The joys of a Mizrahi Rosh Hashana seder


I don’t need to remind you of all the reasons that 2020 has been an incredibly rough year. We could all use a fresh start, so it’s a good thing that Rosh Hashana is here, offering a chance for renewal and a new beginning.

As an Iranian Jewish American, I get the pleasure of celebrating three New Years — the secular new year on Jan. 1, the Persian New Year (Nowruz) and, of course, Rosh Hashana. I connect with each in my own way, but there is something special about the spiritual essence of Rosh Hashana.

As a child, the High Holidays for were a time of repentance, going to synagogue and gathering with family. As I have gotten older, I enjoy the reflective element of going inward and taking note of where I hit the mark and where I can do better next year. I’ve learned not only to love but to crave the beautiful melodies of Aveinu Malkenu and other prayers unique to this time. And it would not be a holiday if I didn’t gather with family parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins gathered around a long table filled with delicious food, good energy … and a Rosh Hashana seder.

Like many Jewish families, we gather to celebrate Rosh Hashana eating apples dipped in honey and pomegranates, but as Iranian Jews, before we dig into our delicious meal of Persian stews, crispy rice and other mouthwatering foods, we sit down for a formal seder. The seder consists of nine symbolic signs (simanim in Hebrew) represented by foods that reflect what we want from G-d in the year to come.

This practice, mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud, dates back thousands of years and was practiced by my ancestors in the region of Iran/Persia. Many believe that at one point, the Rosh Hashana seder was practiced by Jews of all cultural backgrounds, but today it remains a beloved tradition among many Mizrahi families (Jews from the Middle East and North Africa). Each sign is accompanied by a blessing that begins with “Yehi ratzon” (“May it be your will”), and each food has been carefully chosen based on its taste, texture or name in Hebrew. I wait all year to eat my mother’s delectable bean stew, the beans representing abundance.

Of course, this year is going to look different. We won’t have a seder with 25-plus loved ones. We won’t get to practice the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (inviting guests who do not have a place to celebrate). And we won’t be going to synagogue to pray in community, recite the special melodies and hear the sound of the shofar.

The beautiful thing about our tradition during this time of year is that while it’s clearly a time for inner reflection, we often do so in community. In today’s coronavirus-plagued world, much of that in-person “community” is missing.

But one thing is for sure: We don’t need a Zoom meeting or FaceTime to connect with ourselves or with our spirituality. As I prep for the High Holidays this year, I still look to our Jewish tradition to guide me to holiness and connection while recognizing that it will look different.

The sound of the shofar symbolizes a spiritual wake-up call. Perhaps this pandemic is the biggest wake-up call for all of us — a reminder to be kinder to others, that our lives are fragile but also that we are resilient; and a reminder that we have less control over our lives than we think.

We can still look to our ancient traditions and reimagine them in these unusual times. Personally, I hope to find meaning in the symbolic foods of the Rosh Hashana seder. Even if I’m not eating them surrounded by friends and family, I’ll be using them to guide the blessings I want to manifest in 5781.

As Rosh Hashana approaches, we wish each other a “shana tova umetuka,” a sweet New Year. It has been a difficult year for many of us, but perhaps there has also been light and sweetness among the struggles. If I have learned anything from this pandemic, it is to find the sweetness in difficult times, to find the blessings in everyday moments and to appreciate the finer things in life: a warm hug, a beautiful sunset and, of course, the sweetness in our tradition.