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Livnot U’lehibanot: To Build and Be Built (Part 3)

At long last, the conclusion:

That Thursday afternoon, we had a class with another kabbalist, with the intent of discussing Shabbat. What I remember from this class, however, was the idea that the whole world was connected, and how everyone’s actions can impact another. While I didn’t want to rile the group up by being the stereotypical vegan, I asked our instructor Alon afterwards what kabbalist thinking had to say about eating animals, if they indeed prescribe to the idea that everything in the world–including everything in nature–is interconnected. His answer was that this perspective didn’t honor human life alone, but that animal life was also something to be respected, and that there were many kabbalists who believe that as we move closer to the coming of mashiach (messiah) more and more of the world will go vegetarian. I continued this discussion with Nina, who brought up the idea that even the famous Rav’ Kook (first head Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine) had said at times that the diet proscribed to Adam and Eve in the Torah was a vegan diet, based on scavenging nuts, seeds, and fruits from Eden. While I never expressly felt that I needed Judaism to validate my dietary choices, there have been people who have insisted to me that I couldn’t possibly be fulfilling Shabbat mitzvot adequately because they involved the consumption of fish and meat. Finding answers to these questions, which were very much pertinent to my own life as a Jew was validating, and definitely strengthened my beliefs, both in terms of Judaism, and in terms of veganism.

Continuing on within the weekly Jewish cycle, Thursday night was filled with preparations for Shabbat. Once again, we had to prepare the common room to accommodate 40+ people for a meal, while the rest of us set about preparing the food. We set about making two vats of soup, one vegetarian, and one a traditional chicken based broth with matzoh balls, salads, roasted chicken, roasted potatoes and sweet potatoes, as well as a vegetable stir fry. While our equipment was far from state of the art, through an intense amount of teamwork, we made quick work of the kilos of potatoes that needed peeling and chopping, and by the time we headed to bed that night, we were well on our way to an easy and restful Shabbat.

Hiking locally

Hiking locally

Friday morning saw another local hike, this one ending at a natural pool with a waterfall, but given the condition of my ankle on the last one, I sadly elected to stay behind. To my delight, another of the participants also stayed behind (unfortunately due to the severity of his allergies), and instead the two of us spent the day exploring Tzfat, and visiting an incredible local winery.

We brought in Shabbat first by lighting candles, while swaying to the sound of a nigun (a wordless melody), followed by a trip up to the balcony to reflect on the highlight of our week. We stepped out in into the fading sun, and began to sing (and dance) to several songs traditionally sung during kabbalat shabbat, or the service during which we welcome in the Shabbat spirit (and famously written in Tzfat many centuries ago). After this first celebration of song, we were encouraged to go synagogue hopping throughout the city for maariv, the evening service. In a moment of hesitation I took to sing one of my favorites, “Yedid Nefesh” (soul mate), I sort of missed the train (had I tried I could have made it), and instead sat on the balcony with another straggler, quietly singing a few of my favorite Shabbat melodies, and watching the stars begin to burn into view. Our meal was conducted with much song and revelry, so much so that Shlomo somehow broke a chair, and I regularly feared that a table was in danger of being broken in half given the exuberance of the banging that accompanied the songs. It was after dinner though that the real Shabbat magic began. We once again lowered the tables so that we were close to the ground and spread the mats around on the floor. Cups of wine were passed around, and so began the giving of l’chaims (literally, ‘to life’ but here meaning toasts). Many of us went around, toasting each other or toasting experience, until Shlomo stopped us, and asked us to take on a new task. We took the time to go around the large circle, and pay one compliment to the person sitting to our right, and then one to ourselves. The room filled with emotion and sentiment as we began telling each person, just what made them special, and then dug deep to share in honest words the things that we thought made ourselves special. It was an important reminder to verbalize to our friends and loved ones just what makes them so amazing, but also, just how powerful an effect compliments can have on strangers. Being told by someone you may have just met that night (as we were joined by a number of people for Shabbat who hadn’t been there the rest of the week), that their first impression is that you’re a warm and friendly person, or that you’re awesome because you’re vegan was incredibly moving. But as Shlomo said, we weren’t even at the first level.

The line up at Ancient Tzfat Winery

The line up at Ancient Tzfat Winery

For those of us who chose to stay up (as it was long past midnight), we, along with Shlomo, Rachel, and Nina (Tifferet had already fallen asleep), went around the circle, each taking a turn singing a song, entirely alone, in front of the rest of the group. What I guess is less of a secret than I sometimes make it out to be, is that I am a classically trained singer. In fact, my vocal training began at the tender age of 14, which means I’ve officially had more formal singing training than anything else (including dance, linguistics, and even baking). Even so, I remain fairly terrified of singing solo for other people, an anxiety which can be slightly relieved only by starting out in one of my completely ridiculous character voices. As I waffled between doing my one man Les Mis show (nerve wracking because what if no one else thought it was as funny as I do) or “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, Nina gently encouraged me to go with the latter. Now “Part of Your World” isn’t particularly challenging vocally, and I’ve sung it many times in the safety of my home, reveling in how comfortably it fit into my voice. Despite this, as I began the first notes, the familiar fear overtook my body, constricting my abdomen and throat, making it quite difficult to sing. Still, I pressed on, though now I had a real fear of sounding awful, but silently encouraged myself to make it a character and to be as cutesy and “talky” (this is a very esoteric bit of vocal jargon meaning to make the song as speech like as possible) as I could be. But at some point, my fear began to melt away, and I felt as I were almost in a trance, where my voice opened up, and so did my heart. I genuinely feel that singing in front of this small group of people was one of the most difficult challenges I undertook the whole week, and not because I’ve never opened my voice up to other people before, but I think it was in part because of the sheer vulnerability to which I was able to expose myself, allowing for genuine emotion to shine through.

Touring Tzfat on a lovely Friday afternoon

Touring Tzfat on a lovely Friday afternoon

The levels we went to after the song were, in order, dancing (no problem), be an animal (naturally I chose my puppy), and “go crazy” (I was in a pencil skirt and it was 4 am, I did yoga…), none of which I found to be particularly frightening. But still taking part in these exercises until a mere hour before the sun came up, fortified the bond we’d been forging throughout the week. Our Saturday schedule didn’t allow us to sleep in, rather it pushed us to go out and celebrate Shabbat with the greater Tzfat community, as we were invited to lunch with local families in groups of two or more. I had the honor of eating lunch with David Friedman, a local artist as well as his wife, and some of their friends. We were served incredibly delicious, wholesome vegan cooking, while discussing news about the neighborhood, sharing bits of our personal lives with everyone new, and even learning just a bit more about Pesach and how it should be celebrated now that we’ve made a return to the land. One of the rules they had for their table, was that only one conversation could take place at a time, thereby ensuring that everyone was engaged with the person speaking, and also helping us to focus on only one thing at a time. As was suggested when the rule was presented to us guests, it helped to calm the energy at the table, bringing everyone to a more peaceful and restful place.

With the end of Shabbat, brought the end of our time at Livnot, which ended much as it began. In song, in a circle, experiencing the togetherness of the group, only now we were no longer a group of strangers, bonded by our shared anticipation of the week to come, but a close knit family, who had traveled together from Egypt to freedom, by opening up through song and dance. We sang through the ritual of havdalah–Shabbat’s closing ceremony so to speak–then went around and shared what we would each be taking away from the Livnot experience. I was struck by how passionate every person was about their experience with Livnot, and unlike other programs I’ve participated in, each story was one of overwhelming positivity and the conviction that we all had the opportunity to take part in something that was truly special.

Saturday evening jam sesh

Saturday evening jam sesh

Livnot U’lehibanot, to build and be built, is a non-profit organization operating entirely on the generosity of others. Before each program, they attempt to find a sponsor in order to ensure that the cost for participants is no more than $150. In some cases, programs have been cancelled if there was no sponsor, in others, such as our own, the program is run despite this, and the search for a sponsor continues after the fact. If you have yet to solidify your summer plans, Livnot is running a 6-week program in conjunction with Masa Israel, with whom they hope to develop a long lasting partnership, as they are not currently recipients of government funding like other Masa programs. I would very much encourage other young, Jewish adults to consider participating in one of their programs, especially for those who are seeking a way to inject some more heart and soul into their spirituality. It’s designed to be a personal journey for people from all backgrounds and Jewish experiences, lead by three of the most amazing women I’ve ever met. For those of you who are out of Livnot’s age bracket, considering sharing this piece with your children, grandchildren, friends, cousins, brothers, sisters, etc, and for those of you with the means, please consider making a donation to help keep Livnot running.

As we sang throughout my week at Livnot (and in this case complete with hand gestures), “kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar me’od, ve’ha’ikar lo lefached k’lal” or “the whole entire world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing to recall is to have no fear at all.” I feel like this song, out of all the songs we sang sums up Livnot’s message, as well as encapsulates my experience with them. Reach out to others, connect with those around you, and most importantly, take that leap.


Livnot U’lehibanot: To Build and Be Built (Part 1)

This is the first in a series of posts about the program I did during Passover in April.

For Pesach this year, I was lucky enough to not only have the good fortune to celebrate the holiday in the holy land itself, but more specifically, to celebrate it in the mystical, mountain city of Tzfat. My previous experiences in Tzfat had been limited to say the least. We stopped there for an afternoon on my Taglit-Birthright trip in 2010, quickly making our way through all of the hot spots, from an artist whose work is influenced by gematria, to crashing a bar mitzvah at one of the local synagogues. Then in March of this year, I returned–twice even–but for no longer than half a day either time.

It was on the first trip this March with my mom, who was in the midst of her first visit to Israel, that we stumbled upon the Livnot visitor’s center. She was searching for a map that would help us decipher the circular, old city roads. Sitting at the desk, was Rachel, a cheerful girl with a big smile, who helpfully gave us a map, highlighted a few points of interest for us, and chatted with us about our trip around the country. When she heard I was a Masa participant, and currently living in Tel Aviv, she handed me a flyer for their weeklong Passover program, which was advertised as being “generously subsidized to only $150 per week.” We thanked her, and I said that I’d think about it, while actually planning to toss the flyer and forget about the suggestion entirely. But the price definitely hooked me. I thought there had to be some catch, and figured there was no way it could only be $150. Besides, the description on the flyer was something vague along the lines of, “hike and volunteer in Northern Israel.”  Not exactly the most intriguing of tag lines.

Narrow Old City Streets (just outside the Livnot campus)

Narrow Old City Streets (just outside the Livnot campus)

I’ve never been the type to seek adventure exactly, rather preferring to enjoy it if it came my way rather than making it an active pursuit. But this year has been a turning point for me. I took a big leap in moving to a foreign country–albeit with a program that has helped eased the transition– took a pit stop in Russia on my own on the way over here, and I’m planning on a solo trip to Europe for the summer. As we left the visitor’s center through one of their 16th century excavation sites, I began to think that maybe this program would be a good opportunity for me. Maybe I could finagle a way to finance it, and further, I would have a place for Passover where I wouldn’t have to fight in order to keep a kosher for Passover kitchen. I shared these thoughts with my mom as we exited onto the cobblestone streets of the old city, and she responded, “I’ll pay half if Dad pays half.” Now, I’m no expert, but a trip to ease my Pesach woes sponsored by my parents? Sounds like an exceedingly good bargain.

While I still took a little more time to think about it (and check to see if my dad would agree), a few weeks later, I found myself completing the application and participating in a phone interview, which involved questions regarding my Jewish background and community involvement. I began to worry just a little bit when the response to the enumeration of my involvement with university Jewish life was that Livnot is designed for people who generally have had less experience with Judaism. I assured my interviewer that I firmly believed we can learn from everyone, and that despite my 8 years of twice weekly religious school study, there is so much about Judaism that I still have to learn, whether it’s from trained rabbis, or someone who’s only begun to engage with their spirituality. After two weeks with no word, I really began to worry that maybe my prior experiences were in the way of my acceptance to the program, but at long last, an email arrived congratulating me on my acceptance to the 2014 Passover program. As relief washed over me, I settled back into the mundanities of job hunting, ulpan, and vegan cupcakes.

Livnot's front door

Livnot’s front door

When I arrived in Tzfat with another friend from Tel Aviv, I still didn’t really know what to expect. As a fairly constant worrier, my thoughts were mostly concerned with the cleanliness of my accommodations, for reasons unbeknownst to myself, but most likely because at my heart, I’m a city girl who is definitely afraid of getting dirty (once I’ve already gotten dirty I can then proceed to let loose and have fun). We were housed in a refurbished 16th century village, in rooms made of large stones with arching ceilings, and, as in the case of my room at least, only a suggestion of the warm sun outside. Upon entering the room, I tried and failed to picture what this village originally looked like, how the families lived, and what purpose each room possibly served. While there was ample time for reflection during this week, it was definitely not focused on the distinct history of my particular room. The rest of the Livnot campus is comprised of a large living room/common area, a kitchen separated into a meat side and dairy side, as well as a large upstairs room that is under construction, and a balcony, which allows for a stunning view of the neighboring mountains.

Peering down at the campus

Peering down at the campus

We began the program as it would end, by sitting in a circle and singing a song with a kabbalist named Shlomo (and until very recently, known as Doron). While it may be hard to believe given my verbose nature, when it comes to meeting new people, I still suffer from a small amount of social anxiety, and it’s definitely a push to say hi, introduce myself, and ask questions about my fellow participants. Likewise for enthusiastically singing a song I only vaguely remembered right off the bat. Following the song, we were given a run down of the rules and regulations involved in being a Livnot participant, and then taken on a tour of the old city, which ended at the citadel at the very top of the mountain. Our tour was lead by the engaging bat sheirut Tifferet, who insisted that her descriptions of Tzfat were the only time she would spend that much time talking. In fact the whole program was run by three truly incredible bnot sheirut (plural of bat sheirut)–Tifferet, Rachel (the girl I met at the front desk), and Nina–who are literally ‘service daughters’ which denotes one who is completing her national service in place of the standard army service. We began our citadel experience by walking through a very dark passageway that lead into a slightly more illuminated cistern. Tifferet urged us to even close our eyes as we entered the gloom of the cistern passageway, and only once situated inside did we open them to assess our surroundings. She then taught us a song brought to Israel by the Ethiopian Jews, which we again sang hesitantly (well for some of us at least) as we gained familiarity with a melody that would carry us through the rest of the week. We then also took a moment to take advantage of the brilliant acoustics of the domed cistern by participating in a screaming meditation, where we clear our mind by literally shouting it out. As I’ve already mentioned, my trust in the program and participants was still building, and I felt rather silly singing and shouting with people I barely knew. That’s the true brilliance of programs like these. By bringing together so many people with different backgrounds (though I think the overwhelming majority of us were actually raised in New Jersey), our different strengths and weaknesses balanced out, so while I hesitated at first to sing and shout with all of my might, there were those who helped ease my worries by immediately throwing themselves into these tasks, thereby creating a cushion of safety and encouraging others to fully participate. Of course, my fear in and of itself was most likely rooted in the idea of “well what if no one does it, what if I throw myself in but I’m the only one, and everyone laughs at me?” Being a kid that didn’t fit in very well with the social hierarchies of public school, this is a fear that has followed me for a long time, and that I’ve slowly been working to let go of as I’ve aged. This has mostly been achieved through the opportunities I’ve had to engage in not one, but many fresh starts, including programs like Livnot. As we exited the cistern, back through the unlit passageway, the group noted how much easier it was going back. While the first time around we couldn’t help but notice the darkness, on our second passage, we could only see the light, symbolic to say the least. We ate dinner in the surrounding park, joined by Tifferet’s family, who lead us in a second introduction, as well as our first discussion of Pesach.

Tzfat sunset from the Livnot living room

Tzfat sunset from the Livnot living room

After dinner, we participated in the ritual of searching for chametz (leavened bread) by candle light, before being taken on our second trip of the day to explore caves that were remnants of the Bar Kochba revolt. In order to reach them, we walked through a dark path off of the main road, where we were given the option of not entering the caves should we so desire, though I think everyone chose to give it a shot. As we wriggled through the dust to reach a large subterranean cavity, our guide began to tell us the story of the caves. Each cave was once a cistern serving several houses of the Jewish community, but when it came time to revolt, the memory of Massada 60 years prior was still fresh in the minds of many. Rather than hiding in a mountain fortress and committing mass suicide (though the prospect was discussed), the Jewish people decided to try a different method of hiding from the Romans. The cisterns, except for a select few were dried out and sealed, and were then connected to each other by a series of small twisting tunnels, giving the advantage to the defenders. The Romans, whose gear was not only loud–which easily gave away their position–but also cumbersome, found it difficult to maneuver through tunnels with the purpose of rooting out the Jews. We returned to our recurring theme of the week, that of leaving Egypt and seeking freedom, and what it meant to these Jews in particular. After our initial background discussion, we split into two groups, and crawled into a second smaller chamber. Some of the tunnels were so narrow that the only way to pass through was by literally slithering flat against the ground. In this second smaller chamber (also once a cistern) we discussed some of the miracles of the revolt, such as the fact that children and babies were somehow trained to be quiet, but even more miraculous, was the story of two Jewish women who gave birth inside the caves in complete silence. Before exiting the small chamber in order for the second group to take their turn, we spent two minutes sitting in complete silence, with the darkness pressing in and around us, in order to gain just a little more understanding of what it might have been like during a Roman attack. As we afterwards exited into the brisk, night air, each of us had yet another experience of the word freedom: freedom to breathe, freedom of movement, the ability to use our eyes and to see light etc. Of course, that night was extremely cold, so while we had the opportunity to go take our own space after being crammed together in the tiny caves, banding together to share body heat proved to be a little more important, at least for someone like me who was cold even with two pairs of pants and three sweaters.

Part 2 coming soon!





Grandpa Maurice’s Famous Mushroom Paté

For the longest time, my grandfather’s mushroom paté, or as we usually call it, “mushroom stuff” was pretty much the only way I’d swallow a mushroom.  Mushroom stuff as my grandfather made it was a combination of sautéed mushrooms and onions, mayonnaise, and a hard-boiled egg.  While this is an acceptable vegetarian take on chopped liver, converting even liver fans like my dad’s side of the family, it definitely wasn’t vegan.

Mushroom paté

The Eternal Egg Question

Replacing egg and mayonnaise on Pesach is more challenging than any other time of the year.  First, for the egg, I decided to use soaked cashews, to give the paté the same kind of body that the egg brings.  

To replace the mayonnaise, I went for the flavors of mayo, namely, fat in the form of olive oil, and some tang, in the form of red wine vinegar.  For a little extra “eggy” punch, I like to season the paté with Indian black salt (kala namak), which tastes exactly how I remember sunny-side-up eggs…because I also used to douse my egg yolks in salt.

Grandpa Maurice circa 1991

The Taste Test

The result tastes almost exactly how I remember Grandpa’s paté tasting.  It’s good enough, that some years it’s the only mushroom stuff we decided to serve.  My version is punctuated by the sweet richness of the fried mushrooms and onions, mixed with a little tang from the vinegar, all married together in a smooth and creamy dip.  It’s perfect for spreading onto matzah, whether it’s as an appetizer, at your seder, or a part of your mid-Pesach lunch.

A Very Shtetl Pesach. Fiddler On The Roof cast (including shtetl Ashley front and almost center) at Columbia University, April 2010

Grandpa Maurice was far from vegan, but he always appreciated good food. I like to imagine he would be proud of my interpretation.  He died a little bit before I really started cooking for myself, so I never really got to share my culinary creations with him. Even so, I love that I can still enjoy the food he made for us, even if it is adapted to fit my lifestyle.

Mushroom and Onion Paté

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A creamy spread punctuated by the sweet richness of the fried mushrooms and onions, mixed with a little tang from the vinegar, all married together in a smooth and creamy dip. It's perfect for spreading onto matzah, whether it's as an appetizer, at your seder, or a part of your mid-Pesach lunch.


  • 1 pint white button or cremini mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 large white or yellow onions, sliced
  • 1/4 c raw cashews, soaked for a few hours or overnight
  • 4-5 tbsp olive oil, divided
  • 1 tbsp kosher for Passover red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp black salt (or to taste)
  • black pepper to taste



Preheat 2 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add the onions, and sweat slowly for about 5-7 minutes until translucent.  


Add the mushrooms and continue to sauté until the mushrooms have cooked down, and the mixture is golden brown and fragrant. The volume of vegetables in the pan should be considerably reduced from when you started.  


Let cool for at least 10 minutes.  


Put the mushroom and onion mixture into a food processor, then drain the cashews, and add them as well.


Begin to chop the mixture in the processor, and stream in the oil and vinegar while the machine is running.  


Add the salt and pepper, and pulse again to combine.  Taste for seasoning.  


The mixture should be chopped very, very finely, and should be fairly smooth (but not entirely pureed).  Refrigerate until ready to serve.


I'm giving quantities for a fairly small amount of paté, but this recipe is very easily increased.  It also does not need to be super precise, so feel free to play with the seasonings according to your tastes.

You can find more holiday inspiration in my Big Vegan Passover Post