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Faces of Federation

You Are What You Eat: A Rosh Hashanah Seder

The reviving blasts of the shofar are upon us to remind us to wake up.

Growing up as an Iranian-American Jew, I’ve been lucky enough to celebrate new beginnings each year according to the Gregorian calendar (New Year’s Eve/Day), the Jewish calendar (Rosh Hashanah), and the Persian calendar (Nowruz). And as I got older, each represented a different part of my identity. Still, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, remains my favorite because it’s truly about rebirth — a time of spiritual correction to reflect on the past, to grow from it, and to move forward. A fresh start. A clean slate.

Like many Persian families, we gather on the first and second night of the New Year and welcome the holiday with a Rosh Hashanah Seder — reciting blessings, eating delicious foods, and connecting with one other.

This practice dates back thousands of years and was mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud. Many believe that at one point it was practiced by Jews of all cultural backgrounds. Today it remains a beloved Persian ritual. The Seder consists of nine symbolic signs (simanim – in Hebrew) represented by different foods that reflect what we want from G-d in the year to come. 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, shape, or name. My family’s Seder traditions always include the signs and blessings in Hebrew, English, and Persian, and my favorite part is eating the bean stew.

On the topic of Rosh Hashanah and the sound of the shofar, I recently had a huge wake-up call: I’ve been welcoming Rosh Hashanah with a Seder for my entire life — decades — and while I know why we eat each food, I never took a moment to stop and think about how to apply these blessings to my life.

Sadly, I must admit that this exquisite, deep tradition had become a yearly routine in my life, with minimal consciousness. And if I’m feeling this way, thousands of other Persian Jews, and perhaps Sephardi Jews, must also be struggling with how to personalize the Seder.

In an effort to fuse a little mindfulness into this beautiful ritual, I’ve shared the traditional representations and my own deeper interpretations of these signs below.

SIMANIM:

Dates — “To end our enemies” or “Simplicity/innocence”: In what area/towards whom can I practice more compassion? In what ways do I want personal growth?

Beans — “Abundance”: In what area would I like to experience “abundance” in the year to come?

Leeks — “To cut off enemies”: What personal traits or self-sabotaging habits are no longer serving me?

Beets — “To depart”: What do I want to leave behind in the new year that’s holding me back?

Squash/Pumpkin/Gourd — “To proclaim” or “To announce”: What do I want to be known for this year? What’s my intention for the year?

Pomegranate — “Mitzvot”: What acts of kindness do I want to practice in the year to come?

Apples Dipped in Honey — “To have a sweet new year”: What sweetness and blessings do I want?

Meat from Animal Head (cow tongue) or Head of Lettuce — “Leadership”: Where do I want to lead this year? What leadership skills do I want to improve and what actions can I take to enhance those skills?

Fish/Lungs/Popcorn — “Lightness”: What practices can I implement to give me peace of mind, to have more playfulness in the year to come, and to connect to my inner light?

Last year, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles launched the Y&S Nazarian Iranian Young Leadership Initiative in partnership with the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation. I was hired with the goal of celebrating the heritage of Iranian Jewry and engaging more Iranian Jewish young adults as participants and leaders throughout the community at large. Through this initiative, we hosted “Eat, Explore, Embody,” a Rosh Hashanah intention-setting program based on the simanin from the Persian Rosh Hashanah Seder. At this program, an intimate group of young professionals from diverse cultural backgrounds gathered together to eat these traditional foods, look in to their deeper meaning, and think about what they want to create in the upcoming Jewish New Year.

It’s heartwarming to remember that the blessings of the Rosh Hashanah Seder that my family recites in Los Angeles today are the same words that my great grandparents recited in Iran, their parents before them, and on and on. I find it beautiful that I can find meaning in these ancient traditions.

I have committed myself to teaching my colleagues and the greater Jewish community about Persian Jews, but, as it turned out, I’m the one who is also learning and growing in unprecedented ways. And Rosh Hashanah hasn’t even begun.

To learn more about the Federation’s work and the Y&S Nazarian Iranian Young Leaders Initiative, visit www.yaJewishLA.org or email Nazarian@JewishLA.org.