Sunday, October 28, 2007

Going Biblical

Chana started a fun-looking biblical character meme recently. I thought that answering the questions would be an easy way to produce a quick non-culinary post, but then I realized that they weren't easy to answer at all. Here are my best responses for now:

Which biblical character do you feel you are most like?
Often, I think I'm most like like Isaac: a quiet, gullible type who generally does as he's told. Other times, I think I'm more like Eve.

Which biblical character would you marry?
This was harder to answer than I expected. Barak is an obvious choice — he's very loyal — but I don't feel like I know him very well. Elisha can do lots of neat tricks, but he's bald and I don't think he's very good with children. Bilaam has a great ass, but that's about it. (Yeah, I know. Sorry.) I might be able to learn to love Jacob, even though he is a bit of a jerk at times. But if I were Isaac, he would be my son, and that isn't even legal in Massachusetts. So I really don't know. Boaz, maybe? He seems nice. And he's rich, which doesn't hurt.

Which biblical character would you want on your team (or on your side, during a war?)
I'm going to have to be unoriginal and go with YHWH (a.k.a. God).

Which biblical character would you want to be close friends with?
Ruth. I know she'd always be there for me. Also, she has balls (metaphorically speaking, of course), which I kind of admire.

Which biblical character do you think would make an excellent Disney villain?
I'm going to be unoriginal again and choose Haman. He's devious and thoroughly evil, but also a bit of a buffoon. Disney seems to like that in a villain.

Join in the fun! (You can see some more responses here, here, and here.)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Whole Grain Apple Cake with Bourbon Sauce

Looks like I'm late to the SHF game again. The posts were due at midnight and it's now 12:22. Typical timing (though I really was working on something much more important). Maybe Spitton Extra will be gracious and admit me, anyway. If not, my loyal readers will still get the recipe.

This month's theme is apples and alcohol. This was convenient for me, since I already had an 8-inch whole grain apple cake in the freezer and was trying to come up with an accompaniment. I settled on bourbon sauce.

The cake recipe is based on "Legacy Apple Cake" in King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking. I clipped it from the Boston Globe, where it was published on May 31, 2006. The sauce recipe is from Adger House B&B (I found it through Google). My only significant change to both recipes was to substitute Earth Balance sticks for butter. All in all, it was a good dessert. The cake was a little bit crumbly, but otherwise it averted the usual pitfalls of whole grain baking: it was nice and moist and not at all bitter. The bourbon sauce was very intense. It would be a great booster for one of those non-dairy ice creams.

Whole Grain Apple Cake with Bourbon Sauce


Makes 9x13-inch rectangular cake or two 8-inch square or 9-inch round cakes

Butter, margarine, or vegetable oil spray for the pan
2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour, plus more for the pan (the original calls for King Arthur brand traditional or white whole wheat; I used Arrowhead Mills pastry flour because I had it)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt (omit if using salted butter or margarine)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice, or 2 teaspoons apple pie spice
1 cup (2 sticks) butter or margarine, preferably unsalted
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup boiled cider or apple juice concentrate
3 apples, peeled, seeded, and chopped (don't ask me what size)
1 cup walnuts, chopped (I substituted pecans)

1. Set oven at 325 degrees. Grease and flour a 9x13-inch pan or 2 smaller pans (see above).

2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice or apple pie spice; set aside.

3. Using an electric mixer in a large mixing bowl, cream the butter or margarine with the brown and granulated sugars until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, stopping between each addition to scrape the sides and bottom of the mixing bowl. Beat in vanilla and cider or apple juice.

4. With the mixer set on low speed, beat in the flour mixture until evenly moistened. With a rubber spatula, fold in the apples and nuts.

5. Spread the batter in the prepared pan. Transfer to the oven and bake for 45 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

6. Remove the cake from the oven and set on a wire rack to cool completely.


1/2 cup brown sugar
3 teaspoons butter or margarine
1/4 cup Bourbon

Melt butter over medium heat. Add brown sugar and Bourbon. Simmer on low heat, stirring often to cook off some of the alcohol, about 5 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature, spooned over the cake.

I took a picture of the cake, but I can't find the cable for my digital camera, so it'll have to wait. (I'll post the pic whenever I find the cable, which I hope will be soon.) In any case, head over to Spitoon Extra this Friday for all the SHF recipes (which may or may not include this one). I'm sure it'll be great.

Hey, man, I thought that you were dead. . .

...No, man, I've been right here this whole time
playing bass guitar

I don't actually play guitar, but that's a pretty cute clip, don't you think? (Lyrics are here. Hat tip to PaleoJudaica.) Anyway, the point is, I'm not dead. I just haven't been blogging because my computer crashed at the beginning of September, and then classes started (I'm teaching Hebrew for the first time), and there were the holidays, and then I guess I just fell out of the habit. I'll post again soon, though, with a recipe, and there will be some non-food-related content later on.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Anniversary Biscuits

DH and I always celebrate birthdays and anniversaries the same way: we go out to eat. This year, though, our anniversary is on a Friday, and we can't go out on Shabbat, so we're postponing our celebratory meal until Sunday evening.

Still, I thought it would be nice to do a little something on the Big Day itself, and as you all know, I'm always looking for an excuse to bake. There was no question of doing something for dinner, since we've been invited to a friend's, so I decided to make a nice breakfast. I didn't have to wake up early or start the night before. These biscuits can be prepared in about ten minutes, plus 10-12 minutes in the oven.

The recipe is adapted from "Baking Powder Biscuits" in Betty Crocker's Homemade Quick Breads. I substituted butter for the vegetable shortening and used a food processor instead of a pastry blender. I also cut the recipe in half, since there are only two of us.

Buttery Biscuits

1/4 cup cold unsalted butter, in slices
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tbs sugar
1`1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
about 1/3 cup milk

Heat oven to 450 degrees F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a food processor and pulse to mix. Add the slices of butter and continue pulsing until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Transfer to a bowl. Add milk gradually, stirring, until the dough forms a bowl.

Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface and gently roll in flour to coat. Knead lightly. Pat 1/2 inch thick. Cut with a 2 inch cookie cutter or an overturned glass. Gather any leftover scraps of dough into a ball, pat it out, and cut more biscuits until the dough is used up.

Place the biscuits about 1 inch apart on the cookie sheet. Bake 10-12 minutes or until brown around the edges. Serve hot.

Makes about 6 biscuits.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Ben & Jerry's Raspberry Ice Cream

Raspberry isn't the first flavor that comes to mind when I think of Ben & Jerry's, but it's listed in the "Greatest Hits" chapter of their recipe book, so I figured I'd give it a whirl. I'm glad I did. This ice cream is delicious, creamy, and very fresh-tasting, with little juicy bits of berry throughout. And the raspberries came from the farmer's market, so I get to use Blush again!

One thing I should mention about the Ben & Jerry's book is that the recipes couldn't be much easier. They'd never ask you do anything as complicated as tempering eggs or seeding berries. I'm okay with a few seeds, but I'm not comfortable feeding my guests raw eggs, so I substituted their egg-free sweet cream base for the one with eggs. If you're willing to live on the edge, you can add two whole eggs and substitute one cup of milk for the half-and-half. Ice cream with eggs supposedly keeps better long term (not that I would know).

Since my raspberries were pretty mild, I also reduced the sugar from 1 1/2 cups to 1 cup, and I thought it was about right. Use your judgment.

Without further ado:

Raspberry Ice Cream

1 pint fresh raspberries
1 to 1 1/2 cups sugar
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 cups heavy or whipping cream
2/3 cup half-and-half

Combine the raspberries, 3/4 cup of the sugar, and the lemon juice in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate 2 hours, stirring every 30 minutes.

Pour the cream into a mixing bowl. Whisk in the remaining sugar, a little at time, then continue whisking until completely blended, about 1 minute more. Pour in the half-and-half and whisk to blend.

Drain the juice from the raspberries into the cream mixture and blend. Mash the raspberries and stir them into the cream mixture.

Transfer the mixture into an ice cream maker and freeze following the manufacturer's instructions.

Makes a little over 1 quart.

(Cross-posted to the Kosher Blog.)

Farmer's Market Finds

We foodies tend to get excited when summer comes around and farmer's markets start popping up everywhere. Summer's almost over, though, and so far, I've found very little at my local farmer's markets that seemed blog-worthy. Maybe it's because it's been a drought year, or maybe I've been making lousy choices. Either way, most of the the produce I've picked up has been no better than what we get at the supermarket. A few times I bought "interesting" items, such as shungiku, which the sign at the market said was "good in stir-fries." When I got home to my computer, I learned that shungiku is also known as "edible chrysanthemum," and that's what it tastes like -- a flower. (Sorry, but eating flowers has never been my thing.)

Then, recently, the yield started to improve, culminating in this batch of heirloom tomatoes, which I bought on Monday:

They were a mixed bag, but the good ones were very good. As I collected the tomatoes at the market, I scribbled down their names with little descriptions (such as "big bumpy red"); if my notes are accurate, the ones in the picture are (from top, left): Green Zebra, Black Plum, Red Zebra, Speckled Roman, Brandywine, Pineapple, and Costoluto Genovese. The Speckled Roman was decidedly the sweetest and most flavorful (though this probably has more to do with the individual crop and even the particular tomato I selected than the cultivar). The Black Plum and Green Zebra tomatoes were also very good. In general, the greener tomatoes were crisper and easier to slice, but otherwise they tasted very similar to the red ones.

Between Monday and Tuesday lunch, I ate most of the tomatoes with extra virgin olive oil, basil (another farmer's market purchase), and Cappiello mozzerella. Next week, though, I plan to get a little more creative. If you're looking for ways to use great summer tomatoes, there are some ideas in today's New York Times Dining & Wine section; some simple pasta recipes from the Boston Globe Magazine; and, of course, lots of recipes in A Veggie Venture's Alphabet of Vegetables.

Another vegetable I've done well with this year (as on previous years) is Asian eggplant. Asian eggplants come in a variety of shapes, sizes and hues, but the ones I've seen have generally been thinner and more purple than globe eggplant and Italian eggplant, which are rounder and almost back. I like the Asian varieties much better, and have only been able to find them at farmer's markets. They have few seeds and tend not to be bitter, so there's no need to salt them. I've used them in tofu stir-fry, pizza, and pasta sauce.

And here's another nice find: kohlrabi.
Kohlrabi is one of the vegetables I learned about from A Veggie Venture. It looks exotic with all those tentacles, and mine had the added allure of being purple (they are more commonly light green, as in the Wikipedia pic), but kohlrabi is actually quite mild and approachable. Just cut off the stems with a paring knife and use a good peeler to peel it, and you have a nice, crunchy, low-calorie snack.

It may be too late for perfect strawberries, but I have hope for the end of the season. The corn is already here, and before long we'll be seeing that fabulous winter squash. I'll try to keep you posted on my finds. Feel free to share yours. (If you have a blog, you can even use Blush, the Sweet Tomato).

(Cross-posted to the Kosher Blog.)

Monday, July 23, 2007

Listening to Eicha

Several years ago, a friend of mine who happens to be a medievalist was telling me about the the difficulty she had connecting to Tisha B'Av. I told her what I generally thought at the time, which was that if you pay attention to the book of Eicha (Lamentations), you can't fail to be depressed by it. She said, "I don't know. It sounds just like all the other descriptions of sacked cities I've been reading lately."

At first I was taken aback, but later I realized that she was making an important point. From the standpoint of traditional Jewish theology, the destruction of the Temple is unique among catastrophes, which is why we continue to mourn it in so many different ways. But I was referring to the human tragedy in the book of Eicha, and, gruesome as that is, it isn't any worse than many other catastrophes than have befallen countless peoples throughout history. Those of us who study the past learn to accept descriptions of horrible events as a matter of course. Those of us who study Jewish history may find Eicha even more difficult to relate to, as we've come to see the event it describes as a practically inevitable consequence of regional politics, one of many similar scenarios that were playing out throughout the Near East. More and more, as I read the book of Eicha, that is what I see.

The traditional solution to this would be for me to try to understand the spiritual significance of the destruction of the Temple and the exile of God's presence. But that doesn't work for me right now. Instead, I'm trying to do something much smaller: to hear Eicha in the voice of its authors, people who actually witnessed the brutal destruction of everything they held dear. I can't do this every time I hear about a tragedy; no one can have that much empathy and live. But as a Jew, I can try to connect to this one paradigmatic tragedy this one time a year, with as much of myself as I can.


Last year, I wrote two posts linking to my favorite Tisha B'Av reading on the web, as well as to my own previous posts (link, link). As usual, I recommend Hitzei Yehonatan for both new and old material. (There are two new relevant posts, dated July 16 and 23. Don't get too turned of by the zodiacal stuff.) I also read a nice piece by The Curious Jew about how she relates to some kinot better than others, and I'm looking forward to reading The Velveteen Rabbi's thoughts on Eicha. I'll continue to update if I come across anything worthwhile.

A safe fast to those who are observing it.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Ongoing Destruction of the Temple

I don't mean that in a metaphorical sense. This is about the actual destruction of Temple Mount artifacts by the Waqf, the Muslim religious trust that controls the area. This destruction has been going on for many years and I haven't blogged about it; there are many bloggers who can offer more informed coverage of biblical archaeology than I can. I've been paying more attention lately, though, because my little sis was recently involved in a Bar-Ilan run project to sift through the debris overturned by the Waqf's bulldozers in the hope of preserving precious archaeological remains. The project has uncovered thousands of artifacts from various periods, some of which are of major historical significance. There is only so much that such a project can accomplish, however. Aside from the damage to the artifacts themselves, their wanton removal from their original site makes the authenticity of many items difficult or impossible to establish. Often, the rubble has even been mixed with modern-day garbage.

Here are some words on recent developments from Hershel Shanks (Hat tip to PaleoJudaica):

Within the last few days, a trench two-feet deep — starting from the northern end of the platform where Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock sits — has begun working its way toward the southern end of the Temple Mount. The work is being done without any regard for the archaeological information or treasures that may lie below. Destruction is particularly great in places where bedrock is no deeper than the trench. Some of the digging is being done with mechanical equipment, instead of by hand as a professional archaeological excavation would be conducted.

[. . .]

That the Waqf, the Muslim religious trust that serves as custodian of the site, should wish to install new electric and telephone lines is understandable — provided that the necessary trench is first dug as a professional archaeological excavation. That is the required procedure everywhere in Israel before work can be undertaken at sites with archaeological significance.

[. . .]

The Waqf has a long history of ignoring Israel’s antiquities laws, and Israel has a long history of ignoring these violations. As early as 1970, the Waqf excavated a pit without supervision that exposed a 16-foot-long, six-foot-thick wall that scholars believe may well be the eastern wall of the Herodian Temple complex. An inspector from the antiquities department saw it and composed a handwritten report (still unpublished) before the wall was dismantled, destroyed and covered up.

[. . .]

In 1999, to accommodate a major expansion of an underground mosque into what is known popularly as Solomon’s Stables in the southeastern part of the Temple Mount, the Waqf dug an enormous stairway down to the mosque. Hundreds of truckloads of archaeologically rich dirt were dug with mechanical equipment and then dumped into the adjacent Kidron Valley. When archaeology student Zachi Zweig began to explore the mounds of dirt for antiquities, he was arrested at the behest of the Israel Antiquities Authority — for excavating without a permit.

In an excellent article, well worth reading in full, Dr. Richard Benkin provides some background and perspective:

There is extensive evidence to support the notion that Israel never intended to take over the former Jordanian territory to the east of the 1967 armistice lines. In fact, there is record of frantic communications between Israeli leaders and Jordan’s King Hussein, urging him to stay out of the impending war. History records that he did not. Facing a new set of territorial realities, Dayan and others foresaw the volatility of the site and felt they could reach an accommodation with the Jordanian-controlled Waqf. Moreover, secularist Israeli leaders, like Dayan, saw the Mount as little more than an historical curiosity for Jews, while recognizing its religious significance for Moslems. Neither can it be denied that Israel’s historic commitment to tolerance and its respect for all religions in the area—in stark contradiction to its neighbors—contributed to the decision as well. Thus, the two organizations agreed to maintain the status quo in exchange for the other’s non-interference.

An uneasy but effective truce was maintained until 1993, the year of the Oslo accords. Shortly after the accords were signed, the Jordanian-controlled Waqf withdrew in favor of members appointed by and beholden to Yassir Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. The Jordanian-appointed Waqf was not exactly friendly to Israel. It did, however, recognize the practicality of maintaining the status quo. The PA’s appointment of a Minister for Waqf Affairs effectively radicalized the situation and formally subordinated all Mount activities to political aims.

It was less than three years later that the above actions began. The Israeli government and Antiquities Authority were facing a new challenge. Up until that point, the Authority could count on voluntary compliance with its edicts, which were supported by all academics and researchers of good will and were based on long established principles respecting the integrity of inquiry. The new Waqf, however, gave greater priority to politics than historical truth. Its leaders were not schooled in the same set of principles as other researchers. Moreover, it adhered to a PA article of faith to reject the authority of any Israeli agency or institution. Thus, any attempt by the government to enforce its authority, or the 1993 Supreme Court ruling confirming it, would face fierce Arab opposition, involving mass demonstrations and other public displays. Israel could expect international condemnation and declarations that it was attempting to derail the Oslo peace process. Actions by the Arab world to discredit attempts to stop the Waqf’s illegal activity and other nations’ inaction in even questioning their claims confirm Israeli fears. In Orwellian fashion, official Arab and Moslem media throughout the Middle East accuse the Israelis of plotting to destroy the “Moslem” Mount. One Iranian piece quotes the Jerusalem mufti of accusing those who have protested Waqf actions as creating “a big hue and cry to justify [Israel’s] interference in [Moslem] affairs.”

Usually, around Tisha B'Av I write about the human tragedy that the fast commemorates. Loss of life, after all, seems much more serious than the destruction of a building, however sacred, and the relationship between Tisha B'Av and the physical temple has always been a complex one for me. Two years ago, when Judith Weiss hosted a Temple Mount blogburst for Tisha B'Av, I virtually ignored the Temple Mount part.

But physical remains are a vital source for reconstructing Jewish history, for understanding who we are and where we've come from. They give us the ability to transcend time, reaching back to the past and bringing new knew knowledge to future generations. That which is discovered today could transform our understanding of our past. That which is removed or destroyed may hide truths that will never see the light of day.

Go to PaleoJudaica for ongoing coverage of Temple Mount events.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Ice Cream Maker Update

I have, in fact, been using my ice cream maker quite regularly. I just haven't posted many recipes, partly because so few of the desserts I've made have stuck around long enough to have their pictures taken. It's a pity, since some of them were quite pretty, but so be it. I may as well post the recipes, anyway. (Several can be made without an ice cream maker; I'll mention that wherever applicable.)

One of my first dairy desserts was a maple-pecan ice cream from Joy of Baking. It was very good, rich and custardy, with a prominent maple syrup flavor. I served it with bread pudding, but it could easily stand alone.

I also tried making Coffee Heath Bar Crunch from Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream and Dessert Book, but for various silly reasons I didn't end up quite following the recipe. It was yummy, anyway, but I'd rather not post what I did — there were too many little mishaps. Instead, I offer this "concept recipe":

Not Quite Ben & Jerry's Coffee Heath Bar Crunch

  • ingredients for 1 quart coffee ice cream, from your favorite recipe*

  • 4 original Heath Bars (1 1/8 oz each) or 4 1/2 oz (about 1 cup) Heath Bar pieces (available in the baking isle of many supermarkets)

If using whole Heath Bars, use a sharp knife to cut them into 1/2- to 1-inch chunks. Place the chunks or pieces in a bowl, cover and freeze.

Make the ice cream. After the ice cream stiffens (about 2 minutes before it's done), add the candy, then continue freezing until the ice cream is ready.

I've also tried a couple of David Lebovitz's frozen yogurts. I made this strawberry frozen yogurt twice, with fresh California strawberries (the local ones weren't in yet), and Stonyfield Farms whole milk organic yogurt. It came out a gorgeous shade of pink, which I was determined to photograph the second time, but I couldn't find the camera. The flavor was slightly tart and very refreshing. (DH said, "I don't usually like strawberry ice cream, but this I like.") Since I made it with unstrained yogurt, the texture was very light, more like sorbet than traditional frozen yogurt, with just a bit of creaminess.

Just last night, I made this vanilla frozen yogurt, and Oh My Goodness, was it ever wonderful. (Bear in mind that I love yogurt, even plain. This recipe is for real yogurt lovers, not those looking for a less fattening substitute for ice cream.) It would be superb with a little bit of fresh lemon juice and zest, topped with fresh berries. (There are a few tips in the comments for making frozen yogurt without an ice cream maker. Sandhya's method looks simplest.)

Now that I know how creamy frozen yogurt can be, I'd like to try the strawberry version with strained or Greek-style yogurt. Stay tuned.

In the parve department, I returned to my berry sorbet, this time using fresh berries rather than frozen. The berries weren't terrific (I got them from Haymarket), but they still made delicious sorbet. I don't think it was better than the one made with frozen berries, though. Oh, and I accidentally left out the vodka, which didn't seem to do any harm to the texture. (See DebraG's comment on the original post for a tip on making sorbet without an ice cream maker.)

Finally, I tried this chocolate sorbet recipe, also from David Lebovitz. It was rich and chocolaty, and the texture was much smoother than that of my first chocolate sorbet, but it was still slightly gritty. (One of the commenters had the same problem.) This won't stop me from making it again; maybe I can improve the texture by boiling it longer, or something. I served it in a dish of strawberry rhubarb compote, a nice combination that I may repeat.

That's all for now, but there will definitely be more.

*For that characteristic Ben & Jerry's richness, you'll want to use a recipe that makes ice cream with about 25% butterfat. Based on my estimation, this Emeril Lagasse recipe should fit the bill (not that I've tried it). If you prefer to use fresh coffee rather than instant, you can try this recipe, from David Lebovitz (via Elise).

(Cross-posted to the Kosher Blog.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

On Worldly Goods

Yes, I know. It's been a while . . . again. My excuse this time is that we've been moving. I won't say exactly why, but I will say that we didn't have a whole lot of time to do it. Between the first of June and the second of July we had to find a new apartment and transfer all our earthly possessions. (Thankfully, we had lots of help from friends). Then we had to unpack and arrange the furniture, which wasn't a trivial task. Unlike the old place, which was an attic, our new apartment has straight walls, so we have room for one more 28-inch bookcase, which we sorely need. Otherwise, though, it's smaller, and we really have too much stuff for this amount of space.

I've lived in apartments all my life (except when I lived in dorms), so I'm used to not having as much space as I'd like, and I've learned to view willingness to get rid of just about anything as a virtue. I guess that's why I was so ashamed when just about everyone involved (the old landlord, the new landlord, friends and family) expressed astonishment at how much we own.

We have gotten rid of things: a table, an armchair, a stereo; two old TV's we had piled behind our bed; some gifts we hardly ever use, like the large wooden candlesticks and the decorative glass dishes and the individual wooden salad bowls. I also gave away more than half my clothing, partly because it was in lousy condition, but also to prove to myself that I'm not a greedy materialist. Maybe that wasn't such a good idea — I hate shopping, and now I have nothing to wear. But I was trying to compensate for all the things I wasn't willing to get rid of, like kitchenware and books.

Actually, that's about it — kitchenware and books. But oh, what a lot of that there is. The cookware overload is partly a result of keeping kosher (we have two sets of pots and four sets of dishes). But even for observant Jews our age we have quite a lot of cookware, and I'm not willing to give it up. Without a crockpot, we couldn't make cholent. Without crepe pans, we couldn't make blintzes. Without a 10-inch tube pan, I couldn't make 10-inch tube-shaped cakes. Without a 9-inch tube pan...well, you get the idea.

In defense of my book hoarding, I'd point out that I'm not nearly as compulsive a book buyer as most of my bibliophile friends. I'm aware of the limits of space and finances, and I try to bear them in mind when I decide which books to buy and which to take out of the library. With a few notable exceptions, I deliberately don't form attachments to works of fiction; I try to give my novels away as soon as I've finished them. So I think I deserve the books I've decided to buy and keep, even if they are taking up a large amount of wall space.

Still, I feel guilty.

I've tried to view this move as an opportunity for catharsis. When that didn't work, I tried creativity. We've created a printer stand from Sterilite containers full of Passover dishes — pretty neat, wouldn't you say? To make it less ugly, I covered it with a sarong I bought years ago at Venice Beach, so now it looks like a pile of Sterilite containers with laundry hanging on it. Okay, so that didn't really work. I'll figure something out.

Anyway, I'm going to try to stop feeling guilty about owning things and focus on more important matters, like feeling guilty about not making progress on my dissertation. Many thanks to those of you who helped move our accumulated detritus. If any of you are interested in large wooden candlesticks or size 6 1/2 suede shoes, come and get them before they collect the trash.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007


A friend of mine likes to buy produce at Haymarket, mainly, she says, for the "experience." I've lived in the Boston area for close to a decade, but until this past Friday, I never got around to going to Haymarket. It's open Fridays and Saturdays only, which doesn't quite fit my routine (usually involving shopping and cooking for Shabbat Thursday night and then eating leftovers for several days).

Classes are over, though, and the weather has been nice, so I decided to make the trek. But first, of course, I had to Google "Haymarket Boston" to find out what to expect. The general consensus seemed to be that the market is characterized by crowds, rude vendors, and lousy produce, but with prices low enough to make it worthwhile.

I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the produce. Most of it was as good or better than what I usually find at the supermarket, and the crowds and vendors weren't too bad, either. I attribute this mainly to my having gone Friday morning. The prices were, as advertised, ridiculously low. (This is apparently due to the low overhead cost of running a booth at an outdoor market as opposed to a store.)

I spent exactly $20. Here's what I got:


  • 3 lbs. rhubarb

  • 2 lbs. strawberries

  • 1 lb blueberries

  • 1 lb raspberries

  • 1/2 lb blackberries

  • 2 heads Boston lettuce

  • 1 bunch spinach

  • 1 bunch radishes

  • 1 bunch scallions

  • 1 bunch parsley

  • 4 red peppers

  • 6 large lemons

  • 7 tomatoes on the vine

  • 1 Vidalia onion

  • 1 ginger root

Two of the peppers turned out to be rotten inside, some of the berries were sour, and the tomatoes got smooshed on the T, but for what I paid, it hardly mattered. We've had many salads since then, and there are mixed berry sorbet and Moroccan preserved lemons in the works.

In conclusion, I highly recommend not having a real job if you live in the Boston area and want good quality, dirt-cheap produce. If that's not an option, consider taking a Friday off at some point, for the experience.

(Cross-posted to the Kosher Blog)

Monday, May 21, 2007

Strawberry Cheesecake Ice Cream

A friend of mine (we'll call her the Enabler) recently asked whether I'd be making ice cream for Shavuot — maybe cheesecake ice cream? I answered that I'd thought about it, but I couldn't very well make ice cream to serve with cheesecake, let alone cheesecake ice cream.

But apparently I could.

Let me explain. The cheesecake recipe we're using this year (a no-bake version, since our oven is broken) calls for 12 ounces of cream cheese. Cream cheese comes in eight-ounce packages, so we bought two and had four ounces extra — exactly the amount called for in this recipe. And strawberries are at the height of their season, so we had two pounds in the fridge. Tell me that isn't a sign from God. (Actually, don't. I prefer the illusion.)

In any case, I'm very pleased with the result. The ice cream has a mild cheesecake flavor without being overwhelmingly rich, and the fresh strawberries really hit the spot. Here's the recipe:

Strawberry Cheesecake Ice Cream
Adapted from Joy of Baking

4 oz cream cheese
3 large egg yolks
2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar (divided)
2 cups half-and-half
1/2 vanilla bean or 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract (I used extract)
1 pound (about 2 dry pints) strawberries

  1. In the inner container of a double boiler (or any medium stainless steel bowl), blend the cream cheese, egg yolks, and 2/3 cup sugar with a whisk or, preferably, an electric hand mixer until light and fluffy (about 2 minutes). (At this point, you may wish to begin heating the water for step 4.)

  2. In a small saucepan, heat the half-and-half to the scalding point along with the vanilla bean, if using. (If using extract, do not add it at this point.) Stir frequently to prevent a skin from forming. When the cream reaches the scalding point, the milk will begin to foam up rapidly. Immediately remove from heat. Take out the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds out with the back of a knife, then mix the seeds back into the half-and-half.

  3. Slowly pour the scalding half-and-half into the cream cheese mixture while whisking the mixture to prevent the eggs from cooking. (If any lumps do form, force the mixture through a strainer.)

  4. Fill the outer container of the double boiler (or a saucepan) with water and bring to a boil. Place the bowl or container of custard over the simmering water and heat, stirring constantly, until the custard reaches 170 degrees F or coats the back of a wooden spoon. Remove from heat and continue to stir for a few minutes. Set aside.

  5. Cut up half the strawberries and puree them in a food processor or blender. Stir the remaining two tablespoons of sugar into the puree, then stir the puree into the custard along with the vanilla extract, if using. Cover the mixture with plastic wrap, cool to room temperature, and refrigerate several hours or overnight, until thoroughly chilled.

  6. Freeze the chilled mixture in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions. Chop the remaining strawberries. Remove the ice cream from the machine and stir in the strawberries. Transfer to freezer to harden.

Cross-posted to the Kosher Blog.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Standardizing Orthodoxy

Rabbi Josh Yuter has a good post on the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America's recent agreement with the Israeli Rabbinate on the standardization of the conversion process. The backstory is that the Israeli Rabbinate has been refusing to recognize conversions performed by North American Orthodox rabbis with whom they are unfamiliar. As a result, converts who believed their credentials to be impeccable have been unable to marry in Israel or to move to Israel under the Law of Return.

As Yuter notes, easing these tensions with the Israeli rabbinate has the potential to make the lives of many converts a great deal less onerous. Standardization may have its own benefits as well. Judaism is known for discouraging potential converts in order to make sure that those who do convert are genuinely comitted. This policy has some merit, but all too often it becomes an excuse for what can only be described as hazing, as religious courts attempt to prove their rigor by making the lives of conversion candidates as difficult as possible. People I know who have persued Orthodox conversions have been dragged through a lengthy procedure during which they had little sense of the court's requirements or how much progress they were making toward fulfilling them. This is a particular hardship for young singles, since potential converts are not allowed to date or have romantic relationships. Standardization of the conversion procedure could eliminate some of the ambiguities that make the process so difficult for converts as well as alleviating regional courts' perceived need to compete with each other over the rigor of their conversions.

On the other hand, standardization in the Orthodox world usually means capitulation to the right. Those who call themselves Orthodox Jews — and Orthodox rabbis — espouse a wide range of beliefs and practices. The RCA, however, is now claiming the right not only to determine the criteria for conversion but to decide which rabbis are worthy performing conversions. In addition, children who convert are required to attend an Orthodox day school through 12th grade, and the RCA reserves the right to decide which day schools are "serious" enough to qualify. Yuter observes, "as the religious and political dynamics of the RCA/BDA [Bet Din of America] changes, the regional Batei Din [religious courts] will be forced to adapt or lose their authorization." More distressingly, so will the converts.

All in all, I'm troubled. But of course, I have no say in this matter. We'll see what happens.

Monday, May 07, 2007

New Look

When I started this blog, the Blogger template options were all pretty hideous. That has changed, however, and now Blogger has some new (or not so new) features that come with the new (or not so new) templates. So I have finally decided to switch. I may play around with the colors a bit more, but I think I've settled on the basic look. I'm already much happier.

I should have done this a long time ago.

Berry Sorbet

Read the recipe on the Kosher Blog.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

New Recipe Book

Ever since I read Meredith's comment on this post, I've been thinking about Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream and Dessert Book. (Well, not continuously, but almost.) At a recent Shabbat meal, I asked a friend whether she thought I should buy it. She said, "It sounds great to me, but I know about your problem."* Several weeks later, what should show up in the mail but that very book, sent by that very friend. If you ask me, this is the perfect way to solve a cookbook-buying addiction: Get other people to buy the books for you!

It's a really fun looking book, with whimsical drawings and lots of little tips and anecdotes. My favorite pointer so far is one that accompanies the recipe for Egg Nog Ice Cream:
Because the recipe calls for eight egg yolks, we've always wondered what to do with the extra egg whites. I put them in a covered bowl and store them in the refrigerator. After a month, I throw them out.

I expect that you'll be reading more about this book in the future.

*Yeah, there was a link in her answer. Really.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Conservative Teshuvot on Mikveh: The Language Issue

For Shabbat Tazria-Metzorah, I spoke about the teshuvot on mikveh recently released by the CJLS. These were not very well publicized, mainly, I imagine, because they were overshadowed by the teshuvot on homosexuality.* I intended to blog about the mikveh teshuvot once I finished blogging about the ones on homosexuality, but I don't seem to be making much progress with the latter, so I may as well address the mikveh teshuvot now. Like my d'var torah, however, this post will focus on the issue of terminology rather than the technical halakhic aspects of the teshuvot, which I'm still working through.

Okay. A few preliminary points:

  1. The biblical concept of tum'ah (usually translated "impurity" or "defilement") is unambiguously negative. The clearest evidence of this is its frequent use as a metaphor for sin. This does not mean, of course, that contracting impurity is inherently sinful; impurity is caused by all sorts of unavoidable things, such as illness, sexual intercourse, and handling a corpse (someone's gotta do it). An analogy that I like to use is illness: Being sick doesn't reflect negatively the person who suffers from the illness, but we do recognize the condition as negative, and we therefore often use illness as a metaphor for morally negative traits ("that man is sick").

  2. In biblical law, menstrual impurity (niddah) is no more severe than forms of impurity that affect men (ejaculation, penile discharge) or men as well as women (scale disease, contact with a human corpse, etc.).

  3. Since the major consequence of impurity is that it bars one from contact with the sancta, rabbinic law as it ultimately developed regards most purity regulations as irrelevant for practical purposes now that the Temple is no longer standing. Niddah is an exception for a purely technical reason: Leviticus 18:19 prohibits sex with a woman in a state of menstrual defilement (tum'at niddah). This, according to rabbinic reasoning, necessitates that a menstruating woman refrain from sex with her husband for a fixed duration of time (see below) and then immerse in a mikveh.

  4. Over time, the laws of niddah became increasingly stringent. Perhaps the most significant stringency was the conflation of the categories of niddah and zavah, with the result that couples had to wait seven days from the cessation of menstruation rather than from the onset of menstruation before resuming intimacy. This approximately doubled the length of the period of separation to about half of every month (for those who struggle with arithmetic). This is the halakhah as it is observed in contemporary Orthodox communities (at least in theory).

Now, a summary of the teshuvot:

Rabbi Miriam Grossman, following an argument advanced by Rabbi Joel Roth, rules that niddah be observed for seven days beginning at the onset of menstruation (or until bleeding ceases), in keeping with the original Torah law. She also differs from traditional Orthodox opinion in permitting non-sexual physical contact between husband and wife during niddah, eliminating the requirement of internal self-exams (bedikot), and accepting certain other leniencies. The purpose of these leniencies is to make the laws easier for more Jews to observe and to avoid putting strain on relationships. Grossman also advocates mikveh use outside marriage, particularly by women who are sexually active (in keeping with the Conservative movement's current position on premarital sex: "We don't approve, but we know you'll do it anyway").

At least as important for Grossman as these practical halakhic matters is the terminology used to refer them. She rejects "purity" language (that is, the terminology I've used throughout this post) in favor of the language of "holiness." Mikveh use, in her opinion, should be viewed as a means of sanctifying the body and sexual relationships rather than as a means of determining a woman's ritual status. In a 1992 article in Conservative Judaism Magazine entitlted "Feminism, Midrash, and Mikvah," she wrote:

one cannot talk about purity (taharah). . . without calling to mind -- if only subconsciously-- the fact that it is a relative state in contradistiction to impurity (tum'ah)... [S]uch an association has a negative impact for women. (Similarly, we would not want to use the term Niddah laws, as niddah can also be defined as "defiled.")

In the article, Rabbi Grossman proposed using the phrase kedushat mishpachah, "family sanctity." In her teshuvah, she proposes substituting kedushat yetzirah, "the sanctity of God's creation," to shift the emphasis away from the marital relationship and toward a woman's own relationship with her body. (Personally, I think it's a bit idealistic to try to introduce language that no one familiar with the subject will understand, but I appreciate the conundrum.)

Miriam Berkovitz maintains the rabbinic model of waiting seven days following the cessation of menstruation, though she rules leniently with regard to non-sexual contact, internal exams, and various other matters. Berkovitz concedes that it might be a good idea to use the language of holiness rather than purity, but she considers it important to maintain the traditional focus on marital life, so she opts for Grossman's earlier phrase, kedushat yetzirah.

Rabbi Avraham Reisner, like Susan Grossman, argues for returning to the biblical seven-day model, though he does so on slightly different halakhic grounds. He differs from Grossman in retaining the category of zavah, meaning that a woman experiencing an irregular flow of three days or more must wait seven days following the cessation (rather than the onset) of bleeding. Reisner also argues forcefully for maintaining the language of purity. Here's a bit of his argument that I found particularly eloquent:

Fundamental to the biblical description of reality is the notion of the twinned states of tum'ah (impurity) and tohorah (purity), one of which (tum'ah) is incompatible with the sacred....It would be convenient, but inconsistent with the Biblical foundation of our religion, to simply profess disbelief in a system described by the Torah at length. It might be noted, in this regard, that God, the soul and the metaphysical reality of Shabbat in the fabric of the universe are all Biblical notions that remain impervious to scientific address.

Reisner goes on to discuss the theory, promoted by such scholars as Jacob Milgrom and Baruch Levine, that the biblical attribute of impurity is rooted in an association with death. Menstrual blood, like semen, according to this theory, causes impurity because it constitutes a loss of potential life. On this basis, Reisner proposes that the cycle of niddah and purification can be viewed as a process of continual rebirth and renewal.

When I read the voting records for the three teshuvot, I was struck by the fact that Susan Grossman voted in favor of Miriam Berkovits's teshuvah in spite of their radically different practical conclusions, while she voted against Avraham Reisner in spite of their basic agreement on practical halakhah. This brought home like nothing else how important the language issue is to Rabbi Grossman.

Frankly, I can see where both Grossman and Reisner are coming from. On the one hand, I think that the concepts of purity and defilement are worth trying to understand and apply to our lives. On the other hand, applying these consequences to women alone can have troubling implications.

These are my thoughts for now. More later, God willing.

* I'm told that congregational rabbis weren't informed of their existence, which led to some rather awkward moments.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Passover Reading

One of the reasons I've been posting so frequently is that, for the first time since we got married, DH and I are going away for the whole week of Passover, meaning that we don't have to clean our apartment. It's been so long since I've actually had time to think about the Seder before sitting down to it that it's making me a little bit giddy.

Here's some stuff that I'm printing out to read over Shabbat:

David Kraemer on leavened and unleavened bread
Hitzei Yehonatan on Passover
Adderabbi on the Haggadah (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

Here are some radical Haggadot:
The Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah
The Love & Justice in Times of War Haggadah

And here are some traditional Haggadot (mostly Hebrew).

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher veSameach!

Michael Pollen on the Seder

I know, this is my third post today. I'm not usually like this, and I won't keep being like this, because I have other things to do. But having just posted on Michael Pollen yesterday, I couldn't pass up the change to read and link to this interview in the Jew and the Carrot, a blog sustainable food and the Jewish community. Toward the end, the interviewer, Leah Koenig, asks Pollen to talk a bit about Passover, which he apparently mentions at the end of The Omnivore's Dilemma. Here's what he says:
I think ceremonies around food are very important and I’ve always loved Passover and Thanksgiving because they revolve around ceremonial meals where we rehearse our key relationships, both to one another and to nature. The seder is the older and more profound one – but Thanksgiving is important to our identities as Americans.

I think there’s not enough ceremony in our eating, so any time we are forced to slow down and rehearse the relationships, and symbolism and the meaning of the food we eat, and the connections that they enact, is enormously useful. We do so much thoughtless eating and the seder is an opportunity for very conscious eating. Everything on your plate has a very specific meaning – it ties to history and ties to nature.

Granted, there's a lot more to the seder than ceremonializing food, but I think that's an important part of it. Something to think about Monday night.

Everything You Never Wanted to Know About the RA Haggadah

In response to my previous post, a commenter asked a question about the slightly different selection of midrashim in the Rabbinical Assembly Haggadah:
Can you please elaborate on why the originals were replaced and how the replacements are better?

I started to post a response, but then I realized that it was getting much, much too long for a comment, so I am going to post it here.

[Warning: serious liturgical minutia ahead.]

First off, I should clarify that I had nothing to do with the composition of the RA Haggdah, nor do I know anyone involved with the project, so I can only guess at the reasons for the changes. Second, I wouldn't go so far as to say that the RA's version is "better" than the traditional version; it's a matter of the purpose of this particular Haggadah. I presume that where choices were made, the goal was to produce a text that is accessible, thought-provoking, and relevant to contemporary Conservative Jews.

Now for the details. As far as I can tell, they begin with the midrashic exegesis of Deuteronomy 26:5-8. The RA Haggadah begins by quoting the entire passage, which I think makes the text a bit easier to follow. It skips the initial interpretation of ארמי אבד אבי, which states that Laban the Aramean was worse than Pharaoh, because he attempted to destroy all of Israel (via Jacob) rather than Pharaoh alone. I would imagine that this was omitted because it requires a strong familiarity with Genesis to appreciate, and because it's difficult to figure out what relevant message to take from it. However, my theory is undermined by the fact that this interpretation does appear in the commentary; it is simply absent from the Hebrew text and translation. Maybe the editors set a word limit for this part of the Haggadah?

The second change is a simple expansion. The traditional Haggadah comments on וירד מצרימה, "he [Jacob] went down to Egypt," with אנוס על פי הדיבור, "he was compelled by the [divine] word." The RA Haggadah adds a quotation from Genesis 15:13 to explain that Jacob's descent to Egypt was a fulfillment of God's statement to Abraham.

To my great sadness, the RA Haggdah skips the comment on ורב, which comes from Ezekiel 16:7,6. The passage is not at all family friendly, and its relevance to the verse in Deuteronomy is rather obscure, so I think I understand why it was omitted, but I miss it. (I'm planning to compensate this year by giving a shiur on it on Shabbat Chol Ha-Mo`ed.)

The next change is somewhat interesting. On וירעו אתנו המצרים, "the Egyptians dealt harsly with us," the traditional Haggadah comments, "as it is said, 'Come, let us deal cunningly with them, lest they multiply, and if it should come to pass that a war should occur, they too will join our enemies, and fight against us, and go up out of the land'" (Exodus 1:10). On the surface, it isn't clear how the verse from Exodus serves as an interpretation of the verse from Deuteronomy. The RA Haggadah explains: "They made us appear to be bad (וירעו אתנו), for it is written that Pharaoh said to his people, 'Behold, the Israelites are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal cunningly with them...'" It also adds another intepretation (דבר אחר): "They were ungrateful, for they paid back in evil the kindness that Joseph had done for them, as it is written, 'A new king arose over Mitzrayim* who did not know Joseph' (Exodus 1:8). He acted as if he did not know Joseph." In this case, I think that the RA version is not only easier to understand, but also provides more to chew on. This latter midrash is the first of a series of RA additions that present the Egyptians and Israelites as archetypes of evil and good, respectively. This presentation is somewhat problematic from a contemporary perspective, but it comes straight from the midrashic tradition, and I guess the editors saw it as an opportunity to include some moral lessons.

On ויתנו עלינו עבודה קשה, "and they imposed hard labor on us," the traditional Haggadah simply quotes Exodus 1:13: "And Egypt made the children of Israel serve with rigor." The RA Haggadah offers a midrashic interpretation: "They would impose a difficult task upon the weak and an easy task on the strong, a light burden upon the young and a heavy burden upon the old. This was work without end and futile, for the Egyptians wanted not only to enslave them but also to break their spirit."

On ונצעק אל ה אלהי אבתינו, "and we cried out to the Lord, God of our ancestors," the RA Haggadah adds a comment on "God of our ancestors:" "Because of the merit of the ancestors, we were redeemed from Mitzrayim. As it is written, 'God heard their moaning, and recalled his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob."

On וירא,"and [God] saw," the RA Haggadah adds, "what did He see? He saw that the Israelites had compassion for each other. When one of them finished his quota of bricks, he would help others."

On את ענינו, "our affliction," the traditional Haggadah explains, "this refers to the separation of husbands and wives" [my paraphrase]. The RA Haggadah adds a midrash about how the Israelite women ensured that procreation continued by bringing their husbands warm food and drink while they were in the fields and by offering them comfort and encouragement. It seems clear to me that this is mainly an attempt to include women in the Haggadah, but it's kind of nice and it works.

On ואת עמלינו, "and our burden," the traditional Haggadah comments, "this refers to the sons, as it is said, 'every son that is born you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall save.' The RA Haggadah adds the midrash that the Israelites continued to circumcise their sons even though they knew that they would die shortly after birth.

On ואת לחצינו, "and our oppression," the traditional Haggadah reads, "this refers to the force used, as it is said, 'and I have also seen the oppression with which Egypt oppresses them'" (Exodus 3:9). The RA Haggadah reads, "this refers to the straw. For Pharaoh decreed, 'you shall no longer provide the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather straw for themselves (Exodus 5:7). Whenever the Egyptians counted the bricks and found the quota unfilled, the Israelite overseers refused to deliver their fellow Israelites to teh Egyptians. Instead, they submitted themselves, and willingly suffered punishment in order to lighten the ordeal of the Israelites."

On ביד חזקה, "with a mighty hand," the traditional Haggadah comments, "this refers to the cattle plague(דבר), as it is said, 'Behold the hand of Adonai will be on the field..." On ובזרוע נטויה, "and with an outstretched arm," it reads, "this refers to the sword, as it is said, 'and a drawn sword was in his hand, stretched out over Jerusalem'" (1 Chronicles 21:16). The RA replaces these comments with something more accessible: "When the Egyptians made the life of our ancestors bitter, the Holy One said, 'I will redeem them,' as it is written, 'I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary judgments. I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, Adonai, am your God'" (Exodus 6:6-7).

On ובאתות, "and with signs," the RA Haggadah includes the interpretation in the traditional Haggadah, which refers to Moses' staff, and adds another: "This refers to God's commandments. For they are an eternal sign that God saves and redeems, and a remembrance for all generations of the covenant between the Holy One and His people. Thus it is written, 'And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand, and as a symbol on your forehead -- in order that the teachings of Adonai may be in your mouth -- that with a mighty hand Adonai freed you from Mitzrayim'" (Exodus 13:9).

The next change is quite small, and it may be based on a variant text. On the word ובמפתים, "and with wonders," the traditional Haggadah reads, "this refers to the blood, as it said, 'and I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke'" (Joel 3:3). In place of "this refers to the blood," the RA Haggadah reads, "this refers to the plagues."

After this, the traditional Haggadah includes a sort of rabbinic math competition, in which the number of plagues is inflated from ten to 300. This entire section is omitted in the RA Haggadah, presumably because it seems like too much reveling in others' misery (and because, my God, they made maggid long enough already!).

Now that I've gone through all of this in detail, I realize that the RA's Haggadah Committee is more like me than I thought: they added a lot more text than they removed. All the more reason to create my flexible fantasy version.

*The RA Haggadah uses the transliteration "Mitzrayim" rather than "Egypt" in order to emphasize the symbolic significance of the Israelite place of enslavement rather than the actual location. Kind of silly? Maybe, but I can see why they made that decision.

My Fantasy Haggadah

My family always used a traditional Haggadah. We have a set of cheap Haggadot without commentary (the red and yellow ones) to use at the seder so that everyone can be on the same page. We also have a collection of Haggadot with various commentaries, which are used to spark discussion. The traditional Haggadah is a complex book -- too complex, really, to be properly utilized by anyone without an extensive Jewish education -- but over the years, I've come to really like it. For me, that appreciation derived in a large measure from learning Mishnah Tractate Pesachim, which outlines the structure of the Seder and allowed me to discern the order behind the chaos. It also came from the questions and ideas raised by many years of discussing the Haggadah and reading various commentaries. I've often wished that I could shed more light on the Haggadah for other people at the Seder, for many of whom I think it is still a random collection of obscure texts, strung together in no particular order. But that would be too complicated for Seder night. People want to get to the meal eventually, and I'm not even sure that everyone would be interested.

After I got married, I began to attend Seders at my in-laws', where I was introduced to the Rabbinical Assembly Haggadah, which is almost traditional. It follows the sequence outlined in m. Pesachim (and explains it in the commentary more clearly than any other Haggadah that I've seen). There are some subtle differences, however. Where the mishnah prescribes that one expound on Deuteronomy 26:5-8, the composers of the traditional Haggadah settled on a particular set of midrashim from Sifre Deuteronomy. The Rabbinical Assembly includes a slightly different set of midrashim, some from Sifre and some from other sources, such as Tanchuma. I generally like the midrashim in the RA Haggadah, and for the most part, I understand why they were chosen over the few that the committee decided to omit. Still, I like the traditional Haggadah, and I miss the parts that aren't there.

A few years ago, I was discussing this with a friend, and I said that if DH and I were ever to make our own Seder, I wouldn't know which haggadah to use. He immediately responded, "you should make your own!" Since then, I've had a fantasy of creating my own Haggadah (with DH, of course, and whoever else wanted to participate). Early on, I realized that "my" Haggadah would be about twice as long as any other, and everyone using it would hate me. Then it occured to me that, thanks to miracle of technology, I could reformulate it slightly each year, including a different selection of readings and commentaries each time, keeping it fresh. I could expand on anything I wanted to, and whatever was omitted, I could always bring back another time. Wouldn't that be fun?

Maybe some day. . .

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

How to Eat

Right before Passover, when many of our diets are about to be severely restricted, may not be the best time to post about this, but I just happened to read an old New York Times Magazine article yesterday by Michael Pollen, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma. I heard Pollen speak on television a few times, and was somewhat put off by his statement that he wouldn't eat anything that his great-great grandmother wouldn't have recognized as food. This struck me as a blatant example of the "naturalistic fallacy" (equating "natural" with "good" and "unnatural" with "bad"), and as evidence of an absurd nostalgia for the past, when many people -- and often, whole populations -- were frequently severely nutritionally deprived.

Pollen's argument, however, is much more subtle than that. He notes that, for all of nutritional science's advances in recent decades, there is still quite a lot about food and nutrition that scientists don't understand. For this reason, among others, we are probably better off eating "real" foods, in conjunction with which our species has evolved over the course of millenia, than "food products" engineered by scientists. Pollen also makes some other interesting, and potentially very important, observations about the Western diet, such as the restriction of our common food sources to an extremely limited number of species, the trend toward producing foods from grains rather than leaves, and the ubiquitous tendency to simplify foods to their most basic components, casting aside countless nutrients with both known, and, probably, unknown health benefits.

Pollen's basic guidelines for eating are summarized in a few words at the start of his article: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." This is a messsage to which I am generally quite receptive (although the "not too much" part is a constant stumbliing block). In recent years, I've come to appreciate how much more delicious and satisfying a balanced meal composed of "real foods" can be than the fortified "diet" garbage that I used to go for. Pollen's plea that we regard eating as a "relationship" rather than as fuel elicited a predictable "WTF" from DH, but it struck a certain chord with me. If only so much of my "relationship" weren't with desserts, I think I'd really be on the right track.

All this said, I still maintain that we shouldn't romaticize the past. It's easy to forget that without modern technology, we in New England would be without fresh produce from November to May. (Today's Boston Globe article on local hydroponic tomatoes is a fitting reminder.) As in so many areas, common sense and moderation are key. That may sound cliche, but it's no less true for that.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Latest Battle in the Kitniyot War

Last year, I posted about a New York Times article that discussed, among other things, the recent trend of non-Orthodox rabbis permitting the consumption of kitniyot (legumes, etc.) on Passover. This year, Gil student discusses a similar ruling (for Israelis) by an Orthodox rabbi. Rabbi Student objects to the ruling because ignores the precedent set by Ashkenazim in Israel over the past two centuries. This objection seems reasonable to me. I only wish that more Jews would consider precedent before introducing new chumrot (stringencies) as well.*

*DH reports no new news on the quinoa front this year.

(Cross-Posted to the Kosher Blog)

Monday, March 26, 2007

JTS Decision to Admit Gay Students

The Jewish Theological Seminary officially announced today that it will admit qualified gay and lesbian students to its rabbinical and theological schools.

Chancellor-elect Eisen's letter to the community announcing the decision is quite eloquent and worth reading in its entirety. I particularly liked this bit:

The debate over ordination of gay and lesbian students has served to highlight the need for serious discussion and resolution of these key issues of principle concerning what halakhah means for Conservative Jews. Such disagreements are particularly vexing to Conservative Jewish laypeople frustrated at the movement's inability to decide this and other matters quickly and unequivocally. Others, myself included, while no less impatient at times, actually take pride in the fact that our movement struggles over issues such as these. We do so as the heirs to Frankel's founding declaration of our purpose: "the reconciliation of belief and life, the assurance of progress within our faith, and the refining and regeneration of Judaism from and through itself." Both sides of the current debate have acted in accord with Frankel's call for "maintaining the integrity of Judaism simultaneously with progress." This remains, as he wrote in 1844, "the essential problem of the present." We cannot, any more than he could, "deny the difficulty of a satisfactory solution." But we must find a solution.

. . .

The proper way to do so, I believe, is not for JTS to promulgate a set of standards for Conservative belief and behavior. It is, rather, to engage Conservative Jews in discussion of what matters to them and why. Many of us are convinced, on the basis of numerous conversations with clergy and laypeople alike, that many Conservative Jews do feel a keen sense of mitzvah, in all the connotations stored up in that word by the Bible and the sages. They feel that there are deeds they should perform, activities in which they should engage, loyalties they should cherish. . . .It is my hope and belief that getting Conservative Jews to talk about these matters will be a step toward greater commitment and consensus.

Then he writes this:
JTS has already taken on the responsibility for leading this discussion. Working with the Chancellor's Rabbinic Cabinet and with the RA and the United Synagogue, we have set in motion a process that we hope will eventually include every arm of the movement as well as professional and lay leaders. Our faculty and students will be actively involved. Stage Two of that process — logically and pedagogically dependent on the first — will be reclarification of the place of halakhah in the movement: the nature, authority, and scope of Jewish law in relation to other sources of authority and guidance. We will embark on that stage in the upcoming two years.

The position of halakhah in Conservative Judaism is going to be clarified over the next two years? Good luck!

Anyway, I would like to get back to commenting on the teshuvot at some point. (I'd also like to comment on the teshuvot on mikvah that were released at the same time.) It's just that for some reason, posting about halakhah uses up a lot more of my time and energy than it should. Good thing DH has been on top of it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Purim Recipes and Stuff


It has occured to me that I should perhaps post my real Purim recipes before, say, Pesach. Above is a picture of the food at our vegetarian, buffet-style Purim Seudah. (The drinks and desserts were at other tables.)

On the menu:

Challah Rolls: From my usual challah recipe, which I'll share some time, bli neder.

"Asian" Orzo Salad: Based on this recipe, from Sadie's Luncheonette. I used tofu and halved the vegetable oil, compensating with extra soy and teriyaki sauce. You can see other changes I've made to the recipe in the comments on Sadie's post. (By now, it's pretty far removed from the original Paula Dean version.)

Bow Tie and Broccoli Salad: This is a recipe that I learned from my friend and former roommate, Jill. It consists of bowtie noodles, steamed broccoli, mayonnaise, golden raisins, sunflower seeds, and sesame seeds. The raisins, sunflower seeds and sesame seeds are sauteed in sesame oil until the raisins are plump and the sesame seeds are golden, and then everything is mixed together. I don't bother to be consistent with the proportions.

Lentil Salad: Based loosely on this recipe from Alanna of A Veggie Venture. Alanna lowered the olive oil to vinegar ratio in her dressing from more than 3:1 to 1:2; I stuck with 1:1 and added some fresh lemon juice. I used the same veggies as Alanna, minus the radishes and chives and with the addition of sliced green olives.

Chickpeas with Charmoula Vinaigrette: There is a custom to eat chickpeas on Purim that dates back to the Middle Ages, according to Gil Marks. The practice is based on the midrash that Esther kept kosher while in Ahashuerus's palace by eating only legumes and seeds. We tried a new chickpea recipe this year, from Myra Kornfeld's The Healthy Hedonist. (I made some adjustments, since I was in a hurry, but it still came out great.) Here's the recipe:
1 1/2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds [I used a reduced quantity of ground cumin]
6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice [from about 1 large lemon]
4 garlic cloves
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
3/4 cup fresh parsley
1/2 cup fresh cilantro
freshly ground black pepper
3 cups cooked chickpeas or 2 15-oz cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed [I used canned]
3 tablesppons extra-virgin olive oil

If using whole cumin seeds, toast them in a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-low heat for about 2 minutes, or until fragrant, then grind with a mortar and pestle or spice grinder. [Obviously, I skipped this step.]

Now, throw everything in a food processor, beginning with the garlic and herbs, followed by the cumin, paprika, salt, and pepper, and ending with the liquid ingredients. Process well, taste for seasoning, and pour over chickpeas.

All right, so that last step wasn't quite in accordance with the book, but it works perfectly well.

And now for my favorite new recipe of the holiday: Bourbon Ice Cream!


I got the recipe from CDKitchen, though I've seen nearly identical ones all over the internet. The main distinguishing feature of this version is that it uses 1/2 cup bourbon per gallon rather than 1/4 cup. (That's about 10% ABV, I think, so it's not for children, pregnant women, etc.)

And as a bonus, DH making kiddush:


Until next year. . .

(Cross-posted to the Kosher Blog)

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Purim Rum Cake

I've seen a few versions of this recipe. This is my adaptation:
1 or 2 qts. rum
1 cup butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup dried fruit
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tbs. lemon juice
1/4 cup chopped nuts


Before you start, sample the rum to check for quality.

Select a large mixing bowl, measuring cup, etc. Check the rum again. It must be of the highest quality.

With an electric mixer, beat butter in large fluffy bowl. Add 1 seaspoon of thugar and beat again. Meanshile, it’s important to make sure the rum is still good. Try another cup.

Open the second quart of rum if necessary. Add 1 arge leggs, 2 cups of fried druits and beat till high.

If the druits get stuck in the beats, just pru it loose with a drewscriver. Sample the rum again for cinscistincy.

Next, add 3 cups of salt and or pepper (it really doesn’t matter which). Sample the wum again.

Sift 1 pint of lemon goose, add 1 bablespoon of brown thugar, of whatever color yoo can find. Mix well. Grease oven, turn cake pan to 350 greeds.

Nyow, pour the whole mess sinto the boven and ake. Check the crum again and bo to ged.

Cross-posted to the Kosher Blog.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

What is this Klal Yisrael of Which You Speak?*

If you follow the Jewish or Israeli news or read Jewish blogs, you've probably heard about the woman in Jerusalem who was beaten for refusing to sit at the back of a public bus. Stories like this make me wonder why I get upset over things like what rabbis eat when we have such serious problems. But then, they also make me question the reality of that "we."

I was raised with the concept of klal yisrael, corporate Israel, the greater Jewish people for whom I am supposed to have unconditional love. And I do feel a sort of kinship with other Jews most of the time, no matter how much I may disagree with them. But practically everything I see or hear having to do with the charedi community in Israel leads me to wonder whether I share anything significant with them at all, other than being human.

Yes, I know, they're like family. I'm supposed to love them no matter what they do. But no one in my family has beaten a woman for sitting on the back of a bus, so it's hard to know how to react.

I might feel differently if I learned that charedi rabbis were denouncing these men's actions without in the process somehow suggesting that the woman got what she deserved. So far, though, it seems like they're too busy building up legions of modesty police to make sure that little girls cover their ankles.

If you have any information that contradicts this impression, please let me know. It would be a kiddush hashem.

* Not my line.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

News Flash: Conservative Rabbis Supposed to Keep Kosher

"Do you eat dairy out?"

It's one of those phrases that only makes sense to a select group of people, in this case, Jews with some traditional background. The question refers to the relatively common practice of keeping a strict separation between meat and dairy at home while eating non-meat products at non-kosher restaurants, even though such establishments obviously do not use separate meat and dairy utensils. For the most part, the practice has persisted as a folk custom without rabbinic endorsement. In the mid-twentieth century, when kosher restaurants were few and far between, some Conservative rabbis and a few liberal Orthodox rabbis found ways to make limited exceptions, but for the most part, those who considered themselves bound by traditional halakhah were forced to concede that food prepared at non-kosher establishments was not kosher. Mordecai Kaplan, the spiritiual father of the Reconstructionist movement, endorsed the practice of keeping kosher at home while "eating out" as a way to maintain Jewish culture while allowing Jews to experience the modern world and interact freely with their gentile neighbors. This position was based on sociological considerations, however; Kaplan had no interest in preserving the traditional halakhic system.

It is not surprising that many Conservative Jews (as well as some nominally Orthodox Jews) continue to eat dairy out. People aren't entirely consistent by nature, and not everyone who keeps kosher does so for strictly halakhic reasons. Nor is it surprising that many Conservative rabbis eat out, as many are essentially Reconstructionist in theology. What continues to amazing me is how many Conservative Jews, including so-called rabbis, seem to think that "eating dairy out" is a coherent halakhic position. Many, in fact, seem to think that it is the only coherent halakhic position, and that anyone who doesn't eat at non-kosher restaurants is a religious fanatic, while anyone who doesn't keep separate utensils at home is "non-observant."

According to an article in the New York Jewish Week, a recent survey found that 71% of Conservative rabbis eat hot dairy food in non-kosher restaurants, while 92% eat hot food in vegetarian restaurants lacking rabbinic supervision. This has prompted Rabbi Paul Plotkin to begin to compose a teshuvah opposing the practice. The word teshuvah means "answer." Traditionally, teshuvot responded to specific questions, which means that they usually expressed halakhic positions that weren't maddeningly obvious. Unfortunately, the Conservative movement has apparently reached a point at which its rabbis can't appreciate what would be apparent to any outsider who gave it a moment's thought.

I fell into the Conservative movement more or less by default. For a while, I found its peculiar foibles amusing, but lately, it's really started to piss me off. I'm thinking of starting my own Deconstructionist community. Any takers?

(Cross-posted to the Kosher Blog)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Chocolate Velvet Ice Cream


Look good? You can read about it at the Kosher Blog. (I'm not in the mood to cross-post.)

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Tucker Teshuvah

or Theology and CJLS Politics

In my last post on the CJLS teshuvot on homosexuality, I tried to show that the Jewish legal tradition, rigidly conceived, does not reflect a hierarchy of sexual values with which many contemporary committed Jews can identify.

Fleurdelis28 had an excellent response, but Blogger was being a meanie that day, so she sent it to me by e-mail. Here's a snippet:
[A]ll those nice values we want to call Jewish may be much more evident in the narrative of the Bible than in its laws themselves. In spite of a radically different social context, there seem to be a lot of couples who do substantially love and respect each other, and when they aren't honest with each other, things don't go so well. . . .Avraham's and Yaakov's situations illustrate nicely why polygamy, though acceptable, is not such a great arrangement emotionally (even when it was your wife's idea in the first place). . . .Whatever you think is going on in the Song of Songs, it's clearly not about the relationship you'd expect from the worldview of the laws stated in the Torah. I don't have the time at the moment to go poring over the rest of the Tanach -- granted, a rather heterogenous narrative -- but I think by and large things go better for the sort of couples that do behave in accordance with those values you cite.
Yes, the Bible is quite heterogenous, but fleurdelis28 makes an important point: Biblical narratives often temper, or even undermine, the apparent thrust of biblical legislation. This is true of the rabbinic tradition as well, which consists not only of legal texts, but also of aggadah (narrative). And in fact, this very issue -- the often fraught relationship between Jewish law and Jewish narrative, including the narrative that modern Jews continue to live and create -- is one of the centerpieces of Gordon Tucker's argument for the normalization of Jewish gays and lesbians.

Fundamental to Tucker's teshuvah is the premise that the Torah is not the infallible word of God. He writes:
The deeper consequence of our theology, is that the Torah (and a foriori subsequent expressions of religious law) is not a record of commanding utterances from God, but rather a record of the religious quests of a people, and of their understanding of how God's will commands them. The long-standing -- and understandable -- tendency to divide up religious literature into halakhah (law) and aggadah (narrative) has thus always been a mistake. The law is given cogency and support by the ongoing story of the community that seeks to live by the law. . . . The ongoing, developing religious life of a community includes not only the work of its legalists, but also its experiences, its intuitions, and the ways in which stories move it. This ongoing religious life must therefore have a role in the development of its norms, else the legal obligations of the community will become dangerously detached from its theological commitments. (P. 19; emphasis in original)
My sentiments are with Rabbi Tucker, but I wonder whether the "enhanced" Halakhic* system that he advocates can practically be put into effect. Can we maintain a commitment to halakhic precedent on a daily basis while making exceptions when our consciences demand that we do so? Even if this is possible on an individual basis, is it really possible on a communal basis? And if so, what is to be the role of the CJLS in this process?

This brings me to an interesting point regarding CJLS politics. While Gordon Tucker is not the first to advocate this sort of reimagined halakhic system, he is, as far as I know, the first to do so in the context of the CJLS. Apparently uncertain what to do with his unconventional teshuvah, the members of the CJLS labeled it a takkanah (which I usually translate "rabbinic injunction," but perhaps "amendment" is more appropriate in this context). According to the CJLS's recently relaxed rules regarding takkanot, a majority of votes (13) is required in order for a takkanah to pass, as opposed to the six votes required for an ordinary teshuvah. (From what I've observed, there are normally a large number of abstentions.) The Tucker paper received seven votes in favor, which means that it failed to earn CJLS approval only because of its takkanah status. Unsurprisingly, Rabbi Tucker argued against the paper being considered a takkanah, maintaining that historically, the term was reserved for legal innovations that derived their authority from that of a particular Rabbi. This teshuvah, in contrast, "does not seek any extraordinary authority [nor does it] seek to create an unchallengeable innovation" (p. 3). Notwithstanding the semantic point, I think that the members of the CJLS were correct in recognizing that the teshuvah does demand something extraordinary, namely, to alter the parameters of halakhic discourse in such a way as to change the very role of the CJLS as a judicial body (even if it does operate in a merely advisory capacity). In effect, this paper is neither a traditional teshuvah nor a takkanah, but a recommendation for changing the entire system by which teshuvot are written. It hardly seems self-evident to me that such a document should require a mere six votes to pass.

That said, the approach to halakhah advocated in this essay is closer to my own ideas about Judaism than the more traditional approach of Joel Roth,** and I daresay that the same is true of a large proportion of Conservative rabbis, not to mention laypeople. Perhaps it should be given more of a voice in the CJLS.

* Tucker recommends using a capital "H" when referring to this more expansive type of Halakhah (p. 20). I am finding this a bit difficult to get used to, since a Reconstructionist rabbi I admire refers to a similar phenomenon as "halakhah with a small 'h'."

**See pp. 28-31 of the Roth Teshuvah for a critique of Tucker's approach.