What It’s Like to Celebrate Rosh Hashanah in an Iraqi Jewish Family

Rachel is an Orthodox Jewish women and regular writer for Israel Today who asked to share her personal story with our readers.

By Rachel Avraham | | Topics: Rosh Hashanah
How an Iraqi Jewish family celebrates Rosh Hashanah
Illustration. Photo: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90

For thirteen years, I had the honor of being the wife of Shachar Avraham, who was half Iraqi and half Moroccan. The day after Tu B’Av, I woke up and found he passed away for reasons that are still unclear. We will know the results of the autopsy in two months. In honor of his memory, I would like to share with Israel Today readers how we celebrated Rosh Hashanah in our family.

When I first met Shachar in 2007 as a student studying at Ben-Gurion University, he brought me home to do the holiday with the Iraqi side of his family in Zikhron Ya’akov. On our first Rosh Hashanah together, everyone was dressed in white. Together we walked to a synagogue, where we listened to the sound of the shofar blaring. After we did a special outdoor Seder, very similar to the Passover Seder. In this Seder, we ate the head of a lamb, rubiya, leeks, pomegranates, dates, apples with honey, beets, pumpkin and many other types of vegetables. We also ate apple jam in addition to the traditional apple and honey eaten by all Jews. Each of the things that we ate had a special blessing. This was in addition to the round challah bread that is served in all Jewish communities on Rosh Hashanah.

Setting the festive table. Photo: Rachel Avraham

The blessings in the Seder begin with the words yehi ratzon (may it be G-d’s will) and then ask G-d to help us defeat our enemies and bless us for the year to come. Theorigins of the Seder date back to the Talmud (Horayot 12a), where Abaye discusses various omens and suggests that people should eat these foods at the beginning of each year in order to bring prosperity for the year to come. According to cookbook author Gilda Angel (Sephardic Holiday Cooking):

“It is told that when the Babylonian scholar Hai Gaon (939-1039) left the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, his students would bring him a basket filled with different fruits over which he recited various blessings and biblical verses.”

The Baghdadi rabbi Hakham Yosef Hayyim (1832-1909) mentions the ceremony in his compilation of Jewish law and practice.

After the Seder is completed, my late husband’s Iraqi Jewish family typically ate kebabs, chicken, steak, kubbeh (semolina and rice with meat stuffed inside), rice, sambosak (Iraqi samosa), umba (Iraqi mango sauce), various salads, and baklava, apple cakes and other sweets for dessert. The salads in my husband’s Iraqi Jewish family included the traditional preserved olives, preserved pickles, preserved peppers and other preserved foods that Iraqi Jews make.

Yet, it also included a number of Moroccan salads as well, since my husband’s father and several of his brothers married Moroccan women. So, we also had Moroccan carrot salad with skoog, Moroccan spicy pepper salad, cabbage salad, Moroccan spicy tomato salad, etc. We also had a number of salads that all Israelis eat such as hummus, Israeli salad, egg salad, potato salad (which is actually of Russian origin), and avocado salad.

Preparing the meal is also a time of family bonding. Photo: Rachel Avraham

The day after Rosh Hashana, we usually went to the synagogue to pray and then to some park to have a BBQ, where we ate steak, chicken, kebabs, spicy hot dogs (Hebrew National Hot Dogs don’t exist in the Iraqi Jewish kitchen as they are too bland!), and various other meats together with homemade pita bread and some salads. After this BBQ, we went back to the synagogue to pray, only to repeat the same ritual the next day, as we have two days of Rosh Hashanah.

This is generally how we celebrated Rosh Hashanah for thirteen years, till G-d decided to take him from me, making me a widow at age 36 and a single mother of three children. In honor of his memory, I will continue to celebrate Rosh Hashanah in this wonderful way with our children, his parents, and the two brothers that he left behind in this world.

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