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.

Purim is Upon Us


I’m way behind on my Purim prep. Yes, I made hamantashen, last night, but I’m still writing my chapter of the Purimspiel, which will be performed on the eve of Purim–Saturday night! My husband is making my son’s costume. (I cannot tell you what my son wants to be for Purim, or I will start cackling hysterically again.)  I am going as…a very tired mom, probably, even though I think that’s what I went as last year.

What a great holiday for introducing your non-Jewish partner, friend or relative to the Jewish community, though. It’s traditional to have parties, eat yummy sweets, drink alcoholic beverages and dress up in costumes. It was also the start of Jewish theater–the Purimspiel, based on the Book of Esther, is always full of satire. (And sometimes actual humor. Jokes, anyway.) Plus it’s a holiday all about a Jewish woman who preserves her religious and cultural identity in an intermarriage and saves the Jewish people. Can’t say better than that.

Here’s this year’s 92nd Street Y Purim video. It’s about a werewolf dentist. I have no idea why it’s about a werewolf and not a vampire, but whatever. Enjoy.

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.

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, 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.



I admit that I’m a bit bookish. I emit an undignified squeal of delight whenever I get a nice review copy, even though there are so many books in my apartment that one could build a pretty decent fort out of them. For example, I was eager to read One More Year, the subject of today’s hilarious featured article by Vicki Boykis. Sometimes you can get a reviewer to share enough of her own experience that reviewing the book is just the beginning for something deeper. I can’t always figure out a way to get books reviewed that brings out the themes of our website as well as that, and I occasionally try to make up for it by offering mini-reviews here. For example, Nextbook sent me Douglas Century’s biography of Jewish boxer Barney Ross and I was blown away by how vividly it evoked the world of early 20th century immigrant Jews. It was a nearly cinematic book. I also found Rebecca Goldstein’s Betraying Spinoza to be nearly perfect, somehow the ideal combination of personal reflection and intellectual explanation, making something very difficult accessible. She places Spinoza in his Jewish historical context, but is able to explain why doing so absolutely contradicts everything in his thought.

We don’t usually offer reviews of books that are self-published, but since I’m not a crafty person, not particularly good at coming up with arts projects for my art-project-loving kid, I was very impressed with the promotional website for  Celebrating With Jewish Crafts. The book is a little expensive, but I can see that some of our readers could use it. We’ve had requests for holiday crafts in the past, and this website shows some classics, like honey-comb wax wrapped Havdalah candles, and some that were new ideas to me, like a Rosh Hashanah honey dish made with homemade play-dough. This isn’t a review, just a heads-up.

Ahoy Mateys


I know there aren’t many people who are terribly worried about this, but I am deeply amused that this year, Talk Like a Pirate Day falls on the first day of Rosh HaShanah.

“Shiver me timbers, it’s time to sing Avinu Malkenu and blow the shofar, mateys! Arrrrrr, me hearties, if you don’t pass me the teiglach, I’ll make ye walk the plank! Smartly with the grog, me beauties, ’tis kiddush we’ll be havin’!  L’Shanah Tovah! Arrrrr!”

My husband doesn’t think this is funny. 

(I know, we won’t be blowing the shofar or singing Avinu Malkenu this year on the first day of Rosh HaShanah, because it falls on Shabbat. But would a pirate know that?)

The Ninth of Av


It’s difficult to explain Tisha B’Av, a fast day that starts this evening and goes until tomorrow evening. In our Jewish Holidays Cheat Sheet, I described it,

”JewishHolidaysCheatSheet” wrote:
This fast day commemorates the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. In the medieval period, Jews began attaching other calamities to the day, including the expulsion from Spain in 1492, making it an all-purpose day of mourning.

I think it’s hard for people in our generation to appreciate the level of trauma that the Jewish people experienced when the Romans destroyed the holy Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. I’ve been able to enhance my historical understanding as I read Yonah Lavery’s Talmud Comics. Even texts I’ve actually read before come alive because of the art work. Lavery does a great job presenting the psychological impact of the loss of the Temple, and helped me to see, through her art, how this sense of loss was made real through study to Jews throughout our history.

In the 20th century, Tisha B’Av lost a lot of its punch. First, because of the Holocaust, and second, because of the creation of the State of Israel. When Israel was created, the majority of the Jewish people there and in the diaspora chose to commemorate the destruction of European Jewish communities with Yom Ha-Shoah, rather than following the older tradition of tacking all catastrophes onto the destruction of the Temple. After Israel retook Jerusalem in 1967, my husband’s grandfather, an Orthodox Jew, began to follow a minhag (custom) of fasting for half the day. After all, Jews had access to the Holy of Holies. A recent op-ed piece in Haaretz makes a persuasive case for the half-day fast–though not on Jewish textual grounds.

In my Reform congregation growing up, we didn’t mark the 9 of Av. I learned about it in the wider Jewish community–at JCC overnight camp, and elsewhere. It’s always felt awkward to me. Mark Washofsky, a professor at Hebrew Union College in Cinncinati, a Reform rabbinical seminary, wrote ”Why We Mourn on the Ninth of Av” for the Forward. He says,

”MarkWashofsky” wrote:

We have learned to read the traditional liturgy of Tisha B’Av — the biblical book of Eicha (Lamentations), the day’s Torah readings, the kinot (dirges) — not as an effort to explain or to justify the destruction but as a call to respond to it by redoubling our commitment to search our souls, to purify our conduct and to renew our shaken-but-not-shattered faith in the ultimate triumph of good over evil. This way of response permits us to acknowledge tragedy in all its darkness, but it forbids us to yield to a sense of helplessness and despair.