Q&A with Random Strangers on the Internet, pt. 6!

Ahh yes, greetings, my friends, and happy holidays to all! It is time for another Search Term Q & A session! Aren’t you excited?!

For those of you just tuning in: every once in a while I write a post responding to questions and phrases that people have typed into search engines, which led them to this blog. Hilarity often ensues! You can find links to previous Search Term Q & A’s at the bottom of this post.

Let the madness begin:

“is it fun tk be a jew”


The answer is… yes and no.

The fun things about being a Jew include our gazillion holidays (especially Purim and Simhat Torah!), our lively lifecycle celebrations, Shabbat (hello, it’s a 25-hour party EVERY WEEK), our singing and dancing, our sense of humor, and the general intensity with which we engage with the world and with learning.

The less fun things include… well… our gazillion holidays (see especially: Passover cleaning), antisemitism, the Three Weeks, antisemitism, keeping kosher anywhere except Israel, antisemitism… did I mention antisemitism?

But seriously–I have three kids, and looking a Jewish child in the eye and trying to explain what the Holocaust was, or the Crusades, or the Cossacks, or blood libels, or pogroms–or, more pressing, why we are huddling in the corner taking cover from Hamas rockets?… Not what I’d call “fun.”

But one thing’s for sure: fun or not, being a Jew is meaningful. It gives me a sense of purpose and mission, that I’m here for a reason and that I’m representing something greater than myself.

“orthodoe jews weird”

Orthodoe? Is that like a female deer, but Torah-observant? If so, yes, that is certainly weird.

“what is the most ridiculous jewish rule”


The problem here is the word “ridiculous”. Bizarre or random, I have plenty of contestants for. (How about the one where we’re not allowed to wear a blend of wool and linen (Deuteronomy 22:11)? That one’s pretty random.) We have rules that feel ridiculously complex, or ridiculously specific (like the endless disputes about exactly what time one day ends and the next begins). But just plain old ridiculous? That’s judgy, man. Judgy.

“ridiculous jewish beliefs”

Okay that last one was borderline, but this one is downright rude.

“what are some silly rules in talmud”

Really, Internet? Really?!

“why are jews weird looking”

beg your pardon?!

We look perfectly normal!

Except when my sister and I are in the same room. Then all bets are off.
Um. Same goes for me and my Bubbie.


Alas, I have not yet convinced Josep to fully embrace his celebrity status and open his own website where his adoring fans can properly venerate him. However, he actually let me post a picture of him wearing his IDF T-shirt on my op-ed about our misadventures with the Spanish postal service on TOI, with a caption reading: “And while we’re here, ladies, did I mention that he’s single?” so we’re getting somewhere 😛 (I think he didn’t actually believe I’d do it when he dared me to add that caption. Clearly he underestimates how much I love to embarrass him…. and that’s… fairly remarkable, considering what I’ve already done to him on this blog.)

“mikveh womb of the world”

…Yes, that’s the general idea. More about that here.

“+asaret hebrew root”

Hmmm. Well, if you mean the word aseret (עשרת), the root would be, of course, a.s.r. (ע.ש.ר) meaning “ten”, which is pretty boring since the word aseret just means “ten” of something (in semikhut form).

“interesting facts about jewish culture and history”

Aha! You have arrived in the right place, my friend! Jewish culture and history are some of the major themes of this blog. You can explore the tags/categories of “Jewish culture” and “Jewish history” for a list of relevant posts.

“what jewish do with their thing”

*cough* Well. That would depend which “thing” you’re referring to.

Perhaps this post on circumcision is what you’re looking for? I should warn you, what we do with that thing is rather disturbing.

“do orthodox jews bury plates”

NO. WE DO NOT. That is a particularly annoying and persistent myth, and I’m glad you found the post in which I refuted it.

“sex through a sheet jewish”


“jews can’t do”


(Sorry, some of the previous questions have me in a rather combative mood.)


Wow. Um.

*muttering to self* What… language is this even… *tiptoes over to Google Translate* THAI! Thai. I knew that. The alphabet that looks like a bunch of dancing snakes. Right. And according to Google Translate this phrase means “beautiful birthday cake.” Aha! Hi person from Thailand! You must have found one of Josep’s birthday posts with pictures of cake.

I do bake cakes now and then, but I don’t know if they would really fall under the category of “beautiful”. You know what, though, an amazing cake decorator is just about to join my family. Meet my future sister-in-law, Bar Malca! She made this:

barcelona fcb soccer birthday cake

It’s the most beautiful birthday cake Josep has ever seen, right Josep?

You can check out more of her magnificent (and delicious) creations on her Facebook page! (Pretty sure she doesn’t ship to Thailand though. Oh well. But if you want to pay her airfare I’m sure she’d be more than happy to come bake you a beautiful birthday cake in the comfort of your home!)

“write a lettre invite your friend to visit morocoo a aid adha”

Dear Josep,

I have been asked by a Random Stranger on the Internet to invite you to visit Morocco, presumably during Eid al-Adha. Of course, “invite” is a kind of strange word to use, since I’ve never been to Morocco in my life, whereas there is a fair chance that you have. (Have you? I feel like you must have been to Morocco.)

Why do all these Muslims keep asking me to write letters to my/their friends? Must be because of those guest letters from Saadia and Yasmina



ANY OTHER QUESTIONS? Feel free to contact me! If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy the previous Search Term Q&A’s:

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

I Just Found Out My Relatives Were Murdered by the Nazis

Dear Josep,

I was planning to hold on to this post and write it for Holocaust Memorial Day, but writing is how I process things, and I’m processing, processing, processing.

So, to recap for our blog readers: at the beginning of last week I got an email through the contact form of this blog. It was from a man who introduced himself as a distant cousin. (I’ve since worked out that he’s my second-cousin-once-removed.) He had been looking for information on my grandfather, who had helped him with some details of a family tree years ago, and he came across the tribute to Zadie I wrote after his death last year. He offered to send me some photographs he had of my grandfather as a child, and I asked if I could see the family tree as well. I was excited, because up until that point, the origins of my father’s family were a mystery to me. I knew they were Ashkenazi Jews and that Zadie’s father was an immigrant from somewhere in Eastern Europe, but as I mentioned in that post, Zadie’s mother died when he was young and I knew nothing about her family. I wondered if the family tree would have any information on their origins. Maybe I would finally know what villages in Europe they came from.

I was not disappointed! The family tree indicated that my Zadie’s father, Yacov Shames (after whom my brother is named) was born in Ratno, and his mother, Dina Herman (after whom I am named, in part) was born in Kowel; both were villages with significant Jewish populations in the Volyn Oblast, a region which was then part of Poland and is now in Ukraine. The ancestors I have in common with my second-cousin-once-removed are Zadie’s grandparents, Shmuel and Yenta (yes, I had a great-great-grandmother named Yenta! 😛 ) Herman. Yenta was born in Kowel, too, whereas Shmuel was born in Włodawa, Poland and presumably moved to Kowel, married my great-great-grandmother, and raised eight children there. Shmuel came to America first, and then Yenta followed with her younger children, including Dina, in 1909. They arrived in New York and then moved to Denver, where a significant Jewish community had begun to congregate.

I immediately Googled these villages and consulted maps. I knew, of course, that my ancestors were probably from that general area, but I can’t quite describe the feeling of finally being able to point to one spot on a map and say, “This is where my ancestors lived.”

…And then I started to read about what happened to those villages and why there are no longer any Jews in that area.

I had known, in theory, that I probably had distant family members killed in the Shoah. With origins in Eastern Europe, and 60% of the European Jewish population wiped out during the Holocaust, it’s pretty unlikely for that not to be true. Still, I knew that all my direct ancestors had been safely settled in the USA by 1914. I had grown up with this sense that my family had escaped in time, and that they were safe.

Then, on Monday last week, I look a closer look at that family tree.

Feyga Herman (b. 1883-Kovel, Ukraine (then Russia); d. 1942, Holocaust); sp. Mottel Mordechai Hopen (d. 1942-Holocaust)

The oldest sister, my Zadie’s aunt, had stayed behind in Kowel.

Strongly reminded of Les 7 Caixes1, I slowly typed a phrase into Google I never thought I’d use in the context of my own family: Yad Vashem archives.

And there they were.

My great-great-aunt, Feyga Hopen–probably the seated woman with one of her daughters. Courtesy of Yad Vashem

I immediately found records of my great-great-aunt Feyga, great-great-uncle Mottel, and their two youngest daughters, Hinde and Perel, who all perished at the hands of the Nazis in Kowel. Even worse, I discovered something my second cousin hadn’t seen before: that Hinde was married to Zisia, and they had two sons, Aba and Yosef, aged 10 and 8.

During my previous Googling about the villages, I came across this horrible page: translations of notes that were written on the walls of the Great Synagogue in Kowel, where the Jews were held before being carted out to the forest and shot. I just sat there and cried as I read it, knowing that my own relatives could have written those notes.

Being me, I decided to compile them into a “found poem”–a poem composed of bits of text taken from another source and reworked into something new. So I pored over the notes, reading them in their English translations and then finding the original Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish and going back and forth with Google Translate trying to make sure the translations were as accurate as they could be. (Alas, I can’t read in Yiddish. What kind of Ashkenazi Jew am I that I can read with reasonable comprehension in Spanish, French, and Catalan of all useless languages–what have you done to me?!?!–but not in Yiddish?!?!)

I was putting the finishing touches on the poem, deliberating on what to include in the little “prologue” explaining the source of the phrases, and I decided to read more information about what exactly happened in Kowel.

So I began to read an eyewitness account; the story of a man from Kowel who survived by being mistaken for dead (twice) and then living in a hole in the ground for a year and two months until the liberation. I’m linking to it here, and I don’t think you need this warning, but I’ll give it to you anyway–do not read it. I shouldn’t have. It’s beyond… it’s just beyond. And when I was done I couldn’t bear to look at the poem I’ve been working on because it felt too clean, too neat, too distant from the actual horrors of what happened to the people who wrote those words.

That night I lay down next to Eitan and we heard the sound of joyous singing wafting through our bedroom window. We live near a yeshiva, and they were probably celebrating something–someone got engaged, or whatever. I thought of the description in the eyewitness account of the Jews saying kaddish (the prayer for the dead) together: “All of those being taken to die in that vehicle sobbed brokenheartedly, repeating the words: ‘May his great name be blessed forever and ever’ with the devotion and eagerness of those about to die in the name of the Lord.” We die like we live, I thought–in song and in prayer.

It’s hard to feel connected to the joyousness of Jewish life while mired in memories of our tragedies, though. I feel now as I did emerging from the gas chambers of Majdanek on my trip to Poland 14 years ago, blinking in the sunlight reflecting off the snow, trying to readjust to the fact that there is a world outside those gas chambers and that my place in this story is to live, to thrive, to laugh, to embrace my loved ones, and to take everything God has given me and use it to do good in the world.

The past week’s headlines have not been helping much.

Eitan showed me a little poem he wrote as I was working through all this that I think sums the whole thing up beautifully. (You didn’t know there were two poets in the family, did you?!)

Notes from the Martyrs / Eitan Levy

Scrawled on a synagogue wall in Kovel
They ask to be remembered
and demand vengeance

May my sons be your consolation
May my home in our land be your vengeance
May the Torah I learn move your lips in the grave
and the life that I live be the blood in your veins

Amen, may it be His will.

…I think I need to go back to reading obsessively about the Spanish Inquisition now. 😛



1. A Catalan documentary Josep recommended to me that I watched just one week earlier, about a woman from Barcelona who discovered, upon her mother’s death, that she was Jewish and that her grandparents had died in Auschwitz. Alas, I don’t think it’s available with English subtitles, but here it is in Catalan and Spanish.

Wall painting depicting the Ramban

Ramban (Nachmanides): The Badass Rabbi of Catalonia

Dear Josep,

I don’t know how it took me this long to write a post about Ramban.

Wall painting depicting the Ramban

He happens to be my personal favorite Biblical commentator, because his Hebrew writing is so clear and expressive. When studying his commentary in high school, I got a huge kick out of the fact that he would quote Rashi–Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki of 11th-century Provence, the spiritual father of all Biblical and Talmudic commentary–and then just say “אינו נכון” (“This is incorrect”). About Rashi. That’s like a college freshman standing up in the middle of a lecture by a senior professor at university and saying, “That’s wrong.” What a badass, I thought.

I didn’t know the half of it.

“Ramban” is a Hebrew acronym of his name, which was Rabbi Moshe ben (son of) Nachman. But guess what? He had a Catalan name, too: Bonastruc ça Porta. That’s right: he was born in Girona in 1194, and lived there for most of his life. He is also known as “Moshe ben Nachman Gerondi”–Moses, son of Nachman the Gironan.

Ramban was a central feature of the Golden Age of Sepharad. He was 8 years old when Maimonides died, and Rabbenu Yonah (Jonah Gerondi), a rabbi and moralist most famously known for his ethical work Sha’arei Teshuva (“The Gates of Repentance”), was his cousin. He began his writings on Jewish law at age 16, and soon emerged as a prominent Jewish scholar, eventually being named rabbi of Girona and later, chief rabbi of Catalonia. He was also a doctor, like many other famous Jewish scholars of that age, and aside from the aforementioned Biblical commentary, wrote a number of notable works on Jewish law and philosophy. He seems to have lived most of his years in relative peace–until the event in 1263 that turned his life upside down and secured him a place of honor in the Jewish Hall of Badassery.

The Disputation of Barcelona

Most of what I know about the Disputation I learned from a thorough article on the topic by Rabbi Berel Wein, a well-known Jewish historian, called Ecumenicism and Dialogue 1263 C.E.. I also consulted Ramban’s own account of the debate, Vikuach HaRamban (“The Ramban’s Disputation”), in the original Hebrew.

The debate was initiated–as it often is–by a Jewish convert to Christianity (seriously, we are almost always our own worst enemies) who took the name Pablo Cristiani upon conversion. Cristiani convinced King Jaume I of Aragon to order a public debate between himself and the chief rabbi of Catalonia. The king summoned Ramban to Barcelona for a dialogue that began on the 20th of July, 1263, and continued through four debating sessions, the last of which concluded on July 31st.

Rabbi Wein points out that open interfaith dialogue is a fairly recent phenomenon. During the Middle Ages, the Church got into the habit of holding such public “debates” for the usual reason: to discredit Judaism and persuade more Jews to convert to Christianity. In most cases, it was a bit of a kangaroo court, because whatever poor rabbi was summoned to defend Judaism in these debates was never actually permitted to speak freely. I wonder why the Christian side always won!

The Disputation of Barcelona was different. Before opening the debate, Ramban asked the king for the right to speak freely–and the king granted it. “Because of this right, Ramban at all times spoke boldly, incisively, and openly,” writes Rabbi Wein. “Here, perhaps for the only time in the annals of medieval Christian European history, Jew meets gentile as equal, and for the majority of the debate is not the defendant or apologist but rather presses home his criticism and disbelief of Christian concepts and principles.”

In other words, Ramban got up there and not only effectively defended Judaism against Cristiani’s arguments, he repeatedly set Cristiani and his buddies on the defensive–with epic levels of sarcasm, I might add. When Cristiani quoted passages from the Talmud and Midrashic literature trying to prove that the Jews of Jesus’s time believed he was the Messiah, Ramban easily refuted their interpretations and added, “The prophet says that at the time of the Messiah ‘they shall not teach their friends war, etc.’… and from the days of Jesus until now, the entire world is full of robbery and pillaging, and the Christians have spilled more blood than any of the other nations, and they are also sexually immoral. How hard it would be for you, my great king, and for your knights, to survive if there would be an end to warfare!”

Yeah. He actually said that. To the face of James I the Conqueror.

And if you think that’s chutzpah: “You believe this bitter thing [the Virgin Birth and the concept of the Trinity] because you are born a Christian, the son of Christian parents, and you have been indoctrinated your entire life by priests who have filled your mind and marrow with this belief, and you now accept its truth by basis of habit alone. But the thing you believe, that is the core of your faith, is completely illogical.”

Shockingly, Jaume didn’t order him beheaded on the spot. In fact, he related to Ramban with great admiration and respect, and comes across as a pretty good guy through this ordeal. When the debate was called off (apparently for fear of rioting–it was never formally closed), Jaume said to Ramban, “I have yet to see such a man as you, who, though being wrong, has yet made an excellent presentation of his position.” Ramban also reports that Jaume gave him a gift of three hundred coins and parted with him “with great affection.”

The Dominican priests claimed victory, and Ramban felt obliged to publish his account of the debate to let the public decide who had won. The Dominicans didn’t even try to refute his account–they accused him of blasphemy instead. King Jaume, mistrusting the Dominican court, called a special commission and ordered that the proceedings be conducted in his presence. Ramban’s defense argued that though he had indeed spoken out against Christianity, he had been granted permission to say all these things by the king himself. The king recognized that his case was just, but felt obliged to do something do calm down the Dominicans, so he sentenced Ramban to two years’ exile. The Dominicans felt that this wasn’t enough and appealed to the Pope, who expanded the punishment to permanent banishment.

Ramban Reestablishes a Jewish Presence in Jerusalem

So Ramban was forced to leave his family in Catalonia, and apparently spent the next three years wandering around in Castile or southern France, until he settled in Jerusalem–which, no thanks to the massacres and expulsions courtesy of the recently defeated Crusaders, had only two Jews living in it at the time. So he established the Ramban Synagogue, which still stands in the Old City today–likely not in the original location, but the building it’s currently in is still the oldest synagogue in the Old City. (It’s also, by the way, the first synagogue you ever walked into and prayed in. I know. I was there. 😉 )

Ramban’s reestablished community was the beginning of a 700-year continuous Jewish presence in the Old City of Jerusalem, all the way up until the War of Independence in 1948, when it fell to Jordan. It was in Jerusalem that Ramban wrote his magnum opus: his Biblical commentary. He also maintained a correspondence with his family and community in Sepharad, trying to create a stronger connection between the Jewish communities of Judea and Spain. He died after three years in the Holy Land at the age of 76.

If you want to read Rabbi Wein’s full article about the Disputation that summarizes the main points of the debate, you can find it online here; it was published in a collection of essays of Jewish responses to missionaries called The Real Messiah? (and if that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s mentioned in By Light of Hidden Candles!).

Speaking of awesome Catalans (albeit not Jewish ones), I am still following your news carefully and waiting with bated breath to see what happens next… and for those of our readers who have missed them, I’ve written three Josep-approved op-ed pieces for The Times of Israel on Catalan independence, which you can read here.

Much love,


This post is #3 in my Awesome Jews of History series, the previous two being portraits of King David and Don Isaac Abravanel. Are there any awesome Jews of history you’d like me to write about? Let me know!

Are People Who Do Terrible Things Necessarily Terrible People?

Dear Josep,

This is a topic I’ve been thinking about for a very, very long time, and several half-baked posts on it have been sitting in my drafts folder for months, if not years. Don’t ask me why it finally gelled now, on the sixth day of Chanukah when my kids are on vacation, Eitan is off touring, I’ve been up since 4am for no good reason, I’m still in my PJ’s, I have writing/editing work to do that people actually pay me for due forthwith, and a doctor’s appointment I need to drag the kids to in a couple hours. But then, my muse has a habit of turning up at the strangest times. So here we are.

There were two epic stories that I found irresistibly captivating as a kid. One was the Star Wars trilogy (the original one. I prefer to pretend the so-called “prequels” don’t exist) and one was the Harry Potter series. I get the sense that sci-fi and fantasy are not your thing, but there’s a reason stories like these are so appealing to so many people. Both Star Wars and Harry Potter feature a hero who starts out an orphan living a hard life with his aunt and uncle, and is suddenly swept away to a magical world to discover that he is destined for a mystical and pivotal role in the ultimate redemption of his world. Who doesn’t fantasize at some point or other about discovering that they’re special and destined for greatness, and most importantly,  essential to the world they live in?

There is another thing about stories like these, however, that I think is universally appealing. In both of these stories, and in most other stories, there is a clear division between light and darkness. There are good guys and bad guys. In both Star Wars and Harry Potter, the hero discovers that there is a certain level of darkness within him; but ultimately it is still very clear to us what it takes to cross the line between the two.

Real life is much more complicated.

There’s been a recent wave of allegations against public figures, many of them media personalities, of sexual harassment and assault. Many of these people immediately lost their careers; their life’s work being banned or boycotted in response to the allegations. Which is only what they deserve, right? If you assault a woman, you are a Bad Guy, period, and everything you’ve ever done in your life is now tainted with evil. Right?

…So… that’s the thing.

People Are Complicated

Consider the following TED Talk by Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger. They dated as teenagers, until Tom raped Thordis one night. The talk is about their raw and incredible story of shame, responsibility, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

There is one line Thordis says in the talk that really struck me: “How will we understand what it is in human societies that produces violence if we refuse to recognize the humanity of those who commit it?”

Before we unpack this, let’s hop over to another case I’ve been thinking about a lot for a long time.

Rabbi Barry Freundel was a community rabbi who helped many people convert to Judaism in Washington D.C. He is currently serving jail time after being found guilty of voyeurism. He had set up a hidden camera in the community mikveh, and videotaped dozens of women as they prepared to immerse (which is done without clothes on). The entire Jewish world was rocked by this scandal. He was a well-loved rabbi who took advantage of the extremely vulnerable position of the women who trusted him. We were shocked and disgusted.

About two years ago, I was having a conversation with a friend when she mentioned something about trying to give him a call to see if he was all right. It turned out that she had known him fairly well–and that her experiences of him were all positive. She told me a story about him going well out of his way, well above the call of duty, to do an important kindness for her when she was in a vulnerable place. So I asked her how she can reconcile the kind, funny, friendly man she knew with the one who violated women’s privacy in such a despicable way.

I don’t remember her exact wording and who said what in this conversation, but the upshot was that people are complicated. Good people can do really awful things. Rabbi Freundel did some terrible things and he should pay the consequences for those actions. Aside from the damage he did to the sense of security and dignity of these women, he brought shame and dishonor on himself and on Jews as a whole.

But does that mean that the wonderful things he did–such as helping my friend in her hour of need–meant nothing?

Good Guys and Bad Guys

Is Rabbi Freundel a good person because of the good things he did? Or is he a terrible person because of the terrible things he did?

I’ll bring you a more extreme example.

This woman tells the story of how she slowly discovered that her beloved father had committed multiple murders over the course of his life. “Why am I so mad?” she retorts. “Because my mother stayed married to a murderer. Because she let a monster raise her child. But that’s the thing; my father wasn’t a monster. He was the guy who snuck me candy when my mother forbade it. And he was the guy who made up silly songs to sing on the way to school. And he was the guy who was home in time for dinner every single f***ing night. He was a good father to me.

Was he a monster?

Was he a good father?


And yes.

In my review of Rabbi Sacks’s Not in God’s Name, I mention a concept he introduces: “moralistic dualism”. People who hold this worldview believe that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, the children of the light and the children of darkness. To a moralistic dualist, what this woman says about her father is an irreconcilable paradox. You can’t be both a monster and a good father. But he was. And he’s not the only one.

Which brings us to the place every single discussion about morality and evil brings everyone these days–the archetype of evil in our age. There’s an incredible German movie about the last hours of Adolf Hitler called Der Untergang, or “Downfall” in English. Some people took issue with the movie because it “humanized” Hitler.

And I must ask:

What was Hitler if not human?

Not only was he human–he was acting out of a belief that he was saving the world.

Does that mean he shouldn’t be held responsible for the choices he made? Of course not. Recognizing someone’s humanity does not and should not mean absolving them of responsibility.

This Is Where It Gets Really Uncomfortable

(Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

You know why I think we do this? Why we believe that people who do terrible things are irredeemable monsters?

Because we want to believe that we could never do it.

Oh yes. I see all you readers there squirming in your seats. “Me? I could never do such a thing. I’m a Good Guy. A child of light. I’m Harry Potter, I’m Luke Skywalker, I would never ever ever do something terrible.”

How true is that really? How different are you from Johnny Mascia and Barry Freundel and Louis C.K.?

This is the thing the world needs to hear and I’m going to do the blogging equivalent of shouting it from the rooftops:



It is the choices you make every single day about how to wield your power.

We may not be wizards or Jedi knights, but we all have power, whether it’s physical, political, financial, social, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, artistic–what have you. It is how we choose to use our power that determines what we are. That is the ultimate message of both Star Wars and Harry Potter. Good Guy or Bad Guy is not a thing you are. It’s a thing you have to choose–every moment of your life.

On Forgiveness

Shortly before Yom Kippur last year, Rabbi Freundel issued a heartfelt public apology for his actions. “No matter how many times I attempt to apologize, it will never be enough,” he wrote. “I am sorry, beyond measure, for my heinous behavior and the perverse mindset that provoked my actions… as I sat in the courtroom listening the victim impact statements, each felt like a blade entering my gut. The speakers expressed their feelings of rage, hurt, humiliation, vulnerability, and violation. How could I have been so incredibly blind, so unaware of my impact on others? I ask myself that question every day.”

I’m probably going to get all kinds of comments on this post about how Rabbi Freundel doesn’t deserve to be called a rabbi and how could I even suggest that he is anything other than a voyeur, a peeping Tom, an abuser?

Yes, I am suggesting that. I am suggesting that people are bigger than their actions. That people can make bad choices and then genuinely regret them, and go on to become better people who don’t repeat those bad choices. We have a name for this process in Judaism. It’s called teshuva. And we believe it works because we believe that all people are, at their very core, pure goodnessTeshuva means “returning”: returning to your essence, to who you really are. And who you really are is a spark of the Divine–a spark that is always calling you to choose good.

We don’t have to forgive unforgivable acts. But we can forgive the people who commit them.

Obviously, it is not my place to forgive any of these people for what they have done, and I would never say that victims must do so. People need to do what’s right for them and take care of themselves and find their own journey to healing. Thordis found that forgiveness was the right path for her. It helped that her rapist was actually repentant and genuinely regretted what he did; that’s not always true. But it is true sometimes, and in the #MeToo world, I get the sense that people don’t actually believe that.

My editor at the Forward recently wrote a very nuanced piece about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and whether we should still be singing his music in the #MeToo era, given the allegations against him. I sent her an email thanking her for writing it, and I wrote that I wish we lived in a world where people actually believed in repentance and forgiveness. I think we need to start by being more humble; understanding that goodness is not what we are, it’s what we choose; understanding that humans don’t fit neatly into the categories of “good” or “evil”; and having the strength and compassion to believe in forgiveness.

Gotta run and tend to Real Life now. Happy Chanukah and Bon Nadal!

With love,


Josep follows instructions!

On several occasions, I have asked (or, um, in certain cases, my imaginary friend character Manuel has asked) for people to send me photos of themselves with my book/s when they get their copies. Well, Josep, for one, has complied:

My hope is that he’ll be so absorbed in the book tomorrow that he’ll forget to go out and protest and get beat up by Spanish police if/when Article 155 hits the fan… but I’m not optimistic. He told me he was reading “your first book” (a.k.a., the one that’s addressed to him) during a demonstration last week. So most likely, he’ll just bring it along.

Hey Josep–when I said that la llamada de la sangre is mentioned in the book, I didn’t mean I want actual blood of converso descendants on the book, okay?! Sheesh. You stay out of trouble!!!


Nu, so why haven’t the rest of you sent me book selfies yet?!

By Light of Hidden Candles Is Launching Today!

We interrupt this program to bring you the news that my novel, By Light of Hidden Candles, is being officially released today!!!

By Light of Hidden Candles

You can purchase it directly from the publisher here, or from Amazon here.

I’ve started blogging specifically about the book on my author website here, which is partially my excuse for neglecting this blog. My other excuse is that Josep and I have been communicating a lot off-blog because of the craziness around the Catalonia referendum, and our on-blog communication tends to be inversely proportional to our off-blog communication. But I did write an op-ed in the Times of Israel about Catalan independence here.

Q & A with Random Strangers on the Internet, Pt. 5!

Posting a Search Term Q & A with Rosh Hashana coming up next week, all the pre-referendum drama in Catalonia (yes, Josep, I’ve been watching carefully), and my debut novel, By Light of Hidden Candles launching in one month and three days (aaaahhhhhhhhh) feels like cheating, but as you can imagine, I’ve been busy 😉 Besides, this list is getting long, and it’s time to get it out there!

For those of you just tuning in, every once in a while I write a post responding to questions and phrases that people have typed into search engines, which led them to this blog. You can find links to previous Search Term Q & A’s at the bottom of this post.

Shall we begin?

“why do you have to kiss a prayer book if you drop it in temple”

To be fair–you don’t have to. But there’s a Jewish custom to kiss holy books when they have been inadvertently treated disrespectfully–like if you drop them on the floor by accident. (This doesn’t apply just to synagogue/temple, either. It applies everywhere.) Some of us actually always kiss prayer or other holy books after using them, just out of respect and fondness.

BTW–it’s a much bigger deal if you drop a Torah scroll. This is such a grave degradation of the sanctity of the Torah that for hundreds of years, the custom in Jewish communities was for everyone who witnessed a Torah scroll being dropped to fast for 40 days! These days, because Jews aren’t as badass as our Ramadan-observant Muslim friends when it comes to fasting and 40 days is a bit much for us, most communities give charity instead.

This is why we are EXTREMELY careful when carrying Torah scroll!

“things you dont know about jews”

Huh. That is a very interesting question, Internet Stranger. Unfortunately it’s nearly impossible to answer, since you can’t really know exactly what it is you don’t know, now can you?

“what is the meaning of bein hatzlilim”

Literally, Bein HaTzlilim (the title of Yonatan Razel’s second album) means “between the sounds” or “between the notes.” The word tzlil (צליל) implies a musical note or pleasant sound. The title song of the album is about man’s relationship with God and responsibility to the earth and fellow man; some heavy stuff!

Here’s my translation of the chorus:

It’s between the sounds,
Between the words
And above the stars
But also very close to me,
Deep in my heart
Calling me to Him
To choose life
Not to forget or try to hide
So before the sun sets,
Maybe a new light will dawn
Maybe we will change

It’s a very deep and powerful song. I’m glad you asked! Razel recently put out a new album, Poteah Lev, and I enjoy it, but I think Bein HaTzlilim was his best so far.

“100 facts about judaism”

Okay, Internet Stranger, now that’s just overly demanding. I’m sure you’ll find at least that many if you spend enough time reading this blog. (Might I recommend my book instead? It’s easier to read and more organized.)

“things man cannot tell a woman”

Ahhh, Internet Stranger. You are asking the wrong question. It’s not what you say; it’s how (and when) you say it.

Allow me to give you the exact same advice I gave Josep when he expressed a thorough (and highly justified) bafflement with womankind: read this book. It will change your life.


“hebrew names of god mephenaij phaton tattoo.com”

I… don’t even…

“israeli bizarre culture”

I won’t deny it. However, have you heard of Catalan culture? That one’s pretty bizarre too.

“what are weird facts about jewish people”

Personally, I think the weirdest fact about Jewish people is that we still exist. By all accounts, that should not be true. And yet here we are.

“did haman come from the amalikites”

Yup! He was a descendant of Agag, the Amalekite king whom the prophet Samuel killed after King Saul failed to do so.

“old yahud coins”

I assume you mean Yehuda, a.k.a. the Kingdom of Judah. (“Yahud” means “Jews” in Arabic.) I do believe coins have been discovered from that period. However, I personally am not in possession of any. Good luck!

(ETA: My husband–tour guide Rabbi Eitan Levy–informs me that “Yahud” is also the Persian name for Judah, and it was called that as a province under Persia; and many of the coins that were discovered in Israel were from that period. He even showed me that the 1-shekel coin that we currently use has “Yahud” written on it in ancient Phoenician script. You learn something new every day!)

“very sad pictures of love blood boy haman”

I must admit, I never, ever imagined seeing the words “love”, “blood”, “boy”, and “Haman” consecutively in one sentence.

I Google-Imaged this to see what on earth you might have found from my blog with these search terms, and what I found was a painting of a blood libel from my Great Post of Jewish Conspiracies. Joyful stuff.

“friends boring strangers”

Yup, that’s us. Daniella & Josep: friends boring strangers since 2014. (I feel like there should be a silly photo of us to accompany this. Alas, photos of any sort featuring both of us are in very short supply due to a minor geographic issue.)

“torah on friendship”

I did, indeed, post about friendship in Judaism in honor of our tenth friendversary!

“hinna rabbinic”

The hinna (henna) ceremony held before weddings in North African and Middle Eastern Jewish communities is not even rabbinic; it’s just a custom, one that doesn’t even originate in Judaism. Muslims in those areas also have henna ceremonies, if I’m not mistaken.

“describe the changes in his eye that enabled him to see the red light at a distance of 150m.describe also how he was able to hear the siren and restore his balance instantly”

I… will gladly do so, but first I need a few clarifications:

  1. Who are we talking about?
  2. What was wrong with his eyes before the alleged changes?
  3. What kind of siren are we talking about?
  4. What made him lose his balance in the first place?
  5. Why in the name of all things purple did Google direct you to my blog?

“write a letter to your aunty and invite her on dinner at eid event”

Dear Aunt Sue,

I have been instructed by a Random Stranger on the Internet to invite you to a dinner for an Eid event. I assume they mean Eid al-Fitr, since this request came in during the Muslim month of Ramadan. I’m afraid there might be some technical issues, however. One is that being Jewish, we don’t celebrate Eid al-Fitr. Another is that you might have some difficulty getting here, seeing as you live on the other side of the planet; and though I know you’d really love to be able to come visit, you need to stick around to keep your mom (my Bubbie) company, and it might be hard for you to travel here alone.

Nonetheless, do consider yourself invited for dinner any day of the year!

Love you and miss you!


“letter on english eid invitation for my best friend”

Dear Internet Stranger’s Best Friend,

I have been requested to write a letter in English–which, ever so fortunately, is my native tongue–inviting you to join him/her for Eid. I assume s/he means Eid al-Adha, given the timing of this request, but unfortunately I believe you have missed your opportunity this year.

However, given that you are best friends, I trust that s/he found another way to invite you. In any event, I hope you enjoyed a wonderful holiday.

Many blessings,


“how i spent my eid letter”

(Yes, you wouldn’t believe how many poor, unsuspecting Muslims have stumbled across my blog because they Googled something to do with letters and some Eid or other.)

To Whom It May Concern,

I have been requested to write a letter describing how I spent my Eid.

Well, Eid Al-Adha fell on September 1st this year, which was also a Friday. So I spent the day enjoying a quiet morning with my kids (FINALLY) at school, baking challah, packing, and otherwise preparing to spend Shabbat at my parents’ house. I enjoyed a wonderful and delicious Friday night meal with my parents, cousin, brother, and brand-new future sister-in-law. The challah came out great, in case you’re wondering, but no, we did not slaughter any goats, sheep, or other livestock in the process.

Many blessings,


Amused? Check out previous Search Term Q&A’s:

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Not in God’s Name: Rabbi Sacks Confronts Religious Violence

Dear Josep,


Let me just give a little context here for our blog readers: when I heard about the terror attack in Barcelona on Thursday, I checked in on Josep to make sure he and his loved ones were okay. As I pointed out then, it was a bit of a weird, if not unexpected (see the last line of that post), role reversal. Josep was safe, but understandably feeling pretty fed up with the state of affairs, and we discussed the situation a little. Over the course of the conversation I mentioned that I’d been reading a book by one of my favorite Jewish leaders of our time, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. (And here’s a shout-out to my friends Shimon and Mandy Detwiler, who not only lent me their copy, but also graciously excused me for spending a large chunk of last Shabbat at their home with my nose buried in it instead of paying attention to them.)

I had been thinking I might write a blog post about the book when I was done reading, and Josep said I should write one so he doesn’t have to read the whole thing. 😛 And, well, I finished the book yesterday morning, so here we are.

But I’m going to say again, Josep, that I really don’t think I can do it justice. The ideas Rabbi Sacks discusses are very complex and nuanced, and they just don’t work as soundbites–as befits any really wise and thoughtful discussion of this topic. I still recommend reading the whole thing. And to that end, I shall hereby announce that other thing we discussed: Josep’s Reading List! This is a new page on the blog website that will feature a list of titles I have recommended to you over the years–including links to my short stories at the end–for your convenience and that of our blog readers who happen to be bookworms like us!

Now, back to Not in God’s Name.

The main goal of the book is not necessarily to explain why religious violence happens, but to provide a theological approach to confronting this phenomenon. The book seeks to answer these difficult questions: “Does the God of Abraham want his disciples to kill for his sake? Does he demand human sacrifice? Does he rejoice in holy war? Does he want us to hate our enemies and terrorise unbelievers?”

Now, I say these questions are difficult knowing that you, and the vast majority of Westerners, do not think of them as difficult at all. Of course the God of Abraham doesn’t rejoice in holy war or want us to hate people or terrorize our enemies! I think Rabbi Sacks is trying to help Westerners understand, however, that the fact that they see that answer as a given is part of the problem.

Modern Westerners don’t understand what drives Muslims, Christians, or Jews to interpret our holy texts in a way that drives us to violence. They solve this problem by saying: well, what these terrorists are practicing isn’t real Islam. What the Christians did during the Crusades wasn’t real Christianity. What Yigal Amir and Baruch Goldstein did wasn’t real Judaism. In fact, religion has nothing to do with it, they would argue: “People are made violent, as Hobbes said, by fear, glory and the ‘perpetual and restless desire for power after power that ceaseth only in death’… It may be used by manipulative leaders to motivate people to wage wars precisely because it inspires people to heroic acts of self-sacrifice, but religion itself teaches us to love and forgive, not to hate and fight.” I, myself, have expressed a similar view.

Rabbi Sacks points out the problem with this approach: “When terrorist or military groups invoke holy war, define their battle as a struggle against Satan, condemn unbelievers to death and commit murder while declaring ‘God is great’, to deny that they are acting on religious motives is absurd. Religions seek peace, but on their own terms. This is not a recipe for peace but for war.

It may seem obvious to a Westerner that God wants us to be peaceful, and religious people from all three Abrahamic faiths will points to key texts in our holy books that support this: “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18); “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44); “If anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or to spread mischief in the land–it would be as if he killed all mankind…” (Qur’an 5:32)

But it is just as easy to find texts in those and other religious sources that seem shockingly intolerant and violent. I’ve seen memes about such verses from the Qur’an and the Bible all over social media. For the most part, we have traditional interpretations that moderate the ideas expressed in these verses, but extremists have been interpreting them differently for centuries. Who am I, as a Jew, to say which interpretations of Islam are the “correct” ones? And who’s to say that my interpretation of “Blot out the memory of Amalek” is correct, while Baruch Goldstein’s interpretation of it was incorrect? Just because something “feels better” or aligns better with modern humanist doctrine doesn’t mean it’s true.

Rabbi Sacks puts the argument of the book as simply as he can in these words: “There is a connection between religion and violence, but it is oblique, not direct.

So what is that connection, and how should we, as religious people, approach it?

Altruistic Evil and Pathological Dualism

The question of why people commit any kind of violence is something we have discussed in other (off-blog) contexts in recent months. Rabbi Sacks, of course, delves a lot deeper, drawing on the writings of philosophers, psychologists, and scientists exploring this question. Looking at humans from a purely evolutionary standpoint, it makes as much sense for humans to be violent toward each other as for lions to be violent toward hyenas. Being altruistic and compassionate toward members of our own group has a distinct evolutionary advantage, because we are much more likely to survive if we cooperate; but we are also wired to be hostile, even violent, toward other groups, since they compete with us for resources and may threaten our survival. This is human nature.

Rabbi Sacks brings up two key phrases to help us understand religious violence. The first is altruistic evil. He defines this as “evil committed in a sacred cause, in the name of high ideals”. As we discussed off-blog, it takes more than poverty and desperation for people to murder innocent women and children who are not actively threatening them. For people to do this, they must be driven by a belief that those innocent people really are a threat to them–through their mere existence. The easiest example to draw upon, of course, is Nazi Germany. The Nazis drew on the anger and unrest of Germans after their defeat in WWI, and desperation and poverty were certainly a part of that, but the main thing that drove them to commit genocide was the deeply held belief that the Jews had corrupted the natural order of the world. They believed they needed to kill us–all of us–to bring about their idea of utopia. The same is true of Daesh and other manifestations of radical Islam. These people believe that their values, their culture, their way of life, are under existential threat, and the only way to protect these things is to kill every man, woman, and child who represents or somehow perpetuates the destructive forces that threaten them–from Mosul to San Diego.

The second key phrase is pathological dualism. Dualism is a worldview that divides the world into two opposing forces: “children of light” and “children of darkness”. Rabbi Sacks brings historical examples of people from Christianity and Judaism adopting dualistic theologies. In these worldviews, the “children of light” represent God’s will in the universe, while the “children of darkness” represent some other, evil force that must be destroyed or overcome for God’s will to be victorious. This is, of course, strictly opposed to the basic concept of monotheism. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” There is no force in the world that can challenge or defeat God. Believing otherwise is heresy according to the prevailing mainstream view in all three Abrahamic faiths. However, Rabbi Sacks points out, movements that believed in this view emerged during times of despair and disillusionment. Dualism is an easy way out of the difficult question of Divine justice. How can a just God have done something that seems so unjust? Dualists answer by saying that it wasn’t God at all; it was the Satan, or some other force that is fighting God. They can’t hold the idea that a God who is purely good could also be responsible for bad things that happen. It’s a simplistic, black-and-white way of thinking.

Dualism is not only expressed in theology; it is expressed in completely secular contexts as well. The Nazis were also dualists. Their world was divided into desirables and undesirables. There were no shades of gray. There was no acceptance of the idea that people are complex and each individual should be judged on his or her own actions and merits.

This dualistic view of humanity does not only express itself today in places like radical Islam and white supremacism. I see it on the liberal left, too. I see it on my Facebook feed when friends write things like, “If you voted for Trump, please unfriend me”. If you are so disgusted by the “other side” that you no longer wish to engage in conversation with someone based solely on a political decision they made last November, you are expressing a dualistic worldview. And that’s without even getting into BDS and the pathological demonization of Israel that has become a pet project of the left. To many people on the left, saying I’m an Israeli settler is basically the same as saying I’m a Nazi–and that confession is likely to inspire a similar response: disgust, horror, and a complete unwillingness to see me as a person in my own right with some views they may strongly disagree with. That is pathological dualism. To those people, I am an irredeemable child of darkness.

This, argues Rabbi Sacks, is the precursor to dehumanization. The next logical step is that the “children of darkness” must be defeated, or destroyed. It is not a very long road from there to altruistic evil. To deny that your own group is capable of reaching this point is classic in-group bias. “Almost invariably people regard their group as superior to others. Henry Tajfel, one of the pioneers of social identity theory, showed how deeply this runs in even the most trivial of groupings. In one experiment he divided people into groups on the basis of the mere toss of a coin, yet they still rated the members of their own group as more likeable than the others, despite the fact that they had never met one another before and knew that they had been selected on a purely random basis. Groups, like individuals, have a need for self-esteem and they will interpret facts to confirm their sense of superiority.”

There are, and always will be, extremists in our midst who are willing to commit altruistic evil. The question is whether we, as a group, allow that to happen–and perpetuating a pathologically dualistic worldview is one way we enable it.

Sibling Rivalry

“Yet we are still missing a piece of the puzzle,” writes Rabbi Sacks. “The phenomena we have described thus far–identity, splitting, projection, pathological dualism and the scapegoat–are general. They could affect anyone… They help us understand violence but not the fraught relationship between the Abrahamic faiths… What is it that brought Jews, Christians and Muslims, spiritual children to a common father, to such animosity for so long?”

To answer this question, Rabbi Sacks devotes a major chunk of the rest of the book to exploring the concept of sibling rivalry. Historian and philosopher René Girard argues that violence is born in something he termed mimetic desire–wanting to have what someone else has because they have it. Mimetic desire is why, when one child is given a toy or a snack, suddenly all the other children around want the same thing. This phenomenon is all too familiar to me as the mother of three boys! We have a natural desire to have what other people have. This desire can lead to violence. Girard argued that we can see this most clearly in the natural jealousy siblings have for one another; how siblings not only desire to have what the other has, but on a deeper level, to be what the other one is. This, says Girard, is one of the primal sources of violence.

All one needs to do is glance at the first book of the Bible to see this idea reflected in Scripture. Genesis is basically a meditation on sibling rivalry. The first murder is a fratricide: Cain murders Abel out of jealousy. Every step along the way from Abraham to Joseph involves a story, or several stories, about sibling rivalry. Rabbi Sacks points out that the most essential disagreements between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism can be reduced to an argument over Abraham’s blessing: who was chosen? Who is most worthy of God’s love? But this problem, Rabbi Sacks argues, obviously started long before Christianity or Islam ever came about. The problem is documented very clearly in the book of Genesis itself. Isaac was chosen over Ishmael (or Ishmael over Isaac in the Qur’an); Jacob over Esau; Rachel over Leah; Joseph over his brothers.

But what if, ventures Rabbi Sacks, we have all been reading these stories wrong?

What if, on close inspection, the Scripture is telling us a different story entirely?

He devotes Part II of the book to exploring that question, through a careful analysis of the text of Genesis. This was the part that really blew me away. Because those stories had always bothered me on some level. It always seemed so unfair. Why should only one of the brothers be chosen to receive God’s blessing? Is it really true that Ishmael and Esau were unworthy? Wasn’t Joseph kind of an insufferable brat who got what was coming to him?

Does God Play Favorites?

I’ve already passed the 2,000-word mark on this post and I obviously will not be able to recount Rabbi Sacks’s entire analysis of Genesis. I want to focus on just one of those stories that spoke to me most deeply: that of Jacob and Esau.

The story I learned as a child went something like this: Jacob was the kind and gentle twin, and Esau was the wild, hairy, and course one. I mean, look how stupid he was–he sold his birthright for some lentil stew! But for some reason Isaac–who was blind, perhaps spiritually as well as physically–favored Esau, while Rebecca, who was clearly in the right, favored Jacob. Jacob then stole Esau’s birthright and his blessing, at the encouragement of Rebecca, and that’s how he became the father of the chosen people.

What Rabbi Sacks points out about this story totally blew my mind. Jacob didn’t actually need to “steal” any blessing. The blessing Isaac was going to give to Esau was never meant for Jacob. Isaac blessed Jacob-dressed-as-Esau with power and wealth. He later blessed Esau himself with a similar blessing. As Jacob was leaving to flee his brother’s wrath, Isaac gave him yet another blessing–a blessing to inherit the land of Canaan, and to have many children.

Abraham was never blessed with power or wealth; he, too, was promised the Land of Canaan and children “as numerous as the stars in the sky”. Isaac meant to give Jacob Abraham’s blessing all along.

Jacob’s story is essentially the story of a younger brother who wanted to have what his brother had–to be what his brother was–and who eventually learned that that’s never what he was meant to be. It’s the story of a man who came to appreciate his own gifts and destiny, and then–in the climactic scene of reconciliation with Esau–essentially give back what he took, which he now understood was never meant for him. That is when his name symbolically changed from Jacob–“He who follows”–to Israel, “He who wrestles with God”.

Throughout this section of the book, Rabbi Sacks consistently shows that God’s “choice” of one sibling over another is not actually an expression of overall preference. The other sibling is also appreciated and blessed in his own right. Of Ishmael the Bible says explicitly that “God was with him”. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are chosen not for their superiority, but for their specific traits: the fact that they were not strong and self-sufficient like Ishmael and Esau were. God blessed Ishmael and Esau with power; he blessed Isaac and Jacob with responsibility.

In other words: no, God does not play favorites. God loves and blesses each one of us according to our unique abilities and traits. We don’t have to fight over God’s love. His love is infinite.

Realizing this is the key to overcoming our “Abrahamic sibling rivalry”–and, Rabbi Sacks emphasizes, we have already seen historically that this is possible. The Catholic Church has undergone a complete revolution in the way it relates to other religions and to Jews in particular in the past few centuries. In the wake of the Holocaust, some deep soul-searching on the part of the Christian world has led to a dramatic change in Jewish-Christian relations. “Today, after an estrangement that lasted almost two millennia, Jews and Christians meet much more often as friends–even (in the word selected by recent popes) ‘brothers’–than as enemies.”

Rabbi Sacks points out that one of the factors that seems to allow this to happen is the separation of religion from political power. We saw this in Judaism 2,000 years ago when the Hasmoneans lost power to the Romans; we saw it in Christianity with the secularization of the Western world in the last few centuries. I don’t know how or when it will be possible with Islam, but I have a theory: Islam is currently in its 15th century. Christianity wasn’t particularly tolerant in its 15th century. Maybe it’s just a matter of time and maturity.

What Then Must We Do?

“We must put put the same long-term planning into strengthening religious freedom as was put into the spread of religious extremism,” writes Rabbi Sacks. “Radical Islam was a movement fuelled by Western petrodollars, used by oil-producing countries to fund networks of schools, madrassahs, university professorships and departments, dedicated to Wahhabi or Salafist interpretations of Islam, thus marginalising the more open, gracious, intellectual and mystical tendencies in Islam that were in the past the source of its greatness. It was a strategy remarkable in its long time-horizons, its precision, patience, detail and dedication. If moderation and religious freedom are to prevail, they will require no less. We must train a generation of religious leaders and educators who embrace the world in its diversity, and sacred texts in their maximal generosity.”

“Most Western countries have anti-racist legislation that has proved virtually powerless against the vitriol spread through the social media. Education in many countries continues to be a disgrace. If children continue to be taught that non-believers are destined for hell and that Christians and Jews are the greater and lesser Satan… all the military interventions in the world will not stop the violence.”

In my words: we are not only fighting people. We are fighting ideas. We can kill people with guns and bombs; we can’t kill ideas that way. We need to fight ideas with ideas. We need to empower moderate voices to give young Muslims everywhere a hopeful, powerful, and peaceful alternative to extremism; an alternative that helps them preserve their identity and their values as Muslims without using hate, scapegoating, or dualism.

“Now is the time for Jews, Christians and Muslims to say what they failed to say in the past: We are all children of Abraham. And whether we are Isaac or Ishmael, Jacob or Esau, Leah or Rachel, Joseph or his brothers, we are precious in the sight of God. We are blessed. And to be blessed, no one has to be cursed. God’s love does not work that way.”

Stay safe, brother.

With love,


The Memory of Love: In Tribute to My Grandfather

Dear Josep,

In my (off-blog) recounting of my trip to the USA in February, I told you about a bittersweet encounter with my paternal grandfather, who I call Zadie (Yiddish for “Grandpa”). He died yesterday morning in his nursing home at the age of 90, and I want to tell you some more about him.

His name was Alvin (Al) Shames–Avraham ben Yacov Yitzchak v’Dina. He was born in Denver, Colorado, the only boy among three sisters. He didn’t tell me much about his childhood, but I know that his mother died when he was eight, and his father was away a lot, so he was basically raised by his two older sisters. Zadie’s family was traditionally Jewish, if not very observant.

He studied engineering at the Colorado School of Mines not far from Denver, and got his Master’s at Penn State. My Bubbie tells that her mother had a cousin living in Denver who was sick, and though my Bubbie’s family was very poor, her mother sent money to support this cousin. The cousin said that one day she would repay my great-grandmother’s kindness. Years later, when she had regained her health, she saw a young neighbor–Al Shames–waiting at the bus stop and asked him where he was going. He told her he was moving to Columbus to start his first job at Battelle Institute, and the cousin said, “Oh, I have family there!” (Just in case you thought “Jewish geography” is only a recent popular sport. 😉 ) She gave Zadie the contact information for Bubbie’s family, and when he arrived in Columbus, he gave them a call. Bubbie is the one who answered the phone and invited him to drop by.

I am blessed to be the granddaughter of two sets of couples whose lifelong romance is the stuff of legend. They celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary this June.

Al & Betty Shames, June 17th, 1951

They look awfully serious in that photo, but they were a hilarious couple. He teased her constantly. (If you ever wondered where I got my mischievous streak…) On one occasion when they were still dating, he disappeared for a while, and when he finally showed up again my Bubbie asked where he’d been; he told her he’d been in jail, and she believed him! Another time, after they were dating for a while and it was clear where things were going, he took her out to go dancing, and on the way to the bus stop, he told her that he had a gift for her. He took out a jewelry box… and inside it was a watch. She thanked him and put it on, and they kept walking. A few minutes later, he said, “I have something else for you…” and handed her an engagement ring.

(Might I note that Eitan also used a decoy–a box of chocolates–to throw me off when he proposed to me?! Those tricky Denver boys! One of the things I liked about Eitan when I first met him was how much he reminded me of Zadie.)

Bubbie and Zadie raised four children–a girl and three boys, of whom my father is the second-to-youngest–in Columbus, surrounded by cousins, uncles, and aunts. They always dreamed of moving to Israel, and when my dad was 9 or 10, they got on a boat and sailed across the sea to live in Hertzliya. Unfortunately, life here was very hard on them, especially the distance from family, and after three years, they returned to Columbus. In the time they were here, however, Zadie was an engineer for the Israel Aircraft Industries and was involved in the development of the Kfir.

When my dad was a teenager, Bubbie and Zadie decided to send him to a religious Jewish high school in Cleveland. I recently found a letter Zadie wrote to him during that time tucked among old photographs. He wrote that it was very hard for him to send my dad away to a boarding school at such a young age, but that he was confident that it was the only way my dad would have a good Jewish education. My dad’s experience at the school was difficult socially, but he did absorb a great deal of knowledge and fondness for Judaism, and became religious, starting to observe kashrut and Shabbat strictly. Bubbie and Zadie followed his example and started observing kashrut and Shabbat, too.

Right after my dad graduated high school, they moved to Long Island, New York. My dad went off to medical school at Boston University, where my parents met, married, and had my older sister. Then they moved down to Long Island for my dad’s residency–and that’s where I was born.

Zadie nicknamed me “Different Kid”. He said at the time that it’s because I was so different from my sister; she was outspoken, full of energy, and in charge, while I was quiet, pensive, and shy. My family moved to Pittsburgh when I was still a toddler, so I have no memories of living in New York; but my dad says hardly a month or two would go by without one of us making the 8-hour drive (!) to visit the other. My earliest memories of Passover Seders are from their dining room, the table set with Bubbie’s fine china, Zadie leading the Seder in his white kittel, humming over his matzah ball soup. (He always hummed while he ate, and usually started off with “B’teyavon, gvirti!“–“Bon appetit, my lady!” in Hebrew–to my Bubbie.)

They missed Israel dearly and visited it all the time, especially after we made aliyah. Zadie loved everything about Israel: the people, the language, the food, the sunshine, and of course, the sense of being at home.

Zadie praying from a hotel balcony in Israel with his tefillin, tallit, and prayer book

He would take great delight in visiting the shuk, the open-air market in Rehovot or Jerusalem, sampling succulent summer fruits and Middle Eastern pastries.

I’m pretty sure he was the one who first made an acquaintance with Gloria Mound of Casa Shalom (who, as I’m sure you recall, passed away herself earlier this year). I believe he took an interest in crypto-Judaism and conversos even before I did.

He was an honored and well-loved member of his community in Long Island, serving for a while as president of the local synagogue. I have vivid memories of that synagogue–the scent of his cologne lingering in the wool of his tallit, mingling with the smell of wood varnish from the benches and old leatherbound books. He and Bubbie were also very active in Jewish and Israeli philanthropic organizations like the UJA, Hadassah, Yad Sara and Yad L’Kashish, contributing and volunteering. Judaism, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel were deeply, deeply important to him.

He began to suffer from dementia and other health issues several years ago, and was in a slow decline from that point forward. He and Bubbie had to move to Florida to an assisted care facility close to where my uncles live, and last year he was moved to a nursing home. The separation was very hard on my Bubbie. They’d been living together for almost 65 years.

The last two times I visited him he was not very verbal, and I was told he might not remember me. But when I walked in the room two years ago, he positively lit up and said, “It’s you!

I wrote this poem shortly after my last visit with him in February.


To my grandfather
At Rosewood Health and Rehabilitation Center
I am the ghost of a little girl
With wide blue eyes and tangled blond hair
Doing cartwheels in the backyard
He searches me for her
As I ask him if he remembers
The copper tea set in the basement
“I don’t want to cry,” he gasps,
Reaching out to me
Through a fog of jumbled memories
But he cries.
I had never seen him cry before.
To me,
He is the ghost of a man
Who hummed while he ate his matzah ball soup
Who sneaked up behind my Bubbie washing dishes
And put his hands on her hips
And then walked away, shoulders shaking
In silent mirth
When she squawked her protest.
A man who made up songs
About his baby grandsons
And walking to the bank.
Now he lies in this nursing home bed,
Drained of color and joy and words and memory
Except the memory of love.
This he fights for with everything he has,
Clawing breathlessly through the fog
To make sure I know.
“I always loved you,” he chokes.
“Did you know that?”
I knew.
“Did I show it?”
Of course you did.
I fill the silence with stories about Seder nights and succah decorations.
He listens with glistening eyes.
“My little girl,” he murmurs.
“I turned thirty last week,” I smile
As if that makes any sense
In this physical universe we occupy together
“You were special,” he says.
I hold his hand.
We bask in the Florida sunshine.
I tell him that in Israel
The anemones are blooming,
And the almond trees.
“Are you happy?” he asks.
I surprise myself by answering immediately:
“Yes, I’m happy.”
And I think I mean it.
My last glimpse of him,
In a nursing home chair,
Surrounded by sterile white walls
And with nothing but a curtain
To mark his privacy.
His eyes are sad.
I don’t want to remember him like this.
I want to remember him
Playing w a l k I n g v e r y s l o w l y
And holding comfy contests at bedtime.
I want to remember him pinching my ear
And growling “God love ya.”
I tear myself away,
A smile still plastered on my face,
And I walk swiftly down the hall
Not looking back.

I don’t think I really understood the depth or power of his love for me until almost everything else was gone. I realized then that that love is something that has nurtured me since before I can remember, and will continue to sustain me for as long as I live. Jews say of the deceased, zikhrono l’vrakha, “may his memory be a blessing”; his memory is one of the greatest blessings of my life.

With love,


The Book of Jewish Food: A Refreshing (and Mouth-Watering) Ode to Jewish Cultural Diversity

Dear Josep,

Remember when there were all those videos going around of people sampling a certain type of ethnic food for the first time?

When the “Jewish Food Taste Test” came out from Buzzfeed, I was wary… and it was worse than I feared.


First of all: this is not “Jewish” food. This is Eastern European/Ashkenazi/American Jewish food. At least half of the Jews in the world today live in Israel, and you won’t find a single one of these items on a restaurant menu here.

Second of all: this isn’t even the GOOD Eastern European/Ashkenazi/American Jewish food. Where is the brisket?! The corned beef?! The apple strudel?! The cheesecake? The bagels, for Heaven’s sake?

Manischewitz?! For real?! Come out here to the Gush Etzion Winery and I’ll show you some real kosher wine. And what is that thing claiming to be a matzah ball?! I have never in my life seen one that big. And that’s setting aside the issue of whether it should be dense and chewy as in this video, or light and fluffy–a subject of bitter debate within the Ashkenazi Jewish world. (I am, and will forever remain, on Team Fluffy.)

The point is, there is a widespread (and super annoying) perception that Ashkenazi American Jews are the only kind of Jews that exist.

This point was driven further home for me in that review I got for By Light of Hidden Candles recently that I told you about. I’ll reiterate for our readers: the reviewer was shocked and dismayed that a character used the phrase inshallah. “To my dismay I found out that Daniella Levy is a rabbi’s wife, and more than anyone she should understand the non Jewish background of ‘inshallah’.” So for the record: inshallah means “God willing” in Arabic. It was (and is) used by Arabic-speaking Jews just like it’s used by Arabic-speaking Muslims. Apparently it had never occurred to this reader that Jews living in Arab lands might speak… you know… Arabic.

It is with all that in mind that I thank God for Claudia Roden and her Book of Jewish Food.

My mother-in-law introduced me to this book years ago. She gave me her copy and highly recommended it, but in the age of Google, it is very rare for me to crack open a cookbook in search of a recipe; so it languished for several years, untouched, on our bookshelf.

I don’t quite remember what inspired me to start reading it. I might have been searching for a recipe I’d been lusting after: the incomparable sour kubbeh soup I’d tasted at two weddings, for which Google seemed to yield no results. Sadly, the book didn’t provide a recipe for that particular soup either, but it did devote a whole inset section to kubbeh (semolina and beef dumplings; the Middle Eastern/North African answer to kreplach and wontons).

As I flipped through the book, I discovered that it isn’t so much a cookbook as a comprehensive anthropological/historical exploration of the entire Jewish diaspora through a culinary lens. Sure, there are recipes for gefilte fish, lokshen kugel and schmaltz, but there are also recipes for things like brinjal kasaundi, a spiced eggplant pickle from one of the Jewish communities in India; arroz kon leche, Sephardic rice pudding; hamam mahshy di lahm, Egyptian stuffed pigeon; plof, Bukharan rice with chicken and carrots; ftut, Yemeni wedding soup; etc., etc., etc. But more than recipes, there are fascinating descriptions of the communities in each of these places–every place there has ever been a significant Jewish community.

So I started reading it at the beginning, and read it cover to cover. I don’t remember ever reading another cookbook in such a manner.

Ms. Roden paints a vivid, colorful, and, of course, flavorful picture of each of these communities. I was especially fascinated to learn about the Jewish communities that have since gone all but extinct, in places like India, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. But there was a section I, of course, found particularly useful: the history of the Spanish Jews. I had known that cuisine took an important role in the history of the Inquisition–that Jews were burned at the stake for making Jewish dishes, the most famous of which was adafina, the Sabbath stew. Ms. Roden described how the dish was made, and how certain recipes among conversos developed from their Jewish background–ham, for example, being cooked the way they used to cook lamb.

When I started writing By Light of Hidden Candles, I also found myself delving into the Sephardic recipes  in the book. I developed a particular interest in quinces; I had never tasted them before, but I’d seen them appear briefly on supermarket shelves in time for Rosh Hashana, and I was curious about them. My experiments resulted in this little scene from the first chapter of By Light of Hidden Candles:


I shook my head, sighing, and popped the fruit into my mouth. “Hmm,” I said, savoring its flavor. It was somewhere between an apple and a pear, with the texture of a potato. “What are these things?”

“Quinces. Los membrillos. You’ve never had bimbriyo?”

“I don’t think I understood half the words in that sentence you said just now.”

Grandma shot me a look of incredulous exasperation. “What does your mother do in her kitchen?”


In that spirit, here is a sample recipe from the book: the recipe Grandma Alma is making in that scene.



Quince Paste

(excerpted from The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York by Claudia Roden)

Quince paste is one of the most characteristic features of Judeo-Spanish gastronomy.

4 1/2 lbs (2 kg) quinces
Juice of 1/2 lemon
5 cups (1 kg) sugar
More sugar to roll the pieces of paste in

Wash the quinces and rub off the down that usually covers them. Peel and quarter but do not core them. Put them in a heavy pan and cover with water. Add the lemon juice and cook for 2 hours. Then drain, keeping the precious liquid.

Remove the cores, seeds, and skins (they will already have given off their jelly-making pectin) and mash or process the fruit to a puree. Boil down the liquid to about 3/4 cup (175 ml). Add the sugar and the puree, and cook, stirring often, with a wooden spoon, over very low heat, being careful not to let it burn, until it thickens and begins to splutter. Then stir constantly until it turns into a rich garnet-red paste that comes away from the sides of the pan.

Let it cool a little before pouring into a wide shallow pan or tray lined with plastic wrap or wax paper, spreading it out to a thickness of about 3/4 inch (1 1/2 cm).

Leave for a day or so to dry out in a warm, airy place, before turning out and cutting up the firmed paste with a sharp knife into 3/4-inch (1 1/2-cm) squares or lozenges. Roll the pieces in granulated sugar and pack them in a tin or other airtight container.


We need more books like this one–books that showcase the incredible diversity within the Jewish people, and proclaim to the world, once and for all, that gefilte fish is not the be-all-end-all of Jewish gastronomy.

With love,