Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Small Miracle: The Extra Lulav and Esrog

On the Festival of Sukkot (Feast of Booths), Jews not only put up the Sukkah (booth) to eat our meals in (about which I have written before) we also wave the Four Species -- palm, myrtle, willow and estrog (also spelled etrog) fruit -- in the six directions on each day of the holiday (more on the meaning of that later).  Special sets of these are imported from Israel, and must be ordered in advance.  And therein lies a tale that proves how God works in mysterious ways.

Because I live in a remote area of Minnesota, 75 miles from the nearest synagogue, the easiest way for me to get my lulav set is to order online.  A guy named shmuly770 was selling them on eBay and since I also sell on eBay, I ordered from him.  According to plan, the lulav should have arrived by UPS on or before Thursday, September 27, well in time for the holiday, which begins this year on Sunday night.

However, there was a problem with UPS being late, and on Thursday morning UPS tracking still showed the package as "in transit," with the last known station still out in California.   Shmuly was worried that I would not get my set on time and not be able to do the mitzvah.  Out of the goodness of his heart, he sent a second set by Priority Mail at his own expense -- without me even asking.  (Such a mensch!) As it turned out, both sets arrived on time   But here is WHY Shmuly had to send that extra set:

I volunteer at the federal prison just outside of Sandstone to visit Jewish inmates.  Today I am scheduled to go there to put the shchach (natural plant materials) on the sukkah that is erected each year inside the compound, and be sure everything is kosher.  (The sukkah walls can be put up by anybody, and at the prison this is done by a work crew, but the shchach must be put on by Jews.  So I always go to personally supervise this.)

When I called the chaplain's office on Friday to be sure the sukkah was up and the greens were cut, he said yes, all that was ready, but their lulav set had not arrived yet. (It was also coming by UPS).  If it came Saturday he would not be able to get it from the warehouse because it is not open on weekends.  The chaplain himself was going to be gone Monday through Wednesday, which meant the soonest he could get it would be Thursday -- three days after the holiday started -- oy vey!  (Apparently only the chaplain can retrieve packages for the chapel, for security reasons.) But YES, I could bring in and donate the extra set I "just happen" to have on hand now -- which I will do today!  So this is why my first package was late, and why Shmuly had to send me an extra set!  Such a great mitzvah!

Now for the meaning of the Four Species.  Actually, there are several interpretations (as is often the case in Judaism), but I like this one best:

The Palm is tall and beautiful but has no scent.  It represents the Jew who has scholarly learning, but is lacking in actually doing the mitzvot.

The Myrtle is a scrubby bush with a lovely scent.  It represents the Jew who has very little Torah learning, but does many mitzvahs, acts of charity, and has compassion.

The Willow has no scent, but it is flexible.  This is the Jew who has neither Torah learning nor is he (or she) observant, but has humility and bends before God like a willow.

The esrog fruit is both beautiful and has a lovely scent.  It represents the Jew who has both Torah learning and mitzvot, but may be tempted to become proud and distance him/herself from the rest of the community.

In the ceremony, the first three species -- palm, myrtle, and willow -- are bound together and held in one hand, while the esrog is held separately in the other.  Only when all four species are brought together, with the esrog touching the other three, do we have the ceremonial Four Species.  In the same way, only when all the Jews, learned or not, observant or not, come together as one, do we have the complete Jewish community.

Raindrops photo by Linda F. Palmer
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 
In addition, all four of these species grow near water, and on the first day of Sukkot we add the prayer for rain to the liturgy. The word "Hosannah" come from the Hebrew ho-sha-nah, meaning "save us now," and is taken from the Sukkot prayer for rain.  In Israel, this is normally the beginning of the rainy season, and here in Minnesota we usually get fall rains also.  However, we are in the middle of a severe drought right now and there has been no rain on my land for two months.  Israel, too, is suffering from drought.  So as I wave my lulav this year, I will indeed focus on rain for the land and water for all God's creatures who live upon it. (Strangely enough, rain often does come during Sukkot, no matter when it falls during the month.)

Wishing you all a joyous and, hopefully, rainy Sukkot.

  Chag Sameach!

Our sukkah in 2012

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

In Loving Memory of My Sweet Coolio Cat

Coolio, my old white cat, passed away around one o'clock in the morning on September 22, 2012, which was both the fall equinox and Shabbat Tshuvah, the Sabbath that comes between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  It was a very auspicious time for my 15-year-old feline friend to make his transition into the next world.

We found Coolio as a half-grown,very hungry white kitten who was hanging around our hobby farm when we moved there in the spring of 1997.  Half his tail was missing, and what was left was all broken up and bent. ( I always wondered if he had gotten caught in a trap.)  He had been stealing dog food from my neighbor's yard, but they didn't really want him.  All it took was one bowl of cat food for him to decide he was going to be ours for life.

They say that white cats don't catch as much as tabbies, because they are more visible to the mice.  Coolio must have known this, because he used to roll in the dust on our dirt road, to camouflage himself before he went hunting.  He also learned to sit on top of rocks, logs, and other perches, then patiently look down into the tall grass.  When a mouse or other prey came by, he pounced off his perch like a mountain lion and, more often than not, succeeded.  He certainly did his share of rodent control around here!

When he wasn't outside hunting, he loved to cuddle.  I used to call him "The Undercover Cat," because on chilly nights he would crawl under the covers with me, with just his head poking out against my cheek, purring softly.  In his prime he was a rather fat cat (having known hunger, he tended to overeat on whatever food was around).  Once, when he was curled up in the front room with his head tucked under his body, my grandson asked, "What is that?"  I replied, rather sarcastically, "That is a cat."   He laughed and said, "Oh, I thought it was a fur pillow!"  (Which would be a real shock in our vegetarian home.)

Coolio was indeed soft as a cuddly pillow -- so much so, that I used to sing him a silly song to the tune of "Calendar Girl," about how "I love, I love, I love, I love my Coolio Cat, Oh my sweet soft Coolio Cat..."  (What can I say?  I'm autistic, and I have this weird thing with tunes going through my head, often with new words coming out of my own brain.  Sometimes I feel like I'm living in a Broadway musical.  On the other hand, my autism has brought me much closer to my animals.)

Coolio also loved to sit in the sink.  So does his black female friend, Nightshade.  I don't know what it is about the sink that cats love so much.  I theorize that the porcelain must be cooler in the summer, and in winter it's often warm from the water that went down the drain after washing.  Nightshade is like a little heat-seeking missile who can always locate the warmest spot to curl up.  On Shabbat you can find her sitting next to the warm crock pot that holds our vegetarian Sabbath soup.

Earlier this summer I noticed that Coolio was slowing down, spending most of his time closer to home, and not eating as much.  There wasn't anything really wrong with him except old age.  I got him a bigger variety of wet foods, and learned that he preferred the kinds with fish, probably because they smell stronger.  Older cats, I read somewhere, tend to lose some of their sense of smell.  This seemed to be true with Coolio.

As he got closer to death, he slept most of the time, often on the bathroom windowsill, where the sun warmed him in the morning and he could look outside and smell the flowers and trees.  On nice days I would take him outside.  He was getting too slow and vulnerable to be out there alone, so I would sit on the porch and watch him take short walks and lie basking in the sun.  At night I would carry him upstairs with me, because he was too weak to climb the stairs by himself.  Toward the end he was pretty thin and bony, so he preferred to sleep on my bed, curled up on one of his fuzzy cat blankets.  (I did worry about incontinence, but decided it would be no worse than cleaning up after a messy human baby.  As it was, he was able to get to the upstairs catbox and never did leak.)

Some people reading this may wonder why I didn't just have him euthanized when it became  obvious he was dying.  I'm not 100% against euthanasia if an animal is severely injured or in serious pain.  But I do believe that animals have souls -- maybe not exactly like human souls, but there is a consciousness there -- and that it is best for them to die naturally whenever possible.  Coolio wasn't really suffering, he was just very old.  And he seemed to know the end was coming, as animals often do.  Had he been a wild animal, he would have crawled off in the bushes somewhere to die alone.  Because he was bonded with me, he chose to be in my room, away from the hubbub of the household but still in familiar surroundings.

On the night he died, he was lying beside me on my bed.  I don't know if he had made a noise or just moved, but I woke up and saw that the end was at hand.  As I stroked him, he purred very softly, his breathing became shallower, his heartbeat slowed.  Then he took the last breath.  I felt a few more heartbeats, and he was gone.  It was a sad moment, but also very spiritual.  I have been at the deathbed of many animals over the years (as well as a few humans), and it never seems to amaze me, this mystical thing called death.  One moment they are alive in this world, and the next moment, they are gone.  There was no Grim Reaper come for Coolio, just the soft, quiet whisper of angel wings.  I only hope that when my time comes, my death will be as gentle and easy as Coolio's was.  I miss him very much, but I also believe he is waiting for me at the foot of the Rainbow Bridge, and that one day we will go together to the spiritual Garden of Eden. 

The story of the Rainbow Bridge
(click the pic to enlarge and read it)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Harvesting Wild Plums (Prunus americana)

One good thing about the unusually warm spring we had this year: we got a great crop of wild plums.  This far north, the plum crop is rather iffy, because a late frost often kills the blossoms.  But not in 2012.  I just finished making jam, fruit leather, and wine from the fruit of our plum thicket.

Wild plums gathered on our land.
The window of opportunity for harvesting these delicious little plums is very narrow.  No sooner do they ripen, than the wind knocks them to the ground, where they are relished by various forms of wildlife.  In fact, it was my chickens who alerted me to the fact that the plums were ripe.  When the roosters find something especially good to eat, they call the hens with a very specific cackle and they all come running.  (This, by the way, is why the Talmud, Eruvin 100b, says we should learn "courtesy from the rooster" -- he lets his hens eat first.)   When I heard my chickens calling and scratching back there in the plum thicket, I knew something was up!  Chipmunks and wild birds were also enjoying the feast.

Wild plums don't keep very well, which is why you will never see them for sale in the store.  If you want to preserve them, you have to process them right away.  We usually make jam, and this year I decided to make fruit leather as well.  The normal way to extract the pulp and juice is to boil the plums and strain out the pits and skins, but this kills the seeds.  I wanted viable seeds to sell in my eBay store, The Happy Rooster, so I pitted them by hand.  A messy job! 

For fruit leather, I loaded the pitted plums, skins and all, into the food processor, set it on puree, then dried the resulting mess in my food dehydrator (which has special inserts for making leathers.  I suppose you could also do it on waxed paper in a low oven.  I'm told the Indians used to dry the pitted plums in the sun, and I've heard of people making solar food dryers.)  These plums are pretty tart, so we tried both a sweetened and non-sweetened version.  Both are delicious!

Getting a clear jelly from these plums is next to impossible, but they make a pretty good jam if you strain out the skins and most of the yellowish pulp.  I use a colander for this, since it is too thick to go through cheesecloth.  This leaves me with a pink slurry.  Following an old traditional recipe, I add one cup of sugar per cup of juice, then boil until it "seals the tines of a fork," or jells when you cool a spoonful.  (I suppose there is a proper temperature if you use a candy thermometer, but I've always done it seat-of-the-pants.)   I find there is enough pectin in the plums to jell on their own, but if you have some apple juice to add, it makes a nice combination.  If for some reason your jelly doesn't jell, you can still use it as a delicious syrup on pancakes or ice cream.

The last product I made is (or soon will be) a gallon of plum wine.  I started making my own wines when we moved to rural Minnesota, because the only kosher wine we could find here was Manischewitz grape, which is cheap and sweet for the local winos but not a vintage that I enjoy.  Over the years I've experimented with making all kinds of wines, some better than others.  Just be sure to use wine yeast, which you can order online, not baking yeast.  My last batch of plum wine was pretty good.  I'll let you know in a few months how this vintage turns out.  L'chaim!

(To add wild plums to your wildlife landscaping, either buy trees from garden catalogues or, if you have the patience to grow trees from seed, you can get seeds from my eBay store, The Happy Rooster  while supplies last.  This is a native species that grows in zones 3-7.)

Wild plum blossoms in spring.  In addition to fruit,
these trees form a thorny thicket that birds like to nest in