Category Archives: Jewish History

painting of Judah and Tamar

4 Horrifying Bible Stories They Probably Didn’t Teach You in Sunday School

Dear Josep,

My formal education took place exclusively in religious Jewish institutions–from Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh’s “Tiny Tykes” program at age 3 to my brief stint in the theater program at Emunah College. So my earliest memories from school include snippets of activities related to Bible stories: making Noah’s ark out of a milk carton, or Jonah’s whale with movable jaws; watching my nursery teacher tell the story of Jacob and Laban using a felt board; and putting on a play in kindergarten with my best friend at the time, who played his namesake Abraham to my Sarah.

The thing is, the Torah is not a children’s book. As we circled back to these same stories years later in school or independently, we discovered that in between the classic, ostensibly innocent stories we enacted in kindergarten classes, there were some that were… not innocent at all.

Lot & His Daughters

Lot was Abraham’s cousin, and there are two stories we were taught about him as children. The first is the story of how and why Abraham and Lot parted ways–because Lot’s shepherds were letting their sheep graze from other people’s grass, which Abraham considered immoral. The second story is that of the destruction of Sodom, where Lot chose to live; Lot’s wife famously ignored the advice not to look back at the city being destroyed, and turned into a pillar of salt.

Up to here, everything sounds G-rated, right?

So. A couple details our preschool teachers kinda glossed over.

Genesis chapter 19. Two angels of God came to Lot disguised as humans to warn him about Sodom’s imminent destruction. Lot, who was trained by Abraham to be a gracious host, invited them in and insisted that they stay the night. After he took them in, all the people from the city of Sodom came to his door and demanded that he hand over his visitors. For what purpose? Well, this is Sodom, after all, right? To rape them, of course.

Now, Lot is supposed to be the righteous man in this scenario, right? So he comes out and says, “My brethren, please do not do evil…” So far so good… “Behold, I have two daughters who have not known a man. I will bring them out to you, and do to them as you see fit; only to these men do nothing, because they have come under the shadow of my roof.”


LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT. Lot nobly protects his guests–perfect strangers who he has never met before in his life–by handing over his two virgin daughters to be gang raped instead?!?!

Because these two guests have “come under the shadow of his roof”, but the two young women who have lived under his roof for the duration of their lives–his own flesh and blood–handing them over to be raped is A-OK?!?!

Wait, wait, it gets worse!!!

Fortunately for the daughters, the crowd isn’t pleased with this offer and starts to threaten to rape Lot instead. The angels-disguised-as-people pull Lot into the house and shut the door, and the citizens of Sodom are struck with temporary blindness and are unable to continue their attack. The angels tell Lot that he needs to get the hell out of the city because God’s going to destroy it. So Lot gathers his things and his family and they leave. Yadda yadda yadda, don’t look back, pillar of salt, blah blah blah.

Fast forward to verse 30. Lot and his daughters are now camping out in a cave in the mountains. Now, the daughters are concerned. They had both been betrothed, but their fiancees had laughed off Lot’s warning and invitation to flee the city with him before the destruction, and had subsequently died in the whole fire and brimstone thing. It seems to me from the text (and I’m pretty sure the commentators extrapolate this) that the daughters believed they were the last three humans alive–that the whole world had been destroyed together with Sodom. They felt an obligation, therefore, to carry on the human race, and the only way they could do that was… not IVF, if you take my meaning.

Each daughter in turn got their father drunk, slept with him, and conceived a child. And that, dear children, is how the great nations of Moab and Ammon came to be.

Lot's Daughters painting by Marcantonia Franceschini
HOW CREEPY IS THIS PAINTING? (Franceschini Marcantonio, “Lot and His Daughters”, circa 1677)

Judah and Tamar

Oh, we hear plenty about Judah, don’t we? The fourth son of Jacob and Leah, who inherited the role of leadership after his three older brothers–Reuben, Simeon, and Levi–all failed in one way or another. Ancestor of the Davidic line, from whom the majority of Jews today are descended and whose name has become our name. The brave brother who offered to take Benjamin’s place in jail when Joseph planted the royal goblet in Benjamin’s sack. Yes indeed, a very noble character in the Bible.

Except for that one time…

Okay, actually, this story is an integral part of Judah’s rise to his role of leadership. Unlike in Islam, Judaism’s Biblical heroes and prophets are famously flawed; it is through their flaws, and their overcoming of their flaws and owning up to their mistakes, that they achieve greatness.

So. You know the story of Joseph and his brothers, I assume. Normally, when we tell this story, the narrative follows Joseph to Egypt, and we skip gracefully from chapter 37 to 39. But the Biblical narrative spends that one chapter in between focused on Judah in the land of Canaan. It tells us that he takes a wife, and she gives birth to three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah. When Er comes of age, Judah finds a wife for him, by the name of Tamar. The Bible tells us that Er was “evil in the eyes of the Lord”–it doesn’t specify how–and that he died as a result of his sin.

Now, there is a Jewish law hearkening back to this period of the Bible that states that if a man dies while his wife is still childless and he has an unmarried younger brother, that brother must marry the widow “to carry on” the dead brother’s seed. I guess in the context of Biblical times this made sense, since the widow would need someone to provide for her, she may be considered “damaged goods”, etc. In order to get out of this obligation, the widow and brother need to perform an odd ritual called “chalitzah”, which involves the widow removing the brother’s shoes, spitting on the floor in front of him and berating him for not “building the house of his brother”. They need to perform this ritual before either of them can marry anyone else. (And yes, we still do this. People hardly hear about it because, thank God, in the modern world, it’s a relatively rare situation.)

So, according to this norm, Tamar was supposed to marry Onan. So she did, but Onan apparently didn’t like the idea that his children would be considered “his brother’s seed”, so he, uh, to quote the Bible: “wasted [his semen] on the ground” when he was with Tamar. God did not approve of this vindictive behavior and killed him too.

Now at this point, Judah was understandably a little spooked by Tamar’s record with his sons, and Shelah–his only remaining son–was still young. So Judah told Tamar to wait until Shelah was older before letting them marry. But a long time passed, Shelah came of age, and still Judah didn’t let them marry. His own wife died, and he went off somewhere to hang out with a friend, and Tamar–angry with Judah for not granting her her right to a husband–hatched a plan. She disguised herself and went over to the place where Judah was.

Judah didn’t recognize her, because her face was covered, and thought she was a prostitute, so he approached her and told her to prepare herself for him.  Tamar asked him what her compensation would be. He promised her a kid from his herd. (A baby goat, that is. Obviously, the entire problem here was that he hadn’t provided her with the means to have a human kid!) Not trusting his word for obvious reasons, she asked for deposit: his signet, his cloak, and his staff. He agreed to these conditions and slept with her. But later, when he tried to send the kid over and collect his stuff, she had mysteriously disappeared. (A.k.a., took off the veil and changed back into her widow’s garb.)

painting of Judah and Tamar
“Srsly Judah? How many years have I been living in your house and you still don’t recognize me?” (Ferdinand Bol, “Judah and Tamar”, 1653)

Three months later, people began to notice that Tamar was pregnant, and told Judah that she had been involved in prostitution. He ordered that she be burned to death. Tamar then announced that the man who had come to her was the one who had provided her with these three items: the signet, the cloak, and the staff. Judah recognized them as his, and declared that Tamar was more righteous than he was, and that he was the one who had sinned by not allowing her to marry Shelah. So she stayed in his household and gave birth to twin boys: Peretz and Zerah. Peretz was a direct ancestor of King David.

It was only after this episode that Judah exhibited his leadership qualities and willingness to take responsibility and stand up for what’s right; that’s his character arc during the book of Genesis. And I think the connection this story has to the very existence King David is not at all coincidental. It was these same qualities that made David fit to rule (and as we’ve discussed, King David had similar faults and a similar willingness to reckon with his mistakes).

Still, between the double standards regarding sexual behavior in men and women and the ick factor of Judah’s daughter-in-law willingly sleeping with him, it’s a pretty disturbing story.

The Concubine in Giv’a

And now, class, please open your Bibles to Judges 19.

So a guy and his concubine are traveling and they stop in Giv’a–a city in Benjamin–for the night. The narrative emphasizes that they decided to stay there rather then in Jebus (which would later become Jerusalem), because they were concerned about how the non-Israelite Jebusites would treat them. But they were disappointed with the lack of hospitality; they waited a long time for someone to offer them a place to stay, until an old man invited them in.

painting of the concubine of Gibeah
A painting of this event by Jan Victors. I guess he didn’t want to paint subsequent events, for reasons that will become obvious in a moment.

As they ate their meal, the people of the town surrounded his house and demanded that he hand over the guest. For what purpose? Well this is Sodom, right…?

NO. IT’S NOT. It’s a city in BENJAMIN. WT* PEOPLE.

The host begged them not to rape his guest and instead offered them his virgin daughter (WHY IS THIS A THING?!?!?!) and the man’s concubine instead. They refused, but the man grabbed his concubine nonetheless and tossed her out there.

That ended just about as badly as you can imagine.

The man discovered her dead on the doorstep the next morning.

He took her body, cut it into 12 pieces, and sent a piece to each of the other tribes to shock them with the horrible violence that had taken place in this city. The other tribes were appropriately horrified and went to war with the tribe of Benjamin, swearing not to let their daughters marry into the tribe. The tribe of Benjamin was almost destroyed, and hence the whole story of the women in the white dresses etc. that I described in the post on Tu B’Av.

Yep. That’s one of the stories behind Tu B’Av, the Jewish “holiday of love”.


Amnon and Tamar

(Women named Tamar seem to have pretty bad luck in the Bible…)

So this story is connected to another scandalous bible story that is far more widely known: that of David and Bathsheba. Truth is, King David’s reign was wrought with scandal, which was part of his punishment for his sin in taking Bathsheba.

What happened was this: Amnon, one of David’s sons, had the hots for his half-sister Tamar and admitted this to his cousin Yonadav ben Shama. Yonadav said, “Ewww, Amnon, that’s sick, she’s your sister! Snap out of it and find some other pretty lady to lust after! You’re a goddamn prince!”

HAHAHA KIDDING. (I really wish I weren’t.)

No. What he really said was, “Lie down on your bed and pretend to be sick, and when your father comes to see you, say to him: ‘Let my sister Tamar come now, and let her give me bread to eat, and prepare the food before my eyes, that I may see and eat from her hand.'”

So that’s what Amnon did. And as Tamar fed him, he grabbed her and asked her to sleep with him. She refused, and begged him not to, but he overpowered her and forced himself on her.

painting of Amnon attacking Tamar
KNEE TO THE HEAD, TAMAR! You’re set up for it perfectly!!! Too bad they didn’t have self-defense instructors back then. (Venetian School, c. 1600)

When he was finished, he felt suddenly repulsed by her and kicked her out. Tamar’s brother Absalom ended up killing Amnon in revenge. (…And then leading a rebellion against David which involved sleeping with a bunch of David’s concubines. BUT LET’S NOT GO THERE SHALL WE.)

Now, at this point, you may be asking yourself:

Why Would a Holy Book Such as the Bible Contain Such Awful Stories?

Great question.

So here’s the thing.

These stories are part of the story of our people, and the Bible does anything but hide our darkest and worst moments. On the contrary, I think it makes a point of focusing on them. Why? Because the Bible isn’t a history book; every word preserved in its pages is meant to teach us something. And as many wise people have said, mistakes are the best teachers.

I believe that there are many aspects of the Bible that are meant to make us squirm. It’s not supposed to be a feel-good bedtime story. It’s supposed to make us question who we are and what choices we are making, and ask ourselves: how could they have handled this better? (Like, I dunno, how about NOT offering your virgin daughters to a crowd of rabid rapists?! JUST A THOUGHT.) What might I do in a similar position? What are the darker and uglier aspects of human nature this story is asking me to face, and what is it telling me to do about them?

We can’t fight evil unless we are willing to stare it in the face, and the first place we need to look for it is in the mirror.

Um, and on that cheerful note, Feliç Any Nou! Here’s to a 2019 full of good news and happy occasions. And, uh, none of the kinds of things we’ve discussed in this post.

Much love,


A couple announcements for those of you not following my author blog: I was interviewed on Radio Sefarad’s English Corner podcast about LtJ and the Moving Stones project! You can listen to the interview here.

Also, you may recall that a new edition of LtJ was supposed to be coming out in January;
the re-release has been postponed. I made this decision with the staff of Kasva Press because we want to make sure the new edition is as good as it can be and that they’ll give it the full benefit of their added value as a publisher, and we’ll need more time for that. I’ll keep you posted!

photo of Feyga Hopen and one of her daughters

I Just Found Out My Relatives Were Murdered by the Nazis

Dear Josep,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there they were.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes from the Martyrs / Eitan Levy

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

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

Amen, may it be His will.

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



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

Wall painting depicting the Ramban

Ramban (Nachmanides): The Badass Rabbi of Catalonia

Dear Josep,

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

Wall painting depicting the Ramban

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

I didn’t know the half of it.

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

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

The Disputation of Barcelona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ramban Reestablishes a Jewish Presence in Jerusalem

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

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

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

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

Much love,


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

illustrative photo of light bursting through clouds

When God Speaks: Prophecy in Jewish Thought & Theology

Dear Josep,

One of the most interesting responses I got to my post about the Jewish view of Jesus was from a devout Protestant I know. She said most of it didn’t surprise her, but that she was “shocked… like, can’t stop thinking about it shocked… that Jews believe that prophecy stopped.” Do we believe, she wanted to know, that the voice of God has manifested in other ways since then? Or that He stopped speaking altogether?

I gave her a brief answer on FB, but I’m going to use today’s post to answer her in full.

The question stems from of one of those misunderstandings between Judaism and Christianity, where a certain word means one thing to one religion, and another thing entirely to the other.

What Is Prophecy?

In Judaism, prophecy is a direct dream or vision in which God Himself appears to the prophet and speaks to him (or her. Several prophetesses are mentioned in the Bible). We believe that Moses was the only one who spoke with God really directly–like, he would just be hanging out, and God’s voice would speak in his ear, he would answer, and God would answer back conversationally. All the other prophets, we believe, experienced prophecy through a vision, dream, or the presence of an angel.

Now that I mention it–angels are another one of those words that we understand entirely differently from Christians. The Hebrew word for angel, mal’akh, מלאך, means “messenger.” We don’t believe that angels are the souls of deceased humans, nor do we believe that they have a will of their own. Only humans have free will according to Judaism. We believe that angels are sort of “channels” through which God carries out His will in the world. They’re sort of extensions of Him in a sense.

It’s all very mystical and strange and many of us don’t understand it.

But the most common way we encounter angels in the Bible is when a prophet has a vision about them, and in that case they usually appear in the form of a person–but not always. Ezekiel describes them as these very odd-looking creatures with multiple wings and “wheels” and stuff. (See Ezekiel 1.)

From what I understand, the definition of prophecy in Christianity (at least Protestantism) is much broader than this definition.

So How Do We Identify True Prophecy?

If prophecy is a dream or vision in which God appears–how do we know whether a dream we had that predicted the future, or even a dream in which God or an angel appears to us, is just a dream and not a prophecy?

What about mentally ill people who claim to see God in visions or that they are the Messiah?

It’s a very perplexing issue!

Well thank God for Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed.

In the Guide and other writings, Maimonides explains that a person can only be granted prophecy if he has attained a level of intellectual, moral, and spiritual perfection. And he must prove his prophetic abilities, not by performing miracles (since these can be done through illusion), but by making accurate and detailed predictions of the future. Every single detail the potential prophet says must be true in order for us to believe that person to be a prophet. If even a small detail is wrong, he is a false prophet.

Also, Maimonides adds, if the person tells us to add or remove any of the commandments, we can know immediately that the person is a false prophet.

What Was the Purpose of Prophecy–and Why Did It Stop?

Prophecy was a kind of “direct intervention.” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were prophets because God needed to guide them in a world that was still completely pagan. Moses was a prophet because his job was to bring the Israelites out of Egypt and teach them the entire Torah. We believe that much of the Oral Law comes from clarifications that God gave to Moses regarding what’s written in the Torah.

Many of our sages liken the history of the Jewish people to the life of a child. When a baby is born, he is completely dependent on his mother to keep him warm, fed, and safe. As he grows up, he gradually needs his parents less and less, gaining more and more independence from them.

So it was with us. Initially, all our leaders were prophets. After Moses came Joshua, and then the Judges. We needed a very direct connection to God to know what to do. Eventually we shifted over to a non-prophet leader: a king. The kings of Israel and Judah were guided by prophets and sometimes experienced prophecy themselves, but their primary role was political, not spiritual.

Towards the end of the First Temple period, the role of the prophets shifted from a more gentle guidance to rebuke and warning. The Israelites were not following the commandments and were worshiping idols, and God sent prophets like Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isiah to warn them to turn back to the path of righteousness or they would be severely punished. It was during this period that we received the prophecies about the future and the Messiah who would eventually come after the destruction.

But those were the last direct words God delivered to us. Once we entered the exile, God stopped speaking to us through prophecy.

We don’t really know why. But we believe that God set it up this way on purpose–for us to take a more and more active role in our ultimate mission of “fixing” humanity.

In other words, God shifted the responsibility from Himself (with the prophets representing Him directly) to us.

“It Is Not in Heaven”

There is a very strange story in the Talmud that, I think, sheds light on this shift of responsibility.

Goes like this: There’s a debate going on in the Sanhedrin (what else is new) about the spiritual/ritual purity status of an oven owned by a guy called Akhnai. So most of the rabbis in the Sanhedrin argue that the oven is impure, but one guy, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, insists that it’s pure. Now, the way the Sanhedrin worked is that they ruled by majority. So no matter how senior or wise Rabbi Eliezer was, if he didn’t manage to convince his colleagues that he was correct, he be overruled.

When he failed to convince the other rabbis that he was correct, he performed a series of small miracles to try and prove his point: making a carob tree uproot itself, making a stream of water flow backwards, and the walls of the building begin to collapse on the Sanhedrin. When his colleagues remained unmoved, he shouted: “If the law is as I say–the Heavens will prove my claim!”

In response, a voice sounded from Heaven and said: “Why do you not listen to Rabbi Eliezer, as the law is as he says?!”

Rabbi Joshua then jumped to his feet and shouted: “It is not in Heaven!

The Talmud then goes on to explain: “What does ‘It is not in Heaven’ [a quote from Deuteronomy 30] mean? Rabbi Jeremiah says: Since the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, we no longer follow a voice from Heaven, since the Torah itself says [in Exodus 23]: ‘The majority rules.'”

And then the Talmud says that Elijah the Prophet was asked what God said in response to the incident. Elijah answered: “He smiled and said, ‘My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me!'”

When I first learned about this story I thought it was ridiculous. GOD HIMSELF is supporting Rabbi Eliezer’s position!!! Isn’t the entire point of the Torah to fulfill God’s will?! If GOD HIMSELF supports a certain ruling, how can you oppose it?!

But that’s the thing.

God’s will is that we follow the precedents and rules He originally set up. Since the destruction of the First Temple, it is no longer up to God to determine how Jewish law will be upheld. He made it our responsibility.

Even if we’re objectively wrong.

Because this isn’t about objective truth. It’s about the spirit of the law. More than faith, more than inspiration, more than anything else, Judaism is about tradition. (Cue Fiddler on the Roof. 😛 ) That link with our past, that responsibility to our ancestors and our descendants, is more important than the objective details.

It’s kind of a difficult concept to swallow. Still, over the years I have come to appreciate the wisdom of this story.

But Does God Still Speak?

Of course He does.

Just not quite that directly.

We believe that God speaks to us through history; through the events in the world and in our lives, from the establishment of the State of Israel to your favorite flower blooming on the side of the road.

We believe He speaks all the time. It is us who must learn how to listen and interpret the messages for ourselves–but with humility. We are skeptical of anyone who is 100% sure that “God spoke to them” and that know with certainty what He said.

I think this is a function of our “maturity” as a people. Apparently, we no longer need this kind of direct guidance. Instead, we have spiritual leaders–the rabbis and sages who interpret the Law. This system was set in place back in the days of Moses, apparently in anticipation that we would eventually reach this point. It reached its maturity in the early Talmudic period, when the Sages consolidated the system for interpreting the Law and applying it to new situations that arise.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook wrote an essay called “A Sage Is Preferable to a Prophet,” where he puts forth the argument that in our day, it is better for us to have a sage, who guides us to gently reach our own conclusions, than to have a prophet.

It’s kind of the difference between a counselor and a policeman.

Will Prophecy Be Restored?

Jews do believe that prophecy will be restored with the coming of the Messiah, who will, himself, be a prophet.

Until then, we continue to rely on the self-admittedly flawed system of rabbinic rulings, and try to figure out, to the best of our ability, how to do what God wants from us.

With love,


Screenshot from the movie "Denial"

Responding to Antisemites: Was the Holocaust a Uniquely Jewish Catastrophe?

Dear Josep,

Now that I’m back from my trip and have more or less adjusted to being home, we shall hopefully return to our regularly scheduled program. 😉

On my flight from Denver to Orlando about two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to watch a movie I’d been really wanting to see. (This is quite a rarity, as I hardly ever watch movies these days. Who has time?!) The movie is called Denial, and it’s a dramatization of the book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier by Deborah Lipstadt. Here’s the trailer:

The truth is, I was fairly disappointed with the movie. I found Rachel Weisz’s performance as Deborah Lipstadt unconvincing, the script clumsy and stilted, and the drama somewhat forced. And I felt that its exploration of the very complex questions it raised was too superficial.

Still, I’m glad I saw it, and had the opportunity to think those questions:

  • How do we strike a balance between free speech and our responsibility to stop the spread of hateful and dangerous lies?
  • Is it better not to dignify the opinions of Holocaust deniers and antisemites with a response? Or should we engage with them openly, to keep the public informed and inoculated against the lies?
  • Should this kind of discussion be allowed to take place in a court of law?
  • What if making it a discussion at all gives the impression that the existence of the Holocaust is a “two-sided issue” and not indisputable historical fact?
  • Should Holocaust survivors be given the chance to testify in a trial like this, even if they might be re-traumatized by the prosecution and ultimately harm the defense?

All very good questions, and the answers aren’t simple.

One of them came up again last week when I discovered the following comment (on my previous post) awaiting my moderation:

Tell me something.

Nazis killed over 10 million people.
Why is it that only the Jewish are remembered?
What makes you so special?
How are you better than say, Polish people?
I’m not a Polish, not a nazi, not a holocaust denier. But I am an European, and Im pretty tired of Jewish bankers controlling the world. Do you understand, that without the banker mafia there would not have been the 2008, and without 2008, there wouldnt be Trump?
The world domination of the “chosen people” is crumbling the whole world.

Well. That escalated quickly.

Nothing good is ever going to follow the words, “I’m not a Nazi, but…”

When I informed you about the comment, I considered asking you whether you think, in your vast experience :-/ it’s worth engaging with such people. Can they be reasoned with? Is this kind of antisemitic drivel the result of ignorance, and if so, can it be corrected with information? But I decided that there is no way to reason someone out of the belief that Jewish bankers control the world. It’s like trying to tell an anti-vaxxer that vaccines don’t cause autism, a climate change denier that global warming exists, or a flat-earther that the world is round. No amount of evidence will sway these people from their opinion.

You agreed with my unspoken conclusion in your e-mail the next day: “As someone said long ago: Do not argue with fools. They’ll drag you to their turf and beat you with experience.”

So then I asked myself: if it’s not worth engaging this particular person, maybe it’s worth discussing the comment publicly and responding to some of the points.

Which brings me back to Denial. Ignore, or engage?

Each option has costs.

The cost of ignoring comments like these is that we (the targets) feel silenced and helpless, and the perpetrators get away with doing or saying whatever they want. It feels unjust, a betrayal of the truth. And there’s always the risk that your remaining silent will empower them, making them think you’re not responding because you can’t.

The cost of engaging with antisemites, however, is that in so doing, we grant them a platform. Treating their ideas as something worth discussing may seem to legitimize them in a way. At very least, it shows that their words had an impact. This can empower them, too.

…Well &$#^.

So, the last part of the comment is not worth discussing. It’s just pure, classic antisemitic myth, and I already elaborated on that in my Great Post of Jewish Conspiracies.

The first part, though, I decided to address, because in isolation, it’s a pretty fair question.

Why Is the Holocaust Considered a Uniquely Jewish Catastrophe when Millions of Non-Jews Were Also Killed by the Nazis?

I think this question stems from a basic lack of knowledge regarding the Nazi regime and its ideology.

Yes, the Nazis were racists. Yes, they believed that homosexuals, Romanies, Slavs, and blacks were inferior to them and therefore unworthy of any rights.

Jews, on the other hand, were not just believed to be inferior. We were believed to be evil.

This was a central tenet of Nazi ideology. Jews–not gays, Gypsies, or Poles–were held uniquely responsible for all the world’s ills. Therefore, “solving the Jewish problem” meant annihilating every last Jew.

They did not believe this about other groups. According to their beliefs, their purpose in the world as a “supreme race” was to dominate other races, not destroy them. They saw “lesser” races and other “defective” humans as undesirable, and killed them when they were a nuisance. There was never any organized plan to seek out people from those groups and exterminate them.

The Poles and Ukrainians, for example, were sitting on fertile land that the Nazis wanted, so they killed them to get them out of the way. Their plan was to enslave the rest. Individuals who caused trouble were sent to the death camps–but those camps were built with the express purpose of exterminating Jews.

In other words: the Nazis were horrible, inhumane, and murderous towards all other people who they defined as being inferior to them. But the genocide, the efforts and resources poured into the systematic and complete annihilation of every man, woman, and child–that was specifically directed towards Jews. We were, by an order of magnitude, their primary and most important target.

Look; this isn’t the Victimhood Olympics. No one wins a gold medal for having suffered the most. The fact that Jews were the primary target of the Nazi genocide does not and should not minimize or marginalize the devastating losses sustained by other groups. But when you claim that there is no difference between the treatment of the Jews and that of the Poles, you are denying history.

And as Deborah Lipstadt’s lawyers ultimately showed in court, when you deliberately deny history with the intention of glossing over Jewish suffering… you are an antisemite.

…Which our friend here promptly proved at the end of his comment.

Here’s hoping I will be able to go back to writing about things OTHER than Nazis and antisemites soon. *grumblegrumble*



A portrait of Abravanel. Source unknown.

Awesome Jews of History #2: Don Isaac Abravanel

Dear Josep,

Marrying another bookworm has had its perks. Back before Eitan’s eye issues made it impossible for him to read from print books without pain, he bought books all the time. Even though our current stock is only a small fraction of his original collection, and even though we’ve been living together for eight years, every once in a while I’ll go searching through his old books and discover something interesting.

This book was one such discovery.

Photo of book: Don Isaac Abravanel, Statesman & Philospher, by B. Netanyahu

That’s not Benjamin Netanyahu, for the record; it’s Benzion, Bibi’s father, who was one of the most prominent modern scholars on late medieval Spain. I’ve been wanting to get my hands on any or all of his scholarly works on the Inquisition and the conversos (because hi, it’s me), and I was astonished to find this book on my own bookshelf a couple months ago. (Eitan says he bought it used someplace a long time ago and forgot it existed.) Don Isaac Abravanel is apparently B. Netanyahu’s first book, originally published in 1953.

In the months that followed I read the book and developed a keen interest in Abravanel. I found his character weaving itself into a short story I was writing during that time, which pushed me to read the book more deeply as well as some of Abravanel’s Biblical commentary in the original Hebrew. I knew Abravanel as “Abarbanel,” (the commonly accepted pronunciation of the name in the Jewish community)–at first as a Biblical commentator whose opinions were brought into my classes on the Torah and the Prophets, and then as a historical figure who had a pivotal role during the period of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. But this biography really brought everything together for me about his character and his role in history.

So allow me to introduce you to Awesome Jew of History #2: Don Isaac Abravanel.

A portrait of Abravanel. Source unknown.
A portrait of Abravanel. Source unknown.

Don Isaac Abravanel was born in Lisbon in 1437 to one of the wealthiest, most distinguished Jewish families in Iberia. His grandfather, Don Samuel, served three successive Castilian kings, and in the days of Enrique III, he had assumed the office of contador mayor–the highest position in Castile’s financial administration. He was outspoken in defense of Jews and Judaism in his native Seville, and the Jews of Spain considered him their leader… so you can imagine how shocked and horrified they were when he converted to Christianity, apparently voluntarily. As a result of his conversion, the older of his children cut off ties with him and moved to Portugal. Among those estranged sons was Don Judah, Don Isaac’s father.

Don Judah did well in Lisbon, apparently becoming a royal treasurer for João I, and Don Isaac was brought up with a great deal of wealth, familiarity with the nobility and royalty, and a thorough Jewish and secular education. He began writing Biblical commentary and philosophical works as a young man. And I can tell you as someone who translated bits of his writing to work into my story–the man was overflowing with the words of the Bible even when he wasn’t talking about it. The text I translated was mostly autobiographical, and yet every sentence made multiple Biblical references. If I was unsure about some phrase or other I just Googled it and immediately found it in Psalms or Jeremiah or Deuteronomy.

As an adult, he moved into a position of power under Alfonso V, who appointed him treasurer. But the problem with getting friendly with a king of Portugal (or any medieval monarch, for that matter) and establishing yourself in his royal court, is that there’s a fast turnover rate, and more often than not, the following king is going to suspect you of other loyalties. That’s what happened to Abravanel. When João II took the throne, he suspected Abravanel of treason and eventually put out a warrant for his arrest. Abravanel was certain of his innocence, but understood that he stood no chance of convincing the king, so he fled to Castile. The king seized all his assets. Thus Abravanel lost his entire fortune, and had to start over in a new kingdom.

But guys like Abravanel don’t really manage to keep a low profile. Abravanel employed his exceptional knowledge and skills, and slowly worked his way up the social ladder. His skills eventually came to the attention of one King Fernando of Aragon. Fernando and Isabel employed him as a financier, and he became second only to Abraham Senior as the highest-ranking Jew in the kingdom. It’s interesting to note that despite everything, Abravanel seems to have had something resembling a good relationship with the Catholic Monarchs. Fernando was a very slippery, poker-faced kind of guy, managing to make everyone think they were getting along great while stabbing them in the back.

So, in 1492, when the Catholic Monarchs captured Granada and issued the Alhambra Decree, Abravanel was in a very unique and crucial position, having a place of power and esteem within the royal court. He and Abraham Senior worked tirelessly to cancel the decree. They had an audience with Fernando three times, appealing to his practical side, offering him an enormous bribe to be collected from the Jewish community. But Mr. Aragonese Poker-Face never committed to anything, always dismissing them with an “I’ll think about it” kind of response. Thus unsuccessful, they tried appealing to Isabel. With Isabel, Abravanel took an entirely different approach.

Writes Netanyahu: “He now spoke to the queen–the haughty, fanatic and often ferocious Isabella–not like her financial agent, not even like a cautious, diplomatic courtier. He spoke to her now like a scion of the House of David and as a representative of an unconquered–and unconquerable–people. He spoke to her, moreover, like a prophet of old, in daring, castigating and threatening language. If Isabella thought that, by measures like the expulsion, the Jews could be brought to surrender or to extinction, she was greatly mistaken. He pointed out to her the eternity of the Jewish people, that they had outlived all who had attempted to destroy them, that it was beyond human capacity to destroy the Jewish people, and that those who tried to do so only invited upon themselves divine punishment and disaster.”

Isabel’s response, too, echoes eerily prophetic through the annals of history: “Do you believe that this comes upon you from us? The Lord hath put this thing into the heart of the king.”

And so, Don Isaac Abravanel failed to reverse the fate of his people. Abraham Senior converted to Christianity in order to stay in Castile, and Abravanel left with his brethren, losing his fortune and his honor for the second time.

Abravanel moved to Naples. Italy was very unstable at the time and he had to move around a lot in the coming years because of various wars. He eventually settled in Venice, and he died there in 1508.

Like all of his contemporaries, Abravanel struggled to make sense of the expulsion. As you know, it was one of the most highly traumatic crises in Jewish history, and many Jews found themselves in a place of deep discouragement and despair. Some feared that the expulsion marked the beginning of the end of the Jewish people.

Abravanel’s response to the crisis was a mystical/spiritual one. He wrote extensively about the coming of the Messianic era, and even calculated when the Messiah would come. He had some compelling arguments for the year 1503, but obviously, he turned out to be very wrong. When I read articles about Abravanel in the past and learned about this feature of his writings I found it annoying and depressing. He was so sure that the horrors of the expulsion marked the beginning of the Redemption with a capital R. And he we are, five hundred years later, still saying “Any minute now!”

But when I read Netanyahu’s take on this aspect of Abravanel’s philosophy, I saw it in a new way. One of the things I have learned about hope in the last few years is that it has intrinsic value that is completely detached from outcome. As I wrote on this article for Trish Hopkinson’s blog: “I saw hope as a seductive and deceptive force that enticed me to climb higher, making the inevitable fall hurt that much more… But that place it takes us is not just a place we fall from. It’s a place where we see farther, where we breathe better, where we reach higher.”

Abravanel gave the Jewish people hope.

He gave great detail and vivid color to a very theoretical idea of the bright future that lay somewhere ahead of all this gloom.

Our national anthem is called “The Hope” for a reason. Hope is what has carried us through and kept us moving forward even in the darkest of times.

For that, if not for the vast library of intriguing ideas and scholarship he left behind, and for his tireless efforts to make the world a better place for Jews and non-Jews alike… he deserves to be remembered as a great man, and an Awesome Jew of History.



The previous Awesome Jew of History was King David! Is there an awesome Jewish historical figure you’d like me to write about? Let me know!

Confessions of a King David Fangirl

Dear Josep,

I was a rather unusual teenager in quite a number of ways.

For one thing, I hated shopping.

I never wore makeup–on principle–and rolled my eyes at the way my peers spent hours preening in front of the mirror.

While most girls my age spent their vacation time at the mall, the movies, or the beach, I was happiest cooped up in my room… writing novels.

Like the teenage girls they were, my friends swooned over the likes of Orlando Bloom, Johnny Depp, and… I can’t even remember who else was popular at the time. That’s how much I cared!

I, on the other hand, was a King David fangirl.

Yeah. The one from 3,000 years ago.

You see, the more I learned about him, the more I admired and identified with him. He was a poet-musician-warrior-prophet-king who was crazy in love with God. He played the lyre, felled a Philistine giant with a single stone, danced like a maniac in celebration of God’s glory, and cried his heart out in public on many occasions. He made some terrible mistakes, but he owned them. He was a badass with a sensitive and highly spiritual soul. His political actions set the stage for the most prosperous golden age in the history of the Jews, and he was the progenitor of what may have been the longest continuous dynasty of communal leaders in the history of humankind.1

Beat that, Orlando Bloom.
Beat that, Orlando Bloom.


Both of the upcoming holidays, Jerusalem Day and Shavuot, have a connection to King David. So I shall take this opportunity to unleash my inner fangirl, and tell you all about my favorite Biblical character. 🙂

Okay, so it turns out I can’t actually tell you all about him. I started writing my merry way through the juiciest moments of his life story as told in Samuel I, and by the time I got halfway through the Goliath story, this letter was already 1,000 words long!

So I’ll have to give you the highlights.

David, son of Jesse, was born in Bethlehem during the period of Samuel the Prophet. He was probably a child when the first king of Israel, Saul, was ordained. When Saul fell out of God’s favor for failing to carry out a commandment, God ordered Samuel to ordain David–then still a kid whose family apparently didn’t think much of him–as the new king. The Bible describes him as “ruddy, with beautiful eyes, and handsome.” Some interpret “ruddy” as meaning he had red hair, and you can see him depicted that way in many paintings. Most likely, though, it means he had a reddish complexion. Rosy cheeks, if you will.

Anyway. Soon after David’s secret ordination, King Saul felt the spirit of God leave him, and became quite depressed. Someone suggested finding a musician to play music and lift his spirits. Long story short, David became the first Royal Music Therapist.

Then the whole fiasco with Goliath happened–a story I assume you are at least somewhat familiar with. After his stunning defeat of the Philistine warrior, David became quite the rock star among the Israelites. He married the king’s daughter Michal and became best buddies with his new brother-in-law, Jonathan. (I believe these days we call it a “bromance.”) But Saul started to suspect David of trying to topple him from the throne, and started trying to kill him.

"So.... should I see this as a termination of our therapeutic relationship?"
“So…. should I see this as a termination of our therapeutic relationship?”

Michal and Jonathan helped David escape, and he ran into the wilds of Judah, hiding out in the desert with a little band of followers.

David spent the next period of his life scurrying around the Judean Desert trying to avoid getting caught and killed by Saul. There were a few close calls, and some confrontations that ended with Saul saying he was sorry and then changing his mind the next morning. (I believe these days we call it “bipolar.”) But David never attempted to take power during Saul’s lifetime and never dreamed of harming him. Heck, he cried like an idiot when he so much as tore the corner of Saul’s robe in a cave in Ein Gedi.

Anyway, Saul was finally killed in battle in the Gilboa, along with his sons, including David’s best friend Jonathan. “How the mighty have fallen” is a famous line from David’s heartbroken lament for Saul and Jonathan, recorded in the final chapters of Samuel I.

With the old king dead, David began his rise to power. First he ruled over Judah from the city of Hebron. (Remember, Jerusalem was still under the Jebusites at this point.) Gradually the rest of the kingdom accepted him as their king. He proved very capable in battle and eventually conquered Jerusalem and established it as the eternal capital of Israel. (That’s where Jerusalem Day comes in. Shavuot is traditionally considered to be the birthday, and death day, of King David.)

There are many more stories to tell from Samuel II, but the most important one is the Bathsheba scandal. You may have heard this story too. It stands as an example of something unique about the Bible as a historical document: it does not gloss over the mistakes and sins of our great leaders. What happened is this: King David was looking out his window one night and he saw a woman bathing on her rooftop. He was so overcome with desire for her that he ordered her brought to the palace, and when he discovered that she was married, he arranged for her husband to be placed on the front line of the battle, basically assuring his death. When the husband did inevitably die in battle, David married Bathsheba.

Not a pleasant story. Especially if you compare it with Saul’s sin. All Saul did was have pity on an Amalekite king and some sheep. David committed adultery and murder! Why was Saul’s kingdom torn from him, then, while David’s wasn’t?

Most sages argue that the difference is in their responses.

When Samuel came to rebuke Saul, Saul got defensive and insisted that he had done nothing wrong, and only admitted that he had sinned after Samuel informed him that God had decided to discontinue his dynasty.

In contrast, when Nathan the Prophet came to rebuke David, David immediately said “I have sinned before the Lord!” He took responsibility and owned his actions. He did real teshuva. He did suffer consequences for his sin–the death of his firstborn son from Bathsheba, and the turmoil in his household (the rape of Tamar, the rebellion of Absalom, etc.)–but God did not take the kingdom from him or his descendants.

There is another important figure in the Bible who exhibited this kind of accountability: David’s ancestor Judah. On two notable occasions,2 Judah showed a willingness to own up to his mistakes and accept the full consequences of his actions. Tradition has it that it was this character trait of Judah’s that made God choose him as the progenitor of the Davidic line.

I think the Bible makes a powerful statement through this. Everyone makes mistakes. The question is whether you try to make excuses and justify yourself, or whether you take responsibility, own your mistakes, and try to learn and grow from them. That, says the Bible, is the mark of a true leader.

When King David died, he passed the kingdom to his son, the wise King Solomon, who built the first Temple and ruled over Israel during a period of great prosperity and peace. We believe that the Messiah will be a direct descendant of King David, because God promised him that his dynasty would endure for eternity.

And now, I can’t finish a post about King David without mentioning the book of Psalms.

Tradition has it that the Psalms were composed by David, and if you read through them you will see that many of them begin with a statement about the author (usually David) and sometimes about the circumstances under which the psalm was written or for what purpose. Bible critics will argue that it was written much later by other poets, who used the context of King David’s life to lend their work legitimacy, but it’s impossible to prove or disprove. I’d like to believe that he did write at least some of them.

Either way, I think the spirit of this Biblical figure is encapsulated within the wrenching and uplifting words of these remarkably raw poem-prayers.

When you open up a book of Psalms, you find the full range of human emotion laid out before you: from ecstasy, gratitude, and hope, to terror, despair, and loneliness. You find expressions of ultimate closeness and oneness with God alongside explicit expression of doubt and fear of abandonment. The fact that David could say both “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for You are with me” (Psalm 23) and “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Psalm 22) makes me feel a little less alone in trying to reconcile those two sentiments that battle it out within me from time to time.

So… yes. King David was my teen crush and I’m not the least bit ashamed of it.



P.S. I’m thinkin’ this could be the first in a series of posts about important Jewish historical figures, called Awesome Jews of History. Is there a Jewish historical figure (or two… or five) that you’ve been curious about? (And by you, and mean you, Josep, and also you, blog readers!) Let me know!

P. P. S. Heck yeah, of course I dressed up as King David for Purim one year! Or at least… my interpretation of him as a kind of Biblical rock star. 😛

Yes, I know its a ukulele and not a lyre. A girls gotta work with what she has, aright?!
…with a ukulele. Look, a girl’s gotta work with what she has, a’right?!

1. Though the sovereignty of the Jews was ended after the destruction of the First Temple, the Jews always maintained a special status for those descended of the Davidic dynasty, and chose their leaders from their number. During the Gaonic period in Babylon, up until around 1,000 C.E., Jews were governed by the Exilarch, who was a descendant of the Davidic line. Thus, one could say that the House of David ruled the Jewish people for more than two thousand years.

2. The first was during the scandal with his daughter-in-law Tamar (Genesis 37:26); the second, and more well known, was when Joseph framed Benjamin, and Judah took responsibility and offered to go to jail in his stead (Genesis 44:18-34).

How to Teach Children About the Holocaust (And How… Not To.)

Dear Josep,

You will be pleased to know that I have received several positive reactions to your foreword. Last week, for example, I found myself in a lengthy discussion with a bookseller about the book. When he asked me how you felt about the letters, I told him that you wrote a foreword about it, and he was quite enthusiastic. It seems I was correct that people would take an interest in your perspective. 🙂

One reaction I didn’t expect was actually from my dear friend Abi. You see, she studied education at one of the mostly highly regarded colleges for educators in the country, and there was one detail from your story that horrified her: that your school had taken you to see Schindler’s List when you were only twelve years old.

Before she said anything, it hadn’t occurred to me that that might have been a little young. But especially when you mentioned that during that same period they also had you read Man’s Search for Meaning and that you found it “brutal,” it struck me that maybe she was right.

Turns out, the actress who played the girl in the red coat was eleven when she saw it, and it was a little early for her, too…

As I’ve mentioned, I actually never saw Schindler’s List from beginning to end–just parts of it in between naps on the bus from Warsaw to Krakow during my trip to Poland. And I read Man’s Search for Meaning a few years ago, as an adult. I don’t know how they might have affected me if I’d been exposed to them at twelve years of age. Like you, I was a sensitive kid… but apparently unlike you, I was already six years into a very carefully constructed Holocaust education at that point.

You see, Abi explained, Yad Vashem, the famous Holocaust museum and research center in Jerusalem, has specific guidelines for introducing children to this difficult topic. When I related my memories of how I had learned about the Holocaust, Abi said that what I described fit neatly into the guidelines she had been taught: a gentle story taught by the school principal when I was in first grade; a phone call with my grandmother; age-appropriate books (such as I Never Saw Another Butterfly and A Place to Hide); Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies; testimonies from survivors; visiting museums; and finally the climax of my Holocaust education, my trip to Poland in eleventh grade.

And when Abi pointed out the contrast between that gentle, gradual exposure and watching Schindler’s List, I was like, “Geez… no wonder he was traumatized!”

I suspect that the staff of your school did not feel a need to introduce you quite that gradually because, well, the Holocaust was not really part of your national history. There is a huge difference between teaching a group of students that “once there was a group of people massacred simply for being different,” and “once there was a group of people who could very easily have been you who were massacred because they were of your heritage.” Still, the Holocaust is a very difficult and disturbing topic for anyone, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you weren’t the only sensitive child who was hit perhaps a little too hard by this material.

Then again, if you hadn’t learned it so brutally, would it still have had such a strong impact on you? Would you have taken the same interest in Jews and Judaism? Would you still have ended up the curious recipient of my e-mails, immortalized as the “Josep” of Letters to Josep?!

Who knows? Maybe not! So I, for one, cannot hold it against your teachers. 😉

But. The conversation inspired me to search for the Yad Vashem guidelines on educating children about the Holocaust. I found that there is a whole website dedicated to it, with detailed instructions for educators and recommended materials and educational activities, but it’s all in Hebrew.

Therefore, I thought it would be a good idea to provide a summary of those guidelines in English. (Which you may, in turn, want to translate to Catalan, and send to your former school. 😛 )

Before I begin, however, I must point out that Yad Vashem is an Israeli organization, and their guidelines are oriented accordingly. I think that with non-Jewish children, you don’t need to be quite this delicate and methodical. Nonetheless, it’s important to be aware of the child’s developmental stage and not expose a child to material that he is not emotionally equipped to cope with–Jewish or not–and to provide a supportive environment to help the child process what she has learned.


Educating children on the Holocaust at this age primarily involves making sense of what the children have already heard and experienced from outside sources, and reinforcing a sense of distance and therefore safety.

It’s impossible for a Jewish child to grow up without hearing anything about the Holocaust. Israeli children, in particular, will hear the chilling sound of the memorial siren and see the world coming to a halt on Holocaust Remembrance Day. They are going to need to be prepared for this. Our job as educators is to give them enough information to reassure them without giving them details that will frighten or disturb them.

Unfortunately I’ve had ample opportunities to read up on talking to young children about scary events in the world. The absolute worst thing you can do is pretend nothing happened. Children are extremely perceptive and they know when the adults around them are scared, shaken, or sad, even when the adults don’t express those feelings in front of them. So hiding information will only scare them more; their imaginations can be much scarier than reality!

Therefore, as with any frightening topic that children are exposed to, the idea is to give them the information they need while emphasizing the positive outcomes and reinforcing their sense of safety and feeling protected.

When we’re talking about the Holocaust, then, Yad Vashem recommends that we explain that “a long, long time ago, before you were born, in a land very far away, there were some very mean people who wanted to hurt Jews, and that makes people sad. But,” we will emphasize, “there were other people who protected and rescued them.” Since the children may have heard the word “Holocaust” or “Shoah” in Hebrew, we explain that this word means “disaster” or “something that happened that makes people very sad.” If they have heard of Nazis, we can explain that this is what the mean people were called.

Elementary School

Ages 6-8

In the first two years of elementary school, Yad Vashem recommends introducing the students to the topic in the following manner:

  • The educator who speaks to them about it should be one who has a significant and regular relationship with the students. This will help them feel supported, safe, and comfortable bringing up questions and concerns.
  • The topic should be introduced gently in the form of a story. Stories are a universal coping tool that humans have been using for thousands of years, and the familiar framework of the beginning, middle, and end helps give the information in a way that is safe and predictable.
  • At this age, the story should focus on one character. This allows the students to empathize and connect to the information on a human level, without being too overwhelmed by details and possibilities.
  • The story should introduce some basic concepts such as ghettos and yellow stars, and give a general sense of what was lost–families, communities, cultural assets, ideas–but should focus on overcoming hardship, heroism, and rescue. It is very important not to transmit a sense of helplessness to elementary-school-aged children.
  • The activity should not include simulations or graphic scenes or descriptions. Children at this age can be very disturbed by such images, even if (maybe especially if) it’s in their imaginations.

Ages 8-10

At this age we continue along the general lines outlined above. At this age, however, we expand the stories to focus on families rather than single individuals. This allows us to add more characters to the story and focus on the relationships between them. We can also expand the conversation to include universal ideas about taking a stand, such as in the case of the Righteous Among the Nations (what we call non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust).

Ages 10-12

Towards the end of elementary school we continue the trend of gently expanding the stories to include deeper and more difficult concepts. While we still want to be telling stories that focus on characters who survive, the story may also include characters with a relationship to the main character who perish. We still want to focus on rescue and helping one another, and not on violence and cruelty.

Middle School (Ages 12-15)

In middle school we can deepen the conversation, taking into account the emotional maturity of the students (which may vary widely). Yad Vashem recommends expanding the conversation from families to communities at this point. Now is the time to discuss questions of heritage and identity and the relationship between the individual and the society in the context of the Holocaust. At this point in the Israeli educational curriculum, this historical period has not yet been covered in history class, so when discussing the Holocaust we begin to fill in historical details they may be missing.

High School (Ages 15-18)

At this point the students have reached a level of emotional maturity where they can be exposed to the most difficult material about the Holocaust, and the conversation involves sorting out historical details, discussing ethical and moral questions, and questions of continuity and giving meaning to the deep crisis that befell our people. Most Israeli schools organize an educational trip to Poland to visit the ghettos and death camps, as discussed in last year’s post, to students in eleventh or twelfth grade (age 16-18).

If one were to ask me where to place viewing Schindler’s List and reading Man’s Search for Meaning along this timeline, I think I would recommend saving both for high school. I might consider exposing a particularly mature twelve-year-old to these materials, but certainly not as the first material he or she would encounter on the topic.

Instead, I would have recommended starting you off with Anne Frank’s diary.

It’s been translated into 67 languages, including Catalan, and several movies have been made about it.

The diary gives a vivid glimpse into the way families coped with hiding from the Nazis, but it is written from the hopeful and playful perspective of an insightful young teenager. It does not contain graphic descriptions of violence, and while Anne did not survive the Holocaust, the tragic end of the story is not recorded in her diary. The information on the raid and Anne’s eventual death in Bergen-Belsen are given in the afterword. I think this helps soften the effect without hiding the enormity of the tragedy, making it a really good introduction for an older child.

Just saying!



Impostor Syndrome and the Burning Bush

Dear Josep,

Well… as you know, the past few weeks have been pretty crazy, and I’m having what researcher and author Brené Brown calls a major “vulnerability hangover.”

It’s what happens when you do something really brave, something that involves exposing yourself to vulnerability and taking a risk, and then afterwards when you step down, you look at yourself and go, “WHAT did I just DO?” and all you want to do is crawl under your bed and not come out for a good few weeks.

Yesterday my father-in-law arrived with a little stock of the books, and I got to hold one for the first time. It was sooo bizarre. Was it like that for you too?! Like, there’s a book in my hands. It’s a book, and I wrote it. What.

My dear husband found me standing there in a daze staring at the pile of books, and took this picture…

After the kids went to bed I sat down with one of the copies and wrote you a dedication. But not before Googling “how to autograph a book.” (Yes. I literally Googled it. Don’t laugh, I got some good tips! 😛 ) I’ll have to apologize for the mess of scribbles all over your title page… I was emotional and my hand was shaking. I’d been dreaming of that very moment for a long time.

Today I started trying to work on building my author website (well, author/translator/premarital counselor/whatever-the-heck-I-am-these-days website). And I found myself at such a loss. I mean… I’m a content writer, you’d think I should be able to write content for my own website! But I also suffer from a severe case of Impostor Syndrome.

Have you ever heard of Impostor Syndrome? Caltech Counseling Center defines it as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in face of information that indicates that the opposite is true.”

I have a beautiful example. You don’t know this, but LtJ was actually not the only book that came out this month with my name in the byline. A poem of mine was published in an anthology called Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women. During the process of preparing it for print, the editors sent us the biographies we had originally submitted to make sure they were still up to date. Mine started off with “Daniella Levy is a writer, poet, translator, and self defense instructor…” And my first thought when I looked at it was, “Poet…? Really? Can I call myself that? Just because I write poetry occasionally… and performed a spoken word poem once for a small audience… I dunno, does that qualify me?”

…And then it hit me that the bio in question was for a poem. That I wrote. That was going to be published. In a book.

How ridiculous am I?!

Thankfully, I am not alone in my ridiculousness. Studies show that about 70% of the population suffers from some degree of Impostor Syndrome. In fact, arguably the most important figure in the Jewish faith suffered from it, too.

I’m referring, of course, to Moses.

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the scene whether Moses encounters the burning bush and first hears God speak to him.

This is how it goes down: Moses is tending his father-in-law’s sheep, right? And he comes across a really strange sight–a bush that is in flames, but is not being consumed by the fire. So he stops to check it out, and God calls to him and tells him to remove his shoes, “for the place on which you stand is holy ground.” He then explains to Moses who He is and tells him that He wants Moses to go to Pharoah and tell him to let the Israelites go.

So, let’s just imagine for a second this happened to you. God Himself appears to you in a burning bush and tells you to go to the Prime Minister of Spain and tell him to let Catalonia secede from Spain. 😛 What do you do? Do you start asking questions? Do you tell God He must have made a mistake?! No! You say “Yes sir!” and get moving! (Make a note of this! 😛 )

But that’s not what Moses did: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should take the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 4:11)  God tells him not to worry, that He will be with him. But Moses is not convinced, and argues that the Israelites won’t listen to him and won’t believe him. So God reassures him further and gives him the turn-the-staff-into-a-snake trick to help prove that Moses was really speaking on His behalf.

But then Moses keeps arguing! He’s not a man of words, he’s got a speech impediment, couldn’t God just send somebody else? And God’s like, “Dude, I KNOW. I’M GOD. I gave you that speech impediment, remember?! Have your brother talk for you if you have to, but GO!”

Seriously. God Himself appears to Moses in a spectacular feat of pyrotechnics and what does Moses do? He argues. He protests five times in that one encounter.

“Seriously, Moses. You’re pushing it.”

He truly did not believe he was worthy of the task–even in the face of “information that the opposite was true.” Like, for instance, GOD HIMSELF telling him he was worthy.

Boy, he had it bad…

And maybe it was precisely this that led God to select him for this task. As I’ve mentioned before, the unique thing about Judaism as a religion is that it does not attribute its revelation to a single person, but rather to a whole nation. A week and a half from now, when we read the Haggadah and retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, we are not going to mention Moses’s name even once. The Sages left his name out of the Haggadah on purpose: because the miracles of the Exodus should be attributed to God alone. If Moses had been a little more vain, he might have taken advantage of his position of power to create a cult of personality around himself.

Actually, right after the sin of the Golden Calf, God offered to destroy the Israelites and make Moses and his descendants into a nation instead! And what did Moses say?

“Please! This people has committed a grave sin… please forgive them. But if not, erase me now from the book You have written.” (Exodus 32:31-32)

God grumbled back “Whoever has sinned against Me, him I will erase from My book!” (Exodus 32:33), but I’d like to think that God was secretly smiling to Himself… in a metaphorical sense, of course. This is exactly why He had chosen Moses.

Surprisingly, Impostor Syndrome can actually be a predictor of high achievement. It’s the people who don’t suffer from it–people who think they know exactly what they’re doing–who are more likely to be frauds.

Maybe God should have mentioned this to Moses from the bush. 😉

Anyway–I’m looking forward to getting that copy to you!

Much love,


A Jew by Any Other Name: Why Are Jews Called ‘Jews’?

Before this week’s post I just want to take a moment to thank you all for your support following the release of Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism! I’ve sold almost 40 copies in less than a week, which, considering the fact that it’s self-published and I haven’t done a single thing to advertise or promote it yet, is pretty amazing. Y’all are incredible. Keep it up! And don’t forget to leave a review when you’re done reading–the book doesn’t have any reviews to its name yet, and they are very important.

And now for our regularly scheduled program!

(Prefer to listen? This post was featured on this episode of the Jewish Geography podcast🙂

Dear Josep,

A couple years ago when you visited here for the first time, as we were driving past the checkpoint, I said, “Welcome to Judea! Which, I believe, is Latin for ‘Jew-land.'”

“Really?” you said.

“Well, yes, sort of…” I responded.

I don’t remember how much of the historical background I explained to you, or how much you already know, but it occurs to me that it is pretty confusing–why were our ancestors referred to as “Hebrews” in the Bible? What about “Israelites”? When were we called “Jews,” and why?

The Hebrews

The use of this term in the Bible–ivri in Hebrew–is complex and somewhat confusing. Abraham was called a “Hebrew” even before he came to the Promised Land, and Joseph refers to the land of his origin as the “Land of the Hebrews.” The Hebrew root ע.ב.ר. (e.v/b.r.) indicates movement or passage, so the theory is that this term means, roughly, “that guy from way over there across the desert.” But the term was not only applied to the descendants of Jacob. If Abraham was an “ivri,” and Ishmael was his son, his descendants would be “ivrim” too. Same goes for the descendants of Abraham’s cousin Lot–Ammon and Moab–and of Isaac’s other son Esau, the Edomites.

Over time, however, the term Hebrew became associated specifically with Israelites. My (completely unprofessional) theory is that this is because of their status as strangers in Egypt. No one would call you Josep the Catalan in Catalonia; they would call you that if you lived in Castile, or France, or Italy. So while Ammon and Moab and Edom settled down in their own land and ceased to be known as “Hebrews,” a.k.a. “those guys from across the desert”… the Egyptians still referred to the descendants of Jacob that way.

The Children of Israel/Israelites

In Genesis 32, there is a strange story about Jacob meeting an angel and wrestling with him until dawn. When Jacob prevails, he asks the angel to bless him, and the angel gives him a new name: Israel.

So, the nation born from his lineage were called the Children of Israel or the Israelites.

But Jacob  had twelve sons, and each was the patriarch of an individual tribe: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph and Benjamin. Each of these tribes received their own portion of the Promised Land–with one exception: the Levites were given a special spiritual role, so they did not have land of their own. There were designated cities in each of the other tribes where Levites lived. Joseph’s two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, each inherited their own portion of land, so the land of Israel was still divided into twelve portions.

By 12 tribus de Israel.svg: Translated by Kordas12 staemme israels heb.svg: by user:יוסי12 staemme israels.png: by user:Janzderivative work: Richardprins (talk) - 12 tribus de Israel.svg12 staemme israels heb.svg12 staemme israels.png, CC BY-SA 3.0
By 12 tribus de Israel.svg: Translated by Kordas12 staemme israels heb.svg: by user:יוסי12 staemme israels.png: by user:Janzderivative work: Richardprins (talk) – 12 tribus de Israel.svg12 staemme israels heb.svg12 staemme israels.png, CC BY-SA 3.0

Levites and Cohanim

So what was the spiritual role the Levites were given, and why? First of all, tradition has it that the tribe of Levi was the only tribe that was not enslaved, because they did not fall into Pharoah’s trap and refused to work for him. Whether or not that’s the case, Moses was from the tribe of Levi, and furthermore, the Sages teach that the Levites did not participate in the sin of the golden calf. On this merit, they were granted the privilege of being in charge of the holy work at the Temple.

The Cohanim–the priests–are a group within the tribe of Levi. They are descendants of Moses’s brother, Aaron, who was the first High Priest. They performed the sacrifices that were the crux of the Temple service. The non-Cohen Levites were primarily gatekeepers for the Temple, and musicians who played hymns accompanying the services.

Now, the Levites and Cohanim did not inherit any of the land, which, in an agricultural Biblical society, meant no livelihood. So those who did own land, the Israelites, were required to give contributions from their produce and livestock to the Levites and Cohanim. That constitutes a major part of the mitzvot hatluyot ba’aretz, the mitzvot pertaining to working the land in Israel. Though we no longer have the Temple and cannot really observe these rituals, we still make symbolic gestures on their account. For example, when I bake bread, I take a little piece of the dough, wrap it in foil, and throw it in the oven to burn. (This, by the way, is one of those weird rituals that turn up in converso families. 😉 ) It’s in memory of the challah contribution that was supposed to be made to the Cohanim.

The lineages of the Cohanim and Levites were actually preserved through much of Jewish history, up until today, because even after the Temple was destroyed, they received certain special roles in the synagogue. That’s why, during the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods when people started adopting surnames, so many Jews became some version of “Cohen” or “Levi.” While Judaism is passed only through the mother, the tribal lineage always passed through the father, and in all European cultures, so does the surname. (Eventually, nu. Don’t get me started on your inordinately confusing naming customs in Iberia!) So while a Cohanic or Levite surname does not necessarily indicate those lineages, it very often does. Believe it or not, genetic research identified a particular pattern on the Y chromosome that is common to most Jews with a tradition of a Cohanic lineage. They call it the Cohen Modal Haplotype.

(And yes, to answer your next question, Eitan’s family does have a tradition of being descended from Levites.)

The Kingdom Splits

So… Joshua conquers the land, everybody settles in their portion, and all is well and good. (Okay, no, actually, it totally isn’t, but I’m not going to recount the entire first section of Prophets here!) Fast forward to King Solomon’s death. There is a dispute over who is the rightful heir to the kingdom, and at that point, the kingdom splits in two. It is now divided into the Kingdom of Judah–which includes the portions of Judah and Benjamin–and the Kingdom of Israel, which includes all the other tribes.

By Oldtidens_Israel_&_Judea.svg: FinnWikiNoderivative work: Richardprins (talk) - Oldtidens_Israel_&_Judea.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0,
By Oldtidens_Israel_&_Judea.svg: FinnWikiNo derivative work: Richardprins (talk) – Oldtidens_Israel_&_Judea.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0

The capital of the new Kingdom  of Israel, as you may have noted, is a city called Samaria. As you can see, the vast majority of the land that was actually a part of the ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah are what is now Judea & Samaria (also known as the West Bank).

So. Towards the end of the first Jewish Commonwealth, the Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrian Empire. The ten tribes who lived in that kingdom were scattered throughout the vast empire–and were lost to history. In the ancient world, conquered peoples were often scattered like that with the purpose of disconnecting them from their homelands and assimilating them, and in the case of the ten tribes, it mostly worked. Here and there, there are stories of communities in Asia and Africa that maintained some semblance of Jewish practice, who may be descendants of the ten lost tribes.

Yehudim (Judans, Judeans… Jews)

So then we were left with the Kingdom of Judah. Its citizens were descendants of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi. The Babylonians conquered it, destroyed the first Temple, and tried to do the with the Judans what the Assyrians did with the other ten tribes. But somehow, by some miracle that no historian or anthropologist can quite explain, we resisted assimilation, and maintained a strong core of identity that eventually led to the establishment of the Second Commonwealth under the Persians. But the majority of Judans stayed in Persia and Babylonia even when the second Temple was rebuilt.

The first time we are collectively referred to as yehudim is in the Scroll of Esther. In Chapter 1, it says, “There was an ish yehudi (a man of Judah) and his name was Mordekhai the son of Kish, an ish yemini (a man of the tribe of Benjamin).” This sentence effectively shows that the tribes of Judah (Yehuda) and Benjamin had become one, and were now both referred to as “Yehudim.”

Jew, jueu, juif, Jude, judío, yahud, yid (as in Yiddish)–all these terms are derived from the Hebrew name Yehuda.

Zionists, Israel, and Israelis

As you know, the term “Zionist” is not synonymous with “Jew” at all. (Unless, of course, you are an antisemite under the guise of an Israel-hater, but let’s not get into that.) In fact–you are a Zionist. A Zionist is simply a person who believes that the Jews have the right to self-determination in our historic homeland. The word comes from Zion, one of the names of the city of Jerusalem.

After the UN presented the Partition Plan in 1947, and it seemed like the establishment of a Jewish State was something that might actually happen in the near future, a question arose: what should the state be called?

The answer was not obvious.

In the course of writing this letter it occurred to me that I didn’t actually know the background for why the name “Israel” was chosen. So I Googled it, and found a letter that Aaron Reuveni, a writer and translator, sent to Haaretz in 1965. Reuveni claims that he is the one who suggested the name, and gave a description of his deliberation regarding the question. (Hebrew speakers can read it here.)

For two millennia we were identified as Jews–former citizens of the ancient kingdom of Judah. And the last time Jews had autonomy in the Holy Land, it was in a Roman province called Judea. So it would make sense to call it by one of those names.

But. The vast majority of the historic region of Judea was not included in the land designated for the Jews under the Partition Plan. “How can we call a country Judea when Jerusalem and Hebron are not inside it, and the Judean Mountains lie beyond its borders?” writes Reuveni. “Zion” was also considered and rejected, because Jerusalem was not going to be the exclusive capital of the Jewish state, and there can’t be a “Zion” without Jerusalem.

Another reason not to go with Judea, or with “the Jewish State” as an official name, was that that identity came to define our people when we were already in exile. The establishment of the State was a return to our roots. Reuveni writes that the numismatic evidence from throughout history indicates, “without a doubt: the Kingdom of Judah falls, but am yisrael chai (the Nation of Israel lives on).” He explains that while the use of “Judea” continued to appear on the coinage from the Hasmonean period, once the Romans took over, the use of the term disappeared; but during the Great Revolt (the first Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66-73 CE), the very first coin minted used the name “Israel” to refer to the land. This indicates that that name had returned to use.

By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., CC BY-SA 3.0,
Coin from the period of the First Jewish Revolt, circa 68 CE. The side with the fleur-de-lis says, “Holy Jerusalem,” and the other side says “Shekel Israel” (=Israeli shekel).

By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., CC BY-SA 3.0

Reuveni further argues: “An individual is a Jew, perhaps, but the collective is Israel.” It’s true; even when we were referring to ourselves as Jews, the term “Israel” was and still is often applied to communities or to the entire Jewish people as a collective. In Yiddish, for example, kehillos yisroel (the communities of Israel) referred to Jewish communities; klal yisroel and am yisroel were used to refer to the entire Jewish people.

So the name Israel was chosen, and became a modern national identity. In his letter, Reuveni addresses the question of non-Jewish residents of the land: “Won’t the non-Jews protest that the name ‘Israeli’ is being imposed upon them?” he writes. “What right and reason do they have to protest? The Jews who live in Syria are called Syrian Jews; the Arabs who will live in the State of Israel will be called Israeli Arabs.”

And so it was. 🙂

I think the whole discussion emphasizes how much of an anomaly Judaism is as an identity. The Israeli identity is a lot easier to explain: it’s a national identity, like French, German, Chilean, Malaysian. Judaism remains ambiguous and hard to pin down; it means very different things to different people. It can be a national identity, an ethnic identity, a racial identity, a cultural identity, and/or a religious identity. For me, it is all of the above.