Archive for March, 2011

Liquid Gold (part 1)

A view of snow-capped Mt. Washington on the way from our house to a sugar shack (click to enlarge)

Our original plan had been to visit 3 different sugar shacks (there are over a hundred sugar houses open to the public throughout the big state of Maine on Maple Syrup Sunday, annually held the fourth Sunday of March), but Google maps and our GPS did not take into consideration that many dirt roads in Maine are closed in winter.  So after driving about 15 miles on a dirt road, only to find that we should have approached our destination from the other side of the mountain because the end of the road from our direction had not been plowed all winter and was therefore completely inaccessible, we limited our itinerary to two places, Thunder Hill Farm in Waterford and Balsam Woods Farm in Raymond.

The cold was biting, yet the sun shone and the skies were clear – perfect for sap-tapping.

The sugar shack at Thunder Hill. The yellow tarp was added out of consideration for the many expected visitors, offering a minimum amount of protection against the bitterly cold, windy day. (click to enlarge)

Even though Thunder Hill is a smaller operation and off the beaten track, the promise of their maple syrup attracted quite a few visitors on Maple Syrup Sunday.. Everyone is dressed for the so-called “Spring” weather!

I was happy we chose Thunder Hill Farm.  Although they have taps on 350 Sugar Maple trees, their equipment is fairly old-timey and their output is very small – a real family operation done more for love than profit.  The very gracious Bells, a husband-and-wife team with two strapping sons, derive most of their income from raising Scottish Highland Beef cattle.  They had parked two of their steers (who were not the Highland Beef breed) near the sugar shack so they could revel in the visitors’ pats and attention  (they looked like oxen to me, but Mr. Bell politely informed me that “ox” refers to a steer that is over 4 years of age.  Live and learn).

It’s a good things cattle are stupid creatures, because in addition to jugs of maple syrup, Mrs. Bell was offering samples of her maple-syrup cured beef brisket simmering in a crockpot nearby. It smelled heavenly, but it hinted at the fact that these two might not be long for this world . . .

The Bell sons ran the sugar operation.  One brother would get up at 6 a.m. to start the day out in the woods, checking and maintaining the taps, and as the day warmed up and the sap began to flow, he’d collect that by pouring the sap into a large sealed vat mounted on the back of his pickup truck.  He’d then drive the truck  to the shack, where brother #2, who started during the afternoon shift, would pour the sap into the evaporator, stoking the wood-powered contraption to boiling temperatures and ensuring it would stay at even temperatures for the many hours needed to turn the sap into syrup and bottling it – usually til 2 a.m.  The sap had started running two weeks ago, and they had been at it ever since, already going through 5 cords of wood so far to keep that fire burning and the sap boiling.  (To give you an idea of how much 5 cords of wood is:  if we use only wood to heat our entire home through the whole 4 1/2 months of winter, we will use a total of 3 cords of wood.)  Although their evaporator is a pretty impressive piece of equipment, it’s not  the most efficient one made.  Of the 350 – 400 gallons of sap they’ll get from their trees (it varies year to year depending on weather conditions), they’ll only yield approximately 35 gallons of syrup.

This exhibit at Thunder Hill shows how the Bells tap a maple for its sap, where it collects in the blue jug below.

They pour the many blue jugs full of sap into this large container mounted on the back of their pickup truck, and drive it to the sugar house

Stoking the firebox that feeds the stainless steel evaporator.

Steam and condensation rise above the evaporator that holds the boiling syrup.  Note that there are three channels.  The first channel is where the sap is poured; it is clear.  The second channel is for sap that has boiled a little longer; it is a very light yellow.  The third channel’s sap is at the final stage of boiling, and the sap inside is an amber color.

Close-up of the evaporation tank

I asked the son if he uses butter to prevent foaming and over-boiling.  “Nope,” he replied.  “For one thing, I don’t overload the evaporator, so there is plenty of room for the sap to boil.  For another, I babysit it all night, so it never boils over or foams up enough for me to need to add anything extra.”  Their syrup is 100% pure maple syrup:  kosher and pareve!  After the sap turns to syrup, it is run through a filter, and bottled immediately thereafter.  The Bells don’t bother to grade their syrup, because their output is so small and anyway, “It’s top quality, so we’re sure it’s grade A.”  In larger operations, syrup is graded (A or B, with A being the clearest and with highest sugar content) as well as graded for color (light amber is milder; dark amber is a more intense flavor.  The intensity of color usually increases as the season progresses).

Sugar Maple sap is clear, thin liquid, and looks and tastes like nothing more than, surprisingly, water.  It’s truly miraculous to think that this thin runny stuff turns into liquid gold, not to mention how the heck someone (Native American Indians?) figured out that by cooking it for hours and hours, such a tasty treat would result.

Every day Son #1 checks the taps not only for output of flow, but for color.  The minute the color of the sap at the tree site changes from clear to a light yellow or amber, sugaring season is officially over.  The cause of the change is warmer night temperatures.  Once the outside temperatures start to warm up, maple buds form on the tree branches.  Not only does the flow decrease dramatically or cease altogether, the sap that runs is bitter and useless for sugar production.  A good season can last 6 weeks.  Last year’s season was especially bad – only 2 to 3 weeks.  This year, despite complaints that it’s been a bitterly cold spring, it’s been great for the maple trees, and the season  will be at least 8 weeks long, with a  bumper crop of running sap.  Even if a cold snap reappears after a warm spell, once those buds have formed, it’s too late to resume tapping.

We made our way out of the cozy, steamy sugar house to the barn cellar, where Mrs. Bell was selling Thunder Hill maple syrup in a variety of sizes.  It’s not cheap – a half-gallon is $30 – but after we calculated the man-hours involved cutting, hauling and stacking the wood, the cost of the evaporator and other supplies, and the extreme care taken in syrup production, we couldn’t figure out how the Bells could do anything more than break even.  Clearly for Thunder Ranch, maple sugaring was a labor of love and a cherished family tradition that they were generous in sharing with others.

Some of the different sizes of maple syrup bottled at Thunder Hill Farm.

Just as I was leaving, Mrs. Bell tried to entice me with a sample of her maple creme.  I asked her how it was made and with what ingredients.  “Just maple syrup,” she said, sharing the recipe.  “You take maple syrup and heat it to 239 degrees.  Then you must cool it down very quickly – – we use snow.  Then you whip it in a mixer, and it turns to a creamy consistency.”

Because their operation is so small, Mrs. Bell doesn’t have a special whipper for her maple creme.  “I just use the paddles on my kitchen mixer.”  Okay, so her maple creme wasn’t kosher.  But it meant that at a larger sugar house where no anti-foaming additive is used, maple creme could theoretically be made on a dedicated machine and therefore kosher and pareve.

We thanked the Bells for their patience in explaining everything maple, and opening their sugar shack on Maple Sunday.  We were on our way, 1/2 gallon of mellow Thunder Hill syrup in hand, to Balsam Ridge Farm for a taste-test comparison, and to learn even more about maple sugar production, this time on a much larger scale!

Is Maple Syrup Always Kosher?

Have you noticed  that being Jewish is complicated?

Maine Maple Syrup Sunday takes place annually, the fourth Sunday in March.  All the maple sugar houses throughout Maine are open to the public.  Informal tours are conducted of “sugar bushes” – the maple trees – with attached taps and buckets, which collect the sap that starts to run once the days get warm and the nights remain frozen.  The sticky liquid sap is brought to sugar houses – also known as “sugar shacks” – – and boiled down for hours and hours until it’s just the right consistency for maple syrup.  An average tree produces 40 quarts of sap, and it takes 40 quarts of sap to make just one quart of syrup!

I thought it would be fun to learn about the process first-hand, sample some syrup, and perhaps buy a jugful for my pancakes.

But first I called my home town’s kosher hotline and asked, “Does maple syrup need a hechsher (kosher certification)?”

“It’s not absolutely necessary, but it’s better if it does,” was the answer I received from the hotline helper.

I was not satisfied with this answer, because I know that syrup producers add a small amount of fat to the boiling sap, which prevents it from boiling over.  Could they possibly use lard? Vegetable oil? Cream? Butter? And does the butter make it milchig? Chalav stam?  Is the amount of fat so minute that it is considered to be batul ba’shishim, the halacha that states that if an ingredient is 1/60th or less of the total ingredients, it is null and void and is considered to “not exist” in the list of ingredients?  I know the 1/60th rule works in accidental cases (let’s say a drop of milk dripped into a huge pot of chicken soup – the soup would still be kosher).  But that’s in accidental cases – not l’hatchila (planning the 1/60th to begin with, on purpose).

I asked to speak with the rabbi in charge.

He told me that  butter can be used without a hechsher only if it is made from 100% cream – that certain chemical additives or dyes may not be kosher and so butter requires a hechsher otherwise.  But as to the rest – he excused himself and admitted that he simply didn’t know much about the process, and mirthfully added that he was appointing me as his “delegate” to check out maple syrup production first hand, and report my findings.

Like I said, it’s complicated being Jewish.

Maine is a very large state, and the sugar shacks are widespread throughout the state.  Fortunately for me, the Maine Maple Producers Association put together an interactive map, so it was easy to choose which sugar houses to visit.  Three are within 10 miles of my home.

I started making a few calls to the heimish syrup producers (though truthfully, I doubt there is any sugar producer in Maine who has heard of the word “heimish”). It turns out that very few people use lard as an anti-foaming agent.  One fellow uses butter, but he couldn’t tell me which brand of butter.  Another guy told me he uses only organic butter, but he didn’t know for sure if it was free of additives.  The last place I contacted was most interesting, though until I get there and try it for myself, I can’t tell you if it is the most tasty.

Balsam Ridge started, as most of these places do, as a hobby for its husband-and-wife team.  They started by tapping only a few trees, and boiling whatever they got in a large metal pot in their wood shed, producing enough for one or two jugs of syrup for themselves.  They started giving away small vials to their friends, whose enthusiasm led them to increase production.  They bought a big wood-fired evaporator and started cranking out enough syrup so that they could sell a few jugs to passersby.  The downside was that the larger evaporator took hours and hours to boil the sap, and it’s not like you can walk away from a giant vat of boiling syrup. The wood fire needed constant tending and stoking.  The syrup had to be constantly supervised so that it wouldn’t boil over, and a small amount of fat was added to prevent this – – until it got to just the right point (7 degrees above the boiling point of water) and the right thickness and consistency.   It then needed to be immediately filtered and bottled in sterilized containers.  Many nights they would finish past midnight and they were just plain exhausted.

So a couple of years ago, they bought a giant evaporator that is oil-fired, and can boil 50 gallons of sap an hour.  No more midnight sap boils for them!  Because the 2′ x 8′ evaporator is so large, and completely enclosed,  there is little fear of the sap boiling over; they no longer add any fat or anti-foaming agent to the syrup.  So while they don’t have kosher certification, this is one example of a syrup product that is not only kosher, but pareve and truly pure syrup.  But how does all this automation and modernization affect the taste?  Hopefully your Faithful Reporter will let you know after Maine Maple Syrup Sunday!

P.S. I also submitted a query to the OU’s “Webbe Rebbe” online, and got a reply from Rabbi Gold, who I spoke with on the phone to discuss syrup production. He says there are some (including the Nodah BYehuda) that allow for leniency in regards to batul ba’shishim l’hatchila, so it could be that all syrups, even those with questionable fats, could be considered not only kosher, but maybe even pareve.  However, the OU’s official policy is to not give a hechsher on those using the 1/60th l’hatchila leniency.

Figuring it Out

Last night, after an 11-hour drive from our home town to our place in Maine – – we arrived at 3:45 a.m. – – we came home to a freezing house.  No big deal – I’d just start a fire and head off to bed.

Sure enough, after layering the stove with newspaper, kindling, and dry wood, I got a roaring fire going with just one match.  The problem was that the fire  didn’t stop roaring.   Although the fire was contained within the wood stove, it was giving off so much heat that the stove-pipe made loud popping noises like it was getting ready to explode.  The glass door and soapstone sides were so hot that I thought they would crack or splinter.  I closed the damper thinking that less air and less draft would reduce the size of the fire, but it continued crackling and literally roaring.  Our house’s inside temperature went up from 56 degrees to 64 degrees in about 15 minutes.  Normally that might take a couple of hours.

Then our smoke alarm went off.  I made my exhausted, grumbling husband climb the retractable attic stairs to ensure there was no chimney or attic fire. (I am currently in an air cast nursing a broken foot so I couldn’t easily climb those stairs, or I wouldn’t have bothered him.)   As it was now 4:30 a.m., all that my husband could think about was his 8 a.m. teleconference with work , less than four hours from now.  After opening a few windows and turning on some ceiling fans, the smoke and fire alarm abated.  Once my husband was convinced that we weren’t in mortal danger, he trudged off to bed.  I, on the other hand, was convinced that if I fell asleep,  we might never wake up again.

I decided that I was going to stay up until the fire went out (you can’t really extinguish a wood-stove fire with water in a non-emergency, because you create a real mess in the house, including ash mud, and rusted cast iron which stains everything).  So I became a wood stove babysitter.  I stayed up until the logs were reduced to a nice layer of orange, glowing coals.  I then put a single log on the coals – and whoosh! – again the fire started roaring. The stove was again over-firing,  I couldn’t blame it on the most common cause – overloading the wood stove with too many logs.   The damper was at the lowest setting, so it wasn’t due to too much chimney draft.  In only ten minutes, the entire log was consumed – normally this takes a few hours.  This was one hot fire!

Stymied, I went on the internet to the wood stove manufacturer’s website.  I started reading manuals, troubleshooting guides, and FAQs.  The symptoms all pointed to over-firing the stove, meaning, it was running way too hot, and this is not a good thing.  Besides the obvious potential danger, over-firing a stove can damage it beyond repair by cracking the soapstone tiles or fire-brick lining, or ruining the chimney liner.  I only hoped that the extremely hot temperature surge hadn’t permanently ruined the stove.  I had visions of calling the nearest wood stove store, 40 miles away, and begging them to make what would be a very expensive house call and repair scheduled at their convenience, while meanwhile being unable to use the stove for who knows how long until they could come.

“Think!” I chided myself between yawns.  “Think!”

I read and re-read the specs several times.  Suddenly the technical aspects of wood stove engineering and design started to make sense!

It turns out that the ash box, the small tray that fits inside a locked door under the stove, must be closed, and it was.  But the grate to the ash box must also be closed.  As carefully as possible, I moved the hot coals to the side of the stove and scraped away as much ash as possible from the grate to try to see how it was positioned.  The grate was open!  Basically I had created a huge draft of air under the fire, which kept it stoked to an exaggerated degree.  Once I closed the grate, we were back in business.

A simple, elegant solution.

I realize that for most of my readers, this has been an incredibly dull post. Who the heck cares about an ash grate or a malfunctioning wood stove?

But for me, it was a very exciting revelation.  Because of our remote location and the time of night, I could not just pick up the phone and easily call for help.  I had to figure it out myself.  I had to stretch my brain cells.  I had to learn about something that really didn’t interest me all that much, and become so familiar with its operation that I could analyze cause and effect, and figure out a solution to a problem.    I struggled.  I was tired.  But for safety’s sake, I really couldn’t give up.  I persevered.  And I succeeded!

Although I was by now exhausted (the sun was coming up and I hadn’t yet come to bed!), it was a tremendous feeling of satisfaction.  While we don’t always succeed, or get the answers we seek, many of us have become rather complacent about trying, or exerting ourselves.  Don’t know the answer? Google it!  Call the repairman!  Instant gratification!

But there is something to be said for struggle, and whether it’s a struggle of the mundane (like an over-fired wood stove) or something bigger (i.e. acceptance of a manuscript after many rejections; a breakthrough in research after many failures).  We appreciate things so much more when we have to strive hard to obtain them, or to succeed.

I have nothing against internet search providers or repairmen (I was very happy to find wood-stove forums and manuals online in the middle of the night).  And most of us don’t have time to fiddle with things we know little about, have the interest or take the time to learn something new.  I am no foe of instant gratification, but it sure can make us lazy, spoiled and demanding!

Although I’m feeling a little cranky now due to lack of sleep, I’m feeling a great sense of accomplishment.

And it’s not only about a malfunctioning wood stove.

Forget Spring

Back in Maine . . .

Ah, Spring:  brilliant blue skies; gently warm days; redbud, crabapple, apple, lilac and weeping cherry blossoms everywhere the eye can see . . . right?


In Maine, Spring is subdivided into three parts:  Winter, Mud Season, and Bug Season.

The beginning of Spring is known as . . . winter.  Today (March 21, 2011) we got 9″ of snow and 50 mph gusts of wind.

The view from the dining room window: March madness

When the days finally do start to get warmer, it plays havoc on the roads, since the daytime thaw and nighttime freeze results in huge cracks in asphalt roads.  As the frost melts, the ground heaves, leaving  maneater-sized craters and bumps that ruin a car’s suspension.

I found this photo on the Internet, and it illustrates frost heaves nicely. The cracks on the left side of the road, and the bumps by the center line, are good examples of the beginnings of frost heaves.

In rural Maine, property taxes tend to be reasonable, but 75% of town monies collected go toward road maintenance.  Unfortunately even that is  rarely enough to keep up with the damage.  Our rural roads are so bumpy and full of pot-holes that they rival the most jarring amusement park ride.  Since our town doesn’t have the funds to re-pave the roads on an annual basis, they make do with filling the cracks with sand. So now one doesn’t only have a rough, bumpy road, one has a slippery one as well.


Spring brings a ritual known as “posting the roads.”  With the roads in such bad shape and in a state of flux, day-glo orange signs go up telling logging trucks, excavation trucks, and other monster vehicles weighing more than 23,000 lbs. that it is now illegal for them to travel on rural roads.  There is no start date or end date – it’s based on weather conditions – but the official season is November thru June.  (Realistically roads are usually posted sometime between March and May.)  What this means is that the logging and heavy construction industries are forced to shut down operations for about 6 – 8 weeks.  It also means that if you are in the middle of a construction project, as we were last year, and they post the roads, your construction project cannot progress any further for another two months, because heavy equipment cannot deliver supplies or excavate a foundation, lay a driveway,  or pour cement.  In anticipation of posting the roads, construction therefore reaches a frenzied pace in January (weather permitting, which it usually doesn’t!) because everyone knows that all workmen will be twiddling their thumbs after the orange signs go up.  (My builder uses that time for his annual vacation.  He goes somewhere warm.)

driving behind the plow truck. The roads were clear, but he was making the road wider to allow for snow melt and to avoid road floods

Concurrent with posting the roads, the spring melt begins.  Even if it does snow a few days, there are intermittent days of rain and sleet, which means that the snow level drops.  Snow on our property went from 4′ high to 2′ in a couple of days.  That is a lot of melted snow!  The result is flooded basements, flooded roads, soaked ground and frantic work by snow removal crews who make sure that the water goes into unclogged culverts and drains instead of pooling everywhere.

It also means that gravel and dirt driveways and roads (which make up the bulk of roads in rural Maine) are a muddy, rutted mess.  It means that you put away your shoes, and your new best friends are knee-high Muck Boots (absolutely worth the money and the best survival tool out there for mud season).  Everyone in rural Maine has a Mud Room at the entry to their house, which consists of tiled floors, lots of hooks for hanging up wet clothes, and a boot tray to hold muddy boots.  It’s practically a ritual that the minute you enter your house, you start “unpeeling” – first taking off boots and then all remaining wet and muddy outerwear.  When we built our house, we actually put an inside shower right next to the front door, so I could hose off visiting grandchildren’s muddy feet, as well as my dog’s dirty paws. The shower is also a great place to hang dripping-wet clothes.  It may look strange that my mudroom shower faces the living room, but it certainly is practical!

Just when you think Spring is really, finally on the way, you take off your studded snow tires and replace them with your regular tires.  As they say, man plans, G-d laughs.  We took ours off and we’ve had 2 snowstorms since then.

But finally, finally when the air does warm up for good, and Mud Season is behind you, the latter part of “Spring” begins.  It is called Bug Season, and lasts from Mother’s Day to Father’s Day (mid-May to mid-June).  Unless you have lived through it, you can’t really begin to picture it.  Swarms of blackflies invade every pore, your mouth, your nose, your eyes, your scalp, and anywhere that skin is exposed.  Despite DEET, Skin-So-Soft or any other commercial repellent, those darn blackflies are not picky – they bite through clothing, too.  The bites are very painful welts that drive a person mad with itching.  A single bite and its effects can take 3 weeks to go away.

If you can’t fight it, you might as well celebrate it.  There is an annual Blackfly Festival in Vermont, and a tongue-in-cheek group called the Maine Blackfly Breeders Association (“May the Swarm Be With You!”) that has created a theme song, limericks, blackfly-themed novelty gift items, and various outdoor events to raise money for charity.

After the blackflies come midges – otherwise called “no-see-ums” – flies that are so microscopically tiny that they go right through window screens.  They also have a bite that sends one into a scratching frenzy.  Deer flies follow the midges.  Their bite is so painful that it’s not unusual to see moose fleeing from the mountainside in the direction of a pond, where only immersing themselves keeps them from more bites.  I haven’t even gotten around to mentioning mosquitoes, who are responsible for 5 cases a year of encephalitis, or deer ticks, which is the cause of an extremely high incidence of Lyme disease in the State of Maine.  So many people work and play outdoors, it’s hardly surprising.

From May to June we try to stay indoors as much as possible.  Every time I go outside, I take a deep breath and open the door just enough to allow my body to pass through, quickly slam the door behind me, and run, holding my breath so I won’t inhale the flies, before leaping into the car and quickly shutting the door.  In May and June, I never open the windows in my car.  When there are unavoidable tasks that require me to be outside, I make sure every inch of my body is covered and I wear a head net to minimize the discomfort.  Even my dog prefers to remain indoors.

After spending Pesach in my home town, there is little incentive to return to Maine until summer is well under way.  I look forward to summer days, hiking and kayaking and swimming in the lake; to the magnificent colors of autumn; and yes, I even love those cold, snowy Maine winters.

But Spring?


Fog on the road

I can see the oncoming truck . . . barely. Not to worry - I took this picture from the passenger seat


The long-awaited Jerusalem Light Rail, scheduled to begin in April, on a test run. It will run from Bayit Vegan, with stops at the Central Bus Station, Machane Yehuda, Jaffa Rd and downtown Jerusalem, all the way to Pisgat Ze'ev north of Jerusalem. For more info see this link:

Even midweek at night, shuk Machane Yehuda bustles with activity

If I had to use one word to describe Israel today, it would be “vitality!”

Despite so many setbacks, so much tragedy, such objectively poor odds of survival – we endure.  But we don’t just endure: we continue to hope, to build, to invest our hearts and souls and minds and bodies and prayers.  Even if one is not religious, one cannot visit Israel without being struck by the miracle that is Israel.  Whether from the sounds radiating from its yeshivos, or happy noise from its nursery schools; from the emerald green fields and orchards; the construction of its villages and cities; the innovations in science and technology – – we cannot deny the special blessings that G-d has given uniquely to us.

I don’t know of another people or culture that could take the constant pounding, threats, tragedies, cruelties, and near-annihilation and survive.  But it goes beyond surviving.  We emerge ever hopeful; joyous; believing; courageous. 


There are no words for what happened to the Fogel family, and so many others like them, throughout the history of the Jewish people, Hy’d.

We simply cannot see the Bigger Picture and understandably, it frustrates us.

When we take all that Japan is going through: earthquakes, tsunamis, radiation leaks, hunger, thirst, disease, suffering and misery – we cannot ignore it, either.  One day Japan was a thriving country in every way – and today, within a mere 24 hour period, their very survival is at risk.  There is no way we can blame what has happened in Japan on man.  Clearly this is HaShem’s hand.  What can we learn?

For one thing,  insignificant earthlings that we are:  we cannot begin to know what incidents are “causes” and others “effects,”  or even “reward” or “punishment.” For those answers, I’m afraid, we’ll have to wait for our day of judgment in the World to Come.

But what we can learn is that in the blink of an eye, total, catastrophic destruction can come.  What seemed so solid, so true, so real – – it can be lost in minutes.

But in the same blink of an eye – G-d willing –   redemption  will come.  Just when we are reduced to nothingness – redemption will come.

We cannot give up.

Not now.

Not ever.

Notes and prayers inserted into niches and cracks in the Kotel

Shuk Machane Yehuda


Erev Shabbat (Friday) crowds at shuk Machane Yehuda, Jerusalem (click to enlarge)

In the Torah portion of  Shlach Moshe sends representatives to spy out the Land.  They report that in Eretz Yisrael, everything is larger than life, from the size of her fruits to the size of the enemy inhabitants.  I guess not much has changed!

The shuk is probably my most favorite place in the world.  It is a concentrated burst of bounty in each of the myriad specialty shops: one for dried fruit, another for fresh; shops for vegetables; others for cheese, another for meats, and yet another for fish; stands for seeds and nuts; spices; flavored teas; unusual rice mixes; housewares; clothes; Judaica; bread; rugelach.

When I used to live in Israel, I would visit the shuk every Tuesday, because if I went early enough I could find a parking place, and early in the week the shuk wasn’t overly crowded.  This time, however, I was simply a tourist with a camera.  I went on a Friday, which is when the entire world seems to go, tourists and pre-Shabbat shoppers alike.  It is hard to describe the sea of determined shoppers, the din, the commotion, the color.  Of the dozens of languages one can hear, amid the mixed multitude of people of every color and country east, west, north and south, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, religious and secular, this giant melting pot of Jews is truly an “ingathering of exiles.”    I thought you might enjoy this mouth-watering but calorie-free pictorial essay.  It helps remind us how HaShem has blessed the Jewish People in our Land! (click on any photo to enlarge)

Only in Israel! The two Ashkenazi guys on the right are "jamming" for a few coins, but they are singing "Ki Eshmara Shabbat" - a religious song in honor of the approaching Sabbath. Meanwhile, a Sephardi shopper (in blue scarf) overcome with excitement, spontaneously joined the drummer, while singing loudly along.

tea mixes

Can someone please enlighten me as to what type of fruit this is? Someone suggested lichi but I've never seen one in a magenta color. Please leave your answer in the "comments" section - thank you!


I was so busy taking pictures, I didn't realize that this shopkeeper was hiding behind his paper, with a gesture of impatience towards me! Can't you just hear him saying, "Nu, Lady, what do you want from me already?"

The Halvah King, handing out free samples to the crowd

At "Halvah Kingdom," there are 100 varieties of fresh halvah. It's expensive and fattening - - and heavenly!

These fresh halva flavors are (l. to r.) capuccino coffee bean pecan, pitaschio cocoa bean, and cinnamon cardamon hazelnut marble. Tough decision!


fresh carrot or citrus juice

a great deal on machine-knitted kipot for 5 shekels. The hand-crocheted ones go for 40 - 60 shekels each.

mezuza covers. kiddush cups and candlesticks


Are these lichi nuts?

exotic mixes of spices and toppings

There Are No Words

In memory of the Fogel Family, HY”D

Udi, Ruth, and their children Yoav, Elad, and baby Hadas Hy’d. 

May HaShem give the surviving children and grandparents, neighbors and friends the strength to endure, and bring Redemption and an end to suffering for the Jewish people quickly, b’yameinu.


the Tzin Desert in the Negev (click to enlarge)

the Tzin Desert in the Negev (click to enlarge)

The Tzin Desert in the Negev (click to enlarge)

Please do click on each of the above three images.  You will be amazed by the detail!

A good friend of mine who made aliyah from my home town many years ago is now one of Israel’s top research scientists, and is internationally renowned.  She lives in one of the most fascinating places in Israel, and was nice enough to take time off work (she had just returned from yet another European conference) to show me around.

Midreshet Ben Gurion was founded in the 1960’s, the brainchild of David Ben Gurion.  Everyone knows of his dream to “make the desert bloom” but Midreshet Ben Gurion was his pet project – an academic and residential utopia for scientists engaged in all manners of desert studies.  Ben Gurion University has its Desert Studies graduate school campus there with an international student body studying for advanced degrees in desert architecture, solar technology, and desert agriculture, to name a few.  Several research facilities are also located there, including the National Solar Energy Center, and the Blaustein Center for Scientific Cooperation.  Housing for professors and researchers used to be extremely limited and the waiting list was long.  Originally the only residents permitted to live in Midreshet Ben Gurion were those affiliated with the college.

The reverse side of these solar panels is highly reflective. Alongside the panels are a series of water-filled, clear tubes. The solar energy collected heats the water in the tubes, which produces algae. The algae is harvested and used as food by commercial fisheries


A highly reflective surface on the thing that looks like an inverse satellite dish harnesses the sun's rays. The amount of energy and light harnessed by this dish is extremely intense and concentrated, with the hope of some day of using solar technology to replace current laser energy used in medical/surgical devices.

Desert Studies campus entrance (click to enlarge)

A building on the Desert Studies - Midreshet Ben Gurion campus

beautiful graduate student housing is available for international students - singles, married couples, and families

recently built student housing at Midreshet Ben Gurion

But around 10 years ago, they decided to expand.  Two hundred fifty custom-built houses were erected, all filled with academicians, scientists, and their families.  Now, yet another 350 homes are slated to be built, open to the general public  – when plans were announced, the lots were sold within 10 days.

In the Neve Tzin neighborhood of Midreshet Ben Gurion. The house to the right is at the canyon edge. The wonderful views of the Tzin Desert at the beginning of this blog entry were taken from its backyard!

a residential area of Midreshet Ben Gurion

Some of the houses look like they belong in Santa Fe, New Mexico!


these solar panels on the rooftop of my friend's house provide her hot water supply

These solar panels on the rooftop of my friend's home provide 100% of her electricity needs. Just as we need to periodically take a broom and remove snow from our solar panels in Maine, my friend must frequently take a broom to sweep a fine coat of desert sand from her solar electric panels!

It doesn't look like much - yet! - but my friend's garden is planted with olive, pomegranate, citrus, peach, apricot, plum and avocado trees, watered with drip irrigation directly into the roots of the plants that cling to the sand (I wouldn't call it soil!). Many families recycle their "gray" water (run-off water from showers, sinks, and washing machines) so they can use it in their gardens, to keep their backyards green. (click to enlarge)

Taken from my friend's rooftop, looking across the street at the vast desert emptiness, where a new subdivision of 350 homes will go. In the distance you can see the first home of the new tract being built. When these lots were offered to the public, all 350 lots were sold out in 10 days. (click to enlarge)

So what makes Midreshet Ben Gurion so special?

It really is a self-contained village of some of the brightest researchers living in Israel today.  In addition to the college, administrative offices and private villas, there is a small pizza shop, market, synagogue, health clinics, elementary, middle and high schools, a swimming pool and garden store (nursery) as well as a mountain bike shop that sells and rents some pretty serious-looking bicycles.   An army base is located near its entrance.  Several giant research projects hug the edge of Midreshet Ben Gurion: a Rube Goldberg-like structure that uses  solar-heated water that runs along huge lengths of clear pipes, to produce algae (food) for fish farms; and the harnessing of sunlight to replace laser beams used in the medical field.  Buses come hourly to and from Be’er Sheva, so even though it feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere – –  and it is! – – you’re never too far away from civilization.

The community synagogue at Midreshet Ben Gurion. It is attended primarily by Sephardim.

Midreshet Ben Gurion sits high at the edge of cliffs overlooking the Tzin Desert, which is mentioned in Tanach as the place King David fled and hid himself while Saul fruitlessly followed him in hot pursuit.  While summer temperatures can easily get to 110 degrees, nights are rarely above 70 and there is always a breeze.  In winter evening temperatures can hit below freezing.  The day I was there with my friend, a relentless wind blew fine sand everywhere, blocking the incredible views.  The sand invaded every pore, intruding in even the smallest cracks in homes that had shut windows and doors to avoid the grit as much as possible (a hopeless task).

Despite the desolation, the area is home to several oases and nature reserves, all part of the Israel parks system and beautifully maintained by them.  Tour buses stop here frequently to pay their respects to the burial sites of Ben Gurion and his wife, Paula – but a real treasure lies within the vast landscape, full of amazing geology, wildlife, archeological sites and even water that is often overlooked by tourists.  Eco tourism has made this a popular destination for hikers and there are many mountain bike trails, and the Field School for nature studies offers groups and individuals use of their hostel.


Thorny spring flowers in the desert, despite the hard, cracked, sandy ground

A desert road within the nature reserve. Sand and dust obscure the distant landscape and the sky. (click to enlarge)

a fearless ibex buck shows off his horns

he came to the edge of the road, looking for handouts


My friend first took me to Machtesh Rimon, a huge crater which is Israel’s “Grand Canyon,” but the views were impeded by the sandstorm.  From there we went to an archeological site along a former “Spice Trail,” where Naboteans built entire cities.

this Nabotean structure is high on a rocky hill, overlooking the vast desert. Unfortunately views were obscured by the sandstorm.

Archeological ruins of a Nabotean home. They inhabited the area until about 600 CE.

I was literally dumbstruck by the beauty of the Tzin Desert’s desolation. To say it was “awesome” – now such a common expression – almost cheapens it.  But “awe” doesn’t even come close – it was simply a powerful experience to see it and to live it.  I was completely mesmerized by the huge variety of landscapes.  G-d’s presence was tangible; I felt electrified.

These steep stairs carved into the rock may look intimidating, but this was a very small part of an easy, level trail in Ein Avdat Nature Reserve that leads to an oasis. (click to enlarge)

Ein Avdat oasis (click to enlarge)

I suppose a completely detached and objective person might say it reminded him of the Grand Canyon.  I’ve been there, but I did not have anywhere close to the same reaction as I did at the Tzin Desert.  It was different at the Tzin; I think it’s because it is part of the Land of Israel and its holiness is manifest on such a grand scale.

I connected very deeply to this  place.

(In fact I returned the day before my last day in Israel, when the sandstorm abated and the skies cleared.  I knew I could not go back to the US without taking photos of the Tzin Desert, hoping I could somehow record and evoke its power.)

It made the grandeur of Maine in our corner of the White Mountain National Forest seem very small by comparison.

My friend and I had started out the day at 5:30 a.m., so we could make the most of our Negev tour before she went in late for work.  Since she works just north of Be’er Sheva, she offered me a ride back to my daughter’s apartment.  Fifteen minutes outside of Midreshet Ben Gurion, in the middle of the Negev on a particularly empty stretch of paved road, we passed a corral of goats next to a small structure and not much else.

“Would you like to make a quick stop to buy some goat cheese?” she asked.

The Israeli government has been quick to sell large tracts of desolate land at bargain-basement prices to individuals, hoping that they will establish ranches and farms.  In fact, Genesis Seeds Ltd, the largest producer of organic seeds in the world (they export to 30 countries around the world, including the US) is located a few miles south of Midreshet Ben Gurion.

Though modest in appearance, the Naot goat dairy farm we visited is moderately successful, producing “boutique” goat milk yogurt, soft cheeses such as feta, and a delicious pecan-encrusted brie, as well as exotic hard cheeses, including the kiwi-camembert variety I taste-tested and ultimately bought.  Although the farmer, his wife and six children are located along the road, it’s quite isolated and many miles from the nearest neighbor or security forces.  Unfortunately their herd and equipment is constantly vulnerable to infiltration from thieving Bedouins, and due to political sensitivities they (the farmer and his family) cannot successfully defend themselves without being accused of “over-reacting” and “provocative behavior.”  It’s no wonder that few Israelis have become pioneers of single-family homesteads, and that many that have tried to establish farms have jumped ship, when after years of hard work their entire livelihood can be wiped out overnight by theft.  The livestock and farming equipment is rarely, if ever, recovered; assailants are rarely caught or punished.

The dairy farm and homestead, where we purchased delicious goat cheeses and yogurt. (click to enlarge)

It may sound odd, but my visit to Midreshet Ben Gurion in Israel was the closest thing I found to my new life in Maine.  Although the desert landscape and weather couldn’t be more different from my little enclave  in the White Mountains, there were many similarities in lifestyle.  Yes it was remote – – but decent shopping and medical care were 45 minutes away, along with “civilized” cultural opportunities.  There were mountains, nature reserves, wildlife and lots of hiking opportunities.  There was the independent spirit of its residents, and the desire for a quiet life where privacy was jealously guarded – – yet there were enough caring neighbors nearby to help in the event of an emergency.  Midreshet Ben Gurion is safe and basically crime-free.  There was no hustle and bustle, no bus exhaust, no highrise apartments or claustrophobic population density.  It may not have been a “typical” place; it was merely a different aspect of Israel, settled by people who loved the Land, who  felt a deep spiritual connection to it, whether they were religiously observant or not.

It made me realize that despite living  there many years ago and having traveled throughout Israel during that time, there was still so much that remained to be explored and experienced, and any preconceived notion that I “know”  Israel and Israelis was simply ignorant – – and arrogant – –  on my part.

Road Hazards

The difference between the White Mountains (NH/ME), USA and the Negev Desert, Israel:

A Grave Decision

Besides visiting my daughter in Israel, one of the most important things I wanted to accomplish was buying two cemetery plots for my husband and myself (may we live in good health to a ripe old age) in the Holy Land.  I had called my local rabbi and asked what things I should consider when choosing our graves.

To sum up, he said, “Location, location, location.”

His first concern was the expense involved, and that maybe I should forgo being buried in Israel altogether since most of my family lives in the U.S.  But I told him that years ago I had taken out a very small, inexpensive life insurance policy specifically to cover burial costs, so as not to overburden my children, and that if I couldn’t live in Israel, at least I could die there.  That, and the fact that people buried in Chutz L’Aretz will, at the time of techias hameisim (when the dead arise), will make their way to Israel by tunneling underground – not a pleasant prospect.  I don’t know if this ma’aseh is true, but it’s enough to scare me . . . to death.

History shows us that Jewish communities in the Diaspora rise and fall, come and go – but the Land of Israel is eternal.  It just seemed like the logical thing to be buried in Eretz Yisrael.  But there are practical matters that made my choice of the cemetery in Beit Shemesh easy:  Yerushalyim was simply too expensive.  At nearly $10,000 per grave at Har HaMenuchos (and much, much more than that on Har Tzion), Beit Shemesh is easy to get to (on the way from the airport to Jerusalem), in a beautiful hillside location (a view to die for . . .), and the cost per plot was $4900 (still expensive, but cheaper than an apartment).

Tombstones at the cemetery in Beit Shemesh

The cemetery in Beit Shemesh

The rabbi I spoke with said that another reason it’s considered more desirable to be buried in Jerusalem is that there are many tzaddikim and talmidei chachamim buried there, and it’s considered meritorious for one’s soul to be buried in close proximity to those who will be judged favorably when the dead shall arise.  Sounds nice, but let’s face it:  who am I?  What are the chances that someone from the burial society is going to sell me graves next to the Gadol HaDor (leader of the generation)?  I am just an average person, someone who tried to do the best I could albeit not always successfully. I have my share of mitzvos, but I also have my share of aveiros.  So I chose to be buried amongst people like me.

Even in death, we must choose our affiliations in terms of which 'hood we wish to be buried in. . . (click to enlarge)

One thing nice about the cemetery in Beit Shemesh is that there are no stairs. The graves are easily accessible, so anyone disabled or frail can still visit their loved ones.  I also loved the view.  I have always been at home in the mountains, and it would be a fitting permanent home.  I thought my children would be comforted at this place, because surrounded by the trees, the mountains, and the view, it would surely remind them of my husband and myself, hopefully in a positive way.

A recently added section of the cemetery

I realize most people reading this entry feel it’s pretty strange to be talking about something in such comfortable terms.  Discussing death in most cultures is pretty much taboo.  Losing my mother and mother-in-law has erased my fear of death.  In my mother’s case, I experienced it up close, and though it was sad, it was not the terrible, horrible thing we all fear – it was really just part of the process of life.  At the end, she was so tired, so used up.  Her death was peaceful and dignified and I felt privileged to have been there.

Of course no one wants to confront the possibility of death, especially not with a loved one.  And all my bravado does not apply to young people taken prematurely from this world, lo aleinu.  I remember when my mom, still in good health and of sound mind, went to the cemetery and made all her own arrangements, at least a decade before it was necessary.

Certainly I am not ready to die!  I am loving life, especially now when I am producing, creating, enjoying, appreciating.  Perhaps that is why I can make these arrangements not in fear or dread but rather as part of a checklist.

The cemetery director showed me which sites were available and I picked the two plots that I preferred.  I even photographed them so my husband could see them, too.  The cemetery director asked me if I wanted him to take a picture of me standing in front of the plots.  I declined.  That was a bit too morbid, even for me!

It was a good feeling I had when I left the cemetery in Beit Shemesh; not a morose one.

Alas, it was not meant to be.  After filling out the paperwork, which I sent with a check, I got an email from the cemetery director’s representative:  “I am SO sorry, but apparently the plots you picked out were sold 3 weeks ago to a couple from New York. . . perhaps you’d like to choose something else?”

But having familiarized myself with the area, I was not interested in  the particular plots that were still available.

I guess you could say I’m waiting for the plots that will make me plotz.  Until 120!