Author Archives: Barbara Barnett

About Barbara Barnett

I've had an ecclectic life: writer, singer, Jewish educator and singer, pop-culture afficionado, policy wonk, gadget freak. Right now, in addition to being Executive Editor of BlogCritics.org, I'm an author, social media strategist and successful entertainment journalist. In my spare time, I'm working on my first novel, and now about to introduce GrannyCentric.com, the first step in the next phase of my life.

Ethics of Our Ancestors: Pirkei Avot #1

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This is the first in a series of musings on Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), which is traditionally studied by Jews in the days between Passover and Shavuot. Let me know what you think, and please spread the word if you like what you read!

“Al Shlosha devarim, haolam omeid: al haTorah, v’alha-avodah, v’al g’milut chasadim”

“The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of God, and deeds of kindness.” (Pirkei Avot 1:2)

“Why?” she asks impertinently. What’s the big deal?

What do the sages mean by the world standing on Torah? Observant Jews read/listen/chant the words of the Torah several times a week (Monday, Thursday and twice on Saturday). Will the world fall apart if that doesn’t happen? she asks (rather sarcastically). Will lighting bolts strike? Will the sky fall? Will frogs leap out of streams and locusts imperil our fields and forests?

“Well,” responds the patient (oh, so patient) teacher. “Maybe indirectly,” she ventures.

Torah is our guide. Indeed, the world won’t fall apart if we fail to read the words hand written into the ancient scrolls with perfect melody and meaning. But bad things will happen if the lessons found within and beneath and between the words are ignored.

There is much in Torah that seems superfluous, archaic, and downright nasty, no question! But there is within the ancient texts so much to learn — and understand. Golden rules (“treat your neighbor as you would have yourself treated”), wise advice (“don’t put stumbling blocks — metaphorical or literal — in front of someone who cannot see, perceive, or understand”), practical law (“Don’t steal!” “Don’t murder!” “Don’t covet what ain’t yours!”) fill the text and subtext of the Torah. That’s why we read it so often and return to it every year. It’s not the words–it’s what those words say to us; how they speak to us and why. The world stands on Torah — a simple notion, but not simplistic. It’s as deep as it gets. “Enlighten our eyes to Torah” means to open our selves up to the obvious and not-so-obvious lessons that speak directly to our humanity. Someone once said that all you need to know in Torah can be said in three words: “Be a mensch!” (or in Yiddish, “Zai a mensch!) Be a “good person.” Even the great Rabbi Hillel of the Talmud summarized (while standing on one foot, incidentally) Torah teaching as: “What is hateful to you, don’t do to anyone else! All the rest is commentary.” Spark Notes has nothing on Rabbi Hillel!

“OK, fine. I get it. But why,” continues our impertinent student, “does the world stand on ‘the service of God?’ Does that mean the world will fall apart if I don’t go to temple every week?”

The wise teacher interrupts: Well, technically it’s every day — three times a day that you’re supposed to go to services. But I get your point. And no, I don’t think that’s what the sages were trying to tell us through the ages and generations since this was written down. “Avodah,” which is the Hebrew word for “service of God” is also the word for “work.” You know, get up in the morning, shower, Starbucks and get thee to your office (or shop, or school, or whatever it is you do).

I would interpret Avodah as putting the words and ideas learned from Torah into action. Knowing that you’re supposed to be a mensch is a lot different than actually being one. So Avodah follows directly from Torah (which, actually, by the way, means “teaching”). So you take what you’ve gleaned from the words in the Torah and put them into action. So Torah without followup is pretty meaningless and can definitely lead to mass destruction of the Earth. But it won’t be God that does it. It would be us–literally.

“Aha!” says our impertinent student. “Now I get it.” As for the third one: “acts of loving-kindness,” I get that one. You’re supposed to be nice. Do nice things for people. But why would that be #3 on the list of important things to do, you know, if you don’t want the world to collapse around us?

If we don’t do those acts of loving-kindness, who will? And without people who do good (everyone, not just the usual do-gooder suspects), a lot of people will die of starvation, persecution, or just plain old neglect. That goes back to the stumbling block thing in the Torah. It’s not good enough to avoid placing stumbling blocks, it is also our responsibility to remove them whenever we see them. Or at least give a hand to help people around them, so they don’t trip or worse.

So, you see, the world does stand on those three things, because without them, Earth would be a pretty terrible place, and there are plenty of places on earth who ignore this simple bit of sage-ly advice.

More Pirkei Avot tomorrow. For now, happy 11th Day of the Omer!

“Never Again” in an Age of Indifference

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Originally published at Blogcritics, May 2011

My mother came to the U.S. by herself on a boat from a Lithuanian town (Taurage) in 1929. She was six, and had followed, by a few years, my grandparents, crossing the Atlantic by herself—steerage. Most of the rest of my grandmother’s family had already left in the mid-to-late ‘20s for what was then called Palestine, but what is now the State of Israel. As a result, all but a small part of the family escaped the Shoah—the Holocaust.

My mother would often tell of her first cousin, Shroelik, with whomyellow candle in remembrance of the shoah she would pick strawberries during the years between my grandparents’ departure for the U.S. and my mother’s journey to the Goldene Medina (Golden Land).

Unlike my mother, Shroelik remained in Lithuania, and at age of 17, he was shot in the back by the Nazis as he simply stood in a field. He was shot for simply standing, for being a Jew; perhaps he was picking strawberries. But he was luckier than some; his death came quickly. He did not suffer the slow murder of starvation and ultimate extermination in one of the Nazi death camps as did millions of Jews in a calculated plan to exterminate an entire people.

Authentic Gefilte Fish Made Easy

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Reprinted from Blogcritics

by Barbara Barnett

At this time of the year, the grocery store shelves are filled with cans and jars of gefilte fish. You can buy “all whitefish,” “extra sweet,” “old fashioned” and now even “gluten free.” Gefilte fish is a Jewish delicacy made of ground fish, spices, and other good things, depending on your tastes and tradition. It’s often served at Passover seders, but is delicious at any holiday meal as an appetizer.

I’ve never cared much for the canned stuff my mom served up. The problem with prepared gefilte fish is that I was spoiled long before my mother opened her first can of  Manischewitz (extra sweet in jelly). You see, I was raised on my grandmother’s homemade recipe. Every year (twice a year if we were lucky), my grandmother would grind, mix, boil, and chill her famous (in our family,gefilte fish anyway) gefilte fish. She would always prepare it with the carrots and onions (and maybe a stray bone or two) ground right in with the whitefish, carp and trout. Unlike the stuff in the jars, her Gefiltes had texture: coarse, not too dry, not too moist. Just right. And sweet—very, very sweet. No fish in a jar (or can) has ever come close to my grandmother’s.

Gefilte fish actually means “filled fish” in Yiddish, and occasionally my grandmother  would literally fill a fish (or just the fish skin) with the gefilte mixture. It tastes a lot better than it sounds.

This is more or less my grandmother’s recipe. (At least it tastes like it.) The only thing I’ve updated is to suggest having your fish guy grind the fish, carrots and onions (together). It makes preparation easier, less messy and it tastes a whole lot better than anything grandma Manischewitz has on sale in the Passover section of the grocery store!

So here it is; the only caveat is that, like my grandmother, I seldom use measuring cups or spoons, so all measurements are approximate.  This recipe makes enough fish balls to feed a sizeable seder or holiday crowd. It makes about 35 tennis ball-sized balls.

Ingredients:

  • 7 lbs. fish (I use 5 pounds Lake Superior Whitefish, 1 pound of lake trout, and 1 pound of buffalo fish, but you can use whatever is seasonal and fresh.) Make sure you ask the fish man to give you the skin and bones!
  • 2 Onions (Ground in with the fish)
  • 2 Carrots (Ground in with the fish) 
  • 8 eggs
  • 1 1/3 cups matzah meal
  • Ice-cold water
  • 1/2 tsp. white pepper
  • 1 cup sugar
  1. In a very large deep kettle place the fish bones and skin (wrapped in a layer of cheesecloth) on the bottom and fill the pot about a third with water. Put 2 onions (cut) and 3-4 carrots in the pot along with half of the sugar and a little salt (to keep things from boiling over)
  2. In a very large bowl (I use one of those disposable roasting pans), place the ground fish, ground carrots and ground onions. Mix in the eggs and then add matzah meal (not all at once) and mix as you go. Dig in and use your hands. Don’t be a wimp with it—really work it. Make sure you can make fish balls that hold together. If not, add ice cold water, just a bit at a time and/or a tiny bit more meal. You should only use just enough to make a nice “batter” that holds together well.
  3. Make the fish balls anywhere from golf ball size (or a bit bigger if you prefer).
  4. Carefully place the balls one by one into the boiling fish stock.  Keep enough water in the pot just to barely cover the fish. Keep adding the fish balls one layer at a time (as much as that’s possible) until you’ve run out of fish or pot. Simmer on low-medium (or just low) for about 2 hours.
  5. Occasionally shake the pot, and if needed add more water to keep the fish just barely covered.
  6. Take the pot off the stove and let it sit for 15 minutes
  7. Carefully remove the balls from the stock with a slotted spoon and place in containers.
  8. Strain the fish stock and pour a bit over the fish balls to keep them moist. The will stay good in the refrigerator for 5-6 days.
  9. Serve with prepared horseradish. If you want to get fancy, place a gefilte ball on a leaf of lettuce with a slice of cooked carrot on top).

Chag Kasher v’Sameach from Ruach Outside the Box.

Pass the Karpas, Please

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Originally published at Blogcritics.org

Passover is the night of so many questions: Why is this night different from all others? When do we eat? Why do we eat matzah? When do we eat? Why do we eat bitter herbs? When do we eat? Although not part of the original “Ma Nishtanah?” (four questions), that’s probably question #1 (and 2, 5, 7, and 9) at many seders—by guests (and hosts) of all ages! Right? Right.

Who can blame them? With the aroma of Chicken soup wafting in from the kitchen, the tantalizing sweetness of the concord grape (wine or juice, take your pick), the bare nibbles of parsely, salt water, charoset (mixed with marror), your taste buds are mercilessly teased and tested, and yes, it’s almost as if you’re wading through water and 40 years of desert travel to get to the “when do we eat” portion of the Seder!

The formal meal of the Passover seder (shulchan orech) teases all during the first part of the evening’s series of questions and tellings, symbols and rituals. Although some of these symbols are edible and serve as a sort of appetizer, they are consumed in a special order (which is what seder means) and in tiny amounts. So as the young ones and not-so-young ones consume the aroma of brisket, turkey, chicken soup and matzah kugel, anxiously awaiting the “real meal” they must sit through the arcane discussions of Rabbi Tarfon and obscure acronyms of the plagues as they are enumerated trying to find the “meta” and the meaning in what we’re recalling a time several thousand years past.

So what’s a host (or hostess) to do when the seven or eight year old at the table begins to loose her composure, and instead of raptly listening to the “the story” (magid), she’s screaming: “I want to eat”?

The fact is that the Seder is largely intended for the edification and education of our children, and if they’re screaming, distracted and hungry, the message just ain’t gonna get through! How are they going to remember the real lesson of “we were once slaves and now we’re free” or charoset when they’ve lost all concentration to the rumblings of their collective tummies?

The answer my friends is karpas! One of the first steps in any seder is the blessing over the greens. It’s a great kickoff for introducing the seder plate and it contains. Traditionally, we take a bit of green vegetable to signify the renewal of springtime (there are other profound and mystical meanings) and dip it in salty water representing the tears shed by our ancestors, oppressed slaves in ancient Egypt.

During the seders of my youth, my mother would place small sprigs of parsley on our plates to dip and tide us over till “it’s time to eat,” meager pickins’ to wend our way through the four questions and their answers, encompassing history; tales of wise, rebellious, simple and silent children; plagues, rabbinic explanations, and lots of singing. Au contraire, there’s no need to starve everyone.

The blessing for karpas is “borei p’ri ha’adamah,” thanking God for creating “fruits of the earth.” So any vegetable will do: celery, onion, scallion, cilantro, etc. The karpas can become a real appetizer, satisfying hunger and keeping the guests sufficiently happy to engage in the rest of the seder.

For our seder, I prepare vegetable trays, containing small colorful peppers, scallions (green onions), celery, carrots, pickles, cucumbers, grape tomatoes, and anything else that “comes from the earth.” After karpas we pass the veggies as we go on to the rest of the seder, and no one ever groans “how much longer till we eat?”

Long-time Jewish Educator and Cantorial singer Barbara Barnett is available to speak to your group or synagogue about finding 21st Century meaning in Jewish ritual and prayer. Contact her at Barbara@RuachOutsideTheBox.com

Pregnancy as Sacred Space: A program from Ruach Outside the Box

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The nine months of pregnancy form a sacred space from the inside out. From within your abdomen and into the womb where your fetus grows, a fragile, nurturing “sukkah” surrounds and enfolds your baby-to-be. Yet outside yourself, formed by your partner, extended family and friends, you have another “sukkah”.

Author and Jewish educator Barbara Barnett will take your attendees on a nine month journey and beyond with her unique take on this special, spiritual time.

To book a one-time event or a series contact her at Barbara@RuachOutsideTheBox.com

Added Sound Files

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Just to let you all know, I’ve updated the site to include vocal selections. Have a listen, and let me know what you think. I’ll be available as of July 1 for any and all things cantorial–high holidays, retreats, shabbatonim, shabbat and holiday (even weekday) services. Sing alongs, camp, etc.

http://ruachoutsidethebox.com/spirited-and-spiritual-jewish-experiences/

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