People who live in Texas have a saying about the capriciousness of the weather there: “If you don’t like the weather in Texas, just wait a minute.” These people have never been to Jerusalem. This week I was astounded to see that in the space of less than a week, we literally went from snow to absolutely gorgeous, mid-70s, open-all-the-windows-and-put-on-your-capri-pants weather. So I guess the saying around here should be: “If you don’t like the weather in Jerusalem, just wait a second.” I only hope it lasts!
Earlier this week, Rodolfo and I went to Bethlehem for an afternoon. It’s actually very close to where we live, and so we tried taking an Arab bus that you can catch in East Jerusalem, which was surprisingly easy. It’s one of my favorite places in the area. In Bethlehem, it’s always Christmas! It’s already March, but we saw Polish pilgrims in the grotto singing “Silent Night” and Americans having Mass in the Catholic side singing “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
The church in Bethlehem is also the oldest continuously operating church in the world, parts of which date back to 327 AD. Here we are standing in the front doorway, known as the Door of Humility, because you have to stoop to enter through it. This part of the door dates to the Ottoman era, and is nestled inside a former gothic-arch shaped door from the Crusader era, which is in turn nestled inside a much larger Byzantine-era doorway. The doors were made progressively smaller to prevent mounted horsemen from entering and to make it harder to loot the church. (A more complete view of the concentric doors can be seen in this photo on Wikipedia.)
Also this week in Jerusalem, we celebrated a Jewish festival known as Purim, which celebrates the story of Esther from the Bible. The king of Persia, Ahasuerus, took the most beautiful woman in the land, Esther, to be his wife, not knowing that she was a Jew. Then the king’s advisor, Haman, hatched a plot to kill the Jews, because they refused to bow to him. The Jews of Persia were saved from certain destruction when the queen bravely approached the king, confessed to her heritage and begged the case for her people. Outraged on her behalf, the king demanded the advisor be killed instead.
The Purim celebration begins with a reading of this story, and when the name of Haman is mentioned, everyone makes so much noise that the name can’t be heard. They blow whistles, shake rattles and noisemakers, and stomp their feet. (Some even write Haman’s name on the bottoms of their shoes and stomp their feet until the name is gone!)
Jews celebrate this day by dressing in costume to honor of the fact that the way that God works is often hidden from our sight. Women wear crowns and tiaras in honor of the brave Queen Esther and children dress in costumes to rival American Halloween. It’s also a bit of a celebration to herald the start of spring; in the city center, there were street performers dressed as flowers and wood sprites, as well as people on stilts, puppet shows and face painting. We even got into the spirit with Venetian Carnival masks! If you want to have some Purim fun at home, try making a mask like in this project from Mark Montano.
There is a traditional song for Purim that sums the story up quite nicely. You can listen to the English version on Sing Up. Be sure to read the lyrics! It’s an anglicization of the Hebrew song, so some of the rhymes are a little silly, but it gives a very good picture of the Hebrew song and the story behind the holiday. The “Let’s hear the rattles: Rash, rash, rash!” is a reference to the reading of the story when everyone makes noise at the mention of Haman’s name. Learn more about Purim, including why it’s celebrated on different days in the U.S. and Jerusalem, at Wikipedia.
One of our Jewish friends in Jerusalem told us soon after arriving that nearly every Jewish holiday can be summed up with this sentiment: “Someone tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” No Jewish holiday is complete without an accompanying traditional food. Here we present the typical Purim food, a sweet triangular pastry filled with fruit, poppyseed or chocolate filling, known as Hamantashen, Haman’s pockets or Haman’s ears, named after the villain of the Purim story. To learn more about these delicious cookies, visit Wikipedia, or try making some yourself with these recipes from Martha Stewart.
This week I bought a copy of The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden from a used bookstore in Jerusalem. It looks like a great cookbook! There unfortunately isn’t much in the way of Israeli food in the book, because Roden also wrote a cookbook called The Book of Jewish Food that probably covers this base. But the book contains a variety of delicious looking recipes from Morocco, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Many of the spices and tastes are similar to the cuisine of Palestine and Israel, and we’re looking forward to trying them. We will attempt our first recipe from the book this week! But rest assured, the recipe we try will not be the one on page 107, for Mokh Makly… Fried Breaded Brains. (According to the book, lamb and cow brains are considered a great delicacy in the Middle East, and in some areas, eating brains is believed to make you smarter.) View the cookbook on Amazon.
In preparing for the recipe we’re going to make from the new cookbook this week, I went to the Shuk Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s open-air market, to buy some ground allspice, a strongly piquant savory spice somewhere between cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. When I arrived to the place where we usually buy spices, the English-speaking owner wasn’t there, but two of his younger relatives were. I asked the young man at the counter if they had allspice and I quickly regretted not looking up the word in Hebrew beforehand when I realized the young man spoke very limited English. Allspice, allspice, he muttered, then went and found a girl who works there who speaks a little more English. “Hebrew-hebrew-hebrew allspice?” he asked her. “Old Spice?” the girl repeated incredulously. “This is a food store,” she said to me. “You know that Old Spice is a deodorant, not a food?” she asked me. Yes, thank you, I know…
Finally someone in the shop rescued me from my misery by using a smartphone with a Hebrew-English dictionary to look up the meaning of allspice in Hebrew. Apparently the name in Hebrew is פלפל אנגלי, or pelpel angli, which literally means “English pepper.” I thought this was a little strange, since I knew the spice definitely didn’t come from England, but when I got home and started to talk to Rodolfo about the spice, I realized that in Spanish the spice is known as, literally, “Jamaican pepper.” Jamaican, English… yeah, that’s kind of the same. But they’re both wrong. Apparently the spice is native to southern Mexico and Central America. Learn more about allspice on Wikipedia.
Catholic news service Zenit had a very interesting interview this week with an American Jew who came to Israel at the age of 15, befriended a Russian Orthodox abbess, and ended up converting to the Catholic faith. What’s more… he is now a priest! He serves as the patriarchal vicar of Hebrew Catholics living in the Holy Land. Read the article on Zenit.
If there are any Simcha Fisher fans out there, you know that she is an American Hebrew Catholic. Learn more about that here. If you’ve never heard of Simcha Fisher, you should get to know her on her blog, I Have to Sit Down.
Have a wonderful week!