On the seesaw of our lives balancing our corporate and web video production work with documentaries, Curt and I took a week and half hiatus in March from the tidal wave of incoming business videos to dive into a new documentary in India.
I mentioned the project in a blog I posted on 7 February. Tentatively entitled “Painting Peace Indian-Style,” our cameras follow acclaimed Indian-Jewish-American artist Siona Benjamin as she pursues her Fulbright award, granted to document through her art the small remaining Jewish community of her native country.
We met some remarkable folks. There was Samson, blind for many years, who was responsible for transcribing Hebrew words in prayer books into the local Marati language so that young generations can correctly pronounce the original texts. Munmun is the community cook. In a kitchen no bigger than 6 X 8 feet, Munmun cooks kosher wedding meals for 200 people. I am not talking the noodle pudding and kasha menu variety; Munmun tried to show me how to make puri bread filled with a pureed lentil mixture and a spicy veg curry. (I got lost after the first few steps.) Rachel was a former model then producer then editor – now a mom of a newborn living in a lovely, albeit tiny, apartment costing multiples of any such living quarters in Manhattan. There was Ret. Lt. Gen. Jack Jacob, a proper elderly man with an apartment filled with Indian miniature (and other) paintings, who played a major role in the independence of Bangladesh. And Ralphy, wonderful Ralphy, tour operator, businessman par excellence, networker, with a boisterous personality and one phone in each ear all the time.
You know them? In a way. You’ve probably met folks with similarities to them in many places. But here is one observation that distinguishes this Jewish community from any others we’ve encountered around the globe: The people with whom we talked said they have never experienced anti-Semitism in India! Keep in mind that Jewish roots in that country go back to the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, around 135 BCE. In over 2,000 years of co-existence with Hindus, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and others, the nightmare of anti-Semitism has never arisen. Compare that reality with the discrimination and annihilation that rose and fell through Europe over the centuries, which some of our prior documentaries have touched upon.
Of course, the layers of discussion are far more complex. The recent bomb planted on the side of the car in which the Israeli ambassador’s wife was riding cannot be ignored, nor can the attack specifically on the Chabad House in 2008 when the Taj and Oberoi Hotels as well as the central train station were also targeted. But to the Indian Jews, these were instances of outside influence, unrelated to the daily peaceful relationships they have and have always had with their neighbors.
We go with Siona and her mom Sophie to visit the house in Mumbai where Siona was raised. Sophie made her career here, directing an excellent private school that occupied a few floors of the home. The school served many children in Bollywood- industry families. Sophie had lived here for over 50 years, but sold it a few years back. (Siona left for the US a few decades ago, when she got a scholarship for an MFA in theatrical set design at University of Illinois.)
The taxi parks on the side of the street, and Sophie – still a ravishing, red-haired woman now in her 80’s and fragile — slowly opens the car door to visit her past. In seconds she is swarmed by women on the street dressed in the Muslim hajib, hugging her and smiling, asking where she has been, what she is doing, whether she is returning. The circle around her grows tight, and it’s hard for Sophie to break away from the loving attention.
In that moment I began to believe in earnest that the concept of anti-Semitism has forever been foreign in India. That reality — together with the popularity of veg food everywhere, the sponsorship of the documentary by the Taj Lands End Hotel, and the exceptional hospitality (I was presented with five separate cakes on my birthday!) — made Mumbai a nice place to settle into for a week of documentary field production. I look forward to the next trip!