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Taking Hiddur Mitzvah Too Far

Sunday was the Jewish holiday of Purim. For those who are not familiar, the holiday celebrates the story found in the book of Esther. I am not going to tell that story as it is available all over the web, and in the Bible. The holiday of Purim has three main Mitzvot. A Mitzvah, for my non Jewish friends, is not defined as a “good dead” as is often the case. A Mitzvah is a commandment, somehow based on the 613 original commandments found in the first five books of the Bible. In this case the three Mitzvot are hearing the reading of the scroll of Esther (the Biblical book), giving gifts to your friends and enjoying a festive meal with your family and friends on Purim day. That sounds great and these three are very easy Mitzvot to perform. Go to Synagogue to hear the reading, give a few gifts and have dinner. Not too difficult. And, in fact, our Synagogue was full on Saturday night for the reading of Esther. Kids dress up in costume and everyone has a great time. I think there were over 300 people at the Synagogue!

Now here comes my rant. There is another principal in Jewish life called Hiddur Mitzvah or making the Mitzvah beautiful. The concept of Hiddur Mitzvah is derived from Rabbi Ishmael’s comment on the verse, זֶה אֵלִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ “This is my God and I will glorify Him” (Exodus 15:2): “Is it possible for a human being to add glory to his Creator? What this really means is: I shall glorify Him in the way I perform MitzvotI shall prepare before Him a beautiful Lulavbeautiful sukkah, beautiful fringes (Tsitsit), and beautiful phylacteries (Tefilin).” [Midrash Mechilta, Shirata, chapter 3, ed. Lauterbach, p. 25.] The Talmud [Shabbat 133b] adds to this list a beautiful Shofar and a beautiful Torah scroll which has been written by a skilled scribe with fine ink and fine pen and wrapped in beautiful silks. One of the most well-known ways observant Jews today fulfill Hiddur Mitzvah is to buy very beautiful Etrogim for Sukkot. Some people will, in fact, spend quite a lot of money on an Etrog, often well over $100.

Now I have no problem with enhancing our observance of Mitzvot. I am all for it. But there has to be a limit. It seems to me that people are using Hiddur Mitzvah as a means to “one up” their neighbors. “They” spent $50 per gift basket this Purim so next Purim I am going to spend $75 per gift basket. This year I saw two different families being driven around in stretch limos delivering their Mishloah Manot (Purim gift baskets). This made me quite angry (I saw it last year too but for some reason it got me more this year). I think there needs to be a limit to Hiddur Mitzvah. How much money did these families spend up Purim? I have no idea on the cost of their baskets but I am sure it was not small. It is not impossible to think that their Mishloah Manot cost over $1000 when you include the limo. For what? Of course it was to fulfill a Mitzvah, so that is good, but they easily could have fulfilled the Mitzvah with small baskets that they themselves drove around town. Perhaps the $900 they saved could have been donated to Mazon or many other charities whose missions is to deal with the problem of hunger in our society. It is time for the Rabbis in these communities to put their feet down and say enough! No one should spend more than $36 for an Etrog. No one should build 500 square foot Sukkot and move their living room into it. No one should deliver Mishloah Manot by Limo.

And now, a little Torah. The holiday of Passover is fast approaching. In the center of the Haggadah are verses that we spend much of our Seder discussing. Many people will recognize these verses:

אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט וַיְהִי־שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב:  וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים וַיְעַנּוּנוּ וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה: ז וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוָֹה אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ וַיַּרְא אֶת־עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת־עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת־לַחֲצֵנוּ: ח וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ יְהוָֹה מִמִּצְרַיִם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל וּבְאֹתוֹת וּבְמֹפְתִים: וַיְבִאֵנוּ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וַיִּתֶּן־לָנוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ

“My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt and lived there with a few people and there he became a great nation, large and strong. And the Egyptians dealt harshly with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard slavery. And we cried to the Lord God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labor, and our oppression. And the Lord took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awesomeness, and with signs, and with wonders. And he has brought us to this place and given us this land flowing with milk and honey.”

In the Torah’s context (not the Haggadah’s) this mini-history of the Jewish people is to be recited when a person brings their first fruits to the temple for a sacrifice. One interesting thing is that, according to the Talmud, a person did not just recite these verses, but the priest in the temple would recite the verse word by word and the person bringing his first fruits would repeat the words and the priest said them. Another example is during a wedding ceremony. When a bridegroom says the special verse of betrothal: הֲרֵי אַת מְקֻדֶשֶת לִי בְטַבַּעַת זוּ כְּדַת מֹשֶׁה וְיִשְׂרָאֵל “Behold you are consecrated to me, with this ring, according to the laws of Moses and Israel”, it is also said by the groom repeating the words as the officiant says them under the Huppa. Also at a wedding it is traditional for a groom to say some words of Torah at his Tisch (literally a table, but a small ceremony before the wedding when certain legal documents are signed) but the attendees interrupt him with song so he cannot say anything.

All of these things are done so that one person is not set above another. In the first two cases, some people may know Hebrew very well, and some not. But if they have to repeat word for word the verses, then everyone is the same. Even the greatest sage has to repeat the words that are said to him. In the third case, at the Tisch, the friends interrupt with song so that no matter the groom’s abilities or learning, all grooms are seen the same.

Similarly, I think it is time for us to start letting all people be the same in terms of Hiddur Mitzvah. Rather than some people being able to buy the most beautiful Etrog, perhaps a Synagogue should collect money to buy Etrogim for all members and make sure they are all the same. People with more money can pay more in and people with less money can pay in less. But no matter your wealth, you will get the same Etrog. On Purim people should be encouraged to make modest gift baskets for their friends. The only requirement is that there are two different kinds of foods in the basket. I don’t think it is wrong to ask people to be more modest with their baskets (plus we only have four weeks to get rid of the baked goods before Passover and less is better!)

I am not a Rabbi and I have no authority to get people to do anything, but I feel very strongly about this issue. I hope that others, who are reading my blog will think about this and if you have similar feelings about this, speak with your Rabbi to learn his or her views.

Hag Kasher V’sameakh!

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Hamentashen

I have posted my Hamentashen recipe twice before in my blog (here and here). For the first time in more years than I can remember, I have made some changes to my recipe. If you can hold back you gasps, I will explain and post my new recipe below. I have been baking for many years now and I have a number of items that I have always done in a particular way. I also have a go to book for Jewish baking that I consult with all the time. The book is called “A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking” by Marcy Goldman. This is a great cook book and covers all the basics of both baking in general and Jewish baking in particular. If you want to learn about baking, buy the book. If you already bake, buy the book. It has helped me numerous times.

My Hamentashen recipe differed from others because I tried to create a VERY light dough with a minimum of flour in the recipe itself. My reasoning was that as you roll out the dough you add more flour and as you keep re-rolling you continue to add more flour. Eventually I would find that the last rounds I would cut would be much too dry to shape into proper Hamentashen. The downside was always that I had to closely watch them as they baked. I would need to take them out just as they began to turn brown. Any less time and they would fall apart and any longer and they started to burn. I figured for a couple of days a year I can stick close to my oven. My dough was also very sweet (which certainly made it popular with my kids!)

I have not really looked at another recipe in a long time. People had given me recipes over the years and I have glanced at them, but I always said to myself, mine was better. Year after year, I would taste other homemade Hamentashen that I would get on Purim, and year after year I was satisfied that mine were the best of the bunch. Today I decided to just take a look at Marcy Goldman’s Hamentashen recipe. I was somewhat surprised that the recipe was very close to my own, with some significant changes. First off, she had more flour in the recipe than I did; significantly more. My recipe as printed in my blog had two cups of flour for ½ cup of shortening. Her recipe was double mine, and as printed said “at least four cups of flour”. It seems the same, but one of my little secrets was that I did not follow my own recipe and I used closer to 1 ½ cups in my single batch, or 3 cups in a batch equal to hers. That meant that she was using a whole cup more than me. If I were to put that much extra in my dough, I felt it would dry up much too quickly. Then I noticed that she dealt with that problem by adding more liquid. I call for 2 teaspoons of vanilla in my double batch (or orange juice) and she called for ¼ cup of orange juice and two teaspoons of vanilla. I had two eggs and she had three. The only other difference was the lower amount of sugar that she used. I had two cups, and she had a cup and a half. I think as I have gotten older, my need for the extra sweetness had lessened, so I was open to this idea as well.

Here, then, is my NEW Hamentashen recipe, based on my original recipe and Marcy Goldman’s.

 

2 Sticks of Margarine
1 ½ Cups of Sugar
3 eggs
¼ Cup of Orange Juice
2 teaspoons of Vanilla
2 ½ teaspoons of Baking Powder
½ teaspoon of salt
4 ½ Cups of flour


1.    In a standing mixer, cream the margarine and the sugar with the paddle attachment until light and fluffy.
2.    Add the eggs one at a time and mix in until the mixture is smooth. If it looks like it is curdling, add a few tablespoons of flour to bind it together.
3.    Add the orange juice and the vanilla and mix well.
4.    Add the baking powder and salt and mix well.
5.    Add half of the flour and mix in, and then mix in the rest a half cup at a time until the dough holds together well but is still somewhat soft. Depending upon the humidity (which should be low this time of year) you will need to adjust the amount of flour. I think I added about 4 ½ cups.
6.    Take the dough out of the bowl and put on a lightly floured board. Bring the mass together into a large ball and flatten slightly. Let the dough rest for at least 15 minutes. You could refrigerate the dough at this point and use within 6 hours or freeze it and use within a few weeks.
7.    Separate the dough into quarters and roll out each quarter to about 1/8 inch thick. Using a 3″ cookie cutter or similar sized glass cut out rounds. Stack the rounds on the side and take the remainder of the dough and add it to the next quarter and roll it out and cut the rounds. Keep repeating this until you run out of dough.

Rather than explain fillings and how to shape the Hamentashen, I recommend going to my friend’s website, The Shiksa in the Kitchen. She has a bunch of recipes for fillings and some great images showing a wonderful technique in shaping the Hamentashen. The only thing I will add to her info is that if you want to purchase fillings, the best you can get is Solo brand pie filling.

Enjoy!

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Les Miserables

It’s no secret that I am in love with the show Les Miserables. I went to see the movie on the first night and I have seen the musical on stage 5 times. My Facebook page has been filled with posts about Les Mis and I was talking about it all of the time leading up to the movie. The Musical is now the longest running show in the world (well, actually The Fantastiks ran longer, but that was off-broadway and everyone wants to overlook that). It is still running in England and for a short time it was actually running in two different theaters at the same time!

What is it about this show that has captured the entire world? I have been pondering this question for the past week or so and I have come up with a couple of possibilities. You have to first go back to the book Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. This book, which is one of the longest books ever published, was an amazing success when it was published in 1862. Hugo was born when Napoleon was still in power and for much of his youth he was a committed royalist. However, as he grew and saw more of France he became a Republican and through his writing a defender of the poor and mistreated. I said recently that is he were alive today, he would have been with the occupy wall street movement. Les Miserables, which was his last novel was his message to France about the social injustices that he saw through his life. The book has two stories running throughout. The first is the story of the June 1832 Paris uprising and the other, which is more well known, is the story of Jean Valjean. The first story is the story of social justice. The second story is a story of love and redemption. I think it is these two themes that captures the hearts of the novel’s readers.

The musical strips away much of the social justice story and focuses on epic story of Jean Valjean, a man who was jailed for stealing some bread and ends up spending 19 years in prison. The 1832 uprising does play a big part in the musical in the second act, but it is Valjean’s story that is dominant. We see a man who has fallen as far as one can fall and then he picks himself up, recreates himself and ultimately learns to love and be loved. There is probably no greater story than that.

On December 25th at 7:30 we saw the movie Les Miserables. Let me start by saying is was amazing. One of the best film experiences I have ever had. It is certainly one of the best movie musicals ever made. I can throw lots of praise on it, but instead I will try to explain why I think it is so good. First off before saying anything about the movie, I have to say that anyone that tries to compare it to the Broadway Musical is doing an injustice to both the film and the stage musical. The musical film is based on the stage version, but it is really a different performance. The major songs are the same, but there are so many little changes throughout the film, that it is a new production. That being said, I know it will be hard for most people to refrain from making comparisons. I will endeavor not to do so as much as possible.

Here are a few reasons why this is an exceptional film.

Much has been said about the fact that they did all the singing live. Most movie musicals are made by having the cast do all of the singing in the studio and then when they do the filming (sometimes up to a year later) they lip sync to the recorded music. The problem with this is that they have to make certain acting decisions when they are recording the music which is hard when they are not in costume or on set. A year later they may not even remember what they were thinking when they did something in the singing. Filming live singing on the other hand, allows the actors to act while they are singing and allow the way they are singing fit the scene they are filming. They can also do multiple takes and make slight changes in the way they sing. The result is really nothing that has been heard in a movie musical before. I will not give specifics so people who have not seen the film will not have too much information, but suffice it to say this was the way to go.

There are many changes from the original stage musical. Having run for over 25 years Les Miserables has had many minor changes over the years. Some of that was incorporated into the film, but there are scenes they can do in a film that they cannot on the stage and those little scenes need more music and lyrics, and they certainly came through. When they made these scenes, they did not just make them up, they went back to the book and took them right from Hugo’s writing. As such there are a few things that are cleared up in this version that leave you somewhat confused in the stage version.

The makeup and costuming are incredible. Go see for yourself!

The acting and singing are amazing. Hugh Jackson is the perfect choice for Valjean. Many people thought that he was not right for the job, but he was perfect. Most movie goers will think of him as Wolverine from the X-Men, but his background is stage musicals. He conveys so much emotion in his singing and makes the transformation from a downtrodden convict to a wealthy factory owner to a wealthy recluse with ease. Anne Hathaway is, in my humble opinion the best in the movie. It is clearly her best role and her voice is angelic! Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne are great as Cossette and Marius, and Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are superb as the Thenardiers. That leaves Russell Crowe as Javert. Many say he is totally miscast and his singing is not up to the standards of the rest of the cast. I can only say that I agree that his voice is the weakest in the bunch, but his treatment of the song “Stars” is fantastic and his acting is beyond reproach. He conveys so much from a single glance without anything being said or sung.

This production allows people who never had the chance to see Les Mis on the stage to experience its majesty. I strongly urge everyone to see it!

Here are a few clips from the film. You can see some of what I am talking about in terms of acting choices in the singing.

Enjoy!

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What I learned from Sandy

I learned a lot over the past week. We have been through Hurricanes before and we will go through more as time goes by, but this one was the first that caused a level of devastation that we had never seen. Here are a few thoughts (in no particular order) now that I have had some time to think about the past week.

  1. We take electricity for granted. There are many times I have told my children how they take things for granted. How they have things that we never dreamed we would have when we were their age. Our children’s lives are easier than ours in the same way our lives as children was easier than our parents’. One of the few things that we ALL take for granted is electricity and other major utilities. We have had power outages in the past, and in the 1999 we even went two days without power. During Sandy we were without power for almost a whole week and I know that there are other people out there that are still without. We love having electricity flow through out homes and into our ipads, Wiis and laptop computers. The truth is though, that most of us have very little understanding on how it works and how it gets to us. I think that we all need to take an opportunity to not only learn a little about this “magical” energy that powers all of our devices, but to get an understanding of where it comes from and to be more respectful of it. Electricity does not just exist like water and air. It has to be generated and need to be mindful of this at all times. Perhaps one of the best parts of being an observant Jew is that we are more in tune with energy that most of the population. We spend 25 hours of each week with our powered life shut down, but even so, we are still out of tune with the bigger picture and even a few hours of no power during the week becomes a burden. So I think we should teach our children about how energy works and make them aware of where it comes from.

     

  2. Relocating is difficult. After two days of no power we moved into my in-laws house which is around the corner from ours. Over the years we have seen areas that are devastated by natural disaster and people are relocated. It always happens to “other people” and while we fee for them and perhaps donate money or goods to them, we don’t really understand. In truth, we were able to move in with my in-laws and don’t fully understand either. But the act of having to pick up and leave your home because it has become un-livable is hard not only from the standpoint of packing and physically moving, but from knowing that your home, what you have spent years building up is now unusable. Some in our neighborhood stayed in their homes. I wonder if they did this not because they had no place else to go (there were lots of people with power offering to house others) but because they just did not want to leave their homes. Luckily in our community there were a few places to go to get warm. Our Synagogue opened its doors to the community and many people took advantage of the heat, coffee and internet.

     

  3. Crisis brings out the best in people. Everywhere people were opening up their homes, their wallets, their pantries and their freezers to help people in town who were without. Of course on the news you see stories about large relief efforts, but you really need look no further than your own home town. As soon as power came back to our Synagogue, the doors were open to the entire community. The same is true for the Reformed Church and one of the Orthodox Synagogues in town. Everyone was there to lend a helping hand. There were Christians, Orthodox Jews and Muslims in my Synagogue over the past week coming together to help help each other in a time of need. If that does not inspire us all to do more, I don’t know what will.

     

  4. Crisis brings out the worst in people. Once people were able to go out and purchase gasoline, the prices generally rose at least 30 cents per gallon. There were some honest gas stations where prices were at the same rate they were before the storm, but it seems quite widespread that the prices went up too high. There is a law in NJ that states during a state emergency, merchants cannot raise prices more than 10% more than the price would be if there were not an emergency. The NJ Department of Consumer Affairs got hundreds of complaints over the past week about price gauging and the Governor has stated that they will find and fine everyone who broke this law. If ever there was a time to practice decency and help others, this was it, and many merchants failed miserably.

     

  5. D Cell batteries are still important (thanks to Alisa Berg for that one).

     

  6. You don’t really need to purchase tons of milk and bread before a hurricane.

     

  7. Finally, my disaster of a garage that I prayed to fall down, will probably survive a direct hit from a cruise missile.

     

I hope everyone is safe and warm!

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OH USY

Ok everyone put your thumbs up high in the air! “Oh USY, Oh USY, for you we live for you we die! Oh USY, oh USY, for you we live for you we die! You gave us spirit, lots of luck; you even taught us how to … fool around. Oh USY, oh USY, for you we live for you we die!

Any current USYer reading this blog is not going to know that little ditty, but most of my friends sure will (and any staff out there, sorry!) Last weekend, my synagogue hosted the Hagalil USY regional Leadership Training Institute Kinus. There were about 140 high school students who came together to “do Jewish” for lack of a better term. For the kids, the weekend was about leadership and those who attended were the leaders of the region and many of the local chapters in New Jersey. But it was more than just leadership. It was about Jewish learning, prayer, friendship and fun. It was a great weekend for all involved and it really brought back a lot of my memories from when I was in USY. We had four boys stay in our house, one of whom was my nephew and one the son of one of my close friends from USY.

It was really amazing getting to see the youth of today experiencing some of the same things I did in USY and I know that I was looking at future Rabbis, Cantors, Jewish educators and just committed Jews. It made me very happy to know that there is a secure future. But then last night I saw a disturbing video on YouTube that was shown at my Synagogue board meeting.

This disturbing video brought me information of which I was totally unaware. When I was in USY, there were between 15,000 and 20,000 USYers in North America. We would have upwards of 1200 USYers at International Convention. USY Pilgrimage was bursting at the seams with participants. But now, with numbers like these, USY is in real danger of disappearing. At the same rate of by 2015 there could be 3000 USYers. There are hardly any large USY chapters with more than 60 members (there were a few in NJ when I was in USY). USY is a program that I want my children to be involved with, and if things don’t turn around, my seven year old daughter may not have much of a chance. On top of that, the Jewish community in general will suffer for the lack of USY. Many leaders in the Conservative Movement and in the general community are USY graduates.

So now that I have depressed you, what can we do about this? Those of us in Conservative Synagogues can start by doing two things (and those not in a Conservative Synagogue can do one). We can encourage our children to go to USY events! It sounds so simple, but it is not happening. Parents today seem to be very lax when it comes to pushing their children to get involved with youth programming. I see this in my Synagogue and in the general community. I understand that there are so many things vying for our children’s time. When I was in high school, there was not much for me to be involved with outside of sports and a few clubs in my school. USY filled a major gap. Today our kids are under a lot of pressure to be involved with a lot of things. I think that parents need to take a look at their priorities and what types of things in which they want their children involved. Personally I think USY would be a better choice than karate or dance if the choice needs to be made. USY helps create responsible adults and in many cases our future leaders. USY fosters a love for Judaism and Israel that is not so easy to come by these days. USY helps prepare teens for college and for life beyond. So whether you are in a Conservative Synagogue or not, I urge you to consider USY as a great program for your children (and that is not meant to put down NCSY or NFTY, if you are involved in the Orthodox movements or Reform movement, please get your children involved in those organizations!)

The second thing those of us in Conservative Synagogues can do is to open our doors to USY. When USY is having a program, stop by and see what’s happening! USYers would love to show you! Urge your congregations to sponsor USY if they do not, and to host regional events if they do. And when your Synagogue hosts a regional event, volunteer! Be there to serve a meal or to help set up a room. Open your home to USYers and have them stay in your house. These are experiences the kids will never forget and you will never forget.

We’re all in it together. USY can have a very bright future but only if WE, the members of Conservative congregations, make a commitment to USY. The kids won’t jump up and join USY on their own, they need our encouragement. And once they are there, the rest takes care of itself. I can tell you that USY was the single most important thing in my high school years. I was a shy introvert before USY and USY changed me forever. I did not just decide to go to a USY meeting; my parents encouraged me to go. I did not just go to a USY kinnus; my parents suggested that I go. Once I was there, USY got me. I became the president of my local chapter, a member of the regional board, a vice president in the region and finally a member of the USY international board. My nephew who stayed at my home this past Shabbat is following a similar path (although he was not a shy introvert!). USY makes menschen (good people) and we need to step up and ensure its continuation.

Finally here are a couple of USY promotional videos, and two of a USYers having a great time at shul!

Enjoy!

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Holiday Challah

I posted some photos of my round braided Challah last night on Facebook and it got some nice reaction so I decided to post my Challah recipe here with a few tips and tricks and some visuals to help you on your way to making beautiful Challot.

First, here is my NEVER FAIL delicious Challah recipe (based on Friday night bread machine challah from “A Treasury of Jewish Baking by Marci Goldman).

1 ¼ C warm water
2 eggs plus 1 egg yolk
1/3 C oil
3 T honey
1/3 C sugar
1 lb of bread flour
12 oz white whole wheat flour
2 t salt
1 T instant yeast

Before I get to the instructions, here are a couple of notes. First off, the most important thing I can teach anyone who wants to bake bread is WEIGH YOUR FLOUR!!!!! I cannot stress this enough. WEIGH YOUR FLOUR!!!!! The problem with flour is that it will settle quickly in its container. So if you were to sift your flour one cup will be different if you don’t sift it. However, since the air in the sifted flour weighs almost nothing, the weight of your flour will always be the same no matter if you sift or not. In general if a recipe asks for 2 cups of flour, it means sifted flour. A cup of flour should weigh about 4.5 ounces. So the best way to measure your flour is to get a good scale, put your bowl on the scale and then pour in your flour. I pour in the pound of bread flour and then add the white whole wheat until the scale shows 28 ounces of flour.

Tip number two. Crack two eggs in a bowl. Separate the third and add the yolk to the bowl and save the white. When you get three or four whites you can make yummy meringue cookies!

Tip number three. I use a quarter cup measuring cup that can be read from the top and has tablespoon marks. I fill it will oil to the rim. This is about 1/3 of a cup. Then I pour it in with the eggs. Then I add the honey to just over 3 tablespoons. The extra oil left in the measurer will help the oil pour freely into the bowl with the eggs and oil.

Tip number four. Use a bread machine!!!!!

  1. Pour the warm water into the pan of the bread machine.
  2. Add the mixture of eggs, oil and honey as above.
  3. Add 1/3 Cup of sugar.
  4. Weigh your flours in a bowl and add the salt and mix in.
  5. Carefully pour the flour mixture to the bread pan.
  6. Add the instant yeast to the top of the flour.

Set your machine on the dough cycle and let it go. When it is done, shape the challot and let them rise for up to an hour and then bake for about 30 minutes in a 350 degree oven until the bottoms are browned.

That is all there is to it. If you weigh your flour, you will not go wrong on this recipe. Did I mention that you should weigh your flour?

For a small challah, use about 1 lb of dough. Use up to 2 lbs for a really nice size challah.

To make a simple round, take your dough and roll it out into a long strand. The most important part is that the strand be even in thickness all the way. Then take one end in your hand, and wind the other end around to make you round Challah (it will look like one side of Princess Leia’s hair!!). If you wind it very tight, you will get a very nice tall Challah. If you want the Challah to be more flat, then wind loosely.

To make the round braided Challah as in my photo, the best would be to follow the following youtube video. The woman does three different challot, and the round braid in the middle one.

To add raisins to your Challah, you should roll out each section into a sheet and then cover with raisins. Then roll up the sheet to make your strand.

Enjoy!

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Three Acts of Kindness

Facebook and the blogosphere have been filled with so many negative political postings of late; I have started to wonder if Facebook is more harm than good. If everyone keeps posting about what is wrong with the world, when do we get to read about what is right with the world, or at least what can we do to make what is wrong right? I want to mention here three things that I have witnessed that shows what is right in the world. Two of these I witnessed and the other one happened to me personally.

  1. Today I was running very late for work. Yesterday I went in late on purpose and I forgot to reset my alarm clock back to its normal 5:15 am. So I woke up at 6:15 and quickly got ready and made the train about 30 minutes later than my normal train. This train turned out to be a local so I was not almost 45 minutes behind my usual schedule. The one major thing I like about commuting at 6:15 am is that the trains are usually light. I can always get a seat and when I get out in NYC, there are not many people around. Fast forward 45 minutes and you get a very different experience. I got a seat fine on the train out of Edison, but the PATH train in Newark was very full and the subways were already packed. Coming upstairs from the PATH, I found hundreds of people pushing their way through the area to get to their offices, the subways or shopping. As I made it to the end of a long narrow corridor everyone was rushing to make it across Church Street before the traffic safety workers form the World Trade Center site closed the chains (for those who do not work in this area, during rush hours there are traffic safety workers rather than traffic lights). I got across the street and they had already closed the chains. There was one person in a wheelchair trying to get across the street the other way. This man looked older and much disheveled. He was very likely homeless and had very little in this world. With the flow of the pedestrian traffic is was almost impossible to stop and go back to this person, but out of the blue, one commuter did just that. He stopped, risking being pushed to the ground by other commuters, walked back to this man, and wheeled him across the street before any problems could arise from this.

    This anonymous person did not need to do this. He gained nothing from it and probably got to work a few minutes late because of it. But he saw another fellow human being in distress and he realized that it was his responsibility to help this person. In this way he was doing his part to fulfill what we read in the Aleinu, l’taken olam b’malchut shaday, “When the world will be perfected under the reign of the Almighty.” This tiny act of kindness from one stranger to another will help to bring future redemption.

 

  1. I have not made any secret of my family’s struggle with our son’s autism. It has made many things difficult in our life and we are still learning how to lessen the struggle. The other day I reached out via email to someone I had met many years ago when I was still at Rutgers. Since then, he has become a very well-known Rabbi and a major public figure. I reached out to him because he, like I, has a son with Autism and there are many issues that my family is dealing with that I knew he had already dealt with in his life. I introduced myself and asked if he remembered me. I explained in brief our story and a little about our struggle with Jewish education, our Synagogue life and our son’s difficulties with our chosen religious lifestyle. To be honest, I really did not expect much of a response. I figured that maybe I would get a nice email back with a few sources to look up, or a contact to call and a Shanna Tova. That ended up being far from what I got. Not only did he respond, he forwarded my email to his wife and the two of them have reached out to us an offered to speak with us on the phone, or through skype to help us learn from all the struggles that they have already overcome. At that moment I felt such joy at being part of the Jewish community and knowing that, in the words of this extraordinary Rabbi’s equally extraordinary wife, “We are all in this together.”

    Like in my first example, he did not need to spend more than a moment to reply to me. In fact, he did not even need to respond, but he did and we have had multiple emails back and forth on a few different topics. It has opened a new lifeline of communication that could end up being very helpful to my family. Hillary Clinton wrote that “It takes a village.” I am finding that our village goes so far beyond my own town. I hope that this will continue to be a source of help for us.

 

  1. My third example comes from something I recently that was extremely moving. A certain person that I know has been afflicted with a disease similar to Parkinson’s disease. This is a man who is a speaker who was well-known for his fiery lectures on political topics as well as brilliant talks about Judaism and Jewish life today. When you were at one of his talks, you would never fall asleep. He kept everyone listening to his insightful words whether you agreed with him or not. Now, a year later he is very frail. Walking with a walker, a helmet on his head for protection and an aide holding his arm, he can only get from place to place with much assistance. He has trouble communicating so his days of speaking are over. I saw him listening to another speaker giving a lecture at a time and place where he was to have spoken. He sat next to his wife and children and I saw the expression on his face and how it clearly pained him to not be able to be doing what he so loved. You might think that the act of kindness that I am going to write about was done to him. In this you would be very wrong. While he was pained to be sitting in a seat listening to someone else, his wife was unable to keep her emotions in check and she cried for her husband. She could not bear the fact that her brilliant husband was not able to lecture like he always did and that his body was totally failing him. What happened next astonished me. This great man, who had every right to be angry with God and the world, comforted his wife and told her it was ok. Even as I type this I cannot fail to be moved by this. He was not thinking of himself, he was thinking of his wife and the comfort that she needed, despite the fact that he needed comfort and prayer more than most. This was perhaps the greatest example of kindness I have ever witnessed.

As we continue through the holiday season I pray that we can all find it in ourselves to add some kindness to the world like these three people did. I am starting a Facebook page that is going to ask people for one day to refrain from political posting and focus instead on postings showing off the good in the world. Please join with me on October 4th for a day without politics on Facebook. http://www.facebook.com/daywithoutpolitics

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Lancaster

I meant to write about each day on our vacation, but circumstances made it difficult. We made it home on Tuesday at about 11:30 which was a little earlier than we expected. My mother-in-law picked up lunch for us and we got all of the kids’ stuff together. I brought in all of our bags so we could add our stuff to the bag with the kids’ and that way we would only have one bag with us. I also brought in our toiletries bag to add the kids toothbrushes etc (this will be important shortly). I packed everything back in the car and off we went to Lancaster. It was actually a very pleasant drive. Avi was in the back of the car with a laptop and a movie (we have power adapters to plug into the car) and Shayna and Noam were content in the middle. Avi actually fell asleep at some point and so the ride was very quiet (YAY!)

We stopped off at the furniture store where we had bought our dining room table a number of years ago because we have a broken chair and they will fix it for us. Avi woke up at this but was still calm. Unfortunately as we moved on we got to a point where traffic was totally stopped. We were on a small road with one lane in each direction. It turns out that there was work going on and they were only letting one side through at a time. Well it seems that they let the other side through for 15 minutes or more! That really got the kids upset (and us too!) We had hoped to maybe do something in the afternoon, but by the time we got to the hotel, we were all pooped. We brought all of the bags in and then I went to put some of the toiletries in the bathroom and I noticed that the toiletries bag was not here! YIKES! All of our meds including Avi’s were back at home. UGH! So we let the kids swim in the pool and then I made some pasta for dinner. I decided that I would drive home, sleep there and bring the meds back. There is an ice cream shop next to the hotel so we took the kids there first and got them small ice creams. It seems things are cheaper in Lancaster because a single scoop here is almost three scoops at home and the same price as a single there! The kids were VERY happy. After we got back to the hotel I left and they went to sleep. My two hour trip took almost three due to heavy traffic (at 11 pm mind you) because of construction. But luckily on the way back in the morning I had no traffic.

The hotel is very nice; it is a MainStay Suties hotel which is a Choice Hotel property. We have two bedrooms and a small kitchen. No frills but it work well for a mid-week stay. We would not use a place like this for Shabbat, but for this it was fine. There are a number of Orthodox people staying here and one woman told us that she checked out the breakfast and everything was kosher! On Wednesday we went to visit the Herrs chips factory. We had bad luck this trip with driving because for quite some time of it we were behind a very slow moving truck and a 40 minute drive ended up taking almost double. The factory tour is great and you get to taste chips right off the line while they are still warm. YUM! We bought a lot of junk food, had our lunch and then drove to Hershey’s Chocolateworld. They have a ride through the “factory” that was a lot of fun and we got free chocolate at the end and a photo of all of us (a rarity, see below). We saw a few more of the things there and did some shopping in the store (of course) and even bumped into another Highland Park family! After a nice dinner in Lancaster, we went back to the hotel for much needed sleep.

Today we went to Hersheypark and met up with the Kamenses who are down here too. After MUCH drama from Avi we went on a buch of rides, had a great time in the water park area and despite MUCH drama from Avi (did I say that already) we had a fine time. I really like Hersheypark. We go to Six Flags in NJ a lot but Hershey really has a lot for everyone. The have lots of roller coasters, but they do have rides for kids who do not like the thrills (Noam), rides for kids that are little (Shayna) and rides for everyone! They have a waterpark area and even some old fashioned rides like the swings and a carousel. The food prices are lower than at Great Adventure and all in all it is fun place to be. We’ll have to go back some time.

We are now back at the hotel and the kids are asleep (I think) and we are about to be as well. All told, it was a pretty good week, but I will be glad to be home.

Our family photo.

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Avi and Shayna with a big piece of chocolate.

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Brandywine day 2

Today ended up being a nice day despite the heavy rain in the morning. We started the day with a wonderful breakfast at the Inn. They have three hot dishes each day and a buffet with cereal, fresh fruit, yogurt and other delicious selections. It started raining right around breakfast time, but we were going to a museum in the morning so we prayed that it would end for the afternoon.

After breakfast we visited the Brandywine River Museum. This is a very nice art museum which highlights late 19th and early 20th century American art. A large portion is from local artists. It turns out that the Brandywine valley has produced many well known artists; the most well known being Andrew Wyeth (and his father N.C. Wyeth). N.C. Wyeth was well known for illustrating books but his great work are his paintings, many of which are the painting versions of his illustrations. He did 17 beautiful pieces that are in the original editions of Treasure Island, and the museum owns 12 of them. His son Andrew became even more famous and there is a whole gallery devoted to him, and then another gallery devoted to his son Jaime! I am not a big art fan, but I really enjoyed this museum. If you ever find yourself in this area, you should definitely see it!

In the afternoon we went to Longwood Gardens. This amazing place was built by Pierre S. DuPont and he actually designed most of it himself! There is so much to see and do, you could spend a few days there, but we saw the highlights in a half of a day. One highlight was bumping into Mark Weinstein and Stephanie Dickstein at the water fountain display!

Tomorrow morning we go back home to have lunch with the kids, and then we all will be going to Lancaster PA (almost back where we are now!)

A rose at Longwood Gardens

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The fountain display at Longwood

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The view from our deck at the Inn

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