Poetry. Paper, Perfect Bound. 66 pages
2024, ISBN: 978-1-952781-19-3
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Who are the Bene Israel Jews of India? Where did they come from? How did they survive in India? “Sweet Malida” is a moving, multi-layered, richly sensory and informative collection of poems and short prose inspired by this ancient community to which the poet herself belongs. 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.
I loved the way in which Zilka Joseph, in her latest book, beckons the reader into the world of the Bene Israel. Remarkably, Joseph, in this collection of poems and short prose pieces, provides the reader with a rich, multilayered portrait of the Bene Israel—and of herself. — Joan Roland
Zilka Joseph embodies hybridity, haunted by Indian delicacies yet encompassed by modernism and impulse. She manages to convey this complexity to her readers with elegance, style, and soul. — Shalva Weil
In these evocative and skillfully crafted poems, Zilka reclaims the legacy of the dwindling Bene Israel Jewish community. — Menka Shivdasani
In this deeply moving collection, Zilka Joseph takes us on a journey through memories scented with cumin and cardamom, grief and regret, as her Bene Israel heritage comes alive. Joseph’s precise and passionate descriptions transcend time and space. — Nancy Naomi Carlson
Sweet Malida by Zilka Joseph will be an interesting and valuable document in verse, of both personal and historical value. — Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca
Zilka’s poems are an invitation into the Bene Israel kitchen of her youth. Come sit at the table as her mother and her grandmother spice their dishes with history, nostalgia, and longing that will leave you hungry for more. — Erica Lyons
Zilka Joseph’s Sweet Malida is an important book. It is poetry where the poet’s soul lies bare. And if that poetry captures the feeling and experience of belonging to a micro-minority, then it emerges as an invaluable source for anyone with a genuine interest in that community. — Navras Aafreedi
Advance Praise for Sweet Malida:
When people say they are “hybrids,” it is usually a concoction. With Zilka Joseph, her hybridity is her essence. Zilka, a respected and acknowledged writer and poet, is both Indian and Jewish, a member of the wonderful Bene Israel community of Maharashtra, with whom I had the privilege to live for three years and to remain in contact throughout my life. Zilka Joseph’s poems are so authentic, reflecting the Bene Israel community I once knew.
Zilka’s ancestors were originally oilpressers in the Konkan villages, but for several generations they have held prestigious positions in Bengal, Gujarat and today’s Pakistan. Zilka herself was born in Mumbai, moved to Kolkata with her parents, the marine engineer Solomon (Sunny) Aaron Joseph and his wife Ruby (nee Benjamin), and only in her thirties did she move with her husband to the United States of America. Significantly, they did not migrate, like most of their fellow Bene Israel, to the State of Israel. Therefore, Zilka’s trajectory is different from that of many of her coreligionists, and her horizons are broader. Zilka Joseph has been influenced by British colonialism, Indian tradition and American neo-liberalism. In previous books, she struggled with global concepts: displacement, immigration, grief, feminism and oppression, even touching upon human rights. Now Sweet Malida is a retreat to childhood memories, albeit continued in new settings, but reminiscent of the beauty of Indian Jewish life in the domestic and communal spheres.
Sweet Malida is a delicious read. It is full of the flavours of India, the smells of the spices and the savouriness of unique Bene Israel dishes prepared for Jewish festivals and consumed with relish. Zilka Joseph knows first-hand the shape, the consistency and the tastes of laadus, chana, sharbath, halwa, and fried puris, and the zing of masala, coriander and turmeric, all set against a backdrop of belief in Eliyahoo Hannabi, Elijah the Prophet, in whom Bene Israel devoutly believe, and the ultimate monotheistic God, so inappropriate in an Indian world of many gods.
Zilka Joseph thus embodies hybridity, haunted by Indian delicacies yet encompassed by modernism and impulse. She manages to convey this complexity to her readers with elegance, style, and soul.
— Prof. Shalva Weil is Senior Researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. She is editor of several books on India’s Jews, including India’s Jewish Heritage (Marg, 2002), Indo-Judaic Studies in the Twenty-First Century (with Nathan Katz et al—Palgrave- Macmillan, 2007), Karmic Passages (with David Shulman—OUP, 2008), Baghdadi Jews in India (Routledge, 2019), and The Jews of Goa (Primus, 2020). She has published over 100 articles, chapters in books, and encyclopedia entries on different aspects of Jews and Judaism in India.
In an era of globalization that encourages homogeneity, Zilka Joseph’s Sweet Malida is a timely reminder of the importance of preserving one’s unique identity. For displaced communities everywhere, survival takes precedence as they reinvent themselves to gain acceptance in unfamiliar lands—often at the cost of losing sight of their roots. In
these evocative and skillfully crafted poems, Zilka reclaims the legacy of the dwindling Bene Israel Jewish community through its culture, cuisine, customs, and her own personal journeys. In doing so, she pushes back against the prejudice that stains societies across the globe and celebrates the fact that it is possible to live in harmony with other communities even while safeguarding one’s own rich heritage. Like Draksha-cha Sharbath, these poems offer sweetness on the tongue.
— Menka Shivdasani, author of four poetry collections, co-translator of a Sindhi Partition poetry anthology, has edited anthologies for the American e-zine www.bigbridge.org, and SPARROW. Her awards include the Ethos Literary Award & WE Eunice de Souza Award. In 1986, she co-founded Poetry Circle, and is Co-Chair, Asia Pacific Writers and Translators. menkashivdasani.in
The history of a people must be told through a cultural lens and art as much as through a historical narrative of events. I loved the way in which Zilka Joseph, in her latest book, beckons the reader into the world of the Bene Israel, the largest of India’s Jewish communities, in Mumbai, where the author was born, and in Kolkata, where she
grew up. The introduction and interspersed prose segments and poems illuminate the unique history, culture, and identity of this community, as well as her own journeys as a woman, as an Indian, and as a Jew. She paints an intimate portrait of the Bene Israel as a collective, while still making each poem intensely personal and individualistic. Poems about the prophet Elijah, of special importance to the Bene Israel, such as “Eliyahoo Hanabi” and “Sweet Malida,” from which the collection takes its name, are juxtaposed with quotes from the Bible. In these poems the ancestral practices and food ceremonies relating to Elijah are vividly described.
Food is culture. Her charming poems about the preparation of traditional Bene Israel dishes, especially for holidays and the Sabbath, give tangible form to her emotional, philosophical, and cultural musings. One can almost smell and taste the foods, as described in many of the poems, such as “Kaulee Haddi,” “Pantoum for Chik-cha Halwa,” “A Chirota for my Thoughts,” and “Green Kaanji and Destiny,” as well as in the prose piece, “The Laadu Makers”. Embedded in them are nuanced insights into the personalities of the women who prepared these dishes and of Joseph as a small child. From “Pantoum for Chik-cha Halwa”:
so very different from sweets of home
sugar coconut milk colored pink thickening
those lost in the deluge shipwrecked
would their spirits whisper old recipes
sugar rose-tinted coconut milk thickening
tired arms bated breath silky cubes cooling
do spirits whisper old recipes
in a new land new life new history
Other poems, such as the compelling “Leaf Boat,” are more complex
in form and rich with sea imagery. It begins:
In the delta of the east unwieldly Kolkata
my flesh clay and flowers and thorns
Hooghly my river with ilish come to spawn
my body a leaf-boat lamp floated on water
the majhis’ nets drag, drown in silt
the pre-monsoon boar tide rips upstream
a dead bull’s head, marigolds, lurch in the backwash
at Khidderpur docks ships shook in their moorings
“Man hu? Man hu?”, about the Exodus, expands the vista to general
Jewish history and displays Joseph’s observations of nature, which
permeate her previous books. The excellent relationships between the
Bene Israel and the other religious communities of India, and to some
extent the cultural assimilation of the Indian Jews, come through in
poems such as “The Angels of Konkan” and “Mumbai Goddesses.”
Remarkably, Joseph, in this collection of poems and short prose pieces,
provides the reader with a rich, multilayered portrait of the Bene
Israel—and of herself .
— Dr. Joan Roland Professor Emerita of History at Pace University in New York City and author of The Jewish Communities of India: Identity in a Colonial Era
In this deeply moving collection, Zilka Joseph takes us on a journey through memories scented with cumin and cardamom, grief and regret, as her Bene Israel heritage comes alive. Born in Mumbai and having immigrated to the United States as an adult leaving parents and other family behind, Joseph’s precise and passionate descriptions transcend time and space, bringing us chironji dough which “fluffed up miraculously/ as it rose up singing/ out of hot oil,” and Sabbath tea lights against the backdrop of a Michigan sunset, with her long-gone mother and father standing at her dining table as she “[raises her] palm in prayer,/ [says] the words/ they taught [her] to say.
— Nancy Naomi Carlson author of Piano in the Dark, an Editor’s Choice for Poetry Daily, Winner of the 2022 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, Co-translator of Wendy Guerra’s DELICATES (Seagull Books, 2023), noted in The New York Times, and Translations Editor, On the Seawall
Sweet Malida by Zilka Joseph is a collection of nineteen well-crafted poems subtitled “Memories of a Bene Israel Woman.” I was struck by the way she connects, in the introduction, a thunderstorm in which her car was nearly washed off the road with thoughts of her father, who was a marine engineer and sailed the stormy seas, and her ancestors’ journey from the Middle East to India. Describing the legend of their arrival, she explains how they settled in the village off the Konkan coast of India. More importantly the poems bear witness to the influence of both her parents, whose memories she wants to “bring to life again.” The book is devoted exclusively to her Indian-Jewish
roots, its customs and traditions, food and culture. The centrality of the prophet Elijah is emphasized in the poem “Eliyahoo Hanabi” and “Sweet Malida” where the celebration of the Malida ceremony, unique to the Bene Israel Jewish people, is narrated. The book is special to me since, as a Bene Israeli poet myself, celebrating many of the customs
and traditions in my own poetry and writing, our shared heritage enables me to relate closely to the material in the book. For others not acquainted with the Bene Israel Jews of India, the book will be an interesting and valuable document in verse, of both personal and historical value. Zilka is an award winning poet.
— Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca, author of Family Sunday and Other Poems and Light of The Sabbath
Zilka’s poems are an invitation into the Bene Israel kitchen of her youth. Come sit at the table as her mother and her grandmother spice their dishes with history, nostalgia, and longing that will leave you hungry for more. A hybrid of form and structure takes the reader from the origin story of the Bene Israel to the origin story of Zilka herself.
Each poem is a taste of turmeric, coconut, coriander, and chili, sweet, but also savory, heavy with memory. “Who knew heaven could be like this.”
— Erica Lyons, National Jewish Book Awards finalist, Founder of Asian Jewish Life, Chair of the Hong Kong Jewish Historical Society, and author of several children’s books titles including Zhen Yu and the Snake, Counting on Naamah, and the forthcoming On a Chariot of Fire.
Zilka Joseph’s Sweet Malida is an important book for anyone with a taste for poetry and interest in the micro-minorities of India, specifically the Jews. Indian Jewry is represented by seven groups that can be broadly divided into old and new Jews. The old Jews comprise the communities of the Bene Israel of Maharashtra, the Cochini of Kerala, and the Baghdadi of Mumbai and Kolkata. While the Bene Israel and the Cochini have been resident in India for several centuries, perhaps more than a millennium, the Baghdadis settled in India primarily in the late 18th and the early 19th centuries. The new Jews belong to the several Judaizing movements that emerged in India since the mid-20th century, viz., the Bene Menashe of Manipur and Mizoram, the Bene Ephraim and the Noachides of Andhra Pradesh, and a section of a Christian congregation of the Chettiars of District Erode, Tamil Nadu that has started practicing Judaism.
Jews form the smallest religious minority of India, with their population estimated to be in the range of five thousand. In spite of their numerical insignificance they have produced several writers and poets—disproportionately more than their small numbers warranted, with women particularly prominent, including Esther David, Sophie Judah, Meera Mahadevan (nee Miriam Aaron Jacob Mendrekar), Sheela Rohekar, Jael Silliman, Ruby Daniel, Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca, Carmit Delman, Angelica Jacob, Sheba Jeremiah Nagaokar, Sadia Shepard, etc. They have published both prose and poetry in several languages, primarily English and Hindi. The best known of the Indian Jewish poets has been Nissim Ezekiel, who came to be acknowledged as the father of India’s modern English poetry. His Jewishness figures prominently in many of his poems and also those of his daughter Kavita Ezekiel Mendoca, but their Bene Israel community never emerged as the focus of any of their poetry collections, unlike Zilka Joseph’s Sweet Malida. It is this that distinguishes this collection and makes it highly significant. It is poetry where the poet’s soul lies bare. And if that poetry captures the feeling and experience of belonging to a micro-minority, then it emerges as an invaluable source for anyone with a genuine interest in that community. As Nissim Ezekiel famously wrote:
A poem is an episode,
Completed in an hour or two,
But poetry is something more.
It is the why, the how, the what, the flow.
From which a poem comes.
— Dr. Navras J. Aafreedi, Ph.D., author of Jews, Judaizing Movements and the Traditions of Israelite Descent in South Asia. Assistant Professor, Department of History, Presidency University, Research Fellow, Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP), New York, and Salzburg Global Fellow
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 charoli
eaten so fast the fine sprays of crumbs
settled everywhere like dust
I pressed my little index finger
into it 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 inside those stainless steel tins
the indestructible dubbas we owned
etched with our names
About Zilka Joseph
Zilka Joseph was born in Mumbai, lived in Kolkata, and now lives in Michigan. Her work is influenced by Indian and Western cultures, and her Bene Israel roots. Her poems have appeared in journals such as Poetry Magazine and The Bombay Literary Review, as well as in international anthologies. She was nominated for awards, has participated in festivals, been featured on NPR/Michigan Radio, and podcasts like Rattlecast and Culturico. Her chapbook Sparrows and Dust won a Notable Best Indie Book award and was a Notable Asian American Poetry Book. Two of her books, Sharp Blue Search of Flame and In Our Beautiful Bones, were Foreword INDIES Prize finalists. The University of Michigan awarded her a Zell Fellowship, the Michael Gutterman award, and the Elsie Choy Lee Scholarship. She is a creative writing coach and manuscript advisor. www.zilkajoseph.com