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Words

About ShtetlKettle

For the past 2 years, I’ve been blogging about fermentation on behalf of my small Detroit-based pickle business, Suddenly Sauer.

While food, in general, and fermentation, specifically, are central passions in my life, I felt that more theoretical fermentations (read: thoughts) weren’t as communicable in that space.  Thus, I’ve created ShtetlKettle.

In this space I want to think about community and individual identity.  My point of entry is Detroit Jewish identity, but I’m in no way limited to any one perspective.  I see some of the most poignant inquiries developing out of the borders between identities, and I hope to explore my identity, both personal and communal, with the boundaries (real and imaginary) that we create. 

While I plan to post on a weekly basis, I also want this space to be open to any/all those who happen to share in these (rather specific) areas of interest.  Guest posts and comments welcome!

I look forward to growing with you!

-b

 

בראשית

Blair Nosan

I wrote this the last day I was in Detroit. I don’t know why it surfaced in my thoughts this morning, but there it was. and how here it is.

What happened here?

We built walls. We believed the ones who said they want to harm you. We believed in a they and we believed that us was somehow more alike than them.Mortgage lenders got rich quick. Humans were inhuman. People watched as their streets evacuated and color lines were crossed. Majorities become minorities, minorities majorities. All afraid and all confused.

Fortunes were lost and fortunes were made. Hearts broken, homes burnt, highways expanded, trolleys sold to Mexico, and tracks cemented.

Still the flames and the smoke spiraled upward, still the people looked on, aghast, wondering how things had gotten this out of hand. Wondering who could stop it. Thinking the answer outside themselves.

Stars of David adorning buildings remained, crosses came to keep them company, the people themselves separated by mile roads—no longer bricks and drywall.

Distance made us stranger and stranger to one another. Distance made us unkind. All of this in the narrow places, De troit, the straights, Mitzrayim.

What call will we follow? Do we have to leave in order to be redeemed? Or is there a Moshe Rebeynu in each of us—who sees the injustice and calls it what it is. Who among us would have the strength to leave our homes and enter exile, for the hope of—for the promise of—peace. Fellow traveler, you are weary. Rest here one night, in this narrow place, and discover what strength it will uncover in you while you dream.

To Celebrate the Mitzvah of Matzah, We Must First Learn Again to Bake Bread

Blair Nosan

I first learned how to make pickles as an apprentice in a pickle kitchen on a Jewish farm in Connecticut in 2008.  Although my mother was skeptical that my pickle career would amount to anything, I’ve found that, by and large, when I tell people what I do, they’re excited! To me, this says a lot about where we are in our relationship to food as Americans, as Jews, and as humans.

My stint as an apprentice taught me to make pickles using a process called lacto-fermentation, which is a simple, ancient technique requiring little more than salt, bacteria that occur naturally on the skins of vegetables, and patience.  When I learned how to transform vegetables into deliciously salty, sour, preserved foods, I became obsessed with this slow and magical process.  Fermenting vegetables opened a door to learning how to make all sorts of the foods most of us buy in the store without a second thought, like yogurt and sourdough bread.  Learning about sourdough led me to wonder about the connections between sourdough, hametz, and matzah.

All bread was once made from a sour dough, a bubbly fermented brew of flour and water.  Before industrialization in the 19th century, all risen bread was the result of wild yeasts that live in the air being “hosted” in a hospitable environment of flour, water, and warmth.  Families used to pass these “sourdough starters” from generation to generation– each starter unique and each radically a product of its environment.  For even as families save their starters for generations, starters also change based on the unique “local yeasts” that live in the environment where they are housed.  These yeasts add their unique characteristics to the microorganisms that populate each bubbly, live, starter.

Ever since I learned that families pass their starters from generation to generation, I have wondered why Jews are commanded, first in Parshat Bo, and throughout the Exodus story, to cleanse our homes of all hametz (risen bread) and se’or (sourdough starters) when we commemorate the Exodus each year.  There are actually two commandments in Shemot 12:15. First, שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, מַצּוֹת תֹּאכֵל- for seven days you will eat matzah.  And second, בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן, תַּשְׁבִּיתוּ שְּׂאֹר מִבָּתֵּיכֶם - But the first day you will put away se’or, your sourdough starter, from your homes.  For me, these two commandments raise the question, why are we told not just to eat matzoh but also to rid our lives of se’or in this festival commemorating exodus? What’s the connection between yitziat mitzrayim, exodus from egypt, and leaven?  How might better understanding sourdough be an important clue to understanding the mitzvah of matzah?

Usually we explain the connection between exodus and matzah with a quote that comes later in Shemot 12:39, כִּי לֹא חָמֵץ:  כִּי-גֹרְשׁוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם- for it was not leavened because they were thrust out of Egypt.  But this explanation really only speaks to the first commandment to eat Matzoh on Pesach, as a form of experiential education that impels us to remember how it felt to be rushed, uncomfortable, and unprepared.  This doesn’t, however, shed light on why we are not only told to eat matzoh but also specifically to live without se'or, leaven, for seven days.

Some commentators, mostly mystical ones, associated leaven with the yetzar harah, the evil inclination, and believed that we cleansed ourselves of hametz in order to purify and ready ourselves for the higher spiritual plane b’nai yisrael would be inhabiting after the exodus.  Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto said: “For a particular limited time Israel needs to abstain from leaven and be nourished by matzah, in order to reduce the strength of the yetzar hara and one’s inclination toward the physical, and increase identification with the spiritual, drawing closer to it.”  

Matzoh also appears in Leviticus, the book which delineates the priestly offerings B’nai Yisrael was responsible for bringing during the temple period.  Jacob Milgrom explains, in his study of Leviticus, that leaven was considered a dark, taboo element in the ancient world, “The roman high priest was forbidden to even touch leaven… [and though] these sources all stem from late antiquity… they undoubtedly reflect an older and universal regard of leaven as the arch-symbol of fermentation, deterioration, and death and hence, taboo on the altar of blessing and life.”

In these frameworks, we clear leaven from our homes because it contains some lower, earthly impulse.  It connects us to darkness and death, thus equating fermentation with degradation.  But having lived on a Jewish farm where we celebrated all things microbial from compost to kombucha, (yes, there is a fermentation process underlying each of these products),  I’m left wondering if this way of relating to hametz and se’or can really speak to our current relationship with food.  Fermentation gone wrong can be moldy and stinky, and nasty things can happen, but most of those who become fully initiated as fermenters see their repulsion transformed into wonder.  It’s this wonder that has inspired me to search for an alternative way of understanding leaven.

The Netziv, a 19th century Lithuanian Rabbi, proposed that leaven represents human creative agency, and that in this framework, the pesach commandment to clear leaven from our homes reminds us of God’s absolute dominion.  He said, “We refrain from human manipulation of our most basic commodity- bread. We proclaim that the very essence of our being comes directly and completely from God.”  The Netziv felt that man’s discovery that sourdough could cause bread to rise was a breakthrough in food technology, an innovation in human capacity to manipulate the elements of nature, and that Matzoh was thus a sort of “break” from this manipulation.  But we, as moderns, live mostly removed from our ability to grow, preserve, or create our own basic food.  How can we relate to matzoh as this symbol of something pure and unadulterated by human technology when so much of what we need as moderns is to be more in touch with the process behind our food in order to feel closer to it and to God?

Our own alienation from the processes behind our food puts us at odds with these historical paradigms that equate holiness with purity and refinement.  In today’s world there is an active and strongly influential subculture of farmers and food artisans who are encouraging a culture of drawing closer to God (whether they would label it so or not) through drawing closer to the earth. We’ve moved increasingly toward more whole, more complex foods.  While in the past the process of purification and refinement was a form of honoring God (in that refinement was achieved through intensive, hand labors), in a world of factory farms and factory food refinement and purity draw us away from God, not closer.  

Understanding this changing landscape of culture, history, and industry informs our relationship to matzoh. The best way to understand the mitzvah of matzah is not just to cleanse our homes of hametz once a year, but to really bring the se’or, the frothy culture, the ferment, the messy stuff of life, back into our homes. We should seek to repair our distance from the leaven in our daily lives as voraciously as we try to remove leaven from our lives each Pesach. Perhaps it is as Moshe Chaim Luzzatto says, “It is impossible for [b’nai yisrael] to nourish themselves [without leaven] on a regular basis, for this is not reflective of men’s desired state in this world.”  Whether this means starting a weekly sourdough challah baking practice or learning to ferment your own vegetables, bringing more of the world into our lives 358 days of the year is vital if we hope to meaningfully cleanse ourselves of it for the seven days of Pesach.  

Change is the only way forward

Blair Nosan

It happened when I was sitting in a class with Israeli-Jews, Israeli-Palestinians, East Jerusalem Palestinians, and American-Jews.  We had just watched a filmabout the Carmel forest fire that happened near Haifa in 2010.  The film focused on a Palestinian fire-fighting crew from Bethleham that wanted to help fight the fire because of their personal and historical connection to Haifa.  In the moments after the film one of the diaspora Jews raised his hand to share that he had felt the assertion of ancestral connection to Haifa as a slap in the face.  To this day, I’m not sure if he was instigating or sharing personally, but the atmosphere in the room became palpably tense.

One of the East Jerusalem Palestinians responded to his statement by asserting her own shared sentiment with the firemen, her own enduring sense of connection to Haifa and other towns her family once called home.  The American Jews in the room became defensive, asking why she insisted on claiming the land.  Some of the Palestinians become increasingly bewildered and defensive as they worked to explain their ancestral roots.  The Americans became angry and the Israeli Jews remained largely silent.  

Eventually, I stepped in to the fray to dispel the misunderstanding that was growing worse by the minute.  I pointed out that the Jews in the room were responding to the Palestinians as if they were saying, “I have a historical claim to the land and therefore you don’t.”  While the Palestinians had actually only said that they felt an enduring connection to a place that, one-two generations ago, was home.  

This singular experience has become essential in understanding my people’s psychology.  This morning, over breakfast with my parents, I returned to this story.  What does this story mean to me? It’s time for us to reckon with the story we’re telling ourselves.  It’s time for a new story.  

I asked my dad what we could do to change the current situation and he said, twice, that the only thing that would change it would be more moderate Palestinians eradicating their fundamentalist leaders.  My father’s thinking is not exceptional- it’s a completely normal opinion in the American Jewish mainstream.  

but I pressed him again, saying, I’m asking how we can change the situation.  I told him that I feel that no conflict is one sided, that if we expect Palestinians to transform their views, we must also be willing to transform our own.  and that to the extent that we are in power, we have the greater opportunity (and, I feel, responsibility) to begin to do so.  The whole idea of resigning ourselves to being perpetually locked in dispute where we wait for the other party to admit that they are wrong is childish, and unending.  

Both of these stories focus on parts of our Jewish narratives that need to change.  Meanwhile, some very real and very present actions must change as well.  

I cannot, in good faith, add psalm 130 to my daily prayers and hope that it is enough to bring peace to the middle east.  As a diaspora Jew, it is my responsibility to say that I feel that placing our hopes for the Jewish future in a particularist zionist vision of democracy is a dead end.  As my anecdote about the Carmel fire teaches me each time I revisit it, Jewish anxiety over our claim to the land cannot be a basis for the continued denial of Palestinian history.  If we want Palestinian attitudes towards Jews and Israelis to change, we must be willing to change our own opinions.  

Our might gives us the opportunity to do so first.  Let us not squander it.

No one would be happy if Israel annexed the entire west bank, made all Palestinians full and equal citizens of Israel, and sacrificed the Jewish majority that has been zionism’s aim since before ‘48.  But it’s just about the only route forward that I can imagine in which no one could really complain either.  

My hope for the future lies in an Israel where equality and justice for Jews and Palestinians is inscribed in a constitution.  Where the right of return exists for Palestinians along with Aliyah for Jews.  Etc. etc. etc.

Because to the extent that either of these contemporary peoples sees themselves as the sole inheritor of the land, I simply cannot relate to them, and see no hope for our future.