The food we eat right now

September 30, 2011

Jacob made his own breakfast Thursday morning. He makes quinoa pasta for himself most mornings, but because we were hanging around the house waiting to go to services, he got a little more elaborate.

“Can I fry some tofu?” he asked with his head in the fridge. I get this extra-firm tofu we crumble and pan-fry.

“Sure,” I said.

He pulled green onion and sweet peppers out of the bin and shoyu out of the door. “Wait, how about the cabbage pickle? Can I fry that?” he asked.

“I’d fry the other stuff and then put the pickle on at the end,” I said. It’s the cabbage, onion, ginger and chile pickle I made for the banh mi the other day.

He cut up the vegetables and put it all in the hot frying pan with some shoyu. The green onion smelled great.

“Wait! The nori!” he yelled. He got out a sheet of nori and lined his dish with it. When the tofu was cooked he put it on top of the nori sheet and sprinkled the cabbage on top.

Jacob's Rosh Hashana breakfast

Jacob's Rosh Hashana breakfast

He made this beautiful breakfast with stuff he scrounged out of the refrigerator. He had to peel some gross parts off the week-old green onion and he had to remember that we had nori sheets in the snack cupboard. I knew that all these ingredients were in the house, but I didn’t imagine making this breakfast with them. He took what was available to him and cooked something with it.

We are people who live in this place, and this is the food we eat right now.

On TV, Rick Bayless is doing a whole season of Mexico One Plate at a Time from Baja California. The rest of Mexico is tropical, he explains, but Baja has a Mediterranean climate. It’s dry in the summer and wet in the winter. He stood on a hill with olive groves and lamb flocks and gestured. For a moment he talked about how this isn’t what you really expect from Mexican food, but then he dove in and cooked with the chefs of Baja, lamb with smoky salsas, chard and kale in a taco with queso fresco, more lamb with lemon thyme. The chefs were all committed to the products of their region, including the local wine. I could feel from them (much more than a lot of fine-dining chefs) that the food they made was part of their identity. They embodied my sentence: We are people who live in this place, and this is the food we eat right now.

I think that Rick Bayless felt that he had to address the question of these Mediterranean products and their place in Mexican cooking. He did it only briefly, I imagine, because he did not want to belabor the point that it’s not what we, as non-Mexicans, expect cooking from Mexico to be, based as it is on olive oil and wine and thyme and lamb. Those are products we identify more with southern Europe, but the people in Baja have probably had access to them just as long as the Italians have had access to tomatoes.

This morning, Jacob was working with ingredients that were right in front of him, just like those fine-dining chefs in Baja on Rick Bayless’s TV show.

I was talking to a colleague earlier this week and she asked me what I was cooking for Rosh Hashana. I hadn’t given it much thought back on Tuesday. “I’m more thinking about the music,” I told her. She said that for her family, it’s all about the food. Her parents are from Mexico and their parents were from Poland and Hungary. They eat gefilte fish with a sauce from Verracruz, tamales made with chicken fat instead of lard, tortilla chips with gribenes. “We are the people who live in this place,” the recipes seem to say, “and this is the food we eat right now.”

I didn’t really get around to thinking about making Rosh Hashana dinner until, I guess, Wednesday. Split pea soup, I figured, and didn’t get any further.

I didn’t even know that there was a big holiday meal on Rosh Hashana until I was in my 20s and I got invited to someone else’s. There is, it turns out, a huge tradition of big holiday meals on the night of erev Rosh Hashana. We never had them growing up. I guess it was because my mother was singing in the choir so she didn’t feel like making a big meal. We didn’t have an extended family around us to go to, so my dad and my brother and I ate a big snack and my mom got an early ride from a friend. We went to synagogue and I sat next to my dad and held his hand sometimes. His hand is square, like the shoulders of his suit jacket. That is what I remember about the High Holy Days, not a meal.

So when I am planning my own Rosh Hashana dinner I don’t have any preconceived ideas about what we should or shouldn’t eat except, of course, for the round challah. Come to think of it, I started making round braided challa for that first Rosh Hashana dinner I was invited to in my 20s.

I went to the grocery store on Thursday morning with not much of a plan. When I got there, I saw end-of-season Roma tomatoes on sale; they reminded me of a big beautiful picture of roasted tomatoes in my new cookbook, so they went on the menu. Clean new crop apples, of course, to dip in honey and then more to bake because Ruth asked for apple sauce. She loves pomegranates, also newly in season, and when I was putting together the apples and honey plate I pulled in the Asian pears from Roberto’s tree across the street. Every single piece of produce in that meal was grown in California. We are the people who live in this place, my Rosh Hashana dinner said, and this is what we eat right now.

The first family dinner of 5772

The first family dinner of 5772

Even when I am cooking Indian food, I am thinking as much about the Indian grocery where I get my spices as I am about India. I’ve never been to India but I go to Vik’s all the time. I don’t think I would cook nearly as much Indian food if I didn’t have Vik’s so close. I can go over there on my bike after work on the spur of the moment. I get to live in a neighborhood next to another neighborhood where a lot of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent set up their stores. It’s the same as my young colleague’s mother with her gefilte fish and chicken fat tamales. And speaking of tamales, I am quite sure I would never have tried nixtamalization if I didn’t have Mi Terra right here, selling dried untreated field corn less than a mile from my house. I am just cooking what is available to me on my bicycle.

We are the people who live in this place, and this is the food we eat right now.

The looping melody

December 4, 2009

I might have been known to, on occasion, tell the leadership of the congregation that the 6:15 Friday night service is a stake through the heart of Shabbat dinner, especially when asked if I would fill in for the cantor. When I was talking to the rabbinical student who is serving as the cantor I might have even used an emphatic stake-through-the-heart gesture as I said it. So when the email update came yesterday or the day before that the congregation was trying out 8:00 services once a month starting this month – I thought I should show up for it, even if I wasn’t sure if I wanted to spend the last hours of my 40th birthday doing it.

It used to be that the Friday night service was the heart of my religious observance. It was when we lived in DC. The second week I lived there I went to services at the gay synagogue and I never left. After a couple of years there I started leading on Friday nights, too, and I feel that the evening liturgy is tied in a deep and non-literal way to the way that I grew up in my 20s. It is the spiritual map of my young adulthood. Its nusach – the music theme of the liturgy – is more evocative for me than the music that played on the radio when I was a teenager.

Along with the nusach for the liturgy, there are songs with composed melodies. There are a number of melodies for all of the texts in the service and as I moved through my Jewish observance – from congregations to camps to dinner tables – I’ve learned many melodies for the songs in the Friday night service. There are always more to learn and I love to rediscover a text I know by learning a new melody for it. Sometimes older melodies lay dormant in me for years. Something I sang at religious school as a child gets reintroduced by a new songleader in my havurah. He starts the melody and I sing along, not sure that I can really remember it until I do, following each note with another note I wasn’t sure I remembered until the moment I had to sing it.

So tonight, when the rabbinical student started with a niggun we used in my congregation in DC, the water of it welled up inside me and filled up my mouth. We used that melody for Psalm 93:

The waters lift up their voices, O God
the waters lift up their roaring.
More than the voices of many waters, the sea’s majestic breakers,
God is mighty on high.

He used the melody for Yedid Nefesh. I have not heard this particular melody in many years, but as he began to sing I could feel my life looping back around on me. That melody, one of the threads of the years when I didn’t even know what I was building myself to be, pulled out and unraveled me all the way back to a time when I stayed at work until 8:00 on a Friday night and went right to shul from the office. Tonight our Shabbat table glowed with a home made meal, the Jewish family observance I didn’t even know I was working toward all those years ago. I really didn’t want to leave it to go to synagogue tonight. I’m so glad I did.

I took a few days off from my Torah portion. I wanted to think more about the story, the Hebrew words. I have such a magical and familiar portion: the first eight verses of the whole Torah. I was trying to picture it like a movie or, no, something more, like an exhibit at an aquarium or planetarium. The beginning, when the universe consisted of darkness and water and God. There wasn’t even time, yet. God had to speak into being the light before there could be time – evening and morning, one day.

There are a few interesting words in the portion including “rakia,” a thing that God speaks into being to separate the waters into sea and sky. It gets translated as “firmament” in the King James version. I also see “vault” or “dome” as a translation for rakia.

The yin and yang of contemporary Torah translators, Everett Fox and Robert Alter, disagree on word choice here, as is their custom. The Alter, which I usually prefer, goes for “vault,” with the explanation that rakia “suggests a hammered-out slab, not necessarily arched, but the English architectural term with its celestial associations created by poetic tradition is otherwise appropriate.” I had been using the Alter as my main reference for translation as I learned the Hebrew, but last night I picked up the Fox. He uses “dome” with the note that the literal translation of rakia is a beaten sheet of metal.

I could picture this, now, God placing a dome made of a beaten sheet of metal to divide the waters above from the waters below, a shimmering vault between sea and watery sky. The vowels in “rakia,” the clear ee and ah can shimmer like beaten metal in the Torah cantilation. I can hear them cut through the ambiguity and darkness in the first part of the portion, where it describes the universe as “tohu va-vohu,” without form and void in the KJ. “Rakia,” I imagined, could make its own bell-like sound if God had had a mallet to strike the thin, beaten metal of the dome of the heavens.

Then, this morning, my favorite reporter forwarded me something she’d written for some other editor about a Madonna song. She wrote about “Beautiful Stranger,” a dance club track from the late 1990s, produced by William Orbit. My favorite reporter has a mind-bogglingly huge vocabulary. She’s always slinging words I’ve never heard of. She wrote, “The song is about a fascinating enigma who forces you to swallow your pride and give it up on the dance floor.” And she described Madonna’s voice as “burnished, ductile, knowing.”

I didn’t bother to look it up; I just picked up the phone. “Ductile?” I practically screeched at her.

“It means metal you can beat thin,” she explained.

“Rakia,” I replied.

God’s thin, burnished metal dome of the heavens, ductile and magic like Madonna’s voice cutting through the smoke in a dance club, a fascinating enigma on the second day of Creation.

This morning in place of the haftorah I read a section of Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg.

At my Reconstructionist havurah, in place of the haftorah, someone brings in an English reading that reflects the Torah portion in some way. I’ve done it a couple of times and found it challenging. We only read a small part of the Torah portion – and the darshan may or may not speak on the part of the portion that is read aloud – so it’s hard to know what it going to come up in the drash or discussion that should be echoed in the haftorah. Both times I’ve come in with three different selections I could possibly use. After I hear the darshan I pick one of them to read.

Today’s portion was Naso. I knew that we were reading the section where it describes the vows of the Nazirites, including not drinking any wine or grape products and not cutting their hair. I’ve known for many weeks that I had to pick a reading for today but I put it off until late Friday afternoon. I stood in front of my very small bookshelf and thought about grapes, hair, and special classes of people.

The first thing that came to me was Stone Butch Blues. I have not read this book probably since 1994 but I’ve held onto it, through book purges and the cross-country move. It’s rough reading, but for me painfully and beautifully striking. It’s the story of Jess, born a girl but never feeling like a girl, who becomes a butch in the rough 60s butch/femme bar culture. Eventually Jess takes hormones, passes doing factory work, and then feel shut out in the intellectual feminist lesbian culture that comes to prominence in the 70s. (When my P.A. asked, after seeing Milk, if it was true that people got arrested for being in gay bars, I almost didn’t know what to say. Feinberg wrote so vividly about the police harassment and the constant fear and anxiety it created, and it had been forgotten so quickly.)

It’s been a long time since I’ve read it so I didn’t have a lot of specific memories of scenes or whatever, but I thought there must be something about hair. I found the perfect section to use as the haftorah with the help of Google book search. After taking the hormones Jess, happy with the physical changes, decides to go to a men’s barbershop for the first time. Unsure going in, Jess discovers it’s more than a haircut. There’s a ritual involving razors and aftershave that Jess experiences for the first time, let into the society of men, passing.

I really didn’t know how this was going to go over in my mostly straight havurah. It’s a very meaningful book to me, both as a window into pre-Stonewall gay history and as a reminder how important gender self-definition is. This novel is one of the first that portrays trans as an identity. I wasn’t sure that they were themes that would resonate with anyone else, so I picked two other pieces. One was about the hard work of grape picking – and something from one of my favorite Samuel Delany short stories about a group of people called Singers who could be parallels to the Nararites as a special class of people. Both of them would be perfectly acceptable.

The darshan was great (I should say darshanit) – she talked about this unusual ritual in another part of the portion. A jealous husband could force his wife into it, to drink dirty water with parchment in it and the rest of the details are detailed.

Her point was about difficult texts, and how we could deal with them. We had a great discussion about women’s agency over their bodies, if we should just reject Torah texts that seem too foreign or if we should engage them, how the Talmudists were disturbed by this ritual as well and how they commented on it. It all pointed me to Leslie Feinberg.

I had all three texts in my hand even as I put a chair out facing the congregation. I sat in the chair. The congregation had no idea what was going to come out of my mouth. I had to read Stone Butch Blues, I thought. Anything else would be a cop-out. It’s my job to make them understand that the transformative power of Jess’s haircut is the same power that the Torah described transforming a regular person into a Nazarite by not cutting their hair.

When I started to speak I could feel my voice shaking. I explained a little about the book and I listed the parallels I saw between my text and the Torah – haircut, transformation, strange ritual. If I didn’t outline it, I thought, nobody would understand why I chose this book, this passage.

I read it very badly. Usually I am a great out-loud reader but I stumbled several times. I had to go back a whole sentence at one point because I got lost in the middle of it. My voice would not stop shaking. As I was reading I had no sense of the congregation’s reaction. I just pushed through.

At the end I looked up and the congregation said, “Yasher koach!” with an energy I could not remember ever hearing before outside of a Bar Mitzvah. I could see in their faces that almost everyone had responded to the reading exactly as I wanted them to. They weren’t turned off by it – they could see Jess’s haircut and transformation as holy in the same way the Nazirites not cutting their hair was holy. They could identify with Jess, trans and working class and taking T.

A lot of people wanted to talk to me about it at lunch and I felt a little stupid because I have not read this book in 15 years, which limited my ability to explain a whole lot more. I hadn’t even skimmed through it to look for the passage. I just went to the page numbers I got when I put “hair” in Google Book Search. Every single queer person in the congregation came to talk to me, and a lot of the straight people, too.

I was most struck by the straight men’s reaction to it. They hadn’t thought of barber shops as sex-segregated before, as places where only men go and experience something that is hidden from women. They hadn’t seen their hair as a marker of their gender, either. I guess many straight men don’t. They see their haircuts as utilitarian and not as a badge of identity.

A the kiddush a woman asked me if it was in print. I was surprised she hadn’t read it. She’s a lesbian who had children with her partner in the late 70s and early 80s. I look up to F as being someone who made my life possible. I told her that, once, that I know that I have my life because of her – my beautiful life with E and the ease with which we had children – we have that now because she was figuring it out for us in the 70s. If she wanted to read Stone Butch Blues now it seemed that the least I could do was loan her my copy. I regret it a little now because tonight I want to read it again.

Song up in his head

May 26, 2009

In the car on the way to my parents’ today I was listening to my iPod (because I was driving. The person who is driving gets to plug their iPod in the stereo.) I wanted to hear my new music, “Song up in Her Head” by Sara Jarosz. It’s bluegrass-influenced singer-songwriter stuff. I was pointing out to B the things that are markers of bluegrass: the mandolin and banjo, the open-chord harmonies, the twang in the vocals, the use of minors.

“Can we listen to Rock of Ages?” B and R asked.

“Let me listen to the rest of this album and then we can,” I said.

By “Rock of Ages” they meant the Gillian Welch song recorded by The Duhks. I’ve had it on my iPod for a long time and the kids can sing along with it. I don’t quite know why they are attracted to it, but they are. When Sarah Jarosz was over, E put Rock of Ages on and we sang along to it:

Round, round I wanna go round
Wanna see the rock of ages
Till my body gives out
Gonna read the gospel pages

We’ve never talked about these lyrics before, but I felt compelled to explain that the theology in this song isn’t our theology. I talked about the gospels, what they are. I explained that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were the evangelists who wrote the gospels. I explained the Moses verse:

Moses heard a voice
Called him up the mountain
40 days had set
When Moses come a shoutin’

And that that is the story that we tell in the Torah, the mountain and the 40 days, I told them. But at the end, we say that Moses gave us the Torah, the books of the law. That’s what is important to us as Jews, the books and the laws. In this Protestant Christian song, Moses shouts. Shouting, which is testifying faith, is important to the Christian denomination this song belongs to.

I told them that “Rock of Ages,” is a metaphor for God that we use in Judaism as well as being used in Christianity. We sing a Chanuka song, “Rock of Ages let our song praise your saving power,” or Ma’oz Tzur. “Tzur” is the rock,” I said. “We sing ‘Tzur Yisrael, kuma b’ezrat Yisrael,” after Mi Chamocha when we stand for the Amida,” I said. “‘Rock of Israel, rise up,’ and we rise up. I think of that rock, meaning the strength and stability of a rock, the way your school is built on the bedrock so it will stand up in an earthquake. When we use the metaphor of rock for God, that’s the kind of rock I think of.”

We got to my parents’ house. We ate lunch, played ping-pong, went to my aunt’s house to swim, eat dinner with my cousins, let R blow out some birthday candles. My aunts gets B to play the clarinet for her. We came back to my parent’s house, shower and get ready for bed.

“I still have that song in my head,” B said to me as he was sitting on the couch, about to turn on the TV.

“Which song?” I asked. I thought it would be the minuet he played for my aunt. He’s been practicing that one pretty intensely for the past few days.

“Tzur Yisrael, kuma b’ezrat Yisrael,” he sang. I was so happy, so gratified, that he had gone through that whole big day – and my theology lesson had stuck with him. Specifically, they had stuck with him through the familiar melody. I could make that point about rock and theological metaphor and it wasn’t just abstract. He could pin it on something he knew intimately because he has been sitting next to me as I sang it week after week after week.

When I wanted to have children, one of the biggest thing I wanted to do with them is sing. I sang a lot of American folk songs and nursery rhymes to B, but the songs I really wanted to give him were liturgical. There are hundreds of songs based on psalms and liturgy that swirl around in my head. I love them and I want to give them to my children. Here he was, in his shorty pajamas, letting me know that he’s been listening all along and that he has the Hebrew and the melody swirling around in his head, too.

Who you marry

May 20, 2009

O, the teenager across the street, is going to be in Fiddler on the Roof so we’ve been listening to it in the car. When I first put it on I explained to Jacob, “This story is about how the modern world reached into the small villages in Eastern Europe where the Jews lived. The world was changing, in a transition to modernity. These villages were just about the last places in Europe that were coming into contact with new technologies and new ideas about how people lived their lives.”

“Like who you could marry?” he asked.

“Well, yes,” I said. I thought he was thinking about me and Ellen getting married. “But mostly ideas about how people lived their lives – what kinds of jobs they could do and where they could live.” Then I started describing the story and I realized that the whole play is about who you can and can’t marry. The marriages that Tevye’s three oldest daughters make are the way the play illustrates the changes in the world.

Who you think is available to you to marry is incredibly telling. It mirrors the boundaries of your life.

Blessing the sun

April 27, 2009

On Wednesday morning it’s going to be time for Birkat haChama, the blessing of the sun. According to a convoluted calculation, at that time the sun is going to be at the same position where it was at its creation on the fourth day. Here’s the description from the Gemara, “Every 28 years the cycle begins again and the Nissan equinox falls in Saturn, on the evening of Tuesday, the night before Wednesday.”

Everything I know about this ritual I know from the internet, and it’s information I have gathered in the last few weeks. The last time we were supposed to say the blessing, 28 years ago, I was 11 and I think it’s safe to say that it wasn’t on the radar of my congregation. This year people have sent notices out both on my congregation’s email list and on my havurah’s. They are invitations to a ritual down at the marina on Wednesday morning. When I saw the lineup for the ritual I decided not to go because I can tell it’s not going to be my kind of thing.

Fortunately, I looked it up in one of my books and it says it’s ok to say the blessing by yourself. You don’t need a minyan and the ritual itself seems to have a pretty loose structure. I think I’m going to go with a small personal ritual, possibly involving the chickens, in the back yard.

This 28 year cycle of the sun is called machzor hagadol, the great cycle, and it requires the matchup of the seven-day cycle of the week, the lunar Hebrew calendar and the solar calendar. The whole Jewish experience is about cycles – weeks and lunar months, holidays that cycle every year, the seven-year cycle for leaving fields fallow that becomes the jubilee year every fifty years, the cycle of our lives we mark with rituals for birth and death and marriage and coming-of-age. All of these cycles make some sense beyond the theology that requires their marking. This 28 year cycle of the sun is different.

Reciting the blessing on Wednesday morning is, in a way, an endorsement of the idea that the sun was spoken into being by God on the fourth day of creation. We are doing it because we believe that this was the sun’s place in the heavens on the morning of the fourth day of the birth of the universe, 5769 years ago.

Actually, I should say that I plan to do it because I believe that the sun will be in the same place it was in the heavens on the morning of the fourth day of the birth of the universe, 5769 years ago.

I should also say that I believe that the universe was created from the expansion of an infinitely dense singularity billions of years ago.

These two things reconcile perfectly for me in my head in a way that I cannot explain and I really don’t want to. Usually, that’s fine with me. I believe, not in a metaphorical way but in a literal sense that I was present at the exodus from Egypt and at Sinai. I am comfortable with letting the impossibility of that belief slide past me. I believe it but I’m not out to prove it.

At work, colleagues have been throwing around the argument that “people can hold more than one thought in their head at a time,” when they want to argue that we should not be dumbing something down. I dislike that line of reasoning at work and I feel like I shouldn’t be applying it to Birkat haChama either. This isn’t just two thoughts in my head at a time. It’s two beliefs, inherently contradictory, that I hold to be equally true. I’m not talking about the six days of creation as a metaphor. I believe that the universe was created literally in six days, just as I believe that humans evolved from single-celled animals that came to life in the oceans.

When I talk to kids about this stuff I gloss over it by calling it a story. Before we say Kiddush on Friday night sometimes I say, “We praise God for creating the world in six days, as it says in the story in the Torah.” Years ago, when B asked me about creationism I told him that there is a story the Torah tells about creation that is based on our religious tradition – and a story scientists tell about creation based on research and observation of the natural world. I think it’s a really great way to explain it to a kid but it’s not precisely what I believe.

I don’t believe that there are parallel stories. I believe that there are parallel truths, neither one a metaphor for the other. On Wednesday morning I’m going to say a blessing that invokes the holy power of one of those beliefs. Unless it’s cloudy – because my book says that if you can’t see the sun you shouldn’t say the blessing.