Friday, April 12, 2024

Q&A with Ariana Mizrahi




Ariana Mizrahi is the author of the new children's picture book The Blue Butterfly of Cochin. She also has written the picture book Super Cactus. She lives in Brooklyn.


Q: What inspired you to write The Blue Butterfly of Cochin, and how did you create your character Leah?


A: My original story was quite different from the version you are reading today. While earlier versions featured a butterfly, the original focus was to educate children about racial differences, invite dialogue, and find a common ground between children of different backgrounds.


It had nothing to do with Judaism but rather it had the objective to invite children to think and understand that what unites us is more than what divides us.


My focus changed when I began working with Julian Voloj, the chief operating officer and interim director of Be’chol Lashon, an organization whose goal is to celebrate and prioritize diversity as a Jewish value by uplifting the historic and contemporary racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity of the Jewish people.


He suggested I find a Jewish connection to the story. When I learned about the history of the Cochini Jews’ move from India to Israel, I fell in love. 


My choice to narrate the story from the eyes of Leah, a young girl, was informed by my own family’s experiences.


My grandmother, also named Leah, was a storyteller with a sensitive and graceful nature. Much like the character in my story, my grandmother also made aliyah in the 1950s–in her case, from Buenos Aires.


And my grandmother moved to the Mishmar Hanegev in the Israeli desert, a place that is about 40 minutes from Moshav Nevatim, where this story takes place.


Q: What do you think Siona Benjamin's illustrations add to the book?


A: Siona’s interpretation of the story brings a dream-like fairytale aesthetic, while at the same time keeping a focus on the authentic details of the Cochini experience. Siona is a very gifted artist. I couldn’t have wished for a more talented artist to interpret the story. She truly brought the story to life!


Q: Did you need to do any research to write the book, and if so, what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: Indeed. Thanks to my collaboration with the Indian Jewish Heritage Center, based in Israel, which was invaluable to my research, I was surprised to learn that there has been a Jewish presence in India for many years.


Jews were respected and beloved in India and unlike in many Jewish stories of immigration, Jews didn't experience persecution in India. In fact, many rulers favored them and considered them allies.


For example, there were sultans who allowed Jews to ride elephants. This was usually an honor given exclusively to nobles. In addition, there were rulers who refused to go to war on Shabbat because they wanted the Jewish community to join them in battle.


Q: What do you hope kids take away from the story?


A: I hope children learn to cherish all chapters of Jewish history, including the history of those communities we know less about. I hope they are encouraged to ask questions. I hope this book sparks their curiosity and invites them to explore the rich details of our Jewish past. And I certainly hope they see the commonalities of all different Jewish communities. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on two projects. One is a book that will focus on the Jewish Argentine experience. It’s a lovely story about Purim.


I am also working on another book for teens with a focus on Jewish immigration and a sensational rescue operation. Stay tuned–I don't want to reveal too much, yet.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I feel blessed that I received first-hand knowledge from the Indian Jewish Heritage Center and the many volunteers who generously collaborated with us. It gives me tremendous joy to share my book with the rest of the community at large. I hope this story will encourage people to learn more about our rich Jewish past.


I am also incredibly grateful for the support I received from Be’chol Lashon and the book’s publisher, Kalaniot Books. They always believed in the value of this project and the inspirational story of this amazing community. Now the book is available for everyone!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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