Tag: Judeo-Arab culture

Bringing back Claudia Roden’s past through food

The Cairo-born daughter of the Egyptian-Jewish Douek family, exiled after 1956, Claudia Roden has made her name as a writer of cookery books both scholarly and personal. Launching her latest book, Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean, she can be credited for having introduced Middle Eastern food to Britain. Major feature by Melissa Clark in The New York Times :

Claudia Roden preparing a spread in her London cottage

LONDON — If you’ve ever swiped a supple piece of pita bread through a plate of garlicky hummus and your family roots aren’t in the Middle East, you may have Claudia Roden to thank.

In 1968, in the modestly titled “A Book of Middle Eastern Food,” the 32-year-old Egyptian exile gave the non-Arabic-speaking world one of its first detailed looks at this rich cuisine. Through hundreds of traditional, comprehensive and carefully tested recipes, like herb-flecked Lebanese tabbouleh and Syrian lamb kibbe, she introduced western home cooks to the subtle, extensive art of Middle Eastern cooking.

Before her book, she could find no volume of recipes like this published in English or in any European language. If you wanted to make baba ghanouj, you might persuade a Turkish or Egyptian cook to share family secrets passed down through generations. But let’s face it, before 1968, if you were living in Britain, chances were good you’d never tasted baba ghanouj.

Over the course of her 50-year career, Ms. Roden, 85, has helped revolutionize the way the British cook and eat. She taught them how to blend cucumbers with yogurt and garlic into a creamy salad, how to simmer lentils with cumin to make a warming soup, and how to fold phyllo stuffed with cheese and herbs into flaky bite-size pastries.

Paul Levy, chairman emeritus of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, of which Ms. Roden was a founding member, said her scholarship on food was part of a growing cultural trend.

Along with culinary writers like Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Sri Owen and even Julia Child, he said, she deepened the conversation around food to address questions of culture, context, history and identity.

Her dozen cookbooks, particularly “The Book of Jewish Food,” produced a genre of works that is at once literary and deeply researched while still being, at heart, practical manuals on how to make delicious meals.

When Ms. Roden started writing “A Book of Middle Eastern Food,” Ms. David had already published a handful of Middle Eastern recipes — notably, hummus bi tahina — in her far-ranging “A Book of Mediterranean Food in 1950. But it was Ms. Roden’s work that took on the entire cuisine of the Middle East in depth, in ways both scholarly and highly personal.

Yotam Ottolenghi, the chef, cookbook author and New York Times food columnist,credits Ms. Roden with laying the foundation for chefs like him.

“‘A Book of Middle Eastern Food’ has been around for so long it feels like prehistory,” he said, adding, “it was really revelatory for its time.”

Although it’s hard to imagine, in the midst of Britain’s current love affair with Middle Eastern flavors, that the cuisine was considered outlandish and unappealing in the 1960s. Ms. Roden’s book was all but ignored when it came out, on the heels of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, in which Britain supported Israel.

“At that moment, no one was interested in the food of the enemy culture,” said Ms. Roden, who identifies as a Sephardi/Mizrahi Jew (Mizrahi is the Israeli term for Jews from the Middle East and North Africa). “When the book came out, people would always ask me if all the recipes were for testicles and eyeballs.”

She worked on those two canonical books for a combined total of 25 years. But she wasn’t done. When her children grew up and left home, she left, too, traveling across the world to research her books “The Food of Italy,” “The Food of Spain” and “Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, & Lebanon.”

On these trips, she delighted in talking to anyone about food and culture: people on trains and buses, waiters in cafes and maids in hotels. She’d ask them what they liked to eat and if they had any recipes. Traveling alone, Ms. Roden had a knack for getting herself invited by strangers to try a local specialty, like the octopus-and-potato salad from the Greek island of Skopelos in her most recent cookbook.

“As I was walking by a family eating on their terrace, they invited me in to share their octopus salad and a bottle of wine,” she wrote. “It was heaven.”

Mr. Levy, of the Oxford Symposium, calls Ms. Roden a culinary anthropologist.

“She’s gone around and done what is the equivalent of field work, then dealt with it in a sophisticated, analytical way,” he said. “She’s a serious thinker.”

Of all her books, “Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean,” is the most poetic, the most lyrical (with photos by Susan Bell), and perhaps the one that most unites all of her many facets.

Containing 100 recipes and spare but warm prose, it has an intimacy that shows these are the dishes she’d cook if you came to her house, gathered from her lifelong travels. But instead of striving to faithfully record someone’s recipe, as she does in other books, she has taken the creative license to tweak them to suit herself. There’s an emphasis on vegetables and grains, and in many cases, simplified, streamlined techniques (and even an occasional one-pot meal).

The food writer Nigella Lawson, a friend of Ms. Roden since Ms. Lawson was 19, calls this book a distillation of Ms. Roden’s joyful, generous spirit. Reading it is like talking with her in her garden, Ms. Lawson said.

“All of a sudden, there are all these exquisite little plates in front of you, and she’s telling you to dip something in olive oil. And you have this sense of what it would be like at her house in Cairo, sitting on her terrace, watching the sunset.”

Which is, of course, exactly what Ms. Roden has set out to do.

“Writing this book was a way of bringing back my past,” Ms. Roden said as the light cast a warm glow over her garden, “and enjoying all of my memories.”

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Rare and dying Jewish dialects course attracts interest

A hundred people have enrolled  at The Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages in the UK  for its inaugural semester of courses in 12 Jewish languages, belonging to the Aramaic, Arabic and Turkic language families. They range in number of speakers, from millions to none. Haaretz has the story: (with thanks: Lily)

Youtube lecture by Dr Assaf Bar-Moshe on Jewish-Arabic dialects (Spanish synagogue, Montreal)

The courses, which began this week, run for an hour a week online and are free for all students.

“There are currently many brilliant research projects and online platforms concerning Jewish languages,” said Professor Judith Olszowy-Schlanger, president of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and the creator of the new program. “What is missing is the possibility for the growing number of interested students to learn these languages, even less in an academic setting.”

This is why she sees the OSRJL’s format — online and free — as significant: it ensures that classes are accessible to an international pool of students.

Yiddish is one of the 12 Jewish languages offered by the OSRJL — and with roughly 1.5 million speakers worldwide, it is the only language offered by the program that is not endangered or extinct. In fact, Yiddish is growing in its number of speakers.

“People outside of the Yiddish-speaking world have this distorted notion that Yiddish is disappearing,” explained Kalman Weiser, a Silber Family Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at York University, in Toronto. “It’s not. It’s only growing. Judeo-Greek, on the other hand, is a language that is going to disappear.”

Weiser’s mother speaks Judeo-Greek, but unfortunately, this tongue, which originated in the Macedonian Empire, is expected to die out with this generation without serious intervention. Most of the languages offered by the OSRJL face a similar fate. Several — including Judeo-French, Classical Judeo-Arabic and Classical Judeo-Persian — are already considered extinct.

The latter is a language that Daniel Amir, a doctoral researcher of Iranian Jewish history at the University of Oxford, aims to study at the OSRJL. He also plans to take courses in Judeo-Neo-Aramaic, a language with an estimated 60 speakers left.

“Knowing a language is one thing, but getting to learn and improve together with other people is exciting and motivating. All of these languages are ones with which I have a strong personal connection,” he said.

Amir’s family speaks a dialect of Judeo-Neo-Aramaic that is in serious decline, and he wishes to do his part to halt the downward trend. “Most of my experience with the dialect is through talking with and listening to my family, so getting a chance to formally study it is a great privilege,” he said.

Studying any Jewish language, whether it is of heritage or not, opens up a window into the diverse history of world Jewry, Weiser noted. He mentioned a theory proposed by sociolinguist Max Weinreich in “The History of the Yiddish Language,” which suggests that there is an unbroken chain of Jewish languages stemming from ancient Hebrew to today, where Yiddish is the latest link.

“Once you take this approach, any Jewish language becomes a vital part of Jewishness,” Weiser said. “You start off at one place but then you begin to see the bigger picture.”

Though the chances that Karaim (a Turkic language with roughly 80 speakers) or Judeo-Italian (a Romance language with 250 speakers) are one’s heritage language are low today, studying them can be a potent exercise in understanding the broader Jewish experience. Olszowy-Schlanger told JTA that the OSRJL intends to bolster the connection students feel to their cultures, both through the language courses and by offering a variety of other online content, including blog publications on exceptional books and a 16-lecture series on Yiddish music.

The ripple effects of a program like this are not secluded to the Jewish realm — Weiser mentioned that many past Jewish language initiatives were in tandem, influenced by, or would go on to influence other Indigenous language programs.

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Herzog calls on Israel to embrace Mizrahi religious tradition

Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog,  has marked the 200-year old anniversary of the passing of a great Moroccan rabbi with a call for Israeli society to embrace the traditions of the Jews from Arab and Islamic lands.

President Herzog speaking at the Hoshana Rabbah event

Speaking on Hoshana Rabbah, at the end of the Succot holiday, President Herzog declared: “We must all, as a nation and as a state, lovingly embrace the roots of the tradition of the Jews from Arab and Islamic lands, those known as Mizrahi Jews, and make it a significant and influential element of our conduct and lifestyles—as a society, as individuals, and most importantly—to discover, to learn, and to know.”

President Isaac Herzog and First Lady Michal Herzog hosted a study session at the President’s Residence in honor of the Jewish holiday of Hoshana Rabbah. The event was held to mark 200 years since the passing of Rabbi Raphael Berdugo, one of the great sages of Moroccan Jewry. The event was attended by Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar; the president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, Prof. Moshe Bar-Asher; Rabbi David Berdugo, a sixth-generation descendant of Rabbi Raphael Berdugo; and other rabbis, scholars, and descendants of the Moroccan sage.

Rabbi Raphael Berdugo (“the Angel Berdugo”) passed away 200 years ago on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Hoshana Rabbah. He was one of the greatest rabbis of Moroccan Jewry and left a tremendous mark on the history of Middle Eastern Jewry, leaving behind a glorious legacy. This special study session in his honor was the initiative of the Israel Prize laureate Prof. Moshe Bar-Asher, the president of the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

Outreach groups help Arabic speakers to observe Succot

As the numbers of halachic Jews in Arab countries can be counted on the fingers of one hand, Jewish religious organisations like Yad L’Achim are now focusing on  helping and educating mixed, Arabic-speaking families with Jewish roots. One of the tools they are using is an instruction video on how to build a Succah. Report in Israel Hayom:

Arabic Succot video produced by Yad L’Achim and Yahduton


Dozens of sets of the Four Species – etrog, palm, myrtle, and willow – traditionally used for prayers during the festival of Sukkot have recently been transferred to the few Jews still living in Arab countries like Syria and Iraq.

The Yad L’Achim organization took care to organize the shipments, which were transferred in a secret operation.

Amir, the Yad L’Achim official responsible for overseeing the organization’s operations, explained this week that the Four Species sets were in transit to “various countries.”

According to the outreach group, sets have also been supplied to Jewish women who married Arab Israeli men in Israel, and their children.

In recent years, Yad L’Achim has been working to bring Jews living in Arab countries and Arabic-speaking Jews elsewhere in the world closer together. Arabic-speaking Jews in Palestinian refugee camps, whose mothers are Jewish, have also reportedly reached out to the group and asked for help strengthening their Jewish identities.

Yad L’Achim offers them information about Judaism and support in the form of Torah lessons by telephone and shipments of items for Jewish holidays.

Increased outreach to Arabic-speaking Jews has led to a corresponding rise in demand for Jewish information in Arabic, such as guidance on various issues of Jewish law. In response, Yad L’Achim has begun cooperating with the YouTube channel Yahduton, which has produced dozens of outreach videos on Jewish subjects.

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Wishing all readers who observe the Festival HAG SUCCOT SAMEAH!

Iranian Jews receive 500 etrogim

More about the Sephardi celebration of Succot


The poem at the centre of the Yom Kippur service

With thanks: Lisette

The Ten Penitential Days are about to reach their climax with Yom Kippur, which starts this evening.

To quote the Masorti website, Adon HaSelichot is one of the oldest known piyutim, liturgical poems, in the canon of High Holiday prayers.

In Sephardic communities, the piyut is at the center of the Selichot service, recited daily, besides Shabbat, from the 2nd day of Elul until after Yom Kippur.

The piyut has become well known across the Jewish communities of Israel, and is sung in most synagogues, with melodies coming from Turkey, Morocco, and Ottoman-era Palestine, among others. The poem, written in acrostic form, focuses on God’s omniscience and awareness of the sins and failings of every human. Despite this, we ask for God to have mercy on us, despite our various shortcomings.

Here is a spirited rendering of Adon Haselichot on the Shofar, the ram’s horn, by the Israel Sosna band. The audience of Sephardi Yeshiva boys supplies the chorus.

Wishing all those who are marking Yom Kippur an easy fast and all good wishes for 5782.



Adon haselichot
bochen levavot
goleh amukot
dover tzedakot

Chatanu lefaneicha
rachem aleinu.

Hadur benifla’ot
vatik benechamot
zocher b’rit amo
choker kelayot

Chatanu lefaneicha
rachem aleinu.

Male zakiyut
nora tehino
tzone’ach avonot
oneh be’etzavot

Chatanu lefaneicha
rachem aleinu.

Master of Forgivings
examiner of hearts
the revealer of depths
speaker of justice

We have sinned before You,
have mercy upon us

Glorious in wonders
great in consolations
remembering the covenant of his nation
investigating innihilation

We have sinned before You,
have mercy upon us

Full of gaining
his entreaty is awesome
drops evils to the ground
answers sorrows

We have sinned before You,
have mercy upon us

Break the Yom Kippur Fast with these two Sephardi recipes


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