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.