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For Your Shabbat Table

Cure for the Body and Soul

One of the more exotic and less tempting places Chabad brought me was a Jewish old-age home in Morocco. It didn't smell pleasant: not by old-age-home standards, not by third-world standards. A few of the residents were neither senile nor blind. Some even acknowledged us when we lit the Chanukah menorah. 

A tiny old lady introduced herself in flawless, elegantly accented English as Madame Lieberman. Hearing English anywhere in Casablanca outside of the Hyatt is enough to floor you. In the old-age home, where few of the residents even speak French, it is enough to think the fumes are getting to me. I asked her where she was from.
 
"Guess!" she answered mischievously, a happy schoolgirl for the moment. I gave up and she answered ‘Vienna’ in a voice kids use when you ask them what’s their favorite ice cream.
 
Ah, so you speak Yiddish, I offered. 
 
"Zicher! alle poilishe yidden hobben geredt Yiddish." 
Of course, all Polish Jews spoke Yiddish. 
So, you're a Polish Jew, I asked. 
I'm neither Polish nor a Jew, she answered in flawless Mama Loshon.
Ich bin a krist: I'm a Christian.
 
This, in a sparse, smelly room inside a whitewashed courtyard, under the turquoise sky of a purely Arabic country. I wasn't sure what was getting to me.
 
She now had her audience, she told her story:
 
Her husband was a Jew. Vienna was a liberal city where Jew and Christian commingled and many young people intermarried. 
"Ach!  Ich zeh du bisht nispoel! Trogst doch a bord!” 
 
Her group would protest noisily in front of the Nazi Party headquarters: when Hitler rolled in they were sent to prison. I lost the historical flow from that point but they were transferred later to prison in Vichy France and from there to the French colony of Morocco, to a concentration camp, but not a real concentration camp, she assured me: Bei unz is geven azoi fill lukses mir hoben afiloo gemacht a hunger strike!
Our concentration camp was so luxurious we even made a hunger strike!
 
That last line of hers came back to me as I read the parsha. 
 
Think us for a minute, think America, think 2019. Think things that we have in the house: bathroom scales, food scales, fridge magnets with jokes about diets, mugs declaring chocolate the fifth food group. Think Weight Watchers, diet pills, antacids, laxatives, stomach staples, tummy tucks.
 
Think of all the measures we take to combat excess: not excess of bad things, excess of good things, like food. We have too much good in this world. More people are suffering from overeating than under eating. (Starving Africa is largely politically induced.)
 
How much is spent on the consequence of digging in? 
When do we stop bellying up to the smorgasbord and just say "Thanks, I have enough.” 
 
For Hashem your G-d will bless you. Parsha after parsha the words are kept simple; when you will be satisfied, you shall thank He who provides. 
Thus the tradition that extols grace after meals above grace before meals. 
 
This parsha alludes to more. When the place (and THE place in Torah refers to the Temple Mount) is far from you, and difficult to for you to carry your yearly offerings, because Hashem has blessed you.
 
Having too much of a good thing can make us forget who gave them to us.
Having too much makes the body sick, and the spirit weak. 
A cow’s head is near the ground, in the trough. Where is ours? 
 
The cure for the body does not necessarily cure the soul; most diet and fitness do not indicate gratitude as much as they indicate narcissism. Sensitivity to matters beyond the Viennese table does not lead unswervingly to good health. But excess leads to poor health of the body and of the soul. And declining another helping and helping another can converge for good health of body and soul. 
 
Maybe Madame Lieberman had it right. Maybe amidst luxury a little hunger strike would do us all well.
 
Madame Lieberman had some more wisdom. For now, bask in the land of plenty, rejoice in the land of opportunity, the land of plenty opportunity to choose what not to eat.
 

Loving Your Fellow Jew

Not since Sunday School, Miss Judy’s class, do I remember paying any attention to the story. 

       Two mothers who shared a room came before Solomon (in Sunday School we were not told that they were fallen women). One baby was found dead in the morning and each claimed the surviving baby as her own. This wisest of men rendered judgment: since we cannot prove to whom the baby belongs, we shall split him and give each woman half. One woman spoke thus: Please your majesty, I surrender my part. Just don’t cut my baby.

This woman, pointed Solomon, is the true mother.
 
What was the Wisdom of Solomon here, couldn’t any Fredrick Forsyth protagonist come up with such a solution?
 
Perhaps (perhaps): A mother is naturally protective and sees her baby as an extension of herself. Her intuitive reaction to Solomon’s solution would be to grab the baby. Scream. Pull out her hair, attack the other woman, attack the judge. 
 
Solomon’s test was counterintuitive; a mother’s love is that she is ready to give up her everything -- even her instinct to hold onto the child -- for the child -- and no one can fake that.
 
Gush Katif has been emptied “ahead of schedule” and “with less violence than anyone predicted”. The enduring part of the story may well be beyond the headlines.
 
Consider: practically since their inception, the current Jews of Gush Katif have never been sympathetically portrayed. They know it and it eats at them.   They’ve been called Nazis and Jewish terrorists at worst and the Jewish equivalent of the Michigan Militia at best. 
 
They sustained 4,200 mortar shells attacks. (Imagine how many homeowners would still be in Rancho Mirage after three.) In addition to 12,000 shooting incidents. Their children have been murdered and the lucky ones survived missing fingers, legs or motor control. They feel they have been sold out, cheated by their once-biggest supporter, raped by the army they were a part of and still are, and their hard work awarded to the murderers of their children. They seem to have been emotionally unprepared.
 
If ever a human being had a breaking point, this must be it.   
If ever a people had the ability and the rage to revolt (they are arguably the best-trained and best-armed civilian population on planet earth) this was the time.
If ever a moment is too poignant to be dressed up for the cameras, this must be it.
 
Instead of attacking and revolting, they mourned and wept. They asked the soldiers “how could you? Do you know who you look like? Look me in the eye!”   They locked arms; occasionally, some had to be pried apart and carried, but they never raised a hand. In a very few instances teenagers threw sand (heck! Arab kids did that to me for holding a camera inside a bus!) and paintballs. There was no revolt, no violence; no hand was raised to a soldier and considering the circumstance, barely a harsh word. 
 
These people have a lot of love. More than that, love must be their core. Love of the land certainly, they declared so constantly. But more than love for the Land of Israel, they love the Children of Israel. In this Solomonic moment, they showed that they were on that land foremostly in defense of their people. Argue the wisdom of their position, but the veracity of the love of their people is the most stunning – and least expected – outcome of their last two weeks. And possibly the most enduring, too.
 
The. . .what shall we call them?. . .refugees?. .. former residents of Gush Katif? . ..whatever. They want very much to live together as a group. As I understand it, those who see them as a nuisance do not eagerly pursue the idea, ostensibly believing that spreading them out will deflect further agitation. 
 
They might both be wrong. Wherever they live, these people will influence their neighbors. They’ve been to hell and back in a nightmare they never dreamed. Being stranded in hotel lobbies and stranded in bus stations is not likely to break them.  
 
They have lost everything; we have found something in them they may not have realized they possess. 
 
They love their people more than they love their land. More than they love their most cherished dreams. Even more than their political egos. 
 
We don’t need the wisdom of Solomon to perceive this love. 
We need his wisdom not to squander it.
 

Birth of Moshiach

Five-hundred thirteen years ago this week, Ferdinand and Isabel ensured their country's homogenous character by disengaging the Jews of Spain -- in an emotionally draining, historic move facing stiff resistance and at considerable political and economic cost. 

That same week, Cristobel Colon, having acquired royal financing, set out in search of spice.  From that cinnamon hunt, the world got America.

On the Ninth of Av Mashiach was born, the Midrash claims.  An astounding declaration: the Ninth of Av is the most miserable day of the Jewish calendar, the birth (the emergence, the initial, barely-perceptible manifestation) of the messiah heralds joy.  But such is the cyclical, redemptive, biblical view of evil and calamity.  While "in every Simcha is a tear", in every calamity there is joy.

It was not easy to watch on the internet as a Jewish woman screamed, "Doesn't anyone in the world have pity on us?"   Her grown son sat by stoically with his ten-year-old boy.  Then he stood up, recited a prayer, and ripped his t-shirt: as Jewish tradition proscribes for mourning the loss of a loved one.  He cried like only a man who knows strength and frustration can cry. And then his hands tenderly caressed the head of his son.

The enemies of the Jews rejoice: as their predecessors can attest, they rejoice prematurely.  In that father's caress was manifest redemption.

Mourning a tragedy brings home a lesson we kick ourselves for not learning earlier.  Now is the time to neither defend nor refute the wisdom of surrendering land because others are doubling their population every 25 years.  Now is the time to admit that having Jewish babies is a great Jewish need. 

On a trip to Israel, a woman soldier was assigned to defend us.  Her oversized machine gun sat on her lap most of that week.  At the end of the trip we blessed her that she should have children on her lap.  And children on her bed, and on the couch.  Toys everywhere you step.  Children crawling in the kitchen, pulling books off the bookcase, stuffing the toilet with tissues.  So many kids that she should be screaming for a bigger apartment.  "Amen!" she smiled, her eyes moist and clutched closed as her grin spread.  "Amen, amen".

Raising children is a greater honor and accomplishment than planting trees, building medical facilities and pioneering technology.  Your grandmother and your rabbi have been saying that for ages.  Now politicians and the security forces are joining in - notwithstanding that some of them do not even realize it.  It is no longer a philosophical issue; it is a glaring reality.  Without children a society shrivels. You can build a nation's infrastructure without children; building a nation without enough children to sustain it, is self-contradictory.

Childrearing is not a 'woman's issue'.  See yourself as a father, mister, and the child will have a mother.  Describing men by their careers or referring to them as breadwinners is as misleadingly inconsequential as defining them by their hair color. 

Have children and all our problems will solve themselves.   Without them, the solutions, however dramatic and laudatory, aren't worth a hill of beans.

The Shabbat after the Ninth of Av, is named after its haftorah:
Nachamu, Be comforted, be comforted, my people. 

There is a downfall; there is pain.  Neither are permanent. 
There is joy; there is redemption.  Find them and work them.

Em habanim semaicha!, exults King David;
He turns the barren woman into a joyful mother of children!
The father looks on and blesses them. 
A people unconquered.

Cookbooks

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.
 
 
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