A Simple Shabbat at Home

October 25, 2013

1stShabbatMV

I am constantly telling my students that Shabbat dinner can be simple. Here is an example from my own life.  We have not-quite-moved-into a new home. There is only a little furniture, but we do have running water and electricity, so I decided that tonight was the night for our first Shabbat dinner here. Menu:

  • takeout roast chicken – my spouse picked it up at a store that makes tasty chicken
  • salad – nothing fancy
  • challah – made and brought by a friend (our first Shabbat guest!)
  • grapes and dates for dessert
  • a bottle of wine
  • Kiddush cups
  • Candles

… on a folding table. We have two chairs so I will sit on the exercise ball I brought here to rest my back while moving.
It’s makeshift. It’s ramshackle. It will be very tasty, and it will be shared with a friend. SHABBAT!

My point is, YOU CAN DO THIS.

Now I have to go and see if we have anything for napkins. Shabbat shalom!


How to Help a Jewish Mourner

October 20, 2013
standing shivah

standing shivah (Photo credit: glsims99)

At a time of trouble, good friends are apt to say, “Let me know if I can help.” However, the worse the disaster, the harder it is for the suffering person to articulate what they need. Here is a list of things you can offer to do for a Jewish mourner:

During shiva (the week following the funeral):

  • Bring food
  • Clean the kitchen
  • Pick up the children from  —
  • Assist with pet care
  • Run errands: grocery, dry cleaning, etc.
  • Make coffee or tea
  • Greet visitors at the door
  • Answer the phone
  • Make phone calls

After shiva is over:

  • Invite them to lunch or dinner
  • run errands
  • help with household chores
  • help with transportation for children, pets, or the mourner herself
  • invite them for part of Shabbat or a holiday
  • listen when they talk about the deceased or about their sorrows

Do not:

  • Tell them you know how they feel
  • Speculate about the afterlife
  • Tell them that they should get over it, or that they will get over it
  • Ask when they will be dating
  • Press them about anything that they don’t want to discuss
  • Ask for the belongings of the deceased

Mourners have been left behind by someone they loved. They may also feel abandoned by the living. You can help by including them in your life, and by making genuine, concrete offers of assistance at a difficult time.

A friend is a wonderful gift, but a friend who is willing to be present and help at a time of trouble is a treasure.

 

 

 

 

 


Are You a Cultural Jew?

October 19, 2013
Roxie's Bagel & Lox Open Face Sandwich

Roxie’s Bagel & Lox Open Face Sandwich (Photo credit: GregoryH)

“I’m a cultural Jew.”

People generally say it after they find out I’m a rabbi. I know exactly what’s going on when they say it: they suspect that I will judge them a Bad Jew, because they aren’t “religious.”  And either they are cringing at the prospect of judgment or they are angry at the prospect of judgment. Either way, it’s a barrier.

I wish I could convince them that I know enough about Jewish history and Jewish scripture to withhold my judgment. Whatever the ideal of “a good Jew” one may have in mind, history offers a wild diversity of Jewish role models. Secular Jews have been active in many of the great social justice movements of our time. They have been influential philosophers, artists, scientists, musicians, lawyers, actors, writers, and economists.  Their Jewish cultural identity has informed their lives and work.

Some secular Jewish role models:

I am much more interested in what you are doing about being Jewish, than that it happens in a way approved by some particular corner of the tribe.  There are many ways to be Jewish. Let’s celebrate them all.


Guest Blogger: “Own Your Judaism!”

October 13, 2013
Dawn Kepler and a Rainbow Challah

Dawn Kepler and a Rainbow Challah

From Rabbi Adar: Dawn Kepler is my friend and teacher. Years and years ago, she mentored me through conversion. She is the founding director of Building Jewish Bridges: Embracing Interfaith Couples & Families in Berkeley, CA.  Dawn has worked in outreach to unaffiliated and interfaith couples since 1990.  BJB’s programs also address the unique concerns of Jewish minorities that are often a subset of the interfaith population – multiracial, multiethnic and LGBT Jews. 

In response to the needs of seekers and converts to Judaism, Dawn works with Linda Burnett on programs offered through the website www.becomingjewish.net

She wrote to her mailing list about my Who’s the Most Jewish? post and said some things I wish I’d said. So I thought, “Gosh, it’s time for a guest blogger!” 
———

Whether you were born Jewish or converted to Judaism it is highly tempting to get caught up in the mental high jinks of other people, especially ones who are verbally poking you with a stick.  But don’t.  Don’t let someone else’s insecurity color your confidence and your actions.

Read Rabbi Adar’s article, Who’s the Most Jewish? and ask yourself, do I need more learning?  Do I want to read Hebrew better?  Would I really feel better if I had converted or was converting in a more traditional movement?  

Do what YOU need to feel authentic.  I have a friend who began with a Reform conversion and years later decided to have a Conservative one.  Then more years passed and she became Orthodox and had a third conversion with an Orthodox rabbi.  Some people refer to this as an ‘upgrade.’  It’s not.  An upgrade means to raise to a higher standard.  What standard are you shooting for? Judaism demands that we use our brains, learn what our sages have taught and then upgrade our lives. 

You know the story of Zusya who wept for fear that he had not been himself. In other words he had not fulfilled his potential. The upgrade you must pursue is to and do whatever it is that you were created for. Only you really know what that is.

So let’s think about it.

One of the most empowering things for a Jew by choice is to be active in Jewish community.  If you are on a committee, setting out the oneg, cooking for the homeless project, helping out in the shul office, bringing snacks to Hebrew school, you’ll gain a sense of personal ownership.  Make your shul, YOUR SHUL.  Make your rabbi, YOUR RABBI.  

I have a friend who decided to get on the chevra kadisha (the committee that prepares the dead for burial), another one joined the hospitality committee, another volunteers at Jewish Family & Children’s Services, another donates services from his business to various agencies’ fundraisers, another reads with kids through the Jewish Literacy Project, and another heads his shul’s blood drive.

Find out what your passion in the Jewish community is and DO IT.  OWN your Judaism!
Now lech lecha!  Get going!  


“my teacher said im not jewish”

October 12, 2013

English: Google Logo officially released on Ma...

Sometimes I get inspiration from the search terms people use to find this blog. And sometimes I get angry.

I hope that the child who searched Google with this string found some comfort from a real live human being, but just in case anyone ever Googles it again, I’m writing this blog post and titling it “my teacher said im not jewish.”

To anyone who has Googled this:  There’s another blog post here that will explain why some Jews get excited about who is “in” and who is “out.” That is theoretical stuff. You are dealing with real stuff, not theory. If someone says to you, “You are not Jewish” or “You are not really Jewish” here is what you can do:

1. First of all, ask yourself, “Do I feel a part of the Jewish People?” or “Do I love Judaism?” If the answer to either of those is “yes,” then:

2. Go to a rabbi and say, “My teacher said I am not Jewish. But I feel a part of the Jewish people!” or “I love Judaism!”  then ask:

3. In our community, how do we fix this situation?

The reason that you ask it that way is that different Jewish communities will approach this in different ways depending on the specifics. Maybe the teacher was just wrong and out of line. Maybe the teacher was correct about some technical matter of halakhah [Jewish Law] but forgot he was talking to a real human being. Most importantly, if it is a Jewish legal thing, then there’s a way to fix it.

I’m not going to make pronouncements here on a blog about what exactly should happen, because I am not your rabbi.

If you are reading this because this happened to you long ago and you no longer have a rabbi, you need to GET a rabbi. I have a blog post for that.

Do not be discouraged by this “technically, you’re not” business. Your rabbi (once you get one) has tools for making things right. You may have to work with him or her to make everything kosher. That is just how Judaism works – we are a religion, and a people, of doing.

To anyone who has made a pronouncement about someone else’s Jewishness:

1. Are you a rabbi? My colleague, I understand that you were conveying necessary information. I pray that you always consider the Jewish values of chesed and rachamim when you choose your words. Hurtful words have consequences for all of Am Yisrael.

2. Oh, you aren’t a rabbi? You are just a helpful person teaching others about Judaism? Understand this: You are out of your depth. You do not know as much as you think you know. The words you carelessly sling around may make you feel important, but you may have chased away the parent of one who would have been a tzaddik. You may have caused hurt that could someday have terrible consequences for the Jewish people. The correct answer if someone asks you a question as important as “Am I Jewish?” is “Let me give you the phone number of a rabbi.” Even if you are really pretty sure they aren’t Jewish, just say, “Go talk to a rabbi.” If they are your student in Hebrew school, do not injure a child’s budding Jewish identity with your cruel self-importance, talk to the rabbi yourself.

I work at the edges of the Jewish community with people who are not affiliated with a synagogue. Usually they are not affiliated because they have a story to tell: a story about hurt feelings, a story about someone who rejected them or neglected them. Often what they were told was wrong, or it was delivered in such a way that they misunderstood, or it was delivered with cruelty so that they ran away in pain.

Anyone who is concerned about the survival of Judaism should be concerned about this matter. After the events of the 20th century we cannot afford to throw away Jews or potential Jews. Even without the terrible events of the Shoah, we still have the fact that all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  When the great rabbi Hillel was asked by an impertinent questioner to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot, he said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. Go and study.” Kindness, chesed, is at the very heart of Torah!

May the person who made the original Google search “my teacher said im not jewish” find kind and knowledgable help in pursuing his or her Jewish destiny. And may all of us be part of the building of Klal Yisrael [all of Israel] and not part of tearing her down.


Judaism and Mental Illness

October 11, 2013
bridge

(Photo credit: uberculture)

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav said, “All the world is a very narrow bridge. The important thing is not to be afraid.”

One in four adults in the US experience a diagnosable mental illness.

One in four families in the US has at least one member with mental illness.

For these and more facts about the prevalence of mental illness in the US, the Centers for Disease Control published a report on mental illness back in 2011. A “one-foot” summary: Mental illness is more common than we’d like to admit, and it affects all of our lives directly or indirectly.

What does Judaism teach about mental illness?

Mental illness has always been with us. King Saul suffered from it, back in the 10th century BCE (1 Samuel 16).  David faked madness to make an escape (1 Samuel 21), which suggests that his enemies were so familiar with it that his behavior was easy for them to (mis)interpret.

Mental illness is a serious matter. It can interfere with one’s ability to function in life. It can affect one’s ability to be a witness. It severely disrupts relationships. Jewish law has things to say about how mental illness affects marriage and divorce. (For details, contact your rabbi.)

Mental illness is an illness like any other. In the traditional prayer for healing, we pray for refuat hanefesh, v’refuat haguf, healing of spirit and healing of body. This also points to the many connections between the mind and body both in health and in illness. Therefore the sick person should seek medical care, and those close to her should help her do so. Like any other illness, it is not a punishment from God, a sign that the person did anything to “deserve it” or a sign of degeneracy.

All human beings, sick or well, deserve to be treated with respect. Judaism teaches that human beings were created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. It is the common element in all humanity, and it points to a higher element in us all, as well. Therefore we should treat every human being with consideration and respect, for every human being, sick or well, is of infinite worth.

Jewish Family & Childrens Agencies in many cities serve individuals and families facing mental illness and other challenges. To locate the JFCS near you, check out their Find a Service page.

I was about to post this, and then realized I’d left off the most important part: this is personal. This is about real people, namely, about me and people I love. If you think you don’t know anyone with mental illness, Surprise!  This is no longer academic. My label is “depression” although in the past I’ve also had the label “PTSD.” Someone I love dearly carries the label “bipolar disorder.” So far, we’re fighting the good fight. So you see? You know at least one person, a rabbi, with mental illness. You probably know more. 


Who’s the Most Jewish?

October 6, 2013
René Molho

René Molho

If you’ve been around the Jewish community for a while, you’ve probably seem some version of the game, “Who’s the Most Jewish?” also known as “More Jewish Than You.” It’s one of our less attractive things.

For example, if you are a convert to Judaism, sooner or later someone is going to try to tell you that you’ll never be really Jewish. (My standard answer: “Take that up with my rabbi.”) Others may try to tell you that you’re more Jewish because you had to study and learn.  Either way, it’s unpleasant.

This used to bother me a lot more before I heard the story of René Molho (of blessed memory.) René was a survivor of Auschwitz and one of my teachers. He devoted his last years to retelling his story to combat the rising tide of Holocaust denial. René and his brother grew to young manhood in Salonica, a Greek island with a famous Sephardic community.  Just as Ashkenazi Jews spoke Yiddish, Sephardic Jews spoke Ladino, a language closely related to Spanish. When René and his brother arrived at Auschwitz, the Jews there refused to believe the two young men were Jewish because they didn’t speak Yiddish. It was quite a while before they stopped treating the Molhos with suspicion.

René was in Auschwitz with a yellow star on his chest, and there were Jews who thought he wasn’t Jewish enough.

This sad, stupid business has many roots. The Jews René met in Auschwitz had been terrorized. Many of them had never met Sephardic Jews, and it must have seemed like some new and horrible trick. From the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages, it was often illegal for Jews to convert Christians or Muslims to Judaism, so a ger tzedek [convert] could bring huge fines or violence down upon the community. Jews are obligated by Jewish law to welcome and assist fellow Jews, so frauds were not welcome.

But in my experience, most of the “More Jewish than You” game in modern times comes from insecurity. Jews who worry about their own legitimacy salve that insecurity by finding someone to look down upon. It’s not just converts to Judaism, either: I have heard people say that someone is less Jewish than so-and-so because:

  • he doesn’t “look Jewish.”
  • her last name is Smith.
  • he goes to a Reform synagogue.
  • she doesn’t keep kosher, or doesn’t keep kosher enough.
  • so-and-so is a decendant of the Baal Shem Tov.
  • so-and-so looks SO Jewish.
  • so-and-so goes to such-and-such a synagogue.
  • so-and-so speaks Yiddish.

If something about your status as a Jew worries you, talk to a rabbi and figure out what you need in order to feel legitimately Jewish. If only an Orthodox conversion will do, go for it! If in your heart of hearts you feel you really ought to be keeping kosher, do it! If you need to do more mitzvot in order to feel legitimate, run to do those mitzvot! If you feel sorta-kinda-Jewish and wish you had papers to prove you are really, absolutely Jewish, talk to a rabbi about conversion or some other way to ritualize your identity.  Learn Hebrew, learn Yiddish, learn Ladino. If general insecurity is the problem, get some therapy. But don’t let stupid words from insecure people make you miserable.

But whatever you do, don’t find someone to label “Less Jewish than Me” so that you have someone to look down on, too. We can all be tempted by this at times – to say that well, so-and-so is Orthodox and all that, but she’s really a hypocrite (thus not as Jewish as Me.) We might be tempted to throw around some Hebrew when we know that some of the people at the table don’t speak Hebrew, because hey, it may make them feel bad but Can You See How Jewish I Am? You’ve seen the game played – just make sure you are never the player.

And may the day come soon when we are all kind and wise, and there is no more insecurity, and no temptation to cruel games or defenses against them! Amen.


Jewish Funeral Etiquette: 10 Tips

September 30, 2013

This is an update of a post from a while back. Click on “Especially for Beginners” in the menu on the right side of your screen to find more articles about the basics of Jewish living. 

The sages tell us that there is no greater mitzvah than to help bury someone, because it is a favor that cannot be returned. They don’t mention (but I am sure they knew) that it is also a difficult mitzvah: death is scary, graves are scary, and loss is painful.  Jewish funeral etiquette is slightly different from many American customs. Here are my beginners’ tips for attending Jewish funerals:

1. DON’T STAY AWAY. It may be tempting to “have a prior commitment” when there is a death on the outskirts of our circle of friends, but it is a good thing to go to funerals even when you knew the person but “not very well.”  The person who died won’t know you are there, but to the mourners it is a comfort to be surrounded by their community, especially by their friends.

2. YOUR PRESENCE IS IMPORTANT. You do not need to say much to mourners; in fact, the less said, the better. Nothing you say is going to fix it. What will help most is your presence at the funeral or at shiva (more about that in a minute.) Take their hand. Say “I am so sorry” if you must, but in Jewish tradition, there is no need to say anything at all unless the mourner starts the conversation. Mostly what will help is for you to let them know that they have friends who will not disappear.

3. WEAR COMFORTABLE SHOES. Dress nicely, but wear sensible shoes if you are going to the graveside. Cemetery grounds are often extremely plushy grass. If it would be difficult to walk in sand in the those shoes, they will be miserable in a cemetery. All of this goes triple if it has been raining. You do not want to be the woman I once saw trapped in the mud by her very expensive (and ruined) stiletto heels.

4. LOW KEY IS THE KEY. If you find friends there, just remember that this IS a funeral: talk quietly. Once the service begins, be quiet. Turn OFF the cell phone for the service, and do not fiddle with it.

5. MOSTLY, JUST LISTEN. There is very little required of the congregation at a funeral. Your job is to be there. There will be a few prayers, perhaps a song, a hesped (eulogy), and the traditional prayers  El Maleh Rachamim [God Full of Mercy] and the Mourner’s Kaddish. Say “Amen” [Ah-MAYN] when the congregation says it, if you wish. The payoff for listening is that you will learn things about this person that you did not know. You may hear some wonderful stories.

6. FOLLOW DIRECTIONS. The funeral director will give directions before and after the service. Please do whatever he or she tells you to do: park here, sit there, stand, don’t walk there.  Complying with directions is one way to support the mourners and give respect to the dead.

7. AT GRAVESIDE. Some funerals move from a chapel to graveside, some are held at graveside. If you do not know the family well, it is OK to attend the chapel service and then skip the graveside service – it’s assumed to be more private. There will likely be chairs under an awning facing the open grave. Those chairs are for mourners; you do not want to sit in them unless you are a member of the family or disabled. There will be a few prayers, the casket will be lowered, and the officiant may assist the family in the ancient custom of shoveling earth into the grave. One or three shovelfuls is typical, and after the family, other attendees may assist. It is a symbolic way of participating in caring for the body by putting it safely in the earth. Again, follow directions; this is an extremely sensitive time for the family and you don’t want to cause a problem.

8. SHIVA. There may be an announcement about shiva, the gathering at the home for (traditionally) seven days after the burial. Go at the times announced. At the shiva house, remember that your presence is what matters; you cannot make their pain go away with words. Mourners need time and space to mourn, and it is an act of kindness to give them the opportunity to do so. Usually there is a short service at the shiva house in the morning and evening. You can linger, but do not overstay: when people start leaving, go. Keep in mind that this is not a party, the mourners are not “entertaining.” Sending or bringing prepared food is a very nice thing to do; when in doubt, send kosher food.

9. DONATIONS.  Most families will designate a charity to which donations (tzedakah) may be made in memory of the dead, and most non-profits are happy to send a card to the mourners telling them about your gift. This is not required, but it is a very nice thing to do. Which brings us to:

10. THINGS YOU WILL NOT SEE OR HEAR AT A TRADITIONAL JEWISH FUNERAL: 

  • Flowers - instead, Jews give donations to a memorial fund. (See #9 above)
  • An open casket - We don’t look at a dead person unnecessarily, since they cannot look back at us.
  • A fancy casket - Traditionally, Jewish caskets are plain, unfinished wood.
  • Talk about the afterlife - Most Jews focus on doing good in this life. We don’t know for sure what happens after death, and we tend not to worry about it much. Some think there is an afterlife, some don’t.
At a somewhat less traditional Jewish funeral, there may be a fancy casket, or there may have been a cremation. Do not comment about anything that seems unusual. The mourners may be honoring a request of the deceased, or something may have been the topic of a disagreement in the family.  These people are already in pain: this is not the time to appoint yourself the Jewish Tradition Cop! If you have questions, call or email a rabbi later (or leave a question in the comments here!)
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In my work as a rabbi, I find few things more spiritually enriching than a funeral. It is a sobering thing to stand by an open grave. Many silly things that seemed terribly important shrink to an appropriate size in the face of death. Being with a family and friendship circle as they comfort each other is a reminder that love is indeed “stronger than death.” (Song of Songs 8:6) The whole experience puts me back in touch with the beauty of life.
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Of course, there is much more to learn about Jewish funerals and mourning practice, but this is intended to be a guide for those who are about to attend a Jewish funeral for the first time. I hope that it is helpful as you perform this mitzvah.
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Teaching and Learning and Joy, oh my!

September 29, 2013

I’m happy. I launched two classes this morning at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. I think it’s going to be a very good year.

Even with classes I teach again and again (this is my third round with “Exploring Judaism”) the people in the class make the experience different. Jews don’t do a lot of solo learning; we learn in groups and in pairs, noisily. When I see a room full of people (19 of them!) and I think about all the Torah I’m going to learn, I get happy. Beginners are fantastic, because they ask questions I’m too routinized to ask for myself.  Beginners are a precious resource.

“Money & the Mensch: Jewish Ethics and Personal Finance” is especially exciting. We’re not sure whether it will happen as an official class yet, since we have low numbers, but they’re excited and I’m excited and I’m going to give them the class reader anyway next week. This was the topic of my rabbinic thesis, and I’m practically itching to teach it, because it is a wonderful, practical subject with some great stories in it.  We’re going to learn about the terrible Men of Sodom and Maimonides’ Torah Scholar and Munbaz II of Adiabene and some other interesting tales.  We’ll use those stories to figure out the questions we need to ask about money: how to give charity wisely and well, how to make choices about investing and consumption, how to decide when a boycott is a good idea.  We’ll have a blast.

I love to teach. It’s what I do.


Jewish Blessings for Meals

September 24, 2013

The sanctification of ordinary life is a hallmark of Jewish living. “You shall be holy, as the Eternal your God is holy” begins the Holiness Code, the very heart of the Torah (Leviticus 19.)

So when we eat, we take an ordinary thing (eating) and turn it into something more, something sacred, by surrounding the act of eating with blessings.

First, we NOTICE: I’m going to eat dinner!

Then, we ACKNOWLEDGE by blessing: Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Creator of Time & Space, who brings forth bread from the earth. We acknowledge that we are not the Bosses of Dinner: even if I cooked that dinner, I did not grind the flour, I did not grow the green beans, and I certainly didn’t give life to all the various components of the meal. By blessing I acknowledge that it is a miracle that the meal exists and that many human hands and perhaps animal lives went into making it. I acknowledge that this meal is a miracle.

Then we EAT. Yay!

Then we BLESS again. This time it is a long blessing called the Birkat Hamazon, It is a set of four blessings that we say because of the mitzvah (commandment) in Deuteronomy 8:10 “You will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless.” This time it is a thank you blessing, but it doesn’t stop with a private thanksgiving. It goes on to thank God for sustaining all creatures, for sustaining the Jewish People, asking that God sustain the Jews in the future (sort of a thanks-in-advance) and then a fourth blessings gives thanks for all the many happy relations between God and Israel.  Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel, Memphis has made a very nice YouTube video you can watch below.


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