Have a Very Veggie Holiday

Debra Wasserman’s tahini peanut confection

Debra Wasserman’s tahini peanut confection

Here’s a tricky one: If a vegan were to garnish his or her “nonmeat meat” product (say, a tofu dog) with nondairy cheese, would the culinary combination prove to be a violation of kosher law?

“Our goal is not to go around rules like that,” said Debra Wasserman, who is the co-director and co-founder of the Baltimore-based Vegetarian Resource Group. As with this nationwide nonprofit she has successfully run for the past 35 years, Wasserman’s goal is one of educating and “making it easier for anyone who wants to become a vegetarian or vegan in any situation.”

Diane Bravmann’s un-chicken soup

Diane Bravmann’s un-chicken soup

One such perfect situation, Wasserman — who has been a staunch vegan since 1980 — suggested is the High Holiday dinners, when delectable yet salubrious alternatives to traditional recipes can be attempted to stimulate one’s and one’s family’s taste buds while heartily fortifying the rest of the body.

Born and raised in Long Island, N.Y., Wasserman received her master’s in international relations from Georgetown University. It was in Washington, D.C., where she became involved in a vegetarian group before arriving in Baltimore with her husband, Charles. The spousal team was dedicated to either finding a similar vegetarian group in its new home city or, barring that, starting one of its own, which is exactly what happened.

Three decades later, Wasserman is a national beacon for healthy dietary choices, having authored such books as “Lowfat Jewish Vegetarian Cookbook” and “No Cholesterol Passover Recipes,” whose recipes she has demonstrated for salivating audiences through such largescale outlets as “Good Morning America.”

“People need to focus on healthier foods: fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and stop focusing on processed garbage,” Wasserman said. “Because I’m Jewish, I often work in that area. I’ve always told people who don’t know where to begin to consider their history.”

As Wasserman extrapolated, “If you look at Jews in the past and from around the world, they were certainly much more organic in their culinary choices. Jews come from all over, and there are so many recipes for the holidays to choose from, as long as people keep an open mind.”

“No matter what your level of Judaism,” Wasserman said, “you can do this.”

There are a lot of misconceptions about what vegans eat, but almost without exception I can tell you  vegans love food.” — Jeffrey Cohan

 

If anything, preparing vegetarian and vegan foods for the High Holidays “makes keeping kosher infinitely easier,” according to Jeffrey Cohan, executive director of Jewish Veg (formerly Jewish Vegetarians of North America).

Debra Wasserman’s cabbage salad

Debra Wasserman’s cabbage salad

Cohan’s group, which he has been running for the past four years, is based out of Pittsburgh but has satellites in California and New York, where the 41-year-old nonprofit’s board meets.

“Our mission is to encourage and help people to transition to plant-based diets, partially on the basis of Jewish values and primarily within the Jewish community,” Cohan said.

Cohan believes that his organization’s proposition of “veganism as ultimate  objective” by way of “reducing consumption of animal products, including meat, eggs and dairy” is essentially as Jewish as, well, apple kugel.

“Our organization couldn’t even exist if a plant-based diet wasn’t a Jewish ideal,” Cohan continued. “This was how we were supposed to be eating all along.”

As Cohan put it, there’s a three-part  argument at work here about which “there’s no debate from rabbis.”

Firstly, Cohan pointed to the Torah’s  recounting of the first conversation between God and man as dictated by Genesis:  “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to everything that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food.”

Cohan again referenced the holy tome for his second piece of evidence.

“While meat eating is permitted, more often than not, the Torah presents it in a negative context and in some contexts,  extremely negative,” Cohan said. “So the idea is clearly communicated.”

Cohan rests his case with “three words all Jewish people should know: tzar baalei chayim, or the ‘prevention of animal suffering.’ This is a core concept of Judaism, rooted in numerous verses in the Torah.”

Jewish Veg supporters enjoying vegan food at the organization’s 40th anniversary celebration

Jewish Veg supporters enjoying vegan food at the organization’s 40th anniversary celebration

As Cohan pronounced, “Simply put, what’s happening in animal treatment today is a desecration of tzar baalei chayim. Therefore, no meat could be considered kosher, because you can’t have a mitzvah enabled by a sin.”

Baltimore native and Pikesville resident Diane Bravmann became a vegetarian “and mostly vegan,” as she made sure to add, 42 years ago after the birth of her first child “taught me to focus more on food and quality from the standpoint of prepared baby food versus making your own.”

In concert with Cohan’s assertion, Bravmann views the restorative choice she’s made as an inherently Jewish perspective.

“For me, it all goes together,” she said. “Our purpose is to heal the Earth and help others and do work beyond ourselves.  All that goes with taking care of the environment and all the inhabitants of our  environment. Judaism fits right into that.”

Along with her elevated sensitivity  toward animal treatment and awareness of the kinds of food she was preparing for her children, Bravmann credits another crucial factor in her galvanization toward vegetarianism: a wider availability of product.

After seeing more and more specialized foods in markets, particularly the likes of Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, Bravmann and other vegetarians/vegans discovered an entirely new colorful palette of ingredients with which to design their strategy toward foodie wellness.

Wasserman concurs that proliferate specialty stores such as Whole Foods and, now, other mainstream chains carrying a larger spate of alternative products makes the vegetarian/vegan transition that much simpler.

“You can imagine the demand is pretty high right now,” she said.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about what vegans eat, but almost without exception I can tell you vegans love food,” Cohan cheerfully proclaimed.

“We believe in our movement that food is our greatest asset and we’re not suffering any deprivations.”

Cohan is equally excited as Wasserman and Bravmann that, for example, “whereas it used to be a real problem for vegans, now the quality and quantity of nondairy cheese is really tremendous.”

Hence a favorite of his: lasagna made with nondairy cheese in lieu of mozzarella and ricotta.

For the Holidays in particular, Cohan suggested starting with something that is basically as familiar as that lasagna of his with the vegetarian/vegan twist. This way, family and friends won’t be too inhibited from eating the new concoction that they may end up finding surprisingly delicious if only they’d give it a chance.

“You might bring something that they may have never tried before and they might be wary, but when they do try it, the vast majority of the time, they’ll find that what they’re eating is just as good as the animal-based version,” Cohan said.

“Use the same names as traditional dishes like kugel and challah and then increase health properties and variety by using vegan recipes,” Bravmann said. “Use tofu for your kugel instead of dairy products, for instance. You’re taking the familiar and traditional and making them even more nutritious and appealing.”

Bravmann has in the past made stuffing with vegetable broth and mushrooms as opposed to chicken or beef stock, throwing in various nuts and chia or hemp seeds that boost the nutritional value further still. Bravmann said she enjoys only using the same recipe once, improvising subsequent preparations to keep the process creative.

She’s struggled to figure out a name for the dish mentioned, which she referred to merely as a kind of “un-soup”, adding that it “will look like a chicken soup but it’s not. And people say, ‘Wow! This is even better than chicken soup.’”

Wasserman prefers the sweet to the savory and brought up her Romanian sweet pasta dish, which involves cooking pasta, heating up some maple syrup with ground walnuts or poppy seeds in a pot, adding lemon rind, clover and raisins in order to create something that can replace kugel on the dinner table.

What about apples and honey? Wasserman revealed a Jewish vegan would need to find an alternative here as well, since honey is an animal product, one whose  acquiring can often lead to a cataclysmic disturbance of bee communities, including decimation of whole hives and, as we’re discovering these days, the diminishment of bee numbers to near extinction.

Instead of honey, Wasserman might use agave nectar or an organic product called Bee Free Honee that is made from organic apples, a little bit of lemon juice and cane sugar.

Even a kind of brisket can find itself on the table of a Jewish vegan family, one that might use a wheat-based product called seitan as a mouthwatering replacement.

“It’s really just as tasty as any brisket your mom makes, but without the cholesterol and without the saturated fat,” Cohan said.

“You can get anything — cakes, pies, puddings, rugalach —without dairy or eggs. And it’s all relatively easy to make. You can modify any recipe to taste or dietary restriction.”

mklickstein@midatlanticmedia.com

Judaica Shops Roll with the Times

(Courtesy: giftsbygilda.com)

(Courtesy: giftsbygilda.com)

Tucked away on a quiet street in the basement of a Baltimore residence near Pikesville sits one of the area’s best-kept secrets of Judaica items: Gifts  by Gilda.

Known to loyal clients as “The Museum,” Gifts by Gilda, the brainchild of Gilda Naiman, has specialized in the selling of sterling silver items, many of which are imported from around the United States and Israel, since its founding in 1985.

At this time of the year, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur quickly approaching, sterling silver apple and honey dishes and jars are among the most popular items for Naiman’s customers.

“Once someone finds out about us, they always come back,” said Naiman, who added her business is performing as well as it ever has. “If someone asks around, they will find us, and we tend to find that our sales pick up for the High Holidays because of our unique selections. We pride ourselves on having the most competitive, cheapest prices while offering the best quality of products.”

Naiman, 52, and several others in the Greater Baltimore area are among a shrinking landscape of Judaica store owners and employees who are fighting to remain relevant in the ever-changing retail industry.

Shabsi Schneider, a 65-year-old Park Heights resident who has owned and  operated Shabsi’s Judaica Center for the last two-plus decades, said his store at 6830 Reisterstown Road continues to thrive despite increased competition from online retailers.

“We have been able to develop a strong following from the different communities around our store,” Schneider said. “People who live in areas that don’t have Judaica stores, they come to us a lot for whatever needs they may have.”

Just last year, however, Pern’s Hebrew Book & Gift Shop, a longtime staple in the area, closed its doors after more than 41 years. Several years ago, Naiman closed her second location on Reisterstown Road, citing that she no longer needed the extra space.

Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of Big Tent Judaism, formerly known as the Jewish Outreach Institute, said Judaica shops in general will have to adapt to avoid falling by the wayside.

“I think, like other Jewish institutions, the Judaica shop will have to become a mission-drive institution if it’s going to survive into the next generation,” Olitzky said. “So the question is: How can a Judaica shop reimagine  itself as providing a service that isn’t accessible?”

That’s a question Schneider has attempted to answer with his well-stocked assortment of Jewish supplies and gifts.

According to Schneider, who ships orders all around the country, his shop is the largest retailer of Jewish books (Hebrew and English) and Judaica  outside the state of New York.

At “The Museum,” there is no shortage of sterling silver items, many imported from Israel. (Justin Silberman)

At “The Museum,” there is no shortage of sterling silver items, many imported from Israel. (Justin Silberman)

“I try to keep all new titles on everything we carry,” he said. “I think that people find that when they come into the store, they are able to pick up  exactly what they want.”

In addition to apples and honey dishes and shofars — which Schneider said have been flying off the shelves — some of the most popular items he sells are Jewish calendars, candlesticks and children’s toys and games. Schneider, like Naiman, said his High Holidays sales are as high as he can recall in recent memory.

“A lot people come into our store not knowing exactly what they want to buy,” Schneider said. “But some people want to browse through the store to pick up and touch these items. I think one of the big advantages we have over going just online is that if you don’t know what you want, you can come in and browse, try it out and buy it if you choose.”

Synagogues have also had to modify their approach of how they manage their Judaica shops. Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, for example, houses one of the largest Judaica shops of any synagogue in the area and receives a lot of foot traffic from the various events it hosts throughout the year.

According to BHC gift shop business manager Ann Fishkin, the congregation and shop put a heavy emphasis on stocking up with items from local  vendors to help appeal to members and visitors alike.

While she said things have been a bit quieter than she would have hoped, Fishkin is pleased the congregation’s members still support the shop, and the shop, in turn, is able to help the congregation.

“Our goal has always been to supply Jewish families with Judaica in their homes, so we try to buy items that we think will be appropriate for those homes,” Fishkin said.

Olitzky said there is a critical element all Judaica shops can always offer that patrons won’t readily find behind a computer screen, laptop, smartphone or tablet.

“If you look at the changing retail landscape, the stores that are surviving — with the  exception of the big-box stores — are those that are providing products and services that give a hands-on experience,” he said. “That’s a very integral experience in terms of Jewish education. People still want an opportunity for that local pizza shop, that local dry cleaners, etc.”

jsilberman@midatlanticmedia.com

Bay Bank Sponsors High Holiday Israel Bonds

Bay Bank screenshot announcing its partnership with Israel Bonds

Bay Bank screenshot announcing its partnership with Israel Bonds

Israel Bonds Maryland has been collaborating with Hopkins Federal Savings Bank for a decade, supporting the tradition of equally matching all  Israel bonds investments by the community during the High Holidays. The acquisition of Hopkins Federal Savings Bank by Bay Bank earlier this year left some people uncertain about whether this support would continue. However, Bay Bank has confirmed that this partnership will not be impacted. The High Holidays match will continue this year.

Along with their other partners, The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, the Haron Dahan Foundation and the Sandra R. & Malcolm C. Berman Charitable Foundation, Israel Bonds has successfully raised more $75 million of investments for Israel in the past decade with this program.

“Having Bay Bank as a matching partner continues the program started by Hopkins Federal Savings Bank and strengthens the bond between the Baltimore community and Israel,” said Alan Dorenfeld,  Israel Bonds’ executive director in Maryland, in a news release.

“We are proud to continue Hopkins Federal Savings Bank’s 10-year tradition,” said the CEO of Bay Bank, Joseph J. Thomas, in a prepared statement.

The news release also states: “An Israel bond investment declares appreciation for the ideals and values of the State of Israel — democracy, diversity and putting human creativity and ingenuity to work to make the world a cleaner, safer, healthier, better place.”

Messages for the New Year Seven rabbis talk High Holidays and sermons

The High Holidays are a particularly heavy time of the year: a time for reflection, renewal, forgiveness and repentance for individuals, the Baltimore Jewish  community and the Jewish world at large.

For rabbis in the Greater Baltimore area, there is no uniform approach to composing sermons for the High Holidays nor uniform topics to cover. Some plan to cover topical issues such as the refugee crisis — although most plan to stay away from politics — while others plan to address more universal spiritual topics.

The JT spoke with seven area rabbis to hear about their approaches to the High Holidays. Here’s what they had to say.

— Marc Shapiro

 

Rabbi Dana Saroken

Rabbi Dana Saroken (Photo by David Stuck)

Rabbis Dana Saroken and Steven Schwartz

Beth El Congregation
Rabbi Dana Saroken, who joined Beth El in 2007 as the congregation’s first female rabbi, touches on certain topics each year, maintaining soulful and spiritual themes in her Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons.

This year, she’ll be focusing heavily on the Jewish society striving for happiness and the way people engage and value one another in a world that has become divided and polarized, as well as regret. Saroken will incorporate a bevy of techniques in her sermons to have her audience think outside the box.

“I try to address a range of topics over the course of the holidays and to find messages that have broad application and meaning,” Saroken said. “I also use a lot of kavannot (introductions) to the prayers and themes in the service to get people thinking. The main goal of the [High] Holy Days isn’t to move through the Machzor (prayer book) page by page. It’s to have the prayers and the experience of the day move us, so that we emerge from the [High] Holy Days as different people than we were when we began them.”

While spending countless months of coming up with these themes, Saroken hopes her congregants take a step back to think of the bigger picture and push that discussion beyond their everyday lives.

Rabbi Steven Schwartz (Photo by David Stuck)

Rabbi Steven Schwartz (Photo by David Stuck)

“Where do we need to be awakened? What causes are worthy of our time? And how can we be agents of change amidst the brokenness?” Saroken said.

“The moment that the shofar blasts at Neilah, marking the conclusion of Yom Kippur, we have a clean slate. We rid ourselves of the albatrosses and regrets and pain and brokenness that we as human beings with consciences inevitably carry, and we can go forth into the world and begin anew.”

For the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Saroken and senior rabbi Steven Schwartz will each hold separate services. On the second day, they will join together to cap all three services they hold for adults. There will also be sermons going on around the congregation simultaneously on both days for both teenagers and young children.

Some rabbis opt to bring current events into the fold, discussing subjects that might spark heated debates such as this year’s presidential race between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.

Although he said he won’t spend too much time dwelling on the matter, Schwartz will touch on the election and the two major party candidates during his Rosh Hashanah evening sermon.

“I think that it is a highly unusual election cycle,” said Schwartz, who has been with Beth El since 1998. “I think people are anxious about it, and I think people are going to vote for a candidate they don’t feel fully invested in.”

— Justin Silberman

 

Rabbi Steven Fink (Photo by David Stuck)

Rabbi Steven Fink (Photo by David Stuck)

Rabbi Steven Fink

Temple Oheb Shalom
Rabbi Steven Fink of Temple Oheb Shalom has the routine for his sermons down pat. Fink, 65, starts compiling ideas for his sermons and drafting them during the summer while making sure not to get too far ahead of himself.

This year, he has settled on a number of societal and cultural themes that many in the Jewish community find pressing.

Starting with Rosh Hashanah, he will address the difference between being alone and lonely in his evening service and then share his vision for America in his morning service.

“I won’t be speaking about the presidential election, but I’ll be speaking about my vision for America,” Fink said. “I’ll be talking about the ideals America aspires to achieve and how we should strive toward those ideals.”

For Yom Kippur, in his evening service, he will dissect how to fix the brokenness that many carry with them throughout their lives. He will spend his morning service examining what traits help make up a Jewish person’s DNA.

Fink’s sermons, which typically run anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes depending on the topic, may deviate from what he’s written if he finds that it is warranted.

In his 17 years at Oheb Shalom, Fink said there is one special humbling prayer not commonly practiced in Reform synagogues that he especially looks forward to.

“One of our most beautiful traditions is that during Yom Kippur afternoon during the Great Aleinu, the rabbis and cantor touch our heads to the floor at during the appropriate time,” Fink said. “When it says we bow our knees, we literally just put our knees on the floor and touch our floors to the head to show our complete humility before God.”

— Justin Silberman

 

Rabbi Etan Mintz (Photo by David Stuck)

Rabbi Etan Mintz (Photo by David Stuck)

Rabbi Etan Mintz

Congregation B’nai Israel

 

A Bergen County, N.J., native, Rabbi Etan Mintz, 38, of Modern Orthodox Congregation B’nai Israel in downtown Baltimore saw his move to the area as “an incredible opportunity,” one that has greatly heartened his wife and him for the past four years they’ve been here.

“I’m really taken by the opportunity in particular of developing and revitalizing Jewish life downtown,” Mintz said, delighting over the confluence of tradition he sees in the historic synagogue out of which his congregation is housed with the vibrant revivification the building and surrounding region has been undergoing.

Examples of physical renovation include repainting the building itself and making the space more accessible for older and/or disabled congregants wishing to join in on services. On a spiritual level, Mintz made sure to add, this renewal is one of his own “leading the congregation toward more personal study and reflection in order to have a greater individual religious growth.”

Mintz has been preparing a sermon for Rosh Hashanah that will expand upon “finding meaning and purpose in living every day to its fullest” along with the similar reverence for history and tradition fostered by more topical reflection that marks his excitement at having settled in Baltimore and at B’nai Israel.

It is essential to Mintz that his is a congregation that “focuses on spiritual value” and maintains an “open, warm, nonjudgmental environment.”

Hence, congregants can expect a Yom Kippur service that will be “not only spiritually uplifting but filled with energy and song,” courtesy Mintz’s bringing in a group of vocalists who will accompany their chazzan in order to “have more harmony for the formal service.”

Prefaced by a calming and reflective meditation, Mintz believes this thoughtful melding of a vocal group with the music of the chazzan will allow for “more intensity” of the experience for those present at a service he promises will be “filled with ruach.”

Although Mintz said he will not speak directly about the upcoming presidential election in his sermon, he intends to “touch on issues surrounding it: the importance of civil discourse and trying to make sure the conversation is uplifting,” with a hope that these conversations will be imbued with Jewish values, especially around the High Holidays.

— Mathew Klickstein

 

Rabbi Yisrael “Sruli” Motzen (Photo provided)

Rabbi Yisrael “Sruli” Motzen (Photo provided)

Rabbi Yisrael “Sruli” Motzen

Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Congregation

 

At first blush, Ner Tamid’s Rabbi Yisrael Motzen may surprise some as unconventionally young at the age of 32.

As Motzen laughed heartily, it’s in fact an attribute he refused to reveal when asked during a recent interview with another local media outlet.

But with four children and a master’s in counseling from Johns Hopkins University in conjunction with his bachelor’s in Talmudic Law from prestigious Pikesville yeshiva Ner Israel, the Montreal-born Modern Orthodox rabbi is anything but unprepared for the sacred role he took on four-and-a-half years ago.

Motzen’s infectious, ebullient spirit grants him a refreshing air of a leader primed to guide his congregants toward the new year with an almost palpable cheer.

Armed with his youthful vitality and effervescent ready-to-launch mindset, Motzen confessed that he has yet to consign to paper the thoughts that will be expressed during his High Holiday services.

Though he’s well aware that many rabbis toil tirelessly throughout the summer or perhaps earlier still over their sermons, such is not the style of Motzen who prefers to be fueled by the sense of raw intensity he feels waiting until the last minute. This sensibility also allows his message to be one of supreme timeliness, something that will touch on the most current exigencies of his congregants.

“It’s challenging,” Motzen admits about his admittedly unorthodox approach. “The size of our synagogue just about doubles during the holidays, and there’s a real pressure of having that perfect message for all the people you’ll maybe see only three times a year.”

Although it’s Motzen’s intention to make sure that those attending his services feel welcome and comfortable, his slightly contrarian methodology again reveals itself in his goal of also “pushing people a little out of their comfort zone.”

Indeed, he doesn’t want those joining him to be too at ease, lest they miss out on his overall suggestion of “finding a way to think a little differently during this time of year.” Motzen’s satisfaction will come from their “walking out a little different than they were when they walked in.”

— Mathew Klickstein

 

Rabbi Sonya Starr (Photo provided)

Rabbi Sonya Starr (Photo provided)

Rabbi Sonya Starr

Columbia Jewish Congregation
According to Rabbi Sonya Starr, what makes Reconstructionist Judaism different from other sects “is a belief that there is no one person who is charged with interpreting, teaching or transforming tradition for others.”

“I don’t teach you how to keep kosher. Rather, I tell you my understanding of kashrut, but it is your job as an educated Jew to decide what works best for you,” she said. “I serve more as a facilitator than as an educator.”

For Rosh Hashanah, Columbia Jewish Congregation will be having its first day’s services at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center. Age-appropriate programming will be provided for children and teens on Monday morning, whereas Sunday evening will be a more communal service.

Additionally, Tashlich will occur at the Wilde Lake Boat Dock on Sunday evening.

In her sermon, Starr plans to address change — “the fact that we always change, whether it is conscious or not.” According to the rabbi, “This whole month allows us to make that change conscious, to reflect on what we want to achieve and how we can be better. We talk about positive change and repentance, but this is another type of change as well, which is changing from something to something else because the act of change keeps everything fresh and keeps us engaged; the act of changing is beneficial in itself.”

Starr explained that she does not plan on bringing politics into her sermons, citing that it is unethical. However, she said that on Yom Kippur, she would address tikkun olam and some specific contemporary problems, because “we have a moral and ethical responsibility to talk about issues.”

Ultimately, she wants to use traditional Jewish values to support a community in the modern world. “I think what we do is work really hard to make the ancient rituals relevant to people’s contemporary lives. We are better people when you engage in these rituals and if we strive to make Judaism relevant to the contemporary world.”

— Daniel Nozick

 

Rabbi Craig Axler (Photo provided)

Rabbi Craig Axler (Photo provided)

Rabbi Craig Axler

Temple Isaiah

For the last four years, Temple Isaiah has hosted, in addition to regular synagogue services, a free afternoon service at Centennial Park in Ellicott City for Rosh Hashanah, followed by Tashlich at the park, which provides a perfect medium for reflection, Rabbi Craig Axler said.

“It is a fantastic, open community celebration. It is free and in a public space, which really provides for people in the community who wouldn’t have a place to go otherwise,” Axler said. “It is a fun, musical, family-friendly experience. I continue to run into people in the community who say that they or someone they know goes. Many of these people have no other connection to the Jewish community, and I am happy to be able to provide that connection point.”

There are two main points that Axler intends to address in his Rosh Hashanah sermons. “The first comes off of the Torah reading of the past Shabbat, talking about lost items and the mitzvah it is to return them,” he said. “It translates as ‘you shall not be indifferent,’ directly, but I prefer ‘you are incapable of indifference.’ When there are significant problems of the day, you are the cause or the problem, but you cannot just stand there on the sidelines.”

Specifically, Axler wishes to address the plight of refugees. “There should be a Jewish response to the plight of refugees,” he explained. “It is our duty toward them based on our history of needing refuge as a people.”

The rabbi’s second main point is about Israel. “I can’t be neutral on the legitimacy and safety of the state of Israel,” said Axler. “We need to call out unfair media bias toward Israel where it exists, and there are ways in the Jewish community that we don’t show our love and support as fully as we could. The current news cycle, every single moment seems to bring up a new life-or-death situation. We can’t be silent when there is tremendous discrimination in our country and community.”

Outside of his congregation, Axler intends to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with a family dinner and a long walk on the second day with his wife, perhaps to do Tashlich together. “My favorite service is always the second day,” he said. “It is a bit smaller service but less formal as well. The people come simply because it is Rosh Hashanah. I just really enjoy the beginning of every new year.” Axler hopes that this year, he will successfully bake a round challah as opposed to the oblong loaves that he has attained in past years. JT

— Daniel Nozick

Apples and Honey for Seder?

sephardim1For Rosh Hashanah, many Jews eat an apple dipped in honey as an auspicious sign for a sweet new year. The symbolism is clear, and the ritual as easy to pull off as squeezing a bear-shaped plastic bottle of honey.

But what kind of a year could one expect from eating leeks, spinach and a fish head? A year of being a contestant on “Chopped”?

Many Sephardic Jews practice a custom at Rosh Hashanah dinner called yehi ratzones — “may it be God’s will” — which calls for a kind of mini-seder in which a—special blessing is said before eating certain ceremonial foods. Though it’s a custom practiced mainly by Sephardim whose forebears lived in the Ottoman Empire, the idea of eating these special foods at this time of year can be found in the Babylonian Talmud, which mentions that certain fruits and vegetables should be seen on our Rosh Hashanah tables.

In addition to a fish head, Sephardim also serve leeks, beans, squash, dates, pomegranates and a slew of other sweets. The first night, everyone tries not to eat anything sour. The foods are all cooked to be as sweet as possible. Much like apples and honey, the symbolic foods eaten for yehi ratzones also represent the hope for a good coming year.

Many Jews of Ashkenazi origin never heard of the custom. Not only that, but some of the yehi ratzones foods — notably spinach, traditionally served in the form of a cheese-free quajado (a kind of spinach kugel) and — fried leek patties, were found on the family’s seder tables, not at Rosh Hashanah.

Daniel Golfeiz stands in front of a Torah box that stores Sephardic scrolls as a means of protection. Ashkenazi scrolls are freestanding. (Photo provided)

Daniel Golfeiz stands in front of a Torah box that stores Sephardic scrolls as a means of protection. Ashkenazi scrolls are freestanding. (Photo provided)

Ty Alhadeff, the coordinator of the Sephardic studies program at the University of Washington, is a third-generation Rhodesli, as descendants of the Sephardim from Rhodes are called, and a member of Seattle’s Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, which practices the customs of the Rhodes traditions.

Alhadeff explained that the pairing of blessings and foods during yehi ratzones is, at its heart, Hebrew and Aramaic wordplay — puns that rely  on certain words for foods sounding similar to certain Hebrew verb forms.

“It’s like saying ‘May our  enemies be mashed like these mashed potatoes,’” Alhadeff explained.

For instance, the Aramaic word “squash” is “karah,” he explained. The Hebrew word connecting it to the blessing is “karah,” a form of the verb meaning “to tear.” Therefore, when squash is eaten during the seder, the accompanying blessing is “May it be Thy will … You should tear up our evil decree, and let there be read before You, our merits.”

A bit more of a stretch is the Aramaic word for leek, karati,,” and the Hebrew word yikaretu,” cut off, as found in the blessing: “May it be Thy will … to cut off our enemies.”

As for the fish head —  Alhadeff said he uses fish cheek instead — it’s because the word for head, rosh (as in Rosh Hashanah, literally “head of the year”) figures into the yehi ratzones blessing “May it be Thy will … that we may be on the forefront as the head and not in the background as the tail.”

Alhadeff said there have been some attempts at reinterpretations of the yehi ratzones blessings, which shift the meaning while staying true to the specific foods.

“It’s not about the evil decrees being cut,” he said. For example, Alhadeff said he found a blessing for squash that says, “May the coming year grow as a gourd in the fullness of blessing.”

Many Jews of Ashkenazi origin never heard of any common Sephardic practices, surprisingly. For example, whereas most Ashkenazi Jews will only begin to prepare for and celebrate the High Holidays within the week before Rosh Hashanah, Sephardim begin to prepare on the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, 40 days before Yom Kippur.

We don’t have Reform or Conservative or Orthodox; we all practice together. There are more and less  observant individuals, but we practice together and  respect each other’s methods.
— Daniel Golfeiz, executive director of the  Ohr Hamizrach Sephardic Center

 

These 40 days represent the time that Moses spent on the Temple Mount to receive the second stone tablets, after the “golden calf error,” said Daniel Golfeiz, executive director of the Ohr Hamizrach Sephardic Center in Baltimore. On each  of these 40 days, Sephardic  congregations will have numerous minyans every morning so that the entire community will have the opportunity to attend.

Golfeiz explained some of the traditions at his shul. During these 40 days, there are four separate minyans every morning. Each morning, different community members will bring cakes, cookies, soup, lentils or some other small dish because they know that everyone in the community will stop by to attend a minyan at some point in the day. Particularly if someone is remembering the passing of a loved one, people will bring food as a mitzvah in the memory of the deceased.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there is only one minyan each day. “On the High Holidays, we only have one minyan so that the grandfather, father and child can all come together,” Golfeiz said. “There are always three generations at least, if not four. We want generations to have a chance to mingle and learn together.”

“We all pray together, regardless of background,” Golfeiz continued. “We don’t have Reform or Conservative or Orthodox; we all practice together. There are more and less observant individuals, but we practice together and  respect each other’s methods.”

Another unique practice at Ohr Hamizrach is that the synagogue auctions the right to take the Torah out of  the ark. This prevents issues arising when trying to pick someone for the honor and also serves as a way to raise money for the shul.

Another notable difference between Sephardic and Ashkenazi synagogues is the bimah. The bimah is slanted in Ashkenazi synagogues so that the Torah scroll can be laid out and read. However, in Sephardic synagogues, the bimah is flat for the different style of scroll. While Ashkenazi Torahs are freestanding scrolls, Sephardic Torah scrolls are stored in a standing box that confines them, serving to further protect the scroll.

dnozick@midatlanticmedia.com with reporting from JTA

Community Kibitz: Gefilte Fish

This week the JT popped into three area Jewish eateries to ask customers about what turned out to be a rather ticklish subject:

Do you like gefilte fish?

Miller’s Deli, 2849 Smith Ave., Pikesville

Chatting with the ladies who meet here every week to play mah-jongg.

A group of local friends meets weekly at Miller’s Deli to play mah-jongg (Photo by Mathew Klickstein)

A group of local friends meets weekly at Miller’s Deli to play mah-jongg (Photo by Mathew Klickstein)

EILEEN GARFIELD (Pikesville): I make it from the can and it comes out delicious! My family doesn’t really like it, though. They like the fish that I make myself.

MARION AKMAN (Quarry Lake): I make a gefilte fish loaf; I grind it up with veggies, put it in the oven and bake. Everyone loves it.

This leads to an overlapping discussion about gefilte fish grinders; “Do you remember those?” “I saw one on Facebook!” “My bubbe had one.” Further conversing leads to the conclusion that the majority prefers making their gefilte fish from a can. As for whether or not they prefer the gefilte fish that comes in jelly or not, the consensus is a resounding anti-jelly vote. Although some do enjoy using the cooked jelly juice as a kind of de facto broth.

SALLY GROSSMAN (Pikesville): I make my own loaf and all the kids always ask for it: “We want Grandma’s gefilte fish!”

Goldberg’s New York Bagels, 1500 Reisterstown Road, Baltimore

Disparate customers at the bustling deli during lunch time. One, a visitor from as far as Brooklyn, N.Y.

JACK LEW (Brooklyn): I like my gefilte fish. I like it sweet. But food is not a priority in my life.

Pikesville resident Ed Kafes at Goldberg’s New York Bagels (Photo by Mathew Klickstein)

Pikesville resident Ed Kafes at Goldberg’s New York Bagels (Photo by Mathew Klickstein)

ED KAFES (Pikesville): I like it from a bottle. Better than homemade; I don’t know why. Consistency, maybe? I don’t like the jelly. I’m a picky eater; wish I was not. I do like my horseradish hot. Nothing watered down.

ANONYMOUS (Baltimore): I love gefilte fish. It tastes good! But only around the Holidays. I don’t like horseradish. I do like the loaf and I like my gefilte fish sweet. Some don’t like it from a jar, but I do.

JEN KAPLAN (Pikesville): Oh, no jelly, no jar! I prefer veggies if I ever make it. If you mix it with mayonnaise, it’s really good.

Kaplan’s lunch mate sitting across from her wishes not to be named but says she only eats gefilte fish around the Holidays, loves horseradish, and then points across the table, distinguishing Kaplan as a bona fide “gefilte fish expert.”

I used to make it a lot more often. I used to make it on Shabbat a lot, but no more. Too many leftovers. Maybe I should make it for Rosh Hashanah. We’ll see.

Elie Zirkind of Pikesville immediately reveals he at first thought the conversation would be about sushi and is delightfully surprised to discover the subject to be gefilte fish.

ELIE ZIRKIND (Pikesville): I love the kind that comes in a roll. I slice it up and use a little horseradish. It’s good any time of year, not just the Holidays. I know some people who don’t like it and some people who eat it all the time!

STEVE’S DELI, 11299 Owings Mills Blvd., Owings Mills

They call themselves “The Rat Pack” and they meet here once a week after meeting at the local JCC.

Owings Mills’ own “Rat Pack” at Steve’s Deli (Photo by Mathew Klickstein)

Owings Mills’ own “Rat Pack” at Steve’s Deli (Photo by Mathew Klickstein)

JOE MYEROWITZ (Owings Mills): Some of the Ravens players like it! And I love it. But I like it plain. I don’t like anything on it.

JERRY LEVENSON (Owings Mills): No, gotta have carrots and a little bit of sauce.

ERIC YOSPE (Pikesville): Debate in my family is … I like it how my mother made it — in pieces — but everyone else? They like it as a casserole. And I hate it as casserole!

A rowdy cacophony erupts over which variety of horseradish is best: white or red?

ROB GERSTEIN (Reisterstown): I like white; it’s hotter. My wife won’t eat regular gefilte fish. Gotta be sweet. And no carp: either white fish or pike.

HOWARD COHEN (Pikesville): I love it. My wife over there? [He points across the small deli to where the Pack’s collective wives are sequestered, enjoying the spectacle of their boisterous husbands deliberating over gefilte fish.] Her mother made it from chicken! And you’d never know it!

ARNOLD SPEART (Mt. Washington): Aw, everything tastes like chicken.

mklickstein@midatlanticmedia.com

High Holiday Services

Below are links to information about High Holiday services at Baltimore- and Howard County-area synagogues.

Conservative

Adat Chaim
bit.ly/2d253hx

Beth Am Synagogue
bit.ly/2dkJsP7

Beth El Congregation
bit.ly/2d2f4d2

Beth Israel Congregation
bit.ly/2dkSyzW

Beth Shalom Congregation
bit.ly/2cUTAQa

Chevrei Tzedek
bit.ly/2dbnxZE

Chizuk Amuno Congregation
bit.ly/2cE6hiC

Reform

Baltimore Hebrew Congregation
bit.ly/2dcvMIV

Bolton Street Synagogue
bit.ly/2duN4l1

Har Sinai Congregation
bit.ly/2d2aBJ2

Temple Oheb Shalom
bit.ly/2cYOhm6

The Reform Temple
(No website)
Owings Mills High School
124 S. Tollgate Road
Rosh Hashanah: Monday Oct. 3, 11 a.m. to 12 p.m.
Yom Kippur: Wednesday Oct. 12, 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.

 

Reconstructionist

Congregation Beit Tikvah
bit.ly/2cYNZLK

Kol HaLev
bit.ly/2d9SfEQ

Orthodox

Agudath Israel of Baltimore
bit.ly/2duI6V9

Bais Haknesses Ohr Hachaim
bit.ly/2dkT2pz

Beth Abraham Anshe Sfard
bit.ly/2dbmUzr

Beth Tfiloh Congregation
bit.ly/2d2fEr5

Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion
bit.ly/2cYLBVn

B’nai Israel Congregation of Baltimore
bit.ly/2d2gsMP

Chabad of Owings Mills
bit.ly/2diKlvv

Congregation Bais Lubavitch
bit.ly/2dcrRff

Beit Yaakov Congregation
bit.ly/2dkM2EJ

Congregation Netivot Shalom
bit.ly/2cYL9q6

Etz Chaim Fords Lane
bit.ly/2cYLt8z

Etz Chaim Owings Mills
bit.ly/2cYL6KS

Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation
bit.ly/2dkVJrm

Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Synagogue
bit.ly/2d2hE2v

Ohel Moshe
bit.ly/2cx5mC6

Ohr Hamizrach Sephardic Center
bit.ly/2cUXnN5

Shearith Israel Congregation
bit.ly/2dctQjm

Shomrei Emunah Congregation
bit.ly/2cYMKfu

Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim
bit.ly/2d2jrEY

The Shul at the Lubavitch Center
bit.ly/2dcuUE9

Tiferes Yisroel
bit.ly/2dbpF3E

Winands Road Synagogue
bit.ly/2diNcoy

Howard County

Bet Aviv
bit.ly/2cOuW1e

Calah Congregation
bit.ly/2dsmqGJ

Columbia Jewish Congregation
bit.ly/2dbsPoc

Congregation Ahavas Israel
bit.ly/2d9T68g

Congregation Shalom Aleichem
bit.ly/2cEbDtV

Temple Beth Shalom
bit.ly/2d2lhpt

Temple Isaiah
bit.ly/2dbsHFk

If your synagogue is missing from this list, contact jsilberman@midatlanticmedia.com.

Sweet! Honey of Job Attracts Local Artist

Kara Brook’s desire to make her own art supplies has turned into a prosperous honey business that now includes beauty products. (Provided)

Kara Brook’s desire to make her own art supplies has turned into a prosperous honey business that now includes beauty products. (Provided)

With Rosh Hashanah right around the corner, the Jewish community will undoubtedly be stocking up on some essential staples such as apples and honey. The two sweet snacks represent the “sweet new year” that Jews look forward to, and ancient Jews thought the fruit had healing properties.

While honey will be enjoyed at innumerable celebrations, many are unaware of how much effort goes into producing honey and the intricacies of managing honey bees.

Kara Brook, a local artist and entrepreneur, owns Waxing Kara Honey House at the Metro Centre at Owings Mills. A New England native, Brook moved to Reisterstown at a young age for her father’s job. She has lived in the area ever since, having earned her degree in visual communications from the Maryland Institute College of Art. She has been painting since she was a little girl, but she found her passion when she stumbled upon encaustic painting, which relies on beeswax, tree resin and natural pigments to create uniquely textured pieces.

“I began to think about how much I would like to raise bees so that I can have my own wax and make my own paints,” said Brook. “I love the idea of a sustainable art form.” Luckily for her, she was able to realize her dream on Kent Island on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where her husband-to-be owns a farm.

With the help of a professional beekeeper over the past six years, Brook has expanded the farm dramatically. She now has 20 hives supporting a population of upward of 1 million honey bees. However, the masses of bees do not necessarily mean that the honey produced will be equally as much.

We might  be the only  apiary in the country that actually farms solely for  the bees. — Kara Brook

“We only get 20 gallons of some of our honey,” Brook said. “It is hard to get, and it is only the best. We always have one big harvest in July, and if we’re lucky, we will have one around October.”

So little honey is produced because it can only be harvested once a year, twice if a farmer is lucky. Brook does have one big boast about her honey, however. “On our farm, they were originally growing a lot of GMOs (genetically modified organisms),” she said, “but in the last five years, I have replaced all of them with wildflowers to feed the bees. We might be the only apiary in the country that actually farms  for the bees. I have learned all of this as I’ve gone along, I didn’t know anything when I first started.”

Although she started the business in order to be self-sufficient when it came to her artwork, Brook would always end up with a lot more honey than she did wax. She initially would just give away honey to her friends as gifts for Rosh Hashanah, but they all told her how good it was and encouraged her to start a business.

“Over the course of six to eight months, I accumulated products,” she said. “I started with a bar of soap, a jar of honey and a honey lollipop. I decided that I would master these three things and launch my business based off of that.”

Today, Brook and her associates have expanded their range of products to include an array of beauty and hygiene products. “We make body scrubs and dry masks here at the store,” Brook explained. “All of the products are all natural from crops pollinated by bees. We use only crops pollinated by bees in these products to raise awareness about bees.”

Local spas have begun to stock and use products from the Honey House, but consumers can buy them directly from the store too. According to Brook, honey has long played a role in beauty. “Honey is a humectant,” she said. “It is a natural antiseptic. Cleopatra used milk and honey in her baths to keep her skin beautiful.”

Brook collaborates with several other beekeepers in the area to source “really raw honey.” According to Brook, collaborating with other beekeepers enables her to produce a wider spread of honeys.

“Our honey from the Eastern Shore is named by the season it was produced,” she said. “Blueberry honey is from a farm in New Jersey. If a honey is produced with 75 percent of the nectar coming from one flower source, you can call it a single varietal, so this blueberry honey is more than 75 percent from blueberry plants. If a beekeeper isn’t willing to talk about origins with me, I know that it is not the type of honey that I want to carry.  Orange blossom is from Florida, wildflower is from Delaware, clover from upstate New York.” Collaboration enables Brook to provide more varietals locally.

Around this time of year, business gets particularly busy due to Rosh Hashanah, said Brook. Corporate customers will order in bulk, and people will order specialized honey as gifts for their friends. This past week was a milestone for her business, as it hit an all-time record for the number of items it had shipped across the United States.

For Rosh Hashanah this year, Brook agreed to collaborate with Beth Israel Congregation after the synagogue got in touch with her about sending people to her store. For members of the congregation who plan to purchase holiday honey at Waxing Kara, 10 percent of profits are being donated to Beth Israel if customers specify that they are members of the community when making a purchase.

dnozick@midatlanticmedia.com

One Place Swing-State Voters Won’t See Clinton, Trump This Season: The Rabbi’s Pulpit

Rabbis in swing states say their High Holidays sermons won't address the election head on but will touch on more general civic themes. (Lior Zaltzman)

Rabbis in swing states say their High Holidays sermons won’t address the election head on but will touch on more general civic themes. (Lior Zaltzman)

When Rosh Hashanah came around last year, Rabbi Aaron Gaber wanted to grapple with an issue roiling the country. So he decided to focus his sermon on racism.

But several members of Brothers of Israel, a 120-family Conservative synagogue in suburban Philadelphia, weren’t pleased.

“Some of the feedback from some of my congregants has caused us some consternation,” Gaber said.

Congregants accused the rabbi of calling them racists, he recalled, “which I didn’t do.”

This year, with the presidential election looming just one month after Yom Kippur, Gaber will pick a much more pareve topic for his High Holidays sermons: how congregants can be respectful to one another. He won’t directly address the election. Instead he will relate to some of the rhetoric around the campaign.

“One piece that I’m looking to share with my congregation is a spirituality checkup, and to do quite a bit of reflection on who we are and what we represent as Jews and human beings,” Gaber said. “What does it mean to treat one another with respect?”

Gaber’s congregation is in Pennsylvania’s Bucks County, a politically divided area in a swing state. In 2012, President Barack Obama won the county over Mitt Romney by just 1 percentage point.

In skirting direct election talk on the High Holidays, Gaber will be joining rabbis in “swing counties” across America preferring instead to touch on the vote by speaking about values or personal conduct.

Spiritual leaders from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Florida noted that synagogues are legally prohibited from endorsing candidates. Anyway, they say, political talk should not come from the pulpit. Instead, when the rabbis address hundreds or thousands of congregants on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they will encourage them to have compassionate conversations. Or they will talk about how the winner — Republican or Democrat — can be a moral leader after Election Day.

“How possible is it to govern and to do so with honesty and with sensitivity?” asked Rabbi Richard Birnholz of the Reform Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa, Fla., floating a potential sermon topic. “I need to be a rabbi to my people. It’s very easy to have politics or ideology — side taking — get in the way of that, and then I can’t really fulfill my real role, which isn’t as a political or social activist, but as a rabbi.”

The rabbis’ plans track with survey data of sermons at churches across the country. An August survey by the Pew Research Center found that 64 percent of churchgoers heard their pastor discuss election issues from the pulpit, but only 14 percent heard their pastor endorse or speak out against a candidate.

Rabbis in all four states said their synagogues had significant populations of voters for both parties. Some said political discourse had made the atmosphere at synagogue tense, while others don’t feel the pressure. Assistant Rabbi Michael Danziger of the Reform Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati said the constant stream of campaign ads doesn’t help.

“I do think all of the tools to make conversation go off the rails are present here,” said Danziger, who graduated rabbinical school this year. “So much advertising, so much attention from the campaigns. I think it happens everywhere, but I think any rhetoric that might fuel the elements behind that stuff will certainly be present here, and at a fever pitch by November.”

When they aren’t at the pulpit, rabbis from swing states have been politically active. Rabbi Sissy Coran of the Rockdale Temple, another Cincinnati Reform synagogue, touted a voter registration drive that the Union for Reform Judaism will be conducting in North Carolina. Birnholz teaches classes at his synagogue about biblical prophets using current events as context.

Gaber wants to work with the Philadelphia Jewish Community Relations Council to educate congregants about election issues. In December, he and Rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy of the nearby Reconstructionist Congregation Kol Emet signed a statement by the Bucks County Rabbis’ Council denouncing Republican nominee Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States.

“It’s worse than it’s ever been in my lifetime,” Boswell-Levy said of the national political climate. “I think that the way Trump speaks is incredibly troubling, and people react to it in very strong ways — whether they’re appalled or disgusted by him, or whether they feel that their views are validated by him.”

And rabbis have also discussed politics throughout the year in smaller prayer services. Boswell-Levy feels she can address sensitive issues such as the global refugee crisis or protests in Ferguson, Mo., at Friday night services, which draw a smaller crowd than the High Holidays.

Rabbi Yechiel Morris of the Young Israel of Southfield, an Orthodox congregation in suburban Detroit, criticized Trump earlier in the campaign and drew backlash. Sermonizing against Trump again during the High Holidays would be pointless, he said, as “you don’t need to repeat yourself.”

“I didn’t focus so much on his politics, policies and things of that nature, but more on the character and language he uses, and how upsetting that is,” Morris said. “There were some members who felt I should not have highlighted that one particular candidate.”

Rabbi Steven Rubenstein of the Conservative Congregation Beth Ahm, also in suburban Detroit, also thinks that politics from the pulpit serves little purpose. Involved congregants know their rabbis’ political leanings, no matter the sermon topic.

“People are listening, and they don’t need to be hit over the head, told what to do,” he said. “A very high percentage of the congregants would know who their rabbi would vote for without them saying it.”

6 New Kids Books for the Jewish New Year

Get ready: 5777 is  arriving soon. And a new Jewish year means a fresh crop of topnotch Jewish books for kids.

This year, not one but two new Rosh Hashanah books are penned by Eric A. Kimmel, the master storyteller whose popular award-winning children’s classics include “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” and “Simon and the Bear.” His latest entries, “Little Red Rosie” and “Gabriel’s Horn,” are among the new crop of lively and engaging Jewish children’s books for the High Holidays that reflect the wide range of today’s American Jewish families.

Typically, most of the ink is devoted to Rosh Hashanah, which begins this year on the evening of Oct. 2. But there are fresh reads about many of the forthcoming holidays — one book, “Maya Prays for Rain,” is a charming story about the little-known holiday Shemini Atzeret that comes at the end of Sukkot.

Want to make the New Year extra sweet for a little one in your life? Check out these six books.

kidsbooksroshhash“Rosh Hashanah is Coming!” by Tracy Newman; illustrated by Viviana Garofoli; Kar-Ben; ages 1-4

Families can usher in the Jewish New Year with this colorful and lively toddler board book, the fifth in the Kar-Ben board book series on Jewish holidays by Tracy Newman and Vivian Garofoli (including “Shabbat is Coming!” and “Passover is Coming!”). Young kids braid a round challah, blow the shofar, set out apples and honey and enjoy a juicy pomegranate as they get ready to celebrate the New Year.

“Little Red Rosie: A Rosh Hashanah Story” by Eric A. Kimmel; illustrated by Monica Gutierrez; Apples & Honey Press; ages 3-7

A confident young girl enlists the help of her numerous feathered friends to bake challah for the neighborhood Rosh Hashanah dinner. With an  illustrated recipe in hand, Rosie gently leads a parrot, toucan and hornbill as they measure flour, add eggs, knead the dough and braid it into loaves. In one of Gutierrez’s illustrations — sure to tickle young ones — poppy seeds fly through the air and land all over the kitchen table and floor.

“Who will help me clean the kitchen?” Rosie asks.

They all pitch in, and Rosie saves the day when she prevents the hornbill from toppling a teetering tower of dirty dishes. When the lovely loaves are baked, Rosie and her friends recite the blessing over the challah, and the neighbors who gather around the festive table all enjoy the bread.

“Maya Prays for Rain” by Susan Tarcov; illustrated by Ana Ochoa; Kar-Ben; ages 4-9

It’s a warm fall day, and a spunky young girl greets her neighbors in her multicultural town. It seems like everyone is taking advantage of the sunny, dry weather by partaking in all kinds of outdoor activities. But when Maya learns that the evening’s synagogue service for the Jewish holiday of Shemini Atzeret includes a prayer for rain, she warns her neighbors to cancel their plans. Much to Maya’s relief, however, she learns from her rabbi that the prayer is for Israel, where the rainy season is needed for crops and trees. “Amen,” she pronounces at the end  of the prayer. The back page includes an explanation of the lesser-known holiday that comes at the end of the Sukkot celebration.

kidsbooksgabe“Gabriel’s Horn” by Eric A. Kimmel; illustrated by Maria Surducan; Kar-Ben; ages 4-9

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, a young African-American soldier knocks on the door of the apartment where a young boy, Gabriel, lives with his parents, who are struggling to hang on to their small antiques shop. The solider explains he is going overseas and has no one to care for his special horn that once belonged to his grandpa, a musician, and brings good luck. Gabriel convinces his  reluctant mom they can care for the horn. The name on the soldier’s uniform says Tishbi — the birthplace of the prophet Elijah, who is said to appear mysteriously on Earth, often disguised as a beggar who leaves behind him blessings of good fortune or health.

The theme of tzedakah — the Jewish obligation for charitable giving — shines through Kimmel’s heartwarming tale as Gabriel’s family selflessly shares its sudden good fortune through acts of kindness and generosity. Page after page, kids will wonder along with Gabriel if their newfound luck is related to the soldier and his tarnished, mysterious horn.

In a phone conversation from his home in Portland, Ore., Kimmel said that this book is a modern version of an old folktale based on a biblical Midrash. (A well-known version, ”The Seven Years,” was penned by I.L. Peretz.) Kimmel first retold the tale in his award-winning 1991 children’s book “Days of Awe,” and with “Gabriel’s Horn,” he revisits and contemporizes the story.

Kimmel said he continues to return to folk traditions  because he sees them as the roots of so many stories.

“I really don’t think kids today know them well, and often their parents and teachers don’t know them, either,” he said. “They are so powerful.”

“Sky-High Sukkah” by Rachel Ornstein Packer; illustrated by Deborah Zemke; Apples & Honey Press; ages 3-8

Poor Leah and Ari. The two friends dream of having a sukkah of their own — but living in the city poses too many obstacles, their parents tell them. The kids reveal their sad predicament to Al, the neighborhood grocer, and explain that during the seven-day holiday, Jewish families build a hut that they decorate with fruits like the ones Al sells. But will Leah and Ari’s dreams be answered when Ari’s picture of a “Sky-High Sukkah” wins a  Hebrew school drawing contest for a free sukkah?

This is an endearing story that concludes happily as Leah and Ari discover that building community is just as rewarding as building a beautiful sukkah. Zemke’s lively illustrations  capture the bustling urban neighborhood and brings to life the harvest holiday with bright reds, greens, purples and  oranges.

kidsbookshowitsmade“How It’s Made: Torah Scroll” by Allison Ofanansky; photographs by Eliyahu Alpern; Apples & Honey Press; ages 3-8

What’s a Torah scroll and how is it made? This fascinating photo essay is perfect for Simchat Torah, the holiday that marks the end of the cycle of weekly Torah readings and the beginning of the new cycle, giving kids and grown-ups a behind-the-scenes look at what is involved in this ancient Jewish tradition. The author and photographer break down the many people, steps and materials involved, from hand-stretched parchment, special inks, and feather and reed pens to the meticulous rules for the calligraphy. The photo-filled pages reveal  intriguing facts (for example, there are 304,805 letters in a Torah scroll); DIY projects (ink making); and open-ended questions for further thought (for one, how do you fix mistakes?).