Shabbat Shalom! Vayetzei

This week we continue the story of Jacob. Now he’s out in the world, learning adult lessons, mostly the hard way (but isn’t that how we all do it?)

Some divrei Torah I can recommend to you:

Vayeitzei: Words Words Words by Ben on Six Degrees of Kosher Bacon

How To Read the Torah by Rabbi David Kasher on ParshaNut

Wherever You Go, There God Will Surely Be by Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg

TorahMama by ImaBima

Ladder by the Velveteen Rabbi

And a couple of my own:

Telling Family Stories

Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This

I wish us all a Sabbath of Peace, a Shabbat Shalom of healing and hope.

Meet An Expert on Islam

rabbi-reuven-firestone-phdRecently the Jewish Journal carried an article by one of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Reuven Firestone, Regenstein Professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College (HUC). It reminded me that he has written books and articles that are quite accessible and might interest some of you.


I first met Dr. Firestone in the context of a class in which he taught me how to read Mikraot Gedolot – the traditional commentaries on Torah, all neatly bound together in a few volumes. I enjoyed learning with him, and when I finally reached the point that I had the option of elective courses, I took every class on Islam that he offered.

I had many good teachers at HUC, and a few great ones. Dr. Firestone is among the greats. I admired the courage of his scholarship, because he did not just sit in Los Angeles reading about Islam. He spent a sabbatical in Cairo (this was before the revolution) He took his whole family with him. Even then, it was not a friendly place for Jews, and he has a realistic view of Jewish-Islamic relations.

Much of the information about Islam that we get from the news media and politicians is sadly ignorant. Talking heads quote the Quran and hadith literature without any understanding or context, much the way antisemites quote snippets of Talmud. These pundits don’t read Arabic, haven’t studied the literature, and don’t understand what they are quoting.

So if I have tantalized you, if you would like to learn more about Islam from a reliable source, let me suggest these articles and books by Dr. Firestone:

Heads of the Hydra” (Jewish Journal article)

No, Pamela Geller, the Quran is not Anti-Semitic” (The Forward)

An Introduction to Islam for Jews

JIhad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam

Lehrhaus 360 Lecture “War and Peace, Jewish Perspectives” (VIDEO)


Telling Family Stories

When I was a little girl, my grandmother told me a lot of wild stories, most of them true. Most of her stories were about the family: how her grandmother MaryAnn lost her wedding ring, how they celebrated Grandpa Carroll’s 100th birthday, how her own mother, Ma Maggie, learned to make lace.

I see evidence of family story-telling in Parashat Vayetzei:

While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s flock; for she was a shepherdess. And when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban, and the flock of his uncle Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well, and watered the flock of his uncle Laban. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and broke into tears. Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kinsman, that he was Rebekah’s son; and she ran and told her father. – Genesis 29: 9-12

When I read this, I can only imagine that Rebekah told her favorite child the story of meeting Abraham’s servant by the well – perhaps that very well. Laban’s men point Rachel out to Jacob, and this time he helps her water her animals, the exact reverse of the scenario with the servant and Rebekah. After he waters the animals, he kisses her, and it is clear from that moment that he intends to marry her. He is acting out the story of his parents – only this time, there is no servant go-between, and Jacob is the initiator of all the action.

There is a power to old family stories. This one sets in motion both a love affair and a tragedy. Rachel and Jacob are a love match, but because of Laban’s treachery, Rachel and her sister Leah will be set up as rivals for the rest of their lives. The rivalry will live on in their sons and their descendants, a bitter inheritance.

Eventually we wrote down the family stories, and every year we retell them. We call them “Torah” now but they are no less a family matter. We reinterpret the stories in every generation, as families do. And sometimes we find ourselves re-living parts of them both consciously and unconsciously.

What family stories do you retell to the next generation? What stories have you re-created on your own, with or without intent?


How To Chanukah

Chanukah begins this year (2015) at sundown on December 6.

I was all set to write a series of how-to posts about Chanukah, but when I looked to see what else was available, I realized there was no way I could best the offerings on  So here are some links to great Chanukah how-tos:

How to Light the Chanukah Candles (VIDEO)

Chanukah 101 (The Basics!)

Traditional Chanukah Foods

Chanukah in the Synagogue

I hope these meet your needs for basic Chanukah materials! Now some goodies from past years:

Chanukah Videos! (Music, silliness, fun, laughter. It’s good for you.)

A More Meaningful Chanukah

The Evolution of Chanukah – How did it get to be such a big deal?

Why the Insistence that Chanukah is a Minor Holiday?

And yes, it’s early, but since I’m already getting questions, I thought it was time to start posting resources. Enjoy November, enjoy Thanksgiving, and when the time comes, enjoy Chanukah!


We Have Seen This Before

And if a stranger live with you in your land, you will not do him wrong. – Leviticus 19:33

Possibly the most frequently repeated commandment in the Hebrew Bible is “welcome the stranger.” One of my colleagues, Rabbi Michael Latz, finds it in some form in 36 different places. It is often bolstered with the logic, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” (e.g. Leviticus 19:34) which brings to mind Hillel’s version of the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellows.” (Shabbat 31a)

Today the news is full of suspicion for the Syrian refugees fleeing the disaster of Daesh (aka ISIS, but follow that link to find out why I am not going to call them “Islamic State” anymore.) One of the men who murdered hostages in the Bataclan Theater in Paris carried a Syrian passport and now the cry has gone up: “Don’t take them in, they may be terrorists!”

In places connected to Syria by land masses or the Mediterranean, I can understand the fear. But here in the United States, the border for Syrian travelers is well-defined: it’s a secure area in airports and seaports, and no one gets through unless U.S. Customs and Border Security says they get through. Refugees are subjected to special screening by various offices of several different departments of the government, any of which can turn them down. The process takes 18-24 months; it’s no quickie. If you want to learn more about it, you can do so here.

There was a time in the past when people were desperately trying to flee an evil regime, and we Americans took it upon ourselves to see them all as undesirables: wrong religion, possibly spies, maybe saboteurs! Our ports were firmly closed to them. We actually turned away whole shiploads of them: refugees not wanted.

It emerged, after the war, that the Nazis had manipulated the whole thing: they sent agents to Cuba to aggravate antisemitic feeling there and in the U.S., and spread rumors that some of the refugees were “a criminal element.” Eventually the ship returned to Germany, and the refugees went to the camps, most of them, to their deaths.

Let’s not make the same mistake twice. Check thoroughly everyone who applies for refugee status, by all means, but do not allow Daesh or any other evil regime to manipulate U.S. policy.

And remember, my fellow Jews: we were once strangers fleeing the land of Egypt.

Image: “Women and children Syrian refugees at the Budapest Keleti railway station” taken by Mystslav Chernov. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Jewish Social Skills: Death & Mourning

This afternoon and Wednesday I’m teaching my Intro classes about Jewish Death & Mourning. I am pretty sure that when they look at the syllabus, they are thinking about funerals, and they are mostly identified with (1) the dead person or (2) the mourners. That’s normal and human, to picture a topic with ourselves in the center.

My task as teacher is to teach them how to be members of a Jewish community that has mourners in it. True, sometimes they will be the mourners, and someday every one of us will be in that casket at center stage, but for most of our Jewish lives, we’re in the “mourner support” roles. And face it, that’s where the mitzvahs are.

Yes, it is a mitzvah to bury one’s dead. No doubt about that. But there are many other mitzvot that come under the general heading of “comforting the mourner,” most of which don’t sound like a modern idea of “comforting” at all. Here are ways we comfort the mourner:

  • Support our synagogue, so that there are clergy to assist mourners.
  • Support our local Jewish funeral home, so that Jewish mourners do not have the added stress of explaining everything.
  • Show up at funerals, even for people we barely know.
  • Show up at shiva, even if we are not “close” to the family.
  • Offer to babysit, run errands, wash dishes, answer the door during shiva.
  • Sit quietly with a mourner at shiva, just listening.
  • Refrain from telling mourners how they should feel “by now.”
  • Alert the rabbi if a mourner appears to be slipping into depression or otherwise in trouble.
  • Call or write weeks after the funeral, just to “check in.”
  • Say hello to mourners when we see them at synagogue.
  • Invite widows and widowers to events or to dinner in our homes.
  • Make sure that no mourner in our community feels abandoned.

The English word “comfort” in modern usage generally transmits an image of a pat on the back, accompanied by “there, there” or magical words of healing. Grief cannot be fixed by magical means. It can only happen in its own time. We can help by supporting, by being present to the mourner.

Those of us who have been mourners know how important this sort of support can be. Perhaps we received it; perhaps we didn’t. One route to self-healing is to take our sadly-won knowledge and turn it outward, making sure that the next mourner is not left to grieve alone.

My Basic Jewish Book List

I just updated the list of recommended books I give to my beginning students. I thought I’d share the update with you.

I can recommend all of these books. As far as I know, all are currently in print. Many are available inexpensively as used books. Obviously, which you choose will depend on availability and your curiosity.

General Introductory Texts on Judaism

Settings of Silver by Stephen Wylen. (The 1st text I use for Intro to the Jewish Experience)

Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Book for Seekers by Rabbi Arthur Green (The other text I use for Intro to the Jewish Experience)

Basic Judaism by Milton Steinberg. A classic text, first published in the 1950’s but still good.

What is a Jew? by Morris N. Kertzner. Another good basic text.

Living a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant. 

Jewish Literacy by Joseph Telushkin.

Living Judaism by Wayne Dosick.

Jewish Bibles

I don’t require you buy one for this class, but every Jewish home should have a Tanakh, a Jewish Bible. Most Reform and Conservative synagogues use a JPS Tanakh in some form.

If you are curious as to how the Jewish Bible is different from the Christian Bible, read Beginners’ Guide to the Jewish Bible. For a discussion of the various translations of the Tanakh available, read Which Bible is Best, Rabbi?

If you would like to own a commentary on the Torah, a book with footnotes that explain things in the text, some of the most popular are:

The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. Gunther Plaut

Etz Chaim: Torah and Commentary, ed. Jewish Publication Society

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Eskenazi and Rabbi Andrea Weiss

A Torah Commentary for our Times, ed. Harvey J. Fields


Every Jewish home should have at least one copy of the Haggadah, the script by which we lead the seder every year at Passover.  There are many to choose from, from some rather uninspiring (but free!) free haggadot to very expensive art books. Some of the best fall in between those two extremes. The best way to find one is to go to a bookstore during the month before Passover and browse them until you find the one that speaks to you.

Jewish Holidays

Seasons of our Joy by Arthur Waskow. 

Guide to the Jewish Seasons editor Peter Knobel.

The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel

Keeping Passover by Ira Steingroot

The Days of Awe by S.Y. Agnon

This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation by Alan Lew

Jewish Home

How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household by Blu Greenberg (orthodox practices) 

On the Doorposts of Your House, CCAR Press (also in .pdf format)

Jewish Lifecycle

Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Life Cycle by Simeon Maslin

Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness by Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Michelle November, MSSW

How to Raise a Jewish Child by Anita Diamant

The New Jewish Baby Book by Anita Diamant

Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah by Salkin, Lebeau, and Eisenberg

The New Jewish Wedding by Anita Diamant

A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort: A Guide to Jewish Bereavement by Dr. Ron Wolfson and David J. Wolpe

Mourning and Mitzvah by Anne Brener

Choosing a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant (conversion)

Choosing Judaism by Lydia Kukoff

Jewish Thought

Finding God: Selected Responses by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme. Clear and simple approach to the question, What do Jews think about God?

The Book of Jewish Values by Joseph Telushkin

Jewish History

Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews by Chaim Potok

My People: Abba Eban’s History of the Jews by Abba Eban

A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson

A Short History of the Jewish People by Raymond Scheindlin

The Story of the Jews by Stan Mack (graphic novel format but quite good)


My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit

Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert 

Israel is Real by Rich Cohen