The Telegraph - Footpaths in the Painted City (Samantha Ellis)
The word diversity has been so often used to describe a blithe multiculturalism that it has lost its edge. What does it mean to really long to belong to more than one place, to be part of more than one culture? …rich, detailed and lyrical. … it becomes impossible to be anything but in awe of the bravery with which she tries to understand her grandmother's doubts, and to work through her own. To most people in India, she is not a Muslim, not a Christian, not a Jew but simply The Girl From Foreign, and the more travelling and thinking she does, the more she wonders what is foreign to her and what is home. This is also a love story, so she is tempted to make her decision based on whom she loves, but that would be too easy. The answer, partial and conflicted as all real answers are, comes from the Bene Israel themselves whose confidence in their hybridity is inspiring.
India Today - An Enchanted Memory (Gillan Wright)
This is yet another NRI nostalgia trip, with an American girl returning to discover her roots. But just as you begin to wonder whether you can bear another writer describing her perfect Indian grandmother and how she made chapatis, the book begins to hook you. For a start, Sadia Shepard is a very clever woman. She is a filmmaker who came back to India on a Fulbright scholarship and she clearly understands communication. You cannot fault her writing, which is lucid, honest and bare of unnecessary adjectives. She also has an attractive humility. And on top of this, as all families have secrets, at least as strange as fiction, she also has a story to tell…In the process of her personal search, and her scholarship aim of studying Indian Jews, Shepard discovers little known communities who have lived and still live as tiny minorities surrounded by their Muslim and Hindu neighbours. The virus of Muslim-Jewish distrust, which has flourished since the creation of Israel, is alien to them. Shepard describes the people she meets as rounded individuals and discovers what she believes is the only family left that still continues the community’s traditional occupation of oil pressing. The head of the family tells her that their ancestors were shipwrecked off the Indian coast many centuries ago. “We have no problem in India,” he repeatedly tells her, representing the best of Indian tradition, a true pluralism, which respects each individual’s search for Truth. Shepard’s own optimism and empathy are reflected in those she meets, like this Bene Israel family, making this book a truly enchanting read.
The New Yorker
In this elegantly crafted memoir, the author sets out to fulfill her grandmother’s dying wish that she learn about her heritage. Her grandmother grew up among the Bene Israel, a small Jewish community in India; when she married a Muslim, she left Judaism and, eventually, India, and adopted the name Rahat Siddiqi. Shepard herself is the product of a mixed marriage: her mother is Pakistani and Muslim, her father American and Christian. After receiving a Fulbright, she left her life in the U.S. to document the remaining Indian Jews, whose numbers have steadily dwindled as many emigrate to Israel. Shepard’s…writing is vivid and her meditations on heritage and grief are moving.
The Washington Post - Jewish Roots in India (Carolyn See)
Besides being a personal memoir and a portrait of a family that includes the world's three major monotheistic religions, "The Girl From Foreign" is a meditation on how our individual memories inevitably slip away, either into oblivion or into that dull collective consciousness we call history…what a rich tapestry of theology, art, emotions and forgotten lore she's uncovered! As our personal memories turn into history, all too often the colors are leached from them. But Sadia Shepard tints the colors back in. We see lavish Muslim weddings, Jewish villages hidden in Indian jungles, earnest lovers reaching across religion and culture. The author's laudable accomplishment is that she yanks her grandmother's story from the coffin of forgetfulness and breathes it back into life.
The Christian Science Monitor - 'So are you Muslim or are you Jewish?' (Elizabeth A. Brown)
The memoir is a gorgeous, honest tribute to her departed maternal grandmother, Nana, whose unlikely history propels the search. Part love story, part history, part search – not only for what was lost, but for how to understand what is found. The stories are compelling, the writing is clear, and the entire book feels like an act of love and courage. As documentary filmmaker and photographer, Shepard knows how to move through scenes, pack them with dialogue, focus on key details, and capture the juxtaposition of opposites that will fascinate us outsiders. We look forward to more from this talented writer, photographer, and filmmaker. In the meantime, the questions she has raised linger: What does it mean to be Jewish, Muslim, Indian, Christian? Are they simply labels, chosen by the wearer? Are they exclusive, or can they be tried on, borrowed from, combined? Readers will find themselves wondering about their own heritage as they read this enchanting tale of family, memory, loyalty, and love.
Publisher's Weekly - Starred Review
“Who is Rachel Jacobs?” the 13-year-old asks her Muslim grandmother Rahat Siddiqi; “that,” Nana tells her, “was my name before I was married.” Thus does a grandmother's stunning reply and a granddaughter's promise “to learn about her ancestors” set Shepard's three voyages of discovery in motion: her grandmother's history; the story of the Bene Israel (one of the lost tribes of Israel that, having sailed from Israel two millennia ago, crashed on the Konkan coast in India; and her own self-discovery (her mother was Muslim, her father Christian, and her grand mother Jewish). Shepard balances all three journeys with dexterity as she spends her Fulbright year, with an old hand-drawn map and her grandmother's family tree, unraveling the mysteries of Nana's past while visiting and photographing the grand and minuscule synagogues in Bombay and on the Konkan Coast. A filmmaker, Shepard writes with a lively sense of pacing (her year proceeds chronologically, interspersed with well-placed flashbacks) and a keen sense of character (getting to know her friend, escort and fellow filmmaker Rekhev as gradually as she does, or capturing the Muslim baker who makes the “only authentic challah in Bombay” in a few strokes). Shepard's story is entertaining and instructive, inquiring and visionary. (Aug.)
Booklist - Starred Review
During her childhood outside of Boston, Shepard's mother, Samina, a Muslim Pakistani, and father, Richard, a Christian American, gave her the freedom to embrace both religions and cultures. Shepard's "third parent" was her adored maternal grandmother, Rahat Siddiqi, called Nana. At age 13, Shepard was shocked to discover that Nana was once Rachel Jacobs, a member of the Bene Israel, a small Jewish community near the Konkan coast of India. Years later, Shepard, now a filmmaker, promises Nana that she will return to India to document her history and that of the Bene Israel, whose descendants believe they are a lost tribe of Israel. With the aid of a Fulbright, she arrives in Bombay shortly after the events of 9/11. Shepard entwines narrative flashbacks of her family's history with a chronicle of her time abroad, as she interacts with a colorful array of individuals, seeks out the Bene Israel's synagogues and diminishing communities, and reflects upon her sense of self and home, given her complex heritage. Shepard's engaging and pensive memoir of discovery offers a moving portrait of her grandmother within an inquisitive, complex journey into urgent questions of religious, cultural, and personal identity. — Leah Strauss
Documentary filmmaker Shepard searches for her history deep in the heart of India’s tiny Jewish community. Growing up in Boston, the author knew that her mother was a Muslim from Pakistan, her father a Christian from Colorado. When she was 13, in 1988, she learned that her grandmother had been born in Bombay, a member of the Bene Israel community, which believes it is one of the lost tribes of Israel. Shortly before Nana’s death in 2000, Shepard promised she would go to India and study her ancestors. Her debut memoir begins 15 months later as she arrived in muggy Bombay to fulfill that promise. The ensuing trip was full of meetings with colorful characters and pensive reflections on identity, community and family. Shepard’s journey through India took place as the world was rocked by the 9/11 attacks, which provided a recurring backdrop to her travels. In the nonlinear narrative of Part One, “Storytelling,” the author dips back in time to recall how her parents met, to talk about her childhood and to examine her grandmother’s influence on the family.