Malida and the Sustainability of the Small Indian Jewish Community in NYC and the TriState Area

Individual Malida serving Copyright © ShulieMadnick
'Malida and The Sustainability of the Small Indian Jewish Community in NYC and the TriState Area' is an article commissioned by an editor a couple of years back, then nixed. The editor, as many writers experience, then ghosted me. I am sharing this piece on this platform since I thought you might find it interesting and also to keep a record of my journalistic writings.

Before the Coronavirus hit us, I wrote two-part series in Hebrew about two Israeli female chefs conquering the food scene in D.C. Articles of mine were previously translated into Hebrew, but it was the first time I wrote articles in Hebrew from scratch. It felt like coming a full circle. The articles were indefinitely shelved as the world turned topsy-turvy, but it's no reflection on the excellent editor I am working with. The timing was understandably off, which we couldn't predict in advance. You can find images of the articles in my published and mentions if you can read and comprehend Hebrew. I might publish them on this site in the future.

Malida and The Sustainability of the Small Indian Jewish Community in NYC and the TriState Area

In Rego Park Jewish Center, Queens, Romiel Daniel, an Indian Jew, is the Rabbi and President of this Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewish) Conservative synagogue. Across the street from the synagogue is where Rabbi Daniel and his wife, Noreen, reside.

It's uncommon for a Sephardic (Jewish from a Spanish descent) or an Indian Jew to lead an Ashkenazi synagogue, but Rego Park Jewish Center, which was founded in 1939, had a precedent. Its previous President was of Egyptian Sephardi Jewish ancestry. Rabbi Daniel finished his Masters in chemistry from Brandeis University in 1962 and is now on his second career. After Cantorial studies at Yeshiva University, he was ordained through the American of Board Rabbis and became a Rabbi in 2010.

On the Saturday after July 4th last year, Rabbi Daniel's granddaughter celebrated her Bat Mitzvah (a coming of age into adulthood Jewish ceremony, celebrated at age 12 for girls and 13 for boys) at the synagogue. About fifty of the Indian Jewish community members attended the Bat Mitzvah.

That Thursday before, the Daniels, together with their close family, celebrated the Bat Mitzvah with a Malida ceremony in their eldest son's backyard in Levittown, Long Island. One of Daniel's two brothers flew in from London for the celebrations. One of Noreen's brothers, who is the founder of one of the oldest and most prestigious law firms in Mumbai, Solomon & Co., had to hold the fort back at home. Her nephew, also an attorney at the firm, made the trip to Queens from Mumbai.

In May last year, a Malida ceremony was held, at Rego Park Jewish Center, in honor of one of the elders and benefactors of this tiny Indian Jewish community, Sam Daniel (no relation). It was apt to celebrate Daniel's life-long activism on his 90th birthday, which fell a few months earlier. Sam Daniel lives on the UWS with his wife Erna, who is from Switzerland, where they holiday every summer.

The Malida, which was initially a wheat Thanksgiving offering to G-D at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, is at the core of the Bene Israel's life cycle rituals and identity. There are five distinct Indian-Jewish communities; the Bene Israel (Sons/Children of Israel) is the largest of the five. The Malida is celebrated during Bat Mitzvahs, wedding henna ceremonies, engagement parties, housewarming parties, and when blessings for safety or good health are wished upon.

Both the dish and the ceremony are called Malida. The wheat morphed, in India, into the local (and sustainable) parched and flattened, flaky rice (pohe/poha), sweetened, then mixed in with coconut flakes, cardamom and almonds, and pistachios. It's served on a large Thali (round, shallow Indian stainless steel dish) and adorned with five or seven fruits, usually apples, oranges, bananas, pears, dates, or seasonal fruits. The heaping thali is then decorated with roses, rose petals, or cloves (besamim/aromatic spices), depending on the lifecycle and the day of the week.

Malida, the ceremony, usually led by a cantor, is also called the Eliyahu HaNabi (Elijah the Prophet) ceremony. Elijah, the Prophet, is considered the guardian prophet of the community. Legend has it that he rescued the few who escaped the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem (70AD) and were washed ashore on the coast just south of Mumbai (Bombay). The Eliyahu Hanabi hymn is sung in a unique Indian Jewish melody. And once the blessings are recited over the Malida, a handful of Malida with sliced fruit and date, are scooped on a napkin for each guest.

Close to twenty years before Rabbi Daniel took over the helm of Rego Park Jewish Center in 2015, he led monthly gatherings of the Indian Jewish community at a rented space at the Village Temple on12th St. off of 5th Ave. Many Malidas, as well as Shabbat and High Holidays services, were celebrated there. Noreen Daniel, who has a Masters in cancer research, adorned her Malidas, then and today, with cloves since roses in the U.S. aren't as fragrant as in India, she reminisces.

By some estimates, only 100 Bene Israel live in the NYC area and 350 in the U.S. overall. A microscopic, highly educated, minority within the similarly educated larger minority of the Asian Indian population in the U.S. According to the United States Census Bureau's 2010 population brief, the Asian Indian community stood at 2,918,807 in 2010. Approximately 60,000 Indian Jews immigrated from India to Israel between the 1950s and 1960s. Today, fewer than 4,500 remain in India, mostly in Mumbai, with a few small pockets primarily in Australia, the US, England, and Canada.

Romiel Daniel, while he can no longer sustain the gathering of the small community at the Village Temple in Manhattan, continues to do so in Queens. A smaller sanctuary at Rego Park Jewish Center was rented out to the Bene Israel Indian community during the High Holidays for the last couple of years.

During the High Holidays, on Rosh HaShana (Jewish New Year), halwa is traditionally made. The sweet milk, or coconut milk, halwa (wiggly custard) with cardamon and nuts is stirred for hours with 'cheek,' wheat starch, as a thickening agent. It is then poured into thalis and chilled in the refrigerator before serving.

Today, a quick-acting wheat starch thickener is found in Asian markets, says Noreen, who also uses agar agar (China grass). In Israel, corn starch is used as a fast-acting thickener, at times combined with agar agar. Just before Rosh HaShana last year, a gifted cook and local Bene Israel caterer in Mumbai, Sharona Hyams, used 'cheek' in combination with agar agar (China grass) in her coconut milk halwa. China grass not only accelerates the thickening but also gives it a translucent glossiness and a firmer consistency to the wiggle.

The labor-intensive, seven-layered deep-fried, laminated dough, puri, made for Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement during the High Holidays) break-the-fast found a healthier and quicker version in Noreen's kitchen. Noreen buys pre-made laminated dough and bakes the half-moon shaped puri, filled with sweetened coconut flakes mixed in with nuts, in the oven, instead of deep-frying it. There's also another traditional filling, sweetened semolina, and nuts, which Hyams demonstrated making, before Yom Kippur last year, in Mumbai.

The puren poli, a flatbread stuffed with sweetened chickpea with cardamon mash, is made for Purim, and on the Hindu festival, Holi, which falls around the same time. It's too complex and tricky to keep the filling from breaking through the dough while rolling. Noreen never attempted making it.

Kosher meat and foods are abundant in NYC with its large Jewish community. Spices and ingredients for cooking Indian cuisine are also readily available, particularly in 'Little India,' Jacksons Heights, Queens. Nowadays, the food's spiciness is tamed when cooking at home, and Indian food isn't cooked and consumed daily, as it was done back in the Motherland. Sushi, pasta, and American food have become a part of the community's new diet in the U.S. The kids, who were born and raised here, for the most part, do not like Indian food, except for dosas and chicken tandoori with a side of ketchup; though tandoori and dosas aren't part of the Bene Israel Maharashtrian cuisine.

Despite the continuity and sustainability efforts, the survival of the community's food and traditions in NYC (and elsewhere) is at stake.

In a phone interview, the Mumbai born Jewish Indian artist, Siona Benjamin, who now resides in N.J., painstakingly discusses the subject of identity.

In a recent article in the Jewish week, she was quoted as saying, "I want to blur the boundaries between cultures, to be able to take from the specifics of my Indianness, my Jewishness, and Americanness, and make something universal."

Her art is her religion; she further proclaims over the phone. Ms. Benjamin explores contemporary issues through traditional Indian-Persian miniature paintings, and her imagery draws heavily from elements in Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam. Her recent "Exodus" series is displayed at the ACA Gallery in Chelsea and examines the Syrian refugee crisis.

In one of her previous works from the Faces: Weaving Indian Jewish Narrative exhibit, Benjamin depicts an Indian Jewish cook from Mumbai with six arms representing the Menorah. The cook is stirring a curry in a pot nestled on a fire. The artwork is then bordered on the top, left and right with images of round thalis heaping with Malida. To the uninitiated, or initiated for that matter, the multi-armed image could be misconstrued as the multi-armed Indian goddess, Parvati. Art viewers might re-invent the narrative and wrongly infer that the Malida is rooted in a Hindu custom and not in a Jewish ancient Biblical tradition.

"In Persian…Malideh or Malidah/Malida مالیده means something that was produced as a result of rubbing or massaging…the word "Malida" here refers to the action one takes to produce the item or a confection item created as a result of kneading/rubbing or massaging….As you can imagine, this is a medieval usage of the term," writes Mr. Hirad Dinavari, a Library of Congress Reference Librarian for the Iranian World Collections (Iran, Afghanistan, Persianate Central Asia, Kurdish and Pashto Languages), in an email exchange.

In honor of India's small Jewish minority living in the U.S., an Indian Jewish Chanukah candle lighting ceremony is held at the Indian Ambassador's residence, in Washington, D.C., for the last 16 years. The annual event is attended by 200, mostly dignitaries, local Jewish community with only a handful of Indian Jews from D.C., and some traveling from NYC. Rabbi Daniel was the cantor in its first couple inaugural years.

The catering is usually strictly vegetarian, but one year a Coastal Maharashtrian fish with Kokum (souring fruit) was served at the buffet dinner. It is a fish dish identical to the one cooked by the Bene Israel at home and typical of the cuisine of the coastal villages, south of Mumbai, where the Bene Israel originated.

The Indian Consulate in NYC tried to emulate D.C. to honor its Indian Jewish community, living in NYC and the tri-State area, but the Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony went on for a couple of years then fizzled.

Related Malida Articles and Recipes:
Ancient Rice Offering Is the Heart of India's Jewish Community
The Malida Ceremony; The Core of the Bene Israel Tradition
Malida, Sweetened Poha Breakfast Cereal or Ceremonial Offering?!

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