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By: Sarina Roffé

The things we do at certain times of the year and the actions we take,  help to form us as human beings. When I was little, my Uncle Max lived in Bayside. Once a month he would come visit my grandmother. My grandmother would call each of her children and say Maxie’s coming and we all had to go for Sunday dinner. It was a family tradition, just like her big pots of chicken and spaghetti. Or her sitting by the front window of her house on Shabbat drinking tea from a glass.

Traditions are patterns of thought or behaviors, either religious or social, passed from one generation to the next through practice and repetition. A tradition could be baking certain foods at holidays or at certain times of the year; or practices, such as how we clean our homes before Passover.  Such traditions are followed each year and are part of every family.

Brooklyn’s Syrian and Sephardic communities are unique in certain traditions. These are the traditions that bind us together and keep us unified. It could be involving children as we prepare Hanukah latkes to make it more of a family affair, blessing our children as we bring in the Sabbath, or visiting the sick.

This article seeks to capture a few of those special traditions, to capture our unique practices.

Women’s Shawl – A Brit Milah Tradition

A very small but incredibly significant family tradition among many Jewish families is the “family shawl,” handed down from generation to generation among women. I am a journalist and historian, known as an expert in Sephardic history, and I have never seen this particular tradition written about or even spoken of. It just is.

The family shawl is not for prayer, nor is it a simple head covering. The family shawl is fancy, carefully sewn with pure gold thread, often made with lace. It may have other ornamentation, embroidery or adornment, but the family shawl is not something you would wear at anything but a special occasion.  

The family shawl in my father’s family has been handed down for at least 150 years. It was worn by my great-great grandmother when she carried my paternal grandfather Joseph Nissim Missry, a”h, for his brit in September, 1891.

The family shawl is worn only when the grandmother carries an eight-day-only newborn grandson for his brit milah, or in the case of a firstborn son, during the pidjon haben, when he is redeemed by the Cohen.

The family shawl is special. As you wear it, you feel the power from your female ancestors give strength to the moment of the brit milah. The mitzvah of carrying a child for his circumcision, his entry into the covenant of Avraham Avinu, is somehow magnified, as wearing the shawl draws on the generations before us in that magical moment.

The shawl from my father’s family has been fabric tested. The fabric and gold thread are dated to about 1850. One of my cousins keeps the shawl under lock and key. When a boy is born in our family, it is picked up for the brit, and returned within days, when it is secured for the next brit.

Seniyet Eliyahu Hanabi – Tradition at Brit Milahs

Some rituals in our community are deeply rooted. For example, at every brit milah, a two-level tray with candles is circulated. People light candles and donate to charity. Sometimes guests will take a penny for good mazal.

The tray is called Seniyet Eliyahu Hanabi - the tray of Eliyahu the Prophet. Eliyahu Hanabi is believed to be present at all brit milot.

This practice is based ona Midrashic tradition found in Megilat Taanit, which discusses Greek decrees over Jews when they ruled Eretz Israel. One decree forbids the brit milah.  Jews secretly announced the brit milah by grinding spices and lighting candles. The custom may date from the time of the Prophets. Other sources reveal that during the Spanish Inquisition and forced conversion of the Jews a tray of candles outside the home was a signal that there was a brit milah in that location.

Sending Gifts to the Bride - Swanee

In Syria, our community had a tradition of sending money to a bride, so she can prepare for her wedding night by visiting the mikvah. This tradition grew into sending gifts to the bride, gifts she could us to prepare for her wedding night. Called swanee, the tradition has grown, whereas the gifts are sent on fancy trays, with magnificent white flowers, and almonds covered in white candy.

The modern day swanee maintains the same tradition of sending gifts to the bride, such as a nightgown, perfumes, an evening purse, and jewelry. The gifts have become more and more elaborate. Today, it is widely accepted that gifts are also bought for the groom by the bride’s parents. The swanee, or collection, is sent to the home of the bride, where the gifts are displayed for friends and relatives, and it is an occasion for celebration. The celebration can be an afternoon tea, where coffee and desserts are served, or an evening party.  Often the swanee is combined with the American tradition of a bridal shower.  Today, it is expected that there be a table where the mother of the bride sends gifts to the groom as well, as a way to welcome him into the family.

Foods Reserved for Special Occasions

Our community has foods typically reserved for special occasions. Generally, shob el boz (made from cornstarch and sugar) or el maziye, a white drink made from almond juice, is served at engagement parties. Knafe, made from shredded phyllo dough and ricotta cheese, is served at brit milahs.

Passover – Fast of the Firstborn

In the tenth and final plague inflicted upon Egypt, Gd killed the firstborns in all of Egypt. But, as in all the plagues brought upon Egypt, the Children of Israel were spared. To express their gratitude, all firstborn males fast on the day before Passover (ErevPesah). The fathers of firstborn boys under the age of 13 fast in their stead.

The prevailing custom, however, is for the firstborn to exempt themselves from the obligation to fast by participating in a seudat mitzvah, a festive meal after morning prayers erev Pesah. In our community, firstborn women do not fast. I always remember the firstborn in our family having macaroons!

Passover – the Sack of Matzah

Sephardic families have special traditions after the afikomen is hidden. The Seder leader at a Moroccan Jewish Seder takes the Seder tray and walks around the table, singing a special prayer and passing the tray over the head of each person.

Syrian Jews place the matzah in a napkin or sack. This sack is passed around the table. Using the right hand, the sack is placed over the left shoulder. Each person says, “Mishaarotam” (carrying the possessions tied in bags on their shoulders as they left Egypt). The family then asks, “Minwen jaiyeh? (Where are you coming from?) He replies, “Mimetzrayim” (from Egypt). Then, “Lawen rayech? (Where are you going to?) He replies, “Liyerushalayim” (Jerusalem). And then, “Ishu zawatek? (What are you carrying?) And he replies, “Matzah.”

Visitors to our Passover Seders find this tradition fascinating!

Honoring Our Ancestors

It is a Jewish tradition to honor the dead during the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, typically by visiting the graves of family members. Unique to our community is the lighting of candles before Yom Kippur to honor our deceased. While this can be done at home, it is our practice for the synagogues to lay out tables of candles. Those honoring the dead will go to synagogue erev Yom Kippur to light a candle in memory of loved ones. The thousands of lit candles on the tables are a magnificent sight.

The Weekly Maqam

One of the most exciting things about going to Shabbat services in our community is the maqam. What will the maqam be that day? Use of the maqam is unique to Sephardic communities.

Maqam is the musical system at the root of traditional Arabic music. A maqam is a set of notes that comprise a scale; the Arabic scales rely on quarter tones - notes unfamiliar to a Western ear raised on Western music. Each maqam is also a map - a guide to the musician and his audience, as to where musical ecstasy, taraab, may lie. The melodies used in a given maqam aim to effectively express the emotional state of the reader throughout the set liturgy (without changing the text).

The maqam that is used each Shabbat depends on the theme, story, or main message of the Sabbath weekly Torah portion. The hazzan of the congregation leads the worshippers with the melodies of the particular maqam.


Whether it is putting stones on the graves of our ancestors or baking challah on Fridays with our children, traditions bind our families and our community together. My mother told me to place flour, sugar, and oil in my new house before moving in – for good mazal.  My grandmother pinned a tiny hemsa on my babys’ undershirts to keep them safe. It’s tradition!