A Study Break Like No Other

By Hannah Lee

Rabbi Meir Shapiro, initiator of Daf Yomi (Wikipedia)

In 1923, Rabbi Meir Shapiro proposed to the First World Congress of the World Agudath Israel in Vienna that Jews around the world bond over a daily study of the books of the Talmud, the code of rabbinic law. The six orders of the Talmud (or Gemarah), known as sedarim, are divided into 60 or 63 tractates, masekhtot. Clocking in over 6,200 pages long, it’s written in Aramaic and quotes from the Hebrew Bible.  Today, August 1, is a grand celebration of the completion of the 12th cycle of study, the Siyum HaShas of Daf Yomi.  It’s being held at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ and approximately 90,000 men, women, and children are expected to attend.

The six local teachers who’ve faithfully lead the daily study sessions year-round are: Rabbi Yechiel Biberfeld of Bala Cynwyd; Rabbi Dov Aaron Brisman of Philadelphia; Rabbi Yonah Gross of Wynnewood; Rabbi Sruli Schwartz of Merion Station; Rabbi Avraham Shmidman of Bala Cynwyd; and Rabbi Mordechai Terbelo of Philadelphia.  Yishar kochachem to these dedicated individuals and to their students for the commitment to sustaining Jewish scholarship!

Note: The list of local Daf Yomi teachers omitted the name of Rabbi Jonathan Levene (son of Rabbi Abraham Levene), but I’d relied on the official memorial volume published by Agudath Israel of America.  It’s 1/2-inch thick.


Parenting Chat

By Hannah Lee

In the current issue of The New Yorker, there’s an article by Elizabeth Kolbert on why American children are spoiled rotten.

I found it fascinating to read about other cultures that instill responsibility at an early age, such as the subsistence farmers of the Peruvian Amazon, where toddlers heat their own food, three-year-olds practice cutting wood and grass with machetes and knives, and children of six help their fathers with hunting and fishing and mothers with cooking.  By the time, they reach puberty, these Matsigenka children have mastered most of the skills necessary for survival.We all know of spoiled American children but Kolbert cites case incidents from a study by Elinor Ochs and Carolina Izquierdo of middle-class families in Los Angeles.

In another representative encounter, an eight-year-old girl sat down at the dining table. Finding that no silverware had been laid out for her, she demanded, “How am I supposed to eat?” Although the girl clearly knew where the silverware was kept, her father got up to get it for her.

It later mentions that when American youth go off to college, they’re less worried about the academics than the “logistics of everyday life.”   Gave me much food for thought in wondering whether I’ve prepared my children for life in the 21st century.


Food Chat With a Seitan Master

By Hannah Lee

Michael Cassady changed his diet in 1979 and found his niche in life.  He first thought eating only Chinese food would be healthy, but he did not know about the MSG used in restaurants.  He later tried the macrobiotic diet, but then he discovered the miracle of making seitan by hand.

Made with only flour and water, the glutinous mass is rinsed repeatedly — with cold and hot water, alternatively — to get rid of the starch, until only the protein remains.  First developed in China, seitan, also known as wheat gluten, is a healthy, low-calorie source of protein for vegetarians and vegans alike.  Herbs and spices can be added to simulate any ethnic dish in place of meat.

Home cooks could use a short-cut method using vital wheat gluten (certified kosher, available in local stores such as Whole Foods), but both Michael and Fernando Peralta of Vgë Café in Bryn Mawr agree that it makes a tough product.

Michael now uses a Hobart mixer to turn out 240- to-250-pound batches of seitan at a time.  He recently switched to using smaller 50-pound bags of flour, to spare his back from the constant weight-lifting.  He uses a special bowl that’s perforated with holes.

The process requires a continual flushing of water.  Alas, the plumbing in his former-delicatessen space in Florence, NJ limits the speed of production.  Michael thinks he would be well-served by a French drain, which is sometimes still seen in old houses on the Main Line as was in mine.  (A French drain has perforated hollow pipes along the bottom to quickly vent water that seeps down through the upper gravel or rock.)  Between daily delivery runs, he keeps 15-hour days, because he kneads in the savory spices by hand.  Michael says, “You can’t rush the process.”

Michael supplies seitan to a variety of Philly restaurants, some of which also sell meat, such as Interstate Draft House in the Fishtown neighborhood, Sketch Burger on Girard Avenue, Monk’s Café on 16th and Spruce (which offers Belgian beer on tap), and POPE (for Pub on Passyunk East) in South Philly.

He also supplies nine branches of Whole Foods, including the stores in Wynnewood, Callowhill, and Plymouth Meeting, which he says is the largest store in this area.

Michael lived in Florida for 16 years, making seitan by hand for friends and cancer patients, but he returned to the Philly area when his father got sick (he has since died).  Now, he lives in his childhood home and takes care of his ailing mother.  He dreams of running a vegetarian restaurant, much like Peralta’s Vgë Café, which relies on his seitan.

On June 20, he will be participating in a fundraiser for Philabundance, to be held at the Market Place Design Center.  He will be the only vegan chef in attendance.

Curry Masala Seitan (adapted from Michael Cassady‘s recipe)

Makes 4 servings

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes

  • 4 tbsp canola oil
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • 2 cloves
  • ½ tsp minced garlic
  • ½ tsp minced ginger
  • 1 medium tomato, diced
  • 1 small onion, chopped finely
  • ½ tsp curry powder
  • ½ tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 1 lb seitan, drained and cut into small pieces
  • Salt, about 1 tsp or to taste
    1. Heat a skillet over high heat; pour in oil and fry the cumin and cloves.
    2. Add the ginger and garlic.  Saute for one minute over a medium-high flame.
    3. Add the tomato and onion.  Stir-fry until the tomato is almost pasty and the onions are translucent.
    4. Add the remaining spices and let the mixture cook for 10 minutes.
    5. Add the seitan and heat for 10 minutes.
    6. Add salt to taste.


Kilayim and the Sustainable Jew

March 30, 2012, Hazon

By Hannah Lee

A Quaker farmer whom I’ve met recently tried to teach me about the
principles of sustainability that he’s applied to his family farm, including a
field rotation cycle of 18 years, in contrast to the Biblical seven years,
culminating with the shmittah year.   This involves a series
of conversations that has not ended, but I wondered what is in the Jewish
tradition that is relevant to a holistic approach to our land?

The Torah details a way we should approach the land.  First, God
created Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden to “work it and to guard it.”
[Genesis 2:15] And there is the negative mitzvah (commandment) of bal
, which is against wanton destruction [Deuteronomy 20:19–20], but
there is also a specific chuk (unexplained decree) of kilayim,
the prohibition on cross-breeding animals or mixing the seeds of different
plants.  The Torah states:

You shall observe My decrees: you shall not mate your animal into
another species, you shall not plant your field with mixed seed; and a garment
that is a mixture of combined fibers shall not come upon you. [Leviticus 19:19]

Again in Deuteronomy 22:9-11, the Torah states:

You shall not sow your vineyard with a mixture, lest the growth of the
seed that you plant and the produce of the vineyard become forbidden. You shall
not plow with an ox and a donkey together.  You shall not wear combined
fibers, wool and linen together.

Religious Jews observe the latter part of this chuk by not wearing
garments woven with a mixture of wool and linen (shatnez), but is there
a broader environmental message for Jews?

Mixing together animals of different species by yoking them together for
hard labor causes pain when they attempt to work at their different
strengths.  Mating animals of different species causes pain maybe on a
cosmic level, resulting in sterile offspring.  Whereas Jews are permitted
to derive benefit from plants and animals— killing them for our use—we are not
allowed to cause the extinction of an entire species.  The Ramban in his
commentary to the Torah wrote about the prohibition against killing a mother
bird and its young on the same day [Leviticus 22:28], because it is as if we
have destroyed that species.

What about the problem in the mixing of plants?  Ancient farmers have
long practiced grafting (a technique whereby material from one plant—chosen
for its stems, leaves, flowers, or fruit—are inserted into those of another
plant chosen for its sturdy roots), which is an early form of genetic
modification.   While Jews are allowed to graft and to derive benefit
from it, they’re not allowed to plant the resulting seeds.  Sorry,
Monsanto (the largest producer of genetically modified seeds in the United
States), but religious Jews shouldn’t buy your seeds!   The
prohibition of kilayim does not extend to crop rotation (crops planted
in sequential order in the same field) or even neighboring crops chosen for
their ability to ward off pests or attract bees.

The Ramban noted that the fruits of mixed-breeding are sterile.  This
means that farmers who “once relied on saving and sharing seed from season to
season are now forced into buying new hybridized seed each year,” writes Stacia
and Kristof Nordin on their website, www.neverendingfood.org,
from Malawi, Africa.

According to Akiva Wolff, author of Jewish Perspectives on Genetic
for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs: “Many halakhic
authorities take the position that there is no prohibition of kilayim
in the genetic engineering of plants unless the material being transferred from
one species to another has the ability, if planted in the ground, to grow a
complete plant on its own—and this is seldom the case with genetic engineering.”

The moral lesson for kilayim seems to me different from that for
kosher (meshuval ) wine, which was boiled to render it unfit for idol
worship, thus keeping Jews from fraternizing—another form of mixing—with
others.   Kilayim seems to be about not usurping the divine
role of creating or annihilating species.  We can be God’s helpers, as
gardeners and farmers are in bringing life from the earth, but we do not take
God’s place.  In some ways, the Torah makes agricultural sense, as shmittah,
the year of rest for the land.   And farmers know that it’s much
easier to weed, prune, and harvest a single crop in a plot of land.  The
Green Revolution of the late 1960’s helped eliminate famine in places like
India and the Philippines, but the sad reality is that the farmers are indebted
to the corporate producers for genetically modified seed.  And another
drawback to these new varieties of crops is “their reliance on chemical
fertilizers and pesticides to ensure the success of a harvest,” notes the
Nordins.  Perhaps the simple and natural approach is the more sustainable,
enduring, and replenishable one as expressed by the Torah value of kilayim.

Hannah Lee writes from her home in the Main Line suburbs of
Philadelphia. She credits her friend Lindsay Gardner for the question that led
to this article.