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Pondering Jew

Why Passover Was Painful for Me

March 4, 2015 3:47 PM

It is only now, nearly thirty years since becoming observant, that I want to share everything about the journey. I had been encouraged to write about the process as soon as I started, but if my first piece is any indication, it's a good thing I waited all these years.

It was called The Pain of Passover.

I don't even remember who asked me to write it or what became of the piece. I tried looking for it on my computer, but couldn't find it. It's probably better that way.

I was terrified the forbidden stuff could be anywhere and everywhere

My first Passover, make that Passovers, plural, were quite difficult. As a new ba'al teshuvah (Jewish returnee), I went a bit overboard, to say the least. My rabbi told me to clean my house for chametz (leavened grain products), and I was terrified the forbidden stuff could be anywhere and everywhere—the cracks of my wood floor, the bindings of books (the one-in-a-million chance they were opened is still a chance, right?). I banned Play-Doh from my house forever (total chametz), and I hunted down every last Cheerio. At stake was my rightful place as part of the Jewish people.

But the real pain wasn't the cleaning or even the cooking. (That's a whole other story.)

The pain of Passover was an indescribable, overwhelming feeling of sadness.

Passover was so hard because I felt abandoned by my ancestors.

Who was to blame for the fact that I knew nothing about the cooking, the customs, the cleaning, the meaning?

Now, so many Passovers later, I understand better that "blaming" is futile because nothing happens unless G‑d wants it to. I will never know the who, the how, the when, and the why, and it doesn't matter anymore.

Because now, with G‑d's help, my husband and I are the new ancestors, the Zeidy and Bubbe, the ones who can impart to our grandchildren what got lost in translation when our ancestors came to these shores.

I was at a beauty salon a while ago, and the esthetician moved my sheitel away from my face. "It's a wig," I told her. "I wear it for religious reasons."

"Really?" she asked. "Do you mind if I ask what religion you are?"

I said I was Jewish.

"Wait a minute, I don't understand," she said, totally dumbfounded. "I have lots of Jewish women who come to me, and none of them wear wigs. What are you talking about?"

This was where we came from

I laughed to myself. How would I explain the story of the American Jewish experience in the course of a 15-minute appointment?

"It's a long story," I said. "One thing I know. All of your Jewish clients had ancestors who were observant."

For me, this fact was a turning point when my husband and I considered observant Jewish life. This was where we came from.

We couldn't come up with a good enough reason not to return to it; the only reasons for our non-observance were circumstantial.

Picking up where our ancestors left off was very challenging, and at times painful. But now, nearly thirty years later, I am grateful beyond words that we did it.

Lieba Rudolph lives in Pittsburgh, PA, and writes a weekly blog about Jewish spirituality.

Cooking Tips from a Woman Who Hates to Cook

March 4, 2015 3:41 PM

My daughter Sara wanted to know if some young women could use my kitchen for their Shabbat preparation workshop, "Shabbat in an Hour."

"What do you need me to do for it?" I asked, half holding my breath.

"Nothing," she answered plainly.

My two worst skills are organizing and cooking

"Well, that works," I smiled. Of course, I knew the event would give me a wonderful excuse to declutter my kitchen. There had to be a better place for that hand sanitizer, which had been sitting on my windowsill, untouched, for months.

When, a few days later, my daughter asked me if I would share some personal cooking tips with the young women, I laughed, and agreed immediately.

My two worst skills are organizing and cooking, so if I can learn how to prepare for Shabbat, anyone can.

I still haven't found the common thread among women who actually enjoy cooking. If it's a trait you inherit from your mother, that could explain why I don't like it. Growing up as a baby boomer, I loved going out with my family to restaurants, and I carried this favorite pastime with me affectionately into young adulthood.

I had it all figured out: eating in restaurants just works. Forget about the enjoyment factor. Going out to eat is often more economical than cooking. So much effort goes into planning, buying, putting away, preparing, serving and cleaning up food—for just one meal for just a few people. And that's assuming you didn't leave the food in the oven for a minute too long (one minute!), making the whole process a huge waste.

There are cooking schools and cooking rules, and professionals who know how to do it right. I didn't know how to cook, and I didn't care to learn. My thinking was that, yes, I do eat all the time, but I drive all the time too, and I trust the care of my car to someone who knows cars better than I do. As for those times when restaurants don't work, well, that's why G‑d created tuna fish.

In college, I saw my lack of interest in cooking as a celebration of my selfhood and freedom from gender stereotyping. But in order not to be fearful, I needed at least one recipe, like the one my sister Stephanie gave me so that I could make dinner for my five roommates. The recipe required a package of onion soup mix and a jar of apricot jam to spread over chicken, and voilà. (Don't forget, we share the same mother.)

When I learned that being an observant Jew meant keeping kosher in and out of the house, and that keeping kosher out of the house meant no more eating in non-kosher restaurants, kosher almost became a deal breaker for me. But if Torah is divine, I thought, I had no choice. With G‑d's help, I would have to learn to cook.

I just kept remembering what I read about Maimonides refusing to teach Torah to members of a certain community because their observance of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) had lapsed. If I wanted to be receptive to matters pertaining to holiness—and I did—I knew that I had to eat like a Jew.

Fortunately, though, I immediatelyI immediately figured out how to adapt figured out how to adapt. I quickly learned how to bake challah, so that all my Shabbat guests could fill up on it and barely touch the rest of my mediocre meal. They get full and I get leftovers, what could be better? And I've been looking for other cooking shortcuts ever since.

Of course, if you do anything long enough you get better at it, as was certainly the case with my cooking. Several years ago, after I had made all the food for a reunion with those same college roommates, my friend Gail casually observed, "There must be a G‑d if Leiba can learn to cook."

I'm fairly sure she meant that.

I have to say that the best ingredient in my cooking is a sense of humor. I call my two best chicken recipes, “Chicken Whatever” (which means using the open bottles of marinades in my refrigerator) and “Random Chicken,” which is made with prunes, artichoke hearts, olives, onions (and sometimes, whatever). I have a great shortcut for all chicken recipes: remove the skin. (If you try this, you can tell your guests you do it for health reasons.)

I have a few other basic rules that make cooking for Shabbat less stressful. If I don't have challah in my freezer (it freezes beautifully for several weeks), I bake early in the week. Because homemade challah is essential for filling up the guests, I don't want to wait until Friday to make it.

Also, I keep my food processor on my kitchen counter and make all my dips at the same time. Olive dip is standard (green olives, garlic and mayonnaise), and pesto is also a regular (fresh basil, a few pine nuts, olive oil and salt).

But my absolute favorite Shabbat recipe is Caesar salad. If you have crushed garlic, you can make the dressing by hand, but it takes only seconds in the food processor. I use honey mustard sauce (or honey and mustard), garlic, anchovies, lemon juice (real lemons are better, but bottled lemon juice is also fine) and mayonnaise (I prefer regular mayonnaise even if it means using less). I blend it all until the consistency is creamy but not watery. Just before serving, I pour it over chopped romaine lettuce and toss gently. I've been making Caesar salad for years and there's never a morsel left over—especially if I add croutons made from leftover challah. The dressing keeps in the fridge for at least a week, and because of the anchovies, the salad is especially good to have on hand as part of the fish course for Shabbat and holidays.

A word of caution, though: tell your guests about the anchovies after they've tasted the salad. I don't know why they make people squeamish, but they do.

Be sure to use a timer when you cook!

Whatever you do, be sure to use a timer when you cook. I've learned how to fix lots of mistakes in the kitchen, but I still haven't figured out a way to uncook something!

For those times when the food doesn't quite work, I keep in mind that meaningful conversation also adds a lot to the meal, and I try to enjoy that with my guests no matter what we're eating.

Lieba Rudolph lives in Pittsburgh, PA, and writes a weekly blog about Jewish spirituality.
Lieba Rudolph lives in Pittsburgh, PA, and writes a weekly blog about Jewish spirituality.
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