My Friend Joseph
I first met Joseph on a hospital ship returning from South Africa. We had both been wounded during the early days of the Boer War and were being shipped back home to India. I had passed a restless night. The wound in my shoulder was healing, but pain made sleep difficult. I spent my time looking out of the porthole, and I watched the horizon change colors from black to gray, to streaks of pink, orange, and purple. After the sky turned a pale blue, I heard one of the other patients stir in his bed. This gave me something different to watch. I saw the dark shape of a man rise from his bed, fumble for something in his locker, and then limp toward the door. He had a crutch under one arm and a parcel under the other. He had trouble opening and closing the door, but I did not get up to help. The bloke obviously thought that he could manage by himself, so I was not going to be the one to remind him that he was incapacitated at least for the time being.
The man stood in the open doorway for a few seconds. The bundle under his arm caught my attention. He did not raise his arm or remove the parcel he held against his body, although it would have made it much easier for him to open the door if his arm could move unhindered. He placed his crutch against the bulkhead outside the door, hopped through on one leg, and then reached back to pull the door shut. I heard the sounds of the crutch on the stairs followed by creaks when each stair took his weight as he hobbled along. I wondered what made the bundle so precious that he would not let it drop. Letters from a wife or sweetheart did not normally get the amount of respect this fellow was showing for his parcel. It was also too large to contain letters, anyway.
We had been in South Africa for only a few weeks. I tried to think of other things, but my mind kept returning to the bundle under the wounded soldier’s arm. Its shape was vaguely and disturbingly familiar. I did not understand the uneasy feeling of guilt that overcame me. I had not hurt the man’s pride by helping him, so I had no reason to feel that at that moment I should have been doing something other than lying in bed imagining the naked bodies of the nurses who took care of us.
Eventually my curiosity got the better of me. I rose and went out on deck. Not far from the door I saw the answer to my riddle. The man stood with his back not completely to the rising sun but at a slight angle to it, so as to face northwest. He was covered with a tallit
, or prayer shawl. His held his crutch under one arm for support, while in his free hand he held a small book. The empty bags that had held his prayer shawl and phylacteries, or tefillin, lay on a chair beside him. I did not have to look at the man’s face to realize that he was one of my people. As “natives” we could not become officers in the British Army. This man had come from my ward, so he was an enlisted man, not an officer. Officers inhabited a different part of the ship. I understood the reason for my unease. I should have been praying, too. I always carried my tallit
into battle with me so that in case I got killed my body could be wrapped in it for burial. I did not carry tefillin because I did not pray regularly. Still, I wanted a Jewish funeral if it was possible.
I waited for the man to finish his prayers and place his “holy things,” as I thought them to be, into their bags before I stepped forward and introduced myself.
,” I said, as it was the only Hebrew greeting I knew. “My name is Bentzion.”
He took my hand in a firm clasp. “Joseph,” he said.
“Could we speak for a while? Would you like to sit here or shall we go below?” I asked.
“I’d rather sit out here, but my wound hurts in the cold.”
“Shall I bring up two blankets? My wound hurts, too.”
“That would be nice,” he replied.
This was the beginning of a friendship that lasted all our lives. I accompanied him to the deck every morning and evening during the rest of the voyage home. He allowed me to carry his prayer things, and I sat at a little distance from him until he finished praying. Not once did he ask me why I did not pray, too. The only time we spoke about it was when I brought up the subject.
“Have you always prayed three times a day?” I asked.
“Not always, but once I started I have not let off.”
“How did you manage in South Africa?”
“As best I could. One time, I managed to get a little free time when we were in the jungle, or bush, as they call it. I walked toward the river in order to be some distance from the other soldiers. I found a spot I liked and I said my prayers. At the part where we step back and then forward again, I felt myself step upon something that moved. I did not let that disturb my prayers. After I finished, I looked around, and there lay a crocodile. It had not harmed me, and it made no movement toward me as I walked away, although it watched me all the time.”
“Go on. You are pulling a fast one.” I laughed.
To my surprise he leaned forward and caught my elbow in a viselike grip. “Don’t call me a liar. I do not tell lies, and if you want to be my friend do not lie to me, either. If I tell you I stepped on a crocodile, you can be sure that I stepped on a crocodile. You can find any explanation for why it happened, but do not doubt the truth of my words.” He let my arm go.
I rubbed my elbow and said, “Maybe the animal was not hungry. Just like our Indian pythons, they, too, can go without food for months once they have a bellyful of some animal.”
“I will not argue with your belief. You may be right. I prefer to believe that the Lord saved me because of my daily devotions to Him.”
“I wish I could believe and pray like you do,” I said.
“Don’t worry. When the Lord decides to grab you, you will not be able to run away. You will return to the fold quietly and willingly.”
We never spoke about religion or prayer after that. We told each other everything about ourselves and our families. Then we came to the joint decision that it was time to get married. We had both had close brushes with death, so we saw the importance of having children. It would not be difficult to find brides from the villages the Bene Israel inhabited along the Konkan Coast. We had regular work, which promised a pension in old age. This was security. What else could a father want for his daughters? I was twenty-three years old, and Joseph was twenty-one. We had a future with the British Army. We considered ourselves to be suitable bridegrooms, the kind any girl would desire.
The ship docked at Bombay, but we were not free to look for girls. We had to go to a military hospital first. Army ambulances met us at the docks and took us to the big railway station called Victoria Terminus. A train waited for us there. Every wagon had a large red cross painted on both its sides. We were taken to a big military rehabilitation hospital in Deolali. This is where we met Subahdar Samuel Kolet.
Samuel Kolet was around forty-five years old. He was in charge of the medical stores. We recognized him for a fellow Bene Israel from the moment we saw him. Because Joseph wanted information about the local synagogue, we spoke to him immediately. He told us that there were very few Jewish families in the city and they had no synagogue because few of the men prayed three times a day. During festivals and on Shabbat they got together for prayers, and we were welcome to join them. He invited us to his house for kiddush and dinner on Friday night.
Dinner at Subahdar Kolet’s house changed our lives forever. He had seven children, and two of his daughters were of marriageable age. Elisheva was eighteen years old, and Ketura was sixteen. I caught one glimpse of Ketura and knew that my future lay with her. She was not exactly beautiful, but she had a certain grace and charm that overpowered me. Her eyes were large, her smile shy, and her hair fell almost to her knees. She had high cheekbones and a dimple in one cheek. I watched her, and Subahdar Kolet watched me. I was not aware of this at the time. It was Joseph who brought it to my attention.
“You made an ass of yourself,” he said when we were back in our hospital ward. “We will be lucky if he invites us again. Why did you have to stare as though you have never seen a woman in your life?”
“Simple,” I answered, a bit annoyed at being called a donkey. “I haven’t seen a girl like her before.”
“She is just another ordinary-looking girl.”
“That may be so, but I intend to marry her.”
“Congratulations. In that case the subahdar has no reason to be angry. He cannot refuse such a good match for his daughter. You are also wise in your choice. She is familiar with the life an army family leads. The adjustment will be no adjustment at all.” Joseph was sure that everything would work out for me.
I was not so sure. “You are right, Joseph, but there is a problem. Ketura is the younger of the two girls. The father will want the elder girl to be married first. I do not really want to wait,” I said.
“No problem. What are friends for? I’ll marry the elder one,” he said. “What is she like? I was too busy watching the drama you put on to notice the other girl.”
“She is small, slim, and pretty. Her hair falls only to her waist, long, but not really long like Ketura’s. Her eyes are a lighter brown than her sister’s, and her skin is lighter, too. Her nose is a bit upturned. She has pretty hands and feet,” I replied.
“You saw a lot for a man who had eyes only for the younger girl.” Joseph laughed.
The next day we searched...
“Sophie Judah is a natural writer, if such a thing still exists. These memories and intimations of an invisible world fall into place as we read her stories, as if we’d inhabited it before, and these half-forgotten lives were already known to us.”
–Amit Chaudhuri, author of Freedom Song
“A fascinating picture of a community shaped by its fidelity to religious traditions and by its isolation within the larger Asian Indian ethnic and religious groups. This collection will appeal to readers of Jewish literature and to historical-fiction devotees, and may inspire searches for informational books on the Bene Israel.”
“Judah’s stories deftly capture broader historical moments and trends, and they do so from a unique perspective . . . Her prose is unadorned, but she treats her characters with deep sympathy and humanity.”
“[This] debut collection spotlighting the little-known but centuries-old culture of the Bene Israel community in the author's native India [is] a fascinating mix of the exotic and the familiar.”
“These nineteen stories explore the little-known Jewish community of Bene Israel in India over the course of more than a century. . . . The pieces that finish tragically are the most memorable of the collection because Judah cracks open human weakness and depicts the resulting pain. . . . The obscure intersection of India and Judaism provides Judah with rich material.”
“Dropped from Heaven
is a beautiful book. Sophie Judah’s stories are packed with humor and sorrow, human courage and folly, and moments of unexpected grace. These pages illuminate a vanished world.”
–Rachel Kadish, author of Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story