If you have ever been to Israel, whether you are Jewish or not, you have most probably visited the Kotel, the Western Wall. And whether it is your first time, or your 100th time, you probably every now and again leave a little note for God, stuffed in the cracks of the wall.
You’ve heard of the phrase “Two Jews, three opinions?” If there’s one thing that unites the Jewish people it’s dissention.
I have always had a love affair with Jerusalem, even before I first came into contact with what is one of the most beloved cities in the world. My first time was at the age of 16. My family was here for the summer to celebrate my brother’s Bar Mitzvah, and my favorite uncle, Abi, rented a car and drove us to Jerusalem, taking us first to the Kotel. My first reaction was very emotional. This wall, for me, is the symbol of how high we have risen, how low we have fallen. In the countless times I have paid a visit to this wall since that bright summer’s day in 1979, my emotional state has wavered between joy and sadness, but those white stones with the tiny bits of paper stuck in the cracks, messages to Hashem, always evokes a tear, an intaking of breath, a special beat to my heart.
This Monday night we begin the fast of Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. This day is the culmination of a three-week period of mourning which began with the fast of 17 Tammuz, the date on which the outer walls of the city of Jerusalem were breached during the siege. On the 9th of Av, the temple was destroyed.
My father taught me that this date is the Jewish Friday the 13th, when so many horrible things have befallen the Jewish people. It is the date that the stronghold of Beitar fell to the Romans during the Bar Kochba revolt. It is the date of the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 during the Spanish Inquisition. It is the date when the Nazis began the deportation of the Warsaw Ghetto. Any Jew who feels the collective emotion of our people cannot help but mourn on this day.
On Tisha B’Av we fast. In Judaism, the purpose of a fast is to lower the volume on our physical pursuits in order to focus more acutely on our spiritual selves. This doesn’t work for me. I find myself thinking of food. What will I serve to break the fast? How much longer until we break the fast? I find myself drawn to foodie blogs, cookbooks, even the Food Channel on television. I have a one track mind.
In my previous life, my girls and I would break the fast on pizza. We would call the local pizza place half an hour before it was time to eat, the pizza would arrive five minutes before the fast was over. I believe that in those five minutes all the agony, the suffering of the Jewish people, was felt. No amount of Bible study, no amount of keening for what once was, could rival the emotions of those last five minutes. It sounds horrible, doesn’t it, that in the last five minutes something as trivial as pizza could cause us to feel the collective suffering of our people.
Now that we are living in Chapter Two, we have adopted Ju-Boy’s family traditions (although I believe Shy-Boy would like us to keep with the pizza tradition). We first break with some fresh orange juice, then a cup of tea (with milk, Brit style), together with a piece of cake or a boureka. Only later do we start digging around to find leftovers from the meal we ate before the fast, and whatever else we can find in the kitchen. There is no set dinner for after Tisha B’Av in our house, we become the scavengers our people must have become when the Temple was destroyed.
This year I will be home during the day of Tisha B’Av. Normally I am in the office, but there is no office for me this year. I will have no distractions except the worst ones: what will we eat later after the fast is over? I think I am going to occupy myself with cheesecake, I have been told I have a commitment to cheesecake. I have one cheesecake in my repetoire that usually makes people cringe, until they taste it — Smoked Salmon Cheesecake. This is not something you serve for dessert, it’s an appetizer, a salmon/cheese pate that, once you get used to the idea, is perfect for a hot summer’s night when you need to break a fast.
Have you ever eaten something heavy after not having eaten all day? Horrible feeling, no? That’s why this is a perfect meal for Tuesday night, after we haven’t eaten since the evening before. Try to wrap your head around it.
Smoked Salmon Cheesecake
- 2 cups savory cracker crumbs
- 100 grams (half a stick, half a cup) melted butter
- 200 grams (1/2 pound) smoked salmon
- 1 cup fresh dill
- 500 grams (16 ounces) cream cheese (I use 5% fat white cheese)
- 4 eggs
- 2 cups sour cream
- 1 tablespoon flour or corn starch
- salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C (400 degrees F).
- Crush the crackers to fine crumbs. Add the melted butter and then pat into a springform pan.
- In a food processor, using the steel knife, puree the smoked salmon. It won’t come out like paste, more like salmon granules. Add the dill and give it a whirl until it has reached a spreadable consistency. Place this mixture into a large mixing bowl.
- Add the cream cheese, eggs and sour cream and mix until all is just combined. Then sprinkle over the flour, salt and pepper. I use a sifter for this so I don’t get clumps of flour. Mix again until all is just combined. You don’t want to incorporate air into the mixture, this will just cause your cheesecake to puff up and crack in the oven.
- Pour this into the cracker crust. Bake this in the hot oven for 10 minutes only. Then turn the oven down to 110 degrees C (220 F) and bake for another hour. Set a timer! When the timer dings, turn the oven off and let the fishy cheesecake rest in there for another 45 minutes to one hour. Then transfer it to the refrigerator, and let it hang out in there for at least 4 hours.
- Serve cold, or even at room temperature. It makes a good nighttime snack a few hours later as well.
A few years ago my daughter Sassy taught me that it is not the right thing to do to wish someone a good fast. You are meant to suffer. So I wish those of you that will be fasting on Tuesday a צום מועיל (tzom mo’il), a meaningful fast.
It was a given, I was going to live in Jerusalem. You could say that from the time I was born my parents raised me to be a Zionist, and Jerusalem was the shining star, the focus, the Holy Grail of my Zionism. I got my first dose of Jerusalem at the Shabbat table, my father recounting my parents’ visit in the Fifties. Then, Jerusalem was a divided city, half Israeli, half Jordanian. I remember my father’s sadness that he couldn’t visit the Old City, the capital of one of his heroes, King David.
As the years went by, Jerusalem was always there. I remember my father rejoicing in 1967 when Jerusalem was once again made whole. In the summer of ’79 we traveled as a family to Israel to celebrate my brother’s Bar Mitzvah. I will always remember the look on my father’s face, the tears of joy in his eyes, as we entered the Western Wall Plaza and approached the Kotel, the first time our family did so in two thousand years. In one of those too-weird-not-to-be-true moments, my father found this little old man, older than old, a wizened, ancient rabbi who just happened to have been my grandfather’s friend back in Hungary.
So I was just following the script of my life when I made aliya in 1983 and moved to a single immigrant hostel in Jerusalem, down the block from the famous Monster Slide. I spent six years living in Jerusalem itself, and then another 16 years living in the burbs, a ten minute drive from the outskirts, with the most amazing view of the city on the way in.
So, if I was always meant to live in Jerusalem, what am I doing in Ra’anana? It seems that God didn’t get the memo, and it so happens that you can have more than one love in your life. While Jerusalem represents an ethereal love, a more earthly plan has led me to what I have come to think of as Stepfordwifeville, or Teaneck East. Yes, I do knock Ra’anana, but it’s only sour grapes because life is not going according to plan. Sometimes plans get changed for you. And I do have to say, if I can’t live even within the Jerusalem area code, then let it be Ra’anana. And who knows, just as Jerusalem has its own day of reunification, hopefully one day I will have my own private reunion with the most beautiful city I know.
Yom Yerushalayim same’ach! Happy Jerusalem Day!
One of the other things that have not gone according to plan is that I married a kugel-hater. I adore kugel, so this is practically a Shakespearean tragedy. One of the kugels that I love the most is Yerushalmi Kugel, or Jerusalem Kugel in English. This isn’t your regular mushy veggie kugel, this one has wonderfully caramelized noodles, heavily spiced with black pepper. The kugel was originally brought to Jerusalem by Eastern European Hassidic Jews, and is usually served for kiddush after Shabbat morning prayers. Once upon a time, in my previous, Jerusalem life, I made Yerushalmi kugel at least once a month, and as far as I was concerned, the more peppery, the better. Sadly, since moving to Ra’anana in general and Ju-boy’s house in particular, I no longer make it, but do gleefully partake at any kiddush where it’s served.
I’ve tried many different recipes for Jerusalem kugel, but the recipe I always went back to comes from Faye Levy’s International Jewish Cookbook.
Jerusalem Noodle Kugel
12 ounces fine egg noodles (about 350 grams)
1/2 cup vegetable oil (divided)
1/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground pepper
few pinches of cayenne pepper
- Cook the noodles in large pot of boiling salted water for about five minutes or until barely tender. Drain well, return to the pot and toss briefly with 1/4 cup of the oil. Keep the pot on the stove so the noodles remain warm, but do not cover.
- Pour the remaining 1/4 cup of oil into a heavy saucepan and then add the sugar. Heat over low flame without stirring, and shake the pan gently from time to time. This is a good exercise in patience. Cook until the sugar turns dark brown, this can take between 15 and 25 minutes. Be alert, this mixture can go from perfectly caramelized to burnt and ruined in the space of a few seconds. Gradually add this mixture to the warmish noodles, mixing well with tongs.
- You really do want to make sure the noodles are warm, because if you add the caramel mixture to cold noodles you will get chipped gunky noodles.
- Beat the eggs with the salt, pepper and cayenne. Add to the noodles and mix well. Taste and adjust seasoning. That one teaspoon of pepper can elicit reactions from are-you-trying-to-kill-me? to isn’t-this-supposed-to-be-spicy?
- Transfer to a greased round 7 or 8 cup baking pan. One with a hole in the middle works perfectly, and will help when it comes to slicing and serving. Cover with foil. At this point the kugel can be kept in the refrigerator for a few hours.
- Preheat the oven to 180 degrees F (around 90 C). Bake this kugel overnight, or for about 14 hours. Remember, this is a Shabbat morning dish, not something for the fan of 30 minute meals.
- Slice a knife around the edge to loosen, and turn out onto a round platter. Serve hot.
- For those who like shortcuts — you can bake this uncovered in a 350 F (180 C) oven for one hour. It will not be as deep brown, but will still taste good.
- For those who like even shorter cuts — don’t even think about cheating and using brown sugar. I tried this one and didn’t get the results (or the compliments) I was looking for.