The ProsenPeople

High Holiday Reading

Tuesday, September 07, 2010 | Permalink

Jewish Book World reviewer Eric Ackland examines three new books from Jewish Lights that tackle different aspects of the High Holidays experience (this review will appear in the winter issue of Jewish Book World).


Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Voices on Why Prayer is Difficult and What to Do About It
Rabbi Mike Comins
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010. 200 pp. $18.99
ISBN: 978-1-58023-417-7

Repentance: The Meaning & Practice of Teshuva
Dr. Louis E. Newman
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010. 224 pp. $24.99
ISBN: 978-1-58023-426-9

Who By Fire, Who By Water: Un’taneh Tokef
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, ed.
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010. 253 pp. $24.99
ISBN: 978-1-58023-424-5

For many Jews, religious services, and particularly the High Holidays can be very alien and intimidating. Lack of familiarity with prayer (both formal and informal), lack of familiarity with Hebrew and with the order of the services, and even discomfort with the notions of God and of sin only compound the boredom and discomfort that the long services may cause even those who have the knowledge and skills to appreciate them. These three books tackle different aspects of the High Holidays experience and the religious experience in general.

Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer is Difficult and What to Do About It by Reform Rabbi Mike Comins and with 53 other contributing Rabbis and leaders/thinkers, mostly from the liberal Jewish sects, is a wonderful introduction to the world of prayer, giving the skeptical and the unfamiliar a broad outline of understanding and a sensitive and generous permission from which to begin to experiment and explore.

Rabbi Comins and his contributors offer strategies for approaching both private and communal prayer that take into consideration many of the obstacles that moderns struggle with in terms of understanding prayer’s purpose, and in embracing its process. Even more compelling, the Rabbis share their personal experiences and thoughts about prayer with a refreshing sincerity that I confess, surprised me, as I recall the (as least to me) dry, very unspiritual Reform Hebrew school and synagogue of my youth. Rabbi Comins writes that his experience as a child was similar. I don’t know if the preponderance of congregants in the liberal Jewish world have become as earnestly spiritual as many of their leaders currently clearly are, but Jews of any background—from the unaffiliated to even the Orthodox—who are seeking to connect more deeply with God and with their heritage, and who wish to experience the transformative power of prayer will find a lot of wisdom and inspiration in this book.

*******

All of us have done (or omitted to do) things we regret, and fallen short of what would be morally ideal; for many of us, these may be ongoing patterns of behavior. Some may stifle their consciousness of wrong-doing and bury it deep within, while others may only be too aware and overwhelmed with guilt and despair. Judaism has long provided a process by which we can atone for our sins and start afresh in the eyes of God and ourselves. In Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of TeshuvaDr. Louis E. Newman, a professor of religious studies at Carleton College, begins by identifying teshuvah (repentance) as one of the “central religious-moral” teachings of Judaism, and takes a rigorous analytical approach to understanding what teshuva is and how it is done.

In 49 short chapters (none more than a few pages in length and thus perfect for reading in daily doses), Newman eloquently examines the various ways that Judaism has historically looked at sin, freewill, responsibility, fate, and atonement, before explaining the components of the teshuva process, and exploring some of the subjective factors that people encounter and struggle with in the process. Following the classic Jewish philosophers he breaks down the process of true atonement into components, which he identifies as: accepting culpability, feeling remorse, confession, apologizing, making restitution, making an accounting of one’s soul, and transformation: committing to forgo the same behavior in the future.

Although he does speak of God, Dr. Newman’s thinking is grounded in psychological reality and functionality, and thus, even those not-so-comfortable with the God-concept could derive real value from the book. However, Dr. Newman only briefly alludes to (and then essentially dismisses) the traditional Jewish understanding that there is a world-to-come to which this world is just a passageway, and that reward and punishment for earthly deeds is meted out not just in life, but, more crucially, afterwards as well. This is something which virtually all, if not all, the classic sources he cites (as well as contemporary Orthodox leaders) took/take as axiomatic and as central to understanding the full consequence and moral weight of our deeds, and thus of the potent corrective power of teshuva as well. To put the omission in context, Dr. Newman devoted a chapter (a rewarding one) to philosophically tangling with the idea of animal sacrifice as teshuva’s historical antecedent, while brushing aside this still-vital belief in a world-to-come in just a few paragraphs (he only refers to it in the past-tense), and without clearly indicating that his dismissal is neither universal nor authoritative. This is a serious omission from a historical and theological perspective, and ultimately, a disservice to readers, especially those who won’t notice the sleight-of-hand. That said, I reiterate that I found the book an otherwise worthy introduction to the subject.

*******

One of the great discomforts of praying from a siddur (Jewish prayer book) or Machzor (prayer book for a specific holiday) is not understanding Hebrew, but an even greater one can be actually understanding it. For liberal-religious Jewry in particular, this has long posed a problem. As Reform Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD. candidly describes in the insightful introduction to Who by Fire, Who by Water: Un’taneh Tokef, when prayer books began appearing in translation, many Jews, both leaders and laity, were distressed by the content and meaning of the prayers. So editors,“ . . . changed the Hebrew, so that the English would come out ‘decently’; they purposefully mistranslated the originals to avoid ideas that ancient authors had no trouble with but that modern worshipers found horrifying; they composed alternative prayers in the vernacular—prayers on the same theme as the original, but saying what modern people were likely to appreciate; they called for the prayer to be sung, so no one would pay much attention to the words; or they omitted the troublesome prayers altogether.” Rabbi Hoffman neglects to mention one necessarily complementary strategy, which may or may not have been similarly deliberate: that of not adequately educating the liberal Jewish laity to be able to read and comprehend Hebrew, leaving it for the Rabbinate alone to undemocratically mediate and interpret the classic texts for the laity, much as the Catholic Church preferred for its clergy to do prior to the Reformation. (At the second Reform rabbinic conference in Frankfurt in 1845, according to Conservative movement Jewish historian Neil Gillman, fifteen conference members “voted that Hebrew should not be “objectively necessary,” thirteen voted that it should be, and three abstained.” One, Rabbi Zechariah Frankel, walked out over this issue even coming to a vote, and went on to become a forefather of the Conservative movement.)

Un’taneh Tokef, is one of the most powerful prayers in the Hebrew liturgy, and has long been central to both the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services. This book, like Making Prayer Real, features essays by an array of Rabbis and other (mostly) liberal-Jewish thinkers, who here, rather than dealing with prayer in general, are earnestly tangling with the meaning of this particular prayer, the core substance of which is that of God’s power of judgment over human-beings. The prayer addresses the idea that everything we think and do is observed and recorded by God; that we are judged on Rosh Hashanah, and that on Yom Kippur, depending on the severity of our sins and whether we’ve fully repented in the intervening seven days, God decides who will live through the next year, who will die, when, and how, “Who at their end and who not at their end, Who by fire and who by water, Who by warfare and who by thirst, Who by earthquake, and who by plague . . .” and it asserts that “repentance, prayer, and charity” can avert the judgment of death. Heavy, troubling stuff, no doubt.

The essays within the book encompass history, theology, psychology, autobiography, literary analysis, and more. The range of very strong feeling about this prayer amongst the collected authors is wide. One contributor, Rabbi Tony Blayfield, DD says that for him the concept of God judging and determining when and how we’ll die is “loathsome” and even “blasphemous” (!) while for Rabbi Ruth Langer, PhD the prayer is meaningful on multiple levels. She writes that, “rational understandings of its theology should not be the only legitimate criterion. Elements of its performance, our memories and associations with past performances, its music, and the beauty of its poetry all play into our relationship with a prayer text.” Others are less troubled and engage more directly with the text.

As someone who has long struggled intellectually, emotionally, and even ethically with the content and meaning of many formal Jewish prayers (this one, not so much), I found reading the many raw, revealing, honest, and even profound essays in this book rewarding. Perhaps my greatest “take-away” from the book is the importance of not diluting the Jewish liturgy from on high so as to make it more comfortable and pleasing to modern ears. Even the contributors that felt the greatest discomfort with Un’taneh Tokef and who wish it would be censored, must engage with the concepts year after year, meaning that their moral radar must get re-engaged year after year. I remember my grandfather’s refusal to read parts of the Passover service that offended his sense of justice with fondness and admiration, but what I admired was his re-making the decision each year, as each year he was re-outraged. He would have been a lesser man for not having the opportunity. Everyone, not just an elite core of Rabbis and academics, should have the opportunity to be regularly discomfited in a way that makes them more cognizant of their conscience, the fragility of life, and of the enduring moral import of their deeds. A religion that is always comforting, that flatters and appeases and tells us we’re completely okay as we are, and that makes repentance an easy thing without great consequence if it isn’t sincere or complete isn’t one worth having. Better we should struggle and wrestle with God.

Eric Ackland is a freelance writer and editor.

100 Voices: A Journey Home

Friday, September 03, 2010 | Permalink

The Milken Archive is collaborating with Fathom Events to promote a special September 21 screening in 488 theaters of the new documentary film “100 Voices – A Journey Home.” The film features leading American cantors performing in concert in Poland, while at the same time trying to rebuild Jewish-Polish ties.

JLit Links

Friday, September 03, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The Good, The Bad and the Delicious

Friday, September 03, 2010 | Permalink

Earlier this week Stacey Ballis wrote about Rosh Hashanah cooking and fasting on Yom Kippur for the Visiting Scribe. Her newest book, Good Enough to Eat, is now available.

I’ve long been fascinated with the relationship women have with their own bodies and appetites. While the subject of weight and body image and struggling with sexuality and attractiveness is universal to all women, when I speak to groups of Jewish women, these issues seem heightened somehow. And it is a topic that comes up frequently when I meet with people to discuss my books.

As a novelist, who happens to be a plus-sized Jewish woman, I am often asked to speak with gatherings of Jewish women about my work, which often features Jewish plus-sized women. In fact, all of my previous books have had heroines who are Jewish, and they have ranged in size from 14-24. It is important to me, in a world where the heroines of books are significantly petite gentile girls, to show women like me, women like my friends and family, in my books. My work is not particularly Jewish, although there are holidays that appear when appropriate, and some references to Jewish organizations. Non-Jews who read my work aren’t alienated, the books aren’t mired in Jewish-ness. But for Jewish women, the little references seem to be a touchstone that is often missing from their casual reading experiences.

This is particularly true when I write about the complicated relationship Jewish women have with food. As a people, we struggle with our weight more pervasively, it seems, than many other groups. We are the “Eat something! Oy, you’re getting fat!” ethnicity. Family members will be vocal about their concern for a woman, especially a single woman, who is heavy and encourage them to lose weight. Then, the emotional trauma of a difficult conversation completed, they will suggest a meal to make everyone feel better.

Our traditional foods say it all…no other culture takes a heavy dish of sweet potatoes, carrots, prunes and apricots, swimming in a dessert-like brown-sugar syrup and thinks “You know what would season this perfectly? No, not herbs… No, not green vegetables… I know! SHORT RIBS!”. And that is just a side dish. Traditionally served with brisket. Forget the South Beach diet, this is the Miami Beach diet, and it will kill you….slowly and deliciously. We take pride in the abundance of our tables, but not the resultant abundance of our tushies. We love to be known as great cooks and hostesses, but often fight with the demons of feeling embarrassed about our love of food, and ashamed of our bodies, whatever shape they may be in.

My new book, Good Enough to Eat features a heroine who has faced down her weight problem head-on. In the novel, Melanie Hoffman, a chef who was formerly nearly 290 pounds, has worked diligently with a holistic nutritionist, and through healthy eating and exercise, is now a toned 145 pounds, and has opened a healthy gourmet take-out café. And then her husband leaves her. For a woman twice her size. For Melanie, her consistent struggle is not only with who she was, but who she has become. She has to learn to live and love in her new body, and in her new reality. Her relationship with food needs constant management, her battle with her own demons manifests itself in myriad ways, and surprisingly, her journey of self-discovery requires that she embrace the complexity of what food means to her. The book celebrates that dichotomy by including over 40 pages of recipes, often with dual versions of the same food—one a decadent version, one made healthier.

I want for my readers what I want for myself, a good long healthy life. My own struggles to get to a healthy weight are constant, I’ve lost 40 pounds in the past year, but that is only about a third of the way there, and every pound comes back at least once or twice before it really gets banished. But I also want my readers to love themselves, no matter what their size. To know that they are beautiful, desirable, spectacular creatures who can live a full and wonderful life regardless of what number is on the scale. I want us as a group to agree that while we should eat as healthy as possible, and exercise regularly, that good food is a gift and a celebration and we should stop beating ourselves up for indulging in dessert.

My greatest revelation, and the one lesson I hope people take from Good Enough to Eat and Melanie’s journey, is that there is no such thing as a forbidden food, just rational portion control. There is nothing in the whole world we cannot incorporate into a healthy diet, as long as we are smart about moderation. The higher the fat, calories, and sugar content of any food, the smaller the portion should be. Eat the whole salad, all of the veggies, and half the meat and potatoes. Have two bites of dessert, not two helpings. And most importantly, know that every meal is a new opportunity to make the smarter decisions, regardless of what may have happened the meal before.

I love that I have the opportunity to put characters out into the world that acknowledge the diversity of women, and show the complexity of our experiences. I hope that my readers continue to embrace these women and everything we get to watch them learn and everything they have to teach us.

In honor of Good Enough to Eat, I thought I would give you two of the recipes from the book…one sinful and one saintly. Cook and enjoy!

Photo by Steve Snodgrass

Guilt-Free Chocolate Cupcakes with Vanilla Cream-Cheese Frosting

CUPCAKES:
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup egg substitute
1/4 cup canola oil
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon instant espresso granules
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup fat-free buttermilk

FROSTING:
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Dash of salt
1 (8-ounce) block 1/3-less-fat cream cheese, softened

Preheat oven to 350°.

To prepare cupcakes, place the first 4 ingredients in a large bowl; beat with a mixer at medium speed until well blended (about 2 minutes).

Combine flour and next 5 ingredients and sift. Stir flour mixture into sugar mixture alternately with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture; mix after each addition just until blended.

Place 16 paper muffin cup liners in muffin cups; spoon about 2 1/2 tablespoons batter into each cup. Bake at 350° for 18 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center of a cupcake comes out with moist crumbs attached (do not overbake). Remove cupcakes from pans; cool on a wire rack.

To prepare frosting, combine powdered sugar and remaining ingredients in a medium bowl. Beat with a mixer at medium speed until combined. Increase speed to medium-high, and beat until smooth. Spread about 1 tablespoon frosting on top of each cupcake.

Decadent Dark Chocolate Cupcakes with Vanilla Buttercream

CUPCAKES:
8 T. unsalted butter, cubed
2 oz. high quality bittersweet chocolate, (Valrhona, or Callebaut) chopped
½ C Dutch-processed cocoa powder
¾ C all-purpose flour
½ t. baking soda
¾ t. baking powder
2 large eggs
¾ C sugar
1 t. vanilla extract
½ t. salt
½ c sour cream

FROSTING:
10 T. unsalted butter, softened
½ vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
1 ¼ C confectioners sugar, sifted
Pinch salt
½ t. vanilla extract
1 T. heavy cream
2 T sour cream

Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position; heat oven to 350 degrees. Line standard-sized muffin pan with baking-cup liners.

Combine butter, chocolate, and cocoa in medium heatproof bowl. Set bowl over saucepan containing barely simmering water; heat mixture until butter and chocolate are melted and whisk until smooth and combined. Set aside to cool until just warm to the touch.

Whisk flour, baking soda, and baking powder in small bowl to combine.

Whisk eggs in second medium bowl to combine; add sugar, vanilla, and salt and whisk until fully incorporated. Add cooled chocolate mixture and whisk until combined. Sift about one-third of flour mixture over chocolate mixture and whisk until combined; whisk in sour cream until combined, then sift remaining flour mixture over and whisk until batter is homogenous and thick.

Divide batter evenly among muffin pan cups. Bake until skewer inserted into center of cupcakes comes out clean, 18 to 20 minutes.

Cool cupcakes in muffin pan on wire rack until cool enough to handle, about 15 minutes. Carefully lift each cupcake from muffin pan and set on wire rack. Cool to room temperature before icing, about 30 minutes.

In standing mixer fitted with whisk attachment, beat butter at medium-high speed until smooth, about 20 seconds. Using paring knife, scrape seeds from vanilla bean into butter and beat mixture at medium-high speed to combine, about 15 seconds. Add confectioners’ sugar and salt; beat at medium-low speed until most of the sugar is moistened, about 45 seconds. Scrape down bowl and beat at medium speed until mixture is fully combined, about 15 seconds; scrape bowl, add vanilla, sour cream and heavy cream, and beat at medium speed until incorporated, about 10 seconds, then increase speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down bowl once or twice. (To frost: Mound about 2 tablespoons icing on center of each cupcake. Using small icing spatula or butter knife, spread icing to edge of cupcake, leaving slight mound in center.)

JBW Talks to Angella Nazarian

Thursday, September 02, 2010 | Permalink

Eager to get your hands on the winter issue of Jewish Book World (due out in November)? Well, here’s a bite to hold you over. JBW’s Nicole Azulay took some time to interview Angella M. Nazarian, author of the beautiful memoir Life as A Visitor, for the upcoming issue.

At a young age, Angella M. Nazarian was uprooted from her home in Iran and brought to her current neighborhood Beverly Hills. Never quite feeling at home, Nazarian intertwines her emigration from Iran, immigration to America, and various travels in her memoir Life as a Visitor.

JBW: Most Iranians I know kind of shut out their past and difficult upbringings, what inspired you to write your personal story? Was it a painful process?

AN: Not talking about negative circumstances is part of Iranian culture. However, two things led me to be more open: One was the fact that I have a psychology background so talking about things is in my nature. Also, I believe that everything meaningful needs to be heartfelt and full of passion; hence, this story is something I am extremely passionate about. My main motivation for writing this book was my children. I think it is important for them to learn what their parents and relatives have gone through. Writing the book was extremely hard. I sometimes would literally break down and cry as I was writing. Although it was difficult, writing Life As a Visitor was a growing experience for me. Writers often explore feelings they don’t know they had in the process of writing.

JBW: In the beginning of the book you mentioned that while you were living in Iran you, along with all the other children, would wait for a man who would walk through the neighborhood with a “giant tin box.” For a coin, you could peer in the two holes he cut in the box to see slides of foreign countries. Was this what made you interested in travel?

AN: Yes. However, I was also greatly influenced by my parents’ travels as well as what I would see on television.

JBW: I noticed that you frequently referred to your paternal grandmother. She seems to have made a positive impact on your life. Can you elaborate further on why she was your role model?

AN: Although I have never met my grandmother, I feel a strong connection to her. She was the direct opposite of a typical Iranian woman. Despite living in an environment where many Jews were ashamed of being Jewish, my grandmother embraced her heritage. She wasn’t afraid of being seen. She wore Western clothes when woman of her generation were covered up. She was assertive and didn’t mind not blending in.

Reviews from the fall Jewish Book World

Thursday, September 02, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

If you’re a subscriber to Jewish Book World and haven’t received your fall issue, fear not, it’s in the mail, and you’ll be reading it very soon. If you’re not, check out some sample reviews from the issue, below. Interested in subscribing? It’s super easy. Just click here.

97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement (Jane Ziegelman)

Taking one New York City tenement as her base, Jane Ziegelman follows the food traditions that five immigrant families brought to their new home. Ziegelman, a food historian and director of the Tenement Museum’s planned culinary center, takes readers on a lively tour of the Lower East Side, with its German beer gardens, Jewish pushcarts, Irish boarding houses, and Italian street vendors…Read On

Backing Into Forward: A Memoir (Jules Feiffer)

Jules Feiffer’s memoir is a compelling Bronx tale, tracing his development from a daydreaming would-be auteur of action comic books to world-renowned house cartoonist of the Village Voice, intellectual, political activist, novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and, in his later years, after discovering that he was far more adept at pleasing children than New York drama critics, author of children’s books…Read On

Hillel: If Not Now, When?  (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin)

A conventional biography of Hillel, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin freely admits at the outset of his new book, is impossible. We know little about Hillel—nothing about his parents, not even his wife’s name. We’re not certain of his profession, nor do we know with precision the date of his death…Read On

Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices: Sex and Intimacy (Elliot N. Dorff and Danya Ruttenberg, eds.)

JPS is ready to trigger lively discussions among students yet again! In its series of books on Jewish ethics entitled, “Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices,” Elliot Dorff and Danya Ruttenberg have edited the most recent addition to the series, a book on sexual decision-making. As in previous books in this series about the ethics of money, power, and the body, the authors cull classic Jewish sources from the Bible and rabbinic literature and contemporary essays, offering lively and provocative case studies about sex and sexuality that help readers to formulate a well-informed Jewish stance on these issues…Read On

Almost Dead: A Novel (Assaf Gavron)

In his fifth novel, acclaimed Israeli novelist and translator Assaf Gavron masterfully presents the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the eyes of his two narrators. The novel alternates between the perspectives of Eitan “Croc” Enoch, an Israeli business executive who has astonishingly survived three recent terror attacks, and Fahmi Sabih, a young Palestinian bomber who lies comatose in a hospital…Read On

Great House: A Novel (Nicole Krauss)

Great House, Nicole Krauss’ new novel, is a triumph. Smartly executed and beautifully crafted, this multi-layered novel moves back and forth through the chaos of modern Jewish history. Krauss touches on the Holocaust, the Yom Kippur War, Chile under Pinochet, and travels from New York to Jerusalem to London to Budapest as she weaves a story focused on a desk…Read On

A Journey to Uman with Kafka

Wednesday, September 01, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Rodger Kamenetz (Burnt Books) journeys to Uman for Rosh Hashanah:

Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman Of Bratslav and Franz Kafka from Tablet Magazine on Vimeo.

Why Do They Call it Fasting When it Goes SO SLOW?

Wednesday, September 01, 2010 | Permalink

On Monday, Stacey Ballis wrote about Rosh Hashanah cooking. Her newest book, Good Enough to Eat, is now available.

As I mentioned before, my Judaism, while deeply rooted and very important to me, is something that falls more on the side of culture and tradition and less specifically on the side of religion or spirituality. But there are certain aspects of every holiday that resonate for me, and one of the things I appreciate about being Jewish, is that I can feel free to cherry pick the pieces I like and leave the rest behind.

As we look towards the High Holidays, I thought I would share some of my traditions with you, and some of my traditional recipes.

As we did not, nor do not, belong to a temple, the High Holidays were always spent with family and friends. Actually, the friends in question are basically family. I’m blessed with several families, extra parents abound (all of the love and advice and support but none of the discipline or college tuition), and I’ve got enough siblings-by-choice to sort of feel fundamentalist Mormon (without the polygamy or prairie clothes). Not to mention a truly ridiculous number of bonus nieces and nephews. Some of my earliest memories are of spending the High Holidays with different configurations of these special friends. Often we gather at my family’s weekend place in the country, a place away from the hustle and bustle, with plenty of trees and green, wide open sky and fresh air. A place where, if one is inclined to commune with a higher power, it seems like the kind of place the deity of your choice just might be hanging out.

After some happy outdoor activity, sort of a nod to Adonai, “thanks for all the cool nature and stuff,” we retire to the nearest convenient living room. On Yom Kippur there’s a rousing chorus of “Isn’t it sundown somewhere?” and “I don’t think I’ve ever been this hungry in my life!” And before you get all shocked that most of our merry band of skip-the-services practitioners actually do fast, it is important to note a few things. One, we almost never make it all the way to sundown, we tend to break out the chopped liver round about 4pm, and feel virtuous enough to have made it that far. Two, the fasting packs a devilish one-two punch, it both connects you meaningfully to the tradition, and also gives you total guiltless permission for a major Jew-food binge for the rest of the evening.

At some point in the afternoon, we break out the “All things Jewish explained” books, and take turns reading about the origin of the holiday at hand. On Rosh Hashanah we might offer up some New Year’s resolutions to the group, on Yom Kippur there is meaningful atonement-type eye contact around the room, in case you may have accidentally offended someone present.

I actually like the fasting aspect of the holiday, which is counter-intuitive considering my love of food goes way beyond the norm. I am an unabashed foodie, a passionate home cook, and a constant hostess. I blog about food and my novels are filled with descriptions of meals. Sydney, the heroine of Inappropriate Men, woos with food, cooking for her lover with passion and intent. In Sleeping Over, one of the characters was a chef, and another comforted her boyfriend’s grieving family with breakfast. In Spinster Sisters, one of the heroine’s aunts is a cookbook recipe tester, and there are family meals galore. In my new book, Good Enough to Eat, the main character is a chef and the book includes 40 pages of recipes!

So why, you might ask, does someone who does not think of herself as observant and does not attend temple services AND has a passionate obsession with food choose to fast every year?

For me, it comes down to focus. I appreciate the idea that once a year you should think back to who you have been, and how you may have failed yourself or others. I believe that self-reflection is healthy and necessary, and requires diligence and purpose. I know that if I didn’t fast, I would spend the day organizing the meal, setting everything up, nibbling at this and that and never really immerse myself in the true meaning of the holiday. By abstaining from food, and following the idea that the meal be light and mostly chilled, ergo, significantly prepared the day before, I sit with my family and friends, we talk and enjoy one another’s company, and I live profoundly in that moment, without distraction.

The fasting unites us, even if it is through kvetching and joking about starvation. And I do find moments of the day where I am forced to address the voices in my head, to check in with myself and remind myself that I strive to be a good person. To care for myself and others. To be loving, kind, and honest.

It could be something of a draining day, but at the end, I always feel refreshed, energized, and ready to face both the coming year and the buffet!

We go full-on traditional for holidays, with my grandmother Jonnie both cooking and providing recipes, the meals are a true connection to our history. For Yom Kippur, we eat “light,” bagels and lox, tuna salad, egg salad, sweet kugel. It is all delicious, all exactly what we want and need, it feeds the soul as well as the body.

I talk a lot about the deeper meaning of food between people. When people ask why I go to the trouble of hosting at home, cooking for people instead of going out, my answer is simple. It is a sacred gift to feed someone. To sustain them physically, and please them sensually. The conversations you have around your dining table or in the living room before or after a meal, those are conversations that don’t happen in restaurants. Food is love. Not a substitute for, but an expression thereof. It is often the cliché of Jews that we are constantly talking about food and planning the next meal, and the stereotypical Jewish mother is always portrayed trying to get someone to eat something. This comes from somewhere. It is no surprise to me that a religion I associate so much with attempting to live a life that sustains and fulfills spiritually and intellectually, that we have a fine and long tradition of delectables.

So, as we look to the New Year, to a time of renewal and forgiveness, I wish you all very happy holidays, however you choose to celebrate. An easy fast, if that is on your agenda. And really good food.

Check back all week for more delicious posts from Stacey.

A Sweet New Year

Monday, August 30, 2010 | Permalink

Stacey Ballis‘ newest book, Good Enough to Eat, will be available September 7th. Check back all week for more delicious posts from Stacey for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

When people ask me what I love most about being Jewish, the images flash before my eyes.

Succulent slices of slow cooked brisket, moist with rich tomato-y gravy. Latkes, crisp on the outside, melting in the middle, with applesauce and sour cream. Light as air matzo balls, floating in a pool of golden chicken soup, dense sweet noodle kugel.

I mean, yes, of course I love being a part of a religion that allows so many different ways to worship, that holds such a long tradition of philanthropy and artistry, that has such interesting traditions and rituals. Even though I have never been particularly observant, I chose Brandeis as an undergraduate in large part because the school represented the best of educational excellence and social activism. Getting all the Jewish holidays off didn’t hurt my feelings, either. But while my matriculation there did wonders for my Yiddish vocabulary, it didn’t make me any less secular. For me, someone whose upbringing always felt a little bit Jew-ish, as opposed to really Jewish, food is where I have always felt most connected to my people and my history.

Don’t get me wrong, we aren’t non-practicing, we just found our own style. We may not have belonged to a temple, but my sister and I were both bat mitzvahed, we just did it with a private tutor instead of Hebrew school and with a borrowed torah at our weekend place instead of on a traditional bimah. And for mine, a Chinese buffet luncheon to follow.

We share the major holidays with friends and family, choosing readings from books in the living room over synagogue services. Our Passover seders may be brief, but they have deep meaning and we take them seriously, adding our own traditions over the years. But always, the celebration centers on food.

In my writing, my heroines have always been Jewish, at varying levels of observancy, but always connected to the culinary history of our people. In my new book, Good Enough to Eat, Melanie Hoffman is a chef specializing in healthy gourmet food, and during the course of the book we see her make a pilgrimage to the Holocaust Museum, speak at a JUF luncheon, and make brisket for her boyfriend’s family seder. Even though the character is only half-Jewish, and non-observant in the religious sense, she is connected to her heritage through her cooking. Because for me, and by proxy, my characters, food, both the specifics of traditional recipes, and the generic feeling of gathering friends and family around the table, is always something of a Jewish experience at its core. Breaking of bread, or matzo where appropriate, sharing of stories, the sense of unity created around a dinner table, this is where I feel the most direct link to our shared past. I have always believed that when a people have been forced to work hard at maintaining community, bringing people together for meals becomes an essential part of how you keep faith.

Rosh Hashanah has always been one of my favorite holidays. Chicago weather tends to be lovely, the first inkling of fall in the air, crisp and cool but not yet cold. We usually spend it with our best family friends, once we were two couples and five kids, now there are seven couples and seven grandkids with another on the way! We have spent the day walking the Botanical Gardens or at a local state park. We have gone to the zoo, or been out in the country. We have gone apple picking for the apples we later dip in local honey as part of the holiday meal. I associate the holiday with love and laughter and the great outdoors, and an amazing dinner!

One new tradition I used in my book The Spinster Sisters is to not make personal New Year’s resolutions, but to make resolutions for your friends and family. You can resolve that your sister should sign up for the guitar lessons she has always wanted to take, or that your parents should finally visit Israel, or that your brother should apply for graduate school. By resolving these lovely things for them, you may give them the spark they need to fulfill some of their dreams.

As you look to the Jewish New Year, I hope you take a moment to be grateful for your blessings, and remember to bring sweetness into the coming year.

Good Enough to Eat is now available.

International Read Comics in Public Day

Friday, August 27, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Dani Crickman

Tomorrow, August 28th, is International Read Comics in Public Day, and we hope you’re as eager to take to the streets, book in hand, as we are. But what to read? While you can always pull out the old Superman comics, there’s a vast wealth of Jewish graphic novels and comic books out there to choose from. In honor of the upcoming holiday, allow us to recommend a few from our bookshelf to get you started.

Market Day by James Sturm (2010)
[Market Day], on the surface, is about a eastern European Jewish craftsman at the dawn of the industrial revolution, struggling to make ends meet and provide for his family the only way he knows how — weaving hand-crafted artisan rugs. It’s a heartbreaking tale, made even more heartbreaking by its relevance to today’s shrinking markets for craftspeople, artists, illustrators, and of course, cartoonists. — Drawn



The Big Kahn by Neil Kleid and Nicholas Cinqueradi (2009)
Rabbi David Kahn dies as a man who has achieved everything he wanted in his life: he has a happy family, a strong congregation, and the love and respect of his entire community. However, on the day of Rabbi Khan’s funeral, a great secret is revealed: David Kahn was really Donnie Dobbs, a petty criminal and conman who lied his way all the way to the top of his profession. — Comics Bulletin



Waltz with Bashir: A Lebanon War Story by Ari Folman and David Polonsky (2008)
Israeli filmmaker Folman and chief illustrator Polonsky’s graphic novel version of their groundbreaking Golden Globe–winning 2008 animated documentary into a graphic novel. Folman’s story is the account of how he came to grips with the repressed memories of the time he was a soldier in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.



Megillat Esther by JT Waltman (2005)
Impressive is a vast understatement for J.T. Waldman’s undertaking in Megillat Esther, the Hebrew narrative of Queen Esther in ancient times. While other biblical comics will simply retell the tale through text boxes and panels, Waldman makes readers work extensively through this graphic novel so that by the end, one has witnessed a story and a culture. – Curled Up With A Good Book



The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar (2005)
The preeminent work by one of France’s most celebrated young comic artists, The Rabbi’s Cat tells the wholly unique story of a rabbi, his daughter, and their talking cat — a philosopher brimming with scathing humor and surprising tenderness.




A few other relevant resources:

Happy reading!