Jewy goodness

Day 666: Acheinu (Our Brothers)

Right now, three people are being held hostage in a synagogue in Texas (one was released, uninjured, thank God.) It’s been ten hours now.

If the link worked, below you’ll find one of my favourite songs. The words are from the liturgy, and they say:

Our brothers, the whole house of Israel
Who are in distress and captivity,
Who are standing between the water and the land–
May God have mercy on them
and bring them out
From distress to comfort, from darkness to light,
From slavery to redemption,
Now, swiftly, and soon.

Amen v’amen.

(How I wish we didn’t need a prayer that says this.)

family fun · Jewy goodness · Kids

Day 645: Do you know where your children are?

Two of my kids are in Florida with my in-laws; one is upstairs in the attic. The fourth is with my parents, or at least she was when I left her there eight hours ago. Aside from a phone call around 2 p.m. asking me how to thread E’s sewing machine, I’ve heard nothing from that quarter.

It’s always a fraught decision: do I call them now and ask whether E is coming home or sleeping over, and risk alerting E to my existence in the process? Or do I not call—in the hope that E has forgotten about me and decided to sleep over—and end up with a very tired girl coming home late and being cranky in the morning?

(For the record, I’m on team “don’t call.” It’s winter vacation, my parents endured two months without this particular brand of sweetness, and we’ve got no plans for tomorrow, or the next day… or fourteen days after that—but that’s another story.)

Mr. December took K out for the traditional December 25 Chinese Food. In the meantime, I read a bit, did some crosswords, and finally—after two years—learned how to use the milk frother on my coffee machine (spoiler: it’s overrated.) I would have watched a movie if there was anyone who wanted to watch something with me, but as I said before, E is with my parents.

E is very eager to finish watching An American Tail with me. We started watching it on the plane from Guayaquil to the-airport-that-shall-not-be-named, although it’s more accurate to say that E watched the movie and I watched her. Her eyes lit up at the first “Happy Hannukah, Papa!” and she was riveted to the screen for the next forty minutes, when she took a quick break from the movie to tap me on the arm and inform me that “I think this is a Jewish story, Eema!”

It’s true what people say: representation really matters—especially to kids.

Since writing that last bit, E has come home. By all accounts, everyone had a good time—despite the fact that the sewing machine was getting stuck so E couldn’t work on her quilt. And I had a roughly-eight-hour break from being climbed on. Visits with the grandparents are a win for everyone.

Costa Rica · DIY · family fun · hackin' it · Holidays Jewish and holidays not. · Jewy goodness · Keepin' it real · Kids · Travelogue · what's cookin'

Day 620: Hannukah Hacks

It’s no secret that I really miss our Chanuka box. That little baby has everything in it: story books, candles, dreidels, menorahs, extra chocolate gelt, and a candy thermometer for perfect deep-frying. Here in Costa Rica we have… none of that. Put it all on the list of stuff I didn’t bring.

So how exactly are we celebrating Chanuka this year? Read on…

Candles and Menorah

Back home, I decided that we’d be able to do an oil menorah by boring some holes in a potato, filling them with oil, and using pieces of string as wicks. Then I got to the supermarket here and saw a pack of birthday candles with a bonus: those little plastic candleholders you stick into the birthday cake. My plan shifted, and we decided to stick the holders into a plantain to make our chanukiyah. It worked beautifully except for one minor detail: the plastic candleholders melted. From now on we’re just sticking the candles directly into the plantain.

A plantain (looks like a large bruised yellow banana) lying on its side on a dark granite countertop. There are nine plastic candleholders stuck into it in a line; the holder farthest to the right has a birthday candle in it.

A Dreidel

If you want to try this one, you will need:
A roll of blue painters’ tape
A pole-dancing pole
Children who enjoy the sensation of spinning
Something small to use as gambling currency (we used mini cookies)

It’s simple, really: using the blue painters’ tape I made the four Hebrew letters on the floor tiles surrounding the pole. We divided up the cookies equally, then took turns spinning R or E on the pole. The kid on the pole stuck out one leg, and whatever letter that leg pointed to when the spinning stopped was the result.

Chanuka Food

This one was easy. Potatoes and onions are cheap and easy to come by (which is probably why potato pancakes became the chanuka food of Ashkenazim in the first place.) I substituted panko crumbs for matzoh meal, and voilá! Tastes just like home.

We made sufganiyot too, which was easy given that the recipe uses basic baking ingredients. It was even easier than at home, actually: I found jam in a squeeze pouch with a nozzle, eliminating the messy work of getting jelly into my giant syringe for injection into the donuts. We need jam packaging like that at home!

Matches or a Lighter

If you don’t have matches or a lighter, you can roll up a piece of paper and stick it into the flames of a gas stove or barbecue. No gas appliances? Well, then you’re out of luck. That was us tonight: we had our candles all lined up and then realized we had no way to light them (this is the first place we’ve stayed that didn’t have matches in a drawer somewhere.) Sadly, we couldn’t light our candles tonight—but we still sang the blessings, omitting the one specific to the actual lighting.

After all that, my kids have still asked that we not travel over any more Jewish holidays… unless it’s to Israel. I can’t say I blame them.

Costa Rica · family fun · Jewy goodness · Keepin' it real · Kids · Travelogue · whine and cheese

Day 619: En Route

Author’s note: I wrote this last night, but we got in so late I couldn’t keep my eyes open to post. Enjoy. I’ll post later on for today’s installment.

In the end, the charms of the awesome jungle house didn’t outweigh its downsides. It was looking promising for a while until last night when K heard a dripping sound and looked up to see mealworm beetles falling from the ceiling. 

R packed her bags immediately and declared that she’d sleep on the couch. N topped that by announcing that he wouldn’t sleep at all (I’m not sure what that was supposed to achieve, but I had to admire the strength of his convictions.) K was mostly unaffected (her bedroom had very few insects in it) and E kept saying, “Can we please move somewhere else?” 

“Because there are BUGS FALLING FROM THE CEILING!” R and N chorused repeatedly. 

It was too late at night to start moving anywhere, but we all agreed that come morning we’d talk to our host and find a new place to stay. 

Our host—who, I remind you, spent most of yesterday vacuuming the whole house and spraying for bugs—was understanding and apologetic, and agreed to refund us for the next four nights. I found us a new AirBnB (it was our second-choice place after this jungle house) and we packed everything up. 

I had hoped to be writing this from the comfort of our new accommodations, but we’re still stuck in traffic. Our driver was an hour late picking us up: he took a wrong turn and then got his van stuck in the mud (it’s the dry season now and hasn’t rained in that part of the country in weeks, so his mud-finding talent is impressive.) 

We soon hit rush hour traffic; Mr. December suggested that we pull over at the next restaurant in the hope that while we were eating, traffic would clear up again. It didn’t really: we had stop-and-go traffic all the way to highway one. Then it moved, and then—bam!—traffic again. 

So here we are, on a two-lane highway in Costa Rica at nearly 10 p.m. I’d mention the lack of streetlights, but there are enough cars around us to keep everything pretty well illuminated, so streetlights really aren’t necessary right now. 

Our driver is not impressing me, I’ll tell you that much. He didn’t count his change from the toll booth until a couple hundred meters down the road, at which point he pulled a u-turn on a two-lane highway, drove back to the toll area, parked on the shoulder, and got out of the car to walk over to the booth and ask for the correct change.

Driving through Orotina—an area known for fruit production, according to our driver—we asked to stop at one of several enormous fruit stands. The place was lit up brightly enough to be mistaken for an operating theatre, a football stadium, maybe a movie set. It was jarring after three hours of darkness. On the plus side, we got churros, which seem like an appropriate Chanuka food. 

The kids are great, which is par for the course on long road trips. K and Mr. December are in the very back row discussing parenting styles, the Golden Ratio, base-pi mathematics, and philosophies of homeschooling; N is listening to them with one ear and playing something on the Nintendo Switch; R is colouring in a phone app; and until I pulled out the computer to start typing, E was riveted by my dramatic reading of Mr. Popper’s Penguins


It’s been a little while since I typed that last paragraph and now R is dozing on my shoulder. E is half asleep snuggled under my sweatshirt. K is still geeking out over polynomials and devising her own “base cactus” math. 

“They should pay you for this traffic,” Mr. December jokes as we sit in line for another toll both (I hope our driver counts his change this time.) 

Oh, look—this is our exit. I’d better stop typing and start directing. 

Costa Rica · family fun · Jewy goodness · Keepin' it real · Travelogue · whine and cheese

Day 618: A Chanuka Miracle

It’s absolutely amazing: a tiny can of oil that should have lasted eight nights got used up in one!

Okay, fine. It’s not a miracle… but it sure made our latkes taste good!

(Fun fact: the Spanish word for oil, aceite, is from the Arabic word that means olive, thanks to the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. It seems there are many Spanish words that are derived from Arabic, which is so close to Hebrew that I can spot the cognates. Isn’t that exciting?)

E took charge of our soundtrack tonight, playing all the Hannukah music she could find in my phone (I have quite a collection.) I made dough for sufganiyot, but after a giant platter of latkes nobody was terribly keen on them. The dough is resting in the fridge, ready to become a new family tradition: sufganiyot for breakfast!

I wish I’d packed a dreidel. Really, why didn’t I? They’re so small and packable. Instead, I’ve had to use what we have available—but that’s a story for another night. For now, suffice it to say that we played dreidel and everyone had fun. The kids played for cookies; N won.

Breaking news: Mr. December and the children have been methodically tracking down the epicentre of the bug infestation. The bugs, now identified as mealworm beetles, have just been seen dropping from one of the pot lights in the upstairs hallway, leading to the theory that there are some nests in the roof. This, after our host spent most of the day vacuuming and spraying the entire house in an attempt to get rid of them all. Stay tuned for further developments.

Costa Rica · family fun · Jewy goodness · Kids · Travelogue · Worldschooling

Day 610: On a Boat

“I’m on a boat.”

Mr. December texts that to his brother every time we’ve been on a watercraft this trip. Apparently it’s part of a very famous rap song, but I don’t know the song at all; at first, I thought it was a reference to those Old Spice commercials. You know, the ones where he’s like, “look at me. I’m on a horse.” In retrospect, I concede that he did say “horse,” not “boat,” but I still think of the Old Spice guy looking devastatingly handsome just standing on a luxury yacht.

Where was I? Oh, yes. On a boat. We went on a sailing tour this morning. They picked us up just down the beach from our villa and sailed us over to a secluded beach with caves to explore. Dolphins, manta rays, and a very large sea turtle swam by us on the way. The rays were spectacular: they leapt out of the water and flipped over and over multiple times before landing back in the ocean. I hadn’t known they could do that.

After a swim and a very short cave exploration, we got back into the boat and were greeted with fresh fruit, chips with frijoles and guacamole, and sandwiches. We sailed back towards our place. Several of us decided to lie down on the deck: Mr. December because he felt queasy (we forgot to bring Gravol,) I because my back was hurting (still is, actually,) and everyone else because they found the motion of the boat soothing.

We made sushi for dinner—the first time we’ve ever tried it. It was good. Note to self: have sushi night more often.

We had havdalah on the beach again. Then we went down the beach with flashlights and margarine containers in search of creatures that we don’t see during the day. We found sand crabs, hermit crabs, and snails of all sizes; a discussion of the ethics of pursuing and collecting small creatures ensued.

For the record, the hermit crab we found looked an awful lot like Mr. Krabbs from Spongebob Squarepants.

Tomorrow is our last full day in this beach house with our friends. We haven’t booked our next place yet, which is cutting it pretty close even for me, but Mr. December is holding out for a five-bedroom house near a beach with waves (it’s too calm for him out here.) If we don’t have an answer from that host by tomorrow morning, I’m booking our second-choice place (which was my first choice anyhow.)

Costa Rica · family fun · Jewy goodness · Kids · Uncategorized

Day 603: Friends

I’ve often said that it’s easier to have more kids than fewer. We’re now settled in Playa Hermosa, sharing an incredible house with friends from Toronto who just happen to be travelling with their kids for an entire year. When I say incredible, I mean that this is a huge house (each family has three of the six bedrooms) right on the beach, with a large swimming pool and plenty of grassy space to run around.

But the best thing about the house is that it comes with built-in playmates. This afternoon, we were told—quite firmly—“No adults allowed! Go take a nap or something. We’re filming and we need you out of the way!”

I obeyed, of course, and took a two-hour nap with Mr. December. When I woke up the kids were happily reviewing their footage (safely away from adult eyes) and debating whether they could film their last couple of scenes even though the lighting wouldn’t be quite right.

You know how I feel about kids creating their own projects completely divorced from adult guidance and supervision (if you’re new here: I love it.) Today felt like a dream. The kids were happy, we napped, and the weather was perfect.

And the perfect Shabbat came to a perfect end: with Havdalah on the beach.

Holidays Jewish and holidays not. · Jewy goodness · Keepin' it real · parenting

Day 558: Shul is Sweet

Today was Simchat Torah. I decided last week that we would cancel school for the day and go to synagogue in the morning. In other words, the kids knew, although apparently the warning wasn’t enough to ward off the whining.

“I don’t wanna go. Why do I have to?”

“Can I take a book?”

“Do I really have to go?”

Sometimes I wonder: do they really have to go? What are they getting out of it if they bring a book from home and read it while sitting and standing as required?

My best guess—and hope—is that they’re getting exposure. They’re feeling comfortable in the space; they’re hearing the words and traditional melodies of the prayers; they’re vaguely aware of the structure of the service. In other words, they’re getting comfortable with being in synagogue.

Today, in addition to getting comfortable in shul, they also got candy. So much candy.

I responded to the whining with, “You know, I’m so excited that this dress has pockets. Now I can hold Skittles in it to snack on at shul!”

They ran for their shoes.

I felt guilty for bribing them with sweets for about one minute before reminding myself that there’s a long Jewish tradition of this very thing: putting honey on a child’s first Hebrew book is the one that gets a lot of press, but also the occasional elderly congregant who kept candy on them just to give to kids at shul (“Don’t take candy from strangers,” I tell my kids, “unless they’re familiar people from shul and I’m there with you.”)

So there I was, standing for the prayers and dancing with the Torah with one or more children digging through my pockets for stray Skittles. At the end of the service—surprise!—someone handed out full-sized Dairy Milk bars, saying something about it being a South African tradition to give out chocolate to celebrate a Bar or Bat Mitzvah (one of the Torah readers today was a woman—South African, of course—celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of her Bat Mitzvah.) The kids went home happy.

On the walk home we ran into a friend who said, “Come to the dinosaur park at 2:30. There’s going to be a magic show and a parade with the Torah.” Three out of four of my kids are too old and too cool for that sort of thing, but E was enthusiastic; so we went.

There were two magic shows, as a matter of fact: the first one at the dinosaur park, followed by a Torah parade and candy for the children (E got a ring pop, which is her favourite,) and then a walk together all the way to a second park where a different magician gave a show, followed by a Torah parade and—yup, you guessed it—candy for the children. This time it was a treat bag containing chips, lollipops, and some kind of fruit leather.

To E’s credit, she didn’t rub it in her siblings’ faces when we got home with her bag of loot. She did say, “You guys missed a great show and I got a whole bag of candy!”. Then she proceeded to share everything in her bag.

As usual, I’m conflicted about all this candy. On the one hand the kids (and E in particular) have a positive (dare I say “sweet”?) association with shul; on the other hand, nobody needs this much candy… I’d better get Mr. December help me dispose of the rest, right? It’s for their own good, after all.

DIY · Holidays Jewish and holidays not. · Jewy goodness · Kids · what's cookin'

Day 549: At the Last Minute

Not sure who planned the timing on our (amazing, fabulous) weekend away (oh, wait, it might have been me,) but we got back home today at noon, which was about 7 hours before sundown marked the beginning of Sukkot.

No big deal, I thought to myself. I labelled everything so carefully when I took the sukkah apart last year—it should go up in an hour or two.

An hour or two? Ha! It took me around 6, start to finish. I haven’t figured out how it happened, but half of my carefully written-in-Sharpie labels were wiped clean, forcing me to guess which parts belonged where. I guess I’ll have to find something more permanent than Sharpie… maybe engraving with a Dremel?

Around 3:00 I realized that I was not going to have time to make dinner; I informed Mr. December, who went and told K and R that tonight’s dinner was their responsibility.

“Can’t we just order pizza?” They whined.

“Sure, if you’re paying with your own money,” Mr. December countered.

We didn’t order pizza.

K made Alfredo sauce from scratch and boiled an entire (big) package of fettuccine; N braided the challah dough that I’d had the presence of mind to take out of the freezer earlier; R made rice; then K made a “salad” of Multigrain Cheerios, dried cranberries, and almonds… with chocolate “salad dressing.” It wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to eat, but rules is rules, as they say, so I ate what I was given. The Alfredo sauce was very good—just the right amount of pepper and enough garlic to fell a 250-pound vampire.

So… a slightly under-decorated sukkah and a last-minute dinner by two child chefs. Not bad for the first night of Sukkot.

Stick around for a few days—I have so much to tell you. Right now, though, I need sleep desperately. I’m going to sneak upstairs before Mr. December and the kids notice I’m gone.