Friday, 29 June 2012

My Mother's Spice Cupboard

Our guest blogger ELANA BENJAMIN sets a place for Sephardi Jews at history’s table

It’s impossible to imagine a secondary school Jewish history curriculum today – at least an Australian one – that doesn’t include an in-depth analysis of the Holocaust or of Australian Jewish history.  But apparently, that’s exactly what was happening at Sydney Jewish day school Moriah College in the early 1960s.

I stumbled upon this piece of information while flicking through the glossy pages of the latest JCA (Jewish Communal Appeal) Community Source magazine.  The Australian Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) is one of JCA’s member organisations, and I was startled to read about a woman named Sophie Caplan OAM, whose involvement in the AJHS began when she realised that while her sons were attending Moriah College there were no Australian Jewish History or Holocaust History subjects being taught there.

No Australian Jewish history or Holocaust studies?  Well then, what were Moriah students in the early 1960s being taught in their Jewish history classes? By the time I was at Moriah in the mid-to-late 1980s, it would have been unthinkable to contemplate Jewish history without discussing Australian Jewry and Holocaust experiences.

Yet for all the progress made between Sophie Caplan’s kids’ schooldays and my own, there was – and as I understand, still is – a huge void in the teaching of Jewish history.  Although I was entirely educated in Jewish day schools, I never learned anything about the history of my ancestors: the Jews of Iraq and India. Similarly, there was no mention of the Jews of Egypt, or of Morocco, of Syria, Iran, Singapore, or China. In fact, the teaching of the history of the Sephardi Jewry stopped dead in its tracks after the Spanish Inquisition of 1492.

This lack of knowledge and awareness of my family and community’s experiences was my primary motivation for writing My Mother’s Spice Cupboard:  A Journey from Baghdad to Bombay to Bondi
My Mother’s Spice Cupboard
is the story of my family’s migration from Iraq to India to Australia, intertwined with the history of the Baghdadi Jews of Bombay (now Mumbai).

The book is also about what it was like for me to grow up in a family where kitchens were filled with the aroma of spices and curries, where conversations were peppered with Arabic and Hindustani words and phrases, and where the traditions of Iraqi Jewry were followed.  Not your standard Australian Jewish upbringing.

I’ve always considered that my Jewish education almost entirely excluded the experiences of Sephardi Jewry.  And this huge omission made me feel that the lives and stories of Sephardi Jews weren’t as important as the stories of other Jews.  As a minority within a minority, I felt that the Sephardi Jewish experience had been marginalised.

But reading Sophie Caplan’s comments, it struck me that there was never any deliberate scheme by Jewish educators to exclude say, the stories of Iraqi Jews or Indian Jews from the teaching of Jewish history.  Just as there was no deliberate omission of Holocaust history or Australian Jewish history at Moriah 50 years ago.  It’s just that if no one implements change, then things simply stay the way they’ve always been.

So if I want today’s generation of young Jewish adults to understand the heritage of Sephardi Jews, writing My Mother’s Spice Cupboard is a good start.  But people also have to read it and talk about it.  And perhaps one day, my humble book will be incorporated into the Jewish history syllabus of Australian day schools.

Thanks Sophie, for your inspiration.

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