The first inkling that Rosh Hashanah was approaching when I was growing up was when my mom would come home to our fourth-floor walk up apartment in Ashdod with Lily Pulitzer-like floral fabrics. I dreaded the frocks and matching hair bows that an Indian seamstress would sew us from the textiles. I would walk in the intense heat with my mom and my sister, who is a year younger than I, to the seamstress's home a few neighborhoods over for the measuring and fitting, and again for a second fitting and minor tweaks. The scraps and the leftover fabrics "were enough" for my two youngest sisters' Rosh Hashanah gowns, my mom would say.
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My mom, like other Indian Jewish women, would wear one of her beautifully embroidered, colorful saris for Rosh Hashanah services. If some community members had just returned from a visit to India, she would buy a brand new sari from the large suitcase full of Indian garments and jewels they brought back for sale in Israel.
My dad, like many Indian men, had tailored shirts and pants made in a yarn shop, owned by a Persian tailor, in the city center. My two younger brothers wore matching 70's style brown vest suits with cream shirts.
Custom-made clothes for the holidays were the tradition in Mumbai, India, and the Bene Israel Jewish community carried this tradition over to Israel when they immigrated in the 1960s. It was also cheaper than buying brand new, ready-to-wear clothes at the shops and boutiques around town.
The grocery shopping, market hopping, prepping and cooking rituals would commence next.
Mutton – lamb usually, but at times goat – would be pre-ordered at the butcher's. Some years a whole lamb would be ordered from a nearby farm, to be slaughtered and split among a few families. The mutton would be used in the festive biryani, that ornate Indian dish of spiced rice and meat that was the centerpiece of the Indian Rosh Hashanah table.
Apples and honey always graced the table on Rosh Hashanah eve, but that tradition had been picked up in Israel. For a sweet new year, the Bene Israel had their own signature dish, milk halwa. The dish is similar to what we know as the Middle Eastern sahleb, only chilled. This turns the thickened warm custard into a wiggly milk Jello pudding. The custard is poured into a large thali – a stainless steel dish – and topped with pistachios and almonds.
Melodies in the high school gym
All showered and dressed up in our finest garments, and ready for Rosh Hashanah eve services, we'd follow our mother like ducklings to my grandparents' neighborhood, not far from the cemetery, where the high school gym was our temporary synagogue. The Indian melodies of the Mahzor reverberated from the open windows, into the courtyard. Outdoors, chairs were lined up along the exterior gym wall for a makeshift women's section. The mothers, heads covered with handkerchiefs or head scarves, shushed their children playing in the nearby playground. The men were inside the sweltering gym, wearing their kippas and tallits, where the ceiling fans offered little reprieve from the heat. Outside the women would fan themselves with the Mahzor books or with peacock-patterned folding fans, joining the men from time to time in a beautiful chorus of prayer.
At the end of the services, community members shook each other's hands, greeting each other with "Shana Tova" and "Chag Sameach." Some would put their hand to their lips and kiss it after the handshake, or touch the feet of an elderly relative or friend as a show of respect.
At this point, us kids would be super hungry, tugging at my mom so she would stop chatting. We would hastily recite the blessings over the grape juice or wine; in India, the “wine” was made from currants soaked in water due the prohibition on alcohol. We would then devour our purely Indian meal without further ceremony.
Labor of love
Many in the Indian Jewish Bene Israel community have halwa as a Rosh Hashanah dessert. We would eat it Rosh Hashanah day as breakfast and as a snack in between services, and after listening to the shofar. It was the custom in Mumbai to share some halwa with the Muslim and Hindu neighbors, who made their own version of Karachi Bombay Halwa, often with water. In Israel, my mom shared halwa with one of her closest Indian Jewish friends, our neighbor Hannah.
In Mumbai, my grandfather and grandmother would take turns churning the milk, wheat starch, ghee, sugar and cardamon mixture, for at least four hours until it thickened, my mom recalls. The laborious, old-fashioned version is divine, my mom says with a sentimental note in her voice. My dad, who has since passed away, would peel and slice the blanched, raw almonds and pistachios into thin, almost translucent slivers. His method was an art form.
When I moved to the United States as an adult, I took with me the traditions of making biryani and halwa for Rosh Hashanah. Just like my mom, I prepare a quicker, 40-minute version of halwa with cornstarch instead of wheat starch. My arm still tires, feeling as if it could fall off from the constant stirring, which I alternate with my American-born husband, Jonathan. My son Sagie, now grown, is an only child, but he still devours the halwa just like I did, as if he has competition.
Shulie Madnick is an Israeli, Indian, and American freelance food writer and photographer living outside Washington, D.C. Her articles and photos have been published in The Washington Post food section, among other publications. She blogs at www.foodwanderings.com. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Recipe: Milk Halwa
Recipe by Shulie Madnick
1 liter whole milk (4 cups)
1/2 liter water (2 cups)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup cornstarch (130gr)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground cardamon
1 stick (4oz/113gr) unsalted butter, unsalted margarine or ghee (clarified butter)
1/4-1/2 cup sliced or chopped roasted, unsalted pistachios
1/4-1/2 cup sliced or chopped roasted, unsalted almonds
Grease 2-3 shallow pans (you can use different size pans, including a pie dish).
Put the milk, water, sugar and cornstarch into a large pot and stir with a large stainless spoon until all ingredients are mixed well and the liquid is lump free and smooth.
Put the pot on the stove and turn the heat to medium low. Start cooking the halwa while constantly stirring the milk. It will take approximately 10 minutes to start warming up. Don’t get tempted to turn up the heat: Hurried cooking will curdle the milk and create lumps. Stir continuously for another 10 minutes while cooking.
When the milk starts thickening, add the butter in small pieces and the cardamon. Continue stirring until the milk thickens to the consistency of a smooth porridge, for approximately 40 minutes total. Pour immediately into the shallow, greased pans approximately 1 inch deep, and sprinkle with nuts.
Let cool completely at room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least a few hours. This is best prepared a day in advance.
Slice diagonally into diamonds before serving. Best when eaten within two days.