Twenty-one-month old Elisa, a refugee from Afghanistan who arrived in the United States in November with her parents, is already calling her new Jewish neighbors “auntie” and “uncle.” She and her family have been welcomed to a suburban New Jersey town by members of the Jewish community. They are part of a national "Welcome Circle" program sponsoring Afghan refugees under the auspices of HIAS, the 100-year-old agency originally founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the only Jewish agency that works with the American government to implement the refugee admissions program. The circles are now expanding to help refugees from the Ukraine.
“It was very difficult to leave the country you’ve spent your entire life in, to leave your family,” said Ali, 28. “I still tear up and get mad about how much I’m missing home.” Dina and Ali are Shiite Muslims, and while Ali noted that he had met Jews at the embassy where he had worked, he said that “something like this, where people would sit together, break bread, share a meal and talk—that didn’t happen before.” Religion is not a factor in determining whether a person is good or bad, he added. “For me and my family, what matters is humanity.”
I was proud to meet this tenacious Afghan family and the loving members of the Jewish community who are supporting them for my article in Hadassah magazine. Read the full story here.
The plight of refugees is more poignant than ever today as scenes of devastation and despair from Ukraine rivet world attention. The crisis continues as Jews prepare to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, which begins this year the evening of June 4 and models the Jewish responsibility of welcoming strangers, such as the biblical Ruth, into our midst. The United Nations reports that more than 6.5 million people have fled Ukraine and more than 7 million have become internally displaced since the Russian invasion began in late February. President Joseph Biden has announced that up to 100,000 refugees from Ukraine will be welcomed in the United States.
Synagogues and other Jewish groups across the country have historically mobilized resources to help refugees, from Vietnamese in the 1970s to Soviet Jews through the 1990s to Syrian refugees from 2014 to 2016. Today, their efforts to welcome strangers who need support continue to unfold in inspiring ways.
For centuries, India, too, welcomed strangers fleeing persecution. Jews escaping Hellenist persecution around the time of the Maccabees were shipwrecked off the coast of Bombay: the nascent Bene Israel community. Refugees from the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal fled to Cochin, in South India. And Jews fleeing persecution in Baghdad at the beginning of the 1800s found refuge in Bombay and Calcutta.
India's history of tolerance and lack of any indigenous antisemitism serves as a remarkable legacy for its Jewish communities and serves as a paradigm for interfaith living. That's especially poignant and noteworthy given the climate of the world today.
Learn more during on our virtual tour of Jewish India tonight, June 2, at 8 pm ET, sponsored by a national synagogue consortium. Register here.
Hag sameah and tizkoo l'shanim rabot!
I can see him roll the dice in the air and hear him say, gan eden (paradise, ie double six).The best thing that has happened to me this year, and one of the highlights of my life, is the birth of my granddaughter Maya. It is a thrill beyond compare to be a grandparent. As Maya grows, I look forward to sharing many of the customs and traditions from my Baghdad-Indian heritage with her.
The upcoming holiday of Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah and the transmission of its wisdom from generation to generation.
My father, z"l, shared a LOT of Torah with his children and grandchildren. He graced the reading of Torah with meticulous understanding, scholarship, elegance and depth. And he also had a playful side, so he also shared another Shabbat and holiday custom from India: playing towlee (backgammon) to pass the time. Here he is (above) many years ago showing his granddaughter Shoshana just how it's done! I can see him roll the dice in the air and hear him say, gan eden (paradise), hoping for a double six.
My mother's domain was food, so often the centerpiece of memory. Because we had a cook in India, my mother learned her way around the kitchen only when we came to the United States. She was already 32 years old. She transmitted her recipe for love — food — to her children and grandchildren.
One wonderful organization that is promoting the passing down of Torah in all forms is the Jewish Grandparents Network, which explores new ways for grandparents to play joyful and meaningful roles in their families and to share their Jewish stories, heritage and traditions.
I'm excited to share the JGN blog I've written on Sephardic and Mizrahi holiday customs. You can read it here.
It's no secret that pets and their owners resemble one another, possibly because we subconsciously choose animals that look like us. Objects are also sometimes like that.
These two Pesah kiddush cups side by side--the taller one, my father; the smaller one, my mother, evoke many seder nights in our home, my father leading, my mother at his side. My father designed the cups himself and had them crafted in silver in Calcutta, animating them with his spirit, scholarship and creativity. On his, he had the craftsman engrave the order of the seder and a scene from his haggadah depicting the seder table. On the pedestal, he chose the four words for redemption from the Book of Exodus that serve as the basis for the four cups of wine.
My mother's bears an "M" for Margaret, rising from a portrayal of the exodus story with an Indian twist: an elephant trumpets past as an Israelite slave labors in the fields. My two sisters and I have similar, smaller cups engraved with our first names. There you have it, our family of origin.
On this second Pesah without my father, we will miss him dearly, but we will continue to hear his voice chanting the special sections of the haggadah that were just his. We will continue to hear his stories; his detailed and patient explanations; his grammatical corrections; his laughter and contented smile; even his little pre-seder sermons--all of which add up to his inimitable spirit that lives on in the new and budding branches of the family tree he treasured so much: his eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Tizkoo L'Shanim Rabot!
Light over darkness. That's what Hanukkah celebrates.
This year, it's also a time of thanksgiving and healing, as we approach some semblance of normalcy. And that is truly a miracle. We have lost so many dear ones--but now, hope illuminates the darkness.
Though I am decades past my childhood, I will never forget lighting the hanukkiah together as a family, each of us helping my father to light the wicks of the different glasses filled with oil--and then passing down that tradition as I lit the hanukkiah with my own children.
On these short December days when darkness descends so early, the radiant light of the hanukkiah is a close second to the light in my granddaughter's eyes. Unlike candles that might burn out in minutes, the oil in my hanukkiah, a classic Indian design, burns brightly for hours and reminds me of all the miracles in my life.
The words of Psalm 30 (Mizmor Shir Hanukkat Habayit L'David) that we recite after the Hanukkah blessings remain startlingly beautiful no matter how many times I have said them, the poignant, heartbreaking and hopeful words resonating to my core as if they were written today:
Adonai Elohai shivati elecha va-tirpa'eni: Adonai, my God, I cried out and you healed me...Hafachta mispedi l'machol li: You turned my mourning into dancing.
Another miracle we are celebrating is that we are planning our next group tour back to India. With excitement and gratitude, we look forward to new adventures, reconnecting with old friends and making new ones, and returning home with a ton of new photographs and unforgettable memories. We are always back by Thanksgiving to celebrate and share our experiences in India (Hodu in Hebrew) over a meal filled with thanks (also hodu) and sometimes turkey (yes, hodu, believe it or not).
We are reassured by the high vaccination rates in India, especially in the places we travel, and the precautions that are in place in airports and hotels. Your deposit will not be due until six months before our departure date.
I've taken hundreds of people on virtual tours in the past year (see partial list below), and hope I will continue to do so. But there is nothing like being in India in person.
Join us: November 3-16, 2022.
Click here for Itinerary and registration.
Hag Urim Sameach! Happy Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights,
and tizkoo l'shanim rabot, may we merit many years.
I often write about my father, my mother, my grandparents, and now, of course, my new baby grandchild. This Rosh Hashanah, as we count our blessings for the new year, I want to write with great gratitude about my two sisters.
Yes, that's us, dressed up as the little Indian girls we were one Purim soon after we emigrated to the United States. I won't keep you guessing: Flora is on the left; Aliza is in the middle, and I'm on the right. We've grown up a lot since then!
For the past several years, we've worked together as a team to care for our parents, each one of us taking on different responsibilities. Our text messaging group of three is a lifeline, as we share everything from financial logistics to finding an apartment for our mother; from the lingering sadness over our father's death to the comforting joy of spotting a Monarch butterfly that flits about the Milkweed imbued with his spirit.
I know that as we enjoy the Rosh Hashanah seder this year--the distinctive Sephardic/Mizrahi home ritual for the new year--we will think of how my father took an extra helping of dates and apple maraba (preserves) to sweeten the taste of the spinach that he didn't especially like.
We will think of him, and we will think of each other as we chant the seven mystical verses that precede the seder. We will find special meaning in the verse from Psalms 36:9 (below) that we chose to be embroidered on the back of the Torah mantle and dedicated in his memory at B'nai Shalom in West Orange, NJ this past July. Our family worked together as a team to create a meaningful Torah service, each of us participating through the beauty of our own voices.
It's especially resonant that in the Baghdadi and Sephardic tradition, the Rosh Hashanah evening service begins with the piyyut, Ahot Ketanah, Little Sister, by Abraham Hazzan Girondi, a cantor and Spanish poet who lived in the mid-13th century. The poem compares Israel to a little sister who remains faithful to God, and prays that the year of suffering will give way to a year of blessing.
"For with you is the source of light...in your light do we see light." (Psalms 36:9)
To order my book, Apples and Pomegranates: A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah (Lerner/Kar-Ben), click here.
With my best wishes for a year of light and blessings,
It's hard to believe my father has been gone a year. His yahrzeit, which marks the year of mourning, was 22 Tammuz, which fell on July 1 this year.
He left a manual of Jewish mourning customs from our Baghdadi-Indian heritage with specific instructions about how to conduct the funeral and the shiva; biblical, rabbinic and kabbalistic texts to recite on the 22nd and 30th days after the funeral; and the Mourner’s Kaddish with its variations. He called the 500-page, hard-bound volume embossed with gold lettering Kir’u Aharai, Read After Me.
What he didn’t include—much less foresee—was how to participate in a year of “virtual” mourning, when the mourning was real, but the community was virtual. After leading a nightly minyan for family all over the world the first month after his death, I switched to participating in the Zoom minyan of Temple of Israel of Great Neck, N.Y., either alone or with my mother, who had been staying with me every other weekend.
I wrote about "My Year of Zoom Kaddish." Thanks to Hadassah magazine for publishing it in this month's issue.
So much of what I've done this year has been to honor my father's memory. Every custom or melody I've shared, every Torah reading I've chanted--to honor his memory. Here he is with my mother in one of his favorite places--standing in front of the Torah. The Yad, the pointer, guided his words.
Now his hands, though physically unseen, remain with us to guide us. The touch of his hands on our bent heads and the sound of his voice as he blessed us with the priestly blessing he so cherished and bestowed liberally upon us will forever resonate in our hearts. May God bless you and keep you. May God's light shine upon you. May God grant you peace.
Yehi zichro baruch. May his memory be a blessing.
Copies of Kir'u Aharai are still available. Please contact me if you are interested.
These two little boys captured my heart on our last group tour of India. I wonder how they are faring today, with the Covid crisis raging in India. Though the numbers are coming down in the cities of Mumbai and Delhi, the country needs our prayers, support and supplies in this extraordinarily difficult time.
Organizations in the U.S., Israel and India are in emergency mode to combat the spread. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), in coordination with the Indian Jewish community and its local partner, SEWA Cooperative Federation, shipped three Israeli-made ventilators, each costing about $10,000, to Indian hospitals in Mumbai and Ahmedabad. One of the hospitals, Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hospital in Panvel (a town outside Mumbai), treats Jewish patients from the Bayiti Jewish Old Age Home. JDC is offering counseling to the Jewish communities in India as well as pick-up and drop-off services for elderly community members who need help getting to and from vaccination centers and assistance booking an ambulance.
Oxygen concentrators have been distributed to public health centers around Ahmedabad, which has a Jewish community of about 100, and health kits, filtered masks, and other medical supplies are being distributed in hard-hit villages to help upwards of 20,000 people.
Local women entrepreneurs who are part of the SEWA network are being trained on best practices for COVID prevention and use of oxygen concentrators to aid their communities, and a special medical advice helpline has been set up for local women to call in. WhatsApp audio and video messages about COVID prevention, treatment, and care options have been deployed in areas with growing infection rates, and American and Israeli doctors are providing support to Indian ICU doctors and nurses and helping to set up telemedicine services in rural locations.
IsraAID, an international Israeli-based humanitarian aid NGO, has joined Gabriel Project Mumbai, a Jewish-run NGO supporting education, empowerment, health and hygiene in the Kalwa slums and the rural villages near Mumbai. GPM's Operation CoVER, Corona Virus Emergency Response, is providing necessary care, emergency groceries and health and hygiene kits to low-income families living in hard-to-reach locations, and coordinating with local health authorities to ensure rural hospitals and Covid care centers have the medical equipment, supplies, medical professionals, and personal protective equipment for frontline workers. Currently there is about one doctor to every 50-100 patients in these rural areas. GPM will also be setting up medical camps within the villages for testing and increasing access to vaccinations, hoping to reach an estimated 70,000 people.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry is dispatching thousands of oxygen generators to India, among other medical gear items. UJA Federation-New York, the largest Jewish federation in the United States, approved four grants totaling $200,000 to JDC; GPM; IsraAID, and the Afya Foundation, which sends medical supplies to communities in need.
Please support these efforts!
Gabriel Project Mumbai
JDC Delivering Ventilator. Harshbir Singh/Bombay Arthouse.
The following guest blog post was submitted by Nataly Blumberg, a huge fan of Explore Jewish India and an enthusiastic lover of hand-blocked tablecloths with matching napkins.
Passover is around the corner, and even though you might celebrate with an intimate group this year, it is still important to make it special. When we ask ourselves, “Why is this night different than all other nights?” adding that extra something to make it a memorable and positive experience will help us find the silver lining in all that is happening around us.
This year I decided to go on the hunt for an inspiring table-scape. Growing up, my mother always made a beautiful table, but until recently I didn’t even know that a table-scape was a thing! Basically, my interpretation is that you set your table according to a theme. I recently read a blog post that caught my interest on Apeloig Collection that talked about setting their table based on a picture of Moses in his basket on the Nile River. So creative!
After a bit of searching around on Instagram and Pinterest, I decided that the perfect holiday table would include pieces that had special meaning, especially those that were handed down from people we love who are not with us anymore. Once I started to open up closets and drawers, I realized how many beautiful items were being stored waiting for an occasion, or were unused because they were too delicate. Also, all of that browsing online made me realize that embracing color makes a table setting so much more interesting than a boring white tablecloth!
Starting with the basics, I’ll be adding something new and colorful this year: a stunning tablecloth and napkin set from Explore Jewish India! I cannot get enough of the vibrant colors, thick cotton fabric, and beautiful hand-blocked patterns, all the while knowing that I’ve helped support several small businesses. And, for a person who loves to set a nice table on Shabbat and holidays, not having to iron is a major motivator. My only problem is that there are too many pretty patterns to choose from!
Photo caption: Almost ready for Shabbat! All that’s left is the challah and candlesticks!
I realize now that that I should stop saving the “good” china and glassware. My grandmother once told me to wear all the jewelry I wanted and not to wait. She said, “Just wear it and enjoy it, because eventually it will get lost or stolen. Don’t let it go unused and unloved.” I’ve started to take this advice to heart. I adore the way the floral pattern on my husband’s grandmother’s silverware seems right at home with the tablecloth. To polish the silver, I found this handy way to clean it in five seconds and a tiny bit of effort using hot water, baking powder, and foil.
I decided to finally take out my late mother-in-law’s delicate gray smoke Scandinavian glasses. Since it’s just the four of us for Shabbat dinner and likely for the Passover Seder, now seems as good a time as ever. Though they are too delicate for the dishwasher, the glasses are so beautiful! Using them is a meaningful way to bring her memory to our table. Their color works well with the green and blue of the tablecloth. To add even more pizzazz, try this fun and easy trick to create napkin rings that I learned from a friend of mine who is a party planner. Take a piece of twine and fold it in half. Make a loop with a knot at the top and pull the ends through. Finally, slip in your napkin and you have a lovely napkin ring!
Photo: My late mother-in-law’s “fancy” glasses for a special Shabbat dinner. Maybe some inspiration for Passover!
; few years ago, we inherited candlesticks from my husband’s grandmother. Recently, we learned that these were a gift for her confirmation. She was born in Marshall, Texas and at the time girls didn’t have a bat mitzvah--they had a confirmation. Her monogram, “BR,” is engraved in a stunning pattern. We've been using these the past few Shabbatot, and it’s been a great way to enhance our table.
Photo: My husband’s grandmother’s monogrammed Shabbat candlesticks from her confirmation in Marshall, Texas.
Next to the wedding china that we decided to use after two decades is my grandfather’s kiddush cup. He was born in Poland and spent much of his adult life in South America, so I have no idea where the kiddush cup really originated! I used the silver polishing trick and it’s even more beautiful than I remember. Since he died before I was born, the kiddush cup is a way to talk to my children about the importance of Jewish rituals from generation to generation.
Photo: My grandfather's kiddush cup
In the coming weeks, I’ll be going through even more family treasures to use as part of our celebrations. For me, what makes this year’s Passover preparation different from all other years is the realization that life is short, and that special items are not only special because of their monetary value but because of the people who owned them before me. I am going to take the opportunity to speak with my children about different Jewish cultures from India to Texas, and the importance of using the “good” stuff to make every Shabbat and holiday more meaningful.
Growing up, I didn’t know that Baghdadi Jewish women--including members of my own family--were Indian film superstars. My mother went to the movies, but to British and American ones, not Bollywood ones in Hindi. Her favorite stars were Ingrid Bergman and Clark Gable. Her parents were fluent in Arabic mixed with Hindustani and English and they went neither to Bollywood or English movies. My father's family did go to Hindi movies—in fact Sulochana, who starred in 70 Bollywood movies, was my grandfather's first cousin.
By the time I was born, the Baghdadi Jewish stars had faded or died. Imagine my surprise and delight when one day in March 2017, almost exactly four years ago, I received an email from Danny Ben-Moshe, the director of a then-upcoming documentary about Jews and Indian cinema. He asked if he could use music from my CD, Hodu: Jewish Rhythms from Baghdad to India, in his film, Shalom Bollywood.
Shalom Bollywood has had great success and has been screened at film festivals around the world. Audiences have fallen in love with the Jewish stars: Sulochana; Pramila, who went on to be the first Miss India; Miss Rose, the "socialite extraordinaire;" Uncle David, who often hosted India’s equivalent to the Oscars; and Nadira, who often played the sassy vamp.
Today, Shalom Bollywood is available on Amazon Prime.
I'm thrilled that Danny Ben-Moshe will be my guest on our next NamaStay at Home program, Sunday, February 28 at 7 pm ET. He will talk about the impact these stars had on shaping what we now know as the worlds’ largest film industry; the cultural reasons that allowed these Jewish women to push boundaries and the harmonious Jewish existence in India, which he calls a "refreshingly positive Jewish story." The reign of the Jewish stars lasted until Hindu women broke their own societal taboos and entered Indian cinema.
Photographer Joan Roth will also join us to share her memories of Nadira and producing an iconic photo of the star in her Bombay home.
Our program will go beyond Bollywood of yesteryear to today's Bollywood dance. Revital Moses, a choreographer, dancer and Mumbai native who now lives in Israel, will share her flair and love for contemporary Bollywood. You won't want to miss her moves!
Register now for this fascinating program, Sunday, February 28 at 7 pm ET.
It's the perfect post-Purim celebration!
It's been fun to create our latest Explore Jewish India adventure: Bringing the rich flavor of masala chai to you at home in our authentic Chai & Chat Kits.
We've imported the terracotta kullhads (cups); strainer; lovely block-printed napkins from Jaipur; and tea enhanced with cardamom, ginger, holy basil and anise directly from India. We felt it was important to support artisans and family businesses in India. We put everything together in a beautiful gift box.
It's also been fun to play with connecting the Chai kits to Chanukkah:
The Best Chai-Nukkah Gift!
Put the Chai into Chai-nukkah!
Chai it, You'll Like It!
We even offered a Chai-Ber Week Special.
But you don't just have to take it from me. The Forward has featured our Chai Kits in its 2020 Hanukkah Gift Guide!
Seriously, I can't drink ordinary tea again. Once I made masala chai with the amazing, aromatic, flavorful and ayurvedic-enhanced tea in our kits, I was addicted. I followed the simple and authentic recipe we include on a beautiful laminated postcard.
In case you need more guidance, I even made a video of how you can make chai at home.
Don't forget to order now so the kit reaches you or your loved one by Hanukkah.