Celebrating the Jewish holidays overseas has been a mixed blessing for our family. It is hard to make meaningful connections in new surroundings and it is difficult to be away from friends and relatives. On the other hand, travel has compelled us to be creative as well as open to new traditions. When we lived in Keighley (UK), Simon and Jakob made their own menorahs out of modeling clay and we still have them. This year we experienced an Italian Jewish Seder for the New Year. We are lucky to have made an instant connection to the Jewish community in Perugia through our landlady. There is no synagogue in Perugia, it closed around 1976, so the small community gathers for lunch on the first day of Rosh HaShanah. As with most Jewish holidays, this celebration focused on the food.
On erev Rosh HaShanah, Jews in Italy do not go to services but rather they celebrate at home with a festival meal, a seder. As with the Passover seder, there is on order to the meal and there are certain foods that must be eaten. The text above is from an old Livornese prayer book (unfortunately, I do not know the date of the text). This page was reproduced in the Italian Haggadah that our hosts used for the seder. The text lists the foods (in Hebrew with Italian translation) that symbolize the holiday. Rosh HaShanah incorporates the concept of the birthday (creation) of the world with the beginning of the Jewish period of atonement, which lasts until Yom Kippur. The foods are both sweet and savory, and some also represent abundance. According to Rabbi Barbara Aiello, this Italian tradition has its origins in the Talmud.
In Perugia, the Jewish families gather on the first day of Rosh HaShanah for lunch. This local tradition seems to be maintained by the women in the community. They dominated the table, and two women, Sarah and her daughter Sylvia, led the service.
For each food item on the seder plate, there is a prayer that begins with the invocation, “Yehi ratzon milpanecha adonai eluheynu veylohay avotaynu…” (Sia Tua volentà O Signore, Dio nostro e Dio dei nostri padri…/May it be your will O Lord, our God and God of our fathers…), and continues with a wish connected to the special qualities of that food. Some of the connections are direct, while others reflect the Jewish love of wordplay.
The seder begins with figs (fichi). Figs are in season at the moment and there was a large bowl of them in the center of the table. The fig represents renewal for a good and sweet year (Shanah Tovah umetukah). It is also full of tiny seeds (like the pomegranate) representing abundance and rebirth.
Next is zucca (kerah in Hebrew). This is usually translated as squash or pumpkin but we don’t have anything quite like this in the US (at least not in regular markets). In Italy this type of squash (seasonal in the early Fall) looks like a small smushed greenish pumpkin. Inside it is orange and it can be baked or boiled, or used to fill ravioli (or to top pizza, see earlier post here). The prayer that accompanies the zucca asks God to tear away bad judgements against us, and that our good deeds be invoked. How this relates to squash is far from clear. A footnote in the Italian Haggadah suggests that the Hebrew word for squash, kerah, has the same root as the word, kara, which means to rend or tear (strappare in Italian).
Fennel, one of my favorite fresh vegetables (also plentiful in local markets right now), is next. Finnochio in Italian, this is the translation of the Hebrew word ruvyah, the root of which means plenty. I am not sure how that translates to fennel. However, the prayer that goes with the fennel asks that our merits be numerous.
Keeping with the bulb-vegetables, leeks are next (porri in Italian; kerati/karti in Hebrew). Karat in Hebrew means “to cut-down”. In eating the leek we ask that “all those who hate us are destroyed.”
The leeks had been boiled and were actually quite pleasant, as was the chard that followed. In the text, we see the Italian word for chard bietola, next to the Hebrew word seelkah. Here the etymology gets a bit twisted. Selekh (with a samech at the beginning) means beetroot. Shelak (with a shin) means something boiled in water. The footnote in the Italian Haggadah explains that word seelkah recalls the Hebrew word salak (shalakh?), which means to dismiss, or send away. The prayer (in Italian) asks that “all our enemies be sent away.” I cannot find the word seelkah in my Hebrew dictionary, but this may also be related to the Hebrew root salakh, which means to pardon. Selichot are the prayers of pardon that are recited on Rosh HaShanah (the Italian Haggadah makes no mention of this connection).
The last items on our seder plates were dates and pomegranates, two biblical fruits associated with fertility and rebirth across the Mediterranean. The text uses the word temaray for date. In the prayer, once again we ask God to help get rid of our enemies. The Italian text of the prayer reads “che finiscano coloro che ci odiano” (that they finish those who hate us). The footnote connects the Italian verb finire with the Hebrew word tamah. But in my Hebrew dictionary tamah means “to be surprised, wonder” not “to finish.” Perhaps the prayer should be understand as surprising our enemies.
The pomegranate has the most direct association with the Hebrew prayer. The word for pomegranate in Hebrew is rimon, and the prayer asks that our merits be as numerous as the seeds in the pomegranate.
The Hebrew text of the Haggadah continues with prayers over the head of a lamb (testa di castrato) and fish (pesce). Thankfully, neither of these were on the seder plate (fish, with the heads, was part of the main meal). The head of the lamb recalls the sacrifice of Isaac, while the fish refers to growing in numbers as the fish in the sea.
After reciting the prayers, it was time for the shofar. Jakob offered to blow it, but there was no actual shofar in the house. Instead, one of the guests played a YouTube post on his iPhone. Although I think you are supposed to hear the sound in person, we came close to fulfilling the mitzvah (commandment) of hearing the shofar on Rosh HaShanah.
We then began the main part of the meal. Since this is Italy, a pasta dish was served first. The second course included fish, mullet cooked in a chunky tomato sauce, and turkey breast. There was more chard to go around, roast potatoes (which I had made), and baked squash (zucca).
Except for the fish and the turkey, which our host had prepared, the meal was pot-luck. In addition to the potatoes, I offered to bring a honey cake. This seemed doable at first. The kitchen in our apartment is well-equipped with all sorts of baking pans and local honey is available everywhere in Umbria (I currently have three different varieties in the cupboard). However, I had forgotten that baking soda and brown sugar are not commonly used in baking in Italy. Bicarbanato is available, just not in the baking section, and I had to use cane sugar instead of brown sugar. After two attempts, the cake came out looking like this (the boys ate the first one, which tasted fine, but it fell apart when I tried to get it out of the pan):
I think the cake was a success, everyone liked it. It was not, however, one of their traditions for Rosh HaShanah. One woman, a veterinarian in Perugia, said that her mother used to make a cake like this and she asked about the ingredients. Her parents were from Poland and they had fled to Italy at the end of WWII. She had been born in Bologna and ended up going to vet school in Perugia. She was probably the only other Jew of Ashkenazi descent at the table. Most Italian Jews are of Sephardic origin (from Spain or Sicily, and expelled in 1492, they fled to the northern part of the Italian peninsula).
We had a lovely afternoon, we made some new connections in Perugia, and we have some new traditions to bring home for next year.