♦ Family, Food and Love

Dear Shaina,

I was just about to send when I got your letter. You have no idea how busy the life of a retired person can be!  This letter is way too long, but I am sending it anyway.

Three weeks ago I was packing chocolate chips and toothpaste to bring to you in Israel.  Now I am buying Chanukah gifts and getting ready to cook up a Thanksgivukah feast! My brain is on jet lag trying to absorb all the experiences and feelings and foods that I eagerly swallowed up in Israel. And this living room I am sitting in is so big…and so empty.

It wasn't this color when I left for Israel!

It wasn’t this color when I left for Israel!

In Israel we were surrounded by family.  The homes and apartments in Israel are smaller than ours, but there was more than enough room as we were welcomed and entertained with food, comfort and unconditional love. It didn’t matter if I didn’t remember all the names and which  kids belonged to which grandparents or who was married to who…or how many times I asked. We were one family, with the same eyebrows and similar cooking and eating habits and beautiful children and loud voices and welcoming homes and open hearts…no matter the distance between countries and visits…or the size of the rooms. And why do I think I need so much space in my house?

food and fam israel 2013

Amit and Nimrod’s wedding was a grand event celebrating life and love and family and friends in true Schuster style…a spectacular venue, an Israeli gourmet food extravaganza, drink bars, coffee bars, paparazzi style photography (mini-cameras attached to liquor bottles as they were passed around the dance floor and shots were poured), music, dancing and a bride and groom whose love and joy were evident! The invitation said it all…I eat…I do…I dance!  And we did until the early hours of the morning. Dad’s knee is better, but I don’t know if he’ll ever dance with me again.

Amit wedding 2013

Every day offered up another celebratory event, shabbat dinners and lunches, an afternoon at the beach, a tour of Jerusalem and more large and small family reunions as we reconnected and caught up with the lives of our Israeli and Ukrainian family.

Israel family 2013

We caught our breath and settled into a fabulous apartment in Jerusalem thanks to the generosity of our cousin and her boyfriend. What a gift…a real kitchen with an oven, speedy wifi, a washing machine and a real Jerusalem neighborhood.  Shaina, I loved sharing all of the events with you, but our time together in Jerusalem was a special treat. We shopped. We cooked. We talked.


I loved walking the streets with you in search of breakfast or coffee or some exotic fruit or vegetable.  I loved watching you navigate Mahane Yehuda and meeting your spice guy and your tehini vendor.

Israel Market Shaina 2013

We toured your school and got a small glimpse of your life and its challenges. I tempered my worry with my admiration of you, knowing that you will create a place of comfort and success for yourself out of these less than ideal circumstances.


So much of Israel has taken on the habits of America…the skyscrapers, the billboards, the fancy mall near The Wall, Mamila…yet so much in Israel seems so smart…the lights in the apartment hallways that turn off after a few minutes, the large receptacle cages on the street for recycling plastic drink bottles, the drains in every kitchen and bathroom floor and those amazing multi-purpose thick yellow disposable cleaning cloths that are a staple in every Israeli kitchen!


I love the open markets and cafes, the vast tubs of exotic spices and the huge pomegranates that are pressed into glasses of juice right on the street.


I don’t love the brusqueness of everyday Israeli interactions, but I am not exactly comfortable with how accustomed I have become to the sweet smiles and slow talkin’  down here in the deep south either. Israel’s ever-changing landscape and ability to transform a street, a neighborhood, a city…practically overnight…thrust me back into the reality of how painfully imperceptibly slow change is here in Alabama.

I did manage to transport a half-gallon of olive oil, multiple bags of spices and jars of tehini from Israel to my kitchen without spilling a drop…a feat that caused me no small amount of anxiety.


With my new Israeli cookbook in hand (a beautiful gift from family), I am ready to start bringing a little Israeli flavor into these big empty rooms.

Happy Chanukah and Happy Thanksgiving! And I would never think of actually frying a turkey, although you have to admit, it is the perfect blend of the two holidays; one that traditionally celebrates with a turkey and one that celebrates burning oil!

You will be so missed at the table..in the kitchen…and throughout this big old house.




Gali’s Classic Tahini Cookies
I gathered lots of family recipes from Israel. Everyone brought a dish to our Israeli Family Reunion Shabbat dinner and I will share them as I make them.  If you haven’t already sent me your favorite recipes, do it now! I want to be prepared to cook all your favorite foods when you visit.  

Ready to Eat!!

I love all the flavors and will start with Gali’s classic Tahini Cookies which are very easy to make, very Israeli and a favorite in our family.  I think they will make a great Thanksgiving-Chanukah dessert. Might as well start with dessert! Thanks Gali!

  • 350g (3 cups) of self-rising flour*
  • 1 cup of sugar
  • 1 cup of raw tahini
  • 200g (1 3/4 stick) butter or margarine, softened
  • 2 bags of vanilla sugar**

    Ready to Bake

    Ready to Bake

*Regular flour can be substituted by adding 1 tablespoon of baking powder and 3/4 teaspoon of salt

**Small bags of vanilla sugar are an Israeli staple.
2 teaspoons of vanilla and 2 tablespoons of sugar can be substituted for two bags of vanilla sugar

Heat the oven to 180° (Celsius) or 350° (Fahrenheit)

Place parchment paper or cooking spray on baking sheet.

Mix together in a large bowl flour, sugar, tahini, butter, vanilla sugar until it forms a homogenous dough.

Right Out of the Oven

Right Out of the Oven

Roll the dough in your hands and mold into 40-50 small balls. Flatten them as you place them on the baking sheet about 1/2 inch apart from each other.

Bake for 15-20 minutes until they turn a light golden color.
Take out the baking sheet and let the cookies cool down before picking them up; otherwise they might crumble in your hand.

Be careful not to let the cookies burn. Enjoy!

Ready to Eat!!

Ready to Eat!!

Squash  and Sweet Potato Soup
Israeli Style
This very easy soup was inspired by the beautiful squash we saw in Israel, the Israeli spices I brought back home and the need to make another soup for Thanksgiving.  I always serve two different hot soups as appetizers as people are coming in from the cold and arriving at different times.  This soup is very easy, flexible (Israeli code word for anything goes) and hard to mess up.

Soup's Done!

Soup’s Done!

  • 3 pounds Butternut or any winter squash (amount can vary depending on how much soup you want to make)
  • 1 Large yellow onion cutup
  • 1 pound Sweet potatoes (or carrots or any other vegetables you like)
  • 2 – 3 cups of water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Fresh minced Garlic to taste

*Israeli spice mix or a combination of cumin, coriander, cardamom, turmeric, pepper

Garnish with cilantro and sour cream or yogurt if desired

* I used a fabulous pre-mixed spice combination that I got at the market. It contained dried onions and peas (as far as I could tell) and a blend of fragrant Israeli spices.

Raisins, carrots, cinnamon and even a little sugar can be added if you like a sweeter soup. The soup should be a savory-sweet blend of the salty tangy spices with the sweetness of the vegetables.

Bake whole unpeeled squash and sweet potatoes in the oven at 350 on convection bake until they are tender and the skin peels off easily. Baking and peeling is much easier than cutting and peeling raw winter squash. But if you prefer, the raw peeled squash can be cooked in a large pot with the water until tender.

Remove skins and put vegetables into a large pot with water and onion and spices. Add enough water to just cover the squash and sweet potatoes.

Bring water to a boil and then turn down heat and simmer.  When onions are cooked, blend soup mixture with a stick blender.  Adjust spices to taste.  Add water if mixture is too thick.  Continue to simmer soup, adding water as needed for desired consistency.

Taste frequently and adjust seasonings to taste.  Soup is done when you are satisfied with the flavor and consistency of the soup.

This hardy soup can be frozen for later use and can be modified by adding other vegetables or more squash and cooking and blending.  Don’t be afraid to try new spices to vary the flavor.

Savory Corn and Squash Fritters (Thanksgivukah Latkes)
I made up this Thanksgivukah latke in an attempt to combine two dishes, Corn Casserole and Squash Casserole, traditionally served at our Thanksgiving feast with the classic latke always enjoyed at Chanukah. I was surprised at how good they turned out. Lighter than potato latkes, they aren’t quite as bad for you as you might think.  Who knows…a new tradition may have been born! The only problem now is, which holiday do I make them for next year…Thanksgiving or Chanukah?


  • 2 pounds raw yellow crookneck squash chopped and drained*
  • 2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels (defrosted and drained)
  • 2 leeks, the white and light green parts only, chopped
  • 1 cup corn meal or corn bread mix**
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 clove fresh minced garlic or 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon salt or to taste
  • Fresh ground black pepper  to taste
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • Peanut or vegetable oil for frying

* Liquid from drained squash and leeks can be reserved for veggie broth for soups; it freezes well.

**If you use corn bread mix, reduce salt and baking powder by half

Squash Corn latkes 2013

For a spicier option, you can add chopped chile peppers to the fritter batter or experiment with different spices…dill, basil, tarragon

Wash yellow squash and leeks and chop in a food processor until pretty finely chopped. Place in a strainer and thoroughly drain excess water for about 30 minutes. Mix corn and chopped squash and leeks together .

In a large bowl, stir together corn meal, baking powder, spices, salt, and pepper.

In a small bowl, whisk together eggs and whisk into corn meal mixture. Combine squash, corn, and leek mixture with the corn meal and egg mixture and blend thoroughly.

Heat 1/4 inch of oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Drop batter by spoonful into hot oil. Fry on both sides until crisp and brown. Drain on paper towels.

Serve with traditional latke toppings…sour cream and apple sauce or…

Top with your favorite salsa to spice things up a bit.  Or add a little salsa to sour cream.

Sauté some leeks and mix with sour cream, salt and pepper and a little fresh dill for a garden fresh accompaniment.

Try adding some cranraisins or fresh chopped cranberries to your applesauce this year in honor of Thanksgivukah

Plain Greek yogurt can be substituted for sour cream.

◊ Thanksgivukkuh


Dear mom,

I’ve been waiting and waiting for your reply and can’t hold out any longer. For the first time in decades, thanksgiving falls on the first day of Chanukah… celebrations commence in just 5 days and I have recipes to share!

Vendors in Jerusalem are revving up for Chanukah with stacks of sufganyiot glistening with sugar and dripping with red jelly. I’m banking on the Chanukah goodies in Israel to fill the void of not being home for Thanksgiving, but I know it won’t  work.

For me, the flavors of our Thanksgiving are easy to recreate; it’s the spirit that I will miss… especially the spirit of one tradition I wouldn’t dare repeat outside our home, the “women’s Slivovitz shot.”


I remember hosting holiday meal after meal at our home back in the day – the men sat around sipping cocktails,  you women busied yourselves with mealtime preparations and us kids ran around recklessly. Just before serving the meal, all the ladies in the family discreetly downed shots of Slivovitz (plum brandy… 50% alcohol?) in the kitchen. You stumbled out with big platters of food and goofy smiles.

Shots of Sliv evolved from necessity to ceremony (who am I kidding? It’s still a necessity)… Now, before each holiday meal, all women gather in the kitchen with shot glasses full of Slivovitz (and grape juice for the girls) while the men stand around us. They applaud your toast and root for us women. I always feel pride as we down the liquid fire together.

380401_2542767961000_129734861_n 405144_3425395986149_1814382598_n IMG_2476

I’ll say it again: our family is special.

Please don’t taint our blog with your deep fried Turkey recipe. Happy Thanksgivukkah!


To bring some Thanksgiving flavors into my life here, here’s a recipe for Chanukah sufganiyot that invite Thanksgiving nostalgia: Baked Pumpkin Spice Donuts (sorry Israelis, I know that baking donuts is a total insult … But it’s the only way I’ll be able to stomach Chanukah and Thanksgiving indulgences all in the same week!).

Baked Pumpkin Spice Donuts
Makes about 20 donuts
35 working minutes, 140 total minutes (including rising time)

  • 1 packet active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
  • 1 1/3 c slightly warm (not hot!) milk
  • 1/3 c pumpkin puree
  • 2 tbs butter (melted)
  • 2/3 c sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 5 c all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 1tbs cinnamon
  • 1 tsp ginger powder or 1 tbs fresh shredded ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Stir yeast into 1/3 cup of warm milk. Mix the remaining cup of milk with butter, sugar and pumpkin puree, and then add to yeast mixture. In an electric mixer bowl, whisk the eggs, flour, spices and salt. Beat the dough with an electric mixer dough hook for 3-7 minutes. If the dough is too sticky, add more flour.

Once the dough is formed (it shouldn’t be too sticky and should pull away from your hands easily), knead it a few times and place it an oiled bowl. Cover and let rise in a warm place for an hour (similar to the process of making challah).

When the dough has grown, hit it down and roll it into a 1/2 inch thick sheet on a floured countertop. If you have a doughnut cutter, great. If not, use a large glass or 3 inch cookie cutter (I used a wide mouth mug) to cut the dough into circles. Use a smaller glass or cookie cutter to cut a hole in the middle of the circles.
Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper and line the circles on top. Cover with a cloth and let rise for 45 minutes. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Bake donuts for 8 -10 minutes until tops are browned. When done, sprinkle with sugar, cinnamon and/or nutmeg, or enjoy plain.


For another healthy-ish Thanksgiving twist on a Channukah classic, try Zesty Cranberry Yogurt in place of sour cream on your latkes. It’s great with old fashioned latkes, but with sweet potato latkes…. omg.


Zesty Cranberry Yogurt
Serves 10 as a sauce for latkes
Prep time 25 – 30 minutes

  • 2 C cranberries (fresh or frozen)
  • 3/4 C chopped dates
  • Zest and juice of 2 oranges
  • 1/2 tsp clove powder
  • 1tsp cinnamon
  •  1/2 C dried cranberries of raisins
  • 1/2 C toasted walnut pieces
  • 2 C plain greek yogurt (whole fat always tastes better, but feel free to use fat free if you want to same caloric space for latkes and other Thanksgivingkah treats)
  • 1 tbs orange zest for garnish

Cook cranberries, dates, orange juice and zest, clove powder and cinnamon on low heat for 15-25 minutes until berries’ skins break apart. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Once cool, remove from heat and let thicken. Stir dried cranberries/raisins and walnut pieces into mixture.
Stir resulting cranberry sauce into greek yogurt and garnish with orange zest. Eat with latkes in place of sour cream for a Thanksgiving twist on a Channukah classic. Use leftovers as a complimentary topping for savory sweet potato dishes. Or, drizzle cranberry sauce over yogurt and granola for a zesty breakfast or midday snack.


◊ One World One Family

IMG_8883 (1)

Dear mom,

You are in Israel and I am in class. I’m a terrible student … I just can’t wait to be with the family. All I have to do is get through the next few classes and readings before I see you in two days!

I’m looking forward to Amit’s wedding, but the nerd in me is just as excited to simply be surrounded by my family. The abundance of us together at the same time (for the first time!) in Israel is part of an important story. I’m grateful to live it. And if the legacy of family tradition is carried in the way we party, the wedding will be out of control.

I’m also excited for you to be in Israel again. I know you’ll love the food and I’m curious to hear your perceptions of the country’s daily beat. When I walk the streets of Jerusalem there are times I feel right at home and others when reality flips my comfort zone upside down. Will you experience what other Jewish visitors from the US talk about — a feeling of returning home? Or, more similar to my experience, will being here make you question your sense of belonging to any place? Living in Jerusalem makes me wonder if sense of belonging to a place is something that we’re taught to feel entitled to… and what kind of devotion, adoration, havoc that feeling might trigger. If you run out of things to think about during your time here, sense of belonging is a good one. But I’m certain that won’t happen. Your days will be too crowded with loud family, tasty salads and stunning vistas.


In the least, Abe’s embarrassing family slogan creation – One World, One Family. Schuster, We Know No Borders – vindicates a share of my own search for belonging, particularly among our small American cohort. That’s why our family story is important to me.

See you SOON b’eretz!


IMG_8876 (1)
The best thing about eating in Israel is the salads. Breakfast salads, lunch salads, dinner salads… small, diverse and plenty! In the words of dear friend Dr. Ayla Pelleg, salads are exciting because every bite is a new adventure!

You’ll see what I’m talking about in a few days if you haven’t already.

In Israel, tuna salads are staple, weirdly for breakfast and especially among students like me for its affordable (in time and shekels) protein. When I was a kid, my favorite lunch was a tall stack of tuna- saltine cracker-tuna- saltine cracker. What I probably enjoyed most about this lunch was the animal-like crumble of the stack after such careful construction.

I’m (mostly) over my childish impulse to destroy, but am still tweaking my all-time favorite tuna salad. Below is my Israel inspired concoction colored with eastern spices and bright veggies.

Abundant Spices

Shelves in the market feature unfamiliar spices… I experiment with a new one after each visit

Spicy Tuna Salad with Lentils and Arugula
Serves 4 – 7 people

IMG_8878 (1)

Spice mix

  • ¼ cup tomato pasteIMG_8885
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 1 green chili, stem and seeds removed
  • 3 tablespoons good olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt


  • 2 cups French lentils, prepared (boil with salt)
  • 3 5-ounce cans of albacore tuna
  • 4 tablespoons spice mix or to taste
  • 2 cups carrots, finely grated
  • ½ red onion, chopped
  • 4 handfuls of arugula, chopped
  • 3 eggs, boiled and sliced
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Handful of parsley, roughly chopped, for garnish
  • Handful of pumpkin seeds, toasted, for garnish

To prepare spice mix, add all ingredients into a food processor and puree into thick paste. In a large bowl, mix lentils, tuna, spice mix, onions and carrots. If desired, add a drop of olive oil to loosen the mixture. Right before serving, toss tuna mixture with arugula and sliced eggs. Add salt and black pepper as needed. Garnish with pumpkin seeds and parsley and serve chilled with good bread or crackers. Refrigerate any unused portion of the spice mixture for other salad dishes.

** If you don’t eat fish, add another handful of lentils (or an additional egg or slices of avocado) … the salad works without tuna. The lentils, carrots and arugula carry plenty of substance. Experiment and tell me what you learn.