Bringing the East to the West Coast: Baghdad to Bombay author traces stunning family history

Bombay-born Pearl Sofaer belongs to “the tent people … We moved when we had to.”

her ancestors have been on the move ever since the Babylonian exile of 597 BCE, when Nebuchadnezzar deported the Jews to present-day Iraq.

Oh, the stories they shared of the places they’ve been. And now Sofaer, musician, artist, cantorial soloist, retired mediator and gourmet cook, has compiled those stories in “Baghdad to Bombay: In the Kitchens of My Cousins.” She will sign books and sell her CD, “Gems of Mizrahi Liturgy,” at the To Life! festival, and at three other events in September and October.

More than a cookbook, “Baghdad to Bombay” recounts the histories of a global family. Active in the import-export trade, the Sofaers and their relatives carried Jewish traditions across continents, absorbing the flavors of their new homelands.

When Sofaer, 74, speaks of her many passions, her hazel eyes light up and her voice fills with the excitement of a child unwrapping treasures. These days her “tent” is a spacious Redwood City condo filled with her paintings and sculptures. Although she has lived in the United States since 1952, first settling in New York, her accent occasionally reveals traces of her education in English schools, both in India and Britain.

In the 1940s at boarding school in England, she was ostracized for refusing to kneel or bow during church services and for not being British enough.

By contrast, she fondly recalls her “deceptively idyllic childhood” in India, which “allowed us to be integrated” with neighbors and classmates of myriad faiths and nationalities … We never knew about anti-Semitism.”

She also recalls the superstitions. At 16, when Sofaer developed a fever and the doctor insisted nothing was wrong, her mother brought in Auntie Hannah, who slipped a piece of lead into a pan, poured the molten lead into cold water and uttered Arabic incantations. When the lead solidified into the shape of a tennis racquet, Sofaer was directed to give up tennis. Within the day, the fever broke.

Because of fear of invoking the evil eye, she says, children weren’t praised, a practice she abandoned with her own children. Married at 20 and a mother at 21, Sofaer left New York for California in 1959 with her former husband, raising three children in Marin. For more than 10 years, she served as cantor for Marin’s Barah Congregation.

Later she moved to Ashland, Ore., completing two degrees at the University of Southern Oregon. In her spare time, she performed at folk festivals and also turned her talent to painting and sculpture.

“When you do one kind of art, it’s just so natural to do another,” she says.

After serving as a mediator in Redding, she moved to Palo Alto in 2001 to be near her brother and sister-in-law Abe and Marian Sofaer. Her mother, Mozelle, 93, lives nearby in Palo Alto Commons.

Meanwhile, Sofaer continues to pursue her music. Writing a book represented a new challenge. “I was never a writer,” she demurs. “I’ve written poetry. I’ve written songs.”

Nonetheless, she tells remarkable stories, recounting the family’s treacherous 1948 journey through the Suez Canal, where they were harassed by an Egyptian official and feared for their lives.

Marian Sofaer, who produced a documentary about a relative in the French Resistance, supported Pearl’s travel, enabling her to interview cousins abroad, getting their recipes along with their stories.

On a recent evening, Sofaer prepared some of those recipes, including vegetable samosas, mahasha (stuffed torpedo onions), fish curry and beef curry vindaloo seasoned with cumin, coriander, chilies, cinnamon and dried apricots.

In India, she reveals, “we always had a cook. I didn’t even know how to chop an onion.” But in New York, Mozelle, who had trained the Indian cooks, passed on her techniques to Sofaer, who continued to experiment. “Now I make my own yogurt.”

Sofaer credits her success as cook and mediator to her exposure to varied cultures. That exposure played a prominent role in the lives of other family members. Abraham, an international mediator, is the George P. Shultz Distinguished Scholar and Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Ike, who lives in Oakland, is a therapist, and Shoshanna is a professor and international public health specialist based in New York.

These days California is home to Sofaer’s three children and six grandchildren. Ben Marks, her son, is an editor at Sunset Books. She has two daughters: Sabrina Smith, a businesswoman living in San Anselmo, and Ruth Sofaer Morse, an artist living in Brisbane.

Sofaer, who is planning a visit to India in January, says, “I seem to have the fortunate ability of making myself at home [in many places] right away.” After just weeks in her Redwood City condo, “this is home,” she says. “When I go to Sydney I’m home,” as well as in Jerusalem or Ashland.

“I love the East Coast,” she says. “It’s beautiful, but California suits me.”

A version of this article appeared previously in the Palo Alto Weekly.

“Baghdad to Bombay: In the Kitchens of My Cousins” by Pearl Sofaer (238 pages, Paper Jam Publishing, $18)

Pearl Sofaer will be at To Life! on Palo Alto’s California Avenue from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 21. Other appearances are 7 p.m. Sept. 18 at Bob and Bob, 4500 El Camino Real, Los Altos; 7 p.m. Sept. 24 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. (Sofaer will sing and sign books, and her brother Abe will join her for a Q&A); and 7 p.m. Oct. 7 at the Brisbane Public Library, 250 Visitacion Ave., Brisbane. For more information, visit www.pearlsofaer.com.

Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent is a writer and editor living in Palo Alto. She can be reached at ghentwriter@gmail.com.