Archive for the ‘general’ Category

Easter Eggs, Passover Eggs … and Claudia Roden

April 2, 2010

Happy Easter! A time for many things, not least the eating of Easter Eggs.

But Easter Eggs aren’t the only eggs to be eaten at this time of year. Coinciding with Easter is the Jewish festival of Passover. Eggs are part of that too. Rather than celebrating the rebirth of Christ (a classic case of ironic, neurotic guilt – if we allegedly killed him in the first place), Passover celebrates the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. It lasts for eight days but the main event is a big dinner on the first night – which was on Monday – Seder Night. That’s when the eggs are eaten.

Seder Night is essentially a really big meal, with a long preamble, during which everybody joins in to tell the story of the Exodus. There are a great many symbolic moments during this preamble – the spilling of ten drops of wine as the ten plagues God brought upon the Egyptians are recounted; the repeated chorus of ‘Dayenu’ (‘it would have been enough’) as God’s actions when he got us out of Egypt are listed; and, of course, the food. There are matzos, a bit like crackers, eaten because no leavened bread is to be eaten over Passover – the Israelites fleeing from Egypt had to leave in such a hurry that there was no time for the bread to rise. But there are other symbolic foods too … including eggs. Passover eggs, however, rather than being delicious and chocolatey, usually accompanied by a chocolate bar or two, are just normal chicken eggs, served in salt water.

Eggs are one of those things that are symbolic pretty much everywhere. In fact I can’t think of anything more symbolic. Much more so than Geoff Dyer’s take on hats. Eggs mean birth, new life, and they’re perfect for Spring, when everything comes into bud, and baby animals are born etc. etc. My understanding of the Easter Egg symbolism – having done a spot of googling to check – is that they are an adaptation of the egg = new life symbol, and are meant to represent Christ’s resurrection, his new life.

At Seder Night, when eggs in salt water were duly distributed before we got to Granny’s chicken soup (perhaps answering the eternal ‘which came first?’ question), one of my cousins asked me why we always eat eggs in salt water at Passover. I told her what I thought was the correct answer – the eggs symbolise the birth of the nation of Israel and new hope, and the salt water represents the tears shed when we were suffering as slaves in Egypt.

I had a different question. Having almost given up on getting the chicken soup recipe out of my Granny (after years of trying) I asked her how to make haroset. Haroset is a yummy sweet fruity, nutty paste, which is another of the symbolic foods eaten on Passover. I always thought the reason behind it was something to do with balancing out the maror, the bitter herbs (usually horseradish for us), which are eaten to symbolise the bitterness of being slaves. A kind of – oh it was so awful and bitter and terrible (maror) but then God saved us so it became full of sweetness and hope (haroset). I suppose it’s a bit like my interpretation of eggs and salt water.

Nobody really knew how to make the haroset – buy it from Panzers (a Jewish deli) was Granny’s advice. Undeterred, when I got home that evening I looked it up in one of my favourite books, Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food.

This book is completely wonderful. Not only does it tell you how to make absolutely any Jewish food you can imagine – including all the yummy Sephardic Middle-Eastern stuff – it is also a beautifully-written social history of Jewish food, full of interesting titbits. Who’d have thought, for instance, that Polish Jews had a taste for sweet foods, adding sugar to their pickled herring, whereas Lithuanian ones were particularly keen on peppery and sour foods, such as fermented pickled cabbage (yuk)? And there are some food-related jokes scattered through the pages, which always make me want to say ‘oy’. Here’s one:

A man orders a five-course meal at Soli’s. He stuffs himself, and everyone wonders how much else he can eat. When the bill comes, he says he has no money at all and can’t pay. Soli is furious: he wants to call the police. Then he says, ‘I will let you go if you do one thing – if you go tomorrow and do the same thing across the road at Sam’s Deli.’ The man replies, ‘I already ate there yesterday and they told me to come here today.

So, when I picked up this enormous wonderful book the other night, aware of the feast of brilliance laid out in the pages, it would have been a sin to go straight to the index to look up the recipe for haroset. Instead, I leafed through the book, glancing at page after page, until I happened to reach the section on Jewish festivals and found the entry for Passover. Here, clear, concise and elegant, was an explanation of the symbolism of all the Passover foods. And I was shocked to find that I’d been wrong about the egg in salt water.

According to Claudia Roden, the egg should be roasted, not hard-boiled. The roasted egg symbolises the sacrificial offering to God of a roasted animal, which apparently used to happen at festivals in biblical Jerusalem. The salt water isn’t supposed to accompany the egg, it’s supposed to go with the green vegetable (karpas). Although, at least I was right about the salt water symbolising the tears of the slaves.

All sorts of questions are thrown up by this discovery. Not least, how do you roast an egg?! (Boil it first, apparently.) But then, I suppose it’s not that surprising that I always assumed the egg was a symbol of new life rather than of an animal sacrifice. It seems to mean new life everywhere else. And eggs at our Seder Nights have never been roasted, and I doubt anyone would have hard-boiled an animal sacrifice …

But now I find myself in a quandary. What happens next year? Should we roast the eggs, following the gospel of Claudia Roden? Or should we stick to our own tradition of hard-boiling them and serving them in salt water? And what about the green vegetable? We normally pass around a few lettuce leaves extracted from an M&S bag of salad, but next year should they be dipped in salt water?

Judaism is a religion that’s full of traditions. That’s what I love about it. I love the apples and honey at Rosh Hashanah (‘may your New Year be full of sweetness’), and I love Seder Night with all its fuss and symbolism, and I love the memories I have of all these festivals. Every Seder Night I remember my brother teaching me the Manish Tanah – the four questions that the youngest person present has to recite; I remember all of us running around the dining room year after year, excitedly hunting for the afikoman – a piece of matzos hidden by a grown-up earlier on; and I remember being a teenager and giggling hysterically with my cousins when we had to read out the bits about being in Egypt ‘in bondage’ or God using a ‘rod’. Gosh we were told off so many times.

And, part of that tradition, is being offered a hard-boiled egg in salt water just before Granny’s chicken soup is dished out. Every year some hands eagerly shoot up, while others politely decline, and then there is the inevitable discussion about whether egg in salt water is delicious or disgusting. It would be awful to lose this, just because the eggs are actually supposed to be roasted.

Perhaps it was like this when Easter Eggs started being yummy chocolate feasts rather than painted chicken eggs. Perhaps some people still think, ‘oh if only we still painted eggs rather than gorging on all this chocolate.’ But it seems unlikely; chocolate eggs are too delicious to regret the change in tradition. Sadly, I imagine that roasted eggs and hard-boiled eggs taste pretty similar.

I don’t know what to do about the egg situation. But I did, in the end, remember to look up how to make haroset. Again, I was surprised to find a new symbolism for it. The sweet paste isn’t just something to balance out the bitter herbs, maror, it is in fact supposed to symbolise the mortar that the Israelites made with Nile silt when building the Pyramids for the Pharaohs.

The really awful thing is – please all my Jewish friends don’t hate me for my ignorance – I didn’t even realise that the Israelites made the Pyramids. I always thought of the Pyramids as something that the Egyptians built. I hadn’t twigged that the Jews-as-slaves-in-Egypt period overlapped with the Pyramid-building period.

Perhaps I would have learnt all of this, and hence the egg dilemma would never have arisen, if I hadn’t been thrown out of Jewish Sunday school at a young age for repeatedly eating bacon-flavoured crisps. But, on a positive note, at least haroset looks pretty simple to make. All you need to do is grate apples, and mix them with chopped walnuts, cinnamon, sweet red wine and a little bit of sugar or honey to taste. No eggs at all.

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The Great Outdoors

February 22, 2010

‘Do you like the great outdoors, you know, being out in the countryside?’ a young man from Norfolk asked me at a party the other day. We’d been talking to an American chap, who’d said he was longing to go to Alaska, to be out in the wild. The Norfolkian and I admitted that all we really knew about Alaska was that it was big, cold and had bears, and that Werner Herzog made a film about that guy who was eaten by one. The American looked puzzled. I don’t think he’d seen the film. And that’s when the Norfolkian, evidently realising that we needed to get the conversation beyond Alaska, turned to me and asked the question.

It’s a difficult question to answer. The countryside seems to be a bit like that cliché about Communism: wonderful in theory, but not in practice. I like the idea of nature, I love reading about it, but the real thing is often a bit of a letdown. I suppose, for me, the ‘great’ outdoors is in the city, not the countryside.

As Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway says, ‘I love walking in London … Really, it’s better than walking in the country.’ I’m afraid I can’t help but agree, especially the way Mrs Dalloway walks. As I mentioned in a previous post, her walking allows her mind to wander, dart from thought to thought, endlessly inspired by her catching sight of something new. London is paradise for the distracted mind, filled with a million different things to catch a roving eye, countless connections to be formed, infinite paths along which thoughts can meander.

Will Self writes about these London associations in a piece called ‘Big Dome’, which I read in an old issue of Granta (you can buy it here). For Self, however, this is an affliction rather than something to be celebrated. He calls it ‘claustro-agoraphobia’:

The city is filled in with narratives, which have been extruded like psychic mastic into its fissures. There is no road I haven’t fought on, no cul-de-sac I haven’t ended it all in, no alley I haven’t done it down. To traverse central London today, even in a car, even on autopilot, is still to run over a hundred memoirs.

Spending one’s life in London, one can’t help but form ‘narratives’ associated with various streets. But that’s what I love about it. How magnificent to pass through Soho and remember, as I stroll down Frith Street, an awful date I went on in Arbutus, hilarious drunken school nights spent at Cheapskates, an old friend’s birthday party at the Arabic Restaurant on the corner, an argument I once had about which street the Palace Theatre (now showing Priscilla Queen of the Desert, then showing Les Mis) is on – we strode across London together, all the way to the theatre, both determined to prove our point. All of those stories remembered from, more or less, just one street.

Perhaps Soho is cheating. It’s bang in Central London, of course there are hundreds of memories associated with it. But, for anyone who’s been in London for more than a year or so, pretty much every single part of London has a few thoughts associated with it. Even if one’s never been there, it’s on the tube map, a friend lives nearby or it’s come up in conversation.

Take Morden, for example, right at the bottom of the Northern line. If I were to go there – and, I hasten to add, I haven’t yet – I would think, as I emerge from the tube, of my friend who used to be writing a novel about the Northern Line, in which he described Morden as other-worldly, doubting its real existence. I’d remember a silly pretend argument I had with someone about the Northern Line, mostly inspired by my friend’s book-in-progress, in which I’d said that Morden obviously didn’t really exist as it was too far away, and I was told that yes that it really did exist, in fact he took his driving test there. The name would make me think of Lord of the Rings – is it the inspiration behind ‘Mordor’? Tenuous links, perhaps, but links nonetheless – paths that my thoughts can tread along, as I tread along, as yet unseen, streets. I doubt there is a single pocket of London with which I have absolutely no associations whatsoever. It’s the nature of the sprawling, maze-like city.

This doesn’t happen in the countryside. I can’t stroll through the woods and think, ah that was the oak tree where so and so said blah blah blah, and there’s the bush where whatshisname went and had a pee behind, and by that birch over there is where I tied my shoelace that time I went for a walk with thingummy. There is, I suppose, a giddy freedom in this untarnished mindscape. Thoughts can soar, free from association, solve problems, reach inspired conclusions, form lines of poetry.

Fine for Wordsworth and Coleridge, but actually I need city distractions for my brain to function at its best. While my mind meanders through memories, treading already well-trodden routes, another part of it freely darts off and somehow finds the solution to whatever problem has been bothering me enough to make me feel restless and want to go for a walk in the first place. I find that surface distraction tends to enable more important processes to occur subconsciously.

But then, in theory, I love the countryside. I love those books by Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane, rhapsodising about nature, writing so poetically about wild places and trees. Wildwood is one of my favourite books of all time, ever. I remember most fondly Deakin’s writing about walnut forests in Kyrgyzstan, filled with families decamped to harvest the walnuts, proudly presenting him with their prize specimens, everyone gorging on nuts, blackening their hands like charcoal.

The Running Sky by Tim Dee is another stunning book of nature writing. I recently read this beautiful account of a birdwatching life, mingled with poetry (Dee also co-edited The Poetry of Birds with Simon Armitage), and adored it, even though I had never been birdwatching myself. As chance would have it, I found myself in Suffolk’s Snape Maltings a couple of weeks later only to see a sign for a guided birdwatching walk that morning. Perfect, I thought, here’s a chance to experience something I know I’ll love.

We assembled at ten o’clock, a middle-aged couple plus dog, my mother and I, and, of course, our guide – a man from the RSPB. It was cold. We stood in the car park for a while, being told what we might see. Redbacks, gulls and some interesting water features, apparently. We then embarked on our walk, or shuffle, along a field. I was very excited, mostly because the RSPB man had lent me a pair of binoculars (the middle-aged couple had their own). The excitement wore off over the next forty minutes, as we shuffled along, painfully slowly, or stood still, painfully cold, peering through binoculars at a bunch of winged things in the distance, being told ‘those are redbacks, and those are gulls’. I’d rather read some of Tim Dee’s book any day.

It could have just been bad luck. Over Christmas, I was in Devon and came across a flock of starlings while wandering along the estuary by Budleigh Salterton. They were forming the most astonishing shapes in the air and I stood their transfixed. I didn’t feel the cold, or even a flicker of boredom, then. The starlings’ flight is an astonishingly beautiful, wonderful (literally) thing of nature. And, of course, there are others. Several. And, when written about with deft skill, these natural wonders can be utterly breathtaking. But I’m more impressed by instances of human endeavour.

I went to Dungeness, for instance, to see Derek Jarman’s garden. I’d just seen the Derek Jarman exhibition at the Serpentine and had been moved by his film Blue. I wanted to find out more about him and so made the pilgrimage down to this peculiar knobble of Kent. Dungeness is a strange and magnificent place, where bungalows squat on a shingle beach in the shadow of a nuclear power station. Derek Jarman’s garden, an eerie assembly of rocks, driftwood, found pieces of twisted metal, and local tough sea-resistant plants is incredible.

As it so happened, my visit to Dungeness coincided with a troupe of keen birdwatchers – around twenty of them, who were excitedly running after a particular bird, which hadn’t been spotted in Kent for several years. The thrill of the chase was palpable as they birdily hopped along the shingle, stalking the, apparently unconcerned, bird. They didn’t look at the fishermen’s cottages and bungalows, the nuclear power station, the lighthouse soaring stripily up into the sky, or the garden. They had eyes only for the bird. I had driven all the way down from London to see the garden, to visit the place which I’d heard to be so bleak and yet so valiant. I didn’t think twice about it. But I know I’d never travel for miles, as they had done, to see a bird.

And so walking in the city, where one is accosted with buildings, bridges, streets, squares, lights, statues … millions of things that have aesthetic value, is gorging at a feast of manmade wonder. Walking through the City (the financial bit) at the weekend, is astonishing. With the streets emptied of bankers, one can gaze freely upwards at the playful Lloyds building, the grand heavy décor of Leadenhall Market, feel the ever-present assertion of the Gherkin. I know I’d much rather walk there than through a peaceful, bucolic meadow.

I’m not sure I like the fact that I’d rather be outdoors in the manmade world than in nature. I definitely don’t like the fact that I prefer nature writing to nature itself. Perhaps I need to experience it via someone else’s associations, as I haven’t spent enough time in it to form my own. Or perhaps, unlike William Blake, I simply lack the imagination ‘to see a world in a grain of sand, / and a heaven in a wild flower’. But, for now, I’m more than content to wander amidst London’s ever fascinating, ever complicated maze, thrilled to let it grow ever thicker with association.

Anachronistic paranoia?

January 27, 2010

So I didn’t give you the full story, when I said I went to a friend’s for dinner in South London on Saturday night. We didn’t just have dinner. We also played a game called ‘Germans in the Dark’.

Germans in the Dark is a game that I used to play when I was a child, whenever our family went and stayed with my grandparents, who lived in the countryside and had a very big garden. My brothers, cousins, occasionally a grudging parent, and I would excitedly charge up Grandpa’s practically antiquarian torch, longing for it to be dark enough outside to play. The game is essentially a version of 40 40. Everyone runs off and hides, while one remaining person – the German – counts to a hundred before coming to look for them, with aforementioned torch. Everyone who is hiding has to try to get back to the home base – which was a large metal gate – without being caught by the German. If the German sees you, there then ensues a race back to the base; if you touch it first then you’re safe, if the German does then you’re caught. But, even if you are caught, there’s still the hope that someone else will reach the base safely, and in so doing, automatically free you.

I grew up thinking this was a game that everyone played. Like 40 40, or It, or Stuck in the Mud. It was only very recently, when I suggested to some friends that we should play – we’d got bored of Sardines – that I realised it was unique to my family.

On Saturday night, after dinner, I explained the rules. It wasn’t quite as seamless an explanation as the one above, because there were several interjections. In fact it went a bit like this:

Me: Everyone goes and hides and then the person left behind – the German – comes looking.

Others: What? That’s mad. So we’re all the Jews, hiding from the Nazis?

Me: Well, yes, I suppose so. But, well, you could be black, or gay, or just English, or anyone else who Hitler didn’t like.

Others: So what happens when the Nazis find you? Do you get sent to a concentration camp?

Me: No. Then you race back to the home base – that can be the sofa – and you’ve got to try to get there first or —-

Others: The home base? So is that Israel?

Others again: No Israel wasn’t around then. It should be Switzerland.

Others: Ok, I see. So we all have to hide in the attic and then try to get to Switzerland.

You get the picture. Essentially, it became clear to me that I’d spent years of my life playing a game that was a sort of make-believe-fleeing-the-holocaust drama. Of course, when I was a child, I didn’t really process all of that. It was just an exciting game. In the dark. With a really big torch.

Rules eventually explained, the game, on Saturday, began. I raced upstairs and hid in a wardrobe, making myself as small as I could and covering myself with clothes. There was a lovely smell of washing powder. To start with, it reminded me of that bit in Midnight’s Children, where Salaam is hiding in his mother’s laundry basket. Then I heard my friend coming up the stairs hunting for everyone. He was shouting out, ‘I’m coming to get you! Where are you hiding? Where are you all, my little Jews?’ And he put on a German accent.

I heard him enter the room where I was hiding. And then a rather unexpected thing happened: I felt scared. I could hear him pacing around the room, calling things out, looking under the bed, opening the doors of the other wardrobe. Any second now, I thought, he’ll open this one, and then he’ll have found me. I could feel my heart drum inside me – almost down to my feet.

The door opened and I held my breath. A hand came in and ferreted around. It touched a shirt that was covering me, pressed down on it through to my arm hiding behind. You’ve got me, I almost said, almost bursting out of there to try and win the unwinnable race down to the sofa – Switzerland. But I didn’t. Something in me wouldn’t move at all. And then the hand withdrew, the wardrobe door banged close, and he was moving away, running out of the room towards footsteps we could both hear on the floor above.

I inhaled. I couldn’t believe that somehow he’d missed me. I almost thought he might just not have said anything so that he could have a head start in the race to the sofa. Once I was sure I could hear him moving around upstairs, I crept out of the wardrobe, down the stairs and into the living room, where I sank, relieved, into the sofa.

It was just a game. How utterly ridiculous that I was scared! But, now I try to understand that fear, I think the game tapped into a much bigger problem that I have …

The thing is, I am scared of the Holocaust. Still. Despite the fact that it happened over sixty years ago. This is because I am absolutely certain that I wouldn’t have survived.

I am bad at hiding. I have bad luck – it would be typical for me to sneeze when the Nazis were standing under my attic. When I would, inevitably, have been sent to a concentration camp, I would not have lasted more than about a day. A week at most. This is because I am always getting sore throats, I am very weak (my arms are practically concave where the muscles should be), I am hungry all the time, and I need lots of sleep. I am also not very good at being told what to do. And I can be a bit tactless. None of these would have got me out of there alive. And my great-grandfather was worked to the bone, made to dig his own grave, and then was shot. So there is a precedent, in my family, for not making it.

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, the sixty-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is a day to remember the atrocities which happened, listen to the survivors’ stories, learn from their testimonies. The Guardian has a good article pointing out why this is so important.

One of the most charming (I know that seems inappropriate) stories I’ve heard was retold by Linda Grant, the brilliant writer, at a talk she gave back in October. She related the story of an old Jewish lady she met when researching her latest book The Thoughtful Dresser. I apologise for any inaccuracy, but as far as I remember, the story went like this:

The lady was, and always had been, incredibly fashionable. When she was sent to a concentration camp, she couldn’t bear the sexless striped outfits and compulsory shaving of heads. Determined to do something, she cut a strip off the bottom of her uniform and tied it in a bow around her head. When the guards came to inspect them, one of them said to her something along the lines of, ‘Was ist das?’ And she sweetly, naively, replied, ‘I wanted to look pretty for the inspection.’ Her cheek charmed the guard enough to send her off to help in the kitchens. And so, because of the bow, she survived.

Now that wouldn’t have happened to me. I’m not very good at tying bows. And I would have got the humourless guard who would have spat on me, or far worse.

Every now and then, I think about what would happen if … and I feel utterly panicked. Playing Germans in the Dark just brought on one of those moments. I wasn’t caught that time, but in real life I wouldn’t have been so lucky.

I have termed this worrying ‘anachronistic paranoia’. It is so completely out of place, out of time, to be scared of the Holocaust, sixty-five years after Auschwitz was liberated. There are other instances of anachronistic paranoia too. I remember learning about the First World War at school and being genuinely terrified that my brothers would be called up to fight and would then be killed. And it’s not just me: a friend told me she used be scared of German bombers flying over London.

So why is it that there is this fear about things which happened decades ago? I think we’re scared they might happen again.

Wars still go on. 251 British troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001. This war may be on a completely different scale to the First World War, but young men are still going to fight and are being killed. And Holocausts still happen. Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia … all instances of genocide on horrific scales.

I’d like to think that the fact I’m Jewish would never be counted against me, certainly would never be a cause for me to be rounded up and murdered, but anti-semitism, upsettingly, still abounds.

I rarely come across blatant prejudice against Jews – probably because most people know I’m Jewish. Just like most people who are slightly homophobic wouldn’t admit to it to their ‘gay best friend’. It is usually more subtle than that. A wry comment here, a joke in slightly bad taste, a glib criticism of ‘all those Jewish people who are destroying Palestine’.

I was appalled the other day when a perfectly respectable-looking gentleman came into the bookshop, bought two or three reasonably weighty hardbacks, engaged in friendly chit-chat, before picking up a book called Is it Good for the Jews?, laughing and then saying, ‘God how ridiculous. The thing that Jews should really ask themselves, is “why is it always us?” There is a reason, you know.’ It took me a while to process it. I couldn’t believe that a well-educated stranger would make an anti-semitic remark to another stranger while buying a book. I said nothing. My colleague, who was putting all his books in a bag, passed them over and agreed with him. I expect it was just out of politeness. He left before I’d had time to think of a suitable comeback.

I’m not sure why I was so taken aback by that exchange. On reflection, that particular situation seems to be pretty typical of the anti-semitism that I come across. It’s a kind of unstated assumption that a huge number of people have, ‘Oh yes, those Jews. Rich, moneyed, clearly up to no good, but we’re not really supposed to talk about it.’ Instead of overtly stating their prejudice, they veil it in comments like this, said to me when looking at Freefall – the new book by Nobel-prize-winning liberal economist Joseph Stiglitz: ‘Ah Stiglitz. He has the sort of name where you just know he’s going to be stinking rich. A bit like Goldman.’

The worst thing is that I don’t often have the nerve to respond. In that instance, I wish I’d said something like, ‘Aha, yes, of course! Such Jewish names! Well, as we’re all in a conspiracy to take over the world, it’s not surprising they’re minted.’ Instead, I get overcome with a cripplingly English – and not at all Jewish – embarrassment and awkwardness. I go silent, and red, and think, ‘Oh I wish they hadn’t just said that. I’ll sort of pretend not to have heard.’

And it’s that terribly British, terribly polite, embarrassment, the quiet getting on with the conversation and not stamping the prejudice out of people’s minds, that means that anti-semitism, albeit far watered-down from the Nazi version, is still rife in Britain today.

And, with anti-semitism still a presence, how can I help but feel a bit scared when hiding in a cupboard, hearing somebody traipse upstairs shouting German, pretending to look for Jews? How can I not help but worry, if it were to happen again – because it doesn’t feel completely impossible – that I wouldn’t survive? Perhaps what should be just anachronistic paranoia, isn’t that anachronistic or paranoid at all.