What Makes Jewish Food Jewish?

April 11, 2014

 

Chess Pie

Chess Pie

“People assume that the Ashkenazi way of doing food is the crux of what Jewish food means. The reality is that Jewish food is a text, and there’s different types of text. Oral and written, of course. And then you have the text of the land of Israel. Then comes the diaspora itself. In other words, it’s your personal identity with the text, the idea of Israel, and where we live.” – Michael Twitty, in an interview for Chow, 4/10/2014

Michael Twitty teaches remarkable Torah. He is Jewish, African American, a food historian and chef, and he has a way with words. The interview above (click that link!) is chock-full of interesting insights about Jewish food.

If I ask a random American what “Jewish Food” is, likely they’ll say something about deli food, or bagels. However, Jewish food is much more varied than that. There’s Sephardic food, replete with rice and rich flavors, and the food of the Israeli street (falafel, anyone?) Digging deeper, there’s the food in every Jewish home, which is as individual as Mom’s best recipes and Dad’s skill with the grill. Jewish food is any food Jews eat around the Jewish table, which over time becomes infused with Jewish meaning.

An example: I grew up in the American South, and on holidays we had something called chess pie.  Every slice is a sliver of gooey sweetness. The first few years I was a Jew, I made the typical Ashkenazi things for Rosh Hashanah, but eventually I switched over to making my chess pie, because I don’t know of any sweeter dish on earth. For me and my family, it’s a Rosh Hashanah dish now, and every bite includes not only sugar, butter, and spices, but the hope for a sweet year. I swear it made the pie taste even better.

Another example, this one for Passover: A friend gave me her mother’s recipe for brisket, a very elaborate and wonderful old Hungarian recipe. I made it, and tinkered with it, and fiddled with it, and a few years ago I realized that it had morphed into something entirely different, a brisket that was a mix of the original recipe and the techniques I learned from my grandmother.  Here it is, and unlike the chess pie, it can be made kosher for Passover:

Passover Brisket

beef brisket, approximately 1/2 lb per person
2 cans tomatoes, with liquid
1/2 potato per person, carrots, and onions to cover the bottom of your roasting pan
fresh ground pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon mustard

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Buy brisket for the number of people you have coming. I normally figure 1/2 pound per person.

In a deep roasting pan, put a layer of cut up potatoes, carrots, and onions.

Cut the brisket into as many pieces as you need to to handle it easily.

Brown the brisket on all sides on the stovetop over high heat. Brown the fatty side first, then brown the other sides of the meat in the fat.

Put the browned pieces of brisket in the roasting pan on top of the vegetables.

Sprinkle with fresh ground pepper, 1 teaspoon of paprika, and 1/2 teaspoon of ground mustard.

Deglaze the browning pan with a cup of wine (I use red, white is OK, do not use a sweet wine.)

Add 2 large cans of whole tomatoes, cut up, to the browning pan and bring it to a near-boil.

Pour the liquid over the meat and veggies, cover the pan (either with a lid or foil, but get a good seal) then put in the oven.

After 15 min, reduce heat to 300.

Allow it to cook until the meat is falling apart. Normally I cook it for 8 hours or even more.

Remove the brisket to a carving board and allow it to rest for 30 minutes before slicing. Slice perpendicular to the grain.

Strain out veggies, reserving liquid, and put them in a separate bowl.

Put the liquid in a saucepan on the stove and heat to reduce it for a gravy.

 

Are there any foods that have taken on Jewish meaning in your Jewish home? Share recipes if you are willing!

Image: Chess Pie, by Kristen Taylor. Some rights reserved.


What Question Will You Ask? #Blog Exodus

April 8, 2014

blogexodus

What question will you bring to your seder table?

Most people have heard of the Four Questions at the Passover seder, but those are intended only to “prime the pump.” The seder is designed to take us deep inside the experience of Exodus, and questions are one of the most potent ways for us to experience it personally.

Here are some questions you might bring to your own seder table, but I hope you will think of some of your own, as well:

  • What plagues does the world face right now?
  • What are the family stories about Passover?
  • In which parts of our lives do we feel enslaved?
  • What is freedom? Freedom from, or freedom to?
  • What single thing could I do this year to become more free?
  • What single thing could I do this year to make someone else more free?
  • What could modern day leaders learn from Moses?
  • Where or what is “Egypt” today?
  • When in your life did you feel most free?
  • When in your life did you feel most enslaved?
  • What does it mean, to experience the Exodus as if you had really been there? Is that possible?
  • Are there parts of my life that are broken and hidden, like the Afikomen?
  • What would I like to be different about my life by next Passover?
  • What about my life do I want to keep the same through next Passover?

Can you think of other questions?  I invite you to share them in the comments!

Want to join in? We’re sharing #BlogExodus for the next 2 weeks. All you have to do is use the hashtag and there are suggested prompts on the graphic above (feel free to grab it). Maybe you just want to post on your Facebook or Twitter about these topics…or maybe you want to try #Exodusgram, posting photos related to these themes? I am late to the party but I’ll be posting my #blogExodus posts here from now till Passover. Many thanks to the clever rabbi who started this pre-Passover celebration of words and images, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, who blogs at Ima On and Off the Bima.

 


Have You Been Saved?

April 8, 2014

Sometimes I look at old posts and think, gee, I could have done better with that. Tonight I’m posting a new and improved version of something from two years ago.

“Have you been saved?”

I grew up in the Southeast, so I’ve been asked that question a few times.  ”Have you been saved?” is a way of asking:  are you religious?

I am here to tell you that I have not been saved.   However, I have on my shoulders the ohl hashamayim, the yoke of the covenant, and therefore I am on a mission to save what I can of my tiny little corner of the world.  I am not on that mission by myself.  I am on that mission as one of the Jewish People.

Before you get all excited, understand that this mission is no conspiracy, no Grand Plan, nothing so fancy. The mitzvot are a list of commandments: keep the Sabbath, be kind to animals, teach your child to swim, don’t murder, keep your word, make your house a safe place, pay laborers fairly and on time. Some of the commandments are lofty (keep the Sabbath) and some are very homely (put a railing anywhere someone might fall without one.) Some are hard (comfort the mourner) and some are fun (celebrate Passover every year.)

My commitment as a Jew is to action more than belief.  Individual Jews believe a lot of different things: even the most orthodox of us have latitude in our interpretations.  But all of us, every single one of us, is called to see to it that when we leave this earth it is in better shape than we found it.  We cannot do that with belief or thought.  We can only do that with action:  action with our choices, action with our bodies, action with our use of resources, action with our speech.

God redeemed the Jews from Egypt, and then, at Sinai, God handed us our half of the deal:  we are here on earth to perform mitzvot, to fulfill our sacred duties, to act.  It is in doing, in acting, that we will be sanctified, we will become holy.

So no, I have not “been saved.”  I’m here in the Jewish mode, in the active voice:  I’m here to work.  I’m here to act, when I see my neighbor bleeding.  I’m here to act on behalf of the widow and the orphan. As Hillel taught us in Avot 2:6, “in a place where there are no menschen, be a mensch.”  Mensch is Yiddish for a decent person, a good person, a person you can trust.  Either way, action, not passivity, is what Hillel advocates.

May this Passover be a time of rededication to that sacred mission:  to perform mitzvot and make a real difference in the world, a difference for the better.  It is for this that we were brought out of Egypt.


Clean or Dirty? Check Your Context! #BlogExodus

April 5, 2014

blogexodus

 

Once upon a time, I was a potter. I spent all day, every day, covered in clay. My coveralls were coated with clay. My fingernails had semi-permanent deposits of clay. My account books (this was in ancient times, before personal computers) had little daubs of clay punctuating the neat double-entry accounting. I had clay in my eyebrows, for crying out loud. But I did not feel a bit dirty, because it was CLAY!

In the pottery, the whole dirt/not dirt thing was flipped on its head. Clay was not dirt. Clay might get dirty, contaminated by some stray item (a bit of plaster, or my lunch) that fell in the slurry bucket, but clay was not dirt.  In the home where I grew up, a bucket of clay was a bucket of dirt. In the studio, the same bucket of clay was a precious raw material that had cost good money or hard effort. Dirt, on the other hand, was stuff that was out of place or out of control, or both. Bits of plaster were especially dirty, since they could cause a pot to explode in the kiln. However, plaster that stayed where it was supposed to be, in a drying cast, was a good and valuable thing.

I learned, in the pottery, that what is “clean” depends on context. It is a designation that depends on the rules of the context I am in at the moment.

The experience of running a pottery was a perfect setup for Jewish thinking about “cleanliness.”  Whether it is ritual cleanness (“tahor”) or ritual uncleanness (“tamei”) or cleaning for Passover, it’s all about context. All the grain products in my house have a use-by date of 13 Nisan, the day before Passover, because after that date, it all becomes dirt.

Tonight we are going to have pasta for dinner, while that pasta is still clean – on 14 Nisan, it will become CHAMETZ, and it shouldn’t be in the house (DIRT!). One way to get rid of it is to eat it up before Passover. Another is to give it away. A third possibility is to compost it. A fourth possibility is to destroy it or sell it. Whatever I do with it, it must be gone before Passover.

This goes for all grain products: anything made of wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye. Chametz includes liquids like beer and whiskey, foods like pasta and cookies, even the processed foods I keep for convenience in the cabinet. It all has to go, because after 13 Nisan, it’s essentially dirt. The stuff I normally see as dirt also has to go, because it might have chametz in it: dustbunnies, dust, crumbs, the shmutz on the tile backsplash behind the stove, all of it. This is the original deep spring cleaning: get rid of all the chametz! Get rid of the dirt!

Right now, my house is full of chametz, perfectly harmless at the moment. I have a week to get rid of all of it before it turns to dirt. Pardon me while I go CLEAN!

Want to join in? We’re sharing #BlogExodus for the next 2 weeks. All you have to do is use the hashtag and there are suggested prompts on the graphic above (feel free to grab it). Maybe you just want to post on your Facebook or Twitter about these topics…or maybe you want to try #Exodusgram, posting photos related to these themes? I am late to the party but I’ll be posting my #blogExodus posts here from now till Passover. Many thanks to the clever rabbi who started this pre-Passover celebration of words and images, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, who blogs at Ima On and Off the Bima.


Four Cups

March 30, 2014

446337280_f4d7ba7a6c_zRabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Women are obligated in these four cups [of wine or grape juice on the first night of Passover], for they, too, were included in that miracle. – Pesachim 108a-b

Today I had the privilege of study with Sara Wolkenfeld of Sefaria.org (if you aren’t familiar with Sefaria, check it out – AWESOME source for Jewish study!) as part of a group from the Women’s Rabbinic Network. This was one of the texts she shared with us, talking about “women’s inclusion in the miracle” in texts from the tradition.

The entire teaching was marvelous and too complex for a single blog post, but I thought I would share this fragment with you. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was a 3rd century rabbi, teaching at Lydda (roughly where Ben Gurion airport stands outside Tel Aviv today.)

Traditionally, women are not obligated to perform all mitzvot [commandments.] Rabbi Yehoshua is saying here that one mitzvah women must perform is that of drinking the four cups at the Passover seder. He takes it as a given that men have this obligation, since often when the Talmud talks about “everyone” it really means “all men.”

So perhaps one could rephrase this: “Everyone is obligated in the four cups – yes, really EVERYONE.”

So, in this modern day and age — what?

The point of the four cups is participation in the seder. Everyone is there to take part in the enjoyment of the holiday. Everyone is there to tell the story, to feel as if he or she were personally delivered from Egypt. But if some people (women or men!) are back in the kitchen all evening, getting the next thing ready, making everything “perfect,” how will they fulfill their obligation of the four cups? It isn’t enough to “knock ‘em back” as you dash from table to kitchen – no, everyone must participate!

This raises some questions about our seders. It is easy to think of the seder as a performance: a beautiful ceremony that includes a beautiful meal, especially since there will be relatives and guests at the table. It is tempting to show off complicated dishes. But if our focus is strictly on a “performance,” what about the participation? When will the cook feel free from Egypt?

Remember, the first Passover did not involve “good china.” We stood around the table, our bags at the ready, munching the matzah and getting ready to run. This Passover, let’s plan our seders so everyone is free to recline, to enjoy the cups, to tell the story, to sing the songs — and if that means a slightly simpler menu, and everyone (or more of us) pitching in to help, then that is what we should do!

Image: CC Dan Zelazo some rights reserved.


What’s Your Personal Egypt?

March 27, 2014

Where in your life do you feel trapped?

Passover is about the Exodus, sure, but it is also a time to take a good look at the places in our lives we feel stuck, or feel trapped, or feel enslaved. The first step in leaving Egypt is to recognize that it is a place of enslavement.

If we read the Bible carefully, we can see that there were some things about Egypt that were safe and secure. After they left, the Israelites missed the food. They missed the certainties of life. They missed predictability.

But we also know that when they were in Egypt, they cried out in pain and misery.

So let me ask again: where in your life are you in pain?

Don’t worry about “what to do about it” right now. Just notice:

  • Is it internal or external to you?
  • What does it feel like?
  • Is it physical, mental, or emotional? Or is it some combination?
  • Are you alone in this or do you have fellow sufferers?
  • When does it happen?
  • When did it start?
  • Is there any end in sight?

I cannot promise you an Exodus in the next month. But by taking time to notice your own personal Egypt, you have taken the first step.

 

 

 


Your Seat is Waiting!

March 26, 2014
Your place is waiting at a seder table somewhere.

Your place is waiting at a seder table somewhere.

Do you have your seat yet at a Passover seder table yet? Well, why not?

Possible reasons, and my replies:

1. I don’t think I can do this by myself. You are absolutely right, you cannot do this by yourself! And if this is your first seder, you definitely do not want to be the host. However, did you know that it is a mitzvah to have guests at one’s Passover table? Therefore, by making yourself available as a guest, you are making it possible for someone to do a mitzvah. So get cracking and find yourself a seat! (See directions below.)

2. I am shy, and inviting myself to someone’s house or going to a community seder feels weird. Yes, it will feel weird. The holiday of Passover is designed to feel weird. Think of it this way: Shyness is your personal Egypt. Allow the routines and traditions of Passover to lead you out of shyness, at least a little way. Like the horseradish, sometimes it will taste uncomfortable. Like the charoset, it will also be sweet. And it may be as messy as matzah crumbs. But it will be OK.

3. I hate family dinners with my relatives. OK, you have two choices: You can see if this year, you can bring some new aspect of yourself to the table, or see some new aspect of the relatives, and have a new Passover this year. OR you can go to a different seder and have a different experience. Both choices offer pluses and minuses, and only you can tally those, but either way, you need to make your plans!

4. I hate matzah, gefilte fish, and those Passover desserts. OK, here it is, right from the rabbi’s keyboard: you are required to eat a small piece of matzah and to drink the wine or grape juice. It is OK to pass on the gefilte fish and the desserts. Just be sure to compliment the cook on something at the meal, and offer to help clean up. Now stop kvetching and find yourself somewhere for seder!

5. Oy, oy, oy, those seders go on forever! Wow, another kvetcher! So this isn’t your first seder, and the ones you’ve been to were too long? Get some friends together and have your own seder! There are short Haggadahs* on the market. Or you can use a regular Haggadah and decide ahead of time what you are going to shorten. Or figure out what parts of the seder are really meaningful to the group of you, and do those. Then congratulate one another on having left the Egypt of seders that go on forever. No, I am not kidding.

6. Insert your excuse here. Is there some other reason you do not yet know what you are doing for a Passover seder? Leave me a note in the comments!

* A Haggadah is a script for the Passover seder. It is not carved in stone, and there are many different ones on the market. You can treat it like Shakespeare and read every word, or you can have an Improv Seder. Up to you.

HOW TO FIND A PASSOVER SEDER

1.  Jewish Family  If you have Jewish relatives nearby, then there’s your seat. If they aren’t “doing seder” this year, ask if anyone’s interested. There may be someone who knows how to do it that was just waiting for you to ask.

2.  Jewish Friends Jews are obligated to observe Passover at the seder. It is socially acceptable to tell your Jewish friends that you are looking for a spot at a seder table. It is not socially acceptable to be noticeably picky about it. If you will be a guest at someone’s seder table, read Seven Ways to be a Great Passover Seder Guest. 

3. Call the Synagogue Many synagogues organize a matchmaking thing before Passover, and will match people with families who are willing to host. This tends to work better if you are already known at that synagogue, but it’s worth a try even if you aren’t. If it’s a liberal synagogue (Reform, etc) they may have a Community Seder to which you can purchase a ticket. Do not show up at a Community Seder expecting to buy a ticket at the door: they usually sell out, and often there is no way to handle money at the door on a holiday. CALL AHEAD – in fact, call NOW.

4. Call the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Center Like the synagogue, they may have a matchmaking service OR a Community Seder. Again, for communal seders you usually are expected to buy a ticket. If you really can’t afford the price, ask about discounted tickets.

5. No Federation or JCC nearby? Look for any local Jewish institutions, call and ask them for help.

With all these possibilities, the earlier you start looking, the likelier you are to find a place at the table. A good seder is worth the trouble, and as I said, guests at the table are a Passover mitzvah. Good hunting! (And don’t delay, time’s a-wasting!)

 

Image: “Passover 2013″ by Ellen Davis -Attribution-ShareAlike License


Mop Bucket Enlightenment? – Yes, Really!

March 24, 2014

Mopping

We’re deep into a season for spiritual growth. Jewish households worldwide are in a frenzy of cleaning. Other Jewish households are guiltily thinking they should be in a frenzy of cleaning. This raises the question, “Where is the spiritual benefit in all this mundane activity?

Passover is an experiential holiday: if you are not a “text person,” this is the holiday for you! Every step of the way, we are offered multi-sensory experiences for learning truths about life and Judaism: tastes, smells, textures, sights, and sounds.

During the seder, we hold up the maror, the bitter herb, symbolizing the bitterness of slavery. We say, “In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt.” The bitter taste of horseradish is one way to taste that experience.

Cleaning for Passover is another. We feel the mop handle in our hands, and hear the vacuum cleaner. It isn’t fun to do the whole house at once, to search out every possible crumb. If every member of a household pitches in on Passover prep, cleaning and cleaning in our “free” time, shlepping goods to the food drive, digging out the boxes of Passover dishes, boxing up things that shouldn’t be used during Passover, vacuuming everywhere, we get a little taste of manual labor, no matter how sedentary our day jobs. It’s hard work that we are commanded to do: a taste (just a taste) of servanthood. Our sore muscles will read us the Haggadah, if we do it right.

We are seeking out every crumb of stale, puffed-up junk in our lives: not just the cookie crumbs in the toddler’s pockets, but the old grudges in our hearts and the stale notions in our heads. (Trust me, these things smell.)  The mindless work of cleaning offers us undistracted time to reflect on what stinks, if we are brave enough to take it.

This kind of cleaning is humbling. We see our slavery to bad habits, whether they are eating habits or housekeeping habits. We must notice our clutter. We must notice everything, because we have to look for chametz in it!

Now perhaps you are not a person who cleans for Passover. But I encourage you to do at least a little, because it is a uniquely Jewish spiritual task. If you are thinking, “but I just can’t!” try reading Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt. It’s a beginner’s approach to the spiritual journey of Passover.

If we do this, when we reach the 14th of Nisan, we’ll be ready for a fresh beginning, ready to walk out into a life renewed, unburdened by chametz. Then, indeed, we can celebrate!

Image: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by reallyboring

 


Miss Out on Your Jewish Childhood?

March 23, 2014
Queen Esther

Queen Esther

Some of us missed out on a Jewish childhood. We were raised in another tradition, or no tradition at all.

Some of us missed out on parts of it, or something happened that messed everything up.

Let me tell you a little secret: it’s never too late to have a Jewish childhood.

  • Want to have a bar or bat mitzvah? Talk to your rabbi about studying for an adult bar mitzvah. Yes, you can have a party, too.
  • Depressed that you never got to play dreidel? Invite people over for a night of Chanukah games and latkes!
  • Mad that you didn’t get to go to Hebrew school? It isn’t too late to take Hebrew classes.
  • Sad that you’ll never ask the Four Questions at the seder table? Host a seder with adults, and schedule yourself to chant them – you can do it!
  • Longing to dress up like Queen Esther on Purim? Or like a firefighter? Why not?
  • Yearning for a bubbe or a zayde? Talk to your rabbi about adopting a “grandparent.” Someone needs you as much as you need them.
  • Envious of youth trips to Israel? Ask your rabbi to help you find an affordable program open to your age group.
  • Wish that someone had taught you how to keep a kosher household, lay tefillin, make matza brei? Ask a friend or take a class!

You are the person in charge of your Jewish experience. If there’s something you want to learn, there’s someone teaching it. If there’s something you want to do, there’s a way. Will it be easy? No, but it might not have been easy as a child, either (ask any bat mitzvah if that Torah portion came easily!)

It isn’t too late. You might be just in time!

Image: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Joe King


Do You Know a Way Out of Egypt?

March 20, 2014

 

  • In 2012, 49.0 million Americans lived in food insecure households, 33.1 million adults and 15.9 million children.
  • In 2012, households with children reported food insecurity at a significantly higher rate than those without children, 20.0 percent compared to 11.9 percent.
  • In 2011, 4.8 million seniors (over age 60), or 8.4% of all seniors were food insecure.
  • 1 in 6 Americans face hunger on a daily basis.       – “Hunger Facts”

“Food insecurity” is a social-science way of saying “hunger.” It refers to a specific kind of hunger, not the I’m-on-a-diet kind of hunger, or the I-missed-a-meal kind of hunger. Food insecurity is the kind of hunger that accepts any kind of junk as “food” because something is better than nothing, that has no idea when the next meal is coming, that has to choose between feeding the teenager and feeding the toddler. Last year, 49 million Americans were that kind of hungry.

Someone in my neighborhood is that kind of hungry. I have no way of judging accurately whether the elderly panhandler outside the supermarket is looking for whiskey or for food. I have no way of judging accurately whether the teen who is eyeing my purse a little too closely is doing it because he is hungry.

Funds for food stamps have been cut. Unemployment funds have been cut. I cannot know for sure which of the people I know are bleeding from those cuts. Maybe you, reading this, are bleeding from those cuts. If so, I am very, very sorry.

But if you have a home, and you have a refrigerator, and it isn’t empty, please consider that this time before Passover is also a time for tzedakah, for that peculiarly Jewish form of “charity” which means “justice.”

Egypt, in Hebrew, is Mitzrayim, the narrow place.  Originally that probably referred to the shape of the land, laid out on the banks of the river Nile.  But there are Egypts for every generation, and food insecurity is one of the Egypts of ours. Today, getting ready for Passover, lead someone out of Egypt. There are several routes:

Or search your house for chametz, the food that we do not eat or even own during Passover. Take unopened packages and cans to a local food drive. If you need help finding one, call your local food bank. Don’t worry that a sack of flour is not a can of soup. If it is unopened and unexpired, someone can use it.

Today, lead someone out of Egypt. You know the way.

Image: License AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by FW18

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