Theater: Troy vs. ‘Tsuris’


“How should I prepare?” asks playwright Mark Troy after agreeing to an interview the following morning about his new play, “Tsuris,” opening Friday, Dec. 22, at the Sidewalk Studio Theater in Toluca Lake. “Should I wear a blue tuxedo?”
Although he is not a standup comedian and says he has a “pathological fear of being in front of an audience,” Mark Troy is always “on.”

When asked whether he is Jewish, Troy responds, “You will be needing proof of that?”

Actually, there is no need for such proof from Troy, whose last name may conjure images of Hector fighting Achilles, but whose latest play is about battles of a more contemporary nature — among Jewish spouses, parents and their children in Florida.

Troy has written many plays about Jews, including “Join the Club,” which just played at a Malibu festival and revolved around the decision of a 35-year-old man to get a circumcision. Another play, “Getting to Bupkus,” focuses on a 12-year-old Jewish boy who runs away the night before his bar mitzvah and comes back 12 years later.

Their storylines may remind one of TV shows and films from the past, the first calling to mind the “Sex and the City” episode in which one of Charlotte’s dates decides to test out his newly circumcised penis on multiple partners, and the second bringing back memories of “The Bar Mitzvah Boy,” the film that every 12-year-old Jewish boy has seen.

Troy’s new play, “Tsuris,” also has a familiarity to it, but that doesn’t mean that his dialogue lacks freshness. Troy has his characters rattle off humorous lines like, “Florida is like dog years; you times everything by seven.”

Troy is not suggesting that everyone living in Florida is preternaturally ancient, but rather that “something slows you down” and you end up replicating your grandmother’s habits — going to K-mart, going to the pool, then another pool and, most of all, eating dinner at 4 p.m. at Bagel Palace or Bagel Nosh or Bagel Land.

At these bagel emporia, elders may even utter adages such as this parody of Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man speech: “They say every man should have three wives. When he’s in his 20s … there’s the lustful wife. Then in midlife, he has the motherly wife. Then in his final golden years…the companion wife…. Thank God I’ve found in Irma Messersmidt the lustful whore I’ve been missing.”

“Tsuris” plays Dec. 22 through Feb. 3 at the Sidewalk Studio Theater, 4150 Riverside Drive, Toluca Lake.

Memories and Music


Before going inside, every visitor had to sign a waiver agreeing not to sue in case, say, a stray piece of wood or plaster fell on them. It felt, for a moment, like myself and the other members of the audience were embarking on a risky enterprise. But Boyle Heights’ Breed Street Shul, though a hardhat area nowadays, held no such dangers.

We were here, on this April Sunday for a noon performance by The Cuarteto Latinoamericano. Three of the four members of the string quartet are Mexican Jews — adding a fitting resonance to this location in a neighborhood that was once filled with Jews (living side by side with Japanese, Molokan Russians, Latinos and others) and is now a Latino enclave.

For many, the air was filled with nostalgia as well as music.

Gary Platt, 80, whose company manufactures casino furniture in Nevada, walked around the old shul — now in the midst of reconstruction — breathing it in, looking at it as if each piece of folk art and stained glass held a personal history.

“There were other, smaller shuls,” Platt said, “but this was the queen bee. We moved to Boyle Heights in 1934, and I had my bar mitzvah here in 1938. I have wonderful memories of this place. We had all these big social events here. The place was jumping during those years. [This neighborhood] was a fun place in which to grow up.”

Many Los Angeles Jews, often recently arrived immigrants, settled in Boyle Heights and surrounding areas in the 1920s and 1930s. Eventually, most would move to the Fairfax district, then to the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys and the Westside, as wealth and resources permitted, leaving Boyle Heights to other immigrants, often Latino, also seeking their fortune and future in America.

In Los Angeles, as in other American cities where Jews have moved out en masse from their old neighborhoods, they not only left dwellings behind, they also left behind synagogues, social centers, stores and street corners that connected them to a certain time in their lives and to a particular era in their collective past.

The Jewish community, it seems, is always wandering, though it’s part of the human condition, as well — always moving to the next area, the next neighborhood, always thinking that a better life awaits us, while at the same time remembering with profound nostalgia the old neighborhood we left behind.

Some Jews who once lived in Boyle Heights, or whose forebears did, and others want to preserve and celebrate those memories, which is the impetus behind the renovation going on at the Breed Street Shul, whose official name was the Congregation Talmud Torah. Even after nearly all Jews moved out of Boyle Heights in the 1950s, the shul continued to function.

“My bubbe and zayde were members of this shul,” said Ethel Kaplan, 63, a member of the Jewish Historical Society. “Even after my family moved to the Westside, we would come here for High Holidays and sometimes for other holidays and Shabbat, as well.”

But finally — in 1996 — the shul closed its doors. In subsequent years, it was subject to vandalism and decay.

Now the shul, the last remaining building in the neighborhood under Jewish auspices, is being rebuilt by the Breed Street Shul Project, a subsidiary of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. Both organizations are headed by Steve Sass, vice president at HBO.

The project is funded by government and foundation grants, as well as by private donations. Supporters still need to raise $3 million to complete the restoration.

“In reconstructing the Breed Street Shul,” Sass said, “we want to build bridges with the existing community. We want to bring in volunteers to teach English or do other community work, but we don’t want it to be that it’s all one way: We want to not only help the Latino community that lives here now, we also want to learn from them, to have them help us.

“That way we can engage one another and jointly learn from one another,” he continued. “We want to be supportive neighbors, and we really don’t have any models for this. So we have to devise our own models as we go along.

“In other cities where Jews moved out and left shuls behind, the old shuls, the historic ones, have sometimes been demolished, or else they’ve been renovated and turned into museums. We don’t want either of those things to happen here….

“We want this place, the Breed Street Shul, to live again, not as a functioning shul, not as a museum, but as a space that respects its Jewish past [while also serving] the cultural and educational concerns of those who live in the community now. We want it to become an important gathering place for both communities.”

With that in mind, Sass and MaryAnn Bonino, head of Da Camera Society’s Chamber Music in Historic Sites series, devised a program to bridge the gap between Boyle Heights’ Jewish past and its Latino present.

“Steve Sass and I are friends,” said Bonino, “and we’ve talked about doing an event together for some time.”

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano was scheduled to play a concert elsewhere in East L.A. in the middle of the afternoon on that same Sunday, April 9, so Sass and Bonino folded into the day’s events — in Sass’s words — a “forshpeiz,” or appetizer: a miniconcert performed by the group in the Breed Street Shul.

The result was astonishingly, heartbreakingly beautiful.

The Cuarteto Latinoamericano played David Stock’s “Sue?os de Sefarad,” which means “Dreams of Spain” in Ladino, and the music did indeed weave traditional Ladino/Sephardic melodies into its musical fabric. The acoustics were lush and rich in the historic synagogue.

The sounds evoked the nostalgia felt by Sephardic Jews remembering the Spain from which they had been ejected. The crowd consisted of more than a few like Platt and Kaplan, for whom the walls resonated with their own nostalgia for the Boyle Heights neighborhood where they and their families had once lived.

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The Leah Doll


Tante Mina sat on her couch and slowly tore away the wrapping. When the paper fell and she saw the porcelain doll her nieces had molded, painted and dressed for her, her breath caught in her throat and she let out a little gasp. As Tante Mina continued to stare at the doll, Mali, my mother, told her 81-year-old aunt about the next step.

“Now you have to name her.”

“Her name is Leah,” Tante Mina said right away. Mali looked at her twin sister, Tova, slightly stunned.

“Tante Mina, how did you do that so quickly? It usually takes people a little while to let the doll’s name come to them.” Mali said.

“No, her name is Leah,” Tante Mina said again, “she looks exactly like my sister who died in the Holocaust, her name was Leah.”

Mali and Tova slowly sat down.

“My sister, Leah, had black hair, freckles and the same face as this doll,” Tante Mina said.

“Do you have a picture of her?” Tova asked.

“No, the only picture exists in my mind, and now here she is,” Tante Mina said gesturing to her heart and then to the doll sitting in her lap.

My family talks about everything. We laugh, giggle and involve ourselves in one another’s lives. But for everything that is talked about and laughed at, there is the same equivalency of things not being said. For all of our plans and hopes, my family’s past is never mentioned. It is known, understood and remembered but never talked about. It’s a past farther back than how I’m related to a certain person. It’s all the stories of my relatives who lived and died during the Holocaust.

When I was younger I would ask questions about why some of my great aunts had never had children, and my mother would start to answer and then emotion would take over. Her eyes would start to water as she quickly explained how their bodies never recovered from what happened during the war. I was given the facts but the details were hidden behind tears and sadness that my family would rather repress then delve into again and again.

Of course, growing up, I learned in school what the Holocaust was and heard all of the horrible stories about what happened during those dreadful years to millions of Jews. The most education I received on the subject outside of school was through a trip to the Museum of Tolerance, and from the movie, “Schindler’s List,” which my mother made me go see with my dad.

There is the famous saying when it comes to the Holocaust — never forget. As long as we never forget, these horrible things can never happen again. However, there is a distinct difference between never forgetting, and remembering and honoring the lives lost.

The Holocaust survivors in my family, like Tante Mina, don’t mention the hardships they endured or the family they lost. It is something that they keep inside, never forgetting, yet never revealing. The faces of their lost loved ones, like Tante Mina’s sister, Leah, exist only in their memories, growing fuzzy with time yet always hovering near them.

When my mother called me and told me about Tante Mina’s doll, I could hear the emotion in her voice: “Isn’t that weird, of all of the choices of doll molds, of hair colors, eye colors, styles of clothing, it all turned out to be the image of the sister she lost in the Holocaust. A sister we didn’t even remember existed in the first place.”

Leah now sits on Tante Mina’s dresser in the Jewish Home for the Aging. A small, freckle-faced doll with black, braided hair, a straw hat and a beautiful green dress, a sense of loss behind her green painted eyes yet an aura of hope around her. She’s a constant reminder of the sister she had and serves as a guiding force, watching over Tante Mina as time passes, a presence to remind her that she has never, and will never, be alone.

An amazing connection can exist between past and present that, if strong enough, will present itself in ways never thought possible. This mystic connection graced my family when a doll was created that, unbeknownst to those who created her, also had a past.

There is so much sadness, pain and secrecy in the past that holds onto people’s souls for the duration of their lives. Although it is hard to recount these memories of loss, it is such an important first step to remembering and honoring — the past of who lived — while also being dedicated to not forgetting those who died.

Caroline Cobrin is a writer living in Van Nuys.

 

Senior Moments – Great-Grand Marshal


As I walked through the grounds at the Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA), I noticed a man in a wheelchair reading a magazine. It was called “Life Extension.”

I had to laugh. Someone must have strategically placed this magazine, like a prop, for the interview I was about to conduct. Talk about life extension! My subject, Sylvia Harmatz, could be the poster child. She’s 107 years old.

And for the sixth year in a row, Harmatz will be grand marshal of the Dec. 4 Walk of Ages, a 5K walk/run to raise funds for the JHA’s vital services.

She called JHA “a haven for people who have nowhere’s else to stay, like me. I sometimes wonder how in the world can they like so many people? They are so good to everyone!”

Since so many people seem interested in living forever, Harmatz is, of course, repeatedly asked: “What’s your secret?”

She smiles sweetly, showing great patience: “I don’t know.”

She doesn’t eat meat, but she does like candy, “because I need something to replace the meat.”

I told her my 14-year-old son would like that strategy. She laughed.

We sat a moment, and then Harmatz said, “You know, my husband lived to 104.”

In fact, Sylvia and Louis Harmatz were married for 80 years.

“He was very much in love with me,” she told me, with a smile.

I said maybe it was love, not a special diet, that contributed to their longevity.

“I think so,” Harmatz agreed. “We were very close. He wanted to be with me all the time. He never walked with me that he didn’t hold my hand. He was afraid I was going to run away from him, because I always walked so fast!”

The couple, who met at a dance in Brooklyn, married in 1921. They continued to love dancing and had a chance to waltz together after they moved to the JHA in 1994.

“We were always together,” Harmatz recalled. “He used to get up at night and cover me [with a blanket], to make sure I wouldn’t catch a cold. He took care of me. And I don’t know why, because I was always very strong and independent. I guess he noticed that I needed to be taken care of. When he passed away, I reassured him that I wouldn’t be long, that I’d be coming to meet him soon. But it hasn’t been that way.”

Harmatz laughed, but looked a little sad.

Born in Hungary in 1898, her earliest memories are of her father, a rabbi.

“He took me everywhere with him,” she said. “And I remember him teaching the children who couldn’t speak Hungarian, so they could learn too. I loved to sit and listen to him.”

Harmatz had her fourth birthday on board the ship to America.

Life was hard in this new country, says Harmatz, but she has fond memories of her parents’ relationship.

“My mother was very beautiful and they were very much in love. I used to know when they were going to have relations because [my father] used to leave his yarmulke on the bed.” Harmatz said with a laugh. “He was telling my mother, ‘Don’t forget, I’ll be there tonight!'”

Her father died at 42, leaving his wife with nine children. Harmatz started working at 13 to help out, then went to night school to become a nurse.

After marriage, she became a homemaker, raising the couple’s two daughters. There are now five grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren.

In 1935, Sylvia and Louis decided to come West, and settled in Hollywood. “I used to go downtown for seven cents on the Red Car!” Harmatz said.

Her political involvement as an avid Democrat goes at least as far back as Franklin Roosevelt. “Politics was my piece de resistance!” said Harmatz, who would go door-to-door seeking donations. “I knocked at a door once and [asked for] a dollar. The woman says, ‘No I’m a Republican.’ So I said, ‘You don’t have to apologize to me, all you have to do is change your affiliation!'”

One thing that pleases Harmatz about being the grand marshal is riding in a convertible. In fact, last year when it rained on the parade, someone suggested they put up the top, but Harmatz wanted it left down.

“I’m not a fussy person, but I do like a red convertible,” she said, laughing. I asked her if red is her favorite color. “Yes, I like red. In fact, I’m going to be buried in a red dress with polka dots.”

Harmatz has been interviewed by CNN, local newspapers and radio stations. I asked if she likes being a celebrity.

“It’s not important to me,” she said. “I like it because it’s helping the Home. I want the Home to have everything they need. They asked me, ‘What do you want for all your trouble?’ I said, ‘I want a little plaque that says: You too can be involved.'”

For registration and sponsorship for Walk of Ages VI, call (818) 774-3100 or visit www.walkofages.kintera.org.

Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer, owner of Living Legacies Family and Organizational Histories and producer of “Meet Me at Brooklyn & Soto.” She can be reached at ekzmail@adelphia.net and www.livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com.

 

Culling Your ‘Stuff’ Can Be Painful Task


My Aunt Naomi is overwhelmed.

Now 78, she was widowed three years ago. She lost her husband, but inherited his piles of files, cancelled checks and warranties for current and formerly owned equipment.

Aunt Naomi also has her own collections — beloved tchotchkes that are scattered throughout her expansive home.

Along with feeling overwhelmed, my aunt is very lonely. She wants to move to a retirement community to be around people, participate in activities and have someone else do the cooking (and dust her tchotchkes). However, this idea has Aunt Naomi distressed.

“How can I possibly move to someplace half the size of this house?” she asked. “I have too much stuff; I’ll never be able to figure out what to keep and what to get rid of.”

She’s not alone. A word search for “clutter” on Amazon.com returned 319 titles dealing with the problem of “too much stuff.”

My sister and I were fortunate when we moved our mother from her home to a smaller place. I don’t think I ever saw a stack of papers in mom’s house, and she would no more own a huge collection of tchotchkes than an assault rifle. She was a minimalist when it came to stuff.

But professional organizers exist for a reason, and these experts point to several challenges when downsizing to a smaller home:

  • The quantity of stuff and the daunting task of dealing with it all;
  • The feeling of urgency to get this task accomplished quickly;
  • A painful sense of loss.

This last issue seems especially important for older people.

“Getting old means facing a lot of losses,” my 87-year-old father said. “I’ve lost my independence, my physical strength and functioning and people I care about. It’s not easy.”

Moving from a familiar home and letting go of things owned for years can feel like an additional loss. It’s not just the loss of the objects that has an impact; it’s the connection with the past that these objects symbolize.

I recently came home to find that my cleaning lady had broken a precious, hand-painted bottle that my grandmother had given me when I was 11. Whenever I held this bottle, I felt the special bond I had with my grandmother. It was painful to look at this shattered reminder of her.

It did eventually occur to me that the bottle was, after all, just an object. And I didn’t really require it in order to remember my grandmother and our love.

But the fear of losing such objects and their associated memories is why many people hang on to things, said Peter Walsh, the professional organizer on The Learning Channel’s show, “Clean Sweep,” which helps ordinary people deal with their clutter.

I recently spoke with Walsh about the emotional and practical aspects of downsizing.

“People usually keep things because of fear, security and control,” Walsh said. “But it’s important that you understand that holding onto these objects doesn’t make you who you are, and doesn’t help you control the life you have; that’s really an illusion.

“The goal is to just keep the things that really give your life meaning — the items that bring you the most joy, which you have the best associations with. The objects you hang on to should be a reflection of you, rather than things you feel obligated to keep.”

Walsh said that one needs to acknowledge that trimming back is indeed an overwhelming task, and a very tough thing to do: “As my grandmother always said, ‘The only way to eat an elephant is one mouthful at a time.’ Go through your stuff gradually, maybe over many months’ time.”

To help with the process, he suggested having an organizing buddy. For some people, a friend or professional is a better option than a family member, he said, because of the emotions that get aroused.

On the other hand, if children can take the time, handle the predictable stress, be patient and understanding and help their parent stay calm, going through mementos and photos together can be a very meaningful experience. While my sister and I helped mom go through her photos, artwork and books, we reminisced, laughed a lot, cried a little and learned more about her family history.

It might have been even easier if we’d known some of Walsh’s tips for downsizing:

  • The 1-to-5 Ratio. Go through a collection of anything, and for every five you keep, get rid of one. Once you’ve done it once, go back and do it again — keep five items, get rid of one. You’ll cull down the collection gradually.
  • Reverse Coat Hanger Trick: We wear 20 percent of our clothes 80 percent of the time. Turn all coat hangers in your closet back to front. In the next six months, when you wear something, put it back in your closet the correct way. At the end of six months, you’ll see what you’ve worn and what you haven’t. Give away what you haven’t worn.
  • Two Garbage Bags Rule: Get two large trash bags — one for giving away, one for trash. Spend 20 minutes every day, once a week, putting three items in the giveaway bag, and one in the trash bag. Immediately have someone take the giveaway bag to your favorite thrift store. Put the other out in the trash.

As my grandmother knew, giving treasured things to family members feels good. Walsh points out that doing so (or giving objects to a local museum or historical society) can help ease the loss of letting go.

A lifestyle with regular sifting through stuff is ideal, Walsh said: “Clutter sucks the life out of your space. As you get older, you need to surround yourself with the essentials, rather than the excess. It’s safer, better for you health wise and easier to maintain. By having less stuff, you live a richer life.”

For more information, visit the National Association of Professional Organizers at www.napo.net.

Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer, owner of Living Legacies Family and Organizational Histories and producer of “Meet Me At Brooklyn & Soto.” She can be reached at ekzmail@adelphia.net and www.livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com.

 

Family History at the Holiday Table


Reconnecting long-lost family often begins with a relative’s random comment during a holiday gathering as generations gather around a dinner table. The holiday season is an ideal time to share roots and traditions, and to begin a family history project, adding lasting links to the chain of Jewish identity and continuity.

At a family gathering in Israel, Ingrid Rockberger heard a relative say that an American cousin had visited family in Sweden. Something clicked, as she vaguely recalled meeting some Swedish cousins in London, as a young child, some 50 years ago. This was the catalyst for a family reunion reuniting the Israeli, British and Swedish branches.

Decades ago, my aunt in Florida said, quite offhandedly, that her grandfather repeatedly claimed that “Talalay was our name when we left Spain.” She added that no one believed it, and most laughed at the idea of our Ashkenazi, Yiddish-speaking family having such origins.

Decades went by before I began to search, but I never forgot her comment.

Mogilev, Belarus, has been the focus of my search — from there we immigrated to America and elsewhere. I’ve located far-flung branches in several countries.

However, my quest for a Sephardi connection continued, and I discovered a number of Sephardi-named families in the city, adding to the possibility.

In 2004, a Spanish researcher discovered a 1353 archival document, signed by a kosher winemaker with our rare name. In October, I’ll return to Barcelona to continue the search in several archives.

While memories fade and older generations pass, writings and images survive, preserving family lore. Make sure to share these with extended family, and include copies as gifts for new babies, bar/bat mitzvah and weddings.

In June 2005, genealogy sites received 11 million hits, and that marketing survey didn’t even include JewishGen.

According to www.ancestry.com, the world’s largest genealogy Web site, a recent poll indicated that 73 percent of Americans are interested in their roots. Susan King, head of www.jewishgen.org, the largest Jewish genealogical Web site, recently announced the Web site, which receives millions of hits, counts some 160,000 subscribers from around the world, and is joined by some 5,000 new people monthly.

A proliferation of specialized books, online Jewish genealogy classes and special projects have inspired and assisted researchers in preserving family history.

Even without spending a lot of time on the Web, there’s a lot you can do during the holiday season to pique interest in genealogy during the High Holidays:

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Shabbat – Prepare a Meal, Preserve a Memory


In our family, Shabbat is always a potluck. Three generations bustle about very different kitchens, recreating recipes passed down l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation. And while I consider myself a fairly accomplished cook, I find myself regularly calling mom: “How come my brisket is so dry?” “Why is my kugel so temperamental?” “Why doesn’t my tsimmes taste like yours?” And as much as I like asking the questions, she loves answering them.

As our family gets older and the thought of losing them looms large, it’s a rewarding pleasure to spend time recording sweet moments, including favorite family recipes.

Instead of scrapbooking, think of it as cookbooking. Include recorded impromptu conversations in the kitchen, family photos and stories.

Pamela Hensley Vincent’s “Jewish-Sicilian Cookbook” (Overlook Press, 2004) pays tribute to her family, preserving memories through recipes and family photos.

“When you sit down to write about people you love, it just flows out of you,” Hensley Vincent said. “I visited haunts both magical and sorrowful, and as I went along, I recognized the cookbook was a scrapbook locked away all these years.”

As Hensley Vincent began gathering and trying to recreate her family’s recipes, she realized that when she cooked their dishes it was as if they were in the kitchen helping her.

“My father, Jack, could cook anything,” she said. “When he came home from work he couldn’t wait to get in the kitchen. When you grow up around that, you can’t help but love cooking.”

One vivid family memory straight out of my mother’s own recipe box happened one year, just before Thanksgiving, when my parents had been perusing their favorite farmer’s market and impulsively bought a giant bag of pecans. “I didn’t know what to do with all those nuts,” she said.

She opened the Herald-Examiner and there she found a recipe for pecan pie from her favorite columnist. My mom said, “I figured I listened to Dear Abby about other things, why not this?”

Jack’s Roast Chicken With Giblet Stuffing

Adapted from “The Jewish-Sicilian Cookbook.”

1 4- to 5-pound chicken

Coarse salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for rubbing on bird

Paprika to taste

1 celery stalk, with leaves, coarsely chopped

1 to 2 cremini mushrooms, coarsely chopped

1 medium-sized onion, coarsely chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped

1 14-ounce can of chicken broth

2 cups Pepperidge Farm Seasoned Bread Crumb Stuffing Mix

Preheat oven to 450 F. Remove chicken livers and giblets; thoroughly clean inside of cavity under cold, running water. Pat inside and outside dry with a paper towel. Place bird on a rack in a shallow roasting pan. Lightly sprinkle cavity with salt and pepper. Rub outside with olive oil and paprika. Place bird in refrigerator until ready to stuff.

In a saucepan, heat olive oil. Lightly brown giblets and liver for one to two minutes. Remove from saucepan and set aside. In same saucepan sauté celery, mushrooms, onions and garlic. When they start to soften and clarify, return giblets to pan, but reserve the liver. Pour chicken broth over vegetables and giblets; bring to a simmer. Cover saucepan and simmer for 30 minutes. Add liver to pan for last two minutes. Remove liver and giblets from pan and allow them to cool. Chop coarsely.

Put 2 cups of stuffing mix into a bowl. Add chopped liver, giblets, vegetables; toss together. Remove chicken from refrigerator and place stuffing loosely inside. Secure with two pins and string on each end. Place in oven. Immediately reduce heat to 350 F. Cook 20 minutes per pound. When finished, remove from oven. Let chicken cool for five minutes before carving.

Serves four to six.

Dear Abby’s Pecan Pie

This recipe appeared in Dear Abby’s advice column every year at Thanksgiving. The original recipe called for 1 cup each of corn syrup and sugar. My mother, Celia Levitt, adapted the recipe to make it less sweet, thinking it would be a bit healthier. Sometimes she used far less sugar than this.

3/4 cup light corn syrup

3/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

3 eggs, slightly beaten

1/3 cup butter, melted

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 9-inch unbaked pie crust

1 heaping cup pecan halves

Preheat oven to 350 F. In a large bowl, combine corn syrup, sugar, eggs, butter, salt and vanilla; mix well. Pour filling into unbaked pie crust and sprinkle pecan halves over top. Bake 45-50 minutes or until center is set (toothpick inserted in center will come out clean when pie is done). If pie or crust appears to be getting too brown on top, cover with foil for the remaining baking time. Remove from oven and cool.

Serves eight to 10.

 

‘Down’ on the Valley


“I still feel uncomfortable going back to the Valley,” 43-year-old filmmaker David Jacobson said. “To this day, I associate it with my childhood sense of feeling lost and lonely in a stark landscape. When I begin going over the 405, my spirits just start to drop.”

Jacobson’s acclaimed new film, “Down in the Valley” — which opens the Los Angeles Film Festival June 16 — draws on his memories of desolation without and within. His parents divorced when he was 2; his older brother died in a car accident when he was 13; and the introverted boy suffered nightmares and fear of the dark upon moving into a Van Nuys tract home next to the 101. “The freeway, which we heard day and night, was an ominous presence, a violent place where hurtling steel rushed past you like bullets,” he said. “We played in empty, weedy lots.”

Jacobson’s isolation was exacerbated because he discerned no historical or cultural continuity with which to connect. Since his family was secular, he said, he had no Jewish education to help him feel part of a community and guide him through rites of passage. His bar mitzvah, in a sense, was moving in with his father after his brother’s death.

His memories led him to create “Down in the Valley,” starring Edward Norton as a delusional man who claims to be a cowboy with a mysterious past. Harlan Fairfax Carruthers (Norton) drifts from the Tujunga Wash to a Chasidic neighborhood as he pursues a dangerous friendship with two latchkey kids who regard him as a hero. Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood), a rebellious teenager, and 11-year-old Lonnie (Rory Culkin), who suffers a crippling fear of the dark, also wander aimlessly through vacant lots, strip malls, freeway overpasses and fast-food joints.

Like the director’s previous films, “Criminal” (1994) and “Dahmer” (2002), “Valley,” in part, is a disquieting portrait of a man unable to function within normal society. So it’s jarring to meet the bespectacled director, who seems more like a nice Jewish boy than the creator of distressing, if lauded dramas. He is mild-mannered and friendly, despite spending 16-hour days trimming “Valley” after Cannes reviewers called it “breathtaking” but overlong. (Variety called him a “prodigiously talented” filmmaker.) Without a trace of bitterness, he said his work places him on the margins of American independent cinema, which veers more toward the quirky than the profoundly disturbing.

It was while braving multiple rejections for his understated serial killer film, “Dahmer,” around 1999 that he started writing his latest film in France — one of the many places he has lived to escape the Valley. He currently lives in Hollywood.

Since he had identified with the isolation of Dahmer’s youth (but not with his perversities), he decided to “return to the personal in an even more direct way, by exploring my childhood,” he said.

Jacobson wrote much of “Valley’s” first draft in an 18th century rococo library in Paris: “Had I been in Los Angeles, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to deal with it, so having all that physical and emotional distance helped,” he said.

While writing, Jacobson attended a series of classic Western films, and the myths and images flowed into his story. “I wanted to depict the parallels between the bleak vistas and lifestyles portrayed in the Westerns and the modest West where I lived,” he said. “Growing up in the Valley, there was this sense of solitude, the constant fear of attack and the need of a hero to save me.”

To capture flat Valley spaces that retain old West emptiness, Jacobson decided to shoot the movie in anamorphic widescreen. But while scouting locations, he discovered the kind of childhood scenarios he remembered had moved to the North Valley. In Arleta, he found the tract home with cinderblock and overgrown palm trees that served as the children’s house. Harlan, for a time, inhabits rural Sunland, where bucolic ranches also harbor “abandoned junky cars, power lines and trailers — a weird netherland that’s both urban and rural,” he said.

While scrolling through the images in a dim Los Angeles editing room, Jacobson said the story eventually became less about the Valley than children left alone to complete rites of passage. “When they are left to their own devices, it doesn’t usually have the best ending,” he said.

The 263 movies in the Los Angeles Film Festival, June 16-26, of which The Jewish Journal is a promotional affiliate, include three Israeli films focusing on women’s issues: Raphael Nadjari’s “Avanim” depicts a young wife’s resistance to a claustrophobic, male-dominated culture; Eran Riklis’ “The Syrian Bride” tells of an Israeli Druze who cannot return to her village once she crosses the border to marry her Syrian fiance; and Anat Zuria’s documentary, “Sentenced to Marriage,” traces three Orthodox wives’ battles to divorce abusive husbands. For tickets and information, call (866) 345-6337 or visit www.lafilmfest.com.

 

Tell Me a Story


 

When I was growing up, my family’s Passover gatherings were a joyful blend of holiday traditions, over-eating, stand-up comedy and most important of all — storytelling by our “tribal elders.”

For example, I was always moved by one of my Grandma Lena’s stories from the Great Depression.

“So many people were hungry,” she said. “Occasionally, I would come home from work and find a strange, unshaven man dressed in rags, sitting at our kitchen table. Your great-grandmother Leba would be serving him an entire meal — from soup to dessert. It scared me that she let strangers into the house when she was alone; she was a tiny, frail woman. But when I asked her how she could this, she simply said, ‘How could I not do this? He was hungry.'”

I never knew Leba Klein, but when my grandmother shared such memories, I learned something real about my ancestors.

I only wish we had recorded those stories.

Passover is a time for families to gather, to enjoy each other’s company and to recall the story of our shared ancient history.

It is also the perfect time to preserve your family’s greatest treasure: the memories and stories of your own family elders.

That’s why this Passover (or Mother’s or Father’s Day), you should create a family project to interview your oldest relatives.

Recording these stories means that they will be available for future generations. Plus, you can avoid regret. I’m constantly hearing people say things like, “We kept meaning to interview my grandparents, but we just didn’t have time. Now it’s too late.”

Also, every person should have a chance to tell his or her life story. One shouldn’t have to have survived horrible experiences, or accomplished the extraordinary, or be a celebrity to have this opportunity.

When we take the time to ask a parent or grandparent to tell us about their past experiences, and truly listen to them, we are acknowledging them for who they are, and for the life they have lived. They deserve this.

And finally, involving children in this interview process creates a meaningful connection between them and their family elders, something that doesn’t often happen these days. They will learn about their roots from a real person.

Not sure where to start? Here are some tips:

1. Get an audio cassette recorder or video camera and tripod. Bring a lot of tapes and back-up batteries. Get an external microphone, so that the recording will be clear. (Get advice from Radio Shack or Fry’s for a microphone that will fit your specific machine and will capture the sound most effectively. Pay extra for a good one.) Be sure to test your equipment before you conduct the interview. Try out different locations for the placement of the microphone to capture all important voices.

2. Plan a family gathering, where the entire family can commit to a few hours together. That in itself is a challenge, I know. But it’s worth it.

3. Determine the best interview subjects. Usually, this would be the eldest relatives who can not only talk about their own lives and experiences, but who also know the details and stories about your ancestors. You also want to choose people whose memories are intact. (My mother’s dementia would sadly rule her out now as an appropriate interview subject.)

In many families there are Talkers and Listeners. Some of the Talkers are great storytellers; some of them are just dominating. Listeners rarely speak up family gatherings.

With Talkers, your job is to manage the conversation, so that the interview moves along. Having a list of interview questions will help.

With Listeners, your job is to make sure they know that you truly want to hear about their life and experiences. Make sure they have their moment in the spotlight by asking them a specific question, and kindly telling anyone who interrupts to please wait their turn.

4. Before your gathering, have everyone in the family write down a list of questions to ask. There isn’t room here to give you an entire list of such questions, but you want to cover every generation that these interview subjects can speak about — their ancestors, grandparents, parents and the subject him or herself.

Your questions should trigger memories and details about different aspects of a person’s life: For example: names of important people, their personalities, the home, the city or town, daily activities, work, education, their experiences of being Jewish, how the family interacted, what they did for fun, what were their challenges and the events and times.

Ask all of the children in the family to make up questions, too. Depending on their ages, children often want to know grandparents’ favorite toys, what school was like or how their grandparents met.

5. Someone may have to play “director” and make sure that everyone gets a chance to talk and that people aren’t talking all at once (the result on your tape will be gobbledygook.)

6. Remember, this is something that deserves your family’s time and energy. The payoff is a precious experience and a record of your heritage. Have fun!

Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer and owner of Living Legacies Family Histories. She can be reached at ekzmail@adelphia.net.

 

The Good, the Bad and the Confusing


 

I am a senior citizen. I’m 82, look 65 and feel like 40. It is a very confusing time of life. People assume that you are over the hill. You know that you are still vital and have the ability to contribute to society.

At the age of 50, I classified myself as lower-middle age. As the years rushed by, I accepted middle, middle-age and then upper-middle age.

At 82, I can no longer fool myself with artificial classifications. I am old. I am a senior citizen. So what?

Senior citizenship is not necessarily bad. Nice people rise to give you their seats on buses and in public places. I always refuse the seat but will accept it for my more fragile wife.

Theaters offer me a discount on tickets. Financially, I don’t need a discount, but I gladly accept it. There are some small feelings of guilt as I observe younger, and perhaps poorer, couples paying full price.

Guilt also appears for me in restaurants as I timidly display my two-for-one coupon. The guilt is not deeply seated.

My family loves to chide me about my preference for restaurants that offer these coupons. I just can’t escape my memories of childhood poverty. Who ate at restaurants in Chicago’s West Side ghetto?

Joining other seniors at a restaurant can be a harrowing experience. There are always a few seniors who lag way behind the cute gal leading us to our seats. Some seniors reject seats that face a wall. Others in the same party demand a window seat. Of course, the restaurant temperature is too cold or too hot.

Some seniors have as much difficulty deciding what to eat as Eisenhower had deciding when to land at Normandy. We always have food left over to take home. We mark the cartons to be sure we take home our own leftovers.

You do not want to be present when the owner comes around at the end of the meal to declare our coupons invalid. We seniors are confident. We have seen too much of life to give up without a fight. Meek and mild we are not.

There is a sad aspect to dining with a senior who has lost a spouse. You want to pay their bill as a gesture of love. They insist on paying their fair share. You have to accept that pride demands that they pay for what they ate. Sometimes you adjust their share so they pay less than normal. They rarely know what you have done.

Dining brings up cruising. On a recent cruise, they asked what couple had been married the longest. The winning couple was to get a bottle of champagne.

The wife and I won with our 58 years. The champagne we gave away. But winning brought up many wistful memories.

I am very happily married. Yet I can’t explain where the years went. What happened to the skinny kid who was discharged from the Army on March 1 of 1946 and married two days later on March 3? Was it 58 years since we had that fabulous wedding attended by 10 people? How could it be that we have a daughter who is 55 years old?

You cannot spend time and energy wondering where the years went. They are finished.

Seniors must concentrate on now. Enjoy life now. Do what you can within your abilities. Life is precious and good. Tomorrow will come at its own speed.

 

Ease Your Kids Into Holiday Services


I was tired, I was bored and I hated wearing pantyhose. I stood up and sat down at the right times, and even hummed along to the some of the prayers. But in my head I was replaying scenes from my favorite movies and wishing I was home playing video games.

Ah, the High Holidays. The mere words conjure up memories of long services, uncomfortable clothing, endless Hebrew passages, Mom and Dad dozing off, semi-fasting against my will, and, most of all, not quite taking in what the holidays were all about. What can I say? I was a kid.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to make Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur more accessible to your kids. Find out if your synagogue offers special children’s or family services. I remember my childhood synagogue had separate services for kids. Our rabbi would illustrate important holiday concepts by telling entertaining stories about a character he called "Charlie Brownstein." We saw the shofar up close, sang fun songs and sat with our friends. Every Rosh Hashanah, I still wonder whether Charlie Brownstein has been inscribed in the Book of Life.

If your synagogue does not offer such alternatives, keep your child’s limits in mind. If the services are rather lengthy, you might consider taking short breaks with your children, so they aren’t overwhelmed or bored. (I met my closest Hebrew school friends in the bathroom and lobby areas during the High Holidays!) Besides giving your children a breather, these breaks can be an opportunity for them to meet other kids in the Jewish community.

If you feel your children are too young for services, some synagogues offer other kinds of children’s programs. A few years ago, I volunteered to help with one such program. I read holiday-related picture books to a group of rambunctious 6-year-olds. Afterward, all of the volunteers put on a Rosh Hashanah puppet show for the kids, using characters from Disney movies. Who knew that Snow White and Ursula from "The Little Mermaid" were Jewish?

Hebrew-heavy services can be alienating to young kids if they don’t speak the language or know some of the prayers. If you know the prayers, you might try saying or singing them to your kids ahead of time, so they recognize them during the service. As a kid, I can recall singing along to the Shema for the first time and feeling a sense of belonging.

If "dressing up" is an issue, nip it in the bud early. I remember the endless fights my mom had with my little brother, who insisted on wearing jeans and a T-shirt, rather than the adorable suit my mother picked out weeks before. Take your children shopping, and let them have a say in choosing their holiday outfits. Remember, if a garment is itchy or uncomfortable in the store, expect it to be 10 times worse on the big day.

Make the holidays more personal by explaining them to your children. Tell stories from your own childhood memories of synagogue. For Rosh Hashanah, talk about your hopes for the New Year. For Yom Kippur, talk about the things for which you’d like forgiveness. Clearly, you may not want to share all your reflections, but encouraging your children to express some of theirs will help them understand what both holidays are all about.

Create your own holiday rituals. When I was in second grade, a religious-school teacher served my class apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah. She even sang a song about it, which I remember to this day. For Yom Kippur, try breaking the fast with foods your children like, to create a positive association with the holiday.

When it comes to fasting, you probably know what’s best for your children. If they are mature enough to handle the fast, be sure to explain why we fast on Yom Kippur. It’s probably best not to force them to fast, if they are resistant. I was told that I had to fast. The result? I hid in the closet and chowed down a bag of Doritos. I avoided fasting for several years after that because of my resentment. The old "because I said so" doesn’t carry a lot of weight, and kids may rebel, as I did.

Finally, remember that your kids are going to take cues from you. If you zone out or sleep during services, your kids will get the message that the High Holidays are unimportant. Find a way for your children to take an interest in at least one aspect of the holidays, be it the shofar, the food, a song, a charismatic rabbi or talking to God. If you can establish a connection, the High Holidays will become a meaningful and permanent part of your children’s lives.

This is a reprint of a Jewish Journal article published Sept. 14, 2001.

Wonderousness of the First Time


A bar mitzvah is a time of becoming an adult. While my son was ready to proclaim, "Today I am a man," he also had to go through life with his voice changing and the wearing of braces for a perfect smile.

My first experience with this momentous occasion was after our son celebrated his first birthday. His grandfather, marveling at how bright he was, told everyone, "In 12 years we will have a bar mitzvah!"

It was an occasion he longed to see and, fortunately for all of us, he did.

As the years progressed, each year he would remind Bobby. Each time there were similar remarks followed by, "I know, Papa. Only six more years!"

While his grandfather often went over the prayers with him and his grandmother was in awe of how tall he was growing, my concerns were more about planning the event. We had been to a few bar mitzvahs during the year and everyone seemed to be similar. I guessed one copied another.

When the date was set, everything came into focus. He really will become a bar mitzvah. How exciting the whole year became. Bobby knew his prayers and haftarah very well. No one was concerned about that. He began to work on his sermon and master that, too.

Our synagogue does not allow music during Shabbat, so this had to be our plan: After Friday night services we had the regular pareve desserts — since most who keep kosher have a meat meal on Friday night and could not have dairy afterward — fresh fruits and lots of pick-up desserts, which worked very well.

We had invited my parents’ friends and my in-laws’ friends, plus all of our relatives. In addition, there were our friends, plus our children’s friends. We were hoping for 100, but stopped counting as the response cards surpassed that number.

Two days before, I followed Bobby and his Papa to shul, where my father bought Bobby a tallit. On the bimah, before his lesson was to start, I was fortunate to be able to take pictures of Daddy as he unfolded the tallit and showed Bobby how to say the prayer and wear it. Since we could not take photos on Shabbat, I instead look back on this time with fond memories.

Because we had hired a fabulous caterer, I was not worried. The florist was also terrific. Friday night came and went and we were very proud. We were to have a quiet Shabbat lunch after services and since we can play music after Shabbat ends, following the evening service there would be a big celebration.

Saturday morning is a long service. As we sat in the second row, always reserved for the family, we were so proud of our little man. He chanted with great confidence. The aliyot went by very well. When it was time for his haftarah, he started beautifully. Somewhere in the middle, he paused and cleared his throat.

While he seemed to be searching for the next note, I was worried because his wonderful teacher, our cantor, did not jump in to help. Finally, he cleared his throat again and continued without a hitch. I felt so bad for him. There was too much for him to do, I whispered to his dad. He reassured me that all would be fine.

The rest of the service was wonderful. Soon we were down in the sisterhood hall, enjoying the compliments from everyone on the services, and the beautifully served food. Some time later, I asked him if he hesitated because he was nervous or because he forgot the words.

Bobby laughed and leaned over.

"The reason I paused," he told me, "is because I swallowed one of my rubber bands. Darn braces!"


Joan G Friedman, lives in Reading, Penn., and can be reached at joan@friedman.net.

A Great Beginning


When Ed Block’s father died three years ago, he and his siblings were left to look for keepsakes while disposing of the contents of his Florida home. When opening a large, flat box stored in a closet, they were flooded by memories of their father, ever eager to show off a possession prized for 30 years: an unframed lithograph series by Abraham Rattner, a contemporary Jewish American painter.

"He loved to show them," said Block, of Laguna Hills. "But he never figured out what to do with it," he said of the collection. "He didn’t want to split them all up" between his three children.

In vivid primary colors with figures drawn in bold, black strokes, the 12 large pictures in the series titled, "In the Beginning," depict seminal moments of Jewish biblical history, along with an appropriate citation and quote. Several suggest the dreamy fantasies of Chagall; others are painted with a dark, foreboding cubism in a style reminiscent of Picasso. Just 200 were printed in the early ’70s.

Among the biblical characters portrayed are Moses at the burning bush, Adam and Eve and Sampson and Delilah. The abstract lithographs mounted in contemporary frameless Lucite will be permanently displayed on the second floor of the synagogue under a vast skylight.

The collection can be viewed through Aug. 27 in the current exhibit at the Kershaw Museum in Aliso Viejo’s Temple Beth El. The modernist series aptly fits Beth El’s contemporary architecture, reborn after an extensive remodeling from its original industrial use. The congregation relocated from trailers in 2001.

Block’s father owned the lithograph collection, because he was a childhood friend of Rattner’s publisher, New York art dealer Bill Haber.

After his father’s death in February 2001, neither Block nor his two siblings, Cheryl Gelber and Marilyn Harvey, were ready to hang the collection in their homes. Eventually, they decided to celebrate their father by making the collection a gift to Beth El. Jo Anne Simon, whose family helped establish the synagogue, served as an intermediary.

"I wanted it close to home so I could go and visit it," said Block, a physician. He and Lori, his wife, are 15-year synagogue members. His own artistic preference favors the realism of Israeli artist Tarkay, who sentimentally portrays women in vibrant scenes.

Recent appraisals valued the collection, one of Rattner’s lesser known works, at about $15,000, Block said. "It’s not that valuable. Its value is that it’s intact."

Individual prints from the series can be found for sale but not the entire collection, he said. Alan Wofsy Fine Art in San Francisco acquired Rattner’s portfolio a decade ago and currently lists signed and numbered lithographs made by the artist in the last decade of his life for $400 each.

In the decade that preceded Rattner’s biblical series, the artist’s work began reflecting religious themes and his Jewish heritage. One of his best known from that era is "Victory — Jerusalem the Golden," honoring Israel’s 20th anniversary of independence.

Rattner was born in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. His parents were immigrants who came to the United States to flee anti-Semitism and czarist Russia. Work by the artist, who died in 1978, was widely exhibited in his lifetime and is included in several museum collections.

His personal papers and those of his second wife, Esther Gentle, are archived in the Smithsonian’s collections, in part because of Rattner’s friendships with some of the century’s most creative luminaries. After serving in World War I, where duty included painting camouflage, Rattner spent 20 formative years in Paris, a cultural center for disillusioned expatriates. He experimented with cubism, futurism and expressionism, which would inform his later work that pushed the boundaries of artistic tradition.

During that period in Paris, he was part of a group that included Picasso, Dali and Miro and writers such as Henry Miller, a friend for 40 years who would join the artist on a road trip in the United States.

The introduction to "In the Beginning" is by the artist’s dealer. Haber wrote, "The 12 scenes symbolize man’s aspirations, his triumphs and defeats, his wisdom, his folly, his hopes and his prayers. There is no end to ‘In the Beginning.’"

Miller, too, added an introductory comment: "I’m so happy to see that with the advance of time, my dear old friend, Abe Rattner, continues to reveal that exaltation of spirit. He has the uncommon faculty of combining wrath, biblical wrath, with ecstasy. His work speaks of a living God, a God of infinite compassion and understanding. It belongs not in the museum, but in the cathedral of a new and promising world."

At least by one measure, Miller’s comments proved prophetic. For sure, Beth El’s remodeling transformed a secular environment into a public space with cathedral-like qualities.

Olins Reaches Out to Teens, Pet Owners


When Maggie died, the Goodman family turned to Rabbi Sally Olins for comfort. As she had at other times of tragedy in the past, Olins helped them in their healing, composing prayers and blessings and crafting a stone memorial marker.

Olins, rabbi of the Conservative Temple B’nai Hayim in Sherman Oaks, encouraged them to share memories of Maggie — how she jumped up on the bed every morning or how she loved to stick her head out the car window.

Maggie, a wheaten terrier, had been part of their family for 14 years, and Olins understood that moving on would take guidance and strength.

“It was very helpful to have a rabbi help us grieve and to understand what we were going through, because she has that feeling toward pets,” said Vicky Goodman, who with her husband Chip raised Maggie with their two daughters.

A few months ago, Olins founded Pets at Rest, a business through which she has already helped a small handful of people memorialize their beloved creatures through prayers, eulogies and memorial books.

“People need to stop to say ‘Thank you, God, for the pleasure this creature has brought into our life,'” Olins said.

But Olins understands that pet memorials are not part of her rabbinic duties. She keeps Pets at Rest separate from B’nai Hayim, where Olins has been for 15 years (though her 15-year-old Lhasa Apso, Kelev, sits under her desk on weekdays).

Olins, a petite grandmother of two with stylish flare, exudes an air of hip approachability.

As the 10th woman ordained as a Conservative rabbi who this year became the first woman ever appointed a regional president of the Rabbinic Assembly, Olins doesn’t ignore the challenges of being a woman on the bimah.

She wears a clerical robe every Shabbat, she said, which has neutralized the “What is she wearing?” distraction.

Olins was waiting in the wings throughout the 1970s and ’80s as the Conservative movement struggled with the question of whether to ordain women.

With teaching credentials and a master’s in kinesiology from UCLA, and an interest in modern dance, Olins taught in Los Angeles public schools and opened the fine arts department at Westlake School for Girls in the 1960s. In 1972, Olins founded The Firm Company in Westwood, a nationally recognized business that taught dance exercise to about 600 women a week for 13 years.

But throughout that time, Olins was also pursuing her dream to become a rabbi, one she held ever since she would walk to shul with her Grandpa John in Cincinnati when she was 9, before she moved to Beverly Hills.

She got her master’s in Jewish philosophy at the University of Judaism, and stayed on to take courses in the rabbinic school even before ordination for women was approved in 1986.

Soon after that decision, at 38, Olins began commuting to New York to work toward ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary. With her husband’s law practice in Los Angeles and her daughter about to graduate high school, Olins spent four days a week in New York and three days in Los Angeles studying with local rabbis and interning at B’nai Hayim. She kept that schedule for three years and was ordained in 1989.

Olins’ fierce determination to become a rabbi still comes through in the energy she puts into her work at B’nai Hayim, a 220-family congregation set into the woodsy streets just south of Ventura Boulevard.

The services she conducts with Cantor Mark Gomberg are interactive and her sermons current and relevant, members say, with Olins conducting Phil Donahue-like discussions on ethical questions during Friday night services.

“When my husband and I moved to the Valley we did all this temple shopping, and when Rabbi Sally started her banter with the cantor, we could not believe how fun it was and how lively,” said Beth Laski, who joined last year.

Olins teaches each bar and bat mitzvah student herself. She has four confirmation classes, since two of her classes refused to graduate when their required two years were completed.

On Thursday nights, she has 20 teens to her house to eat pizza and watch “Friends” on DVD.

“We take segments of ‘Friends’ and count how many ways they break the Ten Commandments,” Olins said. “You better believe they watch ‘Friends’ in a new light.”

Olins hopes that program like these help her members understand that Judaism can be central to their lives, as it is for her.

“Some day I’ll be dead and gone and they will remember that it was fun with me, that I wore jeans and that we ate pizza and studied together,” Olins said. “And when it comes to making a decision of who to marry, their sense of Jewish identity will be so strong, and maybe I’ll have played a part in that.”

For Pets at Rest, call (818) 388-8867. For B’nai Hayim, call (818) 788-4664.

A Father, a Son, a Tzadik


They told us that we would move through various stages of grief, but they were wrong. There is only one stage. It is bottomless despair. They told us that as time passes, the pain eases. It is not true. The pain is a chronic sore that does not mend, will not go away.

It is hard to believe that almost a year has passed since our son, Ariel Chaim, died. It is hard to believe he is gone, for Ariel’s presence, his ruach, or spirit, strongly permeates every aspect of our lives. When we sit down to the Shabbos table, seeing the empty chair makes for a tremulous Kiddush. At each meal, when I wash my hands before Hamotzi, I see the washing cup pouring water over his pale skin. The hum of the microwave stirs up memories of the countless meals I prepared for him during his last year at home. There are instances when I can hear the sound of his slippers scuffing against the floor and I look up fully expecting to see him. Most wrenching, is when I can laugh; I look for Ariel’s concurrence, imagining his ironic acknowledgement, “Yes Dad, that was funny.”

And all the time, my wife Karen and I agonize, asking the central question: How can we go on without him?

Ariel grew up and went to school here in Los Angeles. He loved this community and often said that, excepting Israel, he never wanted to live anywhere else. The Los Angeles Jewish community still has a small-town atmosphere, a warm provincial intimacy; it is a shtetl surrounded by strip malls. People here care for one another. Ariel attended Harkham Hebrew Hillel Academy from the age of 3. He was on his way to a life of normative Modern Orthodoxy. But as he was approaching his bar mitzvah, Ariel told us that he was bored in school, he was not challenged. He told us that he wanted to skip eighth grade and go right into high school. Karen and I agreed to speak to the administration of Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High School.

“No,” Ariel said, “I want to go to Yeshiva Gedolah, and oh — by the way,” he added, “I’d like you to buy me a black hat.”

From that moment, Ariel led our family into deeper realms of observance and Torah study. Yes, our lives changed, but only for the better.

The illness that would eventually rob him from us struck in the spring of his freshman year at Yeshiva Gedolah, when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Facing this life-threatening illness with courage, Ariel endured massive doses of chemotherapy and radiation. He never complained, never asked: Why me?

Instead, Ariel continued diligently studying Talmud in the Cedars-Sinai Cancer Center. Ariel recovered from this first bout of cancer only to have a recurrence in his junior year. There was surgery and a stem cell transplant, two trips to Sloan Kettering in New York and more than 100 blood transfusions. Ariel lost his hair twice. Astonishing as it may seem, Ariel conscientiously continued with his schoolwork, studying his beloved Talmud with no thought of surrendering to the dreadful disease.

Even though he spent most of his high school career in the hospital, Ariel graduated as valedictorian of his class. His rabbis at Yeshiva Gedolah were more than teachers, they were like family. His friends did not shunt him aside; they embraced him as a beloved brother.

Although it frightened us, we allowed Ariel to follow his heart and leave town for his post-high school studies at Ner Yisroel Rabbinical College in Baltimore. Ariel’s deepest desire was to be treated like everyone else. He continued to learn Torah, and a whole new Jewish community came to love and respect our son. The four years Ariel spent learning at Ner Yisroel were the happiest years of his life. The warm atmosphere, the rigors of night and day immersion in study and the camaraderie among the students provided the ideal setting for this gentle Son of the Torah.

Eight years after his initial battle, the ravages of chemotherapy caught up with Ariel. One of the drugs that saved his life in the short run caused fibrosis of the lungs, which eventually took him from us. Ariel bravely waited for the lung transplant. It never came.

In the last year of his life I was with Ariel for practically every minute of every day. We davened and learned together, I read Jane Austen to him. We laughed together as we watched Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin movies. Gradually I realized that my son was not only a brilliant and fine person, but that he was a genuine tzadik, a righteous person. I was humbled in his presence and his memory further humbles me. In spite of all his pain and suffering.

Ariel still never complained, never gave up hope; he endured the unendurable with breathtaking dignity. No matter how frail and sick he was, Ariel always said that he was lucky to have his family: his parents, and his sisters — the sisters he adored — Leda and Aliza, who could always make him laugh. He was also grateful to the members of our shul, Young Israel of Century City, for all they did for him. During Ariel’s long and painful decline he was always cheered by good food. Ariel would ponder a menu as pensively as a page of Talmud. Ruchama Muskin led the women of the Young Israel in preparing exciting, delicious meals that highlighted each Shabbos. Ariel made each cook feel like she had hit just the right spot to please his palate.

Each compliment was genuine, and the food kept coming — even into the intensive care unit.

Visiting the sick is a central mitzvah. I never realized how significant until Ariel was confined to the house, and then to the hospital. The members of our shul followed the example of their spiritual leader, Rabbi Elazar Muskin, and sat by Ariel’s bedside, learned with him, laughed with him and davened for him.

Karen and I were present when Ariel’s soul took leave of his exhausted body. We both experienced the moment in the exact same way: we felt an almost palpable separation of soul from body. The sensation of elevation, of a rising, was somehow transmitted to us with a surety that escapes definition. We just knew that his soul escaped the shell of physicality, ascending to Hashem.

My son taught me to be a better man, a better father and finally a better Jew. Now when people ask who I am, my answer is simple: I am Ariel’s father.

And now we try and find ways to properly remember our child, for he was both man and child — a child in his innocence, a man in his wisdom.

I recite the Kaddish. I learn Torah in Ariel’s memory. I go into his room, lie down on his bed, breathe in the scent of his favorite pillow and feel the imprint of his body. Karen prays more conscientiously than ever before; she studies Tehillim. We write of our memories. We comfort each other.

The last eight months have been spent writing and editing “The Book of Ariel,” a collection of essays and tributes written by family and friends to honor Ariel’s memory, to record an amazing array of accomplishments for such a short life: 22 years.

During the last year of Ariel’s life, he often spoke of the need for fine fiction appropriate for Torah-loving teenagers. He urged me to start a publishing company that would fill the void. Seraphic Press is now a reality. We have founded this small publishing company committed to issuing quality fiction for Torah Jews. Five superb books are in various stages of development. The first novel will be published in January 2005. “The Hebrew Kid and the Apache Maiden” is the tale of an observant Jewish boy in the Old West. It is the story of his determination to celebrate his bar mitzvah and his friendship with Doc Holliday the notorious gunfighter, and with Lozen, a legendary Apache warrior girl who rode with Geronimo. The main character’s name in the book is … Ariel. Seraphic Press is dedicated to Ariel’s memory. We have also established the Ariel Avrech Yahrtzeit Lecture Series.

We do everything we can to honor Ariel and keep him alive in our hearts.

We remember his love of Torah, his intellect, humor and gentle sweet nature. But no matter what we do it never quite seems to measure up to the gifts he gave us.

It is hard to believe that almost a year has passed. Ariel’s absence has become presence. We stand in the layers of memory, and in the remembrance of his all too brief life we experience a vast and splendid majesty that is his soul.

The unveiling for Ariel Avrech will take place on Friday, June 18, at 10 a.m. at Sinai Cemetery in Simi Valley. Call (800) 600-0076 for directions.


Robert J. Avrech, who won an Emmy for his screenplay of “The Devil’s
Arithmetic,” lives with his family in Pico-Robertson. Among his numerous credits
are “Body Double” and “A Stranger Among Us.” If you wish to read more about
Ariel and the Avrech family, visit

Behind Kitchen Door No. 1


Monty Hall spent 27 years making outrageous deals with anxious contestants on his TV game show, “Let’s Make a Deal.” But the sweetest deal he ever made with his mishpachah was for a plate of pickled herring if they’d join him for Passover seder.

Such a deal! The odds are all in Hall’s favor.

Which of Monty and Marilyn Hall’s three children — actress Joanna Gleason, filmmaker Richard Hall, director-writer Sharon Hall Kessler, or even their spouses — wouldn’t want to gather around the large stone dining table to eat and retell the story of the Jewish people’s journey from slavery to freedom? Even the real dealmakers of the family — the Halls’ five grandchildren — get to put in their two cents.

As Hall greets visitors in his gracious home, where his O.C. medallion (Order of Canada, the highest award the government bestows), bumps up against three honorary doctorates, Israeli artist Reuven Rubin’s suite of lithographs titled, “The Prophets,” and a plethora of plaques honoring his charitable works, he points out the prize he’s probably the most proud of: his “Grandfather of the Year” award.

Switching thoughts, he focuses on an antique silver chalice, which has become Elijah’s dedicated wine goblet, translating the words engraved on the side — borei p’ree hagafen (blessed be the fruit of the vine).

His face strictly deadpan, reminiscent of Jewish comedians Jack Benny and George Burns, Hall explained, “Marilyn and I found it at a flea market in Jaffa, Israel. One Passover we opened the door to put it out for Elijah; the dog walked in.”

Which flavor of the sugary sweet wine is his favorite?

“After the third cup, who cares?” he said.

“Every year we host the seder; invite close friends, cousins; there’s usually 35 of us,” he said. “We take in lots of strangers, people who don’t have any place to go. It’s a mitzvah I can do this.”

“My family has always been close. All my kids are in the business. I didn’t get one dentist,” he quips.

To say nothing of his wife, Marilyn, an award-winning producer of “A Woman Named Golda” and “Do You Remember Love?” who also compiled “The Celebrity Kosher Cookbook: A Sentimental Journey with Food, Mothers and Memories,” with Rabbi Jerome Cutler. The recipes, anecdotes and jokes were from Jewish entertainers. Originally published in 1975, the book was a fundraiser for the Synagogue for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles and other Jewish charities.

As Hall wades through this embarrassment of riches, it’s obvious his grandchildren bring him the most joy. Hall kvells over his grandchildren.

Passover memories are precious to him, especially now that he’s the patriarch. But a very special Passover, when he was only 6, and his beloved grandfather, David, was the patriarch, never strays far away from his heart.

Hall was born in Winnipeg, Canada, in his grandparents house on Hallet Street. He grew up with four generations of family — aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and two sets of great-grandparents.

“When you grow up in a house like that, you learn about respect,” Hall said. “One of the most beautiful sights I remember is sitting at the dining table, watching my aged great-grandfather feeding his wife, who had gone blind.”

His grandfather, David Rusen, arrived in Winnipeg in 1901 from the Pavelich shtetl in the Ukraine. He started out with a pushcart, selling fruit and vegetables on the street. Subsequently he bought a truck, then started a wholesale produce company. By 1906, he had earned enough to bring over his wife and children, his wife’s parents and two sets of grandparents.

Grandpa David subsequently sponsored not only the rest of their family, but 100 impoverished Jews from their shtetl who wanted a respite from their life in czarist Russia.

On one particular Pesach the family was right in the middle of the service when the phone rang. It was the stationmaster from the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

“I have this family — they gave me a piece of paper with your number. What do I do with them?” he urgently asked.

“Put them in a taxi,” Rusen said. “And tell the driver to make it quick.”

The “family,” were cousins who had set foot on the shores of Canada from the Ukraine on the first night of Passover.

“Grandma ordered us all to stop eating. ‘We have six more mouths to feed,'” Hall recalled her saying.

“Because the cousins spoke no English and we spoke no Ukrainian, we communicated in Yiddish,” Hall said. “There were four children — Aaron, Kieva, Miriam and Numa. As soon as they introduced Numa, my uncles and I started laughing hysterically and poor little Numa started to cry. How could Numa know that his name was the lion in our favorite comic strip, “Tarzan?”

“There were more tears, but they were for joy, as my grandmother began babbling in Ukrainian to these cousins she hadn’t seen in 21 years,” Hall added.

Fifty years later, Hall was speaking in Canada at a large Hadassah fundraiser. He was retelling the story of how a poor Russian family walked into his grandfather’s seder and changed the way he looked at the world.

“After I finished speaking, people began gathering around me,” Hall remembered. “One very pretty woman whispered, ‘That story sounds familiar. My name is Miriam Margulies. Could we be related?'”

“I felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck,” Hall said.

“‘Miriam, didn’t you hear the story? There were four children. I still remember — Kieva, Aaron, Numa and Miriam. Your family crashed our Passover seder. We both cried,” Hall recalled.

That seder sticks in his mind as one of the defining moments of his life, where he learned about charity, philanthropy and the line from “Fiddler on the Roof”: “We all know who we are and what God expects of us.”

“That was my grandfather’s creed and mine,” Hall said. “My grandfather was like Tevye the Milkman. I guess in my own way, I am, too.”

Recipes for Monty Hall’s Passover

Monty Hall’s Sweet and Sour Herring

Hall learned how to make this recipe from a friend in Canada, who taught him to filet the fresh fish. As years went by, and time became scarce, Hall would make the recipe from Matjes herring he would buy in a tin, which were already filleted. This sweet-sour appetizer developed quite a following; it was the perfect hors d’oeuvres for Passover. One year when he and Alan Alda went to a second-night seder, “I brought two jars of the herring; we passed the first jar around and it disappeared,” Hall said. “So, apparently, had the second jar. We looked high and low for it; then I walked into the kitchen and there was Alan, devouring it, a guilty look on his face. I’ve never let him forget it.”

You can buy pickling spices in a package or combine your own. Matjes herring takes one hour to soak. Salt herrings might take longer, so ask the fish seller.

4 fresh Matjes or salt herrings, filleted

1 large white onion, peeled and thinly sliced

1 cup white wine or apple cider vinegar

1 cup sugar

3 cloves (optional)

8 black peppercorns

2 bay leaves

8 juniper berries

1 tablespoon mace leaves

A piece of cheesecloth

Soak herrings for one hour in cold water or milk; drain on a few layers of paper towels. Cut into bite-size pieces. Place spices in a piece of cheesecloth, making sure to secure the ends to make a sack. Place in pan with vinegar and sugar and boil for five minutes. Place in pan with vinegar, sugar and water to taste. Let it cool. In a wide-mouth glass jar, place a layer of herring, then a layer of onions; alternate until you have reached the top. Pour the cooled liquid over the herring. Refrigerate for two days before eating. It will stay fresh in the refrigerator for two weeks.

Serves six to eight.

Marilyn Hall’s Favorite Recipe for Baba Ghanouj

1 large eggplant

1 medium onion, grated on largest holes of a grater

1¼2 bunch parsley, finely chopped

1¼2 cup tahina (sesame seed paste)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 garlic cloves, crushed

2 teaspoons water

1 teaspoon salt

Dash cayenne pepper

Place the whole unpeeled eggplant directly on gas burner with the flame set at medium, turning it as the skin chars and the inside becomes soft, or bake in a pan at 450 F. until it is charred and tender, about 30 minutes. When done, let cool slightly, cut in half lengthwise and scoop out the eggplant pulp with a wooden spoon (the wooden spoon preserves the flavor). Chop fine in a ceramic or wooden bowl. Squeeze out juice from the onion; add the grated onion to the eggplant, along with the parsley.

Blend tahina thoroughly with lemon juice and garlic, stir in small amount of water until mixture is white in color. Stir into eggplant mixture; add salt and a dash of cayenne pepper. More lemon juice may be added for extra flavor. Garnish with parsley.

Makes 21¼2 to 3 cups.

From “The Flavor of Jerusalem” by Joan Nathan and Judy Stacey Goldman (Little, Brown and Company, 1975).

Cooking Middle Eastern Memories


"A Fistful of Lentils" by Jennifer Felicia Abadi (Harvard Common Press, 2002).

Reading "A Fistful of Lentils" is like wandering through a family album. Instead of food photos you find dozens of family portraits, touching stories and the fascinating history of a rich and unique culture. In this engaging new cookbook, first-time author Jennifer Felicia Abadi tells the fascinating story of her Syrian Jewish family and reveals the secrets of their little known cuisine.

In 1924, her great-grandmother, Esther (called Steta in Arabic), left Aleppo for America on the crest of a wave of Syrian immigration as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. She brought with her cherished family recipes, passed down from mother to daughter, from the communal kitchens back home, where Arab and Jewish women gathered daily, as they had for centuries, to bake sambussaks (savory-filled pastries) and exchange gossip.

In the 1970s, Esther’s grandchildren (Abadi’s mother and aunt) decided to observe their Steta in the kitchen and carefully recorded her recipes for the family. Thirty years later, Abadi embarked on a project of her own — trying to fill in the gaps by observing her own grandma, Fritzie — and in the process learned as much about her family’s history as she did about their cooking.

Numbering a mere 150,000 worldwide, Syrian Jews descend from a blending of the Spanish Jewish population that fled to Syria to escape the Inquisition and the Mizrahi (Eastern) Jews they found there who had made Syria their home for 2,000 years.

Those who think Middle Eastern cuisine is all falafel and hummus will delight in the exotic tastes and smells of the Syrian kitchen. But what distinguishes the foods of Syria from other Middle Eastern cuisine?

"Syrian cuisine has a strong flavor," Abadi explained, "but as compared to, say, Indian, we don’t use a lot of different spices. We use mainly cinnamon and allspice in tandem together and lots of cumin. And whereas Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians use couscous, we use bulgur wheat. We love rice, too, but bulgur wheat is our favorite grain."

Although rice was plentiful in Persia, Abadi noted, it was brought into Syria later through the trade routes. Originally reserved for the upper classes, the traditional riz (basic Syrian rice) is now considered a staple on the Syrian table. "Basic it is; plain it is not," Abadi writes.

Onions are first sautéed in oil and then combined with soaked and drained long-grain white rice, the mixture boiled and topped with toasted pine nuts. The favorite part of the rice is the prized a’hata, the brown crust scraped from the bottom of the pot, achieved by slowly cooking (and watching) the rice for 50-60 minutes over low heat.

Whereas Moroccans use dates, Syrians prefer mish mosh (dried apricots) in a variety of dishes, from Meh’shi Sfeehah b’Dja’jeh (Stuffed Baby Eggplant with Roasted Chicken) to the colorful and refreshing Mish Mosh m’Fis’dok (Cold Rose Water Syrup With Apricots and Pistachios).

"Many recipes call for rose water or orange water, and that separates us from other Mediterraneans, like the Greeks, who use honey," Abadi continued. "But I think probably our use of tamarind most distinguishes Syrian cuisine from others in the Middle East."

The rich tamarind sauce called ooh, a staple in the Syrian kitchen, is made from the pods of the tamarind tree. It is dark in color and lends a unique tart-sweet flavor to such dishes as Dja’jeh Mish Mosh (Sweet-and-Tart Chicken With Apricots) and Meh’shi Kusa (Stuffed Squash With Sweet-and-Sour Tomato Sauce). Presentation is key to the Syrian table.

"We’re definitely concerned with how the table looks and that all the food is presented colorfully," she said. "What’s nice is to have many little tastings, not just have one thing, and we like to have plenty. There will usually be several main dishes, on the average at least three or four, with a rice and a vegetable stuffed dish and maybe a noodle dish. The maazeh [appetizers] are colorful and done on little plates with lots of different shapes and sizes."

Most Syrian dishes, Abadi said, are easy to prepare.

"It’s peasant food, a home-cooking thing. The dishes are long cooking, but, except perhaps for the pastries, which require more time and skill, they are not that difficult to do."

Case in point, Dja’jeh b’Ah’sal (Chicken With Prunes and Honey), a perfect choice for Rosh Hashanah.

"We use prunes, as well as apricots and dates, not only for their sweetness," Abadi notes, "but because they are round, they represent the cycle of life."

Tired of the same old honey cake? Try the more exotic Ka’ikeh b’Ah’sal (Honey Cake With Sesame Glaze), rich with tahini and sesame seeds, which, Abadi tells us, are used on Rosh Hashanah along with poppy seeds to represent an abundance of good deeds.

Dja’jeh b’Ah’sal (Chicken With Prunes and Honey Sauce)

2 cups pitted prunes, soaked in 1 cup cold water for 15 minutes

1/4 cup honey

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Chicken

5 to 5 1/2 pounds chicken pieces (white and dark meat), skinned

1/4 cup olive oil

1 cup finely chopped yellow onions

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Three 3-inch cinnamon sticks

2 cups cold water

To Serve

1 cup blanched whole almonds, toasted in a dry skillet over medium heat until golden

Prepare the sauce. Place the prunes and soaking water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Add the honey and cinnamon. Mix well and simmer until the prunes absorb some water and soften (they should be soft yet retain most of their shape), about five more minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Prepare the chicken. Rinse the chicken under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. Place on a plate.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and cook the onions, stirring, until golden and soft, three to four minutes. Add the chicken pieces and brown, cooking for two to three minutes on each side. Add the salt, pepper, cinnamon sticks and water, stir well, and bring to a slow boil over medium-high heat. Pour the sauce over the chicken. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, for one hour.

Uncover the skillet and cook until some of the excess liquid cooks off and the sauce has thickened to a gravy-like texture, an additional 20-30 minutes.

Serve on large platter, garnished with toasted almonds.

Ka’ikeh b’Ah’sal (Honey Cake With Sesame Glaze)

Cake

4 large eggs, lightly beaten

1/3 cup tahini (sesame paste)

2/3 cup honey

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

Glaze

2/3 cup honey

1 tablespoon tahini

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Prepare the cake. Combine the beaten eggs, tahini, honey and vanilla in a large bowl until smooth.

In a medium-size bowl, combine the flour and baking powder. Add to the wet mixture and mix well.

Pour the batter into a greased 9-by-13-inch baking pan or 9-inch Springform pan and bake until a toothpick or knife inserted into the center comes out clean, 25-35 minutes.

When the cake is ready, remove from the oven and allow to cool for about 45 minutes. With a knife, loosen the edges of the cake. Place a large plate on top of the cake pan and flip the pan upside down.

Prepare the glaze. Combine the honey and tahini in a small saucepan and cook over low heat until blended to a smooth consistency, four to five minutes. Add the sesame seeds and mix well.

Remove from the heat and immediately pour the hot glaze over the top of the cake, allowing the glaze to soak in. Let cool for 30 minutes.

Cut into diamond shapes about two inches long and 1-inch wide and serve at room temperature. Do not refrigerate.

A Date With Passover Memories


Once a year, soon after Purim, my parents lug down the hydraulic press from their attic. For those of us more comfortable in the world of DVDs and CD-ROMs, a hydraulic press is an old-fashioned contraption that looks like a wooden bucket perched on a little metal table, with a metal pole you turn to squeeze whatever you put inside — often, grapes to make wine. My parents use it to make halek, the date syrup that is the Iraqi-Indian version of charoset.

I won’t give too many details about the arduous process that results in the glossy brown, intensely sweet halek, but for starters, let me just say it ain’t easy. My parents produce enough halek not only for themselves, but for three daughters, eight grandchildren and numerous seder guests. Halek remains a favorite breakfast and snack food during the week of Passover. That’s a lot of halek, so my parents begin with 15 pounds of pitted, crushed dates. After the dates are soaked overnight, the hydraulic press strains and liquefies the fruit so that the halek retains every drop of honeyed essence. The liquid is then boiled until it thickens; it is mixed with ground walnuts before serving.

I know some families who make halek without the dramatics of the hydraulic press (a cheesecloth and hand-squeezing can do the trick). But my parents wanted to reproduce the exact process they knew from India, for my great-uncle Elias — the family’s master halek-maker in Calcutta — used a hydraulic press. In fact, Uncle Elias used to send us halek in sealed containers for 15 years after we moved from Calcutta to Philadelphia. When my parents bought the hydraulic press in Philadelphia’s Italian Market, they continued the tradition on their own.

The haggadah tells us that on Pesach we must re-enact the story of the Exodus. But for many of us, Pesach is also a time to re-enact the customs of our parents and grandparents. Elana Goldberg of Teaneck, N.J., doesn’t have a hydraulic press, but she devotes hours to making a sweet dish the way her bubbe did. The fried dough cake filled with raisins, prunes and raspberry jam, then soaked and baked in honey, lemon juice, cinnamon and sugar, brings back a taste she treasured as a little girl.

"I thought it was heaven. It was the highlight of the seder for me," Goldberg remembers. Today, with two sets of twins, 8 and 5, and a 3-year-old, Goldberg still puts aside a whole night to recreate this piece of her grandmother.

"Somehow it’s not Passover without it," she said, "and the only way to get it is to make it myself."

Journalist and author Patricia Volk ("Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family," Knopf, 2001) sets her table with an inventory of heirlooms: Aunt Lil’s nut dish with squirrels on the side for charoset; Granny Ethel’s silver platter for matzah, and "place plates" to put under each place setting; Poppy’s silverware; Aunt Dorothy’s stemware; Nana’s "peacock plates" and salt cellars in peacock-blue clear glass; her father’s silver repoussé kiddush cup, and great-grandmother’s vase.

Looking for the afikomen is the thread that takes Ed Koch back 50 or 60 years.

"My father always hid the matzah under the sofa pillow, year after year," recalled the former mayor of New York. "But we always played the game. We’d look everywhere, and then look under the sofa pillow. We received a few coins, but for a 7-year- old, it was a treasure."

Today, when Noah and Jordan, his 5-year-old grandnephew and 8-year-old grandniece, look for the afikomen, "there’s no fix. You gotta really find it."

Their reward?

"We’re up to a dollar," Koch said. "You don’t want to spoil the kids."

At the Passover workshops he presents, Dr. Ron Wolfson, vice president of the University of Judaism and author of "The Art of Jewish Living: The Passover Seder," (Jewish Lights, 1996) suggested matching the four cups with different varieties of the many good kosher wines now on the market. Last year, however, Wolfson got a complaint from a participant after Passover.

"Your idea backfired," the man said. "Everybody was looking for heavy Malaga. That’s what they remembered from their youth."

"That taught me an important lesson," Wolfson said. "The great attraction of Passover is that we not only recite the haggadah — this historical document — but we also live and breathe and eat and touch and smell the history, with the additional layer of family memory. The seder becomes a family reunion, a powerful reliving of family history."

Wolfson enjoys reliving one particular episode of his own family history that took place on Passover, although he may not have relished it as much years ago.

"I almost didn’t get engaged to my wife because of gefilte fish," he recalled. "When my future in-laws came to our family seder for the first time, they offered to make the gefilte fish. We sometimes had up to 50 guests, so they bought 100 pounds of fish, and worked for a week preparing it. They chopped it up by hand in a gehocker [a cleaver], poured cups of sugar on it, shaped it into balls, stuffed the mixture into the fish skins and sliced it. That was their tradition from Germany and Poland. My family, originally from the Russian Pale of Settlement, never saw gefilte fish like that before. They never tasted gefilte fish like that before. They expected it to be bland and unsweetened, and they were in shock."

"Familiarity is comforting," said Dr. Rhonda Yoss-Kaplan, a psychologist in Port Washington, N.Y. "It’s grounding. It connects you to your own personal history and identity, to what’s gone before and what you will hand down to your children."

The discomfort associated with change, she added, is the unknown aspect of things that are new and different.

But traditions don’t have to be rooted in history. Anyone can start a tradition at any time, Wolfson pointed out.

"I would welcome anything that opens up the seder as an interactive experience that has the family’s mark on it," he said.

He enhances his own seder in numerous ways. Steamed artichoke hearts for karpas (the green vegetable that serves as the appetizer) allow nibbling until the meal is served (there’s parsley for the traditionalists). A "Chad Gadya" competition engages anyone who wants to prove they can get through the long last verse in Aramaic or English without taking a breath.

Aliya Cheskes-Cotel, director of education for the New York Metropolitan Region of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, listed many customs she follows from her childhood: the kids hide the afikomen and the adults search for it; everyone sings two songs off-key, the way Grandpa Isaac did; each person saves a piece of the afikomen and puts it away in a drawer until next year’s seder, when it is eaten.

So it does, in this era where the new rubs shoulders with the old. Miriam’s Cups, puppet shows, magic tricks, updated plagues, kosher-for-Passover pasta and nouvelle cuisine notwithstanding, an element of the old persists. Zinfandels and Cabernets haven’t yet totally supplanted Malaga. Some things change, it’s true, but it’s also comforting to know that some things don’t.

So when I asked my 9-year-old daughter, Shoshana, what one thing she would want to make sure her seder included when she grows up, I wasn’t surprised that she answered me without hesitation.

"Halek," she said, licking her lips.

I’d better learn to use that hydraulic press.


Rahel Musleah, the author of “Why on This Night? A Passover Haggadah for Family Celebration” (Simon & Schuster, 2000).

Memories of Iraq


His Hebrew name is David, but he still goes by his Arabic
nickname of Naji. At 82, he sits at a table at the Luxe Hotel in Los Angeles
and recalls a life and a civilization now gone, an Iraq that will never be
again.

“When I left Baghdad in 1951,” Naji Harkham recalled of the
day he left for Israel, “I left with tears in my eyes. To me, Baghdad was good.
I had so many Muslim friends who didn’t want me to leave.”

To someone used to tales of Jewish refugees, particularly
from Eastern Europe, the notion of a sorrowful parting from exile seems
extraordinary. But in Iraq, indeed in much of the Near East, Jews did not see
themselves as the kind of marginal, oft-victimized community of shtetl lore.

These Jews, to a remarkable and often forgotten extent, were
very much at home in the predominately Islamic cities of the Middle East. In
places like Baghdad, Casablanca, Cairo and, until only two decades ago, Tehran,
Jews felt very much at home, tolerated, even highly respected members of
ancient communities.

So although many of us would welcome the toppling of Saddam
Hussein, even at the cost of destroying a good piece of Baghdad, we might also
say a prayer for the memory of better times, when Jews flourished in the
Islamic world and, perhaps, hope that someday, Muslims will recognize the
benefits that tolerance brings.

For those like Harkham, who remember these earlier times,
there still remains a kind of pride in the longevity and accomplishments of the
Jews in these countries. In Iraq, for example, the Jewish community can trace
its roots back to the Babylonian captivity — except that we often forget that a
large portion of those exiles chose to stay behind in that cradle of urban
civilization. From there, they wrote the Talmud and built much of what is now
considered the foundations of Jewish law.

This is not to say that being a Jew in the Middle East was
always easy. Powerless and then stateless, they were forced to live within the
rules set by the dominant rulers — the Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs and
Turks. Yet, in comparison with their brethren who were stuck in Europe after
the fall of Rome, those in the ancient East had it relatively good.

This was particularly true after the rise of Islam. Mohammed
clearly was divided about the Jews. Their monotheistic theology and legalism
appealed, even inspired his religious formation. On the other hand, their
obstinate refusal to accept his revelation infuriated him.

Ultimately, he consigned Jews to a kind of purgatory. As
dhimmis (people of the book), they could be tolerated in Muslim society but
only as a kind of tax-paying, second-class citizens.

Given the choice between rule by Muslims or intolerant Roman
Catholic or Orthodox rulers, many Jews, as well as some smaller Christian
sects, naturally favored the Arab ascendancy. They are believed, by some
historians, to have aided the seventh century Arab conquest of both Jerusalem
and Damascus from the Byzantine rulers.

Compared to European norms, Islamic policy to the Jews was
enormously enlightened, and their material conditions also improved. Under the
rule of the new Islamic empire, Jewish traders conducted commerce from Spain
and Egypt to China.

The generally tolerant religious policy of the Arab and
Persian Muslims, and later the Ottoman Turks, toward other faiths accelerated
this expansion. Although highly restricted in terms of inheritance and
intermarriage, Jews, Christians and others enjoyed official protection and
often gained prominence not only in commerce but also the arts, science and
even public administration.

Of course, this was not a totally integrated society.
Throughout much of the first millennium and beyond of Islam, many cities had
significant Jewish, Christian and, in Iran, Zoroastrian quarters. This
persisted in Iran, noted California State University Los Angeles geographer Ali
Modarres, until the 1970s.

“Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians dominated whole
neighborhoods, ” said Modarres, who has studied Islamic urbanism for a
generation.

Yet these were not ghettoes in the classic European sense.
They constituted integral parts of the urban landscape. “There were Jewish
synagogues and nothing was hidden,” Modarres said. “When I was in school, my
Jewish classmates were Persians first, Jews second.”

To be sure, there were occasional outbreaks of persecution
in most Islamic countries. But in the best of cases, such as in the
Cordoba-based Islamic kingdom in Spain, or under the Safavids in Persia, Jews
flourished to an extent not seen till the contemporary United States. As the
16th century Persian Jewish poet Imrani wrote:

“Had not your favor been granted to guide me,

Who would have ever opened this closed door before me?

As you brought me to a foreign land,

You bestowed upon me milk and sugar.”

In the aftermath of the Inquisition in Spain, the Islamic
world provided a larger refuge than the more celebrated Netherlands. To the
Ottomans, still competing for supremacy against Christian Europe, Jews were
seen as an economically advantaged population that could provide their Empire
with a cadre of skilled workers, including cartographers, swordsmiths and
metallurgists.

Indeed the sultan was astounded by his good fortune in
receiving thousands of Spanish refugees.

“And you call this man, the king of Spain, a politically
wise King, he who impoverishes his kingdom and enriches ours?” asked Bejazet
II, whose descendants would be treated by Jewish physicians for the next
several centuries. “I receive the Jews with open arms.”

Even in the last century, as the Ottoman Turkish regime fell
apart, Jews in places like Iraq continued to flourish. Under the British-backed
regime that replaced the Ottomans after World War I, young Jews like Harkham 
believed that they had a bright future in what was, after all, their homeland.
King Faisal I, who ruled until his death in 1933, described the Jews as “the
sword of the country,” because he saw them as a critical element in the
country’s modernization.

“It was easier to be a Muslim, for sure,” Harkham recalled,
“but it was not too bad to be a Jew either.”

Iraq’s Jews, who numbered approximately 130,000 by the
1940s, were prominent as doctors, lawyers and administrators, as well as
merchants who dominated the import and export business. Most Jews certainly did
not see their future as Israel or the United States, Harkham explained. Indeed
they started to speculate massively in what would later become “new Baghdad,”
an extension the old caliphal city and still a part of the current metropolis.

For a young man growing up at the time, it seemed natural to
play with Muslim friends, have them stay with his family or he to stay at 
their’s. It was also not strange to go to public school, where, among other
things, he learned to memorize the Koran by heart or later, as he did, enter
government service or even the army to serve the kingdom.

Yet by the early 1940s, he recalled, there were signs of
trouble, the ramifications of which are still with us today. In 1941, a group
of army officers and politicians, headed by Rashid Ali al-Gaylani, briefly
seized power. Allied to the Germans, they espoused a kind of Arab nationalism
that saw no place for Jews in Iraq.

For the first time, in modern history there were
state-sanctioned pogroms in Iraq, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Only the intervention
of the British and the restoration of the royal regime prevented the permanent
dislocation of the Iraqi Jews.

Although defeated by British power, Al-Gaylani represented a
new prototype. His ideology — Arab nationalism, anti-Semitism, totalitarianism
— remains the bulwark of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist Party regime today, which
now celebrates him as a hero.

Under the current regime, Al-Gaylani’s narrow, intolerant
world view has been extended to other parts of Iraq’s polyglot population,
including nearly a million Persians who were driven out in the early 1970s and
the Kurds, whose brutal suppression continues to this day.

The final chapter for the Jews of Iraq, ironically, was
opened by the very event that European-descended Jews saw as their salvation —
the founding of Israel. Once the Zionist state was formed, the position of Jews
in the Arab countries quickly became untenable. The best the government, which
had once been friendly to the Jews, could offer was a one-way passport out of
the country to Israel.

For many sophisticated Jews of Iraq and other Middle Eastern
countries, this was not an ideal choice. “I did not want to leave the country,”
Harkham said. “I did not want to live in Palestine.”

Yet for Harkham, Israel was the only harbor, even if not a
favored one. Capitalistic, cosmopolitan and raised in exile, many preferred to
go somewhere other than what was to them socialistic and somewhat
claustrophobic Zionist state. Eventually, like many educated Jews from Muslim
countries, Harkham took his family elsewhere, settling in Sydney.

Most of his children, including Yuri, the founder of the
Jonathan Martin and Hype women’s fashion houses, later re-emigrated to Los
Angeles, which along with London, has the largest Iraqi Diaspora communities
outside Israel.

Later, these Jews — bearers of traditions from the Islamic
lands — were joined by tens of thousands of others, those fleeing the
theological regime in Iran. Those Persians, even more than the former Iraqis,
Moroccans and Syrians, also brought a piece of the Islamic world with them.
Their mixed memories conserve a world once the nurturer of Jews.

For some, particularly the older generation, these memories
still matter. Even now, Harkham hopes somehow to get back to Baghdad, both to
see his old Muslim friends and revisit places where so much Jewish history was
created. Perhaps, he prays, he will come on the heels of America’s arms,
perhaps to help reconstruct a piece of the past and a spirit of tolerance that
once existed along the banks of the Tigris.

“I would go back there to visit,” he said, “to go back to
the land of the prophets, where Ezra is buried. There is big history there. A
part of the Jewish people still lies there.”  

Jewish Groups Help Sept. 11 Victims


The stench in New York after Sept. 11 reminded Julia Millman of Europe.

"I have seen it. I know what it’s all about," said the 76-year-old survivor of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen.

In addition to losing her 40-year-old son, Ben, in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center — he was a construction worker on the 101st floor of Tower One — Millman said the death and devastation revived gut-wrenching memories of her family’s murder in the Holocaust. As a young girl, Millman was forced to tie a rope around her dead mother’s neck and drag her gassed body to a pile of other victims. Now those old feelings of motherlessness and abandonment have returned.

"If it wasn’t for my social worker that tried to console me, that tried to help me in my sorrow, I don’t know if I would be here today," Millman said.

Millman is one of thousands who have received assistance from Jewish social service agencies for traumas associated with Sept. 11. For the most part, they praise the aid they received.

The Jewish community launched a massive, coordinated effort to help both Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the attacks. The UJA-Federation of New York raised funds in New York, where two of the planes hit, and the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella group of North American federations, raised funds throughout North America.

In areas affected by the attack, Jewish federations and their affiliated social service agencies also received government grants or private funding from foundations and/or individual donors. The funds have been used to provide support groups for victims and those re-traumatized by the incident, including Holocaust survivors or new immigrants. The funds also were used to provide cash assistance and job counseling and to help victims navigate the bureaucracy to obtain financial aid from government and private agencies.

The UJA-Federation of New York, one of 13 major charities comprising the 9/11 United Services Group, a resource for victims in New York City, has been at the center of the Jewish communal response. As of mid-August, the federation had raised $7.6 million in special funding for its agencies to expand services for Sept. 11 victims.

Of that sum, $2.1 million came from the UJC, which plans to add another $166,000 in the coming weeks, and $3.5 million came from The New York Times 9/11 Neediest Fund. The UJA-Federation raised the other $2 million.

On a smaller scale, the American Jewish World Service, an international development organization, distributed more than $650,000 to community-based organizations providing assistance to undocumented and low-income workers unable to obtain relief from mainstream sources. The organizations that received assistance included the Arab-American Family Support Center, Chinese Staff and Workers Association and American Pan-African Relief Agencies.

For its part, the UJC has raised $5.28 million, dispersing $3.9 million of it for immediate needs. It plans to disperse the rest by the end of the year for long-term services, such as tuition assistance and additional trauma counseling.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington — in the city where the third plane hit the Pentagon — received $100,500 from the UJC. The UJC also allocated funds to hard-hit New Jersey commuter areas like Monmouth County, which received $210,600, and Bergen County, which received $133,121.

Barry Swartz, vice president of UJC consulting, said the federation system did a "remarkable" job of quickly coordinating a response to the crisis. "We told federations right away, if families need money, they’re to disburse the funds, and we would reimburse" them, he said.

Several direct service providers said they were pleased with the response from the organized Jewish community. There wasn’t "one second that we felt that we were out there alone," said Jeff Lampl, executive director of Jewish Family Services of Bergen County. That was mainly due to the federation system and the local federation, "which immediately supplied us with a small amount of money to get going," he said.

The agency’s client pool "doubled almost overnight" after Sept. 11, Lampl said. "Almost to this day, taking care of these families has become the central concern of this agency," he added.

Many of those who received services praised the response. Robin Wiener, who lost her brother, Jeff, 33, in the attack on the World Trade Center, said the sibling support group she attended — sponsored by the Jewish Social Service Agency of Greater Washington, the primary Jewish organization responding to local victims there — was "amazing." The sibling support group, sponsored by the agency, was formed following a February gathering of friends and family members of Sept. 11 victims.

The "emotions you go through and the loss that you feel is a loss that is unique to the relationship you had," said Wiener, 38. "My brother and I were very close and very similar in many ways, and I just always assumed he’d be there."

Weiner’s brother, a senior financial executive, had been about to leave on a vacation in Spain with his wife and had been planning a family, she said. It "breaks my heart for him, what we lost together.

"I never realized how small our family was until now," she said. To know there are other people out there going through the exact same thing" is "kind of eerie, but it’s also extremely helpful."

Robert Alonso praised the Jewish Child Care Association, which helped his family. When the planes hit, Alonso’s wife, Janet, 41, managed to make a quick phone call from the 97th floor of Tower One to tell her husband that she loved him. The call was their last conversation. The sudden death of his wife, the family’s primary breadwinner, left Alonso and his two young children — one of whom has Down’s syndrome — reeling.

The Jewish Child Care Association has provided weekly meetings with a psychologist for Alonso’s children Robbie, 2, and Victoria, 3. It also has helped him obtain the maximum government funds for his family.

Gregory Hoffman, 37, said he "would not have survived" without the Twinless Twins of Sept. 11 program, which he and his wife, Aileen, created. Since his identical twin, Stephen, a bond broker at Cantor Fitzgerald, was killed in the World Trade Center, Hoffman says he feels like Tower One before it fell — still standing but "out of balance," separated from its twin and with a gaping hole inside it.

To date, the Hoffmans have identified and contacted 38 twins who lost siblings in the attack. Six of them participate in the weekly support group meetings led by a twinless twin, and 22 have participated in social outings. Many of the participants have become close friends.

For Marjorie Judge, caseworker Joan Kincaid, director of the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged’s Pets Project, has been "exceptional." Judge, 82, who lived four blocks from the World Trade Center, was evacuated from the building and prevented from taking her cat. Police later rounded up the pets in many buildings, but not in Judge’s.

One week later, aided by police and Judge’s building superintendent, Kincaid entered the evacuated building — dark from failed electricity and reeking of rotten food — and climbed eight floors to rescue Sheba, who was waiting, parched, at the door. All that for a cat Kincaid "hardly knew," Judge said.

While many victims praised the Jewish communal response, some had complaints. Several family members of victims in Washington said there was no outreach from the organized Jewish community, except for their synagogues, according to the Washington Jewish Week. The federation defended its work, saying it was the first agency in Washington to hold a memorial service for victims, and that the Jewish Chaplaincy immediately called the families of Jewish victims to offer help.

The federation has dispersed the nearly $500,000 dollars it raised in its Sept. 11 fund to Jewish and non-Jewish agencies, according to a federation official. UJC funds were earmarked for Jewish needs, the official said, adding, "We really did everything we could."

Wiener, of the sibling support group, saw it differently. There was "plenty of comfort, but not a lot of information," she said.

And while Millman raved about her nurse, Rebecca Bigio, she also complained that "she’s not enough." Bigio said she and a social worker visit Millman at least twice a month and call frequently. But Millman, an ailing widow, said she needs more attention so that she won’t "feel so alone and so lost."

Louise Greilsheimer, vice president of agency and external relations of the UJA-Federation of New York, who coordinated its response to Sept. 11, said complaints are inevitable. "You are always, with this quantity of people, going to find issues," she said. But, she added, "I haven’t heard one horror story in the Jewish community."

"I truly believe the agencies came together and put together not only a coordinated approach," but one that was thoughtful, caring and ongoing, Greilsheimer said. "We’re staying here to follow up and to be able to work with communities that need the support."

A 9/11 Family Tale


Although I was there, I can’t tell you much about the events of Sept. 11, 2001, that you don’t already know. After all, you had CNN; I only had my two eyes

and the prescription lenses I thankfully remembered to grab as I fled the apartment. Yes, I watched from a few blocks away as the towers fell, but without the benefit of a zoom lens or slow motion video (thank God for that — there was nothing that I saw I wished to see again or in greater detail).

Indeed, the overwhelming personal tragedies and the incredible acts of heroism have been recorded and retold. I cannot add to them. But I can tell you one story, a small one, about two brothers from Long Beach who found themselves that morning on opposite sides of a river.

A decade ago, my wife, Jackie, and I returned to Southern California from New York City, where we had lived for five years. I continued to make frequent business trips there. On the bright, clear morning of Sept. 11, I lazed sleepily in the apartment my company keeps in lower Manhattan.

I was alone. My brother, with whom I share the place when I come to New York, had an early plane to catch, and had left a couple of hours earlier. As I debated whether or not to get up and shower, he was sitting in the terminal at Newark Airport waiting for his Atlanta flight to be called. At the next gate, passengers lined up to board United Flight 93, bound for San Francisco. Randall casually watched them embark; he would be one of the last to see them alive.

Within minutes of the first attack, my building was evacuated. I stood in the park, 37 floors below my apartment window, with my eyes squinting against the sunlight, my heart racing, my mind recoiling, rejecting the evidence of my senses.

As the first tower fell, I was speaking with Jackie on my cell phone, reassuring her that I was alright, although she surely knew otherwise from the sound of my voice. I stood, a couple of hundred yards from the billowing smoke, trembling and terrorized. Randall watched helplessly from the airport, from which the towers were — had been — clearly visible.

Stunned, I began wandering the city, dazed and aimless. Randall, however, had the opposite reaction: he was galvanized, committed and determined to find a way back into Manhattan. His goal was to reach me and make sure I was OK.

Like me, Randall grew up in Long Beach, attended Jewish day school and celebrated his bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Shalom. Unlike me, though, he never left the neighborhood until the day I asked him to come work with me. Within a couple of weeks, he was setting up an apartment on Manhattan’s Chambers Street, learning the subway system and discovering ways to have videos and snack food delivered on demand via the Internet. By Sept. 11, my brother had been working with me for three years, spending about one week a month in Southern California and the rest of the time in New York City.

And so it was that morning, as about 8 million people worked desperately to leave Manhattan as quickly as possible, Randall focused his considerable ingenuity and sales ability on doing just the opposite.

The obstacles to reaching this goal were fairly considerable. Of course, all of the usual routes into Manhattan — subways, ferries and bridges — were closed. River traffic was warned away from the city’s many docks.

Randall, through a combination of persuasion, bribery and alert observation, finally reached Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Like our great-grandparents over a century earlier, he arrived on the island without a dime in his pocket. He set out on foot for SoHo, about 3 miles away, where he found me a couple hours later.

I was shaken, but fine. He was exhausted, but fine. I was relieved to have him with me. We spent the rest of the week together before finally coming home. Our flight was on Rosh Hashana; as Randall said at the time, “It’s not a problem. God is on vacation this week.”

Soon it will be Rosh Hashana again. The High Holiday prayerbook, the Machzor, includes the words “These things I will remember.” I carry hundreds of memories of Sept. 11, 2001, many of them terrifying that I would gladly be rid of. But I will also remember that somebody crossed a blockaded river and walked half the length of a city just to look in my eyes, to be reassured that I was OK.

Thanks, Randall.


E. Scott Menter is an Orange County technology consultant and writer. He currently serves as president of the Orange County chapter of the American Jewish Committee.

Gramma Gene’s Gefilte Fish


Passover is a special holiday for me and brings back many wonderful food memories. One of my favorites occurred many years ago, when I was invited to a Passover seder at the home of my husband-to-be. I still remember that evening, and especially the taste of the gefilte fish my future mother-in-law had made.

The next year, a few days before Passover, I found myself walking with her on Fairfax Avenue. We were on our way to the fish market to purchase the ingredients necessary to make her famous gefilte fish. We waited in line for about 45 minutes — it was crowded and seemed like everyone in the neighborhood was there to buy fish.

The women were gossiping and discussing their family recipes and the way they make gefilte fish. When it was finally our turn, Gramma Gene picked out four or five different kinds of whole fish: one she used for its fatty quality, one gave it more flavor, one was for color and another for texture. Everything was fresh except the turbo, which at that time was only available frozen. She instructed the fish store owner to remove the skin, head, and bones of all the fish and wrap them separately.

We returned to Gramma Gene’s house to begin the process of making gefilte fish.

First a large white pot was filled with water, vegetables, the fishskin, heads and bones and brought to a boil. It then was simmered for about one hour. Then we strained the liquid and added onion skins, which give the fish a golden color. In the meantime, using a hand grinder, we ground the eight to 10 pounds of fish fillets along with onions, carrots and celery, and then added eggs and matzah meal.

The ground mixture was then transferred to a wooden bowl and the chopping began, adding water, salt and pepper in small amounts as we worked. I loved watching her chopping technique, which continued until the mixture reached a magical consistency. "Is it ready to shape into balls?" I asked. "Not yet," she answered, "First we must taste it for the proper seasoning." Finally she approved. We moistened our hands with cold water so the ground fish would not stick to them, shaped the mixture into balls and placed the fish into the simmering broth. The pot was covered with aluminum foil, and in less than one hour, we had made the most delicious gefilte fish I had ever tasted.

Over the years, as we cooked together, I learned to take notes. I recorded the different kinds of fish we bought — it changed from year to year — the measurements for the matzah meal, the amount of water and eggs used and how long to simmer the fish broth. I was almost prepared several years later, when she and I made the gefilte fish in my home for the first time.

I especially remember that Passover, because Gramma Gene had broken her arm and was unable to cook. She sat on a high-stool overseeing everything and gave me instructions, while my husband, Marvin, helped. I thought it was a success, but unfortunately we oversalted the fish and had to add potatoes to the pot to help take away some of the salty taste. At the seder that night, no one knew of my near-disaster. They all complimented me on how delicious the fish was — and my mother-in-law never revealed our secret.

She is no longer alive, but when I make gefilte fish, she is always in my thoughts. It is almost as though she is sitting there beside me encouraging me to continue the tradition she taught me. With all the modern kitchen conveniences available now, she would be surprised at how much easier it is to make. I now use the grinder attachment to my electric mixer, but I still chop the fish mixture in her wooden bowl, using the same method she did when adding the water, salt and pepper.

I love teaching Passover cooking classes and find it very rewarding, especially as I relate my food experiences to the students and show them how to make Gramma Gene’s gefilte fish. At the end of the class, they always comment that they are anxious to go home so they can make it themselves and begin their own Passover family tradition.

Gramma Gene’s Gefilte Fish

Fish Broth

3 yellow onions, coarsely diced (reserve skins)

2 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced

1 cup sliced celery tops

2 pounds fish bones, heads and skin from filleted white fish

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Cold water

In a large pot, place the onions, carrots, celery tops, fish bones, heads and skin, and salt and pepper. Add water to cover and bring to a boil. Simmer for one hour, adding additional water if needed. When the broth is very flavorful, strain out the fish bones and vegetables and discard. Keep the broth warm. Prepare the fish broth and keep warm.

Gefilte Fish

7 pounds white fish and pike, filleted (bones, heads and skin reserved)*

2 yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced

4 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced

4 celery stalks, sliced

3 eggs

1/2 cup matzah meal

1 cup cold water

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Fish roe (optional)

Garnish with lettuce, sliced cucumber, sliced beets and horseradish sauce

*If possible, buy whole white fish. Have it boned and wrap the bones, heads and skin separately. If you’re lucky, you may find roe inside the fish, so you can poach it with the fish balls.

In a food grinder, grind the fish with the onions, carrots and celery stalks. Put through the grinder again. Place the ground mixture in a large mixing bowl and blend with the eggs and matzah meal.

Transfer the mixture to a large wooden chopping bowl and, using a hand chopper, chop the fish mixture, adding the water gradually with 1 tablespoon kosher salt and 2 teaspoons pepper as you chop. (Mixture should be soft and light to the touch.) Wet your hands with cold water and shape the fish mixture into oval balls.

Bring the broth to a boil over high heat, add reserved onion skins and place the fish balls in the broth. Cover, reduce the heat to medium high, and cook for one hour, or until fish is tender; do not overcook.

Cool, transfer to a shallow glass bowl, cover with plastic wrap and foil, and refrigerate until ready to serve. Fish can stored for up to three days and can be frozen.

To serve, arrange a lettuce leaf on each plate; top with fish and garnish with cucumber and beets. Serve with horseradish sauce. Makes about 50 fish balls.

Some Thoughts on My New Year


Another year come and gone. Another one beginning. For me, an occasion more for recollection than repentance.

So much seems connected to the past. My oldest son, Alexander, calls from Florida. There is talk about the summer gone by, plans for the future, a wish for the new year. I have a sudden flash of talking with one of my close friends just six months after he was born. My friend, a woman, knew me as carefree, youthful, reluctant to take that fateful step into adulthood. So how did I feel about being a father? she wanted to know. Had my life changed and, if so, how? I tried to explain, haltingly at first. Why, she said in amazement, you sound as though you’ve fallen in love. I treasure that moment.

Now Alexander is married, a college professor, a parent himself, planning to embark for Cape Town on a teaching Fulbright. The end of the earth.

I try for a memory from my childhood: I’m racing my 17-year-old uncle when I suddenly realize that he has a clubfoot. Without thought, I deliberately slow down. I’ll never forget the smile of pleasure on his face as he crossed the finish line ahead of me. The purest act of my life — at 7 years of age.

Inevitably, my memories return to my grandparents. They helped raise me; my grandfather taught me to read; their household was my home. My grandmother nursed me through a critical bout of pneumonia, which nearly took my life. But the new, experimental drugs worked on me; I regained my strength, only to watch her fall ill (with pneumonia). She died within three weeks — her life for mine.

Two months later, on my ninth birthday, it was my grandfather’s turn. His heart gave out. I stood there, shifting my new birthday football from hand to hand, watching my mother, my aunt, my uncles sitting shiva. I will not cry, I told myself. I will not show anything.

Did I want to join them? I was asked. No, I said, in as flat a voice as I could muster. I’m going to play football in the park, I said. I turned and ran from the house.

My life had cracked open and never would be the same. I knew that without a word being said, without even the ability to say the words. It was only years later that the magnitude of my debt, my obligation to them, became clear to me. It had shaped my life. You would think that time would blur the memory. Not so. The images are sharper, more pointed, closer at hand.

Is it that I am looking ahead to my own demise? Last year, when my mother was whipped by Alzheimer’s and my son Andrew (second-born) and I looked at nursing homes in the Valley, he turned to me and said: Be forewarned. If you place her in one of these homes, that’s what I’ll do to you. He was reminding me of the moral choices confronting me, just as I had taught him to recognize their presence in his own life. He did not have to make the threat, but I was touched by it. I hugged him. I felt like a man who had fallen in love once again.

I suppose a past can be constructed around family, marriage and death. The score for me is two marriages, one divorce. The weddings were wondrous occasions, and intimate too. The first, in my best friend’s home; the second, in my own. All our friends gathered around us; summer breezes; the pleasure and affection so palpable in the room. The sense, so crisp in my mind then and now, of a new play about to begin, the script still unfinished. It almost makes me want to embark on five or six marriages, or at least weddings, just to recapture the feelings of the day.

But then, of course, there is the sharp pain of divorce. The scars never truly disappear. It is always, for me, a reminder of great defeat and loss — more muted each year, thank goodness. The remembrance changes as time moves along.

Other recollections, more romantic and flushed with sensation, take over.

Of first love — in Paris, no less. Walking the narrow streets of the left bank, hand in hand; dancing in the Luxembourg Gardens; listening to Chet Baker play in the Hotel des Etas-Unis just for us — I thought it had to be just for us — in the early hours of a Montparnasse morning, when I was convinced that I and my world had been blessed, touched by magic.

The Days of Awe lie ahead; it is only fitting to cast our eyes back. This is the time of repentance for things said and done during this last year, and of resolutions for the year ahead. But I want something else: memories and images that take on a clarity and help me better understand the past. I realize once again that these pictures and events keep changing for me, that the present and the future have a way of altering the life I lived long ago; bringing some aspects of it into close up; highlighting edges and corners that were, until now, only dimly seen.

That’s my wish for the future, a simple one: to make the past more visible, to make my life more whole. — Gene Lichtenstein

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