Tuesday, December 12, 2017

How to Clean Your Chanukah Menorah

Chanukah starts at sunset tonight!

... so you may be facing the same problem that many people do at this time of year: how do you get all of the gunk out of your menorah (or chanukiah, as some prefer to call it)? If leave your Chanukah candles lit until they burn themselves out every night, as most people do, you are likely to have wax debris and wicks in the cups that hold your candles, and that makes it harder to get this year's candles into the menorah. Many years ago, a friend (thanks, Wally!) taught me a trick that makes it quite easy to get the gunk out!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Thoughts on the Solar Eclipse

On Monday, August 21, 2017, a solar eclipse will be visible to one degree or another across the entire continental United States. During a total solar eclipse, the moon passes between the Earth and the Sun, blocking our view of it. The Sun is 400 times the size of the moon, but the tiny moon is able to block our view of the much larger sun because the moon is much closer to us. Those who are in the path of totality and see the sun completely blocked by the moon are overwhelmed by the experience.

Life is like that too. Sometimes, dark things come up in our lives, and we are overwhelmed by them. The bad things seem enormous, insurmountable, but this is only an illusion caused by the fact that the bad things are so close to us. We must remember that the good things are still out there, perhaps at a distance for now but much bigger and more important than any of the small bad things temporarily block our view. If we look carefully, we can see the good things still out there, peeking out around the edges of the bad things, reminding us that they are still there waiting for us. The bad things will pass in time, but the good things will always be there for us, and will come shining through when the bad things pass.

Is this what the rabbis said about eclipses? Not in so many words, but I think it may be what they meant. The most commonly quoted passage is a parable from the Babylonian Talmud, Succah 29a, which says that an eclipse can be compared to a king who made a feast for his subjects, and placed a lantern before them. When he grew angry with them, he told his servant, "Take away the lantern from before them, and place them in darkness!"

So did  the rabbis think that solar eclipses were a random event signalling Divine anger at humanity? Clearly not, because the rabbis of that time knew astronomy well enough to create a mathematically calculated calendar that was literally 100 times more accurate than the one used by the Romans at the same time (the Julian calendar was off by about 6 hours a year, while the Hebrew calendar is off by less than 90 minutes in a 19 year cycle). I think the passage is an analogy similar to the one I made above: When the Divine is unhappy with us, the good things in our life are hidden from us and we are left in darkness. But the lantern is never extinguished, only removed, and the light will come back at the proper time.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Genetic Genealogy and the Ashkenazi Problem

Today is National DNA Day. DNA testing has become increasingly popular for genealogy purposes, and the Jewish community is no exception to this trend. This is clear from this year's IAJGS conference on Jewish Genealogy, which is boasting in-depth DNA workshops and has more than 20 lectures related to DNA on its schedule.

But DNA testing for genealogy purposes poses a special problem for Jews, often called the Ashkenazi Problem: Jews tend to marry Jews, and Jews who do not marry Jews tend to drop out of the Jewish community, and we have been doing that for so long in such a small population that we all tend to have a lot of DNA in common. The technical term for this is "endogamy," or in other words, inbreeding.  As a result, one study found that the average Jewish DNA tester matched 54% of all testers with any Jewish heritage! Compare this with gentile testers, who matched less than 1% of all testers with gentile ancestry.

But if you are Jewish and interested in DNA testing, don't give up hope! It is possible to make real connections with real relatives through DNA testing. One of my great-grandfathers (Joseph Spigler) had seven siblings, four of whom married and had children, and I have successfully identified DNA matches from three of his siblings! Although two of those matches did not appear until six months after I took my test, and I have had less success so far on other branches. DNA testing can be particularly valuable if you are from a family separated by the Holocaust (discussed further below) or by adoption (discussed further below). But you have to come into it with proper expectations, and you have to meet your relatives halfway if you expect to have any success. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Very Veggie Pesach 2017: Stroopmatzot (Matzah Stroopwafels)

Stroopwafles ("stroopies") are a Dutch treat made by taking two thin, round, pizzele-like waffles and sticking them together with a layer of molasses syrup. They are commonly placed on top of a mug of coffee or tea like a lid, to keep the beverage warm and also heat up and soften the filling. The thinness of the waffles made me wonder, can you make this with matzah for Passover?


Sunday, April 09, 2017

Very Veggie Pesach 2017: Cauliflower Mac and Cheese

Cauliflower is the trendy low-carb, gluten-free substitute that is found on recipe sites everywhere these days. I've seen a few cauliflower macaroni and cheese recipes, so I decided to try a variation for Passover. My only concern was that this seems a bit too much like a side dish: I routinely make broccoli with cheese sauce as a side dish, and it didn't seem very different from that. To make it seem more like a main course, I made it as a baked mac and cheese, and it worked very well! I also tried topping it with 1/4 cup of crushed almonds as a gluten-free crust, but I wasn't crazy about how that worked; you're welcome to try it yourself (or 1/4 cup matzah meal, which is KFP but isn't gluten-free).

This recipe is not vegan (contains milk and cheese) but is non-gebrochts and gluten-free (does not contain matzah).

I have one more recipe idea in mind this year, a dessert option that contains matzah so I can't test the recipe until after the first night seder. I'll let you know one way or another after I try it.

Very Veggie Pesach 2017: Conservative Movement Changes the Rules

This actually happened last year, but I didn't get around to writing it up then. This year, the Reconstructionist rabbi at my Conservative synagogue mentioned it at services, so I thought it was worth bringing up. It is particularly relevant to vegetarians because it affects the permissibility of some foods that are a common, core part of a vegetarian diet.

Traditionally, Ashkenazic Jews (Jews whose ancestors come from Eastern Europe) have refrained from eating rice, corn, peanuts and legumes (beans), called kitniyot, during Passover. In November 2015, the Conservative movement in America ruled that kitniyot are no longer forbidden during Passover. Of course, this change affects only Conservative Jews, not Orthodox; there may be many Conservative Jews who are not accepting this leniency; and this leniency doesn't mean you can run out to the store and buy Skippy Peanut Butter for the kids at your seder. For more details, read on...

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Very Veggie Pesach 2017: Guacamole Deviled Eggs

Recipes like this have been popping up everywhere as a healthy alternative to deviled eggs, substituting avocado for the mayonnaise usually found in deviled eggs. But what struck me when I started seeing this recipe was how easily it could be made for Passover! This recipe does not have any mustard, which is kitniyot and traditionally forbidden for Passover. It uses only eggs and fresh fruits and vegetables, so you don't need any special Passover certification for any of the ingredients (though the eggs must be purchased before Passover starts). It is also gluten-free, though of course it is not vegan (it's eggs). And my co-workers all gave it very favorable reviews, so I wanted to get this online ASAP! It jumped ahead of Cauliflower Mac and Cheese, which will be appearing later this week.

I think the thing I found most fascinating about this recipe was the fact that the guacamole stayed green for a very long time. Usually when I make guac, it turns brown rather quickly, though the flavor is fine. I think maybe the egg yolks protect the avocado, but I was surprised to find that the egg filling was still its original shade of green even after it had been exposed to air long enough to be stiffening a bit.