January 2021 Keeping Connected
As we enter the new year of 2021, I have been reflective about lessons learned over the past year and there have been many; far too many to fully explore in one short newsletter article! One lesson that is particularly important to me is that the pandemic has taught folks to slow down and appreciate what is close to home. Personally, I have enjoyed feeding and watching birds, taking long walks with our dogs, even in cold weather, learning to make a really good cup of coffee starting with grinding the beans myself and reconnecting with the pleasures of cooking and baking.
I know that these lessons, simple as they are, feel familiar to many of you. We have all heard stories of how folks have taken up cooking with a vengeance during the stay-at-home months. We saw this first hand when in the early days of Covid-19, it was impossible to find the most basic of cooking supplies on the supermarket shelves. I could understand why the shelves with cleaning supplies, anti-bacterial gels and even toilet paper were bare. But flour? Yeast? What did people know that I didn’t? It didn’t take me long to realize that people had come to the conclusion that if they were going to have to spend long hours and days at home, learning to bake bread might be a meaningful and fun activity. There were many days, that flour and yeast were being rationed to small amounts per individual. For the first time in my life, I could empathize with what it might have felt like for my parents and grandparents to use ration cards during the World Wars.
I was a bit late to the bread-making craze, instead focusing on other cooking endeavors. I do remember being surprised one day, when I went to buy yeast in order to make challah. There was none to be found – in several stores! In the meantime, one food fad had taken off; the making of sourdough bread. Want to make bread and you don’t have yeast? No problem because yeast is in the air. Who knew?! One just needed to learn to make sour dough starter. It really is quite miraculous to learn that equal amounts of water and flour, with time, patience and attention, can bubble itself into a starter that will make delicious bread. Ironically, the more sour and vinegary the blob smells, the yummier the bread will be.
In our home, sourdough bread making has recently become an emerging hobby. Channah brought some starter back from school that had been given to her for Chanukkah from some friends. As she showed it to us with excitement, it felt like we were welcoming another being into our home. It did not take long to learn that the starter can be difficult company and that humility is the most important ingredient as one nurtures the sensitive mixture.
For me, one of the most interesting things I learned is how starter is passed down from one person to another. We read about one woman who has had her starter for well over 40 years. She got the starter from her mother, who supposedly inherited it from HER grandfather. I may be confusing all the details, but the long and short of it is, that according to this family’s lore, the starter was begun in the days of the California gold rush!
While my family has been busy experimenting with recipes and philosophies of how to feed and tend the starter, I began to think about the process through a Jewish lens. Recently, I have been drawn to biblical proverbs and wisdom sayings. These aphorisms have supposedly been around since the time of King Solomon. The expressions themselves are basic, kind of like flour and water and as such, they are easy to brush aside as too simplistic. I have, however, begun seeing them in a new light, and the proverbs have begun to feel like a spiritual starter mix, passed down from generation to generation. In the past, I have rarely given them much attention and when I did, they seemed so black and white in their directness, that they seemed difficult to relate to. That is no longer the case. For instance, friends have recently shared with me the words from this Solomonic story ,“this too shall pass”, as a way of expressing support. I myself had used this expression many, many times, but never before had I really felt the power of their meaning. Now I do.
Starter mix can be fed every day or put on a shelf of benign neglect. In the same spirit, teachings from the Book of Proverbs, can be as leaven for the soul. I offer them to you to do what you want. Rabbi Rami Shapiro, in his translation of Proverbs suggest that proverbs are meant to be savored. He writes, “Whatever you do with these teachings, don’t dismiss them as simplistic. They are simple, yes, but not simplistic. If you allow them to speak to you honestly; if you do not defend yourself against their meaning and their implications for your life; if you listen carefully to the ancient king’s instructions, you will change for the better and grow in wisdom.” Or… put them away on some inner shelf and wait for the right time to take them down. Perhaps, just as sourdough starter, you may decide to share one of these insightful sayings with a child, partner, friend, and in doing so, you too will become a part of the very Jewish tradition of passing food for the spirit, from one generation to another.
Rabbi Shoshana M. Perry
“Pretending to knowledge reveals your lack of it;
Admitting ignorance is the beginning of wisdom.”
“Do not surrender to worry;
Do good, and worry surrenders to joy.”
“The way to wisdom is through wonder;
The way to honor is through humility.”