The table of Abraham

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In the Jewish Grace after meals, Birkat ha-Mazon, there are lines specifically intended for the guest to say: and this table shall be as the table of Abraham; all those who hunger shall eat from it, and all those who thirst shall drink from it, and it shall never lack bounty, always and forever. I find in these lines a very beautiful image of hospitality.

Our first dinner guest was sprung up on us quite unexpectedly. The memory stands out vivid in my mind; we were a newlywed couple, married perhaps for a month or so, and it was one of the first Shabbats we spent in our home. We were just returning from the evening service when a stranger came up to us and asked if he may have a dinner with us. We exchanged startled looks, but somehow (if not very eloquently) we must have given our consent, because half an hour later this man was seated by our table. It turned out that he is our neighbour, a middle-aged bachelor with no family living nearby. For as long as we continued to be neighbours, he was often our guest. He used to bake the most wonderful pita bread, and it was initially through trying to emulate him that our passion for bread-baking grew and flourished.

I am a scrupulous kind of person when it comes to receiving guests; I have good intentions of being hospitable and welcoming, and having my doors open to others, but when the rubber hits the road I often get these fretful nervous attacks, thinking that nothing is up to scratch – that the food I prepared isn’t fancy or plentiful enough, my home is not clean or orderly enough, my children not disciplined enough to allow space for adult company to talk.

But all this passes in my mind before the dinner or lunch takes place; once we are in the thick of action, I feel very glad for having done it, as there is nothing like the exchange, fellowship, enrichment of discussion, and generally just the knitting of hearts and communities together, that takes place ’round a dinner table. Leisure time is plentiful, the children play together, and there is that ease and laughter that accompany a good meal in good company.

I am beginning to relax. Around here, an impromptu invitation usually assumes that the guests are bringing some food with them, which turns every shared meal to a spontaneous pot-luck party. I’m telling myself not to fret about the additional side dish I did not have time to make, and think instead that washing dishes after everyone is already bountiful enough. :o)

It never ceases to impress me just how much our society lost by, when people stopped regularly congregating around the dinner table. Food, family, fellowship – the magical trio. Immediate family first of all, of course, but then the circle is expanded; others are included, made to feel welcome. Jokes are shared, discussions spring up, ideas are born. Once people dispersed for time-efficient gobbling up of substandard food from plastic TV-trays, a crucial element of togetherness was abandoned. As a clinical nutritionist I feel qualified to say that at least half of all our modern obesity and other nutrition-related maladies would be solved by the return of the family table. I truly believe there is no better way to make someone feel welcome and accepted, than invite that person to share a meal.

So my advice, to myself and to others, would be – take the plunge. Invite someone over; it doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Perhaps you didn’t prepare dessert; perhaps your home has a lived-in look (a couple of kids will give that perpetual air to a house); but your hospitality will be warmly appreciated as you toss on an apron and continue smiling and chatting with your guests while you soap up the dishes in the sink.
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Spring delights

I thought I’d post a couple of photos of the nice things we’ve been enjoying lately – plenty of sunshine, green grass for our birds to browse on, and flowers.

As you can see, our baby peafowl have grown quite a bit, but as peafowl generally don’t breed until two years of age (to the best of my knowledge), we don’t expect any egg-laying or breeding this season, though the male is becoming more colorful with each day.

The plant in the bottom right corner is actually a wild herb that sprang up in my garden quite unexpectedly. It smells wonderful, but I have no idea what it is. A guess, anyone?

In the upper right you can see a gorgeous desert view from a day trip we took. It lacks the lush greenery that can be seen in other parts of the country at this season, but I still find it majestically beautiful.

The perfect pastry

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Strudel is one of my favorite kinds of pastry because it’s so versatile – basically, anything can go inside – and because, though it is made with white flour, the dough is plain and unsweetened, and the emphasis is on the filling, which can be as little sweetened as you choose. Here is my favorite recipe:

Dough:

2 cups plain white flour

An egg

A pinch of salt

2 tbsp coconut oil or butter – I’m a huge fan of coconut oil, because I usually want to make all my desserts parve rather than dairy, but butter would work just as well.

Just enough water to make the dough into a pliable, elastic ball that can be easily rolled out.

The rolling out, very thin, is the secret of a good strudel – the dough gets all the delicious flavors of the filling.

Filling: there are literally a myriad of variations, but here is my favorite. In a bowl, combine 5-6 thinly sliced apples with raisins, chopped nuts, some ground coconut, and cinnamon. Sweeten as desired. I usually put in a spoonful or two of honey. You could also spread a thin layer of jam over the dough once it’s rolled out.

Roll out the dough, spread the filling evenly, and roll in. Be careful not to tear.

Carefully, transfer the rolled-up strudel to a tray lined with baking paper and brush with beaten egg. Sprinkle poppy seeds on top (optional). Put into oven on medium heat. Bake until the top is golden, which should take around 30-40 minutes.

Serve warm and enjoy with a nice cup of tea or coffee.

Debt-free life and peace of mind

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An important part of simple, peaceful life is discharging your debts; not always easy, as circumstances can be different, but it is an essential. And when I say debt, I include mortgage in the definition as well; I’m not saying a mortgage is always wrong, and never acceptable, but today people tend to forget that mortgage really is a state of debt; that a mortgage means one is not really an owner of one’s home, or at least, an owner only conditionally – because if something happens and the payment cannot be made (in a case, say, of an illness and/or unemployment), the owners face a very real danger of losing their home.

Owning the roof above one’s head, free and clear, is therefore an important part of one’s peace of mind. If your home is your own (as much as any earthly possession can truly be our own), a reduction or loss of income is, of course, a blow – but at least you have your safe haven, which is yours, and you don’t owe anyone anything for being under that roof.

Having said that, I will allow myself a little vent and say that, at least in Israel, paying for a home without a mortgage is a near-impossibility, as the prices of land, and consequently housing, are very, very high. Most young families – unless they are fortunate enough to inherit property, or to have parents who can assist them in a very material way – face being bogged down by very considerable, suffocating debt.

Is there no cheap land or housing to be found here? To be sure there is; and we did find it when we were first married, even though it wasn’t exactly the home of our dreams, and we have moved since. We rented for a couple of years, and these days we once more live in a home we have bought outright, no mortgage. It was hard, hard to find and involved many compromises, but we did it. When people here are rioting for “affordable housing”, I think they ought to amend and say they actually mean, “affordable housing in the tiny over-crowded piece of land that comprises most of the country’s population” – which, in all fairness, I don’t think possible. Yes, there are sparsely populated areas with affordable housing – but the problem is, to live in such an area means fewer opportunities of employment.

Obviously, each situation is unique, but there may be several options. Working from home, or mainly from home, is one; re-considering the possible length of commute is another – some people park their cars at the nearest train station, and make the chief of their daily journey by train. Or a family may move to a less expensive area as a temporary measure, to obtain low rent, and scrimp and save for a few years to be able to buy a home in a better area with no or lower mortgage.

Another thing I wish for is that we weren’t so bogged down with the difficulty of building regulations. Say “Israel” and “building” in one phrase, and you’re up to political flare-up. These difficulties, along with government avarice, have caused housing prices to soar in recent years. For illustration, the little house we had bought back when we first married (and since sold at twice the price), now costs five times more than it had a decade ago. Did the salaries rise five times over, on average? No, of course not. They stayed more or less the same. Thus the housing issue continues to be really, really tough, and people keep looking for creative solutions.

I believe there is no real solution but a government decision to take the plunge and make use of the abundant land in politically controversial area. In the meantime, people will have to keep searching high and low for individual housing, financial and employment solutions, and pave their own way towards freedom and debt reduction.

The emotional side of financial pitfalls

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I talk a lot on this blog about frugal strategies, saving money and financial independence, but there is another aspect, no less important, of financial difficulties – the emotional side of the matter. It isn’t enough to say, “OK, so we’ll tighten the belts and get over it”. Often financial challenges come with a heavy emotional baggage that needs to be dealt with.

Insecurity. The feeling of walking on rotten ice. Will things ever stabilize? What will happen tomorrow, in a year, or two, or ten?

Fears, some of them totally irrational and/or with little base in current reality. What if the washing machine breaks down tomorrow? What if the house needs repairs we can’t afford? How are we going to contribute towards our children’s future education/weddings?

Anger and resentment, towards all those people who can just walk into a store and buy whatever they need, without thinking about money.

You might end up in an emotional state that really warrants therapy, but the trouble is, if you’re really in the financial trenches, you probably won’t be able to afford it, and you might hold back from talking about your troubles with friends so that you won’t be taken for someone negative, or worse, someone who is indirectly asking for financial support.

Self-care is imperative. Eat as well as you can, keep up your personal hygiene, exercise (walking and running don’t cost anything), keep up hobbies and activities that make you feel good and don’t cost money. For me, this is usually writing, or finding a creative recycling project I can do at no cost, such as making candles out of old wax or soap out of old oil.

Keep a lookout towards the future. When things are at their low, it’s sometimes easy to forget all the many ways the situation can improve over time: a new job, a business opportunity, inheritance you can reasonably look forward to, ways to reduce one’s dependence on the money economy altogether. It really is tough to look ahead and think you are always going to be stuck when the cold season comes and you don’t have enough money to buy shoes, that you will never be able to afford good-quality, varied food in abundance (true, sardines and bone broth go a long way, but sometimes you really crave an expensive steak). Don’t think this way, because there’s no rational basis to it. Sometimes one really has to live day to day.

And, as a believer, I always keep my eyes on G-d and His divine guidance, which has never forsaken us so far. Indeed, we have experienced many small miracles, from unexpected gifts of furniture to finding a bag of almost-new children’s clothes just when we needed them most.

If you become depressed, you might miss out on opportunities to improve your situation as you wallow in misery and don’t dare to look up from the ground. So keep an eye on that. Whenever getting out of bed or tackling daily routines seems difficult, do all you can to get help and support, because this isn’t normal.

It’s tougher when you have children depending on you. I’ve sometimes found it hard to strike a balance between being open and honest, and not overburdening little children with circumstances beyond their control. I know my children are aware of the value of money, because we aren’t ashamed to say, “We won’t buy this because we can’t afford it.” They don’t seem traumatized or worried. But avoid making it seem as though the family is on the brink of disaster, because children can be extremely sensitive and become prone to anxiety.

Financial difficulties aren’t a picnic, but with wise strategy and cautious optimism, you can pull through towards a better future.

Simple Living With Children

There’s just something about simple living and homesteading that chimes in especially well with home education. When a lot of your time is spent doing down-to-earth things which people have been doing for millennia, it’s so much easier for a child to jump in and participate, than if one’s life is segregated and chopped into many little high-techy cubicles. People of all ages enjoy doing fun and productive things such as planting seeds, gathering food, digging in the earth or taking care of animals.

Read more in my latest Mother Earth News post:

Some home economics is still taught in kindergartens and schools, though it went out of fashion – but even if there were a lot of home economics classes, the best place to learn things like that would still be at home, where cooking, sweeping the floors, sewing, mending, knitting and working in the garden occur as part of our day-to-day lives. A little child learns a lot simply by observing an apron-clad mother, and later by participating in simple tasks.

Vacations and holidays on the cheap

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I am just catching my breath after a string of Jewish holidays that lasted nearly a month, and afforded quite a lot of in-between days that are commonly used for family outings. As a family living on a budget, we almost always choose to avoid any sort of entertainment one must pay for (be it amusement parks, zoos, petting zoos, or even the swimming pool).

There are more than enough places, we have found out, that we can visit, and pleasantly spend our time in, without paying a thing, or paying very little: beaches, parks, historical sites, farms that encourage visitors without charging a fee, and so forth. Furthermore, we take advantage of having many friends who farm or homestead, and visit them (and, of course, invite them to visit us in return).

The price of gas, naturally, is a consideration as well. There are some lovely places that open their gates to the public for free, but as they are so far from us, just the ride there and back is pricey. We focus, therefore, on our area, and always find something new to explore. You should try it as well.

If you have family or friends who have gone out on vacation themselves, and left an empty house, they might allow you to stay in their place for free (and will sometimes be quite happy with the arrangement, if you throw some pet-sitting or watering the plants into the bargain). This gives you a whole new area to explore, with a convenient, free base.

Another expense that people often don’t think of is eating out. When you go somewhere, after a couple of hours naturally you will begin to feel peckish. This is even truer for children, who seem to become insatiably hungry the moment they are strapped to the car seat. So make sure to pack up healthy snacks for the ride, a nutritious lunch for the whole family, and a big bottle of water. Ideas for non-mess food: egg and/or tuna sandwiches, cold pasta, sliced fruits and vegetables, cold sliced quiches, hard-boiled eggs, a trail mix of nuts and raisins, and salads with stuff like lentils, quinoa or beans will keep you going for a long time.

Vacationing and family outings in general don’t need to be budget-breakers. Just try it and see for yourself!