“i am kind of a vanilla milkshake with one pump of chocolate syrup-compared to white people i look brown, and to brown people i look white. even my hair color is somewhere halfway between daddy’s sandy brown and mum’s chestnut. but it’s neither one nor the other, just a nondescript shade in the middle. a color so boring, there’s not even a crayon for it. not even in the sixty-four pack!”
and neither is there a food pyramid for vegetarians or vegans! does that mean they don’t exist?
the description above comes from paula freedman’s basmati bat mitzvah. it tells the story of tara feinstein, whose mother is hindu and father, jewish. she is about to celebrate her bat mitzvah but doesn’t feel she is jewish and poses loads of questions to the rabbi because she feels like a “goyim”, but not a “shiksa”. she wants to “indify” or “desi up” her bat mitzvah against her mother’s wish. her mother tells her to wipe the shmutz off her face when she says it’s just clothes. she’s a girl with lots of chutzpah, with a yenta for a paternal grandmother. she likes to dance to bollywood songs, with teeka ‘shmeared’ on her forehead; she sees lots of bollywood movies; she puts mango pickle on her burger; she has a ganesha in her bedroom whose belly she and her jewish friends rub for good luck; and she goes to hebrew classes to prepare her haftarah for her upcoming “bas mitzvah” and “bazmatzah”, as cousin vijay says, the same boy on whose wrist she ties a raki for raksha bandhan.
one day, sheila rosenberg tells her she’s not jewish because her mother is not jewish, and she suddenly becomes aware of who she is. identity issues begin to distress her, and the rabbi notices it, and asks if she thinks she is jewish instead of answering her. jews answer questions with questions and she discovers at that juncture that jewishness is in the heart, not in what others say.
she wants to be different in a good way. she wants her mother to understand that she wants to be herself on her own terms, without having to be weird; without having to stand out, or fit in. she wants to be a normal jewish kid, with a healthy sprinkling of masala on top.
tara’s mother is punjabi hindu, who traded her indian-ness for jewishness. she wouldn’t be caught dead in a salwar kameez which tara’s aunt -meena- wears every day except when she has to defend a client. she is a hindu lawyer in multicultural america! the mother says that the lawyer aunt turned america into her own little india instead of assimilating, but it is the mother who foregoes her identity to adopt another. the aunt’s response to this is : where else but in america could you have the freedom to do that? and this same auntie’s husband longs to go back to india, but she refuses to go back to his ‘precious india’- paradise ‘full of dysentery, and third world plumbing’.
tara is very different from her friends. her role model is not the jewish god, like her jewish friend’s, but kalpana chawla, the first indian american woman astronaut. when she is given her parashah, she dares to ask many questions and doesn’t agree with lots in the torah. she criticizes the role jacob played because she didn’t find him a good role model since he cheated his brother out of his birthright. she asks why the jews had slaves/ishmaelites, because that is hypocritical when the entire religion teaches being freed from slavery. and in order to understand these dialectics which exist in judaism about jacob and the coat given to joseph [jacob’s son] by his father jacob, she turns to familiar ground, hinduism. she finds that joseph’s coat and her grandmother’s sari – which she intends to wear to her bat mitzvah – are both abundantly colorful and sacred.
tara is also very different from her mother. her mother, who tries to shut out Hinduism, tells her the story of partition by asking her to imagine a place where you are born being two different countries, separated by majority language, ethnicity, and religion. suddenly in the house you grew up in, in the city you were born, you were an outcast – a minority. that’s pretty much what happened to a lot of people in india and pakistan during partition in 1947. millions of people fled in both directions- hindus and sikhs to india, and muslims to pakistan. her batmitzvah sari had survived this war and partition, and to her that made it as important as joseph’s coat.
one of tara’s friends asks her one day once if indians are muslims. she thinks it’s a stupid question. asking if indians were muslims was like asking if americans are jews. some are and some aren’t. then the same student blurts out “my grandpa thinks all muslims are terrorists” and goes futher to say that maybe tara was scared of everyone finding out she was a secret muslim and a terrorist. she knocks the tray of lentils on his face at the cafeteria.she finds it unfortunate because she would never stand for anyone saying all jews are terrorists or all Indians.
tara decsribes sheila rosenberg’s family as a clone colony; they all wear some form of purple at her ‘bazmatvah’. her own family is special: a kind of “third species where she’s not related to either one of them”. the indian side of her family adds –jie to the jewish side of her family [so ruthie-jie instead of just ruth] and the jewish/yiddish side adds -la to the indian names [ so meen- a- la instead of just meena].
tara fits into this third space of identity, that is neither jewish nor hindu. she discovers that her doubts about being jewish are okay, and that doubts are questions, and only the weak are absolutely sure of everything. she celebrates her new identity by having a menu of samosas, bhel puri, knishes, golgappas at her bat mitzvah where everyone throws basmati rice at the bimah instead of candy which is typical of bar/bat mitzvahs. she has an “idol” [ganesha] despite the jewish ten commandments which tell her ‘thou shalt have no other god except me.” she doesn’t consider ganesha a false god. for tara, rubbing ganesha’s belly is a ritual, like kissing a mezuzah or pouring an extra glass of wine for the prophet elijah to drink on passover. it is NOT idolatry.
tara’s space consists also of celebrating diwalikkah- diwali and Hanukkah- because both holy festivals fall around the same time. Her family serves potato latkes with mango chutney in their punjabi-bengali-american-hindu-muslim-jewish potluck. she sees the similarity in diwali and hanukkah as both are festivals of light. when the jews reclaimed the holy tepee in jerusalem – after the macabees drove out the greeks- they thought they had only enough oil to light the menorah for one day, but the oil miraculously lasted eight days. at diwali, the light welcomes goddess lakshmi into your homes. for tara it is opening the door for elijah on passover but with a cash incentive. In hindusim you pray to ganesha- the remover of obstacles to make your path to prosperity and well-being clear. when she brings the similarity of diwali and hannukah to the rabbi’s attention, she discovers that comparative studies of religions was encouraged. however, hinduism doesn’t have any equivalent to bat mitzvah. i suppose christening could be compared in a narrow sense to bat/bar mitzvah, but the huge difference is that it’s done way before one becomes 13.
tara’s doesn’t have her mum’s fear of being different when she dresses up like a bollywood heroine. her mother wants her to get a dress from bloomingdale’s or macy’s for her bat mitzvah, not a bollywood look-alike sari. but tara goes with what she feels and at her batmitzvah, she embraces both heritages. she says:
“i’m really happy you could all be here to share my spiritual journey. for a long time, i wasn’t sure if i was going to go through with it…i had some hard choices to make along the way, but i think it was worth it…i come from a mixed heritage. my father’s family have been new york jews for as long as anyone can remember. my mother’s people are hindus, from india, but she feels it’s important that i point out that she converted to judaism a long time ago, in case you thought she wasn’t jewish, and that i wasn’t either.”
preparing for the batmitzhav makes her think about things she never thought about before and didn’t want to. she has to ask herself what it means to be jewish, but especially what it means to HER to be jewish. she talks about her grandparents in india and the special relationship she had with them when they were alive and feels that in having a batmitvaz she might be forgetting them, but her multi-cultural experiences makes her stronger and more accepting of different points of view which is important. she thinks her nanaji would have liked her bat mitzvah because he was a very spiritual person with an open heart, and that’s it’s okay to have doubts, so as long as you remain open-minded.
she relates her parashah about joseph in context to the sari she’s wearing at her batmitzvah, and talks about the burn which happened from incense falling on it while she was dancing to a bollywood number. making a dress out of this partially burnt sari from the partition was her jewish gran’s idea. she says that she was lacking imagination like the twelve tribes of Israel, who failed to think they could cooperate instead of competing, and that it was her gran who showed her the possibility of turning something sacred from nanijie [hindu maternal grandmother] into a coat she could wear, like joseph’s coat. she learns that when life gives you shmatta [rag], or a sari with a big hole in it, you make a new dress out of it. it’s the same making-lemonade-out of-lemons-story that life hands you – but in yiddish.
at the end of her speech, everyone dances to deejay vijay’s hora and bhangra/hip hop mix, while aravind uncle chews on paan outside. when the desi mishpacha [traditional and spicy at the same time] scatters, tara puts on her star of david [tara means star in hindi incidentally], and admires most her card of ganesha wearing a tallit- prayer shawl- holding a jewish prayer-book, saying: “have a very basmati bazmitzvah!!!
tara weaves herself into a new space of existence, which homi bhabha talks about in his location of culture: the space in which cultures meet, a space in which any monotheistic entity is challenged and hybrid identities created, a space where, when confronted with the dialectics in her parashah, she invents a kind of mix to understand it.
tara doesn’t have to choose between being jewish or hindu. she can honor both. by being a hinju.