Yemenite Jewish Kubaneh (Sabbath bread)

Gabriel Attar was born in 1951 in a dismal immigrant transit camp in Afula, Israel. His parents had been part of the soul-stirring effort of the Israel government to airlift more than 50,000 Jews from Yemen to Israel between 1948 and 1950.

Today, only a handful of Jews remain in Yemen.

Attar, a high school math teacher, spoke about his family’s history recently as part of a series of programs on Jews from Arab lands, sponsored by Congregation Keter Torah, the only Sephardic congregation in the Detroit area.

Strictly speaking the Jews of Yemen are not Sephardic but Mizrachi. Sephardic comes from the Hebrew word for Spain, and refers to the descendants of Jews who fled from Spain and Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition and settled in North Africa and the Middle East.

Jews who never left the Middle East but who stayed in Yemen, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and neighboring countries, are called Mizrachi, from the Hebrew word for “east.”

Operation Magic Carpet

Many of the Yemenite Jews who were airlifted from their homeland in the effort that became known as Operation Magic Carpet had never even seen an airplane, let alone ridden in one.

In Israel they were placed in tent cities until permanent housing could be built for them. Attar’s parents were born in one of these camps. She was 16 when they married.

Eventually the family was resettled in the Machane Yehuda section of Jerusalem, a multi-ethnic neighborhood that houses the city’s famous produce market.

Attar has vivid memories of the wedding of his uncle and aunt.

“Preparation started with the henna-painting party for the women one week before the wedding,” he said.

“For the wedding, Yona was dressed in traditional Yemenite bride attire with lots of jewelry. Every item of jewelry symbolized something different. Every ring and every bracelet was worn in a particular order to symbolize blessings such as fertility, longevity of life and marriage, peace in the home, etc.”

A family success story

Attar’s mother could not read or write, but her five sons are all educated and successful. His four brothers live in Israel with their families.

He met his American wife, Marilyn, when he was the driver and tour guide for her family who were visiting Israel. They married in 1985.

Guests at the program enjoyed a variety of Yemenite foods, including kubaneh, a traditional bread made for the Sabbath. It’s baked for a long time at a low temperature, and can even be baked overnight to be enjoyed warm on the Sabbath when cooking is not permitted.

This recipe comes from





Remembering Jewish Tunisia with a sandwich

Detroit’s only Sephardic synagogue, for Jews whose families came from North Africa and the Middle East, recently held another in a series of lectures and cooking demonstrations. This one was about the Jews of Tunisia.

Speaker Sylvie Jami Salei’s ancestors had lived in Tunis since 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain and many settled in North Africa. But the Jewish community in Tunisia is much older. Remains have been found of a synagogue built in the 3rd century CE.

An ancient community

Under the rule of the Romans and the Vandals, the Jews of Tunis increased and prospered to such a degree that church councils enacted restrictive laws against them.

When Muslims ruled Tunisia, the Jewish community enjoyed years of good treatment interspersed with periods of anti-Semitism and discrimination. The community prospered during the country’s years as a French protectorate. Many Tunisian Jews became French citizens and identified strongly with French culture.

The community was at risk during World War II. France’s Vichy government collaborated with the Nazis and drew up plans to create North African concentration camps. Although about 160 Tunisian Jews were deported to European concentration camps, and others were forced to do slave labor, the Nazi sympathizers ran out of time and the community was saved.

Rising anti-Semitism

As soon as Tunisia gained independence in 1956, the government implemented anti-Jewish measures. Anti-Semitism, both official and casual, increased when the French left for good in 1963.

Salei’s family left for Paris in 1965. She remembers that they had to buy round-trip tickets. They were not permitted to take any funds – her father’s pension was frozen –  and they were body-searched as they left to make sure they weren’t hiding any jewels or other valuables. The belongings they arranged to ship never arrived in France.

By the late 1960s, the Tunisian Jewish community had been decimated. Once as large as 100,000, the community now numbers around 1,000. Most live on the small island of Djerba; Tunis, which once had tens of thousands of Jews, now has 500, most of them elderly and frail. Lucette Lagnado recently wrote a long article about The Last of the Arab Jews in the Wall Street Journal. She points out that in the Arab world in the first half of the 20th century there were more than 850,000 Jews. Today, there are fewer than 4,500. (Visit this website for more information about Jewish refugees from Arab  lands.)

Refuge in Paris, Israel and the US

In Paris, Salei’s family of five lived in a one-bedroom apartment. They received no help from the French government.

Salei’s childhood memories are mostly happy ones, of attending concerts and movies in Arabic, English and French, all of which she learned at school.

But later she realized that she wasn’t privy to the worries her parents faced, and that life was not so idyllic for the family. She and her siblings were all born at home because her mother was afraid to go to the Muslim-run hospital. Her youngest sibling, a girl, died soon after birth because she couldn’t get the care she needed. A cousin was kidnapped and killed by Arabs.

Salei’s family left Paris for Israel and emigrated to the United States in 1973.

In 2014, Tunisia implemented a new secular constitution – the first of its kind in the Arab world – that specifically protects minorities. In January 2014, Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa nominated a Jew, Rene Trabelsi, as minister of tourism. Djerba is a popular destination for Jewish tourists.

Today’s recipe, provided by Salei, is for a sandwich that is popular in France as well as Tunisia. When these were served at the Keter Torah event, I recalled seeing similar sandwiches at a French bakery in Jerusalem, kind of the  Middle Eastern Jewish version of a hoagie, hero or sub. The ingredients sound a little weird, but the combination makes a very tasty sandwich.

A seder and a symbolic carrot salad for Rosh Hashanah

Rabbi Sasson Natan is getting ready for his family’s seder.

Hold on a minute, you’re probably saying. Even if you’re not Jewish, you know that Passover is in the spring. Even the lesser-known Tu b’Shevat seder, which I wrote about last year in Feed the Spirit, isn’t until February.

Ah yes, but the rabbi, spiritual leader of Keter Torah Synagogue in suburban Detroit, is preparing for the Jewish year’s third seder, the Rosh Hashanah seder, a custom widely practiced by Mizrachi and Sephardi Jews.

Bet you thought the main groups of Jews were Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. There’s one other big dividing line, and it goes back to the 1400s and even earlier.

A capsule Jewish geography

After Rome completely conquered Judea (what is now Israel) in the year 72 CE, Jews scattered throughout the Middle East and beyond. Those who stayed in the Middle East–Palestine (as the Romans renamed Judea, and where there has always been a Jewish presence), Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, India–became known as “Mizrachi” Jews, meaning from the East. A large number of Jews settled in Spain, where they flourished for hundreds of years until Ferdinand and Isabella expelled them all in 1492. This group were known as Sephardi Jews, from the Hebrew word for Spain, Sepharad. After the expulsion, many went to North Africa, joining well established Jewish communities.

Most American Jews are of Ashkenazi heritage, whose ancestors settled in central and eastern Europe. The word comes from the Hebrew word for Germany, Ashkenaz.

Although each country’s Jewish community had its unique customs, those of the Mizrachi and Sephardi communities are similar in many ways, as are those of Ashkenazi Jews, and the differences between Sephardi and Ashkenazi practices are often striking. Even though they say the same prayers, Sephardi synagogue services sound very different from Ashkenazi services because they use different chants and tunes.

Many Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews also eat symbolic foods at Rosh Hashanah, but I’ve never heard anyone call it a “seder” before.

The practice comes from the Talmud, the collection of Jewish laws and traditions said Rabbi Sasson, a native of Iraq who likes to be called by his first name. On both nights of Rosh Hashanah, after the blessings over wine and bread but before the festive meal, celebrants eat a variety of foods to symbolize their hopes for a good new year.

Seder means “order”

Seder simply means “order;” it’s a way of celebrating a holiday using specific foods with an associated, ritual meaning. Different Sephardi and Mizrachi communities follow different orders and may eat slightly different foods.

In the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment. God reviews everything we’ve done in the past year and decides our fate; the decree is sealed 10 days later on Yom Kippur.

At the heart of the Rosh Hashanah seder, said the rabbi, are wishes we request God to grant us in the coming year.

“On Erev Rosh Hashanah (the evening, when the holiday starts), we know that the next day we will go to court before God the judge, and our enemies will come to the court with files and files against us,” said Rabbi Sasson. We use various foods to symbolize our pleas for our enemies to be vanquished and for us to have blessings, he said.

The eight Rosh Hashanah seder foods are  called simanim – symbols – because the Hebrew, Aramaic or Arabic word for that food is associated with another Hebrew word that can extend into a wish for the new year. These include:

  • Dates, with a wish that our enemies will be consumed.
  • Beets, with a wish that our enemies will run away.
  • Leeks, with a wish that our enemies be chopped up.
  • Long green beans, called “rubia” in Arabic–Rabbi Sasson uses black-eyed peas–with a wish that our merits increase.
  • Zucchini or similar squash, with a wish that any evil verdicts against us be ripped up and that our merits be announced before God.
  • Pomegranate, with a wish that we be filled with mitzvot (God’s commandments) like a pomegranate is filled with seeds. (Some say the number of seeds in a pomegranate equals the number of mitzvot in the Torah: 613.)
  • A fish head or sheep’s head, with a wish that God will make us like the head and not the tail. (If a sheep’s head is used, it also reminds us of the binding of Isaac, which we read about on Rosh Hashanah.)
  • Apple and honey, with a wish that God will renew for us a good and sweet year.

The basis for delicious dishes

Often the foods are made into delicious salads or other dishes that serve as appetizers to the main meal. Rabbi Sasson says for the beet portion of the seder, his wife stuffs beet leaves with minced meat, a dish similar to stuffed grape leaves.

The seder leader holds each food in the right hand while explaining the meaning of the food and reciting the blessing for the food and the wish associated with it. The entire ceremony takes only about 15 or 20 minutes, said the rabbi.

Almost all Jews, even those who don’t do a seder ceremony, eat apples and honey as a way of wishing for a good and sweet year to come. Here is a link to a more detailed article about the Rosh Hashanah seder by a woman who was born in Calcutta.

Food puns as symbols

Some have adopted the idea of simanim using languages other than Hebrew and Arabic. Many Ashkenazi Jews eat carrots in place of black-eyed peas, because in Yiddish (for centuries the language of the Ashkenazi Jews) the word for “carrots”–mehren–sounds a lot like the Yiddish word for “more”–mehr.

In fact, says Bessie Krapfman in an article about Rosh Hashanah foods, it’s even better for simanim to be puns from one’s native language. “My sister-in-law is very strict to make certain that there is a stick of celery and some raisins on the table,” says Krapfman. “She always takes the celery together with the raisins and loudly requests of God that he give us all a ‘raise in our salary.’ That is always good for a few laughs, but this is really what we are supposed to do, laughs aside.”

In addition to the raisins and celery (glued together with peanut butter), my son-in-law recently started serving dried fruits wrapped in toilet paper, as a wish that his guests will be “fruitful and multi-ply” (appropriate for those still building their families). I suggested that they might want to puree some cooked peas and serve them with a wish for “whirled peas” (world peace, get it?) Even better, top the peas with a dollop of grits and ask for “whirled peas and hominy.”

What kind of puns can you think of involving food and good wishes?

For your gustatory delight, I offer this recipe for an Israeli carrot, pomegranate and parsley salad, which uses two simanim, carrots and pomegranate. It’s a bit of a bother to pull the leaves off the parsley and get the seeds out of the pomegranate, but after that, it’s a snap to make, and it’s oh-so-pretty as well as tasty. (Helpful hint: quarter the pomegranate and then put the pieces into a large bowl of water before breaking them apart. The seeds will sink to the bottom of the bowl and the pith will float to the top. Skim off the pith, and then drain the seeds in a strainer or colander.)