Moment Magazine: The pomegranate

Moment Magazine’s new issue is out with a timely article by famed cookbook author Joan Nathan on the pomegranate, which features prominently in Rosh Hashanah celebrations. The holiday begins September 18 this year.

The article features an extensive history of this wonderful and colorful fruit as well as links to recipes and cultural and community history.

My late-father-in-law’s large garden in Karaj, now a very much built-up bedroom suburb of Teheran but then a real schlep to the middle of nowhere, had as one of its features an anarestan, or pomegranate orchard. On site, the caretaker and his family also had sheep, chickens, mulberry trees, greenhouses, a big pool that came in handy during the summer (for swimming or cooling watermelons), shade trees for rolling out Persian carpets and taking a nap, and fantastically sweet tiny grapes we called yaghouti (ruby), but which look like the tiny champagne grapes I’ve seen in the US.

According to Nathan,

It was about 20 years ago that I saw a pomegranate blessed as the first fruit of the New Year at a Rosh Hashanah table. I was a guest of Rabbi Yosef Zadok, the head of Jerusalem’s Yemenite community. A master silversmith from a long line of craftsmen—his grandfather made coins for the king of Yemen—Zadok continued to practice the craft until he was in his 90s. We were gathered in the living room of the rabbi’s apartment above his workshop near Mea Shearim. The centerpiece of the table was a huge bowl filled with pomegranates and dotted with a few grapes and dates—three of the holy fruits in the land of Canaan, as mentioned in the Book of Deuteronomy. As the rabbi lifted the pomegranate high over his head, he told me that it is a sign of fertility, peace and prosperity for the New Year.

After the prayers, they ate ga’le, a fruit-and-nut combo (with grapes, pomegranate seeds, pecans, walnuts, peanuts and beans).

One of the oldest and most beloved fruits known to mankind, the red pomegranate, native to southwestern Asia around the Caspian Sea, has been grown in countries such as Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Armenia and Israel for more than 3,500 years. The word pomegranate comes from the Latin pomum and granatus, or “seedy apple.” The Hebrew word rimon, which comes from the Egyptian rmn.

Israeli soldiers call a hand grenade rimon yad (hand pomegranate).

The pomegranate is a symbol of abundance, knowledge, fertility and peace, and may have been the apple in the Garden of Eden, although others say it might have also been quince, fig or grapes. Supposedly, each pomegranate contains 613 seeds (I’ve never counted them) the same number as mitzvot in the Torah. It was so important that it appeared as a design element on high priests’ robes, coins and temple pillars. In Iran, as a fixture on Rosh Hashanah tables (and part of the blessing rituals), it was a sign of fertility, and newly married couples would eat the seeds as the elders said they would have as many children as the seeds they ate.

They are used in drinks and as food. Persians make the classic fesenjan dish, which marries pomegranate paste (rob-e-anar) with ground walnuts. Chicken (breast), turkey or duck is cooked in this delicious sauce, and served over white steamed Basmati rice. It is the epitome of classic Persian cuisine and always found on holiday tables and at special occasions, while the seeds adorn salads and rice and are even sprinkled on yoghurt-and-vegetable salads to add color.

Although Nathan talks about learning from Persian families how to make a “juice box” from the fruit, but I remember my own parents in the Bronx doing the same thing when I was a young child. They were from nowhere near Iran, with their parents or grandparents most recently from Latvia, Belarus, Galicia and Lithuania.

The technique involves rolling the fruit on the kitchen counter until you stop hearing noises (squashing of the seeds to release the juice, sort of like waiting for popcorn to stop popping), sticking a metal skewer or sharp pointed knife into the hard rind and then inserting a straw to drink the juice.

Nathan notes that the fruit stays fresh for months with its hard rind, so it was a good item for trade. Middle Eastern merchants brought them to Europe where Eastern European Jews had them for Rosh Hashanah.

When we lived in Los Angeles and in Southern Nevada, neighbors had pomegranate trees. If they grew in dry Iran, they would grow anywhere in the US Southwest. Although Nathan says it was only rediscovered in the west after the Iranian revolution, I saw it long before that.

The best rob-e-anar (pomegranate paste) comes from Iran or from Turkey and I can buy it here in Tel Aviv at many Persian-owned stores on Levinsky. Some brands are more tart, others are more sweet-and-sour, which is the better kind.

The story also mentions Najmieh Batmanglij who authored the best Persian cookbook, in my opinion. Her first book in 1986 was The Food of Life, but the updated edition (much much better) is The New Food of Life. There are many ways to use pomegranates in the book, including the classic fesenjan, syrups and more. The book is virtually foolproof and I give it as gifts, although it is getting hard to find these days. Classic Persian cooking is simple for those who keep the laws of kashrut. Few recipes mix meat and dairy, so few adjustments need to be made.

Health benefits are many, and the fruit (or the juice, now very popular and available everywhere) claims vitamins C and B, prevents heart disease and atherosclerosis, reduces dental plaque and lowers the risk of prostate cancer. It’s also delicious, although it may be too tart for some people, so sweeten to taste.

For more pomegranate recipes by Joan Nathan, click here. There is a recipe for fesenjan, but no Persian cook worth her salt would make it that way. Ketchup? Chicken thighs? Oy vey. The other recipes are interesting, however.

European Day of Jewish Culture marked

Twenty European countries marked the 10th European Day of Jewish Culture dedicated to its rich Jewish heritage.

Participating countries this year included Belgium, Britain, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Ukraine.

In Italy, nearly 60 cities and towns opened their synagogues, community centers and other Jewish sites for shows, concerts, exhibits, conferences and other events related to Italy’s Jewish history. The main site was in Trani, in southern Puglia. A Jewish community still exists there five centuries after the expulsion of Jews from Naples.

In Turkey, the Jewish community even hosted an iftar (a fast-breaking dinner held during Ramadan) as one of the events.

In Bulgaria, the Shalom organization held an open house at the Jewish Community Center in Sofia, a few days before the 100th anniversary of the city’s main synagogue consecration.

B’nai B’rith initiated, in 1996, the European Day of Jewish Culture. The annual event attracts some 200,000 people across Europe each year for diverse events.

Moment Magazine: The best Jewish films

What do you get when you ask film critics to list their five favorite Jewish films? A great article in this month’s Moment Magazine.

See the article here, and view the top 100 Jewish films list here. The editors are also asking readers to send in their own favorites for an update.

Most of these are well-known to readers but some were new to me. Read the film descriptions in the article above.

New York Times, Esquire and Vogue writer Phillip Lopate: The Plot Against Harry (1989), A Kid for Two Farthings (1955), The Heartbreak Kid (1972), The Nutty Professor (1963), Nobody’s Business (1996)

Entertainment Weekly film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum: The Producers (1968), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Late Marriage (2001), The Counterfeiters (2007), The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1971)

“The Jew in American Cinema” author Patricia Erens: The Frisco Kid (1979), Green Fields (1937), Exodus (1960), Hester Street (1975), Blazing Saddles (1974)

“American Jewish Filmmakers” co-author David Desser: Animal Crackers (1930), The Pawnbroker (1965), Annie Hall (1977), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Blazing Saddles (1974)

“Nostalgia in Jewish-American Theatre and Film, 1979-2004” author Ben Furnish: Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Avalon (1990), Funny Girl (1968), Torch Song Trilogy (1988), Europa, Europa (1991)

“Hollywood and Anti-Semitism: A Cultural History Up to World War II” author Steven Carr: Birthplace (1992), The Search (1948), Little Man, What Now? (1934), Playing for Time (1980), The Last Stage (1948)

“The Jewish Image in American Film” author Lester Friedman: Annie Hall (1977), The Pawnbroker (1965), Quiz Show (1994), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), Dirty Dancing (1987)

National Center for Jewish Film executive director Sharon Rivo: The Frisco Kid (1979), Tevye (1939), The White Rose (1982), Being Jewish in France (2009), The Dybbuk (1937)

Village Voice regular contributor B. Ruby Rich: Where to and Back trilogy (1982, 1985, 1986), Me Ivan, You Abraham (1993), Like a Bride (1994), Local Angel (2002), Zero Degrees of Separation (2005)

Village Voice film reviewer J. Hoberman: Green Fields (1937), Waltz with Bashir (2008), Shoah (1985), Jewish Luck (1925), Lost in America (1985)

Television Quarterly media writer Bernard Timberg: The Jazz Singer (1927), Body and Soul (1947), The Graduate (1967), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Borat (2006)

“The 50 Greatest Jewish Movies: A Critic’s Ranking of the Very Best” author Kathryn Bernheimer: The Chosen (1981), Enemies: A Love Story (1989), Everything is Illuminated (2005), Unsettled (2006), Paper Clips (2004)

A great list and I’m sure each of us have our own favorites in this list and additional others that should be added. What do you think should be added to the magazine’s list?

Read the complete article and see the list of 100 at the links above.

World Jewish Studies: Italian section

An extensive section at the conference focused on the Italian Jewish community, in cooperation with ASSEI (The Israeli Association for the Study of History of Italian Jews)

Here are some of the categories and lectures (E=English, H=Hebrew):

The attitude towards the other in Italy
Silvia Cappelletti (E) The Expulsions of the Jews from Rome under Tiberius and Claudius: A Juridical Study
Yosef A. Cohen (H) The Place of the Apostate Alessandro Franceschi in the Jesuit Mission to Italian Jewry in the First Half of the 16th Century
Francesco Spagnolo (E) Participants-Observers: Christian Presences in Italian Synagogue Life
Itzhak Sergio Minerbi (H) Pope Benedict XVI and the Jews

Jewish Thought and Society in Italy
Pier Gabriele Mancuso (E) Sefer Yetzirah: Early Jewish Mysticism
Lea Naomi Vogelmann Goldfeld (H) Mordechai Shmuel Ghirondi, Rabbi of Padova, Scholar and Kabbalist
Asher Salah (E) From Odessa to Florence: Elena Comparetti Raffalovich and Jewish Russian Intellectuals in Post-Risorgimento Italy
Cristina Michal Bettin (E) Jewish Youth in Italy: Between Integrations and Assimilation, 1861–1938
Anna-Dorothea Ludewig (E) Marranism and Identity Construction in 19th-Century German-Jewish Literature
Paola Ferruta (E) “New Marranism” and the Encounter Between Jews and Universalism
Marina Arbib (H) The Diaries of Gershom Scholem: A Jewish Intellectual Shapes His Identity
Amir Ashur (H) Developments in the Status of Jewish Women in 12th-Century Egypt as Portrayed in Prenuptial Agreements from the Cairo Genizah
Avraham David (H) Culture and Trade Connection Between Egypt and Crete in the Late Middle Ages, as Reflected in Cairo Genizah Documents

There is also another list that didn’t seem to be categorized, but included the following very interesting topics:

Joseph Rapaport, “The Leadership of the Jewish Community in the Kingdom of Navarre Before the Expulsion”
Yosef Hacker, “Charles the Eighth, the Conquest of Italy and Hispano-Jewish Aspirations on the Eve of the 16th Century”
Luis Cortese, “Isidore of Seville, Thomas Aquinas, and Alonso de Cartagena on Forced Conversion”
Ahuva Ho, “Alfonso de Zamora: an Apostate in the Service of the Church”
Ricardo Munoz Solla, “Conversos burgaleses: Historia de una silenciosa presencia (siglos XV-XVI)”
Samuela Marconcini, “Tolerance and Anti-Judaism: the Politics of Conversion to Catholicism in Tuscany Between the Seventeenth and the Nineteenth Centuries”
Matteo Al Kalak, “The “House of Catechumens” in Modena between Dukes and Popes (1583-1797)”
Ilaria Pavan, “The “House of Catechumens” in Modena during the Emancipation Age (1804-1941)”
Yosef Kaplan, “The Building of Sephardic Communities in the “Confessionalization Era”: A Comparative Approach”
Anita Waingort Novinsky, “A Critical Approach to Sephardic Historiography: The Forgotten Marranos of America”
Jose Alberto Rodrigues Da-Silva Tavim, “A Troublesome Theme: The Jews and the Intelligence Networks in Portugal’s Asian Empire In the 16th Century”
Schulamith C. Halevy, “Los Trevino: a `Tribe of Sefarditas’ in El Nuevo Reino de Leon District”
Asaf Ashkenazi, “Historia general de las Indias”
Limor Munz-Manor, “The Old World and the New”: The Jewish Discourse on America in 16th-Century Italy”
Claude B. Stuczynski, “Jews and Judaism in the Juridical Debates on Amerindians in 16th-Century Spanish-America”

Women and Widows
Tirtsah Levie-Bernfeld, “Sephardi Widows in Early Modern Amsterdam”
Ruth Lamdan, “Widows, Old and Respected Women in Ottoman Jewish Society”
Michal Ben Ya’akov, “From Marginality to Opportunity: Widows in Nineteenth Century Eretz-Israel”

What a wide panorama of topics addressing women, history, America, pre-Expulsion issues, conversion and much more!

Tracing the Tribe believes that Jewish history and genealogy cannot be separated. Each helps us learn about the other and to understand events on a very personal level as we realize that our own ancestors may have lived through those exact events and in those places.