A Successful First Event in Our Sephardic Lecture Series!

Posted on January 21st, 2015 by

Despite the icy weather this past Sunday, Rabbi Ronnie Perelis of the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies of Yeshiva University transported us both back in time and to a much warmer and sunnier place – the Caribbean. Before there were thriving Jewish communities in cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Charleston and Savannah, most Jews in the Americas lived in the Caribbean. They were part of a dynamic Sephardic network of trade and culture which connected major metropolitan centers such as Amsterdam and London to colonial ports such as Curacao and Kingston.

Rabbi Perelis welcomes the crowd.

Rabbi Perelis welcomes the crowd.

Rabbi Perelis began his talk around the turn of the 16th century, in 1492, when Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World and as the Spanish Inquisition reached its peak. In the “Prologue” of his Diary dedicated to the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, Christopher Columbus writes “And thus after having expelled all of the Jews from your kingdoms and possessions, in the same month of January, Your Royal Highnesses sent me . . . to these parts of the Indies. . .” Then, within 5 years of Spain expelling its Jews, Portugal followed suit. Iberian Jews were forced to either practiced their faith in secret or seek refuge in the cities and towns of Europe, North Africa, the Near East, and even as far as Dutch-ruled Brazil.

Rabbi Perelis shared some great images.

Rabbi Perelis shared some great images.

However, in 1654, Portugal regained control of Brazil and continued the expulsion of its Jewish colonists. As a result, most either returned to Holland or relocated to Caribbean colonies. In hopes of building a new life, a small group of Jewish refugees settled in New Amsterdam. As the Jewish community continued to grow in the subsequent years, they appealed to the government in an effort to gain the rights offered to other settlers, such as the right to engage in civic duties and to own property.

In response, George Washington wrote to the Newport Hebrew Congregation in 1790 that

“happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support… May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Throughout his talk, Rabbi Perelis shared several intriguing maps, drawings and artifacts. Among my favorites were:

Illuminated Ketuba of Meir Meyerstone and Rebekah De Meza on November 7, 1819 New York

Illuminated Ketuba of Meir Meyerstone and Rebekah De Meza on November 7, 1819 New York 

Solomon Carvalho painted the interior of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim from memory after the synagogue was destroyed by fire in 1838. He offered the canvas to the congregation “for such Compensation as the Board may deem proper to allow.” They judged it to be “neat & accurate” and paid him $50.

Interior of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim by Carvahlo

Interior of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim by Carvahlo

John Rubens Smith (1770-1840). Jews Synagogue in Charleston [Beth Elohim], ca. 1812.

John Rubens Smith (1770-1840). Jews Synagogue in Charleston [Beth Elohim], ca. 1812.

Overall, Rabbi Perelis’ talk was incredibly informative and a great first program in our Sephardic Lecture Series.  You definitely don’t want to miss the second, and final talk in this series: Ladino, a Language of the Jewish Diaspora.  Dr. Adriana Brodsky of St. Mary’s College of Maryland will talk about the history and current state of Ladino, a Jewish language that arose in the Iberian Peninsula and spread in the wake of the expulsion of Jews in 1492 as new Jewish communities settled throughout the Mediterranean region.

La Epoca was a Judeo-Spanish newspaper.

La Epoca was a Judeo-Spanish newspaper.

Rabbi Perelis also sent me a list of books that may be of interest!

Continued Reading: 

Atlantic Diasporas: Jews, Conversos, and Crypto-Jews in the Age of Mercantilism, 1500–1800, edited by Richard L. Kagan and Philip D. Morgan

Jews in the Caribbean, edited by Jane Gerber

A Nation upon the Ocean Sea: Portugal’s Atlantic Diaspora and the Crisis of the Spanish Empire, 1492-1640; Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert

Carolyn BevansA blog post by Carolyn Bevans, Museum Educator and Programs Associate. To read more posts from Carolyn, click HERE. 

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The Rosh HaShanah Seder

Posted on September 12th, 2012 by

By Rabbi Barbara Aiello 

After the Chosen Food exhibition opened almost a year ago, my research on Jewish food slowed considerably, but it did not come to a complete halt. I’m forever hearing about something that is new to me, or seizing on bits of history and culture that I put aside for further investigation. The Sephardic/Mizrachi custom of the Rosh HaShanah seder was included in our exhibition, thanks to Poopa Dweck’s generosity in sharing a photograph from her beautiful cookbook, Aromas of Aleppo (Harper Collins, 2007), but we didn’t explore it in depth. So I reached out to Rabbi Barbara Aiello, a woman on the forefront of popularizing this lovely custom in America, to write about her experiences for us.

Rabbi Barbara, as she likes to be addressed, is the first woman rabbi and first non-orthodox rabbi in Italy. She serves Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, the first active synagogue in Calabria since Inquisition times. During the winter months she serves the Kobernick senior living campus in Sarasota, Florida where she is resident rabbi. Contact her at www.rabbibarbara.com.

For more information about how to celebrate a Rosh HaShanah seder, complete with a “mini haggadah,” go to Rabbi Barbara’s 2010 post on Interfaith Family at http:///www.interfaithfamily.com/holidays/rosh_hashanah_and_yom_kippur/The_Rosh_Hashanah_Seder_Who_Knew.shtml

 Shana tova umetukah!


Rabbi Barbara Aiello

All of us know the most popular seder of all – the Passover Seder. “Seder” is a Hebrew word that means “order,” and the Passover seder includes an order of prayers and blessings, symbolic foods and songs, and of course, a special seder plate, to help tell the story of the our Jewish ancestors’ flight from slavery in Egypt to freedom.

The less well-known Rosh HaShanah seder is a Sephardic custom.  In Jewish homes in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Greece, North African countries like Morocco and Egypt, and India, it is traditional for families to hold a seder on the night before Rosh HaShanah.

The Rosh HaShanah seder is similar to the Passover seder in many ways.  It includes stories, prayers, blessings, songs and symbolic foods. In recent years seder plates designed especially for the symbolic Rosh HaShanah seder foods have become available so that families can create a specific “order” to celebrate the birthday of the world.

The Rosh HaShanah seder  is called “Seder Yehi Ratzon,” the Seder of God’s will, because we offer blessings that it will be God’s will that we are blessed with bounty, strength, and peace in the coming year. The seder has its origins in the Talmud (Horayot 12a) where Rabbi Abaye writes about eating those foods that grow in abundance at this time of the year. We serve this abundance at our Rosh HaShanah seder table as a symbol of prosperity.

As a Sephardic Jew and rabbi who serves a congregation in Calabria, Italy, for part of the year, I brought the Rosh HaShanah seder to my congregants who live at the Kobernick senior community in Sarasota, Florida.  I’ve offered the seder tasting for three years to participants who range in age from 70 to over 100 years old, and members of the community who volunteer on our campus. We create small seder plates so that each individual can sample the symbolic foods. A larger plate contains a taste of the symbolic foods such as dates or pomegranates, figs, apples and honey, carrots, pumpkin or squash, beets, scallions or leeks and tuna fish. The table centerpiece features a large fish head, reminiscent of the ancient seder tradition where a large steamed fish was offered as the main course.

The Rosh HaShanah seder is quickly becoming an important event in the celebration of the Jewish New Year, mainly because it offers a joyful simcha during a solemn time of the year. Sometimes the birthday of the world is secondary to Rosh HaShanah’s more  somber message of teshuvah (return). The Rosh HaShanah seder offers a moment of joy prior to the services that contain a more serious theme.

The cultural element to the seder experience gives American Jews, the majority of whom have roots in the Ashkenazi tradition, a chance to experience a simcha that originates from Sephardic or Middle Eastern culture. Because we Sephardic Jews are a minority within a minority, our unique culture is often obscure or misunderstood. The seder gives Jews of all backgrounds a glimpse into the beauty of the Mediterranean Jewish culture, broadening the “meshpucha” feeling for all of us.

Finally those who participate in the Rosh HaShanah seder have the opportunity to add another family-based observance to the New Year experience. We Jews enjoy gathering around the family table. The Rosh HaShanah seder is another way to bring the family together, not only to tickle the palate, but to share in gratitude for another year of love and life.

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