Neder vs. Shvua

Last week’s parsha, Matos, opens with a discussion about vows, and the circumstances under which they may (or may not) be broken. The passage (Bamidbar 30:2-17) distinguishes between a neder (usually translated as “vow”) and a shvua (usually translated as “oath”). These seem like the same thing in English, but there is an important distinction between the two in halacha: a neder changes the status of some external thing, while a shvua initiates an internal change in the one who swears the oath. For example, if I swear that I will never again eat a burger, that’s a neder, because it changes the status of the burger from permitted to forbidden (but only for me, of course). But if I swear that I will learn a mishnah a day for the next year, that’s a shvua, because I’ve changed something within myself – I used to have the option of learning a mishnah a day or not, but now I’m required to learn a mishnah a day. Are you with me so far?

Now, here’s what puzzles me. I frequently hear people use the phrase “bli neder” when using language of promising – “I’ll be there at three, bli neder” or “I’ll call you after Shabbos, bli neder.” I’ve also seen people write “bli neder,” or simply b”n, after their name on Tehillim sign-up sheets and the like. Let’s assume, for simplicity’s sake, that it’s proper to say something like this to avoid the possibility of making an actual, binding vow. In all these examples, shouldn’t one say “bli shvua” instead? Clearly, these kinds of promises are of the second sort – the sort that creates a new internal obligation, rather than changing the status of an external object. So why is it that the phrase “bli neder” – which is undoubtedly correct in some, but not most, circumstances – is so popular, while “bli shvua” – by far the more useful of the two – is totally neglected?



Is Daring Within Us?

The two blogging Chavis have generated a spirited discussion about the issue of shuls asking potential members whether they have converted. Chaviva says it’s unnecessarily invasive to ask applicants for membership to tell the entire membership committee about their status – that should be a private conversation between the applicant and the rabbi. Kochava points out that the shul needs to know the halachic status of its members, and argues that the shul is within its rights to put such a question on its membership application.

It’s hard for me to evaluate this issue objectively because of my own experiences with Jewish status and conversion. I’ve resisted “outing” myself on here until now, because I know that as soon as I put myself into a box – “convert,” “BT,” whatever – I’ll get saddled with all the assumptions and questions that go along with being in that box. If I’m a convert, then I must have had a traumatic experience that made me radically alter my lifestyle. If I’m a BT, I’m running away from my past or rebelling against my family. To be frank, I like when people assume I’m FFB – and I can pass pretty seamlessly in most settings – because even the most liberal Orthodox communities are truly more accepting of FFBs than of BTs and converts. FFBs are more trusted in matters of halacha and more respected in general. There’s no getting around it.  Nu, what are you?!

Good enough

What a day! I know have forty-leven other days I’d like to catch you up on, with their respective photos collecting codewebs in the corners of my hard drive. . . but if I let the guilt of all that weigh me down too heavily, I’ll never post anything. So let’s start with today.

You may have seen this photo floating around on the web:

(via myidealhome)

It certainly seems to resonate with a lot of people – I traced it back and back and back through blog after blog of repostings, but could only find that it was originally an item listed on Etsy, where you can now find wall vinyl versions (rip-offs?) for sale, with a removal of “grace” (to secularize it?) in favor of “fun” and a reordering of the words.

Well, the original (?) hand-painted version resonated with me, too, and I decided to make one for myself. I added messy, partly perhaps because the vinyl versions were too polished and I felt I needed to reiterate that in our house, messy is part of real. It was hard not to go in and touch up the messy line, but I was reminded of what my mother is forever telling me, “Perfect is the enemy of good enough,” so I added that too.

I admit to a strange sense of embarrassment while making my own copy, perhaps because last night I discovered the shocking similarity between an “original poster by a local artist” I had purchased and the work of Jim Datz, a designer I hadn’t heard of. I ended up reading this article about the response when others had noticed. After a lot of heat, the artist ended up sending the profits straight to charity and removing her website. Perhaps an overvillification of the artist, who meant her work as homage? Then again, I know better than to sell my painting without doing a better job of tracking down the author. As a buyer, I still feel lucky to have a fantastic print of my city’s neighborhoods. But if my design had been so . . . “inspiring,” I might also want a piece of the pie. So I may pick up Jim Datz’s Manhattan  to justify accompany my St. Louis.

Following this I worked on a couple self-dictated paintings;  enjoyable abstract pieces because I wasn’t willing to commit to longer representational piece. (Yes, abstract rather than non-representational; they were reworkings of under paintings for abandoned paintings [for all those savvy with the art terms].)

I met my sister downtown for lunch, and we spent several hours in our favorite bike’n’ bean, Revolution, looking at road bikes and chatting with the mechanics, who are fantastically friendly. We shared an I-must-not-have-eaten-in-days-this-is-so-good dinner at our parents’ house before an epic berry-picking adventure in the backyard. It is unbelievable providence that we do nothing to our wild raspberry patch, and yet it increases yearly, overflowing the jungle section of backyard we foolishly fenced in for former dogs.

We picked several pounds, and I decided to pair mine with some mint-chocolate chip ice cream found in the freezer, pictured on one of the paintings from earlier in the afternoon.

Next on the list of ways to spend a week of Indiana summer was a dying light bike ride, climbing Arlington Road past the limestone quarries.

I will never be a cyclist, only cycling enthusiast. This is partly because of my tendency toward bike evangelism: I would much rather coerce a potential bike-lover out on a ride with me than do a hard training route. Along with my sister, I drug my friend A along, begging for relief on the long climbs. In the section where he was ready to turn back and I was making all sorts of promises to keep him going, we agreed to a short 8 mile trip to a Siam House, where we stopped for Thai Iced Teas, Limeade, and Chicken Pad Thai.

My sister works at a restaurant now, like so many other brilliant and creative college graduates I know. To her credit, she applies herself wholeheartedly to the endeavor, not treating it as just a “for now” income. She boxed up the best of the raspberries she’d picked to offer to the chef as a possible special. Parfaits, anyone?

(They’re acutally home-picked, I promise!)

Then she borrowed my computer to print a handbook she’s written for her position for future cooks. She said she had to learn a lot on the go that might fit helpfully in a pocket notebook. Her enthusiasm made me want to join the effort, so I dabbled around to make a nice cover for the small booklets she was crafting.

Am I getting up at 5:30 tomorrow to finally do a bike workout? Yes. Should I be up at 2am posting this? Perhaps not. But it feels awfully lovely to tell you about my marvelous day. Right now that’s more than good enough.


Recipe: Caramelized Onion Quiche

Jimmy is the new kid in town. When he wakes up tomorrow morning, there is an 80% chance that he’ll be brave and strong, and a 20% chance that he’ll be cowardly and weak. The local bully, Jesse, enjoys fighting new kids, but only the weak, cowardly ones. Jesse won’t be able to figure out whether Jimmy is brave or cowardly, but he will be able to observe what Jimmy eats for breakfast. As a general rule, brave, strong new kids prefer beer, while cowardly, weak new kids prefer quiche.

I’ll spare you the choice theory part of the Beer/Quiche Game, mostly because I don’t understand it at all. I heard this game from my friend Y, who loves riddles, and who often, in jest, uses the Beer/Quiche dichotomy to categorize the men in his life.

Dearest Internet, there is nothing weak or cowardly about this flavorful, savory, slightly tangy quiche. But just to be safe, serve it with a cold summer ale.

Caramelized Onion Quiche
Adapted slightly from Simply Recipes

1 pie crust (store-bought is fine, but this recipe is really tasty)
2 tablespoons butter
1 lb red onions
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup cream
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups cheddar cheese, grated (or whatever sharp cheese you like)
salt and pepper

1. Caramelize the onions. Cut onions in half, root to tip, and peel. Then cut into slices about 1/4 inch thick. Melt butter in a large skillet and add the onions and a pinch of salt. Stir frequently so the onions caramelize without burning. This will take a while. After 40 minutes or so, add the balsamic vinegar. Continue cooking until onions are completely caramelized.

2. Preheat oven to 350. Prepare the crust and parbake it.

3. Make the custard. In a medium bowl, whisk together the milk, cream, eggs, and a pinch of nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper.

4. Set the tart pan on a baking sheet lined with foil, to catch any custard runoff. Sprinkle half the cheese over the bottom of the parbaked crust. Spread onions loosely over the cheese (so the custard can fill up the nooks and crannies). Top with remaining cheese. Pour custard over top. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes. (If edges of crust begin to burn, cover with foil.) Cool on a wire rack for 20 minutes before slicing.

Recipe: Strawberry Summer Cake

I would not be exaggerating if I told you that this is the best dessert I’ve ever eaten.

It’s sweet – very sweet, but not sickly sweet. It’s a complex sweetness: butter, fresh fruit, and maybe just a little bit of sugar coming together to make something astonishing. I strongly suggest you make this soon, at the peak of summer, because fresh, fully ripe strawberries atop this moist, sweet cake make for a very special, very summery treat.

Strawberry Summer Cake
from Martha Stewart via Smitten Kitchen

10-inch cake/pie pan (the standard 9-inch pie pan won’t work – your cake will overflow)
6 tbsp butter (plus extra for buttering the baking pan)
1 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 c plus 2 tbsp sugar
1 large egg
1/2 c milk
1 tbsp pure vanilla extract
1 lb strawberries, hulled and halved

Preheat oven to 350. Butter your cake pan.
Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. In another bowl, cream butter with 1 c sugar with an electric mixer, until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed and mix in egg, milk, and vanilla extract. Reduce speed to low and mix in dry ingredients a little bit at a time. Transfer batter to pie pan.
Arrange your strawberries on top of the batter, but don’t worry too much about how they look, because they’ll probably get enveloped by rising cake batter as they bake.

Now sprinkle the remaining 2 tbsp sugar over the strawberries and the batter.

Perhaps just a bit more…

That’s the ticket.

Bake at 350 for 10 minutes; then reduce oven temperature to 325 and bake until a toothpick comes out clean, about 50 to 60 minutes. Cool and serve with whipped cream.