A Balanced Life, Redux

By Hannah Lee 

Now that we’ve passed another Day of Judgment, we can ask ourselves what are we going to do with the life that we’ve been granted?  Do we live up to our values, our ideals?  Since my teens, I’ve been passionate about worldly causes, but the challenge has always been a delicate balance.

The PJVoice publisher alerted me to an offer by national HIAS of a new poster for Sukkot, one that acknowledges that today, 65 million refugees and displaced people still wander the earth in search of a safe place to call home.  The poster features photos and narratives of five refugees, including the four-year-old Syrian boy, Rawan.   I ‘ve been torn about adding secular issues to the Jewish holidays.  I recall that AJWS offered their version of the Four Children to the Pesach seder: the Activist Child; the Skeptical Child, the Indifferent Child; and the Uninformed Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask.   I never did use them.

Liberal Jews would say that our highest goal is tikkun olam (repair the world).   The goal of Torah-observant Jews, my Rabbi reminds me, is to become closer to God, HaShem.  So, what is a socially-conscious Jew to do? After all, we’re taught that the Prophet Isaiah blasted the Israelites for empty piety, which is the Haftorah selection for Yom Kippur morning.

I’ve encountered this kind of dilemma before: a friend who frets over using too many candles for Chanukah– her family minhag (custom) is to light a separate chanukiyah for every member of the household– or keeping lights on for Shabbat or  the Chagim (holy days).  I’ve long chafed at the masculine tone of our tefillot (prayers) and the absence of women in the Orthodox liturgy.  How to juggle our different values?

My Rabbi taught me that we don’t mix the holy with the secular, as important as social justice is.  This is because passionate people can become zealots, touting their value over all other ones.  Haven’t we met feminists who bash all men?  Animal rights activists who destroy private property to proclaim their superior stance?

With age, I’ve learned to temper my social justice/feminist/environmentalist zeal.  No longer do I tell my dinner companions that their food is of animal carcasses (as I did once in college, but it was an actual carcass on their coffee table).  I daven in an Orthodox shul, but I visit my in-laws for Shemini Atzeret-Simchat Torah, so I can participate with women reading from and dancing with the Torah in a shul that lists itself as “open Orthodox”.  I keep lights on for Shabbat and the Chagim (the ones not on a timer), but I am comforted by carbon footprint trade-off of not driving or using electronics.  Finally, I will not use a poster for Sukkot that publicizes the plight of refugees, although I will continue to work for the re-settlement of refugees.  (Our family sukkah reflects my dual heritages, featuring Chinese lanterns.)

May the Jewish year 5777 be one of good tidings and good deeds, in a delicate balance of the sacred (timelessness) and the contemporary.

An Etrog Tree Grows in Lower Merion

By Hannah Lee

It’s hard to grow fruit organically in Pennsylvania, because we’re fortunate to get plenty of rain.  So, farmers have to resort to using pesticides at less-sensitive times (such as before the flowers bloom) or Integrated Pest Management (IPM, which involves the judicious application of cooperative bugs). The beautiful etrogim (citron fruit) that Jews buy for the celebration of Sukkot are often laced with pesticides, so caveat emptor! You should not use them blithely in food preparation afterwards. Therefore, I was delighted to learn of a local man who’s been dedicated to growing etrog trees, and, after about seven years of experimentation, he’s succeeded in nurturing trees that bear fruit.

Last year, Tablet published an article about a Presbyterian man, John Kirkpatrick, in California who is the only large-scale farmer of etrogim in the United States. Last month, the Jewish Telegraph Agency published an article on Matt Bycer, a Jew in Arizona who now raises about 200 trees. Working independently, Stephen Asbel of Lower Merion has been raising etrog trees for his own pleasure.

Stephen Asbel works as a lawyer (and has written for the Philadelphia Jewish Voice), but he has a passion and a green thumb for the etrog. After much experimentation, he now germinates them on the radiator in the dining room. Once the sprouts poke through the soil, he moves them to the sunny windowsill in the kitchen. He used to use grow lights in the basement — so many, says his wife, Lenore, that she worries that the police would raid them on suspicion of illegal horticulture!

During the warm months, he transplants them to moveable pots and brings them outdoors. However, the Pennsylvania winters are too harsh for the plant that hails from the Mediterranean (Greece, Israel, Italy, Morocco, and Yemen), so he brings them indoors. It’s important to not over-water the trees, so he lets the soil dry out between waterings. A successful strategy is the application of Dr. Earth’s Fruit Tree Fertilizer, about every three months.

A challenge for these trees growing indoors is the dryness of our homes, especially during the winter months when we use central heating.  The dry air renders the trees susceptible to spider mites. Stephen hoses down the plants when they’re outdoors and he routinely mists them when they’re indoors.

The Asbel home — perfect for their family — is not large enough to house all the healthy trees he’s been able to bring to maturity. To my delight, when I called them to ask about getting a tree for my family, he was agreeable. After all, just as the proud guardian of new puppies from a beloved family pet, he wanted the right kind of caretaker for his arboreal babies. Lenore delivered my tree yesterday and I’m super excited about making etrog jam, if not etrog vodka, in the future.

I now want to name my tree, but I am stumped for a suitable name, as the species is botanically both male and female, which means it can pollinate itself. Stephen pointed out that the etrog is not mentioned as such in Tanach, only pri etz hadar (fruit of the majestic tree), so he suggests that I name my tree Hadar. I love it, but my husband says not to name it until the tree survives a month in our home.


Welcoming the Stranger: A Sukkot Meditation

The other night we had a most unusual guest in our sukkah — a three-inch-long praying mantis.  We didn’t know they even thrived in our eastern part of the United States.  It landed on the cornucopia my husband had placed on the table and it was moving its mouth like it was praying (or most likely, chewing its prey).  It was very appropriate for our Chinese sukkah, as the praying mantis is prominent in Chinese folklore and martial arts.  For us, the praying mantis and the Biblical Yitzhak were among the ushpizin (guests) for the second night of Sukkot.

Before the onset of Sukkot, I’d attended the Pennsylvania HIAS’s annual luncheon billed, “A Matter of Faith: Embracing Immigrants and Refugees.”  HIAS was established over 126 years ago as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and it has an illustrious history of assisting Jewish refugees from all over the world.   In recent years, HIAS has merged with the Council Migration Services and their clients are now refugees fleeing political or religious persecution from places such as Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and Eritrea.

The panel of speakers were members of the clergy of various faiths, including the Reverend Suzan Hawkinson of the Wallingford Presbyterian Church (her sermon gave me shivers!); Pastor David Shaheen of the Christ Lutheran Community Church (whose parents hosted Displaced Persons after WWII); Monsignor Hugh Joseph Shields, who works in the Office of the Vicar for Hispanic Catholics (he’s lived and worked for years in Latin America); Achmad Munjid, an imam of the Al Falah Indonesian Mosque (his doctoral dissertation is on key thinkers of inter-religious dialogue in Indonesia); and Rabbi David Strauss of Main Line Reform Temple.  Rabbi Strauss spoke about how the mitzvah that’s repeated most often in the Torah is the one to “remember the stranger, because you were once a stranger in the Land of Egypt.”  Pastor David Shaheen spoke about how “we are all pilgrims journeying to another Land and we have to learn to travel together.”  The moderator, Abby Stamelman Hocky, executive director of the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, noted that Jews would soon be celebrating the holiday of Sukkot and that we can work to make a real Sukkat Shalom with our embrace of the stranger in our midst.

The message of both Sukkot and Pesach is about remembering the stranger.  We can do so with a shared meal, a gift of our time, or a helping hand in learning to adapt in a new culture.  As a new HIAS volunteer, I’m learning about the customs of the Burmese and one nice ritual that HIAS offers is a welcome meal, prepared by other refugees– those who’d landed earlier, that is– for a family newly arrived from the airport.  With my budding interest in Burmese culture, I even made a traditional Burmese dessert, htamane, which is made with glutinous rice, coconut milk, a whole cup of vegetable oil, and generous handfuls of roasted peanuts, sesame seeds, cashews and pistachios.  I served it for Rosh HaShanah, but my guests did not appreciate it.  I guess it was too foreign for their taste.

Back to Sukkot: The Chinese Harvest Moon Festival falls on the 15th of the eighth month and as it’s also on the lunar cycle, it always coincides with the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.  I’d never marked the coincidence before, but this year I researched the moon cakes which are traditionally served on the Harvest Moon Festival.   However, the molds used to prepare the cakes are not available to the general public, so I attempted a recipe for Buddha cookies, which Chinese bakers make from the leftover pastry dough of moon cakes.  Alas, my attempt failed and the results tasted nothing like the real thing, but more like the Jewish egg kichel, which is sometimes served on Pesach/Passover (probably from the liberal egg wash I gave the morsels of dough before baking).  The Cantonese-style moon cakes are shaped round or square with a sweet filling of black bean paste or lotus seed paste.  Some have the addition of duck egg yolks, which when baked appear round and golden like the moon, surrounded by the rich, dark filling that can stand for the dark Outer Space.

Well, I did have more success with hospitality than serving authentic holiday Asian food on Sukkot, as my guests did well enjoy the other foods that I served.  And I have hopes for greater involvement in Welcoming The Stranger as I have my appointment with HIAS to discuss my shidduch (match) with a Burmese family due to arrive on the 15th.  I’m looking forward to introducing them to American culture, with a Jewish twist.