Life & Culture

How I embraced my identity as a mixed-race, British-Asian Jew

I grew up enchanted by an alluring wooden box. Re-opening this heirloom 15 years ago revealed the Jewish seam in my family’s exotic history


Singapore romance: Esther (formerly Sim Koh-wei) and Jacob Elias

As a child, I spent many hours beside a camphorwood chest. I traced my fingers over the pictures carved into the wood: two travellers in a Chinese sampan, passing a skyline of towering pagodas and thick foliage. I listened to my mother’s stories. This chest was the sole item of furniture she brought when she migrated from Singapore to England in 1961. It holds the photographs, letters, trinkets, marriage certificates and identity cards of her ancestors, who came from China and Iraq and sojourned in India. “Going through” the chest with my mother meant both unpacking these precious heirlooms, but also, via her stories, travelling to my forebears’ distant times and places.

“I’m a quarter Jewish, a quarter Chinese, a quarter Welsh, a quarter English,” I would chant to other children, if we got on to the subject of where you were from. But I was confused about my identity. I hadn’t figured out how these parts fitted together. The Iraqi and Indian connections never even got a mention. The exotic ancestors I heard about in my mother’s stories seemed to me as made-up and far-removed as the fairytale carvings.

Then, about 15 years ago, my mother got me called to the bimah in her synagogue. It felt as though she was throwing down the gauntlet, but also issuing me with a gift. Figure out what Judaism means to you. Explore your Jewish ancestry, even if – or maybe especially because – it is mixed.

And so she and I returned to the camphorwood chest, now with me taking out its treasures. As I wrote what turned out to be not just a multi-generational saga but my own memoir of my return to my Asian-Jewish heritage, I absorbed the family’s past. That commission from my mother became a transmission of her incredible Asian-Jewish legacy to me. The process became more urgent as my beloved mother aged. These interwoven family and personal stories are the subject of my new book.

I discovered magical connections. The scent of camphor that enchanted me as a child whenever my mother opened the chest was a portal to the family past. The aroma is a heady concoction of sweet nutmeg, tangy clove and winter-rich cinnamon. My mother’s paternal forebears were for generations spice traders. Her grandfather Isaac Elias left Iraq at the end of the 19th century. As I was writing the book, a newly discovered cousin shared with us a family tree of Iraqi Jews going back to 1700, and I learnt that my family had been in Iraq probably for 2,000 years. I was discovering this country’s illustrious Jewish history during the recent wars there. My family’s Iraqi Jewishness felt incredibly poignant. With such an ancient legacy, who was I not to keep it going?

My own grandfather Jacob, Isaac’s son, was the embodiment of what my book calls “loving strangers”, of someone who loved across cultural difference. Jacob was born in Bombay, which was then part of the British Empire and not yet renamed Mumbai. He absorbed the city’s music, food and languages so deeply that, even when he in turn migrated to Singapore, he was known as “Jacob Bumbai-Wallah”, “Jacob, the man from Bombay”. Jacob spoke Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Malay, English, Yiddish, Hebrew and some of the Chinese dialect Hokkien. In the chest there is a recording of his singing heartbreaking songs in many of these languages, which would make my mother cry. When I listened, I felt like he was calling me to respond. I realised that his multilingualism served him well as a spice trader, but that he was also, in his life, in his way of being Jewish, a broker across worlds. He became a model for me.

In Singapore, Jacob met Sim Koh-wei, my grandmother, a Chinese immigrant from Fujian province. They fell in love and married, drawn across different cultures and initially religions. The camphor-wood chest produced its treasure in the form of my grandmother’s handbag, which she carried with her everywhere until the day she died. I was amazed to find it contained not only multiple copies of her conversion certificate to Judaism, but also Hebrew prayers. Esther Elias, as she became following her conversion, took her new faith to heart. When I visited Singapore, the chief rabbi there told me what a good Jew she was. He never knew her, but her commitment to Judaism and the Jewish community was legendary. As I followed the trail of her life through her handbag, I realised that I was paralleling her journey. When I began writing my book, I was a serious Buddhist, even thinking about becoming a Buddhist monk. Not any more. The “past lives” that mattered to me now were those of these remarkable Asian-Jewish ancestors.

My visit to Mumbai was most illuminating. I discovered local Jewish history with the help of Indian Muslims. Byculla, the Baghdadi Jewish quarter in Mumbai, is now a Muslim area. As I was writing down familiar names in a graveyard in the pouring rain, a Muslim held an umbrella over my head. I found that the old Jewish school, which is now majority Muslim, still honours the school commitment to recite some daily prayers in Hebrew. Just outside, a Muslim parent, who had seen my kippah (I had come from the synagogue next door), said “shalom” to me. “Salaam,” I said in return. In the context of increasing nationalism around the world and cultural and religious division, these connections felt powerful. My mother told me that when she was in Byculla as a child refugee from Singapore, her best friend was Muslim. So I felt that this cosmopolitanism had a long and repeated history in our family.

Singapore was and remains for me an ideal of cosmopolitanism. It was the British Empire that brought the Iraqi-Jewish and Chinese parts of my family to the island, and my white non-Jewish British father also, when he went to fight with the British Army against the Chinese communists in the Malayan Emergency – and then met and fell in love with my mother (more loving strangers). We don’t always see this side of empire: that it can inadvertently produce love across divides.

I found photographs in the chest of David Marshall. Like my mother, Marshall was from a Baghdadi-Jewish family and grew up in the mahallah, the Jewish quarter of Singapore. Marshall was key to Singapore achieving its independence from the British Empire. On becoming the first chief minister of Singapore, he emphasised how, as a Jew, his appointment captured Singapore’s multicultural values. “By electing a stranger to politics,” he said, “the people have proved that Singapore has a spirit which can be touched by ideals.”

My journey through the camphorwood chest and writing the book led me to finally seek out a Jewish community of my own. I joined York Liberal Jewish Community, where there are comparable stories of returning and newly discovered Jewish identities. It felt right to me to belong in a place where Jews are not supposed to live, given York’s infamous antisemitic past. Not many people think of Jews living in Singapore, of Chinese Jews, even now of Jews being in Iraq or India. The erasure of Asian-Jewish histories explains something of my own late discovery of my Jewish identity. My book seeks to put Asian- Jewish stories back on the map of the Jewish world.

As I was writing the book and learning more about Judaism, I also realised that loving strangers is a fundamental Jewish value. “You shall love the stranger as yourself” is the most repeated commandment in the Torah. The camphor-wood chest gave me so many examples of this in my family. Writing its stories allowed me to embrace my identity as a mixed-race, British-Asian Jew.

Jay Prosser’s book Loving Strangers: A Camphorwood Chest, a Legacy, a Son Returns is published by Black Spring Press.

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