Running for President? Thank You, Next

When we go to the newest restaurant, we feel young and trendy – until we have to turn on our iPhone flashlight to read the menu in the dark.

We feel adventurous – until the waiter offers us a fermented kombucha cocktail. No thank you. We’ll have a gin and tonic. When we look around the restaurant, we see that almost everyone else is young enough to be our kids.

We don’t feel old, but we’re not as young as we think we are. But there are people even older than us who don’t realize they’re old. They think they’re still spring chickens. In fact, just saying you’re a spring chicken is a sign that you are not. You’re old.

When we see that Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren are contemplating an exhausting run for president, we think they’re too old. And not just because they don’t drink kombucha.

Like us, these politicians grew up with a globe that doesn’t exist anymore. Yugoslavia was one communist entity, not seven scenic countries you might want to visit. Like us, they grew up asking questions that young people don’t even ask anymore. We’ve asked our niece what guy she’s dating. Younger people wouldn’t assume that a girl is dating a guy. We recall the fuss back in elementary school, some forty years ago, when an unmarried teacher asked to be called “Ms.” Watson instead of “Miss.” Today, you can pick your pronoun – not just your honorific. We remember when girls were finally allowed to wear pants to school instead of skirts. We bet Elizabeth Warren remembers it, too.

Back in the day, there were countries you wouldn’t travel too, country clubs you weren’t allowed to join, and people you couldn’t marry. Today, the rules are looser; it makes the news when someone is denied service because of their race or religion.

We still give a second glance when a TV commercial features an interracial couple. It feels like a bold advertising decision to us; but our adult children don’t give it a second glance. We wondered, if interracial is even the right word to use? They clued us in. Why do we need a modifier at all? Can’t we just call them a couple?

We admire our children and their peers. They know – and remember – so much! They are financially savvy, socially conscious and politically aware. They know why the stock market spikes and dips. They grasp which hole to put their used cup in when confronted with three-stream recycling. And they know that it’s unwise to tweet their feelings at 3 a.m.

When we read headlines like, “Move Along Baby Boomers; You’ve Done Enough,”  we feel a little indignant, but in truth, we agree. When we hear about all the septuagenarians running for president we have to agree with Ariana Grande, who knows what to say when she’s tired of someone: “Thank you – Next!”

It’s hard to claim we’re young when we search through our college alumni magazines and have to find our graduation year way in the back with the old guard, not at the beginning  with everyone who graduated in this century. Yes, it’s proof that we have decades of experience and resumes filled with accomplishments. We’ve learned important life lessons and seen it all. But wouldn’t it be better to view the world through eyes that are unclouded and minds that are wide open?

Our brains are not as pliable as they used to be. They’re cluttered up with old phone numbers, algebra formulas, and conjugations of French verbs. We do our best to keep up with what’s new, but it’s challenging. Sometimes we feel like we’re just treading water.

Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden have also spent their considerable lifetimes, growing and contributing. But if we’re just treading water, how do they have the chutzpah to think they can swim the distance? It’s time to pass the torch.

We can’t help but imagine that when Joe Biden is at home in Delaware, playing on the  computer, he might call into the bedroom to ask, “Jill, want to plan that trip to Czechoslovakia? 


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Grandmoms: Do You Know Your Stuff?

Last spring, we got a call from an editor at Quirk Books in Philadelphia: Would we like to write a book for them? Stuff Every Grandmother Should Know would be a new addition to their series of “irreverent reference gift books” that are crammed full of useful tips and fun facts.

Screen Shot 2018-08-29 at 8.37.59 PMWe had met the editor, Blair, three years prior when we pitched the idea of a book on dating, love and relationship advice from the real experts – grandmothers. The grandmother part must have stuck in her brain, because that’s why she called us. Only neither one of us is a grandmother. Between us, we have five adult children in their prime baby-making years, but we’re both still waiting for admission to the Beloved Bubbes club.

But not being actual grandmothers didn’t stop us from saying yes to the project. When we co-authored our first book, the best-selling Dictionary of Jewish Words, we had to define more than 1,500 words in Yiddish and Hebrew – and we don’t speak either language. Research R Us! We made lists of words, we read other books, we interviewed experts, and we looked “stuff” up. Gathering intel on grandmothers would be way more fun.

We know babies. Back in the day, we cuddled and nurtured our own. Now we just make googly eyes at cute ones going by in strollers. We’re really happy when we get a baby to hold, shower with gifts, and pass back to their parents. Come to think of it, that’s a lot like being a grandmother!

We know young mothers. We have neighbors with infants and nieces with toddlers and we have a lot of opinions (which we mostly keep to ourselves) about their approach to parenting.

We know grandmothers. Although our own have passed, we are frequently surrounded by a gaggle of grandmoms when we present our book talks about Jewish traditions, holidays, beloved foods and the Yiddish words that describe them. We love to shmooze with these Bubbes. With three generations of knowledge to mine, we’d be the perfect team to write this book!

We didn’t have to go undercover to get the lowdown on grandmotherhood. When Screen Shot 2018-08-29 at 8.38.23 PMwomen heard we were writing this book, they cornered us. They were anxious to share their insights and advice – the words of wisdom that the parents of their dear grandchild didn’t want to hear. And when they asked us to keep their comments about their daughters-in-law off the record, we stuck to our journalistic code of ethics and obliged.

We covered the whole grandmother gamut in 38 chapters – from the day your daughter and son-in-law announce that “they’re pregnant” to the day you announce that you’re taking the whole tribe on vacation.

We started with Grandmother Basics (what to expect on delivery day, how to set house rules, and more). We moved on to Baby and Toddler Stuff (how to play safe at your place; how to master nap time), Little Kid Stuff (how to have fun without toys, how to survive the playground) and Big Kid Stuff and Beyond (how to make old-school cool and be someone they can talk to).

We learned a lot in the process of researching and writing the book. Here are our top five takeaways:

1. The times have been a’changing. Your grandchild may have a single parent, two mommies or two daddies. And while many couples have gender reveal parties to let you in on their secret, many others choose gender neutral names, like Riley, Blake and Skyler, to keep you guessing.

2. Many rules have changed, too, since we last changed a diaper. Babies are put to sleep on their backs; tummy time is only for daytime. A car seat should face backward until the child weighs 40 pounds or more. Breast milk shouldn’t be heated in the microwave. Still, we successfully raised five children to adulthood – and they drank water from the garden hose and rode bikes without helmets. We just try not to brag about it.

3. If you’re planning to choose your grandmother name, say it aloud to see how it sounds, but don’t get attached. Many grandmothers have been named by a baby who pointed at them and babbled Mimi or Baba or BeeBee.

4. Keep your urge to indulge the grandchildren in check so your children don’t give you a timeout. Let the parents set the tone and follow their rules. Hope that the parents are the type who are just grateful that you brought the kid back alive and not the type who restrict sugar intake and your delicious homemade chocolate chip cookies.

5. Before long, your grandchildren will be more tech-savvy than you, so now is the time to step up your game so you can keep in touch in this modern world. Brush up on your emojis and learn how to Skype so you can wave at your toddler who lives 200 miles away.

In summary, what stuff should you know? Trust your instincts; you raised your own kids. But remember that it’s not your child, so don’t contradict the parents. Ask first. And have fun because when babysitting duty is done, you can hand them back to your kids!

Stuff Every Grandmother Should Know is available in hardcover ($9.95) and e-Book ($5.99) formats. Available in gift shops, Barnes & Noble Books and online at Release date Feb. 12, 2019.


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The Meh Mrs. Maisel

Like much of the Jewish world, we were excited by last year’s hit show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. We enjoy a good period piece, especially one set in the 1950s. All those pink wool dresses with matching hats! The old luxury cars! B. Altman’s cosmetics! We loved seeing Jewish family life portrayed on screen and getting the inside jokes and cultural references. Much of Season 1 rang true.

Season 2? Not so much. When we tried to pin down exactly what was bugging us, we realized it was the Jewish aspect of the show that had gone off the rails.

We love to see Jewish culture, holidays and family life depicted authentically in books, movies and on TV. When writers poke fun at members of the tribe we usually laugh right along. We’re not easily offended; we love a good fight over babka as much as the next guy (see Seinfeld, The Dinner Party).

we’d fight for a babka from Essen Bakery

But when Jewish culture is exaggerated to the point of caricature and stereotypes, it makes us mad. Here are 10 ways Mrs. Maisel is doing just that. (Spoiler Alert if you’re still plowing through Season 2.)


10. That’s not funny.

When Abe Weissman inadvertently sees Midge’s stand-up act at the Concord in August, he orders her not to tell her mother that she’s a comedian. He’ll decide when the time is right, and it won’t be after Labor Day. “You don’t want to ruin to your mother’s Chanukah,” he says.

No Jewish adult would ever say such a thing. We know that Chanukah is a holiday for the kids. It’s the outside world that equates the emotional importance of Christmas with Chanukah.

If Abe had said, “Don’t upset your mom right before Passover,” we would have agreed, because Passover demands more than buying presents and frying latkes. Passover is the holiday that makes housewives crazy; it means cleaning the chometz out of the kitchen, finding a bottle of Manischewitz Concord Grape before the shelves are bare, and deciding whether to invite Uncle Lou’s lady friend to the seder.

  1. Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?

Moishe Maisel (Midge’s ex-father-in-law) owns a ladies dress factory. He’s in the rag trade like many of his landsmen. He’s participated in some less-than-honest business practices. But is the scene where he is holding a phone to each ear and screaming “You shmuck” and “You putz” into each receiver really necessary? His mother would have washed his mouth out with soap.

  1. Minks gave their lives for this?

Shirley Maisel (Midge’s ex-mother-in-law) wears her mink coat 24/7 in August in the Catskills. Sure, fur coats were a status symbol for Jewish women in the ‘50s; they’d wear a mink stole out to dinner on Saturday night – even if the restaurant wasn’t fancy. We have aunts who would wear their fur coat to High Holiday services in September – even in the midst of an Indian summer heat wave. But these women would never wear a fur coat poolside. Nor would they exclaim, “Oy, I’m shvitzing in this mink coat” while refusing to take it off. Their fur coats spent the summer season in cold storage, not in the Catskills.

  1. Step away from the buffet.

Most Jews we know fast one day a year – on Yom Kippur. So when Midge’s sister-in-law Astrid, a convert to Judaism, announced that she wasn’t eating because it’s Tisha b’Av, we were surprised. How did she even know about this seldom observed holiday? Astrid sat at breakfast with an empty plate, watching everyone else eat from the enormous buffet. She complained that she was going to faint from hunger. If someone were truly observant and fasting, wouldn’t they attend services, take a walk by the lake, or at least get away from the buffet?

  1. Going back for thirds?

And that breakfast buffet! Bubbes beg their kids to take another helping of brisket and kugel because a child with chubby pulkes is cute and healthy. But Moishe, a grown-up, should know better. His overflowing plate was just cartoonish: Eggs piled on waffles piled on bacon piled on pancakes balanced on bread. If he actually tried to eat from his leaning tower of food, it would collapse. Serves him right for being such a chazer (glutton) at the buffet.

  1. How do you say that?

Mispronouncing and misusing Yiddish words is one of our pet peeves. The one that stuck out most this season is when Abe asked, “Are you going to KEH-vetch about it?” Oy! Kvetch (to complain) is one syllable, pronounced almost like “fetch.” The initial K just slides in. There are other instances of this in the show, but if you made us search through the episodes again, we’d kvetch.

  1. Do you have a cough drop?

In Season 1, we discovered that Shirley carries matzah meal in her purse; she pulled it out when she went to Midge and Joel’s for Yom Kippur dinner. In Season 2, Rose Weissman reveals that she carries matzah ball soup in her purse. Whaaat? We’ve known a lot of Jewish mothers who cram their purse with essentials, but matzah products are not on the list. A real Jewish grandmother would carry an embroidered hanky, hard candies, cough drops, a clear plastic rain bonnet, a mirrored lipstick case, and a pill bottle stuffed with and assortment of Bufferin, Dristan and antacids.


  1. The Rabbi RSVPed.

Inviting the rabbi to Yom Kippur break-fast? Again, oy! There is a grain of truth in that many families would be honored if their rabbi came to dinner, but not at the end of Yom Kippur. On this day, everyone is grumpy and stressed from going without coffee and lunch. Inviting the rabbi to join your family is just asking for something to go wrong. And Rose Weismann bragging about her coup of snagging the rabbi? It’s not very kosher. In real life, the rabbis we know break the fast with a quick bite in their office with their family, because it’s 8 p.m. by the time they’re done. They’re exhausted and want to go home.

  1. Where’s the bagels and lox?

And while we’re on the break-fast meal – who chose leg of lamb? When we fast for the holiday, the evening meal is our “first” meal of the day, and breakfast foods like bagels and lox, eggs, blintzes and juice are what we look forward to. It’s traditional to eat these milchig foods, which are easier on the tummy. And these days, with vegans, clean-eating and free-range everything, the only lamb we’ve seen people eat is the broiled, bite-sized chops that make the rounds during fancy-shmancy cocktail hours.

  1. Midge, who’s minding the kids?

And our #1 problem with Midge Maisel? Her invisible children! How does a Jewish mother forget that she has children? A real Jewish mother – and we should know – would be handing out snacks and fastening seat belts right and left. Our kids are the center of our lives. Yes, we know Midge is immature – she’s a married woman who lives at home rent free with her family’s maid cooking her dinner every night. Yes, we realize the invisible children are a plot device, but it still bothers us. Midge Maisel never walks her kids to school. She never plays a game, watches TV or eats a meal with her kids. She never kvells about their accomplishments. Why were they written into the script in the first place?

This article also appears in the Baltimore Jewish Times January 17, 2019

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The (Adult) Kids Were Home!

Indulge us for a minute  – we haven’t written about our kids in a long time. And now they’re all grown up.  This past weekend we celebrated Thanksgiving with four of the five of them. (One came home the week before for a nice long solo visit.) We were thankful we got to spend quality time with them. But now they’ve gone back to their “real” lives that don’t include us and we’re feeling depressed.

All but one of them live out of town – as far away as Denver and San Francisco, so when they come home,  they stay with us, eat with us, and pop back into our daily lives. We love it when they’re home for a visit.

But it’s different from their college days, when coming home meant they were back in their house – with their bedroom, their friends and their closets filled with their clothes. Now they’re working adults with their own lives, relationships and apartments. They have a bed and TV that’s not under our roof. We do get some points though, because our beds are more comfortable and our TVs bigger. (Thank goodness they still use our Netflix password).

Thankfully, not everything has changed. We still stock up on their favorite foods. It’s a pleasure to buy a pound of lox and expensive Italian prosciutto – just for them. We have an excuse to buy a key lime pie or a pound of chocolate chip cookies. Our husbands aren’t big on sweets, so if we buy these goodies when the kids aren’t home, it’s like admitting to the world “Yes, we’re going to eat all those cookies.”


we love it when they fill their plate

Before the kids came home, we dusted the bedrooms that no one goes into when they’re not here and made sure there were clean sheets and two nice pillows. We stocked the spare bathroom with a new bottle of shampoo. Sometimes, they come home with their significant others, which means we’re making up the double bed, explaining how the shower works and where the towels are.

We love it when they want to make time to see aunts and family friends – and we get to tag along with them. Time in the car to chat! Going somewhere together!

Our adult kids know so much stuff!  While they’re home, we Google less — because we can ask them! “Isn’t cold brew really just iced coffee? Why didn’t Amazon pick Philadelphia for its second headquarters? Is it too late to buy shares of Facebook?”  They sit down at our computer with us, to help upload the Thanksgiving photos and move them to the folder where they should go. They proudly give us swag from their new job – a travel mug and a phone stand that we will use just because it reminds us of them. They look around the house with a new set of eyes: “You might want to get the mulberry tree trimmed; it’s hanging over the house and the wires.”

Although our kids having been driving for more than 10 years, we still usually slide into the driver’s seat when we’re going somewhere together. But now instead of us telling them to watch out for the mailbox – or yelling “Curb! Curb! Curb!” as they drove around – they tell us that we don’t need to put on our turn signal eight blocks ahead and that when the speed limit is 60, we can go 65 but not 45.

When they were little, going out to dinner meant the kids’ menu, crayons on the table and a place where you could you make some noise. Nowadays, it means that we try to get a reservation at the hottest restaurant in town so we can show them how cool Philadelphia is.  It’s our pleasure to treat them to dinner – these chicken-nugget and Tater Tot lovers who grew up to be good cooks and adventurous eaters.

look at all the hands reaching for those desserts!

And when we take them out, these young adults who are used to paying their own way, are happy and appreciative that we’re paying the bill. But they don’t hesitate to order up. After all, why not try the Pomme Electrique cocktail with calvados and white vermouth?  Let’s order a few extra small plates – maybe even two of the smoked trout salad with poached pear and crispy egg. We’ll share! Most of all, we love sharing time with them around a table like in the old days.

We love to have them home. It’s a happy disruption to our daily lives. They take the car and go visit friends, and we wonder when they’ll be home. When they sit on the sofa watching TV, we plop down next to them, and say, “What are you watching?” We’re thrilled when there’s nothing to do and they ask, “Want to play Sorry or Scrabble?”

Before we know it, we’re driving them to airport, back to their “real” lives away from us. Hours later when they text us that they landed safely, we catch ourselves texting back, “Glad you made it home.” But it’s their home – not ours.  But they’ll always have a home at our house.

So Thanksgiving weekend is over and none of our kids have a month-long Christmas break to look forward to either. So for now, we’ll have to be content with going back to our usual texting/calling routine to keep in touch. And if we can get it together, we’ll be putting a Hanukkah surprise package in the mail this week.

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You’re Never Too Old for Halloween Candy

As our children get older, we miss some of the fun little kid things we used to do with them: visiting the Please Touch Museum, cruising the aisles at Toys R Us in search of the latest action figure/Barbie doll/Lego kit, and decorating the house for Halloween.

jargon3Scratch that last one. Even though our kids are grown, we still plan to hang the glow-in-the-dark skeletons, buy candy, carve pumpkins, buy candy and buy more candy for Halloween.

We can’t help ourselves. Halloween candy appeared in the supermarket the day after Labor Day. We had to hold ourselves back from buying bags of snack-sized Kit Kat bars. Who are we kidding? If we bought these so-tiny-that-eating-one-doesn’t-count candy bars in early September, we would only have three left to give out on Halloween.

An informal survey of our FWCAK (friends with college-age kids) revealed that many of us are still celebrating the pagan ritual of free candy.

Of course, like any survey, there was a small group of outliers whose celebration was limited to purchasing one bag of fun-size Skittles because “we never get any more than eight kids knocking on the door.” We put these people in the same category as those who only buy candy they don’t like so they won’t be tempted to eat it.

Now with Halloween just two weeks away, we have completed our candy shopping.

It required introspection and strategy.

Excuse us for a minute . . . we have an open bag of Junior Mints that needs our attention.

When we were kids, we loved all the sticky candies (Turkish Taffy, Jujubes and witch-bowlJujyfruits), but now the thought of pulling out a filling or breaking a tooth from a bad bite frightens us away from buying those. A bite of Turkish Taffy could cost us $675 to re-glue the crown on our left front incisor.

Joyce’s daughter, Samantha, was not a fan of that tactic. If she liked the candy offered, she’d eat it on the spot. If she didn’t, she’d return it to the giver – and come home with an empty basket.

In this era when homeroom moms are told to bring in carrots and hummus in place of cupcakes for a birthday celebration, we will not be browbeaten into giving out toothbrushes to the trick-or-treaters. We want to be known as the house that gives out the “good stuff.”

But we are also aware that there are now peanut-free tables in school cafeterias, and that there’s a national campaign to put a teal pumpkin on your doorstep to indicate that you’re giving out non-food treats. We probably won’t paint our pumpkins teal, but we don’t want to leave anyone out. That’s why we also bought spider rings, vampire fangs and glow sticks.

Now that the candy has been purchased, we’re almost ready for our favorite holiday. All that’s left is to put out the decorations and decide whether we’ll pull a black witch hat or a Conehead cap from the attic costume box to put on when we open the door.

So if you are lucky enough to have some kids to take trick-or-treating this year, just head for the houses with the three carved pumpkins, the battery-powered flying bats, and the cars with all the college stickers on them. We’re giving out lots of good candy – if we don’t eat it first.

A note from The Word Mavens: If you see some strange photos and weird ads below, it’s not us. We’re not making any money. It’s WordPress. What chutzpah!

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Spelling Bee Mishegoss

Maybe you have memories of taking your turn in a classroom spelling bee. Chances are, the word that got you eliminated was something really hard like “receive.” (The old “i before e except after c” rule gets them every time!)

If you’re alphabetically talented enough to make it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, you probably know that you’ll encounter a lot of foreign words. In 2018, 13-year-old Shiva Yeshlur from Wyoming was asked to spell the word cholent. He asked for its meaning: “A Jewish Sabbath-day dish of slow-baked meat and vegetables,” the judge told him. He then asked for the word’s language of origin, because for master spellers, this can reveal important clues. The word is Yiddish, he was told. He spelled it correctly and moved on to the next round. Pretty impressive for a kid who has probably never eaten cholent!

We like spelling bees. After all, we wrote a dictionary! And we like Yiddish words.


Mazel tov (congratulations) to the winners of the Spelling Bee. We’re kvelling! This sign is available at

But using them in a spelling bee is mishegoss (Yiddish for crazy) because there’s no single correct way to spell a word that didn’t start out as English. The process of changing letters from one language into similar-sounding characters of another language is called transliteration – and it’s not an exact science.

This doesn’t stop the spelling bee mavens from throwing foreign words into the mix. While the large majority of words come from Latin, Middle English and French, the organizers have been known to turn to words in Hindi and Afrikaans – as well as Yiddish and Hebrew – to challenge the smarty-pants contestants. Click here to see a chart of where spelling bee words come from.

Think about the latke-filled, eight-day Jewish holiday that usually falls in December. Do you spell it Hanukah or Chanukah or Hanukkah? How do you spell the four-sided top you spin with the kids? Is that a dreidel, draydle, draidel, or what? Both the holiday and the top are Hebrew words spelled with Hebrew letters. When you sound them out and transliterate them – spell them with As, Bs and Cs – there are several different ways to do it.

So how can the big machers at Scripps declare that a kid spelled a Yiddish word “correctly?”

This issue came to a head in 2013, when a 13-year-old boy of Indian heritage named Arvind Mahankali, who hailed from Queens, New York, won the national title by deli-matzo-ball-soup-restaurant-219131correctly spelling the Yiddish word for matzah ball. He spelled it k-n-a-i-d-e-l. See his win on YouTube.

That’s how we chose to spell it in our Dictionary of Jewish Words, and how the Spelling Bee thought it should be spelled. Their spelling bible is Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, which has some 472,000 words – including many that are transliterated from foreign languages.

But no big win is without controversy. The scholars at the acclaimed YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which considers itself the authority on the standardized spelling of Yiddish words, declared that the correct spelling of the fluffy soup dumpling should be kneydl.

Time magazine thought the debate was worth investigating. They surveyed the use of the word and found that the “knaidel” version was the overwhelming winner – thanks to many mentions of matzah ball soup in American-Jewish cookbooks from the 1950s.

Our favorite Yiddish-in-the-Spelling-Bee story is this one: In 2009, the participants
were asked to spell kichel – those puffy little cookies made with eggs and sugar. We call them bow ties, and we love them. When asked to use the word in a sentence, the spelling bee  moderator said, “The thought of someone kvetching about her kichel gave Meryl the shpilkes.”

Isn’t that ridiculous? The sentence is supposed to give the contestant a clue to the word’s meaning. If you were a kid whose family was from India, would you know kvetch, shpilkes and kichel? You would more likely know the Hindu counterparts: Kvetch (to complain) is shikaayat. Shpilkes (impatience) is adheerata and kichel is cheenee kukee. At least that’s what Google Translate told us.

If the moderator truly wanted to be helpful – or even just be nice – he should have said, “The thought of someone shikaayat about her cheenee kukee gave Prianca adheerata.” Now that’s a sentence the Indian contestants could relate to!

But these kids don’t seem to need a helping hand. In fact, Indian-Americans have won the last 11 national spelling bees!

In the ultimate round of the bee in 2016, the co-champion, Jairam Hathwar, a 13-year-old from Corning, New York, was asked to spell chremslach, the Yiddish word for matzah meal pancakes – and he spelled it correctly! It’s a really old-fashioned word that even our Jewish kids don’t know. We just don’t use the word chremslach. When it’s Hanukkah we make our pancakes out of shredded potatoes and call them latkes. When it’s Passover, we use matzah meal and call them pesachdik pancakes.

Next Passover, maybe we should open the door to some of these teenage contestants and invite them to join in our seder so they can see the Yiddish words in action. And then they will surely know how to spell machetunim, kugel and khreyn.


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Different Traditions for a Sweet New Year

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, we prepare the way most American Jews do: We buy apples and a new jar of honey.  We get a round challah, order a brisket, and bake an apple cake or a honey cake  – foods that incorporate the traditional flavors of a sweet new year into our holiday menu.


These Jewish New Year foods are favorites among Ashkenazic Jews like us. This group, whose ancestors immigrated from Central and Eastern Europe, comprise about 80 percent of American Jews. Living amongst so many of our landsmen (the Yiddish word for “our peeps”), we sometimes forget that Jews around the world have different foods on their Rosh Hashanah dinner tables.

In France, they too love to dip apples in honey to symbolize wishes for a sweet new year. We also read that French Jews like to serve onion quiche for the holiday, but they probably eat onion quiche more often than just on Rosh Hashanah.

In Ethiopia, lamb is the centerpiece of the holiday table. Although we’ve spent $80 for a kosher brisket, in Addis Ababa it’s lamb that breaks the budget for the festive meal.

In India, the holiday chicken isn’t like our Bubbe’s. It’s more like their Dadi’s (Hindi for Grandmom). One popular holiday recipe, chicken mahmoora, is cooked with tomatoes, spices, almonds and raisins. It’s served with rice instead of roasted potatoes. This delicacy is also seen in Israel, where many Indian Jews have emigrated.

For Sephardic Jewish families, pomegranates are a popular Rosh Hashanah treat – and a part of almost every Jewish holiday meal. That’s not a surprise because the fruit – and Sephardic Jews – come from the Mediterranean region, as well as from North Africa, India and the Middle East.

pomPomegranates are one of the traditional “seven species” mentioned in the Talmud – along with wheat, barley, grapes, figs, olives and dates. Each has a particular attribute, and eating them is thought to enhance spirituality for the holiday. When eating the pomegranate, it’s traditional to say, “May we be as full of mitzvot as the pomegranate is full of seeds.”

In this really interesting article about Greek Jewish traditions for Rosh Hashanah, a Washington Post reporter interviewed Paulette Mourtzoukos, who was born in Volos (near Athens)  in 1933. Her family is descended from Romaniote Jews, some of the earliest Jews on the European continent, with evidence of their existence dating to the 2nd century B.C.E. Through the centuries and after the Inquisition, Romaniote Jews were absorbed by Sephardic communities in several countries.

Along with more familiar treats like twice-baked biscotti and baklava, her Greek family enjoyed other sweets unique to Rosh Hashanah. Homemade apple preserves were given to guests in individual teaspoons with a glass of water, as a wish for a sweet New Year. Neighbors gave each other baskets of pomegranates from their yards with wishes for “chronia polla, kai kali chronia,” or “many years and good years.” To break the Yom Kippur fast a week later, it’s Greek Jewish tradition to eat honey sprinkled with pomegranate seeds, symbolic of wishes for a sweet year of abundance.

These are all different ways to include the seven species on the holiday table. Wheat is found in the round holiday challah that has a place of honor on our table. The round shape is said to symbolize the hope that the coming year will be as perfect as a circle.

date syrupSome families dip apples in date syrup (silan in Hebrew), a sweet liquid extracted from dates, instead of in bee honey. Dates are one of the seven species. Seeds – from pomegranates and sesame seed desserts (so your good deeds are as plentiful as seeds) – are other popular symbolic foods.

On the secular New Year in Cuba, it’s a traditional to eat grapes for good luck. The few Jews left in Cuba have adapted this tradition and now eat grapes on Rosh Hashanah as a wish for a sweet Jewish new year.

Another way to taste the seven species is in a Rosh Hashanah stew. We read about “quince stew” and it sounds like the Sephardic version of cholent. It’s made by slowly simmering meat, tomato paste, potatoes, and some sweet fruits like prunes, dates and quince, a yellow Asian fruit that’s similar to a pear. Throw in a few olives and you’ve got most of the species covered.

Some Sephardic Jews place a fish head on the holiday table. It’s a little disconcerting for us to see it amongst the dates, apples and pomegranates, but you can’t deny the symbolism. The custom arose from the holiday name: Rosh Hashanah literally translates as “head of the year.” Like the breaking of the glass, this custom has various meanings: The fish head symbolizes plunging into the new year head first, with strength. The fish suggests that your offspring will multiply like the fish in the seas. And since fish don’t have eyelids, they keep their eyes wide open and can ward off the evil eye.

Sounds fishy to us.

We’ll just go the old-school route and wish you a sweet new year.  Shana Tovah to all our readers, friends and families.

And if you’re feeling ambitious, you can try your hand at making a new sweet: a fancy take on halvah created by an Israeli chef. It’s a mille-feuille napoleon with halvah and silan – and it looks much harder to make than our Grandmom Mary’s Apple Cake.







Posted in Ashkenazi, holidays, jewish food, Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah, Sephardi, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments