Sabbath Pie

I have a confession to make: sometimes I get sick of challah on Shabbat. While I love a delicious loaf of freshly baked egg bread, week after week it can get monotonous. According to tradition, we have two loaves of bread at our Shabbat evening and afternoon meals, but there is no requirement that it has to be challah.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, what we think of as challah was created in the 15th century by German bakers and caught on in the Jewish world. Eventually it became known as a Jewish food despite its origins outside the community.

Here is a suggestion to change things up on Shabbat with a basis in ancient and medieval texts: pizza. Why would a dish from Italy with no seeming connection to the Jews be an alternative to challah? It turns out that pizza is in fact mentioned by Jewish scholars.

In the Mishnah (Shabbat 1:10), the first compendium of Jewish law edited around 200 CE, the rabbis discuss an important question of Shabbat practice. We know that we are not allow to cook on Shabbat, but what if you start the cooking process before Shabbat starts and then let the dish continue to cook after sundown?

This set-up is desirable for anyone who wants to eat a fresh, hot meal on Shabbat. If you have to finish all the cooking before Shabbat begins the dish might get cold and less tasty by the time you sit down to eat. It is for this reason why certain foods are associated with Shabbat and not others. Brisket, kugel and other casseroles work well because they can stay warmed on Friday evening, while steak is best eaten soon after leaving the grill and can get tough if it sits out staying warm.

The rabbis of the Mishnah rule that “bread may not be put into an oven just before nightfall, nor a cake upon coals, unless its surface can form a crust while it is still day.” The bread or cake must be mostly done before Shabbat begins, but can then remain in the oven to finish and stay warm so that you have a delicious loaf for the meal.

The word the Mishnah uses for “cake” is chararah, which Maimonides also uses when he records the law in his Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Shabbat 3:18) a thousand years later. About 200 years after that, Judah Romano, an Italian commentator on the Mishneh Torah explained what chararah is by calling it “pizza”, spelled out in Hebrew letters.

While this is not the earliest recorded use of the word pizza, it undoubtedly is the first time it entered a Jewish religious text. What Romano considered pizza was probably not what we are familiar with. Unlike our local famous Trenton tomato pies, his pizza would have been the white variety since tomatoes were not introduced to Italy until they were discovered by Europeans in the New World.

Whatever toppings he chose, Romano’s Shabbat pizza seems like a great idea to me. Pulling a crispy-yet-doughy pie out of the oven on a Friday night would be a delicious way to bring on the day of rest. It certainly breaks the tyranny of challah, and it even has a basis in our sacred texts.


Order of the Day

The past comes alive when a personal story intersects the historical narrative. My grandfather, Martin Epstein, was at D-Day, whose 75th anniversary is today. As an army engineer, he wasn’t part of the first waves, but probably came ashore hours after the initial assault. Unfortunately, my grandfather died when I was a year old so I never knew him, but I can imagine what his experience was like.

I am sure that my grandfather knew he was participating in an important, world-historic moment. He kept General Dwight Eisenhower’s order of the day, a short message to the Allied forces preparing to land on the beaches of France on June 6, 1944. It read in part:

Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

My grandfather wrote a little note at the top of his copy, indicating that it was distributed to the troops before the invasion. I am sure he was proud of his participation in the liberation of a continent he had left close to a decade before.

My grandfather was the youngest in a family from a small shtetl in Lithuania, but unlike his many older siblings, he had a university education in Europe. He was one of the last to arrive in America where he joined his siblings, most of whom lived in San Antonio, Texas. He had a business and was in his 30s when America entered the war, and yet he fought, sometimes serving as a translator because of the many languages he spoke.

I never got to hear his experiences of Europe in 1944-45. Fortunately, a family member recorded an interview with him before he died so I can hear his voice, but most of her questions were about life in the shtetl. It is left to my imagination to ponder what it was like to help liberate France and destroy Nazi Germany.

Eisenhower also wrote a quick statement to be read just in case the invasion failed, but thankfully it was never needed. Instead, his prediction from the order of the day came to pass. D-Day in the end, at great cost, did bring “security for ourselves in a free world”. We will forever be grateful to those who planned and led the invasion, and to the bravery of those who landed on the beaches in Normandy.

Do Over

Despite the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won the Israeli election last month by getting the most votes for his party (although tied with another party) and having the pledge of 65 Knesset members (out of 120) to recommend him for leadership, he has failed to form a governing coalition and new elections are now set for September. How is it that voters can send a decisive message at the polls and the result be inconclusive?

Parliamentary democracy, and in particular coalition horse trading, can be tricky. The breakdown in negotiations was the result of the demands of Avigdor Lieberman over the drafting of Orthodox into the military. Netanyahu’s potential coalition is made up of right-wing and religious parties, who mostly agree on many issues, but one area of contention is the separation of religion and state.

Lieberman’s party is secular in orientation and opposes religious coercion, while the ultra-Orthodox parties seek to maintain Judaism’s status in the public sphere. Lieberman campaigned on the promise to make sure yeshiva students would serve in the Israel Defense Forces, but the ultra-Orthodox parties gained seats in the last election and strengthened their position.

The 5 votes of Lieberman’s party are few, but crucial. Without them, Netanyahu has only 60 seats in his coalition, not enough to form a government, and rather than let someone else try and get 61 votes, he pushed through a law to dissolve the month-old Knesset and go to new elections.

If it’s hard for us to imagine voting for your leadership a mere 5 months after you last did it, we are not alone. This would be the first time in Israel’s history that snap elections are called after the failure to form a coalition so we are in uncharted territory. What will the Israeli electorate do? Will the results be the same? If so, where does that leave things?

A few weeks ago at the Rabbinical Assembly Convention, I sat in on an Israeli election update from the Conservative movement’s point of view, which assumed that a coalition would be formed. The prospects for religious pluralism were grim then since the political situation seemed to be mostly unchanged from the last elections. Lieberman’s stand against religious coercion may change the calculation, although his concerns often differ from the Conservative movement’s. He hasn’t shown much interest in an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall or official recognition for Conservative rabbis.

At the election update we discussed an intriguing question: should the Conservative and Reform movements in Israel form their own political parties? The Orthodox have several and have reaped the rewards of power for their sectors. Why shouldn’t the liberal movements follow suit. Even if this new party only got a few seats, it could still have significant influence, as Lieberman has shown.

There are at least two reasons this party has never been created. First, unlike the Orthodox, liberal Jews are less likely to vote only on religious issues. Second, while Conservative and Reform Jews may agree on the question of pluralism, on issues of security polling indicates they are divided. Conservative Israelis trend to the right, while Reform Israelis trend to the left.

Although it is unlikely we will ever see a liberal Jewish party in Israel, this sector does make up a significant portion of the electorate. Hopefully they can continue to influence the parties they vote for to bring our vision of Judaism to the Jewish state in the next election and beyond.

Jewish Fantasy

A few years ago I began a sermon by referring to the TV show Game of Thrones, which just wrapped up its successful run this week. That Shabbat was an auf-ruf, the marital blessing for a couple before their wedding, and the groom happened to be reading the novels on which the show is based. When he heard me mention the show he got up and walked out, concerned that I would spoil the story for him. Don’t worry, there are no spoilers in this message.

Rather than analyze plot points and characterization, I want to think about the where Judaism fits into Game of Thrones and similar high fantasy. The show, like any Hollywood production, has many Jewish connections, including the two show runners, but these are only superficial. The show is made by Jews, but is there anything Jewish about it?

The genre of high fantasy includes stories with a mythic, medieval setting infused with magic, heroic characters and an overarching theme of good vs. evil. What is fascinating about George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (the book series on which Game of Thrones is based) and JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, is that there are no stand-ins for Jews.

This absence is odd since Jews were an important part of medieval European society. How can one replicate the world of the middle ages without them? Perhaps adding Jews would present thorny challenges for the modern writer. High fantasy is often written from the perspective of the dominant culture, and in medieval Europe, Christians often despised the Jews in their midst. Would a contemporary novelist feel comfortable recreating an ethnic group that is persecuted and driven out?

Martin and the Game of Thrones show runners have indeed been criticized for the lack of diversity in the story and the depiction of people of color. Another possibility is that high fantasy stories present and idealized, or simplified version, of the medieval world and Jews would just complicate matters. Many of the classic fantasy works, including those by Tolkien and CS Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia), have a decidedly Christian bent.

Almost 10 years ago Michael Weingrad asked the question “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia”. It’s not just that fantasy stories are missing Jewish characters, they are also missing Jewish themes. For the most part, there is no one writing an epic fantasy from a Jewish perspective.

Weingrad’s premise was that Jews have avoided the genre because “because of fantasy’s medieval ambience and because of the fervent Jewish commitment to modernity.” He also argued that “the theology of normative Judaism—profoundly demythologizing, halakhic, and without a developed tradition of evil as an autonomous force” may not be suited to fantasy.

The key word for me in that last sentence is “normative”. Indeed, mainstream modern Judaism has avoided myth, but there is a deep source of it in the Kabbalah, which Gershom Scholem argued had reintroduced a mythos long buried by the rabbis. Perhaps the rebirth of Kabbalah study in the last few decades will lead to a fully realized Jewish high fantasy series. I, for one, can’t wait to read it.

On the Page, in Our Mouths

As a rabbi, I am biased toward texts over other forms of religious expression, such as meditation, mystical experiences or visual arts. As a rabbi trained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I am biased toward a particular type of text: those produced by the ancient and medieval sages on law and lore. Unfortunately, this focus can be limiting, cutting off a whole range of Jewish thought and expression.

At my Rabbinical Assembly convention a couple of weeks ago, I was exposed to a whole genre of Jewish literature that I usually ignore: cookbooks. I enjoy Jewish food, and I am a passable cook, but I must admit that I never gave much thought to cookbooks as important documents on Jewish life and culture.

That attitude changed when I attended a session led by Norma Baumel Joseph, author of an article entitled “Cookbooks are Our Texts: Reading An Immigrant Community Through their Cookbooks”. She showed how these books are a wealth of information about how Jews live and relate to their traditions.

For example, have you ever wondered the origin of challah, that ubiquitous Sabbath bread? The word challah in Hebrew denotes a kind of cake and is also used to refer to the offering of dough given to the priest in Temple times. Our understanding of challah as a type of braided egg bread is a 15th century non-Jewish German invention. German Jews became so enamored with the bread that they adopted it for Shabbat and the practice spread all over the Jewish world so that today, even non-Jewish German bakers think of it as a Jewish loaf.

Joseph studied the way in which immigrants use cookbooks to pass on their traditions. When you think about it, a book with recipes is only necessary when there has been a cultural rupture. In the past, mothers would pass their cooking techniques and recipes on to their daughters, but immigrants often don’t have the benefit of receiving these lived traditions.

A small Iraqi Jewish community came to Montreal, where Joseph teaches, after 1950. These were refugees forced to flee without much preparation, and “did not know how to cook. They had almost no experience in the kitchens of their mothers. But one thing is clear the majority of these immigrants wanted to keep eating the familiar foods of home.” Eventually, they produced cookbooks to preserve and pass on their cuisine.

Cultural disruption need not be limited to dispersion and exile. Technological change and assimilation can also be major factors. In our session we discussed gefilte fish, which is a much maligned but also beloved Eastern European Jewish food. While many might like to eat it, who wants to grind the fish by hand anymore? Instead, the current generation would like to reinvent the humble dish with interesting new flavors and local ingredients.

Cookbooks are our texts because they allow us access to traditions that used to be passed down by hand. Like any great religious experience, they help us to connect with the past even as we make it relevant to the present. At Adath we experienced this first hand at our MOSAIC cooking demonstration a few weeks ago when we ate a delicious tahini-infused custard garnished with salt and black sesame seeds. The old meets the new on the page and in our mouths.

Begin with Shame, Conclude with Praise

The two weeks after Passover in Israel are a carefully crafted national narrative. About four days after celebrating the freedom of the Exodus from Egypt in the distant past, the nation commemorates the depths of the Holocaust with Yom Hashoah. A week later, Israelis remember the fallen in war and terrorism on Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron, immediately followed by a celebration of modern redemption on Independence Day, Yom Haatzmaut.

I have always thought of this sequence, devised by the Knesset, as ritually genius. The ancient tradition is linked to current realities. Our modern day liberation is tied closely with the holiday most associated with freedom. Going from Holocaust to military memorial to celebration mirrors the structure of the Passover seder. In the Mishna, the rabbis instruct us that on Pesah one “begins with shame and concludes with praise”.

While most nations build up civic holidays over time in an organic way, Israel, as a young country, was able to forge its national commemorations from scratch. While the dates make sense, they also feel manufactured. For one Israeli, they feel emotionally manipulative. Elana Sztokman writes that “it feels both difficult and unnatural to go straight from the hardest grief into the greatest joy within moments of each other.”

I am not Israeli, so I don’t have a direct experience of the pain of loss from Israel’s wars, but I can see Sztokman’s point. Linking memorial to celebration makes a clear statement: these people died for the very existence of the nation. While that message may be true and resonate from many, it also takes a complex emotional situation and reduces it to one simplified meaning.

In America, where Memorial Day and Independence Day are separated by months, there is a bit more space to let the significance of these dates stand for themselves. While many would agree that the sacrifice of our military is something to honor, many would also argue that some of the wars American fought were ill-advised.

I just returned from the Rabbinical Assembly convention, were I attended a learning session that explored the idea that the ancient rabbis of the Mishna shaped the memory of the Jerusalem Temple and its ritual. They created narratives of a past they themselves did not experience in order to lend authority to their institutions.

The ancient rabbis and Israel’s Knesset reinvented the past to frame the present, and while this process may serve the needs of the collective, it sometimes may be disturbing to the individual. Israel’s fallen should be remembered and honored. Israel’s creation should be celebrated with joy. Whether those two days need to be observed back to back may require more thought.

A Dark Path

Today is Yom HaShoah, a day of remembrance for victims of the Holocaust. In Israel a siren rings throughout the country for a moment of silence. Here in America we add special prayers to our services and hold programs and vigils. This year the day has special resonance in the wake of the horrific attack against a synagogue in California that killed one congregant and injured others.

The Anti Defamation League published a report showing that anti-Semitic incidents in 2018 were the third highest since 1979, although the number declined from the previous year, which just shows how bad 2017 was. We have now had 2 shootings at synagogues in the past 6 months and the climate in our country and around the world seems to be getting worse.

Yom HaShoah is a day to remind ourselves where anti-Semitism leads. What might start out as jokes and mockery or stereotyping and prejudice can eventually result in radicalization and violence. The Nazis took pre-existing anti-Jewish sentiment in Germany to create an environment of hatred and fear which allowed the Holocaust to happen with virtually no protest from the German people.

Today’s anti-Semitism also desensitizes people to the destructive nature of the ideology. Famed Nazi hunters Beate and Serge Klarsfeld see the rise of nationalism in Europe and America, and the rise of anti-Semitism that goes with it, as “an atmosphere like the beginning of the ’30s”. They worry that the western world is moving down a dark path.

Who knows where this hatred and bigotry will lead. The world today is different from the world of the 1930s. Israel exists and Jews in America have a great deal of power and are less afraid to use it, but we cannot take these facts for granted. We must continue to educate and stand up to hatred, not just against Jews but against any marginalized group as well.

An interesting essay was published recently in JTA by an Israeli whose family comes from Arab countries. He writes about the disconnect he felt toward Yom HaShoah and the Holocaust because it didn’t happen to his people. His mother told him that the day was important because Jews are “one family” and pain to one part of that family is pain to all, but still he had trouble feeling a personal connection to the tragedy.

The author of the essay notes that the experiences of Jews from Arab lands have often been ignored by Ashkenazi Jews in Israel and America. Just as we learn about the destruction of the Jewish communities in Europe, we should also learn about the hundreds of thousands of Jews forced to leave their homes in the Middle East.

The Holocaust was a unique event in Jewish history, but it did not come out of nowhere. Anti-Semitism has been around for millennia in all corners of the globe. While we may not be able to eliminate it for good, we can at least push it back down into the fringes of society where it can languish and hopefully do less harm.