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Poems From ‘Sweet Malida: Memories Of A Bene Israel Woman’

Sweet malida. A mix of water-softened flattened rice, sugar, dried fruits and nuts, was a dish made
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Sweet Malida

 

Sweet malida.

A mix of water-softened

flattened rice, sugar,

dried fruits and nuts,

was a dish made

 

for Shabbath, or for breaking

our fasts. Cooling, light

on the palate, and

to the body and the spirit,

it was welcome in the heat

of day or night. We, like

our Muslim, Christian and Hindu

neighbors and friends,

had many foods in common,

and we often celebrated together

their festivals or ours. I relished

 

particularly fresh coconut,

the regional staple, its milk

or its flesh added to almost

every dish. But this was to me

the best way to eat it,

finely grated

by my mother’s hands,

 

left unsweetened

and sprinkled haphazardly

on the malida, juicy threads

with a fleck of stubborn

brown kernel here and there

that sometimes crunched

in your teeth like sand,

and you winced and swallowed it,

 

knowing that there was no

simpler or purer

or truer form than that.

A mix of water-softened/flattened rice, sugar,/dried fruits and nuts,/ was a dish made
A mix of water-softened/flattened rice, sugar,/dried fruits and nuts,/ was a dish made

The Angels of Konkan

 

Navgaon, Maharashtra, is where, it is believed, the ancestors of the Bene Israel were shipwrecked, and where a ruined cemetery exists today

 

From tumbled sands and shattered bark

blurred shadows dragged us (where were we)

who dried our battered bodies

 

bound our wounds

clothed us in woven cotton

fed us warm food (that we could not name then) with their hands

 

and as Elijah ate of bread and flesh

the ravens gave him so also we ate

 

and drank of the cool water brought

from brooks (who were these healers)

 

then in fields of grass near the sea

we buried our dead the ones we found

 

(where are they now)

set gravestones to remember

then in fields of grass near the sea/we buried our dead the ones we found
then in fields of grass near the sea/we buried our dead the ones we found

they let us pray as we wished

and giving thanks to Adonai

learned the craft of oil pressers

(did our tribe know it already)

 

ate what our laws permitted

and praising this vast green land

its rich soil its rivers its ghats

its grains its fish and fowl

we blessed the hearts

the living hands

 

of the villagers

who saved us

they let us pray as we wished/and giving thanks to Adonai...
they let us pray as we wished/and giving thanks to Adonai...

A Chirota for My Thoughts

 

 

this fine flaky treat was often made

from left over chironji dough

 

rolled out in flat circles

ghee smothered with fingers

 

piled on each other folded and rolled

folded and rolled again

 

full of hidden “puthers”—feathers

which fluffed up miraculously

 

as it rose up singing

out of hot oil

 

a crisp golden disc

delicate as eggshells

 

dusted with sugar or drizzled with a glaze

then studded with pistas and charolee

 

eaten so fast even the fine sprays

of crumbs that settled everywhere

as it rose up singing/out of hot oil...
as it rose up singing/out of hot oil...

like dust I pressed my little index finger

into and sucked

 

or licked off the old dining table

with my tongue

 

Some days paralyzed with lost-ness

and weak limbs I pretend

 

unhealed wounds and home fallen

to ruin are made whole

 

broken slivers I salvage

from those strong stainless-steel tins

 

indestructible dubbas we owned

etched with our names

Who are the Bene Israel Jews of India? Where did they come from? How did they survive in India? A moving, multi-layered, richly sensory and informative collection of poems and short prose inspired by this ancient community which the poet herself belongs to. Using various poetic forms, the poet launches on an imaginative journey, delving into the history, especially the food and culinary customs of this small community of Indian Jews, explores its special connection to the Prophet Elijah, while seamlessly weaving in memories, bringing to life the past and lost loved ones as well.

All Images: pixabay.com

Zilka Joseph is an internationally published poet, who has authored six collections. Her work is influenced by Indian and Western cultures, and her Bene Israel roots. She was nominated for prizes such as PEN America, American Book Awards, and Pushcart, and won a Zell Fellowship, the Michael Gutterman prize, and the Elsie Choy Lee Scholarship from the University of Michigan. Her book ‘Sparrows and Dust’ won a Notable Best Indie Book award. ‘Sharp Blue Search of Flame’ and ‘In Our Beautiful Bones’ were Foreword INDIES finalists. ‘Sweet Malida: Memories of a Bene Israel Woman’, her new collection, was published in the US in February, and will be published in India in November, 2024. She is a creative writing coach, manuscript advisor, and a mentor to writers in her community. www.zilkajoseph.com

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