Birthdays in Israel, then and now

Birthdays with a zero have a special purchase on the imagination. Whether one turns 40 or 70, that zero marks a turning point, the end of an old decade and the beginning of a new one, a chance to take stock: what in Hebrew is called cheshbon ha-nefesh — literally, an accounting of your soul. And if that birthday takes place in Israel, where you once lived for years — and where you might have stayed, had you chosen to — you have a formula for cascading, competing visions of what was and what might have been.

This past October, I celebrated my 70th birthday in Israel, at my in-laws’ backyard in Zikhron Ya’akov, about 22 miles south of Haifa. Those at the gathering were all part of my wife’s family. There were cakes and hugs and singing “Happy Birthday” in three languages: Hebrew, Spanish and English. It was pleasant and gratifyingly low-key.

I stood and thanked my in-laws for hosting this event, telling the group that I couldn’t imagine any place I’d rather be for my 70th birthday. And that was true, as far as it went. But during much of that night, my mind floated back in time and space.

When Betty and I went to Israel in the early 1970s, we thought we were going to remain there for the rest of our lives. We lived for two years at Kibbutz Netiv HaLamed Heh, in the Valley of Elah, and then more than five years in Jerusalem. We learned the language and became citizens. We had not gone to Israel to fulfill a Zionist dream, but little by little we became Israelis, as nosy and noisy as our neighbors. For the most part, we felt at home.

The last few years we were in Jerusalem, we lived in a suburb where, after the school day was over, we could let our older son, Rafi — born in Israel in 1974 — run free with his neighborhood pals. Before it got dark, we’d go look for him.

Years later, while living in Los Angeles, Rafi would write of his childhood in Israel: “I remember playing with my friends in the chaparral and the caves as the sun was setting. We found pottery shards and imagined that we were ancient Israelites battling against the all-powerful Romans. It felt like an adventure, though home was only a few yards away.”

It was an ideal life for a 6-year-old, but difficult for Betty and me: We barely eked out a living. I picked up odd jobs as a writer, working on documentary films, audiovisual shows and fundraising movies, while Betty was a high school math and science teacher.

By late 1980, we came to the reluctant conclusion that leaving Israel was an economic necessity for us. Our plan was for me to go to Los Angeles by myself first, find a place for us to live and look for work. Betty and Rafi would join me later. The decision to leave Israel was a painful one. (What made it more painful, perhaps, was the language. In Hebrew, going to live in Israel is aliyah, “going up”; leaving Israel is yeridah, “going down.”)

So when my 40th birthday rolled around in October 1980, we knew that our life in Israel was about to end. When our friends came to our apartment that night, it was with the unspoken feeling that this might be the last time we would see one another.

For us, Jerusalem had been a magical place. In the documentaries I worked on, I told stories about a unique city whose stones breathed a kind of sanctity. But the world in which I lived was also infused with the spirit of the age: sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. For those of us living a secular life there, it was a time of crazy, all-too-human adventures.

At my 40th birthday party in 1980, there were friends whose personal stories outstripped mine for audacious behavior. There was 25-year-old V., who, after receiving a diagnosis of terminal cancer, set out to live her every fantasy, artistic or erotic. (She would miraculously survive and have to deal with the consequences of her bust-out behavior.) There were A. and M., a married couple who had an arrangement: On alternate nights, A. would be with his other wife. A lovely young woman, R., showed up with her German (non-Jewish) boyfriend and his Israeli-born wife. Apparently, they functioned as a trio. And so on. These were my Jerusalem friends, exploring internal and interpersonal boundaries.

At 3 a.m., under the influence of God-knows-what, I led the group on a hike to Nebi Samuel, a hilltop a few miles away. We got there shortly before dawn, in time to see Bedouin shepherds waking up to tend their flocks. We looked out toward the Old City, imagining that on this very spot in 1099, the Crusaders — inspired by Peter the Hermit and led by Godfrey of Bouillon — planned their assault on Jerusalem. 

As we walked back home, I knew that soon there would be new friends, a new landscape, a new life. Did I feel I was abandoning Israel and my friends? Yes, on both counts.

Fast forward to my 70th birthday party in Zikhron Ya’akov. Here is my sweet 90-year-old mother-in-law, there my wife’s brother and his children and grandchildren — toddlers kicking balls and wearing funny hats. A happy, joyous scene. As I take it all in, my mind races back to my 40th birthday and the decision we made then, 30 years ago.

What would have become of us had we stayed in Israel? Would we have found a way to thrive economically? Would we have held on to the same friends? What about our two sons, Rafi, who was born in Israel while we were living on kibbutz, and Zeke, who was born two years after we arrived in Los Angeles — what would they have been like had they grown to manhood in Israel? Would they have had different values, followed a different path? They would have gone into the Israel Defense Forces, but how would that have affected them?

These thoughts were not a reaction to pain and suffering. Los Angeles has treated Betty and me well. We’ve been blessed with a comfortable life and a wealth of family and friends. We and our two sons are healthy, keinahora. No, what animates these “what if” questions is the inescapable fact that I lived this life and not that one. 

Thirty years ago in Israel, at my 40th birthday, I looked forward to a new life, wondering what the future had in store for me and my family. And now, on my 70th birthday — again in Israel — I looked backward, both to the life I had lived …  and to the life I hadn’t.

Roll It, Pat It and Mark It With a ‘B’

For the birthdays of each of her grandchildren, Babulinka used to bake a krendel, a traditional Latvian cake in the shape of a B. The classic shape was really a figure eight; it just looked like a B to Babulinka’s youngest grandchild, and so it became “the B cake.”

The cake isn’t what most children might imagine for a birthday cake. After all, it has no frosting, no layers, and no candles. Krendel (pronounced kryen-dzel) is low and yeasty with a streusel topping, more like coffee cake or a babka.

On the day of the celebration, the cake would sit on a wooden board on my grandmother’s kitchen counter, covered by a white dishtowel. Once the table was set and the guests arrived (usually a small gathering of family), we would sing a song reserved only for birthdays. It was a Russian ditty that, roughly translated, went like this: “One time for Gabi’s birthday we baked a birthday cake. Look how wide it is, look how narrow it is! Look how high it is, look how low it is! Birthday cake, birthday cake, choose whomever you desire. Of course, I like everybody here, but I love this person most of all….”

I can’t remember the last time we ate a krendel on a birthday, or the last time we sang that song, but I’m sure it wouldn’t sound the same without Babulinka’s enthusiasm and her thin Yiddishe trill.

Gurevich Family Krendel

1 1/4 cup of milk
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup of sugar
1 teaspoon crushed cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs lightly beaten at room temp
1 cup golden raisins
4 1/2 to 5 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 large egg beaten with 1 tablespoon milk, for brushing on top

Streusel topping

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons sugar
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

Melt one stick of butter in 1 1/4 cup of milk and set aside to cool to a temperature between 105 F and 115 F. Sprinkle one tablespoon of yeast into the cooled milk mixture, and whisk it in. Set aside for about five minutes, or until the yeast has dissolved.

In a large bowl, whisk in the milk mixture, sugar, cardamom, salt and eggs. Switch to a wooden spoon, add 2 cups of the flour and beat it until smooth. Mix in 1 cup of raisins, then add as much of the remaining flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until the dough is stiff. (It will still be sticky.)

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead, adding flour 1 tablespoon at a time until it is smooth and no longer sticky, about 10 minutes.

Shape the dough into a ball. Place it in a lightly greased bowl, turn the bowl to grease the entire surface and cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise at room temperature 45 minutes to one hour.

While the dough is rising, make the streusel topping. Mix the flour and sugar, working the butter into the flour mixture with your fingers until large moist clumps form.

When your dough has risen, punch it down and let it rest. On a lightly floured surface, form the dough into a long rope, about 20 inches, stretching it gently and rolling with your hands. Place on the buttered baking sheet in the shape of a big pretzel (a figure eight). Butter the outside of two soufflé ramekins (or empty tuna cans), and place them in the open parts of the pretzel to prevent them from closing during baking.

Cover the krendel loosely with plastic and let it rise until almost double in bulk. Brush the top with egg wash and scatter streusel over the top.

In the meantime, preheat the oven to 375 F. Bake the krendel for about 45 minutes, or until it is golden.

Transfer to a wooden board to cool, then cover with a clean dish towel to rest until ready to eat. It tastes best the next day.

Gabriella Gershenson is a restaurant reviewer and food columnist with the New York Press — and a sometime-compulsive eater.

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Links in the Chain

That is what our year is. The year is a circle from one Rosh Hashanah to another. Your birthday is a circle from one birthday to another. And on Simchat Torah, we celebrate the circle of the Torah. Every year we read through the whole Five books of Moses, and we close the circle on Simchat Torah, a holiday that means “the joy of Torah.” This year, Simchat Torah falls on Sunday, Oct. 19. We will dance in a circle around the Torah and read the last verses from the book of Deuteronomy (Devarim) and the first verses from the book of Genesis (Bereshit).

Torah in the Storah!

In this nonsense story, you will find words that sound like the English names of the Five Books of the Moses. Find them and send me the answers to win! (Clue: Some of the answers are made up of a few smaller words.)

Last time I went to the store, I met Jenny’s sis. She was in the vegetable section, looking for cucumbers. We couldn’t find them, so we asked the store manager, and he said: "Leave it to us, we’ll find them for you!" He took us to the back of the store and showed us the cucumber bin. "Do the astronomy," he said. We had no idea what he meant, but then we realized that the cucumbers had been next to us the whole time!

The Value of a Day

The High Holidays are a time Jews reserve for themselves. They don’t seek the approval or participation of gentiles. What if African Americans stopped trying to get white people to celebrate with us and recognized that we have been essential in making this nation?

As a black teenager attending junior high school in Hollywood, I was awed by the Jewish High Holidays. This was in the late ’60s before Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday became a national holiday and before Kwanzaa had become a year-end holiday phenomenon for African Americans. When I saw the near-empty classrooms taught by substitute teachers on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I saw a people, a fellow minority, with a celebration of their own — a celebration of their history and their deeply cherished values. In the recesses of my psyche, I was envious.

As I continued my schooling, black pride blossomed. The contributions of African Americans were integrated into textbooks, and black people were depicted with increasing frequency on television and in movies. During that period, the observation of Kwanzaa gathered steam. By the time I graduated college, Kwanzaa celebrations were hosted by major mainstream institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History. And after a long struggle, King’s birthday was made a national holiday. My heart let out a tiny "whoopee," and my holiday envy subsided.

Recently, there’s been a campaign to make Juneteenth a national celebration. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when enslaved black men and women in Galveston, Texas, finally learned they had been freed under the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued more than two years earlier. Celebrations followed the reading of the proclamation, and that began a black tradition in Texas, where it is now a paid state holiday. It is officially recognized in some form by Florida, Oklahoma, Delaware, Idaho and Alaska. At least a dozen other states are considering legislation to officially recognize it in some way.

Yet, Juneteenth is still not treated with respect. The biggest insult came last year when President Bush celebrated Cinco de Mayo with a festival on the South Lawn, complete with mariachi music and folk dancers. But in June of last year, he issued a one-page letter honoring Juneteenth.

So Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Houston), wrote Bush saying, "Juneteenth is America’s second Independence Day." She added, "The 19th of June is an important day for all Americans to observe."

"Bravo to that salvo," I thought at first. But on second thought, I questioned whether African Americans should push for official recognition.

I began to think about the Jewish High Holidays. Granted, it is a religious observance and an imperfect analogy. That said, what impressed me was that it is a time when Jews simply vanished. The High Holidays are a time Jews reserve for themselves. They don’t seek the approval or participation of gentiles. What if African Americans choose a period of time, a day perhaps — June 19 being as good as any — when we simply vanish? Not a paid or unpaid federal or state holiday, not a holiday that receives any official recognition whatsoever. African Americans would have to take a personal day or vacation time. It seems the least we can do for the then-newly freed black men and women of Galveston.

Some would argue that mainstream America should be forced to recognize black contributions. Yet, I wonder if the country as a whole has been edified by the way Martin Luther King Jr. Day has been celebrated. Does the holiday really function as a time to commemorate King, or is it simply some time off, an opportunity to run errands or to catch up on the latest Stephen King novel?

White people have never been shy about appropriating as they see fit from black Americans. Perhaps, one day mainstream America will spontaneously give us our due. Until then, African American feelings might continue to get bruised when the White House issues a single-page letter in recognition of what is arguably one of the greatest events in American history. But perhaps it is better to endure that hurt than to have our contributions reduced to a Juneteenth summer sale.

Eric V. Copage, is the author of eight books, including, “Soul Food: Inspirational Stories for African Americans” (Hyperion, $11.95).