Blue Like Me: Growing Up Jewish in India, with artist Siona Benjamin

On Thursday, March 14 at 7 p.m., meet Siona Benjamin, a painter originally from Mumbai now living in the US. Her works reflect her background of being brought up Jewish in a predominantly Hindu and Muslim India. She combines the imagery of her past with the role she plays in multicultural America today, making a mosaic inspired by both Indian miniature paintings and Sephardic icons.

This presentation in recognition of Women’s History Month will be presented via Zoom. Register for this free program at the calendar of events at

Siona Benjamin has always been driven to reflect upon the cultural boundary zones in which she has lived. Her intent for her viewers is to re-evaluate their notions and concepts about identity and race, hoping to peel back layers of misconceptions that may result in racism, hate and war. Over the years, she developed varied blue-skinned characters as self-portraits in assuming multiple roles and forms. She employs them as social and cultural agents in raising provocative issues about identity in a trans-cultural world.

For more on Siona's painting and other works and commissions, visit her website at The images for this story were kindly provided by the artist.

The BJV had the chance to catch up with Siona Benjamin in January – our conversation was edited for length and clarity.

The BJV Interview: Siona Benjamin

When I read your resume, I was struck by how grounded you are in two worlds, Western culture and India. How did you integrate those two Jewish identities?

I'm a Jew from India, but I'm Jewish. It wasn't that alien or that different. It's not like I'm Hindu or Muslim. My family left to come to America – my mother's mother immigrated with my uncle Mordechai, who was brought here by HYAS to Cleveland, Ohio. She died in Cleveland. My father's mother died in Beersheba, Israel. So, we're a diasporic people. It's not like [Indian Jews] are on some other planet. We are integrated into Western culture. To begin with, the British were in India, and I was raised all through middle school in a convent school – a very good English education. And then I went to a Zoroastrian high school. India is very multicultural and presented that very multicultural view to me from the very beginning. My father worked for a shipping company, and all these European captains would come to our house. My parents had Pat Boone and Engelbert Humperdinck records – I grew up with the sound of that music, songs I knew by heart.

The reason I asked that question was because I grew up in an Ashkenazi Jewish culture and while my view of Jewishness expanded after I lived in Israel and saw more of the Sephardic culture, it still stayed stuck in an Ashkenazi silo. Even my Israeli relatives, who came in the 1920s, were stuck there. Now I think Jews generally are more conscious of the diversity.

Israel always had Yemenite Jews and Jews of color and Moroccan Jews and all different kinds of Jews. They didn't come from anywhere. It's actually the Ashkenazi Jews that came in from Europe. People ask me, how come there are Jews in India? And I say, well, how come there are Jews in Poland? Because for us, Middle Eastern Jews come from Asia – Abraham came from the land of Ur, which is in Iraq, not in Eastern Europe. Ashkenazi Jews have lived in a bubble here for a long time. My family immigrated from India and they were there during the formation of Israel. I think America is very privileged and so can afford to have that viewpoint of having “embraced” the Jewish diversity in Israel and other parts of the world – something that was there already and always has been.

Ashkenazi people who came to Israel earlier on, unfortunately, imposed their Ashkenazi-ness a little bit too much on Jews of color. There has been a lot of pain and anger because of that. But I think things have changed now completely and everybody's accepting of everybody, which the way it always should have been. We are all mixed with identities of where we came from, and there's no such thing as a pure Jew or a pure culture, a pure religion, or whatever.

So how does that understanding inform your art – how you create it, how you present it, and how you want your audiences to understand and receive your work?

That was a thing with me all along – it was just a question of being persistent and making sure that people understood that message. I knew from the very beginning that my Jewishness coming from India or Iraq or Iran or that part of the world was just as Jewish as “your” Jewishness. I also was sure that I was gentle and focused on the storytelling. Then people caught on. People are having me do all kinds of commissions and paintings and talks and lectures, to a point where it has become sort of “my time,” where I can talk about a celebration of Jewish diversity. When people who don't understand Jewishness, like right now with the antisemitic rhetoric that we are getting, where people say, ‘Oh, all Jews are white, are oppressors’ -- we can stand up and say, ‘No, we're not an apartheid state, because more than 60 or 70 percent of Israelis are Jews of color. So what are you talking about?’

Let me ask you about your perspective on the Book of Esther. I loved love your megillah and your painting of Vashti [on view at] was very powerful. It touched on a feminist idea of Vashti, who seems like a minor character, but in whom some women see something meaningful to them.

The commission to me from this very big Judaica gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York. I started studying with Rabbi Burton Visotzky from JTS, who still is my teacher, and he helped me through the whole process of making that Megillah, helping me understand the different scenes and how I might change the words into illustrations. Actually, the Eastern European person commissioning project told me he wanted me to paint it in an Indian or Persian miniature style. He didn’t want it in the European style, because the first sentence of the story of Esther, what does it say? King Ahasuerus ruled from India to Ethiopia. Where is the whole story of Esther set? It's an Iranian Jewish story about this Iranian king, his minister Mordechai, and Mordechai's niece, Esther, who saves the Jewish people in that part of the world – again, not in Poland.

Even though [the patron] was Eastern European and Ashkenazi, he said, ‘I want Esther to be blue like the characters in your work.’ My work is feminist, and I do like characters which are the other, which are different, which are left out – not with hurt or with anger or whatever. It's just what it is. In my version, Vashti becomes the sister of Esther and helps her. Midrash can help you change the interpretation. When these things are highlighted and emphasized and celebrated, I hope these mythologies can help us heal instead of cause more fracture.

Image: Siona Benjamin with a mural commissioned by Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis