The Power of Community

pants

When my children were five and almost-two, we moved roughly 2 miles north. We sold our sweet little townhouse in a quiet courtyard in the city and moved to a big single-family home in the nearest suburb north. For the most part, we moved so that our five-year-old could go to a school with smaller class sizes and so that she and her non-sleeping baby sister could have their own bedrooms. Too, there was a part of me that had glimpsed at the process of looking for high schools in Chicago and wanted to avoid it at all costs. We moved for ourselves, thinking only of the life within the walls of our home and the school our kids might attend.

Until then, I’d been living a mostly isolated life as a parent. In our city courtyard, there was only one precious family with identically-aged children, but those children slept like angels — long naps and early bedtimes, short windows of free playtime compatible with my daughters’ chaos. In retrospect, it was an outright blessing and not at all a small thing to have found myself hugely compatible with their mother, someone who became one of my dearest friends and a great teacher to me on topics too great to write here. Still, in those toddler/preschool years, the company we could keep was not daily, and because of my younger daughter’s constant illness in her first two years, I’d not been able to make any other friends with other families. I spent my days largely without adult contact. It was incredibly, incredibly lonely.

When we moved north, then, I didn’t expect much of my life to change. The preschool where my youngest was finally healthy enough to attend was part of a day care center, a remnant from my days of working when my oldest was my only, and so I never knew the other parents well. No one stuck around to chat long — everyone was at the beginning or end of long days, and if I saw them, it was only on the rare occasion that I brought my youngest to preschool at the very beginning of the day or picked her up at the very end. For the most part, I saw the teachers, the barista at the coffeeshop, and my husband. When I moved, I expected that to stay mostly the same.

I was wrong. Continue Reading…

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Daughter, Whole

bat-mitzvah

Several weeks ago, my triumphant, thriving, sensitive and sweet daughter Sammi read from the Torah for the first time.

In the Jewish ceremony known colloquially as a “Bat Mitzvah,” my daughter consciously took her place in her community by chanting three verses of a chapter from Leviticus. Like all children who become a Bat or Bar Mitzvah (literally, a daughter or son of the covenant), she studied for months to learn the melody and the Hebrew words she’d be chanting and all the prayers she’d need to know to share leadership of the service and analyze the chapter of Torah in English. She has a lovely, clear voice, and she spent weeks with headphones on listening to the sound of her tutor’s voice chanting her verses, and singing along. I’d heard her practicing, but nothing really prepared me for the feeling I would have on the day she became a Bat Mitzvah, as I stood next to her at the podium as she chanted in front of the congregation of our synagogue and all of the friends and family who gathered to bear witness. It was not what I expected. Continue Reading…

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Passover in the Children’s Hospital

soup-veggiesTonight is the first night of Passover, and I woke up early to chop carrots and celery and onions and garlic, the four-musketeers of my favorite parts of the traditional festive meal we’ll have tonight. As I type, I can smell the matzo-ball-soup cooking, the potatoes I added thickening the broth, the dill adding the freshness of spring. I don’t have much time to plan the seder itself, a religious service observed at my second favorite chapel in the world: my dining room table, second only to my kitchen.

I appreciate this day more now than when I was younger, possibly because I spent one terrible, heavy Passover in the hospital with my youngest daughter as she recovered from heart surgery. I think of it now, every year, as I chop and season and clean and prepare for the sometimes 28, sometimes 15 people who come to my house to share the meal with us.

That year, it was just me and Sammi: me in an armchair and her in her tipped-up hospital bed, eating matzo with jam and fat-free cheese and watching The Prince of Egypt on Netflix. It was beautiful, and it was terrible, and while I’m glad we did it, I never want to do it again. Continue Reading…

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Latkes Work for Everyone

latkes

Here’s a secret I wish more people knew: latkes are the perfect holiday food.

For those of you not in the know, latkes are the food most commonly associated in this country with the Jewish holiday of Hannukah. Also known as potato pancakes, they are similar in some ways to hash brown potato patties — but tell that to a Jewish family whose grandmother has been making them for half a century, and they will scowl at you. Where hash brown patties are contained, with neat edges and a definable shape, latkes are chaos: vaguely round, perhaps oval, with shredded potatoes crisply sticking out from every edge and caramelized bits of onion stuck to the bottom, depending on the recipe.

The basic recipe for latkes includes varying proportions of shredded potatoes, onion, egg, matzo meal or flour, and salt. The resulting batter is dropped by spoonful into piping hot oil and fried. As a symbol of the miracle of one flask of oil lasting for eight nights in an ancient Jewish temple, the latkes are meaningful. As a food, they’re utterly delicious.

For me, though, another miracle of latkes is that their basic recipe is as versatile as the rituals of the holiday season. If you have family or friends visiting who follow any number of restrictive diets, simple tweaks to the latke recipe make it the perfect food for almost any need. Continue Reading…

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How to Feed the People You Host

holiday-table

I’ve spent some holiday dinners eating dry bread and salad.

In front of me on the table were platters piled high with other food, but because of a combination of my vegetarianism and allergies, only the bread and salad were real options for me. In those moments, I harbored no ill will toward my hosts; having hosted holidays before, I knew that it took a lot of work to accommodate the preferences and allergies of a complicated group of guests. It’s not a job for an inexperienced or inexact home chef. I knew all this as I sat and ate my undressed salad, nibbling on my plain bread, and I wasn’t bitter.

Still, I’ve tried never to do that to a guest in my own home unless I had no other choice. Over the years, I’ve had guests for Jewish holiday meals who ate no carbohydrates, no grains, no gluten, no dairy, no beans, no soy, no tomatoes, no nuts, no broccoli, no cinnamon — not to mention the years when my own child was on the six-food-elimination-diet or the chylothorax diet. I’ve managed, in most cases, to offer at least two tasty options to each person — even options that others at the table would enjoy, too. It takes planning, but it’s not impossible.

Here’s how I’ve done it: Continue Reading…

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