What Makes a Home Jewish?

June 13, 2014
How many Jewish objects can you identify on my shelves?

How many Jewish objects can you identify on my shelves?

In parashat Shelach-Lecha, we read about Moses sending 12 spies into the Promised Land to see what it was like: what grew there? Who lived there? What would the children of Israel face when they entered the Land?

If spies looked in your place, how could they tell that it is a Jewish home?

Would they see

Would they hear

  • Jewish music?
  • Hebrew prayers?
  • Hebrew spoken?
  • Radio from Israel on the computer?
  • a debate about ethics?

Would they smell

  • Jewish foods cooking?
  • Candles?
  • Havdalah spices?

Could they taste

Or could they touch

  • a challah cover?
  • a tallit [prayer shawl]?
  • Passover dishes?
  • Jewish art made by a child?
  • Shabbat candlesticks?

Can you suggest experiences they’d find in your home that would “give it away” as a Jewish home?

 

 


Jews at a Christian Funeral: Some Thoughts

May 12, 2014

Recently I attended the Christian funeral of a man who had been an employee and friend of my congregation for many years. He was a good man and dearly loved, and I would make a rough guess that there were as many Jews in attendance at his funeral as Christians.

We were all there to remember and say goodbye to a good man, a man without whom the world is a poorer place. Two communities with very different beliefs joined together in grief and love to remember Jim. At the same time, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the many differences between Protestant and Jewish funerals.

The differences boiled down to two things: the handling of the body, and the beliefs about afterlife.

• THE BODY – At this Protestant Christian funeral, the body of the deceased was dressed in his best suit and embalmed for display at the service. This was a bit of a shock to Jews in attendance who are not accustomed to it. The Jewish thinking is that it is disrespectful to look at the dead, and disrespectful to disturb the body other than washing and dressing it. The Christian thinking, if I understand it correctly, is to honor the dead by making the body look as good as possible before laying it in the earth, to provide mourners with a last memory.

• BELIEF – At a Christian funeral, there is a firm belief that this person has gone on to another life with God in heaven. The service made reference to this again and again, and the minister admonished the congregation to get into a right relationship with God, so that when their time came, they too would go to heaven. At a Jewish funeral, on the other hand, there is little if any talk about afterlife. Jews have a variety of thoughts about what happens after death, but our focus is on this life. At a Jewish funeral there is more of a focus on grief and on the importance of memory.

What was the same was the human need to stop and pay respect to a loved one who had gone from this life. We may believe different things about the mysteries of life and death, but Christian and Jew, we were awed to stand on the brink of eternity to say our farewells.

 


All in the Family

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am Echad – One People.

Image: Emmanuel Dyan, some rights reserved.

 


What Makes Jewish Food Jewish?

April 11, 2014

 

Chess Pie

Chess Pie

“People assume that the Ashkenazi way of doing food is the crux of what Jewish food means. The reality is that Jewish food is a text, and there’s different types of text. Oral and written, of course. And then you have the text of the land of Israel. Then comes the diaspora itself. In other words, it’s your personal identity with the text, the idea of Israel, and where we live.” – Michael Twitty, in an interview for Chow, 4/10/2014

Michael Twitty teaches remarkable Torah. He is Jewish, African American, a food historian and chef, and he has a way with words. The interview above (click that link!) is chock-full of interesting insights about Jewish food.

If I ask a random American what “Jewish Food” is, likely they’ll say something about deli food, or bagels. However, Jewish food is much more varied than that. There’s Sephardic food, replete with rice and rich flavors, and the food of the Israeli street (falafel, anyone?) Digging deeper, there’s the food in every Jewish home, which is as individual as Mom’s best recipes and Dad’s skill with the grill. Jewish food is any food Jews eat around the Jewish table, which over time becomes infused with Jewish meaning.

An example: I grew up in the American South, and on holidays we had something called chess pie.  Every slice is a sliver of gooey sweetness. The first few years I was a Jew, I made the typical Ashkenazi things for Rosh Hashanah, but eventually I switched over to making my chess pie, because I don’t know of any sweeter dish on earth. For me and my family, it’s a Rosh Hashanah dish now, and every bite includes not only sugar, butter, and spices, but the hope for a sweet year. I swear it made the pie taste even better.

Another example, this one for Passover: A friend gave me her mother’s recipe for brisket, a very elaborate and wonderful old Hungarian recipe. I made it, and tinkered with it, and fiddled with it, and a few years ago I realized that it had morphed into something entirely different, a brisket that was a mix of the original recipe and the techniques I learned from my grandmother.  Here it is, and unlike the chess pie, it can be made kosher for Passover:

Passover Brisket

beef brisket, approximately 1/2 lb per person
2 cans tomatoes, with liquid
1/2 potato per person, carrots, and onions to cover the bottom of your roasting pan
fresh ground pepper
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon mustard

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Buy brisket for the number of people you have coming. I normally figure 1/2 pound per person.

In a deep roasting pan, put a layer of cut up potatoes, carrots, and onions.

Cut the brisket into as many pieces as you need to to handle it easily.

Brown the brisket on all sides on the stovetop over high heat. Brown the fatty side first, then brown the other sides of the meat in the fat.

Put the browned pieces of brisket in the roasting pan on top of the vegetables.

Sprinkle with fresh ground pepper, 1 teaspoon of paprika, and 1/2 teaspoon of ground mustard.

Deglaze the browning pan with a cup of wine (I use red, white is OK, do not use a sweet wine.)

Add 2 large cans of whole tomatoes, cut up, to the browning pan and bring it to a near-boil.

Pour the liquid over the meat and veggies, cover the pan (either with a lid or foil, but get a good seal) then put in the oven.

After 15 min, reduce heat to 300.

Allow it to cook until the meat is falling apart. Normally I cook it for 8 hours or even more.

Remove the brisket to a carving board and allow it to rest for 30 minutes before slicing. Slice perpendicular to the grain.

Strain out veggies, reserving liquid, and put them in a separate bowl.

Put the liquid in a saucepan on the stove and heat to reduce it for a gravy.

 

Are there any foods that have taken on Jewish meaning in your Jewish home? Share recipes if you are willing!

Image: Chess Pie, by Kristen Taylor. Some rights reserved.


After Shabbat – What then?

April 5, 2014

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Once I got used to keeping Shabbat, I began noticing a change in my Saturday evenings, after Shabbat was done. During Shabbat, I direct many thoughts to “the back of the stove,” the mindspace where my unconscious may be working on it, but my conscious self is not allowed. When a nagging worry shows up to nag, I push it to the back of the stove. When a possible solution to a work issue shows up, I shove it to a back burner to cook some more. At the time, it’s a relief – I don’t have to do that now. However, it gives the half-baked idea some additional cooking time, and builds a little pressure to get on with it come Saturday night.

Thus Saturday evenings went from a time generally wasted to my most productive night of the week. Havdalah is made, ending with Eliahu HaNavi, and I rise in a ball of energy, pulling the pots to the front of the stove.  Suddenly I’m cooking with gas.

What is Motzei Shabbat (the evening after Shabbat) like for you? Is this “burst of energy” just my little quirk, or is it a common thing?

Image: CC Joyce Cory, Some rights reserved.


What Kind of Jew are You?

March 25, 2014

Are you ethnically Jewish, or culturally Jewish? A religous Jew, or a secular Jew?

In all the loaded discussions of “who’s a Jew” we sometimes lose sight of the many ways that one can be Jewish.

Ethnically Jewish – Do you have a parent who’s Jewish? For much of the Jewish world, that question is worded: Is your mother Jewish? The American Reform Movement broadens that to “a Jewish parent,” provided you were also educated as a Jew. Another way to say it is that they have “Jewish blood” or a “Jewish heritage.” Judaism actually includes many ethnicities: Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Persian Jewish, Iraqi Jewish, Ethiopian Jewish, Yemenite Jewish, etc. A person who is ethnically Jewish might or might not feel much connection to other Jews.

Culturally Jewish – Is there some aspect of Jewish culture in which you participate? Does your family mark Passover with some kind of seder? Do you belong to anything Jewish? Do you give to anything Jewish? “Cultural” implies some kind of participation in a culture. “I eat bagels” doesn’t quite do it – a Baptist in Omaha might eat bagels. But do you perk up your ears and feel a sense of kinship when you find out that such-and-such a movie actor is Jewish? Did you have a visceral reaction to the news about Bernie Madoff – did you feel linked to him, even though you never met the guy?

Secular Judaism – “I’m Jewish but not religious.” There’s a long tradition for secular Judaism. Sometimes Christians are puzzled by Jews who don’t go to synagogue or don’t believe in God but who feel fiercely connected to the Jewish People. That’s because Judaism is more than a religion, it’s also an ethnicity, a culture, a whole civilization and worldview. Secular Jews are no less Jewish than their religious cousins, and many are no less serious about their Judaism. Many of the founders of the State of Israel were (or are – a few are still alive) secular Jews.

Religious Judaism – In general, Jews who attend services, observe religious holidays, etc, although you’d be surprised at some of the overlap with other groups. Some synagogue goers go for the Jewish culture available there, not for religious content per se. There’s a joke that circulates about a man who goes to daily minyan and who tells a story about his friend Abe: “Abe goes to minyan to talk with God. I go to talk with Abe.” Synagogues were the first Jewish cultural centers, and they continue to fill that role for some Jews  today. But there are also Jews who believe in God, who have lively spiritual lives, and some of them go to synagogue – and some don’t.  Go figure.

There are also an increasing number of people in our communities who have been with us since Biblical times: people who live with Jews even though they themselves aren’t Jewish. Generally they find their way to us because they love someone Jewish. Some eventually choose to become Jewish; some have good reasons for not converting. But it is important to remember that in every gathering of Jews, there will also be some people who weren’t “born that way,” and others who are with us for love. Some raise Jewish children, and thereby participate in the Jewish future. At any rate, whenever you are in a Jewish community, remember that they are part of us, too: the Book of Ruth reminds us that King David had a Moabite great-grandmother.

How do you identify Jewishly? Do you find these labels useful, or limiting?


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


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