Please enjoy this feature on Hanukkah, which highlights India's gift of freedom and the distinctive culinary traditions of India's Jewish communities. Thanks to writer Gowri Chandra for an illuminating article! Yours truly is one of the three women of Indian origin she interviewed.
Here is my adaptation of aloomakalas, the potatoes mentioned in the story that are distinctive to the Calcutta Jewish community. The recipe originally calls for round potatoes but the right variety is hard to find in the U.S., so this version, created with my mother's help, features sliced russet potatoes. Aloomakalas are traditionally eaten on Shabbat and holidays as a treasured side dish but they are great any time, and would also be perfect for Hanukkah!
8 Idaho (russet) potatoes, peeled, cut in half, or thirds if they are large. Cut off the ends of the potatoes to make them flat.
Boil water in a large pot and and add 1 tsp. of turmeric (haldi). Add potatoes and boil 10-12 minutes. They should be a little soft, otherwise baking will take a long time. Drain.
Put a thin layer of oil in a 9x12 pan. Add the potatoes and turn so they are coated in oil. Roast uncovered in a 400-degree oven. Turn the potatoes every 20 minutes until they are an even golden-brown. They should be crisp on the outside and fluffy inside.
You might not be able to wait to bite into them but be careful as they will be hot! Enjoy!
Imagine that it's Hanukkah—but there are no latkes on the table, no jelly donuts, gelt or gifts. There are no dreidels in vivid colors ready to be spun or piles of pennies and peanuts for payment. “I Have a Little Dreidel” would be as foreign as another country’s national anthem. There aren’t even spindly, rainbow-hued candles waiting to be placed in the hanukkiah.
Hanukkah in India is celebrated far differently than it is in the United States or in Israel today. But the meaning of Hanukkah has a deep resonance in the Indian Jewish communities because India is, in fact, also the site of great miracles, a refuge for Jews all over the world.
The history of the Jews of India is a story of faith and refuge, survival and identity. In fact, the Bene Israel Jews of Bombay (Mumbai) say that they arrived in India fleeing the Hellenist persecution that caused the Maccabees to rebel. According to their tradition, they were shipwrecked off the coast of Bombay. Only seven couples survived. But as they integrated into the village communities along the coast, they held onto the faith and customs they remembered: circumcision, kashrut, refraining from working on Shabbat and reciting Shema Yisrael at every auspicious occasion.
Cochin, in south India, may be the most ancient Jewish settlement, with trade routes to and from the land of Israel as far back as the time of King Solomon. During the Inquisition, Spanish and Portuguese Jews found refuge in Cochin under the protection of its benevolent maharajah. Baghdadi Jews, too, fled persecution in Iraq and, attracted by India’s rich trade route, settled in Bombay and Calcutta.
The larger tolerance that India extended cradled distinct Jewish communities and allowed them to flourish, both on their own and as part of the broader Indian context. There was never any indigenous anti-Semitism in India, so we lived alongside our neighbors in harmony and freedom. Interestingly, Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, is often celebrated at the same time as Hanukkah.
In our Calcutta community, every boy over the age of 13 had his own hanukkiah (today we would include girls), made of brass, shaped in a triangle or Star of David, with rings that protruded to hold glasses of oil. We use a candle to light the flames, because the shamash cannot be moved. Each child also had a glossy, colorful Hanukkah paper with God’s name printed in gilt letters at the top, and the child’s own name inscribed at the bottom. Underneath, a seven-branched menorah was drawn with the words of Psalm 67 (Mizmor Shir Hanukkat Habayit LeDavid). The psalm, which is about the dedication of the temple, is chanted after the Hanukkah blessings. The papers were hung up near the hanukkiot, which also hung on the wall.
Indian cuisine, famous for crisp fried specialties like samosas, pakoras and piaju, are fine reminders of the miracle of the oil. We also enjoy fancy confections made from milk, sugar, flavorings and nuts. Recipe at the end of this post.
In Bombay today, Chabad lights a huge menorah at the landmark Gateway to India, a monument built by the Sassoon family, Baghdadi leaders, philanthropists and traders who contributed so much culturally and economically that they are considered the Rothschilds of the East.
And in Calcutta this year, Hanukkah will be marked with an extraordinary celebration, as two of the three magnificent synagogues that are still standing will be rededicated after months of renovation. There are only 18 Jews left in the community, but they are intent on preserving our heritage, embodied in the awesome sacred spaces of the Maghen David and Beth El synagogues. Neve Shalome, the third synagogue, was renovated a few years ago. The synagogues, grand edifices soaring with light and beauty, are shining examples of faith that never fail to provoke heart-stopping moments of wonder.
Back in the warmth of my own home, I am also inspired by the light of my own hanukkiah, a family heirloom. Often, I think of the flames as the seven generations of my family who lived in India, and my daughters, the eighth generation, born in the US. And the hanukkiah turns into a family tree of sorts, each flame radiating the sparks of our tradition.
Originally published in https://jewishfoodexperience.com/time-dedication-india/
I have lived in the United States for over 50 years and my heart is still drawn back to India. Before every trip I make with my twice-yearly groups, the anticipation, excitement and yes, trepidation builds until I am on the plane. This year we will have the extraordinary privilege of seeing the newly renovated synagogues, Maghen David and Beth El, revived in all their splendor. Every time I step inside the awesome spaces my jaw drops, amazed at their grandeur and glory, and I realize that my heart is thumping with joy. Kudos to the community members who have so lovingly restored the buildings, saving them from further damage and deterioration. We will fill the awesome spaces with prayer, song...and people!
The true meaning of celebrating the Torah! All 75 sifrei Torah in the Maghen David Synagogue were taken out of the hekhal, the ark room, and displayed around the perimeter of the sanctuary. This photo was taken by an American soldier stationed in India during World War II.
It gives me goosebumps to look at these old family photos in the sukkah at 11 Bowbazaar, my great-grandparents' and grandparents' home, where my father was born and grew up, and also at 81/8 Bentinck Street, where my immediate family lived. My father and my sister Flora are featured in the first photo (he's teaching her something, as usual!), followed by a photo of the family (well, the men, anyway) singing and reading the night away. The Musleahs lived on the second floor of 11 Bowbaazar, and the sukkah was built on the verandah. The frame of the sukkah stayed up all year. The roof was made out of palm leaves, which are very large and flat, and so can be woven together into mats. A variety of fruits hung from the roof--grapes, apples, oranges, bananas, even pineapples! Purple, blue, green, yellow and white glass lanterns (fanous) decorated the arches, as did balloons in matching colors; strings of colorful electric lights (we didn't worry about the December Dilemma), and shiny crinkly papers called chunchuns that streamed in the breeze. From the street below, you could see the sukkah ablaze with light and beauty from blocks away.
When we moved to Philadelphia, we lived in an urban neighborhood and there was no place for a sukkah. Our new synagogue, Mikveh Israel, had a glorious sukkah that the congregation spent days decorating with strings of cranberries, beans, and other harvest vegetables. I remember the petit fours that were specially served for kiddush! At home, we tried to replicate the feeling of the Calcutta Sukkot celebration by singing many beautiful and beloved pizmonim: Sukkah V'lulav, Et Dodim Kallah, Ha'él Ha'ira U'réh, and my father's favorite, Yisrael Am El/Yotzer Or Bahir. He always reminded us that once, while he was singing Yotzer Or Bahir (Creator of Bright Light), he could suddenly see the dazzling orb of the moon rising on the east side of the sukkah.
May our own sukkot be filled with such luminous splendor!
Listen to the song here:
From Hodu: Jewish Rhythms from Baghdad to India.
Adonai b'kol shofar,...This beautiful liturgical poem in the Sephardic tradition is recited before the blowing of the shofar.
God is exalted with the clarion call of the shofar: Tekiyah, Shevarim, Teruah.
The sound of teruah, nine staccato blasts in the Ashkenazic tradition, is a long, wavy tone but it's unbroken.
In preparation for hearing the shofar blasts, the men would cover their heads with their tallitot (prayer shawls).
Today, women who wear tallitot can do that, too!
After the blessing for blowing the shofar is recited, and before the first blowing of the shofar only,
the congregation in Calcutta would sit instead of remaining standing, "to confuse the accuser,” Satan.
Listen here to Hon Tahon, a song for the second day of Rosh Hashanah:
We stand trembling before God, asking for mercy, beseeching God to seal us upon God's heart.
The song is recorded on my CD, Hodu: Jewish Rhythms from Baghdad to India.
Thanks to Alan Iny for singing with me. You can order the CD here: www.rahelsjewishindia.com
My life as a journalist takes me to some fascinating places. A few months ago I was privileged to visit Nepal and learn about the work of Tevel B'Tzedek, "the earth in justice," a groundbreaking organization founded by rabbi, activist and journalist Micha Odenheimer. In the past ten years, nearly a thousand Jewish participants have helped 40,000 poor and marginalized people in Nepal's slums and villages.
Read more about my experiences and about the organization in my article in Hadassah magazine:
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is paying an historic visit to Israel--the first by an Indian head of government since diplomatic ties between the two countries were established 25 years ago. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that the two leaders would sign an agreement for a $40 million innovation fund. The visit is expected to boost economic and defense ties.
Modi fit in time for a personal visit to Moshe Holtzberg, the son of the Chabad emissaries Rabbi Gabriel and Rivka Holtzberg, who died in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack. Moshe, who was 2 years old at the time, was rescued by his nanny, Sandra Samuels, and is now living with his grandparents, Shimon and Yehudit Rosenberg. "I love you Mr Modi," said 11-year-old Moshe, adding that wants to become director of the Chabad House in Mumbai when he grows up. "We have not been forgotten...Indians share our pain,” said Rosenberg. Samuels, who moved to Israel with Moshe, is now an honorary Israeli citizen. Modi also visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum.
The Chabad House has been restored and reopened since the attack, but Moshe's abandoned and bullet-ridden room has been left intact. Here are photos from the visits we have made during our tours.
My music is making it to Bollywood! Shalom, Bollywood, that is--a new film about Jewish women in Indian cinema. Producer and director Danny Ben-Moshe, an award-winning Australian-based filmmaker, (Identity Films), has reached out to me to use tracks from my CD, Hodu: Jewish Rhythms from Baghdad to India, in the documentary.