Not fitting in. Being misunderstood and miscategorized. These are recurring themes in Flying Camel: Essays on Identity by Women of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Heritage, edited by Loolwa Khazzoom, a Seattle writer, musician, activist and occasional contributor to the Independent.
The book was first released in the 1990s and was recently re-released.
“I wish I could say that this book is no longer as revolutionary, cutting-edge, or as needed as it was when I began compiling it in 1992, but, unfortunately, that is not the case,” writes Khazzoom, the daughter of an Iraqi Jew, in the new introduction. “Even though there have been changes – shifts in consciousness, language, and even representation – Mizrahi and Sephardi women remain overall excluded, in theory and practice, from spaces for women, Jews, Middle Easterners, people of colour, LGBTQI folk, and even Mizrahim and Sephardim. In addition, so many of the presumably inclusive conversations about us seem basic and superficial, with an undertone of it being a really big deal that these conversations exist at all.”
Khazzoom’s struggle to fit in led her to Seattle, in large part because it is home to one of the largest Sephardi communities in the United States. But even in that milieu she found herself an outsider.
“In June 2014, however, on the first sh’bath [Sabbath] after driving my U-Haul up the coast from Northern California, I was appalled by a sermon so sexist – where women were equated with ‘meat’ – that I walked out of the Sephardi synagogue, just 15 minutes after arriving,” she writes.
“I have been a hybrid all my life, forever caught between two or more worlds,” writes Caroline Smadja in her contribution to the collection. It is a state of being that is shared by many of the writers.
Yael Arami, born in Petah Tikvah to parents from Yemen, speaks of others’ perceptions of her.
“In Germany, I have had to avoid certain areas, fearing local skinheads’ reaction to my skin colour. In France, I have been verbally ridiculed and insulted for being yet another ignorant North African who does not know French,” she writes. “In California, people’s best intentions have resulted in a number of social blunders: When I left a tip in a San Francisco café, I got a courteous ‘gracias’ from the politically correct Anglo waiter. After a predominantly African-American gospel group sang at a Marin County synagogue, several members of the congregation approached me, to express their admiration for our wonderful gospel performance! It seems that wherever I go in white-majority countries, I am, in accordance with local stereotypes, seen as the generic woman of colour – Algerian in France, African-American or Puerto Rican in California.”
Rachel Wahba, an Iraqi-Egyptian Jew, calls out politically correct hypocrisy.
“Sometimes, when I bring up the oppression of Jews in Arab countries, progressive Jews get strangely uncomfortable – as if recognizing the Jewish experience under Islam would make someone racist and anti-Arab,” she writes. “During my mother’s cancer support group intake, I listened as my mother told her story of living in Baghdad and surviving the Farhud. She ended with an ironic ‘I survived the Arabs to get cancer?’ The Jewish oncology nurse was shocked that my mother was so ‘blunt.’
“Should we revise our history? Leave out the details of our oppression under Islam? Pretend my mother never saw the Shiite merchants in Karballah wash their hands after doing business with her father, because he was a ‘dirty Jew?’”
The book’s title comes from an essay by Lital Levy, “How the Camel Found Its Wings” and an Israeli film of the same name.
The metaphor involves the repair of a broken statue of a flying camel, which actually stood at the entrance to the international fairgrounds in Tel Aviv in the 1930s. In the film, the two wings of the camel become stand-ins for a dichotomy that mostly excludes Mizrahi/Sephardi Jews and yet still casts them in a negative light.
“By the end of the screening, the camel had found two new wings, and I got to thinking,” writes Levy. “I started putting my own pieces together – making my own flying camel out of the remnants of the past, borrowing missing pieces from the present, and using my imagination and willpower to try to make it all stick together. The pieces of my own American childhood, the histories that preceded it in Israel and in Iraq, and the challenges I see before me in my work are the various fragments I have been remembering and re-membering into an integral whole. I do not yet know its shape – camel, dromedary, llama, yak – but I do not care, as long as it will fly.”
Las Vegas’s Or Bamidbar Chabad Sephardi synagogue at Chanukah. (photo from Rabbi Yossi Shuchat)
The Las Vegas Strip is where all of the action is, an endless sea of attractions and hotels with casinos, exhibits and more. These hotels cater to a tourist’s every whim. However, during my last trip to Vegas, several years ago, I spent a majority of my time off the strip, away from the bright lights and glitz.
I met up with a group of friends who I had spent a year with in Arad, Israel, in 1990-91, on a World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) program that was for young Jewish professionals thinking of making aliyah. This was our second excursion to Las Vegas and members of our group hailed from Paris, New York, Boston, Toronto and Seattle. On our first trip, we stayed in the Egyptian-themed Luxor Hotel; this time, we stayed at Bally’s Hotel, in the heart of the strip.
We spent our first night wandering around the area near our hotel. The next day, on Friday afternoon, we ventured further afield to eat a fabulous lunch at an Israeli kosher restaurant called the Jerusalem Grill, which also offers pre-Shabbat delivery to hotels. As we dined on authentic Israeli dishes that could have come straight from the Holy Land, we reminisced about the good times we had had on our program and the many trips we took to explore Israel together.
We then explored the Palms Casino Resort and the Rio Hotel and Casino, which were near the restaurant. The Rio, where we would be going to see magicians Penn and Teller perform on Saturday night, after Shabbat, was also hosting the World Series of Poker.
On the Friday night, a few of my WUJS friends and I went to Or Bamidbar Chabad – East Las Vegas, a unique Sephardi synagogue, whose Chassidic spiritual leader, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok (Yossi) Shuchat, is from Venezuela. I had made arrangements with the rabbi prior to Shabbat to attend services and he graciously invited my friends and I to dinner at his house afterwards.
The synagogue features a picture of the Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson) but, other than that, it is a typical Sephardi house of worship, with the bimah in the middle, and Sephardi prayer books and a Sephardi Torah case. I felt right at home, as I have prayed at Sephardi and Chassidic congregations all over the world and have an affinity for the customs and traditions of both streams of Judaism.
After some spirited davening and a great drash by the rabbi, we and a few members of the congregation followed the rabbi to his home, where we were treated to a scrumptious Shabbat meal by his wife, Miriam Bryna Shuchat, who is co-director of Or Bamidbar.
Most of the guests were Sephardi and from Las Vegas, but there was also Baruch, a visitor from New York who was in town to play at the poker tournament. There was also Walter, a Jew who had moved to Las Vegas from Boston and, at one time, was a boxer and a blackjack dealer. After great conversation and food, I retired to a recently renovated mobile home right across from the synagogue, which was reserved for guests – and I had the honour of being the first one!
The next morning, I participated in the services and got to chant Birkat HaKohanim, the ancient priestly blessing that Sephardi shuls – including Beth Hamidrash in Vancouver – do every day, but Ashkenazi ones do not. At lunch, I had a lively discussion with a former Vancouverite who was encouraging me to leave Canada and move to Las Vegas’s thriving Jewish community, with its approximately 80,000 Jews, 20 synagogues, many Jewish schools and several kosher restaurants. When they had lived in Vancouver, both he and his mom had attended services at the Kollel and are fans of Rabbi Shmulik Yeshayahu. Interestingly, since my Vegas visit, the Pacific Torah Institute, which was located in Vancouver, has relocated to Las Vegas and merged with a local yeshivah.
After services, I was contemplating walking back to the hotel in the sweltering 32°C heat, but Walter, the former blackjack dealer, invited me to spend the afternoon at his house. It was a relaxing, enlightening and cool afternoon. Walter regaled me with stories about what Vegas was like when he arrived there in 1956. At that time in the city, which was founded by notorious Jewish gangster Bugsy Siegel, most of the hotels were owned by Jews and, so, as a blackjack dealer – at a variety of casinos, including the Flamingo and Desert Inn – Walter got to know many of them. He also got to know Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and other members of the Rat Pack, as well as boxer Rocky Marciano. (When Walter was a boxer himself, he also met Muhammad Ali.)
After my stay at Walter’s – where I even got a Shabbat nap in – he gave me a lift to the Rio, where I met my friends to see the Penn and Teller show. The poker tournament was also in full swing, of course, but I don’t know how Baruch fared.
I spent my last night in Vegas before returning home to Vancouver with my friends at a glitzy hotel watching a magic show. However, while I enjoyed all that I did, the highlight of my trip – in addition to hanging out with friends – was the gracious hospitality of the folks in the Jewish community. I will always remember my wonderful Shabbat in Las Vegas at Or Bamidbar Chabad.
David J. Litvak is a prairie refugee from the North End of Winnipeg who is a freelance writer, former Voice of Peace and Co-op Radio broadcaster and an “accidental publicist.” His articles have been published in the Forward, Globe and Mail and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His website is cascadiapublicity.com.
I was introduced to the Sephardi and Mizrahi tradition of a Rosh Hashanah seder by a dear friend, at whose home I celebrate most of the Jewish holidays. This New Year’s, given the pandemic and that we are not in each other’s immediate bubble, I will join their seder on the first night of Rosh Hashanah either outdoors, weather permit, I was looking, perhaps, to prepare myself mentally for this year’s socially distanced gathering, and a Zoom with my family in Ontario, when I thought of the idea for the cover, which is created using watercolour and ink (and surprisingly little Photoshop).
In a Sephardi or Mizrahi seder, special dishes are served of specific foods whose Hebrew or Aramaic names are linked in a blessing to another word that has the same root letters. Puns flourish. So, for example, the Hebrew word for carrot and that for decree have different vowels but the same root letters – gimel, zayin and resh – and the blessing over the carrots translates as, “May it be your will, Lord our God, that that our bad decrees be torn up and our merits and blessings be proclaimed.” The word for leeks, chives or scallions – karti – is akin to yikartu, cut off, so the blessing over these vegetables is, “May it be Your will, God, that our enemies be cut off.”
Spinach or beet leaves also symbolize the hope that God will make our enemies retreat and we can “beat” a way to freedom. Dates carry the hope that hatred will end; the many seeds of a pomegranate that our mitzvot will be many; an apple that we will have a sweet year; string beans that our merits will increase; a pumpkin or gourd that God will “tear” away all evil edicts against us, while our merits are proclaimed. You get the idea.
Rosh Hashanah greeting cards (above and below) from the author’s family’s collection. The cards are almost 100 years old. The translation of the one in which people are walking is “Into the synagogue.” It is signed by Chaim Goldberg, a well-known artist who also illustrated many children’s books. The party postcard, also done by Goldberg, is a printed rhyme, which translates as, “Boy, girl! Dear, refined! Who is like you? Happy letters, dear writings, I have for you!”
The Jewish calendar is an amazing conceptualization of time that has evolved (what else?) over time.
In his blog on the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot website, Ushi Derman relates that, originally, the Jewish calendar was a solar calendar. But it was not just a solar calendar, it was a holy solar calendar, delivered by angels to Enoch. (See the Book of Enoch, the section dealing with astronomy, called “The Book of Heavenly Luminaries.”) Temple priests had to follow a rigorous schedule – time itself was judged to be sacred. Thus, the Temple in Jerusalem was regarded as both the house of G-d and the dwelling of time.
With the destruction of Jerusalem’s Second Temple, the priests lost their power. They were no longer the mediators between G-d and the people. Authority switched to the scholars (our sages) of the Mishnah (edited record of the Oral Torah), Talmud and Tosefta (similar to the Mishnah, but providing more details about the reasons for or application of the laws).
In a bold move, the scholars declared that G-d had handed religious authority to humans. “Each month, envoys were sent to watch the new moon and to determine the beginning of the month. Thus, the ownership of time was expropriated from G-d and delivered to man – and that is why the Hebrew calendar has survived for so many centuries,” writes Derman in the 2018 blog “Rosh Hashanah: The Politics and Theology Behind Jewish Time.”
Here is a lovely story from The Book of Legends, edited by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, illustrating the above change. A king had a clock. “When his son reached puberty, he said to him: My son, until now, the clock has been in my keeping. From now on, I turn it over to you. So, too, the Holy One used to hallow new moons and intercalate years. But, when Israel rose, He said to them, until now, the reckoning of new moons and of New Year’s Day has been in My keeping. From now on, they are turned over to you.”
Perhaps oddly, the Mishnah mentions more than one new year. In fact, it points out four such dates on the Jewish calendar:
The first of Nissan is the new year for kings and for festivals;
The first of Elul is the new year for tithing of animals (some say the first of Tishrei);
The first of Tishrei is the new year for years, sabbaticals and Jubilee, for planting and vegetables;
The first of Shevat is the new year for trees, according to the House of Shammai, while the House of Hillel (which we adhere to today) says the 15th of Shevat, or Tu b’Shevat.
With its thrice daily prayers, the synagogue came to replace the Temple. Excluding Yom Kippur, synagogue attendance is higher on Rosh Hashanah than any other time of year. Rosh Hashanah prayers are compiled in a special prayer book, or Machzor.
Amid COVID-19, the following words about Rosh Hashanah have heightened meaning: “The celebration of the New Year involves a mixture of emotions. On the one hand, there is a sense of gratitude at having lived to this time. On the other hand, the beginning of a new year raises anxiety. What will my fate be this year? Will I live out the year? Will I be healthy? Will I spend my time wisely, or will it be filled in a way that does not truly bring happiness?” (See the Rabbinical Assembly’s Machzor Lev Shalem for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, published almost a decade ago.)
Sounding the shofar is one of the special additions to Rosh Hashanah services. According to Norman Bloom – in a 1978 article on Rosh Hashanah prayers in Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought – the timing of the shofar blowing weighed in the physical safety and comfort of the congregation. Hard as it may be to comprehend today, scholars considered potential attacks from both local enemies of the Jews and from Satan himself. They also considered the comfort of the infirm, who might not be able to stay through a long service.
Rosh Hashanah has other curious customs. For example, there is a tradition of having either a fish head or, among some Sephardim, a lamb’s head as part of the Rosh Hashanah meal. This is meant to symbolize that, in the year to come, we should be at the rosh or head (on top), rather than at the tail (at the bottom). Vegetarians and vegans substitute a head of lettuce.
Both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews have Rosh Hashanah seder traditions. The symbolic foods include beets, leeks, pomegranates, pumpkins and beans. As Rahel Musleah has pointed out, each food suggests a good wish for the coming year. Thus, before eating each one, people recite a special blessing. Humour is at play, too, as some of the blessings are puns on the food’s Hebrew or Aramaic name. (Read Musleah’s article “A Sephardic Rosh Hashanah Seder” at myjewishlearning.com/article/a-sephardic-rosh-hashanah-seder.) Of course, we cannot neglect to mention that the festive table also includes apples dipped in honey, for a sweet new year, and a round challah, symbolizing both the cycle of life and G-d’s kingship.
Another Rosh Hashanah custom is Tashlich. This ceremony involves going to a body of water to symbolically cast off one’s sins. Breadcrumbs are often used, as are leaves, but, seeing that COVID-19 will be a part of this year’s holiday, here is another suggestion. Originally, this activity was used with youth groups of the Reform movement – participants wrote out their sins and then the papers on which they were written were put through a paper shredder. A dramatic gesture, suited to our current need for social distancing.
My city, Jerusalem, is a land-bound city without a sea or lake in its immediate vicinity. So, what do residents of the capital do? Those who wish to practise Tashlich go to one of the following four sites. Two of the four places are near the Supreme Court: the Jerusalem Rose Garden and the Jerusalem Bird Observatory. Also in the same general area is the Botanic Garden in the Nayot neighbourhood and, in the Old City, one can go to the Shiloah Springs in City of David.
Wishing all readers a year of blessings and not of curses.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
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• Hebrew has a number of expressions using the word rosh. Here are just a handful of examples: rosh hamemshala (prime minister); rosh kroov, literally cabbage head, or a negative reference to someone who is not very bright; rosh katan, someone who is small-minded; l’kabel barosh, to be defeated; and rosh tov, or good vibes.
• Anyone interested in learning more about the solar calendar should read Prof. Rachel Elior’s article, “Enoch Son of Jared and the Solar Calendar of the Priesthood in Qumran,” which can be found in a Google search.
At a Sephardi Rosh Hashanah seder, one of blessings, over leeks (or cabbage) is the request, may “our enemies be destroyed.” (photo from Wikimedia)
Food customs differ among Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews. For example, whereas Ashkenazim dip apple in honey at Rosh Hashanah, some Sephardim traditionally serve mansanada, an apple compote, as an appetizer or dessert, according to The World of Jewish Desserts by Gil Marks, z”l.
Just as gefilte fish became a classic dish for Ashkenazi Jews, baked sheep’s head became a Rosh Hashanah symbol for many Sephardi Jews, dating back to the Middle Ages. Some groups serve sheep brains or tongue or a fish with head, probably for the same reasons, for fruitfulness and prosperity and wishes for the New Year of knowledge or leadership.
The Talmud mentions the foods to be eaten on Rosh Hashanah as fenugreek, leeks, beets, dates and gourds, although various Jewish communities interpret these differently.
According to Rabbi Robert Sternberg, in The Sephardic Kitchen, Sephardi Jews have a special ceremony called the Yehi Ratsones (Hebrew for “May it be Thy will”), where each food is blessed. There are foods that symbolically recognize God’s sovereignty and our hope He will hear our pleas for a good and prosperous year.
The Hebrew word for gourds is kara, which sounds like both the word for “read/proclaim” and the word for “tear.” When we eat the gourd or pumpkin, there are two possible Yehi Ratzons that can be said. The first one goes: “May it be your will, Hashem, that our merits be read/proclaimed before you.” The other is that the decree of our sentence should be torn up.
The second food mentioned is fenugreek, or rubia, which sounds like yirbu, the Hebrew word for “increase.” Therefore, we say a Yehi Ratzon that contains the request, may “our merits increase.”
The word for the third food, leeks or cabbage, is karsi, krusha or kruv, which sounds like kares, or the Aramaic word karti, to cut off or destroy. The Yehi Ratzon asks, may “our enemies be destroyed.”
The fourth food, beets or beet greens, silka or selek, sounds like siluk, meaning removal, or she’yistalqu, to be removed, or the Aramaic word silki. The Yehi Ratzon requests that “our adversaries be removed.”
The last food is dates, tamri or tamar, which sounds like the Hebrew word sheyitamu and the Aramaic word tamri, to consume. Hence, we say a Yehi Ratzon that asks, may “our enemies be consumed.”
All of these foods, which grow rapidly, are also symbols of fertility, abundance and prosperity. Among other items that might be on a Sephardi table at Rosh Hashanah, Sternberg includes baked apples dipped in honey or baked as a compote with a special syrup; dates, which were among the seven species found in Israel; pomegranates, which have many seeds, or black-eyed peas, to represent our hoped-for merits; rodanchas, a pastry filled with pumpkin whose spiral shape symbolizes the unending cycle of life; and a fish head, symbolizing a wish to be the head in life, a leader, and not the tail. The main course might feature stuffed vegetables, symbolizing a year full of blessings and prosperity.
Some communities ban sharp, bitter or black foods for Rosh Hashanah, such as black olives, eggplant, chocolate or coffee.
In The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, Edda Servi Machlin, z”l, who grew up in Pitigliano, Tuscany, explains that her father held a seder for Rosh Hashanah around the theme of growth, prosperity and sweetness. On the seder plate were a round challah, a boiled rooster’s head, fish such as anchovies, boiled beets, figs and pomegranates. In the centre was a dried, round, sourdough cake with an impression of her father’s right palm and fingers, and fennel weed growing on each side.
The foods were then blessed – “May we grow and multiply like fish in the ocean, like the seeds of a pomegranate, like the leavening, grain and fennel of the bread. May the year be sweet like beets and figs.”
The meal consisted of soup, fish, salad, chicken and fruit. Italian Jews also often serve at Rosh Hashanah desserts made with honey and nuts; stick or diamond-shaped cookies; strufali, cookies made of fried dough balls in honey; or ceciarchiata, cookies that resemble chickpeas and are made from bits of dough like the Ashkenazi teiglach.
A Greek cookbook writer from Ioannina (Yahnina) wrote that the people of her area made koliva, a thick porridge of wheat berries flavoured with cloves, cinnamon, walnuts and honey for eating on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. According to Marks in The World of Jewish Desserts, wheat berries are unprocessed whole wheat with the outer husk removed, leaving a nutty flavour and chewy texture. Jews of Yahnina also ate kaltsoounakia, a half-moon-shaped cake stuffed with ground walnuts, honey, cinnamon and cloves. For the main course, dishes in Yahnina were influenced by the Turkish occupation and included stuffed tomatoes, stuffed squash and stuffed vine leaves – filled with lamb, rice and parsley, as well as okra stewed with chicken.
Other Jews of Greece have different customs. Nicholas Stavroulakis, author of Cookbook of the Jews of Greece, writes that some people soak apples in honey or eat quince or rose petals cooked in syrup as the New Year sweet. Fish is often the main course and, in place of honey cake for dessert, Greek Jews use almonds or pumpkin in making turnovers, as a symbol of abundance. Other desserts include semolina cake in syrup, pastry triangles filled with nuts or dried fruit, or baklava.
Among Jews of Syria, sugar or honey is substituted for salt at the table, and many families do not serve any dishes that are sour. For the second night Shehechiyanu blessing, the fruit used may be quince, prickly pear, star fruit or figs. Instead of, or in addition to, dipping apples in honey, Jews of Syria often dip dates in honey.
Many Jews from Muslim countries also eat autumn foods cooked with sugar and cinnamon; the food names contain a symbolic allusion to prayers in Aramaic and, through alliteration, are recited over the vegetables and fruits. Syrian Jews use the same prayers but over different vegetables: leek, Swiss chard, squash, black-eyed peas, pomegranate and the head of an animal. This idea of wanting people to be smart, as symbolized by the head or brain, is observed by Jews of Tunisia in their serving of a cake made with chicken and calves brains.
Moroccan Jews take sesame seeds, warm them in the oven and eat them with apple dipped in honey to symbolize that Jews should be fruitful and multiply like the seeds and have the sweet year. They also eat the pomegranate because of its alleged 613 seeds, which symbolize the 613 mitzvot. Moroccan Jews identify the seven autumnal foods as pumpkin, zucchini, turnip, leek, onion, quince and Chinese celery, and sprinkle these with sugar and cinnamon to eat at the beginning of the meal.
Some Moroccan Jews also serve cooked lamb head as an appetizer for Rosh Hashanah. Other lamb dishes served might be lamb with prunes and almonds or lamb intestines filled with rice, meat and tomato, seasoned with cinnamon and cardamom.
Another popular dish served by Moroccans for Rosh Hashanah is couscous, the traditional North African grain, or farina. It is steamed above a stew made with meat or chicken, chickpeas, pumpkin, carrots, cinnamon and raisins. Baked fish with the head, made with tomatoes and garlic, tongue with olives, or meat and rice rolled in Swiss chard are other Moroccan New Year’s dishes. Two soups that may be served are vegetable soup with pastels, a meat-filled turnover similar to kreplach, and potakhe de potiron, a yellow, split-pea and pumpkin soup. The evening may be completed with honey-dipped “cigars,” filled with ground almonds and traditional hot mint tea.
“Cigars” are traditional for Moroccan events and can be made sweet or savoury. The sweet version is a slim roll of Phyllo pastry filled with almonds, pistachio nuts or walnuts, baked or deep fried and sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar. Savoury cigars may be filled with cheese, chicken, meat, potatoes or tuna.
For Rosh Hashanah, Jews of Egypt make loubia, a black-eyed pea stew with lamb or veal, to symbolize fertility.
Jews of Iraq cook apples with water and sugar like applesauce, as a symbol of a sweet New Year. Some also prepare a special, pale-green bottle-shaped squash, which they eat with whole apple jam and sugar. They also make the blessings over leek, squash, dates, pomegranate and peas and place the head of a lamb on their Rosh Hashanah table.
Yemenite Jews, who do not consider themselves Ashkenazi or Sephardi, dip dates in honey instead of apples; others mix sesame seeds and anise seeds with powdered sugar and dip dates in this mixture. They also eat the beet, leek, pomegranate and pumpkin, as well as a salted fish head. The main meal for Yemenites would be a soup made of chicken or meat, carrots, potatoes and the spice hawaj (a combination of black pepper, cumin, coriander and turmeric). Meat stew, cooked chicken, rice, dried fruit and nuts complete the meal.
Whatever your family’s origins, why not try something from another Jewish culture this Rosh Hashanah?
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, lecturer, book reviewer and food writer in Jerusalem. She created and leads the weekly English-language Shuk Walks in Machane Yehuda, she has compiled and edited nine kosher cookbooks, and is the author of Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel.
Rabbi Shlomo Gabay is the new spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Hamidrash. (photo from Shlomo Gabay)
“The Sephardic world has its own customs, its own personality – communicating that to the next generation is a priority for Beth Hamidrash,” Rabbi Shlomo Gabay told the Independent. “They needed someone who could guide the next generation in the Sephardic way.”
Gabay was explaining why he, a rabbi who most recently worked as a high school teacher in the Sephardi community of Gibraltar, was invited to take over the role of spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Hamidrash following the departure of Rabbi Ilan Acoca in August of last year.
Gabay was born in London, England, and attended yeshivah in Gateshead, a hub of Orthodox Jewish life in Britain. He married “the rabbi’s daughter,” Rachel, who works in graphic and web design, and the couple now has three daughters. Coincidentally, Rachel Gabay is the niece of another former Beth Hamidrash rabbi, David Bassous.
After the Gabays married, they spent some time in Israel, where Shlomo Gabay pursued training in kiruv, or Jewish outreach. He then landed his first job, in Gibraltar, where he worked as a teacher of Gemara and halachah at the Jewish boys high school. He also taught other classes and founded and directed the Shovavim Project, an annual six-week learning program, in Gilbraltar.
Gibraltar is a British territory on a peninsula jutting out of southern Spain, across the water from Morocco. The community is almost totally Sephardi and led by Chief Rabbi Ron Hassid.
“Gibraltar is very relaxed, it’s very beautiful,” said Gabay, who earlier this year posted on Beth Hamidrash’s Facebook page a video of himself and some monkey friends on the Rock of Gibraltar. “It’s a holiday place where everybody goes. The population is almost 30,000, but 11 million [tourists] … come a year. The streets are full all the time, you get to meet people from all over the world.”
Gabay sees some similarities between Gibraltar and Vancouver – the natural beauty, the many tourists and a more laid-back culture than London for example – although, obviously, there’s a considerable difference of scale.
Gabay and his family are settling in well and enjoying the West Coast, even the previous winter weather. “London and Vancouver,” he said, “have something in common as well – rain.”
During the interviewing process, the Gabays were invited to come for a trial Shabbaton and Beth Hamidrash decided they had a winner.
“One of the strong reasons we were chosen,” said Gabay, “was because Beth Hamidrash felt they needed to focus on the next generation. Sephardic culture is quite different from Ashkenazic culture – the food, the personality – they didn’t want it to be pulled away in a different angle from what the founders intended.”
Beth Hamidrash has been without a rabbi for a year and a half. Gabay said he is looking forward to reinvigorating what the community is known for – having a warm, family atmosphere, being a community social hub, as well as a place of culture and Torah learning. “We want everyone to be happy here,” he said.
Gabay offers Talmud classes on Tuesdays and has started a Sunday class after breakfast, which covers a different topic of discussion every week. Rachel Gabay is a trained teacher of Judaics, as well as having training in marriage counseling and preparation for marriage.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
Susan Barocas is one of 40 presenters at the April 14-15 “buffet for the mind.” (photo from Susan Barocas)
Among the many presenters at this weekend’s Limmud Vancouver is Susan Barocas, writer and filmmaker, Sephardi chef and expert on the history of Sephardi cooking.
Barocas, who was former president Barack Obama’s guest chef for White House seders, will give two presentations at this year’s Limmud. On April 14, 7:30 p.m., she will speak on Tastes Across the Centuries: The Enduring Influence of the Foods of Spain’s Medieval Jews. On April 15, 10:50 a.m., she will speak on The Long and Short of Noodles, a history of noodles from ancient China to the modern day.
Barocas lives and works in Washington, D.C., where she is an active and well-known foodie. She is a regular contributor to the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Lilith and Moment, and is a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in the food, beverage and hospitality industries. She was the project director of D.C.’s Jewish Food Experience. Limmud Vancouver spoke with Barocas about her unusual career and interests.
LV: In Vancouver, you are speaking about classical Sephardi cuisine. Can you give us a little preview?
SB: I am really looking forward to talking about the food of the Jews of medieval Spain, putting it into historical context. Food played quite an important role in the Inquisition. (Hint: it goes way beyond pork!) Then, I will talk about what happened to the food of those original Sephardim and the surprising influences they have on contemporary Jewish and other cuisines. Of course, I’ll be sharing recipes, too.
LV: Can you tell us more about your heritage and its influence on your career?
SB: I grew up in a mixed household – Sephardic and Ashkenazic. On one side, my grandparents were from Russia-Poland and, on the other, from the Ottoman Empire, what is now Turkey and Macedonia, descended from Jews expelled from Spain in the Inquisition. My father and mother both cooked, so we ate both cuisines – tongue, borsht, gefilte fish and shmaltz, as well as lentils, feta and olives, baklava and stuffed grape leaves.
Over the years, I have become more and more drawn to my Sephardic heritage. It is something of a mission for me to share my view that Jewish food really is international cuisine. To think of it otherwise is to miss out on so much of Jewish culture and cuisine.
LV: You describe yourself as a home cook without formal training, and yet you’ve built a very successful professional career. How did your career develop?
SB: I’ve been cooking since I was a very young child. My first career was in nonprofit public relations. Whenever I would do a special event, food definitely got extra attention from me. When I moved to D.C. in 1993, I worked for food guru Joan Nathan for a few years. My second career included writing and producing documentary and organizational films; raising my son; and teaching a course called In Grandmother’s Kitchen at a local Hebrew high school. Next, I ran the Washington, D.C., Jewish federation’s Jewish Food Experience project. Now I am well into my third career, as a food writer, chef, caterer and teacher.
LV: How does the Jewish Food Experience bring people together?
SB: The Jewish Food Experience is an innovative project of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. It includes an award-winning website, jewishfoodexperience.com. The goals of JFE are to use food and culture to build Jewish identity and community, particularly with certain target audiences that research showed had the greatest needs – young professionals, families with young children and interfaith couples and families. The project has become very successful with the website and programs, bringing people together and closer to their Jewish identity in many different ways.
LV: What is your most memorable Jewish meal?
SB: My most memorable Jewish meal would have to be the seders in the Obama White House, where I served as guest chef for three years. Over time, I was able to bring some of my Sephardic food to the table, so to speak, along with the Ashkenazic dishes. Even though I was working and didn’t actually sit down to eat the meal, I still get goosebumps remembering the pleasure the president and first lady expressed about the food, and also hearing from the next room President Obama’s voice booming out “We Shall Overcome” during the seder.
Elizabeth Nichollsis a volunteer with Limmud Vancouver. Chef Susan Barocas is one of 40 presenters at the April 14-15 “buffet for the mind.” To register and for the full schedule, visit limmudvancouver.ca. The fee for the conference is $75, which includes a kosher dairy lunch. Onsite babysitting is available, along with special programming for children and teens. All sessions will be held at Congregation Beth Israel.
Tamar Ilana leads a Sephardi singing workshop Feb. 20 and she and her ensemble, Ventanas, have five shows in British Columbia. (photo by Zahra Saleki)
Tamar Ilana and Ventanas wind up their Arrelumbre tour with six engagements in British Columbia, starting off Feb. 20 with Tamar leading a Sephardi singing workshop at Net Loft on Granville Island.
The group will perform at Russian Hall in Vancouver (Feb. 24), as well as in Duncan (Feb. 21), in Victoria (Feb. 22), on Quadra Island (Feb. 23) and on Bowen Island (Feb. 25). When they return to Toronto, they will record their third album.
Ventanas’ first album, which was self-titled, was released in 2013. Arrelumbre was recorded in November 2014 and released in June 2015 at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. Both recordings were nominated for two Canadian Folk Music Awards each: Ventanas for best traditional singer and best ensemble in 2014 and Arrelumbre for best traditional singer and best world group in 2015.
“On Arrelumbre, we recorded four original compositions – our first compositions!” Tamar told the Independent. “Up until then, we had focused on rearranging traditional works, but Arrelumbre launched us on the path of creativity. These four originals, each in a different rhythm, are ‘Elianto’ (slow 9/8), ‘Primavera’ (7/8 with a bulerías flamenco insert), ‘Libertad’ (6/8) and ‘Si Te Quiero’ (10/8). These pieces were composed by our oud player, Demetri Petsalakis, who is not joining us on this tour because he is touring with the New Canadian Global Music Orchestra. I then wrote lyrics in Spanish and we arranged them as a band.
“We also incorporated bass for the first time (on ‘Libertad’), invited guest Ukrainian folk singers Mark and Marichka Marczyk, and guest Iranian daf virtuoso Naghmeh Farahmand,” she added. “We loved having bass so much that we invited the guest bass player, Justin Gray, to become a member of the band. He has been with us ever since and he will be on tour with us this month. He is also the brother of our percussionist, Derek Gray, which makes them a great team for our rhythm section.”
When the Independent interviewed Tamar, she was in California – since the beginning of 2015, she has been touring with Lemon Bucket Orkestra’s Counting Sheep, a multimedia play inspired by the 2014 Maidan revolution in Ukraine. Tamar said the show has had three soldout runs in Toronto, won various awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and has also traveled to Germany, Ireland, England and New York.
Since the Independent last interviewed Tamar four years ago – when she and Ventanas were in Vancouver for the folk festival – Tamar has also been doing other creative endeavours. In fall 2015, she performed in Yaël Farber’s Salomé at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., for three months. And, in 2016, with some funding from the Ontario Arts Council, she studied at Les Glotte-Trotters, a private vocal academy in Paris, France. Last year, she sang as an invited guest on various albums by other artists.
Among Ventanas’ highlights since the Vancouver folk fest, the group performed in 2016 at APAP|NYC (Association of Performing Arts Professionals | New York City), which, according to the organization’s website, is “the world’s leading gathering of performing arts professionals.” Ventanas also came out to Burnaby that year, to perform at Pacific Contact, B.C. Touring Council’s annual showcase. In 2017, they toured the United States for the first time, hitting New York City, Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago and Minneapolis.
“We are absolutely thrilled to be returning to B.C., where we find the people to be warm and hospitable, and to greatly appreciate our art,” said Tamar.
Once they return home, however, Ventanas won’t be wasting any time – they are set to record their new album in March.
“This recording,” said Tamar, “will be at least 50% original material, this time from various members of the band, including Jessica Hana Deutsch, our violinist; Benjamin Barrile, our flamenco guitarist; Demetri Petsalakis. I have written some lyrics; however, I have also taken poetry in French by the poet Omar Khayyam for one piece, inspiration from Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ for another, and Hebrew teachings for another. This album brings us closer to our long-term goal of composing the majority of our music, based on the fusing of our cultures and traditions, resulting in our own sound and feel.”
The group that is in British Columbia this month is a little different than the one that came to Vancouver in 2014.
“Dennis Duffin, who was here with us in 2014, has since moved to Seville, Spain, to pursue his studies in flamenco guitar … and Alejandra Talbot, a flamenco dancer with us in 2014, has since moved to Mexico to delve into her roots,” said Tamar. “Benjamin Barrile, who I have collaborated with over the years … and who was a member with myself, Dennis and Lia [Grainger] in Flamenguitos del Norte, has been playing with Ventanas now since 2015, and we are excited to have him record with us on our upcoming album for the first time. Justin Gray, also with us since 2015, co-produces our albums, along with myself.”
Tamar said, while members have come and gone over the years – every musician bringing “their expertise and individual sound to the group” – “the core feeling of the band remains, and gets passed down through the generations, so to speak.”
“Overall,” she said, “the sound has matured, the sound grows richer and our musicianship increases, as we continue to become more and more ourselves. We are all working on various projects and what we learn, we pour into Ventanas, resulting in a depth and richness that we only hinted at in the beginning.”
For the full schedule and tickets to Ventanas’ B.C. performances, including Tamar’s singing workshop, visit ventanasmusic.com.
One of the stories that my father, z”l, used to tell me about his father, my grandfather, Rabbi Eyad Acoca, z”l, was that back in Morocco, at a young age, my grandfather traveled to the city of Sale to learn under the revered hacham, Ribbi Rafael Enkaua, z”l. In order to get there, he had to cross the Bou Regreg river. Once, while my grandfather was on a raft with other travelers, the raft tipped and all the people drowned except my grandfather, who held tightly onto his Talmud volume and got to the other side of the river safe and sound!
My father often recounted that my grandfather’s last wish was that at least one of his descendants continue his legacy and become a rabbi. His wish was fulfilled when I became a rabbi; in doing so, I merited to inherit a few volumes of my grandfather’s set of Talmud.
Through the years, I have come to understand that I have a big responsibility to continue in my grandfather’s footsteps and teach about Sephardi Judaism, which is unique and special. In recent years, numerous articles and lectures have been given regarding the future of Sephardi Judaism. As a Sephardi rabbi, I am delighted. However, to my dismay, I have found that most of the lectures have been framed in the extreme right or left. In my opinion, Sephardi Judaism has to come back to its origin, which was always the middle path.
Our great sage Maimonides, teaches us in his book Mishneh Torah (De’ot, the laws of personal development):
“Each and every man possesses many character traits. Each trait is very different and distant from the others.
“One type of man is wrathful; he is constantly angry. [In contrast,] there is the calm individual who is never moved to anger, or, if at all, he will be slightly angry, [perhaps once] during a period of several years.
“There is the prideful man and the one who is exceptionally humble. There is the man ruled by his appetites – he will never be satisfied from pursuing his desires, and [conversely,] the very pure of heart, who does not desire even the little that the body needs.
“There is the greedy man, who cannot be satisfied with all the money in the world, as [Ecclesiastes 5:9] states: ‘A lover of money never has his fill of money.’ [In contrast,] there is the man who puts a check on himself; he is satisfied with even a little, which is not enough for his needs, and he does not bother to pursue and attain what he lacks.
“There is [the miser,] who torments himself with hunger, gathering [his possessions] close to himself. Whenever he spends a penny of his own, he does so with great pain. [Conversely,] there is [the spendthrift,] who consciously wastes his entire fortune.
“All other traits follow the same pattern [of contrast]. For example: the overly elated and the depressed; the stingy and the freehanded; the cruel and the softhearted; the coward and the rash, and the like.” (chabad.org)
Maimonides writes, “The two extremes of each quality are not the proper and worthy path for one to follow or train himself in. And, if a person finds his nature inclining towards one of them or if he has already accustomed himself in one of them, he must bring himself back to the good and upright path.”
He continues, “The upright path is the middle path of all the qualities known to man. This is the path which is equally distant from the two extremes, not being too close to either side. Therefore, the sages instructed that a person measure … his character traits, directing them in the middle path so he will be whole.” (torah.org)
How I wish that the great minds of Sephardi Jewry would sit, united, and craft the future of Sephardi Jewry through Maimonides’ model. I hope that this will happen soon but, for now, let us all implement the lesson of Maimonides and implement the middle path in all our endeavours.
Rabbi Ilan Acocais a veteran rabbi and educator. He is the rabbi emeritus of Vancouver’s Congregation Beth Hamidrash and currently serves as the rabbi of the Sephardic Congregation of Fort Lee-Bet Yosef, in Fort Lee, N.J., and rav beit hasefer of Yeshivat Ben Porat Yosef, in Paramus, N.J. He is the writer of the book The Sephardic Book of Why and has written hundreds of articles on various topics for different publications.
Amsterdam’s Noam Vazana will play in Vancouver and Victoria next week. (photo by Robin Daniel Fromann)
Multifaceted Jerusalem-born, Amsterdam-based musician Noam Vazana comes to Canada this month for the first time. She plays in Calgary June 6, Vancouver June 7 and Victoria June 8.
Vazana’s B.C. dates are presented by Caravan World Rhythms, whose managing artistic director is Robert Benaroya, and she will perform with local guitarist and composer Itamar Erez, who also hails from Israel.
“I heard about Itamar through a joint musician friend, Yishai Afterman, and through the presenter of the show, Robert Benaroya,” Vazana told the Independent. “We got to know each other by phone and on Chat. Our first shows together will be in Vancouver and Victoria.”
Vazana’s music has myriad influences, including classical, pop, jazz and Sephardi. She composes, and has two CDs to her credit, Daily Sketch (2011) and Love Migration (2014). Performing regularly on stages around the world, she returns to the Netherlands after her shows in Canada, but has Poland, Morocco, Germany, France and Israel also on her tour schedule.
“This is an amazing year, performing 90 concerts in 12 countries,” she said. “I consider myself very lucky to combine my two greatest passions, music and traveling. I get inspired from new people and new places. I get excited every time before I go on tour – the night before, I can hardly sleep because I can already feel new experiences at my doorstep, waiting to accompany me or take me over or be a part of who I’m about to become. Bob Dylan said once that an artist is always in the state of becoming; somehow, it seems that in order to stay creative I always have to be on the way to somewhere.”
One of the unique aspects of her performance is that she plays the piano and trombone – at the same time.
“My first encounter with the trombone was in an explanatory concert the local orchestra gave at my school,” she said of her somewhat unusual choice of wind instrument. “They were demonstrating several instruments and, the moment I heard the trombone, I fell in love with its rich tenor sound. Another thing that appealed to me is that the trombone is an orchestral or combo instrument, so mostly you play it in a formation. When playing classical piano, especially the old-fashioned way, my teachers always told me it was forbidden to try when I asked to improvise and learn chords and songs. So, I mainly kept to the scores and played alone as a child. It sounded cool to me to play in an orchestra and get to play things that were out of the classical context I was already exposed to.”
The trombone stands she uses had to be invented, she said, “and designed especially for the purpose of playing trombone and piano simultaneously.”
“I first used a model I designed myself from a tripod used to support a window-shopping mannequin,” she explained. “It was working quite well but had one main flaw: it was centred right in front of me, in the middle of the keyboard, so I had to be very creative with the piano parts and manoeuvre around it when moving between the registers.
“Then I had a second prototype designed by an engineer who had good intentions but his strength lay in theory and not in mechanical skill. I was struggling to set up the stand during a soundcheck and the owner of the venue told me he knew a blacksmith who might be able to help me. That guy is amazing, autodidact with phenomenal skill, designing motorcycle engines from scratch. He mended the flaws of the second model and eventually created a much lighter third prototype, which is the stand I use today. I have two different models, one for pianos and the other for keyboard.”
Vazana also leads a Sephardi group called Nani, and she will be performing some songs from that repertoire on her tour. While the spark for Nani was kindled in Morocco, its source lies further back.
“At our house, Israeli culture was eminent,” said Vazana. “My father grew up in a kibbutz and I was brought up part traditional, part secular. Foreign languages were forbidden at home and, although my mother spoke fluent Moroccan Arabic and French, my father insisted she talk to me only in Hebrew.
“My grandmother on my mother’s side spoke Ladino and Moroccan Arabic and never assimilated in the Israeli culture, so some of my first memories include her speaking Ladino with my aunt and singing Ladino lullabies for me. She passed away when I was 12 – you can imagine that, throughout my childhood, she was very old and I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with her.
“In both 2012 and 2013, I was invited to play at the Tanjazz festival in Tangier and I took these opportunities to explore the cities where my families originated from, Casablanca and Fez. On my second visit to Morocco, in 2013, during one of my many walks down the narrow streets of Fez’s medina, I heard people singing on the street behind me. As I made way to them, there came more and more people, singing and playing drums and wind instruments, all to a familiar melody. The procession ended in a square and, as I arrived there – I was one of hundreds of people, young and old – I suddenly realized this is a melody that my grandmother used to sing for me in Ladino. It was a special moment and the rest of my travels in Morocco called memories of my grandmother back to me. I felt drawn to a root that was longing to be rediscovered.
“When I got back home,” she said, “I started researching more and more about the Ladino language and culture and started combining a song or two in Ladino in my regular shows. Slowly, I studied the language over the course of a year and developed a substantial repertoire. It resulted in recording a new Ladino album that will be released in September 2017, and winning the Sephardic music award … at the International Jewish Music Festival in Amsterdam,” which took place last month, May 4-8.
Vazana first visited Amsterdam on tour with an orchestra, as a classical trombone player, she said. “At the time, I was a student at the music academy in Jerusalem and this was intended as a 10-day work trip and another 10 days to explore the Netherlands, as it was my first visit. I checked some information about local musicians and schools and applied for lessons with musicians from the Concertgebouw Orchestra.
“After having a lesson with their bass trombonist,” she said, “he asked me if I’d be willing to come back for another lesson with his colleague, the principal trombone player. After a 45-minute lesson, they both decided to invite me to study with them at the Royal Conservatory of Amsterdam, with an internship at the Concertgebouw Orchestra. The day later, I found myself attending a rehearsal with the orchestra, absolutely mind-blowing, because it was the best orchestra I ever heard live (and the No. 1 in Europe at the time). It didn’t take a lot more to convince me to quit my studies in Jerusalem and transfer to Amsterdam.”
This move forms the creative foundation of Vazana’s second album, which won the ACUM (Israel Association of Composers, Authors and Publishers of Musical Works) album prize, charted No. 14 on the iTunes bestselling chart and No. 2 on DPRP’s (Dutch Progressive Rock Page’s) best albums of 2015. It was financed in part by crowdfunding, through which 800 advance copies were sold. (There is a video, set to her song “Waiting,” in which Vazana personally delivers the CD to various supporters, giving each of them a hug. It can be found at youtube.com/watch?v=tW5Y2IEjgI0.)
“Love Migration is a very personal and exposed album, combining parallel stories about two migrations: my first migration to follow my heart, which is music, while longing to find a feeling of home. The second migration is the long-distance relationship I had with an Israeli guy whom I met just as my EU visa was approved, eventually resulting in him migrating to live with me so I could continue to follow my dream,” explained Vazana. “The process took three years to evolve into stories one can retell [with] perspective…. It could have turned many ways, but my personal search eventually led me (and still is leading me) towards taking the feeling of home with me wherever I go. It has been a long journey, but life is a journey and I feel that I evolve every day anew. In my song ‘Lost and Found,’ I describe that sensation: “Every time I look in the mirror / Every time I stand in the corner / Every time I knock something over / It’s a way for starting over / It’s a way to see it anew.”
Vazana and Erez’s Vancouver concert is at Frankie’s Jazz Club June 7, 8 p.m., and their Victoria appearance is at Hermann’s Jazz Club June 8, 8 p.m. Tickets to both shows are $20 at the door and $15 in advance. Visit caravanbc.com or call 778-886-8908.