Showing posts with label Pesach. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pesach. Show all posts

Friday, April 17, 2020

Post Pesach Update Blog

Pesach has come and gone though the world-wide Covid-19 craziness has not left us yet.  I hope everyone is staying healthy.  This time, it is a blog about nothing in particular - just a few random updates on different things going on.  Some people seem to like reading these types of blogs the most.  As  usual, I welcome any responses and comments.

Pesach 2020

Passover has come and gone.  Here in Israel it is only 7 days so it goes by a bit more quickly than in North America (or anywhere else outside of Israel).  We only have one Seder.  Since we only had five people at our Seder (our immediate  family), we shouldn't have needed as many Pesach dishes.  But somehow it didn't seem to be that much less work than usual.  Changing over all the dishes, preparing some special Passover foods and making sure you have everything you need - is still a lot of effort whether you are having 30 people for dinner or just 5.  We might even have enough frozen brisket left over to last us through Rosh Hashana.

We had our annual family debate over whether to switch to eating kitniyot (legumes, rice etc.,) during Pesach.  Although we could not come up with too many great reasons  for continuing our Ashkenazi practice - other than tradition (and the possibility of hosting non-kitniyot eating guests) - we slogged through another year without eating humus, rice, corn or other kitniyot.  Since most restaurants were closed this year on hol hamoed (the intermediate days of Passover) because of the virus, there weren't many external temptations (like the pizza places that usually open up during Pesach using corn flour crust).  We had our family at home and cooked all of our meals in the house so it wasn't really too problematic.  The holiday even went by  quickly, it seemed.

We  considered following the Moroccan custom of making mufleta after the end of Pesach (essentially a fried dough served with honey or jam).  It would have been a "mini- Mimuna" (A Moroccan post-Passover party) since it would have been only the five of us.  But in the end, since none of us were Moroccan, we didn't really feel a compelling urge to spend the time making the mufleta.  Instead we spent the evening turning the kitchen back to its normal state and then made some pasta.

Covid-19

Israel, like most other countries, is still in a state of lock-down.  A range of stores are open including supermarkets, local convenience stores, hardware stores and take out restaurants.  But malls are still closed, many other businesses are closed and many Israelis are feeling the  challenge of economic hardship.

Israel has done a reasonable job at keeping the spread rate relatively low and, more importantly, the mortality rate down.   According to the latest statistics, Israel had a total of 12,855 active cases as of yesterday, including 97 new confirmed cases.  148 people have died, including 6 yesterday.  For the country, the overall mortality rate, tracked as "deaths per  million residents" is at 17.  By way of comparison, that number is 105 in the U.S., 413 in Spain, 202 in the UK and 32 in Canada.  So Israelis are cautiously optimistic that the country will emerge from this crisis with a relatively low number of casualties.

The challenging discussion now is how to open the economy back up so that people can get back to work.  The Israeli government is proposing a plan to gradually open up sectors of the  economy starting on Sunday and then to track progress after about two weeks.  Depending on the effect and the spread rate, the government will then decide if it can re-open more sectors.  This seems like a reasonable approach although there are obviously many Israelis who are suffering a great deal as a result of the economic disaster that the virus created.

Israel is not alone or unique in this regard.  According to some reports, the U.S. has not hit its peak yet and sits had more than 650,000 cases with more than 34,000 deaths.  Fortunately, the mortality numbers are much lower so far in the U.S. than some people had predicted.  Many people are feeling the pain of economic hardship that an economic lock-down brings.  The challenge for the U.S., like Israel and everywhere else, will be to find a way to reopen the economy without causing a massive spike in the infection and death rate.

Zoom and Religious Services

One of the big "winners" in the current  situation has been Zoom.  People are setting up Zoom meetings for everything - family meetings, club get-togethers, game playing, exercise classes and religious gatherings.  I have been scheduling quite a number of business meetings over Zoom and I am certainly thankful that this technology enables me to continue to run my business from a great distance.

For Passover, we considered the option of joining a big Zoom Seder with friends but  decided instead to run a more intimate family Seder.  We jumped in to say  hi to our extended family Seder in North America (at  about 3:30 a.m. our time) but that was on the second night - which wasn't really still a holiday for us.

Some synagogues have been wrestling with the challenges of Shabbat and holy days.  Since Covid-19 has meant the suspension of physical attendance at services, many  people have pushed for a replacement.  Some synagogues, including some Orthodox synagogues have decided that a daily minyan (a prayer service with at least 10 people) (or even a shiva) can be held through Zoom. I have attended some online services during the week.

Holding services by Zoom on Shabbat and chaggim is more of a challenge, halachically.  Although there are Conservative synagogues around the world that have been broadcasting their services for many years now, these have involved a passive camera, set up on a timer, before shabbat to enable people who are home-bound to watch a broadcast of a service.  Presumably, the people who are watching could set up their computer on a timer as well if they choose to do so.

A Zoom service is a bit different.  Since there is no actual service taking place with a minyan that could be broadcast, the service itself is by definition much more of an active on-line event.  The organization of Conservative Rabbis in Israel determined that this would not be appropriate halachically and recommended prohibiting these services on Shabbat and other religious holy days.

This has led to quite an active debate at our kehillah in Israel.  Some members feel that the halacha is outdated and that the emergency nature of the current situation demands a change to accommodate the spiritual needs of members.  Others are concerned at chipping away at the notion that the kehillah is still a halacha-based shul and that Zoom services on holy days are outside of that framework.  Certainly that is the decision of the Masorti leadership in Israel.

I am a bit torn here.  Although we (as a family) do tend to drive to our synagogue (knowing that we are not really supposed to), we try to keep a number of aspects of Shabbat.  We  don't use the TV or computers.  It would be a pretty big change for us to start participating in an active Zoom service on a Shabbat morning and I don't think that is right for us personally at this time.  I recognize that many  people have other needs and other opinions and this is certainly one of those issues that  has the potential to cause a major rift in some synagogues.

I suppose that if synagogues remain closed for an extended period of time, there may be more and more pressure to come up with creative solutions and a larger number of rabbis may start revisiting some aspects of halacha.  But hopefully, things will turn around sooner than anticipated and we will not have to deal what type of pressure.

I should note that we have been invited to our first Zoom wedding on Sunday (b'sha'a tova to our dear friends).  We  have also, unfortunately, had to deal with a few Zoom shivas over the past few weeks.  Neither of these scenarios would have been imaginable previously.  Needless to say, the world will continue to change in many ways as the Covid-19 crisis unfolds.

Conclusion

That's about it for now.  Hopefully many people are taking advantage of the time at home to do some different things.  We have been cooking some new and interesting dishes, playing some of our board games and trying to do some on-line fitness activities.  We have also been catching up on Fauda and enjoying the concerts that are being broadcast on Israeli TV every evening.  I am definitely looking forward to the One World concert being organized by Lady Gaga on Saturday night.

Most importantly I am hoping that as spring arrives, we will see things improve across the world.  Let's hope for a cure, a vaccine and the best of health for everyone.

I didn't deal with Israel's political situation in this blog - still a mess - and no solution in sight.  But more to come on that next week.

Shabbat Shalom from Ra'anana.




Monday, April 13, 2020

Mid-Passover Report: Politics, Covid-19 and Pesach in Israel

Yemenite Passover Matzah 
In my last post, I stated that Israel finally had a new government.  Well as it turns out "rumours of a new Israeli government are greatly exaggerated...."  As you might recall, when we last looked at this topic, Gantz had apparently surrendered to Netanyahu and agreed to support a supposed "national unity government" with the stated goal of helping the country at the time of a national crisis.  This caused Gantz's Blue and White party to split apart with only half of the elected Blue and White MKs prepared to accept the deal.  Gantz tried to sell the deal by arguing that he had extracted several concessions from Netanyahu and the Likud party including a number of high profile cabinet positions, an agreed upon leadership rotation after one and a half years and a few other agreements.  But while many of these items had apparently been hammered out into a deal after several weeks of negotiations, Netanyahu had not signed on the dotted line.  Yair Lapid, one of the leaders of the faction within Blue and White that refused to go along, argued that Netanyahu could not be trusted and that Gantz was committing political suicide.  Gantz ignored the warnings and pushed ahead.

Days went by and the agreement was still not signed.  Netanyahu began telling Gantz that he had to have more concessions in order to finalize the deal.  He wanted an agreement to annex parts of the disputed territories while Trump was still the President.  Netanyahu demanded a veto over any judicial appointments,  even as he had agreed to have Blue and White appoint the Minister of Justice.  He wanted key decisions made by the Minister of Justice and by the Minister of Internal Security to be made with his approval.  In other words, once Gantz had prematurely split apart his party and indicated his willingness to enter a coalition with Netanyahu, Netanyahu realized that Gantz had been defeated and began to insist on further concessions.  Netanyahu now saw that Gantz had very little political ability to resist and saw that he could continue to try and reach his ultimate goal of getting an immunity deal to avoid his ongoing criminal trial (the start of which had already been delayed by Netanyahu's hand-appointed justice minister).

The clock continued to tick and sure enough the initial 30 day period for forming a government came to an end without any agreement.  Gantz requested a two week extension but President Rivlin declined (earlier today) since he saw no chance that Gantz could actually form a government.  But he did not pass the mandate over to Netanyahu.  Instead he exercised an Israeli law to allow any Member of Knesset to form a government over the next two weeks.  If no government is formed, Israel will have a fourth election - presumably in September.

A fourth election would be Netanyahu's preference.  In the current negotiations. he eviscerated Gantz.  Gantz was left looking weak and useless.  He made a whole series of concessions to Netanyahu and wound up getting nothing out of it.  It seems unlikely that he will run again if there is a fourth election.  He would have no support from two-thirds of his party and even the other one third might not support him. Netanyahu  probably believes that there will be no suitable centrist alternative and he may be able to get the additional three or four seats that he needs to form a narrow right wing government or even more.  Netanyahu will also argue that Israel has done a reasonable job containing the Covid-19 crisis, especially in comparison to many other countries, and that he is largely responsible. 

I should note that Netanyahu also managed to convince Labour leader Amir Peretz to join the coalition talks.  Peretz, before the election, had shaved his moustache and said "read my lips, I I will not join Netanyahu."  But somehow, inexplicably, he decided to take the remnants of the once proud left wing Labour party and join Netanyahu in exchange for a cabinet post and some other minor concessions (unsigned of course).  This is surely the death knell for the Labour party and a significant blow to any left wing opposition to Netanyahu.

So all that is left on the centre and the the centre left to oppose Netanyahu - are the remaining half of the Blue and White Party (consisting of Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid and Telem led by Moshe "Bogie" Yaalon), the Meretz party (which has been reduced to a handful of seats) and the Joint Arab List (many of whom are staunchly anti-Zionist).  The opposition will have a short window to find a new leader (or agree to run under Lapid or Yaalon) and convince the public to stick with them.  Since a  big chunk of people were prepared to support the idea of a coalition government under Netanyahu, this will be a difficult task.  And Netanyahu knows it.  He also knows that this is his best chance of getting an "immunity bill" to end his criminal proceedings.

This may still end with further concessions by Gantz and some sort of deal over the next two weeks.  But a fourth election is also becoming a very realistic option.


Covid-19

Israel, like most other countries, continues to struggle to contain the spread of Covid-19.  Currently, Israel has about 1,300 cases, which puts it 25th in the world when looking at cases per million population.  In terms of deaths per million population, Israel's number is at 13.  Canada is at 19, the United States 67 and Italy 367.  The Israeli government has also announced that there are several thousand available ventilators.  Even if many of the people who are currently affected become more seriously ill, Israel's hope is that it will have an adequate availability of ventilators to avoid the situation that was taking place in Italy and Spain.

Israel is still under a wide ranging lock-down.  Supermarkets are open and other essential services.  But the number of services deemed "essential" was recently reduced.  For the Passover holiday, the Israeli government mandated a complete ban on leaving your home for a distance of more than 100 metres other than for urgent medical attention or a handful of other reasons.

The government has also instituted more severe lock-downs in certain areas of the country.  Some of the highest infection rates are being reported in ultra-religious neighbourhoods in B'nei Brak and Jerusalem.  The Health Ministry tried to institute a closure of these areas but some of their proposals were blocked by the current Health Minister Litzman, who is himself a member of the Haredi (ultra-religious) community.  The closure of B'nei Brak went ahead initially but it has apparently been eased up somewhat.  News reports have indicated that a high percentage of the Covid-19 patients who are classified as in serious and critical condition are members of the ultra-religious community.

The Israeli government instituted a program to give each family 500 shekels per child aged 18 or younger to ensure that people could buy food for Passover.  The money was delayed and did not arrive in time for the start of the holiday and it is unclear when it will arrive.  Even if they had received this 500 shekels (about $130 USD), many people in Israel (like most other countries) are suffering from a lack of work, lack of income and some very difficult economic challenges.  The government is trying to develop a plan to reopen sectors of the economy gradually if it can do so while continuing to minimize the Coronavirus spread.

Pesach

I think this was one of the smallest Passover Seders we have ever had.  Although we knew several people hosting Zoom Seders, we opted to hold a Seder with just our nuclear family.  We asked each person to prepare an activity, lead a discussion or prepare a section of the Haggadah.  We arranged to have some really nice wine ready and we probably had enough food prepared for a Seder of 20 or more.

It worked out really well. Since we had five willing participants for reading, singing and discussions, we had a very active evening.  The wine also helped.  We wound up finishing at about 3:30 a.m., which was late for us, even compared to our usual Seder with 25 or 30 people.  I guess we had a "captive audience" and no one had to be anywhere.  No one was driving home afterwards and no one had anything to do that was pressing the next day.  We had lots of really nice singing, some really fun activities and some pretty decent food.  It was a really special evening - lots of naches for us as parents.

Because of the time distance, it  didn't really work out well for us to join the huge family Zoom Seder - which started at 2:30 a.m. Israel time - though we dropped in to say hi  at some point after we had finished our Seder.

I should mention that Israel, unlike the U.S. and  some parts of Canada, has had no shortage of toilet paper.  But instead we wound up with an egg shortage. Yup, right before Passover, an egg shortage.  As you know, you need many eggs to make just about anything for Passover since can't use yeast or other leavening agents.  We were able to get 30 from a friend (whose brother has a  Moshav) and we were also able to buy a few of the last remaining organic eggs at the corner  store.  We still have a few left so it has not been a disaster for us by any stretch.  But hordes of Israelis were running around everywhere before the start of the holiday, clamoring desperately for some eggs for the holiday.
Imported Eggs Arriving in Israel


Here in Israel, the holiday officially ends on Wednesday night.  Tuesday night marks the start of the second "Yom Tov" - which runs until sundown on Wednesday.  There  will likely be another complete closure of the country though it has not yet been announced.  No one will be hosting any large scale "maymuna" celebrations (the customary Moroccan party marking the end of Pesach - celebrated by Israelis everywhere - even non-Moroccan Israelis) though I was thinking  about making some Mufleta (the Moroccan bread/pastry served at a Maymuna).

Then it will be time to put away all of the Passover dishes, switch the kitchen back to Hametz and hope that well before next year things will have gone back to "normal."

B'Shana Haba'ah B'Yerushalayim - Wishing everyone the best of health and Mo'adim L'Simcha.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Israel Update - Government, Covid-19 and General Lockdown

Hi.  I have a bit of time so this blog might be a bit longer than usual.   I have divided this post  into three parts - the government, the virus and some miscellaneous stuff.  Lots going on, I guess....

Israeli Government

As you might  have read, we finally have a government in Israel after three elections.  It is quite similar to the government we have had up until this point, with the addition of about 18 members of the now splintered Blue and White opposition party.  Netanyahu is still the Prime Minister, for at least the next year and a half and the ultra-religious parties are still part of the government.  Yamina, the right wing nationalist party, is also still part of the new coalition.

As you probably know, we went through three elections and we were still mired in a stalemate.  Netanyahu and his right wing bloc had a total of 58 Knesset seats, leaving them 3 short of being able to form a government.  The opposition included 15 members of the Arab Joint List party, some of whom are virulently anti-Zionist.  But with the Joint List members, the Blue and White party, led by Benny Gantz was able to cobble together 62 seats and was attempting to move ahead with a new government.

This plan created quite a bit of uproar in Israel.  Many of Gantz's critics and even some of his supporters noted that he and other Blue and White members had promised that they would not form a government relying on the support of the Joint List.  Of course Blue and White had also promised that it would not join a government that was led by Netanyahu.  The Likud party figured that Gantz was bluffing and there was no way Gantz could go ahead and build a government relying on the Arab parties.  So the Likud party stuck with Netanyahu and the full right wing bloc and insisted that Gantz's only move was to give up and join them.  Netanyahu stated over and over again that if Gantz did not join him, there would be a fourth election.  He also stated that because of the Covid-19 outbreak, the nation was in a crisis and that the only thing Gantz could do to help save the country would be  to join Netanyahu, on Netanyahu's terms.

For Blue and White, many of its members hoped that by proceeding to take certain steps towards forming a government with the Joint List, the  Likud and/or its right wing bloc would start to crack under the pressure. At some point, the Likud bloc members would realize that unless they made significant concessions towards a genuine unity government, they would all be out of power and Israel would be controlled by a left centre government with support from 15 Joint List members.  Gantz moved things along in this direction.  He developed a plan to replace the speaker of the house, Yuri Edelstein, with a new speaker from the Yesh Atid faction of his party and he also planned to introduce some new legislation including a bill that would prevent Netanyahu from being Prime Minister in the next government until his criminal charges were addressed.

But as the new Knesset members were sworn in, Edelstein, acting under Netanyahu's direction, closed the Knesset  and refused to hold the vote that would have led to his replacement.  The Blue and White party sought direction from the Supreme Court of Israel, which ruled that Edelstein had to open the Knesset.  But Edelstein refused.  Instead, he tendered his resignation along with a 48 hour window for it to take effect.  This meant that the Knesset would continue to be closed and he could not be replaced.  It was a calculated move by Bibi to buy more time and continue negotiating with Gantz while he was still in a position of power.  Bibi continued to threaten that if Gantz did not give in to his demands, that would create a fourth election.  He also called on Gantz to "put Israel above all else" and join his government.  Bibi and his bloc members were prepared to openly disregarded the order of the Supreme Court as a delay tactic to put more pressure on the opposition.

At  the same time, Gantz lost considerable bargaining power.  Two Blue and White members, Zvi Hauser and Yoav Hendel, decided that they would not agree to support a government that was relying on the support of the Arab parties.  Another member, Orly Levy, also stated that she would vote against any proposal that would include the Joint List.  So the Blue and White party was now left with the potential support of only 59 with considerable confusion about what Hauser and Hendel might do in the event of any given vote.  One additional member of Blue and White started to indicate that he would defect as well.  Faced with all of this internal pressure along with the pressure from Bibi and political pressure from the right, Gantz conceded defeat and agreed to join Bibi's government, against the wishes of about half of the members of his own coalition group.

To try to paint the rosiest picture possible, Gantz claimed that he had extracted genuine concessions and that this was a necessary move for Israel at this challenging time.  Although the deal includes equality between the number of Blue and White cabinet ministers and the number from the entire right wing bloc - 14 or 15 each initially and now maybe up to 17, it leaves Netanyahu in place as the Prime Minister for at least 18 more months.  It also includes a provision to change the law and allow Netanyahu to serve as a cabinet minister while facing indictment.

A significant number of Blue and White members were outraged.  The Blue and White party itself had been made up of three different factions.  Two  of them rejected this deal and decided to split.  Yair Lapid's party Yesh Atid and the Telem party led by Moshe (Boogie) Ya'alon both left Gantz's party, taking 18 members with them.  That left Gantz with 16 to join Netanyahu's government, of whom 15 will be cabinet ministers.   The government will have a massive cabinet with between 28 and 34 cabinet ministers to try and keep as many Knesset members as possible happy.

Meanwhile, Lieberman, who had held the balance of power with 7 seats, has been left out in the cold.  He is not part of the new government and was unable to force the Likud to agree to a true national coalition government between the two big parties without the ultra-religious parties.  This new government is likely to continue the same direction with respect to state-religion issues, which is a major defeat for the Blue and White party and its supporters and for Lieberman.

Meanwhile, the left wing coalition between the Meretz (secular democratic) and Labour (socialist) party has also fractured.  Before the election, a key Labour Party member, former Labour leader Amir Peretz, said he would shave his trademark moustache so that people could "read his lips"  to prove that he would not join a Bibi-led government.  Today he seems poised to join the Netanyahu government, leading his coalition partners to split off into another faction.  It is unclear why Peretz feels that it is so urgent to abandon his party's principles and join this government but that is what appears to be taking shape.

Yair Lapid and the Yesh Atid party will stay with the Telem party and look like they will be the official opposition.  Yesh Atid and Telem both broke away from the Blue and White party as a result of this deal.  Only Lapid and Ya'alon seem to have been prepared to  weather the pressure from Netanyahu and stay the course towards trying to bring about genuine change in the Israeli government.

In the end, after three elections, Israel has another right wing-ultra-religious government, led by Netanyahu, who continues to await the start of his criminal proceedings.  A major defeat for the centre and the left in Israel and another big win for Netanyahu who is truly a master politician and an unrivaled manipulator.  Like many other politicians, he is ready willing and able to use every trick in the book to retain power.

Covid-19 Update

Like the rest of the world, Israel continues to grapple with the spread of Covid-19.  As of yesterday, there were about 4,300 cases in Israel.  There have been 16 deaths and there are about 80 people in serious or critical condition.  The government, led by direction from the Ministry of Health, has implemented wide-spread restrictions on movement across the country.  Many businesses are closed including most non-essential retail establishments, restaurants (other than for take-out and delivery) and all forms of entertainment.  These restrictions may have helped to limit the spread and allow the hospitals to prepare for the impending onslaught of patients who will require respirators and ventilators in the coming weeks.  It is unclear whether the combination of restrictions and preparations will suffice but Israel is doing everything it can to stay ahead of the curve.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has gone on TV regularly to introduce new, increasingly harsh restrictions.  He has also been warning Israelis that the steps are necessary to ensure that Israel does not turn into Italy, Spain, or the United States.  In one TV appearance last week, he suggested that the U.S. may wind up with close to 500,000 fatalities and that Israel would likely wind up with more than 10,000.  We will continue to hope that these predictions are not accurate and that we will soon find a vaccine or a cure for this disease.

Miscellaneous Other

I saw the meme that is circulating  - "I miss those days when I could voluntarily choose to skip going to synagogue."  Well, our shul, Kehillat Hod VeHadar, has been building up a series of Zoom shul meetings.  Our shul has not implemented Zoom services on Shabbat for halachic reasons but it has been running Kabbalat Shabbat (before Shabbat) and havdalah (after Shabbat) with more than 50 different zoom windows open and somewhere between 50 and 100 people attending.  Not bad for a shul with only a few hundred families.  Like Synagogues around the world, the Kehillah will continue to develop online learning opportunities, classes and other meetings while in-person attendance is not feasible.  I see that Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto is also headed down that path as are many other congregations.  Families are gearing up for Zoom Pesach seders.  I think we are likely to hold an intimate Pesach Seder for just the five of us rather than a Zoom event.  But I guess we have a bit of time to decide.

Israeli TV station, channel 12, has been broadcasting concerts each night at midnight on TV as well as other concerts at different times on its website.  We have seen some terrific concerts  including Idan Raichel, Rami Kleinstein, Amir Dadon and Keren Peles.  Others have been less memorable but it is a great initiative.  All of the concerts are performed live at an empty Zappa Club in Tel-Aviv.

Like many other people, we have been doing lots of cooking.  Trying out some new recipes.  We made some homemade pizza - even the sauce was from scratch.  Tried out a recipe for long ribs, a Spanish Frittata, and a whole roasted chicken (mixed recipes from a friend and a family member).  Lots of other ideas coming up.  I have a humus recipe from one good friend and a channa masala recipe from another.  And it is nice barbecue weather.  Trying to keep the recipes reasonably healthy and limit the amount of wine that is consumed with the meals.  And trying to do some exercise using a phone app - to keep off the weight.  We haven't really made a dent in the whisky collection yet but if this isolation period continues long enough - we might start.

Israel has made great efforts to bring Israelis home from all over the world.  El Al has played a significant role in this - despite the enormous financial and existential difficulties it is now facing.  Some flights were sponsored by donors, businesses and other contributors to ensure that people could come back home for free or at a greatly reduced rate.  Other flights were were arranged by El Al itself or by travel agencies or other airlines.  Everyone arriving home (including our family member...) has had to go into a two week self-isolation.  So we are grateful for all of the efforts of these airlines and travel agencies and happy to be going through that now with our self-isolated family member.  We are looking forward to the end of the two week period - right before Pesach.

Obviously there will be no travelling for  me (or anyone else) for a while - who knows for how long - but hopefully there will be clients  who are happy to meet virtually.   I hope that my friends with big family events including bnei-mitzvoth and weddings will see all of this subside super quickly or will find ways to make alternate arrangements that are equally meaningful.

It is a strange world without any sports events, entertainment outings or other of the usual events that we have been so accustomed to enjoying.  Our beloved Toronto Maple Leafs will once again be denied the opportunity to win the Stanley Cup (they haven't won since 1967 and they probably weren't going to win this year...).

How quickly everything can change.  We take so many things for granted and we realize now how suddenly everything can be so different.  It brings ever increasing meaning to so much of the liturgy that we read on Yom Kippur.

I wish everyone the best of health and hope to try to keep in touch regularly with as many of you as possible.  Let's hope that we got through this much quicker than expected.










Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Pesach 2016 תשע"ו

It is Pesach (Passover) in Israel (and around the world) and it is a very important and widely celebrated holiday here.  There are laws that prohibit stores and restaurants from selling bread and other Hametz for the whole holiday.  Students are off for more than two weeks.  Many others have taken a week or two off or are working at a half-time pace.  Even many soldiers are off....

Although Pesach is also called Hag Ha-Aviv - the "Spring Holiday," it certainly feels more like summer.  Temperatures are in the 30s throughout the country.  Combine all of these things and what do you get?  Thousands of Israelis travelling - out of the country and all over the country itself.  There are traffic jams everywhere.  National parks across the country are filled with people and the beaches are packed.
Hexagonal Pool Trail
We decided to join the crowds and take a day trip yesterday.  We drove up north, just past the Kinneret to a national park featuring the "Hexagonal Pool."  From Central Israel, this is about a two hour drive.  We left early to try and beat the traffic but it wasn't quite early enough. We faced our share of highway congestion.
Hexagonal Pool Israel
We still managed to arrive before the park was completely jam- packed.  The site entrance is right near "Had Ness" a small community north of the Kinneret.  On entering the park, you have a choice of taking a five hour hike, a 2-3 hour hike or 1 to 1.5 hour trip.  These are all the suggested times.  We chose the medium length path.  This is essentially a downhill hike through a winding path (at times involving moderately difficult climbing).  The trail is about 2.5 km - with the option of adding on about another kilometre.

At the bottom of the hike - Nirvana.  A beautiful Hexagonal pool serving as the base of a waterfall and the collecting pool for water from the Jordan river.  The water was about 18C - quite cool and refreshing.  The pool reaches a depth of 17 metres at parts.  But when it is 35-36C outside and you have just hiked down a 3 km trail, 18C water is incredible.
Hexagonal Pool, Israel

When the swimming is over, the fun starts.  Time to walk back up the trail - 2.5 km of uphill path.  The trail is reasonably steep and includes some very rocky areas and some real climbing.  In mid-day summer heat, after having walked 3 km down - this type of activity offers some challenge for people like me....but it was well worth it.

Golan Heights Winery
We got back to the car and considered other possible activities.  Amazing how Google can help with suggestions.  As it turns out, we were only about 10 minutes away from the Golan Heights Winery so we decided to make a quick stop.  I had been there before several years ago - but it is quite a nice place to visit.  We did not have time to do the tour and tasting though we browsed in the gift shop for a few minutes.  The prices were simply the same as one would find all over the rest of Israel though they had some wine selections that are hard to find.

We decided to find something to eat.  Since it was Pesach, we had, of course, brought along lots of food, featuring delicious Pesach rolls.  But no one really wanted another one of those rolls.  So we decided to look for a Kosher for Pesach Restaurant.  This can be a bit tricky.  Many restaurants are closed for the holiday.  We couldn't find anything suitable in nearby Katzrin - so we decided to drive down to Teveria (Tiberias) and find a place there.  We settled on a South American meat restaurant that was "Kosher l'Mehadrin" but, for kitniyot eaters of course.  We decided to eat there anyways and told them to hold the kitniyot.  They get lots of requests for this, apparently, so we were fine.

The whole kitniyot thing on Pesach is still confounding us.  Although the Conservative movement in North American opted to permit Conservative Jews to eat kitniyot this year - and many Israeli rabbis (Orthodox Ashkenazi included among them) have made that same decree in the past, we have continued to stick with the traditional Ashkenazi mode of avoiding rice, corn, beans and other legumes during Pesach.  This is particularly challenging if one wants to eat out.  We see restaurants across the country open for Pesach serving corn flour bread and rolls - and other kitynot-based bread substitutes.  But after 50 years of doing things a certain way, it is difficult to make the leap to switch over and start eating all of those other things on Pesach.  It is also creates an even bigger gap between Israeli and non-Israeli Jews.  So we skipped the tehina and humus and ate our skewers with matzah, cabbage and some other vegetables.

Today the temperature in Israel was even hotter - a veritable heat wave.  But there are predictions that things will cool off to "reasonable" by Friday, the last official day of Pesach in Israel this year.  Of course, Pesach will actually continue for those who observe it until Saturday night - since there would be no time between the end of Pesach and Shabbat to change over dishes, buy back Hametz, etc.,

So now we have a few days to find a Moroccan friend who is hosting a Maymuna (an end of Pesach celebration).  But until then we still have time to enjoy matzah brie, matzah lasagne, matzah rolls and other delicacies.  Chag Sameach to everyone - and make sure to eat lots of prunes.



Thursday, April 9, 2015

Yemenite Matzot for Passover

Making Matzah in Kiryat Eqron, Israel
What is matzah, really?  We know that observant Jews are not allowed to eat bread on Passover and are commanded, instead, to eat only unleavened bread.  But what did that unleavened bread really like like?  For most Jews, matzah is hard and flat and comes in box.  It is fairly tasteless.  Its uniformity is quite consistent and even boring - other than the special "shmurah" matzah that is prepared by hand.

But for Yemenite Jews, matzah is much more like pita bread.  Although it is not nearly as fluffy and chewy as regular pitas, it is soft and more doughy than most matzah.  Even today, in many parts of Israel, Yemenite Jews make fresh matzah each day on Passover.  We had the chance to make some on Tuesday and I thought I would write a bit about it.

The process starts with strictly supervised "kemach shmurah" - carefully supervised flour.  Special care has been taken to ensure that the flour has not come into contact with water or any other leavening agents.  The flour is purchased before Pesach starts and kept in a dry location.

When it is time to start preparing the matzah, there are several key points to keep in mind.  First of all, the "oven" itself. Yemenite matzah is prepared in a tabun - which is basically a tandoori oven.  The oven burns wood which must be brought to the right temperature for matzah making.  So the first step is to put the right amount of wood and kindling into the oven and get a nice fire going.  Once the wood is smouldering, the oven is ready and matzot can be cooked on the walls of the oven.

Now - for the preparation.  About 6 cups of flour are mixed with a similar amount of water.  The baker must continually mix the flour to ensure that the dough does not have time to rest and start leavening.  (This is a halachic requirement that ensures that the matzah is actually kosher for passover).  Interestingly, Yemenite Jews add a bit of salt to the flour-water mixture.  Some Ashkenazi rabbis have banned the use of salt in matzah but it is apparently more of a tradition than a law.

The baker continues to mix the dough until the texture is appropriate for matzah making.  This is where experience comes into play.

Next, some of the smouldering wood is removed from the oven.  The walls of the oven are cleaned and rubbed with oil.  Then, the baker breaks off about 1/8 or 1/9 of the dough, flattens it a bit and spreads it onto the hot wall of the tabun.  Water is used to help the dough spread and stick to the wall. 

This process continues until the baker has placed 8 or 9 dough pieces on the walls of the oven.  Lots of water is used, both to cool the arms of the baker and to help spread the matzah and ensure that it sticks to the walls.  The photo above was taken midway through the process after about 5 matzot were prepared.

Some of the hot wood that was removed from the oven is now placed back in the oven so that the temperature can continue to rise.  The baker lights some palm branches on fire and uses the fire and smoke to help cook the outside of the matzot that are stuck to the walls of the oven.

The actual cooking time might be 5 or 6 minutes.  By tradition, the entire process, from the mixing of the dough to the complete cooking of the matzot must take less than 18 minutes.  Our process was complete in 15 minutes and you can see the finished product.

If you are sticking to fairly rigorous Ashkenazi rules, you might eat the fresh matzot with cream cheese, butter or jam.  No kitniyot based spreads could be used.  If you are following Eastern traditions, you might have these matzot with some humus, which is permissible for Sephardic and other non-Ashkenazi Jews on Passover.

In our case, we ate the matzot with curried chicken soup and freshly slaughtered curried goat (well - freshly slaughtered, just before Pesach).  This meal can also be enjoyed with some hot sauce (chili peppers, garlic and cilantro leaves - or zhoug).  I think I put a bit too much in my soup...but it was still delicious.

Finally, this should all be enjoyed with an appropriate kosher Israeli wine for the occasion.  I picked up a bottle of Trio Winery's "Spirit of Jerusalem" wine, which should suit this type of meal nicely.  We'll find out tonight.

Passover will end, officially, tomorrow night in Israel but that will lead right into Shabbat.  Since there would be no opportunity to change back dishes, buy back the chametz or go out and buy ingredients, we wind up with a default additional day of pesach. 

As delicious as these Yemenite matzot are, I'm looking forward to getting back to our regular eating patterns.  Chag Sameach!
 


Thursday, April 2, 2015

April 1 2015 - Upcoming White House Seder with President Obama

With the Passover Holiday approaching, the White House has been planning its annual Pesach Seder.  This year, the Seder will feature some new and interesting guests.

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran is expected to attend along with Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Husseini Khameini.  The Ayatollah will be drinking grape juice rather than wine throughout the Seder (for religious reasons).  However, he is expected to propose a fifth cup to the "destruction of Israel," a theme he outlined in a recent tweet entitled "9 questions about the elimination of Israel."

President Rouhani and the Ayatollah will be seated next to Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of U.S. group "J Street."  They will be discussing the recent Israeli election results.

Canadian Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is planning to attend along with former Canadian Supreme Court Justice Louise Arbour (who has, in the past, repeatedly attacked Israel for alleged war crimes), as well as several other current and former Liberal MPs.  Prominent Liberal MP Irwin Cotler was apparently "unavailable."  Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was not invited.  He has contacted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and asked if he could join him at a Seder elsewhere.

Some well known entertainers will also be in attendance in Washington.  Trevor Noah, the new host of the Daily Show will be attending.  He has prepared some new tweets for the occasion.  He has not yet tweeted them but he insists that they will be as entertaining and tasteful as his previous tweets about Israel and about Jewish people.  He will be seated with Pink Floyd member Roger Waters, a prominent BDS activist and several other entertainers.  Madonna was reportedly invited but declined the invitation as she will be attending a real Seder in Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not on the guest list this year.  However, he will be attending an alternate, concurrent Seder in Washington led by Republican House Speaker John Boehner and several Tea Party members.  The Seder will be held a few blocks from the White House.  Speaker Bohner's group did not tell President Obama about the concurrent Seder or about its guest list.  However, they insisted that this was not, in any way, a politically motivated event.  The Boehner group will open the Seder with readings from the book of Revelations (speaking about Gog and Magog and the coming nuclear war) and will be featuring a special fifth cup of wine with the hope of  bringing Iran out of slavery and into a period of freedom. 

Finally, the Chief Rabbi of Israel was invited to attend the Presidential Seder.  He was not able to attend but he did offer a blessing instead:  "May God bless President Obama and keep him far away from the Jewish people."  I guess he had recently been watching Fiddler on the Roof.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom to everyone.

April 1, 2015

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Mimouna 2014

mimouna table in Israel
We did not have the opportunity to make it to a mimouna this  year.  While we usually have one cousin who holds the festival at her house (she is married to a Moroccan Israeli), she decided not to have one this year.  Even though we didn't get to one, mimouna events were held across Israel on Monday night, April 21, 2014, marking the end of Pesach. 

What is a mimouna?  Well, I'm not going to repeat the entire Wikepdia entry, which is linked above.  In short, it is a Moroccan-Jewish gathering marking the end of pesach (passover) which features various food items, especially mufleta (recipe link), which is, more or less, a form of fried dough.  I suppose it is like a beaver tail. It is traditionally eaten with some honey.  The mimouna  has become the quintessential celebration of Moroccan-Jewish culture in Israel (other than perhaps, the henna celebration before a wedding) and mufleta is seen as the represenative food.  Many Moroccon families host a mimouna, which is considered an open-door event.  People are not necessarily invited - they just show up at the house of their nearest Moroccan friend or cousin - and hope that they are hosting a mimouna this year....

President Shimon Peres at Mimouna
The mimouna has become an important political photo op in Israel.  the Prime Minister and the President of Israel both publicize their mimouna outings as do many other high ranking political officials.  Aside from the fact that these are fun events with lots of great food (and often some fine drinks as well), political leaders also like to support the Moroccan-Israeli community by enjoying their mimouna events very publicy.

Prime Minister Netanyahu - at mimouna 2014
One mimouna in Ashdod this year caused a bit of a stir.  Posters were circulated inviting people to attend a mimouna with Shas party leader Aryeh Deri along with the Mayor of Ashdod and the Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef.  According to YNet News, the circulated invitations stated that event was "for men only."  This is particularly crazy given that is probably women who prepared mosf of the mufleta.  Moreover, it is not really a "religious" event per se, so it is hard to see what possible rationale there would be for holding a male-only mimouna.  

Most mimounas probably require the active participation of the women.  I tend to doubt that my Moroccan cousin could prepare mufleta himself though I'm quite certain that there are at least some Moroccan Israeli men somewhere who could.   

In any event, the hardest part of hosting or attending a mimouna to me seems to be the timing.  When do you change back all of your dishes from Passover to regular dishes?  If you are hosting a mimouna, how do you possibly do that quick enough to be ready for all of those guests to arrive?  Finally, how do you eat all that fried dough after 7 days of eating ridiculous quantities of pesach food?

I don't have the answers to any of these questions - other than to say "Tradition, Tradition" - in this case, Moroccan tradition....

And after all, the mufleta is quite tasty.

I hope that those who celebrated enjoyed their Pesach  holiday and that many managed to find their way to a mimouna.  If you did not, you have about a year to figure out how to make mufleta quickly and properly.





 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Pesach 2014 - Board Games Day and Kosher Pesach Burgers

What can you do in Israel over Pesach?  Everyone is on vacation, the roads are packed with travelling Israelis and the weather is usually beautiful.  So it's a great time to go the Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), the beach (the Mediterranean Sea or the Red (Reed) Sea.  Many Israelis use this vacation period for trips abroad, since kids are off from school for close to three weeks.  Many soldiers even get a bit of break from the army...

There are many festivals across the country - music festivals, camping and all kinds of other cultural events.

One of the things that we have been doing is spending one day of Hol Hamoed on Pesach and on Sukkot at an all day board games day in Jerusalem.  We wind up with about 25-30 people, all of whom bring a bunch of their favourite board games - and we play all day.  The event is co-sponsored by the Jerusalem Strategy Games Club and the Ra'anana Board Games Group.  It is an opportunity to meet some new people, learn a bunch of new games and play some games at a fairly competitive level.

The event was in Jerusalem, which meant a lengthy drive from Ra'anana.  Even leaving late it in the morning (to avoid rush hour), we wound up facing some outrageously slow traffic.  It took us close to three hours to get from Ra'anana to Jerusalem, despite using Google Maps and watching for live updates as to the best available route.
Terra Mystica - in Action

Once there, we (my son and I) ran a five person game of Terra Mystica.  This is a fairly recent (2012) board game that has been tremendously popular since its release among avid board game players.  There are lots of pieces, a fairly lengthy rule book and a moderately long set up time.  But the game is lots of fun for those who like European style strategy games. Some of the players loved it and some were less enthusiastic. One of the interesting aspects of the game is that it features 14 unique teams (races) each with their own special abilities.  So the game is asymmetrical, which makes it different each time.

I also tried playing Belfort and Carson City, both of which were fun.

For dinner, the group members ordered hamburgers from Black Burgers in Jerusalem.  The burgers came on buns - and were Kosher for Passover - and Kitniyot free....They were actually quite good (the burgers, I mean...).  The buns...well...it's Passover after all.  Black Burgers has locations all over Israel, but very few are Kosher - aside from the Jerusalem location.  So being in Jerusalem, we took advantage and ordered the 220 g Schwarzenegger Burger - the latest house specialty.  They cook it however you might like to order it - so we were able to enjoy some perfectly cooked medium to medium rare burgers and then returned to game playing on a full stomach.  It is quite something that so many restaurants in Israel take the trouble to convert over their kitchens and open up for the 4 days of Hol Hamoed.  

Good food, fun games and a competitive group - even if the commute to Jerusalem was exhaustingly long.

Getting a bit tired of Pesach food already and we still have 4 days to go....

Chag Sameach to all!


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Kitniyot or Lo Liyot (To Eat or Not to Eat Legumes on Passover)

As another Pesach (Passover) has come and gone, I have continued to reflect on the issue of kitniyot eating during the holiday.

I discussed the issue briefly just before Pesach in one of my blog articles. Observant Jews are prohibited from eating any kind of “chametz” during Pesach. Chametz was traditionally defined, under Jewish law, as any of the five grains – wheat, spelt, barley, oats and rye – which came into contact with water for more than 18 minutes. These products were all strictly forbidden and still are among all Jewish communities.

However, from the beginning of the 13th century C.E. in France, according to Rabbi David Golinkin (See Responsa OH 453:1 5749), a custom began, among Ashkenazi Jews of adding a whole range of legumes (“kitniyot”) to the list of prohibited items. The practice spread in certain communities and became widespread among Ashkenazi Jews in many parts of Europe by the 15th and 16th centuries C.E. The list of prohibited foods grew to include peas, lentils, mustard, sesame seeds, poppy seeds and even peanuts. Even today, some rabbis are determined to continue adding food categories to the list. Quinoa is an example of a food that some rabbis have recently banned without a really coherent justification.

Interestingly, Sephardic Jews and Yemenite Jews never adopted this custom of prohibiting kitniyot. They considered the Torah prohibitions against eating chametz sufficient and followed those prohibitions strictly. Some Jews mistakenly believe that this means that Sephardic Jews are more lenient about Pesach. But that is not really the case. They simply never accepted that the prohibition against eating chametz should be extended to a whole range of foods which were never really chametz. Some rabbis, even Ashkenazi rabbis, have called the custom “mistaken” and even “foolish.”


Legally speaking (at least regarding halacha – Jewish law), it is not strictly forbidden to eat kitniyot on Pesach. But it has now become a custom that has been followed for hundreds of years by Ashkenazi Jews. As with many other customs, it is very difficult to draw the appropriate line between maintaining religious practices and customs on the one hand and modernizing these practices where appropriate and permissible. The main argument that is usually presented by non-kitniyot eaters is one of tradition – that this has been the practice in our family and our community for hundreds of years – and who are we to end our family traditions?

Like with many other practices, these are not easy decisions. Many observant Jews are worried that changes to tradition and continuity are slippery slopes. When I spoke about this issue with a close relative, she said “well if you are going to eat rice and beans, I guess you will no longer need to change over your dishes on Pesach.” The implication was that adopting a different practice with respect to kitniyot was part of a leniency that would lead to more liberal practices in other areas.

Since we attend a Conservative synagogue, we have certainly accepted the need to change, modernize or review certain practices. For example, one could argue that it has been a tradition for many years in the Orthodox Jewish community to prevent women from playing any active role in the prayer services. Most Conservative synagogues have now accepted fully or at least partially egalitarian practices that mark a change in traditional practice. Should we not accept this same type of argument with respect to kitniyot? Of course, many observant Jews are opposed to these changes, which they also view as part of a slippery slope. They point, particularly, to U.S. Conservative and Reform synagogues and claim that once you allow for an egalitarian service, you will soon make many other wholesale changes to the traditional service, so much so that it will no longer really resemble a “traditional” service. I have to admit that drawing the line can be very challenging in dealing with these issues.

Living in Israel, there is another reality as well. The majority practice is now clearly one of permitting kitniyot during Pesach. The supermarket shelves are filled with products that are marked, in tiny letters, “for kitniyot eaters only.” Restaurants are open across Israel, mostly “for kitniyot eaters.” It is not just Sephardic Jews but Ashkenazi Jews as well, even those who are Orthodox and very observant. In Israel, not eating kitniyot during Pesach has come to be viewed as an extreme practice, limited to some specific Ashkenazi communities, mostly ultra-religious or immigrant Jewish communities (from the U.S., South Africa etc.,). As a result, it is extremely difficult to find many products during Pesach that are kitniyot free. Products like oil, margarine and even tomato sauce usually say, in small letters, that they are for kitniyot eaters only.

Walking along the streets of Ra’anana during Hol Hamoed, the intermediary days of Pesach¸ it was very interesting to see the range of food places that were open for business and strictly kosher for Passover during the holiday. Some hamburger places were open and were using corn flour to make the buns. Some pizza places were open (one was actually kitniyot free and used potato flour). Two falafel shops were open, using corn flour to make the pita breads. Lavan, the popular yogurt place was open, with a slightly changed list of toppings (no granola this week). And of course, the coffee bar Aroma was open for business, with bourekas and other pastries made from corn flour. All of these places were labelled as strictly kosher for Passover, but for kitniyot eaters only. And they were all being frequented by observant Jews, many of whom were Ashkenazim.

In his 1989 responsa, Rabbi Golinkin addressed some of the reasons for doing away with the custom. One of the reasons that he cited is to eliminate the custom because it “detracts from the joy of the holiday by limiting the number of permitted foods.” This is a point echoed by a friend of mine from Ra’anana, who reminded me that Pesach is a holiday about celebrating freedom from slavery and about redemption. It is not supposed to be a holiday of suffering. So many of the rules that Ashkenazim have followed during Pesach have unnecessarily limited our food choices and made it very difficult to enjoy the culinary aspects of the holiday. Not to mention the effects on regularity of eating matzah every day without eating enough of these other kitniyot products.

As someone who has always followed the kitniyot prohibitions during Pesach, I am not sure that I would feel comfortable sitting down to eat a bowl of rice on Pesach despite all of the arguments set out above. But, as Rabbi Golinkin suggested in his responsa, even for those uncomfortable eating rice and beans, there should still be little reason to avoid peas, green beans, garlic, mustard, sunflower seeds, peanuts, canola oil and the many derivatives of these products.

I guess I still have another year to think about it but I’m inclined to change my practice. If we are in Toronto celebrating Pesach, we may have to reconsider to ensure that non-kitniyot eaters feel comfortable eating at our house over the holiday. But otherwise, I'm likely to say "pass the kosher l’Pesach humus so I can spread some on my corn tortilla."