Lessons Learned – We’re Back from Vacation

We’re both back from our summer vacations, and after years of traveling we’re still discovering what we like and what we don’t like about going on vacation. We remember the days of piling the kids in the car and singing songs (we liked) and then turning around to yell at those same kids to “Cut it out!” (we didn’t like). We keep refining our list of things we like so we can better plan for future vacations.

It wasn’t news to us that we love almost any kind of gelato from almost any gelato shop in Italy, but can you design a whole vacation around ice cream?  We’ve long known that we are not campers. We don’t even pretend to be. Joyce has “fond” memories of her last family camping trip – over 20 years ago  – when some outdoorsy friends from Lancaster suggested the two families meet for a weekend of camping at French Creek State Park. On Friday morning, when the weekend weather forecast looked bleak, Joyce called her friends and suggested spending the weekend at a nearby Holiday Inn instead. Indoor pool! Free breakfast! TV!

The friends laughed. They thought she was joking with them. Give up camping without even trying? So they stuck with the camping plan and woke up Saturday morning drenched; the water had leaked into the tent. The scrambled eggs were soggy. In the end, Joyce had fun, but not the kind of fun she ever wanted to have again.

We love a good hotel. In most of the world, a night in a hotel usually includes breakfast the next morning with local treats, such goat’s milk yogurt, fresh baked croissants, and figs from the tree in the yard etc. In some hotels, you can even sit in that yard and enjoy your breakfast al fresco.

Breakfast on the balcony in Cambodia: Dragonfruit and banana pastries. Yum. 

In a hotel, it’s nice to find hot coffee in the lobby first thing in the morning and even nicer to come back at the end of the day and find that someone has straightened the bed and left a chocolate on our pillow.

When you stay in a hotel, you get help, and we love a good front desk. We like to get a recommendation from the girl at the front desk for a great local restaurant, not the tourist trap on the waterfront with the chalkboard out front that reads, “Visitors much love you eat here.”

We like the free paper map the desk clerk gives us. She circles where we are in magic marker, where we want to go, and then points us in the right direction. “Go out the front door. Make a left and then a right.” We try not to get confused by the big blue “Mr. Bag” on the map; it’s a local leather shop that paid for an ad on the map, not our ultimate destination.

You are here.


We’ve learned that we’re not group-tour people. We hate being told what to do and when to do it. When the group zigs, we want to zag. If we like a place, we want to stay there – not get back on the bus by 3 pm. We don’t care if the bus is leaving. In fact in Morocco, when everyone went to take a guided walk, Joyce and Ted turned in the other direction. They have fond memories of that fun afternoon they spent on their own drinking mint tea, chatting – or trying to – with the locals, and wandering into the shops.

We are city folks. We’d rather be in Barcelona than in the Spanish countryside, in Boston rather than Cape Cod.  We like to walk around and window shop. We enjoy museums – big ones like the Vatican Museum as well as the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, one family’s private art collection housed in their palace.

We like it when there are many different activities to choose from. A jazz festival in town. A traveling craft show on the waterfront. A culinary walking tour that features local wines. We get shpilkes when we are stranded in the great outdoors with nothing more to do than look at the scenery. As Ellen and David realized after their summer excursion: “Seen one glacier, seen them all.”

A glacier . . .

. .  another glacier

There are certain places in the world that can only be reached by cruise ship – like Glacier Bay in Alaska. So when we’ve taken a cruise, we’ve made the most of it. But if there’s another way to get to a place, we prefer it.

We’d rather arrive in a little town on our own rather than with 4,000 other people all headed to the same souvenir shops to find tchotchkes. We love a good tchotchke, too, but we like to find it ourselves, like the time we wandered through Orvieto and bought Italian dish towels from a very undiscovered local linen store.

Shopping with the locals in Istanbul.

We do enjoy a good buffet, which is why a cruise is a bad idea for us. We need limits – when to eat and how much. When we were walking around the deck at 10 a.m. to see the mountains, it was disconcerting to bump into a kid with a huge ice cream cone. Should we be eating ice cream at 10 a.m.? Where’s did he get that ice cream?

Ellen and David’s recent cruise came with 15 drinks – per person! – a day. The first few days, they just had their usual glass of wine with dinner. But by the last day, Ellen felt compelled to drink her allotment – or at least try. She had a mai tai at lunch, a daiquiri at 1 p.m., a whiskey sour at 3, and wine at dinner. She was woozy when she texted her (adult) sons photos of the drinks and commented how excessive she thought her drinking was. They texted back, “Glad you’re having fun!”

So as we think about planning our next vacations, we’ll keep in mind the things we like: gelato, big cities, shopping and wine with dinner. Just not in a tent.



Posted in culture, modern life, summer | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Gulliver’s Gate: It’s a Really, Really Small World After All

We were in New York earlier this month to pick up two awards that our book, The Whole Spiel, had won. As we walked down 44th Street on our way to the awards party, we stopped in Dubai, Thailand, and the Panama Canal. Whaaat? We’ve gotten lost before, but never this farblondjet . . .

We weren’t really lost. We had just stopped to visit a brand new exhibition, “Gulliver’s Gate,” which features miniature models of the world’s most famous cities, buildings and sites.

“We have miniatures that represent some of the world’s greatest treasures, and as you go through you get this really unique experience of seeing the world in a way you’ve never seen it before,” said Michael Langer, co-founder, in an interview in USA Today.

He’s not kidding. We have never looked down on St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow or the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the world’s tallest twin structures. You have to strain your neck to look up at these sights. Here they were knee-high.

Joyce’s photo of the real Petronas Towers

The Gulliver’s Gate mini version








In Gulliver’s Gate, a 3-year-old could scale the Swiss Alps or swim across the tiny English Channel.

We appreciate the effort and expertise that went into creating this miniature world. Teams of architects, model builders, electricians and engineers from around the world worked for more than a year designing and building the models – assembling the buildings and lighting them. They made the mini trains and ski lifts run, the boats float down tiny rivers, and the cars drive along the inches long Champs-Elysees.

We chatted with an Argentine architect who had spent the past year at his workplace in Buenos Aires creating a creating a miniature Central America with 40 co-workers. The models came to New York in shipping containers; the architect was now on site in the Times Square exhibit to assemble his region of the world.

As we watched a model maker put the finishing touches of paint on a tiny canoe, we remembered playing with Polly Pocket dolls – their teeny tiny bunk beds and their wee little ponies. It was fun for awhile, but imagine doing that for more than a year.

As we wandered from India to Japan to Egypt we came across Israel. From the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv to the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, the Jewish State, which is relatively small in real life, occupied half of the back room. Why did Israel get such a prime piece of Gulliver’s Gate real estate?

mini Jerusalem

It turns out that the mastermind behind this project is an Israeli – Eiran Gazit. After spending 14 years in the military, he opened Mini Israel Park, a 1:25 scale model of the Promised Land, outside Tel Aviv in 2003. We read in the Times of Israel that Gazit loved building model airplanes as a child and had hundreds of them. Guess his mother encouraged his creativity – and it led to his life’s passion.

In 2005, Gazit moved from Jerusalem to the Berkshires in Massachusetts and opened a bed and breakfast with his wife, Michele. But evidently he wasn’t content with just baking mini blueberry muffins. The man obsessed with tiny architecture had another idea. We imagine that one morning he turned to his wife and asked, “Honey, is it okay with you if I build some more miniatures?”

We suspect that she didn’t say, “You’re meshugenah,” because $40 million dollars, 50,000 square feet and many years later, Gulliver’s Gate has opened. Obviously, the exhibits don’t include everything, and the landmarks are not situated like they are in real life. It was disorienting to stand next to the Brooklyn Bridge and see Central Park around the corner. But the exhibit is meant to entertain and amaze, not to teach geography.

The exhibit is 1:87 scale, which means a 6-foot-tall person would be less than an inch tall – and there are about 100,000 teeny, tiny people in Gulliver’s Gate. We spotted many of them but missed the miniature Beatles walking across tiny Abbey Road and the pianist on a balcony in the model of Italy’s Cinque Terre.

If we had wanted to, we could have become part of this crazy mini world. Visitors can pay to step inside a 3-D body scanner and have a model made of themselves. Then, you can add your mini-me to the exhibit. “Be sure to look for us. We’re standing by the canal behind the sheep in the rice paddy.”

We passed on that. Why would we let a stranger take our 3-D measurements? That’s just embarrassing!

In a New York Times interview, Eiran Gazit explained that he wanted to create a utopian world – an airport with no terrorists, roads with no car accidents, cities with no crime.  We agree. After all, if you get to create your own world, why not make it a happy one?

GULLIVER’S GATE, at 216 W. 44th Street in Manhattan, is open daily from 9 a.m.-10 p.m. https://gulliversgate.com/

Posted in culture, Current Events, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Are We Too Old to Wear This?

Each spring, we bring our summer clothes down from the attic. We get reacquainted with the T-shirts and cotton pants that we lived without for six months. Could we live without them forever? Should we have ever lived with them?

The questions are monumental: Keep or donate? Passable or horrible? Can I get one more wearing out of this? Should I even wear it in public?

We realized we needed some advice so we turned to nonjudgmental Google: “Can short people wear capri pants?” The answer was yes, “if you can wear them with confidence.” If we had confidence, we wouldn’t have had to ask Google.

We tried again. “Are we too old to wear capris?” Google gave us a definite “maybe,” but we did learn that hair scrunchies, fishnet stockings and crop tops are definite no-nos for our age group.

Luckily, we both have adult daughters who care about how their mothers look more than Google does. If you can’t decide which clothes you should keep, you need a daughter. We’d lend you ours, but we need them. We wish our girls still lived at home, so we could know their opinion of our outfit just by the look on their face. But they don’t, so we have to text them a selfie of us modeling the questionable garment — a bright floral print blazer with the tags still on it.

We ask them: “Closet cleaning. Should this go?”

“Too Florida grandma,” came the reply. “And by the way, your mirror could use a good cleaning.”

Digging into the back of a closet is like carbon dating a fossil. You look for clues in the surrounding material. You try to pin down how old the item is by the things buried alongside it.



This dress was bought for a cousin’s wedding. She got married what, like three years ago? Well, her son is in middle school, so it was more like 12 years ago.

One of us has a beloved outfit – skirt, blouse and vest – that she wore to her son’s Bar Mitzvah 19 years ago. She long ago managed to part with the hippie patchwork skirt and matching blouse that she knew she wouldn’t wear again, but she still can’t part with the vest. “It’s not bad. It can go with anything. I just have to remember not to wear it when my daughter is around.”

We’ve browsed the book that says we should only keep the clothes that “spark joy.” But how can we predict if these platform wedges might bring us joy one day in the future? Better hang on to them.

We want to be stylish but age appropriate, and we walk the fine line between the two – in our comfy sandals with padded soles and Velcro closures. Through the years, our necklines have risen and our sleeves have lengthened. Still, we are wooed by new trends, like peek-a-boo shoulders and rainbow-bright stripes. Generally, better judgment prevails.

Even though we’d love to try that new green glitter eyeliner, we won’t go there. Kylie Jenner’s eyes looked great in green glitter in Teen Vogue, but if we’d tried it there would be glitter on our cheeks and all over our glasses.

But we don’t want to go too far in the other direction either. We had a tie-dyed shirt we thought was very cool – until we spotted a lady in her eighties wearing the identical shirt. Evidently, she also thought it was cool. We came home and promptly threw ours out.

We depend on our daughters not only for critiques but also to keep us up on what’s in style. They taught us years ago that our shirt and pants don’t have to match exactly; it can be an outfit even if you bought them at different stores. It’s okay to wear a scarf – maybe a thin, cotton, patterned one – even if you’re not heading out into a snowstorm.

We’ve lived long enough to know that what goes around will eventually come around again. If only we had held onto our Frye boots, wide-leg jeans and espadrille sandals from the early 1980s. All of these items are back in style. Our daughters are tired of us telling them that they weren’t the first generation to discover leg warmers, crocheted vests and rompers. We wore rompers in junior high school. They were navy blue with an attached metal slide buckle. We were required to change into them for gym class. Nothing about them was stylish.

Sometimes we are trendy, but it’s by accident. We know that jeans with rips and tears are very au courant. We even have a pair of old jeans that are worn out in the knees. Their rips were earned, not purchased, though. Back in the day, we fell for the ads that touted “a blouse that will take you from work to dinner date” and the easy care of a “wash and wear sundress.” Now when we go shopping, we fall for the bathing suit that promises you’ll “look 10 lbs lighter in 10 seconds ” and the “most comfortable pants you’ll ever buy.”

When you’re a kid it’s easy to know when to get rid of your clothes. Your mom does it  because your corduroys are ripped and stained from the playground and your favorite SpongeBob shirt doesn’t fit you anymore. When you’re an adult, if you find that you’ve outgrown your pants, it’s not good news. Nor is it good when you discover that you’ve been wearing a shirt all day with coffee stain right smack in the middle. Both go in the bag to donate.

All this purging has left us with some extra closet space. We’re not students, so we can’t look forward to back-to-school shopping. Our feet aren’t growing, so there’s no reason to buy new shoes. But we just saw an ad online for  “the world’s best versatile, wrinkle-free travel dress.” It will be perfect for our trip in August. We’re clicking to order it now.

This essay first appeared on Wednesday, 6/7 on Newsworks.org, the online site of WHYY, Philadelphia’s public radio and TV stations

Posted in aging, Jewish mothers | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Just Wait Till You Have Kids!”

As we watch our young next-door neighbor chase her two little boys around the backyard, we can’t help but notice she’s clutching her always-present phone, poised to take pictures. Her candid photos will be posted on Facebook by the end of the day.


Ben and Samantha Eisenberg in 1990.

Twenty years ago, we took pictures of our kids at play, too, if we remembered to bring the camera with us. Now those old 4-by-6 prints are tucked into albums that we pull out only when we want to cry.

In the faded photos from our own childhoods we are posed — dressed up and smiling on cue. Cameras were bulky, film was expensive, and parents would take pictures only on special occasions — birthdays, trips, and holidays.

When we recall our childhood dinners, we remember salmon croquettes, Creamettes, and frozen green beans. In those days, there was only one option for dinner. No one was allowed to be vegan, lactose intolerant, or allergic to peanuts. Moms fell into different camps:

“If you don’t like it, don’t eat it.”
“I’m not cooking three different dinners tonight.”
“You can’t leave the table until you clean your plate.”

This last one was rough for stubborn kids who tried to outlast and outsmart their parents. Hiding peas under your knife never worked.

When we became moms, we vowed never to make our kids stay at the table until they cleaned their plates. That was such wrong, old-fashioned parenting! We’d even serve extra sides so each child had something they liked: a bowl of plain mashed potatoes — no chives, no pepper, no strange flecks on top — and a separate bowl of Tater Tots for the child who hated mushy things.

But like our moms, we would forget which kid liked what. When Michael came home from college, we’d proudly serve up a heaping bowl of creamed spinach only to be reminded: “I hate creamed spinach. Andy’s the one who likes it!”

When we went back-to-school shopping, our mothers insisted that we buy a blouse to match the skirt we wanted. Our socks had to match, too. “You need to have a whole outfit,” they’d say. We read Seventeen magazine and longed for blond hair but weren’t allowed to dye it, so when summer came we tried to lighten our hair with lemon juice.  A missing lemon we could get away with.

When we took our girls clothes-shopping, we didn’t even pause at the matching outfits. We let them pick leggings and comfy shirts. We didn’t care if they wore mismatched socks just for fun. And when the girls wanted to dye their hair purple, we decided it wasn’t worth a huge fight. After all, it’s only hair.

Now when we see a 7-year-old in a tie-dyed shirt, striped pants, and a tiara at the supermarket, we don’t even blink. We smile at the young mom and know that she gave up the fight over what to wear, too.

Back in the day, our moms read books and baked cookies with us, but mostly they sent us outside to play. “Go amuse yourself,” they’d tell us. “Play with your sisters.” They’d holler our names when it was time for dinner. We rode our bikes to the drugstore to buy bubble gum. We wandered into the neighbor’s yard to play. We were free range and we didn’t even know it.

When our kids were little, we would get down on the floor to build a Lego castle and dress Barbies with them. As they got older, we tried our best to remember their friends’ names. We made them tell us what they had for math homework and where they were going after school. We weren’t helicopter parents, but we did keep track of their arrivals and departures.


Michael, Jessie & Andy Scolnic, 2015

More than once, when they were exasperated, our mothers told us: “Just you wait until you have kids!”

And then we did. We’ve had kids for years, and we get it: Our mothers were doing their best and loving us when they helped us put on a puppet show or made us wear hand-medowns and finish our green beans. We get it because that’s what we were doing, too, when we whipped up the kale smoothie our teenagers liked, drove across town for Little League practice, and made them finish their Latin homework even though it was a “dead language.” It’s a revelation to young mothers when they discover that there are many different ways to parent. Sometimes we do things the way our moms did; sometimes we do the opposite. We do what feels right.

But on Mother’s Day and every day, we’re grateful to receive — and give — a mother’s love.

This essay first appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, May 14, 2017 – Mother’s Day. 

Posted in Dads/husbands, Jewish mothers, Mother's Day, parenting | 2 Comments

Sephardic Seder Traditions to Try

Like almost 90 percent of American Jews, we are Ashkenazic. This means that our families came from Eastern Europe – Russia, Ukraine, Poland or Lithuania. When we get ready to celebrate Passover, we think gefilte fish, brisket, roasted chicken and pesachdik kugel (or kigel), but that’s another story.

Sephardic Jews, whose ancestors came from Spain, Portugal, the Mediterranean basin, North Africa and the Middle East, have unique traditions and tastes of their own. When Passover approaches, they might cook stuffed grape leaves (Greece), basmati rice with stewed fruits (Morocco), or chickpea dumplings (Iran).

On the Seder Plate

Haroset is the mixture of chopped fruits and nuts that symbolizes the mortar and bricks the Israelite slaves used to build the pyramids in Egypt. It has a place on honor on the seder plate, but we can’t call the Pope and ask him for the official recipe. There is none. Like much of Judaism, how you make haroset depends a great deal on where your family is from and how your bubbe made haroset. There are scores of different recipes, and they highlight the Ashkenazic-Sephardic culinary divide.

The Ashkenazic version usually includes chopped apples, sweet wine, cinnamon and nuts. Sephardic haroset uses fruits native to the lands where Sephardic Jews live – like figs, dates, pistachios, date syrup, raisins, cardamom and oranges.

Sephardic haroset

Because Jews live all around the world, there are endless variations. Jews in Guatemala use macadamia nuts, which are native there but so expensive in the rest of the world. Haroset in Uganda includes bananas, another native fruit. Jews in Florida are likely to sprinkle some coconut into their mixture. We love the mash-up of traditions.

Telling the Story

It’s traditional for Jews everywhere to act out parts of the haggadah. When directed to “tell the story of how we were slaves in Egypt,” countless seder leaders look for ways to involve the guests and keep the kids interested.

We might pass out silly masks or finger puppets to represent the 10 plagues, sing songs about frogs hopping here and there, and parade around the dining room table as if it were the journey out of Egypt, but we’ve never hit our guests with vegetables like Sephardim often do.

That’s because their tradition calls for seder guests to hit each other with scallions while they sing Dayenu. This represents the part in the Passover story when Egyptian taskmasters whipped the Israelite slaves. The custom was featured in the seder scene in “The Women’s Balcony,” a 2016 Israeli film about a close-knit Sephardic community in Jerusalem. Anyone who has participated in this ritual will probably tell you that the kids got carried away and vegetables were flung.  If you want to see the ritual in action, here’s a video of a family celebrating with scallions.

Irene Kaplan, who lives in Potomac, Maryland, and was past-president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, celebrates many Moroccan Pesach customs with her family. Their seder plate is brought to the table by the most eligible young lady in attendance; tradition says this will bring her good luck in the coming year.

One of Kaplan’s favorite customs is what she calls “bibehilu,” which occurs just after the afikoman is broken into two pieces. “In my house, the seder plate is covered with one of my most treasured possessions, my late great-grandmother’s hand-embroidered shawl,” explains Kaplan. “The covered plate is passed over the heads of everyone at the table three times while we chant, “Bibehilu yazanu mimizrayim ha lahma anya bnei horin” (“In fear, we left Egypt with the bread of affliction; we are now free”).

Kaplan said that the symbolism of passing the seder plate helps guests re-enact the journey out of Egypt. “The plate represents the biblical cloud that protected the Jews on their ancient journey,” she explained. “Each person carries and passes the plate as if to say that they personally left Egypt.”

Some cultures don’t even use a seder plate.

There’s a tradition among North African Jews to place the roasted egg, bitter herb and green vegetables on the table in a reed basket, reminiscent of the story of baby Moses, who was put into a basket and set adrift on the Nile River.

All Jews follow the tradition of hiding a piece of matzah – the afikoman – during the seder. Then, at the appointed time, the kids go hunting for it. In return, they are rewarded with a small toy or some money. In our house, we make sure to have a chocolate bars, stickers, yo-yos and hair barrettes for everyone under the age of 30 so that no one misses out on an afikoman prize.  

We’ve read that hanging on to a piece of the afikoman can bring you good luck in the coming year. That’s why Sephardic Jews might keep a piece in their pocket or somewhere in their home to insure protection against the evil eye. We once found a piece of matzah hidden on the mantle 10 months after Passover. Of course it wasn’t bad housekeeping. We meant to keep it there (kine-ahora!).

Sephardic Jews have always been able to eat kitniyot (rice, beans, corn, peanuts, lentils and seeds) at Passover because these foods were staples of their Mediterranean diet. Ashkenazic Jews jumped on the bandwagon in 2015 when the Rabbinical Assembly declared kitniyot kosher for Passover. Now it’s okay for everyone to put peanut butter on their matzah (like we’ve been doing for years), serve rice pilaf with roast chicken, and snack on hummus and popcorn during Passover.

the Israeli version of Nutella – always delicious on matzah

This all sounds good to us, but we won’t be serving chickpea dumplings in place of matzah balls in our chicken soup. Our tradition – and our kids – demand floaters.

To all our readers, friends and family: A happy, healthy, sweet Passover! And to read more essays like this one, check out our new book, “The Whole Spiel: Funny essays about digital nudniks, seder selfies and chicken soup memories” on Amazon.

A Sephardic Haroset Recipe

Our families like the Ashkenazic version of haroset best – with chopped apples, nuts and sweet red wine, but the past few years we’ve also enjoyed making a Sephardic haroset with dates, pistachios and cardamom. We will not, however, practice the Sephardic ritual of dipping our fingers into that haroset and marking the doorway with a wine-soaked handprint so the Angel of Death will “pass over.”

Combine in a large bowl:

  • 2 cups dates, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 cup dried apricots, chopped
  • ½ cup golden raisins
  • ½ cup sweet wine
  • ½ cup roasted almonds, chopped

To the mixture, added enough additional wine so that all of the ingredients are covered. As it sits, the dried fruit will soak up the wine and soften. Add more liquid (water if you wish) if needed.

Posted in Ashkenazi, haroset, jewish food, Jewish holidays, Passover, Sephardi | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Now with 30% more wit and sarcasm! … but no quinoa

Rice Chex cereal has always been 100 percent rice, but now it boasts that it’s gluten-free. It never had gluten. But now that gluten is on the no-fly list, being gluten-free is a bragging point.

This would be like us proclaiming that we now contain “more than 90 percent water with life-enhancing oxygen and iron-rich hemoglobin.”

Products try to entice us in different ways. They trumpet the facts and statistics they want us to focus on, while they gloss over other glaring truths. Their advertising uses current buzzwords, like “cage-free” and “gluten-free,” to tout basically unchanged products as “new and improved.” They are telling us what we want to hear.

Back in the day, we ate saltine crackers, but we didn’t brag about it. Now a lot of products boast about their sprinkle of sea salt. Dark chocolate, ice cream, and flatbread crisps all benefit from cozying up to the mineral. All those years at the beach! How misguided we were when we hosed our kids off. If only we had recognized the potential greatness of sea salt, we could have been in on the ground floor of this trend.

Bad comedians and their dirty jokes have tried for years to convince us that size matters. So do some products. The package of paper towels that reads “6 mega rolls = 9” or “8 super-absorbent rolls = 12” doesn’t fool us. They want us to think we’re getting more for our money, even if that isn’t the case.

We get less applesauce for our money with the new “easier to handle” jar. It’s indented so we can hold it, but it’s 5 ounces smaller than the original version. If politicians followed this formula of turning a bad attribute into a desirable quality, we’d hear them crowing, “Caught in fewer sex scandals than my opponent!”

What used to be considered desirable has also changed over the years. In the old days, a box of Alpha-Bits cereal noted with pride that it was “sugar-sparkled.” Not a good thing today. The marketing team has changed its tune, and the product now has “20g of whole grain per serving, 12 essential vitamins and minerals, and no high-fructose corn syrup.”

A box of Cheerios boasts that it contains ancient grains that “may reduce heart disease.” These super grains — including quinoa, farro, millet, teff, freekeh and kamut — are all mentioned in the bible and are largely unchanged since then. Don’t you remember the story in which Noah tells his sons that millet isn’t just for the birds? “It’s good for you, too. Just eat your bowl of millet.”

These marketing tactics allow us to fool ourselves when we are eating something junky but don’t want it to be a total loss. The chewy, greasy pizza with a crust including an ancient grain, and the Breyers mint chip ice cream made with “no artificial growth hormones used on the cows” must be good for us.

So please pass us the all-organic, gluten-free cheesecake made with eggs from cage-free, happy chickens so we can feel good about eating healthy.

All this savvy packaging has taught us how to market ourselves in this trendy, buzzword-rich world. We are designing a new T-shirt that we can wear to the supermarket. It will brag about our best qualities:

  • “Now with less athletic ability than before!”
  • “Contains larger hips to take up 1-1/2 seats on the bench!”
  • “Includes ancient wisdom and a sprinkle of sea salt.”


This article is also published on Newsworks.org, the on-line site of WHYY, Philadelphia’s Public Television and Radio.

Posted in Current Events, modern life | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

An Homage to Hamantashen 

In the beginning, there was mun. And it was good.

Mun, sometimes spelled mohn, is the Yiddish word for sweet poppy seed jam. It was a key ingredient in many Eastern European baked goods – from mohnbrötchen (poppy seed bread) to munstrudel (a sweet, swirled pastry). So it’s no surprise that Ashkenazic Jews used mun to fill their hamantashen, the triangular-shaped cookies that are eaten on Purim.hamentosh5

Hamantashen, literally “Haman’s hat,” reminds us of the bad guy from the story of Purim, who hatched a plot to kill the Jews of Persia. But we also have Queen Esther, the story’s heroine, to thank for mun. When Esther was living in the palace with King Ahasuerus, she wanted to keep kosher, so she turned down the lamb tagine and ate a lot of beans and seeds instead. Tradition says that we eat hamantashen filled with poppy seeds in her honor.

painting depicting Esther denouncing Haman

painting depicting Esther denouncing Haman

Back in the day, lekvar, the Hungarian jam made from sweetened prunes or apricots, was also a popular hamantashen filling. It was used in pierogies and cream cheese cookies, too.

When lekvar and mun hamantashen emigrated to America, they were eager to fit in with the Danish pastries and Swiss butter cookies with which they shared the bakery tray. Soon hamantashen stuffed with cherry pie filling and lemon curd were popping up in Lower East Side kitchens, Pittsburgh bakeries and Miami coffee shops.

Today you can find hamantashen filled with Nutella, halvah, apples and chocolate chips. If your daughter is a Girl Scout, she might be interested in a Tagalong hamantashen filled with peanut butter and dipped in chocolate. What could be more American than the mashup of the most popular Girl Scout cookie with the quintessential Jewish pastry?

Savory hamantashen have also been sighted. MyJewishLearning.com offers recipes for one with feta and thyme and another with rosemary and balsamic caramelized onion jam.

Hamantashen lovers argue not only about the filling but also about the dough. Some like theirs cakey soft; others want them cookie hard. This dispute joins the other great Jewish food debates: sinker vs. floater (matzah balls), rugelach vs. shnecken (pastry), and mandelbrodt vs. kamishbrodt (twice-baked cookies).

If the dough is pareve and made with oil, the hamantashen will likely be crumbly and soft. If the dough contains butter, the hamantashen will be crispier and more like shortbread cookies in texture.

The packaged hamantashen that have been on the supermarket shelf with the Hanukkah candles since December and have an expiration date of March 2018 are likely to be cakey soft and crumbly. We think they’re delicious. Perhaps that’s because of all the preservatives in them. Or because we didn’t have to bake them.

Sephardic Jews not only eat Haman’s hats during Purim, they also nosh on Haman’s ears. The Purim cookies known as Oznei Haman, Hebrew for “Haman’s ears,” are thought to have originated in Spain or Italy. The cookie dough is formed into bow-tie shapes, deep fried and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. The cookies are sometimes dipped in a honey-lemon syrup.

Sephardic Jews also put Haman in jail. Their huevos de Haman, or foulares, is a cheese pastry. It features a hard-boiled egg, still in its shell, that’s shackled in crisscrossed dough to represent Haman in his jail cell.

Portuguese folar or Haman in a jail cell. Photo thanks to Porto tour guides, thecitytailors.com

If you don’t want to end up in jail, be a wise man and don’t eat mun hamantashen before a drug test. Poppy seeds contain a small amount of opiates – specifically morphine and codeine. One employment counselor recommends that if you’re worried, bring the receipt from your mun hamantashen with you to your drug test.

Remember the episode of Seinfeld where Elaine fails a drug test and Peterman fires her for being an opium addict? She didn’t know why she kept failing her drug test until a guy in the coffee shop saw her eating a huge lemon poppy muffin and warned her. The Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters also investigated this urban legend. One of the hosts ate a bag of poppyseed bagels; the other downed an entire lemon poppyseed loaf cake. Thirty minutes later they tested their urine, and the one who had eaten the loaf cake tested positive for opioids. The bagel eater was clean. Maybe the poppyseeds had fallen off the bagels.

Hamantashen come around just once a year. That’s why, even though Purim is only one day, we buy or bake enough hamantashen to last for two weeks. Lekvar is our favorite. Cherry is next. For the folks who love mun – not us – the holiday is a rare opportunity to indulge in the gritty, super sweet filling that they adore.mun

We are not binge drinkers, so we won’t stand in the back of the synagogue during the Megillah reading and do shots of whiskey. But we are binge eaters, and we’ll eat hamantashen until we can’t tell the difference between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai.” By that time, we probably won’t know the difference between prune and poppy either.

This year, Purim starts Saturday night, March 11. So you have plenty of time to buy and/or bake hamantashen.


This article also appears in the Forward:   http://forward.com/food/363757/fun-with-hamantaschen/

Posted in jewish food, Jewish holidays, Purim | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments