January 16, 2019

A Persian American Feast

Every Erev Rosh Hashana, our dining room table is set with the requisite items: apples, honey,tongue and beets. Zucchini and black-eyed peas. Mouth-watering sweet pomegranate. Sound a little exotic? To Persian American Jews, this is a yearly reality as families get together to celebrate the Rosh Hashana seder and meal.

While this isn’t Passover, a seder is most definitely included on each night. It consists of eight ritual items, each with a separate blessing and symbolic significance. Just as in Passover, we build up an appetite before the main meal.

The ceremony begins with apples and honey. This is followed by leeks, zucchini (baked squash), black-eyed peas, tongue, beets, dates, and pomegranate. But if eating apples and honey are a worldwide Jewish ritual symbolizing hopes for a sweet new year, then what about the less widely known ritual foods?

Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh of Temple Israel of Hollywood, daughter of a Persian father and Ashkenazi mother, never knew of this ritual until she moved to Los Angeles. Then, while she was in rabbinical school, her Persian friends told her about it, and her interest was stirred.

Missaghieh asked her relatives for a copy of the long blessings traditionally said over each item. Using her fluent knowledge of Hebrew, she translated them word for word.

"It was a play on words," she says. For example, in Hebrew the date or palm tree is called tamar. The blessing said over the date, using the word yitammoo, asks that evildoers be done away with. The root of yitammoo is tam, directly taken from tamar. Hence the use of the date in the seder.

Four other word associations are included in the seder. They are drawn from the Hebrew or Aramaic names of the foods involved, Aramaic being the common language used in ancient times in the Middle East.

Leeks, vegetables of the onion family, are called kartee in Aramaic. In Hebrew karoot means felled, or cut off at the roots. The blessing over the leek asks that ill-wishers be felled.

Zucchini are called karaa in Aramaic; in Hebrew karoah means to tear or shred. The accompanying blessing asks that any bad judgments against us be torn up.

Peas, called ruviah in Aramaic, are eaten after a blessing, asking that our good deeds will multiply. Ruviah itself means numerous, and the Hebrew verb yirboo (to multiply) comes from the root rav.

A blessing praying that our enemies will disappear from view is said over beets, called salka. The similar sounding Hebrew verb salek means to disappear from view.

There is no wordplay associated with pomegranate or apples and honey. The blessing over the pomegranate, a fruit commonly eaten during the autumn season in the Middle East, asks that we be filled with as many good deeds as the pomegranate is filled with seeds. Apples and honey are eaten after a blessing for a good and sweet new year.

Then there is the matter of sheep or cow’s tongue.

"Me and my cousins always fight over tongue in the kitchen," said Alison Roya Breskin, a freshman at San Diego State University who is Persian from her mother’s side. She considers tongue "something cool" about Rosh Hashana. "It’s so good, even my pseudo-vegetarian cousin has to have some," she said.

Tongue, virtually unknown in the American diet, is considered a delicacy in many countries. Like brains or liver in the Middle East, tongue is considered part of a good gourmet meal.

According to Rabbi David Shofet, Persian rabbi of Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills, the ceremonial eating of tongue on Rosh Hashana is symbolic on two levels. The first is the literal symbolism, tongue being from the sheep’s head, that we will be at the head rather than at the tail end during the coming year. This is also a hope that we will be leaders and a prayer for good, strong leadership among the Jewish people.

"We hope that God helps us to improve ourselves spiritually and emotionally," Shofet said. He explained that tongue from the head, the first part of the body, is symbolic of being progressive. The second symbolic meaning is of the ram sacrificed by Abraham after passing a test of faith in almost sacrificing his son, Isaac. The Torah portion containing this story is also read every year in synagogue during Rosh Hashana services.

Shofet said that another ritual food used in seders in Iran is sheep’s lung.

This element, he said, is not included in seders in the United States because lung is not eaten here. When cooked, lung is very light, and was used to symbolize that our sins should be light so we would not be punished or judged harshly by God.

It may seem that the serious contemplation associated with the seder’s ritual foods would result in a Rosh Hashana more akin to the somber mood of Yom Kippur, where fasting and confessing one’s sins take up the entire day.

This isn’t so, said Mohtaram Shadpour, who immigrated from Iran to Southern California before the 1979 Revolution. Shadpour loves the tradition of getting together with her four children and 12 grandchildren. It takes her nearly two days to prepare all the Persian dishes for the Rosh Hashana seder and main meal, but to her it is definitely worth it. "Yom Kippur isn’t happy until it’s over," she said emphatically. "But Rosh Hashana is a happy tradition with delicious food, when the whole family comes together to celebrate."

The tradition dates back thousands of years. Jews have been in Iran for more than 2,600 years, arriving there shortly before the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and the resulting exile of the Jews from Judea to Babylon (modern day Iraq).

As a result of the defeat of the Babylonian empire in 536 BCE by Cyrus, the founder of the first Persian Dynasty, the captivity of the Jews in Babylon was ended. Many Jews returned to Jerusalem, but others chose to relocate from Babylon to the land of their liberator and a community known as Shushan: the same Shushan where the story of Purim took place, where Queen Esther and Mordechai defeated Haman’s evil plan of destroying the Jewish people.

Purim is perhaps the most widely recognized holiday in which Persian Jews figure prominently. But Rosh Hashana, when thousands of Jews in "Irangeles" come together to celebrate with festive seders, singing, and the infamous delicacy of tongue, is a close second.