Category Archives: Jewish culture

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

Dear Josep,

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

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

photo of silver train engine

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Now, coming back to our train:

Shabbat Candlesticks

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

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

You have seen my Shabbat candlesticks before:

photo of candlesticks on a windowsill

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

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

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

Havdala Set

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kiddush Cup

Remember these?

photo of five silver goblets of varying sizes

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

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

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

Tzedaka Box

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

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

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

Our train contains just one more surprise…


This one you definitely know. ūüôā

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

photo of five simple chanukiyot with all candles lit

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

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

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

Challah Stuff

The challah loaves are a centerpiece of the Shabbat table.

photo of two braided loaves

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

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

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

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

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

Washing Cups

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

photo of three two-handled washing cups

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

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

Mezuza Cases

Well, I know you know what these are. ūüėČ

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

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

Prayer Paraphernalia

photo of tallit and tefillin
Eitan’s tallit and tefillin

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

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


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

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

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



illustrative photo of man wearing prayer shawl

Guest Letter from Jackie: A Christian at an Orthodox Jewish Prayer Service

A Christian at an Orthodox prayer service, Josep? Whoever heard of such a thing? ūüėČ

Well, unlike you, today’s guest lives in a country where they don’t need armed guards interrogating people at the door. Jacquelyn Lofstad is a 19-year-old college student from Minnesota, United States, who was raised in a Baptist family. She’s a reader who stumbled across the blog through Google, and her submission of this letter was the first contact she made with me (which is a first–all previous guest letters have been by people I know from other contexts and/or who I cajoled asked to write one!). She also writes a blog of her own about the Old Testament and how it relates to Jesus and the gospels, partially inspired by a trip she took to Israel not long ago.

She decided to share with us about an experience she had recently: observing the Shabbat morning prayer service in an Orthodox synagogue. (For those of you who need more info on what Shabbat is, click here.) I think this is a beautiful counterpoint to our previous guest letter, which was about a Jew’s positive experiences in churches!

Here’s Jackie:

Dear Josep,

Recently, I had the privilege of celebrating Sabbath at an Orthodox Synagogue. The Jewish people are beautiful, dedicated, and tenacious in their faith. I was extremely blessed to be able to observe a Shabbat (sabbath) service.

I am a 19-year-old college senior from Minnesota, United States, studying music education and history.¬† I was raised in a Baptist family but do not swear complete allegiance to any particular denomination.¬† I just believe the Bible, want to honor God and love people in the process.¬† After visiting Israel over spring break for a Bible study trip, I gained so much respect for the Jewish people’s tenacity and dedication to their faith.¬† Also, I love the Old Testament and am frustrated that the church does not talk about it enough.¬† Researching Judaism seemed like the obvious answer. Wanting to learn more, I contacted a local rabbi and asked to observe a synagogue service.

I entered the room during prayers and was handed a prayer book with English translations – praise God! My lack of education was clearly shown when I forgot that the Hebrew language and therefore the prayer books, read right to left!

One thing that struck me about the Hebrew prayers was how focused they were on God and God alone. So often I will only pray to ask for things. Their prayers focused on the glory, majesty, power, and love of Hashem (Hebrew name for God, literally translated as “the name”).

After the prayers, the Torah was brought out. The cantor and the congregation sang and chanted with joy as the Torah was lifted out of the arc in the front of the room and brought to the center of the congregation. The blessing of having the word of God IS something that we should rejoice over. The Torah in the center reminded me how God is a God for all people. He comes down, right into the middle of our lives. The word of God speaks right into the middle of our messy situations. The Torah reading for this day the “snake being lifted” in Numbers. They also read from the prophets on a yearly rotation – this week the men read from 1st Samuel.

The rabbi then spoke about a former rabbi who died at the hands of communist Russia because he refused to be transported on the sabbath. While he could have easily justified breaking sabbath to save his life, he decided not to because of the people that looked up to him. While I do not have the same sabbath convictions as the Jewish people, I also have people looking up to me. I need to take my actions seriously, because as a teacher, I will have people looking at my life as they make decisions.

After the service, which was over two hours (they are dedicated people), I was invited to the Kiddush lunch afterwards. The stew was cooked the night before and left on the stove because no cooking is done on the sabbath.

One lady told me about how she read a book about how a Christian converted to Judaism because she felt like Yom Kippur offered more room for grace than Christianity. This saddened me because we clearly are not showing/sharing the love and grace of God that well then!

I had a long conversation with another woman about Israel, Judaism, and many other things (Israel actually opened many doors for conversations so praise God!). She shared how it was difficult to get a job without working on Saturdays. I again was struck by how these people’s first priority was their faith. I can learn from this. I was then asked why many Christians don’t like Israel (This question was a bit stressful–19-year-old having to answer for all Christians ūüėõ ). I responded by saying that many Christians misunderstand both the heart of God and the Jewish people. At the end of our conversation, we thanked each other for sharing our perspectives–it was a really sweet moment.

I learned so much from this visit and hope I represented Christianity well. I am encouraging my friends and colleagues to be willing to experience new things and hear people’s stories. The world needs people who care. Be that person, because Jesus was that person. He heard people’s stories. He saw the beauty in diversity. And he was Jewish too ūüôā


Are you a reader who has something interesting to share with Josep and me about religion or culture? Don’t be shy–be like Jackie! Submit a guest letter!

cover image of "The Book of Jewish Food"

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

Dear Josep,

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

‚ÄúQuinces. Los membrillos. You‚Äôve never had bimbriyo?‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúI don‚Äôt think I understood half the words in that sentence you said just now.‚ÄĚ

Grandma shot me a look of incredulous exasperation. ‚ÄúWhat does your mother do in her kitchen?‚ÄĚ


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



Quince Paste

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

With love,


Hebrew name word cloud

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

Dear Josep,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historical Jewish Names

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

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

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

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

Modern American Jewish Names

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

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

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

Israeli Names

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

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

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

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

To each his own, I guess…



7 Myths About Judaism that Refuse to Die

Dear Josep,

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

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

Let us begin with the ever popular:

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


Nothing could be farther from the truth!!!

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Holocaust survivor displaying his prison number tattoo

Yeah. No.

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

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

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

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

Well. Um.


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

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

Oh. My gosh. This one drives me nuts.

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

So where on earth did this burying thing come from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

…Actually… no, he’s not the only one.

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

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

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

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

Lighting candles¬†before Shabbat is a well-known and popular custom that was instituted by the rabbis. It is not a Biblical requirement in any sense. But there’s a common misconception that they must be lit right before the meal–even if the meal takes place, as it usually does, after sundown.

And there are movies and TV shows that show this happening.

For example, in this episode of House called “Don’t Ever Change” (season 4, episode 12) that features a “hassidic” Jewish woman:

And it drives me CRAZY.



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

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

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

As I was looking around for the aforementioned episode of House, I came across this little scene from the American TV show, Gray’s Anatomy:


Terrible acting AND completely detached from reality:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Just… wanted to clear that up.



A Blessing on Your Head: Jewish Headgear

Dear Josep,

In May of 2007 I received the following missive from you:

“Hi Dee,

Just a fast¬†question: How can I clean my kippah? ūüôā



I¬†found the question pretty hilarious, given that A) I did not, at the time, own any kippot of my own, much less clean them; B)¬†Why do you even have a kippah to clean?! You’re supposed to be Catholic!!!¬†ūüėõ

So I relayed it¬†to my mom, who helpfully responded, “Vacuum cleaner? Car washing? Sandblasting?” And¬†the other converso-descended friend we were in touch with at the time responded with an equally helpful, “Tell him to toss it in the washing machine with some holy water and ‘star’ himself seven times.”

…Oh, we were an entertaining bunch, weren’t we. ūüėõ

Nine years later, I have finally given you a solution: a new one!

Yes, of course I took a picture of it for the blog before I sent it to you. What use would it have been otherwise?! :P
Yes, of course I took a picture of it for the blog before I sent it to you. What use is anything if I don’t get a blog post out of it?! ūüėõ

And in its honor I think it’s time for a post on the various things Jews wear on their heads.¬†But first:

Why Do We Wear Things on Our Heads At All?

Wearing a kippah regularly is not a Torah obligation; in fact, it’s hardly even a rabbinic obligation, except when studying Torah or praying. The Sages decreed it necessary to cover one’s head in those contexts, to encourage humility before God. But it became a very strong and virtually universal Ashkenazi custom for men to cover their heads at all times. (In some Sephardi communities, this custom was never adopted, and men only cover their heads for prayer and Torah study.) It doesn’t have to be with a kippah; it could be a hat, or a cloth, or a napkin, or a flowerpot. (Okay, I’m not sure about the flowerpot.) The point is that the head must be covered.

So what about women? First, we have to differentiate between two separate¬†issues here. There’s covering one’s¬†head, and covering one’s¬†hair. Covering our¬†heads falls under the same category as the kippah, and theoretically, we should all be obligated to cover our heads when studying Torah or praying. But since unmarried Jewish women tended not to cover their hair, the custom of covering their¬†heads¬†eventually faded, and in Ashkenazi communities it is generally not expected of young women to cover their heads in those contexts. Sephardi custom, however, maintained that women must cover their heads while praying or studying Torah¬†until very recently, when they were influenced by the Ashkenazim. The late Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef (may his memory be for a blessing) tried to reestablish that custom in Sephardi girls’ schools in Israel.

So that’s¬†head covering.¬†Hair covering is a different story altogether. Most halakhic authorities maintain that married Jewish women must cover their hair as part of our customs regarding modesty. They link¬†it to a passage in the Bible, which gives it a lot more weight than the head-covering thing. I took a class on this once and it’s a very complicated issue, but in short, there is a wide variety of opinions on how much hair needs to be covered. In some old-school American Orthodox families the women do not cover their hair, but today most religious women do cover their hair to some degree. Historically, unmarried women may have covered their hair too, but today it is universally accepted that unmarried women don’t cover their hair.

Note that this is one different between Jewish women’s hair coverings and¬†the Muslim practice of wearing a¬†hijab. The¬†hijab is worn when the young woman hits puberty, regardless of whether she is married.

Okay. So now we know why. Now, let’s talk about what:

For the Gentlemen

The Kippah

Also known as a yarmulke in Yiddish, this is the little dome-shaped cap that most religious Jews wear. More than a cap to fulfill the head covering requirement mentioned above, the kippah has become a statement, a declaration that the wearer is a religious Jew. As you saw yourself, there are many different styles and types, from the crocheted ones (like your FCB one above) worn by the modern Orthodox to the black velvet ones worn by the ultra-Orthodox, from the leather ones associated with American Jews to the highly decorative embroidered caps associated with Bukharan Jews.

by Yaffa Phillips [CC BY SA 2.0]
A kippah stand, probably at the shuk in Jerusalem. Photo by Yaffa Phillips [CC BY SA 2.0]

The Black Hat

The term “black hat” has become a way to identify a certain stream of Judaism–usually ultra-Orthodox or Hassidic. It tends to be part of the black and white “uniform” worn by most ultra-Orthodox men, which reflects the clothing worn by the noble class in 17th century Poland. These come in a variety of shapes, but they are usually round with a medium-wide brim. Jewish men who wear these black hats usually wear a black velvet kippah underneath it.

A sea of black hats at the Kotel

The Streimel

This is the furry round hat certain streams of Hassidim wear on Shabbat and special occasions, once again based on the clothing of the nobility in 17th-century Eastern Europe.

By Boaz Gabriel Canhoto (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
By Boaz Gabriel Canhoto (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Other Hats

Throughout history Jewish men have worn other hats, in combination with or instead of the kippah. In America, baseball caps were popular at one point. The¬†hat worn by¬†Tevye the Milkman in the various productions of Fiddler on the Roof was typically worn by Jews¬†in¬†Eastern Europe of that time period.¬†In the Middle East and India, Jewish men wore turbans or other types of hats that were common in that area and period. The Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, for example, wears a special Middle Eastern-style hat. I’m not elaborating on all those here because most of them¬†were not unique to Jews, and the idea of this post is to help you recognize specifically Jewish headgear. But my friend Shimon, for example, feels that this¬†is a very Jewish hat:

Shimon in his pinstripe flat brim ocho. Photo taken by his amazing wife, photographer Mandy Detwiler
Shimon in his pinstripe flat brim ocho, and yes, those are his real payot. Photo taken by his amazing wife, photographer Mandy Detwiler; you can view more of her work on her FB page here.

For the Ladies

The Tichel/MitpaŠł•at

“Tichel” (that’s “tikhl”) is Yiddish, and “mitpaŠł•at” is Hebrew, and they both mean “scarf.” This is what I usually wear.¬†There is a wide variety of types and shapes and ways to tie them, from oblong rectangle scarves to square scarves folded into triangles to pre-sewn “apron scarves” that achieve¬†the many-layered look without requiring an obscene amount of bulk and wrapping and matching. As you can imagine, some ladies have this down to an art. See, for example, the Wrapunzel website.

The style I've been favoring lately: a single Pashmina scarf wrapped around and tied in back.
The style I’ve been favoring lately: a single Pashmina scarf wrapped around and tied in back.

Here's one from when I was feeling fancier.
Me in a fancier multi-scarf wrap.

How to tell a tichel from a hijab:

The modesty standards of Islam require that a woman cover all (or most) of her hair¬†and her neck. Judaism is more lenient than this. If you can see the woman’s neck, it’s probably a tichel. If it wraps all the way around her face and hides her neck, it’s probably a hijab.

The Sheitel

“Sheitel” is Yiddish for “wig.”

…I know. Why would you cover your hair–for modesty’s sake–with something that looks exactly like your hair?

Well,¬†frankly,¬†that’s why I don’t wear them. ūüėČ But it’s actually a lot more widespread in the ultra-Orthodox world than in the modern Orthodox one, mostly for societal reasons. You see, when the question was first asked if it was permissible to cover one’s hair with a wig, wigs didn’t really resemble natural hair.

One might argue that these things resemble nothing found in nature.
One might argue that these things resemble nothing found in nature.

Therefore it was ruled that there was no problem. As wigs became more and more realistic, the question was revisited, and most rabbis agree that covering one’s hair is a more complex question of modesty than, say, covering one’s knees; after all, if it was immodest to show one’s hair, why should it be okay for unmarried women to do so? Therefore they concluded that it’s more of a mystical issue than a practical one pertaining to modesty, and the important thing is that the natural hair be covered–even if someone looking at the woman can’t tell that that’s the case.

Furthermore, many ultra-Orthodox rabbis feel that wigs are preferable because it’s much easier for a woman to cover all of her hair with one than with a scarf. (Most modern Orthodox rabbis hold that married women can show a certain amount of hair in the front, which is why you can see some of mine in the pictures above.) They also argue that women are more likely to cover their hair if they can cover it with a wig, because¬†covering it with something else makes them stand out. And I can certainly testify that there is something to this. Every time I go back to the USA I feel more and more like an alien from outer space with my covered hair and long skirts. People are polite about it, but it draws a lot of attention, and it’s exhausting. Sheitels are much more common in the USA than they are in Israel for that reason, even among those who consider themselves modern Orthodox.

Deborah Friedman was kind enough to send me these photos of her in her sheitels. The one on the left is called a "fall", which is held in place by a headband, and the one on the right is a full wig.
This is Deborah, a friend of my in-laws’ from Denver, who was kind enough to send me these photos of her in her sheitels. The one on the left is called a “fall”, which is held in place by a headband, and the one on the right is a full wig.

Some¬†ultra-Orthodox rabbis also maintain that there is a maximum length that is permissible (usually down¬†to the woman’s chin).¬†In contrast, the¬†Lubavitcher rebbe, leader of the Chabad Hassidic stream (described here), asserted that women should wear long, luxurious wigs so they will get enjoyment out of this mitzvah and feel¬†beautiful.

The Hat

Obviously, another option for covering one’s hair would be a hat. Berets are very popular because they are comfortable and super easy to put on. Just stuff your hair in and you’re good to go. They’re what I wear when I’m in a rush and can’t be bothered with all the wrapping and hair clips and whatnot.

levys-35 (2)
Like this one

Fancier, more formal hats are also worn, but they tend to be associated with the older generation; it’s the fancy scarves that are most fashionable among young women today.

On the most casual end of the spectrum is a very curious hat known as the snood.

The only time I ever wore this in public was when traveling. You try sitting on an airplane for 11 hours with one of those multi-scarf contraptions on your head.
The only time I ever wore this in public was when traveling. You try sitting on an airplane for 11 hours with one of those multi-scarf contraptions on your head.

They may look kind of odd but they are certainly the most comfortable of all the options, especially for those of us with long hair. Many women, especially ultra-Orthodox women, choose to wear them around the house or in other casual settings.

I don’t know if your son will inherit your odd obsession with Judaism–he could end up rebelling and becoming a priest, or something ūüėõ –but for whatever it’s worth, I hope he enjoys the gift from his self-proclaimed Jewish aunt. <3

Oh, and by the way–hand wash it. With detergent. And stretch it out to dry over an upside-down bowl to help it maintain its shape. ūüėČ

Much love,


Family Plans: Contraception, Pregnancy and Judaism

Dear Josep,

When I signed up for my bridal counselor’s course, I remember joking that if nothing else, it would provide material and inspiration for the blog. Well, I was right! It already inspired this one, and now I want to write about a topic we’ve been discussing over the past couple weeks: family planning.

Can¬†Orthodox Jews “plan” families?


In all fairness, can¬†anybody? ūüėČ The term “family planning” implies that we actually have control over how many kids we have and when.¬†On some level, modern medicine makes this possible–when all goes well. But there are so many things that are out of our control. There’s a woman in my community who had five kids and got an IUD to “close up shop”… and then got pregnant.

With triplets.

True story!

Conversely, I know several people who tried to have a baby for years and went through varying degrees of pain and suffering before finally having one. One woman I know went through years and years of treatments and lost many pregnancies (including two pairs of twins born too early) before finally giving birth to a healthy child.

So before I get into this I just want to put out¬†there that we have so much less control over these things than we think we do, and it’s important to keep that in mind.

Now. Given that you are Catholic and probably know that there are issues with contraception in some religious circles, you may have wondered if we have similar restrictions.

Let’s start from the beginning.

Like, literally the beginning.

And God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth.”

(Genesis 1:27-28)

“Be fruitful and multiply” is considered by traditional Judaism to be the very first mitzvah in the Torah. But like everything in Judaism, we have to work out the specifics! What exactly is the requirement here? Who is obligated? Under what circumstances?

So, according to the Sages, only men are obligated in this mitzvah. That may seem strange, since, I mean, most of the burden of creating new life falls on women as a matter of biology. The Sages explain that pregnancy and childbirth are dangerous, and the Torah does not command us to do something that would endanger our lives. Obviously, however, men cannot fulfill this obligation without women! But this difference has practical implications, as we shall see in a moment.

There is a debate about how many children one is required to have to fulfill the obligation. The generally accepted opinion is at least two–one boy and one girl. Obviously, we have no control over the gender of the child, and we’re only required to do what we can… but yes, technically this means that¬†even a man¬†with ten sons has not fulfilled the obligation!

In general, the attitude in Jewish law is that we should have as many children as we can. The Talmud points out that each child conceived is potentially an immeasurable contribution to humanity, and we never know what potentially great person we may be barring entry to the world by preventing a pregnancy.

Therefore, we are not supposed to use any form of contraception unless it is necessary.

But, obviously, there is a wide range of opinions on exactly what qualifies as a necessity.

On the most stringent end of the scale, you will find rabbis who rule that it is only permitted to use contraception when getting pregnant would endanger a woman’s health. This is why families in the ultra-Orthodox community tend to be so large.¬†There has (thankfully) been increased awareness in the area of mental health in recent years, so even on the most stringent end of the scale, rabbis are recognizing anxiety, depression and the like as health hazards that qualify as reasons to prevent pregnancy.

Some rabbis rule that even without a specific diagnosis of a mental health disorder, the increased anxiety or depression the parents might experience from being overwhelmed is reason enough to use contraception. The couple’s financial situation may factor in on this as well, especially when having another child might compromise the quality of care the other children receive or, again, the mental health of the parents. Education is a factor too: Rabbi Moshe Feinstein famously ruled that young couples who are still studying in college may use contraception until they complete their studies.

On the most lenient end of the scale, some rabbis rule that no special reason is needed for contraception; that it is permitted as long as the couple intends to eventually have children.

Then there comes the question of what kind of contraception can be used. Not all forms are permitted. Firstly, there is a separate mitzvah prohibiting sterilization. So any form of contraception that is permanent, such as tubal ligation or vasectomy, is forbidden. (Though I think the former may be permitted under extreme circumstances. And of course any life-saving operation is permitted even if it may cause infertility.)

Secondly, because of the fact that it is men who are obligated in the mitzvah of having children, halakha is stricter about contraceptives that interfere with the male end of things.¬†“Fortunately,” medicine has traditionally placed the brunt of the burden of childbearing or lack thereof on the woman anyway, so the most common forms of long-term contraception–pills and IUDs–are permitted, as well as other forms of hormonal contraception and spermicides. Barrier methods are more problematic, depending on the type, but some authorities permit the use of the diaphragm or cervical cap.¬†Refraining from relations on the fertile days of the woman’s cycle is theoretically okay, but kind of a bummer for women who keep the laws of family purity, since it adds more days of abstinence to what was already practically half the month. So women who choose to practice fertility awareness (that is, charting their fertile signs) for contraception often end up using some other method during their fertile days.

So… the decision to prevent pregnancy is even more complex for a religious Jewish couple than it is for your average couple. No¬†method is 100% effective; every single one has disadvantages, from minor inconveniences to severe health risks; and besides, we have to balance our cherished¬†value of growing our families and expanding the Jewish people with consideration¬†for our physical, emotional, and financial well-being–while having no way to know for sure how one will affect the other.¬†I know from experience that it’s impossible to predict the effect a pregnancy might have on the family. There’s this generally accepted idea in mainstream society of two years or so being the ideal “spacing,” but¬†it depends on so many things… the kids’ personalities, health issues, sibling dynamics, etc… and none of these things are static.

So it can actually be a really tough decision.

In Orthodox Jewish circles, family planning is considered a very private thing. So it’s seen as¬†rather intrusive¬†to just ask someone outright when¬†they are planning on having kids, how many, when they plan to have the next one, etc. Personally I don’t really mind discussing it with people I trust, but¬†most people can’t really comprehend how complex an issue it can be, and that can be kind of frustrating for me.

As you know, we also have a custom not to tell about a pregnancy in the first three months. In the Chabad community, the norm is to wait five months. But as I told you once, my attitude about this custom has shifted a lot over the years. The reason for the custom is that most miscarriages occur¬†in the first three months, so there’s superstition around it. But there is also a practical¬†explanation: if something happens to the pregnancy you don’t want to have to explain to people about it.

Personally? I found the secrecy in the first trimesters of my pregnancies to be a special kind of torture. Here I had this wonderful news that I couldn’t share with people, but also I was¬†feeling horrible physically and couldn’t¬†explain to anyone why or get the support I desperately needed. Even if I don’t believe in superstitions, it’s a societal norm, and I was concerned that people would feel weird about my telling them I was pregnant before 12 weeks or so.

But when I was 10 weeks pregnant with R2, a misunderstanding led to a rumor in my extended family that I was pregnant. (My parents and siblings already knew.) It was such an awful feeling that I had no control over this information; it was as if I had failed to keep a secret I didn’t even want to keep in the first place.

To top it off, I have two friends who told me about their pregnancies early on and then had miscarriages; if they hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have been able to support them through it.

So in light of my experiences, I don’t think much of this custom and believe that parents should share their news whenever they darned well feel like it.

Now, as you know, ultrasound has made it possible to find out the sex of the baby fairly early on in the pregnancy. I think as a kind of holdover from the norms about maintaining the air of mystery around pregnancy, in the religious community it is far more common than in the secular world for parents to choose not to find out¬†the sex of the baby. But more often,¬†in the religious community parents will often find out the sex of the baby–and then not tell anyone what it is until the baby is born. Personally, I¬†can’t really comprehend the point of this. If you are telling people you’re having a baby, why should you care whether they know what sex it is, especially when you, yourself, know?! On the contrary–let them know so they can plan for a circumcision ceremony if necessary, and/or buy you gender-appropriate gifts ahead of time!

People are weird.

So that’s all for this topic for now. Stay tuned, because in a future post I’ll be tackling a related, but more controversial issue: the Jewish attitude towards abortion. ūüėČ



On the Awkward Question of Intermarriage

Prefer to listen? I read this letter for the Jewish Geography Podcast:

Dear Josep,

There’s been a great hullabaloo recently over an Israeli Education Ministry decision¬†not to include a certain book in the high school curriculum. The¬†book is called¬†Geder Haya (or “Borderlife” in English) by Dorit Rabinyan, and the reason there was such controversy over it was that it depicts a romance between an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Arab. ¬†Apparently it also depicts Israel from a harshly critical left-wing perspective, but of course the Israeli left and the international media enjoyed latching on to the allegedly racist nature of the decision, claiming that the book was being “censored” because of a desire to “prevent exposure” of the concept of romance between a Jew and an Arab and thus “discourage intermarriage.” The Education Ministry later backtracked slightly and decided to include the book in an advanced curriculum for students specializing in literature.

I haven’t read the book, and I think everyone is making a big deal over nothing here. Leaving a book out of the reading curriculum for high school is not “censoring” or “banning” it. A Tale of Two Cities¬†isn’t in the high school curriculum either. In fact, in my day, there¬†was¬†a novel¬†in the¬†curriculum specifically approved for religious high schools that depicted a romance between a haredi IDF soldier and a secular woman, which¬†included a forbidden sexual encounter. I am far more inclined to believe that the decision had nothing whatsoever to do with the romance aspect of the book.

But, I decided to take this opportunity to open yet another¬†can of worms. It’s true: according to Jewish tradition, Jews are not allowed to marry non-Jews.

On the surface, I know that it looks bad. How could we claim to treat all human beings with equal respect, and then turn right around and say that we would never marry a non-Jew? Isn’t that a little… elitist? Or maybe racist? And particularly when we’re talking about the Arab-Israeli conflict, isn’t¬†love the ultimate answer? Jews and Arabs riding off into the sunset together?

On... camels? "Cable Beach Sunset Camel Ride" by Binarysequence - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
On… camels?
Cropped from “Cable Beach Sunset Camel Ride” by Binarysequence ¬†[CC BY-SA 3.0]
One might even argue that the fact that we¬†have this rule about marriage is part of the root of the conflict. They would say that it expresses the¬†view that other groups are not¬†worthy of marrying into our families and becoming part of them. After all, don’t we call ourselves the “Chosen People”?

Okay, so let’s start sorting these worms out here, shall we?

What Does “the Chosen People” Mean?

First I’ll tell you what it¬†doesn’t mean. The “Chosen People”¬†doesn’t mean that we believe that we are inherently superior in any way to other people.

What does it mean to be “chosen” for something?

Let’s say you have a broken chair¬†and you decide to fix it yourself. You head to a nearby hardware store¬†and stand in front of the aisle of tools. When you choose a tool, you may choose it because of its price, or quality, but primarily, you are choosing it because it’s the one you need for the job. The fact that you chose a screwdriver over a hammer does not mean that the screwdriver is inherently superior to the¬†hammer. It just has a different purpose and different qualities that make it better suited for the job.

See where I’m going here?

God needed a job done. He needed a nation to spread knowledge of Him through the world. He chose the Jewish people for it.


All God says on the matter is that we are the heirs of Abraham. Meaning, there was this one guy who discovered God, and he¬†devoted his life to spreading knowledge of Him.¬†God promised this guy¬†that his children would fulfill that¬†particular role for humanity. In other words, He didn’t choose us for being inherently superior. He chose us because of His love for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who walked in His ways and showed a great loyalty to Him and to the cause of spreading His message. He granted them eternity through us.

Various sages and historians have assigned particular traits to us, with more or less truth to them, that may have made us particularly suitable for this role. But ultimately, the plain truth that is apparent in the text of the Bible is that God chose us because Abraham chose Him.

That’s it.

So… no.¬†Believing that we are the Chosen People does not mean that we believe we are superior. It means that we believe we have a specific¬†job to do in this world,¬†and the Torah is our guidebook on how to do that job.

Does that mean that there aren’t any Jews who interpret it to mean that we are superior and the¬†goyim are inferior? No, it doesn’t. I’ve said it many times before: people can twist any idea or ideology to justify their bigotry. But the idea in and of itself is not a statement about inherent worth.

So What’s the Problem with Marrying a Non-Jew?

I have to say that this question is something I have dealt with on all kinds of levels and from all kinds of angles. It is a deeply difficult question, and not because it is difficult to answer intellectually.

The intellectual answer can be summed up in two words: Jewish continuity.

I believe that Judaism is more than a nation or a religion. Judaism is also an idea. An idea and a mission. And I see it as one of my primary life goals to pass down that message to future generations. As I’ve mentioned many times before, education is of utmost importance in Judaism.¬†Continuing the legacy of Judaism, the practice and the¬†study of the Torah, is extremely important to us.

It is so important to us that we have made unimaginable sacrifices to preserve it. When you carefully study our history, you realize that it is against every rule of nature that the Torah is still taught and practiced today. Generation after generation,¬†the ruling powers tried their utmost to ethnically cleanse us, sometimes by attacking us as people, sometimes by attacking¬†the Torah as an idea, and often¬†both. Was it Divine intervention that preserved us? Was it extraordinary Jewish stubbornness? Perhaps¬†a little of A and a little of B…

Point is: Judaism is something we really want to pass on to our children.

And the statistics are pretty clear on this. According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, children with only one Jewish parent are much less likely to identify as Jewish than children with two Jewish parents, and they are also more likely to intermarry themselves. The result is that within a few generations, all traces of Jewish identity are gone. Assimilation is the primary cause of the decline of the Jewish population in the USA today. Not emigration, not persecution. Assimilation.

Obviously, there are exceptions. A non-Jewish spouse may be very devoted to raising his or her children with a strong Jewish identity. But from the perspective of a child, I can’t help but look at this situation and be like, “Well, if this Judaism thing is so important, why is my father/mother not Jewish?”

It’s Not About Worth. It’s About Life Goals

Let’s say there’s this¬†average middle-class young woman, let’s call her Susan. And when people ask Susan¬†where she’d like to be in ten years, she says “Living in the suburbs with two¬†kids, a dog, and a steady hi-tech career.” Legit, right? Now let’s say Susan¬†meets this great guy, let’s call him Michael, and they¬†start dating and fall in love. Now, when people ask Michael where he sees himself in ten years, he says “Living in¬†the slums of Nairobi teaching math to the local children.”

So, we have a problem here. Susan¬†and Michael have incompatible¬†life goals. If they¬†want to make it work, one of them is going to have to give up one of these goals. Either Susan’s¬†going to have to give up on her idyllic comfortable life in the suburbs to¬†rough it in Africa with Michael, or Michael’s going to have to give up his dream of¬†making a difference to poor people in Africa and live an average (and probably in his opinion boring) life in the suburbs. And it’s not that simple, either. Giving something up for love comes with a price: you may find yourself living with a lot of resentment, feeling that your partner is holding you back from being who you were meant to be.

Now, Susan¬†and Michael might be able to find some kind of compromise–a few years in Africa, and then settling down somewhere civilized. But¬†maybe not. Sometimes it’s just not possible to compromise. Either Susan¬†or Michael may have to give up too much of her- or himself¬†to live a life that suits the other.

And for me, and other Jews who believe that the continuity of the Jewish people and the Jewish message is of utmost importance, the question of the spiritual and religious future of my family is absolutely not up for discussion. Actually, it is possibly the most important thing to me when it comes to building a family.

I think it’s pretty unfair to ask a non-Jewish spouse to completely give up his or her own heritage and family traditions just because of my priorities. I would not want to ask that of him. I would not want to enter into that situation without knowing that he was completely on board with that cause, and practically speaking,¬†that translates as him converting to Judaism.

It’s Not About Race, Either

As I mentioned in my post about the various Jewish cultural groups,¬†ethnicity is not the issue. There are Jews of all kinds of ethnic backgrounds, and we’re perfectly willing to marry converts of any origin, too. It’s not about race. It’s about religion.

But What About Love?

What if Michael and Susan¬†are madly in love and just can’t live without each other?

I’m going to say something totally counter-culture and radical here. Ready? Are you sitting down?

There are things in life that are more important than romantic love.

This is a radical thing to say because the world at large¬†worships romantic love. To a very unhealthy degree. “Love conquers all,” it claims. The butterflies and fireworks of the process of falling in love are presented as the¬†highest heights of love–as if there is no greater or truer love than this.

It is a very powerful feeling, for sure. But it is far from what is most important¬†in a romantic relationship–and in life in general.

True love is not those butterflies. True, deep, enduring love is the deep sense of trust and commitment, the continuous nurturing of the relationship, and the choosing–every day, under even the most trying circumstances–to make this life journey together.

I admit, this kind of slow, quiet, hardworking love doesn’t look nearly as exciting on the big screen. So Hollywood doesn’t do a very good job of representing it. And people grow up with the idea that the most important thing that’s ever going to happen to you is that you’re going to fall in love, and that that’s what really matters in a relationship. Unrequited love is seen as a terrible tragedy. Three words: Romeo and Juliet. Am I right?

Feast your eyes, ladies and gents. The "greatest love story of all time" is about a pair of whiny teenagers who commit suicide over each other.
Yeah, um, what does it say about our culture that¬†the “greatest love story of all time” is about a pair of whiny entitled teenagers who commit suicide over each other after knowing each other for less than a week?

Yeah. So. No.¬†The “balcony scene” is not the part that matters.¬†The part that matters is the little, everyday moments of life together. Little moments where you choose to connect. Like when you put down your riveting thriller with only ten pages left because you¬†noticed that your partner looks sad. Or¬†when you stay up at night with the sick baby to let your partner sleep. Or when you are rattling on about something that’s worrying you that your spouse cares nothing about, but she listens anyway because she knows it’s important to you.

And these are things that you actively choose.

You can’t really choose who you fall in love with. You¬†do¬†choose who you stay in love with.¬†True, enduring, forever-love is a choice.

Look. I know that’s easy to say. And that’s why this is such a deeply difficult question. I have had close friends and family fall in love with non-Jews.¬†And when you don’t believe in the importance of Jewish continuity, or you do not see it as a personal responsibility, it makes no sense whatsoever not to be with someone just because he or she¬†isn’t Jewish. If¬†I didn’t feel this way about Judaism, I would have no problem at all with intermarriage. And yes… making the choice not to be with someone you love, because it isn’t right for you for whatever reason, is¬†really, really painful.¬†Especially when that reason has nothing at all to do with that person’s worth or compatibility with you as a human being. I know. It’s a really, really hard decision to make.

But people have to make choices like this all the time in relationships. Heartbreak is an occupational hazard.

Is Love the Answer to the Arab-Israeli Conflict?

I¬†think this is a very sweet, but naive¬†way to view the conflict. Again, this isn’t Romeo and Juliet! We’re not going to toss aside our¬†differences and live out the rest of our years joyfully eating hummus together just because¬†some of our kids fell in love with each other.

I do think that facilitating more contact in neutral, nonthreatening conditions may bring about positive change.¬†Polls show that Palestinians who have regular contact with Israelis tend to be more moderate, and I imagine the opposite is true, too. But it is very tricky to implement this when there is a strong opposition in Palestinian society to what they call “normalization,” and Palestinians who engage in dialogue must do so at great personal cost.

Furthermore, I don’t think¬†romantic love is the only kind of love that is helpful in building bridges. My dear friend Abi has¬†been very¬†involved with online peace communities and has forged some deep and important friendships with people “on the other side.” (You can read an article she wrote about one particularly powerful experience with this here.)

So… yes and no. Love is definitely part of the answer, but it is only a small part. (Don’t ask me what the rest is. If anybody knew, this conflict would have been over decades ago…)

Well, in any case, the author of Borderlife¬†has received an enormous amount of attention in light of this so-called scandal. Her book is flying off the shelves so fast, her publisher¬†ran a reprint. And a fellow author being successful is always good news to me, so here’s to that!

Much love,


10 Essential Words in Judeo-English

Dear Josep,

After the rousing success of “15 Weird Things Jews Do,” it is now time to elaborate on item #15. ūüėČ

Much as you and I are kindred spirits, and much as our friendship has defied significant distances over space, time, language, culture, religion, and lifestyle (to name a few!), those gaps do sometimes cause confusion and frustration.

It was when I began writing to you regularly that I noticed that it was not just you who was struggling to communicate in English.¬†My normal way of expressing myself–in general, but particularly when I was talking about Judaism–included a surprising amount of words from other languages. Mostly Hebrew and Yiddish, but also Aramaic and even Arabic. I hadn’t even realized how often I used these words and phrases until I found myself¬†constantly translating myself for you.

It was only recently that I realized that this is because my mother tongue is not actually English.

It is Judeo-English. (Or as it is more often called, Jewish English.)

You see, I recently read a book called “The Languages of the Jews: A Sociolinguistic History” by Professor Bernard Spolsky. (Well, of course I did. History, Judaism, and linguistics all in one academic volume?! Yes please!!!) The book explores the usage of various languages by Jews throughout history, and you can imagine that this is a vast and fascinating topic. We are unique in that we have lived among many, many different cultures and acquired hundreds of different languages, and yet, through much of history, we lived in groups that were distinct from the¬†native population. So our exposure to the languages of our neighbors was somewhat limited, and our most intense contact was with other Jews, with whom we maintained a working knowledge of the languages in which we prayed and studied–Hebrew and Aramaic.

These conditions created a unique phenomenon: Jews developed their own variety of the languages of our¬†“host” cultures. Sometimes this variety was not much different from the “host” language–just a few words and phrases from Hebrew and Aramaic thrown in. But sometimes it became a dialect with its own grammar and syntax, or indeed a language of its own. The most well-known of these languages¬†are, of course, Yiddish, and the¬†varieties of Judeo-Spanish known as Ladino, Judezmo, or Haketia. But Jews developed their own variety of almost every language they spoke–from Judeo-Greek to Judeo-Arabic to… yes, Judeo-Catalan.

Now… I am a fifth-generation American Jew, descended from Yiddish-speaking Jews from Eastern Europe. But the influences on my linguistic tendencies¬†were not only my heritage: I also grew up in a religious community, where the vernacular tends¬†to include a lot more Hebrew and Yiddish because we spend a lot more time discussing the traditional texts, using the languages our teachers and their teachers used. Given that the vast majority of anglophone¬†Jews are of Ashkenazi origin¬†and their ancestors’ mother tongue was Yiddish, it is Yiddish that has the strongest influence¬†on Judeo-English. This website,, is a great resource about Jewish languages, and it has an almost 1,000-word lexicon of “Jewish English” words.

However, my personal “linguistic history” was further complicated by the fact that I moved to Israel and became bilingual as an older child/preteen. This means I was influenced not only by Hebrew, but also by the English spoken by the “Anglo” (what we English-speaking Israelis call ourselves) communities here–which include not only Americans, but also Canadians, Brits, Australians, and South Africans. (Which is why you might hear me say I¬†“told someone off” instead of “scolded,” or “Good riddance!”–both phrases that¬†are more British than American.)

There is a joke among Anglos that when you make aliyah, you don’t become bilingual, you become semi-lingual. You acquire Hebrew words and phrases for everyday¬†things, neglecting them in¬†your mother tongue, and eventually find that you can no longer speak one language without the other!

So,¬†sometimes I want to use a word or phrase that is completely natural to me, but I realize that you won’t understand it and I’ll have to explain it. Sometimes I go ahead and explain, but sometimes I just avoid it to save time and headaches all around. And I think it is high time I clarified some of the most important words I use regularly¬†so I don’t need to constantly explain or censor myself for you. ūüėȬ†Thankfully, you may already recognize some of them. I did not include words that describe Jewish law or practices–those you can find in the glossary. ūüėČ

(A note on spelling and pronunciation: on this blog I usually use a “Šł•” for the deep-throated ◊ó sound, and “kh” for the lighter ◊õ sound that sounds like the Spanish “j”. But the words I will list here have common English spelling that usually uses “ch” for both sounds, which are indistinguishable in Yiddish or in modern Hebrew. In Yiddish, as in German, “sch” is pronounced “sh”.)

Here they are:



This is what religious Jews call God.

It literally means “The Name” in Hebrew, because we are not allowed to say His name(s) except in specific contexts.

This word brings us to these common phrases that religious Jews say:

  • Barukh Hashem–literally “Blessed is God”; equivalent to “Thank God”
  • B’Ezrat Hashem–“with God’s help”
  • Im Yirtzeh Hashem–“if God wills it,” “God willing”
  • Hashem Yishmor–“God will protect”; equivalent to “God help us” or “God forbid”



The classic expression of Jewish dismay, this exclamation can be traced back to the Bible. I remember you mentioning that it was funny to hear me use that word because Catalans also say it–“oi”–but with an entirely different usage. [For you non-Catalans: It’s like the Canadian “eh”.]

The following expressions mean the same, just more emphasized: Oy vey! Oy vey zmir! Oy gevald!

Often used while kvetching. (See below.)



This is my absolute favorite Yiddish word. It expresses¬†so much about quintessential Ashkenazi Jewish culture (and¬†the Israeli culture that was built on it–which currently employs the word with just as much gusto). Impatience, irony, warmth, humor, chutzpah (see below!), a little suffering, a little triumph… all packed into one short syllable.

So what does this word mean? It has many uses, and if I recall correctly I sent you this article on it recently. Its most common use, however, is as a prompt (“Nu, so how is life?”) or an expression of impatience (“Nu, get over here already!”). It can be used in a phrase, as above, or as a complete, emphatic, exasperated sentence: “NU?!



This word started out in Hebrew, shifted into Yiddish, and is such a great word it made it into mainstream English.¬†You might translate it as:¬†nerve; gall; shamelessness; brazen defiance; audacity. It can be a positive or a negative trait. In modern Hebrew it usually has a negative connotation, though it is considered an intrinsic trait of Israeli culture, and one of which we are rather proud. ūüėČ In fact, chutzpah has long been considered typically characteristic of Jews.¬†The Sages say that no nation has chutzpah like the nation of Israel (Exodus Rabbah, 42:2).¬†(You will notice, by the way, that when a Jewish word makes its way into mainstream English, it’s usually because its meaning has some inherent association with Jews.)

Negative chutzpah is acting shamelessly and brazenly in the name of your own selfish interests. Positive chutzpah is acting shamelessly and brazenly for ultimate good. (Sometimes the line between the two can get blurry…) Earlier this week I posted about Matisyahu’s performance in Valencia; to me, that is an example of positive chutzpah. Matisyahu¬†had the nerve¬†to get up on a stage in front of the BDS protesters and sing about Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jews. The author of the book “Start-Up Nation” argued that it is Israeli chutzpah that makes the country such a fertile¬†ground for innovation and bold new ideas, because Israelis don’t take anything on authority, and challenging leaders and managers is part of the culture (which people from other cultures–such as your own–may find¬†shockingly arrogant and obnoxious).

And really… if you think about it, what¬†do you call¬†surviving and thriving over 2,000 years of exile and persecution,¬†surrounded by nations that wanted nothing more than for you¬†to disappear? What¬†do you call¬†returning to your¬†homeland in an unprecedented historical phenomenon that still has historians and philosophers scratching their heads? What¬†do you call¬†secretly maintaining your¬†Judaism¬†under the eyes of the Inquisition¬†only to return to that tradition after 500 years?

Chutzpah. That’s what you call it. ūüėČ



Another word that started out Hebrew (as naŠł•at) and was adopted into Yiddish (as nachas or naches), this is another of those essential and untranslatable words that I hate having to avoid using.¬†What it is, is that warm glow of pride and satisfaction you get from your loved ones, either because of something they did or accomplished, or just by being themselves. The Yiddish phrase for deriving this feeling is “to¬†shep nachas.” (Not to be confused with¬†schlep below…)¬†So you might shep nachas¬†watching your son take his first steps, or just seeing him smile; or from¬†a close friend of yours getting married, or graduating college, or, I dunno, publishing a book. ūüėČ (B’Ezrat Hashem!)



Another very important Yiddish word! This one means “complain.” And it is important because¬†it is the #1 Jewish mechanism for coping with adversity. ūüėõ (#2 is dark humor, remember?) We’ve been doing it since time immemorial. See Exodus 15:11, for starters… “Were there no graves in Egypt that you brought us here to die?!” Sarcasm, chutzpah, and kvetching, all in one, and we hadn’t even crossed the Red Sea yet!



This is another untranslatable word, this time from Aramaic. Basically, it means “precisely” or “in particular,” as in, “I need¬†davka that sweater.” Sometimes it connotes irony or unexpectedness: “I waited for the bus for 20 minutes, and¬†davka when I went into the nearby store to get a drink, it pulled up!” or “I¬†davka liked that hummus-flavored ice cream.” Sometimes it connotes willfulness¬†or spite,¬†as in “doing¬†davka“: “He said that¬†davka¬†because he knew it would infuriate me.”



This is sort of davka‘s equal and opposite: another¬†untranslatable word (in Hebrew) that kind of means the opposite of davka.¬†Something like “of no consequence” or “for no reason.” “You’re¬†stam¬†arguing with me. You know I’m right.” “He’s¬†stam¬†a liar.” Israelis also use it to mean “Just kidding”–usually dragging the word out: “I just won the lottery!¬†Staaaaaaam…”


megilla png

This¬†is a very important word in the context of our friendship. ūüėõ It literally means “scroll” in Hebrew (as in “the scroll of Esther”), but on its journey through Yiddish it has come to mean a particularly long-winded discourse¬†(written or spoken) of any sort. ūüėČ So for example, pretty much every e-mail I’ve ever written you is a megilla. ūüėõ



This is another great Yiddish word, and it means to carry or drag–usually something burdensome.¬†As a noun, it means either the act of carrying something burdensome, or a long, arduous journey. “I make my husband schlep the groceries from the car to our apartment.”¬†(You’ve been to my apartment, so you know it’s quite a¬†schlep. ūüėõ )

Well I hope that clears things up! ūüėČ



Dear blog readers: obviously, I had to sift through quite a list of words and phrases to come up with my top ten, and I’m sure you other Judeo-English speakers¬†will hotly dispute¬†my choices. (Two Jews, three opinions, and all. ūüėČ ) Feel free to comment with more “Jewish words” without which¬†you¬†find it hard to express yourself!

15 Weird Things Jews Do

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!

Dear Josep,

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. ūüėõ

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. ūüėõ 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. ūüėČ 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. ūüėČ

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.


L'chaim! All right everybody, have a great day at work.
L’chaim! All right everybody, have a great day at 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. ūüėõ )

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. ūüėõ 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¬†minŠł•a, 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.”

"My dear Jew! Have you put on tefillin today?" "Israel 3 009.Religious Jew on a Daily-Market" by Daniel Maleck Lewy - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
“My dear Jew! Have you put on tefillin today?”
Israel 3 009.Religious Jew on a Daily-Market” by Daniel Maleck Lewy – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

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 b√©chamel 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…..

photo (20)

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.

No Jewish doorframes were left mezuza-less in the making of this post.
No Jewish doorframes were left mezuza-less in the making of this selfie.

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?” ūüėõ

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!¬†ūüėČ

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. ūüėČ 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. ūüėČ (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. ūüėČ



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