Monday, 31 August 2015


In the early 80's, a decade in which I was basically constantly pregnant or nursing, I managed to find time between working and kids to browse bookshops (remember those?) and I chanced upon a small Pan paperback called Migraine. I was quite interested in the topic, as I had a friend from school (until today) whose migraine was a third person in the relationship and I had seen up close what it could do to a person's life. I had also seen some funny things as a doctor, and I had also experienced a few episodes myself, strange visual blind spots and shimmering, temporary inability to find words, and other slightly scary stuff, usually associated with a pregnancy.
So I bought the book and took it home.
I had done a bit of medical reading during my training but I had never read a book like this before. It was full of literary and historical allusions. It was not actually written for doctors in particular, that was clearly stated in the forward; it was also for sufferers of migraine. And it didn't just give over dry case histories, but fleshed out stories and descriptions, and then mused and philosophised over the stories and the patients. It was like nothing I had ever read. I didn't just learn about the different types of migraine; I learned about Hildegard of Bingen. (Could be her visions related to migraine!) Underpinning the whole style of writing was a deep intellectual curiosity and an attitude of seeing the malady not as The Enemy, but as an expression of the patient's actual being. The aim was not just to vanquish the problem, but to understand it and work with it along with the patient who was living with it.
The author had obviously really listened to the patients and really saw them, not just as sufferers in the consultation room, but as fully realised human beings, carefully and thoroughly,  even lovingly, you could say, described and depicted. It was a revelation. The book had been originally written in 1970 and had been revised in 1980.
The writer was Oliver Sacks.  I have to say that the name meant nothing to me.
About 5 years later I heard about and then bought the oddly titled The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. As soon as I started reading it, I made the connection. This book was easier, it made no effort with glossaries and index, it was purely stories. Case histories of patients with things that we used to think of as exceedingly rare, like Tourettes, or Aspergers. A deeper understanding of neural deficits caused by disease or alcoholism or trauma- and not just as deficits, but as part of the patient's story and journey through life.
Then I found Awakenings, and they made a movie of it, but by then I was completely hooked. A Leg To Stand On was a timely offering; my husband was recovering from a badly broken leg and someone gave it to him as a gift while he was recuperating- but I had already bought a copy. I don't know if it helped hubby but it certainly diverted him.
I own every book that Oliver Sacks published, the later ones in hardback because I couldn't wait for them to come out in paperback. His first autobiography, Uncle Tungsten from  2001, was an eye-opener. I had worked out that he was Jewish and related to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (whom I also admire greatly), but the story of his childhood, his unusual and brilliant surgeon mother, who brought home an aborted foetus for him to dissect when he was about 12- can't get that little detail out of my mind- his clever extended family, including Abba Eban (yet another person I admire!)- it was riveting.
I didn't admire or agree with every single thing that he wrote; in Hallucinations from 2012, I was strongly struck by his complete atheism. In describing some hallucinatory experiences it was as if he was bending over backwards to reduce every described experience to a set of chemical events. There was no room for the spiritual in his narrative, and I found that fascinating. But as far as his compassion and sense of the patient's humanity was concerned, he remains a great influence on how I try to relate to my own patients.
He came to Australia on at least one occasion, because I went to hear him speak - I think it was the early 2000's- and to buy his latest book AND I took the opportunity of bringing my own stack of books for him to autograph as well.
All of them were published by Picador, except Migraine, the smallest book, on top of my pile. He picked it up and glanced at me with a smile, then showed it to his personal assistant. He signed all of the books in a semi-legible scrawl of green felt-tip pen; but Migraine he signed Oliver Wolf Sacks, because he was pleased to see it, his first literary offering, written when he was in his 30's. I guess it amused him.
For the record, he was a very shy man with a self-diagnosed inability to recognise faces (prosopagnosia - like me) or places (thus getting lost anywhere and everywhere- like me.) He lived alone and I guess he turned his love and affection on to his patients; it certainly felt that way when I read his books.
In his book The Mind's Eye, he described his own visual problems, which turned out to be due to a melanoma of the retina of his eye. I won't say that I am a prophet, but the diagnosis of malignant melanoma is too often a terrible one with a poor prognosis. And in the retina. It sounded bad when I read about it, and it turned out to be bad, because he passed away yesterday at the age of 82, from metastatic melanoma. His last essay, about the Sabbath, is a gently told story about growing up in an orthodox Jewish family, keeping Shabbos, until he broke away, partly because of his mother's rejection of the possibility that he was gay; the last paragraph is elegiac in tone and as sad and beautiful as any of his writings. But I didn't want to believe that it would be the very last thing he wrote.
I have his last autobiography, On The Move, next to my bed, next in line for reading. So I have a full set of his books; I should be pleased. But I feel as if a light has departed from this world.

RIP, Oliver Sacks. I know you didn't believe in Heaven, but I believe that you're there anyway. And if it turns out you were right, then you live on in your books and in the people you influenced.

Sunday, 30 August 2015


I cannot believe that I haven't posted since June. And you know what else I can't believe? It's Rosh Hashanah in two weeks. TWO WEEKS.

This is actually not possible, because wasn't it just Pesach a few months ago? And didn't I just write about RH a couple months before that? And isn't today Monday, so it's just been Shabbos, but it's nearly Shabbos again? What the hell is going on?

OK, yes, I'm busy, so that makes time go faster I guess. And yes, I am older, and the older I get, the quicker time passes because each unit of time is a smaller percentage of the time that I have already lived so it is perceived as a shorter interval. That's why, when you are young, it takes FOREVER for your birthday to come around. If you are 5, a year is a 5th of your life! That's a long time. But if you are pushing 60, like me, a year is only 1/60th of your life. So as I get older, the years will zip by faster than an Iranian centrifuge. And that's what we all have to look forward to.

There is some good to be found in this. For example, if I find myself stuck in something unpleasant or tiresome, like listening to a boring speaker or working out in gym, I just tell myself that it will all be over soon, because everything is over soon.

I have a manicure every 2 weeks, because when I became a grown up lady, some time after 45, manicures became compulsory. At first I had weekly sessions involving cleaning things up and lots of tsk-tsking from the manicurist, but as I got sucked into this desire to always have perfect nails, I eventually succumbed to the Biogel, so that needs maintenance every 2 weeks. It takes about 20-30 minutes of tidying up, infilling, painting yada yada and then about an HOUR of sitting there waiting for it to dry. (Of course, that hour passes in 15 minutes, so NP.) Only then do I go out and usually it all holds until the next session which is 2 weeks (i.e. 4 days) away.
So last session I sat and sat and then I went home and promptly got my thumb stuck in a drawer, which cause a scrape of the nail polish. Curses. One really does get obsessive about this stuff.
Daughter: 'Why not go back and have her fix it?'
Me: 'Because I do NOT want to be THAT sort of person.'
Daughter: 'I hear you.'
Me: 'And besides, it's almost time for the next manicure.'
Daughter: <silence> (But kind of judgmental silence.)

So I have got a bit of a leg-up on Rosh HaShana, because I have made a lot of chicken soup and even several containers of tzimmes, AND a honey cake, and it is all safely nestled in the freezer, along with the bulk order of meat and chicken from the butcher. So I'm feeling pretty pleased with myself about that. Except I haven't actually gotten around to inviting anyone to come for meals over Yom Tov, apart from immediate family. (But that ALWAYS happens because the butcher starts warning me about Pesach and Yom Tov at least 3 months before, which sends me into a mini-panic. I end up buying vast amounts of meat with no idea of who is actually going to eat it. And gets eaten.)

But as for the spiritual stuff, G-d help me. Every year, I feel less prepared. And before I know it, I will be sitting in my rarely-frequented seat in Shul, trying not to leaf through my machzor, counting the pages until it will be over. Because I know it will be over. It will ALL be over: Too soon.

Ksivah veChasimah Tovah, wishing for a year of good health, joy and peace. And living in the moment. (Unless the moment is unpleasant, in which case I will eat chocolate.)

Wednesday, 17 June 2015


'Booba, can you please make me a dolly cake for my birthday?'

Sure!  Why not. I've done a few. For younger kids though. Age 2 or 3. This is for a 6 year old, and probably slopping on a bit of whipped cream and some sliced berries for decoration was not going to make the grade.

So I went to Chef Google and asked for some assistance with Dolly Varden cake, and check out what crazy obsessive women come up with. I couldn't believe my eyes. This was a far sight more complex than my previous attempts. But I'm up for a challenge!

'What's you favourite colour?' I asked Birthday Girl, expecting the usual pink, or Princess Elsa blue or such.
Ummm...great! I'll do a Goth theme. That hasn't been done. Or an Essendon supporter doll. Why not.
'No, no! I changed my mind. Rainbow! I love the rainbow.'
Rainbow. Hmm, that's a LOT of food colouring. The kids will go mental. But there must be a shortcut...
Ah, taste the rainbow! Skittles! Haha, too easy. On a white background. Of fondant. Stuck on with...buttercream frosting.

Now I am committed enough to actually own a Dolly Varden cake tin which lends shape to the skirt of the doll. It is deep and stands on a narrow base.

The cake takes longer to bake because of the depth, and the tin when full of batter is unstable because of the narrow base. So when I made the cake batter which I marbled with blue, green and pink (eww, won't do that again), you would think that I would remember this, but of course when I checked on the cake after a reasonable time, the centre was still runny and then the tin tipped over when I slid the tray back into the oven. So, cursing, I whipped it back out and used a spatula to scoop the batter back into the hollowed cake and hoped that the Cake Goddess would not be a bitch and it would be OK.
And so it was. Didn't do the marbling pattern any favours though.

That was Thursday night. The party was scheduled for Sunday, and I was planning on decorating the cake on Sunday morning. I had bought the ready made fondant. I had food colouring. I even had Cholov Yisroel butter and cream for the frosting. And I had the kosher Skittles.

Friday, 40 minutes before Shabbos I remembered that I didn't have a doll.

I dashed out to Coles down the street and snagged a Barbie for $10. I was back home in 20 minutes and hello Shabbos.

Saturday night I actually could not sleep because of the cake. I tossed and turned and fretted over patterns and rainbows and, befuddled and slightly anxious, I got up at 7.30 - on a Sunday, people- and addressed the task at hand.

So it turns out, that unlike with a cheap $2 plastic Barbie knock-off, the legs of a real Barbie do not pop out. Removing the legs, while seemingly cruel, allows one to stick the doll's legless torso into a small depression on top of the cake, i.e. scoop out a bit of cake and stick on Frankenbarbie with some frosting. No can do with Real Barbie. This time was for real. So I used a zucchini corer (I have no idea why I own such a thing, but I do) and reamed out the cake as neatly as a geologist's core sample. I stripped Barbie of her hooker clothes and heels, wrapped her in plastic from the waist down, (to keep her clean and protect her impressive thigh gap) and thrust her into the hole in the cake. And it turned out that Barbie, with her impossibly long and shapely legs, was taller than the cake.

Huh. Never had this problem with Frankenbarbie. I needed something to elevate the cake and accommodate her legs. Corks? No, should be edible. More cake? Oy, too late, no time.
I found some marshmallows and with a stroke of genius, constructed a marshmallow-buttercream plinth, and Voila! Cake up to the waist now. Sort of.

Then the buttercream frosting, made with REAL butter and REAL cream. Yes, ma'am, no pareve fake stuff here. Nosirree.

Slather that on, fill in all the gaps. AND NOW. The Fondant.

I had bought a block of this, kosher of course, and had never worked with it before. But I had to try (refer to images of dolly cakes). You knead it and roll it and then you can cut it like cookie dough. And it was like kneading a brick, but it did soften eventually. Since I know a thing or two, I rolled it between 2 sheets of baking paper so I didn't have to curse it for sticking to stuff, and then I cut out dozens of hearts with a cookie cutter and stuck them on to the frosting. The marshmallow plinth was hidden and I built the skirt. And I made a little bodice for Barbie, so no more nudity.

After admiring the bride-like creation, with plastic wrap veiling all over her face and hair, keeping it nice and clean, I set to work sticking Skittles in a sort of rainbow gradation of colour EXCEPT it turns out that kosher Skittles do not have red or blue. Plenty of green, yellow, orange and a murky violet, but no red or blue. Anyway, I toiled away with the Skittles and a little dab of frosting sticking them all on, one by one, until I ran out of them.
I had a scrap of fondant left so I dyed it red and made a sash with a BOW, noch, so at least there was red, then orange, yellow, green, NO BLUE (or indigo, goes without saying) and violet. Eh, what 6 year old would notice, I thought.
Then I freed Barbie from her scary-looking plastic head wrap and here she is.

 See the bow? See? See?

It had taken 2 hours.

Then everyone came to set up, and when I mentioned, with some pride, the buttercream frosting with the REAL butter etc, Birthday Girl's mummy went a bit pale and told me that the menu included hot dogs. I must have missed the memo. After an initial frisson of panic, we decided that the cake would be served first, and then games etc and then hotdogs. Saved from Treyf.

And when it was time to cut the cake, you wouldn't believe it, one of the little girls informed me that it was not a rainbow, because there was NO BLUE. But, aha! On cutting the cake, the marbled blue green and pink interior (ew) made up for that. Take that, smart little kid.

And in 2 minutes she was eaten, down to the marshmallows. After stripping Barbie of her fondant bodice and Glad Wrap fetishwear, a quick wipe over with a cloth and on went her pink mini and hooker heels, and Barbie was ready to be fought over by Miss 6 and her feisty little sister, Princess 3.

After the party was over and the presents unwrapped, with some maternal prompting, Miss 6 thanked me and told me that I was the Best Booba.

I know. I have the apron to prove it. (Okay, different spelling, same sentiment.)

Wednesday, 3 June 2015


What does it mean, to be a woman? Or to be a man?

Now that Bruce has transitioned to Caitlyn and been photographed by Annie Leibowitz, there is comment, there is bemusement, there is chatter and judgement and well-wishing and confusion. Bruce was living a lie, and Caitlyn is now free. But what does it all mean?

Superficially, Caitlyn is a woman. She seems feminine, wears make-up and has long hair and wears dresses and heels. Her breasts are full and plump,  her skin is hairless and smooth (and the photoshopping is VERY smooth, Ms Leibowitz, for let us not forget that Caitlyn is 65 years old) and she looks very attractive. Let us not spoil the party by saying that she has male genitalia and XY chromosomes, for that is irrelevant. Caitlyn is a woman. And, since gender identity and sexuality are two separate entities, Caitlyn is a lesbian, I believe; she still loves women but is no longer married to one.

I am a woman. I don't have beautiful glossy hair, long nails or wear heels. Until I was 40 I hardly wore makeup and didn't have a manicure. When I was a kid I didn't like dolls or tea parties and I never owned a thing that was pink. When I was 18 I had long flowing hair and wore long flowing dresses and tried walking around barefoot, a faux-hippie chick who never smoked pot, studied hard, and got into med school. When I was 21 I cropped my hair and wore pants and drank whisky and smoked cigars, a faux-tough chick/lesbian-who-wasn't. Fast-forward a few years and I was married with 7 kids, having had an epiphany of sorts, and the Orthodox lifestyle and philosophy stuck. But I still love Acca Dacca and turn the car radio up to 11 when 'Jailbreak' comes on.

I'm nearly 60 now, younger than Caitlyn, and I don't look nearly as hot as her. My (small) boobs sag and I have stretch marks and varicose veins, and my post-menopausal skin tends to dry out if I don't use industrial-strength moisturiser. My ovaries are now a liability, because my mother and grandmother both died of ovarian cancer so I plan on finally having them removed surgically later this year. And when they, along with my long-passed fertility, are gone, I will still be a woman.

I may have mentioned that, many years ago, I worked in the field of Gender Dysphoria. That is to say, in 1980 I worked as a trainee psychiatrist in the old Queen Vic hospital which later relocated to Monash Medical Centre, under Dr Trudy Kennedy, dealing with patients who strongly felt that they were born into the 'wrong body' and were of the opposite sex. In the main, these were men who strongly felt that they were women. In their heads, they were women. They wanted to be rid of the accoutrements of masculinity and they wanted to live as women in an approximation of the body of a woman. Some of these people were mentally ill, and a sex-change operation was never going to fix that. But there were many who were not psychotic or crazy, but they were miserable in their bodies and only transitioning would help them.

Apart from that year at the coal-face, I worked for many years in General Practice in St Kilda which  catered to the denizens of St Kilda including a fair number of trans-people. There were many who came from far away as well because the doctor who had worked there some years before was known to be tolerant and non-judgemental. So the transwomen came for their Oestrogen and Androcur prescriptions, but also for coughs and colds etc etc. During that time, I only saw one person who had changed his mind, i.e., was born a boy, started transitioning with hormones age 16 - all very shady, not through a clinic- but then realised that he was a 'normal gay male'- his words- and he wanted the breasts off. I referred him to the GD clinic at Monash but he never turned up, so goodness knows what happened to this poor kid. I only saw him once but this particular guy was no doubt a person who had been poorly parented, probably abused, and was confused about a lot of things.

I have a friend, a very conservative surgeon, who scoffs at the whole phenomenon. He said to me, 'If I had a patient who came to me and said, 'Doctor, I'm not a man, I'm really a giraffe', I wouldn't paint spots on him and teach him to eat leaves and stretch his neck. I would say that he was crazy and send him to a psychiatrist. Same thing if a man tells me he's really a woman.'

And yet.

It's a real thing. It's a source of much suffering. It's not a lifestyle choice. It's associated with a terrible rate of attempted suicide and suicide in young people. It's not good enough to 'giraffe' them.
It's not entirely clear, however, that hormonal and surgical treatment is going to fix these problems. Although there is some subjective satisfaction after gender reassignment surgery, the rates of suicide attempt and psychological distress is still very high.

It's not a simple problem. And I think that the field of paediatric GD is a minefield. I have never worked in this field. There is a GD clinic at the Royal Children's Hospital here which is run by a respected psychiatrist, Dr Campbell Paul, which treats children from as young as 5 to age 17, after which there is the Monash GD Clinic.

Now, I think this is even more vexed. If a 5 year old girl says that she hates being a girl and she wants to be a boy, what is she saying? Is she saying that she never wants to have babies? Is she saying she hates the idea of menstruation? No. She is usually saying that she wants to play with trucks and get  muddy and wear boys' clothes, or she has been bullied by the mean girls, or perhaps worse. Does she really understand what it means to be a woman or not in the arc of life? Ditto for a boy. Surely in this day and age we can respond to this by saying, cool, Shiloh Jolie-Pitt, wear ties and trousers, climb trees, that's alright, and it doesn't make you a boy. Instead we are seeing this stuff about how we have to accept the reality that 'some boys are born with vaginas and some girls are born with penises'. I know that people who are saying this think that they are being very liberal in their understanding and acceptance of gender fluidity, but in fact, I think it reflects the opposite. I think it reflects real rigidity in understanding gender roles. My mother never said that I was not a real girl because I would rather play in the mud than with dollies. GD is more intense and complex than this example, but the more interviews I hear from transgendered people, the more I hear how many grew up hearing that they couldn't do this or that because they were a boy or a girl. I wonder how things might have turned out differently with more blurring of what is acceptable gender conforming behaviour. It's not so long ago that an athletic girl was called a 'tomboy', but now that we accept athleticism in girls, we hardly hear the term.

So I'm not dismissing Gender Dysphoria, and I hope I don't come across as if I am. I think it is a thing that we are going to hear more about as our society becomes, for better or worse, more unstitched about matters of gender and sexuality. It's not that common, but it is a tremendous source of misery and it must be flagged and dealt with by trained professionals in the context of accepting families, or, in the absence of a supportive family, then a supportive community. We need to be less judgemental and more educated. Just as being accepting of gays doesn't make people more gay, accepting trans people won't make more people want to transition. The answer might not in the end be surgery and hormones; the answer might just be accepting that there are those who just don't fit into the gender binary of male and female (even the Talmud recognised 6 genders) and helping them get the help they need, which will be different in every case.

Good luck, Caitlyn, I hope you really have found what you were looking for.

Monday, 18 May 2015

The Cheesecake Festival

So Shavuos is coming nearer and nearer, and I'm still counting the Sefirah - with a brocha, yet. It took  over 50 years before I managed that, so I'm pretty pleased with myself.

And with Shavuos, comes the cheesecake. I have non-Jewish friends that get excited about 'the cheesecake festival', in fact I don't know anyone who doesn't get excited about Shavuos. It's such a user-friendly festival! You can eat what you want (milchig or fleishig) where you want (IN the house and not in a hut) and it's only 2 days long. (yeah, OK, this year it tacks on to Shabbos, so 3 days. Another reason to live in Israel.)

My dad z"l, who was a classic Poilishe Vitzler, used to promise to give me whatever I asked for on Chol Hamoed Shavuos, and I used to get really excited about that, until I was about 7 when I worked it out. Haha.

Anyway, I want to focus on the cheesecake thing. The thing is, I am not what you, or anyone in their right mind, would call an accomplished baker. I have a few fool-proof cakes, believe me, nothing fancy. But for years, I used to be too scared to make cheesecake because it looked so complicated.

And then I thought, what terrible thing would happen if I DIDN'T separate the eggs? Or if I DIDN"T use cream cheese, which is not easy to get here if you keep Chalav Yisroel. Or if I used a crumb base and not a shortcrust pastry base or whatever?

So I fiddled with a recipe and I sort of stripped it down to an idea which I call 'The Philosophy of Cheesecake'. Basically you adapt it to whatever you can find locally. I have made this cake in Israel (which is easy because the dairy food is AMAZING there) and in New York, with what passes for sour cream there, and it still worked.

Now I make cheesecake every 2 weeks, for Shabbos (it lasts 2-3 weeks in the fridge) and I'm not saying that this is the best cheesecake that you will ever eat, because it isn't. I'm honest about that. But it's very nice and light and easy to make. And practice does make it a better cake, this is true.

So, dear readers, I present to you:

The Philosophy of Cheesecake.

I used to be intimidated by cheesecake recipes calling for pastry bases, separation of eggs, whipped whites yada yada. It doesn’t have to be that hard! Cheesecake is not an exact science because cheese will vary in moisture content, texture and fat content, so results will vary but the cheesecake will taste good no matter what.

You will need:

For the cheese filling:
  • 400-500g/16oz white cheese, either cottage cheese, continental-style, farmer cheese, quarg, ricotta, whatever, as long as it is not salty
  • A jar, about 300ml/10oz sour cream, the thicker the better
  • 3-4 large eggs
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 2 tspn vanilla
  • 100-200ml/ 1/2 -2/3 cup milk
  • 2 Tb cornflour (cornstarch to the Yanks)

For the crust:
  • 1 packet plain sweet biscuits (about 200g/8oz) like Marie biscuits, Petit Beurre or Grahams
  • 120g/4 oz butter (unsalted is best)
  • Cinnamon, a few shakes

  • A springform cake tin, 24cm/10”, lined with baking paper, or lightly greased and floured on the sides
  • A large bowl of electric mixer
  • Small bowl to mix the butter and crushed biscuits

Preheat oven to 160C (150C fan forced)
Crush the biscuits, either by pulsing in food processor or by placing in a plastic bag and rolling with a rolling pin.
Melt the butter, mix with the crumbs in a small bowl, then place in the prepared cake tin. With your fingers, press out the crumbs in an even layer over the bottom and up the sides of the tin. Don’t be anal about this, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Refrigerate while you make the filling.
In the large bowl of the mixer, place the sugar and 3 eggs and beat well, 5 mins at least, until the mixture is pale yellow and airy. Add the cheese spoon by spoon, beating, then add the sour cream and vanilla.
Here’s where you have to make some judgments. If the mixture is so stiff the beaters can’t really get through it, add the milk, 100mls at a time, beating well. You are aiming for a consistency like thick dollops of cream. If the cheese was very soft and wet, you will not need to add the milk, but you may need the 4tth egg to give the mix more setting power.
Then add the cornflour, mix well.
Place the batter in the prepared baking tin and bake for about 50-55 mins.
The top should not get brown. The cake will rise in the tin a bit like a soufflé, but don’t get too excited as it WILL settle. To test if it is done, give the tin a little shake; the cake should just give a little jiggle, not slosh around.
Once the cake seems done enough, turn off the oven and leave the cake in the oven to cool; it will continue to set and won’t collapse as dramatically. The top might crack. Don't let it bother you. If it does, chuck some whipped cream on it before you serve it. Up to you.
Once cool, refrigerate in the pan.
To serve, remove from springform tin. Once the cake is cold, it shouldn’t be too hard to peel off the paper and slide the cake onto a serving platter, or loosen the crust off the bottom of the tin with a palette knife, if you didn't use paper. Decorate with fresh berries and whipped cream if you like, but it’s not necessary.
Serve with coffee, or as a dessert with berries. Or- special Shavuos treat- a scoop of ice-cream.

·      This can be gluten-free if you use either gluten-free biscuits or shredded coconut and almond meal as the base, and make sure that the cornflour is not wheat-based.

·      Use crushed plain chocolate biscuits or gingersnaps if you prefer these to plain biscuits. Or add desiccated coconut to the biscuit crumbs. By the way, if you find you have no butter, use melted coconut oil, about 100g/3.5oz. It works.

·      Add shredded lemon zest and/or the juice of a lemon to the cheese mixture for a lemon cheesecake. Add the juice while the mixture is beating so it incorporates well and doesn’t curdle it. Add the zest after all the beating is done, just stir it in with a spoon, or else it will get stuck to the beaters.

·      Or swirl chocolate syrup through the mixture, just a little swirled with the tip of a skewer when the cheese mixture is already in the cake tin.

·      Or swirl blueberries or raspberries through the mixture before baking.

·      You can leave out the sour cream completely or you can use the sour cream as a topping; beat it with ¼ cup sugar and pour this over the cheese filling halfway through baking. You can add the berries into this sour cream-sugar mixture and pour over the cheese mixture.

·      You can do a lower fat version by using low fat cheese and milk and leaving out the sour cream and the crust, but it won’t be the same. Still nice, but not the same.

·      OR you can go the other way and add MELTED WHITE CHOCOLATE, about 150g/5oz, or more if you want. Melt in a bowl over boiling water in a saucepan, don’t let the bowl touch the water. Let cool for a few minutes and then spoon in to the mixture after the cheese, let it keep beating. PRETTY GOOD let me tell you.

So after the awe and majesty of receiving the Torah at Sinai, you can go home and enjoy your cheesecake. 
I love being Jewish.

Thursday, 14 May 2015


I was a bit surprised to see that my last post was from 2 months ago! My, how time flies.
It's not that nothing much was happening, it's that TOO much was happening; before I knew it, it was almost over.

So in the past few years, i.e., since I started blogging, I have written about what is, for me, the emotionally fraught time of year that basically goes from Pesach to Shavuot.
Well, this year, Pesach itself was wonderful because we all went away to a fantastic Pesach program at Whistler in Canada, and all my kids and their kids came and it was just magical. I didn't want to write about that because it would only sound like bragging about my privilege which it still does, so I'll stop.

The night that we returned was Yom HaShoa. The commemoration was respectful and well-organised and of course left me immeasurably saddened by the unfathomable tragedy of the Shoa. More later.

And then, a week later, Yom HaZikaron. I actually spoke at this year's commemoration, lighting a candle in the memory of my brother Julian (Yehuda) Pakula who fell in the Yom Kippur War. I was asked if it was hard for me to do, and I have to say that it was easier on the night at Robert Blackwood Hall, only because there had been a run-through on the Sunday just before that. Back in the day, it was more of a seat-of-the-pants operation, but it's bigger now so organisation is important. Anyway, they went through the videos and the poems and by the time we got to my bit I was a weeping mess - there is one poem in particular that cuts my heart, because it captures so well the grief and loss of a bereaved father- but I pulled myself together and said my speech. So on the night itself,  I was more prepared emotionally (plus I remembered to bring tissues).

Then a few days later was the Shloshim for my husband's uncle, Reb Chaim Serebryanski zt"l, who had passed away in New York. I had known him since I was a child and he was a unique and wonderful person who embodied Chabad Chasidus and complete love of his fellow Jew. There really are no people like that anymore. So that was sad.

And then there was a bunch of stuff, work, entertaining etc, but that's all normal.
And then my daughter arrived for a week long visit, with her baby, who is ka'h adorable ptu ptu ptu, and that was wonderful BUT during that week was:

  • The annual Liberation dinner, commemorating 70 years since my father-in-law Nathan Werdiger was freed from Buchenwald (the actual date was April 11 but that fell on Pesach so it was postponed). These dinners have been going for 30 years or so, because for the first 40 years he was unable to talk about it. My mother-in-law Nechama puts together a dinner which could only have been dreamed of by a starving boy in a concentration camp; and my father-in-law gives testimony on whatever aspect of those years he wishes. His stories are recorded. He tries to talk about his family foremost, honouring the memories of the murdered, and it takes a tremendous toll on him, but he stands throughout and we are silent. This year there were 4 generations at the table, about 50 people representing a fraction of the family which lives in Israel, England and the US. Normally the youngest to attend has to be bat or bar mitzvah, but this year my 9 year old granddaughter was invited; too young, I think, but as she put it 'I didn't cry like my cousins did, but I was very sad.' So she heard what she could comprehend and didn't really hear about kapos and Musselmen.
  • Lag B'Omer, and we hosted a function where 180 people turned up, and it was great except I kept worrying about the 2 firepits we had going and that the house would burn down or at least the grass would be destroyed or someone would catch fire. I'm happy to report that none of these things happened, Thank G-d.  Bloody hell, Jews and fire, so much potential for disaster so many times a year. Anyway.
  • Mother's (Mothers'?) Day brunch where my kids, who are now also mothers, get to make brunch for me for a change! Sorry, ladies! Maybe next year we'll have it catered. I don't think we can actually go out, the kids would TRASH any restaurant, bless them. And of course I think about my mother who has been gone nearly 30 years, more about that later.
  • My mother-in-law Nechama's 80th birthday. She didn't want a party, she didn't want a present, she gave herself a birthday cake at the Liberation dinner and that was enough, all her friends were dead (they aren't, I think she was feeling a bit low when she told me this a week earlier, she is very sad at the passing of her brother Chaim), and we went ahead and did it anyway, and it was great. Jack Feldman, aka Bubbe Henya, was a riot and we were all in fits, and it was great to see Nechama and Nathan both cracking up. So thanks for that, Dr Jack.
So that was a busy week! Talk about 'Rozhinklech und mandelach', raisins and almonds, i.e. folksy Yiddish way of describing how life is bitter-sweet.

AND NOW, we are heading into Shavuot; my brother Marvin passed away 8 years ago a few days before Shavuot, and my mother Freda a few days after Shavuot, 30 years ago. So I'm planning on doing a kiddush in their honour after Shavuot. And I always do a big festive yom-tov meal which almost but not quite, pushes away the memory of that last, awful Shavuot with my mother.

There are times that I cannot believe that I am the last person standing in my immediate family. It is very sobering. I mean, of course, I have my kids and grandchildren b'h, and there are times I can't believe that either.

I can't even begin to imagine what goes on in my father-in-law's mind. He is a very special guy, ('til 120); relentlessly optimistic and positive despite his experiences in the camps, his losses and bereavement. But just as I find myself thinking more about my parents and continuing to miss them every year, he thinks about his murdered family. He is plagued by flashes of memories from the camps; of course he has what we now call PTSD, yet he and so many other survivors managed to make new lives for themselves; how, I don't know. What strength.

But as he was sitting near me at the Mothers' Day brunch, he picked up the jar of Three Berry Preserve that was to go with the brioche and said quietly to me, 'On Xmas day they gave us a spoonful of jam with our bread. Later on, some meat. Some people traded the jam for more bread.' He shook his head, smiling sadly. 'Everything reminds me of the camps.'

Loss and optimism. Missing loved ones and living life to honour them. Privilege and sorrow. 
Raisins and almonds.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Sex, Lies and 50 Shades of Crap.

Now that the '50 Shades of Grey' film has been released, commented on, mocked and critiqued, let's hope that they won't make the sequels and we can go back to watching mindless car chases and shootouts and cops and robbers and superheroes.

As we should have worked out by now, Christian Grey is a controlling a$$hole and Anastasia Steele is  a naive twerp, and she may imagine that she can 'fix' him but we all know that life doesn't work that way. This little E L James fantasy of an impossibly rich and young and handsome man with a perverted idea of relationships was even panned by the perverts themselves, the BDSM folks, who called the relationship between Christian and Anastasia for what it was- not a consensual relationship between whipper and whippee, as it were, for kicks, but an unequal and exploitative relationship, NOTHING LIKE what BDSM is all about, oh dearie me. Whatever.

It was a crap book (I only read the first one and that was enough bad writing to last me a while, thanks) and I ranted about that already, and good luck to Ms James who has made pots of money, so I hope that shuts her up for a while.

Meanwhile in the real world, the Royal Commission continues to expose horrific stories of institutional sexual abuse of children at the hands of adults. Unequal and exploitative relationships whose currency is power and sex; hard to know if it's more about one or the other. The whole subject would make a maggot retch.

Then I turn on the TV late at night and I see ad after ad for 'Adult Matchmaker' websites, which seem to be about 'swingers' more than anything, and now there's the Ashley Madison site. I could not believe my eyes when I saw what that was about; it is a website devoted to cheating on one's spouse. 'I'm looking for someone, other than my wife!' happily sing several young and hunky men while browsing their laptops and tablets. The latest one has groups of zombies in their dead relationships, while one living, beautiful person is on the laptop, reanimating her marriage, they would have you believe, by arranging an extra-marital affair. 'Life is short, have an affair!' says the message on the screen.

It goes without saying that all the cheaters and swingers are young and good-looking and it all looks like such fun and excitement. Instead of the tawdry, tacky, immoral and pathetic crap that it is.

Every technological advance that human beings have ever come up with has immediately been pressed into serving the human libido. From the first time someone thought to carve pictures into stone, it didn't take long for the depictions of the hunt to become depictions of 'fertility rituals', i.e. people doing the nasty, usually in groups. Sculpture.Woodcuts. Etchings. Painting. Printing. From the first time Monsieur Daguerre invented photography, it was used to create pornography. Ditto almost immediately after invention of cinema were the first sexy movies made. And so has it been with the Internet. Every generation thinks that it invented sex, but as a whole, the human race has always been obsessed with sex and titillation and prurience and perversions of every kind, many unimaginable to most people, and you do not want to start researching this on the Net or the cops will come knocking on your door. Not to mention, you will wish that you could scrub your brain and then go to the mikvah just to try to purify yourself from the schmutz. That's how I felt when I read the Marquis de Sade's 'classic', Justine. (Compared to that, '50 Shades' is a silly little joke. Well, it's a joke anyway, but you know what I mean.)

There is an apocryphal story somewhere of a rabbi despairing of the state of the world, who fervently prayed one night for G-d to remove the sex drive from the world, as it led to so much sin. And when he woke up in the morning, the birds weren't singing and the flowers weren't blooming and everyone was walking around sad and dejected. So he realised that the libido did have a purpose and asked G-d to return it back to how it was. And the birds were singing again etc.

But I feel that rabbi's despair. When I see the depths to which people will sink because of the desire for sex and the will to power, so often intertwined, and how people will throw away their marriages, families, children and friends, will betray their countries, will risk public opprobrium, humiliation and loss of office, for 'a bit on the side' - Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, the so appropriately named Anthony Weiner and his 'sexts', Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his dalliance/rape of a chambermaid all spring to mind- I am just sickened. Surely we are better than that. I would like to think that most of us are. I would like to think that even though we are all in the gutter, as Oscar Wilde famously said, that some of us really are looking at the stars. But so many are just looking at stupid dirty pictures on their smartphones.

But then, I ask myself, what can you expect from a species that shares 97% of its genes with Pan Troglodytes - the chimpanzee.

Here's hoping the other 3% can redeem us.