Tuesday, April 26, 2022

George's Beacon of Blue and White

Here some pics I snapped of the Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, VA last night:

Back in February, the site was lit up with the colors of the Ukrainian flag. I'm not sure if that's still the intention.

Regardless, it was a beautiful and peaceful night to take in the memorial. The inscription which appears below the bust of George Washington, seems to be paraphrased from a 1786 letter from George Washington to James Madison. The content of the inscription is as accurate today as it was 236 years ago:

Let prejudices, unreasonable jealousies, and local interest yield to reason and liberality. Let us look to our National character, and to things beyond the present period. No morn ever dawned more favourable than ours did—and no day was ever more clouded than the present! Wisdom, & good examples are necessary at this time to rescue the political machine from the impending storm.

As I left the memorial, I was psyched to see a DC Boundary Stone nearby:

I thought there might be a connection between the Masonic site and the location of the boundary marker. But, alas, boundary marker is both not in the original location, nor is it the original stone. Still, coming across a DC boundary marker is a always a treat.

Here's to wisdom & good example carrying the day!

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

That Time American Jews Thought Wine Was Chametz

While researching seder topics I came across this description of the Passover Seder published in an 1868 edition of the Shasta Courier:

Much of the text describes the evening as we celebrate it today. Perhaps this should be unsurprising, as we have texts that are nearly 2000 years old that describe familiar practices. What caught my eye, however, was at least one notable deviation from a modern seder.

Wine, also, to the quantity of four or five cups, was drunk by each person. It has been a disputed question whether the wine used at this feast was ordinary or fermented wine, or was the pure, fresh juice of the grape. Those who hold that it was unfermented wine, appeal mainly to the expression “unfermented things,” which Hebraists assert to be the true rendering of the Hebrew word which is translated “unleavened bread.” The rabbins [sic] interpreted the command as extending to the use of unfermented wine as well as unfermented bread ; and, accordingly, the modern Jews generally use raisin wine at the feast of the Passover.

The 'four or five cups' comment seemed odd at first, as we clearly drink four cups of wine at the seder. However the question of whether there should be a fifth cup goes back to a Talmudic debate:

Back in the second century, when the sages were establishing the rituals of the seder, a disagreement arose as to whether there should be four or five cups of wine.

The custom of drinking multiple cups of wine derived from God's promises to the enslaved Israelites. Four promises follow one another in rapid succession within Exodus chapter six, verses six and seven: " I will free you...", "I will deliver you...", "I will redeem you...", "and I will take you to be My people." Then, after an intervening verse, a fifth promise appears: "I will bring you into the land...." Each cup of wine is a symbol of the joy we feel as beneficiaries of God's promises. But is the fifth promise connected to the prior four, or is it a separate promise? On this the rabbis could not agree. Some said there should be four cups in honor of four promises; others said five cups for five promises.

The Talmud uses the Aramaic word teku to indicate that the rabbis could not reach a decision on a matter under discussion. And so the decision as to the number of cups was left teku, but the Passover haggadah prescribes four cups for us to drink-possibly as a parallel to the four questions and the four sons. But just in case there really should be five, the writers of the haggadah called for an additional symbolic cup.

Ultimately we 'solved' this four or five cups question by drinking four and putting out a fifth.

What's more puzzling is the assertion that unfermented wine somehow matches up to unleavened bread. Any modern seder attendee can tell you that plenty of alchol is consumed at seder, without any fear that it's somehow related to forbidden chametz.

So what's going on here?

For a stretch of history history, American Jews embraced non-alcoholic wine at seder. Their beverage of choice was raisin wine. Consider this recipe published in 1914. The author seems confident claiming that "Passover wine" is made from raisins, a claim that would be laughable today.

A reader asks how the Passover wine is made.

I found this recipe in my file:

Raisin or Passover Wine
Three pounds raisins, seeded and chopped. Place in a jug with one pound sugar and from six to seven quarts cold water. Set' the vessel, covered, on the stove hearth. Skim after four days, filter through a funnel lined with linen and pour into bottles. Add to each bottle stick cinnamon, cloves and lemon peel. Cork tightly and put away for two weeks.

This tradition, like most, almost certainly has practical roots. On the American frontier, finding Kosher wine would have been difficult to impossible. So having an easy, Kosher way to make a substitue would be handy. And the Jews that popularized this practice may very well have come from Muslim countries where alcohol was to be avoided.

Incidentally, this isn't the only case of Jews tweaking their Passover drinking habits due to circumstance. In 17th century Europe, Jews were encouraged to switch from red to white wine to avoid the accusation that they were using the blood of Christian children as an ingredient in their wine.

For Americans, what started as a necessity somehow drifted into a misunderstood religious requirement. Equally surprising is that this once common practice seems to have slipped into obscurity so quickly. I've mentioned the practice to a number of individuals and nobody has ever heard of it.

This blip in Jewish tradition was not without side effects. This article explains the unexpected intersection of raisin wine and the American Temperance Movement.

Whatever its origins, the Jewish preference for raisin-wine was to become a pivotal issue in the American public life of the era.

The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the Temperance Movement, which fought stubbornly for the limitation, or total prohibition, of intoxicating drinks. Although they were responding to a very real social problem in American society, the leaders of the Temperance agitation were drawn largely from the ranks of Evangelical Christians and were impelled by religious motivations. It was therefore a source of embarrassment to these Bible-thumpers that wine is mentioned so frequently in the Bible as the most common of beverages, to which no serious stigma or censure was attached. Even more painful to the Temperance cause was the story of the Last Supper where Jesus himself partook of wine and shared it with his disciples. According to the widespread view, the Last Supper had been a Passover Seder.

Another commonly held view among Christians naively regarded contemporary Jews as faithful preservers of a fossilized tradition that had remained unchanged since Jesus' days. If it could be demonstrated that their Jewish neighbours drank non-alcoholic juice on Passover, then this could be considered conclusive evidence that the Bible itself was referring to the same beverage, and not to fermented wine.

The upshot of all this was that the American Christian world in the mid-nineteenth century developed a disproportionate interest in the Passover drinking preferences of their Jewish compatriots, especially at the Seder, and Christian tracts would contain frequent interviews with Jews--though not necessarily the most learned or observant of them. Even when the Jewish informants took care to distinguish between their personal practices and the customs of Biblical Israel, the Temperance advocates had no qualms about quoting them selectively and out of context in order to prove their case.

This 'raisin wine' incident shows both the advantages and risks of the decentralized nature of Judaism. The very flexibility that allowed frontier Americans to keep Kosher over Passover, also let them introduce a flawed principle into their lives. But the story doesn't end there. Somehow, the practice also corrected itself, and we no longer treat fermented wine as chametz. Messy? Sure. But it's hard to argue with an approach which has worked for the last 2000 years.

Here's a modern recipe for raisin wine. I'm eager to give this a try next year!

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

L'Chaim! Fore!

G joined the Men for a pre-seder L'chaim. My brother, Dad and I sipped Patron Silver Tequila, which is notably marked Kosher for Passover, while G enjoyed מיץ אשכוליות (grapefruit juice). Apparently my Mom and G are working on a new tradition: a round of golf pre-seder.

Here's to enjoying old traditions and starting new ones!

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Web SDR: Free Access to the Diverse (and a bit crazy) World of Radio

Software Defined Radio, or SDR, is tremendously cool. For $30 bucks you can purchase a USB dongle which lets your phone or computer pick up a massive range of radio signals. You can use this for everything from listening to FM radio to collecting local utility meter data.

I recently discovered a variation on SDR: Web SDR. Web SDR is what it sounds like: folks take their SDR setups and make them available for use on the web. Using nothing but a web browser, you can tune into radio stations all over the world.

My hope was to show some practical use for this. Like say, getting first hand accounts of the invasion of Ukraine by listening to Polish or Russian SDRs. Or, closer to home, I was thinking I could use a Washington DC based SDR to listen to CB radio chatter among protesters involved in the 'People's Convoy' that circled DC's Beltway.

Not surprisingly, I didn't (and still don't) have the knowledge or patience to extract any brilliant audio from any of the SDRs hosted at websdr.org.

When I slowed down and focused on just local SDRs (one here, the other here) I did start to get a picture of what kind of chatter is available over the air.

Even just casual listening let me appreciate that I could pick up everything from far off radio stations to local Ham Radio operators kibbitzing with each other. I found channels publishing Morse code,  the weather or just announcing the time. I heard truckers chatting on the Beltway, preppers discussing immanent food collapse, and preachers talking about the Israelite's.

I'd say that the radio spectrum appears to mimic the Internet in its diversity of topics, characters and content, but that's almost certainly backwards. The hodgepodge of content that is available on the radio almost certainly existed far before there was an Internet. Before URLs there were radio frequencies and before email addresses there were call signs.

To ground these musings into something concrete, I give you the following 173 second of video. Using the local DC Web SDRs linked above, I captured a slew of audio clips. I edited them down and mashed them together to form this video. Think of it as a tiny sampler what you can find on a Web SDR.

I still have hopes of using local or distant SDRs for something practical. For now, however, I'm satisfied with just having a unique appreciation for what's being streamed into the ether.

Sunday, April 03, 2022

Twins Bnai Mitzvah: Partying and Kvelling

[Composed 5/27/2022]

What a whirlind the last 48 hours have been! We kicked off D & C's B'nai mitzvah weekend with a Friday night dinner for those of us who came in from out of town. The Kosher Chineese food was delish, and seeing family and friends was such a treat.

D knocked it out of the park on Saturday where he read the entire Torah portion and the Haftarah as well. He's a little Torah reading machine! Even the Rabbi was impressed with his leining, saying that no student he had ever had read so much Torah, so well.

And finally, today we all thoroughly enjoyed a party worthy of the simcha! We danced, listened to speeches, ate way too much chocolate and goof'ed it up in the photo-booth. Before we knew it, the DJ was winding things down and we found ourselves helping to clean up.

C gave a speech at the party, and while this was outside of her comfort zone, she stepped up to the occasion and did a wonderful job. We's so proud of both the kids.

Editor's note: The photo below of J eating Thai food is from a side-meal Shira, J and J's Mom took. J ordered frog's legs for dinner, a first for him. J has to be first person to ever read Parsha Shemini and think, hmmm that gives me an idea of what to eat for dinner. So proud of him for trying something new.

Twins Bnai Mitzvah: Family Pics and Rehearsal

Next up on our activity checklist for C and D's B'nai Mitzvah was to participate in 'pictures.' Because you can't take photos on Shabbat, the day that C & D will be having their B'nai Miztvah, the plan was to gather so that various staged photos could be taken before hand. This is a practice both Shira and I are intimately familiar with. If you are a non-photogenic introvert, like my 13 year old self, 'pictures' was an ordeal. If you were a confident, picture-perfect-smiling young lady like my wife, then pictures were merely a blip in an otherwise enjoyable simcha.

My parents' philosophy, which I've sinced inherited, is that there's something powerful about Bar/Bat Mitzvah pictures. Because you can't record the actual day of, the staged photos become the record for the day. It doesn't matter if you flub a part of your Haftarah or speech. Once the photos are taken on Friday afternoon, you can breathe a sigh of relief, because recorded history shows all smiles.

It was a delight to see the kids all dressed up, and I couldn't resist grabbing a few of my own pics while the photographer did his thing.

We also heard D read the tail end of his Haftarah, which he did with such incredible confidence. He's going to crush it!

In a couple of hours Shabbat will begin and so will the festivities. We can't wait!