Archive | December, 2018

Plaskoff creates podcast launching pad

Plaskoff creates podcast launching pad

Posted on 13 December 2018 by admin

Photo: Kevin Porier
On-Air Media’s podcast studio

By Leah Vann

Melissa Plaskoff never thought her “Carpool Talk” show would lead to her being a local podcast sensation. But now, she’s helping others like her dip their feet into podcast media.
“I never thought it was possible,” Plaskoff said. “I’ve tried a lot of things and this is definitely my path, and if I were to go back and talk to myself 20 years ago, I would’ve said, ‘It’s OK, you got this.’”
Plaskoff, a lifelong Dallasite, grew tired of looking for something entertaining to listen to in her endless carpool commute as a mom with three kids, so she started “Carpool Talk” in 2015 as something all parents could listen to while waiting for their kids in what seemed like a monotonous daily routine.
Plaskoff’s podcast grew in both popularity and guest appearances. With that, networks came calling, but she wanted the freedom to dictate the direction of her podcast. She had meet Chris Jagger, former 102.1 The Edge host with experience in both radio and film industry through CBS and Warner Bros.
Both found out that the only way they could foster their own and others’ creativity was to start their own media company, On-Air Media.
On-Air Media would find its permanent home in a 12,000-square-foot facility outside the Dallas design district this summer, complete with two studios professionally equipped with four part-time production and sound engineers with editing experience.
The studios are soundproof with green screens, professional microphones and cameras. One has a 4K camera, while the other features an HD camera. There’s even a lounge with Kombucha on tap, where professionals can collaborate freely with people looking for ideas.
“We’re creating this environment where everyone is in it together, we can all win,” Plaskoff said. “We won’t have to charge a fortune and have our hands in everyone’s pocket.”
On-Air Media offers monthly memberships that include a package of four shows a month. The company keeps costs down with only three full-time employees and four part-timers. It streams every show live on Facebook, YouTube and On-Air Media’s website simultaneously, enabling it to keep the space affordable. Livestreaming cuts post-production costs, and all shows are stored away to stream on-demand via iTunes. The company is also leasing extra space in the building to other companies.
“We wanted to keep in mind there’s a number of different types of people that use it,” Jagger said. “Hobbyists, they have an idea for a show, want to do something that is interesting and entertaining, looks good and sounds good and has sound elements, that looks like it’s not embarrassing shooting out of your home somewhere. We also knew that professionals would want to come in.”
When new clients come in with an idea for a show, they first meet with Plaskoff and Jagger to find direction before launching. They can also schedule additional consultations. Jagger said that while it’s a freely creative environment, they’re able to balance the guidance.
“There’s a lot more freedom here,” Jagger said. “One of the things I ran into later in my career, at iHeartMedia, CBS Radio, you had program directors who tried to control everything because they were trying to be told what to do. Radio started to contract, eliminating a lot of jobs, fewer people involved in making decisions; it turned out to be a bad thing because they were just handing down edits. It became so restrictive, it was ridiculous; it continues to be that way. With what we do, anything goes at this point.”
And he adds that Plaskoff is a natural talent at pointing people in the right direction when starting or struggling with a show.
“She’s a natural-born producer,” Jagger said. “I tell her, ‘You should’ve been working for Oprah.’ She has the natural instincts. Had she been in that circle of people, she would’ve. You can’t teach that. I was like, ‘OK, you have a lot to learn, but you have great instincts, and if I’m not with you at some point down the road, you’ll fully understand what’s going on here.’”
Some of those instincts include which ideas resonate with an audience and how to execute those ideas in the best way possible.
“The way we structure the onboard of a new show is highly organized,” Plaskoff said. “Everyone knows their role and everyone knows their part.”
On-Air Media has produced an array of successful shows, including “The Benet Embry Show,” an unbiased progressive podcast that talks about today’s current issues while also promoting local artists in the R&B, neo-soul and hip-hop genres.
All podcast shows own their own content and can monetize if they choose. Sometimes, if a podcast needs help getting its feet off the ground, On-Air Media has professional co-hosts waiting in the wings with years of experience for consulting. They include former WFAA anchor Alexa Conomos, Dallas Observer and Pressboxdfw journalist Richie Whitt, KSCS voice Jasmine Sadry and Dallas blogger Julie Fisk.
It also provides an avenue for city business owners to try to get their messages out. Plaskoff and Jagger often meet with companies on how they can produce video and content professionally and how to spread it on social media.
Whatever the goal is, Plaskoff hopes that she’s providing a platform that helps people pursue their media dreams the way that she and Jagger have.
“It gives me so much energy,” Plaskoff said. “I love hearing the different stories people come in and tell me every day. No two are alike.”

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Chabad Fort Worth to expand next door

Chabad Fort Worth to expand next door

Posted on 13 December 2018 by admin

Photo: Courtesy of Dov Mandel
Chabad of Fort Worth and Tarrant County Rabbi Dov and Chana Tovah Mandel and their children look forward to their enlarged center. They are pictured here at the Kotel.

 

The Sonnenschein Chabad Jewish Center officially opened its doors in 2007 at 5659 Woodway Drive in Fort Worth. The center’s goal was to provide physical space for the then 5-year-old Chabad Lubavitch of Fort Worth and Tarrant County. It seemed fitting, therefore, that the 3,000-square-foot center’s first event was a Pesach dinner.
That dinner, however, presented a handful of challenges. The center was a house that was, in the words of Chabad Fort Worth leader Rabbi Dov Mandel, “a structurally sound but crummy-looking property.”
Mandel himself was recovering from a case of kidney stones. And he and his wife, Chana Tovah Mandel, found themselves hosting a larger-than-expected crowd, many of whom were Lockheed Martin-employed Israelis. “I’m not sure how we ended up with 90 people in this poorly lit house,” Mandel recalled. “Somehow, we did it.”
Some 11 years later, the Sonnenschein Center is no longer crummy-looking, but rather is a well-lit space where Tarrant County Jews come to worship, learn and eat. Yet, thanks to the organization’s growth, the house seems as cramped as it was when 90 people sat for that first Seder in 2007, due to the organization’s expansion. The children’s playroom is small, there is no yard to speak of and parking availability is non-existent. Said Mandel: “We’ve done all we can do in this space.”
To mitigate the issues, Chabad Fort Worth placed a bid on — and awaits the close of — the house next door. Chabad Fort Worth is expected to close on the house at 5663 Woodway Drive Jan. 9, 2019. Then, the organization’s growth can continue.
From apartment, to house,
to house
In 2002, Dov and Chana Tovah Mandel, along with their first-born daughter, arrived in Fort Worth at the behest of Chabad Headquarters in Texas and in conjunction with Chabad of Dallas. The goal was to spearhead Chabad activities in Tarrant County.
The family rented an apartment “to feel everything out, and keep expenses low,” Mandel said. Within a year, the Mandels bought a house to provide a place for their growing family and expanding Chabad programming. For a time, the three-bedroom home provided enough room for both. Until it didn’t.
Mandel moved his office out of the house and into a professional building, though he and Chana Tovah soon realized they could no longer host Chabad activities in their home. With help from donors, the Mandels acquired the Woodway house on behalf of Chabad, dubbing it Sonnenschein Chabad Jewish Center, after the grandmother of one of the donors.
Growth continued from that first crowded Seder. Minyans became more frequent, as did Shabbat and holiday services. The center added a mikvah in 2011. Two years later, an additional 700 square feet was built to provide more space for worship and programming. Meanwhile, the Mandels helped spearhead the launch of Chabad of Arlington and the Mid-Cities, to serve Jews in eastern Tarrant County.
But the Sonnenschein Center has been bursting at the seams, prompting Mandel to ponder expansion for the past several years. “We make do with what we have, but right now, we’re piling programs on top of programs,” He said. “We can only use the same room so many times in a day.”
Enter 5663 Woodway Drive, in a fortuitous bit of timing.
“The house was owned by three siblings whose parents had died,” Mandel said. “Two months ago, they indicated they were willing to sell.”
From house to . . . synagogue?
The 2,000-square-foot house currently under contract is on a corner lot, just north of the Sonnenschein Center. Mandel said that once the sale is finalized, the next step will be a building campaign. The eventual goal is development of an actual center, one that looks more like a commercial building and less like a house. Noted Mandel: “the zoning for the entire Wedgewood neighborhood is single-family residential, school or church. We’re not building a church. But we will be building a synagogue.”
This could mean razing part of one or both of the houses.
Mandel is adamant that permitting, platting and development will be done by the book, no matter how long it all takes. “My goal is to be able to sleep easily at night, knowing the city won’t show up with a bulldozer one day,” he quipped.
In all seriousness, Mandel envisions a Chabad center that will provide a great experience for the Tarrant County Jewish community by offering plenty of space, enough for programming and parking. As such, hosting a 90-person Seder in an old home was just a start for Chabad Lubavitch of Fort Worth and Tarrant County. Growth and momentum are the main goals, no matter how sticky things might become.
“People want to be part of something that is positive and forward-looking,” Mandel observed. “God wants us to go all the way in, and show we’re for real. Then He takes us to the finish line. That’s the philosophy of Chabad, and the philosophy of life.”

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Ahavath Shalom fetes Elsie Blum for 68 years of service

Ahavath Shalom fetes Elsie Blum for 68 years of service

Posted on 13 December 2018 by admin

Photos: Courtesy Linda Lavi
From left, Linda Lavi, Ava Beleck, Elsie Blum, Marla Owen and Daniel Sturman helped organize a tribute to Blum at Congregation Ahavath Shalom Shabbat services on Dec. 1.

Congregation Ahavath Sholom honored Elsie Blum for her 68 years of service to the shul at Shabbat services, Dec. 1. Linda Lavi, Ava Beleck, Blum, Marla Owen and Daniel Sturman coordinated the event.
Marvin Blum, Elsie’s son, paid tribute to her from the bimah.
“Picture in your mind a 19-year-old girl who had never lived outside her parents’ loving home, who moves to Fort Worth from Montgomery, Alabama, as a new bride,” he said. “She was raised by parents who set an example — they were deeply dedicated to their synagogue, and their home and their hearts were always open to the community.”
Blum said his mother came to Fort Worth 68 years ago knowing nobody but her husband, Julius, but she followed her parents’ example “and this shul became her family.”
She started her service to the synagogue as treasurer of the Hebrew School. She became the first woman on the Ahavath Shalom bima when she started a Yom Kippur tradition of speaking about the importance of Jewish education and to raise funds to run the Hebrew School. Her “Lady Bird Johnson-style Southern drawl” is still remembered, her son said.
For 52 years until Julius’ death, the Blums did almost all of their volunteer work at the shul, Marvin Blum said. “They were involved in almost everything going on up here.”
Afterward, her son said, “I often said that Mama remarried — she married the shul. She threw herself into her work up here with a fervor, seven days a week, more than a full-time job.”
She would help staff plan events and review catering events and Shabbat lunch, her son said. Elsie would “meet with families who were celebrating life events, plan menus and do the pricing for the events,” her son said.
“No task was beneath her,” he added. “She’d wash tablecloths, set tables, polish silver, you name it.
Marvin Blum also spoke about his mother’s life after her husband’s death: “When Daddy died, Mama became a role model for how to pick up the pieces of a broken heart and move on with your life,” he said. “I often said that she should write a how-to book on ‘How to be a Widow.’”
Two years ago, Blum scaled back on her work at CAS after son Irwin died, to run the family business, a distributor of meatpacking supplies.
“Once again, she became a the role model to show us how you have to go on with your life,” Marvin Blum said. “She told me it doesn’t ease the pain, it still hurts every single day, but you have to be resilient and keep on living.”
Elsie Blum said that she has been blessed with a long life, privileged to stand under the chuppah with grandchildren and witness great-grandchildren living a beautiful Jewish life.
“This shul is in my ‘neshomah,’ she added. “Whatever I have accomplished has been a labor of love. I am the beneficiary. Anyone who gives of himself for a good cause gets back far more than he gives. I have never sought to be honored. When one lives with a purpose, it makes life meaningful.
“It is my prayer that my beloved Ahavath Sholom will grow from strength to strength and serve as a source of inspiration for the entire Fort Worth community, l’dor v’dor — from generation to generation.”

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Federation opens grant application process

Federation opens grant application process

Posted on 13 December 2018 by admin

Photo: Sharon Wisch-Ray/TJP
The Texas Jewish Arts Association’s Sukkah Project Dwell in Design, which was held in October 2018, was awarded a Short-Term Grant in both 2017-2018 ad 2018-2019.

 

The Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas has begun the 2019-20 grant application process, through which community organizations can receive short- and Long-Term Grants to fund new and increased needs and foster innovation in programming for the Dallas community.
The application process started Dec. 3, targeting initiatives that address one of the Federation’s impact areas: education, social services, global and local responsibility, Jewish identity, outreach and engagement, and security. All applications are due Feb. 6, 2019. Grant applications will be reviewed in the spring by the Federation’s Planning and Allocations Committee and grantees will be notified in mid-July.
“The Federation is pleased to once again offer these grants for our community,” said Robin Kosberg, Planning and Allocations Committee chair. “These grants allow the Federation to encourage innovation and fill important needs for our partner agencies and community organizations. We have been inspired by the programs funded in the first year of this grants program, and we hope that this resource will continue to energize our community.”
Short-Term Grants are available to all Jewish 501(c)(3) organizations serving the greater Dallas area. The funds are for one-off programs and/or seed funding of a project. Organizations may submit up to two applications requesting up to $20,000 per project. The grant application is available online at www.jewishdallas.org/grants. These grants are offered annually. Last year the Federation allocated $134,850 in Short-Term Grants to Dallas-area non-partner organizations and $112,000 to local partner agencies.
Long-Term Grants are available to current partner agencies that receive core funding from the Federation. These grants enable organizations to address increased and new needs for their organizations, as well as new, innovative programming. The grant funding commitment can be from 18 months up to three years. The maximum funding request is $75,000 per year. Similar to other Dallas-area grant-making organizations, the Federation will commit funding for up to three years, pending its performance, without the need for agencies to reapply annually. Last year the Federation allocated $694,000 in Long-Term Grants to its partner agencies.
“With the growth in our annual campaign, we have been able to support an increasing number of these innovative programs and look forward to continuing this expansion,” Federation President/CEO Bradley Laye said. “These supplemental funds continue to allow us to support new ideas and programs that strive to ensure our community’s strength and vibrancy.”
For more information on the grants, contact Evan Wolstencroft at ewolstencroft@jewishdallas.org or 214-615-5262.
—Submitted by Jon Cronson on behalf of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas.

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The network makes it hard to keep secrets

Posted on 13 December 2018 by admin

This week in Parashat Vayigash, Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers before reconciling with them. He then asks them to bring his father and their families to come live in Egypt, where Joseph had risen to such prominence.
At the emotional climax of this revelation, we read in Genesis 45:1-2: “Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, ‘Have everyone withdraw from me!’ So, there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace.”
If Joseph thought that he might keep his news private, he was badly mistaken, as confirmed in Verse 15: “The news reached Pharaoh’s palace: ‘Joseph’s brothers have come.’ Pharaoh and his courtiers were pleased.”
Secrets have a way of getting out, no matter the precautions or methods one takes to prevent them from doing so. I love what Benjamin Franklin had to say in Poor Richard’s Almanac about the keeping of secrets: “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.” Joseph’s hope of keeping his news private was doomed from the start, which is an important reality for us to keep in mind.
Information passes from person to person, whether we will it or not, through a network of friends and acquaintances. It can also be surprising how extensive those networks are. It’s fun to play Jewish geography, that social game when you meet someone for the first time and try to see if you have any connections within your overlapping Jewish networks. But, it is also illustrative of how far and wide information may flow.
I remember distinctly how surprised I was the first time I visited Israel. My friend and I took a Pan Am tour (which gives you an indication of just how long ago it was) of Israel over winter break during our sophomore year in college. We had a day to explore the Old City in Jerusalem and saw a sign in the Jewish Quarter for free tours. As college students, free was important to us, so we took the tour.
Before we got started, the guide asked us where we were from. “The United States,” I answered. “Yes,” he scoffed, “I know. Where are you from?” “New York.” “Yes, where are you from?” “Long Island.” “Where on Long Island?” “Syosset.” “Where in Syosset?” “‘Miller Boulevard,” I said, getting frustrated. “Oh, by the railroad tracks.”
It turned out he had had a girlfriend in Syosset and took the train out to meet her, and so he knew Miller Boulevard. I was astonished, though today I wouldn’t have been. A few weeks ago, I was honored to officiate at a wedding in New Orleans and met two different people at the reception whom I had a connection to through two different synagogues where I had served as rabbi. I know now that it is a small world and we are all connected in one way or another.
We live in a time when division and discord seem to be sky high. It would be better for us to remember how deeply connected we actually are, even when we aren’t aware of it. We should be careful of what we speak about and how we speak because what we say will be repeated farther and wider than we might believe to be possible.
We should also remember that we have far more connections and similarities than we have divisions. When we remember our connections, our differences begin to fade and we can live in a more harmonious world.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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A late take on December Dilemma

Posted on 13 December 2018 by admin

Dear Families,
When you read this, Hanukkah will be over, so why keep talking about a holiday that truly is not the most important in Judaism and has its share of myth-making (meaning the story we tell our children is not the whole truth)?
I am an avid reader of many Jewish internet sites, spanning all Jewish perspectives — it is good to expand to get the full picture of Jewish life. I have often recommended myjewishlearning.com, as it presents a variety of views. A part of the site that is specifically directed to families with young children is kveller.com.
In a recent post, there were a number of writings about Christmas and the age-old December Dilemma. A few that caught my eye were from either interfaith families or converts to Judaism. Each has a different struggle from our “typical” family with two Jewish parents. I say “typical” in quotes because there is no such thing.
Let me also recommend a book titled “Two Jews Can Still Be a Mixed Marriage” by Azriela Jaffe. The point being that we all come from different families with different traditions and ways of managing every part of our lives, Jewish and not specifically Jewish (for a discussion on what that means, I need another column). How do we live in this world of diversity and honor all, yet keep our uniqueness? This is a challenge for everyone.
So what did the various people say? Some converts and spouses in an interfaith family had a lot of trouble with “giving up Christmas.” All are a work in progress coming to terms with changing lives. For all of us celebrating whatever holidays we choose, it is an evolving process as we change and our families change.
We go from our parents’ home to perhaps time as a single to married to children and all the possibilities in between. Of course, there are differences, changes and challenges. And every family is different. Plus, there is no wrong way, just the way you make it work for your family.
Why talk about this after Hanukkah? As we know, the Jewish calendar is a strange thing, and this year Hanukkah was a bit early. We will soon have two months of Adar to get us back on track, and soon we will be saying that the holidays are late. Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations pose a problem whether early or late. This year, Hanukkah will be long gone by the time it is Christmas. Does that make it easier or harder?
As many of you know, I’m great at asking questions, then letting you decide the answers that work for you and your family. What will happen this Christmas for you? The bigger question is which Chinese restaurant will you be at and which movie will you be seeing on Christmas Day? Yes, that is a common tradition for us Jews.

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A 7-year-old girl, Pearl Harbor Day and Zaidy’s watch

Posted on 13 December 2018 by admin

This isn’t the column I originally wrote for today. You can read that next week. Instead, I’m adding my story to Jerry Kasten’s great column of last week, the day before Pearl Harbor Day.
Dec. 7, 1941. Believe it or not, I remember it well. I was 7 years old, wearing a maroon taffeta dress, all fancied up because I was old enough to go to the special luncheon honoring my mother’s father for his service to the Knights of Pythias Lodge. I didn’t even know what a lodge was, but it was exciting to see Zaidy get a gold pocket watch with his name and the date engraved on the back.
A man gave a speech. Then Zaidy got up to read his thank-you when all hell broke loose outside. Everyone ran to the windows, and there were people screaming hysterically. The news had just broken: The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
It took quite a while before things quieted down, and when my Zaidy finally stood up again, he tore up his own speech, looked around the room and pointed to each of his five sons sitting there. “All of you will go,” he said. “And I hope all of you will come back.” And then he cried. I never saw my Zaidy cry before — or any time after.
Yes, they all enlisted — the very next day. But before they left home, they took the watch to the jeweler and had him add “Remember Pearl Harbor” to the engraving. Uncle Ben, Uncle Srol, Uncle Yos — all joined the Army, serving (in this order) in Africa, Italy and Belgium. Uncles Lou and Nate went into the Merchant Marine, and sailed to places I’d never heard of before. And, yes — they all came back.
When they did, my Boubby the Philosopher removed her Five-Star banner from the front window, and her sons pooled their money to buy a really big house for their really big family. We’ve looked up the sale: three floors — seven bedrooms — very large living room, dining room, kitchen: $4,100 in 1945. The family’s first dinner there was on Thanksgiving Day that year. Imagine what a Thanksgiving that was.
Maybe I’ve told some of you all of this in the past. Maybe I’ve even shown you the watch — because I have it. After Zaidy and Boubby passed away, after Uncles Ben and Yos and Nate and Lou had joined them, Uncle Srol, the only son left, gave it to me — the oldest child of the oldest child in that family of 12 children: my mother.
Uncle Srol (Yiddish shorthand for his Hebrew name, Yisroel) is now 96, a proud World War II veteran. And healthy. He still drives — but not at night. He still works — but it’s his own business, so he can do as he pleases. And he still lives in that big house, all by himself, so that anyone in the family who comes “home” to visit has a place to stay.
And I wear the watch now, on a gold chain, on every patriotic occasion, and tell its story to everyone I can. I speak about it to groups, and when individuals notice and comment on it, I tell them, too. So maybe you’ve seen it and heard about it already. But if not, look for me whenever there’s a day to show the flag; I’ll be showing the watch as well. Keep an eye out for it.
But now: Do the math. I was 7 years old on the real Pearl Harbor Day, so I wonder today about what to do with the watch when it’s my time to join that crowd somewhere other than where I am now. Who should get it? My daughter Devra and my first cousin David are both my Zaidy Dave’s namesakes. (But of course, a girl would wear it on a chain…)
Jerry: Keep on keeping on, with my heartfelt thanks to you.

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Our environment has a big impact on our lives

Posted on 13 December 2018 by admin

I always imagined I’d be the same person I was outside of yeshiva as I was in yeshiva. Of course, yeshiva is a hotbed of religious passion and zeal, a place where one’s highest aspiration is to become as the great Torah teachers and sages who surround you.
The beit midrash (study hall) is filled throughout the day and much of the night with both the young and the old hunched over ancient, sacred tomes, plumbing their depths and delighting in new Torah discoveries. It wasn’t difficult to get caught up in the spirit of the place. On the contrary, one had to essentially and willfully remove oneself from the spiritual gusto to avoid being swept up in its wings.
Of course, I didn’t realize at that time just how much of my own religious devotion and iron-willed Torah-study focus was a product of living in that rarefied, supportive environment. I, like others, regarded my essential “self” and my value system as essentially one and the same; wherever I’d go my core tenets and commitments would surely follow.
And so, I surmised, if daily exertion in Torah study and fastidious attention to Jewish practice lay at my spirit’s ideological core, no circumstances that life outside of yeshiva might throw my way could, in any meaningful way, derail my life’s determined course.
I look back at my younger self now and realize how very naive I truly was.
Little did I know at the time just how much of my 26-year-old self would leave the larger yeshiva bubble along with me, fully intact, and how much of what I thought of as myself remained in reality as a free agent, susceptible and impressionable to outside influence and pressure (such was the case, even as I was solely transitioning to a spiritual “safe-space” in communal Jewish education).
Life in my new, smaller learning environs was an adjustment to say the least. It’s simply not as easy to remain as motivated in a beit midrash filled with eight people instead of a couple of hundred. And the sheer intellectual and spiritual “competition” (what the Talmud refers to as kinat soferim — the spiritually beneficial jealousy of the wise) that permeates and animates the yeshiva student in yeshiva — well, that was now mostly a thing of the past. It was a path of least resistance to find comfort in one’s newfound status as a learned person in this smaller enclave and to forget just how recently one had been sitting near the base of the totem pole of Jewish knowledge back in yeshiva. And that allowed for the slow setting in of spiritual stagnation and plateau.
This new environment would bring with it challenges to the religious life that I didn’t know existed and certainly wasn’t prepared for. A new set of tactics, I would quickly discern, would be needed to meet this new spiritual test head-on if I were to take the advancements I had acquired during my yeshiva years along with me into my second act.
Humans are deeply impacted by their environments and social circles. This much is well documented in both the social sciences as well as our own tradition. Pirkei Avot, for example, exhorts us on the one hand to “let your home be a meeting place for the wise; dust yourself in the soil of their feet, and drink thirstily of their words” (1:4), and, on the other side, to “distance yourself from an evil neighbor and do not befriend the wicked person” (1:7). We human beings, after all, are ever-malleable in our natures, both for the good and the bad.
Maimonides, too, eloquently noted, “It is natural for a man’s character and actions to be influenced by his friends and associates and for him to follow the local norms of behavior. Therefore, he should associate with the righteous and be constantly in the company of the wise, so as to learn from their deeds. Conversely, he should keep away from the wicked who walk in darkness, so as not to learn from their deeds….”
Stuck in a place where you can’t escape negative influences? Maimonides suggests you “go out to caves, thickets, and deserts [rather than] follow the paths of sinners…” (De’ot 6:1). In such a degenerate society, returning Homo sapiens’ habitation to caves suddenly seems a great feat of human advancement.
And so, even as motivational speaker Jim Rohn may not have had humanity’s spiritual and ethical characters in mind when he uttered his now-famous words, “You are the average of the five people you most associate with,” we certainly ought to.
It was only recently, though, while studying the weekly parasha, that I fully realized the utter extent of the impact that one’s environment has upon the individual.
It had been a long, 22-year period of estrangement since Yaakov had last seen his embittered brother Esav. And last Yaakov knew, Esav was still out for his blood for stealthily wresting away his birthright blessing from their aged and blind father. What could Yaakov say or do these many years later to appease or disarm a bloodthirsty Esav and hope to escape this fateful meeting with his life and the lives of his family?
The text records that Yaakov devised a plan. He split up his children into their maternal groupings, each one a distance from the other, ensuring the survival of at least some of them in case of a military attack. He prepared long lines of lavish gifts for his brother, the better to soften a long-hardened heart. And finally, he commanded his servants ahead of him to share his carefully prepared words — words which on a surface level seem utterly unremarkable and flat.
“Thus shall you say to my master to Esav, ‘Thus said your servant Jacob, “I have sojourned (‘garti’) with Lavan, and I have lingered until now”’” (Beresheet 32:5).
Yaakov had indeed lingered these many years with Lavan, his wicked father-in-law. He had diligently tended his father-in-law’s flock day and night, and in return earned the right to marry his two daughters, Leah and Rachel, and acquire a sizable portion of livestock for himself.
But Rashi is more concerned with the hidden layers of meaning behind Yaakov’s words. The word “garti” (“sojourned”), notes Rashi, has the same numerical value as “taryag” (613). In other words, Yaakov’s words to Esav could equally be read, “(Know that) I have kept the 613 commandments while in Lavan’s house.”
This short and effective line was a warning shot.
For Yaakov was letting Esav know that God and His protective wings were still spread over him. Yes, it is true that he had been living in the shadow of a wicked man for over two decades, but no, he had not adopted his father-in-law’s evil ways along the way and subsequently fallen out of God’s graces. “I wouldn’t mess with me if you know what’s good for you!” was Yaakov’s subtle yet pointed intent.
What I find amazing, and that which I had never satisfactorily considered in the meaning of Rashi’s commentary, is the clear implication that Esav considered it a real and ever-present possibility that Yaakov, the crown jewel of the Forefathers, the one whom the Torah describes as “the dweller of tents” (a reference to his constant presence in the house of study) and the husband to two of our saintly Matriarchs, might have lost his spiritual way due to those years lived in close proximity to a wicked man.
And Yaakov, in seeming agreement as to the possibility of such a personally calamitous eventuality, feels the need to dispel those considerations!
What the Torah is teaching us is that nobody — no matter who you are, what family you come from or what you’ve accomplished in your lifetime — is immune from the forces of their environment. If Yaakov Avinu is at risk, so are we all.
How vigilant must we then be in guarding against the negative influences of the societies in which we live and how equally determined we must be to find and secure spiritually and ethically rich friends, communities and environs in which to spend most of our time. As long as we don’t imagine ourselves more powerful than the forces around us, we can, at a minimum, do our part to stack the decks of influence in our favor.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the outreach director of DATA of Plano. He can be reached at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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The gift of flavor is always welcome

The gift of flavor is always welcome

Posted on 05 December 2018 by admin

Photo: Tina Wasserman
Gift Mug

By Tina Wasserman

Yes, you can make a batch of cookies and give it to the teacher or your manicurist or doctor, but wouldn’t it be nice to make something that was totally unexpected, delicious and useful?
The following recipes are some of my favorite recipes to make for gift-giving, along, of course, with some baked goods that I can easily make in large quantity for people I didn’t mean to forget but still want to send thanks to.
Although you can always put your goodies on a plastic plate, why not find giant mugs or Ball jars that you can decorate with a square of cloth under the lid? Use your imagination. If these ideas are coming too late for your hectic schedule, consider hitting the after-holiday sales for all items with holiday motifs. Only caveat…remember where you stored them for next year. Have fun.
Spiced Angel Pecans
Get out your Costco or Sam’s card and buy those big bags of pecans. This recipe is fast and totally addictive. They store well, even in the freezer and make a great gift. One warning, those round cans you see at the Container Store are adorable but save them for cookies, otherwise you will find your supply of Spiced Pecans is rapidly diminished!
1 egg white
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 pound pecan halves
½ cup sugar
1½ teaspoons cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
1. Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
2. Place egg white in a 2-quart bowl and beat with a whisk until light and foamy.
3. Fold in melted butter and vanilla into the whites. Add the nuts and gently stir to coat all the nuts with the egg-white mixture.
4. In a small bowl, combine the sugar, cinnamon, allspice and salt, then gently fold into the nuts to coat evenly.
5. Spread the nuts onto a jellyroll pan lined with parchment paper and bake for 45 minutes, stirring the nuts after the first 25 minutes. Nuts should be very crisp and dry.
6. When completely cool, store in an airtight container or freeze in zip freezer bags until ready to use.
Variations:
For savory nuts: Substitute 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce for vanilla and use 1½ teaspoons Lawry’s seasoned salt, ¼-½ teaspoon garlic powder and ¼ teaspoon curry powder instead of the other spices. Prepare as directed above.
For orange-spice nuts: Substitute 1 teaspoon orange extract for the vanilla and use ½ teaspoon cardamom instead of the nutmeg. Prepare as directed above.
Tina’s Tidbits:
• Recipe can be doubled, but make sure to use two pans for roasting so the nuts aren’t crowded.
• This recipe can also be made with coconut oil, if you prefer them pareve.
Spiced Cranberry Vinegar
Here’s a gift that you can give on its own or add to your gift with your favorite salad ingredients, such as dried fruit pieces, croutons and toasted nuts.
12 ounces fresh cranberries
1 quart apple cider vinegar
7 whole allspice berries
1 stick of cinnamon
2/3 cup sugar
3-inch strip of orange zest
1. Wash and drain the cranberries and set aside for garnish. Pat them dry with a paper towel.
2. Place the remaining cranberries in a food processor work bowl and pulse 8-10 times until the cranberries are coarsely chopped. Place cranberries in a large glass container or plastic container, with a lid, large enough to hold ½ gallon.
3. Empty the vinegar into a 2-quart stainless steel pot. Add the allspice and the cinnamon stick and bring just to a boil.
4. Immediately pour the hot vinegar and spices over the cranberries. Cover and let them sit at room temperature for a day or so (the longer, the more intense the color and flavor).
5. Strain the vinegar into a clean 2-quart, stainless steel saucepan. Press on the crushed cranberries to extract as much of their juices as possible.
6. Add the sugar and heat on medium until the sugar is dissolved. Pour the hot vinegar into clean glass jars or bottles and add some of the fresh cranberries.
7. Using a sharp vegetable peeler, carefully remove only the zest from the orange, running the vegetable peeler horizontally over the orange to remove three or four 3-inch curls that are about ½ inch wide.
8. Add a strip of zest and, if you like, a piece of cinnamon stick to each bottle. Seal, refrigerate and use in any vinaigrette dressing.
Tina’s Tidbits:
• It is very important to use non-reactive pots and jars when you are working with acidic foods like vinegar. Never use aluminum pans.
• You can use a zester to make long strips of orange zest and then add four or five strips to each bottle instead of one large strip.
Homemade Irish Cream
The following recipe makes about close to a fifth of liquor. I would suggest putting it into 8-ounce decorative bottles. The longer the mixture sits in the refrigerator, the richer the taste and thickness but it’s OK to taste-test a little after you make it — just to make sure it is OK.
1 cup Irish whiskey
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
4 eggs
2 tablespoons chocolate syrup
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon coconut extract
2 teaspoons powdered instant espresso
1. Combine all of the ingredients in a blender at low speed to thoroughly blend.
2. Transfer to a clean bottle and store in the refrigerator for up to three months. Shake well before using.
Tina’s Tidbits:
• I generally use Jameson’s Irish Cream, but I have also used Single Malt Scotch (much to my husband’s chagrin).
• If you are lactose intolerant, I found a can of sweetened condensed coconut milk, but I don’t know how available it is in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
• Do not worry about the eggs in this recipe. Prolonged contact with the alcohol “cooks” the eggs to make it safe to drink.
• If you want to add to your gift, you might want to give a pound of coffee or a pint of vanilla ice cream for serving suggestions.
Strawberry Confections
I have had this recipe for over 40 years, and I forget how pretty they are as well as colorful. Instead of “strawberries,” you could shape them more like a dreidel and coat them in blue sugar with a piece of a chocolate Pokey stick pushed into the top.
8 ounces pitted dates
½ cup sweetened shredded coconut
½ cup sugar
4 tablespoons butter, cut into 4 pieces
1 egg
1½ cups crisp rice cereal
½ cup pecans
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 jar red sugar crystals
Green ribbon or leaves
Green toothpicks
1. Grind the dates in a processor work bowl with the sugar and coconut.
2. Add the butter and egg and pulse until butter is incorporated.
3. Empty contents of the work bowl into a saucepan and cook over low heat until mixture begins to bubble and appears thick. Stir frequently so the mixture does not burn. This should take about 7 minutes. Remove from heat.
4. Meanwhile, grind the nuts and the cereal in the processor (there is no reason to wash the work bowl from the date mixture).
5. Stir the vanilla into the date mixture and add the nut mixture. Cool.
6. Scoop a teaspoon of mixture and roll into a ball. Roll this ball into the red sugar crystals.
7. Flatten one side of the ball and, holding all your fingers on one hand together, lightly pinch and shape the other side of the ball to make it somewhat pointed.
8. Cut the ribbon into a 1-inch circle with slightly jagged edges and place on the flat side of the “strawberry.” Place a 1-inch piece of toothpick through the center of the ribbon to look like a stem.
Tina’s Tidbits:
• I prefer to use soft medjool dates, but you can use the Deglet Noor that are commonly found in boxes in the baking aisle. Remember to remove the pits.
• Never use the boxed chopped dates. They are covered in sugar, would not provide enough dates and will provide more sugar for the 8 ounces.
• The recipe can be made with margarine instead of butter. Coconut butter can be substituted as well, but since it is very soft at room temperature, I am concerned that it might be too soft.
White Chocolate Holiday Hash
Why pay $20-plus for a mixture that you can make in a jiffy and reflects the holiday spirit? Delicious and easily made gluten-free with GF pretzels.
2 12-ounce bags of white chocolate chips
5 ounces candy canes or Starlight mints, or one 5-ounce candy cane stick
4 ounces of small pretzels or pretzel sticks
4 ounces sweetened dried cranberries, optional
4 ounces semisweet dark chocolate chips, optional
1. Unwrap candy canes or candies and place in a plastic bag. Pound bag lightly with a rolling pin to break candy into small pieces. Some of the candy will be pulverized; that’s OK. You should have about 1 cup. Set aside.
2. Place pretzels in a plastic bag and lightly pound with a rolling pin until you have very small pieces. You should have about 1½ cups. Set aside.
3. Place the white chips in a 2-quart glass bowl, then place the bowl in a 10-inch skillet that has been filled with 1 inch of water. This creates a double boiler effect. Heat chips over medium heat, stirring often, until chips are melted and mixture is smooth. Remove the bowl from the skillet.
4. Reserve 2 tablespoons of crushed candy. Add the remaining candy, all of the pretzel mixture and the sweetened dried cranberries, if using, to the white chocolate. Fold ingredients together until well combined.
5. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper or foil and then spread the hash with the back of the spatula until it is about 1/8-¼ inch thick.
6. Sprinkle reserved crushed candy over top, then refrigerate until firm. Break into pieces and serve or wrap for gifts.
7. May be stored at room temperature.
Tina’s Tidbits:
• White chocolate does not contain any chocolate liquor or cocoa, just cocoa butter. Care needs to be taken when cooking with this confection. If added to more fat or cooked over high heat, it will separate and become an unusable oily mass.
• Semisweet chocolate may be melted in microwave and then piped in lines through a small round tipped decorating cone over the hash while it is still warm. The biggest problem with this is sometimes the dark chocolate breaks off when it is set or during shipping.

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The definitive latke recipe (and don’t use russets)

The definitive latke recipe (and don’t use russets)

Posted on 05 December 2018 by admin

Photo: Tina Wasserman
Latkes (Potato Pancakes)

By Tina Wasserman

Many years ago, I was making latkes in my daughter’s Sunday School classroom while others were doing the same in their child’s class. People started to come in to see my latkes because they heard that they weren’t gray/black, thin and watery. My recipe is below, with step-by-step instructions to prevent all of the above problems.
One “Tidbit” I can’t save for last is this: I never use russet potatoes. Russets have too much starch and thick skins. When you use white or Yukon Gold potatoes, there is no need to peel. If that doesn’t make you switch your potato choice, I don’t know what would.
Although latkes are a perfect accompaniment to beef or chicken, they can also be made into small rounds and topped with sour cream and caviar for an elegant appetizer.
Latkes (Potato Pancakes)
6-8 large thin-skinned potatoes, California long whites or Yukon Gold (about 3 pounds)
3 eggs, beaten well
1½ tablespoons Kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2 medium-large onions (¾-1 pound total), cut into 8 pieces
1 cup matzo meal or cracker meal
Oil for frying
Applesauce, sour cream or caviar for garnish (optional)
1. Grate the raw potatoes using the grating disk on a processor or the largest holes on a grater, if doing it by hand. Place grated potato in a strainer, rinse thoroughly with cold water and drain while you grate onion.
2. Combine eggs, salt and pepper in a 4-quart bowl. Mix thoroughly and set aside.
3. Change to the cutting blade on your processor. Add onions to the work bowl. Pulse on and off five times. Add 1/3 of the grated potatoes to the onion, and pulse on and off to make a coarse paste. Add to the egg mixture along with the matzo meal and stir to combine.
4. Add the remaining drained potatoes to the bowl and mix thoroughly, using a large spoon or your hands.
5. Heat a large frying pan or large skillet for 20 seconds. Add enough oil to cover the pan to a depth of ¼ inch and heat for an additional 20 seconds. Drop mounds of potato mixture into the pan. Fry on both sides until golden. Drain fried latkes on a platter covered with crumpled paper towels. Serve with applesauce and sour cream if desired.

Tina’s Tidbits:
• Grated potatoes turn black when exposed to air. Rinsing the potatoes under running water washes away excess starch and the discoloring culprit.
• Always grate your potatoes separately from your onions; that way, you won’t lose any of the flavorful juice when you drain the potatoes.
• Use an ice cream scoop to get perfectly round latkes. A smaller scoop is perfect for appetizer-sized latkes.
• The best way to drain fried foods is on a plate covered with crumpled paper towels. Crumpling gives more surface area for absorption.
• Never refrigerate latkes.
• Either make earlier in the day and keep at room temperature before reheating in a 400-degree oven.
• Or fry, cool to room temperature, freeze on lined baking sheet and, when frozen, put into a freezer bag. Make sure you use a straw and suck out all the air in the bag so no ice crystals form on the latkes.
• When ready to cook, just place frozen latkes on a parchment-lined baking sheet and reheat in a 425-degree oven until crisp and bubbly around the edges.

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