Tuesday, August 5, 2014

An Italian Jewish Custom Kindles Hope on Tisha B'Av

So far, so good. It's the first quiet day we in Israel have had for weeks, and ironically it's Tisha B'Av -- the day that defines Jewish sorrow. After all that Israelis have been through over the past 4 weeks, I wonder if there is any cause for optimism, especially since it's Tisha B'av -- prime time for collective mourning.

I mentally conduct a quick historical survey. Tisha B'Av made its entry onto the Jewish calendar with the destruction of both Holy Temples 500 years apart. The irony of Jewish history stepped in with other catastrophes occurring on this date -- the first Crusade began on Tisha B'Av, killing 10,000 Jews in the first month; the Expulsions of Jews from England and France began on Tisha B'Av (1290 and 1306), as did the Spanish Expulsion; and let's not forget the Holocaust, with "The Final Solution" gaining final approval on Tisha B'Av 1941.

So, optimism? It's too early not to be jumpy over anything that sounds like a siren. I still surf the Israeli press every 15 minutes for news updates and can easily remain glued to the TV screen, listening to endless analysis. And then I remember an Italian Jewish custom that I discovered six years ago while researching my book Hanukkah Around the World.

Italian Jews connect Tisha B'Av with Hanukkah through a candle.

The same candle that provides them with enough light to read Eicha -- the Book of Lamentations -- on the eve of Tisha B'Av, is the candle they use as the Shamash for their Hannukiah. Once they finish reading Eicha they blow the candle out, wrap it up and put it away for safekeeping. Come Hanuukah they unwrap it and put it to work once again. By doing this they close the circle, for on Hanukkah we celebrate the rededication of the Temple.

So optimism on Tisha B'Av? Let's rekindle a much needed dose during these tumultuous times.

Photo Credit

Thursday, July 17, 2014

On Storks, Sirens and Missiles

As I sit in my office, which also happens to be our safe room in our Kfar Saba apartment, I wonder how am I ever going to focus on the fact that my new book – Stork's Landing – will be hitting bookstore shelves in less than two weeks' time. I should be excited, but the existential question of the hour is far more pressing for me as an Israeli citizen.

Just this morning, as my husband and I sat down to breakfast, we were treated to two siren alerts. Nine hours later we “enjoyed” a bookend effect as we sat down to dinner. Lodged behind a heavy metal door, checking the minute-by-minute news on the internet, my mind wandered to the video that went viral two days ago, in which one Israeli pilot signaled another to pass over a target because children were clearly visible. I was struck by our humanity, a compassion clearly missing on the other side. Then it hit me. This is the connection with Stork's Landing. A touching nature tale set in Israel, it highlights the Jewish bent to reach out and care for the wounded through a focus on the Jewish value of kindness to animals.

It's a gentle story, beginning with the fact that Kibbutz fish farmers must place nets over their fishponds in order to shield their fish from ravenous birds flying above. To an extent, these nets are to the fish as what the Iron Dome is to our population. They are there to protect and preserve. Sure enough when a hungry stork comes in for a landing it gets caught in the net, breaks its wing to the serious extent that it cannot be operated on, yet the kibbutz members don't put it to sleep. They nurture and shelter it, providing a secure surrounding. A true parallel to the Palestinians being treated in Israeli hospitals, even during these worn, torn times. A fact rarely covered in the world press.

 So while we hover in what I smilingly call our “War Room,” I am now focusing on the fact that Stork's Landing is a Jewish everyman's tale and how lucky all Jews are to have the State of Israel. We live by the same book, we perpetuate the same values, and we will make sure we remain a safe haven for all Jews. In the meantime, come early autumn may only storks, not missiles, land on our shores.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

One Smart Cookie Custom for Shavuot from Libya

Are you looking for a new, engaging way to get across the meaning of Shavuot? Try a Libyan custom that's certainly not cookie cutter but literally uses cookies to illustrate the essence of Shavuot.

Here's the deal. Libyan Jews create a child's cookie necklace by baking cookies in the shape of the 10 Commandments, a prayer shawl and even a ladder -- symbolizing Moses' climbing up Mount Sinai to receive the two most famous tablets in the world. Each cookie has a hole on top so that a cord can thread them together into an edible bauble. How many cookies? A baker's dozen? Your guess is as good as mine. What's important is turning each baking session into a fun lesson. For example, 10 commandment cookies (and I want to thank Bible Belt Balabusta for creating the cookies shown here). While baking, ask your students/children how many commandments they can name. Have a prize ready for the winner who can name the most. Now go to the next level -- what does each commandment mean? Can you create cookies in different shapes representing the meaning of the first five commandments? If the answer is yes, please send me photos.

Photo Credit

Friday, May 2, 2014

I Have a New Book Coming Out with a Tie-in to Israel

With Yom Ha'Atzmaut around the corner I can't think of a better time to tell you about my new book. Set on a kibbutz in Israel, it's called Stork's Landing and it will be coming out this August.

Stork's Landing is the story of Yaffa, a beautiful stork who breaks her wing on a kibbutz fishpond net and can never fly again. Discovered by a little girl named Maya, who together with her father and other kibbutz members carefully nurture and watch over her, Yaffa overcomes her disability and achieves a new, fulfilling role in life. This sensitively told nature tale focuses on the Jewish value of caring for animals, while at the same time subtly incorporates issues of adoption and acceptance of those with differences. 

I am very excited about this book and am flying to the States in November to promote it during Jewish Book Month. Right now it looks like I'll be in New York, Boston, Baltimore, Rockville (MD), and Houston. Please contact me if you would like me to appear in your school with an interactive presentation on the book, that naturally includes a reading of the story. In the meantime, Happy Yom Ha'Atzmaut.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Yom Ha'Shoah and Our Collective Memory

It's a breathless pace, but there's a reasoned explanation behind this "madness." It's called collective memory.

We Jews are more than a proud people. We are one of the few ancient civilizations still around, which is a major miracle considering that hate seems to haunt Jewish history. Oddly enough, it has strengthened us as a people and helped shape our identity by never forgetting each and every hate-filled event.

In fact, we are the pros at seamlessly fusing history, memory and peoplehood. Let's go back to the two "P"s -- Purim and Passover. They're prime examples of this synthesis. Holding a Holocaust memorial day a week after Passover ends seems a natural progression in our march over time.

I'm wondering if your students know that we have one of the longest memories around?  The recent shooting in Kansas City is an unfortunate stop on the road, but it won't be forgotten. The same way members of our immediate and extended families brutally killed by the Nazis won't be erased from our minds. Help your students remember their relatives by encouraging them to submit names to Yad Va'Shem, to be read out loud at this year's ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance . Want a follow-up? Encourage them to write up the story behind the name and submit it to Yad Va'Shem's Pages of Testimony project.

May the memories of their relatives be an added blessing to our collective memory.

Photo credit

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Passover Custom That Was All Greek To Me Until....

I'm back in Israel after an eye-opening Jewish history visit in Greece.

Last week my blog dealt with the Jews of Thessaloniki and their Passover customs. This post will focus on the Romaniote Jews of Ioannina -- a city in north-western Greece.

No, I didn't travel to Ioannina. I found out about this dwindling Jewish community when I visited the Jewish Museum of Greece located in Athens. Since my focus here is on holiday customs, I won't go into the background of this unusual community, except to say that they are the original Greek Jews with a history dating back over 2,000 years. Their story is fascinating, so please click on the links above to read all about them.

Now, on the Romaniote Seder which isn't even called a Seder. Here's the interesting custom. For them, the Passover ceremony around the table is called Hova -- חובה -- which in Hebrew means obligation. The name Hova immediately gives seder/סדר -- order -- to the evening. It reminds us that we must fulfill the commandment to "tell your children" about the Exodus from Egypt. Consequently, as a reinforcement of this reminder, the Romaniote Hova begins by everyone placing their hands on the table while reciting the phrase  זה השולחן אשר לפני השם -- This is the table before God.

To be honest, I heard about the hand custom years ago, but it was all Greek to me since my Greek-Israeli friend shrugged it off as something Greek Jews do without providing a reason as to why. I have to hand it to the museum staff member who gave me the explanation, making sure I would include it in my blog. I even purchased a copy of the Romaniote Hagaddah.

So, let's get on with our Hova. Make your Seder enlightening and enjoyable. To remind you how to keep everyone involved -- children and adults alike -- have a look at one of my first posts and have a חג שמח!

Hands Photo Credit

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Passover Customs Direct from Thessaloniki

Greetings from Thessaloniki -- also known as Salonica, once home to one of the most thriving Jewish communities in the world.

It's wonderful being here in this historic city that many Jews called home for two thousand years. When did they exactly arrive? Good question. A Jewish presence in Greece is mentioned in the book of Isaiah (66:19). Some researchers claim that Jews lived in Thessaloniki when the city was first established in 315 BC. Others claim that Jews from Alexandria, Egypt settled in the city in 140 BC.  Regardless of the exact date, the most significant expansion of the community came during the Spanish Inquisition when 15-20,000 Jews called Sephardim were expelled in 1492 and found a safe haven in Thessaloniki. With 32 different synagogue communities, the Jews flourished and became an essential part of the city's economy, turning it into a first rate commercial center.

While the community's history is both fascinating and tragic, the holiday customs it developed are equally interesting and still practiced by the remaining 1,000 Jews. I visited the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki and met with its director, Erika Perahia Zemour. She told me about a few Passover customs that I want to share with you.
 Have a look at the Haggadah in these two pictures.
 Erika pointed out that it is written in 3 languages: Greek, Spanish Hebrew -- better known as Ladino -- and Hebrew. Family members take turns reading from the Haggadah and do so in the language they feel most comfortable in. So, the children read their portions in Greek. The grandparents feel much more comfortable with Ladino, and the parents will either read the Hebrew or Greek text.

Next, take a look at the pan behind the Haggadah. Don't mistake it for a Seder plate.  It's a special frying pan for making Passover style burmelos. If you've read my book Hannukah Around the World, then you're already familiar with this fried doughnut made by Turkish Jews and other Sephardim for Hanukkah. Clearly, this is a holiday favorite for the Jews of Thessaloniki who have decided to give it a Passover twist by using ground matzah instead of flour. Erika even gave me the recipe:
1 cup ground matzah (count how many pieces of matzah you use for a cup)
Add enough water to the ground matzah to make dough. Add one egg per slice of matzah that you've ground and mix into a smooth dough. Drop a spoonful of dough into hot oil and fry on both sides. Remove and pat dry.  Once the burmelos have cooled pour honey on top and serve.

Speaking of recipes -- Erika also shared a recipe for a unique matzah egg drop soup. I'm going to save it for my next blog post.
Bye for now from Thessaloniki....or as they say in Greek: αντίο.