Category Archives: Jewish culture

From the Archives, May 2008: Jewish Weddings

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

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

Hi People!

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

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

The Week Before

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

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

[However… I have friends who did:

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

Anyway. Back to the original letter:]

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

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

The Night Before

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

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

The Wedding Day

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

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

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

The Bride’s Throne and the Groom’s Table

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Chuppah V’Kidushin–The Wedding Ceremony

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

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

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

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


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

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


Sheva Brachot (“Seven Blessings”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raising Jerusalem Above Our Utmost Joy

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

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

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

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

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

Together At Last

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

“Okay guys. You may now get lost.”

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

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

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

Sheva Brachot/The Week After

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!


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

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

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

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

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

Dear Josep,

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

Religious Denominations/Levels of Religiosity

So this is where I get myself in trouble. 😛

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

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

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

Orthodox Judaism

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

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

Reform Judaism

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

Conservative Judaism

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

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

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

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

Religiosity in Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spiritual Approach (Hassidism vs. Lithuanians)

Another group you may have heard of is the Ḥassidim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And thus we conclude Part II!



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

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

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

Dear Josep,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethnic Subgroups within Judaism

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

Anyway, here are the general ethnic categories:


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Ethiopian (Beta Israel)

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

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

Chinese/Kaifeng Jews

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

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

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



Click here to read Part II!