From ‘Bebe’ to Bubbe: Rehovot’s Education Inspector from Pakistan

Bubbly matriarch Zvia Epstein, a product of the once-thriving Jewish community in Karachi, inspected her own conduct as a teacher in Israel.

(Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.)

Click photo to download. Caption: Pakistan-born Zvia Epstein, nearing 70, is a retired teacher and education inspector living in Rehovot. Credit: Courtesy Zvia Epstein.

Pouring two fingers of gin, a half measure of tonic water and some bitters in the living room of her Rehovot home, Zvia Epstein is not the first person that comes to mind when you think of natives of Pakistan. The country has been such a strife-ridden place over the past decade that the casual observer may be forgiven their incredulity upon hearing that it was once a thriving multi-ethnic region.

Certainly, few would guess that Pakistan could produce a bubbly Jewish matriarch with a penchant for foul language and a taste for quality liquor such as Zvia. Yet, now nearing the age of 70, the former English teacher and Israeli Education Ministry inspector—a native of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city—is well known to generations of local students and teachers in the Israeli city of Rehovot.

Ironically, Zvia held a position that required her to inspect her own conduct. The oddity of this situation was particularly apparent when one set of parents came up to her after class, to complain about the way she was teaching.

“I told them that if they had a problem with it they should go schedule a meeting with the educational inspector,” Zvia remembers with relish. “The parents then asked how they could contact the inspector to set up a meeting. I told them, ‘I am the inspector.’ They never did come to sit down for a meeting.”

Today, it is long forgotten that before the resurgence of the Pakistani Taliban, a thriving Jewish community once existed in present-day Pakistan with its focal point centered on the port city of Karachi. At its peak, Zvia says the city’s Jews numbered between 4,000 and 5,000 individuals, although Pakistani author Rumana Husain places the figure closer to 2,500 individuals in her 2010 book about the various ethnic communities of Pakistan’s largest city, Karachiwala.

The bulk of Karachi’s Jewish community resided in two Karachi neighborhoods: Gandhi Gardens and Saddar—where Pakistan’s only Jewish house of worship, the Magain Shalome Synagogue, was located. But a group of Jewish families employed by the Karachi Port Trust, including Zvia’s, lived on the island of Manora in Karachi’s harbor.

Click photo to download. Caption: Zvia Epstein's parents from Pakistan. Credit: Courtesy Zvia Epstein.

Zvia’s father, Aaron Sassoon Benjamin, was deputy and later chief mechanical engineer of Manora, and his family resided in a walled compound. When the Benjamin children would return home after school on the mainland, they would be greeted by the servants who would help them carry their schoolbags and would address Zvia’s brother as “baba,” and Zvia and each of her two sisters as “bebe.”

For fun, the Benjamin children would go fishing, swimming around the island and deep sea diving. Sometimes, if they were in an adventurous mood, they would even go walking on the backs of the islands’ turtles around midnight.

“Nobody lived like we did on Manora,” Zvia says.

The bulk of the Karachi Jewish community, including Zvia’s family, belonged to a sub-group called the Bene Israel. The Bene Israel claim descent from a group of Jewish refugees who fled the Galilee sometime after the destruction of the First Temple. According to legend, the refugees set sail heading east until they were shipwrecked somewhere near the middle of the Gulf of Konkan on India’s western coast.

Centuries later, the descendants of these Jewish refugees managed to develop several of their own prosperous communities in British India, particularly those in Karachi and Bombay. Many of the Bene Israel living in Karachi worked as tradesmen, artisans and engineers as well as civil servants and doctors. The elder generation of Bene Israel even spoke their own language of Judeo-Marathi, a Judaicized version of Konkan-area vernacular that functioned in the local Indian Jewish community much like Yiddish and Ladino did for Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and in the Sephardic Diaspora.

Manora was home to the workshops necessary for the functioning of the port as well homes inhabited solely by the port’s employees. The Benjamin residence in particular was one of the larger homes belonging to the Port Trust, comprising of private tennis and badminton courts, gardens and even a chicken coop in addition to their large home. To help maintain the house and grounds, the family retained anywhere between six and eight servants at any time, Zvia says.  

Karachi of the 1950s and 1960s was also a friendly place where Pakistanis of different religious backgrounds mixed regularly in social settings. Zvia remembers that when she attended the Central Government College for Women as a teenager, some of her religious Muslim classmates would wear burqas to school. In classes, however, dress-wear was another matter entirely.

“Many [of the religious girls] would wear tight clothes and jewelry under their burqas. They would leave the house in burqas, but when they got to the college they would take them off, even though the school was actually co-ed,” Zvia recounts. “No one cared. The [girls] just did it to please their parents.”

Despite the relatively idyllic life lead by the Benjamin family, geopolitical tensions did incite a rise in anti-Jewish sentiment and government policies.

To house Muslim refugees dispossessed in the subcontinent’s post-partition wars, the Pakistani government built refugee camps in Karachi, several of which surrounded the country’s one synagogue. To prevent outbreaks of violence against the Jewish community, local police were stationed in force around the synagogue during the major Jewish holidays to protect the community.

Such tensions did not escape Zvia’s notice. One of the rising leaders of the last generation of Karachi Jews to grow up in the city, she was also one of a few Zionists in the community. Zvia almost landed in some serious hot water because she was regularly receiving Zionist literature by mail from a group in South Africa around the time of the 1956 Suez Crisis. The Pakistani government supported the Egyptian government throughout the crisis—an episode that further inflamed anti-Jewish prejudice throughout the Muslim world at the time.

After intercepting his daughter’s mail, the police told Aaron Benjamin to convince her to stop receiving Zionist propaganda or have his 14-year-old daughter face arrest.

After completing her law degree and master’s in Karachi, Zvia soon set off for England to continue her studies at the encouragement of her father. After several years in Britain, she achieved her childhood dream and made aliyah in 1970 with her Pakistani Jewish first husband (of Baghdadi descent) Ronny Solomon.

Zvia and Ronny successfully acclimated to Israel. Ronny found work with Israel Aircraft Industries, and Zvia as an English teacher after taking the state-mandated licensing exam. While Zvia maintained a reputation as a no-nonsense teacher, she has a very different view of herself—a self-assessment that explains her decision to go into teaching, rather than continue her legal career, upon moving to Israel.

“To be a lawyer you need to go for the jugular, to be a cold-blooded killer. I’m too bloody soft,” Zvia says.

Sixteen years after she began her work as a teacher in Rehovot, Zvia was promoted to be a part-time Ministry of Education inspector for 200 schools in the center of the country. The other half of her workweek was spent teaching.

Seven years ago, after a nearly two-decade (and high-blood pressure inducing) career in Israeli education, a divorce and a remarriage, Zvia finally retired from the teaching profession.

Today, Zvia dotes on her three granddaughters Shelley, Jackie and Brook as well as one great-grandson Jordan, who all live in the metro Los Angeles area in California with Zvia’s daughter Judy. She maintains an active social life in Rehovot’s Anglo community.

As talkative as Israeli schoolchildren can be, one wonders if they ever asked their English teacher about her exotic past.

“What minor criminals we were,” Zvia wistfully chuckles as she thinks about her childhood friends in Karachi.

Posted on November 26, 2011 and filed under Features.