Tuesday, April 26, 2011

I found an orchid!

I was walking along the road in a nearby moshav when I spotted this, a Holy Orchid (orchis sancta) סחלב קדוש, first time I've seen one of these in my area. Not the most brilliant pics, granted, but I was in a rush, so here is my local orchid find:

This in turn has made me curious to learn more about our native orchids as it has been quite some time since I saw one in the wild, probably not since I used to regularly spend time in and around the Jerusalem Forest and in the Jerusalem suburbs, which would make it a few years. I'd would certainly be curious to go on one of the orchid walks organised by the Israeli Orchid Society I guess there is always next winter/spring, because as far as I know "my" orchid is the last one to bloom until the next rainy season.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Settled Nomads

On Sukkot we leave our permanent dwellings and camp out for the week in a Sukkah. The link to our nomadic and agricultural heritage seems clear enough.

Pesah isn't usually a holiday associated with those themes though. Slavery, spring, cleaning, those are things we think of when we think Pesah.

Unlike on Sukkot we don't actually leave our homes, but we turn them upside down and inside out in our thorough banishing of every last crumb of hametz. We transform the familiar by hiding our everyday utensils out of sight and bringing out the special Pesach dishes and linens, items we see only one week a year. Familiar bread is replaced with matzah, and in many families we have recipes saved for just this one festival. Many Jews have the custom of repainting their homes.

It's almost like an extreme take on Purim with our routine and household wearing the masks, rather than ourselves.

Like Sukkot though, Pesah is about reminding ourselves that however settled or comfortable we've become, it means nothing without understanding where we come from. Cliched you might say, but a point oh so easy to forget in the day to day life of modern Western man.

So we moan and groan but we take our homes apart. In our campaign against leaven we symbolically reanact our ancestors slavery in Egypt, frantically working against the clock to complete the gargantuan task of Pesah preparations. I know that many people say they hate Pesah for this, but I think the vast amount of labour involved in Pesah cleaning is part and parcel of understanding what it meant to be slaves in Egypt, the only way to even come close to that feeling of relief at being free, at finally having reached the seder night after all those weeks of gruelling work.

I find that seeing the hoardes of Israel on the move for Pesah also takes me back to our roots. The families and friends who band together in extended groups to celebrate seder together as our ancestors would have gathered shared the Pascal lamb sacrifice. The throngs crowding Jerusalem as the Jewish people would have in the times of the ancient Temple. The masses filling every park and forest with their barbecues and bonfires and shades and awnings, reminscent of our nomadic Israelite forbears camping in the Sinai desert en route to the promised land.

A wise relative of my husband's (he has the long white beard to prove it) once said that it is no coincidence that Judaism's biggest festivals occur in the autumn and the spring, the most pleasant times of year in the Land of Israel. What better time to be out and about in the Land remembering where we come from and how our ancestors lived.

Perhaps I read too much into these things, but I think it's all part of the message.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Zoo day

I was travelling home from an exhausting but pleasant visit to Jerusalem's Biblical Zoo when I heard the news on radio about an Israeli schoolbus hit by an anti-tank missile fired across the Gaza border into Israel. The driver escaped with light injuries but a a 16 year-old boy was critically injured. Please pray for the recovery of Daniel ben Tamar.

For those outside Israel it was reported as another non-news event, mostly after Israel responded by attacking terror suspects in Gaza, garnering headlines along the lines of "Israel knocks the @#$%! out of Gaza again, (and by the way, they might have been responding to folks in Gaza trying to kill Israelis)"

Nothing new there I guess even though this was an escalation on the part of Hamas and their buddies. Until now most of the fire coming from Gaza has been rockets and mortars, not particularly accurate weapons, not that they aren't plenty lethal, but still, not something you can use for a targetted strike. An anti-tank missile is different. It isn't something one just shoots into the air and hopes it lands somewhere it can do the enemy some damage.

An anti-tank missile is something to be fired when you have your specific enemy target in your sights, some guy was sitting on the Palestinian side of the Gaza fence and watching that school bus and choosing to fire his missile directly at that bus hoping specifically to harm that specific civilian target. Had the bus been more crowded the outcome would have been far worse than today's tragedy.

I couldn't help but contrast events near the Gaza border with my morning in Jerusalem. While an Arab gunman was taking aim at an Israeli schoolbus, scores of Arab schoolchildren were happily strolling along the lush paths of Jerusalem's zoo, giggling and carefree.

My toddler was so taken with one group that he followed them along for a while, quite taken by the cute kids in their red tracksuit uniforms and the friendly children and teachers who very sweetly waved back to him. If my rudimentary Arabic is correct, I think the three little girls at the back wanted to take him home with them.

A lot of people talk about how Israel's hospitals show the country's pluralism and co-existence at work, and that's true, every race, creed and ethnicity can be found among both Israel's hospital patients and the medical staff who care for them.

The zoo though, the zoo is where you can see all these people relaxing together rather than stressing together, or being forced together out of medical need. Jerusalem's zoo is a great place to meet the city's diverse population and multitudinous children. Yiddish speaking Hassidish families, Arabic speaking school groups accompanied by teachers in jilbabs and hijab or clad in neat uniforms and shepherded by nuns, religious Zionist children with their long skirts or oversized bightly coloured skullcaps and tourists from around the world - all walk around side by side enjoying this beautifully landscaped modern zoo.

It isn't just the visitors either. The staff may all wear the same green zoo uniform t-shirt, but it may be worn with jeans or a long skirt, an Islamic or Jewish headscarf, a bare shaved head, a kippa covered head or one crowned with long flowing locks. People every bit as diverse as the zoo's visitors.

While visitors may just stand side by side at an exhibit, these people are working together day in day out. You can see it in the cameraderie as a group walks by or sits down to lunch together. It's a working model of Israeli coexistance in action, down to the sign explaining that a collared peccary is not really a pig, so as not to offend the zoo's mostly Jewish and Muslim clientele.

Every time I hear about "Israel apartheid week" on foreign university campuses I wish I could take those students and transport them here to spend a few days with the staff and volunteers at this wonderful zoo.

Then I'd take them shopping in my local mall or riding a bus in Tel Aviv or strolling on the beach in Haifa. I don't claim that Israel is perfect, sure we have our societal problems and our warts. Sure there is a lot of work to be done. But the reality of living here is also the reality of seeing people who can get along.

There may be Arabs shooting at Jews over the border from Gaza, but there are also Arabs and Jews cooking together at a restaurant in Tel Aviv, shopping together at the mall in Modi'in, giving birth together at the hospital in Afula, feeding the carp together at the Jerusalem Zoo and strolling the beach together in Haifa.

Sadly I've rarely seen the foreign press pick up on this, even though this is a crucial part of understanding the complexity of life in Israel and in the region in general.

I've had some people ask me why my blog is such a jumble, politics and terrorism and childrearing and recipes and arts and nature all jumbled together and my answer is simple - this is life and living in Israel I find that means that a trip to the zoo isn't just a trip to the zoo simply to learn about the animals.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Urban Safari

Junior's tally while walking to and from a neighbourhood on the opposite side of town: crested lark, graceful warblers, alpine swifts, male kestrel, swallow, way too many myna birds, jay, hooded crows, one porcupine quill, rosemary, lavender, hibiscus, citrus blossoms (I want to bottle the smell said she), poppies, wild mustard, crown daisies, pomegranate blossoms, bats, fox, wild wheat, wild barley, wild poppies, wild mustard and the highlight - a road resurfacing crew with a steam roller.

It was one of those really yucky spring days, sort of shravi - think threatening looking heavily overcast skies with hot, dry sticky weather and warm winds. I say sort of shravi  though because on truly shravi days it is so hazy that the sun is blotted out and sometimes you can't even see across the road. 

Today it was weirdly both intensely bright and sunny (I wore my sunhat and sunglasses and worried about sunburn) and very grey and overcast - it actually rained a few times during our walk, resulting in the following conversation:

Junior: Ima, remember to tell Abba we went walking in the maklosh!
Ima: The what?
Junior: The last of the spring rain, the maklosh
Ima: You mean malkosh?
Junior: Yes, Ima, that's what I said!

Ima: And how do you know about the malkosh
Junior: Ima, it's in Shema, remember?

This my friends is one of the many wonderful things I love about raising children in Israel - it brings Scripture to life. The Shema prayer is taken from the Bible. It is a prayer every Jew is meant to recite twice daily, something every young child is taught and every observant Jew knows by heart from a young age. 

The second paragraph talks about how if the Jewish people observe the Biblical commandments then God will ensure that the rains will fall at their appointed times so that the crops will grow and the people will enjoy plentiful harvests. 

For folks living in countries where it rains all year round this may sound trivial, not to mention a bit curious, what does it mean for the rain to fall at its appointed time, and why does the Bible have so many different words for rain - matar, yoreh, malkosh, to name just the ones that appear in this paragraph?

Israel is a country where rain comes for roughly only half the year, if we're lucky, less, if like this year we're in the middle of a prolonged period of drought. For half the year rain is a distant memory. We have no mighty rivers, only one significant natural freshwater lake, those few months of rain are our lifeline. 

When rain is that rare and that crucial, a people can get pretty fixated on when and how it falls, hence all the different names for the many different types of rain*. Yoreh is the rain you throw a party for - the first really big downpour of the season that falls between autumn and the start of winter, and just keeps coming for a while, working its miracle on the parched land. Malkosh** is the rain you wave a tearful goodbye to because it comes in late spring when you know you and the rain will be parting company for quite some time.

In my experience this is the sort of thing kids in the diaspora (and most diaspora adults I know) just aren't taught. At least I've rarely met any who have a clue what those funny words mean, besides hopefully knowing that it's rain. Now maybe my sample isn't exaclty a scientific survey and I'm not trying to disparage or offend my dear friends in the diaspora, my point is simply that this is such a central topic in Judaism that we're meant to recall it twice a day, and one which is so intrinsically tied to the Land of Israel that it doesn't make sense in many other regions of the world, yet it just tends to fall by the wayside in the diaspora because it isn't real and immediate and meaningful if you're in New York or London or Paris. 

Not that every Israeli kid knows these terms either, not by a longshot, but most do know what the yoreh is, not just because they experience that wonderful excitement first hand, but because it's usually in the news and taught in kindergarten, or as with my little girl, as soon as they are old enough for parents to say the Shema with them at bedtime.

It makes the Torah come alive and relevant in a whole new way when you can see it come alive outside your window.

I so hope that today's malkosh wasn't its last hurrah for the season.

*The really detailed answer appears in the Talmud in Masekhet Ta'anit which tells you all you ever wanted to know about precipitation in the Holyland, which types are best for which kinds of crops, how late the seasonal rains have to be before you need to start worrying and praying extra hard. That sort of thing. 

**"The Malkosh - Last Rains" by Rabbi Uzi Kalchaim z"l I was privileged to briefly be a student of Rav Kalchaim many years ago when he taught a course at the women's college I attended.

Recipes for using up the contents of my freezer

It's that time of year again, counting down to Pesah, so my Shabbat menu ended up being a multicultural hodgepodge something like this: roast veggie couscous, sweet and sour fish, Thai style squash soup, berry tzimmes, cheesey spinach and cauliflower kugels, Dundee cake and mince pie. Also known as finishing up the hametz and Tu B'Shvat dried fruit so that I can empty out the freezer and clean it. Or something like that. And yes, I keep my flour, assorted grains and dried fruits in the freezer. Keeps the ants at bay.

A few folks have asked me for the recipes, so here goes, just remember that these are kind of throw it together recipes (except for the Dundee) so amounts are estimates, well, guestimates, some entirely my own, some my attempts at reconstructing things my mother and grandmother used to make, with some help from the internet and cookbooks:

Berry Tzimmes - an old family recipe which I picked up from watching my Mum and Gran, so amounts here are very approx, never really measured anything for this, just do it by instinct. YMMV

4 large punnets of whatever berries or plums are in season (this time of year strawberries are cheap and plentiful, so that's what I used)
@ 600 gr of frozen blueberries, rasberries or blackberries (in the right season I use all fresh, but right now there are only strawberries, so I add some frozen berries for variety)
1 oz/29 ml vanilla extract

To serve:
sweet pouring cream or sour cream (optional) 

1. Thoroughly wash the berries and inspect for bugs. 
2. Place all the berries in a large soup pot. 
3. Add water until berries are just covered.
4. Bring to the boil, then turn down the flame and cook covered for about an hour.
5. Add the vanilla and stir well.
6. Simmer for a few minutes while stirring, then turn down the heat and allow to cook for another 1-3 hours, or until the berries are quite mushy and disintegrating into the soup.
7. Chill overnight in the fridge
8. Serve either by itself or with a little sweet cream drizzled in it or a swirl of sour cream.


9. Store in the freezer, the day before serving allow to thaw partially in the fridge until it turns to slush rather than liquid. Very refreshing on a hot day!

NB I make this without sugar, some people prefer to add sugar either in the cooking process or when serving.

Cauliflower cheese kugel type thing

1 large head cauliflower
1/4 cup wholewheat flour
1/2 pack salted butter or olive oil
400ml sour cream or soft white cheese (gvina levana)
1-2 tsp black pepper (depending on how peppery you like things)
1/2 tsp mustard powder
1-2 tsp granular mustard
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
200gr crumbled cheddar, pecorino or kashkeval
100gr grated parmesan

Preheat oven to 180C
1. Carefully wash cauliflower and inspect for bugs. Pat dry. Chop into smallish florets and set aside.
2. In a med-large pot melt butter or heat oil. Gradually blend in flour.
3. Gradually add the sour cream/white cheese stirring constantly
4. Add the pepper, Worcestshire sauce and mustards until the sauce has thickened.
5.Add grated parmesan and stir in.
6. Add crumbled cheddar/pecorino or kashkeval and stir until it starts to melt and is well mixed into the sauce.
7. Add cauliflower florets and mix well. Turn off the heat.
8. Lightly grease an ovenproof casserole dish and pour in the cauliflower mixture. Bake for about 45 minutes, or until the top is golden and the cauliflower is starting to soften.

Dundee Cake - my grandmother used to love this, one of the few British recipes she made, apologise it isn't in metric, this is me trying to reconstruct what she did.

10 oz flour (I usually use all wholewheat or a mix of whole and white)
1 tsp baking powder
1-2 tsp mixed spice (mostly cinnamon, ginger and allspice with a pinch of cloves and nutmeg)
6 oz butter
6 oz sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
5 eggs
2 tbsp whiskey (if you can, use the good stuff)
8 oz sultanas (golden raisins)
8 oz raisins (or just 16 oz raisins if you don't have sultanas)
2 oz chopped mixed peel (or a mix of grated lemon and orange peels, dried candied peels is the way my gran made it)
2-3 oz chopped glace cherries (I've tried it with frozen fresh too)

Preheat oven to 170C (I think this is about 330 or 350 F, my oven is metric, can't remember what temp exactly in F)
1) Sift flour, baking powder and spices together
2) Cream together butter and sugar until fluffy
3) Beat in the flour mixture, eggs and vanilla.
4) Beat in the fruit. If the mixture is a bit stiff add 1-2 tbsp milk
5) Add 2 tbsp whiskey and stir in
6) Line an 8 inch baking tin with greaseproof paper
7) Pour batter in to the tin
8) Place in preheated oven and bake for about 2 hours or until a knife in the centre comes out clean. Check after 1.5 hours to make sure cake isn't too dry. 
9) Serve at room temp with a nice cup of milky tea (unless you are like me and hate milky tea) 

NB Some people "feed" the cake by making holes in it after it has baked and pouring in a little more whiskey which is absorbed by the cake. Gran only did this for Purim :-)

Roasted cous-cous veg

1 aubergine, chunked
1 large red pepper, in eighths
1 large wedge of pumpkin, chunked
1 small butternut squash, chunked
2 red onions, in narrow wedges
3-5 celery stalks, chunked
1 small head garlic, in peeled cloves
2 courgettes, sliced
Olive oil
Black pepper
350 gr wholewheat couscous
1/4 pack butter or equivalent olive oil
generous handful fresh chopped coriander or mint (optional)
Optional: 1 cup or 1 can chickpeas

1)Preheat oven to 200C
2) Arrange all the veg (including garlic cloves) in a large roasting pan (I often need two!)
3) Season well with black pepper, sprinkle on a little salt and drizzle with olive oil.
4) Roast for 1-1.5 hours depending on how soft or charred you like your veg. Check periodically and mix the veg to make sure it roasts evenly.
5)While the veg is roasting, take a large and deep ovenproof dish and empty the couscous into it and cover in @500ml of boilding water. Cover and leave to steep  for 5-7 minutes.
6) Fork through and gradually mix in the butter/olive oil (option, add the fresh chopped herbs), and a little black pepper to taste.
7) Place in a broad, deep serving dish (if you're lucky your deep ovenproof dish will serve this purpose too)
8) Drizzle juices from the roasted veg onto the couscous (mix in the chickpeas with the veg if using) and pile the veg on top of the couscous. Serve like this or mix in, whatever you like.
(If making for Shabbat don't heat the couscous right on the plata, as it may burn, put an upside down ceramic dish under your ovenproof serving dish to buffer from the direct heat of the plata)

Spinach cheese kugel

1 large pack fresh spinach, finely chopped (or a bag frozen chopped spinach)
1/3 cup wholewheat flour
1 tin crushed tomatoes
1 finely chopped onion
olive oil
200gr grated cheddar, Emek or other yellow cheese
100 gr parmesan (optional)
3 eggs

1. Preheat oven to 180C
2. Saute onion in a little olive oil
3. Transfer to heatproof mixing bowl (eg pyrex) and mix well with spinach and crushed tomatoes
4. Mix in flour until well blended with the wet mixture
5. Mix in cheese
6. Beat eggs and add to mixture, mixing well.
7. Pour into ovenproof dish and bake for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the kugel starts to set a bit.

(I make this for Pesah with a little matza meal, or gluten-free with a little potato flour, if you make it with more eggs or add a little mayo it also works well without any flour)

Simple baked fish

4-5 filets nesikha (Nile Perch, or other firmish white fish)
Juice of a lemon
Black Pepper
Olive oil
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced
4 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced

1) Preheat oven to 180C.
2) Place fish in an ovenproof dish
3) Pour lemon juice over fish
4) Sprinkle generously with paprika and less generously with black pepper
5) Arrange the thin slices of garlic and fennel on and all around the fish
6) Drizzle with olive oil
7) Bake for 30-45 minutes, depending on how thick your fish slices are

Mincemeat (fruit) pie - another childhood memory which I've been trying to reconstruct. The key to this is not eating it fresh, works best if you leave it in the freezer for a few months, or if when you make the mincemeat/fruit filling, you leave that in an airtight jar for weeks and weeks and weeks. Flavour definitely improves with time. I just happened to have one in my freezer that I made in December and meant to serve on Purim, hence this comes under contents of my freezer to use before Pesah.

1-2 finely chopped granny smith apples (optional)
400 gr raisins (or 200gr raisins and 200gr sultanas)
200gr currants (or 200 gr raisins if you don't have any)
200 gr mixed candied citrus peel
100 gr demarara (light brown) sugar
100 gr brown sugar
3 tbsp golden syrup
150 ml whiskey or brandy, or a blend of both
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp mixed spice (or a mix of allspice and ginger and a pinch of ground cloves OR a cheesecloth bag with a couple of allspice balls and two spikes of cloves)
1 large lemon, zest and juice
1 large orange, zest and juice

Mix together, chopping fruits, stir thoroughly and leave to soak under cling film for a week, stirring regularly. If storing long term, seal in a sealed pickling jar.

Some people make this into cute individual mince pies (like the kind you can I think still get at Grodzinski's), but when made it home it usually ends up as one big pie.

Pie crust

225 gr cold butter, diced
350 gr wholewheat flour
100 gr demarar (light brown) sugar
@300 gr mincepie filling
1 small egg beaten

1) Rub butter into flour, mix in sugar, pinch salt. Combine into a ball and knead, dough should be firm.
2) Preheat oven to 200C
3) Grease pie tin. Pour filling in to tin. Roll out dough and stretch over the top, alternately crumble over the top like a crumble topping (that's how my Mum used to make it). Brush top with beaten egg. Bake for about 30 minutes until golden.

To make individual pies instead take a muffin tin and grease each hole. Press walnut sized balls of dough into each hole. Spoon in filling. Take smaller balls of dough and flatten into lids to seal the pies. Brush tops with beaten egg. Bake for about 20 mins. Should be enough for almost two muffin pans. This is the more traditional English way to make mince pies.