Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Time to Rejoice

“My favorite animal is steak.” 

One of my all-time favorite Disney movie scenes is from Jungle Book, where the four buzzards are discussing what they want to do. 
It used to be my favorite scene because the vultures were supposed to be the Beatles and the Beatles were my all-time favorite band, but now it’s because they (the vultures, not the Beatles who are actually half dead) so closely resemble my kids. It’s not just the long hair, or the funny accent (supposedly Liverpudlian, which my kids decidedly do NOT have – just an accent in which most words are indistinguishable one from the other). It’s not even that the kids, like vultures, eat anything that’s dead. It’s the “Whatcha wanna do?? “I dunno, what do YOU wanna do?” and then one of them comes up with an outlandish idea, which the others ignore, and they all go back to the “Whatcha wanna do?? “I dunno, what do YOU wanna do?” which so closely resemble my kids.  
My kids can have this conversation 14 times a day on subjects as diverse as what to have for supper, (Kid 1: whaddya want for supper?” “Kid 2: I dunno, whadda YOU want for supper?” Kid 3: “Steaks!!!” me: “We’re not having steaks.” Kid 1: So whaddaya want for supper?” Kid 2: “I dunno, whadda YOU want for supper?” etc.); who is going to wash the dishes/hang up the laundry/sweep the floor (Kid 1: You wanna wash the dishes or the floor? Kid 2: I dunno, what do YOU wanna do?” Kid 3: “I wanna eat steaks!” Kid 4: I washed the dishes last week!” Kid 1: “So, whatcha wanna do?? etc.); what movie to watch (Kid 1: “whatcha wanna watch? Kid 2: “I dunno, what do YOU wanna watch? Kid 3: “Dictator!!!” But let’s get some steaks first.” Kid 4: Seen it. Whatcha wanna watch? etc.). I could go on, but I hope you get the general idea.

Most of the time, I don’t hear any of it. I’m busy eating supper (usually not steak), doing the dishes, or watching a movie (with no steak). However, at times, this excess verbiage gets frustrating, especially when we are planning to take a trip for the day. “Where ya wanna go?” I dunno, where do YOU wanna go? “Let’s go eat steaks!” Etc.

During Chol HaMoed Sukkot and Pesach, the State of Israel is awash with places to go, things to see, and festivals to partake in. It seems that every town, moshav, village, park, zoo, library, mall, movie theatre, and laundromat has some sort of festival or special 'happening' going on. We've been to a potato festival, a tomato festival, several other vegetable festivals, a fruit and vegetable festival, wine festival, beer festival, a vegetable shuk, a flower shuk, a Nabatean shuk, dances, animal shows, finger puppet theatres, a butterfly display, and a garbage festival. We've been to archaeological digs, art galleries, museums, and memorials. We've had picnics at the beach, in national parks, and next to rivers and lakes that were full of camel pee and probably the polio virus. You would think that after so many years in Israel, we’d have about covered just about everything there is to do here. 

But this is Israel, and miracles happen. Just as there was always room for all of the People of Israel in the courtyard of our Holy Temple during the holidays, so there is always something to do during Chol HaMoed in a place we've not been to in the State of Israel today.

30 minutes south of Beer Sheva is the town of Yeruham. The best directions to get to Yeruham are: drive south and just when you begin thinking “who in their right mind would live out here”, turn left.

One of Israel’s first development towns, Yeruham was founded in 1951 near the site of what is said to be the well from which Hagar (Abraham’s second wife) drew water to save the life of her son Ishmael. The town’s first residents were Romanian immigrants, closely followed by immigrants from North Africa, India, and Persia (Iran). Today, the population numbers close to 10,000 with more immigrants from the former USSR and Ethiopia.
There are no traffic lights in the town, and rumor has it that there is only one elevator, which is situated in the health clinic. I think they charge money for kids to ride up and down. Notwithstanding traffic lights and elevators, Yeruham has some of the best high schools in the south. In addition, every year during Sukkot, the town hosts both a Music and Poetry Festival and an Ecology Festival.

Who can pass up an Ecology Festival? Officially named Green by the Lake, the festival is held next to Yeruham’s lake – an impressive body of water, considering its location deep in the Negev desert. To sweeten the deal, neither my daughter nor I had ever been to Lake Yeruham.
Lake Yeruham with a desert view
There were several hundred people in the park by the lake when we arrived. The festival was in full swing. There was a bird watching corner, and a guy selling magnets, a tent with dozens of drums where dozens of kids banged away with delight, bike riding, arts and crafts made from recycled garbage, and the other such entertainment. In addition, there were performances by various entertainers. We went to hear the group Tararam, which turned out to be a lot of fun.
Afterwards, we strolled near the lake and watched the fishermen standing just down from this sign:
No fishing
 The book Kohelet, which we read on the Shabbat of Sukkot, says that there is “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; (Kohelet 3:4). Sukkot is called the Holiday of Rejoicing – a time to laugh and dance. What better way than at Israel’s myriad festivals, where we celebrate G-d’s gifts to us whether they be animal, vegetable, or mineral (steaks, cakes, and lakes).
 The Jewish holidays are meant to be celebrated in the Land of Israel. Here, one generally doesn't have to worry about the weather, or vacation from work and school, or the availability of kosher food. The last thing we have to worry about is finding something to do. The only problem is deciding which festival to attend. Oh, and where the best steaks are. May our year be full of such dilemmas!

Chag Sameach!!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Happy Happy Holidays!!

אַחַת שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת ה' אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית ה' כָּל יְמֵי חַיַּי לַחֲזוֹת בְּנֹעַם ה' וּלְבַקֵּר בְּהֵיכָלוֹ:
“One thing I asked of Gd, that shall I seek: That I dwell in the house of Gd all the days of my life; to behold the sweetness of Gd and to contemplate in His sanctuary.”  (Psalms. 27:4)
I once wanted to become an atheist, but I gave up. They have no holidays
Henny Youngman

It is the holiday season in Israel. Every year, for a month, the usual hectic pace of life slows down. The motto here in the HolyLand at this time of year is “Acharei HaChagim” – after the holidays. Nothing happens until after the holidays.
The school year has started, but, until acharei hachagim, serious studying does not truly begin.
Extra-curricular activities, evening classes, and University studies only begin acharei hachagim.
Home projects, redecorations, and many major purchases are postponed until acharei hachagim.
At work, when I asked for a new black pen, I was told that office supplies would come in only acharei hachagim. I used a yellow marker to write a memo and received a lovely reply in Crayola Periwinkle.
In recent years, this trend of postponing events until after the holidays has gained momentum.
I even heard that the IDF has requested that Syria refrain from attacking till the beginning of October. I cannot confirm this, but it seems reasonable.
So what is everyone doing if everything is pushed off until acharei hachagim?
Stores are full of holiday shoppers buying essentials for the holidays: pomegranates, sheep heads, and Christmas decorations.
613 mitzvot

Pomegranates are one of the seven fruits of Land of Israel that are mentioned in the Torah. [The other six, just for edification are: wheat, barley, grapes (for wine), figs, olives (for oil) and dates (for honey. And yes, I know, the first two aren’t really fruits, don’t be pedantic.] Pomegranates ripen in the early autumn, and it is customary to eat them on Rosh HaShana. It is said that the pomegranate has 613 seeds, the same number as there are mitzvot, and we eat of the fruit as a symbol of our desire to have the ability to perform the mitzvot.
There are a million different recipes for pomegranates; salads, chicken, juice, even liqueur. This is what I do with pomegranates: I wash them off my clothes. Hence, I also have the need for stain remover as pomegranates stain something terrible. As a matter of fact, pomegranate juice can be used instead of a Crayola when you can’t find a real pen though pomegranate is not actually a Crayola name.
It ought to be.

Sheep heads
The Rosh in Rosh HaShana means head, therefore it is logical that there is a custom to eat a head of an animal on Rosh HaShana. We ask to be the like the head and not the tail (שנהיה לראש ולא לזנב) i.e., thinking not wagging…The majority of families who keep this quaint custom usually suffice with a fish head. That, in my opinion, is gross enough. As an avid and religious non-eater of fish, I refuse to have the stuff in my house. Instead, my family eats gummy sharks (see last year’s blog). This year, however, my son decided he really needed help in not being a tail (believe me, he doesn’t wag nearly enough to be mistaken for a tail) and he went out and bought and prepared a big fat salmon head, and then surprised me with it. I surprised him by vomiting all over the kitchen floor. Well, not really, but it was close.

A ram complete with Shofar
Fish head
There are some families for whom partaking of a fish head is for sissys. These heroic households will partake of nothing less than a sheep or – more accurately – a ram’s head.  This is to symbolize the shofar, which is made from a ram’s horn. But full-grown rams are apparently hard to find, so a male lamb’s head is used instead.

I mean really, a lamb’s head?  Images of Bo-Peep arise
And where does one procure a lamb head? Perhaps more importantly, who is the grisly executioner who beheads the little lambs?
Sheep are not widely raised in Israel, and it is for milk products rather than meat, so I don’t have a clue where the heads come from. I do know that, right before the holiday, I was unhappily jolted to find boxed heads of lamb in the supermarket – next to cow’s tongue, appropriately enough. The boxes were surprisingly small – certainly the shofar doesn’t fit in there – and seemingly smaller than a salmon head (which is a quite large fish. How does it fit into one of those little cans?).
I’m sticking with gummy sharks.
Christmas Decorations
Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are by far the most famous of the Jewish holidays, followed at a bit of a distance by Pesach/Passover. I contend that this is because of the part food plays in the celebrations, or lack of food in the case of Yom Kippur. Nevertheless, the festival of Sukkot, which comes five days after Yom Kippur, is every bit as important as Pesach (despite being told in my youth by a car-pooling mother who resented having to pick us up early from school on Erev Sukkot that it’s not a real holiday. People don’t go to shul. “Well”, I replied then, “you can”). The emphasis of Sukkot is the Sukkah, a small temporary structure built outside the home made of, well, whatever you want; wood, cloth, bricks, cement, fiberglass. Once, we were out on a tiyul with another family and built a sukkah by lining up the two cars and throwing some branches on top of them because it’s the roof that’s the important part. Called schach, the roof must be made from anything that grew from the ground, but is now detached. Branches and large leaves can be woven together to make a roof or you can simply buy a bamboo covering. Live branches still attached to a tree are not allowed. See here for more info from Chabad on how to build a Sukkah.
However you made your sukkah, one is required to dwell in it for the seven days (eight days outside of Israel HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA) of the holiday. Dwell means eat and sleep, but, being Jewish, really it means eating. Unlike every single other Jewish holiday, there are no customary foods to eat on Sukkot, though we try and eat some of in-season fruits of Israel. We also are able to ingest dust that falls from the schach (and in the years that it rains during Sukkot – not often thankfully, here in the Land – we get to eat actual mud), ditto bits of branches and leaves, the odd insect or two (more serious, as insects aren’t kosher), and tinsel.   
An integral part of the Sukkah is the decorations. And this is where tinsel comes in. In the last few decades, Israeli culture has become more and more global. Where once the family Sukkah was decorated by the children of the family with handmade crooked chains made by cutting out bits of paper and pictures draw in nursery school and lovingly kept from year to year, now it seems to be mandatory to decorate your sukkah with commercial (imported) decorations. Booths selling sukkah decorations spring up all over town in the week before the holiday. Tinsel if by far and away the most popular, with a close second being blinking multi-colored lights. I’ve also seen candy canes, green and red miniature trees and angels, but these are not particular popular, only amongst the population who really don’t have a clue.
On sale
It is a might disconcerting to enter a sukkah and see tinsel and blinking lights hanging from the roof and walls of the sukkah. But it does make it sparkle! I find that most Israelis associate tinsel with Sukkot rather than a different religion’s holidays so there is nothing not kosher about it. It just takes time to get used to the idea. Our family, instead, decorates our sukkah with flowers, pictures of different places in Israel and dishtowels with funny pictures—a recipe for rabbit stew, marmite, and different recipe for haggis, which, I suppose, is made up of the leftovers after you’ve had the sheep’s head.
There are other things that one needs to shop for during the festival season; white clothes for prayer services on Yom Kippur, the Four Species needed for Sukkot, and, of course, ever more food.
There’s enough to keep us occupied till acharei hachagim, when things get back to what passes for normal around here.
Then we’ll worry about gas masks.
Wishing all of Am Yisrael a joyous, meaningful, healthy, holiday season!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Food for thought

When a Jew eats a chicken, one of them is sick
Tevye der milkhiker (Sholom Aleichem)

Rosh HaShana literally means the head of the year, or the beginning of the year. In the Torah, the holiday is not called Rosh HaShana, but Zichron Teruah [a memorial by way of blasting (trumpets/shofars)]. It is also known as Yom HaZikaron (Day of Remembrance). It is the day on which, according to Jewish belief, Adam and Eve were created. More significantly, it is the day that the world is judged by G-d according to its actions of the previous year. After a month of introspection, Jews turn to G-d in repentance and seek mercy – for him/herself, for all of the People of Israel, and for the world. Teshuva, tefilla, and tzdaka (translated inaccurately as repentance, prayer, and charity) will, we believe, avert ‘evil’ decrees.
Chicken soup doesn’t hurt either.
We say that Rosh HaShana is a spiritual holiday, that the sounding of the shofar brings us to higher levels of the divine, that true prayers, true repentance, and true charity will bring goodness to the Land and to the People of Israel. All this is true. I deeply believe it.
But let’s face it. Rosh HaShana, like all Jewish holidays (with the notable exception of Yom Kippur) is about the food. Ask any Jewish mother.

When I was growing up in the Old Country, my mother would host about 15-25 people for the two nights of Rosh HaShana. She would start the meal with gefilte fish/chopped liver, continue on with chicken soup, and then the main course of four different kinds of meat (including an enormous turkey, veal, sometimes tongue, and boring old chicken – which was neither boring nor old); either potato knishes or potato blintzes (depending on time limitations); and always, always!!! there was a Jello mold.
A Jello Mold

The meal ended with 13 different kinds of cakes, pies, and cookies. And fruit compote.
My mother would work for a month preparing all these fancy dishes. And of course, it was all served on her really-good-china-dishes-she-bought-when-she-got-married-which-were-on-sale-and-were-such-a-bargain-she-couldn’t-pass-it-up. They had to be hand washed. And stacked with pieces of foam between each dish. And guests were not allowed to touch them.
Not me, I would tell myself. In my home, I’m not going to go so crazy. No turkey, no veal, no knishes. That’s way too much like work!!! Who needs all this food??
Living in Israel helps me keep to my word. Whole turkeys are hard to find. Veal is ridiculously expensive. I don’t know how to make knishes.
So all I made for this holiday was:
*        One humongous pot of chicken soup
*        Six chickens
*        Two kilos of meatballs
*        Two and a half kilos of chicken breasts (schnitzel)
*        Two kilos of ‘buffalo’ wings
*        Six kugels
*        Five kilos of potatoes in various forms
*        Various vegetable side dishes including, but not limited to, tzimmes, cabbage, ratatouille, roasted vegetables, fried eggplant, and green beans almondine.
*        Three liters of ice cream
*        Three pies and two cakes

You see!!! I did it!! NO JELLO MOLD!! And no fruit compote.
I almost made a lemon meringue pie, but thought to myself “you promised you wouldn’t go crazy”, so I didn’t.
And my good dishes (the four dinner plates that are left of them after 20 years) DON’T have to be stacked with foam in between.
And it only took me three weeks – not four like my mother.
(Also, of course, my mother’s meals tasted about 700 times better than mine, but hey, nobody’s perfect.)
Of course, the fact that less than a quarter actually got eaten; that the freezers are groaning in protest; that I have enough food for the next six Jewish holidays; that if Syria should attack (chas v’chalila) there would be no food shortage in OUR house for about 3 months is not my fault.
Nobody ate enough. I don’t quite understand why people stopped eating well before their stomachs actually burst open… I don’t even think they had to open their pants button. One person loosened their belt, but only one notch.
I mean, is this Jewish??
I have vivid memories of guests at my mother’s house, sprawled across the couch, eyes glassy, tongues hanging out, belts and pants wide open. That’s how it should be! Not this namby-pamby “Oh, I’ve had enough thank you! Everything was delicious, but really, I don’t want any pie that you went especially to the shuk for to pick out the best apples.”
Ok ok, so people are smarter and healthier today than in my mother’s hey-day of cooking and eating extravaganzas.
Does that make them better Jews?
Certainly, my freezer doesn’t think so.
Next year, I’m sticking to salads and parsley. That’ll show ‘em.
Next year's Rosh HaShana's meals

And maybe a jello mold or two.
Wishing all of Am Yisrael a Shana Tova U’Metuka filled with only goodness and sweetness in all forms!!