Archive for October, 2009

Rainbow cake

Last week, in honor of Parshat Noach, I baked a rainbow cake.  My friend Heather (you remember the one with the corrupting influence?) introduced me to the idea from this blog.  She made the cake when we visited them last summer for a birthday celebration for her daughter and Peach (who were born three days apart six years ago).  Once the batter was made and dyed, here is how she layered it in the baking tins:

Rainbow cake batter

And here is the big moment when she cut the first slice:

Rainbow cake slice

I did the minor decorating job on Heather’s cake, piping some white flower-shaped tufts of “cloud” with the icing and the scalloped border.  The main difference between Heather’s cake and mine is that hers was entirely store-bought and mine was entirely homemade.  What I discovered is that a compromise is good for this cake.  I recommend the finest store-bought ingredients for the cake (Heather used the whitest mix she could find, and Wilton gel food colors), and a good homemade buttercream frosting for the outer decoration.  Cake mixes have a denser batter and hold the dye better; my homemade batter was too slushy and the result was more of a tie-dyed cake than a rainbow one.  And store-bought frosting (in the cardboard can) is too soft to hold any kind of shape when spread or piped on a cake. Here are a couple of shots of my recent decorating job.  (Sorry the sloppy, tie-dyed effect couldn’t be displayed; it was cut on Shabbat.)

Jen's Rainbow Cake top view

Jen's Rainbow Cake side view

The cake as a whole is almost sickeningly sweet, and barely looks like food.  But if you want to make friends and establish influence with members of the child set, this is the way to go.

For those who are looking for a good buttercream frosting recipe, here is the one I use, based on the recipe I was given at the Wilton basic cake decorating course:

150 g margarine or salted butter, fresh out of the refrigerator

2 tablespoons water (or milk or whipping cream)

1 teaspoon flavoring (vanilla, orange, rum, etc.)

1 tablespoon meringue powder (Wilton makes this, and it can be purchased online or in a craft store like A.C. Moore or Michael’s)

560 g powdered (confectioner’s) sugar (1¼ lbs) (do NOT use superfine sugar; the frosting needs the cornstarch to give it consistency and bind)

Pulse margarine in food processor.  Add liquids and meringue powder and pulse together until blended.  Add sugar about 100 g (or 1 cup) at a time, pulsing in between to combine.  I recommend using a spatula to scrape the sides and bottom of the food processor bowl and pulsing a little more to be sure to incorporate all of the frosting.

This method makes frosting with a stiff consistency, suitable for making roses.  For medium consistency (other flowers) add an additional 1-2 teaspoons water or milk and blend thoroughly.  For spreading (also vines, leaves, and lettering), add an additional 2-3 teaspoons water or milk and blend thoroughly.

If I know I’m only making frosting to spread on a cake, I simply reduce the amount of powdered sugar I add to the food processor.  Test frosting with a spreading knife between additions, adding the last 200 g of powdered sugar gradually.


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Kosher Cooking Carnival #46

Mimi of Israeli Kitchen hosts this month’s Kosher Cooking Carnival.  My jam tart recipe is included, along with other mouth-watering dainties and kosher food commentary.  Check it out!

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Knitting revolution

Caution: The following post may be esoteric and tedious to non-knitters.

When I first learned to knit, I acquired skills slowly.  First knitting, then purling.  Then casting on (in the inelastic knitting-into-the-same-stitch mode) and binding off.  I never learned seaming or picking up stitches, or anything more complicated than simple cables.

Then I set it aside for a couple of decades.

Since I’ve come back to it, I have endeavored to learn multiple casting-on and binding-off methods as well as fancier things like running stitches, bobbles, complicated braided cables, lacy patterns, the works.  I can seam, increase, decrease, and am on the brink of doing some colorwork.  I’ve purchased several books with intricate patterns and methods (basic, Celtic, Viking, Fair Isle, among others).  I own a reliable reference book for basic techniques from knitting and purling to finishing techniques.

But one thing has always bothered me: I’ve been a slave to knitting patterns.

When I was first learning to knit, I couldn’t read a pattern.  (What Dumbledore sees in them in the sixth Harry Potter book is beyond me.)  My mother interpreted them for me when I was younger, and over time I’ve learned to decipher them, but I’ve still not been satisfied.  Just because I can read a pattern does not mean (to me, anyway) that I am a really good knitter.  Like cooking, there is a difference between someone who must follow a recipe and someone who can alter a recipe to taste (or to what is in the larder) or create something entirely new.

A couple of years ago, the Cap’n and I took the kids to the States.  While we were there, I visited a large knitting store (WEBS in Northampton, Mass.) where I shlepped my new knitting books around and tried to find yarn to suit the sweaters I wanted to knit.  I asked a store salesperson for help, and she guided me to yarns for each project.  I made my selections, dropped a small fortune at the cash register, and boxed my things to bring back to Israel

On that same trip to the States, my friend Heather gave me a copy of Elizabeth Zimmerman’s Knitting Workshop.  It’s a small volume filled with wisdom and techniques for making a few basic sweaters for any sized person—without a pattern.  I loved Zimmerman’s opinionated views on knitting (including her hatred of seaming) and devoured the book.  I also ordered a similar book called Knitting in the Old Way by Priscilla Gibson-Roberts, which is a more in-depth exploration of the history of the knitted sweater and how to design a sweater, including shape, fit, and color or textural design, all without a pattern.

But at the time, I was still too inexperienced and too timid a knitter to embark on a serious study of this oh-so-independent discipline.  I had my yarn and my patterns, and was set with projects for a few years.

But during the intervening time, I have discovered two things: 1) despite the salesperson’s assistance, many of the yarns I purchased are inappropriate for the projects I had in mind, and 2) over the last couple of years, I’ve fallen out of love with some of the projects I had planned on knitting.  What am I to do with all this yarn I have if I don’t have patterns that suit it?  I’ve tried to find new sweater patterns I could knit with what I have, but there is little in my books that suits.  So last week I spent hours on the Internet looking at patterns, with little success.  (Nearly all of the projects were unsuitable to my taste, climate, and basic sense of modesty.  I mean really, what woman in her 40’s wants to walk around in a dishtowel with a couple of shoulder straps?  Even with a shirt underneath…)

In the end, faced with a stock of really nice yarn with no certain future, I’ve gone back to those books and read them more carefully.

After really absorbing their message this time, I feel as though I’ve had a conversionary experience.  I learned how to knit in the first place so I could make exactly what I want in a sweater rather than relying on whatever the stores stocked—and pattern books are the equivalent of stores, in my opinion.  It’s not cheaper to handknit—not when you add up the cost of materials, knitting equipment (needles aren’t cheap) and time spent knitting (which is time not spent working, doing laundry or dishes, or driving the kids somewhere, though I do find it easy to knit while I help a kid with homework), but it is pleasurable and rewarding.  And with a handmade sweater, I should be able to choose the materials, the design, the exact fit, and the finished product should look better on me and be better made than anything I can buy retail.  When I rely on patterns, I give up a large measure of that independence.

This does not mean I’m finished with patterns.  There are some really wonderful designers out there (I really like Jo Sharp, Alice Starmore, and Ann McCauley) who design some smashing-looking sweaters.  What it does mean is that if I want to knit a pullover in the round, a cardigan in one piece, or steek a sweater I’m supposed to knit in 5 flat pieces, there are resources I can use to help me figure out how to do it.  If Jo Sharp’s sweaters are too boxy or shapeless for me (or my kids), I can alter them to make them more fitted.  If Ann McCauley designed a gorgeous knitted pattern but I don’t have the right yarn to make the exact project she designed, perhaps I can adapt her pattern to an entirely different sweater.  Knitting has always been enjoyable for me, but from now on, it will never be the same—in a really good way.

It’s a bit like the experience of discovering Orthodox Judaism, where the traditional has come to look revolutionary in the modern world.  Lehavdil.

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The Goldstone Report

I don’t know what it’s been like in the rest of the world for the past few weeks, but it seems like every day here in Israel there is talk about the Goldstone Report, a 575-page report submitted to the UN Council for Human Rights by a committee headed by Richard Goldstone, a South African jurist (who also happens to be Jewish), in which Israel is accused of war crimes in Operation Cast Lead, aka the Gaza War of December 2008-January 2009.

The remarks about the report include the fact that Goldstone, in choosing to chair this committee and sign his name to the scurrilous report they produced, has given it weight and credence because of his stature as a prominent member of South Africa’s Jewish community.  They include the fact that he could have recused himself from that particularly onerous job, but didn’t.  (Although Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and nowadays an international political player with no great love of Israel, could smell a stinky job a mile away and turned it down.)  They include the fact that he’ll never eat lunch in the South African Jewish community again.  And they include the fact that in an international landscape in which Israel is routinely vilified, represented most publicly by the UN, this report is another assault not only on the Jews, but on the truth.

Recent articles about Goldstone include observations that he’s backpedaling to the Jewish world about the report, softening his criticisms of Israel to Jewish audiences, while standing staunchly by the report in front of international listeners.  In a conference call with US rabbis last week, Goldstone is said to have urged Israel to carry out an independent investigation of its military prosecution of the war, saying “If the Israeli government set up an appropriate, open investigation, that would really be the end of the matter,” as far as Israel is concerned.

Perhaps I’m jaded, but I’m not terribly shocked to see a Jew signing off on such a report against Israel.  While his daughter claims that Goldstone “is a Zionist and loves Israel,” there are many Diaspora Jews like him out there who say they feel an attachment to Israel, but who nonetheless find it irresistible, expedient, or therapeutic to accuse Israel of atrocities while overlooking the violent, civilian-targeting behavior of Israel’s terrorist enemies.  Many Jews are uncomfortable with the power that Israel possesses to defend itself, embarrassed to see it in conflict with poor, oppressed-looking dark-skinned people, preferring instead to see the Jewish people (and Israel as the international, public face of the Jewish people) as pacifists, victims of others’ violent attacks, and committed to turning the other cheek (a Christian notion).  Many Jews find themselves exhausted emotionally and unable to maintain a front of support for Israel, in effect “losing their love for Israel.”  (See also Daniel Gordis’s response to the author of the previous article.)

Many such Jews in the world have lost their feeling of the Jews as a people.  (Daniel Gordis’s piece in Friday’s Jerusalem Post describes this well.)  Such Jews have come to see Judaism as a Western, liberal, democratic tradition.  Such Jews labor under the impression that Judaism is a religion of individuals in a multi-cultural society.  Such Jews have apparently lost the sense of Jews as a community and a nation which is not only permitted, but obligated, to defend itself from enemies who seek to destroy it.  Such Jews are half-blind to their own tradition.

They are right that Judaism values the life of each and every person, regardless of whether that person is Jewish or not.  This is why the IDF in Operation Cast Lead did everything within its power to limit the damage to life and property of non-combatants in Gaza.  They are right that abuses of power are wrong on the part of a military force.  This is why the IDF investigates each individual complaint of abuse on the part of its soldiers, even in combat situations.  They are right to believe that when the IDF or the Jewish State commit errors or abuses, those errors or abuses should be pointed out, investigated, and dealt with.

Where they are wrong, however, is to think that jumping on the bandwagon of Israel-bashing (i.e. calling Israel a “fascist” or “racist” state, or accusing the IDF of “disproportionate force” or “collective punishment”) is an appropriate response.  There may be very smart people doing this—academics in the UK, Swedish journalists and newspapers, European diplomats, not to mention the many smart Arabs who claim to care about the Palestinian Arab “refugees”—but this does not make it right.  Were these intelligent entities to apply the same standard of behavior to Hamas and other terrorists, they would be quoting the Geneva Conventions, criticizing Hamas for using the Gazan population as human shields, dressing combatants in street clothes to make them indistinguishable from civilians, using ambulances to transport weapons and mosques to stash explosives, and firing rockets from the basements of office buildings and hospitals.

By the same token, it would praise Israel for voluntarily ceasing hostilities for hours every day to allow humanitarian supplies into the enemy zone.  It would laud the IDF for dropping countless fliers and sending thousands of text messages to Gaza residents urging them to flee the area before sorties were carried out.  It would acknowledge that Israel’s military did its best to execute surgical strikes, to avoid harming civilians, and to heal the hurts of those hit by building a hospital at the Erez border crossing to provide free medical care to Gaza residents.

But we don’t live in a world where those who decide what’s moral and ethical can see such things.  We live in a world where such people have selective hearing, see what they want to see, and have their minds made up before the facts are ever presented.  I don’t like to raise the nasty issue of anti-Semitism, but if someone can provide me with a different explanation for why Israel is subjected to standards not applied to any other country in any other situation at any other time in history, I’d be glad to hear it.  Goldstone’s report is a juicy steak thrown to slavering hellhounds hungry for fresh meat.  His may not be the only offering, but it’s definitely one the dogs will find hard to resist.

In the meantime, Goldstone urges Israel to conduct an open investigation of its own into its behavior during Operation Cast Lead, claiming that were it to do so, “That would be the end of the matter.”

If only.

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What a tart!

I was once a barmaid in Cambridge, UK.  Sitting around, enjoying our complimentary beverages at the end of a night, the bar staff would occasionally discuss some of the looser-moraled patrons after they’d had cleared out for the night, using the expression that is the title of this post.

But it’s also what I say when I make this embarrassingly easy and utterly delicious Shabbat dessert.  It was originally billed as a recipe for a Czechoslovakian cookie, but since there is no more Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution, and because it works better as a tart, I call it a tart now.  The crust is still a cookie crust, flavorful and crumbly as a fine European pastry, and when made with raspberry preserves, is guaranteed to knock your socks off.

1 C. parve margarine, softened

1 C. sugar

2 egg yolks

1 t. vanilla

2 C. flour

1 C. chopped nuts (I use coarsely ground almonds to great effect)

¾ C. jam

Cream margarine and sugar.  Add yolks and vanilla; cream well.  Blend in flour and nuts.  Press dough into greased 9” tart pan, saving extra aside.  Spread jam over dough.  Shape remaining dough into flat circles (I make mine different sizes) or cut out with cookie cutter, and arrange on top of jam.  Bake at 325° for 1 hour.

Ordinarily, I suggest using butter in a recipe that has so few ingredients, but margarine really works just fine, and then you can enjoy it after a meat meal.  It is delicious with tea, and decadent with vanilla ice cream.  Bon appetit!

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Fall foliage

One of the things I knew I would miss when we made aliyah was the incomparable fall foliage in New England.  Israel in the spring is stunning, but it’s nothing like the sensory blast one gets from the yellow birches, red maples, and green and brown oaks of the northeastern US.

But today, I was heartened to see this gorgeous photo in my email inbox.  It was taken by Yehoshua Halevi and is on his photo blog, “Israel the Beautiful” (to which I subscribe and receive weekly photos of Israel).  He took the photo here in Gush Etzion (of which Efrat is a part).  Check out his other photos of Israel in all her seasons at his blog.


I heard someone once say that Israel is supposed to contain a little of everything that is in the rest of the world, but in miniature.  Mini-Sahara (the Negev), mini-Mt. Everest (the Harmon), mini-Lake Superior (the Kinneret).  And now mini-New England, here in Gush Etzion.  Who knew?

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Who does motzi?

In Newton, Massachusetts, where the Cap’n and I adopted most of our practice and traditions for keeping Judaism modern Orthodox-style, we observed that in about half of the families we knew, the lady of the house said the blessing over the challah on Shabbat (“motzi”).  Kiddush was nearly always said by the male head of household (though in at least one household I observed, the woman said kiddush for one of the meals), and in a few households, the male head also said motzi.

In our house, I have continued to say motzi on Shabbat.  This is not generally the practice among the English-speaking families we know in Israel.  In fact, I may only have seen one other household in the three years we’ve been here where a woman says motzi.  But to us it makes sense.  We both contribute to the running of the household and the creation of the Shabbat meal.  The Cap’n makes kiddush since he does nearly all of the shopping (and grape juice is definitely something we buy rather than make at home).  I make motzi since I do nearly all of the food planning, prep, serving, and clean-up.  (The Cap’n makes the phone call when we invite people for a meal.)  While I rarely make my own challah, it’s symbolic to me of the home-made part of the meal, for which I deserve full credit.

I imagine there must be many reasons for the man to make both kiddush and motzi.  Men get most of the speaking parts in Judaism (remember the wedding ceremony?), and this is another speaking part.  There is a tradition that a person should say 100 brachot a day, and since this is probably more binding on a man than a woman, this gives him an extra bracha to say.  In some households, I suppose the man is considered the founder of the feast, even if his responsibility for it began and ended with earning the money toward it.  (This doesn’t hold up in many families today, but families today look less like they did 100 or more years ago, when these practices get cemented into tradition.)

That’s how we do it, anyway.  If anyone has more accurate information on why men do both in most households, feel free to share it.

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Vegetarianism and veganism

Jews are picky about their food.  And it’s not because we don’t like food, but because the Torah instructs us regarding what foods we can and cannot eat, and with which other foods.  As a by-product, it makes it difficult for Jews who observe dietary laws to socialize with non-Jews, and makes traveling to exotic locales more complicated.

The Crunch girls are even more picky about their food.  As kids, they tend to prefer foods they can easily identify, and avoid foods that are combined.  (The main exception to this is any food with ketchup on it.)  Two out of three will try new foods without a fight, and one will usually like what she tries.  (Baby Bill likes most foods, God love him.)  Lately, in an effort to decrease the power struggle that often ensues between parents and children in our house over food, I’ve been making less meat of a Shabbat.  We’ve had at least one dairy meal for Shabbat for the past few months, and sometimes two.  The girls ask where the chicken is when we host for lunch and I’ve made dairy or parve, but I don’t get the feeling they miss it much.  It also allows us greater creativity where dessert is concerned.  Butter, with its superior taste and lack of trans-fats can replace margarine, and milk and cream can replace soy milk or Rich’s whip.  In many respects, Shabbat is made more special by the absence of meat.

But still, for me, total commitment to vegetarianism is a stretch.  I know slaughter isn’t pretty, even when it’s done in a kosher manner.  I know the animal has, in most cases, not led a free-range existence, feeding upon grass or seed, running through a barnyard, bedding down in a deep pile of straw in its own stall at night.  I am aware that stock have antibiotics and hormones coursing through their veins (and, by extension, muscles), and fish—both fresh and salt water—live in waters polluted by heavy metals.  I blogged once about MOOSHY, the practice of confining meat consumption to Shabbat and holidays.  For the most part, my family stands by that.  The occasional bowl of chicken soup, the spicy chicken kebabs at our kids’ favorite restaurant, the burger every month or two are satisfying in a way I haven’t yet found with dairy or parve foods.  These meat dishes are sometimes fattening, but no more so than the rich dairy dishes made with starches, cheese or cream.

I’ve been thinking about this again since friends of ours recently became vegans.  (“Gee, I thought they were still Church of England…”)  It seems they read a book that convinced them that animal products were unnecessary for good health, and that plant foods provide all a human needs for a healthy diet and balanced nutrition.  I’ve little doubt this is true, especially in a time when consumption of animal foods is complicated by ethical issues (for stock and workers), pollution, overmedication, and consumer health issues.  And the sanctimoniousness of certain ethical vegetarians (who by definition still consume dairy and eggs) doesn’t hold up to scrutiny when the poor conditions in which the cows and chickens live are exposed.

Vegetables and fruits, of course, have their own problems with pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides used to excess by large-scale farming operations.  Many is the time I’ve brought home healthy-looking vegetables (especially sweet peppers, for some reason) and had to throw them out after one bite when all we could taste was chemicals—not even the pepper itself.

I’m no closer to locking in on a firm diet than I was before I began to think and wonder about all these issues.  Carnivores say that the protein in meat and fish is more bio-available than plant proteins; vegetarians say it’s not.  Carnivores say it’s healthier for children to eat meat while they’re young; vegetarians say it’s not.  Lately, the Cap’n and I have been discussing the discrepancies between what medical science tells us and what messages are put out by the public health industry.  In the end, I’m never sure what to think.

So for now, I think the Crunch table will still see the occasional meat meal.  And because some of the produce we’ve been getting in the stores and at the shuk is so riddled with chemicals, we’ll be looking into organic produce, which seems more popular and readily available in Israel than ever before.

I welcome others’ thoughts on this issue.  I’m already so confused, let’s just make my head spin, shall we?

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Amidst all my heavy-weight non-fiction of the last few months, a friend shoved a copy of E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News into my hands.  Its sparse prose, Newfoundland dialect, and total immersion into rural Canadian fishing culture was a welcome escape from religious extremism, assimilation, and worldwide (and soon to be universe-wide) hatred of Israel.

Proulx is fond of short sentences—fragments even.  She uses this prose style to great effect reflecting the thought-speech of Quoyle, her protagonist in this book, a doughy, unlovable, simple-minded man in his 30s with few talents but a heart of gold.  (As he learns the journalism trade, he eventually begins to invent headlines in his own head to describe the events of his life, such as “Man Sounds Like Fatuous Fool” and “Girl Fears White Dog, Relatives Marvelously Upset.”)  His choice to leave a ruined life in New York State and move to his family’s place of origin in Newfoundland enables him to begin again—professionally, socially, paternally, and ultimately, romantically.  He and his aunt, who makes the move with him, are not the most appealing characters in the novel.  Neither are his two young daughters, who are confused and scarred from their own chaotic former life and behave like unkempt savages most of the time.  The characters who won my admiration in the novel were the native Newfoundlanders with their tough work ethic, love of the sea, and wry, self-deprecating humor.  The protagonist’s social life revolves around the four other men who put out the local newspaper, a collection of gossip, car wrecks, sexual abuse, recipes, foreign news lifted from the radio, and—Quoyle’s feature and the title of the novel—shipping news.   The news staff is a cast of sharply-cut characters whose conversations and arguments provide Quoyle (and the reader) with the historical background of the town, the demise of the Newfoundland fishing industry, the many disasters that came with confederation with Canada, and current events in the lives of the townspeople.  Quoyle and the reader both come to love the dialect, salty humor, and rugged will to survive that marks the people of this small corner of North America.

The one thing I didn’t like was that it took nearly 150 pages for me to decide I liked the book.  The sordid details of the life Quoyle left were difficult to get through, and it was a rough transition in Quoyle’s battered station wagon from his disastrous marriage in New York State to Newfoundland and his wind-battered ancestral home where the family stays temporarily, to where he and his daughters ultimately decide to make their home in the town.  Quoyle and his aunt were not characters I could warm to easily, and while that may have been part of Proulx’s point—that sometimes we don’t come to care about people right away, but over time feel at least a grudging sympathy for them—it made me think seriously of putting the book down and finding something more pleasant to read in the early chapters.

I ended up loving the prose, though, and between the wonderful characters and Proulx’s gift for description, I have half a mind to make a trip myself to Newfoundland.  Here is Quoyle, contemplating the sea on p. 209:

These waters, thought Quoyle, haunted by lost ships, fishermen, explorer gurgled down into sea holes as black as a dog’s throat.  Bawling into salt broth.  Vikings down the cracking winds, steering through fog by the polarized light of sun-stones.  The Inuit in skin boats, breathing, breathing, rhythmic suck of frigid air, iced paddles dipping, spray freezing, sleep back rising, jostle, the boat torn, spiraling down.  Millennial bergs from the glaciers, morbid, silent except for waves breaking on their flanks, the deceiving sound of shoreline where there was no shore.  Foghorns, smothered gun reports along the coast.  Ice welding land to sea.  Frost smoke.  Clouds mottled by reflections of water holes in the plains of ice.  The glare of ice erasing dimension, distance, subjecting senses to mirage and illusion.  A rare place.

Okay, so the place sounds like an icy hell.  But a “rare place” indeed.

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A human Ponzi scheme

The Israeli government seems determined to free terrorists from prison.  Sometimes it’s to boost Abbas’s sagging image among his own people.  Sometimes it’s as a “confidence-building” measure to coax the Palestinian Arabs to the negotiating table.  And sometimes, as of late, it’s to negotiate the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

First, 20 Palestinian Arab women were released to secure a video of Shalit to prove he’s alive.  (At least the government made sure he was alive first, unlike last time when hundreds of Arab murderers were released in exchange for Uri Regev’s and Ehud Goldwasser’s corpses.)  These women were not arrested doing their family’s shopping, or while hanging laundry on the line.  They were suicide bombers whose attempts were foiled, were caught smuggling suicide belts, and assisted in the murder or attempted murder of innocent people.

That was just for the video.  Next there’s talk of emptying the prisons of another 1000 Hamas terrorists (most of Israel’s Hamas holdings) in exchange for Shalit himself.

I’ve written in the past about the Torah’s attitude toward redeeming captive Jews.   But if you look at the big picture, i.e. the long term result of “prisoner exchanges” like this, it begins to look like something quite different.  Because today’s prisoners are yesterday’s terrorists (or terrorist-wannabes), and tomorrow’s unrepentant ex-cons who will return to a life of terror.  When they’re put in prison, it isn’t to get them to repent their actions (the origin of the word “penitentiary”); it’s to get them off the streets where they make their murderous mischief.  Setting them free mocks everything that put them into prison in the first place: the laws against murder and terrorism, the risk to the lives of the police, army, and Shin Bet who captured them, and the certain danger to civilians in releasing them again.

I’m no economist, but I was recently made aware of a financial scheme in which people invest large amounts of money on the promise of fat returns.  There really are no such investments, and new investors simply end up paying the dividends for the older investors.  Eventually, this robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul scheme (also known as “Ponzi”) catches up with the operator with disastrous results.  Lives are ruined, fortunes down the tubes, and people everywhere feel as though their expectations and dreams have been shattered.

How different is a Ponzi scheme from what the Israeli government has been doing?  The government is responsible for guaranteeing us security.  So it arrests criminals who have been found to have threatened that security.  Then, to provide even MORE security, i.e. through the illusion of peace or a ceasefire or talks or in response to American pressure or for a video, the government agrees to release those prisoners.  The civilians who were killed by the terrorists just released are gone; they’re not coming back.  But with the lives of unknown Israelis who will die in future attacks plotted and executed by those just released, we’ll pay for even MORE security.  And then the whole process will be repeated.  According to Wikipedia’s definition of a Ponzi scheme, “The perpetuation of the returns that a Ponzi scheme advertises and pays requires an ever-increasing flow of money from investors in order to keep the scheme going.”  In other words, it’s the same security we keep getting promised, but gets paid for by an “every-increasing flow of” … blood.

The main difference I see is in the currency (dollars v. human lives).  For those who were shafted by Bernie Madoff, at least you still have your life and your family.  I’m not sure we’ll be able to say the same to the grieving families once these Hamas prisoners are released and return to the waiting arms of their terrorist comrades.

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Leaving home and the ushpizin

This year in our sukkah, the Crunch family had a discussion each night at dinner about who the ushpiz (Biblical guest) for that day.  The first night, we talked about Avraham, his order from Hashem to leave his family and journey to a new land, perhaps never to see his family again.  He obeyed this command, and took his wife, servants, and livestock and set out.

Because Yom Kippur and the story of Yonah the prophet was so recently in her head, 4-year-old Banana pointed out that Yonah was also commanded by God to make a journey, but unlike Avraham he resisted, ran away, and it took living in the belly of a giant fish for a few days to straighten him out.

The next night we began by discussing Yitzhak, Avraham’s son, but found the conversation turned toward Rivka instead.  In some sense, she found herself in a similar situation to that of Avraham and Yonah, where she was presented with the option to go to a new place to live.  But unlike Avraham, she would be leaving her immediate family and everything familiar to her behind, and unlike Yonah, would probably never be able to return home again.  Yet at a tender age (and the Cap’n had no interest in discussing the outlier opinion that she was only three when Eliezer’s proposal was made to her; putting her age at 12 or 13 is quite young enough) she had the middot (good character qualities) to merit Eliezer’s offer, and the guts, foresight, and perhaps the prophesy too to accept them and make her journey.  In the end, Rivka struck us as the gutsiest of the three.

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The davening on Yom Kippur is so intense and so lengthy that is has been my habit when going to services to take with me a book or two of interesting and challenging Jewish content for those times when I need a break.  About ten years ago, the book I took with me was Daniel Gordis’s 1997 Does the World Need the Jews?: Rethinking Chosenness and American Jewish Identity.

I was captivated by his introduction which retells the story of “The Little Mermaid,” both the original version by Hans Christian Andersen, and Disney’s They-All-Lived-Happily-Ever-After version.  His point was how Jews have encountered American society and found themselves faced with the choice between maintaining a separate identity as Jews, or foregoing their distinctive Jewish identity in favor of becoming Americans.  I love stories and his introduction, with its use of Andersen’s fairy tale, did a beautiful job of elucidating the complexity of confronting the “melting pot” attitude in American society, as well as the challenges of maintaining one’s identity in an inclusive society.  By contrasting the two versions of the mermaid’s tale, Gordis effectively illustrates the fantasy of abandoning one’s Judaism to join a world that is more attractive, but to which we do not entirely belong, and the pain and foreignness of abandoning what we truly are as Jews.

For a host of reasons, that was where I stopped ten years ago.  But after reading Gordis’s most recent book, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End (which I will review later) in which he seeks to answer the question, “Why be Israeli?”, I was interested to go back and finish the earlier book.

Does the World Need the Jews? tackles a similarly complicated question, i.e. “Why be Jewish in America?”  There’s been plenty of ink spilled over the issue of Jewish continuity and fears about intermarriage, assimilation, and simple drifting away of young Jews from the faith of their fathers.  Rabbi Gordis meets this issue head-on and explores the many sources of discomfort of American Jews, the attempts made by rabbis in the 19th and 20th century to adapt American Judaism in order to slow the drift, and the deep relevance, wisdom, and value of Jewish ways of thinking, learning, and debating that make it worth holding on to.

Gordis, who writes “Dispatches from an Anxious State”, is the author of many books, founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and currently Senior Vice President of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.  He writes compassionately about Jews in America and Israel, and from his experience living in both countries, understands their unique challenges and strengths.  This is of particular value to me, since living in Israel I sometimes feel as though I’ve lost a sense of American Judaism and its worth.  This book outlined for me some of the potential for good in Diaspora life.

Gordis’s central argument is that Jews have a unique mission in the world—a mission to share their wisdom, their belief in the worth and dignity of all people, and their love of freedom.  He points out, however, that over the years, American Jews have become confused between Jewish values and secular, liberal, American values.  Because the struggle to become real Americans often conflicted with the education of young Jews, the desire to be American often won the day at the expense of Jewish education.  Without spending the time learning what is Jewish, Jews only learned what was American.  This is what has created the sense in many American Jews that Judaism is liberalism.  Gordis writes, “In this scheme, Jews internalized the commitment to individualism and autonomy that often characterized liberalism in America.  The more Jews equated Judaism with liberalism, the less law in their religion made sense.  If American life is about freedom and autonomy, Jews wondered, why should they care about a constraining religious tradition that erodes their autonomy?  …And Jews are discovering that without law at its core, Judaism will not be very different from Christianity” (p. 144).

The confusion between Judaism and liberalism takes many forms.  Gordis describes the toll political correctness and multiculturalism have taken on Judaism’s unique voice.  He validates the discomfort many liberal-minded Jews feel as a result of hostility from those in the Black, feminist, and academic world (where the role of Jews in the slave trade is sometimes wildly exaggerated, Jewish law is rejected categorically because of its sexism, and Jewish institutions host speakers who deny the Shoah).  In one of my favorite discussions, he criticizes the phrase “Judeo-Christian ethic,” which he says really “‘just means Christian.’  It pays lip service to Christianity’s Jewish roots, but little more.  After all, what is ‘Judeo’ about the Judeo-Christian ethic that is not also Christian?  What, in other words, is distinctively Jewish about that tradition?  Why is it not simply a ‘Christian ethic’?”  In the fullness of his discussion, he points out that Christian texts (i.e. those texts foreign to Judaism) are viewed as part of this ethic, but Jewish texts foreign to Christianity are not.  He writes, “The bottom line: in America, ‘Judeo-Christian’ is a polite way of saying ‘Christian,’ and American Jews so desperately wanted to be included that we never noticed” (p. 176).

Perhaps the most dramatic example he gives of Jews abandoning their own particularism in the search for acceptance and universalism is the inscription on the wall of the $65 million Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, which not only leaves out any indication of its Jewish nature in the name of the building, but also offers a very stripped-down translation of a displayed Torah passage.  The translation of Genesis 12:1-3 offered is, “Go forth … and be a blessing to the world.”  What the Torah passage says in its entirety is something quite different:

The Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”

A rabbi at the Skirball Center said the intention behind the ellipsis was to appeal to unaffiliated Jews, to give them the impression that the people at the Center were not “dogmatic” (pp. 50-51).  It is presumably this same desire to appeal to non-dogmatic Jews that informs the Reform decision to cut out part of the Havdalah service in which we bless God who has separated the light from darkness, the Jews from the other nations, and the Sabbath from the six days of Creation.

The book has many strengths.  Gordis carefully avoids pointing fingers at, or even mentioning, specific Jewish movements.  I believe he is right to do this, since the movement with which one affiliates is not necessarily an indicator of one’s practice of Judaism.  He believes that the answer to the fears about Jewish loss of purpose are applicable to Jews of all ages and movement affiliations: study of Hebrew and Jewish texts and incorporation of traditional practice in the home.  He sets out to make Jews feel comfortable again with the notion of chosenness, examining texts, holidays, and liturgy to extract a Jewish message for Jews left ignorant by their upbringing.  He distinguishes Judaism from American liberalism, revisiting Jewish sources to emphasize Judaism’s stress on the community rather than the individual.  And he urges Jews to rededicate themselves to Jewish education, both for children and adults who were abandoned educationally after becoming bnei mitzvah.  “Our leaders,” he writes, “feared that by placing too many demands on Jews, it would force us to flee.  They imagined that in an era in which Jews could easily decide not to remain Jewish, the logical step was to raise as few ‘obstacles’ to Jewish identification as possible.  …If we are to be honest, American Jews will need to acknowledge that Jewish tradition speaks if and only if it is lived; there is no way to appreciate it from the sidelines” (p. 244).  Gordis’s book is a clarion call for American Jews to educate themselves and take up their mission.

I find his message inspiring, and see potential for it to revitalize young Jews in America, especially those who are still trying to define themselves and develop their Jewish identity.  I think perhaps he is overly optimistic in his encouragement of Jews to participate as Jews in public, political debates including those over abortion, capital punishment, teacher tenure, flag-burning, and family size.  Americans who populate the extremes in those debates are usually secular and focused entirely on individual rights, or fundamentalist Christian Americans for whom those are black-and-white issues determined by a literal reading of the Bible.  I can’t imagine either set of combatants being interested in Jews getting involved, especially if that would involve introducing ambiguity, multiple opinions, and uncertainty about the truth into the fray.  In short, I think even if Jews were to raise their unique voice over these issues, there would be few interested in listening.

In addition, at the beginning of his book, Gordis stresses that his message in this book is for all Jews, including those uncomfortable with God, who are not interested in embracing traditional practice.  Yet in the rest of the book he calls for all Jews to return to traditional (not necessarily Orthodox) practice.  While I know that for Conservative Jews (of which Gordis is one, at least through rabbinic ordination), Judaism is seen as a culture rather than merely a religion, I still saw this as a contradiction, and one which might not appeal to people for whom practice has no meaning without some belief in God or sense of religious obligation.

Despite my critiques, reading Gordis’s books gave me a new perspective on Diaspora life and its potential for contributing to American society—if American Jews heed his call.

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Obama, Prince of Peace

On Friday, the Cap’n came into the kitchen where I was preparing my last festive meals for the 5770 holiday season and said, “They’ve announced the winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.”  Then he fell silent.

Nu?” I asked, taking my French apple pie out of the oven.  “Who’d they give it to?”

“The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner is Barack Obama.”


My response here was the same as when he called me from his office on the morning of September 11, 2001 and told me that a plane had flown into one of the buildings at the World Trade Center.

And quite honestly, I’m still scratching my head over this.

Let me think this through, now.  I have been under the impression for much of my adult life that Nobel Prizes are awarded for achievement.  Economists and scientists get them for discoveries they’ve already made and theories on which they’ve expounded at length.  Authors get them for bodies of work—sometimes decades’ worth of writing—that has stood the test of time and made a significant cultural contribution to the world.  And in most cases, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to a person or persons viewed as having accomplished great things in the service of world peace.

But something has obviously shifted in the world.  This year’s Nobel laureate for peace has been in office for nine months, and made one significant speech of international interest in that time.  The Israelis and Palestinians are no nearer to hammering out an agreement.  Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s reputation (and that of Fatah, his political and sometimes-terrorist party) has nosedived since he was pressured by Obama to attend a summit in New York with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, delighting their openly-terrorist enemies in Hamas and making Palestinian Arab unity even further from being achieved.  The Arab world has no more interest in recognizing the Jewish State than they had before the famous Cairo University speech.  And the questionably-elected Iranian Islamic Republic is full-steam ahead on its nuclear program while Obama continues to entertain the illusion that at this stage in Ahmedinejad’s nuclear enrichment program, diplomacy still has a role to play.  (This brief assessment does not, of course, explore the status quo in North Korea, China, the Sudan, Liberia, or any other hot spot on the conflict-ridden political world map.)

I don’t dislike Obama as a person, and I still think he may do good things for America domestically speaking.  But I think it’s significant that rather than award the prize to someone who has been getting his or her hands dirty saving people in developing countries from starvation, disease, and political collapse, it was given to an inexperienced former senator from Illinois whose only significant international accomplishment was to make a speech minimizing the Jewish right to live in Israel and making nice to the Arab world.

I’m not saying that the next person to earn a Nobel for peace has to have overseen the signing of a final status agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinian Arabs.  The Great Handshake on the White House lawn between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin (who shared their prize with the current President of Israel, Shimon Peres) was something people thought impossible.  Although their clandestine agreement, the Oslo Accords, was doomed to failure (and in fact brought years of war with over 1000 Israeli civilian casualties), the photo-op of what everyone thought was little more than a fantasy wasn’t insignificant.

In other words, the Handshake was tangible.  It was the product of painful concessions, eating of words, and temporary shelving of aspirations in the name of peace.  It represented a concrete commitment (at least on the part of Rabin and Peres; Arafat was just playing along for the international attention) and was a visible meeting of enemy, disparate minds.  It was something.

So what does it mean that this year’s Peace Prize winner is Barack Obama?  Is it because there were no other promising candidates?  The Cap’n said there was a short list with some very worthy people and activities on it.  Is it a gesture by the Committee to put pressure on the Leader of the Free World not to get involved in a military conflict in Iran?  I don’t think there’s any need for that; Obama has made clear his intentions to recall American servicepeople from Afghanistan and Iraq in the near future, and that he has no interest in getting Americans involved in any further military activities.  (Editor David Horovitz wrote in last Friday’s Jerusalem Post that if Obama’s plan for diplomacy and economic sanctions against Iran fails, his approach will most likely be “assuring the American people that the US security establishment will protect them from a nuclear Iran, but that he was not prepared to authorize the use of military force to prevent a nuclear Iran.  And it is certainly possible to envisage much of the American public applauding him for such a stance.”)  Is it an advance bonus for someone the Committee thinks might actually be able to make peace in the world, but needs the pressure of the award to make him follow through?  Perhaps that’s the most likely theory of all.

I don’t believe for a minute that Obama’s Cairo Speech merited this prize.  Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute didn’t get her chemistry prize this year for making a speech about chemistry; she was awarded it after decades of brilliant thinking and hard work.

The hard work for President Obama has hardly begun.  Let’s hope he does it by actually bringing about peace.

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I knit, and I like jokes.  Here’s a good one from E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News which I finished recently:

“I can tell you about the time buddy was ripping along down the Trans-Canada knitting about as fast as the truck was going when this Mountie spies him.  Starts to chase after him, doing a hundred and forty km per.  Finally gets alongside, signs the transport feller to stop, but he’s so deep in his knitting he never notices. … Mountie flashes his light, finally has to shout out the window, ‘Pull over!  Pull over!’  So the great transport knitter looks at the Mountie, shakes his head a bit and says, ‘Why no sir, ’tis a cardigan.'”

Okay, corny joke, but I love it anyway.  The image of truck drivers roaring down the roads of Canada while knitting is burned on my brain.  Men knitting–just like the old days.  Yes, my friend Heather tells me shepherds used to knit while their sheep grazed and did whatever it is sheep do all day.  (If they’re anything like my kids, they would be crowding around, peering at my knitting, asking, “Is that MY wool you’re knitting with?”)

Proulx did plenty of research (and possibly fell in love with Newfoundland as her bio says she splits her time between there and Vermont) while writing the novel.  I don’t know how much of it is true, how much local legend, and how much just Newfie humor, but the same character claims, “This driver used to barrel right across Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, had his arms sticking through the steering wheel, knitting away like a machine.  Had a proper gansey knit by the time he got to Montreal, sell it for good money as a Newf fisherman’s authentic handicraft.”

Who ever said men can’t multitask?

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TV dogs

The Cap’n is allergic to dogs.  They make him sneeze and they make him wheeze.  He’s not particularly fond of their dumb, affectionate ways.  And he finds dog ownership, with its need for constant cleaning up (you know what kind I mean) inexplicably masochistic.

So perhaps you can understand my confusion.   The Cap’n and I were watching the 1995 movie, “The Mask” with Jim Carrey last night.  Stanley’s Jack Russell terrier, Milo, is possibly the only dog I would ever nominate for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.  And the Cap’n loves him too.  Throughout the movie, he was cooing and fawning over the animal.  About two-thirds of the way through the movie, I couldn’t help myself.  I turned to my spouse and said, “Wait a minute.  You don’t like dogs.  At all.  They make you wheeze, you hate their smell, and you had to chase a filthy mutt out of our garden today after it pooped, for heaven’s sake!  What gives?”

Without ungluing his eyes from the tube, the Cap’n gave me a half-smile and replied, “Dogs on TV don’t poop in your yard.”

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Neighborhood noise

Our neighborhood is not a quiet one.  In addition to the Muslims blasting their prayers from nearby villages at all hours (including 4 AM), we have midnight territorial disputes between cats; several neighbors who play the drums (including one whose drum kit is in his room which faces my daughters’ room across the street); a family with no cellphone reception in their house who sit out on their front steps and carry on loud Hebrew conversations at all hours, as well as have grown children who come and go in cars day and night, talking and laughing loudly outside at 3 AM; and another neighbor who has parakeets who screech all hours of the day, and who himself gets up before 6 AM and sometimes spends 15 minutes starting his van that needs a new muffler, power steering, and probably a dozen other things.  We used to have the avian Mormon Tabernacle Choir in the ivy outside our house at first light and sunset, but I tore that down a few weeks ago.  At least it’s quiet here during those brief periods.

But Sukkot is coming, and that will mean neighborhood noise of another kind altogether.  This new noise will be the sound of families sharing meals in their sukkahs, sometimes mere feet from one another.  It will be the sound of kiddush (with bypassing neighbors calling “Amen!” at its conclusion), singing, bentshing, and conversation.  It will be the clatter of plates, the clinking of glasses and forks.  It will be the rustle of the wind as it stirs the walls, and the whisper of palm fronds overhead.  It will be the sound of people bedding down at night in their sleeping sukkahs, including my reading Little House in the Big Woods to Beans, Peach and Banana by flashlight in their sleeping bags on the balcony, modern-day settlers reading about settlers of long-ago.  It will be the sound of no cars (except the Arab traffic on the Tekoa road and Route 60), no school bells, no garbage trucks, no buses.  Just people and the breeze.


Chag sameach.

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