By: Verne Maree
Singapore’s Jewish community traces its history back to the Jewish Baghdadi traders who were doing business here even before Sir Stamford Raffles claimed the island for Britain in 1819. Iranian SARA KHAFI, who was born and grew up in Hamburg, talks to Verne Maree about her “miraculous” family, the orthodox Jewish lifestyle and keeping kosher in Singapore.
What brought you to Singapore?
While I was at university in Geneva, my father Chemuel Sameyeh – who was already running his international carpet dealership from Singapore – persuaded me to visit over the holidays to help him with an exhibition.
At the synagogue, my father had met a cheerful, handsome Afghani Jew called Savi Khafi Z’l, who invited us to his home for Friday night services and dinner (Shabbat); he was famously community-minded, and his home was always open to both Jews and non-Jews.
In Geneva, I’d been subsisting on a vegetarian diet because I couldn’t be bothered to go to the kosher butcher, so at that first Shabbat in Singapore I was too busy tucking into the delicious food to realise that I’d caught the eye of Reuben, the son of the house. But he came to visit me in Geneva a couple of times and the relationship developed. We were married in 1990 in Israel, where most of Reuben’s family lives.
Tell us about your family.
Reuben and I looked forward to having children, but for more than five years we had difficulty conceiving. After treatment failed, a Singapore physician told me I could never have children and would not recommend further treatment.
Reuben and I were both devastated, but I refused to give up. After undergoing treatment in Israel, I finally conceived and gave birth to Devorah (now 18). I felt as though a miracle from heaven had answered my prayers. As it turned out, I was naturally very fertile indeed, as the next four pregnancies showed!
Devorah is about to study international relations at a London university, and our second, third and fourth children are schooling at UWCSEA. David (17) will soon be doing his National Service here in Singapore; Naomi (15) is our musician, taking music for her IB; Svia (9) is our ballet dancer; and Daniel (5) is the baby of the household.
So, my message to young couples who may be struggling to conceive is not to give up, but to persevere!
You must have seen great changes in Singapore during the past 25 years.
I’ve seen phenomenal change. To be honest, it took a while before Singapore felt like home. Having come from Germany, I was used to the European lifestyle and good coffee, and there was very little of that when I first arrived.
Before I had kids, I worked with my father in his carpet business. More recently, I’ve worked as a property agent; I was with Expat Realtor for five good years.
Fortunately, it’s flexible work that can be fitted in with the needs of my children, though I have to be very organised. I’m lucky, too, to have my parents here to support me. Also, we keep the Sabbath, meaning we don’t work at all on Saturdays, or even drive anywhere. That gives me time for my family, and helps me strike a balance between career and children.
Tell us about your home.
We bought this four-bedroom flat in River Valley Road some 10 years ago, off plan, luckily just before real estate prices went up quite steeply.
In a kosher Jewish household, the kitchen is the heart of the home. We had to extend and completely renovate the kitchen so as to provide for two sets of everything – one for dairy and one for meat – which is essential for keeping kosher. We have two sinks, two fridges, two sets of pots and pans, separate cutlery and separate crockery. Our helpers have to be taught kosher food preparation, too, and that’s an important part of their work.
There must be a story behind your gorgeous old silver.
I do love silver! On the sideboard are our two Shabbat candlesticks and a candelabra, which have been in the family for a long time. In the cabinet is a collection of Kiddush cups in various intricate designs, Hanukkah lights, a menorah, a special serving dish for Passover, and more.
For our special Friday night Shabbat dinners, we use another formal set of serving dishes that we keep in the big sideboard in the dining room.
Do you do much entertaining around this 12-seater dining table?
Yes, we do entertain a lot, continuing in the hospitable tradition of Reuben’s family. I do the cooking, with the assistance of my two helpers. I cook mainly Persian food when we entertain – kebab, tahdig rice, stews with greens, and so on.
Unfortunately, the only kosher restaurants in Singapore are the one in the Jacob Ballas Centre, next to the main synagogue in Waterloo Street, and a new kosher Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Orchard Central.
That means everything our family eats – for all three meals, including school lunches – has to be prepared at home. Also, entertaining at home is really our only option.
Which community structures are you involved with?
My husband is very involved with the Jewish community. We go to both the main synagogue in Waterloo Street and the one at Oxley Rise. At the Sunday school, our children have studied Hebrew and learnt about Jewish heritage and traditions. They spent their kindergarten years at the Sir Manasseh Meyer International School in Belvedere Close, where David still goes, before moving to UWC for Grade One.
Our first three children have already gone through their coming-of-age barmitzvah (for boys) or batmitzvah (for girls). For this ceremony, the child has to learn the portion of the Torah that relates to the year of his or her birth, and read it aloud to the congregation; then there’s a big party, of course.
What is it like to be an Iranian Jew in Singapore?
To give some background, Singapore’s current Jewish community is made up of locals, Israelis and expats. The original Baghdadi Jewish community has shrunk to only about a hundred, as people have moved to the US, to Israel and to Australia.
Afghani Jews like my husband are very few and far between; and if you’re looking for an Iranian Jewish woman in Singapore, that’s me! I’m the only one.
I love my community and my rabbi here; but sometimes I miss my family and the Iranian Jewish friends I grew up with in Hamburg. They too have moved, though, to Israel, to Los Angeles or to New York.
In recent years, the influx of Israeli and other Jewish expats has grown. What’s more, they seem to be staying longer and becoming a longer-term part of the community – and that’s a welcome development!
This story first appeared in Expat Living Singapore’s April 2015 issue.
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