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.

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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. 

Livnot U’lehibanot: To Build and Be Built (Part 1)

This is the first in a series of posts about the program I did during Passover in April.

For Pesach this year, I was lucky enough to not only have the good fortune to celebrate the holiday in the holy land itself, but more specifically, to celebrate it in the mystical, mountain city of Tzfat. My previous experiences in Tzfat had been limited to say the least. We stopped there for an afternoon on my Taglit-Birthright trip in 2010, quickly making our way through all of the hot spots, from an artist whose work is influenced by gematria, to crashing a bar mitzvah at one of the local synagogues. Then in March of this year, I returned–twice even–but for no longer than half a day either time.

It was on the first trip this March with my mom, who was in the midst of her first visit to Israel, that we stumbled upon the Livnot visitor’s center. She was searching for a map that would help us decipher the circular, old city roads. Sitting at the desk, was Rachel, a cheerful girl with a big smile, who helpfully gave us a map, highlighted a few points of interest for us, and chatted with us about our trip around the country. When she heard I was a Masa participant, and currently living in Tel Aviv, she handed me a flyer for their weeklong Passover program, which was advertised as being “generously subsidized to only $150 per week.” We thanked her, and I said that I’d think about it, while actually planning to toss the flyer and forget about the suggestion entirely. But the price definitely hooked me. I thought there had to be some catch, and figured there was no way it could only be $150. Besides, the description on the flyer was something vague along the lines of, “hike and volunteer in Northern Israel.”  Not exactly the most intriguing of tag lines.

Narrow Old City Streets (just outside the Livnot campus)

Narrow Old City Streets (just outside the Livnot campus)

I’ve never been the type to seek adventure exactly, rather preferring to enjoy it if it came my way rather than making it an active pursuit. But this year has been a turning point for me. I took a big leap in moving to a foreign country–albeit with a program that has helped eased the transition– took a pit stop in Russia on my own on the way over here, and I’m planning on a solo trip to Europe for the summer. As we left the visitor’s center through one of their 16th century excavation sites, I began to think that maybe this program would be a good opportunity for me. Maybe I could finagle a way to finance it, and further, I would have a place for Passover where I wouldn’t have to fight in order to keep a kosher for Passover kitchen. I shared these thoughts with my mom as we exited onto the cobblestone streets of the old city, and she responded, “I’ll pay half if Dad pays half.” Now, I’m no expert, but a trip to ease my Pesach woes sponsored by my parents? Sounds like an exceedingly good bargain.

While I still took a little more time to think about it (and check to see if my dad would agree), a few weeks later, I found myself completing the application and participating in a phone interview, which involved questions regarding my Jewish background and community involvement. I began to worry just a little bit when the response to the enumeration of my involvement with university Jewish life was that Livnot is designed for people who generally have had less experience with Judaism. I assured my interviewer that I firmly believed we can learn from everyone, and that despite my 8 years of twice weekly religious school study, there is so much about Judaism that I still have to learn, whether it’s from trained rabbis, or someone who’s only begun to engage with their spirituality. After two weeks with no word, I really began to worry that maybe my prior experiences were in the way of my acceptance to the program, but at long last, an email arrived congratulating me on my acceptance to the 2014 Passover program. As relief washed over me, I settled back into the mundanities of job hunting, ulpan, and vegan cupcakes.

Livnot's front door

Livnot’s front door

When I arrived in Tzfat with another friend from Tel Aviv, I still didn’t really know what to expect. As a fairly constant worrier, my thoughts were mostly concerned with the cleanliness of my accommodations, for reasons unbeknownst to myself, but most likely because at my heart, I’m a city girl who is definitely afraid of getting dirty (once I’ve already gotten dirty I can then proceed to let loose and have fun). We were housed in a refurbished 16th century village, in rooms made of large stones with arching ceilings, and, as in the case of my room at least, only a suggestion of the warm sun outside. Upon entering the room, I tried and failed to picture what this village originally looked like, how the families lived, and what purpose each room possibly served. While there was ample time for reflection during this week, it was definitely not focused on the distinct history of my particular room. The rest of the Livnot campus is comprised of a large living room/common area, a kitchen separated into a meat side and dairy side, as well as a large upstairs room that is under construction, and a balcony, which allows for a stunning view of the neighboring mountains.

Peering down at the campus

Peering down at the campus

We began the program as it would end, by sitting in a circle and singing a song with a kabbalist named Shlomo (and until very recently, known as Doron). While it may be hard to believe given my verbose nature, when it comes to meeting new people, I still suffer from a small amount of social anxiety, and it’s definitely a push to say hi, introduce myself, and ask questions about my fellow participants. Likewise for enthusiastically singing a song I only vaguely remembered right off the bat. Following the song, we were given a run down of the rules and regulations involved in being a Livnot participant, and then taken on a tour of the old city, which ended at the citadel at the very top of the mountain. Our tour was lead by the engaging bat sheirut Tifferet, who insisted that her descriptions of Tzfat were the only time she would spend that much time talking. In fact the whole program was run by three truly incredible bnot sheirut (plural of bat sheirut)–Tifferet, Rachel (the girl I met at the front desk), and Nina–who are literally ‘service daughters’ which denotes one who is completing her national service in place of the standard army service. We began our citadel experience by walking through a very dark passageway that lead into a slightly more illuminated cistern. Tifferet urged us to even close our eyes as we entered the gloom of the cistern passageway, and only once situated inside did we open them to assess our surroundings. She then taught us a song brought to Israel by the Ethiopian Jews, which we again sang hesitantly (well for some of us at least) as we gained familiarity with a melody that would carry us through the rest of the week. We then also took a moment to take advantage of the brilliant acoustics of the domed cistern by participating in a screaming meditation, where we clear our mind by literally shouting it out. As I’ve already mentioned, my trust in the program and participants was still building, and I felt rather silly singing and shouting with people I barely knew. That’s the true brilliance of programs like these. By bringing together so many people with different backgrounds (though I think the overwhelming majority of us were actually raised in New Jersey), our different strengths and weaknesses balanced out, so while I hesitated at first to sing and shout with all of my might, there were those who helped ease my worries by immediately throwing themselves into these tasks, thereby creating a cushion of safety and encouraging others to fully participate. Of course, my fear in and of itself was most likely rooted in the idea of “well what if no one does it, what if I throw myself in but I’m the only one, and everyone laughs at me?” Being a kid that didn’t fit in very well with the social hierarchies of public school, this is a fear that has followed me for a long time, and that I’ve slowly been working to let go of as I’ve aged. This has mostly been achieved through the opportunities I’ve had to engage in not one, but many fresh starts, including programs like Livnot. As we exited the cistern, back through the unlit passageway, the group noted how much easier it was going back. While the first time around we couldn’t help but notice the darkness, on our second passage, we could only see the light, symbolic to say the least. We ate dinner in the surrounding park, joined by Tifferet’s family, who lead us in a second introduction, as well as our first discussion of Pesach.

Tzfat sunset from the Livnot living room

Tzfat sunset from the Livnot living room

After dinner, we participated in the ritual of searching for chametz (leavened bread) by candle light, before being taken on our second trip of the day to explore caves that were remnants of the Bar Kochba revolt. In order to reach them, we walked through a dark path off of the main road, where we were given the option of not entering the caves should we so desire, though I think everyone chose to give it a shot. As we wriggled through the dust to reach a large subterranean cavity, our guide began to tell us the story of the caves. Each cave was once a cistern serving several houses of the Jewish community, but when it came time to revolt, the memory of Massada 60 years prior was still fresh in the minds of many. Rather than hiding in a mountain fortress and committing mass suicide (though the prospect was discussed), the Jewish people decided to try a different method of hiding from the Romans. The cisterns, except for a select few were dried out and sealed, and were then connected to each other by a series of small twisting tunnels, giving the advantage to the defenders. The Romans, whose gear was not only loud–which easily gave away their position–but also cumbersome, found it difficult to maneuver through tunnels with the purpose of rooting out the Jews. We returned to our recurring theme of the week, that of leaving Egypt and seeking freedom, and what it meant to these Jews in particular. After our initial background discussion, we split into two groups, and crawled into a second smaller chamber. Some of the tunnels were so narrow that the only way to pass through was by literally slithering flat against the ground. In this second smaller chamber (also once a cistern) we discussed some of the miracles of the revolt, such as the fact that children and babies were somehow trained to be quiet, but even more miraculous, was the story of two Jewish women who gave birth inside the caves in complete silence. Before exiting the small chamber in order for the second group to take their turn, we spent two minutes sitting in complete silence, with the darkness pressing in and around us, in order to gain just a little more understanding of what it might have been like during a Roman attack. As we afterwards exited into the brisk, night air, each of us had yet another experience of the word freedom: freedom to breathe, freedom of movement, the ability to use our eyes and to see light etc. Of course, that night was extremely cold, so while we had the opportunity to go take our own space after being crammed together in the tiny caves, banding together to share body heat proved to be a little more important, at least for someone like me who was cold even with two pairs of pants and three sweaters.

Part 2 coming soon!

 

 

 

Fluffy Vegan Matzoh Balls

Oh matzoh balls; the quintessential Passover delicacy. For the past few years, I’ve been on a quest to create the perfect vegan matzoh ball. The first recipe I tried used tofu—which I prefer not use being Ashkenazi—to replace the egg. The matzoh balls definitely held up well, but I found them to be rather dense, and I would have preferred a matzoh ball with a fluffier consistency. But then, it was no matter, since I was just excited to be eating matzoh balls for the first time in several years.

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My next attempt at vegan matzoh balls saw the tofu replaced with flax seed, but I found the density to be about the same. So the year after, I eschewed matzoh balls altogether, and made a potato leek soup instead. I had all but given up hope that I would one day make a matzoh ball that was vegan, kitniyot free, and fluffy.

Enter flax foam.

A few innovative individuals took it upon themselves to experiment with different ways of using flax seed as an egg replacer. Rather than simply grinding the flax and mixing it with water, they boiled the flax to extract a thick gel, which looked an awful lot like egg whites. They then whipped the flax “whites,” and either folded them into recipes in order to add airiness, such as mousse, or (in whatever consider a stroke of genius) created vegan meringues. I followed these developments through this thread, and thought, hey maybe this would work for matzoh balls. I set to work, boiling and straining the flax, freezing the goop, and whipping it into a light and fluffy mass. I then used the whipped flax in a traditional matzoh ball recipe I found in one of the many Pesach recipe books my mom has floating around.

The results were perfect. I rejoiced in the eating of a light and fluffy matzoh ball that didn’t disintegrate in broth (and tasted great to boot). I served my matzoh balls in an herb scented mushroom broth, but really they can go in any kind of broth you like.

Fluffy Vegan Matzoh Balls

  • 1/4 c flax goop
  • 1 tbsp ground flax seed mixed with 3 tbsp of water
  • 1/8 tsp salt (I prefer Indian black salt to add just a touch of egginess
  • 1/4 c matzoh meal

Combine the group flax seed with the whipped flax “whites”. Gradually add the matzoh meal, stirring gently until well combined. Let rest for 10-20 minutes.

In a large pot, heat some vegetable broth or salted water until boiling . Wet hands with cold water, and form the matzoh mixture into small balls. Gently drop each ball into the boiling liquid, and then cover and simmer about 20 minutes. I wouldn’t recommend cooking the matzoh balls in the soup you plan to serve them in because they will soak up a lot of liquid.

Remove the matzoh balls from the cooking liquid and serve in your broth of choice.

Chag Pesach sameach (חג פסח שמח)!

Grandpa Maurice’s Famous Mushroom Paté

For the longest time, my grandfather’s mushroom paté, or as we usually call it, “mushroom stuff” was pretty much the only way I’d swallow a mushroom, and only after it was doused in salt.  Mushroom stuff as my grandfather made it was a combination of sautéed mushrooms and onions, mayonnaise, and a hard boiled egg.  While this is certainly an acceptable vegetarian take on chopped liver, converting even liver fans like my dad’s side of the family, it definitely wasn’t vegan.  Additionally, replacing the egg and mayonnaise on Pesach is considerably more challenging, than if I were adapting it for any other time of the year.  First, for the egg, I decided to use soaked walnuts, in order to give the paté a the same kind of body that the egg brings.  I’m not the biggest fan of walnuts, but they do have a lighter texture and slightly more neutral flavor than hazelnuts, pecans, cashews (all of which I otherwise prefer).  To replace the mayonnaise, I went for the flavors of mayo, namely, fat in the form of olive oil, and some tang, in the form of red wine vinegar.  For a little extra “eggy” punch, I like to season the paté with Indian black salt (kala namak), which tastes exactly how I remember sunny side up eggs…because I also used to douse my egg yolks in salt.

The result tastes almost exactly how I remember Grandpa’s paté tasting.  It’s even good enough, that some years my mom has just asked me to make a larger batch, so that she doesn’t need to take precious time away from cooking other elements of the meal to make a batch of the original.  My version is punctuated by the sweet richness of the fried mushrooms and onions, mixed with a little tang from the vinegar, all married together in a smooth and creamy dip.  It’s perfect for spreading onto matzah, whether it’s as an appetizer, at your seder, or a part of your mid-Pesach lunch.

A Very Shtetl Pesach.  Fiddler On The Roof cast (including shtetl Ashley front and almost center) at Columbia University, April 2010

A Very Shtetl Pesach. Fiddler On The Roof cast (including shtetl Ashley front and almost center) at Columbia University, April 2010

Grandpa Maurice was far from vegan, but he always appreciated good food. I like to imagine he would be proud of my interpretation.  He died a little bit before I really started cooking for myself (which was also when I went vegetarian), so I never really got to share my culinary creations with him, but I love that I can still enjoy food he made for us, even if it is adapted to fit my lifestyle.

I’m giving quantities for a fairly small amount of paté, but this recipe is very easily increased.  It also does not need to be super precise, so feel free to play with the seasonings according to your tastes.

Mushroom and Onion Paté

  • 1 pint white button or cremini mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 large white or yellow onions, sliced
  • 1/4 c raw walnuts, soaked for a few hours or over night
  • 4-5 tbsp olive oil, divided
  • 1 tbsp kosher for Passover red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp black salt (or to taste)
  • black pepper to taste

Preheat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add the onions, and sweat slowly for about 5-7 minutes until translucent.  Add the mushrooms and continue to sauté until the mushrooms have cooked down, and the mixture is golden brown and fragrant.  The volume of vegetables in the pan should be considerably reduced from when you started.  Let cool at least 10 minutes.  Add the mushroom and onion mixture to a food processor.  Drain the walnuts, and add them as well. Begin to chop the mixture in the processor, and stream in the oil and vinegar while the machine is running.  Add the salt and pepper, and pulse again to combine.  Taste for seasoning.  The mixture should chopped very, very finely, and should be fairly smooth (but not entirely pureed).  Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Sorry I have no pictures of this, but I will say, while it’s completely delicious, it’s not the most photogenic dish out there.

Vegan Passover (פסח טבעוני)

As Passover creeps ever closer, my usual worries begin to take hold. What will I eat, where will I eat it, what do I do about cleaning my kitchen etc, etc. What was once one of my favorite holidays has become the bane of my vegan existence. I used to actively look forward to cleaning the kitchen with my parents, despite being a rather messy child (now as my friends can attest, I apologize for having a messy room if I’ve left out one shirt). I would get to explore the deep mysteries that were hidden in the attic when my dad allowed me to come up with him to bring down the Passover dishes. Even now, I’m hit with a nostalgic whiff of excitement whenever I open the pink plastic box containing the dairy dishes, as I remember how special it felt to use something that we only saw for one week a year. Even better than the attic and the dishes though, was waking up the morning of the first night to find the kitchen completely covered. The counters were covered in plastic, the stove and sink in foil, while the table had a pink tablecloth. To my young eyes, it was like entering into another world; the alternate universe of Pesach land (never actually gave it that name).

Raw Strawberry Cheesecake with Cashew Cream

Raw Strawberry Cheesecake with Cashew Cream- April 2012

As for the food, I loved all of the homemade, traditional Pesach food we would eat throughout the week. I also loved a simple piece of matzoh spread with real butter (not margarine…Pesach margarine is actually quite gross) or cream cheese. After the kitchen was cleaned and covered, I would spend the rest of the day helping my mom prepare food for the seder that night. We would fry up pounds of mushrooms and onions, to be used in everything from “mushroom stuff” (mock liver) to farfal (matzoh based stuffing). My mom would make chicken soup from scratch, and then shortly before the seder, add big, fluffy matzoh balls. It’s funny to recount this now, but one of my favorite dishes to help make was the brisket. It’s not that I was ever an ardent meat lover (though mom’s brisket was one of my favorites), but her recipe called for browning the meat in brandy before going in the oven, and really, what child wouldn’t like lighting a pan on fire.

Soaking all the nuts (almost) March 2012

Soaking all the nuts, plus dates and sundried tomatoes – April 2012

Pesach was also the very last time I ever ate meat. When I was 14, Take Your Child to Work Day happened to fall in the middle of Pesach, and so I went to work with my mom in order to get off from school for a day. While I had long ago made the decision to go vegetarian, back then, I would ever so occasionally eat a small amount of animal. By this time, those occasions were very infrequent, but being 14 and rather unprepared for a Passover lunch, I was hungry.  After (possible) fierce deliberation, I broke down and ate some of my mom’s chicken salad on matzoh. I’ve learned a lot since then, especially after giving up eggs and dairy, since much of traditional Pesach cuisine is egg based. I’ve been flexing my creativity and finding ways to veganize the traditional foods of my childhood within the confines of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Passover customs, which is to say, without beans or rice.

Beautiful raw lasagna- April 2012

Beautiful raw lasagna- April 2012

I am the first to admit that it isn’t easy, but for those of you looking to do the same, don’t lose hope! I’ve spent the last few years compiling tips and recipes that are super delicious, can be featured at a seder, and are kosher for Passover. In the next few weeks leading up to Pesach, I’ll be posting some recipes, but in the mean time, here is a list of what I usually make:

Herbed Brazil Nut cheese (in bad lighting I might add)

Herbed Brazil Nut cheese (in bad lighting I might add) – April 2012

Seder Stuff

Raw blood orange cheesecake, tastes like a creamsicle! March 2013

Raw blood orange cheesecake. It tastes like a creamsicle! March 2013

Rest of the Week

  • Matzoh lasagna (I’ve also made raw lasagna if you’re looking for something a little bit lighter)
  • Potato Gnocchi
  • Quinoa with Vegetables
  • Salad!
  • Kale Chips

    Potato Leek soup, a nice alternative if you're too lazy for vegan maztoh balls- April 2012

    Potato Leek soup, a nice alternative if you’re too lazy for vegan maztoh balls- April 2012

This year is going to be an interesting Pesach, considering it’s my first in Israel (and without my family). While adapting to cooking here has been incredibly easy, I’m used to relying on my mom’s food processor for Pesach (in order to deal with all the nuts that become a staple when I can no longer eat beans). Additionally, I may be going on a week long Pesach program in Tzfat, where we will be doing our own cooking apparently (yay!), but I have no idea what kinds of equipment and ingredients will be available to me. No matter, every year, I remind myself that now is a good time to really bump up on my whole foods and veggies. Maybe this year will be the year I actually listen.