Theater Chat: Together We Act

— by Hannah Lee

I’ve witnessed how theater is transformational when I observed how a young family friend, petite and shy, blossomed into a singer and actor on stage, first at the Perelman Jewish Day School and later in “Ragtime” at the Papermill Playhouse, the state theater in Millburn, NJ. Somehow having a script and an audience enables people to forget their usual persona and voice.

The experience of King George VI and his struggle with stuttering was portrayed brilliantly by Colin Firth in his Academy-award-winning role in the 2010 film, The King’s Speech. How much more fun would it have been for the King had he attempted theater? This weekend, the Adrienne Theater will host two performances of “Tough Cookies,” a one-act play by Edward Crosby Wells, with actors from Together We Act, a non-profit outreach theater company that is committed to educating, motivating, and building confidence in people who stutter.

Details about this weekend’s shows after the jump.

Shinefield being interviewed on Fox 29

Together We Act’s founder and executive officer, David Shinefield, a lifelong stutterer, discovered the thrill of acting at Yeshiva University. Upon realizing that he did not stutter when on stage, he decided to create Together We Act so that all people who stuttered could have a chance to immerse themselves in the world of acting. Shinefield hopes that “the theater community will be revolutionized in a way that will cause the inclusion of all sorts of actors, no matter what “handicap” they may seem to possess.”

Together We Act raised funds through crowdsourcing on Kickstarter by offering backers tickets to the shows, an official t-shirt, donor recognition in the playbill, and a recording of the play. According to Shinefield, some other troupes for inclusion are Our Time, a stuttering group for children, and Identity Theater, both located in New York. “Tough Cookies” will be directed by Kathe Mull of New York City.

“Tough Cookies” will be performed on Sunday, February 17 and Monday, February 18, in the Adrienne Theater at 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia, PA. Both performances will start at 7:00 PM and each will be followed by a Q&A session.

An Ethiopian Jew’s Journey

— by Hannah Lee

I met Barak Avraham, known as Malaku in his native Amharic, during his 2-week tour of the United States on behalf of AMIT, which supports a network of 108 schools and programs in 29 cities in Israel. Avraham’s personal story is a marvelous case study of how AMIT schools turn around individual lives and whole towns. His trek began at age 9 when he walked, with his mother and four siblings, for three weeks from their village of Abu Zava to the city of Gondar in Ethiopia. Sleeping outdoors at night, they were at the peril of anti-Semites, who recognized them as Jews and strangers. (His non-Jewish father, already divorced, stayed at home.)

More after the jump.
Back in their village, his maternal family dreamed of going to Jerusalem, a place like Paradise where people wear white garments and they do not have to work. After waiting eight months, they were accepted for flight aboard the covert Operation Solomon, which airlifted over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews in a 36-hour mission in May, 1991. Before boarding, Avraham’s mother buried their remaining Ethiopian money, birr, because she thought they would not need money in the Promised Land.

Avraham’s memories of his childhood in Ethiopa included Pesach, when they eagerly anticipated the gift of matzot delivered by shluchim (emissaries), homemade soccer balls fashioned from old socks and electrical wire, and a world without television or cars, just as life was lived 200 years before. The transition from a traditional society to a modern one was especially hard for the elders, such as his grandparents who arrived later. His family spent a year in an absorption center, merkaz klita, learning to adjust to Israeli ways, including eating with forks and knives. Ethiopian foods, such as teff and injera, are eaten with the right hand.

Growing up in a rough neighborhood and with a single mother, Avraham lost his way when he was in his “foolish teen years,” tipesh esrei, when he was expelled from one school after another. No one wanted him any longer. This was a painful period for his mother, who cried in shame and sadness. “I decided that I was going to change. That if my mother was going to cry because of me, it would be with pride, not from sorrow.” On the advice of a friend attending school at the AMIT Kfar Blatt Youth Village in Petach Tikva, he wrote a letter of appeal to the director, Amiran Cohen. A visionary educator, Cohen had him sign a pledge of changes he would make in his life.

Cohen, who became a special friend, and the support network of surrogate parents, teachers, and social workers helped Avraham focus his intelligence. He had always been told that he had “much potential.” Upon passing the bagrut, matriculation exams, he was accepted into an elite intelligence unit in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and served with distinction as an outstanding soldier. His mother cried with pride and joy at this completion ceremony.

The IDF taught him discipline and it broadened Avraham’s horizons. He listened as his army mates of different backgrounds from all over the country shared their dreams for the future. He knew then he had to get an education, which was assisted by an IMPACT scholarship from the Friends of the IDF. He was the valedictorian and the top Ethiopian student graduating with a degree in government diplomacy from The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya. Later, when he earned a master’s in public service, also from the IDC, he gave a speech before an audience of 4,000 and his mother cried again from joy.

Now 30, Avraham is an entrepreneur and founder of an Internet start-up company and manager of a teen community house in Petach Tikva. He is also coordinator of a new program at the AMIT Rambam Elementary School in Netanya. Rambam was a failing school. The Ministry of Education appealed to AMIT to rescue this school, and AMIT now plans to designate it a magnet school, an innovative model that brings together in one school the top-achieving students with the most needy ones. Avraham’s program includes football (soccer to Americans), mentoring, and parent support. Coming from the same poor neighborhood and background, Avraham gives the children confidence that they, too, can succeed.

Avraham’s newest dream is to join the Knesset in the next election. A Social Democrat, he parts ways with the older Ethiopians who tend to vote Likud, although “it’s capitalist,” and they’re poor but they vote for the country’s security needs. His mother, for one, cannot bear to hear anything bad against Israel. (The Yesh Atid party, which won 19 seats in January, has two Ethiopians in its cabinet.) Barak Avraham’s future was paved by the caring leaders and staff of the AMIT schools.

Book Chat: Exodus to Shanghai

— by Hannah Lee

Heartbreaking are the testimonies of Jews who sought every avenue of escape from Nazi-controlled Europe, but were foiled at every turn, with diplomatic and bureaucratic obstacles. They had limited access to accurate news. They had limited resources to buy their freedom and even the ones with means and the forethought found themselves victims of covetous maneuvers. Nazi regulations forbade bringing most valuables from the country and limited cash to 10 Marks or $10 per person.

First-hand testimonies are found in a book published in July, Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich by Steve Hochstadt.

More after the jump.
As part of the academic Palgrave Macmillian studies in oral history, Professor Hochstadt’s research focused on the odyssey of 16,000 Jews who escaped from Nazi-run Europe and found refuge in Shanghai, China when all other doors had slammed shut. The book distilled the transcripts of 13 narrators chosen from over 100 oral histories conducted with the survivors.  

Most of the narrators left their homes in the frantic and brief period between the Anschluss (the occupation and annexation) of Austria in March 1938 and the beginning of war in September 1939. They came from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia and represent a cross section of all refugees. The book does not cover the odyssey of the religious Jews from Poland, including the entire Mirrer Yeshiva, who spoke Yiddish and dressed differently from the cosmopolitan Berliners and the Viennese.

Desperate and resourceful women found out that a visa to Shanghai could release their men from concentration camps. Assistance came from the philanthropic organizations, Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden in Germany and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in New York, including tickets to Shanghai for the poorest families.

In the 1930s, Shanghai was the banking center of Asia and “an open port where the Chinese Nationalists and Communists, organized gangsters, Western capitalists, and the Japanese military competed for authority,” wrote Hochstadt. “Extremes of wealth and poverty jostled in the crowded streets.” Upon arrival, the refugees experienced culture shock in the form of the tropical heat, an alien language, and wartime inflation.  

The marvel was that the refugees quickly developed a community in exile, with Jewish institutions and forms of self-governance. The Austrians even created a café life on the streets of their new home. The most ambitious and successful creation was the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School, affectionately known as the Kadoorie School. About 600 students enrolled in a curriculum of religious and secular subjects, taught in English by the refugees and modeled after Jewish schools in Germany.

“The remarkable thing about Jewish life in Shanghai until 1943 is that there was no persecution,” wrote Hochstadt. The Japanese already controlled most of the city but, while they were allies of the Nazis, they adopted a completely different policy toward Jews. They finally took action on February 18, 1943, when they forced all “stateless refugees” who’d arrived after 1937 to live within less than a square mile in the neighborhood of Hongkou. However, the February Proclamation showed “the ambivalent nature of the Japanese attitude… the word Jew was not mentioned in the Proclamation ,” and the existing Baghdadi and Russian Jewish communities in Shanghai were spared.

With the end of the war, these refugees again had to find new places to live. Nearly all refugee families wanted to leave Shanghai as soon as possible. “Very few had been able to create a life they wanted to continue in China. Remaining in post-colonial China…meant learning and adopting Chinese culture; only a handful of European Jews accepted that challenge,” wrote Hochstadt.

Illustrative of the enormous difficulties for displaced persons after the war, one of the last groups to leave Shanghai, 106 of them without U.S. visas, were supposed to travel across the Pacific on the “General Gordon,” but the Chinese refused to allow the ship to anchor offshore.  So, on May 1950,

the refugees had to take a train to Tientsin, then board barges in heavy seas to get out to the ship. When they arrived in the United States, they were put on a sealed train and transported across the country to Ellis Island…In June, another boat took them to Bremerhaven [Germany], and they entered DP camps, where they stayed for one more year. Finally they were given visas to the United States in 1951.

By the time of the Chinese Communists’ Cultural Revolution in 1966, the Jewish communities of Shanghai “were just a memory.”

The book gives the history of the slight majority of the Shanghai refugees who came to the United States. Life in the United States meant assimilation, letting go of their German culture. They had to adjust to a new world order. One refugee, Lisbeth Loewenberg, reminisced about her adjustment to stability:

My first job that I found after one week when I walked around, that was with Collier’s magazine. This place took subscriptions, they had salesmen go running around and selling subscriptions to Collier’s and Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan, and so on, and I processed these orders. People took subscriptions for one year. I said, “But how do people know that after one year they will still be at that address?” I couldn’t believe in permanence anymore. I was completely shocked that some people took two-year subscriptions. It floored me. But you don’t know where you are going to be tomorrow, was my reaction. And life has actually always seemed to me not permanent.  It’s all just transitory.

Remarkably, these refugees, most of whom had been children or teens during the years in Shanghai, can even look back and say, as did Doris Grey, that they were “the best years” of her life. Another, Gerald Kohbieter, said, “It was a lifesaver. The Chinese were polite people, and they put up with a lot with us…There were some frictions, but all in all, I must say there were good hosts.”

The resilience of youth allowed many of them adapt to, and even profit from their refugee experiences. Lisbeth Loewenberg said,

All the barriers fell. It didn’t make a difference, what does your family do…because everyone was there and started from scratch, nil, nothing, in Shanghai. All things being equal, if all people start under the same adverse conditions, this is where your true ability will show or your true survival instincts or your enterprise…Don’t ever blame the condition, blame yourself.  Because under the most impossible conditions, some people will make it one way or another.

Professor Hochstadt earned his Ph.D. in History from Brown University, taught at Bates College in Maine for 27 years, and is now professor at Illinois College. He has just published another Holocaust oral history, Death and Love in the Holocaust: The Story of Sonja and Kurt Messerschmidt (Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine).

Book Chat: Downton Abbey

— by Hannah Lee

The third season of the British drama series, Downton Abbey, premieres on this side of the Atlantic on Sunday. For the diehard fan, I recommend The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook by Emily Ansara Baines (who also wrote The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook, which I reviewed last March). It contains recipes for the elaborate multi-course meals enjoyed by the aristocratic Crawley family as well as the homespun, simple meals partaken by the servants of the Grantham estate. Anglophiles would enjoy learning about the customs and etiquette of the Edwardian era. Language enthusiasts would delight in tidbits like how “red herring” became an iconic phrase in mystery novels, named for the diversionary tactic of British fugitives in rubbing the aromatic herring across their trails to confuse the bloodhounds used by detectives.

More after the jump.
Other books I’d recommend for the serious fan are: The World of Downton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes (niece of Julian Fellowes, creator and writer of the Downton Abbey series) with its many lovely photographs of the cast and the sets used in the television series — I had to refrain from looking inside until I’d watched all the episodes to avoid any spoilers — and Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by the Countess of Carnarvon. Published in November is The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A New Era by Jessica Fellowes, Matthew Sturgis and Julian Fellowes, which examines the background and motivations of each cast member.

A chapter in the cookbook is on afternoon tea, customary served between 3 and 5 pm. This meal, Baines notes, is said to have been created for Queen Victoria to sustain her until the late elaborate dinner. It is no simple affair, consisting of several kinds of tea, finger sandwiches, scones, pastries, fruitcake and maybe even a layer cake as the finale. High tea, in contrast, is a working-class meal of meat, bread, and cheese and usually served between 5 and 7 pm. I have a fond memory of partaking afternoon tea at Harrods in London, where I was introduced to clotted cream. I cheered over the easy methods Baines gives for making clotted cream and golden syrup, which I have not read in any other book.

I learned that cream of barley soup was served on the Titanic on its fateful maiden trip across the Atlantic Ocean (and the beginning of the Downton Abbey saga with the death of the heir aboard that ship). And I would love to taste the Saxe-Coburg soup, which was perhaps created for Prince Albert incorporating his beloved Brussels sprouts or, notes Baines, it could have been named for Queen Victoria’s eldest son.

My dream menu for a Downton Abbey-themed dinner would include the rosemary oat crackers, the spicy mulligatawny (“pepper water”) soup, Brussels sprouts with chestnuts, and the roasted parsnips with horseradish, maple syrup and herb butter sauce. I’d serve the Edwardian chicken tikka masala, substituting seitan for the chicken to keep it kosher in a dish that also calls for heavy cream. Baines references the former Labor Secretary Robin Cook who made headlines in 2001 when he declared in a speech that this dish was “British’s true national dish.” For the finishing touch, I’d serve Eccles cakes and Bakewell tarts.

Much fish was consumed in the Victorian era, writes Baines, and salmon was one of the varieties affordable to the poor. So, for Shabbat for the family, I’d prepare the mustard salmon with lentils, which I could serve with the no-knead Sally Lunn bread and treacle tart.

The British love their biscuits, called digestive biscuits or digestives, both then and now. For the April 2011 wedding of Prince William and Catherine (Kate) Middleton, I served to my family what was touted as Prince William’s favorite dessert. I substituted the kosher Kedem brand tea biscuits for the English brand, McVities.  Here is a recipe from Sense and Simplicity.

Prince William’s Chocolate Biscuit Cake
Serves 8

  • 4 tbsp (60 ml) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) granulated sugar
  • 4 oz (110 g) dark chocolate, chopped
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 8 oz (225 g) McVitie’s Rich Tea Biscuits, about 28 biscuits broken into almond-sized pieces
  • 8 oz (225 g) dark chocolate, chopped – for the icing
  1. Line bottom of 7-inch (18 cm) spring form pan with parchment paper and butter sides of the pan.
  2. Cream butter and sugar until fluffy using electric mixer on medium setting.
  3. In double boiler melt 4 oz chocolate.
  4. Stir in butter mixture.
  5. Stir in egg.
  6. Remove from heat and add biscuits, stirring until well mixed.
  7. Spoon mixture into springform pan filling all gaps and refrigerate for three hours until set.
  8. Remove pan and turn cake upside-down on cooling rack set over a parchment lined baking sheet.
  9. Melt 8 oz chocolate in double boiler.
  10. Pour the melted chocolate over the cake, smoothing it on the top and sides.
  11. Let stand for one hour until set.
  12. Carefully remove cake from the cooling racks and place on serving plate.

Film Chat: Les Misérables

— by Hannah Lee

I’ve never attended the first showing of a blockbuster movie, but I saw the premiere showing of Les Misérables at noon on the 25th, along with the other Jews in the area. By the time the credits were over (I always stay for the credits to show respect for the crew), the lobby was mobbed and the line outside was down the block.  

The full review after the jump.
The movie was very well done, maybe over-the-top for some tastes, and if the Oscars had a separate category for musicals, I would vote for it as best, but Lincoln, followed by Argo, are still my top choices. It’s been a strong year for films.

In early 19th century France of author Victor Hugo (who published the book in 1862), there is no support network for the poor and the film vividly portrays their wretchedness. The budget for dirt in the film must have been significant. The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis objected to the ardent religiosity of the film, compared to the screenplay, but I appreciated its role in explaining how the embittered Valjean, paroled from 19 years of hard labor for the theft of bread for his nephew, could turn his life around by his love for the orphaned Cossette.  Alas, he is perpetually hounded by Inspector Javert, with a singular passion for the law, because Valjean broke his parole. Both Les Mis and Lincoln deal with the issue of slavery and the desire for freedom; the former depicts how fear and obsession could also imprison a soul.

The director Tom Hooper made the unusual decision of filming the actors live, instead of dubbing in their singing voices later. Thus, the sound quality was not as ideal as possible in a recording studio, but the acting looked raw and vibrant. Anne Hathaway was stunning, in voice and acting, in her portrayal of the doomed Fantine, who loses her job unfairly and later her purity and dignity trying to provide for her young daughter, Cossette. Hathaway lost 25 pounds for this role, amidst concern by the director. It may not have been the best role for Hugh Jackman, but he keeps his clothes on (in contrast to his role as the Wolverine in the X-Men series) and as a Tony winner (for The Boy from Oz), his voice is fine for the role of Valjean. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were marvelous as the despicable innkeepers, the Thénardiers, and their duet “Master of the House” was a comic farce of how guests may not leave their inn intact.

The Englishman Eddie Redmayne was excellent as the young revolutionary (with a wealthy family) Marius as well as Samantha Barks as the lovelorn Éponine (whose voice was deemed the best in the film according to my opera-loving friend). There is an indelible scene in which the doomed leaders of the failed rebellion of June 1832 are shot and the leader Enjolras falls out the window still holding their flag and his legs are tangled in the air. The young English boy Daniel Huttlestone playing the role of the brave Gavroche had the signature British accent for most Les Mis stage productions; Sacha Baron Cohen had the only discernible French accent for this French tragedy. Amanda Seyfried is beautiful as teenage Cossette in a role that does not demand much, but she has a lovely soprano voice and she trills her notes.  Russell Crowe ably filled the role of the obsessed Javert, a character who defies my understanding.

New York Times critic Dargis objected to the heavy-handedness of the director, but I thought it was a fabulous production as was his previous film, The King’s Speech (my Oscar pick from last year). The opening scene was absolutely awesome, even knowing it was computer-generated, with the hundreds of prisoners hauling in the battleship with Javert astride the deck. The mooring lines gradually rise with their efforts and the men become discernible from the water. As Dargis noted, Valjean becomes the Christ figure with his hoisting of a broken mast and I do not object. Hooper was aptly kind to the Catholic church, which was the sole savior for many souls in that period.

Food Chat: Birthday Stollen

— by Hannah Lee

My birthday falls on December 26 on the Gregorian calendar and I choose not to celebrate with a double-layered cake with frosting. In recent years, I’ve been experimenting with ceremonial sweets of other cultures (namely, Christmas), so last year I procured the traditional spring form pan used to bake the Italian panettone.  This year, I had a hankering to try my hand at the German stollen, after my sister-in-law introduced the family to her father’s annual treat.

The full recipe after the jump.
One of my favorite food bloggers is David Lebovitz and in 2009, he wrote a post on his eponymous webpage about making stollen when the snow kept him indoors in his Paris apartment. His recipe is adapted from the New York Times from a recipe by Melissa Clark and Hans Röckenwagner. I liked it because it called for rye flour, which I had left over from a previous culinary adventure with Boston brown bread. I like fruitcake and this one is leavened by yeast. Unfortunately, I did not read the recipe closely and when I embarked on it in the morning, I realized that it called for five sessions of resting (“proofing”) the dough, resting it for an hour at a time. So, I had to time my activities, from a shiva call to Les Misérables, to tend to the dough.

The ultimate proof is in the tasting, so I took an early taste (before the two-day waiting period, another point I’d overlooked in my initial reading) and the slow rising yielded a tender bread, albeit not a lightweight one.  Caution, this is not for the butter-phobic, because it calls for a half kilo, or almost a pound of butter. In his post, Lebovitz reminisced about the time he was in the kitchen at Spago in Los Angeles, and he remembered Wolfgang Puck telling him how they used to make stollen when he was a kid and worked in a bakery in Austria: “Vee took a lot of butter, melted it in a veery veery beeg pot…” (making a big circular hoop with his arms to show us how big it was) “….and ve vood dunk zee whole loaves in it!”


Makes four individual loaves

  • 2/3 cup (110 g) dark raisins
  • 2/3 cup (110 g) golden raisins (sultanas)
  • 1/2 cup (80 g) dried cranberries or cherries
  • 1/3 cup (80 ml) dark rum or orange juice
  • 1 cup (160 g) slivered or sliced almonds, lightly toasted
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) water
  • 2 1/2 (one envelope, 20 g) teaspoons powdered yeast
  • 1/2 cup (125 ml) milk (whole or low-fat), at room temperature
  • 3 1/2 cups (490 g) all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup (80 g) rye flour (or all-purpose flour)
  • 1/2 cup (100 g) plus 3 tablespoons (45 g) sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground dried ginger
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon freshly-grated nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon or orange zest, preferably unsprayed
  • 3/4 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or extract
  • 1 cup (225 g), plus 3/4 cup (170 g) unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1/2 cup (50 g) chopped candied ginger
  • 1/2 cup (50 g) diced candied citrus peel
  • 1/2 cup (70 g) powdered sugar, or more, if necessary
  1. Mix both kinds of raisins with the cranberries or cherries with the dark rum or orange juice, then cover. In another bowl, mix the almonds with the water, and cover. Let both sit at least an hour, or overnight.
  2. Pour the milk in a medium bowl and sprinkle the yeast over it. Stir briefly, then stir in 1 cup (140 g) of the flour until smooth to make a starter. Cover, and let rest one hour.
  3. In the bowl of a stand mixer, with the paddle attachment, or by hand, stir together the remaining 2 1/2 cups (350 g) flour, the rye flour, 3 tablespoons (45 g) sugar, 1/2 teaspoon of the dried ginger, salt, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, citrus zest, and vanilla. Pour in the 1 cup (8 ounces, 225 g) of the melted butter, honey, and the egg yolk, and mix on medium speed until the mixture is moistened uniformly.
  4. While mixing, add the yeasted starter, one-third at a time, mixing until thoroughly incorporated. Once added, continue to beat for about four minutes until almost smooth: it should resemble cookie dough. Add the dried fruits (and any liquid), candied ginger, citrus peel, and almonds, and beat until they’re well-distributed.
  5. Turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured surface and knead a few times, then place back in the mixer bowl, cover, and let rest in a warm place for one hour.
  6. Remove the dough from the bowl, knead the dough again, then return it to the bowl. Let rest for another hour.
  7. Divide the dough into four pieces and shape each one into a oval, and place them evenly-spaced apart on an insulated baking sheet.
    (The original recipe says to stack two rimmed baking sheets on top of each other, so you can do that if you don’t have one.)
  8. Cover the loaves with a clean tea towel and let rest in a warm place for one hour.
  9. Preheat the oven to 350F (180C). Remove the tea towel and bake the loaves for 45 minutes, or until they’re deep golden brown. (Note: Recipe advises that when they’re done, the internal temperature should read 190F, 88C if using an instant-read thermometer.)
  10. While they loaves are baking, mix together the remaining 1/2 cup (100 g) sugar and 1 teaspoon dried ginger. When the breads come out of the oven, generously brush the remaining 3/4 cup (6 ounces, 170 g) melted butter over the hot loaves, letting the butter saturate the breads, repeating until all the butter is absorbed. (Lebovitz was a daredevil and lifted the loaves, to saturate the bottoms. Be careful not to break the loaves.)
  11. Rub the gingered sugar mixture over the top and side of each loaf then let rest on the baking sheet until room temperature.
  12. Sift the powdered sugar over, under, and around the breads, rubbing it in with your hands. They wrap the loaves on the baking sheet in a large plastic bag and let them sit for two days. After two days, the loaves are ready to eat, or can be wrapped as gifts. You may wish to sift additional powdered sugar over the top in case they need another dusting.

Storage: Stollen can be stored for at least a week, if well-wrapped, at room temperature. Or frozen for at least one month.

A Soldier Speaks of His IDF Unit

— By Hannah Lee

There’s nothing like an eyewitness to convey the visceral and emotional impact of overseas news. So, I’d looked forward to the parlor meeting held at a private residence on the Main Line on Tuesday. Their son, Akiva (a pseudonym to protect his identity), was the featured speaker and he showed computer images of his work with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Their goal for the Friends of the IDF (FIDF) was to outfit his unit, 80-member strong, with fleece jackets, Camelback water bottles, and Leatherman tools.

More after the jump.
Akiva made aliyah (moved to Israel) in August of 2011 after he graduated from Cornell with a degree in engineering. He entered the Israel Defense Force in November. After a 8-month training period and a course as a medic, he was assigned to a combat engineering unit, whose responsibility is to search for mines.  His unit worked along the Syrian border, which he said was the most mined border worldwide after the border between North and South Korea. During last month’s attacks by Hamas, his unit was re-deployed to Gaza.

As a Chayal Boded (Lone Soldier), Akiva is assigned to a religious kibbutz for his time off (others are given stipends for group apartments) and he gets four weeks of vacation for visits home with his family. His engineering degree is not essential to his duties, but his father pointed out that the family insisted that Akiva completes his college education before making aliyah. His medic training was simpler than that for an EMT in the United States, as the focus is on treatment for shock. The first step is in stabilizing the injured soldier for removal from the combat zones.

In its inaugural year, the Pennsylvania and Southern NJ chapter of the Friends of IDF had a busy year. Among their fundraising projects, they built a gym, refurbished a club, supported veterans in their post-IDF studies, donated a Torah scroll to an IDF base, adopted a battalion, sponsored summer camp in the United States for B’nai Mitzvah and soldiers from bereaved families,and sponsored flights home for Lone Soldiers. All donations to FIDF are fully tax-deductible. All purchases are pre-approved by the IDF.

American Orthodox Jews and Rabbinic Authority

— by Hannah Lee

The United States has the second largest Jewish population in the world, yet we alone have no unifying Orthodox religious hierarchical structure. Other nations with communities of over 100,000 Jews have Chief Rabbis — Israel, United Kingdom, Russia, France, and Italy — while others have informal hierarchy, such as in Australia.  Here in the United States, the local rabbi reports to the synagogue board and the Jewish day school headmaster reports to the school board. We have no national chief rabbi to ensure proper halachic supervision and unification of policies across the board in Orthodoxy, said Rabbi Michael Broyde, Dayan (judge) of the Beit Din of America (the Rabbinical court for Orthodox Jewry) and professor of law at Emory University while speaking at a Hanukkah program at Kohelet Yeshiva High School on Sunday.

More after the jump.
Rabbi Broyde spoke about two of the many perspectives on the Hanukkah story to portray the poles of rabbinic authority in this country. One is that the Hellenists infringed on our religious freedom. “If only they had left us alone, we would not have had to wage war against them.”  Another is that the Hellenists were wrong and rabbinic Jews had to force them to do what is right.

American Orthodoxy has been created in the image of America’s ethos of independent thinking. In his lifetime, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) was the leading halachic authority for Orthodox Jewry in North America. However, he repeatedly declined the title of Chief Rabbi and his writings, such as Responsa Igrot Moshe, reflected his position against organized hierarchy — a tradition that dates back to the Gra (Gaon Rabbi Eliyahu or the Vilna Gaon, who died in 1797) and the Aruch HaShulhan (Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, who died in 1908). Reb Moshe, as he was known, was fearless and autonomous, who refused to defer to other rabbinic authorities. He exhorted Jews to study and learn for themselves. We are to think and decide for ourselves.

R. Feinstein even considered it acceptable for modern-day halachic authorities to argue with some of the Rishonim, the influential Rabbis and Poskim (jurists) who lived approximately during the 11th to 15th centuries, when they have strong proofs and firm analytic foundations. In tumultuous times, two things tend to happen:

  1. novel situations arise and
  2. historical answers no longer seem to work.

So, we need new answers to modern-day problems. An example that R. Feinstein cites from the Talmud [Maharatz Chayot, Gittin 56a] was about unblemished sacrifices, where Rabbi Zecharya was figuratively blamed for the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple in Jerusalem) because he remained silent on the matter, out of respect or fear of his peers. When one has a particular, even unpopular, understanding of Halacha, one is not permitted to remain silent.

Do we learn from the historic rabbis and follow their rulings? It’s okay to do differently, says Rabbi Broyde, elaborating on Rabbi Feinstein. As the Rishonim are no longer living, we cannot run a community on auto-pilot. God cannot ask us to be right all the time, only that we try our best to follow a halachic process. For example, whereas the Ashkenazim follow the halachic rulings of the Tosefot (medieval commentaries on the Talmud), the Sephardim follow the halachic opinions of the Rambam (Moses Maimonides, 1135-1204). These traditions cannot both be right, but it is our adherence to the legal process, not the result that matters to Orthodox Jewry.

The model for a God-fearing community is a body of laws that are consistent with the sources that bind us. R. Feinstein was very concerned that Jews follow secular law, Dina D’Malchuta Dina. Whereas the Jews in Hungary, for instance, lived in an unjust society seeking to exploit them, and resorted to cheating the government of taxes as necessary to survive, American Jews live in a just society and, thus we have the full obligation to comply with all local and national laws.

During the Q&A session afterward the official presentation, R. Broyde made it clear that sometimes rabbinic decisions are made for the communal good, and not because of halachic requirements. One issue raised by audience members was about the plight of agunot, “chained” women who are not given a get, bill of divorce, by their estranged husbands which results in the women being unable to remarry. “This is a political issue, as there is already a halachic solution,” said R. Broyde, because there is the prenuptial agreement that binds the couple to rabbinic arbitration by a beit din in case of marital disputes. Then the question became: “What about women who do not have one?” The prenuptial agreement has been in use for 25 years, he said. “What if the women had not been counseled by the rabbi to obtain one?” Using the analogy of people who ride motorcycles recklessly without wearing safety helmets, Rabbi Broyde declared, “We cannot expend community resources to clean up after a marital disaster.” And he added: “Communities get the rabbis they deserve… and members can always choose to move to where there is a better rabbi.” Alas for the aggrieved agunot in our communities, even with a prenuptial agreement, the obstacle for most get disputes remains in its enforcement. The secular courts do not give support to any rabbinical court ruling. Would a Chief Rabbinate make a difference for our agunot?

Rabbi Broyde claimed that the communities that have a chief rabbinate have political and social virtues, citing statistics from the United Kingdom: 3/4 of all Jews attend Jewish day school, higher rates of affiliation, and a lower rate of intermarriage. However, I remain unconvinced by this argument and Rabbi Broyde’s hope for a Chief Rabbinate of the United States seems an unlikely outcome in this “land of the free.”


Music Chat: Twas the Night Before Hanukkah

— by Hannah Lee

Maybe it’s because I was not born of the faith — I’ve joked that I’m from beyond the Pale — but I’ve always loved Christmas music. As an Orthodox Jew, I don’t experience the December Dilemma, because I know which is my holiday. This also means that I can enjoy the lovely music, without any psychological conflicts, any envy. When we first visited Scotland, I bought a CD of Christmas music on the bag pipe — how’s that for combining my interests! As soon as I learned about the new offering by the Idelson Society for Musical Preservation, I had to get Twas the Night Before Hanukkah: The Musical Battle between Christmas and the Festival of Lights.

More after the jump.
The Idelson Society for Musical Preservation is composed of a team of professionals from the music industry and academia who “passionately believe Jewish history is best told by the music we have loved and lost.” They have done so in several ways: by releasing lost Jewish classic albums and the stories about them; building a digitally-based archive of music and the artists who created them; curating museum exhibits; and staging concerts that bring our elderly performers back onstage to be appreciated by younger audiences.

Their 2010 release of Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations was a delight for my ears: Johnny Mathis on “Kol Nidre” (1958); Nina Simone on “Eretz Zavat Chalav v’Devash” (1963); and the Temptations on a Fiddler on the Roof melody (1969).  I loved most of the selections by other artists on the album, such as Aretha Franklin; and Lena Horne, but I was not enchanted by Billie Holiday’s rendition of “My Yiddishe Momme” (1956) and I choose to skip over the first track when I play the CD.

Their 2012 release, Twas the Night Before Hanukkah comes with an essay by Jenna Weissman Joselit, Professor and Director of the Program in Judaic Studies at George Washington University, in which she chronicles how the minor holiday of Hanukkah became commerce-driven. A little-known recording by Woody Guthrie (“Hanukkah Dance”) keeps company with selections by traditional Jewish performers such as Cantors Yossele Rosenbaum (“Yevonim”) and David Putterman (“Rock of Ages”) as well as younger modern artists such as Jeremiah Lockwood, Ethan Miller, and Luther Dickinson. The latter are from separate ensembles —  Sway Machinery and Balkan Beat Box, North Mississippi All-Stars and The Black Crowes and The Howlin’ Rain and Comets on Fire — who come together and blended “the Jewish soul of Lockwood, the Southern gris-gris (voodoo talisman) of Dickinson and the New Weird American sounds of Miller” to create a version of “Dreidel, Dreidel” that is both Jewish and American.

My interest laid with the second CD on the album, which was introduced by music journalist and critic, Greil Marcus. It is the far better one musically — for composition, vocalization, and orchestration. This CD included Christmas songs that have been recorded by Jewish performers, such as Bob Dylan, Joey Ramone (born Jeffry Ross Hyman in Forest Hills, Queens), and Sammy Davis, Jr. Z (who converted to Judaism in the late 1950s). Alas, selections from Barbra Streisand’s A Christmas Album, released in 1967, does not appear on this album.

The introduction from the Idelson Society begins with a quote from the writer Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock:

God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave to Irving Berlin “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas.”  The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ — the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity — and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do?  He de-Christs them both!  Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow…He turns their religion into schlock. But nicely!  Nicely!  So nicely the goyim don’t even know what hit ’em.  They love it. Everybody loves it…

Roth’s perspective is a novel one, but it’s not kind. I love Christmas music —  from Irving Berlin’s to Felix  Mendelssohn’s (the grandson of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn) — because it is beautiful music that soars and lifts the spirit.  I believe that God works through music and maybe peace on Earth could come when we all enjoy creations made in his honor.  

Food Chat: The Smitten Kitchen

— by Hannah Lee

In the foodie world, we fans tend to follow our favorite authors from their humble blogging origins to their splashy success in the publishing and media worlds. Case in point, I have both cookbooks by Ree Drummond of Pioneer Woman. So, it was with tremendous regret that coming back from New York, I was too fatigued to attend a presentation by Deb Perelman at the Free Library last evening.  She was to talk about her new book, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. Her website, The Smitten Kitchen, has inspired me and her other legions of fans to expand our gustatory horizons. The marvel is that she works from a tiny kitchen in a New York apartment.  She proves the point that talent heeds no boundaries and space is not a limitation.

Fig-Olive Oil-Sea Salt Challah recipe follows the jump.
I made her Fig-Olive Oil-Sea Salt Challah for a recent Shabbat and it was as spectacular as the author’s photos. The braiding was unusual also, because it was woven like the pot holders we used to make as children.

Photo by Deb Perelman.

Fig, Olive Oil and Sea Salt Challah
From The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

Yield: 1 large loaf

  • 2 1/4 tsp (1 packet – 1/4 ounce or 7 grams) active dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup (85 grams) plus 1 tsp honey
  • 1/3 cup (80 ml) olive oil, plus more for the bowl
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tsp flaky sea salt, such as Maldon, or 1 1/2 tsp table salt
  • 4 cups (500 grams) all-purpose flour

Fig Filling

  • 1 cup (5 1/2 ounces or 155 grams) stemmed and roughly chopped dried figs
  • 1/8 tsp freshly grated orange zest, or more as desired
  • 1/4 cup (60 ml) orange juice
  • 1/8 tsp sea salt
  • A few grinds black pepper

Egg wash

  • 1 large egg
  • Coarse or flaky sea salt, for sprinkling

To make dough with a stand mixer: Whisk the yeast and 1 tsp honey into 2/3 cup warm water (110 to 116 degrees), and let it stand for a few minutes, until foamy. In a large mixer bowl, combine the yeast mixture with remaining honey, 1/3 cup olive oil, and eggs. Add the salt and flour, and mix until dough begins to hold together. Switch to a dough hook, and run at low speed for 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer the dough to an olive-oil coated bowl (or rest the dough briefly on the counter and oil your mixer bowl to use for rising, so that you’ll use fewer dishes), cover with plastic wrap, and set aside for 1 hour, or until almost doubled in size.

To make the dough by hand:
Proof the yeast as directed above. Mix the wet ingredients with a whisk, then add the salt and flour. Mix everything together with a wooden spoon until the dough starts to come together. Turn the mixture out onto a floured counter, and knead for 5 to 10 minutes, until a smooth and elastic dough is formed. Let rise as directed above.

Meanwhile, make fig paste: In a small saucepan, combine the figs, zest, 1/2 cup water, juice, salt, and a few grinds of black peper. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the figs are soft and tender, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat, and let cool to lukewarm. PRocess fig mixture in a food processor until it resembles a fine paste, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Set aside to cool.

Insert figs: After your dough has risen, turn it out onto a floured counter and divide it in half. Roll the first half of the dough into a wide and totally imperfect rectangle (really, the shape doesn’t matter). Spread half the fig filling evenly over the dough, stopping short of the edge. Roll the dough into a long, tight log, trapping the filling within. Then gently stretch the log as wide as feels comfortable (I take mine to my max counter width, a pathetic three feet), and divide it in half. Repeat with remaining dough and fig filling.

Weave your challah: Arrange two ropes in each direction, perpendicular to each other, like a tight tic-tac-toe board. Weave them so that one side is over, and the other is under, where they meet. So, now you’ve got an eight-legged woven-headed octopus. Take the four legs that come from underneath the center and move the leg to their right – i.e., jumping it. Take the legs that were on the right and, again, jump each over the leg before, this time to the left. If you have extra length in your ropes, you can repeat these left-right jumps until you run out of rope. Tuck the corners or odd bumps under the dough with the sides of your hands to form a round.

Transfer the dough to a parchment-cover heavy baking sheet, or, if you’ll be using a bread stone, a baker’s peel. Beat egg until smooth, and brush over challah. Let challah rise for another hour, but 45 minutes into this rise, preheat your oven to 375°F.

Bake your loaf: Before baking, brush loaf one more time with egg wash and sprinkle with sea salt. Bake in middle of oven for 35 to 40 minutes. It should be beautifully bronzed; if yours starts getting too dark too quickly, cover it with foil for the remainder of the baking time. The very best way to check for doneness is with an instant-read thermometer – the center of the loaf should be 195 degrees.

Cool loaf on a rack before serving. Or, well, good luck with that.