The Sephardic Way

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The Sephardic Way


Viviane Ninio
Reflects on her youth spent in Alexandria, Egypt, and on her Sephardi background.

I am a fourth generation Egyptian. I was born in Alexandria, Egypt, into a traditional and prominent Sephardi family. I left Egypt at the age of sixteen but my memories of my early youth in Alexandria are very strong. My maternal grandfather was President of B'nai B'rith among other things and very well known in Egyptian Jewish circles. He wore the Tarbouch or Fez (red felt hat with black tassel worn by Egyptians). My mother and her four sisters were very involved in the Jewish kitchens for the poor, for the children and orphans end for the Australian Jewish soldiers during the War.

My grandfather's brother was Senator to King Fouad of Egypt (father of King Farouk) and was given a title of Bey (a knighthood). My father's family was also well-known in Egypt. His uncle, Haim Dorra, was President of the Alexandria jewish community for many years.
I remember on the Eve of Kol Nidre at the Great Synagogue in Alexandria, Eliahu Ha Navi, when my great uncle would walk all the way to the huge front doors and welcome President Neguib or later Gamal Abdel Nasser. When there was severe sickness in the home, we would have a kappara, (sacrifice). A live chicken was bought. Ten men were gathered and the shochet would then kill the chicken in the home of the sick with all the relevant prayers. A drop of blood from the bird's neck would be put on the sick person's forehead. A meal was then offered to the group and they would take the chicken for their own use plus some money. I would go to the cemetery with my mother to visit my niono's (grandfather's) grave and as we would walk into the cemetery there was always a group of men –sitting, praying, talking. When we reached the grave side we would call "Miiiyan!" and within a few minutes, a group of ten men or more would be there to say Kaddish. On our way ouf they would be waiting for us and Mum would give their leader some money to divide among them.

Corning back home after the funeral of a family member, the first meal for the family and close friends consisted of a hard boiled egg, bread or salted dry biscuits and a Turkish coffee: The evening meal would than be lentils and rice -never meat or wine, never cakes or anything sweet, never flowers in the home, but flowers at the cemetery. And if you have visited our .jewish cemetery in Adelaïde, you would have noticed that Sephardi jews always have flowers on their grave.

About lunchtime of Kol Nidre Eve, it was customary for the women to go to a special room within the synagogue and light a wick in oil, not a candle, for the departed members of the family. That room was just for that purpose and a Rabbi was always in attendance. I used to go with my mother. On the thirtieth day after the birth of our first born son Mack, a ceremony was performed to buy him back from a Cohen. The ceremony is called Pidion Haben. The Cohen, (namely the late Sadie Cohen's husband, Ben), made sure this child was my first born. He was given five coins for1 the boy, who was then retuned to us. We were the first family in Adelaide to have requested the ceremony of Pidion Haben. . . The first tooth of a baby is a MAJOR event and to celebrate it, Belila is eaten at a family banquet. It is boiled wheat with sugar, raisins and almonds. At weddings, Sephardi Jews don't have a Chupa. The Tallit is thrown over the heads of the bride and groom, not held.

Zaghalit are vocal chants - a mani¬festation of happiness and good luck for bride and groom, or any other happy occasion. Some of you who came to my daughter's wedding in Melbourne will surely remember those sounds that I initiated!

The Sephardi way of celebrating Shabbat originated in Spain. The Friday night Kiddush was performed standing up because the curtains were drawn and no-one could see inside. Sephardi Jews add water to the Kiddush wine because the wine represents Divine Judgement and the water represents Divine Mercy. Al Pesach, Sephardi jews eat rice hazelnuts and peanuts. We pass the Seder Plate over our heads, each one saying "Biblihou Yatzamm Mi Mitzrayim" - "We left Egypt in haste carrying unbaked matzoth on our shoulders." For each of the ten plagues the head of the family pours wine in a bowl, together with a woman pouring water. At the end of Pesach, we have on the table a dish of yeast mixed with water and a date on top. It's called Mymouna. Also on the floor we have either fresh grass, lettuce leaves, or any greenery.

Various symbolic foods are eaten at the festive meal on the first night of Rosh Hashanah and a short prayer, alluding to the symbolism, is recited for each food. Firstly, we dip bread in sugar, not in salt. The compulsory foods are : carrots, leeks, beetroot, dates, gourd or pumpkin, pomegranate, fish, fish head and wheat. At the beginning of the year, each person should habituate himself or herself to eat gourd, carrots, leeks, beets and dates. Some of these foods taste sweet and symbolise a sweet year, while others grow abundant and indicate an abundance of merits. (thus, the wheat). My fond memory of Shavuot is to be woken up in the morning by my grandfather sprinkling water on my face. The explanation is that the Torah was given on Shavuot. The Israelites fainted in one of the moments and G-d had to bring back dew to revive them.

Growing up in such a warm, loving religions and traditional family as mine was made me realise the bonds and commitments that are part of everyday life. My goal has always been to try and achieve as an adult a fraction of what I experienced and enjoyed as a child.

Viviane Ninio is a member of WIZO South Australia. She meet her husband, Albert, at a WIZO junction. WIZO REVIEW, July/August. 1995

- Copyright © 2001-2010 Moïse Rahmani -