All these--off limits!

Permanent Passover Disease (a.k.a. Celiac)

Dear Josep,

So, as you know, one of the Distressing Things™ that happened in my family this summer was the discovery that my middle child probably has celiac. He underwent the endoscopy a week ago, and we won’t have definite results until they finish analyzing the biopsy (which will take another couple weeks), but in the meantime all the signs point to celiac and the doctor told us to commence a gluten-free diet.

Now, I have several family members who are not eating gluten, and Eitan actually tried it for a month earlier this year to see if it would help with his migraines. (Unfortunately, it didn’t.) So I had the basic idea of what would be involved and what we could do to replace gluten in R1’s diet. But here’s the thing: those family members don’t have celiac. They are just gluten sensitive.

What’s the difference?

Well, celiac is not a sensitivity, or a food allergy, or an intolerance. It is an autoimmune disease. The difference is kind of technical, but the point is that for a person with celiac, even the tiniest particle of gluten can trigger the autoimmune response that damages the intestines.

So it’s not just that R1 can’t eat things that contain gluten; he can’t eat things that contain traces of gluten, or even may contain traces of gluten. And you’d be surprised to learn how many things may contain traces of gluten!!! (Our favorite brand of hummus, for one. 🙁 🙁 🙁 ) We have to check all the labels. We have to be very careful not to contaminate things like peanut butter or hummus by spreading it on bread and then dipping the knife back in. And even seemingly innocent products like dried beans or rice can sometimes contain traces. (Fortunately, we can still use them if we check them over carefully and rinse them before cooking.) We had to strip our cast iron pans through high heat to burn off whatever gluten particles might be absorbed into them, and replace our wooden cutting board and cooking utensils.

Hmmmmmm. What does this all remind me of…?

…You should know the answer to this by now. 😛


(If you guess “kashrut,” you get half a point! 😉 )

As I’ve mentioned, the reason Passover involves such intensive preparation is the prohibition against eating chametz–leavened products (like bread) made out of one of the five grains.

All these--off limits!
All these–off limits!

We have to clean our houses and kasher our kitchens to assure that not a tiny speck of wheat, barley, etc., will find its way into our food. Sephardim, at least, are permitted to eat things like rice, corn, or beans, as long as these have been produced somewhere where they wouldn’t have any contact with wheat, and have been carefully checked and picked over for the presence of other, forbidden grains before the holiday.

The only differences, really, are that we are supposed to eat matzah on Passover (which is unleavened bread made from one of the five grains), and that the rules about Passover were developed before the advent of such modern cooking materials as stainless steel, and therefore are more strict about absorption. I can cook a piece of French toast in a stainless steel pan, and then scrub it clean and use it to cook an egg for R1 with no ill consequences. If I wanted to use it on Passover, however, I’d have to kasher it first.

…And also, Passover is just a week. Celiac is forever. :-/ :-/ :-/

The thing is, if you haven’t figured this out yet, Jews have a special relationship with food in general and with bread in particular. Bread has a special status in Jewish law: it has its own blessings for before and after eating; we must wash our hands before eating it; and its presence is required in to define a meal in halakhic terms (so if we are required to eat a meal, such as on Shabbat or holidays or at a wedding, the meal must contain bread to fulfill the mitzvah). I think this is because of its status as a staple food in this part of the world.

So this makes things a little tricky for religious Jewish celiacs. They can’t really eat anything that halakha defines as bread, and therefore they can’t fulfill the requirements for this mitzvah… with one notable exception.

Oats appear to be a bit of an anomaly both in terms of their chemical composition and their halakhic status. As my Catholic friend Jonathan so kindly pointed out to me, there is a rabbinic controversy over whether oats are what the Biblical text is referring to. Most authorities agree that oats are the fifth of the five grains. As far as gluten is concerned, they don’t actually contain gluten, but another protein that is similar to gluten, and it appears that there is some medical controversy over whether oats are a problem for celiacs or not. Because oats are often processed near wheat, they can often be gluten-contaminated, too. Apparently some people tolerate them well (when they are gluten-free) and some people don’t. The nutritionist told us to avoid them for the first year.

But! If R1 ends up tolerating gluten-free oats, that will mean that he can have proper matzah on Passover, as well as proper bread made of oat flour that he can eat on Shabbat and holidays and such. So here’s hoping.

I tell you, I was standing in his classroom waiting to meet his teacher on the first day of school, and she was handing out candies, and when she paused and looked up at me and said, “Is this okay for him?” I was suddenly my own mother trying to inform the non-Jewish camp counselors in Pittsburgh about our crazy dietary restrictions.

I had another “flashback” to what it’s like to keep kosher in the USA when I pointed out the “gluten-free” symbol to R1 on the bag of potato chips I bought him after the endoscopy. And another when I walked into the supermarket and started examining all the products I’m used to buying to see whether they have traces of gluten. And another when I was reading the official list of restaurants with approved gluten-free menus on the Israeli Celiac Association website.

When I moved to Israel, my culinary world expanded tremendously. As a child living in the USA, there was only a small handful of options when it came to eating out. I was used to not being able to eat most places and carefully checking the labels of packaged stuff. After moving here, suddenly I could eat practically anywhere, and the entire supermarket was mine to enjoy.

After two decades, I became rather used to this glorious reality.

Now, with like a third of the supermarket off-limits and a mere handful of restaurants where I can take my son without having to worry about gluten contamination… it feels very limiting. I’ve become so spoiled!

I really shouldn’t complain; thank God, because of the whole gluten-free fad there are tons of products available that R1 can have. (And I was surprised and relieved to find that they’re not always obscenely expensive.)

I am grateful to live in a modern age where we have access to such a wide variety of foods and don’t need to rely on wheat to provide nutrition. But this is going to be more of an adjustment than I anticipated. :-/

In the meantime, R1 seems to be taking it quite well. I think he’s looking forward to not having constant stomach pain.




Diversity of Language: A Biblical Punishment?

Dear Josep,

Praise the Lord. September 1st is upon us.

This summer has been ridiculous. Just ridiculous. I can’t even. I just. Ugh. And All the Crappy/Annoying Things are not over yet. But at least the kids are back in school now. Thank. God.

Soooo. Obviously I’ve had a lot on my plate and very limited time to be engaging in my beloved pastime of rambling at you about Judaism. I’ve been scribbling down half-baked ideas, but having had a few minutes to myself this morning, I finally managed to work one into a coherent post, and here it is.

The other day, my Parisian friend Aviv asked me if he could ask a question about the Torah. I said, “Sure!” and he wrote the following very interesting thought:

In Sefer Beresheet [the Book of Genesis], it’s told that when the humans wanted to create the Tower of Babel, Hashem punished them by making 70 languages (that made the thousands of languages of today), and so the humans could not make the tower because they couldn’t understand each other. It’s also said that in the Messianic Days, the world will have only one language.

But I wonder if having several languages is not also a blessing of God. Because it has a role in the culture of each people in the world, it creates jobs, like translation, and there are people like me and you and a lot of others who love to learn languages. So I wonder if this punishment for diversity is not at the same time a blessing, or a good thing for humanity.

I responded,

That story is a very strange story in many ways. Why would God get angry about people building a tower and ‘trying to fight him’? It’s just so ridiculous, it’s like if I were to punish my kids for telling me they were planning to run away and find new parents. So what was the real sin here, and how was the punishment a fitting consequence for the sin? Just a few of the other questions one asks looking at the story.

…Oh wait, you were looking for an answer, not more questions? Hahaha… welcome to Judaism. 😛

I told him I’d like to think about it some more, and that maybe I’d write a blog post on it. So, here it is!

First off, let’s read the Biblical text describing the story of the Tower of Babel.

All the earth had but one language and the same words. As they migrated from the East, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar, and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks and fire them.’ And they had bricks as stone, and asphalt served them as mortar. They said, ‘Come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered across the land.’ God descended to see the city and the tower that the sons of Adam had built. God said, ‘As one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, and as of now, nothing is preventing them from doing that which they propose. Let us go down and confound their speech, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.’ And God scattered them from there across the face of the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel, because there God confounded the speech of the whole earth, and from there, God scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

 (Genesis 11:1-9)

There are many commentaries and Rabbinic legends that embellish this story. Someone who attended a Jewish day school like I did may be surprised to see how short this passage is and how many details we were taught about this story are not actually in the text of the Bible. What we are taught as children is that the building of the tower of Babel was a sin, and the creation of different languages, a punishment for the sin. But simply looking over the text, that is not the obvious meaning, or to use the Hebrew term, the “p’shat.” Here’s what I see as the simple and most obvious meaning of the passage.

To me, it seems to be describing a stage in human development. People are learning to make and use bricks and mortar to build things instead of just stone. And they are starting to build cities. They propose building one big city for all of them, and a great tower that reaches to the top of the sky.

A 16th-century depiction by Hendrick van Cleve III
A 16th-century depiction by Hendrick van Cleve III

God sees what they are doing, and for reasons not entirely clear from the passage, sees a need to stop this process. His solution is to “confound the speech” of the people so they would stop understanding each other. As a result, they stopped building the city and scattered over the face of the earth.

It is not entirely obvious from the passage what “confounding their speech” means. We have come to understand it as meaning that multiple languages were created. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki of 10th century Provence) is the go-to commentator for p’shat interpretation, and he describes it this way: “This one asks for a brick, and that one brings him mortar, and the former attacks him and injures his brain.” I have a distinct memory of my second-grade teacher teaching us that very colorfully. It’s a cute origin story, for sure, but… what are we meant to learn from it?

And is it true, as Aviv asked, that God “punished” them with diversity? Hasn’t Judaism always celebrated diversity? Even when we started out as a nation we were divided into twelve distinct tribes!

When I have questions like these, I open my trusty Chumash Mikra’ot Gedolot, which includes all the major commentaries (called perushim in Hebrew) alongside the Biblical text.

Mikraot gedolot

I found the commentaries of Or HaHayim (Rabbi Haim ben Attar of 17th century Morocco) and Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz of 17th century Prague) particularly relevant.

Both explain that the people were trying to stay together. “One language and of the same words.” There was uniformity here. The purpose of the tall tower, Or HaHayim explains, was so that the people would stay within sight of the tower, and always be able to find their way back to the city. But God had commanded Adam to “go forth and multiply and fill the land.” He didn’t want them to stay together in one place. He wanted them to spread over the face of the earth.

Kli Yakar says that their objective in building the city and the tower was to keep the peace. “If we all stay the same, we will have no reason to fight with one another.” It kind of reminds me of the idea of communism, or John Lennon’s “Imagine.” No countries, no different cultures, nothing to divide us, and that way we will all be able to sit together and sing kumbaya around the campfire!

Now, Kli Yakar emphasizes, it’s not that God didn’t want there to be peace and harmony among the humans. But, he says, he saw that this way of maintaining peace and harmony was going to backfire in a major way, and he brings a passage from the story to show this: “Come, let us build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered across the land.” Kli Yakar explains that though they seemed uniform in their apparently noble goal of maintaining peace, each of them actually had his own interests at heart: this one wanted wealth and honor, this one wanted lots of food, this one wanted lots of sex, etc., “and through this comes discord, both because they do not have one [common] goal… and because each of them has a desire to ascend above his fellow… because of this, separation of these groups is better than their gathering, as it is said (Psalms 92:10) ‘All those who act in iniquity shall be separated’… but the righteous—their gathering is good, for their purpose unites them, because they have only one goal, and they become as one by His hand, as it is said (Psalms 119:165) ‘Great peace for the lovers of your Torah.’ But not for those for whom the external goal is the primary one.”

So, the creation of the different languages and scattering the peoples throughout the world wasn’t so much a punishment, as a way to prevent humanity from reaching the same point it had before the flood: violence and discord.

And the Kli Yakar seems to be saying that in principle, unity is a good thing, but only when the people are truly united with a common, unselfish goal. When people join together with others in the hopes of achieving only their own interests, it will end badly.

In other words: There are no shortcuts to peace.

Peace cannot be imposed on people who care only about themselves and their own interests.

The prophecies about the coming of the Messiah are rich with imagery of people–not just Jews, but everyone–gathering together to serve God. As I’ve mentioned, we don’t have universally accepted beliefs of specific details, and I’ve never heard the concept that we will go back to speaking one language. But I think the idea is that when the Messiah comes, we will finally be ready for the true unity we lacked when the Tower of Babel was built.



white dress

Tu B’Av: The Jewish Valentine’s Day?

Dear Josep,

A while ago I described Lag B’Omer as “pretty much the most obscure holiday we have.” Well, I lied.

A well-informed Jew who skims over my summary of the Jewish Year might notice that there is a little something missing. I believe when I first posted it, someone did ask me: “What about Tu B’Av?” I probably scoffed and said, “Tu B’Av is not really a thing.”

Well… that isn’t entirely true. Tu B’Av is a thing. Back in the days of the Temple, in fact, it was a major thing. It’s just that it’s not really celebrated by religious Jews in any meaningful way anymore, and more annoyingly, in Israel, it’s been commercialized and turned into the Jewish Valentine’s Day—or, as it were, the Jewish St. Jordi’s Day. 😉

So what is this Tu B’Av and why has it been hijacked by candy hearts and ads for diamond earrings?

The answer, as with everything in this crazy religion, is complicated.

Tu B’Av (the 15th of Av–it falls tonight and tomorrow) is first mentioned in the Talmud as a day of “great celebration” on par with Yom Kippur. The only allusion to it as a holiday within the Bible is in the book of Judges (19-21)–part of an EXTREMELY disturbing, gruesome, and profoundly unromantic story that starts with a horrific gang rape and murder and continues with a bloody civil war between the tribe of Benjamin and the rest of Israel. After the war, there were only 600 Benjaminite men left, and there was a concern that the tribe would be wiped out, because the Israelites had vowed not to give their daughters to Benjaminites in marriage.

The festival of Tu B’Av was used as a solution to the problem, because it involved a kind of bizarre ancient dating game: young women would go into the vineyards near Shiloh wearing white dresses (more on this in a minute), and they would dance. Young men would hide among the vines, and if they spotted one they fancied, they’d snatch her up and marry her.

That way, the Israelites reasoned, we get around the problem because we’re not willingly giving our daughters to the Benjaminites.

The earliest event associated with Tu B’Av, however–according to the Sages–is one that happened many years before. According to the Sages, the Sin of the Spies (Numbers 13-14) occurred on the Ninth of Av, marking it forever as a day of great calamity for the Jewish people. This is when the Israelites sent spies to scout out the land of Israel before entering its borders. When the Spies returned, the opinions were split ten to two: the majority reported that there was no way the Israelites could conquer the land. The remaining two, Joshua and Caleb, said the land was wonderful and that we would conquer it with God’s help. The Israelites believed the pessimistic spies, and cried all night that God had led them to their deaths. They started rebelling and planned to appoint a new leader to return them to Egypt. God was thoroughly exasperated with their lack of faith and gratitude and condemned them to wander in the desert for forty years, until a new generation arose with greater faith in God.

The Sages tell us that every Tisha B’Av for the next thirty nine years, fifteen thousand men of the “desert generation” would die. And in the fortieth year, the last fifteen thousand dug their own graves, and lay down in them, waiting to die, but God granted them reprieve and did not kill them. They say that the fifteenth of Av is when they realized that they were not going to die, and it became a day of celebration–on par with Yom Kippur, as a celebration of God’s forgiveness.

Well, that’s… all very well and good, but I literally had not heard this story at all until a few years ago. It’s just a rabbinic story, a parable, not something we are supposed to accept as historical fact. All other holidays are rooted in the Bible or in documented Jewish history. There are another number of events that are said to have occurred on Tu B’Av that are more well documented, but they occurred well after the festival was already established.

The Talmud describes the rituals observed on Tu B’Av in the days of the Temple. It says that all the girls of Jerusalem would borrow white dresses from one another: a rich girl would borrow from a poor girl, a poor girl from a rich girl, the daughter of a priest from the daughter of a beggar, etc., because on this day they were to be seen as having an equal station: all daughters of God.

The girls would then go out to the vineyards and dance there, as described above.

The unique thing about this ritual is that it erased the lines of class and station, creating an environment where men and women could select their partners based on their wishes and not on the expectations of society.

If  there is common thread among all these stories and ideas, it is a sense of love, brotherhood, and equality among the Jewish people, usually following some kind of conflict. After all, Tisha B’Av is the day the Temple was destroyed, and it is said that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred among Jews. The vineyard ritual, in contrast, blurred the lines that separated us and brought us together as one big family.

…Hey, at least it’s a more logical connection to love than a saint slaying a dragon and handing a flower to a princess, okay?!

After the Temple was destroyed, this day was no longer celebrated. For a very long time the only way it was observed was the omission of certain prayers. Nowadays, religious communities take advantage of the theme to organize singles’ events. To be fair, it’s probably on par with Tu B’Shvat in that it doesn’t really have much practical significance anymore, and its meaning has been channeled towards a more general theme.

Well, call me a spoilsport, but I’d rather pretend this holiday doesn’t exist than acknowledge it as a “Jewish Valentine’s Day.” If Jewish women need a day on the calendar to guilt their husbands into buying them chocolate and make their single friends depressed and miserable about being single, I guess it’s better that it be Tu B’Av than Valentine’s Day. But… yeah. How about no.

Now, if we took a leaf out of your proverbial book and exchanged books on this day, that would be another matter entirely. 😛

But seriously–I’d rather continue to ignore it until someone comes up with a way to celebrate love and brotherhood among Jews in a genuine way that does not focus only on romantic love.



A Book Update & “Behind the Scenes”

I’ve been relatively quiet due to some annoying Internet issues which may or may not be fixed in the foreseeable future, depending on the good graces of Bezeq and its technician.

In the meantime, here’s a post about the book, since I haven’t babbled about it in hours!


pomeranz small 2

That is me, with a huge grin on my face, because I just found my book in Pomeranz Booksellers in central Jerusalem, on display right next to Rabbi Sacks’s “A Letter in the Scroll.” (Ahhhhhhh) (Have I mentioned that I am a huge fan of Rabbi Sacks?) (I am a huge fan of Rabbi Sacks.) (OMGmybookisnextohisinthestore) (Ahhhhhh)


If you happen to be in Jerusalem, drop by and buy a copy before the signed ones are all gone. 😉

Me signing books

And while I’m sharing pictures that make me very happy, here is another pair from a couple months ago. You see, my friend Jo happened to be traveling to Barcelona on business, so I was able to arrange a personal delivery of Josep’s signed copy, and a photographer to capture him reading my dedication. 😉

Josep reading my dedication

And also to have him sign my copy. Because I’m sentimental like that.

Josep signing my copy of LtJ


Also: this past Shabbat, a friend surprised me with a gift. We had Shabbat lunch at their house, and when I was walking out the door, he handed it to me and told me to open it when I got home so he wouldn’t have to see my reaction if I didn’t like it.

To say I liked it is a gross understatement.


Since the photo quality isn’t great: it’s three of the photos from Pomeranz, with the following written on it: “Lifelong dream= accomplished! May there be many more! Love, the Kavitskys”

Thanks so much, guys. It means a lot to me.

Anyway, the friend who gave me that picture, Mike, happens to be a writer himself, who is planning to start his own blog documenting his journey back to the USA for a year with his family. (Right Mike?!?! Now I’ve announced it on my blog, so you have to do it! 😛 ) When he was thinking about how to structure it, he asked me some questions about my own writing process, and I thought you might be interested to learn a little more about the “behind-the-scenes” of the blog.


When writing to a particular (and real) person, how do you prevent that from affecting the universality of your message? How do you avoid catering your writing and concepts expressed to that individual or type of person?

Well, part of the appeal of the letters, I think, is that there’s a balance of both… and the personal touch paradoxically makes them more universal and relatable. It changes the tone of an essay on what may be a huge, grandiose topic from a grave or arrogant “I am telling the world something of deep importance,” to a lighthearted chat between good friends.

I make plenty of personal references in the letters, making it clear that I’m really writing to Josep, not just using the “Dear Josep… Love, Daniella” as a frame for an essay. But at least with letters written specifically for the blog, I’m keeping the rest of my audience in mind. So for example, I’ll clarify concepts that I know he knows but others might not, either with a parenthetical statement or a footnote. Or, when I relate to a personal story, I explain it in the footnotes. Here’s one example of a footnote that both explains a concept that Josep and I know but other readers might not, and tells a personal story. And here’s another example. 🙂

I often use our personal correspondence, both past and present, as a sort of launching point for writing about a topic that I think both he and others might find interesting. For example, in my head covering post, I started off with an amusing anecdote about our correspondence, even adding a picture of a gift I sent him recently, and used that to launch into the topic. Another example is the Holocaust education post, where I started off by relating both to Josep’s experiences of learning about the Holocaust and mine, and connecting that to the Yad Vashem guidelines.

Are you concerned, while writing your letters, about maintaining a broad “audience” and trying to avoid offending/alienating potential readers? If so, how does that affect how you frame your thoughts and does it limit your sense of authenticity?

Aha, yes. Good question. 🙂 Yes, I definitely keep the sensitivities of my broad audience in mind and will word things carefully to avoid offending or alienating readers. That does limit me and my sense of authenticity somewhat… but it also forces me to think harder about what I’m saying and if I can really stand behind it, which can be a good thing. For example, I sent Josep an e-mail a couple years ago (before the blog) about “different kinds of Jews.” Since I am writing from my own perspective as an Orthodox Jew, and he knows that, and it’s a private conversation between the two of us, I didn’t feel a need to be so careful in my description of movements I disagree with. But when I set about the task of turning it into a blog post (it eventually became two!), I realized I’d have to elaborate a lot more and word things much more carefully if I didn’t want to get myself in trouble!
Conversely, though, sometimes I find the fact that I’m addressing the letters to Josep specifically somewhat limiting, too. For example, there has been at least one topic I would have written about freely, but chose to avoid because I know it might be sensitive for him on a personal level.

How do you dedicate the time necessary to make your writing succeed if you’re not being paid for your work? How do you pace yourself? What are some of your goal-setting methods?

Before I answer this I have to qualify it by saying that most writers are not like me in this regard.

Setting daily or weekly goals (in terms of amount of time spent writing or amount of words written) is a good method for pacing yourself and staying disciplined and focused… for most other writers.

When it comes to me, I write because I can’t not write. I write because writing is like breathing for me. It wasn’t that I sat down and decided to write a blog and maybe a book. It’s that I was overflowing with these letters and I couldn’t stop writing them even when Josep himself was not really able to read and react to them. Seriously. The blog was just a receptacle for material that was already practically leaking from my pores. Writing LtJ is not work for me, it is play.

So the answer is, I don’t “dedicate time.” I don’t set goals and I don’t pace myself. I just do it when I am inspired. The disadvantage, of course, is that sometimes I feel like I’m on the verge of running empty, and that the time will come when I’m all out of material. Well, it’s been a year and a half, I’ve written more than 120 blog posts, and haven’t gone more than two weeks or so without posting, so it hasn’t happened yet… 😉

But like I said, most writers don’t work that way. Almost everything I’ve ever read giving advice to writers recommends setting aside a specific time for writing every day and doing that and only that with no distractions. I’ve heard countless writers say that you can’t wait for inspiration and that sometimes inspiration comes while you’re already fifty pages in. That approach doesn’t work for me, it’s just not how I roll. But it may work for you.

If you’re interested in more of my thoughts about writing, I recently started a new blog called The Rejection Survival Guide, which you might enjoy. Be sure to check it out.

The view from the top of the Baha'i Gardens, overlooking Haifa Bay

Guest Letter from Bobby: On the Baha’i Faith and Its Call for Religious Tolerance

I am very excited to present this guest letter about the Baha’i faith. As I’ve mentioned before, I hang out on some online interfaith groups, and Bobby recently joined one of them, saying he’d like to learn more about other faiths. When he mentioned that he is Baha’i, I immediately asked to interview him for a guest letter.

Baha’i is a monotheistic faith, relatively recent in origin, that is not widely known. I only learned of its existence because of the beautiful Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, Israel, which I have seen from afar, but never visited.

The view from the top of the Baha'i Gardens, overlooking Haifa Bay
The view of Haifa Bay from the top of the Baha’i Gardens

So what’s the deal with these people? Who are they, and what do they believe? I asked Bobby, and as my understanding of the Baha’i Faith deepened I gained a sense that it has an extremely important message for people of all religions, especially those of us who believe in interfaith dialogue and connection. I hope you enjoy this letter as much as I did.

Greetings Josep!

My name is Bobby, and I’m a Baha’i living in Missouri, USA. I wasn’t born into a Baha’i family–my family are all Christian–but when I was 14 my grandmother passed away and I started to think about religion more seriously, a friend of mine introduced me to the Baha’i faith and after investigation I realized that (for me at least) it’s the truth.

Tell us a little about the background of the Baha’i faith. What does the word “Baha’i” mean? Where, when, and how was it developed? What are its main theological principles?

Baha’i is a term used to describe followers of Baha’u’llah, whom we believe to be the messenger of God for this age. The word Baha’i comes from the word Baha which is the 100th and greatest of God’s names–it means Glory–and Baha’u’llah means The Glory of God. The Baha’i faith recognizes many Messengers of God, including:

  • Zoroaster
  • Krishna
  • Moses
  • Buddha
  • Jesus
  • Muhammad

The three central figures of the Baha’i faith are as follows.

The first is the Bab, who was the forerunner of Baha’u’llah, prophesying Baha’u’llah’s coming. The Bab declared in 1840 that he was the Mahdi, the 12th Imam of Islam that was prophesied to return before the coming of the Promised One.

The second is Baha’u’llah. He is the divine Messenger for our age.

The third is Baha’u’llah’s son Abdu’l-Baha. He was the leader of the Baha’i faith, writing many invaluable books about our faith.

Some of the most important principles of the Baha’i faith are: harmony between science and religion, equality between men and women, unity of humanity, and unity of religion.

I understand that the Baha’i faith recognizes all other monotheistic religions as stemming from the same spiritual source, and that it celebrates diversity of worship. Does that mean that the Baha’i faith recognizes all those other religions as being true, in the sense that Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all correct in their understanding and interpretation of God’s will? Or is it that the technical details don’t really matter, as long as we are devoted to serving God and humankind?

The Baha’i faith teaches that all religions are true and contain the seeds for the message of the next of God’s Messengers, but Baha’u’llah taught that the adherents of the previous religions erred when they created sects/denominations. Because God is a perfect unity, without division of any kind, his religion is one. The creation of division in religion and all the fighting it’s caused is harmful to the peace God wants us to obtain, but ultimately all religions are correct because the are the revealed divine will of God.

I can understand and get behind the idea of this as a sort of general principle–at the end of the day, we’re all trying to achieve the same thing. But it gets complicated when we talk about specifics. Because some beliefs in one religion absolutely contradict the beliefs in other religions. For example, Christians believe that Jesus was the Messiah and a human manifestation of God. Muslims believe he was a prophet. Jews believe he was none of those things. This is far more than a squabble over a minor detail; it results in a completely different understanding of the will of God.
I am reminded of a classic Jewish joke, where two Jews go to their rabbi to settle a financial dispute. The rabbi listens carefully to the first Jew’s account and says, “You’re right.” Then he listens to the other Jew’s account and says, “You’re also right.” The first Jew says, “But rabbi! We can’t both be right!” And the rabbi says, “You’re also right!”
So, how can we all be right? 😉 If all religions are the revealed divine will of God, why does it appear to contradict itself?

Wonderful question!

The issue is not so much with the religion and the religious texts (which would cause the religion to not be the true word of God), but rather the problem is with how man interprets the writings. We believe that Jesus did fulfill the prophecies to be the Messiah, but not all Jews believe this because they interpret the prophecies in different ways than Baha’is. For instance, we believe that the prophecy that the whole world shall know God and worship him has nearly been fulfilled thanks to the spread of Christianity and Islam. If it weren’t for Jesus sending out his followers to spread the faith, the majority of the world would not believe in God.

Another prophecy is that when he [the Messiah] comes there will be a resurrection of the dead. This is one of the 13 principles of Jewish faith.1 We believe this happened spiritually rather than physically. The Jewish faith was in a great time of changing and turmoil 2,000 years ago with the Roman invaders, and Jesus’ coming caused the dead spirits of the Jewish people to come back to life. The Jewish people (speaking of those who rejected Jesus) really flourished in their writings and deeper understanding of Torah post Roman invasion up until not too long ago.

Now as for the Muslims, they have two classes of Prophets. The first is Nabi, the second is Rasul. A prophet is a Nabi, someone who is inspired by God, but the Rasul is the Divine Messenger of God (Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad are on this list), and they consider Jesus to be Rasul.

So there are no contradictions between the religions. It is a progressive revelation. The only issues are with interpretations. But from my understanding of Baha’i writings this is what God wants. He doesn’t want there to be only Christians or only Baha’is. He wants all of his religions to exist at the same time in harmony, with the understanding that they are one religion.

If you thought this was confusing you should hear me try to explain Jesus’s end times prophecies! 😀

I think I get it. You believe that all religions were meant to be the same, and Baha’i has its own understanding of the religious texts and how they all fit together. So it’s not so much that you think the Christians, Jews, and Muslims are all “correct” per se, but that the Torah, Christian Bible, Qur’an, and other holy texts are all the word of God, and the discrepancies between the religions are the result of the (according to you) erroneous ways we interpreted and applied them. Is that correct?

Simply put, yes, that is the belief. But to err is human, and the Baha’i writings say that no matter what one’s faith is, if he practices with conviction, he is in the right. So even a Jew who rejects Jesus is considered right in their practice of the religion of God, from my understanding, because they don’t have to accept Jesus to still have the (a?) correct religion 🙂 Many Baha’is go to synagogues, mosques, and churches every week to learn and commune with our spiritual brothers and sisters. We wholeheartedly believe that you all have the truth. It’s just your doctrine on certain things that we have a different understanding of.

I feel that we live in a world where a sort of “zealous ownership over religious truth” lies at the heart of the biggest and bloodiest conflicts. What do you, as a Baha’i, wish members of all these different religious groups would recognize about each other? How do you think we can navigate these differences in our belief systems, when they appear to be mutually exclusive?

As a Baha’i I wish that everyone would realize we all worship the same God, albeit in different ways. If we could realize that our seemingly different religions are actually the same, once you strip away the cultural influence and superstition, then, I think, we could end religious prejudice.

How do you practice the Baha’i faith on a day-to-day basis? What calendar do you follow, and what festivals do you celebrate?

The Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Most Holy Book of the Baha’i faith, is the record of the commandments of God for our age, it tells us our day to day responsibilities as Baha’is. Among these are the Obligatory Prayers in the morning, at noon and at sunset. Another command is for daily meditation while reciting Allah’u’Abha2 95 times.

We use the Badi calendar created by The Bab. This calendar has 19 months with 19 days each, also containing intercalary days that have became a gift giving holiday for the Baha’i called Ayyam-i-Ha. Some other holidays are Naw Ruz which is the Persian new year, the martyrdom of the Bab, the Ascension of Baha’u’llah, the Day of the Covenant, and others.

What is the significance of the Baha’i Gardens in Israel to your faith? Have you ever been there?

The Gardens of Haifa are a holy place in the Baha’i faith. They go up the side of Mount Carmel to the shrine of the Bab, and lead to the Shrine of Baha’u’llah in Bahji, Akka (a.k.a. Akko or Acre), Israel.

The Shrine of Baha'u'allah near Acre, Israel By Marco Abrar, CC BY-SA 3.0,
The Shrine of Baha’u’allah near Acre, Israel
By Marco Abrar, CC BY-SA 3.0

Baha’is make pilgrimage to these holy spots at least once in their lifetime if able, but sadly I have not had a chance.

According to Wikipedia, there are somewhere around 5-6 million Baha’is in the world. Are you part of a community? What is your experience of belonging to a faith that is relatively unknown, that many people you meet may never have heard of?

According to the latest enrollment numbers from The Universal House of Justice (the closest thing Baha’is of to a “church”) there are 7.6 million enrolled Baha’is around the world. Unfortunately none of them live near me! I would love to live in a community; Baha’is get together every nineteen days, that is, the first of every month on our calendar, for a feast. How wonderful community life would be! But a good thing is that I have many people to educate on the Baha’i faith around here.

What are some of your favorite things about being Baha’i?

My favorite thing about being a Baha’i is that I never have to say that I’m right and everyone else is wrong. My second favorite is that the Baha’i faith teaches that hell is a metaphor not a real place of torment.

Is there anything else you think is important for us to know about the Baha’i faith?

The Baha’i houses of worship (one on every continent!) are open to members of all faiths. I very much recommend visiting one! I adore the House of Worship in Chile.

The Baha'i House of Worship in Santiago, Chile. Photo courtesy of Baha'i World News Service
The Baha’i House of Worship in Chile. Photo courtesy of Baha’i World News Service


1. For more about the Jewish concept of resurrection of the dead, see “The Vagueries of the Jewish Afterlife.“”

2. “Allahu’Abha” is the traditional Baha’i greeting that means “God is the most glorious.” It can be compared to Islam’s “Allahu’Akbar.”

Do you belong to a lesser-known faith, or a smaller sect of one of the major religions? Want to share your unique perspective? Write us a guest letter of your own!

Visions of the Psalms, Psalm 23

Lush Pastures and Valleys of Shadows: Psalm 23 from a Jewish Perspective

Dear Josep,

I know you enjoyed that post about King David in which I mentioned the book of Psalms, and I decided to treat you to a whole blog post on something I know is close to your heart: your favorite psalm. 🙂

But I want to start by telling you about an extraordinary place you should visit next time you are in Jerusalem. It’s called the Museum of Psalms; a tiny little gallery tucked in an alley off of Jaffa Road. The project on display is a collection of paintings, one for each of the 150 psalms, created by artist Moshe Tzvi Berger, a Transylvanian Holocaust survivor.

Berger is a Lubavitcher Hassid well-versed in Kabbalah, and the paintings are rich with symbolism and vibrant with magnificent colors. Here’s a 10-minute video about the museum, in which the artist talks a little about the paintings.

My in-laws discovered this place and brought me there a couple times. They bought a book called “Visions of the Psalms” that features all the paintings alongside the psalms represented by them, in both Hebrew and English, and some commentary by the artist. Here’s your page:

Visions of the Psalms, Psalm 23

When they first took me to the museum, before E was born, I thought about buying you a print of that painting as a gift for his birth. But they didn’t have Psalm 23 available as a print. What they did have was Psalm 27… which happens to be my favorite.

Psalm 27, Moshe Tzvi Berger
So I bought it for myself!

The similarity between the paintings is no accident. The painting for Psalm 27 is almost a close-up of the painting for Psalm 23. The text that comprises the red goblet in both paintings is the same line from 23.

Psalm 23 is one of the most well-known. It is cherished, sung, and recited by Jews and Christians alike. Jews sing it during the services on Shabbat evening, and traditionally sing it during the third meal of the Sabbath, too.

This melody, performed here by Shuli Nathan, is the most commonly sung. It was composed by Ben Zion Shenker. (You actually heard us singing this in synagogue, but I couldn’t tell you what it was from the women’s section. 😉 )

Now that we have these colors and images and sounds in our minds… let’s take a look at the words of this psalm. We’re going to look at each verse from a literary and Biblical perspective, bringing in traditional Jewish commentaries when necessary. This is a typical way for Jews to study and analyze a Biblical text.

I think when we’re done, you’ll appreciate why studying the original Hebrew gives a lot more depth to the Psalmist’s words.

A Song of David…

Jewish tradition holds that these words were written by King David. This may or may not be true, but as I mentioned in the previous post on this topic, I feel that they really capture his spirit.

…God is my shepherd, I will not lack. In lush pastures He lays me down, by tranquil waters He leads me.

What an image this evokes. You can almost hear the gentle murmur of the clear water, smell the fresh scent of the lush green grass, and feel the sun on your face as you bask in its warmth. The Psalmist describes this as a metaphor for God’s presence in his life.

I think the painting of Psalm 23 above beautifully portrays this feeling. The “sun” is in the shape of the letter yud, symbolizing God. We see an island, or an oasis, floating in the midst of the blue–which, the artist points out in the video, is the color of mercy. The “cup” that “overflows” (a metaphor that appears later) is reflected on the tranquil waters. It is surrounded by lush trees–perhaps meant to recall the Tree of Life, a symbol for the Torah, as we have discussed.

The image in the painting reminds me of Ein Gedi, the oasis near Masada where David hid from Saul.

Ein Gedi
Ein Gedi. Photo by yours truly.

Many of the great figures in the Bible started out as shepherds–Jacob, Moses, and David himself. I was taught that the skills and temperament required for that job were what made these men suitable to become leaders.

When you think of a shepherd, you think of someone who is both tender and firm; someone who guides you and provides you with the opportunity to sustain yourself. He doesn’t bring the sheep their feed; he brings the sheep to the pasture, where they must graze themselves. I think this is an apt metaphor for our relationship with God.

He restores my soul; He leads me on paths of justice for the sake of His name.

Here we have moved from a very gentle image to a slightly harsher one, where we are talking about “restoring my soul” and “paths of justice.” We are also turning outward: “for the sake of His name,” and not necessarily for the sake of His love and tenderness towards me.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me…

This is the most famous verse from the psalm. We have gone from tranquil, lush pastures to “the valley of the shadow of death”–quite the contrasting image. What comes to my mind is the Jordan Valley, with the stark desert mountains of Judah and Moab towering over either side.

“With me” is not an exact translation of the word that appears in this verse, עמדי (imadi). “With me” is עמי, imi. The word imadi comes from the root ע.מ.ד., which means “to stand.” So the word means more than just “with me.” It means “standing with me,” or “helping me stand up.”


…your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

ע.מ.ד is also the root for the word עמוד, which means “pillar” or “spine.” We come across similar imagery in these words: שבט (shevet), “rod,” and משענת (mish’enet), “staff.”

Why are both these words mentioned, though? What’s the difference between a “rod” and a “staff”?

The word shevet implies justice and rebuke–a rod used as punishment. The word mish’enet comes from the root ש.ע.נ, as in להישען, “to lean”–something to lean on. A walking cane.

This image may be more subtle than the previous metaphors in this poem, but I think it is just as powerful.

The Psalmist finds both the “rod”–God’s harsh justice and perhaps even His punishment–and the “staff”–God’s mercy–“comforting.” You can understand why he might find the “staff” comforting. But the “rod”? What is comforting about the terrible things that happen to us?

The answer is in the first part of this same verse. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, You are with me. I know that even Your “rod” is the result of Your love for me.

You will spread a table before me, in front of my enemies; you have anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows.

The image here is of a man sitting at a table spread with great abundance, while his enemies watch in fury, unable to withhold this bounty from him.

If you’ve ever seen a Middle Eastern table spread, you’ll know that olive oil is a prominent feature. But God did literally anoint David’s head with oil. That’s how they crowned kings in Biblical times. God sent Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint David king years before David ascended the throne.

I find it beautiful how this image seamlessly blends in with the previous one, the table spread with goodness, and the one that follows–the overflowing cup.

However. Remember the Hebrew word that means “the anointed one”? Mashiach/Messiah. That is not the word that is used here. The word is דשנת, dishanta. The root ד.ש.נ can just mean “to oil” something, but it can also mean to make something fertile, or full of enjoyment and satisfaction.

The word often translated as “overflows” is רויה (revaya), from the root ר.ו.ה/י, which means “to quench,” or “soaked.” This is along the same lines as the word dishanta.

So this whole verse brings us back to the sense of sustenance and bounty.

May only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of God for the length of days.

Here the Psalmist turns to God with a request: let me feel this abundance of goodness all my life. May only goodness and loving kindness follow me.

“The length of days” is a direct translation of לאורך ימים (l’orekh yamim), which has been traditionally translated as “long years” or “a long time.” The King James Bible translates it as “forever.” Perhaps King James read Maimonides on this: Maimonides says that “the house of God” here means the World to Come, and “the length of days” would then mean “eternity.”

The word translated here as “dwell” is שבתי, shavti. But that’s not really the simple meaning of the word. ישבתי (yashavti) would mean “sit” or “dwell.” Shavti would normally be translated as “return.” I think it is traditionally translated as “dwell” because that makes most sense in context. Radak (medieval commentator David Kimhi) suggests that it means “I will be tranquil”–relying on a verse from Isiah that uses the root to mean tranquility (and he also interprets the word I translated as “restore” above, yeshovev, the same way).

But begging pardon from the Sages, I will venture my own suggestion: maybe שבתי is from the root ש.ב.ה/י, as in שבוי (shavui), which means “captive.” “I will be captivated in the house of God for the length of days.”

Here’s my reasoning: in the first part of the verse the Psalmist used the word “pursued” to describe being surrounded by goodness and kindness. Maybe he is finishing off that metaphor here by implying that he has “fallen captive” to the goodness and kindness that pursued him, and here–in the house of God–is where they hold him for eternity.

Just a thought.

Psalm 23 and Psalm 27

I think the reason the paintings are “twin” paintings is that they both discuss similar themes. Here is a quote from Psalm 27 for comparison:

“God is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? God is the stronghold of my life; from whom shall I be frightened? When evildoers draw near to me to devour my flesh, my adversaries and my enemies against me, they stumbled and fell… One [thing] I ask of the Lord, that I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to see the pleasantness of the Lord and to visit His Temple…”

A trust in God, a desire to draw closer to him, and a sense that He has provided us with an abundance of blessing… I think these are the things that appeal to us about these psalms.

Any insights to add?




People Find Me by Googling the Strangest Phrases. Here Are My Responses.

I figured we could all use some comic relief right about now, and this post is presented in that spirit. First, however, I have an exciting announcement: I have been informed by the manager of the Pomeranz bookstore that they will be stocking Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism as of around two weeks from now. They are the most well-known English-language bookstore in Jerusalem, specializing in books of Jewish content, and I am beyond delighted to have my book on their shelves. If you are in the Jerusalem area, I hope you will support both me and them by purchasing a copy from them. They are located downtown, on Be’eri Street, between Ben Yehuda and Hillel. I intend to drop by after the stock arrives to sign some copies, too.

If you have any kind of relationship with the manager of a local bookstore, here’s what you can do to get LtJ onto their shelves: print out a copy of my press kit, or even simply the first page of it, and hand it to them. If they end up ordering some copies, let me know and I will send you a signed bookplate in thanks!

And now, today’s post.

I enjoy checking the visitor stats for this blog. I love to see what countries people are reading from. When I first started writing and my audience was smaller, I knew exactly who was reading when I got a visit from a place like Spain (hi Josep!) or Japan (hi Pamela!), but now, thank God, I tend to get enough traffic from enough interesting places that I really can’t be sure.

Google usually encrypts people’s search terms, so most of the time I have no idea what people have Googled that led them to this blog. Occasionally, though, a non-encrypted search term will appear in my stats, and… let’s just say, sometimes I prefer not to know.

Today I have decided to respond to some of these people and address the (fairly odd) questions that led them to me.

“I often wonder the jews the men smartly dressed with trilbys hats. what do they do in life beside praying.”

Well. That’s pretty much what this whole blog is for! If you find it overwhelming, I highly recommend reading my book!

“isnt delaying iftaar practise of jews? so whats strange if we find this in shias because”

Ramadan Kareem, Internet Stranger! To be accurate, Jews do not observe Ramadan and do not have iftars. (You can read more about Jewish fasting practices and how they compare to those of Islam and Christianity here.)

However, your question inspired me to do a little research, wherein I learned that there is a dispute between Sunnis and Shias concerning iftar (break-fast) time. From what I read, most Sunnis break the fast after sunset, and most Shias break it after nightfall. While it is true that Jews, too, break fasts after nightfall, Shias observe this timing of iftar not because they are secretly Jews, but because of Surah Buqarah aya 187: “eat and drink until the whiteness of the day becomes distinct from the blackness of the night at dawn, then complete the fast till night.

The confusion is because on both the Hebrew and the Muslim calendar, days begin at night. But when does the night begin? Sunset? Twilight? Dusk? Nightfall? Not clear! We Jews call the period between sunset and nightfall “bein hashmashot,” literally “between the suns,” and there are all kinds of difficulties due to the uncertainty regarding exactly which day it is during that period! We try to err on the side of stringency in both directions. That’s why we fast until nightfall.

“weird things jews do”/”jews practicing weird customs”

I get this a lot. My post “15 Weird Things Jews Do” went viral last year and is, at the moment, the #2 result when I Google that phrase. Weird Jewish Customs ‘R’ Us!

“wierd thongs jews do”

That, my friend, is an entirely different question.

“religious people are right about sex”

Well, I am flattered that you think so. I wouldn’t put it quite so boldly, but I tend to agree with you, as evidenced by this post.

“pizza manu carp meem domenoz”

I…. am so sorry. I have no idea what language that is, and I certainly have no idea how you managed to stumble across my blog while Googling it. I do love pizza, though, so there’s that.

“do breslev kallah cover their hair straight after the chuppah”

Huh. No idea. I know that some Sephardic brides do, but Breslev is a sect of Hassidism originating in Ashkenaz, so I would guess that they don’t. In any case, it wouldn’t be straight after the chuppah, it would be after the yichud room. (If you don’t understand half the words in those last two sentences, see Different Kinds of Jews, Part I, and Part II, and my “Jewish Weddings” post.)

“what is the halakhic definition of a jew?”

Excellent question! Someone who was born to a halakhically Jewish mother, or who converted to Judaism according to Jewish law. More details here.

“stay with me versionada al català”

Em sap greu. I have literally no idea how or why Google directed you to me! The extent of my Catalan is a few key phrases/greetings and a couple random food words like el poncem and la remolatxa. (Don’t even ask.) (Okay, you can ask. El poncem because it’s a fruit used in an odd Jewish ritual during Succotla remolatxa because, as explained in the footnote on Passover Part II: “I served a Moroccan beet salad to Josep when he was here for Shabbat, and he asked me what it was, but we did not have a common language in which we both knew the word for this vegetable. After Shabbat I Googled it, and now I’ll never forget. (When I clarified, he was like, ‘Not something I eat every day!’ Was that a polite way to tell me he hated it? I decided not to press the issue.)”)

Anyway, where were we? Oh yes: “Stay with Me.” I can see why you wanted a translation; it’s a catchy and poignant song. Unfortunately the lyrics aren’t much to write home about. You should definitely write a better version in Catalan.

“caganer equivalent in judaism”

Listen… I’ll be the first to admit that Jews have some pretty odd practices. (See: “Weird Things Jews Do” above.) But Catalans and their crazy Christmas traditions are a whole different class of weird.

We have no such equivalent. Sorry to disappoint you. But Josep and I always get excited about anyone drawing any connection, however vague it may be, between Judaism/Israel and Catalonia, so thanks for the thought.

“catalan jew never invite”

I know, right? I have also been disappointed by this lack of hospitality on the part of Catalan Jews. So has Josep, who was not allowed to enter the synagogue in Barcelona because he is not Jewish. Uncool, Catalan Jews. (In their defense, their spurning of Josep was because of the tight security, which is meant to keep Jews safe from antisemites. Of course, if they had bothered to talk to him for more than 30 seconds, they would have realized that they had something entirely different on their hands.)

“jewish therapy barcelona”

Yes, Barcelona is most definitely in need of some Jewish therapy.

“yiddish nachas, vol. 2”

If you are my mother, I believe you have arrived at the correct destination.

(“Yiddishe nachas” generally refers to the feeling of pride and satisfaction a Jewish parent feels about their children being good Jews. More about “nachas” here.)

“tomb of the paper manufacturer max krause in the jerusalem cemetery in berlin”

I…. literally have no idea what this is about. And I have no idea how Google decided that my blog had anything to do with it. Sorry.

“letters as to why shabbat is important”

I’ve got one! Here it is.

“danniella levy shaving”

Regretfully, I’ve been growing out my beard for years. Can’t help you there.

“download video seks daniela levy”


“foto danniella levy”

That you can have. It’s on the “about” page of the blog. But I have a feeling you may be disappointed. In light of this line of inquiry on the part of Random Internet Strangers such as yourself, it has come to my attention that there’s a porn star who shares my name, and, well. Nope. Juuuuust nope.

Gonna file that one under “Things I Wish I Never Knew About the Universe.”

“the sanctity of shabbos: a comprehensive guide to forbidden activities which one may ask a gentile to do on the sabbath or yom tov”

Actually, it’s a debate as to whether or not it is permissible to ask a gentile to do anything forbidden on the Sabbath or Yom Tov. Most agree that ideally, you should not do so, even though you may benefit from the actions of a non-Jew on Shabbat (say, if you are sharing a room with a non-Jewish roommate and she turns off the light so she can sleep). But if it’s really necessary for your well-being during Shabbat, you can hint to a non-Jew that you need something done for you (for instance, if the light is on in your room and you catch a random non-Jew in the hallway and say something like, “The light in my room is extremely bright, don’t you think? Very hard to sleep with it on, I imagine”).

This is not a comprehensive guide, of course. I hope you found one.

“i asked for forgiveness to anyone gmar katima tova”

Oh. I am glad to hear that. Gmar Chatima Tova to you as well.

“what is the special dietary needs that must be considered for the juwish”

Aha! Now that is a question Josep has asked me! And my answer was so complicated it was split into three letters: here, here, and here.

“i m not supporter of orthodox rutuals a letter”

Hmm. This blog is probably not what you were looking for.

“chag hakurban”

Who are you that you Googled “Eid Al-Adha” under its Hebrew name in English transliteration? You sound like my kind of person.

Well folks, if you have any other random (or non-random) questions for me, do feel free to ask!


The Incredible (and Mildly Embarrassing) Story of “Jerusalem of Gold”

Dear Josep,

Happy Jerusalem Day! 😉

I wrote extensively about the importance of Jerusalem to Judaism in last year’s Jerusalem Day post (which can also be found in the book). After yet another year of violent tensions over the Temple Mount, and the UN denying any Jewish connection to our holiest site, this day is wrought with more tension than ever, and for me–a sense of incompleteness. Jerusalem Day is a celebration of how close we have come to the full redemption… and while our return to Jerusalem is nothing short of a miracle, we are still so far from that dream.

I mentioned around Memorial Day that we have a lot of nostalgic “Land of Israel” songs that are part of the culture here. So as you can imagine, there’s an entire genre of Jerusalem songs within that category. The most famous one is Naomi Shemer’s Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (“Jerusalem of Gold”). There are many others that are beautiful and poignant, but if you’re going to know about one song about Jerusalem, it should be this one.

In my opinion, the thing that is most amazing about this song is the story of its creation.

Naomi Shemer is one of the most famous Israeli poets and songwriters. In 1967, she was asked to write a song for the Israeli Song Festival that was to take place on May 15th of that year. She was intimidated by the task and told the commissioner she could not write under pressure like this, and he told her that she didn’t have to, but if she felt inspired–she should go ahead and write something. Thus “Jerusalem of Gold” was born. Naomi Shemer selected then-unknown singer Shuli Natan to perform the song.

Now… if your memory serves you, you’ll recall that May 15th, 1967 was three weeks before the Six Day War. So when Naomi Shemer wrote the song, Jerusalem was still divided in two, and Jews were forbidden access to the Western Wall.

So, here is my translation of the original song, which contained three verses.

The mountain air is clear as wine
And the scent of pines
Is carried on the afternoon breeze
With the call of bells

And in the trees’ and stones’ slumber
Captured in her dream,
The city that sits alone
A wall in her heart

Jerusalem of gold
And of copper, and of light
For all your songs
I am a harp

Alas, how the cisterns have dried
The market square is empty
And no one visits the Temple Mount
In the Old City

And in the caves within the rock
The wind howls
And no one descends to the Dead Sea
On Jericho Road


But today, as I come to sing to you
And to weave you wreaths
I am smaller than the youngest of your sons
And the last of the poets

For your name burns the lips
Like the kiss of the viper
If I forget thee, Jerusalem
Entirely of gold


What a sad, lonely description of the Old City. I remember my fifth grade teacher telling us how when she was a small girl, they took her up to Mount Scopus, which was the closest they could get to the Old City and to the Western Wall at that time. She recalled following the pointing finger of the guide to this tiny, dirty little wall far off in the distance.

After the war, amidst all the euphoria, Shemer added the following verse:

We have returned to the cisterns,
To the market and the square
A shofar calls at the Temple Mount
In the Old City.

And in the caves within the rock
A thousand suns rise
We will again descend to the Dead Sea
On Jericho Road

And so, the story of the return of the Jewish people to our eternal capital–the longing and the triumph–is contained within the lyrics of this song, eerily written at just the right moment in history.

Here is the song performed by Shuli Natan:


I don’t know how familiar you would be with Navarrese or Basque folk songs. If you are, you may note that the melody of the song sounds oddly familiar.

This is Polleo Joxepe, a Navarrese folk song that is very popular in the Basque Country. Shemer heard Paco Ibáñez performing it in 1962. When the similarities were pointed out, at first she vehemently denied any connection between them, but towards the end of her life she admitted that she may have been unconsciously inspired by the melody of Polleo Joxepe when composing Yerushalyaim Shel Zahav. She apparently was very sad to discover that the melody was so similar and felt guilty about denying it. But Ibáñez told Haaretz in 2014: “It is a shame. She had no reason to feel guilty… I didn’t consider this plagiarism but rather felt a lot of empathy for Shemer. Was I angry? Not at all. On the contrary, I was glad it helped in some way.”

What I find really odd about this episode is that this isn’t the first time this has happened with an important patriotic Israeli song.

Here’s a performance of a piece called La Mantovana. The melody’s first appearance is in a collection of madrigals from 1600, so it seems to have been a Renaissance-era folk song popular in Europe. Listen to the first few bars.

Remind you of anything?

Or have you forgotten how to sing HaTikva since the day we met and you told me you knew the whole thing? 😉


I mean, this kind of stuff probably happens all the time; there are only eight notes in an octave, and a limited number of chords that sound good together. They say that creativity is knowing how to hide your sources. In a less cynical sense, creativity is taking things that exist and putting them together in new and original ways. It is no secret that musicians are influenced by those who came before, sometimes borrowing snippets here and there and developing them into something else.

Still, it’s a little embarrassing that the melodies of the national songs that are most important to us are not all that original!

I’ll leave you with my personal favorite version of “Jerusalem of Gold,” by Nourith, a French-Israeli singer. I feel that this version really captures the mystique and intensity of Jerusalem; the call of the muezzins, the crying of the doves, the howling of the winds in the caves and tunnels, the sadness and longing and hope that hang over the Holy City at the heart of the world.



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Confessions of a King David Fangirl

Dear Josep,

I was a rather unusual teenager in quite a number of ways.

For one thing, I hated shopping.

I never wore makeup–on principle–and rolled my eyes at the way my peers spent hours preening in front of the mirror.

While most girls my age spent their vacation time at the mall, the movies, or the beach, I was happiest cooped up in my room… writing novels.

Like the teenage girls they were, my friends swooned over the likes of Orlando Bloom, Johnny Depp, and… I can’t even remember who else was popular at the time. That’s how much I cared!

I, on the other hand, was a King David fangirl.

Yeah. The one from 3,000 years ago.

You see, the more I learned about him, the more I admired and identified with him. He was a poet-musician-warrior-prophet-king who was crazy in love with God. He played the lyre, felled a Philistine giant with a single stone, danced like a maniac in celebration of God’s glory, and cried his heart out in public on many occasions. He made some terrible mistakes, but he owned them. He was a badass with a sensitive and highly spiritual soul. His political actions set the stage for the most prosperous golden age in the history of the Jews, and he was the progenitor of what may have been the longest continuous dynasty of communal leaders in the history of humankind.1

Beat that, Orlando Bloom.
Beat that, Orlando Bloom.


Both of the upcoming holidays, Jerusalem Day and Shavuot, have a connection to King David. So I shall take this opportunity to unleash my inner fangirl, and tell you all about my favorite Biblical character. 🙂

Okay, so it turns out I can’t actually tell you all about him. I started writing my merry way through the juiciest moments of his life story as told in Samuel I, and by the time I got halfway through the Goliath story, this letter was already 1,000 words long!

So I’ll have to give you the highlights.

David, son of Jesse, was born in Bethlehem during the period of Samuel the Prophet. He was probably a child when the first king of Israel, Saul, was ordained. When Saul fell out of God’s favor for failing to carry out a commandment, God ordered Samuel to ordain David–then still a kid whose family apparently didn’t think much of him–as the new king. The Bible describes him as “ruddy, with beautiful eyes, and handsome.” Some interpret “ruddy” as meaning he had red hair, and you can see him depicted that way in many paintings. Most likely, though, it means he had a reddish complexion. Rosy cheeks, if you will.

Anyway. Soon after David’s secret ordination, King Saul felt the spirit of God leave him, and became quite depressed. Someone suggested finding a musician to play music and lift his spirits. Long story short, David became the first Royal Music Therapist.

Then the whole fiasco with Goliath happened–a story I assume you are at least somewhat familiar with. After his stunning defeat of the Philistine warrior, David became quite the rock star among the Israelites. He married the king’s daughter Michal and became best buddies with his new brother-in-law, Jonathan. (I believe these days we call it a “bromance.”) But Saul started to suspect David of trying to topple him from the throne, and started trying to kill him.

"So.... should I see this as a termination of our therapeutic relationship?"
“So…. should I see this as a termination of our therapeutic relationship?”

Michal and Jonathan helped David escape, and he ran into the wilds of Judah, hiding out in the desert with a little band of followers.

David spent the next period of his life scurrying around the Judean Desert trying to avoid getting caught and killed by Saul. There were a few close calls, and some confrontations that ended with Saul saying he was sorry and then changing his mind the next morning. (I believe these days we call it “bipolar.”) But David never attempted to take power during Saul’s lifetime and never dreamed of harming him. Heck, he cried like an idiot when he so much as tore the corner of Saul’s robe in a cave in Ein Gedi.

Anyway, Saul was finally killed in battle in the Gilboa, along with his sons, including David’s best friend Jonathan. “How the mighty have fallen” is a famous line from David’s heartbroken lament for Saul and Jonathan, recorded in the final chapters of Samuel I.

With the old king dead, David began his rise to power. First he ruled over Judah from the city of Hebron. (Remember, Jerusalem was still under the Jebusites at this point.) Gradually the rest of the kingdom accepted him as their king. He proved very capable in battle and eventually conquered Jerusalem and established it as the eternal capital of Israel. (That’s where Jerusalem Day comes in. Shavuot is traditionally considered to be the birthday, and death day, of King David.)

There are many more stories to tell from Samuel II, but the most important one is the Bathsheba scandal. You may have heard this story too. It stands as an example of something unique about the Bible as a historical document: it does not gloss over the mistakes and sins of our great leaders. What happened is this: King David was looking out his window one night and he saw a woman bathing on her rooftop. He was so overcome with desire for her that he ordered her brought to the palace, and when he discovered that she was married, he arranged for her husband to be placed on the front line of the battle, basically assuring his death. When the husband did inevitably die in battle, David married Bathsheba.

Not a pleasant story. Especially if you compare it with Saul’s sin. All Saul did was have pity on an Amalekite king and some sheep. David committed adultery and murder! Why was Saul’s kingdom torn from him, then, while David’s wasn’t?

Most sages argue that the difference is in their responses.

When Samuel came to rebuke Saul, Saul got defensive and insisted that he had done nothing wrong, and only admitted that he had sinned after Samuel informed him that God had decided to discontinue his dynasty.

In contrast, when Nathan the Prophet came to rebuke David, David immediately said “I have sinned before the Lord!” He took responsibility and owned his actions. He did real teshuva. He did suffer consequences for his sin–the death of his firstborn son from Bathsheba, and the turmoil in his household (the rape of Tamar, the rebellion of Absalom, etc.)–but God did not take the kingdom from him or his descendants.

There is another important figure in the Bible who exhibited this kind of accountability: David’s ancestor Judah. On two notable occasions,2 Judah showed a willingness to own up to his mistakes and accept the full consequences of his actions. Tradition has it that it was this character trait of Judah’s that made God choose him as the progenitor of the Davidic line.

I think the Bible makes a powerful statement through this. Everyone makes mistakes. The question is whether you try to make excuses and justify yourself, or whether you take responsibility, own your mistakes, and try to learn and grow from them. That, says the Bible, is the mark of a true leader.

When King David died, he passed the kingdom to his son, the wise King Solomon, who built the first Temple and ruled over Israel during a period of great prosperity and peace. We believe that the Messiah will be a direct descendant of King David, because God promised him that his dynasty would endure for eternity.

And now, I can’t finish a post about King David without mentioning the book of Psalms.

Tradition has it that the Psalms were composed by David, and if you read through them you will see that many of them begin with a statement about the author (usually David) and sometimes about the circumstances under which the psalm was written or for what purpose. Bible critics will argue that it was written much later by other poets, who used the context of King David’s life to lend their work legitimacy, but it’s impossible to prove or disprove. I’d like to believe that he did write at least some of them.

Either way, I think the spirit of this Biblical figure is encapsulated within the wrenching and uplifting words of these remarkably raw poem-prayers.

When you open up a book of Psalms, you find the full range of human emotion laid out before you: from ecstasy, gratitude, and hope, to terror, despair, and loneliness. You find expressions of ultimate closeness and oneness with God alongside explicit expression of doubt and fear of abandonment. The fact that David could say both “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for You are with me” (Psalm 23) and “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Psalm 22) makes me feel a little less alone in trying to reconcile those two sentiments that battle it out within me from time to time.

So… yes. King David was my teen crush and I’m not the least bit ashamed of it.



P.S. I’m thinkin’ this could be the first in a series of posts about important Jewish historical figures, called Awesome Jews of History. Is there a Jewish historical figure (or two… or five) that you’ve been curious about? (And by you, and mean you, Josep, and also you, blog readers!) Let me know!

P. P. S. Heck yeah, of course I dressed up as King David for Purim one year! Or at least… my interpretation of him as a kind of Biblical rock star. 😛

Yes, I know its a ukulele and not a lyre. A girls gotta work with what she has, aright?!
…with a ukulele. Look, a girl’s gotta work with what she has, a’right?!

1. Though the sovereignty of the Jews was ended after the destruction of the First Temple, the Jews always maintained a special status for those descended of the Davidic dynasty, and chose their leaders from their number. During the Gaonic period in Babylon, up until around 1,000 C.E., Jews were governed by the Exilarch, who was a descendant of the Davidic line. Thus, one could say that the House of David ruled the Jewish people for more than two thousand years.

2. The first was during the scandal with his daughter-in-law Tamar (Genesis 37:26); the second, and more well known, was when Joseph framed Benjamin, and Judah took responsibility and offered to go to jail in his stead (Genesis 44:18-34).


Clinging to Light in the Darkness: On Grappling with Loss and Fear of Loss

Dear Josep,

Last Friday I had the distinct pleasure of exchanging books with a friend of mine who also recently published her book.

me and shira
My arm is too short for good selfies.

Shira Chernoble is a pastoral counselor and massage therapist who has lived in Tekoa for many years. We actually know each other through my mother, because Shira treats clients in a center that is part of the El Halev complex where my mom works, but I got to know her in various settings around Tekoa, especially through her work with DoTerra (an essential oils company).

Her book, Heart 2 Heart Healing, is a collection of stories about individuals and families she has worked with in coping with grief, loss, and chronic illness.  As you can imagine, the stories are sad and painful, but they are also inspiring and uplifting, especially interspersed with Shira’s insights.

Unfortunately, Tekoa has known its share of tragedies in the time Shira has spent here. In 2001, Shira was the one to inform Sherri and Seth Mandell, after a long, harrowing, sleepless night, that the body of their son Koby had been found in a cave in the wadi nearby. You may have heard of the Mandells; they went on to establish the Koby Mandell Foundation, which offers healing retreats and activities to those who have lost family members to terror or illness. Sherri Mandell also penned two books about coping with her loss: The Blessing of a Broken Heart (winner of the National Jewish Book Award) and The Road to Resilience (released this past October).

Shira also wrote about three events that occurred during the time I have lived here: the death of Rabbi Menachem Froman, the controversial former rabbi of Tekoa; the murder of Dalya Lemkus in a terror attack in the fall of 2014; and about the sudden death of Hillel Rodich–an event that affected me very deeply, which I mentioned in the post about Jewish mourning customs.

The thing that struck me about the way Shira wrote about these events was her perspective as someone who is not afraid to confront this terrifying and painful subject. I remember in my work with OneFamily (another organization that helps terror victims), seeing what happened to families that were affected by terror, and the isolation they experienced because their friends just didn’t know how to respond, how to stand in the face of something so difficult and painful and be helpful in any way.

But Shira sees grief and loss as part of what gives life its beauty. That we do have this window of opportunity, called life, to touch each other’s lives, to give each other love, to experience the magnificence of God’s world–and the transience makes it that much more potent. It helps to believe as she does (and I do) that death is not an ending, but a transition, and that our loved ones live on and speak to us in various ways.

I want to quote one passage, from the story of Hillel’s family:

As this was occurring, Seth Mandell (father of Koby, described in the previous story); Eliyana, Koby’s sister; and a journalist “happened to be” walking in the wadi as well. They heard Hillel’s children screaming and rushed to the spring. They called an ambulance, and Eliyana took the children back to the Mandell home. Sherri Mandell, for whom it had been so significant that her friends and neighbors had lovingly fed her during her period of mourning, now fed these children, because they said they were hungry. When the children arrived at the Mandells, I also “happened to be” there when Hillel died, and that I, a trained grief counselor “happened to be” at the Mandell’s when a shocked Hadass came to pick up her children was not insignificant. I believe it was what Dr. Kubler-Ross called a “divine coincidence.” I believe that the presence of Seth and Eliyana, and then Sherri, and then me was Gd’s unfathomable way of embracing Hadass and the children immediately in the face of Hillel’s death.

I paused here, during my first reading, wiping away the tears, and stared at that last sentence. “Gd’s unfathomable way of embracing Hadass and the children immediately in the face of Hillel’s death.”

The tantruming toddler in me wanted to throw the book across the room and scream. God had just inflicted an unimaginable pain on this family. The enormity of it still floors me. I remember getting the notice on my phone, shortly before Shabbat, and literally sinking to the floor in shock. This scenario is one of my worst nightmares. How can we speak of God compassionately embracing, bestowing kindness, when He had just cruelly ripped these children from their father and this woman from her husband?

…And I guess we’re back to the allegory of the moon.

I wrote a letter months ago–in fact, it ended up the last chapter of my book, and that was no accident–about the paradox of believing in God’s ultimate goodness while being angry with Him for difficult things He’s put you through. A brief recap in case you couldn’t be bothered to click the link and reread it: The Talmud asks why the Torah requires a sin-offering as part of the Temple service for Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the new month). For whose sin is it meant to atone, the Sages ask? The Talmud answers that it is God’s “sin.” God is asking our forgiveness for hiding the moon from us. And as I elaborated in that letter, the darkness of the moon symbolizes the illusion of evil in this world; that beneath everything, all is God, and all is Good, and evil, like the phases of the moon, is a mere trick of the light. God asks our forgiveness because for reasons we don’t entirely understand, He cannot bestow this light on us without illusions and filters–not yet. He must hide it sometimes. And He knows it is painful, and He asks us to forgive Him for inflicting this pain.

But when I thought back on that letter, I realized something else about that allegory. When we look at the moon, don’t only see its dark side. We see its light side, too–usually at the same time. Sometimes the moon is full and we see only light. Sometimes the moon is new, and we don’t see it at all. But for most of the month, there is an ongoing, dynamic interplay between light and darkness. Light and darkness are completely opposite, completely mutually exclusive, and yet they have existed side by side in the night sky since the creation of the world.

Can we be in the midst of darkness and cling to the tiny sliver of light, having faith that it represents the Truth?


I feel that there is a keyword missing here, one that isn’t faith.

The word is trust.

Can we trust God?

Can we trust Him, when we know that at a moment’s notice, He may very well take away everything we hold dear? Can we trust Him, that even if He prescribes death itself, or profound emotional or physical suffering, as part of our fate–this, too, is good? It seems so easy, so comforting, to believe in a God who will always protect you from pain and suffering. But God invented pain and suffering. And He allows it to inflict us no matter how faithful we are.

Thoughtful people of faith must grapple with this difficult truth. And they have–for centuries.

I remember struggling with it when crouching in the “safe corner” of our house during a rocket barrage a couple years ago, trying to figure out what to say to calm my frightened children. I knew it might be comforting to tell them that Hashem would protect us. But I also knew that I couldn’t promise them that. Why would Hashem protect us, and not Koby Mandell? Why would Hashem protect us, and not Dalya Lemkus, or the Fogel family, or Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali?

We don’t know. And in that corner, with the sirens wailing, I had to reaffirm an idea  that is far too complex to communicate to small children. The idea that if of all places those haphazard missiles could have landed, if one lands right here in our living room, there is no way to call that an accident of fate. It must be part of God’s plan. I had to trust Him that whatever He decides about where that missile would land, it would be for the ultimate good. And that He would provide enough light in the darkness for me to find my way–whatever that might be.

This is not easy. Not easy at all.

Anyway. I’m sorry to say that Shira’s book is only available through her. I might try and convince her to let me help her publish it through CreateSpace and/or make an eBook version so a wider audience will have access to it. I really think it’s an important and valuable read for anyone who has ever struggled with grief… which is, pretty much, every single human being on this planet.


Much love,