where i come from, even if one shows a bit of attitudes agains mainstream culture, s/he is treated as a forigner! and it's more like being OUT!

living in India was different; People recognized me too as the girl from forign, yet i always felt they were most happy if i inclined myself to their ways and.

Juman61 said...

Hi Lotus,
What a wonderful site..I love your blogs,your book reviews and I'll be sure to check out some of the books here..keep it up!

Frankie said...

I like your expression "hyphenated identities". Did you make it up?

Rainmaker-Ranjan said...

nice blog miss blue eyed ..

Um Naief said...

i agree w/ you re: raising children to see all religions is a very good thing... even when brought up in 'one' religion, as is the thing to do in Islam... my husband is Muslim and, altho i converted, i do not practice and consider myself christian/catholic.

i fully intend to raise him to know any and all religions and hope that it brings nothing but positive results. this will all be done w/out the knowledge of my in-laws! ;)

Arcadia said...

We all have a history and a legacy to carry one.This book really caught my attention.Thank you for writing this review.
Visit my blog

Lotus Reads said...

@NJ~ Thank you for your input! Yes, some cultures are so traditional they cannot adjust to change. In this day and age where the world is becoming one big Global village it is only those societies that have the ability to embrace change that will prosper and progress, don't you think?

@Um Naief ~ You're on the right track. How do you people around you feel about your raising your child to embrace all religions?

Cheerios master of corn puffs/universe said...

This si great input, especially about the cultures said...

Finished The Girl from Foreign last weekend, thanks to your review. I went to our best used bookstore in Nashville, and they had never heard of it. I knew it was time to go to amazon or ebay to purchase it. I had bought it for my daughter who is due back from India on Tuesday, and after looking at it more closely, I couldn't put it down! This started a great bit of detective work, which has included seeing Slumdog Millionaire, Monsoon Wedding, and looking for more books on India. I love the Mark Twain quote at the beginning. I look forward to acquiring Ms. Sheperd's film about the Bene Israel people of India and learning more. The most important lesson of the book was the tolerance folks from India and Pakistan have had in the past toward those of other cultures and religions. This is important to us all to learn. Thanks for the review!

Bala Menon said...


Another great book, which pre-dates The Girl from Foreign is "Ruby Daniel: A Cochin Woman Remembers" written by Ruby,along with Dr. Barbara Johnson, an Ithaca University scholar..

It is interesting to know that the Bene Israeli community was, in fact, discovered by the Jews of Cochin and that it was one Ezekiel Rahabi - a Cochin 'merchant prince' and diplomat who brought news of their existence to the the Western world and supplied them with literature about Jewish rituals etc.

The Cochin Jews are much older than the Bene Israel in India and enjoyed great privileges in the Royal court for 2000 years, served as fighters for the Cochin and Calicut Maharajas and controlled a lot of commerce, while the Bene Israel languished in Maharashtra.

Bala Menon, Toronto.

Lotus Reads said...

Thanks for the input Bala, so appreciate it. Will definitely put "Ruby Daniel" on my wish list. Thanks again!