From Our President: Pushing the Envelope

by Judy Heicklen

On 28th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues in Manhattan, I discovered a small grocery store called Little India, where one can buy fresh fenugreek. Fenugreek is not something I usually buy (it’s generally used in Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines), and I had been searching unsuccessfully for it for years. Even the produce managers at Fairway had given me a blank stare when I asked for it. But Little India came through for me.

You see, I wanted fenugreek for a specific purpose. On Rosh Hashanah every year I make a Seder. A Rosh Hashanah Seder is a series of wishes for the new year, using a variety of special foods known as simanim. Each siman has a “yehi ratzon” (“may it be Thy will”) that either highlights a certain characteristic of the food (e.g., an apple dipped in honey for a sweet new year) or is a pun on the name of the food (e.g., may God squash our enemies). However, some of the simanim are a bit obscure, and there are different understandings of what they actually are. Such is the situation with rubia, which many traditions understand to be black-eyed peas or some kind of long bean. However, the Yemenite tradition, based on Rashi, is that rubia is fenugreek. Year in and year out, I have served black-eyed peas (based on the Avudraham’s understanding), but I have always yearned to serve fenugreek as well, to fulfill all opinions.

Many of my guests had never even heard of a Rosh Hashanah Seder before. Despite its 1,700-year-old origins in the Talmud (see Horayot 12a or Keritot 6a), it is a custom that has fallen out of use in most Ashkenazic communities. Sephardic communities, on the other hand, generally do have a Seder ritual. Despite my lack of Sephardic roots, it is a ritual that I have embraced wholeheartedly. 

Why do some rituals resonate so strongly with us, while others do not? Why have Sephardic Jews developed a Rosh Hashanah Seder and Ashkenazic Jews have not? Is it appropriate for me, an Ashkenazi Jew, to adopt a Sephardic ritual? Furthermore, would it be appropriate for me, a woman, to take on a ritual traditionally performed by men?

Over Rosh Hashanah we read about the weaning of Isaac and the weaning of Samuel. Abraham prepared a feast for Isaac’s weaning. Why hasn’t this ceremony caught on in Jewish circles? When I stopped nursing each of my three children, it was a bittersweet moment. I considered marking it in some way, as Abraham had, but it felt too inauthentic, too uncomfortable. For me, the power of ritual is in its connection to previous generations and the history of the Jewish people that has gone before us. For that reason, I named my daughters using a zeved habat ceremony, which goes back four centuries in the Italian tradition, instead of creating something new. To invent a new ritual felt oxymoronic to me. It felt fake and corny and “wrong.” Even though others might revel in the creativity that could be expressed when there is no set text or activity to commemorate an event, that didn’t work for me. Or so I thought.

Then, two years ago, I attended my niece’s wedding in Israel. She asked me to prepare to leyn a chapter of Shir Hashirim. During her kabbalat panim, right before the badeken, eight women from her family and friends each chanted a chapter of Shir Hashirim. It was beautiful. It was moving. And though I had never seen it or heard of it before, it felt authentic and appropriate.

This issue of the JOFA Journal focuses on this cutting edge of ritual—whether it is the creation of new rituals that haven’t existed before or taking on preexisting rituals that haven’t been practiced by our slice of the community. Some of them feel natural to me, and some make me uncomfortable. Some have serious halakhic issues to be grappled with, and some have had no discussion in the halakhic literature at all. Some of our authors do not consider themselves Orthodox, whereas others do; we wanted to showcase a wide range of emerging activity in order to open up the conversation. We hope that the UnConference on November 23 will provide an opportunity to continue that conversation.

This year at my Rosh Hashanah Seder table, when I served fenugreek for the very first time, I had a Syrian Jew (whose family uses Chinese long beans for rubia) and a Yerushalmi (whose family uses black-eyed peas). I had a medical student (whose family doesn’t have rubia at its Seder) who informed me that fenugreek is used to help nursing mothers increase their milk supply. We discussed a dish called chilba that Yemenite and Egyptian Jews make from fenugreek. So now I have a new dish to make for next year! I wish each of you a year of opportunities to explore and celebrate the diversity of our rich heritage. Shana tova!


Back to Ritual Innovation: Fall 2014 page