December 5, 2021

“Re-storying” and Re-drawing Biblical Women through Graphic Narratives

By Alec Weiker

Throughout Jewish history, pictures and graphic representations have been fundamental to how people shared and told their stories. However, much like the men creating them, these pieces of art, especially biblical art, were often entrenched in a misogynistic worldview. Women were dressed – and undressed – in ways that were entirely decided by men. 

Sharon Rudahl, The Star Sapphire, (1975)

Sarah Lightman is using the disciplines of art and research in order to correct this. In 2019, she completed her Ph.D. thesis: “Dressing Eve and Other Reparative Acts in Women’s Autobiographical Comics,” in which she examines the way that biblical women were reenvisioned by four female graphic artists, including her own graphic novel: The Book of Sarah. Lightman received an HBI Research Award in 2019 to convert the thesis into a monograph which is slated to be published in 2023.

Lightman points to the work of one artist analyzed in her research who is particularly revealing in how biblical women were redressed, both visually and through narrative. In her four-page autobiographical comic, “The Star Sapphire,” Sharon Rudahl borrows from imagery in which Eve was portrayed in an androcentric and misogynistic manner and literally clothes her as a frame in Rudahl’s own story.

But Rudahl’s work does not merely redress Eve visually, she does so narratively. In her story, Rudahl depicts the challenges she faced while trying to marry a man who was not Jewish, including being driven away from a synagogue. For Lightman, the connection to Eve is clear: “In the Bible, being sent out is what happens to women when they try to be too clever, too powerful, refuse to bow down.” 

Masaccio, Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden (1425), after restoration.

However, expulsion does not mark the end of Rudahl’s story. Rudahl’s relationship with the man falls apart and she instead works to create her own life, her own “Eden.”  Rudahl goes on to join a commune and becomes a successful comics artist. Her new life, depicted in the final frame, is one in which the gender roles are reversed. Rather than Eve giving Adam the apple, a man is cooking for Rudahl. “That’s the redressing of the story, saying women won’t be sent out anymore, they will find their own community that does accept them,” Lightman said.

In addition to exploring the work of other artists, the re-storying of biblical women acts as a recurring theme in Lightman’s own autobiographical graphic novel, The Book of Sarah. Lightman points out that Sarah’s depiction in biblical writing is often one-sided in that it overemphasizes the positive side of being a parent. “She doesn’t say ‘ow it really hurts,’ it seems to be ‘I’m laughing all the time and everyone’s laughing with me,’ and I think my god it’s not like that,” Lightman said. “Where are you allowed to talk about the other stuff? And where could she? So I do talk about the other stuff, and I bring her along the journey with me and my graphic novel.”

The Book of Sarah works to do just that. Lightman’s work is hardly a traditional graphic novel. Rather, it encompasses an ongoing collection of art and text created throughout her life that works through and explores difficult themes from her life including religiosity, motherhood and gender roles. There is no Book of Sarah in the bible, but in this way, Lightman creates her own beautiful Book of Sarah that does not pretend that a Jewish woman’s life can be reduced to motherhood and laughter.

Through sharing her story, Lightman highlights the importance and power of autobiographical writing, specifically the graphic narrative. “I think maybe it’s a kind of patriarchal notion that the famous Prime Minister writes a memoir and it’s of value. But no, it’s much more democratic than that.”  In fact, Lightman believes that everyone can benefit from sharing their story, even if they don’t think that their life is particularly interesting.

“You always have to remember that your work is important to someone else even though you’ll never meet them,” she said. “People have come up to me and said that they were so glad that you talked about this in your book, it really touched a chord with me.” For Lightman, being creative is “an act of generosity.”

Final frame from Sharon Rudahl, “The Star Sapphire,” 3-4. (1975)

In this same vein of helping people share their stories, Lightman has worked to make sure that women are represented and recognized for their importance to the rise of the autobiographical graphic novel. In fact, the first-ever of such novels was created by Charlotte Salomon, a young Jewish artist who was a victim of the Holocaust. Her drawings, which explored difficult themes including mental illness and abuse, were published by her father after the war. Salomon’s work was particularly impactful for Lightman while she was in art school and was one reason that Lightman hoped to share her story in the way that she did.

After art school, Lightman began to curate and noticed all of the women involved in

Charlotte Salomon, gouache from Life? or Theater?, 1940–42

graphic noveling. It was not long before she co-founded LDComics, formerly known as Laydeez do Comics, in the UK which was designed specifically as a space for female-identifying comics artists. “I felt that it was really important there to think I wasn’t some weirdo doing something on my own, there were lots and lots and lots of people doing it,” said Lightman, discussing the importance of engaging with other female graphic artists. “If women knew, and talked more, about the things that they did and the things that happened to them and things their bodies went through, what a different experience we’d all have of our lives.”

While Lightman has published her memoir and completes her monograph, she is creating new pieces that build on all of her work to not only redress biblical women but to empower women today. Her current work also tries to capture her life during the lockdown and exploring how gender inequality has been exacerbated during the pandemic. Specifically, she is looking at how working from home has affected women’s working practices including her own “thwarted strivings for knowledge.”

Most recently, Lightman depicts Eve, borrowed from a 16th-century painting, and she is drawn “undressed next to our endless pile of drying laundry,” Lightman writes. “She and I might want to engage in intellectual endeavors but first we must deal with housework.”

Sarah Lightman, “Dressing Eve During the Pandemic” (2021)

 

Titian, The Fall of Man, (dating to around 1550)

 

 

Alec Weiker PhotoAlec Weiker is a sophomore at Georgetown University and was a 2021 HBI Gilda Slifka Summer Intern. 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Sarah Lightman is a London-based artist, curator, editor, and writer. She is an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Arts at Birkbeck College, University of London and Faculty at The Royal Drawing School, London. Her first book, “Graphic Details: Jewish Women’s Confessional Comics in Essay and Interviews” (McFarland 2014) was awarded The Koppelman Prize (2015) and The Will Eisner Award (2015), and a Schnitzer Award (2016).  Her  autobiographical graphic novel, “The Book of Sarah” (Myriad Editions and Penn State UP 2019), was shortlisted for the  British Book Design & Production Award (2019) and The Communication Arts Award (2020). She is currently editing her monograph “Dressing Eve and Other Reparative Acts in Women’s Autobiographical Comics”  to be published by Penn State University Press and supported by two HBI Research Awards. She is also co-editing a new edited collection “Bodies and Borders in Jewish Women’s Comics” (Syracuse University Press 2022).

Jewish Ghosts and Why We Should Stop Looking for Them

By Alec Weiker

How do we cope with that which we cannot understand? How can we manage when someone we know or love stops acting the way that we hope they would? Why do we desire to rationalize the manner in which our queer family or friends live their lives?

I didn’t expect to encounter such questions this past summer while researching the phenomenon of the dybbuk in the Hasidic world, but they arose nonetheless. The dybbuk, a distinct figure in Kabbalistic mythology, was a uniquely nasty spirit–usually male–that possessed the body of young people, most often young women and caused erratic, strange, and transgressive behavior in its victims. 

Numerous reports of dybbuk possession from across the Hasidic world were documented in both folk literature and more formal accounts of possession and exorcism written by rebbes. In fact, much of the knowledge we have of the dybbuk is based entirely on those reports written by men; this male control over the dybbuk narrative is key to understanding its function.

This can be seen most clearly through the case of the Maiden of Ludmir. Hannah Rachel Verbermacher, later known by the Maiden moniker, was a legendary figure who lived in 19th century Ukraine and became one of the most influential female Jewish religious leaders of the time. She attained a large following of both men and women and opened her own beis midrash (a house of learning), which was unheard of for a woman acting without the assistance of a man. Perhaps most transgressive for the time was her refusal to marry for the majority of her life.

Modern terms like lesbian or LGBTQ+ did not exist in the Hasidic world in this time, and we  cannot aptly apply these labels to people living then either. Regardless of the Maiden of Ludmir’s sexuality, she was queer in the broadest sense of the term, vigorously challenging and rejecting gendered power structures. By rejecting compulsory heterosexuality, the Maiden of Ludmir, at least in the eyes of her contemporaries, challenged the centrality and necessity of men. Further, in a society where religion was a central aspect of life, the abnormal and radical nature of the Maiden’s religious leadership added to her queer identity. 

Thus, despite her large following, the Maiden’s success and gender nonconformity prompted many of her religious contemporaries’ disapproval. Rebbes reportedly alleged that the Maiden of Ludmir was possessed by a dybbuk who was using her to lead Jews astray. These accusations were mirrored by rumors of possession throughout the community. 

The Maiden, however, not only denied claims of possession, but instead used similar theological terms to creatively resist. The Maiden claimed that she had received ibbur, which in contrast to the dybbuk was a positive form of possession in which the spirit of a male rebbe would enter into the body of a man, and exclusively a man, to assist him in completing a certain commandment. The Maiden claimed that she had received a “new and lofty soul” which helped her transcend her womanly boundaries to achieve religious prominence.

But the other rebbes rejected the Maiden’s story. The cultural lexicon held no example of male ibbur occurring in women, while the dybbuk narrative seemed to fit much better. Thus, for a majority of the community, the dybbuk narrative negated the Maiden of Ludmir’s ability to describe herself in her own terms. The discovery of this ghost explained away the Maiden of Ludmir’s agency and blunted the societal impact of an inherently queer woman.

In addition to the Maiden of Ludmir, Yiddish stories used Jewish ghosts to explain excessive homosocial-behavior by a young man, lust in young women, and one woman’s desire to inherit her father’s position as an influential rebbe. In each case, the victims of possession, queer in their own way, are stripped of their agency and influenced, seduced, or forced to commit these transgressions by malevolent ghosts.

These examples depict a community that used familiar cultural idioms to explain and lessen the radicalness of gender nonconformity rather than directly engage with it. What struck me as I studied this function of the dybbuk was that American society seems to function in much the same way.

American culture obsesses over explanations, especially when it comes to queerness. Teens are using they/them pronouns because it’s “trendy” or coming out as bisexual as part of a “rebellion phase,” we’re told. Additionally, people are quick to point to growing queer visibility in the media as the specter behind an increasingly queer-identifying youth. Besides negating the experiences and struggles of queer folks throughout history, these common explanations strip today’s young queer folk of their agency by using the familiar societal narrative of the naive child.

It’s easier for parents to blame gender nonconformity on external factors, or malevolent ghosts, than to imagine that their child doesn’t fit their gender standards. But by taking something so complex and beautiful as queerness and forcing it into terms we understand, we take something away from it. Sexuality and gender identity are complicated and beautiful products of culture, identity, and behavior, and they can change based on time and place. Rigid labels are far too restrictive to capture that complexity. And that’s okay. Queerness is inherently radical. It can’t, and shouldn’t, be simplified for our own comfort. 

When we love someone close to us more than anything, we’ll do almost anything in order not to lose them. We fear that we don’t, or can’t, understand a new aspect of a loved one, like queerness. We need a new narrative. Thus, the Maiden of Ludmir’s story comes to us as a cautionary tale: if we go looking for ghosts, there’s a good chance we’ll find them. For those who could have found meaning and power in how Maiden creatively looked to re-envision the practice of Judaism, her delegitimization was an extraordinary loss. How much more meaning could we find in our own lives if we allowed ourselves to be surrounded by interesting people who we might not, or need not, understand?

But there’s also an aspect of her story that can be extremely empowering for us as we navigate our queer identities in a heteronormative world. The Maiden of Ludmir, through her co-optation and subversion of a violent narrative, found empowerment on her own terms. Even if she wasn’t successful in the eyes of her contemporaries, she made a space for herself to comfortably practice religious leadership, unfazed by the ghosts of convention. 

Alec Weiker PhotoAlec Weiker, a sophomore at Georgetown University, was a 2021 Gilda Slifka HBI Summer Intern. He researched the phenomenon of the dybbuk in the Hasidic world

Marcia Freedman’s Life Showed That Change is Possible

By Orly Nathan

Note: Marcia Freedman, a former member of the Israeli Knesset, and one of the founders of the feminist movement in Israel in 1970’s, passed away on Sept. 21, 2021. Best known for her activities related to reproductive rights and the elimination of violence against women, Freedman also tackled other controversial issues such as secret arms deals with Apartheid-era South Africa, legalization of soft drugs, teenage prostitution, incest, and breast cancer. She was one of the first to raise the issue of  LGBT rights and put it on the agenda of Israeli politics. Freedman, as a radical feminist, recognized very early on “the decisive role of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the development Israeli feminism,” as noted in her book, Exile in the Promised Land.

I am the Elaine Reuben ‘63 HBI Jewish Feminism Collections Scholar in Residence at HBI this semester and my research is focused on the Marcia Freedman archive in the Brandeis University Jewish Feminism Collections, one of the two sites to which Freedman bequeathed her private collections. The archive ranges from the start of her activity in Israel until the 2000’s. Freedman’s papers are also held at the Feminist Archive at the Research Center of ‘Woman to Woman’ organization (Isha l’Isha) where she was one of the founding mothers. It is part of a collaborative partnership with Brandeis. 

I came here to explore the history of Israeli feminism, or rather the “herstory” that is still unfolding, relevant and contemporary, and should be learned so that it will continue to inspire the ongoing feminist activity of today. Right now, my aim is to gain a deeper understanding of Freedman’s thorough, dedicated work and her ability to see clearly and soberly, even at that time in Israel when there were structures of oppression and exploitation in all spheres of life (especially militarism and nationalism).  My goal is to put Freedman, along with her friends in the “Movement for the Liberation of Women,” on the public agenda in order to bring about some of the changes they started.

Marcia Freedman, younger Born and raised in Newark, NJ, to Anne (Silver) Prince, a homemaker, and Philip Prince, a union organizer, Freedman always admired her father’s path and dedicated her memoir Exile in the Promised Land to her father, “whose example I have largely followed.”  She graduated from Bennington College in 1960, earned an MA in philosophy from Brooklyn College, and took part in the civil rights movement. She married Bill Freedman, a lecturer in English, and gave birth to their daughter, Jennifer. In 1967 the family immigrated to Israel, where Freedman taught philosophy at the University of Haifa. Her personal revolution occurred in 1970, after her father commit suicide. Following this personal crisis, Freedman’s depression and accumulated anger sent her back to the feminist books she had purchased in New York and hidden from her husband. In her book, Exile in the Promised Land, she wrote: 

Reading and studying “were not theoretical learning about a new social cause. It was about me, and my entire life was in question. Why do I do all the housework? Did I really ever choose to become pregnant? …. Why did I take on Bill’s name when we married… Why am I the only woman in the philosophy department? Why am I unable to finish my doctorate?… My friend’s Ph.D. document hangs on her kitchen wall, above the sink, where she can look at it each evening while she does the dishes. Such moments are historical markers of developing feminist consciousness.”

Freedman realized that anger is a rational response to oppression; that an imbalance of power determined her relationship with her husband, child, and colleagues at the university. She learned that like all oppressed peoples, women would have to resist and fight back, not individually but collectively. Slowly she began to gather around her a group of women, first in Haifa and later throughout the country, who shared her feminist perspectives and created the consciousness-raising groups that became the foundation of the women’s liberation movement in Israel in 1972.

In the post-war elections of 1973, the movement helped Shulamit Aloni, a left-wing champion of civil liberties, and her Ratz party (a forerunner of today’s Meretz ), known as the Civil Rights Movement, gain three seats in the Knesset. Freedman was third on the list (so was not considered likely to win a seat) and became an MK. She was chosen by Aloni, who in those years was the familiar public face of the new feminist movement. As a member of the Israeli parliament, Freedman was a voice of women’s issues and put a variety of topics which were violently silenced at the time (and even today) on the legislative agenda. It took her more than two years to make history when she convened the first Knesset session dedicated to domestic violence against women in 1976.

In the Brandeis archives, I have found the Freedman’s thorough notes and data on the extent of violence against women from the Women’s organization – WIZO and the Citizen Counseling Service. She published ads in all the newspapers and asked women to write testimonies about their husbands’ violence. The letters came in the dozens from all over the country and from women of all social classes. The descriptions were horrifying, but what mostly caused the women’s sense of helplessness was the disregard, contempt, disbelief and abandonment of the establishment, especially the police and the rabbinical courts. All of them described feelings of shame trying to hide the terror they lived in from their families. Most even wrote suggestions and ideas of ways to deter husbands from violence.

Marcia Freedman’s brilliant and brave speech in the Knesset was constantly interrupted by chauvinistic, offensive shouts, trying to deny the very existence of this widespread phenomena. The police minister said the police ‘couldn’t interfere in a married couple’s relationship’ and demanded that the issue be stricken from the agenda. But, Freedman gained a majority of votes in the Knesset so that her proposal was able to advance to the agenda of the Interior Committee. This was first public acknowledgement in Israel of family violence of against women.

In a news-obsessed country such as Israel, the commotion reached every household. As a young schoolgirl, it had a profound impact on my identity, views, and future activism. During the debate, Freedman and her colleagues presented recommendations for the proper handling of women’s complaints. One important recommendation – not yet implemented to this day – was the appointment of a female social worker to accompany the plaintiff women to court in domestic violence cases. 

Freedman was the first to propose the establishment of a shelter for battered women. Following the debate, the police created a special research team, and the subject was supposedly transferred to a special subcommittee, but there is no record of this subcommittee having ever met, and no report was ever issued. The government fell in February of 1977 and all the Knesset committees were dissolved with no further action. Freedman said in an article published in Ynet 2007:

 “My idea was to set up a shelter for battered women and show that the phenomenon exists, and not turn the shelters into places of treatment. In my opinion, the treatment should be separated from the fight against violence. Battered women should be given much better conditions than those they have in shelters.” 

Document from the Marcia Freedman archive

Courtesy of Brandeis Special Collections, Marcia Freedman papers

Freedman is perhaps best known for her role in promoting reproductive rights for Israeli women. One of the important events that Freedman initiated was a protest at the annual conference of gynecologists in 1976, titled “Ethical Aspects of Birth Planning.” At the Tel Aviv Hilton, 11 women protestors carried signs calling for legalizing abortion and giving women autonomy over their bodies. A gynecologist threw a pitcher of water at her, including the pitcher itself. Freedman said that the doctors opposed the liberalization of abortion laws and at the same time profited from performing illegal abortions. Police officers violently dispersed the demonstration.

Two opposing proposed laws were discussed at the time: a conservative law leaning towards religious leaders’ views, and another proposed by Freedman and Nitza Libai-Shapira, based on the U.S. Roe V. Wade model. Freedman prepared for the hearings as though defending a doctoral thesis. I have found her draft paper among the folders in the Brandeis archives. This is the a quote from the opening paragraph: Power, Ethics, and Abortion –  It would be misleading, at the very least, to discuss the ethical aspects of abortion without first considering the politics of female biology. … The arguments about abortion can only be understood in the context of its meaning to men and to women in terms of power…”

The conservative law proposal, that women could not have abortions without the approval of a committee, was eventually adopted with minor amendments, however in the long run the criteria became more flexible. Yet even today, Israeli woman do not have the right to decide, and they must face a committee with the authority to approve or deny abortion. Freedman advocated for free abortions without a committee decision, without conditions during the first trimester, and with support for women from social workers and medical professionals. 

In her 40s, after Freedman left the Knesset, she divorced her husband and publicly came out as a lesbian. Back in Haifa, with other feminist friends, she got busy. In addition to the first shelter for battered women, they opened a feminist center and bookstore, “Kol Ha’isha”.  Books, Freedman recalled, “were a very central tool for promoting feminism in Israel.” Some of the books were later found to be tagged under “Sex” in Steimatzky, Israel’s leading bookstore, she said. 

In 1977, Freedman co-founded the Women’s Party that ran in the Knesset elections, but did not win any seats. The platform of the party in English and Hebrew can be found in the Brandeis Feminism Collection and the Feminist Archive at the Research Center of ‘Woman to Woman.’

Freedman came back to the United States in 1981 and settled in Berkeley, CA. She returned to Israel for extended stays from 1997 to 2002, helping to co-found the Community School for Women, which offered courses in women’s studies and employment skills to underserved women, and was involved over the years in a wide array of social and political initiatives in U.S. and Israel, including Bat Shalom and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, a pro-peace group that merged into the J Street lobby in 2010; and the Gun Free Kitchen Tables (GFKT) Coalition, working for stricter gun control in Israel. 

A year ago, at a Zoom meeting, Hannah Safran asked Freedman how she sees the past 50 years. Freedman replied: “I’m 82. Looking back, I feel grateful. I had an interesting life, I had a meaningful life, I had a very good life.”

May Her Memory Be A Revolution

Learn more about Nathan’s work on Marcia Freedman papers in the Brandeis Feminism Collections during her seminar, She Knows: Using the Brandeis Feminist Collection Archives to Explore the History of Israeli Feminism, on November 1 at 12:30 pm EST. Please register for this event. Zoom links will be sent at least 24 hours prior to the event via email.

Orly Nathan is the Elaine Reuben ‘63 HBI Jewish Feminism Collections Scholar in Residence. She is an Information professional and a feminist activist. She is the chief information specialist of She Knows (Yoda’at).” at the Samuel Neaman Institute at the Technion.

Elaine Reuben, Brandeis ’63, is a member of the HBI Board of Advisers. 

 

 

Bene Appetit – Cuisine of Indian Jews

By Esther David

 When my book ‘Bene Appetit – Cuisine of Indian Jews,’ was published by HarperCollins, readers wanted to know why I decided to write it. My answer is very simple. There are 5,000 Jews in India, down from about 30,000 at the peak in the mid-1950s and 1960s. When a community decreases in numbers, its traditional food starts to disappear. With this book, I have tried to preserve the heritage of Indian Jewish cuisine because food is memory and culture. Food is connected with the bonding of families and communities. Food is part of our childhood. 

The Jewish community has been living in India since 75 CE and comprises a tiny but important part of the population. Many Jews settled in India after fleeing coastal areas of what is now Israel after the fall of King Solomon’s second temple. They sought  to avoid persecution from the Greeks. I used the word ‘Bene’ in the title of the book, as it means ‘Children of Israel’ in Hebrew. 

There are five Indian Jewish communities – the Bene Israelis of western India, the Bnei Menashe Jews of Northeast India, the Bene Ephraims of Andhra Pradesh, the Baghdadi Jews of West Bengal, and the Cochin Jews of Kerala. Despite living in different corners of India, they are still bound by the common thread of food and religion. Over the years, members have stuck to the dietary laws and integrated Indian habits with their customs, leading to some unique ceremonies and rituals that have been passed down from one generation to another. However, with modernization and immigration, many of the traditions and recipes are fast being forgotten, hence the need to preserve them. 

My narrative began as a journey to the five main centers of Indian Jewish life. This all became possible when I received support from HBI for the project in the form of 2016 HBI Research Award to study Indian Jewish food traditions. Since most Jews who came to India were fleeing persecution, they came to India through different routes and settled in different regions; choosing coastal areas. It was fascinating to note that Indian Jews of these five regions have different facial characteristics. When I photographed them, they became like a kaleidoscopic collage of contrasts and colors. Yet, a common thread bonds them together —  their belief in Jewish traditions, rites, rituals, lifestyle and the dietary laws. I also discovered how Indian Jews preserve their food customs in a multicultural country like India, which has diverse food habits. 

One of the uniting features of the Jewish Indian cuisine is the adherence to dietary law, much like many Jews of the diaspora. Jews do not mix milk with meat dishes and keep separate vessels for both. As yogurt is made with milk, and ghee (clarified butter) is used almostly daily in Indian homes, many Jews are vegetarians. It is also hard to find kosher meat due to a shortage of shohets (kosher meat slaughterer). Indian Jews have derived ways and means of using the correct regional ingredients to make festive food. Each community has a different culinary method, which is influenced by regional Indian cooking along with a distant memory of their country of origin. 

I observed that each community had a different way of following the dietary law and rules of kashrut in their food habits. Yet there is a common thread which links each Jewish community to the other. Indian Jews who eat meat follow the law by not mixing dairy products with meat dishes. They have fish with scales and a taboo on pork. With meat dishes, they prefer to end their meals with fruit. As a substitute to dairy products, Indian Jews use coconut milk to make curries and sweet dishes. 

 Most Indian Jews live close to bodies of water, which influences their cuisine. They live around sea-shores, lakes and rivers and have a preference for fish and rice. Before, Indian Jews took to the urban way of life and moved to cities, they were farmers and owned paddy fields, along with coconut and banana plantations. The Bene Israel Jews were oil-pressers, but did not work on the Sabbath and were known as ‘Saturday-Oil-People.” They settled in Maharashtra near the Arabian Sea. In Gujarat, Jews settled along rivers. Cochin Jews chose the Kerala coastline. While Baghdadi Jews first arrived in coastal Surat in Gujarat, they moved to Mumbai and eventually settled in Kolkata, along the Hooghly River in west Bengal. Bene Ephraim Jews chose the seashores of Andhra Pradesh, while Bene Menashe Jews of Mizoram and Manipur chose lakes and mountains. 

An important factor of Indian Jewish cuisine is that many festive and ceremonial foods are made by the women at home or at the synagogue, under the guidance of a woman who knows the recipes. For example, kosher wine is not available in India so dried-grape-sherbet is made for shabbat and festivals. The sherbet, (see recipe below) a traditional recipe for the end of Shabbat or Yom Kippur, is typically made with the women soaking black currants in a vessel of water and washing them, while the men crush, strain and bottle the sherbet. Men also tend to offer glasses of sherbet to the congregation at the end of the Shabbat or Yom Kippur prayers.

Challah was available at a Jewish bakery in Kolkata for Baghdadi Jews, but not elsewhere. So, Indian Jews tend to make flat bread or buy freshly baked white bread or buns. More recently, some women have learned to bake their own challah. In the same way, Indian Jewish women make flat-bread matzo for Passover along with charoset from dates and other ceremonial foods.

 Indian Jews are proficient in English and regional languages, but chant their prayers in Hebrew. Since most Jews have immigrated to Israel, those remaining celebrate festivals together at the synagogue or at a rented hall and eat together like one big family. 

To learn more about the recipes and customs of Indian Jews, read Bene Appetit which is available online or from your local bookseller. 

 

Grape Juice Sherbet Recipe (traditional at the end of Shabbat or Yom Kippur prayers)

Ingredients

500 grams (two generous cups) dried black seedless grapes 

One liter water

Sugar to taste (optional)

Directions

Wash the dried black seedless in a colander until clean. Soak them in a bowl of water from early morning to late afternoon (seven to nine hours). Then process in a mixer, strain through a thin muslin cloth or fine mesh strainer, bottle and refrigerate. 

At sunset, the sherbet is poured into a goblet for the Kiddush prayers. The person who says the Kiddush sips sherbet from the goblet and passes it to a family and friends present. Sometimes, smaller shot glasses are filled with sherbet for guests. The sherbet stays fresh in the refrigerator for two days. Indian Jews make this sherbet because kosher wine is unavailable. 

Esther David is a Jewish Indian author and illustrator, and part of the Bene Israel Jewish community of Ahmedabad. Her 2008 book, Shalom India Housing Society, was published in the Reuben/Rifkin Jewish Women Writers Series, a legacy project of HBI and Feminist Press. Her novel, The Book of Rachel, received the Sahitya Akademi Award for English Literature in 2010. She received a Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Research Award in 2016 for this research. 

 

Welcoming a New Year: A Note from the Director

This week, we begin another year of new and unexpected challenges. While we may be disappointed that we again need to adapt our plans to the exigencies of covid, there is no denying the exhilaration many of us feel to be back on campus in person and together virtually through our many new online forums. 

HBI remains committed to our mission of supporting and sharing research at the intersection of Jewish Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies from a broad inter-disciplinary perspective. This term, we will welcome a new cohort of in person, hybrid, and virtual scholars in residence: Marla Brettschneider on Jewish feminist political thought, Ayelet Brinn on gender, mass culture and the rise of the American Yiddish press, Julia Phillips Cohen on Middle Eastern and North African women’s work in the modern era, Adam Ferziger on the phenomenon of women’s daf yomi study, Noya Rimalt on abortion policy in Israel, and Orly Nathan on the impact of Marcia Freedman on Israeli feminism. They will all share their work in the institute seminar

Last year, we held 40 online events, attended by 4,000 people from around the world. Highlights of our public programs this fall include the launch of the Sandra Seltzer Silberman Conversations Series, HBI Research Associate Tamar Biala and Yael Kanarek speaking on the HerTorah Project and HBI Research Award Recipient Judy Batalion discussing her new book, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos. Stay tuned for details of a special opportunity to meet with Batalion for the Friends of HBI

All of this work is made possible by financial support from donors and friends. Contributions fund research positions, research awards, student internships and public programs. I want to thank all of those whose generosity has made this possible and I would like to recognize our Friends of HBI who have made sustaining annual gifts of $180. If you would like to be part of this effort, please consider making a fall gift to HBI here or becoming a Friend of HBI.

Wishing you a year of good health, warm relationships and meaningful engagement with stimulating new ideas. 

Lisa Fishbayn Joffe 

The Shulamit Reinharz Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

 

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