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Contain Yourself

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The inner meaning of Jewish things


Contain Yourself photo

Yad (Torah pointer)

While they may look very different at first, most Jewish sacred or ritual items have something in common: They are containers. 

Many are receptacles for food or drink: a seder plate, a Kiddush cup, a challah board, a Rosh Hashanah honey pot. A tzedakah box is a receptacle for, well, tzedakah. And a hand-washing cup, naturally, holds water.

Some are containers for light, like candlesticks or a menorah or a Havdalah-candle holder. Some are containers for words, like a mezuzah or tefillin. Some are even containers for sounds, like a hollow shofar… or for scents, like a spice box.

Some objects are receptacles for our bodies, such as a kipah or tallit. And then we just "put our whole selves in" a sukkah. That's what's it's all about, after all.

A few Jewish accessories, granted, do not fit this paradigm. A dreidel doesn't hold anything, nor does a yad (Torah pointer) -- you hold them. And while you may have a woven holder for the lulav, a palm frond itself is not a container. But even in these cases, Jewish ritual objects are not just for looking at. They are for interacting with.

Still, most Jewish objects are containers. The need for physical interaction with these objects is a metaphor for the emotional investment required for a spiritual experience to occur.

In other words: In order for this Jewish thing to work, you're going to have to put something into it.


Fall Nosh with a Jewish Twist

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Fall Nosh with a Jewish Twist photo

Sandwiched between a shvitz and a shiver, fall is the perfect season. Not only do I love fall weather, which is often breezy and cool, I cannot get enough of the beautiful fall leaves and tasty treats that arrive with the season.

As fall blows through Chicago and knocks all of the leaves off of the trees, I can't help but to crave cinnamon, pumpkin, apple and pecan.

I have a few recipes from family and friends to help ring in the season. These warm, spiced treats are sure to be crowd-pleasers at any fall gathering or occasion:


Kathleen's Hot Mulled Apple Cider
Courtesy of Kathleen Royston


2 quarts apple cider (very good quality cider makes a huge difference!)
1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
6 whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 sweet orange, thinly sliced and peeled
1/4 teaspoon lemon juice


1. Combine ingredients in a large boiler or slow cooker and heat at low temperature for about 3 hours.

2. Serve hot.


Momma Chavis' Cinnamon Mandel Breit
Courtesy of Harriet Chavis


4 eggs
2 cups sugar
1 cups vegetable oil
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoon vanilla
2 cup chopped walnuts (more can be added, to taste)
1 cup raisins or coconut (optional)
1 lemon grated
At least 4 teaspoons cinnamon (lots)
1 teaspoon nutmeg


1. Beat eggs vigorously.

2. Add sugar and vanilla and continue mixing. Then, add oil and lemon.

3. Sift flour, baking powder, and baking soda. Add cinnamon and nutmeg to flour mixture.

4. Add flour mixture to egg mixture. Add nuts (raisins, coconut).

5. Let it all rest for some time.

6. Grease an 11x16x1-inch pan with oil. Spoon out mixture and spread out with fingers.  Make flat.

7. Bake 30-45 minutes at 375 degrees F.

8. When baked batter turns lightly brown, slice down and across the pan into long cookies.

9. Turn each cookie on its side, sprinkle with lots more cinnamon and sugar, and bake until medium brown and crunchy-hard. 

10. Cool on rack.


Perfect Pumpkin Bread
Courtesy of Kathleen Royston


3 cups sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
3 eggs
1 16-ounce can solid pack pumpkin
3 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup coarsely chopped pecans (optional)


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

2. Butter and flour two 9x93-inch loaf pans.

3. Beat sugar and oil in a large bowl to blend.

4. Mix in eggs and pumpkin.

5. Sift flour, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, salt and baking powder into another large bowl.

6. Stir into pumpkin mixture in 2 additions.

7. Mix in pecans, if desired.

8. Divide batter equally between prepared pans.

9. Bake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 1 hour 10 minutes.

10. Transfer to racks and cool 10 minutes.

11. Using a sharp knife, cut around edge of loaves.

12. Turn loaves out onto racks and cool completely.

Note: This is wonderful spread with cream cheese. Also freezes well.


Extra noshing inspiration:

Back in January, I offered Oy! readers some awesome Jewish food bloggers to follow in the new year. With help from those talented, Jewish bloggers, here are some additional tasty, fall selections:

Carrot Sweet Potato Cake from WhatJewWannaEat.com

Pumpkin Butter and Caramelized Fig Rugelach from WhatJewWannaEat.com

Cranberry Pie with Thick Pecan Crumble from SmittenKitchen.com

Apple and Honey Challah from SmittenKitchen.com

Balsamic Apple Cheddar Scones from JewHungry

Life Changing Pumpkin Cheesecake from JewHungry


Wild Mushroom and Beef Stew

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Wild Mushroom and Beef Stew photo 1

I grew up in Russia (technically Moldova, but we will leave the technicalities be for now). The winters were frigid -- and sometimes a bit depressing, as winters tend to be. Food was used to comfort the grumbling bellies and laughter was used to warm up from the inside out.

In Chi-Town our winters have always reminded me of Russia. Lots of snowy days with frosted windows and red noses. One day last year as I walked down my driveway and the snow crunched under my feet, I was reminded of cold winters as a little girl. I was always comforted by the savory scents of a stew slowly cooking away on the stove top as I ran into the house after playing all day in the snow. My mom, made the best stews and pot roasts. She used fresh ingredients and simple flavors. And was always, she was able to make an amazing dish out of practically nothing.

On one of these very snowy days last year during a very long and dreary winter, hubs decided to give me the task of a mushroom stew. I just so happened to have bought some really nice mushrooms that I had no plans for. I went out and bought my favorite piece of beef cut -- a nice cut of chuck that has lots of marbling -- and went to work.

The result was an incredibly comforting stew with layers of simple flavors. I served it over my skinny smashers and felt a little better about my indulgence. At the end of a few days, when I still had some of the stew left, I placed it in a ziplock bag and froze it for another day.

This stew recipe is not really a recipe but more of a technique. Once mastered, this typical braising technique can be used in hundreds of different recipes.

Wild Mushroom and Beef Stew photo 2

Wild Mushroom and Beef Stew
(from girlandthekitchen.com)


2 pounds of chuck, cut up into bite size cubes
1 large onion
1 pound of a variety of mushrooms
1 bay leaf
5 cloves of garlic
6 sprigs of thyme
1 cup Cognac
vegetable oil
salt and pepper to taste
about 2 quarts beef stock


1. We begin by cutting up our meat into medium bite-sized cubes and seasoning well with salt and pepper on both sides. Preheat a Dutch oven or a thick-bottomed pot with vegetable oil until it starts to smoke.

2. While you are at it, preheat the oven to 325-degrees.

3. Place the beef into the pot, making sure not to overcrowd the pan. Allow to brown on all sides.

Wild Mushroom and Beef Stew photo 3

4. In the meantime, wash and roughly chop your mushrooms. I used button, cremini, shitake and oyster mushrooms in this dish. If you use shitake mushrooms, make sure you remove and discard the stems as they are very woodsy and tough.

Wild Mushroom and Beef Stew photo 4

5. Dice up an onion while you are at it as well.

6. Check on the meat and remove once nice and brown. Set aside. You will have some fat and yummy bits on the bottom of the pot. Let it be. This is your flavor.

7. Add in the onions, a few cloves of garlic, a few stems of thyme, a bay leaf and mushrooms and toss to cover with the fat in the pot. Sautee for about 10 minutes.

8. Add the meat back into the pot and sprinkle evenly with one tablespoon of flour. Mix to combine until none of the flour remains.

9. Take about 1 cup of cognac and pour into a cup and then into the pot. NEVER POUR OUT OF THE BOTTLE! A flame can catch onto the bottle while pouring and the bottle will explode. (I have seen this happen, it's not a pretty sight.) Pour into a cup first then pour into the pot. You can either let it cook out or light the cognac on fire with a long match, or if the pot is shallow enough, tilt it toward the flame so it will catch on fire. Flaming it is a neat party trick :) This is also called deglazing.

Wild Mushroom and Beef Stew photo 5

10. Once all the alcohol has cooked out, about 3 minutes, you will be left with a beautiful glazed meat.

11. After 30 minutes, turn the heat down to 275-degrees and allow to cook for another 90 minutes or until meat is nice and tender.


Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv

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Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv photo 1

A little less than a month ago, I took a leap of faith and moved to Israel to participate in a 10-month volunteer/internship program called Tikkun Olam in Tel Aviv-Yaffo. The program gives me the extraordinary opportunity to intern for local non-profits and live alongside the communities my workplace serves.

I also have the opportunity to do something I've never done before: celebrate the Jewish holidays in a country full of Jews; to pray and laugh and eat in a community where Judaism is actually mainstream.

But to my disappointment, my first holidays in Israel, Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah, didn't feel all that different from any other weekday. There were fewer busses and most of the shops in my area were closed, but beyond that it was just an ordinary day. If you weren't familiar with the usual commercial traffic patterns of Tel Aviv, you'd never know that anything was different. As a result, I took my ulpan teacher's promise that Yom Kippur would be "unlike anything I had ever experienced before" with a grain of salt. It turned out that his promise was good.

Set apart from all other Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur -- the Day of Atonement -- brings all daily activity in Israel to a grinding halt. From sunset to sunset on this holy day, all businesses, schools and streets closed, causing even sleepless cities like Tel Aviv to grow quiet for a little while.

Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv photo 3

But as night fell on Erev Yom Kippur, the country's atmosphere of quiet contemplation gave way to waves of joyous sound as people filed out from their synagogues and homes and filled the streets. Children whizzed by on bicycles while their parents strolled arm in arm up the boulevard. Friends and neighbors all dressed in white met with kisses on cheeks and eager embraces. Bus stops and street corners became community living rooms, complete with cheerful old men stretched out on plastic lawn furniture, and traffic signals blinked comically unnoticed in the distance. Only when the approaching sun lent a bit of color to the sky did the people return to bed. Even I, a passionate sleeper, stayed up late to listen to soak up the musical chatter in the streets. How could I sleep when the world felt so alive? What if I went to sleep and the whole night turned out to be a dream?

Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv photo 2

But it wasn't a dream. Early the next morning the streets back came to life with shul-goers and cyclists in a fusion of old and new that only Israel could support. I became a part of that fusion on my way to Torah study when my neighbor's grandchildren challenged me to a bicycle race -- an invitation that, of course, I accepted. On our bikes we flew up and down the carless streets of Tel Aviv dodging teens playing soccer near the entrance ramps to Israel's empty expressways.

After class, I made my way home to help prepare food for the break-fast with my roommates. As I biked through my neighborhood, the smell of spiced meat and baking bread filled the air as other families prepared too. The chefs occasionally looked up from their work to shout holiday greetings to passersby from their open windows.

As night fell, my roommates and I made our way to the Sephardic synagogue a few blocks from our apartment. We were obviously late for the evening service as by this point in the evening no one was left on the streets. When we arrived at the synagogue, it was standing-room only, but somehow, the ladies in the women's section made room for us. They slapped siddurs in our hands already opened to the right page in the service. Every so often, the same ladies would peek over their shoulder to make sure we hadn't lost our place.

Before long, shofars bellowed out from all corners of the city and just like that Yom Kippur was over -- or so we thought. But it turned out that the communal spirit of Yom Kippur wasn't done with us just yet. As my friends and I shuffled out of the synagogue we were stopped multiple times by women of the congregation who wanted to make sure that we had somewhere to go for dinner. In fact, even after explaining that we had food prepared at home, our doorbell still rang that evening with smiling neighbors holding out pots of food for us to taste.

It turned out that my ulpan teacher was right. But at the end of the day, the parts I will remember the most about this Yom Kippur are not the carless streets or the closed up shops. Instead they will be the people I met and the kindness they showed me on what happened Judaism's holiest day. But it is a kindness that I know will last and remain special any old day of the week.


Journey Back Into Imagination

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Journey Back Into Imagination photo

Come with me, and you will see, my world thrown back into imagination with just one spark. Yes, journey with me on a discovery that was more of a re-discovery. For I want to tell you a tale. A tale of fencing! Of fighting! Of torture! Revenge! Giants! Monsters! Chases! Escapes! True love! Miracles -- wait a second! That's The Princess Bride. Wrong tale. Moving on!

This tale is about something within me that was long forgotten yet greatly missed. I am of course talking about -- my imagination. (I thought I had a more clever way to reveal that, but it must've been a figment of my imagination). The year was 20 aught 15. The month, the Ember of Sept. The day, not really important.

I was in the land of Kalamazoo, which as it turns out is a city and not a zoo known as Kalama. I went to the city on a personal journey of self-discovery. I also brought along my girlfriend. Our self-discovery was to find beer. And while beer was found during our self-discovery (and in quite the abundance), t'was the stop between beer discoveries that has had some truly significant significance.

For you see, there was a museum or wonders at the heart of this city, lying right under the lungs but above the stomach. What drew me there was not only the price of the admission (free), or that it was on our beer excursion walking route, but it was that they had one very special exhibit.

Tinkertoys. That's right, toys of the tinkering kind.

A love letter, or rather a love exhibit, was on display encompassing the joy and exhilaration of that carefree building toy of yesteryear. I was reeled in by the bright colors, the elaborate displays, the fact that I had accidentally grabbed a fishing lure and the want -- nay, need -- to build using my imagination. It was a feeling I hadn't experienced in quite some time.

I've always loved building toys. I grew up a lover of K'nex; I was never as big into LEGOs, which is very characteristic of my personality to go against the popular thing. (This is how I rebelled.) But that non-specified day in the Zoo known as Kalama, I found my long-neglected need to fully explore my imagination no longer remained dormant.

That day my girlfriend and I built a great many things. Fireworks, bazookas, lollipops, throwing stars (or starfish, depending on who you asked) a zoo I named Kalama as well as abundance of memories.  And during the course of being reunited with my imagination, I was additionally being reunited with other Tinkertoy enthusiasts (read: toddlers) that I had to contend with to get the best pieces to build my imaginary deluxe-sized abacus made of Twizzlers that uses doughnuts instead of wooden beads and requires a verbal passphrase to unlock as well as a retinal scan from a pet. Not just anyone can use it, you know.

The moral of this tale, as all tales come conveniently packaged with a moral, is that I should never lose sight of my imagination again. To take it a step further, I should even take time out of my busy, adult-stuff-centric schedule to explore what my much more mature imagination has to offer.

Playing with those Tinkertoys was like a wakeup call. Well, actually, not that. Wake up calls are a nuisance. Let's see, um … it was like diving into a pool full or marshmallow fluff! In other words, it was a realization that my imagination is still there, with much more to explore, or as my adult version might say, much more to be tapped. Heh heh. (Because this started off as a discovery for beer. I used my imagination good on that one.)

I've begun to realize that reconnecting with my imagination is more than just daydreaming. It's making something great out of something that came entirely from within my own thoughts, ideas and dreams and then playing with it. I love where my imagination can take me when I use it for the fun stuff, because the fun stuff has no stress, no anxiety and no limitations. As I said, it's more than daydreaming -- it's finding my dreams by using my imagination, because with my imagination, a dream can be a dream come true.


The Confession

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The Confession photo

Yom Kippur is "Judgment Day," and there is a prayer that repeats over and over again throughout the many services of the holiday called Vidui, or "The Confession." Every year when I go to shul for Yom Kippur, my heart beats a little faster when the Vidui comes up in the liturgy. I rise to my feet and pound my chest with my fist, while uttering the long list of sins that I may or may not have been guilty of committing. I once heard that the point is to confess to the entire list because even if I didn't do it, someone in my community did and I am just as much responsible for their sins as my own.

As someone who has worked to make transformative change in his life over the last 10 years, I would love to be able to stand up on this Yom Kippur and say I have nothing left to confess, but that would never be possible.

Every year I come to contemplate and confess my wrongs and just like millions of other Jews, every year I know that I'll be back again next year. I won't ever be perfect in the coming year and I'll always be guilty of something that I promised to never do again.

No matter how hard I beat my chest on Yom Kippur, my inner demons still remain. My story of losing over 100 pounds, building a successful career, paying off thousands in debt and finding true love is not about leaving the "old me" behind and forging ahead as a completely new soul. Instead, it's about figuring out the right routines and strategies to keep that negative side that was dragging me down in check.

When I show up for Yom Kippur, dressed in traditional white, I bring all of my soulful and sinful self to pray. There is still a very large 300-pound man inside of me. All he wants to do is sit on the couch and eat cookies. He doesn't care about putting his health first. There is still a very lazy, unmotivated college student inside of me, and he doesn't want to stop playing video games to finish his work. He doesn't care that people might be depending on him. And there is still a snarky teenager, ready to make jokes at the expense of others' feelings.

Judaism uses the word tshuvah to mean repentance, but tshuvah really comes from the word for "return." When I think about the metaphor of returning, I might leave a place behind, but I still have to bring my whole self with me. I have to come clean about who I was and what I have done and bring the lessons from my mistakes. All of that informs my new perspective so that I may return to my true path. The path that I would like to think leads me down the road to a sweet new year.

Shana Tova Tikateivu -- may you have a good year and be inscribed in the Book of Life.


Shul Fashion Guide

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Shul Fashion Guide photo 1

Dress by MIMU MAXI. Photo credit: Alexanna Cox

The High Holidays allow me time to reflect on my past year and dream of a new year filled with endless possibilities of the person I can become and accomplishments I can achieve. But to be completely honest … I also love attending synagogue during this time of year to admire the outfits of the other fashionable congregants. 

So, I've created a list of shul fashion dos and don'ts for this Yom Kippur, so you can look smashing while repenting.

Crop Tops Should be Cropped Out        

There are many women who wear these tummy-barring tops while exuding the utmost class and confidence (i.e. Jessica Alba). But, I believe these tops should be saved for, let's say, hanging out with friends. 

Clothe Those Kickers

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe the knee should be hard to see when wearing a skirt in shul. I'm all for a short skirt or dress being balanced by a more modest top half (Heidi Klum is an expert at this), but synagogue is not the place to strut those barre legs. 

Having a difficult time finding longer skirts or dresses? One of my favorite labels is MIMU MAXI. It was founded by two Orthodox sister-in-laws who design modest yet fashionable clothes.

Skivvies Should be a Secret 

This piece of advice goes out to both the ladies and gentlemen. Your undergarments should be out of site. Synagogue is not the place to pull out your inner Kim Kardashian with the exposed undergarment look.

The High Holidays are a time to rebuild oneself, but it never hurts to look fabulous while doing it. L'shanah tovah and easy fasting!


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