DESTINY DANCE (from the novel Open When You Are by Ben Ackerman – a sci-fi spiritual allegory based on the Torah-Kabalistic view of reality)

open-cropped-enlargedThe band, which had been strumming quiet, dinner-music type riffs, suddenly exploded into a rich, weaving, beat-heavy blast as hundreds of guests streamed into the room. The crowd divided spontaneously in two, like an amoeba, forming a middle lane through which the young bride and groom in their floor-length ivory robes, faces glowing, strode through accompanied by their parents.

The couple, a trail of well-wishers at their heels as the swarming guests zippered together behind them, made their way to a regally appointed ‘head’ table, raised slightly upon a dais in the middle of the room. A wild frenzy of dancing broke out around them, unlike anything Strad had seen. Nobody was dancing with anybody as much as everybody was dancing with everybody. The whole room joined hands and wove over the dance floor in a giant, circuitous chain. Strad was watching from his safe perch next to the bandstand when one of the dance line’s coils suddenly surged his way and two of the villagers dropped hands, motioning for him to join between them.

“Go ahead,” Gabel shouted over the music’s roar. “I’ll take care of the food. Go have yourself a swim.”

Strad knew that if he pulled away, or even shook his head, the line’s momentum would sweep his would-be dance partners away like a tide. But wasn’t that what he’d been doing all his life — standing to the side, watching the rest of the world dance? He gingerly held out his hands and was immediately pulled into the train that pulsed in syncopated rhythm.

After several moments tripping over his own feet, Strad was just getting the hang of the dance — a modified stutter- step — when the music stopped abruptly. After a moment of confused murmuring, everyone dropped hands and froze in place. Strad wondered if, like in ‘musical chairs,’ he should grab a seat. Then the door swung open. A semi-circle of young men charged in, clearing the crowd. Behind them, a small, white-bearded man walked with a slow but surefooted gait and apologetic smile, as if uncomfortable with the tumult his entrance was causing.

“Kalonymos came to the wedding!” Strad heard someone whisper, as he watched the ancient man move toward the seated bride and groom, ascend the dais and join the smiling newlyweds.

The music started up again. Most of the crowd resumed the snaking dance, but Strad noticed a group forming a line that started at the head table. He felt a tap on the shoulder.

“Shall we rejoin the dance?” Strad, still breathless from the spectacle he’d witnessed, turned to see Juni’s innocent face and outstretched hand. Strad hesitated. It had been different holding hands with people he didn’t know.

“Why are those people lined up over there?” he asked, both out of interest and a desire to change the subject.

“They are going to greet the couple, and receive a glass of spirits.”

A glass of spirits; that’s just what he needed. Despite the crowd’s incredible energy he hadn’t seen a drop of alcohol in the whole place. “Can anyone get in that line?”

Juni seemed taken aback by the question. “Oh no… I mean yes. Generally, you have to be invited to… but I’m sure they would make an exception; after all you’ve come from so far.”

Strad’s feet cooled. He wasn’t the line-crashing type and, while a stiff drink would hit the spot, he wasn’t sure he was up to facing that intense old man.

“You know, never mind.  I think I’ll just sit back and watch for a while.”

“Strad, don’t worry. Come, I’ll show you what to do.” Finally giving in to his inviolable credo of ‘trying anything once,’ Strad shrugged and followed the determined teen who led him over, under and through the waves of dancers until they finally reached the line.

Juni, who seemed to know everyone, chatted easily as Strad leaned in to see what was happening at the head table. The procedure looked fairly straightforward. One by one, each guest stood opposite the wedding party, bowed slightly to the newlyweds and then the old man, who would hand the guest a glass of clear liquid — vodka?… or maybe a liqueur? — and then move on. Despite the hoary beard, Strad noticed that the man moved with a youthful grace, deftly pouring glass after glass from a narrow bottle wrapped in a velvet cloth.

Strad waited for the man to change or refill the bottle, which according to his estimate should have emptied out after four or five cups. Yet five, ten, and more guests passed and he kept pouring from the same covered bottle. Strad turned to Juni and was about to ask about it when his roommate’s uneasy eyes cut him short.

“My teacher’s calling me. Just stay in line and it will soon be your turn.” He smiled apologetically, bowed and ducked out of sight.

Several minutes passed and Strad, lost in thought, shuffled forward absently until he bumped into someone’s arm. He looked up, startled, and peered into a stern face.

“Sorry, you aren’t allowed in this line.  It’s by invitation only.”

“I’m not trying to break any rules. Juni told me it would be fine.”

“Please step out of line right now,” the young man repeated, “or I will be forced to take you out.” Strad sighed and began to step off the line, when a bony hand grabbed him by the shoulder.

“Stay right where you are,” Juni whispered. He turned to the gatekeeper. “What seems to be the problem?”

The guard sighed. “You know the rules…”

“Oh, come on,” Juni interrupted sharply. “What’s the big deal if… ?”

“Guys, really, it’s not worth fighting about.” Strad’s words went unnoticed as the argument progressed. A middle-aged man pushed his way in and signaled the gatekeeper.

“Strad,” Juni whispered excitedly, “Kalonymos himself has just requested you move to the front of the line!”

As Juni led him past the line of spectators, Strad hoped the old man would pour him a double; after all he’d been through. The lad nudged him up the steps and then backed away. Now on his own, Strad shuffled past the bride and groom until he stood before Kalonymos. He looked at the man’s face, a study in contradictions. The full, white beard and deep thought lines in his forehead signaled old age, yet the tight, tawny features and shining, sea-green eyes radiated youth.

With a warm, conspiratorial smile, Kalonymos handed Strad a tumbler and slowly filled it to the brim. Talk about a double. Strad figured if this stuff was any stronger than white wine he’d soon be on the floor.

He didn’t know if he was supposed to drink it right there or move on. Was he expected to say something after receiving a private invitation? He raised his eyes, hoping Kalonymos would give him a clue, and startled. The old man was looking through him, peering into his eyes as if they were windows. Yet Strad did not feel uncomfortable. On the contrary, he’d never felt so genuinely seen, exposed but un-judged… unconditionally loved. He’d seen those eyes before — but where? At the restaurant, when he first burst into Gabel’s kitchen!

“We’ll meet at the Ocean.” Strad turned to see who’d whispered in his ear — but no one was there. He looked back at Kalonymos, who signaled Strad to drink. Strad wished he had some idea what to expect. It was something exotic for sure, maybe tequila? He drank, waiting for the inevitable burn at the back of his throat, but it never came. Water?

As the line pushed on, Strad stepped down from the platform and was swept into the dance line. Strad danced on, stronger, faster, riding the ever-strengthening torrent of pure, clear water that burst a dam within him, one he’d had no idea he’d built, and quenched a thirst he never knew he had.

(Excerpted and adapted from ‘Open When You Are’ by Ben Ackerman – a deep, yet light and lively sci-fi spiritual allegory based on the inner-Torah view of reality.)

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REVELATIONS ON REVELATION (and how recipes are not carved in stone)

The Torah may have been given on Har (Mount) Sinai, but one Jewish college student got his own private’ revelation together with the worst grade of his academic career.

A guest of ours, a fairly recent baal teshuva, told of how his constitutional law professor had asked the class to write an essay arguing either for or against tax exemptions for organized religions. This fellow, not at all observant at the time, began the assignment in a dutiful, straightforward way, but then found himself taking an unexpected detour. He felt compelled to explore—first in his mind, and then within his essay—the very concept of organized religion itself.

It had struck him as ludicrous, for if, as he’d been taught all his life, there was no knowable ultimate truth, then the term ‘religion’ could only honestly be applied to that which a given person relates to from the deepest part of his own inner world and values. It seemed to him something personalized, exquisitely private, with as many perspectives as there were individuals. Therefore, the term ‘organized religion’ seemed an oxymoron. Why in the world, he asked himself, would anyone choose to ‘group up’ and relinquish that rarefied part of himself to an arbitrary kit of beliefs and practices that some other individual or individuals had once ‘organized’ from their own private inner feelings? It seemed like ‘spirituality for dummies’—yet millions of people had fallen for it (presumably even before tax breaks were an incentive).

It was like going to an expressive wire-sculpture class, being given a table chock full of interesting materials and tools to work with—and then each member of the class voluntarily agreeing to jettison his or her creativity and deciding to build the same identical sculpture in the same specified way. His essay concluded that if you wanted to grant a religious tax exemption, it would have to be a universal tax exemption to each individual whose personal ‘religion’ was uniquely his own.

Well, his philosophical musings didn’t rank very high with his brass-tacks constitutional law professor, to say the least, but they had opened a door in his mind that left a clanging question which was only answered years later when having stumbled, together with his backpack, into Aish Ha-Torah, he was eventually convinced (he’s still not quite sure how), and intuitionally came to believe, in the truth and historical accuracy of the event known as Matan Torah, the collective revelation of the Torah by G-d to the Jewish people.

Suddenly organized religion made perfect sense—or at least organized Torah Judaism. Its millions of adherents weren’t copping out by choosing to believe and practice in a codified, organized way, but rather had simply plugged into the parameters of the same higher, revealed objective truth. This truth—this higher dimension—had its own specific rules and parameters, and to successfully travel it, an accurate map had be followed.

It had never been a wire-sculpture class after all, but an electronics class, and they weren’t there to sculpt, but to learn how to build radios, each of which had to be wired in the correct, specific way in order to work.   Of course, there was room for creativity; one could choose to house the radio in brushed aluminum or in wood, bigger knobs or smaller knobs, etc.—but the basic structure—the way the circuit board is ‘organized’—must be in place. His life-changing conclusion was that not only was revelation, or ‘ma’amad Har Sinai’, the basis of our religion, but without it, the very concept of religion itself made no sense.

On Sinai, three general classes of mitzvos were given; ‘chukim’—laws without a revealed, humanly graspable rationale (interestingly enough, in Israel today, all of their codified laws are commonly referred to as ‘chukim’…), ‘mishpatim’—‘ethical’ laws with a logically understood basis, and ‘aydos’—laws serving to commemorate great spiritual truths and events. Chukim, while not logically graspable in this world, are not, chas v’Shalom, mere arbitrary commands, but have great meaning and specific effects in the higher spiritual worlds. This meaning is simply not accessible to us due to our lack of metaphysical knowledge.

When it comes to Torah, it’s perfectly in order when appropriate, to declare something a supra-rational ‘chok (singular of chukim)’, but not when it comes to cooking. Some people tend to imbue cooking with a pseudo-mystical quality, treating recipe directions as if they were ‘chukim’ that must be unquestionably followed because ‘the recipe says so.’  But this is simply due to an unawareness of the general principles of cooking, both as applied to ingredients and processes. Once these are learned, one will not only understand why every recipe tells you to do what it does, but will know when you don’t have to listen.

Interestingly, the very analytical skills one develops in Torah learning can be applied as a tool to analyze a recipe—or anything else for that matter.  In studying the Gemara, one finds that one of the most common and basic objectives within its discussions is to discern the essential factor, or factors, which produce the legal ruling in a case being considered. This is valuable not only to better understand the case at hand, but to be able to extrapolate and apply relevant principles to correctly rule on other, ostensibly unrelated cases.

Let me illustrate with a mundane (obviously not Torah) example. Suppose we’re told of the ‘case’ of a six-foot tall, forty-two year old, barefooted man, wearing a green suit, who was not allowed into a restaurant. We are told many factors: the person’s gender, age, height, choice of haberdashery and footwear. But likely only one of these factors was the essential one why the ‘ruling’ was that he was not allowed into the restaurant—because he was barefoot.

So too, most recipes use given ingredients largely for the sake of one or two factors that they possess. Once we discern those factors, we know when we must stick to a listed ingredient, and when (and how) to substitute. For instance, margarine has become the latest kitchen ‘pariah’ (I wonder if, and when it will be redeemed, as have other erstwhile criminals such as eggs, coffee, and chocolate—not to mention the once margarine-jilted butter? I suppose it’s not likely, as all the latter are G-d’s natural gifts to us, while margarine is an ‘I can do it better’ human concoction.) Let’s say a cookbook calls for it in a recipe and, while the recipe looks good, we just don’t want to use the ‘marge’. Do we turn the page?

Not so fast.

Let’s instead analyze its properties, or factors. Margarine is a bland-tasting, pareve, fat/shortening, that solidifies at room temperature.  Now if the recipe calls on us to use it to fry onions, then it’s safe to assume the essential factor here is its oiliness. Therefore we can safely substitute any other edible, mild-tasting oil, (or even butter, assuming no meat will be involved). However, if its being used in a base for, say chocolate or rum balls, then the fact that it stays solid at room temperature is an essential factor, as it binds the other ingredients and holds them together in a ball (oil will just leave you rum-crumbs), so you have to find something that replicates that effect (butter, pure coconut oil, maybe a thick nut butter, if you’d find the taste agreeable with the chocolate, etc.)

Once we stop looking at recipes as if they’re ‘from Sinai’ and instead start to analyze them with a ‘gemara kop’, we’ll be in for quite a cooking ‘revelation’.

Shavuos is a day when milchigs grab the limelight. Being sensitive to dairy foods (despite loving the taste), I generally only indulge on Shavuos or Chanukah. So I’ll leave the dairy recipes to the experts and instead offer you a ‘cheese topping’ that is not only totally pareve and incredibly simple to make, but mimics the real thing so well that once some students I was cooking for came racing up from the dining room the first time I served it (atop ‘pareve pizza’), to ‘remind’ me that everyone was still fleishig from lunch.

EASY ‘CHEESY’ TOPPING

(This faux cheese topping pours on as a liquid, but solidifies when baked. Great for any dish where a cheese effect is desired but must remain pareve for health or kashrus reasons.)

Ingredients:

Equal measure of mayonnaise and raw eggs, say, a cup of each. (The creamy base that hardens when baked.)
1 tsp. lemon juice (to give it a cheesy tang).
1 tsp. potato starch (for a cheesy chew).
Pinch of salt.
1 tsp. pareve ‘chicken’ soup powder (adds richness and color).
1 tsp. oregano (Optional. Gives it an appealing ‘speckled’ effect—nice with tomato-based dishes).

Directions: combine all ingredients and whisk or blend to an even, smooth consistency. (I told you it was EASY.)

To use: Spoon or pour in a thin, even layer (or get creative and try shredded-looking swirls) over any baked dish during (approx.) the last ten minutes of cooking. (Too early, and it will turn a dark brown but still taste good.) Bake until topping solidifies, slightly bubbles from within, and just begins to brown in spots. Remove dish, let stand for at least ten minutes (to set) and enjoy!

TONGUE-TIED

I love the English language,
It’s such a part of me,
Connects the world without with that within.

The tool of my trade,
With it my bills get paid (sometimes),
And fellow English speakers feel like instant kin.

To browse a dictionary,
Leaves me flushed and merry,
Delighting at each newly-tasted word.

Yet even as I write this,
I know that this delight is,
In its essence something quite absurd.

For while the language I do love,
The love of it I don’t,
Its most fluent phrases leave a hollow ring.

For should a son of Avraham,
That’s really what I am,
Find his solace in the language of the “Engs”?

Should something foreign to my soul,
Have me so much in its hold,
With my own soul-language stilted and remote?

Lashon ha-Kodesh, Hebrew, Yiddish,
Never heard when I was kid-ish,
Thrown over with tefilin from the boat.

I’m sure there’s a good reason,
For my linguistic treason,
To reach others that no other language might.

To redeem the holy sparks,
From their dungeons cold and dark,
Through words of Torah bringing them to light.

While it’s not my mother tongue,
It’s the one I learned when young,
At my kind adoptive mother(land)’s native knee.

So yes, I love the English language,
And I guess I always will,
Despite the fact it really isn’t me.

 

ONIONS AND ANTI-‘SEMI’-TISM

one-whole-red-onion-and-one-sliced-in-halfFew foods go through the radical makeover upon cooking as do onions.

When raw, the standard cooking-onion is sharp, olfactory-offensive (especially on one’s breath), and tear-inducing. Yet when properly sautéed, they become sweet, mellow, and rich; a joy for the taste-buds, evoking neither lachrymosis nor halitosis.

Yet someone, say a kid, who’d only been exposed to uncooked onions up to now, would feel totally confident and justified in his opinion that he ‘hates onions’ (for all of the above reasons), when what he really hates are raw onions.

The Torah, its teachings and mitzvahs, are the Divine ‘culinary preparation’ that brings out the true and pleasant essence of the Jew.

His natural sharpness is channeled toward the pursuit of Talmudic knowledge and halachic precision.

He becomes aware that his choices and behaviors waft far beyond his immediate environs, and he strives to leave a sweet-smelling trail of Kiddush Hashem in his wake and not its opposite.

The aim of his every encounter is to leave a smile of goodwill and admiration on the face of another and never a tear of frustration or anger.

(Of course, just as an onion must be fully cooked and not merely seared on the outside, to trade its disagreeable raw characteristics for pleasant new ones, so too must the Torah be internalized to transform one who observes it.)

The Torah is the ‘software’ specifically matched to the formidable ‘hardware’ of the Jewish soul and personality, which without it (both its practice and its spirit) is semi-functioning at best.

To summarize in verse: While an anti-Semite’s a hater, it’s certainly true, what he hates (nearly always) is the ‘semi’-done Jew.

COSMIC RESUME

Dear COO (Creator Of Opportunity),

I would like to thank you for considering this application for my dream job.

The position for which I am applying will fit the following criteria:

First of all, it will make a lot of money.

Now, before you brand me as a materialistic sell-out, you have to understand what I mean by ‘a lot of money’.

I mean enough money that I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to pay my bills and household expenses, and to be able to comfortably provide my loved-ones with whatever they tell me they need.

Not bad, right?

But besides the money, my dream job will have intrinsic meaning. That is, what I’m devoting my time and efforts to is bringing something genuinely beneficial to the world.

I don’t mean like ‘ice-cream’ or ‘fuel oil’ – although they both have their benefits.

I don’t even mean inventing non-caloric ice-cream or non-polluting fuel oil (although either would certainly bring both accolades and riches) – I mean something of spiritual benefit to humanity in general, and to Klal Yisrael in particular.

I know that’s a wide berth and can include a lot of different projects, but for me, the dream job is one that will make use of my particular God-given talents and abilities.

One of which is creativity. I was once described by someone who claimed to see people’sswirling colors auras, as a swirling cloud of vivid colors, overflowing with creativity. (I know, this is something hard to imagine from a quiet guy always dressed in black and white, but it’s true).

To create, to be m’chadesh – not necessarily divrei Torah – but to invoke never-before-considered conceptions and apply them in a way to ignite dormant, longing souls.

My other gifts, as I see them, are talents in cooking and writing (as to the latter, I’ll let you judge). I’m able to subtly craft and transmit a message – propaganda in the finest sense of the word – and to recognize it when it’s being perpetrated by others. I also have the ability to allow psychic space for, and convey a sense of dignity to, those off-the-beaten-track, out-of-the-box souls who (admittedly, to a certain degree like myself) just don’t thrive in the standard aquarium of life.

It’s a job that doesn’t tax my weaknesses (such as financial acumen and ‘hondling’, self-promotion, detail-level organization, and social networking – both live and virtual) – ideally, part of the setup includes colleagues happy to and capable of taking on those pieces. There’s a healthy mix of people-interaction, punctuated with ample solitude to refine and recharge my introverted soul. It is not too physically demanding.

Of course, the job accommodates my chosen Torah lifestyle, which means limited-if-any contact with the opposite gender, nor compromise in any sphere of halachah. It will cause my family no anguish or shame and certainly none to my people.

And I will see results. Not necessarily to become famous or even acclaimed, but to know – even if no one else does – that I’ve been the catalyst and instrument to bring the world great light.

So there you have it, my dream job – or at least its description.

What it will look like on the ground, I as of yet have no idea. If you feel you can name it for me, please do – or better yet, hire me too.J

MY LAG B’OMER (SMALL) MIRACLES

It feels funny telling people that Lag b’Omer is my favorite Jewish holiday.

I mean, officially it’s not even a holiday at all. It has no ‘halachos’, other than not saying tachanun, and it doesn’t even have the traditional signature foods that give the Yomim Tovim so much flavor. But, what can I say? There’s just something about the day that seems to lift me higher than any other.

It hasn’t always been that way.

For many years, I let the day pass, if not unnoticed, then certainly uninspired by. In fact during the short time that we lived in Tsfas, a mere hop, skip, and jump from Har (Mt.) Meron and the kever of the holy Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, I hardly ever visited the place and would even (I’m ashamed to admit it) suffice with a little wave across the valley to the gathering throngs on that special day. It was only years later, when traveling to Meron for Lag b’Omer became a half-day, rather than half-hour venture, did I get bitten by the ‘bug’.

My ‘conversion’ could have something to do with the couple of miracles I experienced there.

One miracle was that I didn’t lose my glasses. Now before you scoff, let me explain. If any of you have ever been to Meron on Lag b’Omer you will know that if a dictionary wanted to illustrate a definition of ‘meandering, festive mob’ it would simply include a snapshot of an aerial view.

That year I’d been sort of hanging out with a Chassidic group that had rented one of those ubiquitous, off-to-the-side-of-the-path, chain link fenced-in enclaves as a home base. Me, being me, decided to break off from the scheduled, fenced-in activities early on to make my way toward the tziun alone. I’ll spare you the gory, er, glorious details of my march, but l’maaseh, I made it there and back in one piece. Returning to the safe and tznius all-men’s camp from which I’d come, I reached to pull my glasses out of my jacket pocket where I’d tucked them, in what seemed like a spiritually wise move in those hoary days before the gender separated ‘derech mehadrin’.

The only problem was that my pocket was bare.

After frantically searching every possible hiding place in my wardrobe and side pack, I came to the inescapable and thoroughly glum conclusion that they had fallen (or more likely been jostled) out somewhere along the way. Now, besides the monetary loss, which for me would be considerable, you have to understand that I’ve been blessed with wonderful, 20/20 vision…of anything within a foot of my face. After that, as they say, it all becomes a blur. While this physiological fact served me well on my just completed trek, it would not serve me well as I tried to function throughout the long, variegated day ahead of me on unfamiliar turf.

Left with little choice, I made a desperate one. I would simply retrace my steps and look for them. Yeah, right.

Truth be told, this was not ‘peak’ hour on the mountain and you could still move along the paved trail and maintain some modicum of personal space, or at least what would be considered so in downtown Calcutta. So I set off on my ‘myopic mystery tour’ filled less with hope than hubris and only fortified by the knowledge that I had originally doffed my glasses in an attempt to serve G-d, and therefore might warrant some heavenly assistance.

Eventually, I reached the row of charming, portable ‘rest rooms’ where I had detoured the first time around, and now deemed a likely ‘drop off’ point. But my search there came up empty. A more rational sort would have simply given up at this point, groped his way back down to home base and sat out the rest of the day with his face in a sefer. But by now, I was too committed to my ‘vision quest’ to back down.

Estimating where I’d previously headed after my detour I took about a dozen steps down a side trail and said to myself wistfully, but with a strange conviction, “You know, my glasses could have fallen out right here.” Squatting down, as of course I couldn’t scan anywhere near ground level from my towering 5’9” perch, I gingerly grazed my hand over the grassy curb…and found, or I should say felt pay dirt. My glasses were right there!

I am not making this up.

My second Lag b’Omer miracle was actually more of a revelation. This time I’d traveled Lag b’Omer eve on a chartered bus with a group of students and staff from Yeshiva Lev Yisrael, then of Ramat Beit Shemesh, where I was at the time employed. We’d nestled into an off-road alcove which afforded a remote yet relevant bird’s eye view of the goings on and gathered to daven maariv b’zman—just at nightfall.

Maybe I was inspired by the moment, the chevra, and the rarefied surroundings—or more likely I was just too tired from the trip to get the words out fast—but my shemoneh-esrei prayer took much longer than planned and while I was still going strong, not only had the minyan dispersed, but the valley below had erupted in super-amplified music to usher in the ceremonial bonfires about to be lit.

Of course, one is not supposed to be paying attention to one’s surroundings during tefilla and I wish I could simply attribute my wandering thoughts to the unusual decibel level…halevai. But as I focused in on the music between shuckles, I realized I was not listening to just one concert below me, but two. To the left blared the unmistakable boisterous yet bittersweet strains of Chassidic klezmer, while to the right beat the hyper-energized, syncopated sound of a Sephardic Celebration.

And I was right in the middle.

Although this impromptu stereophonic soundstage had all the ingredients of a cultural cacophony, amazingly, mysteriously the vastly different musical offerings began to blend, to weave together in my mind. I cannot properly describe it now, but somehow the two streams of music fused into one; East meeting West in perfect, preternatural harmony.

I could literally no longer tell songs-become-song apart and all I could think of was that I had been somehow zoche to hear a prelude to the music of Moshiach.

Of course Lag b’Omer, the yahrtzeit of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, is inextricably linked to the Zohar and kabala.  I’ve heard the day described as the ‘Shavuos of the hidden Torah.’ And while I know very little about kabala (despite passing ‘official’ age, with change to spare), an idea I’ve heard is that one way, generally speaking, that ‘hidden’ Torah is distinguished from ‘revealed’ Torah is that while the latter, gemara, halacha, etc, focuses very much on ‘birrur’ or ‘contrasting’, finding the subtle differences between two ostensibly similar acts of events,  hidden, ‘penimius’ Torah, which has been called ‘the science of parallels’, seeks to ‘compare’, finding the commonalities that exist within apparently divergent phenomena.

With that in mind, I suppose the hidden unity-song of Clal Yisrael I heard on Har Meron, on Lag b’Omer makes perfect sense.

 

SUSPENDED JUDGMENT – A SHABBOS COSTUME BALL

Kabbalas Shabbos in Tsfas…

Kabbalas Shabbos is Tsfas.

It’s where, in the times of the Arizal, the weekly Shabbos-arrival ceremony as we know it originated. So I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that it was Kabbalas Shabbos in Tsfas, during our recent visit there, when I had a mystical revelation.

I’d stepped out from the guesthouse where we were staying, a bit before sunset late Friday afternoon, looking for a place to pray. I hadn’t gone more than a few yards when some rousing, boisterous, Carlebach singing caught my ear.

Following the muse, I came upon what appeared to be a blue-washed (as in whitewashed) parking garage, where on one of the lower levels a seemingly impromptu congregation had gathered to melodiously greet the Shabbos Queen.

Why not? I figured, and ascended the sloping up-ramp to join them.costumes

To call the crowd eclectic would not do it justice. There were shtreimels of various vintages, jeans and baseball caps, yeshivish black-hats, retro-biblical robes, sharkskin suits, and (most interesting,) various permutations of all of the above. And this was just on the women’s side.

Just kidding.

So I joined in, figuring at least I wouldn’t stick out. But as I tried to get into the tunes, which I really enjoy, I soon fell into my usual pattern of ‘inventorying’ (to borrow the Twelve-Step Recovery parlance) the people around me.

By inventorying, I mean sizing up and speed-psychoanalyzing: What’s their background? Their approach to Yiddishkeit?  Their ‘game’?  In short, judging with a capital J.

My usual next move as I’m being swept down this toxic thought-stream is to then pop inside of each of their heads and imagine how they are (or would be) inventorying me, which can really set me off on a big-time self-consciousness jag. ‘Where do I stand on this totem pole?’ I ask myself; ‘What’s my position in this herd?’

But fortunately, before I could go there, a teaching from the Arizal that my wife and I learned on the bus ride there came to mind.

Korach, in his rebellion against Moshe’s and Aaron’s leadership, had claimed that the entire nation is holy and therefore all should serve as Kohanim Gedolim (High Priests).  The Arizal taught that while Korach’s ideas were wrong for his times, they touched upon the ultimate truth of the future — that eventually there will be no hierarchy among souls and all will be equal.

I then looked up and suddenly the whole scene had tangibly transformed. No longer in front of me danced a motley crew of Tsfas eccentrics, but a collection of equally beautiful, equally pure Jewish souls – each of whom happened to be garbed in whatever physical form they had chosen to express themselves in this illusory costume-party of a world.

Then the further insight embraced me that I also was a pure, beautiful, equal soul beneath my costume too!

It seemed to me that they somehow knew I caught on, as the previously ‘other’ and unapproachable faces suddenly flashed me knowing, accepting smiles from behind their masks as I joined the circle-dance of souls and ecstatically leapt and stomped, an equal among many. No more looking down on; no more looking up at (and consequently down on myself).

I’d been released!

But alas, as the Arizal had taught, this dance and state of consciousness was destined for the future and I’d been granted but a heavenly sneak preview. By the evening’s end, Cinderella had left the ball and everyone’s ‘soul-shine’ had again, in my eyes, retreated behind their terrestrial garb. I even started judging again (mostly myself).

But at least now, I knew it was all a charade and whenever future inventories would invade my mind, they’d always be sweetened and attenuated by my…

Kabbalas Shabbos in Tsfas.

BEETS ME?

Food fads and ever-expanding convenience-food comfort-zones no longer impress or distress me.

But there’s one thing that seems to have hit the supermarket aisles to stay, that I just don’t get.

Fresh precooked, pre-checked beets.

As I understand it, someone buys premade for one of two reasons – it’s something hard to prepare from scratch, and/or it’s something prone to, and hard to check for infestation.

That’s why I can understand those beets-2861272_960_720frozen bug-free ‘chopped-herb cubes’ – it’s not so simple to procure and prep fresh basil for your scrambled eggs in the morning, and it’s certainly not easy to check it for bugs.

But beets?

Maybe I’ve been in Israel too long, but I can hardly think of anything easier to cook, peel, and check than beets.

All you have to do is dump them – just the way you get them from the store – into a pot of water; bring them to a boil for about 30-40 minutes; then, after they’ve cooled (if you’re in a hurry, you can pour out the hot water and refill the pot with cold), just take each beet and, under running water (or in the water of the pot), rub them between your hands (like you’re wringing your hands) and all the skin will slip right off.

Voilà!

As for bug-checking, nothing’s easier. Just cut off about a half-inch from the top of each beet (the side from where the leaves once grew) and see if there’s a very visible hole going down the beet – there almost never is – but if so, it means a worm has or had called that beet its home, so simply chuck it and move on to the next (you can do all of this after they’re cooked).

Maybe it’s the staining; people are scared to deal with an incipient crimson tide. But even that’s not a problem. I’ve found cooked-beet juice to be a paper tiger; surprisingly easy to clean and remove from anything. (Raw beet juice may be trickier, but the way we cook them, unpeeled and uncut, there’s no raw juice on the scene.)

Look, I’m not trying to put anyone who found a way to charge ten times the price for a rotund red root out of business and if you ‘like your precooked beet you can keep your precooked beet’, but just know – it’s all a show.

THE REAL ‘SHAM’ROCK (or turning over a new-leafed clover)

four leaf cloverI may be Jewish, but my yetzer ha-ra is Irish.

My yetzer ha-ra (self-destructive inner voice) constantly tries to get me to see the bad in any situation.  Tries to drown me in its morass of fatalism, pessimism, and cynicism.

“Sure, that’s the yetzer ha-ra alright,” you’ll say; “but why do you call it Irish?”

I know it is, because it has an Irish name – Murphy.

Murphy O’(yetzer)Hara – or whatever its last name is – stands over me like a burly South Boston cop and tells me it’s the law:

“Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong; and at the worst possible time!”

And I, being a good, law-abiding citizen – foolishly believe him.

For decades I’ve dutifully honed my eye to find the Murphy-moment in my every situation or activity. It doesn’t matter if nine out of ten (or 99 out of 100) things go right – “Just the exceptions that prove the rule, m’lad,” – Murphy crows. And sure enough, something inevitably doesn’t go my way and I skillfully expand that ‘something’ to cover my entire field of psychic vision until it becomes ‘everything’.

Now I’m not a lawbreaker by nature, but in this case, I’ll make an exception. Not even to actually break Murphy ’s Law, but to simply replace it with…

MIRSKY’S LAW (actually Moshe’s or God’s…).

This nice, Jewish boy, er… law goes as follows:

“Whatever can go right, will go right; and at the best possible time!”

Scandalous, no?

Maybe, so; but it’s true.

The ABC’s of Jewish faith proclaims that the Creator is constantly watching out for, and leading each of us (and the world) on a God-guided tour toward perfection.

Everything that happens to us along the way – whether the majority (sorry, Murphy) of perceptibly good things, or the small amount of more subtle, hidden good (like the challenges that make us more humble/caring/spiritual, etc.) – it’s all for our ultimate best.

So with all due respect to Officer Murphy and his so-called law (make that ‘lie’), I firmly request that from now on you walk a different beat.

EMES? GEE…

I’d like to share a cook’s guilty secret.

I like MSG.

I like cooking with it and I like eating it.

It wasn’t always like that.

Growing up, my mom never used MSG in her cooking, at least as far as I know. We did have a mysterious small red and white canister in a lonely corner of the pantry called ‘Accent’ (which I later found out was MSG) that claimed to add flavor to food without adding salt. I never paid it much attention and neither did Mom.

Then, when I later got into natural foods (way before it was a thing), neither MSG nor any other ingredient referred to by initials had the slightest chance of darkening the door of my kitchen.

Back then, all I knew about it was that it was supposedly used a lot in Chinese (restaurant) food and that some people were allergic to it. And that would have probably been the extent of my MSG knowledge or experience, had I not taken a cook’s assistant job in one of Israel’s biggest yeshivas.

My job there was basically to prepare the guf (body) of a given dish – assembling and mixing the ingredients as instructed – and then turn over this golem to the head cook, Avrumy, who would ‘bring it to life’ with a series of Merlin-like spice sprinklings from his knowing hand.

Now at this point I was a pretty experienced cook in my own right and little of what he did surprised me – except for the liberal dash of what he called ‘avkatmarak’ (soup-powder) into nearly every dish.

I didn’t get it. Wasn’t soup-powder meant for making soup? So, why was he putting this odorless pale yellow, parsley-flecked dust that seemed to add nothing to the recipe, into everything?

Once I suggested to him to leave it out of something. Though he usually took my suggestions seriously (and sometimes even took the suggestions themselves), this time he just waved me off with the distracted disdain one would give a clueless, interruptive child.

I figured it was just a meshugas of his and left it at that, but after leaving the job and making my rounds at several other institutional kitchens that embraced the same soup-powder fixation, I realized that there had to be more to the stuff than met the eye.

There was.

It was the MSG, I discovered.  The monosodium glutamate within it. Because MSG apparently possessed the magical property of making whatever you put it in taste richer, louder, and more alive.  (Now I knew why Chinese takeout always used to taste so good.)

The remaining 98% of the soup-powder – some nondescript starches, sugars, and preservatives – were just a ruse. A front for that wonder-chemical/spice, the philosopher’s stone that could turn culinary lead into gold.

I was outraged. I’d never stoop so low, I told myself. Cooks should be able to make real food out of real ingredients come out tasting good. And if they couldn’t, they should hang up their oven mitts.

A little later, I discovered the theory behind it. Apparently, besides the standard taste bud perceptions of sweet, sour, salty, and sharp, there was a crucial yet often overlooked fifth one that the Japanese called ‘umami’. While certain natural foods had varying degrees of this taste, MSG was a pure umami power-hit.

I don’t know if it was because it became cooler in my eyes because it was something ‘Japanese’, or because I was thrust into a job that wanted steak on a less-than-hamburger budget, but I caved in. And MSG, my erstwhile nemesis, became a true and trusted friend.

I became a soup-powder connoisseur. Besides the all-purpose yellow stuff (officially ‘parve chicken’ soup), there was the rich, brown onion-soup powder (which, come to think of it, Mom did use way back when, for sour cream-onion dip when having company and in occasional recipes, so I guess MSG is in my DNA, sort of…), which is great in cholent; and the rather pallid, flour-based mushroom soup mix. I even sampled some of the ‘exotic’ flavors, such as tomato, which wasn’t tomato-ey enough to make a base for Italian dishes, as I hoped it would; green pea – basically useless; and a new flavor that was introduced and shortly after pulled, called ‘root vegetable’, which I actually liked – it had a fun orange color and tasted like celery.

But now with said job behind me and coming off of Pesach, when we essentially don’t use anything factory-made (artificial or not) at home and everything tastes really good anyway, I’m ready to step back and reevaluate my MSG infatuation. Maybe the Japanese have some other umami tricks up the sleeves of their kimonos I can learn from (besides those jars of exotic fermented things, for which you need to take out a mortgage to afford around here). Any ideas?

So we’ll see. But in the meantime, I’m happy I’ve had a chance to ‘confess’ and share with you the ‘emes’ when it comes to me and MSG.