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?
From India to Israel, With Love
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.
Holy Cow! It's Mother's Day!
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.
Rahel Musleah was born in Calcutta, India, the seventh generation of a Calcutta Jewish family that traces its roots to 17th-century Baghdad.