This week’s recipe: Stuffed Acorn Squash
Every year, my synagogue does “Teen Shabbat,” where the teenagers lead Saturday morning prayers and give speeches. The speeches are typically a lot of White Messiah nonsense (“I went on a service trip to the Dominican Republic and saw poor people and ate under a tarp in the rain, but then I realized that even though they have less stuff, the people there are actually more fortunate than we are because they’re happy, and I realized that I was enslaved to my iPhone,” that kind of thing), but two or three years ago, one of the teens made a speech that really resonated with me. The synagogue’s service learning trip that year had been to the civil rights trail in Alabama, but the speech was not about MLK and Rosa Parks but rather about stopping to eat at Waffle House. The speaker told some surprisingly entertaining anecdotes about the eating contests he and his friends participated in and their subsequent gastrointestinal distress, but the heart of the story was about after the meal, when the teens broke into Brich Rachamana (a shorter version of the grace after meals). They sang the Aramaic words of the prayer loudly and joyfully, and some confused but amused Waffle House patrons took out their phones and started to film them. When they were done singing, the other diners broke out into applause. The teen talked about how meaningful it was to be able to express his religious faith in such a public way, especially after having spent the previous week learning about the history of bigotry and prejudice in the region. He knew that it would not always have been safe for a group of Jewish teenagers to pray in an Alabama Waffle House, and he was grateful that things had changed.
Two days ago was the worst antisemitic attack in American history. It was shocking but not surprising; as soon as our rabbi announced the news at synagogue, before anything was known about the perpetrator, I had a pretty good idea of who the gunman was and what his ideology would be. My idea turned out to be exactly right, but I don’t want to use this space to write about the political ramifications of the attack (not because they’re not important, but because other people can and will do a better job of it). Instead, I want to talk about the intense pain of knowing that we’re no longer safe even in our houses of worship.
It’s painful because I’ve always thought of synagogue as a safe space, physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Maybe that was wishful thinking, since synagogues, JCCs, and other places where Jews gather together have always been targets for violence. Jews are the most common targets of hate crimes in America, to the extent that stories about antisemitic hate crimes typically don’t make a blip outside the Jewish press. And the Tree of Life Synagogue is only the latest religious center to be attacked, joining a list of churches, mosques, Sikh temples, and more. Despite all that, the sense of community that I feel at synagogue has made it feel safe to me. We’re about to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of our synagogue’s sanctuary, and I was interviewed for a video to be shown at the celebratory gala. The interviewer asked me what being part of the synagogue community meant to me, and I said that it was the feeling that there were people who may have had no connection to me, who weren’t family or friends or colleagues, but who cared about me nevertheless. It meant saying hi as we passed each other on the streets of the Upper West Side. It meant getting advice from older people on job searches and careers, and giving younger people advice on college. It meant people I barely know wishing me a warm mazel tov on my wedding or the birth of my sister’s baby. It meant that synagogue was a place where little kids could run around freely in the staircases and hallways, secure in the knowledge that the adults would make sure nothing bad happened to them.
Similarly, I’ve always thought of America as a safe space, the one country in the world (including Israel) where Jews weren’t killed for being Jews. I know that Jews fleeing their home countries have long seen America as a haven. I know that my grandmother and her family felt that way when they came here from Nazi Germany. It took a long time for us to be accepted as full citizens, and even after we fully assimilated, reaching the heights of power and influence, there have always been whispers about our loyalties and intentions. Still, we felt that after two thousand years of persecution, we had finally found a nation that welcomed us and would allow us to live in peace and reach our full potential.
Now that feeling of safety is shattered, and the worst part is that anyone who was paying attention saw it coming. Our synagogue used to dance in the streets on the holiday of Simchat Torah; 9/11 put an end to that. They tightened security again during the 2016 election season, and once more after Trump took office. The world is a scary and dangerous place, but I wish I didn’t need to be reminded of that every time I went to pray. Yesterday I attended a vigil with all the Upper West Side Jewish congregations. The line to get into the sanctuary stretched down the block and around the corner, in part because of the amazing turnout, but in part because of the intense security: bag checks, metal detector wands, pat-downs. Is this the new normal for entering a synagogue?
Maybe it will be; maybe it will fade away after a time. Maybe in a week from tomorrow, we’ll elect a new Congress, and the forces of hatred will crawl back under the rocks from whence they came, though I’m not hopeful that that will be the case. All I know is this: in a sick way, our enemies are right to compare us to rats or cockroaches, because no matter how hard you try to get rid of us, you never will. We’ve outlasted the Romans, the Crusaders, the Inquisition, the pogroms, the Nazis, and we’ll outlast you assholes too. We sing “Am Yisrael Chai” – the people of Israel live – because it’s a statement of defiance to say that we’re still alive, that we will stay strong and not relinquish our values in the face of hate. When I was being interviewed for the sanctuary gala video, I was asked what it meant to me to celebrate 100 years of the sanctuary. I said that it meant that our community was in it for the long haul, that we had survived many upheavals and would survive many more. Our community–both my synagogue and the broader Jewish community–is one of love. I’m horrified that we were attacked this way, but if we had to be attacked, I’m proud that it was because we were living the Torah values of welcoming refugees and strangers. I pray for the day when we’ll once again feel safe to pray for peace for the Jewish people and all the world in our synagogues.
So anyway, here’s some squash. This is a delicious fall meal that will make you say, “DAMN! It’s fall.” On our honeymoon, Mark and I took a cooking a class where we learned to make a delightful spherical zucchini stuffed with mashed potatoes, and I was inspired to finally make this dish after many months of looking at it and thinking, Squash? Really? Do I really want to make squash? Turns out, I do, and so do you!
Stuffed Acorn Squash
From Half Baked Harvest
- 2 medium acorn squash, halved through the stem and seeded
- 2 tablespoons salted butter, melted
- 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
For Wild Rice:
- 1 cup uncooked wild rice
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 6 cups fresh spinach
- 1 canned chipotle in adobo, chopped
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
- 1 cup roasted pistachios, chopped
- 1 cup dried cranberries
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
For Brown Butter Bread Crumbs:
- 2 tablespoons salted butter
- 1 cup panko bread crumbs
- 2 tablespoons roasted pistachios, finely chopped
- 1 cup shredded Havarti cheese
- Chopped fresh parsley or cilantro, for topping
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Brush the cut sides of the squash with the melted butter and sprinkle with the brown sugar and cinnamon. Season with salt and pepper. Place in a baking dish and bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until the flesh is fork-tender. Remove from the oven (leave the oven on) and brush the liquid from the baking dish around the flesh of the squash, coating the squash well and trying to use all the liquid.
Meanwhile, make the rice. Bring 2 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepot over high heat. Add the rice, cover, and reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 35 to 45 minutes, or until all the water has been absorbed and the rice is tender. Add the olive oil and spinach and toss to combine. Cover the pot again and allow the spinach to wilt, about 10 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the chipotle in adobo, dill, pistachios and cranberries. Season with salt and pepper.
While the squash and rice cook, make the bread crumbs. In a medium skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Cook until it is browned and smells nutty, about 5 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and whisk the butter for about 30 seconds more. Stir in the bread crumbs and pistachios.
Stuff the roasted squash halves with wild rice and top with Havarti. Return to the oven and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and the squash is crisp. Remove from the oven and top with bread crumbs and fresh parsley before serving.