Flavors of an Indian-Israeli Rosh Hashanah

Magen Hassidim Synagogue, Mumbai, India Copyright ©ShulieMadnick
This article was tweaked from the original version published in Haaretz Newspaper on September 8, 2015. In an effort to curate my articles in one space, I am republishing it here just before Rosh Hashanah, falling on September 18, this year. All copyright material © ShulieMadnick. Please do not copy or republish without permission. A link to this post can be shared.

You can read How A Mumbai Cook Prepares For Rosh Hashanah and Chasing Challah in Mumbai from the Rosh HaShanah and High Holidays series. Recipes for both biryani and halwa will be published in separate posts.

Photography during the holidays is forbidden so I am sharing a snapshot of Magen Hassidim (above), my mom's synagogue in Mumbai, where I spent the 2016 High Holidays. This image, among others, is archived on The Museum of Jewish People's (בית התפוצות) library archives in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Flavors of an Indian-Israeli Rosh Hashanah

The first inkling that Rosh Hashanah was approaching when I was growing up was when my mom would come home to our fourth-floor walk-up apartment in Ashdod with Lily Pulitzer-like floral fabrics. I dreaded the frocks and matching hair bows that an Indian seamstress would sew us from the textiles. I would walk in the intense heat with my mom and my sister, who is a year younger than I, to the seamstress' home a few neighborhoods over for the measuring and fitting, and again for a second fitting and minor tweaks. My mom would definitively proclaim that the scraps and leftover fabrics "were enough" for my two youngest sisters' Rosh Hashanah gowns.
Like other Indian Jewish women, my mom would wear one of her beautifully embroidered, colorful saris for Rosh Hashanah services. If some community members had just returned from a visit to India, she would buy a brand new sari from the large suitcase full of Indian garments and jewels they brought back for sale in Israel.

Like many Indian men, for Rosh HaShanah services, my dad wore ironed and starched tailored shirts and suit pants made in a yarn shop, owned by a Persian tailor, in the city center. My two younger brothers wore matching 70's style brown vest suits with cream shirts (cue in Saturday Night Fever with an Indian cast).

Custom-made clothes for the holidays were the tradition in Mumbai, India, and the Bene Israel Jewish community carried this tradition to Israel when they immigrated in the 1960s. It was also a cheaper option than buying brand new, ready-to-wear clothes in the then handful of shops and boutiques around town.

The grocery shopping, market hopping, prepping, and cooking rituals would commence next.

Mutton – lamb usually, but at times goat – would be pre-ordered at the butcher. Some years a whole lamb would be ordered from a nearby farm to be slaughtered and split amongst a few families. The mutton would be used in the festive biryani, that ornate Indian dish of spiced rice and meat that was the centerpiece of the Indian Rosh Hashanah table.

Apples and honey always graced the table on Rosh Hashanah eve, a tradition picked up in Israel. For a sweet new year, the Bene Israel had their own signature dish, milk halwa. The dish is similar to what we know as the Middle Eastern malabi—the churned thickened warm custard into a wiggly milk Jello pudding. The custard is poured into a large, shallow thali – a stainless steel dish  – and garnished with pistachios and almonds. My dad, who passed away in 2007, would peel and slice the blanched, raw almonds and pistachios into thin, almost translucent slivers. His method was an art form.

In Mumbai, my grandfather and grandmother would take turns churning the milk, wheat starch, ghee, sugar, and cardamom mixture, for hours until it thickened, my mom recalls. The laborious, old-fashioned version is divine, my mom says with a sentimental note in her voice.

All showered and dressed up in our finest garments, and ready for Rosh Hashanah eve services, we'd follow our mother like ducklings to my grandparents' neighborhood, not far from the cemetery, where the high school gym was converted into a makeshift synagogue. The Indian melodies of the Mahzor, High Holidays' prayer book, reverberated from the open windows into the courtyard. Outdoors, chairs were lined up along the exterior gym wall for a women's section. The mothers' heads covered with handkerchiefs, tail ends of their saris, and headscarves, shushed their children playing in the nearby playground. The men were inside the sweltering gym, wearing their kippas and tallits (prayer shawls), where the ceiling fans offered little reprieve from the heat. Outside, the women would fan themselves with peacock-patterned folding fans, joining the men from time to time in a beautiful chorus of prayer.

At the end of the services, community members shook each other's hands, greeting each other with "Shana Tova" and "Chag Sameach." Some would put their hand to their lips and kiss it after the handshake, or touch the feet of an elderly relative or friend as a show of respect

At this point, us kids would be super hungry, tugging at my mom so she would stop chatting. We would hastily recite the blessings over the grape juice or wine; in India, the "wine" was made from currants soaked in water due to alcohol prohibition. We would then hastily devour our purely Indian Rosh HaShanah meal.

When I moved to the United States in my early 20's, I brought with me the traditions of making biryani and halwa for Rosh Hashanah. Just like my mom, I prepare a quicker, 40-minute version of halwa with cornstarch instead of wheat starch. My arm still tires, feeling as if it could fall off from the constant stirring, which I alternate with my American-born husband, Jonathan. My son Sagie, now grown, is an only child, but he still wolved down the halwa, like I did, competing for a share in a household full of many siblings.

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