For many, Father’s Day is a time to honor our fathers, and this year, it has particular significance to my family. After my dad, Alan Skobin, survived an emotional battle with a rare form of pancreatic cancer, I am thrilled we get another opportunity to celebrate such an extraordinary man.
When life gives my dad lemons, he isn’t the type to make the tried-and-true lemonade you can get anywhere. He’s the one who turns them into world-class lemon meringue pie. He’s always reaching for the next level, his motto being, “Above and beyond.” He began his involvement with law enforcement as a teenager in the police explorers program, and continued to show his commitment to protecting and serving our community by ultimately finishing as police commissioner. My dad takes this philosophy when it comes to parenting, too. When I attended Northwestern University, he nearly bought out every Northwestern retailer, so he could sport purple pride from every inch of his body, every corner of his office, and every crevice of our home. That’s how proud he was.
This is why he has so many friends. In fact, my dad is a professional friend collector. Everywhere we go, he either makes new friends or runs into old ones. Once, while walking down the streets of Amsterdam, my dad heard someone in the distance shouting, “Hey, Alan!” Even clear across the world, people look for opportunities to call him out as a friend. His old friends, like my father-in-law, Larry, know that he does anything to bring them joy. Since Larry loves all things Chicago Cubs, my dad once arranged for Larry’s favorite ballplayer, Ernie Banks, to come for dinner, just to see the grin on Larry’s face.
I am never more thankful for my dad’s army of friends than when he is sick, because they play a significant role in his recovery. I remember one of the earlier times we dealt with a medical obstacle. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and if he survived, we were to expect a completely different man than we knew and loved. Before surgery, the phone rang off the hook and the doorbell chimed endlessly, as all his friends shared their prayers for a speedy recovery. Regardless of differing religious beliefs, “We’re praying for you, Alan” replaced good-bye as the normal send off. I’m not certain that G-d heard these prayers, but my dad did, and at recovery’s toughest moments, they reminded him that he was important to many. Miraculously, he recovered with minimal side effects. This year, as my dad fought pancreatic cancer, my brother and I used social media to update his community. With every post, the support was astounding. As my dad awakened from surgery, amazed that he had survived, he groggily exclaimed to my mom, “Can you imagine the power of prayer?” Afterwards, while he rested in bed, we read him the online responses, and his spirits lifted as he drifted to sleep.
It takes a village to battle serious health issues, and sometimes those of us who acutely support the sick need lifting, too. My mother’s devotion to my dad never waned, and she stayed with him in the hospital even when it was unclear how long his stay would be. She never left his side, and would advocate for him when he wasn’t able to do so for himself. This type of support takes both physical and emotional strength, and as my dad found his through the prayers of his supporters, so did my mom. Stoically, I comforted my family, voicing confidence in our doctors, as we remained publicly optimistic, but privately feared the worst. I learned quickly that the way to excellent post-operative care was through the stomachs of the nursing staff, and I stopped at our favorite Cuban bakery for some treats.
I also prayed. Seeking comfort in the traditions of Judaism, I never missed a Shabbat service. One of the most poignant moments of Shabbat for me is when the rabbi circles the room during the mi shebeirach, or prayer for healing, and the congregants voice the names of the ill. At one particular service, I was ready to say my dad’s name, but before the rabbi reached me, I heard his name called by someone across the room. I felt the power of the prayers reaching me, and for the first time, I cried.
Because of my dad’s army, I understand that his significance goes above and beyond his role as father to my brother and me. He is also a loving husband, a wise grandfather, a giving mentor, and most of all, a good friend. This father’s day, as I reflect on the lives my dad has touched, I will include the other men who have influenced me, and send them a meaningful prayer. After all, you never know who’s listening.
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I am often asked whether I feel more Cuban-American than Jewish, or vice versa, and it has always struck me as an odd question. That’s like asking whether I like my right eye better than my left. Sure, if you close one eye, you can still see, but the world looks so much better with both eyes open. That is sort of how I feel about my two cultures. On the surface, it may seem like my Cuban culture is in direct conflict with my Jewish one, particularly when it comes to the pork-friendly nature of Cuban cuisine and the dietary laws of the Jewish faith, but just like seeing the world with both eyes open, I feel most comfortable when my cultures work in conjunction with each other.
Fortunately, there is plenty of common ground between the two. Given the fact that both place a high priority on family and tradition, and get-togethers almost always revolve around food, my family has been blurring the cultural dividing lines for decades. This melting pot approach jumps into high gear around the holidays and other family gatherings. My “Jewban” family has been known to serve a creamy flan during Shavuot, a citrus and garlic-infused Cuban-style chicken for Shabbat, and minty Mojito-scented quinoa during Passover. These incredible dishes aside, nothing holds a candle to my family’s recipe for Ropa Vieja, Cuban comfort food at its very best.
Ropa Vieja, which literally translates to “old clothes,” or as my paternal grandmother would call them, “shmatas,” is the Cuban answer to a traditional Jewish brisket. Both use inexpensive cuts of meat that are slow-roasted until tender and falling apart, but Ropa Vieja takes it a step further, and actually calls for the chunks of meat to be shredded to resemble rags. This may seem like it would diminish the allure of the dish, but as Jewish brisket is usually reserved for the holiday table, a good Ropa Vieja is truly cause for celebration. Additionally, as it is important in the Jewish culture to pass our traditions from generation to generation, most Cuban families have had a recipe for Ropa Vieja for ages.
The recipe I feature originated with my Abuela (maternal grandmother), but was passed to me by my Tia Pipa (Aunt Felipa), both seriously tough culinary acts to follow. And while I have the added benefit of modern kitchen electrics like the slow-cooker, the spirit of the recipe remains the same. The perfume of a traditionally Cuban sofrito, made from garlic, onions, and sweet bell peppers, marries beautifully with the warm smokiness from the cumin. And while the brine-y capers that adorn the meat and add a splash of color may seem like a distinctly Mediterranean choice, they act as a nod to the migration of Spaniards that made their way to Cuba and the other Caribbean islands in days of old.
One bite may make you want to close your eyes and savor the moment, but I challenge you to resist the urge. See the world with both eyes open, and celebrate the diversity that makes Cuban-Jewish families unique.
Ropa Vieja, by Jennifer Stempel of TheCubanReuben.com
• 5-7 lbs. Brisket, trimmed of most visible fat
• 2 onions, divided
• 6 cloves of garlic, divided
• 2 large red bell peppers, divided
• 2 bay leaves, divided
• 4 cups beef stock
• 3 tsp. Olive oil
• 1 Tbs dried oregano
• 1 Tbs ground cumin
• 1 14 oz can diced tomatoes
• 1 8 oz can tomato sauce
• 10 stuffed green olives, sliced in thin rounds
• 2 Tbs capers, plus 1 Tbs. of the brine.
• Salt and Pepper to taste
1. Cut your brisket into 2-inch wide strips.
2. The night before you want to serve, add the brisket, 1 onion, roughly chopped, 2 whole cloves of garlic, ½ a bell pepper, 1 bay leaf, and beef stock to a slow-cooker, and set to cook on low for 6-7 hours.
3. Remove the beef and set aside. Once the beef is cool enough to be handled, use 2 forks to shred the beef.
4. Strain the cooking liquid, and reserve for later use in a medium bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate long enough for the fat to solidify on top (about 20-30 minutes). Skim the fat from the liquid.
5. Discard the rest of the contents from the slow cooker.
6. Meanwhile, finely dice the remainder of the onions and half of the remaining bell pepper. The rest of the bell pepper should be sliced in short, thin slices.
7. Mince the remaining garlic.
8. Heat a large pot (dutch oven style) over medium-high heat. Add olive oil.
9. Add the diced onions and both diced and sliced bell peppers, and cook for 5-10 minutes, or until onions become translucent. Add the garlic, and cook for 2 more minutes.
10. Add the shredded beef to the pot, as well as ½ of the now-skimmed stock, the oregano, the cumin, the diced tomatoes, and the tomato sauce. Stir to combine.
11. Lower the heat, cover the pot, and simmer for 30 minutes, or until liquid reduces and thickens a bit.
12. Add the olives, brine, and capers, and cook for 15 more minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
13. Leave simmering on low on the stove until ready to serve.
14. Serve with white rice.
To read more about Jennifer’s culinary adventures, check out her blog.