Sunday, January 16, 2011

Food Prep and Jewish Meditation

Yom rishon, 11 Shevat 5771.  This posted is dedicated to Esther Nechama bat Sara Leah, among all of our holy cholim, that she and they should have a refua shelaima.

As I prepared for Shabbat this week, I thought of some of the simple things for which I am grateful.

There are meditative qualities available in the simplest actions.  Years ago I found that holding a clear glass with an egg up to the light, examining the egg for the tiniest trace of blood, connected me to Hashem in a unique way.  As if the act of raising up the glass to Heaven, peering at G-d through the mitzvah, so to speak, made baking challah a means of communication with my Creator.

Today in Israel, I still connect through the lens of the egg.  But there are other tasks that are uniquely Israeli.  Sifting flour is one that is widely known. 

And I get particular hana'ah seeing an Israeli mashgiach sorting lentils or grain.

 In America, my family ate pomegranate once a year, at Rosh Hashana.  It was shipped before it was ripe, and was rarely something to write home about.  Here, the delicious rimonim are ripe, sweet and full of juice for a long period of time; and baruch Hashem, they are plentiful.  

I have learned a trick of opening the rimon in a bowl of water (rather than slicing it on a board, thereby spilling high-staining juice everywhere), and gently separating the seeds from the delicate, lacy rind.  It is a long and careful process, like sorting rice or legumes, that gives me time to contemplate why I do these things with such care.

The heavy, juice-laden seed sacs sink to the bottom of the bowl, as the lighter husk and rind float to the top.

The rubies of the fruit family.

Voila!  Hashem delivers tiny drops of sweet pomegranate juice in individually-wrapped containers.

Preparing techina is another process I am able to do with love, enhanced by scientific fascination.  You start with a good-quality sesame paste. 

(This is determined by a taste-test:  There should be no bitter after-taste, and the sesame flavor should be rich and full.)  To this, I add a little lemon juice and water.  

Here's where the science comes in.  My favorite cookbook is Cookwise: The Hows & Whys of Succesful Cooking, by Shirley O. Corriher.  Due to the fact that Shirley doesn't have any reason to keep kosher, I cannot use all of her "230 Great-Tasting Recipes" -- but her science of the art of cooking makes fascinating reading.  While she does not speak specifically of techina, she has educated me enough that I know there is a molecular-bonding process going on as sesame paste actually thickens when water is stirred into it.  For some reason, this not only fascinates me, but reminds me of G-d's endless creativity. 

So, you stir and stir, and when the spoon or fork won't go anymore, you add water, a little at a time, and keep stirring.  

Eventually, this causes the molecules to let go of their vise-like grip on one another, so that a nice, smooth sauce is permitted to result.  

To this, I add garlic, za'atar, and a bit of salt.

I am sure there is Torah in here, at least a mashal or two.  But for now, I am contented to appreciate the science of G-d.

I don't know how much is my religious upbringing by Rabbi Nosson Sachs and Rabbi Menachem Goldberger and their dear rebbetzins, and how much is the nature of living in Israel -- or how much has to do with having grown children, which allows me time to put two thoughts together now and then.  But day-by-day, I find greater joy in finding ways to include Hashem in my internal Weltanshauung

Somehow, inviting G-d to every event highlights every corner of my life.

A special thank you to my blogging partner-in-crime, the Dearly Beloved, for photo assistance, advice, last-minute shopping and -- as always -- his invaluable editing.

Hana'ah: pleasure
Mashgiach: one who supervises preparation of food so that it accords with Jewish kosher standards
Rimon, rimonim (plural): pomegranate(s)
Techina: sesame seed butter
Za'atar: Middle-Eastern spice and herb combination of sesame seeds, sumac and hyssop
Mashal: example, in this case, referring to Torah insights
Weltanshauung: German word meaning "worldview" which, like many other things, is so much more beautiful when used in a Jewish way

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

You don't have to agree. Just THINK about it.

Yom chamishi, 8 Shevat 5771.

Important stuff from British journalist, Melanie Phillips.  My friend Noach, who suffers from being a genius, points out that she could stand to give a little more detail.  He's right, of course.  Therefore, go forth and study, after she reminds you that it's important to really look into the questions.

Hat tip: Alan Herman

And from Sha'i Ben-Tekoa of Deprogram Program:

"Israel, to be accepted by the international community, must 'dejudaize' itself. Never mind that there are officially 56 Muslim governments and states in the world, and 20 of them Arab states. The 'enlightened' in our time hold that for the Jews to have even one Jewish state automatically renders it a racist state."

"Israeli hasbara is a joke."  This is a battle for our home -- for the only Jewish home on the planet.  It's well past time to join the battle.  Learn facts.  Then, make up your mind.  Don't "think" with your heart.  Don't let me or anyone else do your thinking for you.

Time is surely running out.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"...where everybody knows your name..." #4

Yom revi'i, 7 Shevat 5771.
7 HaMa'alot Street, Jerusalem   Tel: 02-5004334

 I was at a Sephardi Israeli wedding a few weeks ago.  Our table was a blend of native Israelis and Anglo immigrants from Neve Daniel.  I mentioned -- not complaining, mind you, just stating facts -- that I hadn't had good steak since I'd left Baltimore, but that this was a small sacrifice to be permitted to live in Israel.

One of the Israelis told me I was mistaken, that one could get good steak in Israel.  I assumed that he has been eating watered-down Argentinian beef with soy fillers for most of his adult life, and simply doesn't "get it."  But I don't like to be rude, so I asked for more and better particulars.  He gave the names and details of a couple of places in Jerusalem.  He made "Ma'alot Chef Restaurant and Tapas Bar" sound particularly succulent.

One day last week, the Dearly Beloved and I decided to see if we could find Ma'alot, for future reference.  It is tucked away in one of the small streets off of King George.  As we approached the door, just looking for a menu and kosher certification, a beautiful young woman came out into the cold night air to invite us in.  We chatted pleasantly, and were so taken by her clear affection for this little restaurant, we assumed she might own the place.  We promised to come back.  (Payday was still a thing of the future.)

On yom rishon (Sunday, to you landlubbers), we arrived at around 4:30 for a late lunch.  We were happy to see that the charming young woman was in "her" restaurant.  She remembered us, and was very pleased to see us.  We in turn praised her attitude, and told her that treating us so warmly made us anxious to return.
Our new friend, Miriam.  Can't wait to tell her mama what a good job she did raising her.
We arrived at a perfect time to avoid both a normal lunch-hour and dinner crowd; so we got plenty of individual attention -- as impressive to Mishpachat Mizrachi as a well-turned steak.  The owner-chef, Gadi Yaari, came out to translate the menu for us.  He is very fluent in English, having spent a few years in New York, perfecting his trade at fine French restaurants.  The selection was vast and varied.  It was easy to see that Gadi is very proud of his art.

As we waited a not-very-long time at all for our meal to be brought out to us, we had the chance to look around the warm and inviting room.

After a short time, filled with attentive conversation from our waitress, her brother arrived.  Just as warm and friendly as his sister, he turned out to be an old army buddy of our Soldier Boy.
Another old friend of our children, who we hope will become a new friend of ours.
Talking about your kids with people who know and like them, and have shared experiences with them, is a great appetizer.  But soon came the meal.

Dining is Israel is not just falafel and shwarma.  One of the treats of dining out here is being offered salatim -- small, interesting and varied salads -- as an appetizer.  Called variously meze, tapas, "small plates," this Middle Eastern offering seems to be of Spanish origin.  I have often made a meal of tapas, as I don't need huge portions of beef and potato and bread to feel that I've had a meal.  So I asked for something that would give me a sample of many different dishes.  For a very reasonable price (50 shekels, which translates today to  around $14), I tasted some of the most carefully-crafted mini-dining experiences I have ever encountered.  (Please keep in mind that I dined in my share of five-star restaurants, back in the mists of pre-kosher past, at much higher prices.  Kids:  you ain't missin' nothin'.  We've got it all.)

Here are a few of the choices I finally settled on, for my first "test drive" at Ma'alot.  Go ahead.  Feast your eyes.

The duck breast in a bed of tiny leaves and dried fruits in vinaigrette was "to die for."  Forget steak.  This time.

Even the Dearly Beloved had to admit that the earthy, robust eggplant soup was perfect.

Talk about beautiful "plating technique"!

Can you say "steamed to perfection"?  Why are they so crispy?  Gadi:  "The most important thing to me is 'fresh.' I prepare everything when you order it.  Even the asparagus, I don't blanch ahead of time."  The tangy tomato was the perfect addition to the medley.

The little "meat latkes" mixed with leek were a delicate foil to more spicy dishes.  
Since this was a celebration, the Dearly Beloved also sprang for a couple of Tuborg Reds.

Other noteworthy dishes were mushrooms stuffed with olives (perfect!), excellent beets, a homemade and very fresh matbuka, and a light French roll from a bakery called Teller.  Baltimore alert: if you are visiting in Israel and miss Rebbetzin Goldberger's babaganush (or if THAT'S the only thing keeping you from making aliyah), Gadi's homemade chatzilim will help to make you feel better.  Smoky, delectable...  just like Rebbetzin used to make.
And lest you think that Ma'alot can't fix "man-sized" portions of anything, the Dearly Beloved ordered a perfectly-prepared salmon steak, with roasted potatoes and sweet/crisp green beans on the side.  He was totally satisfied.  (This feast cost a mere 64 shekels, about $18.  Not bad for elegant dining.)
The Dearly Beloved isn't satisfied with wafer-thin slices of anything, no matter how much you charge for it.
But as readers of this blog probably know, you don't make the "...where everybody knows your name..." category by well-prepared food alone.  Care and feeding is nothing without the care.  Miriam, our waitress, is a delightful human being who cares very much about her job, her customers, and doing whatever she is doing as well as she can.  Gilad, the humble bartender, turned out to be the Gadi's brother, and couldn't sing his brother's praises enough.  (Brothers who admire each other mean the world to us.)

Gadi and Gilad seem to have learned to work and play well with others in their parents' home.
Ready for the check, we were weakened by so much delicious food, to a point that we could not fend off Miriam's offer of dessert.  Especially when Gadi, with a gift for description, gave over details of the warm chocolate cake and chocolate soufflé on offer.

And because this was a celebration -- I said that before, right? -- Gadi didn't have to twist our arms too much to get us to sample a very special, high-quality arak to top off the meal.

This excellent little restaurant has only been around for about five months.  I give Gadi and Co. a bracha that they will succeed in attracting the kind of clientele that will keep them in business until Gadi is a very old and wealthy restaurateur.  He certainly knows his art.  We plan to visit often.  Hope to see you there.

"Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they're always glad you came..."  
-- from the "Cheers" theme, by Judy Hart Angelo and Gary Portnoy

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Todah Rebuffed

Yom rishon, 4 Shevat 5771.

One of our successful parenting techniques in the realm of aliyah with our teenangels was to remind them how much we love them, and want them to be comfortable.  "If Heinz ketchup makes aliyah easier for you, we will buy it.  And that goes for any products that you miss from America.  Just remember that if the US ever decides on an embargo against Israel, it will be the only embargo that has ever been consistently adhered to in history, and the products you love might not be permitted in.  So try to be flexible.  Abba and I are trying to train ourselves to do without American stuff."  The project was successful.  Our kids knew we cared about their feelings; but in a short time, they said things like "Heinz just doesn't taste as good as Osem."  Little by little, the whole family has started to prefer most things Israeli -- though Stunt Man always smiles broadly when someone brings him a gift of Planter's Peanuts.

There is one American commodity I would like to convince the Israelis to import, however.  That American product is "Thank you."
"Todah" means "thank you" in Hebrew.

Now, lest you think that I am speaking sarcastically from a place of not receiving sufficient gratitude -- quite the contrary!  I am actually talking about the almost obsessive inability of Israelis to accept the humble "todah."

I was in the US army, as was my husband.  "Blue" states, such as Maryland, don't make it public practice to show effusive gratitude to military service members -- at least not in the cities, and not at the airport.  So when I flew to Dallas for my work years ago, I was struck dumb and got a lump in my throat the size of Texas when I saw tens of people applauding soldiers who stepped off a flight from Afghanistan.  Since that time, I go out of my way to tell a kid in uniform that I appreciate what he is doing for us.  You should see the shy, sweet smiles I get from young US soldiers when they hear that message.

Naturally, since I've come to live in Israel, I am deeply grateful to the boys and girls who guard our borders and our cities, and make it possible for me to sleep at night.  I often say to an IDF soldier, "Todah al ha-sherut shelcha la-aretz sheylanu!"  Thank you for your service to our country.  If he is a child of immigrants, the soldier "gets it," and is grateful for my gratitude.  But if he's been in Israel for several generations, the conversation might go like this:

"About what?  What did I do?"

Your military service, defending our country."

[Closeup to look of total incredulity:]  "Everybody does it.  You have to."

"That doesn't mean I can't be grateful."  [Incredulity deepens here.]  "It is halacha for you to treat your wife with respect.  That doesn't mean she can't show gratitude that you do."  [Incredulity lightens only slightly at this point.]

"America'im," he says, with a shake of the head.

"Yeah -- can't live with 'em, can't kill 'em," I respond, quoting my favorite Tom Arnold line from the movie True Lies.  Now he really doesn't understand me, as few jokes translate easily between languages; so the conversation is over.

A sweet variation on this conversation happens when I go out with organizations such as Standing Together to take pizza and ice cream or hot soup to the soldiers at various checkpoints throughout Israel.  When we thank them, they immediately turn the gratitude back on us:  "No, we are thankful to you!  It's you who are doing so much!"

Rabbi Yisroel Miller, a prolific author on Jewish topics and nephew of the late Rav Avigdor Miller, says it something like this.  It is hard for human beings to accept gratitude.  We tend to say things like "it's not that big a deal," or "I didn't do so much."  Rav Miller says that when someone says "thank you" to us, there is only one correct response:  "You're welcome."

My rav, Rabbi Menachem Goldberger, goes Rav Miller one better (in my humble opinion).  When someone says thank you to him, Rav Goldberger says "Baruch tihiyeh."  This expression accepts the thank you, and reflects blessings back onto the person who expressed gratitude, sort of "you're welcome" with a bracha.

It is important for Jews to be grateful, and to share that gratitude.  Our very name -- Yehudi -- comes from the Hebrew word for gratitude.  Gratitude is fundamental to who we are, and means so much more than "thx."  It means admission that we know someone has given us a hand.  It means acknowledgement that we can't function without each other.  Without this small word, we fail to be as civilized as Hashem has asked us to be.

The Dearly Beloved pointed out another fact about rebuffed gratitude.  As Rabbi David Fohrman explains (in a long lecture that I cannot do justice to in this short essay), the reason it is hard for us to say "thank you" is that it creates an imbalance between us, one that our egos cannot easily countenance.  When we say "you're welcome," we are back in balance again.  (It works that way with "I'm sorry" as well.)  I paid you for the favor you did for me by acknowledging it.  If you refuse my thanks, the imbalance remains.

So while I'm not sure that we need every American product -- some expressions are a little more superficial than the Israelis can handle, and more power to them for that -- I would like to see the good ol' USA's heavy usage of the gratitude exchange become more prevalent here.

Our soldiers, airmen, sailors, policemen and firemen deserve to hear it.  So do our teachers and rabbis, our friends and spouses, and especially our children.  As the Dearly Beloved says to our sons:  "World peace begins at our table."

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

I hear you, George Santayana.

Yom revi'i, 29 Tevet 5771.

Do you know how much I cry when I think about how they never wanted us?

Forty-five years ago, as a young non-Jew, I believed what they told me: that the United States and Britain were always friends of the Jewish nation, Israel.  That the world together felt bad about the Holocaust, and found in it's great big loving heart, through the voice of that sainted body, the United Nations, that it was the least that could be done after the horrors of Hitler (yemach shemo) that the poor Jewish people should be returned to their ancestral Homeland.  When I learned these concepts, they made so much sense.  The kids today would say "Duh!"  The kids of a decade ago would call it a "no-brainer."  It was so obvious:  the beleaguered Jewish people should have their own State: and the whole rational world agreed.

I'm 53 now.  Not an impressionable kid anymore.  I have read too much history now to believe those lovely claims about the US and about Europe, and their part in Israel's redemption, at face value.  But it still brings tears to my eyes -- frustrated, uncomprehending tears -- when I am confronted with historical proof that most of the world did not want the Jews to survive -- even after the Holocaust.

Hat tip to my friend and neighbor, Esther Caplin.

And, of course, much of the world still doesn't.  Does it?  The arguments have changed.  The rationalizations have changed.  But the hatreds (at their most honest) and the abstentions (at a more refined, but equally culpable level) still exist, with as much ferocity as ever.

I am grateful to G-d that I can still cry.

Yemach shemo:  May his name be erased.

Monday, January 3, 2011

"There is a space for you... in the fortress of kindness."

Yom sheni, 27 Tevet 5771.

We've all heard the expression.  But have you ever felt your heart dance?  I did.  Last night, as I listened once again to the soul-stirring music of my favorite women's band -- indeed, one of my favorite Jewish bands.
Ayelet Hashachar, raising spirits and funds on behalf of the Carmel fire victims' families
Ayelet Hashachar, currently the premier Jewish women's band in Baltimore (since the loss of our beloved Dina Blaustein, z"l, who helped all of the Baltimore Jewish women's bands grow musically and spiritually) played last night -- totally free of charge for the band -- at Heichel Shlomo in Jerusalem.

Thanks to Frank and Danielle Sarah Storch of Baltimore, The Council of Young Israel Rabbis in Israel, and the I.D.F. Widows and Orphans Organization, my friends from Baltimore were able to come to Jerusalem to support efforts to lessen the horror for the Carmel fire victims' families.

One of the speakers of the evening was a woman who lost her husband in 1982, during the First Lebanon War.  "Several IDF officers came to my door, and told me that my husband, my best friend, was dead.  For a time, I ceased to be Nava, and became 'the widow'.  I saw myself only as the mother of our small daughter..."

We cried quietly, together, one woman with one heart.

Nava Shoham founded, with other widows, The I.D.F Widows and Orphans Organization to help "young widows" to cope with their losses, to feel less alone, to deal with the burden of making some kind of future for their fatherless children.  As only those who've "been there, done that" can help -- with our help.

Another lovely lady spoke to us about the Ahavas Yisrael Women's Project, which seeks to teach practical lessons in the "how to" of bringing out our higher, more loving selves.

Several individuals (Susan Taragin and Neve Daniel's own Daniel "Mush" Meyer among them) and these foundations deserve so much credit -- but this is a post about my friends in Ayelet Hashachar -- and about the varied and vibrant community of women before whom they performed last night at Heichel Shlomo.

 I remember being at their very first concert.  They were well-loved, and warmly received.  And yet -- when their signature number, "Stand Up," was played -- only a few of us stood.  I know it was not because the band's performance was lukewarm -- anything but! -- or because the ladies in their hometown audience didn't appreciate them.  It's just that in some circles, to stand and possibly call attention to oneself is so strongly discouraged that it doesn't occur to the majority to think that if we ALL stand, no one is embarrassed.

Last night, most of the ladies -- to include some who found it physically very challenging -- got up on their feet, one woman with one heart one set of sturdy high heels.  Women from Chareidi backgrounds, women from the Dati sector, woman with no apparent religious or political leaning; Israeli women, Anglo women, teenage girls filled to the brim with the irrepressible joie de vivre of youth.  Young ladies waved cell phones in the air in unison, while their elders laughed and reminisced about waving lighters for lesser causes.  An Israeli friend from the yishuv sang out to me, with eyes shining, "Zeh haya maxim.  Maxim!"  (It doesn't translate.  But it basically means she thought the performance was "tops!")  We all stood together, danced together -- and perhaps brought Moshiach a little closer by being so darn together.

The deeply spiritual women of Ayelet Hashachar would not wish for more.  It is what they pray for, and play for.  All of their songs remind us that we have a day-to-day relationship with Hashem, available to each and every one of us.  Their passionate music, sometimes to their own lyrics, sometimes to the lyrics of Judaism's most brilliant bards, reminds us that we are first and foremost spiritual beings, with the collective power to actually end sickness, destruction, fear, and to bring world peace -- just by starting with being kind to one another.

Tall order?  Yup.  And you thought "Chosen People" meant G-d likes us better.

For ladies only:  to gain inspiration for your job of saving the world, pick up the first CD of this remarkable group of musicians here:  I personally promise that your heart will dance.