Sephardic Seder Welcomes New Year
Rosh Hashanah was one of my favorite holidays growing up in Israel. The house was infused with the aroma of spices from all the holiday cooking and baking during the preceding days and filled with an air of excited anticipation for the new year dinner.
Preparing for the holiday dinner, we kids were in charge of seeding the pomegranate, a messy task that left many garments forever stained. The preparation of the other ceremonial foods was quite simple. The quince was boiled in sugar water, the vegetables in salty water and the sheep or fish roasted and spiced with hawaij, the Yemenite spice mix. Cooked simply, each vegetable tasted of its natural goodness.
Come Rosh Hashanah eve, we sat around the festive table all washed up and in our customary new clothes. The dinner always opened with a colorful array of foods, a reflection of the season’s bounty—dates, pomegranate, quince, leeks, green beans, pumpkin and head of sheep or fish—eaten in a specific order just like in the Passover seder. Before we ate each food, we recited the corresponding blessing, a pun using the Hebrew name of the food and a similar sounding word with different meaning to express a wish for the upcoming year. Each blessing begins with Yehi Ratzon, “May it be God’s will.”
When I immigrated to Washington from Israel many years ago, I brought with me the holiday traditions of my Yemenite Jewish ancestors. When I first hosted Rosh Hashanah dinners in the US, I served the ceremonial foods I remembered and incorporated Ashkenazi customs as well. The tradition of a Rosh Hashanah seder, which dates back two thousand years and has been preserved by Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, was foreign to my Ashkenazi guests. When we got to the apple dipped in honey, they were treading on more familiar territory. Nonetheless, my guests enjoyed and raved about the food and the richness of the tradition.
But there was a catch. While some of the blessings were positive in spirit—asking, for example, for our privileges to be multiplied like the seeds of the pomegranate—others were not, such as for dates which came with a wish for the destruction of all our enemies.
Growing up in young Israel, post Six-Day War—at a time when the radio blared a popular song declaring that the whole world was against us—these wishes for the decimation of our enemies seemed relevant and normal. I honestly found the puns funny and did not give them much deep thought.
Even if historically justified, against the backdrop of cosmopolitan Washington, the blessings seemed out of place. Some of our guests smiled uncomfortably while others were gracious enough to keep a poker face, and my American husband usually felt compelled to crack a joke to dissipate the awkwardness. Disregarding the discomfort, I would plod along from one blessing to another.
Fast-forward several years when, to my delight, I found a treasure of a little book called Apples and Pomegranates, A Family Seder for Rosh Hashanah. In it, Rahel Musleah shares the seder traditions of her family in Calcutta, India, which traces its ancestry to Baghdadi Jews from Iraq.
The book is much like a modern day Passover haggadah. With beautiful illustrations, Musleah explains the history of the traditions and shares stories, songs and recipes. Family and user-friendly, it includes good questions to reflect on during the holiday, especially for children. The most compelling aspect of the book for me is her twist on the traditional blessings—she frames them all positively!
My family has been using this book for several years now. We continue to preserve the age-old tradition of the Rosh Hashanah seder with the same special dishes. But these days, we are comforted to begin the new year reciting blessings and wishes for all good things for us and for everyone else. So when we hold the dates this year, we will ask that “(a)ll enmity will end” and “may we date this new year with happiness, blessing, and peace for all.” Yehi ratzon.