Russian Jews built this city on rock and roll (and klezmer)

When the six members of the Simcha klezmer band hauled their instruments into a dilapidated rehearsal space, no one suspected they were about to hijack a government building in this large, clean city some 450 miles east of Moscow.

But that’s exactly what happened in 1995 when this popular ensemble — founded in 1989 by Jewish musicians during the Soviet Union’s twilight years — entered the Teacher’s House, a government-controlled building that had once been a synagogue. For three years, city officials had pledged to return the structure to the Jewish community.

But the band’s members had had enough of empty promises. Determined to hold the mayor to his word, the players remained barricaded inside for three days as police prepared to storm in.

The standoff ended with the city giving up the synagogue, which it signed over to its 8,000-member Jewish community the following year.

In this part of Russia, near the Ural Mountains that divide Europe from Asia, Simcha has been the linchpin of the Jewish community’s growth and strength and a symbol of the Jews’ determination to maintain their religious and cultural identity amid persecution.

“Many Russian Jewish communities grew to include klezmer bands,” Eduard Tumansky, the band’s current leader, told JTA after a performance in September celebrating the synagogue’s centennial. “But I know of no other klezmer bands besides ours that grew into a Jewish community.”

Violinist Leonid Sonts, who founded Simcha, “used musical activities as a vehicle for building a Jewish community long before open worship became tolerated again in Kazan,” said the city’s Chabad rabbi, Yitzhak Gorelick.

Sonts, who opened a Jewish cultural center, Menorah, in 1987, “used the band to turn musical events into cultural-religious events,” Tumansky recalled. “We performed during the holidays. Before [Kazan’s] Jewish people had a synagogue, they got together at Simcha concerts. Simcha became the engine for Jewish life.

“Simcha was the Jewish community’s main lobbying platform and face,” he said. “So when the Soviet Union collapsed, we already had strong partnerships. Everybody in Kazan knew Simcha.”

Later the community hired a rabbi for its synagogue and built a Jewish school – institutions that took over the task of serving as an axis for Jewish life here. Sonts became the president of Kazan’s Jewish community – a role he maintained until his passing in 2001.

After returning the Teacher’s House, authorities in Kazan have done more than give the Jews a synagogue: They turned it and the community into tourist attractions.

Since 2012, the city has held an annual Jewish music festival around Rosh Hashanah. And last year, the city held a series of Jewish-themed events outside the synagogue, including Kazan’s first Limmud FSU Jewish learning conference and a gathering by Chabad rabbis from across the former Soviet Union.

The events attracted an unlikely mix of secular and religious Jews, who flooded the spacious, red-cobble pedestrian streets of Kazan’s old city, with its mosques and gold-spired Russian Orthodox churches.

Local Jews say they feel safe among the Sunni Muslim majority in the Russian state of Tatarstan, of which Kazan is the capital.

“I regularly put my tefillin on while waiting for the subway in the morning,” said Gershon Ilianski, 16, a student at the Jewish high school here. “I know they have problems with Muslims in Western Europe, but I never worried anyone would bother me here.”

Thirty years ago, however, when Russia was still communist, Jews, Muslims and Christians all needed a non-religious alibi to worship.

“Simcha performed at Purim and Hanukkah parties while camouflaging the religious and communal nature of these events,” Tumansky said. “To the community, the concerts were [seen] as a Jewish event. To authorities, just a musical one.”

Even so, such musical gatherings were not allowed elsewhere in the Soviet Union, where Communist government sought to blur ethnic identities. This policy was less strictly enforced in Kazan, as its population was deeply attached to Islam and its heritage.

“Moscow realized it couldn’t restrict the locals too much on religion and tradition, because there’d be too much alienation,” said Chaim Chesler, founder of the Limmud FSU organization. “The result is an inspiring example of coexistence.”

This atmosphere of relative tolerance in Kazan during the Soviet era attracted hundreds of Jews from other parts of the Soviet Union. At a time when some universities nearer to Moscow barred Jews, they were accepted without problem at Kazan’s institutions of higher education, the Ukraine-born Sonts said in an interview he gave to local media before his death.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Kazan already had a functioning Jewish community — something that would take years to grow in other Russian cities.

This head start has meant that Jewish lay leaders have been able to have a more hands-on approach to developing their community. For example, unlike most other Jewish Russian communities, Kazan employs its Chabad rabbi, Gorelick, full time. Elsewhere in Russia, rabbis often work independently of the community, sometimes competing with its lay leaders for donations from local philanthropists.

Last September, the community celebrated its strength alongside its synagogue’s centennial by rededicating the shul following renovations. Tumansky, wearing his trademark black hat, performed with Simcha’s other five musicians before a crowd of several thousand outside the synagogue.

“It’s true that we are now the sideshow of the community we used to run,” he said of the band. “But then again, that was exactly what we fought for: to have a normal community.”

The concert was unorthodox; while Simcha primarily played klezmer, there were notable electric guitar and country music influences. After each solo, the crowd, a mix of Jews and non-Jews, waved blue and white balloons emblazoned with a Star of David, enthusiastically reacting with whistles and yelps.

“Tell me,” Tumansky told a reporter after the show. “Have you ever seen a Jewish community built on rock and roll?”

Invites: Snail or E-mail?

My bat mitzvah invitation had bright purple embossed text on a hot- pink card with my name enlarged in decorative script at the top and daisies adorning the bottom.

Twenty-plus years later, I remember eagerly waiting for my friends to receive the invitations and running home weeks later to check the mailbox for the return of the RSVP envelopes. Secured in a scrapbook, the invitation is a treasured memento.

Today, a rising trend in simcha invites is changing — for some — the run to the mailbox has become a dash for the e-mail inbox and the card stock mementos are now computer printouts. No longer for holiday parties and happy hours only, electronic invitations are becoming an acceptable way to announce major lifecycle events, including b’nai mitzvah celebrations and weddings.

When Jason Horowitz, a marketing executive in New York, and his partner, Carl, were planning their wedding, electronic invitations became the solution for one major concern: They were short on time.

With more than 200 invitations to send, the couple didn’t want to sacrifice style for haste. Paperless Post, a Web site launched by a 20-something brother-and-sister team in 2008, was the perfect answer.

Paperless Post invitations are sent by e-mail (or through a social networking site, such as Facebook or Twitter) with an image of an envelope appearing on screen. The invitation itself can be designed with the assistance of graphic designers or selected from existing templates. 

Premium invitations are paid for by purchasing “coins” — the smallest package of 25 costs $5. A premium invite costs one to five coins, with additional charges for an envelope, logo and more.

Margery Klausner, an attorney in Southfield, Mich., used an electronic invitation as a follow-up to the paper invitation for her son Nathan’s bar mitzvah. Klausner used the image of the paper invitation for the electronic version.

While all local guests and family members received both the paper and electronic invitations, she exclusively sent electronic invitations to guests whom she “wanted to include but wasn’t 100 percent sure that they could come, like those [living] in Israel.”

One of the main advantages to using the electronic invitations was the quick arrival of the responses, Klausner said. Two hours after hitting the send button on her computer, “I received 57 RSVPs,” she said. Additionally, Klausner was able to track the guests who didn’t open the e-mail and contact them directly to find out if there was a problem.

Since Paperless Post launched, co-founder James Hirschfeld said, more than 10,000 b’nai mitzvah and 40,000 wedding invitations have been sent over the site.

Calligraphers and engravers shouldn’t worry too much, however. Traditional paper invitations are still very much in vogue, according to Wendy Katzen, a Washington-area event planner. 

For Melissa Kanter, the paper invitations for the upcoming b’not mitzvah of her twin daughters, Emily and Rachel, will “set the tone for the affair.”

“It’s an accessory, like the bracelet to the outfit. It pulls the whole thing together,” said Kanter, an occupational therapist in Short Hills, N.J.

The invitation will reflect the personalities of her daughters, said Kanter, who worked with a graphic designer. The RSVPs will be with a response card — not directed to an e-mail address — and she’ll create a special postage stamp for the invitations and cards. After the affair, the invitation will be framed in a shadow box and used to make gifts for the girls: jewelry boxes and pillows.

“I’d rather have the tradition” of a paper invitation, Kanter said. “It will be a keepsake that I’ll put in their baby book.”

Katzen says that in planning a lifecycle event, it’s important to keep in mind that guest lists are often multigenerational and you want to take care not to insult anyone.

“There are still [people] who think a BlackBerry is a fruit,” she said. “You want to keep those guests in the loop, too.”

That wasn’t an issue for Horowitz — even his guests in their 80s had e-mail addresses.

Days before the wedding, he sent a message through the site clarifying the start time of the ceremony. The flexibility of an electronic invitation made it much easier, he said, “Otherwise I would have had to make a hundred phone calls.”

With a guest list of more than 1,500, Rabbi Batya Steinlauf — whose husband, Gil, is the rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington — also went the electronic route for her son Noah’s bar mitzvah. The entire congregation was invited to the bar mitzvah and subsequent Kiddush lunch. 

“Can you imagine sending out 1,500 paper invitations?” Steinlauf asked. “It saved a fortune and saved many trees. There’s no question — I can’t imagine another way to have done this.”

Oy Caramba! Serve a Simcha Fiesta

Your special family simcha (celebration) is just around the corner and you aren’t feeling enthusiastic — the caterer’s offerings feel predictable, and the room you’ve rented seems impersonal.

Whether you’re organizing a bris, congratulating a bar or bat mitzvah, welcoming a new son-in-law or daughter-in-law into the family or celebrating a birthday or anniversary, honoring the people we love in an inviting, intimate setting with exquisite food is one of the best gifts someone can give. Choosing to hold your celebration at home is to select the warmest venue of all.

Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, chefs and co-owners of Border Grill and Ciudad restaurants, are big advocates of entertaining at home.

“If you want to have a really special party, where everyone will feel not only loved and appreciated but comfortable and relaxed, decorate the house with bright, happy colors and serve them Mexican food,” Milliken said. “It puts people in the mood for a party.”

South-of-the-border cuisine is the perfect fit for at-home celebrations — it’s colorful and conducive to being shared.

Dress your dining room in oranges, greens, reds, blues and yellows. Cover the table with a bright tablecloth and add an earthenware tureen of pimento red, richly flavored tortilla soup; a cast-iron kettle of glistening black beans; piping hot, multiflavored tortillas nestled in a hand-painted tortilla warmer; twin bowls of red and green rice; a brightly colored platter of halibut Veracruzana; an assortment of red, yellow and green salsas; and handmade reed baskets of quinoa fritters, with a bowl of Mexican red Romesco sauce. Also, don’t forget the different fillings, toppings and stacks of tortillas clumped together at a special interactive taco-making table.

Olvera Street or local Mexican art stores, such as Artesanias Oaxaquenas in Santa Monica, have authentic paper flowers and ethnic accessories.

“Orchestrate your party. When guests arrive, serve them cool drinks and hot and cold appetizers. Guests are more forgiving if they have a drink in one hand and an appetizer in the other,” Milliken said.

Welcome them with refreshing watermelon lemonade, horchata and margaritas — alcoholic and nonalcoholic versions. Pass trays of appetizers and scatter additional offerings about the room — miniature tacos and tamales, guacamole and salsas.

Halibut Veracruzana

1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless fillets of halibut, sea bass, snapper or other firm-fleshed fish, cut in four portions

Salt and pepper to taste

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced

4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

2 serrano chilis, stemmed and sliced in 1/4-inch disks

1/2 cup lime juice

1 tomato, cored, seeded and cut in strips

1/2 bunch (1/4 cup) fresh oregano leaves, coarsely chopped

1/2 cup Spanish green olives, sliced

1/2 cup white wine

3/4 cup fish stock

Season fish fillets evenly with salt and pepper. Heat one very large skillet or two medium skillets over medium-high heat for a minute; coat pans with olive oil.

Add fillets and turn heat to very high. Sear until golden brown, about two minutes, then flip to sear the other side, about one minute. Transfer fillets to a rack over a plate to catch the juices; reserve.

Return the pan (or pans) to high heat. Add onion and sauté, stirring frequently for one minute or until it starts to brown. Add garlic, chili slices, lime juice, tomatoes, oregano and olives and sauté briskly for an additional minute. Add wine and boil until reduced by half.

Pour in fish stock, bring to boil and reduce to a simmer. Return fish fillets, along with their juices, to the pan. Cover and cook gently for two minutes or longer, depending on thickness of fillets. Taste broth and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper.

Serve with a generous puddle of broth and garnish of vegetables.

Makes four servings.

Tortilla Soup

5 garlic cloves, peeled

10 Roma tomatoes, cored and quartered

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large yellow onion, diced

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

8 cups vegetable stock

1 dried chipotle chili, stemmed and seeded (optional)

3/4 pound tortilla chips

Garnishes: 1 bunch (1/2 cup) cilantro leaves; 1 avocado, peeled, seeded and roughly chopped; 1/2 cup Crema; 2 limes, cut in wedges

Puree garlic and tomatoes in a blender until smooth. Heat olive oil in a large stockpot over low heat. Add the onion, salt and pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until pale brown and caramelized, about 10 minutes. Stir in tomato puree and cook 10 minutes longer, stirring frequently.

Pour in vegetable stock and add chipotle chili (if desired). Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook uncovered for 20 minutes. Stir in tortilla chips and cook 10 minutes longer, until chips soften. Remove and discard chili.

Serve hot, with cilantro, avocado, Crema, lime wedges and some extra-crisp fried tortilla chips for adding at the table.

Makes six servings.

Quinoa Fritters with Romesco Sauce

These delicious fritters may be made ahead, frozen and reheated.

2/3 cup quinoa, preferably organic

1 1/3 cups water

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup grated Spanish manchego, romano or parmesan cheese

3/4 teaspoon salt

Pinch freshly ground black pepper

4 scallions, white and light green parts, finely chopped

1/2 cup basil leaves, chopped

1 egg

1 egg yolk

3/4 cup vegetable oil

Lemon wedges for juice

Wash the quinoa and drain well. Place a small, dry saucepan over high heat. Add the quinoa and toast, shaking and stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to prevent scorching, about five minutes. Transfer to a large saucepan and add water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook covered until water is absorbed, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.

In a large bowl, combine quinoa, flour, cheese and salt. Add scallions, basil, egg and yolk. Blend thoroughly with a mixing spoon until mixture has consistency of soft dough.

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. With your hands, roll dough into walnut-sized balls and press to form small cakes.

Fry until the bottoms are golden brown, less than a minute. Turn and fry the second side until golden. Drain on paper towels. Drizzle with a lemon juice; serve with Romesco for dipping.

Makes 18 pieces.

Romesco Sauce

2 large, thick slices of country bread, crusts removed and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

1/3 cup red-wine vinegar

1/3 cup blanched almonds, toasted to golden

1 1/2 red peppers, roasted and peeled

6 cloves garlic, peeled

1 tomato, cored, seeded and chopped

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/3 cup olive oil

Soak bread with red-wine vinegar for 10 minutes, pressing to moisten thoroughly, and transfer to a food processor. Add almonds, red pepper, garlic, tomato, salt and pepper and puree until smooth. With the motor running, add olive oil in a thin stream, until mixture is the consistency of a thick creamy sauce. Thin with warm water as necessary.

Serve at room temperature.

Capirotada (Mexican Bread Pudding)

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter

1/2 loaf French bread or baguette with crust cut into small cubes

1 pound brown sugar

1 1/2 cups water

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

2 large Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and chopped

1 cup walnuts, chopped

1/2 pound tofu or regular cream cheese, chilled and chopped

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 13-by-9-inch glass casserole or lasagna pan. Melt butter in a medium saucepan, add bread cubes and stir to coat evenly.

Spread cubes on a baking sheet and bake 15 minutes or until lightly brown and crisp. Remove bread and turn oven temperature up to 400 F.

Combine sugar and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat. Stir in cinnamon and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the chopped apples, walnuts, cream cheese and toasted bread cubes. Drizzle with the reserved sugar syrup and mix to evenly distribute. Transfer mixture to the prepared pan.

Bake uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Then bake an additional five minutes without stirring, until the top is golden brown and crusty and liquid is almost gone. Drizzle with powdered sugar. Serve warm. If desired, plop a dollop of nondairy ice cream on top.

Makes eight to 10 servings.

Watermelon Lemonade

What could be cooler than a nice, tall glass of iced watermelon lemonade? Serve sandia (Spanish for watermelon) in a clear pitcher to highlight its brilliant color. A garnish of thin lemon slices looks nice against the pink of the juice.

4 cups watermelon chunks, seeded

2-3 tablespoons sugar (to taste)

1/2 cup cold water

5 ice cubes

Juice of 1-2 lemons (to taste)

Combine all the ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Serve over additional ice.

Makes four servings.

All recipes courtesy of Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken.

Candidates for U.N. Secretary-General post consult with U.S. Jewish leaders;

Candidates for U.N. Secretary-General Post Consult With U.S. Jewish Leaders
As the U.N. General Assembly opens, diplomats vying to be the world’s top peacekeeper are taking time to consult with American Jewish leaders. At least three of the favored candidates to replace Kofi Annan as U.N. secretary-general have met in recent months with leaders of the U.S. Jewish groups that routinely deal with the United Nations.
“It’s a recognition that we’re part of the equation and the political calculus,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, who acknowledged “several” meetings with prospective candidates: “It’s clear that no candidate can win without the support of the five permanent members, and there is thinking that American Jewry would have some impact on the thinking of the United States.”
The United States, Russia, France, China and Great Britain are the five permanent members wielding veto power on the U.N. Security Council, the body that recommends a candidate for secretary-general to the General Assembly for confirmation.

Annan’s term lapses at the end of the year, and Jewish leaders are considering the disappointments, as well as its highlights. Many of the issues that characterized the last part of Annan’s 10-year term — the Iranian nuclear threat, the aftermath of the Lebanon War and the prospect of reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks — will be high on the Jewish agenda the week that world leaders arrive to address the General Assembly during its opening session.
“We want to gauge the international mood toward Israel post-summer conflict and get a sense of whether there’s any traction of rumors of resumption of peace talks,” said Harris, who said his organization planned 60 meetings with world leaders this week and next. “We’ll be talking about the challenges of anti-Semitism.”
After two Africans in the job — Annan is from Ghana; his predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, was from Egypt — the assumption is that an Asian will get the job. Of the declared candidates, Shashi Tharoor, a U.N. undersecretary-general backed by his native India, and Surakiart Sathirathai, Thailand’s deputy prime minister, have met with Jewish groups. Another candidate, Ban Ki-Moon, South Korea’s foreign minister, has also met with Jewish leaders and is in the process of setting up a second meeting. Community leaders were loath to endorse a particular candidate, but Tharoor made a favorable impression.
“We should take him seriously as a candidate,” said Shai Franklin, director of international organizations at the World Jewish Congress. “He was instrumental in putting the Holocaust on the U.N. agenda.”
Celebrating 350 Years of British Jewry
Trafalgar Square filled with celebrants this week to mark 350 years of British Jewry. An estimated 25,000 people on Sunday visited Simcha on the Square, the centerpiece of the yearlong anniversary celebration.
In the weeks leading up to the celebration, increased security was necessary due to the recent rise in anti-Semitic activity in Britain. Also, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women (AJEX) cancelled its participation to protest the involvement of London Mayor Ken Livingstone, a vehement critic of Israel who has been accused of making anti-Semitic remarks.
The involvement of Livingstone’s office wasn’t a recent decision, but it led AJEX to decide on Sept. 14 to boycott the event. In light of the controversy surrounding the mayor, Livingstone had been pulled from the celebration schedule months ago, to be replaced by his deputy, Nicky Gavron. AJEX’s last-minute decision to withdraw likely was due to a Sept. 5 press release from Livingstone’s office proclaiming the mayor’s personal support of Simcha on the Square.
Despite these 11th hour glitches, the event “went beyond our dreams,” Auerbach said. “To see beautiful signs up in Trafalgar Square, we just couldn’t picture in advance how that would make us feel. To have our event there in that setting, one of the most iconic spots in Britain, and to see Jews of all sects and other people all mingling and having a good time there, I think it was the best possible way we could have shown how the Jewish people have integrated into British society.”
The festivities included live Jewish music on the main stage, which was placed in front of the National Gallery.
Rallies Call for Action on Darfur
An estimated 20,000 to 25,000 people gathered in New York to urge the United States and the United Nations to end genocide in Darfur. Sunday’s rally, which drew Jews from across the United States, was organized by the Save Darfur Coalition. North American Jewish groups have taken the lead in advocating an end to the massacre of Darfur residents in Sudan by government-allied Arab militias.The rally featured musical performances by Suzanne Vega, Citizen Cope and O.A.R.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright headlined a list of 20 speakers.”All the sides in the Darfur conflict are predominantly Muslim,” Albright said. “But this is not about politics, this is about people.” She added: “We need to tell the United Nations that this is what it is here for, and President Bush has to make it clear to the United Nations that the United Nations has to get in there.”
Rallies took place in 31 states and 57 cities and 41 countries, as well as in Jerusalem, according to David Rubenstein of the Save Darfur Coalition.
Neo-Nazis Win Local German Parliament Seat
German Jewish leaders called extremist gains in German state elections “alarming.” Voters on Sunday in the former East German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania gave the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany 7.3 percent, passing the 5 percent threshold necessary to have a seat in the state Parliament.
The state is the fourth to have right-wing extremist parties in their local parliaments in a reunified Germany. Many observers say that high unemployment in eastern states plays a role in turning voters to the right.

First Haircut Brings Shear Delight

“Come to New Jersey,” my grandaughter said, “we’re having a simcha!”

A wedding? A lottery win? She doesn’t explain. Then I think, airfare $240, motel $220 and then there’s expenses for my lovely wife — hair, nails, Louie XVth gown. This will run me $962!

I ask a dozen probing questions about the nature of this simcha. Did she have another kid? Is the Mosiach coming for dinner? Is she getting a new husband? Has the bank decided to forgo her mortgage?

“No,” she said.

So, why must I pawn my future to United Airlines, the Hilton Hotel Corporation and Macy’s?

“What’s going on that’s worth deducting four digits from my three-digit bank balance?” I asked.

Well, this paragon of a granddaughter, who is as observant as the Gaon of Vilna before his arguments with the Baal Shem Tov, explained that her 3-year-old son is having his hair cut for the first time in his brief life. (So why can he miss three years and I’m in trouble with the wife after three weeks?)

“Big deal,” I said, “I’m gonna shave tomorrow morning, but I don’t expect you to disrupt your life so you can watch me lather up.”

“No, no! It’s his upfsherin,” she said, “his first haircut.”

It is an important event, my granddaughter said. “We don’t cut his curly locks, just as we don’t harvest the fruit trees until they are 3 years old.”

An upfsherin, she said, is all about the unity of nature — the kinship of man and the other creatures that thrive in God’s world. Humanity and the sycamore tree both have their feet in the earth and their head in the sky. The tree produces fruit or seed while man produces deeds.

Even at the age of 3, the toddler begins his path to responsibility that culminates at bar mitzvah. This rosy, dimpled child, with curls that would revive Michelangelo to paint just one more cherub, is due for an upfsherin.

Next thing you know I’m sitting with a living room full of relatives in Passaic, N.J. In the middle of the room on a stool sits the honoree, Shimon Leib. (He’d look just like me if he was wrinkled around the eyes and mouth and the skin around his little neck was droopy and his hair was gray and absent on top and back of his head.) With the spotlight focused on his gilded face, this Jewish Tom Cruise of the 2020s behaves angelically.

Each relative steps up and cuts a lock. He chirps as I clip. It’s not long before I realize not one of us is a professional barber. He was prettier before. But as my granddaughter would say, only on the outside; inside he’s a 10.

As the dozen or so amateur barbers hack at his hair, my granddaughter — proud but nervous — watches from the corner. Those scissors are sharp, she thinks, and if he’s going to enjoy a fruitful life, he’ll need both ears to hear his teachers.

The floor is carpeted with blond ringlets and Shimon soon has a trendy, spiky look.

He’s on his way, Sh’or Yoshuv Institute’s Rabbi Aron Rothman told me. You might think of it as a pre-bar mitzvah warm-up. He’s not exactly responsible for his ethical behavior, but you can no longer hope he’ll turn off the bedroom light switch that someone left on Friday night.

Then the rabbi, who wisely only observed phase one, swung into action. He and the ex-cherub sat at the dining room table like Rabbi Akiva and one of his prize scholars. A large sheet of Hebrew letters sat before them. The rabbi coated the letter gimmel with honey and pointed.

“Say gimmel,” he said.

“Gimmel,” said Shimon as he touched the letter.

“Now lick your finger, Shimon,” the rabbi said.

Shimon, who never needs a second invitation for a snack, obeyed and smiled. Many letters were learned, and much honey was smeared on his little face. May all his learning and his life be as sweet.

Ted Roberts is a humorist based in Huntsville, Ala.

B’nai Mitzvah Planning Guide

At Birth

When the child is born, start saving! It’s not a bad idea to start two savings accounts; one for college and one for the bar or bat mitzvah.

One to three years ahead

  • Set the date.

  • Set a budget.

  • Reserve the synagogue.

  • Reserve the hall for additional receptions.

  • Arrange for caterer, party planner and band or DJ.

  • Buy a loose-leaf binder or start a filing system on index cards.

Ten to 12 months ahead

  • Begin b’nai mitzvah lessons.

  • (Continue to) attend weekly Shabbat services as a family.

  • Arrange for photographer and videographer.

  • Book hotel accommodations and investigate transportation for out-of-town guests.

Six months ahead

  • Plan colors and theme.

  • Arrange for florist and make guest list.

Four to five months ahead

  • Order invitations and thank-you notes, imprinted napkins and personalized party favors.

  • Shop for clothing and shoes.

  • Purchase a tallit and tefillin, if applicable.

  • Choose a calligrapher.

Three months ahead

  • Plan Sunday brunch, if applicable.

  • Order printed yarmulkes.

Two months ahead

  • Meet with photographer and videographer.

  • Meet with florist and/or decorations coordinator.

  • Mail out-of-town invitations.

Six weeks ahead

  • Order tuxedos.

  • Take care of clothing alterations.

  • Order wine for Kiddush.

  • Mail in-town invitations.

Four weeks ahead

  • Prepare speech.

  • Finalize reservations and transportation.

  • Meet with caterer.

  • Make welcome gifts for out-of-town guests.

  • Arrange aliyot.

  • Send honorary gift to synagogue.

  • Meet with rabbi.

  • Make seating charts for reception (and dinner).

Two weeks ahead

  • Give final count to caterer.

  • Check with florist.

  • Meet with rabbi.

  • Order cake, cookies and pastries for Friday night oneg Shabbat.

A few days ahead

  • Have rehearsal and take bimah photographs.

  • Make copies of speeches, room and table layouts, and give them to a friend to hold for you.

Special day

  • Enjoy your simcha!

De-Stress the Simcha

On Monday evening, we will celebrate Purim, the holiday that
commemorates the liberation of the Jews in ancient Persia, and reminds us of
the triumph of Queen Esther and her uncle, Mordecai, over Haman, the wicked
prime minister.

Purim is traditionally a time when families come together
and celebrate the holiday with a menu of dairy foods, veggies, nuts and seeds
of all kinds because, as the story states, Esther did not eat meat while in the
king’s court.

This year I will serve some family favorites that I recently
taught at a cooking class for the University of Judaism. My students were
enthusiastic and they loved the Beet Borscht and Blintzes, the traditional
dishes that I usually prepare for Purim.

The Sweet and Sour Beet Borscht is easy to make. It can be
prepared several days ahead, served hot or cold and garnished with sour cream
or sliced cucumbers. The addition of balsamic vinegar in the recipe instead of
the usual lemon juice heightens the sweet-and-sour flavor.

Blintzes are very versatile, depending on the filling, they
can be served as an appetizer, a main course or for dessert. In class, I
demonstrated how to prepare blintzes with the traditional hoop cheese mixture,
fry and serve them with sour cream and preserves. Using the same blini recipe,
but filled with ricotta cheese and spinach, they are baked and served with a
tomato sauce similar to Italian Crispelle. Both recipes can be made in advance,
filled, folded and refrigerated or frozen until ready to heat and serve.

During the class, the students made hamantaschen, the
traditional Purim pastry that is combined with either poppy seed, prune or a
chocolate-nut filling. But, for a contemporary American version, I often fill
the hamantaschen with peanut butter and jelly, a favorite of my children and

A Purim custom still observed is called shalach manot (the
giving of food). Just pack your delicious Hamantaschen in colorful gift boxes
and share them with family and friends.

Purim Menu:

Sweet and Sour Beet Borscht

1 pound beets (about 4 medium), tops removed, peeled and

6 cups water

2 tablespoons unsalted butter or nondairy margarine

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1¼4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar

1¼4 cup balsamic vinegar

Salt, to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Sour cream, for garnish

Sliced or diced cucumber, optional

 Place beets in a large nonreactive pot and add water. Bring
to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until tender, about 30 minutes.

In a small skillet, heat butter over medium heat and sauté
onion until softened, about five minutes. Add brown sugar and cook, stirring
constantly, about three minutes. Add to cooked beets along with balsamic
vinegar. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer stirring occasionally, about
20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

To serve, ladle the soup into cups or soup bowls. Top each
with a dollop of sour cream and cucumber if desired.

Serves 6.

Cheese Blintzes

Usually cheese blintzes are rolled into an oval shape, but I
like to fold the pancake over the filling like an envelope so the result is a
flat blintz. This makes them much easier to fry, and the sour cream and
preserves can’t roll off the top of the blintzes.

1 cup flour

1¼4 teaspoon salt

4 eggs

13¼4 cups milk

2-3 tablespoons melted unsalted butter

1 tablespoon brandy

Cheese Filling (recipe follows)

Butter for frying

 In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine flour and salt.
Blend together eggs and milk and add to flour mixture a little at a time,
blending after each addition, beating until smooth. Stir in 1 tablespoon of the
melted butter and brandy. Put through a fine strainer to avoid a lumpy dough.
Cover with plastic wrap and chill for 30 minutes.

Prepare the cheese filling, cover and refrigerate.

In a small skillet or crepe pan, melt 1 tablespoon of the
butter over low heat. When the butter begins to bubble, pour in 1¼8-1¼4 cup of
the batter and rotate the pan quickly to spread the batter as thinly as
possible, pouring off any excess. (The first blintz will be thicker than the
rest.) Cook on one side only, until lightly browned around the edges and turn
it out onto a towel to cool. Repeat with the remaining batter, stacking the
cooled blintzes on a platter with a square of waxed paper in between each one.

Makes about 24.

Spoon 1-2 tablespoons of the cheese filling into the center
of the brown side of each blintz. Fold the blintz around the filling like an
envelope, completely enclosing it. Place the blintzes on a large platter, cover
with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.

To prepare the blintzes for serving: In a large skillet,
heat 1¼4 cup of butter and brown the blintzes lightly, about 1-2 minutes per
side. (Do not crowd.) Repeat with the remaining blintzes adding more butter as needed.
With a metal spatula, carefully transfer the blintzes to serving plates. Serve
with bowls of sour cream, sugar and preserves.

Cheese Filling

2 pounds hoop, farmer or pot cheese

2 tablespoon sugar

1-2 teaspoons salt

2 eggs

In a large bowl, mix the hoop cheese, sugar, salt and eggs
until blended. Cover with plastic wrap, chill in the refrigerator until ready
to assemble the blintzes.

Makes 4 cups.

Crispelle With Ricotta and Spinach

24 Blini (see recipe)

1 pound ricotta

8 ounces spinach, steamed, squeezed dry and finely chopped

Freshly grated nutmeg

Salt, to taste

Prepare blini cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. If
ricotta is very soft, place in a strainer set over a medium bowl for 30 minutes
to drain. Mix the drained ricotta cheese, spinach, nutmeg and salt in a large
bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Makes about 3 cups

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Spread about 2 tablespoons of the
Ricotta-Spinach Filling over the entire surface of each blini. Fold 1¼2 inch of
each side over the filling and roll up tight. Cut each roll into four pieces
and place on lightly buttered baking sheet. Bake until heated through, about
five minutes. 

To serve, heat the tomato sauce and spoon some in the center
of each plate. Arrange four or five rolled crepes, cut side up, on top of the

Serves 12. 

Poppy Seed or Chocolate Filled


1¼4 pound unsalted butter or non-dairy margarine, softened

1¼2 cup sugar

3 eggs

Grated zest of 1 orange

2 cups flour

11¼2 teaspoons baking powder

1¼4 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon poppy seeds

3 (8-ounce) cans poppy seed filling

Preheat the oven to 375 F. In the bowl of an electric mixer,
beat butter and sugar until well-blended. Beat in two of the eggs and the
orange zest, blending thoroughly. Add flour, baking powder, salt and poppy
seeds and blend until dough is smooth.

Transfer to floured board and divide dough into three or
four portions for easier handling. Flatten each portion with the palm of your
hand and roll it out 1¼4 inch thick. With a scalloped or plain cookie cutter,
cut into 21¼2-inch rounds. Place 1 heaping teaspoon of filling in the center of
each round. Fold the edges of the dough toward the center to form a triangle,
leaving a bit of the filling visible in the center. Pinch the edges to seal

Place hamantaschen 1¼2 inch apart on a lightly greased
foil-lined baking sheet and brush with the remaining egg, lightly beaten. Bake
for 10 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer to racks to cool.

Makes 5 dozen-6 dozen.

2003 Passover Recipe ContestContest

The Jewish Journal is once again sponsoring a Passover
recipe contest. Send in your favorite kosher-for -Passover recipe with a brief
story. The winning recipes will appear with the chef’s photo in an upcoming
Jewish Journal. The winners will also receive a personally autographed copy of
Judy Zeidler’s cookbook “Master Chefs Cook Kosher.”

All entries must be received by April 1 .

E-mail recipies along with yout name and phone number to; or write to: Passover Recipe Contest c/o Marni Levitt,
The Jewish Journal 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010.

No phone calls, please.

Songs of Simcha

By day, he’s a manager- purchaser at an Orange County plywood company. But when the boards are cut and the purchase orders are filed, Steve Chattler does what any Jewish businessman might do after hours: He breaks out his drums and plays klezmer music.

As a member of the South Coast Simcha Band, 44-year-old Chattler brings those traditional Yiddish melodies to the Southland. He took an interest in the 19th century Eastern European music while playing in the orchestra at Temple Beth David in Westminster back in 1999. There, he met clarinet player Renah Wolzinger, who introduced him to this distinct Jewish-rooted music.

The upbeat, mostly instrumental tunes, that were traditionally played at weddings and bar mitzvahs dating back to the late 1800s, fascinated the drummer, whose previous experience included rock and jazz. “The old klezmer recordings basically had only a snare drum and maybe a bass drum,” Chattler says. “To try to simulate that on a drum set is like a whole new challenge.” He and Wolzinger recruited a violinist, a bass guitarist, a trumpet player and a saxophone player to form a complete klezmer band of their own.

After playing a few freebies at synagogue brunches, the group sought out paying gigs. While looking for audiences, the musicians quickly learned that they needed to expand their repertoire to make a living. “Klezmer music is where we like to stay,” Chattler admits, “but do people want to hire us for three hours of klezmer music? The answer to that is probably a flat ‘no.’ So, we usually do 45 minutes of klezmer music, a little bit of Israeli music and then some classic dance tunes.”

Because of the style’s ethnic roots, the South Coast Simcha Band has become popular in the multicultural arena. They’ve played for the Orange County chapter of the Interfaith Council, an organization that encourages unity between different cultures. While the bulk of their audience is over 50, Chattler says he often notices that younger generations appreciate klezmer music. “We played the Hebrew Academy in Westminster, and there was a good group of young people 18 to 25. They were dancing and whooping it up right along with us!” he laughs. The music does appeal to all ages on some level, Chattler says, “because most people have heard this [music] at one time or another in their lives.”

Some of best numbers include the Yiddish tunes “Odessa Bulgar,” “Ot Azoj,” and, of course, “Hava Nagila.” When the audience begins responding to the music, the band distributes plastic tambourines and has the crowd clap along. “It’s just an amazing thing to get over 100 people in a line dance. It beats doing the Macarena — but we’d play that song, too, if we had to!”

When he saw his family tree, Chattler felt an even deeper connection to his craft. It turns out that his great-grandfather was a singer in Poland, another country where klezmer music has strong roots. Wolzinger discovered that her grandmother was a Yiddish singer, as well. “It’s like completing a full circle,” Chattler says.