Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Israel 2017

Revving up and gearing up for my next trip to my favorite place in the World. Been planning this trip for a long time. Going totally on my own is a stretch for me, but having the freedom to be alone and do whatever the moment calls for is exciting.

I'm paring down my camera bag considerably. My old kit with three zoom lenses - 10-24, 16-55, and 55-200 - plus two bodies, a flash and batteries is just too heavy for me to shlep all day. I still need to take the tele-zoom just in case. But that's a focal length I rarely shoot at. On the wide end I'll take my 14/f2.8 (I rarely shoot wider than that), my new 23/f2 (so much smaller and faster focus than the f1.4) and my new 35/f2 (ditto the 23). For the tight and narrow spaces of Jerusalem's Old City and Machane Yehudi market, the narrow lanes of Tzfat, and the Jaffa Flea Market those lenses should be ideal.

No deserts on this trip, no tourist attractions, no Dead Sea or Masada. Just my beloved people - Jews: all kinds, colors, sizes, religious convictions, political persuasions ..... a stiff-necked and contentious lot, but I love them all.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter 2017

One of the few times during the year that I post in color. The Easter Parade in New York is not really a parade. Fifth avenue between 49th and 55th streets is closed off to traffic - that's the area just in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral and St. Thomas Church - and exhibitionists come to strut their stuff. It's an ad lib bazaar for any excuse to dress up.

It was a great opportunity for me to test out the kit that I want to take on my trip to Israel this May.
I eliminated one lens from my bag, the 18mm. So now I have it down to two bodies: the X-T1 and X-Pro2; three prime lenses: 14/2.8, 23/2, and 35/2 (I actually used the 35/1.4 today, but I've already purchased the f2 lens, just waiting for delivery so I can test out the acuity against the f1.4). I'm taking one zoom lens: 55-200mm. I hardly ever use it, but just can't seem to cut the cord and leave it behind. I keep thinking that the one time I leave it, I'm going to really need it and regret not taking it.

After the trip I'll most likely put the 23/1.4, 35/1.4, and 50-140 up for sale ..... and then buy the 50/2.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Passover 2017 - Burning Chametz

Before the holiday begins, we are commanded to clean our homes of all traces of any grain that might  have undergone leavening or rising. It's then burned and we recite prayers of disownership of any remaining leavening in our possession.

Everyone loves a good fire.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Passover 2017

The festival of Pesach celebrates what probably was the defining event in the history of the Jewish people. The liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage (the slavery lasted a bit over two hundred years) was the beginning of forging the Israelite tribes into a coherent nation. It happened over four hundred years after G-d promised Abraham that his children would become a great nation. But there's another story embedded in the festival - the culmination of man's move from idolatry (the story of Abraham leaving his home and family in Babylon) to monotheism. After the eight days of Pesach, forty nine days to be exact (a period of time we call the Omer) we celebrate the holiday of Shavuos which commemorates Moses receiving the Torah - the first five books of the Tanakh at Mount Sinai.

One of the most important symbols (probably the one most identified with Pesach) is matzoh - a flat wheat bread baked quickly without leavening so that there is no 'rising'. It's called a 'poor man's' bread, so most highly observant Jews eschew mixing the wheat dough with eggs or any flavoring. The entire process of producing matzoh - from the mixing of the flour with water to the end of the baking process (in ovens that are at 2000°F) lasts not a second more than eighteen minutes so as to prohibit the possibility of any rising of the dough.

The best way to teach our children about the story of Pesach is to get them actively involved, to actually make matzah.

Pouring the wheat kernels into a grinder:

Grinding the kernels into flour:

Pouring the flour into a mixing bowl:

Adding water to the flour:

The rabbi mixes the flour into dough:

Rolling the dough into flat patties:

Putting the raw matzoh into the oven:

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Pidyon Haben

The ritual of Pidyon Haben (redemption of the first born son) is performed when certain stringent requirements are met. See here for a detailed explanation. Briefly, the conditions are: 1) the newborn child must be a male, 2) the child must be the first child of the mother, 3) the birth must be a natural delivery, and 4) neither the mother or father can be of Levi or Kohen ancestry. The conditions are not met often, so this celebration doesn't occur frequently.

Proud mother and father (Mushka and Betzalel) with their son.

Betzalel carrying his son to the Kohen. A tradition of the ritual is to cover the baby with gold jewelry and surround him with packages of sugar.

The basis of the ritual can be found in the Tanach (Jewish Bible) in several places: Exodus 13:13 and Numbers 3:45 that stipulate the child must be redeemed from a Kohan (ritual priest) for a sum of five silver shekels. It the Chabad custom, the child is redeemed for silver dollars of extremely pure silver.

Father and Kohen (Benny Friedman) recite ritual blessings and exchange the baby for the silver coins.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Havdalah 2

With Purim happening Saturday night and Sunday, this was a busy weekend. Just before we read the Megillah we celebrated the end of Shabat with a Havdalah ritual, and then the eating began! Joseph, the rabbi's son, was holding out a bag of spices for me to sniff.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Purim 2017

For anything/everything you ever wanted to know about Purim you can read it here. It's a festival of redemption and celebration. A day to wear costumes, drink, and get crazy. We read the Megilah - the story of Esther, niece of Mordechai who became queen of Persia and outsmarted the wicked Haman, the progeny of Amalek. So it's really a story about righting the wrongs of King Saul.

One of the Blues Brothers:

Queen Esther:

Reading the Megilah:

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Weekday Bar Mitzvah

Today was a special day in preparation for the upcoming holiday of Purim - Saturday night and Sunday - when we read the Megillah, which is the book of Esther. It's the story of the exiled Jews of Babylonia/Persia and their struggle against extermination at the hands of the evil Haman who was a descendent of the historical nemesis of the the biblical Jews, Amalek. More on that later.

A young lad was celebrating his thirteenth birthday today. That's the day on which a Jewish male assumes full responsibility for his integration into the community. It happens for girls at the age of twelve. No particular ritual or rite need be observed, it happens automatically. But the tradition for boys is that they put on tefillin for the first time, and they are also called to the Torah for the first time.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

2017 Womens Day

Demonstrations all over Manhattan today to protest all kinds of stuff. Including you know who .....

Monday, March 6, 2017

Baking Hamentashen

The festival of Purim is next weekend. Anything and everything about the holiday is explained here. Hamentashen are triangular cookies filled with sweet stuff - fruit preserves, marshmallows, chocolate, etc. And they're fun to bake.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017


The weekly celebration of the Jewish sabbath that occurs on the seventh day of the week is bookended by rituals that mark the specialness of the day that is devoted to rest from physical work, detachment from the material world, and a deep immersion into the spiritual connection with G-d through prayer and reading the Torah. At the beginning of the day - which begins at sundown on Friday evening - the Shabbos candles are lit (a beautiful ritual that I've previously presented), special prayers called Kabbalat Shabbat, and of course a big meal to welcome the Sabbath 'Bride'. At the end of the day - one hour after sundown on Saturday -  a special set of prayers and multi sensory rituals are observed to wish the sabbath farewell until next week. There are many interpretations of the significance of each of the rituals.

Saying some biblical verses over a brimming cup of wine signifies a week overflowing with blessing.

The lighting of a braided candle. After Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, the great light that had illuminated day and night faded away after the first Shabbat. G-d gave Adam the wisdom to create a flame from two stones, so during Havdalah a blessing is said to commemorate the giving of fire. It's customary to use a candle with braided wicks because the blessing mentions 'illuminations of fire'. Looking at the reflection of the candle in one's fingernails reminds us of the first time Adam and Eve used fire on the night following the first Shabbat of history.  In order to recite the blessing on the candle, it must be sufficiently bright to be able to benefit from its light. If we can use its light to distinguish between the fingernails and the flesh, we know that the light is sufficient. 

Smelling sweet spices (besamim) - usually cloves and/or myrtle. According to Kabbalah, of all the five senses, smell is the only one that impacts the soul, so to revive out souls which have been saddened by the departure of the Sabbath we smell the spices.

The final blessing over the wine is recited and the then drunk after which some of the wine is poured into a saucer. Then everyone will dip their pinkie into the spilled wine and brush their wine-stained fingers against their eyebrow to express their appreciation of the commandment and to brighten their eyes for the coming week.

Dousing the flame of the candle in wine from the saucer demonstrates that the candle was lit only for the purpose of the havdalah ritual.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

More Spring In February

Friday and today were another taste of spring in February. Another shirtsleeves day. I could get used to this, but I know there's a blast of winter yet to come. May as well get out and enjoy all the people on the street.