Being Singaporean, I’m proud of how far our little red dot has come since its independence in 1965, blossoming into a modern country that is known around the world for its religious and racially harmonious society.
Many Singaporeans may not know this, but the Jewish community in Singapore has long had its roots here, dating back to the late 18th and early 19th century.
Quite a number of roads in Singapore, such as Meyer Road and the Frankel Estate, are named after notable Jews who stamped their legacies in Singapore.
I got invited to spend an evening with an interracial Jewish family and their community, the United Hebrew Congregation, for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.
Just as how there are different denominations of Christianity, the United Hebrew Congregation (UHC) sits under one of the major branches of Judaic denominations, namely Reform Judaism.
Reform Judaism, in a nutshell, encompasses the central tenets of traditional Judaism – God, the Torah and Israel – and acknowledges modern diversity in the aspect of the equality of women in all areas of Jewish life, as well as being inclusive towards interfaith families and members of the LGBTQ community.
The Jewish holiday of Shavuot commemorates the day that the Torah (the Jewish bible), was given by God to the Israelites from Mount Sinai, and it is also known as a holiday where Jews celebrate the bountiful harvest of the land.
On the night of Shavuot, Jewish communities often stay up all night to study the Torah, and to engage in discussion over the religious text – a custom that originated from the negligence of the Israelites (they overslept!) on the momentous morning that the Torah was supposed to be given at Mount Sinai.
Thus, the heart of the custom came about in an attempt to rectify the historical mistake of their forefathers.
The Shavuot service began with the lighting of the candles by the youngest female member of the family, followed by a candle-lighting blessing recited by the Rabbi, which is then recited by the congregation:
“Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the holiday light (Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam borei p’ri hagafen).”
Since the prayer book came with verses in romanised Hebrew, and armed with very basic knowledge of the language under my belt, I took it as a chance to brush up on my Hebrew intonation. Needless to say that I got lost after a while, especially when trying to keep up with native speakers, as well as the translated text!
Rabbi Nathan explained that each family has their own kiddush cup – a wine goblet that is usually made of silver and passed down as a family heirloom through the generations, that they use at shabbat or Jewish holiday services.
The word ‘Kiddush’ literally means ‘sanctification’ in Hebrew, and is the name of the blessing that is recited over the wine to signify the start of the meal.
The wine used for the service is called the King David Concord. It is a traditional, sweet kosher wine made by the Carmel Winery in Israel, the only producer of this tipple. I’ve only tasted this exact wine once during my trip to Israel, and I didn’t expect to be able to find it here in Singapore.
True to its description, it is truly one of the sweetest, most palatable wines that I’ve ever tasted, even for a non-wine drinker like myself.
A traditional bread that is eaten on the sabbath and Jewish holidays is Challah – a beautifully braided, pillowy egg bread that can be baked plain, stuffed with raisins, dried fruit or chocolate.
According to tradition, two complete loaves of challah are prepared for the service, to symbolise the providence that was provided by God to the Israelites when they wandered in the desert after their exodus from Egypt.
The bread is then blessed with the recitation of the blessing “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth (Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz)“, then distributed among the congregation, to be torn apart using your hands.
Mrs Goldstein’s homemade challah was based off her personal recipe, chock-full of dark chocolate in between the folds. The bread was fluffy and light, with a mouthful of gooey chocolate in every bite.
She also told me that the family often uses leftover challah to make french toast for breakfast the next day. Sounds like something that I would personally really enjoy as well!
The service ended off with a holiday meal, featuring popular customary dairy dishes such as Cheese Blintzes and New York Cheesecake.
Milk holds a special meaning on the holiday of Shavuot because of its symbol for purity, as well as its representation of how the words of the Torah are like nourishing milk unto all Jews.
Mrs Goldstein also launched her cookbook, titled “My Secret Recipes” during that gathering. The book consists of all of the favourite dishes of her family, including family favourites like Potato Knishes and Rosh Hashanah Sweet and Sour Brisket.
Published by my hosts Harvey and Rosita Goldstein on behalf of the community, all of the proceeds from the book that evening went to the funding of the UHC.
Mrs Goldstein’s Cheese Blintzes were the highlight of that evening’s Shavuot festivities. A popular holiday dish, blintzes are stuffed pancakes of Hungarian origin, and can be filled with a variety of fruit and cheese condiments.
Her blintzes came stuffed with a rich, lemony cream cheese in a thin, eggy crepe, topped off with sweet berry sauce – definitely a very memorable, traditional dish that I’m so glad I got to try!
What a great way to end off the wonderful evening, and I am thankful to Rabbi Nathan, as well as Mr and Mrs Goldstein, for letting me be a part of this experience that is steeped richly in a beautiful culture, and getting to taste traditional homemade food in the company of such a warm, welcoming community.
Hopefully this article has given you a little glimpse into the lives of a lesser-known religious community in Singapore, and empowers you to find out more and celebrate our country’s diversity.