Tag Archives: holidays

Sephardic Hanukkah Traditions

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As a Jew with North African roots, I have always felt that my culture’s rich and diverse traditions set me apart from my peers and classmates. On Pesach, I have always felt grateful that rice and hummus found their way into every meal and felt sympathy for my Ashkenazi friends who tried to feel satiated on potatoes. Mizrahi seder tables included hitting one another with leeks or green onions and rotating a plate of matza around someone’s head while singing “Ha Lachma Anya.” adamcandles3While most of my classmates celebrated Rosh HaShanah with only apples and honey, Mizrahi Jews also celebrate the New Year with dates, beets, and fish’s or lamb’s head. However, on Hannukah, there was nothing that separated me from my Ashkenazi friends. My mom fried latkes, we stuffed ourselves with jelly-filled donuts, played with dreidels and lit the Hannukiah. Much to my dismay, the only thing that set me apart from my peers was that I didn’t receive eight nights of gifts. According to my mom, “that isn’t our custom.”

When I moved to Israel after college, I intentionally sought out as much information as I could about my Mizrahi heritage. Yet, even in Israel, it felt like Middle Eastern and North African Jews preferred to celebrate Hannukah with only the customs that were consistent across the country, rather than those they brought with them from their communities. During my first year in Israel, I wasn’t able to learn more than a few Sephardic songs about Hannukah and that some North African Jews preferred calling sufganyot “spanj”.

It wasn’t until I immersed myself in the writings of Sephardic rabbis at a Sephardic Beit Midrash in Jerusalem called Mimizrach Shemesh, that I was exposed to the rich Hannukah tradition of Jews from North Africa and the Middle East. For example, it was customary for Yemenite Jewish women to wear clothing decorated with bells and hold bells in their hand. After the lighting of the candles, they would go out into the street and play music using the bells to celebrate the miracle of Hannukah. In Turkey, it was customary to eat dairy products in memory of the miracle that happened when Judith tempted Holofernes with cheese and wine. In Libya mothers sent their married daughters spanj (Libyan Doughnuts) and families bring the elders of the synagogue and the children in Jewish schools spanj. In Tunisia the Hannukiah would hang in the entrance of the home from the time of Hannukah until Purim.

Moreover, the Mizrachi rabbinic literature suggests a way to think about not only the rituals of the holiday but the way in which we should be focusing our celebrations. In the early 20th century, Moroccan Rabbi Yosef Messas received a letter from a Jew who had become skeptical of the Hannukah oil miracle story because he couldn’t find a written source that attested to its authenticity. In his response, Messas strongly rejected the idea that a written source was the only way to prove something as authoritative and accurate. Messas argued that the home, and specifically the teachings of the parents, were of equal importance to the written Rabbinic laws. He wrote that the “love and care that parents build with their children” creates a source of authority. Parents, he wrote, “teach stories to their offspring that pass on from generation to generation,” and these stories are on equal standing with written traditions. In this response, Messas highlights the authority and importance of parents in passing on Hannukah traditions and locates the home as the center of authority in this holiday.

Rabbi Haim David Halevi a 20th century Sephardic rabbi who served as the chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv argued that it was more important for all family members to be present during the lighting of the Hannukiah than for the Hannukiah to be lit in a timely manner. He wrote that such a lighting in the home is the “miracle of our time.”

It seems to me that Hannukah has lost the variety of traditions that characterize other Jewish holidays like Pesach or Rosh HaShanah. We should no longer exclusively rely on our schools and synagogues to preserve the diversity of our Jewish traditions. Rather, the home should be the place where all the varied ways of celebration are passed on and preserved and the traditions will continue to be the way we preserve the home.

This teaching is based on what I studied at Mizrach Shemesh a Beit Midrash and center for social activism in Jerusalem. For more visit mizrach.org.il

Posted on December 16, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Hanukkah Light for Women in Uganda

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More than anything Nalugya Rehema wanted to be a mother. She was very happy when she got pregnant, but she lost the baby. She became pregnant again, but again she lost the baby. Five times she became pregnant, five times she lost the baby.  She went to the local herbalist. She sold her cow to pay for treatments that did not help. Her husband threatened to leave her. Her life seemed hopeless.

The miracle of Hanukkah is bringing light to places of darkness. Unlike most parts of the world, the winter is not a dark time in Uganda. Because we are at the Equator, there are 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness all year round. We do not crave sunlight. But like people everywhere, we crave spiritual light. We crave hope. We crave possibilities. Hanukkah represents the possibilities. When we light the Hanukkah candles we remember that there is hope. And we are supposed to share this hope. This is called pirsum haness, publicizing the miracle. This is why we put our Hanukkiyah with our lit candles in a public place so everyone, no matter their religion, can share in the hope and light of the holiday.

The Abayudaya Jews of Uganda believe in sharing the miracles in our lives with all our neighbors. We built wells so that there will be clean water not only for Jews but for Muslims and Christians too. We have distributed mosquito nets to the entire community and in the last four years there have been no deaths from malaria. And the Tobin Health Center is open to everyone, regardless of religion.

Like the Hanukkah miracle, we publicize these miracles. We hold community forums. We have advertisements on the radio.

This is how Nalugya Rehema heard about the Tobin Health Center—on the radio. She met with Dr. Baniru Masaba. He found that the problem was with a rhesus blood incompatability. Dr. Masaba was able to treat her and she got pregnant. With his help during the pregnancy, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy.

She named him Gift.

Gift is now 2 and a half years old. Nalugya Rehema is a good mother but she needs to work. There are no childcare centers in our area, only in the capital. Gift cannot go to school until he is seven years old which is hard for the family. Again they need a miracle.

We are planning to build a childcare center for mothers and children like Nalugya and Gift. A facility for young children will mean that they will be safe and healthy, with access to proper nutrition. Their mothers will be able to pursue careers, help support their families, and play a part in the economic health of the community.

Hanukkah literally means rededication. We are rededicating our commitment to women and children by building a childcare center in 2015. The on-going support of Be’chol Lashon and all of our friends around the world is a miracle that allows us to improve our lives in Africa.

Posted on December 15, 2014

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Gluten-Free Indian Treats Sweeten Torah Celebration

NoreenI was born and raised in a traditional Jewish family in India. My father Dr. Samuel Solomon was a professor in the College of Agriculture, Pune where I spent the first 16 years of my life. On Simchat Torah morning, the gardener used to bring a basket of jasmine buds and roses as a gift. I would spend the morning making garlands of jasmine and roses for our living room doors and windows. By evening, our rooms were full of fragrance of the jasmine blossoms. I made a special thick Venitraditional Indian garlandsof jasmine buds for my long braids.

Simchat Torah was one of my favorite holidays. I could wear new clothes with some of my mother’s jewelry. My mother would make Sat Padar (see gluten -ree recipe below) stuffed with fresh coconut and jaggery, which I would eat to my heart’s content.

We would go the Succath Shlomo synagogue early in the morning. It was a custom in our community to raise funds by auctioning off various honors related to the holiday and to collect the money after the holiday was over. My daddy would bid for honor of having my two brothers carry around the small Torah. This honor was always seen as particularly important and raised a premium for the community. As I watched my younger brothers carry that beautiful little Torah in red velvet case and silver crown, I envied them. I used to be in the women’s gallery with my mother and gave flying kisses to the Sefer Torah being carried around in a circle with song and dance. In general, my parents insisted that three of us should share everything. Why couldn’t I carry that Sefer Torah for a little while? I asked my mother and she simply said: “Girls are not allowed to carry the Torah.”

We moved to Bombay to live with my granddad Solomon Moses when I was 17 years old. While my maternal grandfather Dr. Elijah Moses was Orthodox, my paternal grandfather was Liberal. The Liberal prayers had a lot of English and women participated along with the men. Rabbi Hugo Gryn and Rabbi Naativ changed the sequence of prayers and celebrated Simchat Torah on Shemini Atzeret eve.

During the sixth and seventh circuits, women made a circle and the Torah was passed from one woman to another. I cannot describe how emotional I felt when I held the Torah for one minute in my arms. I kissed it, said a prayer for my family’s well being and embraced it tight. A shiver went through my spine and tears welled up in my eyes. I felt truly blessed to be so close to the holy Torah.

On Simchat Torah day, my mother did not go to work in her clinic. We would rise early to shower and to have our breakfast of gluten-free pancakes. My mother always bought a bright colored sari for me for Simchat Torah. She used to braid my hair and decorate it with a string of jasmine flowers or chrysanthemums. I was allowed to wear my mother’s jewelry.

After getting me decked up, mummy used to take me to my granddaddy’s room. “How does your granddaughter look today?” she would ask him. He would say: “Very nice. Put a black dot under her foot to ward off the evil eye.” She would follow his suggestion.

We would first go to Magen Hasidim Synagogue to see a couple of circuits of Sefer Torah and the dancing by young and old men, and to socialize with mummy’s relatives and friends. Some of them would glance at me and ask: “What does your daughter do?” Mummy would answer: “She is studying in college.” Then we would visit the Eli Kadoorie School where the celebration of Simchat Torah attracted big crowds. It was like a fair with stalls for different types of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food with soft drinks and ice cream. I remember eating biryani and samosas and drinking Roger’s raspberry drink. “Meet my son so and so, he is studying to be … or working for …,” I would hear from time to time. I had to follow mummy’s instructions: “Be nice. Don’t show an attitude. Your manners reflect on my upbringing.”

Soon I would be complaining to my younger brothers: “Tell mummy that we are tired. Let’s go home.” One of my younger brothers would take up my cause: “Mummy I am feeling tired. Tomorrow we have to go to college. Granddaddy must be waiting.” On the way back home, mummy would be muttering to herself: “Once a year Simchat Torah comes. We get an opportunity to meet people of our community. With this attitude you will either remain a spinster or you’ll get married to a non-Jew and break the Jewish line of past so many generations.” Well, neither of my mother’s fears came true. I married my second cousin and have continued the wonderful legacy of our religion and customs. I have passed on the baton to my children. I hope and pray they pass it on to their children too.

Ingredients2

Sat Padar: Gluten Free Coconut Pancakes

This version of Noreen Daniel’s recipe is adapted for American style kitchens. It is naturally gluten free and delicately sweet.
Makes 8-10; Can be doubled.

For the pancakes:

Ingredients:
1 cup rice flour
1 cup water
1/4 coconut full fat coconut milk (or whole milk can be used if making for a milk meal)
3 eggs
Vegetable oil

Directions:
Mix ingredients until all the lumps are gone and the batter is smooth.
Heat, over medium heat, an 8 inch pan over medium non-stick heat and grease lightly.
Pour batter into the pan, it should be slightly thicker than a crepe.
Cook briefly until pancake is firm and easily removed from the pan.
Place the finished pancake on a plate and repeat until all the batter has been used.

For the Filling:
Ingredients:

1 cup sweetened coconut flakes
3/4 cup sliced blanched almonds soaked in hot water
2/3 cup raisins
2/3 cup dark brown sugar
½ tsp ground cardamom (or to taste)

Directions:
Mix ingredients except raisins together in a bowl.
Heat a 12 inch non-stick pan over medium heat.
Place filling in pan and gently stir until coconut is brown and fragrant and sugar is melted.
Remove and cool slightly.
Put half the mixture in food processor or mortar and pestle and pulverize until a paste.
Add raisins to chunky half.
Recombine to halves of filing until uniform in texture.

To Assemble
Place small amount filling in the middle of pancake.
Gently fold pancake in four.
Serve.

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Posted on October 12, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Confronting Murderers and Finding Forgiveness

WashingtonVI think about the nature and concept of forgiveness literally on a daily basis. As a lawyer, my practice consists solely of defending persons facing the death penalty; my clients are either facing the death penalty at trial or they have already been convicted and are in the state appeals process. Persons on the outside would be astonished to learn how much justice, forgiveness and peace color the many decisions my clients make that impact their future.

At some point after a death penalty trial is over, but before pronouncement of sentence, the accused have the right to make a statement; to allocate to the court, jury, and gallery. During these statements, I have never had a client asked to be spared. The lawyers ask for it, families weep for it, but my clients do not. For the first time in a long process they get to speak freely and they use this time to say, “I am so sorry.” They blame no one, and offer no excuses. They believe in their heart of hearts that Justice requires their life in return for the one(s) they have taken.

Rabbi Milton Steinberg once wrote that “the upshot of the Jewish teaching on what I owe my fellows: I owe them the right, the just, the equitable.” I represented a man who was implicated in a double homicide that occurred 25 prior to his arrest for it. He spent that time of his life in a haze of drugs and alcohol. But one thing he maintained was that if he did those things he deserved to die. For him, the only way he could atone was to give his life in return. He was one of many persons I have met that are willing to give their life in return for the one they took. In other words, they too strive to give what they believe they owe their fellows.

As we approach the Yom Kippur, this year as in previous years, I think about lessons learned from the people I encounter in my line of work, killers and victims alike. I recall a mother looking at my client and saying with conviction, “I forgive you,” and that client breaking down and saying over and over, “thank you”; I think about the father who looked at one client and said, “I pray every day to find a way to forgive you, but I’m not there yet” and that client nodding his head in understanding; I think about the mother who looks at yet another client and says, “ I will never forgive you”, and he flinched as if struck. For one man, the gift of forgiveness; for the other, the hope of forgiveness; for one the despair of forgiveness denied.

My clients have also displayed an amazing capacity to forgive. To forgive the mother for turning tricks in front of them, to forgive the father for brutal beatings, to forgive the rapes; the tortures; the things no child should have to endure. Those clients who look at me and say “what I did is not their fault”; “she is still my mother and I love her”; “she had it rough, I understand.”

I once asked my rabbi, “how can you tell when you have forgiven someone”? and he told me, “when you can begin repairing the relationship.” So, when I look around a court room and death as a sentence is on the table, I see mothers who have never been at the side of their child before this time—are now standing there beside them. They are standing there with full understanding that the world knows about their faults, their failures, their transgressions against their child; and yet, they are there. When they get a turn to speak, they ask for forgiveness: they turn to my client and ask for forgiveness; they turn to the victim’s family as ask for forgiveness; and they turn to the jury and ask for mercy. I see the transformative power of justice and forgiveness. When you have those two, peace is sure to follow.

I once met a man named Billy Moore. Billy spent 24 years on Georgia’s death row for a crime he freely admits to committing. Immediately after the murder during a robbery gone bad, Billy was so eaten up by remorse he confessed, led the police to the murder weapon, and the meager proceeds of the robbery. Despite his sincere regret and remorse, he was sentenced to death. While on death row, he wrote to his victim’s family expressing his sorrow and apologies. The family had compassion and forgave him; and they wrote each other for over 16 years. That family was instrumental in getting Billy’s death sentence commuted to life and ultimately led to his parole.

When I met Billy, I was struggling with my own inability to forgive a loved one’s bad decision that indirectly led to my grandson facing many years in prison. Billy told me something I will never forget. He said, “you have to remember forgiveness is not for the other person, it is for you. Forgiveness sets you free to find peace. You must not forever link your grandson to another’s failures. You must love him independent, look at him and see love, not another’s mistakes. When you look at him and see only him, you will know peace.”

So as I struggle, I remember a promise: “Insomuch as ye have come before me in judgment and departed from me in peace, I do reckon it unto you as if ye have been created anew.” I’m working on it, but I’m not there yet. Shalom.

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Posted on September 30, 2014

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Amazing and Improbable Transformations for the New Year

throne2Change is an inevitable part of our lives. Most changes, however, happen to us from the outside: we age, we move, the world changes around us regardless of our desires to frame it in a moment. And yet, the most meaningful changes are often those that we set in motion on our own: our voluntary transformations. In the Jewish tradition, the New Year is a time for collective soul-searching and metamorphosis geared towards a positive transformation of ourselves and the world around us.

Central to the liturgy of the New Year is a recurrent Medieval poem which describes God as “a King sitting in a throne of Mercy” (Melekh yoshev ‘al kisse Rachamim). But there is something awkward about “a throne of Mercy.” Throughout the Bible and Midrash, the idea of a throne is associated with judgment and power. Kings, including the King of King of Kings (God), sit in high and lofty thrones that separate them from the ground. It is from this high and separate place where they dispense justice to the people below. The throne is a symbol of the power possessed by one party and not possessed by the other. Power and judgment seem to depend on differences, on distances and on separation; ideas we seldom associate with mercy, which we imagine thriving in contact and intimacy. As any playground kid knows, forgiveness (mercy´s delicious byproduct) is never really true unless sealed by that handshake or, better yet, a hug. And yet it is incredibly difficult to shake or hug someone who is sitting high above you in a throne.

Thus, the idea of a throne of mercy seems strange, even oxymoronic.

However, it precisely because of this contradictory nature, this image seems to be a perfect metaphor for the time of the High Holidays and the possibilities it encapsulates. The Jewish idea of repentance, teshuvah, is connected to the view of our own free will and our power to create- a power we share exclusively with God. Although we are constrained by limitations set by our physical, social and behavioral surroundings, there is a component in us that is absolutely free and, at any moment, can choose to act in a completely unexpected way. In the same way that a throne does not seem a fitting tool of mercy but rather just the opposite, the power of repentance is such that it can alter the expected shape and function of an object into something that it did not seem it had the power to be.

This wondrous act of transformation is made so much more powerful when it goes viral and the entire Jewish people does it together. That is the true power of the High Holidays: focusing the entire attention and energy of a people into the sole purpose of betterment and transformation. When we, collectively as well as individually, choose to do something unexpected and seek for unity instead of division, for connection instead of hierarchy, for closeness instead of judgment, our true potential as a people and as Jews becomes unlocked.

My personal blessing for these powerful days, pregnant with possibilities, is that we look into those things that we think as unchangeable and set in our lives: our surroundings and ethnicity, our situation and our language. And like the throne of Judgement, see ourselves transformed into an improbable but amazing new people with less hangups, less distance between us and other Jews, between us and our fellow human beings.

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Posted on September 11, 2014

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Iron Chef Rosh Hashanah: Be Fruitful and Multiply

Pomegrante

My daughter Mia often watches Iron Chef, a cooking show on TV in which they designate a secret ingredient that is required to be in every dish. For Rosh Hashanah we wish for a New Year bright and full of possibilities. And so we knew the secret ingredient needed to be, pomegranates! Red and bursting with seeds they are a wonderful way to symbolically capture those hopes. Coming into season just as Rosh Hashanah is celebrated, the pomegranate’s ancient beginnings are referenced in the Torah, describing Israel as “a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey.” (Deuteronomy 8:8). It is reported that pomegranates were one of the fruits that the scouts brought back to Moses to show that the “promised land” was fertile. And they are a traditional New Year’s treat.

Not surprisingly, our ancestors were on to something. In addition to the current popularity of pomegranate flavored soda and candy, pomegranates have long been used in Indian and Chinese medicine. Western scientists are conducting clinical trials looking at pomegranates for a variety of health benefits. Apparently eating pomegranates does have the potential to make the year a good one.

In addition to health benefits, the spiritual side of the pomegranate should not be overlooked. I have never counted but legend has it that there are 613 seeds. This coincidentally is the same number of mitzvot or good deeds we should strive to observe. Among the many mitzvot, the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” is particularly pertinent to modern Jews. Growing the Jewish people is a wonderful and important part of modern Jewish life. Seeds bring to mind birth, but, the Jewish people can “increase like the seeds of a pomegranate” through adoption, intermarriage, and conversion. And the from the outside the pomegranate is a solitary piece of fruit, but like the Jewish people, its diversity and complexity as well as its sweetness are only revealed when you take time to open it up and explore inside. Which is what we at Be’chol Lashon do all year round.

We found the perfect source, a lovely little book called Pomegranates by Ann Kleinberg which has inspired some of our cooking. Pomegranate molasses, a thick concentrate of pomegranate juice, can be found in Middle Eastern markets or online.

Blessing:

This is the blessing for a new fruit at Rosh Hashanah, said after the blessing over the wine and before washing hands for the blessing over the bread.

First, the Shehechiyanu blessing thank God for keeping us alive and bringing us to this season:

You are blessed, Adonai our God, Ruler of the world, Who has kept us alive and sustained us and enabled us to reach this season.

Then the blessing for the fruit: You are blessed, Adonai our God, Ruler of the world, Who creates fruit from the trees.

After the fruit is passed out for everyone to eat, the food’s symbolism is explained:

May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our forbearers, that our merits increase like the seeds of a pomegranate.

 Quinoa Salad with Herbs and Pomegranate

We like this salad because it is so colorful and gets its flavors from the many different ingredients. Like the Jewish people it relies on the parts to make the whole outstanding!
(Serves 4)

1 cup quinoa

2 cups water or clear vegetable stock

1 cup baby peas or cooked edamame

1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese  (if making for a meat meal cheese can be left out)

1/2 red onion, chopped

1/2 red bell pepper, diced

½ orange pepper, diced

1/2 cup mixed chopped fresh basil, flat-leaf parsley, and cilantro leaves

2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon leaves

1/2 cup pomegranate seeds

1/4 cup pomegranate juice

2 tablespoons fresh squeezed orange juice + zest from one orange rind

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar (or apple cider vinegar)

2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Clean and rinse the quinoa in a sieve to remove dust and natural coating.

In a saucepan over high heat, bring water or vegetable stock to a boil, stir in the quinoa, and return to a boil. Decrease the heat to low, cover, and simmer for about 15 minutes, or until all the liquid is absorbed. The quinoa should be tender but not mushy. Remove from the heat and fluff up the quinoa with a fork. Transfer to a serving bowl and let cool.

If peas or edamame are not cooked, then place the peas and enough water to cover them in a saucepan. Bring the water to a boil, then decrease the heat to low and simmer for about 5 minutes.  Remove from the heat and rinse with cold water until they are cool to touch.

Add the cooled peas, feta, onion, bell peppers, mixed herbs, tarragon, and pomegranate seeds to the cooled quinoa. Toss to mix well.

In a small bowl, whisk together the pomegranate juice, orange juice and zest, vinegar, lemon juice, and olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Just before serving, whisk the dressing again, pour over the salad, and toss.

Chicken and Fall Vegetables, Pomegranate and Fruit Sauce (Serves 6 to 8) 

This sweet and tangy chicken dish brings together the best of the fall harvest with the traditional flavors.

Preheat the oven to 400°F

¼ cup pomegranate molasses

Tbsp honey or date honey (optional)

2 tbsp olive oil

6 cloves garlic, crushed

½ tsp red pepper flakes

12 chicken thighs, drumsticks or 6 breasts

Sauce

2 tbsp olive oil

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 yellow onion, chopped

6 shallots, peeled

1 carrot, peeled and cubed

1 celery root, peeled and cubed

1 parsnip, peeled and cubed

¾ dried apricots

1/4 cup raisins

¼ cup dried cranberries

salt and freshly ground black pepper

½ cup water

grated zest of 1 lemon

1 1/3 cup pomegranate molasses

2 tbsp chopped fresh basil leaves

1 tsp chopped fresh thyme leaves

Garnish

¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, for garnish

½ cup pomegranate seeds, for garnish

Directions

Baking chicken

Combine the pomegranate molasses, olive oil, honey/date syrup (if using), garlic, and red pepper flakes in a plastic bag. Place the chicken pieces in the mixture, and massage to ensure all pieces are well coated. Leave for ½ an hour. Transfer the chicken to a roasting pan and bake for 30 minutes. Decrease temperature to 350°F and bake for 10 minutes longer.

Making sauce

Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic, onion, shallots, carrot, parsnip and celery root and sauté for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the mixture starts to brown. Stir in the apricots, cranberries and raisins, season to taste with salt and black pepper, and cook for 5 minutes longer. Add the water, lemon zest, pomegranate syrup, basil, and thyme. Stir while brining to a boil, then decrease the heat to low and cook for 30 minutes longer, or until all the vegetables have softened.

Serving

Arrange the baked chicken pieces on a serving platter.

Pour the sauce over the chicken and sprinkle with the parsley and pomegranate seeds.

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Posted on September 2, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Tikkun Olam on Juneteenth

juneteenth

African American Men’s Group members Carl Crawford, left, and Phil Allen prepare burgers for a free meal for 400 as part of Duluth, Minnesota’s annual Juneteenth celebration. The event commemorates the emancipation of American slaves but also marks the delay in telling them of their freedom. Photo by Ivy Vainio.

Despite the fact that it’s a celebration, I have bittersweet feelings about Juneteenth.

Its origins are traced to Union troops arriving in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, bringing the news of freedom to that region’s slaves—months after the South’s surrender and 2-1/2 years past the Emancipation Proclamation.

That our ancestors were freed from slavery is wonderful. But that they toiled and lived, if they were lucky enough to, a bonus round in bondage because no one got around to telling them the news is horrible. Cynical. Sad.

My own experience for 10 years running is with the African American Men’s Group in Duluth. Every year, we cook and serve more than 400 free meals at the city’s public commemoration of the day.

We’re there because we want to be, the value of our volunteering made ever clear by the heart-rending encounters—especially when the day is marred by rain or unseasonable cold—of those who wait in line a half-hour or more, who are there because they have to be, to eat.

For me, another part of Juneteenth is planning of the event—should we do chicken this year or burgers and brats? — and when the day comes, the priceless faces of preschoolers when asked if they want baked beans or corn. The thank-yous we get in return are payment enough.

Add in singing groups and family activities and a bouncy castle, how could you not have fun? Still, what tinges the day with sadness for me is not its commemoration but its origin, best summed up in two words of black vernacular guaranteed to give any wannabe Chris Rock a field day:

“We free?”

It’s not the embarrassment of the language but the concept of its truth that depresses me. It wasn’t the first time slaves were deceived about their freedom, and not just in the South. Here in Minnesota, as far North as you can get, Dred Scott summered with his so-called master, only to be told by others after returning to Missouri: “Hey—did you know you were free when you were up there?”

That’s what the whole case was about. Look it up.

We free yet, boss?

Maybe I’m just a stick in the mud, or over-internalizing long-ago oppression. Of course freedom is worth celebrating, even if slavery ended with a whimper instead of a bang. That, after all, is what Passover is about, and there’s no question that holiday is a celebration and should be.

But the Jewish liberation theology had a liberator—Moses—let alone God, “with a mighty hand and outstretched sword.” Freed African Americans had only weary Union soldiers mustering out, an assassinated Great Emancipator, and Radical Republicans thwarted by a racist and intransigent Supreme Court. And instead of reaching the Promised Land, black former slaves arrived in the land of Jim Crow, with continued state-sponsored dehumanization.

The result? It’s in the faces of hungry people today, in food lines like ours, where I celebrate freedom and try to repair the world by taking my place in a serving line.

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Posted on June 16, 2014

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The 70 Faces of Shavuot

shavuotAccording to Jewish tradition, the Torah has seventy “faces,” but is still one, unified Torah. On Shavuot, we celebrate the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai with customs that celebrate the gift of Torah, and show the same diverse presentation of a few unifying core ideas. Each Jewish culture is unique, and at the same time, integrated with the worldwide Jewish community.

There are many special foods for Shavuot, in different Jewish cultures. Dairy is popular because, when the Israelites in the desert received the Torah, including the kosher laws, there was no kosher meat yet available. Torah is compared to honey, so many traditional Shavuot foods are sweet, as well. Persian Jews make “Polao mastin” a dish made of rice and milk, and “koltcha shiri,” a dairy cake, while in Greece there is a special dairy porridge made with cinnamon called “sutlag.” In Poland, cheesecake is the traditional Shavuot dessert. Libyan Jews make necklaces strung with cookies or pretzels in symbolic shapes for their children. Iraqi Jews make “sambusak,” a savory pastry filled with cheese. The exact details of the menu are fluid—any interpretation of a dairy meal and dessert would be appropriate. This is an excellent opportunity to try out a new recipe, symbolic of our renewed relationship with Torah, or to take the time for an old family favorite, to celebrate your roots.

It is common for communities to prepare their synagogues for Shavuot with natural decorations. Greek Jews historically decorated their synagogues with green branches and a variety of flowers. Even today Bukharan Jews use red roses. In Poland, synagogues were decorated with flowers, branches, and paper cuttings called “reizelach,” or roses, in Yiddish. German Jews would place two flowering branches on either side of the Ark, as a symbol that Torah is our Tree of Life. Consider decorating your synagogue or home with local, in season, flowers and greenery.

Traditional communities hold a “Tikkun Leil Shavuot,” a nighttime Torah study session which can last anywhere from a couple of hours to all night long. In some communities this is held in the synagogue, while in others, it is located private homes. People may recite specific passages from different traditional texts, while others prepare different topics, which change from year to year. Study is a potent way of renewing our understanding of Torah.

Shavuot is full of opportunities for communal gatherings and fun. Libyan and Moroccan Jews spray water onto passersby, because the Torah is compared to water, and our reconnection to Torah is a source of blessing. Ethiopian Jews gather together, bringing bread and other grains for the Kes, their religious leader, to bless, after which the entire community eats together. On some Israeli Kibbutzim, people have revived the agrarian side of Shavuot and have a parade with baskets of the first produce of the season. Whether you want to make a meal with seasonal produce, or have a picnic and water balloon fight, you will be in good company among the global Jewish community.

Around the world, Jews celebrate Shavuot in a variety of ways—but at their root, they come back to the same sources and the same ideas. It celebrates the diverse ways in which we relate to Torah, all of which are true, just as we have diverse ways of celebrating, all of which are the real Jewish way to do things. One thing is for certain—whichever way you choose to celebrate Shavuot this year, you will meet one of Torah’s seventy faces.

Posted on May 27, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Children’s Passover Books

afikomen1Passover is a time for storytelling. One of the main purposes of the holiday is to allow one generation to tell the next generation the story of how we came out of Egypt and journeyed from slavery to freedom. There are many children’s books that engage young minds by going beyond the telling found in the traditional Passover haggadah. In choosing among the possible additions the Seder, we have focused on books that celebrate the diversity of Jewish families and those that introduce the themes of Passover in new or particularly engaging ways:

A relatively newcomer to the Passover scene is the colorfully appealing Afikomen Mambo, by Joe Black and illustrated by Linda Prater. Sold together with the book is a CD with performance by Black, who is well known for his music. Geared to the 3–7 set, this playful combination of illustration and song, do exactly what the Afikomen is meant to do — pique the interest and engagement of the younger set so they stay awake until the end of the Seder. Somewhat puzzling is the plethora of children and the paucity of adults seated around the table. From the looks of it, one set of parents has invited a whole brood of young ones to join in the Passover fun. But at least everyone looks happy doing the Afiokmen Mambo.

abuelitas-secret-matzahs

The theme of grandparents passing on traditions to grandchildren is a familiar part of Passover; less familiar is the twist it takes in Abuelita’s Secret Matzahs, by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and illustrated by Diana Bryer. Jacob loves to prepare for Easter with his grandmother, but one day she tells him a secret. Like many others whose Jewish ancestors who were forced to convert to Catholicism in Spain in the 14th and 15th centuries, this family of anusim continued to practice Judaism their Judaism in secret. For the 4–8 set, this is a wonderful introduction to an element of Jewish history that still plays out today. We love that this story brings attention to the stories of individuals who are now, after hundreds of years, finding their way back to their Jewish heritage.

51NfItCkJpL._SX258_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_Mindy Avra Portnoy’s A Tale of Two Seders, also offers a different take on the classic family themes of the holiday. The story follows a little girl who after her parents divorce spends one Seder at her mother’s and one at her fathers. Over the years the Seders vary and as Valeria Cis’s illustrations highlight how the people attending the two Seders are themselves varied. Adding to our sense of possibilities are the four recipes for charoset that are included. This book acknowledges the difficulties that the young protagonist faces, without presenting her situation as a tragedy.

The diversity of Passover observances around the world take center stage in two different celebrations of global Jewish life. From the National Geographic Holidays Around the World series comes Celebrate Passover and from Tami Lehman-Wilzig, Passover Around the World. As one expects from National Geographic, there are bold, beautiful photos depicting Jews from Africa to China, from Budapest to Ohio. Lehman-Wilzig’s book moves from place to place as it goes through the Seder, beginning in America and ending in Morroco; the journey is depicted in softly colored illustrations by Elizabeth Wolf.

9780822587651fcElements of the Exodus story can be frightening for children ages 4–8, but in this telling of a traditional tale, facing fears pays off. Nachson, Who Was Afraid to Swim: A Passover Story, by Deborah Bodin Cohen and illustrated by Jago, is a retelling of the rabbinic story of Nachshon ben Aminadav, who had to wade into the Red Sea until the water was up to his neck, in order to make the waters part and let the Israelites to escape the Egyptians on dry land. In the gentle illustrations, the characters’ features and skin tones blend and shift with the background, giving the book warmth and no clear racial focus.

Children ages 9–12 who are reading on their own may enjoy Private Joel and the Swell Mountain Seder, by Bryna J. Fireside and illustrated by Shawn Costello. Set in the Civil War, it tells the story of how Union soldiers improvise to make their Seder happen, even in the midst of a war. While not raising the possibility that there are Jews with dark skin and of African decent, the story does highlight the parallels between the African American experience of slavery and the ancient Israelite experience. The book shines a light on the possibility of sharing stories and traditions.

Posted on April 8, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Modern Passover Miracle

This modern Passover Miracle story is perfect for sharing with friends and family at your Seder.

(Seated left to right). Rabbi Yonadav Keki ( Rabbi Sizomu’s father), Rabbi Samson Mugombe(Rabbi Sizomu's Grandfather),Rabbi Zakayo Mumbya, Rabbi Yaakov Were. (Standing left to right, Gabbaim) Solomon Ndu, Yechu Wetege, Eliyahu Musamba, Yaakov Kasakya, Peter Mubbale, Yechoas Kaweke

(Seated left to right). Rabbi Yonadav Keki ( Rabbi Sizomu’s father), Rabbi
Samson Mugombe(Rabbi Sizomu’s Grandfather),Rabbi Zakayo Mumbya, Rabbi
Yaakov Were. (Standing left to right, Gabbaim) Solomon Ndu, Yechu Wetege, Eliyahu
Musamba, Yaakov Kasakya, Peter Mubbale, Yechoas Kaweke

At Passover, every person is supposed to feel as though he himself left Egypt. For me and the Jewish community of Uganda, we do not need to imagine. In our lifetime, we were rescued from ‘slavery’ and saved by divine intervention in order to celebrate.

When Field Marshal Iddi Amin Dada took power in Uganda by way of the gun in 1971, he outlawed Judaism and confiscated our synagogues and most of the Hebrew books. Practice of Judaism was punishable by death. He was a modern day Pharaoh. He gave the community two alternatives, either to convert to Islam or Christianity, or remain unaffiliated. He murdered anyone suspected of opposing his rule and judicial executions were the order of the time. Many Abayudaya feared for their lives and converted to the two majority religions, Islam and Christianity. However, things did not go well for the Christians either. The Archbishop of the Church of Uganda was run over by army trucks in a stage-managed accident; and the chief Justice, who was also Christian, was shot dead on Amin’s orders.

Growing up during this era was a hard pill to swallow. Adults and children would shout insults at Jews and no one did anything to stop them. We were not permitted to wear any Jewish symbols including kippot. Nor were we allowed to appear anywhere near the synagogue premises. We dared only to pray and learn under the cover of the night in our bedrooms. My father, Rabbi Yondav Keki, was caught studying Torah in the Sukkah that he had built in the back yard of our house and only survived after the arresting officer demanded a bribe. Three leaders of the community, including Yaakov Were and Yaakov Kasakya, were arrested and tortured for collecting iron sheets that had been blown off the roof of the Moses Synagogue in Nabugoya.

In that same year when a hijacked plane full of Jews was held at Entebbe by Palestinian terrorists with the permission of Amin, a fast was secretly declared and silent prayers were conducted, each family praying in their bedrooms. The daring rescue of the hostages gave hope to community members that soon or later Amin would go.

This came to pass on Wednesday 11, April 1979, corresponding to 14 Nisan, 5739, Erev Pesach when the new Government, comprised of Ugandan rebels and Tanzanian troupes, declared freedom of worship. This was considered a miracle from above and was celebrated in a special style. More than four cups of 80% proof Uganda banana wine were served making everyone excessively happy by the end of the Seder. No more than 300 of the nearly 3,000 earlier members remained steadfast and loyal to Judaism, which makes me think that had Amin’s regime continued for another five years, the community would not have survived.

Passover remains a special moment for all us. I will always remember my first Seder ever. It is amazing that the reign of terror ended and that freedom of worship was reinstated at the season of freedom. Each year as the community grows, Passover is the moment that we celebrate both our ancient and modern freedom. With the help of Jews from around the world the synagogue that was destroyed is being rebuilt to be better and stronger than ever and the numbers of our community have nearly returned to their earlier size. That Uganda would have been a Jewish state had Herzl’s proposal been successful, that the hijackers chose Entebbe airport as their final resting place, and that Amin like Pharoah was humiliated on the Eve of Pesach could not have simply been a mere coincidence. It was our Passover miracle.

Posted on March 25, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy