‘Mom, is crocodile kosher?’

ElephantThe wide African sky is streaked pink and gold as the sun inches toward the horizon. Sunset happens early and quickly in winter. The trees stretch their bare arms upwards, as if reaching for those last few essential rays of light. Their dark silhouettes are a dramatic contrast to the gently glowing sun and pinky-orange sky.

We are all quiet in awe and wonder.

One lone elephant grazes in the twilight. Her trunk effortlessly tears entire branches off the tree. She drops the woody limbs with their few leaves into her waiting mouth. Her tail swishes behind her, and the grass rustles. For many moments, we are surrounded only by cracking branches, whispering leaves and the setting sun.

We are the only humans around for miles.

We journeyed many hours and great distances across continents, oceans and time zones to this tranquil place at the bottom of Africa. It was a Thursday when we left our busy home in California. By the time we arrived in Johannesburg, it was Saturday. In our exhaustion and excitement, none of us noticed that we traveled through an entire Shabbat.

Like many Bay Area Jews, we celebrate Shabbat and observe the laws and customs of our religion in our own traditional ways: we eat homemade challah and enjoy a family dinner every Friday evening; we keep a kosher home, and the no-pork-no-shellfish rule applies when we eat out; some years we do only one Passover seder, and Lag Ba’omer was a holiday that completely escaped us this year. I acknowledge to my husband and to myself that we are doing our best to teach our four children about Judaism and how to live a Jewish life … but sometimes I wonder if it’s enough.

And now here we are a few days after our arrival, watching the sun bid farewell to a quiet Friday afternoon on the African savannah. Our Shabbat candles and kosher home are far away, as we glimpse a giraffe gently loping though the trees. The elephant doesn’t seem to mind as she continues to munch the branches. A baboon runs across the road with a baby on its back, and now my own kids start to chatter and complain that they’re hungry.

The sun has set and it’s dark by the time we head back to our hotel just outside the magical game reserve. We cross the bridge over the shallow river as we make our way toward the main gate. “Do you think the hippos are still there, Mom?” my daughter whispers to me.

Nobody mentions candles, challah or Shabbat as we head to dinner. We are full of thoughts and conversation about the leopard we saw hiding in the tree, the pack of wild dogs we came across in the middle of the road (a rare sighting!) and the sinister vultures scavenging in the wild brush. It was a thrilling day, and we are all eager to recount our wildlife experiences over and over. The air smells of wood smoke and we take our seats around the table in the outdoor restaurant, close to the fire pit. I watch my kids argue about how many times they saw buffalo. The fire throws flickering shadows over their happy faces and I briefly remember that it’s Shabbat, but I say nothing.

Dinner is a buffet of exotic foods: a rich lamb curry, roast beef, kudu steaks and impala sausage. My daughter returns to the table with her standard bowl of plain pasta and my youngest son is happily tucking into a plate of salad. No unusual foods for these two! But my older boy taps my shoulder.

“Mom,” he says with a frown. His brown eyes are confused and a little worried. “Mom, is crocodile kosher?”

In the wild heart of South Africa, where the animals roam free and the air is pure and quiet, we are so far from our routines, from the customs and rituals of our regular life, and I mistakenly assumed that meant we were far from our Jewish lives, too.

But no matter where in the world we are, we are always connected to our Jewishness. And, just for the record, crocodile is not kosher.

This post originally appeared in my “In Real Life” column in J. the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California under the title “‘Mom, is crocodile kosher?’ A curious question in the wild heart of South Africa.”

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, where writers and bloggers gather together to share their versions of a completed sentence. This week’s prompt was, “This summer…” Hosted by the wonderful Kristi of Finding Ninee.

Home Is Where I Am


When my son comes home from anywhere he bursts through the back door with dusty sneakers, bits of his day caught in his dark brown hair and on his thick eyelashes, and always an exuberant: “I’m ho-ome!”

His voice is strong and the singsong words bounce off the kitchen walls and reverberate up the stairs. Often there is nobody around to hear them, nobody in his physical space to receive him, but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t pause with his hand on the door or stop to listen for rustling in the kitchen or footsteps in the rooms above, before announcing himself. It is the house he is telling about his homecoming. “I’m home,” he says to the taupe-colored walls and wooden floors, the dusty windows and the dishes in the sink. “I’ve come back and I am happy to be here.” And the house, his home, beams at the sound of his voice, gathers itself around his tall, gangly body and welcomes him. Home.

It’s not always easy, to come home: a sibling could be spoiling for a fight, a nagging mom might kill his buzz (Don’t bring those dirty shoes into the house. And wash your hands. With soap!), maybe we’re all out of his favorite snack, or someone’s playing their music too loud or watching an annoying show or borrowed his earphones without asking.

Still. Home is home.

“I’m ho-ome!” I murmured to the passport control officer at Ben Gurion airport. I must have said it too quietly. He didn’t even blink. “I’m ho-ome!” I told the guy at the rental car counter. He continued reading off the insurance policy and pretended I hadn’t said a word. Maybe he doesn’t like to be interrupted. “I’m HO-OME!!” I yelled at the top of my furious lungs to the women who claimed my chairs for their own at the pool. “Go away, you’re annoying us,” they replied with a condescending flick of the wrist, as if I was an irritating little sister. Ouch.

And yet. Home is home.

The radio in the car is set to Galgalatz, and the catchy combination of popular Israeli and other music makes it the best station to listen to. In my opinion. Biglal hamusika (for the music) is the tagline and a sexy, gravelly male voice fills the car every 15 minutes. That might also be a reason to listen. I turn the volume up when the news comes on and sometimes I even understand three full sentences. Last night on our way home they played Abba’s “Super Trouper.” Biglal hamusika. Every home needs a memorable soundtrack.

The kids kick the ball to each other and bury their legs in the sand as the sun streaks orange and pink above an inky sea. Their play transcends all language, time and distance: catch, giggles and hugs mean the same in English and Hebrew and all of the adults look at each other in wonder. “Next year he’ll know some English,” someone says. It really doesn’t matter, we all think. The sunset is magical and so are the connections.

And then it is Friday and we’re out of milk and pita. Maybe I’ll get a challah and creamy white cheese and the small, crispy cucumbers the kids like to eat whole. And popsicles. But the line is so long and the scanner stops working and now the cashier needs change so off she ambles. I think she forgot to come back. It’s been more than five minutes and I can see rivulets of icy juice pooling in my basket. “Tsk” and “Dammit” I mutter to myself. The woman behind me catches my eye and shrugs toward the heavens. Ma la’asot? What to do? I hear her thoughts. I shrug back. She’s right but really this is ridiculous, the line is growing longer and restless. I pay for and pack my groceries in a determined, not-so-quiet hurry. “Shabbat Shalom!” the slow-going cashier calls out as I turn to leave. It’s hard to be frustrated with someone who wishes you Shabbat Shalom.

Not everyone cares that I’m home. They honk at me if I linger one second too long at a traffic light and flash their lights if I drive too slow in the fast lane. Maybe I’m annoying with my expectations and my terrible Hebrew and my children who won’t eat anything with sesame seeds. But there are ways this place gathers itself around me and my family, holds us close in its warm waters and bustling markets, tells us stories about where we’ve come from and how we got here and inspires ideas about where we might go next.

And so… ma la’asot, what to do? I am home.

Parts of this essay were written during an online writing group with the incredible Jena Schwartz. Todah ve’ahava, Jena.

What I Learned About My Children At The Rabbi’s House


When we were invited to Shabbat lunch at our Rabbi’s house, I expected I would learn something new that day: an insight into the weekly Torah reading perhaps, or a custom I wasn’t aware of. Maybe I would learn a new blessing or a song, and I would definitely learn more about the Rabbi and his lovely family, who moved to our community less than a year ago.

I describe the lesson I did not expect on Kveller.com. Spoiler alert: the teacher was not the Rabbi!

More Than A Smudge Of Flour


Her robe was fuzzy and peach in color. It reached all the way down to her ankles, and the long sleeves sat just above her wrists. She would fasten the pearly buttons haphazardly, missing a few here and there, and it always sat slightly skew on her shoulders. With her curly, brown hair still unbrushed, her glasses slipping down her nose, and her feet wrapped in her favorite slippers she looked like a nutty professor who’d just this minute leapt out of bed.

It took a few presses of the doorbell before she answered.

“Hi Gran! Where were you?” Our voices were loud and happy with afterschool relief and love for our Gran, as our eyes took in the well-worn and familiar peach robe. There was a smudge of flour on her cheek.

“Sorry my darlings, I didn’t hear the bell above the noise of the mixer. I’m baking biscuits.”

Always. She was always baking something. Biscuits. Ginger cake. Her famous bulkes (Jewish cinnamon buns). Or trying a new challah recipe.

For the first 24 years of my life, we spent every Shabbat dinner with my Gran and extended family, in a weekly rotation between our house, my cousins’ and my grandmother’s. Those were wonderful family gatherings of gatherings and tradition, laughter, stories, jokes and arguments heated discussions. And yummy food.

My mother’s chopped liver. Gran’s fried fish balls. My aunt’s youngberry tart. Specific dishes of wistful deliciousness that taste of nostalgia every time I try to replicate them.

Sometimes my Gran made challah when she hosted Shabbat dinner. She didn’t have a signature recipe but no matter which one she used (and most of the time I think she did her own thing, she wasn’t one to follow measurements and instructions) her challah was always fabulous. Sweet but not too sweet. Yeasty and cake-like and braided to perfection. Always a treat to have homemade challah, made with love and what I now know to be a lot of effort, on Shabbat.


This morning I wake up extra early, hoping to get into the kitchen and prepare the challah dough for its first rise before the kids and their breakfast clutter the counter. But one son is already toasting his waffles and I can hear his siblings not far behind.

With my gray robe belted tight against the chilly morning fog, I set the tin of flour on the counter. Running out of time. Why am I doing this? The kosher bakery down the street sells great challah, perfectly braided and baked and all I’d have to negotiate is a parking space.

Instead I am navigating four hungry and bickering children, boxes of cereal, spilled milk, and countless reminders from me to “Hurry up” in between the multiple cups of flour I had long ago lost track of for my homemade challah. Why indeed?

“Are you making challah, Mom?” one surprisingly observant child asks. “Yep,” I mutter, trying to remember if I’ve mixed in four or five cups by now because six cups will definitely be too many but four cups is undoubtedly not enough.

The dough is too sticky and it clings to the mixing bowl, the counter top and my fingers as I try to move it into a bigger bowl with room to grow. What a mess.

I look up at him for a brief second, and catch his smile as I say yes. He loves warm, fragrant homemade challah. Suddenly I am happy to be making it. It’s messy and inconvenient and I always make it when I’m in a rush and too busy to give it the time and attention it deserves.

But as chaotic as these mornings are in the kitchen before he leaves for school, perhaps his future self will remember his mom making challah in her robe on foggy Friday mornings. Perhaps he’ll longingly taste these Shabbat memories when he blesses the challah in years to come. Or maybe he’ll ask me to email him my recipe so he can make it himself.

I will never be sure if it’s four or five cups of flour.

The dough is finally ready to rise and I leave it sitting in the bowl, covered with a damp dishtowel for protection.

I glance in the mirror on my way up the stairs.

And notice the smudge of flour on my cheek.

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, inspired by the prompt, “The chore I hate doing the most is…” Hosted by Kristi from Finding Ninee, Michelle (this week’s sentence thinker upper) from Crumpets and Bollocks and Jill from Ripped Jeans and Bifocals. Baking challah is obviously not the chore I hate doing the most (actually it’s not a chore at all, it’s a pleasure)… but it is the messiest!


Innovation? Nah… Tradition

Split families are all the rage in Jewish Bay Area, California. It’s rare to meet anyone who is “born and bred” San Francisco/Oakland. Most of our friends grew up somewhere else in the United States: Cherry Hill, Los Angeles, Baltimore. We’re the token South Africans, but we feel at home because we’re all transplants. The Golden State tempted us all west with the lure of exciting opportunity, entrepreneurship and innovation. The white sailboats decorating the blue of the beautiful Bay, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, the enticing hilly streets of San Francisco are an exquisite added bonus for those of us who have chosen to make our home here – even with the swirling fog that forces us to wear fleece hoodies and Patagonia jackets in June and July.

But maintaining communiy without family is challenging for breakaway entrepreneurs. Extended generational families bring history, stability and tradition to Jewish life. Grandma makes challah every Shabbat, this uncle’s homemade chopped liver is at every holiday meal, the cousins always do a play on Channukah.

Growing up, my family would have Shabbat every week with my grandparents, aunts and uncles. Every week. For the first 24 years of my life, that’s where I would be on a Friday night. The location would rotate between my grandmother, mother and aunt. Sometimes friends would join, but the core remained the same – Family. My father would sing the Kiddush in his distinct gravelly voice, the melody as cozy to me as my favorite sweatshirt. Nobody else ever said Kiddush. My brother and cousin would say Hamotzi – sometimes engaging in an irreverent competition to either be in sync or see who could finish first. We would look forward to a different desert at my aunt’s house (marshmallow pudding or youngberry tart), or to my grandmother’s minestrone soup (we never had minestrone soup at home: my mother – ambassador of raw, firm vegetables – hates tomatoes stewed, souped or sauced).

We loved being together – talking, laughing, gossiping, arguing. It got better as I got older and could actively participate in conversation – when I went away to college that family Shabbat tradition of familiar togetherness was something I craved and longed for. And then I abandoned it completely when I moved to San Francisco, joining the many other transient Bay Area Jews who left their families and traditions behind.

We’ve become each other’s families in our community across the Bay – we spend Shabbat and holidays together, we shlep each other’s kids, picking up essentials for this one at the butcher and that one at Costco. And we are the innovators of new traditions.

My family has recreated the Shabbat from my life in South Africa – some weeks it’s just the six of us, but most often we have parts of our Bay Area Family over. And we always use our Kiddush Fountain. Made from plated silver, with intricate patterns of vines and grapes, it’s beautiful to look at. The Kiddush cup stands on an elevated piece in the center of a tray, and eight little cups form a perfect circle around it – a tight ring of tiny mouths waiting to swallow the blessed grape juice that is poured through. The best part is that you can see the eight little rivers of grape juice flowing through the silver riverbeds and into the waiting cups. It’s Shabbat entertainment. We feel a tiny thrill of pleasure as the rivers flow, and the guests murmur “oooh.”

In this new iteration of Shabbat tradition, my oldest son says the Kiddush. He doesn’t sing it like my father does, but he has his own unassuming rhythm that has made it as comfortingly familiar as my dad’s. He pours the grape juice into the Kiddush Fountain, making sure the cups are perfectly aligned under each riverbed, or else the dark purple juice will miss the cup and pool onto the tray.


The Fountain is made in Israel but doesn’t come to us from there. It’s from the Judaica store at the Jewish senior home in Pretoria, South Africa, and my parents gave it to us on one of their many visits to California – they always feel they need to bring more than themselves.

Because my biological family is scattered over the Earth – parents, brother and in-laws in South Africa, brothers-in-law in Miami and London – when the grandparents or uncles come to visit, it’s an event! It’s not for three days, or just for Rosh Hashana, or the last days of Sukkot. It’s to make up for all the time since we had Shabbat together a year ago, the last time my mother made her chicken soup and we heard my father sing the Kiddush. In addition to the Jelly Babies and Woolies pajamas, gifts include challah covers, handpainted matza boxes, the perfect white Shabbat tablecloth.

Of course, we use all of it every Shabbat and holiday – that’s why they shlep it. We think of them, and we miss them, and we wish we were celebrating all together with our historic traditions. And sometimes they are with us on Rosh Hashana or Pesach, and they see how seamlessly their gifts of Judaica have been incorporated into our lives and are part of our creative new traditions.

Shabbat in the East Bay two weeks ago was a family fiesta – three families plus ours. Nine adults, and millions of kids of all ages. It was loud and festive, there were tacos and chicken soup, beer and guacamole, lemonade spilled on the carpet, and we finished a gigantic bottle of gin. We didn’t know it at the time, but we lost one of the tiny cups from the Kiddush Fountain. I’m pretty sure it was inadvertently thrown into the recycling.

No more fountain from the Fountain. No more flowing rivers. If we pour the grape juice through it now, one river will pool onto the tray in an unsightly, dismal purple puddle. So this past Shabbat, Daniel individually poured the Kiddush juice into each tiny cup… he doesn’t have the steadiest hand. There were no rivers and no “ooohs.”

Yet, we had a wonderful dinner. Instead of chicken soup and tacos we had brisket and kale salad. It would be easy to let our traditional sentimentality puddle in a stagnant pool of frustration over the dysfunctional Kiddush Fountain. But I prefer to harness the opportunity – we will find another way to use it. Daniel’s hand will get steadier as he gets older, his brothers will start to say Kiddush. Maybe we’ll find a replacement eighth cup on eBay or even in the shuk in Jerusalem. It’s possible we’ll lose even more cups, and at some point the tightly-knit ring of waiting mouths will be completely mismatched. Opportunity, innovation… tradition.