What Makes Wine Kosher?

This image shows a red wine glass.
Kosher or not? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Periodically I will hear someone say that a food is kosher because “a rabbi said a prayer over it.” Not true. Kashrut is a complex topic, so I’ll tackle in it manageable “bites.”

Since Shabbat is coming, let’s start with wine.

  • Kosher wine is wine that has been produced and handled only by Sabbath-observing Jews, and for which all ingredients were also kosher.
  • You can tell if wine is kosher by looking for the hecksher (rabbinical mark) on the label.
  • The rules for kosher wine go back to ancient times, when wine was used to worship idols. To avoid wine that has been tainted by idol worship, kosher wine must be handled only by observant Jews. This includes the servers who pour the wine.
  • Wine has an important role in many Jewish celebrations, including welcoming Shabbat, making Havdalah at the end of Shabbat, kiddush for holidays, brit milah (circumcision) and weddings.
  • Not all kosher wines taste “like cough syrup.” Some labels are now producing wines that can compare favorably with non-kosher wines on the market.
  • Some people like the sweet wines like Manischewitz.

For more information about kosher wine, check out this article from the Kosher Wine Society.

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“You want to be Jewish and you live WHERE?” An Internet Mystery

Rabbi Jacob Saul Dwek and officials of the gre...
Rabbi Jacob Saul Dwek and officials of the great synagogue of Aleppo. Jewish life in Syria came to an end in the 20th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are places in the world where there are very few Jews, and where Judaism is officially or unofficially forbidden by the state.  One of the great mysteries of the Internet, to me, is that periodically someone in one of those countries will write to my friends at BecomingJewish.net and inquire about conversion to Judaism. 

All the folks at BecomingJewish.net can do is write back to them and explain that (1) it isn’t safe to convert to Judaism in their country and (2) there are few or no Jews there, so it isn’t possible to convert.

On the one hand, it makes me sad to think that someone who wants to be Jewish is living in a place where they simply cannot become Jewish. On the other hand, it speaks to a real misunderstanding of Jewish life, because even if they could convert, they could not have any kind of meaningful experience of Jewish life without a community.

Judaism isn’t something you do by yourself. It isn’t private, it isn’t personal. It is communal. We pray in a minyan, a group of ten or more. We have a minyan for important occasions, like a bris.  How can you have a seder, if you have no one with whom to discuss? We don’t even study alone!

This is why my first advice to anyone converting to Judaism is to find a rabbi, find a community, and to be regular at everything: services, events, and so on. It’s only by spending time with Jews that you can learn to be a Jew, and get the goodies of Jewish life.

As for the people writing letters from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to BecomingJewish.net, I have no idea what’s going on there. If they are real, I hope they can find their way to a place where there are more Jews.

Mikveh for Conversion: 8 Things to Know

A contemporary mikveh at Temple Beth-El in Bir...
A contemporary mikveh at Temple Beth-El in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you are going to a mikveh as part of your conversion, here are things you may want to know:

1. A mikveh is a ritual bath which meets rabbinic standards for construction, volume and for the source of the water. Certain bodies of natural water may also qualify as a mikveh.

2. Jews use the mikveh for conversion, for family purity, for ritual immersion before a holiday, before a wedding, or for immersing dishes for kashrut purposes.  Some Jews have never been to a mikveh, some use it regularly. In recent years, the use of the mikveh has seen a revival of interest for recovery from rape or incest, for marking important anniversaries, and other uses.

3. In the mikveh, you want nothing to separate you from the water. Therefore before entering the mikveh, we remove all clothing, all jewelry (even wedding rings) and all medical appliances (dentures, contact lenses, etc) as well as cosmetics and fingernail polish. We enter the mikveh the way we were born: naked.

4. Most mikvaot (plural of mikveh) will have a place for you to shower and wash hair and clean fingernails before immersion. It is proper to wash body and hair and to brush the teeth before entering the mikveh. We don’t want anything between us and the water (even dust or dead skin) and we want not to bring dirt into the mikveh.

5. Speaking of which, a well-run mikveh is kept scrupulously clean. It is OK to ask the manager of the mikveh about the sanitary procedures, if you are concerned.

6. Tzniut, modesty, is an important Jewish value. If you are doing a ritual which requires a witness (like conversion) a proper mikveh witness follows a procedure to avoid looking at any but the necessary part of your body. He or she will be looking only to make sure that everything, including hair, was completely submerged in the water. A “proper mikveh witness” is usually someone of the same gender who has had training for the task.

7. At a conversion, there are specific blessings which must be said aloud between “dunkings” in the water. Your rabbi will teach you those. The mikveh witness (who may or may not be your rabbi) can assist you with the blessings if memory is an issue.

8. A mikveh is an expensive facility to maintain, and there is often a fee for using it. Be sure to ask your rabbi about the fee.

Finally, if you have any questions about the mikveh, it is really OK to ask. Rabbis are accustomed to talking about all sorts of things that aren’t usually part of polite conversation and your rabbi is not going to be embarrassed by anything you ask. He or she will be familiar with procedure and rules at the mikveh you will use, and can be more specific than I can be in a blog.

I wish you a holy and meaningful trip to the mikveh!

For conversion support in the Bay Area of California, go to BecomingJewish.net

How Will I Ever Feel At Home in Services?

Grand Lake Theater of Dreams
When I drive past the Grand Lake Theater, I am flooded with memories.(Photo credit: Thomas Hawk)

Last night I attended a memorial service in Fremont, CA. It’s just down the freeway from my home, but I have only been there a couple of times, and I was completely dependent on my GPS getting in and out. I passed lots of places that meant absolutely nothing to me.  Eventually I arrived at my destination, attended a beautiful service, and then did the whole thing again going home.

It’s different when I drive around Oakland. I lived in Oakland for almost 20 years, and now I live in the town next door. When I drive anywhere in Oakland, every street corner has a memory. I used to drive down Grand Ave, by the Lake, to take the kids to school. When I drive down Piedmont Ave, I am reminded of lunches with my old study partner. When I drive up Redwood Road, I remember the scary time I was trying to take the kids home and the road turned into a river of muddy water around us.  And so on.

Attending religious services is like driving in a town. If I attend a Unitarian service, I have no idea what’s going on. I’ve only been to one service and I was lost the whole time. I could tell that the people around me were “into” it, but I didn’t know what was going on, and there were no memories connected with any of it. It was like driving around Fremont, clinging to the GPS.

But in the familiar Jewish service, I meet memories at every corner: that prayer comforted me when my friend died, this prayer was taught me by a beloved teacher. One prayer annoys me, and another prayer always thrills me. I remember when new things were added (sort of like remembering what was on Lakeside Dr. before the Trader Joe’s went in) and I feel at home.

There is only one way to get that kind of homey familiarity with a town or with a service: you have to live there for a while. Maybe not 27 years (I lived in Jerusalem only for a year, and it is full of memories) but you have to show up, and get lost, and get found, and stumble around. That messy stage of finding one’s way is an integral part of the process.

So the next time you are in a service and you feel like, gee, when am I ever going to feel at home with this? – consider the possibility that maybe you need to go more often, or more regularly. It’s only by logging the miles that the place will really become home. The good news is that as that if you put in the time, it’s inevitable.  That mysterious service will be well and truly yours.

A Veterans’ Day Rant

Our son, in his whites, 2004
Son and Grandson of Sailors, 2004

My father was a veteran of the Korean War. He spent that war serving in Europe, assisting with the reclamation of Holland and other Allied projects. He refused to talk very much about that time in his life, but he always made clear that he hated everything about the Army, except for the opportunity to experience French culture. He’d been drafted, he didn’t want to go, and he did not have a high opinion of anyone who signed up voluntarily.

That was pretty much the sum of my exposure to the U.S. Military until I fell in love with and eventually married a Navy vet, the daughter of a Navy vet who served in three wars. Later our son celebrated his 21st birthday by enlisting in the Navy.

Listening to Linda tell her stories about her years in the Navy was a new perspective for me. By the time Aaron enlisted, I was proud that he did so. The funny thing about that is that Linda’s Navy experience was in many ways pretty awful, at least as bad as my father’s Army experience. She and every other woman dealt constantly with sexual harassment, and she had a secret: she was a lesbian, and if anyone caught wind of that, she faced dishonorable discharge and jail. Eventually, she realized that her pay was terrible, she had very little future, and she’d be better off in civilian life – so she went to work for the U.S. Government in law enforcement, as an inspector in the U.S. Customs Service for 33 years. There she helped break up drug smuggling operations, seized endangered animals and birds that people were trying to traffic, and protected the patents of U.S. companies. (I bet you didn’t know they did all those things.)

Linda served both in the Navy and in Customs because there is a deep, genuine patriotism in her family. She usually insists that it’s about job security, but I can see through that smoke screen: in both cases she was in jobs where her orientation left her anything but secure. She believes in the United States of America, she understands that she is lucky to live here, and she insisted on giving honorable service to her country. Illness prevented our son from completing his term of enlistment, and he did not serve in wartime, but patriotism and a desire for service were the reasons he enlisted and fought hard to stay in the Navy as long as he could.

There are some other military folk on the edges of my life. One thing all of them share is that they may talk a great line about doing it “for the money” or for “security” but for most of them, patriotism is an important part of it, too. They want to serve, and to do so honorably. The words “service” and “honor” mean something very specific to them, something that cannot be bought cheaply with talk.

As near as I could tell, what my father hated about the Army was that for those years, he lost most of his freedom. He was at the call of the country, like it or not, and he didn’t like it one bit. That’s fair; not liking it is legitimate. He was drafted, after all; he didn’t sign up.

But thank heavens Linda’s Dad served aboard Navy ships, fighting Hitler and Tojo. Thank heavens he came home safely from Korea.  Thank heavens Linda was willing to serve on a land-locked base in Nevada, working with the vets addicted to drugs and sick at heart, returning from Vietnam. Thank heavens for all the vets who served their country – who served you and me.

There’s a lot of talk flying around today from politicians and others (like me) about “gratitude” and “service.” Talk is cheap. “Thank you for your service” is cheap. It’s so cheap that perhaps we should shut up until we are willing to do more, willing to do something that corresponds to the service given.

What we were given was priceless – real years of real lives. Let’s push our elected officials to do more for the men and women who have served this country – to skip the cheap chat and instead, actually take care of those who have given years, and in too many cases, health and sanity to serving us. Let’s be willing to pay the taxes to get decent care for the veterans who have given so much to us. Not one of them should have to wait years for approval to see a doctor, or to get therapy. Not one should be without a safe home. Not one should be hungry. And yet far too many are.

This Veterans’ Day: let’s not be cheap.

A Bad Memory, and a Question

100% Jewish
100% Jewish

A memory came back to me today.

I was still a brand new Jew, practically wet behind the ears from the mikveh, and I was at my first Big Jewish Event (the sort that had hundreds of Jews who weren’t from my congregation – wow!)  I was big-eyed and surfing the learning curve, drinking up the fact that it is a Big Jewish World and I was now a part of it.  I was deliriously happy to be a part of the Jewish world I saw around me.

I was walking along a hallway at the convention center with a senior member of my congregation when it happened. The guy (I’ll call him Dave, not his real name) was a macher, someone who knew lots of people at the convention, and who had been on many committees. I was proud to be walking along learning from him. Then he said to me, out of the blue, “See that rabbi over there? You’ll never be as Jewish as her little finger.”

My euphoria crashed in a ball of flame. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t respond, couldn’t move the muscles in my face. I could hear my heart beating. Shame rose in me, and I wanted to disappear through the floor.

I continued walking along beside this man, but I couldn’t look at him. And I never told my rabbi about it.

I have no idea what was going on with Dave, who before and after that awful statement was very nice to me. Today, more secure in my Jewish identity, I might ask him what the heck he was thinking. I would challenge him, because certainly the tradition says that a person who chooses Judaism and goes through the long process of conversion is every bit a Jew. But because I was new, and shy, and intimidated, I said nothing.

When I tell this story to others who became Jewish as adults years ago, they answer with their own stories. It seems to be a rather common experience, so much so that when I work with adults in the process of conversion, I feel it necessary to prepare them for the ambivalence in the community about adopted members of the tribe. It’s not a constant thing, but every now and then an otherwise perfectly nice person burps up a statement that says, “Nope, not one of us. Never will be.” There are ways to handle it, both conversationally and internally, but it isn’t pleasant.

Now, I have been around the Jewish block long enough to know that this is an extension of that popular pastime “More Jewish than You” – that for whatever reason, we Jews seem to have a need to reassure ourselves that someone out there is less Jewish than we are.  But when I hear the wailing over the recent Pew study and the angsting over the declining membership in congregations, I want to say, “Well, what do you expect? If we hit people with sticks, they will run away. Duh.”

And I know that isn’t the whole answer, but when I meet people who have left congregations because someone was nasty to them, I just have to wonder: how would the Jewish world be different, if we all acted as if each Jew were precious and non-replaceable?

How would the world be different if we treated every  human being that way?

Is there a Jewish Vatican?

English: Western wall in Jerusalem at night
Western Wall in Jerusalem, administered by an office of the Orthodox Rabbinate (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Judaism has no central office.

We have national and international organizations which address various aspects of Jewish life, and in some countries there is a “head rabbi” who represents the Jews to the larger community, but there is no central office that sets policy and makes decisions.  There is nothing analogous to the Vatican for Catholics or Salt Lake City for the Mormons.

Sometimes when people hear that there is such a thing as “Jewish Law” they imagine that there is an authority that administers and defines it, and in fact there is no such entity. There are groups of Jews who are more or less in agreement on an approach to Jewish Law and traditions (“movements”), but there is variation even within those groups.

Within the State of Israel, there is the Orthodox Rabbinate, which has been established by Israeli law as the chief halakhic (Jewish legal) authority inside the State of Israel. It has authority over marriages, divorces, kashrut, burials, and overseeing the religious courts that administer those functions. However, even in Israel, there are many Jews who differ with the Orthodox Rabbinate on religious questions and which have their own institutions and synagogues. There are also a large number of secular Jews in Israel who choose to have little to do with the Orthodox Rabbinate.

So the next time you hear someone make a blanket statement about Jews (“All Jews believe such-and-such”)  be cautious. Even if you limit it to “All religious Jews believe …” it’s a very broad statement. Jewish tradition puts a very high value on minhag (local custom) and Jewish beliefs vary widely.

 

So, is there no such thing as normative Judaism? In the fine details, no. But in broader strokes, I can make a few statements with confidence:

  • Jews share a narrative that begins with Abraham.
  • Jews look to the Torah for that narrative and revelation of the best way to live. We differ on how to interpret Torah.
  • Jews affirm the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, The Eternal  is our God, The Eternal is One.” “The Eternal” is a stand-in for the four letter Name of God which we do not pronounce; and yes, we argue about what words are an acceptable substitution for the Name.
  • When Jews say “The Eternal is One,” we mean that there is only One God, without Persons or any other divinity. Jews do not believe Jesus was, much less is, divine.
  • Jews look forward to a better world. We disagree whether that world comes with a particular Messiah, or in a Messianic Age, or whether the “better world” is an ideal towards which we are striving.

So no, there is no Jewish Vatican, and there are no Jewish enforcers. “Enforcement” happens by peer pressure, if it happens at all outside the State of Israel.  This has up-sides and down-sides, but it is important to know when you are getting to know us: that’s the reason that sometimes the best answer to many questions about Judaism is “It depends.”