02 October 2008

Music - and food - of the Jews of India

Writer and musician Rahel Musleah - originally from Calcutta with ancestry to 17th century Baghdad - has created a website for the music of Jewish India, announced the Jewish Music Web Center

Musleah has spoken widely on Indian music and her CD, "Hodu: Jewish Rhythms from Baghdad to India," features ancient text, Indian melodies and contemporary rhythms. The Hebrew texts and English translations are included. Here you can listen to her version of tzur mishelo.

A songbook, "B’Kol Arev: Songs of the Jews of Calcutta," included more than 50 songs for Shabbat, holidays and special occasions (Tara Publications), with a cassette featuring 18 songs.

For more details, see her website at the link above.

Under "books," see her article on the Sephardic/Mizrahi Rosh Hashanah seder, related to her book "Apples and Pomegranates: A Rosh Hashanah Seder."

In this respect, families of Sephardic and Mizrahi origin have a secret to share with the rest of the Jewish world. On the first night of Rosh Hashanah, we hold a special ceremony at home, during which we recite blessings over a variety of foods that symbolize our wishes for the new year. The ritual is called a “seder yehi ratzon” (may it be God’s will) because we ask God to guide us and provide us with bounty, strength and peace in the year ahead. Many of the foods are blessed with puns on their Hebrew names that turn into wishes that our enemies will be destroyed.

The Talmudic origins of the seder date back to a discussion by Rabbi Abaye about omens that carry significance (Horayot 12a). He suggested that at the beginning of each new year, people should make a habit of eating the following foods that grow in profusion and so symbolize prosperity: pumpkin, a bean-like vegetable called rubia, leeks, beets and dates. Jewish communities throughout the world have adapted this practice, creating seders of their own.

So my shopping list for Rosh Hashanah includes fat, juicy, red-skinned pomegranates; glossy, sticky-sweet dates; apples that will blush spicy pink when they are cooked into preserves with a drop of red food coloring and whole cloves; savory pumpkin; pungent leeks or scallions, foot-long string beans (available in Indian shops) and deep-green spinach. Often, my parents and my children prepare the foods together. It’s an art to separate the jewel-like pomegranate seeds without splattering their scarlet juice all over the kitchen counter; to split the dates, stuff them with walnut halves and arrange them in concentric ovals on a newly polished silver dish.

The foods become vessels for meaning, effective because of their tangibility. “Before Rosh Hashanah I try to concentrate on the content of day,” says my friend Marilyn Greenspan, “but repentance and reflection give way to thinking about what I’m serving for dinner.” The seder makes it not only forgivable but desirable to think about such practicalities.

The seder begins with biblical verses to usher in the new year: Dates, pomegranates, apples, string beans, pumpkin, spinach or beetroot leaves, leeks or scallions, honey. Musleah provides the blessings for each of the Indian symbols in her article.

In Iran, however, we added a fish head (fertility and leadership), brains (intelligence and the binding of Isaac), lung (to breathe easy and lighten life), cooked whole beets, sometimes tongue and black-eyed peas.

According to Musleah, there is a reason why not all these symbols are sweet (like honey, dates, apples and sweet pumpkin):

Because the seder doesn’t focus exclusively on sweet symbols, it mirrors the realities of our lives. The bitter truths, fears and enmities we live with mix with the sweetness. Life is not just beginnings; it is also endings. It’s not just honeyed dates, it’s also the sting of scallions. It is about uncovering blessings despite the elusiveness of peace.

Read the complete article here.

Click here for a series of articles touching on Sephardim, the various Indian Jewish communities and holiday traditions.

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