Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Naming Pressures

It's a busy week for extended family simchas.

Tonight, my cousin is making a modest bar mitzvah party for her son, the oldest of 8. This is the first great-grandchild's bar mitzvah for my grandmother, and it comes just after the first yahrtzeit for my grandfather, ob"m. I won't be there, but RaggedyDad is on his way to the party now. I know it will be pretty moving and emotional for my grandmother.

On Shabbos, the bar mitzvah boy will read from the Torah in his community. However, my grandmother will be in another neighborhood, at the bris of the first baby boy born since my grandfather's passing. The baby was born to another cousin (different family) and his wife, the newest member to join the family. I hope the new mother realizes what's riding on this bris!

The level of emotionality surrounding the reaction to the illness and subsequent loss of my grandfather is hard to describe. To say that it has been a genuine heartbreak for every single member of this large extended family is an understatement.

It is a very strong assumption on the part of some of the elder family members that the name given will be my grandfather's. And I would say that there's a good 98% chance that that'll be the case. But when I talk to my grandmother and it's clear that this is a done deal in her mind, inwardly I cringe at the thought of the very remote possibility that another name will be given. Stranger things have happened.

It's rough sometimes, as young parents, feeling that very intense implicit (or explicit sometimes!) pressure to give a particular name. Or to choose between names that both sides feel ought to be given. Or to find that you just don't like the name you feel like you're "supposed" to give.

I can be objective and say that although I hope to have the merit to use it for one of my own kids someday, my grandfather's name is not on any top 10 or maybe even top 50 list of popular Jewish baby names. And the nickname options it provides are extremely limited. With our kids, we were fortunate to be able to go our own route in combining naming for people and ensuring that we actually liked and wanted to use those names / combinations of names. There was also not the same degree of emotional pressure at the times when our kids were born.

Sigh. I really do wish the new parents nachas from the newborn and the confidence and intuition to make the best of this first of many of their own parental choices.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Not too Raggy

It's the end of an era.

The Raggedys are in the midst of preparing to say a fond farewell to our only family car to date, and the car I myself have been driving a few years longer than that.

Our loyal '95 Corolla, affectionately called "Ninety-five" or "Jimmy" for what you have to do to get the driver's side door to open, is ready to be retired to my father. Together, they'll enjoy great gas mileage, a smooth(ish) ride, and if there's ever a famine, there's a Snicker's bar somewhere in the glove, and some splattered stains on the ceiling (!) upholstery from a Coke can that exploded years ago. Those can probably be licked off in desperation.

Today, RaggedyDad shlepped with Ann and her heavy shleppy carseat by subway to Brooklyn in order to bring home The Van. This is the van we've deliberated over for so long as to almost take all the fun out of it. We test drove several vans. We consulted with some experts in the field - a guy from my parent's shul who finds "deals," the very van-astute Mrs. Balabusta, and of course, the Psychic Friends Network.

Actually, Ann and her Papa had quite a big adventure today, van notwithstanding. They took the bus and the subway, which was very new and exciting, to his office near Rockefeller Center. After hanging out "at work" for a little while, it was back on the train to the car dealer in Brooklyn. Afterward, they drove the van home, where thankfully, only one of them (the right one) fell asleep in the shlepped carseat.

As for me, I'm getting adjusted to the new wheels. Sentimental spirit that I am, I'm already a little nostalgic for our former little road-hugging black car. And now I have to learn to drive (and park!!) all over again! So far I've just been assuming that the car is about 5 times bigger than what I'm used to. But, as my eloquent brother said, "If every Shaindy out there can handle driving a van, so can you!"

Monday, May 21, 2007

Dairy Queen

Growing up, I was not a big fan of fleishig (meat) meals. But we had meaty dinners almost every night. My father is just not a lasagna and salad kind of guy. Trying to pull a weekly "pizza night" would have been a sort of unappreciated joke at our home.

But I always wanted dairy. Very rarely would I actually like or not make a fuss over the dinner my mother prepared. More often, I would beg or insist on making myself a dinner of a Lenders bagel with cheese, melted on it in the toaster. Having come to the point of running my own household, I've since apologized many times over to my own mother!

In any case, I really look forward to Shavuos. Or Shavuot. Or Shvi'is as RaggedyDad learned to say it when he was becoming frum in Antwerp. Gaaaah! Too many names! (And that's aside from some of the other descriptive names for the holiday.) "Burning out" (or in this case, self-cleaning) the oven for that yearly switch to a milchig cooking bonanza is one of my most anticipated activities.

Dairy cooking is tricky because I feel like it somehow requires a lot more refrigerator space, though I'm not sure why. I'm not a last-minute person by virtue of the fact that I don't have the strength or time-frame to do things alone, quietly, late at night, and all at once. So I typically do a few things each day.

A kink in my agenda this year came when my downstairs neighbors called to say that their refrigerator and freezer blew out some kind of crucial fuse, and could they transport everything (!) to ours? Luckily they were able to eventually move non-essentials to another neighbor's fridge in an empty apartment across the street, and gradually start keeping fewer things at our place. But for a couple of days we've been so crammed that I couldn't find (or store!) a thing!

RaggedyDad finds it funny when I take photos of things I've cooked. It's not that I sit there and look back on them lovingly. But it is nice to have some remnant of my hard work besides the crumbs! And it's kind of exciting for my two short assistants to look at the photos of their own hard work/major Mommy interfering and mishaps.

This year, the RaggedyClan and their guests can anticipate:

Blintz Souffle:

Eggplant Parmesan (or as Ann calls it - Parmesano Reggiano):

Scalloped Potatoes:

Raspberry Swirl Cheesecake (recipe available and so worth it):

Crumb Cake:

Of course, no holiday cooking is complete without that classic staple of "what to make for dinner the night before" - Spaghetti! This is the second box - the first uncooked box was scattered by Andy all over the then-sticky kitchen floor. Another fun activity for Mommy!

Tomorrow's cooking list consists of flounder, French onion soup, and possibly pasta (although - do we need it? Not sure). Hopefully nobody will be running for the toaster to make any alternate meals (though I'd deserve it)!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Turning Into My . . . !!!!!

Tonight, I sunk to a new low. I realized mid-supper that my food choices were designed around the goal of eliminating clutter from our home by eating remainders of nearly empty containers. You see, tomorrow is recycling pickup, and I want this stuff gone. When Ann's teachers ask for empty bottles and containers, I faithfully and gladly send in all of my empty junk.

The coop where we live has garbage pickup every morning (!) but recycling only weekly, and between our own kids and the two-year-old twins downstairs, that little blue can really fills up to overflowing. Which is not pleasant during the warm, muggy New York weather.

Nearly empty large seltzer bottle - gone. Barely there chocolate spread container - gone (with the help of some bread). Smidge of milk left in the bottle - gone. Peanut butter lingering in the corners and crevices of the Jif jar - sayonara. A few dozen last Cheerios amid a bag of mostly dusty bits - ciao. Not the most well-rounded of meals, but hey, I did also finish some tomatoes that were on their way out. Tonight I was a bit of a human trash bin, and I'm not proud.

RaggedyDad, if you're reading this, I can already hear you saying, "Please don't get overly obsessed by cleaning." Don't worry. There's no danger of that. But we know that I do get into my cleaning spurts. Don't fight it - enjoy it!

I've mentioned before that I grew up in a very neat and orderly environment. I really don't ever remember a mess at home, clutter (besides chachkes - RaggedyDad subtly informed me early on after seeing my parents' home that he wanted minimal chachkes around!), or piles of random things looking for their proper place.

I'm not that kind of homemaker. My kids will have a different backdrop for their memories. Things are neat over here, but in a much more relaxed sort of way. Unlike my mother, I don't dust every morning at the literal crack of dawn, Windex the phone after someone hangs it up, or wash the floors constantly. If there's some disarray, but I can't or don't get to it, I don't mind leaving it overnight. However, I have noticed that I'm taking after her tendency of picking lint off of the carpet. Yikes!

To be fair, as the youngest child in my family, I don't have very clear memories of the cleanliness status during the years when we were all little. My mother has told me that she wasn't as much of a neatnik when we were all younger. It would have been a constant, fruitless effort.

Luckily, my mother's also not the critical type and I generally hear very positive impressions of our home from her. I do have to say that having grown up in a spotless home, I'd rather err on the side of being overly neat. There's something great about always knowing where things are, having a sense of order prevail, and being ready for that unexpected ring of the doorbell at any time! Hopefully, I've also almost managed to reform RaggedyDad's inner slob-man.

There's a little chachke plaque somewhere at my parents' house that says, "Mirror, mirror on the wall. I am my mother after all" that I thought was mildly disturbing. I don't really want to be that much like anybody. As for my mother, I don't look like her at all, but we do have a lot of similar tendencies. Overall I wouldn't mind taking after my mother. Just without the crack of dawn part.

Now excuse me while I go find some more stuff to toss.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Life's a Beach

For the most part, I'm not a big enjoyer of The Beach. This should not be surprising to those who know me nowadays, considering that I am a Very Pale Person. As in, SPF 50+ reapplied constantly. To me, a large, spread-out location with no shade in sight and grainy bits to get into all the food is more of a punishment than a recreation activity.

BUT, in my heart, there is something very nostalgic for me about being at the beach. Until I was five years old, we lived in Israel. Nearly every single day during those years, once my father left for work and my older brothers were off to school, my mother and I would take the bus from our apartment in Givatayim to the beach in Tel Aviv. Sunblocked and hatted, the beach was my daily activity. We would spend the morning there and then hurry home, stopping for a Capri Sun-type drink on the way and getting back before the end of my brothers' short, Israeli school day.

Thankfully, my mother was quite vigilant about my skin even in those years, though I definitely sported a more golden, outdoorsy appearance. I should try to find and scan some pictures from those years. My hair hadn't turned red yet at that age - instead I had two long, blond braids, usually wrapped around my head in a bit of a Scandinavian style. Not a very common look in Israel (this is before the majority of the Russian influx!), and almost hard to believe, considering my own kids and their, shall we say, minimal hair.

Although going to the beach these days is much less fun than it was during those carefree years, I guess that in some ways at my core I am a bit of a beach person. I am also a beach kill-joy, uttering phrases like "Sun Damage!" as extended family and friends show an interest in tanning. And on the rare occasions I'm actually at a beach, I do always feel very, very, very dressed. And definitely not four years old anymore. Sigh.

Until I find some way to reconcile my varied selves regarding the beach, there is a great deal of pleasure in taking the kids to the beach, like I did with my mother and aunt a couple of times last summer.

And when the weather is warming up but not quite there yet, there's always a day at RaggedyBeach. Ann had the terrific idea today that we should dress up for the beach at home. I was thankfully exempt from participating except for as a coordinator. But the little Raggedys got into bathing suits, swim shoes, sun hats, and spread themselves out onto blankets. There was a round of beach tennis and a snack. And no sand in the car.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Work and Play

RaggedyDad finished his finals on Monday, but starts "Summer" classes on Sunday! Yikes! Haven't these people ever heard of Mother's Day?! Plus it was "month-end" for him at work (although it seems like it's always month-end).

We also got some advance cooking and baking done in the house, both for us and for a family we're friends with who just brought home baby #5. It's great living in such a community. I remember what a huge help those weeknight suppers were after Andy was born!

As I wrote in the comments on A Mother in Israel's recent post about kids helping out, Ann and Andy are usually in the thick of everything that goes on over here. The kitchen stepstool is big enough to accomodate them both for now, and they're little enough to be genuinely excited by tasks like checking eggs, pouring sugar, and mixing batter (gently please!)

I try as much as possible to leave no or very few errands for Sunday, since RD is almost never around for the kids' bedtime during the week. We all get about 45 minutes every morning together, since Ann and Andy are early risers, but it's not much. I really dislike the idea of Sunday being devoted to running in and out of stores and other boring tasks.

Instead, we really try to make Sunday about going out and enjoying nature together whenever possible and weather-permitting. Outdoor photos of the kids are the best, and most parklike settings are free, or very reasonably priced.

Sunday was the English calendar date of our engagement, which took place at another nearby park. We came across a pet fair at the same park, complete with cute, cheesy fair activities.

As long as we're getting a good balance of work and play in at the Raggedys, we stay happy . . !

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Pesach Sheini

Six years ago, Pesach Sheini fell out on Sunday, May 6. Until that point, the relatively obscure holiday really held no associations for me, and I'm pretty sure I barely knew what it was. But that year, it became a very special date, and has remained so since. On Pesach Sheini, six years ago, RaggedyDad and I got engaged.

Pesach Sheni (“the Second Pesach”) is celebrated on the 14th of Iyar, a month after the eve of Pesach. The Torah (Bamidbar 9:6-11) re­lates that in the first year after the Exodus, when the Jewish people were preparing to bring the Pesach sacrifice:

There were [certain] men who were impure because [they had come in contact with a] human corpse and they could not bring the Pesach offering on that day. They came before Moshe... and said, “We are un­clean... [but] why should we be held back from bringing the offering of G‑d in its time?...”

And Moshe said to them, “Stand and hear what G‑d will command concerning you.”

G‑d said..., “If any man be impure... or on a distant way [on the day of the Pesach offering]..., he shall sacrifice the Pesach offering to G‑d, in the second month, on the fourteenth day at dusk....”

Anyone who did not bring a Pesach offering, whether be­cause of impurity or even because he had willfully trans­gressed G‑d’s will, was thus given the opportunity to com­pensate for his shortcoming by bringing an offering on Pesach Sheni. (Talmud, Pesachim 93a)


One thing I'll never forget about that day (besides RaggedyDad's proposal) is how my grandfather, of blessed memory, spoke briefly back at my parents' house that night. I can still hear his voice resonating with strength, yet cracking slightly with the emotion he was prone to during such occasions, especially in those years: (paraphrased)

"Those Yidden who were late in the game for various reasons were despondent. 'Me too!' they cried to Moshe. I want to have a part in this, too! [RaggedyDad] likewise insisted, 'Me too!' and sought inclusion into a Torah lifestyle through significant challenge."

He connected RaggedyDad's and my relationship, RaggedyDad's own personal story as a Russian ba'al teshuvah, and the observance of Pesach Sheini in a way that was so poignant and moving.

Happy Engagemaversary, RaggedyDad. Thanks for asking me :)

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Recipe by Request

An anonymous reader recently commented on my post The Great Debate where I discussed the merits of the sweet, pie-shaped matzah brei that I grew up eating.

My father happens to be great in the kitchen, but the combined realities that he works six long days a week, and that my mother is a person who is obsessively neat, clean, and panicked about the mess others cooking in her kitchen would make, the extent to which he actually cooks is limited.

Central to just about every memory from my father's childhood is FOOD. When recollecting something about his parents, his childhood, his past - the conversation always relates back to food. His parents were both concentration camp survivors, and shortly after he was born, they moved from Norway to the very young state of Israel. (Norway was a stop on the way, not a place of origin for anyone in my family)

Those early years meant a lot of physical challenges to survive and make ends meet, often followed by my grandfather (the one from Jaworzno, PT) struggling to acquire or arrange something and likely having to march into one office or another and 'turn over a table.' But of course, afterward, there was always something simple, yet incredible to eat at home. Even in the ma'abara (transit camp), or the one-bedroom apartment with a combination bathroom/kitchen, or later from the gigantic cast-iron, wood-burning oven that came on their 'lift' from Norway.

My father's method for making matzah brei is his own father's method. Over the years, I've tried to learn it as closely as I can. However, it really is one of those things that I have seen done so many times, and still find confusing at some points. Kind of like when my father was trying to teach me how to drive to Brooklyn via the Interboro (Jackie Robinson) versus the Belt Parkway. I had to see it done a couple dozen times before it sunk in.

Readers will see that this matzah brei recipe definitely leads to a fair share of splashing and dripping messes. It seems involved, but is quite simple once you've done it once or twice. Like driving to Brooklyn on the Interboro.

Although this is not a cookbook recipe, my father and I pieced the approximate recipe together as follows:

Use a 10-inch frying pan,. Recipe serves approximately 4 hungry people.

In a bowl, beat 4-5 eggs, and add around a cup of milk (enough to make the eggs more watery than sticky).

In another bowl, place an equal amount of cold water.

Using machine matzahs, break up each matzah approximately into thirds and then each third in half (six approximate squares).

Heat up the dry frying pan. Add oil to hot pan, enough to coat it well, and rotate the pan to coat the sides well, keeping flame to low-medium.

One by one, place each piece of matzah into the water. It is important that you allow the matzah to get lightly softened in the water, but not soaked.

Then dip the wet matzah into the egg mixture.

Layer the pieces in frying pan, going around the pan and gradually building up to the top of the pan in a circular pattern.

While you work, continually take the pan by the handle and jostle the pan vigorously to ensure that the matzah brei is not sticking. This is crucial. If the brei sticks, it will fall apart. If it is getting stuck in spots, scrape the bottom of the matzah brei with a fork and shake the brei loose, keeping it in one solid piece.

Once the pan is full, and you've built the pieces up to the top, cover the frying pan, and bring up the heat a little. Let the matzah brei cook a couple of minutes longer in the steam of the covered pan. Pick up lid and shake matzah brei loose. Cover the pan again and steam cook a little longer, checking to see that it is getting crisp and brown on the bottom.

Place a plate over the pan and turn the matzah brei out onto the plate. The crisp brown bottom should now be on top.

Place more oil into the frying pan and heat the oil on low-medium.

Slide the brei back into the pan, letting it brown on the other side, continuing to shake it loose periodically. Once the second side is brown, turn the matzah brei out onto a plate again. Let it cool for a couple of minutes, and then slice into 4 quarters that are pie-shaped. Toppings are as desired, but we serve it with sugar and/or raspberry jam both on the side, for dipping the cut pieces.