Yiddish Words I Don’t Use

Image: Wooden letters spelling “WORD.” Art by exopixel/shutterstock.

There are some words in Hebrew or Yiddish that I don’t use ever.

I’ve written about one of them in Who are You Calling Shiksa? – it’s a nasty, unfriendly word, and no amount of “reclaiming” will fix it.

Another such word is shaygitz. It means “varmint,” or “rascal” and it is distinctly unfriendly.

Like shiksa, shaygitz has its roots in the Hebrew word sheketz, meaning “abominable,” “filth,” or “blemish.”

My colleague Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr pointed out to me today that the word goy needs to join the list. Its original meaning in Biblical Hebrew was innocent, meaning “nation,” or “people,” – there are places in the Torah where it actually refers to the Jews! But it has come to take on a pejorative meaning in Yiddish and even worse, it has been co-opted by white supremacists as a badge of honor for anti-semitic chants, etc. I don’t use the word, and now I will gently correct people who use it to me, even when it’s supposed to be a joke.

Some words can be salvaged. “Queer” is one such word. It had a neutral meaning until someone chose to use it hatefully to taunt LGBTQ folk. We took the word as our own, and defanged it. Shiksa and shaygitz are hateful in their core meaning; they can’t be repurposed without dragging along the stigma.

Goy is a little different. It hasn’t always been used to disparage. I look forward to a day, someday, when we can use the word as Isaiah did:

Lo yisa goy el goy cherev
V’lo Yil’m’du od milchamah!

Nation shall not lift up its sword against nation
Neither shall they learn war anymore” – Isaiah 2:4

But for now, not in my vocabulary.

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Sick and Tired

Image:  Four withered roses in a vase without water. (pixabay)

I feel sick at heart this Tisha B’Av.

The Jewish community is horribly divided. We are divided in many ways, and we poke many fingers at one another, scolding.

Some Haredim see the Kotel as their synagogue. From their point of view, whatever they need to do to maintain the sanctity of that place as they define sanctity is justified.

Some other Jews believe that the Kotel belongs to all Jews everywhere and because the Haredim have said and done ugly things, whatever they say about the Haredim is justified.

Some Jews believe the State of Israel is a supreme value and any threat to it is an existential threat, so whatever happens in its defense is justified.

Some Jews believe that the State of Israel has committed crimes in its defense, and that whatever they need to do or say to other Jews to protest is justified.

Some Jews talk about “the Orthodox” as if they were monsters.

Some Jews talk about “the Reform” as if they were monsters.

Some Jews act as if Jews of color don’t even exist.

Some Jews think other Jews don’t “look Jewish enough.”

Some Jews say Jews who became Jewish as adults aren’t really Jews.

 

I AM SICK AND TIRED OF THIS.

I am probably also guilty of some of it.

However, considering that the people during the Second Temple period were engaged in Torah study, observance of mitzvot, and acts of kindness, why was the Second Temple destroyed? It was destroyed due to the fact that there was baseless hatred during that period. This comes to teach you that the sin of baseless hatred is equivalent to the three transgressions: Idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed. – Yoma 9b

 

 

 

 

What is Minhag?

Image: A dark blue kippah on an open prayer book. (ESchwartz/pixabay)

A beginner asked me recently, “What is minhag? I know, I know, you are going to say “custom!”

She was right – I was going to say, “Custom,” and feel like I’d answered the question. After some conversation, I think I have a better idea what she was after – and I suspect she isn’t the only person out there with that question.

The proper name for it is minhag hamakom – the custom of the place. It is an element we must consider in Jewish decisionmaking, because it carries both official and unofficial weight.

In a nutshell, minhag is sum of all the things that are accepted in your Jewish community but are not necessarily required in every other Jewish community. For instance, it is the minhag in some places for adults to make Saturday morning kiddush over a liquor such as slivovitz (plum brandy.) In other congregations, if you brought out a bottle of slivovitz for kiddush, they’d look at you and say firmly, “We make kiddush over wine or grape juice only.” What they are saying is, “We don’t have that minhag here. Put that bottle away, we don’t care if it is ok according to halakhah!” [Jewish law]

Minhag can change over time. For instance, there was a time when if a man wore a head covering in a Reform synagogue, he would be assumed to be a visitor from a Conservative or Orthodox congregation. Nowadays in most Reform synagogues, many men (and women) wear kippot, but in most Reform synagogues one isn’t strictly required.

In an Orthodox congregation, if a man walks in without a kippah, he will be handed a kipa. Now, if you researched it, you would find that a head covering is actually not required by halakhah. It is, however, a nearly universal custom – minhag – in Orthodox and Conservative communities.

Our tradition recognizes that custom is an important part of communal identity. Therefore, we are taught to give weight to minhag in making decisions. If I visit a synagogue, I will make an effort to find out ahead of time what customs they have about dress and behavior. I will pray softly, so that my prayers blend in even if I do something differently. After one or two visits, I’ll have the drill down – but until then, I will try to be easy on myself about it.

How do you find out about minhag? As in the example above, if you have a specific question, by all means ask! And as for other things, don’t stress too much over it. If you notice some item of dress or behavior and begin wondering if your difference is OK, ask. If someone lets you know (I hope gently) that a behavior is expected or even required, don’t take it personally – it’s just minhag. If they were at a different shul, they’d be the ones who stuck out.

When in doubt, ask a rabbi. Every congregation has a few people who mistake their own opinions for the “Law from Sinai.” Those individuals are very sure of their answers, but they may be misinformed.

If someone seems rude or mean about the way they address it, that’s their problem. I assure you that God doesn’t mind. Let this be your mantra:

God saw everything that God had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. – Genesis 1:31

You’re good: you’re doing your best. And whatever it is, you can do it differently in future. And there will be evening, and morning, and you’ll be the only one still worrying about it.

 

 

Talking About Converts

Image: Several people gossip about distressed woman. (Andrey Popov/shutterstock)

I am open about the fact that I was not born Jewish. That is a deliberate choice on my part. I have made the decision to be open about my background because I find it helpful to my work.

I worry that my openness may mislead readers into thinking that it’s OK to talk about converts. You can talk about conversion all you want. You can talk about yourself all you want. But if you talk about someone else’s conversion, you are violating an important tradition.

Jewish tradition is very clear that we are NOT to talk about other people in general. We are especially not supposed to mention the fact that a person is a convert to them or to anyone else. They can talk about their history, if they choose, but we must not mention it without their permission. We should get their permission each time we talk about them to someone else.

We are also commanded not to listen to anyone else who breaks this rule: no listening to gossip about who’s a convert. No speculating, either.

We can’t ask about how a person became Jewish, no matter how curious we are, or how friendly we feel. Our intention doesn’t matter – our behavior does.

Why this tradition? As with many commandments, it’s there because our inclination as human beings is to be curious and gossipy. It is human to notice differences and exclude people on account of them. Torah calls us to do better, and it gives us rules (commandments, mitzvot) that help us be better people that we’d otherwise be.

Beside the obvious, walking up to someone and asking, “Are you a convert?” there are subtler things we should avoid.

  • Don’t assume that a person with browner skin than yours is a convert to Judaism. They might be a descendant of Maimonides or Solomon.
  • Don’t assume that the person walking down the hall at synagogue with Asian features is a convert.
  • Don’t assume that someone with ben Avraham v’Sarah after his Hebrew name is a convert. Guys named Abraham have been known to marry a Sarah and have kids.
  • Don’t assume that Jim O’Malley is a convert to Judaism. His Hebrew name might be Nachum ben Moshe v’Shirah.
  • Don’t assume that if someone has a funny accent, they must be a convert.
  • Don’t assume that if someone is a convert, they did it to “marry in.” Some of us become Jewish because it is our heart’s desire.
  • Don’t assume that if someone converted in connection with a marriage, that it was insincere. Falling in love with a Jew might have been the first step towards falling in love with Judaism.
  • Don’t assume that if a woman is a convert, she did it to find a Jewish husband.
  • Don’t assume that a convert is any more or less observant than you are.
  • Don’t assume that a convert likes telling their story again and again.

Whether you became Jewish in the waters of your mother’s womb or in the waters of the mikveh it is painful to be separated from the Jewish People, especially if a fellow Jew is doing the separating.

Don’t gossip about someone’s Jewish history; it is hurtful.

What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. This is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn. – Hillel the Elder, Shabbat 31a

 

Do Jews Believe in the Evil Eye?

Image: Cartoon of a blue eye. (Art by meri_asaro/pixabay)

If you spend much time around Ashkenazi Jews, sooner or later you will hear someone say, “Kenahora, pu pu pu.” If you play close attention to the context, you’ll notice that they said it after an optimist predicted something good or commented on something good: a new baby, a beautiful child, a future happy occasion. Ashkenazi Jews use the phrase much the same way others might say “Knock on wood.” It’s a way of warding off misfortune, aka “the Evil Eye.”

Kenahora is a combination of the Yiddish words kein [no,] and the Hebrew ayin [eye] and hara [evil.] Pu pu pu is a stand-in for spitting three times, one traditional way to avert misfortune. Together, they are the Yiddish equivalent of knocking on wood, throwing salt over one’s shoulder, and other superstitions.

The Sephardic equivalent is to say Mashallah, an Arabic greeting [May God preserve you from the evil eye] or El dyo que mous vouadre de aynara i de ojo malo [God save us from misfortune and the evil eye.]

Another tactic for warding misfortune away from children is to immediately follow a compliment with a qualifier, for example, “She’s very pretty but she is fussy” or to smear a little dirt on the child’s face. In some communities, there is a belief that the color red can ward off evil.

Folklore studies reveal that every culture has something of this sort, often centering on a belief that one can put a curse on someone by staring at them.

While the “evil eye” is indeed mentioned in the Mishnah, our teachers have usually warned us against trying to control the world via hexes and spells. A Jew is supposed to reply on God and on the good sense God gives us, not on superstitious remedies. Even some of the mentions in the Mishnah and the Talmud may suggest a certain ambivalence about the folk belief, for instance:

Rabbi Yehoshua says: An evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred of others remove a person from the world.” Pirkei Avot 2:11

Maimonides interpreted this to mean that greed and jealousy will cause a person to isolate themselves – he was extremely opposed to superstition of any kind. A 15th century Italian rabbi known as Bartenura agreed with Maimonides and then added that some people in their greed may look with an evil eye on the children or belongings of others. Rabbi Yonah Gerondi, a 13th century Spanish rabbi, wrote that:

[The evil eye] is one who is not happy with his lot and places his eye on his fellow who is wealthier than he, [thinking] when will I be as wealthy as the great wealth of this man? And this causes evil to himself and to his fellow. – Rabbi Yonah, Commentary on Pirkei Avot 2:11

We can see that while it is possible to deal with “the evil eye” only as folklore or superstition, in the wiser parts of Jewish tradition we also take a practical lesson from it, that envy and jealousy can poison people and communities. Bragging can attract it by encouraging envy in others (what other purpose is there to bragging, other than to stir up envy in others?)

So while we may adopt the custom of saying “Kenahora, pu pu pu” the wise Jew will say it not to ward off evil spirits, but as a self-reminder that bragging is unkind and may backfire, and envy hurts the envious more than anyone else!

 

 

Mizrahim, the Jews of the East

Image: Persian Jews in Iran, 1917. Public Domain, via Wikimedia.

Some of the longest-thriving Jewish communities in history are the Mizrahi communities of the eastern Mediterranean and northern Africa. Their stories have gone largely ignored by Western Jews, which is a real shame.

The first big Mizrahi community goes back to the first diaspora of Jews: the Babylonian captivity. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple in 587 BCE, they carried off many of the educated Jews to be clerks in their vast bureaucracy. To this day we hear their grief and pain in Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy.
They said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” – Psalm 137:1-3

Seventy years later Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians, and the Jews of Babylon were free to go home. Some headed west to rebuild Jerusalem and its Temple. Others had made a home in Babylon, and they chose to stay. Thus when the Temple was destroyed again and Jewish life in Israel was in disarray, Babylon was set to emerge as a center of Jewish life and learning. Indeed, the scholars of Babylon assembled the great Babylonian Talmud.

The Babylonian academies gave birth to the other centers of Jewish life and learning: Sepharad in Spain, Askhenaz in Europe. Elsewhere around the Mediterranean other Mizrahi communities sprang up: in Egypt, in Morocco, in Syria, and Persia (modern Iran), to name just three of many.

Mizrahi Jews lived under Ottoman rule by 1492, and when the Jews of Spain were expelled in 1492, the Mizrahi communities opened their doors to the refugees. Most of Christian Europe wanted nothing to do with the Sephardic exiles, so for many of them, their best chance was to head east to Muslim lands. In some of those places, the Sephardic rite of liturgy and the language became dominant. That’s why some refer to Mizrahi Jews as Sephardic.

The 20th century brought huge changes to the Mizrahi world. The events of 1948 and the emergence of the new State of Israel as the victor in its War of Independence against Arab armies triggered angry responses in the Muslim nations of the Levant. One after another, the nations which had been home to Mizrahi Jews took up active programs of persecution. 850,000 Jews were kicked out as penniless refugees, stripped of their assets. Most went to Israel. Others emigrated to the United States and Canada.

Today there are large communities of Mizrahim in Israel, in New York, in California, and in Canada. Life has not been easy; most lost everything when they were expelled from the lands that had been home for thousands of years. If you want to learn more about the individual communities, a wonderful organization called JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) has their stories, past and present, in more detail on its website and its Instagram account. I recommend you click the links and take a look; my choices for photographs were rather limited for this blog, but the photos on both the JIMENA website and its Instagram account are breathtaking.

It’s all too easy, if you are a synagogue Jew in most of the USA, to think that most Jews are Ashkenazi. That, too, is a trick of history: most of the Jews in the U.S. arrived as refugees from the pogroms in Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since 1924, we’ve had quotas that kept out many others. The Mizrahi communities were not seriously stressed until later, so we see fewer Mizrahi Jews in the USA.

The Jewish world is wide and beautiful. It encompasses a variety of people with many skin colors, cultures, and customs. We are all richer when we recognize our cousins for what they are: mishpacha [family.]

 

A Crisis of Faith

Eric Hare is one of my favorite bloggers. He invites reflection.

See what you think from this post, and check out his blog, Barataria.

Barataria - The work of Erik Hare

Rejection of the “mainstream” is an important part of the polarization and radicalization of America. Socially and politically, movements on the left, right, and whatever else there is measure their stands by how far outside the establishment they are.

For all the bluster, it’s mostly nonsense. Trump supporters often rely on Obamacare, as they are learning, if not social security and other programs. Left wingers usually have jobs like anyone else. Everyone has sold out in nearly every way possible – except one. Religion and spirituality is the one place where the true mainstream is indeed slipping away, caught in an “uncanny valley” where the teachings seem too simple, too childlike, to be relevant.

And this is the one place where America is truly failing.

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