3 Ways to More Blog Recognition


My mission is to make Judaism more accessible to those who are on its fringes, whether born Jewish or somehow exiled or just curious. I’m participating in a “Meet’n’Greet” on “Dream Big, Dream Often” in an effort to get the word out there about my blog. I hope we’ll meet some new friends this way. Shanah Tovah, y’all! (That’s Hebrew for “Happy Jewish New Year!”)

To visitors who are arriving courtesy of the “Dream Big” meet-up: feel free to browse about, and to introduce yourself via the Comments.  Rules for Comments: be polite, and no proselytizing or “witnessing” about other faiths. I reserve the right to decide what’s polite and to make impolite messages disappear promptly.

To long time readers of this blog: if you yourself have a blog, you may want to participate in the meet and greet – or use the Comments to this message to introduce us to your blog. I follow some of you with great interest, but I’m sure there are many I’ve missed.

That said, welcome! You may find that one great way to begin is to use the drop-down menu to your right to seek out the posts marked “Especially for Beginners.”

Originally posted on Dream Big, Dream Often:

photo 5There are 3 different events going on this weekend on the Dream Big page:


These events will run through the end of Sunday and are great ways to gain exposure for your page and your work!!  Take advantage of helping others by reblogging these links to your readers so they may participate also.

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The Joy of Study

Tonight a group of us observed a very old Jewish custom. A dear friend and student of mine is moving away, and I invited him to put together a list of people he’d like to study with one more time.  We gathered around the table with some good food and our books. Some had never studied Gemara before, and some of us were a bit rusty, but it didn’t matter.

We read a famous passage, Shabbat 31a from the Babylonian Talmud. (Click the link if you’d like to read it in English.) It’s a group of stories about Hillel and Shammai and three men who wanted to become Jewish.

What I loved most about this evening was that even though I have read that passage more times than I can count, our group found something new in it, several new ideas. (They were new to us, anyway.) That’s the beauty of studying together with others: while I might wonder about something, in the process of wondering together, we become more than the sum of our parts. We were at best an average bunch of Jews, but our study was extraordinary, because we studied together.

Some of us went back twenty years. Some of us met for the first time over this table. We are all old friends now, regardless. We’ve studied Torah together, and in the process uncovered bits of ourselves.

Here’s the recipe for an evening like this:

  1. Invite 2-10 people who enjoy learning.
  2. Have a few nice snacks, preferably finger food. Also coffee and tea.
  3. Agree ahead of time on the text you will study. Keep it smallish: remember you are going to read and ponder together. (Our guest of honor chose the text.)
  4. Have copies of the text so that every person has one. Unless all of you are fluent in Hebrew and/or Aramaic, use a translation, at least as an aid.
  5. Many Jewish texts are available online; if you meet somewhere that wifi is available, it can be done from laptops, tablets, or even smartphones.
  6. Once you are gathered, say the blessing for study.
  7. Read a bit at a time, out loud. Take turns reading. Pause wherever feels logical, or when someone wants to talk.
  8. Talk about what you see in the text. Be open to the possibility that not everyone will see the same thing (how boring would that be?)
  9. Then go back to reading, bit by bit, broken up by discussion, until either you reach the end or it’s time to stop.

Let me know how it goes.

What’s on Your Seder Checklist?

Getting ready to host your seder? I am, and I thought I’d share my checklist. If this is your first seder, I recommend reading 7 Things to Do to Make Your First Passover Seder a Success. However many sedarim you’ve hosted, I still recommend a checklist!

This is my checklist. You’ll need to customize this one to make it suit your customs.

Guest List: This is the first thing to do. The guest list will determine a great deal about your seder. Are there children? What ages? Are there people for whom this is their first seder? Will there be non-Jews at the table? What do you know about the observance of Jews at the table? Any vegetarians? Vegans? Food allergies to consider?

Haggadah: Choose a haggadah [script for the seder] or make your own. Making your own is a great thing to do, but start well ahead – for more about that, David Arnow has a wonderful website with information. If you have a haggadah you use every year, have the person who will lead the seder look through it and plan ahead what they’ll read, what they’ll skip, what may be done by other means (invite some of the guests to put on a skit for the Maggid [story] section, for instance.)  Decide where you can shorten if there are fussy children or restless adults. Remember that this is supposed to be engaging, not a dry recitation or reading.

Also, in combination with the cook, discuss what if anything you will serve during the early part of the seder. Some people think that growling stomachs are part of the experience. Personally, I like to give my guests lots of greens to dip, and lots of dips, so that discussions won’t be cut off because we’re all starving.

Wine/Grape Juice: Remember, everyone drinks four cups of wine or grape juice during the seder! Count your guest list, look at your wine glasses, and use this formula:

[# of guests] X [volume you put in the wine glass] X 4 

Keep in mind, if you have guests driving home, that you may want to make the later glasses of wine smaller or lighter or substitute grape juice. I generally figure on having at least twice as much grape juice as wine available – yes, it’s fun getting tipsy but I want everyone driving home to be sober.

Water: Water isn’t just for Miriam’s Cup. If you don’t have water on the table, your guests may get thirsty and unhappy during the seder. People drinking four cups of wine need lots of water. Plan for water glasses and a water pitcher on the table.

Hardware: Seder plate? Elijah’s cup? Miriam’s cup? Plates or chargers for the pre-meal portion? Wine glasses? Plate for matzah? Cover for Afikomen? Cover for matzah plate? Sufficient dishes for the meal and dessert? Flatware? Napkins? Tablecloth? Serving dishes? Serving spoons?

Note about table linens: Be prepared to see your linens doused in red wine and grape juice, if that’s what you are drinking. If they are priceless heirlooms and don’t already have stains from previous Passovers, you can use white wine and grape juice. Personally, I tend to see faint wine stains on a Shabbat or seder tablecloth as a sign of a household where people take those holidays seriously, but that’s just me.

Menu: Everyone’s menu is different, but sometimes it can be quite rigid in families. If you have a blended family at the table, you may want to check in ahead of time to be sure that if half the people at the table need matzah ball soup for it to be a proper seder, that wish is at least considered. It’s not fun to spend the rest of the meal listening to grumbling. (Hint: if something is essential and you don’t want to or don’t know how to make it, ask those guests to be responsible for that part of the meal.)

Salt water: You’re going to need salt water for the ritual. Make it ahead, and serve it from something other than your regular water pitcher.

Matzah: You will need lots of matzah, preferably Kosher-for-Passover matzah that doesn’t have eggs or salt or other interesting ingredients. Read the box. “Gluten free matzah” is not technically suitable for a seder. If someone is avoiding gluten because their doctor has forbidden all gluten, of course they should not eat regular matzah. However, don’t just automatically buy gluten-free matzah for everyone; it doesn’t fulfill the mitzvah.

Charoset: Always make more charoset than you think you’ll need. Trust me, you will eat it up before the end of the week, or your guests can take some home.

Horseradish: Ditto. More than you think you will need. You don’t want to run out: there’s always someone who wants it on their Hillel sandwich and their brisket, too.

Seder Plate: Read How To: Seder Plate Setup for the checklist for the seder plate and its options.

Toys: If you have children at your seder table, consider decorating the table with things they can play with, or making things appear during the seder for them. P.S. – Adults like toys, too.

Carry Home Containers: I always have a supply of “disposable” containers ready (either repurposed jars from other foods, ziplock bags, or the commercial ones) so that I can send leftovers home with guests without worrying about whether my Tupperware will come home or not.

Sense of Humor: This is a Passover Seder, not a solemn high Mass. If something goes wrong, make light of it, make it work, and above all, make whoever spilled that glass of juice comfortable by telling them it’s no big deal. Bring your sense of humor and apply it liberally.

Hospitality For Growth

Lighting chanukiot at our Chanukah party.
Lighting the candles at our Chanukah party.

Long-time readers may remember my Hospitality Challenge: 16 months ago I challenged myself to grow in the mitzvah of hospitality. Yes, it is an actual mitzvah: Abraham and Sarah are famous for their hospitality. The Torah commands us to follow their example. After all, this is how all of us learn to “do Jewish:” not from a class or a book, but from observing the mitzvot with other Jews.

What I didn’t expect was that hospitality could also be an avenue for personal and spiritual growth.

Here’s where we started: I’m an introvert married to an introvert’s introvert. We are not great housekeepers, nor are we good cooks. We were both intimidated by the idea of opening our home to people who might (eep!) judge us on our housekeeping and cooking.

We’ve had fewer Shabbat guests than I originally hoped, but we have hosted more people in the past year than ever before.  We have celebrated almost every Jewish holiday with friends and family and some new friends (aka “strangers.”) Sukkot and Chanukah each saw a large gathering at the house. During the summer, I hosted regular Torah study gatherings here, and we’ve had countless folks over for an afternoon or an evening.

We’ve had great dinners, and burned dinners, gatherings where we were overrun with guests (who thought they’d all say yes?) and gatherings we canceled for lack of guests. There have been some wonderful people here, and a few who’ve been a challenge. And yet one thing has been constant: after the guests left, there was a glow that remained, a sense that home was indeed a holy place of warmth and friendship.

Here are some things I’ve learned:

  1. Nobody cares that the rabbi’s desk looks like a tag sale.
  2. If the main dish is a bust, the pizza place down the hill delivers.
  3. To carry out this mitzvah, I had to learn to ask for and accept help.
  4. People will bring food if you ask them to ahead of time.
  5. A plan for the evening is nice but not necessary.
  6. All guests go home eventually.
  7. Jewish warmth and Jewish blessings make everything glow.
  8. Jewish hospitality grows our Jewish souls.

Taking on this mitzvah has made me grow into a happier person and a better Jew. Here’s to 16 more months (and more!) of sharing the joy.

Vayera: The Care of Visitors

"The Hospitality of Abraham" 13th c. Byzantine icon
“The Hospitality of Abraham” 13th c. Byzantine icon

Parashat Vayera (Genesis 18:1 – 22:24) offers a lesson on the mitzvah of hospitality. Abraham, our role model, runs to greet his guests, even though they are unexpected, even though he is old and recovering from circumcision. The text is generous with details: he washes their feet, calls upon Sarah to bake, and orders a calf slaughtered and dressed. Abraham himself waits upon their table.

The contrast is stark between that story and the next. The angels proceed to the city of Sodom. Lot greets them at the gate, hurrying them to his house. Lot is afraid for a reason: a mob surrounds the house and demands that the strangers be given to them: they intend to rape them. The prophet Ezekiel clarified: “See, this was the sin of your sister Sodom: pride, gluttony, and uncaring were in her and her daughters, nor did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) The Talmud expands on the story, explaining that the men of Sodom systematically abused all strangers and the poor in their city, enshrining that abuse in law. (Sanhedrin 109a-b) Like all rape, this was not a sin of sex, but a sin of violence. These sins merited their utter destruction.

This week we might ask ourselves: when did I last personally welcome a stranger to my table? Or have I reserved my personal hospitality for those best known to me, and to those who might profit me? Does my community welcome visitors, or only look to profit from them? Are we following the example of Abraham, or Sodom?

A version of this d’var Torah [word of Torah] originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of the CCAR Newsletter.

Abraham’s Mitzvah: Hospitality

Invite someone for coffee!
Invite someone for coffee!

Jewish Hospitality

is an important and often neglected mitzvah.

BIBLICAL ORIGIN – There are many examples in Torah of the patriarchs observing the mitzvah of hospitality. Possibly the most famous is in Genesis 18, when Abraham ran to meet his guests at Mamre, and hurried to feed them, even though he was still recovering from his circumcision.

LIFE AND DEATH – Hospitality in the Bible was not just being friendly, or inviting people over. If travelers could not find a safe place to rest, they could die. It was part of the social contract of the wilderness to welcome strangers. It was also part of that contract for strangers to behave themselves as guests. In much of Jewish history, Jews were not safe except in the homes and settlements of other Jews, and so it has remained a sacred duty to care for visitors, and to cherish hosts.

WHAT ABOUT TODAY? – Today hachasat orchim (literally, “bringing guests in”) remains a mitzvah. You might say, well, rabbi, we have hotels and restaurants for that! We have Jewish institutions for that! But today many of us are aching for personal connection. We are not nomads like Abraham, but often our families of origin and our old friends live far away.  We human beings are social creatures, and we crave connection to others.  There are few ways to better get to know someone than to visit them in their home, or to welcome them into yours. And yet many of us only see other Jews in synagogue, or maybe at events.

THE HOST – A Jewish host is responsible for making her guests welcome, and to see to it that they are not embarrassed in any way.  It’s good to offer food or something to drink if that is possible. The host also watches out for the emotional comfort of guests.

THE GUEST – A Jewish guest should do his best not to be a burden to his host. (This is not accomplished by prefacing demands with “I don’t want to be any trouble, but…”) Say “Please” and “Thank you.” Do not embarrass the host by asking rude questions or criticizing. After being a guest, send a thank you note, or at least an email. For more about being a guest, see 5 Ways to be a Great Shabbat Dinner Guest.

THE MAIN THING – Rabbi Nachman of Braslav said, “All the world is a narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid.” It is easy to get stuck thinking that I don’t want to have anyone over because my apartment isn’t nice enough, or my cooking isn’t fancy, or because I fear some other judgment that a guest may bring. To conquer these fears, invite someone you are sure will be kind, or someone you think probably never gets invitations. If they say “no” don’t take it personally – people say “no” for a lot of reasons – but invite someone else. If you really can’t see opening your home, invite them to meet you for coffee! Don’t stand trembling at the edge of the narrow bridge: pick up the phone or the keyboard, and invite someone to do something with you.

If you have a big success, come post in the comments. If it’s a disaster, yell at me in the comments!


10 Ways to Enhance Your Jewish Home


Shabbat on a card table.
Shabbat on a card table.

I’ve written before about the ways in which the Jewish home is a mikdash me’at, a little sanctuary. Taking care of your home is an important part of Jewish living, whether you live in a tiny studio apartment or a mansion. Here are some simple ways you can make your home more of a sanctuary, a safe, calm place in the world. Choose one or two and see what happens after a month or two:

1. Make your home as safe as possible. Did you know that this is an actual mitzvah? Deuteronomy 22:8 says that when you build a new house, put a railing around the roof, so no one will fall off. The rabbis extended that mitzvah to include fixing all things that are unsafe around your home. Get rid of frayed electrical cords and things that can trip someone. Change that light bulb: it’s a mitzvah!

2. Display whatever Judaica you own. Use your Chanukah menorah to decorate during the 35 weeks a year it isn’t covered in wax! Let your Shabbat candlesticks decorate your bookshelves during the week, instead of sitting in a cabinet. Whatever you do, don’t worry that the room looks “too Jewish” – it’s a Jewish home, after all!

3. Chores: If you can’t get out of them, get into them. In The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin, she suggests that one way to be happier at home is to attack those chores that you don’t want to do. Feign enthusiasm until you feel it. Crank up the volume on music from your high school days. Focus on the details you do like. These, too, are a way of making home safer.

4. Display photos of the people and places you love. You will feel happier every time you look at them. Pictures are not just for your computer screen and your phone!

5. Establish routines. Since Friday night is Shabbat, have a Thursday night or Friday morning routine to get ready for Shabbat. It might be preparing to make challah – or it might be something as simple as cleaning the kitchen and setting out the Shabbat candles. Use the post-Shabbat “burst of energy” to get chores or work done. Have Shabbat routines!

6. Make your bed every morning. Speaking of routines: making your bed is a three-minute task that gets your day started with a positive accomplishment, and means that when you come to bed at night, your place of rest is restful. What a concept!

7. Observe Jewish time in your home. Keep Shabbat in some form. Observe the holidays, at least in small ways. Get a Jewish calendar and display it – or import one onto your smartphone.

8. Invite guests over. Hospitality is a mitzvah. It’s called hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. You don’t have to feed them something fancy, just make them welcome. Get takeout and share it on the kitchen table or a card table. Better yet, invite them for Shabbat dinner.

9. Be mindful about consumption of media. Don’t let upsetting news stories run over and over. If you need “background noise” try music.

10. Kindness spoken here. Think twice about the words you use and allow into the house. Treat words that embarrass and words that spread gossip as a kind of filth – don’t let them in!  Words are part of the atmosphere of your home, part of the furniture. That goes for “helpful” words that hurt feelings, too.

To some of these, you may be thinking, “That’s Jewish?” but seriously, making your home a place of refuge from the world is part of making a Jewish home.

May your home, and the homes of all Israel, be places of light and love!