Israeli rabbis say Christmas trees not ‘kosher,’ raising questions of synagogue and state


‘Tis the season, but some Israeli rabbis are not feeling the Christmas spirit.

Rabbinic officials in Jerusalem and northern Israel recently issued separate statements saying that displays of Christmas trees are against Jewish law. Other Israelis rushed to the defense of the ornamented evergreens.

The difference of opinion over Christmas highlights the disagreement about the role of religion in the Jewish state.

In a letter that emerged Tuesday, the Jerusalem Rabbinate urged hotels in the city not to put up Christmas trees this year.

“As the secular year ends, we want to remind you that erecting a Christmas tree in a hotel contravenes halacha and that therefore it is clear that no one should erect [a tree] in a hotel,” Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar wrote to hotel managers.

The letter also said it was “appropriate to avoid hosting” New Year’s parties, reminding hotel managers that the New Year is properly observed at the beginning of the Jewish calendar.

A day earlier, the rabbi of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, a prestigious public science and engineering university in Haifa, forbade students from entering the student union on campus because of the presence of a Christmas tree in the building.

“The Christmas tree is a religious symbol — not Christian, but even more problematic — pagan,” Rabbi Elad Dokow wrote in a Q&A on the religious Srugim website. “Halacha clearly states that whenever it is possible to circumvent and not pass through a place where there is any kind of idolatry, this must be done. So one should not enter the student union if it’s not necessary to do so.

“This is not about freedom of worship. It’s about the public space of the campus,” he added. “This is the world’s only Jewish state. And it has a role to be a ‘light unto the nations’ and not to uncritically embrace every idea.”

Dokow compared the Christmas tree’s display to letting students declare that Jerusalem does not belong to the Jewish people or allowing a Spanish food festival that “prominently featured pork.”

Israel’s Basic Laws, which serve as a provisional constitution, enshrine its status as a “Jewish and democratic state.” But the proper balance of these two parts of Israel’s identity is an open question.

The Supreme Court in Israel has consistently protected the right to freedom of religion, which it finds in a constitutional law protecting “human dignity and liberty.” How far that right extends into the public arena is unclear.

A private hotel, though it serves the public, has clearer discretion regarding religious expression than a public university, said Shuki Friedman, a religion and state researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute think tank.

“No one can oblige a hotel to put up or take down a Christmas tree,” he said. “On the other hand, when we talk about a university, it’s considered a public space. Whether a university puts up a Christmas tree or refuses to put up a Christmas tree, it could be legally challenged.”

Friedman said it also depends on who is using the space. In Nazareth, an Arab-Israeli city in northern Israel with a large Christian population, a public Christmas tree would clearly serve the local population, he said. Conversely, Friedman added, the Western Wall is “one place there will not be a Christmas tree.”

The Chief Rabbinate — the highest Jewish authority in Israel and overseer of the Jerusalem Rabbinate — last year offered some protection to displayers of Christmas trees. Under threat of a petition to the Supreme Court, the Chief Rabbinate issued guidelines stating that its kashrut inspectors could not revoke the kosher certifications of hotels over the trees or Shabbat violations.

The Technion responded to its Christmas tree controversy with a statement saying that Rabbi Dokow’s words “expressed his personal opinion and not that of the Technion.”

“Even before the Technion opened it gates about 100 years ago, its founders stated that the institution they hoped to build would be open to all, irrespective of religion, ethnicity and gender,” the statement said, noting that religious and secular Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze and Circassians from around Israel and the world study “side by side” there and students of “all religions and communities” help manage the student union.

“The union, it goes without saying, celebrates all the Jewish festivals and, concurrently, it allows students from other religions to express themselves with respect and tolerance. The different festivals are celebrated in a range of ways, including, in this case, a Christmas tree beside the Hanukkah menorah.”

Knesset member Yousef Jabareen of the Joint List of Arab political parties accused Dokow of incitement. In a letter Monday to the Technion’s president, Peretz Lavie, Jabareen said, “There’s no need to elaborate on the gravity of these statements, and the serious offense to the Technion’s Arab students and to Israeli Arabs in general. These statements contain clear incitement to racism, in violation of the law, and therefore also constitute a serious criminal offense,” the Israeli daily Haaretz reported.

According to Haaretz, Technion student Peter Hana said “an absolute majority of students, as well as management and the dean,” supported the Christmas tree, and “only a handful of students and the rabbi himself chose to come out against it.”

Thanksgiving: Vegan and vegetarian dishes


In some ways, I’m pretty traditional when it comes to my family’s Thanksgiving Day meal: I like to plan a lot of old-fashioned farmhouse food for the holiday. 

Who doesn’t enjoy a handsome bronzed turkey with lots of stuffing, an appealing array of relishes and a lavish dessert buffet? We pour apple cider for the children, a robust red wine for the grown-ups, and catch up on all the news while enjoying our family feast. 

It should be noted, though, that not everyone is interested in the traditional turkey. Quite a few guests these days are either vegetarian or vegan, and so we always try to have a menu that will fill their plates and satisfy their appetites. That is why the side dishes are so important.

Our Thanksgiving dinner will begin with bowls of Butternut Squash Soup, garnished with my homemade salsa and served with toasted pumpkin bread. My vegan grandson, Zane, loves my Carrot-Parsnip Slaw so much he can almost eat the whole batch, so it will definitely be on our Thanksgiving menu in a double portion.

It’s never a bad idea to serve a seasonal veggie, and  because there is always a colorful selection of squash at the local farmers market, it offers the perfect solution. Just cut it into cubes and sauté with onions and tomatoes. For my husband, Marvin, it is his favorite holiday dish.

For dessert this year, I will give our daughter-in-law, Amy, the baker in our family, a recipe for a Vegan Pumpkin Spice Bundt Cake to make. I also hope to surprise everyone with scoops of homemade Nondairy Coconut Gelato to serve on the side — and offer them one more reason to give thanks!

BUTTERNUT SQUASH SOUP

  • Salsa (recipe follows)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted margarine, melted
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 1/2 pounds butternut squash, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces (about 6 cups) 
  • 5 cups vegetable stock or broth
  • 2 large garlic cloves, minced and mashed with 1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
  • 2 teaspoons peeled and grated fresh ginger
  • 1/3 cup finely minced fresh flat-leaf parsley, (optional)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

 

Prepare Salsa. Set aside.

In a small stock pot, mix oil and margarine. Add onion and cook until tender and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add squash and stock. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until the squash is tender when pierced with the tip of a small sharp knife.

Transfer the cooked squash and broth to a food processor or blender and puree in batches. Return the mixture to the pot and stir in the mashed garlic and ginger. Simmer briefly and stir in parsley. Taste and correct seasoning with salt and pepper. Garnish with Salsa.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

SALSA

  • 2 large tomatoes, sliced 
  • 1/2 large red onion, diced 
  • 1/2 to 1 cup minced fresh cilantro 
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice 
  • Salt to taste

 

In a medium bowl, combine tomatoes, red onion and cilantro and mix well.  Add lemon juice and salt to taste.  

Makes about 3 cups.

CARROT-PARSNIP SLAW

  • 3/4 cup mayonnaise (or vegan substitute)
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons sugar 
  • 10 medium carrots, peeled and grated
  • 4 medium parsnips, peeled and grated
  • 1/3 cup raisins, plumped in grape juice
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

 

In a medium bowl, combine the mayonnaise, lemon juice and sugar and blend well. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.

In a large bowl, toss the carrots, parsnips and raisins. Add the mayonnaise mixture and toss until completely combined. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

FARMERS MARKET SAUTEED SQUASH

  • 3 pounds assorted squash (zucchini, yellow neck, summer squash)
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 large tomato, diced
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup pomegranate seeds

 

Cut squash into 1/2-inch cubes. In a frying pan, add oil and sauté onion until soft. Add squash, tomato and basil, and continue to sauté until desired texture, about 15 to 20 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Just before serving, transfer to a heated bowl. Sprinkle with pomegranate seeds.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

NONDAIRY COCONUT GELATO

  • 2 (13- to 15-ounce) cans full-fat coconut milk
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup, honey or sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

 

Shake the cans of coconut milk thoroughly to incorporate the layers that form in the can. Pour 1/2 cup of coconut milk into a medium saucepan over low to warm heat. Add the cornstarch and whisk until the cornstarch is thoroughly dissolved.

Pour the remaining coconut milk into a large pot, add maple syrup and salt, and warm the coconut milk on medium-low heat, stirring until the maple syrup completely dissolves, about 1 to 2 minutes.

Pour the cornstarch mixture into the warm coconut milk while whisking gently. Heat until the gelato mixture is thick. Pour into a large bowl, and mix in the vanilla extract. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

Pour the mixture into the canister of an ice cream maker, and freeze according to manufacturer’s directions. 

Makes about 6 cups.

VEGAN PUMPKIN SPICE BUNDT CAKE WITH MAPLE GLAZE

  • Maple Glaze (recipe follows)
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup spelt flour
  • 3/4 cup coconut sugar
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 (15-ounce) can solid-pack pumpkin
  • 1/2 cup coconut oil
  • 1 1/2 cups unsweetened almond milk
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons white vinegar

 

Prepare Maple Glaze. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Oil and flour a 10-inch bundt pan.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, sugars, pumpkin pie spice, baking soda and salt.

In a separate large bowl, whisk together the pumpkin, coconut oil, almond milk, vanilla extract and vinegar. Add to dry ingredients, whisking just until combined.

Pour into prepared pan and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the cake comes out clean. Let cool for 15 minutes in the pan, then turn out on a wire rack to cool.

Drizzle Maple Glaze over completely cooled cake and let set for 10 minutes. Slice and serve.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.

MAPLE GLAZE

  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1/4 cup pure maple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon coconut oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Up to 2 teaspoons cold water

 

Whisk together powdered sugar, maple syrup, coconut oil and cinnamon. If it is too thick to drizzle over the cake, add 1/2 teaspoon cold water at a time.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

Judy Zeidler is a food consultant, cooking teacher and author of “Italy Cooks” (Mostarda Press, 2011). Her website is judyzeidler.com

Shavuot: Bridging the Unbridgeable Chasm


Shavuot is a short holiday – one day in Israel, two in the Diaspora. There is no special mitzvah connected to it. And, at least in theory, it has no fixed date. Shavuot is completely dependent on Passover, which precedes it, and is celebrated only after the counting of seven weeks. Before there was a fixed Jewish calendar, Shavuot could fall on any one of three possible dates: the 5th, the 6th or the 7th of Sivan.

Shavuot is defined as “the time of the giving of our Torah.” Yet the great significance of this date is not always understood, especially when this phrase is mistranslated as “the giving of the Law.” The basic meaning of “Torah” is not “Law,” the legal aspect of the Torah that contains all the do's and don'ts.

Instead, the giving of the Torah is actually the real birthday of Jewish existence. The freedom attained by our forefathers in the Exodus was just a preliminary stage; the real beginning of the Jews as a nation, and of Jewishness as an idea, is in the giving of the Torah. It is only since then that the Jewish people became an entity in itself. This is the point from which on we are not just people, but Jews.

On a wider, universal scale, the giving of the Torah carries major theological significance. The distance between God and man is infinite. Philosophizing, meditation, spiritual transcendence — these exercises are just like jumping in order to reach the moon. They only demonstrate that we have the desire to get there, not that we can reach it.

The giving of the Torah is, therefore, a unique and most important event in world history. As the Book of Exodus (19:20) says, God descended to Mount Sinai. Only the Omnipotent God can, by His own will, bridge the unbridgeable chasm between Himself and the world. The very act of giving the Torah means that God is interested in us, that He cares about what we do — and this is what grants meaning to everything that we do in this world. In this sense, the very “encounter” with God is the most important part – not because it is proof of His existence, but because it is proof of the connection between Him and the world. In other words, the holiday of Shavuot tells us – to put it in the words of a Jewish philosopher1 – that God is “more remote than the most remote, and closer than the closest.”

To explore a corollary idea, let us note that Shavuot is defined precisely as “the time of the giving of the Torah.” The giving of the Torah is a one-sided act; God gives us His Torah – a huge, very precious and very heavy gift to carry. But the giving of the Torah does not necessarily mean that it is also received.

Receiving the Torah is a very different notion. We may have this gift very close to us, but are we ready to accept it? Receiving the Torah is not just a matter of studying it and doing what is written in it. For many people the Torah may, at most, be like a registered letter waiting for us; something that we have to fetch from the post office. But really acquiring the Torah is not the abstract fact of a gift received. For my part, there must be the act of accepting it, making it part of my true possessions.

Shavuot is a date for the giving of the Torah, and we celebrate it. The date of receiving the Torah, however, is very individual. It happens not only at different times of the year, but also at different times in one’s life.

The idea that we can own the Torah is a very ancient one. It means that there can be, that there is, a sharing and a partnership with God, and that the act of sharing is achieved through the Torah. When we realize that we can have a relationship with the Torah, that day is our own day of “receiving” it.

The feast of Shavuot, of the giving of the Torah, then, is not only a memory, but also a gift and a promise that at some time in the future we will also receive it.

1 Rebbenu Bahya ben Asher, in his book Kad ha-Kemach.

 

Santa, the Easter bunny and raising a Jewish child


Last spring, I found myself averting my eyes when my 4-year-old mentioned something about the Easter bunny in front of my dad.

We were at my parents’ home in Michigan for Passover and my son said, “When I get back to Brooklyn, the Easter bunny is going to bring me a basket!”

I didn’t want to see the look on my dad’s face or hear him mutter under his breath.

Although my son is being raised as a Jew, he celebrates Christmas and Easter with his non-Jewish father, my ex. I know it bothers my dad to hear his grandson talk about these Christian icons. It bothers me, too.

During our four-year courtship prior to becoming engaged, my then-boyfriend and I came to an agreement about the religious upbringing of our future children. After taking two classes on Jewish culture and an interfaith couple’s workshop at the JCC, we agreed that our children would be raised according to Jewish tradition but could celebrate Christian holidays — in a secular way — with their non-Jewish grandparents. But after my husband and I separated and eventually divorced, some of the prenuptial agreements we made surrounding our interfaith family were no longer heeded.

Before our separation, my husband had begrudgingly agreed not to have a Christmas tree in our home. But since our separation, he has had a tree every winter. That means Santa doesn’t just bring gifts to my son’s grandparents’ homes in Seattle, but to his father’s home in Brooklyn, too.

I understand and respect that it is my ex’s right to observe his family’s traditions. I know he wants to share the holiday experiences he loved as a kid with our son, and that includes having the decorations and believing in the harmless characters associated with the holidays. But I struggle with it nonetheless.

Our son attends a Jewish preschool and has all kinds of children in his class – some with two Jewish parents, some from interfaith homes and others who are not Jewish at all. He already knows that families have their own ways of observing the holidays, and that you can be Jewish and still celebrate non-Jewish holidays with some of your family and friends.

Last December he rambled on and on about what Santa was going to bring him for Christmas. I was tempted to remind him that he is Jewish and explain that Jews don’t believe in Santa. But I went along with it because I didn’t want to burst his Christmas bubble.

Nevertheless, it’s hard for me to accept that our child won’t be raised according to the terms that my ex-husband and I had agreed upon before we married. And somehow I feel threatened that inserting these Christian traditions into my son’s home life will dilute his Jewish identity, even though I know a Christmas elf can’t come and stomp out thousands of years of Jewish tradition.

When April came around and my son informed me, “If I’m a good boy, the Easter bunny will bring me a basket of treats!” I decided not just to corroborate the Easter bunny’s existence but use him as a disciplinary tactic.

When my son began misbehaving, I said, “If you don’t act nicely, the Easter bunny may not bring you a basket!” But the tack didn’t feel right either.

Recently, I have been wondering whether my son could really understand what a character is. When we were watching “Shrek,” I decided to ask him.

“Is Shrek real?”

“No, Mommy!” he answered with an eye roll. “Shrek is a character!”

“Oh! Like Santa Claus?” I asked.

“No, Mommy! Santa Claus is real!”

“How do you know he’s real?” I said.

“Because he brings me presents!”

Do I break it to him that a fat bearded man will not actually squeeze himself through a chimney (especially considering there are very few chimneys in Brooklyn apartments)? Or do I let him figure it out when he gets a bit older, like he probably would if he were raised by two Christian parents?

And come spring, do I tell him that no giant Harvey-sized rabbit is going to show up with a basket full of treats, but that his grandmother will carefully pick out the treats in Seattle, put them in a priority mailbox and ship them to Brooklyn?

For the time being, I figure I’ll leave it alone, and age will take care of it.

I believe we will provide our son with a strong enough Jewish identity that these Christmas and Easter icons will not threaten his understanding of who he is. But ask me again later this month. I may change my mind.

(Annette Powers is a marketing and communications professional. In her free time, she writes about a variety of topics from co-parenting to Yom Kippur to compulsive texting.)

Holiday preview calendar


MON | DEC 2

HA HA Hanukkah

If you like to laugh and hear happy Chanukah songs, then this is the show for you. It will be a special night of funny people, including Stephanie Blum, Jimmy Brogan and Mark Schiff. Hosted by Kenny Ellis, who has long made it a mission to marry the cantor and the comic within, there will be nods to his top-rated CD, “Hanukkah Swings!” Make the sixth night of Chanukah the best night. Mon. 8 p.m. $17-$30. The Laugh Factory, 8001 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 656-1336. TUE | DEC 3

“I’LL EAT YOU LAST: A CHAT WITH SUE MENGERS”

Bette Midler stars in the fresh-from-Broadway one-woman show that celebrates Tinseltown’s hottest talent agent. With clients like Barbra Streisand and Marlon Brando, and immigration to the United States from Germany when she was 5, Mengers’ story is a version of the American dream. The Divine Miss M, performing John Logan’s words and directed by Joe Mantello, captivates, entertains and charms. Tue. 8 p.m. Through Dec. 22. $87-$397. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-5454. WED | DEC 4

ARI SHAVIT

The leading Israeli journalist and writer makes a rare Los Angeles appearance to discuss his new book, “My Promised Land.” By combining interviews, personal experiences, historical documents, private diaries and letters, Shavit captures all the elements that contribute to the relationship we each individually have with Israel. How does Israel’s past inform her present? What does origin have to do with future? A Q-and-A and book signing follow the program. Reservations recommended. Wed. 8 p.m. Free. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. FRI | DEC 6

“INTO THE NIGHT: PROGRESSION”

Nothing says early December like multimedia Jewish indie artists. With acts by rock band Avi Buffalo, the Los Angeles debut of Brooklyn-based performance group People Get Ready and a site-specific dance show by Jmy James Kidd and the Sunland Dancers, the evening will be a salute to some of the eager underground artists of our time. Come for the music, come for the movement, and come see the first-ever performance in the Skirball’s new Guerin Pavilion. Fri. 8:30 p.m. $15 (general), $20 (at the door). Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. SAT | DEC 7

THE KLEZMATICS

The old country just got a little newer. Taking traditional sounds and themes and infusing them with some modern funk and interpretations, the Grammy-winning band brings rhythm and timeless spirit to its audiences. With 25 years of experience and a growing fan base with each performance, the Klezmatics have changed the face of the Yiddish imprint on popular culture. They are making history, performing history and you get to dance all the while. Sat. 7:30 p.m. $69-$108. The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. (310) 434-3200. SUN | DEC 8

“AMERIKANER SHADKHN” (AMERICAN MATCHMAKER)

Nat Silver is desperate to rid himself of his unlucky-in-love motif as his eighth engagement goes awry. Our urbane and neurotic hero sets up a matchmaking business to learn what it takes to find a match for himself in this 1940 romantic comedy by Edgar Ulmer. Part of Sholem Presents: Yiddish on the Silver Screen series. Other films coming up include “The Light Ahead” (Jan. 26) and “The Dybbuk” (Feb. 9). Sun. 10:15 a.m. $15 (general), $5 (members). Westside Neighborhood School, 5401 Beethoven St., Los Angeles. (818) 760-6625.” target=”_blank”>aju.edu.


THUR | DEC 12

SHELLEY BERMAN

The comedian, actor and writer has a new book of poetry out! “To Laughter With Questions” is a collection of serious and not-so-serious verse, limericks, rhymes and an attempt at iambic pentameter. While you might know him best from his many film and TV appearances, here is an opportunity to get to know the man more intimately. His collection is full of personal experiences, and with Berman having taught in USC’s Master of Professional Writing program, you know it’s well written. Thu. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. MON | DEC 23

WOODY ALLEN AND HIS NEW ORLEANS JAZZ BAND

Forget the movies — the man is making music. With more than 35 years of bringing New Orleans-inspired music to audiences all over the world, the band has mastered creating the sounds Allen has loved since childhood, including nods to George Lewis, Jimmie Noone and Louis Armstrong. Come because you liked “Manhattan,” and stick around because you’ll love New Orleans. Mon. 8 p.m. $52-$112. Royce Hall at UCLA, 340 Royce Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 825-2101. FRI | DEC 27

“MARVIN HAMLISCH: WHAT HE DID FOR LOVE”

It makes more sense to tell you what Hamlisch was not responsible for when it comes to defining music — but sense is no fun. A musical prodigy at the age of 6, the conductor and composer was the brain behind “A Chorus Line,” and wrote the scores for “Sophie’s Choice,” “Ordinary People” and, more recently, “Behind the Candelabra.” In this first film biography, we get an inside portrait of one of the most respected artists of both the 20th and 21st centuries. Fri. 9 p.m. on PBS. Check local listings. SUN | JAN 12

A SALUTE TO ISRAEL

Join the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) Chief Cantor Shai Abramson, the IDF Vocal Ensemble and conductor Ofir Sobol for a community concert featuring classical, opera and Israeli music. Presented by Friends of the Israel Defense Forces and Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, this benefit concert features a special guest appearance by IDF Chief Rabbi Rafi Peretz. Sun. $29-$180. 6:30 p.m Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (323) 843-2690. FRI | JAN 17

JOAN RIVERS

The new year means we are all ripe for self-deprecation, and there is no one better to serve as our shepherd than Rivers. For more than 50 years she has been making us laugh, think, squirm, agree and disagree. Whether you saw her on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson,” spent revealing time with her in the documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” or currently watch her during awards season, you know exactly who Joan is and what you have to look forward to. Fri. 9 p.m. $77-$225. Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (323) 655-0111. SAT | JAN 18

PINCHAS ZUKERMAN

The principal guest conductor leads one of the United Kingdom’s most prestigious orchestras through some Bach, Schoenberg and Brahms. Born in Tel Aviv, Zukerman trained at Juilliard before playing the violin with the London Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. After a successful career in recording, he began conducting in 1970. Since then, he has been a global musical leader, player and teacher. Forget the sounds of silence — bring on Zukerman. Sat. 8 p.m. $40-$65. Valley Performing Arts Center, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge. (818) 677-3000. TUE | JAN 21

“THE BOOK OF MORMON”

It’s a religious satire musical from the guys who brought you “South Park” and “Avenue Q.” That means you’re gonna laugh. Tag along with a couple of Mormon missionaries as they try to spread the word to a remote village in Northern Uganda. It won nine Tony Awards in 2011, including best musical, so if you feel better about going to critically acclaimed things, you can feel good about this. Tue. 8 p.m. Through March 16. $43-$103. Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 468-1770. THUR | FEB 13

“LOVE, MATHEMATICS, AND THE X-FILES”

“X-Files” co-creator Chris Carter is in conversation with Edward Frenkel — one of the 21st century’s leading mathematicians. Working on one of the biggest math ideas in 50 years — the Langlands Program — Frenkel, in his autobiography, reveals a side of math filled with all the metaphysical beauty, elegance and spirit of a work of art. Discover how the things you just thought were numbers might carry a charge of love. Thur. 7:15 p.m. Free (reservation required). Mark Taper Auditorium, Central Library, 630 W. Fifth St., downtown. (213) 228-7500. SAT | FEB 15

“SANDRA BERNHARD: I LOVE BEING ME, DON’T YOU?”

If you were a respected and talented comedian, singer, author, actor and monologist, you’d love being me, too! From a big break in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” to a recurring role on TV’s “Roseanne,” to off-Broadway successes, Bernhard understands entertaining. She will sing, she will muse about her teenage daughter, and she will love being her. And we love that. Sat. 8 p.m. $25-$60 (general), $15 (UCLA Students). Royce Hall at UCLA, 340 Royce Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 825-2101.

Modeh Ani, connecting thanksgiving and light


When people ask me to describe the God I believe in, I often start by using the image of a flame. We are taught that each of us has a divine spark within us. That divine spark at times burns brightly, often in the moments of our lives when we find ourselves in balance and in tune with our spiritual needs. Other times, our flames seem to burn a bit lower. There is much we can do to nurture the flames within us. Like hands cupped around a match on a windy night, when we acknowledge the blessings in our lives, when we take time for reflection or prayer or quiet, and when we notice everything as fundamental as the power of our own breath, our flames grow stronger.

My mother is currently battling stage IV melanoma, and like most families facing serious illness, her experiences have brought much in my life into new focus. The word “quarterly” has taken on new meaning, as each three months now bring new scans and new treatment plans.

My parents are both retired. And yet, as my mom was reflecting on her outlook on life a few weeks ago, she said to me, “Each day I wake your father early, saying ‘Get up, get up.’ When he asks me, ‘Why?’ I say, ‘I want to see the sunrise.’ ” Perhaps, one thing that living scan-to-scan teaches you is that when each moment is so very precious and each new day a radical gift, nurturing one’s divine light is not something that should be put off until tomorrow.

For me, this year’s once in our lifetime intersection between Thanksgiving and Chanukah seems fitting. As the days are growing shorter and the preciousness of life is drawn into sharper focus, a convergence of light and gratitude is exactly what I’ve been seeking.

One of our sacred tasks during Chanukah is pirsum hanes, or to publicize the miracle. This mitzvah to share our light is why we place our chanukiyot, our Chanukah menorahs, in our windows. These days are times when we are invited to share our light.

It seems to me that a lit up window is as apt a place for gratitude as a Thanksgiving table is for light.

Jewish tradition teaches us that we are to begin each morning with the most basic of prayers, “Modeh Ani,” I am grateful. These words, which root us in gratitude, offer us a daily connection between thanksgiving and light. They are also intentionally offered in the first person singular: I am grateful. In difficult times or in moments of joy, the utterance is the same.

P’sikta D’Rav Kahanah provides a beautiful commentary on Psalm 57:9, which declares, “I will awaken the dawn.” The midrash explains, “I will awaken the dawn: that is, ‘I will awaken the dawn, the dawn will not wake me’” (P’sikta D’Rav Kahanah, Piska 7:4). And so, whether we jump to see the sunrise or enjoy our few extra moments of rest, the spiritual orientation remains the same. Each day we have a choice: Either to greet the day with gratitude or to allow the moment to pass.

This year, with our historic pairing of Chanukah and Thanksgiving, we are given a powerful reminder: Gratitude nurtures our inner spark and our inner spark grows our gratitude. All we have to do is cup our hands and nurture the flame.


Rabbi Jocee Hudson is rabbi educator at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

Chanukah: Filling our lives with an ancient light


When we are children, Chanukah often seems the most important holiday — after all, we get gifts and chocolate coins.  As adults, we learn that Chanukah commemorates a military victory as well as the miracle of the everlasting oil, and that it signifies our commitment to filling the darkest time of the year with light, even as we recognize that the holiday really isn’t very important spiritually.  Still, maybe the wisdom of the child is greater than the practicality of the adult. In fact, Chanukah is a deeply important holiday — not just because of the Maccabees, but because of its biblical importance.

Yes, it’s biblical importance.  The eight-day holiday that begins on the 25th of Kislev is implied in the Bible itself, and its importance is clearly seen throughout our ancient texts.  As important, we can find a practice to invigorate and enlighten our modern lives through the celebration of this “minor” holiday…that really isn’t so minor.

To understand this, we need to take a look at the Jewish calendar and examine the life and death of our patriarch Jacob and his connection to what we celebrate during the Festival of Lights.

We are taught that Jacob is the patriarch most associated with the holiday of Sukkot, and that tradition has it that Jacob died on Erev Sukkot in the year 2255 (1506 BCE).  But, after his death, “Egypt bewailed him for 70 days” (Gen. 50:3).  After this period of mourning in Egypt, Joseph and his family travel for one day and hold an “imposing eulogy,” and then Joseph “ordained a seven day mourning period for his father.” (Gen. 50:7)  Which brings us to the direct relationship between Jacob and our Festival of Lights: Sukkot is on the 15th day of Tishrei, and 70 days later is the 25th of Kislev.  Our ancestors mourned Jacob for a total of eight days (one of traveling and a eulogy and seven for declared mourning), from the 25th of Kislev through the 2nd of Tevet…the exact dates that we now celebrate Chanukah.  They were observing a holiday on the same dates, but preceding the Maccabean revolt by more than 1300 years.

Our Sages of the Talmud recognized the relationship between Sukkot and Chanukah in their dialogues and tie the two holidays together multiple times.  We are taught of not reciting confession between Sukkot and Chanukah (Pesachim 36b); the description of the blessings said on both holidays in the same sentences (Sukkah 46a), and a discussion about the practical uses of the booths and the Chanukah lights are interspersed together (Shabbat 22a).  We even see that our ancient elders put Chanukah in the same category as the biblically commanded three festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot when discussing what days “the flute is played” (Arachin 10a).  And although Maccabees II is not considered canonical, we find that the text there states that Judah Maccabee himself wanted the Jews of Alexandria to observe a “holiday of booths” (“hag ha’Sukkot” 1:9) in the month of Kislev and ordained the Festival of Chanukah as “eight days in joy as the holiday of Sukkot” (10:6).  For our ancestors, who would be aware of the mourning period that was a commemoration of Jacob’s death, the holidays of Sukkot and Chanukah are clearly linked. 

Jacob, who had built the first “House of God” (“Beth-El”, Gen. 28:17), comes back to Beth El when he and his family are commanded by God to return there and “remove the foreign gods that are within you and purify yourselves” (Gen. 35:2).   Similar to the practices of the Maccabees, he rejected foreign gods and dedicated himself to God.  It is easy to see how our ancestors saw the rededication of the Temple as a recapitulation of Jacob’s journey.

During Sukkot, we dwell in our booths.  We eat, sleep, study, and pray there.  Everything that can be found in a sanctuary is there, with one exception:  I have never seen a Ner Tamid, an eternal light in the Sukkah.  We are blessed to see the lights of the Eternal through the roof, but not in the booth itself.  On Sukkot we build the structure, and on Chanukah we light it up from the inside.  The 70 days in between are a time to prepare for that light.

In the same way that the counting of the Omer prepares us after Passover for the giving of the Torah on Shavuot; these 10 weeks between Sukkot and Chanukah are a time for us to prepare to truly enlighten ourselves.  It is a time of personal meditation to contemplate what we want to light up our lives with.  What are the passions, joys, and goals that we want to ignite?  What do we want to fill our own personal temples, our personal lives with?  These 70 days are an opportunity to focus on the light that we want to shine into the world.  The days in between are a powerful time to manifest what we truly believe in; a time to prepare to fill any emptiness in our lives with light.

Did the miracle of the oil happen on the exact same dates as the mourning period for Jacob?  Maybe.  Did the first Chanukah happen in the winter, and our Sages overlaid its celebration on to the same dates because of the clear parallels to Jacob?  Again, maybe.  Does it matter which is accurate?  Probably not.  What is more important today is that we use this time period to create a sacred structure within our lives:  as safe and joyous as our Sukkah, and as bright and insightful as our Chanukah candles.

Chanukah is a time to fully enliven and enlighten our lives; a time to fill our houses with a light that can never be extinguished.  It is a time to fully bring the wisdom of Jacob into our lives, and to create a sacred Temple in all of our physical spaces.  When we celebrate, and when we remember, we use candles.  May these candles be the reflection of the brightest parts of our souls, and may Chanukah have the deepest of meanings as we shine.


Rabbi Michael Barclay is the spiritual leader of The New Shul of the Conejo, and the author of “Sacred Relationships:  Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together”.  He can be reached directly at RabbiBarclay@aol.com.

Time to shop for Thanksgivukkah


Now that the parade of Jewish holidays has passed, it’s time to start planning for the impending arrival of an unprecedented hybrid: “Thanksgivukah” is coming! 

This year, the first day — and the second night — of Chanukah falls on Nov. 28, which also happens to be Thanksgiving. This particular coincidence, according to one calculation, won’t happen again for some 77,000 years, and some American Jews are pretty excited. 

“I’ve been thinking about it for so long,” said Dana Gitell, who first noticed this curiosity on her calendar about a year ago and has created a line of T-shirts and greeting cards to celebrate the holiday. “My kids can’t wait. They think everybody celebrates Thanksgivukah.”

Gitell, who lives in a suburb of Boston and works in marketing, loves imagining “mashups” of the two holidays — turkeys with latkes, pilgrims and rabbis, dreidel balloons at the Macy’s Thanksgivukah Day Parade. 

The hybrid holiday — which Gitell has chosen to spell with a double-K  “Thanksgivukkah” and holds two trademarks on the usage of that name — offers a chance to celebrate both Jewish and American values, she said. Her cards and T-shirts — designed by Los Angeles-based illustrator Kim DeMarco — use icons of both holidays, and in the spirit of the season, 10 percent of the proceeds from sales will be donated to MAZON, the Jewish anti-hunger nonprofit. 

Thanksgiving always falls on the fourth Thursday in November, and the next time American Jews will light Chanukah candles at Thanksgiving will be in 2070, when the first night of the festival begins at sundown on Nov. 27. That overlap hasn’t happened since 1918 — although in both 1945 and 1956, Jews in Texas and other states still celebrating “Republican Thanksgiving” on the last Thursday of November may have marked the combined holidays. 

Regardless, because the Jewish lunar calendar is slowly falling out of sync with the solar calendar — with Jewish holidays moving forward through the seasons at a rate of four days every 1,000 years — Chanukah has slowly but surely been moving deeper into winter and away from Thanksgiving.

This year, however, Chanukah begins at sundown on Wednesday, Nov. 27, which means that the entire day of Thanksgiving overlaps with the Jewish holiday. So on Thursday night — sometime during the first quarter of the Steelers-Ravens game, for those on the West Coast — families can fire up two candles in their menorahs, plus the shamash, of course. 

To do so, they may well use a “menurkey” — a ceramic menorah in the shape of a turkey, the brainchild of Asher Weintraub, 9. Asher and his father, Anthony, funded the $25,000 project through a Kickstarter campaign that concluded in early September. 

Then there’s the food — ideas for hybrids like sweet potato latkes and cranberry sauce-filled doughnuts abound. 

“Manischewitz broth is the official broth of Thanksgivukah,” said Courtney Manders, who works with Manischewitz as an account executive at The Bender Group, a public relations firm in New Jersey. The 125-year-old manufacturer known for its matzah and gefilte fish makes a full line of beef, chicken and vegetable broths, Manders said, and last year introduced a new broth — turkey. “That works out perfectly for a lot of Thanksgivukah dishes,” Manders said. 

Manischewitz tapped kosher chef Jamie Geller to come up with some appropriately hybridized dishes and is sponsoring a “mash-up recipe contest” starting in October to identify other culinary ways to celebrate Thanksgivukah. The company also launched an online contest to make a short video about Thanksgivukah, which so far has drawn a handful of ideas, including one titled “Close Encounters of the Thanksgivukah Kind.” The best video wins a prize of $6,000, second place gets $3,000, and videos must be submitted by Oct. 10 to be eligible. (No pilgrims, Native Americans or non-kosher animals, the online brief says — and don’t mention Manischewitz wine, because “that is actually a separate company.”) 

Like all things Chanukah-related, there’s a healthy dose of consumerism involved in this holiday. One listing on eBay describes a box of 12 Shabbat candles in “autumnal shades of Yellow, Orange, Green and Purple” as being ideal “for a peaceful Sabbath at ‘Thanksgivukah’ or throughout the year.” Another seller is hawking a plastic dreidel filled with kosher candy corn as a “Thanksgivukah Special.”

Deborah Gitell — sister-in-law of the Thanksgivukah greeting cards and T-shirts creator — is planning a Thanksgivukkah Festival for Nov. 29, to be hosted by Craig Taubman’s Pico Union Project in Los Angeles. 

She’s trying to raise $18,000 through the crowd-funding site Jewcer to make the festival happen, and said some musical acts — including the Moshav Band and Beit T’Shuvah Band — have already confirmed their participation. The Canter’s Deli food truck and Shmaltz Brewing Co. are also on board; proceeds from the event will support Pico Union’s theater programs and MAZON. 

Thanksgivukah’s attraction lies, for the most part, in its rarity.

“If the Jewish calendar is never modified in any way … [the first day of] Hanukkah will again fall on Thursday, Nov. 28, in the year 79811,” Jonathan Mizrahi, who holds a doctorate in physics and works for Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., wrote in a blog post in January of this year. 

Sure, Mizrahi notes, the Jewish calendar is likely to be modified long before then, since Passover must be in the spring. If the Jewish calendar were to be allowed to fall out of sync with the seasons and loop all the way around — Rosh Hashanah in July, anyone? — Chanukah and Thanksgiving would meet again in 76695, when the eighth day of Chanukah coincides with the autumnal American festival. 

“In all honesty, though, all of these dates are unfathomably far in the future,” Mizrahi writes, “which was really the point.”

Dana Gitell’s T-shirts — available for sale at ModernTribe.com ($36) — play up that aspect. 

“Our design is inspired by the logo for Woodstock,” Dana Gitell said of the T-shirts, and compared Thanksgivukah to another relatively recent, once-in-history moment. 

“It’s a bit like Y2K,” she said. “You were there, you lived through it, and it’ll never happen again.”

Making the sukkah beautiful


I built my first sukkah three years ago. It was your typical sukkah in a kit — a metal pole and tarp structure, stark white and generic. As I decorated it, I realized that no matter how many plastic fruits and vegetables I hung from the sides and ceiling, they seemed to get lost in the space. The big white tarps were just too visually dominant. 

This year, I was honored to decorate a sukkah in an outside plaza adjacent to the new home of the Jewish Journal, as well as the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, and Bet Tzedek Legal Services. All three organizations will share the sukkah throughout the week of Sukkot. Based on my earlier experience, I approached this sukkah with a strategy: to create dramatic, simple and inexpensive decorative elements that would break up all that whiteness. After all, no one has ever sung, “I’m Dreaming of a White Sukkot.”

Even if you don’t incorporate these specific projects in your own sukkah, I hope that the ideas inspire you to get creative. Let’s think outside the big white box.

(For more on the value of beauty in Judaism and on Sukkot, read David Suissa’s column here)

PINGPONG BALL GRAPES 

I started by covering much of the white tarp with curtain panels from IKEA. At $9.99 for two panels, they were a low-cost decorating solution, so I bought seven pairs. For curtain tiebacks, I decided to make my own grapes out of pingpong balls, which are available at the 99 Cents Only store.

Using a hot-glue gun, attach pingpong balls to one another, one at a time. Cluster them into a V shape so they look like a bunch of grapes rather than a science project. I used about 15 pingpong balls per bunch.

After spray painting the grape bunches a burgundy red color, hot-glue a twig to the top of each bunch. The twig actually adds a lot of realism to the grapes, so warn the kids — and spouse – not to eat them.

Tie one or two bunches of the pingpong grapes to each curtain panel with some fishing line or string. Then frame the grapes in some burlap ribbon and silk autumn leaves.

BRANCHES WITH DICTIONARY PAGE ROSES

I love hanging branches over the dining table. They add such drama while staying within the harvest theme. Before hanging the branches from the ceiling, I attached paper roses made from dictionary pages.

Fold two dictionary pages (or any two sheets of paper) lengthwise, so you now have four skinny pages held together by the bottom fold. Then tear each page at 1- to 2-inch intervals, being careful not to tear the page all the way to the fold.

Place a strip of double-stick tape across the bottom at the fold.

Roll the pages loosely while pinching the bottom where the tape is. The double-stick tape will keep the rose together.

Unfurl the petals, which you created when you tore the paper.

Hot-glue several flowers to a tree branch.

Tie some fishing line around the branch, and tie the other end of the fishing line to the bamboo in the ceiling. Secure two ends of the branch for balance and security.

FALLING LEAVES

 

Paper leaves strung together and suspended from the ceiling create a magical effect, and they complement the hanging branches so well. I’ve also used this technique with silk rose petals at various events.

Cut leaves out of paper. You can do this by hand, making simple oval leaf shapes. I actually used a die-cutting machine, so the leaves were more intricate. I then sprayed the leaves with some glimmer mist, which I bought at the crafts store, to give them some color.

Using a needle and thread, create strands of three to five leaves spaced a few inches apart. The more strands you make, the more it will look like leaves are falling from the heavens.

Where the thread meets each leaf, apply a dab of craft glue so that the leaf stays in place. Tie one end of each strand to the bamboo at the top of the ceiling. If the leaves tangle, don’t worry. From a distance, it still looks like the leaves are falling.

LOOP GARLANDS 

To decorate the sukkah, kids often make garlands out of construction paper loops. Here is an idea that takes that simple technique and turbo charges it. These aren’t just garlands — they’re modern art pieces.

Cut poster or construction paper into long strips that are about 2 inches wide.

Create loops with the strips, and hold them together with paper clips. Also, cut other strips to make smaller loops, and attach them to the larger loops with the paper clips. Connect several loops together to form a long garland. By using paper clips, you can keep changing your pattern before committing to the final design.

When you’re happy with how the garland looks, permanently attach loops to each other with a stapler, and remove the paper clips. Hang the garlands on the sukkah wall with some fishing line.

PALM LEAF STARBURSTS 

I found bunches of long palm leaves at IKEA and thought they would make stylish starbursts to accentuate the sukkah entrance. They also would make beautiful room decorations when Sukkot is over. 

Form a starburst pattern with the palm leaves, securing them in the middle with a hot-glue gun.

Tie some string around the spokes of the starburst to make sure the leaves don’t come apart. The string will also be useful later for hanging.

Cover the string with a paper rose like the ones made for the hanging branches. Tie some fishing line to the string to hang it from the metal poles.

Decorating and crafts expert Jonathan Fong hosts the Web series “Style With a Smile” and DisneyFamily.com’s “He Made, She Made.” He also recently designed the new offices of the Jewish Journal. You can find more of his inspirational ideas at jonathanfongstyle.com.

Save the self-pity, choices abound for Passover meals


For the many who feel overwhelmed by Passover because of the demands of cooking without leaven, a word or two: That should not be an obstacle.

After all, on this most celebrated of Jewish holidays, we are allowed to eat fish, meat, poultry, eggs, nuts, fruits, most vegetables and fresh herbs.

All of the recipes featured here  are nutritious, attractive, flavorful and easy to prepare. They emphasize fresh, seasonal ingredients, fewer complicated techniques, and stylish, elegant dishes. What more would you want for Passover?

The seder meals, when we recount the Exodus story, are the most important events of the holiday.  Most people, like myself, favor their own traditional menu. Each year I repeat the seder menu as a way to hold on to cherished family traditions.

The recipes are from the new cookbook “Helen Nash's New Kosher Cuisine” (Overlook Press).

BEET SOUP
With their magnificent color, delicious flavor and vitamin richness, beets are one of my favorite vegetables. In the summer I serve this soup at room temperature; in the winter I like it hot.

Ingredients:
1 1/4 pounds (570 g) beets, plus 1 small beet for garnish
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small red onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 McIntosh apple, peeled and sliced
4 1/2 cups (1.08 liters) vegetable broth
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
Kosher salt 
Freshly ground black pepper

Preparation:
Peel and slice the beets (see note below). Heat the oil in a medium saucepan. Add the onion, garlic and apple, and saute for 5 minutes. Add the beets and broth. Bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat and cook, covered, for about 30 minutes, until the beets are tender. Cool a little.

While the soup is cooking, wrap the reserved beet tightly in foil. Bake in a toaster oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit (205 Celsius) for 30 minutes, or until just tender when pierced with the tip of a paring knife. Cool, slip off the skin, and grate.

Puree the soup in a blender until very smooth. Season to taste with the vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper.

To serve, garnish with the grated beet; makes 6 servings.

Note: I always wear thin plastic gloves when I work with beets, as this avoids staining my fingers with beet juice, which can be hard to remove.

CHICKEN SALAD WITH RADICCHIO AND PINE NUTS
This is a colorful and delicious salad with an interesting mixture of textures and tastes. The currants and pine nuts add an unusual Mediterranean piquancy.

Ingredients: 
1 small red onion, very thinly sliced
6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 6 ounces/170 g each)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil for greasing the chicken
Kosher salt 
Freshly ground black pepper
1 head radicchio, shredded
1 to 2 bunches arugula, leaves torn if they are large
1/2 cup (20 g) loosely packed flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Preparation:

Place the onion slices in a small bowl and cover with cold water. Let stand for 30 minutes. Drain and pat dry. Place in a large serving bowl.

Pat the chicken dry with paper towels and grease with oil. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Place each chicken breast in the center of a piece of cling wrap and wrap it so that it is completely covered. Place the packages in a steamer, cover and steam over high heat for about 9 minutes. (The inside of the chicken should still be pale pink.) Turn off the heat and let stand for 1 minute.

Remove the chicken and cool, still wrapped. When cool, unwrap the chicken and cut it on the diagonal into thin strips. Place in the bowl with the onions; makes 6 servings.

SWEET AND SOUR DRESSING
Ingredients:
1/3 cup (80 ml) extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup (70 g) pine nuts 
1/2 cup (115 g) raisins or currants
2 tablespoons Marsala wine
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Preparation:
Heat the oil in a saucepan. Add the pine nuts and raisins and saute over low heat until the pine nuts are lightly golden. Remove from the heat and add the Marsala and vinegar.
Add the radicchio, arugula, and parsley to the chicken and onions; toss with the dressing. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

MARINATED SALMON
This is a variation on the traditional pickled salmon sold in every Jewish delicatessen. The difference: The salmon is more delicate and less vinegary, and has a richer color. It makes a perfect Sabbath luncheon dish.

Ingredients:
6 skinless center-cut salmon fillets (about 6 ounces/170 g each)
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil for greasing the pan
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Preparation:
Preheat the oven to 200 F (95 C). Grease a glass or enamel-lined baking pan that can hold the fillets in a single layer.

Pat the fillets dry with paper towels and season them lightly on both sides with salt and pepper. Place them in the dish and bake, uncovered, for 25 to 30 minutes, or until cooked to your taste.

Remove the baking pan from the oven, cover with foil, and let cool completely. (The fish will continue cooking outside of the oven.)

MARINADE 
Ingredients:
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons rice vinegar (for Passover, replace with white wine vinegar)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 small red onion, very thinly sliced (see note below)
15 dill sprigs, snipped finely with scissors, plus 2 sprigs, snipped, for garnish

Preparation: 
In a medium bowl, whisk together the olive oil, vinegar and salt. Add pepper to taste. Pour the marinade over the salmon, add the onion and sprinkle with the 15 snipped sprigs of dill.
Cover the dish with wax paper, then foil and refrigerate for 2 to 3 days without turning.

To serve: Bring the salmon to room temperature. Place on individual plates along with some of the marinade and onions. Garnish with the fresh snipped dill; makes 6 servings.

Note: I use a mandoline to slice the onion, as it makes the cutting easier.

CHICKEN WITH POTATOES AND OLIVES
I am always pleased to come up with a dish that is a meal in itself — one that combines either chicken or meat with vegetables. This is one of my favorites, and because it is so easy to make, I often serve it at Passover. I bake it in an attractive casserole, so it can go directly from the oven to the table.

Ingredients:
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
9 garlic cloves
Kosher salt 
1/4 cup (60 ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
Leaves from 10 thyme sprigs
Freshly ground black pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 6 ounces/170 g each)
5 plum tomatoes
1 pound (450 g) Yukon gold potatoes, unpeeled, quartered
1/2 cup (67 g) pitted black olives, quartered

Preparation:
Preheat the oven to 450 F (230 C). With 1 tablespoon of the oil, grease a glass, ceramic or enamel-lined baking pan that can hold all the vegetables in a single layer.

Coarsely chop 4 of the garlic cloves on a cutting board. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and, using a knife, crush them into a paste. Place the paste in a small bowl and combine it with the lemon juice, 2 tablespoons of the oil, half of the thyme leaves and pepper to taste.

Pat dry the chicken breasts with paper towels and season lightly on both sides with salt and pepper. Coat the chicken with the mixture and set aside.

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Drop the tomatoes into the boiling water; bring the water back to a boil and drain. Core the tomatoes and slip off the skin. Cut the tomatoes in half widthwise and squeeze gently to remove the seeds. (Some seeds will remain.) Cut the tomatoes in quarters.

Thickly slice the remaining 5 garlic cloves and spread them in the prepared baking pan along with the tomatoes, potatoes, olives, the rest of the thyme leaves, and the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Roast the vegetables, uncovered, for 20 minutes, or until almost tender.

Place the chicken breasts on top of the vegetables and bake, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Turn them over, spoon on some pan juices and bake for another 5 minutes, or until the chicken is slightly pink on the inside. Cover with foil for 1 minute; makes 4 servings.

STIR-FRIED SPINACH
This is a delicious recipe that captures the very essence of spinach. Now that prewashed spinach is available in almost every supermarket, you can prepare this dish in minutes.

Ingredients:
20 ounces (570 g) prewashed spinach
1 1/2 tablespoons pine nuts
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Preparation:
Break the stems off the spinach leaves and discard.

Roast the pine nuts in a toaster oven on the lowest setting for 1 or 2 minutes, until they are golden. (Watch them carefully, as they burn quickly.)

Heat a wok over high heat until hot. Add the oil. Add the spinach and stir quickly until it is just wilted, no more than a minute. Season with salt and pepper. With a slotted spoon, transfer the spinach to a serving dish. Sprinkle the pine nuts on top; makes 6 servings.

CHOCOLATE MERINGUE SQUARES
These meringue squares are like cookies, but they are light, chocolaty and surprisingly low in calories. I often serve them at Passover.

Ingredients:
1 tablespoon (15 g) unsalted margarine for greasing the pan
1/2 pound (225 g) blanched almonds
6 ounces (170 g) good-quality imported semisweet chocolate, broken into small pieces
8 large egg whites (see notes)
1 cup (200 g) sugar

Preparation:

Preheat the oven to 350 F (175 C). Line a 9-by-13-by-2-inch (23-by-33-by-5 cm) baking pan with wax paper and grease the paper with the margarine.

Chop the almonds in a food processor, in two batches, until medium-fine. Transfer to a bowl. Chop the chocolate in the processor until fine, and combine with the almonds.

Place the egg whites in the bowl of an electric stand mixer. Using the balloon whisk attachment, beat at high speed until foamy. Gradually add the sugar and beat until stiff.

With a large rubber spatula, gently fold the chocolate-almond mixture into the egg whites, making a motion like a figure 8 with the spatula. Do not overmix.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out 
almost dry.

Cool on a wire rack. Invert onto a cutting board and peel off the paper. Cut into 1 1/2-inch (4 cm) squares; makes 3 1/2 dozen squares.

Notes: It is easier to separate the eggs straight from the refrigerator, when they are cold. Make sure the whites have come to room temperature before beating.

To freeze the squares, place them side by side in an air-tight plastic container, with  wax paper between the layers.

Purim in Israel [SLIDESHOW]


Israelis celebrate Purim in full costume throughout Israel. 

COMMENT BELOW WITH YOUR FAVORITE COSTUME!

Purim: Beyond the playfulness, a time for examination


The central character of Purim is Esther, whose name means hidden. The story is full of things hidden, and waiting for the right time to be revealed. Vashti refuses to expose her sexuality to the drunken men of the King’s court, and chooses instead to be hidden. Esther hides her Jewishness until the time is right to reveal her identity. Haman hides his humanity. The foolish king’s discernment is hidden. Even God is hidden in the story. Only Mordecai is not hidden, making his presence known to save lives. Mordecai is the counterbalance to hiding.  

The characters in the Purim story are archetypes teaching us about ourselves. What do you hide? Are you like Haman who keeps part of himself hidden in response to an old wound, or because it’s too risky to be vulnerable? Are you hiding a part of yourself because you are convinced (incorrectly) that you are not worthy, that your light is not great enough? As Marianne Williamson writes: “It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” Or, are you hiding that special part of you because you, like Esther, are waiting, strategically, for the right time to serve God? In the first and second scenarios, perhaps it’s time to be revealed. In the third, perhaps it’s better to remain hiding. In the midst of our pain, we ask ourselves, where is God? As Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk says, “God is where someone lets Him in.” So let Him in.

How can you let God in when you don’t feel so good about yourself? How can you turn what is hidden in you into something that is good and seen by others? The Baal Shem Tov says lift it up to the light. Lift up the things you’re not so proud of to the light, so that you can see that even that which you keep hidden is your desire for being connected to God. Do this in prayer, meditation, or in confidential conversation with a friend.

On Purim we are told to get so drunk that we can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach says this means that in this state of drunkenness we don’t know the difference between arrogance and humility. Haman was arrogant and Mordecai was humble, and we assume that being humble is better. But Shlomo says you need both. “All the emotions are very holy because God made them. You only have to know the right time to use them. The truth is, in order to be a servant of God you need a lot of pride.” Pride is like arrogance that will drive you to do something courageous when no one else will do it.

You must also have humility; not humility that makes you think you’re unworthy, and not humility that makes you feel small in relation to other people. The humility you need is to know your relationship to your Creator, your compass of ethical behavior. The holy humility that we require is knowing that everything we have comes from God. Shlomo says that “If you know exactly where to use your humility then you know exactly where to use your pride.”

When it comes to parenting our children or being a partner in relationship, we need to balance pride with humility. When we find ourselves quick to criticize and ready to make our children or partners or our parents feel small, insignificant, or inadequate, we must realize that this is misplaced pride. We need humility to recognize that the people in our lives are souls in human bodies needing acknowledgement and to be treated as holy.

And here’s one of the hidden secrets in the Purim story. When you feel rage and you want to lash out – like Haman did – with judgment, criticism or worse… stop, walk out of the room, splash cold water on your face. Be like Esther. Fast for three days and ask your community for support. Do teshuvah and search for that which is hidden in you. Do the work of teshuvah, returning to the holy spark of the divine that is in you.

The Tikunei Zohar says that Purim is like Yom Kippur. The Sfat Emet explains this statement saying that teshuvah is the key to meeting God face to face. Like Esther who fasts and does teshuvah, we also fast and do teshuvah before Purim. Only after fasting and teshuvah does she enter the king’s domain, and the decree is removed. It’s the same on Yom Kippur. The process of Teshuvah is (in part) coming out from hiding and returning to your commitment to God.

Like the High Priest in the Temple, who fasted before going into the Holy of Holies, we fast, we do teshuvah, and only then do we enter the “King’s domain”. Then the decree is removed, and we start fresh. It is stated in the Talmud (Megillah 14a): “The removal of the king’s ring [that Haman used to seal his evil decree] was greater than the 48 prophets and 7 prophetesses who prophesied to Israel. For all [of them] were unable to return the Jews to righteousness; whereas removal of the ring returned the Jews to righteousness.” The threat was so real and so severe that the Jews took the responsibility of teshuvah seriously. The Sfat Emet says this teaches the power of teshuvah is so great that it can reverse evil decrees. It can reverse our own decrees.

On this Purim, let us do teshuvah and live lives in which we are all seen rather than hidden. Let us return to living lives that honor the sacred in each other by treating each other ethically and with kindness and patience. Let us be so drunk that we have no fear of bringing God out of hiding and into the stories of our lives.


Rabbi Elihu Gevirtz can be reached at rabbielihu@gmail.com. You can read more at www.rabbielihu.com.

Not feeling the candy hearts and kitsch? How to turn around 50 shades of abysmal gray


It’s that time of year … chocolates, flowers, jewelry. Sappy advertisements and red and pink store displays. There are reminders everywhere. It’s Valentine’s Day.

Sure, it’s a bit commercial (understatement) but it’s all good. We know that. It’s beautiful to celebrate love.

But what about if you don't have a special someone or even your favorite chocolate already lined up for a great Thursday night? (Or perhaps you have a loving companion but you've somehow lost yourself in the relationship.) Whatever the reason, this day, with its cards and balloons, candy hearts and kitsch, is turning your mood fifty shades of a rather abysmal gray. Instead of bringing you a great sense of joy and intimacy, this so-called celebration feels more about absence or loss. And over the course of a day that seems to have somehow overlooked your very own precious self, you find yourself thinking, “I don’t have a valentine.”

To which we respond, what do you mean you don’t have a valentine?

Of course you have a valentine.

Walk right into the bathroom. Grab a hold of the sink and look up. Yours will be right there waiting, looking you straight in the punim.

Even if you feel very alone at times, you always have a valentine. It’s you.

That’s right. No matter who is or isn’t in your life, you are your own ultimate bashert.

And naturally, you’re fabulous. How lucky you are to have you for a valentine.

Because when you’re very your own valentine, you can celebrate any way you want.

How romantic it would be to buy yourself one perfect red rose. Not a whole bouquet. Just one perfectly closed bud representing your love for yourself. Take this vulnerable darling home and place it in a vase. All it needs is just a little bit of water.

Over the course of a few hours, watch your flower bloom as a symbol of you opening up to the undying expression of your own self love, showing yourself the greatest kindness, compassion and understanding, no matter what life brings.

Choose a song that opens your heart, and helps you dream a little dream, and dance with yourself. That’s right, ignite your own boogie fever. Don’t worry what it looks like. There are no rules here. You don’t even have to watch.

Yes, it's scary to be vulnerable. Even to yourself. But it’s also easy to be your own best valentine, the kind that promises extreme self care, extreme self empathy, extreme self respect. Because when you truly love yourself, every day is Valentine’s Day.

So when you're ready, grab a pen and some paper, or maybe even some broken crayons, and make yourself a good old fashioned valentine. That’s right, make some vows to yourself, to be true to yourself, and be your most authentic self. If you find yourself suddenly tongue tied, feel free to borrow these “Marriage Vows to Me” taken straight from the pages of my book, Hot Mamalah.

It’s true, Valentine’s Day is a celebration of sweethearts. Of relationships. Of your chocolate tooth. We're not denying that. But that doesn't mean it can't also be about celebrating the sweetness of your own life and the most intimate relationship you always have, the one with yourself. Isn't it about time you commit to love, honor and cherish?

Now go on. Get real with yourself and bring a little romance to your game. Valentine’s Day with yourself is EVERY day, forevermore.

That certainly sounds like a great romance to me.

Marriage Vows to Me © Lisa Alcalay Klug, 2012, Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe

Mazal tov, now you’re a hot mamalah!

How do you know you're a hot mamalah?

Because you don't have to work hard to be hot. You just have to be you. Your most authentic self is the hottest thing of all.

How can you be sure you’re a hot mamalah?

Because a hot mamalah loves and respects herself.

How can you be positively certain you’re a hot mamalah?

Because a real mamalah is her own best valentine, today and every day.

And when you wake up the morning after, how do you remember you're a hot mamalah?

You. Just. Do.

Happy Valentine’s Day, You!

Megillat Esther — The book of the exile


Purim is an extraordinary festival in the Jewish calendar.  It can be distinguished from all the other festivals by the character that it was granted in later generations, but mainly by its most primary source –  Megillat Esther itself.

The different nature of the Purim customs and of Megillat Esther, can be seen in comparison with Hanuka, the Jewish festival that is closest to it both in time and meaning.  Although the Books of the Maccabees did not become part of the canonized Bible, they nevertheless belong to the philosophical and stylistic “milieu” of the Biblical books, in the events that they relate, in the characters of the main figures, and in the religious-national issues looming in their background.  Compared with them, Megillat Esther seems to be almost on the other side of the gap between the sublime and the ridiculous: the pompous, fickle Ahasuerus;  the wicked, petty Haman; Esther whose ascent to greatness is reminiscent of the Cinderella tale; and the righteous Mordechai, who gets entangled in the court intrigues of an Oriental tyrant.  Commentators have also remarked that G-d’s name does not appear in the entire Megilla even once, not even as an appellation. It is therefore no wonder that in Mishanic times, our Sages differed as to whether or not to include this book in the Holy Scriptures.

The clue to all these peculiarities may be found in one single issue – Purim is the Festival of the Exile, and Megillat Esther is the Book of the Exile.  In a sense, Megillat Esther is the basic model of the life of the Jewish people in exile.  Its  entire story, which looks like a simplistic melodrama and a mythic tale, detached from reality, takes on a true, serious, even tragic meaning when looked at as the mirror of Jewish history not only at the time of Mordechai and Esther, but also throughout Jewish history in the years of exile.

Ahasuerus, the great king who rules over “a hundred and twenty seven provinces,” who spends most of his days in drunken parties and in harems, who almost inadvertently issues a decree to  destroy, and kill all Jews” without considering all its possible implications – is he a mere creature of the imagination?  Almost no generation passes without us encountering him, in one form or another.  He may indeed be an insignificant, ridiculous figure; but even  foolish and weak  tyrants can bring about terrible destruction upon the Jewish people in exile.

As for Haman – about whom there are various Aggadic tales, who somehow becames the de facto ruler of the land, and decided that personal hatred, superstition, or any other kind of nonsense, is sufficient justification for killing all the Jews – one does not have to search very far to find him, again and again, very real and very threatening.

In Megillat Esther Haman is clearly a comic figure.  However, throughout our history this character has been accompanied by so many tears and so much blood.  Haman’s inciteful speech to the King about a certain people scattered among the peoples of his  kingdom, whose laws are different  from those of every people, who do not  keep the king’s laws; and therefore the king should not suffer them” (Esther 3:8) – has not been greatly perfected during  the 2,500 years that have elapsed since then.  With minor variations, it is repeated to this day by modern-day  Hamans throughout the world.  We no longer laugh at this pathetic figure.  Today, we are afraid of him.

One can elaborate and illustrate how this strange, puzzling and ridiculous story of Megillat Esther – that could have been funny, had it not been so tragic – has been repeating itself generation after generation, in different parts of the world.  The Midrash says that the protagonists of the Megillah are not just figures,  Ahasuerus and Haman ”  represent not only themselves, but are also prototypes for hundreds and thousands of others like them who  grow out of the fundamental evil of the Jewish existence in the exile: a people who has no real support, whose rights are always forgotten, whose shortcomings will always be conspicuous, and against whom any ruler’s whim will be turned – the eternal scapegoat.

Megillat Esther, then, is the scroll of “the hiding of thhe Divine Face,” of the Jewish people in its exile, in which the greatest threats against its very existence begin with what looks like a comedy, and even the miracles that occur during its rescue, stem from the nature and “soil” of exile.

Only a very profound outlook, that sees the Jewish future, and is based on a strong, unshakeable faith, could have caused Megillat Esther to be included among the canonized books of the Bible.  For this book is the essence of Jewish life in exile, and of the faith that, behind all external causes, hides the “guardian of Israel.”  The Megilla teaches us that the Jewish people must learn to live this sort of life, expecting miracles hidden within the tortuous, winding ways of history.  Within all this, one must believe that “relief and deliverance will arise to the Jews…”, and that in moments of distress, assimilation and masks will not help even those who sit in the king’s own palace.  And that, despite everything, there is hope.

The story of Megillat Esther will continue as long as the exile continues to exist, and as long as the world persists in functioning  with the “hiding of the Divine Face” and “the hiding of the Divine Name.”  May the days soon come when we will no longer comprehend the seriousness of the Megilla, when we will be able to read it truly frivolously, knowing that it is just a tale from bygone times that will never return.

A Purim directive: Laugh it up!


Little kids will laugh at anything. The simplest knock-knock joke or a tickle fest — even the threat of one — can so easily end in hysterics. They laugh because they are surprised by something unexpected in a world they are constantly discovering.

If only that kind of laughter came as easily as we got older.

While the laughter of childhood is characterized by the element of surprise, the laughter in adulthood becomes a way of managing stress (filmmakers know this well and skillfully employ any element of comic relief during an action thriller to release some of the tension). Laughter becomes a coping mechanism to get us through difficult times. Paradoxically, many of us are so loaded down with responsibility and worry that we don’t indulge often enough in this emotional and physical release.

It’s a good thing Purim is nearly here.

Purim is a holiday that isn't ripe with laws and ritual obligations save for reading the Megillah, giving mishloach manot (gift packages) to friends, matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor) and having a festive meal. However, there is one directive for observance that is very clear: “they (The Jews) should make [Adar 14 and 15] days of feasting and joy …” (Scroll of Esther 9:22).

We each might experience this commandment on a different level. For 5-year-olds, putting on funny costumes, enjoying bobbing for candied apples at the synagogue carnival and seeing the rabbi dressed as a superhero evokes one kind of joy. For most grown-ups, joy and laughter may be an expression of a different kind. While we appreciate the dark comedy of the Megillah, our laughter also is a collective sigh of relief in having averted near annihilation unscathed.

The storyline of Purim, which this year falls on the evening of Feb. 23, is a dramatic comedy of errors and grand gestures with over-the-top reactions. It is so different in content and style than nearly every other book of the Bible that scholars speculate about the veracity of the story altogether. Drunken parties, political posturing and sexual innuendos weave their way throughout the narrative.

The Megillah begins with a raucous party hosted by King Achashveros, who demands that his wife, Vashti, appears (only! as commentators point out) in her crown. After refusing to appear naked, she is told to never appear before the king again. After his “wise” counselors offer advice, an edict is sent out across the provinces demanding that all wives respect their husbands’ every demand. Not sure what all the wives had to say about that!

It is a story about reversals. The Megillah has Mordechai, the Jewish hero who refuses to bow down to Haman. The act of disobedience ignites the ire of Haman, the recently promoted chief adviser to the king. Haman, in turn, calls for the destruction of all Jewish people.

Esther, who until this point has hidden her identity, then reveals that she also is a member of the doomed people and calls on Achashveros to punish Haman. Achashveros does by bestowing all the raiments and honors that were reserved for Haman to Mordechai. Further, the very gallows that Haman had ordered to be built for the hanging of Mordechai are the ones on which Haman meets his end.

Purim is a story of incongruencies. A people once despised and on the verge of destruction are told that they can defend themselves thanks to Esther’s petitions to the king and suddenly become a force with which to be reckoned. For pragmatic reasons, the text indicates that “many of the people of the land became Jews; for the fear of the Jews fell upon them.”  Averted disaster becomes an unusual catalyst for conversion.

While grand gestures, plot reversals and a storyline that doesn’t mesh quite right are elements that are employed by comedy writers and will evoke laughter, our general state of reverie on Purim is born from what the philosopher John Morreall observes about the evolution of laughter. Morreall believes that human laughter became a gesture of shared relief that a dangerous situation had passed. Laughter puts us into a state of relaxation and can build bonds between us.

As the cultural anthropologist Mahadev Apte observes further, “Laughter occurs when people are comfortable with one another, when they feel open and free. And the more laughter [there is], the more bonding [occurs] within the group.”

Jews have always used humor as a coping mechanism for Jewish survival and as a common reference point to connect to other Jews. Jewish comedians knew this well. As a people who have been oppressed for so long, we have always appreciated laughing at our situation before others could.

So this Purim, hold the childlike laughter of discovering new things (maybe someone you didn’t expect will give you mishloach manot; maybe you will surprise yourself at your generosity when you give a gift to the poor) and appreciate the narrative of the Purim story itself. But most important, experience the joy that comes from release, knowing that the Jewish people not only survives but continues to thrive.

As you raise your glass at Purim, toast “l’chaim” — to life — and to a life filled with deep laughter.

Ken Elkinson: Holiday sounds of chill


When musician Ken Elkinson began receiving kudos for his Christmas album, he knew it was time to return to his roots. “I started feeling guilty that I was selling my people out,” Elkinson, 40, said, speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles. While he was in esteemed company among Jews who’d done Christmas albums or written Christmas songs — boldface names like Bob Dylan, Mel Tormé, Irving Berlin and Johnny Marks, to name but a few — Elkinson was ready to tackle Chanukah.

This year, Elkinson has become a double threat, releasing a pair of albums, “Chanukah Ambient” and “Christmas Ambient,” for the holidays. Ambient, a style of music popularized by artists like Brian Eno, Vangelis and Tangerine Dream, features heavy use of synthesizers to create a very atmospheric, often mellow tone. It may be most recognizable to people who’ve seen 1980s movies like “Legend,” “Blade Runner,” “The Keep” and “Chariots of Fire,” all of which heavily feature ambient pieces in their soundtracks.

For Elkinson, the choice to do ambient music was “more personal than musical.” A longtime pianist whose earlier albums were almost exclusively piano music, Elkinson’s children were a big part of his switch to ambient music — the form allows the composer to lay down one layer of sound, take a break to help out with the kids, and then go back into his studio to work. Elkinson said he also loves the depth of the music. “I like stuff where there’s a lot of complex things going on in the background,” he said. 

Elkinson achieved some fame for his ambient compositions after his boxed set “Music for Commuting” was written up in The New York Times, The Washington Post and on CNN. “I’m still kind of baffled by it,” Elkinson said of the album’s wide appeal, which was heightened due to its release just before Carmageddon, the weekend-long closure of Los Angeles’ hyper-busy 405 freeway in 2011. It was a lot of attention for an album that Elkinson says had its genesis in his own need to calm down while driving. “I can’t stand watching people eat meals and shave and put on makeup and drive [at the same time],” the New Jersey native said. 

Elkinson’s “Chanukah Ambient” album is certainly different from most Chanukah albums on the market, and he’s happy about it. “Some people are probably going to hate it,” he said, adding, “I have really thick skin, I’m totally fine with it. I just got tired of hearing the same songs over and over in the same way.”

Crafting the album became something of a learning process for Elkinson and deepened his understanding of the winter holiday. “I learned through this process that ‘Ocho Kandelikas’ is not a traditional Chanukah song; it’s actually something that was written in the ’80s,” said Elkinson of the song written by Bosnian Flory Jagoda, which people often think is a classic melody. “I feel more proud of the Chanukah music.”

Growing up, he said, he remembers Chanukah being a holiday that brought his family together, in a time before his parents divorced. “We didn’t get fancy presents. I always wanted an Atari and a dog and HBO and sugar cereals; those are the four things I always wanted for Chanukah, and I never got any of that stuff.” Like many former kids, he now remembers the holiday more for its gift of joy than for anything material. “It was a really happy time in my life.”

Today, Elkinson is excited about celebrating the holiday with his own kids. “I like passing the traditions on that I had as a child,” he said. And of course, there’s also the music. “They sing the songs the whole year. It’s funny watching them.”

Elkinson hopes his own album helps “calm people” during a time of holiday stress and brings them a “different perspective” on the familiar celebration. “It’s not like the Chanukah music you know,” Elkinson said. 

“Why just do another boring dreidel song?”

Holiday preview calendar


[FRI | NOV 23]

“BODIES AND SHADOWS: CARAVAGGIO AND HIS LEGACY” 

Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio’s paintings exhibited a strangeness, beauty and raw emotion that made him one of the most popular artists of the 16th and 17th centuries. The “Bodies and Shadows” exhibition covers the evolution of his style and features eight works by Caravaggio as well as pieces from approximately 20 artists from Italy, Spain, France and the Netherlands who carried on Caravaggio’s legacy. Fri. Through Feb. 10. 11 a.m.-8 p.m. (Friday), 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (Saturday, Sunday), 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday). $15 (general), $10 (seniors, students), free (children under 18). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 857-6000. lacma.org.


[TUE | NOV 27]

“A PATCHWORK OF CULTURES: THE SEPHARDIC-LATINO CONNECTION”

Buenos Aires native and Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue Cantor Marcelo Gindlin performs Spanish-Jewish melodies during this day of musical education. Organized by the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony Educational Outreach Program for fourth- through sixth-graders, the event also features an instrument “petting zoo.” Tue. 11 a.m. Free. Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 436-5260. lajewishsymphony.com.


[FRI | NOV 30]

ISRAELI CHAMBER PROJECT

Winner of the 2011 Israeli Ministry of Culture’s outstanding ensemble award, the Israeli Chamber Project — featuring clarinetist Tibi Cziger, cellist Brook Speltz and pianist Assaff Weisman — perform selections by composers Max Bruch, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Catered artists reception included. Fri. 8 p.m. $65-$85. Doheny Mansion, Pompeian Room, 8 Chester Place, Los Angeles. (213) 477-2929. israelichamberproject.org.


[SAT | DEC 1]

Lewis Black

LEWIS BLACK 

He yells so you don’t have to. Best-known for his curmudgeonly commentaries on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” Black returns to SoCal with more social and political rants. Sat. 8 p.m. $39.50-$49.50. Terrace Theater, Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. (800) 745-3000. ticketmaster.com.

 


[SUN | DEC 2]

“THE GUYS AND DOLLS OF BROADWAY AND THE SHOWS THAT MADE THEM FAMOUS”

Musical troupe The Great Broadway Sing-Along performs show tunes and trivia from the Great White Way’s biggest shows, including “Gypsy,” “Hair,” “Jersey Boys,” “Chicago,” “Cabaret,” “Mamma Mia,” “Lion King,” “South Pacific,” “West Side Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” Sun. 4 p.m. $25. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 476-9777. ajula.edu


[TUE | DEC 4]

GAD ELMALEH

Known as the Jerry Seinfeld of French comedy, Elmaleh appears at Largo for back-to-back nights. Born in Casablanca, the Sephardi comedian was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by France’s minister of culture in 2006, and he was voted the funniest person in France in 2007. As an actor, he’s appeared in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” and voiced Ben Salaad in Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin.” Tue. Through Dec. 5. 8 p.m. $60. Largo at the Coronet, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 855-0350. largo-la.com.


[THU | DEC 13]

CALVIN TRILLIN

Contributor to The New Yorker, Time and The Nation, Trillin appears in conversation with stand-up comedy icon Paula Poundstone. Renowned for his food writing, political poetry and comic novels, Trillin examines the 2012 presidential campaign in his forthcoming book of political limericks, “Dogfight: The 2012 Presidential Campaign in Verse.” Thu. 7:30 p.m. $20. Writers Guild Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. writersblocpresents.com.

ZUBIN MEHTA 50th ANNIVERSARY CONCERT

Celebrating 50 years since he was named music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, world-renowned maestro Mehta conducts the L.A. Phil in a performance of Mozart’s Overture to Don Giovanni, Hindemith’s Symphony: Mathis der Maler and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s music director for life, Mehta has demonstrated solidarity with the Jewish state throughout his celebrated career. Through Dec. 16. Thu. 8 p.m. $54.50-$187. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown. (323) 850-2000. laphil.com.


[FRI | DEC 14]

HARRY SHEARER AND JUDITH OWEN

Actor-satirist Shearer (KCRW’s “Le Show,” “The Simpsons”) and his singer-songwriter wife, Owen, host “An Evening of Holiday Music and Mirth,” which began as an annual gathering for family and friends but soon grew too large to host at the couple’s home. Mixing traditional and nontraditional holiday music, the public performances have drawn such celebrity guests as Jane Lynch (“Glee”), Weird Al Yankovic and Shearer collaborator Christopher Guest. Who knows who will turn up this year? Fri. 8 p.m. $50. Largo at the Coronet, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 855-0350. largo-la.com.


[SUN | DEC 16]

DAVE KOZ & KENNY LOGGINS

The Grammy-nominated saxophonist appears in concert with singer-songwriter Kenny Loggins, whose hits include “Celebrate Me Home,” “This Is It,” “I’m Alright” and “Footloose.” The pair perform holiday standards for 94.7 The Wave’s Christmas Concert. Raised in a household that celebrated Chanukah, Koz embraces Christmas the way many Jewish musicians do — through song. Sun. 7:30 p.m. $49.50-$124.50. Nokia Theatre at L.A. Live, 777 Chick Hearn Court, downtown. (213) 763-6030. nokiatheatrelalive.com.


[SUN | DEC 23]

“CHRISTMAS TIME FOR THE JEWS”

Comedian Eric Schwartz (aka Smooth-E) performs at Flappers Comedy Club’s night of holiday laughs. Known for high-energy blends of stand-up, music and video, Schwartz puts wacky, Jewy spins on popular hip-hop songs (“Honika Electronica,” “Hanukkah Hey Ya” and “Crank That Kosher Boy”). Sun. 7 p.m. $15. Flappers Comedy Club, 102 E. Magnolia St., Burbank. (818) 845-9721. flapperscomedy.com.


[FRI | DEC 28]

“QUARTET” 

Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman makes his directorial debut with this comic film starring Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon and Billy Connolly. Set in a home for retired opera singers, an annual charity concert to celebrate composer Verdi’s birthday is disrupted by the arrival of Jean, an eternal diva and a resident’s ex-wife. As old grudges re-emerge, it becomes apparent that having four of the finest operatic singers under one roof is no guarantee that the show will go on. Fri. Various times, prices and locations. bbc.co.uk/bbcfilms/film/quartet.


[MON | DEC 31]

NEW YEAR’S EVE WITH IDINA MENZEL 

The Tony Award-winning actress (“Wicked”), singer and songwriter rings in the New Year with two performances of her new live show. A Long Island native, Menzel has come a long way since summers in the Catskills: She performed at the White House for a PBS special and has had a recurring guest spot on the hit television show “Glee.” Mon. 7 p.m., 10:30 p.m. $68.50-$191. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown. (323) 850-2000. laphil.com.

High Holy Day services guide: Alternative services


For other services, visit our ” target=”_blank” title=”Family”>Family, ” target=”_blank” title=”Kever Avot”>Kever Avot, ” target=”_blank” title=”Tashlich”>Tashlich calendars.

” target=”_blank” title=”metivta.org”>metivta.org.

COMMUNITY HIGH HOLY DAYS
Sun. 7:30 p.m. Free. Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 653-7420. ” target=”_blank” title=”estherleon.com”>estherleon.com.

DAYS OF AWESOME
Jewlicious’ nontraditional, interactive High Holiday experience. For young professionals (20s and 30s). Mon. 9:30 a.m. Free (reservations recommended). Hillel Harkam Academy, 9120 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 277-5544. ” target=”_blank” title=”sholem.org”>sholem.org.

THE WALKING STICK
The scenic foothills of Simi Peak just outside of Thousand Oaks provide the backdrop, and author and singer-songwriter Rabbi Miriam Maron and author Rabbi Gershon Winkler incorporate ancient wisdom, spirited chant, entrancing movement, joyful celebration, and shamanic ceremony (completely Jewish-based). Childcare available. Mon. 1 p.m. Donation requested: $50 (RSVP required). Private home, 2000 Upper Ranch Road, Thousand Oaks. (805) 795-2996. ” target=”_blank” title=”nashuva.com”>nashuva.com

METIVTA
Chant and meditation service. Tue. 10 a.m. $50 (includes today’s service only). Olympic Collection, 11301 Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (818) 654-9293. TUE SEPT 25 — KOL NIDRE

DAYS OF AWESOME
Jewlicious’ nontraditional, interactive High Holiday experience. For young professionals (20s and 30s). Tue. 6 p.m. Free (reservations recommended). Hillel Harkam Academy, 9120 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 277-5544.” target=”_blank” title=”sholem.org”>sholem.org.

THE WALKING STICK
The scenic foothills of Simi Peak just outside of Thousand Oaks provide the backdrop, and author and singer-songwriter Rabbi Miriam Maron and author Rabbi Gershon Winkler incorporate ancient wisdom, spirited chant, entrancing movement, joyful celebration and shamanic ceremony (completely Jewish-based). Childcare available. Tue. 7 p.m. Donation requested: $50, (Kol Nidre only). $100 (Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur). RSVP required. Private home, 2000 Upper Ranch Road, Thousand Oaks. (805) 795-2996. ” target=”_blank” title=”estherleon.com”>estherleon.com.


WED SEPT 26 — YOM KIPPUR

COMMUNITY HIGH HOLY DAYS
Wed. 9:30 a.m.  Free. Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 653-7420. “>jconnectla.com.

THE WALKING STICK
The scenic foothills of Simi Peak just outside of Thousand Oaks provide the backdrop, and author and singer-songwriter Rabbi Miriam Maron and author Rabbi Gershon Winkler incorporate ancient wisdom, spirited chant, entrancing movement, joyful celebration and shamanic ceremony (completely Jewish-based). Childcare available. Wed. 1 p.m.-sundown. Donation requested: $75 (Yom Kippur only). $100 (Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur). RSVP required. Private home, 2000 Upper Ranch Road, Thousand Oaks. (805) 795-2996. calendar@jewishjournal.com.

High Holy Day services guide: College services


For other services, visit our ” target=”_blank” title=”Family”>Family, ” target=”_blank” title=”Kever Avot”>Kever Avot, ” target=”_blank” title=”Tashlich”>Tashlich calendars.

” target=”_blank” title=”uschillel.org”>uschillel.org.

CHABAD HOUSE AT CSUN
All Valley-based college students welcome. Sun. Candle-lighting time (6:39 p.m.). Free (students, includes meal). Chabad House at CSUN, 17833 Prairie St., Northridge. (818) 885-5770. ” target=”_blank” title=”uclahillel.org”>uclahillel.org.

UNIVERSITY SYNAGOGUE
College/grad students granted free admission to all-ages service. Must show valid school ID. Sun. 7:30 p.m. Free (advance registration required). University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 472-1255.  ” target=”_blank” title=”tioh.org”>tioh.org.


MON SEPT 17 — ROSH HASHANAH (FIRST DAY)

HILLEL AT UCLA
Students must show university ID. Mon. Traditional egalitarian: 9 a.m., Orthodox: 9:15 a.m., 6:40 p.m.; Reform: 9:30 a.m. Free (UCLA students, RSVP required). Hillel at UCLA, 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-3081, ext. 213. ” target=”_blank” title=”uschillel.org”>uschillel.org.

CHABAD HOUSE AT CSUN
All Valley-based college students welcome. Mon. 10 a.m. Free (students, includes meal). Chabad House at CSUN, 17833 Prairie St., Northridge. (818) 885-5770. ” target=”_blank” title=”unisyn.org”>unisyn.org.

TEMPLE ISRAEL OF HOLLYWOOD
Students/Birthright Israel alumni granted free admission to all-ages service. Student ID/dates of Birthright trip and name of trip provider required. Mon. 10:15 a.m. (Sanctuary service, Minyan service). Free (advance registration required). Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 876-8330. ” target=”_blank” title=”uclahillel.org”>uclahillel.org.

CHABAD HOUSE AT CSUN
All Valley-based college students welcome. Tue. 10 a.m. Free (students, includes meal). Chabad House at CSUN, 17833 Prairie St., Northridge. (818) 885-5770. ” target=”_blank” title=”uschillel.org”>uschillel.org.


TUE SEPT 25 — KOL NIDRE

HILLEL AT UCLA
Students must show university ID. Tue. Traditional egalitarian: 6:15 p.m.; Orthodox, Reform: 6:30 p.m. Free (UCLA students, RSVP required). Hillel at UCLA, 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-3081, ext. 213. ” target=”_blank” title=”chabadcsun.com”>chabadcsun.com.

USC HILLEL
Hillel invites USC students to celebrate the High Holy Days. Tue. 6:45 p.m. $18 (single-service ticket), $72 (all-services ticket). USC Hillel, 3300 S. Hoover St., Los Angeles. (213) 747-9135. ” target=”_blank” title=”unisyn.org”>unisyn.org.

TEMPLE ISRAEL OF HOLLYWOOD
Students/Birthright Israel alumni granted free admission to all-ages service. Student ID/dates of Birthright trip and name of trip provider required. Tue. 8 p.m. Free (advance registration required). Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 876-8330.” target=”_blank” title=”uclahillel.org”>uclahillel.org.

USC HILLEL
Hillel invites USC students to celebrate the High Holy Days. Wed. 9:30 a.m. (yizkor at 12:30 p.m. $18 (single-service ticket), $72 (all-services ticket). USC Hillel, 3300 S. Hoover St., Los Angeles. (213) 747-9135. ” target=”_blank” title=”chabadcsun.com”>chabadcsun.com.

UNIVERSITY SYNAGOGUE
College/grad students granted free admission to all-ages service. Must show valid school ID. Wed. 10 a.m. (morning service), 3:30 p.m/ (afternoon, memorial and concluding services). University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 472-1255. ” target=”_blank” title=”tioh.org”>tioh.org.

Are we missing a service? E-mail us at calendar@jewishjournal.com.

High Holy Day services guide: Family services


For other services, visit our ” target=”_blank” title=”College”>College, ” target=”_blank” title=”Kever Avot”>Kever Avot, ” target=”_blank” title=”Tashlich”>Tashlich calendars.

” target=”_blank” title=”zimmermuseum.org”>zimmermuseum.org

TEMPLE AHAVAT SHALOM
Geared toward families with young children (8 and under), this hour-long service offers opportunities for children and adults alike to join in both traditional and contemporary song and prayer while sharing in stories and special Torah readings reflecting the mood of the season. Sun. 6-7 p.m. Free. Temple Ahavat Shalom, Sanctuary, 18200 Rinaldi Place, Northridge. RSVP to (818) 360-2258. ” target=”_blank” title=”tasnorthridge.org”>tasnorthridge.org.

TEMPLE ISRAEL OF HOLLYWOOD
Toddlers through second-graders. Mon. 8:30 a.m. Free (no tickets required). Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 876-8330. ” target=”_blank” title=”adatariel.org”>adatariel.org.

IKAR
The progressive egalitarian community holds family services for parents and children (2-year-olds to first-graders). Mon. 9-9:45 a.m. Free (parent must show ID). Westside Jewish Community Center, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870. ” target=”_blank” title=”bcc-la.org”>bcc-la.org.

SHOMREI TORAH SYNAGOGUE
For families – especially those with third- to seventh-graders — this service will feature a full band, interactive stories, high-energy music and inclusive participation. Led by Rabbi Erez Sherman. Babysitting available for children 2 to 5. Mon. 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Free. Pomelo Elementary School, 7633 March Ave., West Hills. (818) 346-0811. ” target=”_blank” title=”sholem.org”>sholem.org.

TEMPLE EMANUEL
Tot service (toddlers and pre-schoolers). Mon. 11-11:30 a.m. Free. Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. (310) 274-6388. ” target=”_blank” title=”bethshirshalom.org”>bethshirshalom.org.

UNIVERSITY SYNAGOGUE
For younger children. Mon. 1:30 p.m. Free (tickets and registration required). University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 472-1255. ” target=”_blank” title=”leobaecktemple.org”>leobaecktemple.org.

TEMPLE KOL TIKVAH
Mon. 2 p.m. Free. Temple Kol Tikvah, 20400 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 348-0670. ” target=”_blank” title=”adatelohim.org”>adatelohim.org.

TEMPLE JUDEA
Mon. 3:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. Free. Temple Judea, 5429 Lindley Ave., Tarzana. (818) 758-3800. “>wisela.org.


TUE SEPT 18 — ROSH HASHANAH (SECOND DAY)

IKAR
The progressive egalitarian community holds family services for parents and children (2-year-olds to first-graders). Parents are encouraged to attend with their children. Tue. 9-9:45 a.m. Free (parent must show ID). Westside Jewish Community Center, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870. TUE SEPT 25 — KOL NIDRE

TEMPLE AHAVAT SHALOM
Geared toward families with young children (8-and-under), this hour-long service offers opportunities for children and adults alike to join in both traditional and contemporary song and prayer while sharing in stories and special Torah readings reflective of the mood of the season. Tue. 6-7 p.m. Free. Temple Ahavat Shalom, Sanctuary, 18200 Rinaldi Place, Northridge. (818) 360-2258. ” target=”_blank” title=”tasnorthridge.org”>tasnorthridge.org.

TEMPLE ISRAEL OF HOLLYWOOD
Toddlers through second-graders. Wed. 8:30 a.m. Free (no tickets required). Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 876-8330. ” target=”_blank” title=”adatariel.org”>adatariel.org.

IKAR
The progressive egalitarian community holds family services for parents and children (2-year-olds to first-graders). Parents are encouraged to attend with their children. Wed. 9-9:45 a.m. Free (parent must show ID). Westside Jewish Community Center, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870. ” target=”_blank” title=”stsonline.org”>stsonline.org.

BETH CHAYIM CHADASHIM
BCC education director Leah Zimmerman leads this service for parents and their kids (ages 1-12). Wed. 11 a.m. Free. Temple Isaiah, 10345 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 931-7023. ” target=”_blank” title=”tebh.org”>tebh.org.

UNIVERSITY SYNAGOGUE
For younger children. Wed. 1:30 p.m. Free (tickets and registration required). University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 472-1255. ” target=”_blank” title=”bethshirshalom.org”>bethshirshalom.org.

TEMPLE KOL TIKVAH
Wed. 2 p.m., 4 p.m. (afternoon service), 5:15 p.m. (Yizkor/Neilah). Free. Temple Kol Tikvah, 20400 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 348-0670. ” target=”_blank” title=”leobaecktemple.org”>leobaecktemple.org.

TEMPLE ADAT ELOHIM
For parents who want to attend High Holy Days services with their young children (preschoolers to second-graders; older siblings permitted), this 30-minute service is for you. Wed. 3-3:30 p.m. Free. Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. (805) 497-7101. ” target=”_blank” title=”templejudea.com”>templejudea.com.

STEPHEN S. WISE TEMPLE
Join Stephen S. Wise for this service designed for children (birth to age 6) and their families. Stephen S. Wise Temple Clergy will lead this musical and age-appropriate service, so that families can celebrate Yom Kippur together. Wed. 4 p.m. Free (no tickets required). Skirball Cultural Center, Magnin Auditorium, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 889-2383. “>wisela.org.

Are we missing a service? E-mail us at calendar@jewishjournal.com.

Palestinians flock to Jerusalem as Israeli restrictions eased


Israel has unexpectedly eased restrictions on Palestinians looking to visit Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, saying improved security meant it could let in thousands more from the West Bank.

Israeli officials said on Wednesday they had lowered the age limit for men wanting to visit al-Aqsa mosque in the old city to 40 from 50 and had also handed out seven times more permits to Palestinians between the ages of 35 and 40.

Religious authorities said up to half a million people visited the third holiest site in Islam on Tuesday night, many of them from the nearby West Bank, as visitors and pilgrims flowed through the checkpoints on Jerusalem’s Eastern flanks.

“I’m rejoicing and so happy to be in Jerusalem after 10 years of not visiting,” said 42-year-old Mohammed Rashid, from the West Bank town of Yatta, sipping a midnight coffee in a brightly lit old city arcade.

The Israeli Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories’ (COGAT) said that whereas last Ramadan it had handed out just 16,700 entry permits, this year it had distributed 123,514, and had also slashed the age limit.

A COGAT spokesman said the change was “due to the security situation”, adding that Israel wanted “to support and strengthen the economy and allow Palestinian’s freedom of religious worship in the maximum”.

However, the new rules only apply for the last few days of Ramadan, after which the old restrictions come back into force. “Why am I allowed in now, but next week I’m not?” Rashid asked.

The Old City’s stone streets, normally echoing caverns hinting at isolation and hard economic times by night, were a thick flow of pilgrims on Tuesday night, coursing past stalls of traditional cross-stitched dresses, prayer beads, spices and sweets.

“It’s not a question of the number of permits, but why permits are needed at all,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s executive committee.

Israel imposed a network of checkpoints and built a broad separation barrier across the West Bank after the eruption of Palestinian uprising beginning in 2000, preventing most West Bankers from entering the country.

Over 1,000 Israelis and several thousand Palestinians died in the violence which petered out mid way through the decade.

Reporting By Noah Browning

Santa Monica nativity ban hits menorahs, too


The Santa Monica City Council has banned all future nativity, anti-nativity and Chanukah displays at the oceanfront Palisades Park. The 5-0 vote on June 12 ends a nearly 60-year winter tradition.

The religious displays have been the subject of controversy in recent years, with friction rising between religious groups and atheists. Historically, these displays have mostly been Christian, with Chanukah displays appearing in more recent years. Atheist community members made a formal complaint in December 2010 objecting to religious symbols being displayed on public property.

The result was that in June 2011, the seasonal display places were put up for a lottery. Of the 21 plots given out, 18 were won by atheists, two by Christian groups and one by Rabbi Isaac Levitansky of Santa Monica’s Chabad. The atheist displays that went up later that year expressed anti-religious sentiments, causing further complaints from a Christian group, the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee.

The Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce started the nativity tradition in 1953 to attract more visitors to the area. This year visitors will have to do without.

Levitansky, who organized the only Jewish display in Palisades Park, says he’s disappointed with the decision.

“I feel bad that the city council and the city attorney could not find a medium to have the displays in public,” he said.

But Levitansky says the ban won’t deter him from promoting his religion.

“We will be putting around 60 public menorahs around Simcha Monica,” he said, “and if one goes down, two will go up.”

Rabbi Jeff Marx of the Reform Santa Monica synagogue Sha’arei Am says religious displays should stay on religious property.

“Religious displays make sense to be on religious property,” he said. “I would put it in our parking lot, as I wouldn’t expect the city to host our symbols.”

Marx also says menorahs have deep religious meaning, and are not meant to be cultural.

“There’s nothing traditional about a having 17-foot menorah in public. It’s unnecessary; these symbols belong in our homes,” he said.

Even as the city council was creating the ban, the Santa Monica Nativity Scenes Committee, a coalition that includes 13 churches and the Santa Monica Police Officers Association, submitted a petition with 1,721 names, requesting that the ban be rescinded.

Karen Ginsberg, director of Santa Monica’s Community Recreation Division, which had allocated spaces for the displays, says the ban on unattended private displays will apply to all of Santa Monica’s parks, and will allow the city to continue to be religiously impartial.

“Under the first amendment, we cannot favor one religion over another, or one religious display over another,” she said. “This ban will help normalize the rules for all of our parks.”

PASSOVER AND SHAVUOT: What’s the Question? What’s the Answer?


Unlike other Jewish holidays, the Torah does not specify a date for Shavuot; it is celebrated on the 50th day (seven weeks) after Passover. We moderns celebrate Shavuot on the 6th day of the month of Sivan; in ancient times, when the first day of every month was declared only when the new moon was first seen, the holiday could have been celebrated on the 5th, 6th or 7th day of Sivan.

Equally strange, the actual date on which the Torah was given is not mentioned anywhere in the Bible! We know more or less when it was, but no exact date is given. This is true even though the dates of many other events, all surely of far lesser importance, are written explicitly in the Torah.

And while we consider the focus of Shavuot to be the giving of the Torah, it is never referred to as such in the Bible. The holiday has a few names, but none connected to its most important theme.

We don’t even know the exact place where God gave the Torah; at least for the past two millennia, it has been completely unknown and none of the three contenders we have for Mount Sinai is the right place.  According to Jewish tradition, Mount Sinai was not a high mountain. Those who believe that it was one of the highest spots in the Sinai Peninsula, thinking that a tall mountain is closer to God, seem to have slightly pagan ideas.

So there are three mysteries: why doesn’t Shavuot have a date of its own? Why is it not explicitly connected to the Ten Commandments and the giving of the Law? And why don’t we even know where the Torah was given?  Commemorated by a holiday seemingly disconnected from the event, the Israelites received this most sacred text on a date and on a site that are only vaguely known to us.

One way to understand this phenomenon is to consider the idea that the giving of the Torah is not a moment that belongs to the world in its natural run. It is, instead, a transcendental event and cannot be put within the boundaries, lists and timetables of everyday life.

Possible analogies are the mathematical concepts of irrational and transcendental numbers. Even though one can give an approximate measure of such numbers, they cannot be defined as part of the world of ordinary numbers. In a way, irrational and transcendental numbers pass through the field of ordinary numbers – without ever touching them. Similarly, one may say that the giving of the Torah is not a part of the normal existence of this world; it cannot be treated with the same terms and measurements and one can assume with certainty that no traces of this earthshaking event will be found in the rocks of Sinai or anywhere else. Thus, because the giving of the Torah is an act that does not belong to this world, it does not have a precise time or place. That is why the Torah was given in a desert, in what can be called “no man’s land:” the moment does not belong to the political realm and is not a part of any historical construct. That moment at Sinai is an event completely outside time and space, and from a different dimension altogether.

The counting of fifty days between Passover and Shavuot points to their internal connection. Shavuot can be defined as the conclusion of the holiday of Passover, which is what it indeed is. Passover is the redemption from slavery and the beginning of our formation into a new, national entity. But the identity of the new nation that was formed as it left Egypt was still in question. The Israelites – just like many contemporary Jews – had a fuzzy notion that they were somehow connected with each other, but they had no idea what that connection meant.

The relationship of Passover and Shavuot, then, is like the relationship between a question and an answer. Passover is the question, as reflected in the most famous question asked on the Seder night: now that we have our freedom, what do we do with it? And the holiday of Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah, is the answer. Indeed, it is more than an answer: it is also the creation of a nation that becomes the vehicle for holding, safeguarding and transmitting the Torah. Thus these two holidays, which are joined together by the counting of those 50 days, form a full metaphysical sentence that is made up of a question and an answer.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has written over 60 books and hundreds of articles on the Talmud, Kabbalah and Chasidut.  His works have been translated into English, Russian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, Italian, Chinese and Japanese.  Rabbi Steinsaltz completed a monumental 45 volume translation and commentary on the Talmud in Hebrew.  This historic achievement launched the Global Day of Jewish Learning which continues for a 3rd annual international event on November 18.  The Steinsaltz English edition of the Koren Talmud Bavli will also be released on May 22nd.

Pesach 5772: Lessons my grandfather taught me


Every Passover, as I sit with my family at our seder, I inevitably think of my paternal grandfather, after whom I was named. I never met him. He died five years before I was born, and I was born on the anniversary of his burial. But from earliest childhood, I felt that my grandfather was present, teaching me the values that helped shape my life.

My grandfather was an outstanding Torah scholar. He was ordained at the famous Slobodka Yeshiva in Lithuania before immigrating to the United States with his parents and siblings around 1910. He served as a rabbi in Chicago, where he was respected as one of the city’s leading Torah scholars. He was a prolific author who published widely in Torah journals, and co-founder of the Chicago yeshiva Hebrew Theological College.

One of the most important aspects of my grandfather’s legacy is a lesson I discuss at our seder. My grandfather had a tremendous commitment to religious Zionism that affected my family and inspired my late father and his siblings. Israel was so important in my grandfather’s life that, during the 1920s, he purchased a parcel of land in the N’Vai Yaakov section in northern Jerusalem. At that time, the Religious Zionist Mizrachi movement had built a synagogue in N’Vai Yaakov, and I guess my grandfather thought that this would be a good place to settle if he moved to Israel.

Although he never was able to realize this dream, he gave my parents the deed to that parcel of land when they attempted aliyah in 1949. Unfortunately, they soon found out that north Jerusalem was under Jordanian occupation, and at that point in time their deed was worthless. After the Six-Day War, my grandmother tried to validate her deed, but this time the State of Israel itself intervened. Under the power of eminent domain, it had claimed the land for an army base. My grandmother received a little compensation but not the ownership of my grandfather’s dream.

I recall this story every year when we reach the section in the haggadah that recounts how the five great sages, Rabbi Akiva among them, were so engrossed in their discussion of the Exodus story that they needed to be reminded by their students that the night had passed and it was time to recite the morning Shema. My grandfather, in his commentary on the Bible, Hadat V’Hachayim, noted that the Shema contains an important message that should not be lost on the reader. In the second paragraph, it begins in the plural with the words, “And you [plural] are to teach them to your sons and speak of them.” But suddenly, in midstream, the verse turns to the singular form and declares, “when you sit at home, and when you journey on the road, and when you go to sleep, and when you rise.”

Why the switch? My grandfather answered that the verse reflects the reality of Jewish education. On the one hand, the verse begins with the plural, representing the community’s responsibility to ensure that educational institutions exist in a community. So important is this aspect of communal life that the Talmud powerfully warns every community not to fail in this realm: “And Reish Lakish said to Rabbi Yehudah Nesiah, ‘I have received the following tradition from my fathers … Any town in which there are no schoolchildren studying Torah is eventually destroyed.’ Ravina said: ‘It is eventually annihilated’ ” (Shabbat 119b).

But the community is only one partner in education. The Torah switches from plural to singular to tell us that the other partner must be the parent. Each Jew must be an educator. The community can build wonderful educational institutions, but it can’t by itself instill the love of our heritage, and in particular the love of Israel. Parents must impart to their children the stories that will create the bond between them and the Land of Israel and they must encourage direct involvement in helping Israel.

If we supplement the community’s job of instilling the love of Israel with parental involvement, we will impart the emotional connection that is needed. My grandfather taught me that lesson many years before I was even born, and it still resonates with my family to this very day.

At Passover, let my people go south


Passover celebrates the Exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, their wandering in the desert for 40 years, and their ultimate deliverance to the Promised Land.

But a contemporary observer might be forgiven for imagining the holiday marks a different sort of migration: Large numbers of American Jews making their annual pilgrimage from cool northern climes to southern tropics, and from major metropolitan centers to the country, in advance of one of the most celebrated Jewish observances of the year.

For decades, a dedicated — and apparently growing — cohort of Jewish families has seen Passover as an opportunity to escape not from slavery but from crummy weather, kitchen drudgery and endless house cleaning, finding their salvation in gourmet kosher vacations on white-sand beaches in Miami or Aruba. Dozens of programs around the world are now offering fully catered, kosher-for-Passover vacations at top vacation destinations, saving families the hassle and headache of ridding their homes of leavened products and preparing a succession of lavish meals for friends and relatives.

This year, Passover is being observed by visitors at beachfront hotels in Miami; on a Caribbean cruise; along the canals in Venice, Italy; at an eco-resort in Costa Rica; at an exclusive getaway in Phuket, Thailand; and steps from Niagara Falls. There are programs in Ixtapa, Mexico; Sardinia, Italy; Marbella, Spain; and the south of France.

Those of a less adventurous spirit hit the Jersey Shore, the tried-and-true kosher hotels of the Catskill Mountains and the more corporate-style hotels in Connecticut and upstate New York. And that’s not counting Israel, where virtually every city offers multiple options for the Passover traveler.

“This year has probably been the biggest year we’ve ever had,” said Laurie van Esschoten, owner of the Ontario Travel Bureau in California, a travel agency that books Passover vacations to dozens of destinations. “It looks to me like people are getting back to the idea of traveling. It’s really been phenomenal for us.”

Passover vacations have existed as long as there have been kosher hotels. For decades, the Catskills in New York state and Miami Beach were the two prime destinations. But beginning in the early 1990s, operators began to expand their offerings — Puerto Rico, Arizona, Aruba and more became the sites of fully kosher Passover programs featuring noted speakers, entertainment, children’s programs and day trips, not to mention the ever-popular 24-hour tearooms.

With the proliferation of offerings, van Esschoten has become something of a Passover consultant, helping arrange travel and other logistics for Passover travelers but also guiding them through a bewildering array of options to a venue appropriate to their needs — particularly with respect to religious nuances.

The programs are generally geared toward an Orthodox clientele, with traditional gender-segregated prayer and high standards of kashrut. But there’s a range of observance within those parameters, and van Esschoten can divine the subtle clues that hint at the particular shade of Orthodoxy at each destination.

“The most important thing is, I’m checking to see if they’re going to have separate swimming,” she said. “Some of the more modern programs do have separate swimming, but only at certain times of day. If it’s not a complete hotel takeover, that might not be possible.”

Families who succeed in identifying the right program often return year after year. And once they become accustomed to outsourcing their Passover preparations, the habit becomes hard to break. Tour operators say their repeat business each year can be upward of 70 percent.

“This population is pretty much addicted to going away for Passover,” said Stuart Vidockler, who runs Presidential Kosher Holidays.

The typical Passover traveler is generally Orthodox, lives in a major Jewish center in the northern United States (though the programs boast they draw customers from around the world) and is relatively affluent. The price tag for the programs is not for the faint of heart, generally starting at about $2,500 per person based on double occupancy for 10 days.

Presidential is operating three programs this year — in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Aventura, Fla.; and on the Mayan Riviera in Mexico — that aim for the higher end of an already high-end market, with five-star resorts featuring championship golf courses, multiple swimming pools and other luxury amenities.

At the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach — one of the largest, oldest and best-known Passover destinations in the country — prices begin at more than $4,000 per person. A two-bedroom suite in the hotel’s Versailles Building will set you back about $10,000, not including a 25 percent surcharge for tips and taxes. For families traveling with children and grandparents, total travel costs can easily run into the tens of thousands.

There are less expensive — and often colder — options as well. Among the most affordable is the Stamford Plaza hotel in Connecticut, which runs over $2,000 per person (average April high temperature: 63). Ten days in Aruba starts at $3,299, but that doesn’t include airfare, which minimally adds another $500 per person for flights from the New York area.

Perhaps not surprisingly, industry insiders say a challenging economic climate — and especially the collapse in the financial services sector in 2009 — has had a dramatic effect on business, leading to the collapse of some companies.

In 2009, Lasko Family Kosher Tours, operators of the popular Fontainebleau program, was sued for failing to pay more than $200,000 to one of its suppliers. A federal judge ruled against the company, requiring Lasko to make payments of $120,000.

Sam Lasko declined to discuss his company’s finances. But this year, the company is operating under a new name, Lasko Kosher Getaways, and is operating only two programs, in Miami and Orlando, down from seven in 2009, when it ran programs in Nevada; Arizona; and Westchester County, N.Y.

“Passover 2009 was the worst year,” Vidockler said. “About half the operators went out of business. Customers disappeared. We probably had a 20 percent decrease.”

For those who would otherwise be cleaning their homes and spending endless hours preparing meals, the appeal of Passover vacations isn’t hard to understand. But with restrictions on travel and electricity use mandated by Orthodox observance of the holidays, they can also become confining — and a bit boring.

“There’s nowhere to go,” said Lisa Rubenstein, who grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and goes away for Passover with her family almost every year. “It’s what I imagine a cruise to be. You can’t leave. There’s always some food happening in the dining room. It’s always teatime, snack time, dinner’s being served, whatever. And you’re seeing old people from your synagogue in bathing suits — you know, people you don’t want to see in bathing suits.”

Program organizers go to great lengths to pepper their itineraries with diversions. Jewish scholars are flown in to deliver lectures. Bands, comedians, mentalists, magicians and more provide entertainment. Some programs feature well-known cantors leading services and seders. The Chasidic reggae star Matisyahu performed at several Passover destinations before his celebrity profile outgrew them.

But veterans of Passover programs almost uniformly agree — it’s all about the food.

“The eating situation in general, I think back on it as pretty gluttonous,” said Jack Steinberg, who has gone away for Passover with his family about a half-dozen times. “The food is a really major aspect of the whole event. There are people storming the cafeteria the moment that it opens.”

Ellen Weiss, who also has been on numerous programs at various destinations and describes their cost as “an insane, sick amount of money,” has had more mixed experiences. At a Florida hotel one year, she enjoyed a private beach and an extremely solicitous staff. Another year, in New York, the crowd was pushy and impolite.

It was also more religious than Weiss would have liked. One gentleman upbraided her for not dressing with sufficient modesty.

“He wondered why I was wasn’t wearing stockings,” Weiss recalled. “I said, ‘Well, why are you looking at my feet?’ ”

Jewish-Japanese seder honors Boyle Heights history


Tess Friedman passes Ethel Kamiyama a bowl of charoset, and Kamiyama spreads a spoonful of the fruit and nut paste onto her shard of matzah. Kamiyama leans over her plate as the small sandwich crumbles at her bite, and nods at Friedman, signaling that she finds this foray into Jewish culture quite tasty.

Friedman and Kamiyama, along with around 70 other senior citizens, enjoyed a seder together at Keiro Senior HealthCare in Boyle Heights on April 2.

Keiro, a residential facility for the elderly of the Japanese-American community, occupies the site that was the original home of The Jewish Home, and the seniors were together to mark The Jewish Home’s 100th anniversary.

In fact, the home was founded when the Boyle Heights community hosted a seder for five elderly men around 1911.

During Monday’s seder, Rabbi Anthony Elman, the Skirball Director of Spiritual Life at the Jewish Home, introduced the Keiro residents to the Exodus story and the symbols on the seder plate, and led the group in singing “Mah Nishtanah” and “Dayenu.”

Elman pointed out similarities between the two cultures — respect for the elderly, close-knit families, the importance of passing traditions from generation to generation, and a history of suffering.

“Today we are celebrating the season of our freedom,” Elman said. “In your community, you too have known the ugliness of bondage and internment, and of course the blessings of freedom.”

Hideyuki Watanabe, sitting at a table with two women from the Jewish Home, lived in three internment camps as an adolescent.

“But the persecution the Jews had was a lot worse,” he said, explaining that as a child he didn’t grasp the sense of betrayal his parents felt.  “We could sneak out. We didn’t get shot at if we left.”

Shawn Miyake, president and CEO of Keiro, said the Jewish Home and Keiro both grew out of a need to create institutions at a time when minorities were being excluded from the mainstream. Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, who grew up and still lives in Boyle Heights, attended the seder. He said inclusion is a point of pride in the neighborhood.

“One thing I know is we always welcomed everyone, no matter what part of the world you came from,” said Huizar, noting that Boyle Heights never had any restrictive covenants limiting who could reside in the area.

Miyake said Keiro owes its existence to the Jewish Home.

Keiro purchased the site from the Jewish Home in 1974, but while Keiro was able to raise $400,000 for the down payment, it was left with nothing for operations, Miyake said. The Jewish Home board, which had already agreed to very favorable terms, voted to loan back $150,000 to Keiro and also left much of its equipment.

“We have such deep feelings for the Jewish Home. If not for the Jewish Home and all the things they did for us 50 years ago, we would not be here today,” Miyake said.

The Jewish Home grew out of the Hebrew Sheltering Society, which in 1911 began helping the community’s downtrodden — the homeless, the indigent and the elderly. It purchased a small house in Boyle Heights in 1912, and soon acquired more property. The home opened a larger branch in Reseda in 1962, but kept the Boyle Heights site open until it moved the rest of its residents in the early 1970s. By that time most Jews had left Boyle Heights, which had been the center of Jewish life in Los Angeles from the 1920s to the 1950s. Only a handful of Jews remain in the area today.

Miyake said most of the Japanese community has also moved out of the area to places like Gardena, Monterey Park and Orange County.

Keiro and the Jewish Home have hosted Japanese and Jewish New Year celebrations for each other in the past. Molly Forrest, director of the Jewish Home, says she and Miyake have a close working relationship, sharing best practices and discussing common challenges.

The Jewish legacy is still visible at Keiro.

A large Japanese koi pond graces the front of the Emil Brown Auditorium, an old brick building with Brown’s name, flanked by two Stars of David, engraved into a large stone ribbon above the arched façade.

Brown was the uncle of philanthropist Annette Shapiro, a board member at the Jewish Home, and she told the crowd that she remembers her grandfather, David Familian, celebrating his 60th birthday in the very room the seniors sat in for their seder.

A five-story building, The Mary Pickford Building, was named after actress Pickford made a donation to atone for an insensitive comment about Jews that she had made to Carmel Myers, a silent-screen actress and daughter of Sinai Temple’s Rabbi Isadore Myers, according to Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. Pickford hosted teas for the Jewish Home at her Pickfair Estate long after she became a recluse, and her foundation continues to support the home, Sass said.

The synagogue on the site was used for many years by a Japanese church, but was red-tagged after the 1987 Whittier Narrows Earthquake.

The Home was the last functioning Jewish institution in the area, though the nearby Breed Street Shul is now undergoing a revival as a multi-use facility for the Jewish community and the neighborhood. 

Joe Pavin, a Jewish Home resident who was at the seder, remembers High Holy Days at the Breed Street Shul. He grew up in Boyle Heights, and he said he had friends of Japanese-, Mexican-, Russian- and African-American descent, in addition to his Jewish friends.

Jewish Home resident Grace Friedman, 87, lived in a small duplex on Sheridan Street in Boyle Heights with her extended family until they moved west to the Fairfax area.

Today, she is back in Boyle Heights, and after the saltwater, matzah and wine are cleared away, caddies with soy sauce and chopsticks come out. The Keiro chef — who had once worked at a kosher restaurant — has prepared a celebratory bento box lunch and was careful not to include any shellfish or other ingredients that might clash with Jewish culture. Residents enjoy sushi, edamame, baked fish and rice out of black lacquered boxes.

Over lunch, the residents get to know one another. Several tables share stories of nieces, nephews or grandchildren who are in Jewish-Japanese marriages.

Watanabe, who came dressed for seder in a jacket and tie, his white hair combed into a perfect flat-top, says he hopes to be invited to the Jewish Home for a meal on Japanese New Year, something his flirtatious tablemates promise to make happen.

Kamiyama has taken some notes — how to spell seder and matzah, and contact information for her tablemates. She frets about the grape juice that has dripped onto her pad of paper, but is assured that wine stains are part of the Pesach tradition. And as she finishes up her bento box lunch, she keeps her hand on a few strips of matzah carefully wrapped in a napkin to take home for later.

How to make perfect matzah balls [VIDEO]


The tips in the video can be used with any recipe. However, if you’d like to include a Matzo Ball recipe, I’ve included one below:

Ingredients:

6 Eggs
1 cup Oil
1 cup Water
½ tsp Baking Powder
1 pinch Salt and Pepper
18 oz (or 500 gram) fine Matzo Meal

Directions:

1. Mix all the ingredients with a fork. Adding the matzo meal gradually until the mixture is thick but not too hard. Add more matzo meal if too soft.
2. Let harden in fridge for an hour.
3. With wet hands form into about 60 balls and drop into boiling water or boiling soup. Boil for 15 min.

Visit CookKosher.com for more kosher recipes.  Rate and review the matzah ball recipe here.
http://www.cookkosher.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=392&Itemid=2.

Seder can be splendid the second time around


Rabbi Stuart Rosenblatt, a suburban Washington spiritual leader, jokes that “The second night of Passover was invented because God knew there would be in-laws.”

The first seder may last late into the night as the ancient story is told, the questions are asked and the blessings recited. But when it is over—if you live outside of Israel—many will have an encore the next night.

In ancient times, before the days of a set calendar, a second seder was added to the celebration of Passover to ensure that Jews living outside of Jerusalem would get the notice in time that the holiday had begun.

In the modern world there is hardly any doubt over what day of the week that Passover falls or when to begin celebrating holidays. But Mark Leuchter, professor of Jewish studies at Temple University, says today there are more symbolic reasons for maintaining the tradition of preparing a seder on the second night of Passover.

“The second seder gives us an opportunity to affirm our identity as Jews in the diaspora,” Leuchter says. “It’s an affirmation of our ability to thrive outside Israel.”

While that may be so, is it still necessary to conduct a repeat performance of the first night?

Rosenblatt says that spending the second seder with different people either at home or by attending a community seder at a synagogue is one way to ensure that the evening is different from the previous one. He also suggests using a different Haggadah for the second seder to help bring out different aspects of the Passover story.

“The Haggadah we use today is not the one Moses and the Children of Israel used. It has evolved over time and is a product of centuries of innovation,” says Rosenblatt, of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md. Contributing commentary and fostering discussions is also encouraged, he said, adding that “whoever adds to the [Passover] story is to be praised.”

Jamie Jakobowitz appreciates the opportunity of having two seders in order to spend quality time with both her family and her husband’s. The suburban Philadelphia social worker doesn’t mind reciting the entire Haggadah again on the second night.

“As an adult I love it,” she says.

Jakobowitz does admit, however, that it can be “trying” to have her two small children sit through several hours of plagues and prayers two nights in a row.

To help families combat seder fatigue, the Union of Reform Judaism will host a one-hour webinar this month with suggestions for infusing some creativity into the Passover seder by adding new melodies, customs, questions and an interactive plague kit. The purpose, says the URJ’s Rabbi Rex Perlmutter, is to help people “go beyond the Haggadah” during the seder.

In addition, Cantor Alane Katzew, the worship and music specialist at the URJ, encourages activities for children at a seder such as performing skits and acting out scenes from the Haggadah, as well as incorporating a favorite song that can serve as a compliment to the traditional “Song of Songs.”

Families can also look to different cultural backdrops for ideas when making something as simple as the charoset, says Katzew. She recommends finding inspiration in the culture of Jews from places such as India, Italy or Morocco by using less traditional ingredients like bananas, cranberries, cloves and even different nuts in the dish.

“There are lots and lots of ways to be creative,” Katzew says. “Begin with your own passion and whatever it is that might have relevance to you and will help bring [you] forth from a personal Egypt.”

For Rabbi Michelle Greenberg, the second night of Passover has become a more intimate affair than the first evening. While she will attend the first seder with lots of friends and family, on the second night it is usually time saved for her father and stepmother. Together they recite all of the traditional Passover blessings before beginning a discussion on a theme like personal freedom or gratitude.

“We talk about our lives, but in the context of a seder,” says the Jewish educator from northern California. And over the years, the discussions have helped bring the family closer, she says, yet at the same time fulfilling the religious obligation of retelling the Passover story.

“We use the Haggadah and also our own lives,” Greenberg says. “Passover is all about the story, but writing one’s self into the story.”

Blot out the memory


Purim is every child’s dream holiday; the story is like a fairy tale. Little girls dress up like Esther; little boys like Mordechai. In synagogues around the world we chant the story from the Scroll of Esther and boo every time the evil Haman’s name appears. It is a wonderful children’s holiday.

But it is so much more.

As adults, we appreciate the delicious ironies of the story. First, that a king who has to issue an edict that all husbands must be obeyed ends up taking orders from his wife. Second, that the plans of Haman have the opposite effect: He is destroyed and the Jews are saved. It is the story of reversals — the vulnerable becoming the strong.

As adults, we recognize that this is a story about power, and about how people without direct power learn to make the system work for them. We read between the lines and discover a story about living in the Diaspora and how we sometimes have to dance around those who might hurt us. We notice how much we long for a story where the powerless become powerful.

As adults, we cringe at the image of a young girl in the king’s harem. It reminds us that sexual slavery continues into this day, in all the countries where we live.

And as adults, we notice how bloody the story is. The Jews defend themselves against the people who tried to slaughter them, and they end up slaughtering their enemies. In the end, the Jews are saved. Purim has a happy ending, but as adults, we remember all the other times when there was a different ending.

The Sabbath before Purim is called Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembering. We read:  “Remember what Amalek did to you on the road as you came out of Egypt—how he attacked all the stragglers in the rear, those who were famished and weary. … Therefore when the Lord gives you security from your enemies in the land that God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget.”

We read about Amalek on the Shabbat before Purim because Haman is a descendant of the tribe of Amalek. Jewish tradition suggests that Amalek will always have spiritual descendants:

“Remember … and blot out the memory. …  Do not forget.”

Remember and blot out—this is a strategy for healing from abuse. We learn from psychologists that victims of abuse need to first recover their memories of victimization, but at some point in the healing process, they need to blot out the power those memories have to control their lives. 

The command was never to blot out Amalek — just his memory. The command is to take rage and turn it to healing. The command is to blot out the memory of Amalek and, therefore, to blot out of ourselves the tendency to do to others what others have done to us.

Purim isn’t a children’s holiday. No, quite the contrary; it is the most grown-up of all of our holidays because it forces us to look at our dark side — the side that has been hurt, the side that is afraid, the side that wants to take revenge against those who have hurt us. Purim tells us that it is OK to have those feelings, to tell the story, even to celebrate the fantasy. But it reminds us not to act on the feelings of revenge.

Remember, and remember as well that the commandment is to blot out the memory of Amalek, not to blot out Amalek. There really are people in the world who will hurt other people. The mitzvah is to blot out the power they have to threaten the world. The mitzvah is not to take revenge, not to kill innocent people. The mitzvah is to do what we can to blot out the power of those who can do evil without letting the memory of our hurt lead us into easy answers.

At the end of the public reading of the story of Esther, we say a blessing: “Blessed are you, God, who takes up our grievance, judges our claim and avenges the wrongs against us. You bring retribution on our enemies and vengeance on our foes.”
This blessing reminds us, in very clear and direct terms, that vengeance should never be in our hands, but only in the hands of God.

Yes, we need to remember, but we also need to blot out the memory. We need to free ourselves from despair and darkness, and we need to find a way to bring light and joy and gladness and honor to everyone in the world.


Laura Geller is senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (tebh.org).

Make Yom Kippur national holiday, French presidential candidate says


The Green Party candidate for the French presidency has called for national holidays on Yom Kippur and the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

Green Party leader Eva Joly said in a speech Wednesday that she wanted, “Jews and Muslims to be able to celebrate Yom Kippur and Eid al-Adha during a day off,” so that “every religion is treated equally in the public space.”

Though national holidays are customary for Christian celebrations, the call made waves in France, where religion is expected to be kept private in a strictly secular society intended to be blind to race and religion.

“That is one way to look at secularism,” quipped the French daily Le Figaro in its regular news coverage of the story.  Reader on-line reactions also expressed shock at the idea, and political opponents on the right and left defended the country’s Christian-only holidays out of an “old tradition.”

In a similar vein, Joly, who is Norwegian and French, said she was in favor of the controversial use of national statistics showing standards of living for different ethnic groups.  The French government by law cannot conduct surveys on groups identified by their religion or ethnicity.

However, such surveys are, “a useful instrument to permit equal access to employment, health, housing, even political responsibility,” argued Joly.
“We have a Christian history, that led to a certain number of holidays in our calendar,” said Education Minister Laurent Wauquiez on French BFM TV.  “That doesn’t prevent having the greatest respect for all religions,” he added.