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When my kids were young, I introduced them to the practice of saying the Hebrew blessing, the motzi, before eating. Thank you, God, who brings forth bread from the earth.
My older child instantly connected not only to the routine of the ritual but the theological aspect as well. But a few years ago, my other son started to challenge the idea of God. At a young age, he was already an avowed atheist and didn’t want to thank God for our food. I explained that he still needs to stop for a moment and acknowledge what it took for that food to get to his plate.
As a pre-dinner ritual, we started to list all the physical conditions and individuals who made our food possible: the sun, rain, seeds, individuals who plant and harvest under harsh conditions without sufficient pay or job security, the people who process it, those who drive it to the store, the store clerks who sell it to us whom we see as we pay our grocery bill. And me, to make it into dinner.
Motzi is a moment of gratitude so we don’t take for granted the deep blessing of sustenance. I learned this practice many years ago when I helped organize a Passover seder for Worker Justice (laborers seeking justice) in Los Angeles. Included in our haggadah was this prayer as part of the Kiddush ritual:
A toast to those who made this wine!
To the holy-oneness of everything whose creation gives us sweet fruit for the mouth, eye and nose to enjoy
To those who put passion, dreams and capital into wine and entrepreneurship
To those who plowed the fields
To those who planted the vines
To those who tended the vines
To those who picked the grapes
To those who fermented the fruit
To those who cleaned and maintained the winery
To those who bottled the wine
To those who loaded and trucked the bottles for delivery
To those who sold the wine
And to those who served the wine here this evening!
We give you our thanks!
This got our family thinking about what we were really trying to accomplish when we said the motzi. We talked about the most important part of that moment: taking time to stop and appreciate our food. But those particular words we say are human-made. Yes, they have survived thousands of years, but they are the expressions of a certain group of rabbis a long time ago. We make these ancient words into idols, enshrining them while depriving us of a creative thought process—the kind of passionate engagement with ideas and words that must have inspired those rabbis to formulate such poetry so long ago.
Liturgist Marsha Falk encourages us to exercise our creativity: “No convention of prayer ought to become completely routine; lest it lose its ability to inspire authentic feeling.” My son would probably agree with her assertion that our traditional opening blessing formula “is an example of a dead metaphor… a greatly overused image that no longer functions to awaken awareness of the greater whole.” (The Book of Blessings, p.xvii)
Greatly influenced by Falk’s ideas, I have been crafting my own prayers for years. So I asked my son what he would want to say instead of the motzi. This is what my young atheist came up with: “Thank you, source of stuff, for the food.” Sometimes he says, “Thanks to the universe and science and all that stuff… for the food.”
These days, we take turns saying a blessing at our table so everyone’s interests and concerns are heard. I don’t want to lose the traditional prayer language completely and I want my kids to know those formulations. When we say the motzi in the usual way, I talk to my kids about how I infuse those sacred words and sounds with my own theological understanding of the universe; how we are interconnected with the food, the sources of that food and the people who made it possible for such bounty to reach our plates. To me, that holy process is God.
Other nights, our sons offer their favorite renditions. Lately as they start to cook parts of the meal themselves, the son who helps gets to offer his favorite way of blessing the food. But we always stop, appreciate and bless.
My grandma Zelda taught me many things about Judaism and preparing for the Jewish holidays. However, what she did not teach me was her recipes. In fact, in all the years I watched and helped her cook, I don’t ever remember seeing her follow a recipe or consult a cookbook. Whenever she cooked, she did it from memory.
For her huge fluffy matzah balls, I remember her telling me to mix together the matzah meal, schmaltz (chicken fat) and water. “If it’s too thick,” she said, “add more water. If it’s too wet, add more matzah meal.” There was no recipe to follow, just the steps she had learned from her mother, which were the steps she used her entire life and the same ones she shared with me.
Often she would tell me stories about what it was like growing up strictly kosher or what it was like living in a family of eight children.
Looking back now, I see that my grandmother taught me how to cook from memory. For the most part, if I learn how to cook something once, I can pretty much cook it again without the recipe. I know what “season with salt and pepper to taste” means, and I do not measure exactly how much goes in of this or that ingredient. When I bake a chicken, I don’t usually use a timer since I know how it’s supposed to look and taste when it’s ready. That is how I learned to cook from Grandma Zelda.
More than how or what to cook, much of what I learned from my grandmother was about how to build a Jewish home (even if I don’t follow the rules of keeping kosher in exactly the same way she did). I learned how to let Judaism be a framework for my life, how to follow the seasons and celebrate the holidays and how to make room within that structure for my own personality and creativity. I learned the value of taking the time to prepare for holidays—not just physically cleaning and cooking, but spiritually, too. I learned from her how to gather my family around me and how to make the observance of a holiday meal more meaningful. I learned how to open the door to those who come from other backgrounds and traditions.
This will be our first Passover since my grandmother passed away and my first time hosting Passover in my own home. It feels like an honor, a duty to carry on this tradition and a very large task for which I will need a lot of help. In large part, it’s about the food, but it’s also about the rituals and about the memories.
I know that our Passover seder this year will look and feel different from the Passover meals we used to have at Grandma Zelda’s. It will be the first time not being in her home and the first seder without her. I will think of her every step of the way as I clean my house and prepare for my guests. We will light her Sabbath candles on the first night of Passover, we will fill her Miriam’s cup and I will prepare and teach in her honor. I will cook with my memories, and I will cook from memory, just like she taught me.
This article was reprinted with permission from Jewish Food Experience.
We love Mo Willems books in our house! My little one just brought home one of his gazillions of titles called, I Really Like Slop. As I have written before, I now see the world through interfaith family lenses. When we read this story, all I could think about was interfaith couples at Passover! How in the world did I make that leap?
The book tells the story of Piggie presenting her friend Gerald, the elephant, with a pot of her slop. Gerald looks at the smelly concoction with trepidation. He asks some questions about the make-up of the slop. Piggie begs him to try some. She explains that it’s part of Pig culture! Gerald touches his tongue to the slop and chokes and gags. Piggie asks Gerald if he likes it. Gerald explains that he does not like it, but he does like Piggie. And he is happy he tried it.
As are all of Mo Willems’ books, this story is precious and even poignant. It made me think about someone who didn’t grow up with, let’s say, gefilte fish, being presented with it for the first time at a Passover seder. This person is no doubt sitting with a significant other at their parents’ house, surrounded by family and trying to fit in and make a good impression. This person is trying to avoid any cultural faux pas. They may be worried that the haggadah (the book read during the Passover meal) will be read aloud going around the table and that there will be unfamiliar words and transliterated Hebrew to navigate (on four cups of wine, no less). And, now this person is presented with this foreign, kind of smelly food, with a gel-like substance wiggling around on top.
If you were brought up with this food and don’t like it, it is easier to dismiss it. But, for a newcomer, how does one politely excuse themselves from trying it? (Especially if is homemade. This usually makes it a lot better than if it’s cold from the jar—although some people love that. Who am I to yuck your yum, as my child’s feeding therapist implores.)
What Piggie and Gerald teach us is that we don’t have to like our partner’s cultural things. They don’t have to become ours. We don’t have to feel comfortable eating the food or donning certain garb. We don’t automatically have to feel comfortable with the language, traditions or dances. Maybe after experience and time, we will come to like things. We will make them our own. But, maybe we never will. And, that’s OK. Showing respect, asking questions, learning about and even trying aspects important to our loved ones is what matters.
Happy prepping for Passover!
By the IFF/Philadelphia Team: Robyn, Wendy and Robin
Challah is the yummy braided bread with which many Jews begin Shabbat dinner. For those who grew up Jewish, the smell and taste of challah often invokes fond memories of family meals. For those who didn’t grow up Jewish (along with those who did), including challah with your Friday night dinner can be a fun and easy way to bring Judaism into your home.
In the Greater Philadelphia area, there are many grocery stores and bakeries where you can buy a delicious challah. But the best challot (plural for challah) are those that you make yourself—the ones you can smell baking in the oven and taste while they’re still warm. They’re the ones that may not be braided perfectly, but are made with lots of love.
Our staff in the Philadelphia office of InterfaithFamily heard from a lot of people that they wanted to learn how to make challah. And when our people ask for something, we want to deliver (or should we say “rise” to the occasion)! First, we arranged for “Challah and Conversation” to meet at Robyn Frisch’s house on a Thursday evening (so that everyone could have their challah for dinner the following evening). Next, we needed to decide what challah recipe to use. So, one morning the three of us got together for a little bake-off. We tried out a few recipes, and ended up deciding on a recipe that was a combination of different ones we had used.
Then Wendy went shopping… and after buying 30 bowls, 30 measuring spoons, eight packages of bread flour, yeast, salt, sugar, eggs and vegetable oil to make the challot (along with wine, cheese and snacks for the “Conversation” part of the evening)… we were ready!
“Challah and Conversation” was a great success. Everyone learned how to proof their yeast, knead their dough and then punch it down before they braided it. In between the kneading and the punching—while the dough was having its “first rise”—we had time to learn about Friday night Shabbat rituals in general, and challah in particular. For example, have you ever wondered why challah is braided? Why it’s traditional to use two challot on Friday evening? Or why the challah is covered with a cloth? The “Challah and Conversation” attendees now know the answers to these questions and many more!
Many people have told us that they want to make their own challah but they’ve never baked bread before and they’re afraid they’ll mess up. They’re scared of words like “proofing,” “kneading” and “punching” when it comes to baking. We promise you that once you make challah with us, you won’t be scared. The result will be delicious, and your family and friends will be impressed! So keep an eye out for our upcoming “Challah and Conversation” programs and come join us for one of them.
And by the way, you don’t have to worry if you have challah left over after your Shabbat meal. It makes delicious French toast!
Read on for Ruth Schapira, IFF/Philadelphia Advisory Council Member’s account of the evening, and then get our not-so-secret recipe!
Scoop, beat, pour, and mix—then knead, fold, knead, fold. It’s the methodical way that you’d make a dough for challah, and the process itself seems quite mechanical, if you were doing it alone in your own kitchen.
But making challah with 20 people in someone’s home is quite a different experience, and creating challah with people who are doing it for the first time is exhilarating. The program, sponsored by IFF/Philadelphia and held in the Director’s home, attracted a demographic that would be the envy of any Jewish outreach movement. Four young millennial-aged couples attended, with a smattering of some young singles, older folks and a mom with her two kids—their common interest was in “doing Jewish.” That was the foundation upon which connections were built among those who shared Shabbat stories along with flour and measuring cups that were set aside at stations, like in some amazing challah bake-off on a Jewish Food Network show.
The event was called “Challah and Conversation” and by the end of the night, there was plenty of both. The environment was open, accepting and casual which allowed participants to feel comfortable asking about the many beautiful and significant rituals surrounding Shabbat. There was curiosity about egg-checking (for kashrut), traditions for candle-lighting, the custom some choose to follow for “taking challah,” and questions like: Why do some people tear the challah and not slice it with a knife? Why is salt sprinkled on it? Why is the challah covered? What is the “Parent’s Prayer”?
The most outstanding experience from the evening was not the beautifully braided specimens in personal aluminum baking dishes, ready to be baked that everyone was taking home. Nor was it that everyone would get to savor the experience all over again when that unmistakable luscious challah smell filled their homes the next night before the Sabbath. What was undeniably special was that people came together in the true spirit of learning and community, and shared an experience that brought them that much closer to Judaism, and that much closer to one another.
Here is the challah recipe we ended up using:
1. Dissolve package of yeast in ½ cup lukewarm water and let sit for 5 minutes. (This is how you “proof” the dough.)
2. Measure the flour into the bowl. Make a well.
3. Pour the yeast mixture into the well and let stand 5 minutes.
4. Blend in the salt and sugar.
5. Combine two eggs, oil and remaining ¼ cup water and mix together.
6. Add the liquid mixture to the flour and stir until flour is moistened.
7. Turn out onto a well-floured board using flour to dust the board and your hands. Use up to another cup of flour to handle the dough. Knead by hand until smooth. Let rise on the board (you can cover with dish towel) about 1½ hours or until doubled in bulk.
8. Punch dough down and divide into three sections and braid.
9. Cover and let rise at least 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees while the dough is rising.
10. Brush with beaten egg mixed with a few drops of water and, if you want, sprinkle with poppy seeds, sesame seeds or cinnamon.
11. Bake on middle rack of oven at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes (ovens heat differently—bake until light brown).
Rabbi Ari is the Director of InterfaithFamily/Chicago. She also has children who will not eat matzah ball soup or a bagel and lox and is continually surprised and dismayed at their culinary preferences. She was inspired by this story because of how culturally astute the grandparents were to how their grandchildren were being raised and how quickly they made a bridge between the familiar to the new and exotic (the world of the matzah ball!).
A woman recently told me the story of her grandchildren who live out of state and aren’t being raised Jewish.* They come to visit for a week each summer. This past summer they went right from the airport to the deli. Not that there isn’t Jewish deli where these kids live, but the grandparents wanted the experience of eating Jewish foods with their grandchildren at one of their favorite spots. This is one way they share their love of Jewish culture with their grandchildren.
These grandchildren have been raised on sushi and other international cuisine. When the youngest grandson looked at his bowl of matzah ball soup, he did not want to eat it. He said that he is used to more “normal” food (like sushi!). The grandparent telling the story said that her husband turned to the grandchild without missing a beat and said, “It’s just like miso soup…” and the child dove in. Once that broth touched his lips, he was sold! He even liked the matzah ball.
We at InterfaithFamily/Chicago are partners with the JUF (our Federation) and Grandparents for Social Action on a new program for grandparents called GIFTS: Grandparents, Inspiration, Family, Tzedakah, Sharing. We are offering a five-session class at 15 congregations and Jewish organizations around Chicagoland taking place now through the spring (to find a class, go to www.juf.org/gifts).
The classes consist of interactive lessons about how grandparents can pass on their values and deepen their engagement with their grandchildren. The fifth session is specifically geared toward talking about grandchildren raised in interfaith homes as well as any family situation that you might not have planned for or anticipated. The session is called “Changing our Narrative” and it is a hopeful session about what continuity means to us.
We just had a meeting for grandparents who are alumni of the classes that were offered this past year to talk about how to improve the program and to help plan an exciting city-wide Grandparent Conference to take place this spring (more information to come). One of the grandparents shared that fantastic story with me.
Our kids and grandkids have different cultural references than we have. They are growing up on different foods, their “normal” is nothing like what our life was like at their age and we have to constantly translate for ourselves and them as we bond and communicate. Is eating matzah ball soup with Jewish grandparents going to make these children Jewish? That’s not the point or the goal here. Feeling closeness, sharing our soul food, hearing the names of the foods in Yiddish, making connections, expanding one’s repertoire and experiences and creating memories of things only done with one’s grandparents is meaningful, impactful and important. Who these kids will be will happen over time. The closeness they feel with loving, open-minded, insightful, aware grandparents who know what their lives are like and who are willing to translate and help them relate to new things is priceless.
*We often hear this phrase. It means different things to different people who say it. For some it means that the family isn’t a member of a synagogue. For others it means that the parents do not articulate that the children are being raised with a Jewish identity—the parents want to raise them without specific religious references. Some say it means that the children are being raised “nothing.” This is one I particularly dislike as many children who are not raised with Jewish holidays or going to synagogue are raised with lots—not nothing—when it comes to values, for example. “Nothing” portrays such an empty, void and negative image.
Surprisingly, many children whose parents did not participate in Judaism and Jewish living affirm their Jewish identity as adults and seek avenues for engagement then because of relationships with grandparents, and other connections made along the way. Just knowing the cultural and religious heritage they inherited, even if it has been latent for some time, may mean something to one’s identity.
So, when you read or hear that children aren’t being raised Jewish, it is often an overly simplistic statement that may not capture a whole picture. As well, it hints at but doesn’t fully capture where the parents may be with their own religiosity, spirituality or communal ties. The parents’ own background and Jewish baggage may be coming in to play here and it may be complicated and messy in terms of how to raise children. Or, it may be that the parents are just not religiously, culturally or communally inclined even in the most open senses of Jewish expression. It’s not their thing, but it’s in their family and so a confrontation (whether warm and inviting or stressful) with Judaism occurs every now and then for their family.
Growing up, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what I ate. One of my parents and then a housekeeper for a while, used to cook dinner for me and made my lunch to take to school. We didn’t keep any sense of kosher; I didn’t really understand what kashrut was until I was much older. My parents attempted to instill the values of healthy eating, feeding us fresh produce, buying food from whatever farms existed in suburban New Jersey, but beyond the health aspects, we never really discussed food in any other way.
As I grew older, I was confronted with a variety of food ethics, whether cultural, religious or health related. As I spent time thinking about the food choices I make now, I realized that the decisions I make about most aspects of my life reflect how I think, how I was raised, my cultural context and my values. As a child of an interfaith marriage, there was always a combining of cultures in our household, from the most mundane of details to the most controversial. Whenever two people combine their lives and create a family even if they seem incredibly similar on the surface, there is bound to be a certain amount of combining (usually preceded by a hefty degree of compromise).
But my parents were not only intermarried in terms of their religious backgrounds, but my mother was from high treif (non-kosher) land, New England, and my father’s family was old Jewish Bronx (brisket, anyone?). Some of my fondest food memories are when we visited my mom’s family in Ipswich, MA: fried clams, steamers, lobster rolls, scallops, you name the seafood, we ate it, and we ate it joyfully. Since I did not live near my mom’s family and was being raised as a Jew, the love of seafood represented my connection with them. I thought about giving it up over the years, as I had given up pork, but those family moments, those points of connection always prevented me. I studied and contemplated and struggled with my decision because I wanted to maintain my own sense of integrity in who I am and what my title represents. But even as a rabbi, as a leader and example in the Jewish community, I long ago decided that having a connection to my family, being able to sit with them and break bread (and lobster claws) was more important than keeping kosher. And I have never once regretted it.
We live in a world of abundant choices and options and as our community grows ever more diverse, we will only continue to face these types of decisions. There is no one right answer, it’s up to each of us to take the time, do the work and decide how we want to live our lives.