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.
Lyla Canté’s Cristian Puig, left, and Cantor Alty Weinreb. (photo from Chutzpah!)
The best creative ideas often come when you least expect them. This was certainly the case for Lyla Canté, which performs on March 9 as part of the Chutzpah! Festival.
“In the summer of 2012, I walked into a New York City SoHo bar,” Cantor Alty Weinreb told the Independent. He and flamenco guitarist Cristian Puig are Lyla Canté’s front men.
“The room was steamy, hot and teeming with people. I heard the sounds of a guitarist, dancer and singer, and felt the intense passion coming from the stage,” Weinreb recalled. “The guitar is preening and screaming. I was floored by what he was doing without a pick. I hadn’t seen an acoustic guitar played like that. This was raw, urgent and beautiful. I had an epiphany. I started singing Sephardic and (Shlomo) Carlebach melodies over these tunes and they’re working.
“After the show, I approached the guitarist – Cristian Puig – and met with him to see if our musical styles could mesh. They did. We started performing ballads as a duo at chuppah ceremonies [weddings]. We then began arranging dance tunes and added some wonderful musicians: a Cuban percussionist, a blues electric guitarist and a rock-and-roll bassist. The happy result became Lyla Canté, which combines the Hebrew word for ‘night’ and the Spanish word for ‘song.’ We now perform our music at concerts, festivals and private parties internationally.”
While both musicians are based in New York, it was an unlikely encounter, given the men’s diverse backgrounds.
Puig was born in Buenos Aires; his parents also flamenco artists. He began studying classical guitar at 19, in addition to flamenco guitar with his father, before branching out into various other styles. He plays with and has co-founded various groups, and he composes both for himself as a solo performer and for different flamenco companies. He also teaches, composes music for film and works as a flamenco singer.
Weinreb, on the other hand, was raised in New York City in a strict Orthodox, Jewish family, where, he said, “secular music was off limits.”
“As a child,” he said, “the sound of my synagogue’s cantor was some of the first music I remember hearing. Listening to these cantors wail with yearning left an impression on me – this is how a Jew sings.
“Years later, I had another watershed musical moment. Hearing James Brown for the first time felt like a rhythmic ‘burning bush.’
“For the past 20 years, I’ve been cantor at High Holiday services and chuppah ceremonies across the United States. I currently sing with the Simcha All-Stars (jazz klezmer) and Cuban Jewish All-Stars (Cuban klezmer). I teach drums and percussion to children.”
As to where Lyla Canté fits into their busy schedules, Weinreb explained, “The creative process generally starts with me writing an arrangement idea for a song. I then play it for Cristian, who puts it through his blender, which turns it into something else. We then take it to the full group, where it’s further transformed.”
From their solo work and collaborations, it is obvious that both Weinreb and Puig are drawn to the concept of fusion.
“Since I love many different styles of music, I naturally incorporate them into the music I write and arrange,” said Weinreb. “Also, I don’t want to copy all the wonderful Jewish music that I love (including Jewish fusion). By being true to my musical myself, I can’t help but be original. Like everyone alive, I’m blessed with unique experiences and influences.”
Puig said his idea of “fusion is to have a musical style (flamenco, for me) and take elements of other musical cultures and experiment.”
About whether the Judeo-Spanish element changes the traditional flamenco melodies and/or rhythms, Puig said, “It does not really change my approach much, since the flamenco art is a mix of different cultures, among them Jewish. Many melodies and harmonies are similar in both Jewish and flamenco music.”
As for how flamenco influences traditional Jewish melodies and rhythms, Weinreb said, “Flamenco adds a tremendous musical and historical component to our music. Flamenco, which has deep Jewish roots (and Arabic, Gypsy, Moorish and Roman), is really the intersection of Eastern and Western Jewish culture.
“Paco De Lucia, considered the greatest flamenco guitarist in recorded history, said he discovered ancient Sephardic music transcriptions in Spain and was struck by the profound influence Jewish music has had on flamenco music.
“Musically, Cristian’s flamenco guitar adds a fiery energy to our music with its immediacy and earthiness. He then can turn on a dime and be heartbreakingly beautiful as well. I’m fortunate and grateful to play with him.”
Lyla Canté performs March 9, 8 p.m., at Rothstein Theatre. For tickets ($29.47-$36.46), call 604-257-5145 or visit chutzpahfestival.com. In addition to other musical offerings, the festival also features dance, theatre and comedy.
Rabbi Ilan Acoca has published his first book, The Sephardic Book of Why (Hadassa Word Press, 2016).
Why is a set of Sephardi tefillin different from an Ashkenazi pair? Why do Sephardim laugh during Havdalah, after reciting the blessing over the wine? Why do Sephardim not use the shamash to light the Chanukah candles? Why do Sephardim celebrate with henna before a wedding? These and so many other questions are answered by Rabbi Ilan Acoca in his book The Sephardic Book of Why: A Guide to Sephardic Jewish Traditions and Customs, just published by Hadassa Word Press.
The spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Hamidrash for 17 years, Acoca will return to the synagogue for the book’s local launch on Dec. 10, as part of a larger tour. Acoca and his wife Dina have been rabbi and rebbetzin of the Sephardic Congregation of Fort Lee, N.J., since they left Vancouver in August, and Rabbi Acoca is also rabbi-in-residence of Yeshivat Ben Porat Yosef, in Paramus, N.J.
“I would like to invite the entire community to the book launch,” Acoca told the Independent, “where I will explain what triggered me to write the book, as well as some singing and shmoozing.”
The rabbi shared a little of his motivation for writing The Sephardic Book of Why, which, he said, took three years to put together.
“Through the years, many people (Sephardim and Ashkenazim alike) asked me questions about Sephardic customs, trying to understand where each originated and what is the significance. At times, I had an answer and, at times, it intrigued me to research and find out more. One day, I was invited to a wedding as a guest and saw that the officiating rabbi had a Chabad rabbi’s guide. I knew that the RCA [Rabbinical Council of America] had an Ashkenazi rabbi’s guide so I thought to write one for Sephardic rabbis. A few days later, I sat down with my friend David Litvak and shared my idea with him. He thought about it for a moment and suggested a book that would include the entire Jewish and non-Jewish world. Immediately after the meeting, I opened my email and saw one from Hadassa press telling me they saw some of my classes on YouTube and were interested for me to publish a book with them. For me, that was a sign from heaven that I could not ignore.”
Adorned by a cover featuring the interior of Lazama Synagogue in Marrakesh, Morocco, The Sephardic Book of Why – Acoca’s first book – is divided into five chapters: Daily Rituals, Shabbat and Holidays, Lifecycle Events, Sephardic Culture, and Rabbi’s Musing. The last chapter comprises a selection of articles by Acoca that were originally published in the Canadian Jewish News. They cover a range of topics, including essays on “the middle path,” unity and the importance of diversity. So, having arrived in the United States from Vancouver only months before the presidential election, the Independent asked him if he had any advice to offer to Jews living in the United States (or Canada) about the polarity and divisions that were highlighted in the campaigns.
“It is pretty simple,” he said. “In order to move forward, we have to find things in common. There are so many things that unite but we often concentrate on what divides us. By finding things in common, we could understand each other, communicate and move forward.”
While there are a couple of other books on Sephardi customs, Acoca said, “My book is the only book that is in a question-answer format. It is more condensed, short, to the point, with sources.”
“The book is very thorough, yet easy to read,” writes Rabbi Elie Abadie, MD, of New York City’s Edmond J. Safra Synagogue and director of the Jacob E. Safra Institute of Sephardic Studies, Yeshiva University, in the book’s foreword. “It will please scholars and students equally, with good source material and footnotes. It covers the entire year-cycle of holidays and the lifetime milestones. It is a perfect book for Sephardim who, unfortunately, are just beginning to learn about their own traditions and for Ashkenazim who have just begun to interact with and learn about the Sephardim and their ‘different’ customs.”
Abadie puts quotes around the word different because, he notes, “In the overwhelming majority of minhagim [customs], the ‘Sephardi way’ was the ‘original and standard way’ of fulfilling a commandment, and the Ashkenazi community throughout the ages veered from the original minhagim and traditions, given the geographic region that they lived in and the circumstances that surrounded them.”
For those wanting to learn more about the “original” ways of Jewish practice, or to see a good friend while he’s in town, the Dec. 10 book launch, talk and signing starts at 8 p.m. People can also order a copy of the book from Hadassa Word Press.