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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!



Parshat Toledot - Generations of Digging for Living Waters

Blair Nosan

I delivered this sermon for Beth El Synagogue in Woodbury Connecticut, to commemorate Kristallnacht.

A friend of mine recently shared with me how ambivalent she felt about the holocaust while she was growing up.  Her parents seemed so connected to the tragic stories they would tell her, while she found it difficult to receive them. She considered her parents to be stuck in a rut, digging the same hole that only led to sadness and fear.  After the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue two weeks ago, however, she found herself re-examining her relationship with the past - and wondering if she had been willing to let in the stories her parents had wanted to share with her, if it would have provided her much needed resilience in the face of these hard times.

I know that not everyone here today wrestles to connect with the legacy of the Shoah in the same way that my friend did.  And yet, her struggle represents the next chapter of the Jewish people. The deeper we get into the 21st century, the further away the lived experience of the holocaust will be, and the harder the task of making this painful story into a meaningful and enduring one.  

It so happens that this week’s parsha, Toledot, is the perfect backdrop for an exploration of continuity.  There are many exciting things that happen in this parasha - Jacob buys Esau’s birthright for a bowl of lentil soup, and Rebecca tricks her husband Isaac into bestowing his blessing on Jacob, instead of his favorite son Esau - but it is the less memorable parts of this parsha that I’d like to focus on.  The story of Isaac and the wells that he dug.

Isaac is the biblical patriarch which we have the least information about.  While Abraham went on an epic search to follow God and find meaning, and Jacob was the father of 12 sons who became the 12 tribes of Israel, Isaac seems woefully stuck in between these great men.  And we find him, in chapter 26 of Genesis, literally stuck digging wells.

Rabbi Adin Steinzalts points out that to begin something is difficult, but it is far more challenging to continue things.  Once the spark of inspiration has run its course, the daily energy required to sustain, without the fire of newness, can be almost impossible to summon.  It’s the new business venture that gives way to the tedium of bookkeeping. Or the wide eyed child who becomes a rebellious teenager. All the more so, Steinzalts says, continuing our parent’s legacy is that much more difficult.  

And yet Isaac does just that - he settles in Gerar, in the land of the Philistines and sets about digging wells - the very wells that his father abraham had dug in his day when he also lived in Gerar.  

וַיָּ֨שָׁב יִצְחָ֜ק וַיַּחְפֹּ֣ר ׀ אֶת־בְּאֵרֹ֣ת הַמַּ֗יִם אֲשֶׁ֤ר חָֽפְרוּ֙ בִּימֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יו וַיְסַתְּמ֣וּם פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים אַחֲרֵ֖י מ֣וֹת אַבְרָהָ֑ם

And Isaac dug anew the wells of water that they had dug in the days of his father Abraham, which the philistines had closed up after the death of Abraham.

But he didn’t just redig the wells, he also named them the same name that his father had named them.

וַיִּקְרָ֤א לָהֶן֙ שֵׁמ֔וֹת כַּשֵּׁמֹ֕ת אֲשֶׁר־קָרָ֥א לָהֶ֖ן אָבִֽיו׃

And he called them the same names that his father had called them.

And it is the fact that Isaac continued the work of his father, that actually created the Jewish people.  Far more than the epic quest that Abraham set out on to find God, or the multitudinous family that Jacob sired, it is Isaac’s persistence that made the Jewish story into a generational story, and not just a one-hit-wonder.  And each of you keep this story alive every time you come to shul. Bake Challah, light candles, say a blessing. Every time you continue our story connects you to a story that has been being told for thousands of years, and the act of continuing to tell it is a beautiful courageous act of faith.

I heard an amazing story from a survivor named Sam a few weeks ago, and though it contained some incredible moments of heroism and miracles, it is a humble moment that I want to share with you. When Sam and 4 other children were sent to a work camp towards the end of the war, they were saved from the fate of most children (too young to work) and allowed to enter the camp provided they remain there totally unseen.  The Jewish inmates of the camp, upon hearing that children would be arriving, gathered at the barbed wire fence to receive them. They were all adults, and most of them hadn’t seen a child since the beginning of the war. They were parents and grandparents, most of them having lost their own children years ago, and they stood at the gates, hungry to receive these 5 Jewish children. Sam described how they lifted them over the threshold and kissed and hugged and sang and danced and passed them around the circle from person to person.  He said he felt like the Torah on Simchat Torah.

Now there are two incredible things about this story.  One is that in Sam’s world, less than a century ago, the reference point he had for the most joyous, most ecstatic experience, was simchat torah.  And the other is that these adults were so moved by the presence of these children because they understood that through the mere fact of their existence, of the potential to keep these children alive, the Jewish people could be saved.

When I look around the room tonight, I see all of you as well diggers.  Like Isaac, you too are showing up for the daily work of digging into the earth, often in the same places that have been dug before, in hopes of finding may’im chayim - living waters.  And the fact is, most days, this search is arduous, the beauty and the depths don’t reveal themselves until so late in the process, and it can be hard to stay the course and to explain to others why you keep showing up.  Judaism is like that. It is a deep and powerful well, but we have to dig so so so far down to get there, sometimes we can feel lost in the process.

I have heard it explained that Jewish time exists in a spiral, not a circle.  A circle would mean that we are living the same stories over and over again, that the pains and traumas of the past are destined to be re-lived in every generation, or the next.  But when we think of it as a spiral - that every year we show up for the same holidays as a different person, that every holiday coincides with a slightly different time of year, and that the world around us is constantly changing… suddenly the story of the Jewish people is an anchor in time that can be an incredible source of strength and sustenance.  Let it be that in the years to come, we will continue to dig into our past - not as pits - but as wells of living water.


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.