All in the Family

April 24, 2014
Different flavors of Jews on the streets of Jerusalem.

A wild diversity of Jews shop at Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem.

Tonight in “Intro to Judaism” class the topic was Ashkenazi history and culture. It’s a big topic for just 90 minutes.

Ashkenazi Judaism is that portion of world Jewry with its roots in Europe, except for Spain and Portugal. It is partly an ancestral thing, but also a category of ritual, custom, and Jewish law. The vast majority of American Jews are Ashkenazim (more than 80% by conservative estimates.) There are many subgroups and topics within the big umbrella of “Ashkenazi,” but one thing I noticed was that we kept wandering off topic.

One minute we’d be talking about Askhenazi customs, and then a student would ask a question that was more about Sephardic Judaism.  A few times there were questions about Mizrahi Jews, and other, smaller groups. And it hit me: we really are Am Echad, one People. As diverse as we are, it was impossible to talk only about Ashkenazim. The other groups, the other threads just kept creeping into the discussion.

Here in the United States it is particularly impossible to separate the ethnic groups. The first Jews in North America were Sephardim, Jews with roots in Jewish Spain, even if they actually arrived from Brazil, or England, or the Netherlands. While they are today a minority of American Jews, it was they who set the tone for Jewish life in America, who served in the Revolutionary Army, who were well-regarded by George Washington.  They built the first synagogues here.

Not all individuals with Sephardic ancestry go to Sephardic synagogues, either: I know several Reform rabbis of Sephardic descent, and many more families who claim both a Sephardic heritage (or a Mizrahi heritage) and attend Reform or Conservative synagogues.

As our discussion went on tonight, I stopped trying to drag the discussion back to the Ashkenazim. It was clear that the topic would wind up back there soon enough. I watched what we were doing, and realized that this is what we always do: you just can’t talk about one corner of Jewry without eventually talking about all of Judaism.  If we talk about something Reform, sooner or later someone will reference “the Orthodox” (which drives me crazy, since Orthodoxy is hardly a monolith – there are divisions within it, too.)  Next week, when we talk about the Sephardim in class, I’m sure we’ll be back to the Ashkenazim before I make it out of the 16th century. If we talk about American Jews, sooner or later the topic will come around to Israel, and if you talk about Judaism in Israel, here comes the Diaspora! And this past week, everyone’s been worrying about the Ukrainian Jews!

What I learned tonight in class is that while Jews are diverse, we are also truly one big noisy sometimes dysfunctional family. We are so much One that we are truly inseparable, living in relation to one another.

Am Echad – One People.

Image: Emmanuel Dyan, some rights reserved.

 


Tired of Matzah?

April 21, 2014
Matzah, Matzah, Matzah!

Matzah, Matzah, Matzah!

And they journeyed from Elim, and all the congregation of the children of Israel came to the Wilderness of Zin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they departed from the land of Egypt. Then the whole congregation of the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. And the children of Israel said to them, “Oh, that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you. And the people shall go out and gather a certain quota every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in My law or not.”  –Exodus 16: 1-4

Yes, I’m tired of matzah too on the 7th evening of Passover. We’ve been eating this stuff for a solid week.

As I said in an earlier post, the only matzah that’s required is at the seder. After that, it’s up to us how much to eat. But for most of us, completely eliminating bread-ish products is unthinkable, so we eat sandwiches made with matzah, pizza made with matzah, fried matzah, matzah puddings, and various things made with matzah meal.

At first it’s a novelty, and even a treat, and for some it remains a treat, but for others it gets pretty boring. And that, my friends, is the point. If you read the passage above from Exodus, you will see that our ancestors were still eating matzah after weeks and weeks. Then, when they finally complained about it, God immediately sent them manna, which was also repetitive but at least tasted good.

So our boredom with matzah is actually a continuation of that “just out of Egypt” experience. Until they got to the wilderness, God did most of the work of redemption for the Israelites, sending plagues, guiding them with the cloud and the pillar of fire, parting the Reed Sea. God told Moses what to do, and held up God’s end of the deal. But once out in the wilderness, it was time for the Israelites to begin to leave the mindset of slaves. They needed to learn to ask for what they needed, instead of passively waiting, like slaves.

So now it might be time to ask ourselves: is there some part of my life in which I am partially free, but I have yet to take the next step? Is there some part of my life in which I am just waiting for miracles? What options are open to me, to move myself towards freedom? What do I need to move forward?

May we all find our way towards freedom and dignity, and may we have the courage to take the steps to get there.

Image: by Ari Moore, some rights reserved.

 

 


New Feature: Ask the Rabbi

April 20, 2014

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_zLately I’ve gotten some great questions from readers. I’ve decided to set up a more formal “Ask the Rabbi” feature.

So here’s the deal: If there’s something you want to know, ask! You can click “Ask the Rabbi” in the menu bar above to ask your question, or you can ask in the comments for any article. If I’ve answered the post in a previous post, I’ll answer with a link, but if I haven’t covered your question already, I will use it in an upcoming post.

I look forward to your questions!

– Rabbi Adar

Image: “Question Box” by Raymond Bryson - Some rights reserved.


Ask The Rabbi: How are Sephardic rules for Passover different?

April 20, 2014

9647972522_eb1f0c3ca7_z

Regular reader and commenter temelevbarg wrote to ask, “Can you explain what is included in a Sephardic diet for Passover?”

Sephardic Judaism is the Jewish tradition handed down through the Jews of Sepharad, the Hebrew name for the Iberian peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal.) It includes specific interpretations of Jewish law, liturgical forms, and folk customs.   Other traditions of Judaism include the Ashkenazim (Jews from Eastern Europe) and the Mizrahi Jews (Jews of the Eastern Mediterranean.) While the majority of North American Jews today are descended from Ashkenazim and follow Ashkenazi customs, the first Jews to settle in North America were Sephardim.

For Passover, Sephardic Jews like all other Jews eliminate all chametz from their diets and their homes. This is based on Biblical commandments to observe Passover by refraining from eating or possessing chametz. (Exodus 12-13, Deuteronomy 16) Chametz is usually translated as “leavened bread.” The rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud later defined it more narrowly as any product of wheat, rye, barley, spelt or oats which might have become moistened. (The standard method of leavening in both the Biblical and talmudic periods involved the use of sourdough, wetting flour and allowing yeast from the air to grow in it.) The only bread allowed is kosher-for-Passover matzah, water and flour mixed and cooked so quickly that the leavening process has no chance to start.

Sephardic tradition differs from Ashkenazic tradition in that since the 13th century, some Ashkenazi authorities have prohibited the eating of kitniyot (rice, millet, and legumes) in addition to the prohibition of chametz.

Another difference is in the seder menu. Sephardic seder menus often include lamb, in memory of the original Passover sacrifice (pesach). Just as First and Second Temple era families roasted the lamb and ate it while telling the Exodus story to their children, Sephardic families eat lamb at the seder. By contrast, in Ashkenazi tradition one does not serve lamb at the seder out of an awareness that the Temple is no longer standing, so there can be no pesach sacrifice.

So when someone asks if you keep Passover by Ashkenazi or Sephardic rules, they are usually asking if you do or do not eat rice during Passover. It’s also possible that they are inquiring about the menu for seder.

Thanks for a great question! (For more depth on these matters, follow the links in this article.)

Image: “Question Box” by Raymond Bryson - http://www.flickr.com/photos/f-oxymoron/9647972522 Some rights reserved.


What is Yizkor?

April 19, 2014

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If someone especially dear to you has died in the past, you know that we never really stop mourning them. The absence of a loved one eventually becomes a kind of presence of its own, an ongoing awareness that that person was an important part of our lives and is no longer with us. Healthy grieving after months and years have passed is not overwhelming, but the sadness is there, and sometimes it is sharp.

Jewish tradition makes time and space for long-term mourning for those especially close to us. The service of Yizkor (literally, “Remember”) is held four times annually in most synagogues: on Yom Kippur and Shavuot, and at the end of Sukkot and Passover. There are psalms and readings appropriate to mourning, and at the end of the service, the service leader reads or chants El Male Rachamim and leads the congregation in the Kaddish.

The Yizkor service is usually attended only by those who have lost a parent or a close relative, although if you are remembering someone who is not a relative but dear to you, you are welcome to attend. It is an opportunity to let your guard down and grieve, or simply to attend as a respectful remembrance of the dead. Some attending the service will be recently bereaved; others may be remembering someone who died long ago. Some people cry a little. Some sit quietly and respectfully. You are welcome to let the memories come and to let emotion come with them – no one goes to Yizkor to look at other attendees.

There is a tradition among Ashkenazi Jews that a person with both parents still alive should stay away from the Yizkor service, lest the “Angel of Death” be attracted to one’s parents.  However, if you need to mourn a sibling or a friend, there is no official rule against going to Yizkor; just be aware that if both your parents are living and known in the community, someone may warn you about the superstition!

Yizkor provides a safe space for us to mourn while honoring the memory of the dead.

Image by Bill Barber, some rights reserved.

 


What is Chol HaMoed?

April 18, 2014

Matzah brei serving

Matzo brei – a Chol HaMoed treat.

 

In the middle of Passover and Sukkot, you may hear the term “Chol HaMoed” or “Hol HaMoed,” and you might wonder, “A Whole What???”

That’s what Jews call the middle days of Passover and Sukkot. Both festivals run for a week. The first day (or two) of the holiday is called a “Chag” and is extra special, almost like Shabbat. Same for the last day: ideally, one is home from work and attends synagogue.  The middle days of the week  are still special but do not have so many restrictions: some businesses in Israel might be open, and Jews in Diaspora go to work. “Chol” means “Ordinary” and “HaMoed” in this context means “of the festival” – these are more ordinary days of the holiday.

Now, just to confuse things, you may also encounter this term: Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach. That’s the Shabbat in the middle of Passover, when it doesn’t fall on one of the “Chag” days. It has its own special Torah and Haftorah readings. There’s also one of those for Sukkot in some years. For information on this particular year, consult a Jewish calendar.

There’s a special greeting for these not-so-ordinary days in mid-festival: if someone says to you, “Moadim l’simchah!” it means “Festival of Joy.” You can reply with the same words, or you can just say, “Same to you!”

Note: There’s a trick for saying that “ch” sound in Hebrew. What noise does an angry cat make? The “ch” sound is a little bitty short version of that. If you truly can’t do it, use an “h” sound instead. 

Image: licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


How To Count the Omer

April 17, 2014

Mizrach Omer Calender

Mizrach Omer Calender, by Moses H. Henry, Cincinnati, 1850.

 

Counting the Omer is a mitzvah (commandment) through which we count the days from Passover to Shavuot. It’s an ancient custom that takes us from the giddy joy of Passover to the serious business of receiving the Torah on Shavuot. It begins on the 2nd night of Passover and continues for 49 days until the Festival of Shavuot. (To learn more about the holiday and its history, click on the links. I’m sticking to “how to” in this article. To learn why we count the Omer, read Why Count the Omer.)

The procedure is simple. Every evening sometime between sundown and midnight we say a blessing:

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu al sefirat ha-Omer.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space, who sanctifies us with Your commandments and has commanded us to count the Omer.

Then you do the actual count:

Today is the ____ day of the Omer.

After six days, you include the weeks as well:

Today is _____ days, which is _____ week and _____ days of the Omer.

For instance, on the 48th (next to last) day of the Omer, you would say: “Today is the 48th day of the Omer, which is 6 weeks and 6 days of the Omer.”

(If you have learned your Hebrew numbers, this is a GREAT opportunity to practice both your cardinal and ordinal numbers.)

 

The target is to count each day of the Omer in the time between sundown and midnight. Now, like any good game, there are penalties if you miss the target.

1. If I forget to count until after midnight (say, I wake up and realize, “Gosh, I forgot to count the Omer last night!”) I can still COUNT but you cannot say the blessing. On the next night, I go back to saying the blessing and counting as usual.

2. If I completely forget for 24 hours – that is, forgets to count until the next evening – then I am still obligated to count, but I don’t get to bless anymore.

The object is to get all the way through to Shavuot – to count the complete Omer! – without missing an evening count and blessing.

Some readers may find it a little scandalous that I frame this as a game, but I find it a useful way to think about counting the Omer when learning how to do it. There are many beautiful spiritual practices that are based on counting the Omer, but it is hard to do those effectively until you’ve got the basics. Llearning the basic practice works well as a game.

What’s the point? In a word, mindfulness. It took me years to get all the way through the Omer with the practice intact, every day, every blessing said on time. I’m a scattered, not-detail-oriented person, and I grew a lot of self-discipline from my repeated attempts. (I know, that sounds so boring: but seriously it paid off in my ability to focus and deliver on routines: for instance, posting nearly daily to a blog!) Counting is also the gateway to a number of spiritual practices such as meditations on the Sefirot, the different emanations of the Divine in Kabbalistic practice.)

Helps in Counting the Omer: There are some great smartphone apps and computer apps. Search  “omer” in the appropriate places for your operating system and hardware. You can also get “omer calendars” and “omer counters” from Jewish bookstores.

I encourage you to give this mitzvah a try. It’s joys seem very simple (and perhaps minimal, to a newcomer) but it is a gateway to all sorts of cool stuff. If you didn’t begin on the 2nd night of Passover, no worries – while you won’t be doing a complete count this year, you can still “jump on” for the ride and learn!

Image: Public Domain from Wikimedia Commons.

 

 


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