Monday, July 31, 2006

And Everybody Hates the Jews

Sometimes I think that Jews over-emphasize anti-Semitism, but there sure are a lot of people out there who hate us. Anti-Semitic rhetoric from the Muslim world has become so ubiquitous that we hardly notice it. Then some deranged monster shoots up the Jewish Federation building in Seattle.

And of course, there's Mel Gibson. Ever since I heard about his "incident," I haven't been able to stop thinking about the South Park episode, "The Passion of the Jew." Especially Kyle's last line: "Oh, dude, I feel so much better about being Jewish now that I see that Mel Gibson is just a big wacko douche."

You have to find the humor in these situations whenever you can. If you don't laugh, you'll cry.

UPDATE: More bad news from Australia and Florida

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Food for the Nine Days

Today is Rosh Chodesh Av, the first of the nine days of mourning that culminate in Tisha B'Av. There is a custom* not to eat meat during this period (except on Shabbat), so I've been posting recipes for easy meatless meals over at Kosherblog. They can be found here, here, here, and here.

Writing up these recipes, I realized how much DH and I have learned from each other about cooking. Before we started eating meals together, for example, he had never made anything with tofu and I had never cooked fish. Fortunately, we both had good training -- our mothers are excellent cooks, albeit with very different styles. Still, I feel that I have a way to go before I reach my full potential.

For better or for worse, however, that is not my top priority right now. Maybe I could learn something from DH's work ethic. . .

*Not, as the Wikipedia stub implies, a law. Someone should change that.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

In Defense of Democracy

There's a particular argument that I've been hearing rather frequently lately, and it's beginning to get on my nerves. Here is one articulation, from the Shaigetz:
Democracy, the doctrine that claims to allow the masses to determine the general direction of their governance, has replaced religion for many as the panacea for all the worldÂ’s ills. A peek at the Middle East today should be enough to shake even the dimmest of brains out of that reverie....A group of bloodthirsty savages, believers in the Ashariyya doctrine - that because all that happens is caused by God anyway it is legitimate to kill innocents, will not suddenly turn into cuddly lambs just because they were empowered through a ballot box.
All right. Here's how it's supposed to work: The people vote and elect whomever they choose. If the elected leaders decide to interfere with the peace of other nations, those nations have the right to respond aggressively. After that, if the citizens of the new democracy don't like the consequences of their decision, they can elect new leaders who are more likely to protect their interests. It isn't neat. It isn't pretty. And, so far, there haven't been many signs that it is going to work in Iraq, Lebanon, or the Palestinian territories. But let's not forget that the old Mideast policy -- propping up dictators -- didn't work out too well, either. At least with democracy there is the possibility of peaceful change.

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that I've been ambivalent about the Iraq war from the outset. I am ambivalent about most matters of U.S. and Israeli foreign policy, which is one of the reasons why you won't find much discussion of them here. All that I mean to say in this post is that I don't think the current situation in the Middle East warrants the conclusion that Arabs, Persians, etc. are inferior races incapable of self-government. (The liberal version of this claim is that we shouldn't interfere with other cultures -- because apparently oppressive, fundamentalist governments are fine and dandy as long as they aren't composed of white Christians. To this I say: When other cultures interfere with us, we have a right to interfere with them.)

Now that I've gotten that off my chest, I'll probably retreat back into the comfortable world of dessert recipes. For good, first-hand takes on the war, I recommend An Unsealed Room and On the Face (both blogs that I thought were fizzling out before the conflict). There are also some good reads on this Lebanese blog aggregator, including LP and Rampurple.

Also from Lebanon: A satirical TV clip making fun of Nasrallah. It apparently caused riots, which is all the more reason to watch it.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Ultimate Brownies (Really!)

If Chanit can blog about food under these circumstances, I guess I can, too. And there's good news from Elfland: I think I finally found my brownie recipe.

I've tried quite a few recipes for brownies, and, with one notable exception, none of them were bad. Still, they didn't live up to my idea of what great brownies should taste like. The closest were "Fudge Brownies Supreme," from Nancy Baggett's All-American Cookie Book, but they were too sweet for my taste. This modified version of Baggett's recipe yields rich, lucious, intensely chocolately brownies that satisfy like nothing else.

1/2 cup (1 stick) plus 2 tablespoons butter or margarine, or 1/2 cup canola oil
5 ounces unsweetened chocolate
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tablespoons cocoa
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
3 eggs
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan or coat with nonstick spray.

In a large, microwave safe bowl, microwave the butter and chocolate until the butter is completely melted (about 2 minutes). Remove from microwave and stir to finish melting the chocolate and blend the two ingredients. (Alternatively, melt in a saucepan over low heat). Let cool to warm.

In a small bowl, thoroughly stir toegether the flour, cocoa powder, and salt; set aside. Stir the sugar and brown sugar into the chocolate-butter mixture until well combined. Add eggs, one at a time, stirring after each addition. Add vanilla and stir until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is well blended and smooth. Stir in the flour mixture until evenly incorporated. Turn out the batter into the baking pan, spreading to the edges.

Bake in the middle of the oven for 20-30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out moist but clean. (It's okay if the bottom 1/4 inch is still a bit fudgy.) Cool on a wire rack. Cut into squares, wiping the knife clean between cuts.

Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 1 month.

Cross-posted to Kosherblog.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

No Hekhsher Required

A recent Kosherblog post by Jabbett discussed the ethics of kashrut agencies certifying products that do not actually require rabbinic supervision. The post focuses on rubbing alcohol, which clearly does not require certification, as it is inedible (and also toxic). However, there are many edible products that do not require certification, either -- some less intiuitive than others. It is mainly due to ignorance that the very observant (even many rabbis) tend to insist that all processed foods be certified kosher.

This ignorance is fully understandable. Distinguishing between products that require rabbinic supervision and products that do not requires thorough knowledge of both the laws of kashrut and modern food processing techniques, and the latter may change at any time. In the age of the Internet, however, there is no reason why the kosher-keeping public should not be kept up-to-date on such matters. So I was happy to discover this site, via a comment by Jabbett on his own post. Rav Eidlitz is a renowned authority in the area of kashrut and is not affiliated with any particular certifying agency. His site contains a great deal of valuable information on keeping kosher, including a list of products that do not require rabbinic supervision. Here are a few that may surprise some readers:

Coconut Milk (not from China)
Corn (plain and cream style - frozen or canned)
Couscous (unseasoned)
Miso (unflavored)
Rice Pasta (containing only rice flour and water)
Wasabi Powder

There are certainly some things on Rav Eidlitz's site that are debatable, but for basic information on kosher products, it's a great placed to start. (While you're there, you should read the Kosher Alerts, although they are sometimes upsetting.)

Oh, and stay tuned: Jabbett is planning to post a more comprehensive list at Kosherblog.

UPDATE: DH says that he has known about this site for "a long time." Thanks for telling me! (J/K)

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Fast of the Fourth

Today is the Seventeenth of Tammuz, a fast day commemorating the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C.E. The Seventeenth of Tammuz is intimately linked to the Ninth of Av, which occurs three weeks later and commemorates the destruction of the temple.

The book of Zechariah, which takes place in the years following the Jews' return from exile in the fifth century B.C.E., relates that a number of prominent individuals asked the prophet whether they should continue to mourn the destruction of the temple in the month of Av now that the Jews had been restored to their land and the temple was being rebuilt (Zech. 7:3). In classic Jewish fashion, Zechariah answered a question with a question:

When you fasted and lamented in the fifth and seventh months all these seventy years, did you fast for my [God's] benefit? And when you eat and drink, who but you does the eating, and who but you does the drinking (7:5-6)?

The prophecy proceeds to relate the story of the preceding exile and restoration in theological terms. Before the exile, God sent prophets to tell the Israelites to "execute true justice; deal loyally and compassionately with one another" (7:10). Because they did not heed the prophetic message, the people were exiled. Now, however, they have been restored.

For thus said the Lord of Hosts: Just as I planned to afflict you when your fathers provoked Me to anger and did not relent ... so, at this time, I have turned and planned to do good to Jerusalem and to the House of Judah. Have no fear! These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to one another, judge honestly, and render judgements of peace in your gates (8:14-17).

Though admittedly ambiguous, Zechariah's response seems to suggest that his questioners are missing the point. Fasting and mourning are merely human responses to tragedy. The divine imperative is to act justly and thereby avoid the conditions that led to tragedy in the first place. The prophet seems optimistic that the new Jewish commonwealth will be blessed with truth and justice, peace and prosperity, and the admiration of surrounding peoples. Thus, he declares:

The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth month, the fast of the seventh month, and the fast of the tenth month shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah; but you must love truth and peace (8:19).

The four fasts mentioned by Zechariah are traditionally taken to refer to the four fasts commemorating the downfall of the first commonwealth: the Seventeenth of Tammuz (the "fast of the fourth month"), the Ninth of Av (the "fast of the fifth month"), the Fast of Gedaliah (the "fast of the seventh month"), and the Tenth of Tevet (the "fast of the tenth month").

The rabbis of the Talmud, turning to this text for halakhic guidance, were understandably perplexed. Focusing on the wording of Zech. 8:19, they ask (b. Rosh Hashanah 18b), "They are called 'fasts' and they are called 'occasions for joy and gladness'" -- which is it? The Gemara answers that these days are to be observed as happy occasions in times of peace and as fasts in times when there is no peace. Rav Papa adds that when the situation is ambiguous, "if they wish, they shall fast; if they wish, they need not fast."

Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman notes that, while the fasts were observed by nearly all Jewish communities after the destruction of the second temple, some prominent rabbis considered changing the custom following the unification of Jerusalem in 1967. All agreed that the Ninth of Av should continue to be observed as a fast day, since the temple had not been rebuilt. The other fast days, however, commemorated the loss of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem had been regained. On the first Seventeenth of Tammuz following the Six-Day war, many Jews in Israel and abroad made festive meals. The abolition of the fast, however, did not ultimately take hold in observant communities. And so here I am today, observing the fast.

Is this as it should be? From a halakhic perspective, Chipman notes, there are arguments to be made on either side. Rashi interprets the Gemara's "times of peace" as a reference to Jewish sovereignty, which would suggest that all the fasts (including the Ninth of Av) should be observed as feasts today. Maimonides and Rabbeinu Hannanel, on the other hand, suggest that these days should all be observed as fasts as long as the temple lies in ruins. In a less traditional vein, I would suggest that the fasts should continue to be observeded because the society that Zechariah envisioned -- one of truth and justice, international recognition, and above all, peace -- has not become reality. At times, it may seem that that the fulfillmentnt of that vision is within reach, and that may justify a relaxation of the traditional mourning rites. This week, sadly, is not one of those times.

With seven Israeli soldiers killed, two kidnapped, and the beginning of what Yossi Klein Halevi calls "Israel's next war," there is a great deal to pray for. Avraham Hein offers a psalm as well as the official prayer for IDF soldiers, which can be added to the traditional fast day prayers or recited at any time.

May the One Who Releases the Bound return the captured soldiers to their families. May the One Who Comforts Mourners console the bereaved among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. And may the One Who Makes Peace in the Heavens bring peace to Israel, now, speedily, and soon.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Bread of Affliction?

Have you ever been tempted to buy Ezekiel 4:9 Bread just because of its name? I haven't.

When God tells Ezekiel to make bread from wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and spelt, He's describing the type of food that the Jews would be forced to eat in exile. Normal bread would have been made from wheat flour alone, as it is today. This bread, in contrast, is made from all kinds of garbage. It's supposed to taste like crap. Ezekiel even cooks it over crap (though in those days, that was considered normal). The bread is actually supposed to be cooked over human crap, but the prophet manages to wriggle out of that one and upgrade to bovine crap.

At any rate, it isn't supposed to be good.

The producers of Ezekiel 4:9 bread explain why we should be expected to eat this stuff:
We discovered when these six grains and legumes are sprouted and combined, an amazing thing happens. A complete protein is created that closely parallels the protein found in milk and eggs.
Of course, they could have created the same whole protein from any combination of grains and legumes. But never mind; they decided to follow God's recipe, and the result is, in fact, quite nutritious, with a full 4 grams of protein per slice in addition to three grams of dietary fiber. So when a friend left town and gave me her leftover Ezekiel 4:9 bread, I was willing to try it.

Truth be told, it doesn't taste like crap. It tastes pretty much like bread. There's a mild sourdough-like flavor in the background and a hint of sprouts that I think I might even develop a taste for over time. Or not. But I'll certainly finish the package.

This experience has led me to reconsider Ezekiel's so-called ordeal. He got to lie around for a year and a half and eat reasonably decent, high-protein bread that he didn't have to cook over human dung after all. Compared to marrying a cheating prostitute (Hosea) or walking around wearing yoke-bars (Jeremiah), that really doesn't seem so bad.

Cross-posted to Kosherblog.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Camping Pics

DH has great pics from our camping trip. FYI, that brook is our shower. How cool is that?! (Okay, DH didn't think it was very cool either.) Swimming in Laurel Pond is definitely cool, though. I love that pond. And the froggies. Not the mosquitoes, though. (I'm still itchy.)

Progressive Faith Blog Con

I often neglect to check the e-mail account that I use for this blog, so I just found out about the Progressive Faith Blog Conference, which will be held at the Montclair State University conference center on the weekend of July 14th. I won't be able to make it personally, and, truth be told, that's a bit of a relief. Although I do sometimes embrace a genuinely progressive theology, most of the time my religious side is not very progressive and my progressive side is not very liberal. Being around real religious liberals tends to make me more aware of the inconsistencies of my position and send me hurtling to the right, which I'm not really up for right now.

However, the con looks like it will be a lot of fun for those who are less schizophrenic than me. It also seems to be pretty well organized. This is the website, and this is the blog (of course there's a blog!). If, like me, you won't be attending in person, stay tuned: there may be a live chat during the con, and there will undoubtedly be updates from the participants.