The secrets of soap

I had wanted to make soap for a long time, but was stopped by the mysterious ingredient called “lye”. I had no idea what it was or where to obtain it… until by pure chance, I discovered that lye is actually the caustic soda we always keep on hand to take care of severely clogged pipes.

We also had a bottle of olive+unspecified vegetable oil we once bought to light Hanukkah candles and discarded because it smoked. So it just sat for years on our pantry shelf, not fit for human consumption, lighting, or much of anything really. It was the perfect candidate for my soap-making attempt.

I started reading about soap-making and realized it’s a whole science/art, with all sorts of oil combinations with different properties, essential oils, etc. I decided to just do something basic for starters. I followed a very simple recipe, omitting the essential oil and using, instead of the different oils, the one I had on hand.

I’m far from figuring out all the intricacies of soap-making just yet. I didn’t use a scale. My measurements might not have been 100% accurate. My batch of soap never showed a proper “trace” and took forever to set. There was probably too much liquid. Nevertheless, the oil did turn into soap and I was thrilled, because I made something useful out of something useless.

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Above: soap cut into bars and set out to cure

These soap bars might not look very shapely, but I’m making good use of them for laundry. I cut off a piece of appropriate size and simply place it in a little mesh bag, which I then toss in with the load of clothes. It really works! It doesn’t have the potency of a commercial laundry detergent, but it’s fine for clothes that are slightly sweaty/dirty.

I intend to go on and learn more about making soap, and will keep you posted as I progress.

Chicks, seedlings and useful reading

Here is one of our newest chicks, hatched this week. Our current resident rooster is a Black Brahma, so we get a lot of black chicks with cute-looking feathered legs. Unfortunately, we don’t have a Black Brahma hen (I’d love to get one, so we can have pure-bred chicks), but in the meantime I’m hoping to get good birds from crossing the Black Brahma with our best hen, a mixed New Hampshire (I think). She’s a nice big brown hen and gives us plenty of big brown eggs. So hopefully I can get some pullets who will be beautiful, good-sized, and good layers.

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Black Brahma cross chick held by Shira (7 years old)

seedlings

Above you can see a mixed tray of cherry tomato, pepper and melon seedlings. I realize it’s rather late in the season to have seedlings indoors, but I’m counting on the long, warm days we usually have well into October and even November. Either way, I have nothing to lose, right? The tomatoes, peppers and herbs we already have planted outside seem to be doing nicely. We’ll see how they fare and whether we get any produce by the end of the season. I can hardly wait.

In my spare time (ha ha) I’m catching up on a bit of useful reading. My current read is The Backyard Homestead, and I must say I’m greatly enjoying it. It has everything outlined in such a clear, straightforward way – gardening, raising small livestock, useful landscaping – and it really showed me that, rather than wish we had more land (which of course would be nice), we should instead work towards making the best of what we do have – and I know that, being creative, we can do much, much more.

When Children Fight: book review

When Children Fight, by Miriam Levi, was a very timely read for me this week. Sibling fights have been the perennial challenge in our house for a couple of years now; we have two girls, currently 7.5 and soon to be 6 who, as a friend of mine very aptly puts it, “will fight over dead air space”.

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“Do you imagine that nobody else’s kids fight the way yours do? “Hearing shrieks and screams, I stormed into the playroom ready to screech, ‘What’s going on here?!’ But stopped myself, remembering the lessons from Miriam’s workshop. Lo and behold – the next thing I heard was – silence!”

Don’t get me wrong, most days I really appreciate having two girls close together in age. It really simplifies things when doing school, crafts, or any special activities – most of the time they can do anything together (of course with expected age-appropriate differences). They also always have a playmate, which is especially important because in the area we currently live, there really aren’t very many girls close to their age, and as you know, not all children of the same age hit it off together.

The problem is, sometimes my two daughters don’t hit it off together either. There are few things more frustrating than a sudden episode of loud whining, screeching, name-calling, hitting, taunting, etc, especially when a baby or toddler is having a nap, or you are trying to get dinner done – and especially when, after digging in, you realize this fight is about some scrap of a chewed-on pencil, or because someone looked at someone not quite the right way.

First I’m ashamed of my children acting this way. Then I’m ashamed of myself for yelling.

Since we homeschool, sibling antagonism is exacerbated. Yes, pretty much all families with more than one child deal with sibling rivalry, not just the homeschooling ones, but because we are together so much more, problems can’t be brushed aside or misted over by lengthy breaks from each other. They must be dealt with, promptly and effectively.

So yes, you can imagine the title of Miriam’s book spoke right to me when I grabbed it from the library. I whizzed through it in two days – it’s a compact, practical, straightforward, easy-to-read Judaism-based guide to dealing with those draining and exhausting sibling fights. Miriam doesn’t dig deep into complicated psychological theories: she gives slice-of-life examples of unhealthy sibling dynamics and their solutions.

I think the most important thing I gleaned from When Children Fight is that I don’t need to interfere in every single fight, every single time. I can’t prevent all fighting; it will always be there at some level, and not every dispute will be settled in a 100% fair, harmonious way. That’s life. Try to let your children solve the problem themselves, Miriam says. I tried that, drawing a red line at hitting and offensive name-calling. I withdrew from trying to personally solve every dispute of “but I had it first” and “she will never let me use it”, and let me tell you, I was pleasantly surprised by how creative my daughters can be at resolving their conflicts when they know they are on their own.

One thing I do have to say, though, is that this book is like a home first-aid medical kit: it contains some band-aids and iodine, but not things needed to treat more serious injuries. That is to say, it deals with a generally normal, well-functioning Jewish family where sibling dynamics are a little jarring. It doesn’t go into more complicated real-life issues such as severe, persistent disobedience, behavioral problems, ADD, or issues that spring when a family deals with trauma due to divorce, illness, or loss of a loved one.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed When Children Fight and no doubt will return to it for reference in the future.

* Illustration image: oliviamainville.com

Small-scale farming in Israel: reclaiming the land

In the course of history, many Jews have become very much detached from their Biblical agricultural past with its complex laws connected to seasons, years and the Holy Land. In modern Israel, agriculture was reclaimed to a certain extent, but it is generally highly commercialized, industrialized and mass-scale. The urban and suburban areas are very densely populated, leaving people little space for home gardens and a personal connection to the land.

There is, however, a rising movement – in particular among Orthodox Jews living in the less populated areas of Israel – of small-scale, organic, family-run farms, oil presses and wineries, belonging to people who have seized the opportunity to till their own gardens, pasture their own sheep, make their own wine, and embrace – with modern innovations that make life easier, of course – the Biblical version of living off the land.

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Image: typical view of terraced hills and olive trees 

And of course there are people like us, who don’t really aim towards doing anything on a commercial scale, but want to grow or raise a significant part of their own food, and see this as an opportunity of being good stewards of the land and resources we were given.

So what makes an Orthodox Jewish homesteader or farmer in Israel different from any other homesteader or farmer? Generally speaking, it’s adherence to the Halacha – the Jewish Law – with the specific Biblical rules and regulations pertaining especially to the land of Israel.

Disclaimer: what I have written below describes the relationship between the Jewish farmer, the Jewish law and the land of Israel in the broadest terms; if you wish for detail, there is plenty of further information out there. We are not a rabbinical authority, nor are we mistake-proof.

Shabbat – No working the land, moving plants, picking or watering is allowed on the Shabbat day, which starts on Friday at sunset and lasts until Saturday nightfall. An automatic drip system is a good gardening solution, but we don’t have that in parts of our garden, and we have to water manually there. Last week, a tomato plant died because we had a very hot Saturday and couldn’t water until nightfall, by which time it was much too late.

The Sabbatical year – Unlike the Shabbat, which is observed by Orthodox Jews around the world, the Sabbatical year applies to Israel only. Every seventh year, the land is supposed to rest, which means no tilling, no planting, no working the land in any way. Gardening in containers is allowed, as is basic plant maintenance (such as, watering the trees so they’ll survive) and, with certain restrictions, picking produce. It is also possible to nominally sell the land to a non-Jew just for the year, which makes it possible to work it as usual, but the latter is less practical for backyard gardeners and owners of small homesteads.

Tithing – Jews are required to give a tithe out of their agricultural produce. This means that even if we grow one single tomato, we are under obligation to set aside part of that tomato. Since it is impractical to seek out needy people and offer them one slice of a tomato, backyard tithes are usually just set aside and respectfully disposed of.

The firstborn male – when we kept goats and had one of our does kid for the first time, with a little buckling, we were surprised to discover that this little male goat does not in fact belong to us, but instead should be given to a Cohen (priest). However, since we do not have a Temple today and much of the original function of priesthood had been temporarily lost, such a gift cannot be really used (butchered, purposefully used for breeding, etc). Too late, we found out that what we were supposed to do was nominally sell part of the pregnant doe to a non-Jew, to avoid such a complicated situation. In the end the little buckling was shipped off to a petting zoo.

Regional conflicts and safety – Because of the ongoing Jewish-Arab conflict in Israel, the Jewish homesteader or farmer living on an isolated hill somewhere, or in the middle of the desert, is in a precarious position. To put it bluntly, if you hear an intruder in your farmyard in the middle of the night, you have no way of knowing whether their principal purpose is stealing your sheep or murdering your family. Therefore, the only reliable way for Jewish farmers and homesteaders to protect themselves is to shoot first and ask questions later. Fortunately, after the Shai Dromi acquittal, the law is on the side of honest men who take up arms to protect their lives and property.

Some will say that such local, small-scale homesteading and farming ventures are impractical, labor-intensive and complicated, and that it’s simpler and cheaper to just buy what you eat from big farmers, or import produce, but I disagree. Money is not everything, and nothing beats the satisfaction of eating real food grown by real people living on the land they love.

Why I love raising chickens

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Our love affair with chickens started a few years ago, when my husband surprised me with a box of baby chicks. Those little ones all turned out to be males, but no matter – the chicken bug was already there. Ever since, we’ve had a chicken coop wherever we lived.

So what makes chickens such a popular choice for almost everyone? They are kept by big and small farmers, country dwellers and urban homesteaders alike. Here is why I personally like my chickens so much:

1. Eggs – need I say more? Fresh homegrown eggs are about the best source of high-quality animal protein out there. They are full of essential nutrients and their taste is far superior to the bland egg factory product. In winter, when our hens went off laying and we had to buy eggs from the grocery store, we were actually shocked at the contrast in taste after getting used to our superior home-grown eggs.

2. Pest and weed control – chickens love to eat all sorts of insects, bugs, worms and weeds in their young green stage. All this goes into the eggs and makes them healthier and better-tasting – and helps with yard maintenance. Of course, chickens will also go for many garden plants, so you have two choices: either keep a fence around your vegetable patch, or learn which plants you can grow without competing with your chickens. Generally we find that herbs (such as mint, sage, rosemary), certain vegetables (onions, garlic, potatoes) and fruit trees are safe with chickens.

3. Entertainment – just sit back and watch your chickens for endless hours of fun. Observe how they interact with each other and with you. I can entertained a 1-year-old for up to half an hour by making a rooster jump and snatch tricks out of the air. Keeping chickens is one of the best fun and educational experiences we’ve ever done.

4. Easy maintenance – once you get into the routine of chicken-keeping, it’s incredibly easy. Basically what chickens need is access to food, water and a sturdy sheltered coop that provides protection from the rain and wind and can be locked at night against predators. Depending on the climate in your area and the breed of your chickens, you might have to provide a source of heat during the winter. We usually don’t need to do this as we keep sturdy breeds and temperatures here don’t often fall below freezing.

You can greatly reduce the cost of chicken feed by giving your chickens your kitchen leftovers (old bread, rice, pasta, cores and peels, etc) and by allowing them to free-range and find their own food.

The business of bread

Carmen writes, in the context of making sourdough bread:

I was wondering, if you would have the time to write a post about the differences between different types of flour. You have hinted before that some are more nutritious than others, and I tried to do a google search, but there were too many unknown terms, and I didn’t have the time to properly digest the information.

The grains most commonly used in the Western world are wheat as a strongly dominating first, rye, and barley. In recent years spelt, an ancient grain of the wheat family is making a comeback as well, and spelt flour and bread are available in many stores.

All of the aforementioned grains contain gluten, though in slightly different forms. A word about gluten: this famous protein is what gives bread its shape, elasticity and lift. The higher the gluten content, the better the bread will come out. You can make bread from gluten-free grains such as corn, teff, quinoa or buckwheat, but it won’t be bread in the form of the high, shapely, crusty loaf most of us crave.how_to_make_sourdough_08213_16x9

Image source: BBC

People with Celiac disease should avoid gluten entirely, in all shapes and quantities. People with non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, however, often find that they tolerate certain grains better than others, in particular spelt better than the commercial varieties of wheat, especially if the bread is made through long-rise fermentation process (as in sourdough).

Mankind has cultivated wheat for thousands of years, but the wheat that had been consumed throughout most of human history is not the same wheat in use today. In the 1960’s, commercial farmers switched to growing a new, modern hybrid of dwarf wheat. It provides easier processing and higher yields, but is also less nutritious (containing, in particular, less of certain minerals than traditional wheat) and, some studies claim, more allergenic. Evidence is a bit murky here, and it’s unclear how much the rise in sensitivity to wheat is due to the new genetic makeup, and how much to modern processing methods.

While I was studying for my degree in nutrition, we were told that people should consume whole grains because the bran contain nutrients and fiber that are cast away in the process of making white flour. No one talked about the different varieties of wheat, however, nor of how grain fermentation partially breaks down the gluten and makes the nutrients in whole grains more easily absorbed. In particular, fermentation activates the enzyme phytase, which breaks down the phytic acid binding minerals such as calcium and magnesium in the hull of the grain.

It might not be scientifically proved, but many people who can’t tolerate commercial wheat bread respond a lot better to long-fermented breads made from traditional grains. Of course, this only goes for people who do not have Celiac disease – if you do, avoid any gluten-containing products altogether. 

The type of bread I generally recommend is made from whole rye, barley or spelt (or a combination of these), using a long-rise fermentation process. You can obtain such bread in many artisan bakeries or make it in your own kitchen. The results might not be as reliable as when using baker’s yeast, but the nutritional and culinary benefits are well worth it.

I think spelt flour is the best option for people with conservative taste, because of its resemblance to wheat. Personally I love rye bread, but some people (my family, for instance) find it too dark, dense and dominant-tasting.

If you are new to baking with whole grains, it should be noted that bread from whole grain flour will always rise slightly less well, and be a little more dense, than bread made from white flour. The reason for this is, again, the gluten content. Because whole grain flour includes the bran and germ – parts of the grain which do not contain gluten – the amount of gluten in whole grain flour, per cup, is lower than in white flour. This is sometimes off-putting for people who are used to commercial spongy white bread, but I think it’s a matter of habit and mindset: just because the food industry has gotten us used to soft, sweet bread, it doesn’t mean that’s the way it should be.

Once you get the taste for real bread, there’s no looking back. Personally, one of my favorite light meals – as breakfast, lunch or dinner – is a slice of artisan sourdough bread with some farm cheese and a ripe tomato. Yum!

Getting into gardening

A combination of several factors has prevented us from doing any serious gardening until now. There’s the fact that in our eight years of marriage, my husband and I moved four times (and gardening does go better with permanent residence in one place); then there was always something, such as being pregnant, or having a new baby, or keeping garden-destructive livestock such as chickens and goats, or it being the Sabbatical year (which, for Jews living in Israel, means you can’t plant in soil – only in containers).

Of course some of it, let’s face it, was just plain lack of motivation. More determined people would have invested in sturdy fences and large containers they can take with them when they move. However, in the past months we really felt ready and willing to finally start gardening seriously and diligently, and there was only one thing that stopped us.

To put it simply, our neighbors had goats. Now, we have kept goats in the past, and we know these animals are clever, nimble and extremely difficult to contain. However, we also believe it is the responsibility of the owner to prevent his livestock from becoming a nuisance to his neighbors. So we talked, we explained, and we pleaded… and all we got in return were some pretty lame excuses. To top it all off, at night I would hear our neighbor sneak off and let his goats out. He wanted the benefit of pasture for his animals without the responsibility of controlling them.

Luckily for us, we weren’t the only people annoyed by having their fruit trees repeatedly eaten down to the ground. After several neighbors lobbied together, the goat owner gave in and the offending goats were sold. I felt as though I could dance.

So we recently started a small garden, which we plan to expand in time, once we get a little more practice. We’re hopeful and really happy to watch our plants grow without being eaten. Here you can see a climbing tomato plant, a patch of mint that is really thriving, some flowers and some lemon balm.