Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Karaim, Kena, and Kopecks: Henna Among Crimean Karaites

I got a wonderful question on my Tumblr a few days ago and I thought I’d feature the answer here too.
 “Hi!! Do you have any record of Crimean Karaite henna traditions? All I have to go on is your post about henna customs in Turkey/the Balkans, and also in an article about modern Crimean Karaites it said the woman being interviewed had hennaed hair.”

A great question! Before I jump into the answer, some background for people unfamiliar with Crimean Karaites:

The Karaites are a sect of Judaism which attempts to live only according to the TaNaKh [Hebrew Bible], and does not recognize the halakhic [legal] authority of the Talmud or later Rabbinic thought; non-Karaite Jews are referred to as Rabbanites. Today, most Karaites live now live in Israel or the United States; in the past, there were large Karaite communities in Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq, as well as many Karaite Jews in the Crimean peninsula (as well as pockets in Lithuania and mainland Ukraine).

Henna traditions among Egyptian Karaites were previously featured here; now we’ll investigate henna among Crimean Karaites, known as Karaim or Krymkaraylar (there was also a Rabbanite Jewish community in Crimea, known as Krymchaks). How the Jews (Karaite or Rabbanite) got to the Crimean Peninsula is a blogpost for another time... Suffice it to say that according to the 1897 Russian Imperial Census there were 12,894 Karaites in the Russian Empire, of which 5,400 lived in the Crimean Peninsula, 800 in Lithuania, 200 in Volhynia, and the remainder elsewhere. Today there are perhaps four thousand European Karaites, with about a thousand living in Europe and the remainder living in Israel or North America.

A Karaite kenesa [synagogue], Vilnius, built in 1921.

It might be surprising that we would look for henna traditions among Crimean Karaites. After all, Crimea sits in the Black Sea between Russia and the Ukraine, not places traditionally associated with henna. But it’s important to remember that the Crimean peninsula was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire under the Crimean Tatars until 1783, and even after it became part of Russia, there was still a heavy cultural influence from Turkey. And of course, no matter how much I learn about henna, I am always surprised by how far it has travelled and how diverse its traditions are!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The History and Symbolism of Haroset... With Recipes!

We're taking a break from henna-related posts to compile some resources about haroset, a traditional Passover food. We'll be back to henna after the holiday!

The Passover seder includes a series of symbolic foods placed on a seder plate, most of which are explained over the course of the meal: the matzah, the parsley, the bitter herbs, the shankbone... But one element is left unexplained: the haroset, a paste-like mixture of fruit, nuts, and spices, differing wildly in recipe from community to community. Although it is eaten with matza and maror during korekh, just before the meal, there is no discussion of its significance or acknowledgement of its symbolism.

Haroset is not mentioned in the Biblical descriptions of Passover, which stipulate only the eating of a sacrificial lamb (qorban pesah) with unleavened bread (matza) and bitter herbs (maror). The word haroset first appears in the Mishnah (Pesahim 10:3) and seems to be related to the Hebrew heres or harsit, meaning clay. The sages explain that haroset is part of the seder (along with matza, greens, and two cooked dishes) but not obligatory; Rabbi El'azar ben Tsadoq disagrees and maintains that haroset is, in fact, part of the mitzva of Pesah.

Expanding on the Mishnah, the Talmud (BT Pesahim 115b-116a) explains that haroset was used for dipping the greens into, and that before Passover the spice merchants of Jerusalem used to call out, “Come, buy the spices for the mitzva [of haroset]” (implying that it was part of the commandment). The Jerusalem Talmud (JT Pesahim 10:3) notes that it is also called dukkeh because it is pounded [dakha] into a paste. The Babylonian Talmud adds that the haroset was thought to counteract something in the maror called kappa — a bad enzyme? kind of worm? — but leaving the maror in too long, one rabbi warned, would allow the sweetness of the haroset to neutralize the essential bitterness of the maror.

Maror, apparently a giant artichoke, in the Sarajevo Haggada
(Barcelona, ca. 1350).

But what does the haroset represent? The haroset is often explained as symbolizing the clay that the Israelites used to make bricks during their labour in Egypt. So then why is it so good? Haroset is one of the most popular foods at the seder, and it is usually consumed in much larger quantities than the bitter herbs or even the parsley. If it symbolizes the hard work of slavery, then fruit and spices are not the immediate logical choices.