Sunday, December 24, 2017

What is Nittel Nacht?

With few exceptions, Christmas is a fairly dull day for Jews around the world. Christmas Eve, on the other hand, has some unique traditions. The most well-known is probably that Jews in the United States have popularized the tradition of eating Chinese food and viewing movies on Christmas Eve, and this custom has seeped into cultures throughout the world. But it is Nittel Nacht that is the most unique of them all. 

Meaning and Origins
Nittel Nacht originated in the 17th century and its name is difficult to decipher. Nacht is German for "night," but the term Nittel's origins are less clear. Here are a few suggestions:
  • Natale Dominus, which is Latin for "The birth of our God"
  • Natal, which has roots in the Hebrew for "to have been hanged" or to "be taken away"
  • Nolad Yeshu Tet l'Tevet, which is Hebrew for "Jesus was born on the ninth of Tevet" (and whose acronym would be NYTLT. 
The latter is likely the most accurate, although it still makes the overall translation a bit obscure.

The term Nittel Nacht originates from the 16th or 17th century when Jews were prohibited on Christmas from public appearances and studying the Torah, particularly because most at this period didn't have books at home with which to learn, and going to the synagogue or house of study was a dangerous prospect. Thus, learning and any errands were put off because Jews feared pogroms. In some places, where the treatment of Jews was particularly harsh, rabbis urged their congregants to extinguish all lights throughout Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, just to be extra careful. 

Likewise, Jewish mystics during the period believed that marital relations on the day would result in apostates, so rabbis of the time forbade such relations. Similarly, mystics forbade studying Torah because Christmas was considered a day of widespread adultery and Torah study contributes to goodness and light in the world, making the day itself and the act of learning incompatible. 

There have been some suggestions that the game of dreidel arose as a quiet indoor activity because Chanukah and Christmas often fall in close proximity, with the two holidays often falling at the same time (Shem Mishmuel Vol 2 p.75).

The Customs
In addition to the above customs, there were countless others observed in different communities, including
  • Playing cards, which was frowned upon by some halachic authorities
  • Playing chess, which was the practice of the Chabad rebbes Menachem Mendel Schneerson and Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson 
  • Tearing toilet paper for Shabbat use throughout the year (there is a prohibition against certain types of tearing on Shabbat)
  • Reading Toledot Yeshu, a parody of the Christian gospels
  • Organizing the family finances
  • Reading secular books
  • Sewing
How To
In modern times, because Jewish-Christian relations are not nearly as tense as they were during the Middle Ages, the practices of Nittel Nacht are not as widely observed. Likewise, in Israel and other Sephardic communities, the custom never took hold, and even those communities from tense regions in Europe who fled to Israel didn't take the custom with them. 

In fact, there are many communities who intentionally study Torah on Christmas Eve to show that there is no longer a fear of Christian uprisings and pogroms of the past. Nonetheless, some Orthodox communities (specifically Chabad) still observe Nittel Nacht  and the one consistent custom across the board is to not study Torah (in some cases just until midnight) and to participate in activities that exercise the mind (like chess). 

Bonus Fact
Interestingly, in the regions where Nittel Nacht was developed, there was no such thing as a Christmas Eve that fell on December 24th. Instead, Nittel Nacht was observed around January 6th or 7th.

Note: This was originally published on December 23, 2015 on About.com. Since then, this content has been removed from their website. 

Friday, December 15, 2017

Recipe: Cinnamon Bun Pie


Great news, everyone! I got permission to post the recipe for the Cinnamon Bun Pie I can't stop raving about that I mentioned in my review of Real Life Kosher Cooking. I'm going to post the straight recipe and then, at the end, I'll include my substitution notes. If you make this, let me know what you think!

Ingredients

1/4 cup oil
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar
3 eggs
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups flour

Cinnamon Filling
1/3 cup ground pecans
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 Tbls cinnamon
1/4 cup oil

1 graham cracker crust

Cream Cheese Glaze
2 ounces (1/4 package) nondairy cream cheese
1 1/4 cups powdered sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 Tbls soy milk

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Prepare the batter: In the bowl of an electric mixer, on medium speed, beat together oil and sugars until combined and creamy. Add eggs, one at a time. Add baking powder and vanilla, beating well to combine after each addition. 
  3. Turn mixer speed to low; gradually add flour. Beat until combined. Set aside.
  4. Prepare the filling: In a small bowl, combine filling ingredients until smooth. Set aside.
  5. When filling pie crust, be careful to add each layer very gently, so you don't break the crust. Pour 1/4 of the batter into the graham cracker crust; use a flexible spatula to smooth the top. Top with 1/3 of the filling. Smooth the top.
  6. Repeat the process, ending with the batter. Note that the batter will be hard to spread; you can make fewer layers so that it's easier to assemble.
  7. Bake for 35-40 minutes, until top is set. It's meant to be soft in the center, so don't over bake it. 
  8. Prepare the glaze: Combine glaze ingredients in a small bowl. Whisk until smooth.
  9. For best results, serve warm. Drizzle glaze over each slice just before serving.
Notes
  • I used Cup4Cup gluten-free flour as a substitute, and it worked perfectly. I also substituted a gluten-free graham cracker crust. 
  • For the glaze, I used regular cream cheese and regular milk. 
  • I used pecan pieces instead of ground pecans, and it added a nice crunch to the pie. 
  • When "building" the pie, I found the best/easiest way to assemble the pie was to use gloves and smooth the dough out in the pie pan. A spatula just didn't do the trick. 
  • This pie freezes well, so feel free to freeze it!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Cookbook Review: Real Life Kosher Cooking

I'm back! It's been a while. Like, a really long while. Life is busy, I've had a cough for about six weeks now that I'm so, so, so over*, but my energy levels are slowly building back up, so I've been cooking up a storm in the kitchen.


I recently received a free copy of Real Life Kosher Cooking by the amazing Miriam Pascal of The Overtime Cook for review, and I was so excited to dig into this cookbook, mostly because the title suggests some quick, easy, "real life" recipes for busy folks like you and me.

When I get cookbooks for review, the first thing I do is dig through the cookbook quickly to see whether there's a good balance of vegetarian recipes and desserts mixed in with the typical meat recipes. Since we're vegetarian at home, it's important that a kosher cookbook offer up plenty of options for those meatless evenings. Likewise, I like to see if the meat recipes are easily convertible into vegetarian dishes using mushrooms, tofu, and other easy substitutes.

Guess what? This cookbook has it all ... and you won't spend all day in the kitchen.

Next up, I pick out a few recipes that I think I'll love (okay, that my family might enjoy, too), and in this case, I zoned in on one recipe in particular: Cinnamon. Bun. Pie.


Yes, I'm gluten-free (not by choice, believe me), and this Cinnamon Bun Pie recipe was screaming my name. I love love love love love cinnamon rolls. Back when I lived in New Jersey and traveled into the city almost daily for school at NYU, I'd walk past that Cinnabon in the bus station and die. Like, just melt. Not only wasn't it kosher, but it wasn't gluten free. Since then, I've attempted to make gluten-free cinnamon rolls, I've tried (and tried again) the Udi's Cinnamon Rolls, and I've been nothing but disappointed and irritated with the amount of work that goes into making my own.






Enter Miriam Pascal and the Cinnamon Bun Pie! Now, her recipe isn't gluten free, but with two easy substitutions (Cup4Cup flour + a gluten-free graham cracker curst) ... *poof* ... gluten free. I don't know how the regular, gluten-y dough works out in this recipe, but with the gluten-free version I found that the easiest way to "build" the pie was to pop on some gloves, spray them with oil, and press the dough into the pan. It made it so easy to build the pie, especially the second layer that needed to be spread around, and it got me closer to baking and eating it.



What can I say? This is hand's down the most delicious cinnamon roll I've ever tasted in my life. The center of the pie stays moist and gooey, while the edges bake into that perfect crispy, crusty cinnamon roll that you want to douse in more and more frosting. I was apprehensive about the graham cracker crust, but it plays perfectly into that cinnamon goodness. The other great thing about this pie is that it's incredibly rich, so small pieces with plenty of frosting go a long way. Even my husband enjoyed it. I might cut down on the amount of sugar the next time I make it (like tomorrow), but otherwise the easy is exactly what you're looking for:

Easy.
Quick.
Delicious.
Kosher.
A real crowd-pleaser.

Of course, after I made the Cinnamon Bun Pie I realized I needed to sample a few more recipes, preferably of the savory variety, to balance out my love of sweets and desserts. With Shabbat on the way last week, I decided to go Asian. I made my own recipe for Garlic Roasted Eggplant and paired it with two recipes from Real Life Kosher Cooking: Garlicky Roasted Mushrooms and Snow Peas + Sauteed Cabbage and Vegetables.



These two recipes were the perfect centerpieces for our Asian Shabbat dinner. The mushrooms and peas had an excellent crunch and plenty of flavor, while the cabbage and vegetables truly tasted like the insides of an egg roll. I do think next time I'll do something to add a bit more texture to the cabbage, because my husband commented that it was missing a bit of crunch and a bite. In the cookbook, Miriam does say that both of these dishes are best served fresh, and I did warm them up for Shabbat dinner, but the integrity and flavor of both of the dishes stood up to being reheated.

I'm eager to try so many of Miriam's other recipes in this cookbook, because even the recipes that look challenging turn out to be extremely quick and easy (I'm looking at you, Cinnamon Bun Pie).

Have you seen this new cookbook? Which recipes from The Overtime Cook are your absolute favorite? 


*If you're a mommy who has given vaginal birth, you're totally feeling for me right now.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Conversion, Genetics, and my 23andMe Story

This might be my longest posting gap ... ever. I haven't posted in two months. The excuse? Honestly, I don't know. I have three days a week to myself, where I drown myself in the part-time work I have and running errands against the clock before kids come home and my level of energy for the day crashes at crazy fast rates.

Sigh.

But here I am. Inspired, just a little, to say something. I got a notification from 23andMe.com, where I got some genetic testing done a few months back, to participate in a storytelling mission. Although they didn't accept my story, I thought y'all might want to read the short story I wrote about why I sprang for the 23andMe adventure.


The greatest impetus for me to do 23andMe was to find out if I had any Jewish ancestry, because I chose more than 10 years ago to journey into becoming a Jew. I converted to Judaism, and like many converts, I was immensely curious whether there was a hidden and lost thread of Jewish history in my family background that was trying to peek out through me. For many converts, finding that thread validates their choice to take the complicated and emotional path into conversion. I had done my family's genealogy and found lineage back to the 1700s on both sides thanks to my uncle being Mormon and there being massive research already done on my family. But despite my deepest digging, I only found one mysterious relative who was Polish, and I thought "maybe this is the connection to Ashkenazic Jewry I'm looking for.

Then I got my test results back. Not a lick of Jewish ancestry! As I suspected from my research, lots of British, French, and German in my background, but that's about it. I am, through and through, European, but not Ashkenazic in my genetic background.

In one sense, I was disappointed. I had hoped to find that thread, to know that I had picked up the thread. In another sense, I was proud to know that my compulsion to convert to Judaism and become a member of the Jewish people was truly authentic, completely my own. That it arose out of a place hidden for thousands and thousands of years, as the Jewish tradition says that every soul that converts stood at Sinai and accepted Torah. So, it appears my soul was there. But my ancestors were not. 

And that, friends, is my 23andMe story.

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Additionally, although I didn't say it above, my secondary reason for doing 23andMe was because I was hoping to find maybe some weird genetic marker for an illness or disease, something with insight into what my father has been dealing with for the past several years that remains undiagnosed. Alas, no major markers for any of the diseases or illnesses they catalog. Aside from being prone to being overweight, my genes are pretty good to go.

So, if you'd like to hop on the 23andMe bandwagon and see what your genetics have in store, click here and get a kit (referral link). Then, let me know what you find out!