Sweet Mal­i­da: Mem­o­ries of a Bene Israel Woman

  • Review
By – February 19, 2024

Zil­ka Joseph’s Sweet Mal­i­da takes a deep poet­ic dive into the Bene Israel, the old­est of three tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties in India. Joseph was born in Mum­bai and grew up in Kolkata, where she was part of the Bene Israel. She moved to the US with her hus­band when she was in her mid-thir­ties. She describes the Bene Israel’s food, com­mu­ni­ty, and his­to­ry in lan­guage that is both evoca­tive and acces­si­ble, and often filled with long­ing for the cul­ture she left behind.

At her best, Joseph weaves togeth­er recipes and descrip­tions of food with sto­ries about her fam­i­ly. For exam­ple, in Kaulee Had­di,” she writes about a spe­cial dish her father fed her and her sis­ter when they returned home:

… But he rarely

ate it, break­ing off that kaulee tip

with his wiry engi­neer fingers

salty with memories

of sea, flecked with rice and curry,

so that even when we were grown,

and espe­cial­ly

when we returned to vis­it, he fed

my sis­ter, or me the pre­cious kaulee haddi.

Joseph offers sev­er­al the­o­ries about the ori­gins of her ances­tors. The most pop­u­lar one, she says, is that they were flee­ing the rule of the Greek over­lord Epipha­nies in 175 B.C.E. and were ship­wrecked on the west coast of India. The esti­mat­ed pop­u­la­tion of the Bene Israel in India today is about 3,500, and the glob­al pop­u­la­tion is about 95,000. A cen­tral fig­ure in their reli­gion is the Prophet Eli­jah. In the first poem in the book, Eliya­hoo Han­abi,” Joseph prais­es him using the local culi­nary delights:

Let us heap the sug­ar-sprin­kled poha

tall as a pyra­mid, mixed with shredded

coconut, pre­cious dried fruit and nuts,

scent­ed with the most fragrant

of spices … 

Food is clear­ly the cen­tral image of this book, and it’s often described in mouth-water­ing ways. Native dish­es become a metaphor for the gifts that are hand­ed down from one gen­er­a­tion to the next — as well as those gifts that are lost. In a prose piece towards the end of the book, Joseph men­tions her par­ents and grand­moth­er, and how their love wrapped around me like these aro­mas.” At the end of the piece, she asks for their for­give­ness for not writ­ing down their recipes, their mag­ic words.”

The read­er is clear­ly the ben­e­fi­cia­ry here: per­haps if all the recipes had been writ­ten down, Joseph would not have been com­pelled to write these love­ly poems.

Stew­art Flor­sheim’s poet­ry has been wide­ly pub­lished in mag­a­zines and antholo­gies. He was the edi­tor of Ghosts of the Holo­caust, an anthol­o­gy of poet­ry by chil­dren of Holo­caust sur­vivors (Wayne State Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1989). He wrote the poet­ry chap­book, The Girl Eat­ing Oys­ters (2River, 2004). In 2005, Stew­art won the Blue Light Book Award for The Short Fall From Grace (Blue Light Press, 2006). His col­lec­tion, A Split Sec­ond of Light, was pub­lished by Blue Light Press in 2011 and received an Hon­or­able Men­tion in the San Fran­cis­co Book Fes­ti­val, hon­or­ing the best books pub­lished in the Spring of 2011. Stew­art’s new col­lec­tion, Amus­ing the Angels, won the Blue Light Book Award in 2022.

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