Hag Sukkot Sameah!
Small things make me miss my father. The ribbon on the lulav, for example. It's the custom in our family to decorate the lulav with a colorful silk ribbon tied around the palm frond. It's a way to beautify the mitzvah of the lulav, and as a side benefit, you can pick out your lulav from all the others that look the same as well as keep the palm from fanning out. It's an art to wind the ribbon properly around the lulav so it's tightly aligned.
I grew up in an Orthodox synagogue where women didn't have their own lulavim. After the service was over, my sisters and I would troop into the synagogue sukkah and solemnly make the brachah with my father's lulav. Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu melekh ha'olam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu al n'tillat lulav. It felt like we were entrusted with a great and important mitzvah--and we were.
According to the kabbalah, the lulav represents the spine; the myrtle the eyes; the willow the lips, and the etrog, the heart. Last year, for some reason, I wanted a picture of my father with his lulav. Now, this picture reminds me of his strength of character (spine); his foresight and vision (eyes); his heartfelt prayer (lips), and his incredible kindness to others (heart).
Below is the family sukkah on the second floor verandah at 11 Bowbazaar Street in Calcutta. Decorated with ornamental lights; the Persian lanterns my father loved (fanoos); chunchuns--shiny crinkly papers that blew in the breeze--and fruits as heavy as pineapples that would be eaten as they ripened. The sukkah was a blaze of light and beauty that you could see from the street below.
When this picture was taken I wasn't born yet, nor is my father in the photo, but you can see my grandfather on the left towards the back, and my great-uncle Elias, R-front. Sukkot was a festival of great socializing and lots of singing! The women did participate , though here there are only men. It was probably Hoshanah Rabbah, which is like a mini Yom Kippur, which features the chanting of the book of Psalms; reciting the book of Deuteronomy, selections from the Zohar, and making blessings over fruits, nuts and pastries.
Tizkoo l'shanim rabot and chag sameach!
RBG, Queen of Justice
It was a hot day in July 2016 when I received word that my request to interview Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for Hadassah magazine had been granted. I had been waiting months for the response and was thrilled to pieces, even though I had to leave the North American Jewish Choral Festival early. I took a train to DC on a Friday, the last possible day before the court recessed for the summer. After the weekend, she was flying to Venice to be presiding judge in Shylock’s Appeal, a mock trial that commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Venice Ghetto and 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
RBG welcomed me graciously into her chambers. To be able to interview this great champion of justice was one of the most memorable moments in my career as a journalist.
We talked about her Jewish identity; her dedication to the Constitution; her tireless work for gender equality; the numerous "firsts" she achieved; the odds she surmounted career- and health-wise, and more. She gave me a tour of her chambers, including a closet filled with her distinctive collars (jabots) that she varied depending on the occasion. She pointed out several works of art that frame the biblical words, Tzedek, tzedek tirdof (Justice, justice you shall pursue), and this gem of a photo with her buddy, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, on an elephant in Rajasthan, India.
RBG's collections of writings, “My Own Words” with Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams, includes this reminiscence by Scalia:
“She is a really nice person. I’ll tell you, [this] shows you how tenderhearted [she is:] when we were in India together, we went to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and there is a doorway where you first get sight of it, you know the story of it, this guy built it for his deceased wife. She stood there, when we got there, in that doorway – tears were running down her cheek. That emotional. I mean, I was amazed.”
When the full profile was published RBG autographed the cover and sent it to me. See below! You can read the full profile here, as well as a brief story I wrote right after the interview that appeared online.
Yehi Zichra Baruch.
What the World Needs Now is...A Seder!
After all these years, I'm still so proud of my book, Apples and Pomegranates: A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah. It was the first book to bring attention to the Sephardic/Mizrahi custom of blessing the new year with symbolic foods and delicious wishes. It's an evergreen, appropriate for counting our blessings every year when Rosh Hashanah rolls around. I still have a few paperback copies available in my new shop! Order now so you can get it by Rosh Hashanah this year.
Families and individuals are looking this year for that special additional home ritual, and the Rosh Hashanah seder is definitely it! Seder is the Hebrew word for order--and we desperately need order this year to make sense of our chaotic world! Learn more about the Seder Yehi Ratzone at our next NamaStay at Home program, our virtual series that brings India to you.
The custom of holding a Rosh Hashanah seder has received a lot of publicity this year as well as in previous years. Below, I'm sharing the links to videos and articles.
Rabbi Peter Rigler of Temple Sholom in Broomall, PA discusses the Seder with me.
Watch as I prepare a Rosh Hashanah seder on Modern Jewish Mom, which aired on The Jewish Channel several years ago (you get to see how young I was!).
Forward writer Irene Connelly explores how we are making meaning this Rosh Hashanah during the pandemic.
A recipe for apple preserves in Symbols and Spices for the Sephardic New Year, New York Jewish Week, by Ronni Fein.
Read about the Seder and other Rosh Hashanah customs in India.
Listen to an interview with me on The Book of Life podcast.
Learn a new melody and a new text for Avinu Malkeinu: Check out Let My People Sing's Virtual Song Share.
Enjoy reading, listening, watching, learning, cooking, blessing, eating, and welcoming in the new year 5781. Shanah tovah!
Rahel Musleah was born in Calcutta, India, the seventh generation of a Calcutta Jewish family that traces its roots to 17th-century Baghdad.