Archive | September 2010

How a Sukkah is like a Christmas tree

Okay, so the headline of this post might shock and offend some, but please let me explain my bold statement.

Growing up in a predominantly Italian neighborhood in Staten Island, as the Chanukkah song from Adam Sandler song goes, I was the only  kid on the block without a Christmas tree. Our neighbors invited my family over for cake and tree decorating and we in turn invited them on Chanukkah to light our menorah, spin a dreidel and eat fried potato latkes.

 Even back then I understood that Christmas was a big holiday, and Chanukkah was a minor Jewish one. But Christmas trees still left me with a feeling of being on the outside, my nose pressed to the frosted window.

A menorah, no matter how big, even the ones that the Chabad Lubavich movement lights, just can’t compete with the smell of fresh pine, the twinkling lights and the tinsel to a Jewish kid on Staten Island. I even had my secret Christmas tree fantasies.  If I ever had a Christmas tree, it would be simple: just candy canes and white lights would hang off the branches of the Christmas tree of my dreams. And it would only be in my dreams, because I knew very well that there is no such thing as a Chanukkah bush.  

I did have childhood associations with Sukkot, the eight-day autumn festival of Booths, because of Hebrew school. I made the standard paper sukkah chains and ate within the large sukkah of my synagogue. In fact, the first time I was ever asked on a date was in a sukkah. It was in the seventh grade and a classmate asked me to go roller skating at Skate Odyesy as our teacher, on Orthodox rabbi, continually shushed us as he attempted to recite kiddush, the blessing over the grape juice. 

But because my family didn’t build a sukkah of our own, the holiday still felt remote to me. I didn’t have a sukkah to eat my bowl of breakfast cereal in, or sleep in.

Now, in adulthood, my family enjoys putting up a sukkah every autmn, and we have done so for eleven years. And because we have a family sukkah, I can now say why this celebration, one of the major holidays on the Jewish calendar, blows that overblown attention we give to that other holiday in December right out of the water.  Why? Because a sukkah fulfills the Jewish Americans’ need to decorate a large, religious object with branches and lights and have social gatherings within or around it.

Sukkot is known in Hebrew as one of the “three legs” of Jewish holidays, one of the three times of the year when the ancient Israelites were commanded to make a pilgrimage by foot to Jerusalem. Imagine Israelites building one of these temporary huts and sleeping in their fields under a harvest moon.

This same harvest moon shines through the roof of our family sukkah on the first few nights as we feast and sing. After a month of self scrutiny, asking for forgiveness, and finally, fasting on Yom Kippur, sitting within the walls of a sukkah is like getting a hug from God and feeling His forgiveness, as one Chabad rabbi in my college years so eloquently explained it.

In my neighborhood,  Sukkot is all around us. As we are finishing up our meal of brisket and sweet potatoes, our neighbor, an Orthodox rabbi, is starting his meal with his family within their sukkah. We can hear his voice as he joyfully sings the kiddush as we clear off our table. This is followed by the clanking of plates and the laughter of his grandchildren as they dine.  This coming outside to eat, either in these formal meals or sukkah hopping later in the week may be the last chance we get before the long Rochester winter, makes our neighborhood just feel more neighborly.

How is a sukkah not like a Christmas tree? For one thing, Jews are commanded by God in Torah to build one to remind us of the booths that the Israelites lived in during their wandering in the desert after we were freed from Egypt.  Plain and simple, it’s a mitzvah just to sit in a sukkah. I still don’t understand if there is a religious connection between a tree and the birth of Jesus, but I’d be happy to learn how this tradition got started.

So, now that it is December, I still admire Christmas trees, but with a knowledge and experience that the Jewish people have our time of year for our big celebrations with something to decorate and gather in. Come this Christmas, don’t feel bad for the Jewish people who have no Christmas tree. Instead, feel bad for the Jewish people who have not yet built, or ate, or slept, or dwelt in a Sukkah, back in September.

Trader Joe’s, come to Western NY, pretty please with a sun-dried organic cherry on top?


Fearless Flyer

Well, it seems I’ve opened up a can of worms. For the sake of this blog post, the worms would probably be Thai Lime Basil worms, or Trader Jose’s cha-cha chili worms. 

My love affair with Trader Joe’s, the California-based small-scale gourmet supermarket, started nearly 16 years ago. A newcomer to the San Francisco Bay area, my roomate got me hooked on Trader Joe’s quirky products. I didn’t have a car. No one doesn’t have a car in California. But that didn’t stop me. To get to a Trader Joe’s, I would take two lines on the BART, with a small cooler in tow, to get there, where I would purchase delicacies such as frozen tri-colored butternut squash ravioli and mahi-mahi filets. 

Later in life, when we moved back to New Jersey and had a car (because you *really* need a car to get around in NJ), I loved shopping at the Trader Joe’s in Westfield, N.J. 

Now, I live in Rochester. We have Wegman’s, headquarters to the mother of all amazing supermarkets, where my own mother, on her first trip into the cavernous Marketplace section, with its patisserie, brick-oven artisan bakery and 20-foot long Mediterranean olive bar, described Wegmans as “where food goes when it goes to heaven.” Don’t get me wrong, I love Wegman’s. 

But it’s not Trader Joe’s. 

One of my most recent columns was about how and with what to fill the vacant retail spaces around Brighton. Lately, as I drive the stretch of Monroe Ave. between Brighton and Pittsford, I get an empty feeling.  Whether the properties are older; like the former Steve’s restaurant in Brighton, or brand new; such as the Oak Hill Commons in Pittsford, I can’t help but wonder what the holdup is for filling these properties: is it the economy, or local politics? 

 The most glaring of these vacancies is the 11,348 sq.-ft. site of the former Rite Aid in Brighton Commons.  To get some opinions on this for my column, I took a very informal poll of my Facebook friends asking them what they would like to see in this place. One friend wrote: Trader Joes! And then another and another in complete agreement.   

I would love to see this place in the center of Brighton become the nation’s newest Trader Joe’s.   It would be great to walk or bike to a store like this to pick up items ranging from organically grown lettuce, cage-free eggs, a box of gluten-free granola, or even mahi-mahi burgers for the grill. 

 Trader Joe’s was featured on the Sept. 13 cover of Fortune magazine, and described it as one of the nation’s fastest growing retailers. I make a pilgrimage to Trader Joe’s in Long Island whenever I can and ask the manager about the possibility of an opening in Rochester. But the answer is always the same: this privately-held company, which boasts 344 stores in 25 states, fears competition from a certain large-scale supermarket further up Monroe Ave. bearing the name that starts with a W.   But one can always hope. 

I got an enormous number of responses from my column, both via email and others who told me that “yeah! I want Trader Joe’s too!” at the gym, or — lo and behold — in the middle of the produce section at Wegmans! They even asked me how they could help me convince them to come here – like I have an inside track or something. 

So you see, TJ’s – Brighton, NY folks are educated, earthy and slightly crunchy. See why we would need you and support you here? 

One reader wrote in an accused me of starting a crusade of trying to bring yet another chain into town while running the little guy mom and pop markets out of business and told me to stick to writing and stay out of the business development business.  Other readers wrote in and shared their Trader Joe’s love stories, and still others wrote to me with links of articles explaining the complexities of chosing a site for new grocery stores in urban areas. 

So, Trader Joe’s, if you are reading, in spite of Rochester being home to the world’s greatest supermarket chain, there is still room in our hearts for you. So come on up!

A Most Peculiar Pumpkin


“I want to grow pumpkins this summer!” said my youngest son.

And so we did. Inside, in the spring, we started a pumpkin seed, which would in the summer turn into Toby’s pumpkin patch.

Knowing that from this seed would grow an incredibly long, invasive vine, I gave this vine carte blanche and let it take over one quarter of my tiny garden plot. And the vine grew, and wandered. Huge pumpkin blossoms bloomed, bees visited them and rested inside.  But none of these blossoms turned into pumpkins.

Except this one:


 This pumpkin will never become a jack-o-lantern. I would hack through the plastic fencing to free the pumpkin as it grew, but I think the pumpkin took care of that. It may become a pumpkin pie, but it might be too tough and stringy. So, I guess, the only thing our only pumpkin of the year will give us is a good laugh.

Season of Repentance, or…. Happy 5771

I was first aware it was the Hebrew month of Elul as we drove through Atlantic City on our way out to dinner. I was with my husband, his sisters and their husbands for a grown-up night out to dinner while my in-laws watched 10 of their grandchildren back at the beach house. The moon was rising over the intercostal waters between the mainland and the barrier islands of the New Jersey shore. It was full and red and a signal that it was just a little over two weeks before the new Jewish Year.

In Hebrew calendar cycle, the moon is always full on the 15th of the month, so I knew from that red moon rising over casinos and billboards promising everyone a good time, that we were at the halfway point of the month of introspection and spiritual preparation. A strange place I know to start getting all introspective and spiritual, but a wave of regret passed over me because I had yet to think about the new year. I had yet to hear the sound of the ram’s horn, or the shofar, that is supposed to wake up Jews out of their sleepy summertime complacency and think about repentance and self-improvement.

In contrast with January 1, I consider this New Year truly the new year, even though to most of the world, the calendar will still read the same year for a few more months. But think of the physical changes that are take place right now: the summer is over, the days grow shorter, a new school year begins. The heat is leaving the air. In fact, on our way to Slichot services this evening, I wished I had worn a heavier sweater. Funny thing is, just yesterday, it was so hot I wished I had a nearby pool to jump into. 

These changes seem far more apparent than the new year in January. In Rochester, it will be just as ice-cold on December 31 as it will be on January 1.

Slicha – Excuse me. Slichot – pardon us, are some of the translations from the Hebrew.

In Judaism, Slichot – this little known and sparsely attended service — occurs on the Saturday night immediately preceding Rosh Hashanah. It serves as a warm-up to the big show that are the services of Rosh Hashanah. Slichot includes a sampling of prayers that we will recite just days away, including the confession of our transgressions.

Now, in Judaism, there is no direct translation for the word sin. The Hebrew word chet means to “miss the mark.” It assumes that we tried to to the right thing, but for whatever reason, we went astray and failed. The season of repentance is our chance to get us back on the right path.

At services, my rabbi suggested to his congregants to make a list of all the places we missed the mark this year. And, like the liturgy of the High Holidays, I know he doesn’t mean “I’m sorry I ate a bacon double cheeseburger” or “I’m sorry I went to the movies on Friday night instead of having Shabbat dinner.”

No, the list of transgressions we need to make for ourselves in the season of repentence is much more personal, much more interpersonal.

So here goes my list:

  • I’ve yelled. I’ve yelled at my kids for not cleaning up after themselves.
  • I’ve yelled at my husband. Even worse, I’ve spoken to my husband in harsh tones and unkind words
  • I’ve drawn too many quick conclusions of others. I’ve assumed the worst in people instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt.
  • I’ve ignored or lost touch with friends, neighbors and family who may have needed my help.
  • I’ve talked too much when I should have been listening. I’ve made too much talk about me when I should have asked more about you.
  • I’ve held grudges
  • I’ve shown indifference
  • I’ve let my emotions get the better of me

For all these things, I will ask not of God to forgive me, but I will have to ask forgiveness of the people I may have hurt. For all these things, please this year make me a better mother, a better friend, a better wife, daughter.  And a better teacher.

To all those who observe, a sweet, healthy new year!

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