Category Archives: From the Archives

Letter to a New Father

Um, right. So this letter is not about Judaism or Israel. But, it is a letter to Josep “from the archives,” and I think The Internets may find it useful.

To clarify, I am not posting this in honor of any particular event. It’s just that a recent conversation with someone reminded me that I had written this, and when I told her about it, she encouraged me to post it. So here it is. I wrote it to Josep shortly after his son was born.

Dear Josep,

Yup. There it is: the sleep-deprived, elated new father look. The one that says “OMG I have a baby! What on earth just happened?!… And where is my bed?” Ahh, I know it well.

Welcome to Planet Parenthood.

This is, indeed, a strange new world with strange new rules. And in order to survive, you will need to familiarize yourself with them. We will work through them slowly and carefully.

Rule #1: If Mama Ain’t Happy, Ain’t Nobody Happy

Look. I’m not gonna lie. The first few months are going to test everything. Your sanity, your stamina, your marriage, your commitments, your limits, and your ability to sleep sitting up with a little person on your chest. (I hope you have a reclining chair. We don’t!) But for your wife, this period is especially challenging. Her body is still recovering from a crazy ordeal. Her hormones are out of control. Whether she is breastfeeding or not, she could be experiencing pain and swelling, and many first-time mothers and babies have some difficulty getting the hang of it. All this on the very interrupted sleep and the same feeling of clueless, bleary-eyed, exhausted helplessness that you are dealing with. To top it off, she is very likely to experience the beginning throes of something that deserves its own subtitle: mommy guilt. We’ll get to that later.

Her instinct is going to be to take care of the baby. Many mothers forget that they need to take care of themselves, too. That’s where you come in.

So first and foremost, she needs her basic needs met. This includes the following:

1) Food. If you thought her appetite increased when she was pregnant, wait ’til you see how much a breastfeeding mother can eat. Even if she isn’t breastfeeding, she still has a lot of physical recovery to do, not only from the birth, but from the pregnancy. In the first few weeks she should not be expected to do any housework or cooking. Do your best to make sure the fridge is full when you leave for work in the morning. It needs to be the kind of food she can grab, throw in the microwave, and eat with one hand. (Standing up. While bouncing.) Keep a stash of granola bars on you at all times and throw them at her when she starts to get cranky. Trust me, this is for your own good!

2) Rest. I’ve already sent you this video, but it bears rewatching.

Study it very, very carefully. There is more truth to it than I’d rather admit! Both of you should do everything in your power to sleep whenever possible. I don’t care if it’s eleven in the morning, three in the afternoon, or six in the evening. I don’t care if you’re in your pajamas or a business suit. I don’t care if your mother-in-law just arrived or you just made lunch. Microwave it later. When that baby is asleep, you sleep! Take turns staying up with him; there’s no reason both of you should be awake when one of you could be sleeping.

3) Time to be a human. Whenever you get the chance, take the kid and tell her to go shower, nap, or whatever “luxury” she craves. If you aren’t going to be available, make sure she has a sister, mother, or friend to give her some baby-free time, and if you can’t even do that–pay for a babysitter. This is also for your own good, because many mothers who are home on maternity leave end up resenting their husbands for being able to “escape” to work. (Yes. Work can sometimes feel like a vacation compared to being at the mercy of a tiny creature who dictates every single minute of your day.) If you make sure she has some time to herself every day, this is a lot less likely to happen.

Now, we shall address the dreaded:

Mommy Guilt

There are two emotions that are born within each parent along with the baby. The first one, as you probably know, is a fierce, unconditional, overwhelming love for this tiny helpless being in your arms. The second one is a deep, paralyzing fear of something bad happening to him. Both of these emotions have a depth and scale which you have never known before. In the father, the fear often manifests itself in a feeling of protectiveness. My father-in-law says that he considered himself a pacifist until the moment he held his oldest daughter. At that moment, he said, he realized that he would not hesitate to kill anyone who tried to hurt her.

In the mother, this fear can often manifest itself in a sense of guilt. That she’s not doing it “right.” This sense is reinforced by the “helpful” souls who don’t hesitate to point out everything she is doing “wrong”… or by the medical system, when it is more concerned with charts and statistics than with the individual baby.

It’s a universal and unfortunate phenomenon. Here are some ways you can help stave it off (and strengthen your marriage in the process):

1) Don’t be part of the problem. Do not tell her she is doing it “wrong.” Ever. Barring a situation where the baby is in acute danger, it’s usually better to keep your mouth shut. He’s a baby. His needs are extremely basic. It will not kill him if his shirt is on backwards or, God forbid, his feet are cold. (Contrary to what your mothers may believe.) If you think something needs to be done differently, either do it yourself without a word to her or be very careful and respectful with your suggestion. There’s a reason you chose her to be the mother of your children. Trust her. The more you believe in her, the more she will believe in herself. You are a team. Work together.

2) Do your best to strengthen her against the onslaught of “advice.” Your job is to be on her side no matter what. Help her trust herself and learn to filter out the advice that suits you, and toss the rest in the garbage where it belongs.

3) Tell her what a wonderful mother she is. Every single day. Bonus points for pointing out specific accomplishments she achieved that day. Even if it’s “You didn’t throw him out the window!” (…Trust me. There will be times.)

Baby Blues vs. Postpartum Depression

A majority of women experience a period of sadness and frustration after the birth, usually starting around the third day (coinciding with the milk coming in) and ending after a couple of weeks. It’s partly circumstantial (dealing with the change) and partly hormonal. Prolactin, the hormone responsible for triggering milk production, is also a stress hormone that our bodies naturally regulate by shedding tears. This means she might just start crying and not know why. Don’t be alarmed by this. Just let her cry. It will pass.

The “baby blues” usually lift after a couple of weeks. If they don’t, or if you notice that she is especially sad, to the point of neglecting herself and/or the baby, or talking about harming herself–it’s time to call a professional. Postpartum depression is pretty common and it is treatable. Aside from psychotherapy, there are antidepressants that are safe to take while breastfeeding.

Rule #2: Babyproof Your Marriage

The transition from couple to family is huge. Once upon a time, you could leave the house whenever you wanted, go wherever you pleased, and have a decent amount of quality time alone together. That is no longer the case. Your marriage will have to evolve to adapt to this change, and it can be a serious challenge.

Moreover, each parent approaches parenting from a different past and background, each with their own ideas about the right way to do things, and their own baggage from their own childhoods. These can cause a lot of conflict.

There are two ways to counter this:

1) Carve out “together time.” Go out on a date–just the two of you–at least once a month. Sit down for a coffee together while the baby is napping or contentedly staring at a mobile. Your time together is limited more than ever now, and it is sacred. Make it a priority.

2) Communicate frequently and effectively. Make a point of checking in with each other several times a day, whether you are together or apart. If you have not read John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus yet, stop whatever you’re doing and go buy it right now. (Here it is in Catalan.) I mean it. Trust me. You’ll thank me.

Rule #3: Do What Works

One of the blessings and curses of being a parent in this day and age is that there is so much information. Hundreds of parenting books, dozens of “parenting methods,” blogs, articles and forums online, and of course, the ever-present “helpful souls” who are very eager to tell you exactly how to properly raise children.

Here’s the thing: in parenting, there is very rarely a “right” answer. There are no formulas for success. Don’t let anyone fool you: not a single one of us has any idea what we’re doing. 😛 If anyone claims otherwise, s/he is not the one you want to be taking advice from. True, some of us are more experienced than others, and that’s why I’m sending you this e-mail, right? But everybody’s different and different approaches work for different people. You just have to trust your instincts and believe that there’s a reason God chose you for this job.

Mothers in particular do better when they have a support network of other moms who share their values and outlook and most importantly, who aren’t judgmental about other people’s parenting. You can commiserate together, share experiences and advice, and laugh with each other about the difficulties. Surround yourselves with people like that, and don’t be shy about asking for help. We’re all figuring this out as we go. Might as well figure it out together. And now that I mention it…

Rule #4: Get Help

You aren’t supposed to do this alone. There’s a saying, it takes a village to raise a child. I’ll say it a thousand times: do not hesitate to ask for help–and don’t wait until you’re desperate. Do it right away. And I don’t just mean someone to sweep the floors or watch the baby for an hour so you can nap. (Though that is highly recommended!) Real issues might come up and you should know that there are professionals out there whose job it is to solve these problems. For example, if there are issues with breastfeeding, call a lactation consultant. Most breastfeeding issues can be resolved pretty easily if they are properly dealt with early, and there are women who are highly trained in this area and will be able to diagnose the problem and offer effective solutions. Sleep issues? There are sleep consultants who can help get your baby sleeping through the night at 4-6 months of age. Yes, these things may cost money, but as my mother always says, better to pay for this now than for the psychologist later…

Rule #5: This Too Shall Pass

I know better than anyone that sometimes it feels like whatever you’re going through is never going to end. And sometimes the periods of difficulty will be prolonged enough to stretch your sanity to its very limit. But it really is true… you blink, and it’s over. Before you know it your oldest is starting kindergarten next week. (…What?! Me?! My son?! How did this happen?!) A month from now you will look at pictures of him when he was just born and not believe he was ever that small. A year from now you’ll look at that picture I love of you holding him right after he was born, and be amazed at how much things have changed.

And you will learn quickly. Eitan says that he feels bad for parents who only have one kid, because they never get to feel competent! It was only when I had R1 that I realized how much harder caring for H had been.

People will tell you to enjoy every minute. Problem is, parenting is the hardest job in the universe. It is kind of hard to “enjoy” when he is crying and you have no idea why, you haven’t slept in what feels like a decade, your wife just burned dinner and is having an emotional breakdown over it, and all you really want to do is curl up in a ball on the floor and cry right along with both of them. (Go right ahead. I won’t judge! 😛 ) So I don’t advise trying to enjoy every minute. But just as parenting is the hardest job in the universe, it is also the best! There will be many, many, many moments of joy and satisfaction and pride and love that you can hold onto during the difficult times. These days it’s so easy to keep a video or picture of him being adorable and happy and study it carefully in moments of crisis, reminding yourself that somehow, some way, it’s going to be all right eventually. Not just all right. It will be amazing. I promise.



From the Archives, November 2014: As Long as the Candle Burns

We are now in the full swing of Aseret Yamei Teshuva, the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (which begins on Tuesday at sundown). I’ve already posted about this period and these holidays, which focus on repentance and forgiveness. As I wrote there, the High Holidays are really about repentance as a community, but many use it as an opportunity to do some soul-searching on an individual level, too. There is a custom to take the opportunity to ask forgiveness of those you may have hurt in the past year.

Josep asked me a while ago about forgiveness in Judaism, and I wrote him this e-mail last November to explain about the process of teshuva (repentance) in Jewish law and thought.

Enjoy, and gmar chatima tova (roughly, may you be sealed in the Book of Life) to all.

Dear Josep,

“For you shall return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and all your soul. For this commandment which I command you this day, is not concealed from you, nor is it far away… Rather, [this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, for you to do it”

–Deuteronomy 30:10-14

The above passage is part of a larger section towards the end of Deuteronomy, discussing the “blessing and the curse” that God gave the nation of Israel. It is considered the Biblical source for the commandment of teshuva (repentance).

The concept of teshuva is based on two fundamental principles in Jewish thought:

1) No matter how low a person sinks, now matter how horrible his actions, he is always capable of redeeming himself and changing for the better.

A story goes that Rabbi Israel Salanter, a famous rabbi who focused on the study of moral conduct and ethics, was walking down a dark street one night, and saw a faint light flickering in a window. He approached the window and saw a shoemaker repairing an old shoe by the light of a dying candle. Rabbi Salanter said, “Look how late it is! Your candle is almost extinguished. Why are you still working?” The shoemaker said, “As long as the candle burns, it is possible to mend.” Rabbi Salanter was struck by the deep allegorical wisdom in those words. In Judaism, the flame is a symbol of the soul.

"As long as the candle burns, it is possible to mend"
“As long as the candle burns, it is possible to mend”

(This principle is, by the way, in sharp contrast to my understanding of Christian thought, which–as I understand it–argues that man is inherently sinful and is constantly pulled towards sin. According to Christian thought, the only way to redeem oneself from one’s inherent sinfulness is to accept Jesus as having died to atone for it. In a sense, Christians also believe that “as long as the candle burns, it is possible to mend,” but the Christian idea of “mending” is fundamentally different from ours.)

2) God is infinitely merciful and anxiously awaits our repentance. This is true in Christian thought as well. In the liturgy for Yom Kippur, there is a line that reads, “Until the day of [man’s] death, [God] will wait for him, and if he repents–[God] will immediately receive him.” The image we have is of a God who is waiting for you with outstretched arms and great anticipation. He is like a father whose child has done something wrong, who is waiting anxiously for the child to say he’s sorry, so He can embrace him, forgive him, and end the child’s suffering from the distance between them.

The word teshuva comes from the root ש.ו.ב., sh.u.v., which means “to return”. There is something very important to learn from this. It’s not just about returning to God. It’s about returning to yourself, to your “source”. We are all created with a Divine soul, and underneath all the layers, we are totally pure and good. Teshuva cleanses us from those layers.

In another sense, however, teshuva changes us fundamentally. One might ask, I have done something so terrible–my act was real and tangible. How can it simply be erased, as if it were no longer there? The answer, from the Jewish perspective, is that maybe the consequences of the sin still exist, but the person who committed that sin no longer exists. You are not him anymore, and when faced with the same temptation, you would turn away and not do what he did. Maimonides (who wrote a very important work on the practical aspects of teshuva) actually recommends symbolically changing one’s name as part of the process to demonstrate that you are no longer the same person as the one who committed the sin. Bringing this together with the idea I mentioned in the previous paragraph, you are a different person–one who is closer to your source, to what you could be, to the potential of your Divine soul.

According to Maimonides, there are four steps to the process of teshuva.

1. Regret (“In Your Heart”)

Notice that the word for this is “regret”, not “guilt”. The word in Hebrew for guilt is אשמה, ashma, which comes from the root א.ש.מ.,, meaning to blame. Guilt is self-blame. It is a natural emotion to occur when we’ve done something wrong, but it can lead us further down the spiral of self-destruction and negativity. Shame and guilt are the sense that there is something inherently wrong with you. The Hebrew word for regret is חרטה, ḥarata, from the root ח.ר.ט, ḥ.r.t., which means to chisel, to smooth, to engrave. To refine, to make a permanent and enduring change to something. Regret is the recognition that you are inherently good, and you have failed to live up to your potential. That what you did is not an expression of who you really are and who you really could be.

This step is crucial, because obviously, if you don’t genuinely understand what you have done wrong, you can’t really change. And if you don’t genuinely recognize your own potential to be someone who would never commit that sin, there is also no way to move forward.

2. Cessation

This part is fairly obvious. To repent for a sin, you have to stop committing it.

3. Confession and Asking Forgiveness (“In Your Mouth”)

Both Christianity and modern psychology also recognize that thinking and feeling are not enough. We cannot truly be free of something that torments us until we have given it a name and spoken that name out loud.

There is no special formula for this in Judaism, and it doesn’t matter where you are when you do it. All you have to do is speak to Him aloud, asking forgiveness, and explicitly naming what you did, in your own words. Unlike Christianity, this process is straightforward and does not involve a spiritual leader as intermediary. It’s just you and Him.

Asking forgiveness from the person against whom you sinned is also a crucial part of the healing process–for both of you. Again, this has to be totally sincere. Whether that person is able or willing to accept your apology doesn’t have a bearing on your process of teshuva; what’s important is that you express your regret verbally to the person you hurt.

4. Resolution Not to Repeat the Sin

Obviously, all of this doesn’t mean very much if you are not sincerely committed not to sin again. This is the real expression of the fact that you have changed. Maimonides says that teshuva is complete when you reach a point that when faced with exactly the same circumstances and temptations, you would make the right choice.



From the Archives, May 2008: Jewish Weddings

Last Sunday, our family attended the wedding of a pair of friends from our community. It was a really beautiful and special wedding. The bride and groom are both relatively recent olim (immigrants) from the USA who came to live here on their own, and we had known the bride for a good few years while she was searching for her soul mate and it gives us so much joy that she found him. The wedding took place at the synagogue Josep visited when he was here, and it just had a small, intimate, community feel to it–celebrating with our friends and neighbors.

Anyway, in their honor, and in honor of our seventh wedding anniversary–which we celebrated about a month ago–I am pulling this e-mail up from the archives. I sent this to Josep and another couple of friends the week before my own wedding. Only this time, there will be illustrative photos. 😉 This is the time to thank Rebecca Kowalsky, our talented wedding photographer; and Michal Vender, among whose breathtaking images of Hadar’s hinna I had to choose only one–and it was a very tough decision! And thank you to Hadar, Shareen, and Michal for sharing their photos. 🙂

Hi People!

6 days to the wedding!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I thought those of you unfamiliar with Orthodox Jewish weddings–whether you’re attending or not–may like to know what it is we’re up to these days. So, without further ado:

The Week Before

It is the custom, particularly in Ashkenazi communities, for the bride and groom not to see each other for the seven days leading up to the wedding. Eitan and I are also going to try not talking on the phone. I think the reason for this is obvious: to increase the longing for one another, and increase the euphoria when the bride and groom see each other again when he comes to cover her face with the veil (explanation to follow). A state secret: it also makes sure that the bride and groom don’t have the opportunity to take out all their nerves on each other and have stupid little fights before the wedding.

In North African and Middle Eastern communities there is a ritual celebration on the last day the bride and groom can see each other, called the hinna, after the spice henna. It involves traditional dress, foods, singing, and a ceremony involving a paste made from henna. (Since neither of us have an inkling of an ancestor from North Africa or the Middle East, we won’t be doing that.)

[However… I have friends who did:

hadar and yossi henna
My friends Hadar and Yossi, for example. Hadar is descended from Yemenite Jews, and Yossi from Ethiopian Jews. Here they are decked out in one of the several traditional costumes they wore during the event, and holding the henna paste. A circle of henna drawn on the palm is said to bring good fortune, especially when given with a blessing from the bride or groom.
My friend Shareen at her hinna. Shareen's mother is Persian-Israeli and her father is Tunisian, but she was born in London and moved to Israel not long before I did. She married a British Ashkenazi guy, who was absent from what she referred to as
My friend Shareen at her hinna, or as she referred to it, “crazy Sephardi people looking for an excuse to party.” Shareen’s mother is Persian-Israeli and her father is Tunisian, but she was born in London and moved to Israel not long before I did. Traditionally, the hinna was a women’s ceremony, and Shareen stuck with that and had a women-only hinna, from which her British Ashkenazi fiancé was absent. Here she is accompanied to the ceremony with bowls of flowers and candles as per the tradition.
And my friend Michal, who is pure Ashkenazi, but whose brother recently married a Yemenite girl. The circle of henna on her hand is part of the ceremony, where the bride smears henna on the hands of the guests and gives them a blessing.
My friend Michal. If she doesn’t look Sephardi to you, that’s because she isn’t! 😉 She is a fifth-generation Israeli Jew descended from a famous rabbi who made aliyah from Austria-Hungary in the 1800’s. So why is she at a hinna? Her brother recently married a girl who is descended from Algerian Jews on one side (and Belgian Jews on the other! Talk about “ingathering of the exiles”!). She is wearing a traditional robe and showing off the circle of henna she received with a blessing from the bride. In the background is the spread of traditional treats.

Anyway. Back to the original letter:]

In Ashkenazi custom, the Shabbat before the wedding is designated as a special Shabbat to celebrate the bride and groom. Many of my friends kick their families out of their houses and invite all their friends to spend the Shabbat with them, and spend the day singing songs, playing games and learning Torah in preparation for the wedding. I’m planning on having something very low-key and intense instead, with just my local friends.

Eitan will have what’s called an “aufruf”, in which he will be called up for an aliyah–a section of the Torah reading that takes place on Shabbat. In some communities people throw candy at the groom when he finishes.

The Night Before

The bride goes to the mikveh, ritual bath, for the first time. In Sephardi communities this turns into a big celebration, with lots of singing and candies and whatnot, but us Ashkenazim tend to be hush-hush about it (as everyone usually is about mikveh visits, because of the privacy surrounding the halakhic (=according to Jewish law) implications).

Starting the night before, the bride and groom each need a milaveh or shomer (“accompanier” or “guardian”), preferably a single friend, to be with him and her at all times. The milavim are in touch with each other throughout the day to make sure the bride and groom don’t accidentally run into each other before the wedding ceremony. They also make sure the bride and groom have everything in order and taken care of so they don’t need to worry about anything that day.

The Wedding Day

The day of the wedding is considered a Yom Kippur Katan, a “small Yom Kippur”, for the bride and groom; a day on which all their past sins are forgiven, a day of rebirth and renewal. Therefore, the bride and groom each fast from the morning until either sundown or the chuppah (wedding canopy), whichever comes first. Eitan and I will be breaking our fast on the wine under the chuppah.

Also for that reason, it is customary for the bride and groom to recite the afternoon prayer of Yom Kippur instead of a normal weekday’s.

Me praying the afternoon prayer on my wedding day, with Abi, who was my milavah. ;) This is on the promenade at Armon HaNatziv, overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem.
Me praying the afternoon prayer on my wedding day, with Abi, who was my milavah. 😉 This is on the promenade at Armon HaNatziv, overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem.

The Bride’s Throne and the Groom’s Table

As soon as the bride is dolled up and the reception starts, she greets the guests while sitting in the kiseh kallah, the “bride’s throne”. Guests approach and ask her for blessings and prayers for them and their loved ones. Prayers and blessings from a bride and groom on their wedding day are considered to have special weight.

Giving my mom a blessing. <3
Giving my mom a blessing. <3

The groom sits around a table with the rabbi who is running the ceremony, family, and friends, and the ketuba (marriage contract) is drawn up and signed.

The chatan's tish at our wedding. On the left, the scribe is working on the marriage contract.
Eitan’s tish. On the left, the scribe is working on the marriage contract. Eitan is attempting to give a sermon, but he is not given a chance to finish it because he is constantly interrupted by singing and clapping. This is a custom that developed so that if a groom is not a scholar and doesn’t have a good sermon to give, he won’t be embarrassed.

Kisui Panim, or Bedecken (“Covering the Face”)

When the chatan’s tish is over, the guests begin a procession leading the groom to the bride. The groom covers the bride’s face with the veil, and then father of the bride blesses her with a special blessing. The groom is then led to the chuppah by his father and future father-in-law (or sometimes his parents).


This time is considered a particular et ratzon, an auspicious time for prayer. The bride reads a special blessing while still sitting in the kiseh kallah as the groom reaches the chuppah and waits there. The chuppah is the wedding canopy; a cloth stretched between four poles, that symbolize the new home the couple is about to build. Ashkenazim have a tradition to hold the chuppah under the open sky, as a symbol for the bride and groom to have children “as numerous as the stars in the sky” (as in God’s blessing to Abraham in Genesis 15:5.)

A typical chuppah in a synagogue in the USA. Ours wasn’t very photogenic, apparently, because our photographers don’t seem to have gotten a good shot of it.

Chuppah V’Kidushin–The Wedding Ceremony

When the bride is finished praying, her mother and future mother-in-law (or sometimes her parents) take her by the arms and the whole congregation accompanies her to the chuppah, sometimes in quiet, spiritual reverence, sometimes in joyful song and dance. (I’m gonna go for quiet and spiritual.)

My mother and Eitan's mother accompanying me to the chuppah. Yup. Quiet and spiritual
My mother and Eitan’s mother accompanying me to the chuppah. Yup. Quiet and spiritual

The groom comes out from underneath the chuppah and accompanies the bride back underneath. In Ashkenazi custom, the bride circles around the groom seven times. Our rabbi explained to us that this is the bride’s equivalent to the ring the groom puts on her finger; an act of “encircling”, and singling each other out. The custom is said to be based on a prophecy from Jeremiah 31:21: “For God will create a new reality in the land, the female will encircle the man.” The sages understand this as meaning that women will actively look for their soulmates rather than waiting around for them (symbolizing the Jewish people actively searching for God), but the custom takes the literal meaning. 🙂

The Jewish wedding ceremony has two parts: kidushin or irusin (“sanctification” or “engagement”), and nisuin (“marriage”). Many, many years ago these two stages took place about a year apart, but because of a bunch of problems that created, they were put together, and now every wedding ceremony includes both, one after the other.


The rabbi makes a blessing over the wine, and the bride and groom drink. Wine is an integral part of any Jewish ceremony that involves holiness.

The groom makes a blessing, and then puts the ring on the right forefinger of the bride, with the statement “Harei at mikudeshet li k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael“–“You are hereby sanctified to me by the law of Moses and Israel”. In accepting the ring from the groom with that statement, the bride becomes “mikudeshet“, “sanctified”, meaning that she is now forbidden to all men but her husband. (Though at this point she is forbidden to him also, because the second part of the ceremony hasn’t been completed.)


Sheva Brachot (“Seven Blessings”)

The ketuba (marriage contract) is taken out and read aloud, mostly for the purpose of creating a hefsek (pause) between the two parts of the ceremony. The rabbi may also give a small speech at this time.

Then the sheva brachot (seven blessings) are read, usually by a bunch of different guests the bride and groom wish to honor. The translation is as follows:

Blessed are You, Hashem, our Lord, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.

Blessed are You, Hashem, our Lord, King of the Universe, Who created everything for His glory.

Blessed are You, Hashem, our Lord, King of the Universe, Creator of man.

Blessed are You, Hashem, our Lord, King of the Universe, Who created man in His image, in the pattern of His own likeness, and provided for the perpetuation of his kind. Blessed are You, Lord, the Creator of man.

Let the barren city be jubilantly happy and joyful at her joyous reunion with her children. Blessed are You, Lord, who makes Zion rejoice with her children.

Let the loving friends be very happy, just as You made Your creation happy in the garden of Eden long ago. Blessed are You, Lord, who makes the bridegroom and the bride happy.

Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, the sovereign of the world, who created joy and celebration, bridegroom and bride, rejoicing, jubilation, pleasure and delight, love and brotherhood, peace and friendship. May there soon be heard, Lord our G-d, in the cities of Judea and in the streets of Jerusalem, the sound of joy and the sound of celebration, the voice of a bridegroom and the voice of a bride, the happy shouting of bridegrooms from their weddings and of young men from their feasts of song. Blessed are You, Lord, who makes the bridegroom and the bride rejoice together.

Raising Jerusalem Above Our Utmost Joy

The Jewish people is a joyful people, but our joy is never complete while our Temple no longer stands. As it says in the verse from Psalms: If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning; let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not raise Jerusalem above my utmost joy.

So to close the wedding ceremony we remember Jerusalem. The groom sometimes puts ashes on his head. He recites the above verse, many times in a song, and then he breaks a glass in memory of the Destruction of the Temple.

Funny fact: if you break a dish or a glass anywhere around Jews, they will probably start clapping and call out “Mazel tov!” (“Congratulations!”) This is because the glass breaking is the last thing that happens under the chuppah, and usually when the groom breaks the glass, everybody bursts into cheers and song. Not exactly the mood we were going for with the whole glass breaking thing, but there it is!

To avoid this, Eitan will break the glass in the middle of the solemn singing, so the breaking of the glass is connected to its proper context–the destruction of Jerusalem–and not to the happy one of finishing the wedding ceremony.

Poised over the glass. At our wedding, we switched things around, according to the Jerusalem custom, and broke the glass before reciting the sheva brachot, so the wedding didn't end with the breaking of the glass.
Poised over the glass. At our wedding, we switched things around, according to the Jerusalem custom, and broke the glass before reciting the sheva brachot, so the wedding didn’t end with the breaking of the glass.

Together At Last

After the wedding ceremony, in Ashkenazi custom, the bride and groom are led to a room in the hall where they are allowed to be alone together in a locked room for the first time. 🙂 This is called the cheder yichud.

“Okay guys. You may now get lost.”

According to Sephardi custom, once the bride and groom are in a locked room together, the bride must cover her hair, so many Sephardim don’t do the cheder yichud and wait until after the wedding to be alone together. (Though I have a friend who just went ahead and covered her hair after the cheder yichud.)

After the bride and groom come out of the room, the dancing starts. It’s a mitzva to bring joy to a bride and groom, and the guests do their utmost–treating them like a king and queen, performing silly and/or complicated dances in front of them, etc.

At Orthodox weddings, men and women dance separately. Jews traditionally dance in circles, like this.
At Orthodox weddings, men and women dance separately. Jews traditionally dance in circles, holding hands or with hands on each other’s shoulders.
Meanwhile, on the women's side...
Meanwhile, on the women’s side… that’s my Grandma clapping for me there. <3
I cannot tell you how many completely insane pictures of grown men and women doing, and wearing, ridiculous things, that I went through before selecting this one.
I cannot tell you how many completely insane pictures of grown men and women doing, and wearing, ridiculous things I went through before selecting this one. The guys at Eitan’s yeshiva had this whole “amusing the bride and groom” thing down to an art; they brought puppets, wigs, silly hats, and other paraphernalia, and performed all kinds of crazy dances and acrobatics. My friends from college had a prepared wedding dance; my friends from my hometown invaded my closet and brought the accessories from my crazy Purim costumes from over the years, and a couple of them juggled eggs. Suffice to say, hilarity ensued.

Sheva Brachot/The Week After

Oh no. Don’t think the festivities end when everyone goes home happy on the wedding night. We’re talking about Jews, remember? One day of celebration for one of the most joyful occasions in a Jewish lifetime?! Not a chance!

Each night, for six nights after the wedding (including the wedding, it amounts to seven days), a festive meal is held somewhere for the bride and groom. After the blessings following the meal, the Sheva Brachot are read again (this is also true of the meal on the wedding night). That’s why those parties are referred to as “Sheva Brachot”. In order to say the Sheva Brachot, a minyan (quorum of ten men) is required, as well as at least one person who wasn’t at the wedding or at any of the previous Sheva Brachot.

And then life returns to relative normalcy, and the bride and groom live happily ever after as husband and wife. 😀

Hope this has given you a clearer picture of what’s coming up for me here, whether you’re coming to the wedding or not. 🙂

If any of you have anything in particular you’d like me to pray for this week and/or on the day of the wedding, please let me know.

Shabbat Shalom!


Blog readers: Tell us about wedding traditions in your culture! I’d particularly love a guest letter about Islamic, Hindu, or other “Eastern” wedding traditions.

Different Kinds of Jews, Part II: 2,000 Years of Arguing

So as with Part I, I have to begin with a disclaimer: I am a modern Orthodox American-Israeli Jew, and this entry, as well as the rest of the blog, reflects that perspective. So if you ask a differently affiliated Jew to define his or her community or other groups or subgroups, you may get different answers.

As before, there are many groups that will not be mentioned because this is a vast topic that could (and does) fill several books, and I’m sticking to the ones that are most prominent and well-known. I thereby apologize in advance to any member of any group or denomination that is not properly addressed in the categories that follow–and invite you to mention it in the comments, and to write us a guest letter to tell us about your community.

A reminder for those who haven’t read part I: this is technically from the archives; an expanded/reworked e-mail I sent to Josep about a year ago.

Dear Josep,

In Part I we addressed Jewish cultural identity and the subcultures within Judaism. But more well-known than the division between Ashkenazim, Sephardim, etc., is the division between Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and other denominations of Judaism. In this entry we will discuss how these movements came to be and how they differ from one another. We will also discuss Hassidism and its influence on Jewish practice and thought.

Religious Denominations/Levels of Religiosity

So this is where I get myself in trouble. 😛

The first thing to understand about the idea of “level of religiosity” is that it’s a fairly modern phenomenon. Up until the 19th century, there was no need to define a “religious” Jew because everyone was religious, and someone who abandoned the traditional practices of Judaism pretty much abandoned the faith and the community altogether. It was only at the time of the “enlightenment” in the 1800’s that Reform Judaism came about that the concept of a “secular Jew” came into existence.

That said, throughout history there were disputes between Jews on how to properly observe the Torah. (All together now: “Two Jews, three opinions…”) In the time of Jesus, for example, Judaism was split into two major sects: the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who each had different ideas about how to observe the Torah. Mainstream Orthodox Judaism is basically descended from the tradition of the Pharisees. There is speculation that the Karaites, a movement that emerged around the 8th century, are the “ideological descendants” of the Sadducees. Karaite Judaism rejects rabbinic Judaism and the idea of the “Oral Torah” altogether, and believe that the written Torah must be observed literally. (Of course, the reason we have an Oral Torah is to interpret the many vague and difficult concepts in the Torah, so the Karaites developed their own tradition on how to interpret it.) There is still a small community of Karaite Jews, most of them in Israel.

Another thing that’s important to understand is that the most well-known “denominations”–Reform and Conservative–are mostly American today. Reform Judaism began in Germany, but its center shifted to the USA as the Jewish population in the US grew and the one in Europe shrunk due to emigration and the Holocaust. In Israel, the breakdown is a lot fuzzier, because as a general rule, Sephardim and Mizraḥim tend to be less stuck on self-definition (and more traditional). I’ll get to the Israeli definitions of religious level soon.

Orthodox Judaism

This is a general term for mainstream traditional Judaism: Jews who observe Jewish law as interpreted by the mainstream rabbinic authorities throughout history. The term “orthodox” was borrowed from Christianity by the Reform movement, and I don’t particularly like to use it to describe myself. I prefer to describe myself as an “observant Jew”, meaning, I observe the commandments. But many people don’t know what this means, so when speaking to people who aren’t familiar with that term I usually use “Orthodox”.

Within this category you will find the ḥaredim, the “ultra-Orthodox”, as well as “modern Orthodox”. In Israel, “modern Orthodox” is mostly interchangeable with “Zionist religious” (or “national religious”–dati leumi), because ḥaredim tend to be non-Zionist. Eitan and I consider ourselves dati leumi (see below under “Religiosity in Israel”).

Reform Judaism

Reform Judaism came about in the 19th century, when science became the new religion of Western society. Reformers saw the Torah and the observance of traditional Jewish law as outdated and superstitious. Basically, Reform Jews don’t see the Torah as being binding in any way, and many of them don’t believe that the Torah was given by God. If you ask a Reform Jew what he or she thinks the Torah is, you might get a wide variety of answers, but most would probably agree that it is a collection of wisdom (man-made, and perhaps “Divinely inspired”) that they feel has value–only some of which is still applicable today. Many Reform Jews take ideas from the Torah (and the body of rabbinic teachings that they mostly reject) and apply them to modern Western values. A favorite is “tikkun olam”, “fixing the world” which is actually a fairly vague, mystical concept from Kabbalah, but is often applied to mean that man has responsibility to improve the world and make it a better place through social and environmental activism.

Conservative Judaism

Conservative Judaism was a sort of counter-reaction to the Reform movement. Some Jews agreed with the Reform movement that Judaism needed some updating for the modern world, but did not want to reject the teachings of the Torah. So the Conservative movement started as sort of a middle ground between Orthodox and Reform. Conservative Jews do, for the most part, believe that the Torah is of Divine origin, but they believe that the Law is much more flexible than the Orthodox do–in that they don’t see the precedents of previous generations as being nearly as binding as the Orthodox see them. They believe halakha is meant to be adapted as much as possible to modern times and reinterpreted to suit progressive sensibilities. So they tend to be more egalitarian and liberal than the Orthodox–mixed seating in synagogue, female rabbis, gay marriage etc.–using their interpretation of halakha to find ways to permit things that Orthodox Judaism prohibits, for the sake of adapting to Western values. Practically speaking, however, in many Conservative congregations, the members of the community are not strict about observing the Conservative version of halakha, and there can be a huge gap between the level of observance of the rabbis and that of the congregants.

Now… you being a secular liberal who doesn’t have a solidified opinion on the source of the Torah or its historical accuracy, I’m sure the above two movements make a lot more sense to you than the Orthodox approach. So you may be asking yourself, “Daniella is a reasonably intelligent, rational, open-minded person; why wouldn’t she be on board, at least with the Conservative movement?”

So here’s my personal take on “adapting halakha for modern times”. I believe there is a reason God set up the halakhic system as we have observed it for thousands of years. While I identify with many of the “progressive” Western values, man-made values shift and change over time, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. I think the Torah is the expression of a value system that is eternal and Divine, and I believe that the Orthodox halakhic system is the most authentic way to interpret it in the way He wished. To me, adapting halakha to better suit Western values feels like taking a ring of the finest silver and coating it in stainless steel. It’s taking a Divine value system and stuffing it into a fickle man-made frame. I think serving God should be about adapting yourself to His system, not adapting His system to yourself. As I have mentioned many times, this isn’t always easy, and the system is not perfect. Modern Orthodox Jews often struggle to reconcile our strong belief in Torah and our identification with Western values when they seem at odds with each other. So I understand how others might feel differently about it. We live in confusing times, and God does not reveal Himself and His will the way He used to; we are meant to choose our path, and growing up with so many different voices that sound reasonable and good, it is hard to know which path is the right one. I believe the Orthodox halakhic system is the closest to God’s true will, so that’s the one I try to follow.

There are other, smaller American denominations, but I’m not going to get into those as I don’t know much about them. The above are the three major ones.

Religiosity in Israel

While Reform and Conservative communities do exist in Israel, for the most part they are extremely small and isolated, mostly of American or European immigrants. In most of Israeli society, it’s a spectrum of observance, more than a set of strictly defined groups, but it basically breaks down like this. Secular Jews (ḥiloni in Hebrew) don’t keep the commandments like kosher or Shabbat. The majority of Israelis are traditional Jews (masorti in Hebrew), who keep some of the customs/traditions, but not all. For instance, in a traditional Jewish family, they might make kiddush over wine and light Shabbat candles, but then go watch TV. Or they might eat strictly kosher but not keep Shabbat. It’s really a continuum. Religious Jews (dati in Hebrew) are observant Jews who keep all the commandments, and those generally divide up between modern Zionist (dati leumi), ultra-Orthodox Zionist (ḥaredi leumi), and ultra-Orthodox non-Zionist (ḥaredi). (Yes, there is such a thing as a non-Zionist Jew living in Israel. And their attitude towards the state is a serious political issue.) Datiim leumiim are also sometimes called “kipa sruga” (“crocheted kippah”) because they are the ones who wear colorful crocheted kippot, as opposed to the ḥaredim who wear black velvet and/or black hats. (…When you SMSed me to ask what color kipa to buy, I figured it was too complicated to explain the intricacies of these differences, and it didn’t really matter anyway. I was not surprised to see that you subconsciously chose to identify with the religious stream Eitan and I belong to. 😛 )

Needless to say, crocheting is a highly prized skill in our community. :P I can crochet, but making kippot bores me to death.
Needless to say, crocheting is a highly prized skill in our community. 😛 I can do it, but making kippot bores me to death.
Kippot” by Zero0000Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Ḥaredim keep a much stricter version of halakha than datiim leumiim, at least outwardly (modesty of dress, level of strictness about kashrut, separation between men and women in public, level of interaction with the secular world etc.). Women are generally treated with respect, but there is a very strong focus on modesty and traditional gender roles, sometimes to an extreme that leads to marginalization and other unpleasant social issues. American ḥaredim tend to be more open and “progressive” than Israeli ḥaredim.

It is very easy to differentiate between datiim and ḥaredim by the way they dress. Dati men wear kipot, may or may not have a beard and/or payot (sidecurls), may dress in regular casual clothes (T-shirts and shorts) or may dress more like Eitan–button down shirts and long pants. The women dress more or less like me: no restrictions on color, shirts with sleeves (the more religious you are the longer the sleeve), skirts past the knee, and married women usually cover their hair to some degree, usually with a scarf or hat.

This criminally adorable couple, for example. Eitan is wearing a kippah and tzitzit with the fringes hanging out (you can see the knots from one of them next to the edge of his shirt...). My hair is mostly covered, sleeves past the elbow, modest neckline, skirt past the knee.
This criminally adorable couple, for example. Eitan is wearing a crocheted kippah and tzitzit with the fringes hanging out (you can see the knots from one of them next to the edge of his shirt…). I have most of my hair covered with a scarf.

Ḥaredi men wear black suits all the time, and the women wear only dull or pale colors, clothes that are non form-fitting, stockings and closed-toed shoes so the only skin you can see is their hands, face and neck. Single women keep their hair tied back, and married women completely cover their hair, usually with a wig, but sometimes with a scarf or hat.

A Hassidic/haredi family in Brooklyn. By Adam Jones [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
A Hassidic/haredi family in Brooklyn.
By Adam Jones [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Now as a Christian you may note with curiosity that none of this categorization corresponds to belief. Whether someone believes in God or not does not actually define him religiously in Israeli culture. Judaism is about what you do. So you might find a completely secular Jew who believes in God and may even believe that the Torah is Divine, but just doesn’t feel it’s relevant to him. Or you may find a traditional Jew who doesn’t really believe in God but thinks that the Jewish traditions are an important connection to his heritage and past.

Spiritual Approach (Hassidism vs. Lithuanians)

Another group you may have heard of is the Ḥassidim.

So what is Ḥassidism? It was a sort of Jewish renewal movement founded in the 17th century by a rabbi called the Baal Shem Tov. Up until that point, Judaism had become a kind of elitist society where learned scholars were seen as being far more important than the common folk in terms of service of God. The approach was generally very dry, rationalist and intellectual. The Baal Shem Tov sought to bring feeling and heartfelt service into the practice of Judaism. He also sought to teach that even the lowliest of peasants was just as important in God’s eyes as the great scholars. This seems totally basic now, but back then, it was pretty revolutionary. There were a number of other ideas spread by Ḥassidism, one of which was the concept of the “tzaddik”, the “righteous person”, who was a conduit to the Divine. Ḥassidim believed that by being close physically and spiritually to a tzaddik, they would be closer to God, too.

So as you can probably tell by now, parts of the Ḥassidic approach filtered down into most of Jewish practice today. But back then it was seen as a frivolous, anti-rationalist, and maybe even dangerous movement, and there was a strong counter-movement–the Mitnagdim (which literally means “the opposers”), led by the Gaon of Vilna (hence the term “Lithuanians”). He was a rationalist and felt that the Ḥassidim had their heads in the clouds and were not taking Jewish law seriously enough.

“Torah is serious business, people. WHY ARE YOU DANCING?!”

This was a major, bitter schism within European Judaism that lasted pretty much all the way up until the Holocaust.

Nowadays, practically speaking, you can hardly tell Ḥassidim and Lithuanians apart. Ḥassidic sects tend to be ultra-Orthodox/ḥaredi and dress in the same black and white garb. There are some distinct features of their traditional dress, such as the streimel, a round fur hat that some Ḥassidim wear on Shabbat and holidays. They do have a lot more singing and dancing than non-Ḥassidic ḥaredi sects, and tend to be more involved in mysticism and Kabbalah. Non-Ḥassidim are more rationalist in their approach.

I mention all this because there are two particular Ḥassidic sects that are particularly relevant–the first because you are very likely to hear about them, and the second because I have a special connection to their philosophies and I am likely to mention them in the future. Incidentally, both of them have a common feature: their “rebbe”, great rabbinic leader, is dead. (In every other Ḥassidic sect, there is a live rebbe who serves as the “tzaddik” and passes his status down through his sons and/or followers.)

The first sect is Chabad (pronounced Ḥabad, but usually spelled Chabad. Except in Spain, where it’s spelled Jabad. Even in Barcelona, though the Catalan “j” isn’t the same as the Spanish “j”. Go figure). They are also known as Lubavitch, the Yiddish name for the Russian village Lyubavichi, where the sect originated. These are the Ḥassidim you are most likely to meet because they are very into Jewish outreach and set up “houses” in all these random places all over the world where they offer all kinds of services to Jews who visit and live there. They tend to be very open and accepting in these contexts, and many people begin their journey of becoming religious through them. (As I just mentioned, Barcelona has a Chabad house too. I was in touch with them before I came; they weren’t particularly helpful, apparently in the tradition of modern Catalan Jews… :-/ ) Their “rebbe”, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (…”sch” is the Yiddish/German sound pronounced “sh”… sheesh, will the pronunciation confusion never end!) was a truly great man, and many of them believed that he was the Messiah. Some Chabadnikim still do believe this, which feels suspiciously Christian to the rest of us 😛 but we love them anyway because they do great things!

The other Ḥassidic sect I want to mention is Breslov. Their rebbe, Rabbi Naḥman of Breslov, lived in Ukraine in the 18th century and taught some really amazing things about despair, happiness, and developing a close and personal relationship with God. He is most famous for the following statements: “All of the world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to make yourself afraid.” “If you believe that it’s possible to destroy, believe that it is possible to repair.” His followers practice a sort of meditation called hitbodedut, which simply involves talking to God like a friend, telling Him about all your troubles, asking Him for whatever you want, even the tiniest things. I really connected with this idea of a personal relationship as a teenager, and though I feel I have become more distant in recent years, I yearn to return to the simplicity of being in constant dialogue with the Creator this way.

Anyway, Breslov also attracts many “ba’alei teshuva” (people who start out secular and become religious) because of its deep and heartfelt philosophy. If you’re ever in Israel and see this:

…don’t call the police, that’s just Breslovers trying to make people happy. 😛 Cultivating joy is a large component of their practice.

And thus we conclude Part II!



Different Kinds of Jews, Part I: Jewish Cultural Identity and the Diversity Therein

So this is actually “from the archives”; a kind of “revamp” of a letter I sent Josep about a year ago, including my answer to a follow-up question he asked. I expanded it a bit and decided to split it into two entries. In this entry, I will address Jewish cultural identity, and ethnic subgroups within Judaism (edot), and in the next entry, I will discuss religious denominations and “spiritual approach (Hassidism vs. non-Hassidism)”.

Now, before I proceed I must make a big disclaimer: this is a two-part blog series, not a book, and therefore these categorizations are going to be extremely general. There are many groups and subgroups that will not be mentioned because this is a vast topic that could (and does) fill several books, and I’m sticking to the ones that are most prominent and well-known. I thereby apologize in advance to any member of any group that is not properly addressed in the categories that follow–and invite you to mention it in the comments, and to write us a guest letter to tell us about your community.

Dear Josep,

You asked: It has always struck me how Judaism is both a religion and a cultural group. How can you differentiate those? And how do you live those discrepancies?

As an observant Jew, I don’t differentiate them. They are completely interlocked.

Let me put it to you as an allegory. I would use Catalonia as an example but your weird political situation makes things messy. 😛 Let’s say you were born in Italy to Italian parents. So for you, being an Italian means two things: 1) that you are part of the Italian nation/ethnic group, and 2) you are a resident of Italy. As an ethnic Italian, you are Italian no matter where you were born or where you choose to live. That’s simply your DNA, and the culture of your parents. As a citizen of Italy, however, you enjoy certain rights and responsibilities, just by right of the fact that you were born there. So in this context, you can either be a “good” Italian citizen, who abides by the laws of his country, or a “bad” Italian citizen, who doesn’t follow the laws of his country. Still, no matter what you do, you will always be Italian, whether you’re a good citizen or not.

Now, I am not an ethnic Italian and I never will be. But say I decided that I wanted to become a Italian citizen. I can’t simply declare myself Italian because I identify with the Italian cause, am a fan of Michelangelo and Vivaldi, and enjoy pizza. 😛 I would either have to have been born there, or I would have to undergo a process of absorption and live up to certain criteria–living there for a certain number of years, etc., and of course observe the laws of the place, before I would be accepted as a citizen by the Italian government and start to enjoy my rights.

So… being a Jew first and foremost means that you were born into the Jewish nation. That you are a descendant of Israel (Jacob). (You know why we’re called Jews, right? The whole thing with the split kingdoms of Judah and Israel and the ten tribes who were lost to history?) God did not select us as a group with a common faith, but as a people with a common DNA. He gave the Torah to us as a sort of national contract, kind of like a constitution. We accepted it upon ourselves as a nation, and therefore we, as a nation, are obligated to keep it. So you can think of the faith aspect of Judaism as a “spiritual citizenship” that is unique to the Jewish cultural group. Being born into the Jewish nation automatically grants you the rights and responsibilities of that “citizenship”. Whether you choose to uphold those responsibilities does not change your ethnic status. A person born to a Jewish mother will always remain a Jew in my eyes no matter what faith he professes. But as a Jew I believe he has certain obligations that he is not upholding if he does not keep halakha (Jewish law). A person who was not born to a Jewish mother, however, does not have any obligation to keep the Torah, as he was not born into the “spiritual kingdom” of Judaism, and is therefore not bound by its constitution.

Having said that Judaism is a cultural identity, the fact that we have been scattered among the nations for so long means that there is great ethnic diversity within the unified ethnicity of Judaism. We call these subgroups edot.

Ethnic Subgroups within Judaism

The main differences between the different ethnic subgroups, in terms of Jewish practice, are prayer liturgies and varying customs in how to perform the mitzvot (commandments). But we are all Jews: we all observe the same holidays, keep kosher, and mostly, our lifestyles and beliefs are very similar. One reason Jews were so successful in business historically is that we maintained ties with our brethren throughout the world; we had more in common with each other than with the surrounding population. Some edot have holidays or traditions that are specific to them, like the Moroccan Maimuna and the Ethiopian Sigd, but the major holidays are the same. Israel is kind of a “melting pot” of all these different cultures, and you’ll find a lot of Jews marrying into other ethnic subgroups and creating interesting hodgepodges of these traditions and customs. As you may have noticed about me, I find other cultures fascinating and love to learn about the different kinds of Jews there are and how they do things differently.

Anyway, here are the general ethnic categories:


“Ashkenaz” is the Hebrew word for what is now known as the general area of Germany/Austria. However, the term Ashkenazi refers to all Jews of Eastern European descent, including German/Austrian, Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, etc. An overwhelming majority ofJews today are Ashkenazi–somewhere between 70%-80%.

Anyway, as you know, both Eitan and I are Ashkenazi Jews. My ancestors came from Ukraine, Poland, and Russia. Eitan’s also came from those general areas, as well as Austria. Most American Jews are Ashkenazi, whereas about 45% of Israeli Jews are Ashkenazi.

Also known as the inventors of Gefilte Fish. ...which, contrary to what popular culture may have you believe, is NOT the pinnacle of Jewish cuisine. Ashkenazi cuisine is the most boring and bland of all the Jewish cuisines!
Also known as the inventors of Gefilte Fish.
…which, contrary to what popular culture may have you believe, is NOT the pinnacle of Jewish cuisine. Ashkenazi cuisine is the most boring and bland of all the Jewish cuisines!
Gefilte Fish – AlefAlef“ by Eigenes Werk. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 through Wikimedia Commons.


“Sepharad” is the Hebrew word for this Mediterranean peninsula:

This place. Something tells me you've heard of it.
Something tells me you’ve heard of it.

You can find it referred to this way in the last few books of the Jewish Bible, so I believe the term predates even the term Hispania. In modern Hebrew, it refers to modern Spain.

In general, people tend to refer to Jews as being either Ashkenazi or Sephardi, and this is not quite accurate, as you’ll see in a moment. The reason North African, Middle Eastern and Eastern Jews tend to be referred to as Sephardi is because after the expulsion, the Spanish Jews who were forced to move to those places completely dominated the culture. So the next category–Mizraḥi–overlaps with Sephardi in some places. Sephardi Jews–at least in the pre-Holocaust days–could be found in Italy, Holland, Greece, Turkey, and the Balkans as well as North Africa.

I should mention here that Roman Jews in Italy are sort of a category of their own in terms of customs and liturgy. But they are a pretty small minority.


“Mizraḥ” means “east”, and this is a general term used in Israel to refer to Jews of North African, Middle Eastern or Eastern descent. This includes Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Libyan, Egyptian and native Israeli Jews (a.k.a. ones who lived in Israel before the establishment of the State and the “ingathering of the exiles”), though as I mentioned many of these are also considered Sephardim; Indian Jews; Yemenite Jews; Iraqi and Iranian Jews; Kurdish Jews; Bukharan Jews, etc. etc. Each one of these groups has distinct characteristics… and, of course, cuisine 😉

Now that's what I'm talkin' about. Moroccan cuisine is my favorite!
Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about. Jewish Moroccan cuisine is my favorite!
MoroccanCouscous” by KhonsaliOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The reason that Sephardim and Mizraḥim make up a majority of Israeli Jews even though Ashkenazim are such an overwhelming majority is what you probably know from spending time in the countries of their origins: these places are very hostile to Jews these days. Many Mizraḥim were forcibly expelled from their countries of origin when Israel was founded. Talk about a refugee problem. Some of them had to be rescued by the IDF, like the Yemenites and the Iraqis.

I want to specifically mention Bnei Minashe, a group from India that claims to be descended from the tribe of Menashe (one of the ten tribes that vanished after the first exile). Many of them converted and moved to Israel. There is a significant community of them in Kiryat Arba, the settlement right next to Hebron.

Ethiopian (Beta Israel)

The story of the Ethiopian Jews is a really amazing one. It is believed that the community first moved to Ethiopia during the time of King Solomon, and they were eventually cut off from the rest of the Jewish world, but they maintained many Jewish practices, including reading the Torah, keeping kashrut, and observing the Sabbath. They referred to themselves as Beta Israel, the house of Israel. There is speculation that they are descended from another of the lost ten tribes–the tribe of Dan. But because they were cut off from all the Talmudic/rabbinical responsa, they did not observe many of the rabbinical laws that became part of Jewish tradition later. (For instance, they did not celebrate Purim or Chanukah.) They were officially recognized by the Israeli Rabbinate as Jews a few decades ago, and many of them were brought to Israel via airlift. They did have to undergo a symbolic conversion process to counter any doubts that remained (because there was some controversy about it in the Rabbinate), but most Ethiopian Jews in Israel today are considered completely Jewish.

Ethiopian Israeli women at the Western Wall in their traditional white dress and colorful headscarves.
Ethiopian Israeli women at the Western Wall in traditional festive dress.
Women at kotel“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Chinese/Kaifeng Jews

Yes, believe it or not, there is a small Jewish community in China that dates back hundreds and hundreds of years, which grew when Jews fled Europe during the wars. I have never met anyone from this community, but apparently they exist…

…So as you can see, there is great ethnic diversity within the global Jewish community. And if anyone wants to argue that we are racist for not allowing intermarriage, s/he’ll have to contend with the fact that a white Jew has much less of an issue marrying an Ethiopian, Yemenite, or Indian Jew than a white non-Jew. But I know you know the intermarriage thing isn’t about race or any sense of superiority, but about preserving Jewish continuity–as we discussed it in the past. Not to say that racism isn’t a problem among Jews–just like it is among everybody else. :-/ Here in Israel, it’s much more accepted than in the USA to stigmatize and make jokes about ethnic stereotypes. Ethiopians tend to deal with the worst of it. (There have been a number of big protests recently about racism against Ethiopian Israelis, and I hope that the dialogue on the topic that was created as a result will help improve the situation.) But Jews do tend to identify with people who have experienced similar struggles, and many Jews were involved in the Civil Rights movement in USA during the 60’s for this reason.

That concludes part I. Next week, God willing, we’ll tackle religious denominations and Hassidism.



Click here to read Part II!


From the Archives, February 2007: HAPPY ADAR!

The following is an introduction to the joyful month of Adar, from my hyper, 20-year-old self. Happy Rosh Chodesh (beginning of a new month)!


Subject: …SURPRISE!

It’s me again! (Have you forgotten me yet? No? I make that rather difficult, don’t I?)

I have an important announcement to make!


Now that we have that out of the way…

LOL. Today (like, as of sundown) is the 30th of Shvat, the first day of the two-day Rosh Chodesh Adar! Next month is… you guessed it… Adar. And there is a famous saying about the month of Adar that all Jewish kids sing in the schools, and it is: Mishenichnas Adar marbim b’simcha! A very rough translation: “From the time Adar enters, spread the joy!” The month of Adar is exceedingly joyful (and usually rather silly). Attempts are made to make life easier for everyone–the kids at school make funny regulations for the teachers and switch jobs around and stuff, they dance through the halls singing that all-famous line at the top of their lungs in long trains… And I am not just talking about my school, man. I don’t know about the secular schools, but all the religious schools I’ve heard of go crazy during Adar. Even politicians get into the spirit, wearing silly hats and stuff.

Why all the happiness and craziness? Well, the star holiday of this month is Purim! Remember that whole long complicated story I tried to explain to you and you didn’t get it, the story of Esther? [Blog readers: Worry not. There will be an entry on this. 😉 ] So, THAT holiday. And it is a very very joyful holiday! It’s another one of those that fits into the famous category of the typical Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” It’s celebrated by reading the story of Esther at synagogue, once in the evening and once in the morning, sending gift baskets of food to friends and family (and poor people), giving charity, having a feast during the day (because you know, all the cakes and candies from the gift baskets or “mishlochei manot” aren’t enough to fill you up… :-/ ), and my favorite part of it: dressing up in costumes!

Why do we wear costumes on Purim? Well, in the entire scroll of Esther, God’s name is not mentioned once. But He is obviously behind the miraculous events that led to saving the Jewish people. Purim is about the “hidden face of God” and how He works behind the scenes, and about how things are not always what they seem… something that seems terrible can actually turn out for the best. So we wear costumes to symbolize this idea that things are not always what they seem.

Elaborations will be forthcoming, of course. 😛

Shavua tov and chodesh tov!


The Sabbath Keeps the Jews–Even When It Seems Like It Doesn’t

With the big snowstorm of the season brewing as I type this, I wanted to share this piece I wrote about the crazy blizzard we had last year, which I also sent to Josep at the time. Stay warm, everybody!


Dec. 15th, 2013


As those of you who live in the Middle East know, we had some seriously crazy weather over the weekend. And this time the title “Snowpocalypse” is not nearly as ironic and silly as it was when we used it to describe the snowstorm in January. This one was the worst and coldest storm in modern Israeli history. We’re talking over half a meter of snow (about two feet) in Jerusalem, and even more in higher elevations, in Judea, Samaria and the North. Haifa got snow for the first time in 22 years. This part of the country was in total lockdown, and to make matters worse, damage from the winds caused a lot of disruptions in electricity so tens of thousands of people were without power during the coldest nights of the year. Thousands of people had to be rescued and evacuated, emergency shelters were set up, the Israel Electric Company declared a state of national emergency… total chaos.

Look like the Rocky Mountains? Nope. This was the Jerusalem Forest in 2013.
Photo credit: Dror Feitelson Pikiwiki Israel

And if that doesn’t sound bad enough, the worst of it had to be on Friday evening. We had no power for two and a half hours before Shabbat, making Shabbat preparation difficult to say the least; the power mercifully came back on very low tension juuust long enough before Shabbat for me to take a warm shower and for us to enjoy a warm and well-lit evening meal with our neighbors. Shortly after we came back upstairs to put the little one to bed, the power went out again, and stayed off for about 18 hours.

Did I mention that all our heating devices run on electricity? And that we are not allowed to light fires or turn on any electric devices (including battery-powered ones) on Shabbat–except in life-threatening situations?

If you’re wondering how cold it was, let’s just say our milk didn’t spoil even though the refrigerator was off for 36 hours.

We were okay overall, and the kids were mostly happy in several layers of clothing, though they kept waking up during the night because of the dark and cold and forcing us to climb out from under all our blankets to calm them. I was the most miserable of all of us. What can I do, I am used to Shabbat being about festivity and warm food and good company and good cheer. All four were significantly missing during the day as we struggled to stay warm and keep the kids from going crazy. We were supposed to have a guest over for lunch but she understandably stayed under her blankets. Eitan delivered some food to her when we finished eating, for which she was very grateful.

We didn’t even get to play in the measly inch or so of snow we got out here by the desert because we had no way to get warm afterwards!

Concerning the commandment to keep the Sabbath, God said, “Between Me and the People of Israel it shall be an eternal sign” (Exodus 31:17). Lighting the candles to signify the beginning of Shabbat always gives me the sense of “handing it all over to him”, knowing that now He is taking over, I have no more control, and I am keeping Shabbat as a sign of my love for Him and trust in Him. This Friday I was strongly reminded of the sense of extreme vulnerability–and helpless sort of hope–that I felt when I lit the candles through the cracked open, chained door to the balcony in the youth hostel in Barcelona seven years ago. The same sense of “Well, I have no idea how this is going to turn out, but God, I’m just going to have to trust You”. The electricity was still on at the time but we knew it might turn off any moment, and I just felt so grateful to have my shower and warm food waiting for us. Tears welled in my eyes as I watched the snow flutter down outside the window where our candles glowed. My four-year-old asked me what I was doing. I said I was watching the snow. He asked why. I said, “Because it’s beautiful.” I put my arm around him said, “You know… Hashem is always telling us that He loves us. He tells us all the time, by constantly giving to us. Keeping Shabbat is our way of telling Him that we love Him back.”

On the list of Most Challenging Shabbatot Ever, this one definitely outranks the one in Barcelona (for goodness’ sake, maybe I was hungry and upset, but at least I was warm, there was Ben & Jerry’s involved, and I didn’t have screaming kids to deal with!). I spent most of the time without power being cold, desperate and miserable. You know what? Being a Jew is hard. It means being totally committed to an intense and sometimes very demanding relationship with Someone whose communication with you is often very hard to interpret or even notice, and who very often doesn’t answer your requests in the way you would like or ultimately think is “right”. But at the end of the day, I know that it is worth it. I know that He knows what He is doing better than I do. And I know He’s really looking out for me, and giving me what I need–just enough pain and suffering for me to learn and grow, and more nurturing and abundance and goodness than I sometimes know what to do with. I don’t always get it, and sometimes I get angry, but as with all the relationships I’ve been reflecting on in the last couple of years, I’m learning that anger and disappointment are inherent and indispensable parts of a deep and meaningful relationship with someone, and not only do they not destroy everything, sometimes they can even have constructive power.

There is an old saying that more than the Jews keep the Sabbath, the Sabbath keeps the Jews. I used to understand this to mean that the magical atmosphere and time to focus on what’s important–our relationships with God, our families and our friends–is what gave us strength to face each difficult week throughout the centuries. But I think it is more than that. Some Shabbatot are neither magical nor joyous. Some mitzvot (commandments) are very hard to follow. Ultimately, our willingness to stay committed despite how difficult it is can bring us closer to Him, and Him closer to us. It is an eternal sign between us. Most times, it is a bed of petals. Occasionally, it is a bed of thorns. Ultimately, it is all roses.

From the Archives, March 2007: A Day at the Western Wall

March 30th, 2007

Dear Josep,

I just had to share this with you…

Yesterday I got a call from my friend Abi. She said she hadn’t been to the Kotel in too long and she wanted to go. Could I come?

So I ditched all my psychometric exam studying, picked up my things and hopped on a bus to Jerusalem. Because when you’re Jewish, and you live in Israel, you have to remember that one of the things about living here that no other Jew in the world has is the ability to just hop on a bus and go to the Western Wall.

My favorite picture of the Wall. I took this on Jerusalem Day in 2005.
Which is what I did, spontaneously, on Jerusalem Day of 2005, resulting in this amazing picture.

You probably know all about the Western Wall, but here’s an elaboration for ya. The Western Wall (known as the “Kotel” in Hebrew, which means “wall”… and as the Wailing Wall) was an outer wall of the Herodian Temple (the second one). It, along with the Southern Wall discovered relatively recently, is the only remaining structure from the Temple, so it’s considered the holiest site forJews. (The Western Wall is more important to us because it has been there throughout the centuries, the one piece of our Temple we could pray to the whole time. I remember Abi saying that soon, God willing, we would be praying to the Third Temple; but I said that I think we will still retain a lot of respect and awe for the Western Wall as the only part of the Temple that stayed with us throughout the entire Diaspora period.) Of course, the Temple Mount is holier, but the Muslims took over and built their stuff on top, officially removing all chances of Jewish excavation to discover solid proof and further artifacts from the Temple. *grumble grumble* Anyway, all Jews pray in the direction of where the Temple once stood. Outside of Israel we pray towards the east; inside Israel, in the direction of Jerusalem; in Jerusalem, in the direction of the Kotel. All Jewish faces are turned to this one spot when they pray.

So Abi and I arrived in Jerusalem and caught the #1 bus to the Kotel. We got off and started walking towards it. On our way up, a lady asked us for charity. There are people like that all over Jerusalem. I keep a pouch of change for them. So I emptied the contents of the pouch into her hand and wished her a happy holiday. As we walked away, she called me back and said, “You deserve a Magen David!” And handed me a red string bracelet (typically charity collectors hand these out; they are supposed to be against the Evil Eye according to the Kabbalah) with a little gold-colored Star of David pendant on it. 🙂

There is a custom that when one hasn’t seen the Kotel in 30 days and sees it again, s/he rends his/her clothes in mourning. Instead of ruining perfectly good clothes, I brought along a headscarf for the purpose and wore it as I walked towards the Kotel. When it came into sight, I whispered, “Im eshkachekh Yerushalayim, tishkakh yemini, tidbak l’shoni l’chiki im lo ezkereikhi, im lo a’aleh et Yerushalayim al rosh simchati” (“If I forget thee, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning, let my tongue cleave to the palate of my mouth if I do not remember thee, if I do not raise Jerusalem above all my joy.”) and tore the corner of the scarf as a symbol of my mourning for the Temple.

We walked to the women’s section and passed by the praying women to stand near the Wall. There’s something about the Kotel you just can’t describe in words, Josep… one day, with God’s help, I will take you there and you’ll understand what I mean. The silent reverence all around, broken only by the sniffles of passionate tears and whispers of prayer and the occasional wail… the cool Jerusalem breeze… the rustling of the plants sprouting from the cracks in the stone… and the cool, smooth stone itself, softened by the wind and rain and tears of two thousand years… and the doves that live in the larger cracks coo during the prayers, and sometimes you’re not sure if it’s one of the people crying or a dove. But maybe it doesn’t really matter.

Some people write notes to God and stick them in the cracks in the wall. To pray for healing or success, or anything at all really. These wishes and dreams and prayers have become a part of the wall; the little pieces of paper melted together from exposure to the rain… I brought a note along with me and fit it into a crack in the wall. Among other things, I asked for God to guide you in finding your true spiritual path and helping you walk it in joy and with a whole heart. I also asked that He help you with your studies to help you fulfill your purpose in the world. 🙂

I said the afternoon prayers and then some Psalms chapters, opening my Psalms book to random chapters and reading what was on the page. Everything turned out appropriate. Eventually I managed to get a place right in front of the wall, and I leaned my forehead against the stone and prayed…

When we were done, we backed away (out of respect, we don’t turn our backs on the Wall until we’re a good distance away) and then climbed the stairs into the Jewish Quarter. Abi and I spent far too much time in this great Judaica store which I am SO taking you to one day. Our favorite part was the books. They have amazing, amazing books on Judaism and if I’d had enough money I would have bought out the whole store! But they also have CDs of religious music, beautiful Judaica like candlesticks for Shabbat (Abi and I were joking that we should get you a pair so you can light them in the basement), washing cups for ritual handwashing, menorahs, etc… we were intending to stay for a lot less time than we did! Then we went and bought food, because we were both hungry, and then bid our last farewell to the Kotel and caught the #1 back to the central bus station, and from there home to Rehovot. 🙂

You were on our minds for much of the way. I guess there’s just so much I wish I could show you!

Looking forward to hearing from you soon, once you dig yourself out of the flood of e-mails I’ve been sending you! 🙂

Have a great weekend,



And you know what’s awesome?

I did actually get to take him to both the Kotel and that bookstore… 6.5 years later.

And Now for Something a Little Different…

On Christmas of 2006, Josep sent me the following video to educate me on Christmas traditions in Catalonia, with the following comment: “At least it’s funny!”

All I could say was, “And you thought JEWS were weird. o.O ”

To all my Christian readers, a very merry Christmas, and to the Catalans: may el Caga-tió, erm, excrete in your favor.

(I challenge you to tell us about an even stranger holiday tradition in the comments.)

From the Archives, October 2006: Life as an Observant Jew

This is a compilation of passages from a few e-mails sent about a week after Josep and I met eight years ago. In it, I am answering his question about what it means, practically, to be an observant Jew.


Dear Josep,

The meaning of life for a Jew is pretty much exactly as you phrased it. To serve God by making his world a better place, in improving ourselves and in helping the rest of the world improve. Judaism is about life in this world, not about life in the next world, contrary to many other religions. We do have a whole philosophy about the next world, but it is not a major part of the religion and there are many different opinions about what happens after you die.

You want to know more about my lifestyle? There’s something that would fill a good library. 😉 You saw a little of it in Barcelona–about keeping kosher and the Sabbath. Let’s see. Jews pray three times a day, but women (considered, on the whole, more spiritual than men) are not required to say all three formal prayers, so I start off my day with the morning prayers and continue to talk to God freely throughout the day as I please (and everyone else thinks I talk to myself. 😉 ). I feel I have a close and comfortable relationship with God. I feel that He is more than my Father and my King, He is also my closest Friend. Whenever something good or bad happens to me I immediately offer a few words to Him letting Him know how I feel. They say about King David that he used to lie in his bed and talk to God at night, and when I read that I got quite a shock, because that’s what I do, too. I feel He laughs with me at all the silly, ironic things that happen in life and cries with me when things are not so good, and showers me with love in every imaginable way.

But we must not get me started on my relationship with God, because this e-mail will never end. 😉

Before we eat something we make a blessing. This is not only to thank God for giving us food to eat, but also to remember the origin of the food and think about where it came from–for instance, before I eat an apple, I say in Hebrew, “Blessed are You, Lord of the Universe, who created the fruit of the tree.” The apple comes from a tree, and the tree comes from God.

Women wear modest clothing–skirts below the knee and shirts with sleeves, usually to the elbow, and a neckline that isn’t too low. I prefer to be thought of as a person, not a sex object, and not have men’s thoughts skittering around things they shouldn’t be thinking about when they talk to me. Of course I can’t testify to the truth of this, but I’ve had male friends tell me that even a little inch of skin makes a difference. So I feel much more comfortable in modest clothing. Why skirts and not pants? I personally don’t think there’s a problem with pants (my mother wears them all the time), but there are those who do because of laws against cross-dressing and modesty and whatever. I prefer skirts because I find them more comfortable (and prettier. 😀 ).

I also mentioned about physical contact between men and women. A handshake is not a problem, or any kind of formal greeting (which is why I had no problem with the Catalonian kiss-on-the-cheek greeting), but beyond that–not unless they’re married or related by first degree (meaning I can beat up my little brothers as much as I want. 😀 ). I tend to be lenient about this with strangers, but once a person gets to be a friend I find it important. Sometimes one thing can lead to another and it’s important to set down a boundary that you simply don’t cross, in my opinion.

[Concerning Shabbat, I quoted a long passage from an excellent and highly relevant book called “Letters to Talia“, which I can’t post here for copyright reasons. The gist of it was that the actions that are forbidden on the Sabbath are those that express man’s creative power in the world, and that Shabbat is about giving up our role as creator and partners in creation with God, and returning the world to its Owner, remembering that we, too, are creations and not just creators. In this way, Shabbat is another expression of what the author sees as the purpose of halakha–to develop discipline, humility self-refinement, and awareness of one’s purpose in life. Here is a later entry where I elaborate on Shabbat.]

I think Dov’s explanation digs deep into the heart of why I love being Jewish, and things you asked about–how we make ordinary things holy. By choosing when we will or will not eat something or do something, we are making it holy. By making the conscious choice to act on our desires or not to, we are putting our God-given ability to make free choices into our lives, and thus putting God into our lives. I decide when I eat. I decide what I eat. I decide when I go on the computer and when I turn on the light. I decide these things not according to my instincts and desires, but according to what makes me as a human different from all other animals–my ability to act despite those instincts and desires. And I choose to live my life the way God commanded my ancestors and me through His Torah, believing that sticking with Him every step of the way and channeling my desires to fulfill His will is the best way to fulfill my purpose on this earth.

Take care,



Blog readers: What do you do to charge your own life with a sense of purpose?