It's been fun to create our latest Explore Jewish India adventure: Bringing the rich flavor of masala chai to you at home in our authentic Chai & Chat Kits.
We've imported the terracotta kullhads (cups); strainer; lovely block-printed napkins from Jaipur; and tea enhanced with cardamom, ginger, holy basil and anise directly from India. We felt it was important to support artisans and family businesses in India. We put everything together in a beautiful gift box.
It's also been fun to play with connecting the Chai kits to Chanukkah:
The Best Chai-Nukkah Gift!
Put the Chai into Chai-nukkah!
Chai it, You'll Like It!
We even offered a Chai-Ber Week Special.
But you don't just have to take it from me. The Forward has featured our Chai Kits in its 2020 Hanukkah Gift Guide!
Seriously, I can't drink ordinary tea again. Once I made masala chai with the amazing, aromatic, flavorful and ayurvedic-enhanced tea in our kits, I was addicted. I followed the simple and authentic recipe we include on a beautiful laminated postcard.
In case you need more guidance, I even made a video of how you can make chai at home.
Don't forget to order now so the kit reaches you or your loved one by Hanukkah.
I live in two worlds, Ashkenazic and Sephardic. Sometimes I get mixed up between the two. The Kaddish, for example, as universal a prayer as it is, includes additional words that I rush to get through when I am reciting it on Zoom with my Ashkenazic synagogue community.
In Al Hanissim, the special prayer we say both on Hanukkah and Purim, the text varies by two words in the Ashkenazic and Sephardic versions. In the Sephardic version, we thank God for the miracles, deliverance, the mighty deeds, the salvation, the wonders and comforting acts God performed for our ancestors then and now. The Ashkenazic text substitutes "wars" (milhamot) for "wonders and comforting acts" (nifla'ot ve-nehamot).
The texts of our liturgy were adapted to the times and regional circumstances, and of course, human triumphs can also be divinely inspired. Still, I often stumble on the word "milhamot" in musical settings of Al Hanissim. Even though Hanukkah celebrates a military triumph, somehow I cannot get the word out.
Below, one of the beautiful glossy " Hanukkah papers" we hang around the hanukkiah (which is also hung on the wall) with God’s name printed in gilt letters at the top, and each child’s name inscribed at the bottom. You can see a close-up of Hanerot hallalu (We light these candles) with the text of Al Hanissim, followed by Psalm 30 (Mizmor Shir Hanukkat Habayit LeDavid), which is about the dedication of the Temple. We chant all these after the blessings over the lighting of the hanukkiah.
This Hanukkah, as we chant Al Hanissim, I will think with tenderness about my father, z"l, who passed away on July 14, and whose middle name was Nissim. Miraculously, God gave him strength to be with us for almost 93 years.
Tizkoo l'shanim rabot!
May we all merit many years.
I admit it. It's a hokey picture, staged by a photographer to look like I have the Taj in my hands. But, wow, so much fun.
November is usually a time of excitement--embarking on a new group tour with its own dynamics, adventures and surprises--and then returning with new friends, new bonds, new memories and a ton of new photographs. We are always home with our families by Thanksgiving to celebrate and share our experiences in India (Hodu in Hebrew) over a meal filled with thanks (also hodu) and sometimes turkey (yes, hodu, believe it or not).
This year, of course, is different. I decided to look through our past group photos at the Taj, to reminisce and relive the color, and beauty of India that I so dearly love. The Taj always ends our tours, an unforgettable highlight that seals the experience that has enveloped us for two weeks.
When I looked at the above picture again, I noticed that the position of my hands resembles the gesture we make with open hands when we recite the phrase "poteah et yadekha u-masbia l'khol hai ratzon" (God, open Your hands and satisfy every living thing) in the Ashrei or Birkat Hamazon.
Perfect for Thanksgiving and every day.
With optimism, we have scheduled our next tour for November 4-17, 2021!
The year 2020 is resonant for all those who envision a world where blindness of all kinds, both physical and spiritual—can be eliminated. I’d like to introduce you 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. www.miriam-hyman.com
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.www.miriamsvision.org
This year, especially, we need more avenues to vision and healing.
We are offering a NamaStay at Home event which will benefit the Miriam Hyman Memorial Trust, featuring Miriam's mother, Mavis, author of Indian-Jewish Cooking and Jews of the Raj.
Join us for Indian-Jewish Cooking, Sunday, Nov. 8 at noon EST. Mavis will share cooking demonstrations and food memories that will recreate a rich culinary tradition and way of life.
Lesley Stahl is one of my heroes. With her spunk, persistence and tough style of questioning, she has reached the top of broadcast journalism, earning 13 Emmys along the way. Now she herself has made the news for the interview that Trump cut short.
Stahl, 79, has been with 60 Minutes for almost 30 years, covering stories from Guantanamo Bay and Google to gospel for teens, earning 13 Emmys in the process, including a Lifetime Achievement Award. She helped break the Watergate story and spent 10 years as chief White House correspondent during the Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and part of the George H.W. Bush years, which she chronicled in her 1999 book, Reporting Live. Stahl has also moderated Face the Nation, hosted 48 Hours Investigates, cohosted America Tonight with Charles Kuralt and anchored several CBS documentaries. In 2015, she won broadcast journalism’s highest honor, the Radio Television Digital News Association’s Paul White Award for lifetime achievement.
In 2016 I interviewed Stahl in her office at 60 Minutes for a Hadassah magazine profile. She told me that the early days for women in broadcast journalism were not easy. “I had to maintain my looks and overcome my looks at the same time,” she said. “A certain, shall we say, rambunctiousness was becoming my trademark. So was my persistence,” she writes in Reporting Live. “If I wanted to be treated as one of the boys…I had to learn to ram and butt and poke and shove my way up to the front.”
Stahl has not changed her commitment to remaining as fair and balanced as possible—even when she has an opinion. (Among her concerns are climate change and the staggering cost of medication.) She weathered Trump's insults and remained as unruffled and focused as she was when she raced to a Tel Aviv café minutes after it was leveled by a suicide bomber. Still, she says, “I never think of myself as courageous, ever, ever, ever! Being in the moment in the pursuit of a story, that’s where my attention is.”
Despite all her journalistic achievements, during the 2016 interview for Hadassah Stahl was most passionate about being a grandma. She had just written a book, Becoming Grandma: The Joys and Science of the New Grandparenting (Blue Rider). “Throughout my career, I worked at suppressing both my opinions and my emotions,” she writes in the book. “I thought I had become the epitome of self-control. Then, wham! My first grandchild was born…. I was jolted, blindsided by a wallop of loving more intense than anything I could remember or had ever imagined.”
She urges grandparents to pass on their zikna--a biblical term for wisdom acquired with age—to the next generation. “Our grandchildren need us…. My wisdom is, find a way to help them, not just for them, but for you, too.”
Read the full story here.
Top(L-R): Knesset Eliyahu, Bombay; Paradesi Synagogue, Cochin; Synagogue in Chendamangalam. Bottom (L-R): Magen David, Bombay; Torah in Maghen David Synagogue, Calcutta; Hechal, Maghen David, Calcutta
INDIA is famous for its stunning architecture and spectacular monuments. Its synagogues are also wondrous, awe-inspiring spaces that reflect the history and culture of each of India's Jewish communities. They are the highlight of our Jewish heritage tours.
Enter any of the synagogues and you will be blown away by the sacredness of the space that is filled with old souls and resonates with whispers of prayer. Even when the sanctuary is completely empty, it is alive with emotion and spiritual intimacy.
There are 33 synagogue building throughout India; not all are still in use. Some synagogues, most notably in Bombay, still support vibrant minyanim, while others are monuments to communities that have dwindled or completely relocated.
Don't miss our virtual tour of these remarkable buildings as diverse as the communities that built them.
The Synagogues of India: November 15, 2020 at noon EST.
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!
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.
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!
My father died on July 14, a Tuesday. He loved Tuesdays because it was the day of “double good” in the creation of the world.
He did so much good in the world, reflected in the outpouring of love and letters we have received from relatives, friends, colleagues, students and community members whose lives he touched. He was a scholar who carried himself with grace and dignity; who shared his wisdom, and left his stamp of love and kindness on many.
He was born in 1927, in Calcutta, the youngest of three surviving children but the tenth in the number of his mother Flora’s pregnancies. He was ill with jaundice when he was born—it was a life-threatening illness then—and was named Yehezkel Nissim, may God strengthen you with miracles. He grew up to be a mischievous boy, then a serious and dashing young man, then a devoted rabbi and teacher, and a wise and loving father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
God did strengthen him and he never forgot, paying back with a lifetime of devotion to Torah, to God, to family and to the many communities he served.
He grew up in an extended family at 11 Bowbazaar Street with his parents Isaac Sasson and Flora; brother Meyer and sister Ruby; grandparents Meir Ezra and Masooda, and unmarried aunts and uncle. His mother died when he was 10, shortly after he read Torah for the first time. It made him both tough and tender.
Partly for solace he turned to chanting Torah. He was smart and fast and good at it and it became one of the loves of his life. Even then he had great determination: he started learning Torah when he was 12, deciding to learn a third each year for three years, so by the age of 15 he had completed the entire Torah.
Anybody who ever heard him read Torah never forgot it. He was a master, meticulous and precise. He understood every word and nuance, every azla gareesh and mapik hay. When the trope sequence was repetitive or tricky, to help him remember he would make up stories about why that particular trope was there. They were really midrashim on the text.
Torah was one of the tropes of his life. He savored each word and knew most of it by heart. Even if I was looking at the text and he wasn’t, he could correct me. He knew four different tropes and could switch easily between them. That was always an amazing treat.
He loved poring over books and papers, studying, reading, making notes. He catalogued everything, writing on little index cards that he tucked into the books. They would invariably fall out and we could see his looping script detail the name of the book; when and where it was published; who it belonged to, and any other pertinent facts. He loved telling stories that have by now become apocryphal.
As a teenager he was influenced by Rabbi David Seligson, a chaplain in the U.S. Army stationed in India who had started a sort of Jr. Congregation in the Maghen David Synagogue in Calcutta. He attended the St. James School and was tutored at home in Tanach (Bible) But most of all he learned just by absorbing the customs and traditions in the family. He was active in Habonim, the Zionist youth group, learning songs that he later sang for us with so much heart.
He received his degree in philosophy from the University of Calcutta, and at the age of 20 he took his love of Torah, left his family and community, and sailed to the United States to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary for the next five years. His siblings had already made aliyah to what was then Palestine. He thought of himself as a different sort of pioneer. He studied with the greats--Simon Greenberg, who singled him out for the homiletics prize, Abraham Halkin, and others. They recognized his skill and when he was asked to read Torah at JTS, he learned the Ashkenazic trope.
He could have stayed in the U.S., but he wanted to return home to help the community. In 1952 he became rabbi of Maghen David, the same synagogue in which he grew up. He married Margaret Judah in 1955 on the tebah of her family’s synagogue—Beth El, and they soon had three daughters within the space of three years. In 1964, as the community was getting smaller, he found a job as rabbi of the historic colonial Mikveh Israel Synagogue in Philadelphia, and we emigrated to the U.S. in July of that year.
One of my earliest memories is of my father listening to a recording on a reel-to-reel tape recorder of Rabbi Leon Elmaleh singing the traditional Spanish-and-Portuguese melodies that he had to learn in a month to officiate at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. He led Mikveh Israel for 15 years, including overseeing its transition from Broad and York to Independence Mall in time for the Bicentennial in 1976. Afterwards he became a mesader gittin, arranging Jewish divorces with compassion, and served on the local and national Conservative bet din. Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel welcomed him to become their Torah reader 30 years ago. He chanted Torah there weekly until the pandemic shut everything down. He was a beloved and respected leader in the community.
Our family name was a huge part of his identity. He brought us up with the mantra, beshem Hashem na’aseh v’natzliach, in the name of Hashem, let us do, and let us be successful. Don’t be idle, always study, always do.
He taught rigorously and from the heart, starting with his own family. He supplemented what we learned at Solomon Schechter and later, at Akiba Hebrew Academy and Girls High, with a demanding additional home schooling curriculum of his own making—Bible contests, Tanach with Rashi, Talmud, Jewish history. Around the Shabbat table we learned Hebrew grammar, pee-el, hufál, hitpael, and sang pizmonim from the Baghdadi tradition. When my mother turned 65, he decided it was time to teach her how to read Torah as well, and she was his foremost star pupil.
He was a genealogist, historian, researcher, preserver of tradition. He traced our family tree back to 17th-century Baghdad. His doctoral dissertation was a history of the Jews of Calcutta later published as On the Banks of the Ganga. At the funeral and afterwards, we have been following his wishes as spelled out in Kiru Aharai, a comprehensive book of mourning. He translated and recorded the pizmonim in Kol Zimra, and also recorded all the services from the Baghdadi-Indian nusah. He wrote his own memoirs: No Shortcuts to Far Horizons: Pioneering Paths from Jewish India, and Bits and Pieces: Snitches and Snatches from a Lifetime of Thoughts, Anecdotes and Events.
My father always stood proud, tall, and dignified, but also indulged his playful and mischievous side. He loved baseball, especially the Phillies; adored the opera, travel and nature, and enjoyed playing towlee, backgammon. When he wanted a double six, the best number, he would roll the dice around in his hands above his head and cry, gan eden, paradise. That’s where we hope he is now.
He loved gematria, the value of numbers as midrash. He left us a month short of his 93rd birthday on 7/14, the best possible number. Seven for Shabbat, and 14, a double Shabbat, a time of rest for both body and soul.
My sister Aliza wrote this beautiful gematria, based on 93 as the value for magen, shield, and my father’s deep connection to the Maghen David Synagogue. The Magen David is comprised of one triangle facing down and one triangle facing up. He had his feet on this Earth for 93 years like the point of the triangle facing down, but always looked up to God for strength like the point of the triangle facing up.
“Ve-atah Adonai magen ba’adi/K’vodi u-merim roshi/Koli el Adonai ekra, vaya’aneni me-har kodsho. Selah.
But you, O God, are a shield around me, my glory and the one that lifts my head high. With my voice I call to God and he answers me from his holy mountain. Selah.
-Tehillim 3: 4-5
Torah, teaching and family aside, the love of his life was our mother, his wife of 65 years, his Eshet Hayil. Our custom as in many families is to sing Eshet Hayil (Woman of Valor) from Proverbs on Friday nights, but in our home, we all sang it together. Only at the lines ve-át alit al kulana, you are above all other women, did we stop singing and he looked at he and recited that line by himself.
Hopefully he is at peace knowing what a great legacy he has left us, his three children, eight grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. Together that number adds up to 17: the numerical value of tov (good). Break down the 17 into 1 + 7, and you get 8, which equals infinity.
The Sephardic version of Birkat Hamazon, the Grace after Meals, ends with Mah She’achalnu that we always sang together in harmony as a family. The paragraph ends: Hodu l’Adonai ki tov, ki le-olam hasdo. Give thanks for God is good; God’s hesed stretches to infinity. Hodu l’Adonai. Hodu is also the Hebrew word for India.
My father gave us a bracha, a blessing, every Erev Shabbat, in person when we were growing up, and by phone when we became adults. When we were in person, we would stand up and line up in front of him, wait for him to extend his hand, bow to kiss it. Then he would put his hands on our heads and give us our bracha:
Y’varchecha Adonai v'yishmerecha. May God bless you and keep you.
Ya’er Adonai panav elecha vihuneka. May God shine His face on you with grace.
Yisa Adonai panav elecha v'yasem lecha shalom. May God lift His face to you and give you peace.
We now bestow the same blessings on him.
Yehi zichro baruch.
To learn more about my father’s life and impact on others, please read JTA’s beautiful Bonds of Life tribute here.
It's a custom in our tradition to dedicate a Torah or another ritual object in memory of a beloved family member. Our family has decided to commission the creation of a Torah mantle that will bring to life all that our father, Rabbi Ezekiel Nissim Musleah z"l, held most dear: the vibrant blessings of living, reading and teaching Torah. To contribute, learn more here.