Riverdale—Chantal Firstman has a unique history as a Moroccan émigré, with Arabic as her native language. Today, while she is very much a part of the American Jewish culture, her Moroccan roots shine through in her history and her traditions.
Chantal was born in Marrakech, and lived there until she was twenty-one years old. She lived in a close-knit family and loving community, with other family members close by. Raised with nine other siblings in a religious Torah-observant home, she has fond memories of her mother, saying that her mother “devoted her entire life for us and my dear father, Rabbi Reoben Abitbol, z’’l.”
With a mother always at home cooking, baking, and taking care of the children, and a father who was a well-known rabbi, shochet (ritual slaughterer), and sofer (scribe) in the community, they attracted a large crowd of Shabbos guests every week.
Chantal’s given name is “Sultana,” but her name was changed to Chantal when she was twelve, and was part of the Jewish Girl Scouts. She didn’t love the old-fashioned name, she says. But because she was born after four boys, her father couldn’t wait to name his first daughter after his mother. “It was a name that was not common in Marrakech. It originated from the Berbers of the Atlas Mountains, where my father came from,” Chantal said.
Chantal speaks three languages: French, English, and Arabic, and knows and understands some Spanish and Hebrew. Her three grown daughters, now married and raising families in Baltimore; Toronto; and Melbourne, Australia, can understand French, as she often spoke to them in that language as they were growing up.
Chantal met her husband, Kenneth, in Manhattan. After they married, Chantal moved to Riverdale where Ken already resided. They have been there ever since—over thirty-five years. Kenneth worked for many years as an accountant at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale.
Chantal decided to pursue a master’s degree in education while volunteering at the S.A.R. Academy where her daughters attended school. It took her eight years to complete her degree while she was raising her daughters. Her first job upon obtaining her degree was at a high school level with the New York City Board of Education, where she worked for seventeen years. She also taught French at JFK High School in Riverdale. At present, she is a part-time teacher and coordinator at JFK.
Although Chantal has lived in Riverdale for over thirty-five years, she has never forgotten the special traditions of her homeland. For Shabbos, she still makes the same salads and Moroccan fish that her mother made. “I make the same chulent that is called ‘Dafina,’” she explains: “chickpeas, meat, rice, wheat barley, eggs, dates, and finally, potatoes. I (also) kept the Rosh Hashanah customs, which is to have a Seder of various fruits and different wines.”
As far as traditional dress goes, Chantal wears a caftan (a long Moroccan dress) on Seder nights. She says, “I also apply the custom done in Marrakech (on Seder nights), where the leader picks up the flower vase located on the table and rotates it over each guest’s head while singing a joyful Moroccan melody dealing with rebirth and Spring. Each guest then, in unison, participates in the singing.”
Chantal was kind enough to share some of her own very special recipes. Below are two Moroccan salads that she makes often for Shabbos. Enjoy!
Salade de Carrottes au Cumin
One pack of carrots, peeled and cut into pieces
Boiling water to cover the carrots
Cook the carrots until soft, but not too soft
Let them cool off and cut into round pieces
Add oil, cumin, red pepper, salt, lemon and garlic to taste; mix well
Decorate with parsley
Keep refrigerated until time to serve
Can be kept for up to one week
Salade de Betteraves (Beet Salad)
One bunch of fresh beets, or more
Prepare boiling water and place the beets into the water
Cook until soft about thirty minutes, let cool
Remove the skin and cut in pieces
In a bowl, prepare oil, salt, lemon, fresh garlic, and cumin
Mix and pour on the beets
Refrigerate until time to serve
Bracha K. Sharp is a student at the Lander College for Women, a division of Touro College. She will graduate with a BA Major in English Literature and a Minor in Psychology and hopes to combine the two into a career in children’s books, poetry and play writing in the future
by Bracha K. Sharp