Airing the Dirty Laundry: Burnt Bread and Chutney

I picked up Carmit Delman's memoir Burnt Bread and Chutney: Growing Up Between Cultures--A Memoir of an Indian Jewish Girl, on the recommendation of commentor Piaw (who has many challenging posts on her blog). Delman's mother is an Indian Jew originally from the Bene Israel community in Bombay, and her father is an Orthodox Jew of Eastern European descent from New York. Delman herself grew up mostly in New York, with some brief stints in Israel.

I'm about two-thirds through it, and I have to say that I'm not that thrilled about the book, though I am learning things here and there. It's a little too much a memoir of growing up and going to school in the U.S. while being "different," which isn't especially interesting per se. What's more interesting to me is the sense of alienation Delman's family often felt even within the American Jewish community. Sitting in the back of the synagogue, people would often ask Delman and her siblings about their background:

When we explained that we were the mixture of an Indian Jew and an Eastern European Jew, people automatically identified us by the brownness and what made us nonwhite. Their assumptions drew a distinct line between us and them. 'So,' they said, after hearing about the thousands of years of history. 'I guess generations ago, the Jews in India must have intermarried with the Hindus. That's how you have that beautiful brown color.' They even said this laughing admiringly, as though envious of our tan. But in making such a statement, they . . . were also pointing to us as the others and claiming, the skin says it all. We, Ashkenazi Jews, are the pure originals. You, Indian Jews, are mixed products.

It's interesting (and perhaps a little sad) to see a kind of racial logic operating even within Judaism.

But the most interesting passages in Burnt Bread and Chutney are Delman's observations on her travels on her own to Israel, to spend her summer vacations working on a kibbutz. At one point, she meets a middle aged Israeli reservist smoking a cigarette while on duty in Jerusalem. He asks her where she's from, and she says, "Guess":

He grinned, took a deep puff on his cigarette, thinking. 'Emm. Let's see. Ramle?' I shook my head, surprised to hear this particular city suggested. 'Well, you're Yemenite, right? So I would guess Dimona maybe.'

Now I followed his line of thought. Well-off and educated Israelis of Eastern European descent lived in the nice suburbs. But early on, the Israeli government had filled these particular cities that he was suggesting with large populations of poorer Jewish immigrants from the African and Arab nations. Clumped together, this persecuted a cycle of little money and lots of crime, with not many opportunities in work or eductation to even the score. Because I was brown, this man assumed I had come from that world. Perhaps he even hered me into the class-genus-species of the chach-chach. A chach-chach was usually seen in its natural habitat, making a living by selling sandwiches, cheap barrettes, CDs, and authentic discounted Israeli brassware in one of those neighborhoods or at the central bus station. A chach-chach spoke with guttural slang and listened to the kind of oriental music in which voices wavered and whined and shuddered themselves into a high fever. The male wore gold chains and had slick hair. The female birthed often and early. And she could usually be spotted wearing a plumage of bright lipstick.

I hadn't heard this perjorative term ("chach-chach") before, but I googled it, and came across some rather unfortunate song lyrics in an Israeli discussion forum that confirms Delman's usage of it. I guess we could call it a bit of Israeli dirty laundry. (Everyone has some to contend with of course.)

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By pleasant coincidence, this morning Ruchira has posted a long review of Nathan Katz's book Who Are the Jews of India?. Katz makes the interesting claim that the Jewish communities in India were never persecuted -- unlike their counterparts throughout Europe and the Arab World:

"Indian Jews lived as all Jews should have been allowed to live: free, proud, observant, creative and prosperous, self-realized, full contributors to the host community. Then, when twentieth century conditions permitted they returned en masse to Israel, which they had always proclaimed to be their true home despite India's hospitality. The Indian chapter is one of the happiest of the Jewish Diaspora."