A New Year in the New World

dc treesThis New Year finds me in Washington, DC – a verdant city shaded by massive trees, with a great river, abundant rain and lush natural growth. To get here, I traveled from Israel, through Europe, passing from the Ancient to the Old to the New World.

Compared to the Ancient and Old Worlds, the magnitude of the natural resources I have observed on a simple drive from New York to Washington inspired rapture akin to that experienced by the 18th century American landscape painters whose works are hung in this city’s excellent museums.  After years in Israel honing my selective vision, I am able to see beyond the refineries and polluted waters, to marvel at grand stretches of marsh, forest, farmland and broad waterways. Looking back to the Galilee, the trickle of the Jordan River, the circumscribed rectangles of cultivated fields, and even the stoutest, most venerable olive trees are all dwarfed in comparison.

Celebrating the holiday in this context, with the chill of autumn already in the air, causes me to re-examine the rationale for starting the New Year in the autumn.  In the Ancient World, and specifically the Galilee, the first rains of the season appear at just this time of year. The profound significance of those first drops of precipitation, called the “yoreh” in Biblical Hebrew, cannot be over-emphasized.   Not only do they represent relief after the long, dry and oppressively hot summer, but much more importantly, they are the celestial birth announcement of a new agricultural year.  A softening of the sun-baked earth that opens a new cycle of sowing, cultivating and, if all goes well, a decent harvest.

I try and imagine the optimism, trepidation and wonder of the early farmers and herders at the start of a new agricultural year, praying fervently for the blessing of rain in its time that would ensure their livelihood and survival for another year. And here in the New World, from this place of extraordinary privilege, where existence is relatively secure and water is available at a turn of the faucet, my wish for the coming year is that the bountiful rains will soften our hearts in compassion and charity towards a world roiling in suffering.

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Americans for Peace Now published a wonderful review of my book “Breaking Bread in Galilee”, along with a short recorded interview.  Click here to read and listen!

 

Sweet as Carob Syrup

carob cooking 1For years I’ve wanted to observe how carob syrup is made.  Like many of the highly labor-intensive, traditional Palestinian foodways, carob syrup production is barely practiced anymore.  But several weeks ago, on a visit to Abu Malek in Kufar Manda, I saw an enormous pile of carob pods on the front porch.  Fall is carob season and the leathery brown pods generally accumulate under the trees; even though they are delicious to chew, few people find any use for them.  Less than a life-span ago however, in Arab villages of the Galilee, sugar was expensive and scarce and it was bread dipped in carob syrup that made life sweet.

Um Malek was busy with her field of okra and black eyed peas, Abu Malek explained, but someone had brought her the carob and she was planning on making syrup when she had some free time.  Please call me when she starts, I almost implored.  Over the years I have known this family, Um Malek has prepared carob syrup at least once, but I always heard about it after the fact, when I was gifted a small bottle of the precious, nutritious brown liquid. Um Malek uses carob syrup to make a kind of gelatin-like dessert – I love its dark earthy flavor for sweetening my oatmeal.

I was delighted to finally get the morning phone call from Abu Malek– “today Um Malek is cooking the carob – you are welcome to come over”.  When I arrived, at least half a dozen tubs were resting on the porch, full of coarsely ground carob which had been processed the previous day at a local mill.  In the yard, two large pots were cooking over open fires.  The first was filled with the ground carob covered with water. Periodically, she would scoop out the carob and discard it, then strain the brown liquid through a piece of cloth.  This distilled carob juice was transferred to the second pot, where it would slowly reduce for at least 12 hours.

to the fire

Making carob syrup, with whole carobs on the porch

straining

Straining the cooked, crushed carob

cooking pot

Cooking down on the fire

In spite of the heavy, late summer heat, Um Malek moved slowly and tranquilly between the rusty piles of carob and tending the fires.  She laughed off my offers to help, and was even more amused when I insisted on lifting the heavy pots.  Ever since she heard that my husband and I do the housework together, she is convinced I am hopelessly spoiled.

So many things separate our worlds – language, culture, narrative – but the friendship and trust between us rests on the things we share in common – a deep connection with the foods of this land and basic, human decency.

A few times during this awful summer, when the destruction, hatred and lost lives seemed too heavy to bear, Abu Malek and I would speak on the phone, reaching out of our pain to confirm and draw comfort from our friendship. The call to make carob syrup signaled that happier times are upon us.

The first rains will soon soften the stone-hearted earth in preparation for the miracle of rebirth.  As we settle into our seats for another round of the seasons, I wish that the coming year will be, for all of us, as sweet as carob syrup.

The Garden of New Year

How confusing to celebrate two New Years each year.  Can I pledge allegiance to one of them, or at least find some resonance beyond the occasion for a holiday meal or a midnight kiss?

Because I live in the Galilee, from whose agricultural landscape the practice of declaring a New Year at the end of summer originated, I search around me for hints of inherent rationale.

Intuitively, from an agricultural point of view, the New Year might more logically coincide with the new growth of spring. But this betrays a persistent world-view from my East-Coast upbringing, of snowy winters, April showers and May flowers.  In fact, it is in winter here in the Galilee when the excitement of new growth bursts forth – something I marvel at every year anew.

Then why late summer?  I found an answer just the other day, watching Ron fixing the soil for our hakura – the kitchen vegetable garden we keep next to our house.  He cleaned out the last shreds of dried green onion and chard, turned over the earth and spread compost.  We began to discuss what we would plant this year.

On the road, I saw a large tractor with clumps of earth still clinging to a giant rake-like plow, and passed roughly combed brown fields which now wait – like all of us – for the rains that will set a new agricultural cycle into motion.

The new year spreads out before us like the field and the garden – and what will emerge depends in large part on the intention, effort and nurturing we invest in it.  The rain, when it comes, is beyond our control – as are bugs, hail and heat waves.  But overall, at the threshold of this New Year, it serves to keep in mind the timeless truth – that we reap what we sow.

And as the clouds gather and a welcome chill promises relief in our summer-weary days, let me extend this New Year’s wish: that in the coming year, you envision, cultivate and harvest the finest yields your heart and imagination can dream of.

With love – Abbie Rosner

prepared field

Defying Closure

Looking out my window at the full-grown green olives weighing down the branches of our tree, I am reminded that the Jewish New Year does not begin neatly at the end of one traditional agricultural year and the beginning of another.  These olives, last of the summer fruit to ripen, will only be harvested in another month or two, after the extended series of holiday celebrations are behind us. 

Perhaps in the earliest days of Jewish ritual, the final fall harvest did coincide with the new year, and it is  global warming that has knocked us out of whack.  In ancient times, rabbis examined the ripeness of the grain crop to decide whether an extra month should be added to ensure that Passover was observed in the month of Aviv.  Now we stick to our calendars, while holidays and harvests diverge into separate spheres.

Still, the change of seasons that marks the New Year is unmistakable, in the splitting pomegranates, the waning figs and the clouds piling up on the horizon.  Just the olives, firm and green, defy any sense of closure.

This is the time to extend my wishes for a new year full of gracious endings and fresh beginnings, all across the seasons, each in their time, whenever that may be.

Pomegranates Waning

Pomegranates herald the new year – the Jewish new year that is – which means their bright red orbs suspended among the yellowing leaves on their bushes give us former East-coasters a feeling of autumn.  Now with Hannuka just around the corner, the late-ripening pomegranate varieties are still in the stores and its a last opportunity to buy a crate and get to work.  We bought two crates – one with large, A-grade fruit and the second with smaller, less impeccable models. The former we peeled and collected the seeds in zip-loc bags – into the freezer.  The latter were relegated to the orange juicer to make juice.  That, we froze in ice cube trays (they sell these plastic bags formed to makepomegranites3 ice cubes here that are very handy for this). 

Legend in these parts has it that there are 613 seeds in each pomegranate – exactly the number of “mitzvot” or commandments.  We tried to verify this but kept losing count.  We did, though, check the origin of the name pomegranate – my guess – that it means “apple from Granada” was half-wrong.  It actually means “apple with many seeds”. 

Our frozen pomegranate seeds will serve us in good stead when it comes to livening up salads or grain dishes like “friki” – which you’ll have to come to the Galilee if you want to try.  The frozen juice cubes, however, are plopped into a glass of water to make a refreshing cold drink after a long walk.  And even better – my houseguest Naomi and I made screwdrivers with fresh-squeezed clementine juice and two pomegranate cubes floating on top.  Lovely and delicious!