Building a Gingerbread Bayit -- at Builders Blog


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:


“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.

On "keeping the Pesach," and gradations of practice

Xmatzah1_0.jpg qitok=9eX4cdDO.pagespeed.ic.SlytqcygAaPesach begins three weeks from tomorrow, and maybe some of you are considering "keeping the Pesach" this year. Maybe you have some anxiety about what exactly that means, or how to do it, or whether you're going to "do it wrong." What is keeping the Pesach?

In Exodus 12:15 we read:

Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses.

At its simplest, "keeping the Pesach" means 1) eating matzah and 2) removing leaven. In some Jewish contexts there are clear guidelines for how to remove leaven from one's home, and you either follow them or you don't. But in the community that I serve there are many gradations of practice. I don't see "keeping the Pesach" as a binary. I see it as a spectrum.

At one end of the spectrum, you go to a seder or two, but otherwise your dietary practices are unchanged that week.

At the other end of the spectrum, you remove all leaven (and items made from the five leaven-able grains) from your home, and eat only natural foods (fruits and vegetables don't need a hechsher, a kosher certification marking) or foods certified as "Kosher For Passover" by a trusted rabbinic authority, and you eat on special plates that you reserve only for this week of the year, plates that have never touched a leavened grain.

There's a lot in between those choices. For instance:

1) You might choose to avoid bread for a week. Just leavened bread. If you would look at it and say, "Yep, that's bread," then don't eat it. In that case, you might still eat pasta (after all, spaghetti isn't bread). You might still eat breakfast cereals made from grain (they, too, are not bread.) But your diet would shift enough that you would notice, all week long, that this is a special time.

2) You might choose to also avoid not only actual bread but also bread-like things, from bagels to English muffins. Even sweet muffins, like blueberry or pumpkin muffins, are leavened -- so you'd avoid them too. You might choose to avoid beverages that have fermented, like beer or kombucha. In this case too, the pastas and the cereals might still feel okay to you, but the class of foods you're avoiding would be a larger one.

3) You might choose to remove from your home all things made from the five grains that our tradition considers "leaven-able." (That's wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye.) If water spilled into a container of flour and you left it there, the flour would eventually grow its own sourdough starter, which means that flour is "leaven-able" -- it is capable of becoming leavened under the right circumstances. Anything made from leavenable grains, you would remove from your home for a week. 

4) You might choose to eat special "kosher for Pesach" pasta... or you might avoid it because it looks like and acts like "regular" pasta, and you want your diet this week to feel different.

5) No matter what your dietary practices are, you might choose to get a set of special Pesach dishes, to use during that week only, and to remind you that this is a special time, a week that is set-apart from ordinary life.

6) You might choose to eschew kitniyot (corn, rice, beans, and peas -- which have long been part of Sephardic Pesach dietary practice, but used to be forbidden in Ashkenazic practice, though today they are accepted in Reform and Conservative communities)... or you might embrace them wholeheartedly. 

All of these are legitimate Jewish ways of experiencing Pesach. (My own family of origin spans that spectrum from one end to the other.) My invitation to you is to choose consciously what you want your Pesach practice to be this year... and to pay attention not only to the contents of your pantry, but also to your heart and soul. Whatever practices you take on should (ideally) serve the purpose of awakening you to the festival and its meaning (at least some of the time.)

The Jewish renewal practice of hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) invites us to ask: where is God for you in this? (If the "G-word" doesn't work for you, try: meaning, or holiness, or love.) How does this experience connect you with something greater than yourself? How will this practice renew your heart and soul -- how will it align you with holiness -- how will it open you up to transformation?

The haggadah teaches that it's incumbent on each of us to see ourselves as though we, ourselves, had been freed from slavery. Pesach comes to teach us that we can experience liberation from our narrow places, from life's constraints and constrictions. Pesach is about leaving slavery and taking the first steps toward covenant. It's about taking risks, leaping when the time is right, venturing into the unknown even though it's unknown. It's about crossing the Sea and finding ourselves in an unfamiliar wilderness on the other side. It's about new beginnings, and spring, and trust, and hope.

The word chametz (leaven) comes from the Hebrew l'chimutz, "to sour or ferment." In one Hasidic understanding, chametz represents the internal puffery of ego. Chametz can mean all of our old narratives, our baggage, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how the world works. Chametz can mean our own sour places, the old psychological and spiritual and emotional "stuff" that we need to clean out and throw away in order to be ready to experience freedom. Whatever you're doing with the literal chametz in your pantry, ask yourself: what is the internal chametz I need to throw away before Pesach begins?

Whatever your Pesach dietary choices are this year, may they bring you more fully into awareness of the holiday and its meanings, and may they open you more fully to transformation.




Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.

Michael Twitty's The Cooking Gene

The-cooking-gene-book-coverI just finished Michael Twitty's book The Cooking Gene. It's a deep exploration of southern cooking, African cuisine, slavery and its continuing impacts, and how food shapes our sense of where we come from and who we are.

I'm an outsider to the African American cultural history this book chronicles. But I know good memoir when I read it, and this is good memoir. It's also a rich, complicated exploration of race and history and memory. And from time to time it's also a meditation on Jewishness and food, and on those subjects at least I feel some reasonable semblance of expertise. Twitty chose Judaism as a young adult, taking on the mitzvot and the Jewish people's long history along with the histories of his genetic ancestors. (In addition to being a culinary historian, he's also a Judaic studies teacher. Wow do I wish I could bring him to my shul to teach my b'nei mitzvah kids.)


I read this book on my phone, on airplanes to and from my own birthplace in south Texas. If I'd read it on paper, I would have annotated the heck out of the volume: there would be underlined passages and exclamation points in the margins at the passages that moved or surprised me most.

As it is, I don't have quotations to share with you. I can only reference some of the passages that have stayed with me: the part where he writes about cooking on a plantation using his ancestors' tools and ingredients -- the part where he traces ingredients from Africa, transplanted along with the people for whom they were familiar -- the part where he writes about tracing his white ancestry (because white slaveholders raped the women they "owned," and therefore he is descended from slave owners as well as slaves) -- the part where he offers quotations from historical sources about the "Middle Passage" and what slavery actually entailed -- the part where he's teaching seventh graders about the Holocaust, and slavery comes up, and one of the kids tells him it was a long time ago and he should "get over it" -- the part where he writes about picking cotton and almost glimpsing the ghosts of his ancestors around him, noting that the ashcake they ate in the fields was truly the bread of affliction. (I will hear echoes of that this Pesach when I take my first bite of matzah.) The conversations with Low Country chefs and experts who are preserving Gullah food and culture, and with southern "good old boys" who are Confederate re-enactors -- and the agony of not being able to trace his whole family tree, because during slavery families were broken apart and records didn't preserve data because these human beings were considered chattel, not human beings... 

What moves me most is Twitty's combination of love for where he comes from, and willingness to approach his history (which serves as a synecdoche for African-American history writ large) with generosity. He celebrates soul food without ignoring its roots in slavery and scarcity. He doesn't turn a blind eye to the horrors of slavery, nor the ugly ways in which those horrors still shape the relationship between whites and people of color in this country today. And, he makes the conscious choice to pursue connection, even with the descendants of those who enslaved his forebears, without spiritual bypassing or pretending away the damage done to African American communities to this day.  Maybe that's why this book feels redemptive to me. 


Reading The Cooking Gene, I found myself thinking a lot about the foods with which I grew up as a white (Ashkenazi) Jewish woman with immigrant grandparents in south Texas, and the foods I've embraced as an adult seeking a more multicultural approach to cooking and eating, and how race and history play into all of these.

I was particularly struck by Twitty's tracing of West African ingredients and flavors into American forms. I learned to love (and to cook!) Ghanaian food thanks to my ex-husband Ethan. He lived in Ghana for a year on a Fullbright grant right after college, and has returned there often since then. I only went to Ghana with him twice, but those trips impacted me. (See Dancing with the widow, an essay from 2000.) Our son has a Akan day-of-the-week name, and was blessed with Ghanaian moonshine and a libation poured to the ancestors at his naming ceremony where he also received his Hebrew name.

My two trips to Ghana don't make me an expert on anything, but they give me a personal connection with the place and the people I met while I was there. That feeling of connection intensifies the awfulness of reading Twitty's words about slavery. (On my first trip to Ghana I visited Cape Coast Castle, one place where slaves were loaded aboard ship to sail across the sea in unthinkable conditions toward even more unthinkable futures.) And that feeling of connection intensifies my delight at recognizing African ingredients transplanted into the southern American culinary vernacular, and recognizing the indigenous and African roots of some of the foods I grew up eating. (Here's a blog post from Twitty about the Colonial roots of southern barbecue -- a story that you can also read, in somewhat revised form, in the book.)

If you are interested in food, memory, race, or American history, this book is absolutely worth reading. (And if you are not yet interested in the culinary traditions of the African diaspora, I expect you will be by the time you finish.) I recommend it highly.


Posts by other folks:


Thanks, Moment!


It's lovely to be the Jewish Renewal voice quoted in this Moment magazine article about cultured meat and its putative kashrut. (Science fiction future, here we come?) Here's how it begins:

In Genesis, God granted humans dominion over animals. In modern times, that dominion has spawned one of the planet’s biggest threats: a livestock industry that spews greenhouse gases, guzzles resources and renders the lives of billions of animals brutish and short. Last August, vexed by the problem, a Dutch physiologist named Mark Post came up with a solution: a burger no cow had to die for. He called it the “test-tube burger.”...

Read the whole thing here: Test Tube Burgers: Holy Cow? (I don't chime in until the very end, but I'm honored to have the last word!)

Walking in (ancient) Caesaria

13332922384_0e2d06f3c5_nOn Shabbat morning I woke up in Jerusalem and, with nearly twenty members of my extended family, boarded a bus heading north. The first place we visited together was Caesaria (קֵיסָרְיָה / قيسارية‎).

Before our visit, the name mostly evoked the Hannah Szenes poem הליכה לקיסריה, "Walking to Caesaria." Here it is sung by Regina Spektor [YouTube link] -- gives me chills every time. (We often sing this in my synagogue at Yizkor / Memorial services.) The words mean, "My God, my God, I pray that these things never end: the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, the crash of the heavens, the prayer of the heart."

Wanting to know more than just that beautiful melody, I read the town's Wikipedia page, and here's a snippet of what it says:

The town was built by Herod the Great about 25–13 BCE as the port city Caesarea Maritima. It served as an administrative center of Judaea Province of the Roman Empire, and later the capital of the Byzantine Palaestina Prima province during the classic period. Following the Muslim conquest in the 7th century, the city had an Arab majority until Crusader renovation, but was again abandoned after the Mamluk conquest. It was populated in 1884 by Bosniak immigrants, who settled in a small fishing village. In 1940, kibbutz Sdot Yam was established next to the village. In February 1948 the village was conquered by a Palmach unit commanded by Yitzhak Rabin and its people expelled. In 1952, a Jewish town of Caesarea was established near the ruins of the old city, which were made into the national park of Caesarea Maritima.

After the Roman material -- I'm always fascinated by Roman-era history, ever since spending all of those years studying Latin -- the British Mandate section is most interesting to me, especially the part about the village notable who approached local Jews in an effort to establish a non-belligerency agreement in 1947, and the Haganah presence which followed in 1948, resulting in the expulsion of the town's residents and subsequent demolishing of most of its houses. That said -- we didn't see any of modern Caesaria, so most of that research turned out to be background for a place we didn't visit!

13332642464_4d176dbb12_nWhere we actually went was Caesarea Maritima, the Israeli national park containing the extensive ruins of ancient Caesaria, which was established by Herod the Great around 25 B.C.E. (The town, not the national park, obviously.) Of course, this means that Caesaria isn't mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures, because it's far too recent for that. We spent a neat morning exploring the ruins along with the guide my sister had hired. He was full of interesting facts about, e.g., where the marble to build the columns had come from, and how the theatre and hippodrome were used, and how the city got its name, and how the manmade harbor was built out of concrete laid underwater during the first century B.C.E. (and why it later eroded away).

Much of what we saw was original -- for instance, the mosaic floors in various places, which were gorgeous -- though the outdoor semicircular theatre is mostly reconstruction, and so is the replica of the stone which bore the inscription "Pontius Pilate dedicated a building here to Caesar in such-and-such a year" -- the original is in the Israel museum, too precious to leave out to the winds and the weather, as it's the only place outside of the Christian scriptures where Pilate is mentioned. Apparently it was found face-down in the theatre; people had been using it as a stepping-stone for years, and were stunned when it was flipped over and they realized its historical importance. I particularly liked the ruins of the palace, with the mosaic floor, and the remnants of what may once have been a swimming or bathing pool, right on the edge of the sea.

13331836623_472610895f_nAfterwards we drove along amazingly twisty mountain roads to the Arab village of Ein Hud (not to be confused with the Israeli artists' village Ein Hod, which is next door) for a meal at Habait Be'Ein Hud, which was one of the most extraordinary meals of my life. There is no menu; you just eat whatever the mother of the household has cooked that day. I love putting my trust in a chef's hands like that, and oh, wow, this kitchen did not disappoint. The place was packed, and we were the only English-speaking table in evidence.

We were seated at a giant long banquet table next to windows overlooking the hills and wildflowers and olive trees. The food just kept coming: hummus, babaghanoush, tabbouleh, olives and turmeric-pickled cauliflower, every Arabic salad and appetizer I could name (and several I couldn't, including one which I think was made mostly out of Swiss chard with lemon and cumin.) That alone would have been plenty of lunch. But it turned out to be just the prelude to plate after plate of spiced rice and chicken, turmeric-yellow rice surrounded by chunks of fork-tender meat, eggplant in a rich sauce, stuffed peppers...!

13331732625_868e9eeafe_nI wish I could have eaten twice as much as I did; it was incredible. I just kept saying "todah rabah! shukran!" to the people who brought the food, over and over again.

That meal culminated in a downstairs sitting area, where we were offered tea or coffee (I chose coffee -- in a tiny eggshell teacup, dark and thick and cardamom-scented, which I sweetened with sugar; the flavor immediately took me back to the last time I was in this part of the world!) and ate baklava and relaxed.

There was another surprise in store. I think a local capoeira club happens to practice there on Shabbat afternoons. At least, my sister insisted that she had not hired them as entertainment; they just showed up, turned on music, and fought / danced / did their beautiful graceful moves. We sipped our coffee and tea, and applauded, and one of my older nephews got up and one of the dancers taught him a few of their simpler patterns...and then we got back on the bus and continued on our way.


All photos can be found in my growing photoset from this trip.

Returning to leaven

Breads and doughs. Photos taken over the years.

We don't cleanse our house of hametz (leaven) as thoroughly as many of my friends do. (I wrote a poem about that last year -- Bedikat chametz in the toddler house.) Still, after a week of dining on matzah brei (matzah, soaked in hot water and wrung out, then scrambled with eggs and milk and salt and pepper) and matzah spread with cream cheese, that first leavened meal after Pesach is always a treat. As much as I love the first tastes of matzah at the seder, the familiar scents and textures of haroset and horseradish and matzah's crunch, I also love that first sandwich once I'm back in the land of the leaven-eating again.

Hametz and matzah are made of the same ingredients: flour and water. (I've written about this before -- hametz and matzah, 2006.) What makes matzah matzah is that it is baked speedily, so that the natural yeasts which abound don't have time to begin to ferment and inflate the dough. The two words have almost the same letters in Hebrew. Hametz is spelled חמץ, matzah is spelled מצה -- the only difference is between the ח and the ה, in that little open space in the letter ה. Hametz is spacious because the bread is risen; matzah is flat, so its spaciousness is spiritual rather than physical. Or, maybe the space in that ה is what lets God in...

The challenge, for me, is holding on to the spiritual spaciousness of Pesach once I'm no longer experiencing the reminder of matzah at every meal. That's one of the reasons I so love counting the Omer: it gives me a way to hold on to the sweetness, and the spiritual spaciousness, of Pesach long after the festival is past. For seven weeks, I have a built-in practice to help keep me mindful: of the passing of time, of the journey from freedom to revelation, of the lessons of Pesach which I want to carry with me into the year to come. Freedom all by itself is -- not meaningless, to be sure, but only a first step. The next step is getting ready to enter into covenant, into relationship.

Imagine what it might have been like for our ancestors, wandering during this time. They'd left the harsh labor of Pharaoh's brick-making camps, left a world in which a ruler could decree that all Hebrew boy-children be slaughtered at birth. They'd crossed the Sea of Reeds, walking miraculously on dry sand, maybe with walls of gleaming water suspended impossibly on each side. Signs and wonders, miracles like no one had ever imagined! And now they were camping in the desert, free and probably frightened. So they were free of Pharaoh: now what? To whom would they declare their allegiance? Whom would they serve?

The Jewish answer, of course, is God. Everybody serves someone or something. We choose to be avdei Adonai, servants of the Most High.

Did we ever truly wander in the wilderness? Who knows. I can't say that I care much, one way or the other. What I love is that this is the story we tell about ourselves. We left the dehumanizing servitude of a tyrant, and instead of finding another earthly power to yoke ourselves to, entered into relationship with the source of compassion and blessing in the world. That's what we serve: not Pharaoh, not a boss, but the One Who asks us to partner in the work of healing the brokenness in creation.

In the hamotzi blessing, we bless God Who brings forth bread from the earth. Of course, God doesn't bring forth bread, per se; what God brings forth from the earth is grain. We have to do our part: milling the grain into flour, mixing and kneading the flour into dough, letting the dough rise, shaping and baking it. In Genesis 3 this is framed as a response to the first humans' choice to pursue knowledge -- now we'll earn bread with the sweat of our brows, working to till the earth and tend it and to turn the grain into something we can consume. But that shift is also a kind of growing-up. In the Eden story, we were like children, and everything was provided for us. Post-Eden, we're more mature beings, and we're able to do some of the work to feed ourselves -- and to experience the satisfaction of making bread with our own hands.

It's a new kind of partnership. Just as we partner with God in making the world a better place, we also partner with God in turning the raw materials of our world into something sophisticated and new. God is still the One Who brings forth the grain from the earth, Who causes blessings to flow into creation, Who caused the grains to evolve in all of their beautiful and diverse forms. And we're the ones who get to turn those grains into a wealth of beautiful and diverse breads...which, after Pesach (whenever that is for you, depending on whether you celebrate for seven days or for eight), we once again get to eat.

5 Nisan: Matzah



Hello matzah, my old friend:
You've come to dry my mouth again... -- Hazzan Jack Kessler

Evocative as
Proust's madeleines.
Every seder I've ever known
is encapsulated in your ridges.

I love the uneven rounds
the baker makes:
that thinnest flatbread,
a savory buñuelo.

But the version of you
that I know best
is square as a pizza box,
crenellated like cardboard.

You're the hardtack of slavery
and the waybread of freedom.
Liberation, dry and dusty
as a hamsin wind.

Sprinkled with salt
slathered with horseradish
scrambled with eggs and pepper
the taste of being Jewish in spring.

This post is part of #blogExodus. Follow other posts on the path to Pesach via the #blogExodus and #Exodusgram hashtags!


4 Nisan: Chametz


Two of the central mitzvot of Pesach have to do with eating. Specifically, with bread, that foodstuff which, conventional wisdom has it, is the very staff of life. One mitzvah is to eat matzah, unleavened bread, in remembrance of the waybread we baked in haste for our journey out of Mitzrayim. Another mitzvah is to eschew chametz, leavened bread, during the week of Pesach.

Over time, our interpretations of these mitzvot have become elaborate and detailed. There are many places you can turn to find explanations of what, exactly, constitutes hametz in the traditional rabbinic understanding, and of how you would go about removing the hametz from your home according to traditional practice.

But every year, it seems, I hear from someone for whom these practices bring not spiritual satisfaction but anxiety and constriction. Maybe you already struggle with issues of control and consumption. Maybe you feel buried by the details and fear that you can't possibly live up to these ideals. Maybe the notion of inspecting food labels for a trace of a product made out of a leaven-able grain feels unhealthily compulsive to you.

I don't believe that Pesach is an all-or-nothing game. There's room for gradations of practice. For God's sake (and I mean that quite literally!) don't fall into the trap of figuring that if you can't observe the leaven-related mitzvot in a perfect and completely traditional way, you can't observe them at all.

6907361628_ea010a208c_mThe first mitzvah, that of eating matzah at seder, is a simple one and easy to fulfil. So nu, buy a box of matzah. Or bake your own. (If you're gluten-intolerant, there exist a variety of gluten-free matzot. Some would argue that gluten-free matzah isn't kosher for a seder, though I'm not in that camp; for me, what matters is that one eat matzah mindfully at seder. I would rather see you have a meaningful experience of the mitzvah than skip it because doing it would make you sick. But if you're going to be machmir about it, there's spelt matzah, which I'm reliably informed really is the bread of affliction.)

And as for eschewing hametz, try this on: just give up bread for the week. Give up leavened bread. No bread, no yeasted sweet rolls, no bagels. Just that. And every time you think, "hm, I should have a piece of toast for breakfast," or "I'd like a sandwich on a hard roll" or "I want baguette with this soup," you'll catch yourself, and remember that it's Pesach, and remember that this week we eat in a different and more mindful way.

This is markedly less stringent than the traditional practice of ridding one's home of, and avoiding, all foods made with leaven-able grains. (And I'm not even getting into the question of whether or how you kasher your kitchen or sell your hametz.) But it serves the purpose, it does the spiritual work, which I believe the thicket of traditional practices intends to do. When we take on mitzvot, we open ourselves to the possibility of spiritual transformation. What might be transformed in you if you went the week of Pesach without eating leaven? You won't know until you try it.

In one Hasidic interpretation, hametz represents ego: that which puffs us up. Ego is an important ingredient in the human psyche; in order to be healthy, one needs ego! But an overabundance of ego can be unhealthy. So we devise spiritual practices to help us keep ego in check. During this one week of the year, we give up leavened bread, and in so doing, we remind ourselves to relinquish the puffery of ego, of overexalted self-importance.

During this one week of the year, we eat matzah instead of leavened breadstuffs. We remember the Exodus from Egypt; we remember that in every generation, we see ourselves as though we had personally experienced that liberation. We eat the humble waybread of the traveler, reminding us that sometimes we need to leap toward a new future even if that means baking flatbread in haste so we can (physically and spiritually) get moving.

It's pretty cool that we can compress all of that spiritual teaching into simply going a week without eating leavened bread.


This post is part of #blogExodus. Follow other posts on the path to Pesach via the #blogExodus and #Exodusgram hashtags!

You might also dig this one from the VR archives: Passover, matzah, dialectics, 2006.


Tu BiShvat bounty

 Fruits representing all four worlds:

  • assiyah (action / physicality) represented by fruits with shells or rinds: bananas and oranges and almonds.
  • yetzirah (emotions) represented by fruits with hard pits: dates, cherries, olives.
  • briyah (thought) represented by fruits which are soft all the way through: apples (and grapes, even though they're vine fruit.)
  • atzilut (essence) represented by etrogcello / strong etrog-infused spirits.
I didn't expect a big crowd for Tu BiShvat. I set up two tables and assumed that would do. Instead we had four tables' worth of people! We had to keep pulling tables out of the storage room and hastily adding them to the line. Some folks probably came because this is the first Shabbat potluck we've had in 2013. Others probably came because they were interested in Tu BiShvat. There's no telling what made each person or family decide to show up on this very cold Berkshire night, but I'm glad they did.

I abbreviated our adult haggadah a little bit -- some of the little kids (including mine) were running gleefully around the building, others were sitting at the table but not necessarily paying much attention, and I could tell we didn't have the focus for everything in there! Still, it was lovely. One of my congregants read the Marge Piercy poem about Tu BiShvat which I love so much. Others took turns reading little explanations of the four worlds. We blessed and drank, blessed and ate.

And then there was a potluck feast. (All Drew ate was a few bites of challah, a couple of grapes, and a handful of Thin Mint cookies. Well, he's hardly the first little guy to have so much fun running around the synagogue he couldn't manage to sit still to eat anything.) And when we were done eating, as the kids ran and yelled and played, I handed out copies of "Brich Rachamana" (the "Sanctuary" melody) and we sang that as our abbreviated birkat ha-mazon.

And after that I brought Drew home and bundled both of us into PJs. I'm looking forward to sleeping, just like the trees, in tonight's long winter dark. Happy Tu BiShvat to all!

Another year, another batch of etrogcello

Back in the fall, after Sukkot had ended, I started this year's batch of etrogcello (see curls of peel / prepare to sleep, the post about this year's etrogcello adventure.) This week, with the full moon of Shvat approaching, I decanted the liquid -- now a glorious golden yellow -- into two clean jars, and sweetened one with a splenda simple syrup and the other with a simple syrup which contains honey. The yield is two quart jars, filled almost to the brim with fragrance.

This year's batch.

I haven't tinkered with the color balance of that photograph at all -- that's their real color. (I'm hoping the honey-sweetened one will clarify, though it's possible that it may stay cloudy; I've never tried using honey, so this is a new experiment for me.) And through our dining room windows, behind the two jars, you can see the colors of northern Berkshire winter: the brown of leafless trees, the white of snow and sky, the slate-blue of distant hills.

At this season, in this place, the color palette is muted browns and whites, palest purples and greys. The yellow of the etrog-peel-flavored vodka is startling to the eye. That seems appropriate, somehow: a reminder that when we first made use of this pri etz hadar, this "fruit of a goodly tree," in our Four Species at Sukkot, the world looked like this:

instead of this:

At our Tu BiShvat seder on Friday night (by the way, do you need a haggadah for your Tu BiShvat seder? Here are three of them -- one for adults, one for kids, and one for little kids) I'll invite those who are so inclined to join me in sipping a nip of this homemade etrogcello. It's strong and sharp; it tastes and smells like etrog, that ineffable fragrance which so transports me every time I first open the etrog box before Sukkot begins.

That toast is a stitch connecting this moment in deepest winter, when we honor the trees and their growing-older and our faith that the sap is rising (both literally and metaphorically / spiritually) and spring is coming, to that moment at the end of the harvest season when we prepared for winter's hunkering-down. Beneath the blanket of snow the earth is sleeping, waiting to wake up again. Within our hearts, what from the autumn holidays is germinating, preparing to be born in the spring?

A Blessing for the Thanksgiving Meal

American Thanksgiving is almost upon us! The Thanksgiving category on this blog features a variety of Thanksgiving prayers and poems I've posted over the years, from the one by Reb Zalman (always a favorite of mine) to others by contemporary poets. Here's my own humble offering for this year, which you are welcome to use and/or to share if it moves you. Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate!

(For those who wish: here's a downloadable pdf containing Reb Zalman's prayer, my prayer, and sheet music for a one-line grace after meals, cross-posted to my congregational From the Rabbi blog: ThanksgivingTrio [pdf])

A Blessing for the Thanksgiving Meal

by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

Source of all being, we thank You
for the meal on this table before us:

for the earth from which this food emerged
and Your blessing which sustains that earth

for the hands which planted and weeded and watered
and tended animals with loving care

for the drivers who ferried ingredients to our stores
and the workers who stocked the shelves

Continue reading "A Blessing for the Thanksgiving Meal" »

Candied citron / dulce de etrog

Earlier this week I got this year's batch of etrogcello underway. But what to do with the etrogim after I'd carved away the yellow part of the peels?

This year's answer is candied etrog. I found two recipes which looked interesting. One comes from chef David Lebovitz: candied citron. The other is this dulce de etrog recipe.

I diced the peel and soaked it overnight in water, then replaced the water and soaked some more. I brought it to a simmer, drained the water, and then put the etrog in a heavy-bottomed pot with water and sugar. Then I clipped on the candy thermometer and let the peel-sugar-water mixture simmer until it reached 230. Once we hit that magic number, I removed the pot from heat.

David's recipe suggested letting the peel sit in the syrup for an hour, so I did that. I had planned to then remove the peel and drain it, but after an hour I found that the peel-and-syrup mixture had hardened into a kind of jelly, so I went with the dulce de etrog recipe's suggestion of spooning the mixture out onto a sheet of parchment paper to rest overnight.

I rested it in the fridge, mostly because we sometimes have ants and I knew they would find it if it were sitting out in the kitchen. In the morning it was lovely and stiff from the cold. I cut it into little pieces (the jelly became softer as it warmed, but remained jelly-like, never melting altogether) and rolled them in sugar.

Candied citron / dulce de etrog.

The end result are pieces of etrog candy of varying shape and size, now drying on a drying rack. I'll seal them in an airtight container later today. The candies are sweet and citron-y, but not bitter. They're delicious.

Unlike the etrogcello, these won't keep for a long time. We'll probably feed them to this weekend's houseguests. I feel good about finding a way to use, and savor, these precious and rare fruits. A little taste of Sukkot now that Sukkot is only memory.

And I still have two more etrogim to use! I think I might try spicing these with star anise and peppercorns, as in this Pierre Herme recipe. Yum.



Edited to add: the second batch was cooked in a syrup with peppercorns, a star anise, one hot pepper, and a bit of brown sugar to complement the white sugar. They turned out beautiful, too:

Spiced candied etrog peel.

Shabbat shalom!

"Curls of peel / prepare to sleep..."

etrog peels under vodka


curls of peel        prepare to sleep
beneath cold vodka        snow-thick blanket

shreds of autumn        gold and gleaming
in this womb        with no umbilicus

this dark cupboard        a sweet relief
close fevered eyes        let changes come

to unfurl bright        upon our tongues
as springtime's sap        begins to rise

Yes, I am once again making etrogcello! (Here's a glimpse of last year's.)

These slivers of etrog peel will rest under vodka in the dark through the winter. Shortly before Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees, I'll strain and sweeten the results: maybe with splenda syrup, as in previous years -- or maybe with local honey, as my friend Bob does.

We'll sip the bright home-made limoncello at our Tu BiShvat seder, a link between this autumn's harvest and the first stirrings of the coming spring.

Good and sweet

There may be working rabbis who have time to cook when the Days of Awe roll around. I can't really imagine what that would be like. The days leading up to the chagim are always full. There's a near-limitless list of pre-holiday tasks, from making sure all of the honors were assigned, to rolling the Torah scrolls to the right places (ow, my wrists), to generating holiday songsheets and handouts, to making sure my own Torah readings are ready to go, to checking and double-checking that all of the pages of my sermons are printed and are filed in the right places in my machzor...

And I know it could be worse. I'm one of those people who's psychologically incapable of leaving a major writing assignment to the last minute. I know people who operate best in the eleventh hour -- who procastinate until right before a paper is due and then whip out pages upon pages of brilliance. Not I. The process would make me miserable, and the resulting text would reflect the tension and anxiety of its over-fast creation. Instead I wrote my High Holiday sermons slowly, over the summer. So at least I haven't been agonizing over those this week; they are as perfect as they are going to get, and that is all I can do.

It also turns out that life doesn't entirely come to a halt in order to facilitate high holiday planning. (You're stunned, I know.) While doing all of the above, all of us in this line of work are also preparing for Shabbat services, and teaching Hebrew school, and offering pastoral care, and rising to the occasion of whatever illnesses or funerals present themselves in the final days of the year. I don't have statistics on this, per se, but a casual census of my friends tells me that a surprising number of people seem to die during the last days of each year. And we need to care for, and be with, our families; they need us, too.

The point is, I don't cook grand festive meals anymore. This year Ethan is making our erev Rosh Hashanah dinner, which we'll eat early this evening with family before I go to shul for soundcheck. Before Yom Kippur I'll dine at the home of a congregant who has graciously offered a meal at 4:30. (Oy. But that's what one has to do, in order to get to shul before the violinist and cellist begin to play at 5:30, before Kol Nidre at 6.) I'm buying two round challot for Rosh Hashanah -- one with raisins, one without, just like my mother used to have -- from the A-Frame Bakery where Drew and I go every Friday for Shabbat challah. But the one thing I feel the need to make myself, with my own hands, is honeycake.

Although I only make it once a year, the recipe is so familiar I barely need to look at the page. This is the only recipe I cook from the Sisterhood cookbook of the synagogue to which we belonged when I was a kid. (Otherwise it's not really my style -- it's more a nostalgia item than a useful cookbook to me, per se.) The book opens naturally to this page, which is stained with coffee and smeary with honey. I no longer need the note I scribbled years ago in the margin, that two loaf pans work as well as a 9 x 9 square. The only thing I adapt is the kind of nut I use; I prefer pecans, because they were the native nut where I grew up, but if we don't have them on hand, I improvise.

The batter goes into the pans. It is smooth and slightly bubbly, thicker than syrup but thinner than dough, a brilliant honey-coffee color. This is a tautology, but it is a color I think of as "the color of honeycake batter." I can't resist licking the spoon as I scrape out the last bits of batter from the bowl after the two pans are full. It's the taste of proto-honeycake; the taste of the season turning; the taste of the new year that's almost, almost, almost upon us. The taste of this liminal moment, one year almost over, a new year almost ready to begin.

Have you ever wondered why the traditional greeting is the wish for a "good and sweet" new year? (Why both?) The traditional interpretation goes like this. Every year is a good year in the eyes of God. God can see the truest and deepest reality of all things. From God's high level of consciousness, it's quite literally all good -- even death, even suffering. But from where we sit, in our limited human consciousness, there's a binary distinction between good and bad, sweet and bitter. When we wish each other a "good and sweet" year, we are saying: I know the coming year will be good in God's eyes, even if some of it doesn't seem good to our way of thinking -- so may the coming year also be sweet in ways which we can discern.

Here's to a good and sweet 5773.

The sweetness of the sour

A week or two ago my friend Kate gave me a gift of cultured culture. It's a North Adams sourdough, cultivated by artist Eryn Foster as part of Oh, Canada, a large scale exhibition of Canadian art at MASS MoCA. Foster "spent two weeks foraging for wild yeast all over North Adams in areas of natural, cultural and geographic significance." Then she generated this bubbly sourdough starter. Now interested museum visitors can ask for samples, and receive them in pint jars. That's what Kate brought to me. (For more on this, try Wild yeast and Care and feeding of Sourdough -- both by Kate, in the Berkshire Eagle and on the Berkshires Week blog.)

I followed the instructions which came with it: fed and watered it, let it sit overnight, marveled at its yeasty bubbly aroma, pungent and sour. Put some back into the fridge for next time. Used some to bake a few loaves of bread -- my first sourdough! They turned out beautiful, with a golden-brown crust, an airy crumb, and -- after an overnight rise in the fridge, followed by an all-morning proof -- a lovely gentle sour. Suddenly I was reminded that once upon a time, all leavened bread must have been sourdough.


Sourdough challah, first rise.

Of course. I should have thought of that sooner. This is, after all, a theme on which I teach each spring as Pesach approaches. The Hebrew word for something which is leavened is chametz, from the root meaning "to sour or ferment." Leavened bread involves fermentation. (Matzah does not. It's made of the same ingredients as leavened bread -- water, flour, maybe a pinch of salt -- but is made quickly enough that no leavening, no fermentation, takes place.) It is the very nature of chametz to be sour. Or it was, presumably, when the word came into use.

I used to bake bread every Friday, though these days I don't often make the time. And I've grown to love the weekly ritual of taking Drew to the A-Frame Bakery in Williamstown after daycare on Fridays, where he joyfully clamors for "a challah an' a cookie!" But I was tempted by the thought of Maggie Glazer's Sourdough Challah. I've never tasted a sourdough challah. Would the bread have any of the tang I associate with sourdough? Or would it simply be a rich challah which happens to be leavened only with the natural activity of yeast and flour and time? (For that matter: would it leaven? Or, in the absence of a packet or two of storebought yeast, would I wind up with flatbread?)

Sourdough challah, second rise.

The process was, unsurprisingly, different from the other challah doughs I've made. First I fed and wakened my starter over the course of a long day. Then I took a mere two tablespoons of starter and mixed them into a sponge and let that grow overnight. Then mixed an eggy dough and kneaded the sourdough sponge into that and let it rise all morning. Then shaped braids to proof, a.k.a. rise again. It's a slow journey, but a pleasant one. The sourdough sponge was unbelievably soft, with a texture unlike anything else I know. The braids slowly swelled, going from looking comically small on their baking sheets to looking like pale raw challot.

I realized at the last minute, oven pre-heated and ready to go, that I had used all three of our remaining eggs to make the dough. I'd meant to buy more, but had gotten distracted by other things at the grocery store, and had completely forgotten. So after a bit of googling (and after asking twitter for suggestions) I wound up glazing one in milk, the other in milk mixed with a bit of honey. It was a hot day for baking, but there is always something profoundly satisfying about the magic of turning flour and water (and sourdough starter!) into bread.

Two sourdough challot, cooling.

They didn't rise quite as much as I had hoped; I might have to let them proof longer next time. Still, the fact that I got two braids of challah out of what started life as a small ball of dough leavened with two spoonfuls of starter seems a little bit miraculous. The texture is light, and the bread has a beautiful crumb. And on the whole, the bread is sweet. There's just the lightest tang of sour at the end of a bite, just before I swallow.

They're not quite as beautiful as the one I usually get from the bakery, but the satisfaction of having made them sweetens them for me. As it happens, I had extra things to celebrate on this particular Shabbat. On the previous evening, the membership of my congregation approved my contract for two more years. A new contract, two loaves of homemade bread, and the company of loved ones on the deck at suppertime: what could be finer?

Thanks, MASS MoCA; thanks, Kate; and thanks to the Source of All Who brings forth bread from the earth.


New poem: Bedikat chametz in the toddler house



What does it mean to remove chametz
when my cupboard overflows
with toddler-friendly goldfish
and mini-muffins? If there is

any chametz I do not know about
-- odds are good there are stale O's
in the crevices of the car seat,
but the rest of our leaven is

in plain sight, soft whole-wheat
awaiting jam's unfurling --
that I have not seen or removed,
I disown it.
That part

of the formula at least still works.
An invisible line: between
his english muffins, his toasted bread
and my boxes of matzah, waiting.

Even if I don't light a candle
Ribbono shel Olam, help me
to sweep the crumbs from even
the ill-tended corners of my heart.

The too-sour puffery of ego,
the impulse in me that needs
to be in charge, needs to be right,
needs to be praised. The part of me

that forgets the daily importance
of prayer and kindness. I disown it.
I declare it to be nothing
as ownerless as the dust of the earth.

Bedikat chametz is the ritual of removing leaven from one's home on the night before Pesach begins. Having otherwise removed every bit of leaven (and everything leaven-able) from one's home, one "hides" crusts of bread and then, by candle-light, finds them and sweeps them up with a feather and a wooden spoon in order to burn them the next morning. The italicized words in this poem are the traditional words one recites after having done the ritualized search for leaven.

This is the latest poem in my "...toddler house" series, though I think it may hold meaning for others who for reasons other than parenting a picky two-year-old may not have pitched or sold all of their leaven this week. There are many people I know and love who, for one reason or another, don't wholly remove chametz from their homes: maybe their housemates aren't into it (or aren't Jewish), maybe their partner, maybe their parents, maybe their kid(s). Can those who are in that situation still find meaning in the old ritual and its language? I hope so.

Making matzah

Several years ago, my friend Reb Jeff taught me how to make matzah. Early this morning, when Drew was still in his PJs, I made it again.


The recipe is very simple -- you can find it in my 2004 post Hametz and matzah. The ingredients are really just flour and water. (I meant to add a bit of salt this time, but I forgot. Whoops.) I measured out the flour and the water from our well and set the oven to preheat. Once it was hot, I asked if Drew wanted to help. He was a bit dubious, but when I opened up the step-stool and offered him a wooden spoon, he was intrigued enough to climb up and lend a hand.

Drew stirs.

He enjoyed taking turns with me doing some of the stirring. I tried to interest him in rolling out the balls of dough with the rolling pin, but I think that was a bit sophisticated for two and a half; he poked at the dough a bit with the rolling pin and then announced "all done!" So I released him to play with his toys while I finished the matzah. I was on a deadline, after all; no more than 18 minutes could elapse between the moment when water hit flour, and the moment when the matzah entered the oven.

One matzah, cooling.

I rolled and floured and rolled, and used a fork to prick the resulting sheets of dough. My efforts yielded five beautiful matzot. (Also one badly torn one -- I rolled out my first attempt too thin, and it tore irrevocably while I was getting it into the oven, so I let that one go.) I know that at the first-night seder at my sister's house we'll have gorgeous handmade matzot from Clear Flour, so I'll probably save these to serve at the second-night community seder at my shul.

I like the stuff that comes from a box, too. That's the matzah of my childhood, the matzah with which all of my lifelong seder memories are linked. Its crunch, the way it tastes lightly spread with horseradish (the flavor of our affliction mingled with the bread of our freedom), its texture and flavor. But there's something wonderful to me about making homemade matzah. It's the easiest of breads, after all: the waybread our ancestors baked in tremendous haste to take with them on the journey. And maybe, if I'm lucky, the work of baking these will have helped to prepare me for my own journey, too.

Mishloach manot for me!

Found on my desk this morning.

Yesterday after I taught the b'nei mitzvah prep students a bit about Purim (and then we spent a while decorating masks for them to wear on the holiday if they're not otherwise costumed), I dashed south to fetch Drew at daycare, as is my Monday routine. The students stayed at the synagogue for a youth group event -- making hamentaschen which I will deliver later today to some of the elders in our community.

Among Purim's central traditions are the delivering of mishloach manot -- gifts of tasty snacks given to friends -- and the giving of food, or money for food, to those who are hungry. The hamentaschen made by our youth group kids were intended to enable them to fulfill the mitzvah of sending mishloach manot. Apparently they also made a few special extras -- like this one which awaited me when I arrived at the synagogue this morning.

I get virtual gifts each year at Purim from friends, but it's years since I've received an actual package of edibles in celebration of the holiday. I've never tried a mint-chocolate-chip / raspberry-jam / chocolate-sauce hamentaschen, but I'm looking forward to braving it later today! Happy Purim to all.

Etrogcello for Tu BiShvat

Remember last Sukkot? The sound of cornstalks rustling on the roof of my car as I drove slowly home from Renton's farmer's market. The trees on our hills still bright with fading leaves. Carrying my lulav and etrog out to the sukkah in the rain-washed morning, and shaking them in all four directions as I dodged the raindrops still dripping from the sukkah's so-called roof.

And then, when the festival was over, my reluctance to discard the beautiful fragrant etrogim. They had come such a long way to reach us, just in time for the festival! So I peeled them, and poured vodka over the thin shavings of yellow skin, and set them in a cupboard to wait in the dark. At first the shavings sat at the bottom of a bottle of clear liquid. Over time, some alchemy transpired. The liquid became golden, the peel ever-more translucent. Now, some months later, they have been transformed from this:

Etrog, sliced open.

To this:

Before decanting.

I open the jar and am washed with a heady wave of the scent of etrog. Surely smell is one of the most evocative senses: one whiff and I'm transported back to the day before Yom Kippur when I first lifted last year's etrogim out of their foam cradles and brought them to my face to inhale their extraordinary scent. Nothing else smells quite like an etrog. It's lemony, yes, to be sure, but it's more than that. Richer, sharper, more complicated. Over the years I've experimented with etrog preserves, but no jam ever quite captures the way an etrog smells -- the way it makes me feel -- when I first press it to my nose before the festival begins.

But this etrogcello comes close.

A few weeks ago I made a Splenda simple syrup and added it to the jar, then returned it to the darkness. Yesterday, Tu BiShvat almost upon us, I washed out two plastic bottles and prepared them for their new contents.

The 2012 vintage.

We actually still have a couple of tiny flagons of last year's etrogcello left over. It's not as bright or as pungent as this year's stuff, though it's still tasty. I brought some to our Simchat Torah celebration last fall -- after we danced the Torah scrolls around the Williams College Jewish Center, when the traditional schnapps and vodka were brought out for toasting, I added a wee bottle of etrogcello to the table. It was a surprise, a special treat -- a little taste of Sukkot although Sukkot had just ended.

But really the reason I make the etrogcello is so that we can drink it at Tu BiShvat. The New Year of the Trees; the birthday, according to Talmud, of every tree, no matter when it was planted. The date when (our tradition says) the sap begins to rise to feed the trees for the year to come; the time when cosmic sap begins to rise, renewing our spiritual energy for the welter of spring festivals ahead. How better to celebrate Tu BiShvat than with this pri etz hadar, this fruit of a goodly tree, which we so cherished back at Sukkot? It stitches the harvest season to this moment in deepest New England winter. It reminds me that everything which has been dormant can once again bear fruit.

Tonight at our seder I will raise a glass: to the memory of last Sukkot, to the anticipation of next Sukkot, to the trees which bore this etrog, to the many hands which brought it here, to the Source of All from whom all blessings flow. L'chaim!

Recapturing a family tradition

Roast goose with knedliky.

Many years ago, when my grandparents Isaac and Alice ("Eppie" and "Lali") were still living, their children hired an oral historian to take down their life stories. We have hours of recorded audio (and also a beautiful hardbound transcript, which sets out their stories in print accompanied by photographs.) It's an incredible treasure.

One of the questions the oral historian asked had to do with memories of holidays and food. It's a resonant subject: what do you remember being cooked, in your household, as the major holidays rolled around? For me that list would include the cornish hens and honeyed carrots we used to eat at Lali and Eppie's house at Rosh Hashanah, my mother's kreplach (and her blintzes for break-the-fast at the end of Yom Kippur) -- and her mango mousse (and also cornbread dressing) at Thanksgiving -- and her "chicken Leslie" with artichoke hearts and mushrooms at Pesach.

When the oral historian interviewed them, my grandfather recounted all sorts of culinary holiday memories from Russia. Even outside the oral history context, he used to love to tell stories. About cheder, about accompanying a fellow villager to the market to sell eggs, about learning Latin in gymnasium. And, yes, about food; he was the cook in their family, and food always comes with stories. So he had plenty of stories to tell when the oral historian came to call.

My grandmother, much to my surprise, told the oral historian about eating roast goose (and sometimes carp with a sweet sauce) on Christmas Eve, alongside their tree decked with chocolates wrapped in colored foil. This was in Prague in the 1920s, well before the second World War changed the face of Europe (and drove my grandparents, and their young daughter, to flee in 1939.) My grandfather told endless stories about his smalltown Russian Jewish upbringing; my grandmother was more reticent in general, and didn't talk much (to me, anyway) about growing up as a "kind of Reform" Jew in Prague. The oral history offers me tantalizing glimpses; I wish now that I had asked more questions while she was alive.

This winter, Saveur magazine, to which Ethan and I have subscribed for years, offered a recipe (designed to be prepared on Christmas Eve) for roast goose with chestnut stuffing. "Goose," I said; "I think that's what my grandmother said she used to eat on Christmas Eve as a girl in Prague!" I couldn't resist the prospect of trying to walk, just a little bit, in her culinary footsteps.

So we ordered a goose from Guido's, though we gulped a bit when we discovered how much a 12-lb goose cost. (I suppose the expense just makes the whole thing seem more Dickensian.) Ethan prepared it according to Saveur's recipe. We decided to go Czech with our side dishes, in homage to my grandmother's childhood memories, so we made made zely -- red cabbage spiced with carroway seeds; we also flavored ours with cider vinegar, allspice, and juniper berries -- and knedliky, the Czech bread dumplings my grandfather used to make which were a major part of my childhood foodscape. I helped Ethan form the knedliky, which we boiled wrapped in cheesecloth and then sliced, as is customary, with string.

And on December 24th, after lighting Chanukah candles, we sat down for a festive meal with my in-laws and some close friends of ours (and their kids). Drew, predictably, didn't eat a bite of goose (right now he's emphatically not interested in foods he doesn't already know) -- but we did, and it was delicious, dark and full of flavor. The wild-rice stuffing was fantastic. The knedliky reminded me of childhood. The zely reminded me of visiting Prague. And despite the one broken goblet, and the occasional toddler scuffles over sharing toys, it was a lovely evening -- and while this was probably a far less formal Christmas Eve dinner than the ones my Czech grandmother remembered, it was a wonderful way for me to remember her.