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.

Coconut Mushroom Soup

I’m always looking for ways to bridge seasons. I generally prefer the root vegetables and mushrooms that show up in fall but always miss the fresh tang of spring and summer that I get from lemon and cilantro (especially because my husband is allergic to cilantro).

This soup successfully complements the waning winter and early days of spring that are still too cold for my liking. It is during this time of year that I am especially attracted to what are otherwise hearty winter soups with a stubborn dash of summer.

The recipe calls for za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice made of dried hyssop, citrus, and sesame seeds which you can find in most Middle Eastern markets in the United States. If you’re in a pinch, dry oregano will work, but does not pack the same crisp, rich spice of za’atar. I use coconut oil here because it tastes especially rich with the mushrooms without feeling as heavy as butter. Continue reading “Coconut Mushroom Soup”

Rain, Part IV: Thunder in Jerusalem

The rain is over. The forecast continues to tease me with the possibility of rain, but the Jerusalem spring prefers to bring brilliant gray clouds and blow them away just as they grace the horizon beyond my kitchen windows.

Today I heard thunder for the third time in Jerusalem. I looked to the sky and said the traditional blessing we recite upon hearing thunder: Blessed are you, Adonai our G-d, ruler of the universe, whose strength and power fills the earth.

This is one of the few short blessings in Judaism that I feel an affinity for in both Hebrew and English. It never falls flat for me–this idea that G-d is represented in the thunder that rumbles above us, reminiscent of the roars at Sinai.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֣ה אֶל־הָעָם֮ אַל־תִּירָאוּ֒ כִּ֗י לְבַֽעֲבוּר֙ נַסּ֣וֹת אֶתְכֶ֔ם בָּ֖א הָאֱלֹהִ֑ים וּבַעֲב֗וּר תִּהְיֶ֧ה יִרְאָת֛וֹ עַל־פְּנֵיכֶ֖ם לְבִלְתִּ֥י תֶחֱטָֽאוּ׃

Moshe said to the people: Do not be afraid. G-d has come to test you so that the fear of G-d may be with you so lest you go astray [lest you sin].

English tends to render Torah in more absolute terms than the Hebrew of the Bible. I imagine that today’s Moses would tell us that G-d wants us to be mindful rather than fearful. Fear is one way to help us remember a significant event, but perhaps the feeling described here is a sense of wonder potent enough to encourage us to pass this story on to our children. That’s not to say that such “wonder” might not also be terrifying. Undoubtedly for some the Hebrews, the thunder was amazing. We can simultaneously fear thunder and lightning with their powers of destruction and admire their beauty as acts of creation.

I hear the shofar in the shabbat alarm that blasts from the Old City, alerting all Jerusalemites that it’s time to light the candles and bring in the day of rest. Beneath this thunder, though, I am not trembling. Rather, I hear the thunder as a subtle undertone from a G-d who has grown since the Exodus.

Blessed are You, Adonai our G-d, ruler of the universe, whose strength and power fills the earth.

And then I continue: Blessed are You who gives the blessing of growth and peace to all inhabitants of the earth; the One who hugs us with Her tears and gives us to blossom with Her hope. Who gives this beautiful act of creation to my loved ones.

ברוכה ששנותנת לכל יושבי תבל ברכת גדילה ושלום. שמחבקת אותנו עם דמעותיה, .ונותנת ללבלב בתקוותה

Today no rain fell. Instead, when a rainbow arrived, I released the stress and fears of my week from my mind and received shabbat.