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!
There’s an Israeli song by Naomi Shemer that plays constantly in my head at this time of year. Hitchadshut (Renewal) is about the unique season we are in now: Aharei Hahagim, After the Holidays.
After the holidays, everything will be renewed.
Ordinary days will return, renewed.
The air, the earth, the rain and the fire -
And you, too, will be renewed.
In an unending journey
Between the fields of shadow and the fields of light,
There is a path you have not traveled
And which you will travel.
The hourglass, the clock of your lifetime,
Signals to you now…
Travel definitely opens new vistas for renewal and transformation. Ordinary days become extraordinary. Rich experiences, new friendships, and meaningful encounters can be life-changing.
For me, Aharei Hahagim signals the time to start packing my bags for my next trip to India. It means I am about to meet a wonderful new group of travelers, eager to experience paths they have not traveled, excited to learn about India’s Jewish history and culture, and ready to connect with other travelers and the amazing people we visit in India.
A year from now, you, too, can experience that Aharei HaHagim feeling, packing and preparing to explore India with us. Registration for our November 2020 tour is officially open. We already have registrations, and the tour promises to fill up fast. 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.
Enjoy Ofra Haza’s beautiful rendition of Hitchadshut here. By the way, for Israeli song afficianados, there is another song actually called Aharei HaHagim, written by Ehud Manor and Avi Toledano, and also sung by Ofra Haza with Avi Toledano: Watch here.
So here’s to Aharei Hahagim! Wishing you a year of renewal, transformation, song, lots of travel and new beginnings!
New India Assurance Building
Art Deco is not an architectural style most people would associate with India. But, in fact, Mumbai has one of the largest collections of Art Deco buildings in the world, second only to Miami.
The Art Deco buildings on Marine Drive and those along the nearby park, the Oval Maidan, were designated last year by Unesco as a World Heritage site, and activists hope the new designation will help preserve the neighborhood. According to The New York Times, Atul Kumar, a resident of Marine Drive, founded the nonprofit Art Deco Mumbai in 2016 to raise awareness of these buildings on social media, as well as to document them in an online repository. The final list is estimated to total 600 buildings, built between 1930 and 1950 with streamlined forms and geometric motifs.
“What is special about Mumbai’s architecture, and about Art Deco in particular, is that unlike Delhi it is not all monuments or public buildings,” Mr. Kumar told The New York Times. “It is homes and schools and cinemas, spaces we have lived in, grown up with and can relate to.”
What the Times did not report is that many Baghdadi Jews lived in the Art Deco buildings near the Maidan because the neighborhood was in walking distance of the Knesset Eliyahoo Synagogue. During our visits to Mumbai, we pass by the Regal Cinema, the New India Assurance Building and the Maidan on our Shabbat walks, and stop to admire Mumbai's architectural and Jewish heritage.
Read the full New York Times article here.
India, the land of yoga, meditation, and spirituality, has long held a deep fascination for Westerners. Famous travelers to India have included the Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Beatles, Oprah Winfrey, Mick Jagger, Prince Charles, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
In March 1962, Jackie Kennedy and her sister, Lee Radziwell, spent two weeks in India and Pakistan, riding camels and elephants, enjoying a boat ride on the Ganges and posing in front of the Taj Mahal. They were accompanied by John Kenneth Galbraith, the United States ambassador to India, and his wife, Kitty. In India, the sisters were greeted by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter, Indira Gandhi. Crowds lavished them with flowers and gifts.
Lee Radziwell gathered 89 photographs from the trip in a blue album embossed with gold letters that read, "Visit of Mrs. John F. Kennedy to India." It includes a photo of Jackie in front of the Taj Mahal in a green dress and white gloves. After Radziwell's death this past year, the album and other memorabilia are up for auction at Christie's. Read more from The New York Times here.
When we travel to India on our tours, crowds of people don't throw flowers at us on the streets, but we are welcomed privately with garlands of flowers, necklaces to ward off the evil eye, tikka dots and more. We stay at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower in Mumbai as Jackie did, and often pose in front of the same bench at the Taj Mahal as she did!
We marvel at India's tolerance, culture and spirituality as well as our own Jewish contribution to India's achievements. There's no place like India!