Tu b’Shvat Tiyyuul

Yesterday the sun broke through in all its shining glory after months and months of cold, rainy weather. We knew it was going to be short-lived as more was forecast for later this week. John and I dropped our son off at work, and decided to take full advantage of the respite from nasty weather. We drove to the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, to see the increase in water level after the past decade of drought conditions. It did not disappoint.

Just south of Tiberias, we pulled off at our favorite beach. What was once a sweeping expanse of brush, rocks and sand was now completely under water. It even came up to the stone embankment where the picnic tables and campsites were. The stone steps were partially under water. You just have to see!

We’ve been following the rising of the Kinneret water levels over the internet each day, but wanted to actually see the measuring stick at Yardenit (there is also one in Tiberias).This is where the Sea of Galilee flows out to form the Jordan River to the South. Right across the street, I was struck by groups of white-robed masses in the water. It looked like the scene from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” I had to get closer. Christian pilgrims from all over the world come here to be baptized in the Jordan (this is NOT the place where Jesus was immersed. That’s 70 miles downstream in the Samarian desert near Jericho). Anyway, there they were, taking full advantage of the sunny weather doing full immersions. It reminded me of a sort of mass mikveh, the Jewish ritual immersion.

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Pulling into Kibbutz Kinneret to turn around and go home, I saw the sign: Kinneret Dates Factory Story. This was turning into a real tiyuul, which is the Hebrew word for day-trip or field-trip. And just in time for the upcoming Jewish holiday of Tu b’Shvat, which will be celebrated from sunset February 9 – sunset February 10this year.

When I was growing up in America, this minor holiday was relegated to the ‘back 40.’ We didn’t celebrate it much at all. All I knew was that it was a type of Jewish Arbor Day. My mother, the designated “Tree Lady” of our synagogue would call up the congregants to ask them to order trees to be planted in the State of Israel. That was about it. Tu b’Shvat has grown in popularity in Jewish communities throughout the world, but here in Israel, it has been and still is celebrated as an agricultural and ecological holiday with much rejoicing.

In Hebrew, letters and numbers are interchangeable, so “tu” are the Hebrew letters ‘tet’ and ‘vav’ (adding up to 16), and Shvat is the name of the Hebrew month – so Tu b’Shvat means Shvat 16. The holiday is not found in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), but in the Talmud – the oral explanations of the Law. It’s basically the New Year for trees, or the time which trees are planted. There are both physical and spiritual levels to this holiday. Planting trees in the middle of winter is a sign of hope and a way of re-greening the planet. It has connotations of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and there are ties to the spiritual Tree of Life.

Historically, in the 1500s, in the northern Israeli town of Tsfat, the great Rabbi Isaac Luria (the same guy who wrote the Shabbat hymn, Lecha Dodi) put together a Tu b’Shvat seder (ordered feast) in which different fruits or nuts are eaten along with 4 cups of wine. There is a beautifully arranged Seder plate with raisins, almonds, pistachios, dried figs, dates, pomegranates, olives, and other fruits and nuts. There are special blessings: thanks and praise for G-d’s creation: over His sustenance through the year; for the winds and rain; for the fruits (or nuts) of the tree. After the prayers, nuts and fruit with a hard/inedible shell (klipa) and a soft interior is eaten – the almonds or pistachios; the oranges, pomegranates or bananas. Then one says the blessing over wine and drinks a small amount of red wine. Next, fruits with a soft exterior and hard center is eaten (olives, dates, apricots, persimmons, avocado) followed by a dark pink rosé wine. Next, fruits are consumed which can be eaten whole: figs, pears, berries, apples. And a light pink rosé wine is sipped. After that, the celebrants eat something made with wheat or barley: bread, crackers, or a pulse. Then comes the sips of white wine. All of this is interspersed with spiritual readings from the Scriptures and explanations on how one is to ascend from the purely physical to the emotional to the intellectual to the spiritual. Thank you Rabbi Luria. There are several interesting Tu b’Shvat seder guides on the internet, each with different highlights.

So – we found ourselves in the Land of Fruits and Nuts – literally. The factory store of Kibbutz Kinneret Dates. I visited the Garden of Eden and I can’t wait to go back! In typical Israeli fashion, the first thing we did upon entering was to see a movie on the history of this particular kibbutz and on the date palm. The date palm is one of the seven species of plants indigenous to Israel (dates, figs, wheat, barley, grapes, pomegranates, olives) and mentioned in the Bible. By the end of the Ottoman Empire and the desolation of the land by both neglect and destruction, every single date palm had disappeared in this land.

In 1908, Kibbutz Kinneret was founded and a pioneer named Ze’ev Ben Zion traveled to Iraq to bring back a truckload of palms – and Jewish refugees who were being persecuted by the Islamists. Both the palm shoots and the new immigrants thrived in their new land, so Ben Zion went out again to bring back 1000 new baby palms – and more refugees. Uri Stoner, from Kibbutz Kinneret, researched and developed different hybrids as well as novel uses for dates. In 1933, the kibbutz factory was founded and a multinational exporting of Israeli dates and date products had begun.

The factory store here has products unique to Israel…and all can be sampled generously. There are friendly (English-speaking)kibbutzniks available to explain all of the products. The date is nature’s candy. Naturally sweet and high in fiber, it gives a quick energy boost, yet is very low on the glycemic index. Minerals and compounds in the date are said to increase fertility and help pregnant women to have easier deliveries. They are very high in antioxidants and can help reduce blood pressure. Dates help maintain bone mass because they are high in calcium and magnesium as well as selenium. They are also rich in iron and fluorine – and essential fatty acids that actually help with hunger-control an weight loss. Yippeeee!!! So for a ‘normal’ person, eating 5-9 dates a day is healthy – more for late term pregnant women (dates are reputed to induce labor).

Who knew there were so many different varieties, flavors and textures among different species of dates? Most people are familiar with the Deglet-Noor and Medjool varieties, as those are the top exports, BUT:

Some are sweet and sticky: the Amari are moist and taste like caramel; the Deri are intense and flavorful- almost like a shot of espresso; the Amari, drier, but packing a sugar punch; our favorite, Hadrawi were soft and flavorful, not too sugary, but like butterscotch. We bought 3 boxes of dates.

And the products available!!!! My favorite date product is silan (see’ lahn), a date syrup/honey. I don’t know if it’s available in the US, but I use it in place of other sweeteners now – in cooking and baking, in teas and smoothies. There are different types of date spreads, date candies, date butters, and here, they are all available for sampling. And the prices here are some of the best I’ve seen in the country-

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In addition to date products, there were other products, all organic and made right here in the Galilee. There was carob syrup (which I also use in place of molasses), tehinehs (sesame butter) – so I bought 2 huge jars. I use tehnineh extensively now, including tehnineh and silan on rice crackers. Olive oil, locally produced, bee products, herbs and spices – all from this area.

Add to this the cosmetics line, Shivat, made from the seven species, and I was in absolute heaven!!! We really had a lot of fun, but armed with a couple bags full of goodies and a new cookbook (yay!!!), I couldn’t wait to get home and start cooking. So – now for the recipes!

The easiest is the tehnineh spread with silan. Tehineh is much richer in calcium and fiber and lower in sugar than peanut butter, and it is non-allergenic.

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This sesame seed paste is also mixed with the juice of one lemon and a spoon of silan for a lovely salad dressing for chopped cucumbers and tomatoes or for a mixed cabbage and carrot slaw with chopped green onions and walnuts and chopped dates.

               SWEET POTATOES WITH SILAN (parve/vegan)  serves 6

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 3 large sweet potatoes
  • 4 tsp olive oil
  • 3 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 4 Tbsp silan date syrup
  • 4 tsp sweet asian chili sauce
  • juice of a freshly squeezed lemon
  • a dash of chili flakes
  • 2 green onions, chopped finely
  • a sprinkling of coarse sea salt

Wrap and roast the sweet potatoes in a 200*C/400*F oven for about an hour. Mix all the ingredients of the sauce (minus the sea salt) with an immersion blender. Score the hot potato and pour the sauce over top. Sprinkle generously with the coarse sea salt.

FREEKEH STUFFED ONIONS (pareve/vegan) serves 6-8

 

This can be eaten as a hearty lunch or served as a side dish for a Shabbat dinner. Its roots are typically Middle Eastern, most likely Egyptian. Freekeh is a type of durum wheat that is roasted to bring out its nutty flavor. The word is actually Arabic for “rubbed” as the grains are rubbed before roasting. As freekeh might be difficult to find outside this area, bulgur or spelt can be substituted. You can also use brown basmati rice for this one. Because it is pareve (neither milk nor meat) it makes a great accompaniment to any main course.

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 2-3 whole large white onions
  • 2-3 whole large red/purple onions
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup freaked, bulgur, spelt, farro, or brown rice
  • 1 1/2 cups boiling water
  • 1 1/2 cups mixed green herbs cut finely (parsley, mint, cilantro, green onion, dill)
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 1 cup silan date syrup
  • 1/4 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup chopped dates
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS:

Prepare the stuffing: Heat olive oil and grain in a saucepan and fry until hot. Do not burn. Add boiling water and salt, Stir well and cover. Lower flame to simmer for 30 minutes. Then turn off heat and let sit for 15 more minutes. Gently fluff and fold in mixed herbs and cumin seeds, silan and fruit.

As the stuffing is cooking, peel the onions and slice the tops off. Drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper.  Wrap in foil and roast about 20 minutes in a 200*C/400*F oven – until soft.  Let cool until able to handle comfortably. Remove the inner part of the onion with your fingers, pulling gently. There should be 2-3 layers of the outer shell left. Chop up the onion that was extracted and add to the stuffing mixture.

Fill each onion with the stuffing mixture. Place in a baking dish greased with olive oil. Sprinkle the onions with salt and pepper. If there is any juice from stuffing mix left behind, pour over onions. Cover dish with aluminum foil and bake at !70*C/350*F for about 20 minutes. Remove foil so onions can brown and bake for an additional 10 minutes. Serve hot.

                 GLAZED BUTTERNUT SQUASH (parve/vegan)  serves  6

Another great recipe – especially for fall/winter. It calls for butternut squash, but you can use any gourd, or a combination thereof and it will be delicious. I especially like seeing smaller pieces of different varieties of gourds for a gorgeous and colorful platter. This is a tasty side dish, but also can be hearty enough as an entree served with a hearty bread and a side salad.  Also, this is an amazing Pesach recipe (one which I plan to use at my Passover seder this year)-

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 6 gourds (butternut squash), halved, seeds removed
  • 3 tsp olive oil
  • salt and black pepper
  • ground cinnamon
  • 3 Tbsp silan
  • 2 sheets of matzah
  • 2 more tsp olive oil
  • 2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

Preheat oven to 190*C/375*F. Drizzle gourd halves with olive oil and silan , and sprinkle with salt, pepper and ground cinnamon. Roast for 40 minutes. Can cover with foil lightly, if it starts to brown too much.

For crumbly topping: heat a frying pan with the olive oil. Add the matzah pieces and cook over a medium flame, stirring constantly to glaze and brown. Add garlic , salt and pepper and a  small amount of cinnamon at the very end. Remove from flame, and add the chopped parsley.

Arrange the hot gourd pieces on a platter and spoon the crumble over top. Drizzle with more silan and serve hot.

AMAZING I CAN’T STOP EATING PUFFED RICE SNACKS!                                                  (                                                    (vegan/pareve)  

I made these yesterday and we just can’t stop sneaking them. Really rich, and decadent, yet I tell myself they’re healthy because of the tehnineh, silan. cocoa super-food combo. It makes me feel better about pigging out. But. seriously who can resist? I’m not paying $7 to $9 for a small box of Kelloggs Rice Crispies ….. when I CAN find them here! So we found a pretty lame puffy rice flakes for a substitute. I highly recommend the Rice Crispies if they are available in your area- just sayin.They can be formed into bite sized balls or put in a wax-paper lined baking dish and cut into squares. I did both. The best part is that they are super easy to make and require no baking or refrigeration.

*****OK, not as an affront to anybody but you hear the most amazing things living here. This is a true(?) story about John the Baptist. In the New Testament, John the Baptizer is a radical hermit preaching about the importance of being a B’aal Tshuva (repentant sinner who comes back to G-d) and performing ritual immersions/mikveh in the Jordan River. He announces the coming of the Moshiach, the Messiah. Anyway, in art he’s always pictured wearing a rough camel hair tunic tied with a thick rope. This ascetic is famed for his diet of eating locusts and honey. But it was a MISTRANSLATION from the Hebrew to Greek to Latin to the English of the King James Bible in the early 1700’s. The honey was most likely a date syrup like silan. And the carob tree (kheeroov) was also known as the locust bean in England. The ground carob beans are similar to cocoa powder, but much higher in protein and in antioxidants. Instead of eating yucky insects like a madman, John was actually consuming a fudgy, delicious superfood paste. Sorry to burst your bubbles, but I found it fascinating!

For those Christians who celebrate the feast days of favorite saints, this is a great recipe to make with young kids in honor of John the Baptizer. For my Jewish friends, it’s a lovely treat for Tu b’Shvat.

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INGREDIENTS:

  • 1/2 cup tehineh
  • 1/2 cup silan
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup carob powder or cocoa powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup dark chocolate chips, melted in the microwave
  • 4 tsp silan
  • 3 cups crisped rice cereal
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped almonds (optional) or ground coconut

Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Grease your hands with a little canola or coconut oil. Form about a tablespoon of the mixture into golfball sized balls. Or spread out in a wax-paper lined baking dish. Let set for a half hour, if you can resist the temptation to eat before then. Cut the chocolate rice mix into brownie-sized bars. Enjoy!!!!

 

 

 

 

Truth & Lies

Once again, I’m writing a politically charged article that I had not planned to write. But what I have to say needs attention as history is repeating itself, albeit in a different arena.

One of the many reasons we moved to Israel (and there are many) was the fact that it provided us a much more affordable launching pad to travel to Europe. We always dreamed of traveling, and have been able to take advantage of low-cost airfare and shortened travel times.

John and I just returned from two glorious weeks in the Czech Republic. For our last day’s excursion, we arose very early to make the hour train ride from Prague to Terezinstadt, one of the 633 European Nazi concentration camps. We knew it would be a most difficult day.

In 1780, the Hapsburg emperor, Josef II had a fortified town built as a deterrent to Prussian attacks. Surrounded by high walls and moat, the lovely island of a village was continually inhabited until 1941, when a truly diabolical plan was hatched.

There needed to be a spin put on the Nazi’s true program of liquidating the Jewish population of Europe. A different face to show the world. A kinder, gentler, human face. A mask for what was truly happening. A concentration camp “showplace” so to speak, to prove to the International Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies that anything they might have heard about the unethical, inhumane treatment of “undesirables” was just rumor. Terezinstadt became the perfect place for their propaganda machine.

The town was emptied of its Bohemian residents, which once numbered about 5,000 people. Apartment buildings were turned into dormitories for over 500,000 Jews over the next three years. But this was no ordinary camp. For most, it was a sorting place on the way to the death camps in the East. For a select few of the most elite… artists, composers, writers, doctors, professors – and children – it served a different purpose. While most people suffered and died from malnutrition, disease, cruelty, a select few thousand were chosen to be the faces of Nazi propaganda.

Away from the crematoria, the fierce guard dogs, the machine-gunned sentries, the brick walls and iron bars, was a lovely village. Lush gardens filled with fresh vegetables tended by the Jews in their model village(which actually served the Gestapo…the Jews were forbidden to eat from the plots they tended upon threat of being shot if discovered). There were cafés, theaters, a symphony orchestra, choirs, and happy Jewish families, well-dressed, well-fed, well-cared-for. A large town square provided for ample fresh air, exercise, picnics and outdoor concerts. All a lie. The inmates were only allowed out of doors when visitors came. It was a cruel ruse. A mere facade. An act.

From this part of the town, propaganda films were made. Fake documentaries to hide the truth of atrocities being committed just a few hundred meters away. Films like “The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City” and”GhettoTheresienstadt. “For three all-too-short years, these chosen few (many were children) had a temporary reprieve as humanitarian agencies were paraded through this “typical” camp.

However, from within the walls of Terezin, something else amazing was happening. The children were organized and taught by artists such as Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. They wrote stories and poems and published their own little weekly newspaper. They created art. With the help of composers Viktor Ullman, Patel Haas and Hans Krasa, they staged magnificent plays. The most famous is an original children’s operetta, Brundibar, about a mean organ grinder(Hitler) persecuting helpless children in a dystopian land. With the help of brave woodland animals, they chase the organ grinder away. It was performed over 50 times for the Nazi officers and their special guests, although no one seemed to catch on to its symbolism. Still, the weekly artistic performances gave the Jews an outlet for their misery and proved a temporary diversion.

After the SS and Gestapo sat to have their portraits drawn by rather famous artists of the day, another type of art was being produced…. and hidden away for posterity. These were the true sights of what life was like within the camp. As under cover of darkness, trains of human cargo would come and go; more people added to the pre-existing crowded conditions; death ruled, and crematoria destroyed the reality of human life snuffed out prematurely, the truth was being painfully recorded.

After the Jewish inhabitants served their purpose, they were sent on to the death camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Bergen-Belsen. Thousands crowded into boxcars standing room only, deprived of water, food and bathroom facilities for days at a time. Many of whom died in transit. Soon, World War II would be over, only to be replaced by the Communist regime. Terezin would be reinhabited by local population.

Even though the camp serves as a memorial to the atrocities of man’s inhumanity to man, today there are stark and surreal inconsistencies. Local villagers now inhabit many of the town’s dormitories that once housed The Jewish population. Laced curtained windows look out across the street from old abandoned barracks once crammed with the suffering. Who in their right mind could live here? What could they think? How can you raise a healthy young family with reminders of torture, suffering and death directly across the street?

It’s an indescribable juxtaposition. The most inconceivable absurdity was the antique bazaar, set up in an unused, dilapidated dormitory building. Today it sells old furniture, housewares, vintage clothing – and leftover remnants from the Nazi and Communist regimes. For me, it was just too much to bear.

It was a bone-chilling winter day. Bleak. Strangely silent except for my muffled sobs as we walked the desolate streets haunted by memories of the past. The train ride back home was equally painful, punctuated by the deafening squeals of the metal wheels of the train as it pulled into Prague Station. John and I just needed time to decompress. To find something a bit more uplifting.

We returned to the comfort of our warm hotel room and turned on the television to watch the Winter Olympics from South Korea. We don’t have television in our home in Israel ( by choice), so this was a real treat. Or so we thought.

About fifteen minutes into the pageantry and festivities, the camera turned to a lovely young woman and a bevy of her smiling, clapping, red-outfitted entourage. This was none other than North Korean Kim Jung Un’s sister, second in command and Minister of Propaganda!!! This, a head of an absolutely evil, totalitarian regime, was being hailed by the commentators as a diplomat, an ambassador of peace and goodwill!!! After the day’s outing, we could hardly believe what we were seeing. “How radiant and happy they are! So cute! Look at her smile!” This was the same story being peddled to the ignorant masses around the world. The personification of an Evil Empire bent on the destruction of man disguised as innocence and congeniality. Obviously, the propaganda was having its desired effect. I could only think of the starving millions in North Korea, the defectors, the over 150,000 “political” prisoners – and of Otto Warmbier, the young Jewish student who made a class trip to North Korea. He was imprisoned for taking down a poster as a souvenir of his time there, brutally tortured, then shipped back to the States many months later, comatose. His last few days were spent in a US hospital, never regaining consciousness…. just one example of the cruelty of this regime. Were his parents watching this mockery- and what could they think? As the American reporters fawned over Kim Yo Jung and bashed Vice President Pence as a nefarious sort, we recalled a subtitle from the Terezin documentary:

We are, ironically, about a week away from the Jewish holiday of Purim. A time when we celebrate the bravery of Queen Esther and her heroic saving of the Jewish people from destruction. It was during the captivity of Israel in what is now present day Iraq/Iran. A decree had gone out under the evil Haman, the king’s vizier, for all the Jews to be killed. His plan was thwarted by a fearless and outspoken woman, who drew the king’s attention to the diabolical scheme ( which would mean her ultimate death as well). This was a favorite play of the Terezinstadt Jews, performed numerous times as a source of hope and reminder of eventual justice. We need more people today, willing to call attention to the TRUE injustices of the world – at what reality truly exists. We can no longer gloss over the twisted and evil and downplay the good. Or we will be doomed to replay the same tragedies.

If you have been touched by this article in any way, please share this post. The world needs to see the hidden truths.