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.
Those who think India is all rural villages, think again! It has a sophisticated cosmopolitan culinary scene, with flourishing restaurants and bars. We invited Vinod Mishra to join us for the third in our NamaStay series to talk about martinis and other cocktails infused with the flavors of India.
Born and bred in Mumbai, Vinod Mishra is the former owner of The Pepper Mill and now general manager of Gymkhana 91 (91 is India’s phone country code). After an internship and exams, he began his career at the Ambassador Hotel, where he worked at the bar for six years, followed by another six-year stint on cruise liners.
Q: Why do you enjoy bartending?
A: We do not have medical degrees but we call ourselves doctors who can make you smile, can change people’s moods. A bartender can be a good friend, and respect and entertain you. A good bartender can pick out what drink he should make you, introducing a new one or going ahead with a favorite. A bartender is like a chef in a kitchen, both creative and innovative. I still remember the names of many of my guests even from 30 years ago.
Q: Why are cocktails especially popular now?
A: People want to do something innovative at home. The visual appeal of food is very important. You eat and drink with your eyes first; then with your nose, then you gulp it. People are making their own syrups. The freshness of making it on your own makes a lot of difference. They are also using edible flowers, fresh fruits and herbs.
Today guests know a lot! Previously they would say, Give me a martini, or a gimlet, or a Bloody Mary. Nowadays they ask, “What’s your specialty?” A bartender will ask, “What’s your favorite spirit?” and will make you a drink freshly and instantly.
Q: Gymkhana is still closed because of the lockdown. Do you mix drinks at home?
A: I don’t consume alcohol at home. My wife says, “Let the world drink, but not you!”
Q: The Masala Martini is mixed with cumin. What does the cumin add?
A: Distinctive warm, earthy flavor, but also lots of healing properties. It grows in the Western Indian states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. Jal jeera, or jeera water, has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial, antiseptic, and detox properties; it’s good for the digestive tract, relieves nausea and other tummy woes. It’s best if you roast and grind the cumin seed, but you can also use prepared ground cumin.
Q: Tell us about the Turmeric Whiskey Sour.
A: Turmeric enhances the taste and is good for immunity. Its dark-yellow color is rare and eye-appealing. Turmeric comes from the root of a flowering plant. It gives curry that yellow color. It’s grown all over India, from Andhra Pradesh to Assam. All over India, families add turmeric powder to hot milk and get golden milk, a traditional remedy for colds.
Q: There are some other drinks that have healing properties, too. Can you tell us about Kadha?
A: Kadha, or toddy, has a base of brandy. You muddle together star anise, cinnamon sticks, cloves, orange peel and lemon zest; pour boiling water over it and add brandy and honey. Kadha is an ancient remedy for colds in India—but without the brandy!
Q: What about mocktails?
A: I suggest a mocktail called Dusk to Dawn. It has orange juice, fresh watermelon and fresh cucumber. Mix it together in a juicer, strain, and add water. Shake with ice, lime juice, sugar syrup because the cucumber is slightly bitter, and an optional dash of mint syrup. It’s a soothing drink in the early morning or late evening—that’s why it’s called Dusk to Dawn!. If you want to add vodka, you can remove the sugar syrup.
Q: You also created a signature cocktail for your restaurant.
A: It’s called Peppery Black, made with pepper, which is native to India, and imported blackcurrant syrup. Pepper is grown in Kerala, in south India, and at one time it was more valuable than gold. India is the #1 producer, consumer and exporter of black pepper. It’s something we take for granted in our food every day, but again it has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, can act as a diuretic because it promotes sweating, and improves digestion.
Thanks to Nataly Blumberg, professional publicist and amateur mixologist, for doing an amazing job mixing the drinks!
For the second in our NamaStay at Home series, Yoga Matters, we invited Sam and Preetika Bhatnagar, co-founders of Bodsphere, Delhi's top yoga and wellness studio.
This is an edited version of the Q & A that preceded a wonderful yoga session focused on boosting immunity and calming the spirit.
Sam’s teaching goes beyond alignment to an introspective, holistic experience. He presents the complexities of ancient wisdom in a practical, life-affirming manner and distills them with humor and grace. For him, Yoga is a path to explore our inner selves, elevate our consciousness and create a counter-balance to the stresses of modern life.
Preetika is a wellness guide, a lifestyle trainer, and an expert in holistic health through mindfulness and Ayurveda. She’s also been an Indian National Level Gymnast with over 100 awards and medals. Her yoga teaching is both intuitive and traditional, pulling from multiple yogic disciplines.
You could call their marriage bashert (destiny in Yiddish), to use one of those good Hindi words. They are they both from Delhi, and were classmates until Fifth Standard (age 8, until he left the school. They liked each other even then! But they didn’t meet again until 12 years later. By then Preetika had her bachelor's and master's degrees in physical education and had left the gymnastics she had been practicing rigorously for the India team. Sam studied Portuguese and management; became a banker; lived in Europe and, on the side, offered yoga and other fitness classes. He had been interested in health and wellness since childhood; by age 18 he was already certified in several areas and continued his training in Europe.
Welcome and Namaste!
Q: What IS Yoga exactly? Is it exercise? A philosophy?
A: Yoga is a union of body, mind and spirit, a body of knowledge and philosophy that was compiled between the third and fifth century BCE, so it existed even before then. An asana is a body movement, a posture, that comes from your mind. Every posture can have a different effect on your body, like opening up the muscles or opening the fascia. We are doing asanas not just for the physical aspect but also for the internal benefit that happens automatically.
In India everybody does yoga. There are different paths. The path of action, for example. If you’re listening to each other, this is an action. The path of knowledge. If you learn and analyze something you are gleaning knowledge. The other two are the paths of devotion and the kingly path. These different paths teach you how to handle everyday situations; how to overcome your own mind and make decisions; how to handle obstacles; how to tame the monkey mind; how to lead a stress-free, trauma-free, disease-free life.
You can choose your own path because the different yoga styles arrive at the same destinations. In one style you might have to do sequences in a specific order that can’t be changed; in another, you might have to hold the poses for a couple of minutes.
Yoga takes you back to the source, which is love and happiness. The paths give solutions but it’s up to the individual to implement the knowledge at the right time, the right place, with the right person. It’s about the practice and the implementation. It’s about awareness.
Q: What are some differences between yoga in India and the West?
A: In Western culture practitioners try to go from the body to the mind. Teachers experiment with different styles of yoga to attract more practitioners. It’s very important to maintain the authenticity of yoga, which can be a profound experience. It’s really more about the philosophy, more about the mind than about exercise. In yoga there are 195 teachings and only three teachings talk about the asanas, the postures. It’s not about posing upside down. Then it becomes a sport. But western culture has the beautiful element of body movement, with a focus on flexibility, stamina and mobility, which we also support as teachers. We try to integrate the body movements with the asanas.
Follow Bodsphere on social media:
Register for our next session:
Move Over Negroni! Quarantinis for Tzedakah
Masala Martini and More
Wednesday, July 1, 12 pm ET
Our first session of NamaStay at Home, our new series of virtual cultural
events that brings India to you, was a great success. It was definitely the
next best thing to being there in person, and provided a pleasant break
from all the challenges we are facing now.
From her home in Jaipur, Chef Divya Kalwara showed us how to make three
Indian comfort foods: a perfect cup of masala chai (tea with milk and
cardamom); chapati (whole-wheat flatbread with just two ingredients), and
lassi (a refreshing yogurt drink).
Here are excerpts of the Q and A with Divya, and the recipes she shared.
Many chefs can make good food, but only a few do it with the comforting
feeling of home that Divya Kalwara radiates. Born of a royal bloodline in
Jaipur, Divya’s cooking Is inspired by her ancestry. Her mother,
grandmother, and mother-in-law taught her the secrets of traditional
“Rajputi” cuisine. She also holds a master’s degree in psychology from Delhi
Q: Tell us about yourself and your family.
A: I was born and brought up in Jaipur. My father was a tea planter so we
visited him in Eastern India during our winter vacations. I was always very
keen on cooking so watched my mother as I was growing up.
Three related families live together in our home. My own family consists of my
husband, two sons and my mother-in-law. We run a guesthouse and also
have a farm where we grow or own lentils, millet, cumin and mustard
Q: Can you describe the cuisine you grew up with? Why is it called
A: India is a diverse country and the cuisine reflects the local geography.
Rajastan is a desert area, so we relied more on lentils, lentil flour and
breads than fresh green vegetables, rice and coconut, though of course
now those are available here, too. There are 30 different kinds of lentils.
My mother-in-law comes from Uttar Pradesh, so her cooking is a little
Q: What are some comfort foods that always make you think of home?
A: We love to come home to a meal of lentils and chapati.
Q: What misconceptions do Americans/Westerners have about Indian
A: People think that there is only one kind of curry powder that you can get
in a packet. Curry is a mixture of spices and there are many different kinds.
You can make it less spicy-hot by removing the chili and still have the
wonderful flavor of the spices.
By now we are almost all armchair travelers, so let's make the most of it!
Introducing a new series of cultural experiences that brings India to you. Learn how to cook Indian comfort food, take a virtual synagogue tour, and more. Each 45-minute session is moderated by Rahel Musleah. It's the next best thing to being there!
We are hoping to do good while educating and entertaining you. Half of the $10 fee per session will benefit two organizations doing life-saving work in India:
Gabriel Project Mumbai is providing COVID-19 emergency relief.
JDC India provides aid to vulnerable Jews across India.
Join us every other Wednesday at noon, beginning June 3rd.
In our first event, Chai and Chat, chef Divya Kalwara comes to you from her Jaipur home to show you how to make a perfect cup of masala chai, fragrant with ginger and cardamom; chapati, five-minute Indian flatbread made with just two ingredients, and lassi, a cool, comforting, yogurt-based drink perfect for warm, summery days, or anytime.
Join us by registering here!
Shavuot 2020: A time for revelation like no other. Revelations about ourselves as we shelter at home; revelations about the bravery and compassion of ordinary people-turned heroes, revelations about what and whom we miss.
One of the things I miss is sitting next to my friends in my makom kavua, my regular seat, at synagogue services. My small group of friends is a tiny community within a larger community. Our synagogue is a microcosm of synagogues across the world, physically closed but spiritually open.
As much as I am at home in my synagogue in New York, when I step into any of India's Jewish sacred spaces I am overcome with a feeling of rootedness and sanctity, a blend of holiness and home. I am transported across generations.
When I look up at the soaring architecture of Mumbai's Knesset Eliyahoo my prayers reach up and up and up. The gentle yet elegant sanctuary, painted a lovely Victorian green-and-gold, welcomes and absorbs our voices.
At the simpler sanctuary of Magen Avot in Alibag, I sit on the wooden benches and wonder about the Bene Israel settlers who rediscovered their Jewish roots after centuries of being isolated from other Jewish communities. Proud of their heritage, unafraid of what the neighbors would think, they built synagogues near Hindu temples and mosques, planted etrog trees in the courtyard for Sukkot and decorated their homes with Magen David symbols.
In Cochin, the synagogues are both intimate and splendid. The silver Torah crown by the open Torah in the ark of the Paradesi Synagogue transports me to a majestic, mystical place. I wonder who wrote that Torah and under what conditions. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall (well, not literally) when the maharajah of Cochin gifted the crown to the Jewish community.
The synagogue in the village of Chendamangalam, about 20 miles north of Cochin, is now a historic site. I look up into the balcony where the Torah was read from a second bimah in the women's gallery and salute the women who were privileged to sit right behind the Torah when it was read.
At Maghen David in Calcutta, the vast quiet reverberates with an ancestral heartbeat. Whispers of prayer wind around the grand columns. What I would give to be able to sit in the balcony next to the grandmother I never met--and simply hold her hand! How did my father sound when he chanted Torah for the first time here as a ten-year-old, or when he returned home as a young man to be rabbi of the community? My thoughts accompany me to the hechal, once a true palace of silver gleaming with 75 sifrei Torah. I kiss the two that remain.
All this is my personal Torah.
I hope this Shavuot you find a little of yours.
Chag Sameach and Tizkoo l'Shanim rabot. May you merit many years.
When Cantor Gaston Bogomolni of Beth Torah Benny Rok Campus in North Miami Beach asked me to participate in a special musical and educational program for Lag BaOmer, a celebration of bravery and cessation from plague, I immediately thought of the daily piyyut, Elohei Oz. It's not a traditional Lag BaOmer song, but one that so resonant for us today, full of supplication and hope for healing.
God of my strength,
Heal me and we will be healed
Send healing for my illness
So I do not die and am swept away
I will praise You with all my might as long as I live
In the midst of my family and friends
I will never stop praising You
With a pleasant voice and beautiful expression
Your salvation will come to me
You will make me walk upright again
I will return to my post
I await your goodness
Listen! For my heart aches
Like a fire that burns within me
No breath remains within me
And I am very weak
Cover me with Your graciousness
Support me wherever I go
Every day and every night
I will praise You with sweet words
Erase my wrongs like a passing cloud
In the shade of Shaddai I will dwell
I will see and understand
The place made of sapphires and jasper.
Couldn't these words have been written today?
“Beth Torah collects the Fire of Torah from the Five Continents” features rabbis, cantors, artists, musicians, and scholars from around the world. Elohei Oz is in Part 2.
Listen and watch here:
The project is dedicated to the soul of Gaston’s uncle, Saúl Serebrinsky z "l, and his mother-in-law, Miriam Madrid z" l, both of whom died of Covid-19. May their memories be for a blessing and for the sake of world harmony.
The program will remain as a video that you can continue to access limitlessly!
In these unparalleled times of plague for us today, we need light and healing more than ever.
Watch on my new YouTube Channel.
In May 1948, just after the State of Israel declared its independence, it was attacked on all fronts. My Uncle Meyer, who had made aliyah in 1945, knew that his family at home in Calcutta would be worried. "ALL SAFE SOUND," he telegraphed to his father.
Three simple words that carry so much power.
Though my grandfather was a deeply religious man, he was not happy that his son and his new wife, along with his daughter, my Aunt Ruby, and her new husband, had left Calcutta for the pioneering life in what was then Palestine. He did his best to dissuade them, but they were firm in their commitment to build the new land.
They were inspired by Habonim, the Zionist movement that had come to India in the 1930s from London and South Africa. Modeled on the Boy Scout and Girl Guide movements, Habonim literally means "the builders." Its symbol was a leveynah, a brick. Building was not just a physical task. It signified character-building, community-building, and nation-building.
Those are still our goals today, no matter where we live.
In this era, we are besieged not by armies, but by legions of unseen viral droplets, illness, fear and uncertainty. Our health care workers, grocery clerks and delivery people are our new heroes on the front lines. We all crave the comfort and knowledge that our loved ones are safe, and mourn those who have passed. Without physical connection, we have increased our outreach to one another through phone calls, emails, and texts.
STAY SAFE has become our new mantra. ALL SAFE SOUND. It's still our fervent wish today.
A Habonim gathering in the courtyard of the Maghen David Synagogue in Calcutta, with a pyramid of leveynim, bricks. My father is standing proudly front and center. The word Calcutta is imprinted in Hebrew on the left corner of the tablecloth.
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.