My refugee book inspired by two batmitzvahs

Sita Brahmachari's new book links the Jewish refugee experience with the present day


When I was writing Tender Earth, my new book for children, I knew that I wanted to include a batmitzvah. It was the third book I had written about the Levenson family, which, like my own, blends Indian and Jewish heritages.

There was one problem. I had never been to a batmitzvah. So I asked some friends and neighbours if I could attend theirs.

I was welcomed to the batmitzvahs of two wonderful young women — Dana Goldman and Anna Lawrence — and found them extremely moving experiences. I was struck by the deep engagement of both young women with their avot — forefathers and mothers and the sense of continuity and strength they drew from the experience.

The main character of Tender Earth is Laila Levenson, youngest sister of the family I’d created in my first novel, Artichoke Hearts, which to my amazement and joy won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize. I followed up with a sequel Jasmine Skies in which Mina, the older sister, travels to India to discover more about that part of her family background.

In Tender Earth Laila’s best friend Kezia Braverman is planning for her batmitzvah. Laila has little connection to her father’s Jewish heritage and feels like an outsider but wants so much to know what this journey means to Kezia and her family.

Attending these batmitzvahs led me to the idea that Laila would connect to her friend Kezia’s grandmother very strongly, adopting her as her own “bubbe”. She finds, in her, a way to connect to her own Jewish heritage. “Bubbe” — Dara Braverman — came to Britain as a Kindertransport refugee with Stan, who became her husband. She is horrified by the treatment of child refugees in the world today.

Dara’s sharing of her own story of being a child refugee helps Laila relate to her new friend Pari; the child of Iraqi refugees. At Kezia’s batmitzvah, Dara draws children from many different religious backgrounds together in unity. It is partly Dara’s vision and guidance that help Laila and her friends know what they must do when antisemitism raises its ugly head when, on a visit to the cemetery, Bubbe finds Stan’s and many other graves defiled by swastikas.

After writing Tender Earth I visited the Wiener Library with a group of refugees from Islington Centre for Refugees and Migrants where I am Writer in Residence. I was moved by the sense of solidarity of a coming together with Jewish people among whom were Kindertransport refugees.

“It made me feel like being a refugee is not something new, but it has always been part of this country. I felt welcome, singing together,” Benjamin, one of the Islington refugees told me.

The compassion and sadness for the current situation was palpable. Stories and songs were shared as the choir sang accompanied by the World Harmony Orchestra celebrating the music of refugee and migrant composers throughout history.

On World Refugee Day, I think about that possibility of harmony that existed at The Wiener Library and in moments of coming together in a community despite differences of history, culture, religion and politics. In these fissured times, young people need stories of hope and to be offered narratives that explore how they can stand together for the values they believe in. This is what I have tried to write in Tender Earth.


As part of refugee week Sita will be joining a panel on ‘Sanctuary in Fiction’ on June 22.  Details here.  

Tender Earth is published by Macmillan Children's Books (£6.99)

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