Sunday, August 20, 2006

Brownie Update

I've made these brownies several times since I posted the recipe, and I've started to realize that, while the dairy version is indeed the ultimate, the parve version could stand some improvement. The main issue, I think, is that the saturated fat in butter gives the brownies a lush, moist texture that the margarines I've used don't match. Hydrogenated oils should theoretically provide the same texture, but Fleischmann's Unsalted Margarine probably doesn't have enough. (It is significantly softer than butter at the same temperature.) Recently, I tried Smart Balance, and the brownies were downright dry. In this case, I think that the issue was simplify fat: Regular Smart Balance is 67% fat, while butter is about 80%. The package says that Smart Balance is "great for cooking and baking," but don't be fooled.

One option would be to switch to Crisco vegetable shortening, a favorite of a friend and former roommate of mine. Vegetable shortening (like regular margarine) is somewhat out of favor right now because it is high in trans fat, which, though once thought to be more healthful than saturated fat, is now generally believed to be worse. Nonetheless, as I've been implying, it takes a bit of saturated or trans fat to achieve that butterlike texture. Vegetable shortening has less water than most margarine, so it may be just right.

Anyhow, I'll keep you posted. Not right away, though. I really do have to cut back.

(Cross-posted to Kosherblog.)

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Tisha B'Av Reading II

Rahel on Wouk
Dovbear on Judah Ha-Levi
Gil on the Holocaust theodicy
Soferet has the words of Rabbi Itzchak Marmorstein on transforming our inner wickedness.
The Velveteen Rabbi has a roundup and a story.
Rabbi Riskin on the hope for truth and peace.
Am Echad poses the question his own way.
Tzvi presents a paradox.
Dovbear on Judah Ha-Levi.
Soferet on the nature of the true tzaddik.

Tisha B'Av Reading

It is traditional not to read for pleasure on Tisha B'Av, or even to engage in Torah study that is not directly related to the themes of the holiday. On the other hand, as much as emotionally heavy reading comes with the territory, it can be difficult to handle intellectually heavy reading when you're fasting. Appropriate blog posts seem like just the right thing, so for the past few summers, I've been keeping my eyes open for Tisha B'Av reading in the blogosphere. Here's what I've found:


The "miscellaneous" category usually comes at the end of a list, but these are some of the best Tisha B'Av posts I've read, so I'm listing them first:

This essay by Rabbi Joshua Yuter addresses the historical significance of Tisha B'Av (or lack thereof). Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman addresses a number of issues in this lengthy but worthwile post, including divine and human justice. He discusses the haftarah for Tisha B'Av morning here, Maimonedes' laws for the final meal here, and Psalm 137 here. All are, characteristically, very good reads.

The Contemporary Problem

For many centuries, I believe, mourning for Jerusalem came naturally to most Jews. Their experience was one of continuing exile, and they longed to return to the glorious past in which the Jews were a nation with a homeland, a respected leader, and a central place of worship. The Enlightenment, with its promise of emancipation, complicated matters as many Jews began to see more promise in the ideal of integration than in the old messianic dream. Another wrinkle came in 1967, when that dream was partly fulfilled. Notwithstanding all the problems that have plagued Israel and Jerusalem since then, it can be difficult to mourn the destruction and loss of a city that now stands intact, well-populated, and generally prosperous. The problem is expressed poignently in this post by Out-of-Step Jew.

One contemporary approach to Tisha B'Av is simply to mourn less, either by de-emphasizing Tisha B'Av in various ways, or by shortening the fast. (The Conservative Movement, characteristically, has two official responsa on the subject, one calling for the fast to be shortened and one prohibiting any such change.) In this post, BZ explains why he finds both the Zionist and Enlightenment arguments against observing a full day of mourning equally uncompelling. His approach to Tisha B'Av is, I think, similar to the one that I articulated last year.

Those of us who continue to observe Tisha B'Av as a full day of mourning may relate most easily to the human suffering described in Eicha (Lamentations) and the kinot (liturgical laments). This is the basis for the way in which Orthoprax relates to Tisha B'Av as an observant atheist, as well as the (obviously distinct) way in which Rachel Barenblatt relates to it as a Reform Jew. It is also central to the way in which I related to the fast two years ago. Viewing Tisha B'Av through this prism can be constructive if it encourages us to help alleviate suffering, as Rachel suggests here, here, and here, and as Mishkaneer suggests here. It also has its drawbacks, however, as it ignores the more particular aspects of the holiday.

Another way to approach Tisha B'Av is to focus on the call for repentence that is so intimately linked to the threat of destruction and promise of redemption in prophetic writings. Dr. Mendel Hirsch, son of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, viewed the moral imperative stressed by the prophets as the most important aspect of Tisha B'Av. Dovbear discusses his teachings here and here. (It is surely relevant that S. R. Hirsch devoted his career to combatting the challenges posed by the Enlightenment.) Josh Yuter takes a similar approach in this d'var torah.

DH proposed a more existential approach to Tisha B'Av last year, in a post that stressed the sense of helplessness that we so often feel in the face of history. He related this idea to his feelings about the Gaza pullout, but I think it has even greater resonance this year, with the latest series of foreboding developments in the Middle East.


The traditional Tisha B'Av liturgy is frought with difficulties for the modern Jew. The most obvious problem is that the kinnot are very difficult for the average synagogue-goer to understand, even if he or she is generally familiar with Jewish liturgy. They are written in medieval Hebrew that is often quite different from both modern Hebrew and the Hebrew of most Jewish prayers, and they are so replete with biblical and midrashic references that some can be baffling even in translation. Another issue is bringing the liturgy up to date. Most traditional communties recite kinnot for the Crusades, the Inquisition, and various pogroms in addition to the destruction of the two temples, but some are reluctant to add lamentations for Holocaust and other recent tragedies. Finally, parts of the nachem prayer recited in the afternoon amidah seem inappropriate now that Jerusalem is under Jewish sovereignty.

Menachem Butler provides an excerpt from Rav Soloveichik's writings in which the rabbi discusses his opposition to introducing new kinnot. Leaving aside his actual argument (to which), I tend to think that it is more important for liturgy to mean something to the worshipper than to be artistically or even spiritually refined. However, finding appropriate kinnot for the Holocaust is not so easy. We chose an English poem this year, which I may write about later.

Yehonatan Chipman has posted some versions of the nachem prayer that account for the current political situation. This post by Rabbi Gil Student discusses the positions of some prominant Orthodox rabbis on making such changes. (Note that most of the rabbis cited seem to subscribe to my position #2.)

Personal Reflections

The ways in which individuals relate to Tisha B'Av emotionally can be very different. This poem by Chaim Nahman Bialik describes the poet's encounter with an abandoned beyt midrash (house of study) in the language of Lamentations and Isaiah. (Adderabbi discusses the poem here.) We J-Bloggers tend to be a bit more prosaic, literally and figuratively. Estelle Feldman shares her thoughts on the destruction of the two Temples after visiting the site the Twin Towers. Naomi Chana describes a moment in Rome in which she became seriously pissed at Titus. Fleurdelis28 writes of the difficulty of seeing other people's points of view and relates the Jewish exile to Les Miserables. Soferet began to truly mourn after receiving a blessing from a British rabbi. Barefoot Jewess laments the destruction of her homes and the distance she feels from her community.

Is all this really relevant to Tisha B'Av? I'm not sure. I still feel that the ancient paradigm is broken, so I tend to seek meaning in random, disparate places. Each of these posts seemed as moving or thought-provoking at one point or another. I hope that others find something in them as well.