December 19, 2008
How To Have A Wild Chanukah
Light The Night
All About The Kids
Chanukah In Israel
‘Music In My Head’
Doughnut Taste Test
Welcome to the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES’ Chanukah issue. This year, the holiday begins at sundown on Sunday, Dec. 21, and ends at sundown on Monday, Dec. 29. For this issue, we talked to families about how they celebrate Chanukah, rated the jelly doughnuts from four different bakeries, hung out with a Jewish storyteller and more. Enjoy Chanukah with us.
In the Lipsey family, you have to hunt for your Chanukah gifts.
Every year it was the same story. Mindy Lipsey would watch her kids tear open their Chanukah presents, throw the trash on the ground, then quickly move on to the next gift, with a cursory “thank you” to the gift-giver. This Reisterstown resident just knew there was a better way to celebrate the holiday.
So, she took a moment to think about how she could make Chanukah gift-giving more meaningful to her children. She wanted a way that would bring them together as a family.
The result? Two years ago, Ms. Lipsey, who works in advertising, created a scavenger hunt for her three children to get their Chanukah presents. The rules were structured so that her kids would have to work as a team, help each other answer questions and search for their gifts as a unit — not as individuals.
As a first step, each child had to answer an age-appropriate trivia question. Matthew, now a sixth-grader in the environmental science magnet at Sudbrook Magnet Middle School, got the most difficult science question. His brother, Josh, a third-grader at Chatsworth School, would often get a math or sports question, two areas of interest for him. Emily, at age 5 the youngest sibling, was given a question such as writing the names of her family members, spelled correctly and in her best handwriting.
“If you don’t know the answer, they [siblings] help you,” said Josh.
After answering the trivia question, the kids moved on to the first clue. The first clue led to the second; the second to the third; and the third clue led to where their present was hidden.
“We have to work as a group,” said Matthew. “We can’t leave our sister behind because she’s younger.”
The scavenger hunt has become a tradition for the family, along with a traditional Chanukah party spent with all their relatives. Approximately 20 family members gather at a cousin’s home to light the candles, eat latkes and exchange presents.
“I like getting together with my cousins from Pittsburgh,” said Matthew. “I don’t get to see them every day, and I get to see them during the holiday. It’s special.”
It’s that sense of family that makes this family’s Chanukah meaningful. As Ms. Lipsey said, “It’s about working together.”
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Light The Night
The Shnidman family celebrates with seven chanukiot.
The Shnidman house off Seven Mile Lane is on fire come Chanukah time. Seven chanukiot are ablaze in the window each night before 5 p.m.
“According to Halachah [Jewish law], the preferred time to light is just after sundown,” explained father-of-five Yitzy Shnidman, a mortgage broker.
He comes home early from work and the group, ranging in age from 3 to 15, congregates before their entourage of oil, wicks and candles, clearly visible (as also prescribed by Jewish law) from the window.
Each in his turn says the blessings and lights, and then the family breaks into a rendition of Ha’Nerot Ha’Lalu followed by Maoz Tzur. “During ‘Maoz Tzur’ the children always seem to vacate the area to get their presents,” Melissa Shnidman said with a laugh. “But they know they can’t open them until the song is done.”
Each year, the Shnidmans videotape their Chanukah — from candle lighting through the opening of the last present. They’ve been doing this since their first daughter, Leah, was born and at times they sit down and screen the videos, watching as their family expanded and the children grew taller and more mature.
“It’s so interesting to see how big they all are, and how little they were,” said Mrs. Shnidman. “My 15-year-old, especially, likes to see how cute — or nerdy — she was. It’s always, ‘Mommy! I can’t believe you bought me that dress!’”
Though the lights themselves and the presents are certainly a thrill come holiday time, the Shnidmans said Chanukah for them is mostly about family and appreciating their lives as Jews today.
“What I love most is I know Yitzy will be home from work early and for eight days we’ll all be together at the same time each night,” said Mrs. Shnidman.
“Chanukah is the celebration of the perpetuation of the Jewish people throughout history in the face of adversity,” Mr. Shnidman said. “Knowing why we celebrate Chanukah belittles my mundane challenges because in America, in this day and age, no one is trying to annihilate us.”
But 5-year-old Dani Shnidman said she still thinks her favorite part “is the presents!”
Said Yitzy Shnidman: “The greatest present would be for Mashiach to come.”
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All About The Kids
The focus is on family in the Evans family.
Sara and Jeremy Evans say they have the best of both worlds. This young, attractive couple celebrate Chanukah with family and friends here and Christmas with Jeremy’s family in Texas.
Sara, 35, is a native Baltimorean who was raised in Beth Tfiloh Congregation and became a bat mitzvah at Beth El Congregation. Jeremy, also 35 and raised Methodist, hails from a small town outside Fort Worth.
Before they married five years ago, they had long discussions about how their children would be raised. Sara even consulted Rabbi Mark Loeb, now rabbi emeritus of Beth El. In the end, Sara, a cardiac rehab staffer, and Jeremy, pharmaceuticals manager, found a solution that works for them.
“Our children are raised in a Jewish home but we celebrate the non-Jewish holidays with his family,” said Sara of Spencer, 19 months old, and Alexandra, 3 years old and a student in Beth El’s preschool program.
“We do all the Jewish holidays, little to big. We do Sukkot at Beth El, we walk to Beth Tfiloh for Tot Shabbat,” said Sara.
In the Evans’ home, Chanukah is one of the big holidays. “It’s all about the children,” said Sara. “We try to make it fun for them.”
The living room of their Pikesville home is festooned with a string of dreidel-shaped lights that Jeremy’s mother found in a store in her tiny Texas town. The Chanukah menorah is lit every night. There are lots of parties, from a neighborhood get-together to Sara’s parents’ annual family affair.
The Evans also have signed up for the Jewish Community Center’s Chanukah festival for toddlers, and Alexandra’s preschool has Chanukah activities. The items she made for Chanukah decorate the house.
The children get gifts every night of the holiday. They come from grandparents, aunts and uncles on Sara’s side. “Everyone sends them presents,” said Sara.
The Evans fly out to his parents for Christmas, an equally big holiday in his family. There is a Christmas tree, Christmas Eve dinner and a Christmas Day “feast,” to use Jeremy’s word. Of course, there are presents, and also services at the local Methodist church.
“It’s a big family get-together, with 10 to 12 people” in attendance, said Jeremy.
This year, because Chanukah and Christmas overlap, the Evans family will be lighting a menorah at Jeremy’s parents’ house. His mother bought it for them.
“My family had to adjust to another culture, another religion,” he said.
Said Sara: “Rabbi Loeb said, ‘You’ll still be Jewish if you walk into a church.’ I’ve gotten to a place I’m comfortable with.”
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Chanukah In Israel
The holiday looms large in the Holy Land.
Special to the Jewish Times
I forgot about Christmas last year. After all, I’ve never celebrated Christmas. I’m a strictly-Chanukah kind of gal. Last year, when I got to my office on Dec. 25, I was told it would be a slow day because many of our United States-based clients were closed for the day.
Ohhhh, right. It’s Christmas!
For an American Jew, the holiday season in Israel is surreal. Unless you seek it out, you can, as I did, completely forget about Christmas. To the average Jew on the street, Chag Ha’Moledet (“Holiday of the Birth,” as it’s called in Hebrew) is irrelevant.
Until I made aliyah in 2006, December was synonymous with an explosion of red and green, endless carols playing in every store, Salvation Army Santas ringing bells on street corners, houses festooned with holiday lights and “It’s a Wonderful Life” on TV. In other words, it’s impossible to avoid the Christmas season.
In Israel, Chanukah is its own entity, not just the “other holiday” (along with Kwanzaa). The Maccabees’ ancient struggle for religious freedom has become a rallying call for modern Israel’s continual struggle for national survival. Every year, there are candle-lighting ceremonies at the Knesset and municipalities throughout Israel.
The Chanukah season starts about a month before the actual holiday, with bakeries putting out sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts). Traditionally dusted in powdered sugar and filled with jelly, they’ve been transformed in recent years by gourmet bakeries. Now, you can get sufganiyot filled with caramel, chocolate, vanilla cream, and even halvah, with a myriad of creative toppings.
Last year, I picked up a dozen of these fancy sufganiyot and traveled two hours to a kibbutz up north for my husband’s Israel Defense Forces swearing-in ceremony. After the moving official procedure, my husband was asked to light the menorah, and a couple hundred soldiers and their families joined in booming renditions of “Maoz Tzur” and “Ha’Nerot Ha’Lalu.” Sufganiyot were handed out, but I think my husband and his friends liked my gourmet ones better.
This year, I’ve been picking out gifts in stores with Chanukah music playing in the background. Next week, my husband and I will go to the Haredi Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, where the sidewalks will be packed with merchants selling menorot, candles, olive oil and glass outdoor menorah boxes. In Israel, many people follow the custom of lighting candles outside where everyone can see them. It’s a beautiful experience to walk around the neighborhood and see the menorot glowing in their outdoor boxes, particularly in the Old City, where the lights flicker off the ancient stone walls.
Work continues as usual throughout Chanukah, but many schools have a vacation break. Some families travel to Modi’in, a city between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, to visit the ancient caves the Maccabees hid in thousands of years ago.
But Christmas does exist in Israel, and especially so for the thousands of Christians who visit Bethlehem on Christmas Day and the many more who participate in services in the Old City’s Christian Quarter and the caroling at the Jerusalem YMCA.
Chuck King is the music director at the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem. Originally from Oklahoma, Chuck, his wife and two daughters moved to Israel 13 years ago. I asked him what it’s like to experience the holiday season as a minority.
They didn’t miss the commercialized aspects of Christmas, he replied. “Being in Israel has helped us to appreciate more fully the traditions around the holidays that have real value and spiritual meaning.”
Chuck’s family puts up Christmas lights, but waits until the first night of Chanukah to turn them on, out of respect for their Jewish neighbors. “Since we are the only house on our street — or, rather, our entire neighborhood — with lights on, we do stand out a bit,” he said.
In addition, the Kings have begun to celebrate Chanukah in their own way. The children light the menorah; his wife has a dreidel collection and it has become a tradition for Chuck to give her a new one every year as a Christmas gift.
Maybe it’s strange, but just as Chuck and his family have learned to love Chanukah, I’ve found myself getting nostalgic for the Christmas season. This year, after lighting candles outdoors, my husband and I are going to tour the block and look at the candles burning on all of our neighbors’ patios.
We’ll come home and share some Torah thoughts on the deeper meanings of Chanukah and the miracle of the oil. Then, we’ll sit down with our steaming plates of latkes and sufganiyot and watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Old habits die hard.
Dede Jacobs-Komisar is a Baltimorean who now lives in Israel with her husband.
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‘Music In My Head’
Jewish storyteller Noa Baum never runs out of stories.
Noa Baum’s career as a storyteller began with a disappointment. This was many years ago, when Ms. Baum, a Jerusalem native, was working as an actress in an Israeli theater. The theater was putting on a new play and she was not cast in it. Instead, she was relegated to the story hour for children, an entertainment for which the theater sold tickets.
“For an actress, it was humiliating,” said Ms. Baum. “But I discovered a new world.”
Ms. Baum has since immigrated to the United States, where she lives in Silver Spring, Md., with her husband, Stuart, a plant biologist, and their two teenage children. The family belongs to the Fabrengen Cheder Community.
When Ms. Baum began her stint in story hour, she had no formal training in, or preconceived notions about, what it should be. So she did what came naturally to her. Instead of sitting in a chair and reading from a book, as others had, she acted out the characters.
Within a short time, story hour was selling out, said Ms. Baum, an attractive woman with dark curly hair and a vibrant manner who speaks with a hint of an Israeli accent.
Despite its popularity, though, Ms. Baum wasn’t earning enough to pay the bills. To supplement her income, she took a job as a storyteller in a community center in a deprived neighborhood of Tel Aviv. Once again, her talent turned the program into a hit with the children.
“Their counselors said, ‘We’ve never seen them sit for so long and behave so well,’” Ms. Baum remembered. “There was obviously something powerful happening. I wanted to learn more.”
So in the mid-1980s, Ms. Baum landed in New York City, where she got a master’s degree in educational theater, then a brand-new field, from New York University. Upon her return to Israel, she got a job with the Ministry of Education working with special education students and teachers.
The idea was to integrate creative dramatics and storytelling into the curriculum. “They tried it out the first year with one class. The second year, they extended it to all the classes,” said Ms. Baum.
Around this time, Ms. Baum met her future husband, an American getting a master’s degree at Tel Aviv University. “He had been given a list of blind dates to call,” said Ms. Baum, who, after they married, returned to the U.S. for his doctoral degree and then, in 2001, to Washington, D.C., for his job.
Ms. Baum also continued her storytelling career. She discovered the National Storytelling Network. She began attending festivals and workshops. In Israel, her storytelling had been only for children. In the U.S., it expanded to adults.
“It was a new world,” she said. “All the music in my head — the stories, jokes, my Jewish heritage — was rediscovered.”
Now, Ms. Baum performs all over the country for Jewish and non-”Jewish audiences. She offers storytelling as well as workshops for lay and professional audiences. She has stories for kids, for teenagers, for adults and/or for adults and teens. “I try to be flexible,” she said.
Ms. Baum may find herself performing in a local Jewish community center or Jewish day school, or at an event of a national organization. Clients have ranged from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York to the Smithsonian Institution in D.C. A few years ago, based on her friendship with a Palestinian woman, Ms. Baum created a one-woman show on the theme of peace. It has turned out to be quite popular and she has performed it at a U.S. Department of Defense function, among other places.
Sometimes, clients ask for stories on a specific topic. Other times, they choose from a list she provides, ranging from a review of Chasidic tales to folklore about women.
Said Ms. Baum: “I can do Jewish stories only or multi-cultural stories from many traditions. But I like to tell at least one Jewish story” in each performance.
Her fee varies with the client. “A national conference of a pharmaceutical company is not the same as a congregation or Jewish day school,” said Ms. Baum, whose performance may last an hour or more, sometimes followed by a question-and-answer session.
Ms. Baum describes her storytelling style as animated and dramatic, a reflection of her theater training. Some of her stories come from her own experiences. Others are adaptations of folk tales or a story she has read or heard. Some stories take her a couple of weeks to figure out how she wants to present them. Others take years.
Ms. Baum said her goal is to make each performance exciting. She encourages audience members to “co-create,” to use their imaginations as she tells the story.
For information about the National Storytelling Network, visit storynet.org
Rating The Jelly Doughnuts
In search of yummy
Round and plump, big and fat, covered in a dusting of powdered sugar and filled with a sweet red jelly. Nothing says Chanukah like jelly doughnuts or, as they’re called in Israel, sufganiyot.
The goal was simple: Find the best tasting. It was a tough job but, as the saying goes, someone’s got to do it. Recently, 10 staffers at the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES did just that. Gave it their all. Strictly for the sake of journalism, you understand, they plowed their way through a mountain of doughnuts.
There were certain rules. The doughnuts came from local kosher bakeries. They were all fresh, picked up that day. The tasting was “blind,” meaning that no one knew which doughnuts came from what store.
As it turned out, though, each doughnut had its adherents. For some of the doughnuts, the scores were remarkably consistent among the tasters. For others, scores varied widely from a 1 to a 5 on the different factors.
Much depended on personal taste. Things like more or less sugar and the sweetness/consistency of the jelly influenced the scores.
The bakeries were Dunkin Donuts in Pikesville, Goldman’s Kosher Bakery, Schmell & Azman Bakery and Sion’s Bakery. Prices ranged from $7.29 to $11.40 a dozen.
Here’s the test and the total scores of the 10 tasters:
The doughnut tasting was arranged and overseen by Ilene Spector, a local freelance writer who writes Food Talk and cooking columns for the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES, and Beverly Sunshine, a renowned Pikesville cook who makes her own jelly doughnuts.
Doughnut Taste Test*
|Schmell & Azman||40||38||36||43||157|
*Rate the doughnuts on a scale of 0 to 5, with 0 being not applicable and 5 being excellent
Appearance: Do they look nice?
Taste: Greasy, flaky?
Texture: Moist, fluffy or dry? Enough filling?
Size: Small, large, thickness
Schmell & Azman Bakery
“Similar to doughnuts in Israel. A little crispy and flaky.”
“Nice jelly flavor, not too sweet.”
“Dough is soft and tasty but not too sweet.”
“Jelly is dark, plentiful and very tasty.”
Goldman’s Kosher Bakery
“Light and tasty.”
“Jelly very red in color and a lot of it.”
“Light taste. Good and round.”
“Jelly is delicious, best of the rest.”
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Best Of …
Every season has a list. Here’s ours for Chanukah.
- Best Chanukah Song (Adults) Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song”
- Best Chanukah Song (Kids) Make up your own words to the traditional “I Had A Little Dreidel”; go to the Web site ot006.urj.net/dreidl.htm
- Best Chanukah Party Album (All ages) Erran Baron Cohen’s “Songs in the Key of Hanukkah”
- Best Chanukah Book (Adults) “Friendly Fire” by A. B. Yehoshua
- Best Chanukah Book (Kids) “The Runaway Latkes” by Leslie Kimmelman
- Best Chanukah Movie “Rugrats Chanukah”
- Best (Tasty) Chanukah Menorah Spun-sugar Munchy Crunchy Menorah kit from Nosh Art
- Best Chanukah Alcoholic Beverage Jewelahton Twelve beer from Schmaltz Brewing Co.
- Best Chanukah Gift Anything from the list of “acceptable” gifts
- Best Chanukah Road Trip To Hoboken, N. J., to see Yo La Tengo perform “8 Nights of Hanukkah,” performed every night of the holiday at Maxwell’s
- Best Local Chanukah Tradition Community-wide Chanukah Celebration and Menorah Lighting, this year relocated from the “Chanukah House” to Temple Oheb Shalom, 7310 Park Heights Ave., on Monday, Dec. 22 from 7 to 9 p.m.
— Compiled by the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES staff.