The ProsenPeople

Adding Walls to the Wall

Monday, March 14, 2016 | Permalink

Rabbi Sara Brandes is the author of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems. Invited to weigh in on recent developments at the Kotel, the Western Wall of Jerusalem’s Old City, Sara is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

I was born in 1978, so as a Jewish American child, I was expected to know about three walls: The Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, and the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

With portions built as early as the seventh century BCE, the Great Wall of China is a good, old fashioned wall. Marking the historic northern border of China, it was built in stages, over the course of hundreds of years, in order to protect the Chinese from northern raiders. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a pride of the Chinese people.

The Berlin wall, on the other hand, was a bad wall—a slice of the Cold War captured in stone, a symbol of the outer limits of the reaches of democracy, or so said the American narrative. One must admit, though, that this wall served its purpose, staving off war, allowing enemies to rest on either side of it. We rejoiced in 1989 when the Berlin wall came down, allowing the Germans to express in concrete their renewed will for unity.

The Western Wall in Jerusalem seems to be another kind of wall entirely. Old like the Great Wall, the Western Wall is a monument to destruction and to the cherished past of the Jewish people. The Western Wall, or the Kotel, is a masterpiece of ancient construction, its oldest stone standing nearly as tall as I do. First destroyed by the Babylonians, rebuilt and destroyed again by the Romans, one external wall of the great structure remains: weighty and strong, a symbol of Jewish resilience and unwillingness to forget.

In its time, the Western Wall was nothing special at all, just a retaining wall demarcating the outer edge of the elevated Temple platform. But, as a survivor, it became something else entirely, a site of Jewish pilgrimage throughout the ages; a beleaguered wall for a beleaguered people.

No one better captures the power and symbolism of the Kotel than Yitzhak Rabin, the fifth prime minister of Israel. Reflecting on his experience there when his unit of Israeli Paratroopers retook the Wall from the Jordanians, who had controlled it since 1948, Rabin recalled in an address to Knesset in May 1995, “It was as if Providence had directed the whole thing: the paratroopers weeping—loudly and in pain—over their comrades who had fallen along the way, the words of the Kaddish prayer heard by the Western Wall's stones after nineteen years of silence, tears of mourning, shouts of joy, and the singing of “Hatikvah.”

Walls were added to the Wall from the moment the Kotel returned to Jewish hands in 1967. The war was fought just weeks before the sacred holiday of Shavuot, and the leaders at the time were aware that Jews would flock to the site to celebrate the ancient pilgrimage festival. In order to make it a fitting place for Orthodox prayer, a mechitza, a partition separating men and women, was erected. This new wall transected the old one, as a symbol for the recognized Judaism in the Holy Land—men empowered on one side, and women, whispering like their matriarch Hannah on the other. Secular and liberal Jews were welcome to visit, as long as they were willing to don the costume of the Orthodox and divide themselves accordingly.

In late January of this year, the Israeli Government undertook the historic decision to add a second wall to this ancient Jewish space, creating a third domain for those who do not wish to separate by gender, who do not find themselves in the categories constructed by Orthodox Judaism.

If our ancient wall is like the Great Wall of China, what is the status of these new, younger walls?

In recent weeks, the creation of the newest wall has been heralded by the leaders of the liberal Jewish movements as a great success: “One Wall for One People,” they proclaim. If so, then we are a people divided. I prefer to regard our new walls like the Berlin Wall, serving a purpose for a time, but not a reflection of the ideal. An ancient wall in the heart of a besieged city surrounded and transected by walls of separation is not the metaphor I choose for my homeland.

Instead, as a new immigrant to Israel, one here to pursue justice and build peace, I’d rather look just a few blocks away, to an interlocking grid of tiny partitions at the open-air market, Shuk Machne Yehuda, for inspiration. There, humans born in countless countries, speak Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, English, Spanish, and more, offer tastes of goods grown from this sacred earth, to shoppers heading home to feed families nearby, a celebration of diversity of every kind. And, as for our ancient wall, I hold out hope that its partitions will come down some day, so that a Hatikva resonant with the one sung by the paratroopers in 1967, a song of hope and unity, can be heard at the Kotel once more.

Rabbi Sara Brandes is the author of Magical World: Stories, Reflections, Poems, a spiritual memoir inspired by her life in the north of Israel. She blogs about the complexity of life there at

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It's a Practical Thing, Love

Monday, March 14, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpted from Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World by Susan Silverman.

The quiet of nighttime. The girls are asleep and I can sit beside them in silence, feeling in sync with their neshamot, souls. Elohai neshama she’natata bee, tehora hee. My God, the soul you gave me is pure.

Aliza slept as she had since birth, on her back with her arms straight up at her ears. Her hair was still damp and sweet from grape-scented shampoo. I kissed her soft, dimpled fingers, recalling a story her teacher had told me that afternoon. Aliza had stood in the middle of a game the kids were playing and held up her hands, like a traffic cop. “Hey, stop!” she said loudly. The other children stared as Aliza turned to Debbie, a severely hearing impaired child who often sat on the sidelines, and reached out her hand. “Come, it’s your turn now.”

I kissed my girl’s cheek and whispered how much I loved her. Then I perched on the edge of the bed where Hallel was sprawled. She had tossed and turned in her sleep ever since she could move independently—side, back, tummy—mumbling as she moved. What was she dreaming? She was a child of cheeksqueezing love (she squeezed our cheeks) and stubborn rage, who had, in her younger years, shown cannibalistic tendencies. “I love you like crazy-cakes, my funny, kind-of-scary girl,” I whispered to my now four-year-old, still fierce but no-longer-chomping- on-children child. “May you always be safe, healthy, and well fed. You mine fo-eva.”

My girls were safe and cozy in the soft cotton sheets my mother had bought them. (“Honey, never buy the girls sheets with fewer than a 250-thread count.”) My mother was always so clear about what we needed. She gave us things I didn’t ever consider until we had them. Extra-soft sheets for the kids. Wrinkle-free travel clothes for Yosef. A loofah sponge for me. It really did soften the hard, dry bottoms of my feet. Our light-brown duvet cover smelled like vanilla because my mother had put a small net bag of scented gels in the wooden trunk at the end of our bed, “to give your sheets a slight scent of vanilla essence, like the scented oil you like.” “How come you’ve never noticed the vanilla?” I asked Yosef as I held the blanket to my face.

It was as if my mother had an Excel spreadsheet of what her children needed and when, from birth to death. “Oh, I guess when you’re thirty-three-and-a-half you’ll have to loofah the bottoms of your feet in the shower.” She kept me apace with what she perceived as the demands of my age. Someday, when I’m old, I’ll get a letter from her executor with a bottle of Nivea hand cream with age-spot remover with a letter telling me how I should dry my hands before applying it. Not wet, so that the cream dissolves, but damp so it traps the moisture. And she will be right. She knew what words I needed, too. As she dried the newly rinsed set of unbreakable wine goblets from Costco, I said, “What if I don’t love an adopted child like I love the girls?” She laid the dishtowel across the glasses that sparkled upside down, and said, “When that child looks up at you and you realize that you’re it for that kid, that the buck stops with you, the love will just be there.”

It’s a practical thing, love. My family appeared shambolic, but love oozed through our many cracks, through our messy attempts to know, to understand, one another. But what happens to a little boy’s thoughts when he has no one who shares them? What happens to a little girl’s memories when they haunt her? Do these memories get caught in the throat? Burn behind the eyes? The unknown-ness of each child in an orphanage—or on the streets or worse—the memories, passions, joys, fears, struggles, and what makes them laugh, all of it must increase a lonely sense of being indistinguishable from the child in the next bed as they are squeezed into shapes by necessity. We are all broken, we just are. But if we are a little lucky, and very willing to learn how, our shards and pieces can form mosaics of love and relationship—unwieldy, vibrant, and cracked as they must be. If we are not so blessed, we need to fit to whatever form is known or available to us. Kids in institutions or making their way on the streets take on outer shells of conformity and necessity. A splay of glow stars sparkled above the girls as they slept. Standing on a ladder with her neck bent back and arms raised, Laura had painstakingly organized the stars by constellation. When she tired of following the chart that came in the box, she scattered the rest of them across the white ceiling. I was happy not to have them ordered just so. I’m not interested in finding these forms in the real sky. A belt? A dog? For me, the stars are questions, not answers. Possibility, not defined figures. The heavens declare the glory of God. The firmament shows God’s handiwork, says the psalmist.

For the sake of our child-to-be, Yosef and I would navigate forms, interviews, regulations, bureaucracy, heartbreak, and hope—swinging from star to star—to the other side, where a child will lovingly be tucked in, sung to, and kissed goodnight, just as every child deserves. And when this child grows up and has children I’ll make sure they sleep in sheets of the softest cotton.

Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Press

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Max Wisen’s Tailor Shop

Friday, March 11, 2016 | Permalink

Christoph Kreutzmüller is the author of Final Sale in Berlin: The Destruction of Jewish Commercial Activity 1930-1945, a history of the German foreclosure of Jewish businesses before and during the Third Reich. Christoph is blogging this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Through lucky circumstances some would call fate I got in contact with a man named Ben. In the desperate situation after the pogrom, his parents send him and his brother out of Germany. In the moving book Ten Marks and a Train Ticket: Benno’s Escape to Freedom Ben’s daughters tell their father’s story of crossing the Dutch border illegally with his older brother in January 1939. The brothers were then lucky to be taken care of by the Jewish Refugee Committee and send to England. They never saw their beloved family again. Ben’s parents, Max and Golda Wisen, and their youngest son, Charlie, stayed behind.

Like many other Jews, Max had set up a tailor business in the house where the family lived in Fehrbelliner Strasse, north of the city centre and Alexander Square. In a family photo taken in 1936 or 1937 (pictured above), one can see that the Wisen’s also offered mending and dry cleaning. Ben remembers how he loved to watch his father working “with a tape measure around his neck and a pin in his mouth.”

Of course, I wanted to help and find out more. Checking the Berlin directory from the time period, I could at least ascertain that Max Wisen first established his business in 1929 in a cellar of a house in Kreuzberg. In 1933 he is listed as a custom tailor right in the middle of the Scheunenviertel, where many Jews from Eastern Europe lived. In the same year he and his business seem to have moved to Fehrbelliner Strasse, listed in this street in the directory for 1934. But then the traces ran dry. Ben’s father’s shop had not been registered in the commercial register, which forms the backbone of the Database of Jewish Businesses in Berlin. A company had to have considerable turnover and substantial capital to be looked at as full merchant to be registered in the commercial register; Wisen’s business was just too small for a registration, like thousands of others: statistically, there were 250,000 businesses in Berlin, but only 50,000 of them were in the commercial register. Still, we have to stick to the registries file, since all other documents related to commercial enterprises were destroyed in the war. Alas, there is no way to trace little businesses back.

A request to the archive of the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen ellucidated that Max was forced to work as a slave labourer for a factory in Berlin, and perished in 1940. In 1943, Golda and Charlie tried to escape deportation, but—according to a note I found coincidentally in the police files in the State Archive of Berlin in Landesarchiv—they were reported to the police by neighbours. Both were murdered the day they arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau, on March 13, 1943.

Christoph Kreutzmüller is curator at the Jewish Museum of Berlin. His exhibition Final Sale: The End of Jewish-Owned Businesses in Nazi-Berlin has been shown in the Leo Baeck Insitute, New York, Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at Boston University.

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New Reviews March 11, 2016

Friday, March 11, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new book reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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Adding Dimension to the Online Database of Jewish Businesses in Berlin

Thursday, March 10, 2016 | Permalink

Christoph Kreutzmüller is the author of Final Sale in Berlin: The Destruction of Jewish Commercial Activity 1930-1945, a history of the German foreclosure of Jewish businesses before and during the Third Reich. Christoph is blogging this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Since 2005, I have been studying how the German National Socialist regime systematically destroyed and looted businesses owned by Jews in Berlin, as well as the ways that Jews responded to this persecution. This research was not just to analyze the Jewish owned businesses, but also to document them. After all, the families involved have a right, and German society has a responsibility, to know exactly where they were and what happened to them. This is why a database of Jewish businesses in Berlin was set up and made available to Berlin archives as well as Yad Vashem and the Leo Baeck Institute, New York.

Among the enquiries I have received was one by Christina Craig, whose grandfather had run a stationary wholesale business S. Hilsenrath in the Neue Grünstrasse 40 in Berlin—a street I pass every day on my way to work in the Jewish Museum.

The online version of my database states only the address and that the possession (not property) was transferred to a non-Jew in 1937. The unabridged database allows a deeper look: Sigmund Hilsenrath started a limited company in 1923. During the Great Depression it seemingly ran into dire straits and was stroked off the register in March 2, 1933. However, in summer of 1935—in the midst of antisemitic turbulence leading up to the Nuremberg laws—he set up a new company under the name Szulem Hilsenrath. This company was officially transferred to a certain Oscar Winther in February 1937. That the company was Jewish according to the standards applied in my research was ascertained from the fact that it appeared as a member of the Association of Jewish Mid-tiers in September 1936.

Christina filled in many gaps to the business’ history and told me that her grandfather was born in 1895 in Kolomyja in Galicia. Like so many others, he was driven away from his home by pogroms and came to Berlin after the First World War. In the German capital, he first worked for a printer but set up his own company in Germany’s period of hyper-inflation. A year later he married Frieda, whose family ran another paper company, which was incorporated into S. Hilsenrath Ltd. in 1924. In 1932 Hilsenrath had to declare bankruptcy, and in October 1938 he was deported to the Polish border together with 17,500 other Polish Jews. Christina’s grandfather managed to return to Kolomyja, but was murdered while trying to escape a camp on June 5, 1943.

As the company was in what was to become East Berlin after the war, restitution only started in 1991. The files of this ongoing process still rest with the German restitution authority and are not yet public. The State Archive in Berlin (the Landesarchiv Berlin), however, holds the commercial register file of the second company Hilsenrath set up. According to this file, the company was initially run by Szulem (who called himself Sigmund) and his cousin Max. Applying for registration, the Hilsenraths told the commercial registry court in June 1935 that they had a considerable turnover and employed five people. Both had Polish passports, but an “unlimited permit of residence.” While the court did approve of the registration as such, it did not agree to the proposed company name, S. Hilsenrath; the Berlin registry court was in fact marking Jewish businesses long before this ever became official policy by forcing Jews using their original Polish or their religious names. After two months, Sigmund finally agreed to use “Szulem” in the company’s name. By that time Max had emigrated to Brazil, and Szulem/Sigmund thus became the sole owner of the business.

In October 1936 Hilsenrath sold the company to Winther, a Danish businessman living in Berlin. This transaction was only registered five months later. Winther bought the business for 15,200 RM, a very low price considering the companies turnover. The low price, in turn, most certainly did not provide the seller with enough funds to emigrate. He was deported almost exactly two years later.

Christoph Kreutzmüller is curator at the Jewish Museum of Berlin. His exhibition Final Sale: The End of Jewish-Owned Businesses in Nazi-Berlin has been shown in the Leo Baeck Insitute, New York, Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at Boston University.

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Creamsicle Macaroons: A New (Gluten-Free) Passover Standard

Wednesday, March 09, 2016 | Permalink

Simone Miller is the founder of Zenbelly and, together with Jennifer Robins, co-author of The New Yiddish Kitchen: Gluten-Free and Paleo Kosher Recipes for the Holidays and Every Day. Jennifer and Simone are guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

In my family, macaroons are just as much of a requirement at the Passover seder as matzo. There may be less ceremony around the humble coconut cookie, but it’s a staple nonetheless.

The classic version—a sweet coconut cookie dipped in dark chocolate—is always a favorite. For a little variety, though, we love making this version: sweet coconut spiked with orange zest and vanilla extract. The result is a perfect macaroon—chewy in the center, crisp on the edges—that tastes strikingly close to a creamsicle.

When adapting baked goods to be compliant with a grain-free, dairy-free lifestyle, there is often quite a lot of trial and error. Grain-free flours can’t be used 1:1 for wheat flour, so it often takes many, many attempts to get the recipe just right. But macaroons are another story: they’ll practically work exactly as written in out grandmother’s recipe book!

Macaroons are naturally grain-free, since they’re essentially a coconut meringue. The adaptations we made were more along the lines of the sugar, since classic macaroons are very sweet. This fresh update is lightly sweetened with honey, natural orange juice, and unsweetened coconut. The result is a cookie that’s just the perfect amount of sweetness to end your holiday meal. (And to keep them dairy-free, coconut milk is the perfect stand-in for sweetened condensed milk: it only adds more delightful coconut flavor and richness!)

Macaroons that taste like Creamsicles? What could be bad?

Recipe: Creamsicle Macaroons

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 25 – 30 minutes
Makes 18 cookies

2 egg whites
12 ounces (340g) unsweetened shredded coconut
1 (14-ounce or 414 mL)—can full-fat coconut milk
¼ cup (60ml) honey
Zest of one orange (about ½ tablespoon, or 7mL)
1 TBS (15mL) orange juice
2 tsp (10mL) vanilla extract
A of pinch salt

Preheat the oven to 350ºF (177ºC). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, beat the egg whites until medium peaks form.

In a large bowl, combine the shredded coconut, coconut milk, honey, orange zest, orange juice, vanilla and salt.

Fold the egg whites into the coconut mixture.

Using a small ice cream scoop with a lever, or two spoons, drop the mixture onto a cookie sheet, about 2 tablespoons (30mL) in each.

Bake for 25 – 30 minutes, or until golden brown on the edges. Allow them to cool before removing from the pan.

After battling with a variety of health problems, Simone Miller discovered she had food allergies, specifically a very serious sensitivity to gluten, prompting her to transform Zenbelly into one of the most respected gluten-free, paleo-style catering companies in the Bay-area.

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The Origins of Oskar: Where Jewish Children's Book Characters Come From

Tuesday, March 08, 2016 | Permalink

In honor of the 65th National Jewish Book Awards, Jewish Book Council asked some of this year's winners to share their top rules for writing an award-winning book. Richard Simon, recipient of the 2015 award for Children’s Literature—together with his wife and co-author, Tanya—for Oskar and the Eight Blessings, decided to go in a different direction entirely.

In the summer of 1969 I was ten years old. The Mets were having their best season ever, and Armstrong and Aldrin took their first steps on the moon, paving the way for me to fulfill my destiny as World’s Youngest Boy Astronaut. I thought a lot about space travel and escape—specifically out of Levittown, Long Island, the predominantly Catholic working class town where I grew up and learned first-hand how anti-Semitism felt.

The week of the moon landing was also the one time a conversation with my grandfather went beyond “How’s school?” or “Quiet, I have to hear this race.”

In the summer of 1969 I was ten years old. The Mets were having their best season ever, and Armstrong and Aldrin took their first steps on the moon, paving the way for me to fulfill my destiny as World’s Youngest Boy Astronaut. I thought a lot about space travel and escape—specifically out of Levittown, Long Island, the predominantly Catholic working class town where I grew up and learned first-hand how anti-Semitism felt.

The week of the moon landing was also the one time a conversation with my grandfather went beyond “How’s school?” or “Quiet, I have to hear this race.”

“When your father was ten, we had some unexpected visitors.” He motioned for me to sit. “Three rabbis from the old country, from the city my father came from. Black coats, black suits, black hats, black beards down to here, the works. All they spoke was Yiddish, not a word of English. I understood them okay, but I don’t speak Yiddish, so Grandma had to translate for me. I couldn’t figure out how the hell they even got to New York, forget about how they tracked me down to Avenue K.”

“Why did they have to track you down?” I suspected gambling debts, but thought better of saying so.

He rubbed his forehead and winced more than smiled. “It was crazy. They said my grandfather, their big rabbi, had died, and they had to find his successor.” He shook his head. “I said, ‘You’re telling me you don’t got enough rabbis over there to do the job?’ They said, ‘We got plenty rabbis, but nobody in the lineage.’ Turns out the big rabbi had to be the eldest son of the eldest son of the eldest son, going back God knows how long.”

He went on. “I told them they couldn’t have found anyone more wrong for the job. I barely had a bar mitzvah, and I hadn’t been in a shul since. I don’t know Hebrew. I can’t speak Yiddish. I’m the exact opposite of a rabbi. Do I have to eat a ham and cheese sandwich on Pesach to prove it?”

This made me laugh.

“You should try it, it’s good. Especially with a milkshake.” He winked. “Anyway, they’re not buying. ‘Don’t worry,’ they say. ‘We’ll teach you everything,’ they say: ‘Hebrew, Yiddish, Torah, Talmud— you’ll learn it all, because you have the blood. And our city will be saved because we will once again have a leader who will guide us through these dark times.’”

He stared into his sweating drink and took a slow sip. “I told them, ‘No.’”

I leaned forward, “What happened when they got back?”

My grandfather blinked and looked at me. “What do you mean?”

“Without a new big rabbi—did they get in trouble?”

My grandfather could be brokenhearted about a losing horse for five minutes, but he was never on his worst day anything close to sentimental. At that moment, though, he took my hands in his giant calloused ones. “Richie, that was just a couple of years before the war. They were all killed.”

Decades later, I had a daughter. Two years ago she turned seven, and I found myself gazing into her eyes as she asked me why Jews were being attacked in France, and what exactly the Holocaust was. I immediately thought back to Grandpa and our conversation. Remembering how my own awakening to the Holocaust was framed by helpless rage, I didn’t want my daughter to feel that, even as I didn’t want to revise history to protect her.

Tanya and I talked about what we wanted our daughter to take away from the stories of brutality that our people had endured. Our answers were the same: that you can survive. And so we told her, but we balanced death with life, and tempered loss with hope. We told her about the Nazis, about accommodation and complicity, and about the camps—then we told her stories of cunning, of will, of survival.

And in this telling the character of Oskar was born. Oskar is the spirit of survival, the part of me, of Jews, of all oppressed people, that can escape, mourn, and be born into a new life. He is for me the embodiment of not forgetting, never forgetting, but also refusing to let memory be delineated only by grief. Oskar was born because I needed the example of his life.

Over time I have found a way to make peace with the fact of the Holocaust, if not the details, although I along with every Jew on the planet will forever live in its shadow. Kristallnacht in particular had always disturbed me. Why didn’t they all flee? The three rabbis—why did they go back? And did my grandfather feel guilt? Of course he did, or he might have chosen a different way to tell me. To spare me, as I was sparing my own child.

Richard Simon is chair of the language department at an independent school and is co-author of a successful off-Broadway play. He lives and works with his wife and co-author, Tanya Simon, in Westchester, New York.

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Book Cover of the Week: Orphan #8

Tuesday, March 08, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Orphan Number Eight author Kim Van Alkemade shared the cover for the novel's new large-print edition last week, and it's no wonder she's excited:

The title's original book cover is striking as well, but this new artwork matches the novel's intensity in its somber somber tones and ambiguosity—is the girl looking out the window yearning to escape, or is she simply watching the outside world from within?

It's those lace bobby socks that kill me.

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Nine Rules for Writing Jewish Letters

Monday, March 07, 2016 | Permalink

In honor of the 65th National Jewish Book Awards, Jewish Book Council asked some of this year's winners to share their top rules for writing an award-winning book. Co-authors Alice Nakhimovsky and Roberta Newman, recipients of the 2015 award for Anthologies and Collections for Dear Mendl, Dear Reyzl: Yiddish Letter Manuals from Russian and America, decided to stay true to form.

Hamilton, New York, Torah portion Mishpatim, 5776

Dear Roberta, Shining Light of Her Generation,

What is this Jewish Book Council after? They want Nine Rules for Writing Letters. I understand that everyone wants to write a good letter, because how else can we keep in touch, and most importantly keep tabs on our grown-up children, may they live. Frankly it would be better if readers went straight toDear Mendl, Dear Reyzl, from which they can extract letter-writing rules for all situations a Jew might encounter, not just nine of them. For example, what if you are a wife stuck in Europe with three small children while your husband is cavorting with a missus somewhere in Manhattan? What you need in this situation is a good sentence. You need, “I’m writing not with black ink but with the last drops of blood.” That’ll show him.

In the meantime, up here in Hamilton, all is well. Isn’t it wonderful that I can write you a letter and you will get it in a week or so? On the other hand, the Jewish Book Council says it wrote to me, and I haven’t gotten that letter yet, but Hamilton has only one mailman, and maybe he’s ill, poor thing.

From me, your true devoted friend,

Manhattan, Torah portion Terumah, 2016

Dear Alice, may you live,

I'm in good health and hope to hear the same from you. I see from your letter that we have given the Jewish Book Council our first rule: if you are in a bad situation, deploy a good sentence. I’m glad you said that "all is well in Hamilton," because I was afraid you had forgotten Rule 2: speak of health frequently and repetitively.

It's very interesting that you write to me in the week in which we read the Torah portion Mishpatim, because those chapters of the Torah deal with all sorts of regulations. And letter manuals are full of rules. Imagine if those manual readers could text! There would have been much less need for rules. And yet, our abbreviations like LOL, IMHO, CUL8R—do they not resemble the Hebrew acronyms with which Jewish correspondence is replete? Mem-zayin-tet (Mazel Tov), Ayin-mem-shin (Im mishpakhto, with his family)… There are hundreds of them, and they appear in tables. Isn’t that modern?

Of course, the main thing that letter manuals are full of is fake letters for people to copy or just read. And the fake letters are full of drama. So now we can take up Rule 3: Let it all hang out. Anger and sorrow are why you’re writing. No emoticons, though: it would have been considered uncouth and uneducated to express emotions in pictures instead of words. Writing well was what it was all about. Remember when we thought that Jewish literacy in Russia and Poland was so widespread? It didn’t spread to everybody, and even for the educated it only went so far and didn’t necessarily extend to the kind of skills required for everyday life. Letter manuals filled the gap, giving all comers the opportunity to create or simply copy good Yiddish prose. And so, Rule 4: Education counts, even if you got yours from a letter manual. Write grammatically. Spell correctly.

I have to say, dear Alice, I was a little distressed that you dropped out of sight all last week. As a letter manual would put it, “From what I can see you have once again forgotten that you have a friend.” Let that be Rule 5: guilt-tripping is culturally sanctioned. But no more of that from me tonight. Hoping that the mailman in Hamilton will deliver this to you and that you will remain happy and healthy,

Your loyal friend,

Hamilton, New York, Torah portion Tetzaveh, 5776

Dear Roberta, may your light shine,

I received your dear letter with the greatest of joy, which was followed by terrible anxiety because we have only five rules, and we promised nine, and this may lead to some kind of misfortune, God forbid. I know you are busy, going to work every day, so here are four more. Rule 6: Authenticity is over-valued. Writing from America to Europe, it is fine to say one thing to your parents and another to your friend. She won’t talk to them. Rule 7: No politics. No politics in Russia, because there’s a censor, and they don’t like Jews anyway; no politics in America, because this is a commercial genre, and we don’t want to cut off our market. Rule 8: if you’re writing a love letter before 1905, keep in mind that it will be read aloud to the whole family. Post 1905, you’re on your own. Rule 9: If you are writing a business letter to a Russian or an American, practice brevity and restraint. If you are writing to another Jew, why would you bother?

From me, your devoted friend,

Alice Nakhimovsky is a professor of Russian and Jewish Studies at Colgate University, where she directs the Program in Russian and Eurasian Studies. Roberta Newman is an independent scholar, currently the Director of Digital Initiatives at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

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Modified Matzo Balls: A Gluten- and Grain-Free Spin on a Jewish Classic

Monday, March 07, 2016 | Permalink

Jennifer Robins is the voice being the popular food blog Predominantly Paleo and, together with Simone Miller, co-author of The New Yiddish Kitchen: Gluten-Free and Paleo Kosher Recipes for the Holidays and Every Day. Jennifer and Simone are guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Floaters or sinkers, we can all agree that a good matzo ball is one of the keys to happiness. Everyone has a favorite recipe, whether it’s their great-grandmother’s recipe or a perfectly concocted hybrid of past and present. So why reinvent the wheel with so many loveable variations?

Well, if you can’t tolerate grain like many of us, then the traditional wheat-based matzo balls just aren’t happening.

Simone Miller and I wrote our cookbook The New Yiddish Kitchen because we were forced to give up grain-based foods, regardless of how much we loved them, or how many of them were part of recipes which had been passed down generations. We wanted to recreate some of these traditional Jewish foods, like matzo balls, to pay homage to both our taste buds and our family’s legacy.

Writing these recipes has been a way to reconnect with our Jewish history, filled with memories of learning to cook in our bubbes’ kitchens. And consequently, we’ve been able to bring back foods like chocolate babka, matzo, and even bagels, all made free of grain, gluten, and dairy. Our hope is that people who have had to sacrifice their favorite traditional Jewish foods will once again be able to reintroduce them to their tables—and, more importantly, enjoy them!

These matzo balls are made from a sweet potato base, perfect for anyone sensitive to nightshades and entirely gluten- and grain-free. Feel free to dress them up with extra dill, salt, pepper, or whatever your favorite matzo ball garnish happens to be. We’ve included three different matzo ball recipes in The New Yiddish Kitchen, so that there is one to suit every diet (and taste). And of course you’ll have to check out the grain-free bagels, but that’s another recipe for another time! Enjoy! L’chaim!

Recipe: Sweet Potato Matzo Balls

Makes 6 Servings
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes

36 oz (1,080 ml) homemade or high quality store-bought chicken broth
Chopped carrots, celery and preferred herbs/seasonings (optional)
2 lbs (900 g) or 2 large Japanese sweet potatoes, cooked and mashed
½ tsp sea salt
½ tsp onion powder
½ tsp garlic powder
2 eggs
⅓ cup (60 g) potato starch
¼ cup (30 g) tapioca starch
3 tbsp (20 g) coconut oil
3 tbsp (45 ml) olive oil, schmaltz, or avocado oil

Bring the chicken broth to a boil in a stockpot over high heat. If you choose to add veggies and seasonings, place them in the broth at this time.

Next, combine the mashed potatoes, salt, onion powder, garlic powder, eggs, potato starch, tapioca starch, coconut our and olive oil in a mixing bowl. Using your hands, combine all the ingredients until you have a smooth dough.

Take a tablespoon (15 g) or two—depending on your preference—of the mixture and roll it into a ball. Drop it into the boiling broth and repeat until all of your matzo ball mix is used up.

Cover the stockpot and allow to cook on medium/high heat for 20 – 30 minutes, or until you are satisfied with your matzo balls’ texture. Serve hot!

After being diagnosed with several autoimmune conditions and chronic infections, including Lyme disease, Jennifer Robins turned to food for healing, removing grain, dairy and refined sugars. As a wife and mother of three, Jennifer hopes to instill healthy habits in her children now in hopes of creating wellness for a lifetime.