Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Kosher Eating

When I tweeted about the discovery of pork-flavored foie gras, a follower expressed disapproval: “Why would you want to make kosher pork-flavored anything?!”
The porky flavor of the Spanish goose-liver was confirmed by a number of European (non-Jewish) chefs. But…why try it?
“In the future a person will have to give a reckoning for everything he saw and did not eat” (Jerusalem Talmud, Kidushin 2:4).

Does this mean the Torah sanctions gluttony? Far from it! Food is our initial contact with desire and its uses and abuses. Many of us struggle with eating disorders, from bulimia and anorexia to overeating and junk-food addiction. And unlike other addictions, one can’t just go cold turkey on food. The struggle for “KOSHER” eating is always there.

The forbidden is perennially tempting – as King Solomon writes in Proverbs 9:17, “Stolen water is sweet and bread eaten in secret is pleasurable” – and perhaps for that reason, every non-kosher food has a kosher taste-equivalent. Judaism is about sanctification of our physical desires, not denial of them. There’s nothing wrong with the flavor of pork, bacon, or shellfish, so long as we enjoy it in a permitted way.

G-d could easily have created a world where our nourishment came solely through handfuls of vitamins; instead He presented us with a vast array of colors, textures and flavors. Taking control of our lives and our eating, making every bite an opportunity for sanctity, is deeply satisfying.
So… why try kosher pork-flavored foie gras? Why not?!

Friday, November 25, 2011

This Shabbat, the 29th of Cheshvan, is the third yahrtzeit of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivky Holtzberg.  Also murdered in this heinous terrorist attack were guests staying at the Holtzberg’s Chabad House. 
I found these videos and articles about the Holtzbergs moving.  Their example in love for their fellow Jews and  for G-d is very inspiring, and illuminates just how much we lost with their deaths.
May we very soon arrive at the day when G-d will wipe away our tears, with the revelation of the era of eternal peace and brotherhood.  Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

“Do not underestimate the blessing given by a simple person.” Talmud, Megilah 15a

Many years ago, noted author and lecturer Rabbi Nissan Mangel told this story to a group of students:
A childless couple approached their rebbe, hoping for a blessing for a child. To their bitter disappointment, the rebbe told them that their childlessness was a result of a heavenly decree which he was powerless to counteract. Hearing of this, friends of the broken-hearted couple sprang into action. Gathering in secret, the couple’s friends recited the entire book of Psalms and fasted. Within the year, the couple was blessed with a child.

Amongst Rabbi Mangel’s students was a group of women whose friend had been married many years but remained childless. They asked, “Can we do this, too?” Rabbi Mangel didn’t see why not, but suggested that they replace fasting with giving charity above and beyond their normal means. Within the year, their friend, too, was blessed with a child.

One of the women in the group shared their success story with me; I immediately called a third friend. We both knew a number of couples who were facing infertility or secondary infertility. We agreed to follow this model of Psalms recitation and giving charity, settling on Lag b’Omer for our efforts, a day traditionally associated with blessings for children.

We gathered together around the table and divided the Book of Psalms between us. After reciting the Psalms we read aloud the names of the couples — about ten or twelve. Then each of us gave charity to a single worthy cause, in an amount that was a bit challenging. Within the year, every couple except for one had a child.

While none of us at that table were kabbalists or great scholars, there’s a reason our efforts worked. Looking at others with a “good eye,” showing ahavat Yisrael, and sincere prayer, changes lives.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Crown of Shoes

It was the morning after Simchat Torah, and the Jews slumbered on, exhausted from the festive dancing with the Torahs. In Heaven, meanwhile, the angels waited, since they can’t sing hymns and praises to G-d until we do. As time ticked by, the angels decided to do some house-cleaning in Heaven.
As they did so, they found puzzling objects they didn’t recognize. These mystery objects were made of all sorts of material — felt, leather, plastic, even birch-bark and metal. The angels were used to finding mitzvah-objects in Heaven, like tefillin and Shabbat candlesticks, but never…these.

“Let’s ask the Archangel Michael. Maybe he knows.”
They schlepped their bulging sacks over to Michael. Sure enough, he knew all about it.
“Yes, this is my merchandise.” Pulling one out of a bag, he said, “This worn-out loafer belongs to a boy from Kansas who danced hakafot last night; these ripped cowboy boots are from a Texan who celebrated his first Simchat Torah ever…

These frayed tiny mary-janes came from the tiny feet of a little girl who also celebrated her first Simchat Torah. And this wheel is from the wheelchair of guy who never misses a Simchat Torah, and dances his way, rejoicing with the Torah.  They’ve all served their wearers well, and have now made their way to heaven!”
The angels stared. “What are you going to do with all these torn shoes?”
“I’m going to make a crown for G-d.”
“With scuffed and torn shoes?”
“Yep,” Michael boasts. “And it’s going to be even more beautiful than the crown Metat makes out of the Jews’ prayers.”
Adapted from Keter Shem Tov 114, by the Baal Shem Tov

Friday, November 18, 2011

Chevra Kadisha

Today’s post is by guest blogger, Sheindel Shapiro.

We took our places around the steel table upon which the body of Mrs. Berthe Berliner* lay.  I stood by her head. In unison, we said the first prayer: “Master of the universe! Have compassion on Beila, daughter of Moses, this deceased, for she is a descendent of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob….” Then we began our holy work.
For a number of years, I was privileged to be a part of the women’s branch of the Chevrah Kadisha, the volunteers who prepare the bodies of the deceased prior to burial in accordance with Jewish tradition.

Implements used during the taharah - purification of the body

You may think it strange to call the handling of a dead body a privilege, possibly because American culture has made death frightening. For many, our frame of reference is horror movies, Halloween, ghosts and goblins; we find death both intriguing and repulsive. Judaism, in contrast, teaches that we have a soul which enlivens the body and that when the soul is gone, the body that remains is still holy and must be treated with respect and loving care.
Ewer used by the Chevrah Kadisha

My experiences with the Chevrah Kadisha are among the deepest and most meaningful of my life. To be physically close to the dead body, to cleanse and to groom it, is to know without a doubt that the body is only a vessel for the soul. To cradle and embrace it, to purify it and send it off on its final journey ennobles you. You return to your husband, your children, your life, filled with appreciation for every breath you are granted.

* A pseudonym

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sanctify to Me All Firstborn Males

"Sanctify to me all firstborn [males] that open the womb of the children of Israel" (Exodus 13:2.)  "And you shall surely redeem the firstborn male (Numbers 18:16.)

Photo by Sheindel Shapiro

The first pidyon haben (ceremony of the redemption of the first born) I ever attended was my son’s. At twenty-two, I had been to the usual complement of Jewish lifecycle events: baby naming, brit milahs, bar and bat mitzvah, some weddings, but never this. In fact, my son’s was the first pidyon haben in the family for at least three generations. Although my husband and I are both firstborns, neither of us had the ceremony, me because I’m female, and he because his mother is the daughter of a Levi. My mother was doubly disqualified, as both a female and a C-section baby; my father was a second-born and grandson of a Kohen. My mother-in-law was not a firstborn and was the daughter of a Levi, and my father-in-law was the second son in his family.
Before the ceremony, we women draped our jewelry over and around the baby.  The mound of jewelry is meant to show the Jewish women’s love for G-d’s commandments and stand in contrast to our refusal to donate our jewelry to the construction of the Golden Calf.
Photo by Sheindel Shapiro

Along with the festive meal, we distributed “party favors” of garlic cloves and sugar cubes for attendees to take home.  Our sages equate eating from the pidyon haben feast with the spiritual benefit of fasting for eighty-four days!  We want to share this huge spiritual power with as many as possible, so we give garlic and sugar, ingredients that last, and can flavor large batches of food. So, if you’re lucky enough to have received one of these, don’t save it as a souvenir; use it!
It was over two decades before I had occasion to attend another pidyon haben. 
If you're looking for pidyon haben coins -- or are a coin collector -- see here and here.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

“His Face was Horned from the Conversation of the Lord”

Driving north from Florida, we stopped somewhere in the Carolinas to buy drinks at a convenience store. As we traipsed back to the car, a man approached our family in the parking lot, flipped my ten-year-old son’s kippah up and asked in astonishment, “Wher’ yuh horns?” My astonishment equaled his: that anyone really believed this old canard! A quick Google search reveals that these sorts of interactions are less uncommon than we’d hope.
The Jews-have-horns myth may be confirmed by Michelangelo’s Moses, glaring with ropy beard and throbbing veins, about to rise to dispense justice, but I think that the misimpression left by the mistranslation in the Vulgate was clinched by the observation that Jewish men wear skullcaps – why else, but to hide their horns?

And horns evoke images of lecherous satyrs who prey upon innocent women, goat-like in their pursuit of physical pleasure. This was certainly the image the Nazis painted of Jews. They may have discarded the idea of horns, but the Jew as something not quite human was the basis of all that followed.
"The Poisonous Mushroom," a children's book from the Nazi era

Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the 1938 attack against German Jewry that we now recognize as the beginning of the Holocaust, whose horror still casts its long shadows upon us. As we refute these old myths, I hope it will lead to a repudiation of these villainous stereotypes as well, leading us to an era when each man shall dwell ‘neath his vine and fig-tree and none shall be afraid (Michah 4:4).

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Here’s Wishing You Happy Trails

This week’s Torah portion begins with G-d’s call to Abraham, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). The quest – and its modern incarnation, the road trip – is one of the oldest and most beloved storylines in world literature.

The hero jumps onto his trusty steed (or into his rusty car) and rides off into the sunset. While he focuses on his destination, his journey becomes the story – the people he meets, the adventures he encounters, the lessons he learns. But what is it about the quest story that beckons us?

Rashi comments on the above quoted verse, “Go forth – for your benefit and for your good.” A comment from the Midrash sheds light: “What did Abraham resemble? A vial of perfume; sealed and in a corner. But when opened, and carried from place to place, its fragrance wafted about” (Genesis Rabbah 39:2).

The quest is the idea that one travels away to find one’s true self; that at home, surrounded by the familiar, you aren’t aware of your own fragrance, of all the untapped potential that lies within, waiting to be released by the friction of the road, the unstopping of the self, the exuding of one’s true essence.
“The longest journey is the journey inwards” – Dag Hammarskjold.
(Hat tip to Masha Shollar for a great line.)