‘Us’ and ‘Them’

At a preschool Hanukkah celebration—held in a nice liberal church—an atheistic Jew wonders where he fits in, and what to tell his daughter

Riverside Church. (Collage: Tablet Magazine; parent and child: Andy Leppard/Flickr; Riverside Church: Anand Vivek Taneja/Flickr)

1. I stood at the back of the crowded room. Before me, like sunflowers ripened and swaying in the breeze, or like lighters at a rock concert when the slow song comes on, was a sea of raised hands, each holding a smart phone or camera aimed at the rabbi and the children assembled at her feet. She was telling the story of Hanukkah to a captive audience sitting cross legged on the floor in clumps, each representing a pre-K class at the Riverside Church Weekday School. Among them sat my daughter. She is 4 years old, but not for long. I stood in the back because I am very tall and can see over everyone, and I did not want to block anyone’s view. Also, because it affords me distance, which I need in order to observe, analyze, and to feel apart from the proceedings, across which now and then I allowed a flicker of emotion and feeling to leap. In alternating beats these emotions were kind, warm, and hostile, annoyed.

2. My daughter has taken to drawing a curious form, a kind of sign: It’s a U shape at the ends of which are arrows. As iconography it could be read as a smile, or instructions for a U-Turn.

“What does it mean?” I ask. (more…)

Spirited Holiday

With A Dreamers Christmas, subversive jazz musician John Zorn makes a straightforward holiday album that’s radical in its own way

John Zorn playing in Antwerp, Belgium. (Bruno Bollaert/Flickr)

On the fifth night of Hanukkah this year, John Zorn—one of the most compelling contemporary composers and reed players, a 2006 MacArthur fellow, and the producer of the Tzadik record label—will be hosting a benefit festival for and at the Center for Jewish Arts and Literacy in Manhattan’s East Village, also known as the Sixth Street Synagogue. My excitement for the event peaked over the past weekend, when I first heard about Tzadik’s recent release of Zorn’s new album, A Dreamers Christmas.

Fans of Zorn’s work, which includes an exploration of new Jewish music known as the “Radical Jewish Culture,” must have at least been scratching their heads at the news. A Dreamers Christmas is now airing on NPR, not merely its songs but also a live interview, during which Zorn spins a few tracks from the album and other holiday songs that have inspired him over the years. The composer has a reputation for shunning the press—at times, abrasively. But in this segment with NPR’s David Garland, he’s warm, perfectly charming, and really accessible—quite like the album itself.

Indeed, the album’s accessibility is perhaps more surprising than the fact of its existence. As Zorn puts it in the interview, this is one of his most user-friendly projects ever. “My message is joy to the world,” he says. “This is a record to play while you’re trimming the tree.” A subversive thinker and composer, Zorn has often gravitated toward subversive sounds—of screeching free jazz, punk, hardcore, and noise. This project is nothing like that: Playing at the supermarket before and after other traditional carols, it might not raise any flags to an average shopper. A connoisseur, however, will discern the difference, since the date includes, among others, art-rock and avant-jazz giant Marc Ribot, who was instrumental in the establishment of the Jewish Radical Culture phenomenon, along with Kenny Wollesen on vibes and glockenspiel, and the Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista, a frequent Zorn collaborator. Everyone in the band is a tremendously accomplished musician who at some point or another gravitated toward aggressive, thrashing music—of which, on this project, there’s hardly a trace. (more…)

Standing Tall

It’s the time of year when intermarried Jews are lectured against Christmas trees. Given marriage trends, the lecturers should learn to pipe down.

(Illustration: Tablet Magazine; tree: Gregory Marton/Flickr; arm: Shutterstock.com)

Now is the time of year when my wife and I renew our annual, uncomfortable conversation about why we will never have a Christmas tree in our home, despite her having grown up with one. I’m fairly crummy at explaining my reasoning, but we eventually remind ourselves that all marriages require give-and-take, and this is one time where she’s giving and I’m taking.

However, I’ve never felt more like getting a Christmas tree than this past week, thanks to the trend in Jewish media of non-intermarried Jews telling intermarried Jews not to have Christmas trees. Articles like these make me want to put up a Christmas tree just to symbolize my defiance of self-appointed assimilation police. Of course it wouldn’t work, because their very point is that I don’t get to decide what my own Christmas tree would symbolize. These writers assume that what the tree—or even “celebrating Christmas”—symbolizes to them is what it represents universally and objectively, beyond the touch of actual humans who make decisions and appoint significances based on their own needs, interests, and complex familial relationships.

Thankfully, I hear these recriminations about interfaith families less frequently than I used to. I’d be shocked if there is a single Reform rabbi out there who’d admit to an anti-Christmas-tree sermon in the past decade—and that’s not, as some cynics might argue, out of fear of unemployment. It’s because they know that the intermarried families they’d be chastising are within earshot only because they’ve dedicated countless hours and thousands of dollars toward raising Jewish children—often with the non-Jewish partner as the driving force. We should be thanking these folks, rather than pushing them away. (more…)

Bake Off

From chocolate cake to onion rolls, recent Jewish cookbooks offer a tantalizing range of recipes for Hanukkah treats to complement the latkes


Whenever my former editor, the venerable and recently retired Judith Jones, looks at a cookbook proposal, she asks herself whether the writer has anything new and worthwhile to contribute to the cookbook canon. For the most part, Jones selected winners: Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, Claudia Roden, Lidia Bastianich, Madhur Jaffrey, and others.

Today, when there are so many cookbooks published each year, it’s difficult to know which one will make a long-term impact, especially when, as Child told me, none of them is perfect. Even her iconic Mastering the Art of French Cooking had corrections well into the fifth printing.

What about Jewish cookbooks? I’ll narrow my task, by concentrating on Hanukkah baking recipes in the cookbooks I think made a difference in the past year or so. (more…)

Light the Lights

Agenda, Hanukkah edition: Matisyahu comes clean in Williamsburg, latkes get judged, and a 4,000-pound menorah is lit. Plus our seasonal gift guide!

Agenda is Tablet Magazine’s weekly listing of upcoming cultural events.

New York: Hanukkah is in the air at the Jewish Museum, where author and illustrator Maurice Sendak has curated a selection of 32 Hanukkah lamps (through Jan. 29, $12 museum admission). The New York Historical Society is celebrating A New York Hanukkah, displaying a Hanukkiah designed by Bronx-based silversmith Bernard Bernstein (through Jan. 8, $15 admission). For something more crowd-sourced, head uptown to Grand Army Plaza Tuesday evening (and each subsequent night of Hanukkah) for the lighting of the world’s largest menorah—it’s 23 feet tall and weighs 4,000 pounds. Or pick up Israeli designer Laura Cowan’s more portable slide magnet menorah from new Brooklyn design store Module R and arrange the candles any way you like (Module R, $225). Trust us, we know menorahs.

Newly shorn reggae singer Matisyahu brings his annual Festival of Light to the Music Hall of Williamsburg Monday night for four nights of concerts. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll eke out eight nights (Dec. 19, 20, 21, 8 p.m.; Dec. 22, 7 p.m., $35). For those equally ambivalent on facial hair, perhaps this beanie hat with detachable yarn beard is just the ticket (Moderntribe.com, $35). The National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene brings their old school charm to the Arts World Financial Center Sunday with My Yiddishe Chanukah, a festive showcase of holiday songs and klezmer melodies (Dec. 18, 12 p.m., free). On Tuesday, The Sephardic Music Festival presents popular musical acts Nuriya, Pharaoh’s Daughter, and Haale at Le Poisson Rouge (Dec. 20, 7 p.m., $18), while the band Girls in Trouble, led by Alicia Jo Rabin, takes the stage Wednesday at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (Dec. 21, 7 p.m., $15). After their set, head to the museum’s gift shop and pick up these awesome-looking eco-friendly dreidels made from recycled newspaper (Pickman Museum Shop, $10-$15).

The third annual Latke Festival takes place Monday evening, with attendees sampling the potato-pancake offerings of local restaurants like Kutsher’s Tribeca and Veselka and judges choosing the winning recipe (Dec. 19, 6:30 p.m., $30). For that vain latke enthusiast in your life, how about the I’m So Flippin’ Hot mirrored spatula? They’ll thank you later, we promise (Fred Flare, $24). If you’re shopping for more of a foodie, we recommend this mildly offensive Ah Choo pepper mill—shaped like a giant nose. Form and function! (Fred Flare, $22). Or take them to Shelsky’s Smoked Fish in Brooklyn and enjoy the holiday menu, which boasts five different potato latke items. Christmas envy? Not on our watch. (more…)

Silk Road Food

Bukharian Jews in Queens, N.Y., mostly émigrés from the Soviet Union, brought with them a cuisine that mixes the polyglot flavors of Central Asia

Elana Mammon’s potato-and-meat perashki, or turnovers, served with tamat, a tomato-cilantro sauce. (Len Small/Tablet Magazine)

It’s a brisk Tuesday morning in Rego Park, Queens, home to the country’s largest community of Jews from Central Asia, known as Bukharian Jews. Men and women hustle toward the subway on Queens Boulevard, the main thoroughfare of this residential neighborhood, or emerge from the sprawling Rego Center mall, laden with shopping bags. With its flurry of activity, the scene feels distinctly like New York City. And yet, a few blocks away in Elana Mammon’s kitchen, the aromas filling the air—softening onions mixed with the heady scent of yeast dough, garlic, and fresh herbs—are entirely Old World.

Mammon, 49, and her daughter Dalia Avezbadalov, 23, have invited me over to make peraskhi—pockets of dough stuffed with mashed potatoes, ground beef, mushrooms, and other fillings that are fried in vegetable oil until they puff up. Mammon watches the frying pan while Avezbadalov grates a tomato into a pulp and mixes it with minced garlic and chopped cilantro—a simple Bukharian sauce called tamat that will accompany the turnovers. “My mom makes perashki for Shabbat,” says Avezbadalov, a graduate student who lives with her husband and young daughter a few blocks away. “We also eat them on Hanukkah with sweet jam instead of savory fillings.” Mmmhmm, I mumble, furiously scribbling notes in between bites of crisp, pillowy potato perashki.

Thanks to some adventurous foodie friends who occasionally invite me along on their dining adventures, I have eaten in a handful of Bukharian restaurants in Queens—kosher, family-style establishments where Persia’s vegetable-studded pilafs and glistening lamb kebabs mingle with Russia’s meaty borscht and stuffed vegetables, China’s hand-pulled noodles and green tea, and India’s chewy flatbreads. Those meals left me happily stuffed but also curious. How had this Jewish community from Central Asia—which I had never heard of before moving to New York several years ago—blended such seemingly disparate cuisines on one table? (more…)

Children’s Books 2011

Need Hanukkah gift ideas? From a tale of a Shabbat princess to a Lower East Side detective story, here are the year’s best Jewish kids’ books

An illustration from Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King by Richard Michelson. (Zachary Pullen)

A book opens more worlds than a toy, a piece of jewelry, a handheld-gaming device, or an iPod. (OK, maybe not an iPod.) So, here’s a list for all your kid-giving needs this Hanukkah, from the littlest people of the book to the most sophisticated teenagers.

Picture Books for Very Young Readers

Nosh, Schlep, Shluff, by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke (Random House Books for Young Readers). This perfect little board book introduces babies to fun-to-say Yiddish words in a nondidactic, entertaining way. It’s got the kind of zingy, rhyming text that makes babies and toddlers chirp “again!” (“If you want to start a ruckus/wave your arms and shake your tuches!”) And the painterly illustrations are sweet but not treacly.

Many Days, One Shabbat, by Fran Manushkin, illustrated by Maria Monescillo (Marshall Cavendish Shofar with PJ Library). This is a minimalist, nondenominational Shabbat book for very young readers (“One challah/many slices/One sky/many stars”), with clean, cartoony illustrations. I appreciate that the book doesn’t dictate any one way to celebrate Shabbat, stressing family togetherness and love over rules and silver-polishing. (more…)

Childish Things

My son’s pyromaniacal tendencies, Bibi, and bedtime stories that go awry

(Sarah Lazarovic)

On the last day of Hanukkah, Lev asked us to let him light the candles. The little guy had celebrated his fifth birthday a couple of days earlier and the whole business had gone to his head. “I’m 5 now,” he said. “So I can ride a skateboard, drive a car, and land a battle spaceship and light the Hanukkah candles.” After grueling negotiations, we managed to get him to give up on driving a car and landing a battle spaceship in exchange for our recognition of his fundamental and historic right to light Hanukkah candles under parental supervision.

The candle lighting was a resounding success. Lev then suggested in the holiday spirit that he also light the curtains in the living room and the bedspread in the bedroom, triggering another urgent discussion between the wife and me on the balcony.

“We’ll tell him that it’s dangerous and that’s that,” the wife said. “We have to be firm with him.”

Ya’allah,” I said. “Let’s go for it.” (more…)

Camp Fire

In his memoir, the famous refusenik remembered celebrating Hanukkah in the Soviet Gulag

Natan Sharansky being released during a prisoner exchange in Berlin, February 11, 1986. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The holiday of Hanukkah was approaching. At the time, I was the only Jew in the prison zone, but when I explained that Hanukkah was a holiday of national freedom, of returning to one’s own culture in the face of forced assimilation, my friends in our “kibbutz” decided to celebrate it with me.

They even made me a wooden menorah, decorated it, and found some candles.

In the evening I lit the first candle and recited a prayer that I had composed for this occasion. Tea was poured, and I began to describe the heroic struggle of the Maccabees to save their people from slavery. For each zek—the term for a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag—who was listening, this story had its own personal meaning. At one point the duty officer appeared in the barracks. He made a list of all those present, but did not interfere.

On each of the subsequent evenings of Hanukkah I took out my menorah, lit the candles, and recited the appropriate blessing. Then I blew out the candles, as I didn’t have any extras. Gavriliuk, the collaborator whose bunk was across from mine, watched and occasionally grumbled, “Look at him, he made himself a synagogue. And what if there’s a fire?” (more…)

Yo La Tengo’s Eternal Hanukkah

Hoboken’s own rock out with The Feelies and other friends

(Photos by Andrew Russeth)

“You don’t know how long it has taken us in rehearsal to pretend to be disorganized,” Yo La Tengo frontman Ira Kaplan informed the tiny audience at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey, last night. Kaplan would make a great grandfather: When not creating astonishing (and astonishingly loud and wild) noise on his guitar or keyboard, he was peppering the proceedings with just that sort of neo-Borscht Belt humor, grinning gregariously, his kind face framed by an only somewhat-receded curly Jewfro. It was the second night of the band’s eight-night Hanukkah set, which they have done every year since 2001 (except last year). They are the local kids made good: Maxwell’s, which looks like just another restaurant on just another corner of just another Jersey town—which, basically, is exactly what it is—is where they played their first concert, which just so happened to have been 26 years ago yesterday (are they aware, I wonder, that yesterday also marked the 27th anniversary of Phish’s first show?).

So Yo La Tengo at Maxwell’s dates back 26 years, but Yo La Tengo during Hanukkah at Maxwell’s dates back only nine. As such, the self-conscious nostalgia is practically built into the evening (nostalgia, that ultimate escapist comfort, must have been on everyone’s mind during the first Hanukkah show in December 2001), and both the Gen-X band and their mostly Gen-X fans, who were predominantly early-middle-aged and laughed at comedian Jim Gaffigan’s jokes about the gym and a high preponderance of whom sported earplugs, did not disappoint. There is no back room at Maxwell’s: Performers climbed onto the stage from the room, and disappeared into the crowd after performing. An electric menorah, correctly lit right-to-left, two candles glowing dark turquoise, sat on an amp in the back, stage right. (more…)

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