Author Archives: Rahel Musleah

Rahel Musleah

About Rahel Musleah

Rahel Musleah is an award-winning journalist, speaker, and singer who presents programs on the Jews of India, where she was born. She is the author of Apples and Pomegranates: A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah (Lerner/Kar-Ben). Please visit her website,

A Sephardic Rosh Hashanah Seder

When is Rosh Hashanah 2015? Click here to find out.

When it comes to Rosh Hashanah, families of Sephardic and Mizrahi origin–like mine from Calcutta, India–have a secret to share with the rest of the Jewish world: a distinctive New Year’s seder far beyond apples dipped in honey. On the first night of the holiday, we hold a special ceremony at home during which we recite blessings over a variety of foods that symbolize our wishes for the year ahead.

The blessings in this ritual all begin with the words “yehi ratzon” (may it be God’s will), and they all ask for divine gifts of bounty, strength, and peace. The ritual has come to be known as a “seder” (order) because the blessings are recited in a specific order. Ironically, that order varies according to custom and community.

The origins of the ritual date back to the Talmud (Horayot 12a), where Abaye discusses omens that carry significance, and suggests that at the beginning of each new year, people should make a habit of eating the following foods that grow in profusion and so symbolize prosperity: pumpkin, a bean-like vegetable called rubia, leeks, beets, and dates.

For recipes and more details about foods used in the seder, see “Rosh Hashanah Symbolic Foods.”


It is difficult to trace how the ceremony evolved from that Talmudic mention to its current form. According to cookbook author Gilda Angel (Sephardic Holiday Cooking), “It is told that when the Babylonian scholar Hai Gaon (939-1039) left the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, his students would bring him a basket filled with different fruits over which he recited various blessings and biblical verses.” The Baghdadi rabbi Hakham Yosef Hayyim (1832-1909) mentions the ceremony in his compilation of Jewish law and practice, Ben Ish Hai, extending it to the second night of the holiday as well.

Like the Passover seder, where foods like bitter herbs and matzah symbolize suffering and freedom, at the Rosh Hashanah seder, the foods we eat  also become vessels for meaning. Each food symbolizes a good wish for the coming year, and before each food is consumed there is a special blessing to recite, many of which result from puns on the food’s Hebrew or Aramaic name. With each blessing, the mundane aspect of food is garnished with a sense of holiness, poignancy, and even humor.

Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges

John Biggers intended to become a plumber. But when he took a drawing class in 1941 at Hampton Institute, a black college in West Virginia, Biggers’ life changed. He went on to become a renowned artist as well as chair of the art department at Texas State University. Biggers’ art teacher at Hampton, Viktor Lowenfeld, was one of hundreds of Jewish scholars who fled Germany and Austria with the rise of Nazism, and found refuge in the United States. Lowenfeld left Vienna in 1939, and was hired as a psychology professor at Hampton. He also offered art classes there, and these classes elicited such enthusiastic responses that Lowenfeld eventually founded the college’s art department and educated a generation of artists at Hampton and later, at Penn State University.

The unlikely and inspiring encounters between African-American students like Biggers and Jewish refugee professors like Lowenfeld recalls a chapter in black-Jewish relations that is not often told. Gabrielle Simon Edgcomb’s book, From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges (Krieger, 1993) records the story, as did a PBS documentary of the same name (2000) and, in 2009, an exhibit at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage.

Howard University

 Howard University

Edgcomb’s book counts 53 European Jews who taught at many of the 114 historically black colleges in the American South. The scholars included prominent sociologist Ernst Borinski (Tougaloo College, Mississippi) and political scientist John Herz (Howard University, Washington, DC), both of whom were refugees from Germany. Ten of the scholars were funded by the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, but younger and lesser-known academics found jobs on their own.

During their teaching careers, the Jewish refugee professors enhanced the reputations of the colleges and introduced new ideas and influential methodologies that have enriched many fields of study. For example, Lore Rasmussen, a refugee from Germany who became associate professor of elementary education at Talladega College, developed the “Miquon Math” series, a hands-on approach to elementary mathematics based on the belief that mathematical insight grows out of observation, investigation, and the discovery of patterns and relationships. Her method is still widely used and available from Key Press.
Dr. Joycelyn Elders