Friendship between Jews and Hindus was the theme of a celebration of Indian-Jewish artist Siona Benjamin, held Aug. 26 at the Princeton home of Judith Brodsky and Michael Curtis.
The event — which included a film screening, Indian delicacies, and displays of Benjamin’s paintings and shawls — was organized by the American Jewish Committee Central NJ region and the Hindu-Jewish Coalition.
Launched in December 2013, the coalition’s goal is “building bridges between the two communities, working together on areas of common interest, and helping each other with areas of individual interest,” said AJC Central NJ president Michael Feldstein.
Coalition cofounder Marc Citron of Princeton, an attorney, through contact with his many Hindu clients, had come to realize how much the two communities had in common. “What I’ve discovered are the similarities rather than the differences — education, family, loyalty, and an immigrant root here in the United States,” he told NJJN.
Of the approximately 80 people present Aug. 26, about a dozen were members of the Hindu community.
Benjamin, a member of India’s Bene Israel Jewish community, grew up in in Bombay (now known as Mumbai), where her mother ran an English-language school and her father owned a shipping company. Benjamin attended a Catholic middle school and a Zoroastrian high school, schools that offered the best English education available. She studied at an art school in Bombay, and later earned two master of fine arts degrees in the United States. She has lived for years in Montclair.
The evening featured a screening of a rough-cut version of the documentary Blue Like Me, which tells the story of Benjamin and the Bene Israel community she grew up in. In the film she speaks of how her work blurs the boundaries between different religions.
The film came about almost serendipitously, Benjamin told the audience. Filmmaker Hal Rifken had come to interview her for a film about ethnic artists, but decided to put that film on the back burner and make a film concentrating on her. “It is not just about my work,” she explained. “It is a bigger picture about what Michael [Feldstein] said before — about bridging cultures and using art and my art as a vehicle to talk about these bridges.”
Some of the footage from the film came from Benjamin’s Fulbright project. Following the terrorist attack in 2008 on the Chabad House and the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, Benjamin applied for a Fulbright scholarship to photograph her community in India. “I am being asked repeatedly — ‘Are there real Jews in India?’ — and I thought I would be able to address this through this project,” she said.
Today only about 4,000 Indian Jews remain of a community that was once 30,000 strong. She estimated that 60,000-70,000 Indian Jews live in Israel; some left because of economic reasons, while others were responding to the call of Zionism. An only child, Benjamin recalled how sad she was when her cousins and playmates left for Israel.
Her parents, however, were comfortable economically and did not emigrate. “They didn’t want to go to Israel and start from scratch,” she said.