A Visit to Bugville

January 21, 2014

1973_volkswagen_super_beetle-pic-2146168177213912377

Today I did something different. I drove up to Chico, CA and I visited Bugville.

My friend has wanted a VW bug for a long time, and she found the right car online. It is a bright red 1972 SuperBeetle with all-new brakes, transmission, and a mostly pristine exterior. It was waiting for her at an outfit up here in Chico that specializes in “Air Cooled Rides:” Late Night Air Cooled.  We spent a chunk of the afternoon discovering a whole subculture of folks who love those little rides.  Do not call them “cars.” They are not “cars.” They are “bugs” or “vans” or “air cooled rides.” They are wonders of engineering, pieces of art. They are air-cooled rides.

The proprietor spent a long time with her, teaching her the fine points of caring for her bug. He did it before he accepted her cash. I have a feeling that had she not been appreciative of the wonders of Bugville, he’d have politely, kindly, sent us away bugless. She passed muster, and now the SuperBeetle is hers. She’s still thinking about its name.

Why am I babbling about this in a Jewish context? Because today I was like the person who visits a synagogue for the very first time.  There was terminology (NOT “cars!” NEVER “cars!”) Lots of talk about “air-cooled” and “carburetors” and “rpms” and shifting and kinds of oil and gasoline and goodness knows what else.  I was clueless. I just smiled a lot. Once I looked into an engine and thought, wow, yeah, engine. Air-cooled, yeah.

I remember that’s exactly how I felt on my first trip to a synagogue: lost. It was good for me to feel that feeling again, to remember how it feels to be a complete beginner in a culture with its own language and codes and jargon.

If you are a newcomer to Bugville, or to synagogue, it’s OK to be new. The owner of All Night Air Cooled was glad we were there, glad to tell us all about the wonders of his world. It was OK that we didn’t know the jargon yet, that we weren’t sure where to sit. It felt weird, because no one likes to feel so completely out of it. But if you hang in there a while, you’ll begin to pick up the lingo. (See what I learned, in just an afternoon? Air-cooled! Super Beetle! Yay!) You’ll develop your own tastes. You’ll make friends, you’ll become attached, and before long, you know, you’ll be one of the regulars gazing into the engine, nodding knowingly. The next newcomer will see you and think, gee, she knows this stuff. She belongs.


How to Succeed at Congregational Life: Ten Tips

January 14, 2014
Everyone wants to feel they have a place at the table.

Everyone wants to feel they have a place at the table.

So, you’ve decided to dive in to Jewish life and find yourself a congregation. You find one not too far from home, and it looks like it might be a fit. Or maybe you’ve found the only synagogue in 100 miles, and whether it’s a fit or not, that’s what you’ve got.  A synagogue community over about 150 people is often a community of communities: an umbrella under which several different groups get together for smaller things, and then all come together for big stuff like High Holiday services. If you only go to the big stuff, you’ll never get to know anyone. These tips can help you integrate into your own synagogue community (and it’s never too late to try them.)

ATTEND. The single most important thing you can do to succeed at synagogue life is to show up!  Find one regular event at the synagogue and commit yourself to being there regularly – say, 75% of the time – for a decent block of time. If it’s a weekly event, give yourself three months.  It could be Friday night services, or Torah study, or an affinity group like Seniors, morning minyan or choir – but if you are a regular, you will make your own circle of friends and feel “at home.”

BE FLEXIBLE. Connecting with people different from yourself but with whom you have shared values can be fun and useful. Be open to connection with people outside your age bracket / income bracket / level of education / profession / marital status. Those friends will broaden your point of view, and they know stuff you don’t. If you don’t know what to talk about at first, talk about the activity at hand: Torah study, the speaker, Scrabble, etc.

ASK FOR ADVICE. The rabbi, the administrator (if there is one) and people on the temple board are good sources of information about finding a likely group to help you settle in. If they don’t have a group for “single thirty-somethings who love to cook” (or whatever your demographic) ask, “What’s the friendliest group around here?”

MAKE AN APPOINTMENT. It’s a great idea to make a “getting to know you” appointment with temple staff or clergy. Trying to build a relationship with them at the coffee hour after services is like trying to play cards in the middle of a tornado.

VOLUNTEER.  I have made some of my firmest friends around shul when I volunteered to be part of the group to clean up after an event. Set up for events often brings out anxieties, but at clean up time, everyone is glad  you are there.

BE PROACTIVE. If I am at a temple event and I feel like a wallflower, I look for other wallflowers and chat them up. I have met some wonderful people that way, and gotten to know people from all parts of the synagogue.

BE POSITIVE. We’re Jews, and Jews kvetch. But unless you want to be someone people avoid, try to balance your complaints with compliments. Longtime members are proud of their synagogue. Staff work hard. If someone messes up, of course you let them know. But if you also tell them  what they did right, they will be more able to hear  your excellent observations.

DON’T BE INTIMIDATED. As a fat disabled lesbian with a Southern accent, I have had people say plenty of dumb and/or annoying things to me at synagogue. Out of town, in an environment where I will never see those people again, I generally roll my eyes and move along. But in my congregation, I find that what works best for me is to be willing to do a little education.  I let people know what my limits are: “I don’t like to discuss my health with anyone but my doctor, thanks,” or “You know, Abe, I like you a lot, but I really hate it when anyone imitates my accent.” I tell people what I need: “I can’t take the stairs. Join me in the elevator?” When someone drags out the old saw, “My, you don’t look Jewish!” I just smile pleasantly and say, “This is what Jewish looks like in the 21st century.” When all else fails, my default line is, “Can we talk about something else?”

GIVE EVERYONE THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT. If someone says something stupid, odds are they didn’t stay up all night trying to figure out the best way to insult you.  If on the other hand, someone is consistently offensive or annoying, maybe you’re just oil and water. In any community of size, there are going to be a few people with whom you just don’t mix easily.  Whatever you do, beware the temptation to bond with others via gossip and mean talk about others. That stuff will leave you more isolated, not less.

BE A MEMBER, NOT A CONSUMER. After you’ve decided this is the shul for you, let “Be a member, not a consumer” be your guide. Keep your commitments to other synagogue members and staff. Treat people like you are going to see them again. If there’s a program or service you want, ask for it, but be willing to contribute to making it happen.

The staff are not the synagogue. The building is not the synagogue. The synagogue is You.

Image: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by FoodMayhem.com


Is Judaism a Religion or a Culture?

January 11, 2014
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Ethiopian Jews meet with Israeli President Ezer Weitzmann

A lot of Americans are puzzled when they look closely at the Jewish community, because sometimes it looks like religion isn’t very important to Jews. Many Jews only go to synagogue at the High Holy Days. Many more never go to synagogue at all. We have lots of “secular Jewish” organizations that do social justice work or poor relief or jewish community service of some kind. Some Jews refer to themselves as cultural Jews. (When was the last time you heard someone refer to themselves as a cultural Christian?)

It gets even more confusing when you look at world Jewry, because Judaism encompasses a number of ethnicities. Here in the US we are most familiar with Ashkenazi culture (think Fiddler on the Roof.) Ashkenazi means “Jews from Eastern Europe.” However, the first Jewish Americans were Sephardic, meaning that their ancestors had at one time been part of the Jewish culture of Spain. There are also Mizrahi Jews, Jews of the Middle East, who have rich and interesting subcultures such as Persian Jews, Moroccan Jews, Egyptian Jews, Yemenite Jews, and so on. Most of the Mizrahi communities today survive in Israel or the US, because they were evicted from their home countries in the 20th century, but the music, the food, and the liturgy survive and are distinct from anything else in the Jewish world.

Judaism is a religion, but it is more than that. It includes religion, worldview, lifestyle, a calendar and a sense of connection to the other Jews of the world. It is rooted in a Teaching, which we call Torah, and the language of that Teaching, Hebrew. Jews disagree about the pronunciation of Hebrew or about the interpretation of Torah but even the most a-religious Jew is linked to other Jews by those two things. Our concepts of justice, of law, and our priorities of life find their sources in Torah. Our ways of measuring time, of eating and drinking, of welcoming children and mourning the dead are rooted in Torah. We do not agree on interpretation, but that is interpretation, not the source itself.

Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan said it best when he called Judaism a civilization. It defies limitations like “religion” or “ethnicity;” it is one of the oldest civilizations on earth.  That is why, when the sage Hillel was asked to sum it up while standing on one foot (in the 1st century!) he concluded his precís with the words “Go and study,” and why the sage Ben Bag Bag said, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.”

So, go and study. Turn the scroll and learn, but resist any temptation to confine Judaism to a tidy package. There’s nothing tidy about it.

Image: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by Government Press Office (GPO)


Tu B’Shevat for Beginners

January 7, 2014

There’s a wonderful Jewish holiday coming soon – 15 Sh’vat, also known as Tu B’Shevat.  It’s coming at sundown on January 15, 2014.

It’s not a huge big deal, unless you choose to make a big deal of it. However, if you are around a synagogue, you may hear about it. If you know Jews who are very concerned with the earth and its care, you may hear about it.

All Jewish holidays have changed through history. This one may have changed the most, because it has gone from being an accounting device (really! see below) to being Jewish Earth Day. What hasn’t changed is its other name: The New Year of the Trees.

Here are the basic facts for Tu B’Shevat:

1. THE NAME.  “Tu B’Shevat” means “15th of Shevat.” Tu is a way of pronouncing the letters that make up the number 15 in Hebrew. (For more about Hebrew numbers, check out this article in Wikipedia.) Shevat is the month in the Jewish calendar that includes the deep winter in Israel, generally January and a bit of February.

2. ORIGINAL MEANING. Tu B’Shevat is often referred to as the “New Year for Trees.” But didn’t we already celebrate a New Year at Rosh HaShanah?  And a secular New Year on January 1? This is the beginning of a fiscal year for agricultural accounting of plants in the Land of Israel. Originally, it was a calendar date at which farmers began counting the year for trees, so that they’d know when trees were old enough to reap the fruit according to Jewish Law (Leviticus 19:23-25), and the point from which tithes could be calculated.  At this time of year, the trees are either dormant or just beginning to blossom.

3. MYSTICAL MEANINGS. After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, some traveled east to the land of Israel. Most settled in and around the town of Safed, in the northern Galilee, which became a center for Jewish mysticism (kabbalah.)  These mystics began to mark the holiday with a seder (ritual meal eaten in a particular order) somewhat like the Passover seder. At a Tu B’Shevat seder, four cups of wine are drunk and seven different kinds of fruit.  The seder was a celebration of rededication to the Land of Israel and an appreciation of its trees.

4. ZIONIST MEANINGS. With the return to the Land of Israel in the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews revived the observance of Tu B’Shevat as a rededication to the land and a celebration of the relationship between Jews and this particular plot of earth. Many Jews worldwide observed the custom of planting trees in Israel, to replace trees that had been stripped from the land during the Roman and Ottoman periods.

5. JEWISH EARTH DAY.  In the late 20th century, as concern for the environment has grown, Tu B’Shevat has taken on more meaning as a day for Jews to express their concern for ecological issues.  The Tu B’Shevat seder has been revived as not only a celebration of the Land of Israel and its trees, but as a celebration of the holiness of the earth and its creatures.

Image from Flickr Commons, no known copyright

Online Conversion, Revisited

January 1, 2014

Becoming Jewish [courtesy of BecomingJewish.net]

Becoming Jewish [courtesy of BecomingJewish.net]

Back in May, I wrote a blog post entitled Can I Convert to Judaism Online?  I’ve been doing some thinking about it, and today I am ready to share some new thoughts.

I am enthusiastic about conversion to Judaism.  I became a Jew as an adult, and it has been a challenging and rewarding path.

I am an old hand in online communities. My brother gave me a 300 baud modem for my 30th birthday in 1985, and I’ve been online ever since. I’ve seen some of the best and the worst the online world can do in terms of community. I’ve learned and taught online.

Online resources are a mixed bag for conversion to Judaism.  There is a wealth of information available online, and some of it is very good. Some of it is quite awful. A story to illustrate what a bad source of info can do for you:  My Hebrew name is Ruth. I originally chose that name because I read “somewhere” that all female converts to Judaism had to take the name Ruth. When my rabbi asked me what name I had chosen, I said “Ruth” because I thought it was some kind of a test. He said “Good choice!” and put my new name on the shtar (document) of conversion. It was months before I found out that I had had a choice. I’m fond of my name, now, but I wish I’d asked more questions!

Judaism is a communal religion. Ever since the beginning, Judaism has been a practice of a living community. Abraham and Sarah were the first community of Jews, but it was not long before they were surrounded by a community. Genesis 12:5 says that they set out “with all the souls they made in Haran.” Traditionally we understand that phrase to mean that Abraham and Sarah welcomed others to their way of life.

I learned how to behave as a Jew from spending time with other Jews. I ate at the home of fellow Jews, celebrated holidays with them, copied them when I didn’t know what to do, asked questions, prayed with a minyan, studied in classes with Jews, asked more questions, and found my way to an ever-evolving practice of my own. It doesn’t happen privately or in a vacuum: I did this, and continue to do this in community with other Jews. 

Important Jewish activity takes place with a minyan present, a quorum of ten Jews. They don’t have to be rabbis, they don’t have to be anything but adult official Jews, but we don’t say Kaddish, we don’t say Barechu, we don’t read Torah without those other nine Jews.

This is my great objection to conversion that happens purely online: a person may work with a rabbi, they may have a reading list and a to-do list, and they may even travel to meet the rabbi from time to time, but if they are not growing up Jewishly in a community with other Jews, they’re missing out on an essential part of the process: they aren’t spending actual time with actual Jews.

We are called “a stiff-necked people” and we’re all that and more. There’s a running joke about the guy who loves Judaism but can’t stand Jews. As someone told me after my conversion: “The good news is: you’ll never be alone again. The bad news is: you’ll never be alone again.”

There are rabbis online who will sign you up for a class or three, give you a reading list, and work with you for a conversion. Depending on that rabbi’s credentials, it may or may not be a valid conversion (more on that in a future post.) But my point here is: if you want even a minimally good conversion process, you need not only a rabbi, not only a beit din, not only a mikveh — you need a real Jewish community.

A real Jewish community has wonderful people, annoying people, breath-takingly smart people, staggeringly stupid people, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, crackpots, menschen, and that’s just the short list. You’re going to love some, and others you will duck when you see them coming. And that is part of being a Jew, being part of a big, unmanageable tradition with saints like Abraham Joshua Heschel and embarrassments like Bernie Madoff.

If your heart is tugging you towards Judaism, don’t settle for an “online conversion.” Call your local synagogues, and find a rabbi and a community with whom to explore Judaism. If there is no local synagogue, then ask yourself if you, like Abraham, need to “get out of your land, and from your kindred, and from your father’s house, and into the land which [God] will show you.” [Genesis 12:1]

If it is meant to be, then a Jewish community is waiting for you.


Havdalah: A Sweet Finish to Shabbat

December 31, 2013

Observing the Sabbath-closing havdalah ritual ...

We begin Shabbat with candles, and blessings, and wine. (For a complete description, read 8 Easy Steps to a Simple Shabbat Dinner.) Those activities mark the beginning of zman kodesh, holy time. There is also a ceremony for the close of Shabbat which is less well known (meaning, I don’t know of any movies or TV shows that have featured it – observant Jews know about it.) That ceremony is Havdalah, which means “Division.” With a second group of blessings, with candles, wine, and one other addition, we close out the zman kodesh (holy time) and return to zman chol (ordinary time) by making a clear division between the two.

How to make Havdalah

Havdalah Candle

Havdalah Candle

You need some special things for this:

  • A candle with multiple wicks (not available at the nearest Hallmark store – check at a local Judaica shop or online for a havdalah candle.)
  • Spices: could be cinnamon, or cloves, or a sprig from a rosemary bush. Some people have special spice boxes.
  • A glass of wine, not your best crystal (you’ll see why in a minute.)
  • Matches

Havdalah may be made anytime after 3 stars are visible in the night sky after Shabbat, OR at the time listed on a Jewish calendar as “Havdalah.” So look for the stars, or check the time. When it’s time, light the candle.

Rather than type out the blessings here, I am going to direct you to an excellent YouTube video produced by Moishe House, which presents the blessings in karaoke style just as you need them, set to the tune by Debbie Friedman z”l.

First, we say the blessing over wine, the same blessing we made before Kiddush at the beginning of Shabbat.

Second, we say the blessing over spices, and smell the spices. This reminds us to “take in” the holiness of Shabbat and bring it with us into the week.

Third, we say the blessing over the fire of the candle. You will see some people checking their fingernails over the light – it’s just a way of doing “work” by the light of the candle, or seeing the division of light and dark. It’s just a custom: do it if you want, don’t worry about it if you’d rather not.

Fourth, we take up the cup again and sing a blessing about the division between dark and light, holy and ordinary. Some take a sip of the cup at this time. Then we extinguish the candle IN the wine, and listen to the sizzle. (This is the reason you don’t use crystal.)

Finally, we sing songs about Elijah the Prophet (who, legend says, will come at the end of Shabbat and bring the Messiah) and a song wishing everyone a Shavuah Tov, a good week.

And we’re done.

Why Make Havdalah

Part of the power of Shabbat is the contrast to the rest of our lives. It makes sense, then, not to let it “fizzle out” but to mark and celebrate its closing. I find that I often have a burst of energy after Havdalah – suddenly all those things I’ve been resolutely not doing during Shabbat are crying out to be done, and I have energy for them!

Havdalah can also be useful for making a clear boundary between Shabbat and activities that are not shabbatlik, suitable for Shabbat. If a Jewish organization plans to have an activity Saturday night that would include things they don’t do on Shabbat, like handling money, making Havdalah is a way of underlining that it is no longer Shabbat.

Here’s the Moishe House video, with music performed by Elana Jagoda:

 


A Beginner’s Guide to the Torah Scroll

December 12, 2013
Hakhnasat Sefer Torah

(Photo credit: Avital Pinnick)

Ten facts about Torah scrolls:

1. The proper Hebrew name for a Torah scroll is Sefer Torah, a book of Torah. It’s pronounced “SAY-fehr toe-RAH,” or in the Yiddish/Ashkenazic pronunciation, “SAY-fehr TOE-rah.” It means “book of Torah.”

2. A sefer Torah contains exactly 304,805 Hebrew letters in a special script. There are no vowels and no punctuation. One must study in order to be able to read or chant from the sefer Torah.

English: Hebrew Bible text as written in a Jew...

Numbers 10:35 in a sefer Torah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3. It takes a sofer (SOH-fehr) (specially trained scribe) approximately 18 months to produce a sefer Torah. It takes so long because every letter is written by hand, every detail has to be checked and rechecked, and there are special rules for writing the name of God. As a result of this care, the text has been preserved over the centuries.

4. The sofer writes the text in a special ink on parchment produced from the skin of a kosher animal. If he or she makes a mistake on an ordinary word, they scrape the word off the parchment with a knife and continue. If they make a mistake writing the name of God, that entire panel must be cut from the scroll and a new panel sewn in in its place.

5. A typical sefer Torah weighs 20-25 pounds, although some are as heavy as 50 pounds. A sefer Torah is both massive and fragile.

6. Reading from a sefer Torah is a public act, normally performed on Monday mornings, Thursday mornings, Shabbat and holidays. The text may be read or chanted to a traditional melody called trop. It is always translated, or a translation is provided, for all who do not understand the Biblical Hebrew.

7. We carry the sefer Torah around during the Torah reading service in a ceremony called Hakafah, (hah-kah-FAH). You may see people reaching out to touch the torah with the fringes on their prayer shawls, or with their prayer books, and then kissing the object that touched the Torah. We do this out of reverence for what the Torah represents, thousands of years of tradition, learning, and revelation. We do not worship the Torah scroll.

8. During the Torah service, and at other times, we stand when the sefer Torah is out of its cabinet, often referred to as the Ark or the Aron. We always face the sefer Torah if possible, so during Hakafah we turn to follow its path around the room.

9. On Simchat Torah, (“Joy of the Torah”) a fall holiday, we celebrate finishing and restarting the yearly reading of the Torah with singing and dancing, often with the sefer Torah itself.

10. Every synagogue has customs and rules about who may handle a sefer Torah. Generally speaking, only a person who qualifies as a member of a minyan may hold a sefer Torah. When in doubt about the custom of a particular synagogue, ask the rabbi.


Nelson Mandela z”l

December 5, 2013
English: Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gaute...

Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gauteng, on 13 May 1998 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When you see the letters z”l after a person’s name, it means “may their memory be for a blessing.” The wish seems almost unnecessary here: Nelson Mandela was a blessing in life to his country and to the world, and his memory will certainly be for a blessing as well.

He did not seem to make his choices out of fear, no matter how legitimate the reasons for fear. If more of us could learn that one thing from him, our world would be a better place.


What Makes Wine Kosher?

November 15, 2013
This image shows a red wine glass.

Kosher or not? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Periodically I will hear someone say that a food is kosher because “a rabbi said a prayer over it.” Not true. Kashrut is a complex topic, so I’ll tackle in it manageable “bites.”

Since Shabbat is coming, let’s start with wine.

  • Kosher wine is wine that has been produced and handled only by Sabbath-observing Jews, and for which all ingredients were also kosher.
  • You can tell if wine is kosher by looking for the hecksher (rabbinical mark) on the label.
  • The rules for kosher wine go back to ancient times, when wine was used to worship idols. To avoid wine that has been tainted by idol worship, kosher wine must be handled only by observant Jews. This includes the servers who pour the wine.
  • Wine has an important role in many Jewish celebrations, including welcoming Shabbat, making Havdalah at the end of Shabbat, kiddush for holidays, brit milah (circumcision) and weddings.
  • Not all kosher wines taste “like cough syrup.” Some labels are now producing wines that can compare favorably with non-kosher wines on the market.
  • Some people like the sweet wines like Manischewitz.

For more information about kosher wine, check out this article from the Kosher Wine Society.


Is there a Jewish Vatican?

November 9, 2013
English: Western wall in Jerusalem at night

Western Wall in Jerusalem, administered by an office of the Orthodox Rabbinate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Judaism has no central office.

We have national and international organizations which address various aspects of Jewish life, and in some countries there is a “head rabbi” who represents the Jews to the larger community, but there is no central office that sets policy and makes decisions.  There is nothing analogous to the Vatican for Catholics or Salt Lake City for the Mormons.

Sometimes when people hear that there is such a thing as “Jewish Law” they imagine that there is an authority that administers and defines it, and in fact there is no such entity. There are groups of Jews who are more or less in agreement on an approach to Jewish Law and traditions (“movements”), but there is variation even within those groups.

Within the State of Israel, there is the Orthodox Rabbinate, which has been established by Israeli law as the chief halakhic (Jewish legal) authority inside the State of Israel. It has authority over marriages, divorces, kashrut, burials, and overseeing the religious courts that administer those functions. However, even in Israel, there are many Jews who differ with the Orthodox Rabbinate on religious questions and which have their own institutions and synagogues. There are also a large number of secular Jews in Israel who choose to have little to do with the Orthodox Rabbinate.

So the next time you hear someone make a blanket statement about Jews (“All Jews believe such-and-such”)  be cautious. Even if you limit it to “All religious Jews believe …” it’s a very broad statement. Jewish tradition puts a very high value on minhag (local custom) and Jewish beliefs vary widely.

 

So, is there no such thing as normative Judaism? In the fine details, no. But in broader strokes, I can make a few statements with confidence:

  • Jews share a narrative that begins with Abraham.
  • Jews look to the Torah for that narrative and revelation of the best way to live. We differ on how to interpret Torah.
  • Jews affirm the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, The Eternal  is our God, The Eternal is One.” “The Eternal” is a stand-in for the four letter Name of God which we do not pronounce; and yes, we argue about what words are an acceptable substitution for the Name.
  • When Jews say “The Eternal is One,” we mean that there is only One God, without Persons or any other divinity. Jews do not believe Jesus was, much less is, divine.
  • Jews look forward to a better world. We disagree whether that world comes with a particular Messiah, or in a Messianic Age, or whether the “better world” is an ideal towards which we are striving.

So no, there is no Jewish Vatican, and there are no Jewish enforcers. “Enforcement” happens by peer pressure, if it happens at all outside the State of Israel.  This has up-sides and down-sides, but it is important to know when you are getting to know us: that’s the reason that sometimes the best answer to many questions about Judaism is “It depends.”


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