When I was in Israel this fall, I ended up going to a Sephardic synagogue one Shabbat morning, and served as the impromptu teacher for the rest of my group who very clearly had never been to a non-Ashkenazic synagogue and were unfamiliar with the unique and different customs, tunes, and liturgical readings that came along with the shul. The following Shabbat, I found myself in a traditional Ashkenazi shul, like any you would find here in the US, and was fully able to participate in the davening (prayer). I was able to successfully pass in both communities.
In reflecting on my experiences, I was reminded of a line that I heard from time to time growing up, “so your dad is Greek and your mom’s Jewish,” an assumption that was wholly incorrect. I am the product of an intermarriage of sorts, but not the kind you’re probably thinking of. My mother’s family hails from various parts of Eastern Europe, and my dad’s family comes from Greece, and all sides of my family are historically Jewish. When I explain this, I usually get the line, “so then that makes you Sephardic right?” Not exactly. The Greek Jews that I descend from are called Romaniote, with a history in Greece dating back to Roman times. According to the legend, when the Romans were sending slave ships back to Rome after the destruction of the Second Temple (so around 70-80 CE), one of the ships hit some sort of rock and was sinking. The captain of the ship let the slaves free, saying if they could swim to shore, they were free to go. They ended up coming ashore on the coast of Greece, and thus followed thousands of years of history, unique liturgy, tunes, and foods.
As I have set out on my own, apart from my parents, I have come to realize that I have a foot in both worlds, but at the same time, in neither. During Barak Obama’s first presidential campaign, I remember seeing a news talk show talking about how he was too Black for white people and too white for Black people, and feeling a sense of “that’s how I feel too,” everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Don’t get me wrong, I have an amazing family and wouldn’t change them for the world, but each time someone says “so you’re half Jewish,” or in the Greek world jokes that I’m not “fully or really” Greek, it feels like a punch to the gut.
I grew up on matzah ball soup, but also on prassa keftedes, a Greek food made of leeks, onions, scallions, and spices all shredded, mixed together, and fried in small patties (think potato latkes, but sub leeks for potatoes). I am reminded of a story I heard countless times growing up. My mom and her parents were invited by her fiancé (my dad) to his family’s seder, replete with Greek tunes and customs. Out came the meal, and my maternal grandmother was shocked and confused to see what looked like mini hamburgers that looked extra well done. Little did she realize that these were leek patties, something that she would enjoy for years to come. Fast forward about 25 years to the first year I was married and we had all the sides of our family over for an all-encompassing seder, replete with all the trimmings, both Greek and Ashkenaz. Sure enough, when we went to serve the soup course of matzah ball soup, members of my Greek family looked puzzled and asked what it was, since it was a food that they were unfamiliar with.
Unlike the questions from strangers that felt intrusive, the questions posed by my grandparents felt welcome. They came from a place of love and relationship not random curiosity. My personal Jewish story is unique, like so many American Jewish stories. I don’t want to be treated like an exhibition in a museum and have people prey and prod. Rather I welcome opportunities to share my story and my unique Jewish knowledge, like I did in Jerusalem. It is my hope that we can change the conversation from one of “how you are Jewish?” to one of “I’d love to hear about your Jewish experience.”
Praso Keftethes -Leek Patties
4 bunches of leeks
3 medium onions
1 tablespoon parsley (dry)
1 tablespoon dill (dry)
¼ cup matzo meal
½ pound ground meat Optional
Oil for frying
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut off the heads and ends of leeks leaving only about an inch of the green.
Slice each leek length wise and then into three pieces.
Rinse well in cold water to ensure that all the sand is removed.
Boil until very soft.
Remove from water but leave water boiling for other onions.
Drain well in colander and squeeze until as much excess liquid is possible is removed.
Finely chop with meat cleaver or food processor until all are finely chopped and a little wet.
Put leeks in mixing bowl.
Chop onions and put into pot to boil until soft and translucent.
Drain onions in colander.
Add parsley, dill, egg, matzo meal, salt and pepper. Optional ground meat can be added at this point as well.
Mix well then form into 2-inch patties.
Heat about ½ inch of oil in a pan.
Fry patties until crusty and very dark brown almost burnt.
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.” While 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
When I think of home, I imagine the physical space I return to at night, the one with the white-washed façade, the apple trees in the backyard, and of course my daughter’s contagious toothy grin waiting for me inside. But I also feel home, that indescribable sense of peace, safety and grounding.
I suspect that I am not the only one who has felt a little ungrounded lately. In a world that has been marked recently by so much violence and insecurity, and one in which so many people have been physically displaced, it is no wonder that many of us are feeling that lack of “home.”
The times in my life when I have most often struggled to retain that feeling of being grounded, I have turned to music. It is not coincidence that the first song I ever wrote is about a young girl trying to find her way home. The song, “Chika Morena” is about the iconic Sephardic girl who has been kicked out from her homeland, and has been searching the world over to return home. Along the way, she simply longs to be guided by her ancestors to return to the comfort of her roots.
Working in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), a language and discipline that is, sadly, disappearing, I have extra inspiration to grapple with my feelings of connectedness. I believe that in this globalized world today, in the end we are all just searching for our identities and to understand from where we come. “Chika Morena” is, for me, a way to express this deep desire to connect with the Sephardic heritage of my past.
I recently visited with my last remaining Ladino-speaking relative, and I discovered that she was in possession of the mezuzah to my family’s ancestral home in Macedonia. On the eve of WWII when my family had to make a quick escape, a friendly neighbor held on to the mezuzah (pictured here), and returned it to my cousin following the war. I never knew about it until now. I Google-mapped the address of the house, and what I saw was a modern café that lacked all traces of my family’s former life. It looked so foreign to me. But in the end, I know that home is not the physical space. It is the comfort attached to it.
In “Chika Morena,” the protagonist, with the help of memories and family mementos, does find her way back home. May we all as well.
I am the dark beauty
The one with the long hair
And the strong eyes
But with a happy heart.
I have lived more than 1000 years
I have crossed seas and borders
One day I will return to my land
Where the warmth of my mother awaits me.
They call me the dark beauty
But I was born quite fair
I have lost my color
I am the dark beauty
Who has abided by many kings
Climbed ladders of gold
Married into the world and lived.
I have kissed the feet of my children
And the hands of my brothers
I am following the voices of my ancestors
To return to the garden of my mother.
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Sukkot appears to be one holiday in which the Moroccan and Ashkenazic customs and rituals are fairly similar. We both use the lulav and etrog and we both build a sukkah. I imagine that the sukkah building materials might have differed in Morocco than the materials my family used in London, England and before that in Russia and Poland.
One thing that do I know was different was the temperature outside when sitting or sleeping in the sukkah. My husband, Motti, is not sure about whether families slept in their sukkot during the holiday back in Morocco though the average temperatures in Casablanca during the months of September and October range from 66 – 73 degrees Fahrenheit (I checked!) so it does seem possible. He does, however, remember once sleeping in the sukkah as a kid in Beersheva, but it did not seem to be a family tradition.
My paternal great grandfather, on the other hand, did sleep in the sukkah and had an ingenious way of dealing with the London rain. He had a retractable roof which he used when the weather was not cooperating. Apparently he always slept outside during the holiday which is remarkable when you consider the rain and the chilly temperatures (55-61 Fahrenheit on average – yeah I checked that out too!).
Here is New Jersey, we do not sleep outside, but we do have an annual gathering in our sukkah on the second day of Sukkot in which we tend to play, “Can we outdo ourselves again this year?” Perhaps I’m a little insane, but I have kept track of my guests and menus for all Jewish holidays, plus Thanksgiving, for about the last 12 years or so. Subsequently, although my friends may not recall what was for dessert on Sukkot 2012 or 2013, I know and often don’t want to repeat myself so soon.
At the same time our guests have also developed a fondness for certain dishes such as Motti’s vegetable soup (a self-created item that technically is always changing!) and his myriad of Moroccan/Israeli salads including, but certainly not limited to, roasted peppers and various eggplant dishes. Our friends look forward to our Sukkot lunch and can name certain favorites that they hope will top the menu this year. I too have made some dishes along the way which are also enjoyed by our guests including Moroccan fish and baklava, the latter perhaps not so Moroccan, but passed along to me by my Tunisian sister-in-law Shosh and made by other family members. Please take note that it is not as difficult to make as you think as long as you are not planning to make the filo dough yourself.
This year we are bringing out a few of the old time favorites and trying some new dishes. We will see what works and what if anything makes its way into the Benisty top ten. In the meantime, I recommend trying the roasted peppers and baklava when you get the chance. You won’t regret it!
8 pepper of varying colors
Juice from ½ a lemon
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
1) Grill the peppers until soft. This can be done on an outdoor grill, over an open gas flame or under the broiler. Make sure the skins are blackened all over.
2) Place the peppers in a paper bag while warm and close. Leave to cool to aid in peeling. Then peel skins off the peppers so that no skins are left.
3) Peel the blackened skins off the peppers and slice the peppers into ½ inch strips.
4) Mix the peppers with the lemon juice, olive oil, sliced garlic and salt.
5) Refrigerate any leftovers.
Note that this dish will keep for several days.
Baklava appears as a favorite dish through the Middle East. Filo dough one of its essential ingredients can be found in many grocery stores and specialty markets but be sure to check the date to assure buying fresh products.
1 package filo dough (20 sheets) return any left over sheets to the freezer
2 sticks margarine, melted
1 pound chopped walnuts
½ cup sugar
4-5 ounces of honey
1) Defrost filo sheets/leaves as per the instructions on the box.
2) Grease an oblong pan or baking sheet
3) Brush half the leaves (ten) completely with the margarine one at a time on one side only. Arrange them one on top of the other in the pan.
4) Mix together walnuts, sugar and cinnamon
5) Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the prepared filo sheets.
6) Repeat step three with the rest of the filo sheets.
7) Freeze for one hour.
8) Remove from freezer and cut completely through dough making diagonal lines in both directions so that little diamond shapes are formed throughout the dough.
9) Bake in a 400 degree oven for about a half hour, but check after 20 minutes to make sure that the dough does not begin to burn.
10) Remove from oven and pour the honey over the diagonal cuts in the pastry. Let honey absorb, cool and serve.
Ladino first cast its magic spell on me in childhood. It always struck me as a graceful, rolling language, one of emotion and longing, filled with desire. It was a secret language that my mother spoke with her mother, my grandmother, of blessed memory. My grandmother immigrated to Israel from Bulgaria, arriving as Ladino-speaking Tanya and eventually becoming Hebrew-speaking Shoshana. But when my mother and grandmother wanted to speak without us girls understanding, they spoke Ladino. And so Ladino took root for me as the language of women.
In 2004 I founded the Israeli Ethnic Ensemble, which appears around the world with a rich and fascinating program of Sephardic music. Sephardic musical culture has been preserved for hundreds of years. Ladino songs originated in the 9th-13th centuries, when Jewish life flourished in Spain. It continued to develop after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. And it is this music that inspires me and my ensemble.
As a professional, delving into magical musical materials preserved in Ladino, I discovered that the preservation of this tradition by women was not unique to my family. When the Jews were expelled from Spain and spread across Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Morocco, etc., it was the men who worked outside the home, mingling with the locals and the language of the place. By contrast women rarely left their homes, did not integrate into the local population and continued to exclusively or dominantly speak Ladino. Women continued to create songs and melodies in Ladino expressing their feelings, difficulties, joys and grief. The vast majority of Ladino songs are songs “feminine;” wedding songs, lullabies, love songs, etc. Through women, the language has been preserved as it was spoken centuries ago.
One of the historic Jewish centers in Spain was in Cordoba. Moses Maimonides, one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of all time, was born there circa 1135. But he left, as Muslim rule made Jewish life difficult. Later Christians ruled the city and in the 15th century the Jews of Cordoba were expelled or forced to convert along with their fellow co-religionists. So it was particularly meaningful when the Israeli Ethnic Ensemble was invited by the City of Cordoba to appear in the 13th International Sephardic Jewish Music Festival in Spain.
We arrived in Cordoba late at night. Our group of passionate Israeli musicians includes Gilad Ephrat on double bass, Idan Toledano on guitar and oud, the violinist Chen Shenhar and myself singing the vocals. We woke in the morning and set out to discover this warm, sleepy town. We went to the Old City in search of the statue of Maimonides. We had heard about the blessing and good fortune that befalls those who touch the feet of the statue and pay tribute to the great scholar. A short tour of the alleys of Cordoba’s Old City taught us that the current vibrancy of the modern municipality is tied to the ancient culture and heritage left by our ancestors when they were expelled. It was amazing to see intense tourist activity in the Old City. The statue of Maimonides is a focal point of an attractive tourist center. The municipality of Cordoba has already embarked on an extensive public relations campaign and refurbishment of the Jewish synagogue to be completed in 2015 on the 700th anniversary of its founding.
The International Sephardic Festival which takes place every year in June is one of the city’s main music events. For the last 13 years, Spain has hosted musicians from around the world. This year, the beautiful botanical gardens were the site for six days of performances from Spain, Poland, Portugal and Israel. After visiting the Old City and the dark, horrifying museum of the Holy Inquisition, we headed towards the botanical gardens where the festival was to be held. There was a wine tasting workshop, followed by the opening act of the festival. The transition to the pastoral calm of the setting and the beautiful music was jarring, but we had come for a short visit to a city with a glorious but troubled past and it could not have been otherwise.
What makes a secular Israeli connect to his Jewish identity, roots and spirituality? What makes secular Jew from Jerusalem become a Jewish educator in San Francisco? The answers are music, spirituality and the relationship between the two.
If someone had told me ten years ago that I would become a Jewish educator, I would never have believed it. Moreover, if someone had told me that I would write Jewish music, I would most likely laugh in his or her face. The world of Judaism was never a motivation in my life until I left Israel and arrived in San Francisco.
My parents originally came from Greece and Iraq but I was born in Jerusalem. Raised as a secular Israeli, my Jewish identity was always a given fact. Meaning, I am Jewish because I was born to this nation and religion, because of my family’s history, because Hebrew is my language, etc. Aside from reading from the Torah at my Bar Mitzvah and celebrating Jewish holidays, Judaism was not something I practiced. Coming to the US, particularly to the Bay Area, and connecting with local Jewish communities and their definitions of being “Jewish,” I gained a new understanding of my Jewish identity and spirituality.
People relate to spirituality in different ways. It’s not something that’s just given to you. It’s not only something you practice or learn, but something you feel. Spirituality doesn’t exclude anyone. It includes Jewish ideals, but it does not stand exclusively on Jewish beliefs. Spirituality involves global ideals, thoughts and understandings. Most importantly for me, music is the medium, guide and driving force in my own spiritual path.
I emphasize the importance of music not only because it is my love, my passion, my profession and in many ways, the essence of my being, but because music is an incredible educational tool that builds bridges reaching people’s hearts and souls. In fact, it is the reason I became involved with the Jewish community in the US from the first place.
When I arrived in San Francisco ten years ago, I worked as a song leader at Congregation Sherith Israel. While taking these first steps in the world of American Judaism, I learned many songs commonly taught to Jewish children in the US. Many of these songs were outdated and not surprisingly, that my students didn’t relate to them. These songs don’t represent or resemble anything close to the music young American Jews are listening to in their secular lives. Moreover, I felt that most of these Folk/Rock genre Jewish-American songs didn’t represent the story of the whole Jewish diaspora. So I decided to write new Jewish music that speaks to the hearts of the Jewish youth, represents a variety of Jewish communities from around the globe and connects the souls of the listeners with their Jewish identity on a spiritual level.
In 2011, I formed Sol Tevél, a band that focuses on connecting Hebrew roots while engaging world cultures. A year later, we released our debut album, World Light, which aims provide a contemporary interpretation on traditional Jewish texts, ideals and mysticism.
How can we learn more about spirituality? The truth is that it’s not my intention to teach nor preach spirituality, but to share my personal journey into this realm. Teaching for the past 10 years showed me that my students were my best teachers and could (often unintentionally) answer many of the questions we struggle with. And as for “God” or “spirituality,” Austin Branner, one of my 3rd grade students expressed it best with the words that would become the title song for my album World Light:
See the wind flowing by
See the stars up high
See the sand on the ground
See the rocks all around
My God, your God, One God.
I have often joked that I am the only woman in America who doesn’t cook anything that she grew up eating. Now this is not a reflection on my mother’s cooking abilities, but rather a result of my marriage to a Moroccan Israeli with very different ideas of what constitutes good food.
My husband was born in Marrakech and moved as an infant to Beersheva, Israel where much of his family still reside. There amidst the trials and tribulations of raising a family in the “ma’aborot” or tent cities, my heroic mother-in-law cared for her large family. Her main occupation in life was clearly feeding her family and in their home this meant the daily preparation of good Moroccan food translating into hours of daily cooking each day.
The food and spices she used were completely different than those that constituted my Ashkenazic upbringing. Couscous was a staple and always made properly (no instant Osem for her) and could be combined with vegetables with chicken on the side for a meat meal or could be made dairy and eaten with leben, a yogurt-like cheese quite popular in Israel. Shabbat would include Moroccan fish and would always feature the Moroccan version of cholent called skhina (meaning “hot in Arabic) or hamin (like the Hebrew word for hot, “cham”) which would include foods like eggs in their shells and chickpeas. Other popular dishes were chicken with olives and different vegetable soups including chickpea pumpkin soup, traditionally served on Rosh Hashanah and my son’s favorite.
Moroccan cooks are also famous for their many salads which make their appearance primarily on Friday nights (carrot, beets, anise, pepper, eggplant etc). My mother in law was also busy pickling olives, peppers and carrots.
Of course one cannot discuss Moroccan food without emphasizing the spices. Onion powder and garlic powder, perhaps the staples of Ashkenazic cooking, have no place here. Instead saffron, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, paprika and allspice rule. Moroccan cooks also create their own blended spice called “mashia” which is great on ground beef. Lemons and olive oil are also staples with preserved lemons often used to flavor various dishes.
Then there are the exquisite foods made for special occasions which I won’t go into here since they merit their own blog post!
I often kid that my husband will only eat food if it is from somewhere between Spain and Iraq (excluding Eastern Europe of course!). Having grown up eating exclusively Moroccan and some Israeli/Middle Eastern food at home, he is not interested in anything else. In fact, when we first started dating he wouldn’t eat anything at my parent’s home not due to any kashrut concerns, but just because everything was so foreign to him. Eventually he tried my mother’s chicken soup, but he prides himself on never having tasted a matzah ball nor gefilte fish.
The fact is that I have never made these foods. Honestly, I prefer my adopted Moroccan and Middle Eastern cuisine. My “mixed” kids get their fix at their grandparent’s home if they need it. Otherwise, we are all happy embracing our Moroccan heritage.
Moroccan Chickpea/Pumpkin Soup
1 ¼ cups yellow split peas or chickpeas (if using chickpeas, soak for at least ½ hour)
1 large onion, chopped
2 ¾ quarts chicken stock (you can use Osem chicken mix as an option)
Salt and pepper
4 tablespoons sunflower oil (I normally use canola)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ginger
¼ teaspoon saffron
1 pound orange pumpkin, cubed (I use calabazzo pumpkin or a butternut squash will work. I usually use about 2 pounds though the original recipe suggests 1 pound)
3 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leafed parsley
Put the yellow split peas and the onion in a pot with the stock.
Bring to a boil and simmer for at least a ½ hour or until the split peas are tender.
Add salt and pepper to taste, the oil, cinnamon, ginger and saffron and put in the pumpkin.
Simmer until the pumpkin falls apart
Use an immersion blender or a masher to make the soup smoother.
Sprinkle with flat-leafed parsley before serving.
*note that when using chicken powder I omit the salt. Also the soup can get very thick so feel free to add water to it if it feels too thick.
2 lbs carrots
2 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon cumin
2 tablespoons paprika
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons olive oil
Flat leaf parsley or coriander
Peel and clean carrots.
Peel and clean carrots.
Boil carrots until a fork easily pierces the thickest carrot.
Rinse carrots with cold water and then slice them about ¼ to ½ inch thick.
Crush or finely chop the garlic.
Mix the garlic with the juice of two lemons, all the spices and the olive oil.
Toss the carrots with the mixture.
Sprinkle chopped coriander of flat leaf parsley on the top of the carrots and toss.
According 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.
Mom. Mommy. Ima. Madre. Mother. No matter how many ways I say it, the concept still catches me by surprise sometimes. I am a mother now. Up until 7 months ago when someone would ask me a defining attribute of myself, I would have said I’m a Ladino singer. That’s what I do; that’s what I am.
Being a Ladino singer has always been more than an occupation for me—it’s the fabric of my identity. Its roots run deeply through me—it’s a responsibility I have to my Sephardic ancestors to keep their traditions and stories alive and to make sure they get passed on to future generations. And now I am responsible for a member of that future generation. I am a Ladino singer, and a mother.
As I look at my beautiful daughter now, I have been asking myself how I want to transmit my family tradition to her. What part of my Sephardic heritage do I want to pass down? Do I try to speak to her in Ladino, aware that she will have few people to speak it with as she grows older? Do I sing her Ladino songs each night so they get planted into her subconscious?
There is no doubt being a mother has already changed my performance repertoire. Although I pride myself on writing original music in Ladino, I have recently added a song into my sets that hails from the traditional canon. “Durme, Durme” is a song about how your heart actually aches when you watch over a loved one as (s)he sleep, because all you want now is to protect him/her from ever feeling sorrow.
Sleep, sleep beautiful one
Sleep without worry or sorrow.
Here is your slave whose only desire is
To watch over your sleep with the greatest of love
As time goes by my heart aches
With the love I have for you
Listen, listen my love
Listen to the song of my heartache.
“Durme, Durme” has quickly become one of my favorite, and defining, songs for me. Performing this beloved Sephardic song connects me firmly to my tradition, and now that I picture my baby girl as I sing it, also lets me think about my future. I want my daughter to sleep without worry or sorrow that she will feel disconnected to her past. I want her always to know the beauty of her heritage. And of course, I want her to know that I, her mother, will always be there for her with love and song.
Charoset is the star of the seder plate. Amidst the parsley leafs and lamb shanks, this sweet sticky treat teases and tantalizes as we make our way through the story telling. Charoset recalls the mortar used by the Israelites when they were slaves. Jews, spread over the four corner of the earth, and brought the story of the Exodus and the celebration of Passover to every land.
With time, the recipes for Charoset reflected local ingredients and tastes. Whether you make one, two or all of the seven classic and modern recipes we have collected, we doubt that you will be able to wait until the seder to taste these outstanding Charoset!
Uganda: Tziporah Sizomu’s Charoset Recipe
Tziporah Sizomu is a leader in the Abayudaya community in Uganda. Passover is an especially meaningful holiday for the Abayudaya. Her husband Gershom is the community rabbi and Tziporah is responsible for the Shabbat and holiday meals that are eaten together by the Abayudaya as a community. Apples are expensive, as they must be imported from South Africa, while peanuts, known as groundnuts, are local to Uganda. This Charoset makes a fabulous spread for Matzah all week long! (Note: peanuts are legumes and there are some Jews who do not eat them during Passover. They can be replaced them with cashews.)
4 cups roasted peanuts
3 apples, chopped fine
2 bananas, chopped into small pieces
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup sweet wine
Grind the peanuts in a blender and place them in a medium-sized bowl. Rural Ugandans use a mortar and pestle. They don’t have blenders as very few have electricity.
Mix with the chopped apples and bananas.
Add the wine and stir.
Add the honey and mix everything together. (If it isn’t thick enough, add more peanuts)
Syria: Meil Family Recipe, Charoset Halebieh
Originally from Philadelphia, Heather and Jason Meil have been living in the Bay Area for the past 10 years and are active members at Oakland’s Temple Sinai. This recipe was passed down from Jason’s great-grandmother, Jammila Dweck Marcus who was born in Allepo, Syria to his grandmother, Leah (born in the Sudan) to his mother, Joan. It has been in the family for generations and makes an appearance yearly at the Meil seder.
3 pounds pitted dates
1 cup sweet red wine
1 t ground cinnamon (optional)
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
Put the dates in a medium saucepan with enough water to cover.
Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer.
Stir frequently, until the dates are soft.
Pass the date mixture through a strainer or a rotary grader. A food processor may also be used.
Before serving, add the wine, cinnamon and walnuts and mix thoroughly.
Greece: Traditional Greek Recipe
Sarah Aroeste’s familial roots in Greece trace all the way back to the expulsion of Jews from Spain. A vocal artist, she has dedicated her career to modernizing Ladino classics and creating new music that captures the vibrancy of the Sephardic experience. For Passover, she draws on traditional Greek customs and makes this fruity recipe that gets its punch from a variety of spices.
1 cup black currants, finely chopped
1 cup raisins, finely chopped
1 cup dates, finely chopped and then mashed (if they are very dry soak them in boiling water for 10 minutes)
Pinch of grated orange rind
Cinnamon, allspice, cloves, nutmeg to taste
Sweet red wine
Chop all the ingredients as fine as possible.
Mash them into a paste in a mortar and pestle. Or briefly process in food processor.
Moisten as necessary with the red wine.
Makes 3 cups
Guatemala, Two Ways: Modern Twist
The members of Adat Shalom, Guatemala’s only Reform community have created a unique take on Charoset. It was a big hit at last year’s seder in Guatemala City and it will be at yours too.
4 apples, peeled, cored, and finely chopped
1/2 cup sweet red wine (such as Manischewitz)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3 tablespoon maple syrup
5 oz of refried red beans
4 oz of chopped almonds
Chop the apples by hand as finely as possible and press them with a fork.
Add the rest of the ingredients. mixing everything well.
Beans should be added at the end, depending on how juicy the apple is so that the charoset thicken.
After plating, add a little of the almonds as decoration.
Brenda Rosenbaum’s Charoset
Brenda Rosenbaum, is the founder of Mayan Hands. She grew up in Guatemala and left as a young adult due to the civil war. Her family is half Ashkenazi and half Sephardic. Her mother lives in Guatemala City and this is her recipe. This recipe came via Ilana Schatz of Fair Trade Judaica.
1 pound dates
2 granny smith apples
1 cup chopped nuts (macadamia nuts are native to Guatemala)
Soak dates in hot water for a few hours.
Drain the dates but put them in the food processor but don’t process them completely, leave some chunks in it.
Peal and cut apples into one inch chunks.
Put apple pieces in pan, and bring to boil with a bit of water. Simmer until they become puree.
Mix dates and apples.
Add cinnamon to taste, sweet wine.
Just prior to serving add chopped nuts.
Cuba: Mango and Pineapple Charoset Balls
For Jennifer “The Cuban Reuben” Stempel blogging about food allows her to explore her twin Jewish and Cuban heritages. This Cuban Charoset is her own invention inspired by the island flavors that influence so much of her cooking. While most Charoset is served as a paste, Stempel drew on the Sephardic tradition of making Charoset into small balls for this unique take on a classic dish.
5oz dried unsweetened mango, coarsely chopped
8oz dried unsweetened pineapple, coarsely chopped
½ cup almond slivers, toasted
2 cups shredded coconut, toasted and separated
In a small bowl, soak the mango in hot water for ½ hour.
Drain well, and add to a food processor. Add pineapple, almonds, and 1 cup of the coconut to the mango in the food processor, and pulse only until the mixture starts to form a ball. There should still be some visible chunks.
Form the mixture into bite-sized balls, and set atop a pan lined with wax paper.
In a small bowl, add the last cup of shredded coconut. Roll the balls in the coconut until they are lightly coated, and return them to the wax paper.
Refrigerate the balls for 1 hour or until set.
United States: Rabbi Ruth’s Charoset Recipe
One of the joys of Jewish life in America is the diversity not only of the community but also of the ingredients from around the world that are at our fingertips. This recipe draws on traditional as well as exotic flavors. Sweet with a touch of the sour with a red tinge which reminds us of the mixed emotions with which we greet our freedom, always recalling the hard work and suffering that preceded the Exodus.
1 cup dried figs
1 cup dried apricots
1 cup roasted hazelnuts
1 large or 2 small whole blood oranges
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses (available at Middle Eastern markets)
Additional orange juice as needed
Cut blood oranges into quarters or chunks depending on size.
Place all the ingredients except the orange juice in food processor
Pulse until mixture resembles a paste.
If mixture is too dry add a tablespoon of additional orange juice and pulse again.
Repeat until the mixture is moist.