A mischievous Elijah who loves wine

Closer and closer to Pesach; more and more fun to share. I’ve just had the pleasure of re-reading Shalom India Housing Society, a jolly romp of a novel with this intriguing subtitle: The Riveting Story of a Lost Tribe of Israel Living in India.
Legend has it that more than 2,000 years ago, one of those lost tribes was shipwrecked — why they were sailing and where to are not specified — and somehow landed on India’s Konkan coast. This was the start of the Bene Israel of India today.
This much is true: In 2002, there were religious riots in the part of India where the Bene Israel had settled. Author Esther David, herself a “member of the tribe,” used actual history in creating her splendid 2007 work of fiction, shot through with humor and heart. She relocates a group of Jews, anxious to get away from the rioting — since they might be mistaken by either of the two warring groups as members of the enemy — into a large apartment building, and gives us readers a chance to observe them.
Now here’s where Passover comes in: We first see these Jews through the eyes of Elijah, who is especially beloved by them, having a status that seems located somewhere between Moses and the Almighty, and possessing the wisdom and abilities of both. We pour that Cup of Elijah and during our Seders open the door for him, inviting him to enter and drink. So, it wouldn’t be out of the question (would it?) for the Prophet himself to make a round of inspection visits before the first Seder, to see how it will be observed by these people who venerate him much more intensely than we ever have. Well, he does just that. And as he flies unseen from apartment to apartment, we readers fly with him and are privy to his observations, comments and conclusions.
In her brief introductory “Prelude,” David introduces us to “Eliyahu Hannabi” (Indian spelling rendered in English) as the novel’s protagonist. He is not at all the way we think of Elijah here in the West. As a matter of fact, the Bene Israel even defy the injunction against making images of people because they love Elijah so much that they hang pictures of him in their homes. And they believe that on his way up to Heaven, he flew over India, where the horses driving his chariot left their hoofprints on a large rock — the place where Shalom India Housing Society residents now go to give thanks, and leave something for Elijah to eat — after they’ve prayed to him (not to God above) if their prayers have been answered.
Author David portrays Elijah as “a fun-loving, mischievous character who enjoys watching the theater of human follies, and good-heartedly intervenes when necessary.” This is why we, as readers, can follow the intertwining lives of those Society residents after the first Seder — after we have flown with him, invisibly, and watched him check out “important” things, like the quality of the wines that fill his special goblet in every apartment.
An example: Elijah knows the Hyams, in A-102, always have something good for him. But we see his surprised disappointment: This year, they have made their own “wine,” and he finds nothing “liquorish” about it. So he moves on, only to find something colorless waiting for him in the next apartment’s goblet. He “feels like hitting his head on the wall,” we’re told. But when he dips a finger in and licks it, he is “hit like a bomb”: This glass is full of straight gin — quickly assessed by the Prophet as “something to look forward to.”
A Pesach like none we’ve ever known. A new way to view our old holiday. We adults can have more fun than our youngsters do with their plastic frogs if we just imagine the spirit of this Puckish Prophet hovering over us. L’chaim, Elijah.

Leave a Reply