Thursday, May 30, 2019

What Baking Can Do (Thank you, Sara Bareilles)

Sugar, butter, flour

I love theatre. Especially musical theatre. A good musical score can impress dialogue, deepen plot and expand character in remarkably thoughtful and provocative ways. The music – the lyric coupled with melody, harmony, and whatever orchestration the composer imagines - communicates the intangible, what might otherwise be left unknowable. It conveys not just art, but the essence of our humanity. Songs reach into the core of our being.

At least that’s what Sara Bareilles' song What Baking Can Do from the 2015 musical Waitress does to me. It smacks me in my soul. I know this song. I know Jenna, the character who sings this song, even though our lives our dramatically different. I can feel her disappointments, her vulnerabilities, her strengths, and the redemption that she finds in baking. This one song reminds me how pouring myself into a creative endeavor can connect us with what’s real and open new worlds to us even as old worlds close and the new ones seem so far beyond our reach.

Perhaps I’m drawn to this song because I get baking. Yeah, I get baking. It’s a lot like music: sugar, butter, flour – follow the instructions, add a bit of imagination…and poof, magic. Sure, the result might be garbage. It might be boring (“just” chocolate chip cookies). But, there is a pretty good chance you’ll hit the yum jackpot and bring a smile to someone’s face.

Make it work; make it easy. Make it clever, craft it into pieces…Even doubt can be delicious, and it washes off of all the dishes. When it’s done, I can smile; it’s on someone else’s plate for awhile.

Baking is an art form in which to get lost. Unlike Jenna, I didn’t learn to bake from my mom. That is not something she and I bonded over. But, my love of baking did come through her line. I learned to follow a recipe from my Grandmom Adele, and I learned the fun of veering off course from it (of braking the rules) from my mom’s BFF, known to me my entire life as Aunt Helene. It was in her kitchen where I learned to separate an egg by letting the egg white slide through my fingers as the yolk remains whole (and squishy) in my palm. It was in her kitchen where I learned brown grocery bags work perfectly fine for cooling cookies. It was in her kitchen where I learned to make hand cookies with left over roll-out “Christmas” cookie dough and how to change up a cheese pie on the fly. In both of their kitchens, I found a place to escape.

Sugar, butter, flour. Isn’t it amazing what baking can do.

Baking, like music, has never intimidated me. Oddly, other kinds of cooking does. I know. I’m a bit of an anomaly on this one. Most cooks fear baking.  Not me, I fear cooking a roast. Seriously, I don’t even know what cut of meat to buy let alone what kind of flavors to add; but a cake, muffin, or cookie project? I’m all in. Ready to make it my own. Maybe it’s the eager-to-please, make-folks-happy impulse embedded within me. I mean who doesn’t like dessert?

So, here’s a little dessert for reading my musings. It’s a recipe I adapted recently from one of my very first cookbooks, a Sunset Cookbook purchased at a local  Five & Dime type of store when I was in high school. I can't remember the store, but I can still visualize the rack of soft back books. Were they all cookbooks? I don't recall, but I remember choosing this book. The original recipe was for a super-rich Zucchini-Chocolate Cake with vanilla glaze. It is to this day the only recipe I have ever made from that cookbook. The cookbook still sits on my shelf with the pages of its main dishes entirely unexplored. Upon purchase, I went directly to the cakes, found this crowd pleaser and stuck with it. This year, I decided to bring the recipe into the 21st century and turn it into less rich dessert and more daily treat.

Thanks for reading and enjoy!

 Rho’s Gluten & Dairy-Free Chocolate Zucchini Muffins

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix the following dry ingredients in a large bowl & then set aside:
1 ½ cup Almond flour
½ cup Coconut flour
½ cup Quinoa flour
½-3/4 tsp. Xanthan gum (fyi -this is not found in the gum section of the market, it is a needed ingredient when using non-gluten flours. Look for it in the natural foods section).
2 ½ tsp. baking powder
1 ½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp cardamom
¾ cup cocoa

Cream the following on medium speed of a mixer:
¾ cup “butter” (I use Earth Balance Vegan Sticks)
1 cup Coconut sugar
1 cup cane sugar

Add to creamed butter and sugars & blend well:
3 eggs
2 tsp. grated orange peel
2 tsp. GOOD vanilla (seriously, get the good stuff!)
2 cups grated zucchini (I use unpeeled zucchini. I grate it and then let sit over a strainer for a bit so it's not too wet)

With mixer on low speed add dry ingredients and
½ cup coconut or almond milk - Alternately (1/3 dry ingredients, a bit of milk, etc.)
Stir in:
1 cup mini-dark or semi-sweet chocolate chips

Scoop into muffin molds (an ice cream scoop works great and keeps muffins uniformly sized) and top with coarsely chopped walnuts. I use about 1 cup of walnuts chopped into halves and quarters.

Bake @ 350 degrees for ~ 25 mins
Makes 22-24 depending on how full you fill the muffin molds.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

To Write or Not to Write: A Cantor's Wandering Pondering

I'm thinking about writing again. Yeah, I know, I'm writing (and presumably thinking about it) as I type, but I mean really committing to writing on regular basis and posting what I have to say.

Where is this coming from, you might wonder (if not, by all means feel free to move on). Those of you who know me well know that for 8 years I served a congregation as both Cantor and Rabbi. I was the sole-clergy on hand, which basically meant I did everything from overseeing the office and the religious school to planning all worship services to preparing the liturgy (music and non-musical portions), chanting Torah, and writing sermons. It was a great experience. A really great experience. It was in a congregation I had already served for just under a decade as Cantor, so I knew the place well - I knew the congregants and they knew me. I was helping them out while they were in a tough spot. They never grew out of their tough spot and sadly folded, but I grew immensely in the process. I learned very quickly how to prioritize competing tasks, how to lessen my perfectionistic impulses (perfectionism can be a good thing, but it can also hold up getting things done and put a halt to creativity), and I learned how to deal with crisis and keep me and the congregation going (a well-loved accompanist taking his own life just hours before Erev Rosh Hashanah tops this list). But, as much as I cherish those years and especially the relationships built within the congregation and the community, I don't miss it.

Or, at least I don't miss most of it. Don't get me wrong, there were great perks of working solo. The Rabbi and Cantor rarely disagreed (ba-da bamp). Seriously, if I wanted to change something mid-way during a worship service, I could. My vision was paramount. The expression of liturgy was easily seamless, none of that Rabbi reads, Cantor sings ping-pong ball effect that many clergy teams try to avoid. It all came from me. Luckily for me, I'm good at planning and executing worship. I'm told it's one of the things I do best in my job. That and Torah chanting. That's why, though I may have Rabbinic Smichah (thanks to my doctoral work), I'm first and foremost a Cantor. Cantors historically are masters of the liturgy, the prayers, which historically in Judaism were fully a musical endeavor. And, music is how I best express myself. But, I digress. Here is what I hated about being solo. My vision may have ruled the day, but there was no team to collaborate with and to be challenged by, and to rely on.

So, I'm no longer working as Kol Bo, as we Jewish clergy call it (a Hebrew short hand for "doing it all"). A synagogue is stronger, its worship more dynamic, its programming more thoughtful when there is a team of professionals involved in planning it, especially when the individuals on that team bring different strengths and weakness to the table. The challenges of working as a team makes the product better (assuming everyone on the team can be open and respectful of each other's skills, strengths, and ideas even as they are bantered back and forth). Which leads me to a huge but important tangent: this is why synagogues rely on members to pay "dues" or offer contributions. This team, the staff, and the building they work within and the materials used, cost money. It's amazing work, but please remember that for those of us who do this amazing work, it is our livelihood. It's how we pay our mortgage among other things.

More on that topic later - perhaps a future posting? Back to the point.

There is one element of working solo that I didn't think I'd miss, but I just may. Writing. The constancy of writing. Being expected to say something new and fairly intelligent week after week, more often than not two times a week as we had both Friday evening and Saturday morning services; this constant demand to be thinking of what to say, writing it down, and sharing it(!) in addition to any funeral eulogies, Bar/t Mitzvah charges, or wedding remarks that may have popped up during the week, was both a dreaded chore and a great discipline (funny how those two things often work hand in hand).

Growing up, I hated "English" class. I loved math and science. I love working through problems that had a clear answer at the end. I loved working through the logic in order to solve the puzzle. English (as any literature or writing class was called back then) was too open ended for me. The answers weren't black and white. Music, of course, offered the perfect balance of rule following and creativity. Follow the notes and markings to solve the puzzle, and then add the creative interpretation to make it lift off the page in flight. No two performances of the same piece need be exactly the same, yet they start from  the very same notes on the page.  As a young teen, I couldn't see that this same process could be applied to writing. I could be creative with musical notes. Words intimidated me. And, frankly sharing my ideas scared the hell out me - what if I was wrong and no one agreed with me? If you know the notes, you can't be wrong with music. A performance may not be great, folks may not like what you offer, I may not succeed in making a connection, but the music and my performance of it is still a valid endeavor. How couldn't I see that the same could be said for putting words together and then sharing them? My ideas might be bad and poorly formulated, folks may indeed disagree with me, but that doesn't make the endeavor of sharing what I have to say invalid.

Writing a dissertation (whew!) and then regular sermons for 8 years (and folks actually asking to re-read them which led years ago to the creation of this very blog) cured me of this intimidation. And, surprisingly, I actually miss expressing myself with the written word. This realization is actually more than surprising to me. It's more like a hit me over the head mid-life eye-opening realization about myself.

My music isn't going anywhere. I joyfully get to be immersed in music virtually every single day as a synagogue Cantor whether it's teaching songs to pre-school students, leading a volunteer choir, teaching a Bar or Bat Mitzvah student, intoning the words of the Jewish prayer book, chanting Torah, or simply* going to voice lessons and practicing to make sure I continue to be good at what I do. But as I continue venturing forward and pondering what lies ahead (retiring from synagogue life isn't really all that far off in the grand scheme of things), I wonder if I should get back to doing some regular writing.

So, there you have it. I may start writing again. Perhaps I already have. We will see.
Would anyone read my words? Do I care? Good questions.

* "simply," by the way, is incredibly misleading when applied to the task of maintaining the voice for professional use as it provides the foundation for everything I do. It's the bread and butter of my work, and it's damn time consuming and tedious. That being said, how awesome that maintaining and improving my instrument and my art is part of my job. Yeah, pretty cool.

-- Rhoda

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Reflecting on my Last Days in Baltimore, June 28, 2018

It’s felt like a month of last chances. Last moments to take it all in before the move.
Twenty-five years ago, after finishing my first round of graduate school, work brought me to this Charm City. Twenty-five years later, work now causes me to leave and head north to South Jersey, a bedroom community of my home town of Philadelphia. Work has been a huge part of my life in Baltimore. It has shaped my world view; yet, the lasts that weigh most heavily on my heart have nothing to do with work. Yes, I lead my last service a few weeks ago after 25 years of service to the Baltimore Jewish community. A Bar Mitzvah ceremony was a fitting finale. I gave one last Cabaret performance downtown at Germano’s Piattini singing theatre gems and opera ballads not only with full voice but with full heart surrounded by loving friends. I still have a few couples that I’ll be back to marry, but the rest of our meetings will happen via FaceTime or Skype. The miracles of technology. I took my last voice lesson. I gave my last voice lesson. I studied with local Baltimore colleagues one last time.
       Despite the significance of these professional lasts, these final moments aren't the ones leaving me most teary and contemplative. No, it's moments like these:
I drove my daughters batty with my determined intent to drive the 25 minutes to The Cow for the best Italian ice ever one last time despite there being a perfectly acceptable place less than 2 miles from home. Even though I can count on one hand how many crab cakes I’ve eaten during my time in Baltimore – let alone my life, I just HAD to get one before I leave, and not just any crab cake, one from Pappas, the place my “Baltimore Dad” took me to have my first. I was filled with sentimentality as I shared the experience of hopping around downtown Baltimore via water taxi one last time with a friend who had never been. It’s always fun to show off that side of Charm City to tourists. I eagerly agreed to one more dinner out with my girls at our favorite local sushi place. I’ll miss our Chiyo outings, even my girls’ relentless teasing about my need to plug the Prius in at the neighboring light rail station. I voted at my daughter's alma mater, Pikesville High, one last time.
I literally welled up during my last morning run through the neighborhoods that run along Smith Avenue. I dove into my last Baltimore crossfit workout yesterday remembering that it was here, in Baltimore, where I became a gym rat. Once music became my profession, I needed a new hobby. (First item on my to-do list: find a new gym). And today, just before the movers arrived to load the truck that will take all of my belongings to New Jersey, I took that familiar walk down the hill to The Mill for a cup of joe. As I nursed my decaf Americano on the walk back up the hill, my mind wandered back to a question asked of me months ago, “how can you possibly move when you live on Penny Lane?” My new home is lovely, and I’m looking forward to the journey forward, but seriously: Weaver Drive or Penny Lane? I’m not sure I’ll ever have such a perfectly poetic address. A musician who lives on Penny Lane. It doesn’t get much cooler than that. Hell, even the foreman overseeing the loading of the moving van just stopped and asked why I’m moving. “It’s such a beautiful place, a great street,” he noted.
Sometimes you just have to go where the work (and the paycheck) takes you. And, even when you have an amazing job like I do, one that allows me to be present during sacred and intimate moments of people’s lives. One that allows me to connect deeply with the world in remarkable ways. One that allows me to get paid to sing and make incredible music (while living in one place no less)! Still, the most important moments, the ones that carry me forward are the mundane daily experiences we all share in some way. Those varied and miscellaneous moments of life not only experienced with family and friends, but the plethora of tiny interactions and encounters with strangers, these make us human – these matter most.
Work brought me to Baltimore 25 years ago, a quarter-century. I’ve lived in Baltimore longer than any other town or city. It’s hard to pick up and leave. It’s hard to start anew at this stage in life. But, I’m confident that despite all of the lasts, I’m not leaving anything of value behind. I'm carrying them with me. The lasts. The poignant reminders of the roots and connections made throughout my time in Baltimore, they will sustain me as I begin to make glorious new moments of connection.
Thank you, Baltimore, for all of the firsts, middles, and most of all, for the lasts.

Friday, November 10, 2017

CJE Odessa Mini-Mission: Final Day Reflections

Thursday, November 2, our final morning in Odessa.
They day started with our being welcomed into the homes of clients who are beneficiaries of the Beit Grand JCC’s Hesed program. Our first visit was to meet 75-year-old Konstantin Belyi. Konstantin’s life has been hard by any standard. He was hospitalized at the age of 3 months. Sometime during his hospitalization, his parents disappeared and he ended up being raised in an orphanage. He is extremely poor, has serious health issues, and has no surviving family. Two things struck me while visiting Konstantin. First, the harsh reality of his living conditions. His flat consisted of 2 rooms, a rudimentary kitchen, a toilet and basin. I can’t imagine how this man would survive without the services provided by Hesed which provide regular mishlo’ach manot (gift) packages and help him take care of his basic needs. Hesed services are comprehensive assisting folks like Konstantin with personal hygiene, food, medicine, legal assistance and socialization. And, the scope of care makes an enormous impact. Life expectancy in Odessa is short, 62 years for men, 73 for women; yet, Hesed has extended life expectancy for their clients by 13 years! The second thing that struck me was that despite his circumstances, Konstantin was incredibly hospitable and a gracious host. “A visit doesn’t start until all my guests are seated,” our translator shared as Konstantin pointed to the various chairs and stools set out for us. He enjoyed the company, shared his story without any visible trace self-pity, and despite difficulty walking, walked out into the alley to greet us at the start and again when it was time to bid farewell. It is clear that Hesed services help Konstantin retain his dignity despite his circumstances.
Our second visit was to the home of 11-year-old Bogdan Mayorov and his mom, Marina. Bogdan has had special needs since birth. He suffers from severe epileptic attacks, a speech impediment, enuresis, and frequent respiratory challenges among others. Marina had to leave her job to provide full time care for Bogdan, and her husband, Bogdan’s father left and does not provide any support. It is important to note that there is no judicial avenue for seeking child support from an absent parent in Odessa. Bogdan and Marina live in a one-bedroom apartment that is in great need of repairs, and their only source of income is a state disability allowance that does not cover their expenses. Hesed provides food cards, medications, and loans them rehabilitation equipment for Bogdan. They also provide ever important social support to Marina so that she does not get overly isolated and can plan for life after being such a full-time care giver. The impact of Hesed’s compassionate services cannot be over-stated. Hesed is a life-line for so many Jews in Odessa who otherwise would fall through the cracks of society.
Our last visit was to what Hesed calls a "Warm Home." Warm Homes are Hesed supported gatherings of Holocaust survivors held in the home of a member of the group who hosts. We joined approximately 10 men and women who each shared their story with us. They gather once a week for food, drink, and fellowship. The company they provide each other provides a much needed social and supportive outlet for these aging senior citizens. 
While it felt like we just arrived (oh, right, we did), it was now time to head to the Odessa airport to begin our journey home to Baltimore. Amalia and Oksana succeeded in providing us an incredibly rich overview of Baltimore's sister city in the Ukraine. I left having a much deeper understanding not only of the level of need that exists in Odessa but also of the incredible endurance of Judaism. I remain ever grateful that my grandmother had the vision and desire to come to America in the early 1920's. It behooves us to remain mindful of our brothers and sisters living in Odessa who are only in relatively recent years able to fully explore and express their Jewish identity freely and publicly. It behooves us to share our resources and continue to support the wonderful and important work that is unfolding in the Ukraine.
In the entry foyer of the Beit Grand JCC sits a piece of Jerusalem stone under a large metal conical shaped Jacob’s Ladder sculpture. Legend has it if you stand on the stone, raise your hands up towards the inside of the conical ladder, and turn around while making a wish, your wish will come true. Everyone who walks into the Beit Grand JCC walks under this Jacob Ladder’s sculpture and passes by or walks across the stone. What an incredibly optimistic symbol of hope this image holds out for all who enter the Beit Grand JCC.

A final sampling of photos!

Konstantin welcoming us into his flat.

                Konstantin sharing his home with us

   Bogdan's ever cheerful smile!

        Several of the members of the Warm Home that we visited.

                               Jacob's Ladder at the entrance of the Beit Grand JCC waiting for wishes....

                       Time to board our first of two flights home

            Very tired, but smiling educators!!