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That's me, Pattie Weiss Levy.

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Friday, December 12, 2014

A Word From the Weiss

Allegra's CD Lonely City.jpg        If you think that the holidays are a hectic time, then you don’t know the half of it.
        My half of it, that is.
       
When I learned that my daughter Allegra had to fly in from Hong Kong sometime last month to officially release her brand new CD – “Lonely City,” on the SteepleChase Lookout label – I urged her to come in for the week of Thanksgiving. Never once in her life had she missed out on my famous homemade pumpkin pie, and I wasn’t about to let her start now. What I failed to take into consideration was that this would involve throwing two CD release parties during that already action (and poultry) packed week, one each in New York and Connecticut, to which we would invite practically everyone we knew.Allegra in Chinese dress.JPG
        Yikes!
       
OK, in all fairness to her, she was the one who’d do all the singing at these events – severely jetlagged, no less, thanks to a 13-hour time difference and a 16-hour flight. All I would need to do was clean the house, lure people to the release parties, circulate among the guests who came, and cook up a high-calorie storm.
       
But if you think all that is no big deal, then let me tell you what it felt like to spend weeks frantically cleaning and redecorating the house, then go to the city for three hectic days and nights, then race home and prepare the turkey, side dishes, and desserts all in one grueling day… and then turn around and grapple with another, even bigger show. It was essentially like running a marathon, sandwiched between throwing two bat mitzvahs back to back.
       
Not exactly the restful and relaxing family reunion that I had initially had in mind.Allegra and JP at a friend's wedding.JPG
       
Perhaps you wonder why in the midst of all that I had to redecorate the house. After all, neither of the release parties would be held there. The problem was that Allegra was not coming home from Hong Kong all alone. Her eminently likable and charming boyfriend JP had graciously accepted our invitation to join her. That meant that it was time to bite the bullet and trade up from the narrow twin bed and little girl bedding still inside her room.
       
Allegra also had mentioned in passing that JP’s own parents were avid neatniks. We, needless to say, are not. Although we had done a major purge when I threw my husband a 70th birthday bash last summer, cleaning the living room for the party had consisted mainly of moving much of the clutter upstairs. During the visit, JP would venture both upstairs and down, and we didn’t want to embarrass our daughter – or ourselves.old makeup in drawer.jpg
       
So I hope it won’t embarrass her too much to mention that her room, in particular, was in no shape to receive company. On the contrary, she hadn’t done much purging herself since we’d first moved in 15 years ago. Neither, in all fairness to her, had my son, but girls tend to accumulate more. Much more. I’d implored her repeatedly to throw things out, but she merely brought more home from college after every year. The result? Her desk, dresser, and drawers were liberally littered with old homework assignments, clothing, nail polish, makeup, and other decades-old detritus, much of which had preceded the Clinton Administration.Pattie building headboard 1.JPG
       
For her sake, and ours, I felt like the statute of limitations was up and it was time to take action at last. But she was now living in Hong Kong, so the cleanup and dirty work fell to me. With her permission to throw out anything and everything, I spent four solid days in her room, which, along with a treasure trove of trash, yielded nearly a dozen bags to donate to charity.New headboard assembled!.JPG
       
Then I set about procuring not just a new queen-sized mattress and box spring, but new bedding and a headboard to match. Alas, the latter arrived in a box bearing the three most dreaded words known to man or nice Jewish mom kind: "Some assembly required."
       
But with persistence, elbow grease, and an Allen wrench (not to mention the willingness to read instructions, the gene for which is notably lacking in Nice Jewish Dad), I eventually prevailed.Happily Ever After Snow White poster .JPG
       
With Allegra about to turn 25, it was also time for the Snow White poster that read “…And they lived happily ever after” to be happily relegated to the basement.Flower painting on Allegra's wall.JPG
        In its place, I put a tasteful floral watercolor that matched the still-lavender walls.
       
I also stashed her 700 or so stuffed animals, ranging from teeny Beanie Babies to a gi-normous teddy bear, discreetly in the closet.
       
Then, while I was at it, it was high time to replace all of the cutesy pink curtains, rugs, and towels in her bathroom … the ones that had been left by our home’s last owner and Allegra had never even liked. I found a vibrant, deep violet curtain in a style called Gigi at Bed, Bath & Beyond instead and picked up accessories to match.Allegra's bathroom curtain.JPG
       
Voilà! She and her childhood quarters had graduated from middle school at last.Allegra's new bed.JPG
       
Sadly, after all this effort, we would have to wait a few more days for the big reveal. Since the New York show was the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving, we would spend our first three nights in the city after picking up Allegra and JP on Sunday at the airport.
       
Airports, actually. Due to complications, they were obliged to travel on separate airlines. JP would arrive at JFK a little past noon, and Allegra would follow shortly after, miles away in Newark. So my husband and I were obliged to make the 2½ hour trek from Connecticut in two separate cars in order to pick them up almost simultaneously.Allegra arriving from Hong Kong.jpg
       
It fell to me to fetch JP, so the screaming scene that ensued when I first laid eyes on my daughter again only managed to deafen anyone standing in a ten-block radius of the lobby of our hotel.
       
That decibel level was thankfully muted somewhat when Allegra was exuberantly reunited that evening with her brother Aidan, his girlfriend Kaitlin, and her longtime BFF Michelle at our favorite French bistro, La Lunchonette, on 18th and Tenth Avenue.Dinner at La Lunchonette with Kaitlin, Aidan and Michelle.jpg
       
Allegra had decisively chosen to introduce JP to her adopted hometown by taking him not to the reputed best restaurants in NYC, but the ones she knew best and loved.
       
But we couldn’t resist throwing in a tacky tourist attraction or two, like the Tick Tock Diner on Eighth Avenue and 34th Street, where we chowed down on trayf and eggs the next morning.Allegra and JP at the Tick Tock Diner.JPG
       
Then, still severely jetlagged, they hit the ground running with shopping at Macy’s, a hike along the trendy Highline, and a swift tour of the posh shops in Chelsea Market before taking the tram to Roosevelt Island to visit her NYC apartment and much-missed roommate Jamie.
       
By then it was already time to race down to the West Village for dinner with our friend Liz at Po, our favorite Italian ristorante, and that’s when the chaos really kicked in.
       
In trying to attract people to attend the release shows, I had sent out about 75 e-vites in three different forms – one for the people who might come to the New York show, one to those more likely to attend the one in Connecticut, and a third to those who might come to either one or both.
        With major stories about Allegra running in several Connecticut papers, we knew the hometown show was bound to sell out.Allegra's Connecticut CD Release poster.jpg 
Filling the NYC show was an iffier proposition, however. Or so we thought until that night. The Cornelia Street Café, the trendy venue where it would be held, happens to be right next door to Po, and on the way in we stopped by and learned that the show was not only sold out, but had been overbooked.
       
This, of course, was very good news, but good news with a catch. Instead of worrying that she would be unable to fill the joint, we now feared that many of her friends and ours would show up without reservations and be unable to get a seat.JP, Allegra, Kaitlin, Liz and us at Po.JPG
       
To exacerbate that worry, I received a call from my good friend Suzanne during dinner asking if she and her husband could attend. Rather than calling the club, I got up in the middle of the meal and ran next door to secure two more seats… only to get a text upon my return asking if she could bring her son as well. Oy!
       
Meanwhile, Allegra and JP raced through dinner because she had to be back at our hotel room by 7:30 to be interviewed live during an hour-long radio show.
       
My husband and I returned to our own room and listened to the entire broadcast in mounting exasperation. As nice as it was to get the publicity, the show host had clearly not bothered to listen to her CD beforehand and struggled to come up with questions.Allegra, JP, and friends at the hotel.JPG Allegra was also losing her voice.
       
Afterwards, half a dozen of her closest friends showed up to go out with her. But she was so exhausted already that I prevailed upon her to have a little party in the hotel, for which I had brought along some wine and cheese just in case. I wanted her to reserve as much energy as possible for showtime the next day.
       
I would like to think it was one of those rare cases of Nice Jewish Mother knows best, because as eager as she was to visit with her friends, she was ready to pass out before long. JP enjoyed breakfast at Best Bagel.jpg
       
The next morning started off well enough. When Allegra called early to say that she and JP were awake, famished, and bent on eating bagels – the one thing that she missed most about New York – I managed to find a place within two blocks called Best Bagel and Coffee that indeed boasted what were arguably among the New York City’s best bagels.
       
Then, however, it might be fair to say that all hell basically broke loose.
       
With the show scheduled for that evening, there was an awful lot left to be done. Allegra would be performing with five other top-notch musicians, some of whom she had never even met before. But she had been unable to find a time to rehearse with any of them other than her pianist. They would meet for the first time right before the show!
       
Since they would only be performing the 11 tunes on her new album, all of which she had written herself, she had to provide sheet music for all five instruments involved. She went out to make copies of the songs and buy folders in which to assemble them in order. Then we spent hours in her hotel room carefully taping the multiple sheets of each song together and arranging them in clear plastic sleeves inside these folders.Lonely City binder.JPG
       
By the time we were done doing this, she was an hour later to her rehearsal with the pianist, which was an hour away by subway in Brooklyn. This meant that she would not get to take the nap that she desperately needed. It also meant that her planned two-hour rehearsal, which was already vastly insufficient, would have to be cut in half.
       
It also meant that she would have to go directly from the rehearsal to the family dinner we were having at the café before the show. Like many performers, Allegra can get edgy before big performances -- so much so that I’m inclined to hide under furniture, or at least give her some space. Realizing that she couldn’t possibly schlep all those folders by herself, though, along with her gown and other accoutrements, I insisted on going along for the ride.Allegra forgot her chicken soup.jpg
       
Minutes after we left, JP texted that she had inadvertently left behind the chicken soup she’d planned to bring along for energy. “She needs to eat!” he wrote. His initials evidently stand for “Jewish Parent”… as though one nice Jewish mom weren’t enough.
       
As we raced to the subway carrying a gazillion bags, I realized that I was beyond stressed out too. Would we get to Brooklyn in time for them to practice every song? Would we show up egregiously late to the dinner with my brother and sister-in-law, who were coming in from Long Island on a weeknight to see her perform? Would friends be furious at us when they arrived at the club and couldn’t get in?Pattie had an epiphany.JPG
       
“Epiphany” might be too highfalutin a term to describe what hit me as we waited on the platform for the IRT. But it suddenly sank in that it was one of those major life events – like holiday celebrations, graduations, bar and bat mitzvahs, and weddings – that are supposed to be the highlights of your life. But are they really?
       
I had been looking forward to the coming evening with bated breath for weeks. But now that it was upon us, the only thing I really looked forward to was having it be over.
       
Allegra tried to grab a catnap on the train while resting her head on my shoulder, but a homeless man walked through giving a loud plea for handouts and put an end to that.Carmen Staaf.jpg
       
We got lost in Brooklyn and wandered around for blocks before finally finding the building where she was meeting Carmen Staaf, the amazing pianist who plays on the album and who had flown in from the world-renowned Thelonious Monk Institute in LA to perform at the show.
        But somehow the moment they started to play together, everyone began to relax, including me. This wasn’t about who came to the show or whether they got seats. It was about the music, and my daughter, and how amazing she is.Allegra stepped out a star.jpg
       
Somehow, the girls also managed to get through all 11 tunes more or less by the time I told them it was time to get dressed or else. Allegra walked into the bathroom looking tired and a little bedraggled in jeans, and 10 minutes later, sporting rich ruby lacquered lips, a black lace gown, and rhinestone-encrusted heels, she emerged – a star.
       
Carmen’s talented boyfriend Julian, a nice Jewish boy and renowned pianist himself, valiantly helped us schlep everything back to Manhattan on the subway. I could hardly breathe as I counted down all 17 or so stops from Greenpoint to West 4th Street.Cornelia Street Cafe exterior.jpg
       
But our train pulled in and we stepped into the club for our 7 p.m. dinner on the dot of 7. Aidan, Kaitlin and my relatives were already in the restaurant upstairs, as were my husband and JP. People began lining up soon after.
       
I could hardly eat a bite, I was so excited.
       
Then we filed down to the compact, intimate jazz club in the basement. The rest of the musicians had arrived by now and managed to fit in a hasty rehearsal before the show began.Suzanne and me at the Cornelia Street Cafe.JPG
       
I kept bounding up out of my seat to greet the many people I knew who showed up,  including good friends from home, good friends from the city, my friend Suzanne with both her husband and son, and a lovely woman named Heike whom I’d met only once in Allegra’s elevator on Roosevelt Island and become friends with on Facebook. (She not only came, but brought five friends of her own!)Allegra at Cornelia Street closeup.JPG
       
I caught my breath as the lights dimmed and my daughter launched into “Anxiety,” her opening number.
       
Then she welcomed the crowd warmly before going into the next song, a sassy samba number called “I Don’t Want to Be in Love.”
       
Seeing her sing with confidence, aplomb and perfectly executed scat solos before what was indeed a completely sold-out crowd, I couldn’t help but kvell.Allegra singing with Aubrey at the Cornelia Street Cafe.JPG
       
After taking a short break, she sang the rest of the numbers on the disc, concluding with the title song and another that is my personal favorite, a gorgeous, haunting ballad called “The Duet” on which her dear friend Aubrey sang backup.
       
Then she thanked not just the band, but her parents and her brother, along with “anyone who has ever contributed to my life.” I guess that included me on two counts.
       
A mom so nice she thanked me twice?Allegra JP and Sean at Artichoke Pizza.jpg
       
After the applause died down, we lingered so long visiting with friends that the club had to politely ask us to leave. Then Allegra, JP, and her remaining entourage repaired to a nearby pizza joint, where her appetite and mine abruptly reappeared at last – big time!
       
By the time we'd gotten back to our hotel, it was well past 2 a.m. Now I was so elated that I could hardly sleep. Maybe those big moments are a big part of what we live for, after all… although I will take sitting around in our pajamas together almost any day.
       
Fortunately, the coming days would bring a bit of both. But as I closed my eyes that night at last, it hit me like a sack of potatoes – the sweet ones I’d cook the next day. I would have to get up the next morning, pack, drive home in heavy traffic, and then start preparing Thanksgiving dinner. Then two nights later we’d have to do the whole routine all over again, only with more people at a bigger club. Oy!

To hear Allegra sing "Lonely City," the title song from her album, at her show at the Cornelia Street Café, click on this link: http://youtu.be/D0YVmblpUdY

To hear her sing the closing song from her album, "The Duet," click on this link: http://youtu.be/1XigEBgWTU4?list=PLr1srRLVT86aD4Ujjj8ILp8dC9xQn-_fX

10:44 pm 

10:30 pm 

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Word From the Weiss

You Don't Have to Be Jewish... to love Kosherfest.jpg        
“You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s,” stated the classic 1961 ad campaign for the popular rye bread. Similarly, you don’t need to keep kosher to love Kosherfest. You do, however, have to be either a member of the food trade or the press to attend. So before your mouth begins watering over the ruggelach, potato latkes, frozen desserts, and other goodies that I saw or tasted there last month, bear in mind that this annual event is not open to the public.Kosherfest 2014 at the Meadowlands.JPG
       
Having previously attended the world’s largest kosher-certified products trade show, held in the Meadowlands Expo Center, I knew that there were two crucial things I needed to bring along with me: a hearty appetite and an empty bag in which to accommodate the dizzying variety of samples offered. For the operative word there is “free.”Rugelach from Green's Bakery.jpg
       
This year, however, when I returned to scope out exciting new products worthy of my attention and my highest accolade – the Nice Jewish Mom Spiel of Approval (I tried it! I liked it!) – I discovered that “free” didn’t just mean free of charge. Nor was it necessarily just free of pork, shellfish, milk mixed with meat, and other ingredients or properties prohibited by the laws of kashrut.Kosherfest 2014 at the press room.jpg
       
The latest offerings from the kosher food industry would leave your poor bubbe scratching her sheitel (Yiddish for wig). For unlike my dearly departed nice Jewish Grandma Sadie, who merely aimed to offer helpings big enough to keep everyone alive and well (or at least well-padded), today’s kosher cook is evidently bent on finding foods that are free of gluten, dairy, fat, cholesterol, sugar, chemical additives, and the newest food obsession on the horizon (oy, Gut in himmel!), genetically modified organisms, otherwise known as GMOs.Manischewitz CEO Mark Weinstein at Kosherfest.JPG
       
“We are the first kosher company to have a non-GMO verification,” declared Mark Weinstein, CEO of Manischewitz, the company that is the undisputed big kahuna of the kosher product world.
       
As it happens, two of his three children happen to have issues with gluten. But that's not why the company offers this as an option, along with its other varieties of matzo that cater to dietary restrictions, including organic spelt, whole wheat, unsalted, Mediterranean, yolk-free egg, and gluten-free Garlic & Rosemary matzo-style squares.Manischewitz matzo has no GMOs.JPG
       
There is apparently such a healthy market for such health-conscious kosher items that the brand's gluten-free matzo sold out last year. “My father-in-law likes the gluten-free matzo better,” Weinstein asserted. “It’s crisper, he says.” But if crisp is not what you crave, then Manischewitz is also introducing a new gluten-free matzo ball mix, which was named Kosherfest’s Best New Pasta, Rice, or Grain.Manischewitz Carrot Cake Macaroons.jpg
       
Meanwhile, its Carrot Cake Macaroons had been pronounced winner of the 2014 award for Best New Passover Product.Nice Jewish Mom Spiel of Approval to Manischewitz.jpg
       
Is it any wonder that I whipped out a Spiel of Approval and proudly presented it?
       
Not to be outdone, competitor Streit’s is also offering a gluten-free matzo ball mix and a gluten-free latke mix. “People are becoming very hyper-sensitive to healthy food,” explained Aaron Gross, a fourth-generation scion of the famed family-run enterprise.
       
They are still working out a formula for gluten-free matzo, which remains a challenge due to the “antiquated” process that they continue to use in their factory on the Lower East Side. After all, they opened for business in 1916 and still make matzo the old-fashioned way.Aaron Gross of Streit's.JPG
       
But gluten-free is “the big thing in the food world now,” he said, so that is definitely in the works. “We’re looking into different processes, like quinoa matzo,” Gross said. “We’re trying to appeal to our older core consumer, but also the younger, more health-conscious consumer.”Streit's gluten free matzo ball mix.JPG
       
Perhaps I fall somewhere between those two categories, for both their traditional and health-conscious products – from soup nuts to whole wheat Israeli couscous – certainly appeal to me. So I enthusiastically bestowed another Spiel of Approval. My nice Jewish mom and grandmother, who both swore by Streit’s, surely would have approved.
       
One thing they might not approve of, though, or even have begun to understand (let alone pronounce), was a hot new product that instantly caught my eye, Srirachanaise.Srirachanaise sushi chef.JPG 
       
And when I say hot, I do mean HOT. Srirachanaise, from Mikee (a company best known for its Chinese rib sauce and duck sauce), was being billed as “The Sauce with an Attitude.” Served in small, salmon-colored dollops atop sushi rolls being freshly prepared by two sushi chefs, it definitely had personality. And zing. And although, as a spicy mayonnaise made with Sriracha sauce, it did pack some fat, it is devoid of gluten, cholesterol, dairy, MSG, and other chemical additives. It is both vegan and GMO-free.Mikee Srirachanaise.jpg 
       
“I bet my father I would win best in show, and I did,” said company president Peter S. Kaufman proudly of his new concoction, which had garnered the 2014 Kosherfest award in the category of Best New Condiments, Sauces, Dressings and Marinades.
       
His next goal is to make his sauce so popular that the brand becomes synonymous with the category, the way that Kleenex has become interchangeable with the word “tissue,” he said.
        “I want customers to ask in a restaurant, not ‘Do you have any spicy mayo?’ but, ‘Do you have any Srirachanaise?’ ”
       
I don’t know whether this mission will ever cut the mustard (or the spicy mayo), but I’m a card-carrying sushi addict who always requests this tangy condiment on the side. So after listening to Kaufman’s spiel, I appreciatively gave him one of mine.
       
Then I raced off to cool my palate with a frozen yogurt bar from Klein’s. This frozen yogurt wasn’t just yogurt, though. It was frozen Greek yogurt, and it was totally fat-free.Ari Klein with Spiel.JPG
       
Not that you would ever know that to taste it.
        
“We worked on it for over a year,” said Ari Klein. “We wanted it to be fat free, with no artificial colors or flavors.”Klein's blueberry frozen Greek yogurt.JPG
        The result? Their bars, which were introduced a few weeks ago, come in three flavors that are all natural and yet unnaturally rich tasting, including blueberry (only 110 calories per bar), strawberry (120 calories), and mango (140 calories).
       
I was instantly so enamored of the ultra-creamy blueberry variety that he handed over a whole bar to me versus the small cut-up samples that everyone else was eating. For this I was so appreciative that, after devouring it, I forked over a Spiel of Approval.
       
If you prefer to stick with dairy products that are not on a stick, have I got a yogurt for you! Norman’s Dairy of Rutherford, NJ, has the distinction of being the only company yet to introduce a yogurt that is certified as cholov Yisrael (a higher standard of kosher).Ostreicher with Norman's Greek yogurt.jpg
       
CEO Shulim Ostreicher was there to introduce her new yogurt line for the youngin’s, called Greek Kids, which comes in four flavors – Vanilla 'n’ Chocobits, Strawberry Jubilee, Banana 'n’ Honey, and Creamy Orange Blast. These come in kid-sized portions that pack only 90 calories each. Sounded good enough to eat at any age.
       
Being a bit more mature myself, though, I opted instead to try a more grown-up variety, one of their new Creamy Blends in a flavor called Caramel Caffe Macchiato. Better than Starbucks, if you ask me, and better for you, too! (Greek yogurt offers twice the protein of regular yogurt, Ostreicher said.) Other tempting flavors include Summer Strawberry, Blissful Blueberry, Red Raspberry, and Vanilla Lavender.
       
Norman’s also has a Greek Light line sweetened with Splenda that has only 100 calories. No wonder the company won for Best New Cheese or Dairy product in 2012. So, although they didn’t nab any new awards at this year’s fest, I gave them one of mine.
       
Then I moved on to one of this year’s winners, in the category of Best New Mix, a novel line of gluten-free flours known as Blends by Orly.Orly Gottesman of Blends by Orly.JPG
       
“There are a lot of ‘We happen to be gluten-free’ products floating around,” said founder Orly Gottesman. “Our focus is on gluten-free only.”
       
Her gluten-free flours are not cake mixes, but rather blends of gluten-free grains that you can substitute in your favorite recipes. These come in five international varieties, including a Paris blend for cakes and cupcakes; a London blend for cookies; a Sydney blend for brownies, muffins, pies, and crumb toppings; a Tuscany blend for pizza, focaccia, and flatbreads; and a Manhattan blend for bread, brioches, donuts, danishes, and of course challah and bagels.Blends by Orly Paris Blend.jpg
       
Although Orly is now based in Sydney, Australia, the mixes are available in 30 U.S. stores including Zabar’s and Westside Market in NYC. You can also order online from www.blendsbyorly.com for $8.99 per bag or $39.99 for a variety pack including all five blends.
       
She came up with the concept in large part because her husband suffers from celiac disease and cannot eat gluten. Too often, she says, when they go to someone’s house for dinner, their hosts will have made a fancy dessert for everyone else and say to him, ‘Look, I made these brownies just for you!’ ” And as thoughtful as it might be that they went to special effort on his behalf, he really would prefer to eat the real dessert with everyone else.
       
“My mission is to make people who can’t eat gluten feel normal,” she proclaimed.
       
This seemed like such a worthy sentiment that my mission became to make her feel good, and I immediately presented her with a Nice Jewish Mom Spiel of Approval.Gratify chocolate-covered gluten-free pretzels.JPG
       
Also free of both gluten and GMOs are Osem’s new Gratify pretzels, which come in four flavors sure to gratify anyone’s cravings, including white chocolate peppermint, peanut butter milk chocolate, dark chocolate, and dark chocolate peppermint. Uh, yum!
       
An employee there said that they were a holiday item, to which I asked, “Holiday? Which holiday?”
       
At this, he turned bright red, explaining that he did not want to say the “C” word. But another member of the Osem team didn’t mince words or seem to mind one bit.
       
“This is a gluten-free product for Christmas,” Osem director of marketing Kobi Afek explained. OK, we already have established that there’s a major market for gluten-free. But wait. There are people looking for kosher products… for Christmas? Which people?
       
“Interfaith families, for example,” he explained.
        Oh. Right.David Bader of NoMoo Cookies.JPG
        At another booth t
here were sweets for the sweet-toothed who can tolerate gluten, but not dairy. David Bader of Bucks County, PA, was there to introduce his new line of NoMoo Cookies, which are all-natural, totally kosher, and dairy free. His Ginger Slap variety had been pronounced winner in the fest’s category of Best New Breads and Baked Goods.NoMoo Cookies.jpg
       
But there were plenty of other flavors, and I was personally ready to give NoMoo a Spiel of Approval just for their names alone. (They had me at Almond Oy! Not to mention Big Chipper, Open Sesame, Flyin’ Hawaiian, Oat-rageous, and Sugah Sugah.) But the taste and texture ultimately clinched it when I bit into a ultra-fudgy Choco-lift (“the cookie that eats like a brownie”).
       
These are available online for $19.99 a dozen at nomoocookies.com.  
       
What do you drink to wash down dairy-free cookies? How about dairy-free “milk?”Rude Health drinks.jpg
        KLBD Kosher
London Beth Din, the UK agency that certifies that products are kosher, was there with some new dairy- and gluten-free organic drinks from Rude Health. These come in four flavors  – coconut, almond, brown rice, and oat.
        KLDB's
Retail Food and Drink Manager Sharon Feldman-Vazan (who, being very properly English, was anything but rude herself) said that she is now off dairy completely and even uses these refreshing and light beverages (available at Whole Foods, as well as Waitrose and Ocado in the UK) when she makes cappuccinos.
       
Sounded like something definitely worth trying – and when I did I found all four to be equally deelish and definitely worthy of my Spiel.
       
Speaking of worthy, I also felt compelled to give a big shout-out (and yes, another Spiel of Approval) to two companies that I first encountered at last year’s Kosherfest.Kosherfest 2014 Matzolah is even better.JPG
       
One was Matzolah, “The trail mix of the Exodus,” a granola made with Streit’s matzah that is a perfect breakfast for Passover, but good enough to eat all year round.Matzolah now in single-serve pouches.jpg
       
Although they had not expanded their line beyond their three classic varieties – Maple Nut, Gluten-Free Cranberry Orange, and my personal fave, Whole Wheat Maple Nut – they had refined their baking process to make the whole wheat crisper.
        They were also now offering all three kinds in convenient single-portion packs. What’s not to like about that?Keep Calm and Eat Latkes by The Kosher Cook.JPG 
       
The other company was The Kosher Cook, makers of a wide variety of kitchen utensils and holiday giftware, whose company motto is “Keeping Kosher has never been easier.” Among their new offerings for the coming holiday of Chanukah were platters imprinted “Keep Calm and Eat Latkes” and Star of David-shaped reusable ice cubes (available at stories including Bed Bath & Beyond or online from www.thekoshercook.com).
        To keep calm, cool and collected for Passover, t
hey also had frog-shaped reusable ice cubes, as well as “Keep Calm and Eat Matzah” platters, and aprons and oven mitts in their new “Mah Nishtana” pattern.Nina Rosenfeld with her Chocla-Taschen.jpg
       
As a major devotee of another Jewish holiday, Purim – due to my many years moonlighting as the writer of my temple’s Purim spiels – I also was moved to present a Spiel of Approval to a novel new confection called Chocla-Taschen, “A Sweet Twist on a Classic Treat” from a fellow nice Jewish mom from Denver named Nina Rosenfeld.
       
“I designed a mold shaped like a hamantaschen,” she pointed out about her all-natural creations, which come in both caramel-filled milk chocolate and dark chocolate. These are gluten-free, nut-free, soy-free, and yes, also free of GMO’s. The one thing that they are definitely not free of is flavor. (I tried one. I liked it – a lot!)
       
To order, write her at info@chocla-taschen.com.
       
But the grand winner of my ultimate Spiel of Approval would have to go to a product so healthy and innovative that it managed to snag Best New Product at the fest.DeeBee's Frozen TeaPops.jpg
       
DeeBee’s Organic TeaPops were created by a Canadian fetal toxicologist named Dionne Laslo-Baker who is the mother of two sons, one of whom is unable to eat refined sugar. Like me, however, he particularly loved tea. According to a company rep manning their booth, the pops were invented when one day that little boy said, “Mommy, let’s make tea-cicles!”
       
The result was kosher desserts so healthy that they are fat-free, gluten-free, GMO-free, and vegan. Sweetened only with organic fruits, coconut flower blossom nectar, or organic honey, they are also packed with antioxidants but extremely low in calories (only 20 to 50 per pop).DeeBee's TeaPops won best of the fest.jpg
       
These icy delights come in five fruity flavors: Berries ‘N’ Cherries, Tropical Mango, Minty Mint, Toasted Coconut, and Southern Iced Tea. All but the last are made with non-caffeinated rooibos tea. I tried several, and while they may not have the satisfying creamy goodness of a Haagen-Dazs bar, they are extremely flavorful and refreshing.
       
Unfortunately, despite all the things of which they are free, price is not one of them. They’re available in Whole Foods and other stores for about $6.99 per pack of four... although Laslo-Baker says that they will soon be introducing slightly smaller bars at a significantly lower price ($3.99 to $4.99 per four-pack).Full at Kosherfest 2014.JPG
       
There were many other new and notable products being offered at the event, from Burning Bush hot sauce to SeeMore’s S’mores. Yet with about 1,500 different exhibitors and 6,000 attendees present, I couldn’t get to everything or, try as I might, taste it all.
       
But I came away with a full stomach, a full bag, and a fuller-than-ever appreciation for kosher food. Whether it be free or full of gluten, fat, dairy, sugar, or even those pesky GMO’s, it is all Jewish. And all good.
        And whether or not you approve, that’s my Spiel.

7:26 pm 

Friday, November 7, 2014

 A Word From the Weiss

Bangkok Grand Palace October 2014.JPG       I can honestly say that I’d wanted to visit Thailand for my entire life, or ever since I first saw the 1956 movie version of The King and I starring the iconically bald Yul Brynner.
        What I cannot honestly say is that it ever even crossed my mind to see what it would be like to spend Yom Kippur there. But my daughter is living in Asia right now, and there was nothing I wanted more than to be with her, especially around the High Holy Days. So my husband and I found ourselves marking the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar in the land of golden idols and pad Thai.The King and I with Yul Brynner.jpg
        We flew there after brief sojourns in Hong Kong and Beijing. Nice Jewish Dad
 had seemed mildly annoyed on this multi-city jaunt when he learned that I had shelled out for private escorts to and from every airport we’d visit. But when we arrived inBangkok airport 2.jpg Bangkok after midnight and the man meant to retrieve us was nowhere in sight, that annoyance turned to seething madness with a side order of rage. By the time we finally found the fellow and were whisked off to our hotel downtown, it was going on 2:30 a.m., and that rage? There was nothing mild about it.
       
But this feeling soon turned to bewilderment on both our parts as we noticed that the streets were still glutted with traffic and people out partying on a Wednesday night. Was it a national holiday, perhaps?
       
Nope. No holiday. Just a night. That is to say, pick a night. Any night. It will all be the same. Bangkok, it turns out, is that proverbial destination: the city that never sleeps.Bangkok partiers.JPGBangkok skyline by Harlan Levy.JPG












        Over the next few days, we’d get little shut-eye ourselves as we tried to take in the many wonders and diversions that this ancient yet oh-so-modern metropolis has to offer. Good thing I’d hired another private guide to drive us wherever we wished to go.Our driver Yong.jpg
       
Our friends Amy and Rich had recommended Yanyong Makepoowadol to us, having engaged him on their own trip to Bangkok in 2009. "Yong" (as he advised us to call him in lieu of that mouthful of syllables) was a taxi driver, but he was happy to become our private escort for 2,800 baht per day. And lest you think that sounds extravagant or hoity-toity, let me point out that this amounted to a measly 85 bucks.Bangkok Reclining Buddha 1.JPG
       
Starting on the afternoon after we arrived, he drove us to many a temple. And when I say “temple,” I don’t mean anything related to rabbis, cantors, or reading the Torah. We saw sitting Buddhas, standing Buddhas, and the world’s largest reclining Buddha. There were golden Buddhas and also a big green jasper one known as the Emerald Buddha.
        Yes, i
f there’s one thing you can say about Bangkok, it’s that they have a whole lotta Buddha going on!Bangkok Golden Buddha and admirers.JPG
       
Our first stop was Wat Traimit – the Temple of the Golden Buddha – which houses a 5,500-kilo, solid gold statue of Guess Who that is over 700 years old.
       
This would be the first place on our trip that we would be obliged to remove our shoes before entering the building – a Thai custom – and it would surely not be the last.Bangkok button.JPG
       
It would also be the first place that we would discover another Thailand tradition – not one reflecting the country's rich, respectful culture, but rather the booming Thai tourist industry. The moment we arrived, a guy with a camera surreptitiously snapped our photos, and when we exited the temple he proffered two kitschy photo buttons depicting us at the site. This, of course, was not a gift. He wanted 150 Thai baht (about $4.50) for the pair.Bangkok's Grand Palace.JPG
       
Never mind that we already had taken plenty of selfies while inside. How could I resist?
       
From there we hastened to the Grand Palace, an immense complex of ornate structures that served as the official residence to the kings of Siam starting in 1782.Harlan and friends at Grand Palace.JPG
       
To be honest, I can’t tell you too much more about this because Yong – not being a licensed tour guide – declined to take us in and show us around the premises. He merely dropped us off, and we proceeded to spend an hour or two oohing and ahhing at the golden parapet-topped pavilions and doing what everyone else there was  – taking photos of each other mimicking the poses of the various golden idols on guard.Pattie at Grand Palace in Bangkok.JPG
       
But Yong later did corroborate one key fact that made all the difference in the world to me. He said that this palace probably had been where the real-life events that inspired The King and I had transpired.
        Shall we dance?King and I dancing scene.jpg Shall we dance?
     SHALL WE DANCE?
       
A couple more Buddha sightings and we were all set to sample some of the authentic Thai cuisine I’d been longing to taste. (Although Jews and Chinese food go together as well as lox and bagels, Thai is my hands-down take-out of choice.)
       
So I am sorry to report that our first glance at a local menu did little to whet our appetites. Although I don’t keep kosher, these dishes were not for the faint of heart (or stomach):
    Bangkok pad Thai.JPG         
       
 Spicy Raw Fermented Pork Salad
      
 Fried Fermented Chicken Knuckle
        F
ried Serpent-Head Fish in Sweet and Sour Sauce
       
Grilled Pork Neck
       
Thai Papaya Salad with Raw Shrimp
Bangkok Pattie eating dinner.JPG
       
Yet we still dared to venture beyond the standard pad Thai to sample such delights as Tom Yum soup, green curry chicken, Massaman curry, and stir-fried morning glory (a green leafy vegetable similar toThai iced tea in Bangkok.JPG broccoli rabe). After washing this down with a Thai iced tea, I was ready to praise Buddha!
       
Although there was plenty more to eat and do in downtown Bangkok, we wanted to explore more of the country and decided to venture outside the city on our second day.Bangkok floating market.JPG
       
Our first stop with Yong was the famous floating market at Damnoen Saduak, about an hour’s drive south. There we paid around $60 to be conveyed for about two hours through a murky, narrow canal in a small wooden motorboat. On either side, vendors were hawking Thai clothing, figurines, handbags, spices, and other such souvenirs.Damnoen Saduak floating market.JPG
       
These goods were lined up right alongside the water, so that we could pull up close enough to buy anything to our liking without ever having to leave the boat. Prices, as we'd been told, were a concept as fluid as the waters in which we floated. So I soon found myself hondeling for a small “jade” elephant which was probably just green plastic, a bag full of fragrant, burnt-orange saffron, and a pair of colorful Thai silk scarves with elephant designs. (For the last of these, the merchant wanted 500 baht, or about $15 apiece, but my husband managed to negotiate down to two for that amount.)Bangkok floating market photo we bought.jpg
       
The excursion also gave us an opportunity to observe the Jewish ritual of Tashlich, customarily performed between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in which you cast bread crumbs into a body of water as a means of symbolically casting away your sins.Chocolate croissant we used for Tashlich.jpg
       
My husband and I did this as the boat sped along using the only bread product that we had on hand, a small chocolate-filled croissant that I had sinfully filched from breakfast.
       
Sadly, at our next stop, we already would commit a brand new sin to atone for next year.Feeding the elephant in Bangkok.JPG
       
All things touristy in Thailand are embellished with images of elephants, but our next destination let us get up close and personal to the real thing. Barely a stone’s throw from the floating market was the Chang Puak Camp, where we were able to not only see many towering, tusk-toothed mammoths, but actually ride on one.
       
First, we got to feed one of these behemoths a full basket of bananas, which she seized with her bristly, serpentine trunk and Hoovered three or four at a time, peels and all.Bangkok elephant ride.JPG
       
Then we climbed aboard a small, canopied bench suspended atop another beast’s back while our driver – a tiny Thai man in a red and yellow circus-like uniform – straddled her neck and led us amid palm trees along a series of narrow paved paths.
        This was not the most romantic ride I’ve ever taken, but it was surely the most aromatic. I kept wondering if anyone had ever fallen off… or fainted from the fumes. And when our leathery, lumbering steed plunged neck-deep into a wide, running stream, it was all I could do not to scream.
        Yes, sir, that's my baby.JPG
For a small additional fee, the camp also offered the chance to pose with an adorable baby elephant who was performing tricks in a fenced-in ring. This deal included a second photo op with an even cuter critter, a baby monkey who went bananas upon being placed in what he clearly recognized as a nice Jewish mom’s lap.Baby elephant in Bangkok.JPG
       
Only later did I learn that riding elephants is extremely inhumane and, as at least one website noted, "should be removed from your bucket list." They are not built to carry people (let alone three at once), and this could potentially damage their spines. They also may be subjected to many forms of abuse at these riding camps (although not necessarily the one that we visited).
       
I certainly never would have done it if I had known… and it is with more than a little regret that I display photographic evidence of my grave transgression here.Tea for two at the Bangkok Mandarin Oriental.JPG
       
But I have no regrets about visiting our next venue, the incomparably luxurious Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
        This elegant and tranquil haven is widely reputed to be the best hotel in the world. And even if it is not within your budget to stay there (make that a big NOT for us), I had read that it was recommended while in Bangkok to at least stop there for a drink.
       
Arriving a bit early for cocktails, we opted to forego the special drinks on the menuMandarin Oriental Hotel pastries.JPG (including a Thaijito made with Mekhong rum and fresh lemongrass and lime). Instead, we took a seat in the exquisite lobby and ordered pastries and small silver pots of tea.Macarons at the Mandarin Oriental.JPG
       
These elegant confections (a mini blueberry cheesecake and Coffee Caramel Nougat Delight) may have been the most delicious things I have ever tasted in my life. Or would that be the Mandarin’s own French macarons, which came in 20 tempting shades and flavors, including mojito, tiramisu, salted caramel, and squid ink, as well as one called Elvis (flavored with the King’s ultimate not-so-secret passion, peanut butter)?
       
Of course, we were destined to soon go from this feast to famine, for the next day was Yom Kippur. We woke up to grapple with one of those proverbial Jewish dilemmas. No, not pork at half-price. Rather, a free hotel breakfast on a day when you are supposed to fast.
       
I will not tell you how my husband fared, faced with the obligation to forego the lavish buffet provided each morning at our trendy hotel, The Aloft. But he readily agreed to accompany me to services at the nearest temple, the Chabad House in Sukhumvit.Bangkok Chabad House Pattie.JPG
       
As in Hong Kong on Rosh Hashanah, we struggled mightily to locate this synagogue, sequestered on a side street far from the main road. But we finally found our way into the sanctuary of the Beth Elisheva Jewish Center, where about 60 men and 18 women (none of whom appeared to be Asian) were already in the midst of a holiday service.
       
In keeping with Orthodox tradition, the two sexes were separated, with the men seated around the rabbi in front and the women secluded in a balcony up above. It was bad enough that I had to observe the most sacred day of the year in a foreign country, away from my family, friends, and regular shul. Did I really need to sit all alone in the back, only able to view my husband way across the room through the sheer white lace of the mechitza?mechitza separating women from men.jpg
       
No matter. I was relieved to be among my people and able to daven in this distant land. And I felt immediately welcome when the rabbi’s wife hastened over to greet me.
       
Hearing that I was from Connecticut, she asked if I knew Rabbi Joseph Gopin, head of the Chabad House in my town.
       
“Of course!” I replied. OK, as a Reform Jew, maybe I didn’t exactly know him personally. But I received regular emails from him, as well as from his wife, Miriam.
       
Hearing this, the rebbetzin grew very excited and noted that, although she hailed from L.A., her first job as a teenager had been as a counselor at the Gopins' summer camp.
       
Once again, small world when you’re a Jew. Nu?Bangkok Chabad House sanctuary.JPG
       
Assuming that we’d be separated, my husband had made me agree in advance to a plan to leave after exactly an hour. But that hour came and went without him making a move or so much as trying to catch my eye, so engrossed was he in the rabbi’s sermon.
       
I was pretty enthralled myself. The rabbi, whose name was Kantor, had not only a very down-to-earth, haimishe manner, but also much to say that really struck a chord. One thought that still reverberates to this day had to do with the world’s first Jew, Abraham.
       
I can’t give you his exact words because it is verboten to write in an orthodox shul. But the gist of it was this: Too many people today remain stuck on therapists’ couches for years, decrying their miserable childhoods and ill treatment at the hands of bad parents. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is always possible to rise above your upbringing, misfortunes, and other past experiences and take charge of your life.Bangkok idol.JPG
       
Abraham, after all, grew up with a father who sold idols. No, he didn’t just sell them. “In his day, he was the Walmart of idols – or the IKEA of idols, you might say,” Rabbi Kantor said. But instead of dwelling on this fact, he came up with the concept of there being one G-d and one G-d only and became the most influential figure in history.
       
Yom Kippur was the time to reflect on your life in the past year and try to do better. And if you really resolved to do better, despite anything that had gone before, you could.
       
Well, we may have been barred from food that day, but this was food for thought.
       
The actual food would come later. Or would it?Purse stool at Breeze in Bangkok.JPG
       
When our friends Amy and Rich had told us about their own trip to Asia, they had repeatedly raved about one thing and one thing only. If we did nothing else on this entire three-week trip, we needed to eat at a restaurant atop a posh hotel in Bangkok.
       
Not only was the view magnificent from this place, on the 52nd floor of the Lebua hotel, but the service was so attentive, Amy said, that when she had placed her purse on the floor beside her, a waiter had instantly brought over a white leather stool and placed her purse upon it.  
       
The name of this lofty restaurant was Breeze.
        Alas, it was NOT a breeze getting up there.Pattie breaking the fast in Bangkok.JPG
       
After temple, we waited around until close to sunset (although I must confess that I broke my fast late that afternoon because the oppressive heat and humidity made me feel like I was going to faint).Lining up for Skytrain in Bangkok.JPG
        Then we boarded the Skytrain, the city’s ultra-modern raised subway line, which highlighted to me just how much more civilized Thai society is than, say, anyone you’ll ever meet in New York. (These people are so polite that they not only bow to each other endlessly night and day but also line up in single file just to board the subway!)Bangkok Arts and Cultural Center sculpture.JPG  
       
We took this to the Bangkok Arts and Culture Center (Thailand’s version of the Guggenheim, with a similar corkscrew-like interior) and ogled the surprisingly modern art.
       
There was more than enough there to keep us enthralled until it closed at 8 p.m. Then we set out by Skytrain for Breeze.
       
We got a little lost, and by the time we arrived it was already around 9:30 pm. By now, I was starving, but an elegantly dressed hostess in the lobby looked us up and down and said that we could not go up in the elevator. Although my husband had brought a fresh shirt to change into from the decidedly damp and dangerously loud Hawaiian one he was wearing, he still didn’t pass muster. His open-toed sandals were prohibited by the restaurant's dress code. So we were given the boot.The hostess at Breeze gave us the boot.JPG
       
We were a 45-minute drive from our hotel. It was too late to go back and change. But after the way our friends had kvelled about the place, I said that I was going up there come hell or high water. I told the hostess we’d go buy a pair of shoes and be back.
       
"Madame, the kitchen closes at 11:30 p.m.," she said. I assured her we’d be back way before then.
       
"Where the heck am I going to find shoes at 9:30 on a Saturday night?" my very sweaty and beleaguered husband asked in exasperation as we exited to the street.
       
"I don't know,” I admitted, making no effort whatsoever to conceal my own mounting exasperation. “But I can promise you that we are BUYING THEM!!!"Bangkok Hindu festival.JPG
        Sadly
, he had a point. All of the nearby stores were closed. But after trudging for many blocks, we came upon a raucous annual Hindu festival underway in the surrounding streets that was jam-packed with gazillions of people.Bangkok Hindu festival slippers.JPG
       
This was lined with booths at which they were selling all sorts of hazzerei, including Indian food and figurines, jewelry, baby shoes, colorful children's slippers, and yet more sandals.
        No actual shoes, though.Dancing dragon at Bangkok Hindu festival.JPG
       
Soon we heard deafening music approaching, and I was nearly run over by a band of crazed dancing men in bright yellow garb flailing around a giant paper dragon. My husband ran ahead to snap a photo of this spectacle. I merely tried to get out of the way, but failed miserably. One of the dancing men crashed into me, nearly knocking me down.
        When I pulled myself together and dusted myself off, I realized that my husband had vanished in the crowd. We had no cell phone service or way to contact each other. It was past 10 and I’d barely eaten all day. What now? Taxi back to our hotel all alone?
       
I nearly began to cry.Bangkok Harlan with rubber shoes.JPG
       Then, as I made my way through the crowd, I saw him. He was at a booth selling... men's shoes!
        They were black rubber loafers that were practically weightless and cost only 100 baht (about 3 bucks, that is).Bangkok rubber loafers.JPG
       
He quickly found a pair in his size that fit perfectly! They had open backs, but his pants would cover that. They looked like real shoes and for our purposes were just fine.
       
When we returned to the hotel lobby at 10:45, the hostess seemed happy to see us and said that she'd reserved us a special table. She brought us up to the 52nd floor personally.
        Our friends were right. The view at night was breathtaking!Breeze waiter and free appetizers.JPG
       
The service was also impeccable. (Just ask my handbag, which was placed on the promised stool.) We were served complimentary appetizers (amuse-bouches, as they say en francais), including peeled cherry tomatoes marinated in plum sauce, flanked by four colorful sauces.Bangkok's Breeze friend noodles.JPG
        Then came THE BEST Chinese food we have ever had! EVER!
       
Altogether, it was truly a meal to remember... And although our friends had warned us that it might run over $100 apiece, it cost only $146! (Plus 100 baht for shoes.)
       
After dinner, a waitress took photos of my now happy and well-shod husband and me posed arm in arm against the twinkling skyline of a vast and beautiful, sophisticated city that truly never sleeps.Harlan and Pattie happy at Breeze.JPG
       
Then we were sent up to Skybar, the world’s highest open-air bar, which boasted an even more spectacular view ten stories above breathtaking Breeze.  
       
I don’t know if the rabbi was right – that you can break free from the past, become a different person, and achieve your dreams. But I certainly achieved mine that night.
        It just goes to show-- where there's a will there's a way! Or at the very least... shoes!

8:24 pm 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Word From the Weiss

       With Allegra at her Four Seasons gig in Hong Kong.JPG Barely a week after we’d ecstatically reunited with our daughter in Hong Kong, it was hard to believe that we already were obliged to bid goodbye to her and that bustling city. But we would be back again soon for more adventures before we returned home. Besides, this farewell was only temporary. Allegra would later join us in Bangkok.
       
But first we would fly to Beijing for four days, our first visit ever to Mainland China.Allegra and the supremely savvy JP.JPG
       
While in Hong Kong, we had entrusted Allegra and her supremely savvy boyfriend JP to oversee what we did, where we went, and nearly every morsel that we consumed. Now, suddenly, we'd be in a brand new and unfamiliar country entirely on our own.
       
Well, not entirely on our own.Rich and Amy.jpg
       
Our good friends Amy and Rich had taken a similar trip a few years earlier, and they’d spent countless hours imparting advice about essential “don’ts” (don’t overpack; don’t drink the water), as well as equally crucial “do’s” (do bring quick-dry underwear, do make sure to eat Peking duck there, and do be sure to bargain for everything that you buy).
       
Equally invaluable, they gave us contact info for the private guides that they had employed in both Beijing and Bangkok. And although five years had passed since their own journey, both men promptly emailed back agreeing to assist us.
       
We also accepted Allegra’s recommendation of a travel agent based in Hong Kong. And although I ultimately opted to choose all but one of our hotels myself, I let her book our flights and arrange for us to be picked up and returned to each airport we'd visit.Our escort at Beijing airport.JPG
       
My husband seemed a bit peeved to learn that I’d shelled out extra dough for the luxury of having all of that private transportation. But when we arrived in Beijing after dark not speaking one word of the local language, it was an incalculable comfort to be met by a man with a sign bearing our name and whisked safely and effortlessly away.flowers in Beijing Hilton Wangfujing lobby.JPG
       
No less gratifying was our arrival at our hotel in a centrally located area of the city known as Wangfujing. I’d chosen the Beijing Hilton because it was within walking distance of many of the city’s main attractions, but also because we’re members of the chain’s Hilton Honors program. I figured this might make us eligible for a room upgrade.Beijing Hilton bedroom.jpg
       
Indeed, that upgrade was bestowed without our even asking. Hiltons tend to be modern, well-run hotels, but when we opened our door on the 11th floor, I was, well, floored. Our room was not merely a room; it was a plush cavernous suite more than 50 feet long, with an immense walk-in closet, separate his and hers sinks in the mammoth marble bathroom, and a spacious living room area with a sweeping view of the city.
       
OMG, was all that for the two of us? Or maybe us and a small developing nation?
       
Speaking of which, when it comes to mainland China, forget “developing nation.” Not to mention “small.”Grand Hotel Beijing.jpg
        Beijing Hermes boutique.JPG
Little that we saw in Beijing was humble. Almost everything, rather, was huge, from the many palatial hotels (which all looked like they’d eaten one of our American hotels for breakfast) to the glitzy car dealerships lining many of the six-lane thoroughfares traversing the city.
       
Meanwhile, everyone (not just tourists like us) was shopping their tucheses off.
       
Asked for recommendations about where to eat dinner, the concierge sent us to an enormous shopping mall next door. Fly all the way to China and then eat dinner in a mall?Beijing mall with big rabbits.JPG
       
Yup. And it turned out the options in there were endless.
       
Forget whatever you imagine about Communist China. That six-story behemoth with giant red rabbit sculptures inside the entrance boasted nearly every Western mall store known to man, from The Gap and H&M to Zara, Sephora, and Forever 21.Beijing hot pot Pattie.JPG
       
The dining options were similarly copious. We ended up at a “hot pot” spot, a culinary phenomenon enormously popular with the Chinese (although with my husband not so much). They place a humungous steaming cauldron in the center of your table and you order from a vast assortment of ingredients, including vegetables, noodles, and meats sliced paper thin. You dip these items into bubbling broth (much the way we eat fondue), then fish them out with chopsticks.My husband hated the hot pot.JPG
       
My hubbie enjoyed the ingredients that I chose well enough. He just didn’t seem to appreciate having to cook his own dinner.They even had Subway in Beijing mall.jpg
       
He appreciated even less that at the Haagen-Dazs booth (yes, they even had that), two tiny scoops went for 59 Chinese RMB (about $10). We agreed to forego this splurge in favor of cheap sundaes at McDonald’s (yes, they had that too, as well as Subway).Beijing Hilton breakfast my plate.JPG
       
The next morning, our hotel provided the most bountiful breakfast buffet I’ve ever seen, including eggs made to order, pancakes, waffles, French toast, quiche, chocolate croissants, lox, and assorted cereals and cheeses, plus innumerable Chinese delicacies including fried noodles, dumplings, stir-fried vegetables, and several kinds of congee.Dragon's eye fruit with melon.JPG
       
Most novel of all were the iced bottles of freshly squeezed cucumber, carrot, and watermelon juice, along with fresh fruits, including one I’d never seen before – dragon’s eye fruit, sliced open to reveal a lily-white melon studded with teeny black seeds. Yum!
       
After washing it all down with multiple cappuccinos made to order, we set out for the city’s top tourist attraction, The Forbidden City.Beijing souvenir shop.JPG
       
It was just a short walk away. But we never made it.
       
The road leading there was lined with shops selling cheap souvenirs, from colorful embroidered purses and satin robes to folding fans, silky scarves, tote bags, t-shirts, and canisters of loose tea with rather novel names (like “Decision Markers Eyebrow”).Decision Markers Eyebrow tea.JPG
       
All of these items were at least potentially cheap. As our friends had so aptly conveyed, prices were highly negotiable, so I let my husband handle all transactions. Unlike me, he loves to hondel – maybe a little too much.  
       
At one shop, while I selected a bejeweled peacock-shaped hairclip to bring Allegra, he got to chatting with the owner after they settled on a price (around a buck).
       
Her English was surprisingly fluent, and she seemed ecstatic about the chance to hone her skills even more while comparing notes about American TV. “Breaking Bad!” she exclaimed breathlessly, adding, “Prison Break!”Pattie with shopkeeper's family in Beijing.JPG
       
Before I knew it, she had summoned her whole family to pose for photos with “Grandma,” as she dubbed me, including her niece, an adorable toddler named Nu-Nu. Then we bid them a fond farewell. But Chinese goodbyes are a lot like Jewish ones, apparently. That is, we said it and left, but our new friend wasn’t ready to let us go.
       
Instead, she kept pace with us for blocks, babbling away until we happened to reach an art gallery in which both her husband and brother were selling their paintings.
       
Imagine that!Beijing gallery with artist brother.JPG
       
We agreed hesitantly to go in and say a quick hello, but their works of art  – traditional watercolors painted on white silk scrolls – turned out to be so lovely (and so reasonably priced!) that we actually agreed to buy two. Both of our choices were by the woman’s husband, though, and when her brother expressed profound insult at having his artistry passed over, we caved in, rather than creating an international incident, and took two of his, too.
       
Sadly, after all of these detours, by the time we reached the Forbidden City it had already closed for the day. So we headed to Tiananmen Square.Beijing crowd in Tiananmen Square.JPG
       
You may know about this vast landmark, named after the Tiananmen Gate (“Gate of Heavenly Peace”), from the infamous student demonstrations held there in 1989. But it’s now mostly a flower-lined promenade popular with tourists and residents alike – so much so that hundreds of people were lined up to go through Security at the entrance.
       
We weren’t quite sure how to proceed until an older Chinese fellow with a toddler on his shoulders came to our rescue and told us to stick with him. That toddler, I suddenly realized, was none other than Nu-Nu, and the man was the father of Ms. Breaking Bad, an artist in his own right (yet mercifully with no paintings in tow to sell).Nu-Nu and grandpa in Tiananmen Square.JPG
       
Of all the 21 million people who live in Beijing, we just happened to walk into him? Was this just sheer coincidence or bashert (Yiddish for meant to be)?
       
Who knows? After finally making our way through the sea of people, we prevailed upon some fellow tourists to snap a photo of us in exchange for our snapping them.Pattie and Harlan in Tiananmen Square.JPG
       
Having been cautioned by our friends, I made sure to watch out for pickpockets. But that didn’t mean my wallet was safe.
       
As we made our way out, we suddenly were greeted by two Chinese women who seemed overjoyed to meet us. They said they were schoolteachers visiting from a town three hours away and asked if they could walk along with us to practice their English.
       
Soon, they weren’t content to just walk with us, though. Wouldn’t it be better to go somewhere and get better acquainted over tea?
       
By then it had grown dark, and we were more inclined to go out for dinner instead. But after walking all day, I was tired. And thirsty. Why not sit down for a nice cup of tea?
       
Besides, in the interests of diplomacy, it seemed rude to refuse their kind invitation. I soon came to realize, though, that diplomacy was not exactly their own cup of tea.Beijing ladies in the teahouse.JPG
       
The older of the two, who said that she taught English to young children, kept making comments that might be considered blunt at best. After asking to see pictures of our family, she said that our daughter looked Indian. Another relative, she noted, looked Mexican. But most of all she kept wondering aloud why my husband appeared to be so much older than I am (because at 11 years my senior, he is so much older than I am).
       
What she may have lacked in tact, though, she more than made up for in bravado, or whatever the Chinese equivalent is for chutzpah. She pulled us into a tiny tea house, where we were given a private room, then ordered a pot of tea for us all to share, along with two plates of crackers to snack on. A pot would be more economical than single cups, she explained.66 bucks for tea?!?
       
Economical? Not quite. When the bill finally came, they made no move for their own wallets, although the tab, including a beer for my husband, amounted to $66.
       
Were they really innocent school marms on holiday from far out of town, or were they crafty locals in cahoots with the tea house? Feeling taken advantage of, maybe even duped, we were more than ready to bid our new friends a not-so-fond farewell.
       
But hearing that we were headed for dinner, they offered to show us the most famous Peking duck house in all Beijing and insisted on escorting us there personally. When we arrived, they insisted on walking us in and offered to help us order. But my husband, no longer minding his P’s and Q’s, assured them we could take it from there.
       
Or could we? This so-called famous restaurant turned out to be a humble hole in the wall where they barely spoke a word of English. Only with great effort were we able to communicate that we wanted half a duck (a whole one would be too much for two). As for vegetables, they were only available with a hot pot. My husband flatly refused.Peking duck house waiter and Harlan.JPG
       
Somehow, though, by writing out what he wanted to say, he was able to carry on a lengthy conversation with our affable young waiter, who looked like an Asian Adam Levine. The waiter looked up every word on his phone, one by one, and pretty soon they were chatting about everything from the fellow’s hobby (collecting coins) to sports.The Peking duck was divine.JPG
       
Best of all, whether or not the place was famous, their duck – served the traditional way with thin pancakes, hoisin sauce, and shredded scallions – was absolutely divine.
       
Early the next morning, we were picked up at our hotel by our friends’ trusty guide David. When I’d emailed him a month earlier, he had responded almost instantly that “David is right here in Beijing waiting for you.” (His real name, of course, was not David. That was simply the moniker that had been bestowed on him years earlier in a language class, when the teacher had chosen new identities for everyone in the room, declaring, “You’re Tom. “You’re Dick.” “You’re David.”)David was the perfect guide.jpg
       
Whatever his name, for the next two days we were thrilled to call him our guide. His English was flawless, and his manners, driving, and camera skills impeccable. Best of all, as a former high school teacher who now worked full-time as a professional tour guide, his knowledge of Chinese history and tourist sites was seemingly inexhaustible, particularly about our first destination, the Great Wall of China.BeijingTheGreatWallofChina1.jpg
       
Initially, our travel agent had offered to send us on a tour of the Great Wall departing at 8 a.m. We had declined, on the grounds that we are not morning people and didn’t want to see anything at 8 a.m., least of all a wall. She countered that we needed to leave that early because the Wall was four hours away from Beijing. To which my husband replied that he wouldn’t travel that far to see anything – especially a wall, however great – and that he’d be perfectly happy just to see a picture of the wall.The truly Great Wall of China.jpg
       
Well, having now seen the Great Wall, in person, let me tell you a thing or two.
       
Number one, the section of the wall we went to, called Mutianyu, was no more than a 90-minute drive from downtown Beijing. Number two, they don’t call the wall “Great” for nothin’. It may be the single most incredible thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and it was well worth flying all the way to Beijing (or even to the moon, if necessary) to visit.The Great Wall -- Pattie and Harlan.JPG
       
Not all portions of the wall you can see today are original parts, and not all of the Wall that originally existed still remains to be seen. However, some areas are well over 2,000 years old. And although many now lie in disrepair, about 5,500 miles still remain.
       
Taking many dynasties to complete, the Great Wall was created to help protect the Chinese Empire by keeping out the Huns, Mongolians, and other warlike neighbors.Mountains near Great Wall 2.JPG 
       
What is difficult to appreciate, unless you are actually there, is that the wall is set high up in the mountains, where it snakes circuitously throughout the natural terrain.
       
Those mountains themselves are vibrant green and utterly magnificent to behold. Yet even more astonishing is that the building materials used in construction, including massive stones weighing hundreds of pounds apiece, were lugged up there by hand.
       
No wonder many people evidently perished on the job. Since there was nowhere to bury them so high up in the mountains, workers who died on the job – and there were many – were often buried inside the wall, David told us. “So it is said that the Great Wall is not just the largest wall in the world, but also the world’s largest cemetery.”What a Great Wall.JPG
       
Yet hiking along a meandering stretch for an hour or so, I wasn’t struck by any maudlin sense of death. Rather, I was overcome by a new appreciation for the enormity of life, the immenseness of history, and how small in the scheme of things I really am.Beijing cloisonne factory.JPG
       
Continuing our history lesson after a bountiful Chinese lunch, David took us to a nearby cloisonné factory, where we viewed the ancient art of making exquisite vases and other decorative objects. The process – which involved gluing wire in intricate patterns onto copper vessels and then painting them in eight separate layers – was so elaborate, and the colorful results so dazzling, that I was soon dying to buy one.Beijing cloisonne vases.JPG
       
But they were very expensive and my husband restrained me, asserting that I didn’t really need a vase because they don’t do anything other than sit around on the shelf.Beijing jade dragon.JPG
       
No matter. I stewed all the way to our next stop, a jade factory, where we learned how traditional Chinese jewelry, carved dragons, and other such figurines were made.
       
I didn’t stint myself there.Jade happiness pendant.jpg
       
The next day, despite our preference to sleep in, we started off bright and early because we had plenty of ground to cover, much of it hallowed for the Chinese.
       
First stop was the 600-year-old Temple of Heaven, a round structure set in a vast park, which has the distinct distinction of being the oldest wooden building in the world.Temple of Heaven by David Liu.JPG
       
This tall temple was painted a deep crimson shade, far deeper than the ruddy wedding gown worn by a bride-to-be whom we saw posing beside it. Many couples come there for wedding photos, David noted, and Chinese brides favor red, not white.Beijing bride at Temple of Heaven.jpg
       
“Red is a lucky color for the Chinese because it is the color of blood,” he explained. “We use blood to ward off evil spirits.”
       
There were no evil spirits evident at the Forbidden City, the splendid palace spanning 180 acres and featuring 980 buildings, which served as home to 24 emperors for nearly 500 years – just thousands of fellow tourists from all around the world.Pattie at the Forbidden City by David Liu.JPG
       
The city was said to be forbidden because no one was allowed to enter without the emperor’s permission. Commoners were banned until the Chinese Revolution of 1911.
       
Speaking of “forbidden,” the emperor lived there with his wife and 72 concubines, David said. Senior officials were permitted in for ceremonies and government business, but no men other than the emperor were allowed inside the inner court, where the concubines lived, with the exception of the many eunuchs chosen to run the premises. (The emperor evidently didn’t welcome any competition in the romance department.)Concubines of the Forbidden City.jpg
       
As for the concubines, they were not necessarily chosen for their stunning looks. Those in the Forbidden City were required to be of Manchurian descent, and judging from pictures that David had seen, he believed that many were far from ravishing. Far more beautiful courtesans were housed separately at the Summer Palace, which the emperor visited regularly year-round by voyaging via a manmade canal by dragonboat.Beijing Summer Palace.JPG
       
That seaside Shangri-la was our next stop, and the most dazzling destination of all. No wonder this serene hideaway was where the emperor’s mother also chose to reside. Did he make his way there so often to patronize his spare gal pals, or to hang out with dear old mom? Who knows? But David knew plenty about one particular mother, the most famous of all, known as the Empress Dowager Cixi.Empress Dowager Cixi.jpg
       
Initially a mere concubine herself, she rose steadily in the ranks to actually rule herself for 48 years after her husband died in 1861, when their son was only 6.Pattie and Harlan at Summer Palace.JPG
       
David’s eyes lit up like Chinese lanterns as he described the luxurious lifestyle that she enjoyed. Every day she bathed in milk, he said, and ate pearl powder, believed to beautify the skin. And every night, she had 128 different dishes prepared for her dinner and never let anyone know which one was her favorite, lest she be poisoned, he said.
       
Nice as it is being a nice Jewish mom, maybe nice emperor’s mom would be nicer.Beijing dumpling lunch.JPG
       
But 128 dishes a day? Talk about wretched excess! It was daunting enough when David took us to a popular dumpling house and ordered eight different varieties including egg and tomato, which were surprisingly delicious.Beijing tea tasting.JPG
       
From there, we went to a government-owned tea factory, where we tasted many varieties of the brew, including oolong, lychee, Emperor’s pu-eh, and a fruity concoction called Sweet Lover… and we loved them all so much that we purchased some of each.Beijing acrobat show cyclists.JPG
       
Then it was on to a Chinese acrobat show, featuring high-wire acts, a pyramid of dancers riding a single bike, and eight men circling inside a metal cage on motorcycles.
       
Talk about full days! Not to mention unforgettable. But the one thing I hope I never forget is the advice that David gave us. When we told him about our earlier encounter with the two ladies who’d taken us to tea – or maybe just taken us – he shook his head.
       
“Here’s my suggestion to you,” he said. “Never follow the stranger.”
       
We woke up the next morning to chilly temperatures in the 50s and torrential rain. No matter. Sadly, it was already time to pack and leave for the next leg of our trip.
       
But first we needed to attend to one important piece of unfinished business.An extra tip for our Beijing waiter.JPG
       
My husband insisted on retracing our steps to the not-so-famous duck house to track down his new best friend. He’d felt terrible that we hadn’t had any American coins to add to the fellow’s collection when we ate there, and he wanted to deliver a few.
       
I thought it was a little nutsy, given our limited time, but I also thought it was sweet.
       
So, I am happy to report, did the waiter.
       
Only then did we go shopping for a few last souvenirs to bring home:Panda with pink jacket.jpg
       
A little stuffed panda in a pink satin jacket for Allegra.
       
A black T-shirt embellished with Chinese symbols for Aidan.Lucky golden money cat.jpg
        And a plastic golden cat with a waving paw, considered a symbol of good luck.
       
Then, in a souvenir shop, I took a shine to an ivory silk scarf printed all over with one large, black repeating Chinese character. The salesgirl said that it cost 999 yuan (about $163), which sounded beyond exorbitant.Beijing saleswoman and my But when my husband balked at the price and began walk out, the salesgirl called after me, “You have a very clever husband,” and let it go for a tiny fraction of the price (though still probably too much).
       
He was so flattered that he bought a second scarf for one of our friends back home.
        My Beijing silk scarf.jpg
When we got back to our hotel to collect our luggage, I showed a staff member my purchases and asked what the Chinese character on my scarf meant.
       
She turned it in various directions, studying the markings carefully.
       
“It is an animal,” she finally said.
       
“What kind of animal?” I asked, intrigued.
       
“It is the animal ‘cow,’” she replied, explaining that cows were highly valued in ancient China for their ability to help with farm work.
       
“Cow?” I asked incredulously, more than a little deflated. “That’s it? Are you sure? It doesn’t mean something nice, like, you know, ‘Long life,’ or ‘Good luck?’”An excellent cow.jpg
       
“No,” she asserted earnestly. “Just cow. But madam, it is an excellent cow, and it means you are excellent, too.”
       
I’m not convinced that either is true. But we had a truly excellent time in Beijing.
       
        Next week, my Asian adventures continue at our next stop – Bangkok.
11:55 pm 

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That's me. The redhead on the right. But that is NOT my baby.

     No, sir, that's not my baby. How could any mother smile beatifically while her own child wailed? Never mind that neither of my offspring ever cried so plaintively, as far as I recall (not while I was there to nurture them through their every perceptible need... although my son still complains that I often dressed him in garish and girlish color schemes, scarring him FOR LIFE).
     Besides, I'm distinctly beyond prime delivery age ("Kitchen's closed!" as my mother might say), and my kids had departed the diaper stage by the dawn of the Clinton Administration. Now in their 20s, both are currently living on their own, in not-too-distant cities, although each manages to phone me daily. In fact, to be exact, several times a day, then sometimes text me, too. (That may sound excessive, and emotionally regressive, but I subscribe to the Jewish mother's creed when it comes to conversing with kinder: Too much is never enough.)
     Two demanding decades spent raising two kids who are kind, highly productive and multi-talented, who generally wear clean underwear (as far as I can tell), and who by all visible signs don't detest me are my main credentials for daring to dole out advice in the motherhood department.
     Presenting myself as an authority on all matters Jewish may be trickier to justify.
     Yes, I was raised Jewish and am biologically an unadulterated, undisputable, purebred Yiddisheh mama. I'm known for making a melt-in-your-mouth brisket, not to mention the world's airiest matzah balls this side of Brooklyn. My longtime avocation is writing lyrics for Purim shpiels based on popular Broadway productions, from "South Pers-cific" to "The Zion Queen." Then again, I'm no rabbi or Talmudic scholar. I can't even sing "Hatikvah" or recite the Birkat Hamazon. Raised resoundingly Reform, I don't keep kosher, can barely curse in Yiddish, and haven't set foot in Israel since I was a zaftig teen.
     Even so, as a longtime writer and ever-active mother, I think I have something to say about being Jewish and a mom in these manic and maternally challenging times. I hope something I say means something to you. Welcome to my nice Jewish world!   
    
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LEVYS! MEET THE LEVYS! WE'RE A MODERN JEWISH FAMILY...
In coming weeks, I will continue posting more personal observations, rants, and even recipes (Jewish and otherwise). So keep reading, come back often, and please tell all of your friends, Facebook buddies, and everyone else you know that NiceJewishMom.com is THE BOMB!
                                                                                           
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The family that eats together (and maybe even Tweets together): That's my son Aidan, me, my daughter Allegra, and Harlan, my husband for more than 26 years, all out for Sunday brunch on a nice summer weekend in New York.

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