Chag Notebook: Sarah Lefton

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Sarah Lefton

Sarah Lefton is the founder and Director of G-dcast. I admire Sarah’s work and celebrate her creative expression. Watching G-dcast’s films is a weekly (if not daily) activity in our house. I am honored that she’s sharing her thoughts with us. Let’s get to know Sarah and learn from her.


 

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I grew up in a small city in South Carolina that had a tiny Jewish community and a remarkably non-diverse population in general. Maybe that’s why I’ve always loved reading and going on as many adventures as possible. I’ve traveled all over the world and always placed a really high value on getting to know what makes a culture tick. I especially love trying new foods and drinks, and have been known to chase intensely after good culinary experiences!

I have two young children at home right now, so most of my free time is spent exploring parks, beaches, hiking trails, and cultural institutions with them these days, not to mention chasing them around the house. My husband and I love playing complicated board games from Europe as well as trying out new technology. I just got to wear an Oculus VR headset for the first time – I’m pretty sure no one is ever going to leave the house again once we all have these!

How do you connect to Judaism?

In a lot of ways I think I’m a very DIY Jew. I definitely grew up in a traditional synagogue with a religious school experience, a bat mitzvah, and summers at Jewish camps too. But most of my adult affiliation has come through self-made experiences, like deciding to read the Bible a few chapters at a time, or of course deciding to animate the whole Torah in my “free time” after work back in 2008, which was how G-dcast was born. Doing text study through art making became more and more important to me and I’ve tried it out in different settings, from Pardes in Jerusalem to Limmud in the UK to adult education settings here in San Francisco.

In the early 2000s, I got involved with a really energized group of university people, Jewish educators, and artists in San Francisco who formed the independent, traditional, egalitarian Mission Minyan. It was such an exciting time, discovering what communal prayer and learning might look like with a wildly diverse group of people in a city not known for traditional religious expression.

These days with two little kids at home, my husband and I have joined a wonderful synagogue in Berkeley – Netivot Shalom – where we are part of a fantastic chevre of young parents, as well as lucky to davven and learn with some of the Bay Area’s most exciting educators and academics.

Tell us one of your favorite holiday memories!

About ten years ago I went on a Passover retreat at Lake Tahoe with a group of San Franciscans and I organized a blind tasting of different matzah brands! Since there were more than 30 people at the gathering, we had many different kinds of matzahs and everyone had a lot of fun ranking the different flavors. People were amused and surprised at the outcomes.

What’s most exciting about having friends and family over for a holiday?

I have to admit, I love the challenge of finding really challenging recipes to cook! I take a lot of pleasure and pride in creating elaborate menus and making the meal part of holiday celebrations very elaborate and satisfying to all of the senses. I go through phases where I only want to cook traditional Ashkenazi recipes from my grandparents, but more recently I’m very excited about Israeli flavors and bold spices from the Middle East.

How does a perfect holiday celebration look and feel to you?

I am lucky to have a very eclectic Jewish community. We spend a lot of time with families who are traditionally knowledgeable about Jewish rituals, and we also spent a lot of time with people who primarily consider themselves cultural Jews. I love mixing these two groups and creating celebrations that are rich in both creative expressions, such as going around the table before dinner sharing something that we’d like to let go of from the week prior, and traditions such as, say, singing boisterous zmirot after dinner. I focus a lot on making everyone feel welcome, regardless of their level of observance or their background with traditional ritual.

How do you prepare to host people for a holiday meal or celebration?

I am pretty much a solo operator in my kitchen. That’s not to say that my husband and five-year-old aren’t helpful, but I pretty much make them stick to vegetable prep. ☺

I usually don’t start planning more than three or four days in advance. I’m an extremely busy person between working full-time at a start-up and raising little children.

I plan a menu first and then (try to) delegate the grocery shopping. I go through phases of infatuation with different cookbooks, but I’m just as likely to decide on a theme and then find recipes that fit into that on the Internet.

I usually prepare cold dishes the night before and then do all of the hot food cooking the morning before the festival begins. I definitely think it’s best to finish all your cooking in advance of the festivals so that you can relax and really be present for the beginning of holidays. That said, I am definitely a procrastinator and I have been known to finish cooking and cleaning up literally minutes before guests arrive!

What’s your absolute favorite holiday dish?

First of all, let me be blunt: I am absolutely opposed to parve desserts of any sort except for fruit or sorbets. We had a fish and dairy dinner at our wedding so that we could have a proper dessert!

My favorite holiday dish is probably the fruit course I like to serve on Rosh Hashanah according to the tradition of tasting new fruits for the first time in a year, for which you can say shechechiyanu. It’s great to not only of course eat apples dipped in honey, but also all the exciting fruits that we can find grocery stores here in the Bay Area, from persimmons to rambutans to dragonfruits and beyond! I also love the tradition of making new years’ puns about symbolic foods – for instance eating a raisin while hoping for a “raise in” salary or the head of a fish in honor of the “head” of the year.

And while were talking about interesting fruits, I made my first etrog liqueur this year after Sukkot. It’s so delicious in a cocktail!

What is one food “truth” somebody important shared with you that feels really meaningful to you right now?

I’m not a vegetarian. Here in the Bay Area, we are lucky to have a community that is very conscientious about getting ethically sourced meat that has been grazed on pasture and so forth.

But my husband has always said to me that he thinks vegetarians are better people; he really admires the commitment and has been pushing us to eat less meat. It’s happening, gradually.

I had a period of vegetarianism in my teens and early 20s and I was part of a mostly veggie meal cooperative when I was in college. I also worked at that time in an infamous vegetarian restaurant in Ithaca, New York called the Cabbagetown Café. Thanks to those experiences I have a really great instinct for making very flavorful and hearty vegetarian dishes.

What is one thing you hope to improve vis a vis your holiday experience?

I would like to become a better planner so that me and my family can both enter festivals with more of a sense of calm and wonder. Observing liminal periods between the everyday and the sacred can be so wonderful. I have always admired people who get all of their preparation done with plenty of time to spare and enter Shabbat and holidays with a sense of calm.

This applies especially to the craziness of the chagim, and most of all, Sukkot! There are so many meals to cook, friends to invite, things to build and decorate, it feels like your head is basically spinning under the stars for a week!

What’s one tip or trick you’ve discovered that makes the holidays smoother, delightful, more meaningful?

I think the main thing I have learned after many years of driving myself crazy is that it doesn’t matter how many people you have over for a holiday celebration, it matters how good the conversation is, how great the singing is, and how engaged the kids are. I am enjoying smaller gatherings much more than I did in my younger days!

Read the previous post in this series, Chag Notebook: Kate Bigam.

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