Sunday, December 31, 2006

Erev 2007

I never quite got what all the hoopla was about the secular new year. I understand the whole bit about starting fresh, clean slate, etc., but that's what the Yamim Nora'im (High Holy Days) are for me. On the other hand, the secular new year does come with its own to-do list:
  • Buy new calendar
  • Remember to write new year on checks
  • Panic, because Oldest Son's birthday is only a day away, and I'm probably not ready
  • Make sure there's enough food in the house since everything will be closed (Christmas was a good practice run for this)
  • Run year-end reports for publishing work (fiscal year = calendar year)
  • Buy sparkling apple juice
That last one is a leftover tradition in our family. Husby and I, when we first got married, started taking a photograph (later video) of us toasting "new beginnings" when the ball dropped in Times Square. We've not missed a year yet, and it's fun to see how we've changed (or haven't) over the years. Really fun to see the kids join us and grow (when they're not sleeping through it).

So, I'll "ring in" the secular new year still trying to finish this novel. I'm getting closer! Next up in the scenes to be written: Sara (wife of my protagonist rabbi) is about to have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Shabbat.

Husby claims I have a sadistic streak when it comes to my characters. I maintain that I just like to write them into tight corners and watch them figure a way out (sometimes squirming uncomfortably).

Thinking about it, I would now say that I ask my characters to give something they're not quite sure they have. And that's really what growth is all about - for any of us.

Happy (secular) New Year!

Saturday, December 30, 2006


I went to bed last night having prepped the family that we were going to be in shul no later than 9:25am this morning. It's unreasonable, I've discovered, to expect them to be in shul when it starts at 9am, but 9:25 seems doable. Plus, I have an affinity for Nishmat and I really don't want to miss it. Call me weird.

So what happened? I woke up at 1:30pm. Yes, that's one-thirty in the afternoon. I missed more than Nishmat. Apparently I was tired.

The fatigue has dogged me all day (as has the dog) and I was very happy that I set up tcholent in the Crock Pot before Shabbat began. The perfect end to a dreary, gray, cold and wet Shabbat and a very tired Eema.

Youngest Son (3-1/2) wasn't too sure about the texture, but Oldest Son and Husby were eating it and leftover home-made challah (the kids each rolled and braided their own loaves this week, too!) like it was going out of style. And then I thought, Hey! I should share this tcholent with all three of my readers!

(The challah recipe is also my own, and has been perfected over the past twelve years or so, and I suppose I could share it if you really want me to.)

Since we're quasi-vegetarian here - we eat kosher meat but only occasionally and usually only poultry (having nothing to do with all the hoopla in Postville) - I wanted a vegetarian-pareve tcholent. I took the things I liked from various recipes, put them together, simplified it a bit so it was appropriate for a chaotic Friday afternoon with small children underfoot, and gave it my own touch.

Oh, and on the spelling (some spell it "cholent")... I mispronounced it many years ago when the term was new and unfamiliar and I thought it was a Hebrew transliteration. I probably wouldn't remember it so well, except that I committed this little error in front of the rabbi, in the midst of trying to prove that I actually did know what I was doing. I then added the 't' to the front to make sure I'd never, ever make that mistake again!

So, for your culinary delight, I now present a recipe for my very own tinkered-with-it-for-ten-years-to-get-it-the-way-I-want-it vegetarian tcholent (think Eastern European stew with a Sephardic twist).


2 cups soaked OR 1 14-oz can each of:

dark red kidney beans

black beans

garbanzo beans (chickpeas)

1/4 cup olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1/3 cup barley

5 medium potatoes

4-5 eggs in shells

1 tsp salt

1/2 - 1 tsp pepper (I use 1/2 tsp to make it kid-friendly)

garlic to taste



1. If beans are dry, soak overnight before preparing

2. Place soaked beans in a 5-qt Crock Pot or oven-safe pot

3. In a frying pan, saute chopped onion and garlic in olive oil until lightly brown. Add barley and continue to saute until golden brown. Remove from heat and combine with beans.

4. Scrub potatoes clean and cut into large bite-size pieces (do not peel). Add potatoes to pot.

5. Add water until it just barely covers the contents. Add salt and pepper and mix the contents of the pot until evenly distributed.

6. Carefully push eggs in their shells into the tcholent and add more water until the tops of the eggs (and the rest of the tcholent) are just barely covered. Cover and set the Crock Pot for low heat. If oven-cooking, make sure the lid fits well and cook at low heat. Leave without stirring 18 hours.

7. Just before serving, cool eggs enough to remove the shells. Cut eggs into quarters or sixths and place back in tcholent. Mix and serve.

Serve hot with bread (challah is a nice accompaniment). Makes about eight servings.


Tuesday, December 26, 2006


Here's something I know: my love of music, my connection with my own spirituality, my almost physical longing for ritual and religious activities, and that creative spark that fires up my writing are all connected.

When one disappears, for whatever reason, the others are sure to follow no matter how much I want them to stick around. And when that smoldering ember suddenly explodes into white-hot passion, for reasons I’m still unclear about, I know the others will return, too.

The question for me seems to be how to get a more moderate but consistent burning, rather than the simmering coal suddenly becoming a blazing inferno. And is that even what I want or what’s best for me?

I’ve had a number of spiritual famines, where I go through the motions – or occasionally I don’t – and I wonder if it matters. If any of it matters. I’ve also had just the opposite, where davening brings me to tears, learning Torah evokes such a longing that it’s physically painful yet wonderful at the same time, and I wonder if any of us (myself included) have even the slightest clue just how incredibly lucky we are to have the abundance and intensity of opportunities that we do to approach the Divine.

I’ve just recently come out of one of those famines, a place of desolate frustration and aloneness, where every attempt to move forward has me banging my head against a prison wall. The past few months have seen some very nice things happen business-wise, and the publisher side of me is very pleased. But the creative writer, the musical mystic, the collaborative that forms my Jewish soul was unfulfilled and in danger of stagnation.

How to flip that switch, light the flame, stir the creative passions, I still haven’t figured out yet. It’s not something I can do at will right now. Rather, it’s something that I simply must accept as it happens, and then find a way to turn acceptance into joy, trusting that there is always an end to the famine and a way out on the other side.

It’s no wonder, then, that I’m throwing myself into the things I love: writing, music, prayer, study, and that my children are picking up on it, too. Oldest Son (almost 6) is excited about bentching before we even start a meal and asks to daven with me in the morning. He’s even willing to give up PBS Kids for twenty minutes of prayer. Youngest Son (3-1/2) isn’t willing to go that far, but he’s recently decided – on his own – to wear a kippah all the (day) time and say b’rachot for everything he eats. Everything.

How truly fortunate we are to have the opportunity for such a relationship with G-d. No intermediaries, no prerequisites, no tests of worthiness. Just show up and do your best.

I’m trying.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

"Dear Rabbi, Merry Christmas" - An Excerpt

Whoever would have thought that Christmas cards were such a loaded issue? I certainly didn’t, five years ago when I innocently responded to a forum poll on Christmas versus holiday cards. Not only was I flamed for writing that it bothered me – a religious Jew – to receive religiously-oriented Christmas cards from people who know that I’m Jewish, but I wound up feeling so unwelcome as a result, I never went back.

The next year, on another completely unrelated forum, the subject came up again. This time, I knew enough not to express my own opinion, but I did ask people why they felt the way they did. An interesting pattern emerged: there were those who sent cards based on what the recipient celebrated, and then there were those who sent cards based on their own celebrations, as a way of sharing the joy of their holiday. And, they said, if someone was offended by that, it was the recipient’s fault for 1) being too sensitive, or 2) not accepting the card in the “spirit” in which it was intended.

If I receive a religious Christmas card from someone who knows I’m Jewish, in what “spirit” is it, exactly, that I’m supposed to accept it?

What many of these well-meaning folks don’t seem to realize is that while there is no particular religious implication of a Christian receiving a Chanukah card, there is a huge religious implication of a Jew receiving a religious Christmas card – and even some secular Christmas cards. What they don’t seem to understand is that the very celebration of Christmas is antithetical to religious Judaism, and no matter what “spirit” they’re sent in, they sometimes come across as veiled conversion attempts, or at least reminders of the common (but not exclusive) Christian belief that the only way to G-d is through the Christian messiah.

It has become an issue that both bothered and intrigued me, and as any good writer would do with an intriguing, controversial issue, I brought it into my next novel.

So here, for your pleasure, is an excerpt from As in Days of Old. Anonymous rebbetzins may find this excerpt particularly amusing.

(General disclaimer – this is uncorrected, unedited, may go through some revisions before it reaches publication, etc.)


Oldies but Goodies

It's frightening to think that I've been blogging long enough to have "oldies," but as the whole Happy Holidays/Merry Christmas debate continues anew, and as the population once again divides over which greeting they'll be subjected to at the local discount store, I thought I'd drag this one out:

Happy... Merry... what is your holiday, anyway?

And since that debate - and particularly the question of the mutual exclusivity of Judaism and Christianity - brought up the issue of dual/multiple covenant theology (an issue dear to me), I refer you to an allegory I wrote nearly ten years ago, and my second blog post ever:

The Three Children: A Multi-Covenantal Story

And lastly, since as of 30 minutes ago, we're finally getting snow here in our little area of Minnesota, here's just a fun parody of a familiar song played frequently this time of year:

Schlepping Through a Winter Wonderland

Happy reading!

Tzedek Hechsher Update

The following from Rabbi Morris Allen of St. Paul, regarding the USCJ commission that is developing the "tzedek hekhsher" referred to here:
"Below are four news stories, in addition to the Forward's story, regarding the Hechsher Tzedek. In truth, while the opening name is important in terms of identifying the concept, I would imagine that eventually we will call this product identification by a name different than 'hechsher' so as not to confuse the kosher consumer. For the time being the hechsher Tzedek is a good working identification of what it is that we are capable of doing, and what it is that we should indeed be doing.

"If we as Jews are serious about seeing that the products produced are done in a way that meets the requirements of Jewish law in an ethical and dignified manner, then our involvement is going to be critically important. I personally believe that our commitment to a livable kashrut standard, something we have spoken about for many years, provides [our] community with the credibility to take this issue public. Developing an achievable threshold for food companies is something that is in our interest, in the interest of Judaism and in the interest of those who are most directly responsible for providing the food we prepare in our kitchens. Happy Hannuka, Happy Rosh Hodesh."

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Change is good, change is good, change is...

The Yaldah Publishing blog is moving from Blogger to the Yaldah website. I needed to take a break from the writing (I wasn't getting much done anyway) and so with Techno-husby, we got the new Yaldah blog up and running on WordPress. It looks very nice, I must say.

I actually have a custom WordPress header that I made myself for this blog, but I'm not sure if or when this blog will move. The header for the Yaldah blog is also one of my creations; I thought the placement of the Kotel on the header nicely reflected the brick on the main Yaldah pages.

There are a few bugs to work out, with which I'm sure I'll occupy time that I should be spending on Days, but it's a good thing. Right?

For those who are interested, the first 5 (probably out of 6) posts in the series about how Like a Maccabee went from manuscript to published book are up on the new Yaldah blog, too.

I'm eagerly looking forward to going through the same process for Days!

I just have... to... keep... uh... keep... writing, that's it! I have to keep writing! (And not on the blog, either.)

Keep me going, please! I'm on a deadline!

And go visit the Yaldah blog and leave a comment or two, please. I think it's worth the trip.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Postville, The Forward, and Action - A Huge Update

The issue of not only how animals are treated both pre- and post-mortem, but also how the business of kosher slaughter is run, including treatment of the human laborers, has not been forgotten. On the contrary, much work has been going on behind the scenes, and today an article appeared in the Forward that documents the results of this work, specifically on the part of the Conservative movement.

While other people from other movements have talked about this issue on one side or another (some folks have insisted there's no issue to begin with), I'm particularly pleased with the "action and not just words" approach taken by the Conservative movement, and I personally extend my heartfelt thanks to all those involved who have put so much into recognizing that kashrut has to do with the holistic reality of how this meat got into the store and on the table, from what goes on in the animal's experience to what goes on in the experience of those working in the kosher food industry.

In my opinion, one cannot claim piety in religious observance of kashrut when that same observance leads to the harm of other human beings.

Firm as I am in that belief, this excerpt from the Forward's article was particularly exciting:

Conservative movement leaders said that they plan to establish a “tsedek
hekhsher,” or a justice certification, that would ensure kosher food producers
“have met a set of standards that determine the social responsibility of kosher
food producers, particularly in the area of workers rights.”

You can read the full article here:

Friday, December 15, 2006

Rededication on so many levels

Things are busy here!

Lots of publishing-y things, including some great media coverage and lots of book sales.

Lots of writing things, including a new plot turn in As in Days of Old. And I'm looking at some cover prototypes, so that's very exciting. I'm thinking of posting a few tantilizing excerpts from Days here on the blog. What do you think?

Meanwhile, Shabbat shalom v'Chanukah sameach!

Sunday, December 03, 2006


I had an awesome experience in shul yesterday.

First, I was able to reconnect with some friends, which was wonderful. I know some really neat people whose lives, like mine, are so overfull that Shabbat is really the only time we can catch up. How cool that we have a day each week during which being together with others is a Good Thing, when we don't have to cut our conversations short to run errands or answer the phone.

I'm frequently one of the last to leave the building on Shabbat afternoon, and there's always a wistfulness when I leave. Yesterday, Oldest Son said, "I wish we could stay at shul forever!" Sometimes I can really relate. And other times I recognize that Thomas Mann had a point: there comes a time when we each must come down off of our magic mountain.

Funny, I always think of my "magic mountain" as Sinai. Do I really have to come down?

I wound up missing shacharit, which was okay because I was where I needed to be at the time, and as I tried to quickly and quietly take my place in the sanctuary at the beginning of the Torah service, I felt very self-conscious. I wasn't the only one coming in late, but my usual place is right up in the front corner and there's no easy way to sneak there.

As I've grown Jewishly, I also can no longer take the approach of "just jump right in" where the congregation is. No, I have to start at the beginning (more or less) and catch up.


For shacharit, this means standing. In front of everyone. While they're sitting down. Fortunately, the setup of our shul sanctuary (based on the classic horseshoe shaped seating arrangement around a central bima of the old Eastern European shuls) meant that while I stood facing East, everyone else was behind me, so I didn't need to see them.

At first I was tempted to just sit down and forego shacharit. It's not unusual for people here and there to be davening "catch-up" after they arrive, and it's a rare Shabbat when no one is doing so. Still, they aren't me and I wasn't sure I wanted to make such a visible stand (pun intended).

But davening meant that much to me, so I withdrew my attention from behind me and focused on the whole reason I was praying in the first place.

Then I delved into the Torah portion for the week.

Everything was good, though not extraordinary, until musaf.

I've written other times about needing That Connection, and it was true again this week. But I was feeling too distracted, too caught up in what was going on around me that I couldn't focus on G-d. And so, throwing all social anxiety to the wind, I davened musaf with my tallit over my head.

Again, this isn't so unusual at shul, but again, it's unusual for me. I think the last time I did that it was a year or two ago on Yom Kippur.

With this blanket of white surrounding me, I gave myself over to the intention of the prayers. And with it came an image: a deep hole, something like a well. Dark, uncomfortable, too deep to climb out. I'm in it, feeling alone and powerless.

Then a kind of rope appears, shimmering with colors I can't even identify. It's extended toward me; all I need to do is reach out and grab hold.

It takes everything I have, as if I'm trying to climb out of the middle of a tar pit (or how I imagine climbing out of a tar pit would feel), but I reach, I grasp, I hang on for dear life.

Instantly I feel a rushing in my head, like a window has been opened and is airing out the dark dustiness of my brain. There is a surge of awareness, of being unquestionably not alone, of having been surrounded all this time but I couldn't see or feel it.

It is the best feeling of home, of being accepted no matter what you've done or how long you've been gone. The absence of this in my life over the past few months is a visceral pain. It nearly brings me to tears and the part of me that remembers I'm in a very crowded synagogue fights the urge to jump into parts of High Holy Day liturgy, the vidui in particular.

Instead I settle for a silent "I'm so sorry," supplemented by thoughts and feelings that belie words. The not alone feeling intensifies: supportive, compassionate, forgiving, intimate.

This does bring me to tears and my body is trembling as the shaliach tzibur transitions from musaf to the next step in the service. I lower my tallit and wipe my eyes and wonder if anyone notices. It wouldn't bother me if they did. I'm not self-conscious now. This was too important to care if someone wanted to be critical.

The rest of the day I was relaxed, content. I wasn't quite as wistful when I left the building since I knew that what I'd gained while inside was coming with me. The calm contentedness met me this morning and I threw the rest of my family for a loop when I davened this morning at home - something I haven't done in several months.

I'll admit to being somewhat irritated when my kids had back-to-back tantrums during breakfast, but I was quickly able to find the inner resources to move out of irritation and back into mindful parenting.

The future, as I write this, is full of potential joy rather than attacks from which I need to flee. Things will work out. (Of course, I say this prior to paying bills...) There are obstacles - what fun would life be without them? - but I can get through them because I'm not alone.

I have my lifeline. And corny as it sounds to say it, that makes all the difference.

Friday, December 01, 2006

I Couldn't Have Asked for a Better Way to Start Shabbat

Minutes ago, I hung up the phone after talking to my friend and editor, Leslie, who was shouting with delight.

"I just got a call from my mom," she said. "Are you ready for this?"

I was instantly anxious. In my life, I'm more likely to get crisis calls. Most of them require instant attention. A few have been life or death situations. I usually don't get good news calls.

"Uh, maybe," I said slowly. "Should I be sitting down?"


I sat in the nearest chair, recently vacated by my 3-year-old after playing at the dining room table. "Okay. I'm sitting. What's up?"

I heard Leslie take a big breath. "Like a Maccabee just got a really positive review... in Hadassah Magazine!"

I heard excited whooping; it might have come from me. A little in shock, we talked for a few minutes, and I stumbled over to the comptuer to e-mail Barbara, the author.

Happy Hanukkah, indeed! All I can think is sending G-d and all the people involved a huge THANK YOU!

Now I have to get back to work on As in Days of Old, so perhaps Hadassah Magazine will review it next year.

What wonderful way to start Shabbat!