Imagine Purim by the crystal clear and warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. No need for warm costumes or shoveling out the entrance to the synagogue. This week not one but two Jewish communities will have the opportunity to do just that, in a modern and multicultural celebration of an ancient Jewish holiday.
The blue sea is the only backdrop the Jews of Santa Marta Colombia have ever known to Purim and other Jewish holidays. They are an emerging community made up exclusively of Caribbean converts who, in the past decade, have built a small but strong chavurah, prayer community. Generally they are on their own when it comes to Jewish life. But this week, students from Vanderbilt University Hillel are joining them.
The 10 day alternative spring break for the visit, organized in conjunction with Be’chol Lashon is introducing these American Jews to the richness and diversity of Jewish life in Colombia. They started in the heights Bogata, where they met the established historic Jewish community before setting off for the shores of Caribbean.
In coming to Santa Marta, these young American Jews will be exposed to a community which, like a time machine, mirrors the origins of their own communities in North America many decades or centuries ago (picture the first Jews of New Amsterdam, or the first Jews to wander into the Tennessee frontier). There is a one-room synagogue with one little Torah and a small Hebrew Sunday School. There is no fancy buildings, no rabbi in site, but bucketfuls of enthusiasm to make Jewish life thrive and grow in a place where it had not before.
At the same time, the Colombian Jews will be confronted with the image of complex hyphenated Jewish American youths coming from a place where Judaism feeds the surrounding culture and is in turn nourished and morphed by it: almost a utopian dream for such a small minority culture, still in its institutional and demographic infancy.
However, as it has happened in the past with other visiting Jews, the common threads of our story will bind us together. The American students will not be eating hamentaschen this year, but rather, they will feast on a very different gastronomy. The music coming out of the speakers (louder than most American are accustomed to) during the Purim celebration will be ripe with foreign cadences. And yet, it will still be Purim. Unequivocally Purim. With Esther and Mordechai and gifts for the poor, and mishloach manot. Haman will be cursed not only in one but in many languages. Despite their differences, in the illustrious tradition of Jewish travelers throughout time, both groups will find common ground.
And it is particularly fitting that this encounter of two cultures is happening on Purim, the first truly global holiday. A people dispersed throughout the 127 provinces of the vast reaching Persian Empire, from India to Ethiopia (meHodu vead Kush) found joint reasons for revelry, and, in doing so, started to take responsibility for one another across the broad expanses of Diaspora, language, and culture. The encounter between Vanderbilt Hillel’s alternative spring break and the local Jewish community of Santa Marta will honor and renew the commitment “assumed and received” by the Jewish people on that first Purim of finding common ground in the face of adversity, but also, not less profoundly, in the promise of shared joy.
What could be funnier than a black man marrying a white woman?
Before you say “Loving v. Virginia,” hold on, there’s more: Make that a white Jewish woman. Isn’t that a stitch?
If same-sex marriage in Alabama hasn’t convinced you we might actually be in 2015, the premiere of the Lifetime reality show, Kosher Soul, arrives Feb. 25 to dutifully turn back the clock.
“Opposites attract,” the show’s promos blare, suggesting the protagonists might just be different species. A freelance stylist, Miriam Sternoff, 38, grew up Jewish in Seattle. O’Neal McKnight, 39, her stand-up comedian fiancé, is African American from Lynchburg, S.C. With cameras following their every antic, the pair slapstick their cultures together on the way to their wedding day.
“The fact that I’m wearing a yarmulke, it shouldn’t be a problem for Miriam to wear a grill,” McKnight says, explaining the bejeweled dental appliance’s deep spiritual significance to black America by declaring: “Martin Luther King had a grill.”
He didn’t mention Justin Bieber. But it goes on.
“When you marry a man like O’Neal, you gotta make certain sacrifices,” Sternoff says in her concession to preparing unkosher food. “If he wants me to fry up some catfish real quick, I’m going to fry it up because he has made huge compromises for me.”
One of those is McKnight’s conversion to Judaism, including an adult bris (symbolic circumcision), done to prove his love for her and appease his mother-in-law. In return, she accompanies his family to church and actually buys the grill, though secretly vows never to wear it.
All the while, he calls her white and gives her lectures on black culture (black people don’t go to the beach), punctuated with jokes about Stevie Wonder driving and starving kids in Africa with flies on their faces.
Is this offensive?
Yes, but not for its unfunny attempts at humor. Nor am I the only one suggesting the show is just more of the same old black and Jewish stereotypes, packaged as a “docu-sitcom.” To a person, those in my circle of African American Jews who’ve heard of the show have questioned its portrayal of the match as a freak show oddity.
It wasn’t news 65 years ago, when my mother of Western European Jewish descent married my Baptist (though atheist) African American father. It’s barely a blip on the post-racial radar screen today. According to Be’chol Lashon, 20 percent of American Jews are of color or of similarly diverse heritage.
As anyone who says “blacks and Jews” should be reminded, the two terms aren’t mutually exclusive. Judaism knows no race and black people come in every religion, and to be both is to be 100 percent of each.
Surprisingly, and off-camera, the couple agrees.
“I like that,” Sternoff says of the duality that describes her husband and hoped-for children, echoed by McKnight: “I like that a lot.”
In the real world of a cross-country phone interview to Los Angeles, where they now live, the couple departs from their reality-show personas, with McKnight clarifying he did not convert solely for her. In South Carolina, he’d never met a Jew or spoken to an Asian person, he says, a cloistered world that changed when he moved to New York.
“I was around a lot of different cultures, a lot of different people, and I just really was drawn into Judaism,” he says. “For me, the thing about Judaism, it’s mostly a tug of war between you and God. You’re supposed to ask questions. You’re supposed to be intrigued and curious. And the way I was brought up (as Methodist) was ‘this is what it is, you don’t doubt it, you don’t question it.’”
That intrigue led him to consider converting before even meeting his future wife, he says.
For her part, with skin Kardashian tan or a shade darker (and virtually the same as McKnight’s black former girlfriend), Sternoff has also examined her identity.
“When people ask me what’s my nationality, it’s because I look more ethnic,” she says. “The first thing I say is ‘I’m Jewish.’ And then people say, ‘Yeah, I get it, but you look like you’re Hispanic or something else.’ So I always then follow it up with my background is Russian.”
Depending on who’s asking and their level of persistence, she may say she’s white. “It’s a tricky thing,” she says. “Jews, we think of ourselves as kind of a whole separate entity.”
So if she’s perceived as “other” and they’re both practicing Jews (his conversion was Conservative), is there a story here without playing to stereotypes? Two Jews get married. So what?
“I would dispute that it is stereotypes. I think that Miriam and O’Neal are who they are,” Michael Hirschorn, the show’s executive producer, says from New York, acknowledging dialogue like “I want to have Shabbat dinner with my Jewish husband”/“But she’s going to have sex with a black man.”
“Saying ‘this is a stereotype’ and ‘this is not a stereotype’ gets you into kind of a Talmudic cul-de-sac,” he argued.
Perhaps, but there are guides for the perplexed, the obvious being other Black Jews who can clearly tell you what’s over the top. Hollywood has many — from director Chris Erskin to rapper Drake to actress Rashida Jones — though Hirschorn (who is Jewish and not black, and has a co-producer who is black and not Jewish) says he doesn’t know any.
Still, he concedes that Kosher Soul and its “opposites attract” tagline capitalize on seemingly incompatible differences.
“I don’t want to be too coy because obviously that is the name of the show and that’s the way it’s being pushed,” he says. “I think that (when you) watch the show, there’s just a lot of pleasure in it.”
There certainly is in the story of how the couple met, in New York nine years ago when McKnight was a personal stylist to Sean “Puffy” Combs and Sternoff was freelancing in the same field.
It was in an elevator. He was impressed by her pixie cut. She could not help but notice him.
“I literally was holding two little poodles under my arms,” McKnight explains, dogs belonging to Combs that he’d been asked to retrieve.
Or so he says.
“Right!” Sternoff responds, laughing at the suggestion that maybe it was a ploy. “He was riding, literally up and down, up and down, waiting for the perfect girl to come on. You know, I have to say, if that’s what he was doing, I’m glad he was there.”
It’s a wonderfully charming story but it’s nowhere in the show. Not surprising: It’s reality, not reality TV.
Since I released my latest music video, “Boee Kala,” many friends, fellow musicians, and community members have asked me questions regarding to the meaning of the song, its title, the choice of location for shooting the video as well as my personal connection to the text.
The song title relates to my own Jewish roots. While “L’cha Dodi” is the common Jewish title used for this old liturgical Piyut (written by the well-known 16th century poet, Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz, I discovered that Iraqi Jews used the title ‘Boee Kala’ for the poem. Therefore, I chose to use the traditional, Iraqi song title to be true and highlight to my Iraqi-Jewish heritage.
Boee Kala means, “Come my bride,” and this Piyut (Jewish liturgical poem) is sung traditionally on Shabbat evening as a way to prepare for and welcome Shabbat metaphorically, as we would welcome a bride to her wedding.
How does this concept relate to my composition of the Piyut and this music video?
I am an Israeli living in San Francisco. Although I lead Shabbat services around the Bay on a weekly basis, I myself do not observe Shabbat the way my grandparents did in Iraq or Greece. My very secular celebration of Shabbat relates to the San Francisco Jewish experience. I drive to temple, play instruments and sign songs, and when the service is over, I might even go out for a drink in a bar – a far cry from how my ancestors observed this weekly tradition.
Therefore, there is a transformation of the meaning of Shabbat in my personal experience from a very holy, almost solemn tradition of observation to one of celebration. I want to express this transformation in the music video and song composition. I often play this song on secular venues where people don’t necessary know the meaning of the text but they feel the energy of the music and dance as if they were in a Kabalat Shabbat service, anticipating the celebration of Shabbat and the change of pace to daily routine that it represents. The music video was filmed in an alley in North Beach with the goal of bringing the music to the streets to share with every day San Franciscans, and experience the reaction of strangers passing by as they hear the song. While the people walking by the alley did not know the Jewish meaning of the song they responded in a way that corresponded with its essence; the happiness and festivity of Shabbat. This spirit of shared, even viral festivity and celebration is captured in the music video.
When William Faulkner wrote these words in Requiem for a Nun, I’m pretty certain he didn’t have a formerly opera-singing African-American performer of Yiddish in mind. Nonetheless, for me Faulkner’s words still manage to apply.
I spend most of my time dealing with one past or another. There’s my ethnic past and present as an African-American. There’s my acquired past as a convert to Judaism and a Jewish educator. And finally, there’s the past in my work as artist: previously as an opera singer and presently as a performer of Yiddish. In my professional life, I’ve impersonated everything from an 18th-century Spanish peasant to a Union soldier to a shtetl shames calling Jews to prayer. My future seems firmly rooted in the past, and I thoroughly enjoy it.
Singing in Yiddish really brought this stuff we all so dismissively call “the past” sharply into focus. I didn’t have to imagine the lives and customs of the Hasidic world my repertoire often describes. I just took a train one Shushan Purim to Brooklyn and experienced it for myself. I didn’t have to pull out a library card to find artists and critics who worked in Yiddish. I just had to stop by a bar to hear Sarah Gordon perform and wait for Rokhl Kafrissen to accept my Facebook friend request. (She totally did, by the way).
Last Slichos, I picked up an old book from a used book sale at a synagogue I was performing at in Irvine, CA. When I first cracked it open, it struck me as a little odd. First the book was in Yiddish. Then it was in English. And then Yiddish again.
The title page read in Yiddish and English, “Key to the Exercises of Ollendorff’s Method by Alexander Harkavy.” The Yiddish inscription differed from the English by stating that it was Ollendorff’s Method “tsulernen english”—”to learn English.” The English stated that it was published in New York by the Hebrew Publishing Company in 1908. In 2014 I took it home and started using it to improve my reading in Yiddish.
I used the book backwards (undoubtedly to the horror of Ollendorff and Harkavy), the English giving way to English words and phrases transliterated into Hebrew letters and then, eventually, instructions on the rudimentary elements of the English language written in Yiddish. It was in this last (first if you read in the other direction) section that the past popped up to declare itself, well…not past. A brown, very fragile scrap of paper was between pages 88 and 89. It had been there so long that the acid from the paper had left dark impressions on the pages. In a beautiful cursive hand, it read: “Mrs. Silberstern 1018 E. 163 St Bronx.”
I instantly went to Google Maps street view in order to look up the address and there it was: an old, pre-war-looking building with three people—a young black boy, a young black girl down the block and, perhaps, their mother, caught in a blur of movement—exiting the building. This was the place where Mrs. Silberstern lived.
Was the book hers? Or somebody who knew her? Was the owner of the book teaching another Yiddish-speaker English, perhaps Mrs. Silberstern? Or maybe Mrs. Silberstern was teaching herself English? And how in the world did the book get from the Bronx to Irvine, CA? How did Mrs. Silberstern get to the Bronx?
I’ll probably never find the answers to these questions. Between this scrap of paper, this book and Faulkner’s statement, I just find more questions.
Is the past ever really past?
When I was in Israel this fall, I ended up going to a Sephardic synagogue one Shabbat morning, and served as the impromptu teacher for the rest of my group who very clearly had never been to a non-Ashkenazic synagogue and were unfamiliar with the unique and different customs, tunes, and liturgical readings that came along with the shul. The following Shabbat, I found myself in a traditional Ashkenazi shul, like any you would find here in the US, and was fully able to participate in the davening (prayer). I was able to successfully pass in both communities.
In reflecting on my experiences, I was reminded of a line that I heard from time to time growing up, “so your dad is Greek and your mom’s Jewish,” an assumption that was wholly incorrect. I am the product of an intermarriage of sorts, but not the kind you’re probably thinking of. My mother’s family hails from various parts of Eastern Europe, and my dad’s family comes from Greece, and all sides of my family are historically Jewish. When I explain this, I usually get the line, “so then that makes you Sephardic right?” Not exactly. The Greek Jews that I descend from are called Romaniote, with a history in Greece dating back to Roman times. According to the legend, when the Romans were sending slave ships back to Rome after the destruction of the Second Temple (so around 70-80 CE), one of the ships hit some sort of rock and was sinking. The captain of the ship let the slaves free, saying if they could swim to shore, they were free to go. They ended up coming ashore on the coast of Greece, and thus followed thousands of years of history, unique liturgy, tunes, and foods.
As I have set out on my own, apart from my parents, I have come to realize that I have a foot in both worlds, but at the same time, in neither. During Barak Obama’s first presidential campaign, I remember seeing a news talk show talking about how he was too Black for white people and too white for Black people, and feeling a sense of “that’s how I feel too,” everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Don’t get me wrong, I have an amazing family and wouldn’t change them for the world, but each time someone says “so you’re half Jewish,” or in the Greek world jokes that I’m not “fully or really” Greek, it feels like a punch to the gut.
I grew up on matzah ball soup, but also on prassa keftedes, a Greek food made of leeks, onions, scallions, and spices all shredded, mixed together, and fried in small patties (think potato latkes, but sub leeks for potatoes). I am reminded of a story I heard countless times growing up. My mom and her parents were invited by her fiancé (my dad) to his family’s seder, replete with Greek tunes and customs. Out came the meal, and my maternal grandmother was shocked and confused to see what looked like mini hamburgers that looked extra well done. Little did she realize that these were leek patties, something that she would enjoy for years to come. Fast forward about 25 years to the first year I was married and we had all the sides of our family over for an all-encompassing seder, replete with all the trimmings, both Greek and Ashkenaz. Sure enough, when we went to serve the soup course of matzah ball soup, members of my Greek family looked puzzled and asked what it was, since it was a food that they were unfamiliar with.
Unlike the questions from strangers that felt intrusive, the questions posed by my grandparents felt welcome. They came from a place of love and relationship not random curiosity. My personal Jewish story is unique, like so many American Jewish stories. I don’t want to be treated like an exhibition in a museum and have people prey and prod. Rather I welcome opportunities to share my story and my unique Jewish knowledge, like I did in Jerusalem. It is my hope that we can change the conversation from one of “how you are Jewish?” to one of “I’d love to hear about your Jewish experience.”
Praso Keftethes -Leek Patties
4 bunches of leeks
3 medium onions
1 tablespoon parsley (dry)
1 tablespoon dill (dry)
¼ cup matzo meal
½ pound ground meat Optional
Oil for frying
Salt and pepper to taste
Cut off the heads and ends of leeks leaving only about an inch of the green.
Slice each leek length wise and then into three pieces.
Rinse well in cold water to ensure that all the sand is removed.
Boil until very soft.
Remove from water but leave water boiling for other onions.
Drain well in colander and squeeze until as much excess liquid is possible is removed.
Finely chop with meat cleaver or food processor until all are finely chopped and a little wet.
Put leeks in mixing bowl.
Chop onions and put into pot to boil until soft and translucent.
Drain onions in colander.
Add parsley, dill, egg, matzo meal, salt and pepper. Optional ground meat can be added at this point as well.
Mix well then form into 2-inch patties.
Heat about ½ inch of oil in a pan.
Fry patties until crusty and very dark brown almost burnt.
Beatrice W. Hudson, known to me as Be Be, was my great-grandmother. She was one of the strongest, and most caring people I have ever met. Born May 10, 1918 in Suffolk, Virginia, she was the oldest of 13, and played a major part in raising her many siblings. Being a Black woman in the racially divided South presented many obstacles. Everyday, the Black minority experienced segregation and daily oppression by the White majority, yet my great-grandmother never strayed from her religion. She attended church every Sunday, celebrated every holiday, and said a prayer before going to bed each night.
Growing up as a bi-racial Jew, I struggle(d) with my identity on a daily basis. I was raised in a predominantly white town, and attended a Jewish day school and synagogue with little diversity. “Are you Jewish,” and “what are you?” were questions I was asked far too often. People’s doubts and confusion about my religious identity made it hard to feel accepted in the Jewish community. Knowing that my great-grandmother was able to live through times where being Black resulted in beatings and deaths, yet still maintain such strong religious beliefs inspired me to be proud of my Jewish heritage. Though the puzzled glares and questions still persist, my doubts have been extinguished. Judaism is an important part of who I am, and my great-grandmother understood and respected that. She knew who I was: her great-grandson.
Though we were of different faiths, she attended almost every religious event I was part of. In fact, the picture we took on my Bar Mitzvah became one of her favorites. Every time I came to visit, there it was on the table, housed in a beautiful frame. She would often tell people amusedly, “look at my handsome husband,” and smile. At the time, I was outwardly abashed hearing this so often, but internally, I was happy to have gotten this title. I could truly be myself around her; she loved me unconditionally. She was so proud to be my great-grandmother. She was Christian, I was Jewish, but we were family.
As her age began to take its toll, she struggled to remember who I was. On my final visit with her, I sat next to her bed, holding her hand for about an hour. She liked when people held her hand. Though the TV was playing in the background, she still wanted to make conversation. She would fluctuate between thinking I was Michael, or another family member. From time to time she would have me remind her who I was, and where she was. Interestingly, she was never startled when she didn’t recognize me. She still saw me as a member of her family. She often asked how are we were related. When I explained the connection, the expression on her face was like that of a child being presented with a trip to Disneyworld. She was so happy she was a great-grandmother and that she had, “such a good looking family.” It was very hard for me when my great-grandmother did not know who I was. The woman to whom I felt so connected, who loved and accepted me unconditionally, who would inspired me, did not know me for me. Yet, there was comfort in knowing that she sensed a familiarity with me. I was her great grandson, her husband, her brother, her cousin…her family, her future.
Some people want to find the nearest fresh fruit and veggie stand. Other people seek out good, fast take-out Chinese. When my family showed up in New York City—a white woman, an African American man, and two biracial children—we went shul shopping.
I was looking for diversity, though fully aware that most American Jews are white. Most of us are, like me, Ashkenazi, immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe. Yet according to Be’chol Lashon’s numbers, about 20% of Jews in America are non-White or non-Ashkenazi. Less than ten percent of American People of the Book are non-white (which is actually more than I’d thought before I looked it up). Some are historically Jewish, other joined the Jewish people from international adoptions, and there is a small but growing group of biracial marriages and mixed-race children.
So I tried to temper my expectations. After all, this may have been NYC, but it was still the USA. And, in fact, we saw diversity in terms of congregation size, clothing fashion, and number of women wrapped in talitot, but we were pretty much looking at white faces.
We decided, instead, to seek out a friendly environment and were busy on Friday nights, checking out services at Reform and Conservative synagogues.
We had thought Reform was our best bet, but it was actually a Conservative synagogue where the rabbi hopped down off the bimah while the cantor was leading a prayer, to say hello. He was very friendly and very genuine and made us feel right at home, if a little singled out. We introduced each other and he promised to chat during the oneg, which we did.
OK, this was a place where we might integrate the congregation but at least we felt welcomed. There was a smattering of diversity; I was sure I saw an Asian face.
When we signed up for Hebrew School, though, it turned out that we had hit the jackpot. Maya would be in the third grade class with a bunch of boys, which was her preference at that stage. But, somehow, Ari entered a preschool Hebrew class with four other children: one with two black parents, one from a single-mother-by-choice family, and another with an Asian mother. And one plain old double-Caucasian girl.
The older generations at the synagogue were all white, but Ari’s class gave us hope that the future would be more colorful and that our children wouldn’t be alone in ushering in that changing demographic. Maybe when they go shul shopping they won’t need to look so hard.
“Is she converting?”
“Clearly, she is not from around here, I wonder if she is even Jewish.”
“She must be someone’s nanny…”
These were not just the petty thoughts of those who saw me with my mother, but also at times the actual words spoken. Did these people aim to offend and to distance us? I pray not, but somehow and sometimes, the natural tendency of those who experience something foreign is to immediately cause distance for the sake retaining his/her individual comfort.
While our synagogue, school, corporate and communal settings include the value of diversity as a central tenet in their mission statements, it is all but natural to grow suspicious of the stranger and to create a distance, a separateness, and the “not me, not my problem,” mentality. Our mixed race family never asked to be objectified, and turned into a lifeless color scheme of browns and whites. All we wanted, and still want like others like us, is to dwell among our tribe(s) with respect, validity and with a communal concern for our well-being.
We see in this week’s Torah portion that Avram (later Avraham) recognized the need to distance himself from his nephew Lot, while making sure that he would remain a relevant presence; that a song of many notes not only can, but should exist in harmony. From the pathway of soulless objectivity to the recognition of pulsing subjectivity; from “someone else will welcome them,” to “I will welcome them!:”
“And Avram said… ‘Please let there be no fighting between me and you and between your shepherds and my shepherds, for we are men who are brothers. Is not the whole land before us, please separate from me, if you go left, I will go right, if you go right I will go left (13:8).’
Yes. Indeed, there are times when we must turn away from the other. When being around opposition does threaten our comforts and existence. For when that situation presents itself, it is in our very best interest to curl our backs; to skirt all potential communication and to distance ourselves…
But when? and how?! How do I harmoniously keep inclusion as a central value in my life, while also recognizing the need for boundaries? Should I debase the humanistic qualities of the other, like the Pharoah of Egypt, and the Haman and Hitler of yesteryear? No! Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher (Cologne, 13th century) taught that allowing for borders and boundaries to exist is the recipe needed for containing and creating Shalom, it is what builds us up, not breaks us down.
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Troyes, 11th century) suggests, that the meaning of Avraham’s statement “please separate from me” is not to convey that there shall be an eternal severance between the two, but rather “where your dwell, I will not distance myself from you, and I will stand by you as protector and a helper.” That although we must remain separate, I will never objectify you, I will keep you close to me.
As we open our eyes to the other, let us remember that like Avram, it is OK to create borders with she who is different than you, but only, only when it does not objectify them. Only when who they are is so important to who you are. Where their border is your border; where their needs are your needs. Then it will be, that our hearts will soar and join, in the call for diversity.
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Sukkot appears to be one holiday in which the Moroccan and Ashkenazic customs and rituals are fairly similar. We both use the lulav and etrog and we both build a sukkah. I imagine that the sukkah building materials might have differed in Morocco than the materials my family used in London, England and before that in Russia and Poland.
One thing that do I know was different was the temperature outside when sitting or sleeping in the sukkah. My husband, Motti, is not sure about whether families slept in their sukkot during the holiday back in Morocco though the average temperatures in Casablanca during the months of September and October range from 66 – 73 degrees Fahrenheit (I checked!) so it does seem possible. He does, however, remember once sleeping in the sukkah as a kid in Beersheva, but it did not seem to be a family tradition.
My paternal great grandfather, on the other hand, did sleep in the sukkah and had an ingenious way of dealing with the London rain. He had a retractable roof which he used when the weather was not cooperating. Apparently he always slept outside during the holiday which is remarkable when you consider the rain and the chilly temperatures (55-61 Fahrenheit on average – yeah I checked that out too!).
Here is New Jersey, we do not sleep outside, but we do have an annual gathering in our sukkah on the second day of Sukkot in which we tend to play, “Can we outdo ourselves again this year?” Perhaps I’m a little insane, but I have kept track of my guests and menus for all Jewish holidays, plus Thanksgiving, for about the last 12 years or so. Subsequently, although my friends may not recall what was for dessert on Sukkot 2012 or 2013, I know and often don’t want to repeat myself so soon.
At the same time our guests have also developed a fondness for certain dishes such as Motti’s vegetable soup (a self-created item that technically is always changing!) and his myriad of Moroccan/Israeli salads including, but certainly not limited to, roasted peppers and various eggplant dishes. Our friends look forward to our Sukkot lunch and can name certain favorites that they hope will top the menu this year. I too have made some dishes along the way which are also enjoyed by our guests including Moroccan fish and baklava, the latter perhaps not so Moroccan, but passed along to me by my Tunisian sister-in-law Shosh and made by other family members. Please take note that it is not as difficult to make as you think as long as you are not planning to make the filo dough yourself.
This year we are bringing out a few of the old time favorites and trying some new dishes. We will see what works and what if anything makes its way into the Benisty top ten. In the meantime, I recommend trying the roasted peppers and baklava when you get the chance. You won’t regret it!
8 pepper of varying colors
Juice from ½ a lemon
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
1) Grill the peppers until soft. This can be done on an outdoor grill, over an open gas flame or under the broiler. Make sure the skins are blackened all over.
2) Place the peppers in a paper bag while warm and close. Leave to cool to aid in peeling. Then peel skins off the peppers so that no skins are left.
3) Peel the blackened skins off the peppers and slice the peppers into ½ inch strips.
4) Mix the peppers with the lemon juice, olive oil, sliced garlic and salt.
5) Refrigerate any leftovers.
Note that this dish will keep for several days.
Baklava appears as a favorite dish through the Middle East. Filo dough one of its essential ingredients can be found in many grocery stores and specialty markets but be sure to check the date to assure buying fresh products.
1 package filo dough (20 sheets) return any left over sheets to the freezer
2 sticks margarine, melted
1 pound chopped walnuts
½ cup sugar
4-5 ounces of honey
1) Defrost filo sheets/leaves as per the instructions on the box.
2) Grease an oblong pan or baking sheet
3) Brush half the leaves (ten) completely with the margarine one at a time on one side only. Arrange them one on top of the other in the pan.
4) Mix together walnuts, sugar and cinnamon
5) Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the prepared filo sheets.
6) Repeat step three with the rest of the filo sheets.
7) Freeze for one hour.
8) Remove from freezer and cut completely through dough making diagonal lines in both directions so that little diamond shapes are formed throughout the dough.
9) Bake in a 400 degree oven for about a half hour, but check after 20 minutes to make sure that the dough does not begin to burn.
10) Remove from oven and pour the honey over the diagonal cuts in the pastry. Let honey absorb, cool and serve.
Celebrating Sukkot on the Canadian shores of Lake Ontario, as I did as a child, was fraught with complications. Evening temperatures often necessitated hats and heaters and our hot soup cooled before it had a chance to warm our insides. But the thrill of the holiday, the opportunity to sit out on nights it did not rain, under the green and the stars made it worthwhile. We lived in a middle-sized city with a small Jewish population but on our block there were two other families who sat in Sukkot. Our differing approaches to religion meant that we rarely shared meals but sitting out in the back yard we could hear each other repeat the same blessings and sing the same tunes and with that, our community felt expansive, our medley of practice seamless, and being Jewish was perfect.
That expansive safe inclusive feeling is essential to Sukkot. The holiday, which follows the hopefulness of Rosh Hashanah and the solemnity Yom Kippur, has us sitting in huts for seven days of ‘our joy,’ as our tradition calls this holiday. Sitting in Sukkot is supposed to remind us of the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land. Though the people of Israel complained pretty much non-stop during the trek, it was in many ways a pretty wonderful time. Despite living in temporary dwellings, throughout, they were guided by God’s presence; they were provided with ample food and drink in a dry, sparse dessert landscape. Outsiders attacked them but God assured their safety. And those who wandered in the wilderness knew God through miracles and revelation. Temporary and rough though it might have been, in many ways it was a time of joy and possibility like no other. Jews of many tribes lived together in peace, they had deep sense of the holy in their midst and their basic needs were more than adequately take care of. Being Jewish was perfect.
As the celebration of Sukkot nears, I’ve been thinking about what it takes to make a perfect Jewish space—even if only a temporary one. For my daughter that place has been summer camp. For my son, it is his school fall retreat. I’ve been blessed over the years to have many temporary Jewish spaces that capture the expansive, inclusive, joyful feeling that Sukkot is meant to inspire but one that has gained particular meaning for me in the last few years is the Be’chol Lashon Family Camp.
Every fall, Be’chol Lashon organizes a weekend of Jewish learning, living and sharing in the rolling hills just north of San Francisco. Like the Sukkot singing of my childhood, the diversity of this community helps me experience the Jewish world as inclusive and accepting. There are people of all ages, races, sexual orientations, family configurations. Some people come alone, others come with several generations in tow. There are many different kinds of religious Jews and secular Jews too. The scholars-in-residence have ranged over the years from Indian-American artist Siona Benjamin, to chef and Afro-culinary historian Michael Twitty, to this year’s Rabbi Gershom Sizomu from Uganda. This range embodies my belief that there are many ways to be a Jewish leader and help me to see the full vibrancy of modern Jewish life. Black, Asian, Latino and white Jews share meals having serious conversations about race as well as fun and silly discussions about pop culture. It is a safe space and one in which Jewish life is inclusive, expansive and vibrant. And though it is temporary, like Sukkot, the retreat gives me hope and inspires me for the complexities of daily Jewish life.
Literally and figuratively Sukkot are essential for Jewish life. We all need oases where we feel the pure joy of being Jewish in an accepting, inclusive safe environment. Just as the holiday of Sukkot gives us hope during the somber High Holy days, having a Jewish space that lives up to your vision of Jewish community—even if temporary—can fuel the fullness of Jewish life at other times. Creating or finding that space, can be as challenging as wandering in the dessert or sitting in a Sukkah with a space heater, but making the effort is definitely worth your while.