These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Week 19: Tastes of Home

Posted on January 16, 2012 by Derek Kwait

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(X-posted from my home blog, Yinzer in Yerushalayim)

As I end my first semester in Israel, I am surrounded by reminders of where I come from and how I got here. It started last Thursday night, when I made halushki, a Central/Eastern European dish popular in Western Pennsylvania, at my friend מיכאל’s (pronounced “Mee-kha-el”) apartment to prepare for co-hosting Shabbat lunch with him. For me, this was to be a historic halushki, the first dish I have ever made completely on my own to feed other people. I chose to make my culinary debut halushki for four reasons: 1. It’s easy 2. It’s cheap 3. It’s different—as far as I know, I am the only one here who had even heard of halushki before last Shabbat, let alone eaten it, and 4. I thought making halushki in Jerusalem could produce some good juju for the Steelers the following Sunday (perhaps it would have gone better had I done teshuva instead).

But that Thursday night, everything exceeded expectations: I bought the ingredients, shredded and boiled the cabbage, boiled the noodles, sauteed the onions, mixed it all together, and spiced it up all by myself. Even the one piece of advise I received I rejected—when I told מיכאל the recipe called for sautéing one onion in 4 tablespoons of butter, he was horrified (he’s also from Portland, OR, which explains a lot) but, Yinzer that I am, I drowned it in butter anyway, and once he tasted the final result, he had to admit I was right. It turned out beautifully and, as confirmed by not only מיכאל but his roommate, his friend, and me, tasted delicious. I was so proud of myself.

It wasn’t as good as my Uncle Mark’s, but his is the best in the world, so that’s an unfair standard; it was my best and that’s all that mattered. I couldn’t wait to share it with our 15 or so expected guests Saturday afternoon.

It turns out, halushki tastes best when fresh. We put it on the platta Saturday morning and it looked really good, but once mealtime came, my simple Polish dish was completely overshadowed by admittedly superior gnocchis with cheese and nut curry. My dish was bland in comparison and I ended up with a ton of leftovers. I’m still proud of myself though, and eager for another chance to try cooking a dish that will win over my guests’ hearts and stomachs. Next time, I’m making kielbasa (correctly pronounced “kill-bossy”).

My next reminder of home, came one week later, the last day of the semester. Every week at Pardes, we have a big, delicious community lunch. It is traditional during these lunches that a student give a “Take 5” about that term’s theme. The theme for this term is Jewish heroism, and I gave this Take 5, where I told the story I’ve been wanting everyone at Pardes to know since before I got there.

I am not exaggerating when I say giving this speech was one of the greatest moments of my life. Not only did I make everyone see just how special YPS is and how much I love it there—which would have been gratifying enough—but it was a personal victory for me for another reason: it was the first time I’ve ever spoken in public the way I write. If you’ve never met me, I talk really, really fast. This in conjunction with my natural shyness and stage fright has made me a terrible public speaker. But Thursday that all changed. I felt a synergistic connection between myself and my audience while speaking that I never experienced before. My friend Carolina, a Columbia-trained social-worker thought this happened because I so badly wanted everyone to know about this. I think that must be it since, while I personally have no idea why it happened, that’s the explanation I like best. My only caveat with the speech is that I didn’t have the time to mention how the scholarship led to this article in The Jewish Chronicle, which led to this blog. The life-changing rewards of my time at YPS and of the David Fax Memorial Scholarship just keep coming. It was the perfect ending to an amazing semester and hopefully a good sign for things to come—now that I know I have this in me, who knows what I can achieve next?

After the speech, that was it. Four life-altering months in Israel had past and my first semester was over. I’ve come a long way from being the lost scared American kid hauling his baggage through the Muslim Quarter. Since that time, seemingly a lifetime ago, I’ve made over 80 new friends, met and learned from some of the most amazing individuals I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing, learned so much more Hebrew and Torah, explored and gotten to better know my country, my people, my heritage, and myself—good, bad, and ugly.

While it still doesn’t feel like home—falafel still feels like a foreign food the way halushki never will—I nonetheless now feel somewhat “used” to Israel. The world outside Pardes no longer feels like a raging ocean I must struggle to stay afloat in lest I drown as much as it feels like any other major transition in life, like wearing braces or getting older— now my teeth hurt when I eat an apple, now I have more hair and my voice is deeper, now I’m away from my loved ones and don’t understand the common language or the social protocol in new situations, but that’s just the way life is, all a part of growing up. In short, while Israel is still different, it’s no longer foreign. It’s become a part of me, or maybe I’ve become a part of it.

But the most significant noticeable effects on me have come from inside Pardes, as well they should since that is where I happily spend the overwhelming majority of my waking (and nearly-waking) hours. Perhaps the most important discovery I’ve made in my first semester is that everything I thought I knew about the depth and beauty of Jewish texts before I came here was based solely on hearsay. Even the texts I thought I had read, everything I knew about them came from someone else telling me about them, through either translation or some other form of drash. But now, reading them in Hebrew with my chevrutas and my teachers, experiencing for myself the depth, beauty, wisdom, and Divinity that has kept them holy and relevant for 4,000 years shining through them like the sun, makes me realize I knew next to nothing about them before. They shine through every facet: Through Rav Meir’s expounding on the seemingly limitless depth of meaning of every letter of the Torah and the true significance of what the classic commentators are saying, what in the text makes them say it, and the way different their different personalities and approaches effect the way they read the Torah. Through Rahel Berkowitz making obscure references in the Mishna clear, vague passages profound, obvious statements not so obvious, and backwards parts beautiful artifacts. Through R. Dr. Levi Cooper teaching the Mishna Torah, the Rambam, and the Rambam in the Mishna Torah. Through Dr. Meesh Hammer-Kossoy’s burning passion for Torah, social justice, and giving me great blogging material. Through Dr. David Bernstein taking us along with the Jewish people on the bumpy ride from the French Revolution to the founding of the State in 1948 by allowing all the major personalities and movements along the way speak for themselves through primary sources in Turning Points in Modern Jewish History. Through getting inside some of the greatest Jewish minds of the 20 th century in Modern Jewish Thought with R. David Levin-Kruss. Through Learning and singing Torah trope with Elisa Pearlman.

Yet even with this embarrassment of riches, I feel I’ve learned the most from my chevrutas. Learning a text with another person keeps you honest. A good chevruta tells you when s/he thinks you are wrong and won’t let it go until you understand why. My chevrutas have taught me how to be better at giving and receiving criticism and how to be more open and accepting of different ideas, even when they are better than my own. My Chumash and Mishna chevruta Anne is a woman my Mom’s age and the best study partner I could have asked for because she is so different for me: When I read texts, I look for the bigger picture, I try to see where the story is going and the bigger point it’s trying to make. Anne is more what we in yeshiva call dikduk, concerned with every fine point of grammar that I am usually content to fudge over in order to see the bigger picture. I see the forest, she sees the trees. At first this drove me crazy, but now I love her for it. Besides having some great conversations and growing some great mustaches together, my Rambam chevruta Evan has helped me so much to become a better translator. This guy was my Social Justice chevruta, ’nuff said.

All this, and I’m still just getting started.

Quote of the Week: “I’m Jewish. What am I doing about it?” – Shaul

Made-Up Hebrew Word of the Week: טיבוד (“Tebowed”) – Tebowed

(On the bright/disgustingly selfish side, at least I no longer have to worry about missing being in Pittsburgh during a Super Bowl run. On second thought, no. It’s not worth it at all.)