Dazed and confused? Not me. I’m just Lost in the Cheese Aisle.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

HE’S DEAD, JIM

Leonard Nimoy, RIP
The late Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, striking his famous split-fingered pose in a 1960’s vintage publicity shot.

When you reach a certain age, you come to realize that life is impermanent. You attend funerals ever more frequently, but you are comforted by the knowledge that if you are at such an event, you are there either as a guest or as the Guest of Honor... and most of us prefer the former. The little threads that make up the background tapestry of our lives begin to fray as the icons of our popular culture disappear into the Great Unknown, one by one.

Star Trek TV Guide Cover - March 4, 1967Those are some of the thoughts I had upon hearing of the passing of Leonard Nimoy several days ago. Smoking-related COPD did him in at the age of 83 despite his having quit the habit decades ago, alas.

Nimoy, of course, is best known as the actor who portrayed the implacable and ever-logical Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek series, a role that both bedeviled and enriched him and which he came to accept, in his later years, with a certain amount of resigned and self-deprecating humor. It was in that unlikely role that he left his permanent imprint on American culture, what with his Vulcan catchphrase “Live Long and Prosper” (accompanied by a split-fingered hand gesture lifted directly from that used by the ancient Israelite priests as they bestowed their Priestly Blessing); his Vulcan Nerve-Pinch; and his emotionless reliance on logic.

The Audi ad below features both Nimoy and Zachary Quinto, his successor as Mr. Spock in the rebooted Star Trek movie franchise. It hits all the high notes of Treknis, even incorporating a sly reference to Nimoy’s infamous Bilbo Baggins video.



There was, of course, a lot more to Leonard Nimoy than the pointy-eared alien alter ego that brought him the most renown. He played numerous other roles in TV venues as diverse as Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Mission: Impossible, Rawhide, and Sea Hunt; as well as in films: The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Them! just to name a few. He was a poet, a gifted photographer (his controversial book Shekhina was an exploration of spirituality and the feminine aspect of the Eternal, mainly by way of photographing women clad in phylacteries and little else), and, perhaps less successfully, a singer. Regardless, he was a man in full... and he will be sorely missed.

Spocky Music
Ditching this would have been logical.
Ave atque vale, Leonard. The Star Trek-derived term “Final Frontier” will be used again and again as pajama-clad Online Journalists try to come up with appropriate phrases to include in their various tributes and encomiums, but what’s wrong with that? You have finally crossed that Final Frontier from which none of us ever return, and may your exploration of the Undiscovered Country beyond it be a happy one... despite happiness being the kind of illogical emotion with which Mr. Spock would have little acquaintance.

Postscriptum: My friend Kevin Kim’s take on Nimoy’s passing is here.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

AN EVENING WITH MARGIE, or
THE GREAT FUCKO MYSTERY

I’m down in Florida right now visiting with my Aunt Margie, who has recently relocated to what is known in these parts as an independent living residence.

There is an orderly progression in these matters. When everyday life in one’s own residence gets to be too challenging, one relocates to independent living. When medical issues dictate additional levels of help with the tasks of daily life, the next transition is to assisted living. When that is still not enough, the next stop is the nursing home, AKA “very assisted living.” One of our doctor friends has characterized the residential progression as “Go-Go - Slow-Go - No-Go.”

Margie still has all her shit in one sock, to use a vulgar expression: Her main issue is difficulty in walking, with the attendant risk of falling. Fortunately, she is a wisp of a thing, and when she falls she generally doesn’t get too banged up. But you do not want to (Gawd forbid) break a hip, and so it is best to be in an environment where you have plenty of help getting around.

We had a delightful home-cooked meal this evening: roasted sausage and grapes in a wine reduction, steamed artichokes with melted butter, tossed salad, and a nice Merlot. And, as always, good food brings out the stories.

I love Margie’s stories. Back in the day, she was one of my mother’s closest friends, a connection that ended up with her marrying my mother’s elder brother - Uncle Phil! - and becoming family. And now, with both my mother and Uncle Phil gone, those long-buried stories are getting more and more interesting.

Margie grew up in Atlantic City during the latter days of Nucky Johnson’s reign, moving to Brooklyn when she was a mere sprat of nine years. And right away, she discovered that Brooklyn people sounded different when they talked. One of her young friends, on their morning walk to school, announced that she wanted a “fucko.”

Not wanting to appear ignorant, my little Margie did not ask exactly what said “fucko” was. That was a question she saved until she got home, lobbing it out as her mother was mixing the water for Margie’s bath by swishing her hand back and forth in the tub to blend the water from the separate hot and cold taps. The shocking enquiry caused said hand to stop dead in the water. “Don’t use that word. It’s not nice!”

But the Great Fucko Mystery was resolved the following week, when Margie’s friend showed up for the post-luncheon walk back to school... wearing a brand-new rabbit coat. “Look, I finally got my fucko!” she said, with a runway twirl.

Fucko, indeed. Is it any wonder I’m crazy about my Auntie?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

DEAN MARTIN MEETS H. P. LOVECRAFT

Fhtagn-Dazs
 [Sung to the tune of That’s Amore]

When the Old Ones, asleep, lie in wait in the deep
Cthulhu fhtagn
When you lie in your bed with your mind filled with dread
Cthulhu fhtagn

Elder Things – ring-a-ding a-ding, ring-a-ding a-ding
They don’t like you
And when you hear their call you will fall
Madness strikes you

When that vile protoplasm crawls out of its chasm
Cthulhu fhtagn
Then your mind, it will crack - you’ll be some shoggoth’s snack
O, the pain

When the Old Ones stop dreaming, that’s when you start screaming
O, R’lyeh!
’Cause when you hear their greetin’ you’ll be first to be eaten
(That’s scare-ray!)

[More Cthulhu-related foolishness here.]

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Friday, February 13, 2015

ASCENSION DAY

Eli at Shabbat services, December 2012
Eli (z''l) attends Shabbat services at the Veterans Home, December 2012.

In Jewish tradition, a person mourns a deceased relative for a prescribed period: A seven-day period of intense bereavement (shiva) is followed by thirty days (sh’loshim) during which certain restrictions are observed. A mourner does not go to movies, concerts, or other amusements; males typically do not shave. In addition, the mourner recites Kaddish.

Kaddish yatom - the form of Kaddish recited by mourners - does not mention death or loss. It is a doxology, a verbal expression of praise to God. In its various forms, Kaddish is used as a sort of punctuation for worship, indicating a transition between one part of the service and another. It’s not obvious why Kaddish should have especial significance for mourners, but perhaps it is because the highest evidence of one’s love for God is the ability to speak His praise after suffering loss.

The customs one observes for mourning a parent are different than those for other relatives. One mourns for a full year, not just thirty days - but recites Kaddish daily for only eleven months of that year. Why stop at eleven months? The Sages believed that the souls of the deceased endure a year-long period of judgment after death, but that only the wicked are judged for the full year, the righteous presumably being allowed to ascend to Olam ha-Ba - the Next World - after only eleven months. The implicit presumption is therefore that one’s parents, because they are emphatically not wicked, only need eleven months of human intercession for their souls.

Both my parents would have dismissed all of that as complete mumbo-jumbo. They were very aware - and proud - of their Jewish identity, whilst simultaneously being quite irreligious.

My Dad - Eli, hizzownself, of blessèd memory - would inevitably decline my invitations to attend morning Minyan with me on those infrequent occasions when he would visit us in Atlanta. “It’s not my thing,” he would protest. But in the last years of his life, after he suffered the stroke that eventually landed him in the Long Island State Veterans Home, he found religion of a sort, deriving a measure of enjoyment from the Sabbath services a visiting rabbi would conduct Friday mornings. “I can’t stand all that Hebrew,” he would tell me, “but I really like how the rabbi explains the weekly Torah portion.”
* * *

Today was the last day of my eleven-month Kaddish recitation period. I marked the occasion by leading the morning service and then taking the Minyan Boyz out to breakfast afterward... a small “thank you” for being present in sufficient numbers to enable me to fulfill my obligation of reciting Kaddish. The next time I say Kaddish for Dad will be at his Yahrzeit, the anniversary of his passing, a month from now. 

If I truly believed in all of my ancestral traditions, I would be able to take comfort in the knowledge that this is the day on which my father’s soul finally is granted permission to ascend to the Next Level of post-Earthly existence. But that doesn’t comfort me much... because I am a skeptic, and I know mumbo-jumbo when I see it. And Dad would agree.

No: I take comfort in knowing that my Dad had a long and (mostly) happy life, and that he instilled in me a certain love for my family, my country, and the people I come from. And I take comfort in knowing about my people’s traditions, even if I am generally not scrupulous about following all of our rules and regulations. (I like to be educated so that I know what laws I am violating at any given moment.) I am grateful that he was who he was, and that in his final years he himself was comforted by my visits and the memories we would share.

Ave atque vale, Daddy. I’ll never forget you.

UH-OH

Churchy Panic
Churchy LaFemme, famous triskadeikaphobe. Borrowed from an early 1970’s Pogo strip.

Yes, it’s Friday, and as Churchy LaFemme was wont to exclaim, “Gyack! Friday the 13th come on a Friday this month!”

The late Walt Kelly, creator of Pogo (one of the great comic strips of the twentieth century, for you young ’uns) used to milk this gag regularly, no matter what day of the week the thirteenth actually landed on. When it actually coincided with a Friday, well then.

If you are a confirmed triskadeikaphobe, stay home. But everyone knows that the fourteenth - specifically, February 14 - is waaaay scarier than any Friday the Thirteenth.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

THE CONVENTIONEER: A 100-WORD STORY

Phil trudged down the dingy Motel 6 hallway, scanning the doors for his room. Ah, there: 202.

He always reserved Room 202 whenever he could. The desk clerks understood. Fucking sympathy, Phil thought. They knew, and Phil knew that they knew, that he had seen better days.

Once he had been a celebrity, regularly seen on national TV hobnobbing with a phalanx of top-hatted gentlemen. But climate change and a string of bad predictions killed that. Now it was DragonCon. Bullshit.

Pulling a tattered copy of The Book of Marmot from the nightstand, Punxsutawney Phil settled in for the night.

Monday, February 2, 2015

DIES MARMOTA MONAX REDUX

Groundhog Day
©2006 King Features Syndicate.

Or, the Day of the Land-Beaver. Groundhog Day.

To call Groundhog Day an actual holiday may be a bit excessive. Nobody gets the day off, nobody gets time-and-a-half, no special festive meals are prepared and consumed. Call it, rather, a Folk Celebration... and a rather ridiculous one at that, in which a bloated marmot is assumed to have weather prognosticative abilities. Statistics would seem to indicate otherwise.

I’d say, “Only in America,” but that’d be inaccurate. Our Canadian friends observe this silly-ass occasion, too.

The day received a shot in the arm from the eponymous 1993 film, in which Bill Murray’s character, a newsman sent to cover the festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, relives February 2 over and over again until he “gets it right.” [By “gets it right,” the film script apparently means “figures out how not to be a Gaping Asshole any more.”]

I‘d be horrified at the prospect of reliving one day over and over again. Like this guy:



Thank goodness everyone knows that’s impossible...




Groundhog Day
©2006 King Features Syndicate.

Or, the Day of the Land-Beaver. Groundhog Day.

To call Groundhog Day an actual holiday may be a bit excessive. Nobody gets the day off, nobody gets time-and-a-half, no special festive meals are prepared and consumed. Call it, rather, a Folk Celebration... and a rather ridiculous one at that, in which a bloated marmot is assumed to have weather prognosticative abilities. Statistics would seem to indicate otherwise.

I’d say, “Only in America,” but that’d be inaccurate. Our Canadian friends observe this silly-ass occasion, too.

The day received a shot in the arm from the eponymous 1993 film, in which Bill Murray’s character, a newsman sent to cover the festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, relives February 2 over and over again until he “gets it right.” [By “gets it right,” the film script apparently means “figures out how not to be a Gaping Asshole any more.”]

I‘d be horrified at the prospect of reliving one day over and over again. Like this guy:



Thank goodness everyone knows that’s impossible...




Groundhog Day
©2006 King Features Syndicate.

Or, the Day of the Land-Beaver. Groundhog Day.

To call Groundhog Day an actual holiday may be a bit excessive. Nobody gets the day off, nobody gets time-and-a-half, no special festive meals are prepared and consumed. Call it, rather, a Folk Celebration... and a rather ridiculous one at that, in which a bloated marmot is assumed to have weather prognosticative abilities. Statistics would seem to indicate otherwise.

I’d say, “Only in America,” but that’d be inaccurate. Our Canadian friends observe this silly-ass occasion, too.

The day received a shot in the arm from the eponymous 1993 film, in which Bill Murray’s character, a newsman sent to cover the festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, relives February 2 over and over again until he “gets it right.” [By “gets it right,” the film script apparently means “figures out how not to be a Gaping Asshole any more.”]

I‘d be horrified at the prospect of reliving one day over and over again. Like this guy:



Thank goodness everyone knows that’s impossible...

[Previously posted here on February 2, 2011.]

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

INTERPRETATION REDUX

Some of my Esteemed Readers may recall that in the fall of 2012, when Superstorm Sandy was bearing down on the Northeast, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s emergency management news conferences included the presence of one Lydia Callis, whose highly animated and expressive signing effectively stole the show from Hizzoner.

Here it is just a little over two years later, and with another major Weather-Related Disaster bearing down on Gotham, we have another New York City Mayor - this time, it’s Bill de Blasio - who has found an ASL interpreter who is, if such a thing is possible, even more animated than Ms. Callis. Lookee:



I will be astonished - and maybe a bit disappointed - if SNL does not pick this one up and run with it just as they did last time.

[Tip o’ th’ Snow-Laden Fedora to The Other Elisson, who turned me on to this little nugget of newsly information.]

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

THE ANTISEPTICS OF YESTERYEAR, or
THE PINK BADGE OF COURAGE

Médecin, n’enquerez de sepmaine
Où elles sont, ne de cest an,
Qu’à ce refrain ne vous remaine:
Mais où sont les antiseptiques d’antan?

[mes excuses à François Villon]

Back in our collective Snot-Nose Days, no medicine chest or first-aid kit was complete without a little bottle of antiseptic, something that could be daubed on those all-too-frequent scrapes and bruises to prevent them from becoming little hotbeds of purulence.

Television ads touted two of the more popular items: Bactine and Unguentine, two completely different products despite the common -ine suffix. Bactine, originally developed in postwar Germany by the same nice folks at Bayer that gave us aspirin and heroin, was (and still is) a liquid antiseptic containing benzalkonium chloride as the active germ-fighting ingredient and lidocaine for topical pain relief. Unguentine, as its name suggests, was (and is) an ointment containing camphor, phenol, tannic acid, and zinc oxide. I’m guessing that the phenol was the main bug-killer while camphor provided the pleasant medicinal aroma. Maybe they stuck the zinc oxide in so you could also slather it on your nose by way of a sunscreen.

We didn’t use either of those fancy-pants medicaments. No, not us. The Elisson clan was Old-School.

First in our antiseptical armamentarium was good old Tincture of Iodine, a solution of elemental iodine and sodium iodide in alcohol. Owing mainly to the alcohol, iodine tincture stung like a bastard when it was applied to an open wound. For that reason alone, most kids hated it... but the powerful halogen pong - the very definition of “antiseptic smell” - was a bonus.

People still use iodine as an antiseptic. It’s extremely effective, and newer formulations like Betadine that contain iodophors like povidone iodine (a complex of elemental iodine with polyvinylpyrrolidone) are not nearly as sting-y or stinky.

The other Big Gun in our ancient first-aid kits was a fluorescent pink medication: Merthiolate. Merthiolate is a trade name for sodium ethyl mercury thiosalicylate, AKA thiomersal (frequently spelled thimerosal in the United States), still used as a preservative in some vaccines... but no longer sold as a topical antiseptic in this country owing to concerns over the fact that it is an organomercury compound and thus potentially toxic if misused. A sister compound, Mercurochrome (dibromohydroxymercurifluorescein, AKA merbromin), was equally popular - and is now equally unavailable here.

Purex Tincture Merthiolate
My ancient bottle of Purex Tincture Merthiolate, still useful for the occasional cut or scrape.

Back in the day, nobody was worried about potential mercury poisoning - never mind that you would literally have to take a bath in Merthiolate for it to be toxic. Every scraped knee or skinned elbow was decorated with that familiar pink fluorescent color. It stung just like iodine when it was applied, although it didn’t have that iodiney funk. No matter. We kids wore the pink badge of courage proudly: It meant that we were out playing and getting banged up, rather than living mushroom-lives indoors, watching TV.

Not for us, that wimpy Bactine or prissy Unguentine. We glowed in the dark with our Merthiolated and Mercurochromed wounds.

As noted above you can’t buy that stuff now, at least not in the United States. But I still have a little bottle of Purex Tincture of Merthiolate squirreled away in my medicine cabinet. It’s probably somewhat north of 40 years old now, but there’s still some of that fluorescent pink crap in there... and I still daub it on my boo-boos, just for Old Times’ Sake.

Monday, January 12, 2015

FRACTAL FOOD

Romanesco
Romanesco. Is it broccoli? Is it cauliflower? Or just a mathematician’s wet dream?

The other day while I was browsing for some evening provender at Whole Paycheck Foods, a pile of Romanesco caught my eye.

It was a bizarre bit of synchronicity. I had only just the prior day read an article about that most mathematically fascinating vegetable, all the while bemoaning the fact that I had never seen it offered in the Atlanta food stores I frequent. And yet, there it was in all its fractal glory. I had to buy some.

Koch snowflake. [Courtesy Wikipedia.]
Romanesco, one of the many faces of Brassica oleracea (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kohlrabi, collard greens, kale, et al.), grows in a natural version of recursion, a self-similar repeating pattern that displays at every scale. The numbers people call this a fractal, and it can be seen in both mathematical sets and in natural phenomenae. Crystals will sometimes exhibit fractal behavior as they form.

As you zoom into a self-similar fractal image, you see the same thing regardless of scale. Of course, in a living organism like Romanesco, things begin to get a little “fuzzy” as you get closer and closer, but the same overall configuration is still visible.

Why the Romanesco DNA decided to code for such elegant beauty, I have no idea. The religious-minded can use it as an example of the power and subtle wisdom of the Creator: other folks may attribute it to millions of years of mutative randomness.

As for me, it works as both Art Form and as Dinner. I sliced up and roasted that sumbitch with olive oil, kosher salt, and capers. It was delicious.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

MEN, MEAT, MALT, AND A MOUNTAIN

Flurries to the East
Snow flurries darken the skies to the east as we ascend Starr Mountain.

It’s colder than the ice cubes in a glass;
It’s colder than the hair on a polar bear’s ass;
It’s colder than the nipple on a witch’s left tit;
It’s colder than a box full of penguin shit.
Man, it’s cold!

- Eli, hizzownself

Many are cold, but few are frozen.

- Elisson

You know it’s cold when you pour a shot of Scotch whisky out of your metal flask and it flows with the viscosity of maple syrup. Water, when added to this ferociously chilly brew, doesn’t do much more than lay on top, seemingly as immiscible as oil and vinegar.

That’s how cold it was when Eric and I went camping last night, the night of a huge Polar Express system that chilled vast swaths of North America to ridiculous levels. The forecast called for it to drop down to 5°F atop Starr Mountain, with windy conditions that would bring the effective temperature to somewhere between -10 and -20°F... so of course that is the night we selected for our overnight camping trip. This is because we are Manly Men. Or fucking idiots. (Some would contend that that is a distinction without a difference.)

Home away from home
Our little home away from home.

We’ve gotten the Cold Weather Camping thing down to a science. Drive halfway up the mountain and park. Schlep our gear the remainder of the way to the top, then cast about for a suitable spot to pitch our tent. Set up the tent and start a campfire. At sunset, heat up two quarts of Eric’s tasty pot roast on the camp stove. Enjoy several wee drams of Scottish antifreeze. Crawl into the tent, get into our respective sleeping bags, and sleep. As necessary, get out of the tent to urinate. Wake up, heat water for coffee and oatmeal, build a new campfire. Clean up, pack up, break camp, and head down the mountain. Easy-peasy, right?

Sunset atop Starr Mountain
When the sun goes down, shit be gettin’ serious.

Well, that’s all well and good when you’re dealing with regular ol’ Cold Weather. Snow? Love it. Freezing conditions? No prob. But when the mercury drops into the single digits and below, it’s a whole different ball game. It’s hazardous to one’s health.

This time we drove farther up before parking the car, the better to facilitate a quick getaway should conditions prove to be too extreme in the dead of night. The fire had to be kept small, lest the windy conditions cause it to go out of control. Once the sun went down, a deep chill settled over the mountain. We would not be sipping single malt by the campfire as our dinner was warming, no. Eric made the wise decision to set up the camp stove in the vestibule of the tent, where it would be better protected from the elements... and so it was in the tent that we enjoyed our slabs of jalapeño cornbread and steaming hot bowls of Pot Roast à la mode de SWG.

It was sometime around 1:00 am that we both awakened, roused by a Call of Nature. The winds had died down by this time - the campfire long since had gone out - and in the silence of the deep night we could both feel the heat being sucked from our bodies through all our layers of clothing and sleeping baggage. Fortunately, we had a couple of extra layers with which to insulate ourselves: Eric’s Gore-Tex coat, which served to cover our feet, and a fleecy blanket huge enough to completely fill the tent. With these in place, we were protected enough to be safe, if not entirely comfortable.

As the eastern sky began brightening sometime around six - sunrise would not come for yet another hour - we awakened to the lowest temperatures of the past 24 hours. The tent’s interior and fly were encrusted with a thick coating of rime from our exhaled moisture, while our bottles of water had frozen solid. It took an effort of will to put on our frozen hiking boots and venture outside to build a new campfire, but it was worth it: A few cups of hot coffee did wonders to elevate our mood as Eric warmed his numb toes near the flames.

We broke camp and hiked the mile or so back to the car, whose thermometer registered a frigid 11°F despite its being mid-morning. Oof.

It’s hard to explain the allure of cold-weather camping to most people. Saddled with the veneer of civilized rationality with which most of us conduct our lives, they wonder why anyone in his right mind would voluntarily forsake the comforts of a cozy house, a warm bed, and indoor plumbing to bed down in a tent and sleeping bag on a frigid mountaintop. And perhaps it is completely nutty... but there is a quiet power in knowing that one is able to face adverse conditions, and that power fuels a fuller appreciation of one’s everyday life.

MAOVEL

Let a hundred flowers bloom
Doo dah, doo dah
Spider-Man and Doctor Doom
Oh, doo dah day

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 - AVE ATQUE VALE

It has been my established Bloggy Tradition - as traditional as ten years can make anything - that on the final day of the year I write a post that outlines the various high and low spots of the previous twelvemonth. Triumphs, tragedies, events both personal and global in scope: all grist for the year-end blog-mill.

But this year, I’m not going to do that.

Similarly, I’ll apologize to all the folks - friends and family alike - who await our annual snail-mail Family Newsletter with breathless (hah!) eagerness, for there will be none forthcoming. I am just not in the mood. (Besides, does anyone really give a shit about all that stuff?)

Yes, this year had its bright moments... but on balance it was one vast pile of suckage. And so I will not glorify it any further, but await the beginning of a new one and pray that it is better. Optimist that I am, I believe (whether foolishly or not) that it will be. That it must be.

Twenty-fourteen, fuck you and goodbye.

Twenty-fifteen, I sure hope you represent a major improvement over your immediate predecessor.

That is all.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

EATS MEETS WEST

Or East Meets West, if you prefer.

At this year’s Momma d’Elisson Memorial Chanukah Dinner - an annual event that commemorates both the Festival of Lights and my mom, the late, great Bernice - East meets West by virtue of the menu, which consists of take-out Chinese food (East) alongside fresh, hot potato latkes (West).

But there’s another way to spin the East meets West game, and that is to take an Ashkenazic (i.e., Eastern European Jewish) food - the aforementioned latkes - and couple them with a Sephardic/Mizrahi (i.e., Iberian/Middle Eastern Jewish) food - herbed labneh.

Some time back, I saw an amazing recipe for herbed labneh with preserved lemon - a jacked-up version of a typical Middle Eastern cheese product. (Labneh is basically a thicker version of Greek yogurt. You can make it yourself by straining Greek yogurt through a cheesecloth or by taking the easy way out and buying it in prepackaged form at your local Middle Eastern grocery.) Since I happened to have a supply of preserved lemons handy (really!), I tried it. It was amazing.

It was even more amazing when spooned on top of Dee’s incomparable potato latkes. The cool, tart labneh, with its lemony savoriness (and a substantial burn from serrano peppers), perfectly complemented the latkes’ crispy crusts and creamy, potatoey interiors.

Potato Latkes - 2015 Edition photo PotatoLatkes-2014Edition.jpg
Herbed Labneh photo HerbedLabneh.jpg
Potato latkes (top); herbed labneh with preserved lemon (bottom). Put ’em together and you get a little slice of heaven right here on Earth.

I may never eat latkes with plain ol’ sour cream again.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

SOME PERSPECTIVE ON CHANUKAH

Despite its length - a full eight days - Chanukah is a relatively minor part of the Jewish religious calendar. Especially in America, the holiday has grown enormously in significance over the past hundred years or so, but this is merely the reflected glow of Christmas, the Big Event of the majority culture. For observant Jews, Chanukah is a post-Biblical holiday, one that is not mentioned in the Scriptures - mainly because the events it commemorates occurred after the canon was finalized. The usual holiday restrictions against working, et al., are not in effect.

Chanukah is not the “Jewish Christmas,” as some misguided folks sometimes seem to think. And it does not - despite stories to the contrary - celebrate the apocryphal miracle of one day’s supply of sacred oil burning for a full eight days, long enough for more consecrated oil to be prepared. That is a story intended to provide a sense of wonder for the kiddies... but like many such stories, it has taken on the strength of urban legend. Alas that there is no snopes.com to refute religious mythology: If there were, they would have a full-time job.

The real miracle of Chanukah - the reason we light candles (one for each night, they shed a sweet light to remind us of years long ago, in the words of the song) - is a war fought against seemingly insurmountable odds. It’s the war fought by the Jewish zealots, led by Matityahu (Mattathias, in the Greek translation) and his sons, against the Greco-Syrian rulers of Judea who wanted to wipe out the practice of Judaism. It was the kind of underdog-versus overdog fight that generally results in the underdog getting his ass chewed off... but not this time. This time, the vastly outnumbered forces of the Jews delivered a sound thrashing to the Greeks. For not the first and not the last time, it was the kind of salvation that would inspire the popular Jewish dictum, “They tried to kill us; they failed; let’s eat.”

The Egyptians tried to break our spirit with institutionalized slavery.
The Greco-Syrians tried to break our connection with our faith.
Later, the Persians would simply try to murder us, as would the Nazis many hundreds of years later.

They all failed. And so we eat: matzoh and its derivatives (Passover), fried foods (Chanukah), hamantaschen (Purim).

The holiday liturgy tells the story quite succinctly:      

(And) for the miracles, and for the salvation, and for the mighty deeds, and for the victories, and for the battles which You performed for our ancestors in those days, in this time.

In the days of Matityahu, the son of Yochanan, the High Priest, the Hasmonean, and his sons - when the wicked Greek kingdom rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and compel them to stray from the statutes of Your will - You in Your great mercy stood up for them in the time of their distress. You took up their grievance, judged their claim, and avenged their wrong. You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton into the hands of the diligent students of Your Torah. For Yourself You made a great and holy Name in Your world, and for your people Israel You worked a great victory and salvation on this very day. Thereafter, Your children came to the Holy of Holies of Your house, cleaned Your Temple, purified the site of Your Holiness, and kindled lights in the courtyards of Your Sanctuary; and they established these eight days of Chanukah to express thanks and praise to Your great name.

[Special addition to the daily Amidah prayer for Chanukah]

The story of Chanukah puts me in mind of another lopsided victory: the battle of Agincourt in 1415, so famously described by William Shakespeare in Henry V. The English forces led by King Harry were arrayed against a French army five times their number, and the likelihood that they would survive - much less win - was basically nil. Was it Harry’s rousing speech (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers...”) on the eve of Saint Crispin’s Day or the hand of God that carried the English to an astonishing win? Who can tell?

There’s another connection, however tenuous, between Matityahu and Henry V. In Kenneth Branagh’s excellent 1989 film, the English soldiers carry away their dead and wounded after the battle, singing the Latin hymn Non Nobis. It is a powerful moment in the film, one that bears great emotional freight. Non Nobis, you may be interested to know, is the Latin translation of Psalm 115: “Not for us, Lord, not for us, but for Yourself win praise through Your love and faithfulness...” It’s a psalm we recite every day during Chanukah, and it is one that makes perfect sense when an Unlikely Victory comes your way.

No matter what your faith, may this season bring only good things to you!