All of the Above

2 Feb

When any reasonably responsible student disappears from her blog for eight straight weeks, you can assume one or more of the following things has happened:

a.) life

b.) a cold, the flu, food poisoning

c.) a mold infestation in the writer’s apartment

d.) final exams

e.) all of the above

As someone who has an excellent track record with standardized tests, I can promise you the answer is E, all of the above. So I thank you for your patience, and, as we backtrack all the way to Chanukah 2010, promise not to let another fortnight pass without word from the Holy Land.

First, life. It definitely happens, and December was no exception.

Early winter is one of the best times to be in Israel. The weather cools, and in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the tourist load lightens considerably. This winter has been unseasonably dry and warm, and although I have diligently prayed for rain every day, there is a part of me that must admit to enjoying the mild temperatures and pristine blue skies. Were it not for the ubiquity of sufganiyot (soof-ga-knee-‘yot), it would have been easy to forget that Chanukah was just around the corner.

Simply stated, a sufganiya (singular) is a jelly doughnut. But to call it such is to demean the complex amalgamation of history, etymology, symbolism, and crystalline carbohydrates that form this delicious holiday waist-expander.

The holiday of Chanukah, the festival of lights, celebrates two events: the military victory of the Maccabees over the Greek army and subsequent rededication of the Temple, and the miracle that followed when the oil for the Temple’s menorah, which was only enough to last for one day, lasted for eight. The name Chanukah means dedication; it is from the rededication of the Temple that the holiday takes its name. The oil and the light that comprise the miracle have, along with the dreidel, become the primary symbolic expressions of the festival for Jews around the world.

A holiday that celebrates oil translates gastrointestinally into a lot of fried food. In the States, that means latkes, crispy fried potato pancakes, best served with sour cream and apple sauce. In Israel, it means sufganiyot, a sponge-like ball of dough filled with jelly, deep fried, and coated with sugar. The word sufganiya comes from the Hebrew word for sponge, but the consistency is decidedly more Krispy Kreme than Scotch Brite.

While I’ve spent more time cooking in Israel than I ever do in the States, thanks to the proximity of the shuk and the high quality of the produce, making sufganiyot is well beyond my meager culinary prowess. So mine were store-bought. A 100 gram sufganiyot has somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 calories, which is pretty impressive, and enough to make me celebrate the miracle that Chanukah comes only once a year. I did, however, try my hand at latkes.

I actually made these. Snap.

I was in Turkey for the bulk of Chanukah visiting my best friend Liz, a writer and soon-to-be PhD student who is living in the tiny town of Burdur as a Fulbright Fellow. Turkey is 97% Muslim, and Burdur was probably 100% Muslim before Liz (who is Jewish) and her roommate (who is Christian) moved in. It was a treat to lug pounds of potatoes home from the bazaar knowing that we were probably the first Jews to make latkes in Burdur – ever. Several kilos of potatoes and a liter of oil later, Burdur (and Liz’s roommate) got their first latkes, and Chanukah was celebrated in Turkey in all its deep fried glory.

I returned to Israel to burn another kind of oil – the midnight kind. The weeks between Chanukah and winter break had to be rationed cautiously in order to properly prepare for final exams. I do what I always do when preparing my nose for the grindstone. I made a list. It was a chart, actually, and it not only detailed how many miles I needed to run each day to stay on track with my marathon training, but laid out exactly how much work needed to get done when in order to make life livable during finals. Do I ever love charts! There’s something very comforting about seeing life organized into rows and columns.

We plan, God laughs.

I know better than this, really I do, but every year I plan, and every year I expect things to go accordingly. I can count on no hands the times they actually have. Having already had a bad flu, I caught an equally vicious cold that stopped me (sorry) cold. The infection culminated in what was either food poisoning or a stomach bug – either way, things were pretty fluid for a couple days and I quickly discovered how easy it is to love apple sauce when it’s the only thing you can keep down. It was around this time that I first noticed the mold.

This was Stage I. You don't want to see Stage II. Promise.

You might wonder how it is possible that I missed it before. Well. The weather had turned cold. I was rarely home during the day, and when I was it was because I was sick, so I kept my shades drawn. One day, I parted the drapes, and – oh. It was as if a science experiment exploded all over my walls and windows. From black to a deep blueish-green, spores congregated in corners and every day reached further up the walls. Soon, I found mold on other walls, behind my door, behind my bureau. I was living in a petri dish. I sent photo documentation to my landlord. I expected the worst, but they were very apologetic and friendly. They were probably thrilled that I hadn’t called the health department. (Lucky for them I can’t remember how to say mold in Hebrew.) They sent someone to check out the growth spurt, and soon after suggested that it was time to move out.

Thus began everyone’s favorite pastime… looking for apartments in Jerusalem! It eats away hours of time – finding the apartments, contacting the agents, arranging visits. I had just about given up when I found Ramban 23. It was perfect – a centrally located studio in my price range – but another woman got there first. Drama! I was devastated. The next day the agent called to tell me the woman had to return to the States unexpectedly and the apartment was mine if I still wanted it. Me want, me want.

Ramban 23 before moving in. It's not this sterile (or this neat) anymore.

As much as I loved living in Nachlaot, I l-o-v-e my new apartment. That’s just the way of things, a few dark clouds followed by a few rays of sunshine. Get out your sunglasses. I happened to have a dear friend in town – with a car – that very week, and we were able to do the whole move in one easy trip.

Ramban 23 is a 4th floor studio apartment (with a balcony!) in an elevator building on the corner of Ramban and Arlosorov in the heart of Rechavia. Another thing to love about Jerusalem are the street names. Every one means something, or, in most cases, someone. I moved from Yosef Haim, named for Yosef Haim Brenner, a pioneer of Hebrew Literature, who was born in Russia in 1881 and killed during the anti-Jewish riots in Jaffa in 1921. I now live on Ramban, named for the great 13th century rabbi and poet Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, or Nahmanides, who was born in Spain and died in Israel in 1270. From my balcony I overlook Arlosorov, named for Haim Arlosoroff (English spelling), a Ukrainian-born, German-raised Zionist leader during the British Mandate period. He was assassinated while walking on the beach in Tel Aviv in 1933. Every street name has a reason, a history. When you move, you don’t just move streets, you move stories. I moved during the last week of class and spent one finals-laden week at Ramban 23 before coming home for winter break to be with family and celebrate my grandfather’s 85th birthday.

I’m human – finals make me nervous. I always say that if you never question your decision to become a rabbi, you should probably reconsider your decision to become a rabbi.

This is the first daf of Talmud Brachot. Not my tractate, but you get the idea.

The night before an oral exam in Talmud is a great time to question. Eventually, you have to put the text away and just trust that you know it as well as you’re gonna know it. So I set aside the dapim (a page of Talmud is called a daf, plural dapim) of tractates Pesachim and Shabbat, watched an old episode of Party of Five (I don’t get very many English channels), and sent a letter to my rabbis at Beth El Congregation in Baltimore, thanking them for being part of the reason why I keep doing what I do. Sometimes just knowing that they went through this too is enough. Twenty-four hours later I was on a plane, my exams successfully completed, leaving one home to return to another.

Life happens, and through it all – cold, flus, vomit, mold, stress, moving, stress, finals, stress – there are two constants, friends and family.

Dad, Me, Poppa, David, and Goobie playing Settlers of Catan. Well, sort of playing, sort of just harassing David. Good times.

Eight weeks have passed in a blur, but looking back, not a moment passed without their influence, their love, their support. I share sufganiyot with them, visit them in Turkey, ask their advice about various strains of fungus, call them when I’m anxious about exams, and come home to celebrate their birthdays. So thanks for sticking by me during this adventure. Your next update will come sooner than your last!

Best stepdaughter: Jess. Best stepdad: Chuck. Best supporting arm: Mom's, between our faces. Love it!



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