Bless: The Door into Amazement

April 6, 2014

blogexodus

…ברוך אתה ה’ אלוהינו, מלך העולם

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space….

Thus begins the most basic form of Jewish prayer, the blessing. We have some tiny little short blessings, like the one we say when we hear terrible news, and very very long blessings, like the Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after meals, which goes on for several pages and includes many smaller blessings. We have blessings for every kind of food we eat, and blessings for surprising things we encounter, and blessings for Shabbat and holidays.

While we often say these blessings rapidly and by rote, sooner or later every Jew finds her- or himself asking, “Why am I blessing God?” Because that is how the prayer begins: “Blessed are You, God.”  In there is also the larger question, “Why pray at all?” since really, if God is God, God doesn’t need prayer or anything else we can produce, right?

My favorite answer to this question – why bless? – is that blessings are not “for God.” Blessings are for the person saying the blessing, and sometimes for others who hear the blessing. When I bless the bread I am about to put in my mouth, I am acknowledging that I did not create the bread. I may have baked it, but many miracles and many hands were involved in that bread arriving in my hand. When I pause to bless, I make room for the acknowledgment that I have my place in Creation, but only my place, that I am dependent on daily miracles and dependent on hands other than my own.  When I bless the sight of a rainbow, I remind myself what a miracle it is that the rainbow is there for me – and that it is not there only for me. When I make the blessing for hearing the news of a death, I acknowledge that I am not qualified to judge any other human being.

Blessing is about a sacred pause: a pause to notice, a pause to reflect, a pause to appreciate one’s place in creation. This week, as I hurry about my work, doing all my regular work AND the pre-Passover cleaning, those little pauses remind me that these are sacred actions, even though I have to do them rapidly, even though I do not have enough time to do them perfectly. All of life is sacred, even the moment in the bathroom (yes, there is a blessing for that!)

It is when we choose to see the holiness in each moment, to infuse the ordinary with the sacred, that we open ourselves to the possibility of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.” Blessings are one door into that state of amazement: may we all enjoy a glimpse of the Holy as we go about the mundane tasks of preparation for this most amazing holiday!

 


What’s Rosh Chodesh?

March 31, 2014
New Moon

New Moon

And on your joyous occasions-your fixed festivals and new moon days-you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being. They shall be a reminder of you before your God: I, the Eternal, am your God.” –Numbers 10:10

Rosh Chodesh (Rohsh Choh-desh – “ch” pronunced as a gutteral) literally means “Head of the Month.”

Every month in the Jewish calendar begins with a little celebration. The moon is dark (new moon) and we look forward to what the month will bring. It’s an optimistic celebration, looking forward to what is good without dwelling on the bad things that might happen.

In Biblical times, there were special sacrifices for Rosh Chodesh, and the shofar was blown to announce the new month. The Diaspora Jews found out about the new month via signal fires lit at Jerusalem, where the observation of the moon took place.  This became more and more difficult under Roman persecution, which is why Jewish astronomers worked to calculate a calendar that would allow Jews to observe the festivals without access to the site of the Temple.

Customs for Rosh Chodesh vary among the Jewish people. In Reform congregations, Rosh Chodesh is observed for one day, beginning at sundown. It is first announced on the previous Shabbat. Then on the actual day of Rosh Chodesh, we add prayers to the Amidah and the Birkat Hamazon (prayer after meals), giving thanks for the new month and asking God’s protection.  A short service of praise (Hallel) is added to the service. There is a special Torah reading for Rosh Chodesh (Numbers 28:1-15).

There is an old tradition linking women to the Rosh Chodesh holiday. Since the 1970′s, women have begun gathering for prayer and study on Rosh Chodesh, and you may hear reference to a “Rosh Chodesh group,” a group who meet regularly on the first of the month. Over the last quarter century, a group of women called The Women of the Wall have met at the Kotel in Jerusalem to pray and read Torah, and to advocate for their right as Jewish women to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall.

Image: Eva Mostraum Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

 


Miss Out on Your Jewish Childhood?

March 23, 2014
Queen Esther

Queen Esther

Some of us missed out on a Jewish childhood. We were raised in another tradition, or no tradition at all.

Some of us missed out on parts of it, or something happened that messed everything up.

Let me tell you a little secret: it’s never too late to have a Jewish childhood.

  • Want to have a bar or bat mitzvah? Talk to your rabbi about studying for an adult bar mitzvah. Yes, you can have a party, too.
  • Depressed that you never got to play dreidel? Invite people over for a night of Chanukah games and latkes!
  • Mad that you didn’t get to go to Hebrew school? It isn’t too late to take Hebrew classes.
  • Sad that you’ll never ask the Four Questions at the seder table? Host a seder with adults, and schedule yourself to chant them – you can do it!
  • Longing to dress up like Queen Esther on Purim? Or like a firefighter? Why not?
  • Yearning for a bubbe or a zayde? Talk to your rabbi about adopting a “grandparent.” Someone needs you as much as you need them.
  • Envious of youth trips to Israel? Ask your rabbi to help you find an affordable program open to your age group.
  • Wish that someone had taught you how to keep a kosher household, lay tefillin, make matza brei? Ask a friend or take a class!

You are the person in charge of your Jewish experience. If there’s something you want to learn, there’s someone teaching it. If there’s something you want to do, there’s a way. Will it be easy? No, but it might not have been easy as a child, either (ask any bat mitzvah if that Torah portion came easily!)

It isn’t too late. You might be just in time!

Image: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Joe King


A Little Yiddish?

March 13, 2014

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Nu, you’ve noticed that around your shul they use a bissel Yiddish?

(So, you’ve noticed that around your synagogue they speak a little Yiddish?)

Yiddish is the language of Ashkenaz, the Jews of Eastern European descent. It sounds a little bit like German, a little bit like Hebrew, and it is written in Hebrew letters. At one time there were Yiddish theater, Yiddish radio programs, Yiddish newpapers, and it was the language for a flourishing culture. That ended with the Holocaust in the 1940′s. But still there are people keeping the language alive, and it survives in words and phrases around many American synagogues. Here are 25 words you may hear from time to time:

A bi gezunt - “So long as you’re well.” Meaning: “Don’t worry so much. You still have your health.”

Alter cockeran old person, not a compliment. “I’m just an alter cocker, don’t listen to me.”

Brucha – a blessing, a prayer. “We asked the rabbi to say the brucha, so we could eat.”

Bubbe – grandmother  - “Sarah was delighted to be a bubbe at last.”

Bubbemyseh – Old wives’ tale. “Hey, the healing power of chicken soup is no bubbemyseh!”

Feh! – An exclamation to express disgust. “You let the cat walk on the table? Feh!”

Goyishe – Adjective for not-Jewish. Goy means “Nation” in Hebrew, but in Yiddish it means “Non-Jew.” Non-dairy salad dressing may be perfectly parve (neither meat nor dairy) but if you put it on pastrami, someone might mutter about your goyishe tastes.

Kvell – To beam with pleasure or pride “They kvelled over their grandchildren.”

Macher – An important person. “He thinks he’s such a macher, driving that car.”

Maven – An expert. Sometimes used sarcastically, but not always. “Mike is a real financial maven.”

Mensch – A person of high character and a big heart. “Abe is a true mensch, you can always count on him.”

Mishegas – insanity, nonsense. “I’m sick and tired of this Daylight Savings mishegas.”

Mishpocha – Family. “Don’t be shy – we’re mishpocha!”

Naches – Joy. “A brilliant daughter like Susie must give you such naches.”

Nu? – It can be translated “So?” It can also be used as a greeting, “What’s up?”  In general, it’s a particle that calls for a reply: Nu, so you are learning a little Yiddish?

Nosh – can be a noun or a verb, means “snack” – “Are you noshing on the salad before I’ve even put it on the table?”

Oy vey – Short for “Oy vey iz mir!” – “Oh woe is me!”  An all purpose response to anything bad.

Punim – Face. A shayneh punim is a pretty face. “I saw Rivkeh’s baby: what a shayneh punim!

Saykhel – Good sense, wisdom. “We would not have survived the recession without Bob’s leadership and saykhel.”

Shabbes – Sabbath, Shabbat. “Goot Shabbes!” is a common greeting meaning, “Have a good Sabbath.”

Shmutz – a little dirt. “He had a little shmutz on his shirt, so I put a fresh one on.”

Tsuris – Serious trouble. “It broke my heart, to hear they had such tsuris.”

Yuntif – Holiday. On a Jewish holiday, someone may greet you with “Goot yuntif!”

Zayde – grandfather

Zai Gesunt - May you be well, good health to you


Image:  AttributionNoncommercial
 Some rights reserved by Contemporary Jewish Museum


The Basics of Purim

February 25, 2014
Purim costumes are usually very informal.

Purim costumes are usually very informal.

If you are new to synagogue, Purim is either a treat or a shock, maybe both. It’s a holiday based in the Biblical book of Esther, a story about the Jewish community in Persia. Here’s what you need to know:

1. WHEN? Purim falls on 14 Adar. In a leap year, it falls on 14 Adar II. There may be something called Shushan Purim on your Jewish calendar, but you only need to worry about it if you live in a walled city such as Jerusalem. For conversion to the secular calendar, check a Jewish calendar.  In 2014 (5774 in the Jewish calendar) Purim falls on March 15.

2. THE STORY For the whole megillah [scroll] read the Book of Esther in the Bible. The short version: The Jewish community in Persia is nearly annihilated when King Ahasuerus’s chief minister, Haman, takes a dislike to them. The king’s queen, Esther, is secretly a Jew and she intervenes to save the day.  The full story, in the Bible, is at least R-rated for both sex and violence, but in most American synagogues what you will hear is the G-rated version edited for children’s ears.

3.  MITZVAH 1 – HEAR THE STORY. We are commanded to hear the megillah read every year. We fulfill that mitzvah either by listening as someone chants the scroll or by seeing it acted out in a Purim Shpiel, with lots of audience participation. It is traditional to drown out the name of the villain, Haman, with noisemakers like groggers or with boos. The booing and noise is what may shock newcomers to synagogue: for many Jews, this is an opportunity to really let out our feelings about the people who have tried to kill Jews.

4. MITZVAH 2 – FESTIVE BANQUET. We are commanded to enjoy a festive meal on Purim. One theme for the holiday is feasting – if you read the story, you’ll notice there are lots of parties in it. Hamentaschen are three-cornered filled cookies associated with the holiday. Holiday cookies and foods are a great way to use up flour and other chametz in the pantry. Remember, Passover is one month after Purim, so the baking for Purim can be the beginning of Passover prep.

5. MITZVAH 3 – GIFTS TO POOR PEOPLE. We are commanded to see to it than even the poorest people can enjoy a festive meal. A donation to the Food Bank in your area or to a Jewish organization such as MAZON works nicely.

6. MITZVAH 4 – MISHLOACH MANOT  (Meesh-LOW-ach man-OHT) are small gifts of baked goods, wine, or other goodies, sent to friends to enhance their feasting.  Ideally we send friends a little package including two or three treats.

7. COSTUMES. Many Jews, both children and adults, wear costumes to synagogue for the Purim festivities.  Often people dress as characters from the Purim story, but pirates, astronauts, and superheroes are good, too.  Some just wear a mask for Purim, because one of the themes of the holiday is secret identities.

8. DRINKING. There is a tradition that one should drink “until one cannot tell Haman from Mordechai” – the bad guy from the good guy. This, too, is a theme from the story but it has too often been taken to excess.  Don’t drink and then drive home from synagogue, or push alcohol on anyone, please. Don’t give alcohol to children. Purim is supposed to be a fun holiday, and overdoing the slivovitz can take all the fun right out of it.

Immediately after Purim, we begin our Passover preparations. Passover is only a month away!

Image: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by maxnathans


Who are You Calling Shiksa?

February 13, 2014

שיקסעWords matter. Words have power. Judaism establishes its reverence for words in Genesis 1, when God creates the world using the power of words.

I know that the word shiksa is a word many people have come to use ironically in English as a fun little word to use for gentile woman. It sounds cute. It’s crisp and appealing to the ear: shiksa!

But in Yiddish, shiksa means “filth” or “abomination.” It means the stuff you clean up out of the cat box. It means something you don’t want on your shoe, much less in your house. And yes, it came to be used to describe gentile women. It expressed disgust for women who were outsiders, women who were sources of contamination. It’s an ugly word.

The fact that it has become common via pop culture doesn’t change that history. It doesn’t change the fact that in Yiddish, that’s still what it means: filth.

But perhaps you say, no, I’m using it to take back the power of the word! I understand that idea – I am a lesbian, and I use the word “queer” to describe myself sometimes. But “queer” originally meant “odd” – the nasty connotations came later. There are words I would never use about other people, because those words were designed to convince both speaker and listener that a human being was sub-human. The word shiksa is such a word: it was coined to demean and denigrate a woman, to express nothing but disgust for her.

So when I hear a young woman describe herself as a shiksa, I cringe. Maybe her friends agree that it’s cute and sassy. But there is deep ugliness in that word, a hatred aimed at women. I  don’t want anything to do with it.

I know that my little blog post is not going to stop someone who likes the word shiksa.

I just want you to be perfectly clear what it means.


What’s Klal Yisrael?

February 10, 2014
Israeli Olympians murdered in Munich in 1972

Israeli Olympians murdered in Munich in 1972

Members of the Jewish community of Sochi and Israeli delegates to the Olympics held a memorial for the 11 Israelis killed by terrorists in Munich at the Summer Games in 1972. [from a report in The Forward, 2/10/2014]

Jews live in lots of interesting places. The largest Jewish community in the world is the one in the State of Israel, and there are large communities in Los Angeles and New York City. But there are also small communities all over the world, little groups like the one in Sochi, Russia.

Wherever Jews live we feel a connection to other Jews everywhere and in every age. Thus the Jews of Sochi feel a connection to 11 Olympic athletes who were murdered in Munich 42 years ago. This is what Klal Yisrael means: “All of Israel.”  Klal Yisrael includes both the yeshiva boys and the Women of the Wall in Jerusalem,  the intermarried Jews and Chabadniks in Los Angeles, the totally secular and the totally Satmar in New York. It includes the Jews of Singapore and Nashville and Auckland, the Jews of Buenos Aires and, yes, Sochi.

Image: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by The Happy Rower

 


What to Wear to Synagogue?

February 8, 2014

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One of the most common searches that brings people to this blog is some version of “what to wear:” what to wear to a bar mitzvah, what to wear to an Orthodox service, what to wear to a Jewish funeral, what to wear to a bris. That’s a difficult question to answer, given that a reader might be anywhere and standards differ depending on where you live. I’m in California, where dress is extremely casual. I grew up in the American South East, where dress tends to be more formal. I’ve lived in Israel, where I have rarely seen a man wearing a tie at any event, no matter how formal, and … well, you get the idea. Given the reach of the Internet, the question is unanswerable as asked.

However, I can offer you some guidelines:

1. What do people wear to church where you live? That is a reasonable guide for most synagogues other than Orthodox synagogues.

2. Neither men nor women will go wrong covering their heads in a synagogue, but it will not be required in most Reform synagogues. Conservative synagogues are likely to require it for men and recommend it for women. When in doubt, ask ahead or, if you get there and realize everyone else has their head covered, ask an usher for help. Synagogues where head covering is the norm will almost always have some for guests to borrow. At bar and bat mitzvah services, kippot [yarmulkes or skull caps] are often given away as souvenirs with the name of the bar mitzvah and the date inscribed inside.

3. For an event at an Orthodox synagogue, unless you have specific info to the contrary, men and women both should cover all bare skin: no shorts, no short skirts, no tight clothing, either. Generally speaking, when I attend services or events at an Orthodox shul, I wear a knee-length or longer skirt with a top or jacket that covers elbows and collarbones. Men should cover their heads with a kippah (usually there is a supply of them at the door) and it’s a safe bet for women to wear a hat. Yes, you will look like a visitor but that’s fine, you will look like a visitor who cares about the sensibilities of the community.

4. Funerals are uniformly the most solemn occasions in any location. Women: dress soberly,with absolutely no “bling” and very little skin on display. Black is always a safe choice. If you are going to the cemetery, wear sensible shoes even if they look clunky with your outfit; cemetery grass is thick and lush. If all your outfits are lowcut or sleeveless, wear a shawl or jacket to cover up. Men: if you have a suit and tie, wear it. If you don’t, come as close as you can.

5. For Bar and Bat Mitzvah services, look at the invitation. If it specifies dress, believe them. If your daughter is insisting that everyone else is wearing miniskirts and strapless bustiers to the bat mitzvah service, phone either the synagogue office or the mother of the bar mitzvah (WELL ahead of the big day) and ask about dress codes. The same applies if your son is adamant about jeans and a tee shirt. These services are solemn events, and going to them dressed like you’re going to a disco is disrespectful to the congregation and potentially an embarrassment to the family.

The party afterwards may be a whole different matter, with a separate dress code. Again, if you have questions, call the family well ahead of time.

6. Your clothing need not be expensive to be appropriate for any synagogue event. Member families at any synagogue are like most families in your community: they come from all income brackets. The main thing is to be clean, tidy, and modest in your dress.

 Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by LizMarie_AK


Why Does Conversion to Judaism Take So Long?

January 28, 2014

shutterstock_16666756

“Why is it taking so long? I can’t wait to get to the mikveh!”

If I had a nickel for every time a student has said that to me, we could go get fancy espresso drinks. There is something about being “in a process” or “on a journey” that makes us long for the destination and impatient to “arrive.”

Here’s the deal: Conversion to Judaism is a very serious matter. It’s serious for the person making this change, and it is also serious for the Jewish People. In the Middle Ages, it was illegal for Jews to convert Christians or Muslims to Judaism, and the repercussions could be terrible for the entire Jewish community. Today, it isn’t quite as dramatic, but what it boils down to is, once you are a member of the tribe, you are a part of us. We’re stuck with you, and you’re stuck with us. The saying is, Kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh ["All Israel is responsible one for another."] So the time of study, the courtship, is long and slow.

It takes a year to experience each of the Jewish holidays, and to experience the feeling of being apart from celebrations that we leave behind. Your relationship to the old holidays will change. Your relationships to family members and friends will shift to include the changes in your life. You will also make new friends, explore new possibilities in the Jewish community.  None of this can happen quickly.

This is a very precious time. Congregational rabbis make an extraordinary investment of time and effort in candidates for conversion, because there is not only much to learn, but much emotional ground to cover. Most students meet regularly with their rabbi as they move through the year or more of study. The rabbi will not schedule a beit din or the mikveh until he or she is sure that this person is ready to move forward as an adult member of the Jewish community – that is, without the special support that a candidate receives.

So don’t get in a rush. Don’t worry about “when.” Studying for conversion is a special time, a time that, once over, will never come again. A new Jew is an adult member of the community, and they’re on their own: to work on committees, to choose classes or study, to be as involved as they want. But the days of being a baby bird will be over.

Conversion to Judaism is a long process: for most, it takes at least a year, and for some, more than that. The point is not to do it quickly, but to do it well. I wish you a challenging and rewarding process!


Thinking of Conversion to Judaism? 5 Things to Do

January 26, 2014

Interested in a place at the table?

Interested in a place at the table?

This is an update of a post I made two years ago. It seems like time to revisit the topic.

So, you’re thinking of conversion to Judaism? Here are five things you need to do.

1.  FIND A RABBI. You do not need to be “sure” to do this. The rabbi will not immediately whip out a fountain pen and suggest you sign on the dotted line. Jews do not seek out converts or proselytize, and the conversion process is long and slow. What you need to know, though, is that the process cannot move forward until you have a rabbi. Rabbis do not charge for conversion, by the way; if someone calling himself “rabbi” talks about a fee for conversion, head for the exit. To make an appointment with a rabbi, call the congregation and ask to make an appointment.

For advice about finding a rabbi with the proper credentials for your conversion, read Choosing A Rabbi.

2.  FIND A CONGREGATION, partly because that’s where you are likely to find a rabbi and also because that’s one place the Jews are. Judaism is a religion embedded in a People. If you think you want to become a Jew, get to know some Jews. Hang out with the Jews.  Becoming a member of the Jewish People means you will also be spending time with Jewish people:  better find out if you like them. If there is more than one congregation in your town, try different congregations, because they will be quite different.  To find congregations, try Googling the name of your city and the word “synagogue.” You do not need to be a member of a synagogue to attend as a visitor.

Lately there have been some websites offering conversion to Judaism online. Before you settle for that option, read my article Online Conversion, Revisited.  

3.  DO SOME READING. Your rabbi will recommend books. If you are not ready to find the rabbi yet, here’s a good list of books recommended by actual converts to Judaism. Keep in mind that not all books and not all online sources are equally good; some are downright poor, so choose carefully or look for recommendations from sources you trust.

4.  TAKE A CLASS. Many Jewish communities offer classes with titles like “Basic Judaism” or “Introduction to Judaism.” Your rabbi may offer a class; if you don’t have a rabbi, taking such a class is a another way to meet a rabbi. (I teach such classes in the San Francisco Bay Area.  For more info on my classes, check out the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog.)

5.  CHECK OUT JEWISH LIFE. Visit Jewish museums. Learn about Israel. Watch Jewish films. Read Jewish fiction. Eat Jewish food. Find out if your community has a Jewish newspaper, and watch for cultural events, speakers, concerts, festivals, and other opportunities to taste Jewish culture and life in your city.

One final thing:  it’s OK, in fact it is critical, to listen to your heart. If you don’t feel comfortable with the first rabbi you meet, talk to another one. If you don’t feel welcome at the first synagogue, check out another synagogue. 

And if, along the way, you realize that what you wanted was to learn about Judaism, but that it was just one step on your spiritual journey, that’s OK. There are many paths to holiness; Judaism is only one of them. I hope and pray that you will find the right path for you.


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