The Art of Gefilte Fish – A Personal Memoir…

What is Gefilte Fish?

This photo to the right is not gefilte fish!  Gefilte fish does not come in a jar! Not where I come from.  Only in America!  “Gefilte” means “stuffed”. “Gefüllter karpfen” in German, “carpe farcie” in French, stuffed carp in English.  “stuffed” means stuffed into the fish, not in a jar!

First, get the fish!

When I was young, living in Belgium, my grandmother, who had emigrated from Poland, was in charge of making the gefilte fish for the high holidays.  Many folks eat gefilte fish at the Passover Seder, but we ate it at Rosh Hashannah, preceding the chicken soup and the rest of the holiday meal.  First, my grandmother Bajla went to the fish store about two weeks before the holiday and ordered two good size live carps. Other, fancier fish could be used but my grandmother stuck with carp, the people’s choice!  The fish store was a small ordinary shop on Rue du Mouton Blanc in the Carré area of Liège, my home town.  Waiting to the last minute was too risky, ordering early meant that you would get the right size fish, about 4 lbs each, and getting live fish meant it would remain fresh to the last possible moment!

My grandmother would bring the fish home alive – how?, I don’t remember – and place it in a large round galvanized steel tub that was used years before to wash and starch clothes.  My grandmother kept the tub in the courtyard of our suburban row house.  Not much room for the carp but they did not seem to mind as far as I could tell.  Then the dreaded moment came!  My grandmother grabbed one of the beasts, wrapped it in a large kitchen towel, and banged its head on the table which rendered it unconscious, or worse…  Same for the second fish.  The poor cyprinus carpii were then promptly moved to the kitchen and gutted.

Time to cook!

Now it was time to cook.  The following recipe is borrowed from a couple of sources  together with personal recollections.

Heads are cut and scales removed.  The fish are gutted and cleaned from the neck down by holding the tail so as not to damage the skin and the tail. If necessary, make a very small incision under the belly without piercing the bile. The fish are then sliced into 2-cm or half-an-inch thick steaks. 

Meat is carefully removed between the skin and the bones from each slice using a small sharp knife.  Keep the central ridge connected to the skin, leave flesh against the bones if necessary. do not hesitate to leave some flesh.

The meat is set aside for the “stuffing” with about four lbs of extra fillets.  Mild white fish such as hake or cod can be used. Pike or whitefish were old country favorites.  

Let the slices marinate with coarse salt overnight in the refrigerator then wash the salt off.  In the morning, chop the fish set aside for the stuffing, along with eight browned onions.  Small fish bones are removed.

Eight eggs and half-a-pound of matzah meal or bread crumbs are mixed in, with salt, pepper and a little bit of oil.

Now comes the “gefilte’ing”

A large cut-up onion and two carrots are laid at the bottom of one or two large pots then filled with cold water half way to the top and brought to medium heat. 

Peppercorns and a bit of sugar are added, no salt.  Fish slices are gently filled with the stuffing mixture and cautiously lowered into the simmering bouillon. 

The back of the heads may be stuffed.  Bones and other fish parts are added to the broth to increase the amount of gelatin.  Lower the heat at the first boil and remove the foam.  Let cook for two and a half hours, adjusting seasoning after a while and at the end of the cooking period.

Let the bouillon cool down, and gently remove the portions onto one or more large dishes, and decorate with carrot slices.  Fill the eye cavities with carrots too.  Strain the broth and refrigerate all overnight.

A Unique Twist

My grandmother added her unique and amazing twist to this recipe:  Over the summer, she collected seeds, also known as stones, pits or kernels from peaches, plums and especially apricots.  These pits have amazing and complex aroma.  Stone fruit seeds contain amygdalin which is believed poisonous when eaten raw but looses its potency when cooked.  Grandma Bajla sliced or broke the dried seeds and added them to the broth while the fish was cooking.  Wow, I never heard or saw this done anywhere else.  Genius, grandma!

At the Family Table

Finally, the large platter is brought to the holiday table, covered with gorgeous slices of gefilte fish, each one a marvel of Old Country cookery and engineering, surrounded by sweet broth jelly and garnished with carrot slices. Red horseradish is not far.  The holiday meal has started but not a word is said or heard.  A reflective mood?  No! each of us is savoring the delicate and rich flavors and watching for sharp bones!   

Happy holidays! 

 

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Rabbinic Judaism: A Missed Opportunity?

This post is a companion to my post on twenty notable rabbis coming later today.  One of the conclusions of my research for the 20 rabbi post is that Rabbinic Judaism, with a few notable exceptions, missed an opportunity to make significant contributions to World theology and to mankind, and at the same time, isolated the Jewish people and failed to protect it from persistent persecutions from other nations.

In the beginning…

The genius of Judaism, or Hebraism (Note 1) I should say, is the idea of One God.  Maybe the original Hebrews borrowed the idea from another place or another tribe in Canaan or in the Euphrates region, but Abraham and his cohorts made it work.  Monotheism became and is now the leading and most successful World theology.  The Rabbinic system of Judaism took off after the second destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 BC and replaced the priestly system that was in place then. The early rabbis felt that they needed to rebuild the religious foundation of a people who had just lost its land, power and temple for the second time in 600 years.  One of their priorities was to write down and discuss Jewish laws (Halakha).

The good…

Positive

Rabbinic Judaism has some important and positive attributes: it values intellectual honesty and justice, it is (or was) largely a merit-based, democratic system (no central authority.) Rabbinic Judaism formed the basis of a Jewish education system long before other nations, providing opportunities for dissenting opinions, and generally advocating a positive, life-affirming approach.

The bad…

Here are some areas where, in my opinion, Rabbinic Judaism fell, and still falls, short:

  • NegativeWith a few exceptions, discourse in Rabbinic Judaism has been narrow, focusing as I said above on conduct and obedience (Halakha).  Rabbis have spent millions (perhaps billions!) of hours on minute and obscure details of little or no importance to the Jewish as a whole.  One could argue that Rabbinic practices contributed to the isolation of the Jewish people.
  • I mentioned intellectual honesty as a plus, but Rabbis often use(d) convoluted, illogical and obscure arguments such as numerology or “miracles” in order to  make a point.
  • The Rabbis created a closed system of Yeshivoth where deep religious knowledge was shared and discussed within the system and rarely outside of it.  Those who attended yeshivoth often came from wealthy families who could support the students (Note 2).  successful rabbis were often connected in the community and politically astute.  They competed for lucrative positions in wealthy Jewish communities.
  • The Rabbis’ focus on halakhic minutiae has, in turn, hindered or precluded them from addressing important religious issues that could benefit all nations in the areas of morality, equality, oppression of minorities, compassion, interfaith unions, personal choices, etc.
  • To complement this thought, it is my observation that the most impactful rabbis and sages are the ones who were able to bring into their closed loop environments non-Jewish sources of knowledge, and integrate this knowledge into their own work.  For instance, Sa’adia Gaon integrated components of Greek philosophy, Maimonides was heavily influenced by Aristotle, and David Hartman used modern philosophy which he integrated with his Talmudic knowledge (Note 3).

A modern creed…

Modern-Space-Living-Room-Window-DesignCaring for strangers is mentioned more times in the Torah than any other commandment.  Yet morality is a topic seldom addressed in Rabbinic Judaism, except in the context of the law.   Early Christianity, on the other hand, was able to address some of the social and moral issues of the time while leveraging Judaism’s overall framework (Note 4.)

The Rabbinic “us versus them” model likely contributed to Jewish isolation in the World and missed an opportunity to share the strength and true meaning of the original biblical message.  Today, Judaism needs a new framework in tune with our science and fact-oriented world, a framework that focuses more on values and morality than halakhic details.  Morality has the power of truth, said Maimonides.  Judaism needs to become an open and moral religion, a modern room with windows. “Judaism beyond the (kosher) kitchen” as David Hartman said (Note 3).

Notes:

(1) One idea, attributable in part to Rabbi Leon Askenazi is that Ever (the original Hebrew), grandson of Noah, is really the founder of Judaism.  I will post on this. later.

(2) Just an example:  “At age fifteen, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi married Sterna Segal, the daughter of Yehuda Leib Segal, a wealthy resident of Vitebsk, and he was then able to devote himself entirely to study.”    Rabbi Akiva married the daughter of the Ben Kalba Sabu’a, a wealthy citizen of Jerusalem, etc.

(2) It is no coincidence that I mention Rabbi David Hartman who created the Shalom Hartman Institute.  Rabbi Hartman was a philosopher and leader of the Modern Orthodox Movement .  Some of the ideas in this post originate with his teachings and vision.  The first post on this blog was devoted to a short but critical essay by Rabbi Hartman called “Auschwitz or Sinai“.

(3) Early churches met almost exclusively in homes. These gatherings became close, supportive communities that shared resources, including money, when someone was needy. They became surrogate families. Not only that but they were radically egalitarian—something novel in the Roman world of that day. Paul made his ringing announcement that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

***

The Amazing Travails of Tobias Cohn, Inventor of Modern Medicine

Eleazar Cohn, a Jewish physician, emigrated from Safed (then part of the Ottoman) to Poland in the late 1500’s – early 1600’s.  Eleazar’s son, Moses, also a physician, moved to Metz, France to escape the Chmielnicki (Khmelnytsky ) pogroms.  Tobias Cohn (Cohen, or Kohn in Polish) was born in 1652 in Metz.  At age 21, Tobias returned to Poland with his elder brother where he pursued traditional Jewish studies  in Kraków .

First Jewish Student in Germany

Portrait_of_Tobias_Cohn_Wellcome_L0014928Coming from a renowned family of physicians, Tobias ultimately wanted to graduate with a medical degree from the University of Padua (Margalith, 2007,) the Harvard of the time…  But he decided to try to get into the Frankfurt-an-der-Oder University first.  In 1678, Tobias and his friend Gabriel Felix of Brody appealed directly to the Grand Elector of the State of Brandenburg Friedrich Wilhelm who agreed to sponsor their studies.  The scholarships came with conditions: Tobias and Gabriel had to learn German and volunteer as Hebrew teachers to Friedrich Wilhelm. Wilhelm was interested in “going back to the sources” of the Old Testament, spurred by the Protestant Reformation. Tobias Cohn later wrote that his knowledge of the Scriptures, the Talmud and the Midrash had not prepared him well for the scientific approach that was taught at the school and for the interactions with other students [1]

Padua

Related imageTobias and Gabriel eventually left Frankfurt for Padua, where they joined a number of Jewish students from Italy, Poland and other European countries at Solomon Canegliano‘s (1642-1719) preparatory school. Tobias described Canegliano as one of the greatest physicians of his time.  Tobias and Gabriel eventually entered the University of Padua and graduated in June 1683.  The first Jewish medical students graduated from the University of Padua in the fifteenth century.  For most of the Middle Ages and the early Modern Period, Padua was the only medical school in Europe where Jewish students could study freely.

Ma’aseh Tuviyah, 1708

In 1700, Tobias Cohn completed the manuscript of his book “Ma’aseh Tuviyah,” meaning Tobias’ Works, or Opus, in Hebrew.  The book was officially published in June 1708 (or 1707) by the University of Padua.  The book was printed a total of five times in Venice between 1708 and 1850, followed by seven further editions most recently in Brooklyn, New York, in 1974, and in Jerusalem, in 1967 and 1978.

The book brings together a view of the “new sciences” with the traditional Jewish view of science and medicine.  The first part of the book covers five chapters:

  • ‘The Upper World’ (corresponding more or less to metaphysics),
  • ‘The World of the Spheres’ (astronomy),
  • ‘The Lower World’ (geography),
  • ‘The Little World’ or ‘Microcosm’ (ethnography), and
  • ‘The Foundations of the World’ (alchemy).

The second part includes three main chapters:

  • ‘A New Land’,
  • ‘A New House’ and
  • ‘The House Watch’ or ‘Guard’.

This corresponds to the traditional division of medical texts into three parts: physiology, pathology and therapy (limited here to hygiene). A third part includes:

  • ‘A Garden Enclosed’ (gynecology and obstetrics),
  • ‘Fruit of the Womb’ (pediatrics), and
  • ‘A Fountain Sealed’ (on sterility).

The chapter titles in the first part of the book relate to the idea of the “world”, and those of the second part to the theme of novelty and the house. The headings in the third part all derive from the Bible, particularly the Song of Songs (Lepicard.) The book also includes a section on medical botany and a list of remedies.

The House Metaphor

Another important feature of the book is the scientific and medical illustrations it provides.

s130

The illustration above is part of a chapter on pathology in the medical part of the book, the section entitled ‘A New House’.  To the left of the illustration is the figure of a man with an open chest and abdomen, exposing the main internal organs.  A Hebrew scroll separates this figure from that of a house with four floors on the right of the illustration (Lepicard.)  In accordance with common practice in anatomy texts of the period, the organs are marked with letters.  On the scroll, the letters, in alphabetical order, are followed by the name of the designated part of the house, and that of the corresponding organ.

Where is the heart?  The reference letters and accompanying text show that the cauldron is located in the kitchen of the house. It represents the stomach. The heart is on the floor above, hidden behind a latticework grille. The heart belongs on the upper floor as Tobias said, where it can benefit from fresh air without being too exposed.  The “kitchen” level below corresponds to the bodily functions as understood at the time.  Tobias’s decision to write his book in Hebrew was likely driven by his desire to bring the “new science” to his Jewish community.

On the Road Again…

After Padua, Tobias Cohn went back to Poland and practiced medicine for a while then moved to Adrianopole (today’s city of Edirne close to Turkey’s borders with Greece and Bulgaria.)  There, he became the physician to five Ottoman sultans (Muntner, 2007,) moving to Constantinople (Today’s Istanbul) then Jerusalem in 1724 until his death at the age of 77 in 1729.

 

Footnotes and Sources

[1] Louis Lewin, The Jewish students at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder, in: Yearbook of the Jewish Literary Society 14 (1921), S. 231 f See also Richarz, entry, p.34…

David Margalith, Cohn, Tobias ben Moses, in: Encyclopedia Judaica: Bd. V, Detroit 2  2007, S. 44 f.; Asher Salah, La République des Lettres. Rabbins, écrivains et médecins juifs en Italie au XVIII siècle, Leiden/Boston 2007, S. 182-184.

Carsten Schliwski, Tobias Kohen (1652-1729) – the first Jewish student in Germany: Tobias Kohen as a Jewish student in Germany, from: Andreas Speer, Andreas Berger

A convincing case for accepting that Tobias Kohen and his friend were in fact the first Jewish student (Lewin, students, S. 222-226.)

Tobias Kohen, Ma’asseh Tuviyyah. Vol. 1, Venice 1707, pp. 5b.  The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America owns a first edition of Maaseh Tuviah, with the call number of RB 144:4. The book was published in Hebrew and consists of one volume containing multiple works, for a total of 321 pages.

 

David B Ruderman, Jewish thought and scientific discovery in early modern Europe, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2001(c. 1995), pp. 100–17, 229–55.

For biographic information, see also J O Leibowitz, ‘Tobie Cohen, auteur médical de langue hébraïque (1652–1729)’, Revue d’Histoire de la Médecine Hébraïque, 1964, 63: 15–24.

Solomon Conegliano, ‘Preface to Ma’aseh Tuviyah’ (in Hebrew), in Tobias Cohen, Ma’aseh Tuviyah, Venice, 1708. It is not unusual to find 1707 as the date of publication. The Hebrew date (tav-samekh-zayin – 5467) can correspond both to 1707 and to 1708.

D. Kaufmann, ‘Trois docteurs de Padoue: Tobias Moschides – Gabriel Selig b. Mose-Isak Wallich’, Rev. Etudes Juives, 1889, 19:293-298.

D. Kaufmann, ‘Une lettre de Gabriel Felix Moschides’, Rev. Etudes Juives, 1896, 32: 134-137.

Figure 1. Tobias Cohn (1652-1729). From T. Cohn, Ma aseh Tobivvah. Venice, Stamparia Bragadina, [1708], front. engr. (Copy in the Wellcome Institute Library, London.)

To Life! – Le’ Chaim!

Recent scientific news tell us something our ancestors already knew:  life is precious, life is rare!   On this day of remembrance, let us praise life.  Let us praise the Godly and magical concept of life that brings us all here together: humans and animals and plants.

Let us acknowledge that we are all products of life, first and foremost by smiling at one another!  Today! Smile at your goldfish, at your tomato plant, at your neighbors and at strangers.,

Let us remember kindly those who brought us life, our parents and their parents and their parents.  Let us remember the innocents of all nations and all faiths who perished at the hands of others,

Let us acknowledge our difference of opinions but recognize the miracle of life that unites us all.

To life, Le’ Chaim!

Where is God?

rnaAs the French singer Serge Gainsbourg once said: “Man created God. The inverse remains to be proven…”  Men invented religion to explain the unexplainable, namely the existence of life on this planet.  One God, several Gods…   Science tells us that life on Earth began with biology about 3.5 billion years ago when non-living organic compounds gave rise to microbial organisms through a process called abiogenesis.  The scientific consensus seems to be that the precursor molecules necessary for this process originated outside of the Earth.

People looking for the existence of God may ask what is God?, what is its power? where is God?  how does it manifest itself? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I do not believe the ones regularly found in religious writings, except perhaps a symbolic interpretation of the creation presented in Genesis.

To me, the mystery of God lies in the nature of life, and what enables life to live. Three concepts (there may be more) are to me at the heart of this Godly mystery:  The first one is reproduction. Each individual organism exists as the result of reproduction, whether sexual or asexual. It is the nature of the reproductive process and the intelligence contained in each organism that enables every living thing to make a copy or likeness of itself, and thereby provide for the continued existence of its species.  I am an engineer, and I can’t help but think in terms of processes and information, but the idea that any organism would have the knowledge and the wherewithal to carry out a process of reproduction within its species is mind-blowing…

The second concept is that of healing.  Most living organisms are able to sense when they are hurt or attacked and are able to react with a plan to heal themselves. Again, the fact that organisms are able to diagnose themselves (to some degree) and implement a healing mechanism (that may or may not be successful) is also mind-blowing.  Finally, the concept of adaptation is part of the miracle of life.  As organisms compete for resources and reproduce, life has given them the process of adaptation by which they evolve over time and stay alive.

These three intrinsic processes are to me at the heart of the mystery of life.  Is life all about trial and error?  I don’t think so.  Where did the knowledge and the ability to sustain life in this vast, dark and cold universe come from?

Robin Williams, Suicide and Judaism

After the shock of learning of Robin Williams’ passing, my first reaction was anger.  How can a man so loved by others take his own life?  What kind of message does this send to others around the World who may think of doing the same?   I quickly followed that thought with another one.  When my mother first developed the symptoms of Alzheimer, repeating the same questions incessantly, I told my kids: “It is not really her, it is her disease speaking”.   There are studies, some over 100 years old  (for instance Morselli, Enrico Agostino, 1852-1929) that suggest that the suicide rate among Jews in the country where they live is less than that of other faiths.  This has been corroborated by studies in Israel and in other areas. 

The reasons are not obvious. They stem, I believe, from the strong value system that has sustained the Jewish people throughout the last 4,000 years (see my blog on this). The key concept is the  belief in only one God which leads, according to Martin Buber, to a personal relationship between man and God.  This idea of a covenant with God, according to Max Dimont, is what gives the Jewish people the will to survive.

Many Jews (including me) assumed that Robin Williams was a Jew (Jewish Times online) and were therefore doubly shocked to learn about the manner in which he died.  The fact that he is not Jewish does not take any of his genius or the joy that he brought his fans away, but perhaps it would have changed the way he thought about his life.  God has given us free will, but God has also created and given us precious life.

 

See also: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14101-suicide ,  http://www.gallup.com/poll/108625/More-Religious-Countries-Lower-Suicide-Rates.aspxwww.mdpi.com/2077-1444/3/3/725/pdf 

What’s in the Jewish DNA?

Sefer Ma’asei HaShem by Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi. This edition printed in  The Hague, 1777.

Sefer Ma’asei HaShem by Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi. This edition printed in The Hague, 1777.

Unlike many other ancient people and tribes, and despite intense persecution and tragedies, the Jewish people has managed to survive for over 5 millennia,   The destruction of the first and second temples,  the expulsion from Spain, pogroms in Eastern Europe and the Holocaust are but a few of the calamities that almost wiped out the Jews.  What is in the Jewish DNA that has enabled its People to survive to this day?  I don’t mean DNA in the biological sense (there are studies on this) but in the societal sense.  What is it about the Jewish value and belief system that has enabled us to survive?

One element is the ability and capacity to question and analyze ourselves (“Heshbon ha-nefesh” in Hebrew) and the world around us.  Why was the temple destroyed when God is supposed to be on our side?  This important question led the Jews to fundamentally question their religion and practices, resulting in many movements and sects, each with their own answers, leading to Rabbinic Judaism as we pretty much know it today.  This urge to analyze and re-calibrate is perhaps most evident in the Rabbinic tradition of debating and interpreting the written texts of the Bible.  In 1583, Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi wrote in “Ma’asei Hashem”:

For in all that affects human faith…each one of us…is bound until the end of all generations to investigate the secrets within the words of the Torah and to conduct his faith in the straightest and most correct way…and to accept the truth from whatever source,once we know of it.  And let not the opinion of others, though they preceded us, hinder us from inquiry.

In the Judaic tradition, belief in renewal comes from respect for mature and intelligent interpretation of the texts, and even self-criticism. Heshbon ha-nefesh (self-examination) is a necessary condition for teshuva (repentance and renewal).   So what’s in the Jewish DNA?  One the one hand, a stark adherence to the concept of One God, and to an enlightened system of values, but on the other, an unrivaled capacity for interpretation of the application of this value system, which over the centuries has enabled the Jewish People to survive.