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For Your Shabbat Table


If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then the spyglass of a nation’s soul is their cookbooks.

Jewish cookbooks have changed.  Cholent is no longer “a slow-cooking stew of potatoes, beans and meat”.  Cholent has “deep emotional significance, a Sabbath favorite, evocative of childhood memories and communities.” The meat of recently published Jewish cookbooks is neither technique nor presentation.  There is a dearth of color pictures in most.  Instead, they tell the history of the foods, and the story of the people who developed them.  In Alsace Lorraine, where Jews were allowed to farm, their geese produced foie gras and confit d’oie.  In Lithuania and the rest of Eastern Europe, the Halachic prohibition of boning fish on Shabbat and the availability of cheaper fillers, onion and matzo meal, converged to produce gefilte fish.  In Morocco, the Arab mailmen until today plan their deliveries to Jewish homes to coincide with the Shabbat family meal of sechina: “Ah, Mustapha!  Azhi hanna! Come on in.”
Through our food, we seek to connect to our past, to our grandparents -- and to what connected them.  A few years ago, a friend’s daughter emailed us; she had enrolled in a Manhattan culinary school and needed a challah recipe, “but not one from Barnes and Noble”.  You can’t cook in a bookstore. 
Through food, we connect with each other.  Cooking does not take place in a vacuum and as we seek our culinary past, we reach out to each other for community.  It feeds upon itself.  In one delightful cookbook, the author tells of coming from a Jewish home with two grandmothers who kept kosher but whose family had lost it after they died.  She realized, suddenly, twenty years later, that from all her cousins, none kept kosher.  “I have to do something,” she decided.  Her mother-in-law is a survivor, and in Poland her family had a Jewish restaurant.  Standing in Miriam’s kitchen, observing technique, she absorbed a world of loss and a galaxy of continuity.
It is the Nine Days.  A period of mourning for the destroyed Bet Hamikdash, the Almighty’s address in Jerusalem.  We eat no meat during this time.  Except Shabbat, when mourning is not appropriate.  Except in Morocco, in the village of Debdou, the Italian Jewish refugees (they arrived over two-hundred years ago) maintain a custom of not eating meat during the Nine Days, even on Shabbat.  The Jews left Debdou decades ago, for Casablanca, France and Israel.  But in the Chabad overnight camp in Mogador-Essouirra, the cook made two dafinas that Shabbat, one with meat and one parve.  You are what you eat.  What you refrain from eating defines you.
And so this Shabbat of the Nine Days, this Shabbat preceding Tisha B’av, the saddest, most miserable day of our calendar, is called Shabbat Chazon – The Sabbath of Vision.  For the visionary – the prophets – are able to see rebuilding when others see destruction.  In desolation, they see a bustling metropolis.  Thrice yearly have you come up to Jerusalem, the prophet’s voice rings, and thrice yearly will you do so again.  Thrice yearly families gathered to eat the Yom Tov meal, each family alone, together in Jerusalem. 
This time, maintain the visionaries, will be different.   This time in Jerusalem, families will gather for Yom Tov and the customs and the nuances (you can see why the word ‘recipe’ won’t do) of two thousand years will fill the cooking fires with flavor: robust, and piquant, tart and sweet.  For in the pots of a people will be written in food a glorious tale of those who never surrendered their identity and never parted with their mission.  That spread through centuries as they were, in host countries that spilled their blood like water and sought to deaden their souls, they came through.  And they brought those experiences with them.  For the Almighty to forever savor in his home. 
The aroma, maintain the visionaries, will be intoxicating.

He Who Plants in Tears, With Joy Shall he Harvest

I was at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, some six years ago.  It tells the horror and it tells it well.  I've seen Schindler's List; in a sense, it portrays the horror more effectively than any documentary has.  Both are missing a crucial element - the magnitude of Jewish response.

For this I look to two books in particular: "Responsa of the Holocaust" and "Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust". 

"Responsa" records halachic questions Jews posed at the time: May one save his child for a selection if it is certain another child will replace him? May one deny her Jewishness to escape? If the forced labor begins before dawn and ends after nightfall when does one put on teffilin?  There was one Jew in the Kovno Ghetto who could answer these questions.  He had been pressed into the service as chronicler of the Nazi's library: the Germans amassed books, community and family documents and Jewish articles for their planned "Museum of the Extinct Jewish Race" - Hitler's own Holocaust Museum. 

The second book tells of one Bronia Koczicki who in the Bochnia Ghetto brought her two small sons to be blessed by the saintly Reb Aaron of Belz who was there at the time.  He blessed them that "G-d will help".  But Bronia would not leave.  She asked that her little boys be blessed with "fine generations".  He placed his hands on their heads  and blessed them.

"The woman's lost her mind," people sighed.  "Children are being killed in the streets every day and she's worried what type of grandchildren she will have?" Bronia didn't pay them any mind.  "We will live through this war," she kept repeating to her children.

The first book tells of people who lived with G-d regardless of whether they saw G-d living with them.  The second tells of a woman who saw that the future determines the present.

"He who plants in tears, with joy shall he harvest," declared the psalmist David.  Not only as a reward, note the commentaries, but as a consequence.  And move your comma, they add; He who plants in tears with joy: shall harvest.  Tears because the world is cold, dark and cruel.  Joy because everything is His plan and He has made me a part of it. Bronia's faith is awesome. 

The third Temple is built and only waiting for us to allow it to descend, maintains our tradition.  For the tzadikim, the rare righteous, the destruction and exile never took place.  Bronia, either through learning or instinct, lived with this.

And so did those who questioned in the first book.  So did those who davened Yom Kippur in the forests of Poland. And when we study and fulfill Torah then we do too - even if we don't know it yet.  Somewhere, deep inside of us resonates a tzadik. 

The saddest days of The Three Weeks, the period we find ourselves in now, preceding Tisha B'Av, will become the most joyous.  Not that the sadness will be obliterated: it will be the cause of the joy. Had we not mourned for two thousand years what would there have been to rejoice?  Who from the ancient people would be left to rejoice?  Paradoxiacally, our joy and sadness kept us us from becoming an ancient people: it ensured we would remain a timeless people.  This joy and sadness were not opposites - they were extensions of G-d, of His eternity.

Children of the Holocaust indeed, a befitting memorial to the holy martyrs.  May the All Merciful resurrect his Temple and us in time for this year's Tisha B'Av.

his Temple -- and us -- in time for this year’s Tisha B’Av.

Don’t Psychoanalyze!

On the plane back to America, I was sitting next to a psychologist who mentioned to me how important it is for them to never psychoanalyze family members.  One of the reasons: it’s not fair.  Of course Jews were psychoanalyzing way before Sigmund invited people to lie on his couch, we just had no name for it.

For non-professional a greater danger is pseudo-analysis.  “Oh, she always does that, she’s so compulsive.”  “There he goes again with his bi-polar.”  Worse:  “The reason she always helps is because she’s eager to please, it’s her low self-esteem.”  “You know why he gives so much Tzedakah, he needs to see his name on a building: typical megalomaniac!”
Says who?  Is it that simple to know everything going on in someone else’s head?  Are you always that accurate with what’s happening in your own head?  Secondly, what difference does it make?  A good act with bad intentions beats a bad act with good intentions -- and the pavement is a lot smoother.
Granted, giving it your best and things not succeeding the way you like is aggravating and unrewarding.  We know that.  And all G-d asks is that you do your best, the results are in His hands, we accept that.  And that no action is ever wasted, good always accumulates, and whether results are immediately recognized or not is immaterial in the long run and from a G-dly, timeless (beyond quantum-physics) perspective redundant.  We believe that.  But that is not what we’re talking about.
Look at it this way:  Guy A helps old lady cross street because, the TV crew is filming, she has a big will, she has a wealthy nephew etc.  Guy B doesn’t help old lady cross street because the TV crew is filming, she has a big will, wealthy nephew and how dare you think he’s so shallow!!  See, bottom line is, the lady needs help; your yin-yang harmony don’t do much.  As the Kabala puts it: Love and awe are what make a mitzvah soar.  A mitzvah without love and awe is a bird without wings.  Love and awe without a mitzvah is wings without a bird. 
Okay, so action is it.  But, can intentions be improved, sublimated, sanctified?  Well, now you’re getting serious.  But if your not just doing it, then you’re seriously not getting it.
The Parsha?  When Pinchas acted decisively he was ridiculed because his grandfather, a pantheistic priest, had done similar: a plus-c’est-change chip off the old block in different circumstance.  No, the Parsha begins, he did good, I alone know the inner workings of man, judge him primarily by what he does and unless you’re in the business, your couch is for people to sit on, and if your blessed with it, for overflow company to sleep on.

A Nation That Dwells Alone

Are you a statistics person? Do you remember the numbers you read; can you retain and when necessary retrieve them? Or are you more the graphics type that relates to visuals of pies and colored blocks and zigzaggy lines to make a point? I like anecdotes, little stories that (as someone once put memorably) when you add them up, you have data.

No matter, you’ve seen or heard something like this before: Israel is .000001% of the earth’s land mass. Israel (Jews) amount to point oh-oh-oh oy-vey of the world population. 45% of the United Nations’ condemnations in the last century have been directed to Israel.
I know a woman who was raised in an activist Zionist home in the thirties and forties. She tells of how weekly, sometimes nightly, there were meetings for the cause that lasted well into the night. She tells me of how her father stood there the day the Israeli flag was raised for the first time at the UN, and how he cried.
That was the thought then, we would finally “take our rightful place amongst the family of nations”. What happened?
America has changed somewhat, and with it the world. Homogeny is no longer the ideal; particularism is no longer the pariah. So it is hard for us to put ourselves in their place, in that time, after the events of that decade.
“We are different, but we are proud of that difference too. I just paraphrased a young teenage girl writing in her diary. In between writing of her fights with her big sister and her discovery of the boy next door she charmingly meanders into what it means to her to be a Jew. She was later murdered for being a Jew, but the words Anne Frank penned in hiding illuminate a clarity that was painful then and wanted to be ignored.
Holocaust history (often two paragraphs of a school textbook) read: “Six million Jews were killed, as were Gypsies, artists, Poles, Communists” …There was an unspoken comfort in that – not alone were we singled out.
But of course we are singled out, even after the ovens of Osweicim are cold. Those UN numbers don’t make us comfortable.
Am levadad yishkon, a nation that dwells alone,
uvagoyim lo yetchasav, and in the nations they are not reckoned.
A soothsayer (ancient word meaning lead editorialist) was hired to curse the Jews (cursed being an archaic word for denounce) but instead his words, recounted in this week’s parsha, emerged as a power of goodness.
The nation dwelleth alone and this tiny nation (more a family in world proportions) bore the civilizations of Christianity and Islam – nearly three billion people – a numerical absurdity when you think of it.
But think about it; had the family ceased to be a people apart in their first millennia of existence, there would have been neither Christianity nor Islam.  The course of history has been played only because of this family’s particularism.
Destiny is history without hindsight. From a timeless perspective, destiny is as compelling as history. And what is eminently clear from the UN: the world is looking at us. Historically, that is the logical thing for them to do. But it perplexes the Jew. “Alone we feel very ordinary” said one after the ’67 war, “just a mess of mortgage payments, bills and errands, but together great things seem to happen through us and around us.”
Am levadad yishkon, a nation dwells alone. In ways we can’t always appreciate that dwelling is a benefit to us and to the world. History attests to that, even as it does not explain it. May destiny do that for us, and until then may we do our jobs.
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