Sunday, October 4, 2015

Hoshanah Rabba, The Big Hosannah

Sukkot is coming to it’s end.

Every day during Sukkot we have chanted Hallel, the collections of Psalms that are sung/recited  on festivals and at the new moon. Usually lots of Hallel is sung. Usually the tunes that are set to the verses are  happy ones.

This year I was very aware of how so much of the text of Hallel is actually on the somber side, asking God to save us, to help us, talking about how our enemies sting us from all sides like a swarm of bees.


I thought back to services at the Jewish Day School that I attended. Many of my teachers probably didn’t think of themselves as Holocaust survivors, (even our teacher who had done time at Dachau). I assume that they thought of themselves as refugees, escaping just ahead of Hitler.


Most of my Jewish studies teachers had spent their early lives in Eastern Europe or Germany. My school had a tradition not to sing during services but to use the traditional musical chanting modalities.  Hallel  always had a deeply mournful quality.

Part of the celebration of Sukkot includes Hoshanot, a parade of people changing  liturgical  poem  with a refrain asking God to save us. Each day has it’s own  poem.


Today is Hoshanah Rabba and all of the poems from the week  are recited. We all marched around the synagogue seven times. Each of the poems has a theme. The themes range from the metaphorical to the practical.

At the very end, we take willow branches and them beat them until the leaves fall off.

I realized as I marched along holding my lulav and etrog with everyone else responding to  the poems, repeating each phrase, bracketing each one with “hoshanah” please save us that this was just one of probably lots of ceremonies that remain to us from the Temple service.  It was at the same time completely silly  and deeply, primaly moving.


After services ended, the lulavim and etrogim that were purchased with such care and kept so carefully all week were suddenly of no more use.


Our synagogue collects the palm, and myrtle and willow branches and recycles them.

I asked for the etrogim, as did another member of the congregation. I planned to make a dessert to serve the community on Simchat Torah. The other etrog collector is making jam.

Hoshanah raba

I wasn’t sure exactly what I would make.

I read a bunch of recipes and realized that the etrog pith is bitter. Most recipes suggest soaking the cut up fruit for twelve hours before beginning to make anything from it.


I remembered that the directions for candied grapefruit peels suggest boiling the peels in water three times and discarding the water each time before boiling the rinds in a sugar syrup.


So I got to work cutting up the etrogim.

Hoshanah raba (2)

I then boiled them up.

hoshahnah raba

I tossed the water, twice and then added  water and sugar. I don’t think that I am making a jam.

hoshahnah rabba (1)

I think I will make a cake that will include chopped up candied etrog rind. I will then pour the syrup over the cake. The etrog cake baking will take place tomorrow. 


I have already make a cake for tonight.

hoshahnah rabba

It’s a marbled pumpkin pear cake.  I had made a non dairy  pumpkin custard for dessert for Friday night. The left over custard is in the cake. This cake didn’t stick to the pan because I lined the pan with a square of parchment paper with a hole cut in the middle for the center of the pan. I am feeling very clever for thinking of that.  The cake will be dusted with confectioner’s sugar before serving.

As this season comes to an end. It has been such a mix of the liturgical and the practical, the spiritual and the physical. Every year it is a season of looking forward and looking back.

People tend to divide Jewish life into the traditionally masculine life of text and synagogue and the more feminine one of hearth and home. What I learned from my parents is that all of it, the cooking and the waving of the lulav, the cleaning and the hoshanot, the baking and the piuytim  are all part and parcel of the very same thing.


Chag Sameach, Moadim L’Simcha, Chagim U Zmanim L’Sasson.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Mending Fabrics/Mending Hearts

Sometimes the two are awfully close.


I was asked to mend the quilt that had belonged to the beloved of a friend who had died suddenly, tragically and far too young.


The edges of the quilt had worn away. If this were just a quilt, then it could have been given away to  one of the many charities in the neighborhood. But the beloved one had slept under this quilt, so it was to be somehow preserved.


My task was to remove the worst of the fraying and to create a stable edge. The fraying was distributed unevenly around the edge of the quilt. The quilt needed a strong edge that would protect the remainder from disintegrating. the edging needed to visually take a back seat to the quilt itself.  A solid color would overwhelm the quilt visually.

I decided to use an edging I had learned about from  the brilliant quilter Bird Ross. You sew squares of fabric to the edge of a piece and then madly stitch over those squares. It’s a nice way to bind a piece if you are like me, slightly math challenged. I also love this edging technique because you can fine tune the colors along the edging using the colored threads of the stitching to get the color close to what it really needs to be.

I knew that I needed to get the mood of the edging to exactly hit a moment in history, the late 1970s and early 1980’s.

I had recognized some of the fabrics used in the central motif of the quilt. I had a skirt in one of the fabrics. I had worn it to a dance I had attended in  when I was fifteen or sixteen, in the late 1970’s.


Like most people who sew, I often buy fabric.  The truth is I often buy fabric not for practical reasons, (“This will make an excellent Shabbat dress.”) but I often select fabrics because they remind me of a particular place or a particular person at a moment in time. I have bought fabric because it reminded me of a sophisticated skirt my mother bought my sister for the start of seventh grade. I have chosen fabric for no other reason than it reminded me of the dress that Mrs. Levin used to wear to synagogue in the 1960’s, or the dresses my chic 6th grade Jewish studies teacher, Mrs. Wachstock used to wear in 1971.

Since my mother died earlier this year I have found myself helplessly drawn to the fabrics and dress shapes my mother wore in the mid 1970’s. I find myself drawn not only to the sorts of garments my mother wore, but also garments and textiles we saw on our visits to “Hippy ‘stores from the early 1970’s. I am loving Indian block prints, Guatemalan hand-wovens,  central European embroideries, Hmong reverse applique, the sorts of things we admired in the stores that lined Harvard Square. 


Over the past few months I have purchased fabrics that evoked the late 1970’s and early 80’s for me. Some of those fabrics have been turned into garments for me or boxers for my sons. Some of those garments have been successful, others have been what my sewing friends refer to as wadders, things you wad up and put into a corner because they have failed.


So I had an array of fabrics that I knew evoked exactly the moment that the quilt emerged from and in the correct colors.  I cut strips from left overs from garment making and cut up a dress that had gone wrong. I cut the fabric into roughly three inch squares and sewed all of the squares to the edge of the quilt on a diagonal so it appeared that the quilt was edged in triangles.

After the fabric squares are attached to the quilt you stitch randomly and densely over them. This does several things. It means that those squares are going no-where and are really secure. by using several different color threads you can push the color to read closer to what you want it to read. I wanted the colors to blend with the original quilt so I used threads  that appeared in the quilt. You can sort of play Seurat in thread and let the eye mix the colors.


As I stitched and stitched I thought about the nature of grief. I remembered how after my father died I felt as if every cell in my body was in the wrong place. I felt that the only thing keeping me from dissolving into a puddle on the sidewalk was my skin. During those months anything would dissolve me into a puddle of tears, a look, a verse of Psalms, a color, a taste. Eventually, I was less fragile. I felt like I had solidified into a new shape. I wasn’t exactly the same as I was before. My grief and formed/deformed me into a new shape but I was once again solid.


I thought about how this quilt was being made strong again. It wasn’t exactly the same. It was mended.

My friend came this morning to pick up the quilt. It was not exactly as she had imagined it. It was no longer the way it had been before.

More importantly, it did not bring back the beloved one. My work didn’t really make things right.


My friend took the quilt. My friend was in tears.

She left and I cried as well.  I couldn’t mend what really needed mending. That is beyond my abilities.



Sunday, September 27, 2015

Gravlax Tutorial

I was asked to do a recipe for gravlax. I checked out the retail cost for this delicacy on the Zabar’s website. If you buy this ready made it will set you back $60/lb.  It’s easy enough to find good salmon for less than $15/lb.

Gravlax is so easy to make I would be comfortable asking a grade school child who had never cooked before  to make it (but not to slice the fish).


This is how to do it.

You need equal amounts of sugar and salt. I like using brown sugar, but if you haven’t any in your pantry use white. How much to use??? Enough to thickly coat the fish.


Traditionally, gravlax is made as two sides of fish that are sandwiched together with the salt/sugar mix in between. You can certainly make just one fish side at a time.

I cut the fat ends off of two matched filets of salmon.


Mix the salt and sugar.


You can if you wish add some gin to the mixture and turn the salt and sugar into a thick paste. You can also add a few juniper berries if you can find them in your local store. It may be easier to find gin. You can add a different booze. My last batch was made with scotch, but you can also make this with no booze at all.

If the thought of touching raw fish makes you squeamish wear plastic gloves as you work, or put plastic bags on your hands.

Coat the fish on both the skin side and the flesh side, thickly with the salt/sugar (booze) mixture.

I mistakenly reached for the jar of allspice and sprinkled a few on the fish. The allspice will taste fine so I left it. I then located the juniper berries and added a few to the fish. You can also add fennel seeds, black pepper or caraway seeds to the fish.


Put the fish into s Zip-lok bag and put it in the fridge under something heavy.


Right now my fish is under a bottle of orange juice.

Flip the fish over ever 12-24 hours, or when you remember to.

The fish will be cured in about 36 hours.


The fish will become darker red as it cures.

When you are ready to serve the fish first wash off the sugar and salt. Dry the fish off with a paper towel. Lay the fish  on a flat surface and slice thinly. Traditionally the fish is sliced at a flattish angle. Yummy served with a honey mustard sauce or a cucumber dill/sour cream sauce.

If you want you gravlax to look like Zabar’s thickly coat the fish with finely minced dill before slicing.

That’s it. Not even close to rocket science.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Food Friday–take out edition

Perhaps because my parents started their married life in Halifax, NS where kosher take out just didn’t exist, they assumed that all food needed to be prepared at home. Their next move was to Quincy, MA which was just off the beaten path for Jewish life in Boston.


I would think that even in the early 1960’s you could go to Harvard Street in Brookline and assemble a pretty decent Shabbat meal without having to resort to turning on your stove. But my parents used to have to plan their acquisition of kosher meat in advance. They used to place a giant order at American Kosher on Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan and bring home several large  cardboard cartons of chicken and meat all wrapped up in white butcher paper and marked with it’s contents.


The thought of wandering to the store on Friday  to figure out what you wanted to eat for Shabbat was completely foreign to my parents.


Most people who grew up in New York assume that pretty decent Jewish prepared foods are available to buy, so cooking traditional Jewish foods isn’t a necessity.

My parents had really close friends who lived in the Village.They did take out everything, even coffee. I think that when my parents used to come for a visit it would throw my parent’s friends into a tizzy of having to fake home cookery.


My  late mother in law used to use her oven to store things. Her oven hadn’t experienced heat for at least a decade and a half before her death.

My parents though used to do their own form of take out. They used to cook food in giant quantities, store it in the freezer and then take it out as needed.


This High Holiday season I had no idea how many people would actually be eating with us. I decided to go for food insurance and just cook vast quantities of everything. I am now reaping the benefits of the massive pre-cooking.

I will take a couple of bags of cooked chicken out of the freezer along with two challot. I need to make a vegetable and a grain and call it a day.


My nephew is coming for dinner. He loves meringues, so I made him a batch of chocolate ones.


The Pope’s visit means that venturing to the East Side to Costco is just a foolish thing to do. Sunday the Pope will be busy in Philly so I can get back to Yom Tov cookery.


Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Some pre-Yom Kippur random thoughts

Getting ready for a day where we abstain from food requires a whole lot of food prep.

Yesterday I got ready to make Cholesterol Death Kugel. (If you need to make it right now you can find the recipe if you click on the word Kugel on the tags on the right)

The kugel is made with dairy. If you can’t eat dairy take your lactaid pills before you eat it. There are no substitutions in this case. SAM_5277
I decided to make the noodles from scratch. here is my dough resting under glass.
Will any of our guests actually notice that they are eating noodles that worked my upper body to it’s limit? Probably not. They may notice that the kugel tastes like love, and that may in fact be enough.
I have used the kugel pan to weigh down the gravlax which is brining away on the bottom of the fridge. Before Neila I will slice the fish into paper thin slices. I assume that I will be slicing the fish with a very tiny brain so I have already sliced up most of the other vegetables. I don’t want to slice up my fingers into paper thin slices.

I have been listening to appropriate music as I have been working away. I love this video. The sauces for the fish are made ( cucumber-dill and a honey mustard).
My friends who want to especially here a woman’s  voice singing the High Holiday liturgy may appreciate this.
The food for tonight ( chicken and tzimms  and a challah) has been pulled out of the freezer. I just started making dessert, some sort of a plum and lemon cake sort of a thing. I can tell you exactly what I have made once it is done.

The cake in formation turned into what my son now calls "wet cake", this time in a Meyer lemon and plum version and topped with syrup made from the macerating plums and the lemons that I boiled in simple syrup,My son is a fan of wet cake.

So my day before fasting is spent worrying about and preparing massive amounts of food.

There is a new building in my neighborhood which is in many ways really ugly. It does though at certain hours of the day do something quite spectacular to my friends Josh and Claudia’s building.
Take that as your pre-Yom Kippur metaphor for  the good possible in even the worst of us.
גמר טוב

Friday, September 18, 2015

Food Friday–reporting on experiments

I begin this post with the great wall of Challah.
I had thought that the batch I had made before Rosh HaShanah would last through Yom Kippur but I was mistaken. Now, I hope that this batch will take us through the beginning of Sukkot.
The previous batch with the addition of apple butter was OK. Unfortunately the texture was changed from a nice muscular bread  dough to something rather cake like. This was not what I go or in my challah. This is an experiment that I will not repeat.

When I had gone to our local market to buy a shehechiyanu / a new fruit for the holiday the pickings were really slim. Part of it was that we eat a fairly diverse bunch of fruits in our regular diet. I also think that last year our local market went nuts with weird fruit and mostly it didn’t get purchased.

The one  item in the market that looked like something we had never eaten was a squash that looked something like this squash. It was not quite a yard long. We kept it in a vase on the dinner table and I pickled half of it for the second day of the holiday.

My cousin loved the pickled vegetables and asked me what I put into my brine. This is her answer. The clear liquid is vinegar, there is a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of sugar and a bunch of whole spices. I boil the mixture for a bit and then strain out the big spices before pouring over the vegetables. You can use the same spices that I used or put in spices that you like better, or the ones you have in your pantry.
I will get more vegetables to toss into the brine.

I made kasha. Follow the directions on the box of Wolff’s kasha. You mix the kasha with a beaten egg and toast over a high heat.

Just before you start the kasha toasting you put a pot of water up to boil.If you have planned your time well, sauté a mess of chopped onions and sliced mushrooms in chicken fat before you start toasting the kasha grains. If you forgot, you can always do your sauté after the grains are cooked  and mix the vegetables  in later. SAM_5266

I believe that the recipe on the box calls for using chicken stock in the kasha. I don’t have chicken stock at hand. I do have containers of chicken juice from previous weeks of chicken cooking. the fat rises to the top of the container and serves as an airtight seal. You can store your chicken juice in a fridge for a few weeks before it goes bad.  I used the juice from two batches of chicken.

Kasha isn’t complete with out bow tie noodles or as they are known in Yiddish  varnishkes. The thought of using three pots of make one dish seems excessive to me. I don’t have a staff of dishwashers.

I remembered how those packaged Middle Eastern pilafs used to include the pasta with the grain in their pilafs.( I used to rely a whole lot more on packaged goods thirty years ago. )The directions on those boxes of pilaf would have you toast the grains and the pasta while you put the water up to boil. So I toasted the varnishkes  along with the kasha grains. It worked. The pasta cooked along with the grain. One pot less was used.

Too much produce in the fridge makes my husband anxious. We had a bunch of aged apples and plums. So I made a wet apple and plum cake.
I know that there is probably a lovely name for such cakes. I have no idea what it is. This is the sort of cake that if you have an Eastern European grandmother who baked ( I did not) this was the cake she would make without a recipe. The fruit inside is cooked but damp, the cake is sort of like a compote surrounded by a dough.

I make this cake without a recipe. It is sort of halfway between a pudding and a cake. The cake broke while I took it out of the pan. But I just re assembled it on the plate.
If I were ambitious I might sprinkle the top with confectioners sugar.

I gave birth to my second child on a Thursday. I was still in the hospital on Shabbat. This was my second kid. The level of excitement about a new baby was less, and so was the number of visitors to the hospital. I had had no visitors all day. The food the hospital served me was inedible. The nurses insisted that apples weren’t kosher. I was hungry and feeling sorry for myself.

My friend Barbara called me. She came by with a batch of junky magazines and a box of wet apple cake from the German bakery in her neighborhood.

Visiting hours were over. The nurses wouldn’t let Barbara in to visit me. But they brought me the junky magazines and the wet apple cake that Barbara had brought me.
I ate the apple cake with my hands and leafed through the magazines feeling very loved.  It would have been even better to hang out with Barbara in person  but I no longer felt alone in the hospital.

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Becoming the lady who weeps

On the first day of Rosh HaShanah a friend mentioned that last Rosh Hashanah she was weeping throughout the service because a dear friend was dying. The weeping reminded her of something her late father used to say about "The old lady who cries all through the High Holiday services."

My friend said" I think I have become that lady." She wasn't feeling as devastated this year, but she was feeling sad, remembering her loss from last year and also thinking about our mutual friend whose father is now actively dying.

My conversation with my friend, but more than that just living through this season brings back the memories of hard high holiday seasons. The hardest of all was the year our friends child in a perfect storm of a genetic flaw and a fall was in the middle of what felt like a real life episode of the medical mystery show House.

House always had the same dramatic arc during the hour long show. Usually at about the 42 minute point Dr House would figure out exactly what was wrong. and in nearly every episode despite being close to death several times in the previous 42 minutes, the patient would be saved.

Real life is unfortunately not TV and the crisis did not unfold over an hour but over three weeks. By Rosh HaShanah the situation had gone from terrible to dire. Our friend's son was engaged to be married. I am not generally a big believer in magical amuletical thinking. I told the bride though that I would buy her veiling to make into a wedding veil as an amulet, a prayer that she would be able to marry her beloved.

On Yom Kippur the hospital called for all of us who have escorted a loved one from this life to the next know, "the family meeting". 

Well, magical thinking did about as much good as the smartest doctors in the world. Our friend's son  died  the day after Yom Kippur.

Each year I relive the events of that terrible year. The following Yom Kippur we were waiting for my father in law to draw his last breaths.

So you might wonder what I did with that veiling.

My youngest had decided to spend some of his bar-mitzvah money on something he really wanted. He bought himself a banana suit. When it arrived in the mail just before Yom Kippur while our friend's child was dying the suit came with instructions that the top and bottom of the banana needed to be stuffed with fabric. 

I realized that the magical thinking was just not going to work. I gave my son the veiling to stuff into the banana suit.
I knew it wasn't going to be worn by the bride.

The funeral was five hours away. We left early in the morning. We came home late that night. I had been away to bury my friend's child. When I came home I went into my son's room to give him a kiss. He was asleep and wearing that banana suit stuffed with the veiling.

In the intervening years my son has achieved some measure of fame while wearing that banana suit enhanced with the veiling. Today on Facebook I had an intense conversation with that bride.

She was oddly comforted by the veil's use.

As I get older, I realize that each one of us becomes the lady who weeps on the High Holidays.