Jew Things! (Or: What Is Judaica Anyway?!)

Dear Josep,

The other day I had a strange urge to clean the top of this bookcase and the items on it.

You may be asking yourself, “What’s with all the lions?” or perhaps, “Why did she have an urge to clean that shelf while completely ignoring the clutter right underneath it?” Both legitimate questions, but for the moment I’d like to focus your attention davka on the train.

photo of silver train engine

Looks like a silver train engine, right? The only thing on the outside that betrays its secret is the subtle Hebrew inscription on the chimney.

This train was given to Eitan by his grandmother, who ran a Judaica shop at the local synagogue (where I happen to be giving a talk in a couple weeks!). It contains all sorts of Jewish surprises, and I’m going to use it to introduce you to the Judaica in my home.

But before we get to the train, I must start with #1 most important thing you will find in a Jewish home…

Books

meme of buzz lightyear saying, "Books! Books everywhere!"

After all, this post did start with a bookcase, didn’t it?! 😉

I recently heard someone refer to bookshelves as “Jewish wallpaper”. Jewish life revolves around books, and we proudly display them to express how important they are to us. I elaborated on what those Jewish bookshelves may contain in this post.

I will spare you a photo of the rest of our bookshelves, because let’s just say the aforementioned clutter is, um, consistent. (Look, I never claimed to be a good housekeeper, okay? 😛 )

Now, coming back to our train:

Shabbat Candlesticks

That’s what those “chimneys” on the top are supposed to be.

Many Jewish women have a pair of candlesticks they use for the Shabbat candles. Some, like in my family, have the custom of lighting an extra candle for each of their children, so sometimes they have a larger set.

You have seen my Shabbat candlesticks before:

photo of candlesticks on a windowsill

The short silver ones belonged to Eitan’s great-grandmother. The tall silver ones with the topaz stones were a gift from my grandparents for my bat mitzvah; the Hebrew letters on them are the blessing for the Shabbat candles. The china one in the center is from a pair I was given by my friends from Boulder before Eitan and I got an engaged.

R2 made the one with the colorful pebbles at preschool, and that’s what he uses; the other kids use those flower tea light holders I made in a ceramics class. The tea light holders with the Jerusalem landscape painted on them were a wedding gift. I use those for guests.

I normally use simple tea lights as Shabbat candles. We went through a phase where I was using glass bulbs filled with colored paraffin oil, but frankly, they were messy and annoying to deal with. (For the record, the candles I gave you recently are fancy and would probably not actually be used for Shabbat, because we would only be able to use them once, as we can’t put them out once they’re lit!)

Havdala Set

So, the havdala ceremony that closes the Sabbath requires three items: a multi-wicked candle, something pleasant to smell, and a cup of wine or grape juice. Many Judaica stores carry “havdala sets” that contain a candle holder, a goblet, and a container to hold spices (besamim). Often they include a little plate or tray for the items to rest on, and to use to pour the wine and put out the candle at the end of the ceremony.

photo of havdalah set
Photo credit: Olaf.herfurth [CC BY SA 3.0]

Remember that scene in By Light of Hidden Candles where Manuel stumbles into Alma’s grandmother’s Judaica shop, and snatches something off the shelf to find an excuse to be in there? The thing he snatches is a besamim holder that probably looks something like the item on the right.

So, here is the miniature “havdala set” from Eitan’s Judaica train:

photo of the havdalah set, made up of the front part of the engine and one of the "cars"

The Hebrew lettering on the “chimney” reads “borei me’orei ha’esh“, “Creator of the lights of fire,” the blessing we say over the havdalah candle, and the lettering on the box says besamim. I say it’s miniature, because I don’t think the candle holder or the cup are a practical size. The cup needs to contain a certain amount that won’t fit in that tiny thing, and I’ve never met a havdala candle that would fit in that little slot. This is the one we actually use:

photo of plastic plate with large candle, silver goblet, bottle of essential oil, and cloth satchel on it
The havdala candle was purchased at the same factory in Tzfat as your candles!

It’s free-standing, and we’ve never actually owned a besamim holder, a havdala candle holder, or a special goblet just for havdala. For besamim, we just use a bottle of essential oil or a satchel of cloves R1 made in school (pictured above), and for the goblet, we just use our:

Kiddush Cup

Remember these?

photo of five silver goblets of varying sizes

We use these silver cups for the Kiddush ceremony–a blessing over wine we make before the festive meals on Shabbat or holidays. Kiddush cups are often made of silver or another metal, glass, or ceramic. We have two other goblets that we don’t use:

photo of two goblets; on the left, tall goblet made of red glass painted with gold and white trim; on the right, small silver goblet
The red one belonged to my Zadie, and he used it during Passover; the silver one belonged to Eitan’s grandfather

So, one of the compartments in the train engine is a besamim holder… what is the other one?

Tzedaka Box

photo of other "car" from train, which has a slot on the top

The lettering reads tzedaka. Tzedaka is charity, and it is very common to give children their own tzedaka boxes (called pushkes in Yiddish) as a gift or have them make their own–so common, in fact, that we have quite a surplus:

We do use them to collect loose change to give to charity, but mostly, they have a symbolic educational value. It may be more effective to give charity these days through online payments, credit cards, or checks, but putting a coin into a box is much more tangible, something our kids can do to learn that this is an important value.

Our train contains just one more surprise…

Chanukiyah

This one you definitely know. 🙂

The chanukiyot we use on Chanukah are very simple, very inexpensive, standard fare from the average supermarket.

photo of five simple chanukiyot with all candles lit

In previous years, we’ve often used chanukiyot the children made at preschool. Really, you can just arrange some candles on aluminum foil, set one to the side, and call it a chanukiya.

Or, if you want to get fancier, some chanukiyot are true works of art. This was the Chanukah display at the Harim Shopping Center at the Gush Etzion Junction a few weeks before Chanukah this year:

photo of table with a display of many chanukiyot of different colors and designs

Challah Stuff

The challah loaves are a centerpiece of the Shabbat table.

photo of two braided loaves

If they are on the table while we’re making Kiddush, we need to cover them first, because according to the rules of the hierarchy in blessings, you’re technically supposed to make a blessing on bread before wine if they are both in front of you at the same time. So we cover the challah with a cloth. (In our house, usually we just keep the challahs off the table until it’s time to make the blessing on them.)

And so we have challah cutting boards, challah covers, and challah knives…

photo of table spread with lots of colorful cloths, two cutting boards and a bread knife

…and even this tray to put the challah slices in and pass around the table.

photo of tray made of wood and silver with a glass insert

Washing Cups

Remember when I showed you how to wash your hands for bread?

photo of three two-handled washing cups

We use two-handled washing cups for ritual washing before bread or upon waking. They can be simple plastic or made of metal, glass, or ceramic.

The metal thing in the back is for mayim acharonim, water poured over our fingertips after the meal is over.

Mezuza Cases

Well, I know you know what these are. 😉

Eitan recently bought this one to replace a glass case that, completely out of the blue, fell and shattered into a thousand pieces a few months ago, thereby unleashing the superstitious Jewish ancestors deep in my veins: “The mezuza jumped off of the wall, okay?!” I shrilly insisted to an amused Eitan. “We need to get our mezuzas checked NOW!!!” (You see, we’re supposed to have the scrolls checked from time to time to make sure they’re are still kosher–meaning, in good condition without any of the letters smudged or anything. And there’s a well-known superstition that bad things will happen in a household where one of the mezuzas isn’t kosher, so when there is a series of unfortunate coincidences, people often say “Better check your mezuzot…” I absolutely do not believe this superstition. And yet. IT JUMPED OFF THE WALL, JOSEP, WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO UNDERSTAND FROM THIS?! 😛 )

Anyway: as you know, mezuza cases range from very simple plastic ones to expensive precious-metal-and-jewel-encrusted affairs. We have ones made of various metals, wood, and stone.

Prayer Paraphernalia

photo of tallit and tefillin
Eitan’s tallit and tefillin

I covered these in a post about prayer. These items are used only by men in Orthodox communities. That plastic tefillin box on the upper right protects the tefillin, and it has a mirror on it to help the man make sure it’s centered on his forehead.

I bought Eitan’s tallit for him as a wedding gift, as is the tradition in our community. 🙂

Kippot

I covered these thoroughly in A Blessing on Your Head: Jewish Headgear.

So now you know your way around a Judaica store! 😉

Oh, and about the lions–that’s actually only part of my collection. My grandparents liked to collect works of art on a certain theme for each of their grandkids, and they collected lions for me, because of my name (Daniel[la] in the lion’s den). I never identified much with the prophet Daniel, but I have always loved cats, big and small, and lions in particular. (Are you a cat person too? You strike me as a cat person.)

Love,

Daniella

painting of Judah and Tamar

4 Horrifying Bible Stories They Probably Didn’t Teach You in Sunday School

Dear Josep,

My formal education took place exclusively in religious Jewish institutions–from Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh’s “Tiny Tykes” program at age 3 to my brief stint in the theater program at Emunah College. So my earliest memories from school include snippets of activities related to Bible stories: making Noah’s ark out of a milk carton, or Jonah’s whale with movable jaws; watching my nursery teacher tell the story of Jacob and Laban using a felt board; and putting on a play in kindergarten with my best friend at the time, who played his namesake Abraham to my Sarah.

The thing is, the Torah is not a children’s book. As we circled back to these same stories years later in school or independently, we discovered that in between the classic, ostensibly innocent stories we enacted in kindergarten classes, there were some that were… not innocent at all.

Lot & His Daughters

Lot was Abraham’s cousin, and there are two stories we were taught about him as children. The first is the story of how and why Abraham and Lot parted ways–because Lot’s shepherds were letting their sheep graze from other people’s grass, which Abraham considered immoral. The second story is that of the destruction of Sodom, where Lot chose to live; Lot’s wife famously ignored the advice not to look back at the city being destroyed, and turned into a pillar of salt.

Up to here, everything sounds G-rated, right?

So. A couple details our preschool teachers kinda glossed over.

Genesis chapter 19. Two angels of God came to Lot disguised as humans to warn him about Sodom’s imminent destruction. Lot, who was trained by Abraham to be a gracious host, invited them in and insisted that they stay the night. After he took them in, all the people from the city of Sodom came to his door and demanded that he hand over his visitors. For what purpose? Well, this is Sodom, after all, right? To rape them, of course.

Now, Lot is supposed to be the righteous man in this scenario, right? So he comes out and says, “My brethren, please do not do evil…” So far so good… “Behold, I have two daughters who have not known a man. I will bring them out to you, and do to them as you see fit; only to these men do nothing, because they have come under the shadow of my roof.”

HOOOOOOLD UP.

LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT. Lot nobly protects his guests–perfect strangers who he has never met before in his life–by handing over his two virgin daughters to be gang raped instead?!?!

Because these two guests have “come under the shadow of his roof”, but the two young women who have lived under his roof for the duration of their lives–his own flesh and blood–handing them over to be raped is A-OK?!?!

Wait, wait, it gets worse!!!

Fortunately for the daughters, the crowd isn’t pleased with this offer and starts to threaten to rape Lot instead. The angels-disguised-as-people pull Lot into the house and shut the door, and the citizens of Sodom are struck with temporary blindness and are unable to continue their attack. The angels tell Lot that he needs to get the hell out of the city because God’s going to destroy it. So Lot gathers his things and his family and they leave. Yadda yadda yadda, don’t look back, pillar of salt, blah blah blah.

Fast forward to verse 30. Lot and his daughters are now camping out in a cave in the mountains. Now, the daughters are concerned. They had both been betrothed, but their fiancees had laughed off Lot’s warning and invitation to flee the city with him before the destruction, and had subsequently died in the whole fire and brimstone thing. It seems to me from the text (and I’m pretty sure the commentators extrapolate this) that the daughters believed they were the last three humans alive–that the whole world had been destroyed together with Sodom. They felt an obligation, therefore, to carry on the human race, and the only way they could do that was… not IVF, if you take my meaning.

Each daughter in turn got their father drunk, slept with him, and conceived a child. And that, dear children, is how the great nations of Moab and Ammon came to be.

Lot's Daughters painting by Marcantonia Franceschini
HOW CREEPY IS THIS PAINTING? (Franceschini Marcantonio, “Lot and His Daughters”, circa 1677)

Judah and Tamar

Oh, we hear plenty about Judah, don’t we? The fourth son of Jacob and Leah, who inherited the role of leadership after his three older brothers–Reuben, Simeon, and Levi–all failed in one way or another. Ancestor of the Davidic line, from whom the majority of Jews today are descended and whose name has become our name. The brave brother who offered to take Benjamin’s place in jail when Joseph planted the royal goblet in Benjamin’s sack. Yes indeed, a very noble character in the Bible.

Except for that one time…

Okay, actually, this story is an integral part of Judah’s rise to his role of leadership. Unlike in Islam, Judaism’s Biblical heroes and prophets are famously flawed; it is through their flaws, and their overcoming of their flaws and owning up to their mistakes, that they achieve greatness.

So. You know the story of Joseph and his brothers, I assume. Normally, when we tell this story, the narrative follows Joseph to Egypt, and we skip gracefully from chapter 37 to 39. But the Biblical narrative spends that one chapter in between focused on Judah in the land of Canaan. It tells us that he takes a wife, and she gives birth to three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Er comes of age, Judah finds a wife for him, by the name of Tamar. The Bible tells us that Er was “evil in the eyes of the Lord”–it doesn’t specify how–and that he died as a result of his sin.

Now, there is a Jewish law hearkening back to this period of the Bible that states that if a man dies while his wife is still childless and he has an unmarried younger brother, that brother must marry the widow “to carry on” the dead brother’s seed. I guess in the context of Biblical times this made sense, since the widow would need someone to provide for her, she may be considered “damaged goods”, etc. In order to get out of this obligation, the widow and brother need to perform an odd ritual called “chalitzah”, which involves the widow removing the brother’s shoes, spitting on the floor in front of him and berating him for not “building the house of his brother”. They need to perform this ritual before either of them can marry anyone else. (And yes, we still do this. People hardly hear about it because, thank God, in the modern world, it’s a relatively rare situation.)

So, according to this norm, Tamar was supposed to marry Onan. So she did, but Onan apparently didn’t like the idea that his children would be considered “his brother’s seed”, so he, uh, to quote the Bible: “wasted [his semen] on the ground” when he was with Tamar. God did not approve of this vindictive behavior and killed him too.

Now at this point, Judah was understandably a little spooked by Tamar’s record with his sons, and Shelah–his only remaining son–was still young. So Judah told Tamar to wait until Shelah was older before letting them marry. But a long time passed, Shelah came of age, and still Judah didn’t let them marry. His own wife died, and he went off somewhere to hang out with a friend, and Tamar–angry with Judah for not granting her her right to a husband–hatched a plan. She disguised herself and went over to the place where Judah was.

Judah didn’t recognize her, because her face was covered, and thought she was a prostitute, so he approached her and told her to prepare herself for him.  Tamar asked him what her compensation would be. He promised her a kid from his herd. (A baby goat, that is. Obviously, the entire problem here was that he hadn’t provided her with the means to have a human kid!) Not trusting his word for obvious reasons, she asked for deposit: his signet, his cloak, and his staff. He agreed to these conditions and slept with her. But later, when he tried to send the kid over and collect his stuff, she had mysteriously disappeared. (A.k.a., took off the veil and changed back into her widow’s garb.)

painting of Judah and Tamar
“Srsly Judah? How many years have I been living in your house and you still don’t recognize me?” (Ferdinand Bol, “Judah and Tamar”, 1653)

Three months later, people began to notice that Tamar was pregnant, and told Judah that she had been involved in prostitution. He ordered that she be burned to death. Tamar then announced that the man who had come to her was the one who had provided her with these three items: the signet, the cloak, and the staff. Judah recognized them as his, and declared that Tamar was more righteous than he was, and that he was the one who had sinned by not allowing her to marry Shelah. So she stayed in his household and gave birth to twin boys: Peretz and Zerah. Peretz was a direct ancestor of King David.

It was only after this episode that Judah exhibited his leadership qualities and willingness to take responsibility and stand up for what’s right; that’s his character arc during the book of Genesis. And I think the connection this story has to the very existence King David is not at all coincidental. It was these same qualities that made David fit to rule (and as we’ve discussed, King David had similar faults and a similar willingness to reckon with his mistakes).

Still, between the double standards regarding sexual behavior in men and women and the ick factor of Judah’s daughter-in-law willingly sleeping with him, it’s a pretty disturbing story.

The Concubine in Giv’a

And now, class, please open your Bibles to Judges 19.

So a guy and his concubine are traveling and they stop in Giv’a–a city in Benjamin–for the night. The narrative emphasizes that they decided to stay there rather then in Jebus (which would later become Jerusalem), because they were concerned about how the non-Israelite Jebusites would treat them. But they were disappointed with the lack of hospitality; they waited a long time for someone to offer them a place to stay, until an old man invited them in.

painting of the concubine of Gibeah
A painting of this event by Jan Victors. I guess he didn’t want to paint subsequent events, for reasons that will become obvious in a moment.

As they ate their meal, the people of the town surrounded his house and demanded that he hand over the guest. For what purpose? Well this is Sodom, right…?

NO. IT’S NOT. It’s a city in BENJAMIN. WT* PEOPLE.

The host begged them not to rape his guest and instead offered them his virgin daughter (WHY IS THIS A THING?!?!?!) and the man’s concubine instead. They refused, but the man grabbed his concubine nonetheless and tossed her out there.

That ended just about as badly as you can imagine.

The man discovered her dead on the doorstep the next morning.

He took her body, cut it into 12 pieces, and sent a piece to each of the other tribes to shock them with the horrible violence that had taken place in this city. The other tribes were appropriately horrified and went to war with the tribe of Benjamin, swearing not to let their daughters marry into the tribe. The tribe of Benjamin was almost destroyed, and hence the whole story of the women in the white dresses etc. that I described in the post on Tu B’Av.

Yep. That’s one of the stories behind Tu B’Av, the Jewish “holiday of love”.

HOW VERY ROMANTIC.

Amnon and Tamar

(Women named Tamar seem to have pretty bad luck in the Bible…)

So this story is connected to another scandalous bible story that is far more widely known: that of David and Bathsheba. Truth is, King David’s reign was wrought with scandal, which was part of his punishment for his sin in taking Bathsheba.

What happened was this: Amnon, one of David’s sons, had the hots for his half-sister Tamar and admitted this to his cousin Yonadav ben Shama. Yonadav said, “Ewww, Amnon, that’s sick, she’s your sister! Snap out of it and find some other pretty lady to lust after! You’re a goddamn prince!”

HAHAHA KIDDING. (I really wish I weren’t.)

No. What he really said was, “Lie down on your bed and pretend to be sick, and when your father comes to see you, say to him: ‘Let my sister Tamar come now, and let her give me bread to eat, and prepare the food before my eyes, that I may see and eat from her hand.'”

So that’s what Amnon did. And as Tamar fed him, he grabbed her and asked her to sleep with him. She refused, and begged him not to, but he overpowered her and forced himself on her.

painting of Amnon attacking Tamar
KNEE TO THE HEAD, TAMAR! You’re set up for it perfectly!!! Too bad they didn’t have self-defense instructors back then. (Venetian School, c. 1600)

When he was finished, he felt suddenly repulsed by her and kicked her out. Tamar’s brother Absalom ended up killing Amnon in revenge. (…And then leading a rebellion against David which involved sleeping with a bunch of David’s concubines. BUT LET’S NOT GO THERE SHALL WE.)

Now, at this point, you may be asking yourself:

Why Would a Holy Book Such as the Bible Contain Such Awful Stories?

Great question.

So here’s the thing.

These stories are part of the story of our people, and the Bible does anything but hide our darkest and worst moments. On the contrary, I think it makes a point of focusing on them. Why? Because the Bible isn’t a history book; every word preserved in its pages is meant to teach us something. And as many wise people have said, mistakes are the best teachers.

I believe that there are many aspects of the Bible that are meant to make us squirm. It’s not supposed to be a feel-good bedtime story. It’s supposed to make us question who we are and what choices we are making, and ask ourselves: how could they have handled this better? (Like, I dunno, how about NOT offering your virgin daughters to a crowd of rabid rapists?! JUST A THOUGHT.) What might I do in a similar position? What are the darker and uglier aspects of human nature this story is asking me to face, and what is it telling me to do about them?

We can’t fight evil unless we are willing to stare it in the face, and the first place we need to look for it is in the mirror.

Um, and on that cheerful note, Feliç Any Nou! Here’s to a 2019 full of good news and happy occasions. And, uh, none of the kinds of things we’ve discussed in this post.

Much love,

Daniella


A couple announcements for those of you not following my author blog: I was interviewed on Radio Sefarad’s English Corner podcast about LtJ and the Moving Stones project! You can listen to the interview here.

Also, you may recall that a new edition of LtJ was supposed to be coming out in January;
the re-release has been postponed. I made this decision with the staff of Kasva Press because we want to make sure the new edition is as good as it can be and that they’ll give it the full benefit of their added value as a publisher, and we’ll need more time for that. I’ll keep you posted!

Q&A with Random Strangers on the Internet, pt. 7!

Yes, yes, my friends, it is that time again!

Every so often I write a post in which I respond to questions and phrases that people have typed into search engines, which led them to this blog. Hilarity often ensues. You can find previous Search Term Q & A’s here.

Let’s jump right in:

“jews are weird”

Guilty as charged. Never claimed to be otherwise.

“self defense mitzvot”

There is indeed a mitzvah to defend oneself. Our Sages teach: “If someone comes to kill you, you should rise up and kill him first.” (Talmud Brachot 58b, 62b, Sanhedrin 72a–based on Exodus 22:1, which teaches that if a thief is discovered and killed while breaking in, “it is as if he has no blood”–meaning the person who killed him has not committed murder.)

Our tradition makes it clear that we are allowed to do what is necessary to defend ourselves, with only three exceptions. If our choice is between death and either idolatry, sexually immoral acts, or murder, we must choose death; however, a person who commits these sins under duress is not punished for them. That’s the concept of an anus–one who has been forced–as in the anusim of Sepharad, who converted to Christianity under duress.

“whats unique about a jew kiss”

Wouldn’t you like to know, Random Internet Stranger. Wouldn’t you like to know.

“jewish sex rules”

Exactly.

Wait, what?

OH. Um. I mean… yes, there are rules. Mostly having to do with “with whom” and “when” rather than “how” or “how much”. Aside from the whole only-within-a-marriage thing, which you’d expect in a traditional society, there’s a whole category of Jewish law called “family purity”, mostly revolving around tum’at niddah, a state of ritual impurity (not impurity in the sense of uncleanliness, just a different spiritual state) which is brought on by menstruation and canceled through immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath). More on that in my post about the mikveh.

“he unusel habbits of jews”

For one thing, we have an unusual habit of knowing how to spell.

(Okay, not all of us. Mostly me.)

“jemhdq7dn_xc_2yqca5mrrmkixciq5hidiej11ienxhlbngtljflneidvqxsqnrjb1s_t8itjiehar55rt6kqdb39q”

Well, that escalated quickly.

“birthday post”

WITH PLEASURE. I’ve posted one every year this blog has existed for Josep’s birthday: 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018. 😉

“amazon”

I may be a self-defense instructor, but I’m not an Amazon. However, I do have an author page on the Amazon website!

“mashiach can’t be exilarch”

Well, yeah, but that’s a retroactively true statement, because there aren’t Exilarchs anymore and the ones that existed were obviously not the Messiah. But they were descendants of King David, so technically they could have been.

(The Exilarch was a sort of princely position for leaders of the Diaspora Jewish community in Babylonia during the First Exile.)

“did herods temple have a curtain outside”

Errrm… outside what?! It was a huge building! The parochet, which was the curtain hiding the Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenant, was very much inside. The entrance to the building had a door. I suspect the other openings, in the gates and walls, probably had doors too. But I’m by no means a historian or archaeologist, so don’t take my word for it. The Temple Institute is probably a better resource!

“hebraic background of psalm 23”

Odd choice of phrasing, but okay: Psalm 23, like the rest of the book of psalms, was written in Hebrew in ancient times. Jewish tradition teaches that it was written by King David, but Bible scholars dispute that. In any case, here is a post analyzing the psalm, which happens to be Josep’s favorite.

“unusaul chanukah customs”

Hmm, interesting question! I searched for you and was unable to find anything particularly unusual. We’ve got our fried foods (to signify the oil), our cheese (because of the story of Judith and Holofernes), our dreidls (because… reasons, most of which were made up in retrospect)… and, well, of course lighting the chanukiyah and saying the Hallel prayer.

Many Chanukah customs commonly practiced in Western countries are adapted from the stuff going on around the Jewish communities, namely, Christmas. That’s why Chanukah sugar cookies are a thing, and the tradition of giving children gifts. (No magic Chanukah fairy coming down the chimney, though. And no, we do not beat our chanukiyot with sticks and ask them to “poop” out treats, either. You Catalans can keep that one.)

“karaite jews men wears kippah?”

So this is actually a really good question. As a general rule, Karaite Jews reject rabbinic Judaism, and the custom to wear kipput is rabbinic. In fact, the obligation to wear a kippah is on the lowest tier of the halachic hierarchy, or maybe second-lowest: minhag-that’s–become-halacha, that is, a custom that became so widely adopted it is now considered Jewish law. Kitniyot is another custom in this category.

However, turns out, most Karaites do wear kippot. I imagine this is for a few reasons: one, that the custom to cover one’s head is very old, and was probably widespread even during the time the Karaites split from mainstream rabbinic Judaism; two, that there are descriptions in the Torah of people wearing turbans or other garments on their heads; and three, the reason it’s become rabbinic law is that wearing a kippah has become more than a functional custom (needing to cover one’s head out of modesty)–it is now a symbol of Jewish identity. Jewish men don’t have to cover their heads with little dome-shaped caps to fulfill the obligation to cover their heads–they could wear any kind of hat or even just a plain cloth draped over their heads if they wanted. But the kippah itself has become an expression of belonging to the Jewish people.

“is adolf hitler a descendant of amalek”

In a technical sense? No idea. Probably not. In a spiritual sense, there are those who argue that he was.

“jews are not all equally observant; so do not penalize the bearer of this letter for observing some of these days, but not all”

Well, um, you raise an important point; the majority of Jews today are not fully Torah observant and do not observe all the holidays. However, I do not hold this against them, and I certainly do not penalize anybody for anything. (I have been known to publish snarky op-eds against those who displease me, but that has, as of yet, been mostly limited to such irritating entities as the frum fashion police and the Spanish postal service.)

“what do jews really think about jesus”

The truth? We don’t think about him much at all. But here’s a whole post dedicated to answering that question.

“letter abarbanel to the kings of spain”

I’m not aware of any letters Abravanel wrote to the king and queen of Spain, but he did record some pretty intense conversations he had with them in the process of trying to talk them out of the Edict of Expulsion. You can check out my post about him here.

“jordi god taught”

Having a little trouble parsing this one here. Are you asking if Jordi is God-taught? Or for things Jordi has taught about God? (Maybe you’d like to see his post clarifying his religious beliefs?)

Well, I’ll tell you what you SHOULD be asking about Jordi: why do I call him “Josep” on this blog when he has absolutely no problem commenting using his real name, letting me post photos and videos of him, and even (gasp) appearing with me in public?! That is the real mystery here. And I’ll tell you: I don’t know. And neither does he.

I feel like this story is kind of the quintessence of the communication issues we were having that led to the existence of this blog in the first place. He is a bit shy and doesn’t like to share much about himself online, so when I first raised the idea of writing this blog, he wasn’t exactly enthusiastic, but wasn’t opposed, either. I thought “Letters to Jordi” was perfect: Jordi is a distinctly Catalan name–about as typical a Catalan name as you can find–and easy for English-speakers to pronounce. However, I figured he might prefer to stay anonymous, so I asked him if he’d rather I use a pseudonym. He never gave me a straight answer! So in the absence of his explicit permission, I decided to err on the side of caution, and selected another distinctly Catalan name that was similar to his. “Letters to Josep” was born.

…And by the time he made clear that he had no problem whatsoever with my using his real name, it was far too late to change it!

So we have decided that Josep/Yosef is now his Jewish name, bestowed upon him by his one and only Jewish-mother-friend. Mazel tov! (Let’s just… conveniently forget what else is generally involved in giving a Jewish name to a person of the male persuasion, shall we?)

NOW YOU KNOW. I’M SO GLAD YOU ASKED.


Any other questions, my friends?! Do feel free to be in touch! Or perhaps your bizarre question has already been answered in one of my previous Search Term Q & As. If so… I’m, uh, not sure I want to know about it!

photo of table set with salad and salmon in a pan

How to Keep Kosher Just About Anywhere

Dear Josep,

The story of my getting stranded in Barcelona without kosher food and you trying to help me has now been immortalized both in nonfiction and, to a degree, in fiction. While both of us were mad at a certain-organization-that-will-remain-unnamed for this incident, the fact is, it wasn’t entirely their fault. They gave me misleading information (due to their own ignorance) that led me to come unprepared–and my being unprepared was the real issue.

This time, I put a lot of thought and effort into preparing!

I decided to write this post as a guide for kosher-keeping travelers or visitors–or non-kosher-keeping hosts who would like their kosher-keeping friends or family members to feel comfortable and enjoy themselves in their homes. However, a word of caution to those in the latter category: I wouldn’t advise trying to prepare kosher food yourself. When you’re not used to keeping kosher or don’t know all the rules (and there are many; I wrote three blog posts just to explain the very basics!), it’s very easy to screw things up. Discuss your plans with your guests and figure out how to handle the situation together.

Why Not Just Eat Vegan?

Many people who keep kosher feel comfortable eating at vegan or vegetarian restaurants that don’t have kosher supervision. The laws of kashrut, however, are more complicated than just not being allowed to eat certain types of meat, and for those of us who are strict about them, this is not really an option. Here are some of the issues to consider:

  • Utensils and cooking implements: You don’t know where they were used before being designated for this restaurant. The oven, for example, may have been bought second-hand. Additionally, you have no guarantee that kitchen workers aren’t bringing in their own food and warming it using the same utensils. You’d have to fully interview the staff to ascertain how strict their policies are. Even if the meal you’ve ordered is completely raw, you need to worry about knives that were used to cut things with strong flavors, such as garlic, onions, and lemons. (See Jew Food Part III: In Which Things Get Ridiculously Complicated for further explanation on why these things are an issue.)
  • Bishul akum and pat akum: These are rabbinic strictures that prohibit the consumption of foods cooked and baked by a non-Jew. (This is not because we think non-Jews are impure or something, it’s just because keeping the laws of kashrut is so complicated that it’s hard for us to trust that someone who doesn’t believe in its importance and isn’t used to doing it will be careful enough about it.) There are some loopholes, especially for Ashkenazim, where if a Jew starts the cooking process by turning on the oven or lighting the stove, the stricture no longer applies, so theoretically you could get permission to do that–but if you’re Sephardi, no dice.
  • Checking for bugs: Even the most respectable restaurants don’t check vegetables for bugs to the crazy OCD level kashrut requires. Some veggies don’t need careful checking, like zucchini, squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc., but leafy greens, herbs, and vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower are notoriously hard to check. (More on this under “Little Friends” in Jew Food, Part II: The Vegan Section (Well, Sort of))
  • Processed ingredients with additives: A very strict vegan restaurant may not use any spice mixes or oils that are not certified vegan, but you’d have to check and make sure. Vegetable oils require kosher certification because of the way they are processed. The only type of oil that doesn’t need certification is extra virgin olive oil from a reputable brand. Canned goods may contain additives that are produced from animals. Even baking paper needs certification because it’s sometimes treated with animal fats.
  • Wine and grape juice: There is a particular rabbinic stricture prohibiting the consumption of wine or grape juice that has not been produced from start to finish by a fully Sabbath-observant Jew. This means that kosher wine and grape juice are fairly hard to come by. You’d need to be sure that the dish they’re serving you was not cooked with non-kosher wine or grape juice.

In other words, unless you interviewed the staff very thoroughly and were very careful about what you ordered, you can’t be certain that what you’re eating is 100% kosher. In extreme circumstances there may be room to be lenient on some of the rabbinic strictures.

Kosher Restaurants

If you’re in an area with a significant Jewish community, there may be a restaurant or two that has kosher supervision. However, be warned: solitary kosher restaurants have captive audiences and no competition, and they need to work with more expensive ingredients, so prices tend to be high, and quality is generally not great. There are, of course, exceptions; Eitan and I were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food at both Shaq Shuq and BenBen Kosher House‘s cafĂŠ in Barcelona.

Thank God for Chabad

Okay but seriously, let me take a moment to heap praises upon the Chabad organization for everything they do to make the world a more comfortable and accessible place for religious Jews. They send emissaries out to the middle of nowhere to establish centers for Jewish life and provide religious services for visitors and residents. If you’re looking for information about keeping kashrut in a particular place, contacting Chabad is a great start. They often will have catering services or ready-made Shabbat meals you can order.

We contacted Rav Avi, the rabbi who runs the Chabad in Girona, before our trip. He gave us some helpful tips and invited us to make use of his kitchen during our stay in Girona.

So what do you do if you need to eat and there are no kosher options around?

The first thing to do is figure out what kind of local food products you can use.

How to Find Local Food Items That Have Kosher Supervision or Don’t Require It

In the USA, you can walk into any supermarket and find many products that have kosher certification: merely search for one of the many kashrut certification symbols on the package. In Israel, almost every product on the shelves lists some kind of certification. (It’s basically only imported products in specialty stores you need to worry about.) In most of the rest of the world, you won’t necessarily find the information on the package. You have to have The List.

Local rabbinic authorities draw up lists of products that are okay to consume in a given country. I found the most updated kashrut guide from the Madrid rabbinate and pored over it before we left. The gist was that options included imported products from big Jewish communities like France, the US, or the UK, or products that don’t require supervision anyway (as will be elaborated below).

Here are some of the ingredients you can buy at any supermarket that don’t need supervision (unless they have questionable additives: flavorings, glycerin, coloring, grape juice etc.):

Protein & legumes:

  • Fresh fish (if it has scales, it’s kosher! Best if it’s kept separate from nonkosher fish behind the counter; if it’s been soaking in water with nonkosher fish, could be an issue. In any case, best to rinse it off)
  • Dried beans
  • Dried lentils
  • Dried peas
  • Eggs
  • Raw nuts and seeds

Grains:

  • Plain durum wheat pasta
  • Plain rice
  • Raw buckwheat
  • Cornmeal
  • Pearl barley
  • Popcorn kernels
  • Raw, pure oats
  • Plain wheat flour
  • Millet
  • Quinoa (yes, I know quinoa’s not a grain, so kill me)
  • Plain couscous

Fruits & veggies:

*Note: If they’re imported from Israel, they need certification because of mitzvot hatluyot baaretz issues. Supermarkets in Catalonia clearly marked the origins of all produce, but in places where they don’t do that, you can assume the produce is not imported from Israel unless otherwise indicated.

  • Fresh–all kinds
  • Frozen (as long as they were frozen fresh without additives)
  • Canned fruit with permitted additives such as salt, sugar, E-300, E-330, ascorbic acid, and/or citric acid
  • Dried apricots, peaches, nectarines, dates, figs, prunes, pears, pineapples (sulfur dioxide is fine, other additives no)
  • Sun-dried tomatoes (not marinated or with additives)

Flavorings:

  • Extra virgin olive oil from a reputable brand (EVOO is not regulated in most countries, and companies have been known to mix it with inferior oils produced with heat, which do need certification!)
  • Salt
  • Pure spices (except smoked spices, chili powders, horseradish, or wasabi powder–and the package should specify that it’s 100% pure with no additives)
  • Sugar (white, brown, cane, beet, powdered, all fine)
  • Pure honey

Beverages:

  • Unflavored coffee (not decaf)
  • Unflavored tea
  • Coca-cola products such as Coke, Sprite, Pepsi, 7 Up
  • Pure fruit juices (fresh-squeezed or from concentrate) with no questionable additives. Grape, prune and tomato juices need supervision
  • Water. Duh.

No one will starve on that, right? You’ll notice there are three main categories of foods that most Westerners are used to eating and aren’t on this list: meat, dairy products, and baked goods. Outside the US and Israel, you can basically only find those things in specialty kosher stores like BenBen Kosher House in Barcelona. In other Western countries, you may be able to find imported products like Heinz ketchup and mayonnaise, Kikkoman soy sauce, and of course, the famous Ben & Jerry’s ice cream that served as my main nourishment during my previous trip to Barcelona. (Haagen-Dasz is kosher too.) Some places will have an “American section” in the store where you are more likely to find such products.

Note also that in specific countries there may be no problem with other types of products, such as canned vegetables and beans, certain brands of milk and butter, etc. That’s what The List is for!

Well, now that we have all this food, how do we make it edible?

You can probably survive without access to a kitchen, especially if you’re only going to be traveling for a few days, but you’ll certainly eat a lot better if you can cook. For that reason, many kosher-keeping travelers opt to stay at an apartment with a fully equipped kitchen rather than a hotel.

But you can’t count on that kitchen being kosher, right? So how can you use it?

How to Cook Kosher Food in a Non-Kosher Kitchen

First off, all the pots, pans, plates, etc. that the food touches while hot need to be kosher. That means you’ll need to either bring your own pots and pans (and knife for cutting onions, garlic etc.) or buy new. Kashering pots and pans is more trouble than it’s worth for a temporary situation. At the bottom of this post I’ll include a list of recommended items to bring with you.

Microwaves

Microwaves are very easy to kasher, because the way they work is by making the food heat itself rather than applying heat to it, so the walls and floor normally don’t get hot enough to be a problem. The only potential problem is the steam. So simply ensure that it’s clean and hasn’t been used in the past 24 hours, then fill a microwave-safe cup (paper works) halfway with water and a little dish soap and microwave it for a few minutes (until the inside of the microwave is full of steam). You can also cook in a non-kashered microwave if you double-wrap the food in plastic.

Google is full of very creative microwave recipes, but of course you’re going to be limited by the ingredients you have. If you don’t have access to a stovetop, you can use a microwave-safe container to cook pasta, rice, beans, or polenta. You can poach eggs, too.

Ovens

So the thing about ovens is that they have to be sparkling clean on the inside in order to kasher. It’s kind of hard to clean an oven quite that thoroughly, especially if it’s in regular use (with the exception, of course, of self-cleaning ovens, which self-kasher when they self-clean!). To kasher an oven, you have to make sure there are no bits of food or crumbs on the inside at all (including the walls and ceiling of the oven–and this may take oven cleaner and heavy scrubbing), and then turn it on its highest heat for an hour or two.

If you can’t do this or couldn’t be bothered to do this, you can still use the oven to cook things, it just gets a little more complicated.

The easiest and surest way to get around the problem is to cook things double-wrapped in aluminum foil. That is, say, in an aluminum pan covered with foil, and then another layer of foil surrounding the whole thing. This is how airlines serve kosher meals on airplanes: everything that needs to be heated is double-wrapped and can therefore be placed in the oven along with the non-kosher food.

The problem is that things can take forever to cook this way–and from what I understand, it’s not actually necessary to double-wrap if no non-kosher food is being cooked in the oven at the same time. A single layer of foil covering the rack, and a single layer of foil covering the food itself, can be sufficient–and if the oven is very clean, with no food residue on it, it may be okay to cook non-wet foods uncovered (a.k.a., foods that are mostly solid either before or after cooking). Opinions vary widely because there is a debate about whether and how much steam transfers flavor, so you’ll need to consult your rabbi. When in doubt, stick with double-wrapping and take into account that cooking time will be long.

Stoves

Because stoves apply heat directly to the pot or pan, they more or less kasher themselves–and because their contact with the pot or pan is on the outside, which is usually dry, there is less of an issue to begin with. With a gas or electric stove, turn the burners on to the highest heat for a few minutes, and you’re good to go. To be extra careful, you can cover the grates of a gas stovetop with foil.

Unfortunately, induction stovetops are more of a problem. Ceramic is impossible to kasher, and so is glass if you’re Ashkenazi. They also only work with certain types of metal, so chances are whatever kosher pot or pan you bring won’t work on them.

And unfortunately for us, induction stoves seem to be all the rage in Catalonia. I couldn’t find a suitable place to stay in Girona that had a different kind of stove! Our place up in the mountains, however, had a gas range, and we did all our cooking on that stovetop.

If we hadn’t been able to find a place with a gas range, we might have brought a portable electric burner with us (something like this). Glad we didn’t have to!

Utensils

Theoretically, you can use non-kosher utensils to handle cold, non-spicy/strong-flavored food on an impermanent basis. It’s best not to rely on this, though, especially if you’re likely to be using garlic, lemons/lemon juice, or onions in your food. Best to bring your own stuff–metal or hard plastic. Don’t count on the mugs having been used only for coffee, either. People eat stews and soups out of mugs.

We did make use of a wooden salad bowl at our apartment in the mountains, since it was just holding cold vegetables.

Surfaces & Sinks

You don’t really need to worry about countertops that are clean if you’re not handling hot or strong-flavored food on them directly. You might want to bring a cutting board or mat for veggies. Still, marble countertops can be kashered by pouring boiling water on them, as can metal sinks. If the sink is ceramic or otherwise unkashered, just be careful not to leave dishes or pots lying in the sink or rest the pot on the bottom of the sink while washing it with hot water. (Cold water is fine.) By the way, best to get a new, unused sponge, but as long as you’re using it with dish soap, it’s not a problem.

When All Else Fails: Get Creative

I’ve heard of a few people who made creative use of the iron in their hotel room to cook fish or make grilled cheese sandwiches wrapped in foil! Still others have used hot cars to steam frozen vegetables in their packaging. Necessity is the mother of invention…

What to Bring or Buy to Make Your Life Easier

There are a few key things you may want to bring with you, or purchase at a local kosher store, that will make it much easier for you and increase your options.

Equipment

Note that if you plan on cooking both meat and dairy, you’ll need to bring two sets of pots, pans etc.

  • A pot and/or pan for the stovetop
  • A good, sharp knife for vegetables (make sure to send it in your checked baggage if you’re flying!)
  • A cutting board or mat
  • A heat-safe large spoon and/or spatula
  • A few plastic, microwave-safe containers (for heating and cooking in the microwave and/or storing leftovers)
  • Aluminum foil
  • Plastic wrap
  • Plates, cups, and bowls (reusable plastic or paper is best, especially if you’re going to use them in the microwave)
  • Forks, spoons, and knives (you can bring a set or buy plastic)
  • If you’re not sure you’ll have access to a kasherable stove, you can bring along an electric stove top or hot plate, and/or a sandwich maker or electric grill. Sandwich makers are more compact and don’t require a pan to use, but they will obviously limit you more (though you can cook eggs, fish, etc. on them, not just toasted sandwiches!).

Food Items

  • Your favorite spice mixes
  • Powdered milk, if you’re going somewhere where you can’t have milk. If you’re not flying, shelf-stable milk is a good idea too
  • Canned beans and/or fish
  • Preserved meats/sausages that don’t require refrigeration, or can be frozen so they’ll stay cold until you can access a fridge
  • Filling snacks, such as crackers or granola bars
  • Instant soups/noodles
  • Freeze some bread to take with you–it’ll stay fresher and will be less easily squished

Some Meal Suggestions

Stumped about what sort of meals you can put together with the above limitations? Here are some suggestions:

Fish: This is probably the easiest meal, because fish cooks quickly even when sealed in foil, and don’t need fancy flavorings to taste good. We picked up some fresh salmon fillets at a store in Girona, fried them in olive oil (seasoned with salt, pepper, thyme, and lemon), and served them with a fresh salad dressed with lemon and the tahini we brought along.

photo of table set with salad and salmon in a pan
I’m not in the habit of Instagramming my meals, okay?

Legume stews, soups & salads: Lentils cook fast, don’t require soaking, and are nutritious and filling. Beans work too, but you’ll need to find them canned or otherwise soak them. (If you’re pressed for time you can use a quick-soaking method: cover the beans with water, bring to a boil, boil 1 minute, remove from heat and let them soak for an hour. Then drain, refill with fresh water and cook as usual.) Make a salad with other veggies, nuts, seeds, herbs, grains–whatever you’ve got!–and dress it olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper. Make a soup or stew with tomatoes, root veggies like carrots and sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, herbs, and whatever spices you can find.

Eggs: Eggs are versatile and filling and cook quickly. We fried eggs in olive oil and toasted bread in the pan for a filling breakfast. You can make a frittata with veggies and grains; add boiled eggs to a salad; or serve poached, fried, or scrambled eggs over polenta or next to green beans, peas and/or other veggies. How about shakshouka? If you can’t find canned crushed tomatoes, you can cook fresh ones in a pan with onions, garlic and water until they’re soft and saucy, then add your eggs. Sprinkle fresh cilantro on top when they’re done. I suspect you could improvise this dish in the microwave if you don’t have access to a stove.

Pasta: You might find pasta pretty boring without dairy or meat, but you can add some soft nuts like cashews and walnuts, or legumes, for protein. (How about throwing some pasta in one of the above bean or lentil salads?) If you can find avocados, you can make them into a creamy sauce with garlic, salt, pepper, lemon juice etc., and I bet that would be awesome with cherry tomatoes. Sauteed mushrooms are great with pasta, and so are sun-dried tomatoes. (You may want to soak them in warm water for a bit to soften them.) Many Italians eat pasta aglio e olio, and that’s a cinch to make–just lightly saute some garlic in a pan with olive oil, dump the whole thing on the the pasta and toss.

Roasted stuffed potatoes and sweet potatoes: So you don’t have a lot of options for stuffing here, but this could be a good way to use up extra stew. Roast some potatoes or sweet potatoes in the oven, split them open, and fill with whatever’s at hand. Sauteed mushrooms would be a good addition here too.

Keeping Kosher in Catalonia

We were just two adults traveling from Sunday to Thursday, so it was really quite easy. We packed sandwiches, boiled eggs, sliced bell peppers, and some nut-and-fruit bars for breakfast and snacks on the plane on Sunday. We also brought the following:

  • A small pareve pot and lid
  • A dairy frying pan
  • A big pareve knife
  • Two cutting mats, one pareve, one dairy
  • Canned tuna (mostly for me)
  • Canned sardines (mostly for Eitan)
  • Small jar of mayonnaise
  • Small squeezable bottle of mustard
  • Jar of raw tahini (for dressing salads)
  • Small amounts of salt, pepper, and thyme
  • Small bag of chia seeds (we find that they make a more satisfying meal when added to yogurt)
  • 2 packages of whole wheat crackers

We bought yogurts, jam, fresh fruit and veggies, fresh fish, and eggs at regular supermarkets in Barcelona and Girona, and went to BenBen (the kosher store) for bread, cheeses, hummus, and a package of cinnamon tortas de aceite as a treat. (I mean, after traveling all the way to Barcelona just to eat Israeli food at Shaq Shuq, we had to try something local!)

In terms of restaurants, we enjoyed lunch at Shaq Shuq and breakfast at BenBen (which, to our surprise, serves pareve and meat, not dairy, but was still good). There is another kosher restaurant in Barcelona right near Shaq Shuq, called Maccabi. There are also five hotels listed on this website under “accommodations,” but I have no idea whether that means they can supply kosher catering or just that they’re near Jewish institutions. We stayed at Hotel Zenit, which was a 10-minute walk from BenBen, and we were very comfortable there.

We had more than enough food and ended up leaving a bunch for our Airbnb host!

Logistics would have been much more complicated if we’d brought our kids, especially since our middle son has celiac, so sandwiches, pasta, and regular crackers wouldn’t have worked. (Though I noted that there’s a decent gluten-free section on the kosher list as well as in most stores in Catalonia.) Hopefully, that’s a challenge we’ll have occasion to rise to. 😉

For more ideas on how to feed a larger family for a longer period of time and without access to a kosher store, you can check out this detailed blog post an American-Israeli friend of mine wrote about how she fed her family during their two-week trip to the Azores.

B’teavon (that’s “bon appetit” in Hebrew),

Daniella


Kosher-keeping readers out there–how have you handled similar situations? What creative ideas for meals have you come up with when you had limited access to kosher food and facilities? I’d love to hear in the comments!

Photo of Daniella and Josep holding a copy of Letters to Josep

A More Detailed Report!

Dear Josep,

Well, we are home, safe and sound, and I am procrastinating catching up on my workload to write this post…

This trip could not have been more different from my previous trip to Barcelona… in the best way possible.

For one thing, I was very well-fed. 😉 (A full post on keeping kosher while traveling in Catalonia and in general is on its way!) For another, while I wouldn’t exactly say I felt at home there, it felt, to a degree, like somewhere I belong. Having you there to pick us up at the airport and serve as our personal chauffeur and tour guide was a big part of that. Another was the familiarity of hearing Spanish and Catalan spoken around me, which I’m actually finding myself missing now! And yet another was the presence of the political symbols of this conflict I’ve been following so carefully for the past year–all the esteladas and yellow ribbons versus the Spanish and Tabarnia flags. I got a big kick out of being able to read and understand the political graffiti lining the roads in the countryside.

You know, I wrote an article about my experience exploring the Call de Barcelona in the newspaper we produced at the conference twelve years ago. A quote: “I followed the map to the Plaça Sant Jaume and dove into the alleyways branching off from the square. A steady flow of people streamed in and out of the alleys, visiting small shops and cafĂŠs that were built into the ancient stone. It took me a while to realize that this is the place I had read about. History has not been particularly respectful to the Call.”

Well, it was a relief to see that there is much better signage now.

And no obnoxious anti-Israel graffiti this time either!

Last time I was there, I had no concept of how close the sea was to this place, so it was cool to walk down to the port and the beach and see what your side of the Mediterranean Sea looks like.

photo of Josep, Eitan, and Daniella in front of the beach
The three of us on the boardwalk

We spent a quiet evening at the hotel after you dropped us off–picked up a few supplies from the store you pointed out, and then went to bed as the rain started really coming down. The next day we walked over to the kosher store and cafĂŠ for breakfast and to stock up, then we checked out of the hotel, picked up our rental car, and headed for Girona.

How gorgeous is this place?

We settled into our rented apartment and then Leah (my friend and founder of the Moving Stones project, for those who haven’t been following) came over to welcome us, and proceeded give us a personal tour of the Call de Girona.

Toward afternoon we went back to the apartment to eat (or in my case, force down a sandwich; I lose my appetite when I’m nervous!) and get ready for our event. I was glad you were able to come early and we had a little time to hang out before setting off for the bookstore.

During the event itself I felt flustered and tongue-tied and very focused on trying to make it through this thing without forgetting anything significant or sounding like an idiot. It was frustrating because this was totally a dream come true and I didn’t feel able to really be in the moment and enjoy it for what it was. Afterwards I felt tired and overwhelmed and sad about our brief and yes, hug-less goodbye, but in the morning I felt a little better. Eitan and I ate breakfast and then headed to the Jewish museum, which we hadn’t seen the day before, and Leah met us there. It was hard to say goodbye to her too, and I felt sad about leaving Girona. I’ve grown rather attached to the place through my connection with Leah. And goodbyes are always so hard for me.

We spent the next two days up in the mountains; I don’t think I told you anything about this part! When I first envisioned our mountain getaway, I wanted it to be somewhere way out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nature, preferably with flowing water nearby. That’s exactly what this place was. It’s this funky self-sustaining off-the-grid eco-home tucked into a valley in the pre-Pyrenees, right by Riera de Sant Aniol, a stream that feeds into the Llierca River in the upper Garrotxa region. It was so close to the stream that we could see it through the living room window and hear the rushing water from anywhere in the house. Like the sound machines I used to put on to soothe myself and/or my kids to sleep. But in real life.

photo of stream coursing through a lush, rocky terrain and mountains in the background
This is literally a five minute walk from the house.

It was so beautiful there (and the drive to get there so rugged) that we decided not to try and go anywhere else, but rather stay and enjoy the river, the forest, and the mountains. And so we did. We woke up the next morning to the sound of the river rushing and the birds singing… and nothing else. It was paradise.

So no, we didn’t end up stopping in BesalĂş or getting to La Fageda d’en JordĂ  or anywhere else in La Garrotxa, but we were very happy where we were, and we fed ourselves well, too 😉 More details on that in the monstrosity of a blog post coming soon to an inbox near you…

You know how I whined to you on our way out that I didn’t remember the airport being this annoying? Well, aside from the layout, which I found obnoxious (the way they make you walk through the duty-free stores to get anywhere)… maybe it was just the weather that day, but it was extremely dim and gloomy at the terminal. During the security check they asked me to remove my headscarf; they were totally respectful about it when I told them I couldn’t, they just had a woman security guard pat down my head (?), but it still made me kind of uncomfortable. That happened to me only once before, in an airport in Florida, and it was because I was wearing a metal clip in my hair under my hat, which I wasn’t this time.

I was a little on edge about flying home through Istanbul because of the tense diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey these days, but the trip was uneventful.

It’s good to be home, though going back to routine after a trip like that is always hard. While I was feeling down about the goodbyes, I remembered a conversation I had with my son recently upon his return from an amazing summer with his grandparents–a conversation I recounted in a Times of Israel post–and what I said to him then: “Yes, it hurts, it hurts so much, but isn’t it wonderful that we have people who love us that much, and who we love that much, that leaving them is so very difficult? Isn’t it wonderful that [you] had the opportunity to have all those amazing experiences and create those memories?

Yes. Yes. How very wonderful. And this is certainly a memory I will cherish forever.

photo of Daniella and Josep in bookstore holding a copy of LtJ together
I love this photo to pieces and it has now taken up permanent residence on the “about” page of the blog!

More photos of the event can be viewed on my Facebook page here (you don’t need to have an account to see them), and once again, you can watch the video of the event here.

Thank you once again for everything you did to make our stay more comfortable and for everything you do to support me and my writing. It means a great deal to me. I hope we will have many more opportunities for real-life time together in the future–on your side of the Mediterranean or on mine!

Much love,

Daniella

Our Event in Girona!

Greetings from the breathtaking Alta Garrotxa in the pre-Pyrenees! I’m writing this from my phone and using patchy Wi-Fi, so I’m not going to elaborate much now, but suffice to say it’s been a dream come true.

You can view the video of the event here!

Update on Girona Event & ANOTHER Exciting Announcement!

I know, I know, we’re just overflowing with good news here!!!

First things first: we are now FOUR DAYS away from our event at Llibreria Geli in the Old City of Girona! Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

On the original announcement I wrote that registration is required, but the powers that be haven’t been able to pull it together, so… uh… never mind that, just show up! The event will be filmed and I’m told it will broadcast via FB Live, but I’m not sure from which page or account! I will update you when I have more info. Leah is hard at work trying to get the landing page of Moving Stones up and running, and when that’s online you’ll be able to sign up to receive updates on our continued schemes activities–which will probably include additional events/classes/seminars I’ll be offering remotely. I’ll keep you posted!

And now, the other exciting announcement!

Well, actually, it’s sort of two in one. Part I is something I’ve mentioned in passing here and there, but now I can announce it officially: Kasva Press, the publisher of my novel By Light of Hidden Candles, is going to be republishing Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism this coming January!

Yael even made me a poster!

What this means practically is that the previous edition (which I self-published) will go out of print, and a new version of the book will become available through Small Press Distribution (which will then distribute to Amazon and everywhere else you can find By Light of Hidden Candles). It won’t be significantly different from the previous version; we’re just going to polish up the prose and layout a bit more and update the information where necessary.

It’s Part II that’s a little more exciting for you guys….

So, uh, funny story.

While the good folks at Kasva Press and I were discussing what we might like to change about the new edition of LtJ, the editor asked me if there was anything I might want to add to it. So I was scrolling through the archives of the blog, looking at letters that had been cut from the book or written since it was compiled, and I started copy-pasting, and long story short…..

Screenshot of Microsoft Word open to a document titled 'More Letters to Josep'

…turns out, I wrote another entire book without even noticing.

More Letters to Josep is of a collection of letters/essays on various aspects of Judaism and Jewish history. The letters are divided into four sections: Adventures in Jewish History, Life in Israel, Being Jewish in a Modern World, and Conversations with God. Because the passage of time is a common thread connecting the letters, the working subtitle is Judaism Then and Now.

Like its predecessor, it will have some “bonus features”; for instance, a compilation of the Whatsapp messages between Josep and me during the independence referendum drama and its aftermath. (I got the idea from this short documentary!) The manuscript is still a work in progress and we still have to make some decisions about what to include and what not to include. (So feel free to make suggestions for additional things you’d like to see in it!) We’re roughly aiming to release it about a year after LtJ’s re-release.

So… um… new book?!

Here we go again!

SUPER EXCITING ANNOUNCEMENT

YOU GUYYYYYS

Okay so remember I mentioned I had some really exciting news I was dying to share with you all?!

Here it is:

Poster that reads: "An American-Israeli Jew and a Catholic Catalan walk into a bar... Join Daniella Levy, author of Letters to Josep, and "Josep", a.k.a. Jordi MartĂ­, in a discussion and open Q & A on breaking stereotypes & bridging differences, A Moving Stones initiative, October 15th, 7pm-8pm, at Llibreria Geli, Carrer de l'Argenteria, 188, Old City of Girona. The event will accommodate speakers of English, Catalan & Castilian. Limited copies of Letters to Josep will be available. Entrance is free, but registration is required! More information at letterstojosep.com"

YES

EITAN AND I ARE GOING TO CATALONIA IN A WEEK AND A HALF

AND I WILL BE SPEAKING THERE

WITH JOSEP

THE TWO OF US

TOGETHER

IN ACTUAL REALITY

AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

So, some elaboration:

Moving Stones is a fledgling project my friend Leah Stoch Spokoiny has been developing for the past couple of years with my input. Leah is a Canadian Jew who has been living in Catalonia for more than 20 years (the last several in Girona), and she conceived of the project after noticing some deficiencies in the way Jewish heritage was being addressed in Spain. The project, as it stands, has two main objectives: to provide a reliable educational resource on Judaism and Jewish heritage, and to serve as a platform for open and respectful discussion of important issues. She stumbled across this blog while researching and reached out to me, and I responded with enthusiasm. We’ve been partners-in-crime ever since!

And I have been driving her ABSOLUTELY CRAZY over the entire holiday to finalize the location and we finally found the perfect place!!! Llibreria Geli is a historic bookshop established in 1879 and situated on the edge of the Old City of Girona. It was one of the oldest bookstores in Catalonia and carries more than 200,000 titles in Catalan and Spanish. The good folks at Pedres de Girona, a website promoting the history, gastronomy, legends, and culture of Girona, coordinate events at the shop, and they kindly offered to host and promote the event. They will also be filming it and will make the video available on YouTube and on their Facebook page. (So for those of you on other continents, fear not, this thing is gonna be well-documented!!!) And they will be making a poster way better than the one I threw together above, which I will share with you when it’s ready!

I know most of you readers aren’t in the area… but if you do happen to be near Girona on the 15th, we would love to see you there!!! About registration–we’re still setting that up; watch this space!

THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE DOES NOT CONTAIN ENOUGH WORDS TO PROPERLY CONVEY MY EXCITEMENT EVEN WHEN TYPED IN ALL-CAPS

So, This Happened.

For those of you who aren’t following me on social media and aren’t Josep, who knows all about this: I caused a bit of a stir in the Catalan media at the beginning of this week with an op-ed for The Times of Israel calling for Israel to recognize Catalonia. TOI didn’t feature it, but Catalan Twitter picked up on it and within a few hours Josep sent me a link to an article in major Catalan news source El Nacional with the comment, “You are famous now”…

Whaaaaaaaaaaat

Text of article in which Daniella Levy is mentioned

Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat

(You can read the full El Nacional article in English here)

So my Twitter kinda exploded for the next couple days and now I have about 180 new Catalan followers, including the international affairs coordinator for the current Catalan president and the general director of communications for the Catalan government. Someone even translated my article into Spanish!

If you’re wondering how I went from being completely ignorant about Catalan politics to a major Catalan newspaper dedicating an article to my contribution to a local political conversation… your guess is as good as mine!!! Let’s just file it–right next to this blog–under Bizarre Side Effects of the Friendship Between Daniella and Josep, shall we?!

On that note, I have some even more exciting news that I am dying to share with you all but need to wait until certain details are finalized. Hopefully within the next week. So stay tuned, and chag sameach!

ETA (Oct. 28th, 2018): SO APPARENTLY THIS ALSO HAPPENED.

screenshot of Carles Puigdemont's Twitter profile with "follows you" circled beneath his name

The day after I published this post. And I didn’t even know about it until more than a month later because Twitter notifications ARE THE ACTUAL WORST

This was tucked between two nasty comments, so I was probably just skimming… no wonder I missed it!!!

HAVE I MENTIONED THAT I AM A MAJOR FAN OF THIS GUY <3 <3 <3

photo of open prayer book with man wearing tefillin leaning over it

What Mindfulness Meditation Taught Me About Prayer

Dear Josep,

In my second post about Jewish prayer, I mentioned that I have always struggled a lot with formal prayer: the daily recitation of words out of a prayer book. I wrote: “It is very difficult to maintain kavana (intention, concentration, and focus) on the same exact words every single day… I know the idea is perseverance, continuing to ‘show up’ even when you don’t feel like it and even when you can’t do it as well as you’d like or should. And obviously, that’s something I need to keep working on.”

Well, I recently took an online course on mindfulness meditation through FutureLearn, and through the course I gained an insight that suddenly helped me understand something about why I’ve always struggled with formal prayer and what its benefits are.

Meditation is a discipline that involves controlling the focus of your attention, right? And prayer is a form of meditation. When I was in second grade, I was taught how to pray the amidah prayer, and I have a very clear memory of being taught that “prayer without intention is like a body without a soul”. Our teacher handed out a coloring page with this line, with a drawing of a doll on it, representing a body without a soul.

From that moment forward–pretty much my entire “praying career”–I believed that the goal was to pray with complete intention, and that any word I said without intention was a failure on my part.

I understood that it was supposed to be a struggle and that even adults weren’t always able to concentrate on the words when they prayed. Later in life, I learned that reading the words more slowly helped me concentrate on them better. But I was living with a constant sense of failure every time I picked up and put down my siddur–and didn’t even realize it.

I felt exactly the same way about meditation.

I suffered from anxiety as a child, and one of the effects was insomnia. I’ve had a lot of trouble falling asleep for much of my life. My dad gave me guided meditation and relaxation tapes to listen to at night, but they always seemed to have the opposite of the desired effect. The guy in the recording would say, “Now relax your feet…” and I’d be thinking, “Okay… but… I think they’re already relaxed… what if I’m not relaxing them enough?! He hasn’t gone on to the next body part, which means it’s supposed to take longer, what if I’m doing it wrong?!?!”

(You are already more well-acquainted with the neurotic and insecure voices in my brain than anyone should have to be, so this may sound familiar to you. 😛 )

Over time I learned more and was able to engage in meditation better, but I think there was always a subconscious element of stress around the feeling that to really be doing it right, I needed to be completely focused and have my mind totally clear. Ideally, I thought, I should not have to “gently bring my mind” back to focusing on my breath or whatever the focus of the meditation was. It should not be wandering at all.

And then, one of the facilitators of this FutureLearn course said something that turned this concept on its head.

He said the goal is not to train your mind not to wander.

Your mind is supposed to wander.

The goal is to train your mind to recognize when it has wandered, and then gently–without scolding, without judgment–bring it back.

And then I had a flashback to second grade and thought: what if kavana doesn’t mean preventing my mind from wandering?

What if it means bringing my attention back to the meaning of the words when my mind has wandered?

The word kavana, which I translate as intention or focus or concentration, comes from the root כ.ו.× .. The verb form of this root, לכוון, means “to direct” or “to adjust” as in adjusting the focus of binoculars or the time on a watch. Maybe kavana in this context is not “being in total focus”, but rather “the act of focusing”.

And maybe this is a micro-practice of something we should be doing in real life: though it’s fine and normal to be focused on the mundane things that need our attention in the moment, we should always try to bring it back to the things that matter.

Thinking of it this way, the table of contents of the siddur reads like a list of Things That Matter:

  • That I woke up healthy this morning
  • That I have everything I need
  • The miracle of creation and the beautiful world we live in
  • That “the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”
  • The blessings and responsibilities our ancestors passed down to us
  • The well-being of our communities
  • Our hopes for the future

In my first post about prayer, I wrote that the verb for praying in Hebrew is reflexive, meaning it’s something you do to yourself; but I don’t think I ever understood what formal prayer was supposed to do for you until I had this insight.

It hasn’t revolutionized my life; I still don’t pray as often as I should. But when I am praying, and I find my mind wandering, instead of feeling frustrated that I’m “not doing it right”, I simply draw my attention back to the words I’m saying and think, “This is good practice.

It’s definitely a better way to live!

Love,

Daniella


P. S. This post is dedicated l’ilui nishmat Avraham ben Yacov Yitzchak v’Dina, in memory of my Zadie, who passed away on this day last year on the Hebrew calendar. Watching him pray with his tefillin and tallit is a strong memory I have of him. You can read more about him, and find a photo of him praying, here.