Screenshot from the movie "Denial"

Responding to Antisemites: Was the Holocaust a Uniquely Jewish Catastrophe?

Dear Josep,

Now that I’m back from my trip and have more or less adjusted to being home, we shall hopefully return to¬†our regularly scheduled program. ūüėČ

On my flight from Denver to Orlando about two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to watch a movie I’d been really wanting to see. (This is quite¬†a rarity, as I hardly ever watch movies these days. Who has time?!) The movie is called Denial, and it’s a dramatization of the book¬†History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier¬†by Deborah Lipstadt. Here’s the trailer:

The truth is, I was¬†fairly disappointed with the movie. I found Rachel Weisz’s performance as Deborah Lipstadt unconvincing, the script clumsy and stilted, and the drama somewhat forced. And I felt that its exploration of the very complex questions it raised¬†was too superficial.

Still, I’m glad I saw it, and had the opportunity to think those¬†questions:

  • How do we strike a balance between free speech and our responsibility to stop the spread of hateful and dangerous lies?
  • Is it better not to dignify the opinions of Holocaust deniers and antisemites with a response? Or should we¬†engage with them openly, to keep the public informed and inoculated against the lies?
  • Should this kind of¬†discussion be allowed to take place in a court of law?
  • What if making it a discussion at all gives the impression that the¬†existence of the Holocaust is a “two-sided issue” and not¬†indisputable historical fact?
  • Should Holocaust survivors be given the chance to testify in a trial like this, even if they might be re-traumatized by the prosecution and ultimately harm the defense?

All very good questions, and the answers aren’t simple.

One of them came up again last week when I discovered the following comment (on my previous post) awaiting my moderation:


Tell me something.

Nazis killed over 10 million people.
 
Why is it that only the Jewish are remembered?
 
What makes you so special?
 
How are you better than say, Polish people?
 
I’m not a Polish, not a nazi, not a holocaust denier. But I am an European, and Im pretty tired of Jewish bankers controlling the world. Do you understand, that without the banker mafia there would not have been the 2008, and without 2008, there wouldnt be Trump?
 
The world domination of the “chosen people” is crumbling the whole world.

Well. That escalated quickly.

Nothing good is ever going to follow the words, “I’m not a Nazi, but…”

When I informed¬†you about the comment, I considered asking you whether you think, in your vast experience :-/ it’s worth engaging with such people. Can they be reasoned with? Is this kind of antisemitic drivel the result of ignorance, and if so, can it be corrected with information? But I decided that there is no way to reason someone out of the belief that Jewish bankers control the world. It’s like trying to tell an anti-vaxxer that vaccines don’t cause autism, a climate change denier that global warming exists, or a flat-earther that the world is round. No amount of evidence will sway these people from their opinion.

You agreed with my unspoken conclusion in your e-mail the next day: “As someone said long ago: Do not argue with fools. They’ll drag you to their turf and beat you with experience.”

So then I asked myself: if it’s not worth engaging this particular person, maybe it’s worth discussing the comment publicly and responding to some of the points.

Which brings me back to Denial. Ignore, or engage?

Each option has costs.

The cost of ignoring comments like these is that we (the targets) feel silenced and helpless, and the perpetrators get away with doing or saying whatever they want. It feels unjust, a betrayal of the truth. And there’s always the risk that your remaining silent will empower them, making them think you’re not responding because you can’t.

The cost of engaging with antisemites, however, is that in so doing, we grant them a platform. Treating their ideas as something worth discussing may seem to legitimize them in a way. At very least, it shows that their words had an impact. This can empower them, too.

…Well &$#^.

So,¬†the last part of the comment is not worth discussing. It’s just pure, classic antisemitic myth, and I already elaborated on that¬†in my Great Post of Jewish Conspiracies.

The first part, though, I decided to address, because in isolation, it’s a pretty fair question.

Why Is the Holocaust Considered a Uniquely Jewish Catastrophe when Millions of Non-Jews Were Also Killed by the Nazis?

I think this question stems from a basic lack of knowledge regarding the Nazi regime and its ideology.

Yes, the Nazis were racists. Yes, they believed that homosexuals, Romanies, Slavs, and blacks were inferior to them and therefore unworthy of any rights.

Jews, on the other hand, were not just believed to be inferior. We were believed to be evil.

This was a central tenet of Nazi ideology. Jews–not gays, Gypsies, or Poles–were held uniquely¬†responsible for all the world’s ills.¬†Therefore, “solving the Jewish problem” meant annihilating¬†every last Jew.

They did not believe this about other groups. According to their beliefs, their¬†purpose in the world as a “supreme race” was¬†to dominate¬†other races, not¬†destroy¬†them. They saw “lesser” races and other “defective” humans as undesirable, and killed them when they were a nuisance. There was never any organized plan to seek out people from those groups and exterminate them.

The Poles and Ukrainians, for example, were sitting on fertile land that the Nazis wanted, so they killed them to get them out of the way. Their plan was to enslave the rest. Individuals who caused trouble were sent to the death camps–but those camps were built with the express purpose of¬†exterminating Jews.

In other words: the Nazis were horrible, inhumane, and murderous towards all other people who they defined as being inferior to them. But the genocide, the efforts and resources poured into the systematic and complete¬†annihilation of every man, woman, and child–that was specifically directed towards Jews. We were, by an order of magnitude, their primary and most important target.

Look; this isn’t the Victimhood Olympics. No one wins a gold medal for having suffered the most. The fact that Jews were the primary target of the Nazi genocide does not and should not minimize or marginalize the¬†devastating losses sustained by other groups. But when you claim that there is no difference between the treatment of the Jews and that of the Poles, you are denying history.

And as Deborah Lipstadt’s lawyers ultimately showed in court, when you deliberately deny history with the intention of glossing over Jewish suffering… you are an antisemite.

…Which our friend here promptly proved at the end of his comment.

Here’s hoping¬†I will be able to go back to writing about things OTHER than Nazis and antisemites soon.¬†*grumblegrumble*

Love,

Daniella

Uncanny Overtones at the Frankfurt Airport

Dear Josep,

So, speaking of antisemitic a-holes…..

*sigh*

As you know, I’m in Denver visiting family now. We flew Lufthansa this time, with a connection through Frankfurt. I hate going through customs in NY and was glad to be able to skip that part of the procedure this time, and, well, I thought it would be nice to fly through Europe. I got to show my kids the Alps through the window of the plane. The last–and only–time I’d seen them myself was from the window of a plane from Barcelona to Zurich. We also happened to find ourselves on a plane with activist-turned-MK Yehuda Glick, an absolutely fascinating character and fellow stereotype-smasher who I greatly admire. He was on his way to Washington D.C. for the inauguration. We exchanged a few pleasant words with him.

Our few hours in Germany, though, proved a little more harrowing than I had anticipated.

Listen… I’m not hysterical about antisemitism and Holocaust associations. I know, intellectually, that the Holocaust was a long time ago, and that most Germans are perfectly decent people, and that Germany actually has one of the lowest rates of antisemitism in the world right now.

But… memory of the Holocaust is so deeply ingrained in my national and religious identity, it’s a trauma the reverberates through my subconscious. I’ve been to Poland, as you know, but I was going there for the express purpose of learning about the Holocaust, and I was surrounded by a warm, supportive cocoon of educators and friends.

Here, we were just passing through, a very “visibly Jewish” family. And there was no way around it. I couldn’t shake the associations. I imagine you’ve been in the airport in Frankfurt and know what I mean when I say that the decor didn’t help. The place has a gray, industrial, austere air to it that was less than comforting.

Let’s just say I was a little on edge.

It was with this unease that I approached the security checkpoint. The man behind the X-ray conveyor belt rattled off instructions in an eerie robot-like, monotonous voice. He wasn’t talking to us like we were humans. “Everything in a box,” he repeated over and over before we understood that he meant our bags needed to go into boxes too. Flustered with his strangely hostile manner (and its uncanny historical overtones), I remembered to remove my laptop from my carry-on, but forgot about the kids’ tablets in their bags. We went through the full-body scanner–an apparatus that makes me profoundly uncomfortable–and both Eitan and R1 got a pat-down. When we went to collect our bags and coats, we found that some of them had been set aside, and the robot-voices man asked Eitan to open them.

At this point H was getting pretty upset. We’d been through a similar (less rigid) security procedure at Ben-Gurion, and no matter how I tried to explain to him that they were just being extra careful to keep everyone safe, he just got more and more upset. I took him aside and tried to calm him.

Then the robot guy called a couple of police officers over to look at one of the bags with Eitan, apparently concerned about the fact that we’d left a tablet in there.

I can’t help it, Josep. Watching a pair of German policeman approach my husband when I knew we’d done nothing wrong… I have nothing else to call it but “triggering.” I was starting to freak out a little myself. I breathed and tried to focus on calming H down. The policeman were much nicer than the robot guy and seemed pretty bewildered as to why he’d called them over.

Eitan and I were both harboring a niggling suspicion at this point.

The policemen left and we started trying to collect all our stuff. And then, out of the blue, the robot guy threw out the following comment: “You know, 25 years ago, we had a wall here, too.”

“Seriously?” I blurted.

Let me stop here and explain the context of that comment for the sake of any blog readers who need it.

The robot guy was making an inappropriate and ignorant reference to the security barrier in the West Bank. It was built during the Second Intifada as a deterrent to keep out the suicide bombers blowing up Israelis every other week–and it was very effective. It’s controversial for reasons I won’t get into here, but comparing it to the Berlin Wall (as the comment implied) is nothing short of idiotic. As I’m sure you are aware, it’s a common tactic among anti-Israel morons to throw around emotionally manipulative, wildly irrelevant historical comparisons. (Palestinians like to refer to it as the “racial segregation” or “apartheid” wall. Comparing the situation in Israel to apartheid is utterly ridiculous, and an¬†insult to South Africans who suffered under actual apartheid.)

It was not an antisemitic comment. It was a stupid anti-Israel comment. But as Eitan pointed out to me later, only Israelis get those kinds of remarks. If we’d been from Iran, would he have said, “Hey, nice centrifuges you’ve got there”? If we’d been from Russia, would he have said something about the Crimea, or the slaughter in Aleppo? If we’d have been from China, or Turkey, or any number of other countries committing severe human rights abuses on a regular basis, would be have made a snide political remark? Of course not. Residents of those countries are seen as victims. Only Israelis are held in contempt for the actions of our government. Holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of other Jews is a classic manifestation of antisemitism. The content of the remark wasn’t antisemitic, but there’s a good argument that its context was.

Eitan was livid. He told the man to keep his political opinions to himself.

“I didn’t state a political opinion,” was the breezy response.

All I wanted to do right then was get the hell out of there. Out of the room, out of the airport, and out of the country.

Of course, the perfect, equally below-the-belt comeback hit me a few minutes later, and I posted it bitterly on Facebook using the airport wifi:

Every other German employee we encountered was somewhere along the spectrum from “pleasant” to “wonderfully helpful and sweet.” The Lufthansa stewardesses especially were really lovely to our kids. But sadly, it’s the little incident at the security checkpoint¬†that will remain burned into our memories from our few hours in Germany.

When I visited Paris as a teenager, I wandered along the Champs-√Člys√©es with a group of friends, one of whom was a French speaker (having lived in France until she was eight years old). She got into conversation with a friendly vendor, and when he asked us where we were from, there was this long, tense pause. We had been specifically warned not to tell anyone where we’re from. So I stepped forward and took advantage of my American accent to say we were from America. The rest of the group stayed very silent as my friend made up an elaborate story about why she spoke French and lived in the US while looking Moroccan.

Every time I’ve been abroad, I’ve had a moment like that where one of the locals asks me where I’m from, and I pause, wondering what kind of a turn the conversation is going to take when I tell them the truth. I actually had that moment with you, in the first conversation we ever had. It’s scarier when I’m in Europe.

If you’ve ever wondered why I sound less than enthusiastic about traveling to Europe with my family…¬†this is a major factor. It’s not much of a vacation when you¬†feel on guard all the time, worried that someone might be cruel or unfriendly to you just because of where you’re from.

Love,

Daniella

A Self-Defense Instructor’s Guide to Responding to Hate Speech

Dear Josep,

*ahem* So. As you know, the other day someone posted a garden-variety¬†antisemitic and misogynist rant on a YouTube video of mine (the one of me teaching a Mishna, which they only could have found through this page). Not that I hadn’t seen this kind of sludge before, but it was the first time I had comments like that directed at me. I took screenshots of it (without the user name of the perpetrator) and posted it on LtJ’s Facebook page with a mocking comment of my own.

screenshot of Facebook post
My post with one of these lovely comments.

Some people suggested¬†that I shouldn’t be giving the perpetrator a platform by perpetuating his message of hate and sharing it. I decided to write this post as a result.

I’m a self-defense instructor.¬†Responding to violence is one of my areas of expertise. Hate speech is a form of violence, and I responded¬†the way I would have taught my students to respond.

Given the general post-Brexit-post-USA-elections atmosphere these days, knowing what to do when you’re targeted by hate speech is sadly more relevant than ever.

Please note that I am going to use the feminine to refer to the person who is defending herself and the masculine to refer to the perpetrator for convenience only. Both could be of any gender.

“How Do I Feel?”

The first thing I teach a self-defense student to do when she finds herself in an uncomfortable situation is to ask herself: What is happening to me right now? How do I feel about what’s going on?¬†

Sometimes, she may not be sure. I teach women to listen to their bodies: is your heart beating fast? Are your breaths quick and shallow? Are your palms sweaty? Are you shaking? These are all signs that your body is responding to a perceived threat.

Do I feel threatened?

In the case of our Internet troll, I didn’t feel threatened.¬†It was just an anonymous comment on the Internet. Research shows that Internet trolls are literally losers.¬†The comments did contain threats of violence, but how seriously am I going to take that when¬†the dude is using the easiest, most cowardly form of verbal abuse to try and hurt me?

What I felt was angry. And exasperated. What kind of a loser has enough time on his hands to seek out videos made by Jewish women and write out long antisemitic rants? Don’t people have better things to do with their time?

“What Do I Want to Happen?”

The next question to ask is, What do I want to happen right now? What do I need to feel safe?

Some possible examples: I want this person to go away. I want him¬†to stop touching me. I want to disappear. I want to get out of here. I want a friend to hug me and tell me everything’s going to be okay. I want to kick this guy’s @$$.

“How Can I Make It¬†Happen?”

The next question is, What can I do to help myself feel safe?

There are a number of options.¬†At El Halev, we believe that the goal of a self-defense course is to expand our students’ options, giving them greater freedom to choose how to respond. (That’s why one of the courses is called, “The Freedom to Choose.”)

Some options we don’t need to teach anybody:

Ignore the Abuse

This can be a good option if you think that engaging with the perpetrator may escalate or perpetuate the situation, and you aren’t concerned that ignoring him will make it worse. Sometimes ignoring it takes the wind out of their sails and will make the abuse stop. As kids, we are told to do this with bullies. It can work sometimes, but not always.

Get Away

You have the right to remove yourself from any situation that makes you uncomfortable without any excuse or explanation. This is usually the safest option, too. The problem is,¬†sometimes¬†you can’t get away, or turning your back may be dangerous. In those situations, it’s best to choose a different response.

The skills we usually work on in a self-defense class include:

Use Your Voice

This can mean anything from trying to engage the person in a disarmingly friendly dialogue,¬†to shouting “GO AWAY NOW!!!”

It’s up to you. Sometimes starting a friendly conversation with a person hurling hate speech at you can be productive and change their views. Sometimes not. You should only try to do this if you feel up to it. You don’t have a responsibility to educate this person¬†on¬†human decency. Your first responsibility is to yourself.

In self-defense, we teach women how to set firm boundaries using strong, confident¬†voices, direct eye contact, and assertive¬†body language. You have every right to look at this person straight in the eye and say: “Do not speak to me like that. Leave me alone.” You don’t owe this person an explanation of what he is doing wrong or why you want him to stop. Just tell him what you want him to do, and repeat it over and over if you have to.

In self-defense, we find in many cases that setting a firm verbal boundary can put an end to the vast majority of situations of threat. This is because bullies and abusers pick on easy victims, people who will not stand up for themselves or fight back. If you show a willingness to stand up for yourself, chances are, the perpetrator will back down.

Defend Yourself

We teach physical techniques in self-defense classes, but only as a last resort: when you feel threatened with physical violence and you see no other safe way out of the situation. Obviously, this isn’t something I can teach you in a blog post! Which is why everyone¬†should go take a local self-defense class. ūüėČ Knowing some¬†physical techniques boosts your confidence and makes you feel safer. Non-lethal weapons such as pepper spray can help, but they have some downsides too: what if they malfunction, or you can’t grab them when you need them? Your body is something that will always be at your disposal, and there are easy, strong¬†techniques that you can learn to use effectively in just a few classes.

Though I did not feel threatened by my Internet troll, it does put an amused smirk on my face to know that even if he did have the guts to physically threaten me in person, he might find himself on the business end of this knee.

(Yes, this is me. Don’t worry about my fellow IMPACT instructor, he’s well protected!)

Recruit the Bystanders

If you’re in a public place and someone is speaking abusively to you, the people around you might not respond at all. This is not necessarily because they don’t want to; it may be that they’re afraid, or that they’re stuck in Bystander Syndrome–a phenomenon where witnesses of an attack do nothing to stop it because they think someone else will do something.

So how do you get help?

Simple: address¬†one person directly, and even better–give them a concrete instruction. “Excuse me sir.¬†Can you tell this man not to speak to me this way?” “Excuse me ma’am. Will you call the police, please?” Even just saying, “I need your help,” addressing one person directly, can jerk them out of denial.

Get Support

After the situation has passed, it’s important to recognize that being threatened–no matter how the situation ended–can be traumatic. You deserve support, and you don’t have to be alone with it. Tell someone you trust who will support you and believe your story without judgment.

We strongly encourage students to file a report if they have been attacked or harassed. Whether you choose to do this can depend on a lot of factors, but we encourage it because it can help you feel empowered, that you have done something, and it can help keep other people safe if the perpetrator is caught and dealt with appropriately.

So, back to my Internet troll:

What I wanted was support.

I reported the comments¬†to YouTube, removed them, and blocked the user from commenting on my channel. Then I shared my story, because I didn’t want to be alone with it. And, of course, I wanted to use that most Jewish of coping mechanisms–dark humor–to distance myself from the abuse and help myself feel more empowered.

I know that as an author who is growing her platform, and especially as a Jewish woman and an Israeli, this is not going to be the last time I’m going to get comments like this. Sometimes I may choose to ignore it and shut it down so the abuser doesn’t get the satisfaction of seeing the effects of their words. Whatever it is–it’s up to me. He threw his words at me; they’re mine now, and I’ll do whatever I like with them!

Love,

Daniella


Blog readers looking for recommendations for self-defense classes: if you’re in Israel, contact El Halev. They’re amazing! Otherwise, find¬†your local chapter of IMPACT International. IMPACT is the best of the best. And I’m not biased at all. Okay, maybe a little.

Hebrew name word cloud

What’s In a Jewish Name?… A Lot, That’s What

Dear Josep,

Long time no write! Hahahahaha just kidding. But our readers don’t know that I’ve been pestering¬†you off-blog on a regular basis the past few weeks. Or is it months? ūüėõ

I haven’t posted anything on here for almost a month. As you know very¬†well, I’ve been busy–busy with various events and projects, one of which is¬†the final revisions for my novel, which is scheduled for publication this coming fall (and is the main reason for the aforementioned pestering).

In any case, I hope you’ve enjoyed your holidays and had the opportunity to rest. January 1st was not “my” new year, but having another point in time to reflect on the past year is nice. Especially since, contrary to John Oliver’s experience of¬†2016, I had an absolutely amazing year.

Seriously. I went to update¬†my personal website¬†and remembered the feeling I had when I first wrote the content for it: “I have no publishing credits. I have no experience. I have no academic degree. I am a generally inferior human being.” Well, I still don’t have a degree, but screw that.¬†I realized my lifelong dream of walking into a bookstore, seeing a book on the shelf, picking it up, and being able to say, “I wrote this.”¬†And that¬†was only the beginning! After¬†15 years of trying to publish fiction, not only did I get two short stories published and another accepted, I found a publisher for my novel. Several pieces of mine¬†were published¬†on well-known websites like Kveller and Aish.com. I even had a little piece accepted for publication in the print version of¬†Writer’s Digest¬†(to be published in the March/April issue).

I am proud of what I have accomplished this year. I know you don’t feel you deserve any of the credit, but obviously, your presence in my life¬†inspired¬†some or most of¬†content in several of these projects. So, thanks for existing. ūüėȬ†And even you can’t deny that you’ve helped me a great deal with both books,¬†so thank you for that, too!

Another exciting thing that happened recently, as you know, is that my sister welcomed a new baby into her family. And the rest of this post is in her honor.

Back towards the beginning of my sister’s pregnancy, she consulted me on name ideas. Recently, when we were discussing it again before the birth, she told me I should write a blog post about it. So, here I am. ūüėČ

Now, I have teased you plenty¬†about the naming customs in your culture, from your *cough* unoriginal¬†first names to your inordinately complicated surnames. No sir, I am never going to let you forget that time I remembered your own grandmother’s name better than you did. ūüėõ

But thinking about it in this context–I get it. Your culture is very¬†Catholic. Catholics name children after saints, I assume with the hope¬†that the child will emulate the fine qualities of that saint. And there are only so many saints to name kids after. Especially when your ancestors have been paranoid about using Jewish-sounding names for the last five centuries. ūüėČ

In Judaism, first names have great¬†significance. We believe that names capture the essence of the person. Some believe that they can alter that person’s destiny. I mentioned before that it is said that parents receive a certain level of prophecy when choosing a name for their child. It’s serious business.

So we want to choose names that contain most or all of the following:

  1. A deep and positive meaning
  2. A positive family connection (e.g. naming after a beloved relative)
  3. A connection to the Jewish context of the child’s birth¬†(a particular holiday, that week’s Torah portion, etc.)
  4. A pleasing sound (and is reasonably pronouncable by most people who will be using it)

Historical Jewish Names

Jews have traditionally named their children either after Biblical figures (Judah, Sarah, Jacob, Esther) or sages from the Talmud (Hillel, Akiva). We have also borrowed names from the cultures and languages around us. I am far from an expert on the matter, but from the little research I’ve done, it appears that foreign-language names were more frequently given to women. (Such as: Preciosa or¬†Dol√ßa in medieval Spain, Aysha (=”life”) or Mas’uda (=”joyful”) in Morocco, and Frieda (=”joy) or Gittel (=”good”) in Eastern Europe.)

It has always been seen as proper and beneficial to name children after relatives or important figures in the community. We hope that by having their names, our children will emulate their fine qualities.

In Ashkenazi and some Sephardi cultures, there is superstition around naming children after living relatives. So we usually only name kids after deceased relatives. In some Sephardi cultures, it’s the opposite–it is a great honor to have a child in the family named after you while you are still alive.

In ultra-Orthodox/haredi communities, these naming customs remain virtually unchanged. The most common names are Biblical names and/or Yiddish names, often after deceased relatives or great community leaders.

Modern American Jewish Names

Some modernized American Jews, mostly of the older generation, gave their kids both an “English name” (which they generally go by in day-to-day life and use on their legal documents) and a “Hebrew name” (used in Jewish ritual contexts, such as prayer). Americans also often have middle names that are not used day-to-day, so between the English name they use, the middle English name, and all the Hebrew names, they can end up with a lot of extra names!

For example: my husband’s English name is Ethan Gabriel, and his Hebrew name is Yitzchak. He was named after his grandfather Egon, whose Hebrew name was Yitzchak, too. My husband¬†went by Ethan for the first two decades of his life. When he became religious, he changed it to the original Hebrew version of Ethan (Eitan), and added that to the beginning of his Hebrew name. But then his mother told him they’d actually named him after all three of his deceased great-grandfathers,¬†giving¬†him¬†three Hebrew names at his circumcision ceremony: Yitzchak Avraham Haim! So now his Hebrew name is Eitan Yitzchak Avraham Haim. Quite a mouthful!

My parents also have two English names and three Hebrew/Yiddish names each (!). I think they decided to simplify matters with their own kids.¬†So I “only” have two names, that work in both languages: Daniella Naomi.

Israeli Names

During the early years of the Zionist movement,¬†pioneers were eager to shed their Diaspora identity. They preferred to name their children distinctly Hebrew names rather than Yiddish ones.¬†They continued to use the classical Biblical names like David, Sarah, Yosef, and Tamar (all of which are still on the top 10 list of given Jewish names in Israel), but they also started giving modern Hebrew names like Rotem (a kind of flower), Shira (“song”), and Tal (“dew”). In the religious community, modern Hebrew names have a more religious bent, such as Shirel (“song of God”) or Benaya (“God¬†has built”).

As you may remember, all my kids’ names are in the latter category. They are modern names, but heavily anchored in Biblical texts. Their names were all inspired by those of a deceased person we wanted to honor.

My sister wanted to name my niece after our grandmother. But the English name has a negative Hebrew meaning, and the Hebrew name was kind of antiquated. So we tossed around ideas for names with similar sounds and meanings, fretting over spellings and pronunciation, until she eventually chose one. The name she settled on also happens to associated with the holiday of Chanukah. My niece was born on the fifth night.

This amount of thought going into a name is totally 100% normal to me, and it only occurred to me recently that it might be very strange to other people. Just as it is completely bizarre to me that names like “Jayden” that don’t¬†mean anything are so popular in the USA. Why would someone give their kid a name that’s just a bunch of sounds put together?!

To each his own, I guess…

Love,

Daniella

I Made Aliyah 20 Years Ago as a Child. This Is My Story

Dear Josep,

So… I’ve got a¬†few “something-versaries” either recently past or coming up. You and I had our tenth “friendversary” two months ago; next week is LtJ’s 2nd¬†“blogiversary” (frankly I can’t believe it’s¬†only been two years!!! So much has happened!!!); and tomorrow is my 20th “aliyaversery.”

It’s hard for me to believe I’ve done¬†anything for 20 years, except be alive. Maybe. ūüėõ

But it’s true: on December 16th, 1996, I stepped out of a plane and descended a mobile staircase onto the tarmac of Ben Gurion Airport. Some people around me knelt and kissed the ground. I did not feel like kissing anything.

I was nine years old at the time and had just left behind the only life I’d known to immigrate to Israel with my parents, older sister, and two younger brothers. “Aliyah” literally means “rising up,” referring to the elevated spiritual status we achieve by being in the Holy Land. But I think you already know that. ūüôā

It’s a story I usually only refer to in passing. I don’t talk about it much. I mean… it was a long time ago. I’ve spent 2/3rds of my life in this country, and if you were to ask me if I feel more American or more Israeli, I’d say I feel more Israeli.

The truth is, though, that the experience of immigrating from the USA to Israel was the formative event of my life. The story of my aliyah is basically the story of how I became who I am today.

I don’t regret a thing, and I am very grateful to my parents for bringing me here. I don’t think I ever would have had the courage and stamina to make this choice as a parent. We had a comfortable life in Pittsburgh. My parents owned a two-story house with a big basement and a huge front and back yard. We were part of a close-knit community of religious Jews in Squirrel Hill; we had a religious Jewish day school, Hillel Academy, just a ten-minute walk away. My dad was a physiatrist (rehabilitative medicine physician) making a very comfortable living, and my mom taught karate to women and children in the community. There was no reason in the world to leave–except¬†Zionism. My parents believed all Jews should live in Israel and planned to make aliyah long before I was born. So I grew up knowing that it was something that would probably happen in the distant future, and when it finally started to materialize, it didn’t come as a shock.

I remember our first few months in Israel in kind of a haze. I had been taught to read and pray in Hebrew at my school in Pittsburgh, and some extremely basic conversational skills, but it was not enough to understand what was going on in the classroom or to have meaningful conversations with my peers.

Even harder than the language barrier was the culture shock. Introversion is… not tolerated very well in Israeli culture. It’s a very social culture, everybody all up in each other’s business.¬†And my classmates interpreted my shyness as snobbery. I made a few English-speaking friends, but most of my classmates either ignored or actively teased me in the first few years. I¬†remember feeling “other,” and intensely lonely. I went from easily the top of my class in Pittsburgh to doing literally nothing in the classroom. Most days I brought along a book in English and read instead of even trying to understand what the teacher was saying.

It was really, really tough. I cried often. I missed my friends and my old life terribly. I fought with my parents and siblings regularly. There was a period I spent 15 minutes every morning throwing a tantrum and screaming at my mother that there was no point in going to school and I didn’t want to go.

This is why I don’t talk about it much. It makes me very emotional to remember how hard it was. (I neither confirm nor deny that I cried several times while putting together this post.)

It didn’t help that I’m highly sensitive, which meant that relative to other children my age, I experienced emotions and relationships very intensely… and that I had already had a history of depression and anxiety. I was seeing a psychotherapist regularly from second grade up until I made aliyah. About a year after aliyah, my family went to a “family therapist” for a few sessions, but other than that, I didn’t have professional emotional support. When I look back on that period, I see that I developed some creative coping mechanisms, using fantasy and creativity as an outlet for my loneliness and sense of helplessness.

Me, age 10, about six months after aliyah

As you’ve probably guessed, one coping mechanism I developed was¬†writing. I kept a daily journal of my thoughts and experiences, starting a few weeks before the aliyah and ending in the summer of 1997.¬†Six months later, I started another diary, which I wrote in every day all through 1998.¬†I also received a hardcover notebook for my birthday that year which I started to use as a poetry book. I still have all three of these, and they are among my most treasured possessions.

Photo of books
Left to right: the poetry book, the aliyah journal, and the diary
Journal entry that reads: Dec. 16th, 1996. Dear Journal, Today I landed in Israel. We got a warm welcome from a society at the Ben Gurion Airport. Our temporary apartment is okay. I was very tired today. Instead of going out to someone's house for dinner, I stayed home with Ima.
Not sure what I crossed out there, but my mixed feelings definitely come across!
Journal excerpt that reads: Dec. 22, 1996. Dear Journal, Today was the first day of school (for me). Everyone kept on staring at me. It was terrible. I hope tomorrow will be better. I EVEN HAD HOMEWORK!!!!!"
Journal entry from my first day at an Israeli school

At age ten, just a few months after making aliyah, I wrote my first chapter book. It was called “To Keep the Peace” and recounted the adventures of yours truly and my real-life British friend Shareen, who, upon learning that the USA and the UK were about to go to war with each other, flew to London and Washington D.C. to convince the Queen of England and then-President Clinton not to fight. It was ridiculous and beyond adorable. And looking at it from a psychological perspective–how awesome was I?¬†I gave myself agency and freedom and the power to cross oceans and change the world through fantasy and creative expression. What a wonderful coping skill!

After writing that book, I had a definitive answer when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up: an author.

Diary entry that reads: April 3rd, 1998. "Dear Teddy, Oooh I - I'm just at a loss for words. Why - how?! No, nothing horrible happened, no one died. Well, my old self sort of did. I am an author and poetess, no doubt about it. But I - I am an *Israeli*. I am going to fall in love with *Israeli men*. I am going to live in Israel. I'm going to have *Israeli children*. But - most of all - I am eleven years old. My sister is thirteen. My life is changing. Too quickly. I can't keep up with myself. I just - can't. Yours, Daniella"
11-year-old Daniella philosophizing about the passage of time and what her future holds.

With the gift money I received for my bat mitzvah, I purchased a computer, which was a pretty standard thing to do with bat mitzvah gift money, but the thing I was looking forward to most about it was fairly non-standard: I wanted to start writing my first novel. And that’s exactly what I did. At age 14 I completed it, and a few months later, completed another novel I had started writing in the meantime. When you and I met four years later, I had already penned five full-length novels.¬†An Ancient Whisper is my sixth.

Over time, my grasp of Hebrew improved, and I learned to find my place within Israeli society.

…Usually off in a corner, having deep philosophical¬†conversations or geeking out over books with my little group of¬†friends while everybody else¬†giggled about movie stars and boys. (Somehow I suspect you will relate,¬†Hamlet. ūüėõ ūüėõ ūüėõ )

I was in eighth grade when the Second Intifada broke out, and was volunteering for OneFamily, an organization that assists terror victims, as it was tapering off. So my entire experience of high school was¬†on the backdrop of some very grim and scary things going on. For my part, it had the effect of strengthening my connection to Israel. That sense of solidarity I write about, the way Israelis cope with terror, helped me feel a part of something, and helped me understand very deeply why my parents had brought me here. This is my people, this is our land, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

By ninth grade I was fully functional in school, and did very well on my matriculation exams despite the fact that I received no accommodations whatsoever on account of my status as an immigrant. (Back then we were expected to be completely functional in Hebrew 5 years after making aliyah. The law has since changed–had I come just a few years later, I would have been eligible for all kinds of accommodations–and I am super pissed off about it. ūüėõ ) (It makes literally no difference to my life. My scores were excellent and I never needed them anyhow. BUT IT’S NOT FAIR!!!) (Okay I’m done)

Basically… I grew up with one foot in each world, struggling to make the transition to the new one while clinging nostalgically to the old one. Reading my writings from that period is kind of heartwrenching: there’s this girl, on the seamline between childhood and adolescence, facing an upheaval in her life that was too big for her to fully comprehend, simultaneously finding relief in her rich imagination and criticizing herself for having her head in the clouds.

Me at a restaurant in Israel, age 10-11, with my paternal grandmother

Story of my life in a nutshell.

Love,

Daniella


A couple quick announcements before I go:

1) Today is the last day you can download¬†Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism for free! Don’t miss out!

2) *ahem* Speaking of my novels… if you’re subscribed to my newsletter or you follow my other blog, you already know this, but I haven’t announced it here yet: my debut novel,¬†An Ancient Whisper, is scheduled for publication by Kasva Press this coming fall! It’s about an American Jew of Sephardic-Moroccan descent and a Catholic Spaniard who team up to research their families’ respective histories… only to discover that their pasts are inextricably linked. Woven into their narrative is the story of their ancestors in late 15th-century Spain: a Jewish family that runs into trouble with the Spanish Inquisition, and the Christian family that comes to their aid. For more information and updates, make sure you’re subscribed to my newsletter.

Letters to Josep Available for FREE–Limited Time Only!

Chanukah and Christmas are both coming up, and they coincide this year! And you know what might make¬†an excellent gift for friends or family members celebrating one, the other, or both? ūüėČ

If you’ve been thinking about buying a copy of¬†Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism¬†as a gift, but want to read it yourself first to see¬†if it’s your speed–this is a perfect opportunity. The Kindle version of¬†LtJ¬†is NOW¬†available for FREE download¬†here on the book’s Kindle page. It will only be free through Thursday (December 15th), so don’t wait–download it now, and spread the word!

If you’ve already read the book–please consider leaving a review! Even Josep left one!¬†I MEAN, um, some random, completely unrelated individual who appears to feel a strange sense of kinship with Josep. Yes. (If you leave a review, you can check it out.)¬†Just click here, give the book as many stars as you think appropriate, and write a few words on what you enjoyed about it. You will have my eternal gratitude! (Seriously. Getting people to leave reviews is like pulling teeth!)

That is all. Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, etc. etc. etc.!

Blessed Be the True Judge

Dear Josep,

*sigh*

So, first of all, I don’t know if you heard about the crazy wildfire/arson thing last week, but if you did, you probably calculated correctly that there isn’t a whole lot to burn out here and that I was probably okay. Eitan was out hiking with a group on Monday, and one of the foreign firefighting aircraft flew low overhead; it was red and yellow, and he eventually figured out was probably from Spain. Thanks! ūüėČ

Last night, though, a terrible tragedy struck our community. A 10-year-old boy was killed in an accident at the traffic circle down the street. We don’t know the family personally, but in a community like ours, we have multiple connections.¬†Eitan and I attended¬†the funeral this morning.

What can I say? How can I begin to describe what it’s like to watch a family say goodbye to their child?

The mother said that this was God demonstrating to her that it’s impossible to protect our children. He’d been wearing a helmet, crossing at¬†the crosswalk. This is what is so rattling about things like these. We move through our lives thinking we have control and that if we just do everything right, everything will be fine. But it’s not true. That’s not the world God made.

“I’m sorry we couldn’t protect you,” the mother said.

Daggers in the heart.

I started writing the following poem before I left for the funeral, and finished it when I came back. It is a kind of exploration of¬†a phrase Jews say when we hear bad news:¬†barukh dayan haemet, “blessed is¬†the True Judge.”


“Blessed is¬†the True Judge”
We push it out disbelieving lips
We force it past our clenched jaws
“The Lord gave, the Lord took away
May the name of the Lord be blessed”
We say.
We lay
A child to rest.
Why did You give
Only to take?
Why did You nurture
Only to break
Our hearts into a thousand pieces,
Shattered like the vessels that broke
Because the world You made was too small
To contain You?
Blessed
Increased, expanded
Be the True Judge
Perhaps it is not praise
Perhaps it is an accusation
Perhaps it is
A demand:
Expand!
Judge of Truth
Who takes a child in the height of his youth
Who forces a mother to bury her son.
Expand Yourself, O Holy One!
Magnify and sanctify Your own great name
In a world doused in tears and engulfed in flame.
Whisper in our ears
That You’re still here
That the pain has a purpose
That will one day be clear
That You do not hide Your face in vain.
Embrace us. Comfort us.
Heal our pain.
Lord full of mercy
Hear our prayer.
Please.
Don’t make us carry this.
It’s too much to bear.


Love,

Daniella

Q&A with Random Strangers on the Internet, Pt. 2!

Before I begin, I wanted to bring your attention to a wonderful review of¬†Letters to Josep that Yael Shahar, author of¬†A Damaged Mirror, posted on her blog (which subsequently got a mention in this month’s¬†Jewish Book Carnival). Thanks, Yael!

Onwards. Back in June,¬†I posted a highly amusing piece¬†(if I do say so myself. Well, Josep found it amusing, and that’s what counts here!)¬†in which I decided to answer some questions or comments that various people typed into a search engine and somehow arrived at my blog.

Well, traffic to my blog has steadily increased in the past few months¬†and I’ve been getting more “search term questions”–some of them more bizarre than others–in my stats. So, I have decided to do another Q & A session with Random Strangers on the Internet!

Let us begin:

“why are the jews so weird”

Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet? ūüėõ

Here are my highly unprofessional hypotheses:

  1. God could only have chosen an entire nation of weirdos to take on the role of “light unto the nations” and “a nation of priests.” A’right? Because nobody normal would agree to take on this insanity.
  2. We’ve been through a lot. You have to be pretty weird to survive 2,000 years of exile, persecution, massacres, and hatred, and still love and celebrate life. In the immortal words of Seal, “Oh, we’re never gonna surviiiiiive uuuuuunless we are a little craaazy!” We’re like your eccentric grandma who has been through so much, she¬†doesn’t give a rat’s behind¬†what anybody thinks about her anymore. (…Oh, you don’t have a grandma like that? I do. Hi Bubbie! ūüėõ )
  3. Inbreeding? Researchers found a bottleneck of only around 350 Ashkenazi Jews during the Middle Ages from which the entire Ashkenazi population today is descended. This could account for some, erm, weirdnesses.
  4. Our intense holidays seasons are enough to drive anybody completely batty. And we’ve been doing ’em for 3,000 years. So.

“jewish people are strange”

…Search terms along these lines are¬†apparently what I get for having a post titled “15 Weird Things Jews Do” go viral.

“what’s the jew thing to do”

Hmm. Well, that¬†depends on the context. A typical Jewish response to pretty much anything is to complain about it, argue¬†about it with anyone who’s willing to listen, joke about it,¬†and then sing loudly and dance the hora because it’s Shabbat/a holiday/a wedding/a bar mitzvah/a happy occasion of any sort and we’ll be darned if we aren’t going to celebrate.

“all the thins jews dont do”

That, my friend, is a very long list.

image of man with huge book with caption, "All the Things Jews Don't Do"

Of the 613 commandments, 365 are “negative” commandments (do nots). ¬†I can’t find a comprehensive list of the negative commandments separated from the positive ones, but here’s a complete list of the 613 based primarily on Maimonides (there are other sources that list them a little differently).

But many of those are not that relevant to daily life. The most important things to know about Jews not doing is: not eating non-kosher food (click here to find out what that means) and not working or performing creative activities on the Sabbath (explained here) or on certain holidays (explained here). There are a bunch of other random stuff, and if you’re interested in learning more, you can check out my book ūüôā

“why do ultra orthodox jews clap”

Because… they’re happy and they know it?

Okay okay but seriously–there is an actual thing about clapping hands. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught that “dancing and clapping hands can sweeten all the decrees.” According to the kabbalah, the right hand is associated with lovingkindness and mercy, and the left hand is associated with justice. Thus, symbolically bringing them together brings mercy into justice.

Or something.

Either way, Breslover hassidim sometimes clap while they pray for this reason, and other Jews who are into Hassidism have adopted the practice as well. Especially during the high holidays.

See, for example, this little scene from “The Guests,” a (really great) Israeli film about a Breslover couple in Jerusalem:

…Yeah, shouting at the top of your lungs is also a Breslover thing. It’s kind of like the shofar, only using your voice. There’s a guy here who does this in public on a regular basis and you can hear him from all over the town.

“throw out dishes in jewish religion”

YES. THANK YOU. Contrary to the popular myth, as described in my recent post on the subject, we do¬†not bury dishes that have been made non-kosher. In the case of ceramic dishes, they cannot be kashered, and therefore we have to throw them out. Fortunately, I personally have never had an issue with a ceramic dish; it is usually cooking utensils like spatulas and wooden spoons that get mixed up around here. You know, you’re standing over the stove, composing your next blog post in your head while you fry the onions, and–whoops! Wrong spatula.

…Okay, so I’m kind of a space cadet. But to be fair it happens to Eitan more often than to me!

“an invitation to pray for israel during the days of awe”

Consider yourself invited! We can use any prayer we can get!

“17 tammuz liquid fast orthodox jewish”

No, actually, the 17th of Tammuz is a typical Jewish fast, which means we refrain from both eating and drinking. More on Jewish fasts here, and more on the 17th of Tammuz and the Three Weeks here.

“judeo arabic phrases”

Sorry, all I know are some very basic Palestinian Arabic phrases. After finishing the French program on DuoLingo, I decided to take a break from DuoLingo (which had been RULING MY LIFE for the past 2.5 years) and from Romance languages and focus on studying spoken Palestinian Arabic through this awesome website for Hebrew speakers, Madrasa.

But often, Jewish dialects of other languages are¬†basically the same as those languages with a few Hebrew and Aramaic words and phrases thrown in. You’ll be pretty safe with “insh’allah” (“God willing”), “mashallah” (“God has willed it”), “alhamdullilah” (“Praise God”), etc., like the Muslims say!

More about Jewish languages here.

“we are the battle ground between good and evil”

Yeah, we totally are.

“was hitler an amalekite”

We Jews argue that he was, in the sense that he “inherited” the spiritual legacy of Amalek. (The actual nation of Amalek disappeared thousands of years ago, so he probably was not one in the genetic sense.) More about that here.

“king david ultimate in tshuva”

King David does stand as a very important example in teshuva (repentance). King Saul, his predecessor, lost his right to the throne because after he sinned, he refused to own up to it when he was confronted by Samuel the Prophet. King David, on the other hand, immediately admitted that he had sinned. There is an entire chapter in Psalms that is believed to have been composed by him when he was confronted by Nathan the Prophet about it (chapter 51).

More about King David and his general awesomeness here, and more about teshuva here.

“the influence of juwish on the development of islam and christianity scriptures”

I’d say we were more than an “influence”; we are the “original,” in the sense that we came first. According to Islam, our scripture is a distorted version of what God originally gave us at Sinai, and the Qur’an is the real deal; according to Christianity, God made a new covenant with humanity when He came to earth as Jesus and sacrificed himself on the cross, nullifying certain aspects of our scripture and replacing them with the Christian bible.

“two most important godly customs”

Let’s see. If I had to choose two customs that are the most important for all of humanity, I think I’d go for prayer and a weekly day of rest (what we practice as Shabbat). Prayer helps us stay connected to ourselves and to God and to hope. A weekly day of rest is good for us in all kinds of ways. Take one day a week to switch off your phone and have a good meal or two with your friends and family, to pray, and to enjoy what you have accomplished that week. Trust me, it’s great stuff.

“is ethiopian jew married another’s jew?”

If you mean, “Can Ethiopian Jews marry other Jews?” the answer is absolutely! I know at least two¬†such couples personally, and look at this adorable music video made by an Ashkenazi Israeli who married an Ethiopian Israeli woman and wrote a song about the coming together of their families:

The singer, Yossi Turetsky, is the son of Ashkenazi immigrants from Great Britain, and his wife made aliyah from Ethiopia with her family during Operation Solomon. An excerpt from the lyrics:

We left the Land thousands of years ago
The distances between us were enormous
We longed for each other each and every moment
For you and me to unite was possible only in our dreams
But the unbelievable happened suddenly…

We are a home again–can you believe it?
We are together again–this is a sign of God’s presence
We are once again being renewed as in those days
We are here again; it is a miracle of God

More about Jewish cultural identities here.

“jew boy selection”

*wince* Too many Holocaust connotations there buddy.

“michal bat esther stabbing”

Yeah, that was scary. Thank God, she’s okay and she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. She has even got involved in peace activism since the attack, partially as a reaction to it.

“are different languages of the world punishment”

My friend Haviv asked me about that! Traditionally it is thought that yes, it was. But I think it’s not all that clear-cut.¬†Here’s my take on it.

“cardboard definition torah”

I… what?

“names of the six compartments of the jewish temple”

I’m not sure what six compartments you are¬†referring to. The Tabernacle and the First Temple had three main areas: the¬†hatzer, the courtyard; the¬†heikhal, the outer hall; and the¬†dvir, or the inner hall, which housed the Holy of Holies. The Second Temple was larger and had additional areas, but that would make more than six.

More about the Temple here.

¬†“ur light/contrast if you want to feel the effects i’m looking for . code: select all if (!track.has weapons()) { // so what are you going to threaten me with? exhaustion gas? return threat level::none; }”

I don’t know what game you’re playing, or how on earth Google decided it had anything to do with me, but no, I do not plan to threaten you with exhaustion gas. (….???)

“letter to a friend on eid al-adha”

God bless you, Yasmina, I’ve gotten many, many views from Muslim-majority countries thanks to your guest letter.

“funny exclamatory pictures”/”exclamatory expressions”

After seeing both of these I wondered what on earth people were finding on my blog with this search term. So I Google-Image-ed it, and apparently, this picture from 10 Essential Words in Judeo-English is one of the top results:

OY.

Not exactly what I would have described as “exclamatory,” but hey, go figure.

Any other questions, Internet?! Don’t be shy, ask in a comment or via the contact page¬†or in an e-mail to letterstojosep at gmail dot com! I love getting questions from readers!

7 Myths About Judaism that Refuse to Die

Dear Josep,

Pretty much as long as Jews have been around, there have been misunderstandings and myths about us and our religion. Some of them are insidious expressions of antisemitism, like the blood libel and other classic antisemitic tropes–which I already covered in my “Great Post of Jewish Conspiracies.”

Today I want to focus on some common myths about Jews that are more innocuous, but no less untrue, and no less annoying. Sadly, most of these are perpetuated by secular Jews, in the spirit of “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

Let us begin with the ever popular:

NOT A THING #1: Married Jewish Couples Have Sex Through a Hole in a Sheet

Uuuuggghhhh

Nothing could be farther from the truth!!!

There is actually a requirement in Jewish law¬†that couples be unclothed during relations. My bridal counselor taught me this and I have read it in several sources. And even if that weren’t true, there is absolutely no need for “modesty” of this kind in the context of a sexual relationship within marriage. Marital relations are supposed to be an expression of ultimate intimacy.

There is a theory that this myth came about because of the tallit katan, the four cornered garment that men wear with the tzitzit (tassels) at each corner. It looks kind of like a small sheet with a hole in the middle, and maybe people saw it hanging on Jewish clotheslines and drew this stupid conclusion.

Photograph of tallit katan on clothesline
Well yes of course, my first thought when I see this is “They must have sex through that!” (Srsly WTF is wrong with you people.)

NOT A THING #2:¬†If You Have a Tattoo, You Can’t Be Buried in a Jewish Cemetery

Okay first off let me point out the obvious absurdity of this myth. Do you think¬†this guy wouldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery because of his tattoo?

Photo of Holocaust survivor displaying his prison number tattoo

Yeah. No.

The biblical prohibition in Leviticus 19:28 is not against having a tattoo, it’s against getting/giving yourself¬†one. And it’s not as clear cut as you may think. The context of the prohibition is clear: the tattoos that were prohibited were a very specific kind with a specific purpose–something to do with idolatry and commemoration of the dead. It is not at all clear that aesthetic¬† tattoos are included in this prohibition. This has practical implications: most rabbis agree that it is permissible for a woman recovering from breast cancer to have reconstructive surgery including a tattooed areola.

It is true that most rabbis agree that aesthetic tattoos (except in cases like the above) are¬†forbidden. But just because you violated Shabbat or ate pork doesn’t mean you can’t be¬†buried in a Jewish cemetery–and getting a tattoo is lower on the hierarchy than those prohibitions. Having ink under your skin doesn’t inherently “taint” you or something.

So what’s the origin of this myth? Eitan heard a theory that maybe it was because during the Middle Ages, when an unidentified body was found and they were trying to figure out where to bury it, it was known that if it had a tattoo, it couldn’t have been Jewish, because Jews don’t get tattoos. So unidentified bodies with tattoos were never buried in Jewish cemeteries.

NOT A THING #3: Orthodox Jewish Women Shave Their Heads After They Get Married

Well. Um.

married-jewish-woman

To be fair, this one at least has some basis in fact: in some Hassidic circles, women do shave their heads after getting married, to make it easier to wear a wig. But the vast majority of Orthodox Jewish women do not shave their heads. I assure you, I have a full head of hair under there.

NOT A THING #4: If a Utensil Has Been Used for Something Not Kosher, One Must Bury It in Dirt

Oh. My gosh. This one drives me nuts.

As we have discussed (and by “discussed” I mean I ranted at you for a full five minutes and then wrote a long essay¬†on the topic for this blog eight years later), kashering dishes and cookware is complicated and generally involves some kind of heating or boiling.

So where on earth did this burying thing come from?

I’ll tell you: back before we had dish soap and abrasive sponges in every kitchen, it was a lot harder to get stuff off of our utensils, especially oils and fats. Sticking the item in the ground to scrape it off with dirt was a common way to clean it. So this was recommended as a way to get the utensil clean. But there is no reason to leave the thing in the dirt for any period of time, and scraping something in the dirt is no more effective in kashering than washing a dish in the sink with soap and a good sponge. (Namely, this will only work if the forbidden food that came into contact with the item wasn’t hot or strong-flavored.)

And yet time and again I have heard uninformed Jews refer to burying as the proper way to kasher things–or just some bizarre ritual to get rid of the “treifed” (un-koshered) utensil. At first I thought this was an “assimilated American Jew” thing, but then a friend told me that her Moroccan-Israeli roommate had a flowerpot full of forks and spoons waiting to be kashered!

There is no basis whatsoever for this practice!!! It’s probably the result of a weird conflation of the aforementioned scraping-to-get-it-clean thing with the fact that we’re supposed to leave a utensil unused for 24 hours before kashering it.

The most annoying example I saw was in an episode of Larry David’s show¬†Curb Your Enthusiasm. In the episode, Larry is trying to endear himself to an Orthodox Jew in an influential position, by pretending to be Orthodox himself (and pretending that his non-Jewish wife is not his wife). Here’s the scene:

(Might I also point out that the “Orthodox woman” portrayed here is not dressed particularly realistically either–she is covering her hair, even though she’s unmarried, and wearing pants rather than a skirt, which some Orthodox women do, but many don’t.)

Only Larry David would have the chutzpah to make an entire episode about Orthodox Jews without bothering to consult one.

…Actually… no, he’s not the only one.

NOT A THING #5: Sabbath Candles Are Always Lit at the Sabbath Table Immediately Before the Meal

Something always bugged me about this scene from Fiddler on the Roof:

It’s a truly beautiful scene that captures a lot of the spirit of Sabbath Eve… but… this is almost certainly not what a Friday night looked like in a Russian shtetl in the early 20th century.

In this clip it seems that they are lighting the candles before sunset, and then sitting down for the meal. More likely, the mother would light the candles, and then the men would head off to synagogue for evening services. When they got back home after dark, they would have the meal by the light of the already-lit candles.

Lighting candles¬†before Shabbat is a well-known and popular custom that was instituted by the rabbis. It is not a Biblical requirement in any sense. But there’s a common misconception that they must be lit right before the meal–even if the meal takes place, as it usually does, after sundown. I’ve seen this happen in other movies and TV shows about Orthodox Jews, and it drives me crazy!

Because because because

WHY ARE THEY LIGHTING FIRE ON SHABBAT

AAAHHHHHH

The prohibition against lighting fire on the Sabbath is¬†one of the few Sabbath prohibitions that is explicit in the text of the Bible: “You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on the Sabbath day” (Exodus 35:3)¬†An Orthodox Jew would never ever ever ever light candles at the Sabbath meal if it started after sundown.

And here’s one last annoyingly inaccurate portrayal of an Orthodox Jew in popular media:

NOT A THING #6: Jews Have a Problem with Porcine Implants

As I was looking around for another Shabbat-candle-related clip, I came across this little scene from the American TV show, Gray’s Anatomy:

Whaaaaaaaaaaat

Terrible acting AND completely detached from reality:

A) The only clear-cut prohibition we have regarding pigs is not eating them. We are allowed to use any part of them for any other purpose.

B) This is a clear case of¬†pikuach nefesh–a situation where a life is endangered. Not¬†only would she be allowed to have the implant, she would be allowed to¬†eat pork if it would save her life. On¬†Yom Kippur.¬†Cooked in¬†its mother’s milk.¬†By an idol worshiper. ūüėõ

I think this misconception comes from a basic lack of understanding about Judaism and Jewish law… and the fact that Muslims are a lot more strict about pigs and pig products than we are. Muslims are not allowed to touch pigs and see them as having an inherent impurity.

Jewish culture does share a cultural bias against pigs, however, and especially Chabadniks, who take particular issue with non-kosher animals including dogs and cats, might feel uncomfortable with the idea of a porcine implant. But what should have happened in the above scene is that once they told this young woman she would die if she didn’t get the implant, she’d have picked up the phone and called her rabbi, who would have told her that it’s fine.

NOT A THING #7: Food Is Made Kosher by Being Blessed by a Rabbi

Unlike the previous two this one usually comes from non-Jews who have heard that there is some weird thing about Jews and food but have no idea what it is, and draw the conclusion that the food needs to be “blessed” by a clergyman.

As I have exhaustively explained, kashrut has nothing to do with whether it was blessed by a rabbi, and everything to do with the contents of the actual food–kind of like a spiritual allergy. In cases of packaged or prepared foods, we do require¬†supervision¬†by a rabbi–that is, that a rabbi verifies that the product has been prepared in accordance with the laws of kashrut.

Actually, we “bless” our own food. That is, we recite a blessing before taking a bite of anything. But that has nothing to do with kashrut. I elaborated on that here.

THESE ARE NOT THINGS!!!

Just… wanted to clear that up.

Love,

Daniella

A portrait of Abravanel. Source unknown.

Awesome Jews of History #2: Don Isaac Abravanel

Dear Josep,

Marrying another bookworm has had its perks. Back before Eitan’s eye issues made it impossible for him to read from print books without pain, he bought books all the time.¬†Even though our current stock¬†is only a small fraction of his original collection, and even though we’ve been living together for eight years, every once in a while I’ll go searching through his old books and discover something interesting.

This book was one such discovery.

Photo of book: Don Isaac Abravanel, Statesman & Philospher, by B. Netanyahu

That’s not Benjamin Netanyahu, for the record; it’s Benzion, Bibi’s father, who was one of the most prominent modern scholars on late medieval Spain. I’ve been wanting to get my hands on any or all of¬†his scholarly works on the Inquisition and the conversos¬†(because hi, it’s me), and I was astonished to find this book on my own bookshelf a couple months ago. (Eitan says he bought it used someplace a long time ago and forgot it existed.) Don Isaac Abravanel¬†is apparently B. Netanyahu’s¬†first book, originally published in 1953.

In the months that followed I read the book and developed a keen interest in Abravanel.¬†I found his character weaving itself into a short story I was writing during that time, which pushed me to read the book more deeply as well as some of Abravanel’s Biblical commentary in the original Hebrew. I knew Abravanel as “Abarbanel,” (the commonly accepted pronunciation of the name in the Jewish community)–at first as a Biblical commentator whose opinions were brought into my classes on the Torah and the Prophets, and then as a historical figure who had a pivotal role during the period of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.¬†But this biography really brought everything together for me about his character and his role in history.

So allow me to introduce you to Awesome Jew of History #2: Don Isaac Abravanel.

A portrait of Abravanel. Source unknown.
A portrait of Abravanel. Source unknown.

Don Isaac Abravanel was born in Lisbon in 1437 to one of the wealthiest, most distinguished Jewish families in Iberia. His grandfather, Don Samuel, served three successive Castilian kings, and in the days of Enrique III, he had assumed the office of¬†contador mayor–the highest position in Castile’s financial administration. He was outspoken in defense of Jews and Judaism in his native Seville, and the Jews of Spain considered him their leader…¬†so you can imagine how shocked and horrified they were when he converted to Christianity, apparently voluntarily. As a result of his conversion, the older of his children cut off ties with him and moved to Portugal. Among those estranged sons was Don Judah, Don Isaac’s father.

Don Judah did well in Lisbon, apparently becoming a royal treasurer for Jo√£o I, and Don Isaac was brought up with a great deal of wealth, familiarity with the nobility and royalty, and a thorough Jewish and secular education. He began writing Biblical commentary and philosophical works as a young man. And I can tell you as someone who translated bits of his writing to work into my story–the man was overflowing with the words of the Bible¬†even when he wasn’t talking about it. The text I translated was mostly autobiographical, and yet every sentence made multiple Biblical references. If I was unsure about some phrase¬†or other I just Googled it and immediately found it in Psalms or Jeremiah or Deuteronomy.

As an adult, he moved into a position of power under Alfonso V, who appointed him treasurer. But the problem with getting friendly with a king of Portugal (or any medieval monarch, for that matter) and establishing yourself in his royal court, is that there’s a fast turnover rate, and more often than not, the following king is going to suspect you of other loyalties. That’s what happened to Abravanel.¬†When¬†Jo√£o II took the throne, he suspected Abravanel of treason and eventually put out a warrant for his arrest. Abravanel was certain of his innocence, but understood that he stood no chance of convincing the king, so he fled to Castile. The king seized all his assets. Thus Abravanel lost his entire fortune, and had to start over in a new kingdom.

But guys like Abravanel don’t really manage to keep a low profile. Abravanel employed his exceptional knowledge and skills, and slowly worked his way up the social ladder. His skills eventually came to the attention of one King Fernando of Aragon. Fernando and Isabel employed him as a financier, and he became second only to Abraham Senior as the highest-ranking Jew in the kingdom. It’s interesting to note that despite everything, Abravanel seems to have had something resembling a good relationship with the Catholic Monarchs. Fernando was a very slippery, poker-faced kind of guy, managing to make everyone think they were getting along great while stabbing them in the back.

So, in 1492, when the Catholic Monarchs captured Granada and issued the Alhambra Decree, Abravanel was in a very unique and crucial position, having a place of power and esteem within the royal court. He and Abraham Senior worked tirelessly to cancel the decree. They had an audience with Fernando three times, appealing to his practical side, offering him an enormous bribe to be collected from the Jewish community. But Mr. Aragonese Poker-Face never committed to anything, always dismissing them with an “I’ll think about it” kind of response. Thus unsuccessful, they tried appealing to¬†Isabel. With Isabel, Abravanel took an entirely different approach.

Writes Netanyahu: “He now spoke to the queen–the haughty, fanatic and often ferocious Isabella–not like her financial agent, not even like a cautious, diplomatic courtier. He spoke to her now like a scion of the House of David and as a representative of an unconquered–and unconquerable–people. He spoke to her, moreover, like a prophet of old, in daring, castigating and threatening language. If Isabella thought that, by measures like the expulsion, the Jews could be brought to surrender or to extinction, she was greatly mistaken. He pointed out to her the eternity of the Jewish people, that they had outlived all who had attempted to destroy them, that it was beyond human capacity to destroy the Jewish people, and that those who tried to do so only invited upon themselves divine punishment and disaster.”

Isabel’s response, too, echoes eerily prophetic through the annals of history: “Do you believe that this comes upon you from us?¬†The Lord hath put this thing into the heart of the king.”

And so, Don Isaac Abravanel failed to reverse the fate of his people. Abraham Senior converted to Christianity in order to stay in Castile, and Abravanel left with his brethren, losing his fortune and his honor for the second time.

Abravanel moved to Naples. Italy was very unstable at the time and he had to move around a lot in the coming years because of various wars. He eventually settled in Venice, and he died there in 1508.

Like all of his contemporaries, Abravanel struggled to make sense of the expulsion. As you know, it was one of the most highly traumatic crises in Jewish history, and many Jews found themselves in a place of deep discouragement and despair. Some feared that the expulsion marked the beginning of the end of the Jewish people.

Abravanel’s response to the crisis was a mystical/spiritual one. He wrote extensively about the coming of the Messianic era, and even calculated when the Messiah would come. He had some compelling arguments for the year 1503, but obviously, he turned out to be very wrong. When I read articles about Abravanel in the past and learned about this feature of his writings I found it annoying and depressing. He was so sure that the horrors of the expulsion marked the beginning of the Redemption with a capital R. And he we are, five hundred years later, still saying “Any minute now!”

But when I read Netanyahu’s take on this aspect of Abravanel’s philosophy, I saw it in a new way. One of the things I have learned about hope in the last few years is that it has intrinsic value¬†that is¬†completely detached from¬†outcome. As I wrote on this article for Trish Hopkinson’s blog: “I saw hope as a seductive and deceptive force that enticed me to climb higher, making the inevitable fall hurt that much more…¬†But that place it takes us is not just a place we fall from. It‚Äôs a place where we see farther, where we breathe better, where we reach higher.”

Abravanel gave the Jewish people hope.

He gave great detail and vivid color to a very theoretical idea of the bright future that lay somewhere ahead of all this gloom.

Our national anthem is called “The Hope” for a reason. Hope is what has carried us through and kept us moving forward even in the darkest of times.

For that, if not for the vast library of intriguing ideas and scholarship he left behind, and for his tireless efforts to make the world a better place for Jews and non-Jews alike… he deserves to be remembered as a great man, and an Awesome Jew of History.

Love,

Daniella


The previous Awesome Jew of History was King David! Is there an awesome Jewish historical figure you’d like me to write about? Let me know!