Sadia Shepard is the daughter of a Christian and a Muslim. She is also the granddaughter of a Jew. Her maternal grandmother was born into the Bene Israel community as Rachel, but her marriage to a polygamous Muslim man transformed her into Rahat. After her grandmother’s death, Sadia accepted a Fullbright Fellowship to document the small Bene Israel community still living in India in the early 00s. A memoir rather than a direct history, The Girl from Foreign documents Sadia’s family history, the history of the Bene Israel, and her own journey as a researcher
The Bene Israel are said to be descended from the survivors of a shipwreck on the Konkan coast of India. Isolated from the larger Jewish community, the Bene Israel retained many Jewish customs (circumcision, dietary laws, Shabbat), but lacked religious texts and scholars. They resembled their non-Jewish Maratha neighbors in appearance and shared their language. The Bene Israel were reconnected to the wider Jewish world in the 18th century through contact with Indian Cochin Jews and Arabic Jewish merchants. They rose to prominence under British colonial rule as they faced less discrimination from the British than did their non-Jewish neighbors. After Indian Independence, the majority of Bene Israel immigrated to Israel.
The Girl from Foreign is as much a travelogue as it is a history. The history of the Bene Israel are explored, but the reader also learns about the automatic challenge faced by a researcher with a Muslim name contacting an isolated Jewish community. If you’re interested in the Jewish diaspora or the complex religious history of the Indian subcontinent, this book is a fascinating read.