Archive for July, 2009

Looking forward…

I’m working on filling the kids’ baby books with notes about our life here, and came across these paragraphs from my letters to family and friends in the States:

We are nearing the one-year mark since making aliyah.  Despite being very glad to live here, both rationally and Zionistically, my chief feeling at the end of this year of drastic change is fatigue.  Most days are some combination of novelty, adventure, or frustration.  This may sound like a wonderful thing, but it really is tiring after a year or so.  Life in America for us had the familiarity of a lifetime of prior experience, and that tended to make days comfortable and even dull.  Perhaps Canada would make a nice in-between place to live!  While at the Toyota dealer in Jerusalem, Jonathan and I bumped into a former ulpan classmate of mine.  Mikhail lived in Russia until he was 33, then moved to the U.S. for several decades, and made aliyah two years ago.  He’s now in his early 60’s, I would guess.  He asked how things are going and when I told him I’m tired after a year, he nodded knowingly.  He explained that it takes five years to get used to life in a new country.  He described how much of one’s “nervous energy” goes into mundane things like changing a lightbulb (where to buy them, how to ask for them, etc.), and said that lasts years.  He also said it is useful to look at things one dislikes about one’s new country with an attitude of “I don’t understand this” rather than “I hate this” or “This is wrong.”  I found his observations informative and validating.

Nonetheless, it will be utterly delicious to be back in the States again.  Besides seeing family and friends, our top ten list of things we look forward to includes the following

1) eating Ricardo’s prime kosher meat, the like of which we have yet to see even in this Zionist Paradise;

2) reading signs with no Hebrew or Arabic on them;

3) shopping for things we can’t find here (Tom’s of Maine stuff, Keillor’s Dundee Three Fruits Marmalade, Yasou and Soy Vay salad dressings, plastic wrap that actually clings);

4) knitting stores that sell something other than acrylic or kippah yarn;

5) taking the kids to a merry-go-round;

6) Morningstar Farms fake bacon and sausage, cinnamon Life cereal, Lite Life fake bologna;

7) J.P. Licks ice cream (we get Ben and Jerry’s here, but we miss the experience of going to a real ice cream joint);

8) corn on the cob.

In the end, I couldn’t come up with ten things two years ago.  But I probably could now (add red leaf lettuce, maple cream, and my mom’s homemade ice cream).  The difference now for us is that we’ve found more things here that we’ll miss while we’re in America (fresh pita, creamy smooth hummus, ease of kosher shopping, the comforts of home), and much of the stress of our first year has abated.  Things are no longer new for us, we’re settling into a permanent community in our own house, and we’re delighted with life in Efrat.  Going back to the States for us (Monday, so plan on no new posts for nearly a month starting from then) is a bonus, a nice chance to reconnect with loved ones.  We’re all dreading the flight, but our kids are great fliers, and hey–it’s only 19 hours in airports and on planes.



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Saying “please”

The Cap’n and I are sticklers for the word “please.”  From the time our children learn to talk, we teach them the formulas for requests, such as “May I please have/do…” and “Would you please do/give me…”

We have both had occasion to notice that many parents do not teach this little word.  Many is the time my children have had young guests over who, when I’ve served a snack, just stare in expectation, or bellow the Israeli formula, “I also want!”  We have also had the very great pleasure of having the occasional young guest who, while he or she might not use the word regularly at home, is ready and able to use it in our house.

One thing I learned from working with challenged kids of various types is that they need adults to have expectations of them, and they in turn will live up or down to these expectations.  To decline to teach a child proper table manners (napkins in laps, no elbows on the table, chewing and swallowing before speaking) makes them rude, unsavory company at table.  To believe that a child cannot learn to ask with a “please” is to sentence him or her to years of barbarism, and eventual “please” training fraught with resistance.

I must also distinguish between a polite request (“Would you please pass the potatoes?”) and a barely softened command (“Pass the potatoes, please”).  The former is unassuming, and good manners.  The latter is entitlement.

I love it when my children say “please” and “thank you.”  Not only does it give me some pride in my own children’s manners; it also proves that children are as capable of kindness and consideration as adults.  As a mom who runs her own household, I sometimes feel a bit like an indentured servant.  When my children say “please,” I feel like a human being again.

For heaven’s sake, if Dumbledore can say “please” to Severus Snape in his final moments, a child can certainly say “please” when asking for a second helping of strawberry shortcake.

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Chicken Soup, Boots

When I was a kid back in the 1970s, and kids were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, the typical answers for boys were a policeman, a fireman, a garbageman, or President; girls were more likely to answer a secretary, a nurse, a teacher or a ballerina.  For a while, my sister hit on a great answer: a teenager.  That was brilliant because it required no advanced education, and (barring disaster) everyone would get a crack at it regardless of sex.

I get depressed when I remember that time.  All my doctors were men.  All my dentists were men.  All the Presidents (and their Men) were men.  Women dominated the teaching field and monopolized steno pools.  The one man I knew who was a nurse was always referred to as a “male nurse” because nurse=woman, right?

Baruch Hashem, my children are growing up in a different era.  Their doctor and dentist are women.  (They’ve made clear that that is the only configuration acceptable to them.)  The lawyers who drew up the papers when we bought our houses (both in America and Israel) were women.  Yes, rabbis are still men in our part of the Jewish universe, but sometimes I like to shake things up a little and tell the kids that there ARE female rabbis; just not Orthodox ones.  (That, of course, may change in our lifetime, who knows?)  They live in a country where there has been a woman prime minister.  Scientists, college professors, business professionals—they can see examples of both men and women in these fields.

But what of those in other professions?  Plumbers, electricians, hair stylists?  Construction workers, postal employees, children’s book authors?  Computer geeks, retail salespeople, poll-takers?  You know—everyone else.

Maira Kalman addresses the careers of the glamorous and the mundane with equal enthusiasm and admiration in her children’s picture book entitled Chicken Soup, Boots.  Kalman, an author and illustrator of numerous children’s books, is also a designer and artist whose work has graced the cover of The New Yorker magazine and the new illustrated Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and who keeps a monthly blog on the New York Times website entitled “And the pursuit of happiness,” is a master of thinking out of the box.  Her text is lyrical, witty, and full of wonder.  Her vocabulary is that of an adult, but her perspective is that of a child, making her books entertaining for both parents and children.  And her brightly-colored gouache paintings on paper complement her text with modern inexactitude and humor.

In Kalman’s world, adults who ask children what they want to be when they grow up suggest things like  “A lion tamer?  A prune pincher?  An alarm clock salesman?”  And children are as likely to respond, “I don’t know.  I may be a stargazer.  Word twirler.  Nose twister.  Insult lister.  Ladder climber.  Song singer.  Mountain mover.”  In this book she explores careers like traveling salesman, song writer, piano tuner, doorman, avant garde artist, photographer, barber, astronomer, architect.  One of my favorites is Barney March, the short order cook at the diner, who gets orders yelled at him by the waitress such as “Adam and Eve on a raft.  Wreck ’em!”—scrambled eggs on toast—and the title of the book, “Chicken soup, boots!” (chicken soup to go).  Another is Dr. Mel Smellman, “a world-famous Doctor of Smellology,” who will say knowingly to a patient, “[Y]ou ate a gooey Gorgonzola three weeks ago.  With a salted sesame cracker, correct?  No need to respond.  I’m always correct.”  And Doc Johnson, a therapy dog who, while kids can’t necessarily become a therapy dog, could become a therapy dog handler.

Chicken Soup, Boots seems like an acknowledgement that what EVERYONE does has importance and contributes to the maintenance of our society, not just the millionaires and the mucky-mucks who make a lot of money, then appear in the papers as they get led off to jail.  Kalman thinks out of the box to the kinds of people she might have seen as a child in her everyday life, who have jobs that while they are ordinary, are nonetheless captivating in their way.  I like the idea of my children reading this book not just for the rhythmic, thoughtful prose, but also for the idea that where their life’s work is concerned, they can aim high, low, or anywhere in between, depending on what interests them.

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English rant #16: Niggard

It’s been a while since my last English rant.  Thought I’d exorcised all of my English language pet peeves, did you?  Hah!  It’ll never happen.

Many years ago, I used the word niggardly in the classroom in which I worked.  My cooperating teacher blanched, and spluttered something about would I please not use words like that in her classroom.  I blushed, but headed straight for the dictionary.  I KNEW there has never been an association between black-skinned people and stinginess, and I was determined to prove it.

I was right, of course.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a niggard is “a mean, stingy, or parsimonious person; a miser; one who grudgingly parts with or expends nothing.”  The OED says the origins of this word are obscure, but suspects French.  (When in doubt about an English word, French is usually safe.)  The Merriam Webster New International (Second Edition) is a little more decisive about this word’s origins.  It points to Middle English, in which nig is probably of Scandinavian origin, as in the Norwegian dialect where gnikka or gnigga mean “to be stingy.”

A lesson: Just because a word has an offensive sound does not mean it should be shunned as offensive.  Postpone panic-stricken looks and self-censorship until you’ve looked it up in a dictionary.  It’s what they’re for.

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And yet another bonus in honor of the recent scandal in New Jersey politics.

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A summer treat


Okay, after yesterday’s incredibly silly and pointless barcode post (I’m not even giving you a link, it was so dumb), I’ve gotta come back from that.  Even if it IS Friday.

I made lasagna for dinner tonight, and we normally don’t have dessert on Friday nights.  (The kids eat enough junk on Shabbat to last the week.)  But I was remembering a job I had once working with kids in residential treatment, where the cook was particularly innovative when it came to devising nutritious treats.  One such treat was the following:

Frozen Banana Pops (serves 6)

6 bananas

Fruit-flavored yogurt (strawberry or raspberry are nice)

popsicle sticks

Chopped nuts or grated coconut, optional

Peel bananas and place them on a foil-covered cookie sheet.  Insert a popsicle stick in the bottom end of each banana, embedding half the stick.  Pour yogurt into a wide bowl and hold banana carefully over it, spooning yogurt over the banana to cover it completely.  (If topping with nuts, sprinkle nuts over both sides of yogurt-covered banana now.)  Lay bananas parallel (“spoonwise”) on cookie sheet and place in the freezer for a few hours, until completely frozen.  Serve, or cover tightly once frozen to serve within the next few days.

Here are a couple of trouble-shooting tips, too.

1. If yogurt is very thin (i.e. watery), stretch a dishtowel over a glass bowl and secure it with a rubber band.  Pour the yogurt over the surface of the towel (making a well as needed to accommodate quantity of yogurt) and refrigerate.  The fluid should drain over the next few hours, making the yogurt a thicker consistency.

2. If bananas are extremely long, cut in half and insert popsicle stick into the cut end.

3.  Google “frozen bananas” and check out the images that come up.  It seems there are lots of other ways to serve frozen banana desserts (parve ones too).  An excellent summer Shabbat dessert.

These are a delicious, refreshing summer treat, and should keep the kids out of the lollipops and “pope-ices” (Israeli for push-pops) for a while.

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Boycotting the boycott

My mother forwarded me the following email (edited for grammar, hyperbole, and unnecessary capitalization):

Want to buy US made products?  Buy USA by watching for ‘0’ at the beginning of the number.  We need every boost we can get!  If this concerns you, this may be useful to know when grocery shopping.


Can you differentiate which one is made in Taiwan or China?

If the first three digits of the barcode are 690, 691, or 692, the product is made in China.

471 is made in Taiwan.

We have a right to know, but the government and related departments never educate the public; therefore we have to educate ourselves.

Nowadays, Chinese businessmen know that some consumers avoid products made in China, so they don’t show in which country it is made.

However, you may now refer to the barcode.  If the first 3 digits are

690-692…then it is made in China

00-09…USA & Canada






Buy USA by watching for ‘0’ at the beginning of the number.

I am not interested in getting into a discussion on the geopolitical ethics of purchasing, but I am aware that there is a boycott of Israeli products in Europe (and perhaps in the US).  There are videos on YouTube showing these nutcases filling shopping carts with Israeli products and leaving them in the aisles to protest the “inhumanity, brutality, and violent occupation of Palestinian lands.”  I’m not sure what effect these staged “demonstrations” have on anyone, except to provide their organizers with an opportunity to exercise their lungs and their Jew-hatred on camera and by extension, on the Internet.  But thanks to these fruit loops, I was able to discover the barcode indicating products made in Israel for those who wish to boycott the boycott.

Israeli products begin with 729 in the barcode.  Thanks, Mom, and anyone else, for buying Israeli.

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Gratuitous love

Today is Rosh Chodesh Av.  Besides being Beans’s birthday on the Jewish calendar (and Bill’s half-birthday), it is also the beginning of the Nine Days, the intense mourning period which leads up to Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, in which we fast for 25 hours in mourning for a host of disasters in our history, the most significant of them the destruction of the Second Temple.

I’ve had a lot of things on my mind lately which seem to speak to this.  This morning I found in my inbox an email from our friend and teacher, Rav Mois Navon.  Rav Mois, who is one of the founders of www.tekhelet.com (which advocates for restoring the mitzvah of wearing a thread of specially-dyed thread in one’s tzitzit), also maintains a website of his divrei Torah, has written a d’var Torah on the subject of the meaning of sinat chinam, translated as “gratuitous hatred,” the main sin to which is attributed the Temple’s destruction.  After a discussion of the sources, Rav Mois defines gratuitous hatred as follows:

Within every person lie desires, drives, or in the terminology of the Mishna, an evil inclination. This inclination (yetzer) is raw power and is only labeled as “evil” due to its propensity to be abused for evil pursuits (Tanhuma, Ber. 7). To satisfy his desires, man uses his physical senses, depicted in the Mishna as the “eye”. Thus, if man seeks to tilt his inclination toward negative pursuits, his eye becomes an accessory to that evil, roving jealously to acquire all that he sees. What distinguishes man’s use of his “inclination” and his “eye” toward the good or the evil is, in a word, motivation. If one’s motivation is rooted in selfishness then he will use his “eye” to satisfy his “inclination” at the expense of everyone around him – he will in this sense act like one who “hates everyone” – for no reason.

According to Rav Mois, the antidote to this sin is, in the words of Rav Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, gratuitous love, or love based on selflessness.

Gratuitous love.  Sounds like what the US and much of the Western world experienced in the late 1960s with the invention of the birth control pill and recreational drugs.  But this ain’t the 1960s no more, and I think it means something entirely different in the Jewish world of today.

I had a dream a few nights ago.  A couple of months ago, the Peach and I were clashing several times a week over her accusations against me of immodesty.  (My threat to send her to Beans’s school, where she’ll be in a class with boys and won’t hear nearly as much about modesty as she does now, seems to have quieted her down.)  In my dream of a couple of nights ago, I was sitting in a shiur with a number of other Jewish women.  The rabbanit giving the shiur was an Indian Jewish woman visiting Israel who must have had considerable draw for me to leave my house and chores, and she ended up being very interesting.  After the shiur (which I don’t remember at all), she opened the floor to questions of any kind.  I shared my problems with Peach and her obsession with my modesty “issues.”  This rabbanit looked at me and smiled.  “You keep Shabbat and kashrut?” she asked.  “Yes,” I answered.  “You look like a modest person to me,” she answered.  “You’re already doing more than most of the Jewish people is doing.  I don’t think you should be worried about the rest.”

Now THAT was a good dream.  Besides massaging my bruised ego over the whole modesty issue, it made sense to me.  What if every Jewish woman in the world kept a kosher kitchen and observed Shabbat?  Wouldn’t that be progress?  What if every Jewish woman in the world covered her hair, but didn’t necessarily keep kashrut and Shabbat?  Would that be okay?  Definitely not.

What if all peace really broke out and Jews of any background (even non-halachic ones) were allowed access to Orthodox Jewish education?  What if Satmar-trained brute squads were dispatched to “encourage” husbands to give their chained wives divorces (their famous line being, “Tomorrow your wife will be free to marry.  It is your choice whether it be as a divorcee or a widow”)?  What if kashrut supervisors charged reasonable fees, did their jobs honestly, and the whole industry became de-politicized?  What if cabinet ministers and high-ranking government officials made enough money to discourage the rampant corruption that exists among them?  (There is an excellent article by Rabbi Asher Meir in his “Ethics @ Work” column in the Jerusalem Post about this.  I’ll post the link as soon as I can access it.)  What if generosity were not seen as gullibility?  Patience as passivity?  Success as winning at a zero-sum game?  What if we could each do our best, and assume everyone else is too?

Rav Mois’s d’var Torah gave me plenty to think about.  Check out this and other divrei Torah by him at Divrei Navon.

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Back in the early 1990s, a documentary filmmaker named Ken Burns made a documentary of the Civil War that had the United States viewing public glued to PBS for weeks on end.  It was practically a miniseries.  It was one of the first documentaries to make direct use of primary sources, including diaries and letters, each read by famous actors and actresses.  One of these primary sources was the diary of Mary Boykin Chesnut, a South Carolinian who, while she hated the institution of slavery, was fiercely loyal to the Confederacy.  Chesnut’s husband, James, had been a US senator for a time, but was the first southern politician to resign his office after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.  He later was part of the South Carolinian military detail dispatched to Fort Sumter to demand that Major Robert Anderson and his northern army contingent decamp and return north.  When Anderson refused to leave, Chesnut ordered the attack on the fort.  James Chestnut went on to serve in various other positions in the Confederacy before its collapse at the end of the war.  Although the Chesnuts had been one of the richest families in South Carolina at the start of the war, their financial losses due to the freeing of their slaves and his father’s death, leaving the family steep debts to discharge, left them in genteel poverty for the remainder of their lives, depending at times almost entirely on Mary’s butter and egg business.

Mary Chesnut played a significant social role during the Civil War, befriending Varina Howell Davis, the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and hosting balls, soirees, and other entertainments to cheer up the increasingly despondent generals, government officials, publishers, and wealthy planters who were watching their world crumble even as they fought to preserve it.  Childless and caged by her womanhood which did not allow her any type of public role in politics or government, Mrs. Chesnut nonetheless supported her husband’s career as much as she could, and measured her own success by her husband’s.  The biography’s author, Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, describes her as being a brilliant conversationalist and hostess well-informed in politics, possessing a fine intellect.  What I learned from reading the diary entries in this biography (her diary during the Civil War has been published separately) is that she did not shrink from criticizing others, was undoubtedly a deft event planner, and cared deeply about politics and the independence of the South.

However, she also comes across frequently as vain and arrogant rather than smart, and while her political ideas about the South may be treated more thoroughly in her diary, I was hard-pressed to uncover any sort of opinions she might have possessed with regard to the very complex problems which gave rise to the Civil War.  The author of the biography suggests that she hated slavery, yet she enjoyed the benefits of it as much as anyone.  She lived in large houses filled with servants, spent money made by the labors of the five hundred slaves owned by her father-in-law, and was able to eat during Reconstruction as a result of her slave Molly’s execution of her butter and egg business.  It may have been easy to “hate” slavery, but what would have been harder, more admirable, and actually shown some insight and brilliance, would have been for Mrs. Chesnut to imagine an alternative.  Slavery was challenged from the beginning of the country’s independence, with the Constitution calling for an end to the African slave trade in 1808.  (After this, the only trade in slaves was to be of those slaves already living in the US.)  The Three-Fifths Compromise gave the much less-populous South the right to claim each slave as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of congressional representation.  (Talk about taxation without representation.)  As slavery was slowly phased out in the North (Massachusetts had been the first colony to establish an official slave trade), Northerners were still willing to consider the continuance of slavery in the South.  It was only as the West opened up to immigration and settlement that serious tension arose, with the admission of new states raising the question every time, “Free or slave?”

But the author of Mrs. Chesnut’s biography does not address any of these issues.  The biography was mildly interesting at the beginning, but despite C. Vann Woodward’s praise of it, I do not feel I know anything more valuable about this Southern socialite than who her friends were.  She traveled widely in the North as well as to Europe, so she cannot be accused of provinciality.  Yet according to what her biographer writes about her, her journal writing rarely strays into the truly political.  I hoped (and, I think, was led to believe) that her diary could be a key to understanding the mentality of the South in its obstinacy, secession, and serious attempt to become a separate country.  But I am left with no more than the image of a socialite waving a “States Rights” flag.

Has anyone else come across a book that effectively describes the motivations and rationalizations of the South during this period?  Most histories, while they try to be objective, end up painting the North as the military and moral victor in the conflict.  I don’t plan to change my mind (which is generally aligned with the predominating histories) but it would be nice to get a better understanding of the Lost Cause and its proponents.

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Having taken a forced vacation of two weeks from blogging, I am a little behind in commenting on the headlines of the past few weeks.  But here are a few headlines about which I have found something to say:

UNIFIL finds 20 Katyushas ready for launch. After three years of “monitoring” that’s it?  And what exactly have they been doing up there?  It turns out they’ve been staying out of populated areas, only making the occasional foray into unpopulated areas to look for weapons caches and rocket installations.  Guess they didn’t pay much attention during the Second Lebanon War and the recent Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, when weapons were cached and rockets and mortars launched out of densely populated areas.  I think if I sent my four-year-old up there, she’d have found more, but hey, it’s the thought that counts, isn’t it?

Natan Sharansky named new head of the Jewish Agency. I could kiss whoever did this (and Sharansky himself for taking the job).  At last a real Zionist to head the Sochnut!  Let’s just say I hope for better things than when Avrum Get-out-of-Israel-while-you-can Burg was the head.  Sharansky is a hero, a Russian immigrant, a strategist, a Great Brain and somehow, though I can’t explain it, I have an strangely firm sense of confidence in short, round-faced, balding men.  I think he’ll be great.

Building freeze in settlements will improve lives of Palestinian Arabs. Right?  Wrong!  It will deny livelihood to 12,000 Arabs who work for Jewish and Arab contractors building homes in the settlements.  These Arabs are not necessarily happy about new Jewish building, but they’re responsible enough to admit that they must feed their families.  Arabs are the first to admit that their own “government” is doing nothing to offer them alternative work.  Besides (and I’ve heard this before), as far as they’re concerned, these homes could someday be Arab homes.

Arab Palestinian intransigence leads to better “peace” offers. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat recently crowed (that was the word the journalist chose) that Palestinian Arab stubbornness and intransigence in peace negotiations with Israel is highly effective.  Instead of walking away when a generous offer is refused, Israel keeps coming back with a better one.  I couldn’t agree more.  I wonder, would the Arabs rethink this strategy if Israel were to offer them less and less?  Probably not.

Arab refusal to recognize the Jewish State at the heart of the continued conflict. A few months ago, I wrote a post about how Israel should stop worrying about its acceptance by the surrounding Arab states.  Then Saul Singer published a piece in the Jerusalem Post called “The Great Arab Refusal” that actually argues convincingly that this is the root of the problem of peacemaking in the region.  Singer writes that “the claim of a ‘right of return’ embodies the Arab attempt at obtaining a 22nd state without accepting the single Jewish one. If Palestinians have a permanent ‘right’ to move to Israel, in what sense have they accepted Israeli sovereignty? How can they claim a right to move to Israel while not only denying the right of Jews to move to Palestine, but assuming that it must be ethnically cleansed of all Jews?”  Singer writes what he thinks Obama SHOULD have said in Cairo: “‘End the conflict. Who is stopping you? If you truly accept Israelis, talk to their leaders, stop denying their history and connection to the land, you will have a Palestinian state faster than you can shake a stick.’ I understand that Obama thinks that the harder he pressures Israel on settlements the more likely the Arabs are to cooperate. But this is exactly backward. Direct pressure on Israel is always taken by the Arabs as an excuse to do nothing.”

Blaming the world’s tragedies on women’s immodest dress. It seems it’s not only the Israeli Jewish world that is obsessed with modesty.  Modesty Blasé, an English blogger, writes that the Eleventh Plague has hit the London Jewish neighborhood of Hendon.  Women’s dress is not only blamed for diminishing the holiness of a shul, it’s also being held responsible for springing three drug-smuggling yeshiva boys from a Japanese hoosegow.  Women have been requested to take written pledges to improve their modest dress, sending their vows to the hand-wringing mother of one of the juveniles delinquent.  There are also suggestions for how women’s behavior can be altered to make it more modest, including not eating or drinking in public (because we all saw the eating scene in Tom Jones and know what eating in front of the opposite sex can lead to), and fitting their shoes with rubber soles (to make it easier to sneak around men without their noticing).  MB refers to her neighborhood as Hendonistan; is the Jewish community there really so different from the Muslim one, where women are walking around in jilbabs and hijabs and jimbobs and whatnot?

Despite all but one of these headlines being a real downer (Go Natan!), I’m still optimistic.  I believe with absolute faith that, while Israel will probably keep hacking off pounds of its flesh to try to appease the rest of the world, it will stop when it gets to the heart.  I believe that Jewish intransigence will continue to prevent Israel from making a lasting, disastrous agreement with the Arabs.  I believe that one day the Arab Palestinians will wake up and see what a shameful waste their existence has been since 1948, will tar and feather their utterly useless leadership, and will sit down at the negotiating table ready to do what it takes to get a home for themselves.  And I believe that one day, the scales will fall from the eyes of the medieval, chauvinistic elements of the Jewish world, and they will pull their heads out of their nether regions and realize that it is injustices like child and spousal abuse, protecting husbands who refuse to give their wives divorces, and persecution of converts that keeps the Messiah from coming, not the length of a woman’s sleeve or how much of her hair is hidden.

Call me naive, but if I don’t believe things can get better, then why bother?

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Those racist Jews

I used to bristle whenever I would hear people describe the Jews as a “race.”  Not a nation, not a people, but a “race.”  The fact that one cannot convert to a race (no matter how much I may want to be Nepalese, it’ll never happen) never seems to deter them from this bizarre notion.  Hitler y”s called us a race.  We all know what that led to.

And now a UK Jewish school admissions policy is “racist,” a court rules.  “Racist” here is used interchangeably with “religious” by English courts.  A 12-year-old kid whose mother converted via the Progressive movement in England was denied admission to the school, which only accepts students who are halachically Jewish.  A high court judge got the definition right—that it’s based on religious, not racial grounds.  But that ruling has been struck down in an appeal to another court that rules that (according to the child’s lawyer) “It is unlawful for a child’s ethnic origins to be used as the criterion for entry to a school.  Such a practice is even more unacceptable in the case of a comprehensive school funded by the taxpayer.”  On a good day, I don’t think most people in the world understand the Jews, and here Jews by birth and Jews by choice are being called separate races and ethnicities by a court of law.  In what appears a terrible miscarriage of justice, the British court system has seen fit to interfere with a religion’s right to define itself.

And yet.  On the one hand, I’m applauding Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s eloquent defense of the school’s admission policy.  But on the other hand, as an American who remembers the media hoo-hah surrounding the attempt by a woman in 1995 to gain admission to the Military College of South Carolina (aka the Citadel), I’m also brought up short in my support of the school’s policy.  A school that agrees to accept federal funding is also, whether it likes it or not, agreeing to accept federal intervention in how it runs itself.  It must comply with federal laws, and in the case of the Citadel, that involved the requirement to provide equal access to women in the traditionally all-male institution (discrimination on the basis of sex being prohibited by federal law).

As tempting as it is for religious schools to accept government funding to help defray their exorbitant costs, this is where accepting that funding gets sticky.  If this Jewish school in the UK accepts government funds, it becomes subject to the laws of the land, including the right of the not-so-pro-Jewish courts to meddle in its admissions policies (not to mention call it racist).  And the same will go for Jewish day schools in America if, as many Jews who support vouchers will find out, they too decide to let the government get involved.

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Water For Elephants

This novel by Sara Gruen is a bestseller, which means lots of people have bought it, and lots of people have probably even read it.  The author skillfully moves back and forth from the past and Jacob’s tenure as a circus vet during the Depression to the present, where he’s in his 90s and living in a nursing home.  Gruen did extensive historical research on the American train circus and incorporated many of the incidents and procedures she found into the story.  The main character is likable, and as a reader I cared about what happened to him, appreciating his love of animals in his youth and his humor and curmudgeonliness in old age.

But I found certain elements of the novel disappointing or unconvincing.  Any character not described as a “working man” talks like a college graduate which, I would venture to guess, was not what most circus performers and management were during the Depression.  The author’s descriptions are effective but spare–a current trend in fiction writing, I believe, in this age of dominant cinematography.  Her narrative voice sounds much like that of many other contemporary authors, and does not distinguish itself (but neither do the others, usually).  And the author shamelessly plucks a large chunk of plot from William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, with a debonair Jewish paranoid schizophrenic married to a beautiful Catholic girl, and a young, innocent non-Jewish man who joins the threesome.  (Gotcha! Ms. Gruen.  Did you think we wouldn’t notice?  Did you think we’re all too young to remember not only the novel but the movie?  You know, the one with Kevin Kline and MERYL STREEP, for cryin’ out loud?  Really.)  Young Jacob falls in love with Marlena, is suspected by the jealous and volatile August of having an affair with her, and watches as the cuckolded husband smashes up the place like a mad bull elephant.  Gruen only diverges from this plot when she gives it a happier ending than Sophie and Nathan’s.  (Otherwise, she’s have had to give the book the title, Marlena’s Choice.)  Had she not plagiarized her plot, I could have enjoyed it much more.

It’s a good book, but not a great book.  When I wondered out loud to the Cap’n how such books become bestsellers, he reminded me that Dianetics was also a bestseller.  That explains a lot.

To cleanse my palate, I have begun Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories.  I don’t think I’ve ever read Rushdie before, but after about 20 pages, I’m already enamored of his style which is spare but beautifully lyrical, unique, and gives me the guilty, pleasurable feeling of reading children’s stories again.  I find it commendable that Rushdie and Garcia Marquez, whose magical realism gives me a similar feeling, are considered swanky and sophisticated.

Ah, originality.

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I’ve already said my piece about smoking.  The litter, the smell, not to mention the deleterious effects on a person’s health are evident to all.  And yet some people still choose to smoke.  Fine by me.

What is not fine by me is the chucking of still-smoldering cigarettes by smokers to fall wherever gravity takes them: out car windows, on sidewalks, even in waterparks patronized by children.  Yes, Ima Crunch was well and truly pissed off this afternoon when Beans and Peach returned from camp, Peach hopping on one foot and sporting a mesh bandage from the first aid station at the waterpark they attended today.  Some smoker (epithets deleted) flicked a lit cigarette from her or his fingers onto the walkway and strolled on.  In a place swarming with children from all over the center of the country, this person, who wouldn’t dream of stepping on a lit cigarette with a bare foot, nonetheless thought it not unreasonable that a child should do so.

Or just as bad, thought nothing at all.  Given the many irritating and damaging effects of smoking, it seems to me that to become a smoker, one must necessarily have portions of one’s brain deactivated, including the one that actually, you know, puts out fires before moving on.  Do such people scatter rusty nails on sidewalks? Lit matches in dry brush?  Discarded paring knives and razor blades on beaches?  Then why the hell don’t they think to extinguish their smoldering fags before tossing them at the feet of children?

You don’t have to answer that.  There is no answer.

Peach has asked why people do such things.  I explained that I really don’t know, but I also took the opportunity to explain karma to her, the upside being mitzvah goreret mitzvah (one good deed causes another), and the downside being the opposite.  I told her we don’t know who discarded the lit butt, or what happened to him or her later on.  But sometimes people who do thoughtless, rude, or evil things themselves end up on the receiving end of other people’s thoughtless, rude, or evil deeds.  We don’t have to wish them ill; sometimes ill befalls those who do ill all by itself.

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Fourth child

After bringing three girls into the world, there seems to be an impression that the Cap’n and I had a fourth child in order to have a boy.

In my grandparents’ day, boys were valued more than girls. (I often got this feeling even in my day, as well.) I have a letter my grandmother wrote to her parents from college in which she reported that one of her classmates’s siblings had recently given birth to a little girl. But my grandmother was all too happy (in a feline sort of way) to report that she had trumped THAT piece of news: her cousin had given birth to a BOY.

It always annoys me when strangers presume to understand a couple’s motivations in having a child. Some people seem to think that a couple is yotzei (fulfilled their obligation) once they have a child of each sex (I think this exists officially in Judaism), and that their sole motivation in procreation is toward that end. It rarely dawns on strangers or casual acquaintances that a couple could choose to have a fourth child because they want four children.

Israeli society is still like this, unfortunately. Boys elicit a hearty Mazal tov! while girls get you the equivalent of “Better luck next time.” And nothing is more maddening than the look of disbelief and skepticism in the hearer’s eyes when I say we would have been just as delighted had Bill been a girl. (Not least because I’ve always wanted to name a child Wilhelmina Delphinium Crunch.) The way they see it, after all the brachas strangers gave me on the street that Beans should be a boy, the fact that she was a girl was the luck of the draw (oh well, it has to happen sometimes). But people who think like this are the same people who probably think Peach and Banana were similar failed attempts at a boy, and that Bill is the first successful product of our union (at last).

And people wonder why girls have low self esteem.

In truth, the first child I could have whose sex would not necessarily be seen as the motivator would be my fifth. *Sigh*

Well, I have a message for such people: Families whose children are all boys often get dreamy-eyed when the subject of girls comes up. In our experience, families whose children are all girls never seem to pine for a boy. Whether this is because the latter families are conscious that such facial expressions are hurtful to their daughters, or because they are grateful that their daughters will have a choice about going into the army or not, or because we fortunately live in a time when it’s not unheard of for the groom’s family to contribute to the wedding costs, I don’t know.

All I’m saying is that each child is an individual: mild or wild, fiery or calm, sweet or sassy. Each of my children could just as easily have ended up the opposite sex and still had the same personality. They’ll encounter different challenges as girls or boys, but they’ll still be my children, and they’ll still be wonderful people.

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The new Ruins cake

Before Shavuot, I posted a suggested dairy menu for the holiday which included a recipe for a cake called The Ruins of the Lord’s Castle.

In the interest of full disclosure, I had never made the cake, although I did eat it back in 1992 when I got the recipe.  Then, last Shabbat, after a couple of weeks of the Cap’n cooking and eating food from the freezer, I experienced a burst of energy and animal spirits, and decided to make the cake.  I had a few adjustments to make: my favorite mocha rum cake in place of the sour cream chocolate cake; finding a substitute for the dried fruit which the Cap’n doesn’t eat; and scaring up the equipment to make a dairy cake.  (I only make parve desserts these days.)

The result was mind-blowing.  The butter in the cake alone was worth it, and this is a cake that tastes magnificent parve.  I lost the first batch of meringues (they came out flat and wizened) but was bailed out by consulting my trusty Joy of Cooking and ended up with meringues that were both crumbly and slightly chewy, just right for the cake.  In place of dried fruit I broke up bars of good-quality chocolate, though one could also use pie filling or fresh fruit, according to taste.  The cream filling turned out a runny version of Boston cream—delicious, but I may trouble-shoot that next time.  And the brandy in the chocolate glaze provided tasty confirmation of the booze theme in the cake.  In all, I consider it a success.

It’s a potchkee, but worth it (every 17 years).  (At this rate, the Cap’n informs me, I can probably make it again for Banana’s 21st birthday.)  Strategizing the prep can make it a manageable project.  For example, make the meringues a week in advance, the cakes a day or two ahead, and even the sauce and filling the day before.  I had the chocolate chunks pounded and the walnuts toasted before Shabbat, too, so all I had to do that morning was take the cakes out of the refrigerator and let them stand until they were room temperature, then assemble it before lunch.  It’s a wreck to look at (and alas, I couldn’t take a picture of it before it was served) but an obviously delicious one.

So without further ado, here is the recipe for the new RUINS CAKE.


1 recipe dairy Mocha Rum cake or other cake of choice, baked in two 10” rounds (recipe at the end of this post)


Cream filling

Chocolate glaze

Toasted walnuts, pecans, or hazelnuts

Combination broken chunks of white, milk, dark, and 60% (or higher) chocolate (can also use fresh berries)


Can make cakes in advance and freeze or refrigerate.

I also recommend making the meringues in advance to get them right.  To make meringues, beat 2 egg whites and a little less than 1 cup of sugar in mixer until firm and frothy.  Drop onto greased baking sheet by mounds.  Bake about 20 minutes at 250°.  (Meringues should be thin, flat dome, and taste slightly chewy.)

Make cream filling by cooking 3 egg yolks, 1 whole egg, 1 cup milk, 2 tablespoons flour, 1 cup sugar, and a dash of vanilla in a saucepan over low heat, stirring constantly.  When it starts to simmer and thicken, remove.  Add 1 stick butter and stir well; cool.  It’s pretty runny, but if thickened with corn starch, might reach the thickness of Boston Cream.  Your call.

Make chocolate glaze by mixing 3 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar, 3 tablespoons sour cream, 1 tablespoon cocoa, and 1 – 2 tablespoons brandy or whisky over low heat until it begins to simmer.  Add 1 stick butter; cool.

Assemble shortly before serving.   To assemble, spread bottom layer of cake with cream filling, then add top layer.  (Cream filling should be a thinnish layer to prevent the top cake layer from sliding off.)  Arrange broken meringues on top cake layer.  Drizzle cream filling between meringues.  Scatter toasted nuts and broken chocolate over the top.  Drizzle glaze over all, making sure to have it dribble down the sides of the cake.

Now serve and let it dribble down your chin.

MOCHA RUM CAKE  (Recipe from Whole Foods Market)

Cocoa powder for dusting

3 cups flour

1½ teaspoons baking soda

¾ teaspoon salt

¾ lb bittersweet chocolate, chopped

3 sticks butter, cut into pieces

⅓ cup dark rum (that’s one-third cup; Bacardi works fine if dark rum not available)

2 cups strong brewed coffee

2¼ cups sugar

3 lg eggs, beaten lightly

1½ teaspoons vanilla

Preheat oven to 300°F.  Grease two springform (9” or 10”) or one bundt pan and dust with cocoa powder.  In bowl, whisk together flour, soda, and salt.  Melt chocolate and butter in a glass bowl in the microwave on high, stopping every 30 seconds to stir until smooth.  Transfer to a large mixing bowl and stir in rum, coffee, and sugar.  With electric mixer beat in flour, half a cup at a time, scraping down the sides, and beat in eggs and vanilla until batter is well combined.  Pour into prepared pan.

Bake cake in middle of oven until tester comes out clean, about 1 hour and 50 minutes for bundt cake, or 50 minutes or so in springform pans.  Let cake cool in the pan on a rack, then turn out onto rack.  Cake may be made 3 days ahead and kept well wrapped and chilled.  If serving cake alone (not as part of the Ruins cake) can simply dust with confectioner’s sugar or cover with chocolate ganache (to gild the lily).

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On July 3, in honor of American Independence Day, Raizy posted the above picture of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson.  Aren’t they adorable?  Franklin with his kite, Washington in his dapper cutaway uniform, and Jefferson’s ginger hair.

And yet for me they’re not quite so cute.

There was a time when I would have accepted without thinking that these were indeed three of the great luminaries of the American Revolution.  However, I have done a considerable amount of reading in American history in the past ten years, and I’m more critical of our patriots than I used to be.  Reading about Benjamin Franklin’s tenure in Paris during the revolution, his debauchery, his—shall we say—”relaxed” style of diplomacy (i.e. partying with the French aristocracy for weeks with nary a day’s work in between), and his near failure to accomplish the goals for which he was sent there in the first place (to corral money and, if possible, military assistance for the Americans) make me less comfortable with him as a model of public service.  And the more I read of Thomas Jefferson, the more infuriated I get with him.  A man of intelligence with skill and interests in many areas, Jefferson was nonetheless a disturbingly hypocritical character.  His Declaration of Independence was a masterpiece, and his thoughts on the separation of church and state have my highest admiration.  But on the other hand, he preached thrift but opposed the creation of a national bank to pay the country’s war debts, and himself had extremely expensive taste in liquor and books, was constantly remodeling his house, and couldn’t manage his own finances, dying woefully in debt.  He wrote that the American colonists were of  “one mind resolved to die freemen rather than to live slaves” without extending that thought to those he owned.  He wrote, “Lose no occasion of exercising your dispositions to be grateful, to be generous, to be charitable, to be humane, to be true, just, firm, orderly, courageous, &c. Consider every act of this kind, as an exercise which will strengthen your moral faculties and increase your worth,” then spent his own private funds smearing the reputation of his old friend John Adams in order to get himself elected president.  Without having ever fired a shot in defense of his country, he claimed that “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”  By championing states’ rights over the creation of a strong union, supporting the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions which asserted the “right” of states to nullify any federal law that didn’t suit them, and defense of the continued institution of slavery after the foundation of the United States, he helped to set the country on a course which led ultimately to civil war.

Of these three, Washington is the only one for whom I still feel admiration.  His selfless service to his country, his ability to prosecute a successful war on a shoestring (despite losing most of the battles he fought), his bearing and dignity in dealing with the British who insisted on calling him “Mr. Washington,” his statesmanship, his foresight of the problems partisanship and disunity would cause in the future, his belief that people of all backgrounds (even the Jews) had a part to play in the new democracy he had helped to create, as well as the provision he put in his will that his slaves should be freed after his wife’s death (which she executed soon after his, to remove any motivation they might have to murder her in her bed), give me an impression of a man of integrity, honesty, and true patriotism.

Incidentally, there has circulated around the Internet an article entitled “The Price They Paid” describing the fates of the 56 signatories of the Declaration of Independence.  I read this years ago, and didn’t question its veracity.  But in writing this post, I Googled the subject again, and was lucky enough to find it analyzed on Snopes.  For those who would like to know how things turned out for those men (sans embellishments and fictionalizations), here is the link.

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Mesorah project

In addition to my own post on my blog today, Ilana-Davita has been sponsoring a Mesorah project on her blog.  My humble contribution to this fascinating and beautiful collection of accounts of Judaism is featured today.

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What the world eats

I’m back.  The Cap’n is still seeing what he can salvage of my documents since our last back-up a month ago, but in the meantime, I’ve been jotting down my ideas for posts on little pieces of paper littered around the house.  Here is something I’ve been meaning to write about.

About a month ago, the Israel Food chat list had a comment by a member directing the reader to an online Time gallery of photos entitled “What the World Eats.”  It is a series of photos of families all over the world in their homes, with a spread of the foods they purchase for a week arranged in front of them.  Captions provide the family’s name, location, how much they spend on groceries, and their favorite dishes.  Part I is 15 photos of families; Part II includes 10 more photos of families; and Part III is photos of markets around the world.  These images were shot by the photographer Peter Menzel for his book Hungry Planet.  It’s a fascinating thing to check out.  What kinds of foods do they prepare?  How much fresh fruit and vegetables do they buy?  How much meat?  How much fish?  How much whole grain?  How much processed food?  What do they drink?

For example, the Manzo family of Sicily spends $206.11 a week on a diet that consists mostly of bread, fresh fruit and vegetables, and a few junk items like Frosted Flakes and Pepsi.  The Aboubakar family of Chad spends $1.23 a week on pulses, a couple of limes, and (when they can get it), sheep meat.  (As one looks through these photos, it’s amazing how much of the world eats mutton.)  The Revis family of North Carolina (USA) spends $341.98 on what appears to be pizza, Burger King, Frito Lay products, Coca Cola, and packaged meat.  Except for two bunches of grapes and a couple of tomatoes, fresh fruits and vegetables are conspicuously absent.  (Their food bill would be considerably less if they were to cook at home more.)  The Dong family in China spends $155.06 on meat, fish, eggs, dairy, fruits and vegetables, and one fast-food meal.  The Ahmed family of Cairo has probably never seen processed food in their lives.  Their diet consists of fresh vegetables, rice, a little meat, flat bread, and almost no junk at all.  (And that’s for a family of 12.)  Their weekly food bill is $68.53.  The Ayme family of Ecuador spends $31.55 on plantains, potatoes, a few greens, root vegetables, and rice.  Not a can of coke or a bag of chips in sight.  The Madsens in Greenland spend $277.12 almost entirely on food that comes in boxes.  Their favorite foods are polar bear, narwhal skin, and seal stew.  (There is a picture of them in Part III hauling home a seal they’ve killed themselves.)

If you’re into food and sociology, check it all out.  Notice how many members of the family there are, and how many generations eating under one roof.  What do their dining rooms look like?  How many of them have television sets near the dining room table?  How do the people look (i.e. lean or doughy)?

What would your family’s diet look like if it were featured here?

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Tap, tap, tap

That’s the sound of my fingers drumming on the computer desk as I await my new computer.  (Late this week or early next, the Cap’n informs me.)  Although I am not posting regularly until I get a computer with, you know, MEMORY and stuff, my brain is not idle.  I have news headlines, the upcoming 20th anniversary of a backpacking trip I took after college graduation, a few more books to discuss, and this Shabbat I’m making a modified (i.e. Cap’n-friendly) version of the deliberate cake wreck, The Ruins of the Lord’s Castle (original recipe on my post with dairy Shavuot meal suggestions).

To tide you over until I get back with all that stuff next week, I’ll share a little ditty Banana taught me in honor of her fourth birthday yesterday.  Remember the rips on “Jingle Bells” from childhood?  “Jingle Bells!  Batman smells, Robin laid an egg!  Batmobile popped a wheel and Joker got away!”  Of course, I remember the one, too, that goes, “Jingle Bells, Santa smells 50 miles away!  Oh what fun it is to ride in a beat-up Chevrolet!”  This was dear to my heart not only because I didn’t believe in Santa Claus from a pretty early age (so kids never scared me who promised Santa wouldn’t bring me any presents if I sang that song), but because we also owned a beat-up Chevrolet (with no air-conditioning), and boy was it fun riding on Route 10 through the Mojave Desert in THAT car!

Well, Israeli kids aren’t exactly deprived of nasty little songs either.  “Happy Birthday” in Hebrew begins “Hayom yom huledet, hayom yom huledet, hayom yom huledet l-[whomever].”  Banana’s rip (that she learned in gan) goes, “Hayom yom huledet l’Savta Yocheved!  Mah kanu l’matanah?  Tachtonim v’gufiah!”  (“Today is Grandma Yocheved’s birthday!  What did they buy for a present?  Underwear and an undershirt!”)  Only slightly racy, it earned a smile and a little chuckle from me.  Encouraged by this, Banana ventured to share a nastier version: “Hayom yom huledet l’Savta Yocheved!  Mah kanu l’matanah?  Kos nazelet im g’vinah!”  If you speak Hebrew, you’ll know how gross that is.  If not, I’ll do you the great favor of not translating it.

Iy”h, back next week.

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This is your Cap’n speaking.

As mentioned here, I cooked for Shabbat last week.  In honor of this Shabbat, and to give you loyal readers a little recompense for our few days being down due to technical difficulties, here is my recipe for teriyaki chicken, which was a big hit with the kids (and the adults, too). 


Chicken pieces, cut up to your preference (I had wanted just breasts, but the meat department was out when I went shopping, so I went with a whole chicken cut up into 10).

Garlic powder

Onion powder

Garlic gloves (2-3 per chicken), cut into slices

Medium-sized onions (1 per chicken), cut into wedges

Fresh ginger root (about the same volume as that of the garlic cloves), cut into slices

Carrots (about 3 per chicken), cut into sticks or coins as per your preference.

Two different kinds of teriyaki Sauce — one salty, one sweet.  (I find that the sweet teriyaki sauces you can buy are too sweet, and the salty ones not sweet enough for my taste. But when mixed, the mixture is always very tasty).   I have been known to use for the salty sauce a mixture of soy sauce, red wine, and red wine vinegar, though I usually just use either Kikkoman or Wan-Ja-Shan if I have them available.


Rinse the chicken,  pat dry with paper towels, and arrange in baking pan.  Generously  sprinkle the garlic and onion powder on the chicken.  Strategically lay the slices of garlic and ginger, and the onion and carrot parts, on the chicken.  Liberally pour the two kinds of teriyaki sauces on the chicken (being sure to soak the strategically-placed roots).  Cover with tin foil and let soak in the fridge for a while.  (A couple hours would be ideal, but if you are like me and Shabbat is getting too close for comfort, even 15 minutes helps if you have it to spare).

Preheat oven to 350 (sea level) or 370 (Efrat level).  (That is roughly 175 or 185 in Celsius).  Bake (still covered in the foil) until done — I usually check at about 30 minutes, but by the time I take it out it has been closer to 45-50 minutes.  (For those non-regular cooks who might be trying this at home, it is done when you cut a big piece of chicken and any juices run clear, with no pink).

Since the chicken was cooked covered, and the teriyaki sauces provide liquid, the chicken comes out moist and tasty.  The roots also are yummy to eat, though the ginger is a bit sharp and may not be to everyone’s taste.

This chicken can either be served immediately, or refrigerated and re-heated for lunch.  It will go nicely with either rice or noodles.

Note: If you are having guests who are vegetarians (or are a vegetarian yourself), you can substitute firm or extra-firm tofu for the chicken.

Enjoy, and Shabbat Shalom!

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