Greetings and welcome to Letters to Josep! Have a kosher lemonade and make yourself at home! Lots of people have discovered my blog by landing on this page. If you arrived here–as so many have before you–by Googling the eternal question “why are Jews so weird,” allow me to point you to this post, where I address that question directly.
If you were looking for more general information about Jewish traditions (strange customs, stuff Jews can and can’t do, etc) and what the Jewish faith is all about: the bad news is, the following post only offers a very narrow slice of that. The good news is, this entire blog is dedicated to answering that question! And the even better news is that I compiled my posts on all the basics of Judaism into a book, which you can buy on Amazon here (on Kindle or in print). It’s got all the info organized neatly for ya and it’s in the same entertaining style as the post below. So if you enjoy this post, don’t forget to check out the book!
You may be wondering from the title of this post… “15? That’s all?! This entire blog is full of weird things Jews do!” Yes, and I haven’t even told you about what we do with the Lulav during Succot yet. 😛
But, you know, most of that stuff is just part of our religious practice. All religions have practices that look weird to outsiders.
This, however, is a list of 15 strange things Jews tend to do that are not necessarily part of religious practice. Some of them are customs (and I tried to pick ones that are common to most Jewish ethnic groups); some, a result of religious practices; some, a result of historical and sociological circumstances; and some… well, darned if we know!
1) Clap and Cheer “Mazel Tov!” When a Dish Breaks
As I explained in a previous post, shattering glass has a strong association with the celebration of weddings in our culture. So it is almost an instinct that when someone drops a dish or a glass and it breaks, we clap and say “mazel tov!” (“Congratulations!”) Eitan was once the only Orthodox Jew present when a waitress in an Israeli hotel dropped a dish, and therefore the only one clapping and saying “mazal tov.” A Christian British gentleman nearby was deeply scandalized by this behavior and told him off for being disrespectful and mocking the waitress. He turned a deaf ear on Eitan’s attempt to explain that it was a local custom.
2) Play “Jewish Geography”
No, this is not a board game or an educational TV show. 😛 It is a sort of ritual that naturally occurs when Jews meet each other. It involves asking the other Jew where s/he is from, and based on that information, throwing out names of people you might both know. You see, throughout history Jews have maintained close ties with their brethren in communities throughout the world. We have always acted like one big [argumentative] family. 😉 So when we meet someone new, it is almost instinctive to try to find friends in common. And the difference between Jewish geography and other, similar “where are you from?” conversations among gentiles, is that it is actually very, very likely that no matter who we are speaking to, we will find at least one person in common.
Two examples from the past couple weeks alone: my father-in-law was at the mall with my kids, and as they played in the play area he noticed a woman speaking English with her daughter and grandkids. They eventually started talking, and within a few minutes figured out that she knew me as a child back in Pittsburgh and was the mom of one of my former classmates. A few days later, I got a sweet note through the contact form of this blog from someone who stumbled across it by Googling something, and wanted to let me know how much she enjoys it. Things like that make my day, so I wrote back to thank her for taking the time to write and asked her a little about herself. Turns out, she, too, is connected to the Jewish community in Pittsburgh, and lives within walking distance of my house of 18.5 years ago. What are the chances?!
3) Drink in the Morning
No hour is considered inappropriate for a stiff drink in our culture. You see, wine is an integral part of our religious practice anyway, and we drink it during the morning as part of the kiddush ceremony before a Shabbat or holiday feast. Many Jews, especially Hassidic Jews, take the opportunity to top it off with a little something stronger. 😉
The story goes that Eitan’s grandfather celebrated his bar mitzvah by reading the Torah during the services on a weekday; all the adults then knocked back a shot of whiskey and headed off to work.
You’d think that with this nonchalance about drinking, alcoholism would be rampant. But actually, social science research indicates that Jews tend to have lower alcoholism rates than the majority cultures in the West. That isn’t to say there is no alcoholism in Jewish communities; members of my own extended family struggled with it. Still, sociologists have been struck by the paradox that Jews seem to drink much more regularly than their non-Jewish counterparts and yet suffer fewer problems due to alcohol. Researchers theorize that the “prescriptive” nature of drinking in Jewish culture provides Jewish drinkers with clear guidelines and limits that effectively regulate and constrain their drinking behavior.
4) Rock Back and Forth When We Pray
This is called “shuckling” from the Yiddish word for “shaking.” It’s a kind of meditative movement, a swaying forward and back (or side to side) that Jews have been doing while praying or studying since at least the eighth century and possibly since the time of the Talmud. You may have noticed people doing this during the silent prayer of the Sabbath services you attended. It is said to increase concentration and emotional intensity. Once you get used to it, you start doing it unconsciously, and it feels weird to pray while standing still.
5) Explain Things with the Talmudic Singsong Cadence & Thumb Scoop
I can’t even begin to describe what this is without a video. And in lieu of an easily Googleable video of someone teaching Torah in this fashion, I had to make one myself. Here I explain part of a Mishna from the Tractate Baba Kama 3:1, that deals with damages and liability. (And you’ll have to forgive the poor quality… and my soprano voice. 😛 )
This way of chanting the Talmud is apparently a very old tradition, possibly derived from a passage of the Talmud that compares learning the Mishna without a tune to some kind of sin. I am not sure why this is or why it has lasted throughout the centuries like this. But, it’s fun. 😛 And given that the Talmud discusses such everyday, practical things, it is only a short step away from…. “IIIIIIF you want your matzah balls to be nice and fluffy, you must make sure not to mix the batter too much. But IIIIIF you like your matzah balls firm and chewy, you should mix the batter vigorously.”
6) Pluck Random Jewish Strangers Off the Street and Make Them Pray
The sun is low and the time for minḥa, the afternoon prayer, is fast coming to a close. The men are gathered in a synagogue, or a street corner, or wherever, checking their watches. There are only nine of them. They need one more guy to complete a minyan (prayer quorum); otherwise they’ll have to pray as though they are on their own, less than ideal in halakhic terms. So they send somebody out to scan the streets for a head with a kippah on it. In Israel, of course, this is a much easier task, and in a pinch, you can probably find a kippah-less traditional Jew who is grudgingly willing to join you.
Chabad, that Hassidic group I have mentioned in the past, has “tefillin stations” set up all over the place where they try to locate Jews and ask them if they have put on tefillin (phylacteries–see Prayer, Part II) that morning. If not, they help them do so. This is how actress Lisa Kudrow’s son had a “drive-by bar mitzvah.”
7) Avoid Eating Meat, and Not Because We Are Vegetarian
So remember how Jews have to wait a certain period of time between eating meat and eating milk? The amount of time ranges from one hour (those lucky Dutch Sephardi devils!) to six hours, and the majority of Jews–Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike–keep at least five hours. (I am super lucky and married a man who keeps three, so I got to take on his custom! Mwahaha!) Fleishik is the Yiddish adjective to describe a food that is considered meat. But when someone says “I’m fleishik,” he is not saying that he cannot be consumed with béchamel sauce, but rather that he has eaten meat recently and cannot yet eat dairy.
Now, this creates a situation where some people avoid eating meat during the day so they will be able to eat dairy products later. Especially for people who only drink coffee with milk, being fleishik can have dire consequences. We jokingly call this avoidance of meat products “fleishephobia.” My husband thinks it’s ridiculous because clearly eating a steak is far superior to any dairy product you could possibly stumble across in the next six hours. I disagree. I would take ice cream over steak any day. (Um. That is, not ice cream on top of steak. Because that would be totally not kosher. And also kinda gross. But anyway.)
And then there’s fleishephobia’s cousin motziphobia–“motzi” as in the blessing “ha’motzi lechem min ha’aretz,” the blessing for bread. Many Jews will avoid eating bread so they don’t have to ritually wash their hands or say the long blessing afterwards…
8) Kiss Books
You’ve heard of hugging trees, and now…..
Um. Yeah. We kiss books. But not all books, just holy ones; and not all the time, just when we are done using them, or if they fall to the ground or are otherwise subject to “disrespectful circumstances.” This is only one of our customs for showing respect for holy books. They include:
- Never putting them on the floor and picking them up immediately if they fall. (If a Torah scroll–the holiest of Jewish objects–falls on the floor, this is a major crisis. In the past, congregations would fast for 40 days if this happened. Today, most congregations give charity instead.)
- Never putting them on a chair, bench or couch when someone is sitting on it.
- Never bringing them into the bathroom.
- Never putting other objects or books on top of them. And there’s a “hierarchy” of holy books which may be placed on top of one another: the Torah on top, followed by Prophets and Writings; then the siddur, prayer book, since it contains passages from the Torah; then the Talmud, and then other rabbinic writings.
- Always resting them face up (and flipping them if they are facing down).
- Never leaving a book open when it is not in use.
I remember asking you once whether Christians have a similar customs, and when I rattled off some of the things in this list, you were like o.O
9) Kiss the Doorpost on Entering a Room (Whether There’s a Mezuza There or Not)
Speaking of kissing things, there is always Phantom Mezuza Syndrome (mentioned in the post about mezuzot), the reflex to reach for the doorpost to kiss a mezuza that isn’t there.
10) Put Rocks on Gravestones
When visiting the grave of a loved one, some people leave flowers… we leave rocks. This is an ancient Jewish custom and its origins are unclear. I’ve heard a number of different and interesting explanations. But it’s probably similar to the reason we have gravestones in the first place: because stones are permanent and symbolize the permanence of our memory of the person.
11) Answer Questions with Questions
When I asked for ideas for this post and my friend Tammy suggested this, I was like, “Is that really a thing that characterizes Jews specifically?” and she said, “Isn’t it?” 😛
So this is a fairly typical characteristic of Jewish discourse, especially in educational settings. Remember how I’m always saying that Jews love a good question even more than we love a good answer? The best answer to a good question, is an even better question! 😉
But sometimes they are rhetorical questions, in a typical dark-Jewish-humor-style sarcastic retort:
Person #1: Could you help me carry this refrigerator?
Person #2: Do I look twenty years younger all of the sudden?
12) Constantly Play Matchmaker
I am told this is not nearly as common in non-Jewish circles, and I guess that makes sense. Judaism revolves around the home and family, and single people can often feel neither-here-nor-there in the community, so it is considered a great kindness to find a match for them. I think it also makes sense in the context of the “small-town culture” and sense of being one big family. Everybody being in everybody else’s business, and all. 😉 In any case, matching up friends and family is a popular pastime among Jews. And they say that if you make three successful matches, you earn a guaranteed spot in Gan Eden.
Speaking of which…
13) Dance at Random Strangers’ Weddings
Bringing joy to a bride and groom is an important commandment. This, combined with the “one big family” thing I keep mentioning, leads to the following scenario: a couple is having a modest wedding. Maybe they don’t have much family around because they are immigrants, or maybe they are very poor. In cases like these, complete strangers will volunteer to come to the wedding and sing and dance (and not partake in the banquet) just to make the event as joyous as possible.
Funny anecdote on this one: once Eitan was invited to a wedding at a venue that had several weddings going on at once. He was there as a friend of the bride, but as it was an ultra-Orthodox wedding, the men and women were separate so he was hanging out on the men’s side and dancing and singing with them. At some point in the middle of the wedding he figured out that he was actually at the wrong wedding–and nobody noticed or cared!
And speaking of dancing…
14) Dance in Circles
Circle dancing is not a strictly Jewish thing, and the Israeli folk dance known as the “hora” is a relatively recent tradition. Still, it is a pretty striking phenomenon, that when you turn on some lively music around religious Jews, or if something happens that bears celebrating (for instance, if somebody announces she is engaged), they grab each other’s hands to form a circle and start dancing some version of the hora (or perhaps the “Yemenite step”). This is simply how modern Jews get down. 😉 (And you can see examples of this in the post about weddings, and the post about my trip to Poland.)
The one time I was at the Western Wall on Jerusalem Day, I joined several circle dances of perfect strangers: we all threw our backpacks in the middle of the circle, danced around them while singing, and then picked up our backpacks and walked away.
One of the great things about circle dancing, as opposed to the stuff that goes on at your typical nightclub, is that it’s really about celebrating together and not about showing off your fancy moves. (The fact that it’s usually gender segregated probably helps.) And if you’re in a crowd of dancing Jews and you reach out your hand for long enough, chances are, someone will take it.
15) Develop Our Own Variety of the Local Language
This topic is so interesting, it’s going to get its own post! So stay tuned. 😉
If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy my book, too! Click here to check it out.