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Archive for September, 2011

Well, folks…

Another year has come and gone.

It’s time for this kosher samurai to head on up to The Heart of the Old World. [1]

(Tekiah Gedolah!)

Wishing everyone a gutten un a gezinter yor… a gebensht un a zisser yor! [2]

Buon anno a tutti! [3]

Shana Tova! [4]

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[1] A Jewish neighbourhood in Toronto located on either side of Bathurst Street between Lawrence Avenue West and Wilson Avenue.

[2] Yiddish: ‘A good and a healthy year… a blessed and a sweet year!’

[3] Italian: A good year to all!

[4] Hebrew: (lit. ‘A good year’) very loosely translated as ‘Happy New Year!’

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What I call ‘The Heart of the Old World’ is a Jewish neighbourhood in Toronto located along Bathurst Street between Lawrence Avenue West and Wilson Avenue. My particular little section of that neighbourhood is a kind of wide ‘H-shaped’ area with Ameer Avenue as the left side of the “H”, Bathurst Street as the right side of the “H” and Ranee Avenue as the long crosspiece in the middle.

(The Heart of the Old World – see the wide Bathurst/Ranee/Ameer “H”?)

A heck of a lot of my Jewish life is lovingly crammed into those few blocks. Almost all of my Jewish friends live there, most of them within a block or so north, south or east of Ranee and Ameer.

(Bais Dov Yosef Congregation [door 3407] before the new sign went up)

My tiny shteibl [1], Bais Dov Yosef Congregation (aka Rabbi Bartfeld’s shul, aka The Strudel King) is located on the east side of Bathurst at the corner of Ranee. It used to be an old store and is now my spiritual home. I know most of the guys there. I study there. I pray there. It’s where I discuss and debate and argue. It’s where I recharge my spiritual batteries. It’s where I am closer to G-d.

A lot of neighbourhoods in Toronto, as with other large cities, are a block-by-block proposition. Within this particular few blocks of Bathurst Street it is practically a door by door proposition. The Gur Shteibl (aka The Gerer Shtiebl) is a few doors down from R’ Bartfeld’s shul. Stepping inside the Ger on a Friday evening, you can almost feel the holiness there!

Both are across the street from Isaac’s Bakery.

A few doors further up Bathurst and you are at the Grodzinki kosher bakery. The Grodzinki’s have been bakers in England since 1888. In 1999, the first Grodzinski bakery was opened in Toronto thus continuing the family baking traditions into the fourth and fifth generations. It’s worth it just to step inside and breathe in the goodness. Their baked goods are out of this world. Aside from the challahs hand-made by my dear friends Sheryl Burke (Toronto), Channa Lavin (Hamilton) or Aviva Cohen (Winnipeg), the Grodzinki challahs are near or at the top of the list. [2]

A few more doors up Bathurst and you are at the Aleph Bet Judaica bookstore owned and operated by a seriously cool Israeli family. Whenever I am coming into town for Shabbes (Sabbath) or a yontiff (Jewish holy day), I make a point of going into this book store  first and buying as many English language Jewish newspapers as I can get a hold of… Yated Ne’eman, HaModia, Canadian Jewish News, Jewish Press and even ‘that shmatta’… The Forward, (i.e. The Jewish Daily Forward, which is actually a weekly).

(Inside Milk N Honey… a very heimishe place)

One door up from Aleph Bet is Milk ‘N Honey kosher dairy restaurant and catering. Wonderful stuff in a good, friendly and heimishe [3] atmosphere.

The very next door up is the incredible Umami Sushi… Toronto’s Original Kosher authentic sushi establishment. It opened in the summer of 2001, and has since become the premier choice in Toronto for Sushi. Andrew Novak has been involved with Umami Sushi since 2002. In 2007 Sarah & Andrew Novak purchased Umami Sushi and, continuing in the Umami Sushi tradition, Andrew provides the best and freshest product available. (Full disclosure… Sarah Zeldman-Novak is a friend of mine) It’s basically a take-out and catering place although you could pull up a stool at the counter at the front window and have a sushi snack right there!

(Umami Sushi – Notice the Milk N Honey sign in the top right corner!)

I don’t know why this appears to be so… but while most regular run-of-the-mill garden variety (i.e. non-Orthodox) Jews love chinese food, a great many Orthodox Jews adore sushi. I am no exception although I recently realized I have developed a mild allergic skin reaction to wasabi. I disclosed this shocking development in a previous blog. I don’t want to get into it right now. It’s still too upsetting.

(Toronto Kosher, at the former location of Stroli’s Strictly Kosher Foods)

The very next door up is Toronto Kosher. Great place for grabbing things at the last minute for Shabbes dinner but I have to warn you, the closer you get to closing time, the more jam-packed and crazy it’s going to be in there! [4]

A few doors up is Negev Book & Gift Store, another wonderful Jewish bookstore. I try to split my business between Negev and Aleph Bet so they can both earn my money and I don’t favour one over the other. Parnassa (‘livelihood’ in Yiddish and Hebrew) is a very important concept in Judaism and I feel obligated to try to give my business to as many people as I can.

Across the street from Aleph Bet, Milk N Honey, Umami Sushi and Toronto Kosher is Kosher City Plus. This is a kosher supermarket with a wide selection of products. I don’t think I have ever seen Kosher City Plus with fewer than 20 customers in it at any given time. The place is always packed. The produce is good and it is just so great walking up and down the aisles and not have to worry about whether the product you want is kosher or not. EVERYTHING is kosher there so just grab what you like! For a view inside Kosher City Plus, check out this YouTube music video, ‘Yalili in Toronto’.

A few doors up from Kosher City Plus is Hartmans Fine Kosher Foods… an old-fashioned butcher shop with modern sensibilities. There’s a full-service meat counter and everything is cut on the premises, so customers’ specifications are easily accommodated. A wide selection of prepared foods (from spicy eggplant salad to the ever-popular chopped liver) makes it easy to put together a quick and delicious meal. There is also a range of items that caters to the local South Afri­can market, including such finds as boerwurst and biltong jerky. Can’t say that I’ve ever eaten boerwurst and biltong jerky myself but my Capetown and Jo’burg friends assure me that I am a fool for not trying this stuff.

(Dairy Treats European Café & Bakery)

Right next to Hartmans is the Dairy Treats European Café & Bakery, a wonderful kosher place for breakfast or lunch. Great food in a casual, friendly atmosphere. Last time I was there, it was shoulder to shoulder throughout the restaurant but everyone was really enjoying themselves.

(Tov-Li Pizza, Falafel & More)

Across the street from Dairy Treats and just a bit up from Negev is Tov-Li. I recently had one of their famous falafels. It was SO delicious and very filling! Perfect for a quick satisfying lunch!

Across the street from that… and up the street from that… and a few doors past that… and across the street from that… and beside that… and next door to that…

And… this is not to mention the dozen or so synagogues and other religious and cultural organizations scattered about in these few small blocks including one that is most near and dear to my heart, the Canadian office of Jews for Judaism!

It is a fabulous part of town and it is so vibrant and full of life. I would expect that many people drive by it or through it and hardly notice an entire Orthodox Jewish culture and civilization right under their noses and under the radar… unseen and yet in plain sight. All you have to do is look… really look… and a whole new world will open up to you!

Wednesday evening, September 28, 2011, is the beginning of Rosh HaShana… the first day of Tishrei, 5772!

G-d willing, I will have the pleasure of spending the Jewish High Holy Days in Toronto in The Heart of the Old World.

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[1] A shtiebl, also shtiebel, (Yiddish: שטיבל meaning “little house” or “little room”) is a place used for communal Jewish prayer – basically a tiny synagogue. In contrast to a larger more formal synagogue, a shtiebel is far smaller and approached more casually. A shtiebel is most often a little hole-in-the-wall place where Orthodox Jews, often comprised partially or entirely of hasidim, come to pray and study.

[2] Honourable mention goes to the sweet raisin egg challahs from the Sobey’s in Thornhill.

[3] Heimishe. (Yiddish) means ‘homey.’

[4] Many years ago, it used to be the location of Stroli’s, a kosher food store owned and operated by Rabbi Stroli. I loved going there and talking to his kitchen staff who were almost all Italian! R’ Stroli used to make these meat-filled knishes (we called them ‘cannon balls’) which he would hand out free to his customers.

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O cruel fate with all thy spite
with false dreams and fake delight
I shake my fist and frown at thee
for all the treacheries given me.
(L.E. Conley)

(ワサビ – Wasabi)

I can deny it no longer.

Though it breaks my heart to admit it, I can’t keep lying to myself.

I think I have an allergic reaction to wasabi. [1]

I’ve tried to rationalize it. Trivialize it. Make excuses. Write it off as a mere coincidence.

(Wasabi – Japanese horseradish)

Eventually, the weight of the evidence came crashing down on me.

When I eat that delicious hot spicy green paste, the next day I start to develop a kind of rosy rough skin above my eyebrows and along the creases that run from my nostrils to the edges of my mouth. The rosy skin goes dry and flakey. I hate it. It looks awful and makes me feel even more than usually self-conscious.

(Grated wasabi root)

I thought at first it may be some other spices that caused it. Curry, perhaps… or maybe chili flakes or chili powder. It could have been when I used too much black pepper.

Over time, I started cutting down on those and other strong spices to the point where I just about eliminated them altogether.

Recently, I was enjoying some Japanese food with some wasabi. I was particularly delighted because I hadn’t had either Japanese food in general or wasabi in particular for months.

(Wasabi paste, pickled ginger and maki rolls)

Looking at my face in the mirror the next day (a daunting task at the best of times) was all the confirmation I needed.

Fortunately for me, I only had a small bit of wasabi so a few days later, things pretty well cleared up.

While my complexion may now be clear, my heart is heavy and I feel like there is a dark cloud over my soul.

(Wasabi in a tube)

Life without wasabi. Sushi and pickled ginger… without the bit of green paste! Passover seders without wasabi as the maror!! [2]

Truly, this is a bitter thing to swallow.

O cruel fate… I shake my fist and frown at thee! 

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[1] What we call wasabi in Canada and the US is not actually wasabi. It comes often in powder form and is mixed with water or sometimes vinegar. It is basically a mix ordinary western horseradish, hot mustard and green food colouring processed to look and taste like wasabi. Authentic wasabi is hard to cultivate and can be very expensive (up to $100 a pound).

[2] One of the ingredients on a Passover seder plate, the maror is the bitter herbs.

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Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls…

I present to you… (drumroll)…

The Bumblebee Bat

(aka Kitti’s Hog-nosed Bat)!

(Craseonycteris thonglongyai – a big name for a little bat)

The smallest mammal in the world is the bumblebee bat (Craseonycteris thonglongyai), weighing in at just barely 2 grams – about the weight of a penny! – and measuring 1 to 1.2 inches (3 cm) in length – about the size of a large bumblebee (hence the name).

(The world’s smallest [and most adorable] mammal)

OK… once you get over the unbelievable cuteness of this little thing, one question should immediately leap to mind.

Who’s Kitti? And how did he get a bat? OK, that was two questions. But still…

The bumblebee bat was discovered in 1974 by Thai zoologist Kitti Thonglongya. This helps explain the ‘Kitti’ in Kitti’s Hog-nosed Bat. Kitti’s surname also helps explain the second half of this itsy-bitsy bat’s ludicrously long name.  The ‘hog-nosed’ part is because of its pink, pig-like snout. As for the first half of the name, if the word Craseonycteris doesn’t seem to ring a bell with you, don’t feel too bad. This little critter is the only member of that genus. It is also the only member of the family Craseonycteridae. Lovely but lonely.

(Cute, eh?)

The world’s most darling chiropter does everything a regular bat does. The only thing that separates it from the others is its tiny size. Very rare and hard to find (well done, Kitti!), these little bats hover like humming birds and dwell deep in caves feeding on insects.

(Is that a bat on your thumb or are you just happy to see me?)

The winsome winged wonder has a reddish-brown or grey coat, with a distinctive pig-like snout (see mug shot above). Colonies range greatly in size, with an average of 100 individuals per cave. Bumblebee bats occupy limestone caves along rivers. The bat feeds during short activity periods in the evening and dawn, foraging around nearby forest areas for insects. Females give birth annually to a single offspring.

Although the bat’s status in south-east Myanmar (Burma) is not well-known, the Thai population is restricted to a single province in western Thailand and may be at risk for extinction. Its potential threats are primarily anthropogenic (i.e. it’s our fault), and include habitat degradation and the disturbance of roosting sites.  The bumblebee bat’s habitat is being destroyed (big surprise) by deforestation and tourism, leading the International Union for Conservation of Nature to classify the little sweetie-pie as endangered.

I hope the future is kind to this marvel of nature. What a crime it would be if there wasn’t enough room in the world for something so tiny yet so wonderful.

aa-kendo-kanji-red

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Today, September 19th, is International Talk Like a Pirate Day!

(Avast, ye swabs!)

Aarrrr!!….

Sorry. Just had to get that one out. I’m OK now.

As per the Gospel According to Wikipedia…

International Talk Like a Pirate Day (ITLAPD) is a parodic holiday created in 1995 by John Baur (Ol’ Chumbucket) and Mark Summers (Cap’n Slappy), of Albany, Oregon, who proclaimed September 19th each year as the day when everyone in the world should talk like a pirate. For example, an observer of this holiday would greet friends not with “Hello,” but with “Ahoy, matey!” The holiday, and its observance, springs from a romanticized view of the Golden Age of Piracy.

(Mark “Cap’n Slappy” Summers and John “Ol’ Chumbucket” Baur, the founders of Talk Like a Pirate Day)

It was, however, humorist Dave Barry who really got the whole thing off the ground in 2002 after Baur and Summers talked him into writing about it in his syndicated column. The piece gave ITLAPD national attention. Thankfully Baur and Summers never claimed any exclusive intellectual property rights on the concept. As a result, the idea has gone viral internationally and now belongs to all us scurvy dogs.

Over the last six years that I have been observing ITLAPD, I have tried as much as possible to inject pirate phrases in a variety of criminal court proceedings in which I appeared on September 19th, for example calling fellow counsel “matey”, responding to the Court in the affirmative with, “Aye, Sir!” and telling overly-chatty clients to “belay that talk” or “face a keelhauling!”

(Stick it in yer maggoty gob, ye salty bilge rat!)

So put yer backs into it, ye lily-livered young puppies!

And have yourself a merry little International Talk Like a Pirate Day!

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The other day, I picked up my new 2012 Quo Vadis Agenda. I prefer the Trinote edition.

I’ve already begun what is, for me, an annual tradition.

(Quo Vadis Trinote Agenda)

I’ve been using a Quo Vadis Trinote ever since 1985, the year I started law school. Ever since then, it’s been an annual ritual for me to take a few days and, bit by bit, enter the relevant information from the previous year’s agenda to the new one. The process is a good review of the past year… the achievements, accomplishments, friends that have come into or gone out of my life, successes and failures, disappointments and pleasant surprises, births, deaths and anniversaries.

I use a yellow high-liter to accentuate certain days or events. I carefully pencil in for each Sabbath the candle lighting times for Friday evenings and the times when Sabbath ends each Saturday night. I also make a note of the Torah portion for that week. Each Jewish holy day, festival, fast day, etc. is marked down using the next year’s Jewish calendar as a guide. Quo Vadis is good enough to note Jewish holidays, even relatively minor ones… but it obviously cannot be expected to provide the degree of detail that a Jewish calendar provides. And I am more than happy to fill them in.

(Trinote Week at a Glace set-up)

I love how the Trinote is set out.

It is good to be able to look at the entire week. The layout also gives plenty of room to write notes below each date or along the right side. I can (and have) crammed a lot of information in the space provided!

Here are some of the features that makes Quo Vadis a superior workhorse appointment book…

  • 13 months, December to December
  • 8 AM to 9 PM schedule
  • 90g, acid-free paper
  • Annual planning calendars for 2009 and 2010
  • Daily notes
  • Tear-off corner opens to week in progress
  • Sewn binding, lays flat when open
  • Special Receipts & Payments pages
  • Detachable address book
  • Refillable

Each day of the year is also numbered both from its position from the beginning of the year and from its proximity to the end of the year. For example, February 28th is designated ’59-306′ – it is the 59th day of the year and it is the 306th day from the end of the year.

People keep saying that I am nuts to spend so much time and effort writing things by hand into an old-fashioned paper agenda. They say a digital agenda is much more efficient, convenient and less bulky. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I LIKE writing things in pencil each day. I like re-writing my address book each year. Yes, I can if I wanted to simply slip out the address book and fit it in to the new cover… but that would completely miss the entire point of the whole re-writing exercise. I want to go through it all, taking out people and numbers I no longer call and adding in new people and contacts. It’s a ‘taking stock’ process… a combination of inventory and auditing.

(Someone’s handwriting is a lot neater than mine!)

From mid-October to the end of November, it is admittedly a bit awkward having to carry around both this year and next year’s agenda but it is a small price to pay, as far as I am concerned.

I look forward to sitting in what will hopefully be my new ‘office’ in the restaurant which occupies my old café (more about this in a future blog), enjoying myself as I transfer my life from one book to another.

It is no coincidence that this ritual coincides on most years with Rosh HaShana with its themes of contemplation, reflection and self-examination, of starting anew, starting fresh and moving forward.

As I inscribe my new book with the events in my life, may we all be inscribed for a good year in the Book of Life.

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Just when you thought insects just couldn’t get any wackier, along comes…

Kamikaze Ants!!

(The south-east Asian Camponotus cylindricus)

Johan Billen of the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL), Belgium and his team researched a kind of ant that’s especially evolved to kill itself in order to save the nest.

Several south-east Asian species of ant in the Camponotus cylindricus group (i.e. carpenter ants) have enlarged mandibular glands that extend into their gaster (the bulbous posterior portion found in bees, wasps and ants).  When disturbed, the ants rupture the membrane of the gaster, causing a burst of secretions containing chemicals – the largest gland reservoirs yet known in ants – that immobilize small insect attackers and kills the ant.

Or, as the folks at Newscientist.com put it, “The ants of Borneo go out with a bang, thanks to a body built to blow up during a suicidal death grip.”

In other words, the six-legged blast-ended ant grabs onto the invading enemy and squeezes itself to death, literally blowing itself up and shpritzing a deadly sticky yellow goo everywhere, killing both intruder and ant.

And these little suicide bombers operate on a hair-trigger; their abdomen walls ruptured even when researchers lightly touched them!

Now while all 10,000 species of ant have glands in their jaws to release chemicals in alarm or defence, in at least nine species of the Cylindricus complex of ants most of the body is given over to storing the deadly secretion… to the point that they have very little space in their bodies for food. That’s one heck of a payload!

(Ant anatomy)

And it’s not like the little buggers only blow themselves and their enemies close to home. Kamikaze ants have been known to carry a suicide explosion mission onto enemies far from the colony.

The exploding ants were first reported by a German biologist in the 70’s. He noted that when he grabbed the ants with forceps, they would explode. He even took them back to Europe and introduced them to other ants and the result was the same… the ant would clasp on to the other ants and explode.

Diana “Dinah” Davidson, one of the study’s authors and a retired ecologist from the University of Utah, was so fascinated by the ants that she paid her own way to Brundei on the island of Borneo to study the ants in the field.

What Davidson and her team found was the reason for what the suicide bomber ants did what they did. Davidson clarified that what’s odd about this finding is that these ants are not directly protecting a nest, but they are protecting a foraging territory that can be “hundreds of meters from the nest.”

“Organisms don’t usually commit suicide,” she said. Of course there are other examples, some termites and honey bees commit suicide, but Davidson explains, it’s to protect a queen, which is the “reproductive individual.”

“If you’re going to find suicide it’s not surprising to find it in social insects. It was surprising to find it so far from the colony,” said Davidson.

(Carpenter ant)

While all ants will fight to the death to protect their nest, Davidson said this is different. “Not all ants will blow themselves up,” she said. And the way they do it means it’s “intentional self-sacrifice, voluntary self-sacrifice.”

Sounds like some kind of bug bushido samurai philosophy at work here.

If that isn’t cool enough, they way these self-exploding ants do it is delightfully gross!

“They grab the leg and wrap themselves around the ventral side of that opponent and when they do that the mandibular gland compound comes out through the anterior mandibular gland opening and they are forced out through pressure because the ant is squeezing itself,” said Davidson.

That’s right: The ant squeezes itself to death.

“They burst through the intersegmental membrane of the ant’s abdomen… killing the ants,” said Davidson. The ants end up “permanently glued to the opponent because the compounds are very sticky and they tumble from the canopy as a pair into the leaf litter and are eventually eaten by something.”

Quite a gift for imagery, our Ms Davidson has! Well done.

Well, folks… that’s it until next time something catches my attention from the ever-bizarre world of nature!

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