Wednesday, April 26, 2006

For Every Purpose

I'm a bit ashamed of that last post. It's so egocentric. But then, most of are. I think.

In any case, it appears that I won't have to take those exams just yet. Which is well and good, since this has been a pretty crazy few weeks.

My grandfather and another individual close to my heart are currently recovering from sudden, serious medical conditions that could have taken their lives. Today, a good friend's father, who was relatively young and in fine health, died of a stroke. I had been thinking that contemporary Judaism, with all its rituals and prayers for supplication and mourning, doesn't provide sufficient means for giving thanks for a loved one's recovery. Now I am thinking that what it really doesn't provide -- and perhaps nothing can -- is a means of coping with the strange combinations of joy and grief that life sends our way.

I have a tendency to react strongly to minor events and respond with relatively little emotion to more serious matters. When tragedy strikes, I tend to ignore it for as long as I can. Right now, for example, I am going to watch the Daily Show. Tomorrow, I'll go to the funeral.

Barukh Dayyan Ha-Emet.

Monday, April 17, 2006

No King But You

Like many Jewish women, I have a love/hate relationship with Passover. True, it isn't like the olden days; I have a husband who is willing to do at least as much cooking and cleaning as I am. But the knife cuts both ways: I have obligations outside the home, and the cost of neglecting them can be high.

I know that I bring some of this on myself. From a strictly halakhic perspective, it probably isn't necessary to clean as thoroughly as we do. But you know how it is -- you move a piece of furniture, discover enough dust bunnies to fill a petting zoo, and decide that you'd better check behind the next piece of furniture as well. Then the next thing you know it's four in the morning and you're picking crumbs out of your bridge chairs with a Q-tip, and you'll be damned if you show up for that morning meeting.

There are other things that don't have to be done. I could stay home from shul and study -- no prohibition there, as long as I don't take notes. But as often as I say that I'll spend the holiday studying, I never pull it off. It just isn't yuntif if I work, and, say what you will, studying is work.

Passover is often called the festival of freedom, but this isn't quite accurate. In the biblical story, when the Israelites leave the service of Pharaoh, they do so in order to serve their God. There is no total freedom in this life; the closest we come is having the freedom to choose our masters. I may have some major exams coming up, but when push comes to shove, I'd rather be a slave in the kitchen for a few weeks in honor of the festival than a slave to my exams. And when the festival arrives, I would rather enjoy the freedom of restriction from labor than take advantage of the opportunity to increase my odds of passing by a miniscule margin.

I remember sitting down next to my mother at the seder table several years ago and seeing her smile and say, "this is my favorite holiday." At the moment, I was feeling resentful of the work time I'd lost, and hearing this from someone who had worked twice as hard as I had preparing for the holiday was nothing short of shocking. But then, as the seder began, I remembered that it was my favorite holiday, too. No amount of lost work time could change that.

Two days of yuntif have passed, and there are two more to go. The time in between is just long enough to work for a few hours, then shop and prepare for the next set of meals. Or it would be if I hadn't stayed up all night worrying about those silly exams.

I'm over it now. There are more important things in life.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Passover Kugels

Perhaps they were influenced by the Rosh Hashanah edition of the New York Times. At any rate, this year's Passover edition of the Boston Globe Food section has an emphasis on kugel. There is a relatively uniformative but innocuous article on Passover kugels, along with recipes for potato kugel, mushroom, onion, and farfel kugel, and festive fruit kugel. (The paper also includes some Passover desserts: coconut and almond macaroons with chocolate coating and flourless mocha cake.)

Inspired, I've decided to share my own favorite Passover kugel recipes. The first is a savory farfel kugel that's so simple and easy to make, you'd think it couldn't possibly be good, but it really is delicious. The second is a vegetable kugel that's as beautiful as it is tasty. The farfel kugel recipe is from my mother. I found the vegetable kugel recipe on the internet and have subsequently seen it in a number of kosher recipe archives. DH and I make it all year, but it is appreciated most on Passover.

Farfel Kugel
2 cups diced onion
1/2 cup oil
1-pound box matzah farfel
4 eggs
5 cups chicken broth or parve substitute (onion broth works, too)
chopped fresh parsley (optional)
black pepper to taste (optional)

Pour all ingredients into a 9 x 13 pan and mix well. Sprinkle with paprika. Bake at 350 degrees Farenheit for 1 hr, or until light brown and firm.

Confetti Vegetable Kugel
3 medium zucchini, unpeeled (1 lb.)
3 carrots, peeled
2 sweet potatoes or 3 large potatoes, peeled (about 1 lb.)
2 medium onions
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup parsley leaves
3 to 4 tbsp. chopped fresh basil (or 1 tsp. dried)
4 eggs plus 4 egg whites (or 6 eggs)
1/2 cup potato starch or matzo meal (or all-purpose flour if it isn't Passover)
1 1/4 tsp. salt (to taste)
1/2 tsp. pepper (to taste)
2 tsp. olive oil

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Farenheit. Grate zucchini, carrots and sweet potatoes. (Can be done in the food processor.) Finely mince onions, garlic, parsley and basil. Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl and mix well. Spray a 3 quart rectangular or oval casserole with non-stick spray. Add vegetable mixture and spread evenly. Bake at 375 degrees Farenheit for 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until golden brown and firm.

(Cross-posted to Kosherblog)

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

As if There Weren't Enough Confusion This Time of Year

Today's New York Times Dining & Wine Section has an article by Joan Nathan on new leniencies introduced by rabbis who are trying to "simplify" Passover observance for their constituents.

At least, that's the way it's presented.

In reality, none of these so-called leniencies are actually new. Jews who think that baking soda isn't kosher for Passover because it is "leavening" are simply mistaken. Only the "five grains" -- oats, wheat, barley, rye, and spelt -- can meet the halakhic definition of "leaven," or chametz. Baking powder typically contains corn starch, which is problematic for those who adhere to Ashkenazi custom, but the corn starch can be replaced with potato starch to make kosher for Passover baking powder. There is nothing wrong with the leavening per se.

Another supposedly new leniency is allowing legumes as well as grains such as rice and corn. According to the article, "Jews in medieval Europe began to keep beans and lentils, as well as grains, from the Passover table because until modern times they were often ground into flour." This is not precisely true. Legumes were considered problematic because they were grown alongside wheat and rye so that the grains could benefit from their nitrogen-fixing properties. Corn and rice were later restricted because they could be ground into flour. Sephardic Jews never observed these restrictions. Instead, they carefully separated the legumes from their grain before Passover.

Today, legumes are no longer grown alongside grains, so the issue should be moot. (See my rant here.) The only reason to refrain from eating legumes, or kitniyot, is the force of communal custom. In Israel Sephardim comprise a larger proportion of the Jewish population than in the U.S. and tend to dictate religious practice for less observant Jews, so consumption of kitniyot is typical. When the Masorti movement ruled that kitniyot could be eaten by Ashkenazim in Israel, they were merely codifying existing practice.

The Passover recipes accompanying the article include a Morrocan dish of Shad With Fava Beans, presumably to celebrate this "freer interpretation of the Passover pantry." Of course, since most New York Jews adhere to the stricter Ashkenazi practice, they won't be able to enjoy this dish during the upcoming holiday. For New York's Sephardim, on the other hand, eating fava beans on Passover is no novelty.

The other recipes are for cakes and cookies, two of which prominently feature "kosher for Passover" leavening. The Double Chocolate Mocha Drop Cookies and Sesame Vanilla Passover Cookies call for kosher for Passover baking powder and confectioner's sugar, respectively. Ironically, the only reason that either of these products require a special "kosher for Passover" version is that the standard formulas include corn starch, which can be eaten by anyone who will eat the fava bean dish. The Sesame-Vanilla cookie recipe is cautious enough to specifically call for "kosher for Passover baking soda." (Baking soda arguably does not require a hekhsher for Passover; at any rate, the most widely available brand, Arm & Hammer, has an OU-P.) Meanwhile, both recipes call for vanilla extract without any reference to the fact that it is typically made with grain alcohol -- that is, real chametz. Real vanilla extract is available with a Passover hekhsher, but it isn't easy to find.

Perhaps I'm being too picky. But it seems to me that American Jews have a tendency to make a big fuss over relatively unimporant matters while ignoring issues that are much more central to halakhah. This problem is exacerbated on Passover when many Jews assume a level of stringency to which they are not normally accustomed. Now, the New York Times and Joan Nathan are adding more confusion to the mix. Joan Nathan, at least, should really know better.

(Cross-Posted to Kosherblog)

Pshat, Drash, and the Conservative Movement

DH has started a discussion about Tamar Rossman-Benjamin's article on the Conservative Etz Hayim chumash. The article is lucid, intelligent, and generally well-informed* -- worthwhile reading for anyone interested in Orthodox and Conservative approaches to biblical exegesis and Jewish law. Rossman-Benjamin calls attention to some serious hurdles faced by Conservative exegetes and theologians, which deserve to be addressed in an open forum.

For my own part, I generally like the Etz Hayim, despite its many shortcomings. One must bear in mind that it is not meant to be a mission statement for the Conservative movement, a theological treatise, or a guidebook for living a halakhic life. As a synagogue chumash, its purpose to help laypeople understand the biblical text and to introduce them to modern biblical scholarship, traditional Jewish exegesis, and some of the connections between the Torah and modern Jewish life. On those terms, I think that the commentary is largely successful.

Rossman-Benjamin's major criticism of the Etz Hayim -- and, by extension, the Conservative movement -- is that it presents the Torah as a human, rather than divine, creation while still insisting that Jews accept its authority. Her criticism is reasonable insofar as simultaneous acceptance of historical criticism and rabbinic halakhah leads to practical and theoretical problems that have yet to be satisfactorily resolved by the movement's leading thinkers. However, the strict dichotomy between "human" and "divine" is false. In my opinion, failing to acknowledge the possibility of a middle ground between these two perspectives on the Torah's origin presents a greater threat to the future of Judasim than openness to the conclusions of modern scholarship.

This article by Rabbi Gordan Tucker puts it nicely:

[I]magine that you are picking up a new book, one, say, with no title on the cover, so that you begin to learn about the book only upon opening it. You first read a preface. It says the following: "The volume before you is the result of relentless investigative reporting, and though its claims may at times seem incredible, they are all thoroughly documented." So you read on, and are fascinated, perhaps even shocked, to learn facts that you never knew. It changes your life and the way in which you look at things, and you eagerly pass it on to others so that they may know these facts as well. Then one day you discover that the book that so profoundly moved you was actually quite shoddy and was based on very fallible sources. Some of it was even just made up. How do you feel? You feel betrayed. The author has made a fool of you. He claimed that the work was factual, you let it affect you accordingly, and you were duped.

Now on another occasion, you might open a book and find a preface that says, "What follows is a parable.” Or better, "This is a work of fiction, although it is based on fact." You now have a different orientation to what you are about to read. You read it, and you find it to be one of the most moving and true books you have ever read. It also changes the way in which you look at the world, yourself, and your place in it. You live somewhat differently because of it. Now someone comes up to you and says, "You know, what [the author] said in that book didn't really happen, certainly not the way in which he describes." How do you feel now? Would you not say to this person, "I never assumed that it was all perfect fact. And the book's power to change my life had nothing to do with a perfect historical fit."


Consider this:The first two chapters of Genesis tell different tales of creation. If we accept that we have an edited compilation of different narratives, does that mean we must believe that the world had no Creator? Or does it not rather mean that what we have in the Torah are different versions of the same belief that we are God's creatures, but told in different ways, with different emphases, including very different understandings of the role of women in the world, produced by believers in different places and different times?


Some Jews take God as the sole and final religious authority. Some Jews take the thinking autonomous self as the sole and final religious authority. It is the particular characteristic of Conservative Judaism to insist that religious authority is a partnership, that it comes from the reality of a revealing God and the equally inescapable reality of a seeking, evolving community through which God's words get expressed over time.

*There are a few inaccuracies, which I noted in a comment on DH's post.