Archive for April, 2011

Swans and flowers

April 29, 2011

On this next-to-last day before May, between putting away my day’s writing and preparing dinner, I took a walk around the neighborhood. It was so warm and sunny — the first day that has really felt like spring. At Stillhouse Cove, the swans were minding their nest. (They do this in pairs. The other swan is close by, though you can’t see him (?) in the picture.)

Down the street, the apple blossoms were in their full, polka-dotted petticoat glory. Apple blossoms always remind me of May at Hampshire College.

The magnolias were a bit past their prime, over-ripe and slightly battered from this week’s heavy rains. But pretty nonetheless.

Before their leaves open, maple trees have flowers, too.

In our yard, the lavender, which has been dormant and grey through the winter, is getting new leaves.

The oregano has come back to life.

The mint has returned, though not where it was last year.

In the backyard, the ferns are uncurling. By June they’ll be huge.

The hosta are also uncurling. I think I prefer them at this Georgia O’Keefe, Imogen Cunningham stage than when they’re fully open.

The bee balm has barely begun. When when you rub against it, you can smell the bergamot. Like Earl Grey tea.

The rhododendron we put in last year is covered with promising buds.

The daffodils are basically over, and those that aren’t got battered pretty badly by the rain. On the other hand, if they were in better shape, I wouldn’t have the heart to bring them inside.

How’s your spring coming along?

Little Grandma’s Chremslach

April 19, 2011

The traditional Passover greeting is to wish someone a “Zissen Pesach” – a sweet Passover. The phrase is probably meant as a reference to the sweetness of liberation, the holiday’s central theme. But it could just as well describe the flavors of the seder. Besides the spicy bite of the “bitter herb” and the blandness of the matzo, there’s an awful lot of sweet stuff on the menu, from fruity charoset and Manischewitz wine to honeyed tzimmes and all manner of desserts. In my house there’s also the chremsls.

Chremsls as I have always known them are golden matzo fritters fried in oil and soaked in hot honey. Dense and greasy and starchy, they ooze dark sweetness when you bite into them. My mother made them from a recipe she got from her mother-in-law, our Little Grandma, and served them as an entrée side dish, alongside the brisket and the asparagus. When I started hosting my own seders, she gave me the recipe. I’ve been serving them ever since.

For years it seemed that no one outside our family had ever even heard of them. Now I learn that the proper Yiddish plural isn’t chremsls, but chremslach. Most sources say they’re eaten for breakfast or dessert. But I found one that uses the word chremslach for mashed potatoes stuffed with meat and fried. A cottage cheese version is touted as an easier, Passover-appropriate variation on blintzes.

In The Book of Jewish Food, Claudia Roden offers an Alsatian version that includes brandy, salt, sugar and cinnamon as well as raisins and chopped almonds.

Joan Nathan says she has never had a seder without chremslach (or “grimslech,” as she says it can also be spelled). Her family recipe is included in her Jewish Cooking in America. The matzo meal fritter are stuffed with currants, almonds and apricots and served with prunes stewed in orange juice, or a wine sauce.

Little Grandma’s chremsls don’t include any fruit or nuts. They’re made with actual matzo that’s been soaked, drained and crushed, rather than matzo meal. David has never liked them but the kids love them as much as I do. One memorable year, when Sam was about six, his friend Alex was eating over, and I served leftover chremsls. Alex couldn’t get enough of them. It wasn’t until later, when he was telling Sam how much he’d enjoyed the meal, that we realized he thought he was eating chicken.

Here’s my recipe:

Beat and season with salt and pepper

1 egg for each person

Moisten with hot water and drain

1 matzo for each egg

Crush the matzos into the egg and mix

Add to the egg/matzo mixture

about 1 tsp matzo meal for each matzo, or enough to bind the batter.*

(*Less is better. Too much turns your finished chremsls in to hockey pucks.)

Heat in a wide pan

peanut oil, maybe 1/2 inch deep

Meanwhile, start heating in a deep pan

honey, maybe 2 cups

When oil begins to sizzle, form the batter into 2-inch diameter patties and fry them in the oil, turning once.

When chremsls are golden on both side, drop them into the hot honey turning them over a few times as they soak up the honey.

You’ll probably have to work in stages, adding more patties to the oil as room permits, and making room for newly fried chremls in the hot honey by removing them to your serving platter (or the baking sheet on which you will reheat them, if you need to make them in advance).

But now that I think about it, maybe my mother just kept adding more and fried chremsls to the hot honey and removed them all at once, so some ended up soaking much longer than any of mine do. Maybe that’s why my version of Little Grandma’s chremsls are never as dark and sweet as I remember my mother’s being. Or maybe that’s not the reason.

By the Book

April 15, 2011

Finding the Perfect Script for the Seder

The Passover Haggadah compiled and edited by Rabbi Morris Silverman, published by The Prayer Book Press, 1972

(This is the text of my column, Ad Lib., in the April 15, 2011 issue of  The Jewish Voice and Herald.)

On a shelf in their New Jersey sunroom, my parent kept a pile of Haggadas. Several were printed in Tel Aviv in the 1950s and ’60, illustrated with old etchings so poorly reproduced it was hard to tell the hail from the locusts. One of these was in French, bought when my family lived inParis. A later edition, in Russian, recalled my grandmother’s work with the UJA. We kept these stapled booklets for sentimental reasons, but rarely looked at them.

The books we actually used were more substantial. The lime-green Glatzer Haggadah meant business, with its extensive footnotes and essays by Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and other heavy-hitter theologians.

In time, the ponderous Glatzer Haggadas were supplemented with the more user-friendly Silverman. I’m not a huge fan of the Silverman. The red-and-purple color scheme is garish. The pictures of the four sons are goofy. And the commentary tries a little too hard to convince the reader that a traditional Seder is worth the trouble.

Soon after the Silvermans came on the scene, I got married and moved toLos Angeles, where we celebrated with an Orthodox friend. I don’t remember his Haggadah — probably because he spent more time discussing the text than actually reading it. Who knew Seders could be so unscripted? So educational?

FromLos Angeles, our growing family moved toVermont. Far from my parents and with no friend to host us, I would be leading my own Seders. For the first time, I could do them my way. But what was my way? The answer, I was sure, could be found in the right Haggadah.

A bookstore in L.A.’s Fairfaxdistrict offered options from every corner of Judaism. But no one corner was exactly mine. I ended up buying several Haggadah’s. The Yeshiva University Haggada provides the sort of erudite analysis our Orthodox friend taught us to appreciate. The Telling uses non-gendered God language. Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstructionist New Haggadah resonates with my theology.

The New Haggadah for the Pesach Seder, edited by Mordecai M Kaplan, Euegene Kohn, and Ira Eisenstein for the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation. Published by Behrman House, NY, 1978.

I rounded out the collection with a handful of Maxwell House Haggadahs, offered free at the supermarket, between the matzohs and the macaroons. They bear a striking resemblance to the stapled booklets in my parents’ sunroom.

Coordinating a seder with multiple manuals takes some doing. I charted out the corresponding page numbers in the different books, and decided which version of each section to use. It was hard to do – but not nearly as hard as getting my guests to follow the plan, especially as the evening progressed. By the time we broke the matzohs, my orderly scheme would be shattered.

That seems about right. In his essay reprinted in the Glatzer Haggadah, Franz Rosenzweig suggests that the Seder’s typical slide into silliness reinforces the festival’s liberation message. At the start of the meal, the leader speaks and the household listens. But questions and songs and four cups of wine free up the atmosphere until, as Rosenzweig puts it, “the last shred of autocracy … dissolves into community.”

When my parents died, I inherited their Haggadahs. At first I tried adding the ancestral books to my mix. But I soon realized that all my editing and orchestrating was missing the point.

For years now, we’ve been happily using the Silvermans. Yes, the art is still ugly. Yes, the commentary can be condescending. The language is no less sexist, the theology no closer mine. But the pages are stained with my mother’s haroset, the margins filled with reminders of loved ones we miss. I mean that literally.

Several of the books bear my dad’s distinctive, mangled handwriting – layers of names scratched in and crossed out as, year after year, he pre-assigned various passages. Above the Four Questions you’ll find my older sister, me, my cousin and my niece, a record of children learning to read. My Zionist grandmother repeats God’s promise to Abraham. My argumentative uncle plays the part of the rebellious son. An old family friend invites all who are hungry to come and eat.

When we read the text now, with our grown children, we add our own comments, and rephrase sexist sentences on the fly – a challenge that becomes more difficult and entertaining as we approach the fourth cup.

This mix of remembering and revising seems right, too. After all, the point of Passover isn’t how the old story is reprinted. It’s how we remember it and make it our own.

Could Be Verse

April 6, 2011

April is National Poetry Month. How are you celebrating?

I subscribe to a service from the Academy of American Poets that sends a new poem to my inbox every morning. I admire the stacked-book “spine poems” submitted to 100 Scope Notes and fool around making some of my own.

I like National Poetry Month because it reminds me to spend time with poems, and my attitude towards spending time with poems is like my attitude towards baking bread: I hardly ever get it together to do it, but I’m almost always glad I did.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a period in my life (as my son likes to remind me) when I baked bread every week. And there was a period in my life when I read and wrote poems all the time.

My first stabs at writing were poems.

When I was in elementary school, our family lived in Paris for a few years. My fourth-grade classroom had a miniature printing press. My teacher used it to produce beautiful copies of two poems I had written. One of them started, “La petite etoile est tous soignée, tous peignée” – the little star is all cleaned, all combed… I found the poem years later and couldn’t understand my own French.

When the Six Day War broke out, in 1967, we were back in the States. I was 10. Moved by accounts of my cousins in Jerusalem taking refuge in bomb shelters, I wrote a poem. My mother sent it to her cousin, who got it published in the Jerusalem Post, where he worked. All I remember of it is that it ended with someone telling my cousin Noa that God was with her. The last line was, “In that case, said Noa, I’m no longer afraid.”

One of the best gifts I got for my bat mitzvah was a set of blank books with pretty hand-printed cloth covers. They sat on the shelf in my room until I went away from college, inviting me to fill them with wonderful words. I found them just now, in a box of old letters. The beautiful covers must have intimidated me. I only ended up writing in one of them.

It contains 85 poems (I numbered them) I wrote between the ages of 12 and 16. Most are pseudo-psychedelic romanticism (“Warm weather is inside you / Sunshine is in your head”). A few whine about my on-again-off-again high school boyfriend, who often seemed to care more about his Triumph Spitfire and his fancy sound-system than  me (“It is sad to watch / as he walks with the dead / worships the unbreathing / things like chrome and steel / engines / motors / precise gears and valves”). One poem consists of the single, rhymed couplet,“Your 500-watt amps / aren’t helping my cramps.”

Since college, I’ve written prose almost exclusively, maybe because I realized I’m a lot better at it. The fact is, I don’t understand a lot of the poetry I read. So how can I write it? Still, there are times when I’m moved to write about something, and only a poem will do. I keep these efforts (which number far fewer than 85) in one slim folder.

You can click here to read one I wrote about 10 years ago, for Passover.

And here’s a much lighter one from two years ago, when I was still trying to find someone to represent my novel. It’s supposed to be a villanelle, but I can’t vouch that it fits the form perfectly. It’s called Dear Agent. It still suits my mood. But now I would title it, Dear Editor.