The Girl from Foreign

The Girl from Foreign weaves stories of author Sadia Shepard’s cross-cultural childhood with tales from her two-year journey to India to uncover the disparate influences which have shaped her family.

The child of a white Protestant father from Colorado and a Muslim mother from Pakistan, Sadia grew up outside of Boston in a household full of stories and storytellers where cultures intertwined. One day, when Sadia was thirteen, she made the discovery that Nana, her beloved maternal grandmother, was not a Muslim like the rest of her Pakistani family. Instead, she had begun her life as Rachel Jacobs, a member of a tiny Jewish community in India that believes it is descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel, shipwrecked in India over two thousand years ago.

Before Nana died, Sadia promised her that she would go to India to learn about the life and the faith that she had left behind. Armed with a suitcase of camera equipment, Sadia arrives in Bombay, where she finds herself struggling to document the Bene Israel’s unique traditions and make sense of her own complicated cultural legacy.

Weaving together the story of her grandparents’ secret marriage—and the haunting legacy of Partition—with an evocative account of a little-known Jewish community in transition, Shepard's journey unearths long-buried family secrets and forces her to examine what it means both to lose and to seek a homeland.

Publisher's Weekly - Starred Review
“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. 

Booklist Starred Review ( Leah Strauss)
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 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. 

The New Yorker - Briefly Noted
In this elegantly crafted memoir, the author sets out to fulfill her grandmother’s dying wish that she learn about her heritage...Shepard’s…writing is vivid and her meditations on heritage and grief are moving. 

The Washington Post - Jewish Roots in India (Carolyn See)
"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…what a rich tapestry of theology, art, emotions and forgotten lore she's uncovered!"

The Christian Science Monitor - 'So are you Muslim or are you Jewish?' (Elizabeth A. Brown)
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 stories are compelling, the writing is clear, and the entire book feels like an act of love and courage.