In these difficult days, it's important to have a focus for meditation. The Jewish mystical tradition gives us an amazing and complex artistic genre called SHIVITI, created from biblical verses shaped into a menorah, surrounded by other verses. Above is an example of a Shiviti from India, used in our family.
SHIVITI is the first word of the verse that is front and center, SHIVITI ADONAI L'NEGDI TAMID: "I place God before me always" (Psalms 16:8). God's name is in bold at the top. Holiness is always in front of us, if we take the time to center ourselves and look for it. Sometimes it takes a conscious effort to find goodness and holiness in ourselves, in others, and in our surroundings. God's holiness does fill the world, but we are not always open to that realization.
These days we can find goodness and holiness in so many human beings, from doctors to delivery workers who are fighting on the front lines of the coronavirus. Their bravery leaves me in awe. Unfortunately, evil (the Shiviti names it Satan) is also around us. We can't stop all the evil in the world but we can focus on trying to curb our own negative thoughts and personal practices.
Many beautiful shivitis decorated the eastern walls of synagogues, or in India, western walls facing Jerusalem. You will still find them in synagogues in India today. In American sanctuaries today, we are more likely to find inscriptions like Da Lifnei Mi Atah Omed. Know Before Whom You Stand.
How do we contemplate standing before God? How do we become aware that God's holiness fills the earth? The Mussar Institute offers this guidance for a meditative practice.
In this uncertain world, every time that I am able to get outside I can regain a sense of focus and gratitude. There’s a wonderful custom of Birkat Ha-Ilanot. On a Tuesday after the Rosh Hodesh Nissan, the new month of Nissan, we say a bracha on the first flowering blooms we see on our trees. Tuesday is the chosen day because plants and trees were created on the third day of the week in the biblical creation story. God saw that it was good, twice.
The highlight of the month of Nissan is Passover. Among its many names, Passover is also called Hag Ha-Aviv, the festival of spring. The green vegetable and the egg on the seder plate symbolize spring and rebirth. The egg also represents the ancient festival sacrifice. All of us may be feeling sacrifice intensely these days. But there is hope, as nature teaches us.
So, whether it is Tuesday or any day of Nissan, say a blessing from your heart for the beauty of nature that we are still lucky enough to experience.
The words are:
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha-olam
Shelo hasair b’olamo kloom
U-vara vo b’riyot tovot v’ilanot tovot
L’hena’ot bahem b’nai adam.
Blessed are you, God,
Whose world does not lack anything
And Who created in it good creations
And good trees for us to enjoy.
While we can debate whether our world truly does not lack anything (face masks? Hand sanitizer?) I believe the blessing is referring to the natural world, and not what human beings have done with it.
The year 2020 is resonant for all those who envision a world where blindness of all kinds, both physical and spiritual—can be eliminated. We need healing today more than ever.
Here is the story of my cousin Miriam Hyman, whose legacy is one of healing.
I remember the day in July 2005 when I heard the news of the London bombings. I was at the North American Jewish Choral Festival, singing my heart out. I immediately sent emails to my relatives in London, where many Indian Jews had settled. Most were safe. But my cousin Miriam’s whereabouts were unknown.
A few days later, we knew. Miriam, age 32, had been killed in one of the four attacks on the London transport system that took the lives of 52 people. Like 9/11, that tragic day is known in numerical shorthand as 7/7.
Miriam was an extraordinary, kind human being with a great respect for human life. She had traveled alone to the US at the age of 8 for my sister Aliza’s wedding and left an indelible impression on us. She was a talented artist who created luminous paintings and hoped to start her own handmade greeting card business.
The events of 7/7 (July 7) were hugely painful for Miriam’s family--her parents, Mavis and John Hyman--and her sister Esther. But out of their sorrow they resolved to respond positively. There could be no better way of remembering Miriam, they thought, than to bring alive her vision, extending the gift of sight to the blind. In India, where Miriam’s maternal family is from, there are 8 million blind people, a million under age 16. But 50 percent of childhood blindness is preventable and treatable. The family found the perfect match for their dream: the L. V. Prasad Eye Institute, Bhubaneswar, Odisha (household and synagogue help in Calcutta came largely from Odisha).
That’s how the Miriam Hyman Memorial Trust (MMHT) was born. Today, the Miriam Hyman Children’s Eye Care Centre provides comprehensive cutting-edge eye-care services, impacting prevention, treatment and rehabilitation, irrespective of ability to pay. It is a place of hope, healing and rehabilitation. The Times of India ranked the Eye Institute the best eye hospital in the country for the third successive year. Miriam’s memorial is appropriately located there. There is also a 7/7 memorial in London's Hyde Park. Learn more here.
Miriam’s legacy continues through “Miriam’s Vision – Working towards Non-Violence,” an educational resource for secondary schools in the UK. Its goal is to eliminate mistrust between people based on differences in race and religion and to foster an inclusive, nonviolent society. Work is in progress to develop the program for primary schools. The lesson plans are available free to download for teachers of 11- to 14-year-olds. Each module includes Miriam's story. Learn more here.
In hopes for continuing Miriam's legacy of vision and healing, half the proceeds of our next NamaStay at Home will benefit the Miriam Hyman Memorial Trust. Indian-Jewish Cooking on Nov. 8, noon EST, will feature Miriam's mother, Mavis Hyman, author of Indian-Jewish Cooking and Jews of the Raj. Register here.
7/7 Memorial, London
HAMENTASCHEN...The quintessential Purim sweet?
I had never heard of hamentaschen until my family emigrated to the United States. Of course we celebrated Purim in India! But our sweets were a far cry from the cookies stuffed with prune, poppy seeds, chocolate chips, or anything you might fancy today.
One sweet delicacy we enjoyed was the spiral-shaped Jalebi, made of flour mixed with a little chickpea flour and yogurt. The batter is fermented and then deep-fried and dipped in sugar syrup. On our last tour to India, I watched them being deep-fried at a rest stop off the highway. They were amazing with a cup of chai!
Other goodies included cakas (circular caraway biscuits), almond and cheese samoosaks, and date babas (made with the same dough but stuffed either with crushed sweetened almonds, cheese or pressed dates). For something simple that's more like a cookie and would be great for mishloach manot baskets, try koolichas. These coconut cookies are studded with black nigella seeds, also called onion seeds (kalonji in Hindi) that impart a distinctive flavor. Kalonji is available in Indian shops. You can substitute poppy seeds in a pinch but they won't have the same flavor.
KOOLICHA (Coconut Cookies)
2 c. coconut
(preferably unsweetened. If you use sweetened, you could reduce the sugar a little)
¼ c. coconut milk
6 T butter or coconut oil
½ c. sugar
1 c. semolina
Moisten the coconut in the coconut milk for 5 minutes. Cream butter and sugar together. Add the semolina and coconut milk mixture and mix well.
Take 1 heaping tsp. of mixture and shape into a ball. Flatten it slightly and sprinkle kalonji on top. Place on greased cookie sheet and bake in 350 degree oven 20-25 minutes or until golden brown. Makes 20.
Adapted from Indian-Jewish Cooking, by Mavis Hyman
12 oz. self-rising flour
a pinch salt
2 oz. butter
4 T oil
1 tsp sugar dissolved in 3/4 c. tepid water
Mix together. The dough should be soft but firm.
8 oz. pressed dates,
Chop 8 oz pitted medjoul dates in food processor, mix with 1 T water, and fry in 1 T oil
Crushed walnuts (optional)
Preheat over to 375 degrees.
Cut out rounds from the dough by placing a large glass on top of the dough. Place a thin layer of dates on a round, top with another round and crimp the edges to seal. Pierce the top layer of pastry with a fork in two or three places to allow steam to escape. Place on parchment paper on cookie sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. Makes 20.