The old rabbi, or: The apikoros

A dorky Jewish limerick

When an apikoros broke Shabbat,
The old rabbi just sighed, "Oy, mein Gott!
If you think it's alright
To switch on the light...
Well... it would seem I forgot the crock-pot!"

A quick explanation

There are many religious restrictions associated with Shabbat (the Sabbath) in traditional Judaism, including not using electricity and not cooking on Shabbat. The phrase “breaking Shabbat” means desecrating Shabbat by breaking any of these many restrictions.

An apikoros is a Jew who informedly rejects the tenets of traditional Jewish faith and probably does not live according to the tradition. An apikoros would have no problem “breaking Shabbat” by flipping a light switch on or cooking on the Sabbath.

A traditional stew called “cholent” is often served on Saturdays. The idea behind this dish is that it must be prepared before Shabbat and put in a crock-pot on low heat to finish cooking overnight on Friday (during Shabbat). By the time Saturday (still Shabbat) rolls around, the cholent is thoroughly cooked – ready to be eaten for Shabbat lunch!

The humor in this limerick is that the old rabbi is not only prohibited from cooking on Shabbat himself – he is also forbidden from benefitting from another Jew’s desecration of the Sabbath. Technically, if the apikoros cooks food on Shabbat, and if the rabbi knows of this, the rabbi cannot eat that food. And, as you may have guessed already, suggesting that another Jewish person desecrate the Sabbath is also religiously verboten.

In this limerick, the old rabbi is knowingly suggesting that the apikoros turn on the crock-pot with the cholent inside, thereby both cooking food and actively making use of an electrical device on the Sabbath. Seems that this old rabbi is a bit of an apikoros himself!


P.S.

Some say that the word “cholent” may have come from the French “chaud” (hot) and “lent” (slow).

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)

The best hamburger of my lifetime

Hamburgers with Papa

One of my fondest recollections of Papa is his love of unhealthy food. This was one of the perks of having Papa pick me up from various afterschool activities and friends’ houses – one could never know if he might be in the mood for hamburgers. Come to think of it, Papa was much like Winnie the Pooh in this regard, sometimes struck by an entirely unexpected ‘rumbly in his tumbly’.

We certainly did not eat at McDonalds regularly or often; but we had hamburgers there often enough for me to remember this small pleasure; and it was also rare enough for me to develop a special appreciation for it.


Hamburgers & keeping kosher

As a college student, I gradually became religiously observant and eventually stopped eating non-kosher meat. Now, most Jews do not keep kosher, but for those of us who accept this dietary restriction upon ourselves, kosher hamburgers are quite a treat; and kosher hamburgers are abundant in Israel, especially in cities with large religious populations like Jerusalem.

I must add that Jerusalem’s burger joints range widely in quality. We have McDonalds and several other chains, but we also have very high end burger restaurants and everything in between. Even the midrange burger places have better quality patties than McDonalds – and the prices, of course, reflect this.

By the way, burger joints aside, the endless availability of kosher food is one of the reasons that living in Israel is appealing to Jewish people who keep kosher. Living a traditionally religious Jewish life is simply easiest in Israel for many practical reasons; perhaps this too would be worth writing about…


My Babushka’s advice to me

My Babushka (my Mama’s mother) and I would speak by phone almost every single day in the final years of her life before she died nearly three months after my Papa, and, as you might imagine, one of our favorite subjects of conversation was my daughter. Babushka’s love for our baby girl was not theoretical – she deeply adored her and always looked forward to our family visits when her great-granddaughter would climb up onto her couch to give her a kiss.

Our daughter is our first child and so I’ve been discovering child development by observing her as she grows up. Therefore, I’ve never quite known what to expect at any given age, nor what is considered ‘normal’; but my Babushka, who raised three daughters and then some of her granddaughters, had a very good sense of what behaviors and milestones were age appropriate for little children.

Often, we would discuss what foods our child was eating, and I loved to joke with Babushka about my “dream” of going out for burgers with my daughter. Of course, I was making this joke back when she was only three-years-old, which was clearly absurd, and Babushka thought the notion very amusing. “You’ll have to wait until she’s five-years-old for that,” she would tell me.


Five… no… Six-years-old

Regardless of her age, it has always been difficult to convince our daughter to eat any foods beyond the ones she is already familiar with and fond of. In fact, the older she gets, the more this seems to be a losing battle; and there are even some foods she once enjoyed, which she is no longer willing to put in her mouth. We have learned the hard way not to push anything new on her, and we wait for those rare moments when she asks to try something new of her own volition.

Of course, telling her that I like hamburgers is entirely reasonable, right? I’m not suggesting that she should, God forbid, try them; I’m just saying that they’re amazing. So over time, I have adopted the strategy of dripping water upon the rock, as suggested to me by the Bible (Job 14:19):

אֲבָנִים, שָׁחֲקוּ מַיִם The waters wear the stones

Finally, several months ago, she told me that she’d eaten a hamburger at preschool and she’d liked it! I tried hard to contain myself, and I may have even succeeded. “Well,” I said very, very casually, “if you’d like to get a hamburger with me some time, just let me know.” She responded affirmatively, and let me know that she only likes plain hamburgers – no ketchup, no vegetables, nothing. “Sure, sure, no problem. Whatever you’d like,” I responded hopefully. Then, wisely, I dropped the subject entirely.


Thank you, COVID-19

I will forever be thankful to the global pandemic for the event that took place on Thursday, February 4th, 2021, the week before our daughter officially turned six-years-old.

Here in Israel, we have been in lock-down, on-and-off, for months. Honestly, I’ve lost track of time spent at home because the days and weeks and months all blur together in my memory, as I assume they do for our daughter as well. She’s returned to preschool several times, only to return back home for another month or more. Of course, she’d be the first to tell you that she prefers being at home with us, but she does still miss her friends from preschool.

Anyway, there are only several dishes that she requests for lunch at home, and, as I’ve mentioned, we don’t push our luck in trying to recommend new foods to her because that always backfires. Now, under normal circumstances, it’s reasonable for a child to have a very limited amount of lunch options at home because under normal circumstances a child eats lunch at preschool on most days… but last week, finally, the endless sameness of her lock-down era home lunches finally got to her, and she unexpectedly turned to me and said, “Maybe we could get hamburgers this week. But remember – I just want a plain hamburger – no ketchup, no vegetables, nothing.”


And so it was ~

And so, last Thursday, February 4th, 2021, my daughter and I ordered hamburgers from the local joint and brought them home for ourselves (eating out is illegal during the lock-down). She had a plain 80g burger, and I had the standard 250g patty with all of the toppings. And the best part of the whole experience is how much she loved her hamburger!

I literally cannot recall the last time that I’d heard her expressing so much enthusiasm and appreciation for a particular meal – the entire time that she was eating her little hamburger, she kept on repeating, “Wow, I really, really like this. It’s delicious!” and smacking her lips. I think, hands down, it was the most enjoyable meal that I can ever recall having, and, quite certainly, it was the most delicious hamburger of my entire lifetime.

I’m already looking forward to the next one! 🍔