Tired of Matzah?

April 21, 2014
Matzah, Matzah, Matzah!

Matzah, Matzah, Matzah!

And they journeyed from Elim, and all the congregation of the children of Israel came to the Wilderness of Zin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they departed from the land of Egypt. Then the whole congregation of the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. And the children of Israel said to them, “Oh, that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you. And the people shall go out and gather a certain quota every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in My law or not.”  –Exodus 16: 1-4

Yes, I’m tired of matzah too on the 7th evening of Passover. We’ve been eating this stuff for a solid week.

As I said in an earlier post, the only matzah that’s required is at the seder. After that, it’s up to us how much to eat. But for most of us, completely eliminating bread-ish products is unthinkable, so we eat sandwiches made with matzah, pizza made with matzah, fried matzah, matzah puddings, and various things made with matzah meal.

At first it’s a novelty, and even a treat, and for some it remains a treat, but for others it gets pretty boring. And that, my friends, is the point. If you read the passage above from Exodus, you will see that our ancestors were still eating matzah after weeks and weeks. Then, when they finally complained about it, God immediately sent them manna, which was also repetitive but at least tasted good.

So our boredom with matzah is actually a continuation of that “just out of Egypt” experience. Until they got to the wilderness, God did most of the work of redemption for the Israelites, sending plagues, guiding them with the cloud and the pillar of fire, parting the Reed Sea. God told Moses what to do, and held up God’s end of the deal. But once out in the wilderness, it was time for the Israelites to begin to leave the mindset of slaves. They needed to learn to ask for what they needed, instead of passively waiting, like slaves.

So now it might be time to ask ourselves: is there some part of my life in which I am partially free, but I have yet to take the next step? Is there some part of my life in which I am just waiting for miracles? What options are open to me, to move myself towards freedom? What do I need to move forward?

May we all find our way towards freedom and dignity, and may we have the courage to take the steps to get there.

Image: by Ari Moore, some rights reserved.

 

 


Ask The Rabbi: How are Sephardic rules for Passover different?

April 20, 2014

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Regular reader and commenter temelevbarg wrote to ask, “Can you explain what is included in a Sephardic diet for Passover?”

Sephardic Judaism is the Jewish tradition handed down through the Jews of Sepharad, the Hebrew name for the Iberian peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal.) It includes specific interpretations of Jewish law, liturgical forms, and folk customs.   Other traditions of Judaism include the Ashkenazim (Jews from Eastern Europe) and the Mizrahi Jews (Jews of the Eastern Mediterranean.) While the majority of North American Jews today are descended from Ashkenazim and follow Ashkenazi customs, the first Jews to settle in North America were Sephardim.

For Passover, Sephardic Jews like all other Jews eliminate all chametz from their diets and their homes. This is based on Biblical commandments to observe Passover by refraining from eating or possessing chametz. (Exodus 12-13, Deuteronomy 16) Chametz is usually translated as “leavened bread.” The rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud later defined it more narrowly as any product of wheat, rye, barley, spelt or oats which might have become moistened. (The standard method of leavening in both the Biblical and talmudic periods involved the use of sourdough, wetting flour and allowing yeast from the air to grow in it.) The only bread allowed is kosher-for-Passover matzah, water and flour mixed and cooked so quickly that the leavening process has no chance to start.

Sephardic tradition differs from Ashkenazic tradition in that since the 13th century, some Ashkenazi authorities have prohibited the eating of kitniyot (rice, millet, and legumes) in addition to the prohibition of chametz.

Another difference is in the seder menu. Sephardic seder menus often include lamb, in memory of the original Passover sacrifice (pesach). Just as First and Second Temple era families roasted the lamb and ate it while telling the Exodus story to their children, Sephardic families eat lamb at the seder. By contrast, in Ashkenazi tradition one does not serve lamb at the seder out of an awareness that the Temple is no longer standing, so there can be no pesach sacrifice.

So when someone asks if you keep Passover by Ashkenazi or Sephardic rules, they are usually asking if you do or do not eat rice during Passover. It’s also possible that they are inquiring about the menu for seder.

Thanks for a great question! (For more depth on these matters, follow the links in this article.)

Image: “Question Box” by Raymond Bryson - http://www.flickr.com/photos/f-oxymoron/9647972522 Some rights reserved.


What is Yizkor?

April 19, 2014

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If someone especially dear to you has died in the past, you know that we never really stop mourning them. The absence of a loved one eventually becomes a kind of presence of its own, an ongoing awareness that that person was an important part of our lives and is no longer with us. Healthy grieving after months and years have passed is not overwhelming, but the sadness is there, and sometimes it is sharp.

Jewish tradition makes time and space for long-term mourning for those especially close to us. The service of Yizkor (literally, “Remember”) is held four times annually in most synagogues: on Yom Kippur and Shavuot, and at the end of Sukkot and Passover. There are psalms and readings appropriate to mourning, and at the end of the service, the service leader reads or chants El Male Rachamim and leads the congregation in the Kaddish.

The Yizkor service is usually attended only by those who have lost a parent or a close relative, although if you are remembering someone who is not a relative but dear to you, you are welcome to attend. It is an opportunity to let your guard down and grieve, or simply to attend as a respectful remembrance of the dead. Some attending the service will be recently bereaved; others may be remembering someone who died long ago. Some people cry a little. Some sit quietly and respectfully. You are welcome to let the memories come and to let emotion come with them – no one goes to Yizkor to look at other attendees.

There is a tradition among Ashkenazi Jews that a person with both parents still alive should stay away from the Yizkor service, lest the “Angel of Death” be attracted to one’s parents.  However, if you need to mourn a sibling or a friend, there is no official rule against going to Yizkor; just be aware that if both your parents are living and known in the community, someone may warn you about the superstition!

Yizkor provides a safe space for us to mourn while honoring the memory of the dead.

Image by Bill Barber, some rights reserved.

 


What is Chol HaMoed?

April 18, 2014

Matzah brei serving

Matzo brei – a Chol HaMoed treat.

 

In the middle of Passover and Sukkot, you may hear the term “Chol HaMoed” or “Hol HaMoed,” and you might wonder, “A Whole What???”

That’s what Jews call the middle days of Passover and Sukkot. Both festivals run for a week. The first day (or two) of the holiday is called a “Chag” and is extra special, almost like Shabbat. Same for the last day: ideally, one is home from work and attends synagogue.  The middle days of the week  are still special but do not have so many restrictions: some businesses in Israel might be open, and Jews in Diaspora go to work. “Chol” means “Ordinary” and “HaMoed” in this context means “of the festival” – these are more ordinary days of the holiday.

Now, just to confuse things, you may also encounter this term: Shabbat Chol HaMoed Pesach. That’s the Shabbat in the middle of Passover, when it doesn’t fall on one of the “Chag” days. It has its own special Torah and Haftorah readings. There’s also one of those for Sukkot in some years. For information on this particular year, consult a Jewish calendar.

There’s a special greeting for these not-so-ordinary days in mid-festival: if someone says to you, “Moadim l’simchah!” it means “Festival of Joy.” You can reply with the same words, or you can just say, “Same to you!”

Note: There’s a trick for saying that “ch” sound in Hebrew. What noise does an angry cat make? The “ch” sound is a little bitty short version of that. If you truly can’t do it, use an “h” sound instead. 

Image: licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


How To Count the Omer

April 17, 2014

Mizrach Omer Calender

Mizrach Omer Calender, by Moses H. Henry, Cincinnati, 1850.

 

Counting the Omer is a mitzvah (commandment) through which we count the days from Passover to Shavuot. It’s an ancient custom that takes us from the giddy joy of Passover to the serious business of receiving the Torah on Shavuot. It begins on the 2nd night of Passover and continues for 49 days until the Festival of Shavuot. (To learn more about the holiday and its history, click on the links. I’m sticking to “how to” in this article. To learn why we count the Omer, read Why Count the Omer.)

The procedure is simple. Every evening sometime between sundown and midnight we say a blessing:

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu al sefirat ha-Omer.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Space, who sanctifies us with Your commandments and has commanded us to count the Omer.

Then you do the actual count:

Today is the ____ day of the Omer.

After six days, you include the weeks as well:

Today is _____ days, which is _____ week and _____ days of the Omer.

For instance, on the 48th (next to last) day of the Omer, you would say: “Today is the 48th day of the Omer, which is 6 weeks and 6 days of the Omer.”

(If you have learned your Hebrew numbers, this is a GREAT opportunity to practice both your cardinal and ordinal numbers.)

 

The target is to count each day of the Omer in the time between sundown and midnight. Now, like any good game, there are penalties if you miss the target.

1. If I forget to count until after midnight (say, I wake up and realize, “Gosh, I forgot to count the Omer last night!”) I can still COUNT but you cannot say the blessing. On the next night, I go back to saying the blessing and counting as usual.

2. If I completely forget for 24 hours – that is, forgets to count until the next evening – then I am still obligated to count, but I don’t get to bless anymore.

The object is to get all the way through to Shavuot – to count the complete Omer! – without missing an evening count and blessing.

Some readers may find it a little scandalous that I frame this as a game, but I find it a useful way to think about counting the Omer when learning how to do it. There are many beautiful spiritual practices that are based on counting the Omer, but it is hard to do those effectively until you’ve got the basics. Llearning the basic practice works well as a game.

What’s the point? In a word, mindfulness. It took me years to get all the way through the Omer with the practice intact, every day, every blessing said on time. I’m a scattered, not-detail-oriented person, and I grew a lot of self-discipline from my repeated attempts. (I know, that sounds so boring: but seriously it paid off in my ability to focus and deliver on routines: for instance, posting nearly daily to a blog!) Counting is also the gateway to a number of spiritual practices such as meditations on the Sefirot, the different emanations of the Divine in Kabbalistic practice.)

Helps in Counting the Omer: There are some great smartphone apps and computer apps. Search  “omer” in the appropriate places for your operating system and hardware. You can also get “omer calendars” and “omer counters” from Jewish bookstores.

I encourage you to give this mitzvah a try. It’s joys seem very simple (and perhaps minimal, to a newcomer) but it is a gateway to all sorts of cool stuff. If you didn’t begin on the 2nd night of Passover, no worries – while you won’t be doing a complete count this year, you can still “jump on” for the ride and learn!

Image: Public Domain from Wikimedia Commons.

 

 


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

April 16, 2014
Matzah!

Matzah!

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

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

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

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

So in the meantime, what to eat?

Unprocessed fruits are all perfectly fine.

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

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

Menu suggestions:

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

Snack suggestions:

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

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

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

Happy Pesach!

Image by Avital Pinnick, some rights reserved

 


We Were Strangers, Once

April 15, 2014
We're all in this together, after all.

We’re all in this together, after all.

Passover preparation this year was interrupted by horrible news: on Sunday, April 13, three people were murdered just outside Jewish institutions in Overland Park, Kansas. From the news reports, it seems likely that a notorious anti-Semite chose that day to terrorize Jews.  Children were terrified. Three innocent lives were taken.

Here in the United States, this event was big news and the response was exactly what we would hope for in such a situation. Law enforcement rushed to the scene, and determined that the murders were indeed a hate crime. The President, religious leaders, and civic leaders rushed to the microphones to denounce the evil acts. The news services interviewed speakers from the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League and local synagogues. All the public voices agreed: the acts and attitude of the murderer stand completely outside the law and the public will.

We have reached a point in American history where it is assumed that violence against Jews and people who spend time with Jews is a bad thing.

Unfortunately, while we have made progress in this area, others still suffer under the assumptions that they are less than human, dangers to society, or are “asking for trouble” simply by being who they are. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, more than half of all victims of anti-LGBT hate crimes in 2012 were transgender women. Transgender women of color are especially at risk of violent attacks. For example, Islan Nettles, a young trans woman who had worked her way out of homelessness and was looking towards a bright future was beaten to death by thugs on the street.

I had dinner with a young trans activist last week, to find out how things were going at the nonprofit where he works. He told me that he is haunted by all the murders, that every week brings word of more violence against trangender people.

And then there is the violence that isn’t categorized officially as a hate crime, because it originates in the legal system itself. Last May, Monica Jones was arrested on the street in Phoenix, AZ, when police profiled her as a sex worker because she was a trans woman of color walking on a public street. She was given a choice of a Christian “prostitution diversion” program or to be tried on charges of prostitution. Never mind that she isn’t a prostitute. Never mind that she is a student in good standing at Arizona State. Never mind that if sentenced, she faces placement in a mens’ jail where she is almost certain to be the target of violence. An Arizona judge convicted Monica of “manifesting prostitution” which means she fit the profile: in her case, she was accosted by police for “looking like a prostitute” and then she asked them if they were police. That is her “crime.”

There was a time in America when ignorant people felt free to ask Jews about our anatomy (“Have horns? a tail?”) a time when Jews were assumed to be deceptive, a time when Jews had to fear violence on a daily basis. There are, sadly, people who still hold to anti-Semitic beliefs and who act on those beliefs. But when the chips are down, as they were in Kansas this past week, American Jews can depend on the system for justice.

Transgender people face intrusive questions about their anatomy anytime, anywhere: “What surgery have you had?”  “What do your genitals look like?” They are assumed to be deceptive: “He used to be a woman!” “She isn’t a real she!” They are acceptable targets for jokes, for violence, and for ridicule in too many venues. However, the sad fact is that trans folk cannot depend on the system for justice; sometimes our law enforcement and legal systems are the source of injustice.

We’ve been there. We know what it is like to be despised outsiders. This Passover, let’s mobilize our resources to fulfill the commandment:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. – Exodus 20:21.

We Jews are still targets of violence. We are still misunderstood and oppressed by the majority culture at times. We could take our anger and fear and turn inwards. But instead we have the choice to obey the commandment and turn outwards, to reach outwards, and take the hands of those who are still labeled as strangers in our society. We are commanded to challenge bigotry and ignorance. We are commanded to speak up for the stranger. Because we know what it’s like.

I wish all our readers a zissen Pesach, a sweet Passover, an energizing festival, empowering us all to work for justice.

Image: By Koshy Koshy, Some rights reserved.

This post originally appeared on kol isha, the blog of the Rabbinic Women’s Network.

 

 

 

 


Ready for the Journey!

April 14, 2014
Brisket, Potatoes, Gravy

Brisket, Potatoes, Gravy

I’m ready! The brisket is cooked and carved, the potatoes and gravy are packaged, and as soon as I get cleaned up we’re on our way to the friends’ home where the seder will take place tonight. Just as our ancestors of old packed their baggage, only I have Ziplock and aluminum foil (and centuries of advice on how to make it all kosher for Passover.)

I wish us all a Pesach journey of adventure and merriment and serious reflection. I wish us matzah crumbs galore, and maror that brings tears to our eyes. I wish us stories and games and laughter and tears. Remember all who are not at our tables: those who are prevented from coming, those who are afraid to be seen, those who do not feel “good enough” to be there. Next year, let us all gather and let all who are hungry come to eat. Next year in Jerusalem.


“Blood Moons” and the Meaning of Prophecy

April 13, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What are You Counting? #BlogExodus

April 11, 2014

123

Human beings like to count things. If you doubt that, watch a toddler learn to count. Our bodies seem made for it: ten fingers! ten toes! We count to quantify (how many fingers?) and we count in cycles to make music. Counting is so fundamental that it is woven into our Creation story. (And it was evening and it was morning, the first day. – Genesis 1)

We’re counting down to Passover as I write this blog: it’s the 11th of Nisan and the 14th is nearly here… three, two, one… !

On the 14th of Nisan we begin counting nights of Passover… 1st night, 2nd night, 3rd night….

On the 15th of Nisan we begin counting the Omer, the period of time between Passover and Shavuot. The Omer is not a countdown but a countUP, because we are counting our steps up  Mt. Sinai.  Last year I explained the Omer count with this post. In 2012 I wrote Why Count the Omer? 

I am counting days since I shaved my head  (11) and counting towards my fundraising goal (only $181 left to raise, at this writing!). I just counted my 59th birthday and I’m kind of excited about turning 60 next year.

What are you counting?

Image by Improulx, Creative Commons license

 


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