A Refuge Called Home
By Sandip Roy
Pacific News Service
The Jews of Calcutta have mostly gone. Every day at Calcuttas stately synagogue it becomes harder and harder to attain a minyan, the 10 men needed for a service. Just the buildings remain a Jewish girls school with no Jewish girls, buildings with names like Ezra Mansions, shuttered synagogues.
In their new homes in places such as Golders Green, London, the Jews of Calcutta remember their old homes. Jael Silliman, who wrote Jewish Portraits, Indian Frames, a memoir of her Baghdadi Jewish family who settled in Calcutta in the 18th century, says, They say, How terrible Calcutta has become so dirty, so crowded. They dont want to go back, but really its because there is no one to go back to.
I wonder what it is like to have no home to go back to. As an immigrant, home has always been a tug-o-war. Is it my home in Calcutta, with flaking paint and a vegetable market out front? Is it my San Francisco home, perched on the hillside? My dilemma is in some ways an embarrassment of riches a choice of homes.
I wonder what it would be like to be truly of the diaspora blown across the world on a whirlwind, never quite knowing what home is. Or to be homeless in your own home. One American president after another has been called on to broker peace in the Middle East, but I wonder if any have known what it means to really search for a home. Sweeping aside the politics, the wrangles over water and settlers, the acrid smoke of yet another suicide bombing, the Middle East conflict comes down to two people fighting over the right to call one land home.
My grandmother and her brother fought over their fathers home after he died. A prodigiously litigious family, they fell out bitterly. My grandmothers brother would not come to her bedside when she was dying of cancer. Years later we went to the disputed family home. I saw only an old, rambling house with a big, rusty padlock on the door, surrounded by eucalyptus trees. My mother saw the ghosts of her childhood, and it brought tears to her eyes.
The bitterness of the family dispute had destroyed the home that was there. We, the children, felt nothing when the house was sold and probably demolished.
The word for home and house is one and the same in my mother tongue. When the spirit of a home is destroyed, the house is immaterial if the bricks-and-mortar shell is left standing.
That, it seems to me, is what America and Israel keep offering the Palestinians a house without a home. For after all the conditions are met, from new leaders to deporting the families of suicide bombers, they get a house built to the designs of others, according to someone elses security specifications, which Israel could re-occupy at will.
The Jews of India lived there for several centuries but never really made it their home. That sense of being apart saved them from the killing fields of Partition, because to the rampaging mobs of Hindus and Muslims they were not really Indian at all.
But in the end it cast them adrift. With no real moorings to India, they scattered around the world searching for a home in Jewish enclaves in cold European countries. Sillimans grandmother, Mary, went from Calcutta to London. A deeply observant Jew, her dream was to be buried on the Mount of Olives in Israel. But Israel was a rude surprise to her. A Baghdadi Sephardic Jew, she felt out of place in a nation where the religion was interpreted by Ashkenazi Jews. Secular Israeli life made her uncomfortable. Her granddaughter thinks that of all the places Mary ever called home, Israel was the most alien to her.
I sometimes think of Mary and her search for home when I see the headlines about yet another suicide attack, yet another incursion. She was buried on the Mount of Olives as she had wished. But she never really found home.
Sandip Roy (email@example.com) is host of Upfront, the Pacific News Service weekly radio program on KALW-FM, San Francisco.