Posts Tagged ‘Jewish’

Healthy Shabbat Meals

When I lived in Israel, there was an elderly man who supplied the Shabbat cholent (a long-cooking stew similar to cassoulet) whenever there was a simcha (celebratory event) in our little town.  It was absolutely delicious:  glistening stew meat amongst beans, barley, potatoes and onions, spiced heavily with garlic, salt and pepper.  The ingredients were really not that different from typical Ashkenazi cholent, but there was that je nais se quoi secret ingredient that really packed a savory punch.

In honor of my youngest daughter’s birth, we held a kiddush in our home following prayers at the synagogue, and I hired Mr. G to make me a batch of his amazing cholent.  Because he was an older gentleman he simply couldn’t carry the heavy pots of cholent from his house to mine, so he asked if it would be okay if he assembled and cooked the ingredients in my kitchen.  “Great!” I thought to myself, “now I will get to find out what the secret ingredient is to his fabulous cholent!”

Mr. G. started peeling potatoes and cutting up onions.  He added lots of beans, barley, and meat, layering the ingredients with the usual pepper, salt and garllic, adding water to within an inch of the top of the pot.  Nothing different so far.  But then!  Mr. G. reached into his bag and brought out . . . a 500g. (1 lb) stick of margarine.  He placed the entire stick of margarine into the pot and so the cholent began cooking.

I was completely grossed out!

One of the advantages of being a Baalas Tshuva (“BT”, or someone who becomes an Orthodox Jew later in life) is that I have few preconceived notions about how things “should” be.  It’s not that I don’t respect tradition.  But in most cases, like most assimilated or barely observant American Jews, I simply wasn’t raised with any concept of doing things the way my forefathers did it.  That’s because when my grandparents came to this country from Europe in the early 1900’s, they were trying to escape their former identities as Jews, which had only gotten them into trouble back in anti-Semitic Poland and czarist Russia, and instead hoped to start a new life as Americans who happened to be Jewish by birth.

Having grown up with lots of processed food (aka “real” American cooking: remember those canned mushroom soup noodle casseroles, and jello molds from the 1960s?) as well as Chinese and Mexican take-out food, it took me years to get used to Orthodox, American Ashkenazi (Jews who originally came from Europe)de rigeuer Sabbath foods such as gefillte fish and potato kugel and luxshen kugel, kishke, chicken soup with globules of fat floating on the top, sweet egg challah made with white flour, and several types of cookies and cakes for dessert.  It seems like the DNA of Jewish cooking is fat, sugar, and white flour, with a little soul mixed in.  But healthy, it is not.

The surge of BTs has really shaken up the FFB (Frum From Birth, aka Orthodox Jews from birth) world of Jewish comfort food.  First, our numbers are so large, that by population count alone our different cooking style was bound to have gravitas.  And BTs were media-savvy way before FFBs got into the act, so the appearance of lavishly produced, graphically gorgeous gourmet cookbooks whose emphasis is on more healthful eating could not be ignored even by the frummest (most religious) of the frum balabustas (female heads of households).

No, I don’t use sickly-sweet, Robitussin-like concord grape wine for kiddush; it is more likely to be a kosher cabernet from California or Israel.  Our Sabbath tablecloth is not pure white, but rather a taupe and silver weave that matches our dishes.  And our Friday night and Saturday day meals probably don’t seem very Sabbath-like to a Jew in Boro Park, Brooklyn.  Even our cholent (overnight cassoulet) is fat-free.  Or, instead of cholent, we may have a curried stew or chili.

But before you sugar, fat and white flour traditionalists turn up your nose in disgust, let me take you on a tour of a typical Sabbath meal that won’t leave you reaching for the Alka-Seltzer.

The truth is, we ba’alei tshuva – Jews who have discovered their Orthodox Jewish roots and become religiously observant later in life  – – have both a blessing and a curse.  The “curse” of years of assimilation and non-observance is that we lack the continuity and transmission of many religious family customs (besides Chanuka and Passover, which seem to be universally celebrated by religious and non-religious Jews alike).  At times this ignorance of Jewish tradition is not just inconvenient; it’s sad and tragic and forces us to look outside our own family elders for a frame of reference.

Ironically, the “blessing” is that we lack the transmission of many religious family customs.  And by that I mean, we don’t feel we have to have certain foods prepared certain ways; the Shabbat tablecloth doesn’t have to be white; we can wear certain clothing that, even while modest, a Frum-From-Birth (born into a religious family) person would never dream of wearing lest they be thought of as “eccentric” or worse (hiking boots and a denim skirt – ahem).  Another example:  BTs grew up listening to many different styles of secular music that have influenced the more traditional religious music scene, which until recently was limited to the cantorial “ay-yay-yay oy-yoy-yoy” range; now, for better or worse, there is Yiddish hip-hop (okay, maybe for worse).

If there is a “nouveau” kosher cuisine in the U.S., it’s because of the tremendous amount of ba’alei tshuva whose more modern take on ancient culture has captivated and intimidated FFB’s into being a little daring about experimenting with new ways to celebrate tradition within the bounds of Jewish Law.  Okay, for some FFBs, their extent of “daring” translates into going from sickly sweet concord grape wine to 6% Moscato.  But imho, the explosion of truly fine wine that happens to be kosher, instead of the formerly standard syrupy stuff that was akin to Robitussin, could not have happened without the BT phenomenon.  There is also an explosion of gorgeously graphic kosher cookbooks, authored mostly by . . . BTs.  The other reason that new Jewish cuisine has exploded is due to Israel.  The quality and availability of a very wide range of produce in Israel are phenomenal; and because Israel is such a small country with a large number of Jews from different world cultures, the populace has been exposed to a huge range of dishes and cooking styles.  Besides Jewish holidays (which always involve a lot of eating besides the praying), Israelis love to eat “out,” visible on the street and in sidewalk cafes.

As much as I love the stunning pictures of elegant cuisine, I’m not one to potchke.  (If you do not know what potchke means, you are probably from Maine.).   Traditional Jewish Shabbat foods you will not find at my table include potato kugel; lukshen kugel; chicken soup (unless someone is sick); very well done brisket; braised chicken that is greasy and overcooked and underspiced;  kishke and gefilte fish.  Partly it’s the potchke (it’s labor-intensive) but also, the high concentration and obscene amounts of fat, carbs, white flour, sugar, and few spices are just not exciting nor – – if I must be honest – –  healthy, especially week after week after week.  Do FFBs keep eating these bland, acid-reflux-producing foods every Shabbat out of obligation to tradition?  Do they never tire of the same old, same old – – is it out of anticipation or loyalty to tradition that they remain steadfast?  I understand the origin of many of these foods – – Ashkenazi Jews in the shtetl were desperately poor and they had little to eat other than root vegetables in the colder months.  But must we continue to “suffer” for the sake of tradition?  And can alternative choices – – ones that are healthier, to boot – – still make for a delicious Shabbat meal?

I am enclosing pictures of foods I made for our Shabbat meals over the past few weeks.  I make whole-wheat challah, and while I know how to do the fancy shmancy braiding on large challah loaves, I usually only make individual rolls unless I’m having a large crowd.  That is our way of doing portion control (otherwise my husband and I can finish off an entire loaf of homemade challah and then we hate ourselves afterwards!)   There is also no waste this way like there is with leftover bread (additional whole rolls can be stored in the freezer in zip-lock bags for the following week)  I do make traditional cholent, but I am just as likely to make a curried stew, or chili instead.  I also love quinoa because it’s great plain or mixed with a variety of fruits of vegetables, herbs and spices, and can be served hot or cold.  I also commonly serve “Israeli salad” which is finely diced cucumbers, tomatoes, green onion and garlic with a touch of olive oil, salt, pepper and lemon juice.

As you can see, there is nothing fancy here, just good, basic food with a lot of flavor, spice and color.

roasted brussells sprouts, zucchini, and eggplant brushed lightly with olive oil and seasoned with basil, rosemary, garlic, thyme, oregano, salt and pepper

roasted brussells sprouts, zucchini, and eggplant brushed lightly with olive oil and seasoned with basil, rosemary, garlic, thyme, oregano, salt and pepper

Thick yellow split pea soup. We have a wide variety of different soups, including lentil, barley mushroom, vegetable, potato, carrot ginger, butternut squash, spinach lemon, bean, or Chinese hot and sour soup, but rarely plain chicken soup.

3-potato roasted combo:  sweet potatoes, yams, and white sweet potato

3-potato roasted combo: sweet potatoes, yams, and white sweet potato

brown basmati rice with hand-picked organic Maine cranberries, toasted walnuts, and kale, seasoned with thyme, parsley, sage, and rosemary, salt and pepper

brown basmati rice with hand-picked organic Maine cranberries, toasted walnuts, and kale, seasoned with thyme, parsley, sage, and rosemary, salt and pepper

Kale chips:  separate kale leaves from stems.  Combine leaves, small amount of olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, bit of rice vinegar, and dash of maple syrup; mix; and dry on cookie sheet in oven for several hours at 170 degrees until crispy.

Crunchy kale chips: separate kale leaves from stems. Combine leaves, small amount of olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, bit of rice vinegar, and dash of maple syrup; mix; and dry on cookie sheet in oven for several hours at 170 degrees until crispy.

Roasted sweet potatoes, version 2:  cut peeled sweet potatoes into small pieces, sprinkle with olive oil, salt, pepper, cinnamon and rosemary, roast uncovered at  375 F til edges are brown.

Roasted sweet potatoes, version 2: cut peeled sweet potatoes into small pieces, sprinkle with olive oil, salt, pepper, cinnamon and rosemary, roast uncovered at 375 F til edges are brown.

Scalloped potatoes:  slice very thin and place in pan. Sautee onions till caramelized; add 1 tsp flour, stir, add 1 cup soy or almond milk and stir til thickened, add seasoning and herbs and pour over potatoes, bake til brown on top.

Scalloped potatoes: slice very thin and place in pan. Sautee onions till caramelized; add 1 tsp flour, stir, add 1 cup soy or almond milk and stir til thickened, add seasoning and herbs and pour over potatoes, bake til brown on top.

spinach salad version 1 - tomatoes, cukes, mushrooms, colored peppers, sunflower seeds

spinach salad version 1- tomatoes, cukes, mushrooms, colored peppers, avocado, sunflower seeds

spinach salad version 2.  I love spinach salad.  The organic baby spinach is exceptionally clean right out of the package, even if you like to go over it with an eagle eye.  The great thing about spinach salad is it goes with anything and everything.  Suggested add-ons include:  hard boiled egg, Persian cucumbers, red pepper, kiwi, toasted pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds, mushrooms.  A great dressing is olive oil with a touch of apple cider vinegar, rosemary, salt, pepper, fresh garlic, scallions, oregano, thyme, and a tsp. of honey mixed together briskly and then tossed into salad.

spinach salad version 2. I love spinach salad. The organic baby spinach is exceptionally clean right out of the package, even if you like to go over it with an eagle eye. The great thing about spinach salad is it goes with anything and everything. Suggested add-ons include: hard boiled egg, Persian cucumbers, red pepper, kiwi, toasted pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds, sugar snap peas, mushrooms. A great dressing is olive oil with a touch of apple cider vinegar, rosemary, salt, pepper, fresh garlic, scallions, oregano, thyme, and a tsp. of honey mixed together briskly and then tossed into salad.

This is a must-have for your kitchen!  It's a cast iron grill pan and cover (sold separately) made by Lodge Logic (they've been around for decades, and their products will last 100 years if well cared for).  If you very lightly spray the pan with oil, you can add skinless boneless chicken to a hot pan; cover with the gril cover and within moments the bottom will be ready for turning.  After turning, replace grill cover for a few more minutes of grilling.  Voila!  You have amazing grilled chicken that even has a real-grill flavor, minus the mess and fuss, and the fat goes into the indentations away from the meat.  It's super juicy, too.  And it works for any kind of meat, from hamburgers, steaks, chicken, turkey chops, etc.

This is a must-have for your kitchen! It’s a cast iron grill pan and cover (sold separately) made by Lodge Logic (they’ve been around for decades, and their products will last 100 years if well cared for). If you very lightly spray the pan with oil, you can add skinless boneless chicken (I like to season it with shwarma or mixed-grill or kabob seasoning from Israel) to a hot pan; cover with the grill cover and within moments the bottom will be ready for turning. After turning the chicken to its other side, replace grill cover for a few more minutes of grilling. Voila! You have amazing grilled chicken that even has a real-grill flavor, minus the mess and fuss, and the fat goes into the indentations away from the meat. It’s super juicy, too. And it works for any kind of meat, from hamburgers, steaks, chicken, turkey chops, etc. I love Lodge Logic cast iron pots and pans, and am slowly replacing my old Farberware with all Lodge Logic cast iron.

This shows chicken being grilled on top of my propane gas range.

This shows chicken being grilled on top of my propane gas range.


Every year on the Hebrew day that corresponds with a loved one’s death, we commemorate the yahrzeit (memorial day) by reciting kaddish (the mourner’s prayer) with a minyan (quorum of 10 Jews).  The kaddish is said first at evening prayers; then the next day at morning prayers; and then again for the afternoon prayers. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but here in Maine finding a minyan on even one occasion, much less three times, can be a challenge.

In the past we’ve simply admitted defeat and my husband has returned to our home town so he can say kaddish there.  But this time we knew we’d be in Maine and we would have to find a minyan somewhere, somehow. Normally we would have gone to the Chabad House in Portland, but the rabbi there was away in New York, celebrating his son’s wedding.

Fortunately there are two places in the White Mountains in New Hampshire that have minyanim in the summertime:  Lincoln and Bethlehem.  Since Lincoln, a 124-mile round trip across the Kancamaugus Highway was the closest to our home, we traveled there this past Thursday to Loon Mountain.

Usually the views from the Kancamaugus Highway are expansive, but just before a massive thunderstorm, the clouds rolled in.

Usually the views from the Kancamaugus Highway are expansive, but just before a massive thunderstorm, the clouds rolled in.

2014-07-04 11.59.59_resized   Next to the ski lift is a deli that is operational only in winter, so in the summertime Jewish travelers get together to rent it from June through August, and amongst the tables and menus for chili dogs and sub sandwiches, they transform it into a temporary synagogue. Since it was still before the peak vacation season, there were only a few worshipers – – my husband was in fact the 10th man – – but he was able to say kaddish for my mother’s yahrzeit.

The makeshift synagogue at Loon Mountain, usually the home of Slopeside Deli.

The makeshift synagogue at Loon Mountain, usually the home of Slopeside Deli. We got there early, so my husband sat and reviewed some religious texts while waiting for the rest of the minyan attendees to arrive.

The outside of the "synagogue"

The outside of the “synagogue”

The ski resort where the minyan is held

The ski resort where the minyan is held

Here is the base of the ski lifts across from the shul

Here is the base of the ski lifts across from the shul

The view from inside the shul

The view from inside the shul

A one-time $15 donation is requested from minyan participants, which is applied towards the rental of the space from the deli.

A one-time $15 donation is requested from minyan participants, which is applied towards the rental of the space from the deli.

This map shows the boundary line of where one may walk on Shabbat to be in proximity to the synagogue

This map shows the boundary line of where one may walk on Shabbat to be in proximity to the synagogue. There is no eruv.

The chassidic rabbi from the Bethlehem community is hoping to keep his synagogue operational on a year-round basis in the future.

Bethlehem is 30 minutes from Lincoln. The chassidic rabbi from the summertime Bethlehem community is hoping to keep his synagogue operational on a year-round basis in the future. They recently restored an old mikva there.

Originally we thought we’d go camping at Hancock Campground, a lovely NH State Campground that is only 10 minutes from Loon Mountain.  That way, we could also bring our dog and we wouldn’t have to pay for a kennel to board him.  We could sleep in our tent under the stars and return easily to the minyan the next morning in Loon Mountain before heading back home. Unfortunately, the weather report was ominous and it was obvious that camping out was not a realistic option.

We had considered staying in a motel nearby, but thanks to the upcoming July 4th weekend the prices were very expensive and I would have also needed to pay for boarding my dog.  So we opted instead to drive home that night, and return the next day for morning prayers, despite the long drive.

We knew the weather called for lots of rain.  What we hadn’t counted on was the immense thunderstorm that was a prelude to a now-weakened Hurricane Arthur, making its way up the East Coast from North Carolina.  Driving the normally scenic Kancamaugus mountain road in the pitch blackness, the only illumination besides our car’s headlights was the constant bolts of lightning.  Ferocious winds and sheets of water pounded our car up and down the steep traverse, and fog further impeded my vision.   At least I didn’t have to worry about traffic  – – we were the only ones crazy enough to attempt to drive home under such conditions.  I went very, very slowly.  About 4 inches of rain fell during the two hours we were on the road.

Since the ride normally takes 90 minutes, we left our house in Maine at 6:30 a.m. the next morning to make it in time for the morning prayers back in Lincoln NH.  Since it was July 4th, my husband was off from work and we decided on the way home from prayers to take a leisurely detour along the Kancamaugus, stopping at very scenic Rocky Gorge.

First, though, my morbid curiosity got the best of me, and we stopped at Hancock campground to see how the other campers had fared during the storm.  A few of the tent campers had packed up, but several people had erected an elaborate set of tarps to shelter the tents from getting too saturated.  Even the people with pop-up campers had set up tarps.  Now that the punishing rain had passed, the weekend forecast was promising and the soggy campers were in for a pleasant holiday weekend.

But meanwhile the skies were still a threatening grey and in fact it was drizzling.  That was not enough to stop us from exploring Rocky Gorge along a beautiful walkway next to the Swift River.

Some of the falls at Rocky Gorge on the Swift River in NH

Some of the falls at Rocky Gorge on the Swift River in NH

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There were many “No Swimming!” signs posted along the gorge and soon we came upon a plaque describing exactly why swimming was forbidden.  Reprinted from Readers Digest, it told the following dramatic story, which reminded me of the scary ghost stories told around a campfire when I was a little girl:

The disappearance of Dorothy Sparks on July 20, 1942 will likely be remembered as a classic of the strange, the terrible and the true.

One moment she had been seen, young and beautiful, poised a the river’s edge in a New Hampshire wilderness.  Another tick of the watch and she had vanished as if by a conjuror’s hand.

With a group of friends, Dorothy had gone for a holiday to Rocky Gorge, not far from North Conway and Intervale.

There, through a chasm of jagged granite, flows the Swift River, to plunge over precipices in two noisy, misting cataracts, one below the other with a churning pool between.

For Dorothy, one of University of New Hampshire’s most intrepid swimmers, the pool was a challenge.  She plunged into it for a swim, then joined the others for a picnic lunch.

The group spent the afternoon hiking along the river shore.  When they returned to their cars, someone asked, “Where’s Dorothy?”

She had lagged behind on the way back.. Several of her friends recalled seeing her silhouetted on a rock at the rapids’ edge above the upper falls. “Dorothy!  Doro-thee!” they called.

But from the heights and valleys no answer came.

They scoured the slopes around the falls.  Man after man dived into the river, above and below the two cascades.

Edmund Pennypacker even hurled himself recklessly into the maelstrom at the foot of the upper waterfall.  Instantly he was sucked into the relentless drag of a current near the bottom of the pool where the water was pouring through a natural tunnel in the rock formation of the second cataract.  Catapulted through this hole into the shallows at the foot of the fall, he reappeared, bruised and spent.

Surely, if Dorothy’s body had been caught in the jagged rocks of the subsurface,  tunnel, he would have come upon it.

And it was not lying in the shallows beyond.

The knot of heavyhearted picnickers realized at last that there was only one thing left to believe:  Dorothy had been trapped under the falls.

And her death was already certain.

Still, some of the picnickers kept up their futile diving, while others drove to the nearest hamlet to phone the police.

It was two hours later before State Trooper Kenneth Hayward arrived, together with the deputy medical referee, the local undertaker and a squad of 20 forest rangers. They went to work with tongs, lowering and lifting long bamboo poles.

Once the trooper thought that his grappling iron had hit something solid.  Again he probed in the same place and this time fished up a forlorn strip of pink silk cloth; it was part of Dorothy’s bathing suit. So Dorothy’s body was down there, snared in the densest drop of the falls.

Since it could never be raised against the force of the descending water, they decided to divert the stream above the falls.

With darkness now beginning to close in, they might have said, “We’ll wait until morning to build the dam and drag for the body.”  Instead, with the tenacity characteristic of every small American community, they decided not to give up so long as a remote chance remained.

After a mad trip back to town for potato sacks and shovels, the crew, working against time and darkness, shoveled the sacks full of sand, cut own brush and rolled stones.

At last the thunder of rushing water yielded.  Enough of the flood had been sent off at an angle to give a weird translucence to the lessened cascade.  That was when Chick Whitcomb, looking through the spume and spray at the bottom of the falls, saw a human hand swaying back and forth in the water.

Failing to hook the hand with his sharp grapple, Whitcomb yelled for a pole with a noose at its end.  Somehow he managed to lower the noose over the swaying wrist, draw the rope taut and pull the ghostly hand closer to the surface.  Then, while the others held him by the belt and heels, he plunged his arm into the chill water, reaching for that hand.

To his consternation, he felt cold, clammy fingers close around his wrist and squeeze it!

What had happened to Dorothy Sparks?

When last seen, she had actually been betting herself that she could walk across the rapids above the first waterfall by stalking barefoot from stone to stone.  In mid-river she slipped, fell, and was instantly swept over the falls.  Like a plummet, she plunged headfirst to the bottom of the pool . . .

. . . Spray constantly washed her face and slapped her denuded body, from which the bathing suit had been torn in her struggles.  As she lay there, soaked and numb with cold, the dim light all around her was greenish yellow.  She tried to scream, but the noise of the water drowned out her feeble calls. For three hours and 15 minutes, passing in and out of consciousness, Dorothy Sparks remained alive in her watery cage.

When at last tongs grazed her face, she tried vainly to seize them and signal.  What if the searchers gave up and looked elsewhere?  If they never came back?  It might take her days to die!  When Whitcomb’s rope brushed mercifully across her face, she caught hold of the loop, in a last desperate spurt of strength, and forced it around her wrist.

With great heaving and pulling they dragged her foot free and pulled to the surface what all believed to be her dead body.  The slim nude figure looked like a marble statue as it was raised to the top of the ledge.  Then Dorothy opened her eyes, her lips parted in a feeble smile, as she flung both arms around the neck of the popeyed trooper.

In the ambulance the trooper told her:  “That was the first time a corpse ever hugged me – – I darn near fainted and dropped you!”

After visiting Rocky Gorge (and after reading Dorothy Sparks’ story, we tread very carefully!), we returned to our house in Maine.  We had only four hours to relax before getting back in the car to travel to our next destination, Old Orchard Beach, 75 miles away. We would be staying with friends for Shabbos in Old Orchard (our friends maintain the Orthodox synagogue there).  The shul was built in 1912 and is quite simple but very beautiful.  (You can read about the synagogue here and see pictures here.)

Besides the quinoa-corn-edameme salad and gazpacho soup I made for our hosts, I also brought some homemade watermelon margaritas and some gin- and wine-based honeydew-cucumber spritzer, whose recipe I found in a Good Housekeeping magazine I read while at the dentist several weeks previously.  I figured that the l’chaims would contribute to a relaxed and happy atmosphere at the Shabbat dinner table, and help us cool down.

(The entire week leading up to Hurricane Arthur, it had been very, very hot.  I think I gained 10 lbs. because basically I reduced my mealtimes to two food groups:  beer and ice cream.  The only other way to cool off, and which we took advantage of, was to spend the searing weekday afternoons swimming at the lake once my husband’s work days came to an end.  At least if one has to be in a heat wave, it was probably the least painful way to sizzle (very few people in rural Maine have air conditioning).

Although Hurricane Arthur never touched down in Maine (nor was it hurricane strength by the time it made its way north), it did bring very heavy rain to Old Orchard Beach on Friday night.  Fortunately my husband was well prepared with a head-to-toe rain suit and his Muck boots so the walk to the synagogue, while formidable, was at least do-able.  I worried needlessly that the weather would be an impediment to synagogue attendance.  Nine other hardy souls slogged their way through the heavy downpour by foot to make it in time for mincha and kabbalat Shabbat, and so my husband was able to recite the third and final kaddish in my mother’s memory on her yahrzeit.

We had a lovely Shabbat with our Old Orchard Beach friends, who as usual regaled us with amusing and interesting tales of their life experiences in Maine.  As Shabbat came to a close, we made havdala in the shul and then stepped outside onto the sandy white beach where tens of thousands of vacationers of all ages looked skyward, in anticipation of a July 4th fireworks show that was about to begin.  It had been delayed by 24 hours because of the storm, but tonight it was clear and pleasant and the fireworks display was really impressive.

It had been a very interesting but exhausting yahrzeit.  We had driven a total of 400 miles through stormy mountain roads and alongside crashing ocean waves so that my husband could say kaddish three times in 24 hours.  In this world, my mother (who was not an Orthodox Jew, but appreciated observance of the recitation of kaddish) would have probably said, “That’s crazy!” but hopefully her neshama (soul) in the world Above was becalmed and pleased by our success in thrice finding a minyan, even in faraway Maine.


Pesach Seder

Is there anything more beautiful than Pesach?  It’s all-inclusive and multi-generational.  No matter what their level of religious observance, anywhere and everywhere in the world, Jews of all stripes sit down with their families for the Pesach Seder.  The magnitude of that is completely awe-inspiring.  Perhaps more than any other Jewish holiday, one feels a sense of redemption and destiny, and that one is a tangible link in the chain of the Jewish people since Sinai.  It’s  not just some esoteric platitude, it’s a connection to the past, present, and future made so very real.

Since our first year of marriage my husband has conducted our Seder.

But three years ago, about a month before Pesach, my daughter called.

“Would you mind terribly if we made the Seder at our house this year?”  she asked.  She has a lot of little kids, and the thought of walking 1.25 miles from our house back to her home at 1 a.m. with overtired, cranky kids was completely overwhelming (as of now she has seven children, and the oldest is 12 years old).

And so, for the past 3 years, it’s my oldest married daughter and her husband that have been the hosts for the first two nights of Pesach, with my son-in-law leading the Seder.

Post-Seder, on the first night, it was my husband and I who were walking the 1.25 miles back home at 1 a.m.  We didn’t mind:  after a long evening and a heavy meal, it felt good to walk in the brisk air.

“You know what’s interesting?” my husband said.  “I felt such joy tonight.  I was watching our son-in-law throughout the evening.  He really involved the kids; he kept a nice pace yet encouraged their questions and made it entertaining and informative, yet relaxed and happy.  The grandkids were so excited!  I just kept thinking how much energy he has to keep the kids constantly engaged like that!  I guess it’s a sign that I really am getting old, and maybe I should feel differently . . . but I didn’t mind not leading the Seder – – I was actually kind of relieved to have someone else do it!”

I thought about my husband’s comments.  I’m sure many lesser “patriarchs” might have wounded egos or hurt pride, but in fact, my husband’s words were sincere and I agreed wholeheartedly.

“I think the reason you didn’t mind not conducting the Seder is because you passed the baton not through tza’ar (anguish or incompetence),” I replied, “but because it feels right.  It’s a transition made with love and utter nachas.”

And that’s what it’s all about.

May all Jews everywhere spend Pesach next year reunited in the holy city of Jerusalem.


We love making charoses!

We love making charoses!

Now back in my hometown for Passover, it was time to make charoses.  For the uninitiated, charoses is one of the traditional foods eaten at the Pesach seder.  It’s meant to represent the mortar used by Jewish slaves in building the pyramids under their Egyptian taskmasters.

It seems like every family has a different recipe for charoses.  Sephardic Jews often add dates, nuts, wine, cinnamon and ginger to the grated apples; most Ashkenazi Jews use apples, cinnamon, wine, and ground walnuts or almonds.  But my mother’s a”h recipe called for raisins as the secret ingredient.

Peeling apples

Peeling apples

Making charoses was practically a whole-day project, or so it seemed when I was a little girl, but one that I looked forward to the entire year.  We made enormous quantities of charoses since not only did we have at least 30 people at our seder, but we liked it so much we noshed for the entire week of Pesach.

First, we would buy whole walnuts.  We would spend a few hours cracking the nuts and separating the meat from the shell.  Along with the walnuts, raisins and red apples would be fed through a grinder in alternating batches.  The grinder was powered by a hand crank and lots of elbow grease, and this too seemed to take forever, but in a good way:  everyone in the family was involved and it was a relaxed, happy time.  Finally, after the cinnamon had been added, sweet red wine (the really syrupy stuff that resembles Robitussin) would be added in.  Of course we’d all have to take multiple tastes to ensure the mixture was just right.  Over the next few days, as the apples absorbed the flavors, more wine would be added, until an entire bottle had been emptied.  The stirring, adjusting, and adding took five days, right up until the Seder night.

Adding wine . . .

Adding wine . . .

The process for making charoses has changed.  It’s a lot faster and easier now with a food processor and tastes equally delicious, but some of that old-time taam (flavor) has nevertheless been lost – – everyone is so busy and pressured and of course my mother is gone, too.  But I do invite my grandchildren to make charoses with me, and they enjoy the experience.

Hopefully they will pass on both the family recipe and the charoses-making tradition to their own grandchildren some day.

... and more wine ...

… and more wine …

My partners in crime

My partners in crime

Princess Bride

When I went to my Tai Chi class, held in a small town “recreation center” which is really just a basketball gym in an old, crumbling clapboard building, I noticed several crayon drawings posted on the bulletin board.  The artist was clearly a preschooler.  Apparently, the night before, there had been a pickup basketball game, but one of the guys, a single dad, couldn’t get a babysitter, so he brought his daughter along and sat her down next to the bleachers with a box of crayons and paper.  He told her that if she was a good girl and let daddy play without interruption, he would show off her work to the multitudes.

“I’m trying to figure out what I’m looking at,” said one of my Tai Chi classmates as she stared at the “art” on the bulletin board.  Turning to me, she asked, “Anyone here good at interpreting toddler drawings?”

That was one role I certainly qualified for, since all of my young grandchildren are prolific “artists.”

“Sure,” I said with more confidence than I felt, “Let’s see what we’ve got here.”

There was a crude stick figure that was a partial amputee (one of the arms had been forgotten).  The “person” might  have been a difficult call gender-wise if not for the crown at the top of a lopsided circle,  and two giant loops at the side of its “head.”  The loops looked like long doggy ears, which was clearly the source of my classmate’s confusion.

“Oh, that’s easy,” I said (breathing a sigh of relief that I “got it,”).  “It’s clearly a princess (see the crown?) and those long doggy ears are actually earrings.”

“Yeah!” my classmate exclaimed, “I really do see it now!” She looked at me conspiratorially.  “Do you have granddaughters who like to dress as princesses?  For awhile my granddaughters were really into the princess-phase thing, and boy am I glad they are starting to get over it!  I was getting more than a little sick of the pink wands, crowns, and tutus ad nauseam!”

I laughed.

“Yeah, we also have the princess obsession,” I said, “although I confess, they’re really much more into dressing up as brides,” I replied, thinking of our recent spate of Purim costumes.

“Really?” my classmate, a woman in her seventies, exclaimed.  “Gosh, I remember when I used to love dressing up as a bride when I was a little girl!  It’s funny, but my granddaughters never ask to be brides – – I wonder why not?  They just want to be princesses !”

I thought a lot about what she said.  The definition of a nuclear family has become so blurred in the secular, Western world.  Expectant moms are often single by choice and an “ideal”  family doesn’t necessarily translate into a mother-father-child combo .   No mother today asks her young daughter “what do you want to dress up as?” and expect to hear “a bride!” as the answer.  Princesses (She Who Must Be Served) rule.   Unlike when I was a little girl, today’s young women may say they want to be lawyers, doctors, or construction workers, which is great.  But “bride” is no longer a “required” part of that equation as the be-all and end-all goal in a young woman’s life.

In the Jewish world, the concept of a family unit consisting of father, mother, and child is still very strong.   On the downside, within the Orthodox Jewish milieu, the desire to be a bride trumps just about everything else, and young Jewish women may feel panicked and obsessed if they’re not engaged by age 24.

In my granddaughters’ classes (preschool and 1st grade), there were a few Queen Esthers  dressed for Purim; a butterfly; and a ballerina or two; but overwhelmingly the most popular costume was to dress up as a bride.

The Elephant in the Room

I really do try to keep my blog “pareve,” but on this one, I just had to speak out.

Recently there have been trials and convictions of pedophiles from the Orthodox community in New York.  Besides the sorrow, shame, horror and chilul HaShem, I would just like to point out a few things:

1. There is no “cure” for someone who is tormented by sexual desire for a child.  Even if the abuser doesn’t physically act out, his mind is always filled with desire.  It is usually only a question of time before he can no longer control his need to act upon this desire.

2. Castration (or medication which accomplishes a similar result) is not effective.  Abuse can occur with hands or other body parts just as easily as with a sex organ.

3.  Victims of abuse suffer for the rest of their lives.  That doesn’t mean that a victim of abuse cannot go on with life and live a happy life, but s/he will always be affected by the abuse s/he experienced.

4.  When school administrators, teachers, rabbis, youth organizations, camp counselors, friends, and family are aware of abuse and do not report it, they are enablers of said abuse.  Firing a teacher or youth leader guilty of abuse but then turning a blind eye when the accused moves to a different city/state/country and gets another job that will place him in contact with children and more opportunities for abuse, without the previous administration informing his new place of employment of the abuser’s past history, is intolerable, and an accessory to crime.

5.  If rabbis that give piskei Torah or administer kashrus organizations know about specific abusers but do nothing, why should we trust them as reliable when it comes to their rulings or their hechsherim?

6.  We must not send our children to a school that harbors abusers, even if our own child is not specifically targeted or affected.

7.  A false accusation of abuse will change an innocent person’s life forever.   While false accusations are rare, they are completely despicable and inexcusable, and should not go unpunished.

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.

An Orthodox, Jewish, Feminist Rave

Some of you will take offense at what I’m about to say, but I just gotta get this off my chest.  I also would like to add that I’m not a misandrist, and that I love and respect my husband more than any person I know.

Being in Maine, far away from any sort of Jewish community is, I suppose, pas nisht (Yiddish for unbecoming, improper).  And the truth is, it’s a conundrum for me because this lifestyle goes against everything that defines living one’s life as an Orthodox Jew:  being  a symbiotic part of a community to facilitate observance of mitzvos.  Being Orthodox in the United States means that one is limited to an urban lifestyle, because that is where the community is:  a Jewish education for one’s chiildren;  peers that share your values, customs, and observance; a synagogue where one can daven with a minyan and turn to a rabbi for guidance; and a supply of kosher food and other sundry items of Judaica necessary for daily living and ritual.  The fact that one doesn’t travel on Shabbos means that one is “forced” to live within walking distance to one’s shul; ergo have other Jews as one’s immediate neighbors.

But what if you believe that living in an urban environment is primordially unhealthy?

There were Jews living in isolated rural areas of Europe before WWII but even if they were religious, they were looked down upon by the mainstream Orthodox community  as ignorant country bumpkins, because by virtue of their isolation they could not practically be a part of a community nor be especially meticulous about their practices nor attain excellence in learning.  In recent times, the few rural areas in the US that Orthodox Jews called home either built themselves up into small towns or suburban sprawls (i.e. Lakewood or Monsey); or they’re hopelessly fighting to stay afloat; or they’ve since died out altogether.

I can rationalize and say that Rav Nachman of Breslev used to go into isolated areas for extended stretches of time, to find himself and to better commune with HaShem.  And it was an acceptable practice for yeshiva students and their rebbis and teachers who were followers of the Mussar movement (a rigorous course of self-improvement) to go into the woods alone and cry out to G-d.  But at the end of the day, they came home to their community, to their shuls, to their yeshivos.  They never thought of their temporary sojourn away from it all as anything but temporary.

One thing I could never understand is why some women get upset with or feel threatened by the blessing in morning prayers thanking HaShem for making us according to His will.  If HaShem is a Master Designer incapable of error, and women are singled out as having particular attention and care in HaShem’s design and creation, what’s there to be upset about?  Do men get the same flattering mention?  No!  They get nothing, so instead they’re stuck with thanking G-d for “not making me a woman.”   Ask a rabbi and he will tell you that this is because men are supposed to feel privileged that they have the opportunity to perform certain mitzvos that women are not required to perform, so men are happy they score some “extra credit.”  It sounds good, but I don’t think it’s the only reason.  I don’t have the wisdom of a rabbi but my simple take on it is that men have grandiose egos and they cannot handle feelings of insecurity.  So they say their bracha because it empowers them, while reminding  (chiding?) them that they have to submit to someone (HaShem) higher than themselves – they have to relinquish control so they don’t lose control – of themselves!

Kind of pitiful, isn’t it?

By not making women responsible for observing certain time-related mitzvos, HaShem is telling women that they have something else that is even more important to do with our time and energy!  So important,  that we are not held responsible for doing a mitzva that, if a man were to avoid it, he’d be held accountable!    And you can’t say it’s exclusively about raising children, because after one’s children are grown and gone, and women then have more time for performance of mitzvos without distraction, women are still not required to perform those “man only” mitzvos.  Understanding the male psyche and ego and the potential for depravity, HaShem creates positive “busy work” for men in the form of mitzvos, to keep with the Program, so that a man may elevate his own soul. A woman’s neshama (soul) is already on a higher plane; she doesn’t need this extra reinforcement.

So when I’m up here in Maine, and I’m not going to shul, I might be missing out on a powerful prayer experience of davening with a quorum, but I’m not sinning by not doing so.  A man is not so easily excused.  So if I feel any guilt about our time away, it’s that I’m aiding and abetting and even instigating my husband’s inability to fulfill certain mitzvos, precisely because living in a rural location, we are not part of Jewish community life.

That is not to say that we cannot keep Shabbos or keep kosher or learn Torah – we do.  We also have an opportunity to make a kiddush HaShem because in a place where many people have never met a Jew, and have a negative stereotype of what a Jew is made of, we can act with kindness, integrity, honesty, and pleasantness.  We can demonstrate a commitment to living an ethical, moral and religious life, and contribute intellectually and professionally in such a way that we will be an ohr l’goyim, a light unto the nations, especially if we conduct ourselves with humility and without pretension.  We have more of an opportunity to do this here, surrounded by gentiles, than we do in our home town, surrounded by landsman.

That’s very nice, but it still doesn’t solve the practical problem of  why Jews can’t be rural if that’s where they are most fulfilled.  Which is why it gets difficult for me.  I love it here. I am so happy here.  I am growing here.  And despite a loving family and adorable grandchildren whom I miss, I think I could settle here long-term very happily if circumstances would allow.  Even if I were to live here permanently, I’m not kidding myself – I will always be an outsider and not a part of Maine culture.  I am living a strange existence, not really feeling at home in any one place – a wandering Jew, if you will – involved and part of two communities but for divurgent reasons, not really whole in either of them.

Perhaps I need the equivalent of a shtetl?  How can our experience in Maine be “pas nisht” if I’m growing in a positive way?  Is my happiness selfish, hedonistic, and narcissistic?  And what if I need more time here – maybe months or even years – to continue to grow?

Yesterday I received an email from an Orthodox rabbi from my home town.  He was less than enthusiastic about my adventure when I informed him of our plans (unlike another Orthodox rabbi in my home town who gave us his blessing and was truly happy for us) .  He asked me  how I was doing, and if “Maine is treating you well.”  Here is what I answered, with complete sincerity:

I absolutely love it up here in Maine – what’s there not to like?!  It’s so beautiful here.  HaShem’s glory is reflected in everything you see, and in every bit of pure air you breathe and in every drop of sparkling mountain water that you drink.  I am internalizing it with such kavana (with meaning, concentration, sense of direction, and intensity) and relishing each and every precious moment.  It has been a wonderful 2 months of healing – spiritually, emotionally, mentally and physically.  I only hope that I can retain all that I have gained when I return to my home town. This life I am now living is such an amazing experience and privilege and so restorative.  I am so grateful for this opportunity!  While it’s true there are few Jews here, and most gentiles have never in their lives met a Jew, there are therefore many opportunities for making a kiddush HaShem (acting in a way that increases the respect accorded to God or Judaism) and being an ohr l’goyim (light unto the nations) with one’s behavior – living consciously and conscientiously – concentrating on sever panim yafos (having a pleasant countenance), etc.

Hodu LaShem Ki Tov, Ki L’Olam Chasdo (Give thanks to HaShem because He is good; His kindness is everlasting)!”

I thought I was the only one…

The White Mountains are not exactly a hotspot of Jewish life.  But the “P’s” told us, “You’d be surprised- there are definitely Jews hiding in these woods.”  Indeed there are, though the numbers are certainly small and many have married “out.”

Twenty years ago the “W’s” moved to New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington Valley from Pittsburgh.  Mrs. W, who worked for a radio station, was feeling particularly isolated, so she paid for a radio ad at the station where she worked that said something like, “Are you tired of being the only one on your street without Xmas lights?  Do you consider bagels and lox to be comfort foods?  If the answer is “yes” and you’d like to go to a Shabbat dinner, call this number.”

Forty Jews showed up that Friday night at the W’s home.

The evening was such a success, that the group decided to have a potluck Shabbat dinner in a different home each month.  It’s been 20 years, and 30 people still get together for Shabbat dinner on the last Friday night of every month.

Here’s the real kicker:  at that very first Shabbat dinner, as the night came to an end, the delighted guests began taking their leave.  Each and every one said the same thing to the Ws:

“I thought I was the only one.”

The truth is, there are Jews “hiding” everywhere, whether in big cities or way out in the woods in the middle of nowhere.  To their credit, this man and his wife reached out:  look at the result!  They are not frum, they don’t even keep kosher, yet once a month on Friday nights for the past 20 years, they have 25 – 30 Jews from remote areas of the White Mts. connecting and interacting, singing a few Shabbat songs, sharing a Shabbat meal.

Imagine all the Jews who think, “I thought I was the only one. . .”

Shabbat in the Maine Woods

I could really relate to this and next week’s Torah portions.  Avraham is out in the middle of nowhere, recovering from several life-changing experiences, and he decides to seek out guests.  So he leaves his tent doors open, waiting.

Well we didn’t leave our door open (too many bugs and falling leaves) but somehow we found Shabbos guests, the “P’s.”  And they are both Jewish!  Who knew?  They live two mountaintops away, and like everyone who comes and settles in this part of Maine, they are “interesting” (in a good way).

First, a bit about my Shabbat preparations.  I had forgotten to bring a small blech from our “home town” (the stovetop piece of metal that keeps our food warm), and I didn’t want to keep the propane oven running the whole of Shabbos (propane is expensive and we’re conservation-conscious).  That’s when I realized we could use the top of our soapstone woodstove!  The night was cold enough so that a crackling fire would make things cozy and comfortable, in addition to serving as a food-warmer.  I’ve attached a photo so you get the idea…


Soapstone Woodstove as a Shabbos blech (hotplate)


Back to the “P’s.”  It’s a second marriage for both, nearly 20 years strong.  Both were idealistic hippie-ish kids in the 70’s, children of affluent doctors and lawyers and academians, suburban Jews on the East Coast, and both were part of the “Back to the Land” movement that was prevalent way back then – a kind of predecessor to the “green” movement of today, when people bought cheap land on which they grew what they needed to eat and live, building teepees and cabins and yurts, sometimes living communally and sometimes as hermits, raising families and becoming generally self-sufficient.  Many couldn’t hack it – it was a hard life; some realized that there was little romance in having to toil at all hours in extreme weather; with little guidance or experience many found handling tools and livestock beyond their ken; for some the isolation was too great.  But those that made it became modern-day homesteading pioneers.

Mr. P came to Maine simply because land was cheap.  He bought an entire mountain – several hundred acres – and with his wife and a couple of babies they started to carve out a home.  And I do mean carve – literally.  By themselves, they started excavating a long, winding road up the mountain to their home site, cutting trees, removing stumps, smoothing, laying gravel up the steep incline.  The house itself sits on ledge – solid bedrock.  Mr. P had to shave the granite so it would be flat enough to place his foundation.  They were too far from power lines, nor did they have the funds to think about (or desire) having electricity, so they put in some solar panels and a small generator for the most basic needs they couldn’t do without.  And slowly, every day of their lives for 30 years, they toiled (and continue to toil) to build and maintain their house and property as it sits today.

The challenges were immense.  An experiment with a windmill tower as a power source ended when it was hit by lightening, and the entire house burned to the ground, leaving them with only the clothes on their backs (Mr. P and his 3 children were fortunately not home at the time).  The fruits of their years of toil were over in minutes.  Yet, the next day, he walked to the bottom of his driveway and found the back of his pickup truck piled full of food, clothing, toys, and written offers to help him rebuild – all from neighbors (“neighbors” in these sparsely populated parts can mean people living 10 miles away) who were just being “neighborly” in the way often-reticent Mainers are.

Mr. P’s marriage ended, but 6 months later he began his providential relationship with the current and like-minded Mrs. P.  She works as a teacher in a school for high-risk teens; Mr. P works as a private consultant and installer of solar-powered systems for people living off the grid, as well as a mason, a carpenter, a woodsman – a jack-of-all trades, completely self-taught.  They may not be “rich” but they pay in cash and have no debts.     They use only what they need.  They are happy.

Their life is not an easy one.  Their road up their mountain is too windy and steep to plow in the winter, so they park at the bottom and walk up in snowshoes.  Come November, they buy all the non-perishable food they will need for the next four months – huge commercial-sized barrels of rice, oats, beans, flour, powdered milk and condiments.  Mrs. P spends the summer canning and preserving the multiple fruits of their orchards and the vegetables from their large garden.  Any fresh food is brought up in backpacks.  Since bad weather is no excuse for not appearing at her work in school, Mrs. P must climb down the mountain to her car when it is still dark in the early morning hours, sometimes in blizzard conditions and gale-force winds, with a windchill temperature of –25.  While it’s impressive under any circumstances, it is all the more so when you realize they are in their late 50s.

We met the P’s when I was looking for someone to install our solar array, so we could divorce ourselves from the heavy hand of the power company.  It’s not that we were so into being “green” as it was a practical consideration:  we knew it would be expensive to power our home in the winter in Maine, and the power company could charge whatever they felt like for that privilege.  We were (and are) generally worried about what will likely be a very limited income for us once my husband retires (or G-d forbid, loses his job in the current economy) and how the heck we will pay for the most basic of needs (power, heat, etc) as we age.  So we decided we’d attempt to live as self-sufficiently as possible, and not let outside forces dictate how we’d power our home and to what extent, based on affordability.  Plus, here in Maine, the weather is so bad that power outages are a fact of life.  We have a back-up generator (powered by an underground propane tank) but it’s noisy and annoying and can take half a day to recharge the house’s batteries.  Solar seemed like the best option (yes, despite the severe winters, there are plenty of sunny days with brilliant blue skies, and solar power is based on the amount of light, not the amount of degrees outside).

The P’s invited me up to their place to see for myself how a self-sufficient household is run.  That’s when I noticed a yellowed photograph of one of their sons wearing a tallis – a classic bar mitzvah picture.

“Um, excuse me for asking – but are you Jewish?” I gasped.  I had yet to meet a single Jew anywhere within 50 miles.

Not only are the P’s Jewish, but they are very proud hosts of an annual Passover seder – where 40 Jews (and some with their non-Jewish spouses) gather amid lots of food, Manischevitz wine, charoset and the Four Questions!

“You’d be surprised to know how many Jews are hiding in these parts,” Mr. P confided.

So we invited the P’s for dinner.  They especially enjoyed the Shabbos zemiros (songs) and discussion about the weekly Torah portion.  We got another surprise when they told me about what a wonderful Sukkot gathering they had this year – for twenty people!  Apparently one of their Jew in the Woods friends had recently taken an interest in rediscovering his roots – and had been corresponding with a Chabad rabbi in NY via the Internet.  The rabbi offered to send some rabbinical students with a portable sukka… and the rest is history.  The Lubavitchers drove 7 1/2 hours up the 95 in a rented pickup truck that they had converted into a portable sukka – and over lox and bagels the P’s rounded up 20 Jewish souls to celebrate the Sukkot holiday for their very first time.

Life in Maine just keeps getting more and more interesting…


Our Shabbos table overlooking the Maine Woods