In My Mother’s Spice Cupboard, Elana Benjamin has produced a warm and detailed account of her family’s story, as they moved from Baghdad to Bombay (now Mumbai) and finally to Sydney, Australia. With loving strokes, she has created a detailed picture of everyday life for Jews living in Bombay during the British rule, followed by the disintegration of the community post-independence. By the early 1960s, when her family left, the majority of India’s Jewish community had emigrated. Thus, she has managed to recreate a world that no longer exists, whilst there were still family members around to tell her the stories.
“My Mother’s Spice Cupboard is very readable, and makes an important contribution to understanding the everyday life of the Baghdadi community in India.”
Professor Suzanne D Rutland, OAM, University of Sydney
Unlike most other Australian Jews, Benjamin’s parents were born and grew up in Bombay, and her grandparents came from Iraq, Burma and India. Her father’s family immigrated to Sydney, her mother’s to Los Angeles, both in the 1960s. They married in Sydney and raised their family there, alongside the father’s many brothers and sisters and members of their former Bombay community. Despite being Jewish, her upbringing was greatly influenced by the food, language and culture of India, and to a lesser extent, Iraq.
My Mother’s Spice Cupboard is also about how much things have changed over four generations in one family. The author’s grandparents’ arranged marriage produced nine children; both her parents grew up within the confines of Bombay’s insular Baghdadi Jewish community whereas she grew up as a first generation Australian in Sydney. Her children’s lives are underpinned by the differing Jewish traditions of her family and her husband’s family.
The themes underlying the story are those of family and community versus individuality; choice versus obligation; and tradition versus modernity. And underlying the entire narrative is the importance of food and cooking, which goes beyond the mere provision of sustenance to express warmth, love and hospitality.
For more information see: www.elanabenjamin.com
Now available as an ebook! $9.99
Extracts from launch speech – My Mother’s Spice Cupboard
Dr Ron Weiser AM (Honorary Life President of the Zionist Council of NSW, recipient of many awards as recognition of outstanding leadership and service to the Jewish World and Israel in the field of education and continuity, including an AM for service to the community through leadership roles; he married into a Baghdadi Jewish family from the same Bombay community as Elana’s parents).
“… When I sat down to read this book, I discovered a rich tapestry that told a personal story but also told a communal one.
On one level this is a personal story, one that has the ring of authenticity because it does not merely present a sanitised cleaned-up version of a family history. Elana is quite open about questioning family relationships and behaviour – however against a background of love and understanding.
She handles very well, one of the most important aspects – in my view – of tellings of periods in time – the interpretation of those times against their background, circumstances and context, rather than in terms of today’s paradigm. And I think that is one of the outstanding features of this book.
… It is a journey that raises issues for Elana of identity and continuity – and she expands on that continuum very well. The wider picture is a story of an entire community. Jewish life and Jewish ritual are centred around family – around bringing family together – about families doing things together – and also on the communal level.
The descriptions of life in Mumbai, India – Jewish and general – are vivid and clear, just great.
It is the story of a diaspora community – in one sense, one so common in terms of the “Wandering Jew”, but one that adds importantly to the mosaic as it beautifully relates the story of one specific community about whom Elana correctly says, the general Australian Jewish community know so little. So it is an important book.
But this book also needs to go into the official history of Australian Jewry.
Whilst this book is a story about the past, it is actually a challenge to the future, to not see that “spice cupboard”, as it were, as merely some historical relic, but for people to desire to create their own “spice cupboard” for their children and their children’s children, so that they in turn will want to write about and remember – as Elana has – and to continue and to pass the new “spice cupboard” on to future generations.”