This is the third post in a series by Johnna Kaplan exploring aspects of Jewish life outside of her own experience.
I have always felt compelled to fast on Yom Kippur — just not compelled enough. Usually I either forget what day it is until it’s too late or simply give up at the first hint of dizziness. This year, I determined to fast properly. Well, almost.
6:00 a.m. I begin by cheating and drink some water. Water is not allowed on Yom Kippur. But Yom Kippur, as I’ve always understood it, is pretty good about recognizing the spirit rather than the letter of its laws. It’s clear that you do not have to fast if, for example, you are sick. I am not sick, but I know I will not be able to last 25 hours without a sip of water. (Come to think of it I might be sick. I could have some horrible disease that just hasn’t been diagnosed yet.)
8:30 a.m. There really isn’t any point in getting out of bed if you can’t have coffee, is there?
9:00 a.m. I realize I’ve been conflating fasting with all sorts of other Yom Kippur observances, such as praying and not showering. I feel much better when I remind myself that it’s acceptable to pick and choose. In fact it’s possible that Judaism and Jewishness in any form might not have survived if some picking and choosing was not inherent the start.
This is the second post in a series by Johnna Kaplan exploring aspects of Jewish life outside of her own experience.
I have always been wary of Gefilte fish. It’s fish, but not quite. It lurks in jars in the supermarket, looking deceptively like delicious matzoh balls, only it isn’t. I have seen it defined as “the pescatarian’s meatloaf,” which is not exactly appealing, and “poached fish dumplings,” which is even worse. But unlike schmaltz or gribenes, which I am content to leave in the past, I felt as if I should at least try to make — and like — this dish that’s practically a byword for Jewish cuisine. So I decided to make gefilte fish as part of my quest to do more Jewish activities.
I should point out that my aversion to gefilte fish stems from nowhere. I like fish. The other ingredients, like eggs and matzoh meal, are at worst inoffensive. But for some reason, gefilte fish turns me into the little boy in the kreplach joke. Do you know the kreplach joke?
There’s this little boy and he’s terrified of kreplach. Whenever his mother serves it, he looks in the bowl and screams “AAAHHH!! KREPLACH!!” So his mother decides the boy should be shown each individual element of kreplach to prove how un-scary it truly is. She rolls out the dough (“See? Just like pancakes!”) and the boy nods happily. Then she assembles the meat (“See? Just like meatballs!”) and he nods happily. Then she folds it all together (“See? Like a little hat!”) and he nods happily. He is similarly unafraid of soup. But when the entire dish is finally placed before him, he takes one look and screams “AAAHHH!! KREPLACH!!”
This year, like other years, I am doing nothing special (read: nothing at all) for Shavuot. It is not, as Marissa Brostoff recently noted in Tablet, not hugely popular as Jewish holidays go. Every year I see Shavuot on the calendar and think, What’s that one again? And then I remember, That’s the one about the Torah. And cheese.
Coming from a secular background, all-night Torah study isn’t really my thing. Cheese, however, is totally my thing. Or was, until a few months ago, when I figured out that cheese (along with some other types of dairy food) was responsible for my skin’s return to a state of teenage agitation. Sad as it made me, I decided to seriously limit my intake of dairy. To paraphrase an overused motto, nothing tastes as good as clear skin looks. But this development gave my non-celebration of Shavuot a new significance. What if I was one of those Torah-studying, special-dairy-meal-eating Jews? I wondered. What would I do then?
I’m not normally a fan of diets, though I have on occasion ventured into the world of trendy eating plans. There was the one from Seventeen Magazine (at the time I was much younger than 17) that introduced me to the dubious concept of eating breakfast. There was an attempt at that cabbage soup fad in college; my roommate and I made the soup and were instantly so disgusted by it that we left it in the fridge untouched for I don’t remember how long. And there was that moment when seemingly all of America went on the South Beach Diet. South Beach food was extremely healthy, but — as I coincidentally learned in South Beach — the cumulative effects of several months without starchy carbs means a drastically reduced tolerance for alcohol.
But for the most part, I ignore dietetic quick-fixes, not to mention their adjunct large-print paperback books. Instead, I stick to the boring stuff. I count calories. I don’t allow tempting foods into my cupboards. I give up treats that are more trouble than they’re worth. (Popcorn, for instance. Who needs a bowl full of empty calories that can slice your gums?) I understand that being thin, or in my case being less than extremely fat, is not something one achieves in a week. It’s a life-long mundane struggle.
Except every spring, I find myself looking at Passover’s eight breadless days and suddenly, all of that knowledge goes out the window. I think, Hey! Maybe I can lose some weight!
On Monday night, the first night of Pesach, many of us will sit around a table telling stories. The primary narrative of the evening — the exodus of the Jews from Egypt — is pretty much the same at every gathering, as is the basic framework of the haggadah from which we’ll tell the story. Drink wine, dip greens, break matzah, eat bitter herbs, make Hillel sandwich, drink wine, drink wine. Dayenu! And so on.
But the diversity of our personal narratives impacts how we each understand this story. We all carry a legacy of distinct experiences and backgrounds that shapes how we understand what it means to be enslaved. For women especially, remembering the exodus can be complex. Women start to become insignificant immediately following the exodus as stories of military might become the stuff of which Torah is made. In her book “The Nakedness of the Fathers,” Alicia Suskin Ostriker explains that it is in “the life of Moses that we see the women disappear. We see the flash of their backs as they dive, like dolphins, beneath the agitated surface of the text.”
I wasn’t going to host a seder this year. No way, no how.
I just came off a year during which I moved three times while pregnant and had my first child in the middle of a hurricane. Then there were the problems breastfeeding and my foolish resistance to getting any help during my baby’s first couple of months. And now there is the constant biting off more than I can chew work-wise during the 20 hours of nanny-time I have a week. This is all to say, I am pretty tired.
Then last week, while while scrolling through my emails with one hand while my baby slept in the other, I saw that Fresh Direct was offering a pre-made seder plate. I could get delivered to my front my door each of the five symbolic foods pre-prepared and rolled up in plastic and an actual seder plate that they all will neatly fit on for $19.99. Okay, I thought, I’m in.
I called my in-laws up in the Berkshires, my aunt in Manhattan and my friends around the corner in Brooklyn. I was having a seder.
Passover. The word itself makes me shudder. If this holiday is about celebrating the redemption of the Jewish people and the renewal of a nation, why, year after year, do I feel shackled by its very presence?
My earliest memory of Passover goes something like this: There I sat, age four, happily playing with my Polly Pocket when my mother tapped me on the shoulder, handed me a toothbrush, and ordered me to scrub the tires of our station wagon.
Years later, when I asked my mother why she burdened me with that seemingly pointless task, she explained that I needed to understand the “spirit” of the holiday. In other words, I couldn’t just sit around playing with my toys while the rest of the family slaved away.
Ironic as it is, the word “slaving” best describes my family’s Passover prep: The Jews were saved, and in celebration, we turn ourselves into slaves during the Jewish month of Nissan. Before you call me a heretic for having such cynical feelings, allow me to share a typical Passover prep schedule from my childhood.
See this trophy? Other than academic achievement awards in school, this is the first contest I’ve ever won in my life. And I won it for Kugl.
My mom and I planned to enter the third quadrennial Kugl Kukh-Off, put on by Los Angeles cultural organization Yiddishkayt at the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, as soon as we heard about it last month. The event sounded like a curiosity not to be missed, and inspired a slew of questions. Kugl taking center stage in the heart of this trendiest of Angeleno enclaves? Would I witness the birth of the next Williamsburg, where hipsters intermingle with Hasids? And, wait, Silverlake has a JCC? I thought I might even write about the spectacle for this here blog. But never did I imagine that I’d emerge victorious. I am now the reigning People’s Choice Kugl champion until my title is contested in 2016.
Okay fine, I’ll come clean. That’s all lies. I totally imagined winning.
Pickling cucumbers, cultivating yeast for Challah, sewing tallit … these hebraic homesteading projects are certainly not for everyone. But most Jews would agree that plenty of our traditions instill a cool-before-it-was-cool “Do It Yourself” aesthetic. This is a culture that often made do with very little and did it all behind closed doors, or within a tight-knit community. Historically, the center of Jewish life was the home, not the synagogue. And so we present to you a list of eight reasonably simple Jewish DIY projects. You can totally do this stuff. I promise.
1. Make a Family Tree
What Jewish family hasn’t played at least one round of Jewish Genealogy? You can go two routes: decorative or academic. If you’re only going to go a couple of generations back, you can fit you findings on a beautiful piece of art to hang in the home.
But if you’re willing to do some digging — uncovering Ellis Island papers, Shtetl Yizkor books and other primary sources of your family’s story — I guarantee that other members of your family would like to be involved in your findings. The venerable JewishGen is a good place to start. Once you’ve got some basic data, consider entering it to an online or printable template (reputable template sites include MyHeritage.com, Wikitree.com and Geni.com), so that it can be safely stored and shared. Be careful of sharing sensitive personal information on these sites, however, and take advantage of relevant privacy controls.
2. Create your own Chuppah
It can cost up to $1,000 to rent a decorated freestanding Chuppah from a wedding planner or florist. If you decide to make your own, it won’t be free, but it won’t cost nearly that much. For inspiration, head to the photo-sharing social network of choice for dreamy brides: Pinterest. Then check out this set of instructions for a simple, freestanding Chuppah. And here are instructions for an equally attractive version that’s designed to be held aloft by four friends.
If you’re into chopping down your own branches, this one is for you.
As a Jewish woman who prefers work to cooking, the Hebrew calendar determines most of the time I spend in the kitchen. Certainly I cook year round — especially for shabbos — but for me, serious cooking happens over the Jewish holidays. While most Jewish women would probably claim Pesach as the ultimate in holiday work, I am most challenged by the fall holidays, when my professional world collides with my Jewish world.
In the heart of the summer months, from Shavuos until mid-Elul, I don’t do much cooking. I take summers off from teaching English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and I use that time to study, write and catch up on reading. And without festive holidays all summer, most substantial cooking goes on hiatus.
But by late summer, I am swept up by a whirlwind of obligations as the new college semester crashes into the fall holidays. The Jewish calendar calls me back to my kitchen, but I’m no foodie. I am a simple cook, and so I pull out my worn 1987 edition of Joan Nathan’s “The Children’s Jewish Holiday Kitchen.” From my dusty spiral recipe notebook, I peel apart recipes glued with dried honey and find holiday menus and to-do lists that go back over 25 years. At the top of each page of notebook paper is a list of Rosh Hashanah guests, written in my hand or my daughter’s; I leaf through each one, noting the passing of time and family.
For me, this period has always been a time of balance and reflection. While I weigh in on the past year and ask people I may have wronged for forgiveness, composition papers pile up, awaiting my thoughtful grading. At least I can work at home and hold Skype office hours while honey cakes turn golden brown in the oven.
The holiday weeks continue compressing my workweek into precious few days. It’s a month-long accordion existence — from work, to preparing at home, to work, to the holiday itself, to shul, and then all over again. I find ways to make it work, but when Simchat Torah ends, I’m ready for what comes next. Not only do we hear Breisheit on Shabbat, but we also welcome my favorite month of the year: Cheshvan.
Every year just before Rosh Hashanah, my mother and I engage in a ritual attempt to approximate my grandmother’s gefilte fish recipe. The recipe itself is an approximation. She cobbled it together from other Holocaust survivors, and perhaps gleaned a few tips from women in a displaced persons’ camp, perhaps remembering bits from what her own mother made do with in her Polish shtetl kitchen. It goes something like this: one-third buffalo carp, one-third pike, one-third whitefish. Naturally, I can’t divulge the whole thing.
When my grandmother retired to Los Angeles from New York in the 1970s, she navigated a whole new Jewish culinary landscape. For her fish, she settled upon Elat Market in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, a store known for its quality, pricing and occasional violence. My mother and I went shopping with her from time to time, and I witnessed a side of my grandmother’s personality I’d never before seen.
We waited in line outside the store for up to half an hour before it opened, sometimes longer if the demand was so strong that the market needed to institute crowd control measures. When we finally made it inside, my grandmother gathered up all 4 feet 10 inches of herself and marched towards the fish counter, deftly and determinedly swerving around the wayward shopping carts for which this market is notorious (seriously — check out the Yelp reviews).
The fish counter swarmed with diminutive elderly women calling out to the Spanish-speaking fishmongers in complete chaos, in a half-dozen languages, each brutally jockeying for attention. “I said no heads,” one might insist in Farsi. “Three pounds, not one third of a pound,” another would complain in Hebrew. Russian wasn’t uncommon. Once, I’m almost certain we heard two women arguing in Ladino. Back in the 1980s, my grandmother wasn’t the only one with a Yiddish accent. She elbowed her way to the front of the mob in a way that I’ve come to believe only a survivor can.
The moment I saw the title of David Meir Grossman’s latest piece on Jewcy.com — “Why I Gave Up God But Still Keep Kosher” — I thought, “Finally! Someone’s going to talk about how faith and custom can be unrelated concepts!” Of course, seeing as Jewishness has as many branches (and twigs and leaves) as a massive tree, Grossman’s thoughtful words didn’t mirror my own experience. Which I should have expected, because for me there was never any God to give up.
Saying I was raised atheist would incorrectly imply indoctrination; I simply grew up without supernatural beliefs, just as I grew up not living in an igloo and not speaking Portuguese. I did absorb the crucial fact that I was Jewish, and that in our family being Jewish meant we celebrated certain holidays, learned certain histories and ate certain foods while avoiding others.
In this, we may have resembled Ezekiel Emanuel, identified in a recent Philadelphia Inquirer profile as a kosher-keeping atheist. Emanuel, the medical third of the exceedingly accomplished Emanuel brothers, refuses to elaborate on his adherence to Jewish dietary laws. “Atheism and Judaism are completely compatible,” he says, a statement as obvious as it is guaranteed to freak people out.
Religion writer Lisa Miller, in a subsequent Washington Post article about this tidbit, interviews two rabbis who support Emanuel’s view, but sides with an (atheist) author who opines that the “mindfulness” of kashrut, or the “transcendent aspects of life,” explains why Godless people maintain the practice. This is, as Grossman points out on Jewcy, “a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be an atheist.” It’s also redolent of something ickier.
I grew up with Julia. I remember sitting in front of the TV watching her prepare foods that never appeared on our suburban table. As we ate brisket and applesauce, or meatloaf seasoned with Lipton’s onion soup mix, Julia roasted whole ducklings flavored with fresh oranges, and simmered beef into amazing looking stews with exotic French names. It was a glimpse into another world — of foods and a country that I could only dream about.
Fast-forward 10 years. It was my first job. I was a 20-something Editorial Assistant at Diversion, a travel and food magazine. Winter, 1977, and my boss called me into his office to say that Julia Child was in town, and did I want to go do a quick interview? I had just returned from a year at the Cordon Bleu in London and was devouring “Mastering the Art” and Julia’s television shows, trying to hone my skills. I wanted nothing more than to be a writer. Did I want to interview Julia Child? When I was 10 years old, I wanted to meet Julie Andrews more than anything in the world. At 16 it was Mick Jagger. But at that moment in my life, there was no one I wanted to meet more than Julia.
We were scheduled to meet in a hotel room in midtown Manhattan. I had my list of questions; I had done my homework. I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you what that hotel room looked like, or give you a blow-by-blow of our 30-minutes together, but there are several things about meeting Julia for the first time that I will never forget.