Book Comment BURNT BREAD AND CHUTNEY: Jewish Roots in India

Burnt Bread and Chutney, by Carmit Delman, is a vivid memoir of an American woman of light and dark Jewish lineage who must grapple with years of painful identity issues. As the daughter of an Ashkenazi (Eastern European) father and a dark-skinned mother from western India’s Bene Israel community, Delman traverses widely disparate cultures in the Old and New Worlds—physically, emotionally and spiritually.

image: cover of the book burnt bread and chutney by Carmit Delman

As the story develops, we wonder how Delman will ultimately resolve the questions of who she is and where her true home really lies.

The author was motivated to describe her childhood-to-postgraduate years after serendipitously uncovering the diary of her deceased great-aunt, Nana-bai, by whom she was raised and mentored (along with her parents). Excerpts from the surprising diary appear at the beginning of chapters. A personal trauma that her aunt suffers as a young woman ripples through Delman’s self-reflection and evolving perspectives on life.

In her formative years, the author and her siblings were nourished on their mother’s hearty Indian cooking, replete with that country’s native ingredients and spices. After the family’s brief sojourn in Israel—in which their dream of aliya has been dashed because of “petty bureaucratic” obstacles—they find themselves back in the U.S., where Delman’s food predilections gravitate to authentic American foods: the ubiquitous hamburger, hot dog, potato chips, and “shopping mall food.”

Predominant in the author’s unsettled youth is an uneasy but growing consciousness of conflicting cultural values. The conservative Old World (Indian) beliefs and taboos, as taught and reinforced by Nana-bai, are juxtaposed against relatively flexible and permissive American standards.

It is on her family’s extended car outings that Delman can absorb popular entertainment like arcade games, Star Wars, and Cabbage Patch dolls, albeit under her parents’ watchful supervision.

American culture, folklore, and history are perceived as pieces of an intriguing “foreign” culture in their midst. Yet, “We did not partake of them,” she recalls, “and so we had a little less to talk about with people who did. There was always an awareness of ‘here’ versus ‘there.’”

The distinctiveness of their racial blend was not a factor until one day, when Delman began to feel fully out of place—even among other Jews.

“‘Why don’t you look Jewish?’ people often asked us. ‘What does Jewish look like?’ we wanted to say in return.

“Maybe if we had been accepted at face value as regular Jews,” she wonders, “the sense of America would have been more natural. But from the earliest age I remember feeling different, even from the American Jewish community. So that brand of Americana, with New York’s Lower East Side of Yiddish and bagels and lox so thick in its veins, seemed unattainable to me also.”

“‘Why don’t you look Jewish?’ people often asked us. ‘What does Jewish look like?’ we wanted to say in return. ’Judaism is a religion, it is not a look.’”

“But they asked this because most of the Jews they saw around them in America were descended from Eastern Europe and they assumed that those people defined Jews all over the world. 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 non-white. Their assumptions drew a distinct line between us and them.”

In the “Kin, Not Kind” section of the memoir, the author takes us back one generation for a sobering glimpse of Nana-bai’s experiences growing up in Bombay (Mumbai) in the Bene Israel community. The Jews there are said to be descendants of the survivors of an ancient shipwreck. As the author explains in the preface, the Bene Israel “evolved quite uniquely, without many of the holidays, rituals, and rabbinic rulings introduced meanwhile in the general Jewish Diaspora. …They adopted the local language, Marathi, and manners of dress like the sari, along with some of the other Indian customs; they… mostly kept to themselves. They maintained the few ancient Jewish rituals which could be passed on.” At the same time, they absorbed Indian influences in prayer melodies and rituals, fasting, pilgrimages, and caste-like ways.

The prejudice and persecution that affected other Diaspora Jews was manifested differently in Western India. As the writer describes it, “Because they were not persecuted by non-Jews for their beliefs, the way that Jews in other countries often were, the Bene Israel achieved a solid relationship with the general Indian community and succeeded in the military, medicine, and the arts. They faced another kind of discrimination, however, because once they reconnected, the dark color of their skin and their centuries of isolation sometimes led other Jewish communities to look down on them and question their Jewish purity.”

What we do learn, sadly, is that Nana-bai’s life was virtually ruined by subservience to her spouses, malicious gossip from female relatives, and the shame of unwanted polygamy. The author provides us with an astounding perspective on her great-aunt’s “dirty little secret”: “Long ago in India, Nana-bai and the girl she grew up with as her sister were married at the same time to the same man… Most nights the husband stayed at the mansion with his first wife and children. He took them wandering about the city to enjoy fairs and music… since they were spoiled by his money, overfed and always needing to feed more, that household was filled with pettiness and arguing. And so the husband turned with other needs to Nana-bai, whom he kept moving from one hovel to another in the slums of Bombay… It was usually the first wife who maddened him, whining for trinkets and making fusses over the servants. But in the end, naturally, he came to the second wife to take out his anger… As it happens in small communities, all the Bene Israel soon knew about our family. First wife. Second wife. Who was favored. Who was beaten. And they, too, felt free to follow suit with their own snubs, preferences, and indignities.”

Shifting forward to her high school years, Delman tells how she spent summer vacations working on Israeli kibbutzim. Internally, she remained quite ambivalent about her preferred home. “Part of me could never be a kibbutz adult,” she says. “American cities, American Judaism, academia, and the luxury of a surplus culture, all molded my lifestyle and expectations… And yet, in many ways, another part of me, stunted in growth, continued—and probably always will continue—to be an original kibbutz child… and I remained that kibbutz child at heart because, despite all the grown-up jumbled ideas I tried to impose upon Israel, still when I thought about that place, that home, it was with utter longing.”

By her college years, she was still caught between the opposing moral forces from her Old World upbringing and her growing instinct toward complete autonomy and assimilation in the liberal American culture in which she lives.

At last, the author comes to realize after college that, what Nana-bai wanted most from her niece was that the younger woman would transcend the cultural values, shame, and stigma that had affected her so terribly as a second wife. Delman equates her great-aunt with “the haunting matriarchs I read about in books, who passed on painted, cryptic, purposeful messages to empower the women who came after them to rise above where they themselves once were. That, it seemed, was Nana-bai.”

The book includes an enlightening interview with the author and a section of questions and topics for group discussion.