Texas: A Sephardic New Year

In Texas, the Sephardic and Hispanic Jewish families celebrate the New Year with a Latin flavor.

The Houston Chronicle story focuses on families from Mexico, Cuba or South America as customs from their communities of origin are still celebrated.

Martin and Denise Yudovich have raised a brood of proud Texans who all speak perfect English, yet they remember their childhoods in Mexico by singing songs and saying prayers in English, Spanish, Hebrew and Yiddish at holiday celebrations.

“Yiddish was the language used by our parents and grandparents,” Denise Yudovich explains. “Back then prayers were said in Yiddish and Hebrew, and we kids all spoke Spanish.”

Of the 45,000 Jews in the Houston area, Lee Wunsch, executive director of the Jewish Federation, estimates Hispanic Jews make up as much as 2 percent of the population. In 1984, an influx of Jews from Mexico and South and Central American countries self-organized into a social network called Hebraica, which had a membership of 250 families at one time.

Among former Cubans are the Esquenazi and Halfon extended families.

When Fidel Castro came to power in 1960, Sara Esquenazi’s parents, both physicians, left behind a good life to come to Houston. Esquenazi was 13 then, but she remembers much of her life in Cuba. She celebrates with her brother and sister-in-law Leon and Rebeca Halfon and cousins.

“When our great-great-grandparents were expelled from Spain, or our parents had to leave Cuba, it showed us that they would give up all their worldly possessions so they could keep their religion, because that was more important,” Esquenazi said.

Esquenazi keeps a worn set of papers with the instructions for the Sephardic seder for Rosh Hashanah, which few American Ashkenazim know anything about.

Every item on their table represents something significant as a wish for the coming year. The fish head reminds them that they “should always be a leader, and not a follower.” A pomegranate apple with its many seeds symbolizes abundance. Spinach is served to ward off evil. A lively discussion of the foods and prayers in Spanish commences when they sit at their holiday table.

Sylvia Fleischer and her sister Dori Yudelevich are from Santiago, Chile and came to Houston in 1973. They prepare the special foods and the ceremony is conducted in English and Spanish.

“We cook our vegetables and apples until they are soft and sweet for a sweet year,” Fleischer said. We eat dates for abundance and cook special tortillas with leeks to keep the bad away.”

Fleischer said the work of preparing all the special symbols is much like the work Jewish cooks do in preparing a Passover Seder.

“For us, this is not like a regular meal, and that gives our Rosh Hashana celebrations special meaning,” Fleischer said. “It’s a lot of work, but we want to continue the traditions passed down from our grandparents to our parents, and from our parents to us.”

Among Sephardim of all origins (including Persians, Syrians, Iraqis, and others), some of these Rosh Hashanah traditions include:

– Fish head: Reminds them to be leaders (the head), not followers (the tail).
– Pomegranate: Its many seeds represent abundance.
– Spinach: Wards off evil.
– Dates: Represent abundance.
– Tortillas with leeks: Keep the “bad” away.

Read the complete article at the link above.

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