etz ahaim

Book Review: Growing Up Jewish in Alexandria by Lucienne Carasso

L Carasso reads her book
Have you ever heard someone speak, and felt you have become part of history? Last week I had the pleasure of hearing Lucienne Carasso, author of Growing Up Jewish in Alexandria: The Story of a Sephardic Family’s Exodus from Egypt tell us about her book at Congregation Etz Ahaim in Highland Park, New Jersey. After the Tahrir Square protests in Egypt (2011), she decided if everyone was talking about Egypt, it was time to tell her story, too. Others have written about growing Jewish in Egypt (see, for example, review of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit), but Lucienne Carasso had her own story to tell. Indeed, she uses the book to trace her own family’s history, back to Salonika and even further back to Spain; she hypothesizes some of her family may have come from Catalonia.

A little about Alexandria and its history: Alexandria was founded in 331 BCE by Alexander the Great. He chose the spot on the Mediterranean because it had a natural harbor, fresh water and favorable weather. Many people, not only Jews, came to Alexandria in the later 19th century and early 20th century because of new economic opportunities, especially in cotton (rice and onions are two other major agricultural products of Egypt). Alexandria became a cosmopolitan city, with Greeks, Italians, Jews, Armenians and others.

Life was fun for Lucienne as a child growing up in Alexandria. She was loved by extended family, enjoyed gardens, beaches, pastry shops and the movies. Then one day in November 1956 her father is arrested. This is one year after Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in Egypt. Her whole world changes. Jewish businesses are taken away by the government, and most Jewish families leave, only with a limited amount of possessions. Her family stays a little longer, as her two grandmothers are still alive, and it takes a while for her father to liquidate what remains of his businesses. She goes from having many playmates to being alone with a few of her adult relatives.

One aspect of the book that I quite enjoyed was about Ladino, a Judeo-Spanish language that was spoken by the Jews of Spain before the expulsion in 1492. Spanish Jews continued to speak Ladino when they moved to cities like Salonika and Istanbul. Indeed, some of my adult friends at Congregation Etz Ahaim spoke Ladino as children. Lucienne’s grandmothers both spoke Ladino to her, reciting Ladino proverbs. Her Nona Sol (maternal grandmother) used to call her “morenica y savrosica” – loosely translated as “dark-haired and flavorful little girl.” Lucienne and her family spoke French at home and learned French at school, but for expressing deep feelings, Ladino was used. In reference to the expulsion of Jews from Spain and the invitation from sultan of the Ottoman Empire for Jews to come, she quotes her father’s expression: “Donde una puerta se cierra, otra se abre” – when one door closes, another one opens.

Her writings on food are sprinkled throughout the book. She loved ice cream and describes enjoying it in restaurants and making it at home. Her family is thrilled to discover in New York you can buy ice cream in the store and store it in your freezer. Sephardic pastries make a showing – women in her family specialize in roscas, ghorayebas and menanas (if anyone knows more about these, feel free to leave a comment). Her family does not keep kosher; the religious members of her family were a few generations back. When she is feeling depressed after her father is arrested and school is stopped for her, she writes about indulging a little too much in rich foods as comfort.

What is freedom? When her family spends time in Italy after being forced to leave Egypt, one of the movies they have the opportunity to see is Exodus. In Egypt one cannot say the word Israel or talk at all about Zionism. The teachers in her school after the rise of Nasser said terrible things about Israelis and Jews. Lucienne speaks of her and her parents’ reaction to an Exodus scene:

“When they sang out loud ‘Hatikva,’ which we used to whisper in Alexandria, my parents and I burst into tears. We were so moved. I knew then we were really free.

Another example of freedom is shown when Lucienne becomes a student in high school in New York City. Her English teacher is giving his interpretation of a novel. A student raises her hand and says she disagrees. Lucienne’s reaction:

“I almost fell over. I could not believe my ears. In the French educational system, one never challenges the teacher. The teacher is the “Authority” with a capital “A.” That day, I learned the meaning of democracy and free speech. A student could be entitled to her opinion as much as the teacher. Wow – what an idea!”

Lucienne Carasso reads from her book at Congregation Etz Ahaim, Highland Park, New Jersey
One of the selections she read from the book at her speech at Congregation Etz Ahaim was her response to the question of her teacher – “Who is the hero of the Egyptian Revolution?” She learns quickly that she should respond Gamal Abdel Nasser. She did not have to believe her teachers, but she had to spit out back whatever they were teaching.

Several members of Congregation Etz Ahaim grew up in Alexandria or Cairo, Egypt. We had two women at our table who had spent their childhoods in Alexandria.

Lucienne enjoyed the movies as a teen, but for her notes on the movies I will recommend you read the book. If you enjoy history and biography or want to learn about other cultures or life under totalitarian societies, Growing Up Jewish in Alexandria: The Story of a Sephardic Family’s Exodus from Egypt is a rewarding read.

Recital with Linda Balavram

My friend Linda Balavram will be having a recital this Sunday, November 21 at 2:30 pm at Congregation Etz Ahaim in Highland Park, New Jersey. She plays the bassoon and will be accompanied by pianist Kathleen Haynie.

Linda Balavram
When I was in college at Boston University, there were often free recitals by top quality musicians. How nice to have such a treat here in Highland Park!

Tall Towers Tale

Tower of Babel by Brueghel
Rabbi Bassous related the following story on Shabbat:

About thirty years ago when the Soviet Union first opened its doors, an elderly woman arrived in Israel who was visited by many rabbis. She was not religious, but she was the granddaughter of someone famous: the Chofetz Chaim. They wanted to hear about her conversations with and stories about her famous grandfather. There was one story in particular that was related. The granddaughter, against her parents’ and grandfather’s wishes, had attended university. After much education, she came back to her grandfather and said to him, when are you going to give up your old-fashioned ways? The world is moving forward with science and technology; all sorts of exciting new discoveries are happening. The Chofetz Chaim replied, with all these great discoveries, they will build bombs. One day there will be a bomb to destroy the world. While they are building bombs, I am building people.

Rabbi Bassous then went on to relate this to the parsha, where the people build a tower toward the skies.

More on Congregation Etz Ahaim in this post.

•   •   •

The Kosher Cooking Carnival, post-holiday edition, is on Batya’s blog. Thank you, Batya.

The painting is Tower of Babel by Brueghel.

Yom Kippur Tune

This beautiful tune, El Nora Alila, is sung at Congregation Etz Ahaim in Highland Park at nei’la time, the last prayer of Yom Kippur. My husband said the first tune on this video, the Turkish one, is the melody used at our synagogue, which makes sense since it was founded by immigrants from Salonika and Turkey.

Hat Tip: a friend who used to belong to Congregation Etz Ahaim and now lives in Israel; and another friend who was pleased to hear it sung at his father’s Reform temple in a suburb north of New York City.

Sephardi Piyut of Rosh Hashana

Many of the piyutim (liturgical songs) that we sing at Congregation Etz Ahaim on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are beautiful, memorable melodies, but one that stands out in particular is Et Sha’arei Ratzon (see the piyut on Sefaria). The poem was written by R. Yehuda ben Shmuel Ibn Abbas in the 12th century; it is a haunting retelling of the Akeida, the story in which Avraham brings his son Isaac as a sacrifice and then he is stopped by an angel. The repeated verse that most remember is “Oked veHanekad VeHamizbeach” – “the binder, the bound, and the altar.” Here is Avraham the binder bringing his son the bound on the altar – a scary, hard to explain, difficult to comprehend episode in the Torah. It seems like we too on Rosh Hashana are coming before God; like for Avraham, it is the “Et Sha’arei Ratzon” – the time of the gates of grace or desire. The Akeida is part of the Torah reading for Rosh Hashana.

My husband explained some of the midrashim of this song. The first is a lie that Avraham tells Sarah, that he is taking Yitzhak (Isaac), her beloved only son, to study Torah. In the next, Avraham, Yitzhak (Isaac) and his servants are approaching the mountain, but at some point the servants are told to stay behind because, according the English translation in the Sephardi siddur, they are not “spiritually worthy.” The Hebrew, however, calls them Hamor (may possibly be translated as donkey). When Isaac is taken to be sacrificed, he worries about his mother Sarah, how she will weep for him. The angels ask that Isaac be spared, that there shouldn’t be a world without a moon (i.e., without Isaac, who is compared to the moon).

The poet, who starts the poem with gates of “ratzon” (desire?) ends with gates of “rahamim” (pity, mercy) and a call for salvation.

Et Sha’arei Ratzon (Oked Vehanekad), sung at Congregation Etz Ahaim in Highland Park, New Jersey, on Rosh Hashana, is a poem written by R. Yehuda ben Shmuel Ibn Abbas in the 12th century; it is a retelling of the sacrifice of Isaac.

Stained Glass at Etz Ahaim

stained glass window
Stained Glass Window at Congregation Etz Ahaim, Highland Park, New Jersey

I photographed this one stained glass window at Congregation Etz Ahaim where we are members last Sunday. It was dark in the room, but I managed to capture this one panel of many that line the top of the sanctuary. This stained glass panel depicts the fourth day of creation, Yom Daled in Hebrew.

Genesis 1:16 –

And God made the two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; and the stars.

This portion of the Torah is the one my son will be reading next October, when he turns 13, and we celebrate his bar-mitzvah.

Daughter and I

Leora and daughter princess outfit
I was in the mood to post a cheery photo, and here’s a great one of the daughter and me. I don’t recall who took the photo; it was a year and a half ago on Purim, a holiday where kids get dressed up, and my daughter was dressed as a Prima Ballerina. It was taken at our synagogue, Congregation Etz Ahaim of Highland Park, New Jersey.

I made this sepia in Photoshop by desaturating the photo and then moving the color sliders to increase the yellow and magenta.

Ashkenazim in a Sephardi Shul

Etz Ahaim logoLast week I was discussing the term Sephardi, and Little Frumhouse on the Prairie, who just posted a delicious carnival of delightful bites, suggested I blog about how we Ashkenazim came to a Sephardi shul (or should I say beit knesset…shul is yiddish).

There are a lot of Ashkenazim at Congregation Etz Ahaim. A while back, I wrote a post about Voices of Etz Ahaim, a marvelous oral history book put together by two Ashkenazi members. Many of the Ashkenazim are women married to Sephardi men, but sometimes it’s the reverse. I decided to make a list of “key ingredients” of why Ashkenazim are attracted to Etz Ahaim. Then I add my own personal note at the end.

1) food: Sephardim (the women–the men can’t locate the kitchen…so maybe I should say Sephardot?) know how to cook. Elaborate kiddushes might include dishes such as meat patties on pastry, borekas with a variety of fillings, bulghur & chickpea salad with grated carrots and parsley, and fancy cookies. A simpler kiddush has chickpeas and olives. And there’s usually a jar of herring for the Ashkenazim who need their fix.

2) International flavor: Countries represented include Turkey, Greece, Italy, Israel, Iran, Iraq, France, Morocco, Brazil, Russia. French is spoken in pockets; it’s fun to listen in on the conversations.

Ladino is part of the service. Bendicho su nombre is sung when the Torah is taken out. Ain Kelokeinu is also half Hebrew, half Ladino: non come estro Dio (there is none like our God).

3) Community: It is the only synagogue in Highland Park that isn’t over-crowded and bursting at the seams. We remember “losing” our boys as toddlers in the the large kiddushes of the our previous synagogue. And at Etz Ahaim friendliness comes with the territory.

4) Rabbi Bassous: Our rabbi is both learned and kind, a natural teacher. One can learn from him no matter what your level of Jewish education.

Did I mention the food?

On a more personal note, I like the way the misheberachs (prayer for the sick) are done at Etz Ahaim. When my mother z”l (may her memory be a blessing) was very sick with cancer, the misheberach was very important to me. I didn’t care to say it “quietly to oneself” as was done in the Ashkenazi shul we attended. At Etz Ahaim the women can stand at the mechitza (the separation between men and women) with their requests, and the Rabbi says each name loudly and clearly. I started attending Etz Ahaim on my own, in part so I could hear my mother’s name said out loud. My oldest son soon joined me, as his best friend was at Etz Ahaim. His younger brother soon followed (at that age they went to the groups).

We eventually pulled in my husband (my daughter was born later). Now my husband is on the Executive Board, he’s the treasurer, he keeps track of the aliyot donations, he finds someone to do the haftorah each week, he finds lainers (men who recite Torah) and speech givers when the Rabbi goes away in the summer; they caught him!

But really, it’s the food.

Belz? Hasid? Litvak? Yekke? Sephardi?

This post is dedicated to all those people who are wondering what in the world do those terms mean! Let’s start with two: Hasid vs. Litvak. When you hear Litvak, think Lithuania. Think the Vilna Gaon. Lots of Talmud study. Emphasis on who’s the smartest. My family is basically Litvak (except for those who married into a hasidic branch or married yekkes or one who married a Yemenite or one who married an Ethiopian). Another term used is misnagdim, meaning those who oppose Hassidim(the ‘im” makes Hasid plural in Hebrew).

In the late 18th Century the Ba’al Shem Tov started Hassidism in what is now the Ukraine. It was in response to the emphasis on Talmud study of the Litvaks. Instead, the emphasis is on prayer, joy, spirituality. Hassidim follow a rebbe. So today you have the Belzer Rebbe, the Gerrer Rebbe, the Satmar Rebbe (disputed leadership). Chabad or Lubavitch is also Hassidic.

There is a tiny branch of the Bostoner Rebbe here in Highland Park. The Bostoner is the only Hasidic branch named after an American city. All the other Hasidic branches are named after towns in Eastern Europe.

Yekkes are German Jews. Yekkes are known for being very punctual. This is as opposed to general “Jewish time” (an event that starts later than it is called for). The term “Yekke” comes from jacket, and it refers to the shorter, more Westernized jackets worn by German Jews, as opposed to the longer coats of Eastern European Jews.

Sephardi refers to Jews who were kicked out of Spain in 1492. However, it has come to refer also to Jews from Iraq, Iran, India or Yemen who never had ancestors who lived in Spain. That’s why in Israel they are called ‘Edot HaMizrach’ or congregations of the East. Sephardim are from countries like Morroco, Italy, Turkey, Greece (especially Salonika), Libya, Tunisia. Many have moved from those countries to France. We belong to a Sephardi congregation in Highland Park, Congregation Etz Ahaim. Why two thorough-bred Ashkenazim and children joined a Sephardi synagogue is a subject for another post. But we are not the only Ashkenazim there! (Ashkenaz = Germany and has come to mean any Jew from Europe).

I haven’t even begun to cover the history of religious Zionism here or how various Hasidic or Sephardic groups have responded to the modern State of Israel.

On a related topic:


Learning from Cemetery Desecration

Rabbi Bassous devoted his speech this past Shabbat to learning from the cemetery vandalism in New Brunswick. I missed the speech (my daughter had other plans for me), so I apologize in advance to Rabbi Bassous if I botch my summary of what he said. My husband related to me that he spoke about two topics:

1) Even when you are dead, you may still not be at rest. Vandals can still attack your grave.
2) It is important to raise children from an early age to respect property. This can start with teaching children to pick up a candy wrapper from the floor. Unfortunately, the teens involved in this incident were not raised to respect property.
My husband pointed out that if the teens were tried in a Jewish Halachic court, they would be considered adults. In the American judicial system, they are considered juveniles.

In my searches on the web, I discovered that cemetery desecration is all too common a pastime for some teens. Clearly, there are a lot of parents out there NOT teaching their children to respect property, especially buried dead people. On one forum, I found young men bragging about their exploits, and saying the only reason why this is getting such publicity is because it is a Jewish cemetery. Sad. And scary.