Zilka Joseph is a poet in Michigan whose writing is informed by her immigrant experience, an unusual one at that for it’s not just that she was born and raised in India: she’s also Bene Israel, the name for Indian Jews who have lived on the subcontinent for two thousand years. Her new book of poetry, In Our Beautiful Bones, tells mostly of her experiences in the United States.
In an early poem, “Drinking Vodka at 35,000 ft”, she writes of sitting next to a man on a long haul flight to Chicago. When he passes her the makings for her cocktail and a bag of pretzels from the flight attendant, they make small talk.
I’m from Peoria, he says,
and before I can ask where that is,
says I’m traveling back from Perth.
I can’t imagine how he survived, trapped
in a small seat half his size. I think of Alice
in Wonderland growing and growing
till she breaks through the roof,
the walls, the windows. I’m from Calcutta,
I say, joining my husband in Chicago …
Her seatmate never asks about Calcutta or India and goes on to fall asleep, infringing on her space in economy seating. He’s a gentle giant who finds joy pointing out downtown Chicago as they begin their approach, although Zilka Joseph, newly arrived, doesn’t know what “downtown” means then.
In “The Scent of an Indian”, Joseph is bemused by her aunt’s neighbor’s complaints about her cooking:
I get it. Ginger, garlic, cumin,
coriander, turmeric, aren’t
your everyday spices. But
they’ve been used for eons.
See how they are co-opted now?
Garam masala is a buzzword.
Turmeric capsules are a rage.
Suddenly coconut oil is a miracle.
This food is hip to some, but not
when we live, cook next door?
Joseph doesn’t write about Judaism as much as her Indian identity, but does mention in a couple of poems the theory that Jews arrived in India after a shipwreck on the Konkan coast in the first century before the common era. In a note at the end of the book, she mentions other theories about the origins of Bene Israel. In one, Jews fled to India after the destruction of the first temple in 70 CE. And in another, they descended from the “Lost Tribes”. Yet there’s also the thought that Indian Jews came from Yemen, Persia, or South Arabia.
Joseph devotes other poems to social justice and the hardships faced during the current pandemic, and includes tikkun olam, or the Hebrew term for repairing the world, in her poem, “Whose Voices Were Heard”:
still I rise still I rise
O sing in our own myriad tongues
in our own voices
m’pnei tikkun ha-olam
In Our Beautiful Bones is an easy read and doesn’t require a background in poetry. Joseph’s writing is straightforward and captivating as are the stories she tells of immigration, identity, and her hope for more compassion in the world.