Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Canvas I Carry

I've long looked upon the face as an art piece. It can say so many things to different people. Faces are fascinating to me. I could spend hours gazing at people. The longer you look at someone, the more you see. There's a moment where a face clicks differently - I've looked at the whole face, the features, seen the angles from which they may not work well together, seen the beauty, and then suddenly, it's all there, layered together, each version hovering over the other.

I love when it clicks. I love when I can see the beauty and the strangeness concurrently. It's like knowing your friends well enough that you can love them yet also not like things about them; it just comes together - it finally make sense. After I had my first daughter, I would look at her face, seeing her as an infant, as a grandmother, as a young woman - all of those faces there, together, melding into one Gus truth, of which I was only literally witnessing the infancy.

When I was in high school, someone tried to put me down by telling me I was on the pretty sign of plain. Little did she know I'm a head case, and I went home that day and sat in front of the mirror, inspecting my face for angles and expressions that would be not pretty, not ugly, but literally plain. I found them, then looked for the ugly, looked for the beauty. And once I found them, I could see it all together, and I started to search for that level of intimate familiarity in others.

In a way I've always been both insecure and very sure about my face. For a long time I was ready to take any criticism of myself and make it my perspective. That exercise, where I found the flaws for myself and learned how they were also points of beauty, made me more resilient. Yes, I was raised to be strong in the face of people questioning my birthmark. But if not for that awful girl, I'd never have been prepared for the boyfriend who took issue with the creases in my lips, who only told me about the ugly and the plain he saw within me.

I'm always interested to hear what people think when they see, what they see when they look. Today I posted a shot where it's all in the eye of the beholder - do you focus on the eyes (the source of beauty in most faces, to me), or do you see the frizzy hair, chubby cheeks, the dark smudges under my eyes? Is the birthmark complimentary color, or a horrid disfigurement? It's all in where you put the focus, and I thank that stupid girl for teaching me a wonderful life lesson.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Rosh Chodesh Tammuz 5773

This marks our fourth Rosh Chodesh gathering. I coordinate the gatherings specifically for women because Rosh Chodesh is designated a women's holiday. It got me thinking this month - what is it about women that we get a monthly holiday set aside just for us when there are no holidays that are designated just for men?

For my bat mitzva, I studied women in Jewish history. As I was thinking about the women yesterday, it occurred to me that while the main characters in our stories, books, and Tanach tend to be men, there is a constant theme of women moving the plot ahead. The women who came immediately to mind were Rivka, who ensured Yaakov got the birthright, Rachael who is considered mother to us all (and I will delve in to Rachael's contribution a little more in the dvar Torah itself), Serach bat Asher, who told her grandfather that her uncle Yosef was still alive, Yocheved, Miriam, Batya, Serach again upon leaving Egypt, Tziporah who had the faith to give her son the brit mila Moshe couldn't and all the way through to our more recent history where pregnant women his their pregnancies during the Holocaust, and found ways to give their sons a brit mila even in the worst circumstances. Our men are wonderful, but it's the women who determine what the lives of the family and the future of Am Yisrael will be. And we recognize that each month, that this often hidden part of Judaism is actually the root of the living tree.

Rosh Chodesh Tammuz - Mourning and Salvation

The only 'holiday' in תמוז is שבעה עשר בתמוז - a fast day that commemorates the walls of Jerusalem being breached by the Romans before the destruction of the 2nd בית המקדש.

שבעה עשר בתמוז starts a 3-week mourning period which deepens on ראש חודש אב culminates in the major fast of תשעה באב.

שבעה עשר בתמוז is historically a sad day for  משנה תענית .עם ישראל 4:6 cites 5 calamities on this day:
1. It is 40 days from the day Moshe ascended to הר סיני. That makes it the day that he returned, the day he saw the golden calf, חטא העגל. And hence, it is the day that the לוחות were broken.
2. During the siege of Jerusalem in the era of the 1st בית המקדש, in 423 BCE it was the date that the daily burnt offering ceased to be brought in the Temple as life had been so thoroughly disrupted, a short 3 weeks before the destruction of the בית המקדש.
3. The walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans in 70 CE.
4. Apostomus, a Roman general, burnt a תורה scroll shortly before בר כוכבא's revolt, about 132 CE.
5. At about the same time, an idol was placed in the בית המקדש either by Apostomus or by King Menashe.

We've been in a long-term low-grade suspended state of mourning for the בית המקדש ever since. We daven to return not just to Jerusalem and the בית המקדש, but to re-establish a monarchy there.

This month we will be reading about בנות צלפחד, whose father died either due to collecting wood on שבת, for which he was executed, or in an attempt to get to ארץ ישראל. A group of men couldn't bear the thought of waiting 40 year to get to Israel and headed out on their own to get to the land and were all sadly killed. Either way, צלפחד left behind 5 daughters and no sons - Machla, Noa, Chagla, Milka, and Tirtza.

These women approached משה to ensure they could inherit their father's plot of land in Israel, as they were preparing by allocating land to every family. At the time, the הלכה was that only sons could inherit, but these 5 sisters so badly wanted inherit that they asked for special counsel. משה took the question straight to 'ה, and 'ה affirmed that the sisters were correct - they could inherit.

The timing of the request is strange. צלפחד had died in the 2nd year in the desert. משה was dealing with a nation that didn't want to go to Israel because they were fearful of being killed, a nation that had started to romanticize life in Egypt. Egypt! We just had a holiday a few months ago about how hard life was as slaves, and yet they were asking to go back. And even so, here came these 5 sisters demanding their portion of the land.

Were they after money? If they were, why would they have waited 38 years? They would have asked for his cattle immediately. They would have collected his his possessions and money long before if that was what they were after. They were there for the love of the land.

The woman most closely aligned with this 3-week period of mourning is רחל אמנו. Our tradition holds that of all the people advocating for us, it is רחל who truly speaks on our behalf ('ירמהיו ל'א: יד'-טו)

יד  כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה, קוֹל בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע נְהִי בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים--רָחֵל, מְבַכָּה עַל-בָּנֶיהָ; מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם עַל-בָּנֶיהָ, כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ.  {ס}14 Thus saith the LORD: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children; she refuseth to be comforted for her children, because they are not. {S}
טו  כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה, מִנְעִי קוֹלֵךְ מִבֶּכִי, וְעֵינַיִךְ, מִדִּמְעָה:  כִּי יֵשׁ שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ נְאֻם-יְהוָה, וְשָׁבוּ מֵאֶרֶץ אוֹיֵב.15 Thus saith the LORD: Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears; for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the LORD; and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.

First, note that while Leah in her life was marked by eyes reddened from shedding tears, it is רחל אמנו who we picture crying for eternity. הבל היופי - beauty is fleeting.

Jewish tradition holds that these פסוקים in ירמיהו are THE source for our belief that there will be an eventual geulah, that God will bring us back from the exile He imposed upon us. A promise made to a woman, to a mother, crying on behalf of her children - and all of עם ישראל.

The תורה introduces the sisters with a listing of their lineage ('במדבר כ'ז: א):

א  וַתִּקְרַבְנָה בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד, בֶּן-חֵפֶר בֶּן-גִּלְעָד בֶּן-מָכִיר בֶּן-מְנַשֶּׁה, לְמִשְׁפְּחֹת, מְנַשֶּׁה בֶן-יוֹסֵף; וְאֵלֶּה, שְׁמוֹת בְּנֹתָיו--מַחְלָה נֹעָה, וְחָגְלָה וּמִלְכָּה וְתִרְצָה.1 Then drew near the daughters of Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph; and these are the names of his daughters: Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah.

Why bother giving us a lineage? It could have simply said בנות צלפחד of the tribe of מנשה. And why emphasize מנשה בן יוסף? We know who מנשה is!

As anyone in attendance at our first ראש חודש gathering will remember, יוסף so loved the Israel that he made עם ישראל promise to take his bones and bury him there. The notion of Egypt as his final resting place was painful for him. Before the Jews could leave Egypt, משה wandered for 3 days, looking for Yosef's bones. And Serach bat Asher, the only person still living who had come down to Egypt in the original group with יעקב walked him to the Nile. The Egyptians knew that the slaves would not leave without Yosef, so they coated his casket and sank it to the bottom of the river. Serach helped Moshe locate Yosef, and Moshe carried his bones through the desert because Yosef so loved the land. Yosef ben Rachael.

The daughters of צלפחד, descendants of יוסף and רחל אמנו - they are the ones who point us towards the path of fulfilling the promise 'ה made to Rachael. With love for the land guiding us, we will return.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Rosh Chodesh Sivan, 5773 - T'filat HaShlah

כי על כן באתי לבקש ולחנן מלפניך שיהא זרעי וזרע זרעי זרע כשר. ואל תמצא בזרעי ובזרע זרעי עד עולם שום פסול ושמץ.
It is for this reason that I come to ask and plead before you that my children and the children of my children should be kosher (upright) offspring, that no blemish or imperfection be found in my children or grandchildren...

This month is Sivan, month of שבועות, the time in which we received the תורה, and the חג in which we read מגילת רות.

Sivan's sign is twins, which we call Gemini in English. One way of understanding twinness is by looking ar duality, which we experience daily living in a physical world as a spiritual being.

Rut's most famous descendant was בועז .דוד המלך, her 2nd husband, was descended from פרץ, one of the twins born to תמר via her secret pregnancy with בועז .יהודה and רות had a son עובד, father of ישי, father of דוד.

רות is portrayed as an ideal heroine - inspired by her mother-in-law נעמי, she ;eaves behind her position as princess with the wealth, protection, and opportunity that it afforded her, and followed נעמי back to a Jewish life of poverty and uncertainty in a land full of turmoil. What's not to like? She's quite impressive - even with the awkward seduction at the threshing floor. But I have never related to רות on a deep level.

Instead it is her great-grandson (my ancestor) דוד המלך to whom I relate. דוד was the youngest of his family and it seems that he wasn't taken seriously by many. Even after he was chosen as king, his own family had a low opinion of him and didn't want him around (Shmuel A, chapter 17):

כו  וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִד, אֶל-הָאֲנָשִׁים הָעֹמְדִים עִמּוֹ לֵאמֹר, מַה-יֵּעָשֶׂה לָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יַכֶּה אֶת-הַפְּלִשְׁתִּי הַלָּז, וְהֵסִיר חֶרְפָּה מֵעַל יִשְׂרָאֵל:  כִּי מִי, הַפְּלִשְׁתִּי הֶעָרֵל הַזֶּה, כִּי חֵרֵף, מַעַרְכוֹת אֱלֹהִים חַיִּים.26 And David spoke to the men that stood by him, saying: 'What shall be done to the man that killeth this Philistine, and taketh away the taunt from Israel? for who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should have taunted the armies of the living God?'
כז  וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ הָעָם, כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה לֵאמֹר:  כֹּה יֵעָשֶׂה, לָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יַכֶּנּוּ.27 And the people answered him after this manner, saying: 'So shall it be done to the man that killeth him.'
כח  וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלִיאָב אָחִיו הַגָּדוֹל, בְּדַבְּרוֹ אֶל-הָאֲנָשִׁים; וַיִּחַר-אַף אֱלִיאָב בְּדָוִד וַיֹּאמֶר לָמָּה-זֶּה יָרַדְתָּ, וְעַל-מִי נָטַשְׁתָּ מְעַט הַצֹּאן הָהֵנָּה בַּמִּדְבָּר--אֲנִי יָדַעְתִּי אֶת-זְדֹנְךָ וְאֵת רֹעַ לְבָבֶךָ, כִּי לְמַעַן רְאוֹת הַמִּלְחָמָה יָרָדְתָּ.28 And Eliab his eldest brother heard when he spoke unto the men; and Eliab's anger was kindled against David, and he said: 'Why art thou come down? and with whom hast thou left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know thy presumptuousness, and the naughtiness of thy heart; for thou art come down that thou mightest see the battle.'
כט  וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִד, מֶה עָשִׂיתִי עָתָּה; הֲלוֹא, דָּבָר הוּא.29 And David said: 'What have I now done? Was it not but a word?'

דוד was, even in this short account, a little difficult. He is not simply like רות, willing to let go of a former self and life to dedicate himself to God - he is a fiery daring boy who challenges his eldest brother and even the sitting king.

And he wins.

דוד continues to be a flawed character. In his excitement at recovering the ark he danced in the street, scantily dressed, setting off a quarrel with his beloved מיכל who felt he made a fool of his station. When she confronted him, he responded with angry prideful words.

דוד lied to his friend אחימלך about being an emissary from שאול, acquiring food and weapons. אחימלך and 85 other כהנים were killed in retribution.

דוד was so angered by נבל's refusal to help him while on the run from שאול that he was going to attack - until נבל ,אביגיל's beautiful wife, rode to him and made peace. When נבל learned of what had happened, he had a stroke, dying 10 days later. דוד then married אביגיל.

And of course - דוד & בתשבע, an episode that included possible adultery and the death of בתשבע ,אוריה's husband.

So... why am I listing off so many of דוד's infamous exploits?

Because even with that, we have a duality in דוד. He was a poet, a seeker of God, whose kingdom we pray to reestablish.

In times of trouble, torment, and joy we sing and recite his poems, our תהלים.

R. Samuel b. Nahmani said in R. Jonathan's name: Whoever says that David sinned is merely erring, for it is said, And David behaved himself wisely in all his ways: and the Lord was with him. Is it possible that sin came to his hand, yet the Divine Presence was with him? Then how do I interpret, Wherefore hast thou despised the word of the Lord, to do that which is evil in his sight? He wished to do [evil], but did not. (translation via

What was דוד's sin then?

Nathan the prophet approached דוד with a story of two men with sheep, rich and poor, in which the rich man took the poor man's sheep.

דוד was outraged - righteous indignation! Shmuel B, chapter 12

ה  וַיִּחַר-אַף דָּוִד בָּאִישׁ, מְאֹד; וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-נָתָן, חַי-יְהוָה, כִּי בֶן-מָוֶת הָאִישׁ הָעֹשֶׂה זֹאת.5 And David's anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan: 'As the LORD liveth, the man that hath done this deserveth to die;
  וַיֹּאמֶר נָתָן אֶל-דָּוִד, אַתָּה הָאִישׁ.7 And Nathan said to David: 'Thou art the man. 

When we die, each of us will be given a hypothetical situation to judge. When we show righteous indignation and proclaim a fate, that will become our fate.

To go off on one more tangent before I bring this all together: A few years ago I was in the car with my parents. While we were talking, I asked my father what my one major, over-riding flaw was; what was the one big thing that needed to change? I waited to hear the wisdom that would come from his mouth, unlocking my entire future, giving me a goal to work towards, a trait to overcome. My father sat silently, chewing his lip for a good 5 minutes. With each passing second, my anticipation grew. Finally, he turned and looked at me and said "Nothing. Don't change a thing. Not you, and not your siblings." I was gob-smacked.

When we daven that our offspring should have no flaws, we're really davening that their flaws shouldn't be judged!

In this month where we became HaShem's children, we remember דוד's anger and the תפילה of the של''ה הקודש. We teach our children to judge one another favorably, so God will ultimately judge them as they have judged others; that God see our children as His children, with no blemish or imperfection.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Most Influential

I hate this trend of most influential lists and 36 Under 36. First off, and not to knock anyone on the list, some of the people singled out by the Jewish Week don't seem to be doing anything particularly unique. I'm a bit confused about why their profiles were listed for all to see and I kind of want my time back after reading them.

Influence and success, like beauty, are very much in the eye of the beholder. Influence in particular is a question of happenstance - did you talk to one of the thousands of people who follow someone's Twitter feed? Did you hear about someone from their proud grandmother? It's a little unclear how these lists are assessed.

I keep joking about making my own list, but in all seriousness, I have some really awesome friends (and one awesome spouse-friend, as well). Some have been honored publicly, some haven't, but many are deserving of recognition. In fact, the one thing that's held me back from creating a list is how absurdly long it would be - my feminist friends kicking down doors in the dati world, my inventive husband who dared to include UN ambassadors at Friday night dinners in the Hamptons, my friend Josh who tweets his very absolutist take on life and Judaism, the VERY MANY mothers and fathers out there critically thinking and introducing fantastic bits of life to their offspring (and sharing it with the rest of us), the friends who have gone for graduate degrees and beyond, building careers I'm frankly envious of...

So, yes - single out Jason Lieberman. He was dealt a hand I would not have handled with such grace and humor, and he is dedicated to raising awareness of disabilities in communities across the country. He stands head and shoulders above most (although not literally, even with his crutches). He does what few out there can or would do, and I know that to Jason the great benefit of being singled out is not what it will do to his Klout number, but that it fits with his ultimate goal of raising awareness.

Congratulation to Jason on his honor - he is representative of the many amazing friends I have accumulated over the years, and I'm glad the larger world now knows about his life's work.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Rosh Chodesh Iyar 5773 Dvar Torah

I had the honor of learning much of VaYikra in depth while at Drisha under the tutelage of Tammy Jacobowitz. That year I was pregnant with Gus, learning about marriage (and breastfeeding) in Ktuvot, and learning about the midrashim on Tazria with Tammy. Sefer VaYikra will now always have a special place in my heart.

For Rosh Chodesh Iyar, I'm going to share this thought inspired by Parshat Tazria, which is the first Parsha of the month:

Tazria starts with the following 5 psukim -
א וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.
 ב דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר, אִשָּׁה כִּי תַזְרִיעַ, וְיָלְדָה זָכָר--וְטָמְאָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, כִּימֵי נִדַּת דְּו‍ֹתָהּ תִּטְמָא.
 ג וּבַיּוֹם, הַשְּׁמִינִי, יִמּוֹל, בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ.
 ד וּשְׁלֹשִׁים יוֹם וּשְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים, תֵּשֵׁב בִּדְמֵי טָהֳרָה; בְּכָל-קֹדֶשׁ לֹא-תִגָּע, וְאֶל-הַמִּקְדָּשׁ לֹא תָבֹא, עַד-מְלֹאת, יְמֵי טָהֳרָהּ.
 ה וְאִם-נְקֵבָה תֵלֵד, וְטָמְאָה שְׁבֻעַיִם כְּנִדָּתָהּ; וְשִׁשִּׁים יוֹם וְשֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, תֵּשֵׁב עַל-דְּמֵי טָהֳרָה.
1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying:
2 Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If a woman be inseminated, and bear a male, then she shall be tamei seven days; as in the days of the ilness of her niddah shall she be tamei.
3 And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.
4 And she shall continue in the tahor blood thirty-three days; she shall touch no kadosh thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purification be fulfilled.
 5 But if she bear a female, then she shall be tamei two weeks, as in her niddah state; and she shall continue in the blood of purification sixty-six days.

There's a lot to unpack here. Unfortunately we don't have time for it all. We're going to look at one spcific point - Why does childbirth render a woman טָמְאָה?

It's important to note that Biblically speaking, after the initial 7/14 days, a woman would go to the מקוה and no longer be in the state of niddah. In modern times we are in a niddah state until the postpartum bleeding stops, which is usually 6 weeks after birth, but biblically that state was only for the first 7 or 14 days while the bleeding after was some form of טָהֳרָה. The קֹדֶשׁ she couldn't touch was only in the בית המקדש. The רמב''ם actually suggests (Moreh Nevuchim, 3:47) that the system of people becoming טמא was a method of crowd control for the בית המקדש.

Blood itself does not render a person טמא. There was blood all around the sactrificial area of the בית המקדש , and there was no admonition regarding people who were bleeding from a wound.

So, to go back to Pasuk ג - after 7 days of altered status, a woman was טהור, able to join her husband fully. And on the next day, after the completion of 7 days, there was a public שמחה.

But why was she טמא in the first place? We know that death, or - if you prefer - the negation of life, can create a state of טומאה; hence being טמא after attending a funeral or when we have our period. The negation of life, of potential, of connection to God, changes our status momentarily.

The overly pat answer I received in high school and have heard many times since is that the טומאה comes upon giving birth because a woman can't get pregnant right then and is therefore in an altered state. I hate this answer. It's ridiculous. If that were the calculus, we'd be a niddah most of our cycle and טהור only the few days during which we can get pregnant. And then post-menopausal women would be in a permanent state of טומאה, yet the opposite is true.

In his book 'New Interpretations on the Parsha', R' Yehuda Henkin suggests an alternative that I greatly appreciate (page 94):
The rock on which this explanation founders, however, is childbirth. Why is a woman impure after childbirth? Nothing seems further from death and decay than bringing a child into the world. Even if birth involves an element of illness for the mother, why should that outweigh the emergence of a new being?
The answer, it seems to me, is that not only death and decay are opposed to the idea of God, but birth as well. HaShem does not die, but neither is be born. The flux of human life, birth and death together, is antithetical to God's immutable and eternal nature. Tum'ah represents the waxing as well of the waning of life and has no place in the Sanctuary, the abode of the Eternal. For that reason a woman in childbirth is impure, for nothing is less God-like than the cycle of generation (Dani's note - this would also explain why a man is tamei after sex).
This can explain several of the laws of purity and sacrifices. Why is a woman impure for one week if a boy is born, but two weeks if she gives birth to a girl? Because the female is the more visible link in the reproductive chain.

So... how does this relate to the meaning of Iyar?

Just 2 days ago we commemorated יום השואה, and in 5 days time, we'll be moving from יום הזיכרון to יום העצמות.

Nothing sums up the cycle of modern Jewry's death and birth quite like this one week. It is a week of remembrance, mourning, and distance from daily life. After 7 days, the week culminates in a joyous celebration of our newly reborn land - a public שמחה.

There is no better cycle for this month than אייר. During אייר we count ספירה, which brings with it laws of mourning - we don't cut our hair, we don't listen to live music, we don't go to movies. And then we suspend it all for one day - the 33rd day. And we celebrate.

אייר's duality reflects back the cycle of Jewish loss and Jewish triumph. In this month we embrace our humanity, our very mortality. Our lives cycle up and down, but God is constant - as we experience אייר, we prepare for סיון and the end of the 7-week cycle - we have a public  שבועות ,שמחה, in which we can fully embrace life and קדשים again.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

ABC Dinners - 'C' Night

After the massive success of our 2nd dinner, I really wanted to knock it out of the park for the 3rd.

Unfortunately, instead of focusing on what worked for 'B' night, I decided to push it and challenge the kids.
So brilliant me came up with chowder and cornbread for dinner.

Now, I should back up and explain how much I hate fish. Hate, despise, avoid... I can sometimes eat tuna, sometimes eat gefilte fish, and sometimes tolerate sushi. I've eaten actual salmon 3 times in my life. Mostly, the smell throws me. And if it's at all over-cooked, the taste and texture make me gag.

So, brilliant! Why not make a fish soup!? Yes, yes, so smart - not just a fish soup, but one with an onion base, because there's nothing my daughter hates more than fish, besides onions.

Spectacular planning on the Momma front.

I will point out that the issue is not with the recipe. It's with the audience I chose to serve it to.
My local store didn't have halibut, so I picked another white fish that was reasonably not insanely expensive. I see all the qualifiers I used in the sentence, and I meant every one of them.

Cod? I have no clue.

Side note - if I had chopped the onions a lot more finely, there's a distinct possibility that the soup would have been more palatable to child #1. As it was, the onions and potatoes both were cooked, but not as soft as they should have been.

I cut the fish pretty finely, but the textures in the soup DID NOT meld. I admit - I was rushing it a little. Totally my mistake.

And I didn't use generous amounts of white pepper because I was scared of over-seasoning for the kids' palettes.

So, that was a disaster. Of such proportions that I believe I skipped photographing the results. I ate the soup, and it was okay, but as I mentioned, the textures were off because the fish was soft and the potatoes and onions were nowhere near as soft. So I was able to eat it, but didn't exactly rush to get a 2nd bowl. The kids cried during dinner.

I also made some super awesome yummy cheesey cauliflower
that the kids hated. I couldn't stop eating it.

The saving grace?

I have now made this recipe about 40 times since we had our 'C' dinner, and it's been wildly successful each time. And it's so quick, and so easy! We make it in an 8x8 pan or in a muffin pan, and either way, it's gone pretty quickly. I have to consciously hold myself back from over-mixing the wet into the dry - it's really good. If you're looking for a sweeter corn muffin, add some agave to the mix. I haven't yet, but it should give you a lot of sweet for not much more liquid. You could also drizzle honey over the muffins right after you take them out of the oven.

WAIT. It gets better.

The night had gone so badly that I decided a repeat was in order.

I made Cheesey Cauliflower SOUP, thinking it would go over better than the cheesey cauliflower had. I was so wrong!

But I made cornbread again.

Anyhow, I made this soup:

It was awesome. Amazing. SO GOOD. Kids hated it, wouldn't touch it, and had butter on cornbread for dinner.

I decided to move on. You can read about our 'D' adventures soon!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Kitniyot - Modern US Custom (2009)

Kitniyot - Modern US Custom (2009)

The Kosher world in the United States is very different than that of a hundred years ago, or ever known previously in history.  As food production moved from the home to the factories, the intricacies of Kashruth interfered with the ability of a Kosher-observant person to purchase certain processed items.  An organization called the Orthodox Union, or the OU, a non-profit group that represented centrist American Jewry, was the first to act as a non-profit in the world of Kosher certification, and held themselves to strict standards.  Today the OU is the largest and most well-known Kosher certifying agency, with companies across the world.  I spent almost two years working there, in the Kashruth devision, answering consumer questions about Kashruth and OU-Specific Kashruth policies.

In an ideal world, each individual Kosher consumer would be personally familiar with the provenance of every food item in his or her home.  In today's world of processed foods and foods shipped across the country and world, that is an impossibility.  A Kosher certifying agency takes the place of the individual consumer, checking the ingredients, facility, and equipment to make sure it's up to Kosher par.  The basic system of marking items is divided into Kosher Parve, Kosher Dairy, Kosher Meat, Kosher Fish, Kosher Dairy Equipment, Kosher Meat Equipment, and Kosher for Passover (which will be listed with appropriately designated Dairy, Meat, etc markings).

The mashgiach, or Kosher inspector, must not only know that the ingredients themselves are Kosher, he or she must know specifically how they are made.  For example, some foods that are calcium-enriched have a form of calcium which was derived from dairy substances.  If there is enough of a proportion of this ingredient to the final product, the product will be marked Dairy.  The mashgiach is in regular contact with the companies he or she supervises, and has the full cooperation of the company, factory supervisor, and workers.

While the OU is the most well-known Kosher supervising agency, there are 4 others that are nationally known and accepted in the Orthodox community: the OK, the Star-K, and the Kaf-K, and the CRC.  While they all rely on the OU for its in-depth information, the actual policies of the various agencies do differ slightly, and this is seen mostly in the local communities of the agencies.  For the duration of this paper, we will be comparing the agencies' policies regarding both Kitniyot in general, and quinoa specifically.

The OU is based in Manhattan, but is the primary agency that most American communities rely on, as it is affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America, which is a large association for American Orthodox Rabbis.  The Kof-K is based in Teaneck, NJ, and some of the New Jersey community rely on the Kof-K more than the OU, although they work closely together.  In fact, when I called the Kof-K to ask about their Kitniyot list, the person I spoke to told me that they use the list they get from the OU (this turned out to not be 100% true).  The Star-K is a Baltimore-based agency, and has gained some footholds in the right-wing spectrum, as the Baltimore community is generally a right-wing one.  The CRC is based in Chicago, and is also closely aligned with the OU.  The OK declined to send their list of Kitniyot.

Following is a chart of the different products I have found each organization to list as either Kitniyot, not Kitniyot, or something to be avoided. While some items were not addressed by all agencies, I included as much as I could find to give a sense of how central this minhag has become to Passover observance.  Note specifically the items that are listed as Kitniyot by some agencies, and not as Kitniyot by others.  Also note the degree to which some of the agencies warn their consumers away from specific ingredients:

As one can imagine, this causes quite the headache for consumers who are trying to be careful regarding the minhag of Kitniyot.  Even worse, agencies contradict themselves within their own literature in regards to quinoa, a more recently discovered grain that has become popular for use on Passover.

As seen in the chart above, the OU has published the information that quinoa is questionable and should be avoided.  However, when I worked at the OU, I was instructed in a different manner.  The response I wrote is still on their online FAQ page, and I quote:

Quinoa is not one of the five grains that can create chametz (wheat, oat, barley, spelt and rye). Nonetheless, there is a difference of opinion among Rabbinic decisors (machloketh haposkim) as to whether quinoa is considered kitniyoth (Ashkenazic custom is not to eat kitniyoth on Pesach). We suggest asking your local Orthodox Rabbi if it is or is not kitniyoth.
It should be noted that although Quinoa is not grown in the same vicinity as the five chometz grains mentioned above, the processing of Quinoa is often done at the same facility where they process wheat. Therefore, if you rely on the lenient opinion and treat quinoa as non-kitniyoth, we suggest that you sift through the quinoa to make sure that there are no other grains mixed in. (

Quinoa is allowed by the Star-K, and they indeed have a full article on their website proclaiming the wonders of this “Grain That's Not” ( The Star-K even includes instructions on how to prepare the delicate grain.  The Kof-K states that the custom is not to use it.

In my position at the OU, I was sent to the offices of the two head decisors for the OU with a question about hemp seeds.  Upon asking them about yet another product and its inclusion on the ever-growing Kitniyot list, one of the Rabbis turned to the other and said “When will they stop adding things to the list?  First they want to add quinoa, now this?”  He then turned to me and said “Tell them it's fine, but they have to check it by hand before Passover to be sure no other grains are mixed in.” (Note - in the last 8 years their opinions have changed. This is not intended to ridicule those rabbis, but to point out how clear cut the initial approach was to quinoa)

It seems that even the head Rabbis, who have never publicly said a word against the minhag of Kitniyot, are feeling the stress from this ever-burgeoning list.  While there is no official compendium of modern Halachic reponsa that breaks down the exact numbers of those who allow quinoa and those who don't, my experience has been that those who know of it use it.  Quinoa is used as a side in place of rice, in chulent in place of barley and beans, and with melted cheese on top in place of pasta.

As a side note, there are items that are considered Kitniyot in the US which are not technically edible, such as rapeseed.  The Kosher-certifying agencies in Israel have taken precautions against people refusing to use canola oil on Passover by re-naming the product.  The authorities were aware that it was easier to call the product by a different name and label it 'Kosher for Passover' than to try to convince those who keep Kitniyot that they could use canola oil on Passover.  It's a sad, if funny, state of affairs.

While I can't envision the American Rabbinic leadership ever abolishing Kitniyot, I do have high hopes that with time and ever-growing knowledge, the list will cease to grow, and perhaps some items, such as rapeseed, peanuts, and green beans will even be removed from it.  The job of the certifying agencies will be easier, the preparations for the holiday will be easier, and there will be more food to enjoy in what is generally regarded as a tortuous holiday by observant Jews.