In May 1948, just after the State of Israel declared its independence, it was attacked on all fronts. My Uncle Meyer, who had made aliyah in 1945, knew that his family at home in Calcutta would be worried. "ALL SAFE SOUND," he telegraphed to his father.
Three simple words that carry so much power.
Though my grandfather was a deeply religious man, he was not happy that his son and his new wife, along with his daughter, my Aunt Ruby, and her new husband, had left Calcutta for the pioneering life in what was then Palestine. He did his best to dissuade them, but they were firm in their commitment to build the new land.
They were inspired by Habonim, the Zionist movement that had come to India in the 1930s from London and South Africa. Modeled on the Boy Scout and Girl Guide movements, Habonim literally means "the builders." Its symbol was a leveynah, a brick. Building was not just a physical task. It signified character-building, community-building, and nation-building.
Those are still our goals today, no matter where we live.
In this era, we are besieged not by armies, but by legions of unseen viral droplets, illness, fear and uncertainty. Our health care workers, grocery clerks and delivery people are our new heroes on the front lines. We all crave the comfort and knowledge that our loved ones are safe, and mourn those who have passed. Without physical connection, we have increased our outreach to one another through phone calls, emails, and texts.
STAY SAFE has become our new mantra. ALL SAFE SOUND. It's still our fervent wish today.
A Habonim gathering in the courtyard of the Maghen David Synagogue in Calcutta, with a pyramid of leveynim, bricks. My father is standing proudly front and center. The word Calcutta is imprinted in Hebrew on the left corner of the tablecloth.
By now we know, viscerally, how this Passover is going to be different from all others. The obvious allusions to the 11th plague and the cartoons that leaven the grim statistics with a bit of humor have all made the rounds. I'm cooking for one and preparing for my Zoom seder. At least more people will fit on my computer screen than in my dining room!
My Pesah seder has always been different from most American seders. We still conduct it according to the Baghdadi tradition, from a haggadah that has Hebrew text followed by Judeo-Arabic translations written in Hebrew letters that are also chanted after each paragraph. You can listen to my family singing sections of the haggadah here.
I fiercely guard the eclectic collection of Pesah dishes, serving pieces and textiles that came all the way from India. The silk matza cover that my great-aunt Ramah embroidered, now spattered with wine and halek, the date honey we use for haroset (recipe here). A tiny teapot I use as a wine cup, drinking from the spout.
The ceramic bowl for the zero'a, the shankbone, has just taken on new meaning for me. It's painted with a Chinese character that I previously knew nothing about. An online link suggested it might be "shou," meaning "hand." I don't know for sure, but I love the possibilities. Maybe it was originally a bowl for washing hands according to Chinese custom, but for us the zero'a represents God's strong hand and outstretched arm. I doubt my family knew the significance of the pictograph when they obtained the bowl, which perhaps came through the import-export trade. But there are no coincidences! Whether it's true or not, my imagination has decided on its meaning.
Then there's the special goblet that only the leader of the seder uses. We call it the Dam Tzefarde'a glass, after the first two plagues, blood and frogs. It's filled with wine and only the leader pours from it into a bowl as he or she recites the name of each plague. Due to our superstitious fear of contamination by the vicarious power of the plagues, no one looks at the wine as it is being poured out and anyone who touches the Dam Tzefarde'a glass or bowl has to wash their hands thoroughly.
At the end of the seder, we give out pieces of the afikoman as good luck charms to be tucked into suitcases when we travel, just as the Israelites took their matza with them on their dangerous journey out of Egypt. I wonder if this year I should take that afikoman with me to the supermarket?
The Bene Israel Jews of Bombay, who say that their ancestors from the land of Israel were shipwrecked off the coast of India over 2,000 years ago, only had their memories to rely on when they tried to maintain Jewish traditions. They dipped a hand in sheep's blood to mark their doorposts as the ancient Israelites did so the Angel of Death would pass over their homes before they left Egypt. That became the Bene Israeli MEZUZAH.
Here's hoping that you find comfort, protection and healing in these difficult times. Refuah sh'lemah, speedy recovery, to all those who are in need.
Tizkoo l'shanim rabot! May you merit many years.
Here are two Passover recipes from India.
If you eat rice on Passover, you can make roti (chappati) from rice flour instead of whole wheat flour. That's what the Bene Israeli Jews of Bombay do. First, however, they buy rice and wash it thoroughly so it's free of any hametz, then dry it in the sun. They take it to be ground in a mill specially cleaned and used just for the community.
Rice Chappatis (Bene Israel)
Bring 2 cups of water to a boil.
Remove from heat and add 2 cups of rice flour slowly,
stirring constantly until mixed well. Add 1/4 tsp. salt. Cover until it cools a bit.
Knead the warm dough by hand until smooth.
Separate into balls about 1 ½ inches in diameter.
Sprinkle some rice flour on a clean flat surface.
With a rolling pin, roll out each ball of dough
into a circle about 6 inches in diameter.
Heat a flat non-stick pan on a medium flame.
When hot, transfer the roti to it and roast on both sides.
The Baghdadi Jewish community does not haroset made of chopped apples, wine, walnuts and cinnamon. Instead, we feast on date honey mixed with chopped walnut. Delicious when you wet matza, wrap it in a cloth so it wilts, and then sop up the halek with it!
Halek (Baghdadi Date-Honey Haroset,)
1 cup pitted dates, packed
1 1/2 cups water
Cook dates in water on high heat, bringing to a boil. Cover. Reduce heat to low.
Cook for about 45 minutes. Remove from heat and strain through cheesecloth.
Put it back on medium heat, uncovered, and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat to low and let thicken. Let it cool down completely.
Mix in chopped walnuts when serving.