Seders on Rosh Hashanah? A Calcutta Story

By Ethan Porter

Published September 10, 2004, issue of September 10, 2004.

If you’ve never heard of a Rosh Hashanah Seder, you aren’t alone, but Rahel Musleah is trying to change that. The tradition, which Musleah summarizes in her new children’s book, “Apples and Pomegranates: A Rosh Hashanah Seder” (Kar-Ben), with illustrations by Judy Jarrett, comes from her native India, where it was long practiced by the community of Sephardic Jews to which she can trace her ancestry.

Like the Passover Seder, the Seder outlined in Musleah’s book includes rituals to be enacted through the Rosh Hashanah meal, with food playing a central role. Eight culinary dishes — including a dish of green beans, which are called lubia in India and are mentioned in the Talmud — are presented as the centerpiece of the Seder, with relevant stories from a variety of sources, including the Torah, Tunisian and Turkish mythology, and Jewish folklore anthologies.

In an implicit acknowledgement of just how exotic some of its content will seem to some readers, Musleah encourages improvisation when necessary. It should be understood as a “template” available for expansion and alteration, she said. For example, though she perused a plethora of sources in her search for pertinent stories, Musleah could find not find one for every dish. So she improvised, transforming the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk” into the more Semitic “Jacob and the Beanstalk.”

The usage of an eternally popular children’s tale demonstrates one of the Seder book’s chief aims: to make the holidays appealing to kids. Indeed, “Apples and Pomegranates” offers a “Family Seder” that pays ample attention to the little ones. Musleah, who recalls her Rosh Hashanah Seders as a child in the fondest of terms, now hopes to see other children have the same experiences.

“I remember cutting the pomegranate, taking the seeds out, making sure it didn’t splatter all over the kitchen and my clothes,” she said. “That’s the stuff memories are made of. It sounds corny, but it’s true.”

Her own personal trove of Seder memories and experiences was a major impetus for the book’s publication. She drew upon a slightly tattered, yet mostly legible paper of prayers that had been used by her family in India for generations — a gesture that may serve to preserve and popularize a ritual that, along with the Jewish community in India, may have been in danger of disappearing.

Ethan Porter is a sophomore at Bard College.



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