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On Traditions, and Why We Still Need Them

So, tonight, after what seemed to be a long week, I attended an event that I can honestly say I’ve never witnessed anything similar to in my life. I’m not sure how many details I can share, but suffice it to say that it was the sorority initiation ritual for a good friend of mine.

Even though it started at 7:30, I got there around 8:10 because I couldn’t find parking. It was in a lecture hall in Humanities, and when I came in, not much was happening; people were milling around and talking. I thought I’d missed something, but at 8:30 the lights dimmed and the ceremony began. Again, I probably shouldn’t share too many details, but there was some great singing, stepping, strolling, and chanting. While my friend was performing, it made me think about all the things I like about her; her commitment, her perseverance, and her willingness to take on tough challenges. Even though I didn’t really know what was going on around me, I was enjoying it. It was loud and unfamiliar, but it meant something to somebody, actually to a lot of people since the room was about three-quarters full.

After the dramatic ceremony, the lights came up and there were a lot of hugs and kisses all around. I went up front and managed to find my friend and give her a huge hug, and congratulate her and her new sisterhood. I didn’t know what to expect, but I honestly left feeling like I was part of a new group too.

I feel like it’s things like this that we need more of in this world. I’m not talking about sorority initiation ceremonies, but things that are positive, life-affirming, and, again, mean something to someone. Rituals and traditions like these celebrate progress and look to the future while simultaneously embracing the past. They celebrate hard work and determination, both in performing and in keeping a tradition alive. It wasn’t “my” ceremony, but it was exciting and fun to witness and it really made me think. Which is why I’m writing this. Overall, though, it let me spend an hour not thinking about myself, how much I have to do, the current state of our country, and all that, and for that I am appreciative.

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Upsherin’ Some Secrets

After a pretty dismal morning and an afternoon in which I mostly sat in bed and felt sorry for myself, I went out to Chabad for a ceremony that does not occur very often: the upsherin. For those of you unfamiliar with what that is, it is a ritual that occurs on a boy’s third birthday. According to Jewish tradition, the age of three is the threshhold for the transition from babyhood into childhood, and in honor of that, the child receives a special prayer, reads the Hebrew alphabet while licking honey off of a sheet of paper (to show that learning should always be sweet), and most of all, gets his first haircut, at which point he will start wearing a yarmulke like all other Jewish boys. It’s rare because it only happens in the most religious of communities, and only for boys. For the record, I did not have one.

And then there’s the part where we throw candy at the kid. Yes, I kid you not, a Jewish tradition involving potentially mauling very young children. But mostly, today’s celebration was tons of sweets and candy, most imported from New York, and a ton of food. The weather was beautiful, and with most people finished for the semester, the atmosphere was relaxed. I had a little surprise of my own: seeing one of my cousins, his wife, and their baby girl, who came to town for the weekend from Evanston, Illinois.

I left before the hair-hacking began, but with hair on my mind (no pun intended?), I thought I would let you in on a few secrets about myself.

The Secret Code of What It Means When I Touch My Hair

I tend to touch my own hair a lot. I like it when other people touch it as well. I don’t know why, but it’s soft and shiny and fun to play with. I used to brush and comb it obsessively, even during class, to keep it extra soft, leading to earning “Feathers” as one of the few nicknames I’ve had in my life, thanks to a friend in Israel. Different situations, however, cause me to interact with my hair differently, so here’s how you can tell how I am feeling by touching my hair.

Curling a tendril in the front: I’m bored. If I’m in class, I’m imagining I’m elsewhere. If you’re talking to me, I’m not listening. Or, I’m frustrated.

Curling a tendril at the top of my head: I’m attracted to you, so I’m making myself seem dumber than I actually am. I am pretending to mask it as something nonchalant, but I’m just channeling my pent-up sexual energy so I don’t jump your bones. Or, I’m trying to be flirtatious with you. Aren’t I flirty?

Curling a tendril at the nape of my head: Gee, my hair is getting kinda long, as in Shelley. I better cut it soon, but before I do, I wonder what it would be like if I were a girl. Would I be straight, or a lesbian? Hmm.

Sweeping my hair behind one ear, no matter the length: I’m trying to be cool or sophisticated, or make you think that I know something you don’t know.

Sweeping my hair behind both ears, in quick succession: I’m doing something really difficult, and I want you to see how awesome I am. I’m in focus and in charge. Bitches get shit done.

Whole head sweep: I’m tired, and you’re bothering me, so go away.

Head pat: Don’t tawk to me, Linda, I’m having a bad hair day.

That’s all I can think of for now, but hair you are.

Pun intended.

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Honey Cake on a Whim for Rosh Hashanah

I woke up this morning, and I was like, holy crap, it’s Rosh Hashanah.

Well, not now, but later tonight.

And I haven’t done anything for it.

Then I went to class, and when I got home, it hit me: I should totally bake something. Last year, I baked a honigkuchen (honey cake) so I thought I’d bake it on a whim, and thereby establish it as a traditional honigkuchen (ooh aah). I found my old recipe, and with about two hours to go until class, I decided to give it a try.

That’s So Jacob’s Kitchen Presents

That’s So Nom

Episode 2: Between-Class On-A-Whim Honey Cake for Rosh Hashanah

Step 1: Gather ingredients.

Step 2: Realize you don’t have all the correct ingredients midway through preparation, so run out to the corner store to buy the remainder for rip-off prices. Be pleasantly surprised when the store actually has normal prices for things – $5 for applesauce, cinnamon, baking soda, and brown sugar? SWEET.

Step 3: Return home and complete the cooking to the sounds of the Ronnie Spector station on Pandora.

Step 4: Put in oven, for twenty-five minutes.

Step 5: Start your reading for class, occasionally checking on the cake.

Step 6: When the timer beeps, check the cake. If it’s still a watery mess in a tin, close oven door and set timer for another 10 minutes.

Step 7: Repeat step six about 5 times because it doesn’t seem to be baking.

Step 8: If on or about the sixth time you check on it it’s still warmed-up ingredient soup in a tin, call mother and freak out at her. Then put on bottom rack in oven for about 10 more minutes, for the last. fucking. time.

Step 9: Remove hot cake from oven, finally cooked, but realize that the batter has overflowed the pan and it looks like somebody pooped in your oven.

Step 10: Laugh uncontrollably at the fake poop in the oven, then take picture of it and send it to your sister in Washington. Consider leaving the poop outside your neighbor’s door as a prank, but eat it instead because it’s actually not poop but delicious honey cake.

Step 11: Put cake in bag and wrestle with the Cling Wrap (the official baking tool of SATAN) to attempt to cover the hot cake in it to stay hot, but ultimately only pull off a few tiny pieces.

Step 12: Realize that you’re going to be late for class unless you leave RIGHT NOW so wrap that burning hot cake in a bag, tuck it under your arm, and run down State Street like it’s the Superbowl.

Step 13: Arrive in class at exactly 4:00 (phew). Plop cake down in bag, on the table but not yet visible. Proceed to torture yourself and your classmates with the delicious smell of honey, and realize that you are now sweaty, have brown stains on your khakis, and smell like a combination of delicious cake and the garlic sauce you made to go on your salmon last night. Hope no one else notices the garlic emanating from you. Practice saying “honigkuchen” in your head several times.

Step 14: At class’s conclusion, reveal the lovingly-baked honigkuchen to a chorus of delight and confusion. Pretend that you just dashed it off casually while reading Chinese and Japanese performance theory texts as if you are Little Suzy Grad Student. Cut off in hunks and serve on napkins. Serves six hungry and curious East Asian studies graduate students and two confused but relieved East Asian studies professors.

Your results, as always, may vary.

Shana tova, y’all.