The Art of Travel: India through the Jewish History Lens – A Personal Journey
Hosted by: New City Library, NY
Date & Time: Wednesday, August 4, at 7:00 pm EST U.S.
Irene Shaland, a Jewish historian, came to see India as not just another country on her exploration list but as a place in space and time where one comes for self-discovery and personal growth. You have to know deep down why you are coming to India. If you do know why, you are bound to discover the most refined beauty and the deepest spirituality. Travelling through India, you will gradually learn – like peeling the onion, layer after layer – some very important truths about yourself and history, about people and myths they create. Something unexpected and wonderful might happen during this trip.
Hopefully, India, unique among the world civilizations with its seven thousand years of uninterrupted traditions, will forever become an integral part of your mental landscape. For Irene, a passionate Jewish history aficionado, India has changed her own understanding of Jewish identity. And this presentation will illustrate how and why this happened.
Join Irene on a virtual trip through layers of historic periods, artistic and architectural styles, and a multitude of cultural traditions and fascinating Indian Jewish stories of origin. This presentation, enriched by Alex Shaland’s photography, will transport you to Delhi, Varanasi, Khajuraho, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri, Jaipur, Udaipur, Aurangabad, Ellora and Ajanta caves, Cochin, and finally – Mumbai.
This event is free, but a reservation is required. Please follow the link to the library website to register:
Learning the history of the land and past and present of the people has always been an important part of all our trips. While in Santa Barbara, we wanted to learn more about the Native American nation of Chumash. That tribe used to inhabit the central and southern coasts of California from Morro Bay in the north to Malibu in the south. Today, this land is part of the counties of San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura, and Los Angeles. The Historical Museum of Santa Barbara could have been a great resource for us, but it was closed due to the pandemic.
So, we decided to visit the Old Mission that was specifically established in 1786 to Christianize the Chumash. It was there that the native people used to live, study, pray, work, and die. While exploring the mission, we walked along the paths of the church cemetery admiring the elegant and elaborate mausoleums of important citizens of the town. The indigenous people of the land were buried there as well, but were soon forgotten. It is worth mentioning that some of them were the stonemasons who built the Mission and the artists who painted the church walls.
Finding the grave of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island
In the corner, near the bell tower, we found one grave that attracted our attention. The plaque said that Juana Maria was buried there in 1853. Here she was: The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island made famous by Scott O’Dell’s popular novel Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960). San Nicolas Island is one of the eight offshore islands near Ventura called the Channel Islands.
When the native people of that island were forced to move from the island to the mainland, an orphan girl was inadvertently left behind. She survived alone for many years until she was “discovered” in 1853 and brought to the Santa Barbara Mission. The young woman was baptized as Juana Maria but died after only a few weeks there, probably from a disease her body had no immunity against.
Enigmatic cave rock art
However, unmarked graves are not the only reminders of the Chumash people once plentiful in this land. They left behind their enigmatic cave rock art. We drove 25 miles from Santa Barbara via a narrow, winding, and vertigo-inducing road to visit one of those caves in Chumash Painted Cave State Historic Park. After reaching the State Park sign, we left the car and followed a steep path to a small cave with the entrance barred by a heavy iron grillwork.
We had to stand in front of the grillwork for a while letting our eyes adjust to the dark cave, then peered inside and saw the amazingly bright paintings. Anthropologists believe that the paintings date to the pre-contact period (before the Europeans showed up), somewhere in the 1600s. Some sources also state that the paintings potentially could be as old as thousands of years. So, knowing that, we were astonished to find the colors so bright and vivid.
The bright colors of the mysterious spiritual images
The bright black, white, red, and yellow paints used by the unknown ancient artists were made of charcoal or manganese (black), crumbled sedimentary rock (white), hematite (red), and limonite (yellow).
Alex and I are not complete novices when it comes to the prehistoric/pre-contact shamanistic cultures. For example, we have studied, photographed, published, and lectured on the prehistoric rock art in the Cederberg Mountains in South Africa. But the images inside the Chumash cave did not look like anything we saw before. These images seemed to be involved in some mysterious dance, overlapping each other. Were these paintings multiple, overlapping layers done by different artists at different times? Or were we looking at an intentional mystical configuration? Some of the shapes were circular, some anthropomorphic.
The meaning of images is not known for sure
Strangely, some of these images reminded me of a Maltese cross, others, of a Rota Fortunae (a medieval symbol of the capricious nature of fate). But of course, they were nothing of the sort. Possibly, the paintings could be connected to the Chumash understanding of astrology or cosmology. Or they could have been created to link those in the world of the living with the world of their ancestors, the realm of the spirits. Sadly, the truth is that nothing is known for sure, and the images’ meaning is lost even to the descendants of the Chumash people.
Art should increase the “energy of spirit”
Driving back along the twisting and curving road again, I sat in the back of our rental car. I could not force myself to look right at the vertical granite wall of the mountain, or to look left down the abyss far below. So, I closed my eyes and thought of what Kenneth Clark, a prominent art historian, said: “Art…should do something more than give a pleasure. It should increase our energy of spirit.” The paintings in that cave were the Chumash’s spiritual practice. And they have become our mystery – to ponder upon and to meditate. In our culture that is worldly and cerebral, we need to see the art that defies our intellectual understanding but offers instead a gateway to new spiritual insights.
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Why travel the wine tasting path when in Santa Barbara?
No visit to California is complete without a wine tasting tour. Everyone knows that the Napa and Sonoma Valleys in California are synonymous with internationally famous great wine. But we were sure that the Santa Barbara environs were emerging as a renowned wine region as well. Why?
Because, California used to be a Spanish territory with the Mission system as a foundation of the institutional power. Well, we thought that the pious monks in Santa Barbara could not imagine life without wine. They were Spaniards after all, weren’t they? So, this was the historical root of our decision to explore the local wine making!
Choosing Santa Barbara Adventure Company
I chose Santa Barbara Adventure Company as an organizer of our wine tasting tour. We wanted our experience to be an adventure. And so, we were looking for a journey of discovery: the history, the landscapes, the wineries, and of course the orchestration of wine tasting. It turned out that we made the best choice! I spoke with Will Adams, the Company’s Marketing Manager; Ken McAlpine, their Nature Specialist and Guide for the Channel Island National Park; Kimberly; and other staff members. Then, I knew I chose the best professionals!
Everyone I communicated with was very sensitive to our needs, wants, and objectives as travel writers and photographers. In other words, the Adventure Company was ready to organize and assist with everything we wanted to see during our short time in that “American Riviera.” From photographing the foxes of Santa Cruz Island to understanding the wines of Santa Ynez Valley, our hosts accommodated us completely.
Learning from our guide about Santa Ynez wine country
The organization of our day-long wine-tasting tour was perfectly planned and executed. Our guide par-excellence Kyle picked us up in a small minivan for eight passengers. Everyone was required to wear a face mask. We learned from Kyle that most of Santa Ynez’s wineries were established in the 1970s. In 1983, Santa Ynez Valley was recognized as the AVA or American Viticultural Area (wine-growing region).
Kyle also talked about the uniqueness of the Santa Ynez Valley and its excellent climate for wine-producing. The Valley is oriented from east to west. The Santa Ynez Mountains are north of the valley, and the San Rafael Mountains are in the south. Similar to the valley’s orientation, the Santa Ynez River runs east to west to pour its water into the Pacific Ocean. The Ocean creates a cool fog that moves into the valley every night. That fog plays an important role in growing perfect grapes.
One of the brochures mentioned that 65 different varieties of grapes grow on 16,000 acres of vineyards. From these grapes, the winemakers produce Chardonnay, Syrah, and Pinot Noir, which are already popular both nationally and internationally. In addition, the wineries produce Bordeaux, Rose, and even German, Spanish, and Italian-style wines. All in all, over 120 Santa Ynez Valley wineries produce over a million cases a year. “Can we visit all 120 wineries today?” someone in the van joked. Anyway, we all knew we were up for a wonderful learning and tasting adventure.
Kyle took us to three wineries. All were small, family-owned boutique operations. All three wineries focused on sustainability and preservation of natural resources. Each had a continuously growing, dedicated following of wine connoisseurs. These customers, called the club members, are not just wine aficionados, but aficionados of a specific winery they belong to!
The Roblar – our first winery
The first of these elite boutique wineries we visited was called the Roblar (“oak” in Spanish). In a beautiful garden setting, each couple was led to a separate table six feet away from another. We enjoyed four different wines, two white and two red. Among the whites, our favorite was the 2020 Cuvee Blanc, very dry and full of flavors. It seemed to smell of citrus, peach, and flowers but tasted like a green apple with honeydew melon. But the overall winner for Alex and me was their Pinot Noir!
The actor and the wine: Fess Parker and his Winery and Vineyard
Our next stop was the Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard. All cinephiles will immediately recognize the name of the famous actor Fess Parker. In the 1950s and 1960s, he created the characters of heroically brave frontiersmen Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. Fess Parker is still venerated by multi-generational “oldies” aficionados.
We learned from Kyle that in the 1970s, Parker left the movie industry and went first into the real estate business and then, in the 1980s, into wine-making. The famous actor passed away in 2010, but his immediate family still owns and operates the wineries. We were going to visit Parker’s 714-acre ranch where over forty years ago he decided to grow the highest quality grapes and produce the best wines in the country!
Visiting the Fess Parker Winery and Vineyard
The ranch turned out to be a gorgeous park. Each couple or family had a table separate from the other guests and placed in the luxury of elegant comfy alcoves furnished with colorful loveseats. In addition to four types of wine, two whites, two reds, we had a glass of wonderful sparkling Rose called Empathy. I thought this was the best Rose I ever tasted.
Riesling is normally not one of our preferred wines, but the one we tried at the Fess Parker was very dry, not sweet, and we liked it a lot. Alex especially enjoyed their Chardonnay with its delightful taste of lemon, nectarine, almonds, and even white pepper! My favorite was their Pinot Noir, which I thought was rich and velvety, reminding me of cherries and strawberries.
The Brander Vineyard – an international story
The third and last winery on our tour was the Brander Vineyard owned by Fred Brander and his family. Upon arrival, I noticed three flags on the roof of the large stone mansion: Swedish, American, and Argentinean. As we found out, the flags told the family story through three generations.
The grandfather of the current owner Fred emigrated from Sweden to Argentina. Fred’s father Eric was born in Argentina, married a girl from the United States, and brought her to Argentina to start a family there. Finally, the family now consisting of Fred, his wife, and children came to the U.S. In 1962, they settled in Santa Barbara, California.
When the Branders founded their winery in 1975, they became one of the pioneers in the wine-making industry in Santa Barbara county. Then, the family decided to focus on what they called the “classically styled” or “Bordeaux-influenced” wines, primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc.
Biodynamic farming principles
Our host at the winery explained to us that the family is proud of their utilization of biodynamic farming principles. We learned that the term bio dynamics means creating a self-sustaining environment while respecting the natural aspects of the land. That involves planting drought-tolerant shrubs and trees native to the area and attracting insects (such as ladybugs) beneficial to the vineyard.
The wines we tasted were very impressive. The 2018 Cuvee Natalie was a proprietary blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, and Pinot Gris. I usually do not like Merlot, but there it was wonderful: light in color and with an aroma of blackberries.
Gratitude to organizers
Thank you, Kyle and the Santa Barbara Adventure Company for the wonderful adventure! Just like in wine making, you created a perfect blend of storytelling and scenery, history, and wine-tasting!
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“Whenever you are in Santa Barbara and whoever you are with, you will be thinking one thing over and over again: Life is good!”
I do not recall who said or wrote the phrase above or how I came across it, but it stuck in my mind. When our travel plans to foreign countries had to be canceled one after another during the pandemic, that same sentence kept reappearing in my thoughts. And so it happened that we went “domestic” in our travel plans, and in May of 2021, we arrived in Santa Barbara, California.
This pleasant little town is snuggled comfortably between the imposing Santa Ynez Mountains and the glittering Pacific Ocean. Santa Barbara is simultaneously artsy, chic, and casual, and is widely known as the “American Riviera.” And indeed, that coastal town’s red-tiled roofs, white stucco buildings, its omnipresent Spanish colonial heritage—all channel the Mediterranean atmosphere and European-like civility that immediately took us, in our imagination, across the Atlantic. Haven’t we decided to go “domestic” or what?
Walking, hiking, or bicycling along the East Beach boardwalk
We stayed at the Hilton Beachfront Resort located on one of the best California beaches, the East Beach. And there we discovered that just walking or bicycling along that beach made us feel, if not exactly Santa Barbara’s natives, but almost an integral part of their community. That boardwalk stretches for miles along the coast. And, just like we saw in Copacabana in Rio, the beach is treated by the locals as their living room, exercise studio, soccer field, in other words, a natural extension of their homes and a fundamental part of their lifestyles. People practice yoga and martial arts, roller-blade and skateboard, drive a strange hybrid of a bike and cabana, and eat and drink wine with their friends. In short, they live in their home away from home, the East Beach. A large number of homeless people seemed disturbing at first, but they too looked perfectly at ease laying on the beach’s grass or sand.
Enjoying State Street
We loved to stroll down the city’s main street. Called State Street, it seemed to be designed down to the smallest details—from exotic potted plants to thorny and flowery ornamental vines covering walls and facades. Twinkling lights surround fun bars and fantastic places to eat, enticing boutiques and attention-grabbing art galleries. Even at the time of pandemic restrictions, this grand dame of Santa Barbara streets, buzzing with people and activities, looked elegant and charming.
We fell in love with Santa Barbara’s historic architecture. To us, it seemed both Mediterranean and Spanish: its deep-red colors contrasted with the white walls and polished wood textures. Santa Barbara’s iconic architecture and its visual identity were largely derived from the rebuilding and reconstructions following the devastating earthquake of 1925 when the entire town was reborn in Spanish Revival style. The spirit of Spain is felt everywhere, pervasive and persuasive.
The Old Mission Santa Barbara founded in 1786 (the current exterior from the 1920s) is called “the Queen of California Missions.” The amazing Santa Barbara Courthouse (1929) is known as “the most beautiful government building in the United States.” Both places seem to us belonging to Spain rather than to the twenty-first century the United States. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 safety rules, visitors were not allowed inside the working courthouse. So we could not see the elaborate murals and ornate chandeliers and were not able to climb up the El Mirador, the famous clock tower for the panoramic view of Santa Barbara and environs. Oh well… But we did go to its sunken garden and spent some enjoyable time there.
The Art Museum Santa Barbara Opens! Hooray!
Well, only two rooms were open on our last day in town to showcase the highlights of the Museum’s impressive collections. But that was enough for us to feel that “normalcy”– identified by us as packed theaters and crowded museums – that normal state of things is just around the corner. Our optimism was rewarded by two surprises: an amazing Marc Chagall “Jeune fille en marche” or “Young Girl Running” from 1927 and a beautiful “Portrait of Nadya” from 1890 by Ilja Repin who is largely unknown outside Russia.
Not being impressed by the Funk Zone
We heard and read a lot about the city’s widely popular area called the Funk Zone. This former industrial district is located between the ocean and Highway 101. You will find it right next to the Amtrak station. The Funk Zone is a complex of wine tasting rooms, cafes, art galleries, and funky street art. But for some reason, our hearts belong to State Street!
The Foodie Capital of California
I do not think that Alex and I are fully qualified as typical “Food and Wine” travelers. We are too art and history-centered and too agenda-driven to be completely and professionally immersed in the food-n-wine scene. But we always see food and wine produced by the region and served at its restaurants as an integral element of the local history and culture.
And so it happened that in our four-and-a-half days and five nights in Santa Barbara we were doing our best to eat and drink in as many places as it was humanly possible to appreciate the freshness and carefully-crafted quality of what we were served. Among all the fine dining places that we greatly enjoyed, our favorite place was …a seafood shack at the very end of the historic Stearns Wharf. We ate twice there, and we never do that during short trips when we usually strive to try as many establishments as possible!
This famous wharf is located at the southern end of State Street. Built in 1872, it is the oldest continuously operated wharf on the West Coast. But most people come to this long rough wooden pier not for its history but the great views and the great food. Our favorite establishment was the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company.
This company was born as a seafood takeout counter. For over forty years, it has been owned and operated by the same family. Today, the company is located on its original spot at the very end of the wharf. The first time we ate there, we had to shoo away the aggressive seagulls who wanted to steal our dinner. We had terrific lobster bisque, amazing cioppino, aromatic garlic-baked clams, and the rock crab, my personal favorite! And we came back once again—for more of the same!
This article is re-published with permission of its author Rabbi Barbara Aiello. Image curtesy of Rabbi Barbara Aiello.
“He passed away 40 years ago on August 16, 1977. On the Hebrew calendar the date was the second day in the Hebrew month of Elul, 5737. Why a “yahrzeit” for Elvis? As unusual as it may seem, a little known fact about Elvis Presley is that, by the Jewish law of matrilineal descent, Elvis Presley was Jewish.
In her book, “Elvis and Gladys,” historian and biographer Elaine Dundy writes about Elvis Aron Presley’s Jewish heritage. Elvis’ great great maternal grandmother, Nancy Burdine was married to Abner Tackett. “Nancy was of particular interest to Gladys (Elvis’ mother) for her Jewish heritage as Gladys often recounted that Nancy had given her sons, Sidney and Jerome, Jewish names. Nancy and Abner (who some say was half-Jewish himself) had a daughter Martha who married White Mansell. Their daughter, nick-named Doll, was Elvis’ maternal grandmother.”
“Elvis’ grandparents had nine children, among them, a daughter, Gladys Love, who became mother to Elvis Presley. After his mother died, Elvis personally sought to design his beloved mother’s gravesite which included a Star of David on her tombstone. It was Elvis’ decision to honor his Jewish heritage, something his mother was proud of and acknowledged to Elvis at a very early age.
Elvis was born and grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi in a poor area called “The Pinch.” The Pinch was home to what locals called the “rag trade,” the industry born of immigrants, mostly Jewish, who repaired and resold second hand clothing. Presley’s roots go back to the time when Jewish immigrants came to America and established the rag trade there. In fact Elvis’ great great grandmother, Nancy Burdine descended from a family that emigrated from Lithuania, probably around the time of the American Revolution. That’s right. Elvis was a Litvak!
Elvis Aron was born a twin whose brother, Jesse Garon, passed away in infancy. A young cousin recalls a visit she made to the Presley home, where mourners sat on low chairs and where mirrors and pictures were covered in white. “It was years later,” says the cousin, “that I realized that these were Jewish traditions.”
Always aware of his Jewish heritage, Elvis Presley put his pride into action through numerous donations to the Memphis Jewish community.
Each year, for many years, Elvis gave $1,000 or more to each of fifty Memphis-area charities. Presley’s largest contributions were to the Memphis synagogues, the Jewish Federation, and the Memphis Jewish Community Center. Presley even funded several Jewish education programs as well – philanthropic endeavors that received little or no publicity.
Throughout his adult life, Presley reached out to those in need, often paying hospital bills for family members, friends and total strangers. His generosity even reached “The Pinch,” where he renovated the area where he grew up. Close friends report that Presley was adamant that his gifts remain anonymous – and was heard to say, “That’s the Jewish way.” –Rabbi Barbara Aiello, Aug. 16, 2017
Jews settled in Mumbai (Bombay) in the 18th century. First, the Baghdadi arrived in the 1730s. Then, the Bene Israel began migrating from the countryside into the city in the 1740s. Today, Mumbai has the largest Jewish community in India: 3,500 to 4,000 people, most of whom are the Bene Israel. We visited two of the city’s eight synagogues: Kenesseth Eliyahoo and Magen David. Both were built by the Sassons, the wealthiest family of the Baghdadi Jews. The elegant blue structure of the Magen David Synagogue was erected by David Sasson in 1861. Hanna and Eliyahoo were waiting for us inside.
On our trip to Bonifacio, Corsica we recalled what Homer said about it: “We put into that port, so well-known amongst sailors: where sheer double cliffs, with no gaps, encircle the harbor and two headlands squeeze the narrow entrance in their grasp.” “Homer, “Odyssey,” Chapter X.
Calvi is considered one of the most beautiful and fashionable seaside resorts in Corsica. It is located on the northwestern coast of the island, some 165 kilometers from the Corsican capital Ajaccio. Founded by the Romans in the first century CE, the city was ruled by the Genovese maritime republic from 1278, until it was given away to France in the 18thcentury.
The Malta archipelago, a tiny spot in the middle of the Mediterranean with 400,000 inhabitants occupying an area of 316 square kilometers, remains unknown to most US travelers. And this is a pity, because if you do visit this island (or rather all three of them: Malta, Gozo, and Comino) you will be forever inspired and spiritually enriched by the magical beauty of these gems that remain still-hidden for many.
My husband Alex and I have been globe-trotting for over four decades, visiting close to 70 countries, feeling at home in most of them. When in Europe, we very seldom hire private guides, but we did so in Malta. As an art and travel writer, focusing on history and Jewish history, I had an extensive “must see” plan or rather a research “curriculum” I intended to follow in that tiny country, which is arguably one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world.