Beyond ‘the day’

When I began my work as a b’nai mitzvah teacher almost 25 years ago, I believed that it was all about the day. Everything I taught, every prayer or Torah verse the student studied, every reminder or nudge to study from the parent — it was all about the day.

In these last few years I’ve realized the folly of that belief. That’s not to say that the day isn’t important. It absolutely is. It will be remembered forever. Yes, the day is important, and hopefully it will be the beginning of the next stage of a young person’s Jewish life and mark the continuation of Jewish education. But if we only see the months of preparation as an end goal, and we don’t see all that those months have to offer our young people, then we are truly depriving them. It is during the journey to the bimah that we have the opportunity to help them become the adults we hope they will be.

It is an opportunity to teach or reinforce time management, self-discipline, responsibility, self-assessment, goal setting and the value of hard work. It is a time to teach the importance of communication — about what is difficult, challenging, frustrating, exciting.

It’s a time to teach the importance of asking for help (and how that can be a virtue rather than a sign of weakness). It’s a time to teach coping skills — how to deal with frustration, anxiety, “stage” fright. It’s a time to teach and reinforce problem-solving strategies–strategies that can be called upon during life’s journey.

And then, there are the most precious of the gifts.

The journey helps to build self-confidence, self-empowerment and belief in oneself. That is to say, the young person realizes (with our reminders) that because of hard work and determination, because of blood, sweat and perhaps an occasional tear, because of his or her efforts, a goal has been set and accomplished. With the support and guidance of teacher, clergy and parent, he or she will have achieved a goal, which for many (albeit not all) appeared insurmountable at first but because of his or her efforts that goal was achieved.

Along the way, it is our responsibility to remind the future Jewish adult to look back a week, a month or several months and say: “Look at how fluently you read that verse! Do you remember when you couldn’t get that first word and were ready to give up?” It is then that the Torah verses become a chain of prideful accomplishments.

It is our job to mine the journey of all it offers to our young people — to help them see its treasures — and in the end to remind them that the end came because there was a beginning filled with trepidation, anxiety, fear, awe, excitement and wonder, and because there was a middle filled perhaps with challenge and determination.

And afterwards let them remember that just as they set a goal and achieved it on the day they each became a Jewish adult in the eyes of their community, likewise they can meet every challenge they set for themselves. This is the gift of learning to believe in oneself.

Two students exemplify this lesson.

I had been preparing bar and bat mitzvah students for many years when I first met a new student, Justin. He was an endearing and bright boy with emotional and learning issues.

Justin had a great deal of anxiety about his capability, despite coming into the process knowing a number of the prayers. The Torah reading in particular felt undoable to him. After learning one aliyah, Justin balked at my suggestion that he could learn more.

On the day of his bar mitzvah, he led the congregation in prayer with a powerful and enthusiastic voice, and he chanted from the Torah (two aliyot in the end). Afterwards, as I mingled with the family and friends, one after another complimented me on my work and expressed their pleasant surprise at Justin’s accomplishments as well as his poise and comfort on the bimah. It was clear that this boy — young man — while surrounded by love, was also surrounded by doubt. He was being sold short, which no doubt explained his own lack of belief in himself.

I hoped that what he achieved leading up to and on that day would serve to remind him and others of who Justin really is and what he is capable of handling.

Another student, Mara, was told that she would likely not accomplish all that was expected. She was falling behind in her studies and making little progress. With some private lessons Mara was able to work past the blockage (and her anxiety) and push forward. As the date got closer she timidly asked whether it would be OK to chant a little less Torah or lead a few less prayers.

“Let’s just see what happens if you work hard,” I said.

In the end Mara did everything that was expected. Her parents and I reminded her of how far she had come and how much she was able to accomplish. Her father said that through this she learned to believe in herself.

I recently asked a friend what he gained from his bar mitzvah experience 25 years ago. He stated without hesitation that one of the greatest lessons he walked away with is confidence.

“It was probably one of my first great accomplishments in life and for the first time I understood the true meaning of pride,” he said.

He credited the year of preparation.

Yes, once the months of training and the day has ended; once the celebration has happened and the DJ has gone home; once the gifts have been opened, the cards have been read and the checks have been deposited, there remain the most important gifts.

If the preparation has been handled with care, if the tutor, rabbi, cantor and parents have done their jobs, this young adult will be moving onto the next leg of life’s journey with the most valuable gifts of all.

Jeff Bernhardt is a Jewish educator, social worker and writer living in Los Angeles. He prepares b’nai mitzvah students at Temple Israel of Hollywood and privately.

Seder Yummies

Passover is my favorite Jewish holiday, and although cooking
for Passover requires a lot of preparation, I look forward to it each year. It
is a time when our family and close friends join together to share thoughts and
exchange ideas as we participate in the seder.

I have a regular routine that begins my preparation for the
Passover holiday. The first thing I do is check last year’s guest list with my
husband, so we won’t leave anyone out, and then we add friends who will be alone
during the holiday. Next, I review my files that are filled with Passover
recipes and select the dishes I want to prepare for our seders.

Over the years, we have added Passover food traditions from
other cultures that are different then what we normally serve, and they have
become an important part of our seder menu.

In the past, we traditionally dipped sliced spring onions in
salt water as the first vegetable of the season, and now we also serve steamed
new potatoes dipped in salt.

The children love the idea of including scallions, a
symbolic food that the Sephardic Jews use during their seder. They represent
the whips used to beat the Jews when they were slaves in Egypt. The children
re-enact this event during the seder by going around the table and gently
hitting the participants with the raw scallions.

The charoset, bitter herbs and matzah are part of the
Passover meal, and during our seder we taste several types of charoset from
around the world. Each guest is served a plate with six different kinds of
charoset, and we identify the country that each represents. Oh yes, the next
day I roll the leftover charoset into balls and dip them in chocolate to serve
as a special treat during the remaining days of Passover.

Dinner usually begins with homemade gefilte fish, but this
year I plan on making a Gefilte Fish Terrine.

It is not as time-consuming to make, and the taste is the
same. It is baked in the oven, in a mold, and does not require poaching in a
fish stock.

This is followed by an intensely flavored chicken soup with
matzah balls, and it is the one dish I cannot change because it is everyone’s

Roast turkey is the main course, as well as chicken breasts
that are filled with Grandma Molly’s Vegetable Stuffing, rolled and baked. The
combination of sautéed vegetables, matzah meal and sweet raisins is delicious,
and I always double the recipe, and bake the remainder of the stuffing in a
casserole, because there is never enough to satisfy everyone. The glazed apple
slices are easy to make and are a perfect accompaniment to serve with the
chicken and turkey.

Dinner is always served buffet style, and everyone helps
themselves to their favorite Passover dishes.

For dessert, the table is set with an assortment of sponge
cakes, cookies and chocolate-covered nuts and fruit. The walnut torte sponge
cake looks extra-special by simply layering it with a preserve filling and then
spooning a chocolate glaze on top.

Wine is an important part of the seder. In the past, sweet
Concord grape wine was always served during Passover, but today, dry Passover
wines have gained in popularity, and the availability and varieties are
remarkable. These wines come from California, France, Italy and Israel, and, at
our seder, we provide both sweet and dry wines, as well as grape juice, to
satisfy everyone’s taste.

Gefilte Fish Terrine With Horseradish

4 sole filets, skinned and cut in halves


2 medium onions, cut into eighths

4 small carrots, peeled and sliced

1 celery rib, sliced

1 pound ling cod or other white-flesh fish filet, cut in
1-inch  cubes

1 pound halibut or white-fleshed filets, cut in 1-inch cubes

3 eggs

112 cup cold water


Freshly ground black pepper

1 pound salmon filet, cut into 112-inch chunks

Lettuce leaves


Soak the sole filets in cold water for 15 minutes. Drain and
pat dry. Place them between sheets of waxed paper and flatten lightly with a
mallet or the side of a knife. With a sharp knife, make several slashes on the
skin side of each filet. Lightly oil a two-quart glass baking dish and line it
with waxed paper. Oil the paper. Line the entire baking dish with the sole
filets, placing them skin side down and slightly overlapping. Cover with
plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Place the onions, carrots and celery in a processor or
grinder. Process or grind until finely minced. Add the cod and halibut and
process until well blended. Add the eggs, one at a time, alternating with the
water. Blend well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Transfer the ground mixture to a large bowl. Gently fold in
the salmon chunks. Spoon the fish mixture into the prepared baking dish. Cover
with oiled waxed paper and a double layer of foil.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Place the terrine in a large
baking pan and pour in hot water to come halfway up the sides. Bake for 50
minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a rack
10 minutes. Loosen foil and pour out excess liquid. Refrigerate for at least
one hour.

To serve, invert the terrine on a platter and slice. Serve
on lettuce leaves on individual serving plates with horseradish.

Rolled Chicken Breasts With Grandma Molly’s Passover
Vegetable Stuffing

8 chicken breasts (4 whole, boned and cut in half)

114 cup oil

1 onion, thinly sliced

3 carrots, thinly sliced

1 cup chicken stock

114 cup dry white wine

Prepare Grandma Molly’s Vegetable Stuffing and cool.

Place a chicken breast, skin side down, on a sheet of wax
paper, cover with another sheet of wax paper and using a mallet or tenderizer,
gently pound the breast until desired thickness.

Spoon stuffing in the center and roll up the chicken breast,
encasing the stuffing and tie with string. Repeat with remaining chicken

Line a baking pan with foil, brush with oil and arrange
onions and carrots on top. Place stuffed chicken breasts on top, brush with oil
and season with salt and pepper.

Add stock and wine and bake at 375 F for 20 minutes,
increase the heat to 425 F, and bake about five minutes more, or until chicken
is tender and crisp. Transfer to a cutting board and slice on the bias.

To serve, arrange sliced chicken breasts on plates and spoon
any juices from pan that remain.  Serves eight.

Grandma Molly’s Passover Vegetable Stuffing

112 cup raisins, plumped in 1 cup Passover Concord
grape wine

114 cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 medium onions, peeled and finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

4 stalks celery, finely diced

6 medium carrots, peeled and grated

1 parsnip, peeled and grated

2 medium zucchini, unpeeled and grated

112 cup minced fresh parsley

2-3 tablespoons matzah meal

2-3 tablespoons matzah cake meal

2-3 tablespoons Passover cereal or potato starch

114 cup dry red wine

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a large, heavy skillet, heat the oil and sauté the onions
and garlic until soft, about three minutes. Add the celery, carrots, parsnip,
and zucchini, and toss well. Cook for five minutes until the vegetables begin
to soften. Drain the raisins and add them to the vegetables with the parsley.
Stir in one tablespoon each of the matzah meal, matzah cake meal and potato
starch. Add the red wine and mix well. Stir in the remaining dry ingredients, a
little at a time, until the stuffing is moist and soft but firm in texture.
Season with salt and pepper. Cool.

Makes about 12 cups.

Glazed Apple Slices

This is versatile recipe, the translucent apple slices can
also be used as a pie filling, or in open-faced tarts, using a matzah meal

112  cup sugar

112 cup orange marmalade

112 cup orange juice

Juice and grated zest of 1 lemon

6 large golden delicious apples, peeled, cored and thinly

In a large, heavy skillet, combine the sugar, marmalade and
orange juice. Cook over medium heat, stirring until the sugar and marmalade
have dissolved. Bring this syrup to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer
three to four minutes, just until it begins to thicken.

Place the apple slices in a large bowl and toss with lemon
juice to prevent them from discoloring. Add the apples and lemon juice to the
syrup in the skillet and toss to coat the apples. Simmer, covered, for 10 to 15
minutes, until the apples are soft. Transfer them to a glass bowl and cool to
room temperature. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator.

Layered Walnut Torte With Chocolate Glaze

7 eggs, separated

1113 cup sugar

114 cup orange juice

3 tablespoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon each grated lemon and

orange zest

112 cup matzah cake meal

112 cup potato starch

1 cup toasted ground walnuts

1114  teaspoon salt

1 cup orange marmalade or raspberry preserves


Preheat the oven to 325 F. 

In a large mixing bowl, beat the egg yolks and sugar until
light in color and texture, at least five minutes. While mixing, slowly add the
orange juice, lemon juice, grated lemon and orange zest and blend well.
Gradually blend in the matzah cake meal, potato starch and walnuts. Beat the
egg whites and salt until stiff enough to hold a peak. Gently fold them into
the yolk mixture.

Pour the batter into an ungreased 10-inch tube pan. Bake for
one hour and 15 minutes or until the cake springs back to the touch and a
toothpick inserted in the cake comes out dry.

Remove the cake from the oven; immediately invert the pan
and let it cool. Loosen the sides and center of the cake with a sharp knife and
unmold it onto a cake plate. Cool.  Slice cake in half, crosswise and remove
the top half. Spread the bottom half with marmalade or preserves, cover with
the top half. Pour the chocolate glaze over the top and spread it evenly
allowing the glaze to run down the sides of the cake.

Chocolate Glaze

8-ounces semisweet chocolate

114 cup strained orange marmalade or raspberry

114 cup espresso coffee

In the top of a double boiler over simmering water or in a microwave,
blend chocolate, marmalade and espresso. Beat with wire whisk until smooth.
Add additional espresso if the glaze is too thick.

Just in Time

Jeff, the guy from the party rental place, left this phone message two weeks ago:

“Passover is March 31,” he said, “and, say Marlene, you always call us the last minute. Do you think you might plan a bit ahead this time?”

Jeff isn’t even Jewish, but his calendar was right. I always leave everything to the last minute, from making the gefilte fish to writing the annual haggadah. When my guests arrive, they typically find me grating horseradish, my eyes bleary with tears. Then they have to help set the table, collate the copies from Kinkos and arrange the flowers. Until this year, I thought last-minute hospitality was the pursuit of freshness, or otherwise part of my charm. After all, the children of Israel only had a few hours to plan for their liberation. Having more than a day to plan a seder seems like overkill.

Then, a week ago, I spoke to my friend Carrie.

“I don’t want to rush your calendar, but what are you doing for Passover?” I asked. But Carrie had her plans set in concrete.

Then I called my cousin Rita, who knew for certain that she was spending the first night with her sister-in-law, Mary, who already had her chicken soup in the freezer. The broth was only awaiting the matzo balls. Rita was making the potato kugel she was planning to bring with her even as we spoke.

It only got worse. I have been making Passover seders for 20 years, and I have a huge core crowd of extended family who wouldn’t go anywhere else but my home. But I always like to add new people since I too was once a stranger in a strange land. But all my favorite “strangers” this year were already accounted for. My friend Andy, an award-winning caterer, not only had his plans but he’d made his tzimmes and brisket last weekend. It seems that only I was still thinking that Passover was a big surprise party. The surprise was on me, who had not yet ordered my whitefish, pike and carp.

Maybe it is because I am a Baby Boomer and grew up in what was once called the Age of Anxiety, the post-Bomb era, that I have never been good at planning ahead. My husband, who was older than me by a generation, was even worse in this regard. Our first Passover together was memorable because Burton called his cousins at 4:30 to ask if we could attend their seder, which was starting at 6.

Even when it became a certainty that Passover was my holiday, just as Thanksgiving is my friend Marika’s, I still never got in the groove. I think it has something to do with the smells. I love the smells of the holidays, the rich aroma of beef and chicken and fish that come together just around 4 p.m. when the guests arrive. So that’s one reason I do almost everything at last minute.

Another reason is that, in contrast to Greta Garbo, I don’t really want to be alone. I only begin planning my Passover right after my parents declare they’ve bought their airline tickets. Cooking for Passover, to me, means cooking with Mom.

It wasn’t always like that. When I was young and newly married, my friends and I put together a gourmet Passover. The more esoteric the foods, the better. Some years we’d have lamb, others we’d be vegetarian. We were brave and creative –and nuts.

As I got older, I wanted my daughter to know a real seder. I needed real Jewish foods exactly as I had had them. At that point, my parents felt confident that it was safe to eat at my table, so long as my mother helped to cook. Rather than have her shlep three slabs of brisket from Florida to L.A., I left all the cooking until my mother arrived. I waited each year so she could show me for the thousandth time how she mixed together Hungarian paprika, garlic salt and oil into a luscious paste for baked chicken. Doing the work together made the day fly.

From time to time, my mother and father would stay in New York and Florida, so over time, my friend Willie began to share the cooking load. Willie, too, is a last-minute chef; she’d come to the house in the late afternoon, and make her renowned light-as-air matzo balls even as the seder began, spooning them into the rolling vat of soup.

But this year, my parents are staying in Florida. Willie and her husband are in Japan. I’m still having a table of 20, so what will I do?

The older we get, the earlier we begin. I used to think it is the labor alone that makes people start their holiday planning. But now I think we begin cooking and planning for Passover early because we need our memories to come alive, a testimony of faith in the present. We’ll be thinking about who isn’t coming this year, and who won’t be there next year. And soon enough, long before you need to, the big rush begins: You first buy the ingredients, then, what the heck, you might as well start making it. And before you know it, the soup is in Tupperware in the freezer, and the brisket is ready for slicing. So this year, Jeff got his order early. Who knows, if I do my preparing early enough, I’ll be ready for Passover, memories and all, just in time.

Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, will appear at Barnes & Noble in Calabasas on Sunday March 21.

Her website is

Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.comHer book, “A Woman’s Voice” is available through