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.
My mother-in-law introduced me to this book years ago. She gave me her copy and highly recommended it, but in the age of Google, it is very rare for me to crack open a cookbook in search of a recipe; so it languished for several years, untouched, on our bookshelf.
I don’t quite remember what inspired me to start reading it. I might have been searching for a recipe I’d been lusting after: the incomparable sour kubbeh soup I’d tasted at two weddings, for which Google seemed to yield no results. Sadly, the book didn’t provide a recipe for that particular soup either, but it did devote a whole inset section to kubbeh (semolina and beef dumplings; the Middle Eastern/North African answer to kreplach and wontons).
As I flipped through the book, I discovered that it isn’t so much a cookbook as a comprehensive anthropological/historical exploration of the entire Jewish diaspora through a culinary lens. Sure, there are recipes for gefilte fish, lokshen kugel and schmaltz, but there are also recipes for things like brinjal kasaundi, a spiced eggplant pickle from one of the Jewish communities in India; arroz kon leche, Sephardic rice pudding; hamam mahshy di lahm, Egyptian stuffed pigeon; plof, Bukharan rice with chicken and carrots; ftut, Yemeni wedding soup; etc., etc., etc. But more than recipes, there are fascinating descriptions of the communities in each of these places–every place there has ever been a significant Jewish community.
So I started reading it at the beginning, and read it cover to cover. I don’t remember ever reading another cookbook in such a manner.
Ms. Roden paints a vivid, colorful, and, of course, flavorful picture of each of these communities. I was especially fascinated to learn about the Jewish communities that have since gone all but extinct, in places like India, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. But there was a section I, of course, found particularly useful: the history of the Spanish Jews. I had known that cuisine took an important role in the history of the Inquisition–that Jews were burned at the stake for making Jewish dishes, the most famous of which was adafina, the Sabbath stew. Ms. Roden described how the dish was made, and how certain recipes among conversos developed from their Jewish background–ham, for example, being cooked the way they used to cook lamb.
When I started writing By Light of Hidden Candles, I also found myself delving into the Sephardic recipes in the book. I developed a particular interest in quinces; I had never tasted them before, but I’d seen them appear briefly on supermarket shelves in time for Rosh Hashana, and I was curious about them. My experiments resulted in this little scene from the first chapter of By Light of Hidden Candles:
I shook my head, sighing, and popped the fruit into my mouth. “Hmm,” I said, savoring its flavor. It was somewhere between an apple and a pear, with the texture of a potato. “What are these things?”
“Quinces. Los membrillos. You’ve never had bimbriyo?”
“I don’t think I understood half the words in that sentence you said just now.”
Grandma shot me a look of incredulous exasperation. “What does your mother do in her kitchen?”
In that spirit, here is a sample recipe from the book: the recipe Grandma Alma is making in that scene.
Quince paste 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.
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? 😛
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.
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. 😉 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. 😉
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. 😉
So we want to choose names that contain most or all of the following:
A deep and positive meaning
A positive family connection (e.g. naming after a beloved relative)
A connection to the Jewish context of the child’s birth (a particular holiday, that week’s Torah portion, etc.)
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 Dolça 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.
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?!
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.
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?
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
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. I’ve seen this happen in other movies and TV shows about Orthodox Jews, and it drives me crazy!
Because because because
WHY ARE THEY LIGHTING FIRE ON SHABBAT
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 another Shabbat-candle-related clip, 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. 😛
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.
In May of 2007 I received the following missive from you:
Just a fast question: How can I clean my kippah? 🙂
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!!! 😛
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. 😛
Nine years later, I have finally given you a solution: a new one!
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
For the Ladies
“Tichel” (that’s “tikhl”) is Yiddish, and “mitpaḥat” 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.
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.
“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. 😉 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 😛 –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. 😉
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? 😉 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.
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.”
“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. 😉
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?
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.
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?
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.
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 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, Jewish-Languages.org, 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. 😉 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. 😉
(A note on spelling and pronunciation: on this blog I usually use a “ḥ” for the deep-throated ח sound, and “kh” for the lighter כ 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. 😉 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. 😉
Another word that started out Hebrew (as naḥat) 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. 😉 (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. 😛 (#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…”
This is a very important word in the context of our friendship. 😛 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. 😉 So for example, pretty much every e-mail I’ve ever written you is a megilla. 😛
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. 😛 )
Well I hope that clears things up! 😉
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. 😉 ) Feel free to comment with more “Jewish words” without which you find it hard to express yourself!
Greetings and welcome to Letters to Josep! Have a kosher lemonade and make yourself at home! Lots of people have discovered my blog by landing on this page. If you arrived here–as so many have before you–by Googling the eternal question “why are Jews so weird,” allow me to point you to this post, where I address that question directly.
If you were looking for more general information about Jewish traditions (strange customs, stuff Jews can and can’t do, etc) and what the Jewish faith is all about: the bad news is, the following post only offers a very narrow slice of that. The good news is, this entire blog is dedicated to answering that question! And the even better news is that I compiled my posts on all the basics of Judaism into a book, which you can buy on Amazon here (on Kindle or in print). It’s got all the info organized neatly for ya and it’s in the same entertaining style as the post below. So if you enjoy this post, don’t forget to check out the book!
You may be wondering from the title of this post… “15? That’s all?! This entire blog is full of weird things Jews do!” Yes, and I haven’t even told you about what we do with the Lulav during Succot yet. 😛
But, you know, most of that stuff is just part of our religious practice. All religions have practices that look weird to outsiders.
This, however, is a list of 15 strange things Jews tend to do that are not necessarily part of religious practice. Some of them are customs (and I tried to pick ones that are common to most Jewish ethnic groups); some, a result of religious practices; some, a result of historical and sociological circumstances; and some… well, darned if we know!
1) Clap and Cheer “Mazel Tov!” When a Dish Breaks
As I explained in a previous post, shattering glass has a strong association with the celebration of weddings in our culture. So it is almost an instinct that when someone drops a dish or a glass and it breaks, we clap and say “mazel tov!” (“Congratulations!”) Eitan was once the only Orthodox Jew present when a waitress in an Israeli hotel dropped a dish, and therefore the only one clapping and saying “mazal tov.” A Christian British gentleman nearby was deeply scandalized by this behavior and told him off for being disrespectful and mocking the waitress. He turned a deaf ear on Eitan’s attempt to explain that it was a local custom.
2) Play “Jewish Geography”
No, this is not a board game or an educational TV show. 😛 It is a sort of ritual that naturally occurs when Jews meet each other. It involves asking the other Jew where s/he is from, and based on that information, throwing out names of people you might both know. You see, throughout history Jews have maintained close ties with their brethren in communities throughout the world. We have always acted like one big [argumentative] family. 😉 So when we meet someone new, it is almost instinctive to try to find friends in common. And the difference between Jewish geography and other, similar “where are you from?” conversations among gentiles, is that it is actually very, very likely that no matter who we are speaking to, we will find at least one person in common.
Two examples from the past couple weeks alone: my father-in-law was at the mall with my kids, and as they played in the play area he noticed a woman speaking English with her daughter and grandkids. They eventually started talking, and within a few minutes figured out that she knew me as a child back in Pittsburgh and was the mom of one of my former classmates. A few days later, I got a sweet note through the contact form of this blog from someone who stumbled across it by Googling something, and wanted to let me know how much she enjoys it. Things like that make my day, so I wrote back to thank her for taking the time to write and asked her a little about herself. Turns out, she, too, is connected to the Jewish community in Pittsburgh, and lives within walking distance of my house of 18.5 years ago. What are the chances?!
3) Drink in the Morning
No hour is considered inappropriate for a stiff drink in our culture. You see, wine is an integral part of our religious practice anyway, and we drink it during the morning as part of the kiddush ceremony before a Shabbat or holiday feast. Many Jews, especially Hassidic Jews, take the opportunity to top it off with a little something stronger. 😉
The story goes that Eitan’s grandfather celebrated his bar mitzvah by reading the Torah during the services on a weekday; all the adults then knocked back a shot of whiskey and headed off to work.
You’d think that with this nonchalance about drinking, alcoholism would be rampant. But actually, social science research indicates that Jews tend to have lower alcoholism rates than the majority cultures in the West. That isn’t to say there is no alcoholism in Jewish communities; members of my own extended family struggled with it. Still, sociologists have been struck by the paradox that Jews seem to drink much more regularly than their non-Jewish counterparts and yet suffer fewer problems due to alcohol. Researchers theorize that the “prescriptive” nature of drinking in Jewish culture provides Jewish drinkers with clear guidelines and limits that effectively regulate and constrain their drinking behavior.
4) Rock Back and Forth When We Pray
This is called “shuckling” from the Yiddish word for “shaking.” It’s a kind of meditative movement, a swaying forward and back (or side to side) that Jews have been doing while praying or studying since at least the eighth century and possibly since the time of the Talmud. You may have noticed people doing this during the silent prayer of the Sabbath services you attended. It is said to increase concentration and emotional intensity. Once you get used to it, you start doing it unconsciously, and it feels weird to pray while standing still.
5) Explain Things with the Talmudic Singsong Cadence & Thumb Scoop
I can’t even begin to describe what this is without a video. And in lieu of an easily Googleable video of someone teaching Torah in this fashion, I had to make one myself. Here I explain part of a Mishna from the Tractate Baba Kama 3:1, that deals with damages and liability. (And you’ll have to forgive the poor quality… and my soprano voice. 😛 )
This way of chanting the Talmud is apparently a very old tradition, possibly derived from a passage of the Talmud that compares learning the Mishna without a tune to some kind of sin. I am not sure why this is or why it has lasted throughout the centuries like this. But, it’s fun. 😛 And given that the Talmud discusses such everyday, practical things, it is only a short step away from…. “IIIIIIF you want your matzah balls to be nice and fluffy, you must make sure not to mix the batter too much. But IIIIIF you like your matzah balls firm and chewy, you should mix the batter vigorously.”
6) Pluck Random Jewish Strangers Off the Street and Make Them Pray
The sun is low and the time for minḥa, the afternoon prayer, is fast coming to a close. The men are gathered in a synagogue, or a street corner, or wherever, checking their watches. There are only nine of them. They need one more guy to complete a minyan (prayer quorum); otherwise they’ll have to pray as though they are on their own, less than ideal in halakhic terms. So they send somebody out to scan the streets for a head with a kippah on it. In Israel, of course, this is a much easier task, and in a pinch, you can probably find a kippah-less traditional Jew who is grudgingly willing to join you.
7) Avoid Eating Meat, and Not Because We Are Vegetarian
So remember how Jews have to wait a certain period of time between eating meat and eating milk? The amount of time ranges from one hour (those lucky Dutch Sephardi devils!) to six hours, and the majority of Jews–Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike–keep at least five hours. (I am super lucky and married a man who keeps three, so I got to take on his custom! Mwahaha!) Fleishik is the Yiddish adjective to describe a food that is considered meat. But when someone says “I’m fleishik,” he is not saying that he cannot be consumed with béchamel sauce, but rather that he has eaten meat recently and cannot yet eat dairy.
Now, this creates a situation where some people avoid eating meat during the day so they will be able to eat dairy products later. Especially for people who only drink coffee with milk, being fleishik can have dire consequences. We jokingly call this avoidance of meat products “fleishephobia.” My husband thinks it’s ridiculous because clearly eating a steak is far superior to any dairy product you could possibly stumble across in the next six hours. I disagree. I would take ice cream over steak any day. (Um. That is, not ice cream on top of steak. Because that would be totally not kosher. And also kinda gross. But anyway.)
And then there’s fleishephobia’s cousin motziphobia–“motzi” as in the blessing “ha’motzi lechem min ha’aretz,” the blessing for bread. Many Jews will avoid eating bread so they don’t have to ritually wash their hands or say the long blessing afterwards…
8) Kiss Books
You’ve heard of hugging trees, and now…..
Um. Yeah. We kiss books. But not all books, just holy ones; and not all the time, just when we are done using them, or if they fall to the ground or are otherwise subject to “disrespectful circumstances.” This is only one of our customs for showing respect for holy books. They include:
Never putting them on the floor and picking them up immediately if they fall. (If a Torah scroll–the holiest of Jewish objects–falls on the floor, this is a major crisis. In the past, congregations would fast for 40 days if this happened. Today, most congregations give charity instead.)
Never putting them on a chair, bench or couch when someone is sitting on it.
Never bringing them into the bathroom.
Never putting other objects or books on top of them. And there’s a “hierarchy” of holy books which may be placed on top of one another: the Torah on top, followed by Prophets and Writings; then the siddur, prayer book, since it contains passages from the Torah; then the Talmud, and then other rabbinic writings.
Always resting them face up (and flipping them if they are facing down).
Never leaving a book open when it is not in use.
I remember asking you once whether Christians have a similar customs, and when I rattled off some of the things in this list, you were like o.O
9) Kiss the Doorpost on Entering a Room (Whether There’s a Mezuza There or Not)
Speaking of kissing things, there is always Phantom Mezuza Syndrome (mentioned in the post about mezuzot), the reflex to reach for the doorpost to kiss a mezuza that isn’t there.
10) Put Rocks on Gravestones
When visiting the grave of a loved one, some people leave flowers… we leave rocks. This is an ancient Jewish custom and its origins are unclear. I’ve heard a number of different and interesting explanations. But it’s probably similar to the reason we have gravestones in the first place: because stones are permanent and symbolize the permanence of our memory of the person.
11) Answer Questions with Questions
When I asked for ideas for this post and my friend Tammy suggested this, I was like, “Is that really a thing that characterizes Jews specifically?” and she said, “Isn’t it?” 😛
So this is a fairly typical characteristic of Jewish discourse, especially in educational settings. Remember how I’m always saying that Jews love a good question even more than we love a good answer? The best answer to a good question, is an even better question! 😉
But sometimes they are rhetorical questions, in a typical dark-Jewish-humor-style sarcastic retort:
Person #1: Could you help me carry this refrigerator?
Person #2: Do I look twenty years younger all of the sudden?
12) Constantly Play Matchmaker
I am told this is not nearly as common in non-Jewish circles, and I guess that makes sense. Judaism revolves around the home and family, and single people can often feel neither-here-nor-there in the community, so it is considered a great kindness to find a match for them. I think it also makes sense in the context of the “small-town culture” and sense of being one big family. Everybody being in everybody else’s business, and all. 😉 In any case, matching up friends and family is a popular pastime among Jews. And they say that if you make three successful matches, you earn a guaranteed spot in Gan Eden.
Speaking of which…
13) Dance at Random Strangers’ Weddings
Bringing joy to a bride and groom is an important commandment. This, combined with the “one big family” thing I keep mentioning, leads to the following scenario: a couple is having a modest wedding. Maybe they don’t have much family around because they are immigrants, or maybe they are very poor. In cases like these, complete strangers will volunteer to come to the wedding and sing and dance (and not partake in the banquet) just to make the event as joyous as possible.
Funny anecdote on this one: once Eitan was invited to a wedding at a venue that had several weddings going on at once. He was there as a friend of the bride, but as it was an ultra-Orthodox wedding, the men and women were separate so he was hanging out on the men’s side and dancing and singing with them. At some point in the middle of the wedding he figured out that he was actually at the wrong wedding–and nobody noticed or cared!
And speaking of dancing…
14) Dance in Circles
Circle dancing is not a strictly Jewish thing, and the Israeli folk dance known as the “hora” is a relatively recent tradition. Still, it is a pretty striking phenomenon, that when you turn on some lively music around religious Jews, or if something happens that bears celebrating (for instance, if somebody announces she is engaged), they grab each other’s hands to form a circle and start dancing some version of the hora (or perhaps the “Yemenite step”). This is simply how modern Jews get down. 😉 (And you can see examples of this in the post about weddings, and the post about my trip to Poland.)
The one time I was at the Western Wall on Jerusalem Day, I joined several circle dances of perfect strangers: we all threw our backpacks in the middle of the circle, danced around them while singing, and then picked up our backpacks and walked away.
One of the great things about circle dancing, as opposed to the stuff that goes on at your typical nightclub, is that it’s really about celebrating together and not about showing off your fancy moves. (The fact that it’s usually gender segregated probably helps.) And if you’re in a crowd of dancing Jews and you reach out your hand for long enough, chances are, someone will take it.
Last Sunday, our family attended the wedding of a pair of friends from our community. It was a really beautiful and special wedding. The bride and groom are both relatively recent olim (immigrants) from the USA who came to live here on their own, and we had known the bride for a good few years while she was searching for her soul mate and it gives us so much joy that she found him. The wedding took place at the synagogue Josep visited when he was here, and it just had a small, intimate, community feel to it–celebrating with our friends and neighbors.
Anyway, in their honor, and in honor of our seventh wedding anniversary–which we celebrated about a month ago–I am pulling this e-mail up from the archives. I sent this to Josep and another couple of friends the week before my own wedding. Only this time, there will be illustrative photos. 😉 This is the time to thank Rebecca Kowalsky, our talented wedding photographer; and Michal Vender, among whose breathtaking images of Hadar’s hinna I had to choose only one–and it was a very tough decision! And thank you to Hadar, Shareen, and Michal for sharing their photos. 🙂
6 days to the wedding!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I thought those of you unfamiliar with Orthodox Jewish weddings–whether you’re attending or not–may like to know what it is we’re up to these days. So, without further ado:
The Week Before
It is the custom, particularly in Ashkenazi communities, for the bride and groom not to see each other for the seven days leading up to the wedding. Eitan and I are also going to try not talking on the phone. I think the reason for this is obvious: to increase the longing for one another, and increase the euphoria when the bride and groom see each other again when he comes to cover her face with the veil (explanation to follow). A state secret: it also makes sure that the bride and groom don’t have the opportunity to take out all their nerves on each other and have stupid little fights before the wedding.
In North African and Middle Eastern communities there is a ritual celebration on the last day the bride and groom can see each other, called the hinna, after the spice henna. It involves traditional dress, foods, singing, and a ceremony involving a paste made from henna. (Since neither of us have an inkling of an ancestor from North Africa or the Middle East, we won’t be doing that.)
[However… I have friends who did:
Anyway. Back to the original letter:]
In Ashkenazi custom, the Shabbat before the wedding is designated as a special Shabbat to celebrate the bride and groom. Many of my friends kick their families out of their houses and invite all their friends to spend the Shabbat with them, and spend the day singing songs, playing games and learning Torah in preparation for the wedding. I’m planning on having something very low-key and intense instead, with just my local friends.
Eitan will have what’s called an “aufruf”, in which he will be called up for an aliyah–a section of the Torah reading that takes place on Shabbat. In some communities people throw candy at the groom when he finishes.
The Night Before
The bride goes to the mikveh, ritual bath, for the first time. In Sephardi communities this turns into a big celebration, with lots of singing and candies and whatnot, but us Ashkenazim tend to be hush-hush about it (as everyone usually is about mikveh visits, because of the privacy surrounding the halakhic (=according to Jewish law) implications).
Starting the night before, the bride and groom each need a milaveh or shomer (“accompanier” or “guardian”), preferably a single friend, to be with him and her at all times. The milavim are in touch with each other throughout the day to make sure the bride and groom don’t accidentally run into each other before the wedding ceremony. They also make sure the bride and groom have everything in order and taken care of so they don’t need to worry about anything that day.
The Wedding Day
The day of the wedding is considered a Yom Kippur Katan, a “small Yom Kippur”, for the bride and groom; a day on which all their past sins are forgiven, a day of rebirth and renewal. Therefore, the bride and groom each fast from the morning until either sundown or the chuppah (wedding canopy), whichever comes first. Eitan and I will be breaking our fast on the wine under the chuppah.
Also for that reason, it is customary for the bride and groom to recite the afternoon prayer of Yom Kippur instead of a normal weekday’s.
The Bride’s Throne and the Groom’s Table
As soon as the bride is dolled up and the reception starts, she greets the guests while sitting in the kiseh kallah, the “bride’s throne”. Guests approach and ask her for blessings and prayers for them and their loved ones. Prayers and blessings from a bride and groom on their wedding day are considered to have special weight.
The groom sits around a table with the rabbi who is running the ceremony, family, and friends, and the ketuba (marriage contract) is drawn up and signed.
Kisui Panim, or Bedecken (“Covering the Face”)
When the chatan’s tish is over, the guests begin a procession leading the groom to the bride. The groom covers the bride’s face with the veil, and then father of the bride blesses her with a special blessing. The groom is then led to the chuppah by his father and future father-in-law (or sometimes his parents).
This time is considered a particular et ratzon, an auspicious time for prayer. The bride reads a special blessing while still sitting in the kiseh kallah as the groom reaches the chuppah and waits there. The chuppah is the wedding canopy; a cloth stretched between four poles, that symbolize the new home the couple is about to build. Ashkenazim have a tradition to hold the chuppah under the open sky, as a symbol for the bride and groom to have children “as numerous as the stars in the sky” (as in God’s blessing to Abraham in Genesis 15:5.)
Chuppah V’Kidushin–The Wedding Ceremony
When the bride is finished praying, her mother and future mother-in-law (or sometimes her parents) take her by the arms and the whole congregation accompanies her to the chuppah, sometimes in quiet, spiritual reverence, sometimes in joyful song and dance. (I’m gonna go for quiet and spiritual.)
The groom comes out from underneath the chuppah and accompanies the bride back underneath. In Ashkenazi custom, the bride circles around the groom seven times. Our rabbi explained to us that this is the bride’s equivalent to the ring the groom puts on her finger; an act of “encircling”, and singling each other out. The custom is said to be based on a prophecy from Jeremiah 31:21: “For God will create a new reality in the land, the female will encircle the man.” The sages understand this as meaning that women will actively look for their soulmates rather than waiting around for them (symbolizing the Jewish people actively searching for God), but the custom takes the literal meaning. 🙂
The Jewish wedding ceremony has two parts: kidushin or irusin (“sanctification” or “engagement”), and nisuin (“marriage”). Many, many years ago these two stages took place about a year apart, but because of a bunch of problems that created, they were put together, and now every wedding ceremony includes both, one after the other.
The rabbi makes a blessing over the wine, and the bride and groom drink. Wine is an integral part of any Jewish ceremony that involves holiness.
The groom makes a blessing, and then puts the ring on the right forefinger of the bride, with the statement “Harei at mikudeshet li k’dat Moshe v’Yisrael“–“You are hereby sanctified to me by the law of Moses and Israel”. In accepting the ring from the groom with that statement, the bride becomes “mikudeshet“, “sanctified”, meaning that she is now forbidden to all men but her husband. (Though at this point she is forbidden to him also, because the second part of the ceremony hasn’t been completed.)
Sheva Brachot (“Seven Blessings”)
The ketuba (marriage contract) is taken out and read aloud, mostly for the purpose of creating a hefsek (pause) between the two parts of the ceremony. The rabbi may also give a small speech at this time.
Then the sheva brachot (seven blessings) are read, usually by a bunch of different guests the bride and groom wish to honor. The translation is as follows:
Blessed are You, Hashem, our Lord, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.
Blessed are You, Hashem, our Lord, King of the Universe, Who created everything for His glory.
Blessed are You, Hashem, our Lord, King of the Universe, Creator of man.
Blessed are You, Hashem, our Lord, King of the Universe, Who created man in His image, in the pattern of His own likeness, and provided for the perpetuation of his kind. Blessed are You, Lord, the Creator of man.
Let the barren city be jubilantly happy and joyful at her joyous reunion with her children. Blessed are You, Lord, who makes Zion rejoice with her children.
Let the loving friends be very happy, just as You made Your creation happy in the garden of Eden long ago. Blessed are You, Lord, who makes the bridegroom and the bride happy.
Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, the sovereign of the world, who created joy and celebration, bridegroom and bride, rejoicing, jubilation, pleasure and delight, love and brotherhood, peace and friendship. May there soon be heard, Lord our G-d, in the cities of Judea and in the streets of Jerusalem, the sound of joy and the sound of celebration, the voice of a bridegroom and the voice of a bride, the happy shouting of bridegrooms from their weddings and of young men from their feasts of song. Blessed are You, Lord, who makes the bridegroom and the bride rejoice together.
Raising Jerusalem Above Our Utmost Joy
The Jewish people is a joyful people, but our joy is never complete while our Temple no longer stands. As it says in the verse from Psalms: If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning; let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not raise Jerusalem above my utmost joy.
So to close the wedding ceremony we remember Jerusalem. The groom sometimes puts ashes on his head. He recites the above verse, many times in a song, and then he breaks a glass in memory of the Destruction of the Temple.
Funny fact: if you break a dish or a glass anywhere around Jews, they will probably start clapping and call out “Mazel tov!” (“Congratulations!”) This is because the glass breaking is the last thing that happens under the chuppah, and usually when the groom breaks the glass, everybody bursts into cheers and song. Not exactly the mood we were going for with the whole glass breaking thing, but there it is!
To avoid this, Eitan will break the glass in the middle of the solemn singing, so the breaking of the glass is connected to its proper context–the destruction of Jerusalem–and not to the happy one of finishing the wedding ceremony.
Together At Last
After the wedding ceremony, in Ashkenazi custom, the bride and groom are led to a room in the hall where they are allowed to be alone together in a locked room for the first time. 🙂 This is called the cheder yichud.
According to Sephardi custom, once the bride and groom are in a locked room together, the bride must cover her hair, so many Sephardim don’t do the cheder yichud and wait until after the wedding to be alone together. (Though I have a friend who just went ahead and covered her hair after the cheder yichud.)
After the bride and groom come out of the room, the dancing starts. It’s a mitzva to bring joy to a bride and groom, and the guests do their utmost–treating them like a king and queen, performing silly and/or complicated dances in front of them, etc.
Sheva Brachot/The Week After
Oh no. Don’t think the festivities end when everyone goes home happy on the wedding night. We’re talking about Jews, remember? One day of celebration for one of the most joyful occasions in a Jewish lifetime?! Not a chance!
Each night, for six nights after the wedding (including the wedding, it amounts to seven days), a festive meal is held somewhere for the bride and groom. After the blessings following the meal, the Sheva Brachot are read again (this is also true of the meal on the wedding night). That’s why those parties are referred to as “Sheva Brachot”. In order to say the Sheva Brachot, a minyan (quorum of ten men) is required, as well as at least one person who wasn’t at the wedding or at any of the previous Sheva Brachot.
And then life returns to relative normalcy, and the bride and groom live happily ever after as husband and wife. 😀
Hope this has given you a clearer picture of what’s coming up for me here, whether you’re coming to the wedding or not. 🙂
If any of you have anything in particular you’d like me to pray for this week and/or on the day of the wedding, please let me know.
Blog readers: Tell us about wedding traditions in your culture! I’d particularly love a guest letter about Islamic, Hindu, or other “Eastern” wedding traditions.
So as with Part I, I have to begin with a disclaimer: I am a modern Orthodox American-Israeli Jew, and this entry, as well as the rest of the blog, reflects that perspective. So if you ask a differently affiliated Jew to define his or her community or other groups or subgroups, you may get different answers.
As before, there are many groups that will not be mentioned because this is a vast topic that could (and does) fill several books, and I’m sticking to the ones that are most prominent and well-known. I thereby apologize in advance to any member of any group or denomination that is not properly addressed in the categories that follow–and invite you to mention it in the comments, and to write us a guest letter to tell us about your community.
A reminder for those who haven’t read part I: this is technically from the archives; an expanded/reworked e-mail I sent to Josep about a year ago.
In Part I we addressed Jewish cultural identity and the subcultures within Judaism. But more well-known than the division between Ashkenazim, Sephardim, etc., is the division between Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and other denominations of Judaism. In this entry we will discuss how these movements came to be and how they differ from one another. We will also discuss Hassidism and its influence on Jewish practice and thought.
Religious Denominations/Levels of Religiosity
So this is where I get myself in trouble. 😛
The first thing to understand about the idea of “level of religiosity” is that it’s a fairly modern phenomenon. Up until the 19th century, there was no need to define a “religious” Jew because everyone was religious, and someone who abandoned the traditional practices of Judaism pretty much abandoned the faith and the community altogether. It was only at the time of the “enlightenment” in the 1800’s that Reform Judaism came about that the concept of a “secular Jew” came into existence.
That said, throughout history there were disputes between Jews on how to properly observe the Torah. (All together now: “Two Jews, three opinions…”) In the time of Jesus, for example, Judaism was split into two major sects: the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who each had different ideas about how to observe the Torah. Mainstream Orthodox Judaism is basically descended from the tradition of the Pharisees. There is speculation that the Karaites, a movement that emergedaround the 8th century,are the “ideological descendants” of the Sadducees. Karaite Judaism rejects rabbinic Judaism and the idea of the “Oral Torah” altogether, and believe that the written Torah must be observed literally. (Of course, the reason we have an Oral Torah is to interpret the many vague and difficult concepts in the Torah, so the Karaites developed their own tradition on how to interpret it.) There is still a small community of Karaite Jews, most of them in Israel.
Another thing that’s important to understand is that the most well-known “denominations”–Reform and Conservative–are mostly American today. Reform Judaism began in Germany, but its center shifted to the USA as the Jewish population in the US grew and the one in Europe shrunk due to emigration and the Holocaust. In Israel, the breakdown is a lot fuzzier, because as a general rule, Sephardim and Mizraḥim tend to be less stuck on self-definition (and more traditional). I’ll get to the Israeli definitions of religious level soon.
This is a general term for mainstream traditional Judaism: Jews who observe Jewish law as interpreted by the mainstream rabbinic authorities throughout history. The term “orthodox” was borrowed from Christianity by the Reform movement, and I don’t particularly like to use it to describe myself. I prefer to describe myself as an “observant Jew”, meaning, I observe the commandments. But many people don’t know what this means, so when speaking to people who aren’t familiar with that term I usually use “Orthodox”.
Within this category you will find the ḥaredim, the “ultra-Orthodox”, as well as “modern Orthodox”. In Israel, “modern Orthodox” is mostly interchangeable with “Zionist religious” (or “national religious”–dati leumi), because ḥaredim tend to be non-Zionist. Eitan and I consider ourselves dati leumi (see below under “Religiosity in Israel”).
Reform Judaism came about in the 19th century, when science became the new religion of Western society. Reformers saw the Torah and the observance of traditional Jewish law as outdated and superstitious. Basically, Reform Jews don’t see the Torah as being binding in any way, and many of them don’t believe that the Torah was given by God. If you ask a Reform Jew what he or she thinks the Torah is, you might get a wide variety of answers, but most would probably agree that it is a collection of wisdom (man-made, and perhaps “Divinely inspired”) that they feel has value–only some of which is still applicable today. Many Reform Jews take ideas from the Torah (and the body of rabbinic teachings that they mostly reject) and apply them to modern Western values. A favorite is “tikkun olam”, “fixing the world” which is actually a fairly vague, mystical concept from Kabbalah, but is often applied to mean that man has responsibility to improve the world and make it a better place through social and environmental activism.
Conservative Judaism was a sort of counter-reaction to the Reform movement. Some Jews agreed with the Reform movement that Judaism needed some updating for the modern world, but did not want to reject the teachings of the Torah. So the Conservative movement started as sort of a middle ground between Orthodox and Reform. Conservative Jews do, for the most part, believe that the Torah is of Divine origin, but they believe that the Law is much more flexible than the Orthodox do–in that they don’t see the precedents of previous generations as being nearly as binding as the Orthodox see them. They believe halakha is meant to be adapted as much as possible to modern times and reinterpreted to suit progressive sensibilities. So they tend to be more egalitarian and liberal than the Orthodox–mixed seating in synagogue, female rabbis, gay marriage etc.–using their interpretation of halakha to find ways to permit things that Orthodox Judaism prohibits, for the sake of adapting to Western values. Practically speaking, however, in many Conservative congregations, the members of the community are not strict about observing the Conservative version of halakha, and there can be a huge gap between the level of observance of the rabbis and that of the congregants.
Now… you being a secular liberal who doesn’t have a solidified opinion on the source of the Torah or its historical accuracy, I’m sure the above two movements make a lot more sense to you than the Orthodox approach. So you may be asking yourself, “Daniella is a reasonably intelligent, rational, open-minded person; why wouldn’t she be on board, at least with the Conservative movement?”
So here’s my personal take on “adapting halakha for modern times”. I believe there is a reason God set up the halakhic system as we have observed it for thousands of years. While I identify with many of the “progressive” Western values, man-made values shift and change over time, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. I think the Torah is the expression of a value system that is eternal and Divine, and I believe that the Orthodox halakhic system is the most authentic way to interpret it in the way He wished. To me, adapting halakha to better suit Western values feels like taking a ring of the finest silver and coating it in stainless steel. It’s taking a Divine value system and stuffing it into a fickle man-made frame. I think serving God should be about adapting yourself to His system, not adapting His system to yourself. As I have mentioned many times, this isn’t always easy, and the system is not perfect. Modern Orthodox Jews often struggle to reconcile our strong belief in Torah and our identification with Western values when they seem at odds with each other. So I understand how others might feel differently about it. We live in confusing times, and God does not reveal Himself and His will the way He used to; we are meant to choose our path, and growing up with so many different voices that sound reasonable and good, it is hard to know which path is the right one. I believe the Orthodox halakhic system is the closest to God’s true will, so that’s the one I try to follow.
There are other, smaller American denominations, but I’m not going to get into those as I don’t know much about them. The above are the three major ones.
Religiosity in Israel
While Reform and Conservative communities do exist in Israel, for the most part they are extremely small and isolated, mostly of American or European immigrants. In most of Israeli society, it’s a spectrum of observance, more than a set of strictly defined groups, but it basically breaks down like this. Secular Jews (ḥiloni in Hebrew) don’t keep the commandments like kosher or Shabbat. The majority of Israelis are traditional Jews (masorti in Hebrew), who keep some of the customs/traditions, but not all. For instance, in a traditional Jewish family, they might make kiddush over wine and light Shabbat candles, but then go watch TV. Or they might eat strictly kosher but not keep Shabbat. It’s really a continuum. Religious Jews (dati in Hebrew) are observant Jews who keep all the commandments, and those generally divide up between modern Zionist (dati leumi), ultra-Orthodox Zionist (ḥaredi leumi), and ultra-Orthodox non-Zionist (ḥaredi). (Yes, there is such a thing as a non-Zionist Jew living in Israel. And their attitude towards the state is a serious political issue.) Datiim leumiim are also sometimes called “kipa sruga” (“crocheted kippah”) because they are the ones who wear colorful crocheted kippot, as opposed to the ḥaredim who wear black velvet and/or black hats. (…When you SMSed me to ask what color kipa to buy, I figured it was too complicated to explain the intricacies of these differences, and it didn’t really matter anyway. I was not surprised to see that you subconsciously chose to identify with the religious stream Eitan and I belong to. 😛 )
Ḥaredim keep a much stricter version of halakha than datiim leumiim, at least outwardly (modesty of dress, level of strictness about kashrut, separation between men and women in public, level of interaction with the secular world etc.). Women are generally treated with respect, but there is a very strong focus on modesty and traditional gender roles, sometimes to an extreme that leads to marginalization and other unpleasant social issues. American ḥaredim tend to be more open and “progressive” than Israeli ḥaredim.
It is very easy to differentiate between datiim and ḥaredim by the way they dress. Dati men wear kipot, may or may not have a beard and/or payot (sidecurls), may dress in regular casual clothes (T-shirts and shorts) or may dress more like Eitan–button down shirts and long pants. The women dress more or less like me: no restrictions on color, shirts with sleeves (the more religious you are the longer the sleeve), skirts past the knee, and married women usually cover their hair to some degree, usually with a scarf or hat.
Ḥaredi men wear black suits all the time, and the women wear only dull or pale colors, clothes that are non form-fitting, stockings and closed-toed shoes so the only skin you can see is their hands, face and neck. Single women keep their hair tied back, and married women completely cover their hair, usually with a wig, but sometimes with a scarf or hat.
Now as a Christian you may note with curiosity that none of this categorization corresponds to belief. Whether someone believes in God or not does not actually define him religiously in Israeli culture. Judaism is about what you do. So you might find a completely secular Jew who believes in God and may even believe that the Torah is Divine, but just doesn’t feel it’s relevant to him. Or you may find a traditional Jew who doesn’t really believe in God but thinks that the Jewish traditions are an important connection to his heritage and past.
Spiritual Approach (Hassidism vs. Lithuanians)
Another group you may have heard of is the Ḥassidim.
So what is Ḥassidism? It was a sort of Jewish renewal movement founded in the 17th century by a rabbi called the Baal Shem Tov. Up until that point, Judaism had become a kind of elitist society where learned scholars were seen as being far more important than the common folk in terms of service of God. The approach was generally very dry, rationalist and intellectual. The Baal Shem Tov sought to bring feeling and heartfelt service into the practice of Judaism. He also sought to teach that even the lowliest of peasants was just as important in God’s eyes as the great scholars. This seems totally basic now, but back then, it was pretty revolutionary. There were a number of other ideas spread by Ḥassidism, one of which was the concept of the “tzaddik”, the “righteous person”, who was a conduit to the Divine. Ḥassidim believed that by being close physically and spiritually to a tzaddik, they would be closer to God, too.
So as you can probably tell by now, parts of the Ḥassidic approach filtered down into most of Jewish practice today. But back then it was seen as a frivolous, anti-rationalist, and maybe even dangerous movement, and there was a strong counter-movement–the Mitnagdim (which literally means “the opposers”), led by the Gaon of Vilna (hence the term “Lithuanians”). He was a rationalist and felt that the Ḥassidim had their heads in the clouds and were not taking Jewish law seriously enough.
This was a major, bitter schism within European Judaism that lasted pretty much all the way up until the Holocaust.
Nowadays, practically speaking, you can hardly tell Ḥassidim and Lithuanians apart. Ḥassidic sects tend to be ultra-Orthodox/ḥaredi and dress in the same black and white garb. There are some distinct features of their traditional dress, such as the streimel, a round fur hat that some Ḥassidim wear on Shabbat and holidays. They do have a lot more singing and dancing than non-Ḥassidic ḥaredi sects, and tend to be more involved in mysticism and Kabbalah. Non-Ḥassidim are more rationalist in their approach.
I mention all this because there are two particular Ḥassidic sects that are particularly relevant–the first because you are very likely to hear about them, and the second because I have a special connection to their philosophies and I am likely to mention them in the future. Incidentally, both of them have a common feature: their “rebbe”, great rabbinic leader, is dead. (In every other Ḥassidic sect, there is a live rebbe who serves as the “tzaddik” and passes his status down through his sons and/or followers.)
The first sect is Chabad (pronounced Ḥabad, but usually spelled Chabad. Except in Spain, where it’s spelled Jabad. Even in Barcelona, though the Catalan “j” isn’t the same as the Spanish “j”. Go figure). They are also known as Lubavitch, the Yiddish name for the Russian village Lyubavichi, where the sect originated. These are the Ḥassidim you are most likely to meet because they are very into Jewish outreach and set up “houses” in all these random places all over the world where they offer all kinds of services to Jews who visit and live there. They tend to be very open and accepting in these contexts, and many people begin their journey of becoming religious through them. (As I just mentioned, Barcelona has a Chabad house too. I was in touch with them before I came; they weren’t particularly helpful, apparently in the tradition of modern Catalan Jews… :-/ ) Their “rebbe”, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (…”sch” is the Yiddish/German sound pronounced “sh”… sheesh, will the pronunciation confusion never end!) was a truly great man, and many of them believed that he was the Messiah. Some Chabadnikim still do believe this, which feels suspiciously Christian to the rest of us 😛 but we love them anyway because they do great things!
The other Ḥassidic sect I want to mention is Breslov. Their rebbe, Rabbi Naḥman of Breslov, lived in Ukraine in the 18th century and taught some really amazing things about despair, happiness, and developing a close and personal relationship with God. He is most famous for the following statements: “All of the world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to make yourself afraid.” “If you believe that it’s possible to destroy, believe that it is possible to repair.” His followers practice a sort of meditation called hitbodedut, which simply involves talking to God like a friend, telling Him about all your troubles, asking Him for whatever you want, even the tiniest things. I really connected with this idea of a personal relationship as a teenager, and though I feel I have become more distant in recent years, I yearn to return to the simplicity of being in constant dialogue with the Creator this way.
Anyway, Breslov also attracts many “ba’alei teshuva” (people who start out secular and become religious) because of its deep and heartfelt philosophy. If you’re ever in Israel and see this:
…don’t call the police, that’s just Breslovers trying to make people happy. 😛 Cultivating joy is a large component of their practice.