Kashrut: A Spiritual Journey

Image: Shakshuka, an Israeli dish of eggs and tomatoes. Photo by calliopejen1, click for copyright notice.

This is an update of a post from a couple of years ago. Life changes, and the journey continues.

Knowing the basics of Jewish dietary law and keeping kosher in real life are two different things. The best way to learn how to keep kosher is to learn from someone who actually does it.

When I decided to learn how to keep kosher, my rabbi pointed me to a woman in our Reform congregation who had kept a kosher kitchen for many years. Ethelyn Simon gave me a tour of her kitchen, and then we sat and chatted about it over a nosh. She reassured me that I could indeed do it – and then when she heard that I was about to relocate to Jerusalem to start rabbinical studies, she recommended that I wait and begin in Jerusalem.

“You can start with an already-kosher kitchen in your rental,” she said, “Israel is the easiest place in the world to learn how to keep kosher.”

My apartment. The fridge, sink, and counter with hot plate are just outside the frame at right.
My apartment. The fridge, sink, and counter with hot plate are just outside the frame at right.

It didn’t work out exactly that way, but close enough. My apartment did not have a kosher kitchen. I needed a ground-level apartment, and what I found was a basement office with a countertop, sink, fridge and bathroom in it. My landlord was a secular Israeli who thought that my whole project was pretty silly: a woman? Reform? in Jerusalem to become a rabbi? My desire for a kosher kitchen was just icing on the silly cake.

Undeterred, I cleaned the fridge thoroughly. I acquired a hot plate, a skillet, and two saucepans (one meat, one dairy.) I acquired two dish pans (one red, one white,) and enough dishes to serve meat to two people and dairy to two people. I was horrified at what it all cost. Keeping kosher is not cheap, even if you buy the cheapest things you can find.

David, enjoying Peet's Coffee in my apartment in Jerusalem
David, enjoying Peet’s Coffee in my apartment in Jerusalem

I lucked out: a classmate who did kept kosher lived right around the corner. David, now Rabbi David Novak of Vermont, had kept kosher for years. My method of study was to have him over regularly, then he’d tell me where I was messing up. No cream in the coffee after a meat meal! Switch that dishpan, girl! After a year of this in Israel, setting up a more conventional kosher kitchen in Los Angeles was a snap.

I kept strict traditional kashrut for six years. When I moved back to the SF Bay Area, I set my kitchen up to be kosher and quickly realized that with my family back in the picture on a daily basis, it wasn’t practical. A kosher kitchen requires buy-in from every member of the household. Very soon I was manufacturing a drama of self-martyrdom: “Oh poor me, I have to do all the cooking and cleaning, because no one else cares to keep kosher!”

I decided that my attitude was (1) stupid and (2) bad for my family life. I backed off on the kosher kitchen, for reasons of shalom bayit, peace in the home. That seems to me to be an appropriate set of priorities.

I am glad that I learned about kashrut, and glad that I lived the lifestyle long enough that I can teach about it with authority. It’s an important part of the Jewish tradition, and an important part of life for many Jews. It taught me a sacred mindfulness about food that I would not have learned in any other way.

This past September a series of changes in my health moved me back toward kosher observance. I no longer eat meat, so my kitchen has only dairy to worry about. My kitchen is still not kosher by traditional standards, but it has been a comfort to me to be able to reframe a medical necessity with a spiritual nechemta (consolation.)

What’s next? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll bring in assistance to really kasher the kitchen. Or perhaps I’ll continue becoming more concerned about the sources of eggs and dairy products. For me, Jewish food practice is a spiritual journey.


The One (Best) Key to Jewish Experiences

Image: A golden key. Public domain.

What single thing could most strongly improve the quality of your Jewish experience? It’s simple: learn some Hebrew.

Hebrew is as essential to Jewish citizenship as English is to American citizenship. Sure, there are American citizens who don’t speak English well, but much of the American experience is closed to them. The same is true for Jews and Hebrew: a person can certainly be a good Jew and not be able to read a word of Hebrew, but they will forever be on the outside looking in.

Total fluency takes time and effort. Fortunately, every little bit you learn has a big payoff:

Learn the alef-bet and reap these rewards:

  • The letters will cease to be squiggles and become familiar.
  • You will have the essential tool to move forward.

Learn a few greetings, and you will:

  • Be able to exchange greetings with fellow Jews from all over the world.
  • Have something to say to any Israeli you meet.
  • Begin to feel more connected to Jews everywhere.

Learn to read and understand a few simple phrases and you will:

  • Be able to order coffee on Dizengoff St. in Tel Aviv.
  • Know more Hebrew than most American Jews.

Take a conversational Modern Hebrew class and you will:

  • Be able to visit Israel and feel like mishpachah [family], rather than a tayar [tourist.]
  • Have the tools for ever-expanding conversational skills – just keep at it!
  • Open the door to Modern Hebrew literature.

Take a Prayer Book Hebrew class and you will:

  • Understand prayers, rather than just mouth them.
  • Be able to follow along as the Torah and Haftarah are chanted.
  • Open the doors to Jewish spirituality.

Take a Biblical Hebrew class and you will:

  • Discover that there’s much, much more to those stories in Genesis.
  • Begin to enjoy the rich poetry in every line of Hebrew.
  • Hold your own in any discussion about “what the Bible really says.”

Keep on studying and the vast universe of Jewish texts and experiences will open to you!

“But I’m not talented at languages!”

So what? You have probably learned many things in your life without being “talented” at them. One can learn to make toast without being a “talented” cook.

In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, the rabbis tell us that one good deed leads to another. So too, with Hebrew, every bit of progress leads to more progress. The sooner you begin, the sooner you will learn your letters and their rewards will begin!




Shabbat Shalom! – Emor

Like most of the Torah portions in Leviticus Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1 – 24:3) is packed with information and mitzvot.

The first aliyah has to do with laws for the priests, and commandments that would come to shape Jewish tradition about the care for the dead.

The second aliyah includes a passage forbidding priests with deformities to serve in the Temple sacrifices. That passage has caused a lot of trouble for people with disabilities. I address that trouble – and a more accurate reading of the passage – in my d’var Torah below.

Most of the rest of the Torah portion teaches us about the yearly cycle of holidays, when and how to celebrate them. Then the maftir – the final section – reminds us that there is one law for all – Jew and visitor alike. Finally a man who had cursed the camp was stoned to death. It’s an unusually grim end to a Torah portion.

There is much to ponder in Parashat Emor. Thank goodness many darshanim post divrei Torah online to help us understand it!

Is Time Ours or is it God’s? by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

The Imperfection of Perfection by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

The Virtue of Worry by Rabbi David Kasher (ParshaNut)

Lighten Up! by Hannah Perlberger (Positive Parshah)

Leading Off! by Rabbi Harry Rothenburg (VIDEO) A baseball d’var Torah!

An Eye for an Eye by Rabbi Jeremy Simons

Ableism in the Torah? Say It Ain’t So! by Rabbi Ruth Adar



News & The Book of Ruth

News: I got a new desktop computer and spent the last 24 hours setting it up so it would be ready for class Sunday afternoon. I missed posting my usual Friday message with online links, but I will get back into that routine this week, for sure.

The new computer is very exciting – faster, nicer camera, speakers, audio, etc. I just have to get used to it.

The Book of Ruth is a one-meeting class I’m offering both live and online this coming Thursday, May 19 from 7:30 – 9pm Pacific Time. My focus will be the following question: What insights does Ruth have to offer us today about Jewish community, conversion, and interfaith marriages?

Sorry, the class has been cancelled for lack of enrollment.

Shavua tov!


Now It’s My Fault Too

This is such a wonderful post that I would like to share it so my students and readers can read it, too.

Fendel Family in Israel

It’s Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel’s independence day!  Flags are flying, music is playing.  It’s not the first time I’ve celebrated this holiday, but it’s the first time I’ve been able to do so as an Israeli.

Many people have expressed surprise that we decided to become Israeli citizens as part of this one-year adventure.  There were many practical reasons for doing so, which I won’t get into with this post.  I’d rather talk about what it means to me to be an Israeli.


Whenever I encounter one of these surprised individuals, my stock response is to show them my new Israeli ID card while saying,

“.עכשיו זה גם אשמתי

“Now it’s my fault too.”

It usually gets the laugh I’m looking for, because Israelis are perpetually unsatisfied with this incredibly miraculous project that has been undertaken here to rebuild an ancient country in a modern world.  Israel, they feel…

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Chronic Pain: One Jewish Perspective


Image: Woman walking through a cactus greenhouse. Photo by Unsplash on pixabay.com.

Jewish tradition has a lot to say about suffering. The discussion begins with the book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses tells the people again and again that if they keep the commandments, all will be well, and if they sin, they will suffer for it.

As a person with chronic pain, my reaction to those texts ranges from annoyance to rage. If suffering is a punishment for sin, why didn’t [insert name of Bad Person here] live in agony? What did I do that was bad enough that I feel like this?

The ancient rabbis recognized the ridiculousness of a claim that all pain is deserved by the sufferer. Their answer to this puzzle came in the form of narrative:

Rabbi Chiya bar Abba had fallen sick. Rabbi Yochanan went to visit him, and asked, “Are these afflictions dear to you?” Rabbi Chiya replied, “Neither they nor their reward!” Rabbi Yochanan said, “Give me your hand.” Rabbi Chiya gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan revived him. Later, Rabbi Yochanan was ill, and Rabbi Chanina went to see him. He asked the same question. Events proceeded exactly as in the first story: Rabbi Chanina asked, Rabbi Yochanan replied, “Neither they nor their reward,” Rabbi Chanina asked for his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan was revived. [The text then asks why Rabbi Yochanan needed help, since he had been able to revive Rabbi Chiya. The answer:] “A captive cannot release himself from prison.” – a paraphrase of Berakhot 5a

The rabbis have a problem. Their theology assumes an omnipotent personal God, a God who assents to every person’s suffering, since it is in the power of God to fix anything that is undeserved. The rabbis knew good, decent people who had terrible suffering – hence, a problem.

Someone among them cooked up the idea of yisurin shel ahavah, “sufferings of love,” the idea that God loves some people so much that He (they thought of God in masculine terms) gave them suffering, perhaps as a vehicle for self-improvement. I can hear, between the lines, that many of the other rabbis thought this idea was just plain stupid: who enjoys suffering? But instead of the Talmud text saying so (thereby shaming the rabbi who came up with this plan) we get little stories that point out that not everyone welcomes this so-called gift.

In this series of stories, there is no discussion of whether there had been sin to provoke the affliction; rather, the rabbis assume that these are yisurin shel ahavah, “sufferings of love,” a gift from God. In other words, they assume the best about the patient. The suffering rabbis reject the proffered “gift” of pain: if the affliction is a gift from God, they don’t want it or any presumed benefit from it. Then the visiting rabbi asks for the hand of the sick rabbi, and revives him.

At the end of the second story, we get the punch line: what relieves the suffering of the rabbis is not something from God but the touch of a human hand.  They are saying to us, “Maybe there are (a few) people who can grow from suffering. Maybe there are others who receive miracles from God. But for most people the only relief that will come is from other human beings.”

What do I get from this passage as a person who has chronic pain?

  • I feel understood by my forebears: they get it that I do not deserve this.
  • I feel permission to say, “If this is a gift from God, no thanks.”
  • They offer a model for something that can sometimes help: human contact.

Their model is a visitor who:

  • accepts that the pain is real
  • asks sincere questions about the sufferer’s state of body and mind
  • listens to what the sufferer says
  • does not offer advice
  • does not offer diagnoses
  • does not talk about themselves
  • touches only after asking

I have not yet been miraculously healed by a visitor, nor do I expect to be. I am fortunate to have people in my life who treat me with respect, who listen without advice-giving and who ask before they touch. This text reminds me to value those people as the sages they are.

I also know people who tell me that it is in my head, that if I went to their doctor / lost weight / took their snake oil / had more surgery / etc. it would all go away (so it is actually my own fault that I have the pain.)  This text reminds me that those people are NOT sages, they don’t talk or act like sages. In other words, feel free to ignore them.

This is only one of many Jewish perspectives on suffering. I am grateful to Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler, who introduced me to this text. I hope to write about more texts on the subject in future posts.

May each of us find relief, temporary if not permanent, small if not large, partial if not full today and tomorrow. May each of us eventually reach a refuah shleimah, a complete healing. Amen.


The Shul Rat

I am a regular reader of The Cricket Pages because I love Rachel’s writing as well as the photos of her two little dogs. I’m reposting this entry to Coffee Shop Rabbi because I think my readers would enjoy this particular post, “The Shul Rat.”



I grew up going to synagogue (Shul is the Yiddish word for synagogue) every week, starting when I was four years old. Mom would drop me and my brother off at junior congregation on Saturday mornings, and then pick us up an hour later to take us to our afternoon activities (gymnastics for me and computers for him). I liked that the service for the kids was only an hour and in a small sanctuary, and that the leader of the services was kind of a kid himself, in his early twenties and doing bible trivia with us and giving out candy for correct answers. There was something special about being there with only my brother and no parents around. It gave us a chance to take ownership of our Judaism, and our synagogue, and not have it be filtered through anyone else, or through a sense of duty.

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