Thursday, March 09, 2006

Airing the Dirty Laundry: Burnt Bread and Chutney

I picked up Carmit Delman's memoir Burnt Bread and Chutney: Growing Up Between Cultures--A Memoir of an Indian Jewish Girl, on the recommendation of commentor Piaw (who has many challenging posts on her blog). Delman's mother is an Indian Jew originally from the Bene Israel community in Bombay, and her father is an Orthodox Jew of Eastern European descent from New York. Delman herself grew up mostly in New York, with some brief stints in Israel.

I'm about two-thirds through it, and I have to say that I'm not that thrilled about the book, though I am learning things here and there. It's a little too much a memoir of growing up and going to school in the U.S. while being "different," which isn't especially interesting per se. What's more interesting to me is the sense of alienation Delman's family often felt even within the American Jewish community. Sitting in the back of the synagogue, people would often ask Delman and her siblings about their background:

When we explained that we were the mixture of an Indian Jew and an Eastern European Jew, people automatically identified us by the brownness and what made us nonwhite. Their assumptions drew a distinct line between us and them. 'So,' they said, after hearing about the thousands of years of history. 'I guess generations ago, the Jews in India must have intermarried with the Hindus. That's how you have that beautiful brown color.' They even said this laughing admiringly, as though envious of our tan. But in making such a statement, they . . . were also pointing to us as the others and claiming, the skin says it all. We, Ashkenazi Jews, are the pure originals. You, Indian Jews, are mixed products.

It's interesting (and perhaps a little sad) to see a kind of racial logic operating even within Judaism.

But the most interesting passages in Burnt Bread and Chutney are Delman's observations on her travels on her own to Israel, to spend her summer vacations working on a kibbutz. At one point, she meets a middle aged Israeli reservist smoking a cigarette while on duty in Jerusalem. He asks her where she's from, and she says, "Guess":

He grinned, took a deep puff on his cigarette, thinking. 'Emm. Let's see. Ramle?' I shook my head, surprised to hear this particular city suggested. 'Well, you're Yemenite, right? So I would guess Dimona maybe.'

Now I followed his line of thought. Well-off and educated Israelis of Eastern European descent lived in the nice suburbs. But early on, the Israeli government had filled these particular cities that he was suggesting with large populations of poorer Jewish immigrants from the African and Arab nations. Clumped together, this persecuted a cycle of little money and lots of crime, with not many opportunities in work or eductation to even the score. Because I was brown, this man assumed I had come from that world. Perhaps he even hered me into the class-genus-species of the chach-chach. A chach-chach was usually seen in its natural habitat, making a living by selling sandwiches, cheap barrettes, CDs, and authentic discounted Israeli brassware in one of those neighborhoods or at the central bus station. A chach-chach spoke with guttural slang and listened to the kind of oriental music in which voices wavered and whined and shuddered themselves into a high fever. The male wore gold chains and had slick hair. The female birthed often and early. And she could usually be spotted wearing a plumage of bright lipstick.

I hadn't heard this perjorative term ("chach-chach") before, but I googled it, and came across some rather unfortunate song lyrics in an Israeli discussion forum that confirms Delman's usage of it. I guess we could call it a bit of Israeli dirty laundry. (Everyone has some to contend with of course.)

* * *
By pleasant coincidence, this morning Ruchira has posted a long review of Nathan Katz's book Who Are the Jews of India?. Katz makes the interesting claim that the Jewish communities in India were never persecuted -- unlike their counterparts throughout Europe and the Arab World:

"Indian Jews lived as all Jews should have been allowed to live: free, proud, observant, creative and prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host community. Then, when twentieth century conditions permitted they returned en masse to Israel, which they had always proclaimed to be their true home despite India's hospitality. The Indian chapter is one of the happiest of the Jewish Diaspora."


Anonymous Anna said...

There is no doubt that racists and racism exist, with frustrating irony, in the Jewish community. And I have no personal understanding of how these forces work in Israel, other than a basic knowledge that, as Delman implies, Ashkenazim (and Sephardim of European origin) hold disproportionate economic and political power. That said, as an American Jew, I think Delman's understanding of the "racial logic" of American Jews is at best incomplete.

While in Isreal Sephardim and Mizrahim make up about 40% of the population, in the US, the vast majority of Jews are, as my father's family is, Ashkenazim (my mother converted). Until recently, when large numbers of Central Asian Jews immigrated from the former Soviet Union and Persian Jews fled the Iranian revolution, most American Jews had met few, if any, non-Ashkenazi Jews.

Only the most simple-minded Ashknazi would believe that Ashkenazim are the "pure originals," Straight Outta Jerusalem. Most of us look like a mixture of Eastern European and Middle-Eastern ancestors, just as Indian Jews look like a mixture of Middle-Eastern and South Asian ancestors. There's nothing inherently offensive in the idea that some Indian Jews intermarried with Hindus along the way, just as some Ashkenazim did with Slavs, etc.

That said, in part because of the greater hostility Jews encountered in Europe, Ashkenazim are a very inbred mixture of Eastern European and Mediteranean ancestry. Jews, as a whole, have a wide range of appearances, from blonde German Jews to Arab looking Syrian Jews to Chinese Jews, etc., but there's not a huge range among most Ashkenazi American Jews: I remember my Hebrew School classes as a sea of fair skin and dark hair and eyes, with the occasional red-head, and miscellaneous other exceptions. Anyone who looked different attracted attention. Even my boyfriend's "pure" Ashkenazi (whatever that means) cousin, who is very blonde and blue eyed, used to get singled out and teased by his grandmother as "the shiksa": a derrogatory Yiddish term for a (usually European) non-Jew.

I read the comments that Delman encountered in the back of the synagogue more as evidence of the provincialism and lack of commonality among groups of Jews than as a lack of acceptance of a minority by "the Jews." My encounters with Persian Jews here in Los Angeles, Morrocan and Algerian Jews in France, etc. have been similar: with tautological accuracy, all tend to see themselves as "pure originals" of their own minority, which to each is the Jewish minority that matters, while all others are oddities.

9:44 PM  
Anonymous Anna said...

Not to overwhelm your comments section here, but I thought of a related anecdote of Ashkenazi provincialism: in college, I was spending Yom Kippur with a friend, an Ashkenazi Jewish girl from the predominantly Jewish community of Great Neck, NY. My friend was dating an Anglo-American Christian man. Her family had given her a great deal of grief about dating someone who wasn't Jewish. In between morning and afternoon services, my friend, her sister, and I got into a discussion of genetic diseases specific to the Ashkenazi Jewish community: Tay-Sachs, certain kinds of breast and ovarian cancer, etc. My friend's sister rattled off a comprehensive list. I suggested, gently, that perhaps this could be taken as evidence that intermarriage was not such a terrible idea.

"Oh, I know," agreed my friend's sister. "That's why we should all date Sephardim!"

She was serious. How's that for a broad world view?

10:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the jews are a welcome change from the incessant whining by allegedly discriminiated against sikhs and muslims.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

Anna, thanks for your insights and for all the helpful background. And sorry about my messed-up commenting system (my university server sometimes freezes up).

And anonymous, I think you're nuts, but I'll leave your comment up just so you don't whine incessantly about how I always censor my critics.

12:11 PM  
Blogger Ruchira Paul said...

There is a wonderful joke in Leo Rosten's "Joys of Yiddish" - a book I hope to review some day (or Anna, will you do it?) Since I don't have the book at hand, I
will retell it from memory ....

"A Jewish American was in Tokyo during one of the important Jewish holidays. After much searching, he found a synagogue where he went to say his prayers. All others attending the service were Japanese Jews. After the service, the officiating rabbi asked the
American if he was Jewish. When he answered in the affirmative, the Japanese rabbi shook his head in surprise and said "But you don't look Jewish!"

12:51 PM  
Anonymous Paul Kalsi said...

Anonymous, don't hide behind anonymity, don't be shy, express yourself freely with your name to the world. Otherwise you come across as snide and a whining bigot yourself, and pretty cowardly and slovenly too.

Peace and Love

Paul Kalsi

7:19 AM  
Anonymous tamasha said...

Interesting. I've been meaning to read this book actually. I've always been quite interested in the Jews of India.

When I was in Cochin last year, my driver told me that while the Jewish population had been dwindling (understatement!) because many left for Israel, it has actually started to grow again. His reasoning was that Indian Jews were facing racism in Israel, and actually felt more comfortable in India, despite being a religious minority. I don't know how much truth there is in this idea, or how much of it is just Keralite pride, but thought I would mention it. I know the people of Kerala are quite proud of the state's diversity and relative lack of "issues."

8:15 AM  
Anonymous priyamvada said...

Even in mumbai N pune of maharashtra jewish population is growing.N there r few reasons for that.
As indian economy is growing,due to business and tourism traffic bet birsheva and mumbai is increased.Travelling is much easy and safe now.Standard of living in india are also better.
Second reason is growing inter religios marriages in indias cosmo cities.

3:52 AM  
Blogger Feanor said...

Amazing breadth of coverage in your blog! The issue of racism within Jewish communities is perhaps connected with the perceived overachievement of some of them (Ashkenazim) versus the others. Also, historically, the Ashkenazim have suffered way more than their co-religionists. Plus they are the overwhelming majority of Jews, and possibly the richest and most influential. In Charles Glass's The Tribes Triumphant is an interesting discussion of the gradations in Israeli society. Arab Jews - who don't speak Hebrew among themselves, are poor and dark - are treated with disdain and suspicion by the majority, and are close to the bottom of the heap, while the white-skinned ones tend to be better educated and well-represented in political power. The more recent immigrants from Ethiopia and India face enormous disadvantages - notably their lack of Hebrew, but they are barely visible minorities with little influence, and perhaps are forgotten in the larger problems facing the state. What is truly ironic, though, is the advent of Neo-Nazism - some immigrant Russians, many of whom are ill-qualified to get ahead in Israeli life for whatever reason, are embittered; being irreligious and having arrived in the Promised Land only because of a grandparent having been Jewish, they have no particular attachments to the new country (see:
The Israelis (and indeed the Jews elsewhere) are no more or less human than the rest of us, and have their own problems and prejudices to cope with as all of us do.

5:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if the parents of the author were told and interviewed, as for me it seems that the author made stories about the nana-bai who grew up in the old time/old fashion country. So I wonder if the nana-bai did really wrote a DIARY? Did the nana-bai really talk to her grand daughter about her life???? She really is smearing the name of the nana-bai!
This author, and all the authors who publish MEMOIRS, have to be penalized for wriitng fictions, and publish under the title as MEMOIRS. People usually like to read about other peoples garbage and misiery.
We should accept more accountability from the authors and their publishers.

10:57 AM  

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