'Bsisa' celebration and performance for Rosh Chodesh Nisan
Jerusalem First Station, April 1, 2014.
Reviewed by Judith Roumani. Photos by Vivienne Roumani-Denn.
A recent addition to Jerusalem's day- and nightlife is the First Station, the renovated old railway station near the center of town, and which was the destination of anyone arriving in Jerusalem by train up to the 1970s. The old railway line to Jerusalem was built by a French company but originally promoted by Yosef Navon, member of a well known Jerusalem Sephardic family, the builder's most famous descendent being Izhak Navon, a recent president of Israel. The railways of Israel were an unused alternative for many years, but recently new suburban lines have and are being added and the system is picking up steam (not literally, though, the age of steam being long past) as a useful alternative to the clogged highways. The train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem currently still winds up the same line through narrow, steep valleys with breathtaking scenery, on the leg from Bet Shemesh to Jerusalem, stops at the Jerusalem zoo, and ends at a large suburban mall. The last part of the line into town has been converted to a bicycle and jogging track and linear park which delights the local residents. Construction is going ahead under the Jerusalem hills on another side of town for a new, high-speed train to Tel Aviv, which will greatly relieve road congestion in a couple of years.
Now the First Station, whose brooding stone façade was desolate for so many years, has come to life again as a restaurant, bar and café complex, with an art exhibit, an ice rink, and occasional concerts held in an open tent-like area near the old tracks. It was here on the first of April, which coincided with the first day of Nisan, that the first public bsisa event was held this year, attended by the local community of Jews originating in Tunisia, and a few Jews originating in Libya, as well as the Israeli public.
What is the bsisa? On a material level it is a food made at the beginning of the month inaugurating Passover, with a toasted grain such as wheat, barley, or coriander seeds (toasted like coffee beans and ground into a powder), nuggets of sweet foods like dried fruit, raisins, dates, nuts and small candies, and mixed in a large bowl with olive oil so that it ends up as a paste. The mixing should be done with a key, symbolizing new beginnings, the unlocking of many good things for the new year that the first of Adar once inaugurated. The custom seems to be unique to the Jewish communities of Libya and Tunisia, and of course was celebrated on the island of Djerba, off the coast of southern Tunisia, and very close to Libya. It has always been a custom celebrated at home, in the family, and never in a public location, and to this day, to my knowledge, is still celebrated with enthusiasm in most Libyan Jewish families, and probably in most Tunisian families that are still traditional.1 Udovitch and Valensi write that each member of the family would try to have a key, and the senior member of the family would pronounce an invocation in Judeo-Arabic:
"Ya tahrik al-bsis/ Bel meftah wa bghair meftah/ Han 'alina, ya Rebbi-fatah. Oh, he who stirs the bsisa/With a key or without a key/ Have mercy upon us, oh glorious God."2
The ceremony marks an end to the cycle of the previous year and the beginning of a new period of fertility and sweetness:
According to the Jerbans, this is a historical festival recalling the inauguration of the first Israelite altar in the desert. This is why Libyan Jews used to eat the very same porridge whenever they consecrated a new home. It is also a festival of nature in which, just as at Rosh ha-Shanah, prophylactic and propitiary elements are present. The keys open the doors of plenty, while the porridge presages fertility and sweetness, and the jewels promise wealth (p. 77).
The celebration in Jerusalem was carefully planned and carried out, and was most enjoyable even though it took on a didactic character, as well as an entertainment aspect, that up to now have been totally absent.
Several organizations promoting traditional culture took part in it, including the Hillel Foundation and an organization called 'Memizrach Shemesh: Kol Israel Haverim' which promotes mizrahi culture in Israel. There was an artistically printed explanatory booklet, there were several speeches, one by a well-known Tunisian Jewish actor, one by an academic, and others, and the audience then broke up into study circles to hear about bsisa from members of the local Tunisian community. Finally there was a concert by a popular singer, Etti Ankri, who usually is known as a singer of rock and contemporary Israeli songs. Etti, dressed in a traditional Tunisian Jewish dress with a large shawl, explained that she had grown up on the island of Djerba, that her mother had to go away to find work in Tunis, and that her grandmother had taught her many of the traditional songs of Tunisian Jews, in Judeo-Arabic. She proceeded to give us a long and beautiful concert singing with fidelity to the traditional tunes and words. She is also a virtuoso performer on the drums and was accompanied by an expert oud player and Tunisian-style orchestra.
Afterwards, we sampled the bsisa in little paper cups from several enormous bowls that were ready and had just been mixed. A most enjoyable and instructive evening, especially for those who may not have had the opportunity previously to enjoy the homegrown version.
1. There is a description of the ceremony, as celebrated traditionally in Djerba, in Abraham Udovitch and Lucette Valensi, The Last Arab Jews: The Communities of Jerba, Tunisia (London: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1984), p. 77-78, showing its originally private family-oriented character. "Bsisa is not shared beyond the immediate family and people avoid going into a house where they know that it has just been made. All members of the family gather together to celebrate the ceremony, but no stranger is allowed to participate." But then, as the name of one of the sponsoring organizations indicates, "Kol Israel haverim," and why not, in the modern world, one big family?
2. Here is another version of the words, accompanied by a recipe for making bsisa:
The father and family recite in turn:
*Ar zikna wa zikmana!*
1 pack of malted barley (1 cup)
1 pack of malted wheat (1 cup)
fennel seeds (1-1.5 spoons)
coriander (1/2-1 spoon)
powdered sugar (1/3 cup)
fine ground almonds (1/2 cup)
dates (1/2 cup)
roasted almonds (1/4 cup)
Walnuts (1/4 cup)
comfits (sugarcoated almonds) (some)
Lightly roast the barley, the wheat, the fennel seeds and the coriander in the oven.
Grind very fine (like talc) and put in a bowl. Put together the powdered sugar and the fine ground almonds. Stir all together and finally add the other ingredients to your taste...
(Information and recipe provided to www.mufrumpertutti by Dayana Habib Rapoport. See also information provided by Anna Halfon.)
Judith Roumani is the editor of Sephardic Horizons.