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.
In these difficult days, it's important to have a focus for meditation. The Jewish mystical tradition gives us an amazing and complex artistic genre called SHIVITI, created from biblical verses shaped into a menorah, surrounded by other verses. Above is an example of a Shiviti from India, used in our family.
SHIVITI is the first word of the verse that is front and center, SHIVITI ADONAI L'NEGDI TAMID: "I place God before me always" (Psalms 16:8). God's name is in bold at the top. Holiness is always in front of us, if we take the time to center ourselves and look for it. Sometimes it takes a conscious effort to find goodness and holiness in ourselves, in others, and in our surroundings. God's holiness does fill the world, but we are not always open to that realization.
These days we can find goodness and holiness in so many human beings, from doctors to delivery workers who are fighting on the front lines of the coronavirus. Their bravery leaves me in awe. Unfortunately, evil (the Shiviti names it Satan) is also around us. We can't stop all the evil in the world but we can focus on trying to curb our own negative thoughts and personal practices.
Many beautiful shivitis decorated the eastern walls of synagogues, or in India, western walls facing Jerusalem. You will still find them in synagogues in India today. In American sanctuaries today, we are more likely to find inscriptions like Da Lifnei Mi Atah Omed. Know Before Whom You Stand.
How do we contemplate standing before God? How do we become aware that God's holiness fills the earth? The Mussar Institute offers this guidance for a meditative practice.
In this uncertain world, every time that I am able to get outside I can regain a sense of focus and gratitude. There’s a wonderful custom of Birkat Ha-Ilanot. On a Tuesday after the Rosh Hodesh Nissan, the new month of Nissan, we say a bracha on the first flowering blooms we see on our trees. Tuesday is the chosen day because plants and trees were created on the third day of the week in the biblical creation story. God saw that it was good, twice.
The highlight of the month of Nissan is Passover. Among its many names, Passover is also called Hag Ha-Aviv, the festival of spring. The green vegetable and the egg on the seder plate symbolize spring and rebirth. The egg also represents the ancient festival sacrifice. All of us may be feeling sacrifice intensely these days. But there is hope, as nature teaches us.
So, whether it is Tuesday or any day of Nissan, say a blessing from your heart for the beauty of nature that we are still lucky enough to experience.
The words are:
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha-olam
Shelo hasair b’olamo kloom
U-vara vo b’riyot tovot v’ilanot tovot
L’hena’ot bahem b’nai adam.
Blessed are you, God,
Whose world does not lack anything
And Who created in it good creations
And good trees for us to enjoy.
While we can debate whether our world truly does not lack anything (face masks? Hand sanitizer?) I believe the blessing is referring to the natural world, and not what human beings have done with it.
HAMENTASCHEN...The quintessential Purim sweet?
I had never heard of hamentaschen until my family emigrated to the United States. Of course we celebrated Purim in India! But our sweets were a far cry from the cookies stuffed with prune, poppy seeds, chocolate chips, or anything you might fancy today.
One sweet delicacy we enjoyed was the spiral-shaped Jalebi, made of flour mixed with a little chickpea flour and yogurt. The batter is fermented and then deep-fried and dipped in sugar syrup. On our last tour to India, I watched them being deep-fried at a rest stop off the highway. They were amazing with a cup of chai!
Other goodies included cakas (circular caraway biscuits), almond and cheese samoosaks, and date babas (made with the same dough but stuffed either with crushed sweetened almonds, cheese or pressed dates). For something simple that's more like a cookie and would be great for mishloach manot baskets, try koolichas. These coconut cookies are studded with black nigella seeds, also called onion seeds (kalonji in Hindi) that impart a distinctive flavor. Kalonji is available in Indian shops. You can substitute poppy seeds in a pinch but they won't have the same flavor.
KOOLICHA (Coconut Cookies)
2 c. coconut
(preferably unsweetened. If you use sweetened, you could reduce the sugar a little)
¼ c. coconut milk
6 T butter or coconut oil
½ c. sugar
1 c. semolina
Moisten the coconut in the coconut milk for 5 minutes. Cream butter and sugar together. Add the semolina and coconut milk mixture and mix well.
Take 1 heaping tsp. of mixture and shape into a ball. Flatten it slightly and sprinkle kalonji on top. Place on greased cookie sheet and bake in 350 degree oven 20-25 minutes or until golden brown. Makes 20.
Adapted from Indian-Jewish Cooking, by Mavis Hyman
12 oz. self-rising flour
a pinch salt
2 oz. butter
4 T oil
1 tsp sugar dissolved in 3/4 c. tepid water
Mix together. The dough should be soft but firm.
8 oz. pressed dates,
Chop 8 oz pitted medjoul dates in food processor, mix with 1 T water, and fry in 1 T oil
Crushed walnuts (optional)
Preheat over to 375 degrees.
Cut out rounds from the dough by placing a large glass on top of the dough. Place a thin layer of dates on a round, top with another round and crimp the edges to seal. Pierce the top layer of pastry with a fork in two or three places to allow steam to escape. Place on parchment paper on cookie sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes. Makes 20.
It's a time-honored tradition on the joyous holiday of Purim to make some noise, drowning out the name of the villain Haman during the megillah reading. In India, we do this by stamping our feet on the marble floors of our synagogues. In Ashkenazic communities, groggers or noisemakers are the norm.
It's also a time-honored tradition on India's streets to make some noise--actually a LOT of noise! Any visitor to India's cities will find it impossible to forget the honking horns. According to an old saying in India, to drive well all you need are four simple things: a good car, good eyes, good luck and a good horn. Drivers use their horns constantly to nudge traffic along and to announce, "Watch out, move aside, I'm coming!" They even honk when the light is still red, to get drivers ready to go! "Horn OK Please," is painted on many trucks, buses and taxis. Sometimes individual drivers object, painting or placing "Do Not Honk" stickers on their cars.
The honking in Mumbai, a city of 22 million, became so loud that the Mumbai Police implemented a stop-honking initiative. At certain intersections they installed devices that measured horn noise. The louder the honking, the longer the light stayed red. Eventually the drivers got the message : “Honk More Wait More.”
The police filmed the scene and posted a video on social media. It went viral instantly.
Sometimes, it's good to make noise. Sometimes it isn't.
Tu B'Shvat, which marks the "birthday of the trees" on the Jewish calendar (the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat), is like Judaism's Earth Day. So here I am in a modified tree pose! The backdrop is one of the beautifully decorated doorways in the palaces of Jaipur, adorned with floral and leafy motifs. Yoga originated in India and teaches the balance and serenity so crucial for our lives.
In India, even in urban settings, nature is celebrated everywhere. The messages I have learned are profound! Artisans at temples and palaces have translated nature into art. The spectacular cut-glass decorations at Calcutta's amazing Jain Temple are just one example. Jainism, an ancient Indian religion, respects the natural world so much and advocates complete non-violence. Its followers don't destroy any living creatures, including insects! They don't even eat onions and garlic because these grow underground, where there are organisms we can't see.
Banana leaves for plates? That's the custom in South India. Banana leaves are inexpensive, easily available, and said to impart anti-bacterial properties to the food served on it. Best of all, when your meal is over, simply throw the leaf away! Similarly, steaming cups of fragrant chai are served in biodegradable clay cups all over India.
And then there are the uniquitous Banyan trees. Sometimes, they seemingly even grow from cement! A species of the fig tree, the surreal banyan is covered in roots that sprout from seeds that land on the tree. My family used to picnic under the mighty banyan tree in the Calcutta Botanical Garden. Today that tree is over 250 years old and covers five acres!
The Baghdadi Jewish community infused Tu B'Shvat with the value of goodness by calling it Tob (good) Shebat. We held a kabbalistic seder, spreading the table with dozens of kinds of fruits and nuts, recited blessings, read verses from the Bible and the mystical book of the Zohar.
The Bene Israel community of Bombay believes that Tu B'Shvat was the day the Prophet Elijah ascended to heaven from a place on the Konkan coast near Bombay. They mark the day with a malida, a ritual of thanksgiving, recite blessings over fruit and nuts, and sing songs to Elijah, who is said to have rescued them from the shipwreck that brought them to India. Malidas are also held at other auspicious occasions like engagements and housewarmings.
Tu B'Shvat is a time of thanksgiving for all that nature has given us!
This past December, I was thrilled to be one of the presenters at LimmudUK, a festival of Jewish study and culture that took place in Birmingham, England. Limmud started in the UK and has become a global movement of communities in 42 countries with a great impact on creating leadership, connection, identity, learning, and diversity. I taught children and adults about the history, heritage and customs of the Jews of India.
When I arrived I knew only one person among the 2,500 people from dozens of countries who chose from innumerable workshops over the course of 5 days, or longer if they came for Shabbat. My experience of meeting people was a lot like speed dating. I sat down randomly next to people at meals, sessions and concerts. I chatted with them in long lines waiting for the dining room to open.
Invariably I left with new acquaintances and memorable stories—many with India or Baghdad connections. I learned a remarkable story from a woman named Ruth Bloomfield: her partner’s parents had been Eastern European refugees to India who had met and married in Bombay.
After leading a Shabbat morning Torah service in the progressive minyan, Jeremy Jacob approached me and told me about his Calcutta background. A senior lecturer in computer science at the University of York, Jeremy is especially proud of his uncle, four-star Indian General Jack Jacob, whose daring strategy in the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 changed the course of Southeast Asian history.
Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers, who coordinated the service and is community educator for the Reform movement in the UK, studied Hinduism in college and had traveled in India for three months. Her husband Gary knew many Baghdadi-Indian melodies from Ohel David, the Baghdadi synagogue in London that he used to attend regularly. Rabbi Debbie even followed me on Instagram before we ever met in person! (You can follow me, too, @explorewjewishindia.com)
I met other presenters who are transmitting the legacies of their communities through their own voices. Deborah Eliezer is a California artist who has dramatized her feelings about her father’s Iraqi heritage in her one-woman play: (dis)Place[d]; Israeli Maureen Nehedar sings the songs of the Persian Jewish community. After the conference, I visited with my cousins whose families had settled in London after leaving India. And I enjoyed being a tourist!
Limmud broadened my appreciation of global Judaism. To truly absorb the understanding that Jews live and flourish in every corner of the world is not something you can really learn from a newspaper or a textbook. It’s something to be experienced in person.
That’s one of my goals in bringing groups to India. We share an experience--not only by visiting India's magnificent sites but also by meeting its people.
Click here to learn more and register now for our November 2020 tour. Check out the new video of rave reviews from our last tour!
Learn more about Limmud here:
With Maureen Nehedar at Limmud
Dina Samteh, 22, who was born in India and is part of the Bnei Menashe tribe, says that for her, "music is everything."
Dina has been blind since the age of 6, but that has not stopped her from using her beautiful voice. Today, she is a vocalist with the Shalva Band, whose members have a range of disabilities.
When she was 10, Dina's family made aliyah from Manipur, India. She learned Hebrew through music, singing with her mother, a guitarist. As a teenager, Dina volunteered at Shalva (serenity), the Israel Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities, which provides leading-edge therapies, inclusive educational frameworks, social and recreational activities, employment training, and independent living for people with disabilities. There, she met Shai Ben Shushan, the director of the Shalva Band. Ben Shushan was part of an elite army unit when he suffered a life-threatening injury 13 years ago. His successful rehab at Shalva motivated to give back to those who had helped him--and he formed the band.
The band rose to fame after entering the 2019 finals on the Israeli TV show “Rising Star,” which determines which musical act will represent Israel at the international Eurovision Song Contest. The band won, but dropped out because Eurovision rehearsals take place on Shabbat, and some of the band members are Shabbat-observant. However, Shalva was invited to performed as guest artists; their performance that went viral and changed how millions of people view and embrace disability.
Watch their performance of A Million Dreams here:
Click to learn more about the Shalva Band.
Click here to hear Dina's story.
For my just-published story about b'nai mitzvah of children with disabilities in the U.S., click here.
What do India and Thanksgiving have in common?
They share the word, "Hodu," which is both the word we use to give thanks to God as well as the Hebrew name for India!
That double meaning was clear on our extraordinary November 2019 tour. Our group spanned the spectrum from nonreligious to Orthodox, ages 50-83, yet we bonded as a family and created delightful and poignant memories together. We sang our hearts out in the synagogues we visited. Hodu LÁdonai Ki Tov: Let us give thanks to God, for God is good. In Hebrew and Hindi we sang Kol Ha-Olam Kulo, Gesher Tzar Meód: The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid at all. At the Maghen David Synagogue in Calcutta, we marveled at the 18 arches, each decorated with a biblical verse encouraging us to thank God, praise God, and sing to God.
Everywhere, we interacted with India's friendly, open and lively people, who wanted to take selfies with us as much as we wanted to photograph them. And we expressed our own gratitude for India's welcoming society in which Jews were not afraid. India accepted Jews who took refuge from all over the world throughout the centuries: those escaping Hellenist persecution at the time of the Maccabees, fleeing the Inquisition and upheaval in Baghdad. Even Holocaust refugees found sanctuary in India.
Join us on our next tours: We already have registrations for November 2020, so make sure to reserve your space now. Don't miss out on this transformative once-in-a-lifetime experience! Click here to learn more and register now.
If you want to travel sooner, join our 12-day tour in January 2020 at an unbelievable cost of $3,285 pp double occupancy. Click here to learn more and register now.
As a vegetarian, I don't usually share the third meaning for the word hodu: it's also the Hebrew word for turkey. But on this Thanksgiving, I can't resist: Let us give you the T0UR-KEY to Jewish India!