Sep 252012
 

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This post is not about food that you and I are going to eat. Although, it is about food – and electricity, and basic things like toilet paper – for HaBayit Shel Susan, a job training center in Jerusalem that rescues kids at risk. I visited the center on the foodie tour of Jerusalem organized by Tal Marom Communications.

 The kids, ages 15-20, come off the street or were referred to the center by social workers, teachers, or other professionals.  They arrive scarred by long neglect and abuse, trusting nobody yet starving for attention. And although many deny it at first, they’re also hungry to fit into normal, working lives.

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At HaBayit Shel Susan, volunteers teach the kids life skills. Who volunteers? Top artists and  business people; students, pensioners, all kinds of professionals, and just plain good-hearted folks. Avital Goel, the manager, works with a team of salaried teachers and volunteers who conduct informal therapy sessions, take the kids on trips, and teach a variety of classes to close some of the gaps in their education..

The program aims to teach the kids how to design and craft glass and paper objects, the sale of which goes to support the center. And they do produce lovely things: tableware, jewelry, and much more.

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Jan 222012
 

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Last week, my small apartment turned into a synagogue.

At 7:00 a.m. every morning, twelve to eighteen men wrapped in white tallitot stood in the living room,  facing a narrow cupboard with a Torah scroll inside. They came in quickly and made almost no noise unless the service called for the reader to repeat prayers aloud. At Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer,  Husband’s voice rose over the others. For my mother-in-law, whose travail I have written about here before, had returned her soul to G-d at last. Our neighbors came morning and afternoon for Husband to say Kaddish for her during the shiva week.

Naturally, it was hard for Husband to swallow food in the beginning. But the first thing a Jewish mourner does upon returning from the burial is eat a small ritual meal. Round foods, traditionally lentils and hard-boiled eggs, to symbolize the circle of life, and bread. This meal should a gift from a neighbor or friend, reaffirming community ties. It’s a poignant meal, a step away from death, a step towards continuing life. My good friend Hannah Katsman of A Mother in Israel brought us this meal.

I cooked up a big pot of – what else? – chicken soup. I had told every one that offered that I would handle the week’s cooking – no need to bring anything. It was just Husband, the Little One, and me. Michelle of Baroness Tapuzina brought some nosh to have handy for visitors anyway. It did come in handy. Soon enough, I realized that I should have accepted the offers of meals that well-meaning neighbors pressed on me.

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Nov 262011
 

Pig
According to this article in Ynet, kosher goose liver that tastes exactly like pork will soon be available.

Kosher, yet. Organic, noch!

The Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, Yona Metzger, has not only approved of this specially-bred Spanish goose, he enthusiastically endorses it and hopes to see it imported to Israel in quantity.

Rabbi Metzger feels that the pork-flavored goose offers non-observant Jews an attractive  alternative to eating treif.  “As for religious Jews, I believe they will be disgusted at first, but will eventually get used to it.”

Maybe. I remember “kosher shrimp,” which passed through the market here and eventually vanished.

Would you try the pork-flavored goose liver?

Do you think I would?

Photo by jere-me via Flickr.

 

Oct 162011
 

balcony-sukkot-Israel

When I was small, my father would build a sukkah the old-fashioned way. Standing in the back yard, he’d knock wooden boards together for walls and tie green branches over the roof poles. We kids would decorate the walls with drawings, and hang apples, oranges, and when we could get one, a pomegranate, in the corners. (The trick was to get fruit with a stem you could tie string to.)

Joyfully, I would sniff familiar smells I’d forgotten since last year: wooden boards that had gotten musky from being stored in the garage; the fresh, pungent odor of forest branches overhead. I’d stand still briefly to enjoy sunlight dappling in through them. My Dad took the rule about being able to glimpse the stars through the roof seriously, and come night time in the sukkah, we did. During our festive night meal, Dad would tell us about the Ushpizin – the seven forefathers we invite to visit every night of the festival, and we small fry would shiver delightedly, half afraid and half in fun, as when he’d tell us fairy tales.

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Oct 012011
 

Dear Reader,

In the long interval since I’ve last posted, many good and some bad things have happened.

The sad part has been the sudden deterioration of my mother-in-law’s health, with a hospital stay and eventual removal to a new geriatric facility for patients at the end of their lives. We finished business with the senior residence she’d lived in, donating her clothes and taking her books and bits of furniture home with us. She won’t be needing any of that again. It’s a long, painful journey through Parkinson’s and dementia, tragic when the veils of her mind move aside and she’s lucid again for ten minutes or so. Then she realizes where she is and what her end is. Her stoic endurance is pitiful and admirable.

Life twists into spirals of darkness and light. My happiness throughout this time was the visit of a beloved sister from abroad with her long-time partner, whom I consider a brother-in-law. We took two days to travel in Jerusalem, visiting the Holocaust memorial museum Yad VaShem and then Machaneh Yehudah shuk. From darkness to light. We prayed at the Western Wall and wandered through Jerusalem’s Old City. We ate choumous and meatballs at a working-man’s eatery and figs stuffed with chicken in a pomegranate reduction at a high-end restaurant. Coming back home, I cooked (and cooked and cooked), getting ready for Rosh HaShanah, while Sis washed dishes and everyone helped get the house in order.

It’s been a strange contrast. On one hand, grief; on the other, joy. Removing a dying person’s goods, then turning to my kitchen, with its pantry and refrigerator and dozens of things to cook with and sustain life. Evanescent life.

But I didn’t mean to maintain such a sombre note throughout this post. Long ago, I understood that our task in this life is to serve G-d. And our sages urged us to serve Him in joy.

May this year be one of peace and true joy for us and all the world.

 

Jul 142011
 

Sometimes I want to eat out but just don’t feel like having to talk to waiters. Especially, I’m sorry to say, in Israel, where so few restaurants trouble to train the staff. So at first, I liked the idea of the computerized menu. Sit down, view the food on the monitor, and press the screen to order. Relax till your meal arrives.

But then, the games. Part of the attraction is supposed to be playing computer games at the table. That’s how you’d while the time away till your order comes. Or get the kids busy while the grownups enjoy uninterrupted conversation.

That’s what bothers me. Aren’t we supposed to go out together in order to be with each other?

How will kids learn to socialize, how to pick up clues for normal behavior from the adults if they’ve got their backs to those adults?

It makes me sad to think: here’s one more way that technology is separating families. Sitting with the grownups, hearing and participating in the adult conversation, kids pick up knowledge and social skills. The art of give and take. Or simply, conversation.

And what kind of intellectual stimulation does a computer game provide that even a worn-out family joke does? Those old stories and jokes strengthen our bonds even as we roll our eyes over them for the thousandth time. How will we remember our family meals out – by the score we got on the computer game?

That’s the saddest part. Families are already disintegrating under the convenience of technology. We have to make greater and greater efforts to meet up, to spend any kind of  time together. Even a firm “Pipe down there and let me hear what Daddy’s saying” reinforces relationships, values, social mores. Mealtimes are a blessed opportunity. The cheap and easy lure of the monitor as babysitter shouldn’t even figure in our plans.

Kids apart, I don’t especially want to look at another monitor in the face when I’m out to enjoy a meal with friends and family. And I certainly don’t want the intrusion of computer games, with their garishly-colored animations in my field of vision and squawking sounds in my ears as I eat.

A solution would be to have several computer stations on stands near the entrance. Once having chosen the table, diners could order, and then sit down. The little inconvenience of not sitting down to view the menu would pay off in the ability to socialize without the golem at the table.

What are your feelings?

Apr 152011
 

As a child, and even in my early adulthood, I used to feel that a supernatural event was happening during the Seder. It was physical, like a twanging vibration rushing around out there in the immense night as we sat retelling the story of the exodus from Egypt, feeling safe in our little lit-up island of a house. It came and I always accepted it without question or even mentioning it to anyone else. I couldn’t give it a name. Now I think: was I feeling Eliyahu HaNavi on his way to visit Jewish homes?

Well, why not?

A year came when I no longer felt this vibrating, awesome thing during the Seder, and I forgot it. Recently, though, I have remembered.

When my Dad conducted a Seder, it was always in three languages: Hebrew, English, and for my mother’s sake, Spanish. Four languages, counting the occasional breakouts into Aramaic. I will never forget my father, impressive in his white kittel (holiday robe), rising from his seat, holding a matzah aloft. He would recite:

“Este es el pan de afliccíon que comieron nuestros padres quando fueron esclavos a Faraón en Egípto. Todos los que tengan hambre, que vengan a comer….Este año, todavia somos esclavos. D-os mediante, el año que viene, celebramos Pesaj como hombres livres en Jerusalem.”

This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate when we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. All who are hungry, come and join our meal. …This year, we are yet enslaved. Next year, G-d willing, we will celebrate Passover as free men in Jerusalem.

Matzah is a precious thing. The flat, bumpy, tasteless bread represents – apart from G-d’s command that we eat it – nationhood and freedom from oppression. To the individual, it represents refinement of character. I’m sure there are other, mystical interpretations of matzah, but I am not a sage and this is what I know.

Whenever rulers wished to oppress us, they forbade matzah. I have seen photographs of secret ovens in Spanish cellars, where medieval Jews risked their lives to fulfill the mitzvah. Back in the ’60s. friend Judy used to fly to Russia before Passover. She brought smuggled haggadot (printed guide to the Seder, with prayers) and matzot in her luggage. She never knew if she’d escape her KGB watchdogs long enough to find Jews, convince them she was safe, and hand them the goods. She did, though.

I’m grateful to have matzot every year, celebrating the Seder in freedom. When you can just pick up a box of any kind of matzah in the supermarket, it gets harder to realize how precious they are, and how hard-won the freedom.

Maybe this year, when my husband opens the door to invite Eliyahu HaNavi in, I’ll catch the great prophet by the fringes of his robe and pull him down next to me. I know he’ll be wanting to be on his way. All the same, I hope to tell him something before he floats on to the next Jewish home:

” We wait and wait, and only wait, for you to announce the coming of Moshiach. Please, Eliyahu, gather all our Seders up and make a matzah out of them. A shining, supernatural matzah pierced with light. Hold it up to G-d and ask…to make us truly free.”

 

 

 

Feb 232011
 

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It happens when I pick up a slice of my own bread. I turn it around, inspect the crumb and color. Bite, and judge the yield of the crust to my teeth. The age-old smell of fermented flour. The mysterious workings of yeast upon sugars and starches. Bread, a miraculous thing. Gratitude and wonder fill my mind.

How wise and beautiful is the blessing over bread: Blessed be You, G-d, our Lord and King of the universe,Who brings forth bread from the earth. It amazes me that people ever learned to harvest, thresh, and winnow wheat, grind it into flour, and ferment that flour with water to bake into loaves. How did it happen, so long ago – how did people have the wisdom to go from  step to laborious step and in the end, produce bread to eat? In wonder, I can only believe that the wisdom was a divine gift.

Bread must have been the first product of human technology. When you think of it, the first convenience food too, as it’s edible for days after production, unlike vegetables and meat. But not easy to get, even if the wheat field extends right up to your doorstep.

In ancient societies, people grew and processed their own bread, but it was arduous work. In this article, I read that the ancient Israelite woman might have spent three hours on her knees every day, bent over a stone quern, grinding wheat into flour. To feed your curiosity, this article by Jane Howard describes bread in ancient Egypt, and this Wikipedia article talks about the history of bread (with an awesome photo of a petrified round loaf retrieved from the ruins of Pompeii).

In medieval Europe, getting bread was not only back-breaking but expensive.  Landowners demanded two-thirds of villagers’ wheat production and set overseers to make sure the tax was met. The physical work of milling was taken out of the people’s hands, but not with kindly intention. Grinding flour and baking at home became illegal, so that the humble were forced to carry their wheat to the miller and then carry the flour to the communal baker – and pay for the work. In kind, because they had no money.

No, bread wasn’t taken for granted. Many lived and died without ever having eaten their fill of bread at one time.

Bread will always be a moving force in history. To learn more about it, I recommend H.E. Jacob’s Six Thousand Years of Bread. Much in this book can be taken, like bread itself, with a grain of salt, but the author gives you a panoramic view of bread’s historic role, from neolithic times to modern days. It ends on a poignant reflection of what bread was to Jacobs as he struggled to keep his humanity in Hell:

“In the Buchenwald concentration camp we had no real bread at all; what was called bread was a mixture of potato flour, peas, and sawdust. The inside was the color of lead; the crust looked and tasted like iron. The thing sweated water like the brow of a tormented man… Nevertheless, we called it bread, in memoriam of the real bread we had formerly eaten. We loved it and could scarcely wait for it to be distributed among us.”

Bread is holy, Jacobs concludes. And bread is profane.

Yes, and yes. Nourishment to the body and to the soul, derived from G-d’s grace yet requiring bodily toil and sweat to have.

How wonderful, what a miraculous thing.

Bread recipes from Israeli Kitchen:

Basil Bread

Bruschetta (And How To Say It)

Herbed Cheese Swirl Bread

Honeyed Challah

Light, Sweet Challah

Cheese Rolls

Potato Bread

Purim Recipe: Prune & Chocolate Bread

Tomato and Pumpkin Seed Bread

Whole Wheat Oatmeal Bread with Walnuts

Sourdough

Sourdough Croissants

Plain White Sourdough Bread

Sourdough Bread with Cornmeal

Sourdough Walnut Herb Bread

Sourdough Onion Bread

Sourdough Oatmeal Bread

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Sep 212008
 

It’s a beat-up, musty old book whose pages are spotted with cooking splashes. Jewish Cookery is the title, printed square in the middle of the front cover in angular letters resembling old-fashioned Yiddish print. Inside the front cover my father scrawled his signature and the date: Caracas, 1954. There is no ISBN number, but an interior page informs me that this was the sixth printing, 1952, and displays the name of the author: Leah W. Leonard. It is a classic Jewish cookbook.

The recipes inside are called “retro cuisine” today: fish rollups, macaroni casserole, herring salad in cucumber boats. Lots of meat recipes, lots of cakes and desserts. Leafing through the book, I see that the pages most stained indicate old favorites. There they are: rich, solid lokshen kugel, crisp matza brie, blintzes rolled over a sweet cheese filling. I sigh and smile, remembering the Shabbat and Yom Tov meals of my childhood. I’m searching for one particular recipe: Lekach, honey cake. That was one of my Dad’s specialties. He would bake it for Rosh HaShanah, and it was always honey-golden, honey-fragrant, light, and good. “I know the recipe by heart,” he would say. “The secret is to throw in a shot-glass full of slivovitz.” The recipe for this moist, dark cake is here.

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