Baghdad to Bombay to Bay Area
New book offers a kitchen-table trip to a rich past
While growing up in Queens, I was fascinated by the stories of the Sofaers across the street. The family came from India, but their roots were in Baghdad. They were Jewish, but not of the Eastern European variety that defined the neighborhood. What's more, the parents spoke several varieties of Arabic, as well as Hindi, Farsi, Marathi and English.
The family also had amazing tales, including a recollection of a treacherous 1948 journey through the Suez Canal, where they were harassed by an Egyptian military official and feared for their lives. As the ship pulled out of Port Said, the mother, Mozelle Sofaer, hurled every Arabic curse word she could think of at the Egyptians on shore. Later in New York, she worked as a corsetiere at Henri Bendel in New York, coming home with dressing-room tales about her celebrity clients.
Now Pearl Sofaer, musician, artist, cantorial soloist, retired mediator and gourmet cook, has compiled them in "Baghdad to Bombay: In the Kitchens of My Cousins."
More than a cookbook, it recounts the experiences of a family whose migrations date back to the Babylonian exile circa 597 B.C.E., when the Persian king, Nebuchadnezzar, enslaved the Jews, taking them out of Israel to what is today Iraq. From there, extended family members moved on to Bombay, Rangoon, England, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, New York and the Bay Area.
"I call us the tent people. We have learned to live in our tents. We moved when we had to," Pearl said during a book party last month at the Palo Alto home of Abraham and Marian Sofaer, her brother and sister-in-law. Her 93-year-old mother, Mozelle, who now lives in Palo Alto Commons, helped fill in some of the blanks about the family's journeys. Pearl emphasizes that she wrote the book for her family, "and then it became something more than that."
Active in the import-export trade in Baghdad, Rangoon and Bombay, the Sofaers and their relatives carried Jewish traditions across continents, absorbing the flavors of their new homelands. Culinary author Joan Nathan features the family in her best-selling book "Jewish Cooking in America." That connection helped lead to Pearl's speaking engagement last month at the Library of Congress.
"I'm booked all the way," she said, describing her schedule. "I've got a booking in Chicago next July. Isn't that hysterical?"
When Pearl, 74, speaks of her many passions, her hazel eyes light up and her voice fills with the excitement of a child unwrapping treasures.
Her Redwood City condo, which she moved into last month after several years in Palo Alto, is filled with her paintings, sculpture and music. Coinciding with the book launch, she also issued "Gems of Mizrahi Liturgy," a CD of the music of the Jews of the Middle East chanted in her resonant alto voice. For more than 10 years, she served as cantor for Marin's Barah Congregation.
Although she has lived in the United States since 1952, her accent occasionally reveals traces of her education in English schools, both in India and Great Britain. "I get British when I'm in court," Pearl, a retired family law mediator, said.
Although she has fond recollections of visits to British relatives, it was in Britain that she first experienced anti-Semitism. At boarding school in the 1940s, she was ostracized for refusing to kneel or bow during church services and for not being British enough, although she and her family members were, in fact, British subjects.
By contrast, she lights up when she discusses her "deceptively idyllic" childhood in India, which "allowed us to be integrated" with neighbors and classmates of myriad faiths and nationalities. "We never knew about anti-Semitism."
India, she said, "became my life and my heart. India was everything to me." In her book, she recalls the street vendors who made house calls: not only the shoemaker, but the organ grinder with his monkey, the snake charmer and the balloon man who created animals for the children.
She also recalls the superstitions. At age 16, when Pearl developed a fever and the doctor insisted nothing was wrong, her mother brought in Auntie Hannah, who slipped a piece of lead into a pan, poured the molten lead into cold water and uttered some Arabic incantations. When the lead solidified into the shape of a tennis racquet, Pearl was directed to give up tennis. Within the day, the fever broke.
Because of fear of invoking the evil eye, she says, children weren't praised, a practice she abandoned with her own children.
By the time I met the Sofaers, who settled in Queens in 1952, Pearl had left home. Married at 20 and a mother at 21, she took off for California in 1959 with her then-husband, settling in Marin County, where she raised three children. Later she moved to Ashland, completing her bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Southern Oregon. In her spare time, she performed at folk festivals and turned her talent to painting and sculpture.
"When you do one kind of art, it's just so natural to do another," she said.
But things weren't always easy. Running out of money after completing her master's degree, she lit a candle and asked for direction. Ten minutes later, the phone rang. There was an opening for a mediator in Redding.
Mediating, she said, "is such an honor. People trust you with...their souls."
In 2001, she moved to Palo Alto to be near family, setting up a private practice as a mediator before retiring. Meanwhile, she continued to pursue her music.
Writing a book represented a new challenge. "I was never a writer," she demurred, emphasizing that she sees herself as a chronicler or storyteller. "I've written poetry. I've written songs, but I never wrote a book."
Nonetheless, she tells remarkable stories about a remarkable family. Her sister-in-law Marian Sofaer, who had produced a documentary about a relative in the French Resistance, urged her to write the book, supporting her travel so she could interview cousins abroad, getting their recipes as well as their life stories.
In the book, Pearl shares those recipes, including Baghdadi chicken soup, seasoned with tomatoes and turmeric; vegetable samosas; an Israeli cousin's Halbah, a hot relish flavored with fenugreek; and Arook, a salad made with basmati rice and chicken breasts.
In India, "we always had a cook," she said. "I didn't even know how to chop an onion."
But in New York, the family lived in more modest circumstances. Mozelle, who had trained the Indian cooks, passed on her techniques to Pearl, who continued to expand her repertoire on her own. "Now I make my own yogurt."
Pearl credits her success as a cook and mediator to her exposure to varied cultures. That exposure also played a prominent role in the lives of other family members. Abraham, an international mediator, is a George P. Shultz Distinguished Scholar and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and was a legal adviser to the State Department under the Reagan administration. Ike, who lives in Oakland, is a therapist, and Shoshanna, the youngest, is a professor and international public health specialist based in New York.
These days, California is home to Pearl's three children and six grandchildren, five boys and a girl ranging from ages 1 to 21. Ben Marks, her son, is an editor at Sunset Books. She has two daughters: Sabrina Smith, a businesswoman living in San Anselmo; and Ruth Sofaer Morse, an artist and floral designer living in Brisbane. "They're all great chefs," Pearl said.
Pearl, who plans a visit to India in January, said, "I seem to have the fortunate ability of making myself at home (in many places) right away." After just a week in her Redwood City condo, she said, "this is home."
She added: "I love the East Coast. It's beautiful, but California suits me."
For one, the weather is what she's used to. For another, she has "met people who are warm. Warm and real."
Info: "Baghdad to Bombay: In the Kitchens of My Cousins" (Paper Jam Publishing, $18) is available at bob and bob in Los Altos, Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, Alef Bet in Los Gatos and through www.pearlsofaer.com. "Gems of Mizrahi Liturgy," also $18, is at Judaica stores and available online.
Pearl Sofaer will discuss "Baghdad to Bombay" at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 18, at bob and bob, 4500 El Camino Real, Los Altos. Call 947-7010 or go to firstname.lastname@example.org.