Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Laila Tov, he said...

Hello from Fat and Bloated. Does everyone feel this way half the time, or is this my own special gift -- to be a Petri-dish, a pawn with no control over when I will be thrown down the white-waters of my digestive system’s moody delights and surprises? Maybe it’s the weekend of Cotswold food – duck baked to within an inch of its long-lost life, vegetables boiled to distraction, freshly fried chips as thick as a baby couch potato’s arm. Maybe it’s the anti-biotics, or the week of running around without time to consider myself. Whatever it is, mama ain’t likin’ the gut, or the feeling of wearing a blubber suit.

It’s [ONLY] on days like today that I miss [ONLY ONE ASPECT] of my old job in television production: the hours of being on my feet, running around, trying to locate a battery in a desert, or a ham sandwich in a dairy farm. Typing doesn’t do much for the cardiovascular. And the London summer doesn’t lend itself too well to outdoor exercise.

But enough with the self-pity. As my friend V says, “put the bat down…”



Oh all right… Fine…

The other day I was talking to someone about the upheaval involved in travelling as much as I do. We were talking about the rituals of life, and she asked what mine were.

I tend to think of rituals as big, orchestrated events created to mark a new stage in life -- weddings, bar-mitzvahs, funerals – days weighed down by traditions and a list of boxes to tick off, dictating what should happen when. The seven days of prayers before a couple gets married, the seven days of mourning after the death of a close family member, the intonation in a young boy’s voice as he reads the chapter of the Torah he has been rehearsing months – all of these constitute rituals for me.

I remember the shock that rippled through my grandmother’s building when people found out that there would be no formal shiva for my grandfather. That meant that for the seven days of mourning, there would be no formal prayers every day and so no excuse to go stock up on the cold cuts, pastries and breads that are traditionally laid out for the mourners and the waves of neighbours and friends who come to pay their respects.

After the funeral, as the car made its way back to my grandmother’s apartment, we talked about the rabbi whose heavy New York accent had given his speech a bit of a farcical undertone.
“Your grandfather never liked that man,” my grandmother told me matter-of-factly, “he would have hated to have him there.”
“Why did you get him to lead the service then?” I asked, shocked.
“There was nobody else,” she said. “It doesn’t really matter anyway, it won’t bring him back.”

As I plan my wedding, I find myself looking for meaning in even the smallest of decisions, those that I rationally know will make very little if any difference at all. I have read many articles asserting that I am not alone, that the cost of weddings has nearly quadrupled as couples, striving to make their wedding “unique,” drape everything in so much symbolism that there is often little wiggle room left for enjoyment of the actual moment that is at the core of the event. It becomes more important to have shoes in the exact shade of white, the right flowers, the perfect everything, than to enjoy the day – a sad but telling segue into what is to come. Apparently, as we become more immune to the D-bomb, as divorce becomes a way of solving marital spats, as sticking with one another through thick and thin becomes less about a couple and more about a pre-nup, weddings have been transformed into an insurance policy of sorts, as if an expensive wedding could ensure a long-lasting marriage. These same articles, go on to gloatingly point out that none of this -- not cost, not symbolism, not neurotic micro-planning -- matters in the end.

D and I have an interesting dilemma in terms of how we would like to honour our respective traditions – or not. In the end, it is relatively simple to go down the list of our dos and don’ts and decide that yes, we will break a glass and no, I won’t wear a veil, yes there will be Jewish dancing, no there won’t be any hula. These definites are easy: there’s an accepted way in which these things are done, and it is our choice whether we follow these simple guidelines and remain traditional, or whether we off-road and do our own thing.

All adventures aside, however, we’ve been spending a lot of time examining parts of our separate cultures and reshaping them into a shared creation. We are appropriating, modifying, rearranging traditions like one would when transforming a new house into a home. “Mine” becomes “ours” as we morph historical customs into new, modern innovation with a wink and a nod to our histories:

We are getting married under a chuppah, me in a traditional Western wedding dress, D in a kilt. As a result, I keep having to explain to people in Israel what a kilt is.
“Oh, the Scottish skirt!” is the usual response.
On the other hand, I have had to look up the exact symbolism of a chuppah to explain to our many friends who had never before heard of it.

And once you start going down the road of meaning, it becomes a question of where you decide to stop. A chuppah is historically constructed using a prayer shawl that is held up by four poles. Traditionally it symbolised the future home of the couple; and at the ceremony itself, the man would be waiting under it for the woman to join him. This parallels the way the marriage would, more often than not, affect each of them individually: the woman would move from her home and into her husband’s; she would be the one leaving her own life behind and integrate -- preferably as seamlessly as possible -- into his. Though that is not the case with D and I, something about perpetuating that small gesture irks me. It is an unimportant detail, but will I be able to let it go – another one of the seemingly endless questions, options, minutiae -- in order to focus on other elements of this day?

It’s almost like a recipe for some strange, multi-ethnic dish that nobody quite knows how to make and which can go totally wrong or come out absolutely divine. Add a splash of “forever” to a mixture of “us” and “loved ones”, along with a good dollop of “you’ll never forget” and a healthy dose of “best day of your life” – it’s enough to rattle even the most adventurous gluttons. And I’m leaving out vanity!

When you add vanity to the mix, the rules of the game change completely. When do I want D to first see me in my dress? Does he see me first and do we enter together? Do I want him to catch his first glimpse of the vision I will obviously have to be at the same time as everyone else, or should I be the one waiting for the guests?

Though D has been intimately involved in every part of planning the wedding, when it comes to how we will join one another under the chuppah, his response has been “whatever you’d like, sweetheart.”
Not to downplay how fabulous D is and has been at every stage so far, but he obviously isn’t as affected by the symbolism.

In my head, it’s become a well-greased slope as one thought leads to the next: is anyone surprised that women have been known to lose all control when it comes to getting married? Back then, they were planning their own demise, orchestrating their last meal, setting the music to their walk off the plank. If I was going to become my husband’s property after marriage, I would also be planning it as “my day” – as the more traditional people around me keep insisting it is – my last day of relative freedom instead of a celebration of the union between myself and my partner.

I’m so glad times have changed… sort of

D and I have been planning this as “our day”. We have made every decision together and have deferred to one another at every stage of the process. Still, many people insist on telling me that it’s MY day to shine.
“It’s your day to be a princess,” they tell me as if this will lessen the stress, make things easier in one way or another.
“You can do whatever you want,” they tell me, “it’s all about you.”
Now we all know that this is not true. Everybody comes with expectations, and if they don’t make them clear beforehand, they will most probably take advantage of the years to come in order to do so.

I can already hear it:
April 17th, 2015
#1: “that was a great wedding last night. My chicken was delicious!”
#2: “yes, I loved the dancing. So wonderful, these youngsters. And the decorations! I felt like I was in a different country.”
#1: “Do you remember that other wedding? Terrible.”
#2: “How could I forget? I was so disappointed. She looked like a slob. And the food…”
#1: “You would think they would have planned it better.”
#2: “I always say, learn from other people’s mistakes.”
#1: (laughs) “and there was a lot to learn. Such a shame…”

I know, I know: who cares? why listen? etc. etc. etc.

I’ve never had so many voices, opinions, advice buzzing around my head at the same time. They’re like insects – or onion rings: impossible to ignore.

For example, it is very much frowned upon for anybody but the bride to wear white. The custom is based on the idea that on her wedding day, no one should outshine her. But what if white doesn’t suit her? What if she wants to get married in red? And what about not outshining the groom who probably is more difficult to pick out of the mass of other men in suits?

Where does ritual end and bullshit start?

As I walk around London still in a state somewhat resembling culture shock, I see women everywhere wearing that rock on their left ring fingers and somehow feel a kinship with them. Like when I’m in the middle of nowhere and someone toasts with L’chaim, or their star of David becomes visible under their sweater. These things don’t mean that I’ll have more in common with that person, but in the eternal quest for connection, even something as superficial as being engaged at the same time can create a sense of intimacy. If they see mine, we might exchange a small smile. I wonder where they are in the planning stages, how they are feeling about it. At the pharmacy, the woman tells me she hasn’t had the courage to even start to figure things out. The girl behind the counter at the health food store has left it all up to her mother. A woman I’ve seen on and off on Marylebone High street – she sells me my loose-leaf tea – breaks the news to me that she’s called it off. “More fish in the sea,” she tells me. Speaking of fish, I think, should we include it in the menu, or will chicken and lamb be enough.

In Bangkok, after a particularly intense yoga class, I got to talking with a woman in the locker room. She had been teaching English in Bangkok for the past year, she told me, and was returning to the UK in July to get married.
“My fiancĂ© has done all the planning,” she told me, “it’s been hard.”
If the roles were reversed, I’m sure her future husband wouldn’t have described the difficulties, but this woman was obviously feeling the stress of having to give up control of “her day.”

Some days I can’t wait for my wedding; others I feel I need to prove something although I’m not sure to whom. People ask what a Jewish wedding is, they ask about my dress or the food, the location and the invitee list. I don’t quite know how to explain that I would prefer to say nothing as everyone has their way of visualising descriptions, every imagination builds things up in a different way, and the last thing I want to do is disappoint. But I can’t not say anything – this is my wedding we’re talking about after all and I’ve never been very good at keeping my own secrets!

We wanted to get married in London, in LA, in New York. We thought about castles and friends’ homes and the desert. In the end when we finally found “our spot” – or when it found us – as we stood there holding hands, listening to the silence around us, finally, finally nothing mattered but D and I. For that one moment, it all came together and our two visions merged into one. We saw our wedding, not the symbolism of it, not the price tag, not the expectations; we were able to envision the practical execution of the day itself, the actual marriage, the party, the joy, the rite of passage. We saw our friends dancing, we saw our eyes locking as the sun set and we spoke our vows, we saw the food laid out along the tables. For a second, it had already happened, everything, exactly the way it should. When I get too nervous now, when everything feels overwhelming and every vendor seems blinded by the dollar signs in their eyes, with every question and challenge that creeps up, I recall that vision and remind myself that it will all, in the end, be perfect, no matter what.

There is a beautiful theory in Judaism stating that although Moses died before entering the Land of Israel, before his passing, God allowed him to see all of what would happen to the Jewish people. In the same fashion, when a parent holds their child for the first time, for the briefest instant, they get a glimpse of the entire life that awaits the newborn in their arms. At that moment is when that child receives their name.

Rituals, my friend pointed out, are not just those that mark milestones. They can be smallest things: brushing one’s teeth in a certain way, breakfast, where you hang your coat when you walk in the door. Rituals are what tell me I’m home; they also create a comfort zone when I am in new surroundings.

As a child, I moved often. But every night, no matter where we were, my mother would kiss my ear loud enough for it to ring for the few minutes afterwards (this later become a running joke), and whisper a short prayer. That was when I knew was safe to go to sleep.

These days, though I crave some kind of permanence, I fear it almost as much as I fear the unfamiliar. Sometimes I think that D and I have developed more rituals in airports and airplanes than we have at home. I know where I’m going to sit in Heathrow or JFK or Ben Gurion. I know which magazines I’m going to buy – the really bad celebrity rags that I only allow myself when travelling – and that D is going to open his computer at the terminal and zone out with a coffee for as long as he can, especially if we are travelling economy, because he doesn’t fit into the regular seats and can barely sit comfortably, let alone open his laptop. Once in the air, D will work, his yellow pad cutting into his midriff, while I catch up on all the movies I’ve missed at home where we struggle to create some semblance of a day-to-day routine.

Travelling, I gain perspective; I see the chaos that is my day-to-day back home and decide to change it. I make plans to work every morning and deal with the administration of our lives in the afternoon. From a distance, it looks simple, straightforward, uncomplicated.

Then I get home.

In London, my return to the stability that I crave when I’m away is more often than not accompanied by melancholy. Ironically, it is the routine that I will have planned from afar that gets me down. Looking out at the rooftops from our fourth-floor apartment that I have redecorated and redesigned to be our home, I tell myself that it is in the small things that I will find profound meaning. I latch on to the smell of my gluten-free bread baking, D’s breathing as he sleeps next to me, having to wear a scarf even though it’s technically summer – something, anything that I will be able to draw out long enough to sustain an interesting next paragraph – for use in conversation, in my writing, in this blog, in my life. Because don’t they say that it is the little details that make all the difference? Yet I can find nothing suitable or exciting enough – no universal messages wait for me under any of the symbolic rocks of my life that I turn over in the dullness of the day-to-day.

Reunions with friends pacify me like local anaesthetic as we catch up on what they’ve been up to in my absence. There is a wedding to plan and I am more grateful than not for the obligatory portions of my day it greedily swallows up. The less time I have, the more I try to get accomplished.

Time, that ominous rogue, inches along at its pace, though when I look back I know it will have flown by.
“Already?” I’ll ask D, as we lie in bed in our hotel room in Jerusalem having just pledged our selves to each other.
He will laugh his warm, kind, loving laugh: “I know!”

Every night, D fills my water glass and puts it by my bed. Every morning, I make him breakfast. He makes the bed, I make tea. I do the dishes, he dries them. Many times I have filled my own water glass and brought it to bed only to find that there is one there already, waiting sweetly for me. D has asked me on more than one occasion what he can make me for breakfast. “Don’t bother,” is my response, I’ll do it. Because as we get to know each other better, we create these little routines, these silly little rituals that are the outline of our couple. They define us as home for one another though I don’t notice them until they’re gone.

When I was a child, my mother would say “it’s not about whether the man you are with is well-read or an intellectual, but whether he pushes the toothpaste out of the tube from the end or the middle.” I am lucky to have found somebody who satisfies my emotional and intellectual needs as well as does his share in the house. And with regards to the toothpaste issue, we use separate tubes as he prefers the commercial, fluoride kind while I use a natural alternative.

Even though I am now an adult, planning my wedding, building my life with my future husband; when we stay over at my mothers and she kisses my ear to say good night, for that one instant, I am once again cradled in the safety of childhood as I was back then, in my messy room that she wanted me to clean up and that I refused to. As my eardrum quivers, for a moment I don’t have all those decisions to make and all that responsibility because I am home, with my mother talking to the cat in the next room. Then D will silently grab my hand, remind me of where we are, who we are now. He will kiss my lips and mumble “laila tov” (goodnight in Hebrew) in our own little ritual before sleep.

“Laila Tov” he would whisper to me over the phone when I was in Thailand, and I would almost feel him kissing me, his hand in mine.
“Laila Tov” he said on the night we reunited after two months apart. It had been a strange day and we had spent a good portion of it looking at each other like teenagers with a crush on one another – wanting to be more emotional but holding back a little bashfully. That night, when he lightly touched my lips with his and said goodnight in Hebrew, I remembered him, our life, and everything I loved about us. Those two words, the invocation of our ritual brought it all back in a way that mere physical proximity to one another hadn’t.


I was born in El Salvador, but I was not raised there. My mother, however, was, and though she grew up often eating dishes prepared from recipes her own parents had brought with them from Europe, she also loves the native Salvadoran food. Taste, like smell, is a powerful emotional tool. My mother is an adventurous eater but still, there is nothing like the dishes she grew up with, the rich corn tamales with cream, the beans and rice, the stuffed pupusas. She has, in turn, passed that love on to my brother and I.

Recently, I was craving some comfort food and decided to try and make my own version of tortillas and frijoles.

One of my favorite kitchen tools is our electric slow cooker. London is quite cold and grey a lot of the time. Stews and roasts are a perfect match for that kind of weather and with a slow cooker, they are the easiest thing in the world. You simply dump everything into the pot and let it sit for a bunch of hours after which the food is ready. It is a great trick for busy people as you can let it sit overnight, or get it started before work and come home to a fully cooked, delicious meal. Vegetables come out buttery and soft (even without butter) and chicken and lamb melt of the bones. The most important thing to remember with a slow cooker is not to over-season: with all those hours of sitting, herbs and spices take on extra strong qualities so a little goes a long way. Our simple, no frills model cost us 20£ or $40. After a few false starts, I can say with certainty that it was definitely worth the investment! And I can see how it will be even more of a lifesaver once D and I start a family.

Extra slow cooked aduki* bean frijoles:
1 package of dried aduki beans. Rinse the beans well and soak them overnight or for at least 8 hours in water with a few drops of fresh lemon juice. (some people say that since I will be cooking the beans for so long, there is no need to soak them. I do anyway)
Throw away the water and rinse the beans well.
Roughly chop a couple of yellow onions (I like a lot of onions, so I use two large or three smaller ones) and a couple of strips of kombu**
Layer the bottom of the slow-cooker with the onions and the kombu.
Pour the beans over the onion and kombu
Add enough water to almost cover the beans and set the cooker on high.
Leave the mixture to cook for three to four hours.
(I usually soak the beans throughout the day and then start cooking around six in the evening or so.)
After three to four hours, add enough water to just about cover the beans, switch the cooker settings to low and let it continue cooking for 8 to10 hours or so.
By the morning, the mixture should be wonderfully thick and stew-like. If too much water remains, the soup can be transferred to the stove and reduced by cooking it on a low flame until enough of the water evaporates.

Corn and brown rice tortillas***
Mix two parts corn flour with one part brown rice flour. Add a pinch of salt and water and knead with your hands. The batter should become slightly thick but quite still watery.
Use a non-stick pan or rub a little oil in a small frying pan. Heat on a low to medium flame. Once the pan is hot, use a ladle to make the tortillas which should be about ten cm / 4 inches in diameter and thick like American pancakes. Flip them every few minutes until cooked through.
Preheat the oven on low to keep the finished tortillas warm (cold tortillas can taste like cardboard)

*aduki beans are a red bean. They help with controlling damp bodily conditions that many people are prone to in the British climate, and are easier to digest than many of their compadres.
** kombu is a type of seaweed. Only very little is needed – a strip or two for an entire package of beans, but it adds wonderful flavor to soups and stews as well as many vitamins and minerals. Kombu is usually hard and tough when purchased, but it softens with cooking. It can be removed once the dish is cooked, or can be eaten.
*** Though beans are a staple of many vegetarian diets, they do not provide a full protein on their own. This is why, nutritionally, rice is a natural complement.

No comments: