Judith Shulevitz on the Sabbath

It’s still Passover and I’m still processing the experience of my family seder, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to link you to two pieces about a new book by Judith Shulevitz, The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time. I’m delighted to see that Rebecca Neuberger Goldstein, who wrote the fantastic recent book on Spinoza and Jewish identity, did the New York Times review of Shulevitz’s book.

Shulevitz, who grew up in an observant Jewish household, is ambivalent about how to keep Shabbat in a traditional way. No longer Orthodox, she has to come to terms with how to rest on Shabbat. She has both a deep understanding and background in Jewish thought and culture, and a profoundly American sensibility–I’m listening to her interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air program, and it’s amazing.

When I’m trying to figure out how to talk about Jewish observance for interfaith families and not to repel people by making one mode of observance the normative one, it’s really hard to talk about resting on Shabbat. By resting I mean not only doing the rituals that make Shabbat beautiful, but stopping work, or as Shulevitz puts it, being together, not exerting mastery over the world–resting together, not only resting. Shulevitz says some great things in this interview and I’m enticed to read this book and have it reviewed on our site, if I can.

Challah Day

I baked challah last night. I’m sorry I don’t have a photo–I did some cool braiding. I made the first recipe in the wonderful A Blessing of Bread, by Maggie Glezer. Glezer collected recipes, mainly from Jewish grandmothers, for holiday and festival breads. I’ve learned a lot since I started baking from it. I wanted to bake again to try to use up the rest of the flour in our house. I also made cake, and I’m planning to make pasta. The carb-a-thon is due to my need to clean out my cupboards of non-Passover food before cleaning the house for Passover.

I was thinking about how I would like to have more guests just this morning, as I was mulling over the resource guide to Jewish spirituality that I’m writing for IFF. I wanted to make the case that Jewish spirituality was mundane, something in which everyone could participate, Jewish or not. I thought of the mitzvah of hospitality in Judaism. I hadn’t known until I looked it up that it trumps prayer or study–it’s one of the most important mitzvot of all. Great for interfaith families, too, because there are lots of hospitable people who don’t realize that they are doing something spiritual. I have a great impression of the people who read and write for our site–they love to cook and invite people. When we do that, we’re in imitation of God, of whom we say in Psalms 145:16, “You open your hand and satisfy all the living.” That’s how we should be, too.

That’s why I am planning to spring Global Hunger Shabbat on my havurah this Shabbat, when I lead services on Saturday morning. (Now I’ll find out who is reading my blog posts, eh?) I’m going to use some of their educational materials–I also have some selections from Psalms in mind to sing. The Global Hunger Shabbat is part of a project from the American Jewish World Service. I also want to give a shout out to Project Mazon, A Jewish Response to Hunger, which makes grants to local hunger-relief agencies. In my area we have the Greater Boston Food Bank. We also have organizations that give to Jews in need–Passover food is extra expensive–like Jewish Family and Children’s Service Family Table.

Before Passover is a great time to think about people who are hungry, as we gear up for the seder when we say, “All who are hungry, let them come and eat.”

Sabbath Mode

Several people whom I know happened to be purchasing new stoves or ovens, and asked me, “What does it mean that the appliance has a Sabbath mode?” I knew what it was, even though my oven [float=left][/float]doesn’t have it! My current oven isn’t very useful for Shabbat observance, since it shuts off after a few hours. Though I can leave food in to stay warm on Friday evenings in the winter, the oven would shut off before lunch the next day. Apparently, some people complained to oven manufacturers, and they invented Sabbath mode as a way to let oven users override the automatic shutoff.

Once I had explained what the oven feature was, one of my friends wanted to know why someone would want to leave the oven on for 24 hours. At that point, I had to explain that not working on Shabbat has a very specific meaning in rabbinic Judaism. The rabbis had to figure out which work counted as the labor you aren’t doing on Shabbat, and which other activities you could do, and they developed the classification of 39 categories of labor which is based on this week’s Torah portion and the proximity of the instruction to keep Shabbat to the discussion of how the Israelites built the mishkan, the portable tabernacle they used while wandering in the desert.

My friend said, “I knew you weren’t supposed to cook–I just assumed that meant a cold meal.” The rabbis of the Talmud didn’t like that idea, and they invented work-arounds that would make it possible not to cook but to still keep the food warm. Today’s work-arounds are of course more sophisticated. (Well, and less, since part of what they involve is a button to shut off the ways the oven beeps and thinks for itself about when to shut off!)

Professor Aryeh Cohen (whom I used to follow around with puppy-like devotion when we were both graduate students at Brandeis) wrote a discussion of this week’s Torah portion in which he understands Shabbat as a means of separating into a special space, just by what we aren’t doing:

So this is how I understand Yehudah Halevi’s poem. Shabbat is, essentially, a state of mind. Once you stop doing all the activities which are forbidden (sowing, sewing, building, writing, burning, etc.) you carry Shabbat around in your head and everything you do is done in the territory of Shabbat. There you can be walking down the same street as your neighbor who is not Jewish. Both of you are out for a morning stroll. Yet, you are doing a Shabbat activity since you are “in” Shabbat and he is not.

I thought this was cool, because I was trying to figure out how to translate “Sabbath mode” into what human beings do, and it’s true–shutting off your regular functions is what makes it possible to have a Sabbath mode.

On the other hand, Aryeh’s implication here about Jewish distinctiveness is difficult for me, because I know a lot of interfaith families who are sharing the benefits of Shabbat. What if “your neighbor” isn’t just your neighbor, but your very very good friend, such a good friend you decided to get married? Not exactly a neighbor. As Ed Case puts it, any Shabbat experience an interfaith family does is shared.

Not that I totally want to reject an opportunity for Jewish pride in distinctiveness. I sometimes see a bumper sticker, “The Labor Movement–The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend.” You could say the same about the Jewish people–we invented the idea of a day off, something everyone needs. Everyone in the world should feel invited into Shabbat territory, Shabbat headspace–Sabbath mode. It’s a Jewish contribution, a gift to civilization.

I’m writing this knowing fully well that stopping, not working, not doing, is much more challenging than you think. Most people, even those who want to, can’t do it. That’s why Exodus 31:13  in this week’s portion has this mysterious word “ach” meaning still, but, nevertheless or however. Because not working is hard, even on your day off.

Glad I am Not a Werewolf and Can Eat Fruit

In the Hebrew school parking lot on Wednesday night, my son and I witnessed another little boy howling at the moon. “Sure glad I’m not a Jewish werewolf,” I said to my kid. “You would miss all the holidays.” It’s true–the Hebrew calendar assures that many Jewish holidays fall on the full moon, including Passover, Sukkot and Hanukkah. If you transform into a wolf when the moon is full, no matzah or latkes for you.

Tonight minor yet intriguing holiday, Tu Bishvat, called Hag La-Ilanot, the tree holiday, is no exception. Even its name, the 15th of Shevat, is a clue–because all Hebrew months start on the new moon. The holiday could be called the birthday of trees, since it was the date that Jews in ancient Israel used to figure out the age of their trees in order to know when to bring fruit from them to the Temple in Jerusalem on Shavuot. A highly technical date, Tu Bishvat has been transformed into a holiday celebrating agriculture in the land of Israel, kabbalistic theories of the universe and environmental consciousness.

When I was a kid, we celebrated Tu Bishvat by eating raisins and almonds in Hebrew school and by buying trees in Israel through the Jewish National Fund. We also sang a little song in Hebrew about almond trees, “Ha-Shkediyah Porachat.” (It’s not easy to transliterate the Hebrew word for almond tree.) The lyrics mean something like, “the almond trees are blooming, the golden sun is shining, on the top of every roof, birds sing to herald the holiday.” My friend taught me an alternate version that fits the weather here much better:

The almond tree is freezing, the apple tree is sneezing
If you think that this is spring, I can sell you anything
Tu Bishvat is here, Hag La-Ilanot
Tu Bishvat is here, where’s my overcoat?

I went searching for the original version of the song, and found this adorable Spanish-speaking family getting all excited about the almond trees and cyclamen in Israel:

Today, it’s become increasingly common for people to celebrate Tu Bishvat with a seder, a mystical practice that compares the peels and seeds of fruit to the inner nature of everything. We ran a great piece by Aaron Kagan about his interfaith Tu Bishvat seder that he had last year. I also found a cool little article with recipes on The Jew and the Carrot A Tu Bishvat Seder for Every Personality.

We’re actually invited to a Tu Bishvat seder tonight at my havurah–but we aren’t going. I can’t imagine how we are going to have enough energy even to eat the stuffed cabbage I prepared last night. (Which has fruit in it! Yes!)

If you are interested in an opportunity to think about the environment, to appreciate your local trees, and to think about mystical connections–and most important if you are not a werewolf– Tu Bishvat is the holiday for you.

Cooking Up New Traditions

My husband found this blog, Sephardic Food, where culinary expert Janet Amateau posts Sephardi  cultural lore and recipes. Some of the blog posts are in Spanish because Amateau lives in Spain. I’ve been meaning to tell you about it, because I know a lot of our readers want Sephardi recipes, and these are great–with great explanations.

When I wrote the Jewish Food Cheat Sheet, which defined dozens of Ashkenazi Jewish food terms, it came with an introduction, Understanding Jewish Food Traditions, which placed Ashkenazi Jewish food in a more global Jewish context, with Sephardi, Mizrachi and other Jewish cultures.

The truth is, all the Jews in the US aren’t all Eastern European, and even those of us who are Ashkenazi Jews love Jewish food traditions from elsewhere. Interfaith families are totally part of this. If you’re married to someone Italian who isn’t Jewish, it’s pretty cool to read Classic Italian Jewish Cooking by Edna Servi Machlin, just as an example. If you’re a Jew by choice, it’s nice to find ways to incorporate your old food traditions into new kosher rules.

In my overwhelmingly vegetarian, mainly Ashkenazi community, there are great fans of Olive Trees and Honey. I am still cooking my way through Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food, though my copy is falling apart.

I am always looking for ways to include recipes on the site, so if your family has kosher-ized some of the recipes from the non-Jewish side, or has revved up an Ashkenazi dish with the spices of another culinary tradition, or done any tasty sort of thing with food and culture, contact me.

Sukkot, Holiday of Welcome

I cannot believe that Sukkot starts tonight and I have nothing cooked. I’m afraid that I’m going to be bringing a bag of unpeeled carrots to the potluck at our Havurah. At least I don’t have to feel guilty that I didn’t help build the sukkah. My son loves to build things so he was willing to go on two successive nights as we adults struggled to put the thing up in the dark. I am trying to exploit his enthusiasm for anything that involves building (and weirdly, geometry–“It’s a rectangular prism, Mommy!”) to get myself psyched up for this holiday. It is the holiday of hospitality–after all, the sukkah, the ritual hut for the holiday, is open to the world. It’s a good symbol for us.

We had a great piece by Jane Larkin about making Sukkot meaningful for her family by tying it to the harvest of their home vegetable garden. After we published it, she wrote me to say that her family is also donating vegetables from her garden to a local food pantry in Dallas as part of their holiday observance. Contact your local food bank to find out whether they take garden produce. In my area in Boston, you can donate leftovers from catered events to the Greater Boston Foodbank. If you are having a wedding or a bar or bat mitzvah celebration, this is something worth investigating.

Hospitality isn’t only about feeding hungry people, though that’s a mitzvah one can never do too often. It’s also about extending welcome to new people. You might bring meaning to Sukkot through the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs topical Family Experience Guide for Sukkot, a pamphlet on immigration reform. My Havurah has made protecting immigrants a core social action issue, so I’m stoked to have this as a way to tie the issue to the holiday.

I just want to brag for a moment about my friend Steven Edelman-Blank, a newly minted Conservative rabbi, putting a message of welcome to interfaith families into his first High Holiday sermon, in which he discussed passing along the welcome he experienced in synagogue to other people.

Another exciting welcome: the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent has decided to run same-sex marriage announcements. They framed the decision with language about the meaning of Sukkot.

Wherever you are this holiday, I hope you find welcome and get to extend it to others.

Sukkot Adventures

Most years I spend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sitting in a synagogue. Sometimes, I feel inspired by the singing and spirit of the congregation, but in recent years that has not been the case and I have wished I was someplace else.  It is not that I would like to be at work or a mall, but I would rather be on a hike or exploring my own questions and interests within Jewish spirituality. As we  start Sukkot/Sukkot_101.shtml">Sukkot, the holiday where we build sukkahs (temporary dwellings outside which are reminiscent of biblical times) and celebrate the coming of autumn and the traditional fall harvest, I am hoping to find some time to go on a hike and enjoy the change.

This week I had the opportunity to speak with Jeff Finkelstein of Adventure Rabbi, a Denver based organization that brings Jews back into communal religious life through innovative religious programs which combine the outdoors and Jewish practice. Adventure Rabbi offers many programs including retreats for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover. You can also book a private ski weekend, in which Rabbi Jamie Korngold not only guides you on the slopes but through Jewish spirituality.  To me a weekend exploring the Colorado slopes and my own spirituality sounds ideal.

Conversion Shifts

It feels like an inexplicable coincidence. On July 8 I wrote an appreciation of Gary Tobin, a leading Jewish thinker andreaching hands supporter of outreach to interfaith families who just passed away. I remembered his support for us and our tactical disagreement about how much to promote conversion to non-Jewish partners in interfaith marriages. On the same day, the New York Jewish Week wrote about a major shift in the Conservative Movement about … how much to promote conversion as part of interfaith outreach. Continue reading

Emancipation of the Non-Jewish Partner

During Passover–which began Wednesday night–Jews are commanded to make a “mishna,” or commentary, on the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. The rabbis who drew up the Passover rituals demanded that each successive generation find ways to connect the ancient story of enslavement and freedom to their lives.

One of today’s parallels has less to do with restrictions of freedom on Jews than it has to do with restrictions on their partners of different religious backgrounds. Perversely, other Jews are the ones restricting their freedom.

In yesterday’s The (New York) Jewish Week, Kerry Olitzky, director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, and Adam Bronfman, managing director of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, wrote an op-ed urging the Jewish community to reconsider its restrictions on synagogue membership and ritual involvement for non-Jews:

… it was not Moses but his non-Jewish wife Zipporah who took into her own hands, quite literally, the task of circumcising their sons.

Today, we know of many intermarried households where the partner who is not Jewish is an equal contributor in raising Jewish children. In many cases the non-Jewish partner has the greatest influence over the children’s Jewish identities. Yet it is not difficult to imagine that if Moses and Zipporah were alive today, some synagogue administrator would be sitting them down to explain why their household of four is eligible for an individual membership because only Moses can join, and that only Moses’ name will appear on temple mailings to their home.

Continue reading

Attracting Interfaith Families Through Jewish Spirituality

Synagogue 3000 (S3K) has released a fascinating new study by Steven M. Cohen and Lawrence Hoffman, How Spiritual Are America’s Jews? Narrowing the Spirituality Gap Between Jews and Other Americans. Given some of Mr. Cohen’s previous writings on intermarriage, both the tone and the substance of this report are noteworthy for highlighting an important path to more Jewish engagement by interfaith families and their adult children. Continue reading