Hebrew Mamita

Vanessa Hidary says the words I feel.  Brilliantly.

Sephardic Small Plates: a cooking class

Another fabulous cooking class led by our wonderful cooking teacher Rebecca Ets-Hokin.  Here’s the menu:

  • Borekas
  • Moroccan Roasted Citrus Olives
  • Moroccan Chicken
  •  Stuffed Dates 
  • Muhammarah with Toasted Lavash
  • Butternut Squash Bisque
  • Turkish Style Meatballs
  • Crostini with Caramelized Onions 
  • Crostini with Sun-Dried Tomatoes 
  • Tahini Cookies

And here are the photos!

1. Deuteronomy: Ve-zo’t Ha-Berakha

“and this is the blessing”…..from Moses to the tribes of Israel.  Moses blessed each tribe then, at the age of 120 years he died and was buried in an unknown place.  And never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses.

That’s the end of the Five books of Moses read each year. Then immediately the beginning of the Torah is read again:  B’reisheit.  All on the most joyous day of the year according to our rabbi.  She says that if more people attended Simchat Torah than attended Yom Kippur, the future of the Jewish people would be guaranteed.

There’s no break between the end and the beginning.  They happen at the same time on the same day.  I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately….not in a morbid way, but more curiously.  Maybe because I’m at my half way point.  I’ve just finished the first half of my life and am now beginning the last half.  Since we are mortal, we don’t even know really what death is.  We see it as an ending, but it could just as likely be a beginning.  Every ending is a beginning and it really is up to us to decide how we’ll approach each turning point.

When a relationship ends, a new kind of life begins.  One that lacks whatever restrictions were inherent in the ended relationship.  My friend is staying at another friend’s house right now.   Her friend’s husband doesn’t allow eating or drinking anywhere in the house except at the dining room table.  And at his breakfast table cereal with milk and fruit is consumed separately from the cup of coffee that follows with the morning paper.  The husband is leaving on an extended trip soon and my friend will be free to eat her croissants in bed and drink her coffee while she eats her cereal if she wants.  Restriction lifted….a new beginning.

Several years ago my company went out of business and our entire staff was laid off in one day.  I took a vacation and began working freelance and met many new people and eventually found an office I wanted to work in permanently (and I use that term very loosely).  A new beginning.

My sister died.  It was horrible and painful and wrong.  I had to learn to make friends.  Now I have friends.  And who knows where Carol Lee is now?  Who knows who she is now?  I often call my daughter by my sister’s name without thinking.  They feel the same to me in many ways.  Maybe my sister found her own new beginning without that sick body that she was bound too.

I think there is really no such thing as an ending pure and simple.  Endings are more complicated than that and they are mixed up with beginnings, so that is why we have to read the ending then the beginning of the Torah together.

I’ve now read the whole Torah and told you all what I’ve thought along the way.  I’m at the end of the reading, and at the beginning of the understanding.  That part will take the rest of my days.  The whole last half of my life.  This is one of my best beginnings so far….

Thanks for taking the ride with me….

1. Deuteronomy: Haazinu

Give ear!  That’s what Moses says to the Israelites as he speaks to them for the last time before he dies and they prepare to enter the promised land.  Remember the past, remember your God.

I had my birthday last week and bought myself a present.  A beautiful Jewish star in silver.  I intended to buy the smallest star I could find.  Small and delicate, a subtle reminder…of what?  Of who I am, what I believe, the community I feel most at home in, the family that always loves me, no matter what.  I’m not sure what reminder I’m looking for.  But I did intend to find a small star…emphasis on small.  Because even though I love being a Jew and my Jew-ness fits me well and comfortably, I am still not wholly comfortable in the world as a Jew.  I feel judged and unwelcome.  It seems that the world can easily embrace a cross around the neck of a stranger and give it no thought, but a star inspires a second glance and a conscious observation.  Those of us that wear a star are different.  And maybe that’s just the product of being 2% of the world’s population.  We are the ‘sneetches with stars upon thars’.

So, once I realized that I was feeling slightly uncomfortable with pronouncing my Jew self publicly, I bought the biggest star in the shop.  It is not my way to let myself get away with cowardice.  I love my beautiful necklace.  And, of course there have been comments.  Many comments.  Comments that would likely not have been shared if it were a cross of the same size (and honestly, it’s less than an inch across).  But I am practicing embracing the comments.  They are my reminder from Moses to remember who I am, who I belong to past and present and future, and what I believe.  I know there is some judgment, or at least some confusion, behind the comments and that’s okay too.  I don’t own the back end of the comments.  That belongs to the commenter and is his or her burden to carry.

It is a new year and I am a new Jew.  Shana Tova my friends.

1. Deuteronomy: Nitsavim/Va-yelekh

Moses is presenting the covenant to the Israelites before he dies and leaves the task (of leading the Israelites into Israel) to Joshua.  There’s lots of talk of blessings if the Israelites act right and curses if they don’t.  And of forgiveness and welcoming back if they act wrong then repent.  And there’s one paragraph that stands out, separate from the rest:


Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.  It is not in the heavens…..Neither is it beyond the sea…..No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

There’s all kinds of discussion about much of the rest of the text, but I found less about this one paragraph.  “Instruction”, with the capital “I”, must be the commandments as a whole.  The covenant that God is making with the Israelites, right?  That’s my take based on the rest of the text.

So…” it is not too baffling”.  I guess because the same commandments have been spelled out time and time again, how could anyone remain unclear?  Except for the fact that, in my experience at least, the more discussion around an issue, the less clear it becomes. 

If you just say and believe that the sky is blue, then it is blue.  But if you bring 3 friends together with a color wheel, and you all gaze heavenward and compare the color of the sky to the colorwheel, through all of your various sets of eyes, the conversation will become more complex.  Maybe the sky is light blue, or it’s gray, or it’s blue if you squint and white if you don’t, and so on.  Like the Torah.  What seems obvious at the first maybe isn’t so obvious if it’s repeated over and over in different voices and with differing context. 

So, by the time Moses has come to the end of his days, and the Israelites have been wandering for 40 years and have died and now their children are entering Israel, perhaps all of the noise and movement have muddied the waters.  Maybe sitting in my comfy bed reading Torah over the span of one year gives a clearer picture of the commandments than walking through the desert for 40 years and being told that same Torah.  Maybe Moses looks at the faces of the Israelites and realizes that there is confusion there.

I think this is Moses referring to the “still small voice”.  If the Israelites can sit quietly alone and consider each decision and what is the right way to turn, then the commandments will not be baffling.  I think Moses is telling them that he has faith that they really do know what is right.  They are capable of understanding what God wants of them if they can separate themselves from the chaos around them.

“Nor is it beyond reach” is Moses telling them that they have the power to make the right decisions and do the right thing.  They are capable of acting right and they have the opportunity to make the choice to do so.  It goes back to the difference between having free will and not having free will.  We do have free will and we are capable of using it to do right.  Moses is telling the Israelites that they can use their free will to the betterment of themselves individually and as a group.

And finally, “the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart”.  Moses is being a cheer leader.  He’s telling the Israelites that they do, in fact, understand what’s being asked of them and they can live right.  The commandments are now ingrained in them.  Like learning a foreign language….once you can think in that language you are truly fluent.  So he’s jumping up and down with pom poms telling them that they should have faith in their knowledge.  That it’s in their hearts and is part of them and that when they speak it will come out right.

Of course, if you read ahead, this entire theory is shot full of holes, but let’s just not read ahead.  I think Moses is telling the Israelites that he trusts them and has faith in them and they should trust and have faith in themselves and walk with God (so to speak).

1. Deuteronomy: Ki Tavo

I read two things today.  Three actually, but one was the end of a novel and doesn’t count.  I read Ki Tavo and I read an essay about bee keeping.  And if everything happens for a reason, then there must be a reason that I read both today.

We’ve been thinking about keeping bees at our house for a few months now.  Bees are fascinating and I think we can learn a lot from them.  They are very organized and they survive only because they live in a group.  They don’t have free will. 

We, on the other hand, have free will and so far, it seems to be our greatest downfall.  At least as a species.  Apparently the biblical leaders of Moses’ time understood this.  So Ki Tavo tells us all of the myriad and horrible ways that we will be cursed if we exercise free will in such a way that we do not keep the commandments that God and Moses have laid out for us.  There will be plagues and bugs and death and pain, inflammation and disease, dust and sand.  They used scare tactics to make us act right.  Because, unfortunately, our free will does not always incline us to act right, to act in the best interests of our whole society.  It inclines us to act selfishly and soul-lessly.

In raising two children, I’m occasionally tempted to scare them into good behavior.  But usually I don’t.  I prefer to teach them to look at their choices from a larger perspective and make them thoughtfully and with soul, with inclination to what is best both for them as individuals and as members of a larger group. 

I wonder, is free will a gift or a curse?  Obviously, I’m human and I can’t imagine living without free will.  But there are those societies that do survive by removing at least some of their members’ free will.  It’s sad that this is what humans might require in order to survive.  Just look at American politics….our government is not about the greater good anymore.  It’s about the right versus the left, liberal versus conservative.

Why is it so hard to set aside our own personal needs just long enough to see if fulfilling them is really in the best interest of everyone?  Gosh…rereading this I sound so naive.  I wish I were a bee.

Shana Tovah

I wish you a sweet new year full of blessings, strength and peace.  Enjoy the music.

1. Deuteronomy: Ki Teitzei

When you go….that’s what ki teitzei means.  These are the commandments that Jews are to follow when they arrive.  I read somewhere that 74 of the 631 mitzvot are listed in this portion.  I haven’t personally counted.

I like rules, especially rules that sound crazy.  Like it’s illegal to spit on the sidewalk in California.  That rule was made once upon a time for some good reason.  You’d have to research the date and time of the rule to figure out how it made sense though.

Some of the mitzvot seem crazy too.  Like why can’t we wear cloth made of both wool and linen ?  And why does a captive bride have to shave her head and grow out her nails?  And we can’t even go to the place where it’s even ok to take a captive bride these days, now can we?  There’s just nothing okay there.

There’s a great article in this month’s Reform Judaism magazine.  It’s called “Lost in Mis-Translation”.  The english language bibles of today, both Jewish and Christian, were originally commissioned for translation in the 1600s by King James for the Christians of the day.  More recent bibles are based on that early translation.  And not only were there errors in the early translation, but often modern people forget that times were very different then and words that meant one thing during biblical times mean something entirely different today.  Not only that, but customs were entirely different.

So considering why we are not allowed to wear cloth made of wool and linen becomes a really interesting little mystery to solve.  This is one of the mitzvot that man is considered unable to understand.  Which for me makes the mystery even more interesting.  Linen was extensively used first by the Egyptians and is made from the flax plant.  I believe their priests wore linen and their dead were mummified in linen.  Wool came much later and is an animal product rather than a plant product.  It is much more elastic than linen (which is not elastic at all) and is much warmer.  So maybe the Jews didn’t want to wear what the Egyptians wore along with what they themselves might have developed.  Or maybe the idea is just that wool is a winter garment and linen a summer garment.  Or maybe it was about mixing animal and plant.  Apparently there is a very strong and useful fabric that is made of both wool and linen.  Maybe the Jews didn’t have the ability to make this cloth themselves and so didn’t want to use it. 

Or maybe, God just said don’t mix these fibers and stop asking why.  I say that very thing to my children, although I promised myself as a child that I’d never say it.  Sometimes the answer is just “because I said so”.

Now I really don’t get why the captive wife has to shave her head and grow her nails.  Any ideas on that one?

1. Deuteronomy: Shof’tim

Okay, so late doesn’t even begin to cover it.  It’s nearly the end of the year and I’ve suddenly fallen way behind.  Do you want to hear my excuses?  No, I didn’t think so.  Don’t judge me, ok?

Shof’tim means judges (hah!).  This portion lays out the basic Jewish constitution.  Who’s in charge of what and how each group is to carry out their own responsibilities.  Kings, Levites (priests), Prophets, witnesses, and so forth.  There’s one little bit that I find a bit out of place.  It’s about trees.

If the Jews lay siege to a town, they can eat from the trees and they must not cut down any trees that yield food.  They should also kill all of the men and take the women and children as booty.  And this is all in the same few breaths.  Such violence right next to such sweetness.  And by the way, I just heard on the news that the tree outside of Anne Frank’s hiding place finally died.  They had it propped up and have been trying to save it all these years, but it finally went.  And it made the news.  Alongside the number of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Maybe the lesson is that there is horror and sweetness together in every time and place.  But I still thinks it’s kind of out of place next to the constitutional issues.

This portion also brings me to a constant source of my own confusion.  There are kings and priests and prophets described by God.  And God clearly says that He is the only God and the only one we should believe in.  So I seriously don’t get the Jesus idea and the Holy Ghost and all of the Catholic saints.  When I asked a Catholic once who Jesus was, the answer I got was Jesus is God.  One of my friends explained that Jesus and the saints are like brokers.  They deal with the tedium and leave the big stuff to God.  Again, I’m still confused.  And I’m not trying to be nasty or anything, I’m just confused.  If we are to believe in only one God, then I don’t get the rest of it.  Who are all of these people that others are praying to?  Aren’t they supposed to be praying to God?  At least according to what’s written.

Although I am certainly guilty on occasion of praying to the sun god when it’s been raining for too long, or praying to the rain god when it’s been too hot.  And sometimes praying to the ice cream god that they’ll have my favorite flavor when I get to the ice cream store.  I don’t think that counts though, do you?

1. Deuteronomy: Re’eh

Re’eh means “see”. 

I am deeply conflicted about something I’m taking from this week’s portion.  There is lots in the news about a mosque and Islamic community center that may be built at the site of the World Trade Center.  The ADL has issued a statement against building a mosque here.  Many conservative politicians are against building a mosque here.  The talk is that a mosque would be a painful reminder for the survivors and families affected by 9/11. 

I suppose it depends on what you “see” when you look at a mosque.  Is it a symbol of terrorism?  Or is it a place to come together and worship?  Are we allowing terrorists to define Islam for us?  And if we are, isn’t that our own choice, and therefore our own problem?  I don’t know a lot of Muslims, and I don’t know any Muslims very well.  I don’t know the Koran or what it teaches.  I do know the Torah.

This week’s portion tells the Israelites to destroy all of the places of worship built by the inhabitants of the land promised to them by God (this after they have been told by God, through Moses, to kill all of the people in their way).  It’s pretty brutal.  Through Moses, God tells the Israelites to build a place of worship at a place of God’s choosing and that this is the only place where the Israelites are to worship God.

So, let’s pretend for a moment that the Muslim people who want to build a mosque at Ground Zero are really evil (which I do not for one moment believe).  Since America is a land ruled by money and power, then perhaps the World Trade Center could be seen as our central place of worship.  And perhaps it is being replaced now by a Mosque, a place for the people of Islam to worship.  Do you see the parallel at all?

We have a choice about the way we see things, people, the world around us.  I choose to see good wherever I can.  Some would think this naive, which is okay with me.  And perhaps true.  There are evil people and there are people doing evil things all the time.  And there are really good people doing really good things all the time.  So where do we put our focus?  My greatest focus for the last several years has been to raise good people, mensches.  And even the parenting books say that the best way to get children to behave well is to reward good behavior and, when possible, ignore bad behavior.  Don’t give it the attention and it will often go away in favor of good behavior.

I do believe that the people who want to build a mosque at Ground Zero have good intentions.  It is my choice to see them this way.  And until they prove me wrong, I will naively continue.  Where will peace and understanding begin if not with the choices that each of us make about how we choose to see the people around us?

Is it a place of worship or a home for terrorists?  You choose, I already have.

just a little brag

If you are interested, I’ve had a piece published on The Jewish Writing Project by Bruce Black.  It’s a wonderful site with writings about all things Jewish.  Check it out when you have a moment.

Thanks Bruce!

1. Deuteronomy: Eikev

This is the third parsha in Deuteronomy and the first I’ve written on (remember the vacation).  But it is not the first I’ve read.  And I feel disturbed.  Very disturbed.  There’s been a lot of re-hash and I’m hearing a new voice.  Reminders of where the Israelites have been and what has occurred so far on Moses’ and the Israelites’ journey.  This new voice is recalling how we got where we are and what it cost.

And on top of that, I just read a couple of articles in The Forward about Chelsea Clinton’s marriage yesterday (yes, on the sabbath) to a Jewish man.  Then came the comments after the article.  Then an article about Israel’s rejection of marriage performed between any two people not considered Jews in the eyes of the Israeli Rabbinate.

Disturbed and sad.  I love being a Jew, and I will process this and it will feel better once I do.  But for now, I read what the fundamentalists read.  There is one way, only one way, to be deserving.  And that is to be an Israelite and follow God’s commandments.  If not, if you belong to a group that stands within Israel, or between the Israelites and Israel, you will be killed so that the Israelites can secure the land of Israel for themselves.  And if you don’t follow the commandments, as interpreted by this group or that group, then you are not a good Jew, or a deserving human being, or, to read some of the comments in The Forward, not worthy of much of anything.

There is a bumper sticker that says that all war is fought over religion, so if you eliminate religion you will eliminate war.  The bumper sticker is much more pithy about it, but that is the gist.  And if you read the Torah, it does seem to be true, at least fundamentally.  Lots and lots of people died so that the Israelites could have the land they were promised.

So I’m left with a dilemma.  We all are.  What do we look at literally?  We can’t all have everything that we want no matter what.  The fundamentalists can’t have a world that is as it was hundreds or thousands of years ago.  We can’t live on land that someone else is living on and call it our own without sharing it.  No one has a right to walk into another person’s home, life, world and tell them that they are doing it wrong therefore they don’t deserve…..whatever.

So we have to look at Torah in some way other than literally.  It is not a blueprint for life today….it can’t be.  Maybe much of the havoc and devastation that mankind has wrought on our world and its people is as a result of reading Torah a bit too literally.  Maybe it’s time to be inclusive and not exclusive.  Maybe it’s time to love more and allow each and every one of us to follow his or her own path, so long as that path does not desecrate another.

Maybe it’s time to stop being so RIGHT all the time and spend more time wondering how we can each be better tomorrow than we were today.

Thanks God, for kicking my ass.

1. Numbers: Matos & Masei

This week, my friend Henri Lite, who just became a bar mitzvah, is my guest author.  I was lucky enough to attend shabbat services on Saturday and got to learn from Henri’s words.  Here is Henri’s drash:

In my Torah portion Masei , Numbers 33:1-12 the Jews who had been slaves for hundred’s of years, are leaving Egypt.   When a group of people have lived for generations in slavery, that way of being has become their normal life.  When freedom was presented to the Jewish slaves, for some it was seen as a risk.  What if the Pharaoh was trying to trick the Jews and this was a trap.  Other fears might have been, where would they find a new home to live, and how would they find food and shelter.  Some may also have been questioning Moses’ ability to be a leader.  For us looking back and from the outside, freedom may be not seen as a risk.  For a moment put yourself in a position where you are faced with venturing out into the open desert with no destination or resources available.  What a choice; stay as a slave to the Pharaoh or go free into the desert.  I think we can now see why this new freedom could have been met with some doubt.

The question that arises for me is what is worth taking a risk for. Let’s ponder the word risk for a moment.  The dictionary definition says possible hazard, possibility for loss.  These days most people look at risk verses reward.  They only want to take a risk if the reward is big enough.  I believe in risk for doing the right thing.  What parent wouldn’t risk their life for their child.  I would take risks to protect or assist somebody who needs help.  The Israelites took a great risk when they were led out of slavery toward freedom.  We can experience real freedom when we take risks and when we believe we can accomplish them.  There are times when some people see things as a risk, but to the person who has prepared and is committed to an action, this is no risk at all.

If you are prepared and properly trained and have a plan, there is no risk involved.  That doesn’t guarantee success.  Risk could be summed up as being reckless or ill prepared.  My grandparents had a similar struggle to the Jewish slaves in Egypt.  They took a leap of faith in leaving their home in Europe to come to America for a better life. What are you willing to take a risk for? 

Let us rejoice in our ancestor’s courage and faith to leave Egypt despite the doubt and risks that they would face beginning a new life in a new land.

~Henri Lite

1. Numbers: Pinhas

Thank GOD for feminists.  I mean that sincerely.  In this day and age, feminism is something of a luxury.  Women don’t need to be feminists in order to vote, be heard, take a job, quit a job, buy a house, get a divorce.  I don’t need to be a feminist to live the life I choose.  And I don’t consider myself a feminist so much as a people-ist.  And yes, I do know that isn’t a word.

In this week’s Torah portion, the first feminists are heard. The five daughters of Zelophehad made a plea to Moses, it was heard, and their request was granted.  And this at a time when women didn’t even get counted let alone heard.  What they asked for wasn’t huge and seems, in this day and age, to be a simple request.  What they asked for doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they asked and were granted their request.

Now that we’ve moved beyond the basic need for feminism, it’s time to embrace something bigger.  People should be heard and seen for who they are and what they are capable of.  Equality is a fallacy.  People are not equal by any measure.  People are all different with different needs, abilities, thoughts, desires, etc.  Personally, I think equality is kind of a communist idea.  Not that I have a particular issue with communism.  But I do have an issue with equality because it does not exist.  And I do know that this will probably not be a popular thought to many.  But tell me, exactly how can we be equal?  In gender or anything else?  We are all unique in ability, thought, desire.

But don’t take this as disrespect to feminists who have given me the ability to live the life I do.  Thank you to the five daughters and all the daughters who came after them and fought the fight so that I can sit here and comfortably say that I’m not a feminist.  I honor you.

1. Numbers: Balak

This is funny….RJ.org posts haiku for the Torah portions.  Here’s the haiku for Balak:

A talking donkey!
Is this Balak in Torah
Or Shrek on the screen?

Both Balak and Shrek
Have donkeys as companions
And both are “ogres”.

Balak is an old friend (although I suppose I should hesitate to use the term friend in connection with someone who wanted to have the Isrealites cursed) of our family’s.  2 years ago, when my daughter turned 13 and was preparing for her Bat Mitzvah, we spent many a dinner hour chatting about talking asses.  That’s life with a 13 year old girl and a 9 year old boy.  They were so excited that they could say ass in front of us.  Not only that, but Em could say it on the bimah!

When she first began her d’rash with the cantor, they talked about the “still small voice”.  When Em was small, maybe as young as 3 or 4, I began to tell her about the voice inside of her that told her when something wasn’t right.  This voice became more and more reliable as Em got older, and is something that both she and I have learned to trust.  When her life goes awry, it is usually a result of not listening to her “little voice”. 

It’s so nice when life and Torah have something in common.  Oh dear, did I say that out loud?  Of course life and Torah ALWAYS have EVERYTHING in common.  But sometimes we mortals just don’t see it.  Or hear it.