Thursday, March 27, 2014

And these are the ordinances that you shall set before them

And ye shall observe the feast of unleavened bread; for in this selfsame day have I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt; therefore shall ye observe this day throughout your generations by an ordinance for ever.
Exodus 12:17

It’s a well-known axiom that the day after you wash your car, it will rain.

Of course, here in Israel, where rain is considered a major blessing, this doesn't happen. In fact, one can find people washing cars every day in the hope of seeing a bit of precipitation. Can’t but hope, but it doesn't usually help.

Instead, this being Israel, where miracles happen, we live by a different axiom: the day after you wash all your windows before Pesach, there will be a major sandstorm.

True picture of my plants
Never fails.

(There are actually several such weather-related laws in Israel: a heat wave on Yom Kippur, rain on Purim, and heavy winds on Lag B’Omer, but I digress.)

After much research (20 minutes of talking on the phone to my friend E), I discovered a few more hard and fast rules pertaining to the observance of Pesach in Israel. I feel I should share in case some people believe that these things happen only to them. Here they are (in no particular order):

1. Children who won’t eat pasta year round suddenly develop a craving for it – 1 to 2 hours after giving away the last package to the local charity.

2. Those same children lose the craving approximately 10 seconds after you buy more pasta, which is on sale at the supermarket—six packages for 15 NIS. You are now stuck with six packages of pasta minus four noodles.

3. A cheap can opener bought on the principle that you can ‘get by’ with it as it only has to open about five cans a year will, by the end of the holiday, break down and refuse to open the one last can you need. 

4. When, because of the above, you are forced to open that last can by using a can punch left over from the old days when you opened cans of juice, the jagged edges created will cut your hand and make you bleed into the can of mushrooms.

5. If, after cutting your hand on the jagged edge of a can for 25 years, you finally break down and buy the most expensive and ginormous can opener you can find with plastic ergonomic handles, a stainless steel blade, and its own little box to store it, it will never work.

6. A key piece of equipment (e.g., a knife, spatula, wooden spoon) that you bought especially for Pesach will hide itself and won’t be found, even after you've cleaned the entire house – again. It can only be found in one of two ways: buy another, or wait to the end of the holiday and it will magically appear when you put all the Pesach stuff away.

7. The last box of cornflakes is always finished three days before the holiday, leaving you to eat leftover salad and stale crackers for breakfast.

8. Even when, on a normal basis, you expertly separate eggs, the one time a bit of yellow gets into the whites so that the whites don’t whip up is the time you are making a cake for your in-laws.

9. After spending about 20,000 NIS on food and cooking for 72 straight hours, there will be at least one person in the house who will open the fridge and announce, “I hate Pesach, there’s nothing to eat!”. 

nothing to eat
10. It’s impossible to remember the tunes to the songs in the Haggada that you sang last year, but you remember the ones you learned in school 40 years ago, which are NEVER the ones your spouse/hosts know.

11. Nobody ever remembers exactly how to kasher the microwave.

12. Every year, resolutions are made to be more organized / to get help / to take advantage of more or not to buy any pre-packaged food (depending on the household) / to plan better/ to have more time to enjoy the holiday. This never happens.

Feel free to let me know what laws I've missed out on so that I can celebrate Pesach to its fullest!

In the meantime, enjoy, appreciate, have fun, and relax.
And don't worry about the sandstorm. Dirt is not Chametz.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Key is Being Organized

Housework can't kill you, but why take a chance?
Phyllis Diller

The Hebrew word ‘erev’ means evening. You say erev tov when you meet someone walking after the sun has gone down.
Erev also means eve, as in erev Shabbat (the day preceding the Sabbath). In that context, erev can be used for any special day.

However, like all things Jewish and Israeli, erev has taken on its own special connotation. In traditional Jewish homes, erev means the time it takes to prepare for the special day.

So while erev Shabbat might start on Thursday afternoon, erev Chanuka or Purim might start about a week before that holiday, depending on how organized the particular household is, and how many soofganiyot and/or hamentashen one has to bake.

In contrast, Erev Pesach can start anywhere from one month to 363 days before the holiday, depending on how hysterical I feel.

This can be used both positively and negatively.
For example, that kitchen drawer that attracts various fliers, teachers’ notes, charity solicitations, obsolete phone chargers, old x-rays of someone’s broken arm, stamps, bits of colored paper with scribbled unnamed phone numbers, unfinished soduko puzzles, artwork from kindergarten (the artist is now 19), pens with green ink, old calendars from an insurance company, photographs of unknown people in an unknown place, a map of the Maldives, and paperclips need not be organized right now. Its almost Erev Pesach; it can be done then!!

Or – and this is my favorite – “I can’t cook tonight – it’s Erev Pesach”. I've been known to say this in January.

On the other hand, jitters have been coming earlier and earlier each year and the house grows bigger and bigger as the holiday approaches faster and faster and I have to face the inevitable truth: There are more cupboards to clean, more furniture to vacuum, and more floor to wash each year. Erev Pesach gets longer and longer. 

However, I have it down to a science. Over the years, I have devised a system so that I don't go into a cleaning-fume-induced delirium by trying to get everything done at the last minute. 
There are several stages to preparing for Pesach.

The first stage is mentally preparing myself for what lies ahead. This stage, which can take anywhere from a week to up to six months, comprises staring at walls, muttering, walking in circles, crawling into bed and weeping, and, occasionally, banging my head against the nearest wall and cursing the day I was born.

The next stage is what I call the action stage. Others might call it the list stage, but that’s because they don’t understand the action it takes to make lists. I like to make lists. Lists calm me. Lists anchor me into reality. Making lists leaves me with less time to bang my head against any wall.

First, I make a list of the lists I need to make. This in itself can be quite exhausting, especially if I include the list of the foods my guests don’t eat, a list of gifts I would like to receive, a list of all the stuffed animals we have in the house, a list of books I need to read (by author) and movies I would like to watch but can’t find online, and a list of different ways in which I can procrastinate.

I then list all the rooms of the house by size, and then list what there is to clean in each room. I look over the lists and cross out half and write ‘dirt isn't chametz’.

I list all the windows in the house. I hand that list over to someone else. Someone else throws the list in the garbage.

I list all the things I have to buy for the holiday: cleaning supplies, food, wine, clothes, a fridge, new tiles for the bathroom wall, a sheep, and cotton balls. 
My dream list

Listing complete, I begin the next stage of cleaning.

I organize my lists in order of priority. First on my list, obviously, is a trip to the bookstore. Then I can really get down to business. 

My problem with Pesach cleaning is that I've barely finished preparing, making, and cleaning up for the holiday, when boom, ten months later I have to start thinking about it all over again.

I’m going to have a cup of tea. 


Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Proud Mother's Purim

The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honour.
Esther 8:16

Whenever anyone asks me why I made Aliyah, I give the standard Zionist Israel-is-the-only-place-for-Jews answer. But really, the answer is much simpler. In Israel, you only celebrate one seder on Pesach, but you have two birthdays.
There is also a two-day Purim. On the 14th of Adar, most of Israel celebrates the joyous holiday, but on the 15th, it is celebrated in Jerusalem. So, if you plan ahead, and play your cards right, you can actually manage to get out of the whole thing and not bother with the whole bash at all.

It’s not that I don’t love Purim. Of course I do, I'm not a grinch! Not liking Purim would be akin to not liking kittens, or babies. Oh. Right. 

It’s just that, no matter how carefully I prepare and plan, Purim always seem to end in tears. Usually mine. When the kids were young, they would request a specific costume; a bird, a pirate, superman. I would go to the fabric store, purchase the required shiny material in different colours, painstakingly glue feathers on an old sweatshirt, lovingly sew capes and hats, and even cover sword-shaped bits of cardboard with aluminum foil. And I would do it all as if I didn't have anything better to do, like finally clean out the storeroom, or scrape off the soap stains from the top of the washing machine, or begin the 500-page opus I planned to write if only I didn't have to sew Purim costumes all the time.

And the night before the gala school Purim carnival, the kid(s) would look at the dreamy costume I had whipped up and nonchalantly tell me that that wasn't what s/he wanted. “Make another one, this time in green.”  Tears would ensue. The kids would hand me tissues, but stood their ground.
One year, everyone had to have a cape. I had four different capes in three different colors. Two had lining. And then, to piss me off, they all exchanged capes. Superman had a BLACK cape, and the magician thought he could fly. Frodo’s Dracula cape (with the red lining and a cardboard collar that stood up – what a genius I was!) dragged on the floor. Wasn't that a hoot.

Sometimes, I considered buying a costume. Little-girl costumes were easy. Everyone was a queen. There were costumes for a queen of hearts, a queen of daisies, a queen of roses, a queen of all the flowers, a queen of wolves, a queen of cookies, a Spanish queen, a Chinese queen, and the queen of strawberries. But my girls were much too sophisticated to be a queen. The queen of gnomes was not for them, nor the queen of butterflies. They were too worldly, too practical, too snooty to be a queen. 

No, my girls wanted to be vampires! Zombies! A person murdered in their nightgown with blood dripping out of their mouths!!! How cool is that!

Of course, once the girls got older, THEN they wanted to buy an available costume. Most of the costumes for tweens (what a stupid word) were cultural; a Spanish flamenco dancer, or a Chinese farm girl. But all these girls, according to the costume, seemed to also work nights. So you would have a Dutch working girl with wooden shoes, or a Japanese kimono-clad working girl, or even an American working girl who played baseball during the day….

One year, one very young child told me the night before Purim after I made a lovely clown costume, that, simply, he wouldn't be caught dead going out of the house in the costume but he wanted to be a thpathe alien. Looking at my gorgeous-to-die-for little baby, his almost blonde hair falling into his eyes, his head tilted at an angle, my heart melted and I told him “no chance, buster." 
"Mom", said this three year old who had watched ET 23,457 times, “I need to be a thpathe alien.”

As it happened, the very next day, I happened upon a tiny space alien costume that was on sale for very little money – like 20 NIS ($5), so I bought it. It was the first, and remains the only, time I bought a costume. I brought it home and showed my son, who was so excited it was worth every bit of the 20 NIS. Finally, I was going to have a satisfied child.

The only problem was, the costume made him look not so much like a space alien, but like a giant frog. And sure enough, next to the tag that said ‘WARNING! This costume is liable to spontaneously combust when exposed to strong winds’, there was another tag that said ‘Frog Prince’. I’d been had. 

This brings me to mishloach manot – those gifts of food that families give to one another, usually made up of cookies, candies, and chocolates. These gifts make the day almost nightmarish with all the yelling and pushing.

“That chocolate is MINE! You can have the toffee!”
“I saw that cookie first! It’s not fair!”

And that was just me and my husband. You should have heard the kids.

Admittedly, it’s a bit creepy that we've named a special Purim cookie after the villain (he-who-must-not-be-named except in cookie form) — hamantashen in Yiddish means Haman’s pockets, and Oznei Haman in Hebrew means Haman’s ears. (There’s no English word for this particular treat.) Eating a hamantashen symbolizes the destruction of Haman (may his name be blotted out!) much the same way we blow whistles and rattle graggers and stamp our feet every time his name (may it be blotted out!) is mentioned during the reading of the Megillah. 
But it’s like naming a frosted doughnut ‘Bin-Laden’s Beard’ or a chocolate bar ‘Stalin’s Mustache’ (may their names be blotted out!). 

Purim is truly a magnificent and joyous holiday. May we be blessed to celebrate in health and joy and with the selfless love of Queen Esther, that the way should be paved for the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash and the coming of the Masiach, bimheray be'yamenuh.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Lime of My Life

A friend never defends a husband who gets his wife an electric skillet for her birthday.
Erma Bombeck

Cooking is among my top 287 things to do, just above waking up in the middle of the night to swat mosquitoes, and just below holding a poopy baby.

Actually, cooking and I have a very complicated relationship, mostly because I love to eat. I’ve met women (it’s always women) who utter such gibberish as “I forgot to eat lunch” (Whaaaaa? That’s like forgetting to breathe. I forget my kids’ names, birthdays, and genders more than I could ever forget to eat. Of course, I forget their names, ages, and genders more often than I forget to buy parsley, which is always), or “I don’t know why, but I’m just not hungry. Ever.” (Some people are meant to be put out of their misery. Early and fast.)

When I was a kid, my mother would allow me (under strict supervision) to ‘help’ her in the kitchen. This help usually meant grinding nuts and washing dishes. When I was a bit older, I would take advantage of any absence of my mother – usually when she went food shopping, which, because of my and my siblings’ love of eating, was fairly often – to quickly burn some pans and fill up the kitchen with smoke. This did not endear me much to my mother, who would usually banish me from the kitchen, if not from the house completely, and I would then have to take refuge in my basement lair, aka my bedroom where I would dream of what's for supper.

I did a bit of cooking when I was in University because my mother was not around. But the kitchen in the dorms – shared by about 50 girls, none of whom had their mother around – was the size of a card table (folded) and was not exactly conducive to elegant cookery. Also, any food left out for more than 15 seconds was stolen, usually by the boys who also didn’t have their mothers around. Of course, my food was safe after the first time when it was returned with a note: ‘OK, you got me! Good one!'.

It was only when I got married that I began to cook for real. My new husband not only worked 15 hours a day, but thought that salt was an adventurous spice and pepper(!) was really out there! The cooking – if I wanted to eat, which I did – fell to me.
Me in the early days. Yeh, right
I took my responsibilities seriously. I looked up recipes in cookbooks. I did the shopping carefully, looking for bargains. I tried new foods, new spices, new combinations, new taste sensations! However, my enthusiasm was dampened pretty early on. First, as previously noted, my husband worked 15 hours a day, coming home well after I was already starving and not caring what was on the table. Second, he was a bread eater. Before he ate any ‘real food’, he would partake of three or four slices of bread topped with butter and cream cheese, yellow cheese, or Marmite (shudder). Then, he wouldn't have much room left over for the main course. He ate bread with everything; vegetables, pasta, casseroles. He would stick a piece of bread into a pita, or just eat a bread sandwich.

Once the kids were born, enthusiasm dropped even further, because they ate, well, nothing. Really. Some kids are picky eaters, I understood that. But my kids seemed to be non-eaters. They didn't eat fruit, vegetables, cereals, meat, poultry, or dairy products. Nary a cornflake or cheerio crossed their lips. They didn't eat pasta, soup, or mushed up apples, not juice, fish, or beans.  No humus, or raisins, or jam. Not even Marmite.

But, of course, they had to eat something, or they would have died, right? Everyone (my mother) assured me that as soon as they were hungry enough, they would eat.

It turned out that they were secret eaters. They were actually consuming vast quantities of mud, leaves, pen tops, Barbie doll heads, Fisher Price people, and, their special favorite, elastic bands. 'Chewy', they would say when asked why they were eating elastic bands.
Lunch is served

I was told (by my mother) that they would grow out of this, eventually. And of course they did! As they got older, they began to eat some of the main food groups, if the main food groups are all made out of sugar.

Whatever; my cooking enthusiasm waned.

Other family members didn't help. One close family member ate, – in contrast to my kids – well, anything that was put in front of him. He would have no idea what he was eating. I could (and did – using the kids' leftovers) put a bowl of mud with live worms in front of him and he would dive in. “Chewy” was all he’d say.

On the other hand, his wife was a somewhat picky eater. “Don’t go to any trouble”, she would tell me, “I eat anything”. Except broccoli. And cauliflower. And chunky soup. And unpeeled fruit and vegetables. And peeled fruit and vegetables. And fried onions. Oh, and salted pickles. And chicken breasts, which she sure is delicious but are really too dry for her. And sushi, spicy food, grapefruit, squash, and cola. And gazpacho is not her cup of tea. (‘Of course it’s not your cup of tea’, I once pointed out to her, ‘Your cup of tea is in the tea cup next to you. That’s gazpacho’. I suppose I don’t blame her for not liking me very much.) 

Not a cup of tea
 Already dampened and waned, my enthusiasm came to a screeching halt.
Cooking and I just didn't get along anymore.

Which is why, I have to admit, I was less than delighted to be invited to a ‘Cookbook’ party by my good friend B. I like parties, and I love B, so I said I would go despite the fact that a poopy baby somewhere needed to be held. 

The idea of a cookbook party is that all the invitees bring a dish chosen by the hostess from a particular cookbook. This way, you can try out several recipes from the cookbook without actually cooking them all and see if you want to buy the cookbook. Isn't that a lovely idea? 
It also meant that I was going to have to make an untried dish and serve it to other people none of whom were related to me. 

Ah, well. 

The dish chosen for me was "Raw Root Vegetable Salad" made with fresh, uncooked root vegetables. 
"To get the look of this salad, you have to use a mandoline to slice your veggies paper thin, or as thin as humanly possible."
Now, not only did I have to look up what's a root vegetable (don't all vegetables have roots??), I had to look up 'mandoline'. I always thought it was a kind of instrument (like a bouzouki or a lute), or was it the former president of South Africa?

I continued perusing the recipe. (Isn't peruse a lovely word? My friend A taught me to use that word in everyday speech. It means read, but why use a simple word when I can look vastly more educated and snootier by using words nobody uses ever? I'm practicing.)

  • 2 Carrots – check
  • ½ C Olive oil – I have a bit left so check
  • 2 Tbsp Sesame oil – I’m going to misread that and think it's Canola oil, so check
  • 1 Fennel – ick, but ok, I’ll have to go buy one. 
  • 1 Red beet – I also have to buy, but not a problem. 
  • 1 Golden beet – Sorry, what? What the heck is a golden beet? It sounds like something in a fairy tale; The Farmer Who Planted the Golden Beet. I went with turnip (it’s a root vegetable, I looked it up), so check. 
  • Zest and juice of one lime – um. Oh dear. Israel grows approximately 1846 different kinds of fruit and vegetables, enough to feed, not only the population of the State, but also half of Europe. This list includes ridiculous fruits such as patayas, loquats, koubo, persimmons, passion fruit, and pomelo. You can even get, in season, blueberries and raspberries—berries that was simply unattainable in Israel until very recently. What Israel does not grow are: coconuts, pineapples, and limes. Imported coconuts and pineapples, however, can be purchased in most large supermarkets. Limes cannot be gotten for love or money. As I didn’t have either love or money,  a lemon was going to have to do. And yes, I know, a lemon isn't a lime. My kid suggested I pour Sprite onto the salad. You choose. 
  • Sprinkle the whole mess with chopped hazelnuts and pistachios. Sorry, almonds.....
Israel is a lime-free zone
Armed with a lime-free raw root vegetable salad that was bleeding beet juice all over my shoes (“Who’dja kill”? asked my husband when he saw the beet-splattered counter top. “The woman from work who forgets to eat”, I answered placidly. It turns out that a lute doesn't cut vegetables very well), I set off to B’s house to meet the other women bringing the other food.

One by one, the women arrived with their offerings. Eggplant caviar, three-colored humus, rice with basil and apples, citrus chicken wings, carmelized fennel chicken and a beautiful cranberry and rosemary flavored challah were just some of the delicacies on the groaning table. Even though I don't know what carmelized means, and beet juice seemed to be flowing freely, the meal was superb. The table looked elegant, the wine was marvelous, the company peerless, and the conversation erudite.

Dessert was cake. Of course it was cake. Julia Child, a famous chef and author of many cookbooks, and an obviously very wise woman once noted: “A party without cake is just a meeting”.
The cake was 'sweet potato something something cake' and though it was truly delicious, sorry B&E, cake with vegetables in it - unless the vegetable is the cocoa bean - is not the same.

Despite the lack of chocolate cake, the evening was wondrous.

This is what I learned:

  1. When a group of women come together, the combined energy, strength, and power is formidable;
  2. Women appreciate one another, and by appreciating another, we can appreciate ourselves;
  3. Women have the ability to empower one another;
  4. Women know instinctively that the more love one gives, the more love one has to give;
  5. Getting together with ‘sistahs’ (as my friend J called us and what my mother used to call 'the girls') is essential to my emotional health.

So, while my enthusiasm for cooking hasn't improved, my overall enthusiasm has.

I don't know really how to end this blog, so I'll end with this, dedicated to all my extraordinary, life-affirming sistah friends (you know who you are - you're reading this, aren't you) (oh, and my real sisters too):

You and I are sisters. Remember, that if you fall, I'll pick you up. As soon as I finish laughing. 

My world-famous lime-free raw root vegetable salad made with the former Pres of South Africa

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Pools of Sorrow Waves of Joy

And how can you achieve such concentration? By recognizing that everything you do is important to God, and is one vital piece of the larger picture of your life.
Rebbe from Lubavitch

Last week was a rather disheartening week for me. Nothing too important, just personal stuff that did not go well and caused me to search for justification for my entire existence. You know, that blah blah stuff like: what’s the purpose of my life? Why am I here? And that most funnest of all thoughts: what do I want to be when I finally grow up?

We all know that life isn't always fair. Lynn Anderson declared that nobody is promised a Rose Garden. Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans, said John Lennon (just before he was murdered). "Cheer up", my Dad (z"l) would tell me, "things could be worse"! (And I would cheer up and sure enough, things got worse...). Der mentsh trakht un Got lakht, (Man proposes, God disposes) my mother always said. I could go on, but my mother likes to have the final word.

But, I sometimes wonder, can’t anything ever go the way I would like?

Of course, there are lots of very good things in my life, but…. Always the but.

Over Shabbat, I realized I had to get over myself and cheer up. Yesterday was Rosh Chodesh Adar. Mi she’nichnas Adar, marbim b’simcha. When Adar enters, our happiness should increase. So say our sages. But sometimes it’s hard.

Purim is in two weeks. Purim is one of the few holidays I happen to love, mostly because there’s not that much cooking. I also love the story of Purim, the action, the costumes (on the kid TV shows), and most especially the characters.

Several years ago, I wrote a very short comparison between the two queens of the Purim story, Vashti and Esther. I’m not going to include the whole thing here but this is what I wrote about Esther:
Orphaned, separated from her people, Esther begins her lonely existence in the palace, forsaken, it seems, even by G-d, for no miracle ever comes to save her.
The miracles and salvation of Purim happened through Esther, but not to her. She lived out her life in the seclusion of the monarchy, far from her people.

If a miracle did not save heroic, righteous Esther, why am expecting something to happen to me?

We know, of course, that G-d did not forsake Esther; that her name and her deeds have lived on for 200 generations. But Esther did not know that then.

We can’t always see why things happen. Neither can we see what contribution we are making to the world around us. We might feel useless, unneeded, even disliked (I’m writing in the royal ‘We’ here, but really it should be ‘I’). 
But we also don’t know what a word in the right direction might do to another person. We don’t know how far one small act of kindness, like ripples in water, can spread. 
That is where we can always find our joy. Then our joy can increase by increasing our good words, our acts of kindness, our tolerance, our decency, our love. 

There is no doubt that at times we fail. At times we feel like failures.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe also says if you did things right, celebrate that you have a G‑d who appreciates your good work. And if you fell on your face, celebrate that you have a G‑d who does not abandon you when you fall. 
Wishing all of Am Yisrael a joyous month and may we be blessed and united with the boundless love of Esther; that the way should be paved for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple and the coming of the Mashiach, speedily, and in our days.