Key

Challot

I'd never before made a shlissel challah -- a challah shaped like a key. 

Some Ashkenazi Jews have a custom of baking shlissel challah for the Shabbat that comes after Pesach. It's a segulah, an almost magical folk practice: a kind of embodied prayer for parnassah (prosperity).

But why a key? Some teach that God holds the key to our good fortune, so we bake key-shaped challah as a way of asking God for what we need. One of our four new years opportunities is in Nissan --  an auspicious time to ask.

Others cover their shlissel challah in sesame seeds representing the manna that fell to sustain our ancient ancestors during the wilderness wandering after the Exodus. That, too, hints at prosperity.

Or maybe we do this because counting the Omer is a journey through 49 spiritual "gates" and each gate has a key. The shlissel challah represents the key to unlock the next step in the journey toward Torah.

Or because Pesach is meant to instill awe, and the Gemara compares awe to a key, saying: anyone who learns Torah but has no awe of heaven is like a treasurer who doesn't have the key to the door of the bank. 

The practice of baking a key-shaped challah turns out to have origins in early Hasidism. Hasidism is the world of ecstatic-devotional practice that began with the Baal Shem Tov, born in Poland in 1698.

One of his students, R. Pinchas Shapiro of Kovitz (b. 1726), taught that during Pesach and shortly thereafter, the gates of heaven are open. This challah focuses our prayers on (re)opening those gates.

R. Avraham Yehoshua Heshel, the Apter Rav (b. 1748), sees this as a mystical prayer to open the "gates of livelihood," as they were opened for our ancient ancestors when the manna stopped falling. 

Or maybe it's connected to Song of Songs, which many read during the week of Pesach. Verse 5:2 pleads, "Open for me, my sister." Does this key open a doorway to God -- or into one's deepest room of the heart?

Some press an actual key into the challah and bake it into the bread. I recently brought home a ring full of old keys from my mother's desk, and I briefly considered embedding one in the loaf. (But I didn't.)

I did my best to shape my usual challah dough into a key shape. I always sing Shalom Aleichem while kneading. While shaping, today I sang p'tach libi b'Toratecha -- "open my heart to Your Torah."

And as it began to rise, I sang along with Nava Tehilia's setting of Libi Er.  Ani y'shenah v'libi er: kol dodi dofek! "I sleep, but my heart wakes: the voice of my beloved knocks."  Or, in my own words (in Texts to the Holy):

Your voice knocks.
Like a magnolia
I open.

 

 

Sources for some of the above teachings can be found here and here.

Image: from a google image search. 


Fine Dining

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The Italian place I remember
had dark walls, and candles
in cut-glass red votive bowls.
I thought the owner was Polish.

He and my dad were buddies,
talked business, smoked cigars.
I wore black-patent Mary Janes,
drank Shirley Temples, feasted

on baskets of crusty bolillos:
French bread reimagined
into perfect torpedoes
by Mexican hands.

That's where Dad taught me
how to relish soft-shell crab,
and the names of big wine bottles
like Jeroboam and Methuselah.

All I knew about Methuselah
was that he lived a long time,
maybe forever. I thought
Dad would too.

 


 

The restaurant that inspired this poem was the original Paesano's. Here's a reflection on the place written at its 50th anniversary, and here's an oral history from Joe Cosniak. I went to junior high and high school with the daughter of co-owner and chef Nick Pacelli, of blessed memory. 

The photograph above came from Vintage San Antonio - A Photo History (FB). Meanwhile, bolillos are a Mexican roll which some trace to the period of French colonization in Mexico. I baked some today. Mine aren't as beautiful as the ones from Paesano's, but they're still pretty good.

Obviously my household of origin didn't keep kosher. I don't eat soft-shell crab anymore, but I remember loving them when I was a kid. Shrimp Paesano, too. Maybe it's just as well: let them be a memory, along with Dad's cigar smoke and the way he laughed with his friends.


Unmoored

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My parents in Moscow, late 80s or early 90s. 


Everything feels unfinished. Every thought that comes to mind is a sentence half-spoken. I jot down one clause -- "the death of a parent casts a long shadow" -- and then I don't know where to go from there. 

Pesach is coming sooner than I think. I start a seder menu, then my efforts trail off. I'll have one vegetarian, one picky eater, and one diabetic. I can't think of a good main course to suit all of us.

I open a book I've read before, Black Sea, by Caroline Eden. It's a travelogue with recipes. She writes about how surprisingly Jewish the food of Odessa is. Tsimmes and forshmak are Ukrainian foods.

She describes sunny afternoons, the still air of quiet museums, pastel-colored architecture slowly decaying, literary stories of ice cream. Today the streets are filled with sandbags and barricades

At the end of the Odessa chapter she offers a recipe for black radishes and carrots with caraway and cider vinegar and honey. I have those things! But what to eat them with? I run out of steam again.

Why am I struggling to concentrate enough to get even the simplest things done? Why does everything feel dulled? My friend's reply is gentle: "Do I need to remind you, you're still in shloshim?" Oh.

This feels different from grieving my mother. When Mom died, the sorrow was sharp and intense, the emotional equivalent of a gaping chest wound. Dad's death lands differently, but it still lands.

I keep returning to the mental image of a door closing. I feel like a game piece that has been invisibly advanced on the board. As though my parents, when living, had stood between me and mortality.

In some ways, they're always with me. I greet Mom when I pass by her photo, or her honeymoon purse from 1954, or the ceramic mezuzah in my hallway that came from her desk. I talk to her all the time.

I will learn to talk to Dad, too. And yet I can't call them on the phone or hug them. Their siblings are still here, and of course my own siblings are still here, but my world feels qualitatively different. 

Yes, this twitchy sense of distraction and incompleteness is grief. My world has shifted on its axis and I haven't altogether regained my footing yet. I feel unmoored and drifting in my little boat.

I'm not lost; I can see the shore. But I don't have a paddle, and I don't think trying would get me there anyway. I have to trust the tides and the simple passage of time to bring me home.


The history of the bagel and the antisemitism of now

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On Shabbat I was reading up on the history of the bagel, and I ran across this: 

In that era it was quite common in Poland for Jews to be prohibited from baking bread. This stemmed from the commonly held belief that Jews, viewed as enemies of the Church, should be denied any bread at all...

The shift started to take place in the late 13th century [with] the breakthrough code that came from the Polish Prince Boleslaw the Pious in 1264 that said, "Jews may freely buy and sell and touch bread like Christians."

(Source: The Secret History of Bagels in The Atlantic. Bagels: A Surprising Jewish History at Aish is also good.) I'm always a little bit horrified to discover yet another way in which the Christian world has mistreated Jews. Even when I think I have a handle on antisemitism, there's always more. 

My first reaction to this cropping up in the bagel article was disbelieving laughter: seriously, not allowed to buy, sell, or touch bread at a bakery? I'm not surprised that we weren't allowed to bake commercially. I know we were banned from most trades in Europe. But not even allowed to pick up a roll?

The laughter is a defense mechanism, of course. Behind it are rage and tears. I'm reading about the history of the bagel as Putin gaslights his nation and the world, making the absurd claim that he's destroying Ukraine in order to rid it of Nazis when this could not be further from the truth.

I'm reading about the history of the bagel as I also swim through Twitter threads where (some) Christians are refusing to understand how trash-talking the Pharisees harms Jews. (Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg / @TheRaDR has written beautifully about this -- see this excellent thread.)

I'm reading about the history of the bagel as I struggle to adjust to new security protocols at my small-town synagogue. Bulletproof glass, panic buttons, trainings on how to identify threats and how to stanch bleeding, just in case we become the next Colleyville or Poway or Squirrel Hill.)

It's safer now to be Jewish than at most points in our history. We're less likely to be killed for being who we are. (Less likely doesn't mean impossible, but our odds are better.) Still, I suspect a lot of people who aren't Jewish don't understand the weight of collective trauma from centuries of this.

"Not allowed to bake commercially or touch bread" is laughable, minor compared with pogroms and blood libel and Eastertide massacres and all the rest. (See, e.g., Hundreds of Jews Massacred in Prague on Easter, 1389; Lisbon Easter Slaughter, 1506, Kishinev pogrom, 1903.) But it's all of a piece.

And that's why sometimes little examples of antisemitism in our daily lives can tip us over the edge into a kind of post-traumatic stress response. Because other people's hatred of Jews, historical and present, is in the air we breathe. It shouldn't be, but it is, and it unconsciously weighs us down.

For years I resisted creating an "antisemitism" category on this blog. I wanted to focus my attention on what's beautiful and meaningful and rich about my traditions, on Jewish joy and spiritual practice and resilience, not on those who hate us. But ignoring antisemitism feels irresponsible to me now. 

How do I walk and work and pray in this world, knowing that this ancient irrational hatred -- visible throughout our history in ways both big and small -- persists and might touch my son, or the Jews-by-choice whom I welcome into our covenant, or any of us? With the quiet defiance of making bagels.

I'm being flip, and I'm also telling the truth. I make these pumpernickel bagels. (Which I've made before.) And I bake challah most Fridays. And make gefilte fish at Pesach. And keep Shabbat. And sing and pray, and build a sukkah each year, and teach my son to be proud of our ways.

The only way I know to respond to "Jews will not replace us," to antisemitic caricatures in books and video games, to all of this, is by doubling down on Jewish spiritual practices and values -- continuing to be who we are. So this morning I made motzi over my own bagels, and I savored every bite. 

 


Hanukkah with Padma

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When I began watching the Hanukkah episode in the new season of Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation, I teared up. The episode opens with the Chanukah blessings sung by Josh Russ Tupper and Niki Russ Federman of Russ and Daughters as they light and bless at their own festive table. I said, aloud, "I'm not sure I've ever really seen that on TV." It moved me more than I expected.

The episode acknowledges that historically Chanukah was not a major holiday, at least in mainstream Judaism. (R. Abby Stein noted recently on Twitter that in Hasidic circles, Chanukah has long been a major source of spiritual wisdom.) Its relative minor standing made it ripe for reinvention by new immigrants, which Padma explores -- as always -- through the lens of cuisine. 

At Russ & Daughters we learn how a lot of classic Ashkenazi dishes -- chopped liver, herring, schmaltz -- were originally the off-cuts, the things that people with means didn't want. (Yes, even caviar, which used to be Russian peasant food.) The Pickle Guys remind us that the tradition of pickling was a way to preserve produce through long cold winters. This was not prosperity cuisine.

The same message comes through with the folks from Gefilteria teaching Padma to make stuffed cabbage rolls (I'm saving that recipe to try this winter.) And with Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen, who notes that brisket was a cheap cut that required long braising. At her Chanukah table, her classic brisket gets turned into brisket tacos. What a glorious moment of remix! 

Interwoven with the food narratives Padma visits the Tenement museum with Annie Polland, and she sits with the rabbi at Central Synagogue, who talks about the Chanukah story. ("I like this rabbi," my son said -- props to you, R. Ari Lorge.) I was struck by his point about the building itself: grand and visible, because here in this country it's safe to be who we are, to let our light shine.

I was especially moved by Ruth Zimbler, a woman of 93 who came over in 1939 -- the same year my own mother emigrated here, fleeing the Nazis. (My mother was three when they fled here; Ruth was eleven.) Ruth talked about America as a beacon of hope for immigrants much as my mom always did. Her horror at this country's recent anti-immigrant policies is powerful.

I've seen Padma speak with immigrants from so many cultures. She values their foodways as she uplifts the core idea that our diversities make us stronger and make us more the multicultural nation we aspire to become. I hadn't realized how much I needed to see her approach the Ashkenazi Jewish food of my own ancestry with the openness and respect she brings to everything else.

 

Related:

 


Complicated thanks

 

 

Like many first-generation Americans, my mother loved Thanksgiving. She emigrated in 1939 with her parents, fleeing the Nazis as they invaded Prague. She believed 100 percent in the dream of the Statue of Liberty as a beacon of freedom and welcome to the world's "tired and poor" escaping to these shores. And she loved gathering with family and friends for Thanksgiving -- so quintessentially American.

There was always turkey and dressing, of course -- often cornbread dressing. Homemade cranberry relish. I think there was usually a yellow Jell-o salad that featured canned pineapple, Red Delicious apple, and maybe celery? I know there was always her mango mousse, made with jarred mango and cream cheese and Jell-o, decanted in a bright shining ring. Sweet potato casserole. Texas pecan pie.

I don't miss the Jell-o salads, but I miss Mom's festive table. 

In recent years, as I've started following more Native voices on Twitter, I've become increasingly aware that for their communities the arrival of white Europeans on these shores was catastrophic. Smallpox blankets, land theft, forced relocation, boarding schools that forbade the transmission of Native languages -- the shameful list goes on. This holiday looks different against that background. 

The Washington Post had an article about that recently: This tribe helped the Pilgrims survive for their first Thanksgiving. They still regret it 400 years later. I read it when they first ran it, and it's been lingering on my mind and in my heart. (There are some excellent links below to pieces by Native Americans about this holiday and these issues -- I recommend all of them.)

I don't think my mom would have been especially interested in talking about any of that. Her immigrant experience caused her to see this nation and its history through rose-colored glasses. (That's why she instructed us to sing "America The Beautiful" at her funeral. Well, that, and "Jerusalem of Gold," but that's another story.) I don't think she would have been able to hear these Native narratives. 

Many of my rabbinic forebears wrote prayers framing the American custom of the Thanksgiving feast in Jewish language of miracle and gratitude. Here's one from Reb Zalman z"l. Here's one from 1940 by Rabbi Joseph Lookstein. Here's a 2018 Haggadah for Thanksgiving.  I love the idea of foregrounding gratitude (there's a reason modah ani is my favorite prayer!) but none of these feel right to me.

These prayers are lofty and beautiful, rooted in Jewish ideals and traditions. And these prayers elide, or ignore, the Native experience of dispossession. Many of them draw on the happy tale of Puritan-Wampanoag hospitality, but that story is a fiction. The truth is a lot messier. I feel like as white folks we need a little bit of Yom Kippur liturgy instead: forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement

Our tradition is clear that for sins against other human beings, we need to seek their forgiveness before we seek God's. What does it mean for us as Jews -- many of whose ancestors came here fleeing trauma somewhere else -- to accept some responsibility for how we (many of us*) benefit from being white and of European descent, here where white European colonists displaced and harmed indigenous peoples?

And (how) can that impulse share space with a yearning for Thanksgiving, maybe especially this year? I love an autumnal feast, especially now that I live where turkeys and cranberries naturally thrive. And this year I'm keenly aware that because my sister and I are both vaccinated against COVID-19, I will get to celebrate Thanksgiving with a beloved family member, which last year was impossible.

So this year I'm sitting with that disjunction. The history of colonialism is awful. The harm that white people have done to Native Americans since Europeans (and others) began settling on these shores is almost inconceivable. The Thanksgiving story as I learned it in childhood ignores that harm. And the joy I feel at the prospect of being able to safely feast on turkey with a family member is still real.

 

 

If you want to read more:

 

*Obviously not all Jews are white or of European descent. It's not my intention to minimize the existence of Jews of color, Sephardi Jews, or Mizrahi Jews. Rather to say: for those of us whose families (like mine) came here from Europe, what responsibility do we have to recognize the privilege that our appearance and our backgrounds afford us, and what do we owe to Native folks? 


Rainy day

Last night the rain woke me. I spared a moment to feel grateful for the roof, then went back to sleep. When my alarm sounded the world was swaddled in cloud. I won't relish the time change -- the "fall back" side of the coin -- though I'll be grateful to have more light in the mornings, at least for a while.

I read in Milk Street that in Korea it's traditional to eat pajeon (scallion pancakes) on rainy days. The sound of the batter sizzling in the pan is said to evoke the patter of rainfall. I've never been to Korea, and the prospect of traveling feels implausible now, but look: here's a recipe. Almost like travel.

Two funerals to prepare for, this week. I say this out loud to one of the photos of Mom that I brought back from her house after her funeral. The photo doesn't answer, of course, but thinking of Mom makes me think of clothing, which reminds me that I need to go to the dry cleaner's before Thursday.

You can't go wrong with a black suit, Mom would say. She'd travel with black clothes because they are versatile. One day she'd add her garnet beads, another day a bright scarf. She'd be drinking tea, if she were here. For Mom, cold rainy days were for making soup. Minestrone, maybe, or tortilla soup.

I like to leaf through her recipes, though I don't cook most of them. I brought two tins of Spanish paprika back with me after her funeral, though, and I like cooking with that. It's faded; I should use more of it than recipes call for. But I don't want to use it up. Another tether that I don't want to cut.

Flavors


Soup

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Friday means challah dough rising while I work. Today it also means red beans soaking for mashawa, a soup from Afghanistan. Later I'll add quick-cooking yellow lentils, bright like the leaves carpeting the grass outside my kitchen window, and tiny moong beans in dull Army green. I wonder what color camouflage American troops wore in Afghanistan over the last twenty years. I know that trying a recipe from someplace doesn't mean I understand anything about what it's like to live there, or to flee from there, or to yearn for a there that maybe doesn't exist anymore. No matter how many news stories I read, I can't entirely bring the other side of the world into focus. At my work email address, I read and forward another email about resettling refugees. Outside my window the hills are dressed in autumnal tweed. Maple and oak and pine trees rustle. Central Asia couldn't seem further away.

 



Sustainable

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The first part of the drive was on familiar roads, the same roads I take daily to get my kid to camp over the border in Vermont. What was different was that this time, I kept going. East Mountain Farm is only a few minutes from my house, but it's further down Henderson road than I had driven before. Not surprisingly, it is beautiful: contented brown and white cows resting in the shade, rolling hills and pasture, a series of red barns. I was there to pick up chicken to put in my freezer, and eggs to eat.

Two springs ago, when the pandemic was new and our grocery supply chains got fouled, there were anxious months of going to the grocery store not knowing what I might find on the shelves. I know how lucky I am that I never experienced that until my mid-forties. Even so, the unpredictable absence of staples like flour and dried beans and toilet paper was deeply unsettling. Chicken, too, was hard to find for a while there -- because of COVID outbreaks in the places where poultry is processed. 

I know how lucky I am that I live near farms. I've been a member of Caretaker Farm (the local CSA) for almost thirty years, which means I get an abundance of beautiful local produce. I know how lucky I am to be able to afford that, too -- and now to be able to afford sustainably-farmed meat. I feel good about supporting a local farmer in his desire to honor the land and its animals. I feel good knowing that these chickens lived well. I feel good knowing that I will have plenty to eat next winter.

I know that my support of this local farmer doesn't do a thing to repair the harms caused by big agribusiness. I've read about the harms that factory farms perpetrate on animals and on their ecosystems. Then again, there's something wrong with the whole idea that our individual purchasing choices or habits (to recycle this soda can, or not to recycle; my personal grocery budget) will make or break the planet. We need large-scale change, corporate change, systemic change. And how likely does that seem?

I pull my mind back from that rabbit hole. Thinking too much about agribusiness and corporate greed and political gridlock will lead me to despair, and despair does not help anyone -- not those whom I serve, not me, not the world. I return to a mantra from an old REM song: not everyone can carry the weight of the world. It is not my job to carry the weight of the world. It is my job to do the best I can with what I've got, and right now the best I can do is to support a local farmer and his flock. 

 


High on the Hog

MV5BY2YzYzdmYWUtY2QxZi00Y2ExLWI1OWQtMTUwZGRiMjk0ZDJjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjEwNTM2Mzc@._V1_When I first saw that Netflix had a new show called High on the Hog, I thought of all the foods I stopped eating when I started keeping kosher, and I figured the show wasn't for me. But then I saw people on Twitter giving shout-outs to my friend culinary historian Michael Twitty (author of The Cooking Gene, which I reviewed here), and I realized the show isn't about treif, it's about African American food. Or maybe more accurately, it's about how "American food" is rooted deep in African ingredients and in the ingenuity and perseverance of enslaved Africans brought to these shores. 

We begin in Benin. I've never been to Benin, though I was blessed to travel to Ghana twice when I was married. (My beloved ex had lived there after college, and worked there off and on for years.) As host Stephen Satterfield explores his first west African market with Dr. Jessica B. Harris, I remembered the sounds and scents and sensory overload of my first west African market visits, too. And I felt-with-him as he sees his family's features mirrored around him, as he encounters familiar okra and yams and rice in their original settings, as he walks on the red clay road the enslaved walked on their way to the slave ships. 

At the end of the first episode Stephen stands where his ancestors stood as they were loaded onto slave ships, and he breaks down. I have never been to any of the death camps where six million of my fellow Jews perished, but I imagine that if and when I go, I will feel something like what I witnessed here. It is heartbreaking. And the scene does not feel staged: it feels like bearing witness to something important and real.

The second episode brings us to the Carolinas, to the rice coast. I've read The Cooking Gene, so the journey of these ingredients wasn't a new concept to me. But there's something about the visuality of this medium that brings things home in a new way. To see the red rice in Benin, the whole rice and the broken rice, and then to see the red rice being prepared by Gullah chefs now: the trajectory is so clear.

The third episode introduces the enslaved cooks who shaped the American palate. Washington sent his enslaved chef Hercules back to Mt. Vernon every six months because a slave who lived more than six months in Philly was automatically freed. When he suspected that Hercules might try to seek freedom, he sent Hercules back to do hard labor in the fields again. Meanwhile, Jefferson took his enslaved chef Hemings to France, and Hemings brought fine French dining back to these shores. Eventually Hemings bought his own freedom -- by binding his brother to continued servitude. Meanwhile Jefferson fathered at least six children on Hemings' little sister Sally. There's really nothing I can say about that. 


I do not understand how any white Americans can look at the history of human chattel slavery and not recognize the horrific sin against Black humanity that was (and still is) perpetrated by that injustice. Human beings in chains. Families torn apart. Generations of Black human beings treated like animals. I guess we mostly don't look. I think we need to look, and then we need to take responsibility for creating repair. 

My ancestors came here fleeing the Holocaust. It's easy to protest, "but we weren't slave owners!"  The same people who fear people of color "replacing" the white inhabitants of this land also see Jews as "replacing" them. (Remember the Nazis in Charlottesville: "Jews will not replace us!") White supremacy harms us too. And, I still have pale skin. Which means I get certain privilege just by virtue of the way I look, where people with dark skin encounter prejudice that to this day is often deadly. 

Some people argue that we must not teach the true history of our nation's foundational sins -- our treatment of Native Americans, our enslavement of Black people -- and how those sins continue to harm Black and Indigenous People of Color. It seems so obvious to me that we have to face our history in order to build a better future. I want us to live up to the ideals of liberty and justice for all. We're not there yet. In the words of R. Abraham Joshua Heschel z"l, "in a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible." 


High on the Hog aroused that anger in me, but the show isn't made with anger: it's made with joy. The show lets the horrors speak for themselves, and it wrests celebration from those ashes. High on the Hog shows beautiful, bold, creative Black people claiming their history and their foodways and their joy through cuisine. It honors the ingredients and foodways, and it honors their inheritors. These neshamot (souls) shine so vividly on the screen that their strength, their pride, their resilience, their creativity uplift me as a viewer. Talk about soul food.

Take Gabrielle Eitienne (episode two) who grows traditional foods (okra, collards, sweet potatoes) on the same land her family has farmed for generations. She hosts celebratory dinners uplifting the land and its produce and the people who grow it. Watching her feasts, I thought about my own people's history of poverty cuisine, like the gefilte fish I just this year learned to make. The work it takes to turn the offcuts into something beautiful. The heart it takes to create something beautiful for our loved ones, even when we're starting with almost nothing. I imagine a lot of us can resonate with that.

The final episode takes us to Texas. I never learned, in a whole year of seventh grade Texas history, that my home state didn't outlaw slavery until two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The episode begins with an audio recording of an enslaved woman, recounting how when "the War" ended, old master came back from the war and he didn't tell them that they were free. That episode also opens with Juneteenth celebrations: parades, dancers in the streets, ebullient joy. Jerelle Guy talks about her apple pie, traditional for Juneteenth. "American as apple pie," right? And this is America: beautiful and bold and full of resilience. Or at least: this is a piece of America that I want to uplift. The racism is America too. That's the America I want to repair.

We meet Black barbecue pitmasters and Black cowboys, too: another piece of Texas history I never learned, though I went to the rodeo every year as a kid. (Of course, rodeo used to be segregated; that's how Black rodeos arose in the first place.) And, of course, the Texas barbecue I grew up eating has roots in enslaved foodways, too.  I love getting this renewed glimpse of the state where I grew up, and learning that these quintessential pieces of Americana were always more multiracial than I knew.

"You actually feel your ancestors on these rides," says Anthony Bruno, the trail boss for the Northeastern Texas Trail Riders Association who keep these traditions alive. "It's a spiritual journey." He could be talking about the miniseries, too.

High on the Hog is exceptionally moving, and rich, and real. I'm grateful for its existence. If you haven't seen it, go and watch. This too is Torah, and we must learn.

 

 


Unanswered

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I've had this kitchen tool for as long as I've had my own kitchen. I don't remember how it came to be mine. It belonged to my grandparents -- the only set of them that I knew, my mother's parents, who lived in San Antonio throughout my childhood. Eppie was Russian, and Lali was Czech. All through my childhood they lived in a condo not unlike this one.

I know that he loved to cook. He's the one who taught me to make matzah balls. He used to make little knotted rolls, too, and knedliky (Czech bread dumplings, made with stale white bread). When I would spend the night with them, sometimes they would treat me to the sugary cereals my mother didn't allow, and sometimes he would make salami and eggs.

This tool has a smooth handle, satisfying to the hand. There's a burn mark from some long-ago scorching-hot stove. The iron twists and curls. It's beautiful; I think in one of my early apartments I hung it on the kitchen wall as an ornament. Today it was the perfect tool for flipping pumpernickel bagels in their simmering bath before putting them in the oven to bake. 

Learning to make bagels was one of the projects I planned for myself, imagining the long isolated pandemic winter. I baked loaf after loaf of rye bread, and soft golden challah almost every week. I kept putting off the bagel project. Maybe on a subconscious level I wanted to keep a treat for myself, something to look forward to in this year of solitude and grief. 

But the winter is past. The snows are over and gone. Every day more people here become vaccinated. (Though in India, the pandemic is raging worse than ever...) Baking bagels today felt like an act of hope. I don't need to defer the tiny sweetness of trying a new recipe lest I need that sweetness to get me through some other, worse, day than this.

I'm pretty certain my grandparents never made bagels. I grew to love chewy pumpernickel bagels because my parents brought them back from New York City. They used to take an extra duffel bag when they traveled there, and on the day of their departure they'd fill the duffel with paper bags of New York bagels and freeze them as soon as they got back to south Texas.

A cursory internet search suggests that this is a Danish dough whisk. How did my grandparents come to have a Danish baking tool in their kitchen? Did they pick it up as a souvenir on their travels, or from a fancy kitchen store, or someplace secondhand? I wonder whether my mother would've known. There's a quiet melancholy in questions there's no one left to ask.

 


Four flavors

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A crisp sprig of Italian parsley dipped in salt water. Vibrant and green, salt giving way to savory as the stem crunches. It's the third step of the seder, karpas: greens representing spring and new life, salt water representing the tears of slavery in ancient days and our tears at injustice even now. It's a gustatory hyperlink. The minute that first bite hits my tongue, I feel it in my bones: change is coming. If we wait until we feel fully ready we might never take the leap at all. It's time to go.

Storebought matzah spread with horseradish is another one. Matzah, at once the humble hardtack of our affliction and the hasty waybread of our freedom. Maror, evoking the bitterness of slavery, the sharpness of oppression. The cracker shatters with a crunch, the horseradish stings the nose. This year, its sharp scent is another reason for gratitude: I don't have anosmia, I don't have COVID-19. It's a humble taste, a simple taste, and one that speaks volumes. We're leaving this narrow place.

My spoon carves through a matzah ball: light and fluffy, resting in hot broth. My grandfather taught me to make them years ago: beating the egg whites until fluffy, then folding in the egg yolks and oil, the matzah meal and white pepper. Every year after I've made the batter I panic, fearing that I mixed it too much and it's become dense. I chill it, already planning how I'll make a second batch if I need to. Every year after twenty minutes of simmering, the kneidlach float like soft clouds.

This year I added a new-old flavor to my table. I think my father's mother (peace be upon her) used to make home-made gefilte fish. The stuff in jars is unappealing, but I wanted to try it from scratch, remembering generations who stretched what little they had to make a feast worthy of Shabbat or seder. I didn't bring home a live carp; I used a recipe from the Times. The delicate quenelles of minced tilapia and salmon, simmered in a light broth of fennel and aromatics, are a revelation.

These are some of the most evocative flavors I know. They link me with last year's seder, and the year before, and my childhood seders at my aunt and uncle's house in Dallas, and their childhood seders...all the way back to the sages in the second century who asked why this night is different from all other nights. They too ate unleavened bread, and dipped herbs in salt water tears, and let the maror of their era shock their sinuses and their hearts into readiness to go free.

 

See also: Parsley dipped in tears, 2017

 


A prayer in a casserole dish

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I am making enchiladas for dinner. The recipe I use didn't come with me from Texas, but it could have. There's a Tex-Mex chili gravy (red enchilada sauce) made with a light roux, a ton of hot chili powder, some cumin and oregano and garlic and salt. This enchilada sauce tastes like the enchiladas I grew up eating. Every time I make it, it transports me.

This is the time of year when I would ordinarily be taking my kid back to my birthplace -- to see family, to breathe the air of where I come from, to enjoy Mexican breakfast at Panchito's and big fluffy Texas-sized pancakes at the Pioneer Flour Mill. In this pandemic year, there's no trip to Texas. The last time I was there was for mom's unveiling.

Knowing that most of Texas is suffering cold and snow and rolling power outages, making these enchiladas feels like a kind of embodied prayer. When I make challah on Fridays I sing while kneading the dough. Tonight I am praying for Texas as I simmer the chili sauce, as I dip the corn tortillas in oil, as I tuck each rolled enchilada into the baking dish.

I spoke with family there this morning, and texted with them again later in the day. Like most of Texas, they didn't have power or heat. Southern homes aren't build to keep out the cold -- they're designed to retain cool. A lot of Texans don't own warm winter clothes; why would they? Often at this time of year, it's warm enough to wear short sleeves.

I could talk about why Texas has its own power grid, or the outrage of wholly preventable tragedies, or the importance of a robust safety net and good infrastructure in all neighborhoods, or the climate crisis that inevitably feeds worsening weather patterns. Instead I'm rolling enchiladas and praying that somebody can get the power up and running again.


Noodles and nostalgia

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I copied the recipe off of a card I got at Zingerman's. It's for fettucine with tuna, white wine, and green peppercorns. I don't always have a bulb of fennel on hand, nor for that matter fettucine, but but oil-packed tuna and peppercorns and capers are pantry staples. I've made the dish often since the pandemic began.

I've only been to Zingerman's once. I'd been ordering from their consciously quirky catalogue for years, so visiting the place itself felt like a pilgrimage, like visiting the Moosewood Café. Though if memory serves, I didn't love eating at the Moosewood as much as I loved my adaptations of their recipes. I did love Zingerman's, though. 

I miss sitting in an airplane seat, watching the ground recede. Wandering through Zingerman's, inhaling the scents of freshly-baked bread and intense spices and little samples of cheese on toothpicks free for the tasting.  Being in a busy place surrounded by other people, breathing shared air, safely. Remember that?

As I dig into the feeling, I realize it isn't only about travel, though I'm eager for the day when I can visit family in Texas again. I miss being able to go to my local coffee shop for a latte with a congregant or a friend, cupping my hands around the mug to sip the hot milk foam. I miss browsing in bookstores.

Tonight's Shabbat dinner will happen over Zoom with my congregational community. I'm grateful for that, and for every bit of digital connectivity I can muster. I still miss the casual connectivity of exploring an unfamiliar delicatessen surrounded by friendly strangers. Will I remember to treasure that, if we ever get it back?


Soup

I always forget how dried beans swell.
They start as tiny stones in my hand

but after an overnight salt water soak
they fill my red bowl to overflowing.

This week I revise them into posole --
it's meant to include hominy, but

in these pandemic times we all learn
to make do. I curl my tongue around

ancho and pasilla, remembering the music
of your lushly-swirled double ll's.

Raisiny peppers soften and come apart.
I want to blend into a chord like that.

 


Comfort

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I spent my Shabbat Nachamu making dilly beans. 

Dilly beans are pickled green beans. And they are not a food of my childhood. I didn't grow up eating home-canned vegetables. My parents were not people who gardened -- I suspect they were grateful not to need to preserve their own food. But my dad has always loved pickles. I remember joining him in devouring pickled green tomatoes from the big Batampte jar, cut into quarters on plain white plates. And with him I enjoyed sour dill pickles, and half sour dill pickles, as one might find at a New York City Jewish deli. And spicy pickled okra as an hors d'oeuvre (I think it's a Texas thing).

When I became a member at Caretaker Farm in 1995, I started learning how to put away food for winter.  During the years of my marriage, we put up jars of sugarfree strawberry jam; we pickled green beans and brussels sprouts. When we had a kid, our capacity to do those things diminished, and we stopped canning and preserving for a while. And when I moved out of my old house and my married life, I didn't take the canning kettle or rack for jars. My condo kitchen is tiny, and I couldn't imagine pickling here. Besides, I hadn't made time to preserve food since my kid was born.

Fast-forward to this terrible pandemic year. In the early spring when we were on lockdown, there were unprecedented grocery shortages. I know it's a sign of my privilege that I had never before lived in a world in which I might go to the store and not be certain what I would find. Would they have pasta for my son this week? What vegetables would there be? How about proteins -- chicken thighs, or fish, or even dried beans? All of those ran short in the spring. (Not to mention bread flour and yeast, both necessities for the soft challah I make every Friday to bless and eat at Shabbat.)

It put me in mind of my trip to Cuba last fall.  I remember marveling at the food we ate in Cuba (which was excellent), knowing that food shortages afflicted the island even then. (My heart breaks knowing what kinds of shortages my Cuban Jewish cousins are experiencing now.) I couldn't have imagined then that a global pandemic would weaken the just-in-time global supply lines on which American grocery store abundance depends. These days the grocery stores mostly have most things most of the time, though some items are still hard to find. But when fall comes, who knows...

Here we are in high summer -- my favorite season of the year, all lush and green. And I can't help bracing for the winter, knowing the likelihood that the pandemic will surge again when flu season arrives and when we're all confined to poorly-ventilated indoor spaces. I'm always a bit fearful of the oncoming winter. Seasonal Affective Disorder hits me every year, even when I do all the right things. This year I am extra-afraid, because I imagine that winter will mean not only long dark nights and bitter cold but also lockdown again, and shortages again, and rising death rates again, and loneliness. 

This morning I went to Caretaker with my son to get this week's vegetables. As I bent to the green bean rows and lifted each plant to scan for beans, I breathed the scent of clean dirt and greenery through my soft fabric mask. Remembering the indigenous wisdom in Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass (which I've read several times) I pressed my palms to the earth and murmured a thank-you to the soil, the plants, the careful loving farmers, and the whole web of life that makes it possible for me to pluck these vibrant, beautiful beans from their runners and bring them home.

Many Jews wouldn't pick on Shabbat, because on this day we avoid the 39 melachot, the labors involved in the building of the Mishkan, God's dwelling place so long ago. I follow a teaching from Reb Zalman z"l that holds that if gardening is one's day job, then one shouldn't do it on Shabbat. But if gardening feeds one's soul, then perhaps it is precisely the thing to do on this holiest of days. (I've written about this teaching before.) I know no holier ground than Caretaker Farm. It is a place of learning, and sustenance, and community. I am always grateful that it is a place I get to call home.

In the end I picked five perfect pint jars full, with their ends saved for some recipe this week, maybe the Valencian paella I like to make with chicken thighs and white beans and green beans and smoked paprika (thanks, Milk Street). I rigged an approximation of a canning setup, rings at the bottom of my soup pot to hold the jars above the bottom. I peeled garlic, and tore dill, and measured mustard seeds and red pepper flakes. I packed the jars with beans and seasonings and hot brine and I simmered them for five minutes, mopping up hot water when it splashed all over the stove.

Then I listened for the tiny satisfying pop! of each lid sealing as the jars cool down. (So far four out of the five jars have sealed. I'm waiting for the fifth, which still makes a clicking sound when I press on the lid. If it doesn't seal, I'll declare that jar refrigerator pickles instead.) It's not a big harvest. I couldn't have managed a big harvest in my little kitchen anyway. But it's five jars of vibrant summer green. A little bit of bounty, saved against the winter that is coming. A little bit of beauty, saved against the winter that is coming. That's balm for my worried heart, and solace for my grateful soul.

And that brings me back to Shabbat Nachamu. That's the name given to this Shabbat, the first Shabbat after Tisha b'Av. It's the first of seven Shabbatot of Consolation as we count the 49 days between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah. It's named after the first word of the haftarah read on this day: "Comfort!" Bring comfort, give comfort, offer comfort -- that's God's command. There are griefs that cannot be comforted. But in this moment, I take comfort in the bounty of this place. And I take comfort in knowing that whatever this winter may hold, I will be ready as I can be.

 


Cooking Iranian food with a prayer in my heart

9565d065d0aa94196cb7ee23e02cde88I don't think it was a conscious decision. Consciously, I was thinking: I brought dried limes home from a recent trip to one of the markets in Albany. What can I do with them? Oh, I know. Samin Nosrat talks about dried limes in Persian food; I'll make something Persian! A few days of comparing recipes led me to this slow cooker Ghormeh Sabzi / Persian herb stew recipe.

But once I was cooking -- inhaling the scent of onions and garlic and turmeric, and then leeks and bunches of parsley and cilantro and last summer's frozen chives chopped and sautéed -- it occurred to me that I was making Iranian food. And I wonder whether the pull toward this recipe came from somewhere deeper than just "what can I make with dried limes."

There's so little I can do about the actions of my nation's government. I know that refreshing the New York Times and the Washington Post and my Twitter stream as often as I habitually do is probably not good for my mental or emotional or spiritual wellbeing, and yet... And yet I do those things anyway, on days that are not Shabbat, and therefore my heart keeps being broken.

My heart is broken by the state of America's body politic. By disinformation and misinformation. By fake news and propaganda. By threats and bluster. By fear for what this administration might do. By the knowledge that war is not an abstraction to military families -- nor to innocents who will be traumatized, or will die, simply because they're in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And I can't do anything about any of it. Sure, I can write to my Congresspeople, and I can volunteer toward electing a president whose values align better with mine, but neither of those will help now. But I can hold the people of Iran in my heart -- and the people of Iraq too, for that matter. I can pray for them (and us) to know hope and connection, health and prosperity.

I would love to visit Iran. To taste the food, to wander the markets, to see the Pink Mosque, to see the ruins of Persepolis, and most of all to meet Iranian people. I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon. But I imagine that if I were able somehow to make it there, people would be warm and welcoming. People are warm and welcoming everywhere I've ever been.

I remember traveling in Jordan the year before the Iraq war began, fearful that people would be angry about the actions of my nation's government. And yet when I acknowledged where I'm from, every single person I met welcomed me. Some of them indicated that they weren't fans of President Bush (hey, neither was I!) but none of them held my nationality against me.

When we meet each other as human beings, with curiosity and openness, we can learn so much about each other -- and also about ourselves. That's why travel is so broadening. And even if we can't travel, we can seek to meet others in the places where we are. My understanding of my religious tradition calls me strongly to welcome the immigrant, the refugee, the stranger

There's so much brokenness in the world today. It breaks my heart that my nation now accepts fewer refugees than ever before. And that this week my nation veered close to the brink of war with Iran.  And that we are living in times of rising xenophobia in so many places. I can't fix any of these. Today all I can do is cook Persian food and hold the people of Iran in my prayers. 

 


Bread and balm

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The first thing I do when I wake up on Friday mornings is feed the cat. The second is mix bread flour, yeast, and water. Meanwhile I make my son's breakfast and pack his lunch. By the time I've done those things, it's time to add eggs and oil and sugar and salt, and then more flour, and then I turn it out and run hot water into the bowl while I knead the dough.

I sing "Shalom Aleichem" quietly while I knead, every single time. Usually I sing a melody that's in major. It helps me remember that I'm preparing myself to welcome the angels of Shabbat, not just baking for the sake of tasty treats. And by the time I've sung it through at a pace that suits my hands, the dough is glossy and kneaded, ready to rest in the warm bowl and begin its first rise. 

When I take the loaves out of the oven (usually on my lunch break), the house smells rich and sweet -- the scent of Shabbat on her way. At dinnertime when we make motzi and tear into them, the loaves are fragrant and soft and delicious. In the summer, we often make motzi before nightfall. In the winter, sundown is early, and we might not eat until it's well and truly dark out. 

Over the last year of baking challah almost every week, the recipe has engraved itself in me. I know it by heart. I made challah with this recipe in Texas last February, on the Shabbat that turned out to be the last one before my mother died. I made challah with this recipe in the Catskills in August, when my Bayit hevre and I gathered for our board retreat / learning week.

Some weeks, like this one, the world feels sharp and painful. The news is difficult to bear. Missing my mom is a sharp ache. Injustice of many kinds is rampant. Fear and grief seem to be life's constant companions. In a week like this, the practice of making challah is a balm to my heart. It says: even with everything that's broken, Shabbes will come with her shelter of peace.

 

Image: one of this week's loaves of challah, beneath my mother's challah cover. Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.


The gift of bread

Challah

On the Friday of my son's winter vacation, I was home with him doing the things we did during winter break (board games, gingerbread house, youtube videos.) I was home and I had time on my hands, so I made challah. I hadn't baked challah since Rosh Hashanah. I'm a working mother, primary custodial parent to a third grader: most weeks I buy challah at the co-op, or in a pinch we make motzi over whatever other kind of bread we have in the house, an English muffin or a croissant or two. But during winter break I had the spaciousness, so I got out my Bennington pottery bread bowl and I made a batch of challah.

My son wanted round challah, because he likes it better than the braid that's traditional among Ashkenazi households during the year. I didn't feel quite right about making the spiral-shaped round challah that I make for Rosh Hashanah: that's a special shape for that one time of year! But we compromised: I found a new shape in my challah book (A Blessing of Bread, Maggie Glezer) that takes its inspiration from the sun. It came out beautifully. My son devoured it, declaring it the best challah ever. "You bake way better challah than they have at the store," he told me, and I beamed. "I wish you made challah every week."

This week I am trying a new rhythm to my Friday. This morning while getting my son fed and dressed and packed up for school, I started a batch of challah dough. By the time we left for school and work, it was sitting in the newly-washed bread bowl, covered and rising. After a few hours of work, I'll drop by the condo again (it's a mere five minutes from the shul) and shape the loaves. At the end of my lunch break, I'll put them in the oven. At the end of my work day, I'll take one of them on a pastoral visit to someone who is ill -- I kneaded prayers for healing and comfort into the dough. The other challah will be for my son and me.

If this works, I want to make it a practice. I miss baking challah. My first job after college was working at the bookstore here in town, and I organized my schedule so that I could have Fridays off to bake challah each week. (That was 1996, and that's when my now-ex-husband -- at the time, my boyfriend -- gave me the enormous Bennington pottery bowl I use for bread dough even now.) But in the decades since then, life has expanded to fill the space I give it, and I haven't made time for regular baking in years. Baking challah feels good. I love the way the dough feels in my hands. I love praying, sometimes singing, while I knead.

There's an alchemy to baking bread. Flour and water, salt and yeast -- and, okay, in this case also oil and eggs and a little bit of sugar -- transmute into something beautiful. Baking challah is a comfort to my neshamah, my soul. And it's something beautiful to place on my Shabbes table tonight, alongside the candlesticks that were an ordination gift, alongside the blue kiddush cup I bought myself when I moved a few years ago, alongside the blue-and-silver handwashing bowl I received from a friend who is a Jewish Buddhist nun. May our hopes rise like challah dough, and be met. May all be nourished, may all be fed, may all be loved.

 


Building a Gingerbread Bayit -- at Builders Blog

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Over winter break, my son and I built this gingerbread house.

Out of that experience came a short essay about tradition, innovation, and what building a gingerbread bayit teaches me about building the Jewish future. And because Steve Silbert is awesome, he sketchnoted my essay. Here's how it begins:

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“Mom, let’s build a gingerbread house!” Maybe my nine year old got the idea because he was building a LEGO set while watching The Great British Bake-Off. He’s been on winter break from his elementary school, and for us that means lots of playdates, LEGO creations, and bake-off on Netflix. It also turned out to mean an opportunity to notice three lessons about building the Jewish future through baking a gingerbread bayit with my kid...

Read the whole thing at Builders Blog: Building A Gingerbread Bayit.