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.


Passover goes on for a WEEK? What Will We Eat?

April 16, 2014
Matzah!

Matzah!

Newcomers to Judaism are sometimes shocked to discover that Passover isn’t just a day – it’s a week-long event!  (To be precise: Seven days in Israel, or eight days in the Diaspora, unless you are Reform and think that Rabbi Hillel’s hard work in calculating the calendar should be honored, in which case, seven days.  Short version: ask your rabbi.)

Yup, you got it right: We are only at the beginning of a week of NO CHAMETZ.

Veterans of many years of Judaism and/or Jewish childhoods will tell you about the wonders of matzo brie (fried matzah), matza pizza, etc.  Those are fun and well worth trying. Some come to love them, and some not so much. It’s OK either way: you ate matzah at the seder and that’s all the matzah we are required to eat. 

Newcomers may also be appalled at the sudden outbreak of constipation jokes from fellow Jews who don’t indulge in such humor except at Passover.  All I know to tell you is that those jokes will disappear in a week, not to be heard again until next year. (To the purveyors of those jokes I say: no one forced you to eat that much matzah. Ahem.)

So in the meantime, what to eat?

Unprocessed fruits are all perfectly fine.

Vegetables will depend on whether you eat “kitniyot” or not. If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry about it this year. If you are among the Jews who refrain from kitniyot at Passover, you know what not to eat. Again, if this has not been part of your practice until you’ve read this article, don’t worry about it – veggies are OK! – but you may want to study and ask your rabbi before next year.

Meats, dairy products, fish, etc are all good, as long as there’s no chametz mixed in with them. (No yogurt with granola on top.) Again, just avoid the processed stuff and you will be ok.

Menu suggestions:

  • Leftovers from the seder, if there are any.
  • Tuna salad on matzah.  Ditto for egg or chicken salad.
  • Tuna salad on a nice mess of greens. Ditto for egg or chicken salad.
  • Green salads with meat or dairy for protein – always good.
  • Stews and soups are good, just (1) not processed – there will be chametz in there somewhere and (2) no dredging things in flour and (3) beer is chametz, so no Guinness stew. Serve over mashed potatoes, if you want.

Snack suggestions:

  • fruit
  • nuts
  • cut-up veggies
  • leftover seder treats (macaroons? candies?)
  • Kosher for passover chocolate and snacks

Before you panic, remember, it’s only a week. If you start feeling crazy, remember the story in Exodus 16. When our ancestors had been in the desert for more than 40 days, living on nothing but matzah, they complained to Moses about the food. God promptly sent them manna. I like to think that God was thinking, “Well! Finally! You learned to ask for what you need!”

So remember: you don’t have to live on matzah. Eat fresh if you can afford it. Look upon this time as a yearly “reset” button for your eating habits. And don’t forget to give tzedakah for those who cannot afford fresh food.

Happy Pesach!

Image by Avital Pinnick, some rights reserved

 


“Blood Moons” and the Meaning of Prophecy

April 13, 2014

Maybe you’ve heard something in the press about “blood moons” this year and next.  They sound scary, don’t they?

A “blood moon” is a vivid description of the full moon during a total lunar eclipse. I saw the one on December 11, 2011, and it was a sight to behold. The moon turned a dark coppery color for a while and gave us all a shot of amazement (or the creeps) and then gradually became its own silvery self again.  I said the blessing for seeing a wonder of nature and then went back to work at my desk.

The moon turns red because while the earth has blocked the light from the sun, the light from all the earth’s sunsets and sunrises still reaches the moon. That light seems blood-colored as it is reflected back to us. (Read this article for more about the science of this astronomical wonder.)

Lunar eclipses come in many varieties, but for our purposes, let’s just say they are “full” (like this one) and “partial.” (For the difference, read the science article.) Total ones are very dramatic; partial eclipses are less so. The next four lunar eclipses visible from North America represent the lunar equivalent of a high poker hand: we are about to see “four of a kind” total eclipses in a row. The fancy name for that is “tetrad.” For astronomers in North America, this is a great stroke of luck, because they can use this time to observe the moon and the sky in ways unavailable at other times.

This tetrad is remarkable in that it also lines up with the Jewish holidays of Passover and Sukkot, for two years running. We’ll have total eclipses on this Passover and the next, and for the next two Sukkots as well. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat and rabbinic student David Markus have written a beautiful drash on the phenomenon which they published through Rabbi Barenblat’s blog, The Velveteen Rabbi. It’s a very Jewish take on the phenomenon of the tetrad.

This tetrad is getting attention from Christian writers as well: Pastor John Hagee of Texas has written a book about it. He sees these “signs in the heavens” as “foretold in Scripture” and specifically links them to disasters in Jewish history and, for this particular tetrad, to some sort of major event for the State of Israel.  This brings us to another interesting topic: the difference between Jewish understandings of the Prophets and Christian understandings of them.

For Jews, there was a specific time of the prophets, a historical period from the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1) to the time of the restoration of the Second Temple in 516 BCE.   Prophets guided the People of Israel and our leaders, and they were understood to be spokespersons for God. (Yes, there were women prophets.) Sometimes they heard God’s voice giving them personal instruction (Genesis 12:1), and sometimes they were messengers to a specific person (2 Samuel 12: 1-25).  The “major prophets” spoke to the entire nation about matters of national concern, including idolatry, foreign entanglements, and the need to keep the spirit as well as the law of the Torah (e.g. Isaiah 1). When they talked about the future, they were talking about the immediate future, or speaking in general terms. They were not looking centuries ahead, they were talking about the specific geopolitical and theological realities of the time. To get a really good understanding of the Jewish prophets, there’s no better book that Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, The Prophets.

Today Jews revere the words of the prophets and read them every Shabbat because their comments and rebukes are timeless: they call us to observe the spirit of the Torah, and to remember that ritual observance alone is not enough to fulfill our lives as Jews.

For Christians, the Jewish prophets have a different meaning. While many Christians read the Jewish prophets for their ethical commentary, they also read them as fore-tellers of the arrival of Jesus as messiah. In the 19th and 20th centuries in some Protestant circles, there’s been an upsurge of interest in using Jewish prophetic and eschatological writings to “foretell” political events in the future, something called Dispensationalism. Dr. Hagee’s book about the “Blood Moons” falls into this category: he is using verses of Scripture and this astronomical event to make predictions about the future. I should also mention that not all Christians are Dispensationalists; they have gotten a lot of press in recent years because (1) they have sought to publicize their message and (2) it makes great copy for people who want to sell “clicks” in the media.

These two different ways of understanding prophecy are mostly incompatible. While Jews and Christians can agree on the ethical teachings of the prophets (don’t abuse the poor etc.), we disagree fundamentally about the role of the prophet, both religiously and historically. That means that we look a bit crazy to each other. Christian attempts to use the writings of 7th century BCE prophets plus astronomical events to “foretell the future” seem pointless and disrespectful to Jews. The Jewish insistence that nothing in Isaiah has anything to do with the 1st century carpenter from Nazareth seems stubborn and blind to Christians.

The truth is, we share some books of scripture, but we read them and use them quite differently. It would be great if we could all agree to treat one another respectfully and sit side by side to watch what is indisputably a show of marvels in the night sky. Whether you call them “blood moons” or “red moons” or “total lunar eclipses,”  they are moments of beauty and majesty.

I wish you a zissen Pesach (Yiddish for “a joyful Passover”)!


What Question Will You Ask? #Blog Exodus

April 8, 2014

blogexodus

What question will you bring to your seder table?

Most people have heard of the Four Questions at the Passover seder, but those are intended only to “prime the pump.” The seder is designed to take us deep inside the experience of Exodus, and questions are one of the most potent ways for us to experience it personally.

Here are some questions you might bring to your own seder table, but I hope you will think of some of your own, as well:

  • What plagues does the world face right now?
  • What are the family stories about Passover?
  • In which parts of our lives do we feel enslaved?
  • What is freedom? Freedom from, or freedom to?
  • What single thing could I do this year to become more free?
  • What single thing could I do this year to make someone else more free?
  • What could modern day leaders learn from Moses?
  • Where or what is “Egypt” today?
  • When in your life did you feel most free?
  • When in your life did you feel most enslaved?
  • What does it mean, to experience the Exodus as if you had really been there? Is that possible?
  • Are there parts of my life that are broken and hidden, like the Afikomen?
  • What would I like to be different about my life by next Passover?
  • What about my life do I want to keep the same through next Passover?

Can you think of other questions?  I invite you to share them in the comments!

Want to join in? We’re sharing #BlogExodus for the next 2 weeks. All you have to do is use the hashtag and there are suggested prompts on the graphic above (feel free to grab it). Maybe you just want to post on your Facebook or Twitter about these topics…or maybe you want to try #Exodusgram, posting photos related to these themes? I am late to the party but I’ll be posting my #blogExodus posts here from now till Passover. Many thanks to the clever rabbi who started this pre-Passover celebration of words and images, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, who blogs at Ima On and Off the Bima.

 


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


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