Tu B'Shvat, which marks the "birthday of the trees" on the Jewish calendar (the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat), is like Judaism's Earth Day. So here I am in a modified tree pose! The backdrop is one of the beautifully decorated doorways in the palaces of Jaipur, adorned with floral and leafy motifs. Yoga originated in India and teaches the balance and serenity so crucial for our lives.
In India, even in urban settings, nature is celebrated everywhere. The messages I have learned are profound! Artisans at temples and palaces have translated nature into art. The spectacular cut-glass decorations at Calcutta's amazing Jain Temple are just one example. Jainism, an ancient Indian religion, respects the natural world so much and advocates complete non-violence. Its followers don't destroy any living creatures, including insects! They don't even eat onions and garlic because these grow underground, where there are organisms we can't see.
Banana leaves for plates? That's the custom in South India. Banana leaves are inexpensive, easily available, and said to impart anti-bacterial properties to the food served on it. Best of all, when your meal is over, simply throw the leaf away! Similarly, steaming cups of fragrant chai are served in biodegradable clay cups all over India.
And then there are the uniquitous Banyan trees. Sometimes, they seemingly even grow from cement! A species of the fig tree, the surreal banyan is covered in roots that sprout from seeds that land on the tree. My family used to picnic under the mighty banyan tree in the Calcutta Botanical Garden. Today that tree is over 250 years old and covers five acres!
The Baghdadi Jewish community infused Tu B'Shvat with the value of goodness by calling it Tob (good) Shebat. We held a kabbalistic seder, spreading the table with dozens of kinds of fruits and nuts, recited blessings, read verses from the Bible and the mystical book of the Zohar.
The Bene Israel community of Bombay believes that Tu B'Shvat was the day the Prophet Elijah ascended to heaven from a place on the Konkan coast near Bombay. They mark the day with a malida, a ritual of thanksgiving, recite blessings over fruit and nuts, and sing songs to Elijah, who is said to have rescued them from the shipwreck that brought them to India. Malidas are also held at other auspicious occasions like engagements and housewarmings.
Tu B'Shvat is a time of thanksgiving for all that nature has given us!
This past December, I was thrilled to be one of the presenters at LimmudUK, a festival of Jewish study and culture that took place in Birmingham, England. Limmud started in the UK and has become a global movement of communities in 42 countries with a great impact on creating leadership, connection, identity, learning, and diversity. I taught children and adults about the history, heritage and customs of the Jews of India.
When I arrived I knew only one person among the 2,500 people from dozens of countries who chose from innumerable workshops over the course of 5 days, or longer if they came for Shabbat. My experience of meeting people was a lot like speed dating. I sat down randomly next to people at meals, sessions and concerts. I chatted with them in long lines waiting for the dining room to open.
Invariably I left with new acquaintances and memorable stories—many with India or Baghdad connections. I learned a remarkable story from a woman named Ruth Bloomfield: her partner’s parents had been Eastern European refugees to India who had met and married in Bombay.
After leading a Shabbat morning Torah service in the progressive minyan, Jeremy Jacob approached me and told me about his Calcutta background. A senior lecturer in computer science at the University of York, Jeremy is especially proud of his uncle, four-star Indian General Jack Jacob, whose daring strategy in the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 changed the course of Southeast Asian history.
Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers, who coordinated the service and is community educator for the Reform movement in the UK, studied Hinduism in college and had traveled in India for three months. Her husband Gary knew many Baghdadi-Indian melodies from Ohel David, the Baghdadi synagogue in London that he used to attend regularly. Rabbi Debbie even followed me on Instagram before we ever met in person! (You can follow me, too, @explorewjewishindia.com)
I met other presenters who are transmitting the legacies of their communities through their own voices. Deborah Eliezer is a California artist who has dramatized her feelings about her father’s Iraqi heritage in her one-woman play: (dis)Place[d]; Israeli Maureen Nehedar sings the songs of the Persian Jewish community. After the conference, I visited with my cousins whose families had settled in London after leaving India. And I enjoyed being a tourist!
Limmud broadened my appreciation of global Judaism. To truly absorb the understanding that Jews live and flourish in every corner of the world is not something you can really learn from a newspaper or a textbook. It’s something to be experienced in person.
That’s one of my goals in bringing groups to India. We share an experience--not only by visiting India's magnificent sites but also by meeting its people.
Click here to learn more and register now for our November 2020 tour. Check out the new video of rave reviews from our last tour!
Learn more about Limmud here:
With Maureen Nehedar at Limmud
Dina Samteh, 22, who was born in India and is part of the Bnei Menashe tribe, says that for her, "music is everything."
Dina has been blind since the age of 6, but that has not stopped her from using her beautiful voice. Today, she is a vocalist with the Shalva Band, whose members have a range of disabilities.
When she was 10, Dina's family made aliyah from Manipur, India. She learned Hebrew through music, singing with her mother, a guitarist. As a teenager, Dina volunteered at Shalva (serenity), the Israel Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities, which provides leading-edge therapies, inclusive educational frameworks, social and recreational activities, employment training, and independent living for people with disabilities. There, she met Shai Ben Shushan, the director of the Shalva Band. Ben Shushan was part of an elite army unit when he suffered a life-threatening injury 13 years ago. His successful rehab at Shalva motivated to give back to those who had helped him--and he formed the band.
The band rose to fame after entering the 2019 finals on the Israeli TV show “Rising Star,” which determines which musical act will represent Israel at the international Eurovision Song Contest. The band won, but dropped out because Eurovision rehearsals take place on Shabbat, and some of the band members are Shabbat-observant. However, Shalva was invited to performed as guest artists; their performance that went viral and changed how millions of people view and embrace disability.
Watch their performance of A Million Dreams here:
Click to learn more about the Shalva Band.
Click here to hear Dina's story.
For my just-published story about b'nai mitzvah of children with disabilities in the U.S., click here.
What do India and Thanksgiving have in common?
They share the word, "Hodu," which is both the word we use to give thanks to God as well as the Hebrew name for India!
That double meaning was clear on our extraordinary November 2019 tour. Our group spanned the spectrum from nonreligious to Orthodox, ages 50-83, yet we bonded as a family and created delightful and poignant memories together. We sang our hearts out in the synagogues we visited. Hodu LÁdonai Ki Tov: Let us give thanks to God, for God is good. In Hebrew and Hindi we sang Kol Ha-Olam Kulo, Gesher Tzar Meód: The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid at all. At the Maghen David Synagogue in Calcutta, we marveled at the 18 arches, each decorated with a biblical verse encouraging us to thank God, praise God, and sing to God.
Everywhere, we interacted with India's friendly, open and lively people, who wanted to take selfies with us as much as we wanted to photograph them. And we expressed our own gratitude for India's welcoming society in which Jews were not afraid. India accepted Jews who took refuge from all over the world throughout the centuries: those escaping Hellenist persecution at the time of the Maccabees, fleeing the Inquisition and upheaval in Baghdad. Even Holocaust refugees found sanctuary in India.
Join us on our next tours: We already have registrations for November 2020, so make sure to reserve your space now. Don't miss out on this transformative once-in-a-lifetime experience! Click here to learn more and register now.
If you want to travel sooner, join our 12-day tour in January 2020 at an unbelievable cost of $3,285 pp double occupancy. Click here to learn more and register now.
As a vegetarian, I don't usually share the third meaning for the word hodu: it's also the Hebrew word for turkey. But on this Thanksgiving, I can't resist: Let us give you the T0UR-KEY to Jewish India!
There’s an Israeli song by Naomi Shemer that plays constantly in my head at this time of year. Hitchadshut (Renewal) is about the unique season we are in now: Aharei Hahagim, After the Holidays.
After the holidays, everything will be renewed.
Ordinary days will return, renewed.
The air, the earth, the rain and the fire -
And you, too, will be renewed.
In an unending journey
Between the fields of shadow and the fields of light,
There is a path you have not traveled
And which you will travel.
The hourglass, the clock of your lifetime,
Signals to you now…
Travel definitely opens new vistas for renewal and transformation. Ordinary days become extraordinary. Rich experiences, new friendships, and meaningful encounters can be life-changing.
For me, Aharei Hahagim signals the time to start packing my bags for my next trip to India. It means I am about to meet a wonderful new group of travelers, eager to experience paths they have not traveled, excited to learn about India’s Jewish history and culture, and ready to connect with other travelers and the amazing people we visit in India.
A year from now, you, too, can experience that Aharei HaHagim feeling, packing and preparing to explore India with us. Registration for our November 2020 tour is officially open. We already have registrations, and the tour promises to fill up fast. Don’t miss out on this transformative once-in-a-lifetime experience! Click here to learn more and register now.
If you want to travel sooner, join our 12-day tour in January 2020 at an unbelievable cost of $3,285 pp double occupancy. Click here to learn more and register now.
Enjoy Ofra Haza’s beautiful rendition of Hitchadshut here. By the way, for Israeli song afficianados, there is another song actually called Aharei HaHagim, written by Ehud Manor and Avi Toledano, and also sung by Ofra Haza with Avi Toledano: Watch here.
So here’s to Aharei Hahagim! Wishing you a year of renewal, transformation, song, lots of travel and new beginnings!
New India Assurance Building
Art Deco is not an architectural style most people would associate with India. But, in fact, Mumbai has one of the largest collections of Art Deco buildings in the world, second only to Miami.
The Art Deco buildings on Marine Drive and those along the nearby park, the Oval Maidan, were designated last year by Unesco as a World Heritage site, and activists hope the new designation will help preserve the neighborhood. According to The New York Times, Atul Kumar, a resident of Marine Drive, founded the nonprofit Art Deco Mumbai in 2016 to raise awareness of these buildings on social media, as well as to document them in an online repository. The final list is estimated to total 600 buildings, built between 1930 and 1950 with streamlined forms and geometric motifs.
“What is special about Mumbai’s architecture, and about Art Deco in particular, is that unlike Delhi it is not all monuments or public buildings,” Mr. Kumar told The New York Times. “It is homes and schools and cinemas, spaces we have lived in, grown up with and can relate to.”
What the Times did not report is that many Baghdadi Jews lived in the Art Deco buildings near the Maidan because the neighborhood was in walking distance of the Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue. During our visits to Mumbai, we pass by the Regal Cinema, the New India Assurance Building and the Maidan on our Shabbat walks, and stop to admire Mumbai's architectural and Jewish heritage.
Read the full New York Times article here.
India, the land of yoga, meditation, and spirituality, has long held a deep fascination for Westerners. Famous travelers to India have included the Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Beatles, Oprah Winfrey, Mick Jagger, Prince Charles, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
In March 1962, Jackie Kennedy and her sister, Lee Radziwell, spent two weeks in India and Pakistan, riding camels and elephants, enjoying a boat ride on the Ganges and posing in front of the Taj Mahal. They were accompanied by John Kenneth Galbraith, the United States ambassador to India, and his wife, Kitty. In India, the sisters were greeted by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter, Indira Gandhi. Crowds lavished them with flowers and gifts.
Lee Radziwell gathered 89 photographs from the trip in a blue album embossed with gold letters that read, "Visit of Mrs. John F. Kennedy to India." It includes a photo of Jackie in front of the Taj Mahal in a green dress and white gloves. After Radziwell's death this past year, the album and other memorabilia are up for auction at Christie's. Read more from The New York Times here.
When we travel to India on our tours, crowds of people don't throw flowers at us on the streets, but we are welcomed privately with garlands of flowers, necklaces to ward off the evil eye, tikka dots and more. We stay at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower in Mumbai as Jackie did, and often pose in front of the same bench at the Taj Mahal as she did!
We marvel at India's tolerance, culture and spirituality as well as our own Jewish contribution to India's achievements. There's no place like India!
So you thought seders were just for Passover? Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews hold a special seder on Rosh Hashanah, too!
We recite blessings over a variety of foods that symbolize our wishes for the new year. The ritual is called a “seder yehi ratzon” (may it be God’s will) because we ask God to guide us and provide us with bounty, strength and peace in the year ahead. The food, called simanim (signs) include apples, pomegranates, dates, pumpkin, beans, scallions, spinach, and a head of lettuce. Our wishes for are based on word-plays on their Hebrew names. Through these simple foods, we ask for the ability to appreciate the basic goodness of our lives,
Thank you to Jewish Week writer Ronni Fein for writing about the seder. You can read her article here.
Enjoy my special recipe for Apple Maraba, a cooked, spiced apple, to serve at your Rosh Hashanah meal!
4 slightly tart apples (like Macintosh)
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup brown sugar
8-12 whole cloves
1 Tbsp. rose water
2 drops natural red food coloring (optional)
Peel and core apples. Cut into eights (or quarters if apples are small). Set aside. Pour water and sugar into a wide-based cooking pot, bring to a boil and simmer until sugar dissolves. Insert cloves into some of the apple pieces. Add apples, rose water and food coloring (optional; it tints the apples a pinkish color). Bring to a boil and simmer covered (about 10 minutes).
Shake the apples in the pan from time to time. Apples should be soft but retain their shape. Cook uncovered 2-5 minutes longer until liquid evaporates. Apples should NOT completely dissolve into applesauce. Remove from heat and cool. Remove cloves if desired. Double the recipe for more servings.
"The holidays are so late this year!"
If you are like me, you have remarked with surprise, or delight, or regret, that Rosh Hashanah is not until the end of September this year. It doesn't seem to matter that I have had more time to prepare, because no matter when the holidays fall, I don't seem to be ready!
This dilemma made me think about what time means both in Jewish tradition, and in Indian society.
"Jewish time" is legendary, meaning that events never start at the time advertised. Through this lens, the holidays are not really late at all, just running on "Jewish time!" On the other hand, the Jewish calendar is punctilious about time: we light candles, make havdalah, break our fasts, at times that are precise down to the minute. How do we make the most of our time? Arguably the most famous advice comes from Hillel: "If now now, when?"
The Indian attitude towards time is cyclical: the Hindi word for yesterday, kal, is the same as the word for tomorrow. Salman Rushdie jokes about this sameness in Midnight’s Children, “No people whose word for yesterday is the same as their word for tomorrow can be said to have a firm grip on time.” The Indian novelist R. K. Narayan wrote, “In a country like ours, the preoccupation is with eternity, and little measures of time are hardly ever noticed.”
I was intrigued to find out that Mahatma Gandhi's attitude towards time was the opposite: His pocket watch was among the handful of material possessions he owned, and he attached it to his dhoti with a safety pin and a loop of string. He would apologize if he were even a minute late. “You may not waste a grain of rice or a scrap of paper, and similarly a minute of your time,” he wrote.
One of my favorite images of time, one that is both Jewish and Indian, is of the clocktower of Calcutta's Maghen David Synagogue. My daughter Shoshana and I loved being so close to the clock that we could almost touch time!
Tizkoo l'shanim rabot! May you merit many years!
Call her the woman in the window. Seeing Sarah Cohen sitting by the window of her Cochin home was always one of the highlights of all our tours.
Sarah Aunty was 96 when she passed away on August 30, 2019. She was the oldest member of the Jewish community in Mattancherry.
The first time I visited Cochin, in 1997, I met Sarah and her husband Jacob, a lawyer. accountant and former journalist who often conducted services at the Paradesi Synagogue. I was struck by the window, which displayed blue wrought-iron Stars of David. To me it was a sign that the Jews of India were not afraid to express their identities openly.
Most of the members of the prosperous and respected Cochin community made aliyah in the 1950s, but Jacob and Sarah were among the few Jews who chose to remain. Jacob's words will forever ring in my memory: “My heart burns. This was a little Jerusalem," he said. "Israel is my spiritual land, the land of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, but India is my motherland; the only land that offered tolerance, scholarship and prosperity.” Jacob passed away in 1998.
Sarah is legendary for never having missed voting in an election! An example for us all! She has left a legacy worldwide, as many visitors bought her hand-embroidered kippot and hallah covers that she sold in a small shop. They are being used in homes around the world.