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Processing Grief: Jewish Mourning Customs

Dear Josep,

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. ūüėõ

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:

Burial

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.

Kaddish

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.

Sitting Shiva

“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.

The Shloshim

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.

Annual Remembrances

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.

Yehrtzeit candle. More on those in "A Nation of Pyromaniacs"
A memorial¬†candle. More on those in “A Nation of Pyromaniacs”

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.

May we know only joy and good news.

Love,

Daniella

The Vagueries of the Jewish Afterlife

Prefer to listen? I read this post for this episode of the Jewish Geography podcast (starting at around 9:15):


Dear Josep,

A number of years ago, you shared this highly amusing little Rowan Atkinson routine with me:

I responded that Eitan and I had laughed our heads off at it, and then: “Of course, if [the Jews were indeed right], the whole thing would be set up very differently, and their term of stay in hell would only last a year… but I don’t expect Rowan Atkinson to know that.¬† ;)”

You asked me to explain, and I responded: “I never told you about the Jewish concepts of the ‘afterlife’? Probably because they are vague, disputed, and overall a rather unimportant aspect of Judaism…” and proceeded to give a brief overview of the concepts of the Jewish afterlife with which I am most familiar, by comparing it to the Christian concepts and pointing out the differences.

Today, I’m going to go more in depth.

From a theological perspective, the idea of the existence of an afterlife is a very simple answer to the problem of Divine justice. It explains how good people can suffer in this world, by saying that justice will be served after we die. That is why it is such a crucial part of every religion. In Judaism, however, there is a notable lack of focus on the afterlife. I have always said that it’s because Judaism is much more focused on this world, what to do in it and how to improve it, than on the next world.

In the Talmud (Mishna, Ethics of the Fathers, 1:4), it says, “Be not like a servant who serves his Master in order to receive a reward, but rather like a servant who serves his Master unconditionally.” Why would a servant serve his master unconditionally? Out of love, right? Love, and the sense that it is the service itself that is the reward; and in cases where that doesn’t feel true, the belief that the master has one’s best interests at heart, and knows best, even when the servant doesn’t understand. Eitan pointed out to me recently that we have so many other more pressing things to focus on, that the afterlife is sort of an afterthought for us. Unlike its numerous mentions in the Christian Bible and in the Qur’an, an afterlife is only very vaguely referred to throughout the Jewish Bible, and never in detail.

So do we believe in an afterlife? Yes¬†we do. For Jewish philosophers, too, it serves as an answer to the question of Divine justice. (Not the only one; but it’s part of explaining how the world is more complex than what we see in front of us.) However, unlike in Christianity and Islam, the details of what it is, what it looks like, etc., are not part of our belief system and therefore are basically a topic of discussion and dispute rather than doctrine. So you will find¬†a very wide variety of opinions on it in rabbinical literature.

If you ask an observant Jew about his beliefs regarding the afterlife, he will probably answer¬†something like what I will describe below. These are the most mainstream views of it that exist in Torah observant Judaism. But again, it’s important to emphasize that this is mostly speculation. The most accurate¬†answer to the question of what the afterlife is according to Judaism, is: “We don’t know. Now, let’s talk about how to kasher that saucepan.” ūüėČ

Olam HaBa/Gan Eden

We have two ways to refer to our version of Heaven:¬†Olam HaBa, “the World to Come”, and¬†Gan Eden, “the Garden of Eden”. The latter of those implies a return to our pre-Adam’s-sin state of simplicity and oneness with God. But unlike other religions that describe in great detail the pleasures that await a righteous person in Heaven, Judaism is very vague on this. In our prayer liturgy for the dead we refer to “basking in God’s light”, or “sitting near His throne”. We talk about one’s soul being “bound in the bond of life” (tzrura b’tzror hachaim).¬†I’m sure the Kabbalah has a lot to say about it, but Kabbalistic thought is not generally mainstream.

Basically, we don’t really know what it is. All we know is that it’s good, some kind of eternal peace, and we talk about there being some kind of hierarchy according to the spiritual level one achieved during his lifetime.

How do we get to Olam HaBa?

This is very Christian question. ūüėõ A better question in Judaism is, how do we¬†not get to Olam HaBa. The general assumption, and not just with Jews, but with every human being, is that he or she will take part in Olam HaBa. (It may involve a few steps to get there, which we’ll elaborate on in a moment.) You have to do something specifically wrong not to get there. In the Torah, there are a few commandments that list the punishment for transgressing them as “karet“. It is the harshest punishment in the Torah–even harsher than death. No one really knows what¬†karet is, but the root k.r.t., ◊õ.◊®.◊™, generally means “cut off”, and a common interpretation of the term is that is means being¬†“cut off” from the physical and spiritual world. Meaning when that person dies, he or she simply ceases to exist. The soul is destroyed and does not live on. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.1

Gehennom

So this is the closest thing we have to “hell”. But really, if we’re comparing to Christian theology, it’s more like what y’all call purgatory.

You see, in Christianity, Hell is permanent. If you’re a sinner and/or you don’t accept Jesus,¬†you are condemned to an eternity of suffering.

Serious bummer.
This is what awaits me according to your religion.¬†Thanks a bunch. ūüėõ

In Judaism, this is not so. Gehennom is a stage in¬†a process of spiritual purification or cleansing. That process actually begins with the physical world–or at least, the parts of the process we are aware of. We see life as an opportunity to purify and refine our souls, by making the right choices in this life. If we have not managed to do so in this life, there are two possibilities, at least according to my own beliefs: Gehennom, and reincarnation, which we’ll get to in a moment. So again, no one really knows what Gehennom is or what exactly happens there, but the most common explanation I’ve heard is that it is a state of remorse and regret for not living up to your full potential. It appears to be a state of understanding why the things you did wrong were wrong, how they affected you and those around you, and what you could have done and been versus what you did and were… and the subsequent profound regret that comes with that.

Our sources say that this process lasts as long as that individual soul needs, which is, at very most, a year. That is why we recite¬†kaddish, the Mourner’s Prayer, for a year after the death of a close family member. Actually, we recite it only for eleven months, under the belief that no one could possibly be wicked enough to deserve the full twelve months.

When the process is complete and the soul is “cleansed”, it then moves on to Olam HaBa.

In essence, Gehennom is actually not really a different place than Olam HaBa, but a part of it. Jew in the City (who, BTW, is also a great resource for people looking to learn about the basic concepts of Judaism) has a cute video explaining how it’s like the difference between attending a symphony as someone who has a deep appreciation for music and understanding of it, versus attending the same symphony as someone who hates classical music and has never even bothered to learn to appreciate it. For the first person, it’s heaven; for the second, it’s hell. Gehennom, in this allegory, is the place where at first the “music” is torture, but then you slowly learn to enjoy and appreciate it, and then it becomes heaven for you.

Reincarnation

Not all Jews believe in reincarnation. As with all this stuff, it’s opinion, not¬†doctrine, and reincarnation even more so than the other things. Personally, as you know, I do believe in reincarnation; I believe it is another way to cleanse souls that for whatever reason God decides need to be purified this way and not through Gehennom. We come back to this world and live another life, completing whatever lessons we needed to learn or achievements we needed to accomplish in the previous lifetime, but didn’t.

Resurrection of the Dead

This concept is one that is specifically referred to in our scriptures. It is not really about the afterlife, but about the Messianic Era. Our tradition teaches that when the Messiah comes, the righteous dead will come back to life to experience and take part in the Redemption of the World. Most of our sages interpret this is being 100% literal. Most Jewish cemeteries all over the world are arranged with the graves facing Jerusalem, with the idea that when the dead are resurrected, they can just climb on out of the grave and conveniently find themselves facing the right direction.

They may be disappointed, however, to find the gates locked. By Techielaw (Author) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
They may be disappointed, however, to find the gates locked.
By Techielaw (Author) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons
…Obviously, this is a bit of a¬†stretch¬†for a rationalist like myself. I tend to prefer to take this as being metaphorical; after all, no one actually knows what the Messianic Age will look like either. In fact, the Messianic Age is also referred to as Olam HaBa in many sources, so there seems to be some idea there about the joining of the physical and spiritual world into one, and that makes a little more sense to me.

The Devil

So actually the concept of Satan in Judaism has nothing at all to do with the afterlife, but I’m bringing it up here to fully address Rowan Atkinson’s routine. The word “Satan” means “adversary”, and in Christian thought, the Devil is kind of God’s “enemy” in that he tries to attract people to sin and therefore, I suppose, is appointed master of Hell, which is where the sinners go. In Christian thought, the Devil is a sort of independent force that works against¬†God.¬†In Jewish thought, Satan is a spiritual entity¬†that works¬†for God and is subordinate to Him. He (it…)¬†is an “adversary” in that he is the “prosecutor” against us in the Heavenly Court. (This is all allegorical.)¬†He makes claims against us and is harsh on us, but he still works for the Judge and for justice.

In summary: here’s hoping the Jews are¬†indeed right on this one. ūüėČ

Love,

Daniella


1. They do have Monopoly in Catalonia, right?‚Ü©


Blog readers: Want to tell us about your concept of the afterlife? Comment below, or send us a guest letter!

Going on Vacation

O faithful blog readers, as of Saturday evening my family and I will be on a plane to the USA. We’ll be spending three weeks visiting family in Florida. Needless to say, I will not have much time to write letters to Josep. I have an entry lined up for Purim as promised, but other than that the blog will be pretty silent for the next three weeks.

I will, however, have an important announcement to make when I return. So stay tuned ūüėČ

Shabbat shalom!

How It All Began, or: An American-Israeli Jew and a Catalan Christian Walk into a Bar…

Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. October, 2006. I stepped out of the airport shuttle at Pla√ßa de Catalunya and looked around to get my bearings, dragging a wheeled suitcase behind me. This was not my first trip to Europe, nor was it my first time traveling internationally without my parents; but this was my first time traveling to a foreign country completely on my own. I was 19 years old, in my second year of national service (an alternative to compulsory military service for religious women). A writer since I figured out how to hold a pen, I’d been part of an online community of teen writers for a while, and the friend who ran that community invited me to join the press team she was heading for an international youth conference in Barcelona. I was delighted to accept.

Now at this point there are a few important things you should know about me. One: I am not the “reporter” type. Shy, introspective, and quiet, I am the last person you would expect to burst into a room full of people and start interviewing somebody. Two: I am an observant Jew. That means that I adhere strictly to Jewish law in every aspect of life, from keeping kosher to abstaining from all work and “acts of creation” on the Sabbath. Before my trip, the editor-in-chief had assured me that my religious needs would be accommodated, specifically, that kosher food would be available, that our room at the youth hostel would be girls-only, and that no work would be required of me on Saturday. Still, I am not ashamed to admit that I grew up in a bubble. A warm, lovely, fulfilling bubble, but a bubble nonetheless.

In short, I was roughly 2,000 miles from my comfort zone.

One more important thing you need to know about me before we proceed is that ever since reading Naomi Ragen’s “The Ghost of Hannah Mendes” as a young teen, I have had an inexplicable obsession with the Spanish Inquisition and the concept of crypto-Judaism. I had, in fact, made friends with someone in the US who believed that she was descended from crypto-Jews. I was very involved in her exploration of Judaism and her journey to pursue her Jewish heritage. This gave traveling to Barcelona another level of meaning for me.

That first day I found my room at the hostel and as soon as I’d settled in, I headed right back out to search for the old Jewish Quarter, the “Call”. I found it and poked around the ancient synagogue, and then headed in the other direction to find the only kosher store in the city, hoping to find some options for food for the Sabbath. It was Wednesday, and I didn’t know if I’d have access to a refrigerator. I was told that the following day there were challahs and other Shabbat necessities sold, so I resolved to come back then. In the meantime, I bought a bottle of grape juice and headed back to the hostel.

The editor-in-chief and graphic designer, both from America, were waiting there for me. Towards evening, we went down to the sidewalk in front of the hostel, where we were introduced to the rest of the press team. They were all locals, some of whom had been recruited at the last minute due to budget cuts that had forced some of the other international members of the press team to cancel. When I was introduced to the group as “Daniella, from Israel”, one of these last-minute local recruitees looked at me with wide eyes.

“You are from Israel?” he asked.

I sized him up apprehensively. Europe in general is known for being hostile towards Israel, and Barcelona has at times been considered one of the most anti-Semitic cities in Europe. I had been warned not to wear anything outwardly Jewish and to keep my nationality discreet. Heart pounding a little, I answered that yes, I was.

“I was supposed to be there this summer!” he exclaimed. “The trip was canceled at the last minute. I even had the tickets…”

Well, that didn’t sound like the beginning of an anti-Israel tirade.

Relieved, I laughed and said, “Well, I can understand why you didn’t end up coming…” (The Second Lebanon War was in July of that year. You’d be surprised how many trips to Israel have ended up under the category of Canceled on Account of Rockets.)

I squinted at him questioningly. “Why… what’s your connection to Israel?” I ventured.

He answered that he was Roman Catholic but had always been fascinated with Israel and Judaism, and as the group began moving down the sidewalk, we found ourselves deep in conversation. As it turned out, he was a die-hard fan of Israel–certainly an odd bird for a secular, liberal, intellectual European–but had never actually met an Israeli before. He had also always wanted to learn about Judaism, but he had never met a real Jew before. And to seal our mutual delight at meeting one another, about fifteen minutes into the conversation, he said, “You know, my last name is considered to be a converso surname.”

This so-called Christian shall henceforth be known as Josep. (This is not his real name.)

Over the next few days, it became apparent that the Powers That Be had not, in fact, provided for my religious needs. There were no kosher meals available, and I shared the room at the hostel with about 6 girls and 2 guys. Of course, I wasn’t going to sleep on the street, so I had to make do; but when it came to food, I was stuck with raw vegetables and the crackers and instant noodle soups I had brought with me. I had tried to locate the list indicating what items at the grocery stores were kosher, but failed. I don’t remember why, but somehow I didn’t make it to the kosher store on Thursday, and on Friday morning I found myself facing an entire Sabbath–usually celebrated with two large, festive meals–with nothing but a bottle of grape juice, a loaf of so-healthy-it-tastes-like-cardboard vegan bread, and a carton of Ben & Jerry’s chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream (imported from the USA, of course, where it is certified kosher). I went to the synagogue that evening to peddle myself off as a needy Sabbath guest; a valuable commodity in any self-respecting Jewish community. Except the one in Barcelona, apparently. I couldn’t even manage to make eye contact with anyone. I left the synagogue, defeated, to eat my ice cream.

When Josep learned of my plight, he was appalled. “There has to be a kosher restaurant somewhere,” he insisted, and went off on a crusade, if you’ll pardon the expression, to find me kosher food. He searched on Google and the Yellow Pages, and called a bunch of friends. I told him it was hopeless and that I’d done the research, but he would hear none of it. At lunch that day, while I picked at my sliced cucumbers, he asked me, “What if we went to my house and I bought kosher ingredients and cooked for you?”

I looked over at this person who had literally just offered to bring home a random girl from another country, whom he had known for a grand total of 72 hours, and cook her a meal. I shook my head. “No… all the pots and pans would have to be kosher…”

“What if I bought a new pan?”

He couldn’t be serious.

“That’s very nice of you to offer… but it’s not just the pans… it’s all the utensils and the oven and everything…”

“Is there a way to make them kosher?” he insisted.

I smiled ironically. “Uh… yeah…. but trust me, that’s not going to happen.”

“Why not? What would I need to do?”

“Just trust me. You don’t wanna know.”

“Tell me. I want to know.”

I eyed him skeptically, eyebrows raised. “You really want to know?”

“Yes.”

I shrugged. “Okay… you asked.” Thereupon I launched into a long, rambling explanation of how one kashers a kitchen, which for the uninformed among you, is a long, painstaking, arduous process that involves a lot of scrubbing, boiling water, and otherwise heat-treating everything. The goal of this tirade was to illustrate just how crazy an idea this was, and I assumed¬†that after a few sentences his eyes would glaze over in boredom and that would be that. As predicted, everyone else who had been listening¬†quickly lost interest and began chatting among themselves as I rambled on. But when I glanced at him somewhere in the middle of expounding upon mugs and soapy water in the microwave, he was still watching me as though I was giving him a thrilling play-by-play of the latest Barcelona vs. Madrid soccer game. I skidded to a stop and exclaimed, “Why are you even still listening to me?”

(To this day he claims that he couldn’t do it just because it wasn’t his own kitchen, and that if and when I come back to Barcelona he will, in fact, kasher his kitchen. To this day I claim that he’s nuts.)

Ironically, it was someone else who managed to locate a restaurant that was “kosher enough”–a vegan restaurant run by a Moroccan Israeli that at least had had kosher certification up until a few months before. I figured that under the circumstances, this would be acceptable, and we all enjoyed a wonderful meal there. Josep sat next to me, and during that conversation it became clear to me that he was interested in researching his possibly Jewish heritage and learning more about my faith. We parted, promising to stay in touch. And so began an enthusiastic correspondence through which a deep friendship emerged. The combination of my passion for writing and for Judaism and such an appreciative audience resulted in my writing long, rambling e-mails explaining Jewish concepts, holidays, and traditions.

And that, dear readers, is how this blog came to be. The entries will be letters to Josep about various topics relating to Judaism and Israel. Most will be new, but some will be dug up from the dusty depths of my Gmail history. Personal details will be left out, but the nature of our friendship–which is, I think, what gives these letters¬†their unique appeal–will be reflected in them. I hope you find them entertaining and informative.

(And for the nitpickers who are wondering about the title of this post, no, we have never actually walked into a bar. We did, however, walk into a pub on La Rambla, along with the rest of our motley ensemble of junior journalists. 10 points to whoever can come up with the funniest ending for the joke.)