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Kitchen Encounters: The Cholent Kickoff

Malkie Schulman

At The Abrams Hebrew Academy of Yardley, Pennsylvania, Super Bowl Friday is transformed into an opportunity to learn about Shabbos through a competition that gets every student rooting for their team. Discover The Cholent Bowl, a school-wide competition to enjoy Jewish tradition

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

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SAY IT WITH CHOLENT At the Abrams Hebrew Academy, where students range from unobservant to traditional to observant, children chant “cholent, cholent” as they make their way around the lunchroom, tasting the cholents that appeal to them during the school’s annual “Cholent Bowl.” Positive energy fills the air. Every class is convinced their cholent will win (Photography: Todd Trice)

T he Abrams Hebrew Academy of Yardley, Pennsylvania holds the distinction of hosting nine years of Cholent Bowls. Cholent Bowl as in Super Bowl. To counter the hypnotic effect of the Super Bowl on the students, nine years ago director Rabbi Ira Budow and principal Rabbi Yehoshua Ottensoser came up with the idea of a competition the Friday before Super Bowl Sunday, hence the name — Cholent Bowl.

“Our real goal,” admits Rabbi Budow, “is to teach the children about Shabbos through giving them a warm feeling for it. The week running up to the event, we have all the classes, from kindergarten through eighth grade, busy smelling, discussing, and tasting Shabbos.” The highlight, something the children look forward to all year, is of course, the cholent competition on Friday.

The classes prepare their cholents on Thursday, relates Rabbi Ottensoser. The teachers are the ones responsible for coming up with the recipe, though most often it’s a joint effort, with the teacher encouraging the class’s input. Some classes put their cholents up as early as 9:15 Thursday morning, and they don’t get eaten until 12 or 1 p.m. the next day.

The students are given whatever they need for their recipes in whatever amounts. The standard ingredients for the competition, however, totals about 40 pounds of potatoes, 15 pounds of meat, 13 kishkes, 30 marrow bones, 15 pounds of onions, and lots (and lots) of spices.

“The first year of our Cholent Bowl,” Rabbi Ottensoser recalls, “we had a near disaster that was averted by dedicated kindergarten and first grade teacher, Mrs. Sonya Arusy. At around midnight Thursday night, she traveled 40 minutes from her home to check on her cholent. When she arrived, she found that all the cholents were stone cold. She called me in a panic and I called the maintenance person, who guided her in turning the fuse back on.

I have to admit I was a little nervous how the cholents would turn out (or if everyone would go home with stomachaches), but thankfully, they were fine. We just made sure to rewire the lunchroom the next year so it wouldn’t happen again.

“Nevertheless, every year since then, I drive down from Lakewood at around 11 p.m. to check the Crock-Pots. It’s a good thing I do,” he adds, “because this year the second-place winner almost didn’t survive the night. When I came at 11 and looked at the cholent, I realized it had been left on high. It was almost burned out. I added water and lowered the temperature but still wasn’t sure it could be salvaged. It turned out to be a delicious cholent.”

Sixth-grade teacher Morah Hendi explains, “We want to give the children a respect for tradition, so all week we talk about gefilte fish, kishke, and…cholent. We don’t harp on the ‘don’ts’ of Shabbos observance. When we explain the negative commandments of Shabbos, instead of saying, ‘You’re not allowed to watch TV on Shabbos,’ for example, we’ll say something like ‘people who observe Shabbos don’t watch TV that day.’”

But surprisingly — or maybe not surprisingly — the children feel closer to Yiddishkeit as a result and will voluntarily take upon themselves certain observances.

The competition is authentic, complete with a panel of judges. The four-judge panel this year included 18-year-old Aaron, alumnus of Abrams Hebrew Academy, who, as Rabbi Ottensoser claims, is now legally allowed to eat cholent.

Rabbi Aryeh Weinstein, the local Chabad rabbi, joined the panel this year as well. “A Cholent Bowl is a wonderful idea,” he notes. He explains that in his kiruv experience, whenever engaging unaffiliated Jews regarding Jewish holidays, invariably the first question is, “Is that the holiday we eat (fill in the blank)”? In other words, it really does always come back to the food.

“Long after they forget the Chumash and Rashi we learned, they’ll remember the good time we had making cholent”

Mr. Joe Glassman, who has been judging the competition since its inception nine years ago, is the current school’s board treasurer and a proud cholent connoisseur. “I scour the world for good cholent,” Mr. Glassman shares. He’s tasted cholents from Paris to Finland to Hong Kong to Israel, not to mention all across the USA, from New York to California. But by far, he claims, the king of the cholents is one known as “Malka” from Crown Heights, Brooklyn. “It’s amazing.”

And the worst cholent? “I once tasted a cholent in Israel,” he says, “that on a scale of one to ten was an eleven! I can still experience that bad taste today!”

Rabbi Ottensoser explains the process. A representative of each grade hands a bowl of cholent to each judge to taste. Every judge has a score sheet to grade the cholent and to jot down any relevant comments. The highest mark a judge can award is a 10, so the highest score possible this year was a 40. The winner of Cholent Bowl 2016, the “Shlichot Cholent,” prepared by the kindergarten and their teacher, Mrs. Arusy, received a total of 34 points. Second place went to the third graders, who received a score of 33, and third place was won by the seventh grade, who received a 32½.

“But even the lowest score,” Rabbi Ottensoser admits, “is never too low. We have rachmanus, we’re dealing with small kids. Sometimes we have a lot of rachmanus…”

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