Month: September 2008

Capturing the taste of Rosh Hashana gone by

Writing in The New York Times Joan Nathan is taken by Esperanza Basson, originally from southern Iraq, on a journey into the Jewish culinary past.

The traditional dish, one her family had eaten at Rosh Hashana for generations in Amara, a city near Basra in southern Iraq, was made by stuffing Swiss chard leaves with beets, onions, rice and sometimes meat. It was simmered in a lemon sauce with sugar to mitigate the bitterness of the leaves.

Other cooks, she explained, prepare a sweet and sour sauce that combines tart tamarind with brown sugar or a syrup made by slowly cooking dates, a technique that stretches back to the Biblical period.

Mrs. Basson’s family has always called the chard dish “mahshi.” (Mahshi means “stuffed” in Arabic.) Because once Mrs. Basson couldn’t find undamaged chard leaves to make the traditional version, she decided to make the dish in layers, calling it “fake mahshi.” To her surprise, the dish tasted just as good.

As I dipped my fork into the vegetables and the meat, I felt as though I was taking a Jewish journey into the past. Jewish cooks have always varied dishes depending on where they lived and what was available. This dish, first created in Iraq or perhaps Iran, traveled throughout the centuries on the trade routes with rabbis and merchants. It migrated as far as Lithuania, where one Rosh Hashana I ate a version with grated beets, sweet potatoes and beef.

“I would say this dish is about 1,000 years old,” said Paul Freedman, professor of medieval history at Yale. “The sweet and sour probably came from Persia and went as far west as Andalusia with the traders. The mercantile and rabbinic network of Jews created an arch of tastes and food.”

As we ate, Mrs. Basson, who had come to Israel in 1951, explained that Iraqi and other Sephardic Jews have a Rosh Hashana seder. Although the Passover seder is the best known, the word refers to a traditional order of events. In the Sephardic seder observed on Rosh Hashana, a series of blessings is said over squash, leeks, dates, pomegranates, black-eyed peas, apples, the head of a fish or a lamb and Swiss chard and beet greens.

The Hebrew word for beet greens and Swiss chard sounds very much like the verb meaning “remove, throw out, or cause to disappear.” The blessing Sephardic Jews recite at their Rosh Hashana meal before eating beet greens or chard leaves translates roughly to “May it be your will, O God and the God of our forefathers, that our adversaries be removed.”

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Percy Gourgey, Jews of Arab lands campaigner, dies

One of the most stalwart fighters for the rights of Jews from Arab lands, Percy Gourgey, has died in London aged 84. (With thanks for obit: Geoffrey)

Percy Sassoon Gourgey, MBE, FRSA spent the last years of his life at Edinburgh House, the Sephardi home for the elderly in Wembley. He was born to Iraqi Jews in Bombay in 1923 and served as a Lieutenant in the Indian Navy during the war.

Percy spent the whole of his adult life as an activist in Jewish affairs. He served for many years on the executive of the Board of Deputies. At one time he was a vice chairman of the Board. He was a staunch supporter of the rights of Jews in Arab lands and chairman of the Jews In Arab Lands Committee. He had also been Chairman of the Socialist Societies Section of the Labour Party at the time when Socialism was fashionable in Anglo-Jewish cultural society.

Percy was an acknowledged authority on Indian Jewry, the Indian Freedom Struggle and the Indian Naval Revolt of 1946 and had written several books on these matters.

Percy was the first editor of The Scribe, the journal of Babylonian Jewry.

Edwin Shuker, president of Justice for Jews from Arab Countries, adds:

“Percy Gourgey was a dogged and knowledgeable campaigner and an activist on many Jewish and Zionist issues. He was never afraid or intimidated to speak his mind even when he was a lone voice, such as on the subject of The rights of Jews of Arab Countries. For decades he kept the issue alive by repeatedly reminding the public of the Forgotten Exodus. I, for one, owe Percy an eternal debt of gratitude for introducing me to the multiple aspects of that issue.

“His funeral was dignified and well-attended by many leaders of the community including Mrs Flo Kaufmann, Professor Eric Moonman, Dr Naim Dangoor and Dr Lionel Koplowitz ,the former president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews who gave a wonderful overview of Percy’s public life and service to the community. Percy was a unique personality who dedicated his life to the causes he believed in. May his soul be blessed with eternal peace.”

Percy Gourgey’s speech on the 30th anniversary of the 1969 Baghdad hangings

Obituary in the Jewish Chronicle

Call for minorities to unite

Masri Feki lectures at SOAS (photos: Ali Noori)

The Jewish Chronicle has this report on last week’s callby Masri Feki, an Egyptian political scientist, for a new Middle East recognising national diversity and religious rights.

“An Egyptian political scientist has called for a new coalition of national and religious minorities from the Middle East during a lecture he delivered in London.

“Masri Feki, who lives in France, wants to see a new regional framework in the Middle East which recognises national diversity and religious rights.

“At a talk at the London Middle Eastern Institute of the School of Oriental and African Studies last week, he rejected “exclusivist” ideologies such as pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism.

“Instead, he advocated the idea of “Middle Easternism”, which conceives of the region as a “fascinating mosaic of cultures and beliefs” rather than a “monolithic bloc”.

“The organisation he has founded, the Middle East Pact, aims to promote “transnational solidarity” through publicising moves for democratic reform.

“It will highlight the presence of minorities such as Copts, Assyrians and others and present “non-Arabic components of the Middle East (Turkey, Iran, Israel) as legitimate and integral parts of the region”.

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The Jews of Lebanon: ‘joie de vivre’ in exile

A film about the Jews of Lebanon could have been rather depressing: it could have shown a bombed-out Jewish quarter, the Beirut synagogue overrun by grass and pigeons, unkept cemeteries, yet another community driven to extinction in the Arab world.

But Yves Turquier’s film Jews of Lebanon (La petite histoire des juifs du Liban – 2006) is anything but. It’s full of quirky characters and attractive ladies who themselves are full of joie de vivre. It’s about how the spirit of the Lebanese Jews lives on wherever they have rebuilt their lives – in Mexico, Canada, France, Brazil, Israel, Italy, America.

The film, which took a year to make and features interviews with 300 people in 10 different countries, was not short on nostalgia – for an idyllic childhood spent on the shores of the Mediterranean, winters skiing on the slopes of Mount Lebanon, the food, the smells, the parties, the sunshine. But as one or two admitted from their new, spacious, exile in Canada or Mexico,’ Lebanon now seems so small, and ‘ a bit of a hole.’

Lebanon was unique among Middle Eastern states: Jews were not just another minority but had constitutional rights, along with 17 other communities. But watching Turquier’s film it appears that those rights, in many cases, did not extend to citizenship. Many Lebanese Jews, including Turquier’s parents, had moved from Syria to Lebanon. Their children were born in Lebanon, but were not allowed to acquire Lebanese citizenship. A number of Jews were stateless. Apparently, a Lebanese national who married a stateless person would also lose his or her nationality.

Things began to go wrong for the Jews after the UN Palestine Partition plan in 1947. Jews were terrorised by hostile marching Muslims shouting Filistin baladna, al- Yahud kelabna (Palestine is our country, the Jews are our dogs). A few Jews were interned for a whole year while their children struggled to keep their businesses going. Jewish identity documents were stamped with the word Musawi or Israelite. The Alliance school in Beirut was blown up, killing the principal. Jews learned to bite their tongue in non-Jewish company.

Life seemed to return to normal until 1967 and the outbreak of the Six Day War. Then there were renewed disturbances and 5,800 Jews left out of 6,000. ‘We understood that Lebanon did not belong to us anymore’, one Jew sighed. The 1975 civil war pitted Muslims and Christians and the few remaining Jews were caught in the middle, sometimes literally in the firing line, with some unfortunates kidnapped and even killed. One woman said her young brother’s first toy was a Kalachnikov, which he learned to assemble and disassemble.

But apart from the fugitives who fled penniless from the civil war, the Lebanese Jews were able to sell their property and leave with their assets to start afresh in the West.

Will the Jews ever return to Beirut? Not, says Yves Turquier, while Lebanon does not exist as a state but a collection of warring sects. Would the synagogue ever be rebuilt? Not while there was no guarantee that it would not be blown up. Meanwhile, Lebanon recedes further into the past, and to the younger generation means little more than rice in lemon sauce and hummus.

The final chapter of La petite histoire des juifs du Liban has already been written.

You can buy boxed sets of three DVDs on the Jews of Lebanon, priced at 100 Euros each. Proceeds will go to a Foundation set up to document the Jews of Lebanon. For further details please email [email protected]

Remaining Jews should ‘wake up and leave Iran’

Tom Mountain’s piece on the remaining Jews of Iran on Arutz sheva gets it wrong sometimes – ie he does not mention the massive exodus to California after 1979, nor the execution of the Jewish community leader, nor the false spying charges against 13 Jews in Shiraz. But otherwise, he’s right: (with thanks: a reader)

( Life was good for the Jews of Persia living under the protection and generosity of Shah Reza Pahlavi, just as it had been under the previous ruler, and the ruler before that, down through the centuries. (Well not exactly – there were bad times too – ed).

Jews had occupied the highest levels of government, industry and academia in Persia since antiquity. They were among the proudest standard-bearers of the Persian nation. There was never any reason for them to gaze into the future and think otherwise. Their great-grandchildren would live peaceably in Persia just as their great-grandparents had. Life would go on.

Then one day the Shah climbed aboard his plane, flew off into the horizon and never returned. It all happened so fast. Too fast, it seemed, for the Jews of Persia to fully grasp that with the abdication of Reza Pahlavi, life in Persia had changed forever. Now they were living in the Islamic Republic of Iran, under Muslim clerics whose purpose in life was to create a Koran-based theocracy.

Some Jews saw the writing on the wall and fled immediately, usually with the help of the El Al planes that the Israeli government dispatched within days of the fall of the Shah. But the planes still left Tehran half empty. The mass exodus to Israel never materialized. The Begin government and the Jewish Agency were perplexed: Didn’t these Jews realize they could be in danger? Didn’t they know that Israel was there to rescue them and bring them home to the freedom to the Jewish State?

The answer was “no” on both counts. The Jews of Persia, some 80,000 strong, had always resisted the calls from Israel, even though every Muslim country from North Africa to Iraq had witnessed its Jews embark en masse to Israel. Iran was the lone holdout. But why should Persian Jews move to Israel when they could just take a round-trip flight from Tehran to Tel Aviv anytime? Such was the mentality of the Persians, pre-1979.

Yet, as happened so many times in Jewish history, the door closed shut and the Jews couldn’t leave even if they wanted to. And now they wanted to. The Islamic Revolution had begun, and although the Jews could never be a part of it, they would still live in the Islamic Republic of Iran – the Ayatollah Khomeini said so. They would not be persecuted or imprisoned, and they could go about their business as a “protected” minority class. Those high-level military and government jobs couldn’t be held by Jews anymore though, nor could other “sensitive areas” like banking.

Then came the war with Iraq. Every able-bodied male was needed at the front lines. And that included the Jews, expected to charge the infidel Iraqis under the banner of… Allah. Hundreds, then thousands, of Jews fled Iran any way they could. By the 1990s, with the war over and an aura of stability in the country, the 30,000 remaining Jews settled in for the long haul. They were still Persians, after all.

And the Islamic government made life nicer for them. Synagogues could function as before. Jewish property would be respected. Jews could gain admittance to universities; Jewish faculty had secure jobs. Kosher shops were open. Jewish rituals and festivities would be unhindered; the police would even tolerate the mixed dancing and liquor at such events. Sure, cinemas, night clubs and the like were shut down, but that was to ensure morality for the whole country. Jewish schools could operate, but under the supervision of the state, which meant that Jewish students would have to go to school on Saturday, as the state mandated.

And all that talk about eliminating the Zionist entity, well, that’s still official state policy, but so long as the Jews never complained about it they’d be fine. (…)

The Jews of Iran, complacent in their totalitarian society as obedient submissive servants to their ayatollah masters, may soon be confronted with a shock greater than the abdication of the Shah. And that will occur when the first jets or missiles bearing the Star of David cross into Iranian airspace. Then they’ll have to run for their lives to the nearest border. If they make it that far. The Jewish presence in Iran is coming to an end. How it ends will largely depend on whether these Jews wake up in time and leave Iran. Any way they can.

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Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

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