Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Rediscovering the Native Language of Judaism: A New Year, and New Thoughts About Being a Jew

Following Rosh Hoshanah, but before Yom Kippur, a colleague sent me Mark Oppenheimer’s opinion piece from Tablet:

The title is more than a mouthful, and I expected all sorts of things from it, in part because I felt I would relate to it on many levels.  I was Bar Mitzvah'd and Confirmed at the same Temple and religious community where my parents still participate and pray.  My Mom, this past summer, had her own Bat Mitvah on the same bimah as mine.  I participated in Hillel in college and in graduate school, but since returning home, have become the sort of religious Jew that my family always looked upon with some degree of derision: the “High-Holiday Jew,” the “Twice-a-year Jew.”  The prayers are still ingrained, and many of the melodies still a pleasure, but it does feel strange, and for the past few years I've grapple with what that means.  I thought Oppenheimer’s

There are some good points in this, but rather than developing and contextualizing them in Jewish history, the article feels scatter shot. It's like he had a bunch of ideas for analogies about Judaism, and rather than develop one or two, he just decided to mix up a bunch of metaphors. We've got Judaism as language, art, musicianship, and sports, and not a single one feels particularly well thought out.

First, there's the discussion of Judaism as no longer "native language." The former seems to me a strange argument: he's writing about the diaspora, as though the non-native aspect hasn't been a fundamental part of Judaism since the destruction of the second temple 2500 years ago. And it seems an odd argument to make to talk about Judaism as language, when in fact there *is* a special language of Judaism, that aligns with all the points, but strangely is not part of the point he's making there. Hebrew, the actual native language, is only learned by the orthodox and some precocious conservative children. Of course a service, or practice of Judaism is hard if you don't understand the language.

But actually, Judaism has two distinct languages. First there's the language of the liturgy: Hebrew, with some occasional Aremaic. Next, there's the cultural language: Yiddish, spoken by the majority of Ashkenazi Jews from the 10th century up until the generation after the holocaust. Before Elizer Ben-Yehuda and others modernized Hebrew for modern use in Israel, Jews spoke Yiddish in their homes, read Yiddish newspapers, The next stop in his argument is that Judaism is "now" learned. Again, I'm not sure where he's seeing an actual change. Judaism only becomes a part of ones' nature through nurturing. And then same is true of any religion, and any community based on shared traditions.

The music analogy is apt in some ways, as after all, when Jews speak of other Jews they often will note whether the Jew is "practicing" or "non-practicing."  But beyond that, I don’t know feel that the analogy works. I played trumpet for many years. I practiced a few hours a week, and only achieved the most basic competency, but I still enjoyed the ritual of it, in part because of the challenge. It seems to me that Oppenheimer bases this part of his argument on two fallacies: 1) that if something is difficult, you probably won’t enjoy it or get anything out of it, and 2) that if you practice enough to become good at something, it naturally becomes a joy.  Andre Agassi has said in multiple interviews that he hated tennis, while I played tennis for years, just because I liked it, despite not developing any skills to speak of (I didn't develop the hand-eye coordination necessary for sports till my mid-20s).  Likewise,  while I’ve repeated certain blessings 1000s of times in my life, some are still difficult to me, either because of the tongue-twisting Hebrew words, or because I’m not sure I believe their message. 

It is a fact fundamental to Judaism that it is hard. It asks things of you, like the observance of holidays (such as the fast on Yom Kippur), the practice volunteerism and charity (tzedakah), and laws about foods you cannot eat. Maybe most important of all, Judaism is a community of learners. Studying the torah is considered a mitzvah (a good deed) on par with any of the things I just listed.   The Jewish rite of passage, the bar/bat mitzvah, requires the leading of a service.  Standing in front of an audience of all your loved ones and peers is hard.  Harder still is learning a Torah portion, and preparing a D’var Torah: a sermon, very much like an analysis paper on the Torah portion.

Even the relationship Jews have with God is often difficult.  That difficulty is accepted as a part of being a Jew, and that difficulty is noted time and time again in the Torah. Jacob wrestles with an angel. Jonah is a reluctant prophet, who at first refuses to deliver God's message, and then argues angrily with God. Many Jews find value in this wrestling. It teaches critical thinking skills.

It seems to me a better way to structure the analogy might be around sports fandom:

If you're not really into sports, but your family is, you probably go through the motions. You may wear the jersey (star of david), and you'll go with your family to some games (services), but chances are you don't know the rules (torah/commandments), or the schedule of games (holidays). You may question the purpose of your fandom. Does it provide any benefits (free trip to Israel)? Is this the community you want to be a part of (JCC)?  When you move out of your parent's house, you probably lose all but a cursory awareness of the team. Chances are, you're still happy when your team makes the play-offs, because it’s important to your family.

If you were dragged to games (services) and didn't even enjoy the food at the stadium (challah, apples and honey), then chances are you resent sports, and won't carry on the tradition with your children. But maybe your reason for not carrying on the tradition as fervently as your parents is more due to apathy than resentment. Since it was important to your family, you give your children a taste of it (high holiday services), or you tell them a little about the team's history, and why it's important to your parents.  As with anything, your children are more likely to become fans if you're engaged, or you make the task of learning enjoyable, but sometimes they'll become bigger fans than you because of one small thing they like. Maybe you take them to a game (shabbat service), and they love singing "Dirty Water" at the end (Adon Olam).

I think the over-arching message of Openheimer’s article remains true.  Going more often to temple/synagogue will make you more familiar with the melodies and rituals of a service.  And belonging to a religious Jewish community is important, and always feels more important at high holidays, when the Rabbi, President of the congregation, and others present sermons and good-natured guilt-trips to the attendees about participating more in the community, paying membership dues, and contributing to help fix the roof of the table, or buy new prayerbooks.  But the problem with Openheimer’s analogies, the one I presented myself, and even these high holidays appeals is that they simplify Judaism, a rich religious and cultural identity, down to the participation in a particular liturgy. 

So, if you go to temple/synagogue only once or twice a year for the high holidays, yes, it’s likely you’ll feel a little uncomfortable, and coming to more services can help alleviate that.  But remember your violin/piano/trumpet: if you choose to practice, it may be a joy, but if your parent or guilt forces you, it will always be a chore.  Don’t make Judaism a chore: find what makes it a joy to you.  In the New Year, think about your Jewishness and what it means to you. 

Why is it important?  What is it about the high holidays that pull you back each year?  Maybe it’s certain prayers, the ritual of the Torah coming out the Ark to be walked through the congregation.  It may be time with your family, seeing community members you haven’t spoken to since the year before, honoring a Bubbe or Zaide for whom the religious community was more important, or just the time set aside to reflect.  It could be the foods: apples and honey, kreplach, lox,bagels, and kugel.  Or it may be the extra pleasure you take in comedians and writers such as Sarah Silverman (an alum of my temple!), Woody Allen, and Jon Stewart, because they’re steeped in the same culture as you, and sometimes make a joke that’s just for the Jews.  Maybe you can take pride in being one of “the people of the book.”  Yes, Oppenheimer refers pretty specifically to “religious tradition,” which is part of culture, but very different from these largely secular aspects of tradition, but in a time when more and more people are giving up their religious observance, these are increasingly important aspects of Judaism.

Whatever you find, remember it the next time you’re feeling uncomfortable at high holidays (or another holiday, like Simcha Torah, starting tomorrow night).  This is what makes you a Jew, whether it leads you to make a contribution to your Jewish community, in the form of money or time, to Friday night service, for religious observance, Torah study, book club, or away from more organized aspects of Judaism, but towards Tikkun Olam and Tzedaka; there are many ways, and many levels: how you practice is up to you.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

A Composition of Food

When I write, I don't choose the form or the words based on a particular formula; instead, I usually build a piece around one core ingredient, a singular line, or the protein of the piece.  The rest I fill in according to what feels right.

I carry the same philosophy into cooking (or maybe it's vice versa?).  I enjoy reading cookbooks on ocassion, but I very rarely choose a recipe, then buy the ingredients, and then follow the directions.  Instead, I build a meal around one core ingredient, usually the protein, and then make something up.

I've been doing this pretty much since I discovered that I enjoyed cooking in high school (reading Simon Ortiz' great poem/narrative/recipe "How to Make a Good Chili Stew..." probably also had something to do with it).  Sometimes, I fail spectacularly, usually because I forget an ingredient and/or when I start putting things together I realize I have a fraction of what I need and then improvise.  But as I've been using this approach to cooking for over a dozen years now, I've had fewer and fewer misses.

Now the main drawback is the same whimsy that leads to some of my greatest success: I'll get the idea to add something a little different to a recipe, for instance unsweetened chocolate and coffee in chili, and then forget to add them the next time.  Or because I also rarely measure, except when baking, I'll forget just how much.  As a result, my greatest triumphs are usually one-offs that I'll never make again.

A couple months ago, I stepped into Kam Man by the South Bay Plaza, an Asian market in the vein of Super 88s.  This is always a great place for a little departure from my ordinary food routine, or some random inspiration.  It's also a great place to get less common cuts of meat (such as cow tendon, or pig tongue), or animals my Stop and Shop doesn't usually carry, like frog, squab, and duck.

They were having a boffo sale on whole (cleaned) rabbits.  More expensive than chicken, but better than a decent steak.  So I bought one.  It languished in my freezer for a few weeks, while I considered lofty recipes.  Finally, I decided that I would slow cook it with root vegetables and some port marinated prunes.  I just needed to go to the liquor store to pick up port.

On the way to the port I passed through the brandy aisle.  Brandy has always intrigued me.  On the one hand it seems incredibly fancy.  I imagine putting on my smoking jacket, filling a snifter and swirling it thoughtful in a library of leather-bound books.  But the one time I bought it I was unimpressed.  I found it bitter and not particularly complex.  Even so, as I was walking through, a bottle of Laird's Applejack caught my eye. 

It's brandy, but made from apples (or at least with apples), and has pleasantly old-fashioned and rustic packaging.  I forgot my plans for port, and bought the applejack instead.  Then I needed another trip to Stop and Shop to find a more appropriate compliment than prunes.  And what better compliment than apples?  From there the rest of the ingredients fell into place, and when I made my dish it was a grand success, so good in fact, that I sat down and scribbled out the recipe for further use.  For a couple weeks the recipe has languished on my desk.  I just knew there was an ingredient missing, but I couldn't remember what it was.  Today I did.  Without further ado, the recipe for my Applejack Rabbit Casserole:

Marinate rabbit pieces in shallow (3-4 inches in depth) casserole dish with equal parts rice vinegar and applejack brandy. Cover in saran wrap.

Chop parsnips into one inch chunks.  Add to slow cooker.

Over parsnips, pour two mugs of chicken stock.  Add one can of diced tomatoes (I used Pastene's fire roasted)

                                          Turn slow cooker on.

Make a garlic-heavy gremolata (finely chopped garlic, parsley, lemon zest)
Peel, core, and slice 2-3 sweet apples, different kinds.  Add to slow cooker. Peel and
liberally stud one golden delicious apple with cloves.  Add to slow cooker.  Slice a few one
inch long strips of ginger, toss into slow cooker.

Drain marinade off of rabbit pieces. Sprinkle salt and pepper on rabbit pieces.  Dredge in flour.
Dice a medium sized vidalia onion.

Add a few tablespoons of olive oil and and a couple tablespoons of butter to a pan on medium
heat.  When butter has melted into oil, add half of diced onions.  Wait for onions to go
past yellow, but not quite brown.

In small batches, brown rabbit pieces in butter-oil and onions.
Reserve browned rabbit pieces and carmelized onions on tray.  Then skim darkest onions from
pan, add a little more oil and a little more butter and add remainder of diced onions.
Gradually add flour, stirring constantly.  Add gremolata. Continue to stir, as though making
a roux. When roux is just past yellow, add 25 - 50 cl applejack brandy to roux. 

Enthusiastic bubbling should commence.  Continue adding flour (roux should take on the form
of a thick gravy) and stirring until gravy no longer gives off alcohol fumes.

Pour half of gravy on apples and parsnips.  Place rabbit pieces on top.  Pour remaining
gravy on top. Add one half-inch latteral slice of lemon.

Make a bouquet garni in a small sachet.  Put the sachet in a mug, fill with water, and
microwave for about a minute.  Pour herb "tea" into slow cooker.

Cover and cook for about 1 hour.  Remove studded apple at the point when it has softened
enough to begin to lose shape, but before disintegration, and nibble before discarding. 

Continue to cook for another 1-2 hours.
Meanwhile, make the side salad...
Matchstick slice two granny apples (skin on), half a fennel bulb, and 1-2 endives. 
Mix and toss with a dressy of olive oil, lemon juice, rice wine vinegar, and a small amount
of creamy horseradish.  In a pan, toast a teaspoon of fennel seeds.  Toss together. 
(Watermelon radish would add a small pop of color and complement the flavor well).
After about two hours, turn the slow cooker off.  Lift top and remove rabbit pieces and
reserve them on a dish.  Wearing oven mitts, lift slow cooker ovenware and pour mixture into
collander to drain excess liquid.  Shake, and then pour into initial casserole dish and
place rabbit pieces on top.  Cover with tin foil and heat in oven for about 30 minutes.
Remove from heat, give 5-10 minutes to cool, then serve with side salad.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Submission Recession, Writing Domination

Now that I've had a little time to recover from the 2013 AWP Conference in Boston, it seems like a good time to consider the year 2012 in writing.  I participated in two readings: one at the Marliave for U35, a reading series for writers under the age of 35, and another, the highly esteemed, or at least somewhat recognizable, Literary Death Match at Club Oberon.  Out of 33 submissions, I had 6 publications, for an acceptance rate, roughly comparable to Ivy League schools, of about 18%.  One piece, "Sidekicks," published in the MidAmerican Review, was an "Editor's Choice," and a finalist for the 2011 Fineline Competition.  Two more pieces appeared in Knock Magazine, a publication that seems to have already gone under.  The rest are available online for your reading pleasure.

Paper Darts, a hip sort of design-collective/publication dolled up The Sweetness, Mirror Day, and Ride to the Top with some images that will likely be my first tattoo.

Ditch, a Canadian journal of poetry, published Flutters, Midnight of the Caramel Eaters, and Sprout.

Then Punchnel's put up Gibbous.

And The Destroyer offered my one and only poem (or is it fiction?) in the second person: Animus.

Finally, towards the end of the year, Fjords Review accepted two pieces, and curiously decided that despite having submitted those pieces as prose poems, that I would be listed not as a contributing "poet," like nearly everyone else in the issue, but as a "writer." 

This continues the very incremental upward trajectory of my submission acceptances. In 2012, I focused my attention on online publications, and submitted to online venues that seemed like they might have a slightly different audience from places I've had work in the past. 

This year, I sense a submission recession has set in.  Seeing the last of the worthy poems I wrote in college published has made me somewhat introspective, and as a result I've been focused on writing more (which is a perennial New Year's resolution).  So far, I've maintained a far steadier pace then I have in several years.  There's still plenty of time left in 2013, but my hope is that even if I don't make a single submission this year, I'll be building up my war chest of poems in anticipation of a bumper year in 2014.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

New Year's Resolutions

Is February too late to declare New Year's Resolutions?  Maybe a little, but at the same time, I think this way it's almost more legitimate, because these are the ones I've had the opportunity to test and I'm fairly certain they'll stick.

For the last couple years, my resolutions have been defined as mottoes.  In 2011, it was "The Year of Yes."  I had finished a year of poverty, volunteering with Americorps, and in trying to save money, and sheer exhaustion from the work, I had pretty much given up many hobbies and social activities.  Too often, friends invited me out at the last minute and I ignored their invitations or had to decline.  So in 2011, I decided to never say no to outings, at least those that I would usually be interested in, or that I could reasonably afford.  As a result, I was very busy, met lots of new people, and overall had a great time.

In 2012, it was "Do it Now," which I hoped to apply to everything from laundry and catching up with correspondence to graduate school and job applications.  While I still did a fair amount of procrastination, I did apply for graduate school (accepted to Harvard's Arts in Education program, but decided not to go) and apply for a new job (accepted and started as the new Tutor Coordinator for the Northeastern's College of Professional Studies) so in that respect, I think it's fair to call my resolution successful.

This year I don't feel as though there are any major themes or goals I'd like to achieve, but there are lots of little things I'd like to work on.  Without further ado, here's a representative sampling of my New Year's resolutions:

Drive More.  Several years ago, I was in a freak car accident and ever since then I've had something akin to a fear of driving.  Towards the end of last year I was beginning to drive more, but now it's time to get serious.  Boston's a tough city to drive around, but not impossible with practice, and there are places within a few hours of Boston, not on public transit, that I want to visit.

Sit Up Straight / Stand Up Straight.  A job that had me sitting in a hard seat for 6+ hours a day had me in the habit of slouching, and eventually I also had some lower pain: no more! 

Just Deal With It.  A little over 10 years ago, in a hilarious and infuriating ordeal that I'll probably write about at a later point this year, I was diagnosed with Klinefelter Syndrome.  Though it's one of the most common genetic anomalies, it's not often talked about, and some of the information about it, in-print and online, is either misleading or just plain inaccurate (the literature on it has gotten better over the last few years).  Pretty much since I was diagnosed, I've been embarrassed and pretty much silent about it, except with some friends.  After a while, I stopped talking about it at all, and pretty much gave up on telling people, because I forgot who I'd told, band there never seemed to be a good time to bring it up.  In making it a secret, I almost tried to make it secret with myself, which of course meant not dealing with.  At the end of last year I set up a consult with one of the top Endocrinologists in the field ,and in January started a new treatment plan.  I'm not about to shout it from the roof tops, or tell people in our first few conversations, but I refuse to be ashamed by it.  Now that I'm dealing with it, I'm feeling better than ever, and the reality of it feels like less of a big deal.

Be Physically Active.  For three years I'd been a reliable summer exerciser.  With a friend, I stretched tennis as deep into the fall as possible, but after that I partook in little exercise.  Since starting my new job I've joined the gym and after a month and change of biking and lifting weights I already feel healthier and more energetic.

Eat Well.  This shares some traits with Be Physically Active.  Sometimes I cook ambitious meals and slow-cooked sensations, but too often I find myself microwaving a tv dinner or a bowl of soup.  When I cook I make tastier, healthier food, and the act is therapeutic in and of itself.  I'd also like to eat better when I go out, which mostly means avoiding the Popeyes in Northeastern's Student Center, but isn't just about eating healthy, but also exploring some of the many cool restaurants Boston has to offer, including Saus (a new favorite) and maybe Clio (once I've saved some money).

To be sure, there are plenty of other resolutions I'm toying with, and probably others I should add to this list.  Some involve enormous projects.  Others are tiny things.  But I think if I can keep these four going, it'll be a productive, meaningful, and happy year.