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For Every Two Jews, There Are Three Perspectives

June 18, 2012

Our congregation recently had a very interesting discussion on how varied Jews' beliefs are. Our synagogue serves a large, Southern, suburban area including Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist members; their Christian, Muslim and Atheist partners; and a very serious looking guy named Bob, who would like to remind us that the earth is our friend. So we were all in agreement that no two of us agreed exactly on theological concerns. In keeping with Jewish tradition, many of us disagreed with ourselves.

Also in keeping with Jewish tradition, no one agreed on Jewish tradition. For example, after lighting the Shabbat candles, the congregant hosting the event circled the candlelight with her hands in three swooping motions, then shielded the light from her eyes while saying the prayer. I have seen this done many times, but when I light candles at home, my only pre-blessing hand motion is usually shaking out the match. I do this strictly to scare my loved ones into allowing me a little personal space. To my knowledge, there is no commandment against blowing out a match before the blessing, but if there was, I would ignore it because I'm that kind of Jew.

I am not opposed to the wave-sweep-shield and may even use it the next time I'm asked to bless candles in front of the congregation. The gentle motion appeals to me in a tai-chi kind of way. I've been informed of the ritual's basis from several different "authorities."

First we welcome in light, or usher in the Sabbath bride, or shield the flame from air conditioning drafts, depending on who you ask. Then we circle with our hands once as we honor the one creator, or seven times to honor the seventh day of the week, or three times because seven seems a little excessive and our mother did it three times. The three probably has nothing to do with the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, but all guests should feel free to interpret at their own comfort levels.

Finally, we shield our eyes so that we can begin the Sabbath with this wondrous sight, or avoid gazing upon the light until the Sabbath begins whilst making sure not to conflagrate after the Sabbath begins, or keep from damaging our retinas. Bob just wants you to compost the match.

After the prayer, the hostess wished "l'shalom bayit" — Hebrew for "to a harmonious home." I like this phrase, but just learned it recently. I don't know that my parents (both raised in Orthodox households in New York) were consciously opposed to the concept, but I had never heard of it growing up. I am familiar with several other phrases of Hebrew and Yiddish origin that apparently work their way into my conversation, especially during religious gatherings. I automatically wish congregants "chag sameach" before realizing many prefer "happy holiday" due to language and/or phlegm management preferences. (Bob is always against water waste.)

The 32 people at this discussion probably had 32 different levels of Hebrew literacy, if not more. These range from "What's with those squiggly lines?" to "I can watch Waltz with Bashir without subtitles." I'm at the level of actually pronouncing the squiggly lines, but usually not having a clue what the words mean. I have a working vocabulary of a few dozen words and phrases, most commonly used in greeting, prayer or berating athletes. When a friend recently prefaced discussing her adoption plans with "b'ezrat hashem," I responded as sympathetically as possible with "what does that mean?"

It's literally "with help of the name," similar to the Arabic "insha Allah" I was familiar with, meaning "G-d willing." The words "the name" (hashem) are used as a substitute for "G-d" because some Jews don't voice that name, whereas some just use a dash when they spell it. Some substitute phrases in various languages meaning "lord," "holy one" or "creator" instead. Others will say the word "G-d" out loud, but never follow it with "damn" unless they are singing along with an Eagles tune, and then it's really Joe Walsh's sin. Others only speak the name prefaced with "oh," during situations we won't discuss here.

I don't actually believe lightning will strike me if I use an "o" instead of a dash. It's just something that was ingrained in me during my formative years and I can't seem to stop. That's probably the real explanation behind the myriad traditions a lot of us adhere to. Second runner up would be peer pressure.

I'm pretty sure my mother's choir friends influenced her recent cessation of leavened consumption at 10 a.m. the morning before Passover. She claims she has done this since she was a child. I wondered (yes, aloud — remember Mom isn't familiar with shalom bayit) why she stopped following this the 18 years I lived with her, because I had no recollection of this ritual. There is halachic basis for morning kitchen kashering, but I'm pretty sure I would remember if she ever did it. I remember separate sets of dishes, unspeakably bad soufflés with "bread of affliction" as a key ingredient and seeing a certain uncle dip into Elijah's cup, but nothing about 10 a.m. rings a bell.

I rely on modern dish-washing equipment instead of kashering, but many of my friends go with the dual plate sets. Bob would like to take this time to discourage using disposable paper products, and don't even get him started on styrofoam. I may be breaking with tradition, but don't think G-d will condemn me to h-ll for it, if there actually is one, which is a whole separate discussion.

So as we move on to the Kiddush, or wine blessing, or "tossback," let's raise a glass to diversity. If you are new in town, we welcome you to our congregation, we honor whatever traditions and beliefs you follow, we are unable to provide you with the address of the nearest kosher butcher, but we will give you a flier for our annual "bug boil" social. Don't even ask about a mikvah.

Hebrew for "happy holiday." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Derived from the Hebrew for "Jewish law," it's pertaining or according to the body of Jewish religious law including biblical law (those commandments found in the Torah), later Talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "sanctification," a blessing recited over wine or grape juice to sanctify the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. Hebrew for "The Name." Used as a substitute for the Hebrew name for God, which religious Jews are forbidden from uttering outside of prayer. ("This lovely dinner was provided by HaShem - and the Goldsteins!" or "If, HaShem willing, we arrive safely...") A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "collection," referring to the "collection of water," is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Today it is used as part of the traditional procedure for converting to Judaism, by Jews who follow the laws of ritual (body) purity, and sometimes for making kitchen utensils kosher. God. In traditional Jewish circles, it is forbidden to write or say God's full Hebrew name. This custom has carried over into English by some, who write "God" without the vowel (o) and replace it with a hyphen. Some use variations of this, such as G!d or G@d.
Joy Fields

Joy Fields is a CPA in Kingwood, Texas, who enjoys writing. Her humorous essays and poems have appeared in publications such as The Houston Chronicle, Writers' Digest, and The Wall Street Journal. This year, she will be celebrating her 20th anniversary in an interfaith marriage.

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