Monday, November 24, 2008

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Chanukkah

Chanukkah is less than a month away -- the Hebrew month of Kislev starts this Friday -- so of course, it's time to start making my practice and experimental batches of latkes!

A basic recipe for latkes can be found on my website here. I have also made a video on YouTube that illustrates some of the finer points, like how to tell when latkes are ready to flip. (I'm not entirely satisfied with the way the titles look on YouTube, and I may be replacing that video, but I'll update the link if I do).

But every year I experiment with different changes and additions to my latkes, and my co-workers are good enough to serve as test subjects -- er, I mean beta testers -- for my latke experiments...

Some experiments that have gone over well: adding half a cup of broccoli florets, asparagus tips or bell peppers (a mix of red, yellow and green peppers was especially pretty) or substituting shredded zucchini or sweet potato for half of the potato. My birth father, who was allergic to eggs, liked the latkes I made using a small amount of rehydrated spud flakes to hold the latkes together instead of the eggs. Spud flakes might also be a useful substitute for the gluten intolerant. Hmn... I should try some gluten-free latkes using corn meal in place of matzah meal...

Less successful experiments: shredded carrots in place of some of the potatoes; adding corn (it seemed like a good idea: I like corn fritters).

Yesterday, I tried something new: feta cheese. I started with my basic recipe and crumbled in 6 oz. of Millers brand feta cheese, along with a tablespoon of dried dill weed (you can't have feta without dill!). Then I split the batter in half and added a shredded zucchini to one half and some shredded baby spinach to the other half. The zucchini half had somewhat too high of a vegetable-to-batter ratio was a bit high, so I added a bit more egg and matzah meal.

So far, we have gotten very positive feedback from the beta testers on the feta latkes, although the zucchini one is going over better than the spinach.

I'm trying to think of some other vegetables that might be fun in latkes... I'll let you know if I have any more experiments, successful or otherwise!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Jewish Humor

As I said in the Election Humor post, I'm shifting the direction of this blog to tell Jewish jokes that shed some light on Jewish culture, religion or history. I've found in the few years that I've had this blog that I haven't written much because I can't bring myself to write about a topic without researching it properly and providing references, and I just didn't have the time to do all that. But you don't need to do much research to tell a joke! So maybe I'll be able to get posts up here more frequently. And certainly, the jokes will be vastly more entertaining than my opinions on any serious matters.

So lets start with a bit of meta-humor: a Jewish joke about Jews telling jokes. I translated this very loosely from the original Yiddish in the book Royte Pomerantsen, a collection of classic Jewish humor written in transliterated Yiddish (Yiddish written with English letters).

* * * * *

When you tell a joke to a redneck, he laughs three times: once when you tell it, once when you explain it, and once when he finally gets it.

When you tell a joke to a yuppie, he laughs twice: once when you tell it and once when you explain it, because he never really gets it.

When you tell a joke to a police officer, he only laughs once: when you tell it, because he doesn't let you explain it and he never gets it.

But when you tell a joke to a Jew...
... he doesn't laugh at all. He just says, "Oh, that's an old joke, and I can tell it better."

* * * * *

Anybody who has ever told a joke at a Jewish gathering will tell you that the above joke is entirely true! It seems like everyone has already heard them all, and there is always someone who knows a better version of the same joke. You can tell a joke that you think is very funny, and the reaction you get is, "Oh yeah, I've heard that one before, but the way I heard it, the voice from above said, 'Your son? Let me tell you about my son!'" (yes, someday I'll tell you the joke that goes with that punchline... if you haven't heard it already).

Monday, November 10, 2008

Life and Death

On Sunday morning, a local news broadcast teased a story by saying that the courts were addressing a conflict between religion and the medical profession. I assumed that the story was the kind we usually see: religious parents refusing treatment of their children because of religious convictions, such as Jehovah's Witnesses refusing blood transfusions or Christian Scientists refusing medical treatment generally.

Imagine my surprise when I saw the picture of the boy at issue: clearly a Chasidic Jewish boy, wearing a yarmulke and the long, curly front hair designed to emulate peyot (the untrimmed sideburns that Orthodox adult men wear). Judaism allows any and all treatment to save a life; any Jewish law can be broken, except the laws against murder, idolatry and adultery. How could his parents refuse treatment?

It turns out that I had misunderstood the nature of the story: in this case, the family wanted treatment of their child ... and the hospital wanted to discontinue it.

The child in question, Motl Brody, suffered from brain cancer. The hospital has determined that he is brain dead -- he exhibits no brain activity whatsoever, even when life support is temporarily suspended, which normally stimulates some level of activity in the brainstem. The hospital has declared him dead and wants to turn off life support and medication.

The boy's parents are Bobover Chasidic Jews. Their sect defines death as the moment when the heart stops beating, and holds that life must be maintained at all costs until that point. There are other opinions within Orthodox Judaism that would accept brain death as death, but the parents' sect does not accept that view, and their rabbi is of the opinion that this child is still alive. I confess, I find their position a bit puzzling: if death is determined by heartbeat, and heartbeat can be maintained indefinitely by machines, how could anyone ever die? But it's not my place to judge their beliefs.

Not surprisingly, commentary on the story turns on whether the parents are paying for his treatment. If the parents are paying for it, many say, then they should be able to continue it as long as they want and the hospital should not be able to stop it; on the other hand, they say, if the parents aren't paying for it, the hospital should be able to turn it off. That's a very slippery slope: at what point does the hospital get to turn off medical care for nonpayment?

But the case is not about who is paying for the treatment. In fact, the hospital in its court papers say that cost of care is not their chief concern, so it is inappropriate for third parties to turn that into the deciding factor. The hospital's primary concern, according to their court papers, is bed space: if this child is allowed to occupy a bed in their intensive care ward, there may not be a bed available for a person that the hospital considers to be alive. The hospital has 32 intensive care beds: 20 of them occupied and 12 unoccupied.

For more on this story, see:

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Election Humor

I've been planning for a while now to redirect this blog into posts of Jewish humor that shed light on Jewish religion, history and culture. With election day upon us, I thought this was a good time to start. I promise, this joke includes no one currently running for office, or even anyone in office today.

George H. W. Bush (the elder) and Dan Quayle were in a plane with a priest and a rabbi. They came upon rough weather, and the plane was in trouble. The pilot made an announcement: "This plane is going down, and we only have four parachutes. I'm taking one, and you can decide who gets the other three!" The passengers saw the pilot jump from the plane with one of the four parachutes, leaving four people behind with three parachutes.

Bush said, "I'm the President of the free world! I have to survive!" He grabbed one of the parachutes and jumped.

Quayle said, "If anything happens to George, I'm next in line! I have to survive!" He grabbed another parachute and jumped.

The priest turned to the rabbi and said, "Let's let our Creator decide this. Let's flip a coin."

The rabbi said to the priest...

"That won't be necessary. There are two parachutes left. Dan jumped with my tallit and tefillin."

* * * * *

Like a lot of Jewish humor, this joke tends to evolve over time. I've heard it with different casts of characters, with different politicians in the not-so-bright Dan Quayle role. In the 2000 election, I heard this one with Bush, Cheney, Gore and Lieberman, where Gore jumped first as the last hope for the Democrats, then Bush as the last hope for the Republicans, but Bush jumped with observant Jewish Joe Lieberman's tallit and tefillin. I like it that way, even though it doesn't make much sense for Republican and Democratic candidates to share a private plane.

The image of somebody parachuting with the large, full-length tallit preferred by many men and the long leather straps of the tefillin always amuses me. The tallit and tefillin are familiar to most religious Jews, but completely unknown to most non-Jews, which is certainly part of the humor of this joke: ah, those silly goyim, they wouldn't know a tallit from a parachute. If you've never seen tallit and tefillin before, you can get some idea of what they look like here: Tzitzit and Tallit; Tefillin.