Celebrating My Grandfather’s Book

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Papa Moses Ezekiel and Grandma Diana Ezekiel
Papa Moses Ezekiel and Grandma Diana Ezekiel

My paternal grandfather’s book travelled with me a long way, from India to my adopted home overseas.  His name, Principal Moses Ezekiel (J. & J. College of Science, NADIAD B.B. & C.I.RY), the book’s title, ‘History and Culture of the Bene-Israel in India.’ It documents the history of the Bene Israel Indian Jewish community in which I was born and raised.  The slim book was published on October 4th, 1948, on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year’s Day 5709. He mentions, and I quote his words: ‘I had visited many remote villages in the Kolaba district, for the sole purpose of collecting detailed information about this little community to which I happen to belong.’  My copy of the book is very old, and the first page is torn.  I think the back page, or pages, are also missing. I have now covered the book with a thick white cover to preserve it for my children and grandchildren. It is truly a greatly treasured inheritance!

My grandfather has dedicated the book to his sister, Sarah, and in the preface, where he makes several confessions, he confesses that ‘this is not my subject, I do not claim to be a historian, and that I have borrowed many pieces of information from the monumental work of Mr. Haeem Samuel on the subject.’ He adds that ‘this book is merely a labor of love.’ My grandfather was the Principal of a college in Nadiad in Gujarat, India, where he wrote the book. He spoke fluent Gujarati, in addition to Sanskrit, Marathi and English. I think he also knew Hebrew.  His subjects were Botany and Zoology, and he also served as Head of the Science Department at Wilson College in Bombay.

Cover of the book History and Culture of the Bene Israel in India
Cover of the book History and Culture of the Bene Israel in India

I am struck by the simplicity of his writing and the personal touch he gives to his account of the story of our small, but significant community. The humility with which he writes the Preface strikes me each time I return to reading it.  If simplicity is an inherited trait, I pray I have taken the cue from my grandfather, and I am grateful to him for this quality. My poetry is written in the same vein. My father, Nissim Ezekiel, too, was a champion of writing with simplicity and authenticity, and living life in the same way. If asked what my two most important values in life are, I would unhesitatingly respond, integrity and humility.

My grandfather was a very tall man. He had a longish face, wavy hair, which both my father and I have inherited, and a large moustache. It was childish fun for me to watch him comb his hair, and then his moustache with the same brush, both with meticulous strokes. I watched this ritual quite regularly, peeping from the slats in the old-style door that led from the ‘gallery,’ (my grandmother called it that, it was what now we would call the living room) that led to his room. He used the mirror, which was part of those old-fashioned clothes cupboards, for this ritual.  He was a strict and disciplined man and walked with long strides. When in Bombay, he took a brisk walk at 7am each morning, to drink neera, which is also called palm nectar. The Neera stand was adjacent to the sugarcane juice stand, about a 10-minute walk from his home, and across from the Bombay Central station.  Neera is the sap extracted from the toddy palm before sunrise and is translucent and sweet tasting. Health and nutrition were of utmost important to him. It was interesting to sit down to a meal with him and listen to him explain the value of certain foods for the body and the mind! Throughout the meal he insisted that we chew our food thoroughly.

 

At the end of the book, in Appendix X1, he adds a list of Education Institutions run by the Bene-Israel community. Among those is the school for underprivileged children, founded and run by my paternal grandmother, Mrs. Diana M. Ezekiel.

 

The school was called Vijay Vidyalaya. Loosely translated, it means home of the victory of knowledge. Vijay is victory and Vidyalaya is home of knowledge.  I have a deep emotional connection with her school as I had accompanied my grandmother when she started the school with three students, renting space in a Hindu temple, when it was available. I was a young girl then, and it was fascinating to watch the love and dedication with which she engaged the students.  Later she expanded the school, renting rooms in an old building and even starting a Tailoring class for women to give them a trade. As I have a published article dedicated to my grandmother, I will not go into details here, but suffice it to say that I got my first lessons in teaching from her. She taught me how to put the child in the classroom above everything else, and how to teach with love, patience, compassion and understanding. In my long teaching career, these values among others she modelled for me, stood me in good stead.

My grandfather’s book is 120 pages long, with 12 chapters ranging from the Early History of the Bene Israel to their culture and literary contributions, and Appendices divided into different sections. It consists of valuable information about the origins and history of the Bene Israel community, like the ‘Names and Surnames’ of the Bene Israel people. Although he claims not to be a historian, he provides us with many interesting and relevant historical facts about the Bene Israel in India. In the preface he mentions that he had given one lecture on the Bene Israel to the Christian Missionary Conference in the year 1940, one in Marathi to a Hindu audience in the Gunjiker Lecture series in Bombay, and one to the Rotary Club of Nadiad, in two instalments.

We called my paternal grandfather Papa Moses. I had the privilege and the blessing of growing up with two sets of loving and caring grandparents and learning and taking an active part in all the customs and traditions of the Bene Israel Indian Jewish community in which I was born and raised.

All Images: The Author

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