A yummy blog

Sit yourself down and have yourself a little something -- and, in the bargain, a window onto a delicious world of Jewish culinary aesthetics.


A poem by Shmuel Halkin
In memory of the murdered poets and August 12.

To the Newborn Child

For the newborn: bless him.
With his mother’s milk, may he drink in
The thirst to bear a lamp for all people,
But the light should also be for his own people.
When he discovers for the world a new star,
May it for his own people not get any darker.

[translation: Z. Sh. B.]
Tisha B'av reflections
Non-rigorous, unfleshed-out: what I had to say this evening at my shul.

In the fifteen minutes I have allotted to me, I’m going to definitively answer some small, easy questions. For example: why are we here? What is life for? And why are we not having any lunch tomorrow?

The houses of Hillel and Shammai debated whether it would be better if the world had not been created. It was decided that it would have been better had the world not been created, but since it has been, we must examine our deeds.

This raises several questions. Would it be better for whom had the world not been created? If we are talking about God, then we have to understand what God takes to be “good.” But it might be, that given a particular definition of what God thinks is good, then a creation without our world might be better than a creation with it. What would it take for our existence to make the creation worse in God’s view?

Let’s put it another way. What would God’s criteria for good and better be, if our world did not exist? If none of us were here, would there be any morality left? If no one were around to behave rightly or wrongly, what would God care?

If the very existence of people, and, in more specific terms, the Jewish people, is enough to guarantee the Almighty the existence of a certain sort of moral calculus, then we’re already a step ahead – we can be confident, in a strange sort of way, that it’s better off that we are here. But only if our actions represent that sort of moral calculus. Perhaps that doesn’t mean that everything we do has to be right and proper, only that we have to be thinking about it. It means that whatever happens in a world inhabited by human beings is of moral import. Suffering is not just what God visits upon us, it is a phenomenon which must be understood and related to God’s blessings.

There’s another way of understanding “it would be better if the world not be created.” “Better” – as understood by people. How would this make any sense? But think of the imperfections of the world that people visit upon each other. One might think that our imperfections are so manifold, our death-dealing so innovative, that pain would be eliminated by getting rid of the source: people. We all know the midrashim in which God, or God’s angels, regrets having created people. People, on occasion, regret having been created, not because they get a raw deal from God, but because they give a raw deal to each other. Better far, perhaps, not to be around at all.

Why am I talking about the disappearance, or death, of all humanity, on the eve of a very specifically Jewish fast day? We are not enjoined to mourn the evil that human beings visit on each other; we are commanded to weep and sing dirges commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. We’re not mourning the famines in Africa, we’re not mourning the attacks in London. We are not even mourning the tragedies, the unnoticed deaths that happen every day to people we know and love and people we’ve never met. In a larger sense, true, every tragedy is relevant to our fast days, just as every joy is relevant to our holidays. Both these sorts of days are reflections of the joy and pain in God’s creation.

Only in a larger sense, though. In a smaller sense, Tisha B’av, which is really a small day, one small, not widely observed day in the Jewish calendar, represents one small corner of the dark world’s tragedy, perhaps an attempt by the Rabbis, or by God the Arranger of History, to make things manageable. It is an attempt to connect one part of our myth (that is, the way we understand our history) to another part.

This mythic connection goes something like this.

What do Jews do during their life in this world?
We build and create, imitating God.
We built a Temple, imitating the relationship of Jews to non-Jews and Israel to the rest of the world.
We collaborated with God on the Torah, a system of myth and law imitating the way in which God created the world.

What happened on Tisha B’av?
Our creation in imitation of God was destroyed.
Our Torah was burned.

What do we do on Tisha B’av now?
We cease from building and creating. We attempt to reproduce death as nearly as possible. It is a Shabbat from joy.

What is the traditional wish on Tisha B’av?
That we see the Temple rebuilt.
Which means: that we experience redemption.
Which further means: that we live in a world imitating God’s creation.
We experience death in order to transform life.


Hospital Food
It's always lunchtime somewhere.

Here's Medicine Mensch 8. Dig in!

MEDICINE MENSCH: Doctor's Orders: Fruit Salad and a Cheese Sandwich
By Zackary Sholem Berger
August 5, 2005

Despite the superpowers previously described in this space, medical students are normal people. They need places to lay their heads, white medical coats to keep out the rain, and three meals a day. Since their time for breakfast and dinner is sacrificed to sleep, three meals often means only one: lunch.

What's for lunch, and where do I eat it? On the ground floor of the hospital I'm working in, there's a diner with the same wishful-thinking menu of other diners — many things can be ordered and some of them are even available. I eat there occasionally. That is, I go with some other medical students, order an iced tea and a fruit salad, and eat my kosher bread and cheese from a bag I hide under the table. No one throws me out, and the iced tea is good.

The fruit salad, in a securely-fastened plastic box easily opened by surgeons or other coordinated people, is the same that's available just next door, over the partition at the hospital's coffee shop. But there, rules are different, and the hospital's stern hierarchy is topsy-turvied. Attending physicians and patients' cousins alike wait in line to grab the attention of the blue-shirted guys who take orders, man the cash registers and bag coffees and tuna wraps with frightening speed, calling women mi amor and discussing soccer with each other in Spanish. A sign over the cash register explains enigmatically: "All Kitchen Items Cannot Be Ordered Express." In practical terms, this means that the blue shirts have complete control over what they pack up quickly and what they prepare in their own good time. I'm not sure how long it takes to become a regular in their eyes, but if I go there often enough and order a homemade iced tea, no sugar, I hope eventually they'll start to recognize me.

As you move upstairs, the options change. There are vending machines with sweet and salty snacks, from a company that either has a dark sense of humor or doesn't realize how many patients here are suffering from diabetes or heart failure. On the 12th floor there's a dining room with a cafeteria that I've never seen open, a phalanx of vending machines, and a row of microwave ovens; at lunchtime the place is packed with nurses speaking Tagalog, Chinese and Spanish. Outside, above the door, there's an inviting Dante-esque sign: "Patients Not Permitted."

This is because patients are expected to stay in their rooms, awaiting care. Their care, like everything else in this hospital, is dependent on the combined efforts of thousands. And when something goes wrong, such mistakes are discussed exhaustively over lunch. At morbidity and mortality conferences, mishaps are analyzed over bagels and coffee. In line at the coffee shop, people whisper about the surgeon who operated on the wrong leg. These days, hospital administrators are terrified of the survey commission that's about to come through town, flashing remorseless, efficient smiles and catching careless errors in every chart. Some mistakes don't cost anyone's life or limb — they merely make the patient's dinner late. But even this can be a serious blow. As one resident told us students, "The best way to piss a patient off is not to feed them."

A couple of nights ago I was in the E.R. A patient had been sent there with an unexpected heart problem after what he had assumed would be an uneventful checkup. I took his history, did a thorough physical, and then thought: What more can I possibly do for this person before the resident has time to come see him? I had already done his EKG, and I'd already apologized to him for the confusion in the E.R., which, to the untrained eye, is the natural state of the big-city emergency rooms. (That particular night, the air conditioning wasn't working, a dozen or so cops were guarding their charges and the guy in the stretcher next to my patient was screaming, more out of churlishness than pain.) I asked, "Is there anything I can do for you?" The man looked at me, thought a bit, and said tentatively (in Spanish), "Well, I'm awfully hungry."

It was a rare privilege to lay down a hot meal in front of this sick man. I didn't stick around to see whether he liked the spaghetti, or, after he finished, how he managed to get his tray off the stretcher while staying attached to his heart monitor. I was too busy getting up to the 17th floor, where I would tuck into a saag paneer and drink some mango lassi. It was 9:15 p.m., finally time for lunch.

Zackary Sholem Berger looks forward to breakfast and dinner, too. Medical-student recipes and tales of past mistakes are available at doctor@forward.com.