A Persian Purim Feast From The Non-Persian Bride

— by Ronit Treatman

Have you ever wondered how Persian Jews celebrate Purim?  What do they serve to rejoice over their salvation from Haman?  After all, their ancestors were directly affected.  Up to this point, I could only wonder, because the Persian Jewish community is very insular, and recipes are a closely guarded family secret.  Now, it is possible to learn about these Jewish Persian customs from Persian Food from the Non-persian Bride: And Other Sephardic Kosher Recipes You Will Love, whose author, Reyna Simnegar, has a lot in common with Queen Esther.

More after the jump.
Reyna Simnegar, whose first name means “queen,” was born in Venezuela to a Catholic family.  She attended Catholic school, and thought she was like every other Venezuelan Catholic she grew up with.  But there were hints in her family that they were different.  For example, there were paintings of Saint Esther in the family home.  Saint Esther carries special symbolism for families of anusim (forced converts).  Esther represents a Jew who hid her identity until it was safe to reemerge.  The anusim transformed her into a Catholic saint.   This was a covert way for them to keep her as a beacon of hope that some day they could return to being openly Jewish.  At about age fifteen, Reyna’s Aunt Sarah whispered the truth to her.  “Our family if of Jewish origin,” she was told.  

Reyna Simnegar decided to return to her roots.  She underwent an orthodox conversion.  She then proceeded to marry a Jewish Persian man.  Her mother in law, Mrs. Shahla Simnegar, invited Reyna into the kitchen, and taught her all about the family’s secret recipes and customs.  Reyna has published these in a sumptuous new cookbook.  This book is not just about Persian food and recipes, but also about Jewish Persian customs.  On page 343, Reyna maps out the menu of a Persian Purim feast, from appetizers to desserts.  On this menu are such exotic dishes as Chelo (Persian rice) on page 186, and Persian Halvah on page 299.

My family had a lot of fun discovering something completely different to prepare for Purim in this book.  We call it Queen Esther’s Ice Cream.  On page 301, Reyna Simnegar has a recipe for Bastani, or Saffron Ice Cream.  We transformed this recipe into an activity.

Queen Esther’s Ice Cream

  • 3 scoops vanilla ice cream (dairy or pareve)
  • Rose water
  • Saffron threads
  • Pistachio nuts

Each person was served three scoops of vanilla ice cream.  We went with premium dairy ice cream.  

When Rosa Damascena rose petals are steamed to extract rose oil (used for perfume), what is left behind is called rose water.   Rose water has been used in Persian cuisine since ancient times.  It imparts a distinctive flavor and aroma to the food.  It contains no alcohol.  We passed the bottle of rose water around for everyone to smell. We each put a little bit of rose water in our ice cream.

Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world!  Saffron spice is made from the stigmas (or threads) of the Crocus sativus flower, which are individually handpicked and then dried.  Saffron gives a golden hue to foods, a special aroma, and sweet flavor.  We purchased a small sachet of saffron threads.  Every family member crumbled a little bit of the beautiful, scarlet dried crocus threads into our ice cream.

Pistachio nuts originated in Persia.  They are widely used in Persian recipes.  We peeled some unsalted, roasted pistachios (tasting some as we worked of course!).  All of us added some to our bowl.  Reyna Simnegar’s recipe calls for slivered pistachios, but we were not so refined!  We just threw them in whole.

We mixed all the ingredients together, and tasted the ice cream.  I wasn’t sure that my children would like the rose water flavor.  This is a condiment I never cook with.  The resulting ice cream was creamy and crunchy.  The flavors of the rose water, vanilla, saffron, and pistachio perfectly balanced each other.  This truly felt like an exotic dish from a foreign place to us.  It is so delicious; it is genuinely worthy of a queen’s banquet!

Buying Reyna Simnegar’s book, Persian Food from the Non-persian Bridee, is not an exercise in self-indulgence.  All proceeds go to charity.  She has donated to Chabad houses, where she has been invited to give talks.  “My charity of choice is Tomchei Shabbat (feeding the poor for Shabbat) and I also want to support Achnasa Kallah (helping brides to start their life),” she writes in response to my query about her charitable giving.  So go ahead and treat yourself to this book.  It’s a mitzvah!

My Home Cooked Bat Mitzvah

Warm memories of community collaboration.

Keeping up with the Steins (or the Hassons, or the Bar-Els for that matter) was not the issue when I celebrated my Bat Mitzvah; collaborating with them was! In 1980, in Caracas, Venezuela, no one in our circle of friends catered. People from the community got together and cooked! With the current downturn of the economy, families in the United States are looking for alternatives to the expensive parties they may have had in mind. Coming together as a community to prepare for a simcha is a very old tradition in many Jewish communities around the world. Not only are the resulting menus more interesting, but the bonds formed between people, and the sweet memories, remain strong for many years after the festivities.

When we celebrated my Bat Mitzvah we were living in Venezuela, fifteen hours away by air from all of our relatives in Israel. In 1980, the Jewish community of Caracas was evenly divided between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews. My parents befriended people in the community from many different backgrounds. For my Bat Mitzvah, my mother, her friends, their daughters, and I all got together and cooked. As a result, the menu for my Bat Mitzvah was much more diverse than it would have been had my relatives in Israel been the ones doing the cooking.

More after the jump.

For me, the rejoicing began weeks before the big day, when everyone joined us around the dining room table to assemble the appetizers. We were making Moroccan Cigars (for eating, not for smoking!). As we sat together carefully spooning the meat filling onto the dough, we told jokes and talked about the upcoming party. The house was redolent with the smells of garlic, cilantro, and cinnamon. My mother fried up a batch of these crisp appetizers for us to taste. We could all hear them sizzling in the hot olive oil. So impatient were we to try them that we burned our fingers, lips, and tongues as we bit into the spicy delicacies. We played simcha music to enhance the excitement and anticipation in the air. The time our friends spent with us helping with the preparations was the best gift that I received for my Bat Mitzvah. To this day I carry the feeling of warmth and gratitude toward them for devoting their time and attention to me. My Bat Mitzvah celebration would not have been possible without them.

I would love the opportunity to give today’s B’nai Mitzvah what was given to me. There are many ways to achieve this. It can be a potluck, where people are assigned dishes. Friends (including men and boys!) can congregate in one home and work together. When a bigger kitchen is needed, there are some synagogues that will accommodate members who would like to cook their own food for a simcha. At my synagogue, Germantown Jewish Centre, we have two kitchens. One is small, and is only for dairy and pareve dishes. If the party is held on that side of the building, then celebrants are allowed to bring pareve or dairy dishes from home. On the other side of the building is a much bigger, professional kitchen. Dairy or meat meals may be prepared in it. A mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, is required, and is contracted from the Rabbinical Assembly.

Now that my own children are going through the B’nei Mitzvah phase, it is my privilege to be asked to bring something to their friends’ celebrations. I try to make the most memorable dish that I can. Most people in the States feel awkward about imposing on their friends and acquaintances, and yet I sense a yearning in many of the people that I know to give of themselves. My gratitude has not abated over the years. Our family friends’ example has stayed with me. I feel that by celebrating as I did in Venezuela, we can recapture the warmth of being part of a community. Family recipes are shared, and traditions mingled. A Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebration should be a time of pride and joy, not stress and pressure over money. I believe that I remember my home cooked Bat Mitzvah with more love and warmth than I would have any catered affair.

Ronit’s Bat Mitzvah Menu

Moroccan cigars are appetizers served only on special occasions. Our friend Mercedes, who came to Caracas from Morocco, taught us how to prepare them.

Moroccan Cigars

  • 1 pound phyllo dough
  • 1 onion
  • Olive oil
  • 1 pound ground lamb
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • Salt to taste
  • Ground black pepper to taste
  • Red pepper flakes to taste
  • 5 eggs
  1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.
  2. Chop the onion, and sauté in one tablespoon of olive oil. When the onion is soft and translucent, add the lamb and stir. Add the salt, cinnamon, allspice, ginger, black pepper, and red pepper flakes. Fry everything until the meat is cooked through. Add the cilantro.
  3. Whisk the eggs and then add them to the meat mixture. Cook for about two minutes. Set aside and allow to cool.
  4. When the meat mixture has cooled down, cut the phyllo dough into rectangles. Brush with olive oil, and then arrange some of the meat filling along one of the edges. Roll into a cigar shape and pinch shut. The cigars may be frozen until ready to cook.
  5. Fry the cigars in hot olive oil, then keep warm in the oven until ready to serve.

Moroccan cigars are typically served with a Hummus dip.

Hummus Dip

  • 1 can chickpeas
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • Lemon to taste
  • 1 garlic clove
  • Salt
  • Ground cumin
  • Ground paprika

Put all the ingredients except the paprika in a food processor. Blend everything together until very smooth. Scoop into a bowl, and sprinkle with paprika.

A very fun dish to prepare with a group of friends and family is Israeli Salad. Each participant will need his or her own cutting board and sharp knife.

Israeli salad.

Israeli Salad

  • 2 tomatoes
  • 1 cucumber
  • 1 pepper
  • 4 green onions
  • 5 radishes
  • 1 bunch Cilantro
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • Juice of 2 Limes
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt
  • Black pepper
  1. The cucumber needs to be peeled, and the peppers cleaned. The tomatoes, cucumber, pepper, green onions, and radishes need to be washed and diced. The cilantro should be very finely chopped.
  2. After all the vegetables have been chopped, add the lemon and lime juice and olive oil. Finish with salt and pepper to taste.
  3. This quantity of vegetables serves 6. If you have helpers, have each veggie prepared by one individual. All the salads can be joined in one big serving bowl at the end.

One of the main courses served was my mother’s festive beef dish. It is an Israeli recipe that we would usually enjoy for Passover.

Mediterranean Braised Beef with Artichokes

  • 2 onions
  • 5 cloves of garlic
  • 2 carrots
  • 2 stalks of celery
  • 5 pounds beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • Olive oil
  • 3 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • Artichokes in brine
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Chop the onions, garlic, celery, and carrots.
  2. In a heavy pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the vegetables until the onion is translucent.
  3. Add the meat, salt, and pepper while stirring. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Seal the pot with aluminum foil, and place in the oven for four hours.
  4. Take out the pot and allow to cool enough to handle. Place the meat in a separate baking dish.
  5. Arrange the artichokes over the meat. Pour the sauce and vegetables into a food processor, and puree. Taste the sauce and check the seasonings. Pour the pureed sauce over the meat and artichokes. Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and return to the oven. Serve when hot.

Esther, a family friend and neighbor, prepared her special Shabbat dish. This chicken recipe came to Caracas from Tunisia:

Tunisian chicken with lemon and olives.

Tunisian Chicken with Lemon and Olives

I found a great version of Esther’s recipe on the Palm Beach, Florida, website


  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 8 skinless, boneless chicken thighs
  • Salt
  • 1 teaspoon dry red pepper flakes
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 carrots
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 onions
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 1 teaspoon ginger
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 3/4 cup cracked green olives in brine
  • Fresh cilantro
  1. Heat the olive oil in a wide pot. Thinly slice the onions, lemon, and carrots, and chop the garlic. Add to the pot and stir for a couple of minutes.
  2. Add the chicken and sprinkle the red pepper flakes, turmeric, coriander, saffron, ginger, cumin, cinnamon, and paprika over it. Add the olives and two cups of water, and bring to a boil.
  3. Cook over low heat for about 20 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through. Finely mince some cilantro, and sprinkle over the chicken. This dish may be refrigerated and reheated when ready to serve.

The beef and chicken entrees are so flavorful that all they need is a simple rice accompaniment:

Basmati Rice

  • 2 cups basmati rice
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Salt
  • 4 cups water
  1. Heat the olive oil in a pot. Add the rice and salt and until hot.
  2. Add the water and bring to a boil. Cook on low heat for about 45 minutes, until the water has been absorbed. Fluff and serve.

For the grand finale, we prepared a dessert that uses some of the best products of Venezuela, chocolate and rum:

Pareve Chocolate Mousse with Venezuelan Rum.

Pareve Chocolate Mousse with Venezuelan Rum

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 6 eggs, separated
  • 1 pound bittersweet chocolate
  • 1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) margarine
  • 1 teaspoon instant coffee blended with 2 tablespoons boiling water
  • 2 tablespoons Venezuelan rum, such as Ron Anejo Pampero
  1. Boil water in a small pot, and place a bowl over it to be warmed by the steam. Mix the chocolate and margarine in this bowl until they melt. Add the coffee mixture and blend well.
  2. In a mixer, whip the egg whites with 1/2 cup sugar until very stiff.
  3. Add the yolks to the chocolate mixture.
  4. Add the rum to the chocolate mixture while stirring.
  5. Slowly fold the chocolate mixture into the egg whites.
  6. Pour the mousse into a glass container and refrigerate overnight

We live in a very fluid society, where families may live far away from their other family members. By cooking together as a community, we all become a little bit like each other’s family. A joyful, delicious celebration becomes possible for every teenager in the community. The Bar or Bat Mitzvah celebrant experiences the ancient Jewish tradition of “kol Israel arevim ze laze,” or “all of Israel are responsible for each other,” as part of their welcome into the community as adults. These memories last a lifetime, and the example is set of how to be a mensch. When someone becomes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah it is not just their simcha, it is everyone’s simcha. So let the cooking and kvelling begin!

Ronit Treatman was born in Israel and grew up in Ethiopia and Venezuela. She is fluent in five languages, and volunteered for the IDF where she served in the Liaison Unit to Foreign Forces. She currently lives in the Germantown section of Philadelphia with her husband and three children.

Colombia will not recognize a unilateral Palestinian state, Santos assures Jewish leaders

— Dan Diker and Michael Thaidigsmann, WJC

Editor: Colombia is a bright spot in a continent with a sordid history of anti-Semitism. Many Nazis found refuge in South America after World War II. Now, all of the independent countries in South America except Colombia have recognized the Palestinian Authority as an independent state contrary to the Oslo Accords and in fact Argentina has offered suspend inquiries into attacks on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association in 1994 in exchange for better trade relations. Fortunately, Colombia has taken a firm stand in support of Israel.

Paraguay 2005-03-25
Venezuela 2009-04-27
Brazil 2010-12-01
Argentina 2010-12-04
Bolivia 2010-12-22
Ecuador 2010-12-24
Chile 2011-01-07
Guyana 2011-01-13
Peru 2011-01-24
Suriname 2011-02-01
Uruguay 2011-03-15

A high-level delegation of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and its Latin American branch, led by WJC President Ronald S. Lauder, today met with the president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos Calderón. The leaders thanked Santos for his support to the Jewish community and the State of Israel. Lauder told the Colombian president: “We value your friendship and courage for Israel and the Jewish people. We also appreciate that you have withstood pressure from fellow Latin American leaders to prematurely recognize a Palestinian state.” Santos assured the Jewish leaders that his government would stand firm on this issue. He said that as a matter of principle Colombia would not follow other governments in the region which had recently recognized a yet-to-be-established unilaterally declared Palestinian state. He emphasized that the only path to peace in the Middle East was through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

World Jewish Congress Secretary-General Designate Dan Diker expressed gratitude for Colombia’s strong stance on this issue and said that “a return to the borders prior to 1967 would intensify the current instability across the Middle East region while posing a security threat to Israel by radical Islamists that also has ramifications for the wider world, including Latin America”.

During the meeting, the Colombian leader spoke warmly of his admiration for the Jewish people and for Israel’s achievement in the fields of high tech, specifically biotechnology and information technology. WJC President Lauder extended an invitation to the Colombian leader to give the keynote address at the meeting of the World Jewish Congress Governing Board in Jerusalem this coming June.

Latin American Jewish Congress President Jack Terpins expressed appreciation for Bogotá’s commitment in fighting the growing influence of the Iranian regime on the continent. “In Colombia, you know what horrible suffering terrorism inflicts on people. After the two deadly bomb attacks against the AMIA Center and the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in the 1990s that were orchestrated by Iran we Jews know that extremists must be vigorously opposed. We hope that a consensus can be reached among political leaders here that currently, Tehran cannot be a partner for closer political or economic cooperation in any shape or form.”

Also present at the meeting at the presidential palace Casa de Nariño in Bogotá was the chairman of the WJC Governing Board, Eduardo Elsztain, who praised Santos as a man of truth and principle. The meeting also included senior representatives of the Colombian Jewish community.