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The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories, and a Sense of Home

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A search for shipwrecked ancestors, forgotten histories, and a sense of home Fascinating and intimate, The Girl from Foreign is one woman's search for ancient family secrets that leads to an adventure in far-off lands. Sadia Shepard, the daughter of a white Protestant from Colorado and a Muslim from Pakistan, was shocked to discover that her grandmother was a descendant of A search for shipwrecked ancestors, forgotten histories, and a sense of home Fascinating and intimate, The Girl from Foreign is one woman's search for ancient family secrets that leads to an adventure in far-off lands. Sadia Shepard, the daughter of a white Protestant from Colorado and a Muslim from Pakistan, was shocked to discover that her grandmother was a descendant of the Bene Israel, a tiny Jewish community shipwrecked in India two thousand years ago. After traveling to India to put the pieces of her family's past together, her quest for identity unlocks a myriad of profound religious and cultural revelations that Shepard gracefully weaves into this touching, eye-opening memoir.


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A search for shipwrecked ancestors, forgotten histories, and a sense of home Fascinating and intimate, The Girl from Foreign is one woman's search for ancient family secrets that leads to an adventure in far-off lands. Sadia Shepard, the daughter of a white Protestant from Colorado and a Muslim from Pakistan, was shocked to discover that her grandmother was a descendant of A search for shipwrecked ancestors, forgotten histories, and a sense of home Fascinating and intimate, The Girl from Foreign is one woman's search for ancient family secrets that leads to an adventure in far-off lands. Sadia Shepard, the daughter of a white Protestant from Colorado and a Muslim from Pakistan, was shocked to discover that her grandmother was a descendant of the Bene Israel, a tiny Jewish community shipwrecked in India two thousand years ago. After traveling to India to put the pieces of her family's past together, her quest for identity unlocks a myriad of profound religious and cultural revelations that Shepard gracefully weaves into this touching, eye-opening memoir.

30 review for The Girl from Foreign: A Search for Shipwrecked Ancestors, Forgotten Histories, and a Sense of Home

  1. 5 out of 5

    Pat

    This book got better and better as I got more and more into it. It's a true story of a woman who was born in the United States of a mixed marriage between her Pakistani Muslim mother and her Christian white father. Her grandmother (mother's mother) was born to a Jewish diaspora family in India who married a Pakistani Muslim, converted to Islam, and moved with her husband and his two other wives to Pakistan during the India/Pakistani split in the late 1940s. Her grandmother was an important part This book got better and better as I got more and more into it. It's a true story of a woman who was born in the United States of a mixed marriage between her Pakistani Muslim mother and her Christian white father. Her grandmother (mother's mother) was born to a Jewish diaspora family in India who married a Pakistani Muslim, converted to Islam, and moved with her husband and his two other wives to Pakistan during the India/Pakistani split in the late 1940s. Her grandmother was an important part of her life growing up and, after her grandmother's death, she gets a Fulbright scholarship to study in India. Ostensibly, she is searching for her grandmother's story, but what she is really searching for, however, are the answers to how she fits into these religions - Islam, Judaism and Christianity - and these three cultures - Pakistani, Indian and American. Her search is ultimately an acceptance of who she is and the process is fascinating.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Shomeret

    This is a well-written memoir that is very much Sadia Shepard's story. It's her journey and her emotional process regarding her family connection, spirituality and cultural identification. These issues are very complex for her. She has multiple family heritages and religions. If you wanted to read this book to find out about Bene Israel practices, there is only a small amount of that sort of content. Judging from Sadia's descriptions, I have an impression that the few Bene Israel left in the vil This is a well-written memoir that is very much Sadia Shepard's story. It's her journey and her emotional process regarding her family connection, spirituality and cultural identification. These issues are very complex for her. She has multiple family heritages and religions. If you wanted to read this book to find out about Bene Israel practices, there is only a small amount of that sort of content. Judging from Sadia's descriptions, I have an impression that the few Bene Israel left in the villages of the area where they originally shipwrecked, practice what seems to be a Hindu flavored Judaism that is unique to them. The Bene Israel in large cities such as Mumbai (formerly Bombay) have been steered toward mainstream Judaism by exposure to Israeli religious practices. I would love to have more specifics to confirm whether my impression is correct. I also noted that the village Bene Israel perform an annual animal sacrifice associated with Passover. They kill a lamb and sprinkle the blood on their door posts as the Israelites in Egypt did in the Bible. Some Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews also perform an animal sacrifice called the Kapporeth. They kill a chicken for the High Holy Days. The chicken is supposed to absorb their sins, so it's not eaten. I observed my paternal grandmother doing this as a child and was completely horrified.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Carol

    Interesting, but also dry parts. A woman travels to India & Pakistan to try to find her Grandmother's Jewish roots, and find out more about the Jewish community in Mumbai (Bombay). Through the book we learn also, how the author's mom emigrated to the US and married an American Christian. What was amazing to me, was that there is an indiginous Jewish group of Indians in India! They believe they are descendants of the 12 Lost Tribes of Israel. Their oral heritage tells that they came to India from Interesting, but also dry parts. A woman travels to India & Pakistan to try to find her Grandmother's Jewish roots, and find out more about the Jewish community in Mumbai (Bombay). Through the book we learn also, how the author's mom emigrated to the US and married an American Christian. What was amazing to me, was that there is an indiginous Jewish group of Indians in India! They believe they are descendants of the 12 Lost Tribes of Israel. Their oral heritage tells that they came to India from the Middle East in a boat 2,000 years earlier, and settled in towns along the coast near Mumbai. When Christian missionaries came, they found this group practicing religious rituals that were similar to the Jewish faith. In the 1970s (or 80s?) Israel gave this group the right of return. Many of them have emigrated to Israel.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Lena

    I enjoyed this book. Basically it tells the story of a young, well educated woman from a well-to-do family whose grandmother dies. The grandmother, from India, was Jewish originally and then married a Moslem man with two other wives, and then, with Partition in 1948, moved to Pakistan. The author's mother immigrated to the US, and married a Christian American from Colorado. The book involves the author's search for the Jewish branch of the family, as well as the understanding of how and why the I enjoyed this book. Basically it tells the story of a young, well educated woman from a well-to-do family whose grandmother dies. The grandmother, from India, was Jewish originally and then married a Moslem man with two other wives, and then, with Partition in 1948, moved to Pakistan. The author's mother immigrated to the US, and married a Christian American from Colorado. The book involves the author's search for the Jewish branch of the family, as well as the understanding of how and why the grandmother converted to Islam. This search takes the author to India, Karachi, New York and Florida. This was a quest I could not resist reading about, and the author delivered - she found what she was searching for, and described the journey well. I did have a couple of issues with the book, though - the first was that she referred to her grandmother as "Nana" throughout the story. It was almost as if this was too familiar a term for me, and my mind kept seeing the author as a young child. Also - she states that she explores the three religions, but it seems that the Christian side was rather neglected, even though that would have been half of her childhood.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Emi Bevacqua

    I probably would've rated this book a little higher if (it'd been written then and) I'd read it when I was going through that same hyper-consciousness of my own multi-culturalism, back when I too was a self-centered navel gazer. But I've read many many other stories that offered more to the reader to relate to, and this was just way too much/long about Shepard's own story, or that of her grandmother's actually and without a rewarding explanation or disclosure at the end to make it worthwhile for I probably would've rated this book a little higher if (it'd been written then and) I'd read it when I was going through that same hyper-consciousness of my own multi-culturalism, back when I too was a self-centered navel gazer. But I've read many many other stories that offered more to the reader to relate to, and this was just way too much/long about Shepard's own story, or that of her grandmother's actually and without a rewarding explanation or disclosure at the end to make it worthwhile for me. I really was rooting for her to succeed, to fall in love, to figure things out, to make a decision; and unfortunately I didn't get the sense from reading this that she accomplished any of those.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Arshia

    This is such an interesting story. A jewish friend of mine calls me up one day and says have you heard of this story. I said I had not, and she asked me to read it so that we could have a discussion about it afterwards. I'm almost finished and find it very fascinating. Sadia Shepard is searching for something to find meaning in her life. Her grandmother was a Jew from India. That in in itself is what drew me to this book. I don't want to give away too much more, but I definitely recommend this b This is such an interesting story. A jewish friend of mine calls me up one day and says have you heard of this story. I said I had not, and she asked me to read it so that we could have a discussion about it afterwards. I'm almost finished and find it very fascinating. Sadia Shepard is searching for something to find meaning in her life. Her grandmother was a Jew from India. That in in itself is what drew me to this book. I don't want to give away too much more, but I definitely recommend this book. It is non-fictional and written well. I felt as though I was traveling with Sadia thru her journey.

  7. 5 out of 5

    penny shima glanz

    I found Shepard's memoir of her path to and on her Fulbright year enjoyable. Despite a few books on my shelves of far-flung Jewish Communities such as the Bene Israel, I am sadly mostly ignorant of them. Additionally I have a large hole in my knowledge of "real" Islam. I studied Western Religions at an introductory level in College, but it was very theoretical. I don't know much about many things as they are in the world outside the academic bubble. The portrait Shepard sketches of her identity I found Shepard's memoir of her path to and on her Fulbright year enjoyable. Despite a few books on my shelves of far-flung Jewish Communities such as the Bene Israel, I am sadly mostly ignorant of them. Additionally I have a large hole in my knowledge of "real" Islam. I studied Western Religions at an introductory level in College, but it was very theoretical. I don't know much about many things as they are in the world outside the academic bubble. The portrait Shepard sketches of her identity and the customs and concerns she faces was a refreshing read. It reminds me many respects of Saidiya Hartman's Lose Your Mother, both write with a frank poetry and cadence that left me feeling as if I were conversing over a cup of tea. (note: I took a seminar with Professor Hartman in 2008 so my memory of her book and her class have most likely merged in the past year). If you think your way of religion is the one and only right way, please don't open this book or come ranting to me with "how could she". If you are respectful and curious, I think you will greatly enjoy the journey Shepard invites us on. I wish her the best on her future endeavors.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Deborah

    This is an excellent memoir written by a woman raised in three religions. Her maternal grandmother was born in India in the Bene Israel Jewish community who were shipwrecked there 2000 years ago. Nana married a Muslim and the family was forced to leave India at the time of the partition. The author' s mother was raised Muslim in Karachi, came to the US for college and married an American Episcopalian. The author was raised by her parents and Nana where she was taught to honor all 3 religions. Af This is an excellent memoir written by a woman raised in three religions. Her maternal grandmother was born in India in the Bene Israel Jewish community who were shipwrecked there 2000 years ago. Nana married a Muslim and the family was forced to leave India at the time of the partition. The author' s mother was raised Muslim in Karachi, came to the US for college and married an American Episcopalian. The author was raised by her parents and Nana where she was taught to honor all 3 religions. After Nana's death, she moves to India to research the Bene Israel community and learns more about her grandmothers past and struggles with her religious identity as she is advised that she will eventually need to choose one over the others.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Lisa James

    This book was everything it was said to be, compelling, poignant, a little sad, personal, touching, etc. Sadia's deep love for her grandmother takes her on a journey to discover her multi-cultural family's past after the death of her grandmother. I really give it to her family to be able to combine 3 religions & cultures in their home, & you could feel the love she wrote with in ever word. This book taught me things I didn't know about both the Bene Israel's Judaism, as well as the Muslim faith. This book was everything it was said to be, compelling, poignant, a little sad, personal, touching, etc. Sadia's deep love for her grandmother takes her on a journey to discover her multi-cultural family's past after the death of her grandmother. I really give it to her family to be able to combine 3 religions & cultures in their home, & you could feel the love she wrote with in ever word. This book taught me things I didn't know about both the Bene Israel's Judaism, as well as the Muslim faith. This is a book you can get lost in, & a book that you can connect to....

  10. 5 out of 5

    Alto2

    I found this book in the Conservative or Reform Jewish magazine. It's a terrific work of non-fiction that is, in itself, a great story. My eldest son said it would make a great movie, and he's right. The Girl From Foreign is the memoir of Sadia Shepard's search for her grandmother's roots in the Indian Jewish community known as Bene Israel. Not only does Ms. Shepard find her grandmother's essence, she discovers her true self in the process. I found this book in the Conservative or Reform Jewish magazine. It's a terrific work of non-fiction that is, in itself, a great story. My eldest son said it would make a great movie, and he's right. The Girl From Foreign is the memoir of Sadia Shepard's search for her grandmother's roots in the Indian Jewish community known as Bene Israel. Not only does Ms. Shepard find her grandmother's essence, she discovers her true self in the process.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Mythili

    Getting to talk to Sadia about this book more than a decade after she wrote it was all the more interesting-- it put an older woman in conversation with the young woman Sadia was when she made this trip to India. Hers is a very rich personal history which she honors in such a heart-warming fashion.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Katie

    Excellent true story written by a girl who was raised with three religions, but went to India to find the diminishing community of the Bene Israels to learn about the Jewish community that was originally her grandmother's. Excellent true story written by a girl who was raised with three religions, but went to India to find the diminishing community of the Bene Israels to learn about the Jewish community that was originally her grandmother's.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Maureen

    Well written but would rather have seen the documentary about the Bene Israel including a portion on those who have emigrated to Israel. For those who like the memoir form. . . . .

  14. 5 out of 5

    Jaylia3

    I love this story of a women researching her grandmother's Jewish roots in India and Pakistan. I love this story of a women researching her grandmother's Jewish roots in India and Pakistan.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Denise

    Like The Latehomecomer, this is a book about the immigrant experience that is also about how important a grandmother can be to a young girl searching for her identity. One of these days I will be on a plane to a miniscule village in the Italian Piedmont, looking for my own grandmother's heritage, longing to be back in her bed listening to the cicadas as she draws letters on my back. The old cliche about families is that you want to give your children both roots and wings. The huge recent surge i Like The Latehomecomer, this is a book about the immigrant experience that is also about how important a grandmother can be to a young girl searching for her identity. One of these days I will be on a plane to a miniscule village in the Italian Piedmont, looking for my own grandmother's heritage, longing to be back in her bed listening to the cicadas as she draws letters on my back. The old cliche about families is that you want to give your children both roots and wings. The huge recent surge in popularity of genealogy is witness to how important it is in this peripatetic age to know where we came from. Shepard's tree is perhaps more tangled than most, and her journey to India and Pakistan to try to understand the Bene Israel has an undercurrent of sadness, but when she finds the home place, she feels at home. At least temporarily.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Sue

    Sadia is the daughter of a Muslim mother and Christian father. Her maternal grandmother was Jewish. Before Nana died, she had Sadia promise that she would travel to India to study the family roots. A Fulbright scholarship provided the means for her to do just that. What started as a year turned into 18 months of photos, films, and interviews documenting the Bene Israel community. Along the way she learned not only about her grandmother, but about herself. I really enjoyed this. It had been on my Sadia is the daughter of a Muslim mother and Christian father. Her maternal grandmother was Jewish. Before Nana died, she had Sadia promise that she would travel to India to study the family roots. A Fulbright scholarship provided the means for her to do just that. What started as a year turned into 18 months of photos, films, and interviews documenting the Bene Israel community. Along the way she learned not only about her grandmother, but about herself. I really enjoyed this. It had been on my want to read list for a long time and a library copy was available at a time that I was looking for something to read. I know that she had made family trips to India and Pakistan as a child but it still impresses me that she was able to leave behind her life in the States for an extended time and make a life for herself in a foreign land.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Gale Halpern

    I enjoyed this memoir very much. It brought to life the experiences of a small group of Jews who had been shipwrecked along the coast of India 2000 years ago, consider themselves a lost tribe of Israel and formed the Bene Israel community in Bombay (Mumbai). The author's grandmother was a practicing member of this tribe, but then married a Muslim man and was forced by the partition to move to Pakistan where she raised her daughter (the author's mother) as a Muslim. There is so much history to be I enjoyed this memoir very much. It brought to life the experiences of a small group of Jews who had been shipwrecked along the coast of India 2000 years ago, consider themselves a lost tribe of Israel and formed the Bene Israel community in Bombay (Mumbai). The author's grandmother was a practicing member of this tribe, but then married a Muslim man and was forced by the partition to move to Pakistan where she raised her daughter (the author's mother) as a Muslim. There is so much history to be gleaned from reading the experiences of Sadia and her mother that I highly recommend this book.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Hrutika Satdive

    When I picked up this book for reading, I was only faintly aware of it being based on a girl who migrates to another country; and because I absolutely love reading memoirs, I dug into the book with an open mind. This book is work straight out of the author's heart and soul, and with each passing chapter I felt more connected to her and even more to her Nana. I am close to my family, but after reading The Girl from Foreign I understand the depths of relationships and how close knit and multilayer When I picked up this book for reading, I was only faintly aware of it being based on a girl who migrates to another country; and because I absolutely love reading memoirs, I dug into the book with an open mind. This book is work straight out of the author's heart and soul, and with each passing chapter I felt more connected to her and even more to her Nana. I am close to my family, but after reading The Girl from Foreign I understand the depths of relationships and how close knit and multilayered they can be, and most importantly the extend to which one goes just for their loved ones. And hence, I'm not surprised at how beautiful the outcome (i.e. this book) is.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Kathy

    This was such an unexpected story. I understand why Shepard felt compelled to tell it: what a life her grandmother had! Her love for her grandmother is so poignant and her journey really gives you that sense of being abroad with Shepard in India. I get that she's inspired by Sebald, but she doesn't totally pull the Austerlitz style off: some of the writing comes across as flat. At the same time, I found myself poring over the pictures of her family as well as the photographs of the synagogues an This was such an unexpected story. I understand why Shepard felt compelled to tell it: what a life her grandmother had! Her love for her grandmother is so poignant and her journey really gives you that sense of being abroad with Shepard in India. I get that she's inspired by Sebald, but she doesn't totally pull the Austerlitz style off: some of the writing comes across as flat. At the same time, I found myself poring over the pictures of her family as well as the photographs of the synagogues and the people in the Bene Israel community, even after I finished the book.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Nicholas

    Interesting read. It affects more as a journal than as a memoir — which is a good thing. Direct impressions of living in India as a westernized East Asian foreigner, a diaspora Muslim, and as someone who discovers her grandmother’s secret (not going to spoil it for you). The subsequent hullabaloo over the author’s alleged plagiarism of a short story dimmed her star for me, though I do not take a stand on the matter. It was her excellent short story in the New Yorker that led me to read her book i Interesting read. It affects more as a journal than as a memoir — which is a good thing. Direct impressions of living in India as a westernized East Asian foreigner, a diaspora Muslim, and as someone who discovers her grandmother’s secret (not going to spoil it for you). The subsequent hullabaloo over the author’s alleged plagiarism of a short story dimmed her star for me, though I do not take a stand on the matter. It was her excellent short story in the New Yorker that led me to read her book in the first place.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Karenbike Patterson

    This ho hum memoir takes a young woman with a Fullbright to India to find her Grandmother's Jewish ancestors. Shepard visits synagogues and meets long ago acquaintances in Pune and Bombay. She tries to decide which religions is she: Jewish (maternal grandmother), Muslim (maternal grandfather and mother), Christian, father. This ho hum memoir takes a young woman with a Fullbright to India to find her Grandmother's Jewish ancestors. Shepard visits synagogues and meets long ago acquaintances in Pune and Bombay. She tries to decide which religions is she: Jewish (maternal grandmother), Muslim (maternal grandfather and mother), Christian, father.

  22. 5 out of 5

    KKJ

    As a young Indian woman, it was nice to read a book that mimicked some of the same search for identity that I experience. Also obviously interesting to learn more about the Bene Israel Community in India. However, the book felt quite long and drawn out at parts. I ultimately skimmed the second half.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Cj

    A solid memoir/biography/story. An interesting look into a young woman's family's story and the Jews of India with lore and a bit of romance. She manages to capture a bit of her generation and her grandmother's but none of her mother's so there is a missing step in the transition. An intriguing if slightly self-indulgent piece (as memoirs can be). A solid memoir/biography/story. An interesting look into a young woman's family's story and the Jews of India with lore and a bit of romance. She manages to capture a bit of her generation and her grandmother's but none of her mother's so there is a missing step in the transition. An intriguing if slightly self-indulgent piece (as memoirs can be).

  24. 5 out of 5

    Alan Shaw

    This is a beautifully well written book with an intriguing storyline. Ms. Shepard engrossed me from beginning to end and her sense of wonder and bewilderment and joy and doubt come across most movingly. Highly recommended.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Natalie Oshins

    Woman finds grandmothers secret past I enjoyed the story, especially the travels through PaKistan and India. The writing needed more editing to reduce the repitition and slow flow. I had to force myself to finish the book.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Tana

    An intriguing journey of discovery into the Bene Israel - Jews of India. I didn't know these people existed, and the author's discovery that her grandmother was one of these Jews makes for an interesting book, written from the viewpoint of a woman who was raised as a Muslim. An intriguing journey of discovery into the Bene Israel - Jews of India. I didn't know these people existed, and the author's discovery that her grandmother was one of these Jews makes for an interesting book, written from the viewpoint of a woman who was raised as a Muslim.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Beth

    A love story to her grandmother....grappling with understanding incongruity in her own life and religion Sadia tries to find herself and her grandmother. Sweet and poignant.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Nevan Hamid

    In search for her true identity, fulfilling a promise to the author’s grandmother, Sadia ventures on a trip to India to trace her ancestors. The grandmother was Jewish and converted and raised her children as Muslims. Granted a Fulbright scholarship, she starts to meet and interview people from the Jewish community, Bene Israel, the last of the twelve tribes of Israelites who survived a shipwreck at Konka Coast, and were well integrated within Indian community. She gets guidance from a friend, R In search for her true identity, fulfilling a promise to the author’s grandmother, Sadia ventures on a trip to India to trace her ancestors. The grandmother was Jewish and converted and raised her children as Muslims. Granted a Fulbright scholarship, she starts to meet and interview people from the Jewish community, Bene Israel, the last of the twelve tribes of Israelites who survived a shipwreck at Konka Coast, and were well integrated within Indian community. She gets guidance from a friend, Rekveh, starts to study Hindi and finds herself immersed in the culture and feels welcomed by the friendly Jewish people. Raised in a multicultural household, born to a Muslim mother, Protestant father and Jewish grandmother, she is faced with the inevitable question about which religion most likely to choose?

  29. 5 out of 5

    Ghada Bistanji

    Ok book. The author first 200 pages are too long and repetitive. Could have been reduced to 50 pages easily. The story from page 200 till the end.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Ali Elenbaas

    I could not get through this book but I powered through. I had such high hopes for it but it was disappointing. I really thought that the story of a woman born to a Muslim Indian mother and Christian American father, researching her grandmother's heritage as a part of a Jewish family in the small Jewish community in India would be so interesting. However, I really was just left wondering what the point of the book was besides the author chronicling her pursuit to figure out who she is. I could not get through this book but I powered through. I had such high hopes for it but it was disappointing. I really thought that the story of a woman born to a Muslim Indian mother and Christian American father, researching her grandmother's heritage as a part of a Jewish family in the small Jewish community in India would be so interesting. However, I really was just left wondering what the point of the book was besides the author chronicling her pursuit to figure out who she is.

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