Pussy Grabs Back Deviled Eggs for Passover

IMG_0773I don’t like vulgarity. I love words – written, read, spoken. My professional life as a rabbi and an editor is based on words and their import. Words and how they’re used matter, and are to be carefully considered.

When my kids were small, I was that principled mother who insisted on using the proper words for body parts, not euphemisms. And later I was that feminist mother of teenagers who insisted on not using words that demean women. It’s true that I often use a certain “inappropriate” swear word for emphasis. Admittedly, it’s not one of my better qualities, especially at work, and especially given my profession. I like to say that I use it because I’m from the mean streets of Brooklyn, before Brooklyn was cool, as if that gives me license.  Truthfully though, my fancy private school education belies any right I have to speak like that, despite my Brooklyn origins – I do indeed know better. But to me – rightly or wrongly – the use of that word always seemed different than using female-gendered words in demeaning ways. The words “pussy” or “cunt” (I can’t believe I even just typed those words!) has always greatly bothered me, in particular when used to disparage people of any gender. Somewhat prudishly, I had a hard time even saying those words.

And then suddenly “pussy” entered our national vocabulary. We had to hear a presidential candidate talk about pussy grabbing on an endless recorded loop that played for days. We thought, we hoped, that on Election Day we would grab back and show him a thing or two about the power of pussy – that pussy could grab back. We weren’t going to let him and those other misogynist predators out there own our agency or run our government.

My sister and niece at the March with the pussyhats I knit for them.

My sister and niece at the March with friends, in the pussyhats I knit for them.

And then Election Day came and as shock set in, resistance started to bubble up to the surface. Women’s marches were planned not only around the country but around the world, and someone came up with the idea for pussyhats (thank you Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman).  I started to knit, and I started to use the word pussy in every day conversation as we processed what was happening.

I’ve become much more comfortable using the word pussy now as a way to hold, rather than lose, power. And so for Passover, the holiday that is about counting our blessings, celebrating our agency as free people, and calling out injustice, and that is also a holiday about using food to tell our stories, I created a new dish: Pussy Grabs Back deviled eggs. They’re hard boiled eggs marinated in pickled beets so they turn pink, filled with a beet/yolk mixture with a kick of jalapeño and decorated with their own little pussyhats.


Pussy Grabs Back: Deviled Eggs with a Kick 

1 dozen eggs, hard boiled and peeled

1 cup apple cider vinegar

2 Tbsp sugar

1 tsp salt

4 cooked and peeled beets

1/4 cup mayo

1/4 cup strong mustard

1 jalapeno pepper, cut up, or to taste (depending on how spicy you like it)

1. Boil 2 of the beets with the vinegar, sugar, salt. Once it reaches a boil, let it cool. The liquid should be bright pink.

2. When the liquid is cooled, place the peeled, hardboiled eggs into the liquid. Let the eggs sit in the liquid, refrigerated, for several hours or overnight.

3, Removed the eggs and discard the liquid. They eggs should now be tinted pink. Slice the eggs in half and placed yolks in a bowl.

4. Chop the remaining 2 beets. Reserve 1/2 a beet and add the rest to the yolks. Add in mayo, mustard, and jalapeño. Mix together well with hand mixer or in food processor.

5. Spoon or pipe the yolk/beet filling into the eggs.

6. Cut the remaining 1/2 a beet into small chunks, and then divide the chunks into triangles. Decorate each of the egg fillings with two triangles.

Refrigerate until you’re ready to serve.

 

 

 

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Nevertheless, She Persisted: A New Passover Dish

IMG_0724This year there will be an additional vegetable dish on my seder table, a colorful, savory roasted cauliflower pie called Nevertheless, She Persisted. It’s an homage to the too-often underestimated cauliflower, as well as a shout-out of gratitude to the women who persist every day, under all kinds of conditions, and often against those who underestimate their strength.

Passover only comes once a year but it is a defining piece of what home means to me. Over the years I have figured out how to cram the maximum number of people in my house for seder. It’s admittedly not the most comfortable seating, it’s crowded and noisy, but the guests keep coming back so it can’t be too terrible. When I was briefly thinking about moving last year, one of the main considerations of a new place to live was that it be large enough for seder. A crazy consideration given that it’s one night a year, but there it is.

I prepare for weeks, with everything spreadsheeted out, lists made and crossed off, multiple runs to different stores, the freezer at full capacity. I bow in humility to those who do it all in two or three days. Me, I can’t do it without major obsessive planning and preparation.

The menu stays more or less the same from year to year, with a few innovations here and there that get woven into the mix. It’s a meat meal, for which this vegetarian concedes to cook (meaning: buy, touch, and interact with) meat in act of love for the family and guests. I’ve never tasted my brisket, but they seem to like it and ask for more.

While the menu hasn’t changed much, what has changed dramatically in the last few years is the definition of family. In recent years, and in what felt like one fell swoop, I went from being part of a grouping of four, to one. As a result, I’ve begun to think about ways to keep the seder familiar, while also making it more “mine”.

So this year I decided to try something a little different. I’m still making all the standards that appear on the menu every year, but I’m adding something for myself.

I’ve been asked by many over the last few years if I was going to move, if I was going to sell my house, if I was going to stop doing seder. Isn’t it a lot to manage by myself, I’m asked. And the answer to all of those is – yes, it is a lot to manage, all of it by myself, but no, I’m not moving and I’m not giving up hosting seder. Maybe someday, but not yet. In the meantime, I’m learning, and I’m adapting. My skill set has grown dramatically, as has my toolbox, both literally and figuratively. My ability to graciously accept help when it’s offered has also increased, and I’m learning that paying for help is sometimes ok as well.

That brings me back to the cauliflower pie. Though it’s often overlooked and certainly often overcooked, cauliflower is quite a glorious, versatile, and nutritious vegetable. This new dish for my seder table is a bold, colorful, and fiery dish that draws on spices from different pockets of Jewish history and is deeply satisfying, while being fairly light and healthy (it’s also carb-free, and therefore gluten free). From my perspective, there’s no such thing as too much cauliflower, and it’s a good antidote to the usual heavy, meat-focused Passover dishes. And given the state of the United States at the moment, there’s also no such thing as paying too much attention to women’s roles, women’s voices, women’s rights, and our bold, colorful, fiery persistence against those would underestimate our strength.

Roasted Cauliflower Pie

2 heads of cauliflower

3 Tbsps sweet paprika

1 Tbsp cumin

4 shallots, chopped

4 garlic cloves, chopped

Olive oil

8 eggs

2 Tbsps chopped parsley

salt and pepper

  1. Cut cauliflower into florets. Place in Ziploc bag with 2 Tbsps paprika, cumin, salt, and olive oil, enough to coat the cauliflower. Close the bag and shake until all the florets are a nice reddish yellow.
  2. Oil a cookie sheet and toss the cauliflower onto the pan. Spray some oil on top of the florets as well. Roast at 425 until they’re starting to brown.
  3. While they’re roasting, sauté chopped shallots and garlic in oil until golden.
  4. In a bowl, beat eggs. Add in chopped parsley, shallot and garlic mixture, and remaining Tbsp of paprika. Add salt and pepper. Mix well.
  5. When cauliflower is roasted, placed into oiled baking dish. Pour egg mixture on top and make sure all the cauliflower is covered.
  6. Bake at 350 for an hour or until all the egg is cooked and browned at the edges.

 

 

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Spring, Hope, and Passover Pistachio Lemon Cookies

IMG_0091Renewal. Rebirth. Green shoots breaking through the dirt. Known also as Chag HaAviv, “the Spring Holiday,” Passover is part religious ritual, part people-building exercise, and part springtime rite.

Whether it arrives in cold, rainy March, or flowerful April, Passover always manages to lift my heart. Its arrival reminds me to hold on to hope, no matter how dreary the winter has been, no matter how gloomy things look. Hope, Passover teaches, is right around the corner. The days will get longer, the flowers will bloom, things can get better.

After a very difficult personal year in which I didn’t know what the contours of my life were going to look like, I decided to plant bulbs in my garden. I didn’t even know at that time that I’d still be in that very house to see them come up months later in the spring, but it was a stubborn act of hope in the future. And by that next spring I got to see the flowers burst into glorious color right in time for Passover.

This Passover recipe is one of my favorites because of the bright green color, and the lemony flavor and smell. These cookies taste of spring, and hope. Pistachios are an ancient near eastern food, mentioned in the Bible, and feature prominently in Persian Jewish cooking. They speak of our historical past – where we’ve been and the resilience we’ve managed to harness to get from there to here, despite the obstacles. And the yellow lemons speak to the potential that the future holds – the possibility of brightness and light, the warm sunshine of the coming spring and summer.

Now it’s a year later and it’s been another difficult winter, but this time on a national and international level. Our national leadership has dramatically shifted and suddenly women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, climate justice, and much more are under attack. Ant-semitism is on the rise. We’re living in a world of alternative facts and cowardly leadership. And while refugees are being denied entry to this country and children are washing up on beaches, we’re bombing Syria for “moral reasons.” My bulbs are coming up again but the world is upside down.

Needless to say, these cookies are not going to solve the world’s problems. But they do provide balm for the soul and some hope for the future. And maybe that hope can give us strength to keep doing our part to heal this broken world.

Pistachio Lemon Passover CookiesIMG_0723

 6 c ground pistachios

6 egg whites

2 c sugar

Juice of one lemon

rind from 2 lemons

  1. In mixer, combine ground nuts, eggs whites, lemon juice and sugar.
  2. Grate rind from two washed lemons and fold into mixture.
  3. Use cookie scoop or spoon to place on pan lined with parchment paper.
  4. Bake at 325 until brown around the edges.

Makes about 5 dozen cookies. (And they’re gluten-free!)

 

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Some Good Books, Fall 2016 Edition Part II

Sometimes escaping into a good book is just the right thing to do. To that end, here are some good books to explore as the weather gets colder and the world gets darker. Unintentionally, there are interconnected themes in this particular group of books which make them interesting to read back to back. There’s a lot about mothers and daughters, or the absence of mothers and what that does to daughters. There are also connected threads about what it is to be a girl, and what it is to be an adult woman. And in the midst of all that, there’s one very brawny, very masculine book. There’s so much work to be done in the world, but time to renew and refresh the soul and the imagination is important too. Grab a blanket. Dig in.

The Summer Without Menby Siri Hustvedt  ©©©

41ovnmq2uel-_sx337_bo1204203200_Poet Mia Frederickson is forced to re-examine her life after her husband of many years surprises her with the news that he wants to take a break from their marriage. After a breakdown and hospitalization in a psychiatric ward, Mia goes to spend the summer in her hometown near her mother, a resident in a senior home. The book brings together interwoven strands of Mia’s life that summer, as she gets to know women at different moments of the life cycle. There is her mother’s group of friends at the home, known as the Five Swans, fiery, creative, and opinionated women at the end of their lives who have created a new community with each other out of loss and change, one of whom Mia creates a particular bond with. There is her younger neighbor, a mother of two small children in a bad marriage to an angry, mostly absent man. And then there are Mia’s poetry students, a group of adolescent girls who prey on each other’s vulnerabilities while trying to articulate their angst and aspirations. It is all of these women, as well as Mia’s daughter back home, who are present in the summer landscape of Mia’s life as she tries to pick up the pieces and figure out what comes next. As the title indicates, men are offstage, though the shadow of Mia’s husband looms large. So too does another disembodied male, Mia’s mysterious philosphically-inclined texter. This brainy, literary novel is full of well-placed references to books and poetry, but it’s really about the texture of women’s lives, and the role of men in those lives.

Hystopiaby David Means  ©©©

51sgtorydgl-_sx331_bo1204203200_This Man Booker longlist title is a hard but rewarding read. This is a book within a book, ostensibly written by returned Vietnam vet Eugene Allen who needs to find a way to give voice to his wartime experience as well as personal pain. The period is the late 60’s, and JFK is still the president, having survived several attempts on his life. The country, like its president, is wounded and grim, hopelessly enmeshed in Vietnam for the foreseeable future. The government has established the Pysch Corps, an agency assigned with managing the mental hygiene of a traumatized nation. An complicated system, involving drugs and therapy, has been developed to help returning soldiers deal with their horrific memories and emotional scars. Meanwhile Michigan has been set aside as a territory for those vets too shattered by their Vietnam experiences to function in open society. The plot is complicated and circular, but the themes of freedom, memory, and trauma create a powerful vision of the destruction we cause not only to those we fight in wars in faraway lands but also in our own society while at war. There’s a macho, muscular quality to this novel which fits well into the war novel genre, but underneath that is some real tenderness.

The Mothers, by Brit Bennett ©©©

51n7sl28jyl-_sx329_bo1204203200_

This soaring first novel by Bennett is, as the title reveals, about mothers. The lack of mothers, poor mothering, the inability to be a mother, good mothers, communal mothers, the choice not to become a mother, the unexpected reality of motherhood. All kinds of mothers dance through the pages of this novel about Nadia Turner, a now motherless teenager about to go off to college. Nadia’s mother has abandoned her, taking her own life without even leaving a note or a clue to why. Nadia knows that her mother’s own life took a sharp turn when she accidentally became pregnant with Nadia, and she is tortured by the idea that she was her mother’s undoing. Their church, the Upper Room, is the center of their small black community in Southern California. Nadia’s father is a regular at the church, where there a group of older women, the mothers, who look after the community. Their voices form a kind of Greek chorus throughout the book, commenting on what they say and what they think they know. Nadia has a summer fling with Luke, the pastor’s son, who walks away from her when she becomes pregnant. This sets off a chain of events that impacts on many lives around them. During that last summer at home before she sets off for the rest of her life, making it out of the community due to her intelligence and good grades, she becomes fast friends with Aubrey, another motherless girl. But their lives are full of secrets that grow in the spaces left by their unmotheredness, until the secrets spill out and threaten the stability not only of their lives but of the lives of the church and the community. Bennett has created a compelling story and strong characters, and there are some amazing lines that make the whole book worth it even with those other plusses.

The Girlsby Emma Cline  ©©
517fj1m6rjl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Evie Boyd is a bored, awkward teenager in California in the late 1960’s.  Her parents are wrapped up in their own post-divorce lives, and don’t have a lot of time for her. Meanwhile the wold is in upheaval and societal norms are being questioned out beyond the confines of Evie’s existence. She yearns for something more meaningful than her mercurial friends and the embarrassing crush she has on her best friend’s older brother. When she comes across a group of older girls living in a nearby commune led by a charismatic man, she is attracted to the thrill of being part of their group. She is drawn to their abandonment of norms, and their aura of freedom. There is one girl in particular who fascinates her, Suzanne, on whom she develops an obsessive crush. She so wants her approval and attention that she will do anything Suzanne asks. Craving acceptance and nearness to Suzanne, Evie becomes increasingly drawn in to the group and their unique approach to right and wrong. What starts with a sense of summer-camp like fun becomes increasingly desperate and dangerous, until she winds up in the middle of the kind of horror from which there is no coming back. This novel manages to both portray the quotidian loneliness of a teenage girl and her desire for approval, while also depicting the kind of group-think that leads to acts of terrible violence.

Eileenby Ottessa Moshfegh  ©©

51pxzi2ebdl-_sx328_bo1204203200_Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, this strange, creepy novel was a gripping read. On the very first page the narrator tells the reader that this is story of how she disappeared. There is no suspense, therefore, in the final outcome, but there is great suspense in the how and why. The main character, Eileen Dunlop, lives with her abusive, alcoholic father. He is delusional, a retired cop who sees people out to get him in the shadows. He can’t be trusted to go outside and so Eileen hides his shoes in an attempt to keep him at home, running out to the liquor store as needed to keep him well-suppplied with gin. Their life together is one of misery, played out against a backdrop of Eileen’s mother’s death, a disgustingly dirty house, mean spirited conversation and accusations, and repressed urges. Eileen works as a secretary at a private correctional facility for boys, where she is essentially ignored and overlooked. Her friendless life is about as grim as possible until a new teacher arrives at work. Rebecca Saint John is everything Eileen is not – beautiful, charming, captivating. Eileen is completely taken in by Rebecca’s attentions. She is so enthralled, hungry for companionship, and flattered by Rebecca’s interest in her that she gets pulled in to a scenario beyond her control. That fateful event provides the spark that Eileen needs to instantly leave her life behind forever. It is only as a much older woman that, as the narrator of this story, she looks back and remembers what was.

Hot Milkby Deborah Levy ©©

51fjvtjak1l-_sx329_bo1204203200_This novel about a tortured and torturing relationship between a mother and daughter was another Man Booker Shortlist book. Reading this book was a claustrophobic experience, which may admittedly say more about me than the book itself, but it was not a pleasurable read. But I can see why it’s gotten so much praise. This is a textured, smart book about the power of mothers over daughters, and about the need for daughters to break free. Sofia is a mess, an anthropologist whose life is stalled. She spends her days caring for her mother’s endless maladies and trying to figure them out. These maladies are described in such a way that it really isn’t clear whether her mother is indeed quite sick physically, or if the issues are primarily psychological – and it doesn’t really matter because either way, her mother is in charge. Her mother, abandoned by Sofia’s father, can’t walk, among other things. She has literally lost the ability to move forward without Sofia’s help. They travel to a special clinic on the sunny coast of Spain for treatment, and while there Sofia begins to consider her own needs and write her own future. The deeply stifled rage of each of the main characters radiates off the pages. That this was a painful read surely attests to the power of the writing.

Rating System

©©© – Amazing Book, dazzling, blew me away

©© – Great Book, deeply satisfying

© – Good Book, but I wanted it to be even better

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Some Good Books, Fall 2016 Edition Part I

It’s been a tough few weeks and doesn’t look like it’s going to be getting any better for at least four years. There’s a lot to do. But we also need to take care of ourselves.  Even as we begin to figure out what part we’re going to play in the months and years to come, we have to keep feeding our minds and souls. So read a book. Or two. Or five. Here are some suggestions. More to come soon.

The Underground Railroadby Colson Whitehead  ©©©

61m3xrjb9ll-_sx327_bo1204203200_This gorgeous, heartbreaking book was on President Obama’s summer reading list and it’s not hard to see why he thought it was a worthwhile read. (Remember when we had a president who read books?). In this novel, Whitehead takes on our shameful history of slavery in America. But this is not simply a tale of victimization and cruelty. Whitehead’s characters, especially Cora, a motherless girl on the edge of womanhood on a Georgia plantation, are the center of this story of survival and resilience. Slavery and racism are the reality in which this novel is set, but this is a tale of struggle, kindness, and hope in the midst of horror. As Whitehead’s characters come to life on the page, so too does the mechanism of escape, the underground railroad, itself a full-blown character in the book. The dream of a way out of oppression and degradation is so real for the characters that the escape route itself becomes real, an actual railroad with train cars that zigzags underneath the earth on its way toward freedom. Danger is the constant companion of hope, both as real as the tracks that lay hidden underneath homes and streets and mountains. There are many Americas in this book, an idea that is even more resonant in this post-election season of sorrow. Whitehead depicts head on the blindness with which the slave era was afflicted that allowed some people to believe that all humans were not equal and to thus treat other people as property without rights or agency, a legacy that lives with us still.  Whitehead shines a light on these different Americas that existed within close prolixity to each other, and are times literally just below or above or out the window or behind a wall, but were hidden from each other unless you know where to look. This novel reminds us not only how far we have from the days of slavery, but how far we still have to go to break down the barriers that exist in this country.

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett  ©©©

51xlrajhsxl-_ac_us160_At a recent book talk, Patchett revealed that this powerful novel is based on her family. That fact is all the more meaningful once you’ve read the book and know that, among other things, the story contained within Commonwealth involves a book that gets written about the family in the book. So yes, it’s a book about a family about a book about a family. When talking about how much of it was really about her family, she had a great comment: None of it is real, and all of it is true. That’s just a perfect way to talk about writing fiction. But this novel is much more – it is complex, involved, and has a long arc. It starts with a wonderfully random, mundane moment – a lawyer shows up with a bottle of gin at a christening part for the baby daughter of a cop he doesn’t really know. It is a moment that winds up changing the trajectory of many lives, ending marriages, starting other marriages, and the naming of a child. Siblings, love, trust, guns, and Benadryl are all important themes that run through this richly woven novel of moments that on their own often seen quotidian, but add up together to a beautifully complex portrayal of family connections, alliances, and betrayals over several generations. Patchett is a master of imbuing the mundane with enormous consequences, and revealing how one seemingly insignificant act can dramatically shift the course of many lives.

H Is for Hawkby Helen Macdonald  ©©©

51fjfqmnabl-_sx327_bo1204203200_I don’t typically read nonfiction in my free time, as that is how I spend much of my work life.  But I made an exception for this book upon the enthusiastic recommendations of two smart friends who are both great readers. They were right – it was worth it. (Also, it’s on many best book of the year lists and a finalist for many awards, so they weren’t alone in their enthusiasm for this book). Helen Macdonald is a British academic who became unglued by the death of her father. In the midst of despair, she decides to go through with a long deferred dream to get a hawk and train it.  There is much beautiful description in the book about the joy and agony of training her hawk, Mabel, and wonderful connections to T.H White and his fascination with hawks. As an adolescent I was captivated by White’s Once and Future King and still vividly remember Merlyn transforming Wart, who would later become King Arthur, into a hawk as part of his training to become a good and worthy king. So I loved all the Arthurian and T.H. White references. But putting those specifics aside, this is really a book about grief. Throughout the process of obtaining and training Mabel, Macdonald is in deep mourning. She experiences periods of significant self-doubt and feelings of worthlessness, all familiar parts of coming to terms with loss. Her connection to Mabel and her single-minded dedication to training the hawk ultimately being her back into a life whose contours have been permanently reshaped. This may sound very odd, but it is a magnificent, if quirky, depiction of the anguish of losing a loved one, and is well worth the read.

The Guineveres, by Sarah Domet  ©©

unknownIn a great coincidence, four girls named Guinevere all wind up at the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration convent school. Each girl is called something different – there is a Gwen, a Vere, a Ginny, and a Win – but it is their common name that brings these four unwanted girls together.  In the austere school run by nuns, the girls form a tight friendship that helps them manage the severity of their daily life, and deal with having been abandoned by their families. Each girl has an origin story which unfolds over the course of the novel, and each story is heartbreakingly sad. These origin stories are woven together with imagined and extraordinary stories of heroic but tragic women saints. Together the girls plot their emergence into the world upon turning eighteen, and buoy each other’s daily existence. They get into trouble and cover for each other, share fantasies about life outside the convent and reassure each other that someday their lives will be better. Things begin to change when four severely wounded, unidentified soldiers are brought to the hospital wing of the convent to convalesce.  The girls each adopt a comatose solider, hoping that he will be their ticket out, and imagine themselves to be in love. These soldiers without names or identities are blank slates upon whom the Guineveres can write their own fantasies. Desperate for affection, these girls lavish love on their soldiers, refusing to believe that the futures of these young men are bleak at best, for they desperately need something to give them hope. Without giving away the ending, suffice it to say that futures never turn out as expected. But this is a beautiful tale of friendships that blossom out of sadness and desperation, and of the ways that hope and love grow in the crevices of suffering.

The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem by Sarit Yishai-Levi  ©©

51urygarell-_sx328_bo1204203200_This book is both a great family story spanning several generations, and also a wonderful look into life in the pre-State and early statehood years in Jerusalem. Written originally in Hebrew, this novel was a bestseller in Israel. The story centers around four generations of women in a Sephardic Jewish family. The narrator, Gabriela, is desperate to learn more about her mother Luna, a beautiful but distant figure who never loved her the way a mother should. She has heard about a curse on the women of the family, and she sets out to investigate. Her journey through the family history takes her into stories about her great-grandmother Mercada, a healer, and her grandmother Rosa, who cleaned houses for the British. The history of Jerusalem, and the language and culture of the Sephardic Jews of Jerusalem, are also themselves significant characters in this novel. Yishai-Levi paints a rich and detailed picture of a culture and way of life at a particular time in history. As Gabriela sifts through the family history, she uncovers hidden scars, painful secrets, and ill-fated love stories deeply intertwined with time and place. Each of the four generations has lived through a time of great change and tragedy, and each has reacted to it differently. If you’re interested in Jewish history, or in the history of Jerusalem, or just looking for a compelling inter-generational story, this one is highly recommended.

Rating System

©©© – Amazing Book, dazzling, blew me away

©© – Great Book, deeply satisfying

© – Good Book, but I wanted it to be even better

 

 

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A Sukkot Harvest Recipe: Balsamic Roasted Squash With Pears and Pecans

foliageWhen my kids were growing up, we put up a sukkah every year. It wasn’t necessarily the most beautiful or creative sukkah, but there it was, in our Brooklyn backyard. In the last few years, as my life has taken some unexpected turns and the kids have gone off to college, I haven’t had a sukkah. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t bring Sukkot to my table. A weekend spent in the midst of the beautiful fall foliage in Massachusetts was a great opportunity to bring some fresh squash home.  This hearty and aromatic fall dish is a perfect addition to a Sukkot meal. It will also make your kitchen smell amazing.

Balsamic Roasted Squash with Pear and Pecans 

Preheat oven to 425.

  1. squash-dish1 medium to large delicate squash
  2. 1 large, firm pear
  3. 1 onion
  4. 1 Tablespoon baharat (a middle eastern spice blend that typically includes cinnamon, cloves, allspice, coriander, cumin, and pepper)
  5. 2 Tablespoons crumbled pecans
  6. 2 teaspoons balsamic glaze
  7. Olive Oil
  8. Salt and pepper
  9. Parmesan, Romano or Asiago slivers (optional)

Cut all vegetables into medium chunks.

Coat baking dish with olive oil.

Toss vegetables with additional olive oil, baharat, salt and pepper to taste.

Bake until vegetables are nicely browned and soft, about an hour.

Remove from oven and sprinkle with pecans.

Top with ribbons of balsamic glaze.

If wanted, toss cheese slivers on top.

Enjoy!

 

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Honey Cake for a Sweet New Year

14470609_10154465613400822_6699187027675087114_nPart of my sermon writing and service preparation ritual is baking. Though I am not a congregational rabbi, this is the one time a year when I regularly have congregational responsibilities. For the last 18 years I have served as high holy day rabbi at Congregation B’nai Olam in Fire Island Pines. For the weeks leading up the holy days, in addition to my regular work responsibilities, I spend a good chunk of my nights and weekends preparing to lead the congregation.

I bounce between the computer and the oven, trying to be productive on both fronts. The baking helps ground me as the high holiday prep sets me aloft – it’s a good balance. Both activities are different aspects of the holiday observance. One is about the soul and the intellect, the other about the worldly sphere of taste, smell, and visual pleasure. I have never tested this theory but it often seems that I could not do one without the other; they are two sides of the same experience, a sort of necessary duality. Food for the soul and inspiration for the body.

Every year, as I enter the process of soul-searching that is part of my sermon writing and preparation, I also search cookbooks and blogs for the best honey cake recipe. And as I’ve done so, I’ve tweaked and added to various recipes. I’m not a fan of dry, practically tasteless honey cake (or dry, tasteless sermons either, for that matter). So I’ve been going for a moist, dense, savory-sweet cake with depth. The recipe has got to include strong coffee, brandy or applejack, and crystalized ginger.

I think that I found it this year. The following recipe may just hit the spot. To give credit where credit is due, it is based very loosely on a recipe from Mimi Sheraton, but it is adapted quite a bit. Whether you are a sermon-writer, t’filah leader, outline-preparer, storyteller, cantor, rabbi, chanter, shofar-blower, communal leader, or communal participant, may your service to the community be sweet, full of depth, and nourishing. Shanah tovah u’metukah. 


The Best Honey Cake

 (Adapted from Mimi Sheraton)

2 cups dark honey

¾ cup black coffee, brewed double strength

3 tablespoons mild vegetable oil

1 cup crystalized ginger cut up into small pieces

4 extra-large eggs

¾ cup sugar

3½ cups sifted all-purpose flour

Pinch of salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1½ teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ cup brandy or applejack (I prefer applejack)

½ cup ground almonds

  • Preheat the oven to 325˚ F. Oil 2 small loaf pans.
  • Put the honey in a large, heavy saucepan and slowly bring to a boil over low heat. Add half the ginger and mix it into the honey. Let the honey mixture cool, then stir in the coffee and oil.
  • Beat the eggs with the sugar in a large bowl until they’re lighter in color and thick in texture. Stir in the honey-coffee-ginger mixture. Add the flour, along with the salt, baking soda and powder, and spices, into the batter. Add brandy and mix in.
  • Pour the batter into the oiled pans. Sprinkle almonds and cut up pieces of crystalized ginger on top.
  • Bake until the top is golden brown, about 1½ hours. The edges will brown a long time before the centers are done so insert a knife or toothpick to test. Cool in the pans, or wrap in foil and pans refrigerated for up to two weeks before serving.

The longer the cake waits uncut, the more flavor it develops (within reason). It can last a few weeks if refrigerated.

It’s also easy to double (or triple or quadruple). Make a bunch of small loaves to give as gifts at Rosh HaShanah.

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Some Good Books, Early Summer 2016 Edition

Summer time hopefully means more time to read. Here is a round up of some recent novels that have been keeping me busy.  A few are big, weighty books (and I don’t mean their physical size), some have more modest ambition. But they’re all worth a read. For more on the rating system, see below.

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota ©©©

41pcO-RsW8L._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_This Man Booker short-listed novel follows the fortunes, or misfortunes, of a group of four young Indian immigrants to England. Each of their stories is followed from India as they try to make new lives and new identities in a generally inhospitable and strange environment. These interwoven stories are poignant and heartbreaking, each in its own way. The characters each want, and need, different things; they are each moved to act by different motivating factors. Along the way they bump up against each other and their stories become intertwined. In the end, each  finds a way out of the challenges of hunger, loneliness, and hopelessness, though in unexpected ways. These are both coming-of-age stories, and the familiar territory of grim immigration tales. Yet neither of those descriptions does justice to the painful journeys of all four of these young people trying to make their way in an uncertain world, the weight of familial desperation,  geo-political realities, religion limitations, and cultural expectations on their shoulders.

Gold Fame Citrus by Clair Vaye Watkins ©©©

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Since this book was named best book of the year by the Washington Post, NPR, Atlantic, and many other news outlets, it jumped its way up to the top of my to-read list. This novel portrays a terrifying dismal dystopian future in the United States of severe shortages and drought. Southern California is a ruined, parched, unsustainable ghost of its excessive past now under military control. The two main characters, Luz and Ray, subsist as squatters in a former starlet’s mansion full of useless luxuries but few necessities. They dream of heading east but the trip through the western states, now one enormous shifting dune sea devoid of life, is dangerous and unsanctioned. But when they come across an odd toddler and take her under their care, they decide to do what they can to improve their chances of a future, and they set out across the desert. Part adventure saga, part apocalyptic nightmare, part cautionary tale, this story of their trek and the people they encounter in the wilderness is a fantastical futuristic journey. There are echoes of some of the best of Ray Bradbury’s martian landscape imaginings, except that this is all the more terrifying for taking place in the United States of a very close future. Beyond the narrative arc of the individual characters, this novel presents a vision of what could be that is as highly original and compelling as it is disturbing. The descriptions of the world Luz and Ray inhabit, what they see along their trip, the charismatic leader and his tribe that they encounter, and in particular the Amargosa Dune Sea, are rich in imagery and imagination, simultaneously horrific and terrifyingly gorgeous. This book truly is a must-read.

Valley of Strength by Shulamit Lapid ©©

51SzkC3hNeLI read this novel in Hebrew years ago, albeit haltingly, so I was excited to see it in English. It is a classic of Israeli literature, a beautifully told tale of the Jewish settlement of the Galilee in the 1880’s. As a historical novel, it provides background about the backbreaking work involved in creating what eventually became Rosh Pinnah. It is rich with depictions of the intellectual battles fought at that time over the different settlements, and the ideologies, finances, and politics behind them. The narrator Fania is an immigrant from Russia, a survivor of a progrom in her hometown that killed her parents and left her pregnant at 16. Upon arriving in Jaffa she meets Yehiel, who takes her home with him to a settlement known first as Gai Oni to help him raise his two children, whose mother has died. In Israel this novel is seen as an early feminist work, as Fania is an independent woman who goes against communal constraints in a number of ways, including creatively finding opportunities to help her family’s finances. Though the translation seems a bit abrupt at times, it is well worth the read for the underlying love story between Fania and Yehiel, and for the way it brings to life the reality of that time in the history of the country that comes to be Israel. It was a good reminder that any romanticized image we have today of all the Jews getting along and working together to establish Israel was as untrue then as it is now – the story is filled with fights and arguments between all the various Jewish groups on the basis of ethnicity, religiosity, and ideology. This is a must-read for anyone interested in Israeli fiction, women’s fiction, and a peek into early modern Zionism.

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood ©©

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In another, but completely different, dystopian future, resources are extremely limited. Jobs have dried up and the cities have descended into chaos. Gangs roam freely and no one is safe. Charmaine and Stan live in their car, having had to give up their house, and though Charmaine is lucky enough to have a job at a strip joint, they are barely surviving. Charmaine learns about Consilience, a planned community which guarantees employment, housing, and safety. She convinces Stan to join up and be part of this visionary community which she sees as their way to have a secure future. Consilience is based on the premise that its members spend half their time living and working in the town, and half their time as voluntary prisoners in the town’s jail. Residents share apartments, with one couple in place and the other in jail, back and forth. They are sold on the idea that this isn’t a regular prison – there are no scary or violent prisoners, and it’s all rather civilized and pleasant. But there is a terrifying underbelly to this grand vision which becomes clearer as the novel progresses. Each in his or her own way, Charmaine and Stan get caught up in what is really going on behind the scenes of the placid every day life of Consilience. On a human scale, this novel poses many questions about love, control, passion and compassion. But is also poses some of the big questions that underlie many works of dystopian fiction: what happens to our society when human lives and human rights are sacrificed on the altar of the profit-driven insatiable greed of big business? This novel can momentarily veer into predictability and preachiness, but it is generally smart, well crafted, and wonderfully imaginative, and well worth a read.

The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis ©©

4113iaNuRYL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This complicated, complex novel about a former Russian dissident who is now a disgraced Israeli politician was a winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award and received much praise from other corners as well.  Baruch, formerly Boris, has left Israel and his family in the middle of a tense political moment, running away to the resort town of Yalta with his young mistress. While there, he comes across the very man who had sent him to the Gulag many years earlier. The past rises up to meet him, shedding light on the principled but flawed man he has become today. He encounters his betrayer at the very moment that he himself has betrayed his wife and children and made off with his mistress. He must come to terms with the trajectory of his life and the result of choices he made as a young man as he faces his own aging. The framing of this novel is about the good versus the bad, the right versus the wrong, truth versus lies, youth versus age, and yet nothing, and no one, is all one and not the other. Someone who has spent his life on the side of justice and truth, a man who can’t be blackmailed, a man whose life has been shaped by big ideas and taking stands on often unpopular beliefs, is the same man who has let down those closest to him, his wife and children. Funny, poignant, slightly snarky, sometimes uncomfortable, and highly intelligent, this is well worth the read.

The Glass Wives by Amy Sue Nathan ©

51JEPGjrvWLThis book is based on a great premise. Richard Glass has died suddenly in a car accident. He leaves behind a wive, their baby, and an ex-wife and their twins. The wives are not friends, which is understandable since Richard was involved with the second wife while still married to the first. Anger, hurt, and frustration ensues, and there is some welcome humor in the midst of the family’s grief. The ex-wife, Evie, would like the second wife, Nicole, to go away and leave her alone. But out of financial need, sorrow, and the wish to keep their children (who of course are siblings) connected, they wind up joining forces  and creating a new kind family. It is somewhat less Hallmark-y than it sounds though it does lean in that direction. But the writing does not soar; the novel lacks  the kind of sparkle and nuance that would lift it beyond the level of just a good story.

The Promise by Ann Weisgarber ©

51YUsTIE1JLIf you’re looking for some enjoyable historical fiction for your summer reading, this is a good one. This novel tells the story of the terrible 1900 flood in Galveston, Texas, in which thousands of people were killed in one day. Told from two points of view, the place and the time come to life. At the heart of the novel are two very different women: Catherine, a talented and Oberlin educated pianist who has committed adultery with a married man in Philadelphia and is now being shunned for it, and a local woman, Nan, who only knows this reality. Out of desperation, Catherine renews correspondence with an old acquaintance, Oscar, who has a young son and has just lost his wife. He invites her to join him at his farm outside of Galveston as his wife, and out of desperation, she agrees. Nan meanwhile is ensconced at Oscar’s, looking after him and his son as a promise made to the deceased wife, who had been her dear friend. Once Catherine arrives, naturally the two women clash in classic city mouse versus country mouse style. As Catherine acclimates to a harsher life than anything she has ever known, real love develops between her and Oscar, and she begins to make inroads with his son, but things remain complicated between the two women. All of this is backdrop for the big storm which quickly changes the course of events for all the people of the Galveston area. The characters and their story are compelling, but the real drama is the storm itself. Weisgarber builds steam slowly so that even though we know what actually happened, the tension builds as the storm rages on, and the consequences still manage to come as terrible surprises.

Rating System

© – Good Book, but I wanted it to be even better

©© – Great Book, deeply satisfying

©©© – Amazing Book, dazzling, blew me away

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Some Good Books, Spring 2016 Edition

It’s been a rainy few days and we all know there’s nothing better in the rain than settling in with a good book. Here is a round up of some recent good books I’ve spent some time with.  This is a mixed bag of some newer and some not-as-new titles, but all were good reads. See below for more info on the rating system. Happy reading!

The Children Act by Ian Mcewan   @@@

51UJmXPQY2L._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_This one is a breathstopper. The writing is gorgeous, and the plot thick, complex, and engrossing. Fiona Maye is a family court judge in London in the midst of a complicated case involving a very sick young man who has not quite reached the age of majority and whose parents do not want him given a life-saving blood transfusion for religious reasons. She must grapple with the intricacies of the case as her husband of many years leaves her for another (younger) woman. Fiona is a densely written character who thinks intensely about the ethics of this case and others. Mcewan deftly takes readers on a journey into a fascinating legal mind that is driven by fairness, a sense of integrity, and a love for the law at its best. As she struggles with what it means to be a successful, childless woman who has prioritized her career over other kinds of choices, Fiona must also face the aftermath of her decision in the case of the sick young man. What does success mean when your husband goes looking for something/someone else? How can she tell strangers how to live their lives when her own is a mess? How can she adjudicate relationships between parents and children when she has none of her own? What does her own happiness mean and how can she realize it? Who has the right to decide whether someone lives or dies, and what must she do with that power? Mcewan gives his readers a lot to think about in this powerful novel that weaves together the personal and professional in a powerful way.

 

Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng   @@@

51Y+A2dOhQL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_Tseng took a dive into the deep end in this novel about a middle aged woman’s need for intimacy and sexual fulfillment. (Ok, middle aged might be a bit of a stretch – she is in her young forties but refers to herself as middle aged). Mayumi is a part-Japanese librarian living year round in a New England island summer community that expands in the summer and contracts in the winter. The island and sea metaphors run deep throughout this novel and highlight Mayumi’s solitude. She is in an unsatisfying marriage with a man with whom she barely interacts. He sleeps alone in one room, and she sleeps with their young daughter, Maria. One day a teenager walks into the library. Mayumi quickly develops a  crush on him, and sets out to interact with him as much as she can. She craves any contact she can have with him, even if it is just checking out his books, or making a reading recommendation. She meets his mother as well, and they become friends of a sort. Her one sided crush on him sustains her for a while, and provides her with a much needed refreshed sense of hope and interest in life. Needless to say, Mayumi and the boy eventually embark on a secret sexual relationship. This is a book that takes women’s sexuality seriously. The narrative about their physical relationship is told only from Mayumi’s side. With some initial coaching and encouragement, he is able to bring her great satisfaction. One of the fascinating things about this book is that it tells a story rarely told – that of an older woman seducing a young man, a sort of Lolita in reverse. And Lolita, the book, indeed plays a role in this tale, as do many other well known novels that this literarily-inclined character refers to throughout. Mayumi does worry about the ethics of what she is doing, but her drive to be with him and to find pleasure is stronger than any sense of wrongdoing. What is also fascinating in this novel is the language used to express sexuality. Unlike the typical phallic references, subtle and otherwise, that we are familiar with from the vast body of the male canon, Tseng plays with creating a woman-centered imagery, in which windows and door become sexual metaphors, and triangles dot the descriptive landscape. Go, run, read this book!

 

41xgKh4KBKL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout   @@@

Another exquisite novel by Elizabeth Strout. As always, her writing is spare and precise. With few words, she creates a world. Lucy Barton is laid up in the hospital after what should have been a quick and easy procedure. Days turn into weeks and she still cannot return to the home she shares with her husband and daughters. Her estranged mother comes to visit, and the past becomes entangled with the present. This is a quiet story that contains deep emotion right below the surface. Old longings and frustrations peak through the seams. Even in this diminished state Lucy cannot get what she wants from her mother, and cannot redeem her past. The loneliness of late afternoon vistas from hospital windows is interwoven with threads of hope, gratitude, and determination as Lucy Barton considers her past, present and future; in other words, her self.

 

After the Fire, a Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld   @@

51sNj07dgfL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_I was motivated to read this after reading another book by Wyld, All the Birds Singing (reviewed here in 2014). After the Fire is is her debut novel (and for my rabbinic friends I’ll just say despite the biblical title, this is not a Jewish-themed book) but I was so taken with her elegantly constructed writing that I wanted to try another one. This novel was not as ambitious as All the Birds Singing, but it did not disappoint. Set in the wilds of eastern Australia, there are two main characters with different story arcs. It is not clear until the very end how the stories, and the two characters, Frank and Leon, are connected. At the start, Frank has just been left by a woman and sets out in search of a new beginning back at a cabin that once belonged to his grandparents. Leon is the son of a baker and his wife, immigrants to Australia who eventually leave their son to manage on his own as they set out on a post-war journey of their own. Both are men in search of love and connection, even as they are bruised, solitary figures, flawed survivors of damage only barely hinted at. In both stories, the past rises up to be dealt with, and the jagged edges are intertwined with tenderness.  The cabin is a character of its own, an attempt to create home and order in the midst of chaos. And in the end, the two stories bump up into each other without, thankfully, a neat resolution. This is a writer worth watching.

 

Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer   @

51EC+5Zc0dL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_That this novel had to do with both Iraqi Jews and with food intrigued me. I will confess it was a slow start and I almost abandoned it. The food parts of the book were great, yes, but the story seemed at moments disjointed and way too pat. The main character, Lorca, is an adolescent girl in tremendous emotional pain. Severely unmothered, she seeks ways to make her mother, a celebrated chef, notice her and be grateful for her. She sets out to make what her mother has said is her favorite dish of all time, a fish dish called masgouf. For a time the book has a YA feel to is, a tortured coming of age story with painful details and angst but without a lot of depth. This is not by any means a happy story, but even so, the lucky coincidences seemed to pile up too fast and too neatly. But then it takes a turn which makes it much more interesting; it turns out that this is not actually about coincidences at all but about the power and pitfalls of wishful thinking, and about finding love where you can get it. Despite what it seemed like at the beginning, there is no magical happy ending, not everything gets resolved, and redemption is still somewhere in the distance. In the end, it was worth the read. And as an added bonus, the fish recipe central to this tale is included at the back.

Rating System

© – Good Book, but I wanted it to be even better

©© – Great Book, deeply satisfying

©©© – Amazing Book, dazzling, blew me away

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His Brother’s Keeper, A Mystery Series – Part II: Chapter Six

Welcome to His Brother’s Keeper, a fictional mystery series set in 2000, in New York. I’ve decided to periodically lend my blog to a friend, Eva Hirschel. Eva doesn’t have a social media presence but she does have a mystery that she wanted to publish serially on-line, so I’m giving her a hand. (If you’re just tuning in now, use this Table of Contents to start at the beginning). Here is Part II, Chapter 6. Enjoy!

Chapter Six

IMG_4550He talked and talked and talked. For a man who had been described as quiet and private, he had a lot to say. Outside, the rain continued to pour, unabated. Planes sat motionless on the runway. A peculiar silence, undisturbed by announcements and takeoffs. enveloped the terminal. My attention was so riveted by what I was hearing that I didn’t have time to worry about Hannah or feel guilty that I wasn’t home, and mercifully, Simon didn’t call. It was as if time was just stopped, like we were suspended in an infinite moment out of time. I was sure that if I looked at one of the large clocks over the bar, the hands wouldn’t be moving.

“Yankeleh is dead. If there is one thing I know for sure in this world, it is that Yankeleh is dead. I don’t know who this other man is, but Yankeleh is dead. You have to try to understand what it was like,” he began, still looking down at his hands. No longer weeping, a sense of calm had descended upon him, the kind of peace that comes with acceptance. “It was a time of total chaos, all normal rules of civilization were gone. You did what you had to do to survive. And try to understand my anger and confusion. I was about to be thirteen. It should have been my bar mitzvah, the biggest event in my life so far. Even though life for Jews had been getting worse and worse for some time, I had been sheltered from most of it. I was a little prince, the heir apparent, the future Halizcher rebbe. I was pampered, protected, praised for my scholarship. I was the rebbe’s brilliant grandson, the center of the universe, or so I thought.

“Somehow I was sure that God would save us, that the God who had saved Abraham and Isaac and Jacob would step in and make everything okay. How could it be otherwise? I was so selfish, so blind. It barely mattered to me that thousands, that millions of Jews had already died. They weren’t Halizchers—they didn’t have my grandfather’s special connection to God. I was sure we would be spared.

“You see, I was completely naive. Suddenly my world fell apart. We were rounded up and transported. Earlier, my grandfather had had a chance to save all of us, not just the family but the whole community, if only he had permitted himself to see what was going on. He had connections, he knew people, we could have all gotten out. But what did he do–he trusted his God! He condemned everyone I knew to death. He condemned me to death, me, his beloved! And my father, my father the weakling who could never stand up to my grandfather or my mother. And my mother, who thought her father actually was God. And my brother Yankeleh, and my grandmother, and my aunts Chayale and Sura. He could have saved me, he could have saved all of us, but he chose not to!

“And then they came to my grandfather, his Chasidim, with all the money and jewelry they could collect. Most of them weren’t rich people, but they gave him everything they had. Understand, not so they could save themselves, it was already too late for that because they had made the fatal mistake of listening to their rebbe. But so that they could save my grandfather, and so that they could save me. So they could buy our freedom, and have a future through me. And in the end, he could have saved me even without money. My uncle came to see him. I didn’t remember ever meeting my uncle before because they left for Palestine when I was young. But he got back into Poland and he came to save us. He had a plan. Would it have worked? Who knows? But attempting it would have been better than doing nothing. And in the end he did save many Jews, even some of the other rebbes. Turns out my uncle the Zionist, who did the unforgivable sin of taking my aunt away from my grandfather, turning her into a Zionist and taking her to the land of Israel, turns out he had a soft spot for Chasids after all. But my grandfather had no soft spot for him. No, he only had trust in his God, his God who allowed everyone I knew to die. Matters of life and death were not for us mere mortals to decide. It was all up to God.   My grandfather used to tell a story about a rebbe passing through a town in a train. As he passed through, his Chasidim who lived in the town came to see him. One was clearly distraught, and so the rebbe asked him what was wrong. He told his rebbe that his factory had burned down and his home had been destroyed and he had nothing left. What did the rebbe do? He comforted the man and told him that at least he still had his faith, and that was more important than any material assets. The rebbe told this man not to worry, that as long as he had his faith all his material goods would soon be restored to him, and miraculously, it was just as the rebbe had predicted. This is how I grew up, believing that faith would solve everything, but by this time I had already learned that isn’t so, that the story in reality had a very different ending. In my version, not only did the poor man lose every possession he had in the world, but he and his family were taken away to Treblinka and died. All his faith meant nothing.

“I turned thirteen in Treblinka. I didn’t read Torah that day, and never have since. There were those inside who knew who I was, who tried to help me, some because they revered who I was, and some maybe because they thought I had the money hidden away. There were old men who tried to befriend me and give me the glory I once thought was my birthright. Old men my grandfather’s age came to me for blessings, for advice, for wisdom. But I was a child, for God’s sake, a child! I didn’t want to be their leader, I only wanted to be safe. I knew my father was dead—he didn’t survive the trip to Treblinka. My mother and grandmother died before we’d even arrived. I saw my grandfather die in front of me. I didn’t know what had happened to my aunts but I had no hope I would ever see them again. And I could see that my brother was dying. I was the younger brother, but he was always the smaller one, the weaker one. I did everything I could to help him. Any extra food or clothes that came my way from the Chasidim, I gave to Yankeleh. I slept with my arms around him for warmth. I did my best to make him not look so sick. At roll call I secretly pinched his cheeks to make them look pink. But I knew he wasn’t going to live. So I made a choice. It was simple, really. I decided to survive, just for spite. To see what the world was like after God. I wasn’t going to be the rebbe, I wasn’t going to be a Halizcher, I wasn’t even going to be a Chasid. But I would prove to my grandfather that life would go on despite God and despite the Halizchers. To prove that I could be anyone and anything I wanted to be. So when my brother collapsed one day, he was just a skeleton by then, and was beaten almost to death by a guard, I knew the end was near. There was nothing I could do to save him, and no miracle was going to happen.”

He paused in his telling, taking a deep breath, and then plunged ahead. “You see, I loved Yankeleh with all my soul. We were very different, yes, but we were like twins, two sides of the same person. He was brilliant, but it was a quiet brilliance. He wasn’t a showoff, a showman like I was. It wasn’t the kind of brilliance that drew people to him, but he was so good, so kind, so gentle. Ever since we were little I was the one protecting him, watching over him. He was otherworldly, naïve, acquiescent. When someone disagreed with a point he made in cheder, he would back down immediately, and agree that he had been wrong. His humility went unnoticed, and people simply thought he wasn’t a good student. But many of my “brilliant” insights came from him. That was my deep, dark secret as a child. Many of my Talmudic gems were Yankeleh’s. I was just a more convincing speaker. And he didn’t seem to mind. He was too busy studying the next page.

“But then during the time in the ghetto he began to change. He had become even more removed, distant, withdrawn. My parents and grandfather worried about him, worried that he was getting himself into trouble with people he shouldn’t be associating with, worried that he wasn’t studying enough. We were sure it was for a good reason, we never doubted his intentions, he must have felt some good would come out of it, but we were scared for him. He seemed so vulnerable. I worried that he wouldn’t know how to take care of himself if he got into trouble–he was always so pure in a way, so removed from the hard realities. My grandfather made me promise that no matter what happened, I would take care of him, that I would keep him safe and out of trouble. Yankeleh was my responsibility. Even though I was younger, he told me that I was smarter and stronger, and that Yankeleh needed my protection. So there, in the camp, my job was to save Yankeleh, and I couldn’t do it. Some of the Halizchers in the camp tried to help me. But some were just glad it wasn’t me dying. Can you imagine how I felt?

“So, finally, one day we are told we are going out of the camp. The guards joke that we are going on a vacation. Hah. They march us along a road, with ill-fitting wooden clogs on our decaying feet, miles, miles, in the cold, I cannot describe that march. And the whole time I am almost carrying Yankeleh. So many times he stumbles and falls. He is running a high fever. He tells me to let him go, that he is already dead. But I won’t. The person on his other side also takes an arm, and somehow, somehow, we get there, and he is still breathing. They give us shovels and tell us to dig. Anyone who can’t dig will be shot, and they provide examples. We dig and we dig, and of course, we know these are our graves. All around me I hear Jews praying under their breath, asking for help and salvation, reciting the shema and making their last confessions. Fools, I think to myself. But then I too am filled with thoughts of my parents, my grandfather, my aunts. I dig and I dig, for both of us, because Yankeleh is too weak. But I prop the shovel in his hand so that it looks like he is working and soon enough it doesn’t matter because we are in the hole and the guards can’t see. They’re busy joking and laughing and smoking. And Yankeleh’s breath is labored, slow, and I know he’s slipping away. I am getting not scared, not sad, there’s no room for that, but very very angry. How dare anyone do this to my brother. How dare my grandfather not have saved both of us? But I also know in my heart of hearts that he had never even considered saving Yankeleh. All the whispered conversations had only been about saving me. And I knew that I would not have left Poland without Yankeleh, not while he was still alive. And so as I know that Yankeleh is about to die, I also know that I am about to have a chance to take my fate into my own hands and change it.

“The guards come and decide that we have dug enough. Quite a few people have died during the digging, but what do they care? They line us up in front of the pits, and I know right away what is going to happen. Among the swaying and the praying, I hear shots, and quickly, quickly, right away, before the bullets come my way, I fall. I fall right onto Yankeleh. And I realize I have to do exactly as he is doing. He has stopped breathing, and so must I. And I do. Don’t ask me how. I don’t know. I don’t believe in miracles, but there it is. I stopped breathing, only I’m not dead. I can’t describe what it was like lying there, on top of Yankeleh, entangled in a multitude of other corpses. But mostly there was anger. They walked over us, making sure we were all dead. And I did just like Yankeleh, I didn’t breath or move or make a sound. They brought other prisoners afterwards to cover us with dirt, but it had started to snow and the guards were cold, so they called it off before we were covered with more than a thin layer of dirt. As the last lorry left, I took a deep breath. I closed Yankeleh’s eyes, and I kissed his face. And then I noticed he had something in his hand. My grandfather’s kiddush cup. I don’t know how he’s managed to conceal it all that time, and where. But he must have brought it with him, concealed in his clothes, because he knew he wouldn’t make it and he wanted me to have it. I know it sounds impossible but it’s true, somehow he managed. And it was like a message from him telling me to escape. So I took the cup, got up out of the pit, and ran into the forest.”

He paused to take a deep breath and wipe his forehead with a handkerchief. There were so many questions I wanted to ask, so many things I still didn’t understand, but I didn’t want to interrupt. I waited patiently, and after a few moments, he continued.

“Both of us died there in that pit. I couldn’t live as myself anymore, so I became Yankeleh. Leib was gone, that arrogant little boy who thought he was going to be the next king of the Jews, or at least the Halizchers, gone. But Yankeleh could live on in me, his humility, his goodness, his gentleness. I became Yankeleh. If I’d really been smart, I would have changed my name entirely, I would have thrown away Gelberman and become, I don’t know, Smith. But I couldn’t think that far ahead. So I became Yankeleh, and I survived. I lived alone in the forest, foraging for roots and berries. I was starving, and cold, but it was no worse than in the camp, and I was free. I was found by a farmer’s widow, who for some reason didn’t turn me in, with my fair hair and blue eyes maybe she could pretend to herself that I wasn’t a Jew, and she hid me for some time. During the day I hid curled up in a hollowed out space under the hay. I stunk but who cared? And at night I would help her with repairs, things she couldn’t do herself. I think she liked having a “man” around. She didn’t seem to notice that I was so young, and whatever she wanted me to do, I learned quickly. She fed me fairly well, so all in all I was lucky. But then she got scared and I had to leave. Eventually I came across a group of young Jewish partisans and they took me in. They had all grown up in secular homes, so my name meant nothing to them. By then the allied troops were already on their way. I went from there to a D.P. camp in Italy.

“In the D.P. camp I came across some of the surviving Halizchers. But no one recognized me. I had grown, my body acting in defiance of the reality of those years, just as my soul had done. And through my contact with the Americans and the Red Cross volunteers, I met a soldier named Jack. He had the healthy, bright red cheeks of someone who had grown up well-fed, and this cheery optimism despite what he’d seen. To me he embodied America. The name Jack sounded strong, solid, new world, brash. And of course it was short for Jacob, or Yaakov, Yankeleh’s real name. So Yankeleh quickly became Jack. It was easy. And none of the Halizchers realized who I was. It was terrible for me to see them. Most had died, and those who hadn’t were broken. Everyone had lost so much. Yet they still believed in miracles, in their God. They still had faith, and they still wanted a rebbe. I made sure to stay far away from them, but I heard from others that both the Gelberman brothers had died in a pit outside Treblinka. Good, I thought. Good. That world is dead, and Yankeleh is dead, and Leib is dead. I am Jack, and Jack is going to America.

“I learned English there in the camp, while I waited for papers to go to America. I volunteered with the various agencies there, translating and trying to be of help. One day, I heard two Americans talking about a woman in the infirmary section of the camp, how no one knew what to do with her or how to help her, and that they didn’t know where to send her. She had no home to go back to, no relatives they could find, and that since she was clearly mentally ill, America wouldn’t take her. Israel, of course, wasn’t yet taking in refugees legally, because this was before 1948. They spoke about how this woman, who they could tell had been young and beautiful but was now an empty shell, had been kept as a mistress by a prominent Nazi, and had undergone unspeakable horrors. Apparently one of the Jewish doctors had surmised that she might have come from a Chasidic family, because while she wouldn’t speak, she sang Chasidic niggunim. At that point I interrupted their conversation, and volunteered to go speak to the woman. I knew that I was risking something by associating myself with Chasidut, since I had worked so hard to keep away from any connection, but her story sounded so utterly sad, and I felt compelled to help, if I could. So one of the American nurses took me to see this woman.

“I walked into the makeshift infirmary, and they brought me over to her. I realized right away it—it was Chayale. You can’t know, you can’t imagine. My joy at finding a family member alive, my horror at what had happened to her. She had been like Yankeleh in so many ways, so delicate, unprepared for hardship and suffering. I wanted to grab her and take her away, but I couldn’t. I had no way to help her, other than to be with her, to spend time with her. She recognized me, and we embraced, but she never spoke. She only sang, over and over, the songs from her childhood. She was my aunt, but she was only four years older than I was. Now, after the war, she was much older than I would ever be, and much younger than I can ever remember being. She was a child in an old woman’s shattered body. But I couldn’t leave her. Every day I went, I talked to her, I sang with her. Every day I cried. I hadn’t cried over all the deaths, but over Chayale I cried every day. Then one day I got word that I could be sponsored to go the United States. I didn’t want to go to New York, or to some big city where I might encounter Chasidim and be recognized. But this was perfect. They wanted to send me to some godforsaken part of the country, to western Pennsylvania. I didn’t know where it was, but it didn’t matter, it wasn’t New York or LA or Chicago. But I couldn’t take Chayale. I didn’t have the resources, and they wouldn’t let her in as a refugee. So again, I chose myself over someone I loved, and I went, promising to find a way to bring her.

“After 1948, she was sent to Israel. They tried to rehabilitate her there, but nothing worked. She was institutionalized. Finally I had enough money, and I brought her here. At first my wife and I tried to keep her in our house, but that didn’t work. She needed too much care. We tried a facility in Pittsburgh, but that didn’t work either. She needed round the clock care in a facility where she could hear Yiddish and eat kosher food. We sent her to Jewish Memorial Home in the Bronx. We were able to convince them to take her even though she was really too young at the time. She’s been there so long that now she is at last an old woman. It’s hard because I can’t go often, especially now that I’m here. But she is happy there. Or she was, until recently. And I’m afraid that this is where you come in.”

I was beginning to feel exhausted from his story, emotionally and physically. But there were clearly many more pieces. How did the kiddush cup figure in? Jack Gelberman sat still for a few moments, gazing over my head at the storm outside. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, exhaled, and continued his story.

[To be continued…]

His Brother’s Keeper is entirely fictional. None of the characters or situations described in this series are based on real people or events. Copyright (c) 2015 by Eva Hirschel.
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Filed under Abby Marcus, Fiction