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Under cloud and periodic rain,  I am trying to imagine ancient biblical people in a desert in huts of willow and palm, feasting with strangers on sweet harvest fruits.  Sukkot is a wonderful Jewish festival, a kind of thanksgiving and harvest festival for which people build outdoor structures from symbolic natural materials; there’s always great creativity with resources and lots of artistry, beauty and folly.  After all the emotional and spiritual heaviness of the preceding High Holidays, Sukkot represents the “Days of Our Rejoicing,” a time to be grateful for somewhere to sit down, beneath a starry sky, with family, friends and to eat, drink, relax….

Today is the last day of Sukkot this year but I didn’t want it to go by without a notice…

When you read about the history and symbolism of the week there’s also the important respite, from dessert wanderings, into shelter (the physical building, however temporary) of the “sukkah” or “hut”.   As my friend Jill writes, “the venerated guests come, one by one, night by night, the ancestors, matriarchs & patriarchs…”  Strangers are welcome as well. The holiday is very much about the actual place of rest, and the rejoicing.  I was excited to learn about a project in recent years in New York City  (I LOVE NY!) called Sukkah City;  the organiser says “”The sukkah is a space to ceremonially practice homelessness…. In that sense it is an architecture of both memory and empathy—memory of the huts the Israelites dwelled in during their exodus from Egypt long ago, and empathy for those who live today without solid shelter over their heads…”

And thus must come the reminder of the horrendous destruction in Gaza this summer, in which 1/4 to 1/5 of the housing stock was ruined, and all those inhabitants, made homeless, vulnerable, cold.  Imagine the personal trauma, and of course the collective one. A different kind of desert to wander in.

So much of the Jewish mindset is historic, looking back as people at our people-dom through various times; this historicity demands we see ourselves in the present historically, socially, and to consider how we want to look to the future, who we want to be, how we want our world to be.  So, as irreligious as I may be–pagan-buddhist-atheist — I’m still always grateful to be inspired by other Jewish people engaged in imagining and creating social justice.

Hence, some Sukkot-related links:

My friend Lucy M reminded me of the very moving gathering that happened in Zuccotti Park at the time of Occupy Wall Street.  Occupy Judaism, even from afar, felt like an incredible moment of coming home for so many people. This was Rabbi Ellen Lippmann’s “Occupy Sukkot’s Prayer for an Unbalanced World.”

Lucy also noted that last year Jewish Voice for Peace welcomed Sukkot as an opportunity to oppose the Prawer Plan which aimed to resettle thousands of Bedouins away from their ancestral lands in the Negev; the intention was to relate the ancient displacement of the Jewish people to the contemporary displacement of the Bedouin.  This year JVP has published a moving Interfaith Sukkot gathering that I recommend.

And here is the brilliant blog by Rabbi Brant Rosen in Illinois — I always learn so much from him.  Probably something about Sukkot will be posted soon– keep checking.

For a prayer that includes the Climate in its concern, my friend Jill pointed me to this by Rabbi David Seidenberg.  Make sure to listen to the spoken prayer on the Soundcloud– I couldn’t figure out how to embed it.

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Meanwhile… back at the ranch… some cooking has to happen too…

In my relative religious innocence and isolation, I seem to present the customs of my people to my children mostly via festive suppers at which I present ideas (if they’ll listen– which sometimes they do!)…

Here’s a great photo from Lucy from the Sukkot celebration last year at her shul in Leicester.  One thing that’s really great about being part of a religious community, probably ANY community of faith– you get to eat in community meals!  What is more fun that that? These are awaiting their time in the oven… and will emerge juicy and savoury and each portion an individually wrapped treasure.

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Laborious as the process is, I enjoy making stuffed cabbage.  The fact of the work is their hand-made preciousness.  I love the sweet and sour too — it’s a flavour we eat rarely really, maybe in Chinese dishes badly prepared? But it’s a fun and delicious mix that seems to match especially well with cabbage, meat and rice.

Meat? Meat? Yes, I’ve always made these with ground/ minced beef, and felt I’d perfected them. I’d even committed to a personal substitution: arborio or pudding rice to absorb the meat juices and give a really divine creamy-chewy mouthfeel.

Through the years I’ve come to rely for the recipe in Claudia Roden’s encyclopaedic Book of Jewish Food. She calls it “Holishkes: Stuffed Cabbage Leaves” and she notes that other Yiddish names for the dish are “Galooptchy” and “Prakkes,” the latter of which I can still hear spoken in my mother’s voice.

I’ve wondered about someday making the sour in the sauce not from lemon but from sauerkraut, as I’m always looking for ways to incorporate lact0-fermented foods into my cooking.  (Yes, I know one loses the pro-biotic goodness this way.) I’ve also fermented whole cabbage leaves with the intention to stuff them.  Haven’t done this yet.  On the list.  I’m thinking for Sukkot, as a festival of harvest, that at this time of year there’s fresh cabbage around, and let’s rejoice in this; so no sauerkraut this time….

Claudia Roden’s recipe fairly well calibrates 12 large cabbage leaves with an onion, 1 1b of ground beef, and 1/2 cup on raw rice.  The sauce is 2lbs of tomatoes (or two tins), salt, pepper, lemon, and sugar. (I use honey.  Speaking of my mother, she’d once read that Barbara Walter’s mother used grape jelly as the sweetener, and always quoted this “fact.”)

You carefully remove the large leaves from the globe of your cabbage (Savoy is nice but not necessary, and probably more expensive)– maybe you carve out a bit of the core from stem, as Roden suggests, or maybe you just try to detach each leaf as best you can from its bottom connection. (This blog has really good pictures of how to detach leaves and roll them up with filling.  And a good recipe that I discovered too late.)  The leaves that break you can chop up for the bottom of your baking dish.

You lightly blanch the leaves so that they are malleable, and when cooled, careful “shave” the thick part of the rib so the leaf can be rolled.

You’ve made your filling by sauteeing the meat and the onions in a little oil, and adding the raw rice.  Really you want the rice to cook in all the luscious juices of the cabbage and tomatoes and everyone… This will happen.

You fill your leaves with maybe two spoons of filling — don’t overfill as the rice will expand– then roll the leaf, bottom first, then a left-right tuck, then the top down to enclose the whole thing as a parcel. Think burrito or blintz.

You’ve made your sauce, and I always add raisins because they’re like pretty polka dots, and it adds to the visual sweetness of the dish to see fruit. Roden says this was the Polish way that travelled to Hasidic Baltic strongholds.

And bake.  Low oven, covered, for a long time– maybe three hours even. Until the cabbage leaves are kind of collapsed– al dente not desirable! To the fresh sweet and sour flavours add a little greasy meaty satisfaction, and a bit of caramel from the cooked sugars.  Really so very nice a dish.

If you are my mother’s youngest daughter, you serve this with mashed potatoes, out of habit.

Yet, yet, yet…

now I’m asking myself at every meat opportunity — Do we need this meat?— and this time, the answer is NO.  (Though here I would add that around holidays and traditional meals might be the inclination to eat the lesser amounts we are aspiring to.  Here’s a recent piece on our family’s effort to keep further reducing our meat eating– mostly for climate change reasons.)

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The filling I’ve used is cooked kasha (buckwheat groats) and lentils, and an onion, mixed together with flavours of dill seed, fennel seed, onion seed (kalonji because I like the hint of bitterness) and sprinkling of nettle salt and celery salt. And I’ve grated in some beetroot for that feeling of blood that can add a little something for the carnivore’s palette.  I decided to bind the mixture with a beaten egg and a little olive oil, because no one who’s going to eat these is vegan, and I completely trust the eggs we can get as sustainable — they are raised by a friend with very high standards.  So mine weren’t vegan but yours can easily be.

Here’s everything just before going in the oven:

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Thoughts on the vegetarian version:

There’s a harmony between sour tomatoes and cooked cabbage that can’t be taken away — it’s really a unique taste.

The kasha filling looks crumbly and meaty but raises one’s hopes because of that — it feels like a substitute for meat rather than something in its own right in the context.  It’s a bit leaden– but leaden feels like a kind of authentic.

Next time I’ll try brown rice.  Or maybe even white rice!

It’s fun eating a “parcel.”

I like the sauce, especially the raisins, on mashed potatoes.  Go figure.

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So on this last day of Sukkot:  Chag Sameach!  (“Joyous Festival.”) 

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