Thursday, January 27, 2005

Kitchen Sink or Swim

When Jody’s 91-year old grandma died suddenly last week, there was no question that Jody would fly to San Diego to be with the family for the week. What was less clear was how I would fare holding down the household by myself.

While I can’t give a first-hand report on what happened in California during Jody’s week abroad (I wasn’t there), I can tell you how we fared back in Jerusalem on our own without Jody...for the first time in more than eight years.

It started as Jody hastened to pack for her last-minute flight at midnight. A teary Merav confided in her.

“What the matter, boo?” Jody asked. “Are you feeling sad that Grandma died?”

Eleven-year-old Merav nodded, then added: “I’m afraid,”

“Oh sweetie, nothing’s going to happen to me,” Jody replied, reading between the lines.

“No,” she clarified. “I’m afraid that Abba won’t know how to take care of us!

Ouch. That’s got to hurt. But it wasn’t fair. Not entirely, at least. I know how to take care of lots of things around the house. I already put the kids to bed many nights and my tuck-ins are renowned all over the Internet.

I can wash the dishes, do the laundry and carpool as good as the best of them. Darn the clich├ęs if I’m not a regular Mr. Mom.

But there’s one area where I fully admit my proficiency is lacking:

Food preparation.

Oh, I have a few dishes I make when asked. Who could forget my famous matzomelettes at Pesach time? And remember my unique black bug cholent?

But a whole week of responsibility for menus was more than a little intimidating. Perhaps fearing a diet consisting of nothing but Bissli and Krembo (not that there’s anything wrong with that), Merav - always eager to be of assistance - picked up the gauntlet.

“It’s OK, Abba. I’ll help you.”

And help she did...along with the rest of the kids. As we took charge of of the kitchen, we knew that keeping things simple but healthy would determine whether we'd sink or swim.

For the first night’s dinner, we followed Jody’s recipe for lentils and rice. I tossed a big green salad, thirteen-year-old Amir made the salad dressing while Merav baked up some chocolate chip cookies.

Sure, the lentils were a bit crunchy and we ran out of tomatoes for the salad, but still, we were off to a good start.

Second night: it was Brian’s Everything-Leftover-from-Shabbat-in-a-Pita extravaganza. I scrambled up some eggs, mixed in what was left of Friday night’s chicken, potatoes, added some mushrooms, onions and maybe one too many heads of garlic for good luck.

The kids, remarkably, loved it!

Feeling momentarily plucky, I took the plunge.

“I’m going to make Friday night dinner,” I announced. “The whole thing, chicken, potatoes, chicken soup.”

“With matza balls?” six-year-old Aviv asked.

“Don’t push your luck, kid,” I smirked back.

“Do you even know how to make chicken?” Amir asked.

“No. But how hard could it be?”

In order to cook a chicken, first you have to buy a chicken. It was time for a trip to the supermarket anyway. I pulled out one of the computer-generated shopping lists that Jody uses and started to check off items we needed.

Cucumbers, check. Milk, check. Oreos, check.

“Imma doesn’t usually buy us Oreos,” Merav said, looking over my shoulder.

“You got a problem with that?”

She quickly retreated.

I finished the list and, before we set off, made a phone call to arrange the next day’s carpool with Reba and Dan, parents of one of Merav’s friends.

“Wow, I’m impressed,” Reba said. “I think if I ever left Dan alone with the kids, he’d just order pizza every day.”

“Seriously, what’s the point of living in Jerusalem if you can’t order kosher take out?” Dan shot back.

For me, though, it had become very important project a sense of normalcy while Jody was gone. I had something to prove by not ordering from Burger Ranch. If not to Jody and the kids, then to myself.

At the supermarket, Merav and Aviv were remarkable. Aviv pushed the basket and Merav played tour guide, translating at the cheese counter and picking out exactly the type of juices we usually buy.

Our only real fashla was that, while I had dutifully checked off everything we needed on the list, I hadn’t noted the quantity.

“How many apples do you think we need for the week?” I asked Merav.

She did a quick mental calculation – three kids times six days minus two days for oranges, plus a fruit salad one night: “Ten, I think,” Merav replied.

“Right, I’ll get 12 just to be sure.”

When we got to the check out counter, we carefully unloaded the definitely-more-than-seven-items we’d purchased (no express line for the Blum family) as we watched the register display start to climb with every item the cashier swiped. 400, 450, 550 shekels…

“Imma never goes over 750 shekels,” Merav reminded me.

“It’s OK. we’re getting near the end…I think.”

600, 685, 720...

I was starting to sweat.

“We can blame it on all the dried fruits and nuts we had to get,” I said, referring to the goodies we had bought for the Tu B’Shvat holiday.

“That and the chocolate brownie bars,” Merav winked.

“Hey, that was a necessity. I’m under a lot of stress here.”

The cashier rung up the last item. The total: a high but still respectable 811 shekels (just under $200).

We bagged our own groceries, transferred them into the trunk of the car, unloaded them again in our garage, carried them up the stairs to our third floor apartment, and packed them into the fridge.

“Man, how does Imma do this every week?” I asked to no one in particular. “Just going shopping is like a full time job.”

Merav shot me a withering look.

Friday night’s dinner, I am happy to report, was just like Imma’s. OK, so I bought twice as much chicken as we needed and used up three times as much sauce. And Jody never told me that I was supposed to add water to the soup during while it simmered during the day.

The next two days passed uneventfully in the kitchen. Amir and I made tuna melts one night, pasta another. And then Jody was back.

We all went out to the airport to meet her. After filling us in everything that had happened in California in the car on the ride home, Jody asked “ did it go here?”

“Great!” came the group response.

“Did you miss me?”

“A little,” Merav said.

But the truth was, we had met what seemed a week earlier to be an insurmountable challenge...and lived to tell the tale.

“Of course we missed you,” I said to Jody, “but you know what, we learned something really important. That we could actually function on our own without being totally dependent on you. That we can work together and take care of each other.

“Not that we don’t like you taking care of us,” Merav added.

“Right,” I said. “But it was a nice thing to know.”

“Abba did good,” Merav said. “I’m so proud of him.”

“And I’m so proud of you all,” Jody said, touching my hand on the steering wheel.

“Me too,” I said. “Me too.”

Friday, January 21, 2005

The Bible Quiz

Eleven-year-old Merav’s counselor from Scouts called a week ago on a Sunday night. “We’re having a bible quiz on Tuesday,” she explained to Merav. “I know it’s not a lot of notice. But would you be interested in representing us?”

Merav didn’t hesitate. And for the next hour, the two of them were cramming on the phone together, reviewing material that might be on the test, practicing potential answers.

They were back on the phone together the next night. And the night after.

It was a remarkable site. A bible opened on Merav’s bed rather than the usual Harry Potter. And she was so into it.

“Abba,” Merav asked me at one point, coming up for air. “Do you know a lot about Moses?”

“Um,” I stammered. “Well, a little bit...why?”

She then proceeded to grill me on questions that were way beyond the scope of knowledge of her late-to-observance father. She stumped me every time.

I was so proud.

After all, isn’t this is one of the main reasons we'd moved to Israel. So we could be shown up by our kids. In their knowledge of the Bible. In their command of Hebrew. In their more than passing familiarity with the nooks and crannies of the land.

On the day of the quiz, we all assembled in the troupe’s club house, a mostly empty room with smelly bathrooms in one corner. From the moment we entered, the room was buzzing.

OK, more than buzzing.

Campers were cheering on their representatives, chanting, doing hand claps. Some groups had painted their faces. Merav had stripes of green on one cheek and white on the other. Her friend Michal had green arms too.

Clearly, this was not going to be some staid Bible Quiz like the ones you see on the state-run TV.

At the front of the room, eight campers were sitting at a long table. They ranged in age from Merav’s eleven all the way up to fourteen. A lanky kid in Scouts-standard khaki, not that much older than the rest, was to ask each camper his or her own unique question.

Merav was first.

“How was Jethro related to Moses?”

Ha! One of those Moses wonder Merav had asked before. But I knew this one. And so did Merav. Jethro was Moses’ father-in-law.


Her fellow campers went wild. “Merav! Merav! Merav!” they chanted.

Merav sat quietly while the other campers answered their questions. All correct, too.

Question #2:

“Which of the following is true about King David?

A. He had blond hair;
B. He came to power after the previous king, Saul, died; or
C. He was a shepherd.

Well, everyone knows David was a red head not a blondini. And for sure he was a shepherd.. But what about the business about the king...David did come after Saul. But had Saul already passed away?

Merav gave her answer: C – he was a shepherd.

Right again.

Two girls had painted “Merav” in enormous Hebrew letters on a long banner and were now parading it just in front of the table while the chanting and cheering continued.

The campers answered their questions. One little boy missed his second question. And then another slipped up too.

Time for the third and final question. Another one about Saul and David.

“When the youth comes running to David to tell him that Saul and Jonathan had died, how did the youth know they were dead?”

This time, though, Merav was a tentative. Her answer was much more a whisper. “The boy killed Saul,” she said, then looked at the boy in charge.

Something about his face said to her that she had gotten this one wrong. She quickly changed her response. “Um...he was there when they died.”

This would prove to be her undoing. And she knew it. The color had already drained out of her face as the boy in charge informed her that her first answer had in fact been the right one. He was gracious, though. The second answer was technically correct.

“Half a point,” he said.

But it was too late. When the votes were tallied up, Merav was out. She left the stage, fighting back tears as she tried to slip unnoticed into a corner of the room, face to the wall.

The movement of her shoulders said it all.

But her fellow campers didn’t pick up on it, at least not immediately. They stormed her, bellowing enthusiastic congratulations, trying to high-five her.

Jody and I didn’t know whether to step in and comfort her, or maintain a safe distance. Jody made what I thought was an almost imperceptible move but Merav caught it and motioned her away. She knew the child’s secret creed: the second Mom comes close, you lose it.

Which is what she did on the way back home.

“We’re so proud of you, honey,” Jody said to her sobbing daughter.

“But I lost,” Merav whimpered.

“Lost? Are you kidding?” I said. “You were amazing.”

“None of your friends had the guts to do what you did,” Jody added.

“That’s true...” Merav said. “They didn't join because they were too afraid to lose.”

She reflected on this for a moment, then added: “But I did lose,” and buried her head in her hands.

“Says who?” I responded. “As far as we’re concerned, the important thing is got up there and you tried!”

“I did, didn’t I?” Merav said, brightening slightly.

“More than that, you took a risk. And you weren’t afraid."

“Yeah, I wasn’t really afraid when I was answering the questions!”

“And next year...”

Next year?” Merav looked shocked.

“Well, yeah, next year," I said. "Now you’ll know exactly what to expect.”

A slight grin settled over Merav. I don’t think there will be any question that Merav will step up the plate again. Because in the test of true courage, our eleven-year-old was already a big winner.

This week's story is dedicated to Jody's grandmother, Charlotte Fox, who passed away this week at the age of 91. She loved her great grand-daughter Merav and would have been very proud of her.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The Tupperware Bra

Have you ever wondered what a Tupperware Party is all about? I know I have...I mean, I’ve heard the term for years. But when I think about it, I always conjure up an absurd image of 1950s-era housewives in fancy party dresses drinking, laughing and flirting while fondling dumpy plastic containers with that funny name...Tupperware.

I can barely keep a straight face.

So when Jody announced that we were throwing a Tupperware Party at our house, I jumped at the chance to meet and mingle with Israel’s version of The Stepford Wives.

Plus, Jody informed me that the highlight of the event was that we would actually cook something using the Tupperware products. And as hosts, we’d get a free gift.

A party with real food and even party favors...I could get into that!

The party was called for 8:30 PM. The organizer, Rivka, arrived shortly before that and began laying out the table full of plastic bowls, salt shakers and ribbed salad crispers, all with the famous Tupperware airtight “burp” system that ensures that food stays fresh longer.

No more stale soup nuts. No more runny cucumbers (hey, maybe I should be writing Tupperware ad copy).

Even so, the stuff was remarkably hi-tech. And in pretty cool colors too.

“They make a great wedding gift,” Rivka stated brightly.

Apparently, Tupperware has come a long way from the days when inventor Earl Tupper was looking for a way to take his WWII experience with plastics into the booming post-war consumer market.

But when his products didn’t sell well at retail (the patented Tupperware seal required hands-on demonstration), Tupper made an even more successful invention: the home party. It’s been going strong now since 1951.

Even with prices known to be on the high end for plasticware, Tupperware has grown into a $1.1 billion company that now reaches over 100 markets around the world with products geared to local interests. There’s even a Tupperware “Bento Box” in Japan.

However, back in our exotic little corner of the world, it was now 9:00 PM and we were still waiting for the guests to arrive. 9:30 rolled around. Rivka was keeping her cool, but even by Israeli standards, this was pushing it.

I called the kids out of their rooms to fill in the non-existent numbers.

“What’s that?” eleven-year-old Merav asked as she scoped out the table and spied a container with a greenish liquid in it.

“Here, catch!” Rivka called and tossed the container at Merav. She caught it, fortunately, but apparently it wouldn’t have made a difference. This Tupperware olive marinater was, like many Tupper products, guaranteed to never spill...or your money back.

“Here, Amir, look sharp!” I called and threw a plastic container with what looked like flour in it at our thirteen-year-old.

“No, stop!” Rivka yelled. “Only the round ones are guaranteed spill-free.”

Oops...” I muttered as the container thudded on the table, forgivingly staying shut.

“Maybe I should start,” Rivka said. I glanced at the clock which was now pushing 10:00 PM, and we all nodded in agreement. Rivka began her round-the-table description of all the assembled items, referring frequently to her Israeli-produced catalog.

And I thought: imagine that: Tupperware in Hebrew. If that doesn’t say something about where we’ve come as a nation, I don’t know what does.

We got to see a cereal holder that filled from the bottom. “So you never have to put new cereal in on top of the old stale stuff,” Rivka explained.

There was a long and skinny container Rivka said was perfect for half-open packages of spaghetti. A cake icing squeezer with five different nozzles. A mini-strainer for oils and sugar.

“What’s this?” Amir asked holding up a weirdly shaped red rubber contraption. “Is this plastic too?”

“This one is made of silicone,” Rivka said.

“I think it’s a bra!” I joked, pretending to try it on.

“It’s for baking in the microwave,” Rivka scolded, trying to hide the slightest disdain in her voice. Then deftly changing the subject, she chirped: “Which is what we’re going to do right now!”

“I still think it looks like a bra,” I muttered under my breath.

Meanwhile, Rivka got out her recipe for vegan egg-less brownies, took the container with the flour and poured it into a deep white bowl, added in some oil (from another definitely spill-proof container) and mixed in powdered sugar and chocolate with her special Tupperware soft spatula.

She then scooped the mixture into the red rubber, microwave baking dish.

“See, nothing stays stuck to the side of the bowl,” Rivka announced happily.

Merav surveyed the bowl and, seeing there was scant left to lick, demanded “What’s the point of that?”

The cake mix went into the microwave for eight minutes and then, voila, out it came, a perfect cake. No fuss, no muss. And pretty tasty too!

After we’d eaten our fill, the kids lost interest and I got a phone call. By the time I came back to the kitchen table, Rivka was gone, the party was over, and Jody was sitting with a pile of Tupperware in front of her.

“Can we afford this?” I asked.

“They were on sale,” Jody said sheepishly.

“Did we at least get our free gift?”

Jody held up a small, strangely-shaped spoon with a spiky edge.

Still, I have to admit, I’d been sold too. This Tupperware stuff was pretty nifty.

And even though the evening itself may have been a bit of a bust, there’s always a bright side. At least our kids won’t have to wonder their whole lives what a Tupperware party is...or what the heck that weird silicon bra-thingie does.

Rivka throws a mean Tupperware party and they're usually standing room only. To have her bake a cake in your house, contact her by clicking here.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Formal Attire

The invitation to Shaya and Benny’s wedding read: “Formal attire.”

Formal attire? What the heck is formal attire?

In Israel we are masters of casual comfort. We dress down everywhere we go, including weddings, particular at weddings. You want to keep it loose so you can dance and not feel restricted by a tie and a coat.

Still, it would be rude to just ignore a dress code advisory printed in bold type on the invitation itself. And it’s not like I don’t have a suit.

This, it turned out, was only the first of an evening of surprises and confounded expectations.

For example, the invitation went on to list the wedding’s venue: The Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue, which, contrary to its name, has in my experience been anything but great.

The main sanctuary is imposing, to be sure, but the last time we’d attended a function there, the wedding hall downstairs was over-lit from too many tacky chandeliers, drafty and lacking any distinguishing Jerusalem touches other than an imposing mechitza separating the men and women during dancing.

The chicken and potatoes, as I recall, were rubbery and decidedly run-of-the-mill.

None of this sounded like the kind of wedding we’d expect from a girl who’d grown up in Berkeley, where newlyweds routinely inform their guests that “no animals were harmed at our nuptials” while standing barefoot beneath a tie-dyed chuppah in Tilden Park, to be followed by a gourmet vegan barbeque buffet.

OK, so Shaya was marrying an Israeli, but you don’t shed your Berkeley adherence to alternative rites of passage and political correctness that easily.

Just the same, the evening started out on a high note. It was wonderful to be reunited with Shaya’s family, many of whom we hadn’t seen since we left for Israel ten years ago.

And, to my further delight, the food was really quite good. There was a hot hors d’oeuvres station with a cook slicing up fresh shwarma during the reception (that wasn’t too out of place, after all, I knew Shaya had eaten meat for some time now).

The ceremony itself was dignified and emotional.

Then it was time to head downstairs for dinner and dancing. I braced myself for blandness.

The hall didn’t look anything like I remembered. The place was decked out like a disco. The chandeliers had been switched off and a sophisticated lighting system had been installed, bathing the room with alternating blasts of pastel pink, green and gold.

A mirror ball glittered the dance floor with twirling sparks. There wasn’t a mechitza anywhere in sight.

Instead, there was a video camera mounted on an enormous, hydraulically-powered TV studio-quality boom that was swinging back and forth, upwards and down across the dance floor like one of Doc Ock’s tentacles

But perhaps most surprising was the hi-tech bar just under the stage where the band was performing. Staffed by a chic and very secular staff in short black t-shirts, they served up non-alcoholic fruit shakes (well, that’s what they said at least).

And all I could think was: are we still in the Great Synagogue?

Shaya and Benny entered from the yichud room after about 30 minutes, and the 350 mostly religious guests erupted into spirited circle dancing, men in one group, women in another.

The band – Adom Atik who I’ve praised previously in these pages – played their usual eclectic mix of simcha music, Israeli rock standards and Clapton-esque guitar licks.

We were half way through the first round of dancing when a boisterous group of about 30 newcomers stormed the dance floor. The men were bare-headed in jeans and open shirts (not a tie among them); the women in the most revealing of belly shirts and tank tops. Everyone was carrying a lit cigarette.

They formed an island of their own positioned between the men’s and women’s circles. They techno-grinded like they’d stumbled into a full moon rave on Goa's Tel Aviv Beach.

Then, two of the guys stripped one of the dinner tables of its tablecloth, cutlery and linen napkins and rolled it into the center of the dance floor. A stocky man with a shaved head and a manic look in his eyes climbed on top while the others lifted the table into the air and attempted to fling him skyward.

As I watched, I found myself more confused than ever. So the wedding wasn’t anything like what I expected. But what were crashers? Is this something that happens routinely in Israeli ceremonies I just wasn’t aware of? Maybe they were checking out the hall for some future event and had just gotten carried away by the music.

And then they mobbed Benny and Shaya, hugging Benny like a brother. Apparently, they did know each other.

As Benny’s buddies circulated into the crowd, the band rocked into a disco-fied version of the Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Running.” Any semblance of separate sex dancing was lost now.

I grabbed Jody and we danced together, like two giddy teenagers, both of us marveling at the surprises the night had brought and how such different worlds – Berkeley, Israel, religious and secular – could converge so seamlessly...and with so much fun.

As the music died down and we headed to the dessert buffet, it suddenly occurred to me that the exhortation for formal attire on Shaya and Benny’s wedding invitation wasn’t so out of place after all. It was actually quite purposeful and directed.

It just wasn’t meant for us.