Kne­set Eliya­hoo Syn­a­gogue in Mum­bai, India

Pho­to by Kushared

Voy­age” is the open­ing poem of my book In Our Beau­ti­ful Bones. It sets the scene for the book, giv­ing read­ers a glimpse into my jour­ney and his­to­ry. The epi­graph refers to the Upan­ishads, and the ear as a ves­sel for divine messages.

In Voy­age” I describe a thun­der­storm in which my car was near­ly washed off the road. A bolt of light­ning hit some­where close by and the clap of thun­der that fol­lowed was deaf­en­ing. Par­a­lyzed by ter­ror for a few moments, I was lift­ed out of my body, and left sus­pend­ed, and then sud­den­ly, I was back. At that moment, thoughts of my father who was a marine engi­neer in Bom­bay — who had sailed from the days of the steam ship to Diesel ves­sel — rushed in. The storms he had weath­ered on the high seas flashed through my mind, con­nect­ing me to him in a strange new way, as if some secret knowl­edge had been trans­ferred to me. I sensed that I was also being remind­ed of my ances­tors’ jour­ney from some­where in the Mid­dle East to India.

I was born in Mum­bai, and lived in Kolkata, India, before immi­grat­ing to the US. My ances­tors, who were called Shan­war telis—Sat­ur­day Oil Pressers, (tel is the Marathi word for oil, teli, one who press­es oil) as that was the pro­fes­sion many took up. Since they did not work on shan­war—Sat­ur­day, the Sab­bath– they were called Shan­war tel­lis. Many the­o­ries about the ori­gins of the Bene Israel exist. One the­o­ry of their arrival is that two ships were ship­wrecked on the west coast of India in 175 BCE. The sur­vivors set­tled in vil­lages and made a new life for themselves.

Anoth­er the­o­ry is the belief that sev­en men, or sev­en cou­ples sur­vived a ship­wreck. Some think they came after the destruc­tion of the Tem­ple in 70 CE, oth­ers believe that they were descen­dants of the Lost Tribes who came around the tenth cen­tu­ry, per­haps around King Solomon’s reign.

The most pop­u­lar the­o­ry is that they were flee­ing the rule of the Greek over­lord Epiphanes in 175 BCE. How­ev­er, schol­ars agree these ances­tors of mine came from Yemen, Per­sia, or South Ara­bia in the fifth or sixth cen­tu­ry CE.

The new arrivals, who had lost every­thing, were peace­ful­ly allowed to set­tle and trav­el. They adopt­ed Indi­an ways, clothes, foods, and kept the Sab­bath; except for the She­ma, and a few oth­er prayers, they did not prac­tice most rit­u­als. When this com­mu­ni­ty was dis­cov­ered by mis­sion­ar­ies it was found they did not know of the exis­tence of Hanukkah. This helped schol­ars argue that they had arrived before the sec­ond century.

The Bene Israel, the old­est Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in India, have their own iden­ti­ty and unique his­to­ry. I can only imag­ine their strug­gles and fears, as they began to rein­vent them­selves among strangers. In India they were nev­er per­se­cut­ed, and it became their home. Their descen­dants have thrived in India and wher­ev­er in the world they immi­grat­ed, mak­ing their mark in every pro­fes­sion — lit­er­a­ture, art, music, dance, sci­ence, social work, Hol­ly­wood and Bol­ly­wood, and the mil­i­tary just to name a few.

I immi­grat­ed to the US with my hus­band when we were in our mid-thir­ties, and it was a dif­fi­cult time. My jour­neys — phys­i­cal, spir­i­tu­al, and per­son­al jour­neys all influ­ence my writ­ing — some­times in inex­plic­a­ble ways. Explor­ing, search­ing, and learn­ing are in my psy­che due to the open­ness with which I was brought up. I devoured world epics, folk­tales, lit­er­a­ture, mythol­o­gy, and — because India was col­o­nized for two-hun­dred years by the British — I was influ­enced by British lit­er­a­ture as well; like­wise, I was impact­ed by Amer­i­can cul­ture, par­tic­u­lar­ly music and film. Ani­mals, wildlife, fish, birds, and nature play a sig­nif­i­cant role in my life.

My larg­er-than-life father, Solomon (Sun­ny) Aaron Joseph, my qui­et and gen­tle moth­er Ruby, had a great impact on me. Their deaths shook me deeply and I bring my par­ents to life again in my poems.

My first chap­book, Lands I Live In, reflects my chal­lenges as an immi­grant in the US. My sec­ond book, What Dread, is informed by sci­ence, mythol­o­gy, and psy­chol­o­gy and focus­es on dark­er sides of ani­mal and human nature. My third book, Spar­rows and Dust, wres­tles with mem­o­ry and grief using bird images, inter­twined with Chris­t­ian, Juda­ic, and Sufi philoso­phies. My first full-length book, Sharp Blue Search of Flame, grap­ples with death, loss, vio­lence, women’s strug­gles, and weaves in ideas from var­i­ous reli­gions, mytholo­gies, and lit­er­a­ture. Dis­place­ment, oth­er­ness, colo­nial­ism, and racism, lay­er my work in com­plex ways. In my lat­est book, In Our Beau­ti­ful Bones, I use hybrid forms, to exam­ine these sub­jects, as well as bru­tal­i­ty against peo­ple of col­or, prej­u­dice, oppres­sion, and argue with Amer­i­ca, where democ­ra­cy fights for sur­vival. My books have been nom­i­nat­ed for and award­ed sev­er­al prizes.

Life in a new land is nev­er easy, we have to edu­cate, break bar­ri­ers and fight to be heard:

Who we are, where we come from, our search for jus­tice becomes even more poignant as we bat­tle for dig­ni­ty and safe­ty in a more dan­ger­ous world:

This piece is a part of the Berru Poet­ry Series, which sup­ports Jew­ish poet­ry and poets on PB Dai­ly. JBC also awards the Berru Poet­ry Award in mem­o­ry of Ruth and Bernie Wein­flash as a part of the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards. Click here to see the 2021 win­ner of the prize. If you’re inter­est­ed in par­tic­i­pat­ing in the series, please check out the guide­lines here.

Zil­ka Joseph was born in Mum­bai, and lived in Kolkata. Her work is influ­enced by Indian/​Eastern and West­ern cul­tures, and her Bene Israel roots. She has been nom­i­nat­ed sev­er­al times for a Push­cart, and for a Best of the Net, has won many hon­ors, par­tic­i­pat­ed in lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals and read­ings, and has been fea­tured on NPR/​Michigan Radio, and sev­er­al inter­na­tion­al online inter­views and jour­nals. Her work has appeared in Poet­ry, Poet­ry Dai­ly, The Writ­ers’ Chron­i­cle, Fron­tier Poet­ry, Keny­on Review Online, Michi­gan Quar­ter­ly Review, Belt­way Poet­ry Review, Asia Lit­er­ary Review, Poet­ry at Sangam, The Punch Mag­a­zine, Review Amer­i­cana, Gas­tro­nom­i­ca, and in antholo­gies such as 101 Jew­ish Poems for the Third Mil­len­ni­um, The Kali Project, RESPECT: An Anthol­o­gy of Detroit Music Poet­ry, Mat­waala Anthol­o­gy of Poets from South Asia (which she co-edit­ed), Cheers To Mus­es: Con­tem­po­rary Works by Asian Amer­i­can Women, Uncom­mon Core: Con­tem­po­rary Poems for Liv­ing and Learn­ing, and India: A Light With­in (a col­lab­o­ra­tive project). She was award­ed a Zell Fel­low­ship (MFA pro­gram), the Michael R. Gut­ter­man award for poet­ry, and the Elsie Choy Lee Schol­ar­ship (Cen­ter for the Edu­ca­tion of Women) from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan. Her pre­vi­ous Mayap­ple books are Lands I Live in (2007) and In Our Beau­ti­ful Bones (2021). Zil­ka teach­es cre­ative writ­ing work­shops in Ann Arbor, Michi­gan, and is a free­lance edi­tor, a man­u­script coach, and a men­tor to her students.