My menorah and my Christmas tree

For me as a youngster, Christmas was always something others did.  But I married a non Jew and in our early years together, experienced a great deal of conflict over his desire for a Christmas tree.  For several years, each December, we engaged in the same heated discussion that went something like this: 

“We’re not getting a Christmas tree,” I insisted. “It represents all we are not.  It is at its heart a celebration of something Christian and I am not a Christian. To participate in Christmas, for me, would be an insult to my Eastern European ancestors who died in the Holocaust.  It’s just not our holiday. And every year when Christmas rolls around the fact that we are ‘other’ is rubbed in my face.  I am a Jew in a non-Jewish world.”

“But for me Christmas has nothing to do with religion,” he replied. “It’s secular.  I don’t go to church.  It has nothing to do with Christianity for me. It’s about family and being together, showing appreciation for each other, exchanging gifts, bringing light to each other during the darkest, longest days of the year.” 

I couldn’t accept that. “Nope, not for me.  Sorry.  I cannot insult my parents or my ancestors.  I will never have a Christmas tree or a ‘Chanukah Bush’ in my home, ever!” 

But to be honest, I was conflicted. The girl in me who went to Yeshiva through 8th grade, and Jewish summer camp every summer, never drove on the Sabbath, and didn’t eat shrimp until she was in her 20’s, was saying, “Watch out! Danger! No tree! No Easter eggs either while you’re at it! We are Jews!”

On the other hand, do I decide that, although my home is of mixed cultural and religious background, my husband must deny his own heritage and be forbidden to bring his family traditions into our home?  Should I prohibit my twin daughters from participating in anything even remotely related to my husband’s non-Jewish family customs, due to abject fear of assimilation?  Would my children catch these traditions like cooties with the power to poison their Jewish identity?  At the very least, won’t they be extremely confused?

In the end, we decided to break the “no tree” rule, and no lightning came down to strike me.

Our annual arguments came to an end when the kids were small, and after we joined the Sholem Community and participated in their annual “December Dilemma” discussion on this topic. (Sholem is a 60-year-old secular Jewish cultural, and social institution with a Sunday school that teaches Jewish history, culture, and ethics.) For the first time I heard other Jews who, like me, were married to non-Jews, and struggling with this question:  To tree or not to tree? It was here that I was reminded not only of the differences between the two winter holidays, but of their similarities.  Both festivals have their roots in the changing of the seasons and in ancient and universal desires to dispel the darkening days and to return to light, warmth, and springtime. Through the course of their evolution, these seasonal holidays have been reinvented and imbued with religious meanings. But we can all find beauty and purpose in the use of light and fires, of evergreen trees and feasting.  These rituals speak to a common need to end the darkness and to hope the the sun will come back.

Yes, I recognize the role of tradition, and I share the desire to honor the history of my ancestors. But I also understand there are all kinds of historical complexities around the holidays, and I see no reason why our intercultural family can’t share a celebration of community, light, joy, generosity and good cheer. I love my husband and even though I do not share his cultural or religious history, having a tree in my home does not diminish me any more than having a menorah dishonors him.

Frankly, our Christmas tree is not that important to me. I don’t even care about the lights hanging from our awning. I hate obligatory gift giving.  But my husband loves it, and so do our kids. I love the way it brings us all together.  And that is the critical point here: these are our kids. Not my kids. That means we bring our family together, celebrating all that we are. No one is asked to give up “…a piece of their cultural and family story, at a time that they associate with really warm and wonderful memories,” as a recent Jewish Journal article (“The convert and the Christmas tree,” December 11) suggested, citing two rabbinical authorities.

The article, without citing any evidence, repeated the old trope about how having a Christmas tree “can be confusing to children” in a household in which one partner is a non-Jew. In my own experience, and in the experience of other multi-cultural families I know, that’s just not true. In fact, I believe that it would send a horribly confusing message to my children if I were to teach them that ultimately a family must choose to adopt the traditions and rituals of only one parent, one culture in a multicultural partnership.  What would that teach them about how to live in a world that is more globally connected than ever before and in which the rates of inter-marriage are multiplying? 

Although I strongly disagree with those who say that Jews should never have a Christmas tree in their homes, I do agree with Rabbi Susan Goldberg, quoted in the article as saying that “questions of assimilation and distinctiveness are really useful conversations to have.” Ideally, those discussions, at this or any time of year, should focus on what traditions mean for us not be for the purpose of deciding whose family traditions to erase.

That said, these more open approaches to traditions that involve investigating, celebrating, and cherishing the diverse cultural and ethnic histories around us are likely to work better in more secular households than ones in which religious views or dogma predominate.  I acknowledge that.  And it’s worked for us.  Our kids have been raised with a powerful Jewish identity in a secular and deeply spiritual home. Their Jewish identity has been nurtured by the Sholem Community and is based on the history, values and shared culture of the Jewish people, rather than religious doctrine and dogma.

As for our daughters, who will turn 18 next month, they are not at all confused.  They understand that identity is complicated and not tied in a neat ribbon.  This week, as we celebrate Hanuka together, they will light our two menorahs and decorate our Christmas tree.  At Sholem, they have received a solid secular Jewish education where they have learned about the Jewish part of their identity and discovered that the presence of a tree does not undermine their heritage.  Actually, in many ways they are far less “confused” about their Jewish identity than I was or may ever be, Christmas tree, lights, gifts, cheer and all.

Marilyn McLaughlin is a Movement Therapist, Fall Prevention Specialist and Adjunct Professor of Dance at Loyola Marymount University. She is also a member of the board of directors of the Sholem Community,

The convert and the Christmas tree

For me, Christmas was always something other people did. Growing up in a Jewish home, I watched the holiday’s rituals unfold in movies, on TV and in the homes of friends: hanging ornaments on a tree, unwrapping presents and singing songs of Yuletide cheer (whatever that means).
As a kid in the United States, it’s literally impossible to avoid Christmas, unless you live in certain neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The music blasts from every radio station and department store, and the shopping mall Santas beckon you nearer. I secretly wanted to celebrate Christmas so I could be like everyone else. The Chanukah candles were nice, but their soft glow paled in comparison to the tinsel and bulbs of the Christmas tree. And how can “I Have a Little Dreidel” even compare to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” perhaps the greatest Christmas song of all?
I’m now 34 and have never had a Christmas tree in my home. My girlfriend, Amanda, who is not Jewish and who I live with, has suggested buying one, but I always tell her that it feels weird to me. Even though I don’t keep kosher or maintain Shabbat, somehow having a Christmas tree feels like a repudiation of my Jewish upbringing.
We’re now enrolled in “Judaism by Choice,” a weekly class for those interested in converting or at least gaining a greater understanding of what it means to be Jewish. We learn about the history, traditions and practices of the Jews. We were even “married” in a fake wedding in class, to learn about the customs of Jewish marriage. It’s basically Hebrew school for grownups. 
In a lecture on Christianity and Judaism, our instructor, Rabbi Neal Weinberg, explained that a Jewish family should not have a Christmas tree in their home. And no Chanukah bush, either.
“There can’t be fusion of different religious groups,” Weinberg told me in an interview. “It can be confusing to children. They’re wondering, why are we doing Christian holidays in our home? If you’re Jewish, you’ve got to get across to your children that you’re Jewish. We have our own holidays. We respect other people and their holidays. But that does not mean that we have to incorporate [them] into our home life.”
After class, Amanda was clearly upset. A Christmas tree, she explained, is symbolic of her childhood. It means family, togetherness and unity. As someone who loves crafting and worships the ground that Martha Stewart walks on, she had looked forward to someday teaching her children how to hand-paint ornaments and hang lights and bake cookies. She wanted to decorate the house and make eggnog and throw Christmas parties.
I feel like a jerk for denying her this. What’s wrong with a Christmas tree? Amanda is not religious and sees the tree as a purely secular object. Why can’t we celebrate both holidays? 
I sought a second opinion from Rabbi Susan Goldberg, who mentors converts at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. She also was the consulting rabbi on one of my favorite shows this year, “Transparent,” on Amazon Prime, and is well-versed in the challenges facing young Jews.
Goldberg agreed that Jews shouldn’t have a tree in their homes and acknowledged that December can be the most grueling month for someone wanting to convert to Judaism. Many fear that disconnecting from the faith of their upbringing also means disconnecting from their families. 
“For most folks in our dominant Christian culture, this is a big question, and it generates a lot of emotion,” she said. “The Christmas tree is this very powerful symbol when it’s in the home.” 
I asked some of my classmates how they’re handling the idea of relinquishing the Christmas tree. Sarah Reeves, a psychotherapist in Long Beach, is in the process of converting to Judaism to marry her fiance, Ben. She had an artificial Christmas tree that he didn’t want in the home because he saw it as a Christian symbol. She didn’t see it that way.
“Because I didn’t grow up in an organized religion, it just seemed like American culture. I never really associated it with any kind of religion,” she said.
Reeves still bakes Christmas cookies with daughter Sophia, 7. They hang stockings and go to Christmas parties. But she agreed to let the tree go.
“I donated the tree to my daughter’s school, and I took all the ornaments, and I had to get creative about how to display them in our home, so I ended up stringing them on ribbon. And I tried to make it a thing for my daughter and I to do together,” Reeves said. “I just couldn’t get rid of all the ornaments because I’d collected them over the years.”
“I’m a little disappointed that we can’t have a Chanukah tree,” sighed Emily Fredrick, a real estate agent in Beverly Hills. “I was really looking forward to that.”
Fredrick was raised in a religious Baptist home in Dallas and went to church three times a week. She’s excited about converting to Judaism but acknowledges that there are some things about Christmas that she’ll miss. 
“As a child growing up, we would get up at 4 in the morning for Santa to come,” Fredrick said. “I’m thinking, like, ‘How am I going to make it exciting for my children?’ ”
Danielle Sebring, a first-grade teacher in Los Angeles, had similar concerns. “I had always had this image of decorating a Christmas tree with my children someday, because that’s what I did growing up, and making cookies and leaving them out for Santa,” she said. 
Sebring converted to Judaism this year after marrying her husband, who is Jewish. Before converting, she said, “I almost had to go through this grieving process for these expectations that I had around the holidays.”
The first year Sebring and her husband were married, they had a Christmas tree and they also celebrated Chanukah. Last year, she had a small, tabletop tree with lights. This winter will be her first without a tree.
“It’s a very nostalgic thing. For me, it was a big part of my family growing up, and so it really makes me feel connected to them. And that can be hard to let go of,” Sebring said.
Clearly, Christmas is connected to a lot of deep-rooted feelings, and most of them have nothing to do with religion.
“I don’t think, for most of the people who go through my program, that the struggle in giving up Christmas is about a struggle in giving up Christianity,” said Rabbi Adam Greenwald, who leads the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University.
“I think it’s a struggle in giving up a piece of their cultural and family story, at a time that they associate with really warm and wonderful memories.”
Greenwald tells converts to examine the emotions they associate with Christmas and look for ways to celebrate them in a Jewish context.
“The Jewish calendar is replete with holidays, certainly more holidays than are practiced in the Christian tradition. And I think there are opportunities to do all of the kind of sweet family experiences around those holidays that one does around Christmas,” he said.
As kids, we’re taught that Chanukah is a celebration of the rededication of the Second Temple and the last flask of ritual olive oil lasting eight days instead of one. As grownups, we learn that before the Maccabees waged war against the Syrian Greeks, there was a fierce and often violent internal conflict between traditional and assimilated Jews over whether to adopt a Hellenistic lifestyle.
The same debate exists today, and Christmas is a perfect example of a mainstream practice that’s hard to avoid or to resist. 
“Wrestling with these questions is very much the heart of the Chanukah story. That’s why it’s wonderful that it happens this time of year,” Goldberg said. “Those questions of assimilation and distinctiveness are really useful conversations to have.”
Amanda is still deciding whether she wants to convert to Judaism, and I’m still deciding whether Christmas is OK to celebrate as a Jew. We spent Thanksgiving at her sister’s house, where we helped buy a Christmas tree and decorated it with Amanda’s 8-year-old niece. It was a beautiful experience, but I’m not sure it’s one my children will have — at least, not in their own home. There are no easy choices or easy answers. 

The whole megillah: Ten reasons to love Purim

So what is Purim about? This short guide explains the various holiday traditions and celebrations, as well as a few suggestions of unique and fun ways to partake in the festivities.

1. Megillah Reading

One of four mitzvot, or commandments, on Purim is listening to the reading of Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther, at night and in the morning. In the tale, Esther, the new Persian queen, saves the Jews from destruction by the evil Haman. When reading the name of Haman and his family — symbols of all the Jews’ enemies — it’s customary to drown it out by making noise, often using groggers, or noisemakers. It is also customary to repeat the happy ending of the story: La’Yehudim hayta ora v’simcha (And the Jews had joy and light).

In conjunction with the community-building initiative Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim hosts its annual multilingual megillah reading, featuring Afrikaans, Klingon and Luganda, among others on March 3. In addition, Ugandan Rabbi Gershom Sizomu and his family will attend as special guests. A noisemaker and mask-making workshop, a pizza dinner (reservations needed) and Havdalah precede the 7:45 p.m. Megillah reading, followed by skits and Israeli dancing.

Beth Chayim Chadashim, 6000 West Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 931-7023,

Making the joy of Purim accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing, Temple Beth Am is introducing a special PowerPoint presentation of Megillat Esther at their 8:15 p.m. sanctuary service on March 3. At the service, geared for children in the lower elementary grades to adults, sixth- and seventh-graders from Pressman Academy will read the megillah, which will be projected in Hebrew and English, along with graphics, onto a large screen. The program was developed by the Orthodox Union’s National Jewish Council for Disabilities and is also suitable for the elderly and individuals with learning disabilities.

Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd. (310) 652-7353,

For more information about the Orthodox Union program, call Batya Jacob at (212) 613-8127 or visit

2. Costumes

After the Jews were saved in the eleventh hour from Haman’s evil decree (implemented by King Ahasuerus), the megillah says their world was turned from sorrow to joy: “As the days wherein the Jews rested from their enemies, and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning into a good day.” And so Purim is topsy-turvy day, where people — kids especially — dress up in costume. Many wear costumes of characters in the Book of Esther, but others have made it into a generic “Jewish Halloween.”

Adele’s of Hollywood offers a 10 percent discount on all Purim costumes. Choose from hundreds of children’s outfits from newborn to size 14, from $25 to $65. Adult costumes are also available, for sale or rent, from $65 to $150. Open Purim day by appointment.

Adele’s of Hollywood, 5034 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 663-2231.

Ursula’s Costumes has 2,000 costumes for purchase or rent. Adult costumes, mostly one of a kind, rent for $50 to $300 (the latter for an elaborate Venetian ball gown). They retail for $30 to $300. Children’s costumes sell for $20 to $60.

Ursula’s Costumes, 2516 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 582-8230.

Etoile offers a plethora of Purim guises, along with hats, shoes, makeup and other accessories. Rent an adult costume from $21 to $400 or more, or purchase one for about $45. Children’s costumes sell for $20 to $60.

Etoile, 18849 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana. (818) 343-3701.

3. Shpiels

One of the ways to celebrate the joys of Purim is the shpiel, a comedic performance planned for months in advance that ranges from satires of the original Purim story to skits parodying Jewish or communal life. Some synagogue shpiels use broad humor while others are roasts of the rabbi, president and congregational politics.

At Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, Cantor Marcelo Gindlin adds an Argentine twist to “The Megillah According to Broadway” by New York shpiel-meister and accountant Norman Roth. Featuring synagogue members and fifth- and sixth-grade religious school students, the musical will be presented March 2, following 7 p.m. Shabbat services and a megillah reading.

Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, 24855 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. (310) 456-2178.

Boogie with Congregation Kol Ami at “Uptown Shushan, Esther in the Big City,” a full-scale, original Motown Purim production on March 3. The evening begins at 7 p.m. with Havdalah and a megillah reading in Hebrew, English and Spanish, followed by the musical with its cast of 25. Afterward, dance to the cool spinning of DJ Groovy David.

Congregation Kol Ami, 1200 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 606-0996.

Come to “Avenue P” at Temple Isaiah on March 3, where Mr. Rogers narrates the Purim story. Esther, Mordecai and the usual cast of Purim characters appear as puppets, along with three sunglasses-wearing, Haman-conspiring camels. Religious school students, with handmade sock puppets, serve as a Greek chorus. “Avenue P,” free and fun for the whole family, follows the 7 p.m. megillah reading.

Temple Isaiah, 10345 West Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310)277-2772.

4. Carnivals

Purim is made for children. And so are Purim carnivals, which feature raffles, games, costume contests, food and fun. But carnivals are not just for kids. Adults can enjoy a little bit of cotton candy, too. While carnivals in the city often are held before the holiday, Purim falls on a weekend this year, and so do many carnivals.

Learn about organizations that tackle poverty, AIDS, illiteracy and other social ills at IKAR’s second-annual Justice Carnival at the Westside JCC and have fun at the same time. The Justice Carnival for Adults on March 3, 8:30 p.m., also features blackjack, Scotch tasting and dancing. For families, the Justice Carnival offers a moon bounce, face painting and spin art, as well as games and food on March 4, 1:15 p.m. $5-$25 (members), $10-$35 (non-members).

IKAR, Westside Jewish Community Center, 5870 West Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870.

The Aftermath

“Are you sure we won’t scare him off?” my aunt asked when I called to formally ask whether my boyfriend could come to our crazy seder.

That question echoed through my head as I introduced him to the gaggle of cousins and family members who greeted us at the door. Most of them had read my previous column for this page, in which I deliberated whether bringing him would be a good idea. I could read their thoughts, “Wow, he actually came!” While I’m sure some others were thinking, “Brave soul.” I could see the question, “Who is he?” in the eyes of some of my younger cousins, but all I did was introduce and smile. Once the initial surge was over, we pushed our way into the living room, which had become a makeshift dining room for oodles of family members. I could sense the engineering talent that it took to transform the space, as all 42 of us — family members, friends and guests — took our seats.

I had prepped my boyfriend for what he was going to encounter. From a Hebrew 101 lesson the night before, to a quick 1-2-3 seder crash course in the car ride over. With my sister as my partner-in-crime, we introduced the flight to Japan (yeah, don’t ask), our Mr. Potato Head chant (really not sure where that one came from), our sandpaper-clapping-won’t-stop-until-everyone-does-it L’Shana Haba’a routine and a lesson about the correct pronunciation of “Dayenu.”

The night began and as we sat around with sparkly crowns on our heads, since we are supposed to feel like royalty (great addition by the way, Leora!), I kept stealing glances at my guy. He did have a slight deer-in-headlights look, especially after we had heard the “Mah Nishtana” in Hebrew, Aramaic, Russian, French, Yiddish and Klingon. OK, kidding about the last one, but it’s close enough. But the look quickly faded into a silly grin, especially once the frogs started flying.

Frogs here, frogs there, frogs were flying everywhere!

It was about that time that I realized I had forgotten to warn him about the other plagues. He was definitely surprised once the “hail” — pingpong balls — were launched. One whizzed by and landed in front of us. I looked over and was met with a smile, so with a playful glint in my eye I tossed my pingpong ball…errr… hail backward over my head and turned around just in time to see it land perfectly in my cousin’s cup. Of course I asked if in true pseudo-Purim carnival fashion I had won a goldfish for my marvelous abilities — I’m still waiting for the answer. He definitely took it in stride when handfuls of “lice” (slimy glow-in-the-dark insects) were tossed around and landed inside more than one person’s crown, and he grabbed at the chance to don a zebra mask in tribute to the disease of the livestock.

Dinner came into fruition around 11 p.m. (so early!) and we all ate, talked and enjoyed ourselves. The night was going famously, and I hoped it would last through the third and fourth cups of wine, when the kids start falling asleep, and the adults become even more boisterous — if that’s possible.

As the night continued we pounded the tables, spilled many cups of wine, and turned the floor into an indefinable mish-mash combining plastic frogs, pieces of matzah, pillows that had slipped off chairs and a young child or two who had crawled beneath the tables to snooze.

I know for a fact that my boyfriend thought we were nuts as we “ooh-ah-ahhed” our way through the second-to-last song. But he didn’t just stare at me with concern in his eyes, he didn’t look at me like I was an escapee of the Hagaddah House of Horrors, he joined in. Perhaps he was a bit shy at first, but as he looked around and saw that we were all doing it, that we were all participating in these crazy traditions, he gained an inner confidence and began to mimic our movements. He adopted our mishegoss for a night, our sounds effects for “Chad Gad Ya,” meowing, bamming and “watering” along with the rest of us.

Was he tired after his first marathon seder? You bet. Was he amazed that it was past 2 a.m. when we finished? I know I was. Was he wishing he didn’t have to wake up at 7 a.m. to go to work the next day? I have no doubt. But he did it all with an open mind and a smile on his face, which is all I could have ever wanted, or asked for.

And yes, he even called me the next day. Did we scare him off? Nope — or should I say, not yet? I wonder when I should start prepping him for cousins’ camp “beach days”…. Hmmm. I think I’ll give him some more time.

Caroline Cobrin is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She can be reached at

Saying Goodbye 101

On Sept. 1, my husband, Larry, and I will move our son, Gabriel, into his dormitory room at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., where he will begin his freshman year.

How do we formally honor this important rite of passage that, more than a bar mitzvah and more than his high school graduation, marks Gabe’s entrance into adulthood, with all the concomitant responsibilities?

Let me say that another way.

How do we kiss Gabe goodbye without dissolving into pitiful, sobbing fools who will undoubtedly embarrass our son and ourselves?

Judaism gives us plenty of advice on child-rearing. Proverbs 22:6, for example, says, “Train a child in the way he should go, so when he is old he will not depart from it.”

But what Judaism doesn’t give us, when a child is old enough to depart from us, is a ritual to mark the sanctity of the occasion and, no matter how much we anticipate the eventual prospect of an empty nest, to contain our overwhelming emotions.

“By its very nature, this is something that can’t be contained,” Gabe insists. “I just have to go out and live it.”

But how do we live it?

We, who know from experience — our oldest, Zack, is beginning his senior year of college — how gut-wrenching the actual leave-taking is.

We, who know from experience how permanently our family configuration will — once again — seismically shift.

What can we do beyond opening a new checking account and beyond ordering, among other things, two sets of extra-long sheets and a hamper?

And beyond playing Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young” over and over in the car and hysterically crying, a form of implosion therapy recommended by my psychologist friend Jody, whose oldest child leaves for college this month.

Surprisingly, Judaism offers a number of leaving home ceremonies. The oldest I discovered, dating back to the 1970s and found in “The Second Jewish Catalogue” (The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1976), is called “On Leaving Home: A New Rite of Passage.” It recommends several home rituals, since Judaism places so much emphasis on the family, that range from hosting Havdalah, the quintessential Jewish separation ceremony, to invoking the traditional Jewish blessing over the children.

Others can be found on, a Web site that collects and makes available a variety of innovative Jewish ceremonies and traditions. One includes a father’s prayer to be read at the Shabbat table while another provides a ceremony for affixing, if permissible, a mezuzah on the child’s dorm doorpost.

And the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) publishes “T’filot HaDerech,” “Rituals for the Road to College” (available at Part of the Packing for College Initiative, proposed by Rabbi Eric Yoffie at the union’s 67th biennial almost two years ago, the booklet includes rituals and readings for congregations, families and individuals to celebrate this modern life passage.

Additionally, a few congregations have moved confirmation to the end of 12th grade, enabling the students, according to Rabbi Fred Guttman’s article in the spring 2005 issue of Reform Judaism magazine, “… to intertwine what it means to come of age both as Jews and as young adults — the emotional touchstones of graduation and leaving home for college.”

But why haven’t these leaving home ceremonies taken off? Why aren’t we gathering together as families, as day school classes and as congregations before sending our 18-year-olds off to college? After all, we Jews are adept at marking life transitions that challenge and overwhelm us — birth, adolescence, marriage and death — with ceremonies that comfort, contain and sustain us.

“Perhaps it’s because we tend to focus on b’nai mitzvah, confirmation and graduation,” Rabbi Michael Mellen, director of youth programs at URJ, says. “As a whole, we see [leaving home] as a natural progression that just sort of happens and doesn’t need something to bring it home spiritually.”

But he recognizes the need, along with the beauty and power, of a ceremony to bring parents and young adults together at this moment.

And so, on Aug. 26, the Shabbat prior to Gabe’s departure, Larry and I will integrate a small ceremony into our Shabbat dinner, something to give voice to our excitement and our pain, our pride and our fears.

“What do you plan to do?” Gabe asks suspiciously.

“We will each say something nice about you and talk about what we will miss most,” I answer.

“This is serious, isn’t it?” he says.

And Larry and I will bestow the traditional blessing: “May God bless you and protect you. May God’s face give light to you and show you favor. May God bestow favor upon you and give you peace.”

Carleton College has given us parents a graph to show just how bumpy a student’s adjustment to college can be — from honeymoon to culture shock to initial adjustment to mental isolation to acceptance and integration.

We parents have an equally bumpy road ahead.

And so, on Sept. 2, when Larry and I say our final goodbye to Gabe, no matter how meaningful our last Shabbat dinner and no matter how many times we have cried to “Forever Young,” we will undoubtedly fall apart.

Then, as Gabe says, we will just have to go out and live it.


‘Food Maven’ Saves Endangered Recipes


“Jewish Food: The World at Table” by Matthew Goodman (HarperCollins, $29.95)

When the El-Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia was bombed by Al Qaeda in 2002, the fragile remnant of a once thriving Jewish community was even further shattered.

“The Tunisian Jewish community is one of the oldest continuous Jewish communities in the world,” said Matthew Goodman, author of “Jewish Food: The World at Table,” from his home in Brooklyn, “and the site of El-Ghriba was one of the most ancient, going back, I believe, to the fifth century B.C.E. As of 1948 there were 100,000 Jews in Tunisia. Today there are fewer than 2,000.”

As the “Food Maven” columnist at The Forward, Goodman used his reporting skills to search out diverse cuisines of far-flung, once vital centers of Jewish life, some now on the brink of extinction.

“What I tried to do with this book was to locate and preserve food traditions from communities around the world that are today endangered because the communities themselves are endangered,” he said. “So many of them weren’t able to survive the 20th century or survive only in the most attenuated form.”

More than 170 recipes, some of which have never before been written down, document the rich and varied Jewish culture of 29 countries, linked by law and ritual, yet distinguished by unique customs, traditions and celebrations, the history of a people told through its food.

But what is Jewish food? Can it even be defined?

“There are very few dishes that are shared by all Jewish communities around the world,” Goodman noted, “only two or three, and only one shared ingredient, matzah. You couldn’t define a cuisine based entirely on matzah. Jewish food is food that has been made by Jewish communities through the centuries and sustained by them, wherever they happened to be.”

Both Ashkenazic and Sephardic cuisines and cultures are celebrated, so you see the Sabbath stew, one of the few dishes shared by all Jewish communities — charoset is another — in the Solet of Hungary and the Moroccan Dafina.

“Jewish Food” is an exciting read, filled with fascinating history. Did you know the mother of King Ferdinand of Spain was a converso, that Yemenites were the only people on earth who used Hebrew for communication before it became the official language of Israel and that the earliest borscht was made not from beets but from parsnips?

Nestled among the recipes are essays on selected ingredients, dishes and communities, deepening our understanding of their historical context.

“Food is kind of a repository of a community’s history,” Goodman observed. “You can see the wanderings of people over time. You can see the influence of conquest, of poverty, of travel. Food becomes a history lesson on a plate.”

As an example, he cited the use of pine nuts and raisins in Roman Jewish cooking, as in the Italian Matzo Fritters with Honey Syrup.

“These ingredients were brought to Sicily by the Arabs where the Jews learned how to use them. Then when they got kicked out of Sicily during the Spanish Inquisition, they brought them when they moved up to Rome. The cinnamon and honey sauce, giulebbe, you find in a lot of Roman Jewish desserts. You can see the history of these people in this dish.”

And what would Passover be without macaroons? But, if you’ve tasted only the store-bought variety, you’re in for a treat.

“The same way that gefilte fish has gotten a bad name because most people think it comes out of a jar, macaroons got a bad name because they think they come in those metal tins,” noted Goodman. “Macaroons you make yourself are so much better and just phenomenally simple to make.”

The Pistachio Macaroons are made with rosewater, “a very common ingredient in Middle Eastern cooking, as are pistachios, and used a lot by Syrians,” he said. “They’re a nice alternative for people who want something a little different than the typical coconut macaroons.”

Sadly, some recipes are irretrievable, Goodman said.

“There are so few of these dishes left,” he said. “It’s really like an extinct species. So many generous people shared their recipes with me. Some in the New York area would invite me to their home and let me cook with them in their kitchen. It was just an amazingly moving experience for me. But with each recipe they’d give me, they’d say, ‘I wish you could have tried these other two that so-and-so used to do, but she died.’ That dish is gone forever.”

Pizzarelle Con Giulebbe (Italian Matzah Fritters with Honey Syrup)

1 cup honey
1/2 cup water
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon


5 matzahs, broken into small pieces
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon kosher for Pesach vanilla
Pinch of salt
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup pine nuts
3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 egg whites
Vegetable oil for deep frying

1. Make the syrup: Combine the honey, water and cinnamon in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cover and bring to a boil, then uncover, lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring regularly. Remove from heat and let cool. Pour into a serving bowl.
2. Make the batter: Place the matzah pieces in a bowl of cold water and soak until soft but not falling apart, one to two minutes. Drain in a colander and squeeze out any excess water. In a large bowl, mix together the matzah pieces, sugar, vanilla, salt, raisins, pine nuts and egg yolks.
3. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry. Gently fold the beaten egg whites into the matzo mixture.
4. Make the pizzarelle: In a Dutch oven or other large, heavy pot, heat at least 2 inches of oil to 375 F on a deep-fat thermometer. In small batches, drop heaping tablespoons of the matzah mixture into the oil. Fry in batches, turning as necessary, until they are a deep brown on all sides, about five minutes total. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Serve warm or at room temperature, accompanied by the honey syrup.
Makes about 25.

Pistachio Macaroons

3 cups (about 1 pound)
shelled pistachios
1 cup sugar
3 egg whites
1 1/2 teaspoons rosewater

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease two baking sheets or line them with parchment paper.
2. Grind the pistachios with the sugar in the bowl of a food processor, leaving some chunks for texture; transfer the mixture to a large bowl.
3. Beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry. Gently fold them, with the rosewater, into the pistachio mixture.
4. Drop the batter by heaping tablespoonfuls in balls onto the prepared baking sheets, leaving at least 1 inch between. Bake until lightly browned, 17 to 20 minutes. Let cool on the baking sheets for a few minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.
Makes about 30.

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Sexual Taboos Split Persian Generations


Like many single Jews, Sharona Saghian met her husband on JDate, the Internet dating service aimed at Jewish singles. Although by doing so, the 28-year-old broke her community’s old, venerated matchmaking traditions.

Saghian is Persian and in her community most parents prefer to know the background of their child’s prospective mate when dating begins.

“Meeting someone through the Internet is very difficult, and most Persian families wouldn’t approve of it because it breaks with tradition,” Saghian said. “I met my husband through the Internet because I wanted to try something different.”

This change is yet another example of the widening generation gap between older and younger Persian Jews in Southern California. After 25 years of growing up in the United States, Persian Jews in their 20s and early 30s are increasingly questioning their community’s social taboos and expectations, while trying to forge their own identities.

With the majority of older Persian Jews having been raised in Iran’s socially conservative and male-dominated society, their children are now grappling with issues of dating, marriage and sex as Iranian standards come into conflict with American expectations.

“Although we have been in the United States for over 20 years, we still haven’t acclimated into American society,” said Sharon Taftian, 22. “The biggest problem is that our parents do not fully understand the culture their kids are growing up in.”

Taftian was one of about 100 young professional Persian Jews who participated in an open discussion at the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana last month. The event was just one of many recent efforts by a few in the local Persian community to enable young Jews to voice their concerns, frustrations and fears about their social difficulties without being rejected by their elders.

“Our younger generation does not have a venue to talk to each other; they are still unable to talk in public, especially when their parents are present,” said Dariush Fakheri, co-founder of Eretz-SIAMAK. “We wanted to offer them an opportunity that they are not used to having at home or with older people.”

Many young Persian Jews say premarital sex is one taboo not discussed. A double standard in the community still strongly disapproves of young women having sex before marriage but looks the other way when it comes to young men who do.

“I think our parents came from a different environment, where they were not sexually free, and they have a hard time accepting the way of life here,” said Liane Kattan, 27, of Los Angeles.

Dr. Shawn Omrani, an Iranian Jewish psychiatrist in Beverly Hills, said that young Jewish women in Iran were married in their late teens, so maintaining virginity until marriage didn’t hold the same stigma that it does in today’s American culture.

“In Iran, virginity for a woman was a virtue, and she remained that way for a few years until getting married at a young age,” Omrani said. “Here, the average age of marriage is much higher for a woman, because they want to grow, get an education and experience life. So it may be unrealistic to expect them to remain virgins for many years before getting married.”

Many Persian parents may have difficulty discussing issues of sex with their children, Omrani said, because in the past in Iran, even though some extended families lived together and knew of couples having sex, their society prohibited them from discussing sex openly.

A number of young Persian Jewish women said a few of their Persian female friends who have been sexually active before marriage have chosen to have gynecological surgeries in order to create the effect of them being virgins, because of the pressure their community has placed on them to keep their virginity.

This is not a new trend. Omrani says that in the past, sexually active women had this procedure done before getting married.

Several young Persian Jews said they were frustrated with their relatives getting involved with their decisions to find a spouse and pressuring them to get married at a younger age.

“Whether you like it or not, whatever you do when you’re younger comes back to haunt you, because people in the community remember if you had a boyfriend and bring that up when you’re looking to get married,” Saghian said.

Other young Persian Jews say their friends sometimes have trouble marrying other Persian Jews since individuals in the community have preconceived notions of their family’s background.

“Everyone knows everyone in the community,” said Robert Kavian, 35, of Brentwood. “They base their notions of you on your family’s reputation and name, so it can be beneficial or negative.”

A large number of young Persian Jews contacted for this story declined to give their names or discuss taboo topics. They feared being ostracized or being the subject of rumors by older individuals in the community.

“The biggest problem in the community is that there’s a lot of gossip, with people making up things about you that aren’t true, just because they don’t like the way you are or think,” said Nora Tavili, 24.

Social science experts within the Persian Jewish community said the fear among young Persian Jews to voice their opposition to their community’s taboos is not unique since change is not welcomed in many tight-knit cultures. They say individuals seeking changes are often attacked.

“Not too many people have the guts to stand up and talk about these issues,” Omrani said. “This is something that the younger generation in our community needs to work on. If anyone can change the trend in our community, it’s the younger people, because they can’t depend on their parents to do it since their parents are too set in their ways.”

Omrani says younger Persian Jews can overcome many of their societal difficulties through greater education and communication with their parents about their societal problems.

“I think the younger generation should not dismiss their parents’ experience, because experience itself is very valuable,” he said. “For example, young people should learn that making love is the highest level of emotional, spiritual and physical intimacy, and it has to be shared with someone very special, otherwise sex is just a simple physical release.”

Parents in the Persian Jewish community must also educate themselves about their children, their new society and hold onto their good values, but also have the flexibility to let go of some of their older traditions that are not constructive, Omrani said.

He said many of the taboos young Persian Jews face today may dissipate in the future as the community is more exposed to the American culture and psychology.


Did You Know…?

Did You Know…?


• Sometimes the marriage ceremony is held outdoors. Particularly in ultra-Orthodox and Chasidic weddings — but anyone can do this — the marriage ceremony is performed outside at night. The custom developed because the stars are associated with God speaking to Abraham: “I will bless thee and multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven and as the sand of the seashore” (Genesis 22:17).


• The bride stands to the right of the groom because of a biblical verse is Psalms (45:10): “The queen stands on your right hand in fine gold of Ophir.”

In Jewish tradition, the bride is a queen and the groom is the king.


• A light bulb is often substituted for a glass during the ceremony. Since many believe the main purpose of breaking the glass is to create noise (to scare away the demons), some prefer a light bulb because it is easier to break and usually makes a louder noise.

Will You Marry Me?

Grooms are making big productions of their proposals these days. Sometimes they rent a billboard; sometimes they pop the question at a quiet, intimate time; sometimes it is in a restaurant while a violinist plays their favorite song.

What’s in Style Today?


• Bridal suits are making a comeback.


• Rosette details on sleeves, bodices and backs are in the news. Rosettes are also used on the headpiece and accessories to complement the wedding gown.


• Pink, peach, and other pastels are a fashionable alternative to traditional white, ivory and silky white.


• Beads, lace, sequins, pearls and embroidery are used for embellishments.


• In place of a regular wedding album, you might also choose a “storybook” plan, where the photographer takes continuous pictures so that you end up with a copy of a picture of each event and each shot. (This produces a very large and thorough album, and is more expensive than a standard album.)

Little Tricks of For a Great Wedding

For Him:

If you are able to control the music, select a romantic one. She will always remember the song that played when he proposed — and it is bound to become “your song.”

For Her:

Are you going to have a “Presentation of the Bride?” The groom is brought into a room before the ceremony. There he finds the bride, looking her most beautiful, in her wedding attire. The couple has some time to spend together, after which they have the signing of the ketubah and take photographs.

Other Kooky Wedding Customs


•Couples in 18th-century Mexico shaved their heads to signify their adulthood.


•French suitors sent their nail clippings to their betrothed.


•In 18th-century England, a new bride’s mother-in-law broke a loaf of bread over her head to bring luck and happiness to the couple.


•Polish brides brought luck and happiness to their new homes by walking around a fire three times and kicking each door with their right foot.


•Prenuptial agreements, which have enjoyed a resurgence, actually date back to ancient Jewish and Roman marriages.

How To Get Through the Day


• Stay Calm.


• Break away for a few minutes


• Take some deep breaths.


• Keep focused and avoid problems before they become problems.


• Just remember: The most important parts of planning an event is having fun and enjoying the benefits of all your hard work. With careful planning, even the most elaborate and glamorous affair can be a dream.

Joan Greenberger Friedman lives in Reading, Pa., and can be reached at

Tips to Engage Your Family in the New Year

"Dad, I have my first big test in biology next Thursday," Sandy explained.

"Next Thursday?"


"Sorry, honey, you are going to have to miss it. Next Thursday is Rosh Hashanah and I want you to go to services with me."

"Dad, I can’t miss the test. Mrs. Smith said that the only excuse was a death in the family or our own death — and I think she meant it, literally."

"No, you will go to services , end of discussion."

Sandy was very unhappy with her father’s position. Her father was Jewish, but he hardly stepped foot in the synagogue all year long. Her mother was a Seventh Day Adventist. She didn’t have a problem with skipping Rosh Hashanah services. And both of Sandy’s parents stressed the importance of school. Unlike her friends, she could never take a "personal" day off. Now that she wanted to be in school, her dad said no.

Sandy called asking for my support. She wanted me to call her dad and tell him to let her go to class on Thursday. She realized that it was strange asking a rabbi to persuade a Jew to let his daughter miss services, but Sandy was convinced there was morality in going to school and hypocrisy in going to services.

The blessings of interfaith families are many. However, when families are not clear about their faith direction, when parents struggle not just with their spouse’s faith but with their own, the results may be less than blessed. The question Sandy was trying to ask was, "How do interfaith families deal with the High Holidays?" It is an important — and, at times, difficult — question to answer.

The High Holidays are the central communal worship experience for Jews. For centuries, these days have drawn disparate Jewish families to the synagogue to recite prayers acknowledging our failures and searching how we might become better and more complete Jews and human beings. The essential themes of the High Holidays are repentance and renewal.

So what do interfaith families do with these High Holidays?

There are no simple answers. Each family will swim in interfaith waters with their own unique strokes. All I can offer are some simple coaching tips to make the swim easier and more enjoyable.


• High Holidays are family events. Share in an erev Rosh Hashanah dinner before services. Have a family break-the-fast after Yom Kippur. Invite all members of the family, regardless of their individual faiths, to help create family memories, just like we do at Thanksgiving.


• Attend High Holiday services as a family. Just because a family member is of another faith, the family is stronger when it celebrates together. If your synagogue permits, invite those members of your extended family who practice other faiths to join you at some of the High Holiday services. This will help them understand the history and importance that our Jewish traditions hold. (Of course, check with your synagogue first, to make sure you can get enough tickets for these family members. Also, selecting one of the shorter segments of the service for them to attend would probably be wise.)


• As a family, take this season as an opportunity to do some soul-searching. Have a family meeting and share your successes and disappointments during the past (Jewish) year. Discuss what each family member can commit to doing that will help the whole family to grow. Make a family covenant, describing what you promise to one another. It can be a simple piece of paper or an elaborate family art project.


• Rosh Hashanah is a wonderful time to plan out the family year — what vacations will be taken, what allowances will be given out, what curfews, house rules or chores will be expected of each family member. It is a way of acknowledging the start of a new year for your family.

There are dozens of wonderful ways to incorporate the High Holidays into an interfaith family. The key is to focus on making Judaism a part of one’s everyday life. Sandy’s struggle existed because Judaism was being imposed, as a foreign object.

My response to Sandy?

I asked her if she thought of herself as Jewish. She paused. Then she said, "No one has ever asked me that question before. I know I am not Christian. I don’t believe in Christian doctrine. I am not sure if I’m Jewish. Why?"

I explained to Sandy that if she felt she was Jewish, she should be at services for Rosh Hashanah, that it was central to her identity as a member of a community. However, if she rejected being Jewish, I would be happy to speak with her father. Sandy said she would think it over and let me know.

I didn’t hear from Sandy. Instead, at the end of Rosh Hashanah services, she approached me, smiling. Her test had been delayed a day, at her request. Then she said, "If I am going to be Jewish, I probably should learn something. Is there another class I can take?"

Serve Up Something Different in 5765

Food is the centerpiece of every Jewish holiday. For Rosh Hashanah especially, our traditional foods are a kind of ritualistic prayer where we ask that the coming year be better than the last. During a time when are lives are weighed and measured, we dip the apple in honey and eat the head of a fish (or broiled cow tongue in certain Sephardic households) to ask for the next year to be sweet and prosperous. Every Rosh Hashanah you probably expect your mom’s famous roast, or the traditional honey cake, but why not make this year about trying new recipes with similar flavors. Sweet is the theme for this season and new cookbooks are varying the holiday fare by borrowing from other culinary cultures and serving up some traditional favorites with a twist. Before you gather around your table this year, check out these latest cookbook offerings and surprise your family and guests with something a little bit different.

It’s so easy to refer time and again to the family recipe book to create your Yom Tov menu, but it’s more exciting to bring other culinary traditions to your holiday table. Dispersed across the globe for centuries, Jews have adopted much of the cuisine of their host countries and incorporated local and available ingredients. Jewish cookbook queen, Joan Nathan, in her book, "Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook" (Schoken, $29.95), has updated the recipes from her two classic books, 1982’s "The Jewish Holiday Kitchen" and 1997’s "The Jewish Holiday Baker," and invites you to prepare classic dishes from Jewish households all over the globe, making this year’s holiday a cross-cultural feast.

Right before the High Holidays, the bakery is always the last place you want to be shopping. This year, instead of taking a number and waiting in an endless line, opt for the simple pleasure of making your own challah. In her book, Nathan includes an authentic Moroccan family recipe for Pain Petri (challah) to spice up your holiday table.

For the main course, go with Persian Fesenjan, a chicken stew made with walnuts and pomegranates — another fruit traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashanah at the beginning of the meal with all of the other symbolic foods. The many seeds of the pomegranate are a sign of fertility, and serving an entrée that incorporates its juice is an original way to further indulge in the seasonal fruit.

Pain Petri (Moroccan Challah)

Note: You can either make this by hand or using a food processor.

7-8 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/3 cup sugar

3 eggs plus 1 yolk

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

1 tablespoon anise seeds

1 1/2 scant tablespoons (1 1/2 packages) active dry yeast

1 1/2 cups warm water

Place 7 cups of flour in a huge bowl. Make a well in the center and place the sugar, three eggs, 1/3 cup of oil, salt and sesame and anise seeds in the well. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water, then add it to the well.

Using your hands, gradually work in the flour with the ingredients in the well. Add more flour as needed. When a medium-stiff dough is formed, knead on a wooden board for about 20 minutes.

Form the dough into a ball, turn it in a greased bowl to coat the surface and cover with a towel. Let rise in a warm place for 30-40 minutes, or until doubled in size. Punch down and knead once more. Divide the dough into five pieces. Either shape each into a round ball or make a long piece of it and twist it into a spiral with the end of the dough at the high point in the center. Cover and let rise for about 1 hour, until doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 375F. Cover a cookie sheet with aluminum foil.

Remove the dough to the cookie sheet. Brush with the remaining egg yolk mixed with the tablespoon of oil and bake for 35-45 minutes.

Persian Fesenjan (Pomegranate-Walnut Chicken Stew)

One 3 1/2-pound chicken, cut up

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 medium onion, chopped

2 cups walnuts, ground

1/3 cup hot water

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 cups pomegranate juice or 1/2 cup pomegranate molasses

1 tablespoon tomato paste

Salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons sugar

Brown the chicken in the oil and remove to drain on a paper towel. Brown the chopped onion in the same oil.

In another pan, brown the walnuts, stirring constantly, without using any shortening. When brown, add the onion. Then slowly add the hot water so that the mixture does not stick. It should not be too liquid — more like a paste. Then add the lemon juice, pomegranate juice, tomato paste, salt and pepper to taste and sugar, stirring with a spoon. When well-mixed, add the chicken.

Bring the mixture just to the point of boiling (not a fast boil). Decrease to a simmer and let cook, covered, until the chicken is very tender, about 45 minutes. If the sauce is not thick enough, remove the chicken and boil the liquid down until the desired thickness is reached, stirring as it cooks.

For a holiday menu rich in fruit and vegetables, a vegetarian cookbook is a great source to draw from on Rosh Hashanah when on the hunt for new recipes. Try a soup with sweet fruits and vegetables to change up the first course. Vegetarian cookbook veteran Nava Atlas, in her new book "The Vegetarian Family Cookbook" (Broadway, $17.95), offers tasty recipes for the die-hard vegetarian or for anyone looking to enrich their diet with more fruits and vegetables. With the plethora of junk food at our fingertips, it is more tempting to reach for potato chips than carrot sticks to satisfy hunger. Inspired by a lack of healthy food choices for adults and children, Atlas compiled a cornucopia of wholesome meals and snacks for even the pickiest eaters. Her Creamy Butternut Squash and Apple Soup is a great starter for the Rosh Hashanah feast, or a fabulous meal by itself when opting for a lighter lunch after days of endless holiday eating.

Creamy Butternut Squash

and Apple Soup

1 large butternut squash

2 tablespoons light olive oil

1 large red onion, chopped

4 cups peeled, diced apple, any cooking variety

4 cups prepared vegetable broth, or 4 cups water with 1 vegetable bouillon cube

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

2 cups low-fat milk, rice milk, or soy milk

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Halve the squash lengthwise with a sharp knife and scoop out the seeds and fibers. Place cut side up in a shallow baking dish and cover tightly with foil. Or, if you’d like a more roasted flavor, simply brush the squash halves with a little olive oil and leave uncovered. Either way, bake for 45-50 minutes, or until tender. Set aside until cool enough to handle.

Heat the oil in a soup pot. Add the onion and sauté over medium-low heat until golden, eight to 10 minutes.

Add the apples, broth and spices. Bring to a simmer, then cover and simmer gently until the apples are soft, about 10 minutes.

In a food processor, puree the squash with 1/2 cup of the milk until completely smooth. Transfer to a bowl.

Transfer the apple-onion mixture to the food processor and puree until completely smooth. Return to the soup pot and add the squash puree; stir together. Add the remaining milk, using a bit more if the puree is too thick.

Bring the soup to a gentle simmer, then cook over low heat until well heated through, five to 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serve at once or let the soup stand off the heat for one to two hours, then heat through as needed before serving.

Serves six.

Honey cake is a great way to end the meal, but Lise Stern’s "How To Keep Kosher" (Morrow, $24.95) offers a great variation you might want to serve after a light pareve or dairy lunch. The sponge honey cake is a tradition not to be forgotten, but Stern livens it up hers with some honey frosting and tops it with caramelized apples. Her creation is one of the many kosher recipes she features in her book which is primarily meant to educate and excite her readers about the fundamentals of kashrut, its origins and modern-day practices.

Honey Layer Cake With

Caramelized Apples

1 large egg

1 cup honey

1 cup plain yogurt, stirred until smooth

1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

Oil for the pans

Preheat the oven to 350F. Spray or lightly grease two 8-inch round cake pans.

Combine the egg, honey, yogurt, melted butter and vanilla in a large bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat on medium speed until well blended.

Put the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a sifter. Sift half the flour into the honey mixture. On low speed, blend until fully incorporated. Sift in the remaining flour and blend in until smooth.

Divide the batter into the prepared pans. Bake at 350F for 25-30 minutes, until pale gold in color and a tester inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean.

Cool in the pans for 20 minutes, then remove and cool on racks.

When fully cool, spread Honey Cream Frosting (see recipe below) between the layers and on the top of the cake (not on the sides). To serve, slice into wedges and put on individual plates. Top each slice with a spoonful of Caramelized Apples (see recipe below).

Makes 12 servings.

Honey Cream Frosting

8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

2 tablespoons salted butter, at room temperature

Pinch salt

3 tablespoons honey

1 1/2 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar

Cream together the cream cheese, butter and salt until smooth, using an electric mixer or a wooden spoon. Blend in the honey, then the confectioners’ sugar. The frosting should be of an easily spreadable consistency. If it seems too thin, add additional sifted confectioners’ sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time.

Caramelized Apples

2 tablespoons salted butter

3 apples (preferably pink lady or gala), peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch chunks

1/4 cup light brown sugar

Melt the butter over medium heat in a medium saucepan. Add the apples and sauté for two minutes. Sprinkle the brown sugar over the apples. Bring to a simmer, then lower the heat, and simmer over low heat for five to 10 minutes, until the apples are softened but still hold their shape. Serve warm; the compote may be reheated.

If the thought of slicing into a rich cake is a bit unbearable after a long meal, opt instead to prepare a helping of Yetta’s Stewed Summer Fruits. Former actress and neophyte cookbook author Pamela Hensley Vincent compiles treasured family recipes in her new scrapbook cookbook, "The Jewish-Sicilian Cookbook" (Overlook Press, $24.95). So much of our history is in our culinary heritage and Vincent offers a glimpse into the lives of her immediate family and the recipes for which they were famous. Yetta’s — short for Henrietta, Vincent’s maternal grandmother — stewed fruit is a light desert that fits neatly into the sweet holiday theme.

Yetta’s Stewed Summer Fruits

4 to 6 peaches, peeled, pitted and quartered

12 plums, pitted and quartered

12 apricots, pitted and quartered

1 pound fresh cherries, stemmed

Juice of 1 lemon (or 2 limes)

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 cup dark rum

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Put the peaches, plums and apricots into a pot. Add the cherries (whole & un-pitted). Add the water, lemon or lime juice, brown sugar, rum and cinnamon. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover the pot, and simmer for about 40 minutes. Allow to cool. Then pour into a glass jar and store in the fridge.

Yields four to six cups.

Sorority Hopes to Join AEPhi Family

I’m sitting in Gina’s Pizza, the local hotspot for members of UC Irvine’s Greeks. The chatter gets progressively louder through the two hours I’m with Epsilon Phi’s in-coming and out-going presidents, Becca Wolfson and Melissa Scholten. The smell of greasy pizza and sub sandwiches hangs in the air. Fraternity brothers talk with food in their mouths. There is literally no room to walk. All the seats inside and on the patio are taken. Crowds of college kids stand to enjoy their slice.

What does it take for a group of Jewish girls to become part of this vertiginous secular sphere of social events?

A whole lot of chutzpah.

It’s not because they’re unwelcome — they are very welcome, indeed — it’s because they’re brand new.

The Greek system, to which the collective of fraternities and sororities at UCI are often referred, includes four main associations, under which about 30 fraternal organizations exist.

Sororities and fraternities provide for their members friendship, leadership, scholarship and service. Memberships in these associations are for a lifetime.

The young women of Epsilon Phi have been making themselves a presence on UCI’s campus since Jan. 9, 2003. Beginning with seven sisters, they have grown into a 26-member sorority, which hopes to someday soon have ties to national sorority Alpha Epsilon Phi.

Melissa, one of seven founders and last year’s chapter president, told me about forming the sorority: "I started asking people [at Hillel] why there wasn’t a Jewish sorority," she said, between bites of her sub sandwich. "The answer was no one had ever started one."

Melissa did her research and found a few national Jewish sororities. She felt Alpha Epsilon Phi had the strongest remaining ties to Judaism.

"Initially, I didn’t know which way to go — from the bottom up or the top down," she said, describing the formation of the chapter. "I wanted to do something that worked for right now. So we, the founders, decided to start a local chapter that would affiliate nationally later."

So Melissa and her six sisters founded the local Epsilon Phi, which is affiliated only with UC Irvine’s campus. They also joined the National Panhellenic Conference, a century-old, national collective of sororities, as an associate member.

Ashley Dye, Greek adviser at UCI, commends the women of Epsilon Phi on their decision to affiliate as an associate member.

"They’ve really connected with other sororities, learned a lot from them as well as met a lot of new people," Dye said. "Like every new group, they’ve had a lot of growing pains and challenges, but I think they’ve done a really good job."

As their chapter grows, the women of Epsilon Phi would like to merge with National Panhellenic sorority Alpha Epsilon Phi, which began in 1909 at Barnard College, at Columbia University in New York. There are more than 100 chapters of Alpha Epsilon Phi across the country, eight chapters in California at campuses including USC, UCLA and CSU Long Beach.

"Like all National Panhellenic Sororities, Alpha Epsilon Phi gives women the opportunity to develop skills, provides camaraderie and adds another dimension to their college experience that special interest clubs cannot provide," said Bonnie Wunsch, executive director of the national sorority.

In addition to swearing in a new president at their winter retreat, the sisters also made hamantaschen and held a havdallah service. Jewish traditions are integrated into the sorority, but it’s identity is not tied to the faith.

"[Alpha Epsilon Phi] is not a religious organization as such, but we give respect to the heritage and history of the founders," Wunsch said.

Founder Helen Phillips was especially instrumental in organizing the sorority. She had no mother, sisters or brothers, and was the only one of the founders that lived in Barnard’s dormitories. According to the sorority’s Web site,, "It was [Helen’s] idea and her persistence more than anything else that brought Alpha Epsilon Phi into existence."

"The sorority accepts women of all religious and ethnic backgrounds, but it also is a place where Jewish women can come to feel at home," Wunsch said.

The young women of Epsilon Phi reached a major milestone during winter quarter at UCI. Their first elected chapter president, Becca, has taken leadership.

Becca was among the "Amazing Alpha" pledge class — the first group of girls to be recruited by the founders. Before taking the office of president in her chapter, she served as social chair, the coordinator of activities between her chapter and other sororities and


"It’s a huge transition, going from social chair and sunshine girl to president," she said. "But, as president, I know what the positions entail. It’s nice to know and have that experience."

Becca planned a cocktail party hosted by Epsilon Phi. Her sisters are also looking forward to spring quarter intramural sports to be played with other sororities.

As for recruiting new members? Word of mouth seems to be the most effective way.

As Becca, Melissa and I squeeze our way through the exit at Gina’s, they stop and say goodbye to a few fellow Greeks. In a crowd like this, word of mouth won’t be hard to come by.

No Worries

My mom yells at me: “Hurry up, it is almost Pesach and we
haven’t done anything yet.”

The memory goes back several years, when I was a teenager living with my parents
and brother in our three-story building in western Tehran.

I walk toward the stove, where a big pot of water boils. My
mother puts dishes and utensils in my hand, and one by one I dunk them into the
boiling water for a few seconds.

Rinsing and kashering utensils, hag’ala, is a tradition my
mom likes to do every year before Passover, although we are not a particularly
religious family. As a matter of fact, there are many Persian Jewish families
in Tehran who, though not especially religious, keep Orthodox traditions.

“It is much easier than when I was a child,” my mother says,
scolding me for my obvious lack of enthusiasm. “Then, we had to put a big
cauldron in the yard and make a fire by hand. We would heat up small rocks and
throw them into the water to make it boil.”

Hag’ala and the process of scrubbing and cleaning the home
of all chametz is only part hard work we do before a Persian Passover. We also
make cookies and roast nuts at home, since we either have guests or we are
supposed to visit our Jewish friends and relatives at their homes every single
day of the eight-day holiday. Usually we set a specific date so others can come
visit us on that day of Passover. This is not a tradition from Jewish history;
it comes to us from Iranian culture. Iranians pay visits to each other during
the Persian New Year as a sign of respect, a pious deed, and Jews adopted it
for Passover.

“You are so slow,” my mom shouts. “I do not know how you
will be able to do all these at your own home when you get married!”

When I lived in Iran I couldn’t imagine a day not living
there or marrying in another country.

My long trip to the United States brought me into contact
with other Jewish cultures. Learning different Jewish practices was both
interesting and sometimes alien.

My first encounter with non-Persian Jews came during my
six-month stop in Vienna on my way out of Iran. Orthodox Austrian rabbis with
beards, payes and black clothes reminded me of the images I had seen in books
and films about Ashkenazi Jews.

In America, surprisingly enough, I learned that there are
different branches of Judaism, something I never knew existed before. I always
used to proudly tell my Muslim friends in Iran: “Judaism is all the same among
us. Jews’ beliefs are all the same; we are not like Muslims and Christians, who
have many different branches with different controversial ideas.”

I was stunned to learn that rice is considered chametz by
Ashkenazi Jews; Persians cannot live without rice.

Time has flown by, and already three years have passed since
I left my homeland.

So much has happened to me in these years. I am married and
live in my own home.

The interim days of Passover are here, and my mother’s angry
words ring in my mind.

Suddenly, I miss my mother so much. I pick up the phone and
dial the long string of numbers from a prepaid phone card. After a few minutes
I hear my mother’s voice on the other side.

I ask her what she is doing and she says: “I am preparing
for mo’ed. You know it is so hard, cleaning, scrubbing, doing hag’ala, going to
the busy butcher shop, kashering and salting meat and chicken, making cookies,
roasting nuts.”

“Mom,” I tell her. “Here you don’t feel the hard work of
Passover at all. Every thing is ready-made. Even cakes and pastries, which
taste exactly the same as ordinary ones are in markets for Pesach. You can even
buy kosher-for-Passover milk here. Isn’t it funny?”

“Here I don’t have to worry about being slow about getting
prepared for Pesach,” I tell her. “There is nothing much to do here for

At that moment I hesitate, and the words choke in my throat:
“But you know what, Mom? I miss it. This is not the Pesach I am familiar with.
Without all that hard work and with so much abundance, this doesn’t feel like
Pesach at all.”

My final words to her are my saddest.

“And by the way,” I say. “Here there are no daily guests, nobody
visits us here at home.” Â

Mojdeh Sionit is a contributing writer for The Journal.

Exile the So-So Seder

Some people like their Passover seders just as they remember
them: the same lines recited by the same relatives with the same emphasis, the
same songs, jokes and foods, the same delicate glassware that picks up the
light in a certain way, reflecting past and present.

David Arnow treasures his memories, too. But for him, the
seder is also about creating new memories, doing things differently each year
so that each person present indeed can taste the feeling of having left Egypt.
Although it’s possible to use a different haggadah every year given the large
number of editions now available, Arnow believes that it’s not about the
haggadah, but how it’s used. He suggests that people follow the traditional
narrative and add texts for discussion, stories, participatory activities and
much that goes beyond reading what’s printed on the page.

His new book “Creating Lively Passover Seders: A Sourcebook
of Engaging Tales, Texts & Activities” is an outstanding resource for
enhancing seders. It’s not a haggadah but a companion volume that’s best read
before the seder, with certain passages shared at the table. One of Arnow’s
strengths is drawing on the haggadah text, midrashim and traditional
commentaries, and juxtaposing them with contemporary and historical issues. He sees
this telling of the story in a creative, interactive way as very much in
keeping with the Mishnah’s approach.

Arnow, a 53-year old psychologist by training and a communal
activist and writer, explains in an interview that he has been amending his
family’s seders with meaningful readings and discussion questions since 1988.
In 1994, he expanded those readings into a seder booklet for the New Israel
Fund, an organization he had served as president. For eight years, Arnow, who
also served as vice-president of UJA-Federation and as a Wexner Heritage
Leadership Fellow, produced the widely praised booklets, highlighting a
different passage each year, and thought to develop his ideas further into a

At his family seder, which this year will be held in his Scarsdale,
N.Y., home, the intergenerational group first gathers in the living room, for
about an hour’s worth of discussion before moving into the dining room. Once
they begin the formal part of the seder at the table, they follow the haggadah
text, pausing for questions and dialogue. He admits that these gatherings,
although great, are far from perfect. Even at his table, people ruffle through
the pages looking for the cue to serve dinner.

“One of the things I realize,” he said, “is that what
happens at the seder recapitulates what happens at the Exodus. We’re supposed
to be celebrating freedom and soon we start complaining and grumbling about
wanting to eat. The seder leader gets a bit of the experience of Moses, trying
to lead an unruly group that takes freedom for granted very quickly.”

Arnow’s family sings the Passover songs with great spirit.
He noted that when most people recall seders of their childhood, they remember
the singing with particular fondness. The first song mentioned in the Bible is
after the crossing of the Red Sea; he explains that after having such an
overwhelming experience, it was as though the Israelites took a huge breath and
out came a song to God. He quotes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “We sing to Him
before we are able to understand Him.”

The author acknowledges that there’s much too much
information in this book for any one seder, and suggests that people might
focus on a different chapter each year, selecting from the supplementary

Even those readers who can’t imagine their guests marching
around the house, led by children singing “Let my people go” en route to the
table, will find possibilities of interest here — from discussions that tie
together Passover, spring and the environment to bibliodrama to a chapter on
the women of the Exodus who are missing from the traditional text. He includes
a quartet of 20th century voices on redemption, with quotes from Rabbi Mordecai
Kaplan, Martin Buber, Heschel and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, along with
questions leading to dialogue.

Many of Arnow’s discussion topics touch on politics and
peacemaking, but he is not preaching a particular point of view.

“I am saying that one of the lessons to remember is that we
were strangers in the land of Egypt and, therefore, we have the responsibility
to treat strangers among us fairly.”

Arnow and his wife, the parents of two sons, are members of
Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations in Westchester, N.Y. He has no
formal training in Jewish studies and spent a year and a half doing research,
studying on his own and with others, and says that he loved the process. In
talking with the author about the book and the upcoming holiday, he continues
to generate new ideas, new topics and approaches, beyond what’s in the book.

For more information about the book, visit

New Haggadahs

“The Holistic Haggadah: How Will You Be Different This
Passover Night?” with commentary by Michael Kagan, (Urim) is a guide to the
inner journey of Passover, with contemporary spiritual commentary, geared to
individuals of all denominations. Throughout, Kagan reflects on the meaning of
freedom and its relation to serving God. This volume makes for meaningful
pre-Pesach preparatory reading; the traditional haggadah text is translated by
Kagan, with new translations of the Hallel and other sections by Reb Zalman
Schachter-Shalomi. Kagan, who leads experimental workshops and lectures on
holistic Judaism around the world, lives in Jerusalem and describes himself as
“an Ortho-practicing, but unorthodox Jew.”

“The Pesach Haggadah: Through the Prism of Experience and
History” by Rabbi Berel Wein (Artscroll) features classic commentary and
stories, along with background and history of the holiday. Wein is the author of
several well-received books on history and Jewish texts.

“The Gurs Haggadah: Passover in Perdition” edited by Bella
Gutterman and Naomi Morgenstern (Devora Publishing, in cooperation with Yad
Vashem) has its origins in a detention camp in southwestern France where, in
1941, the Jewish inmates held a seder, declaring their own freedom from
oppression. This volume is a significant addition to holiday literature.
Included is a facsimile edition of the actual hand-written haggadah used,
photographs and other materials from the Yad Vashem archives and several moving
essays commenting on the haggadah and on the ordeals of life at Gurs, with a
piece by the son of Aryeh Zuckerman who wrote the haggadah by hand from memory.
After the seder, one inmate wrote, “Passover was but a brief respite from the
fleeing and wandering, yet closer than previous Passovers to the ancient-new
prayer: ‘Next year in Jerusalem.'”

Of Passover Interest:

“Make Your Own Passover Seder: A New Approach to Creating a
Personal Family Celebration” by Rabbi Alan Kay and Jo Kay (Jossey-Bass) is a
guide that covers every aspect of making a seder and is useful for someone
making one or participating for the first time, as well as for those who are
veterans and want to enhance their efforts. Included is information on
selecting a haggadah, tips for including children and guests from different
backgrounds, personal stories, guidance on rituals and more. Rabbi Kay serves
as spiritual leader of Temple Beth Emet in Mount Sinai, N.Y., and Jo Kay is director
of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
in New York.

“Had Gadya: The Only Kid” edited by Arnold Band (Getty
Publications) is a facsimile edition of Russian avant-garde artist El
Lissitzky’s 1919 edition of lithographs. His colorful, bold prints interpret
the traditional Passover song; the illustrations are crowned with architectural
frames with the verses printed in stylish letters, in Yiddish, with some
Aramaic text at the bottom of the page. Only 75 copies were published in the
lifetime of the artist — this work was part of his engagement with Judaica
before turning to abstract painting. In this volume, a separate section
includes a translation of each verse and notes on the images. Band is professor
emeritus of Hebrew and comparative literature at UCLA. In her introduction,
Nancy Perloff, collections curator at the Getty Research Institute, notes that
Lissitzky chose to publish these artworks in their own publication rather than
as part of a haggadah, indicating that he “viewed the song both as a message of
Jewish liberation based on the Exodus story and as an allegorical expression of
freedom for the Russian people.”

For Children:

“Matzah Meals: A Passover Cookbook for Kids” by Judy Tabs
and Barbara Steinberg, illustrated by Bill Hauser, (Kar-Ben) includes
easy-to-follow recipes for banana pancakes, gefilte fish kabobs, matzah pizza,
meringue kisses and more.

“It’s Seder Time!” by Latifa Berry Kropf, photographs by Tod
Cohen, (Kar-Ben) documents a class of young children learning about and
participating in Passover rituals — collecting chametz for a food bank, making
matzah, singing, dancing, posing as frogs. The full color photographs are full
of smiles.

The Simple Son

When I was in college in New Hampshire, the pastor of anearby church asked our Hillel rabbi to send over a Jewish student who couldhelp his parishioners learn about Passover. I volunteered.For all the fuzzy, feel-good reasons that a liberal arts education supplies inabundance, I felt it was important to teach others about my faith and culture.

Plus, I figured, I actually knew something about Passover.Like most American Jews, I had grown up oblivious to most aspects of my faithexcept the rabbi’s High Holiday sermons, Chanukah and the seder. For me,Passover was a good time, full of food, family, laughing — of course the peopleof Lebanon, N.H., should experience it.

I went to the local small grocery store to buy matzah. Theelderly woman who ran the place listened as I described the flat, unleavenedbread. She said she knew just what I talking about, then guided me back to theRyKrisp. I told her that wouldn’t do, because it’s made with yeast. “You saidflat,” she said. “It’s flat.” I bought several packs.

The pastor and I spoke by phone. His church was going tosupply the festive meal, he said. I mentioned wine. There was a pause. “Willapple juice work?” he asked. Alcohol was forbidden at church functions. Sure, Isaid, apple juice.

The night of the seder, the rabbi gave me a shank bone, apiece of celery, a roasted egg and his car, and I drove, for the first time,through a snowstorm. Somewhere between Hanover and Lebanon, the snow built upunder my rear tires, and I got the funny feeling the back of the car was goingoff in a direction all its own. I skidded off the road into a snow-filledculvert. The car was unscathed, as was I, and the first set of headlights Iwaved down was a four-wheel drive pickup with a winch and hook.

The church was in a plain, working-class neighborhood. Thebasement was set up with rows of long tables, and every seat was full. Thesewere the people who cleaned and served at my fancy college town and on campus,but who seemed to vanish once the sun set. If I was their first Jew, they weremy first crowd of Christians.

When I asked how many people were familiar with the story ofthe Exodus, every hand went up. It was clear to me that these people believedin the Bible as deeply as I doubted it. I was a dilettante missionary preachingto the seriously faithful. I told them, proudly, that the Passover seder is atime to ask questions and engage in debate, but no one did. Removed from myfamily’s festive table, at which just being together was enough to invest aholiday with meaning, I didn’t know enough about the holiday to give itmeaning. The words of the haggadah were lifeless in my mouth.

We blessed the four cups of apple juice and the RyKrisp, andthen, finally, arrived at the festive meal. The women rose and unveiled sheetcakes, Jell-O molds and huge bowls of macaroni salad, liverwurst and ham salad.The pastor apologized for all the pork. I explained that, actually, pasta wasalso forbidden on Passover. “Why?” a woman asked. I turned to see it was theelderly woman who ran the local grocery store — the RyKrisp lady — standingthere, dressed in her church clothes. “Macaroni doesn’t have yeast in it,” shesaid. I searched my limited Jewish knowledge for an easy and convincing answer.In the meantime, I stammered. It hadn’t occurred to me when I encouraged peopleto ask questions that I’d actually have to answer them. Back at her store, Isaid the woman’s crackers weren’t right because they had yeast; now I wassaying the macaroni wasn’t right, but it had no yeast. The woman seemed to besizing me up: Was I a liar? Was I difficult? Was I an idiot? Do these peoplemake it up as they go along?

The woman had no more use for me and moved away. After a bitI thanked the pastor and excused myself to return to campus. The rabbi waswaiting up when I dropped his car off. He figured I’d have problems drivingsince he had already exchanged his snow tires for his regular ones. “Imanaged,” I said.

Then he asked how the seder went. I said, “I managed.”

My big moment to contribute to cross-cultural understanding,to bring the peoples of the earth closer together, and all I had done was offera dull reading and contradict myself. My only comfort was having proved to theChristians of Lebanon, N.H., that Jews could not possibly be smart enough to controlthe media or take over the world.

But the evening was my revelation. I decided it was time toget serious about learning about my heritage, thinking through my faith,challenging my ignorance. Even if my tradition couldn’t be mastered, itdeserved more than just being managed. Being Jewish was a pale imitation oflearning Judaism, and it was time for me to begin.

Happy Passover.  

Zen and the Art of Homemade Gefilte Fish

I added a new experience to my Passover preparation last
year. In addition to counting the haggadahs, practicing the Four Questions with
my daughter, inviting guests, shopping and cleaning the house, I made gefilte
fish from scratch for the first time ever.

Neither my mother nor any of my grandmothers had felt the
need to initiate me into the gefilte fish sorority, even though I know they all
had this experience. After trying it myself for the first time, I think I may
have a good idea why they decided not to pass on this tradition. I went in with
blind and irrational optimism after watching the instructor at a cooking class
make it look so easy. Here’s what I learned.

Don’t bother to clean your kitchen before you make gefilte
fish. The same goes for cleaning your wedding rings. You will have to do the
job all over again as soon as you are finished. Unless my foremothers were much
neater than I am, cleaning the kitchen from top to bottom is a necessity after
chopping five pounds of fish, onions and carrots and then mixing them up with
your hands. OK, I admit, the recipe said to use a chopping blade and a wooden
bowl, but in the end, the only way I could mix in all the required ingredients
was with my (very clean) hands and since the meat grinder was not cooperating,
I ended up using my food processor. If you don’t feel motivated to make your
kitchen sparkle the way any fine Jewish housekeeper would do before Passover,
make gefilte fish. You will have no choice in the matter.

I now know why gefilte fish costs $5 a jar. It costs a
fortune to make it from scratch. The recipe I followed, which created two nice
serving platters of fish, required 5 pounds of salmon, cod and other assorted,
expensive filets. That’s at least $20 worth of fish. Surely the fish factory
doesn’t use the fancy kinds of fish I used, but fish is expensive and they pass
the cost on to you. It may a little cheaper to make it yourself if you stick to
the cheaper fillets, but that’s probably not a good enough reason to do it. The
beauty and taste of salmon gefilte fish may convince you, however, if you have
access to that Northwest specialty.

Homemade does taste better. Homemade is about five times
better tasting than fish in the jars. But frozen gefilte fish isn’t a bad
second choice and having a friend make it in his or her kitchen is an even
better alternative. I know why grandma made it from scratch in the past (she
didn’t really have a choice). I also know why in later years, the jars seemed
fine to her. Who wants to spend that much time preparing one small part of the

You’ll impress your mother (and your grandmother). I
called my mom the next day to complain that she hadn’t discouraged me enough
from attempting the gefilte fish experience. She told me she was impressed that
I made the effort and was sure it was delicious. I wish she could have had a
taste, but I wasn’t going to mail any fish to Florida. Unfortunately, my last
grandma died a few years ago. I’m not absolutely sure she would have been
impressed with my efforts, but at least she would have been amused by my
stories about the experience.

Your guests will love to bring home leftovers. Don’t
worry, you’ll have plenty to share. I gave away about half of what was left
after the first seder and had plenty remaining in my fridge. My friends said it
would make a great lunch during the week. I hope they enjoyed it. Every time I
tried to eat some more, I remembered the experience of making it and lost my
appetite. Usually it’s my favorite leftover for Passover lunches.

There’s an easier way that’s still authentic. If you ask
around, you can probably find a good grocery store or fish shop where they’ll
grind the fish for you. You may even get to pick out your filets first. Some
places take orders every year before Passover, like the Albertsons in my
community. The finished product will probably taste just as good, but you won’t
have to do the most difficult and messy part of the process. What you’ll miss
out on is the opportunity to complain about how hard you worked and to tell
funny stories about the mess you made.

Your friends will tell you their funny gefilte fish
stories. When I told my friend, Anne, that I made my own gefilte fish this
year, she wrinkled up her nose and asked if I wanted to hear her gefilte fish
story. Before going through the conversion process, Anne had asked our rabbi a
very serious question (I am not making this up). She wanted to know if she
would be required to eat gefilte fish when she became a Jew. The rabbi assured
her that consumption of any particular food (except for one bite of matzah) is
not required of Jews. She was relieved. I’m not positive the rabbi gave her the
correct answer, but Anne has never been concerned about passing as a “culinary
Jew.” I forgot to ask if her husband and daughter eat gefilte fish. This year,
I’ll send them over some leftovers, if they want.

You’ll really enjoy this movie now. If you haven’t seen
the short film “Gefilte Fish” directed by Karen Silverstein, check it out of
your favorite film library. It’s a hilarious documentary in which three
generations of women talk about making gefilte fish. I don’t want to ruin it by
telling you any more. It’s 15 minutes long and distributed by Ergo Media. If
you have trouble finding it, contact the distributor at or
(201) 692-0404.

Zen and the art of gefilte fish making. OK, I admit, I
never did finish that book (“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”), but I
think I got the gist. There was something about my gefilte fish experience that
made me feel I had really found my place in the chain of Jewish motherhood. It’s
similar to the experience of making challah with my daughter — like time has
stopped and we have truly stepped away from the everyday world. It’s something
I do not feel in my women’s study group or at temple. Even though I am a modern
Jewish woman, and even though I lead the seder as well as prepare the food, it
is the rituals of the kitchen that connect me to the Jewish universe and my
ancestral foremothers.

Eileen Mintz’s Gefilte Fish

Fish Mixture:

5 pounds assorted fillets of fresh fish

Sample assortment, but you can be creative:

1 1/2 pounds salmon

1 1/2 pounds snapper

1 pound black cod

1 pound ling cod or true cod

1 1/2 large sweet onions

4 large carrots

5 large eggs

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar (or a little more)

4 teaspoons salt

4 teaspoons pepper (white)


3/4 cup matzah meal (or up to a cup) for binding

3/4 cup ice water


2 carrots

3 onions

4 shakes paprika

4 shakes of black pepper

4 tablespoons sugar

To prepare stock, fill two large heavy stock pots full of
water. Slice three onions and carrots, divide equally between pots. Add fish
skins, and heads if so desired. Sprinkle in paprika, salt and pepper and two
tablespoons of sugar. Boil this stock to a medium boil for 10 minutes.

Wash fish and pat dry. Grind the fish, onions and carrots
together, using a meat grinder, food processor or chopping bowl. If you use a
food processor or meat grinder, chop the fish again in the wooden bowl.

Add eggs one at a time. Add sugar, salt and pepper and
continue to chop until very well blended and into very small pieces. Add water
a little at a time throughout this process. Add matzah meal and chop again.
Check to see if mixture is thick enough to bind together and to make an oval
gefilte fish ball. If not, add more matzah meal.

With wet hands, shape the fish balls and carefully drop into
boiling stock. Cover slightly and cook on medium-low heat on the stove for two
hours. When done, let the fish sit in the pot for 10 minutes and then remove
pieces carefully to container. Strain the remaining stock over fish balls, just
barely covering them.

Chill and serve. These will keep in the refrigerator for up
to six days. This is enough fish to serve a large group for the seder and can
easily be doubled to make sure there are leftovers. Â

Donna Gordon Blankinship is a freelance writer living in Seattle.

The Next Generation Adds Its Own Touch to Seder

When newer, color versions supplanted the 1923 Union Haggadah Revised, Tamar Soloff’s brother and father hoarded enough copies of the original to ensure that their extended families would have a supply of their own.

"That was the haggadah from my childhood," Soloff said. After marrying Martin Brower and starting a family, they departed from Westchester for Newport Beach, taking half of the haggadah stash with them.

Again this month, the Browers will rely on the small, out-of-print books at seders for their family and their Temple Bat Yahm chavurah. Retelling the story of the Jews’ flight from ancient Egypt in English and Hebrew, its pages also transport Brower back to earlier times with songs like "Behold It Is the Spring Tide of the Year" and "Who Knows One?"

"Tradition is what you’re used to," said Brower, who served as the choir director in the Westchester synagogue of her father, Rabbi Mordecai Soloff. "It has the music that I grew up with, and my children grew up with."

The old cliché that change is hard is never truer than when it comes to the Passover seder — whether that means changing haggadah, menu, location or host.

The microcosm of the seder, perhaps like no other ritual of the year, brings into focus all the nostalgia, Jewish identity issues and family dynamics that stay in the fuzzy background the rest of the year.

At no point are those dynamics more in focus than when it comes time for the seder to transition from one generation to the next. The transition occurs for any number of reasons — an aging parent is simply ready to retire, or in more dire circumstances falls ill or passes away. Or perhaps someone moves out of town, or makes religious changes and wants to make the seder her own way.

The question of who is making seder and how becomes symbolic of whatever is going on in a family. Who is not at the table and why — death, illness, conflict, geography — is as important as who is. This intensity of emotion, no doubt, has as much to do with Pesach’s being the most observed Jewish rites of the year as does the rabbi’s brilliance in crafting the rituals of the seder.

Add to that the notion that any change is hard, especially one that is so laden with associations, and you begin to understand why something like using a childhood haggadah becomes so important or passing on a set of seder dishes can serve up a hearty portion of emotion.

Last year, Jeanne Weiner thought she was ready to give her daughter, Joelle Keene, Aunt Leone’s Indian Tree dishes — service for 31, plus serving dishes.

But when it came to actually giving up the china, she balked. And even though this year she is making the transfer, these dishes — more than the Thanksgiving dishes or all the furniture she gave to her daughters — call up a wave of emotion and tears.

"I wanted to give them to her, but I couldn’t. I just had to be ready, because I was making a statement. And that statement was that my husband was gone and I wasn’t going to do any real entertaining of my family anymore and it’s moved on to my children’s homes," said Weiner, a 76-year-old psychologist, sitting at her daughter’s dining room table, the pink and turquoise peonies blossoming on a setting of the dishes in front of them. "It is part of my new life, which is not as satisfying as my old life was."

Adjusting to a new reality has also been part of Passover for Don Goor and his family, and it also came down to dishes.

When his mother, Stephanie Goor, finally stopped schlepping her box of seder paraphernalia — charoset bowls, kiddush cups, candlesticks — back and forth between his home and hers, he knew she had fully let go of making seder.

The transition was a slow one, starting about 10 years ago, when Goor and his partner, Evan Kent, first moved seder into their home. Goor’s mother and grandmother still prepared much of the food and led the seder as they had for years, with Stephanie sticking strictly to the never-changing marks in her leader’s haggadah indicating who got to read which part. Each year Stephanie brought over the box of stuff, and would take it back to her home.

"For a long time it was still their seder but it was in our house," said Kent, the cantor at Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles, who has been with Goor, the rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana, for 18 years. "We used the same haggadah and had the same food, but slowly what happened was we realized that our own friends would join us and it sort of grew and changed."

Discussion became more spontaneous and informal, with the hosts (both clergy, after all) taking the lead. Eventually, the menu evolved, since Kent is vegetarian, though many of the foods — mom’s knaidlach and grandma’s farfel muffins — stayed the same.

Finally, they switched to a different haggadah, and the transition seemed to be complete.

With change coming slowly and organically, Goor said his mother and grandmother never felt pushed aside or left out, and always participated.

"My mother’s way of resisting was to make these little editorial comments along the way about how good seder used to be, or what an unusual way of doing things," Goor said. "My grandmother was more outspoken. She would come out and say ‘I don’t like this haggadah. I liked it better the other way.’"

This year there will be another transition. Goor’s grandmother died at 91 a few years ago, and his mother died just a few months ago at the age of 71. Seder will be a low-key affair this year.

"I’m avoiding it totally. I keep pretending it will happen on its own," Goor said.

It was a slow transition for Jeanne Weiner’s family after Beryl, her husband of 27 years, died four years ago.

Beryl had been central to the family seder since they moved to California from New York more than 30 years ago, after Jeanne’s marriage to Joelle’s father ended.

"Beryl had a real gift for drawing people out and making them comfortable so they wanted to talk," said Keene, the music teacher and newspaper adviser at Shalhevet High School, who lives in Beverlywood with her husband and three teenagers.

After Beryl died, the family seder sputtered a bit, not only because of Beryl’s death, but because Keene and her family became much more observant, scaring away her two sisters and her mother from a seder that they imagined would start late and take forever.

But eventually they gave it a try. Last year the whole family was together again — with adjustment and accommodations to new religious realities, kids of many ages and the absence of Beryl’s guidance.

"Last year was the first time everyone came and we had a really big seder here. I remember feeling that this was like the first real one, because everyone was here," Keene said.

Weiner still does some of the cooking — she’s used the same matzah ball recipe for decades, and the chopped liver stays on the menu. Not only do the plates and bowls come from her, but so does the sense of style and care with which the table is set, and the general love of entertaining she passed to her three daughters.

"Those are things that transitioned down the generations very seamlessly, especially since my mother is here to help us and to congratulate us when we get it right and correct us when we get it wrong," Keene said.

Keene, who is now Orthodox and uses the full text of the haggadah, has tried to replace the haggadah she and Beryl composed when she was 18, but nothing has seemed quite right yet. With kids ranging in age from a baby to teenagers, and religious observance covering the spectrum, coming up with the right balance, timing and tone is challenging.

But Keene is determined to make it work.

"I feel pressure to make seder really wonderful — it should be terrific, fun, uplifting, interesting, relaxed, memorable — the list of adjectives is so long," Keene said. In other words, to make seder just like Mom.

But Weiner encourages her daughter to create a seder that is all her own.

"I think what you are trying to and have emulated is the feeling rather than the fact of our seders — the lasting impression of it, which was that you loved it and it was good, and that is what you are recapturing," Weiner said. "But you are creating your own, and frankly that is as it should be. It’s nice to pass on dishes, but do things in your home the way you want them to be done in your home."

Keene is happy to make it her own, but like any daughter of any age, she still wants Mom’s approval.

"Is there anything good about the seders here?" Keene asks her mom. "You said the food was good."

"No, I didn’t even say the food was good," Weiner answers, deadpan. "I said what was good about the seder was that the family is here. That is the most important thing."

"Well, you said I do a good job on the table," Keene submits.

"You said it and I agreed. Don’t misquote me," her mother fires back.

They go at it for a few more minutes, until finally Weiner caves in with the smile and love that was there all along.

"It’s warm and friendly and welcoming and the food is delicious. The family is here and the table is beautiful. What more could anyone ask?" Weiner says.

"Thanks," says Keene, with a relieved laugh. "Thank you. I needed that."

Andrea Adelson contributed to this article.

Lights Were Last to Go

My family never went to church but celebrated Christian
holidays by putting up a Christmas tree in December and hunting for Easter eggs in the spring. I had lots of fun as a child
and counted myself lucky that I didn’t have to spend long, boring hours at
church like the other kids.

I played in my backyard on hot summer days while the other
kids in the neighborhood went off to vacation Bible school.

My mom was a fallen Catholic and my dad was religiously
unaffiliated. I have a picture of my mom and the five kids lined up in front of
a big pink Lincoln in the mid-1950s on the one Easter Sunday we went to church.
I don’t know why we went that one time, I never asked.

When I grew up I kept on in my unaffiliated way — until I
fell in love with a Jewish man and we got married. We began our intermarried
life together celebrating both holidays.

I hung the colorful Christmas lights on the front of the
house and decorated the tree with ornaments I had since childhood. My new
husband lit the candles on the menorah and placed it in the window.

I soon began to realize there was a big difference in our
approach to our respective holidays. Because my Christian observances were
limited to Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, I never stopped to think of the
meaning behind the rituals. My husband understood the meaning of the candles he
lit each night during Chanukah and why he fried the latkes in hot oil. He knew
the history of his people and understood his traditions.

As my husband lit the Chanukah candles and sang the
blessing, I knew those eight candles meant more to him than my myriad strings
of red, green and white lights. I felt drawn to his religion and wanted to know

After 17 weeks of conversion class, successful examination
by the beit din (Jewish court of law) and submersion in the mikvah, I became a
Jew. I gratefully embraced the faith and traditions of my adopted tribe. I sold
my beloved Christmas dishes to a lovely Christian woman who promised to give
them a good home. The strings of lights were given to Goodwill, along with the
ornaments, except for the one I made out of sawdust and glue in first grade.

The rabbis taught me that becoming a Jew is a process. I
found it to be true; as I celebrated the rituals in my home with my husband,
they became imbued with meaning.

Christmas, however, with its food, songs, trees, lights,
gifts and sentimentality, is hard for a new convert to ignore.

I missed the pine scent from the tree and placed my menorah
in the window with the tiny candles shining brightly, while I looked at the
Santa sleigh coming in for a landing on my neighbor’s roof, with huge
spotlights that lit it up like an airport runway.

Over the years, the smell of latkes sizzling in the oil on a
dark winter night replaced the aroma of evergreen and gingerbread. The red and
green wrapping paper was replaced with blue and silver wrapping paper. The
miracle of the oil burning in the newly dedicated Temple was an image that
brought comfort during the dark season of the year.

I still enjoy Christmas — from afar. I sing along with
Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow’s Christmas CDs in my car. I still bake some
special cookies that I made with my mother and grandmother. I still struggle to
get my latke’s crisp on the outside and hot and steamy (not raw and greasy) on
the inside.

In December, the two major American religions celebrate a
miracle and symbolize with it with light. I place my menorah in the window and
think about the thousands of Jews who have lit them before me and will continue
to light them after I am gone. I smile as I look at the big Christmas displays
and heartily respond, “Merry Christmas” to my Christian friends, knowing in the
deepest part of my soul that I am a Jew. Â

Kathleen Vallee Stein is a freelance writer who lives in Monrovia.

A Sampling of Sermons

This week, The Journal contacted various rabbis throughout the Southland and asked them to share with us excerpts from their High Holiday sermons.

A Time to Rest and Reflect by Rabbi Debra Orenstein Congregation Makom Ohr Shalom

Many Jews understand Shabbat as a series of restrictions. But the purpose of all the Thou-Shalt-Nots is to clear a space for the Thou-Shalts and for what is different and sacred about Shabbat. Laws against work, errands and many hobbies preserve Shabbat as a haven from relentless busyness. Shabbat sets aside time to rest and reflect, to reconnect with God, self, family and friends.

Like Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat asks us to pause, giving thought and time to what matters most. Both holidays honor the story of creation and enlist the power of community.

Rarely does one hear in a therapist’s office or self-help meeting: “Today, you change!” Or, “today, you have peace!” Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat dare to make such promises because of a shared calendar and commitment.

When the shofar is sounded, I join with the communal intention to blast out sin and herald a new majesty. When I light Shabbat candles, even if I’m not in the mood, I am supported by Jews lighting candles in other places and eras. Communal agreement, divinely appointed timing and my own willingness all cause a certain peace to descend.

The more you and I engage that dynamic, and contribute to it, the more meaningful our holy days will be.

The Power of One by Rabbi Elazar Muskin Young Israel of Century City

Not long ago, young Americans were labeled the “Me Generation.” Emphasis was placed on the individual at the expense of the community. One’s personal happiness was paramount, while the community’s needs were of secondary importance.

This sounds like the antithesis to Judaism that prioritizes the community. Paradoxically, however, Yom Kippur, the most solemn Jewish holiday, appears to offer a different message.

On every holiday there is a blessing known as “Kedushat Hayom,” the blessing for the sanctity of the day that stresses the day itself and its connection to the Jewish community. The individual is not mentioned at all. This, however, isn’t the formula for Yom Kippur. Instead, the blessing incorporates each and every Jew individually.

Why on this most solemn day for the Jewish people do we focus on the individual? The fact is that Judaism recognizes that each individual’s contribution to the collective is crucial. Often, one individual can have an impact upon an entire community. The message of the High Holiday’s is that each and every one of us has to be willing to stand up and be counted.

At a time when the State of Israel, for example, suffers from the lack of support of so many American Jews, we must realize that just one person can add to the collective good.

Prepared for Change by Rabbi Stuart Vogel Temple Aliyah

Our daily existence is predicated on the mystery of forces that conspire to provide the life we live. We work hard to improve the lot of our lives so that most days offer us an appreciation for what we have. But in truth, each day brings the potential of job loss, illness, accident, financial setback or other uncontrollable factors to change our lives.

We are prepared to offer gratitude, but are we prepared for change? Sukkot teaches us to appreciate today because tomorrow may bring undesired change. Each day of life we dwell in a temporary sukkah. When we are prepared for the uncertainties of life, then we are truly able to be grateful for what we have.

Words of the Prophets by Rabbi Ed Feinstein Valley Beth Shalom

On Aug. 28, 1963, 40 years and one month ago, a young Martin Luther King ascended the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and began a speech that changed the world. This summer, as I sat with my children and listened to that speech, my eyes filled with tears of inspiration, pride, gratitude. And, looking at my children, tears of the bereft: For their America has never known a leader like Martin Luther King. In our children’s America, no one speaks with authority, no one inspires, no one leads. It’s no wonder that the young live today so self-absorbed, with little sense of transcendent mission.

Dr. King’s vision was shaped by the Hebrew Prophets. But their vision is rare among us. Are we so scarred from the Holocaust; so depressed by Israel’s suffering; so defeated by the dilemmas of America, that we have set aside the prophetic faith? Or is it that we have grown so comfortable, so secure, so affluent, we no long feel called by the prophets? How did the idols of cynicism and privatism find their way into our homes and our hearts? Dr. King’s speech is a painful reminder of a precious heritage misplaced, a sacred legacy forgotten. But without the prophets’ faith, what are we? Without their heroic vision, what chance have we to reclaim the hearts of our children? Without their hope, why bother? And if not now, when?

What is Ethiopean Judaism?

Kess Hadane wears a deep blue velvet cape richly embroidered with gold and a white turban. But under the cape is the conventional white shirt and dark pants, and that might be more indicative of Kess Hadane’s ardently assimiliationist philosophy.

"There is no need of keeping the traditions that we had back in Ethiopia. We want to create one nation, one people," the kess, a combination priest/rabbi, said through an interpreter. "We have to associate with the culture here and some of our traditions will be eliminated in the process."

Hadane, the head of the Ethiopian community in Beit Shemesh, was one of the first kessoch (plural of kess) reached by Western Jews in the 1950s, and that, said Shoshana Ben-Dor, a scholar of Ethiopian culture, may explain his extremist positions, which are not widely shared.

"There were a few kessoch like him who were convinced that the best way for Ethiopian Jews to be accepted by the world at large was to be as much like or to simply become normative Jews and to a great extent to abandon their own traditional practice," said Ben-Dor, Israel director of the North American Coalition on Ethiopian Jewry and part of team that is attempting to document the music and text of Ethiopian prayer.

A few organizations are working to maintain the 2,000-year-old traditions, but Israel has been so successful in acculturating the community — whether to mainstream Orthodoxy or more likely to secularism — that many traditions are being kept only by a handful of the elderly.

Ethiopian Jewish literature and traditions predate the Rabbinic Judaism that became normative after the destruction of the Second Temple.

The Ethiopian Torah, the Orit, is written in Geíez, an ancient Semitic language, and is widely believed to be a translation of a Greek translation of the Bible. The Orit contains the Five Books of Moses, as well as the Prophets, some of the Writings, and additional works not in the Western canon.

While the broad strokes of Ethiopian Judaism is similar to normative Judaism — no work or fire on Shabbat, ritual slaughter for kashrut, matzah on Pesach and fasting on Yom Kippur — the details often diverge.

Their adherence to the laws purity in Ethiopia was rigorous, with Jewish villages always situated near a stream for ritual bathing, with a special hut for menstruating women.

Ethiopian prayers are rich and complex, with distinct services not only for weekdays, holidays and Shabbat, but a cycle of seven Shabbatot with distinct elements for each Shabbat.

Ethiopians celebrated all the Biblical holidays in addition to other holy days, such as the Sigd, a fast day when the entire community commemorated Sinai by going with the kess up a mountain, where portions of the Torah and the book of Ezra were read — a festival still celebrated in Israel today. On certain holy days, the kess brought sacrifices on behalf of the village.

They were ardent Zionists, longing for a return to the Holy Temple, which many believed to be still standing.

Ironically, their return to the body of world Jewry may mean the demise of their unique traditions.

"When looking at the younger generation, a lot of them, even though they feel its important to retain their identity, have very limited knowledge of the traditions," said Ben-Dor."And then you have many who identify as Israelis either by becoming involved in normative Judaism in Israel, or by just abandoning all religious practice.

For More Information:
The Jewish Virtual Library:

Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews:

American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry:

Jewish Communities:

Book Helps ‘Design’ Delicious Simchas

“Kosher by Design: Picture Perfect Food for the Holidays & Every Day” (Mesorah Publications, $32.99).

If Pesach signals the emergence of spring, with Shavuot, the season bursts forth in a riot of color and luscious flavors. “Kosher by Design” by Susie Fishbein, captures the beauty of every holiday with a feast for the eye as well as the palate.

“The original concept for the book was based on a Shavuot idea,” said the effervescent Fishbein, who edited the wildly successful “The Kosher Palette.” And no wonder she bubbles over. In the first week, “Kosher by Design” sold 24,000 copies.

Each holiday is photographed as if it were a party. To celebrate Shavuot, Fishbein visualized a cascading flowerpot salad bar and intereviewed party planners to help execute the setting.

“There was a glimmer in one woman’s eye as she started to rattle off ideas to make the salad bar even more spectacular and I canceled all my other appointments,” Fishbein said. “I knew she was the one.”

“The one” turned out to be Renee Erreich, and the luscious table settings and presentation ideas she and Fishbein created — and photographer John Uher shot — seem to leap off the page. Set in spectacular Manhattan apartments, the photos inspire rather than intimidate. Everything in this book is doable.

Take the edible individual challah napkin rings. Never baked bread in your life? You can create these with any challah dough, suggests Fishbein. Why not frozen?

“The recipes and serving ideas require a minimum of fuss to achieve the maximum aesthetic impact,” Fishbein said. “I don’t aim for the level of chef. I’m not a chef myself. No one I know cooks like a chef. I’m aiming for the person who cooks on an everyday basis, every Shabbat basis, every holiday basis; people who want things to look elegant and different, but don’t want to spend seven hours in the kitchen.”

The Flowerpot Salad Bar for Shavuot, while elaborate, is not that hard to duplicate. To create the garden effect, clay flowerpots are lined with purple cabbage and filled with colorful salad ingredients, then displayed at varying heights.

“The Midrash tells us that although Mount Sinai is in the desert,” Fishbein writes, “it suddenly bloomed with fragrant flowers and grasses on the morning that the Torah was given to the Jewish people. The custom of decorating our homes and synagogues with leafy branches and flowers is based on this miracle.”

Beginning with Shabbat, the book is divided by holiday. Fishbein explains the origin and customs of each, then offers a sample menu as well as unique and exciting ideas for presentation.

“Food is so much a part of the Jewish holidays that it enriches the experience to kind of tie the food into the holiday traditions,” Fishbein said. “That’s what this book does, without being overly biblical. It’s not like we thought, we need a soup, let’s put one here. We really tried to pair the food with the holiday. However, any recipe can be for any day, any night, any Shabbat. I picked recipes for specific menus if they fit in a fun or interesting way.”

Most of us think of Shavuot first as the dairy holiday, and even the Baby Blintzes are easy but showy. No rolling here! A cheesy batter is baked in muffin tins and crowned with berries. A mascarpone filling for an nontraditional Tiramisu Cheesecake snuggles in a ladyfinger and chocolate sandwich cookie crust.

“Wherever I can, I try to keep in mind all levels of expertise,” Fishbein said. “Many people don’t have a lot of confidence in the kitchen. I want to give them that confidence. Cooking is fun. I don’t want it to be frustrating.”

Baby Blintzes

8 ounces farmer cheese (regular,

not unsalted)

8 ounces cottage cheese

(2 percent or 4 percent milk fat)

2 tablespoons sour cream

1/3 cup sugar

1/2 cup all-purpose baking mix,

such as Bisquick

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 tablespoons melted butter

3 large eggs

12 raspberries

24 blueberries

Cinnamon/sugar mixture

Sour cream

Preheat oven to 350 F. Heavily grease a muffin tin with butter or nonstick cooking spray. In a large bowl, mix the farmer cheese, cottage cheese, sour cream, sugar, baking mix, vanilla, melted butter and eggs with an electric mixer at medium speed. Fill each of the muffin compartments halfway with the mixture. Place one raspberry and two blueberries on top of each muffin. Bake 20-25 minutes. Remove from oven. Before serving, sprinkle each baby blintz with cinnamon/sugar mixture and a small dollop of sour cream.

Makes 12 servings.

Tiramisu Cheesecake

14 chocolate sandwich cookies

2 tablespoons butter, melted

12-14 soft sponge ladyfingers

(3-ounce package)

1 teaspoon instant espresso

powder or instant coffee

2 tablespoons whole milk

2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened

1 (8-ounce) package mascarpone

cheese, softened

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 large eggs

1 (8-ounce) container sour cream

Milk chocolate bar, for grating

Preheat oven to 350 F. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, process the cookies until they are finely crushed into crumbs. Add the butter and mix to moisten.

Press the crumbs into the bottom of an ungreased 9×9-inch Springform pan. Cut the ladyfingers in half, crosswise. Line the ladyfingers around the side of the pan, rounded side out and cut side down.

In a small cup or bowl, mix the espresso powder in the milk, stirring to dissolve. Set aside.

In a medium mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese and mascarpone until combined and fluffy. Gradually add the sugar. Beat on medium-high until smooth. Turn the speed to low and beat in the cornstarch, vanilla and eggs until just combined. Stir espresso mixture into the batter.

Pour the batter into the ladyfinger-lined pan. Place the pan on a baking sheet. Bake for 45-50 minutes. Center will appear nearly set when gently shaken. Remove from oven. Immediately spread the sour cream on top, starting at the center and going almost to the edges.

Cool in pan for 15 minutes. Use a small knife or spatula to make sure the ladyfingers are not sticking to the sides of the pan. Cool at least one hour. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least five hours. Sprinkle grated chocolate over the top of the cheesecake.

Makes 12 servings

Judy Bart Kancigor, the author of “Melting Pot Memories” (Jan Bart Publications, $19.95), can be found on the Web at

Support for Summer CampAddicts

It’s a sweaty summer day in the city, and the sun — worthy of a heat-advisory at 9:30 a.m. — mercilessly scorches the sidewalks as I dodge bus-exhaust fumes, doughnut carts and the tourist masses while making my way to my office cubicle.

Mentally, however, I’m 700 miles away, walking down the dirt paths of Camp Tamarack — which, at 100 years old, shares with Surprise Lake Camp in Cold Spring, N.Y., the distinction of being the oldest Jewish summer camp in the United States. I spent 10 summers at the magical places known collectively as Tamarack Camps — five at the main camps in Brighton (now closed) and Ortonville, Mich., two at the wilderness camp in Ontario, one teen tour to Alaska and two as staff — and harvested some of the finest memories of my life.

It’s been eight years since I’ve walked through the gates of camp, but it’s a place I escape to regularly. I often think of the jokes we told around the flagpole, the burn of my muscles after swimming across the lake, the time I stepped on a toad in the woods. My friends — now physicians, lawyers, teachers — remain the closest to my heart, even if we have scattered across the country and seem to see each other exclusively at weddings. In recent years, I have sung camp songs around my family’s dinner table (my mother went to Tamarack, too), screamed them at the top of my lungs on mountaintops in New Hampshire and fumbled through the lyrics while riding in a limousine down the Las Vegas Strip.

The symptoms are obvious: I am one of the many “Former Campers Who Can’t Let It Go.” There are no support groups for us (yet), but the root causes of our affliction are easy enough to figure out. After weeks, months, years of summers spent living with the same group of peers, changing from muddy swamp-walk clothes into Sabbath whites, singing silly songs, playing sports, hiking up steep slopes and not showering for days on end, summer camp fosters memories and special friendships that simply cannot be replicated anywhere else.

The syndrome, apparently, is widespread. The first summer camps, like Tamarack, were founded first to provide immigrant children with fresh air and resources for integrating into American society. Over the years, camps were used as a tool for building Jewish identity by providing Jewish education in an informal atmosphere. Its effects, proponents say, are lasting. Studies by the Foundation for Jewish Camping show that 66 percent of camp alumni “feel importance of being Jewish,” compared to a national average of 44 percent. Of camp alumni, 63 percent are members of a synagogue, nearly double the statistics of Jews nationwide (33 percent).

“I love camp,” said Greg Rosenberg, 29, an 11-year veteran of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, interrupting this reporter’s first question. “It was just phenomenal. Looking back, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my summers and my youth. If I could go back as a camper, I’d do it in a second. If I could get my summers off, get three or four of my good friends to go, I’d go back as a counselor, definitely.”

“I’m a camp lifer,” he said. “In the summertime, there are smells that remind me of camp: right before rain, right after it rains. Sometimes, when I wake up in the morning and it’s quiet, it reminds me of camp. If I’m by a lake, I’ll think of camp. When I get together with friends, we’ll always talk about camp memories.”

“Well, not always,” he added. “I’ve officially moved on.”

Maybe not officially. Recently, before his best friend (they met at camp, of course) moved across the country to Los Angeles — “one of his going-away wishes was that we get together and play good old-fashioned street hockey,” he said. “So 12 ex-campers got together on a Sunday afternoon and played street hockey in Cherry Hill, N.J. It was a throwback to our youth.”

Some ex-campers, of course, have turned their love of camp into a lifelong career. Ask any rabbi or Jewish educator and, chances are, his or her calling was shaped during the camping years. Of those who grew up to pursue careers outside the Jewish community, many still credit camp with helping to guide their path.

Lonnie Golden, a professor of economics at Penn State, Abington, said he was “influenced by issues of work and labor, equality and group behavior,” that he learned during his seven years at Camp Tavor, a Habonim Dror camp in western Michigan.

Golden’s wife attended Habonim Camp Moshava in Maryland. “We call ourselves a mixed marriage,” he joked. They send their two children — ages 9 and 11 — to Habonim’s Camp Galil in Pennsylvania.

“A neutral third party,” he said.

Today, Golden, 45, serves on Galil’s camp committee. He admitted to feeling some pangs when his children recall their recent camp experiences.

“I can’t say how much I adored the whole camp experience,” he said. “I still play guitar; I still like sports; I still like political discussions. I’m a member of a Reconstructionist synagogue, Mishkan Shalom, and we have an annual summer retreat. I get one little weekend a year; I get to go to summer camp.”

Some people have successfully transferred a special camp spirit into their adult lives, such as those who sing the Kabbalat Shabbat service each week to the tunes they learned at summer camp. Others, like myself, make a point of escaping to the wilderness for at least a few days each summer, where I indulge in camp-like pleasures such as tireless singing, brain-teasers and intimate conversations — not to mention all the instant oatmeal I can consume.

Alas, times have changed at Tamarack. Encroaching development closed the main camp in Brighton in 1993. Pressures to remain at the forefront of the camping field have ushered in an era of swimming pools, water-skiing, multimedia classes and a brand-new Web site (updated daily!) that brings tidings of new villages, new traditions and some truly bizarre flotation devices in the lake. But I’d wager the lasting effects remain the same.

Camp gave me an ability to approach the world in a new way. It fostered my sense of individuality while teaching a community-minded ethic, it taught me how to feel comfortable in the wilderness and it gave me a wonderful story to recount to my future children about the evening I got busted for skinny-dipping.

But perhaps most importantly, camp gave me a set of peers with whom I have unspoken and lasting bonds. With my camp friends, I never had to explain what Rosh Hashana was or why we call ourselves the “Chosen People.” When drinking in parking lots with my high school buddies in Ann Arbor (yes, people live there) had lost its thrill, I had a cabal of friends with whom I could explore the vast network of 7-Elevens in suburban Detroit. Even when I wasn’t at camp, it gave me a richer life; it made me free.

And today, when I close my eyes and can see the stars glittering above the lake, I realize that I still am.

Educating Rita

Rita Milos Brownstein, author “Jewish Weddings” (Simon &
Schuster, 2002) said she wishes she had known about yichud before she was

Brownstein, 50, cited yichud — the time after the ceremony
that affords the bride and groom some privacy to share their first moments as a
married couple — as one of the traditions she learned about while researching
her book that she would have enjoyed at her own wedding some 20 years ago.

“Nobody told me about it,” she said.

“There are so many beautiful wedding customs and traditions
that many people don’t know about. I wanted to introduce them so people would
incorporate them in their own weddings.”

“Jewish Weddings,” Brownstein’s second book, combines the
visual appeal of a coffee-table book with helpful hints and important
information about Jewish wedding traditions as well as practical tips for
choosing shower themes, invitations, favors and more.

For example, she explains Jewish concepts including aufruf
(when the groom is called to the Torah for an aliyah, representing his
commitment to Torah as a married man); ketubot (marriage contracts); and sheva brachot
(seven nights of parties thrown for the couple following the wedding).

One section of the book contains “How We Met” vignettes, in
which Brownstein even shares her beshert story — the moment she knew she had
met her intended.

Another section details real-life weddings, complete with

A graphic designer by day for the Jewish Federation of
Greater Hartford (and previously for such publications as House Beautiful and
Good Housekeeping), Brownstein spent about a year writing the book in her free

Understandably conscientious about design, Brownstein
designed the entire book and had copy writer Donna Wolf Koplowitz polish the

The author lives in Simsbury, Conn., with her husband,
Michael, daughter Ariel, 17, and son, Ben, 14. Judaism plays a “pretty major
role” in their lives, Brownstein said, explaining that it helps her make daily
choices about business dealings, what to eat and how to treat others.

She started learning more about her religion 10 years ago.

“The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn,” she said.

Her Jewish learning led her to write her first book, “Jewish
Holiday Style” (Simon & Schuster, 1999), for which she combined her
background in magazine publishing and her new observance.

Now Brownstein has found a new way to express her love of
Judaism: She is starting a line of menorahs, kiddush cups and other items to be
sold in Judaica stores. Â

A Great Party Happened Here

"Entertaining is a lot like gardening," Linda Burghardt said. "You can’t make mistakes."

In other words, no matter what you do, it’s OK.

Just as each combination of flowers produces a different garden, each approach to party planning results in a unique gathering. Through these suggestions, hosts can reinvent Chanukah parties or weave in new ideas with established traditions:

1. Make a guest list of family and friends who light up your life. Celebrating the holiday with friends is fun for people with small families.

2. Using construction paper, show children how to cut out dreidels or candles and create one-of-a-kind invitations by filling in the time and date.

3. If you want to do something fancier, buy plastic dreidels with removable tops and put a note inside each one, explaining the party details.

4. Make a centerpiece by turning a large cardboard box into a dreidel and letting children decorate it. Fill the dreidel with party favors wrapped in blue and white paper, taping mesh bags of Chanukah gelt or real money on top. Attach long ribbons, so it’s easy for children to pull party favors from the centerpiece.

5. If you enjoy grab bags purchase them, make gifts yourself or ask guests to bring something to exchange. Organize two sets of grab bags — one for children and one for adults. Set a price range to ensure fairness.

6. Plan a manageable menu and prepare as many dishes ahead of time as possible.

7. Experiment by making latkes out of sweet potatoes or vegetables such as carrots, zucchini or turnips.

8. For extra-crunchy results, drain latkes on brown paper bags from grocery stores rather than on paper towels.

9. Make Chanukah gelt by melting chocolate and spooning it into rounds on aluminum foil coated with a no-stick spray. When they’ve cooled, wrap individually in silver or gold foil.

10. Create a lovely ceremony by asking guests to bring menorahs from home. Provide candles in a variety of colors, sizes and shapes, including some from Israel.

11. Place menorahs around the dining room table at the appropriate guest’s place. Say the blessing and light the shamashim (the central candle) together, followed by the other candles. Prepare to be dazzled.

12. Explain each step for guests who’ve grown fuzzy about Jewish customs or who are learning about Judaism for the first time.

13. After dinner, read Isaac Beshevis Singer’s delightful "Zlatch the Goat" from his collection of stories by the same name. Young and old alike will be entertained by this charming tale.

14. Sing songs such as "Rock of Ages." Remember to copy song sheets and distribute to guests, so they can join in.

15. Before the party, take a long bath. Allow 45 minutes to relax. Remember your role as host is to extend warmth and welcome people into your home. Forget perfectionism — it has no place at Chanukah.

From “Jewish Holiday Traditions” by Linda Burghardt (Citadel Press, 2001).

Christmas Takes

As a young Jewish student in the ’60s, Robin Siegal believed that Chanukah was basically ignored in the public schools she attended, which included Hamilton High School. "It was like there was this big birthday party for Jesus, and I wasn’t invited," remembered the Beverlywood resident, now the mother of three.

With two of her children now attending Hamilton and her third at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES), Siegal is relieved to see acknowledgment of diversity within the Los Angeles public school system.

While religion is not a part of public school curriculum the way it is in a parochial schools, these days most schools acknowledge the various winter holidays like Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and Ramadan. Often, holiday traditions are incorporated into lesson plans. But does Chanukah get equal billing?

"I don’t believe we favor either Chanukah or Christmas," said Jennifer Noblett, principal of Hawthorne School in the Beverly Hills Unified School District. "We try to celebrate everyone’s diversity, customs and traditions, because sometimes family traditions aren’t really related to religious affiliation."

At Paul Revere Charter Middle School in Brentwood, there are no Christmas trees or menorahs adorning the walls at holiday time. "We just don’t do those things," said principal Teresa Riddle. She said some of the administrative offices may have winter displays, but nothing that blatantly promotes any holiday.

Like many other Los Angeles schools, Revere students will perform in a winter musical with Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa music. The Christmas tunes, Riddle said, will consist mostly of "nonsectarian songs about winter and snowmen."

Publicist Carol Eisner, whose three children are among students at LACES and Hamilton, has also noticed changes in cultural acceptance since her school days.

"There’s so much more openness about being Jewish in a nonsectarian environment," said Eisner, who lives in the Pico-Robertson area. "Before, it was like you’re a Jew singing Christmas songs, and that’s how it’s going to be."

"Now the word ‘holiday’ is pervasive," she said. "It’s a general word that includes everybody."

Instead of calling the late-December extended vacation a "Christmas break," many schools call it "winter break" or "winter recess."

As a public school advocate, Rabbi Marc Dworkin of Leo Baeck Temple and the Progressive Jewish Alliance agreed that the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) appears to respect diversity now more than ever. However, he suggested that Jewish parents check with their children and remind them of the significance of their roots.

"The first step is to make sure that your children understand the deeper meaning of the holiday of Chanukah and not just the commercial aspects that compete with Christmas," Dworkin said. "Also, in a system [as large as LAUSD] … you can’t safeguard against every comment or every incident."

Siegal, a social worker, believes that educating her children about Chanukah also means expressing the realities of American society. "Our culture is not balanced and [as Jews], we’re definitely the minority," she said.

Siegal does not expect public schools to give Chanukah "equal time." In addition, she believes that the predominately gentile public school community should not be responsible for teaching her children about Judaism. Her solution is to supplement her children’s education by sending them to Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am.

Still, Susan Kogan, the assistant principal at Third Street Elementary School in Hancock Park, said her school believes it is important to teach the children about holidays from a cultural, rather than religious perspective. "Several of our non-Jewish teachers actually make potato pancakes for the kids on Chanukah," she said.

Spicy ‘Shores’ of the Mediterranean

Celebrated cookbook author and chef Joyce Goldstein can trace her bloodline to a Russian shtetl, but her heart and soul lie in the Mediterranean.

In "Cucina Ebraica" (Chronicle Books, 1998) and "Sephardic Flavors" (Chronicle Books, 2000) she explored Italian Jewish and Spanish Jewish cuisine, and now, to round out the trilogy, in "Saffron Shores" (Chronicle Books, $35) she continues her Mediterranean culinary journey with the exotic cuisine of the Maghreb: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, even including related Judeo-Arabic countries like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran.

"I have been cooking this food for I cannot tell you how many years," said the former chef/owner of the renowned Mediterranean restaurant Square One in San Francisco. "When I was doing research for ‘Sephardic Flavors,’ I realized the subject was so huge I couldn’t do it all in one book, so I covered the northern Mediterranean in ‘Sephardic Flavors’ and the southern Mediterranean in ‘Saffron Shores.’ Here the style of cooking changes with a lot more spices and herbs and additional uses of fruit, but, of course, there is some overlap."

Notable for its absence is Israeli cuisine. "I left it out because it’s a hodgepodge," she explains. "The last time I was in Israel I was served sashimi and Thai-flavored something or other, and I thought, sorry, I didn’t come here for that. Israeli cuisine is a melting pot, a lot like America. Whoever is there is cooking Romanian food, Italian food, Yemenite food. Is there Israeli cuisine? I think it’s fusion, so I didn’t give it much attention. It’s not pure. I’d rather go back to the sources."

Indeed, each recipe reflects Goldstein’s impeccable research and attention to detail, and regional differences are carefully noted. For example, for the Cumin Flavored Meatballs, Goldstein offers Moroccan and Syrian variations. But she never sacrifices flavor for authenticity, adding a touch of orange to the sfenj (Moroccan Chanukah donuts), for example, and adjusting the spices in various dishes.

"The spices of North Africa are really vibrant, just incredible, so much fresher and more intense than those we can buy here," she said. "To make these recipes taste right, I often had to double them."

More than just a recipe collection, "Saffron Shores" traces the history of Jewish life in these exotic lands and its impact on the cuisine. We learn that unlike the Ashkenazim, who preserved their Judaism by isolating themselves, the Sephardim were more involved in the communities in which they lived. "They shared recipes and culinary traditions with their non-Jewish neighbors," she writes. "Their food reflected the cuisine of their homeland but adapted to follow the kosher laws."

Because the Sephardim were more active in the community, in trades and in business, there was a greater exchange of ideas between Jews and Muslims, and the similarity in recipes between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors is striking, she notes.

"On the other hand, certain [Eastern European] dishes, when you think of them, you know they are Jewish. I have many Russian cookbooks, but I don’t see too many recipes in there for brisket or tzimmes. There’s not as much overlap between the Jewish and non-Jewish dishes. Some of the ingredients are the same, like cabbage and potatoes, but the recipes don’t track the same way that the Sephardic ones do."

A tireless researcher, Goldstein combed cookbooks from the area, written in French, to capture the authentic tastes and aromatic flavors of such dishes as Iraqi Chicken and Chickpea Pastries, Lamb Tagine with Prunes and Honey and Moroccan Chicken and Almond Pie. The latter, known as B’Stilla, Goldstein calls "a masterpiece of Moroccan cuisine."

And while most of the recipes are easy to prepare, favoring the use of fresh, local ingredients over the labor-intensive method, the savory pastries that Goldstein calls "labors of love" are worth the extra effort, she said. Teams of women would prepare them together for special occasions, a tradition that is sadly dying out. Goldstein suggests families create their own traditions by preparing these bistels, briks or buraks together. "Anything that is fried is appropriate for Chanukah. The Tunisian briks are rounder in shape and contain egg, as compared to the bistels from Morocco and buraks from Algeria," she explains, "but they all can be fried."

For those who can’t think of Chanukah without potatoes, there are potato filled briks from Tunisia. But Goldstein offers a variety of fillings for these pastries, from beef or lamb to feta cheese to chicken with chickpea to spinach with pine nuts. Depending on the region, the dough may be phyllo, yeast raised, short crust or semolina, and the pastries may be baked as well as fried.

These spice-infused pastries make an alluring addition to any Chanukah table. And for Ashkenazic Jews, what an exotic change from latkes.

>Cumin Flavored Meatballs With Onion Jam and Spicy Tomato Sauce

1 pound ground beef

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander (cilantro)

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1¼4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

11¼2 teaspoons salt

1¼2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Light a fire in a charcoal grill. (You may also use a skillet heated over medium-high heat.)

2. In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients. Mix well, form into 16 oval meatballs wrapped around skewers, or into eight oval patties.

3. Grill or cook in oil on a hot pan until browned on all sides.

4. Serve with onion jam and tomato sauce.

Serves four.

Moroccan Chanukah Doughnut

2 envelopes active dry yeast

1¼4 cup sugar

1¼2 cup warm water

4 cups all-purpose flour

1¼2 teaspoon salt

2 eggs, lightly beaten (optional)

grated zest of 1 orange

1¼4 cup canola oil, melted margarine,

or melted unsalted butter (optional)

11¼2 to 2 cups warm water or part

water, part orange juice

Peanut or canola oil for deep frying

Granulated sugar for sprinkling or warm honey for dipping (optional)

1. Dissolve the yeast and sugar in the water. Let sit until foamy, about 10 minutes.

2. Pour into a large bowl and gradually stir in the flour and salt.

3. Stir in the eggs, zest, and 1¼4 cup oil, margarine or butter, if using.

4. Stir in just enough water or water and juice to make a soft and elastic dough.

5. Knead well, with a dough hook or by hand, on a lightly floured surface, until the dough is elastic, smooth and shiny.

6. Roll the dough into a ball, place in an oiled bowl and turn to coat.

7. Cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled (11¼2 to 2 hours).

8. Oil your hands. Divide the dough into 20 balls about 2 inches in diameter.

9. In a deep saucepan or wok, heat 3 inches of oil to 365 F.

10. Take a ball of dough, make a hole in the center, and pull it out to make a doughnut shape. Deep fry a few at a time until the donuts are puffed and golden.

11. Using a slotted spoon or skimmer, transfer to paper towels to drain.

12. While still hot, sprinkle with granulated sugar or dip in warm honey. Serve warm.

Makes about 20 donuts.

Judy Bart Kancigor, the author of “Melting Pot Memories” (Jan Bart
Publications, $19.95), can be found on the Web at

Students Spread Light in Ukraine

Osik Akselrud got a little help from his friends in staging a recent workshop designed to teach students to teach others about the history and traditions of Chanukah.

That’s because the head of the Hillel office responsible for Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova was able to use, as instructors and assistants, students who’d already completed the first two installments of the program.

"We had two instructors from Hillel in Israel, as well as the Hillel students who’d gone through the first and second generations of seminars — and they know everything," he said. "I say, ‘Hey, you guys have become professional Jews.’"

About 140 students took part in the weeklong workshop that wrapped up Nov. 10.

They came by train to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev from cities across the country — Lvov, Odessa, Kharkov, Simferopol and Sevastopol — as well as from Minsk, Belarus, and Kishinev, Moldova. And it’s to those regional Hillel centers they’ll return to pass along what they’ve learned to their fellow Hillel members and then out to Jews in communities across the three countries.

Speaking at Kiev’s Sunflower Community Center after the seminar, Akselrud said such education is sorely needed. He said that despite the efforts of the past decade, following the break up of the Soviet Union, more time is required to make up for the 70 years of suppression that succeeded in alienating most Jews from their culture and religion.

"Only about 15 percent of Jews are involved in Jewish community programs," he said. "Sunflower has about 400 or 500 regular visitors, but there are between 80,000 and 100,000 Jews living in Kiev."

Hillel is banking on a combination of education and outreach to increase those numbers. It is using a hands-on approach to education to get the message across.

The Chanukah seminar opened in a traditional way, with a song performed by instructors from each regional Hillel office. That was followed by presentations by the regional groups — through songs, dances or performances.

First-time participants were taught the Chanukah and Israeli songs that would be sung together throughout the week. The following days followed a similar pattern — a combination of learning and fun.

"Our seminars are not only religious but also holiday-oriented for people who’ve lost their traditions," said Yulia Belilovska, the seminar’s coordinator. "The idea is to provide the education and, after that, if some want to go to synagogue, they can."

In a novel approach to learning about Chanukah, Hillel also arranged public relations and advertising training for the students. Belilovska explained that the idea was to get the students thinking about imaginative ways to present the meaning and traditions of Chanukah and how to attract community members to attend workshops on the topic. Half the group focused on video presentations, and the other half on dramatic presentations.

"One group presented a commercial containing ‘positive and negative PR,’" Belilovska said. "One girl explained that candles should be lit during Chanukah because they’re beautiful, amazing, a miracle and a good tradition, while one boy countered by saying, ‘Yes, but on Chanukah there are a lot of house fires.’" The positive argument won the day.

Dennis Bainkovsky said he felt like a winner, too. The 21-year-old economics student at the International Solomon University in Kiev was attending his third Chanukah seminar but serving as an instructor for the first time. He said he enjoyed the opportunity to teach others who’d taught him previously.

"The most important part of the seminar for me was acting as a madrich. I felt like a leader," he said, using the Hebrew word for guide or counselor. "I was helping teach some students who’d taught me at other seminars in the past — and while that was difficult, I was ready, and it worked out well."

His schoolmate at Solomon University, 19-year-old Yevgenia Soloviyova, was also attending her third Chanukah seminar. But her experience of Chanukah goes well beyond that, since she also grew up as an active Jew in her native city of Khmelnitski.

She said she enjoyed the opportunity to share her knowledge with the approximately 70 percent of the seminar participants who were learning the details of Chanukah for the first time. She said it was interesting to compare and contrast the styles and attitudes of various Hillel members.

"The Hillel organizations are a little different and have different feelings of spirit," she said. "For example, the group from Kishinev seemed to be a little more religious," while in "Kiev, we have our own place and maybe consider ourselves to be a little more independent."

But with completion of the seminar, it will be up to the participants to pass on what they’ve learned. That is done with workshops within their regional Hillel organizations. Then with the start of Chanukah, they fan out to communities in their regions and beyond.

Members of the Kiev Hillel, for instance, will travel to Hesed community centers around the region, including the city of Zhitomir, before heading farther west to major centers like Ivano-Frankivsk.

"It can be challenging when you’ve got a mixed group of older people and children and have to find a way to keep them all interested and entertained," Soloviyova said. "But sometimes, it’s great where there are older people who remember what Chanukah was like during their childhood and want to tell you about it."

Soloviyova said enlightenment can also work both ways — as was the case when Kiev Hillel traveled to the western border city of Uzhgorod last year.

"We met a group of younger people who were telling us that life wasn’t very interesting for them, because they didn’t know what kinds of things they could do together in their community," she said. "So, of course, we told them all about what we do in Hillel and the programs we’re involved in."

It is just such interaction, education and growth that Akselrud said the Chanukah seminar was designed to encourage. He said that makes the efforts and the $20,000 cost of the initiative — funded in part by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee — worth it.

"For me, the most important part of the seminar was that I saw many, many new faces," he said. "And that means more students involved in Jewish life — and more potential."

Mitzna Wins Labor

If Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna hopes to becomes Israel’s next prime minister, he faces a daunting challenge: resuscitating a moribund Labor Party in a little more than two months.

A day after the dovish newcomer to national politics won a sweeping victory in Labor’s leadership primary, political observers warned Mitzna that he had only passed the easy part.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz noted that Mitzna has an extraordinarily short time to consolidate his position in Labor, neutralize potentially hostile camps within the party, win the loyalty of senior party members, organize a national election campaign and inject new life into a dispirited party.

Even then, his chances of winning the Jan. 28 national elections are considered slim: Polls show the Likud Party with a daunting lead over Labor.

Essentially, one commentator noted in Wednesday’s Jerusalem Post, Labor members chose Mitzna to be the next opposition leader, not the next prime minister. If Labor loses in January, Mitzna might be asked to step down as party chairman. If he refuses to do so, he might face another challenge for the party chairmanship next summer.

The final results of Tuesday’s primaries bore out the predictions of exit polls: Mitzna received 54 percent of the vote, incumbent chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer won about 39 percent and legislator Haim Ramon won slightly more than 7 percent.

The soft-spoken Mitzna immediately extended an olive branch to his two Labor rivals in a bid to unite forces in preparation for the national campaign. He said his first task would be to unite the party "as one big beehive, a joint staff, in order to lead the Labor Party in the most important of all confrontations, with the Likud," the Ha’aretz newspaper reported.

Critical to this undertaking will be reconciliation with Ben-Eliezer, whose withdrawal from Sharon’s unity government — Ben-Eliezer had been defense minister –precipitated Sharon’s decision to call elections. A longtime party veteran, Ben-Eliezer still has a formidable political machine within Labor. Mitzna offered Ben-Eliezer the No. 2 position on Labor’s Knesset list for the elections, but Ben-Eliezer said he needed time to consider the offer.

Mitzna, 57, is a former general who clashed with then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon during the 1982 Lebanon War and commanded Israeli troops in the West Bank during the first intifada in the late 1980s. His tenure as Haifa mayor generally is considered successful — the city is seen as a model for Arab-Jewish coexistence — but opponents accuse him of being too close to business interests and allowing for virtually unchecked real estate development.

Continuing an Israeli tradition of placing their faith in white knights with little political experience — Ehud Barak and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak were two other ex-generals seen briefly as political saviors, but whose stars quickly burned out — Mitzna burst onto the national stage just several months ago and instantly became the leading candidate for Labor’s chairmanship.

Described as aloof, somewhat stiff and yet open to counsel, Mitzna galvanized a left wing thrown into disarray when the peace process collapsed in the terrorist waves of the intifada.

The national unity government of Sharon and Ben-Eliezer, who served as defense minister, refused to negotiate with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat or even contemplate a diplomatic process while violence continued. Mitzna, however, said he would be willing to negotiate under fire, and would talk with any Palestinian leader, including Arafat. If negotiations fail to produce an agreement, he said, Israel would withdraw unilaterally from most of the West Bank within a year. Mitzna also pledged to uproot Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip immediately upon taking office.

On the economy, Mitzna advocates less spending on settlement and more on retirees, students and poor development towns.

Such positions provide voters with a stark contrast to the Likud. Mitzna’s stance toward the Palestinians — and his insistence that disengaging from the Palestinians will allow Israel to focus on its own domestic problems — is likely to appeal to left-wing voters who complained that their voices weren’t heard during the 19 months of national unity government.

Whether such positions will win over the mass of Israelis in the center — whose votes have proved crucial in the last three elections — is far less clear. Most public opinion polls show Israeli public opinion moving to the right since the intifada began.

The national election will come into greater focus after the Nov. 28 primary in the Likud, when Sharon faces off against Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Writing in Ha’aretz, political commentator Yoel Marcus wrote that Mitzna will stand a better chance if the Likud is led by Netanyahu, who espouses a harder line than Sharon.

Prevent Your Children From Intermarrying

The calls increase in frequency as Rosh Hashana gets closer. "Rabbi, I’m thinking of putting my kids in Hebrew school. Could you tell me a bit about it?" So I give the usual descriptions. We meet twice a week. Your child will learn Hebrew reading, history, holidays and traditions. On the holidays we have all kinds of interesting projects, on Rosh Hashana they will learn to make a shofar, Chanukah make a menorah and Passover bake matzah. By the way, I sometimes say, our Hebrew school is great, but day school, like the Hebrew Academy, is a much better choice for a more comprehensive Jewish education.

"Oh," they say, "that sounds interesting. But I’ve got one problem. The program conflicts with soccer on Tuesday." So I try to be a bit tough. "Look, the program is twice a week. If you don’t send Timmy or maybe Tiffany both days, they really won’t be getting that much of an education."

"Rabbi, we are really not so religious, and anyway the kids learn the traditions at home."

So I wonder if I should lay it on the line or not. Chances are the amount of "traditions in the home" was a dinner last Passover. The family gathered and read the Maxwell House edition of the haggadah. After about 20 minutes, Aunt Sadie started complaining that it was getting late and they should move on to dinner. The older sister’s cell phone was ringing with some friend from school. And the 10-year-old kid is thinking to himself, "Ah, this must be Judaism." Mom can’t read Hebrew, and dad can somehow figure out the four questions since he had a bar mitzvah some 20 years ago.

Instead, I try to be the nice guy. Usually I try to cajole, encourage and hopefully convince them that the kids will have a great time. Hebrew school does not have to be a drag, and if you can only do one day a week, we will try to accommodate you.

Hoping that by first getting in the front door, maybe I will have a chance to slowly interest the children — and then maybe down the line the parents, whose Jewish attention span lasts no longer than the bar mitzvah anyway.

At times, I will try to enter into a philosophical discussion. Judaism gives us answers to the inner meaning of life. It leads us down a path of holiness, imbuing us with spiritual purpose and direction. But few are interested in engaging in a philosophical dialogue. They are more interested in the important issues: tuition, carpool, homework loads, etc.

What I don’t tell them is the harshest truth. "Listen, your observance is not so strong, and unless your kids get an education chances are it will be less. And if you want your children to marry a fellow Jew, the only thing that really insures that is giving the children a Jewish education."

But rarely are they interested in hearing the statistics of the National Jewish Population Study that clearly prove the more Jewish education, the lower the rate of intermarriage and assimilation.

I feel like I am witnessing assimilation at work. Parents who make Judaism a priority to their kids will have children that carry it on. Most importantly, they will gain an appreciation of the richness of Jewish tradition that will impact their lives. Sadly, we live in a time where most Jews are three and even four generations removed from full observance.

Daily, I see parents making decisions that will effect their children’s identity for decades to come. "Oh, Rabbi, we’ll make a small bar mitzvah and invite over the family," they say. I wonder, what’s the celebration if the kid knows as much about Judaism as I do about Zulu Indians?

Still there are the good stories. Parents who for years have invested much in their kids and are seeing the rewards of having the right priorities. Families who make a decision to seize the opportunity before it’s too late, and give their children some Jewish education. The best news is that what we are teaching the kids has an impact. According to all the surveys, the more years they learn — and in particular if they choose a day school over a Hebrew school — they grow to love Judaism.

It’s all very simple: the more hours they put in, the more they value the ideals and traditions that reach down to us from Mount Sinai.

History Comes Alive

Italian scholar Francesco Spagnolo is keenly aware of the long-standing Jewish presence in Italy.

"Never before the creation of the State of Israel did Jews of so many varied origins live together, and in such a stimulating, if at times threatening, environment as in the land they called in Hebrew ‘I-Tal-Yah,’" he says.

"I-Tal-Yah" — Island of Divine Dew in Hebrew — means Italy in Italian, a land where Jews have lived for more than 2,000 years and which has seen layer after layer of immigration from all over the Jewish Diaspora.

For centuries, Jews in Italy have maintained specific local identities, which were reflected in a wide variety of distinct customs based on Sephardic, Ashkenazic and ancient Italian Jewish traditions. These included foods, dialects, rituals — and also the melodies used in the liturgy. Almost every Jewish community had its own melodic tradition.

Spagnolo, who founded and directs the Milan-based Yuval Center for the Study of Jewish Music, has released a CD presenting a sampling of these melodies.

Titled "Italian Jewish Musical Traditions," the CD was released in association with Hebrew University and Rome’s Accademia Nationale di Santa Cecilia.

It is based on recordings made in the 1950s by Italian Jewish ethnomusicologist Leo Levi, the first scholar to devote research to the Italian Jewish oral music tradition. In more than 80 recording sessions, Levi, who died in 1982, collected more than 1,000 prayers, chants and other items from nearly 50 cantors and other sources.

"The recordings constitute testimony — in most cases, the only account — to 27 liturgical traditions preserved in the Jewish communities of more than 20 Italian cities," Spagnolo says.

These include such places as Rome, Ferrara, Asti, Venice, Florence, Trieste, Ancona, Moncalvo, Gorizia, Verona, Padua, Casale Monferrato, Turin and Pitigliano. Most of these places have few, if any, Jews today.

"The percentage of melodies that are still in use has definitely decreased since Levi’s work," Spagnolo says. "But many of the communities where he recorded were already on the verge of disappearing before World War II. My impression is that these recorded melodies carry us back to a time that could only be preserved in an oral tradition."

The CD follows a liturgical order, beginning with Shabbat and the High Holidays and continuing through the various festivals of the Jewish year. It also includes liturgical songs and chants related to life-cycle events such as marriage and circumcision.

Most of the texts are in Hebrew, except for some Passover and Purim songs in Italian. Most of the melodies are likely to be a revelation for Jews outside Italy.

"It shows an exceptional kind of music," Spagnolo says. "It is both genuinely Jewish" and "genuinely Italian." The melodies are mixed with bel canto and opera, as well as folk and political music.

Spagnolo’s interest in Levi’s work and Italian Jewish musical traditions has changed his life. He met his wife, the American cantor and Yiddish singer Sharon Bernstein, when he was in Jerusalem, working in the sound archives where copies of Levi’s field recordings are kept.

The couple have begun working with American musicians Michael Alpert and Willy Schwarz as an ensemble to perform Italian Jewish music and take it to a wider audience in the United States and elsewhere. They also would like to help American and other cantors incorporate Italian liturgical traditions in their synagogues.

The couple have another connection to Levi. In July, Spagnolo and Bernstein were married at the synagogue in Florence by the city’s rabbi, Joseph Levi — who is Leo Levi’s son.

At their request, Rabbi Levi incorporated a number of rarely heard liturgical melodies in the wedding service. "We frankly did not know what a beautiful singing voice he has, and we were both crying to hear such exquisite and authentic renditions of pieces which we had before only accessed on his father’s recordings," Bernstein says.

Reading Into the Holidays

A few years ago, Aish HaTorah Rabbi Yaacov Deyo (of SpeedDating fame) presented me with a book before Rosh Hashana. With this simple, gracious gesture he changed forever the way I relate to what can be the most daunting time on the Jewish calendar.

Passover seders, Purim carnivals and the lighting of the Chanukah menorah all have a festive air. The High Holidays are a sober contrast, observed primarily in temple. People who may never set foot in synagogue the other 360 days of the year attend lengthy, solemn services throughout Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Even in our jaded culture, these days are approached with a sense of reverence. Yet this reverence, that binds us so strongly as a community, can also block us from connecting to the holidays on a personal level.

Fortunately, there are a number of books and articles which can help make the start of the Jewish year a time to be embraced rather than endured.

A good place to begin might be "Tastes of Jewish Tradition — Recipes, Activities and Stories for the Entire Family" by Jody Hirsh, et al (Wimmer Cookbooks, $26.95). Produced by the JCC of Milwaukee, this book is extremely accessible. There is a chapter devoted to every festival on the Jewish calendar, including Shabbat. A historical/biblical overview of what the holiday is about is accompanied by lesser-known information (such as a description of a North African Rosh Hashana seder). Then there are recipes — some classic, some innovative. Finally, as the title promises, there are activities to appeal to the whole family. Crafts are geared toward younger kids, while projects such as creating a "Book of Life Scrapbook" offer a chance for people of different ages to reflect together on the past year.

Another book that is both reflective and interactive is Shimon Apisdorf’s "Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit" (Leviathan Press, $14.95). Apisdorf writes with a soft-spoken intimacy, as though he were sitting across the table with a cup of hot tea. Discussing the short teruah notes of the shofar, he encourages, "Before you rush in headlong to the New Year energized by your rekindled convictions, pause for a moment. Let the sense of inspiration settle in. Let it fill your soul."

Throughout the text, he manages to bring to life the poetic, meditative essence of Jewish worship. A more cerebral take can be found in "Entering the High Holy Days — a Guide to the Origins, Themes and Prayers" by Reuven Hammer (The Jewish Publication Society, $29.95). This book examines the rituals and themes of the holidays with the aim of showing "how they are woven together to form a magnificent tapestry that encompasses the many facets of life."&’9;&’9;

This incredibly thorough volume is replete with details. There is a step-by-step outline of a Rosh Hashana ceremonial meal. Translations of entire prayers appear with commentary. What is most impressive about this work is that it is consistently didactic without being pedantic.

There are also a number of Web sites where people can tap into the meaning of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. One that stands out in particular is the World Zionist Organization’s site Holiday articles can be accessed by typing "Rosh Hashana" into the "Search" box on the upper right corner of the page. These articles offer thoughts that blend the traditional with the personal. They are informative and witty, and they offer fresh insights in a decidedly casual tone. For instance, in "TENtative Thoughts — the Ten Commandments and the Ten Days From Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur," Robin Treistman addresses Web surfers directly: "Here’s my idea: I will present a guide for each day parallel to each of the 10 categories. The only rule is there are no rules."

To their credit, Treistman and the other contributors successfully maintain a degree of levity without crossing into disrespect. It is a tribute to these writers and a testament to the real-world orientation inherent to Jewish spirituality.

The books and articles available on the High Holidays are as varied in style as the Jewish community itself. What’s important to remember is that there really is something for everyone, an open door for anyone who’ll knock. Happy reading.

Local Rabbi’s Suggestions for High Holiday Reading

Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom, educational coordinator, Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jewish Studies Institute: "’Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe)’ by Agnon. Nobody tells it better."

Rabbi Harvey Fields, Wilshire Boulevard Temple: "’Finding God’ by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme. Selected reading on this topic does exactly what the title indicates."

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, faculty, Yeshiva University of Los Angeles; Sidney M. Irmas chair in Jewish Law and Ethics, Loyola Law School: "The single book that I recommend the most is ‘On Repentance’ by Rav Soloveitchik. It is deep, beautiful, and inspiring."

Rabbi Morley Feinstein, University Synagogue: "Milton Steinberg’s novel ‘As a Driven Leaf’ brings up Jewish identity in a complex modern world. How a Jew deals with these things is especially important at this time of year."

Rabbi Samuel Lieberman, Congregation Beth Israel: "I would say to read ‘Shaarei Teshuva [Gates of Repentance]’ by Rabbeinu Yona, and anything on Jewish law, to know how to conduct oneself during these days and throughout the year."

Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, currently teaching for Isralight: "There’s such a wealth, such an ocean of material on the Internet — and articles are much more digestible than books. So it’s a wonderful, practical way to go."

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, Makom Ohr Shalom: "’Simple Words: Thinking About What Really Matters’ by Adin Steinsaltz. This book lives up to its title. A master of Jewish thought shares meditations on words, good, evil, envy, death, family, love, God and even Hollywood."

Eli Stern, outreach director, Westwood Kehilla: "I would suggest reading through the ‘Artscroll Machzor.’ It gives commentary and explanation throughout all the services, so it’s a good preparation."

Rabbi Mordecai Finley, Ohr Hatorah: "For the moral dimension, I always study ‘Cheshbon Hanefesh’ by Menachem Mendel of Satanov. I tend to focus on Chasidic texts."

Aaron Benson, rabbinic intern, Congregation Beth Meier: "Just look through the Machzor itself. Look at it as literature and poetry, rather than just an instruction manual." — Denise Berger, Contributing Writer