So, after ostensibly “freezing” the text of By Light of Hidden Candles (my upcoming novel) for formatting, my editor found a bunch of other issues and we did another feverish round of editing on a short deadline. Now the text is frozen for real (RIGHT, DON?!)–at least, barring any issues our beta-readers and early reviewers find in the galley.
On the day before we froze the text, I became aware of a potential issue that I hadn’t even thought of before. As one might surmise from the title of the book, Shabbat candles make several important appearances. I described, in great detail, my modern Jewish character lighting Shabbat candles–twice–in the manner I am familiar with; and then it came to my attention that Sephardi tradition is different from Ashkenazi tradition.
(And here, for a change, was an issue with the book that it would be completely pointless to ask you about! 😛 )
…Let me back up a bit and explain how this candlelighting thing is done.
There are certain commandments that require a blessing immediately before performing them. But in the case of Shabbat candles, there’s an issue: making the blessing is sort of a declaration that I am accepting Shabbat. That means it’s Shabbat for me when I finish the blessing–and if I haven’t lit the candles yet, I can’t light them on Shabbat, right?!
So Ashkenazi custom has the following solution: we light the candles first, cover our eyes, make the blessing, and then open our eyes and look at the candles, as if they just appeared! Magic! 😛
Sephardi custom, however, is to say the blessing before lighting the candles with the understanding that the blessing is not a declaration of “accepting” Shabbat; but rather, their intention is to “accept” Shabbat only after the candles are lit, or only when it enters at sunset.
Well… at least, that’s the custom in theory.
You see, I have several Sephardi/North African/Middle Eastern friends, with whom I have spent Shabbat; and I didn’t remember noticing anything unusual about their candlelighting customs. So I decided to try and find out what people actually do. I took to Facebook and took an unofficial survey among my Sephardi friends.
That’s how I discovered that the matter is actually a lot more complicated than I had suspected.
My friend Malka said her Yemenite mother-in-law makes the blessing first and then lights the candles, but doesn’t blow out the match.
My friend Shareen, who has Tunisian and Persian grandmothers, said they both lit first and made the blessing while “covering” the candles with their hands.
My friend Nora, who follows the custom of her Moroccan mother-in-law, said she lights first, covers her eyes, and makes the blessing. She mentioned, however, that she has a friend of Algerian origin who makes the blessing first and then lights the candles.
My friend Yemima, whose mother was an Italian descendant of Jewish refugees from the Spanish expulsion, said her mother lit first and then made the blessing, but never covered her eyes.
My friend Reut said her Libyan grandmother lit first, covered her eyes, and made the blessing.
My friend Shahar said her Libyan grandmother made the blessing first, then lit the candles, didn’t blow out the match, and then covered their eyes to pray; whereas her Moroccan grandmother did the same, but without covering her eyes.
My friend Yonit–who is Ashkenazi–pointed out that it doesn’t really help to ask individuals if you’re trying to determine what the custom of a particular ethnic group is. I explained that I’m not doing a scientific study here; I’m just trying to find out what people do. “I want what my character does to be at least somewhat connected to reality, so people don’t come after me with pitchforks yelling, ‘You Ashkenazi, what are you doing writing about Sephardi characters?!'”
At this point I was feeling pretty confused and felt it was time to call in the real authorities. Thankfully, I knew who to call: a number of years ago, I got in touch with Yaacov Ben-Tolila, a retired professor from Ben-Gurion University who is Israel’s leading expert on Haketía (the Judeo-Spanish of North Africa) and the Jewish community of Morocco under the Spanish Protectorate. He happens to have been born in the same city and the same year as my fictional grandmother character! He was an amazing resource and was very happy to tell me about his childhood in Tétouan.
So I wrote him an e-mail, and the following morning he called me. He described his mother’s Shabbat candle (only one!) in great detail, and said he was sure she didn’t cover her eyes, but couldn’t remember if she made the blessing before or after lighting. He recommended I contact Mois Benarroch, an Israeli author who was also born in Tétouan and who has written and published many books set in his hometown. (He blogs in Spanish and Hebrew with excerpts of his work; check out the Spanish one here!)
Mind you, this is all while we were hoping to have the manuscript finalized that day!
So I found Mois Benarroch on Facebook and asked him the question. To my enormous relief, he answered within a few hours. He remembered the women making the blessing while lighting the candles and then covering their eyes!
“The results of my survey,” I wrote on the original Facebook thread, “are as follows: everyone does something different! And no matter what I write, some group somewhere will find a reason to come after me with pitchforks. Conclusion: practice self-defense against pitchforks!”
And now you must be wondering, after all this confusing research, what I decided to have my character do!
I took out all reference to covering eyes, and simply listed her actions: “I struck a match, lit the candles, and made the blessing…” leaving it ambiguous whether she makes the blessing while lighting the candles or after.
“But you know what I’m going to get out of this?” I said to Eitan as I got ready to pick up R2 from preschool after finally resolving this issue on the manuscript. “A great blog post!”
Pretty much as long as Jews have been around, there have been misunderstandings and myths about us and our religion. Some of them are insidious expressions of antisemitism, like the blood libel and other classic antisemitic tropes–which I already covered in my “Great Post of Jewish Conspiracies.”
Today I want to focus on some common myths about Jews that are more innocuous, but no less untrue, and no less annoying. Sadly, most of these are perpetuated by secular Jews, in the spirit of “a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
Let us begin with the ever popular:
NOT A THING #1: Married Jewish Couples Have Sex Through a Hole in a Sheet
Nothing could be farther from the truth!!!
There is actually a requirement in Jewish law that couples be unclothed during relations. My bridal counselor taught me this and I have read it in several sources. And even if that weren’t true, there is absolutely no need for “modesty” of this kind in the context of a sexual relationship within marriage. Marital relations are supposed to be an expression of ultimate intimacy.
There is a theory that this myth came about because of the tallit katan, the four cornered garment that men wear with the tzitzit (tassels) at each corner. It looks kind of like a small sheet with a hole in the middle, and maybe people saw it hanging on Jewish clotheslines and drew this stupid conclusion.
NOT A THING #2: If You Have a Tattoo, You Can’t Be Buried in a Jewish Cemetery
Okay first off let me point out the obvious absurdity of this myth. Do you think this guy wouldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery because of his tattoo?
The biblical prohibition in Leviticus 19:28 is not against having a tattoo, it’s against getting/giving yourself one. And it’s not as clear cut as you may think. The context of the prohibition is clear: the tattoos that were prohibited were a very specific kind with a specific purpose–something to do with idolatry and commemoration of the dead. It is not at all clear that aesthetic tattoos are included in this prohibition. This has practical implications: most rabbis agree that it is permissible for a woman recovering from breast cancer to have reconstructive surgery including a tattooed areola.
It is true that most rabbis agree that aesthetic tattoos (except in cases like the above) are forbidden. But just because you violated Shabbat or ate pork doesn’t mean you can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery–and getting a tattoo is lower on the hierarchy than those prohibitions. Having ink under your skin doesn’t inherently “taint” you or something.
So what’s the origin of this myth? Eitan heard a theory that maybe it was because during the Middle Ages, when an unidentified body was found and they were trying to figure out where to bury it, it was known that if it had a tattoo, it couldn’t have been Jewish, because Jews don’t get tattoos. So unidentified bodies with tattoos were never buried in Jewish cemeteries.
NOT A THING #3: Orthodox Jewish Women Shave Their Heads After They Get Married
To be fair, this one at least has some basis in fact: in some Hassidic circles, women do shave their heads after getting married, to make it easier to wear a wig. But the vast majority of Orthodox Jewish women do not shave their heads. I assure you, I have a full head of hair under there.
NOT A THING #4: If a Utensil Has Been Used for Something Not Kosher, One Must Bury It in Dirt
Oh. My gosh. This one drives me nuts.
As we have discussed (and by “discussed” I mean I ranted at you for a full five minutes and then wrote a long essay on the topic for this blog eight years later), kashering dishes and cookware is complicated and generally involves some kind of heating or boiling.
So where on earth did this burying thing come from?
I’ll tell you: back before we had dish soap and abrasive sponges in every kitchen, it was a lot harder to get stuff off of our utensils, especially oils and fats. Sticking the item in the ground to scrape it off with dirt was a common way to clean it. So this was recommended as a way to get the utensil clean. But there is no reason to leave the thing in the dirt for any period of time, and scraping something in the dirt is no more effective in kashering than washing a dish in the sink with soap and a good sponge. (Namely, this will only work if the forbidden food that came into contact with the item wasn’t hot or strong-flavored.)
And yet time and again I have heard uninformed Jews refer to burying as the proper way to kasher things–or just some bizarre ritual to get rid of the “treifed” (un-koshered) utensil. At first I thought this was an “assimilated American Jew” thing, but then a friend told me that her Moroccan-Israeli roommate had a flowerpot full of forks and spoons waiting to be kashered!
There is no basis whatsoever for this practice!!! It’s probably the result of a weird conflation of the aforementioned scraping-to-get-it-clean thing with the fact that we’re supposed to leave a utensil unused for 24 hours before kashering it.
The most annoying example I saw was in an episode of Larry David’s show Curb Your Enthusiasm. In the episode, Larry is trying to endear himself to an Orthodox Jew in an influential position, by pretending to be Orthodox himself (and pretending that his non-Jewish wife is not his wife). Here’s the scene:
(Might I also point out that the “Orthodox woman” portrayed here is not dressed particularly realistically either–she is covering her hair, even though she’s unmarried, and wearing pants rather than a skirt, which some Orthodox women do, but many don’t.)
Only Larry David would have the chutzpah to make an entire episode about Orthodox Jews without bothering to consult one.
…Actually… no, he’s not the only one.
NOT A THING #5: Sabbath Candles Are Always Lit at the Sabbath Table Immediately Before the Meal
Something always bugged me about this scene from Fiddler on the Roof:
It’s a truly beautiful scene that captures a lot of the spirit of Sabbath Eve… but… this is almost certainly not what a Friday night looked like in a Russian shtetl in the early 20th century.
In this clip it seems that they are lighting the candles before sunset, and then sitting down for the meal. More likely, the mother would light the candles, and then the men would head off to synagogue for evening services. When they got back home after dark, they would have the meal by the light of the already-lit candles.
Lighting candles before Shabbat is a well-known and popular custom that was instituted by the rabbis. It is not a Biblical requirement in any sense. But there’s a common misconception that they must be lit right before the meal–even if the meal takes place, as it usually does, after sundown. I’ve seen this happen in other movies and TV shows about Orthodox Jews, and it drives me crazy!
Because because because
WHY ARE THEY LIGHTING FIRE ON SHABBAT
The prohibition against lighting fire on the Sabbath is one of the few Sabbath prohibitions that is explicit in the text of the Bible: “You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on the Sabbath day” (Exodus 35:3) An Orthodox Jew would never ever ever ever light candles at the Sabbath meal if it started after sundown.
And here’s one last annoyingly inaccurate portrayal of an Orthodox Jew in popular media:
NOT A THING #6: Jews Have a Problem with Porcine Implants
As I was looking around for another Shabbat-candle-related clip, I came across this little scene from the American TV show, Gray’s Anatomy:
Terrible acting AND completely detached from reality:
A) The only clear-cut prohibition we have regarding pigs is not eating them. We are allowed to use any part of them for any other purpose.
B) This is a clear case of pikuach nefesh–a situation where a life is endangered. Not only would she be allowed to have the implant, she would be allowed to eat pork if it would save her life. On Yom Kippur. Cooked in its mother’s milk. By an idol worshiper. 😛
I think this misconception comes from a basic lack of understanding about Judaism and Jewish law… and the fact that Muslims are a lot more strict about pigs and pig products than we are. Muslims are not allowed to touch pigs and see them as having an inherent impurity.
Jewish culture does share a cultural bias against pigs, however, and especially Chabadniks, who take particular issue with non-kosher animals including dogs and cats, might feel uncomfortable with the idea of a porcine implant. But what should have happened in the above scene is that once they told this young woman she would die if she didn’t get the implant, she’d have picked up the phone and called her rabbi, who would have told her that it’s fine.
NOT A THING #7: Food Is Made Kosher by Being Blessed by a Rabbi
Unlike the previous two this one usually comes from non-Jews who have heard that there is some weird thing about Jews and food but have no idea what it is, and draw the conclusion that the food needs to be “blessed” by a clergyman.
As I have exhaustively explained, kashrut has nothing to do with whether it was blessed by a rabbi, and everything to do with the contents of the actual food–kind of like a spiritual allergy. In cases of packaged or prepared foods, we do require supervision by a rabbi–that is, that a rabbi verifies that the product has been prepared in accordance with the laws of kashrut.
Actually, we “bless” our own food. That is, we recite a blessing before taking a bite of anything. But that has nothing to do with kashrut. I elaborated on that here.
When I signed up for my bridal counselor’s course, I remember joking that if nothing else, it would provide material and inspiration for the blog. Well, I was right! It already inspired this one, and now I want to write about a topic we’ve been discussing over the past couple weeks: family planning.
Can Orthodox Jews “plan” families?
In all fairness, can anybody? 😉 The term “family planning” implies that we actually have control over how many kids we have and when. On some level, modern medicine makes this possible–when all goes well. But there are so many things that are out of our control. There’s a woman in my community who had five kids and got an IUD to “close up shop”… and then got pregnant.
Conversely, I know several people who tried to have a baby for years and went through varying degrees of pain and suffering before finally having one. One woman I know went through years and years of treatments and lost many pregnancies (including two pairs of twins born too early) before finally giving birth to a healthy child.
So before I get into this I just want to put out there that we have so much less control over these things than we think we do, and it’s important to keep that in mind.
Now. Given that you are Catholic and probably know that there are issues with contraception in some religious circles, you may have wondered if we have similar restrictions.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Like, literally the beginning.
And God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth.”
“Be fruitful and multiply” is considered by traditional Judaism to be the very first mitzvah in the Torah. But like everything in Judaism, we have to work out the specifics! What exactly is the requirement here? Who is obligated? Under what circumstances?
So, according to the Sages, only men are obligated in this mitzvah. That may seem strange, since, I mean, most of the burden of creating new life falls on women as a matter of biology. The Sages explain that pregnancy and childbirth are dangerous, and the Torah does not command us to do something that would endanger our lives. Obviously, however, men cannot fulfill this obligation without women! But this difference has practical implications, as we shall see in a moment.
There is a debate about how many children one is required to have to fulfill the obligation. The generally accepted opinion is at least two–one boy and one girl. Obviously, we have no control over the gender of the child, and we’re only required to do what we can… but yes, technically this means that even a man with ten sons has not fulfilled the obligation!
In general, the attitude in Jewish law is that we should have as many children as we can. The Talmud points out that each child conceived is potentially an immeasurable contribution to humanity, and we never know what potentially great person we may be barring entry to the world by preventing a pregnancy.
Therefore, we are not supposed to use any form of contraception unless it is necessary.
But, obviously, there is a wide range of opinions on exactly what qualifies as a necessity.
On the most stringent end of the scale, you will find rabbis who rule that it is only permitted to use contraception when getting pregnant would endanger a woman’s health. This is why families in the ultra-Orthodox community tend to be so large. There has (thankfully) been increased awareness in the area of mental health in recent years, so even on the most stringent end of the scale, rabbis are recognizing anxiety, depression and the like as health hazards that qualify as reasons to prevent pregnancy.
Some rabbis rule that even without a specific diagnosis of a mental health disorder, the increased anxiety or depression the parents might experience from being overwhelmed is reason enough to use contraception. The couple’s financial situation may factor in on this as well, especially when having another child might compromise the quality of care the other children receive or, again, the mental health of the parents. Education is a factor too: Rabbi Moshe Feinstein famously ruled that young couples who are still studying in college may use contraception until they complete their studies.
On the most lenient end of the scale, some rabbis rule that no special reason is needed for contraception; that it is permitted as long as the couple intends to eventually have children.
Then there comes the question of what kind of contraception can be used. Not all forms are permitted. Firstly, there is a separate mitzvah prohibiting sterilization. So any form of contraception that is permanent, such as tubal ligation or vasectomy, is forbidden. (Though I think the former may be permitted under extreme circumstances. And of course any life-saving operation is permitted even if it may cause infertility.)
Secondly, because of the fact that it is men who are obligated in the mitzvah of having children, halakha is stricter about contraceptives that interfere with the male end of things. “Fortunately,” medicine has traditionally placed the brunt of the burden of childbearing or lack thereof on the woman anyway, so the most common forms of long-term contraception–pills and IUDs–are permitted, as well as other forms of hormonal contraception and spermicides. Barrier methods are more problematic, depending on the type, but some authorities permit the use of the diaphragm or cervical cap. Refraining from relations on the fertile days of the woman’s cycle is theoretically okay, but kind of a bummer for women who keep the laws of family purity, since it adds more days of abstinence to what was already practically half the month. So women who choose to practice fertility awareness (that is, charting their fertile signs) for contraception often end up using some other method during their fertile days.
So… the decision to prevent pregnancy is even more complex for a religious Jewish couple than it is for your average couple. No method is 100% effective; every single one has disadvantages, from minor inconveniences to severe health risks; and besides, we have to balance our cherished value of growing our families and expanding the Jewish people with consideration for our physical, emotional, and financial well-being–while having no way to know for sure how one will affect the other. I know from experience that it’s impossible to predict the effect a pregnancy might have on the family. There’s this generally accepted idea in mainstream society of two years or so being the ideal “spacing,” but it depends on so many things… the kids’ personalities, health issues, sibling dynamics, etc… and none of these things are static.
So it can actually be a really tough decision.
In Orthodox Jewish circles, family planning is considered a very private thing. So it’s seen as rather intrusive to just ask someone outright when they are planning on having kids, how many, when they plan to have the next one, etc. Personally I don’t really mind discussing it with people I trust, but most people can’t really comprehend how complex an issue it can be, and that can be kind of frustrating for me.
As you know, we also have a custom not to tell about a pregnancy in the first three months. In the Chabad community, the norm is to wait five months. But as I told you once, my attitude about this custom has shifted a lot over the years. The reason for the custom is that most miscarriages occur in the first three months, so there’s superstition around it. But there is also a practical explanation: if something happens to the pregnancy you don’t want to have to explain to people about it.
Personally? I found the secrecy in the first trimesters of my pregnancies to be a special kind of torture. Here I had this wonderful news that I couldn’t share with people, but also I was feeling horrible physically and couldn’t explain to anyone why or get the support I desperately needed. Even if I don’t believe in superstitions, it’s a societal norm, and I was concerned that people would feel weird about my telling them I was pregnant before 12 weeks or so.
But when I was 10 weeks pregnant with R2, a misunderstanding led to a rumor in my extended family that I was pregnant. (My parents and siblings already knew.) It was such an awful feeling that I had no control over this information; it was as if I had failed to keep a secret I didn’t even want to keep in the first place.
To top it off, I have two friends who told me about their pregnancies early on and then had miscarriages; if they hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have been able to support them through it.
So in light of my experiences, I don’t think much of this custom and believe that parents should share their news whenever they darned well feel like it.
Now, as you know, ultrasound has made it possible to find out the sex of the baby fairly early on in the pregnancy. I think as a kind of holdover from the norms about maintaining the air of mystery around pregnancy, in the religious community it is far more common than in the secular world for parents to choose not to find out the sex of the baby. But more often, in the religious community parents will often find out the sex of the baby–and then not tell anyone what it is until the baby is born. Personally, I can’t really comprehend the point of this. If you are telling people you’re having a baby, why should you care whether they know what sex it is, especially when you, yourself, know?! On the contrary–let them know so they can plan for a circumcision ceremony if necessary, and/or buy you gender-appropriate gifts ahead of time!
People are weird.
So that’s all for this topic for now. Stay tuned, because in a future post I’ll be tackling a related, but more controversial issue: the Jewish attitude towards abortion. 😉
There’s been a great hullabaloo recently over an Israeli Education Ministry decision not to include a certain book in the high school curriculum. The book is called Geder Haya (or “Borderlife” in English) by Dorit Rabinyan, and the reason there was such controversy over it was that it depicts a romance between an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Arab. Apparently it also depicts Israel from a harshly critical left-wing perspective, but of course the Israeli left and the international media enjoyed latching on to the allegedly racist nature of the decision, claiming that the book was being “censored” because of a desire to “prevent exposure” of the concept of romance between a Jew and an Arab and thus “discourage intermarriage.” The Education Ministry later backtracked slightly and decided to include the book in an advanced curriculum for students specializing in literature.
I haven’t read the book, and I think everyone is making a big deal over nothing here. Leaving a book out of the reading curriculum for high school is not “censoring” or “banning” it. A Tale of Two Cities isn’t in the high school curriculum either. In fact, in my day, there was a novel in the curriculum specifically approved for religious high schools that depicted a romance between a haredi IDF soldier and a secular woman, which included a forbidden sexual encounter. I am far more inclined to believe that the decision had nothing whatsoever to do with the romance aspect of the book.
But, I decided to take this opportunity to open yet another can of worms. It’s true: according to Jewish tradition, Jews are not allowed to marry non-Jews.
On the surface, I know that it looks bad. How could we claim to treat all human beings with equal respect, and then turn right around and say that we would never marry a non-Jew? Isn’t that a little… elitist? Or maybe racist? And particularly when we’re talking about the Arab-Israeli conflict, isn’t love the ultimate answer? Jews and Arabs riding off into the sunset together?
One might even argue that the fact that we have this rule about marriage is part of the root of the conflict. They would say that it expresses the view that other groups are not worthy of marrying into our families and becoming part of them. After all, don’t we call ourselves the “Chosen People”?
Okay, so let’s start sorting these worms out here, shall we?
What Does “the Chosen People” Mean?
First I’ll tell you what it doesn’t mean. The “Chosen People” doesn’t mean that we believe that we are inherently superior in any way to other people.
What does it mean to be “chosen” for something?
Let’s say you have a broken chair and you decide to fix it yourself. You head to a nearby hardware store and stand in front of the aisle of tools. When you choose a tool, you may choose it because of its price, or quality, but primarily, you are choosing it because it’s the one you need for the job. The fact that you chose a screwdriver over a hammer does not mean that the screwdriver is inherently superior to the hammer. It just has a different purpose and different qualities that make it better suited for the job.
See where I’m going here?
God needed a job done. He needed a nation to spread knowledge of Him through the world. He chose the Jewish people for it.
All God says on the matter is that we are the heirs of Abraham. Meaning, there was this one guy who discovered God, and he devoted his life to spreading knowledge of Him. God promised this guy that his children would fulfill that particular role for humanity. In other words, He didn’t choose us for being inherently superior. He chose us because of His love for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who walked in His ways and showed a great loyalty to Him and to the cause of spreading His message. He granted them eternity through us.
Various sages and historians have assigned particular traits to us, with more or less truth to them, that may have made us particularly suitable for this role. But ultimately, the plain truth that is apparent in the text of the Bible is that God chose us because Abraham chose Him.
So… no. Believing that we are the Chosen People does not mean that we believe we are superior. It means that we believe we have a specific job to do in this world, and the Torah is our guidebook on how to do that job.
Does that mean that there aren’t any Jews who interpret it to mean that we are superior and the goyim are inferior? No, it doesn’t. I’ve said it many times before: people can twist any idea or ideology to justify their bigotry. But the idea in and of itself is not a statement about inherent worth.
So What’s the Problem with Marrying a Non-Jew?
I have to say that this question is something I have dealt with on all kinds of levels and from all kinds of angles. It is a deeply difficult question, and not because it is difficult to answer intellectually.
The intellectual answer can be summed up in two words: Jewish continuity.
I believe that Judaism is more than a nation or a religion. Judaism is also an idea. An idea and a mission. And I see it as one of my primary life goals to pass down that message to future generations. As I’ve mentioned many times before, education is of utmost importance in Judaism. Continuing the legacy of Judaism, the practice and the study of the Torah, is extremely important to us.
It is so important to us that we have made unimaginable sacrifices to preserve it. When you carefully study our history, you realize that it is against every rule of nature that the Torah is still taught and practiced today. Generation after generation, the ruling powers tried their utmost to ethnically cleanse us, sometimes by attacking us as people, sometimes by attacking the Torah as an idea, and often both. Was it Divine intervention that preserved us? Was it extraordinary Jewish stubbornness? Perhaps a little of A and a little of B…
Point is: Judaism is something we really want to pass on to our children.
And the statistics are pretty clear on this. According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, children with only one Jewish parent are much less likely to identify as Jewish than children with two Jewish parents, and they are also more likely to intermarry themselves. The result is that within a few generations, all traces of Jewish identity are gone. Assimilation is the primary cause of the decline of the Jewish population in the USA today. Not emigration, not persecution. Assimilation.
Obviously, there are exceptions. A non-Jewish spouse may be very devoted to raising his or her children with a strong Jewish identity. But from the perspective of a child, I can’t help but look at this situation and be like, “Well, if this Judaism thing is so important, why is my father/mother not Jewish?”
It’s Not About Worth. It’s About Life Goals
Let’s say there’s this average middle-class young woman, let’s call her Susan. And when people ask Susan where she’d like to be in ten years, she says “Living in the suburbs with two kids, a dog, and a steady hi-tech career.” Legit, right? Now let’s say Susan meets this great guy, let’s call him Michael, and they start dating and fall in love. Now, when people ask Michael where he sees himself in ten years, he says “Living in the slums of Nairobi teaching math to the local children.”
So, we have a problem here. Susan and Michael have incompatible life goals. If they want to make it work, one of them is going to have to give up one of these goals. Either Susan’s going to have to give up on her idyllic comfortable life in the suburbs to rough it in Africa with Michael, or Michael’s going to have to give up his dream of making a difference to poor people in Africa and live an average (and probably in his opinion boring) life in the suburbs. And it’s not that simple, either. Giving something up for love comes with a price: you may find yourself living with a lot of resentment, feeling that your partner is holding you back from being who you were meant to be.
Now, Susan and Michael might be able to find some kind of compromise–a few years in Africa, and then settling down somewhere civilized. But maybe not. Sometimes it’s just not possible to compromise. Either Susan or Michael may have to give up too much of her- or himself to live a life that suits the other.
And for me, and other Jews who believe that the continuity of the Jewish people and the Jewish message is of utmost importance, the question of the spiritual and religious future of my family is absolutely not up for discussion. Actually, it is possibly the most important thing to me when it comes to building a family.
I think it’s pretty unfair to ask a non-Jewish spouse to completely give up his or her own heritage and family traditions just because of my priorities. I would not want to ask that of him. I would not want to enter into that situation without knowing that he was completely on board with that cause, and practically speaking, that translates as him converting to Judaism.
It’s Not About Race, Either
As I mentioned in my post about the various Jewish cultural groups, ethnicity is not the issue. There are Jews of all kinds of ethnic backgrounds, and we’re perfectly willing to marry converts of any origin, too. It’s not about race. It’s about religion.
But What About Love?
What if Michael and Susan are madly in love and just can’t live without each other?
I’m going to say something totally counter-culture and radical here. Ready? Are you sitting down?
There are things in life that are more important than romantic love.
This is a radical thing to say because the world at large worships romantic love. To a very unhealthy degree. “Love conquers all,” it claims. The butterflies and fireworks of the process of falling in love are presented as the highest heights of love–as if there is no greater or truer love than this.
It is a very powerful feeling, for sure. But it is far from what is most important in a romantic relationship–and in life in general.
True love is not those butterflies. True, deep, enduring love is the deep sense of trust and commitment, the continuous nurturing of the relationship, and the choosing–every day, under even the most trying circumstances–to make this life journey together.
I admit, this kind of slow, quiet, hardworking love doesn’t look nearly as exciting on the big screen. So Hollywood doesn’t do a very good job of representing it. And people grow up with the idea that the most important thing that’s ever going to happen to you is that you’re going to fall in love, and that that’s what really matters in a relationship. Unrequited love is seen as a terrible tragedy. Three words: Romeo and Juliet. Am I right?
Yeah. So. No. The “balcony scene” is not the part that matters. The part that matters is the little, everyday moments of life together. Little moments where you choose to connect. Like when you put down your riveting thriller with only ten pages left because you noticed that your partner looks sad. Or when you stay up at night with the sick baby to let your partner sleep. Or when you are rattling on about something that’s worrying you that your spouse cares nothing about, but she listens anyway because she knows it’s important to you.
And these are things that you actively choose.
You can’t really choose who you fall in love with. You do choose who you stay in love with. True, enduring, forever-love is a choice.
Look. I know that’s easy to say. And that’s why this is such a deeply difficult question. I have had close friends and family fall in love with non-Jews. And when you don’t believe in the importance of Jewish continuity, or you do not see it as a personal responsibility, it makes no sense whatsoever not to be with someone just because he or she isn’t Jewish. If I didn’t feel this way about Judaism, I would have no problem at all with intermarriage. And yes… making the choice not to be with someone you love, because it isn’t right for you for whatever reason, is really, really painful. Especially when that reason has nothing at all to do with that person’s worth or compatibility with you as a human being. I know. It’s a really, really hard decision to make.
But people have to make choices like this all the time in relationships. Heartbreak is an occupational hazard.
Is Love the Answer to the Arab-Israeli Conflict?
I think this is a very sweet, but naive way to view the conflict. Again, this isn’t Romeo and Juliet! We’re not going to toss aside our differences and live out the rest of our years joyfully eating hummus together just because some of our kids fell in love with each other.
I do think that facilitating more contact in neutral, nonthreatening conditions may bring about positive change. Polls show that Palestinians who have regular contact with Israelis tend to be more moderate, and I imagine the opposite is true, too. But it is very tricky to implement this when there is a strong opposition in Palestinian society to what they call “normalization,” and Palestinians who engage in dialogue must do so at great personal cost.
So… yes and no. Love is definitely part of the answer, but it is only a small part. (Don’t ask me what the rest is. If anybody knew, this conflict would have been over decades ago…)
Well, in any case, the author of Borderlife has received an enormous amount of attention in light of this so-called scandal. Her book is flying off the shelves so fast, her publisher ran a reprint. And a fellow author being successful is always good news to me, so here’s to that!
So after all the intense action of the first ten days of Tishrei, you’d think God would give us a nice break for the rest of the month.
The night after Yom Kippur, the banging of hammers and clinking of metal rods begins to sound throughout the Jewish neighborhoods.
And very soon, strange little booths begin to pop up in yards and on balconies. Some with metal frames and walls of cloth; some made of wood; some covered in palm branches, some in bamboo mats.
The children bring home a pile of paper chains, mobiles and other decorations from school.
And this morning we woke up, all partied out from Shabbat (and Yom Kippur, Shabbat, and the two days of Rosh Hashana in the past two weeks…), to face yet. another. Jewish. holiday.
Succot is one of the lesser-known, yet nonetheless important Jewish holidays. “Succot” means “booths,” and the holiday is called that because the main commandment of the holiday is to build an impermanent structure–a succah–outside our homes, and basically live in it for seven days.
…Okay, what on earth is this about? I mean, we’ve got the other two regalim, Passover and Shavuot, and each one commemorates a very important event in the forming of the Jewish nation. What happened on the 15th of Tishrei that involved moving out of our homes into a “booth”?
Well, nothing actually happened on the 15th of Tishrei. But while Passover commemorates the Exodus, and Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah, Succot commemorates something else, something less momentous, and more subtle, but nonetheless crucial to our daily lives. The succot represent the Clouds of Glory that surrounded the Israelites as they walked through the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land. In the text of the Torah it says that the Israelites were led through the desert by a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire during the night. The Sages teach us that they were actually surrounded by this protective cloud on all sides–above, to protect from the brutal desert sun; below, to protect them from scorpions and snakes; and on all sides, to protect them from bandits and wild animals.
So what makes me say that is this so relevant to our daily lives?
Because this holiday is really about understanding that like fish who can’t see the water in which they swim, we are constantly immersed in God’s presence. After a month and a half of introspection, breaking down the barriers between us and God and between ourselves and who we want to be, the time has come to simply bask in God’s glory and remind ourselves that He is always with us.
So for seven days, we move out of the comfort and security of our permanent homes, into these little impermanent structures. While they represent the Clouds of Glory protecting us, they also represent the impermanence of this physical world. And in the typical style of Judaism, we focus our attention and our lives on our existence within that world, celebrating all the goodness God has given us within it.
As usual in Jewish law, there are strict specifications for what qualifies as a succah. It must have at least two and a half walls that are at least 80 cm high and do not move around too much in the wind. The interior must measure at least 56cmx56cm. Its roof must be made out of organic material–branches or leaves, that are disconnected from their source, and parts of the succah that are covered by a permanent roof or a living tree do not qualify. The branches or leaves must be sparse enough so that the rain can come through and the stars are visible through them. The idea is that though it is impermanent, and insecure, and at the mercy of the elements, we fear no evil, for God is with us.
Succot begins with a Yom Tov (or two outside Israel, as explained here). Then follow six days of chol hamo’ed, “the mundane of the holiday,” in which we are not restricted from all the acts of creation like on Shabbat and Yom Tov, but are supposed to refrain from working as much as we can. During these seven (or eight) days, we must eat all our meals in the succah, and sleep in it if possible. It is highly encouraged–as always–to host guests in one’s succah, and there is a Kabbalistic concept that a special spiritual “guest” comes to “visit” us for each day of the holiday: Abraham the first day, Isaac the second, then Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and finally David. We call them “ushpizin” (Aramaic for “guests”), and recite a special passage “inviting” them in (or, more accurately, the spiritual attribute each of them represent–which correspond to the Kabbalistic spheres as I explained in the entry on counting the Omer).
There is a great Israeli movie called “Ushpizin” (“The Guests”) that is set in a haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem during the Succot holiday. If you have the time, I highly recommend it. (You can see it here on YouTube with English subtitles.)
The other special commandment of Succot is “taking the four species.”
The Four Species
When I was collecting ideas for “weird things Jews do,” this one came up a lot, but I left it out of that list because it’s not just a weird habit or tradition–it’s an actual mitzvah, a Torah commandment.
So what are the four species?
Leviticus 23:40: “And you shall take for yourselves on the first day, the fruit of the citrus tree, date palm fronds, a branch of a braided tree, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for a seven day period.”
That cluster of three types of branches is called a lulav. It is composed of a date palm frond in the center (also called a lulav), three myrtle branches on the right (hadassim), and two willow branches (aravot) on the left. The etrog is a citron (el poncem for you), a lemon-like citrus fruit with a thick rind. Together, they comprise the arba minim, the four species.
So, um… what do we do with them?
While we pray during the holiday, we hold them together, and at specified points in the prayers, shake them in all directions–the lulav in the right hand, and the etrog in the left, opposite the heart. The idea is, again, to remind us of God’s presence all around us.
Now, for anybody (with the possible exception of a religious Christian!), this makes for a pretty bizarre-looking scene: a bunch of guys parading around the synagogue holding a clump of plants and chanting.
So what’s the symbolism here? Why these plants?
The two most common explanations are as follows: one states that plants symbolize the different parts of the body. The etrog represents the heart; the lulav, the spine; the myrtle, the eyes, and the willow, the mouth (each because of the shape of their leaves). The idea is that we are subjugating all these parts of our bodies–our hearts and minds, our limbs, our eyes and power of sight, and our mouths and power of speech to service of God. The other explanation is that the plants symbolize four different kinds of Jews. The etrog, which has a fragrance and a flavor, represents a Jew who studies Torah and performs good deeds. The date palm, which has a flavor but no fragrance, represents one who performs good deeds but does not study Torah. The myrtle, which has a fragrance but no flavor, represents the opposite; and the willow, which has no fragrance and no flavor, represents a Jew who does neither. We are to strive to be like the etrog.
So the four species symbolize the different components of who we are–as individuals and as a community. And the idea of holding and shaking them during the prayers is that during this particular celebration of God’s presence, we are coming together and devoting everything we are to the continuous pursuit of His closeness. We seek Him in our diverse community, in our words, in our deeds, in our thoughts, and in our hearts.
Shmini Atzeret & Simḥat Torah
So you’d think that after the intense first ten days of the month of Tishrei and the seven or eight days of Succot, then we would finally get a break!
Often lumped together with Succot, the Yom Tov that follows immediately after its conclusion is not actually part of Succot, but a separate holiday in its own right. We do not eat in the succah on this day, and it doesn’t have any unique commandments of its own. The name Shmini Atzeret means something like “the final eighth day.” It’s kind of like the “after-party” of the Tishrei Holiday Extravaganza. You know how it’s like one in the morning and you just finished a lovely meal with your new friends from the USA and Israel, and the one from Israel is going to be flying home in the morning and you don’t know when you’ll ever see her again, and you’ve had such a lovely time getting to know each other and getting back to your normal routine is going to be so depressing… so you suggest going to hang out at a pub on La Rambla, to spend just a little more time together? Like that. 😉
But because there is no specific commandment associated with Shmini Atzeret, the Sages decided to designate it as the holiday to celebrate renewing the cycle of the weekly Torah portions. You see, the Torah (as in the first five books of the Bible) is divided into portions, and a different one is read each week. It takes a year to get through all the portions, and Shmini Atzeret is when we read the last portion and celebrate the completion of the Torah readings. For that reason, it is also called Simḥat Torah, “rejoicing in the Torah”.
I should point out that they are only on the same day in Israel. Outside of Israel, because of the need for two days of Yom Tov (which I explain about here), they are split. The first day is Shmini Atzeret, and the second day, Simḥat Torah.
So what does celebrating the completion of the Torah readings involve? A whole lot of dancing and singing! The congregation takes out all the Torah scrolls and dances with them, shoving all the chairs and benches in the synagogue to the side. This part of the services can last for hours on Simḥat Torah, and it occurs both during the evening services and the morning services. Parents involve the children by dancing with them (fathers often put their kids on their shoulders), and candy is frequently distributed.
In the morning, after all the dancing, the last portion of the Torah is read, followed by the beginning of the first portion of Genesis. Kind of like how you finish a really great book and you can’t help but just start it all over again right away! (Okay, actually, it’s exactly that.)
And then… we finally get a break! The month after Tishrei, Ḥeshvan, is devoid of holidays, and the holiday in the following month is at the end of it (the 25th of Kislev=Ḥanukah!). Other than finally getting back to our normal routines, we use this time to focus on praying for rain, as the rainy season in Israel begins at this time. And that, my friend, is a topic for another letter. 😉
Hey–good luck with the elections today. I won’t see the results until tomorrow evening because of Yom Tov, and I expect you to keep me informed! 😉
1. For the Jews, Muslims or otherwise uninformed among you: Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter, and in many traditions, it is celebrated by holding a procession of the congregants carrying palm fronds, in commemoration of Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem before the crucifixion.
Bunch of guys parading around with palm fronds. Yeah, that looks about right. No one ever said you had to be normal…↩
Greetings and welcome to Letters to Josep! Have a kosher lemonade and make yourself at home! Lots of people have discovered my blog by landing on this page. If you arrived here–as so many have before you–by Googling the eternal question “why are Jews so weird,” allow me to point you to this post, where I address that question directly.
If you were looking for more general information about Jewish traditions (strange customs, stuff Jews can and can’t do, etc) and what the Jewish faith is all about: the bad news is, the following post only offers a very narrow slice of that. The good news is, this entire blog is dedicated to answering that question! And the even better news is that I compiled my posts on all the basics of Judaism into a book, which you can buy on Amazon here (on Kindle or in print). It’s got all the info organized neatly for ya and it’s in the same entertaining style as the post below. So if you enjoy this post, don’t forget to check out the book!
You may be wondering from the title of this post… “15? That’s all?! This entire blog is full of weird things Jews do!” Yes, and I haven’t even told you about what we do with the Lulav during Succot yet. 😛
But, you know, most of that stuff is just part of our religious practice. All religions have practices that look weird to outsiders.
This, however, is a list of 15 strange things Jews tend to do that are not necessarily part of religious practice. Some of them are customs (and I tried to pick ones that are common to most Jewish ethnic groups); some, a result of religious practices; some, a result of historical and sociological circumstances; and some… well, darned if we know!
1) Clap and Cheer “Mazel Tov!” When a Dish Breaks
As I explained in a previous post, shattering glass has a strong association with the celebration of weddings in our culture. So it is almost an instinct that when someone drops a dish or a glass and it breaks, we clap and say “mazel tov!” (“Congratulations!”) Eitan was once the only Orthodox Jew present when a waitress in an Israeli hotel dropped a dish, and therefore the only one clapping and saying “mazal tov.” A Christian British gentleman nearby was deeply scandalized by this behavior and told him off for being disrespectful and mocking the waitress. He turned a deaf ear on Eitan’s attempt to explain that it was a local custom.
2) Play “Jewish Geography”
No, this is not a board game or an educational TV show. 😛 It is a sort of ritual that naturally occurs when Jews meet each other. It involves asking the other Jew where s/he is from, and based on that information, throwing out names of people you might both know. You see, throughout history Jews have maintained close ties with their brethren in communities throughout the world. We have always acted like one big [argumentative] family. 😉 So when we meet someone new, it is almost instinctive to try to find friends in common. And the difference between Jewish geography and other, similar “where are you from?” conversations among gentiles, is that it is actually very, very likely that no matter who we are speaking to, we will find at least one person in common.
Two examples from the past couple weeks alone: my father-in-law was at the mall with my kids, and as they played in the play area he noticed a woman speaking English with her daughter and grandkids. They eventually started talking, and within a few minutes figured out that she knew me as a child back in Pittsburgh and was the mom of one of my former classmates. A few days later, I got a sweet note through the contact form of this blog from someone who stumbled across it by Googling something, and wanted to let me know how much she enjoys it. Things like that make my day, so I wrote back to thank her for taking the time to write and asked her a little about herself. Turns out, she, too, is connected to the Jewish community in Pittsburgh, and lives within walking distance of my house of 18.5 years ago. What are the chances?!
3) Drink in the Morning
No hour is considered inappropriate for a stiff drink in our culture. You see, wine is an integral part of our religious practice anyway, and we drink it during the morning as part of the kiddush ceremony before a Shabbat or holiday feast. Many Jews, especially Hassidic Jews, take the opportunity to top it off with a little something stronger. 😉
The story goes that Eitan’s grandfather celebrated his bar mitzvah by reading the Torah during the services on a weekday; all the adults then knocked back a shot of whiskey and headed off to work.
You’d think that with this nonchalance about drinking, alcoholism would be rampant. But actually, social science research indicates that Jews tend to have lower alcoholism rates than the majority cultures in the West. That isn’t to say there is no alcoholism in Jewish communities; members of my own extended family struggled with it. Still, sociologists have been struck by the paradox that Jews seem to drink much more regularly than their non-Jewish counterparts and yet suffer fewer problems due to alcohol. Researchers theorize that the “prescriptive” nature of drinking in Jewish culture provides Jewish drinkers with clear guidelines and limits that effectively regulate and constrain their drinking behavior.
4) Rock Back and Forth When We Pray
This is called “shuckling” from the Yiddish word for “shaking.” It’s a kind of meditative movement, a swaying forward and back (or side to side) that Jews have been doing while praying or studying since at least the eighth century and possibly since the time of the Talmud. You may have noticed people doing this during the silent prayer of the Sabbath services you attended. It is said to increase concentration and emotional intensity. Once you get used to it, you start doing it unconsciously, and it feels weird to pray while standing still.
5) Explain Things with the Talmudic Singsong Cadence & Thumb Scoop
I can’t even begin to describe what this is without a video. And in lieu of an easily Googleable video of someone teaching Torah in this fashion, I had to make one myself. Here I explain part of a Mishna from the Tractate Baba Kama 3:1, that deals with damages and liability. (And you’ll have to forgive the poor quality… and my soprano voice. 😛 )
This way of chanting the Talmud is apparently a very old tradition, possibly derived from a passage of the Talmud that compares learning the Mishna without a tune to some kind of sin. I am not sure why this is or why it has lasted throughout the centuries like this. But, it’s fun. 😛 And given that the Talmud discusses such everyday, practical things, it is only a short step away from…. “IIIIIIF you want your matzah balls to be nice and fluffy, you must make sure not to mix the batter too much. But IIIIIF you like your matzah balls firm and chewy, you should mix the batter vigorously.”
6) Pluck Random Jewish Strangers Off the Street and Make Them Pray
The sun is low and the time for minḥa, the afternoon prayer, is fast coming to a close. The men are gathered in a synagogue, or a street corner, or wherever, checking their watches. There are only nine of them. They need one more guy to complete a minyan (prayer quorum); otherwise they’ll have to pray as though they are on their own, less than ideal in halakhic terms. So they send somebody out to scan the streets for a head with a kippah on it. In Israel, of course, this is a much easier task, and in a pinch, you can probably find a kippah-less traditional Jew who is grudgingly willing to join you.
7) Avoid Eating Meat, and Not Because We Are Vegetarian
So remember how Jews have to wait a certain period of time between eating meat and eating milk? The amount of time ranges from one hour (those lucky Dutch Sephardi devils!) to six hours, and the majority of Jews–Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike–keep at least five hours. (I am super lucky and married a man who keeps three, so I got to take on his custom! Mwahaha!) Fleishik is the Yiddish adjective to describe a food that is considered meat. But when someone says “I’m fleishik,” he is not saying that he cannot be consumed with béchamel sauce, but rather that he has eaten meat recently and cannot yet eat dairy.
Now, this creates a situation where some people avoid eating meat during the day so they will be able to eat dairy products later. Especially for people who only drink coffee with milk, being fleishik can have dire consequences. We jokingly call this avoidance of meat products “fleishephobia.” My husband thinks it’s ridiculous because clearly eating a steak is far superior to any dairy product you could possibly stumble across in the next six hours. I disagree. I would take ice cream over steak any day. (Um. That is, not ice cream on top of steak. Because that would be totally not kosher. And also kinda gross. But anyway.)
And then there’s fleishephobia’s cousin motziphobia–“motzi” as in the blessing “ha’motzi lechem min ha’aretz,” the blessing for bread. Many Jews will avoid eating bread so they don’t have to ritually wash their hands or say the long blessing afterwards…
8) Kiss Books
You’ve heard of hugging trees, and now…..
Um. Yeah. We kiss books. But not all books, just holy ones; and not all the time, just when we are done using them, or if they fall to the ground or are otherwise subject to “disrespectful circumstances.” This is only one of our customs for showing respect for holy books. They include:
Never putting them on the floor and picking them up immediately if they fall. (If a Torah scroll–the holiest of Jewish objects–falls on the floor, this is a major crisis. In the past, congregations would fast for 40 days if this happened. Today, most congregations give charity instead.)
Never putting them on a chair, bench or couch when someone is sitting on it.
Never bringing them into the bathroom.
Never putting other objects or books on top of them. And there’s a “hierarchy” of holy books which may be placed on top of one another: the Torah on top, followed by Prophets and Writings; then the siddur, prayer book, since it contains passages from the Torah; then the Talmud, and then other rabbinic writings.
Always resting them face up (and flipping them if they are facing down).
Never leaving a book open when it is not in use.
I remember asking you once whether Christians have a similar customs, and when I rattled off some of the things in this list, you were like o.O
9) Kiss the Doorpost on Entering a Room (Whether There’s a Mezuza There or Not)
Speaking of kissing things, there is always Phantom Mezuza Syndrome (mentioned in the post about mezuzot), the reflex to reach for the doorpost to kiss a mezuza that isn’t there.
10) Put Rocks on Gravestones
When visiting the grave of a loved one, some people leave flowers… we leave rocks. This is an ancient Jewish custom and its origins are unclear. I’ve heard a number of different and interesting explanations. But it’s probably similar to the reason we have gravestones in the first place: because stones are permanent and symbolize the permanence of our memory of the person.
11) Answer Questions with Questions
When I asked for ideas for this post and my friend Tammy suggested this, I was like, “Is that really a thing that characterizes Jews specifically?” and she said, “Isn’t it?” 😛
So this is a fairly typical characteristic of Jewish discourse, especially in educational settings. Remember how I’m always saying that Jews love a good question even more than we love a good answer? The best answer to a good question, is an even better question! 😉
But sometimes they are rhetorical questions, in a typical dark-Jewish-humor-style sarcastic retort:
Person #1: Could you help me carry this refrigerator?
Person #2: Do I look twenty years younger all of the sudden?
12) Constantly Play Matchmaker
I am told this is not nearly as common in non-Jewish circles, and I guess that makes sense. Judaism revolves around the home and family, and single people can often feel neither-here-nor-there in the community, so it is considered a great kindness to find a match for them. I think it also makes sense in the context of the “small-town culture” and sense of being one big family. Everybody being in everybody else’s business, and all. 😉 In any case, matching up friends and family is a popular pastime among Jews. And they say that if you make three successful matches, you earn a guaranteed spot in Gan Eden.
Speaking of which…
13) Dance at Random Strangers’ Weddings
Bringing joy to a bride and groom is an important commandment. This, combined with the “one big family” thing I keep mentioning, leads to the following scenario: a couple is having a modest wedding. Maybe they don’t have much family around because they are immigrants, or maybe they are very poor. In cases like these, complete strangers will volunteer to come to the wedding and sing and dance (and not partake in the banquet) just to make the event as joyous as possible.
Funny anecdote on this one: once Eitan was invited to a wedding at a venue that had several weddings going on at once. He was there as a friend of the bride, but as it was an ultra-Orthodox wedding, the men and women were separate so he was hanging out on the men’s side and dancing and singing with them. At some point in the middle of the wedding he figured out that he was actually at the wrong wedding–and nobody noticed or cared!
And speaking of dancing…
14) Dance in Circles
Circle dancing is not a strictly Jewish thing, and the Israeli folk dance known as the “hora” is a relatively recent tradition. Still, it is a pretty striking phenomenon, that when you turn on some lively music around religious Jews, or if something happens that bears celebrating (for instance, if somebody announces she is engaged), they grab each other’s hands to form a circle and start dancing some version of the hora (or perhaps the “Yemenite step”). This is simply how modern Jews get down. 😉 (And you can see examples of this in the post about weddings, and the post about my trip to Poland.)
The one time I was at the Western Wall on Jerusalem Day, I joined several circle dances of perfect strangers: we all threw our backpacks in the middle of the circle, danced around them while singing, and then picked up our backpacks and walked away.
One of the great things about circle dancing, as opposed to the stuff that goes on at your typical nightclub, is that it’s really about celebrating together and not about showing off your fancy moves. (The fact that it’s usually gender segregated probably helps.) And if you’re in a crowd of dancing Jews and you reach out your hand for long enough, chances are, someone will take it.
Today is the 17th of Tammuz. Well actually it’s the 18th, but that’s what we call this fast, which was delayed by a day because of Shabbat. It marks the beginning of the Three Weeks, the period of mourning for the destruction of the Temple.
But before I talk about symbolic mourning, I should first talk about actual mourning. So, um, yes, this is gonna be a downer. Pour yourself a glass of wine, ’cause I can’t–I’m fasting. 😛
As you know, my grandmother passed away at the end of March. My family is very blessed in that this was our first experience of needing to figure out the laws of mourning–aveilut–and how my mother was supposed to observe them. The shiva (explained below) was cut short because of Passover, and my mother’s family is not the slightest bit religious, so the matter presented a number of issues.
But as a general rule, the customs around death and mourning in Judaism are designed to lead the mourners through a gradual process of grief and healing, and many report that this is helpful to them. I have to say that because of the circumstances surrounding my grandmother’s death (as I elaborated in that entry), the lack of context I had for really grieving for her was really difficult, I’d say even traumatic for me.
Anyway. Here’s how it goes:
In Jewish law, we bury our dead as soon as possible. The reason for this is kavod hamet–“honoring the dead.” According to Jewish beliefs, it causes the disembodied soul a lot of anguish and shame to see its former body lying there exposed. In general, covering something is a sign of respect in our culture.
This is also the reason there is a lot of sensitivity around archaeology and the discovery of ancient Jewish cemeteries; we prefer to leave bones where they are and not expose them unnecessarily, and if there is a need to exhume them, this must be handled with utmost care and they must be reburied as soon as possible.
Jews are traditionally buried wrapped only in simple linen cloth. Coffins are not usually used, and if they are, the body is still completely wrapped in a shroud, again, out of respect for the dead. Men are usually buried with their tallit (prayer shawl–see Prayer, Part II).
There are a number of prayers that are standard for funerals. It is customary to read Psalms, and the rabbi or leader of the funeral recites E-l Maleh Rahamim, “God, Full of Mercy”, the prayer for the dead.
The close family members also perform kriya, a symbolic rending of one’s clothes to express their grief.
I have briefly mentioned Kaddish before, and here is the place to elaborate. Kaddish is a prayer in Aramaic. It appears during the prayer services in a number of forms, most of them recited by the hazzan, the prayer leader (it can only be recited in the presence of a minyan, a quorum of ten men). Sometimes, however, it is recited by anyone in the congregation who has lost a parent over the past year. This is known as the Mourner’s Kaddish.
So what is this prayer and why is it something that mourners traditionally recite?
Here’s a translation of the Ashkenazi version of the Mourner’s Kaddish:
Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name (congregation answers: amen)
Throughout the world which He has created according to His will; may He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, quickly and soon; and say, Amen. (congregation answers: amen. May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.)
May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He. (congragation answers: Blessed be He.)
Beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are spoken in the world; and say, Amen. (congregation answers: amen.)
May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen. (congregation answers: amen.)
He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen. (congregation answers: amen)
A beautiful prayer, for sure. But what does all this praising God have to do with mourning?
I heard two interesting answers to this question. The first one is that when someone dies, they are unable to continue to perpetuate the good and Godliness that they were able to in their lifetime, and when their loved ones say Kaddish, a very holy prayer about the might and glory of God, they “fill in” some of the vacuum of goodness that that person left behind.
We have a concept called ilui neshama, the “raising of a soul”. We believe that we, the people who were affected by the departed, can continue to perpetuate his or her good in the world, by doing good deeds in his or her merit. We believe that this assists the soul in its process of “spiritual cleansing” that occurs in the afterlife. Reciting Kaddish is one very important way to “raise a loved one’s soul”. People also teach or study Torah classes, put together charities, and other things like that in memory of someone for this purpose.
I think there is a very profound idea there about the effect we have on other people and how that effect we have on them, in turn, affects us and our spiritual “health”. The living loved ones can carry on the legacy and positive influence of a soul that has departed.
Another explanation for why the Kaddish is recited under these circumstances, is one that my mother heard from her meditation teacher and rabbi (she calls him her “Meditation Rebbe”), Rabbi James Jacobson-Meisels. He talks about the line, “beyond all blessings and hymns…” The word for “beyond” (or more accurately, “above”) in Aramaic is “l’ayla,” and during the holiest time of the year, the Ten Days of Repentance, we repeat this word during Kaddish: “l’ayla u’l’ayla,” “above and beyond.” Rabbi James teaches that the Kaddish is about God’s vastness and greatness and holiness and kindness, above and beyond anything we can imagine or describe; beyond all blessings and hymns that are spoken… we have no words for the greatness of God and His love. In the context of this greatness, Rabbi James teaches, what is my grief, and what is my sadness? A small blip in the general experience of God’s universe. Maybe, he says, the Kaddish is recited to help give us that perspective.
“Shiva” means “seven”. (Remember Shavuot, shavua, sheva? “Sheva” is the feminine form; “shiv’a” is the masculine form.) This refers to the custom of spending seven days in intense mourning following the burial of a close family member. It is called “sitting” shiva, because part of the custom is to sit on low benches, stools, or the floor (as opposed to chairs or couches), and to stay in the “shiva house” for the duration of the shiva. (Ideally, the shiva should take place in the house of the deceased, and all members of the immediate family should try to stay there for the week; but if this is problematic, the home of one of the mourners is fine, and the other mourners can come sit there most of the day and then go home to sleep.)
Ideally, the mourners should not have to leave the house at any time during the shiva. I’m sure you are familiar with how painful and difficult it is to “put on your public face” and walk out of the house when you are dealing with something very difficult. We don’t want the mourners to have to do this. The community must come together and run their errands for them. Their friends, neighbors and other family members do the shopping, cooking and cleaning for them. (When there is a shiva house in our community, someone sets up a Google Doc excel sheet to schedule meals to bring to the mourner’s home during the week. Almost every time I’ve tried to sign up it was completely full by the time I got to it.) This custom compels the community to embrace and support the mourner.
Other customs for mourners include: covering the mirrors (to symbolize turning inwards and away from physicality), not shaving or cutting hair, refraining from eating meat or drinking wine, refraining from marital relations, not wearing leather shoes, and not washing for pleasure.
Making a Shiva Call
It is not only customary, but a mitzvah, for members of the community to come to the shiva house and pay a visit to comfort the mourners. Nichum aveilim, comforting mourners, is a very important mitzvah in Judaism. It can be a very difficult one, too. A few years ago, the husband of a friend from our community died very suddenly and tragically. He was a young guy in his early thirties, with a successful baking business and three young kids. The enormity of the tragedy was just unfathomable. As a young mother myself, with three young kids, and a husband more or less his age, I was deeply affected by this death, and I knew that if I went to the shiva I would just fall apart. But I knew that I should go anyway. I sat on one of the benches opposite my friend, and just cried and cried. When time came to go, I went over to her, and I was so overcome with sadness I could hardly force out, in a voice so strained it came out a most inelegant squeak, “I have no words. Only tears” before dissolving into sobs again. I felt awful because I was the only one crying at the time, and I feared that my deep sadness just reopened the wounds for everyone there. But the shiva is exactly the time and the place to fall apart, and I hope that my expression of grief at least gave some legitimacy to the inexpressible feelings of others who were there. In any case, my friend, who seemed completely drained of tears at that point, asked me if I remembered when he had brought us food they had cooked us when R2 was born. I told her that I remembered, and kissed her hands, and rose to leave and compose myself.
When visiting a shiva house, there are some important rules about protocol. The most important one is that you must not speak to the mourner unless he or she specifically expresses a desire to speak to you. Someone who is grieving should have the liberty to choose if and when he or she wants to speak, and about what. Often, the conversation at a shiva involves speaking about the person who passed away, telling stories about him or her, passing around pictures and sharing memories. This helps the mourners process the loss. But if they prefer to sit in total silence–they should be able to do that, and still experience the love and support of the community. There are no words to comfort someone who has just experienced a loss.
When leaving a shiva house, it is customary to approach the mourner, and recite the following traditional statement: “May the Omnipresent comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” This expresses our sense of family and collective mourning and loss.
When the shiva is over, the comforters who are with the mourners at the time accompany them on their first symbolic walk out of the house. This is the gradual transition back to normal life, and we don’t want the mourners to have to do this alone.
After the shiva, there is a period of lighter mourning. It is called the “shloshim”, the “thirty”, because it usually lasts thirty days (including the seven days of shiva). They still do not shave or cut their hair during this time, and avoid social events, especially ones during which music is played. The purpose of this is also to ease the mourner out of mourning and back into normal life. It is expected that during this period someone who has experienced a loss will still have periods of intense grief, and the circle of family and friends should be supportive of this.
When mourning for a parent, the period of lighter mourning lasts a year. There are a number of explanations for this, and I think it makes sense that the mourning for the person who gave you life, and your expression of gratitude towards him or her and carrying on his or her legacy, should be more intense and last longer than mourning for another family member. Kaddish is recited through that year.
Every year on the date of the loved one’s death, there is a custom to visit the grave site, light a candle, and recite prayers.
In Yiddish, this is called the yehrzeit. My grandmother’s first yehrzeit will be on the 11th of Nisan, which will fall on April 19th next year.
There is also a special prayer, called Yizkor (“He will remember”) to commemorate the dead during prayer services on Yom Kippur, Shmini Atzeret, the last day of Passover, and Shavuot. Usually, members of the congregation who don’t have someone to pray for during this prayer leave the synagogue while it is recited. This was the first year that my mom said the prayer, and it was very soon after the loss, so it was pretty tough. But she told me she had a friend there to hold her hand and hug her and get her through it.
*sigh* Heavy stuff. It’s a tough time of year for the Jews. In the next post, I will finally address the significance of the Three Weeks, the Nine Days, and Tisha B’Av.