◊ From the Bottom


Dear mom,

I’m sure what you are experiencing on the news must be very scary for you, but the worrying is annoying and needs to stop. My day-to-day reality is not scary … it’s just exhausting. 

I have lived on five continents. I have been exposed to a variety of worldviews, political clusterfucks and human rights tragedies. I became used to being an outsider looking in, which made it fairly easy for me to swing across conflicting realities. I adjusted quickly from Mumbai to New York to Mountain Brook. 

Here, I am not an outsider. I do not have the privilege of casual opinions, quiet observations or weightless sympathy. I am a Jew living in Israel. My actions and words are part of the stage. 

Several times a day, I am tossed across worlds that host separate realities and contradicting narratives. As the truths shift, so does my heart. Listening to everyone is exhausting; cross-checking my reactions to it all before I open my mouth drains me empty. Sometimes it hurts.  


I want the violence to stop. I turn inward. I ask myself what I can do to ease the chaos around me. Right now, living in Jerusalem feels like living in a pressure cooker and, from what I see, the heat is not fueled by extremists or political leaders. It is fueled by people like me — laypeople who neglect personal responsibility by refusing or forgetting to build unity into their agendas of day-to-day tasks.  The heat is fueled by people who are set on defining and defending rights and wrongs.


I know what you’re thinking and yes, there very well may be universal rights and wrongs … but the fact that they exist has no bearing on the situation here. Anyone can argue a black and a white. I want the violence to stop and I don’t see a purpose in sustaining this argument. 

I want the violence to stop, so I will focus my energy on efforts that are productive.  I will take time to listen, engage, acknowledge the suffering and pain of others, tell stories, smile and humanize.  I will speak as an individual, avoid blame and propaganda and veer from divisiveness. It is all that I can do. 


I am a Jew living in Israel … and — deep breath –I refuse to be enemies with my neighbors … and — another deep breath —  I refuse to mitigate my empathy for human-life (regardless of my political views). I am not naive to think that my efforts are always (or often) mutual, nor do I think they can create peace at-large. But I do believe that I can lower the heat on the pressure cooker in which I live. I can say hello and listen to, tell and re-tell stories. Peace can come from the bottom. From the streets. From people like me. 

Stop worrying.



See... people are still dancing in the street. They aren't scared, you shouldn't be either.

See… people are still dancing in the street. They aren’t scared- there’s no reason for you to be.

Ps. I know you’re not happy with my decisions right now, but I hope my letter sheds some light unto my reasoning. And really, stop worrying.

Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 5.27.13 PM

Pps. Here’s a Jewish bit that I found consoling: In a recent d’var Torah, Rabbi Les Bronstein of  T’ruah explained that the Torah tells us that we must to do what is necessary to save ourselves …  but that even when we are protecting ourselves, we must allow ourselves to weep for the other.  He said, “If we stop protecting ourselves, we will cease to be. But if we stop caring about the consequences of our self-preservation, we will cease to be the Jewish people, which may be tantamount to ceasing to exist altogether.” 



Last week, I helped the family downstairs prepare the Iftar meal with which they break their Ramadan fast. They showed me how to make Musakhan, which, I was told, is the Palestinian dish to know. I’ve tried a lot of foods from this region so I was shocked (and upset) that I wasn’t familiar with most famous Palestinian dish! But now I know. Even though I ate around the chicken, it was an incredible meal. 


Along with Musakhan, we made “Arab Salad,” which is the salad that I (and many Israelis) eat almost every day – finely chopped vegetables mixed with tahini, lemon juice and parsley. 


Also, look at this amazing oven that works like a taboon – can we get one?


Serves 5 – 7 

Prep time – 1 – 2 hours

  • 1 whole chicken, cut into 4 or 5 pieces
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1/2 tsp cloves, ground
  • 3 cardamom seeds, crushed
  • salt and black pepper
  • 2 tbs olive oilIMG_5732
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 4 tbs sumac

  • 1 pound white or yellow onions
  • 1 pound red onions 
  • 2 tsp salt  
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 cup chicken (or vegetarian) stock
  • 4 Tbs. ground sumac 
  • 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg 
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon 
  •  1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper  
  • 4 pieces lavash, taboon, shrak, or pita bread
  • 1/2 cup toasted cashews, almond slices, pine nuts
  • handful of parsley for garnish


Combine garlic, cloves cardamom seeds , salt and black pepper. set aside one tablespoon of mixture and rub remainder into chicken. Let marinate. 

Meanwhile, chop onions into small pieces. Place in large skillet with olive oil and half of your chicken stock and salt. Cover and cook over very low heat for 10 minutes or until onions are translucent. Then, add remaining spices and continue cooking over low heat for another 20 minutes. 


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. 

Roast chicken in oven on 400 degrees on a baking sheet. Mix reserved tablespoon of spices with lemon juice and 4 tbs sumac. Once chicken is roasted, cover chicken with remaining spices.


Once onions are cooked and fragrant, brush pan with olive oil. Place bread on pan and sprinkle with 3 – 4 tbs of chicken (or veg) stock. Then, cover with onions and place in oven.


Bake for 15 – 20 minutes until onions are browned and bread is crispy. Place chicken on top of bread and garnish with parsley and cashews, almonds or pine nuts. To eat, rip pieces of bread and chicken with your hands, or cut it up like a pizza. For a vegetarian version, replace chicken with baked zatar tofu, or top with labneh or greek yogurt. 

♦ Counting the Days

Dear Shaina,

I have shared your thoughts, so eloquently written, with many of my friends. They, too, are worried…and proud. They call and email and ask about you and then about me. They ask if you can come home early. I tell them you don’t want to; that you are OK, that you are feeling it all and questioning it all, that you are vigilant and careful, and going about your life, still. I tell them you are safe and I pray that it is true.


I was in the temple gift shop and bought a red thread bracelet with a charm that has Sh’ma Yisroel in Hebrew on it; the Sh’ma to keep G-D near, the red threads to keep the evil eye far away. I lose at Mahjong and willingly offer up my losses to the mahjong gods in exchange for your safe return.

I pray for an end to all wars. I pray for an end to senseless hatred and violence. I pray for an uprising of the best that humanity has to offer; care and respect for all living beings, peace and opportunity for all, a world that is free of people-induced tragedies. I am cynical and naive. I pray anyway.

I haven’t been doing much cooking lately. My cooking marathons have come to a near halt and efficiency and expediency are driving my food preparations. I haven’t been sleeping much either. The only thing I seem to be doing a lot of is watching the news and worrying. The whole world is a mess…and that doesn’t even begin to identify my concern over the situation in Israel…and my anxiety about you. I can’t help it. Someday, you will understand, when your own child lives in a world where dangers and threats exist at every turn, where no amount of reason, love, prayer or force can nullify evil intent or random insanity. I am scared…for you…and for the world. Needless to say, I am counting the days until you get home.


These days, I find myself reaching for Israeli foods and spices. The Israeli olive oil I lugged back from Israel finally got opened. The basmati rice got an extra dose of Israeli spices. Gail made shakshuka for Shabbat dinner and Rebecca baked Nurit’s coffee cake recipe that you and Naomi love.

Bok Choy Salad with Avocado, Raisins and Cashews

Bok Choy Salad with Avocado, Raisins and Cashews

I made a revised version of my Bok Choy Asian Salad (from my last letter) adding avocado, thai basil from the garden, raisins and cashews and, although not Israeli fare, it added a little spice and international flavor that everyone appreciated. I guess food continues to be another way to stay connected and feel a little closer to you and our family so far away.

I did throw together an eggplant parmesan casserole this week in an attempt to use some Japanese eggplant that was waiting for my attention. In fact the whole dish was designed around cleaning out the refrigerator. I used the remains from a large tub of cottage cheese that I could never seem to get to the bottom of and store-bought jars of tomato sauce that had been sitting in the pantry for too long to remember. It actually turned into a very easy, satisfying meal that enabled me to avoid cooking dinner for several days.

I am counting the days until your return. I ask only that you call or text everyday to let me know that you are safe. I just feel better when I hear your voice.

Love, Mom


Easy Eggplant Parmesan




Japanese Eggplant

  • 2 -3 pounds Japanese eggplant
  • Olive oil
  • Salt, pepper, garlic
  • 2-3 cups cottage cheese
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
  • 1 quart jar of your favorite tomato sauce
  • 1 cup (or more) grated mozzarella cheese


Slice eggplant in 1/2 inch thick rounds.  Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt, pepper and garlic powder.  Toss together to lightly cover eggplant.

Place in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake on the convection bake setting at 350° or 375° on a regular bake setting for about 20 minutes or until lightly browned and cooked through. Flip eggplant over half way through cooking.  Japanese eggplant is always tender and not bitter so there is no need to pre-salt and let sit as you do with traditional eggplant.

Mix cottage cheese, eggs and basil with a stick blender until somewhat smooth.


Spray cooking spray on bottom and sides of a deep casserole dish.

Open jar of sauce and put a small amount on the bottom of the casserole baking dish.

Place an overlapping layer of eggplant to cover the bottom of the casserole and cover with a layer of tomato sauce.

Pour cottage cheese mixture over the eggplant.



Top with remaining layers of eggplant and cover with remaining tomato sauce.

Sprinkle mozzarella cheese over the top.

Bake in a 350° oven for 45 minutes or until bubbly and cheese is lightly browned at the edges.

This dish may be frozen before or after baking for future meals.


◊ Let’s Talk


Dear mom,

Indeed, the life force goes on. Throughout stress, transition and mayhem, we chop vegetables. We get on buses. We pretend we’re taking notes in class when we’re chatting with friends online. We finish homework on time for class (ha). Tragedy and fear persist, and so does life. 

Many people from home have been asking how I’m handling it all. People ask about what it’s like when sirens go off indicating that rockets from Gaza are on the way. They ask for my thoughts on “the conflict.” I’m unable to vocalize anything… My anger, sadness and sensitivity surprise me each time in engage with someone about life here. The whole situation has tremendously affected me.

Several days ago, I released some of the mess in my brain with a pen-and-paper purge. I didn’t write my thoughts with the intention of posting them here, but I want to share them with you.


One week ago, four days after the bodies of  Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were found outside of Jerusalem, I went to my first course of the summer semester, which covers inter-communal relations in Jerusalem, a topic that puzzles and fascinates me regularly. In the first twenty minutes of class, my classmates and I introduced ourselves with our names and a comparison between our hometowns and Jerusalem. 

My name is Jia-li, and I come from the Szechwan province, where it hot in the summers like it is now in Jerusalem.

My name is Amir, and I come from San Juan, which is a walled city resembling Jerusalem.

My name is Jackie, and I come from Boston, where historic architecture is all around like it is in Jerusalem.

I was the last person in the room to share. 

My name is Shaina… 

My voice was unexpectedly shaky. 

I grew up in Birmingham, AL, a city known for its history of racism and hate crimes. Today, systemic racism and segregation in the public sphere exist. I did not interact with African Americans other than grocery-store clerks, maintenance workers, house cleaners and ‘nannies’ until I was in high school. I joined dialogue groups and workshops to talk about race, and made black friends who were afraid to come to parties at my house because they did not want to be stopped by the police in an almost all-white neighborhood. I ventured to neighborhoods that I was told not to go to. I became comfortable with the discomfort of being in a place where I am different and comfortable with the discomfort of being in a place where everyone is just like me.

I did not have to explain how my hometown was similar to Jerusalem.

Two weeks ago, I moved from an apartment in Nachlaot to a Palestinian neighborhood. Nachlaot is in West Jerusalem. Its residents wear high-waisted jeans picked from the racks of trendy vintage stores, American Apparel leggings (the kind of thing to stock up on when moving to Israel from the US) and old leather backpacks. They are hip Jewish-Israeli artists, students and young professionals. 

I moved to a Palestinian neighborhood to practice my Arabic and experience a different space of the city. My new apartment is a fifteen minute walk from my old one and it feels like it’s in a separate country.  Even the pavement on the streets is different. 



Last Wednesday, the day that the boys’ bodies were found in Hebron, I was in the library until evening, multitasking between writing final papers and reading the news. When I got to my apartment, I squeezed through barricades of soldiers to reach my front door. I found my roommates packing overnight bags. Neither of them – a Palestinian-American and a Dane – felt safe staying in the apartment. We shared updates from our Facebook newsfeeds and the op-eds we had read. I listened to the Palestinian-American’s accounts of  the situation in Gaza and Hebron. We left the apartment and headed in different directions – I walked back to Nachlaot, my old neighborhood.

Ten minutes later, I was on Jaffo Street in the city-center. A mob of pre-teens emerged from an alley screaming, in Hebrew, “death to Arabs,” followed by police on horses. Young girls wearing Israeli flags laid down in front of the horses while the teens ran in the streets with sticks in their hands, cheering and shouting like they were at a football game. I started crying. I followed the mob, and watched them surround two small Arab boys against the wall of a shop. The police were gone. The boys sprinted away as fast as they could. The mob cheered.

I arrived at my friend’s house in Nachlaot and plopped down on his leather couch next to others just like me. They had gathered to comfort one another in face of the day’s painful news. The conversation vacillated between things like the health benefits of sprouted grains and how only a society of animals could celebrate something so brutal as the murder of children. I was too shaken to say anything. My fifteen minute walk from neighborhood to neighborhood illuminated the separateness of the multiple realities being lived by Jerusalem’s inhabitants. These realities are divided by vast gaps, but have been built right on top of each other. 

The next day, the body of Muhammed Abu Khadier was found. Another tragedy. In spite of warnings from friends, family and Israeli security, I went to Muhammed Abu Khadier’s mourning tent in Shuafat, a fifteen minute walk from my University’s campus. I thought about the fifteen minutes it took for me to get from Mountain Brook to Ensley – going there was the only way to bridge the gap. 

Visiting Muhammed Abu Khadier’s family was sad and uncomfortable and important. 

The severity of the conflict has escalated. People in Jerusalem are scared; people in Tel Aviv are scared; people in Gaza are scared; I am scared. What does this violence mean for the future of the families around me? These days have been a painful time for Jews and for Palestinians.

Today, a Muslim-American friend (she wears a headscarf) asked if I wanted to meet up for dinner in a place that feels mutually safe. I laughed to myself.

I responded via text message, Hahaha yes!

And then, Sorry, not funny…  just feeling confused about where that place is supposed to be.  

I am embarrassed to admit this: when I walk the streets of Jerusalem my heart remembers driving around Birmingham. It remembers being conflicted, torn and confused about where I’m supposed to be. It remembers the dialogue groups I participated in in high school – Anytown Alabama, Heritage Panel and PEACE Birmingham – that positioned me to see individuals beyond their homophobia or evangelical conviction that I was eternally dammed. In Birmingham, I learned that trying to bridge gaps can curb violence and fear; I learned how to speak and think in I instead of we and they; I learned that no one has exclusive ownership of the truth. Is it naive to think that teaching our children to communicate – to think – could make the world more livable?


Thank you for sending your prayers – please, continue to do so. But more importantly, let’s talk. 



Ps. Wow dad has tarragon growing in the garden?! YES. 


This salad is adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s 2012 collaboration : “Jerusalem: A Cookbook.” You know it. The two are an Israeli Jew and Palestinian who united over a shared appreciation of food among other things.  I received their book as a gift from my aunt and immediately fell in love. I will never be able to look at it in the same way I did before living Jerusalem. It’s pages, in which Ottolenghi and Tamimi weave together the separate realities of the city, are colored with familiar scenes, characters and flavors. It’s beautiful. 


Shabbat dinner spread

Tamimi and Ottolenghi aren’t the only ones:  Jam Session, recipes from women belonging to The Parents Circle, a group of Israeli and Palestinian parents who lost children in the conflict, is another inspiring collaboration. There is hope. Yesterday, my classmates and I had the privilege to hear Raphie Etgar, the founder/director of  Museum on the Seam speak about his work to create dialogue and unearth hard topics through art. Etgar told us that “creating art is one of the ways people can something and expect other to listen … Discussion is a starting point for considering other options.” Word. 


Jerusalem Date and Greens Salad, Adapted from Jerusalem: A Cookbook

Prep time: 20 minutes

Serves: 4-5

  • 1 tbs wine vinegar
  • 1/2 medium purple onion, thinly sliced and chopped
  • 5-7  Medjool dates, pitted and chopped
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tbs butter
  • 2 small pitas or any bread you have laying around, torn into 1 1/2 -inch pieces
  • 1 tbs poppy seeds
  • 1/2 cup almonds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts (or all) chopped
  • 2 teaspoons sumac
  • 1/2 teaspoon chile flakes
  • 5 handfuls of arugula or mixed greens (the original recipes calls for 5 to 6 ounces baby spinach leaves)
  • 2 oz goat cheese feta, crumbled
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tbs good olive oil

Put vinegar, onion, salt and dates in a small bowl.  Leave to marinate for 20 minutes and drain any residual vinegar.  Discard vinegar.

Heat butter in pan over medium heat. Add pita and fry until golden. Add poppy seeds, almonds and whatever other nuts use choose, continuously stirring until pita is crunchy and nuts are toasted and fragrant. Remove from heat and mix in sumac, chile flakes and a pinch of salt. Let cool.

When ready to serve, toss spinach leaves, pita mix, dates and red onion and feta with olive oil, lemon juice and pinch of salt. Serve  immediately.



The recipe below is one I made up in a last-minute effort to clean out my kitchen space. It also reeks Jerusalem. The dominant flavors – rich tahini, spiky zatar, surprisingly warm- spiced chickpeas – are familiar to all Jerusalemites (the tofu part… not so much). Don’t be scared by the list of ingredients… it’s long, but this dish is worth it.

Tahini Roasted Vegetables with Crispy Chickpeas and Baked Tofu

Prep time: 1-2 hours

Serves: 7 – 10 as a side, 4-7 as a main


  • 3 medium sized carrots, peeled and sliced lengthwise into strips
  • 3 cups (one large box) of cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 2 medium purple onions, chopped into 1/2 in pieces
  • 2 medium eggplants, chopped into 1 inch chunks
  • 1 tbs olive oil
  • salt
  • pepper
  • juice and zest of one lemon
  • 2 cups chick peas, cooked (or canned) and drained
  • 1 tbs olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/tsp cumin
  • pinch of cayenne powder or chili flake
  • salt to taste
  • 1 (or more) 16 oz box of extra firm tofu
  • 1 (or more) tbs olive oil
  • salt
  • sumac
  • zatar
  • 4 heaping tbs crude tahini
  • 1/3 cup toasted sesame seeds
  • sprinkle of sumac
  • sprinkle of zatar

Preheat oven to 250 degrees (use convection setting if you can). Toss carrots, tomatoes and onions in olive oil, salt and pepper and lay flat on baking sheet (preferably lined with parchment paper). Allow to slowly roast in oven for about 35 – 50 minutes until tomatoes are wrinkled, onions are browned, eggplant is soft and carrot edges are crisp. Check frequently – it turns from browned to burnt quickly! When done, mix with lemon juice and zest. Allow to cool.

While your veggies are in the oven, mix cinnamon, cumin, cayenne, salt and olive oil. Add chickpeas until coated. Lay flat on baking sheet covered in parchment paper. Set aside.

Up the oven to 350 once veggies are done.

IMG_3782Remove the tofu from its packaging and pat dry with paper towels. Cut tofu into cubes and allow excess liquid to drain. While draining, prepare mixture of olive oil, zatar, sumac and salt. Mix tofu cubes with the zatar mixture so that each cube of tofu is covered with a green powder coating. Lay flat on baking sheet covered in parchment paper.

 Bake tofu and chickpeas (on separate baking sheets) until golden and crispy at 350 – this should take 30 – 50 minutes. The zatar and cinnamon will make your kitchen smell heavenly.

After it’s all out of the oven, toss everything together with 2 tbs tahini and sesame seeds. Drizzle remaining tahini over top. Dust the final product with pinches of sumac and zatar and serve.


♦ The Life Force Persists

Dear Shaina,
I am deeply saddened by all that has been and is going on in Israel. I am saddened by all the losses, the terror, and the inevitable fear experienced by all who must endure the fallout of extremism. I am mostly saddened that we, as human beings, can’t simply agree to keep our children safe. I believe that is what we all want.

Despite the state of the the world, the individual life force persists. We go to sleep each night (sometimes not so easily), get up each morning, put one foot in front of the other and chop more vegetables to satisfy our ever renewed need for food and drink. Although chopping vegetables may not be enough, it’s goes a long way toward nurturing the life force…and that’s no small thing.

.4th of July Picnic at the Park


We just celebrated Independence Day for America, a holiday that celebrates individual and political freedoms guaranteed for all. There are many in this country, still, that would claim that this dream has not yet been fulfilled for everyone. It seems so simple and logical…equality and freedom…wouldn’t we all be better off? Yet we somehow insist on playing the top-dog/bottom-dog game; scratching our way, desperately, violently, inhumanely, to maintain this skewed balance. I am most saddened because I see no way out. We have always counted on the next generation to have a clearer vision. That is my prayer for you as you continue on your life’s journey.

This year we celebrated the Fourth of July downtown at Railroad Park amidst a diverse Birmingham crowd listening to a Smooth jazz concert. It was Birmingham at its best! It had a City Stages feel, but a lot more relaxed and spacious as we stretched out on the open grassy hill facing the stage. Trains rolled by slowly as the sun set painting the city skyscape a rainbow of orange and magenta hues. Even the food turned out pretty good. This may be the beginning of a new Fourth of July tradition.

Sunday afternoon I left for a girl’s spend-the-night at the lake to play mahjong. I am glad to hear that you had a little mahjong exposure over the weekend with your cousins. I can’t think of a better pastime for Israelis. Mahjong is the perfect distraction for this overanxious mom. I need all my brain cells to play and have no room for intrusive worry thoughts.

Shaina, this is your last five weeks in Israel before your brief stop in Birmingham on your way to the next chapter of your life. Our home, like yours, is in a state of transitional disorder. Although not always comfortable, it does force you to experience new edges. For us, it means sifting through and throwing out and making choices about what is important and meaningful in our lives. I guess that’s a process that never changes no matter how old you get.

I hope your remaining weeks in Israel hold some moments of peace and that this year leaves you with many rich memories. Most of all, I pray for your safety and welfare and your safe return home. I may be scheduling lots of mahjong games over the next few weeks to distract me from my worrying mind.

French Tarragon From Dad's Garden

French Tarragon From Dad’s Garden



Fourth of July Fare

 Easy Tarragon Potato Salad


  • 3 lbs small red potatoes
  • 4 scallions or 1/3 cup purple onions, sliced or chopped
  • 1/2 cup pitted calamata olives, halved


  • 3/4 cup mayonnaise
  • Juice and zest of one fresh lemon
  • 2 – 3 tablespoons of fresh French tarragon (finely chopped) or 1tablespoon of dried tarragon
  • salt and pepper to taste


Boil potatoes in salted water until just done. Cool under cold water.
The potato skins may be left on or peeled off. When potatoes are cooled cut in bite-sized pieces and place in a large bowl.
Cut up scallions into quarter inch slices and add to the potatoes.
Slice the olives in half and add to the potatoes and onions.
Place mayonnaise in a bowl and stir in lemon juice, tarragon and salt and pepper to taste. Blend thoroughly.
Pour mayonnaise mixture over potato mixture and mix until potatoes are covered. Adjust seasonings.
Refrigerate until you are ready to serve.
This dish tastes even better the next day.


Easy Bok Choy Slaw


  • 1 pound of baby bok choy, cut up in thin slices
  • 4 carrots, grated or shredded
  • 4 scallions, sliced
  • 1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds


  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
  • 2 teaspoons sugar or sugar substitute
  • 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
  • 1 teaspoon hot chili sauce
  • Juice and zest of one fresh lime
  • Salt and pepper to taste


Place sliced bok choy, grated carrots and cut up scallions in a large bowl.
Whisk together the remaining ingredients in a small bowl.
Pour dressing over the vegetables and toss until all vegetables are covered.
Adjust seasonings. Top with toasted sesame seeds.