“Queen Esther Revealing Her True Identity” by Lilian Broca.
“Queen Esther Revealing Her True Identity” is the last mosaic of artist Lilian Broca’s Queen Esther Mosaics Series in chronological order. A mature and confident Queen Esther in her most expensive and beautiful attire is removing the mask – the symbol of her secret identity – revealing an intelligent and self-assured leader. On the table, a rhyton (Persian gold or silver drinking vessel) is knocked over, spilling its red wine contents; the wine symbolizing the spilled blood of the Hebrew people as planned by Haman. The plotted genocide is now averted, however, through Queen Esther’s disclosure to her husband, King Ahasuerus, of Haman’s evil design. In this mosaic, Broca notes that it is her intention to “iconize” Queen Esther as a paragon of supreme leadership, loyalty, wisdom and vision. In a patriarchal society, this unique female figure succeeded in bringing peace through accommodation, cooperation and negotiation. Her hero status enables her to become a role model for all women, then and now.
As if the pandemic weren’t enough, I’m supposed to think of something tantalizing and healthy to cook every night? Right. Roger that. My motto is: go with the tried and true. Or, given the times we’re in: go with the tired and true. Translation: something my mom used to make in the 1960s and ’70s. Something delicious but notoriously unhealthy.
Let’s face it, back then, the general public didn’t know bupkas about heart-healthy diets, Keto or low cholesterol. Not even doctors’ families. Nobody measured their BMI (body mass index) at the gym, because no one went to the gym. No one had their goal weight etched in their brain. It was a kinder, gentler time. Albeit with lots more spontaneous and fatal heart attacks and strokes. But still.
Back to the task at hand. It was a dark and stormy afternoon. I was tired. Really tired. Of cooking. But we have to eat. So, I did what any self-respecting accidental balabusta would do: I pulled out my mother’s old National Council of Jewish Women Cookbook. It’s a miracle that it isn’t falling apart after all these decades doing yeoman service. As I was searching for something simple and doable within 30 minutes, I happened upon a dog-eared page. One my mother had probably marked for good reason. Which is ironic, since the standing joke in my family was this – as soon as my mom cooked anything that my dad loved, she never made it again. We’ve speculated on the rationale for years. Was it intentional? Happenstance? Payback for something? Maybe it had to do with the electric can opener my dad gave mom for her birthday one year; or was it their anniversary?
The dog-eared recipe, thankfully, was – drum roll, please – Meatloaf. Yes, Virginia, you heard correctly, Meatloaf. I capitalize it because, well, it deserves the recognition. There is no problem in this world that can’t be solved by a good meatloaf. (Alright, maybe athlete’s foot and world wars, but, otherwise….)
In sync with the majority of the recipes in that cookbook, it called for an envelope of onion soup mix, undoubtedly a staple in those days. Chip dip – sour cream and onion soup mix. Spinach delight – onion soup mix. Apricot chicken – onion soup mix. Being a culinary rebel (ha!), I decided to go rogue and omit the onion soup mix. I had to draw my own line in the sand. And I swapped Panko for breadcrumbs. This recipe makes a moist, dream-of-a-1960s dinner. Once again, you’re welcome. You may be excused from the table.
2 lbs ground beef (extra lean) 1 1/2 cup soft breadcrumbs (or Panko) 2 eggs 1/2 to 3/4 cup water 1/3 cup ketchup (or, as they called it in the ’60s, catsup)
Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients and place the mix into a greased loaf pan. (I covered the top with more ketchup – I know, very radical). Bake for approximately one hour.
It doesn’t get much easier than this. Seriously. Both Harvey and I kept cutting little pieces off, to even out the end. We were insatiable! We easily ate half of this two-pound loaf in one sitting, and polished off the rest the next day in sandwiches. What can I say? We’re dyed-in-the-wool carnivores.
To switch it up a little, and marry old school to multicultural, I also made Greek lemon potatoes. While I could eat meat and potatoes every night of the week, I don’t. And don’t go getting all judgy on me, either – there was broccoli in attendance.
The Greek lemon potatoes were a new thing for me (the making part), and I only made the Greek kind because I had a bunch of fresh rosemary leftover from baking focaccia the day before. (It was delicious!) Plus, we had a truckload of lemons in the fridge getting overripe from neglect (scurvy in our future?). I have to say, the potatoes were simple and simply delicious. Again, Harvey declared them “guest-worthy.”
2.5 lbs potatoes (about 4 large russets) 1 1/2 cups chicken broth 1/2 cup olive oil 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice 5 cloves garlic, minced (I used 4) 2 tsp salt (I used 1 tsp) dash of pepper 1 tbsp dried oregano (I used 2 tbsp fresh rosemary instead)
Preheat oven to 400°F. Peel the potatoes and cut into semi-thick wedges. Place in a roasting pan with all the other ingredients; toss well. Roast covered with foil for 40 minutes. Remove foil and turn the potatoes. Roast for another 25 to 30 minutes until the liquid is mostly absorbed by the potatoes. If you like your potatoes a bit crispy, leave them in for another five minutes or so.
They end up super-moist, soft, lemony and fabulous. Oh yeah, and garlicky. Harvey said they were even better than the ones at Apollonia, our favourite Greek restaurant. It was hard to refrain from eating the whole darn batch, but we showed the teensiest bit of restraint. After all, we wanted some left over for the next day. They’re like potato candy, if you will. Except better.
Sometimes, the most obvious recipes are the best. I often consult that Council cookbook. Who better to advise on such Jewish delicacies as honey-glazed cocktail franks, deviled tongue canapes and fruited rice salad? I rest my case.
There’s no question that the NCJW of Canada does many admirable things to enhance the community through education, social action, furthering human welfare and more. Far be it from me to make it sound like all they did was produce a cookbook. But, thank you, NCJWC for having done so – the meatloaf alone is worth the price of admission. And, of course, kol hakavod for all the great work you do.
Shelley Civkin, aka the Accidental Balabusta, is a happily retired librarian and communications officer. For 17 years, she wrote a weekly book review column for the Richmond Review. She’s currently a freelance writer and volunteer.
The holiday of Chamisha Asar b’Shevat or Tu b’Shevat is not mentioned in the Torah but makes its first appearance in the Talmud, where it is called Rosh Hashanah l’Ilan (New Year of the Tree).
Jewish literature of the sixth to 11th centuries identifies Tu b’Shevat as the day on which the fate of the trees and fruit is decided. The holiday gets its name from when it occurs. “Tu” is an acronym for the Hebrew letter tet, which in the Hebrew system of counting is nine, and the letter vav, which is six, thus adding up to 15, the day on which the holiday falls in the month of Shevat.
The date was chosen when the rabbinic schools of Hillel and Shammai (from the time of the Second Temple) argued about the dates. Hillel said it fell on the 15th of Shevat; Shammai said it began on the first. Hillel’s opinion prevailed because it was thought that, by the later date, the winter rains in Israel were almost over.
Tu b’Shevat links Jews to the land of Eretz Yisrael. In the time of the Second Temple, on the 15th of Shevat, Jewish farmers would estimate their obligatory tithes for tax collectors, as well as other contributions that Jewish law required. In effect, Tu b’Shevat was the beginning of the new fiscal year.
Part of the celebration is a seder with certain foods.
In her book The Jewish Holiday Cookbook, Gloria Kaufer Greene mentions that the drinking of four cups of wine at the seder symbolizes the changing of seasons. She suggests that the first cup is chilled, dry, white wine, to symbolize winter. The second cup of wine is pale, perhaps a rosé, and signifies spring and the early thaw. The third cup of wine is deeply coloured, like a dark rose, and represents the late spring and the blossoming trees. The fourth cup of wine is rich and red and stands for the fertility of summer.
In between drinking, one eats fruit in order of “ascending spirituality.” After the first cup of wine, one eats fruit with inedible coverings, like almonds, avocado, banana or melon, to represent the body covering the soul. After the second cup, one eats fruit with pits, such as plum, prune, date, apricot, olive or carob, to symbolize the heart being protected. After the third cup of wine, one eats fruit that can be eaten in its entirety, such as berry, apple, pear or fig, because they are closest to the pure spiritual creation.
In Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, the late Rabbi Gil Marks lists different ethnic dishes for the holiday, including borleves, Hungarian wine soup; salata latsheen, Moroccan orange salad; dimlama, Bulgarian vegetable and fruit stew; savo, Bukharian baked rice and fruit; gersht un shveml, Ashkenazi barley with mushrooms, fruit strudels and fruit kugels; and schnitzelkloese, German fried dumplings with fruit. Food customs associated with Tu b’Shevat are fruits and nuts connected to Eretz Yisrael, such as the seven species mentioned in Deuteronomy 8:7-8 – barley, wheat, figs, dates, grapes, olives and pomegranates.
Here are a couple of my fruit recipes. The first is one that a friend gave me about 40 years ago.
CREAMY FRUIT SALAD 6-8 servings
2-3 cut up apples 1-2 peeled, cut-up oranges 2-3 cut-up bananas 1/4 cup coconut 1/4 cup chopped nuts 3/8 cup sour cream or 3/4 cup lemon yogurt 1 1/2 tbsp sugar or whipped cream 1/8 cup orange juice 3/8 cup vanilla yogurt raisins (optional)
Combine apples, orange and bananas in a bowl. Add coconut and nuts. Combine sour cream or lemon yogurt, sugar or whipped cream, orange juice and vanilla yogurt. Pour over fruit and refrigerate.
I have altered this recipe at times and use pareve whipping cream to make it pareve, leaving out the sour cream/yogurt.
HOT SPICED FRUIT 4 servings
6 peaches, pears or apricots, halved 1/2 cup red wine 2 tbsp sugar dash cloves 1/8 tsp cinnamon dash cardamom 3/4 tsp grated orange peel
Combine wine, sugar, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and orange peel in a saucepan. Add fruit and cook 15-20 minutes. Drain and reserve liquid. Chill fruit. Serve with vanilla ice cream. Spoon sauce on top.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, lecturer, book reviewer and food writer in Jerusalem. She created and leads the weekly English-language Shuk Walks in Machane Yehuda, she has compiled and edited nine kosher cookbooks, and is the author of Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel.
It started out as a culinary experiment. A desire to try something completely out of my wheelhouse. Something I knew my husband Harvey would not eat. It involved tofu. And peanut sauce. I was sure he’d like the second part. As for eating tofu, he’d rather have his wisdom teeth pulled out through his ears. But I like tofu, so the dish was for me. And, lest you think I’m a selfish cook, let me be clear: this was a lunch experiment. And I knew that Harvey was already taken care of for lunch.
Since I know that online cooks (and their reviewers) never lie (ha!) I took the word of someone who claimed to have the easiest, tastiest recipe for crispy baked tofu with peanut sauce. Optimum word being “easiest.” I have a rule: if a recipe has more than seven ingredients or more than 10 steps, fuggedaboudit. It’s not like I have a day job and a pack of children vying for my attention. But I’ve always questioned the sanity of preparing and cooking for several hours only to have the eating of the meal take 12 minutes. Just doesn’t seem right. So it’s easy or it’s takeout.
PEANUT SAUCE (six servings)
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter 1 cup full fat coconut milk 2 tbsp low-sodium soy sauce 2 tbsp maple syrup 2 tsp fresh grated ginger 2 cloves garlic, minced 2 tbsp fresh lime juice (about 1 large lime) chopped cilantro and chopped peanuts (optional, for serving)
Add all the ingredients to a medium saucepan, turn the heat to medium and stir constantly until smooth and creamy, about five to 10 minutes.
It doesn’t get much simpler than that. You’ll notice I’m not giving you the recipe for the crispy baked tofu. Why? Because it sucked. The recipe I tried called for extra firm tofu and, according to reviews, it was supposed to come out “crispy on the outside and pillowy soft on the inside.” More like tough, rubbery and tasteless. It could have been my bad. I may have cubed it too small and overcooked it. But I’ll never know. Because tofu is not going to be making an appearance in my home again any time soon. Which is not a problem because, as it turns out, the peanut sauce is spectacular on steak, chicken, broccoli and pretty much every other foodstuff. One sauce fits all, so to speak. A sauce for all seasons. Stop me anytime.
On a happier note, I discovered a different Asian recipe that was a big hit with hubby – Asian Quinoa Meatballs. Like tofu, Harvey would rather stick a fork through his hand than eat quinoa, so I had to improvise and use rice instead. But the result was proclaimed “guest-worthy.” I did break my own rule of no more than seven ingredients, but it was worth it.
ASIAN QUINOA MEATBALLS
1 lb ground turkey (we like dark meat since white is too lean) 3/4 cup cooked quinoa (or rice) 3 cloves garlic, minced 2 green onions, thinly sliced 1 large egg 1 tbsp soy sauce 2 tsp sesame oil 1 tsp Sriracha, or more, to taste (optional) kosher salt and freshly ground pepper 1/2 tsp sesame seeds
sauce 1/4 cup soy sauce 2 tbsp rice vinegar 1 tbsp freshly grated ginger 1 tbsp brown sugar, packed 1 tsp sesame oil 1 tsp Sriracha, or more, to taste (optional) 1/2 cup water, plus 1 tbsp 2 tsp cornstarch
Preheat oven to 400°F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, combine ground turkey, quinoa (or rice), garlic, onions, egg, soy sauce, sesame oil, Sriracha (optional), salt and pepper. Using a wooden spoon, stir until well combined. Roll the mixture into 1.25” to 1.5” meatballs, forming about 18-20 meatballs.
Place meatballs onto the lined cookie sheet and bake for 18-20 minutes, or until all sides are browned and meatballs are cooked through. Turn once during baking.
To make the sauce, whisk together soy sauce, rice vinegar, ginger, sugar, sesame oil, Sriracha (optional) and the half cup of water in a small saucepan over medium high heat.
In a small bowl, whisk together cornstarch and one tablespoon water. Stir into soy sauce mixture until thickened, about two minutes.
Serve meatballs immediately with sauce, garnished with green onion and sesame seeds.
The taste is very gingery, so consider yourself forewarned. And, if you have hypertension, know that this recipe probably contains your week’s allotment of sodium. That said, it makes a great dinner over rice. Or even rice vermicelli noodles. Actually, it would be perfect for appetizers – when we get to hold dinner parties again, post-COVID. Plus, it’s just as good the next day. Keep in mind ground turkey is very lean, so be careful not to overcook the meatballs. I always buy dark meat to ensure more moistness. The recipe is a bit more patchkerai (fiddly and complicated) than I normally go for, but when I get a reaction like I did from my husband, that tells me all I need to know.
If all this pandemic stuff is making you a little stir-crazy, put your spare energy to good use and try out some new recipes. Your loved ones will thank you. Or not. Depending on whether there’s tofu or quinoa involved. I once tried to sneak a little quinoa into a salad and Harvey sniffed it out like a bloodhound. That was the last time I tried to deceive him culinarily. Clearly, his “just-put-it-in-my-bowl-and-I’ll-eat-it” claim is a touch weak. But I can’t blame him. Quinoa is an acquired taste (and smell). Maybe if I put some peanut sauce on it?
Shelley Civkin, aka the Accidental Balabusta, is a happily retired librarian and communications officer. For 17 years, she wrote a weekly book review column for the Richmond Review. She’s currently a freelance writer and volunteer.
With all the oil used for frying Chanukah potato pancakes – otherwise known as latkes, in what we think is Yiddish, or as levivot in Hebrew – they may be considered an unhealthy food. Yet, each Chanukah, many of us, who are staunch-hearted and old-fashioned, spend time grating potatoes by hand, always accidentally suffering at least one scraped finger. The more modern among us risk coming out with liquid mush by using a food processor or blender.
Why do we keep making these little pancakes year after year? Why do we eat them for Chanukah in the first place? An old folk proverb says: “Chanukah latkes teach us that one cannot live by miracles alone.”
Jewish food writer and cookbook author Joan Nathan contends that the word latke is not in fact Yiddish but rather stems from “a Russian word, latka, and a pastry, from obsolete Russian, oladka, or flat cake of leavened wheat dough.” This, in turn, probably came from a Middle Greek word, eladion, or oil cake, stemming from elaion, meaning olive oil.
Potato pancakes seem to have originated among poor Eastern European Jews, but potatoes did not become a staple until the mid-19th century. John Cooper, in Eat and Be Satisfied: A Social History of Jewish Food, comments that Jews from Lithuania ate pancakes made from potato flour for Chanukah and had borrowed the idea from Ukrainians, who made a potato pancake dish with goose fat called kartoflani platske, which they ate for Christmas. Since Chanukah fell about the same time, and there were plenty of geese to provide goose fat or schmaltz, we could conclude that schmaltz became a substitute for oil. Jews living in the Pale of Settlement in the 17th century probably adapted it for Chanukah as a way to dress potatoes differently for the holiday. Cooper also states that many Eastern European Jews ate buckwheat latkes for Chanukah, while Polish Jews made placki, pancakes, from potato flour and fried them in oil.
Here are a few types of latkes that would be nice to serve during Chanukah.
ROMANIAN ZUCCHINI POTATO LATKES (six to eight servings)
2 pounds zucchini, peeled and grated down to the seeds 2 large potatoes, grated 1 medium onion, grated 3 eggs 1 tsp vegetable oil (I use canola) 3/4 cup matzah meal (I use flour) salt and pepper to taste vegetable oil for frying
Grate zucchini down to the seeds, discard the seeds and squeeze out the liquid.
Peel potatoes and grate. Remove liquid.
Grate onion and add to zucchini-potato mixture.
Add eggs, oil and half a cup of matzah meal or flour. Add more if necessary.
Season with salt and pepper.
Heat oil in a frying pan. Spoon mixture into pan and brown on both sides.
Serve hot with sour cream or applesauce. You can add carrots, parsley and dill.
TUNA LATKES This recipe came from Starkist Tuna, with adaptations. It makes 16 latkes.
2 cans drained tuna 2 grated potatoes 1 chopped onion 2 eggs 2 tbsp breadcrumbs 3 tsp dry parsley flakes 3 tsp dry chives salt and pepper to taste 2/3 cup flour oil
dressing 1 cup sour cream 3 crushed garlic cloves 4 tbsp olive oil 6 tsp dry herbs such as chives, thyme or dill or mixed 1 tbsp sugar salt to taste
In a bowl or jar with a lid, mix sour cream, garlic, oil, herbs, sugar and salt. Refrigerate.
Heat oil in a frying pan and fry onions until golden.
Crumble tuna in a bowl. Add potatoes, onion, eggs, breadcrumbs, parsley, chives, salt and pepper.
Place flour in a shallow plate. Form round patties and dip in flour. Add oil to frying pan. Fry patties until golden. Drain on paper towels.
Serve on a platter with dressing on the side.
HERBED ZUCCHINI FETA LATKES With a few changes, this recipe is from Food & Wine and is by Didem Senol, a chef from Istanbul, Turkey, who trained at the New York French Culinary Institute. It makes four to six servings.
4 medium grated zucchini 1 tbsp kosher salt 2 large eggs 1/2 cup flour 1/2 cup chopped dill 1/4 cup chopped parsley 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
sauce 1 seeded chopped, peeled cucumber 1 cup sour cream salt and pepper to taste vegetable oil
Place zucchini in a colander, sprinkle with salt, toss and let stand five minutes. Squeeze out liquid and transfer to a bowl.
Add eggs, flour, dill, parsley and feta. Refrigerate 10 minutes.
Puree cucumber in food processor and transfer to a bowl. Stir in sour cream, salt and pepper.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Heat oil in a frying pan and then, working in batches, drop tablespoons of batter into the hot oil and fry until brown and crisp. Transfer to a baking sheet and keep warm in oven.
Serve with sour cream-cucumber sauce.
Sybil Kaplanis a journalist, lecturer, book reviewer and food writer in Jerusalem. She created and leads the weekly English-language Shuk Walks in Machane Yehuda, she has compiled and edited nine kosher cookbooks, and is the author of Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel.
Chanukah lights on Agron Road in Jerusalem, 2012. (photo from Djampa)
History tends to repeat itself or, as Sholem Aleichem put it, The Wheel Makes a Turn. In this story, he wrote about Chanukah, depicting a proud Jew lighting the nine-branched candelabrum, celebrating this festival of dedication and liberation with warmth and affection. Later in the story, this same Jew, now old and infirm, is barely allowed to light the chanukiyah by his assimilated son, while his grandson is not even allowed to watch. The story ends when the grandson is an adult, and celebrates Chanukah with his friends to the dismay of his “modern” parents who cannot understand why their son has rejected their assimilation and returned to his Jewish roots.
Chanukah is one of Israel’s favourite festivals, widely celebrated even by secular Jews. Unlike in the Diaspora, it doesn’t have to compete with the glamour of Christmas, with its shopping frenzy, Santa Claus, carols and other Christian symbols of the holiday, which can be very seductive, even to Jews.
In Jerusalem during the Festival of Lights, you can see chanukiyot and their tiny, multi-coloured candles on almost every windowsill and, at sunset, you’ll hear voices from quivering childish soprano to deep baritone, all singing “Maoz Tzur” (“Rock of Ages”). There is a candlelighting ceremony, as well as free sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), in my local supermarket every evening for the whole eight nights, and a giant menorah burns atop the Knesset and many public buildings and water tower reservoirs throughout the country. Gifts are exchanged, children receive Chanukah gelt, often in the form of chocolate coins, and dreidels, spinning tops inscribed with the first letters of the Hebrew words for the phrase: “A great miracle happened here.”
The Zionist movement has used Chanukah as a symbol and historical precedent of national survival. The Maccabi sports organization was named after the Maccabees, who are the stars of the holiday, and it holds the Maccabiah Games every four years, just like the Olympics.
The singing of “Maoz Tzur” is a feature of the holiday with mysterious origins. The only clue to its composer is the acrostic of the first five stanzas, spelling out the name “Mordecai”; such naming was a common practice at the time and one used in a lot of zemirot (Sabbath songs). Many scholars believe the composer to be Mordecai ben Isaac, who lived in Germany in the 13th century.
There is a Chabad saying: “Song opens a window to the secret places of the soul.” It is hard to define what makes music specifically Jewish, and many categories exist, including Chassidic, Yiddish, Yemenite, Moroccan, Kurdish, Israeli, secular, religious … the list comprises a broad range.
There is nothing in Jewish law against creating new tunes for hymns. The Gerer Rebbe once stated: “Were I blessed with a sweet voice, I would sing you new hymns and songs every day, for, with the daily rejuvenation of the world, new songs are created.”
Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav wrote: “How do you pray to the Lord? Come, I will show you a new way … not with words or sayings, but with song. We will sing and the Lord on high will understand us.”
When we sing “Maoz Tzur” as a family, grouped around the candles, there is harmony of a special kind. The harmony is not just in the song, but in the sanctity and affection that binds the family and gives it a foundation as solid as a rock.
In painful times for Israel, which has seen so much suffering and loss throughout its history, it brings a measure of comfort to be able to recite the traditional blessing: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, who has kept us in life and hast preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season.” This year, amid the pandemic, the blessing resonates even more deeply. Happy Chanukah!
Dvora Waysman is a Jerusalem-based author. She has written 14 books, including The Pomegranate Pendant, which was made into a movie, and her latest novella, Searching for Sarah. She can be contacted at [email protected] or through her blog dvorawaysman.com.
The author in the synagogue in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. (photo from Miri Garaway)
When I first started planning and researching our October 2017 trip to Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the foremost thing on my mind was learning about the Jewish history of the region. It was uncharted travel territory for me and I was curious to uncover the areas that were once vibrant Jewish communities.
Rather than being herded around by bus on a large organized tour and staying in North American-type hotels, which are far away from the pedestrian-only “Old Town” neighbourhoods of the cities, I wanted the challenge of researching centrally located, charming and historical bed and breakfasts and/or apartments and then finding private or small group Jewish heritage tours within each place. This proved to be an interesting process, whereby I delved into several possibilities. I left no stone unturned in designing this journey and it was such a feeling of exhilaration to put it all together and enjoy it.
Once I decided on accommodations in each city, I then had the task of transportation. To save time and energy, I hired a series of private drivers. This proved to be a wise decision, as 17 days does not allow for a slow pace. An added bonus was having our driver appear at the hotel, take our luggage and drop us off at our next destination, stopping to tour along the way, if we desired.
By pure chance, I had come across a U.K.-based company called mydaytrip.com – they responded promptly, were professional and easy to deal with and I had full confidence that I made the right choice. In addition to hiring a private driver, I also discovered a private tour company (based in Vancouver) called toursbylocals.com – their in-depth walking tours were excellent and I would highly recommend them.
Another option I used was Viator, a subsidiary of Tripadvisor. They offer a variety of small group (maximum eight people) tours all over the world and they liaise with local travel agencies, which provide the service. It is a great way to have various tour options at a reasonable cost.
Our first stop was Ljubljana, Slovenia, a charming university town of friendly people, exquisite Baroque architecture, a delightful cobblestoned Old Town and a vibrant café culture. Most notable is the Kaverna Zvezda, the best pastry café in town, featuring the traditional kremna rezina, also known as cremeschnitz, cream and custard between layers of puff pastry, which I had also tried in Israel. In short – divine. The gibanica (pronounced gabanitza), a delicious cake with poppy seeds, curd cheese, walnuts and apples, is another legendary cake in Slovenia and reminded me of a cake my Eastern European grandmother made. She was from Czernowitz, Austria-Hungary.
Pumpkin seed oil is “king” here and is used with the same frequency as olive oil is in Italy. Vegetarian pumpkin soup is on every menu, much to my delight. Were there any remnants of a Jewish community here? This seemed like Jewish comfort food to me.
Documents show that Jews settled in Ljubljana from the 13th century onward and worked as merchants, bankers, artisans and some as farmers. They had a synagogue, a school and a rabbinical court. In 1515, the Roman emperor Maximillian expelled the Jews and Ljubljana’s Jewish Quarter disappeared.
As I walked down the two narrow streets in the Old Town, that once housed a small Jewish community – Zidovska ulica and Zidovska steza, Jewish Street and Jewish Lane – the only sign of a Jewish presence was a vacant stone indentation on a building where a mezuzah had once stood.
Maribor, the second largest city in Slovenia, has a synagogue, but, unfortunately, it sits empty. Jews were also expelled from here, in 1496, though, eventually, both Ljubljana and Maribor regained their Jewish communities – until the Second World War. Then the Holocaust took its toll.
On a positive note, a synagogue did open in Ljubljana in 2003, but it is now part of the Jewish Cultural Centre. Ljubljana was previously the only European capital lacking a Jewish house of worship. The city does not have a rabbi, but the chief rabbi for Slovenia, Rabbi Ariel Haddad, resides in nearby Trieste, Italy.
* * *
Split, Croatia, once had a vibrant Jewish community, so, after visiting the Dalmatian coastal town of Zadar, we headed a little further south to Split, stopping first at the World UNESCO Heritage Site of Trogir.
In Split, I had arranged for a private guide, Lea Altarac, to meet us and give us a Jewish history tour as well as a general city walking tour. In 3.5 hours, we covered a lot. Lea is a teacher; extremely knowledgeable and proud of her city. Her mother is Bosnian and her father is Jewish; she has a Jewish soul, albeit one that does not practise Judaism. Nevertheless, she was eager to enlighten us with some of the Jewish history of the city.
We first toured Diocletian’s Palace in the Old Town and Lea pointed out the many Magen Davids etched into the stone. Once we had finished touring the extensive palace, we walked to the edge of the Old Town. There, we came across the small synagogue of Split, no exterior decoration to distinguish it, which is maintained as a museum by Lea’s father. As we climbed the stairs to the second floor of the old stone building, I tried to visualize it teeming with congregants, sadly no more.
One of the oldest European synagogues, it was created in the 16th century. The interior dates back to 1728. That was the first restoration of several, and when the mechitzah (partition between men and women in an Orthodox shul) was added. It is interesting to note that the ark was built into the western wall of the palace.
The synagogue was plundered by fascist fanatics in 1942 and, unfortunately, many valuable ritual books, archives and silver objects were burned or stolen.
In 1996, during another restoration, a commemoration plaque of local victims of the Holocaust was given to the synagogue as a gift from the Israeli ambassador.
There is no official rabbi for the synagogue in Split, but the rabbi from Zagreb, Croatia, comes about twice a year.
During archeological excavations carried out in the area of the Roman city of Salona, the capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia and the parent city of Split, traces of an established Jewish community were found. When Salona was destroyed, in the early seventh century, the surviving Jewish members took refuge within the walls of Diocletian’s Palace. This settlement was the early beginning of the city of Split.
The term Zueca is used to describe the localities where Jewish tanners and dyers lived. This was a common trade for centuries. Other Jewish occupations included weaving, tailoring, the sale of cloth, the running of a bank, as well as the food business, which was not permitted to Jews elsewhere.
Via 16th-century documents, we learned that there were Spanish and Portuguese immigrants who settled in Split, which was a port for trade between the Republic of Venice, to which Split belonged to at that time, and the Ottoman Empire. Most notably, a Spanish Jew named Daniel Rodriga, short for Rodriguez, was responsible for promoting the development of trade between Europe and the countries in the east. Caravans were also used for the exchange of goods to Turkey and Asia, which Rodriga felt was safer. He conceived the idea of building a large quarantine area, a lazaretto, in the port of Split to house men and goods from the eastern countries, before ships took them to Venice and the rest of Europe.
There was no Jewish ghetto in Split, as the members of the Jewish community enjoyed civil liberty. It was not until the late 18th century, toward the end of Venetian rule, that a ghetto was formed, due to the influence of the clergy and the decline of the Venetian economy.
Our walking tour led us up a steep hill, Marjan Hill, where we were afforded a spectacular view of Split. Overlooking the city, in a forest-like setting, is the Jewish cemetery, one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries known. It was founded in 1573 and was used until 1946.
After the collapse of fascism in 1943 and before the occupation of Split by the German army, many of the younger Jews left Split and joined the resistance movement in partisan units. Jews who did not leave were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to forced labour and concentration camps. Only one-third of the community survived and returned to Split after the liberation; others emigrated to Israel.
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Sarajevo was our next stop, with a visit to Mostar on the way. Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, is a picturesque city situated on the Neretva River, only a two-hour drive from Split. I arranged a walking tour for the morning and asked the tour guide if we could visit the proposed site of a new synagogue. The small patch of land was donated by Zoran Mandlbaum, head of Mostar’s 45-member Jewish community, in the hopes that a synagogue would be built there. His vision was a building made of glass, symbolizing trust between Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christian Serbs and Roman-Catholic Croats, and bridging ethnic gaps. For now, the only distinguishing feature of this barren piece of land is a wrought-iron Magen David carved into the gate.
Mostar originally did have a synagogue, but it was damaged during the Second World War and the communists turned it into a puppet theatre in 1952. We visited that colourful building. Today, there are only a handful of Jews living in Mostar.
Walking through the charming Old Bazaar (Kujundziluk), we reached the famous Old Bridge, a curved structure, originally built of square stones and completed by a Turkish architect in 1556. Its arch spanned nearly 29 metres and stood 20 metres above the river. Although the famous bridge was destroyed during the war in 1993, it was rebuilt in 2004. The tradition of diving contests off the bridge has been maintained.
Of notable interest is the elegant Turkish-designed Muslibegovic House and courtyard/garden, now a hotel, which we were fortunate enough to tour.
In another couple of hours, we arrived in Sarajevo, a beautiful city, surrounded by mountains. The first Jews, Sephardim, arrived in Sarajevo as early as 1541. They were mainly artisans, merchants, pharmacists and doctors. Ashkenazi Jews began arriving in the 17th century, fleeing persecution in Europe. When the Austrians occupied Sarajevo in 1697, they burned and destroyed the Jewish Quarter, including the synagogue.
When the Ottomans regained control of Sarajevo, the lot of Jews improved. Sarajevo became known as “Little Jerusalem,” having the unique feature of a synagogue, a Roman Catholic church and a mosque all within 500 metres of one another.
Jewish life changed dramatically with the rise of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust – 85% of the Jewish population perished and those who survived emigrated to Israel in the late 1940s. Before 1941, there were 12,000 Jews living in Sarajevo and 15 synagogues. In 2017, 700 Jews lived there, out of a population of 400,000. There was no official rabbi, but a rabbi, originally from Sarajevo, came in from Israel to officiate for the High Holidays.
Our Jewish heritage tour was given by a young Muslim man, the owner of Meet Bosnia travel agency. He was very proud of the fact that he was licensed to give this tour. We began at the Old Synagogue, which was originally built in 1581, but burned down and was rebuilt a couple of times. The synagogue was converted into a museum in 1965. There are historical exhibits, ritual objects, Ladino books, photographs, religious traditions and depictions of life before the Holocaust. There is a replica of the famous 14th-century Sarajevo Haggadah; the original being in the National Museum. Unfortunately, that museum was closed for renovations.
Next to the synagogue is the building called Novi Hram, or New Synagogue, now an art gallery owned by the Jewish community of Sarajevo. There was also a large, ornate Sephardi synagogue, built in 1932, but the interior was destroyed by the Nazis in 1941.
Most impressive was the grand Ashkenazi synagogue, built in Moorish style and located across the Miljacka River that runs through Sarajevo. It also serves as the Jewish community centre. We were fortunate enough to be there during Sukkot, and went to their sukkah. The synagogue also holds Friday night services.
We visited the large hillside Jewish cemetery, among the oldest in Europe. It was founded by Sephardi Jews in 1630 and contains more than 3,500 uniquely shaped tombstones; some with inscriptions in Ladino. There are two Holocaust memorials: one Sephardi, one Ashkenazi. After 1959, it became a mixed cemetery and, in 1966, it closed. The cemetery was used as an artillery position by the Bosnian Serbs during the siege of Sarajevo and many of the tombstones were toppled.
One thing I noticed during our stay in Sarajevo was that everyone we met was proud of the multicultural aspect of their city. One woman, in a Judaica shop we were taken to, next to a cinema that once housed a Sephardi synagogue, proudly told us that her Muslim neighbour helped her and her family build their sukkah.
It was hard to leave this fascinating, exotic city that had weathered so much, but we drove on to Dubrovnik, via the country roads. In the Serbian parts of that countryside, we saw signs in Cyrillic and I felt like I was in Russia.
What a contrast to arrive in Dubrovnik, a city inundated with tourists, even in October. Our Jewish heritage tour, which also included a walking tour of the city, was led by a Catholic woman studying for her master’s degree in archeology. In the late 1400s, early 1500s, there was a Sephardi community in Dubrovnik, with about 300 members. In the 1800s, Ashkenazi Jews arrived. Before the Second World War, Jewish property was confiscated and Jews had to wear the yellow armband. Some community members were involved in the anti-fascist movement. After the war, Jews were still registered in Dubrovnik, but most of them had immigrated to New York City.
We visited the Sephardi synagogue, located in the Old Town in a three-storey stone Baroque building; it is one of the oldest in Europe. The synagogue and museum received a direct hit from a missile during the war in the 1990s, but the Museum Foundation, the Croatian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and UNESCO, as well as private donations, helped restore it. There are fascinating displays of ritual objects in the museum and a Judaica shop next door. Sadly, there are only about 50 Jews left in Dubrovnik, all residing outside the Old City walls.
Las Vegas’s Or Bamidbar Chabad Sephardi synagogue at Chanukah. (photo from Rabbi Yossi Shuchat)
The Las Vegas Strip is where all of the action is, an endless sea of attractions and hotels with casinos, exhibits and more. These hotels cater to a tourist’s every whim. However, during my last trip to Vegas, several years ago, I spent a majority of my time off the strip, away from the bright lights and glitz.
I met up with a group of friends who I had spent a year with in Arad, Israel, in 1990-91, on a World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) program that was for young Jewish professionals thinking of making aliyah. This was our second excursion to Las Vegas and members of our group hailed from Paris, New York, Boston, Toronto and Seattle. On our first trip, we stayed in the Egyptian-themed Luxor Hotel; this time, we stayed at Bally’s Hotel, in the heart of the strip.
We spent our first night wandering around the area near our hotel. The next day, on Friday afternoon, we ventured further afield to eat a fabulous lunch at an Israeli kosher restaurant called the Jerusalem Grill, which also offers pre-Shabbat delivery to hotels. As we dined on authentic Israeli dishes that could have come straight from the Holy Land, we reminisced about the good times we had had on our program and the many trips we took to explore Israel together.
We then explored the Palms Casino Resort and the Rio Hotel and Casino, which were near the restaurant. The Rio, where we would be going to see magicians Penn and Teller perform on Saturday night, after Shabbat, was also hosting the World Series of Poker.
On the Friday night, a few of my WUJS friends and I went to Or Bamidbar Chabad – East Las Vegas, a unique Sephardi synagogue, whose Chassidic spiritual leader, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok (Yossi) Shuchat, is from Venezuela. I had made arrangements with the rabbi prior to Shabbat to attend services and he graciously invited my friends and I to dinner at his house afterwards.
The synagogue features a picture of the Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson) but, other than that, it is a typical Sephardi house of worship, with the bimah in the middle, and Sephardi prayer books and a Sephardi Torah case. I felt right at home, as I have prayed at Sephardi and Chassidic congregations all over the world and have an affinity for the customs and traditions of both streams of Judaism.
After some spirited davening and a great drash by the rabbi, we and a few members of the congregation followed the rabbi to his home, where we were treated to a scrumptious Shabbat meal by his wife, Miriam Bryna Shuchat, who is co-director of Or Bamidbar.
Most of the guests were Sephardi and from Las Vegas, but there was also Baruch, a visitor from New York who was in town to play at the poker tournament. There was also Walter, a Jew who had moved to Las Vegas from Boston and, at one time, was a boxer and a blackjack dealer. After great conversation and food, I retired to a recently renovated mobile home right across from the synagogue, which was reserved for guests – and I had the honour of being the first one!
The next morning, I participated in the services and got to chant Birkat HaKohanim, the ancient priestly blessing that Sephardi shuls – including Beth Hamidrash in Vancouver – do every day, but Ashkenazi ones do not. At lunch, I had a lively discussion with a former Vancouverite who was encouraging me to leave Canada and move to Las Vegas’s thriving Jewish community, with its approximately 80,000 Jews, 20 synagogues, many Jewish schools and several kosher restaurants. When they had lived in Vancouver, both he and his mom had attended services at the Kollel and are fans of Rabbi Shmulik Yeshayahu. Interestingly, since my Vegas visit, the Pacific Torah Institute, which was located in Vancouver, has relocated to Las Vegas and merged with a local yeshivah.
After services, I was contemplating walking back to the hotel in the sweltering 32°C heat, but Walter, the former blackjack dealer, invited me to spend the afternoon at his house. It was a relaxing, enlightening and cool afternoon. Walter regaled me with stories about what Vegas was like when he arrived there in 1956. At that time in the city, which was founded by notorious Jewish gangster Bugsy Siegel, most of the hotels were owned by Jews and, so, as a blackjack dealer – at a variety of casinos, including the Flamingo and Desert Inn – Walter got to know many of them. He also got to know Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and other members of the Rat Pack, as well as boxer Rocky Marciano. (When Walter was a boxer himself, he also met Muhammad Ali.)
After my stay at Walter’s – where I even got a Shabbat nap in – he gave me a lift to the Rio, where I met my friends to see the Penn and Teller show. The poker tournament was also in full swing, of course, but I don’t know how Baruch fared.
I spent my last night in Vegas before returning home to Vancouver with my friends at a glitzy hotel watching a magic show. However, while I enjoyed all that I did, the highlight of my trip – in addition to hanging out with friends – was the gracious hospitality of the folks in the Jewish community. I will always remember my wonderful Shabbat in Las Vegas at Or Bamidbar Chabad.
David J. Litvak is a prairie refugee from the North End of Winnipeg who is a freelance writer, former Voice of Peace and Co-op Radio broadcaster and an “accidental publicist.” His articles have been published in the Forward, Globe and Mail and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His website is cascadiapublicity.com.
The Ninth Night of Hanukkah begins, appropriately enough, on the first night of the holiday…. Dad has brought pizza for dinner and Max and Rachel and their parents eat it among unopened and partially opened boxes in their new apartment. (image from book)
Change is a constant in our lives and things don’t always go as planned. Learning how to deal with the unexpected and to be able to ask for help and to be appreciative of it are all valuable lessons. And when such concepts can be literally illustrated and told in story form, they tend to stick better.
The Ninth Night of Hanukkah, written by Erica S. Perl and illustrated by Shahar Kober, is about home and helping, and takes its inspiration from the ninth candle on the chanukiyah, the shamash (Hebrew) or shammes (Yiddish), the helper candle. At the darkest time of the year, family, friends and community are the main lights that get us through and, especially amid the pandemic, a reminder of the love and support we have around us is particularly important.
The Ninth Night of Hanukkah begins, appropriately enough, on the first night of the holiday. But something is different. Dad has brought pizza for dinner and Max and Rachel and their parents eat it among unopened and partially opened boxes in their new apartment. Their cat looks on. “No menorah? No latkes?” the kids wonder. Mom assures them that, tomorrow, they’ll find the Chanukah supplies amid all their things.
On the second night, Max and Rachel make a menorah with some wood, nuts and bolts, paint and glue. Not only is their real menorah still missing but the candles can’t be found either, so the kids – with Mom’s permission – go off to borrow some candles from a neighbour, and Mrs. Mendez in 2C happily obliges.
Each night, the family makes do with the help of a different neighbour. Each night is nice, “but it didn’t feel quite like Hanukkah.”
Spoiler alert … eventually, the box with the family’s holiday stuff arrives – but too late. The delivery comes on Day 9. But Max and Rachel are not so easily deterred. They concoct a plan to celebrate the holiday and their neighbours. “And, best of all, it felt exactly like Hanukkah.”
Perl’s text has a rhythm. The repetition each night of how “it didn’t feel quite like Hanukkah” accents how hard it is to accept new situations. Yet the fact that the family makes each night special, shows that, despite what we might be thinking or feeling, we can act in ways that still celebrate life and all for which we are grateful.
The illustrations by Kober are colourful, with a retro feel, and have a lot of energy. Creative use of white space helps direct the action. And the two-page spreads have an expansive feel to them, like the reader is right there in the apartment with Max, Rachel and their family and new friends.
The book ends with a nice note from Perl about Chanukah and her family’s tradition, followed by a list of nine ideas of how to make your own “Shamash Night.”
A PJ Library book, which is also available from most any bookseller, The Ninth Night of Hanukkah lights all the right candles and would make a great holiday gift.