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Archive for December, 2008

Kosher Cooking Carnival

For all you gourmets and gourmands, Leora’s Kosher Cooking Carnival is up with a Greasy Story Edition for Chanukah.  Enjoy!

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Christmas for sale?

It’s the Christmas season, the season for giving, and the crashed world economy has given rise to headlines like this one from the Yahoo! homepage: "No Christmas cheer as recession gathers steam."

No Christmas cheer?!  The headline and the article that follows it clearly make the assumption that Christmas cheer for everyone involves booming housing markets, low gas prices, and hours spent pounding the pavement (or waxed tile floor) doing Christmas shopping.  In other words, dollar signs.

I ain’t no Christian, and Yashka’s birthday has been off my calendar for a long time, but I still remember some of the good times I used to have with my family at (our very secular) Christmastime.  One year in my late teens or early twenties, the family decided (to the chagrin of my Jewish father) to discontinue the gift exchange.  It had been a source of stress and annoyance for years, during which we tried drawing names and imposing spending caps, none of which made the holiday any more enjoyable.  So one year we eliminated presents completely.  Problem solved.  

Was our celebration any the poorer?  Au contraire.  We poured ourselves into the non-material features of the season: listening to music, dedicating the breakfast table to puzzle assembly, clipping evergreen and holly sprigs from the trees in our yard and decorating every available surface, baking holiday treats (my mother’s homemade Heath bars were particularly addictive), watching the Queen’s annual Christmas address to her subjects in which she says she looks forward to serving them in the coming year ("I should like that," I always told the television), and my favorite, choosing an 8-foot Douglas fir at the Boy Scouts’ tree lot, putting it into its stand, and decorating it with decades worth of accumulated ornaments.  The best part of the whole shebang for me was turning off the lights, lying on the couch nursing a glass of Bailey’s, gazing at the lights and inhaling the aroma of Oregon’s most glorious conifer.  

Did we miss the gifts?  Not one bit.  (Okay, my dad broke the rule one year and bought everyone monogrammed stationery, but other than that, we stuck by it.)  What we came to rely on for making the season festive was what mattered in the first place: being together and enjoying what we already had.  Americans are incredibly spoilt, and all too often forget that what they consider the necessities of life are things hardly anyone else on the planet enjoys.  Nothing gets up my nose worse than when one of my girls throws a tantrum or sulks because she doesn’t get something new that she wants.  Some kids in America and Israel have more than they have, but most here—and everywhere else in the world—have less, a fact of which I don’t hesitate to remind them.  

So my advice to anyone who thinks that this holiday season is not what it should be—i.e. a commercial orgy—is to sit back and re-evaluate what really matters.  Perhaps this holiday season is a good time to turn OFF the news that seems determined to bring ill tidings to everyone, and put on some good music, or watch a great movie.  Some of my favorites include How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Christmas Story, Holiday Inn, the Christmas specials of The Vicar of Dibley and Good Neighbors (hilarious British sit-coms), and my new favorite grown-up movie for the season, Love Actually, in which Christmas is merely a backdrop to the surprising development of some relationships, and much-needed jump-start for others.  

Perhaps it’s a good year to give Santa Claus a holiday, and do it for ourselves.

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There was a discussion some time ago on the group blog for which I used to write regarding what Jews believe versus what Christians believe. One person made the following comment: “Yeshu was a common enough name, and while it is possible that one (or both) of these men form part of the Chrstian myth of Jsus [sic], the details of the Greek Text and the Talmud don’t ‘jive.’”

Jive. Those who remember the 1970s remember a time when this word was used much more frequently than now. Jive turkey. Jive talkin’ (i.e. tellin’ me lies, as the song goes). Hand jive (just Google this one and see all the stuff that comes up). But what do the squares who write dictionaries say it means?

It turns out the Merriam Webster New International Dictionary, Second Edition (known in future rants as “NI2”) is too old or too square to include a definition of this word. So we turn to the much hipper, now-er American Heritage Dictionary (known hereafter as “AH”): Slang. 1. Jazz or swing music. 2. The jargon of jazz musicians and enthusiasts. [I crack up every time my very white jazz musician brother refers to other jazz musicians as “cats.”] 3. Deceptive, nonsensical, or glib talk.

So the writer of the forum comment about the “Chrstian myth of Jsus” may be technically correct in saying that “the details of the Greek Text and the Talmud don’t jive.” The Christian Scriptures and the Talmud were written far too long ago to have been delivered in the language of either jazz musicians or enthusiasts. But somehow, I don’t think that’s really what she meant to say.

So what is the correct word for this context? In my second English rant, I identified a common culprit in the use of malapropisms: “The two words sound similar enough that they must mean the same thing.” Aha! And a word that sounds like jive but that means “to agree” or “to harmonize”—jibe!

So now we know. Leave the jive to the cats playing tunes on their axes, and stick to jibe when you want to say “to agree” or “to harmonize.”

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Last year, when contributing to a group blog for converts to Judaism, I had a brief exchange on the blog’s discussion forum with a reader about how an interfaith family (one Jewish spouse, one non-Jewish spouse) can negotiate the dicey waters of Christmastime.  The reader described a scenario in which "one spouse wants a tree, stockings and to exchange gifts with relatives (the grandparents) on Christmas Day. Oh, and the family always serve a ham! The other spouse is Jewish and the couple has decided to raise the kids as Jews."  He asked for suggestions for "creative solutions that preserve Jewish identity without sacrificing family unity."  

Those who know me are aware that for me, Christmas observance is very much a thing of the past.  While born and reared in an interfaith family myself, I don’t consider it an ideal—or even desirable—situation, and do not write this post to try to encourage Jews and non-Jews to marry one another and try to sort it all out afterward.  For the record, I think the spiritual and religious health of a family is best nurtured by Jews marrying other Jews.  (The rest can do as they see fit.)  

Having gotten that out of the way, I still recognize that families do not always fall along such well-organized lines as "Jewish" and "non-Jewish."  As I once wrote in a similar-themed post for that blog,

Perhaps they are Jewish but didn’t care about religion when they chose their spouse or partner. Perhaps they weren’t Jewish when they married, and heard the siren song of Judaism after being married to a fellow non-Jew for some time. Perhaps they are Jewish and married a non-Jew who was interested in the possibility of converting, but has not done so yet. Or perhaps they are Jewish and met someone not Jewish, but who agrees to help establish a Jewish home. In any of these cases, negotiating Judaism in the relationship can be challenging, especially after the partnership has already begun. But being able to negotiate it becomes all the more important.

Given this, I know there are still couples and families that struggle with the Christmas question.  The situation the reader described is a great challenge, and one which I suspect many intermarried Jews (and at least some Jews-by-choice) must face.  

It’s not easy to be an interfaith family.  But starting from the premise that both spouses are truly committed to raising the kids as Jews, certain modifications must be made at Christmastime.  I can say from experience that it is very confusing to be told one is Jewish when there is a tree in the house every year (much as I loved it). Kids have a hard time coming away feeling they’re genuine Jews with Christmas things all over the house.

Here are the options as I see them:
1) Stick with an indecisive or mostly secular status quo and see what the kids decide to do later on.  (This option only works if you have no expectations whatsoever about what the religious outcome will be.)
2) Give your kids a thorough education in both religions and let them choose for themselves.  (Practically speaking, this rarely happens, and taking it as an option ignores the inevitable awkwardness the children feel having to choose one parent’s religion over the other’s.)
3) Decide to make some changes around the house at holiday time.

While the Jewish calendar does not have Christmas, it does have several holidays that incorporate elements essential to Christmas (except Jesus and mistletoe).  I and other friends who are converts have found ways to use Jewish holidays as outlets for energies that used to go toward Christmas. Sukkot is a great time to decorate the sukkah (or the house, if the family cannot build a sukkah) with decorations representing the arba minim or Four Species, enjoy eating in the crisp/steamy (depending on where you live) fall air, and talk about the experience of living in a sukkah, both where the family lives and in the Holy Land. (A friend of mine once made and decorated a gingerbread sukkah, a clever alternative to a gingerbread house and a tasty dessert.)  Pesach is a leisurely meal with lots of buildup, songs, shopping, decorating, and food.  Since storytelling is central to this holiday, take advantage of the long meal to pass on Jewish stories from the haggadah and traditions, particularly about the Exodus from Egypt.  (More resources for Pesach in another of my posts here.) Parents and children can talk at the Shavuot table about the commandments, what they mean, and how to observe them, and take the opportunity to study some Torah as a family. And of course, Chanukah can incorporate decorating, festive foods, and a nightly candle-lighting ritual, as well as satisfy the urge for wintertime gift-giving (but as the first Orthodox rabbi I ever met once said, "No Chaneke bushes!").

Adult education for both partners can be helpful to ensure that both parents are equipped to raise Jewish children. Jewish day and religious school without reinforcement at home crumbles. It is also important to make sure the children have Jewish friends by joining a temple and/or getting together with other families to celebrate Shabbat, Jewish holidays and life cycle events. This can also act as an educational and support system for the parents.

It is important that both partners be on the same page on these issues, and that both understand the importance of their roles and feel comfortable with them. A non-Jewish parent’s incompetence, confusion, or bitterness at being expected to pass on a religion he or she neither knows nor cares about is what gets passed on, not the Judaism. If both parents—but especially Mom—are not behind this program, it will fail.

And while it is not ideal, sometimes a visit to the grandparents during the winter holiday season is necessary to preserve shalom bayit (domestic tranquillity).  (Kibbud av v’em, honoring one’s father and mother, is in the Top Ten, after all.)  If this is the case, helping the children understand that what happens in the grandparents’ house reflects the grandparents’ religion (and not the Jewish family’s) may help to open their eyes without confusing them too much. As for the ham, perhaps a different main dish could be substituted—chicken? roast beef? vegetarian enchiladas?—and the ham shifted to an occasion on which the Jewish family could be absent.

It is not an easy situation, but if both spouses see themselves as being on the same team, then with love, patience, understanding, and some quality Jewish education, they should be able to build for themselves a bayit ne’eman b’Yisrael (a faithful Jewish home).

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Growing up, Chanukah was as benign a holiday as one could come across.  It was the un-Christmas, a simple holiday celebrating the triumph of the few over the many and the reinstatement of Judaism as the standard practice in the land of the Jews, including the rededication of the defiled Temple.  What could be problematic about a holiday where one lights candles, plays a game with a top, eats greasy food and chocolate coins, and collects presents for eight days?

Quite a lot, it turns out.  Since starting to take Judaism seriously and actually applying myself to learn something about it, some of the complexity of this (and other) holidays has surfaced.  Last year when attending a shiur on Chanukah, the scholar mentioned that while the events giving rise to Chanukah are surely worth celebrating, there is a tinge of foreboding in doing so, since some of its after-effects led to even worse problems, including the fact that in order to complete the expulsion of Assyrian Greeks and keep them out, the Jews made the fateful decision to invite Rome to intervene.  (Students of history will note that the Romans were themselves rather difficult to dislodge after this, giving rise to near-total destruction of the land and a massive Diaspora that exists to this day.)

Others I have heard from about this holiday are disturbed by the religious fervor evident in the behavior of the Maccabees and their associates.  At a talk at a Conservative synagogue many years ago, I heard the rabbi criticize the Jewish leaders of the rebellion as religious fanatics who roamed the countryside and forcibly circumcised Jewish men and boys.  More recently, a friend expressed his discomfort in the post-9/11 world with the religious zealotry of the Maccabees, questioning where lies the line between how and why they executed their rebellion and what the Muslim terrorists did in America on 11 September 2001.  Both the rav and my friend feel some discomfort with the notion of Chanukah as a celebration of religious extremism.

My most recent reading on Chanukah comes from Rav David Bar-Hayim, founder of Machon Shilo (the Shilo Institute) and a scholar who seeks to re-establish traditions of living and prayer that shed Diaspora influence (including the divide between Sefardi and Ashkenazi) and reflect the Jews’ return to Eretz Yisrael.  Rav Bar-Hayim’s take on Chanukah, available at Machon Shilo’s website is entitled “Hannukah: Getting the Point”.  In his drash, Rav Bar-Hayim gives historical perspective on the events that gave rise to the holiday.  The picture he paints is one of a society that had become enamored of modernity and “civilization” to the point of losing its own identity.  Not only was Judaism not widely practiced at the time, but its essential functions (Torah study, Shabbat observance, brit milah) were offenses punishable by death.  And the Assyrian Greeks did not work alone to spread the Good Word of pagan Greek civilization; a group of wealthy, influential Jews who had wholeheartedly embraced the Greek way of life were willing and eager to assist them.  While Matityahu’s slaughter of the Jew sacrificing a pig in Modi’in seems horrific to us in the modern day, it became a symbol of how close Judaism was to disappearing altogether.  (I once heard a rabbi claim that the Christians should be celebrating Chanukah just as energetically as the Jews, since their own religion would never have come about if the rebellion against the Assyrian Greeks had not succeeded.)  There are two questions that arise from an examination of this incident: 1) Was Matityahu’s action justified, and 2) Would any of us have the courage to die for our faith (as that Jewish pig-shochet-for-hire was required to do in that situation)?  To the first, I suspect that the answer is yes.  It was the first blow struck in resistance to the Greek attempt to eradicate Judaism throughout the land, and while gruesome to our eyes, stands in contrast to the number of Jews who were similarly murdered for practicing their religion in the land.  Without that very public display of refusal, would there have been a rebellion?  Would Judaism ever have been re-established?  Would we be here as Jews today, or as something else?  Or at all?  Probably not.  It’s impossible for any of us to predict how we would behave if faced with death, but for those Jews who were unable to conceive of living as pagans, participating in pagan rites (many of which involved the most appalling acts of violence, bestiality, and abominable sexual acts—like those performed by Zimri and Kosbi in front of the princes of Israel before being made into shishkebab by Pinchas), and witnessing the death of Judaism which they believed to be the only way to serve God and live an upright life, I have nothing but respect.  Would life as a pagan under those circumstances be something we would want to live?  That to me seems the essential question.

Still uncomfortable?  Perhaps that’s one of the best parts of Judaism for me: no quick fixes, no easy solutions, no way out of having to keep thinking.  Chag Chanukah sameach!

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With Chanukah approaching and minds turning to greasy, deep-fat-fried foods, I thought I would share a recipe for latkes that I invented years ago.  The Cap’n and I were on a program in Israel (where we met, in fact) and while sufganiyot (doughnuts) were available everywhere, Ashkenazi Jews like us were on our own for latkes.  Bored with the formulaic potato-only kind (and harboring loathsome memories of eating cold, greasy, tasteless hockey pucks at the innumerable Chanukah parties I attended as a child), I thought it time I seized the opportunity to strike out in a new direction.  I shopped for vegetables at the shuk (outdoor market) and began grating, while the Cap’n peeled apples and began simmering a vat of homemade applesauce.  When we were finished, the product was a great success.  The Cap’n’s roommate warned us, "Don’t make too many; I’ll only eat one or two."  He ended up downing five or six. 

This recipe is flexible.  Tweak it to your own tastes, and feel free to add anything you don’t see (e.g. shallots, leeks, olives, matzo meal).   I also make no pronouncements on whether the cook hand-grates or machine processes the vegetables.  (Human flesh is parve, so if you prefer hand-grating, go ahead.)  Serve with whatever you like: applesauce, sour cream, or yogurt. 

My own MIXED VEGETABLE LATKES

4 med potatoes, grated
1 lg sweet potato, grated
2 lg carrots, grated
2 lg zucchini, grated
1 lg onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 eggs
Salt and pepper, to taste
Vegetable oil
 
Press grated potatoes into colander to eliminate excess moisture.  Mix ingredients together in bowl.  Add salt and pepper to taste.
  Heat oil in lg heavy skillet.  When very hot (not smoking) squeeze moisture from small fistfuls of mixture and flatten in palms, dropping into hot oil.  Smaller latkes take less time to cook, so make them small to cut down on cooking time.  Lift to test after a few minutes; when brown, turn over and cook on other side until done.  Drain on cookie sheets lined with paper towels.  Serve immediately with toppings.

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The Cap’n and I have enjoyed a long and beautiful friendship with X and Y.  And while I have always been a stickler for correct language (You noticed? Really?), I have rarely met anyone else for whom misuse of English can feel like Chinese water torture. But Y, it turns out, is every bit my match for proper English usage.

We hadn’t known each other long when, sitting around the Shabbat table, I made the comment that something at which I do not excel was “not my forte.” I pronounced forte with a silent e, French style.  Y smiled, his eyes twinkled, and he said, “Thank you for pronouncing that word correctly.”

It seems I’m not the only person to note the frequent substitution of the Italian word forte (pronounced FOR-tay) for the French word forte (pronounced FORT). What is the difference? one may ask.

Forte in the French sense is a noun defined as “one’s strong point; that in which one excels.” This is the meaning most people are after when they mistakenly pronounce the word as an Italian would. But the Italian pronunciation of forte is an adjective, a musical term meaning “loud; powerful.” They are clearly related, but not interchangeable. One cannot excuse oneself from an impossible or undesirable task by pleading that “It’s not my loud.” That sentence makes no grammatical sense.

So if you have been doing this, STOP IT. Right now. Forever. And correct anyone else you come across who is making this error. To paraphrase an old British environmental slogan, Let’s keep English tidy. Even when it’s not English.

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