Ashley’s Ultimate Vegan Challah

Since making the decision to go vegan 7 1/2 years ago, I’ve been in search of a challah recipe that can compete with my favorite eggy versions from my childhood. The kind I liked best was extra eggy, soft and cake-like challah with an extremely rich flavor and delicate crumb.  I could eat slice after slice, coated with the unsalted, pareve margarine my mom kept on hand for meat meals.  Although water challah exists in the US, it’s not nearly as popular, and can be quite difficult to find.  In fact despite reassurances from several friends, there was only one store in all of Manhattan that I knew would reliably have an accidentally vegan challah.  Given the scarcity of options, I spent many a Friday night dinner unable to participate in the cornerstone ritual of blessing and breaking bread at the start of a meal. This is less of an issue in Israel, as it is much easier to find egg-free challah here, and at most meals there’s also a pile of soft pitas sitting next to the braided loaves.

My quest for the perfect challah recipe has been ongoing since a very young age.  Even when I knew where to buy my favorite brand, I still always had an itch to make my own, and no matter how masterful I became in pastry creation, my challah was a perpetual disappointment, eggy or vegan.  The first egg free recipe I tried called for the unholiest of sins in my book, most especially as an egg replacer: banana. There is nothing you can say or do to make me believe that “you can’t even taste the banana!” because yes, I can, even in those super chocolatey brownies.  Even the slightest hint that banana is lurking beneath the surface, and the brownie/cake/smoothie/muffin/challah is ruined.  I still wanted to try that first, sinful recipe, however, so I subbed the banana for another sweet and starchy plant, namely pumpkin.  I continued to use that recipe for several years, but nothing about it was even close to the challah I was trying to approximate.  Several years later, I adapted a recipe from a friends mother, by merely leaving the egg out.  The ratios of sweetness to breadiness was perfect, but it came out as slightly too oily.  Still, it was the best challah I’d ever made.  Because I didn’t own a blender or food processor when I lived in Manhattan, blended tofu was out as an option, but my other go to egg-replacer–non-dairy yogurt–was still on the table.  Before I happened to bring that experiment to fruition, I happened upon the brioche recipe from Bittersweet Blog, which used a chickpea flour based custard as the egg replacer. The sticky sweet brioche dough made a decent braid (and tasted delicious to boot), but it still wasn’t exactly what I was looking for in a challah.

FullSizeRender (1)For Rosh Hashanah last year, I decided to embark on yet another challah experiment, drawing inspiration from both the brioche recipe as well as from some of the other recipes I’d liked the best.  The chickpea custard gave the dough just the right amount of enrichment, so the crumb was soft and tender, with a sweet almost cake-y, but not overpowering flavor.  For the glaze, I mixed together a bit of soymilk with a touch of silan (date syrup), which helped give the loaves a bit of sheen and that same rich color that traditional loaves have.  The recipe will either make one large round loaf, or one large braid (which I prefer to bake in a loaf pan in order to retain more height).  You can sprinkle the top with traditional toppings like poppy or sesame seeds, or you can have a bit of fun and try za’atar or paprika!

May all our meals be a little sweeter this year! שנה טובה ומתוקה! Have a happy and sweet new year!

IMG_0011Ashley’s Ultimate Vegan Challah

  • 1/4 c chickpea flour
  • 1 c non dairy milk
  •  1 packet active dry yeast
  • 1/3 c maple syrup or silan
  • 1/3 c canola oil
  • 1/2 tsp black salt
  • 5-6 c all-purpose flour


  • 3 tbsp nondairy milk mixed with 1-2 tbsps of silan
  • sesame seeds, poppy seeds, zaatar

In a small saucepan, mix chickpea flour with some of the milk to form paste. Whisk in the rest of the milk, and cook on medium heat until significantly thickened and pudding-like, stirring constantly.  Let cool until just warm to touch.  In a large bowel, stir together the chickpea custard with the yeast and maple syrup or silan.  Allow the yeast mixture to rest for a bit.  The yeast may start to bubble slightly (which is a good thing).  Add in the salt and the oil, and then begin to add flour.  I usually start with about 4 cups, then knead it in to see how sticky the dough still is.  Add more flour if necessary, a little at a time, until the dough is no longer sticky.  Knead about 10 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic, and bounces back when lightly pressed.  Place the dough in a clean, oiled bowl.  Cover with a bit of plastic and a towel and place in the fridge to ride overnight.  In the morning, punch down the dough, then preheat the oven to 350F (about 175C).  Shape the dough according to your preference.  For a round loaf, roll the dough into one long rope.  Tie the rope into a regular knot, tucking one end underneath the loaf, while letting the other stick out just a bit. Let rise in a warm place until almost doubled in size.  Brush with milk and silan mixture, then sprinkle the topping over evenly.  Bake on a large cookie sheet (for the round loaf) for about 30 minutes.  If after that time the top is browning too quickly, cover with a piece of foil and bake for about another 30 minutes.  When done, a knife inserted into the center (do it between coils, not in the exact center of the rope) should come back clean, and will slide in easily.  You can alternatively check that it sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.  If braiding the loaf, it will probably only need to back for about 30 minutes.



Truffled Vichyssoise with Video Demo!

Let me tell you something, it is HOT in Tel Aviv right now.  Not that I ever had any doubts that summers in Israel were anything less than scorching, but after spending a year in the climate controlled comfort of suburban New Jersey, weeks on end of 90+ degree weather (fahrenheit, or about 32C for the rest of the world) with upwards of 70% humidity can be a bit of a shock to the system.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I still love the summer, days spent on the beach, cool drinks, warm nights, and everything that comes along with it, but it also means regularly trying to find ways to beat the heat without the benefit of 24/7 air conditioning.  This mostly involves well-placed fans, icy cold drinks, and meals that taste good cold.

Last week, I decided to try out a box of vegetables delivered fresh from an organic farm in the area.  I’ve always loved the idea of CSAs and vegetable co-op boxes, as it forces me to get creative, and eat a greater variety of vegetables than I normally would choose of my own volition.  Our box, which was delivered directly to my kitchen, included such goodies as arugula, parsley, onions, scallions, leeks, a winter squash, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, and potatoes.  Upon seeing the bounty of alliums and roots, I knew I absolutely had to make vichyssoise, otherwise known as cold potato leek soup.  There weren’t quite as many leeks as I would have liked for the soup, so I supplemented with some regular onions, which I slowly caramelized with a ton of minced garlic in order to deepen the flavors of the soup.  I then added white wine, cubed potatoes, and lastly the leeks, which I cooked just long enough to soften, in order that they keep their bright, fresh flavor.  To round it all out, I pureed the veggies, then added a few pinches of truffle salt, a bit of truffle oil, and a can of light coconut milk.  The deep, heady aroma of the truffles counterbalances the bright punch of the leeks and white wine, while the coconut milk softens all the flavors, and brings them together in a smooth, velvety soup.  To help cool it down more quickly, I dropped several ice cubes into the cold soup, rather than thinning with water, but we were so hungry for dinner that night, that we ate it while it was closer to room temperature than chilled.  Of course, after chilling in the fridge overnight, it was even more heavenly, and the perfect meal for a hot summer’s day.

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Making vichyssoise tonight! This week I ordered a box of organic vegetables from a farm in the area, and it included a ton of potatoes and leeks, so naturally I couldn't resist turning them into soup! Of course, it's so hot here, that it worked out even better to make a soup that's meant to be eaten cold. In order to add more flavor, I caramelized some onion and garlic as the base, then added the leeks at the very end so they just softened up. That way the soup retains the bright, fresh flavor of the produce! #vegan #whatveganseat #vegansofig #veganfoodshare #veganlife #veganlifestyle #plantpower #paleofriendly #kosher #pareve #soup #summer #fresh #local #healthy #eatclean #dairyfree #french #israel #telaviv #personalchef

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Truffled Vichyssoise

  • 2 large onions, sliced
  • 3 tbsps olive oil
  • 7-8 large cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
  • 3-4 cups white potato, peeled and cubed
  • 1 c white wine
  • 1 tbsp dried thyme
  • salt
  • 4 small leeks, cleaned and sliced (not including the dark green part)
  • 2 tsps black truffle salt
  • 1 tbsp white truffle oil
  • 1 16 oz can light coconut milk
  • 1 scallion, thinly sliced

In a large pot over medium-low heat, add the olive oil, onions and a pinch of salt.  Sweat the onions for about 10 minutes, until they’ve released their juices and are translucent.  Add the chopped garlic, and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, about 45 minutes. The onions should be a deep caramel color, but take care not to burn them.  Add the potatoes to the pot, then deglaze with the white wine, scraping up any bits of onion that may have attached themselves to the pan.  Add water to cover the potatoes, and another generous pinch of salt.  Bring to a simmer for about 20 minutes, until the potatoes are tender.  Add the sliced leeks to the pot, and stir.  Cook about 10 minutes, until they’ve softened but are still a bright green.  Remove from heat.  Using an immersion blender, puree the soup until smooth and velvety.  Stir in the truffle salt, truffle oil, and coconut milk.  Adjust the seasoning and let cool.  If it’s too thick, you can add some water until it reaches your desires consistency, or add several ice cubes, which will help it cool down faster.  Serve chilled.  Garnish with sliced scallions if desired.

Tous végétal en Provence: Vegan Travels Through the South of France

IMG_2838My arrival into the heart of Provence was accompanied by ravenous hunger.  Though the memory of my earlier socca lingered, vegan goodies proved to be scarce during the long journey to the farm.  As luck would have it, there was a railroad strike in progress–of which I was thankfully informed by the front desk staff at the hostel in Nice–and with each leg of my journey, I found myself scrambling to find the information assistants, show them my tickets, while explaining (tout en français, I might add), where I was going.  After two trains and a bus, I arrived in the small Provençal town of Tarrascon, where I was picked up by the farmer.  We drove through a picturesque countryside that was straight out of a Disney movie, before turning off of the fast-moving main road directly into the driveway of the farm.  The house was a stone cottage, renovated on the inside, with an exceptionally large garage.  At the time of my arrival, the volunteers–including myself– numbered four, two Korean girls who spoke no French (and farmers who spoke no English), and Jannette, another American girl.  As dinner neared completion, I set my large amount of luggage in the garage, which was the only place we had extra space, before washing up and readying myself for the meal.  The first course was a delightfully refreshing salad accompanied by fresh melon–the perfect start to a summer supper.  Our second course could only be described as a bit of a let down, given that the main component was a whole boiled eggplant.  We were each provided with our own eggplant and given a mixture of fresh chopped parsley and minced garlic with which to top it.  The final component was a drizzle of local, organic extra-virgin olive oil.  I was too hungry to refuse, and wanted to make a good first impression besides, so i mashed the eggplant as best I could, and heaped it with garlic.  The farmers warned us (and the Korean girls, who also heaped on the garlic) that it was very strong, but I’ll take raw garlic over plain eggplant any day.  We finished the meal with a bit of soy based pudding, and settled in for the evening.IMG_2915

The next morning, the Korean girls departed, leaving just Jannette and I to fall into the morning routine.  We would be up and dressed by about 7:30/8 o’clock in the morning, and take a small breakfast of tea, bread and jam.  Some mornings we were also given fresh fruit, but never did we have more protein than what was already in the whole grain bread.  Oh, the things we would have done for even a bit of peanut butter (yes, yes, how American of us). Each morning, we started our work by picking figs off the sprawling tree in the front yard.  We would search through the large leaves to find the ones that were ripe enough to be “torn” from the tree.  We pulled on the supple branches in order to bring higher hanging fruit within our grasp.  Often times, we would climb the regal limbs of the tree, balancing with a finger or a knee, while we pulled another branch further in, in order to grasp another perfectly ripe fig.  All the while, we had plastic baskets strapped onto our bodies, which, when full, we would gently empty into the crates sitting on the low stone ledge by the patio.  Everyday, we managed to fill at least a crate and a half of beautifully plump figs,  sometimes more.  It was truly a marvel of nature’s bounty.  After about an hour and a half of fig picking, we would move on to field work.  Two of the days we spent pulling weeds on the edges of some of the greenhouses, some days we picked potatoes, and others, we picked green beans.  For the potatoes, the farmer would plow the field with the tractor, uprooting the plants, leaving the potatoes mostly exposed.  We would then move up and down the rows with buckets, sifting through the dirt to get all of the potatoes that were big enough.  As the buckets filled, we would bring them over to a pile of crates, and dump them there, filling as many crates as possible until there was nothing left in the row.

Spending time bent beneath the searing Mediterranean sun, and lugging heavy buckets of potatoes was not easy, but surprisingly, it was equal to, if not better than picking green beans.  The chore of gathering green beans, while not particularly strenuous, was not exactly comfortable either.  One would think sitting would be preferred over kneeling, but sitting on a wooden plank that was softened only by a thin, foam gardening mat, while squeezed between two narrow rows of vegetation is hardly a lesson in luxury.  Once seated, with a basket at our feet, we would comb through each plant, ensuring that we collected only the fully grown string beans.  Each plant took several minutes to pick through before we could continue our crawl towards the end of the row.  While the farmers were well versed in green bean picking, and could manage a full row in perhaps two afternoons, us volunteers would move at half speed, completing only about a row and a half in a week.  The wooden board and inherent twisting of the spine required in order to collect the beans wore on the body significantly more than would be expected, and so it came to be that green beans were perhaps our least favorite of the tasks we were set to do.  At the end of each session of either green bean or potato collection, we would evenly distribute the crops among wooden crate, before they were taken out to be sold at various markets throughout the region.IMG_2800

IMG_2847 IMG_2824 IMG_2844 IMG_2865


During our rare time off, we were taken to various nearby tourist sites, in order to better acquaint ourselves with the history and culture of the area. Our first free afternoon, we were dropped off at Les Baux de Provence, a medieval village situated in the midst a rock formation referred to as l’enfern (the inferno, because they look like flames).  Underneath the peak on which the ruins of the chateau is perched, is an old quarry that has been repurposed into a multi-media art exhibit.  Called the carrière des lumières–the quarry of lights–we were utterly baffled as to what exactly it was, until we entered the exhibit space later in the day.  We decided to head into the old town first, and make our way up its winding stone roads to the chateau set high above us.  As we walked, we ducked into the many shops littered throughout the streets–my favorite being those selling speciality foods of the region–as well as shops that sold traditional souvenirs and quirky kitchenwares.  We stopped by the mayors seat, which also held an exhibit of photos in a downstairs room, showing residents of Morocco during the French occupation.  As we continued to ascend the slopes of the mountain, I was reminded of being in Tzfat’s old city, from the steep cobblestone streets to the stone buildings, which were also dated to the 15th and 16th centuries.  The ruins of the castle crowned the top of a cliff, offering stunning views of the surrounding countryside.  We bought our tickets, and began to explore, passing models of trebuchets and battering rams, old churches, and dozens of heady lavender plants, while drinking in the breathtaking scenery.  The highest points of the chateau were the two watch towers, which remained stable enough for visitors to climb, thought not without a warning for windy days.  The steps leading to the tower were ancient blocks of stone, some of which were so worn out from centuries of footsteps, that there were depressions so deep, it made climbing nearly impossible.  I couldn’t help but think that such conditions would never fly in the United States, given our proclivity for frivolous lawsuits, thus requiring either that the site was closed to the public or that authenticity was lost in favor of reconstruction.  The last of the most magnificent view points was on the ledge that formerly constituted part of the great hall.  It towered over the stone village and the rest of ruins, crowned by a large open archway, where I imagine a window once stood.  While we once again took in the landscape doted before us, with fields, towns, and even the tiniest shimmer of the Mediterranean at the farthest reaches of our sight, I remarked on what it must have been like to actually sit down to dinner to that view on a regular basis.

From there, we worked our way back down the slope, and over to the quarry.  Inside, the bare, stone walls were alive with light, as the colors of paintings done by artists from the Austrian secession movement danced around us.  The paintings shifted, immersing us first in a field of flowers, then surrounding us by grotesque figures, all while set to a somber classical score.  We were utterly transfixed.  The immersive nature of the project and the juxtaposition of light and dark, compounded with the soaring and eerie music, was more evocative than any of the pieces alone could have done.  My only mode of expression in such a setting could be movement.  Alas, a live dance recital could only be provided by me. As the last of our outing passed, consumed by the continuously swirling colors, we sadly wrenched ourselves away, if only to be on time for our ride back to the farm.

IMG_2792 IMG_2884 IMG_2886 IMG_2889 IMG_2908After several more grueling days under the sun, we were finally given a full day off, though a day of rest was not in our cards.  Early Saturday morning, we were shuttled off to the nearby town of Fontvielle to catch a bus to the ancient town of Arles.  Situated along the Rhône river, Arles houses the remains of a number of Roman structures, and holds distinction as one of the cities in which Vincent Van Gogh lived for a period of time.  Our visit coincided with a day long music festival in honor of the summer solstice that took place in various spots throughout the city.  There was also a considerable amount of space given to an outdoor market, part of which housed home goods, clothing, and decorative jewelry, and a larger part of which was given over to produce and prepared foods.  We made our way through the first part of the market, before heading over to the banks of the river for an early morning walk.  We took in the ruins of the Roman columns that had once supported a moving bridge.  From the river, we worked our way back through town, this time seeking out the ancient colosseum.  Given my tight budget, I decided to view the ruins from the outside only, while Jannette toured the inside.  Our early start coupled with all the walking worked up our appetites, so we went back over to the market, and slowly made our way through, carefully inspecting every stall.  In the end, I decided on a baguette, some olives, and a truly decadent artichoke and garlic spread as my lunch, while Jannette bought some magnificent looking strawberries.  We spread our picnic on a patch of grass in the shade, and took a much needed rest.

We were soon back to wandering about the town, stopping at the ruins of the amphitheater (the entirety of which I could see from outside), as well as the Van Gogh museum.  The endless cobblestone squares passed under our feet, each one recalling the last we saw, until another break was in order.  We stopped at one of the hole in the wall cafes, where there was barely room to stand, let alone sit indoors, but which provided several tables outdoors, sheltered from the sun by large umbrellas.  As we took stock of our travels, we decided that no further exploration was necessary, and though we still had several hours before we could return to the farm, our walking would remain at a minimum.  To help pass the time, we went back to the colosseum, where earlier we had met a young American ex-pat, who made his way by cutting coins into jewelry.  He had a large stock of precut pieces that included coins from all over the world, including the old francs, American money, and even a few Israeli agurot (like pennies, except 10 agurot is the smallest denomination available).  I was quite taken with the agurot until he showed me a piece not on display, an old Israeli shekel, adorned with the magnificent lion, and an embossed ישראל (Israel).  IMG_2955 IMG_2959 IMG_2974 IMG_2977 IMG_2981

This piece was not for sale, but it happened to be the only photo of the coins that I took.

This piece was not for sale, but it happened to be the only photo of the coins that I took.

To my misfortune, I had neither the money nor anything interesting to trade for it, though it was not for lack of trying.  We sat on the curb of the street, chatting with him while he wrapped up his sales for the day (though I think we also proved to be a considerable distraction to business), before setting off to engage in the age old French pastime of wine drinking.  The three of us found a small wine shop not far from the river bank, where we purchased a bottle of local rosé, and then split while sitting on the steps to the river walk.  There was a band performing at a nearby cafe that served as our live soundtrack, enhanced by the golden sunset dancing across the water. When we once again met up with the farmers, after dusk had fallen, we took a brief detour to participate in some French folk dances that had sprung up around one of the bands.  The last dance saw us mixed with a crowd of locals, in a large circle, alternating men and women.  The men and women then split into an outer and inner circle by gender, where we followed along with the movements, twirling together with a partner, only to be spun away to the next.  It was the kind of spirited, cultural affair one imagines could only happen in a movie, but it was magical just the same.

Essential French for the Traveling Vegan

When I first went to Europe at age 17, just after my high school graduation, I brought along a print out list of words in several different languages regarding the food I did and didn’t eat. Being that I had studied French for three years, and that I was on the trip with my French teacher, I wasn’t worried about describing my dietary needs while I was in France (every other country was a different story, especially Italy). That handy list has been lost to time, but for those of you who are worried about traveling and eating in France, I’ve put together a short list of phrases that might be helpful when dining out. Please let me know if any of you have any specific phrases you would like to know, and for those of you who are native French speakers, feel free to correct any grammar mistakes I may have missed.

A note on pronunciation: I tried my best to represent the phonetics of this in a way that’s accessible to everyone. If anyone would prefer me to add IPA, I will be more than happy to do so (because IPA is the best).  Don’t worry too much about having perfect pronunciation, most people you encounter will appreciate your making an effort.  Most importantly, enjoy your journeys!

Essential French for the Traveling Vegan


végétalien/ne*- vegan

végétal- plant-based

lait- milk

oeuf/s (euhf/euh)-eggs





fruites (froo-ee)-fruit






soja- soy

lait du soja- soy milk

fromage- cheese




Je suis végétalien/ne*

Juh soo-ee vegetal-ee-ãh**/ehn

“I am vegan”

Je ne mange rien…( du lait, des oeufs, de viand, de poulet, de poisson, du fromage, de miël)

Juh nuh mahnj ree-ãh (doo ley, deyz euh, duh vee-ahnd, duh poo-ley, duh pwah-sãw, doo fro-mahj, duh mee-ehl)

“I do not eat any…(milk, eggs, meat, chicken, fish, cheese, honey)”

Avez-vous quelque chose végétal?

Ah-vey voo kel-kuh shoz veh-jeh-tal?

“Do you have anything plant-based”

Je voudrais un café avec lait du soja
juh voo-drey uh kafey ah-vek ley du soja

“I would like coffee with soy milk”

Pouvez-vous faire mon répas sans beurre?

Poo-vey voo fair mohn rey-pah sahn beuhr

“Can you please make my meal without butter”

*The second option (with the “ne”) is the feminine ending

**That’s a nasalized vowel, there are a few of them in here, but my keyboard wouldn’t allow me to put a tilda (~) over all of them.  Don’t worry too much about it, English speakers are not very good at nasalized vowels in isolation–meaning there is no nasal consonant ( “m” “n” or “ng”, that’s “ŋ” for the other linguists out there) overtly pronounced.

My last note on my experience with vegan food in France: I was generally on my own, so I steered clear of restaurants that didn’t specifically serve vegan or vegetarian food, and I can’t speak to the willingness of chefs to accommodate special dietary needs.  I did, however, discover (at least in Paris) that most regular cafes do not carry soy milk, you’d have to go to a speciality cafe or Starbucks.  That being said, wherever your travels within France (or the world in general) take you, is a great resource for vegan and vegetarian restaurants that can be searched by location. Even though it might seem like France is the land of butter and foie gras, there are plenty of great veg places out there, and I definitely didn’t go hungry.

Le fabuleux destin d’une petite végan: Nice

As I glimpsed a sparkle from the brilliantly blue Mediterranean from the airplane window, my excitement began to bubble over.  This was it! I was really going to France!  While I hesitate to call myself a full-blown Francophile, given that my interests are mostly linguistic, I’ve always had a soft spot for “l’Hexagone”.  My decision to learn French was made nearly twenty years ago, when I became friends with a girl in my kindergarten class whose family was Quebeçois.  During playdates at her house, they never hesitated to speak French to one another, though they would always pardon themselves due to my monolingualism, and translated for me if necessary.  Naturally, I decided that when I got older, I too would learn French, so I could share in the foreign language fun.  If I’d only known how much easier it would have been to begin a second language at five than at fourteen, I would have insisted my parents find me French lessons immediately (and I would have had many more built in opportunities to practice, unlike with my music lessons).


As planned, however, I began studying French when I began high school, and I was fairly determined to become a proficient speaker, though this goal was still very much a dream by the time I graduated–even as a member of the French Honor Society.  I continued my French studies in university, where my first French professor increased my proficiency by leaps and bounds, and inspired me to pursue French as my minor.  All told, when I graduated, I had taken as many French classes, as I had linguistics classes, but I still felt uncomfortable with everyday speaking and understanding–hence the desire to spend an extended period of time in France.


Some sort of mist park

IMG_2743My arrival in Nice washed over me as waves of relief that I was once again in a country where I had some knowledge of the local language.  While I had no issues with being understood in Germany, I felt supremely uncomfortable that I couldn’t respond with anything in German, even if I’d tried.  From the moment I disembarked from the plane, all of my vocabulary came back to me, despite having some trouble recalling French while I was in Israel and studying Hebrew regularly.  I purchased a bus ticket, tout en français, and made my way to my hostel, all while pulling my 30+ kilos of luggage behind me.  In total, I had less than a day to spend in Nice, and I’d done next to no research on what to do there.  While the beach was definitely on my list, finding food became my first priority.  It turned out, there was one vegan restaurant in the city, and it was only several blocks from my hostel, but it didn’t open for dinner for another hour or so.  I took that as a sign that I should definitely do some wandering (and see if there were any snackums to be found along the way…I was famished after a day of traveling).  With no snackums to be found, I took in the brightly colored buildings of Place Masséna, as well as the grey pebbles of the Niçoise shoreline.

IMG_2741The vegan restaurant whose opening I was awaiting is called Le Speakeasy.  It is owned and operated by an American ex-pat for the last fifteen or so years.  It is the tiniest hole in the wall, with maybe three tables tops.  The menu was made up of rustic, daily specials, inspired by the local cuisine.  For my dinner, I settled on the daily vegetable torte, which was a homemade gluten free crust filled with tender potatoes and sweet leeks.  It came with a fresh side salad, plus unlimited black olives and fresh, whole grain bread.  I also figured that since I was in France, I may as well get a glass of wine to go alongside my meal.  By the time I left, I was deeply satisfied, and was ready to once again wander around Vieux Nice.  I found myself along a pedestrian route running parallel to the sea that was filled to the brim with all manner of restaurants (but mostly Italian ones).  As I ambled along, taking in the menus full of food items I wouldn’t touch, I glimpsed a sandwich board advertising “glace sans lait”…”Glace sans lait!”  I thought, “Why, that sounds almost like it might be vegan ice cream!”  Though I was fairly certain I would only find a selection of fruit sorbets, I went inside the shop anyway, and asked which of their products didn’t have milk.  The young man pointed me towards about 5 tubs full of what looked like some pretty legit gelato.  I confirmed again with him that they were milk free, before promptly tasting all of them.  My choice, of course, was not difficult, as they had a hazelnut option, and I am never one to pass up a good hazelnut gelato.  I slowly consumed my gelato as I made my way back to the hostel, and settled in for some good, old-fashioned internetting.


Artichokes at the fruit and flower market

Artichokes at the fruit and flower market

My train to the farm wasn’t scheduled until 2pm the next afternoon, so I woke up on the early side in order to catch the free hostel breakfast, which I believe consisted of toast with confiture (ok fine, jam), and some cereal that I sincerely prayed was vegan.  While I intended to do a bit more exploring before leaving the city, I also had some errands to run, like buying shoes I could wear to work on a farm (and also probably go hiking in), and buying a phone card.  I somehow managed to accomplish both almost entirely in French, much to my personal pride, and I also got to make my first trip to LUSH in over eight months.  As a reward, I bought myself a serving of socca from the fruit and flour market in the old city.  Socca is Niçoise speciality consisting of a chickpea flour pancake.  It has a rich, savory flavor, enhanced by a touch of salt and pepper (and possibly a hint of rosemary), that is crisp on the outside, but becomes almost creamy as you reach the interior of the oversized chickpea crepe.  It is naturally vegan, and officially one of my new favorite foods.  I took my greasy paper full of socca and went down to the shore, for a last bit of seaside fun before moving my journey along.

Socca and pissaladiere stand in the fruit and flower market

Socca and pissaladière stand in the fruit and flower market


A savory mess of chickpea deliciousness


Rhymes With Bacon: Veganz Take Berlin

Rose and I at the East Side Gallery

Rose and I at the East Side Gallery

“Rhymes with bacon, which we don’t eat. Because we’re vegan…” sang Rose, as we stood on the train platform, eager to begin our evening.  We bristled with anticipation, and the warmth of a shared bottle of Prosecco–a welcome sensation in the brisk Berlin air that was chilling the train platform.  Tonight was to be my formal introduction into the world of the famed Berlin nightclubs that Rose adores.  Though it’s still not really my scene (despite my love of dancing), I was eager to traverse the dark corners of the nightclubs, as well as participate ever so slightly in the local drinking culture.

When I travel, one of my favorite things to do is immerse myself in the local vegan food offerings.  Even in Moscow, I unearthed favorable reviews for vegetarian restaurants, though I wouldn’t have been surprised were they completely absent from the local landscape.  Given that I had my trusty, local vegan tour guide in Berlin, I did far less research on the vegan offerings before I arrived.  From what I had heard, not only were there plenty of delicious vegan foods available, there was even an entire vegan grocery store chain in Berlin!

Berlin is so vegan friendly, that mushrooms can even DJ!

Berlin is so vegan friendly, that even mushrooms can DJ!

To start things off after my arrival, we swung by a local burger joint that happened to have late night hours.  While neither of us were particularly impressed by the tofu burger, which was actually just a slice of crisp, fried tofu on a bun with lettuce and tomato (we added the ketchup and mustard ourselves), I was just happy to be able to find something filling to eat at that hour.  It always surprised me that in a city with clubs that are open for literally 3 days straight, many restaurants still closed on the earlier side, frustrating both hungry travelers (from the land of 24 hour diners at least) and those suffering a case of the drunchies.

IMG_2625The next day, Rose took me to a favorite Vietnamese restaurant of hers, Hamy, which served vegan options alongside their regular menu.  The space was small and cozy, and featured a large chalk board detailing the daily specials, of which there were only two.  We chose the curry option, and asked for it vegan, with tofu instead of chicken.  Within minutes, we were served an incredibly large portion of heavenly curry, which was perfectly spiced and balanced.  Even chock full of coconut cream and fried tofu, it didn’t feel heavy or greasy.  In my eight months in Israel, I hadn’t had anything that came close (mostly because I only had curry from a restaurant once the entire time I was there, and try as I might, I’m no expert on Southeast Asian cuisine).  After lunch, we headed over to the East Side Gallery, a large section that remains of the Berlin wall, which was then covered in various murals by a number of different artists.

Depictions of the fall of the wall

Depictions of the fall of the wall

The rest of the afternoon was spent whiling away the hours in the sun, pursuing such Berlin past times as drinking cheap beers from a corner store in a park.  We also made our way to a bakery called Cupcake Berlin, which served several vegan options alongside the rest of their baked goods.  Rose and I decided to split a cupcake, and I also bought a brownie to save for later.  I can honestly say their vegan cupcake was amazing, in all of its simplicity.  It was a golden vanilla cake, with a perfectly moist and springy crumb, topped with a rich, buttery vanilla buttercream.  During my travels, I rarely found a cupcake that could compete with those I make myself, but the vegan cupcake at Cupcake Berlin could definitely give me a run for my money (though I think my flavors are by far more compelling).

Drinking 79 cent beer from the corner store in a random Berlin square

Drinking 79 cent beer from the corner store in a random Berlin square

Behold, Cupcake Berlin!

Behold, Cupcake Berlin!

Practicially perfect in everyway

Practicially perfect in every way

Friday was the first rainy day I had experienced in months, but luckily the light drizzle didn’t deter us from our explorations, and we went to the DDR museum, an interactive exhibition dedicated to the years East Germany spent under the communist regime.  We had a chance to look at everything from toys, to a model house, to the clothing (which was frequently made of such poor quality fabrics that many did what they could to smuggle American made clothing in from West Berlin).  There were also videos discussing the housing of the future in East Berlin, as well as clips of radio and television programs.  We quickly passed several hours opening drawers and lifting doors to read about life in the DDR, and how it compared to life in West Berlin at the same time.

With a bear for mom

With a bear for mom


Welcome to the DDR! The best of all possible worlds….

IMG_2666As the afternoon cleared up, we took a walk across the city and through the Brandenburg gate to see the Holocaust memorial.  On our way there, we took a slightly wrong turn due to an apparent obstruction in our path in the form of a World Cup Carnival (or something like that).  Our detour took us on a leisurely stroll through the Tiergarten before we finally found the memorial.  One of the things that struck me most on my trip was just how late the sun was setting, late even for a trip that nearly coincided with the summer solstice.  As we took in the memorial–both the large stone slabs situated outdoors, which slowly envelope you into their abyss, before receding as you reach the other side–as well as the underground exhibit, we were entirely unaware of how late it was, and just how close to closing the exhibit was.  The indoor exhibit was a more personal display dedicated to works of art made by victims, information detailing the destruction that was wreaked upon each specific communities throughout the rest of Europe, and spotlights on several families that were deeply affected by the events of the Holocaust.  I was rushed through the final exhibit, as the staff closed down the memorial for the evening. It was a sombre start to Shabbat, which I insisted we celebrate in some small amount, especially after an evening spent connecting to the darker moments of our history.  It was then that I finally cracked open my last bottle of wine from the Tzfat winery, and in sharing it with Rose in Berlin, it tasted even better than I remembered.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe


In the thick of it

In the thick of it

We spent Saturday relaxing at home, in preparation for our big night out (we also had a tame night out Friday, where I was introduced to Rose’s friends as well as a DJ they were fans of).  We decided to eat in that night, in order to be more budget conscious, and just as we were discussing the merits of making homemade pizza for dinner that night, one of Rose’s roommates informed us that he and his girlfriend were planning on making pizza–effectively deciding that pizza was indeed the right choice for dinner.  We stopped off at the vegan grocery store that was several blocks from Rose’s apartment, and I marveled at the selection of vegan products I hadn’t had access to during the previous months.  I managed to reign myself in, and only bought a vegan candy bar from, GoMax Go (and basically the thing I missed the most in Israel), and a block of Italian style Cheezly, which I’d heard about, but never seen in the US (or Israel for that matter).  Rose’s roommate made the dough, and we individually topped our pizzas. I chose to make a white pizza with a creamy vegan bechamel, spiced with some black pepper, and enriched with just a touch of the Cheezly.  I also added succulent caramelized onions, razor thin slices of mushroom and yellow bell pepper (two ingredients I’m not generally a fan of, but were totally perfect in this application), some sliced fresh tomato, and then topped the cooked pizza with fresh arugula.  It was absolutely delicious, which lead me to stupidly eating the whole thing (despite its relative heft and richness…I thought I wouldn’t be able to eat for a week after polishing off the last bite).  Luckily, I had the chance to dance it off later that night, when we finally were admitted to the club.

Veganz, vegan grocery store!

Veganz, vegan grocery store!

A vegan pizza in the making

A vegan pizza in the making

Side by side with Rose's pizza, ready for the sauna

Side by side with Rose’s pizza, ready for the sauna

Omnomnomnom. Vegan white pizza complete

Omnomnomnom. Vegan white pizza complete

We started Sunday morning off by going to sleep (and we arrived home early by Berlin standards).  Our plan for the day was to check out a vegan cafe near Maur park, and then hit up Bear Pit Karaoke, within the park proper.  Fast Rabbit (the cafe) was cute and funky, and its menu featured two different wraps, plus a soup of the day.  Rose informed me that they also have THE BEST fries (which I think are named something like the gang bang….).  I decided to get the half and half wrap, which combined both filling options.  I am well aware as I struggle to describe this meal that I should have taken notes, or at least tried a little harder to document our lunch, however, I’m blaming my subpar memory of that particular hour on sleep deprivation.  I do remember Rose having a cauliflower based soup that was so good, I kinda wanted to steal it all from her.

Maur Park

Maur Park

The unexpected highlight of my trip to Berlin was definitely Bear Pit Karaoke, which was held in an open-air, stone amphitheater in the middle of the park.  It’s run by one guy, who brings in a small karaoke machine, laptop (and umbrella), and sets it up Sunday afternoons for some free entertainment. We clearly weren’t the only ones who thought this sounded like a fun time for a lazy Sunday, as the amphitheater was filled with people of all ages, and from all over the world.  After the first song or two, we made our way to an empty bench smack in the middle of the audience, where a man was making the rounds with a cooler of beer, while the host cracked jokes both in English and German.  We were just in time to see the most adorable little girl get up to sing a german song, aided by her mother–followed by a tween who sang a song of her own.  Rose and I contemplated getting up there, but with neither liquid courage, nor the perfect song in mind for the two of us to sing, we kept our hands by our sides.  Our favorite participants were always the American bros, likely in Berlin at the end of a study abroad trip, and dared by their friends.  But even American college guys in polo shirts and boat shoes belting out the Backstreet Boys couldn’t compete with Drunk German Lady.  I can’t remember the exact moment of her arrival, but at some point in the middle of the song, she made her way towards the singer, and began her booze fueled groove.  With each successive singer, she continued to assert her presence, until the host finally (and quietly) asked her to please leave the spotlight.  She refused.  The karaoke continued, and Drunk German Lady continued to dance.  Each of the singers took it in stride, which possibly encouraged her more.  The host’s intermittent pleas became more desperate, as he even appealed to Drunk German Lady’s husband (slightly less drunk, Drunk German Man) to escort her away.  Drunk German Lady began to protest.  She stumbled around the circular stage, appealing to the audience with shouts I couldn’t understand.  At some point she even laid down on the stone.  Her greatest and final attempt to remain a part of the festivities was to drop trou.  And no, she was not wearing any underwear.  The crowd simultaneously gasped, and covered their (or more likely their children’s) eyes.  Unlike in the US or Israel, throughout this whole ordeal, there was not a single security guard in sight.  The gig was only up when a large biker dude stood up, grabbed Drunk German Lady, and unceremoniously threw her out of the Bear Pit area.  She fled the scene, and her husband followed.  As we were leaving later, we passed her laying down in the middle of a walkway in front of a band.  I guess drunk habits die hard.

Welcome to the Bear Pit

Welcome to the Bear Pit

Adorable, courageous toddler

Adorable, courageous toddler

Drunk German Lady getting  her groove on

Drunk German Lady getting her groove on

My last full meal in Berlin was a green thai curry from a pan-Asian place a short ride from the park.  As we exited the park grounds, we passed through a flea market, and spotted a young guy packing up one of the tables, wearing a shirt with Hebrew writing on it.  This was my third Israeli sighting on the trip.  Somehow, we ran into the same guy and some of his friends on the train back to Rose’s, after getting our dinner, and I was quite excited to make sure I hadn’t forgotten all of my Hebrew in the preceding 4 days (it’s been 2 1/2 months since I left now, and I seem to still have the ability to hold a conversation).  For a final Berlin thrill,we made our way back to Berghain for a Sunday evening dance sesh, before my departure the next afternoon.

So long Berlin, hello France!

So long Berlin, hello France!

I managed a final German culinary hurrah at the airport, where I purchased a beer and a bag of paprika chips (which is apparently the flavor to try), and got ready to start my Provençal farm adventure.  All in all, I had a great time.  Even if I could have only eaten bread for the visit, it would have been worth it to see Rose.  As it stands though, Berlin has an amazing vegan scene, and it’s definitely one of the most affordable cities I’ve ever experienced.  I definitely hope to make it back for another visit in the near(ish) future, and try even more amazing vegan noms.

The Last Supper: Polentils and Broccoli

As my penultimate day in Israel transitioned into my ultimate Israeli night, I realized that despite wanting to enjoy the many delicious vegan meals on offer in Tel Aviv (before setting off on my European adventure), I had a lot of food left in my kitchen that needed to be used up.  I also had the good fortune to already be spending my time with friends who needed feeding.  After a quick stop at the corner store for some supplemental fruits and veggies, I devised a plan to use up the abundance of herbed polenta chilling in my fridge, as well as the garlic and lentils that had been generously given to me by a friend several months ago (I preferred to save personal food items such as these for when I had guests, so that I didn’t incur the wrath of my ever temperamental roommates should I share anything hailing from the communal pantry).  Earlier that morning, I had begun my polenta experiments, attempting to both pan-fry and bake the starchy squares.  Baking was the clear winner, from the ease of execution , to the crispy exterior.  The pan-fry used too much oil, inducing a veritable volcano of grease, while failing to achieve a crisp and golden outer crust.  That morning, I served the polenta with a sauce of succulent caramelized onions and creamy techina (because I didn’t have quite enough onions to serve them alone).  This style of polenta preparation had the potential to be not just an upscale snack or brunch, but also a deceptively fancy dinner.

Crispy polenta cakes, topped with brilliant broccoli and two scoops of delectable lentils Photo by Steven Winston

Crispy polenta cakes, topped with brilliant broccoli and two scoops of delectable lentils
Photo by Steven Winston

Inspired in part by a paté I’d had at lunch the day before, I wanted something similar to top the polenta.  While the paté I’d consumed for lunch consisted of a combination of mushroom, cashew and walnut blended to smooth and creamy perfection, I only had lentils (and no blender), which luckily lend themselves exceedingly well to the base of a vegetarian paté.  In order to add depth and richness to the lentils, I opted for roasted garlic, with its silky texture and sweet, deep garlic flavor.  To heighten the effect, I also threw an onion into the oven, and roasted it until it was also soft and sweet (way easier than traditional caramelization I might add).  With the lentils and polenta, or dare I say ‘polentils’ covered, it was time to turn my attention to the meal’s main vegetation, fresh broccoli.  While I am normally a big fan of crispy roasted broccoli, I wanted something bright and crunchy to offset the polentils, so I quickly braised the florets with garlic, white wine and lemon juice, infusing the stalks with tons of flavor, without roasting them to death.  It was the perfect ending to an incredible eight months in Israel, shared with good friends (and some good wine).

The cook at work, documenting before dinner Photo by Steven Winston

The cook at work, documenting before dinner.
Photo by Steven Winston

In order to pull this meal off relatively quickly, I recommend making the polenta the night before (or even several days in advance).  Then the day of, all you have to do is pop the polenta in the oven with the garlic and onion, and let the squares bake while everything else cooks.  I would put the lentils in to boil next (and don’t salt the water until they are cooked, otherwise they will take longer).  Should you decide to cook the lentils in advance, warm them gently before mashing.  To my American readers, sorry for the metric measurements, but I followed the initial cooking instructions given on the bag of Italian polenta, which was in grams and liters.  Feel free to follow the given instructions for whichever brand you buy, and rather season according to my suggestions.

Hebred Polenta Squares

  • 500 g Italian coarse ground polenta
  • 2 liters of water
  • 1 tbsp each: dried thyme, oregano, and basil
  • salt to taste
  • olive oil

Bring water to a boil and salt generously.  Slowly add the polenta, whisking steadily in order to avoid lumps.  Ad the herbs and adjust the salt.  Cook for about 50 minutes, stirring frequently, until polenta is soft, very thick, and creamy.  Pour into a greased pan (or two if necessary, I used a long foil loaf pan, as well as a 9×13 in loaf pan), and let cool until firm (preferably overnight). Cut into 2 in squares that are about an inch thick each.  Preheat the oven to 400 F (~250 C).  Lay polenta squares on a greased baking sheet and bake until slightly brown and very crispy, about 30-40 minutes


Mugging for the camera. Photo by Steven Winston

Mugging for the camera.
Photo by Steven Winston

Rustic Roasted Garlic and Lentil Paté

  • 1 head of garlic
  • 1 medium onion, peeled
  • Olive oil
  • 1 1/2c brown or green lentils
  • water to cover
  • salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 F (~250 C).  Cut off the top of the head of garlic, leaving a small amount of each clove exposed.  Place on top of a sheet of foil and drizzle with about a tablespoon of olive oil.  Wrap the garlic well with the foil, and place in the oven.  Repeat with the onion (no need to slice off the top).  Roast both the garlic and the onion until soft and caramelized, about 30-50 minutes.  It is ok if one takes longer than the other. In the meantime, place the lentils in a medium-large pot with 3 1/2c of water.  Simmer over medium-low heat until very soft, about 30 minutes.  Do not salt the lentils until they are done cooking, or else they will take much longer to soften.  When the lentils are done, add the garlic and chopped roasted onion (both should be similar to a paste, but the garlic you will only need to squeeze out of the skin, the onion might need a little more coaxing), plus 3 tbsp of olive oil.  Mash together until mostly smooth (or throw it in a food processor, especially if you want it completely smooth), adding a little extra water if necessary.  Taste for salt and adjust the seasonings.


I don't know why there was a towel on his head. Photo by Steven Winston

I don’t know why there was a towel on his head.
Photo by Steven Winston

White Wine Braised Broccoli

  • 1 crown od broccoli, chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • pinch of crushed red pepper
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/4 c white wine
  • juice of 1/2 a lemon
  • salt

Place a large frying pan over medium heat.  Add the olive oil and warm for a minute or two before adding the garlic and crushed red pepper.  Sauté  until just fragrant, and add the broccoli, wine wine, lemon juice and salt.  Let simmer for about 5 minutes, until broccoli is cooked, but still a vibrant green.

To assemble:

Place a polenta square on a plate, add the broccoli, and then a large dollop of lentils. Serve and repeat.

The diversity of reactions to this dish were certainly amusing.  All of my dining companions that night were certified meat eaters, and each claimed a different part of the meal as their favorite.  Two of the boys were amazed by the heartiness of the lentils, and continued to exclaim their surprise that a meat-free meal could be so satisfying.  Monica, my only other female companion that night, couldn’t get enough of the succulent, flavor-infused broccoli, and Steve (also our brilliant photographer for the evening) kept going back for more polenta. I couldn’t have asked for a better last night in Tel Aviv.

Ashley Available as Private Vegan Chef


Photo by Liyuphotography

Ashley Goldstein is a vegan chef and baker, currently located in the Tri-State area, who strives to create delicious and satisfying meals the whole family can enjoy.  She has an extensive repertoire, spanning from casual weeknight meals to more extravagant fare, perfect for larger dinner parties and family celebrations.  Ashley bases her cuisine around seasonal and local ingredients, and creates lively menus tailored to each of her client’s specific dietary needs.  She is the founder of Tipsy Shades of Earl Grey, a boutique, vegan cupcake company, specializing in tea and spirits infused cupcakes that have been enjoyed both at home and abroad.  She is a licensed driver and can be reached at

Livnot U’lehibanot: To Build and Be Built (Part 3)

At long last, the conclusion:

That Thursday afternoon, we had a class with another kabbalist, with the intent of discussing Shabbat. What I remember from this class, however, was the idea that the whole world was connected, and how everyone’s actions can impact another. While I didn’t want to rile the group up by being the stereotypical vegan, I asked our instructor Alon afterwards what kabbalist thinking had to say about eating animals, if they indeed prescribe to the idea that everything in the world–including everything in nature–is interconnected. His answer was that this perspective didn’t honor human life alone, but that animal life was also something to be respected, and that there were many kabbalists who believe that as we move closer to the coming of mashiach (messiah) more and more of the world will go vegetarian. I continued this discussion with Nina, who brought up the idea that even the famous Rav’ Kook (first head Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine) had said at times that the diet proscribed to Adam and Eve in the Torah was a vegan diet, based on scavenging nuts, seeds, and fruits from Eden. While I never expressly felt that I needed Judaism to validate my dietary choices, there have been people who have insisted to me that I couldn’t possibly be fulfilling Shabbat mitzvot adequately because they involved the consumption of fish and meat. Finding answers to these questions, which were very much pertinent to my own life as a Jew was validating, and definitely strengthened my beliefs, both in terms of Judaism, and in terms of veganism.

Continuing on within the weekly Jewish cycle, Thursday night was filled with preparations for Shabbat. Once again, we had to prepare the common room to accommodate 40+ people for a meal, while the rest of us set about preparing the food. We set about making two vats of soup, one vegetarian, and one a traditional chicken based broth with matzoh balls, salads, roasted chicken, roasted potatoes and sweet potatoes, as well as a vegetable stir fry. While our equipment was far from state of the art, through an intense amount of teamwork, we made quick work of the kilos of potatoes that needed peeling and chopping, and by the time we headed to bed that night, we were well on our way to an easy and restful Shabbat.

Hiking locally

Hiking locally

Friday morning saw another local hike, this one ending at a natural pool with a waterfall, but given the condition of my ankle on the last one, I sadly elected to stay behind. To my delight, another of the participants also stayed behind (unfortunately due to the severity of his allergies), and instead the two of us spent the day exploring Tzfat, and visiting an incredible local winery.

We brought in Shabbat first by lighting candles, while swaying to the sound of a nigun (a wordless melody), followed by a trip up to the balcony to reflect on the highlight of our week. We stepped out in into the fading sun, and began to sing (and dance) to several songs traditionally sung during kabbalat shabbat, or the service during which we welcome in the Shabbat spirit (and famously written in Tzfat many centuries ago). After this first celebration of song, we were encouraged to go synagogue hopping throughout the city for maariv, the evening service. In a moment of hesitation I took to sing one of my favorites, “Yedid Nefesh” (soul mate), I sort of missed the train (had I tried I could have made it), and instead sat on the balcony with another straggler, quietly singing a few of my favorite Shabbat melodies, and watching the stars begin to burn into view. Our meal was conducted with much song and revelry, so much so that Shlomo somehow broke a chair, and I regularly feared that a table was in danger of being broken in half given the exuberance of the banging that accompanied the songs. It was after dinner though that the real Shabbat magic began. We once again lowered the tables so that we were close to the ground and spread the mats around on the floor. Cups of wine were passed around, and so began the giving of l’chaims (literally, ‘to life’ but here meaning toasts). Many of us went around, toasting each other or toasting experience, until Shlomo stopped us, and asked us to take on a new task. We took the time to go around the large circle, and pay one compliment to the person sitting to our right, and then one to ourselves. The room filled with emotion and sentiment as we began telling each person, just what made them special, and then dug deep to share in honest words the things that we thought made ourselves special. It was an important reminder to verbalize to our friends and loved ones just what makes them so amazing, but also, just how powerful an effect compliments can have on strangers. Being told by someone you may have just met that night (as we were joined by a number of people for Shabbat who hadn’t been there the rest of the week), that their first impression is that you’re a warm and friendly person, or that you’re awesome because you’re vegan was incredibly moving. But as Shlomo said, we weren’t even at the first level.

The line up at Ancient Tzfat Winery

The line up at Ancient Tzfat Winery

For those of us who chose to stay up (as it was long past midnight), we, along with Shlomo, Rachel, and Nina (Tifferet had already fallen asleep), went around the circle, each taking a turn singing a song, entirely alone, in front of the rest of the group. What I guess is less of a secret than I sometimes make it out to be, is that I am a classically trained singer. In fact, my vocal training began at the tender age of 14, which means I’ve officially had more formal singing training than anything else (including dance, linguistics, and even baking). Even so, I remain fairly terrified of singing solo for other people, an anxiety which can be slightly relieved only by starting out in one of my completely ridiculous character voices. As I waffled between doing my one man Les Mis show (nerve wracking because what if no one else thought it was as funny as I do) or “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, Nina gently encouraged me to go with the latter. Now “Part of Your World” isn’t particularly challenging vocally, and I’ve sung it many times in the safety of my home, reveling in how comfortably it fit into my voice. Despite this, as I began the first notes, the familiar fear overtook my body, constricting my abdomen and throat, making it quite difficult to sing. Still, I pressed on, though now I had a real fear of sounding awful, but silently encouraged myself to make it a character and to be as cutesy and “talky” (this is a very esoteric bit of vocal jargon meaning to make the song as speech like as possible) as I could be. But at some point, my fear began to melt away, and I felt as I were almost in a trance, where my voice opened up, and so did my heart. I genuinely feel that singing in front of this small group of people was one of the most difficult challenges I undertook the whole week, and not because I’ve never opened my voice up to other people before, but I think it was in part because of the sheer vulnerability to which I was able to expose myself, allowing for genuine emotion to shine through.

Touring Tzfat on a lovely Friday afternoon

Touring Tzfat on a lovely Friday afternoon

The levels we went to after the song were, in order, dancing (no problem), be an animal (naturally I chose my puppy), and “go crazy” (I was in a pencil skirt and it was 4 am, I did yoga…), none of which I found to be particularly frightening. But still taking part in these exercises until a mere hour before the sun came up, fortified the bond we’d been forging throughout the week. Our Saturday schedule didn’t allow us to sleep in, rather it pushed us to go out and celebrate Shabbat with the greater Tzfat community, as we were invited to lunch with local families in groups of two or more. I had the honor of eating lunch with David Friedman, a local artist as well as his wife, and some of their friends. We were served incredibly delicious, wholesome vegan cooking, while discussing news about the neighborhood, sharing bits of our personal lives with everyone new, and even learning just a bit more about Pesach and how it should be celebrated now that we’ve made a return to the land. One of the rules they had for their table, was that only one conversation could take place at a time, thereby ensuring that everyone was engaged with the person speaking, and also helping us to focus on only one thing at a time. As was suggested when the rule was presented to us guests, it helped to calm the energy at the table, bringing everyone to a more peaceful and restful place.

With the end of Shabbat, brought the end of our time at Livnot, which ended much as it began. In song, in a circle, experiencing the togetherness of the group, only now we were no longer a group of strangers, bonded by our shared anticipation of the week to come, but a close knit family, who had traveled together from Egypt to freedom, by opening up through song and dance. We sang through the ritual of havdalah–Shabbat’s closing ceremony so to speak–then went around and shared what we would each be taking away from the Livnot experience. I was struck by how passionate every person was about their experience with Livnot, and unlike other programs I’ve participated in, each story was one of overwhelming positivity and the conviction that we all had the opportunity to take part in something that was truly special.

Saturday evening jam sesh

Saturday evening jam sesh

Livnot U’lehibanot, to build and be built, is a non-profit organization operating entirely on the generosity of others. Before each program, they attempt to find a sponsor in order to ensure that the cost for participants is no more than $150. In some cases, programs have been cancelled if there was no sponsor, in others, such as our own, the program is run despite this, and the search for a sponsor continues after the fact. If you have yet to solidify your summer plans, Livnot is running a 6-week program in conjunction with Masa Israel, with whom they hope to develop a long lasting partnership, as they are not currently recipients of government funding like other Masa programs. I would very much encourage other young, Jewish adults to consider participating in one of their programs, especially for those who are seeking a way to inject some more heart and soul into their spirituality. It’s designed to be a personal journey for people from all backgrounds and Jewish experiences, lead by three of the most amazing women I’ve ever met. For those of you who are out of Livnot’s age bracket, considering sharing this piece with your children, grandchildren, friends, cousins, brothers, sisters, etc, and for those of you with the means, please consider making a donation to help keep Livnot running.

As we sang throughout my week at Livnot (and in this case complete with hand gestures), “kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od, ve’ha’ikar lo lefached k’lal” or “the whole entire world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing to recall is to have no fear at all.” I feel like this song, out of all the songs we sang sums up Livnot’s message, as well as encapsulates my experience with them. Reach out to others, connect with those around you, and most importantly, take that leap.

Livnot U’lehibanot: To Build and Be Built (Part 2)

And so the story continues:

The next morning saw our Pesach preparations shift into full gear.  We started the morning by burning the chametz collected the night before in a wood burning oven, discovered in one of Livnot’s many excavation sites.  In addition to pieces of bread, we each wrote out on a piece of paper a personal Egypt we were looking to escape, which we then burned alongside the bread.  Afterwards, everyone was given a task that was integral to our seder experience for later in the evening. About half of us prepared the ritual foods featured in the seder, such as chopping apples to make charoset, washing lettuce, cooking potatoes and eggs, all while having a kitchen dance party.  I somehow ended up with an entire half of the kitchen to myself, which I naturally turned into my own personal lettuce washing dance studio.  In the meantime, the other half of the group readied the living room for the seder by setting up low tables and cushions on the floor, so we could adequately recline during the meal.

It was also necessary for everyone to take an active role in the Livnot seder, meaning that at some point everyone would have to get up in front of everyone else and either perform a bit of the hagaddah, or as in the case of one group, lead us through a Pesach meditation.  Being entirely fixated on working dance into my performance, I was first on the list of participants to make a skit of the Pesach story.  Acting alongside me were four guys, putting me in the familiar position of being the only girl in the group.  Our preparations started by me matter-of-factly informing two of the guys that they could do whatever they wanted, but I wanted to dance.  Being really awesome people, they agreed that dancing would be a necessary part of our story telling.  Now, I had a lot of incredibly fun experiences during this week, but putting together this skit is definitely one of my top picks.  Somehow, we had the perfect blend of outrageous personalities, and managed to completely unselfconsciously put together a semi-improv of the Passover story, held together by a line of purposely austere narration.  Within the retelling of the story, I was somehow featured as: a kvetching slave, Miriam, Pharoah’s daughter, the Egyptian beating the slave (where I stage kicked a guy twice my size…in a skirt), Moshe’s wife, the burning bush (which is the only part everyone remembered, due to my “modern dance” interpretation) Pharoah’s thug, pretty much all of the plagues or a recipient thereof, the ballerina angel of death, and Moshe tap dancing through the red sea of two guys doing the worm.  Even better than all of that silliness, was the fact that out of our skit came the legacy of a program-wide inside joke, which I would repeat here, only the written word couldn’t possibly do the joke justice.  Other skits performed at the seder included commercials for Pesach, Maztoh, and Maror, our favorite of which featured a catchy jingle and a line of Australian slang spoken completely out of context (which we all laughed at, partially out of sheer confusion).

Seder Table (photo courtesy of Tifferet Weinberg)

Seder Table (photo courtesy of Tifferet Weinberg)

The seder itself was lead by Tifferet’s family, who introduced some of their traditions to us, such as receiving chocolate chips for asking questions, and bargaining with the afikomem thief to receive the stolen piece of middle matzah.  I, in a stoke of genius, stole my own table’s afikomen, with the intention of preventing another table from stealing it.  To my delight, I was able to negotiate a free Shabbaton at Livnot before I leave Israel in June.  Our seder was more meaningful and thought provoking than most seders I have experienced, where we rush through the ritual only to end at the meal, without finishing up the important second half.  Though I was in the throes of extreme fatigue by the time we neared the end, I was intent on staying up until we got to “L’shana Haba’a” (Next Year in Jerusalem), making this my very first experience in twenty-three years that I not only completed the seder, but completed the second half in its entirety.

The next day was spent relaxing, recovering from the previous night, reflecting, and enjoying an afternoon barbecue.  As we moved from yom tov to chol ha’moed, we finally cleaned up the mountain of dishes (also complete with a dance party) and then were given a free night to enjoy Tzfat.  Our adventures resumed on Wednesday, where we completed a day long hike through one of the most stunning landscapes I’ve ever seen.  While I once again fell victim to my unfortunately and chronically weak and injured ankles, making the hike extremely difficult for me, I was determined (through the immensely kind help of my new friends, who may or may not have carried me piggy back for a good half of the hike) to make it all the way to the end.  If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to see the natural rock formations that served as part of an ancient monastery, nor the wild bulls lumbering through the countryside, nor would I have had the experience of swimming in a cool, dark well.  One of the things I noticed in particular, was that the epic nature of the land lent one the feeling of being in a movie, or as several of us discussed, in Game of Thrones.  Our conclusion was that if we were indeed in Westeros–one of the mythical continents on which A Song Of Ice and Fire takes place–we were most likely on the edge of Dorne and the Reach, or straddled between the desert, and the lush, green bread belt of the continent.

The Edge of Dorne and The Reach aka The Golan Heights (photo courtesy of Jacob Strain)

The Edge of Dorne and The Reach aka The Golan Heights (photo courtesy of Jacob Strain)

During one of our breaks on the hike, we set about doing some Jewish learning in “chevrutas” or learning pairs.  We were each given a set of quotations from Jewish thinkers, as well as a series of questions reflecting on these words.  The discussions we were tasked with dealt with the intersection of individual and community, as well as the juxtaposition of being at once extremely special and yet also insignificant.  Each group spent time discussing whether they thought individual or community was more important and why, which I understood as balance is the key.  The other quotation, in which was stated that everyone should carry a piece of paper with the words “I am but dust and ashes” and another with the words “The world was created for me” lead me to the realization, that in my own life, I have carried around both a symbol of all that is special in my world, as represented by a piece of crystal that someone important once gave me, as well as a reminder of the brevity of life, in the form of an Israeli dog tag with my name engraved on it.  Later in the hike, we were once again reunited with our chevrutas in order to make each other lunch, once again reinforcing the idea of giving to others, but also of receiving.  During our lunch, we were given the opportunity to ask questions of the founder of Livnot, Aaron, who first explained what he felt the organization’s mission was.

Philip (or Bill. or maybe it was Charlie) our friendly hiking companion.

Philip (or Bill. or maybe it was Charlie) our friendly hiking companion.

He explained to the group that his intent was to give the many young people traveling to Israel a place where they could have a genuine Jewish experience.  It wasn’t about becoming orthodox, or observant, but it was about connecting to Judaism in a personal, spiritual way, which many of the programs in place around the country lack.  For example, a large number of our group are participants on Masa Israel programs, where we get to experience life living, working, and studying in Israel, but not necessarily connecting specifically to Judaism.  Our programs on Masa center around Israeli history and culture, such as celebrating holidays central to the Israeli state like Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s memorial day, or Independence day (both of which were special experiences in their own right, but not necessarily spiritual in nature, even if they are very much tied to the Jewish people).  The experience of Judaism on Livnot helps to provide us with a new understanding of our religion, which we can take with us wherever we go, whether it’s back to our home countries, or somewhere else in Israel. We spent one afternoon split into groups discussing our memories of the role Judaism played in our lives growing up, and how we connected to it, both as a religion, and as a culture.  Many of us did grow up in homes steeped in Jewish ritual, and noticed how connected our parents were, and some even marveled at how disconnected they felt, despite attending Jewish day school, or how they somehow remained deeply connected to Judaism, while their siblings were more apathetic.  The way I always saw Judaism, at least in terms of my life, is that we follow Jewish traditions because they are our cultural traditions, but that spirituality and belief is up to the individual.  I don’t feel it is necessary to unilaterally believe in the Torah, and even in the Rabbinic teachings that follow, but that it is necessary to develop an individual belief system that can be fit into a Jewish framework, because without that tie to our history, who are we anyway?  Additionally, I feel that in this day and age, where we have the ability to be our own people, and practice as we chose, it’s important to uphold traditions that our ancestors were persecuted for trying to fulfill, in part as a way to honor their memory.  In all of our discussions of kabbalah and Jewish connection, I felt very strongly that Livnot is striving to preserve this connection, both to our collective past, as well as to each other as a common people.

Following the Livnot trail (photo courtesy of Jacob Strain)

Following the Livnot trail (photo courtesy of Jacob Strain)

This theme of connection pervaded the experience at Livnot, in a very positive way.  I think a large part of the program’s impact was due to the fact that we were constantly encouraged to break down barriers by getting close and connecting with one another, whether it be through a hug, dancing together in a circle, or even singing together, where everyone was at once connected by touch, but also by the spirit of the songs.  After the program ended, I joked with some of the participants that I didn’t know what to do with myself now that we weren’t singing and dancing every thirty minutes or so, but while it may have seemed that we were just having fun at the time, most importantly at core of it, we were exposing ourselves to one another.  We also openly discussed the idea of connection through human touch, and how powerful of an experience it can be, especially given that our three bnot sheirut were all shomer negiah–meaning they won’t touch a member of the opposite sex who is not an immediate relative until they are married.  While the girls withheld from hugging or high-fiving the boys, they were still extremely loving and affectionate towards everyone, constantly encouraging us to go a little further, dig a little deeper, and connect a little more.

It’s only natural then that the most powerful experience I had on the trip was during our visit to the old age home, where we spent the morning singing and spreading joy to the residents.  While some of the participants were moved to sadness by the final chapter of life, I knew we were there to brighten the day for these people.  Being someone who constantly has some thought or another running through my head, no matter if the task at hand is related or not, for me to be so unilaterally focused on one task was indeed an incredibly unique experience.  As we sang and danced for these people, all of my energy was focused on sharing happiness, whether it be through the sound of my voice, the clapping of my hands, or even most simply through my smile.  The experience of bringing happiness to others was so overwhelmingly positive in a way that merely focusing on personal happiness could never be (though I strongly believe it’s up to each of us to actively seek and create personal happiness, even if it’s through the most trivial of things).  The feeling in each room as we sang was electric, filled with this tangible sense of joy that could carry you through the rest of your day, if not longer. Here we were, once again, connecting to each other, and to a previous generation through song and dance, some of which were first sung long before our time, and which we can only hope will continue to be sung long after we’re gone.

The thrilling final installment will be released shortly.