Reading Sophie Judah’s book of stories, Dropped From Heaven, is arresting for any number of reasons, not the least of which is that she is new to us as a writer, having recently received her degree in creative writing from Bar Ilan University in Israel, where she now lives. Intriguing as well, Judah’s stories are of an ancient Jewish ethnic group heretofore almost unexplored in fiction, the Bene Israel from her native India — presented chronologically in this collection, enabling us to intimately glimpse three recent historical periods and their impact on this unusual group. Thus we have “My Friend Joseph,” in which two young men in the early 20th century return from fighting in an Indian unit in the Boer War in South Africa who accidentally discover that they are both Jewish, then forging a friendship for life, their immediate commitment now to find themselves Jewish wives . In the next period, after 1930, in “My Son Jude,” Judah presents in graphic detail some of the hideous human tragedies between Hindus and Moslems that followed the 1947 partition of India and the impact on the horrified, empathic tiny Jewish community which can only stand by helplessly. The period is also marked by Judah of the 1948 creation of the State of Israel, now providing a place for the beginning emigration of the Bene Israel with all its ensuing challenges — the wrenching resistance to leaving families behind, the inevitable bending of traditions and changing gender roles. In the last time frame, one that fast-forwards to the 21st century, in a story “The Funeral,” we see the problems of maintaining continuity between the new Israeli grandchildren and the aging few who have chosen to remain behind in India. This reviewer had the good fortune to witness the tiny but vibrant vestige of that oncethriving people, which can still be found though in small numbers in Bombay and Thana, a suburb of Bombay.
The common thread interwoven throughout this rich tapestry of nineteen stories reveals Judah’s focus on this remote community once her own, its isolated origins in the southwest corner of India, which remarkably retained its commitment to the traditional Jewish laws of circumcision, kashrut, Shabbat, the ongoing problems of finding suitable Jewish mates for marriage. Judah’s strengths are her keen eye, her ear for dialogue, and her love for her Bene Israel heritage. One suspects also, that her interest in historical detail may give way in time to writing in other genres. Short story writing may be just the first glimpse of her many talents.