Beaches, Part III: Shabbat

The sun is setting on my last shabbat in Jerusalem.

Our front door is cracked to make a cross-breeze through our kitchen and our birds are napping on their perch to the sounds of pigeons cooing. A dog barks in the distance and a neighbor is scraping dishes. In an hour the traffic will pick up as the sleepy city emerges from its shabbat. Mosquitos and car horns will pour in through our windows as the birds prepare to sleep after the cannon that announces the end of today’s fasting for Ramadan.

When the stars begin to light the darkened sky, I will light the braided candle, pour the wine, and smell the sweet spices one last time in my home. I can see the walls of the Old City from the windows in our kitchen, and tonight I will sing to them as I perform the ritual acts of havdalah, separating shabbat from the rest of this difficult week; separating the holiness of rest in my home from the beautiful chaos of departure. Separating Israel from America before I cross the sea back to a place that is supposed to be home.

My throat tenses and it’s hard to swallow when I think of leaving it all behind. I get dizzy and irritable when Alex makes plans for our future or talks about what we need to accomplish during our month in Texas before we make a new home in New York City. I don’t want to live in that noisy place that never sleeps. My heart is here in Jerusalem where the stores close on Friday afternoon and time freezes just long enough for me to catch my breath.

I have prayed on the beach before. In fact, before coming to Israel, that was the only thing I have ever truly enjoyed about the beach. Standing on the wet sand as the waves wash over my feet, gradually moving forward to the East as I wade in the water, finding that on the coast of Texas I can be as close to Jerusalem as possible in the Gulf of Mexico.

When I pray on the beach in Tel Aviv, I cannot face Jerusalem. A popular progressive synagogue in Tel Aviv has made that a part of their unique worship experience. Perhaps something as intrinsically holy and perplexing as the ocean can be just as worthy of our attention as the remains of the Temple.

I lit shabbat candles on the beach with Alex and our friend Muhammad. We sat and listened as the waves crashed in, drank cheap vodka, and marveled at how quickly Israelis run home when the sun retires. I sang a few songs and we made kiddush on the beach. By early July we had made a lifelong friend in a country in which we had lived for only three weeks. I had not yet grown accustomed to shabbat in Israel, yearning instead for the routine of Friday night prayers followed by dinner out with friends. In the glow of the shabbat candles, I thanked the Universe for friendship that glowed like light even when the lights of the city went dim.

It is time to light the candle that ends shabbat. I am tempted to postpone the ritual in hopes of greedily stealing more time, but I know my efforts are fruitless. We will leave this place and this time. We will leave these beaches. We will leave our friend.

Blessed are You, Adonai our G-d, who distinguishes between the holy and the ordinary.

Beaches, Part II: Hilton Beach

As we approached the beach, I suddenly became hyper aware of the amount of clothing I was wearing.

In Jerusalem I almost always wear pants. Something about the mountains and the feeling of conservative modesty make jeans more comfortable for me than the shorts I used to wear in Texas. I joke about tzniut, the religious concept of modesty that has come to refer mostly to women’s dress in certain Jewish communities, and how I insist on “being tzniut” when I walk around in Jerusalem. Joking aside, I like dressing conservatively, and given the cooler-than-usual summer temperatures in the city (which tend to be between 10 and 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than San Antonio) wearing collared shirts every day with jeans is something I can do year-round. Along with my kippah, summer hat, and sunglasses, only my arms are exposed, but the tattoo sleeve of my left arm feels to me like an extension of my clothing. And I love it.

The morning I got dressed for the beach in Tel Aviv, however, I gleefully pulled my shortest shorts from the closet and stood before the mirror. I have nice legs—they’re the only part of my body that I really like—and they have become very muscular since living in such a pedestrian-friendly country. I liked the way my shorts showed my progress, even though they rise well above my knee and felt oddly “foreign.” I couldn’t remember having purchased them, let alone when I thought I would be comfortable putting them on, but on this day I was going to show myself to the world.

On my way out the door, I took a horrible fall down the stairs. I bumped down the last seven steps to the ground, bruising my left femur from my hip to my knee. A combination of embarrassment and pain broke out across my face as hot tears stung my cheeks in the presence of some horrified neighbors. “Ani b’seder, ani b’seder.” I’m okay. I’m okay.

I had not been on a beach in a social setting for years, so I am embarrassed to admit I assumed my short-sleeve button-down with its tropical flowery pattern and shorts would fit in. I felt simultaneously strangled by my abundance of clothing and yet naked in the presence of so many people in bathing suits. Hilton Beach is a lovely place, but like other Tel Aviv beaches that are littered with gym equipment and showers, it socially reinforces a certain body type and presentation of the perfect physique. I showed up to the party having missed the memo.

When I’m nervous I twist my wedding ring around my finger. I looked down at my hands, let my ring finger go, and took a deep breath.

“Alex, will you help me with my sunscreen?”

He never pressured me and instead met my eyes with a sweet “are you sure?” I was as sure as the ring around my finger—I wasn’t there to impress anyone. I was just looking to have a nice day relaxing with the person who loves me enough to help me love myself, and if that meant pushing myself a bit, I was willing and ready.

And so I slowly unbuttoned my shirt, glancing around to intercept the looks that I was sure my ghostly white skin would attract. But nobody cared. No necks craned to gawk at my body or how awkwardly I disrobed. I put sunscreen on my stomach and chest, conscious of how my flesh jiggled as my hands grazed my curves. But Alex’s hands on my back comforted me. This was the first time in as long as I could remember that wind and sun had touched these parts of my body… and it was thrilling.

When you resign yourself to the fully-clothed sidelines, you forget what the water feels like. I had expected some reminder of a bath, but the salty, cool water splashed my thighs and I yelped. Had it really been this long? Had I truly forgotten what the ocean felt like? Beneath the sky with just a pair of tiny shorts and a kippah, I walked into the blue waters up to my waist. My toes dug into the bizarre sea bed and I shivered with excitement.

To my left and right, magazine models splashed one another as paparazzi snapped their photos. On the beach, Greek statues lay side by side as the sun glistened in the perfect droplets on their perfect skin. But in the middle of the shallows, a powder-white, 27-year-old child was loving the ocean for the first time.

I headed back to the beach, dizzy and giddy with excitement. On my stomach on the blanket we spread across the sand, I wiggled my hips into the soft earth and briefly closed my eyes. The sounds of the people around me continued uninterrupted. I slept.

Late that night I painfully walked back up the steps to our apartment, still dressed for Tel Aviv. I examined my leg, already developing its triumphant blues and purples, and rinsed myself in the shower.

No need for pajamas tonight.

Beaches, Part I: A Realization

I never liked the beach as a kid. I was probably the only child I knew of who felt a hot disdain for a day in the sand and water. Inevitably I would find sand in my molars, and a disgusting mixture of sunscreen and sea water coating my body. It wasn’t until I moved to Israel and sat on the beach in Tel Aviv that I realized the truth: I learned to dislike these things to protect myself from a reality that scared me.

I was the first kid in my fifth grade class to hit the 100-pound mark on the scales. I remember how ashamed I was when I looked over my belly and peeked at the round number. For a while I could move slightly side to side or stand on my tiptoes to make it go back to 99.8, but eventually I lost that battle too. I had been aware of my chubby face and rounder body for a long time, but my fuller chest is what earned me the hurtful nickname “moobs.”

I have carried this hatred of my body with me my entire life. Even though my medical issues with my ears prevented me from diving freely into the water since first grade, the real reason I made my peace by the pool with a book rather than a bathing suit is because I could never handle the feeling of people’s eyes on my chest. As time went on, the body that never saw the sun grew whiter with age and only added to my humiliation. When puberty came about and my friends’ bodies began to even out and become more firm, my womanly curves stood out no matter how tight the tank top I wore beneath my school uniform clung to my skin.

I spent my life carefully avoiding spaces that required me to undress in front of others. I double checked the lock on every fitting room, carefully noting how far down anyone would have to stoop to see me through the slats in the door. I peeled my clothing off as if I were on fire when I had to change after football practice. Luckily I could run home immediately after football practice to shower rather than joining my friends who casually disrobed the second they entered the locker room. I successfully hid my body from the time I hit puberty until my early 20s.

My husband was the first person to see me without a shirt for nearly fifteen years. Even then I was uncomfortable. He told me he loved everything about me, including my body. For the next five years I struggled to love the parts of me I had tried to ignore my entire life.

When Alex and I moved to Israel, we met our best friend. He decided to take us to the “gay beach” in Tel Aviv where he assured us there would be lots of eye candy sprawled out on the sand and enjoying the waves.

I felt a cold sweat developing as five years of self-love washed away.

“I don’t need to worry about a bathing suit,” I stammered. “I can’t swim anyway. You know… my ears.”

Vegan Bolognese: the third generation’s take on a family recipe

Vegan bolognese. Works well with TVP or frozen, packaged crumbles! Recipe in comments.

A post shared by Stefano Iacono (@stefamaybe) on

My grandma confessed to the family a few years ago that she really doesn’t care for cooking. She fashioned herself a master chef who spends hours in the kitchen. She is an expert at repurposing leftovers, and a purist where it counts. (She and my dad famously argue over tomatoes–she insists he does not simmer them long enough, and he says she uses too much tomato paste)

My grandma has five children and a husband with a larger-than-life personality. She is from Lille; he came from Santa Elisabetta via Tuscany. When this charming Sicilian man met the brilliant but unassuming French school teacher in Paris, he tried to convince her that he was a Frenchman.  I don’t know if she believed him, but she decided to give him a shot and they were married six months later.

She cooked Italian food as if it were her passion. It was apparently not. I didn’t know of her love for celeriac grated with mayonnaise, boiled artichokes, and bouillabaisse until I began cooking and asked her one day about her favorite dishes.

Still, I feel guilty that my favorite thing she ever made me was the bolognese she was known for in our family. Other than mussels with white wine–a non-kosher delight–this was the dish I always asked her to make. Continue reading “Vegan Bolognese: the third generation’s take on a family recipe”

Yom HaShoah as a Jew-by-Choice

In October I went to Yad Vashem, the museum and research institution dedicated to the remembrance and study of the Shoah, (the Hebrew word for “Holocaust”) with my parents. I always break down at some point in the numbing barrage of testimony and have to excuse myself, but I noticed that with my non-Jewish parents by my side, my discomfort was heightened.

Nobody tells you when you convert to Judaism that dealing with the Holocaust is going to be one of the hardest things you ever do. Jewish communities express their pain about the  Holocaust by remembering it as an event that either happened to themselves, their families, or that could have happened to them if they had lived in that time period.

What if it couldn’t have necessarily happened to me? What about the morose part of my Jewish identity as a Jew by choice that guiltily wonders if I would have escaped the Nazis since my Jewishness comes not through blood but rather through religious conversion? An equally dirty thought: would I have been worthy of the suffering of my people? Is it worse to be lumped in with your people or to be passed over and separated from them?

Tonight we sat beneath the night sky at Yad VaShem together with survivors of the Shoah as Israel began its national day of remembering the Holocaust, its victims, and its survivors. We heard their stories, wept together, and sang HaTikvah, the Israeli national anthem, at the end of the event.

At one point in the ceremony, Israeli actor Adir Miller read the last letter that a man named Gustav Jacobson wrote to his daughter Ruth before he was murdered by the Nazis. In October, when I stepped out of the museum to catch my breath, I nearly collapsed as a thought occurred to me. While I may not have been “Jewish enough” for Nazi selection and persecution, my children most certainly would be simply because their names will be Hebrew names and their lives will be Jewish lives.

Jacobson wrote to his dearest Ruth that she should live her life without bitterness. He, after all, knew that his was ending and all he could do was focus on the love he felt for his daughter. Through my tears, I found my own way to remember, mourn, and feel my people’s suffering. Tonight, beneath the stars of Jerusalem, with members of the Israeli Defense Forces and Holocaust survivors sitting just rows away from me, I saw my children.

Tonight I saw my people. May they never again suffer.

A Buzzfeed quiz made me angry about misogyny

Do we reinforce misogyny (and heteronormativity) by forcing it onto young people, thereby sabotaging their romantic relationships?

This quiz popped up on my Facebook feed. Sure, why not? It’s a silly quiz and it could be fun. I really enjoy confusing these “based on your taste in men, which stereotypical white girl thing do you like?” quizzes. As a nearly-30-year-old, married gay man whose hobbies include cooking, knitting, and taking care of birds, I knew there was no way this quiz was going to be even slightly revelatory, but perhaps hilarious.

Instead, one of the questions completely blindsided me. I wasn’t expecting some “woke” quiz with an evolved sense of gender equality and intellectual understanding of feminist theory, but I found instead a quiz that was aware of that world without actually being part of it.

After asking me which mid-2000s romantic comedy I would watch while “eating popcorn and drinking wine” with my ‘boyfriend,’ the quiz threw a curveball.

“Pick an issue your boyfriend won’t really understand until you undertake hours and hours of emotional labor explaining it to him.”

The choices were intersectional feminism, LGBT rights, institutional racism, capitalism as the enemy of human rights, capitalism as the enemy of the climate, and internalized misogyny.

Here’s my problem: if the young woman Buzzfeed assumed was taking this quiz would find it necessary to invest “emotional labor” in explaining an issue that is important to her that her boyfriend wouldn’t understand, why are we pretending like it’s okay for them to be together in the first place?

Today is my first wedding anniversary. Alex and I have been together for 7 years. We met when I was 21 and he was 19. We dove in and got serious after only two months. One of the main reasons is that I fell in love with every part of him, including his mind, his sensitivities, his worries, and his ideals. I can’t remember the last time anyone ever has told a young woman in my presence that you have to fall in love with your partner’s values. Why isn’t that a red flag?

We are doing a serious disservice to all young people when we don’t stand up and demand that they carefully vet their partners. Is it important to you that the person you love understand that misogyny, institutionalized (and more direct) racism, homophobia, and transphobia are real, present dangers in our world? Then why would you ever not know those things before you were in too deep?

We do not tell young people that their feelings matter equally in their relationship. It should go without saying that we place more pressure on young women specifically to find a man and settle down. From television and movie tropes of spinsters to the butt-of-the-joke “ugly” girl to the neighborhood “bad girl,” we have been instill this garbage into everyone’s head for as long as I’ve been alive. Now that people my age are starting to get married and have kids, we are just as likely going to continue the pattern if we don’t work to solve it.

Yes, this rant is about a silly Buzzfeed quiz about which Starbucks drink you would order based on how you “build a boyfriend,” but it’s also something that I see way too often in the world. It is not your job to train the man in your life to be a good person. No man is your project. Taking on a “project” instead of falling in love with someone who complements your soul is actually kind of a horrible thing to do.

We cannot and should not “train” someone to be the person we deserve. If nobody is truly perfect, we have to work that much harder to find the right person for us, but we often tell young people to instead settle with red flags in the name of finding love. It is not only unethical, but completely dangerous to tell someone to put aside their gut feelings or to smooth-over a significant relationship conflict just so they won’t be lonely. “Oh, maybe they’ll change! Maybe they will understand!” We are not here to fix someone’s flaws, but rather to grow together into the best people we can be. That’s a relationship.

Maybe the real problem is that we never took our own messages about “loving ourselves” seriously enough. I hope (and truly believe) that we will right this ship when it’s time to teach our children how to love, but I can’t help but feel bitter that it hadn’t been done before now.

In the end, the quiz told me that I probably “just go to Starbucks for the bathroom,” which oddly enough, ended up being completely true. So let’s fix that other question, then, and enjoy this delightful quiz.

Vegan ‘Moussaka’

While it barely resembles a moussaka at all, this recipe is a crowd pleaser, and “fake meat layered casserole in the style of moussaka” isn’t very catchy. Instead of a thick béchamel layer on top like a traditional moussaka, this recipe is topped with creamy potatoes (like a Shepherd’s pie) but cooks up to a similar texture as béchamel would.

This recipe is written out in pieces so that each layer of the dish can be cooked either simultaneously or separately, ahead of time. Everything except the mashed potatoes can be cooked ahead of time. This is a rather involved recipe, but it makes a very hearty main dish. You could also add a layer of fried or baked eggplant for a more authentic dish.

You can use however many of these layers you want in your final product. I put down a layer of matzah for the “crust” which worked beautifully (as it was served during passover) but store-bought puff pastry, bread crumbs, or even toast would make a nice  bottom layer once covered with the sauce. Enjoy! Let me know if you try it out. Continue reading “Vegan ‘Moussaka’”

Green Onion and Curry Matzo Brei (Easy!)

I have had plates of room-temperature, sweet, soggy matzo brei shoved in my face for ages and yet have somehow managed to never taste its glory. It was always such an unappealing recipe–just French toast without the good bread that makes one a pleasantly sweet breakfast meal and the other a wet saltine that ruins eggs.

Well, I am happy to say that I was mostly wrong. While I am loyal to the savory matzo brei, I do see the merits of the dish. The softened matzah takes perfectly to the egg and its spices to come together in a texture that just doesn’t seem to exist in other foods that I’ve tasted.

Now then, here is my public statement for which I may receive some flak: do not ever come at me with matzo brei without spice. This recipe uses curry powder and sliced green onions and is served with techina mixed with s’chug, a traditional Yeminite spicy condiment. Nothing lacking in flavor here. Continue reading “Green Onion and Curry Matzo Brei (Easy!)”

Eighteen Minutes (A Passover Story)

Making your own unleavened bread for Pesach forces you to really pay attention to time. Alex sets out the bowls of flour and broth, the dried fruits and nuts for his pan de semita, an unleavened Passover bread eaten by Jewish families in Mexico for centuries, and checks the time. He carefully organizes the ingredients so that he can reach them, because as soon as he mixes the flour and water, the countdown begins. One extra second means the whole lot of dough is rendered chameitz: unfit for consumption during Passover.

Perhaps that’s what this holiday is about: as we reflect on the story of the Exodus from Egypt, whether through retellings of the tale that recall literal slavery in a foreign land or through an interpretation that calls to mind slaveries both real and metaphorical, time is a central consideration. The Hebrews acted quickly. They made bread in haste, they set out for a destination they had never known, they traveled to the edge of a sea they had never seen without stopping to consider if their path even had a destination at all.

Today while my husband rolled out the pan de semita that adorns our table every Pesach, we talked about our own fascination with time-bound laws. Setting the timer for the halachicly-permitted 18 minutes between the time the flour meets water until it must enter the heated oven is stressful, he said, “but then you realize 18 minutes is a lot.”

As Jews in Jerusalem (and next year in New York City) we have it pretty easy as far as our Passover restrictions are concerned. Sure, we make our traditional Mexican Passover bread that Alex kneads by hand and mixes carefully until the last minute that Jewish law permits, but we also can walk to restaurants with Kosher for Passover options, find storefronts with treats made especially with our seasonal dietary restrictions in mind, and even visit neighbors whose homes are free of chameitz and brimming with food options should we need a meal.

But is 18 minutes really that much time? This year in Jerusalem, Alex and I have had to make our way with only two thirds of the money around which we formed our year’s budget. Without going into specifics, after rent and utilities, we have lived off of a little more than $100 a month for food. To put that into perspective, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, what used to be known as “food stamps,” sets the minimum food cost for two adults in the United States at $357 a month. Even this is low, as it reflects just what the government pitches in as “assistance” to your food budget, meaning that the typical American food allowance is a bit higher than $200 per person in a country where food prices are among the lowest in the world. We are living on a quarter of that (in Jerusalem no less!) and we have done so masterfully this year.

However proud I am of our kitchen creativity and thrifty ways, I have not been able to shake an awful feeling of anxiety this year. I didn’t know where it was coming from until one night when I was stressed out about having to throw out a tupperware of soup that had gone bad.

“We just don’t have the money to waste food!” I said through tears.

I realized that every day I spend at least three hours planning, preparing, or cooking meals for the two of us. Three hours. That does not take into account the daily worry about if I am saving enough here and there for the end of the month, let alone money for emergencies if (G-d forbid) something should go wrong. No matter where I am, I shop out of the corner of my eye for the best price on staples like eggs, flour, vegetable oil, and salt—things that I completely took for granted when prices were better in Texas.

When you’re mixing dough for 18 minutes before popping it into a hot oven, you feel each agonizing second in the tensing muscles of your arms. When you’re running across a desert to a sea that may or may not be the end of the line for your entire nation, you feel each agonizing second from the sun against your neck and the fatigue in your legs.

The Hebrews did not have three hours in their day to plan delicious meals on a budget. They couldn’t afford to go to bed late to make sure that their privileged, food-blogger tastes were satisfied through alchemy with beans and grains in the kitchen.  They couldn’t spend hours each week walking to shops and markets to get the best prices on chick peas and pita. Preparing for Pesach reminds me that pieces of what I have relied on this year have to be removed from my kitchen for just over a week. The barley, pita, oats, and pasta that we have used to fortify our meals are being wiped out for the sake of remembering our historical narrative. While we are certainly not going to go hungry, we have had to keep our budget in mind and plan ahead for the days to come while living in a country where our options for additional income are limited at best.

Next year in New York I will have steady employment in addition to my student loans. So will Alex. We will still cook frugally and maintain our thrifty lifestyle, but we will not have to spend as much time preparing each meal. This Pesach I reflect on just what exactly time means to me. This year in particular, time has meant survival. How appropriate as we begin to set our tables for the retelling of our ancestors’ survival in days past.

May your Passover be full of family and blessing, and may we hope for a future when 18 minutes really does seem like a lot of time, no matter our circumstances.

Listen: “Koli El Elohim” (Psalms 77:2)

קוֹלִי אֶל־אֱלֹהִים וְאֶצְעָקָה קוֹלִי אֶל־אֱלֹהִים וְהַאֲזִין אֵלָי

I cry aloud to G-d; I cry to G-d that They may hear me.

I have been reading Psalms as I travel on the bus or train around Israel like the orthodox women I see bringing moments of devotion into their daily lives as the world zooms by. Psalm 77, which comes up in day 15 of the 30-day Psalm cycle, struck me. Its use of “koli” — my voice — is ambiguous as perhaps a noun and verb at the same time, and the use of “v’etz’akah,” an almost mournful intent to cry or call out to something beyond myself with such percussive consonants lent itself perfectly to this melody that has been rolling around in my head.