Hebrew Cookies for Simchat Torah

IMG_6068Simchat Torah is the celebration of the never-ending circle of Torah. One wonderful way to celebrate is by baking cookies in the shape of the first word in the Torah.

Simchat Torah services begin at sunset on Thursday, October 12. The last chapter of Deuteronomy is read, followed by the first chapter of Genesis. This is the only time of the year that the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark at night.

photo

The first sentence of Genesis in Hebrew.

The first phrase in Genesis is “In the beginning.” In Hebrew, this is written as one word, “Bereishit.”

The whole family can have fun mixing sugar cookie dough, rolling it out, and cutting out the shapes of the Hebrew letters. You may use Alef-Bet cookie cutters, or a knife. A fun tactile activity is to sculpt the letters with the dough. This is much less fussy than rolling and cutting it.

Refrigerated sugar cookie dough is perfect for this if you are pressed for time. Alternatively, if you are too busy to bake, you may purchase some Alef Bet cookies. If you like, you may decorate your cookies with icing and colorful sugar sprinkles. As you bite into each sweet letter, you will be reminded of the sweetness of learning Torah.

Sugar CookiesIMG_6067

Adapted from Alton Brown

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  1. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl.
  2. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours.
  3. Preheat the oven to 375°F.
  4. Roll out the dough.
  5. Cut out the letter shapes.
  6. Place the cookies on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper.
  7. Bake for about 10 minutes.

Vayigash: Joseph, I am Your Father!

Menorah— by Rabbi Richard F Address

This week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, is one of the most profound and meaningful readings of the year. It continues the Joseph cycle and, in a dramatic scene, Joseph confronts his brothers and reveals his true identity. For a while Joseph has played his brothers, almost toying with them, refusing to reveal who he was. At the end of last week’s reading (Genesis 43:27), Joseph even casually asks about the brothers’ father “of whom you spoke”. But in this week’s portion, it is time for truth. Imagine what he must have felt. Here were his brothers who cast him aside, rejected him, thought and wished him dead. Here they stand before him, bowing to him and his position, offering gifts, pleading for food. Who could blame the story for taking a revengeful track!

Joseph recognized by his brothers, oil painting by Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois, 1863.

Joseph recognized by his brothers, oil painting by Léon Pierre Urbain Bourgeois, 1863.

But in a most powerful scene we read:

Joseph could not longer control himself before all his attendants and he cried out “Have everyone withdraw”, so there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear and the news reached Pharoah’s palace. The Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still well? But his brothers could not answer for so dumbfounded were they on account of him. (Genesis 45:1-3)

You can almost feel the emotion leaping from the page. Look at what Joseph says. Of all the questions he could have asked, of all the things that he could have said, the first words are about his father. How is my father?

The Hebrew and its various translations are interesting. In some versions, the Hebrew Ha Od avi chai? is translated as “Is my father still well”, seeming to refer back to that question from last week’s portion (Genesis 43:17) However, if we look at the more literal translation, it seems to ask “Is my father still alive?” I think this latter approach is the more powerful. But remember, Joseph’s first concern is his father. Despite all the trappings of power and fame, success and influence that he has achieved, Joseph’s concern is his dad!

There are a myriad of interpretations about this story and the fact that Joseph’s reunion and his story was part of a Divine plan for the Jewish people. We alluded to this a few weeks back. All of that is great and worthy of much discussion. Yet, for me and for our generation, I think it is a powerful statement that the immediate reaction upon this revelation of identity is to restore that family relationship. Joseph has grown from that narcissistic teen to a mature man. Life has tested him and molded him onto a man of power and influence. But still, in his soul, was that void, that loss of family and “home” and so maybe we should not be surprised that when the time came to “settle the score”, so to speak, he rushed to try and fill that relational void. How many of us, as we journey through life, still yearn for those basic relationships of parents and family. We often still hear their voices, even if they have died. How often have we wished “they” could be with us to share a moment. I suggest Joseph’s question “Is my father still alive” I suggest, is much more than a simple question. It is, for many of us, that internal and intimate pull to belong, to be “home”, to feel part of family.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, is the founder and director of Jewish Sacred Aging. Rabbi Address served for over three decades on staff of the Union for Reform Judaism; first as a regional director and then, beginning in 1997, as founder and director of the URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and served as a specialist and consultant for the North American Reform Movement in the areas of family related programming. Rabbi Address was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972 and began his rabbinic career in Los Angeles congregations. He also served as a part time rabbi for Beth Hillel in Carmel, NJ while regional director and, after his URJ tenure, served as senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ from 2011 to 2014.

Nine Vegetarian Days

— by Ronit Treatman

The verse, “Out of the depths have I called Thee, O Lord,” (Psalms 130:1) perfectly captures the essence of Tisha B’Av. The fast day, which begins at sundown on Monday, July 15 this year, is one of the most solemn days in the Jewish calendar. It memorializes the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. The Sephardic community also mourns the issuing of the Alhambra Decree, or Edict of Expulsion. This dictum, ordering the banishment of the Jews from the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, was announced on Tisha B’Av in 1492.

The three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av are known as Bein HaMetzarim (“between the straits”). They begin on the 17th day of Tammuz (June 25 this year) and end on Tisha B’Av. This is a time of mourning the destruction of the Temples and the exiles of the Jews from the land of Israel. Historically, these three weeks have been a time of danger for the Jewish community. It is customary to avoid hazardous situations during those three weeks. Many Jews eschew lawsuits, surgical procedures, or travels during this time. The Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 551:9-11) mentions a Jewish tradition to refrain from eating meat and drinking wine during the week of Tisha b’Av or even (for some at that time) the entire three weeks.

Out of these days of despair have emerged some of the most creative vegetarian recipes of the Jewish kitchen. Mejedra, a crown jewel of the Syrian Jewish kitchen, is such a dish.

Recipe for Mejedra follows the jump.
Mejedra is a rice, lentil, and onion pilaf.  It is a very ancient recipe, first recorded in 1226 in Kitab al-Tabikh (“The Cook’s Book”). Mejedra is a traditional dish of mourning, based on the stew that Jacob prepared when Abraham died (Genesis 25: 29-34). Traditionally, “Esau’s favorite” was cooked with rice and green or brown lentils. Here is a recipe adapted from Gilda Angel’s Sephardic Holiday Cooking:

Mejedra

  • 2 cups brown lentils
  • 2 cups Basmati rice
  • 1 large Spanish onion
  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
  • 4 cups water
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil

  1. Pour the lentils into a bowl, and cover them with cold water.
  2. Allow the lentils to soak for two hours.
  3. Thinly slice the onion.
  4. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy pot.
  5. Add the onion, and fry until caramelized to a golden-brown color.
  6. Drain the lentils.
  7. Sautee the rice and lentils with the onion.
  8. Pour in the water, and season with salt and pepper.
  9. Cover the pot, and bring its contents to a boil.
  10. Simmer for about 30 minutes, until all the liquid has been absorbed.
  11. Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a saucepan.
  12. Brown the pine nuts in the pan.
  13. Sprinkle the pine nuts over the mejedra.

You may serve the mejedra with warm pita bread, an Israeli salad, and some plain yogurt on the side.  

A Different Kind of Summer Camp

— by Sasha Ben-Ari

The summer of 2011 marks twenty years since the fall of the Soviet Union and the beginning of a new era for Russian Jewry.  For pain-filled decades, this was a population discriminated against, both in the practice of their religion and in pursuing educational and professional opportunities.  

Two decades later, the situation has changed dramatically. No longer hindered by the constraints of communism and a regime, Russian Jews today, alongside with their compatriots in post-Soviet countries, enjoy most of the liberties previously associated with the West.

Despite this transformation in the society, the challenge of openly displaying Jewish pride in Russia and other former Soviet republics remains a very complex one.  On the one hand, Russian Jews are free to observe their faith and enjoy freedom of expression. In reality, however, many stigmas envelope public displays of observance which is a reflex rooted in decades of anti-religious attitude from the communist era. Sentiments of this kind continue to pervade Russian society.  

In recent years, communal leaders recognized that we were literally losing the battle to sustain Jewish souls and sought to design an innovative solution to focus on youth from Russian speaking families and countries and address this specific challenge. The answer came in the form of one of childhood’s most beloved institutions – summer camp.

More after the jump.

One prime example of turning the tide is Project Rimon, an initiative of the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Genesis Philanthropy Group, which for the past three years has been gathering campers together in locations around the world and provided a common ground for Russian speaking Jewish youth who are united by this unique cultural challenge. Participants in the Israel program include Russian speaking teens from former Soviet countries, new immigrants who have come to Israel over the last few years as well as Israeli born children of the great Russian aliya in the early nineties. These children often consider themselves more Israeli than of Russian origin.

In Israel, the population is more of a mosaic than a melting pot. Those with strong identities that deviate from the standard Israeli one can often feel alienated. The Rimon camp organizers realize that while the campers do not have to “feel” Russian, they can uncover the other ways they are one cohesive group – their Jewish heritage.

As is the case with many of Jewish Agency programs, the magical panacea crystallized in focusing on Israel as the source of Jewish pride and inspiration.  Over a two week time frame, these children, many of whom viewed their Judaism as only a fact of their ethnic heritage but never a fundamental, defining aspect of who they were, begin to discover that their Jewish identity could become a central facet of their lives.

By developing leadership and creative skills and having dialogue about Judaism and Israel, the campers begin to change their outlook on what it means to be a Jew and how to incorporate their Judaism into their daily life.
For example, on a day trip to Hasmonean Village in Central Israel, campers discovered their personal and family connections to the land and people of Israel through the language, the food and the dress of various local attractions. Actually seeing the how they are part of the history and heritage of the Jewish people is an important part of the Rimon educational program and one that has the most powerful impact on its participants.

The camp never tries to distance the child from his or her cultural identity – the opposite actually – and we firmly believe that this must remain an integral part of how the camper views themselves.  The many questions campers have of their “dueling identities” between being culturally Russian and Jewish is addressed with compassion and knowledge and children begin to recognize that their strength and uniqueness lies in the very complexity of their cultural heritage, with the connection to Israel at the core.

The author moved to Israel from Moscow in 1990 at age 8. She most recently served as a staff counselor at Project Rimon’s summer camp in Israel. She currently resides in Jerusalem.