My [Papa’s] watch

My eyes are always drawn to the cover graphic atop my blog. It’s a photo of my Papa, who died nearly three years ago, on vacation in Costa Rica the year before his death. Papa never went anywhere without that camera of his.

Previous to Papa’s death, I never thought much about mourning, but in the aftermath I certainly did.

Disconcertingly out of sync, perceptions jumbled, receptors misfiring, I remain immediately near but never fully within the self I’d always known, receiving on an unfamiliar, piercing wavelength.

Slowly, slowly, I have come to understand
this: My pulse has been attuned to loss.

-Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #47, June 23, 2019

It wasn’t only in my writing and my prayers that first year that I explored my reaction to the loss of my father; it was also in comparison to other mourners, including my Mama and my brother Eli. Before Papa’s death, it had never occurred to me that everybody mourns in their own way – because, simply, I’d never reflected upon it.


Mementos v. Remembrances

One of the way in which I found myself mourning was in wearing Papa’s watch, caps, yarmulke, and shirts. My sentimentality surprised me; Mama and Eli did not seem to desire to possess physical objects that had once belonged to Papa, but I did.

I wear my father’s cap; my father’s yarmulke; my father’s watch; his house shoes.

-Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #15, Nov. 11, 2018

In any case, previous to Papa’s death, I hadn’t worn a watch for years, as I could simply check my cell phone when necessary; but wearing a watch was something that I had always strongly associated with Papa. I remember him asking me why I did not have a watch and whether I might want to have one on multiple occasions throughout my childhood. He was never without his watch and was always nonplussed at my lack of desire to wear one.

Thus, when I flew home to the USA for his funeral, Papa’s watch was one of the first things that I appropriated for myself. I started wearing it all the time.

Unfortunately, the face of the watch became warped from an unexpected electric shock, and then it cracked when my then-4½-year-old accidentally dropped it. Despite the cost, this led me to order a new watch from the same series. However, when the lovely new watch arrived, I couldn’t bring myself to actually wear it because it wasn’t Papa’s, and I didn’t want the face to get scratched.

However, I also found myself wearing Papa’s watch less and less often. It had never felt entirely comfortable on my wrist, probably because Papa’s wrists were thicker than mine, and he had sized it for himself. Also, the blemished face of the watch annoyed me. While I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of the watch, I also gradually stopped wearing it.

My new watch also needed to be adjusted to my wrist size, but for a long time after it arrived in the mail, I didn’t want to bother with it. Surprised, I realized that I didn’t want to wear any watch other than Papa’s. So the brand new watch, which I had selected for myself, and which suited my taste, sat in its box on the bookshelf for many months.

And then – last week – I suddenly knew that I wanted to wear my watch. I can’t explain what changed in me, but something felt different. Something was different. I wanted to wear my new watch.

After many months of ambivalence and even attempting to put my new watch out of my mind at times, I had it resized for my wrist and put it on… and… it felt very, very right to me. The new watch was lighter than Papa’s watch, which felt better, and it fit my wrist, just as it was supposed to. I haven’t been wearing it all the time, but often enough, and I find that it does bring back memories of Papa, which comfort me. It’s not a memento… but it is a remembrance.

I don’t miss Papa more, and I don’t miss him less. I don’t even know if I miss him differently than I did one year ago or more. Honestly, I have no idea what is going on inside my heart. I don’t think Papa’s absence hurts me less than it once did… but… for reasons that I can’t comprehend, and for the very first time since Papa died in July 2018, I find myself wanting to wear a watch of my own – which never belonged to him.

Salted with my tears (Matzah Brie recipe)

I miss Papa. Pesach is the holiday that most reminds me of him. Beyond images of my father at our family seders, I most vividly recall the taste and texture his matzah brei, which I continue to prepare myself and enjoy annually at home (salted this year with my tears).

– Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #41, Apr. 22, 2019

In Israel, Passover has ended this year, although one more day of the holiday remains for diaspora Jewry. Now that it is over, I no longer have to abstain from leavened products. If I wanted to, I could now make toast for myself tomorrow morning, as I often do for breakfast. However, I will not be doing that.

Tomorrow morning, I plan to make matzah brei for breakfast, just as I have done every morning since the beginning of Passover this year; and I will continue preparing matzah brei for myself for breakfast until we have no more matzah remaining.


Not a food blog

The Skeptic’s Kaddish is not a food blog.

That is not something that has ever interested me; but I have, nevertheless, been inspired to write this particular post by Dolly Aizenman, whose acquaintance I am honored to have made through our respective blogs. Her warm, fascinating, and deeply personal blog, ‘Kool Kosher Kitchen’, has led me to reevaluate my preconceptions about cooking blogs. I never imagined that I would so enjoy reading a food blog!

I’m sure this blog post of mine will not do justice to the ‘food blog’ genre, but, still, making matzah brie has become a very powerful experience for me because it reminds me of Papa, and I’d like to share that with you.


What is matzah?

Matzah is an unleavened flatbread that is part of Jewish cuisine and is the primary symbol of the Passover festival, during which leavened products are forbidden.

In the story of Passover, the Egyptian Pharaoh refused to let the Israelite slaves go when Moses and his brother Aaron demanded on God’s behalf that he do so. Pharaoh refused them ten times, and Egypt was struck by ten plagues (one plague following every refusal). Finally, after the 10th plague, Pharaoh relented.

Since the Israelites knew Pharaoh to be reluctant to release them, they left Egypt in such haste that they could not wait for their bread dough to rise. Thus, their bread, when baked hurriedly atop rocks in the desert sun, became matzah.

Matzah symbolizes redemption and freedom, but it also serves as a reminder of humility, for us to not forget what life was like in bondage. Leavened products symbolize pride, for leaven is “puffed up”.


Papa in the kitchen

My father did not cook much at all, nor did he eat healthy food unless it was served to him. Everything that he ever prepared in the kitchen was of the utmost simplicity, but I loved all of it.

In truth, I have no idea whether or not my father ate matzah in soviet Moscow, but he learned to make matzah brie from my mother who first learned to fry matzah when she moved to Israel from the USSR in the mid-70’s. Mama generally prepared matzah brie as a side dish for dinner with vegetables; Papa kept his simple – a touch of salt, perhaps, and that was it. And he always ate it with mayonnaise.

Mama says that the strong impression I retain of my father making matzah brie for me was due to the fact that Papa loved this dish, and he would usually wake up earlier in the morning than she did. As they say, the early Jew gets the matzah 🙃

Before getting into the instructions below, I’d like to note that this is a very simple dish to make; the quality of the matzah brie has much more to do with technique and timing than with the ingredients.


Matzah brie

Ingredients

  • Matzah (2 or 3 sheets)
  • Water
  • Oil
  • Salt (all spices optional)
  • One egg

Instructions

Prep work

  • Break your sheets of matzah into small pieces and put them in a bowl;
  • Pour boiling water over the broken matzah;
    • You would be surprised at how much water matzah (which is very dry) can absorb. You don’t want to make a matzah soup, but don’t be afraid to pour a lot of water over the matzah either;
  • Let the matzah soak for several minutes; you’ll see that it absorbs the water fairly quickly;
    • When the matzah is soft, you’re ready for:
  • Mix the egg and spices into the matzah.

Frying

  • Cover the bottom of your frying pan with oil;
    • Matzah brie is not a healthy dish – be liberal with the quantity of oil;
  • Heat up the oil at the maximum temperature possible on your stove;
  • When the oil is hot, reduce the temperature to medium heat;
  • Pour the matzah and egg into the frying pan;
  • Mix the oil into the matzah;
    • The matzah should absorb the oil, just as it did the water;
  • Pat the matzah down flat onto the bottom of the frying pan and let it sit for several minutes on the medium heat;
    • The matzah brie will not burn right away because of the high water content, so don’t worry;
  • When the bottom of the matzah brie is brown and crispy, break it up with your spatula and stir it in the frying pan;
  • Give the matzah brie some more time on medium heat;
    • Ideally, there will be some parts of the matzah brie that are still soft, and others that are crispy; the real skill in making matzah brie is getting the right level of crispiness without burning it.

Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night. I miss you like hell.

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 – 1950)

Hopes, or: Smoke rings

A pantoum

Thick smoke rings wafted through the steam
Small silver spoon stirred dark Earl Grey
Night clouds and hopes lit by moonbeam 
Recurring thoughts began to fray

Small silver spoon stirred dark Earl Grey
Gnarled finger clutched by digits slim
Recurring thoughts began to fray
Wise, pale blue eyes could not see him

Gnarled finger clutched by digits slim
Grandfather watched the sweet newborn
Wise, pale blue eyes could not see him
Oh, turns of time had left him worn

Grandfather watched the sweet newborn
Thick smoke rings wafted through the steam
Oh, turns of time had left him worn
Night clouds and hopes lit by moonbeam

‘Coming full circle’, a d’Verse prompt

The above poem is my response to the d’Verse ‘coming full circle’ prompt, which instructed poets to circle round and end where their poems begin. 

Possibilities included pantoums; villanelles; open forms; or even shape poems, but the goal was to attempt a circular poem where the first line and the last repeat (or are close). We were to think about the journey – where has the poem taken us? How has the meaning of that first line shifted? Has it become more certain or less? 

From the first, or: Fatherhood

My first Cyrch a Chwta

Girl, from the first it's been true
your sweetness surpassed all who
poop, cry and coo, as babes do.
Watching you skip at the zoo;
you bathing, smearing shampoo;
laughing at Winnie the Pooh...
Since the hour that you were born,
every morn, faith soars anew.

Some of my best friends are anonymous

On the one hand…

When I step back and think about it, the blogosphere seems such a strange realm; and I’m old enough to have grown up without the Internet so I have perspective on this. Still, one need not have been born before the Internet era to be struck be the notable differences between people’s “in person” relationships and “online” relationships.

For example, what would it mean to have an anonymous “in person” friend? Here on WordPress, on the other hand, it’s entirely normal that some of the people that I interact with most regularly are anonymous.

Also, for most who do not blog anonymously, there necessarily exist limits as to what we can comfortably post because our blogs are public. Would we write publicly about difficulties in our romantic relationships, careers, childhoods, etc., given that our loved ones, coworkers, and friends could read those posts?

Indeed, while I certainly believe that meaningful relationships can be birthed, developed, and sustained online, we must consider how much we actually know of our “long distance” friends. given that we have, essentially, no access to their lives other than the glimpses they grant us. What are they like offline? What are we like?


On the other hand…

Speaking personally, I tend to feel disconnected from many of the people I interact with in person, largely because my head is often very much in the clouds. So many others seem to be focused on practical, earthly matters that wear me out.

Despite my skepticism regarding anything supernatural, I find conversations about belief, the history of religion, the sociology of religion, etc., very stimulating. Also, politics – deep political analysis fascinates me. And, of course, poetry – the exploration of the human spirit and reality filtered through the human eye.

In a sense, therefore, when I think about this blog on WordPress, and when I find myself wondering how well it actually reflects who I am despite all that I omit from it, I feel that it actually reflects much of the real me. This is where I thrive, in the realm of words and concepts, which lend themselves to introspection, poetry, and musings. These are the kinds of interactions I wish I could have with people “in person” – I’d love for all of my conversations to be over images and verses.

Really, as I consider this further, I feel that one cannot possibly know me very well today without taking an active interest in my Skeptic’s Kaddish. Here is where I explore life’s meaning.

Poem, or: Poet

‘Verse epistle’ – a d’Verse prompt

Oh, Poet, Dear, I feel thou there, near
Crafting mine every rhyming word
Wondering, dost thou write me for thyself
That thou shan't expire unheard?

Oh, foolish, thou of foolish thoughts
Neither thine eyes nor lies canst make real
Though thou wouldst forge in me eternity
Thy breaths, no less, I'll steal

Oh, stop, poor sop, stop honing sounds
Through verses these- thou shan't live life
Rather, it's best thou let'st my three rest-
For thy daughter dear and wife

Today’s d’Verse prompt was to write a ‘verse epistle.

The ‘verse epistle’ is simple to define – it is no more than a letter in verse form but its flexibility makes it difficult to encapsulate.

I don’t blog on Shabbas (the Sabbath)

Worth watching: The Big Lebowski

Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of movies online, which I haven’t seen for many years. It amazes me how little I remember of them; in many cases, it’s as though I’m watching these flicks for the first time all over again. Among them has been a popular cult classic, which I watched years ago (in 1998) when it was first released: ‘The Big Lebowski’.

This movie is full of hilarious moments and running gags.

One of these is that of supporting character Walter’s (John Goodman) commitment to his Jewish conversion, which he underwent back when he married his ex-wife. This character is a right-wing veteran of the Vietnam War with an explosive temper and propensity towards violence (he probably suffers from PTSD); and he is also, unexpectedly, as he puts it: shomer fucking Shabbas!

From a Jewish perspective (mine), one of the elements that makes this so hilarious is just how accurate Walter’s description of traditional Shabbas observance (I pronounce it ‘Shabbat’, btw, as it is pronounced in modern Israeli Hebrew) really is. Have a quick listen to this Jewish Supercut of the Big Lebowski below. For those of you who haven’t seen this movie, the word ‘roll’ in this context refers to bowling, which is the main character’s recreational activity of choice.


Partial transcription:

Walter: I DON’T ROLL ON SHABBAS!

Donny: How come you don’t roll on Saturday, Walter?
Walter: I’m shomer Shabbas.
Donny: What’s that, Walter?
Walter: Saturday Donny, is Shabbas. The Jewish day of rest. That means I don’t work, I um, don’t drive a car, I don’t fucking ride in a car, I don’t handle money, I don’t turn on the oven, and I sure as shit DON’T FUCKING ROLL!
Donny: Sheesh
Walter: SHOMER SHABBAS!

Walter: Shomer fucking Shabbas!

Donny: Hey Walter, if you can’t ride in a car, how do you get around on Shabbas


Shomer fucking Shabbas!

Yes, really: We don’t flip light switches

Living in Jerusalem, as I do, it’s entirely normative to observe Shabbat. The weekend in Israel falls on Friday and Saturday (Shabbat begins at sunset on Friday), and most who do not observe Shabbat have at least a general concept of what it is.

In principle, I would describe Shabbat as a day during which those who observe it refrain from engaging in physically creative activities (although procreation is encouraged). We aim to avoid causing physical changes to the world and focus ourselves, instead, upon spirituality, family, and the intangible.

The specifics of the restrictions that apply to the traditional Jewish observance of Shabbat were developed by our sages throughout the course of many centuries, and they are based primarily upon those physical acts that were necessary for the construction of the portable Tabernacle, which God instructed the Israelites to build after they had left Egypt.

Without getting into much detail, the Sages determined that there were a total of 39 categories of physical labor that cover the many restrictions of the Sabbath. One of these 39 categories is: the lighting of a fire, and another one is: the extinguishing of a fire.

Now, modern technology, and electricity in particular, was a game changer for the rabbis. When electricity entered people’s homes, the rabbis had to decide whether or not to permit its use on Shabbat, and ultimately the accepted mainstream ruling in the Orthodox Jewish community became that a spark of electricity is like a spark of fire, meaning, for example, that it is forbidden to flip light switches on and off on Shabbat.

Of course, from a scientific perspective, this is nonsense. Electricity is not fire.

A popular idea is that creating an electric spark is like lighting a fire, which is halakhically prohibited on Shabbat. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman recounts that he was approached by young rabbis who asked him, “Is electricity fire?” The renowned physicist responded that electricity is not a chemical process, as fire is.

-Me, The Skeptic’s Kaddish # 12, Oct. 25, 2018

Regardless, this religious ruling took root and remains the norm today among the vast majority of Sabbath observant Jews. I do not flip light switches on Shabbat; I do not use my phone; I do not use my computer; etc.


I don’t blog on Shabbas

The lived experience

Growing up as a secular Jew, I knew nothing of these Shabbat-related norms, which is why it strikes me that some of you may find this intriguing. Actually, I first began thinking about writing this blog post after creating a Twitter account for myself in order to publish daily micropoems in 2021. After all, January 2nd was a Saturday:

To be honest, I am not interested in getting into the nitty gritty of Jewish religious law. Rather, I simply want to provide a sense of what our lived Shabbat is like. We have many religious restrictions, but the one which I think would be the most obvious to an outside observer is the limitation on using electricity.

From a technical perspective, it is very simple: instead of flipping light switches on Shabbat, we set timers for all of the electric devices and appliances that we need. Lamps and fans are set to timers, for example, as is our electric hot plate (‘platta’ in Hebrew) for heating up food for Sabbath meals. The food itself must be prepared before Shabbat but can be warmed up on the Day of Rest. Essentially, we cannot cause physical changes on Shabbat, but if we set timers before Shabbat, that’s kosher because the cause of the physical change occurred before Shabbat. Simple, right?

But providing you with this technical illustration is not my reason for writing this blog post. What I really want to do is describe, briefly, the impact of this lifestyle upon our family life.

The impact

Like many of you, my wife and I spend most of our days behind computer screens; also, our six-year-old loves watching Disney movies and other videos, having screen time with her extended family in Russia and the USA, writing prose and poetry on a computer, and playing the video games installed on her children’s camera (clever marketing idea, right?).

It’s not that we don’t do other things; it’s just that our telephones and computers occupy a tremendous amount of space in our lives. And – they serve to separate us from one another because we often end up interacting with our electronic devices instead of interacting with one another.

On Shabbat, on the other hand, we spend all day together (especially this last year of global pandemic when we haven’t gone to synagogue and haven’t been invited to friends’ Sabbath meals), and the quality family time is priceless, especially from a parenting perspective. We play card and board games, read books, horse around in the bedroom, etc., and I am certain that this unplugging is very healthy for us all. Of course, we do all get to missing our shows and news websites during those 25 hours every week, but I cannot think of many other facets of traditional Jewish life that have come to be so relevant in this modern era.

The sages who ruled against using electricity could not have foreseen this 21st century reality, and I still disagree with the logic they employed in issuing their religious rulings against it. However, truth be told, I don’t really care about that at all. Shabbat, as I have come to know it and live it, is one of the best parts of traditional Jewish life for me.

Blogging can wait for a day.