Posts Tagged ‘holiday’

While technology (warming trays, thermostats, timers, X10, Shabbat settings on refrigerators and ovens) have largely made the Shabbos goy an anachronism, it was once a necessity.  Illustrious personages such as Martin Scorcese, Mario Cuomo, Colin Powell, and a teenaged Elvis Presley once assisted Shabbat-observant neighbors in the US.  My paternal grandmother (whose parents in America were no longer Shabbat-observant) reported back from a 1930 visit to family in Poland that the Polish Catholic Shabbos goy still faithfully executed her duties every Saturday morning.  The following account by Joe Velarde, posted on Batya’s old blog, is a lovely tribute to the friendship that once existed in Brooklyn between Jewish and Christian neighbors.  Enjoy.

Snow came early in the winter of 1933 when our extended Cuban family moved into the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.  I was ten years old.  We were the first Spanish speakers to arrive, yet we fit more or less easily into that crowded, multicultural neighborhood.  Soon we began learning a little Italian, a few Greek and Polish words, lots of Yiddish and some heavily accented English.

I first heard the expression Shabbes is falling when Mr. Rosenthal refused to open the door of his dry goods store on Bedford Avenue.  My mother had sent me with a dime to buy a pair of black socks for my father.  In those days, men wore mostly black and navy blue.  Brown and gray were somehow special and cost more.  Mr. Rosenthal stood inside the locked door, arms folded, glaring at me through the thick glass while a heavy snow and darkness began to fall on a Friday evening.  “We’re closed, already”, Mr. Rosenthal had said, shaking his head, “can’t you see that Shabbes is falling?  Don’t be a nudnik!  Go home.”  I could feel the cold wetness covering my head and thought that Shabbes was the Jewish word for snow.

My misperception of Shabbes didn’t last long, however, as the area’s dominant culture soon became apparent; Gentiles were the minority.  From then on, as Shabbes fell with its immutable regularity and Jewish lore took over the life of the neighborhood, I came to realize that so many human activities, ordinarily mundane at any other time, ceased, and a palpable silence, a pleasant tranquillity, fell over all of us.  It was then that a family with an urgent need would dispatch a youngster to “get the Spanish boy, and hurry.”

That was me.  In time, I stopped being nameless and became Yussel, sometimes Yuss or Yusseleh.  And so began my life as a Shabbes Goy, voluntarily doing chores for my neighbors on Friday nights and Saturdays: lighting stoves, running errands, getting a prescription for an old tante, stoking coal furnaces, putting lights on or out, clearing snow and ice from slippery sidewalks and stoops.  Doing just about anything that was forbidden to the devout by their religious code.

Friday afternoons were special.  I’d walk home from school assailed by the rich aroma emanating from Jewish kitchens preparing that evening’s special menu.  By now, I had developed a list of steady “clients,” Jewish families who depended on me.  Furnaces, in particular, demanded frequent tending during Brooklyn’s many freezing winters.  I shudder remembering brutally cold winds blowing off the East River.  Anticipation ran high as I thought of the warm home-baked treats I’d bring home that night after my Shabbes rounds were over.  Thanks to me, my entire family had become Jewish pastry junkies. Moi?  I’m still addicted to checkerboard cake, halvah and Egg Creams (made only with Fox’s Ubet chocolate syrup).

I remember as if it were yesterday how I discovered that Jews were the smartest people in the world.  You see, in our Cuban household we all loved the ends of bread loaves and, to keep peace, my father always decided who would get them.  One harsh winter night I was rewarded for my Shabbes ministrations with a loaf of warm challah (we pronounced it “holly”) and I knew I was witnessing genius!  Who else could have invented a bread that had wonderfully crusted ends all over it — enough for everyone in a large family?

There was an “International” aspect to my teen years in Williamsburg.  The Sternberg family had two sons who had fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain.  Whenever we kids could get their attention, they’d spellbind us with tales of hazardous adventures in the Spanish Civil War.  These twenty-something war veterans also introduced us to a novel way of thinking, one that embraced such humane ideas as ‘From each according to his means and to each according to his needs’.  In retrospect, this innocent exposure to a different philosophy was the starting point of a journey that would also incorporate the concept of Tzedakah in my personal guide to the

In what historians would later call The Great Depression, a nickel was a lot of mazuma and its economic power could buy a brand new Spaldeen, our local name for the pink-colored rubber ball then produced by the Spalding Company.  The famous Spaldeen was central to our endless street games: stickball and punchball or the simpler stoopball.  One balmy summer evenings our youthful fantasies converted South Tenth Street into Ebbets Field with the Dodgers’ Dolph Camilli swinging a broom handle at a viciously curving Spaldeen thrown by the Giants’ great lefty, Carl Hubbell.  We really thought it curved, I swear.

Our neighbors, magically transformed into spectators kibitzing from their brownstone stoops and windows, were treated to a unique version of major league baseball.  My tenure as the resident Shabbes Goy came to an abrupt end after Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, 1941.  I withdrew from Brooklyn College the following day and joined the U.S. Army.  In June of 1944, the Army Air Corps shipped me home after flying sixty combat missions over Italy and the Balkans.  I was overwhelmed to find that several of my Jewish friends and neighbors had set a place for me at their supper tables every Shabbes throughout my absence, including me in their prayers.  What mitzvoth!  My homecoming was highlighted by wonderful invitations to dinner.  Can you imagine the effect after twenty-two months of Army field rations?

As my post-World War II life developed, the nature of the association I’d had with Jewish families during my formative years became clearer.  I had learned the meaning of friendship, of loyalty, and of honor and respect.  I discovered obedience without subservience.  And caring about all living things had become as natural as breathing.  The worth of a strong work ethic and of purposeful dedication was manifest.  Love of learning blossomed and I began to set higher standards for my developing skills, and loftier goals for future activities and dreams.  Mind, none of this was the result of any sort of formal instruction; my yeshiva had been the neighborhood.  I learned these things, absorbed them actually says it better, by association and role modeling, by pursuing curious inquiry, and by what educators called “incidental learning” in the crucible that was pre-World War II Williamsburg.  It seems many of life’s most elemental lessons are learned this way.

While my parents’ Cuban home sheltered me with warm, intimate affection and provided for my well-being and self esteem, the group of Jewish families I came to know and help in the Williamsburg of the 1930s was a surrogate tribe that abetted my teenage rite of passage to adulthood.  One might even say we had experienced a special kind of Bar Mitzvah.  I couldn’t explain then the concept of tikkun olam, but I realized as I matured how well I had been oriented by the Jewish experience to live it and to apply it.  What a truly uplifting outlook on life it is to be genuinely motivated “to repair the world.”

In these twilight years when my good wife is occasionally told, “Your husband is a funny man,” I’m aware that my humor has its roots in the shticks of Second Avenue Yiddish Theater, entertainers at Catskill summer resorts, and their many imitators.  And, when I argue issues of human or civil rights and am cautioned about showing too much zeal, I recall how chutzpah first flourished on Williamsburg sidewalks, competing for filberts (hazelnuts) with tough kids wearing payess and yarmulkes.  Along the way I played chess and one-wall handball, learned to fence, listened to Rimsky-Korsakov, ate roasted chestnuts, read Maimonides and studied Saul Alinsky.

I am ever grateful for having had the opportunity to be a Shabbes Goy.


Read Full Post »

Jerusalem Day

Though officially, Jerusalem Day ended hours ago, I’ve been thinking of it all through the daylight hours today.

In Hebrew, it’s called Yom Shichrur Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Liberation Day (rather than Reunification Day, which many people use).  I like the word “liberation” and its meaning.  Yes, Jerusalem was reunified as a result of the Six-Day War, but Jerusalem (and the rest of Judea and Samaria) were actually liberated, meaning that free access to holy sites was restored (at least until the self-delusion of Oslo), free passage was made possible between Israel and these places and with it, increased opportunity for development and improvement of quality of life.

Of course, many of us believe that this liberation didn’t go far enough; these lands weren’t annexed, and in the corrupt, incompetent hands of what would one day style itself the Palestinian Authority, freedom has been severely limited.  (The Jewish areas, under the control of a politically liberal Defense Ministry, have also been choked off, especially of late, from realizing their potential due in part to a dogged insistence that these lands must remain in escrow for a twenty-third Arab state.)  The Arabs here are not much freer under their current government than they were under the neglectful thumb of Jordan.  Had Israel chosen to annex these lands and enfranchised part or all of their inhabitants, history might have been quite different, both for Jews and Arabs.

But even this partial liberation has made its indelible mark on the Jewish psyche.  We are no longer living in a Jerusalem that is not really Jerusalem.  Our Jerusalem, that we built and rebuilt and rebuilt again is in our hands.  We are free to live in any part of it, including those parts which were once Jewish, but over time were overrun by Arabs.  We are free to excavate and explore our history there, uncovering archeological evidence which confirms our presence and sovereignty there dating back 3000 years.  We are free to visit its historical and holy sites, to restore them and provide access to them for tourists, pilgrims of all faiths, and residents alike.

Madmen talk of redividing the city, of awarding half of it (including the Old City, which never saw an Arab before the seventh century) to terrorist organizations committed to Israel’s destruction, in which to build the capital of their new Islamist state.  Such madmen, though, underestimate the bond between the Jewish people and the city of Jerusalem.  They haven’t prayed for 2000 years for a return to Jerusalem.  They haven’t asked God every day to bless this city, or prayed for its rebuilding.  They don’t see it mentioned over 600 times in their holy books.  In short, because it isn’t theirs, they can talk of dividing it, Solomon-style, between the two peoples who claim it.  The difference, of course, between the Solomon story and contemporary Jerusalem is that the baby was in Solomon’s hands when he suggested cutting it in half.  With Jerusalem, it’s in our hands.  We are the rightful heirs to it, and we’re not about to let it go.

As God’s hand was clearly behind our liberation of Jerusalem and the rest of Israel (as beautifully documented in Jameel’s post for today), so may it continue to be as others try to take it from us.

Read Full Post »

I received the following message about Lag B’Omer via email from my rav in the US, Rabbi Benjamin Samuels:

This Sunday marks the 33rd day of the Omer, Lag Ba’Omer, the day on which the plague that took the lives of Rabbi Akiva’s students subsided so many years ago.  Lag Ba’Omer is treated as a semi-holiday, and according to Ashkenzic practice, the mourning practices of the Omer are suspended, and according to Ramo, are fully ended.  Haircuts and marriages may take place from here on out. 

Since Lag Ba’omer fall on Sunday this year, many authorities permit haircuts on the preceding Friday, i.e. tomorrow, in honor of the Shabbat.

 This Lag Ba’Omer find a way to celebrate with family and friends.

Traditional practices include bonfires; singing and dancing; studying the Zohar, as it is its inspirational author, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s yahrzeit; pilgrimages to Rabbi Shimon’s burial place atop Mt. Meiron near Tsfat in Israel; first haircuts of three year old boys; roasting whole lambs; and my own childhood favorite, kickball at the park.

Most importantly, we celebrate Lag Ba’Omer as an affirmation that the health and healing of our people relies on our unity and shared destiny and that we can only approach and stand at Sinai to receive the Torah, כאיש אחד בלב אחד – as a single body with a common heart.

Wishing all a good Shabbos and a happy Lag Ba’Omer.

Since making aliyah, we’ve learned the ropes about Lag B’Omer in the Zionist Paradise.  Here are the rules:

1) Start collecting wood well in advance.  Don’t let your kids dismantle park benches (I’ve seen it done), but scrounge around the edge of town to get fallen branches, or save up prunings and yard waste from the year.  (And when foraging, watch out for snakes; they wake up in the spring.)

2) Close all windows prior to sundown.  And keep them closed.

3) Learn the safety rules of bonfires.  The week preceding Lag B’Omer is National Fire Safety Week in Israel, and fire stations all over the country host school groups (I accompanied Banana’s two-year-old gan to the one in Beit Shemesh) and teach the kids how a proper bonfire should be constructed, lit, and extinguished.

4) Find a good spot away from buildings with minimal vegetation near it.

5) Stock up on campfire foods (hot dogs, baked potatoes wrapped in foil, and marshmallows)

6) Bring instruments (guitar, accordion, your voice)

7) Nap the afternoon before.  Especially the kids.  (This should be easy, since this year Shabbat precedes Lag B’Omer.)  Teenagers often stay out all night, and when our kids were out shrieking at nine o’clock in the morning on Lag B’Omer, a neighbor gently informed us that the sanctity of a quiet morning is observed on Lag B’Omer just as it is on Shavuot (when many have the custom of staying up all night studying Torah).

We used to have a lovely (makeshift) bonfire pit near our shul which has since been paved over.  But sabra neighbors (who apparently have firm ideas about bonfires) have found a new spot a little farther away, and the mom and I have coordinated wood, a mangal (portable charcoal grill), and food to make this possibly our most festive Lag B’Omer ever.  Beans asked if we could take a table to eat our food on.  No, honey, with smoke in our hair and soot under our fingernails, this is a dirty-butt venture.

Have a happy, safe Lag B’Omer.

Read Full Post »

The Cap’n and I attended Peach’s second grade class’s ceremony marking Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror) and Yom HaAtzma’ut (Independence Day) this morning.  To see the little girls reading Psalms, enacting a soldier’s leaving home and family and returning safe and sound (baruch Hashem), remembering each of the five members of the Fogel family who were murdered in Itamar, parading in costumes from dozens of countries from which Jews made aliyah in the last 63 years, and doing a dance with Israeli flags ending up in formation of the number “63” was a sight we did not even imagine when we made aliyah nearly five years ago.  Seeing Peach among other Israeli kids, seeing how Israel  is not an abstraction for her but her home, hearing her fluent Hebrew, seeing how she understands the Jewish people’s connection to this land, our history here, the Torah, and the injustice of those who would kill or expel us from here, is so much more than we ever bargained for.

I began to tell the kids at dinner last night, after we had stood for the 8:00 PM air raid siren ushering in Yom HaZikaron, the difference between the day here and Memorial Day in the US, but I just couldn’t.  When kids and their families here commemorate fallen soldiers and victims of terror, it’s Avraham David Moses, an Efrat teen who was murdered in the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva massacre a couple of years ago; Shmuel Gillis, the Efrat oncologist who was shot on the road (inside the Green Line) on his way to work at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital; Yosef Goodman, the son of the owners of our local pizza shop, whose parachute got tangled with his officer’s, and who cut the strings of his own chute to save his officer’s life, falling to his own death; and Daniel Mandel, whose mother works at the same company as the Cap’n, who was killed in the line of duty when searching for wanted terrorists in Nablus in 2003.  Soldiers are not boys from Kentucky and Nebraska who volunteer for an army career, but whom we’ll never see.  Soldiers are Tzvi, Honi, Natan and Doron, Re’ut and Miriam, the boys and girls who live on our street.  White sales, parades, and government commemorations on national television are far more removed (for better and for worse) than what our children experience now.

Living in Gush Etzion is an amazing experience.  We are near where King David was born, and possibly where he herded sheep in his boyhood.  We are near the path that Avraham likely followed when traveling to Jerusalem with his son Yitzhak in the akeida (binding) story.  We are across the road from one of the battlegrounds of the Chanukah story, where the Jews fought Assyrian Greeks riding war elephants, and where Elazar, brother of Yehudah Maccabbee, was killed.  And Gush Etzion was the scene of fighting in May 1948, when the Jordanians overran the land Jews had purchased and farmed for years, and massacred the remaining fighters.  Visitors to Kfar Etzion, a kibbutz which has a field school and a heritage center, can learn more about the foundation of the kibbutzim here and their destruction in the War of Independence in a video presentation which takes place right over the bunker which sheltered Gush Etzion’s last fighters.  The following video tells a similar story:

May the memories of the fallen be blessed, and may we live to see the end of the need for such sacrifice.

Read Full Post »

Upon sitting down to my computer this morning, I was besieged by news stories, Facebook entries, and blog posts reporting and commenting on the announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s assassination by the United States Special Forces.  While I refrained from singing, dancing in the streets, and passing out candy (like some people I could name), I did permit myself a smile and a warm, fuzzy feeling all day thinking that the world had one less malignant fanatic in it.

While I concur with some people who have said that this will make no difference, that it will in no way stop the momentum of Islamic genocidal designs on the world, Michael Totten points out that it in no way hurts us, and in no way benefits Al Qaeda.  True enough.

But one of the more incisive comments I saw was put out by my rav in Newton, who wrote the following in a post to the shul’s list:

While I would not deny a victory song and dance to the families of the victims of 9/11 or to our armed forces and to our Commander-in-Chief, my own prayer of thanksgiving was not of celebration but of somber relief and satisfaction that no matter how dark the times, no matter how dastardly and destructive the crimes, in the end good will prevail and justice will be served.

It is this same sentiment that I gleaned from having read Professor Deborah E. Lipstadt’s extraordinary new book on The Eichmann Trial, whose 50th anniversary is being commemorated this year.  I had the great privilege of travelling to Poland and Budapest on a heritage tour with the ever amazing Prof. Lipstadt just a few years ago.  Adolf Eichmann was a transportation specialist who applied and honed his expertise in commercial shipping to the mass transportation of the human chattel of Jews to concentration camps during the Shoah.  I was not yet born in 1961 (I was born in 1968) and have no experience or memory of the trial.  Upon reading Lipstadt’s riveting account, I was, at first, but then not really, surprised to learn that Israel was attacked in the news media for its own strike against one of the masterminds of the Holocaust.   As opposed to a strategic assassination as in the case of Bin Laden, Israel apprehended Eichmann from his safe haven in Argentina and then brought him to justice through a comprehensive trial in Jerusalem.   While many celebrated Israel’s bold capture of one of the worst war criminals, Israel was also, at least at first, excoriated by significant media outlets in the US and world press, for example, the Washington Post and Time Magazine, for “animal vengeance” and the administration of “jungle law” (p. 24 ff).   Bin Laden and Eichmann alike were buried at sea to prevent their burial sites from becoming sites of pilgrimage and veneration (p. 147).  Lipstadt’s book is worth reading for her gripping narrative of Eichmann’s capture and trial, as well as her trenchant analysis and critique of Hannah Arendt’s legacy.  Lipstadt’s thesis and contribution to Holocaust studies, however, is that the Eichmann trial empowered, encouraged and validated survivor testimony ultimately enabling the survivors themselves to shape the ongoing memory and memorialization of the Shoah.

It is worth noting that while NATO in Libya and the US in Pakistan can get away with summary execution and collateral damage (i.e. the deaths of non-dangerous civilians), Israel gets broadsided at the UN for doing just that with Hamas terrorists.  Yom HaShoah v’HaGvurah is as good a time as any to renew our determination to defend ourselves, no matter what anyone else says.

Read Full Post »

Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) begins tonight.  This year, I’ve collected a selection of oddments – thoughts, articles, and a new book – to share.

First the thoughts, in no particular order:

1) Discomfort over the Shoah haunted the Israeli psyche for decades after the end of World War II.  The inability to comprehend the scope and savagery of the Shoah made the Eichmann trial a pivotal event for young Sabras, who came to understand two things: that Jews did not willingly queue up to die; and that the monomaniacal pursuit of their end was a higher priority for some Nazis (like Eichmann) even than winning the war.

2) Isn’t it strange that at the same time that the Arab world blames European guilt for the Shoah for the creation of the State of Israel, they deny it ever happened?  (PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s “doctoral dissertation” contended that the Shoah was wildly exaggerated and that Zionists worked with the Nazis to murder Jews, while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad denies the Shoah ever happened, but promises to finish the job himself.)

3) Had there been an Israel, the impact of the Shoah on the Jewish population (then and now) could have been dramatically reduced.  Had the British not reneged on every promise made to the Jews in Mandatory Palestine, there would have been an Israel much earlier.  Had the Jews actually been given the promised territory from the Jordan to the Mediterranean for the establishment of the “Jewish home,” Israel might still have had to fight its defensive wars against hostile Arab countries, but the homegrown Palestinian Arab terrorism would likely have been lessened rather than allowed to fester in now-disputed territory.

Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein, Portrait of a Young Woman Drawing

Now on to more substantial things.  There have been two articles in the past month in the Jerusalem Post (8 April and 22 April) about Nazi-looted paintings being returned to their rightful heirs.  Two paintings have been returned to the heirs of the Rosauer family in Vienna, one by Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein (1788-1868) and the other by Johann Baptist Lampi the Elder (1751-1830), both having been in German museum or government custody.  In addition, a landscape painting by Gustav Klimt is being returned to the grandson of its former Jewish owner by the Austrian Museum of Modern Arts.  (The heir to the Klimt painting has offered to help fund an expansion of the museum as a gesture of gratitude.)

In other news, a Toronto couple was recently featured on the Regis and Kelly Show.  Husband and wife met at Bergen-Belsen as teens when the 16-year-old girl saw the half-dead 18-year-old boy moving underneath a pile of dead corpses, extracted him, and nursed him for weeks.  They became separated when he woke up one day, saw no one around, and crawled to the nearest road where he was picked up by the British.  They met up later in Toronto, where each had gone to live, and the rest is history.  The couple, married over 60 years, are the parents of four, grandparents of 11, and great-grandparents of one.  It’s definitely not everyone who, when asked where they met their spouse, can answer, “Under a pile of corpses.”

How much is too much to spend on a wedding gown?  Some brides spend hundreds, others thousands.  (Mine was given me by a friend, but I still had to fork out the dough for alterations and a veil.)  So how does two pounds of coffee beans and a packet of cigs sound, in exchange for enough white silk to make a wedding gown and a white shirt for the chattan?  That’s what it cost Lilly Friedman’s fiancé, Ludwig, when the two of them decided to get married while living in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp.  The gown was later worn by Lilly’s sister at her wedding, then by a cousin.  Friedman says she lost count of how many brides wore the gown after 17.  It now hangs in the Bergen-Belsen Museum.

Alice Herz-Sommer, 107, and the oldest survivor of the Shoah, credits music with saving her life.  Although she lost her husband, family, and friends, she and her son (one of only 130 children to survive Terezin) survived and later made their lives in Israel and London.  Here is a trailer for a film entitled, “They Played For Their Lives,” in which Herz-Sommer and others attest to the power of music to lift spirits, to restore dignity, and to preserve life.

Deborah Lipstadt’s new book on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, entitled The Eichmann Trial, is being published at the 50th anniversary of the trial’s beginning.  Since the most prominent book published on the subject to date is Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann In Jerusalem, comparisons are both inevitable and instructive.  Arendt is reported as having had her mind made up about the trial before arriving (e.g. that Eichmann was not a vicious anti-Semite, that the Judenrate, Jewish councils, bore much of the responsibility for sending Jews to their deaths, and that the purpose of the trial should have been to administer justice, nothing else), while Lipstadt (perhaps because of her own day in court against an anti-Semite) sees the trial as having more than a simple juridical purpose.  Its impact on Israeli society, the effect of having survivors not directly connected with Eichmann testify about what happened to and around them, cannot be underestimated, she says.  Both Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and Gideon Hausner, the chief prosecuting attorney, set out to teach young Israelis about their people’s history through the trial.  With her decades of additional perspective, access to certain documents made available only in the last decade (including a memboir written by Eichmann in prison), and a more compassionate understanding of the uneven playing field between Nazis and Jews, Lipstadt offers a very different account of events.  Her book also focuses more on the mechanics of the trial, a step-by-step unfolding of events, where Arendt (who did not attend every session of the trial) focused much less on the process of the trial, and acted more as commentator than reporter.  For those unfamiliar with how the trial unfolded, Lipstadt’s is undoubtedly the more informative of the two books.  (I found Arendt’s background on each European country’s attitude and behavior toward the Jews to be instructive and interesting to compare, contrasting Denmark’s effort to save every Jew to the unrestrained violence in Romania, which exceeded in hysteria even the Nazi’s.)  Here is a Jerusalem Post editorial about the book and below, a video of Lipstadt talking about the trial.

I read recently that there is a movement afoot to recognize the righteousness of Jews who worked to save other Jews in the Shoah.  Until recently, Yad Vashem has declined to do this, reasoning that while the risk to non-Jewish rescuers makes for a simple criterion to recognize them, the same criterion cannot apply to Jewish rescuers, since they were all slated for extermination.  Alas, I cannot locate the article on the Jerusalem Post’s totally unhelpful website, but gleaned that that policy will soon come to an end, and a way has been found to identify and recognize Jewish rescuers officially.  Since Jews helped one another survive, resist, and escape in thousands of ways, large and small, from sharing a crust of bread, to stealing prayerbooks from the kapo’s private rooms, to assassinating Nazis and their collaborators, it will be interesting to see what criteria are formulated for this new (and much belated) form of special distinction.

On the road to becoming a traditional Jew, I read stacks of books about the Shoah.  While I learned something new from nearly every one of them, the ones which still stand out in my mind are Alfons Heck’s A Child of Hitler: Germany in the Days when God Wore a Swastika and The Burden of Hitler’s Legacy, autobiographical works about his boyhood in Germany when he was inducted into the Hitler Youth and became part of the machinery of Nazi Germany.  As an adult, Heck met Helen Waterman, a Jewish survivor of the Shoah, and together they traveled the lecture circuit, providing perspective from both sides of the barbed wire fence about life in the Third Reich.  The second book is Rena Kornreich Gelissen’s Rena’s Promise, a firsthand account of a Jewish teen’s survival with her sister.  Details which have stayed with me since reading it 14 years ago include her description of her peaceful, religious home, in which she would lovingly shave her mother’s head (her mother was a sheitl-wearer); her and her sister’s separation from their family at Auschwitz and assignment to “Kanada,” the clothing sorting detail, during which they found themselves one day sorting clothes belonging to their aunt, uncle, and cousins (by which they learned that they had been gassed); their selection as subjects for Mengele’s experiments on women, which they escaped by simply marching out of line to a building where they changed clothes, then got themselves reassigned to another work detail; and throughout the tale, the reinforcement of the observation made by a guide from Yad Vashem on our own tour of Poland, that people who had someone to live for had much greater odds of survival than people who went through the Shoah alone.

No single post can possibly contain all there is to say on this subject.  If anyone has come across links to helpful websites or blogs, or has any books or resources to share, please feel free.

May our enemies continue to be thwarted.

Read Full Post »

Baruch dayan haemet

Refael Daniel Aryeh ben Tamar, the 16 year old Beit Shemesh boy critically injured in the recent missile attack on a school bus by Gaza terrorists, succumbed to his injuries and passed away yesterday.

In slightly better news (but only slightly), the exhaustive joint Shin Bet, IDF, and police investigation into the murder of the Fogel family in Itamar last month at last turned up two teenage vermin from the Arab village of Awarta.  The unrepentant teens, spawn of families with terrorist histories and rap-sheets, said they hoped to die martyrs, but they have it backwards; the Fogels died martyrs, and they will simply enjoy the good life in Israeli prison with the rest of their ilk who have been caught.

However, I would like to make an offer to any other would-be martyr: Come to my house, and I’ll be glad to help you die.  For free.

I don’t like going into the seder thinking more about Amalek than Yitziat Mitzrayim, but one did eventually lead to the other, and as Rav Binny Freedman said in his parasha shiur last Shabbat, the Exodus is not the end; it’s only the beginning.

Read Full Post »

Exodus story

A number of years ago, my in-laws came to us for Pesach seder.  It was our first seder in our own home (we’d been generously invited out for years), and juggling an infant (Beans was 9 months old), kashering, cooking, and hosting two seders (we had friends over the second night) was beyond anything I’d ever experienced.  After a couple of weeks of cleaning, cooking, and generally feeling like a slave, I was exhausted by the time we all finally sat down to the first night’s seder.  My father-in-law’s opening comment was, “Did you know that there is no historical evidence that the Exodus from Egypt ever happened?”

Let’s set aside for a moment how a comment like this begs the question of why the asker is sitting at a seder in the first place, or how the role of the seder as educational tool for children is compromised, or how that particular attitude misses the entire point of the evening.

Let’s focus instead on the pshat (surface meaning) of the comment: lack of historical evidence of the Exodus.  Yes, Jewish tradition holds that people in lands surrounding ancient Egypt heard of the plagues and wonders wrought by Hashem prior to and including the flight from Egypt of the Israelites.  It also says that because of these stories coming out of Egypt, most of these nations held the Israelites in awe as they made their way through the desert for 40 years.  But historical or archeological evidence?  Very likely not.  Why?  Because even if there were such evidence (and I’m not counting the steering wheels lying at the bottom of the Red Sea that fervent believers claim are the remains of Egyptian chariots), the Arabs who have since conquered and settled Egypt would have no motivation to publish such findings.  If they were ever to make public any sign that the forbears of Israel had been enslaved for 210 years in Egypt, they might be forced by public opinion to consider reparations, or at least back wages for that long-ago unpaid labor.  Never mind that the Jews who fled the Arab world in the 1940s and 1950s, many of whom had been wealthy and successful before Israel’s foundation, were forced to leave with nothing but the clothes on their backs and deserve reparations much more than Palestinians whose fortunes were dashed by the greed and bloodlust of their fellow Arabs.  The Arab-sponsored theme of Jews having no history at all in the Middle East has been promoted by the current wave of PA proclamations, such as those claiming that Rachel’s Tomb is really a Muslim monument to one of Mohammed’s slaves, that the Temple Mount never served as a place of Jewish worship or sacrifice, and the Arab rage over the excavation of the City of David and in the Western Wall plaza, which has uncovered archeological treasures showing Jewish presence and sovereignty over Jerusalem going back 3000 years.

No, the lack of evidence of the Exodus from Egyptian historians does not disturb me in the least.  In fact, I expect nothing more since these are the same “scholars” who write school textbooks which teach children about Egypt’s crushing military victory over Israel in 1973, and the same society that publishes (and presumably believes in) the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

If the haggadah is a Jewish fantasy story, it’s one of the forging of slaves into a people which went on to become one of the key forces which moved civilization away from child sacrifice, debauched worship of multiple gods, and tyrannical government to personal and communal prayer, worship of one God, and the rule of law which favors neither the rich nor the poor.  I’ll pick that fantasy over the falsehoods and absurdities put about by our enemies any day.

Read Full Post »

Four kids home for 2½ weeks.  ‘Nuff said.

Here’s a cute thing Aish.com put up for Pesach.  Enjoy.

Read Full Post »

Passover Lemon Pie

I stated in an earlier post that I have officially retired from making fancy desserts for Pesach, but I recognize that that doesn’t mean everyone else has.  To this day, I can still remember our friends in Newton who made salmon crunch pie and salads for lunch, followed by cheesecake baked in a coconut macaroon crust.  I gain pounds just thinking about that lunch.

In glancing through my homegrown cookbook, I found this recipe for Passover Lemon Pie that I tinkered with a few years ago and nearly perfected.  (Somehow my lemon curd never seemed to want to set.)  For those who still make fancy desserts at Pesach, here’s a beauty.  (Makes one 9” pie.)

Lemon Curd and Meringue

6 egg yolks, beaten

1½ teaspoon grated lemon peel

½ cup lemon juice

⅓ cup water

¾ cup sugar

5 egg whites

10 tablespoons sugar

Almond Crust

1 cup ground almonds

2 tablespoons sugar

⅓ teaspoon salt

¼ cup oil

1 egg white

To make the Almond Crust, mix together almonds, sugar and salt.  Beat together oil and egg white; stir into almond mixture.  Press mixture firmly and evenly against sides and bottom of a 9” pie plate.  Bake at 375°F for 15-20 minutes or until lightly browned.  Cool thoroughly.

To make Lemon Curd, combine egg yolks, lemon peel, lemon juice, water and ¾ cup sugar in top of double boiler.  Cook over gently boiling water, stirring frequently until thickened, about 15 minutes.  Remove from heat.  (This stayed gooey instead of thickening; if you have a reliable lemon curd recipe, use it here.)

Make Meringue by beating egg whites until frothy.  Gradually add remaining 10 tablespoons sugar, beating until soft peaks form.  Fold ⅓ of beaten egg whites into warm lemon mixture.  Pour into cooled crust.  Top with remaining meringue, sealing to crust.  Bake at 400°F for 15 minutes, or until meringue is lightly browned.  Cool before serving.

Chag kasher v’sameach.

Read Full Post »

My mother forwarded this via email with the subject line, “They finally got it right.”

Well, sort of.  Jesus is still holding a bagel.  And anyone who would eat gefilte fish from a jar would probably also have Mogen David on the table (though that may be what’s in the ewer on the floor in the foreground).  I wonder why the painter (this is not Leonardo’s version; help me out if you know who painted this) didn’t have them bother to iron the tablecloth, or cover their heads.  Or be home with their families (“You’re having seder with WHO instead of us?!”).  In fact, even without the Manischewitz stuff, this is the most bizarre (supposed) seder I’ve ever seen.

Read Full Post »

Some of you have probably seen the video below in previous years around Pesach time:

In an earlier post, I stressed the importance of not combining spring cleaning with Pesach cleaning, and this illustrates it well, i.e. bathtub rings are NOT chametz.

Having said that, there is enough to keep one busy for up to a month ahead of time.  (My friend Sigal won’t say the word “Pesach” until a week before, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t know it’s coming.)  By stringing out the things that need doing over time, it can save on prep overload in the last week.

After my earlier Pesach post, one reader (who kindly linked to my blog from hers) sounded disappointed at the lack of timeline.  For those who have the drill down from years of practice, the following post will probably not be worth a lot, but for those new to Jewish practice (or morbidly curious non-Jews), it might prove informative as a jumping-off point for your own preparation.

First, though, a few more time-saving tips.

  1. If you eat kitniyot during Pesach, have older kids (7 and up) help with the checking.  I check each item three times (which seems to be the prevailing minhag), and let the older girls do one of the checks.  (They do a good job, too.)
  2. Don’t kasher your own metal if you can help it.  Shuls sometimes have large pots for boiling vessels and experienced blow-torchbearers to do libun on your oven racks.  If you take everything scrubbed and polished, let someone else do it.  It is safer and can save you time, mess, and possible injury.
  3. Friends of ours in Newton had leftover linoleum from covering their floor and cut it to fit their kitchen counters, so all they have to do is take it out and tape it down every year.  If you have countertops that have to be covered or kashered, this can be an easy way to do it, year after year.
  4. If you have porcelain sinks, getting sink inserts (instead of lining with foil) is a quick way to make your sink kosher for Pesach (and use the insert every year).  Personally, I miss being able to kasher my stainless steel sink in Newton, but it’s a lot easier lining my porcelain sinks here with the standard-sized liners sold at the hardware store, so it’s a tradeoff.
  5. On your computer, save documents from year to year for your prep schedule, weekly menus, and a corresponding shopping list so you don’t have to reinvent the Pesach wheel every year.  The more organized you are in advance, the easier it is to get everything done.  When Pesach is over, go back and revise as needed for the following year.  (I also keep a document with an inventory of what I have for pots and pans, utensils, and serving ware so I know if something broke last year or I’m going to need new equipment for the holiday.)

Here is my Pesach prep schedule:

1 month ahead

□ Work on finishing chametz food in pantry and freezer

□  Start sorting kitniyot

1 week ahead

□ Do additional cleaning

  • clean around upholstery
  • clean carseats
  • polish silver (kiddush cups, everyday meat cutlery, candlesticks)

□ Wash/vacuum car

□ Plan meals and shop

  • food (especially non-perishable)
  • aluminum foil
  • paper/plastic ware
  • sandwich and ziplock bags
  • foil pans (lasagna, small rectangular, pie or cake pan)
  • 24- or 48-hour candles
  • regular candles
  • toothbrushes, toothpaste
  • dishwashing liquid
  • sponges
  • Shabbat sponges

□ Arrange to sell chametz

□ Clean temporary space for Pesach stuff in kitchen; line with paper/plastic

  • empty cupboard, wipe out, and line shelf
  • cover chametz or pack and store

□ Laundry (especially aprons, oven mitts, dish towels)

3-5 days ahead

□ Check for chametz

  • coat pockets
  • backpacks, school bags

□ Finish shopping

  • buy produce, milk, eggs
  • last-minute items

□ Fridge and freezer

  • toss most food; bag chametz food
  • transfer chametz food to large basement freezer; reserve kitchen freezer for Pesach food
  • wipe surfaces clean

□ Prepare vessels/utensils for kashering

  • scrub clean
  • let sit 24 hours
  • kasher (kiddush cups, parve utensils, everyday meat cutlery)

□ Counter tops

  • pack up food/utensils
  • scrub clean with caustic cleanser; leave 24 hours
  • kasher

□ Oven/stove

  • clean oven (self-clean cycle)
  • clean stove with caustic cleanser
  • cover stove surface with foil
  • libun oven and burner racks

□ Microwave

  • clean and stow in cupboard

□ Dining room

  • tie cupboard doors closed
  • clean booster seat
  • wipe down chairs, table
  • launder chair pads

□ Laundry

  • change beds
  • launder table linens

□ Unpack Pesach dishes and cookware

  • store in Pesach-cleaned areas

□ Begin cooking

  • finish sorting kitniyot

Day before Erev Pesach

□ Final cleaning (as usual)

□ Finish cooking

Morning of Erev Pesach

□ Bathroom

  • replace toothbrushes and toothpaste, soap

□ Trash

  • take out trash before chametz burning

Above all, don’t go it alone.  Kids in Israel are home for a full week before the seder, and not everyone sends their kids to camps for that week.  Put ’em to work!  If they’re old enough to do laundry, enlist their help to do it.  Some kids like to do wet cleaning better than tidying, so make use of this, especially if you were hoping to sneak in some spring cleaning or if you’re having houseguests for the holiday.  Have them scrub out the tub, clean the bathroom sinks and mirror, or take out bathroom trash.  My ceramic tile floors could use a good scrub on hands and knees, so I plan to station a kid every few meters with a bucket, rag, and brush, and let them Cinderella away.  (They love it, for some reason.)  Kids can help with washing fresh herbs, vegetables, and fruit to prepare for the meal, and make simple salads.  Above all, the Pesach table should be festive, and kids can help by making centerpieces or name cards to mark each participant’s place at the table.  (Check out Creative Jewish Mom for craft ideas for the holiday.)  Such things need not be complicated; you’re trying to prepare, after all.  Just give them construction, scrapbooking, or Bristol paper, glue and beads or sequins, markers, or whatever you have to make something unique for each place setting.

Pesach is a family affair, and the participation of the whole family (including spouses who work outside the home, even if it’s just to put in half an hour a day before or after work) ensures that the work gets done and at the end of it all, on seder night, everyone feels they’ve earned their freedom.

Read Full Post »

My parents are visiting the Crunch family in Israel for a rare visit (their second in 4½ years).  Today, I took my dad to the new, improved Israel Museum, where we dodged the raindrops to see the Second Temple model, strolled through the Shrine of the Book, and visited the Jewish Life wing (especially to see the shul interiors brought from Italy, Germany, India, and Suriname) and the ancient artifacts in the Archeology wing.

As we looked at the small figurines, jewelry, and other objets d’art of ancient Egypt, I thought about how some of these precious, astonishingly beautiful things might have been made during the times when Bnei Yisrael were slaves in Egypt.  And that gets me thinking about Pesach.

Pesach is my favorite holiday.  It always gets me thinking about how we Jews came together again after years of slavery and became a nation.  Yes, most stayed behind in Egypt, and yes, life was difficult for decades after the Exodus.  And yes, today it’s a hassle, and yes, a lot of people go ballistic over it.  (I have heard of some who eat treif year round and then won’t eat in anyone else’s house during Pesach because they’re not kosher enough.  Weird.)  But I love cleaning and putting away the stuff I use all year and thinking of ways to simplify, simplify, simplify what I eat for a week.  I spend less time thinking about food in general, and more time sitting around the table talking to my kids who are on vacation.  We sleep a little later, go on family trips (including to the beach, where we can get kosher le’Pesach ice cream), slurp fruit juice pops, and enjoy the spring weather.  Some people think that for all the work that goes into preparing, Pesach should last a month.  (I’m still happy with a week.)  It’s not a celebration of freedom only in name; the Cap’n takes off from work for the week and we actually celebrate our freedom from the grind of the work week, the school week, my cooking/cleaning/child-herding week, and take each day as it comes.

After seeing the magnificent artistry, craftsmanship, and sophisticated technology that went into creating these cast bronze figures, jewelry and such, I look at what has become of the Egyptians and the Jews since they were created thousands of years ago.  The Egyptians and their great (though undoubtedly barbaric) society were eventually overrun by Arab colonizers.  (Egyptian Copts are descended from the pharaohs, but as you can see from this article, they are coming under vicious attack by Muslims and are little better off than the Jews were before they fled Egypt in the 1940s and 1950s.)  They lost their language, their culture, their religion, and their race itself was mostly subsumed by Arab settlers.  Their country went from being wealthy and bounteous to being just another two-bit oppressive Muslim state with some pretty fabulous (if frequently ransacked) ruins from earlier times.  The Jews who left Egypt wandered in the desert for years, eventually built their own society which suffered from internal strife and external conquest, but rebuilt itself twice now (after the return from Babylon and in the creation of the modern State) and has endured.  Our people are (more or less) the same people we were thousands of years ago, with the same language (updated, of course), the same texts, and the same mission.  As Egypt has groaned under the oppressive regimes of dictators, Israel has created a flourishing (if flawed) democracy.  As the Arab world (including Egypt) has contributed little to the betterment of civilization in hundreds of years (unless you count the assassin and the suicide bomber as contributions), Israel’s achievements in science, medicine, and communications technology are more than amply documented in email forwards which circulate the globe constantly.  Egypt gave us papyrus; Israel has published 6,866 books in a year (2006), while Egypt published 2,215 (1995) (source).

Israelis know what it is to be free: free to speak, to assemble, to practice your religion, to disagree with your government.  For Egyptians, as for most Middle Eastern Muslims, freedom is simply the opposite of slavery.

So have Israelis created the legacy of breathtaking art that the Egyptians did those thousands of years ago?  Generally not.  But we did give the world the Torah, the commandments (both the 613 and the Seven Noahide Commandments), the belief in one God, the definition of true justice, and a sense that all humans are created equal (i.e. in the image of God).  When all is said and done, our gift is much more beautiful, and more enduring.

Read Full Post »

Pesach made simple(r)

With Purim over and the kitchen and dining room littered with the refuse and junk food from mishloach manot, it is time to think about Pesach.

Every year I look for ways to simplify the process, use less aluminum foil, and pack away fewer items.  Making aliyah has changed much of how I do things (fresher, more appetizing Pesach food available, fewer days of Yom Tov, and less storage space), but I continue to look for ways to increase my efficiency.

Here are a few things I’ve come up with:

1.       Don’t combine spring cleaning with Pesach cleaning.  I know it’s tempting, but unless you start really early, the price in burnout is just too high.  My neighbor says she tidies and cleans gradually over the month or two in advance and just needs to touch up things a bit before Pesach.  I muck out the fridge a week before Pesach while the kids are still in school so I only have to give it a quick wipe before unpacking Pesach food.  If you’re getting a late start on Pesach prep, let go of the things that can wait until after the holiday.  It’s more important to enjoy Pesach than to have a sparkling house.  (Let the dust and dirt remind you of the desert which was Bnei Yisrael’s home for 40 years.)

2.       Minimize what you store for Pesach.  The only Pesach dishes I keep are my formal meat dishes and my grandmother’s glass goblets for the seder.  If I’m not hosting a seder, I don’t unpack them.  (This makes years when we host a seder all the more special).  I keep cutlery for meat and dairy and a box of everyday glasses (a wedding gift), but that’s it.  We use disposable the rest of the time, using the same plate for breakfast and lunch (which usually just accumulates matzah crumbs), and a clean one for dinner.

3.       Keep menus simple.  I’ve been working to reduce the number vessels and utensils I store from year to year.  The more elaborately you cook, the more stuff you have to store, so think of Pesach as a time to eliminate fanciful food and cook with the simplest ingredients (fresh herbs, fruit, vegetables for soups and salads, eggs, simply cooked meat and fish).  I’ve stopped kashering my KitchenAid mixer and only keep a hand mixer, just in case.  Since Purim involves so many sweets and I find Pesach desserts uninspiring (too many eggs, too much beating, too much matzah meal), I have stopped making desserts except my friend Heather’s farfel clusters (recipe below).  Did our ancestors stand there beating egg whites for half an hour for macaroons?  I think not.  Figure out what you REALLY need to eat during the holiday and just keep equipment for that.

4.       Keep Pesach special.  I know no one bakes desserts with matzah meal during the year, but reserve some tasty recipes just for Pesach so it is something to look forward to.  The Cap’n and I love matzah brei, and the kids love having their first fruit juice pops of the season in the special molds I keep for Pesach.

5.       Don’t move.  Stay in the same house.  This makes it much easier to develop a routine with Pesach things stored in the same place and a kashering method that works quickly and efficiently.  (Also, don’t get pregnant, don’t get sick, and don’t be in graduate school.  These all interfere with Pesach preparation and should be avoided.)

As promised, here are Heather’s Farfel Clusters (via her mother-in-law; with two or three ingredients, how can you go wrong?):  Melt 12 ounces (350 grams) of chocolate chips in a microwave-safe bowl, or in a double-boiler.  (I use a pyrex dish inside a saucepan of water on low heat.  Don’t heat it too fast or the chocolate will burn.)  Stir in one cup of farfel (lightly toasted in the oven) and 1 cup of nuts or raisins (optional).  Drop by teaspoonfuls onto foil or wax paper and refrigerate until firm.  Store in a zippered bag in the refrigerator or a cool place.

I am always looking for new ways to eliminate fuss at Pesach.  What do you do to minimize Pesach prep fatigue?

Read Full Post »

With Purim on Sunday and loads to do before then, I wanted to take the opportunity to wish my readers a Purim sameach.

This Purim, as so many in past years, Israel finds itself on the heels of yet another terror attack.  But even in our sadness, we are commanded to rejoice.  While it sometimes feels as though we Jews are hanging by a thread on this planet, Purim is a reminder that attempts—large and small—to destroy us have all failed, and that while humankind may have forsaken us, Hashem never has, even when He chooses to operate behind the scenes. And that, I suppose, is worth celebrating.

The Maccabeats, a singing group from Yeshiva University, has made a wonderful video of their “Purim Song” to tell the story of Esther and celebrate the Jews’ victory with song, play, and merriment.  Enjoy.

Read Full Post »

Foods for Purim

Some holidays are necessarily culinary.  Rosh Hashana has its simanim (fish heads, anyone?), Pesach is über-kosher, and lasagna and cheesecake are Shavuot institutions.

The focus on Purim is usually on costumes, Megillat Esther, and mishloach manot.  But this year, I’ve been thinking about the culinary aspect of the holiday, the seudah (festive meal).

Back in the US, my experience of the seudah was usually the one the shul put on, with fried chicken, salad, and a few other things.  It was simple, kid-friendly, not in any way particular to the holiday.  But in doing a little research, I have turned up two themes to Purim food: hidden and vegetarian.

A couple of years ago, I was working with a friend on a Jewish cookbook (alas, never published) and she told me about why Jews eat hamantashen on Purim.  Since God is never mentioned in the book of Esther, the belief is that God directed the events in the story from behind the scenes, as the hester panim, or hidden face.  Since the filling is largely hidden inside the cookie, this is a reference to the hidden face of God in the story.  My friend suggested serving pigs-in-blankets (pastry-wrapped hot dogs) as kid-friendly food for the holiday, and I have read elsewhere that kreplach, meat-filled ravioli (served alone, with sauce, or in chicken soup) is also served at Purim.  (As an aside, hamantashen, Yiddish for Haman pockets, and the Israeli oznei Haman, Haman’s ears, are traditionally triangular in shape in Europe and Israel, though they were not so in other parts of the world, such as Iraq.)

The second theme of Purim food is vegetarian, especially fruit, nuts, and seeds.  Just as Jews remember Esther’s fast before outing herself as a Jew to save her people, we also remember her time spent in the harem of King Ahashverosh, when she endeavored to observe the laws of kashrut by abstaining from eating meat.  Fillings for hamantashen include dates, prunes, and poppy seeds.  Families mindful of this tradition eat special foods made from almonds (mmm, marzipan), sesame seeds (techina and halva), humous, and dates.

Since my family eats mostly vegetarian aside from Shabbat and holidays, this presents me with some cool ideas for menus.  Split pea soup, red lentil soup, or Moroccan chick pea soup are vegetarian options.  Curried lentils is another.  To incorporate the hester panim theme, one can serve stuffed peppers, stuffed acorn squash, or stuffed baked potatoes.  For those like me who lean toward ethnic cuisine, burritos or enchiladas are Tex-Mex possibilities, as are Italian tortellini and calzones, Indian samosas and pakoras, Chinese wontons or steamed dumplings, Thai or Vietnamese spring rolls, or Japanese sushi or tempura.  Sandwich wraps can be a lighter alternative.  And while I am fond of hamantashen, other dessert options include pies, turnovers, and my childhood favorite, surprise cupcakes (made with chocolate cake batter, with a dollop of sweetened cream cheese and chocolate chips baked in the middle).

So many possibilities for a holiday that comes but once a year.


Read Full Post »

Ever since Adar I began, thoughts and plans for Purim have been occupying the Crunches.  The kids are deciding on costumes (and getting corrected constantly for saying, “dress up into”), I’m beginning to think about mishloach manot packages, and my parents will be visiting us, so I plan to enlist my mother’s help in making hamantashen this year, with apricot jam, chocolate, and prune fillings.

The first art project to find its way into my hands last week was a detailed group picture by five-year-old Banana of Mordechai, Esther, and Ahashverosh.  Nothing warms the cockles of a mother’s heart like her kid’s rendering of Mordechai in smiley-face pajamas, a dwarf Ahashverosh with Star-of-David robes (after his probable conversion on learning his bride was Jewish), and Esther towering over them with rainbow and smiley-face gown, fine jewelry, and long, curling tresses.  So print one out, everyone, and get out the crayons.  It’s coloring time!

Read Full Post »


In this YouTube video, Grover (my favorite Muppet) asks, “Why do we need a day of rest?”

The Global Day of Jewish Learning website includes an answer from Rav Adin Steinsaltz: “The day of rest is a comparatively new idea, the influence of the Jewish Shabbat on the world. From a secular perspective, a rest day breaks the killing routine of life. Even when we can’t really relax, the day still lessens the unbearable burden of duties and demands, orders and work. However, when the day of rest is a holy day, it has the power of re-infusing some spirit of life into an age that is, in many ways, empty of any exalted feeling. Such a day revives the dormant soul, opening our eyes so that we can watch for something higher.”

One of the greatest hurdles I had to jump in becoming a frum Jew was Shabbat observance.  Kashrut was something I’d been slowly building on for a year (giving up pork and shellfish, separating meat and dairy), but the thought of not turning lights on and off, not cooking or reheated food in the standard way (e.g. in the microwave), and not driving seemed bizarre.  What would I do all day?  What would I eat?  What about all that electricity I’d be wasting?

Over time, of course, I learned what sorts of food to make that reheat well on a warming tray.  We have a timer on our electrical panel that turns off the lights Friday night and turns them on again Saturday morning.  And with four young children, I never ask, “What’ll I do with myself all day?”  (I can’t remember the last time I asked that question.)

But Shabbat goes way beyond all that.  The fact that it’s such a foreign (and suspicious) concept to secular people explains much about what daily life is like today.  Jews were accused in ancient times of laziness for taking a day off from work every week.  (Yes, people used to work seven days a week.)  Now, we’re considered just plain weird for laying off the computer, the Blackberry, the phone, the car, the television, even money, for a whole day.  There has been an explosion in ways to stay electronically connected to others, but whether this means that people are REALLY connected to others, i.e. spending time sitting in the same room, sharing a meal with them, having long conversations, is another matter entirely.

From what I’ve observed, Shabbat is the glue that holds the frum Jewish community together.  It’s the occasion on which I see my friends (who, like me, are running around all week for their livelihoods or their children and have no time to see other people), meet new people, and sit at the table for long, leisurely, sumptuous meals instead of the usual brief, weekday ones.  It’s the day when people celebrate life cycle events for bnei mitzvah (children coming of age), aufrufs and Shabbatot kallah (honoring brides and bridegrooms before their weddings), and kiddushes (in honor or memory of a family member).  It’s a day on which we read from the Torah and attend talks expounding on the lessons of history, culture, and man’s relationship to the Divine in the week’s reading.

It’s the day when I have time to sit and play cards with my children, read to them, hear them read to me, tell them stories, discuss the weekly parashah (Torah reading), and sometimes nap with them.  When it’s warm (which is most of the year here in Israel), we take them to the local playground where we meet up with friends who also have young children, or sometimes introduce ourselves to the other parents.  Sometimes we go to friends’ houses and drop in (NOT something we would do on a weekday), spending a few hours chatting while the kids play, until Shabbat goes out and we make havdalah (the closing ritual to Shabbat) together before going home.

Besides providing social and spiritual benefits, Shabbat observance is one of the defining characteristics of a halachically observant Jew.  One of my teachers, Rav Mois Navon, pointed out once that when choosing witnesses for a wedding (to give but one example), the reason people who keep Shabbat are chosen is that it is the one commandment that Jews are given in order to emulate God.  We keep kosher to “be a holy people,” and we do many of the rituals to remember our exodus from Egypt, or the fact that we were once strangers in a strange land.  But just as God rested on the seventh day, we are commanded to rest also.  To emulate God is to acknowledge that there is a God, that the justice defined in the Torah is universal, and that observance of the laws of the Torah is obligatory.  Those who keep the Sabbath demonstrate an awe of God and reverence for the rule of law that qualifies them to act in accordance with the commandments in a way that idol worshipers and atheists cannot.

I sometimes imagine what it would be like to give up this life, move to Tel Aviv, get a tiny ocean-view apartment, and eat out at a non-kosher restaurant on the beach on Shabbat.  But despite the effort it takes to create a day off (doing double the work on Thursday and Friday, represented in the Torah by collecting double the amount of manna on the sixth day), it is always worth it.  I get to relish doing something totally different for a day, see my kids when we’re not rushing off to go somewhere or do something, and by the end, I’m ready to get back to my regular life.

Shabbat is useful for nourishing healthy relationships, but can also help repair bruised ones.  When the Cap’n and I were ironing out some of our differences before we married, our rabbi’s wife told us to spend every  Shabbat together, talking.  I read the same advice given to a couple that was having marital difficulties by their Reform rabbi (Reform not being famous for its adherence to Sabbath observance).  In more general terms, I have heard that Shabbat is making a comeback in the liberal movements of Judaism.

At its best, Shabbat for me is revisiting all my favorite aspects of holiday time with my family growing up: good food, doing puzzles, playing games, having the house clean (and decorated, when applicable), spending time together.  And while we didn’t often have guests on the holidays, my favorite Christmas was the one where my mother’s Aunt Martha and Uncle Ted tooled in their Winnebago from their home in New Hampshire to ours in Oregon, parked it next to our house, and spent the holiday with us.  Shabbat combines most of those fondly-remembered elements, and is always enhanced by foreign company.

A reader once left a comment where she said that she sometimes imagines going back to the life she led before she converted, but the thought of giving up Shabbat stops her every time.  Hear, hear.

Read Full Post »

Chanukah, Day 4

The posting has been lean these days due to kids home, husband home, and in-laws visiting.  (It also doesn’t help that I’m slogging through an incredibly intricate part of a Norah Gaughan cabled cardigan that has had to be unraveled three times already.)

But today was really remarkable.  Kids up at 6:30 (their usual time, not so remarkable).  Fighting (totally unremarkable).  But once the in-laws materialized, breakfast was made and consumed and a few snacks and water bottles packed, we were actually able to get on the road.  Today’s adventure was at Neot Kedumim, a sort of national park near Modi’in dedicated to educating the public about life in Israel during Biblical times.  There is a large section of sukkahs (kosher and nonkosher to test everyone’s’ knowledge) which we visited a few years ago, but this time was dedicated to Chanukah.  There was a table set up in a wooded area for kids to make whatever they liked out of clay, displaying traditional and modern versions of clay oil lamps (burning, for a cool effect).  There was an olive press up and running, with a mule hitched up to the large stone wheel to crush the olives, and the press in operation, squeezing the oil from the olives and filling a cistern in the ground.  There was a display of pottery, a water cistern (complete with pulley so the kids could get a physics lesson by comparing hauling up the bucket by hand versus using their weight with the pulley), and nearby a gently sloped stone surface with a narrow channel feeding into another cistern—a wine press.  It was a beautiful warm, sunny day (too warm and too sunny for December), and we and the kids had a fabulous time.

Ice cream break at Neot Kedumim at noon had well worn off by 3 pm, when we got in the cars and headed to the shopping center on Emek Ayalon in Modi’in, where the Pizza Domino (no relation to the Operation Rescue-owned American chain) sells the tastiest pizza we’ve had in Israel.  We ordered our favorite—cheese pizza with chopped tomato and onion— and chowed down, then went downstairs to the large open area at the center where there were inflatable bouncing structures.  The kids, used to these for years now, doffed their shoes and immediately set to.  My in-laws prowled a drug store, the Cap’n and Bill wandered around, and I bought soufganiyot: four minis with chocolate filling for the kids, and warm, fresh-from-the-vat doughnuts filled with my favorite, ribat chalav (dulce de leche).  When I walked out of the bakery, I looked over the railing of the upper level at the kid-friendly festivities below.  Directly below me was a long table set up with kids all wearing lime green bandannas on their heads and doing what looked to be a craft activity.  Gluing?  Rolling?  Arranging colored sticks on black construction paper?  No.  They were making sushi.  The red and green sticks were julienned carrot and cucumber, the glue was sushi rice, and the black construction paper was seaweed.  With the help of the sushi bar’s employees, the kids were layering the ingredients, rolling them using bamboo mats lined with paper, then taking them to the end of the table where the employee with the big knife sliced them and placed them in neat plastic trays.  Every kid’s sushi roll came out looking like a pro.  I once knew a kid whose Japanese father always made sushi at New Year’s.  I love the idea of making it anytime but especially at Chanukah to help counter all the grease we ingest.  (Last night’s mixed vegetable latkes were a success, and one which I don’t feel obliged to repeat for another five years or so.)

Had the seventh Harry Potter flick not been sold out, the day would have been complete.  But as it is, I got to come home, put the kids to bed, and sit down to blog about our very satisfactory day.

Wine press, Neot Kedumim

Read Full Post »

Chanukah in Gush Etzion

Tonight we light the first candle for Chanukah.  This is a good time to remember the significance of Gush Etzion as the site of two of the battles fought by the Maccabees against the Greeks.  Sharon Katz’s Voices Magazine online has the story.  And to be clear, the events described in the Maccabean revolt against the Assyrian Greeks took place 2200 years ago.  That’s before the Romans, before Jesus, before Islam, before the Ottoman Empire—and just a few kilometers north of where the matriarchs and patriarchs are buried.  Just think about that the next time you hear someone say that the West Bank is “Palestinian land.”

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »