I don’t know how to be Jewish

History is Always Complicated

I was born into a UK Liberal Jewish family. At the time, my Shul was a member of ULPS (United Liberal and Progressive Synagogues), an organisation now known as Liberal Judaism. I think I had a baby blessing – I can’t actually remember:-) I remember going to Shul in North London now and then when I was very young, usually for Passover. The Communal Seder meal has a smell and taste that’s been the same in all the Shuls that I’ve attended:-) Boiled eggs, salt water, salmon of some kind, often cold, and of course matzos.

When I was four, we moved to South Wales, and started attending the ‘local’ Reform Shul in Cardiff – only 15 miles away. I had my Bat Mizvah at Cardiff, and then did it all over again in London in the Liberal Shul because that’s where most of our Jewish family lived.

I went to Cheder, or Jewish Religion school, every week from the age of about three until thirteen. Ten years. And I learned a lot – working backwards, I learned my Parshah (specific reading from the Torah scrolls, handwritten in Hebrew and without vowels). Mine was the bit of Genesis just after Abraham was supposed to sacrifice Isaac and ended up sacrificing a ram instead. It gave instructions on what to do with the dead ram in order to sacrifice it properly – so basically, a recipe for a burnt offering.

I learned about life in the Shtetl (the Jewish towns or villages and sometimes ghettos in Central and Eastern Europe). I learned about the creation of the State of Israel. I learned about the stories in the Torah. I learned Hebrew, and some of the more common prayers in the services. I learned about the Kosher laws, and also learned why in my household, we didn’t keep Kosher.

But at no point did I learn about the daily requirements of Judaism, especially those which are not performed in the community. Nor about how the prayerbook works or how the services work. I didn’t learn the why behind each of the prayers, or about the commentators on the Torah.

My practice when I was young consisted of going to Shul once or twice a week until I was 13 and had my Bat Mitzvah, going to the services for the High Holy days, not eating bread at Passover, and lighting the candles at Chanukah. We always lit the candles and said the blessings on Friday night, but never celebrated Havdallah.

I fell away from Judaism, as many young people fall away from religion, and then when I was nearing 30, on the spur of the moment I dragged the Husband to Israel for a touring holiday. Around the same time, I found the local Shul, which was another Reform Shul in Kent, and became a member there. I attended Friday night services, occasionally Saturday morning services, Festival services, and social events. I was a member of the committee for some years. But still the gaps in my education remained, and I wasn’t really very aware that they existed.

And My Family Is Even More Complicated!

My parents were both Jewish. My father was brought up Christian – his maternal Grandmother was Jewish from Frankfurt, but converted to Christianity to marry. However, when my father and mother got married, he decided to convert to Judaism. His sister, my aunt, married my mother’s brother, my uncle, and she also converted to Judaism. I have two Jewish cousins, and a positive rainbow of other persuasions in my family – Methodism by marriage, Welsh Baptist, Salvation Army, Dawkins-loving Atheists.

Even though The Husband is a (Methodist-born) Pagan, we had established early on that any children we had would be brought up Jewish until they were old enough to decide their own spiritual or religious paths. I’m very lucky that The Husband is fascinated by all religion and completely accepting of my Judaism and that of the children. I’m even luckier that every community we’ve been involved with has welcomed him as part of the community without judgement and without any pressure on him to convert – even though he can’t technically become a member of a Synagogue.

So when the children arrived, they all had baby blessings. They all attended Cheder, and actually still do. Eldest is coming up to Bar Mitzvah age and now attends most Shabbat morning services with me, and usually has a small part in the service. The younger two come to festivals, social gatherings and Family services. We have Shabbat Evening meal at Grandma’s (my own Jewish Mother), and light the candles, drink the wine, eat the er, challah substitute which is often croissants or brioche.

To all intents and purposes we look like a typical Reform Jewish family – well, if there is such a thing! Of course we teach our children that no one way is the only right way, that Judaism is their culture, heritage and history as well as their religion, and we also teach them about what Daddy believes. Luckily for us, the curriculum on Comparative Religion is pretty excellent – they know a lot more about some other religions than we do.

If Not Now, When?

And recently I’ve been feeling that this is not enough.

I’ve been reading some Jewish blogs and various articles, mostly Reform although that does have a slightly different meaning in the US. I’ve read about students converting, and about people learning to be Rabbis. They talk about Mitzvot, and observance and how these things seem to give structure and meaning to their lives.

There are a great many services in the Siddur – but I get confused reading through them. Some are for communities, some for families, some for solo observance. I can’t tell which one I’m supposed to do when. I don’t have a list of the appropriate blessings for the various events in our lives. I only knew there was a blessing to put on the Tallit when I saw someone else saying it before he put his on. I know that one, the Shabbat blessings and Shechekiyanu, and that’s all.

I have looked up the Reform Jewish website but there’s nothing really on there about such things. Most Reform Jews I know are observant to the same degree as me, or maybe they don’t talk about what they do. In my circle it seems somehow uncool, untrendy, to be observant.

No-one ever taught me any of the rules. Somewhere, between Fiddler on the Roof (my great-grandparents did indeed come over to the UK from Russia, from towns and villages very similar to that depicted in the film, with lives and practices very similar too), and 2014, something was lost. Something that it seems, everyone else either knows and assumes I know too, or doesn’t care about.

Maybe It Really Is Hip To Be Square

From what I have read, from sources varying from Chabad.org to the Coffee Shop Rabbi and a good many places in between, I have realised I would like to know more. I’m very careful about dogma – I’m not one for doing something just because someone said I should, or because someone else says HaShem  might want me to. (HaShem means The Name and is a respectful way to write G-d, since it’s not polite to use His name unless we’re actually praying  – I guess I know some things then!) I cannot believe that HaShem cares right now if I wear wool with linen or eat bacon for breakfast. If HaShem is anything like my impressions of er, Them, They will care that my clothes are not made by slave labour, and that the origin of the bacon is a happy, outdoor reared pig.

But I want to know more. I think it’s entirely appropriate to say Sheckekiyanu when I wake up, purely because I am grateful to wake up at all, and for the new day. Although I will probably never learn a consistent way to spell it in English:-) And if I wake up feeling awful, which I sometimes do, it might just help me to remember that not all days are bad, and I still have many blessings in my life.

I’m not saying for a single second that I could go from zero to Tevye and Golde overnight – nor would I want to. I am not an Orthodox Jew, and have no desire to be one. But I do want to know what it is, as a Reform Jew, I might be expected to do – so I can make my own choices what and how to observe, rather than falling into a pattern through ignorance.

I believe one of the main strengths of Judaism is that each Jew has their own relationship with HaShem. Yes there are Rabbis, wise, learned, available to give guidance, but I know I have my own relationship with G-d. That relationship does not have to go through anyone else. I yell, and He listens. One day, He might even answer:-) So I say to You, G-d, what do I do now? Where should I go, read, look, discuss, learn? What do I do?

And let’s see what answer pops out of the blue into my inbox:-)

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The Paleo Adventure

Over the years, for health and weight reasons I’ve tried almost every diet there is, except the Cabbage Soup Diet, and for some reason that escapes me, Slimming World, although I know people who’ve had great results with Slimming World.

My holy grail of the eating plan is the one where I can eat healthy food so I feel virtuous, never feel hungry or deprived, and still lose weight until I’m at the same weight I was at 16 and then maintain it, again without feeling hungry or deprived. A plan that fits with my chaotic, disorganised lifestyle and will do so for the rest of my life without me getting bored and binging on the bad stuff. So far, strangely, that magical diet, and let’s face it, it would have to be Harry Potter/Gandalf levels of magic, has eluded me.

However, I’m always a sucker for a new idea and a success story, so for many reasons, I’ve decided to start following a Paleo-based diet, as described beautifully by the people at Mark’s Daily Apple and PaleoPlan.com. I’ve subscribed to the menu service from PaleoPlan, which provides a complete menu plan (three meals a day plus a snack), plus complete shopping list, every week, for a very reasonable price. Frankly, it was the realisation that it will cost me substantially less than my Netflix subscription that persuaded me to give it a go. That and the lack of having to make the decisions that lead me to freeze in panic whenever I have to do a food shop.

I’m now a week and half in, and so far I’ve lost half a stone, eaten a huge amount of very lovely food, rediscovered my love of cooking and baking, and my colitis symptoms have not gone, but noticeably eased off. So far, so good. I say this now because I am impressed, I am grateful to the people at PaleoPlan for the hard work they put in, and I will stick to it (I’m just eating a Paleo friendly, low sugar vanilla loaf and it’s gorgeous). But it hasn’t been an easy path so far…

Ingredients:

  • Lots and lots of organic vegetables, some of them rather obscure, some of them straight from dinner parties of the late eighties/early nineties (haven’t seen sun-dried tomatoes yet though)
  • Lots of organic fruit, mostly berries
  • Lots of organic meat, some of which is impossible to get at Asda. Or Sainsburys. Or without taking out a second mortgage
  • A coconut plantation. Seriously, most of the recipes involve coconut oil, coconut flour, coconut milk, coconut cream or dessicated coconut
  • Some willpower, although given the large variety of delicious cakes I can now make that are entirely Paleo, and the fact that Green and Black’s 85% chocolate appears to be fairly Paleo from the wrapper, not as much willpower as you’d imagine.
  • The ability to use every bowl and utensil in the kitchen while cooking (people say that about men, but I’m far worse than The Husband)

Method

  1. (Tuesday) Receive shopping list. Attempt to buy ingredients online at Asda. Manage to get about 2/3 of the ingredients.
  2. Find an online supplier of coconut and all associated products (healthysupplies.co.uk, very fast delivery, quite good value for money, certainly compared to Waitrose).
  3. (Sunday) Realise I still haven’t got some of the ingredients and I’m supposed to start the plan today. Rush around Sainsburys in a panic. Can’t find chicken wings, can’t find canned pumpkin, can’t find fresh pumpkin. Decide to substitute bramley apples instead (for the pumpkin, not the chicken wings).
  4. During the course of the week, realise I have somehow got confused, and bought 24 pork chops. Also realise that no matter how beautifully cooked they are, I don’t like pork chops. Luckily, The Husband and all three children do like pork chops.
  5. Realise that all of the recipes are in cups. I have no idea what a cup converts to in UK measurements. Assume a cup is 4 oz of dry goods or 4 tablespoons liquid. Do all cooking on this basis – get some rather odd results, but nothing inedible. A week and a half later, find a measuring jug with cups down the side. Suddenly understand odd results, cooking and baking now much more successful.
  6. Attempt to stick exactly to meal plan lasts 1 day, after which meal plan is determined by what is going out of date next. Just like life before Paleo, but with healthier and more delicious ingredients.

Next week, I’m planning to try some of the cake recipes using lard or beef dripping instead of coconut oil, which is ferociously expensive. I’m not planning to tell the rest of the family though, at least not until after they’ve tasted it…

Emergency Desserts

Mayim Bialik, one of my heroines, Jewish Neuroscientist and Actress, has posted up to an application I’ve never heard of (snapp? I feel old) an easy and relatively quick to make dessert:

http://app.snapapp.com/MothersDayRecipeDownload

that is taken from her new vegan cookbook which I am saving up for. Even though I will probably never cook a vegan recipe. Although if I had the book I might…

However, this did get me thinking about emergency desserts. There are times in everyone’s life where nothing but a dessert will lift the spirits, and often, those are the times when energy levels are low and life is, frankly, disorganised. Mayim’s dessert looks easy and delicious, but you have to wait two whole hours for it to set in the fridge! Also, I’m not sure how often I’ll have peanut butter and coconut milk in my cupboard at the same time as I’m having a crisis, and popping into the local village shop is not likely to help. However, in our family we do have a couple of desserts that are suitable for dire emergencies, and require very little planning or preparation.

I think this is my favourite for speed, likelihood of having the ingredients in my house, ease of getting them in the local shop/garage if I haven’t, and general feeling of wellbeing after consumption. I also want to mention that although I have not intentionally copied this recipes out of any cookery books, and as far as I’m aware I completely made it up, it’s possible that it was once invented by someone else – in which case I apologise.

Chocolate Cream
Note – if you use very dark chocolate, which has low sugar levels, and since they’ve decided that saturated fat is no longer bad for us, this is a pretty virtuous dessert. It is however, extremely rich – use with caution.

Ingredients: Dark chocolate, clotted cream. Or double cream. Or single cream. (I’ve tried it with marscapone cheese – that really was an emergency – and it was a disaster, feel free to try it if you want to take the risk, but I won’t join you).

Method: melt the chocolate in the microwave, or in a bowl over a pan of simmering water (the microwave is quicker). 10-15 seconds at a time, and then stir and then wait a minute if you’re using the microwave – that way you won’t burn it.

When the chocolate is all liquid, or when it’s mostly liquid with some lumps in it, depending on how desperate you’re feeling, stir it into the clotted cream. Or double cream. Or single cream.

Put into the fridge until set. Or just wait until the mixture’s cooled down enough to not burn your mouth.

Eat.

Feel better.