Forward Thinking

Family Amulet Captures Jewish Life in India

By Sigal Samuel

A portrait of the writer’s great-great-grandmother with amulet overlaid / Sigal Samuel

When my grandmother was pregnant with my dad, she got a terrible — and somewhat mysterious — mouth infection. It kept her from eating and talking. It was so painful that it landed her flat on her back; for days, all she could do was lie in bed. Then her bedroom door creaked open to reveal my great-great-grandmother, sidling up with something clenched tight in her palm. The object passed from the older to the younger hand, accompanied by a command in Hindustani: “Put this on — and don’t take it off until you get better.”

The object looked like a necklace, but it would be a mistake to call it that. Really, it was an amulet. Extraordinarily heavy, made of solid Indian gold, its cylindrical capsule — as long as an index finger — hung from an expensive-looking chain. Opening it, my grandmother saw a shriveled black root. She suppressed a shiver of disgust and closed it up again, then placed the chain around her neck. A few days later, she was healed.

A prized heirloom, that amulet has been in my family for five generations now. It’s traveled from Bombay to London to Montreal. These days, my grandmother doesn’t really believe that the ugly black root has magical healing powers; more than anything, she finds it creepy. But my great-great-grandmother, an uneducated Calcutta-born Jew who came from a family of kabbalists, believed it had the power to ward off the evil eye.

I love this amulet for many reasons, chief among them its weirdness. The sheer superstitiousness of it makes me smile — maybe because it reminds me that Judaism and rationalism didn’t always go hand in hand, whatever the diehard Maimonideans would have us believe.

I also love the way this artifact captures the centuries-long symbiosis that Jews enjoyed in India — a country that, until recent years, was strikingly free of anti-Semitism.

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Finding My Family's Kabbalistic Roots in India

By Sigal Samuel

Jewish women at the Knesset Eliyahoo synagogue in India / Getty Images

“What are you doing?” I asked my grandmother.

Sitting across the table from her at last year’s family Passover Seder, I had been watching with rapt attention as she peeled an egg — a commonly featured food on the Seder plate. She was handling it with a degree of carefulness that bordered on the neurotic, making sure to capture every tiny bit of shell in a napkin she held open in her other hand. She refused to even answer my question until after she had hurried from the dining room to the bathroom to flush the napkin down the toilet.

When she sat down again, she wasn’t sure how to answer me. “I don’t know why I’m so careful,” she said. “It’s something my mother used to do, and I learned to handle food from her, so I do it too.”

My grandmother’s mother, a Bombay-born Jew, lived most of her life in India and raised her family in that country’s then-flourishing Jewish community. That’s why my family still cooks and eats Indian cuisine. It’s why our main course that night was not brisket but imtabaq, a layered mixture of tomatoes, potatoes and beef. And why, instead of the apple-based haroset, we had haleq, the sweet syrup made from dates and walnuts that I spend all year craving.

Then my father piped up, saying, “It’s Kabbalistic.”

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Passover2 2014, Passover, Kabbalah, Jewish, India, Bombay, Seder

The Deadly Identity Crisis Along Islam's Borders

By J.J. Goldberg

FBI

In the first few days after the Boston bombings, liberal pundits (like David Sirota, Cenk Uygur and Michael Shure) were hoping aloud that the perpetrators would turn out to be “white” rather than Muslim or Middle Eastern, so that the incident wouldn’t further inflame grass-roots anti-Muslim passions. Well, it looks like this was a twofer — perpetrators who turn out to be both Muslim and white, ethnic Chechens from the Caucasus region of South Russia. You can’t get much more Caucasian than that.

There’s much we still don’t know about the Tsarnaev brothers, including whether or not they actually were responsible for the April 15 bombing at the Boston Marathon. Given the volume of evidence visible so far, though, it’s not too soon to start drawing some lessons. In fact, we might as well start right away, because this incident just might force us to reconsider a lot of what we think we know about jihad terrorism and the larger questions of radical “Islamism” and politicized religion in general.

The fact that the brothers are ethnic Chechens is critical. It’s probably important, too, that they spent most of their lives growing up outside the boundaries of Chechnya. It seems pretty clear that the brothers were raised to value their Chechen identity as central to their sense of self. And yet they were strangers to Chechnya. Even before they came to America in 2003, they lived mostly in nearby Dagestan and Kyrgyzstan, both of them Muslim-majority ex-Soviet republics, where the Tsarnaevs were part of an outsider ethnic-Chechen minority. So while the brothers reportedly felt like outsiders in America—claimed they didn’t have American friends, didn’t “understand Americans,” even after living here a full decade—they were also outsiders to Chechnya. They belonged to both, and yet neither.

Now look at the map. Chechnya is a rough Muslim region in the Caucasus Mountains, wedged between Christian Georgia to its south and Christian Russia to its north, with fellow-Muslim regions of Ingushetia to the west and Dagestan to the east. It’s been at war with its Russian overlords on and off for close to two centuries, but the wars of the last two decades, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, have been particularly bloody. The core of the conflict is independence. It had little to do with religion, other than the fact that religion — mostly the moderate Sufi version of Islam — is a big part of what defines Chechen ethnicity. Radical Salafi preachers with a loose connection to Al Qaeda started showing up only in the last decade or so, accompanying foreign Muslim volunteers who came to join the fight.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Yoruba, Uighurs, Turkey, Tsarnaev Brothers, Sufi, Sudan, Serbs, Russia, Philippines, Pakistan, Nigeria, Moro, Mindanao, Mali, Kyrgyzstan, Kurds, Kosovo, Kashmir, Islamism, Islam, Iraq, Ingushetia, Indonesia, India, Ibo, Han Chinese, Egypt, East Timor, Dagestan, Coptic Christians, Chechnya, Caucasus Mountains, Chechens, Burma, Boston Marathon, Bosnia, Assyrian Christians, Armenians, Arabs

UK Report: 10.8 Degree F Warming by 2100

By J.J. Goldberg

The Guardian cites a new report from Price Waterhouse Cooper Consulting saying the world is on track for an average global temperature increase of 6 degrees C (10.8 F) by the end of the century at current rates of carbon emission, with catastrophic implications for human life.

New research by consultancy giant PwC finds an unprecedented 5.1 per cent annual cut in global emissions per unit of GDP, known as carbon intensity, is needed through to 2050 if the world is to avoid the worst effects of climate change and meet an internationally agreed target of limiting average temperature increases to just two degrees above pre-industrial levels.

Such deep reductions in carbon intensity would be over six times greater than the 0.8 per cent average annual cuts achieved since 2000.

The report also confirms that greatest rises in greenhouse gas emissions came from the emerging E7 economies of China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Indonesia and Turkey, whose cumulative 7.4 per cent annual increase in emissions swamped record levels of reductions in the UK, France, and Germany.

PwC warns sustained economic growth in these countries could “lock in” high carbon assets that will make it significantly harder for them to decarbonise over the coming decades, a point likely to be raised at the UN-backed Doha Climate Summit when it kicks off later this month.

It also warns that industrialised countries must accelerate their partially successful efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: PwC Consultancy, Mexico, Indonesia, India, Guardian, Global Warming, Germany, France, E7 Economies, China, Brazil, 2100, Russia, Turkey, UK

India's Jewish War Legend Looks Back

By J.J. Goldberg

Aimee Ginsburg has a wonderful, startling, moving interview-profile of General Jack Jacob, the Calcutta-born Jewish war hero of modern India, in the current issue of OpenTheMagazine.com.

A taste:

I first saw Gen Jack Jacob ten years ago, during the Sabbath services at the Judah Hyam synagogue, Delhi’s only Jewish temple. When he walked through the door, the (small) sea of congregators parted and an excited hush filled the hall. “It’s Gen Jack Jacob!” the lady next to me, beautiful in her Sabbath salwar of turquoise silk, whispered in my ear. Her husband’s back straightened discernibly; “Gen Jacob is our topmost Jew!” he said. Of that long ago evening of prayer, that suddenly upright back is what I remember most. “People throw around the phrase ‘larger than life’,” the Israeli ambassador said to me that night. “Not many people fit the bill. Lt General Jack Jacob is larger than life.” Jacob, a large man with silver hair and posture becoming of his rank, was immaculate in his navy blue suit. Far removed from military affairs and not interested (at the time) in matters of my tribe, I looked, nodded and moved away.

Years later, environmental and social activists in Goa introduced me to Jacob’s remarkable legacy as the state’s most effective and beloved (ex) Governor. Later still, the General’s autobiography An Odyssey in War and Peace became a besteller. I wrote to him finally, asking for a series of interviews. Eight minutes later, his reply was in my inbox: ‘I am approaching 90. I think I have earned a rest. I intend to now slowly fade away. If you want to write about me, you better be quick. Regards, jfrj.’

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Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Goa, India, Delhi, General Jack Jacob, Calcutta, Aimee Ginsburg, Pakistan




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