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The Telegraph - September 26, 2008

By Samantha Ellis

The word diversity has been so often used to describe a blithe multiculturalism that it has lost its edge. What does it mean to really long to belong to more than one place, to be part of more than one culture? The documentary-maker Sadia Shepard grew up with a Muslim mother and a Christian father, which probably seemed quite enough to be getting on with, but at 13 she discovered that her grandmother was Jewish. This set her off on an odyssey to find out what she really meant when she talked about home.

As a child, home was a white clapboard house just outside Boston. Her family celebrated Ramadan and Christmas. Her two grandmothers were not just friends but partners in crime; her father once received a call from the Denver Botanic Gardens where the two ladies had been caught whacking leaves off trees because his mother-in-law, Rahat, wanted to bake fish in banana leaves for Sunday lunch. When he went to pick them up he found his Episcopalian mother giving the security guard a piece of her mind. "I'm on the board of the Botanic Gardens, young man!" she said. "And my friend here needs banana leaves for her recipe!"

Rahat's real name, though, was Rachel, and she had been born into the Bene Israel, a tiny Jewish community in India. It was her dying wish that Shepard find out about her history and so she set off to make a film about the Bene Israel. Sometimes as she describes making the documentary you wish you simply watch it, but when she finds her voice it is rich, detailed and lyrical. And she has quite a story to tell. The Bene Israel believe that they are one of the ten lost tribes of Israel, that they fled persecution and were shipwrecked on the Konkan coast of India 2,000 years ago, but somehow managed to keep their Judaism alive. Most emigrated to Israel after the convulsions of Partition, and Shepard describes their legacy of empty synagogues, graveyards overgrown with weeds, a synagogue caretaker who remembers only the first verse of Hava Nagila. She also starts to uncover the story of her grandmother, who fell head over heels in love with a Muslim when she was 16 ("I married too young" she says later. "Love like that, it causes a tamasha. Too much fuss.") She kept her marriage secret for 10 years, only telling her parents when she got pregnant. Towards the end of her life, she became haunted by her choice and anxious about facing her parents in whatever afterlife.

If at first Shepard comes across as naïve (professing to feel no conflict between her faiths, listening with interest as a Bene Israel Jew tells her that the Trinity conflicts with Jewish views on monotheism), it becomes impossible to be anything but in awe of the bravery with which she tries to understand her grandmother's doubts, and to work through her own. To most people in India, she is not a Muslim, not a Christian, not a Jew but simply The Girl From Foreign, and the more travelling and thinking she does, the more she wonders what is foreign to her and what is home. This is also a love story, so she is tempted to make her decision based on whom she loves, but that would be too easy.

The answer, partial and conflicted as all real answers are, comes from the Bene Israel themselves whose confidence in their hybridity is inspiring. Shepard volunteers at a Jewish school where the bread ("Only authentic challah in Bombay!") is baked by a Muslim, and when she breaks her fast on Yom Kippur she is offered a "traditional Bene Israel lady sweet" and recognises the taste of the moon-shaped pastry filled with coconut, raisins and crushed nuts as the sweet her grandmother used to feed them during Ramadan. When she sees her grandmother's tombstone, inscribed with both her names, Rachel and Rahat, in Hebrew, Arabic and English, Shepard imagines that "Nana would have enjoyed the moment, the chance to be recognised for all the plurality of who she was."

India Today - December 26, 2008

By Gillian Wright

This is yet another NRI nostalgia trip, with an American girl returning to discover her roots. But just as you begin to wonder whether you can bear another writer describing her perfect Indian grandmother and how she made chapatis, the book begins to hook you. For a start, Sadia Shepard is a very clever woman. She is a filmmaker who came back to India on a Fulbright scholarship and she clearly understands communication. You cannot fault her writing, which is lucid, honest and bare of unnecessary adjectives. She also has an attractive humility. And on top of this, as all families have secrets, at least as strange as fiction, she also has a story to tell.

Some years ago, I was in Jerusalem for the opening of the Indian gallery in the impressive Israel Museum. An entire synagogue had been imported from Cochin and reconstructed as an exhibit. The gallery told the stories of the various Indian Jewish communities, and especially the Bene Israel or the Sanichar Telis, Jews of Maharashtra, who for centuries had extracted oil and rested on the Sabbath. Most of them had migrated to Israel, and a good number were at the opening, singing along to Raj Kapoor hits and recalling the land of their birth, India. Though most of them are today in Israel, Shepard comes to India to study them.

This is because of her own relationship to them. Shepard’s father is Christian, her mother Muslim, and her grandmother was a Muslim too. But she discovered by chance that her grandmother’s original name was Rachel Jacobs and she was a Bene Israel Jew. She had fallen in love with a Muslim businessman, already married twice over. They wed and she lived in Mumbai in her own independent bungalow by the sea until the Partition, when the family migrated to Karachi.

After her husband’s death, her grandmother came to live with her daughter in the US and acted as an extra parent to Shepard as she grew up. So this is a book about a girl with connections to three religions and three countries— the US, Pakistan and India. Shepard tells the story of her grandmother in the US and revisits Pakistan where her relatives have gutted her grandmother’s flat, stripping it even of electrical fittings in their greed. But her grandmother loved her life in Mumbai the most, and so India is the most important country in this book.

In the process of her personal search, and her scholarship aim of studying Indian Jews, Shepard discovers little known communities who have lived and still live as tiny minorities surrounded by their Muslim and Hindu neighbours. The virus of Muslim-Jewish distrust, which has flourished since the creation of Israel, is alien to them. Shepard describes the people she meets as rounded individuals and discovers what she believes is the only family left that still continues the community’s traditional occupation of oil pressing.

The head of the family tells her that their ancestors were shipwrecked off the Indian coast many centuries ago. “We have no problem in India,” he repeatedly tells her, representing the best of Indian tradition, a true pluralism, which respects each individual’s search for Truth. Shepard’s own optimism and empathy are reflected in those she meets, like this Bene Israel family, making this book a truly enchanting read.

The New Yorker - September 8, 2008


In this elegantly crafted memoir, the author sets out to fulfill her grandmother’s dying wish that she learn about her heritage. Her grandmother grew up among the Bene Israel, a small Jewish community in India; when she married a Muslim, she left Judaism and, eventually, India, and adopted the name Rahat Siddiqi. Shepard herself is the product of a mixed marriage: her mother is Pakistani and Muslim, her father American and Christian. After receiving a Fulbright, she left her life in the U.S. to document the remaining Indian Jews, whose numbers have steadily dwindled as many emigrate to Israel. Shepard’s eagerness to maintain narrative tension leads to occasional artificiality, but her writing is vivid and her meditations on heritage and grief are moving.

The Washington Post - August 8, 2008

By Carolyn See

Besides being a personal memoir and a portrait of a family that includes the world's three major monotheistic religions, "The Girl From Foreign" is a meditation on how our individual memories inevitably slip away, either into oblivion or into that dull collective consciousness we call history.

The main, organizing event here occurred in 1947, when India at once gained its independence from Britain and split into two countries -- Hindus remaining primarily in the main body of the subcontinent; Muslims peeling off to the west and east, to form Pakistan. (Decades later, East Pakistan became Bangladesh.) The average American, if there is such a thing, might remember 1947 as part of the beginning of the Cold War. But Indians have the nerve to be fascinated by the events that occurred in their own country that year, the public history that overlaps, vividly, with their personal memories.

Little Sadia Shepard and her younger brother, Cassim, grew up first in Denver, then Chestnut Hill, Mass., in what she considered to be a wonderful and normal life with three terrific adults: her American dad, a tall, rangy, white Protestant; her beautiful Muslim mother, who was born and raised in an affluent home in Karachi, the first capital of Pakistan; and her sweet maternal grandmother, who raised the kids and kept the house while the adult couple ran an architectural firm. This grandma has a set of slightly dissonant memories: "A very long time ago," she tells young Sadia, "your ancestors left Israel in a ship . . . and they were shipwrecked, in India. They were Jews, but they settled in India. In the shipwreck they lost their Torahs, and they forgot their religion." Sadia's nana had spent her early adult years as a Muslim wife in a beautiful beach house in Bombay. But she was neither Hindu nor Muslim. Her prayers, years later, are Muslim, but in her childhood she was a Jew.

These tales told by Sadia's grandmother change over the years and seem highly edited for the children. Yes, she was a member of a group called Bene Israel. As a young adult she worked as a nurse in a Bombay hospital, while being secretly married -- or perhaps not -- to a handsome Muslim. But then, in 1947, when partition came, she was forced to move with her wealthy husband to Karachi. She was in for a rude shock. "When Nana left Bombay for Karachi after the Partition of India," the author tells us, "she left behind her birthplace and community for a new life; she became the third wife in a joint Muslim household, all three families under one roof."

But to Sadia, the details of her nana's Jewish youth remained tantalizingly obscure. What had really become of that legendarily small group of Jews who had set out from Israel 2,000 years earlier, who still evidently believed that they were one of the lost tribes of Israel, and who had settled so long before on the Konkan coast of Western India? According to Nana's stories, they barely remembered their religion, "abstaining from eating fish without fins and scales, and circumcising their male infants on the eighth day after their birth," but knowing only one prayer. It wasn't until the early 19th century that Christian missionaries passing through clued them in on the existence of their own Old Testament. Sadia's grandmother's childhood religion remained exasperatingly obscure, hard to understand, in stark contrast to her father's straight-up Christianity and her mother's Islam. The American household cheerfully accommodated these disparate beliefs by celebrating every possible religious holiday without getting too serious about any one religion.

Then Nana dies. Sadia obsesses about this lost life, the lost memories. She gets a grant to go on a fact-finding trip to Bombay, Karachi and the Konkan coast. Thanks to genes from her rangy dad, she's maybe a foot taller than everyone else, a "girl from foreign," a bit of a freak. Many of the Indians she meets are less than hospitable. The lost settlements of the Bene Israel are very hard to find. Sadia aches with loneliness. But she sticks it out; she runs down every clue. She visits the home of her nana's Muslim relatives: They've spitefully gutted her old apartment, possibly because she was Jewish, possibly because she was the youngest and prettiest of the wives, possibly because they just needed the wiring, plumbing and furniture. Sadie will never find out, but her mother, safely in America, isn't surprised. At every step Sadia is pestered by religious zealots to choose a faith -- and a nationality while she's at it. But she steadfastly refuses, choosing to keep her options open.

But what a rich tapestry of theology, art, emotions and forgotten lore she's uncovered! As our personal memories turn into history, all too often the colors are leached from them. But Sadia Shepard tints the colors back in. We see lavish Muslim weddings, Jewish villages hidden in Indian jungles, earnest lovers reaching across religion and culture. The author's laudable accomplishment is that she yanks her grandmother's story from the coffin of forgetfulness and breathes it back into life.

The Christian Science Monitor - August 28th, 2008

THE GIRL FROM FOREIGN - ‘So are you Muslim or are you Jewish?’
By Elizabeth A. Brown

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When the author of this exquisite memoir arrives in India to begin her year as a Fulbright Scholar at the Film and TV Institute of India, an officious guard refuses her entrance. Her name is “not on the list.” She persists, showing her official documents and trying to talk her way in. Though her mother is of Indian and Pakistani descent, and she bears a Muslim name – Sadia – she doesn’t exactly blend in. “I know how alien I look,” she writes. “I am paler and taller than everyone else. And in my outdated salwar kameez [pants and tunic], I can be pegged as an outsider right away.” Finally, the guard realizes she may belong there, if simply because she doesn’t belong anywhere else. We can imagine his clipped Indian English as he says, “You are from Foreign?”

This moniker will stick as she begins the search for her family’s Jewish roots in The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories, and a Sense of Home by Sadia Shepard. The memoir is a gorgeous, honest tribute to her departed maternal grandmother, Nana, whose unlikely history propels the search. Part love story, part history, part search – not only for what was lost, but for how to understand what is found – the tale also traces paths not taken by Nana. The stories are compelling, the writing is clear, and the entire book feels like an act of love and courage. As documentary filmmaker and photographer, Shepard knows how to move through scenes, pack them with dialogue, focus on key details, and capture the juxtaposition of opposites that will fascinate us outsiders.

The quest starts back when the author, at age 13, discovers a pin bearing the name “Rachel Jacobs” in her Muslim grandmother’s jewelry box in their home outside Boston. Nana explains that she grew up in India in a Jewish family, part of the Bene Israel (Children of Israel) community, thought to be one of the lost tribes that fled Israel two thousand years ago and landed, shipwrecked, on the shores of India.

They lost their Torahs, Nana says, but they remembered one prayer, and continued to pray to one God. “So are you Muslim or are you Jewish?” young Sadia asks. “Now I’m a Muslim, but God is the same in both religions,” Nana replies. Later, Nana will answer that question differently: “I don’t know. One is the religion of my forefathers, and the other is the religion of my children.”

Sadia learns about her Nana’s secret marriage to an older Muslim man, and about her eventual move to Pakistan into the family compound with her husband’s two other wives and countless children. It is to this house, too, that the author will return, and where one of Nana’s old keys will unlock a drawer and reveal romantic secrets.

Like her granddaughter, she, too, lived as a “girl from Foreign,” as a Jew in Hindu India, then as an Indian Jew in Muslim Pakistan, and finally as an Indian Muslim in the United States. As the author traces Nana’s steps, she paints a rich portrait of today’s India – the sights, smells, and sounds of bustling Bombay, as well as the verdant and tranquil countryside, where Jewish relatives, seed-pressers, still eke out a living hand-crushing seeds to make oil. Shepard takes us to Pakistan for a family wedding, where the jet doors open to “those heady scents of arrival: jasmine flowers, gasoline, burning trash, and cow dung.”

She has a filmmaker’s eye for detail. When she arrives unannounced to start Hindu lessons, the teacher’s wife answers the door, snatches the clean shirt hanging on the clothesline, and in a few minutes ushers Shepard in to meet the teacher who is wearing – of course – that clean shirt. This is life in the developing world, where belongings are few and precious.

This book will leave readers wanting more. Thankfully there are a couple dozen photographs – some vintage, but most taken by the author herself. Why should memoir be limited to the written word? We look forward to more from this talented writer, photographer, and filmmaker. In the meantime, the questions she has raised linger: What does it mean to be Jewish, Muslim, Indian, Christian? Are they simply labels, chosen by the wearer? Are they exclusive, or can they be tried on, borrowed from, combined? Readers will find themselves wondering about their own heritage as they read this enchanting tale of family, memory, loyalty, and love.

Publisher's Weekly - Starred Review of THE GIRL FROM FOREIGN:
“Who is Rachel Jacobs?” the 13-year-old asks her Muslim grandmother Rahat Siddiqi; “that,” Nana tells her, “was my name before I was married.” Thus does a grandmother's stunning reply and a granddaughter's promise “to learn about her ancestors” set Shepard's three voyages of discovery in motion: her grandmother's history; the story of the Bene Israel (one of the lost tribes of Israel that, having sailed from Israel two millennia ago, crashed on the Konkan coast in India; and her own self-discovery (her mother was Muslim, her father Christian, and her grand mother Jewish). Shepard balances all three journeys with dexterity as she spends her Fulbright year, with an old hand-drawn map and her grandmother's family tree, unraveling the mysteries of Nana's past while visiting and photographing the grand and minuscule synagogues in Bombay and on the Konkan Coast. A filmmaker, Shepard writes with a lively sense of pacing (her year proceeds chronologically, interspersed with well-placed flashbacks) and a keen sense of character (getting to know her friend, escort and fellow filmmaker Rekhev as gradually as she does, or capturing the Muslim baker who makes the “only authentic challah in Bombay” in a few strokes). Shepard's story is entertaining and instructive, inquiring and visionary. (Aug.)
Booklist - Starred Review of THE GIRL FROM FOREIGN:
During her childhood outside of Boston, Shepard's mother, Samina, a Muslim Pakistani, and father, Richard, a Christian American, gave her the freedom to embrace both religions and cultures. Shepard's "third parent" was her adored maternal grandmother, Rahat Siddiqi, called Nana. At age 13, Shepard was shocked to discover that Nana was once Rachel Jacobs, a member of the Bene Israel, a small Jewish community near the Konkan coast of India. Years later, Shepard, now a filmmaker, promises Nana that she will return to India to document her history and that of the Bene Israel, whose descendants believe they are a lost tribe of Israel. With the aid of a Fulbright, she arrives in Bombay shortly after the events of 9/11. Shepard entwines narrative flashbacks of her family's history with a chronicle of her time abroad, as she interacts with a colorful array of individuals, seeks out the Bene Israel's synagogues and diminishing communities, and reflects upon her sense of self and home, given her complex heritage. Shepard's engaging and pensive memoir of discovery offers a moving portrait of her grandmother within an inquisitive, complex journey into urgent questions of religious, cultural, and personal identity. — Leah Strauss
Kirkus Reviews - Review of THE GIRL FROM FOREIGN:

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Documentary filmmaker Shepard searches for her history deep in the heart of India’s tiny Jewish community. Growing up in Boston, the author knew that her mother was a Muslim from Pakistan, her father a Christian from Colorado. When she was 13, in 1988, she learned that her grandmother had been born in Bombay, a member of the Bene Israel community, which believes it is one of the lost tribes of Israel. Shortly before Nana’s death in 2000, Shepard promised she would go to India and study her ancestors. Her debut memoir begins 15 months later as she arrived in muggy Bombay to fulfill that promise. The ensuing trip was full of meetings with colorful characters and pensive reflections on identity, community and family. Shepard’s journey through India took place as the world was rocked by the 9/11 attacks, which provided a recurring backdrop to her travels. In the nonlinear narrative of Part One, “Storytelling,” the author dips back in time to recall how her parents met, to talk about her childhood and to examine her grandmother’s influence on the family.
Then she settles into “Fieldwork,” a more conventional, chronological documentation of her journey. It throws up a number of intriguing revelations. One member of the Bene Israel community talked openly about the dwindling job opportunities for young Jews in Bombay, partly rectified in recent times by the booming call-center industry. Others seized on Shepard’s ambivalence about religion and advised her to study a faith, preferably Judaism, and pick a partner from that denomination to marry. The author also traveled to Pakistan, where her grandmother and millions of other Indian Muslims moved after Partition in 1948. At Nana’s old flat in Karachi, Shepard discovered a sheaf of her letters; these, together with the stories she told her granddaughter about her past, constitute the book’s most interesting parts.

A readable account that gives a vivid taste of life in present-day India as well as a poignant glimpse of complicated family relations. (Agent: Fredrica Friedman/Fredrica S. Friedman and Company)
Page Six Magazine - June 2008

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Sadia Shepard, 33.

Prologue: "In New York, a party can change your life," says Sadia. The documentary filmmaker was sharing her li
fe story at a dinner when renowned literary agent Fredrica S. Friedman offered her representation. Sadia's debut, The Girl From Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories and a Sense of Home, in which she explores her Indian / Jewish / Muslim heritage, will be released by Penguin Press on July 31.

Climax: The Bowery resident is juggling making a film about her two-year trip to India with a docu
mentary on a year in the life of Vogue. "Sadia has a sensitivity to the world around her," Vogue fashion news editor Sally Singer tells Page Six Magazine. "She doesn't judge it, she just takes it in."

Epilogue: Sadia is immersing herself in the city's literary scene. "I'm going to readings at McNally Robinson and KGB Bar and I'm writing every day," she says. "I'm constantly in production."
New York Press - July 30th, 2008

‘FOREIGN’ RELATIONS: From the Bowery to Bombay, Sadia Shepard follows her family’s footsteps
By Jeffrey Cretan

Sadia Shepard can't help but see the world through a complicated lens. The documentary filmmaker turned memoirist has spent the past few years documenting her family’s intricate international history, and this week will release the book, titled The Girl from Foreign, that chronicles her experiences. Raised in Massachusetts by a Muslim-Indian mother and a Christian-American father, Shepard discovered at an early age that her maternal grandmother—a Muslim woman from Karachi— had been born into the Bene Israel, a small tribe in and around Bombay that believes it was shipwrecked in India after escaping persecution by a Syrian-Greek ruler in Galilee two thousand years ago.

Now living in Manhattan, Shepard is about to embark on a nationwide tour speaking and reading from her book; recounting the story of her family and of her experience of going to India to make a documentary about the Bene Israel. “When my grandmother asked me to return to her birthplace, to her ancestors, I don't think she or I knew what that actually meant. Or did she,” asked Shepard, over an Arnold Palmer at Think on the Bowery. Before Shepard's grandmother passed away in 2000, she told her to go to India, to find the Bene Israel and to learn about them. Shepard received a Fulbright Scholarship on the basis of making a film about the shipwrecked tribe and, in 2001, just days after September 11th, began her journey.

What began as a search for the story of the people of Bene Israel and how her grandmother, Rahat, had been born Rachel Jacobs, quickly unfurled into a soul-searching sojourn. The book alternates between Shepard's own journey from New York to India and the journeys of her mother and grandmother as they moved from India to Pakistan to America. These juxtaposed experiences show the tidal movements of a family flowing from the old world of the east to the new world of the west and back again. Shepard finds this last movement, that of the descendants of immigrants returning in search of some idea of an ancestral home, to be a popular one in the United States. “In a country like ours, with so many different cultures, the idea of going outside of our country to seek some greater authenticity is a very American idea.”

However, the discovery of some core identity or explanation did not come as easily as she thought. Shepard, who has an easy laugh and warm, effusive demeanor, looks off to the side quietly when considering a deeper point, a movement that echoes the difficulty of pinpointing a single straight ahead truth. “Once I got there, I struggled with the central idea. What I was looking for.” Before she knew it, one year turned into two and while the material piled up, the truth eluded her.Upon returning to New York, Shepard began to sort through her material and work on her documentary, In Search of Bene Israel. She never intended to write a book, but after telling her story at an Upper East Side dinner party, a literary agent in the crowd sought her out. For the filmmaker, hearing someone was interested in having her write a book was met with “complete disbelief.”

It took Shepard a few years to put the book proposal together. And once that was accepted, all she had to do was actually write the book—something she had no experience doing. Fortunately, her training as a filmmaker came in handy. “Documentary film making is like making a quilt. You shoot as much material as possible and then patch it together,” she said. Shepard, luckily, had boxes of notes and journals and taped interviews to string together into an overall structure for her memoir.

Now at work on a second book examining how modern technology has improved travel and communication between the United States and South Asia, Shepard said her experiences have taught her the importance of cross-cultural interaction. “It's urgent that Americans, in this historical moment, are able to travel and study in other countries,” she said. “And that students from other countries are able to travel and study in the United States.” And even now, while she misses Bombay, Shepard finds many similarities between the Indian city and her home in New York. “Bombay is a place where people come from all over the country seeking something. Like New York, Bombay is the city of dreams. I was just one small seeker among many.”

While she may not have found that one essential truth she was seeking, Shepard has discovered a greater appreciation of her immediate family and “a renewed interest in the seemingly mundane rituals of the five of us together.” Reflecting warmly on her childhood—when, along with her mother, father and brother, she celebrated Christmas, Ramadan and Hanukkah—she recalled traveling to visit family in Pakistan at an early age, and the impact of her grandmother, who would live with them for part of the year between trips abroad. “One thing I learned growing up with my grandmother is that we're able to learn when we make time and room for older generations.”

The Standard-Times (New Bedford, MA) - July 25, 2008\

By Lauren Daley

Documentary filmmaker Sadia Shepard returns to her parents' South Dartmouth home for a party in August, and the family has much to celebrate. Sadia's memoir, "The Girl From Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Lost Loves and Forgotten Histories" (Penguin Press) hits bookstores July 31. Her parents — Samina Quraeshi and Richard Shepard — are architects/designers who live in an 18th-century farmhouse they restored themselves; they moved from Chestnut Hill to South Dartmouth in 2000. Sadia, 33, the child of a Protestant dad from the United States and a Muslim mom from Pakistan, considers "Foreign" the story of finding herself. When Sadia was 13, she made the discovery that Nana, her maternal grandmother, was not a Muslim like the rest of her mom's Pakistani family. Nana had begun her life as Rachel Jacobs, a member of a tiny Jewish community in India called the Bene Israel. Sadia had family roots in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. So on Sept. 8, 2001, she flew from New York City to India with a plan to film a documentary on the Bene Israel and find out about her grandmother's past life. We all know what happened three days later.

On Sept. 11, Sadia, who lived in the heart of Manhattan, was interviewing Muslims, Christians and Jews in the heart of an Islamic region. When she returned home in 2003, a literary agent suggested Sadia turn her film footage into a book. Her documentary, "In Search of the Bene Israel," premieres at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on Aug. 10. She will sign copies of her book Sept. 5 at Baker Books in Dartmouth. I called Sadia this week to chat.

Lauren: Your grandmother has an interesting past. How did you discover she was Jewish?
Sadia: When I was 13, I was going through one of my grandmother's drawers in her bedroom bureau and I found a small velvet box, and inside I found a pin, inscribed "To Rachel Jacobs." So I thought this was curious and I asked my grandmother, "Who is Rachel Jacobs?" And she said, "That was my Jewish name." This began a conversation that would last until her death when she was 82 and I was 25. That started the journey I went on and am still on. I was very surprised. I always assumed all my mother's family was Muslim. I always assumed (Nana) was part of that culture. My grandmother married my Muslim grandfather when she was 16; she was his third wife. I promised her before she died in the spring of 2000 that I would go to India to learn about the Bene Israel.
LD: You flew to India on a Fulbright Scholarship and you were there on 9/11. What was that like?
SS: Yes, I went on a Fulbright and arrived in India on Sept. 8, 2001. It was a confusing time to be a young American abroad. Especially in the first few weeks (after 9/11). It was so perplexing what was going to happen next. I didn't know whether to go home to New York or continue in India. People in India were very interested that I was from New York; they were filled with questions. Almost everyone I met wanted to know first and foremost if my family and friends were all right. There was an outpouring of sympathy about what happened, what it felt like to be an American.
LD: Did you know anyone affected by 9/11?
SS: Everyone in my community in New York was affected in some way. In the first few days, the phone lines were down; it was impossible to communicate. (I had) very little idea of what was happening.
LD: Where were you when you heard the news?
SS: I was at Fulbright orientation; I watched it on television live in a YMCA surrounded by Americans. I was struggling to comprehend what was going on. But I was overwhelmed by the empathy of everyone I interacted with in India, whether it was in Bombay or a remote village of Maharashtra. Bombay was racked by its own terrorist bombings in 1992-93, so they felt sympathy with NYC. Everywhere I went, people shared their own stories of overcoming tragedy and personal difficulties. I was working on a documentary on religion at a time of religious tension in the region. Yet I was struck by the enthusiasm of people I met towards my project.
LD: What did you learn about the Bene Israel? I was reading a little bit about them — that they didn't experience anti-Semitism; that they believe they descended from a shipwreck and they descended from seven men from one of the lost tribes of Israel?
SS: That's right. The Bene Israel have enjoyed a peaceful assimilation in India. They have a wonderful history. They're a small community of Jews in western India, who believe they were shipwrecked on the coast 2,000 years ago. (They believe) they were descended from seven couples, from one of the lost tribes of Israel. For over 2,000 years, they've settled comfortably into Indian society.
LD: What did you get out of writing this book?
SS: Writing this book has been an incredible journey. I was raised by three remarkable parents — my mom, dad and grandmother. They raised me to appreciate the commonalities in their faiths. It wasn't until I went to India that I began to think more seriously about what it meant to grow up with three religions in one home.
LD: What do you hope other readers get out of the book?
SS: My grandmother's story was unique, but all grandmothers have unique stories. I hope we all take time to talk to the people in our lives with remarkable tales to tell.
LD: Do you think this book holds a post-9/11 meaning?
SS: What my experience in India taught me is that religious faith is not just about theology — it's shaped by the different places it's practiced in"¦ In order to get beyond the idea of a clash of civilizations between east and west, Islam and Christianity, I think we need to explore plural and hyphenated identities — and recognize that no religion is a monolith. I hope that more people come forward to give voice to these kinds of stories.


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