Monthly Archives: October 2012

What do you get when you put 80 LGBT Jews together for a weekend?

I’m lucky that I can count on Warren to lighten up a hurricane day, or pretty much any day.  If you need a break from weather coverage, you’re in luck.  Given what readers of this blog know about Warren’s cooking, you can imagine that the subpar food was a particular insult for him.  And, Hillel professionals, read to the end for a great Hillel shout-out!

What do you get when you put 80 LGBT Jews together for a weekend?

a)     A hurricane of neuroses.
b)     Something requiring a short course of antibiotics.
c)      The annual Nehirim Shabbaton.
d)     All of the above.

(The official answer is C, but actually any and all answers are acceptable, even ones not listed here.)

This weekend I went to DC for the annual Nehirim Shabbaton.  Nehirim is a national organization that celebrates the intersection between LGBT/queer identities and Jewish Spirituality.  If the weekend wasn’t quite as spiritually intense as my recent attendance at the Barbra Streisand concert (now THAT was an intersection of gay and Jewish spiritual identities), it was still a nice excuse to meet new people, daven, and attend some workshops.  (Or “Werk-it-gurl-shops,” as I like to call them).

About 80 folks from all over the country, but mainly the DC area, came together at the DCJCC.  The backgrounds ranged from Reform (“Why is there no shrimp at shabbes dinner?”) to Orthodox (“Keep your untorn toilet paper away from me!”).  There were people of varying genders (yes, genders plural), sexualities, races, and even religions.  Single, married, closeted, out and proud, you name it.

Meeting new people is always great, although differences of opinion did arise (Mainly over whether Smash is decent television or not).  Despite the two Jews, three opinions rule that was strongly in effect, there was one issue where we were in complete agreement: that the food was terrible.  From cold soup to undercooked potatoes, this caterer clearly was homophobic.  (“I hate gay people and will inflict my wrath on them with subpar food.”)  A particular low was Friday night’s dessert.  A dish called “mousse” that was either spackle or hair product.  Or maybe a spermicide.  (I didn’t get pregnant this weekend so maybe that’s what it was).   Dear organizers, I know we Jews have a tendency to want to save money, but when you’re trying to pass off wall repair materials as a palate cleanser, it’s time to reconsider.

And speaking of palate cleansers, it’s time for Joke #1.

Q: What’s the gayest letter in the Hebrew alphabet?
A: H-h-e-y-y-y.

Friday night also featured kabbalat Shabbat services, which were “renewal” in form.  I was initially wary of attending, because last time I went to renewal services I literally walked out half way through because it involved congregants getting up to pretend we were “walking through the red sea.” (I’m not making this up.)  These services though were nice, and I, of course, have a soft spot for drums and beating on things while singing in Hebrew.

After dinner and services, a few of us went out.  [If you’re Orthodox, stop reading NOW, because Shabbes is about to be profaned, motherf*%ker!)  So, I had long wanted to visit Town, the hot gay dance club on U Street and three of us went (poor Noam wasn’t allowed to enter the club because he had no ID).  Given that it was Halloween, most people were dressed up in costumes, and while I wish I could say that my costume was of a gay fashionista, I just simply looked overdressed for the place.  The music was great, the boys were hot, the drinks were cheap.  I was happy.  After a few hours of hedonism, it was off to bed at my friend Alex’s place.

Shabbat morning involved services which, true to form, I skipped.  I arrived in time for lunch, still feeling a bit queasy from the previous night’s “delicacies.”  After lunch, though, it was “showtime,” as I was asked to give a talk about the intersection of queer identity and Yiddish culture, based on my book The Passing Game (Available for sale on!  Click here.

The room was packed, and I have to say I thought the workshop went over very well (You’re welcome, Nehirim!)  If you missed it, buy the book!

Then there were more workshops, and I opted for the walking tour of DC’s Gayborhood.  Sadly, this ramble wasn’t really enlightening. (“So, this is the Starbucks where my ex and I broke up,” and “At this club, I contracted a particularly stubborn case of gonorrhea.”)  Another Nehirimer and I ditched the tour to sit in a park for a lovely conversation followed by an afternoon snack (did I mention I still wasn’t eating the officially provided food?)

By the time we got back to the JCC, it was havdalah (always a favorite ritual of mine) and then “dinner.”  After “dinner,” I met up with a friend for a drink and then called it night.  (I love gay Jews, but they are definitely energy drainers).

Time for Joke #2

Q: What do gay horses eat?
A: H-h-e-y-y-y.

Sunday morning was the weekend’s brunch and keynote. The keynote was truly excellent.  We were joined by Wayne Firestone, the President of Hillel, and he gave an impromptu but great talk about the work that Hillel is doing to involve LGBT students.  This was particularly meaningful to me because when I was a grad student and attended my first NUJLS (National Union of Jewish LGBT Students) conference, I was told how NUJLS had called my undergrad alma mater Pitt’s Hillel to tell them about NUJLS and whoever they got on the phone said, “We don’t have any gay students here,” and hung up.  I think I might have come out of the closet earlier if my Hillel had embraced who I was.  To hear of the changes at Hillel was exciting, and Firestone’s talk was quite inspiring and definitely the highlight of the weekend (well, aside from the “mousse.”).

After the talk, I dashed to the bus station to beat Hurricane Sandy home.  All in all, it was an ok weekend. I met some nice people, did a kick-ass “werk-it-gurl-shop,” and destroyed my insides.  Actually, that’s most weekends for me.

And on that note, a final joke.

–Knock knock.
–Who’s there?



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Two London Shabbatot and counting…

Thanks to Erika for sending this post from across the Atlantic.  Sorry it was originally published without an introduction, but see you back in the States, soon!

Apparently the size of London’s Jewish community is comparable to that of Philly’s. I learned that at an “international students” Shabbat dinner on my third day into a 6-week visit.

International students turned out to mean sitting at a table with two people who had lived in Philly or D.C. The rest of the table was filled out with friendly folks from around Europe and Israel. Most people wisely skipped the “davening,” which was really a bunch of mumbling in a room with a room divider or room divider as mechitza that all of the women present were not comfortable asking about or crossing. Dinner began with a simple, but delicious appetizer: half of an avocado with some unidentifiable white substance on top (parve ranch dressing??), a twirl of smoked salmon, and a single grape tomato. Throughout dinner the host interrupted with short tales of things “our grandparents” went through and ways “we all feel.” It reminded me how a little linguistic consideration can go a long way and that when the effort is not made, it can feel pretty isolating.

Dinner and conversation flowed easily until after 11. Then, just like at a typical Heymish, a group of folks went to a club. (I kid. I really appreciate that Heymish doesn’t conclude that way.) Clubs are, uh, not really my thing, so I quickly went home and slept through any chance of services on Saturday, even though they start pleasantly late (11am).

After this experience and knowing that I had to blog this week, I checked every vaguely progressive/welcoming-seeming shul I could find for Shabbat dinners for this week. I almost booked a dinner for the historic, Sephardi Bevis Marks synagogue, and then a colleague forwarded a booking for tickets to Billy Elliot on Friday night. Oops. So, this Shabbos got off to a very un-shabbos-like start, but the musical did feature political puppetry that happily reminded me of Spiral Q.

For Saturday, I found a progressive synagogue in the neighborhood I’m staying, South London Liberal Synagogue. I got there late and forgot to pick up a siddur, so I followed along in my transliterated traditional-egalitarian siddur. Ended up being a good move. Many of the post-Torah reading prayers were recited in English, and comparing the translations was totally fascinating.

After services, there was a familiar kiddush spread with a ton of kids running around. Another young woman told me about other young progressive Jewish orgs in the area, which was great. But then a young man joined our conversation with, “Are you a Jew?” Ok, (weirdly) there were two Mormon missionaries at services also, so maybe they get visitors a lot and it’s a reasonable question in context. But that is definitely not an ok question. (Pro tip: Neither is “are you pregnant?” And actually, comically-to-me, that question made a [relevant in context] appearance at the dinner the prior week. I’ll resist drawing any cultural stereotype conclusions.)

I’ve left both Shabbat experiences so far with mixed feelings about the events themselves and a lot of gratitude for the conscientious, welcoming folks in Philly.

Inspired by the super simple dinner appetizer: Edamame

-Get some edamame. I had a bag of frozen edamame when I decided to try this.
-Get some boiled water.
-Throw the edamame in the water.
Let it cook till it seems done (it’s way more green?)
-Put in cold/icey water to stop the cooking.
-Pour some salt on the pods.
-Eat/throw in the fridge for later
-You’re done!
Click here for a lovely copyrighted picture of edamame, which is why it’s only a link and not the actual picture.

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Vegan Shabblog

Somehow over the almost two years I’ve been doing this, a number of people have referred to the project affectionately (I hope) as the Shabblog.  Cody is one of those people, and I’m so glad to share his vegan Shabbat experience.  My mouth was watering as I read this, and I’m sure yours will, too!  Also, just a reminder that there are only a small handful of available weeks left before the blog ENDS, so if you want in, now’s your chance!

I have never been a vegetarian, pescatarian, vegan or attempted any sort of paleo/caveman diet, and I’m not a fan of leafy produce.  Opposite of my unfamiliarity with all things ‘non-meat,’ I AM kind of an expert in the whole hosting-of-shabbat-dinners thing.  This dinner, besides being of new foods, was hosted by a friend with little (ok, by her own admission, zero) hosting experience.

So, an invite to a vegan Shabbat dinner on unfamiliar territory? Perfect, really. (What?! you say?)  Shabbat is about the extraordinary, about leaving the mundane. I often take that as ‘try something new, something special.’ And, especially in the Philadelphia young Jewish scene, Shabbat is about community and friendship – old and new.  Let’s get this straight right now: this evening was not about the food. Not about the best chicken parmigiana sandwich I’ve ever had, not about the barbecue and spicy chicken wings, that roasted, toasted and satisfied my hunger, and definitely, since we’re in Philadelphia, not about the cheesesteaks.

Like any [vegan] cheesy Shabbat story, my joy and take-home from this evening was about the new faces, the blasts from the past, and the looking at the watch for the first time at the end of the night and being shocked it was no longer Friday.

The invite, via Facebook, went out a respectful 3+ weeks beforehand.  It included the pertinent details in an attractive format, like ‘hey, this is going on, you’re invited, [insert cute/clever comment 1], here are the instructions for getting to my place, here’s what you should bring, [insert cute/clever comment 2], I’m excited for this.’  Then, the real winner: it’s catered!  Specifically, by a kosher, vegan restaurant.

The host also provided further details about that whole vegan thing, and what that means for bringing drinks (the guests’ responsibility).  Turns out, not a lot of kosher wines are vegan.  But no fear, and here’s a useful link for everyone, there’s a website to determine what IS cool: I picked up some ginger beer and Root.  If you haven’t tried one of the Art in the Age’s craft spirits, swing by your local liquor store for Root, Snap, Rhubarb or Sage. And get crazy with the mixers!

Despite my familiarity with hosting and attending Shabbat dinners, I still had questions (hint to newbies in town, attending your first dinner as a guest: questions for the host are MORE than ok!) that I sent via private message.  Like, ‘Wait, vegan? Is my leather belt and/or shoes allowed in the apartment?’ (Answer, in this vegan’s apartment, at least for hosting purposes: Yes.)

The evening, for me, started with my arrival at the adorable apartment, up the somehow-charmingly-Philadelphian-amount of stairs, after Friday evening Shabbat services at my synagogue.  So, I was late.  The invite was accurate – I could smell the food and hear the voices from down the hallway and stairway.  Delish!  I arrived just in time for the start of a medium-length, more observant than I’m accustomed Kiddush and prayers.  I made sure to sit with a mix of old friends and a couple whom I had never met, as well as an acquaintance or two nearby.  It is a Philadelphia apartment, so it was cozy seating arrangements for the twenty guests.  But hey, it’s not New York City, and elbows and knees were not knocking all evening 😉

In the interest of privacy and modesty, I’ll keep the conversations and topics out of print, but dating, Israel, food, new jobs, stress at school and ‘No way, we went to the same camp!’ themes were present.  Being a slightly more observant crowd, no photographs were taken, phones (thankfully) were at a minimum, and the ol’ Birkat Hamazon after the meal – benching (grace after meals).

While not in my normal repertoire of Shabbat practices, something about post-meal prayers tends to set my evening into a more relaxed gear.  The crowd thinned, and the formality, as often happens, subsided.  Cups filled at a faster pace, and the host was finally able to kick back and relax.  To those thinking of hosting: it’s the thought, effort and love you share, that makes a successful event, not the number of people, the taste of the food or the on-time start.  That said, this evening was beautiful, well attended and filled our tummies with deliciousness.  As for on-time, I wasn’t, so I can’t speak to that!

Unfortunately, since this was a catered event, no food was prepared, but I CAN make a suggestion for vegan, kosher food – Blackbird on 6th between Lombard and South. Mmmmm (see above for approval).  Now, last week, I did make a dish for a shabbat lunch, and it was vegan, so I’ll share that 🙂

Local salsa:

I don’t do specific measurements for things like this, it’s more of an ‘eye it out’ sort of thing…

CSA [mystery] long peppers – some green, some red, some spicy, all fresh
CSA tomatoes
Reading Terminal Market – NJ onions
Reading Terminal Market – NJ scallions
Reading Terminal Market – garlic (only non-local item!)
Reading Terminal market – lime (ok, this probably wasn’t local either)
EVOO – Extra Virgin Olive oil (last one, I promise)

— chop everything up, mix in a large bowl, and then sprinkle in EVOO and about half a lime’s worth of juice.  Serve chilled with plenty of chips!

Lime tip: throw a bit of the peel in the disposal to freshen up your sink!

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Musings on My Childhood Shabbat Dinners

Estelle is the latest in the “guest bloggers I’m meeting through the blog” category.  Like Mordechai a couple weeks back, she’s writing about past Shabbat experiences, but what’s a format for if not to be broken?  You can read more of her writing at

“Is this the little girl I carried,” I smile as I prepare a chicken dish while listening to a CD of an orchestral rendition of the song “Sunrise Sunset,” favored at Jewish weddings, bat mitzvahs, and the occasional funeral. Although these days I lead a very secular life with my husband and pre-school-age daughter, my mind leaps through the years, and I’m taken back to the early days of my childhood, when I used to have Shabbat dinner at the garden apartment of my paternal grandparents where we lived in Kew Gardens, Queens.

I’ve always loved music; in fact, I studied opera and planned on having a career as an opera singer, before the mathematical aspects of music theory derailed my dream, and I opted to pursue my second love, writing, instead. During my early adolescence, I’d often launch into spontaneous performances for my family and grandparents, who would kvell over me.

I wish I could say I sang for my supper of boiled chicken, stewed carrots, and knubel borscht (beef simmered in beet soup and garlic) and rib-eye steak or cholent, (a traditional Jewish stew of beef, beans and barley) cooked the night before for my dad who was allergic to chicken. But, at the tender age of three, I was too young. In this case, I remember it was my grandpa who would do the singing.

My grandpa Phil was the clear patriarch of the family. A man short in stature,
but large of personality, he had risen to manage a suit factory and was an early
organizer of trade unions. He was also a highly religious Orthodox Jew. Although my father had graduated from a Yeshiva, I was raised as a conservative Jew, but I traversed both worlds easily.

Grandpa had a boisterous laugh when he was amused, but mostly I saw him as
authoritative, usually admonishing me that “if you don’t stop your running around, Estelle, you’re going to fall and hit your head on the table.”

Ah the table. I remember the table was carefully set, covered with a pure white
cloth, on top of which lay a large doily. My grandma Frieda was a fanatic about
cleanliness, and in those early days, I remember how pristine she kept her citadel of a kitchen. She had a sweet tooth, and she indulged it, but only she knew where the desired chocolate treats were stashed. As was tradition, grandma always made a special ceremony of lighting the Shabbat candles, and even though I was only three years old, I remember holding a candle for her to light, as my mom and grandma covered their hair, while we all were benching lecht.

But after enjoying the meal, which was rich in protein, vegetables and grains (before magazines were urging families to follow those rules) and prepared with my grandmother’s loving hands, I watched my grandfather run through his faithful repertoire of Jewish and Shabbat songs. He never sang the words to Sim Shalom (Sim sim sim shalom, sim shalom tovah uv’rachah) and Adon Olam (Adon olam, asher malach, b’terem kol y’tzir nivra) or even Jerusalem of Gold (Yerushalayim Shel Zahav) or Sunrise Sunset (that was left to my parents and grandmother), but he would start humming, and as he hummed, I watched his normally tense features soften as he basked in the moment.

Grandma and Grandpa passed on long ago, but I still remember those warmth-filled evenings where food, music and ritual possessed the power to transform, stamping the moment in the memory of my tomorrows.

What’s your early family Shabbat memory?


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Shabbat may have gotten a little lost in all these holidays…

Picture this, from Sept. 16  to the present (10/7):

Erev Rosh Hashana
First Day Rosh Hashana
Second Day Rosh Hashana
Work Day
Work Day
Work Day/Erev Shabbat (I went to two dinners that night)
Work Day
Work Day/Erev Yom Kippur
Yom Kippur
Work Day/Recovering from Yom Kippur Day
Work Day/Erev Shabbat
Sunday/Erev Sukkot
Sukkot 1
Sukkot 2
Work Day with Huge Work Event (Sangria in the Sukkah!!)
Work Day
Work Day/Erev Shabbat (also went to two dinners)

Gratuitous?  Maybe.  But my point is, writing (ok, at this point, coordinating) a blog about Shabbat when Shabbat is just a drop in the Jewish bucket this time of year, has proven to be a greater challenge than 1) I was anticipating, and 2) than it was last year.  I have no idea why writing around the holidays (at least in my little corner of the blogosphere) went smoother last year, but it did.  My guess is that I only had to deal with myself, and now I’m trying to get other people to contribute at a time of year when no one can figure out what day of the week it is and how many workdays are in the coming week.

So here we are.  I should have a post coming for the Shabbat that just ended last night, but I realized a little too late on Friday afternoon that I’d never found someone for the week before and that I hadn’t covered it myself.  I think I get a pass, though, because I am writing now, which means we’re still up to date, and also, because I, too, was caught up in both the frenetic pace of the Jewish holidays and the sharing of news.

It feels funny to be back in the “writing about me” mode, even though obviously that’s what this blog was for a good long time, but after giving it over to others for most of the year, do you still want to hear about me, my family, my Shabbat? Whew, internal monologues are exhausting.

Because of the confusing timing issues, for the record, we’re talking about the Shabbat of September 28-29 2012, right after Yom Kippur, right before Sukkot.  I blessedly and blissfully didn’t have any plans or work obligations Friday night, and I did a lot of cooking that afternoon.  I made spinach casserole, Adrienne’s “most favorite squash concoction,” chocolate chip cookie bars, barley soup, and baked tofu, all in a couple of quick, messy hours.

Marc, Aliza, and I all ate dinner together, all sitting down at the same time at the table, and it was perfect.  Saturday, we hosted a small, quiet lunch, and we ate this crockpot barley soup I made, which turned out to be a totally delicious experiment.  And then we had the rest of Shabbat.  That’s code for, I have no recollection of what else happened.  We probably went to a playground, probably also the park, Aliza probably took a nap and we probably wanted to but didn’t.  Just a guess, but it probably went something like that.

My overriding impression of the whole weekend is covered by a veneer of “I just told people we’re going to have another baby.”  (Remember, I said “the sharing of news.”)  So that’s the news.  And after this final set of holidays that begins in a few hours, we’re done with that part of the year, and life can get back to normal, whatever that is.

Experimental Crockpot Barley Soup

Here’s sort of what I did.  I’ll never be able to recreate it, but I can try, and so can you.  It was awesome.  If yours turns out delicious, you did it right.

1 cup dry barley
1/2 cup dried lentils
a few tablespoons tomato paste
2 carrots, chopped
1 onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
8 cups water
2-3 teaspoons pareve chicken powder (if you have no idea what this is, it’s like bouillon, and I suppose you could use stock instead in place of some of the water)

Put everything in the crockpot on low for 8 hours.  That’s it.

She looks like big sister material, right?

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