Barat Night

Shab-e-Barat/ Laylatun Nisfe min Sha’ban/ Laylat al Bara'at/ Berat Kandili

This Muslim holiday known by many names begins this evening (June 2nd, 2015). The holiday falls on the 15th of Sha’ban (the eighth month in the Islamic calendar) and is seen by many as a lead up to the holy month of Ramadan. 

It is known by many names and, subsequently, has several meanings. Shab-e-Barat is the South Asian name meaning Night of Records, but it is also known as The Night of Forgiveness/Deliverance/Emancipation, The Night of Atonement, and The Night of Innocence. While not an observance dictated in the Qur’an, the holiday is derived from several hadiths. According to tradition, this is the night when Allah decides the destiny of all for the year to come. The gates of Mercy are opened and those who will be born and those who will die are determined. Sunnis observe this day also as a commemoration of the Prophet Muhammad’s entry to Mecca. Muslims stay up all night praying and repenting. Some fast, but many feast as well. Many also take this day as a time to visit the graves of ancestors and send gifts of food to neighbors and relatives. Some Muslim communities observe the holiday as a festival of lights, burning candles, setting off fireworks and featuring string lights. The holiday therefore has the same blend of austerity, piety and joy that marks Ramadan. 

As for most Islamic holidays, culinary practices vary regionally. In Southeast Asia, favorite treats are roti and halwa. Some bakeries bake breads into elaborate shapes and designs.

For non-Muslims, there are similarities in practice to All Hallow’s Eve/All Souls day (with the distributing of soul cakes), Shavuot (with the all-night prayer session), and Yom Kippur (as a Day of Atonement). 

(It should be noted that this holiday is not celebrated by all Muslims, mainly because it is not Qur’anic. Additionally, there is controversy in the manner of observance as some practitioners frown upon the festive atmosphere of what they see as a day of austerity and prayer.)

For those who do observe with gastronomic abandon, The Daily Star (a Bangladeshi paper) offers up some delicious-looking treats (sweet and savory) for tonight’s festival. While I have never been a huge halwa fan, these variations might be enough to make a convert out of me.

In the meantime, give me some of Salina Parvin’s boti kebab:

Pan fried boti kebab 
½ kg beef chunk 
1 tbsp ginger paste
½ tsp garlic paste
½ tbsp vinegar
5 green chilli paste
5-6 crushed black paper
½ tsp kebab masala
1 tbsp ghee

Slice the meat chunks into thick pieces. Now boil the meat with little water, ginger-garlic paste, green chilli paste, salt and vinegar until the water dries out. Don't boil it too much as the meat is too tender. Heat 1 tbsp ghee in a pan, fry the boiled meat until charred. Sprinkle the crushed black paper and serve hot.



In Today's Interfaith-y News

Over on her blog, On Being Both, Susan Katz Miller reflects on the latest Pew Survey on America's Changing Religious Landscape

But first, let’s look at the important data on interfaith families in the new report. The researchers write that “people who have gotten married since 2000 are about twice as likely to be in religious intermarriages as are people who got married before 1960.” They found 28 percent of Americans living in an interfaith marriage or partnership (when we consider Protestants as one religion). That rises to 33 percent if we consider evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, and historically black Protestant denominations, as separate religious groups.

Here's the breakdown from the study:

More Shavuot/Pentecost reading

Media outlets attempt to explain these holidays that go unnoticed outside of church and synagogue:

Pentecost is this Sunday. What the Heck is Pentecost? From

Field Study: Why Shavuot is all but ignored across America From Tablet

According to Marissa Brostoff's piece in Tablet: 

The holidays that have done really well here are either firmly grounded in the home or allow for a kind of interplay between the synagogue and the home,” says Jenna Weissman Joselit, who teaches American Jewish history at George Washington University. Home-based holidays have strong elements of material and ritual—seders for Passover, sukkahs for Sukkot, menorahs for Hanukkah. But on Shavuot, “there’s no stuff and nothing to do, if you don’t go to shul.

But what about the cheesecake??


Culinary Conversion!

Beyond Cheesecake and Blintzes: A Shavuot Recipe With Meaning                               (From Tablet Magazine)         

Now this is what I'm talking about! A way to bridge your (or your partner's) cultural/culinary heritage with the holiday at hand. This essay is by a Jew-by-Choice. A common problem for those who throw their lot in with "the Tribe" is that you can't convert to having had a Jewish grandmother, with all the gastronomic nostalgia that conveys. But you CAN honor your Sicilian grandmother with a tweaking of her recipes.

Over on Tablet, The author offers a Baked Sea Bass with Artichokes, Mozzarella, and Old Bay Seasoning:

"Although unusual for Shavuot, the dish matches the holiday’s use of dairy and symbolic white food. Beyond that, with the Old Bay, I like to think it represents the ingenuity of Jewish migrants remaking their lives in new places, reminiscent of the ingenuity and perseverance of the Jews who escaped Egypt. And more personally, the recipe marries my past with my present, my Italian heritage with my Jewish one—on a holiday celebrating commitment, values, and community—a community that embraces Jews by choice and what each of us brings to the table."

This piece by Marcia Friedman (author of Meatballs and Matzah Balls: Recipes and Reflections from a Jewish and Italian Life) is particularly meaningful as the text read on Shavuot is that of Ruth, that most famous Moabite who joins the Israelites due to her love for Naomi, her mother-in-law.

A tart (or pie) to rival cheesecake

The New York Times offers up a ricotta tart that sounds like it might be a good option for Shavuot:

Also, It occurs to me that the traditional Italian Easter favorite, ricotta pie could be something to do on this holiday too! My very best friend's mother, from South Philly, used to make this pie. And her daughter (raised Catholic and married to a Jew) made it for Passover this year, substituting potato starch for the corn starch. For Shavuot, you can have the real deal!

Anna Gentile's Ricotta Pie

16 oz cream cheese

4 oz ricotta cheese

1 cup milk

4 eggs

1/2 cup sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract (I used one pod, scraped)

2 Tbsps corn starch

Place all ingredients in the blender, blend until smooth (2 min). Pour into greased 7 x 11 Pyrex or two graham cracker crusts. Bake at 325 F, 45 min - 1 hour. Cool in oven for about 1 hour. Top with cinnamon or fruit.  

On Shavuot, Spring and Cheesecake

Shavuot (The Feast of Weeks) gets short shrift in many non-Orthodox Jewish homes in America. In Reform congregations, it is usually the day when 10th graders have their Confirmation ceremony. Confirmation, you might ask? Sounds pretty Christian. In fact, dear readers, you are correct! The early European Reform movement introduced the Confirmation tradition in the early 19th century, believing that while the age of thirteen (for boys) and twelve (for girls) is traditionally the time when Jewish children become responsible for their religious lives, a few years more could really help with both the emotional and spiritual maturity needed for such a commitment. In fact, early Reformers did away with the traditional bar mitzvah ceremony altogether, preferring the more egalitarian and communal service over the individual celebration of Jewish boys becoming men.

But Jewish kids in white robes aside, what is Shavuot? Like most Jewish holidays it has both an agricultural and biblical significance. The former celebrates the early summer grain harvest and the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple (Shavuot is also called Hag ha Bikkurim, the Festival of the First Fruits).  And the latter? It’s actually religiously a pretty big deal. It commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai (seven weeks after Passover). Seems important, no? Indeed, and it is one of the three pilgrimage festivals in Ancient Israel (including Sukkot and Passover). The festival is inextricably linked to Passover, as the Exodus from Egypt makes the Jewish people a nation and the receiving of the Law institutes the religious principles they should follow.

Shavuot is also a holiday that has a direct Christian counterpart. Unlike Hanukkah (which has both benefited and suffered from its arbitrary proximity to Christmas) or Passover (which has a direct, yet troubled, relationship with Easter), Shavuot has an equivalent in the Christian holiday of Pentecost. In fact, Shavuot is often referred to as Pentecost (Greek for “fifty” as in fifty days after the first seder). The Christian meaning and observance of this holiday is different, commemorating a moment described in Acts (2:1-31) when the Holy Spirit descended upon a group of Jesus’ followers (on Shavuot).

But somehow, unless you are Orthodox (or Israeli), the holiday has gone relatively unobserved for many American Jews. There are notable exceptions of course, but ask many Jewish college students today (as I have) what the holiday is about and you’ll get a bunch of blank stares. I, for one, blame Hebrew School. It’s not really Hebrew School’s fault, it’s just an accident of the calendar year. Shavuot often falls in late May or early June, usually around (or after) the last day of the Hebrew School year. Unlike other holidays which have plenty of time to be studied, Shavuot is either an afterthought or omitted from the program altogether (see the unfortunate summer scheduling of Tisha B’Av as another casualty of the Hebrew School year). My kids end religious school a full week before Shavuot this year.

The other reason that Shavuot may go unobserved is that unlike most Jewish holidays, the primary observance is in the synagogue. Practices include decorating the synagogue with greenery and flowers. The Book of Ruth is read, and some participate in an all-night Torah study session (Tikkun Leil Shavuot).


Unlike other more popularly observed holidays that have an important domestic component (the Passover seder, Hanukkah candle-lighting, the Rosh HaShanah meals), Shavuot—as observed in the diaspora—is a synagogue holiday. And, the majority of American Jews are unaffiliated. So, without a synagogue, or without the prompting of your elementary-school age child, the holiday goes unobserved.

That stops now. Why? Because Shavuot is the holiday when you are supposed to eat cheesecake! There are a variety of reasons why many Jewish communities embraced the consumption of dairy on Shavuot. Again, some are agricultural, some biblical and some mystical. In Song of Songs, the Torah is said to be “Like honey and milk, it lies under your tongue” and the Land of Israel as described as a land flowing with milk and honey. This “cheesecake holiday” was a revelation to me when I was visiting my family in Israel twenty years ago. Unlike in the United States, secular Jews in Israel have a cultural way of celebrating Shavuot. Much like Memorial Day has become an unofficial way of ushering in the summer by grilling out with friends, Shavuot—for those not engaged in all-night Torah study—an excuse to get together with family and friends and feast on dairy dishes such as cheesecake or blintzes. Cheese-filled kreplach or bourekas are also consumed.

So this year, Shavuot actually falls over Memorial Day weekend. The Culinary Converter and her family will likely be observing both a grill-fest in her backyard, as well as a dairy fiesta (probably not at the same time).


Shavuot Menu 2015:

Chilled Yogurt Soup

Pierogies w/sour cream

Big salad

Yogurt Cake

Chilled Yogurt Soup from Afarsimon

This is a recipe that I have been attempting to perfect only from memory. A few years ago, I managed to recreate a soup I had frequently at a Persian dairy restaurant in Tel Aviv. Alas, I don’t remember exactly what I did. The place, Afarsimon (translated as persimmon), was a daily morning hangout for my grandfather and his friends. They would sit and drink coffee, gossip and kvetch about politics. When I was little, I would go for the strawberry milkshakes. When I grew older, I would go for this garlicky yogurt soup. It’s been at least twenty years since I ate at Afarsimon, so my memory could be deceiving me. The restaurant, like my grandfather, is long gone. I can’t remember if there was toasted cumin in it or not, but I do believe it was served with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of paprika on top.

Anyway, I am going to try it this way and I’ll report back after the chag!

1 large English cucumber, or 5 persian cukes

2 cups plain yogurt. Greek is probably best, but you should use one with fat

2 crushed garlic cloves

juice of half a lemon

a few sprigs of mint, minced (another option is dill, but The Man is not a fan)

salt to taste

olive oil and paprika for garnish      

Peel the cucumber and grate. Salt and leave in a colander for a bit, allowing to drain.

Beat the yogurt with the garlic, lemon juice and the mint. Add the cucumber and mix well. Taste and add salt as preferred. If it’s too thick add a wee bit of water.

I can’t imagine this can’t be done in a blender, but I haven’t done it that way. Perhaps this is the year (now that the Vitamix has entered our lives, I am always looking for stuff to do in it).

Drizzle with olive oil and a sprinkle of paprika.

Turkish Yogurt Cake [adapted from Claudia Roden’s Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, & Lebanon (Knopf, 2008)]

4 large eggs, separated

½ cup superfine sugar

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 2/3 cups strained Greek-style yogurt

grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon

juice of 1 lemon 

Optional syrup

2/3 cup water

1 ¼ cups sugar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

grated zest of 1 unwaxed orange

Beat the yolks with the sugar until it is a thick and pale yellow cream. Beat in flour, yogurt, the lemon zest and juice until well blended.

Whisk the egg whites until stiff and carefully fold into the above mixture. Pour into a round (preferably non-stick) 9 inch baking tin greased with butter. Bake at 350° for 50 to 60 minutes until brown. It will puff up and then fall (don’t be alarmed).

Turn out onto serving plate (or if you use a tin w/removable bottom, release) and serve warm or cold.

If making the syrup, boil water, sugar, lemon juice and orange zest for 3-5 minutes. Cool and chill in refrigerator.

 serves 6



So, are you making/eating dairy for Shavuot?

(Also, you can drink dairy as well! See the Ramos Gin Fizz!)