Archive for November, 2009

Patience, young grasshopper.

I started a tiramisu cocktail trend.

My grasshopper-ordering sidekick, Adina.

Some people claim everything they learned, they learned in kindergarten. I, on the other hand, learned everything from “The Karate Kid” (1984)– namely, patience. Consequently, when I encounter elements of my past, I embrace the challenge and the cocktails.

I should offer one disclaimer: I passionately dislike extremism. Extremism breeds radicalism. And radicalism breeds pretentious declarations of stupidity. And declarations of stupidity are simply obscene. Obscenity is unprotected speech under the First Amendment. As a stickler for constitutional rules, then, I think unintelligent comments must therefore never be uttered.

My high school was not extreme, though. It found a semi-diverse group of Orthodox girls and meshed them together in some indelible knot. Years after high school, I still retain close contacts to that part of my life. I, however, have diverged from the typical Orthodox Jewish girl path and welcomed the many offerings of the secular college experience– including singledom, as opposed to marriage and twelve kids. I don’t condemn those who choose the latter. If it makes them happy and they can afford to pay for diapers, then by all means, bake as many muffins in the oven as your reproductive organs can handle. As a flaming feminist, I must add that by “your,” I refer to the female in the relationship as it is her body, her stretch marks, and her varicose veins that will inevitably form.

Apparently, not everyone agrees with the her body-her choice motto. In the ultra-Orthodox circles of my life, the man must be the wage-earner, the intellectual, and the rapid, heartless Republican, while the wife must be submissive, unambitious, and the best cholent maker in the world. Though this formulation may work for some, I have never fully been able to adjust to the seemingly secondary nature of women in this marriages. Maybe it’s the women’s college within me, but I somehow think an aggressive academic go-getter is a catch, rather than a draw.

Last night, however, I was greeted by the “I want at least 8 kids” mentality. And Moses, it brought out the raging liberal in me.  Adina, by my side, comforted me with a new drug of choice: the grasshopper cocktail, which is a burst of minty, semi-alcoholic goodness. It followed the first round of tiramisu cocktails, but Lord knows I needed to split a second cocktail. Encountering two yeshiva boys in a cocktail bar called Angel’s is always a bit disconcerting, but even more so when one justifies it by saying he trusts himself to make wise decisions. And yet he would NEVER EVER let a woman he wanted to  marry be seen in such a place. What would the neighbors say? My question: Why would the neighbors even know? Are the neighbors also at said bar? This question was followed by a quick diatribe on the feebleness of women, who apparently are much more susceptible to outside influence and consequently should hide away in little Jewish ivory towers, slaving over hot stoves and ironing button down shirts.

These comments, though shocking to most, are not new to me at all. One of my Prophets teachers in high school once said, “Girls, you have a big decision ahead of you. You can be a teacher in a school, a principal in a school, a guidance counselor in a school, or a nurse… in a school.” Essentially, your life happens in your home and your local Jewish Orthodox day school. Given my familiarity with this mentality and the liquid courage last night provided, I did not let this man offend me too greatly. Though, when he hated Zionists, I was tempted to pour the grasshopper on his head and say, “How do you like them apples?” But I didn’t because a grasshopper costs six pounds (and based on current conversion rates, that is far too much to waste.)

And with that I return to a fascinating discussion of inequitable power relations between African men and women in 1980s South Africa.


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Kneading the Bread, the Staple of Thanksgiving

Putting the "Communism" into Thanksgiving

Preparing the green bean casserole, a Midwestern favorite

Holding back onion tears.

Never mess with a knife-wielding New Yorker


Butternut squash, my surprisingly edible contribution.



The 40 GBP Beast in all its not veggie-friendly glory

Adria's baby. Shortly thereafter devoured.

Feast and Beast are served.


Did we mention there was dessert?


The Hostesses.


Midget meet Giant meet white wine

Thanksgiving plate meet Romanian, Romanian meet Thanksgiving plate


Where else would you pour leftover gravy except into the Thames River?

If those images don’t capture the Thanksgiving debauchery, I’m not sure any attempt at witty description will. But for those of you who are color blind and unable to bask in the beauty of the feast, I will offer an abbreviated recap.

It started at 10 am, when Marissa and I embarked on a whirlwind grocery store shopping extravaganza. And like every other American hosting a Thanksgiving dinner at Oxford, we struggled to find the most basic staples of the meal: Cranberries, canned pumpkin, nutmeg, and corn meal. Fortunately, we bumped into a number of super-friendly, equally distressed Americans. One said American, whose name we never did learn, offered us her extra can of pumpkin, which she had packed with her before arriving in Oxford in October. Seriously? Canned pumpkin did not cross my mind when attempting to shove 20 years worth of shoes and clothing into two 50 pound suitcases. Not once. But apparently, I am the exception, not the rule. Regardless, we were grateful for her contribution.

Meanwhile, I needed five ingredients for my cooking-for-dummies recipe— Acorn squash, walnuts, nutmeg, walnut oil, and maple syrup. Well, apparently England does not do four out of five of those ingredients. So acorn became butternut, nutmeg became mixed spice, walnut oil because groundnut oil, and maple syrup became golden syrup. To my complete and utter amazement, it worked. People devoured it. And despite my total disregard for the promise I once made to NEVER EVER CHANGE AN INGREDIENT, NEVER, I did. And lightning did not strike.

The rest of the night played out like an old-fashioned cocktail party, minus the cocktails. However, there were cases of cheap red and white wine. I strategically placed them on the buffet table, which I am happy to claim was of my own design. I am starting to really believe in the Hollywood one-liner: “Those who can’t wed, plan.”

And with that I must plan my next essay on the always glorious topic: the HIV/AIDs pandemic in Africa. Starbucks red cups here I come.




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Scarf Criminal

You've been hit by a scarf criminal.

I hate to admit it, but mother really does know best, particularly when she tells you that stealing is a crime in the eyes of the law and G-d. And once you start, you just can’t stop. First it’s toilet paper from cheesy Spanish-themed restaurants, then it’s diet coke bottles from the Oxford dining hall, and suddenly you are snatching your friend’s boyfriend’s scarf and holding it for ransom. And why do you need ransom money? To fund your caffeine addiction, which is the only means you have to churn out two 3000 word essays a week on failed bureaucratic policies in countries that until October of this year you had never heard of. It’s a low, but it’s also the biggest adrenaline rush you get all day.

Well, maybe the second biggest adrenaline rush of the day. The first came in a memory that I subconsciously buried until I noticed a sign for a job posting–“Like astrology? Believe in the magic of the stars? Care to spread said magic? Call the number below and become a professional horoscope writer.” On Friday night, when all the JSOC (British version of Hillel) students were forced to face a room of well-nourished Jews and do their election speech schpiel, Ali and I stood there in all our American glory and claimed we should be JSOC  ball presidents. Why? Because so many of my friends are married and hence I have bridal planning experience. (False.) And well, Ali is my friend so by virtue of osmosis, she will learn all there is to learn about bridal/ball planning. One of the boys, deciding to play “Mess-with-the-Americans,” asked what three items we would take with us to a deserted island. Before I could even begin to enunciate grande, skinny vanilla latte, Ali shouted, “Yaffa would bring her astrology books” because apparently I ask everyone their sign. I’ve been told this is a dangerous idea as it leads people to believe you are trying to pick them up with a cheesy one liner.

Regardless, I have become the resident astrologist. Tell me your sign and I’ll tell you your life’s story. I didn’t realize just how much I discussed it until one of the visiting student– a non-Jew and female– posted on her facebook wall: “I am a Scorpio– and according to Yaffa Fred “that explains it all.” Did I seriously say that? I should get one of those Call-me-Cleo psychic hotlines and start earning some money from this side hobby.

In the meantime, Anna, my favorite Brit, has introduced me to the best British comedy circa 1995: The Vicar of Dibley, a show centered around a chunky, but always feisty female priestess who solves all the village’s problems. Oh, and the show was filmed in Oxfordshire!

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A wise actress once remarked, “Those who can’t wed, plan.” I attempted to adjust that proverb to “Those who can’t wed, cook recipes taken from the world’s greatest food blog ever: smittenkitchen and share them with all of their single friends.” Apparently I am neither wise, nor proverbial because our entire kitchen experience was fraught by one mistake after the other. To begin with, the dish was inspired by South Beach Diet’s favorite ingredient: Ricotta. Adria needed to use up the remaining contents before it expired and subsequently searched for ricotta-based recipes on smittenkitchen. The conclusion: Lasagna, with a ricotta and spinach layer. Only when we initiated the cooking process, pasta on the stove, shallots mid-chopping, Adria realized her ricotta had magically disappeared from our communal fridge. It had gone to dairy products heaven and was probably enjoying a martini-with-a-twist at our expense. However, invoking the wisdom of my dear old German Jewish grandmother, I said, “No worries, we can just substitute another cheese for ricotta. Mozzarella and ricotta are both white cheeses so maybe mozzarella?” Yes, this is part of the reason  my mother let me stay far away from the kitchen during my childhood and adolescence. With that logic I would have been baking pies using a salt, rather than sugar base, because Moses, they are both white powdery substances. Luckily, Adria did not entirely resort to my logic. Though I think we may have overcompensated with the parmesan in that particular layer of the dish.

We then assembled the ingredients and neatly placed them in the oven. Marissa noticed that the oven only reached 250 degrees and remarked to herself how odd it was that it reached such a low temperature… so she turned it ALL the way up. The lasagna was set to bake for 35 minutes. We all left the kitchen, indulged in bread, cheeses, and other such caloric masterpieces, and returned to the kitchen 25 minutes into the oven experience. Marissa, in the midst of our conversation about the merits of lattes over cappuccinos, suddenly screamed, “Wait, are ovens set to Celsius in this country?” Yes, us Americans lived up to our reputation as the world’s most incompetent fools. We simply assumed that every other country would follow the rules of Fahrenheit. Fortunately, 25 minutes was just enough time to only burn the outer layer. And honestly, the insides were quite enjoyable.

Our sustenance mid-cooking.

In all its caloric glory.

Dinner of champions.

I followed this lovely 10 PM dinner with a brief visit to Angel’s, my favorite tiramisu cocktail-making bar, where Anna and I indulged in the deliciousness of chocolate-based alcohol beverages. We once again debated the merits of American vs. British boys, while watching as the five deaf people next to us communicated to one another.  Never before have I encountered a group of deaf people in a cocktail bar. Not that I have this vast experience in cocktail or other alcohol serving establishments to go off of. But they were all quite beautiful and confident and inspiring. And one of them had this amazing Michal Negrin ring, which glittered and glowed in the cavernous underground of the bar.

However, due the insanely high temperatures in the bar, Anna and I left earlier than expected and met Adria, Marissa, and Yatu (a pseudo-Brit/Sri Lankan) at Purple Turtle’s, a dive bar that’s free to Union member such as myself. They were playing “Just Dance” as we made our entrance so I assumed the music would be tolerable. Only they resorted to Vanilla Ice next and a boy wearing a hideous kiffiyeh approached me, in an attempt to get his terrorist-supporting groove on. Story of my life: There’s always a boy attracted to me and he always has some major flaw, as in he loves Hamas, lives in his mother’s basement, or prefers anime to actual human interaction. I took that awful interlude as my cue to head home, and with one more diet coke in my system, I peaced out.

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You wake up at 5:00 AM to finish an essay due at 9 AM and your head is pounding, your knees are shaking, and your heart is racing faster than a speeding bullet. And your solution to your unsettling physical state is three cups of pomegranate tea; just enough to help you get by until Starbucks opens at 8:30 in the morning. When Starbucks does open, you get a triple shot because my goodness, you’ve already been up 3.5 hours and the rest of the day has yet to unfold.

And by “you,” I mean me.

In addition to my obscene intake of coffee this week, I have relied on those momentary highs to provide the necessary adrenaline rushes required for analytical papers about the role of bureaucratic agencies in Singapore and Sweden. One such high was Diane Von Furstenburg’s speech at the Union. She is truly a classy and independent lady. I definitely felt like I was back in the Wellesley bubble since the entire audience was female, with the exception of two budding gay fashion designers who I instantly gravitated towards. Oh, a few random pot heads that accidently wandered into the talk. There apparently was a drug speech next door. Also, Diane’s speech was all about girl power and how she would never ever design men’s clothes because her mission in life is to empower women “to be the wonder women they always knew they could be.” Seriously, coming to a future Wellesley jumper (British for sweatshirt) near you.

My second high quite surprisingly came in my second African Politics tutorial of the week, where I actually rocked Ricardo’s Brazilian argyle socks right off. I was on a democratization in Africa role and he respected me for it. He also casually threw in that we must take dictators at their word, so for example, when good ol’ Ahmadenijad claims he is going to wipe Israel off the map, we should probably pay him a bit of attention. I suspect Ricardo might be Jewish. That comment and a question to me about growing anti-Semitism in Hungary of all places makes my Jewdar go “woot, woot!”

Now I am off to plan my European adventures. “Good Day, Sunshine” playing in the background.

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Today was definitely one of those I-should-have-stayed-in-bed, instead-of-getting-up-at-5 AM-to-write-my-African-politics- paper sort of days. Did you know that Oxford is pitch black at 5? And nasty, brutish, and rainy. It was my first physical cue of the day that was to develop, and yet I trudged on. I even had hot water in my shower this morning. Apparently pre-sunrise is the best time to try to take a shower above 32F. Dually noted.

I’ll skip to the traumatic part of the day: African Politics Tutorial, where all the nightmares I write about became a reality. In fact, at one point Ricardo said, “Yaffa, do you NOT understand anything I’ve said?” Translation: You dumb American and your peanut-sized attention span. Focus! Only I did understand. I just could not answer, particularly on command, the question of what is African ethnicity. As if such a question has a simple, neatly packaged, and committed-to-memory answer, which I can burst out into song about. I already know he isn’t particularly keen on my musical numbers.

The point is that overly vague questions do not generate immediate responses from naive undergraduates. They do, however, result in nausea, vomiting, and in some extreme cases, loss of sanity. Luckily for Ricardo, I was born in New York and by definition, insane.

Never have I wanted a Tiramisu cocktail so much!

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“What is Africa?”

A long, long time ago (10 years to be precise) in an urban Jewish day school, I sat reading a “Twelfth Night.” It was a magical experience, aside for the 10 year old boys in my class who spent the entire time muttering all the curse words from the play. Oh, and picking their noses. The usual Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus routine. Despite their wildly immature ways, my class forged on, and at the end of the school performed the play. I, of course, was the monk who married everyone. I had a penchant for weddings and matchmaking even back then. And apparently a proclivity towards wearing religious Christian garments. The nun phenomenon shortly followed thereafter.

Fortunately, I was given the opportunity to see a “Twelfth Night” in Shakespeare’s hometown- Stratford-upon-Avon, sans elementary school boys. And it was even more magical. As was the portobello mushroom dish I enjoyed preceding the show. Between the Royal Shakespeare Company and the edible momentary bliss, it was the perfect night for which I will pay dearly in African Politics tutorial.

This is how the conversation with Ricardo will play out on Wednesday:

RICARDO: “Yaffa, dearest, why do you know nothing about ethnicity or democratization in Africa?”

YAFFA: “I went to the theatre on Monday night. I chose Shakespeare over Africa.”

RICARDO: “Well since you mentioned it, what is Africa?”

YAFFA: “Um, well, not 15th Century Greece where the Shakespeare play I saw was set.”

RICARDO: “A valid, but slightly pathetic answer. Helen, what are your thoughts on the matter?

And with that I return to the dark hole of African politics that will consume my world through Thursday morning.

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