Anointing challah with honey during the first year of marriage is a popular Jewish tradition—a way for newlyweds to mark the sweetness of their new life together. I confess, though, to preferring savory indulgences over sweet ones, in general. So, once the second year of my marriage was underway, I was not all that reluctant to return to salting my challah.
It’s not just that I like the contrast between the crunchy salt crystals and the egg-washed, sesame-coated chewiness of challah. There is a power to this ritual, too: Adding salt to the braided loaves during the motzi on the Sabbath eve evokes the preparation of sacrificial animals during the days of the Temple. According to Leviticus 2:13, the inclusion of salt is divinely commanded: “You shall season your every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with G-d; with all your offerings you must offer salt.”
Following the Talmudic sages’ instructions (and in a fine display of rabbinic imagination), the dining table functions as the sacrificial altar in post-Temple times. For Jews in the diaspora, dusting challah with salt is a vivid way to link to the centuries-old Temple cult in the Holy Land, a time when offering a korban (sacrifice) was a way to be karov (close) to the divine.
Taste, history, and symbolism were not the only factors behind my excitement to salt the challah as I established my own Jewish household in Manhattan. In addition, I possessed a special vessel with which to perform the ritual. This family heirloom was a small silver container, shaped like a mini-tureen, with a cobalt-blue glass lining and a hinged top. It came with a little spoon that hooked into a notch at one end of the lid; opening the top of the container would lift the spoon so that it dangled at an angle, ready to help scoop out the contents below.
I automatically assumed this antique was a salt container for the Sabbath challah blessing, and I used it as such whenever my husband and I hosted Shabbat dinners on the Upper West Side during our graduate-school years. I continued to do so once we arrived in Seattle 10 years ago. I loved the spoon’s neat swing as the lid opened up, and I made a dramatic show of revealing the tiny utensil and sprinkling the salt when we had guests.
Besides what it held on the inside, I also loved the small silver vessel for what was engraved on its outside: the initials E.G., for Estrella Galante, my Sephardic great-grandmother, whose exotic life story sparked my first forays into genealogical research. Estrella was born on the island of Rhodes and immigrated to southern Africa in the early 1920s, settling in colonial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) with her husband, a tall Turkish businessman named Haim Galante.
By all accounts, Estrella was a rather imposing lady whose large house, located on the corner of Second Street and Pascoe Avenue in colonial-era Salisbury (now Harare), was very well-appointed. Her niece, Vivienne Capelouto, recalls that the Galante home featured a large front porch and fancy entertaining spaces; Estrella’s dining room opened out onto a side porch to allow for extra seating during large holiday gatherings. On occasions like Rosh Hashanah—“Rosh Ashana,” in the Sephardic pronunciation—challah (typically in the form of a sweet bread called roska) would be sprinkled with sugar instead of salt and passed around to everyone. The Galantes’ property also featured a long pergola festooned with flowers, a sunken garden, and a fish pond, all of which were “heavenly,” says Vivienne, for the children who were lucky enough to visit their auntie and uncle in the evenings.
By a twist of fate, my mother ended up with some of the lovely serving plates, spoons, and teacups that had inhabited her grandmother’s grand house in Africa. The small silver vessel-with-spoon was one of the first items to become part of my newlywed household, and I loved that it connected me to Granny Estrella, who died the year before I was born.
Making my way in early 21st-century New York—a city that often prizes what is big, fast, and new—I liked the feel of something old and delicate. On wintry Friday evenings in my tiny apartment, while the steam heaters hissed and spluttered, I sprinkled salt over challah and imagined my Sephardic great-grandparents doing the same thing as they welcomed the Sabbath in their palatial home, enveloped by the warmth of the continent that gave them precious refuge during the century’s darkest years.
Yet there were mysteries that clung stubbornly to the silver vessel, like so many tiny grains of salt. Right under the lacey script that reads E.G., there is a date: 11/1/47, or January 11, 1947, following European date notation. Two silver serving spoons in my collection also bear this date. No one in my family knew what occasion these items marked. It was not Estrella’s birthday, nor was it her husband’s, though his birthday was on another date in January.
Until very recently, I could not confirm exactly when my great-grandparents got married. All I knew was that they wed in Capetown in the early 1920s and that Estrella gave birth to their twin girls, Hilda and Lillian, in April 1924. This was all quite a sea change from the life she had been living five years prior: My great-grandmother had spent almost the entirety of WWI studying in a Parisian seminary and, upon graduation, earned a prestigious post teaching French in the Alliance Israélite Universelle school on Rhodes. Yet she suddenly quit in 1920, after only a year of service to the Alliance, and departed for Africa soon after. Family legend has it that she wed Haim within days of docking in Capetown.
The speed of my great-grandparents’ courtship—and their nine-year age difference—points to their union having been arranged by their families, still a common practice for young Sephardic women in the early 20th century. The Jewish community in the colony stood at about 1,300 in 1921, and the largest waves of Sephardic immigration to Rhodesia were still at least a decade away. Given the scarcity of options in Gatooma, the small town where Haim lived as he developed his business enterprises, it is highly possible that the Galantes (a large family based in Bodrum, Turkey), and the Leons (a sizable clan entrenched in Rhodes’ Jewish quarter), had conspired to send Haim a wife. And not just any wife: a highly educated and beautiful daughter of Samuel Leon, the wealthy winemaker known for serving his customers raki in the wine shop he operated in Rhodes’ Old City.
Where do the engraved silver pieces fit into Estrella and Haim’s story? Reviewing all of my notes, family trees, and timelines, I did the marital math. Could January 11 have been the date that cemented the Leon-Galante bond? If Haim and Estrella married in January 1922, in 1947 they would have celebrated their 25th anniversary—commonly known as the silver anniversary, with the custom of providing silver gifts. Might Haim have given some special silver pieces to his wife to celebrate their 25th anniversary in January 1947?
Some genealogical discoveries take years of unspooling lead after lead; other breakthroughs happen in a matter of minutes. Several weeks ago, while musing on the mystery of 11/1/47, I had the idea to simply try Googling “Capetown marriage certificates.” It took less than a minute to locate a wiki archive operated by FamilySearch, which has all kinds of scanned records for individuals who lived in Africa’s Western Cape from 1792-1992. I stared at my iPhone and punched in my great-grandfather’s name. Two more clicks later, and I was looking at my great-grandparents’ signed and witnessed marriage certificate (huweliksregister, in the local Afrikaans dialect). The notarized date was January 10, 1922—one day prior to the date engraved on the small silver vessel that holds my challah salt.
The other mystery that clung to my silver salt vessel was the question of what purpose it might have actually served in Granny Estrella’s home. While I had assumed its ritual function as a Shabbat salt vessel early in my marriage, more recently I began to suspect that this might not be the case. My sudden inquisitiveness was probably the result of wanting to explain the vessel’s origins to my children, and realizing I myself didn’t know its full story. Was something else afoot with this tiny heirloom, a domestic vestige of a Sephardic ancestor my young sons would never meet?
Curiosity roused, I started turning over stones to find some kind of answer to the mystery of the silver vessel. At times, this quest made me the awkward host of my own personal episode of Antiques Road Show. When the Israeli-art expert Shalom Sabar attended a Sukkot party at my house last fall, I asked if he would mind taking a glance at the heirloom. Though he did not have the proper examining tools on hand, the professor kindly agreed to examine my beloved salt dispenser. Upon hearing that my great-grandfather was Turkish, he gently suggested a possibility I had not ever considered: The vessel could have functioned in the traditional Turkish sweet service, to hold sugar or other dessert delicacies.
Sabar promised to send me an article on the subject so I could explore the notion further. The article, published by Esther Shmeruk Juhasz in the 1979 Israel Museum News, outlines the dulsi custom among the Jews of Izmir, Turkey. “The set of silver utensils for serving sweets was one of the most important items brought by the Jewish bride of Izmir in her dowry,” Juhasz notes. The custom, which was prevalent among both Jewish and Christian communities in the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire, can be traced to two deep-seated impulses: “to express the joy connected with the arrival of a guest” and “to placate evil spirits … probably based on the belief that spirits and demons can be tempted or diverted from their evil intentions if they are served something sweet.”
Another double-edged culinary tradition: sweets that simultaneously celebrate visitors to one’s home, and ward off the evil eye. Sounds plausible, and very Jewish.
I found information even more relevant for my investigation into the Galante family’s silver stash—the tradition known in Ladino as tavla de dulsi (tray of sweets, sometimes rendered as dulses) had its own special set of silver implements and ritual offerings: a tray holding a fancy silver vessel (kucharera) from which spoons or forks dangled, dishes with fruit preserves such as naranjes (orange marmalade) or the sugar-nut combination known as sharope, and cups of water. Might Estrella’s dainty silver vessel have sat on a tavla in her Salisbury home, ready to dispense a candied fruit preserve?
To find out more, I inquired with Stella Hanan Cohen, a well-known artist, chef, and author of the award-winning 2012 cookbook Stella’s Sephardic Table: Jewish Family Recipes from the Mediterranean Island of Rhodes. (She is also a cousin of my mother’s family on the Hanan side.) Toward the back of her book, nestled among the more-familiar Sephardic desserts like bimuelos (doughnut puffs), masapan (marzipan), and baklava, is a section of recipes for spoon sweets made from exotic fruits like quince and pumpkin. These are the types of sweets that would be included on a tavla tray.
After connecting with Cohen and confessing via Facebook my quest to figure out the silver vessel’s true identity, I asked if, to her knowledge, the custom of serving sweets on a tavla de dulsi had accompanied young Sephardic women who immigrated to southern Africa in the early 20th century. She replied: “My grandmother from the Belgian Congo, who lived with us in Rhodesia since I was 5 years old, as well as my mother, Marie Hanan, would greet guests for tea or serve dulses after a meal with Turkish coffee. They were always presented in a tavla de dulses, with a kucharera. It was also customary to serve sharope as well for a banyo de novia [bridal shower] or weddings and life-cycle events. I continue to do so, although, alas, it’s hardly ever used by my contemporaries.”
I asked Cohen which spoon sweet was her favorite. She was riding a train somewhere in southern Africa, but she immediately sent her response: “Dulse de gajo—candied grapefruit peel. The one that is bittersweet.”
While excited to learn about a Sephardic practice of which I had been totally unaware, I also felt somewhat chagrined that, for all these years, I had been proudly sprinkling my challah with salt from a vessel that was not meant for that purpose. Had I fundamentally blundered by using the vessel for the Hebrew motzi when, in reality, it was meant to serve in a pan-Balkan hospitality ritual? In swapping sugar for salt, had I unknowingly baited the evil eye on a weekly basis? What were the implications of using profane objects for sacred purposes? I shuddered to think what the rabbinic sages, with their elaborate table-as-altar metaphor, would make of my consecrating the Sabbath offering in this mixed-up manner.
As I tried to integrate the data points I had gathered, the sugar-not-salt theory started to make more sense to me. My great-grandfather Haim was born in Bodrum, not far from Izmir on the Turkish coast, and he still had several relatives in Turkey while he and Estrella were living in Africa (among them, the famous Sephardic historian Avraham Galante, a professor at Istanbul University). Could this vessel have been part of a tavla de dulsi set sent to Estrella and Haim from their Levantine relatives to mark their silver anniversary? Other members of the family had received such gifts: Vivienne Capelouto told me that her own mother, Marie Hasson (who wed Estrella’s brother Solomon Leon), came to Africa from Rhodes with her trousseau (known in Ladino as ashugar) in a large trunk (baul) that included a Turkish sweet set.
This still didn’t strike me as a perfect explanation. That’s why, in October of last year, I found myself cruising around eBay and silver-antique sites, trying to match up my family heirloom with other pictures of well-preserved silver paraphernalia from countries around the globe.
I first looked at antique Turkish kucharera sets, hoping to see a hinged vessel with a spoon, but nothing matched up with the piece in front of me. Then I added in “blue glass” to my search query. Suddenly, my screen was filled with pictures of sterling-silver mustard pots, crafted in England in the early 20th century. Many of these pieces had the cobalt blue glass insert, just like mine. One piece on eBay, dated Birmingham 1913-14, bore a very close resemblance to Estrella’s silver vessel. I found another similar piece, billed as a “Stylish Art Deco Solid Sterling Silver Mustard Pot 1939,” also made in Birmingham.
Turning my heirloom around, I discovered minuscule silversmith stamps that bear out its origins in Birmingham circa 1914—an arcane micrography clearly confirming the vessel’s origins in England, not Izmir or Istanbul.
Here was a revelation for which I was not prepared: Could my great-grandmother’s silver vessel simply be a fancy container for ordinary, everyday mustard? To hold neither salt, for consecrating the challah; nor sugared fruits, for welcoming one’s guests; but a spicy yellow spread to top sliced meat?
Of course, there is still the possibility that Estrella rebelliously put a Sephardic fruit preserve or almond-sugar paste into a vessel meant for mustard, but confirming that she ever actually did such a thing is beyond the ken of my family sources who visited her home. This is part of the genealogy quest: accepting that some parts of the story will never be fully known, that there are gestures and rituals and conversations I will never get to witness, that took place in homes I will never get to visit.
I know I should not be surprised that the wife of a wealthy import-export businessman would have owned silver pieces made in England. Moreover, Jews in Rhodesia, a British crown colony from 1923-1980, imitated English ways in everything from the starched school uniforms children wore to the sports played during leisure time. Still, it feels like a letdown that an English craftsman, not an Ottoman silversmith, hewed the cool metal I now hold beneath my fingertips.
Yet this, too, is something I must accept as I reconstruct my Sephardic family’s biography: The objects I uncover might lead me in different directions from those I expected. My job is to tell the story they are here to tell, not bend them to my will.
In the grand scheme of things, I am not sure if there is a “wrong way” to use the everyday objects that are handed down to us from our parents or their predecessors. It’s clear that, as a young adult, part of me wanted desperately to believe that I was following in Estrella’s footsteps, so I invested the small silver container with a power far beyond its humble beginnings as a Birmingham mustard pot. Living in New York City as a newlywed, far from my family and even further from the colonial corner of the world where Estrella and her many Leon siblings had settled, I had faith that there was a continuity between her ritual practice and mine. Does it ultimately matter if she used the mustard pot for salt, sugar, or mustard, for Turkish or British cuisine, for religious or secular purposes?
I know this fact, at least, to be true: When I lift the silver top, grasp the spoon, and scoop a small pyramid of salt from the cobalt glass beneath, I feel the clanking shudder of the chain between the generations. In the exquisite, single moment it takes for the salt crystals to rain down on the twisted bread, I have time to inhale, exhale, and think an affirmation. Yes, my motzi would be like their motzi. My challah offering would, like the korban sacrifices of old, bring me closer to something ineffable, something incredibly precious: the spirit of my Sephardic great-grandmother.
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