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.
My daughter's wedding! Beautiful and unforgettable, filled with love and radiance.
Mazal tov, Shoshana and Ian! (No, it was not in India, but hey, Connecticut is lovely in the summer.)
Below, one particularly poignant and joyous moment before the wedding.
Since weddings have been uppermost in my mind, I decided to write a little more about wedding customs in the Baghdadi Jewish community of India.
Things have changed since my great-grandmother was married to my great-grandfather in 1887. She was 12. He was 19. Obviously it was an arranged marriage—with a professional matchmaker as the intermediary. It was common for girls as young as 10, and usually between 12 and 13, to become engaged. Boys were between 18 and 20. The matchmakers were usually women: their standard fee was a complete outfit, from head to toe. Only once a match was negotiated did the boy and girl meet for the first time. Shades of Fiddler on the Roof!
The engagement itself took place at the girl's home. The master of ceremonies was a dakaka, a woman who was an expert drummer and tambourine player. She didn't just play: she showed her skill while balancing a glass full of liquid or a candy tray on her head!
During every holiday during the engagement period, the boy's family sent trays of sweets to the girls family. Both families contributed to the couple's new home. The groom's mother gave the bride-to-be a substantial piece of jewelry. The bride's family supplied the trousseau, jewelry, furniture and gold-embroidered house shoes, and a tallit bag and kippah for the groom. The groom's family paid for the mattress, wedding gown and suit,
and wedding expenses.
A night or two before wedding the family held a henna celebration: henna was placed on tips of the bride's fingers and the small finger of the groom. The bride changed gowns after henna ceremony as many times as her trousseau would allow. In later years, even when an official matchmaker was not involved, parents or relatives usually initiated the match. Sometimes, however, it was purely a love match.
As is universal in Jewish communities worldwide, we have a huppah (wedding canopy); ketubah (marriage contract); sheba berakhot (seven wedding blessings), and breaking of the glass. At the wedding dinner and seven nights following, a large candle was lit, and there was lots of singing and ululating! The candle was preserved in case the couple had a son. Then it would be used again at the night preceding the brit milah, the circumcision.
On the first Shabbat after the marriage the groom was given special seat in front of synagogue. A special pizmon (song) was chanted in his honor. Women gathered in the bride's home to honor her.
My father and mother went on their first “date” with my mother’s older sister as a chaperone. My mother sat in the back seat, her sister sat in the front, and my father looked at my mother through the rear view mirror! They got married not long after, and here they are with their wedding cake! Sept 11, 1955.
When we travel to Calcutta on our tours, we stay at the Great Eastern Lalit Hotel, the site of my parents' wedding reception. I'm pretty sure I have found the very spot where this photo was taken!
I love old books, especially the ones from my father's library. They were printed all over the world, many in Baghdad, Livorno, Italy; Calcutta, or Bombay. Their leather covers in black, browns or maroons are often embossed with gold designs or stamped with the owner's name.
Recently, I was asking my father about our customs for Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah. There is a universal custom to hold a tikkun on Erev Shavuot (the first night). We called it a hatimah (sealing, as on Hoshanah Rabbah that precedes Simhat Torah).
Our hatimah was conducted after dinner (not a dairy meal) at home with friends and family. It was literally a night of Torah reading that featured a mind-boggling survey of the Torah...kind of an ancient religious version of speed-dating: The beginning and end of each of the 54 parashiot of the Torah and the beginning and end of the remaining 19 books of the Tanakh (Bible) were read aloud!
I asked him, how did you know exactly which verses to read? And he showed me this amazing volume called Keri'ay Mo'ed, (readings for holidays, which delineates exactly which portions were to be read. For the Torah, usually it's the first few verses of the parashah, and the maftir (ending).
They didn't study all night on an empty stomach...there was some yummy food involved! A fluffy layered Baghdadi bread called Kahi, similar to Indian paratha, was eaten with sweet halwa (not halva) made from fine semolina.
After the Torah reading, sections of the Zohar, the classic mystical text, were read, even though no one understood them, followed by chanting the entire book of Psalms! Finally, when all this concluded, they would go to the synagogue for services at 4 am, when the sun rose.
I get goosebumps when I am reminded of the deep commitment to Torah that is bound up in the pages of this book. I wonder how to revive even a measure of that dedication in our world today?
How many of us remember when the State of Israel was NOT a reality?
Seventy years ago, in May 1949, my Uncle Meyer, who had made aliyah to Israel in 1945, sent a letter home to his father (my grandfather) in Calcutta, enclosed in this special envelope. It features the emblem of the state, the badge of the army, and image of a coin issued by Rome on the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.
He included a newspaper account of the incredible celebration of the first anniversary of the state.
“In the cities, villages and settlements of Israel, the people will celebrate the first anniversary of the Day of Independence tonight and tomorrow. As a symbol of redemption, the Shofar will be blown in all synagogues in Israel. Worshipers will recite the HALLEL (Psalms of Praise) and LEKHA DODI, a religious poem chanted on Friday night that calls for national and spiritual regeneration. Such passages from the poem as Awake, arise from the dust, and Enough have you sat in the vale of weeping are included. Congregations will recite the sheheheyanu that they were fortunate to see this day, and that they will see the coming year in Jerusalem rebuilt. Following services, evening meals will be conducted as they are on holidays, and candles will be lit.
A memorial service for those who died during the war will be held. In some synagogues, HAKAFOT (processions with the scrolls of the Torah) will take place as in ancient times when Jewish soldiers carried the Holy Ark with them to and from battle. Portions of the Torah will be read, and replicas of the Menorah on Titus’s Ark will be lit.”
Many, many years after this letter was sent, on one of my parents’ visits to Calcutta, my father found a treasure trove of letters from Uncle Meyer and his sister, my Aunt Ruby, that my grandfather had saved. The letters document life in Palestine–as Israel was known before statehood--and then Israel–in remarkable detail. With incredible foresight and no copying machine handy, my grandfather had copied by hand some of the letters he had written in reply.
Uncle Meyer's and Aunt Ruby's first-hand testimony and photos are part of a presentation I offer to JCCs, synagogues, schools and other organizations. It's called Facing West: One Family's Journey from India to Israel, 1945-1955.
Wandering Cows seem to be everywhere in India. Don't be cowed by their ubiquitous presence. They are, literally, Sacred Cows, symbolizing motherhood, and it’s a mitzvah to feed them!
The cow’s gentle nature, milk-giving, and practical importance in rural food production have raised its status to that of Mother, a symbol of caretaking, divine bounty, nature, and non-violence. It is called Gaumata, mother cow, because it selflessly provides milk to all.
Most Hindus worship cows and shun the eating of beef. Slaughtering cows is illegal in India today. Milk and dairy products are considered highly nutritious in Ayurveda, so most Hindus are vegetarian, but not vegan. Cow dung is not only used for fuel but also in rituals. Special festivals all over India honor cows: they are decorated and dressed in colorful finery, bells and garlands.
Lord Krishna, one of the most important Hindu gods, grew up as a cow herder and is often depicted playing his flute among cows and dancing milkmaids! Krishna also goes by the names Govinda and Gopala, which literally mean “friend and protector of cows.” Another primary god, Shiva, rides a sacred bull.
A dairy delight called Panchamritis is prepared for many rituals. This “sacred ambrosia” or “nectar of the gods” consists of five ingredients: milk, yogurt, ghee, honey and sugar that is supposed to infuse a person with divine energy and healing.
Here is a simple recipe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q59zNzLmfvI
Our travelers love the luxury of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel in Mumbai! It has just won the Hotels.com Award in the 'Loved by Guests - Most Wanted' category. And, for the second year in a row, it has achieved the highest guest satisfaction score worldwide among its peers on TrustYou, the world's largest guest feedback platform. It has also been highlighted in the new film, Hotel Mumbai, about the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Since then, the hotel has taken meticulous security precautions. No car enters without being thoroughly checked, hood and trunk opened. No guest or bag passes inside without being screened. Its rooms, views, cuisine and hospitality are the stuff of memories! The Taj is both safe and splendid!
The hotel's iconic history goes back to the turn of the 20th century. It was built by Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, founder of the Tata Group, in 1903. It's said that Tata was refused entry to British-owned Watson's Hotel--Bombay's first five-star hotel--where a sign read, "No dogs or Indians allowed." So Tata decided to set up his own shop! Taj Mumbai was the first of the chain's 100 hotels around the world. Watson's? It's now a vacant, dilapidated building in Mumbai's Kala Ghoda district.
If you are surprised there are Jews in India, you'll be even more surprised to learn that one Indian Jew was among the country's greatest military heroes. Lt. Gen. Jack Jacob served as chief-of-staff of the Indian Army and successfully led its Eastern Army during the liberation of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971 (he is pictured standing, fourth from left). With courage, strategic thinking, and daring, he enacted a bold plan to negotiate Pakistan's surrender and stopped the bloodshed that had taken thousands of lives. His actions changed the course of Southeast Asian history. He later served as Governor of Goa and Punjab, battling corruption, fighting for the poor, and helping to forge the diplomatic bond with Israel that has become so crucial to the region today.
Born in Calcutta in 1923, Jacob's Baghdadi-Jewish family adopted a family of Jewish refugees escaping the Nazis. Appalled by their stories of atrocities, he enlisted in the British Indian army in 1942. He continued to serve in the Indian Army after India won its independence in 1947.His books include: Surrender at Dacca: Birth of a Nation, and his autobiography, An Odyssey in War and Peace.
Jacob, who died in Delhi in 2016, will be honored posthumously on April 30, 2019 at Jerusalem's Ammunition Hill, where a special Wall of Honor commemorates Jewish soldiers who served with distinction in foreign armies.
India is home to all sort of "marbleous" art! The families of the artisans who adorned the Taj Mahal with their exquisite work continue to craft marble inlaid with minerals and stones that include malachite, lapis, jasper and carnelian, which is translucent when you shine a light on it. The amazing artistry requires meticulous attention as the stones are often tiny. In addition, the marble is so durable that you can spill anything on it and it will not stain!