November 18, 2018

Mark Schiff on Why Bread is His Downfall

Photo from Pixnio

Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah are over. We went from fast to feast. I ate enough to last a year. These holidays are tough for normal people, but for overeaters, they are insane. 

I have been blessed to have kept off almost 50 pounds for about eight years. It is the single hardest thing I’ve ever done. The fat man inside of me is relentless. He is a liar, cheat and con man, and he will do anything to get me ballooned back up. He thinks it’s funny when I can’t button my pants. He loves me fat, out of shape and sick. I know this because I must deal with him daily. 

Yesterday, I swore off peanuts. Today, I’ve already had three fistfuls. I later grabbed a Lärabar and said to myself, “Eat it slow.” It was gone in two bites. Then I went back for a second one. I’m hopeless. When I go to supermarkets, I might lob some “no-no” into my cart and, with the help of God (which I really mean), toss it before I get to the register, but not until I push the item around the store, talking to it. “You’re not going home with me.” “You’re not.” “I’m the boss.” Thank God people think I’m on the phone and don’t know I’m having a conversation with a bag of Skinny Pop.  

A lot of people ask me how they can lose weight. I give them my phone number and tell them to call me. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they don’t call. Last week at shul, a guy told me he was diabetic and bread was his downfall. He knows what his downfall is but can’t stop. 

A rabbi told me he wanted to pay someone to be all over him about his eating habits. That used to be called a “mother.” Now it is a highly paid food coach. 

‘I’ve kept off the weight because it’s not about the weight; it’s about health. I’m trying to get healthy, not skinny. Skinny is the gift of getting healthy.”

There are no permanent fixes. If you want to keep weight off, get ready for the fight of your life — or join the Hare Krishnas. I’ve never seen a chubby Hare Krishna. Heart attacks, stents, open-heart surgery, erectile dysfunction, diabetes and strokes most of the time do not lead to people changing. Fear wears off. People tell me they want to change but usually stipulate they don’t want to do anything too drastic. When did having a surgeon cut you open down the middle stop being considered not drastic? (I just got up for more nuts and ate them. I’m such a lost soul.) 

I’ve kept off the weight because it’s not about the weight; it’s about health. I’m trying to get healthy, not skinny. Skinny is the gift of getting healthy. Getting healthy is for people who want to get healthy, not for people who need to get healthy. You must want it and want it badly. 

Mark Schiff before and after his weight loss journey.

Most people who need things never do anything about them. It’s the people who want to do it who are driven to do it. They’re the ones who succeed. Those are the people who understand that if they don’t change, they will die. Those are the ones who make the changes. I’ve been to funerals of people who died of lung cancer and heart attacks, and as soon as they were over, you can see some of their friends lighting up on the way back to their cars. 

I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if I go back to my old habits, I’m history. I made a deal with myself that when the time comes and I must give back my body to my creator, I want to return it, to the best of my ability, the way it was given to me. That means in good shape. I want to know that when the day comes, and it will, that I did all I could to prevent it. If not, that voice inside of me will have a field day berating me on my deathbed: Please, God, no more nuts today! 

Mark Schiff is a comedian, actor and writer.

What sourdough taught me about Passover

Two weeks ago, when the rains finally stopped and the sun appeared in a brilliant blue sky, I took my sourdough starter outside for some fresh air. I sat on a bench in the garden and read a book. My starter sat beside me.

After a while, my wife came out.

“What are you doing?”


“No, I mean, what’s that?”

“My sourdough starter.”

She was kind enough not to say, “You’re so weird.” But I’m pretty certain she was thinking it.

Each week when I make bread, I use the starter. I created it nine months ago, mixing a few tablespoons of freshly grown local wheat and water in a large mason jar, and setting it aside, uncovered, on my kitchen counter. The next day I added a little more flour and water. 

After about a week of these incremental additions, the slurry bubbled and frothed. Wild yeasts, ever present in our air, had landed in the starter and multiplied. Tiny bubbles appeared where the gasses formed by the yeasts tried to escape. When I lowered my nose to the jar, it smelled like the tank room of a winery. A really good winery.

From that day on, to make bread, I only had to combine a portion of the starter with some flour, water and salt, stir it into a lump, let it sit overnight, and the next day, bake it into a beautiful loaf. I do about 10 minutes of work, total. Those wild yeasts do all the rest.

To replenish my starter, I add more fresh flour and water, then let it sit out again, until the yeasts gather and activate. Sandor Katz, the modern-day guru of fermentation, once wrote that he likes to take his sourdough starter outdoors so it can collect the various local yeasts that may not make it as far as his kitchen counter. Los Angeles forager Pascal Baudar said that he often takes his sourdough along with him when he goes for a walk in the woods. I figured I would do no less for mine.

I started making sourdough bread in college — my first job as a junior was turning out 10 loaves each day for a local bakery. It has a pure taste, simple ingredients, and the probiotic fermentation makes the bread more digestible and better for you. Most other bread tastes cottony and dry to me.

But our ancestors ate sourdough bread because they didn’t have a choice. If you want to know why the Israelites couldn’t wait for their bread to rise, it’s because natural leavening takes a long time to do its magic. Until two Hungarian Jewish immigrant brothers named Charles and Maximilian Fleischmann came up with commercially produced yeast in 1868, all bread was based on starter cultures like mine.

To keep a starter culture alive and healthy, you must feed it daily, keep it at a comfortable temperature, protect it from contamination, and occasionally nurse it back to bubbly life. What I am telling you is that, yes, I have an I-Thou relationship with my blob of sourdough starter. I am sensitive to its needs. I feed it; it nourishes us. 

And now comes Passover, when we are commanded to forgo any leavened thing. In our kosher home, that means all yeast products, all flour, anything with leavening, must go. I would ask my wife, the rabbi, if that means the starter too. Except I already know the answer.

After nurturing my baby for nine months, I figure I have to use it all at once or toss it. As we say in Venice, this bums me out. I ask that age-old question of an inscrutable God: Why?

Until you actually make bread like your Israelite ancestors did, it’s hard to understand what lesson there is in prohibiting leavening.

Israelite slaves escaping Pharaoh’s army didn’t have time for their bread to rise, the Passover liturgy tells us. Remember you were once slaves. So don’t eat bread, or anything remotely like it. 

That’s the reason the rabbis always give us — it’s right there in the story.  I turned for answers to my sourdough guru, or rabbi, Sandor Katz. 

“I’ve vaguely understood it to be a metaphor for remembering a time in exile and in transit, without even a place/time to let dough rise, which of course would also imply no place/time to let grape juice ferment (or to grow grapes for that matter),” he e-mailed back. 

But I wanted more.  I assume there must be some reason for the reason. Why of all the things the Jews must give up for eight days, God picks yeast? After all, did the Israelites have time to bring their oxen or wine barrels? Why not meat or sugar or alcohol — things that other religions commonly proscribe? We would nod our heads — oh, that makes sense. But yeast?

I have never come across religion that places prohibitions on leavening. If I was going to have to say goodbye to my beautiful 9-month-old bouncing baby starter, I needed to see the deeper meaning behind it.

And precisely because of that starter, I do.

Until you actually make bread like your Israelite ancestors did, it’s hard to understand what lesson there is in prohibiting leavening. But staring at my starter, I’ve come up with three.

First, sourdough culture is a very human enterprise. Humans manipulate nature to make bread. It takes culture to culture. But for the eight days of Passover, we step away from what we humans create, and sit down to what God created. Eggs. Meat. The first greens. We eat what’s fresh and new and pure (even more reason those processed Passover foods are heretical to the holiday). The earth that was dead in winter has come alive in spring — and we had nothing to do with that. Enjoy it, marvel in it, understand it.

Second, baking takes time. Sure, the Israelites could have scooped their starters into their goatskin purses as they fled. But no matter where they went, they would have had to camp for at least a day to let their bread rise. Passover teaches us to live lightly, be ready to move on quickly, live for today in the presence of all you have — leave tomorrow behind.

Finally, in order to thrive, a sourdough culture needs continuity with the past. Yesterday’s starter becomes tomorrow’s, which becomes next month’s. Passover breaks that chain. You toss it all out, you start fresh.

These are lessons no less profound than remembering our redemption, but harder for our modern minds to understand — at least without a sourdough starter around.

As for mine, I figured a solution. Our neighbors will baby-sit the batter during the holiday. I’ll leave them instructions. Feed and water daily. Keep warm. Walks optional.

Happy Passover.

ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

Homemade Pita Bread

In the ancient world, bread was usually made by using a type of sourdough starter. A little bit of raw dough was set aside, unbaked, in a cool, shaded place. This dough was then used as the leavening agent for the next week’s bake. Preparing leavened bread required the use of old matter, a bacterial culture that was continuously fermenting in an unbroken chain of bread baking with no beginning and no end. Perhaps this is why God demands that our cleansing each spring be total: we need to break all the chains that fetter us to the past. We must clear out all of the old from the house to make way for the new.

The ancient Hebrew word for leaven, or yeast, is se’or. There are no coincidences in the Hebrew language, and often there are multiple meanings within one word. The root of the word lehash’ir, which means to leave behind, is se’or. We can see this as an allusion to the Passover theme of leaving the past behind to start a new beginning. The “chain” of sourdough starter that was used constantly can be seen as a metaphor for the chains of slavery. The plainness and simplicity of matzah can be reinterpreted as a clean slate, the new beginning of the freed slave.

Use your left-over flour in preparation for cleaning out last year’s chains to the past to make pita, a type of round flatbread. Although pita is leavened, as a flatbread, it is similar to the Yemenite and Iraqi matzah, which is soft, rather than crisp, like typical Ashkenazi and Sephardic matzah. The circular shape can serve as an illustration of renewal, as we move through the cycle of the year to re-enter the spring season once more, and with it, the beginning of the Jewish year.

This recipe appears in my new book, Spiritual Kneading Through the Jewish Months: Building the Sacred Through Challah as part of my vision to write about how each Jewish month carries a specific energy from which we can draw it down and learn from it.

Homemade Pita Bread

Baking bread as a meetup

The steamy kitchen was filled with the heady scent of baking bread, while giddy young Jewish professionals stood around in pristine white aprons, drinking from tumblers full of rosy pink pomegranate lemonade. 

Some seemed at ease among the electric mixers and cutting boards, while others were more bewildered by the menagerie of ingredients and tools. But what mattered for people like Jeffrey Melnick was that they were out having fun with other Jews their age.

“I chose to do this because I like cooking, and I wanted to meet some other young Jewish adults,” said Melnick, who lives in the San Fernando Valley. “I had searched for things to do on the Internet, found the YALA [Young Adults of Los Angeles] Web site, saw the cooking class, and so I joined it.”

YALA — The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ programming arm for young adults — helped organize the Aug. 28 Rosh Hashanah cooking class at Sur La Table at the Farmers Market in Los Angeles, along with Federation’s JCC Without Walls initiative.

Rabbi Alyson Solomon, vice president of special projects at Federation, helps coordinate JCC Without Walls. Its mission is to create Jewish activities for young couples in their 20s and 30s, as well as families with young children, where they live, work and play. In this case, organizers tried to do that by bringing together food, Judaism and culture.

“People are very interested in this sort of thing, and it lets people get in touch with their heritage and spirituality in a more hands-on way than simply going to services,” Solomon said.

The evening commenced with a timely honey tasting with sliced apples. In fact, each participant went home with a jar of artisanal honey, along with a packet of recipes from the class.

Chef Marissa Ayala led the group through the steps of cooking a four-course holiday meal, and demonstrated the baking technique for a rosemary-currant challah as well. The menu included roasted sweet potatoes with fresh figs, baby spinach salad with dates and almonds, pistachio-crusted sea bass and, finally, chocolate and cherry gelato.

Despite the relatively small cooking quarters in Sur La Table’s back room, everyone seemed to work well together — delegating various cooking tasks while chatting about life and food.

Jocelyn Orloff, senior director of YALA, a group focused on young professionals ages 25-40, said the hope was to appeal to a generation looking for something different at this time of year.

“We partnered with JCC Without Walls for this event knowing that there are young adults looking for High Holy Days experiences that are out of the box,” she said. “Finding a way to use cooking and food as an opportunity to learn within the community is great.”

Although this was the first Rosh Hashanah cooking class hosted by JCC Without Walls, it wasn’t the first time it’s drawn people to the kitchen. The group hosted Passover classes at Sur La Table over the past two years.

This particular evening drew 28 people, each of whom signed up early and paid $50 for the class. Participants were a mishmash of area natives and newcomers, including a former Jewish organizational leader from the Bay Area, and a military veteran who recently transplanted to Los Angeles.

“I think the turnout tonight is great,” Solomon said. “I’m excited that we have such a full group of folks. Personally, I’m really interested in where these people are coming from and where are they going after this. Like, how will this be part of their journey? And hopefully, it will maybe inspire them to try something new or think about something differently.”

Rosh Hashanah Food: All you knead for a bounty of challah

Dipping freshly baked challah in honey is a tradition observed during the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. This act combines the Shabbat bread with hopes for a sweet New Year.

The custom is to serve a round or spiral-shaped challah, one of the symbolic foods eaten during Rosh Hashanah. Typical is the challah baked in a circle to signify the desire for a long life, peace and universal redemption. Another type of challah is made in the shape of a crown, braided and twisted into a circle and topped by a smaller circle, symbolizing the ascent to heaven.

Middle Eastern Jews add saffron and raisins to make the bread special for the holiday. Because carrots were one of the few sweet-tasting vegetables accessible to Eastern European Jews, they became a substitute for the candied pumpkin and squash often eaten during the holiday.

Another concept is a break-apart challah. The dough is divided into several parts, shaped into small rounds and placed together in a greased round or loaf pan. Next, it is oiled lightly, left to rise, then brushed with egg and sprinkled with poppy seeds before baking. After this challah is baked, it will break apart easily and be ready to dip in honey.

A round braided challah filled with apples, pears or quince, representing the harvest, is an Italian custom and is included in the recipes that follow.

Potato challah, usually associated with times of grain shortages or a need for economy in the kitchen, was made by Russian and Polish Jews during the Jewish New Year. And for those who could not afford to bake cakes for Rosh Hashanah, there was the delicious bolas, made in Spain from sweetened challah dough, filled with candied orange peel and raisins, rolled into loaves, sliced and baked.

Although challah is easily bought at the bakery, many families are discovering the joy of making it at home. This tradition is important especially during holidays in which it has special meaning. There is pleasure and satisfaction in baking it yourself, and what better way to celebrate the holiday than with the aroma of freshly baked bread. Be sure to reserve some dough for small individual challahs, which will be a special treat for the children. Make it a family project, and allow them to braid and bake their own. 

Rosh Hashanah round braided challah

1 package active dry yeast
1  1/2 cups warm water (110-115 F)
Pinch sugar
3 eggs
1/3 cup honey
1/2 cup unsalted butter or nondairy margarine, melted
1/8 teaspoon ground saffron (optional)
2 tablespoons brandy
5 to 6 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 cup raisins, plumped
1 egg white, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
Dissolve yeast in 1/2 cup warm water and  sugar. Beat together eggs, honey and melted butter in a large mixing bowl. Add the remaining 1 cup warm water, saffron and brandy, and blend well. Blend in the yeast mixture. Add flour, 1 cup at a time with salt, blending with a beater after each addition, until the dough is thick enough to work by hand. Spoon it out onto a floured board and knead for 5 to 10 minutes, gradually incorporating the raisins and enough additional flour to make a smooth and elastic dough. Place dough in an oiled bowl and oil top of dough. Cover loosely with a clean towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1  1/2 hours.

Punch down dough and divide into 3 equal parts. Form each one into a rope about 26 inches long. Braid the ropes together and seal the ends by pinching.

Line a large heavy baking sheet with foil or a silicone baking mat. Oil the foil and sprinkle it with cornmeal. Remove the label and wash an empty 16-ounce can; oil its outside and place it in the center of the baking sheet, open end up. Transfer the challah to the baking sheet, forming it into a ring around the can; join and pinch together the ends of the braid. Cover dough with a towel and let it rise in a warm place until doubled, about 40 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Brush the challah with beaten egg white and sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes until golden brown. Cool on a rack.

Serve the challah on a circular tray and set a bowl of honey in the center. Serve with sliced apples for dipping.

Makes 1 challah.

Bagels regain bread status in Ireland

Bagels were granted equal status with soda bread in Ireland following a government decision to reclassify the traditionally Jewish favorite as ordinary bread for the purposes of taxation.

Bagels and other ‘ethnic’ breads such as naan, pita and tortilla wraps now will be exempt from the 13.5 percent valued added tax on premium baked goods charged by the Irish revenue service.

Wednesday’s decision reverses a provision included in last November’s budget to slap new taxes on “value added” foods. Ordinary bread is exempt from tax in Ireland, but the Irish revenue service changed its determination on bagels late last year, saying they were not “sufficiently bread-like” to be exempt.

The revenue service was overruled by the finance minister, who changed the definition of bread “to reflect the breads currently available on the market, taking account of the development of bread for health, ethnic and other reasons.”

Bagels became widely popular in Ireland outside the Jewish community in the late 1990s as consumer tastes expanded with growing prosperity. Since late 2007 the country has been in a deep recession, culminating in a financial bailout that has forced the government to impose new taxes and cut many exemptions.

Turning over a new loaf

It seems right that some of the first challahs to be sold in Stone Ground Baking Company’s beautiful new store will be the round challahs for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. It is the start of something new alongside the continuation of something very old, even ancient.   

Seven years ago, bakers Abby Franke and Paul Sherman opened Stone Ground bakery in a small, existing bakery about a mile from the new location in Agoura Hills. Their 1960s industrial stone flour mill was set up in a storage closet, and their large European deck oven took up half of the main room’s south wall.

A customer at the counter could feel the heat of the ovens and see the giant mix machines and the worktable where employees shaped the array of artisan breads and pastries by hand. It was crowded, especially as the bakery’s wholesale business grew to supply more than 400 stores, synagogues, caterers and, most recently, school districts interested in whole-grain food for their students — not to mention the high demand for the bakery’s famous challah, which it sells to Trader Joe’s and other chains.

The new location is bright and spacious, a dream of a bakery with hardwood floors and glass walls to keep the heat of the ovens away from the big wooden table, where customers can sit and enjoy a cup of Illy coffee with their rugelach or raspberry tart. The parve products, for which Stone Ground is known in the Jewish community, are displayed on shelves and in cases, but there is also a new kosher dairy section and a new pastry chef. There is a coffee lounge, house-made gelato and sorbet, and even a real wood-fired brick oven to cook the pizza dough they sold raw in the old location.

Franke’s eyes sparkle when he talks about the new place, until he gets to the fact that his late, much-missed business partner, Paul Sherman, will not be there — and then his eyes fill with tears. The connection between the deceased Israeli baker and his German partner was powerful. “Paulito” will always be in his thoughts, Franke said, adding that he feels Sherman is watching over the new operation today.

Franke began baking when he was 14, mastered the skill in his native Germany, and then moved to California, where, among other jobs, he managed production at La Brea Bakery. Sherman, also an immigrant baker, from Tel Aviv, had a West Valley kosher bakery when he and Franke met. The direct, outgoing German and the reportedly shy Israeli successfully combined Franke’s passion for whole-grain ingredients with Sherman’s dedication to holy production (kashrut) until Sherman’s sudden death at age 53, just as the business was beginning to explode. In the old location, a photograph of Sherman presided over the main room, and the same photo is now at the center of the new store. 

A new partner, Greg Yulish, has a background in business rather than in baking, and was a loyal customer when he and Franke started discussing a possible partnership about two years ago.

They found a new location, where Franke could expand Stone Ground’s offerings and continue to grow the wholesale business. The store uses state-of-the-art equipment, such as gleaming new rotating ovens, in conjunction with the made-by-hand tradition. All baked goods are still made in the store, and the same attention to ingredients that goes into the super-nutritious breads is given to new items like gelato and caramel apples.

Franke still grinds his own flour, but the gray industrial machine has been replaced with a bright red 1931 mill completely refurbished by its South Carolina manufacturers. Through the glass-enclosed room built for the mill, customers can see the wheat being turned into flour, and eventually they will be able to buy freshly bagged (but properly aged) flour for home baking. (Like many food products, flour is best aged, but American companies in an American hurry have been reluctant to adopt this European standard.) 

Stone Ground’s kosher certification comes from a man who understands baking. Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom is the son of the baker from whom Sherman bought his first bakery. As a teenager, Feinstein worked at Sherman’s bakery and so, it seemed only fitting that when they needed certification, Sherman and Franke went to Feinstein. He approved the dairy section in the new bakery, too. Franke says anytime the rabbi feels nostalgic, he is invited to come back and work. Franke will be back at the ovens himself in the opening months of the new store, to make sure everything is done the way it should be.

The round challah of Rosh Hashanah symbolizes many things and can be a metaphor for the turning of the world, the way things constantly change but maintain their essence when what is important is preserved — the spirit of a good friend, the traditions of an age-old craft and the customs of an ancient people.

Stone Ground Baking Company, 29105 Canwood Place, Agoura Hills. (818) 597-8774.

Not By Bread Alone

“Carb” is a four-letter curse word in the estimation of most L.A. residents. Its nasty connotation came by way of one Dr. Atkins, whose “Diet Revolution” became more widely read than the Bible among many a secular Jew. Seemingly overnight, Atkins’ “prophecy” became an orthodoxy for consumption of food for the grace of that most coveted status: beauty by way of slenderness.

Suddenly carbs were cursed, and pasta, potatoes and, of course, bread became the stuff of guilt and suffering to be avoided like menstruating women on the bimah. In revolutionary proportions, the most nonreligious unknowingly joined in collective affirmation of the words of Parshat Ekev: “Man does not live by bread alone.”

That man should live instead by an In-N-Out protein-style Double-Double, however, was not quite the message. Preceding Deuteronomy 8:3, God explained the suffering He caused the Israelites in wandering the wilderness as a 40-year test of faith. “[God] subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat … in order to teach you that man does not live by bread alone, but by the word that proceeds out of the mouth of God does man live.”

Perhaps today’s anti-bread movement is essentially spiritual: a collective desire of our souls for greater consciousness and empowerment from within the realm of Creator. To be sure, giving up bread is a subjugation of hardship; no amount of corned beef can satisfy hunger for a fresh slice of rye bread underneath. The triumph in overcoming such attachments for a higher life experience is indeed sacred; seeking a tighter tush rather than a firmer faith is profane. Even if the spark of God within us inspired this widespread affliction of culinary deprivation, our egos haven’t quite caught on.

Carbolyte is a poor substitute for manna from heaven (and a noxiously gaseous one), as are the other artificially flavored and sweetened things by which carb-counting eaters try to satiate. They only add to the diseases of materialism: feelings of inadequacy, of wanting more in a world where you can “never be too rich or too thin.” If only we would recite the words of Ekev, recognizing that “God is in [our] midst, a great and awesome God” (Deuteronomy 7:21), the experience of our own perfection in an abundant reality would be revealed.

The bread battle is spiritual. Long before Atkins or Weight Watchers subjected us to the proverbial wilderness of carblessness, Judaism instructed that we “cast our bread upon the water” as offerings of lowly attachment for the receiving of higher sustenance. So, too, it warned us to temper consumption of yeast, which, like the human ego, causes physical and emotional turmoil when disproportionately swollen. And then there is the connection between the words lechem (bread) and milchama (war) by sharing the same root — explaining the battle between a smaller waist and a chocolate rugelach.

Eliminating bread, according to Judaism, is an ego diet. It is infliction of measured suffering on the greedy, possessive, instantly gratified, animal part of oneself so as to realign with the Godly part. It exercises faith and determination, a return to the experience of blessing. It took 40 years for our ancestors to get this: that they need not struggle nor worry nor want food, or anything else, but rather infiltrate their beings with faith in the providence of their Creator and gratitude for His miraculous offerings.

His manna appeared such that there was never any more or less than what was needed for daily sustenance. Anything leftover rapidly infested with maggots; the only thing they could hold was conviction in God’s presence. When they finally understood that everything needed was imparted by — and only by — the power of the Divine word, they were delivered into a land flowing with milk, honey and fabulous pita.

The war on bread may allow a victory over dependency, but it is in learning to love the enemy after the battle that perfection is truly realized. Manna was never meant to take the place of the wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, olives, dates and grapes growing in Israel. Once our ancestors were able to fully trust in the sustenance and abundance of an Infinite Source, It restored them to their natural right for physical pleasure. The intention was ultimately that we live our lives in the luxury of beautiful tastes and recognize the blessing of its energy flowing though us as sparks of creation in service of their Supplier.

Man should not avoid bread; quite the contrary: the parsha proceeds with God’s promising our life experience in “a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing.” It describes an abundant existence, in which “when you have eaten your fill” of Mrs. Fields cookies, you will recognize that you have had enough, and “give thanks to the Lord your God for the good … he has given.” Carb-free living encourages the power to transcend attachments to comfort, and strengthens the will to live consciously and intentionally: the Sinai Diet. But the greater test comes in our heeding God’s word, not Atkins’.

The milchama with lechem stops when we can eat it proportionately and spiritually. When we enjoy our fill — rather than demonizing, avoiding or sinfully binging on it — we are redeemed. By the mouth of God, bread was created, as was light, as were we, in His image. Our purest source of nourishment is Divine love, manifest in our capacity to lift up the vital force in all foods through our own utterances of gratitude. The war becomes love when we bless Adonai, who takes bread from out of the earth. With these words, hamotzi lechem min haaretz, we also praise the Creator for taking war out of the world. Ah, to eat a knish in peace.

Using both bread and body to service the Divine, lightness and purity from within their mundanity shine in vital beauty. By mimicking the word of God, we consume the blessing we offer; our souls are fed by sacred words and our bodies are sated and sustained. We remember that while “carb” may be a four-letter word, so, too, is the unutterable name of God, and that’s the furthest thing from a curse there is.

Rabbi Karen Deitsch works as a freelance officiant and lecturer in Los Angeles. She can be reached at

Bar/Bat Mitzvah – B’nai Mitzvah Menu Dishes Up Bonuses

With the flurry that surrounds a b’nai mitzvah celebration, we often lose sight that this day — this passage from childhood to adulthood — will be one of the most meaningful memories of his or her life.

The memories will not be of the buffet table that boasted an ice sculpture replicating a Torah or a humungous Jewish Star comprised entirely of chopped liver. And the noisy dance floor crowded with unfamiliar gussied-up guests will become a blur lost to time.

What we want a bar or bat mitzvah to remember most is the outpouring of love from those who watched as the child read from the Torah and listened to the positive intentions he or she outlined for their life. And most of all, we want a child to re-live the sense of accomplishment that results from this achievement.

Then why do we feel compelled to host a no-holds-barred celebration that, to quote Rabbi Gil Marks, “is often all bar and no mitzvah?”

To challenge this trend of pleasing business acquaintances and long-lost cousins, rather than honoring the bar or bat mitzvah, many parents are planning the Saturday night party with, rather than for, their child, so that it is more personal, more creative and more reflective of what will make him or her the happiest.

Whether the child wants a noisy bash with a DJ at the synagogue, a make-their-own-pizza party in the family room or a casual beach party roasting kosher dogs and burgers with friends, let it be filled with an abundance of amusement but a fraction of the flash.

But for the Oneg Shabbat, give your child the unique experience of creating a unique menu built around favorite foods. A few rules: no burgers, no kosher dogs, no pizza — and no deli.

Otherwise, the sky’s the limit. But, because I am the proverbial Jewish mother, here’s one very delicious suggestion: What child doesn’t covet lamb chops?

If you’re worried that lamb chops for a crowd of hungry b’nai mitzvah-goers might get expensive, consider sandwiches of boned, butterflied and marinated leg of lamb, sliced thin and then piled between pieces of rosemary or olive bread spread with Dijon mustard and accompanied by arugula.

Choose a variety of his favorite salads, some cold asparagus sticks and, for dessert, strawberry tarts.

For colorful, healthful side dishes, let your child select favorite cut-up vegetables among carrots, celery, jicima sticks, tricolored bell peppers, mushrooms, cucumbers, baby corn, broccoli and cauliflower. To accentuate their flavor, offer dressings of Thousand Island and vinaigrette and dips of olive tapenade, hummus or baba ganoush.

For a sweet life, set out platters of fresh fruit — sliced melons, pineapple, kiwi, papaya, mango and bowls of berries. And include a favorite after-school treat of sliced apples, pears and bananas with peanut butter and honey.

With your child, test the proposed recipes — from salads to dessert. Then when you’re both pleased, type up the recipes and invite your friends to play a special role in the Oneg Shabbat.

You are role-modeling friendship, generosity and a sense of community — qualities better shown than spoken. As a bonus, you are strengthening bonds, proving the paradigm, “It does take a village to raise a child.”

Given the opportunity — and a little guidance — your child can experience yet another accomplishment. Let your bar or bat mitzvah take the first step into adulthood with a healthy, delicious menu that has been specially created for his or her guests.

Baby Greens With Pansies and Blood Orange Vinaigrette

Edible flowers are grown specifically with no pesticide or dangerous chemicals. Be sure to use only flowers cultivated in this way.


1 1/2 cups freshly squeezed blood-red orange juice
1/3 cup, plus 2 teaspoons, red wine vinegar
1/3 cup, plus 2 teaspoons, cold water
1/3 cup dry mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups nut oil (hazelnut, walnut or pecan)
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon orange zest

Place all ingredients, except oils and zest, in blender. Blend for 30 seconds. Remove mixture, stir in oils and zest, whisk to form a smooth emulsion.


3 pounds field lettuce or baby greens
3/4 cup fresh mint, torn into bite-sized pieces
3/4 cup fresh basil, torn into bite-sized pieces
1 1/2 cup pansies or other edible flowers
3/4 cup toasted sunflower seeds
1 1/2 cups croutons (optional)

Place greens, mint, basil, sunflower seeds and croutons, if desired, in bowl; toss with dressing and sprinkle with pansies.

Makes 24 servings.

Butterfly of Lamb Sandwiches on Rosemary Bread

Remove all sinews and visible fat from lamb. Place lamb and marinade in large Ziploc bag. Let sit for at least four hours or overnight.

Let meat come to room temperature before grilling. Place lamb on grill about six inches from coals. Cover grill, let lamb cook for 15 minutes. Turn lamb over, cook until desired degree of doneness. The internal temperature should read 140 F to 145 F.

Remove to carving board. Cover with foil; let rest for five minutes before carving.


3/4 cup sherry or Madeira
2 1/4 cups orange juice
3 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons fresh ginger, grated
12 cloves garlic, finely chopped or more to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
12 pounds leg of lamb, boned and butterflied

Combine marinade ingredients and pour into saucepan. Heat on low flame until flavors are thoroughly blended, about 45 seconds. Allow marinade to cool.

Rosemary Bread

2 packages dry yeast
2 cups tepid water (90 F)
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
5 1/2 cups unbleached white flour
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon rosemary needles
1 tablespoon kosher salt

In electric mixer bowl, dissolve yeast in water until it starts to work.

Add sugar, oils, salt, three cups flour; process for 10 minutes on medium speed, until dough leaves sides of bowl. Using either bread hook or your hands, knead in remaining flour until dough is smooth. Allow it to double in size and then punch it down. Divide in half and roll out each section to half-inch thick.

Combine garlic and olive oil; paint top of dough generously. Sprinkle on rosemary and salt. Roll into a jelly roll, pinching down sides. Put into two greased loaf pans. Let them rise until they double in size. Bake at 375 F for 40 minutes. When it’s sliced, it should look a pinwheel.

Makes two loaves.

Sandwich Garnish Suggestions:

2 cups arugula, well washed and dried
Fresh mint, chopped fine
Thinly sliced red or yellow tomatoes
Thinly sliced Bermuda or other sweet onions
Thinly sliced cucumbers
1 quart mayonnaise
1 pint Dijon mustard
Mango chutney
Mint jelly

To make sandwiches, slice bread thin and pile it artistically on a platter. Provide bowls of mayonnaise mustard, mustard, horseradish, chutney, chopped mint, mint jelly and platters of cucumbers, sweet onions, tomatoes and arugula.

Guests will be creative with which spreads they choose and which vegetables they select to accessorize their sandwiches. You or your child can demonstrate ideas of delicious combinations, such as: Spread lightly with mayonnaise and Dijon mustard. Place a piece of arugula, lamb a few garnishes and then another piece of arugula.

Makes 24 servings.

Crisp Asparagus Sticks

Spring asparagus is so tasty it needs little accompaniment.

3 pounds baby asparagus, with spears peeled and tough ends trimmed
1 1/2 cups lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste (optional)
3 tablespoons olive oil (optional)

Fill a large skillet with salted water to within an inch of the top. Bring to boil; add asparagus. Simmer uncovered four to five minutes until firm tender. Pierce with point of paring knife to determine doneness. Plunge immediately into ice water to stop cooking.

Dry on paper towel; toss with lemon juice, salt, pepper and olive oil, if desired. Keep at room temperature until ready to use. It will stay fresh for several hours.

Makes 24 servings.

Strawberry Brown Butter Tartlettes

Adapted from “The World of Jewish Entertaining” by Gil Marks (Simon & Schuster, 1998).

Shell (Pate Sablée)

2 1/4 cups (4 1/2 sticks) margarine, softened
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs or 6 egg yolks
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
6 cups all-purpose flour
Ice water as needed


6 eggs
2 1/4 cups sugar
12 tablespoons flour
12 ounces margarine


6 pints strawberries, stemmed but left whole


3/4 cup currant jelly
3 tablespoons sugar

Garnish, Optional

3 cups mint sprigs, stem removed

To make the pastry: Beat margarine and sugar until smooth and creamy. Add egg and salt.

Gradually blend in the flour. (The dough should have the consistency of a sugar cookie. If it is too stiff, add a little ice water.) Form the dough into a ball and flatten into a disk. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour or up to one week.

On a lightly floured piece of wax paper, roll out the dough to a one-eighth-inch thick round about two inches larger than an 11-inch round tart pan.

Fit dough into tart pan and run a rolling pin over top to trim edges. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour. (The shell can be refrigerated for up to four days or frozen for up to three months.)

Preheat oven to 375 F. Line bottom and sides of shell with aluminum foil, shiny side down, and fill with pie weights, pressing against the sides. Bake until pastry is set, about 10 minutes.

Remove weights and foil and bake until pastry is lightly browned, about 10 minutes more. Let cool on a rack. (The tart shell can be prepared a day ahead, covered, and stored at room temperature.)

For filling: Mix together eggs, sugar and flour in bowl. In saucepan, brown butter, stirring with whisk until golden and smells nutty (do not burn). Whisk into flour mixture. Spoon into tart pans; smooth it over. Decorate tart with strawberries in circular pattern. Top with glaze.

For glaze: Place jelly and sugar in saucepan. Cook on high heat stirring with wire whisk until jelly breaks down and turns into syrup, about two minutes. While glaze is still warm, paint strawberries with soft-bristled pastry brush. Garnish with fresh mint, if desired.

Makes three 11-inch tarts.


Holiday Breads Worth the Calories

With the no-carb craze sweeping the nation, Atkins Diet adherents make sure to avoid pasta and potatoes, but when the High Holidays roll around, even purists are tempted by succulent Jewish breads.

What would Rosh Hashanah be, after all, without huge round challahs? Or Yom Kippur without bagels to break the fast? Not to mention Bukharan bread, za’atar pita and the wide variety of breads that Sephardim adore.

Atkins converts aside, bread has historically been among the most important staples in the Jewish diet. We even eat matzah at Passover — a holiday that revolves around shunning luscious, lofty loaves.

Indeed, bread was once considered a complete meal, and until recently was the mainstay of many people’s daily calorie intakes. In the Bible, bread is a symbol representing food.

"Jewish law said that if bread is served, you have a meal; without it, you are having a snack," wrote Maggie Glezer in her upcoming book, "A Blessing of Bread: Jewish Bread Baking Around the World" (Artisan).

Bread is central to Jewish celebrations. Ideally before each meal, and certainly before holiday meals, a blessing is recited, thanking God for bringing forth bread, and by implication all food, from the earth.

"At Rosh Hashanah, my family likes the same breads each year," said Glezer, an Atlanta mother of two children who bakes huge batches of sweet honey challahs and freezes them. She serves some of these airy challahs at Rosh Hashanah and the rest at Yom Kippur. But her family breaks the fast with her homemade honey cake — which Glezer considers bread.

Knowing that challah braiding is a dying art, what inspired Glezer to write a book about baking Jewish bread?

"I’m a bread fanatic and a Jew — that’s how I came to this," she said, adding that she’s been seriously studying bread baking for 15 years. An American Institute of Baking-certified baker, Glezer specializes in teaching bread techniques to both amateurs and professionals. This is her second book about bread, and she writes on the subject for culinary magazines.

"’A Blessing of Bread’ is accessible to less experienced bakers," she said.

Because Glezer empathizes with beginners relying on recipes and a picture to produce unfamiliar breads, she gives readers numerous guidelines, conveying exactly what the dough looks like at each step. Her recipes are often long, but for novices it’s like having a professional baker at their side.

With more than 60 recipes in her cookbook, Glezer encourages people to stray from the usual babkas, bagels and deli rye to try new delicacies like Turkish coffee-cake rings or Hungarian walnut sticks.

Glezer’s goal was not to include every bread recipe in the Jewish repertoire — which would take two lifetimes. Her aim was to give readers a thumbnail sketch by highlighting some recipes from Sephardi, North African, Near Eastern and Ashkenazi cultures.

To assemble this impressive collection, she spoke to and baked with people from many backgrounds. She also included lively oral histories, anecdotes and passages from folk tales.

While the book features international holiday baking, Glezer has a special place in her Ashkenzi heart for sweet challah. At Rosh Hashanah, people often drizzle honey and raisins into challah, hoping for a sweet year. Instead of the oval-shaped, braided variety, the Rosh Hashanah challah is spiraled to represent the cycle of life and the completeness of the world.

"Rosh Hashanah is apple season," said Glezer, explaining that while apples have been a symbol of sweetness for centuries, this treasured fruit has recently begun to appear in American challah recipes. Calling for huge chunks of apples, Glezer’s spin on this new genre produces delightfully moist results. Her step-by-step instructions yield a coffee cake or a sweet bread to serve with dinner.

"While my Apple Challah can be prepared in a loaf pan or a circular cake pan, at Rosh Hashanah, I prefer the cake pan for its round theme," she said.

"One of the best parts of the Holidays is Sephardic pumpkin bread," said Glezer, explaining that her recipe was inspired by one from Gilda Angel, author of "Sephardic Home Cooking."

Angel explains that among Separdi Jews, pumpkin is popular at Rosh Hashanah because it expresses "the hope that as this vegetable has been protected by a thick covering, God will protect us and gird us with strength."

While pumpkin gives the bread an appealing color, it derives its aromatic flavor from cardamom and ginger, popular Sephardi spices. Glezer suggests either fresh or canned pumpkin.

"My favorite part of writing ‘A Blessing of Bread’ was listening to bakers and others talk about their lives," she said. "Their stories are the fabric of Jewish life; their recipes the carriers of our tradition."

Hearing her rhapsodize about her favorite subject is like being with an energetic bubbie who has burned her fingers in ovens a thousand times but still exudes the enthusiasm to taste the unfamiliar, learn from strangers and share amazing recipes for a never-ending basket of Jewish breads.

Apple Challah

2 envelopes instant yeast

5 cups unbleached bread flour

1 cup warm water

3 large eggs

6 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus extra for the pan and dough

2 teaspoons salt

1/2 cup granulated sugar, plus extra for sprinkling

3 large baking apples (Braeburn preferred)

In a large bowl, whisk together the yeast and 1 cup of the flour. Then whisk in the warm water until yeast mixture is smooth. Let it ferment uncovered for 10-20 minutes, or until it begins to puff up slightly.

Whisk the eggs, oil, salt and sugar into the puffed-yeast slurry. When eggs are well incorporated and the salt and sugar have dissolved, stir in the remaining 4 cups of flour all at once with your hands. When mixture is a shaggy ball, scrape it out onto work surface and knead it until it is smooth and firm, no more than 10 minutes. Soak your mixing bowl in hot water to clean and warm it. If the dough is too firm to easily knead, add a tablespoon or two of water. If the dough is too wet, add a few tablespoons of flour. The dough should feel smooth, soft and only slightly sticky.

Place dough in the clean, warmed bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let the dough ferment for one hour, or until just slightly puffy.

While the dough ferments, peel, quarter and core the apples. Cut each quarter in half lengthwise. Then cut each slice across into three pieces. End up with large, squarish apple chunks. Measure 4 1/2 heaping cups of the chunks. Reserve them in a covered container.

After initial ferment, sprinkle dough and work surface with flour. Pull out the dough. Cut dough in half into two equal pieces, keeping one piece covered while working with the other. Roll out the dough into a 1/8-inch-thick, 16-inch-long square. Scatter 1 heaping cup of apples over the center third of dough. Fold up the bottom third to cover it.

Press dough into apples to seal it around them. Scatter another heaping cup over the lower half of dough — onto the second layer of dough — and fold the top of dough over both layers to create a very stuffed letter fold. Press down on the dough to push out air pockets and to seal dough around apples. Roll dough into a bowl. Move dough in bowl so that the smooth side — without a seam — faces up. Cover with plastic wrap. Repeat with other piece of dough, using another bowl. Continue fermenting both doughs for about an hour, or until they have risen slightly and are very soft.

Oil two 8-inch round cake pans. Using as much dusting flour as needed, pat each dough half into a rough round shape. Try keeping smooth side intact on top. You won’t be able to deflate dough much now because of the apples. Slip dough into pans smooth side up and cover them well with plastic wrap. Let loaves proof for about 30 minutes, until they have crested their containers.

Immediately after shaping the breads, arrange an oven rack on the lower third position and preheat oven to 350F.

When loaves have risen over the edge of the container and won’t push back when gently pressed with a finger but remain indented, brush each with a generous tablespoon of oil. Sprinkle them with a few tablespoons of sugar. Bake for 45-55 minutes total. After the first 40 minutes, switch the pans from side to side. Bake 5-15 minutes more. When loaves are well browned, remove them from oven, unmold and cool on a rack.

Pan de Calabaza (Sephardic

Pumpkin Bread)

1/2 cup canned pumpkin puree

1 envelope instant yeast

1/3 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

About 3 3/4 cups bread flour, divided

2/3 cup warm water

1/3 cup granulated sugar

1 3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup vegetable oil

2 large eggs

In a large bowl, whisk together yeast, cardamom, ginger and 3/4 cup of the flour. Whisk in warm water until yeast slurry is smooth. Ferment for 10-20 minutes, or until slurry begins to puff up slightly.

Whisk sugar, salt, oil, one egg and pumpkin puree into puffed yeast slurry. When mixture is well combined, stir in remaining 3 cups flour with your hands. When mixture is a shaggy ball, scrape it onto your work surface. Knead it until well mixed, fairly smooth and firm. Soak mixing bowl in hot water to clean and warm it for fermenting dough. If dough is too firm, add a tablespoon or two of water. If dough is too wet, add a few tablespoons of flour. Dough should be light orange, firm, easy to knead and not at all sticky.

When dough is fully kneaded, set it in the cleaned, warmed bowl. Cover with plastic wrap. Let dough ferment about two to three hours, until it has tripled in size.

Oil two baking sheets. Divide the dough into two loaves of equal size, placing each on a baking sheet. Tent them well with plastic wrap.

Let loaves proof 60-90 minutes, until triple in size.

Thirty minutes before baking, arrange an oven rack in the upper third position. Remove racks above it. If both baking sheets won’t fit on one rack, place a rack below it, leaving room for bread to rise. Preheat oven to 350F. Beat the remaining egg with a pinch of salt to use as a glaze.

When loaves have tripled and don’t push back when gently pressed with a finger but remain indented, brush them with egg glaze. Bake loaves on individual baking sheets for 35-40 minutes. After the first 20 minutes of baking, switch the pans from top to bottom or from front to back so that breads brown evenly. Bake 15-20 minutes more. When loaves are very well browned, remove them from oven and cool on a rack.

Kick Off the Year Rolling in Dough

As most people know, challah is the braided egg-rich loaf of bread that we traditionally eat on the Sabbath and holidays — two loaves of challah at each of the three Shabbat meals. They help commemorate the miracles that the Jewish people experienced during their 40 years of wandering in the desert. While on weekdays they received one portion of manna from heaven, Friday God sent two portions.

Challah — especially homemade — is wonderful every week, but it resonates with deeper meaning at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, when it is an age-old custom to dip it (at least the first piece) in honey after reciting the appropriate blessing to beseech God to grant us a sweet year.

For Rosh Hashanah, challah is often shaped into a crown or a turban, and raisins are often added to make it even sweeter. Throughout the whole holiday period — through Sukkot — many people follow the custom of preparing or buying round loaves instead of the traditional long, braided ones: a reminder of the cycle of the seasons. Some very ambitious people add a braid in the center in the shape of a ladder, in the fervent hope that we merit both physical and spiritual uplift during the coming year.

The round challah custom is ideal for yours truly: I confess to being braid-impaired. While every preschool child in Israel seems to know how to form beautiful, even braids, I never learned this in Minnesota. Even my three-part braids (I have rarely attempted anything like six or more braids) leave much to be desired in the evenly braided department.

My solution? Round challahs — they always come out nice, look impressive, and no one can believe how easy they are to make. You can either make one long braid and then roll it up, or use the following recipe and baking method. The smell is indescribable. For more details on challah — actually on all aspects of bread baking, see any Jewish cookbook: all the myriad details won’t fit into this article. The mitzvah of separation of challah must be observed along with Jewish law — ask your local rabbi for more information.

Challah should be allowed to cool completely before being well-wrapped for storage. Well-sealed challah can be stored for a day or so on the shelf, or frozen. It defrosts well, and no one can tell that it’s not freshly baked. You can even freeze the ready-to-bake dough. This is good to know in the busy preholiday period.

May this be a sweet year for the entire Jewish people.

Sweet Round Challah

2 tablespoons instant dry yeast

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup oil

Approximately 9 cups of flour (divided), sifted

1 tablespoon salt

5 eggs (divided)

2 cups warm water

1/2 cup golden raisins (optional)

Sesame seeds

Poppy seeds

Combine yeast, sugar and oil in a large bowl. Stir in about 3 cups of flour; combine well. Add salt and four well-beaten eggs, one at a time. Add water and mix in well. Sift in enough flour, 2 cups at a time, to form a dough for kneading, beating well after each addition. Add raisins, if desired.

Knead for eight to 10 minutes, adding a bit more flour if necessary. Place dough in a greased bowl and turn to grease all sides. Cover with a damp cloth and allow to rise in a warm place until double in bulk-about one and a half to two hours.

Punch down, fold in sides, cover and allow to rise for about another half hour. Punch down. Divide dough in half. Coat two 8- or 9-inch diameter pans (look for pans that are at least 3-inches high) with nonstick cooking spray. Form a ball of dough about 3 1/2 inches in diameter and place in center of pan. Divide rest of dough into eight even portions, forming eight balls of dough, and surround center ball of dough. Repeat with remaining half of dough.

Cover pans and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk. Brush with beaten egg. Sprinkle both sesame and poppy seeds on the two middle balls. Sprinkle sesame and poppy seeds alternately on each of the outside balls of each challah. Bake in a preheated 350 F oven for 35-40 minutes until golden brown and challah sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Remove from pans immediately and cool on a rack.

Makes two round challahs.

15 Years Ago: Cast Thy Sins Away

If you’ve ever been to Ocean Parkway — that long thoroughfare traversing all neighborhoods Brooklyn, connecting the BQE from “The City” (Manhattan), to the Belt Parkway from Long Island — you’d have seen the two “island” streets lining the two outer streets like an Israeli flag, where old men played chess, young mothers strolled their children and we teenagers hung out.

And one afternoon a year, when a tease of a chill hovered in the air, and the dark green leaves prepared to change into their red outfits, thousands of people would stream out onto Ocean Parkway and head en masse toward the center of the long thoroughfare, as if they were called by a Pied Piper or beckoned by an alien spaceship.

If you were Jewish — and who wasn’t in Brooklyn? — you were celebrating Rosh Hashanah, and you were going “to do Tashlich,” as we said in our Hinglish (Hebraicized English).

Tashlich, which means “you will cast away” in Hebrew, refers to the custom of throwing bread into a live body of water to symbolize ridding yourself of your sins.

The ritual — one of many steps of repentance beginning the month before Rosh Hashanah and culminating on the fast of Yom Kippur — has, in recent decades, grown so much in popularity that what started as a little-known custom with few historical sources has entered the mainstream: One of these years, on the High Holidays, Tashlich will be as ubiquitous as apples and honey.

If you want to see how Tashlich has gone mainstream, watch the beaches: Here in SoCal, from Malibu down to Manhattan Beach, on the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah (or the second, if the first day of the Holiday falls on Shabbat), you are sure to find a crowd — one that is bigger than last year’s — heading toward the ocean, preparing to throw away their sins.

Surely, Tashlich has reached the tipping point because there is even a joke Tashlich e-mail circulating on the Internet:

“Occasionally people ask what kind of breadcrumbs should be thrown,” the e-mail reads. “Here are some suggestion for breads, which may be most appropriate for specific sins andmisbehaviors:

For ordinary sins………………White Bread

For complex sins………………Multigrain

For twisted sins…………………….Pretzels

For sins of indecision……………….Waffles

For sins committed in haste……Matzah

For sins of chutzpah…………..Fresh Bread

For substance abuse……Stoned Wheat…”

What’s the meaning of this custom? Where did it come from? And why the sudden surge in the practice?

“In recent years, for reasons that have nothing to do with the ceremony itself, Tashlich has become a very social mitzvah,” Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes in “Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History ” (William Morrow, 2001).

“People often descend on the same body of water from different neighborhoods, where they encounter friends and acquaintances they may not have seen since the preceding Tashlich. Partially for that reason, even though the ceremony itself is solemn — Tashlich has become more widely observed.”

We Brooklyn Jews, of course, were religious trendsetters, practicing a giant community Tashlich since the 1970s. Each Rosh Hashanah, at about 4 p.m., tens of thousands of people slowly inched along the parkway, making their way through the sea of black hats, knitted kippahs, wigs, and coiffed heads that stretched as far as Ocean Parkway could go. It was the height of fashion, literally: one year, The New York Times even sent a photographer for the Sunday Styles Section. Our accessories? A bag of bread and the Rosh Hashanah Machzor, which had the liturgy for the ceremony from the prophet Micah (7:18-20):

“Who is like you God? You forgive sins and overlook transgressions,

For the survivors of Your People;

He does not retain His anger forever, for He loves kindness;

He will return and show us mercy, and overcome our sins,

And You will cast into the depths of the sea all their sins;

You will show kindness to Yaakov and mercy to Avraham,

As You did promise to our fathers of old.”

While the first official mention of Tashlich only dates back to the 14th century, most commentators agree that the idea of Tashlich emanated from the same biblical passage that gave us the custom of the shofar, the ram’s horn blown on the High Holidays.

Both customs are performed in remembrance of The Sacrifice of Issac, the Genesis portion we read the second day of Rosh Hashanah. When God commanded Abraham to “take your son, you only son” Isaac and bind him and sacrifice him to prove his devotion to God, Satan was given permission to put obstacles in Abraham’s way in order to weaken his devotion. Finally, Satan placed an impassable river in Abraham’s path, but it did not stop our plucky forefather. With his son in tow, he entered the river, until it came up to their necks — and then called out to God for help, and the river disappeared.

The custom of going to a body of water, the rabbis say, is to remember Abraham’s perseverance and devotion to God, and in our time of repentance, we should exhibit similar devotion, no matter the obstacles.

At Tashlich, when we recite the prayer, “Grant truth to Jacob, kindness to Abraham, as you swore to our fathers from ancient times. In distress I call upon God, With abounding relief, God answered me” — we are recalling Abraham’s ancient cry for help.

By the 15th century, though, there was opposition to the practice of Tashlich. Some rabbis opposed it on religious grounds, because of the prohibition of feeding fish on a holiday. Yet fish are an integral part of Tashlich: The Kabbalah teaches that water symbolizes kindness and fish, with their ever-open eyes, are like the ever-watchful eye of God. (Today, many observant Jews perform Tashlich on a weekday, usually on the day before Yom Kippur, but even as late as Hoshanah Rabah, the seventh day of Succot, which is technically, the “extended” deadline for Tashlich as well as for the final closing of the Book of Life.)

Later, 18th-century maskelim (educated Jews) opposed Tashlich because they thought it primitive. But much of the opposition to Tashlich emanated from the fear of anti-Semitism: In the days of well-poisoning and blood-letting accusations, having a group of Jews walk en masse to a body of water to throw bread into it while chanting a prayer didn’t exactly help race relations. Some rabbis forbade the practice, others encouraged their followers to do it secretly, and some people just symbolically emptied out crumbless pockets.

In Brooklyn, we had plenty of crumbs to throw at Tashlich — just not a whole lot of water. Despite the proximity of the Atlantic Ocean at Coney Island, for some reason everyone made their way to this one landlocked yeshiva. You had to wait your turn — okay, it was Brooklyn, so you had to push your way — up to the black spike metal fence. After you said the prayers, you tossed your bread toward the center of the patch of grass, upon which stood a three-tiered bird bath. I hoped that if I made the shot, my sins would be cleansed.

But would they? Behind the bird bath, over the hundreds of pieces of challah littering the floor, was a sign that read, “Please Do Not Throw Bread.”

So how important is the bread throwing anyway? For that matter, why bother engaging in the whole repentance process if we can just throw away all of our sins in one fell swoop? (Okay, for some of us it might take more than one throw to get rid of our sins…)

Tashlich is not the only repentance custom that suffers from literalness (throwing out bread = throwing out sins); it is similar to kaparos (atonement), the ritual practiced on the day before Yom Kippur. During kaparos you wave a live chicken over your head and then slaughter it, saying, “This is my change, this is my compensation, this is my redemption. This chicken is going to be killed, and I shall enter upon a long, happy and peaceful life.”

The slaughtered chicken is then donated to charity. Today, many people wave a bag of coins over their head instead of a chicken, as they are discomfited by the voodoo-ishness of the ceremony, which has also drawn, at times, rabbinic disapproval.

Both Tashlich and kaparos, though, find their roots in the “Scapegoat for Azazel,” literally, the goat that Aaron was commanded to send off into the wilderness in place of the nation’s sins.

Here’s the thing, though. You’re not supposed to take any of these things literally: the bread we throw into the water, the chicken we slaughter, the goat which was sometimes actually thrown off a mountain to repent for the Nation of Israel — they are not our sins.

How can they be? Repentance, for us, is a complex process involving introspection, confession, apology and the pledging not to repeat your transgressions, not a simple equation of confession and absolution (“Forgive me father, for I have sinned…”). So the question remains, why bother with Tashlich at all?

“There’s something about the ocean,” mused Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, when asked what the custom means to him.

“It’s always changing, reshaping and reforming,” Leder said. “It’s a powerful place to do a powerful thing.”

The Reform movement only recently adopted this custom. Even so, the Wilshire congregants have embraced the custom wholeheartedly.

“It’s an opportunity to do something concrete and symbolic in the same moment,” Leder said. “The best Jewish practices connect both symbolically and physically.”

Leder said some 500 people come to the beach, where everyone builds a long “wall of sand” which rises about 4 feet and stretches hundreds of feet down the beach.

People inscribe their sins on the wall of sand, and then grab fistfuls of the wall and toss the sand into the ocean.

“We want to do it in an ecological yet dramatic way,” Leder said.

Mishkon Tephilo’s Rabbi Dan Shevitz is also concerned with the environmental effects of Tashlich, which is why he makes sure his group of hundreds clean up after themselves and feed the fish in moderation. But for him, the main problem is the entire concept of getting rid of your sins, shrugging them off like yesterday’s outfit.

“We don’t throw our sins out. As we have learned from environmentalists, there is no such thing as out. One can no longer flush [bread] into the sea and pretend it’s not there anymore,” he said.

His Conservative temple has been practicing Tashlich since its inception in 1918, Shevitz said. But he tries to make it about feeding the fish, rather than unburdening yourself of sin.

“We don’t simply get rid of things, we have to improve them,” Shevitz said. Your sins are a part of you, and if you try to throw it into the ocean, the wind will just throw it back in your face, he said.

“Real transformation [recognizes] that you are who you are, you have what you have, and you improve incrementally.”

Can we get rid of our sins? Can we erase the past? Traditional liturgy seems to believe so. “Repentance, Prayer and Righteous acts temper judgement’s severe decree,” we say in the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer.

“Repentance is not rational,” explained Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of Simon Wisenthal Center’s Project NextStep.

“There is really no human way of undoing what you’ve done. It is counterintuitive. But the holiday season teaches us that if we take the first steps, God will take care of the rest. The scapegoat of Leviticus symbolized our ability to rid ourselves of sins simply by completely dissociating ourselves from them, by exiling them far from our immediate world. Tashlich tells us the same — that not all sins penetrate to the core, but we can change if we will it.”

This Sunday, when we stand at the water’s edge, the sun blinding us as it begins to gracefully ascent, we will rip off chunks of challah and cast it off into the tumultuous blue waters. Maybe a seagull will dive down and grab it, or a hungry fish will jump up in an arc and gobble it up.

Perhaps these creatures will have swallowed our sins, thus cleansing our souls, and ending the teshuva process.

On the other hand, having rid ourselves — symbolically or literally — of our worst transgressions, perhaps it signifies not an ending, but a beginning. After Tashlich, we are now ready to start anew.

For information on Tashlich services, see our Calendar on page 54.

The Grape Taste of Sukkot

As a child, I loved the bunches of grapes that hung from the palm leaves covering the roof of the sukkah. These small outdoor huts were built for Sukkot, the Jewish holiday that gives thanks for a fruitful harvest. They symbolize the huts used by harvest workers during biblical times. Although the sukkot were also decorated with fruits, sheaves of grain and autumn vegetables, it was the grapes that fascinated me.

Perhaps that is why, on a recent trip to Italy, I was so delighted to find, Schiaciatta Con L’uva (sweet flat bread with grapes) in Tuscany. The name refers to the somewhat squashed appearance of the pastry. Flavored with olive oil and fresh rosemary, this delicacy is covered with luscious purple, black or red Sangiovese grapes. You can make it with concord or seedless grapes; it will not be quite as authentic, but just as delicious.

Bar Marconi Sweet Grape Bread

Bar Marconi is just 20 minutes outside of Florence. Almost every day during the grape harvest, a large sign appears in bakery windows: "Oggi, Schiaciatta Con L’uva" ("Today, Grape Bread"). Their Schiaciatta resembles giant chocolate chip cookies. They sell it by the slice or the whole round pastry.

1 package active dry yeast

1¼2 cup sugar

1 cup warm water

1¼3 cup olive oil

2 eggs

3 1¼2 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

1¼4 cup minced fresh rosemary

3 cups concord or red grapes

1¼3 cup sugar

In a measuring cup, stir yeast and 1¼2 cup of the warm water with pinch of sugar and let stand five minutes until frothy. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, blend remaining water, olive oil, eggs and remaining sugar and mix well. Add yeast mixture, 3 cups of the flour, salt and rosemary, and blend until smooth and dough begins to come together. Dough will be a little sticky.

Transfer to a floured board and knead in remaining flour. Add grapes and gently knead into the dough. Add additional flour if dough is too sticky. Place dough in an oiled bowl, cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 1¼2 hours.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured board and divide in half. Stretch each half into a circle (9 or 10 inches in diameter) and arrange on two lightly oiled baking pans. Cover pastry with a towel and let rise until doubled, about one hour. Sprinkle with sugar.

Bake at 400 F for 15 minutes; reduce heat to 375 F and continue baking for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Makes two pastries.

Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” and “The 30-Minute
Kosher Cook.” Her Web site is