Hebrew Word of the Week: sheva


People pray at the Western Wall on Jan. 12. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Why Are There Two Jerusalems?


Why is Yerushalayim plural,

One on high and one below?…

I want to live in one “Yerushal,”

Because I am just “I” and not “I”s.

—- Yehuda Amichai, “Open Closed Open”

 

Welcome to one of the great grammatical conundrums in the history of Jewish geography: why is the Hebrew word for Jerusalem – Yerushalayim — in the plural form?

Because, in fact, there is not one Jerusalem; there are two.

On a political level, there are two Jerusalems — the “new city” of west Jerusalem, and the Old City and eastern Jerusalem — two entities forged into one fifty years ago with the Six Day War.

On a linguistic level, there are two Jerusalems – Yerushalayim in Hebrew; al-Quds (“the holy city”) in Arabic.

On a geographical level, there are two Jerusalems. Jerusalem is on the border between the coastal plain that leads to Tel Aviv, and the wilderness that begins to its east. As soon as you leave Jerusalem, and head east, the Asian desert begins. Jerusalem, therefore, is at the nexus point of a Mediterranean climate and central Asian climate.

What is the origin of the “two Jerusalem” theory?

The first mention of Jerusalem in the Hebrew Bible is in Genesis 14, in the account of Abram’s war against the kings.

There Abram encounters Melchizedek, who is both the king of Salem and a priest of the Canaanite god El Elyon, God Most High. Melchizedek greets Abram with bread and wine and blesses him in the name of El Elyon. It is the first interfaith dialogue in history. There, the place is called Salem, or Shalem.

A few chapters later, in Genesis 21, Abraham returns to that place. He brings his son, Isaac, to “the land of Moriah” as a potential sacrifice.

Abraham calls the place Adonai-yireh, “God will see” — or simply, Yireh.

Abraham named the place Yireh, and Melchizedek knew it as Shalem. Yireh-Shalem becomes Yerushalayim. Those two names are soldered together: One name, given to it by a pagan king who blesses Abraham — representing the possibility of peace; and another name, given to it by Abraham himself, representing the presence of God and the sacrificial offerings that will be there at that place.

Peace between people and peace with God — wedded together in one name. A promise and a goad. A duality.

But, there is far more than this; as the late poet, Yehuda Amichai, intimates, there is a spiritual duality as well.

Jerusalem is Yerushalayim because of a subtle duality that is nevertheless omnipresent in our literature and thinking — the earthly Jerusalem (Yerushalayim shel matah) and the heavenly Jerusalem (Yerushalayim shel maalah).

Where does one begin on this quest for the heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly Jerusalem?

The idea of a supernal Jerusalem begins in Isaiah 6. The prophet has a vision of God in a supernal temple, surrounded by angelic beings, each one chanting “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts.”

The rabbis imagined that the heavenly Jerusalem served as an alternative and antidote to the real, imperfect Jerusalem. Their fantasies took on new fervor after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. They believed that the heavenly Jerusalem had its own temple with its own elite of priests and prophets.

Resh Lakish said: There are seven firmaments, and in one of those firmaments there is a place where millstones grind manna for the righteous, and in one of those firmaments there is a place where the heavenly Jerusalem, and the Temple, and the very altar are built, where the angel Michael stands and every day brings an offering.

The Rabbis idealized Jerusalem, twisting it beyond its own reality. For them, the mountains of Jerusalem pointed straight to heaven. They imagined Jerusalem as a place where no woman ever miscarried, where no one was ever stung by serpent or scorpion, where the fires of the altar were never doused with rain, where no wind blew the pillar of smoke over the worshipers.

The idea of a heavenly Jerusalem exists in Christianity as well.

For Christians, the earthly Jerusalem is Jewish and sinful; the heavenly Jerusalem, Christian and righteous. The heavenly Jerusalem is the place of the new covenant sealed through the blood of Jesus.

But you are come unto mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant. (Hebrews 12:22-24)

The ultimate vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem comes from Revelations. John sees the New Jerusalem descending from heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband in gold and precious stones.

I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is the new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name…And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. (Revelations 3;12)

For Christians, the heavenly Jerusalem was not real. It was an ideal. In the Middle Ages, there were many fanciful descriptions, maps, and paintings of Jerusalem, each one showing Jerusalem as the center of the world, as the sages themselves imagined it – as axis mundi.

The idea of the heavenly Jerusalem finds its way into even the very architecture and design of the modern city of Jerusalem.

Anyone who has been to Jerusalem marvels at the beauty of Jerusalem stone as a building material.

The man who first figured this out was Sir Ronald Storrs, the first British military governor of Jerusalem, and a vicar’s son. He enacted a law that permitted only Jerusalem stone to be used as a building material used in construction in Jerusalem. In his memoirs recalls the medieval hymn “Jerusalem is built in heaven/ Of living stone.” He believed that the earthly Jerusalem should be a replica of the heavenly Jerusalem.

By contrast, the Jewish view of the heavenly Jerusalem is that it is actually not entirely in heaven.

In fact, the heavenly Jerusalem is adjacent to the earthly Jerusalem.

Towards where should we pray? Rabbi Hiyya said: Toward the heavenly Holy of Holies. Rabbi Simeon ben Halafta said: Toward the earthly Holy of Holies. Rabbi Pinchas said: There is no disagreement here. The earthly holy of holies is directly opposite the heavenly Holy of Holies. (Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 4:5).

Jerusalem represents the revealed presence of God in human history. In the liturgy, in seder kriat ha-Torah (the service for the reading of the Torah), you would expect references to the place from which Torah came – Sinai.

Not so. Instead, Jerusalem has a starring role. As we take the Torah from the ark, we echo the plaintive cry of Jews in Jerusalem during Crusader times: “Rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.” “For out of Zion Torah goes forth, and the word of God from Jerusalem.” In fact, the revelation at Sinai is absent; instead, the Torah service asks us to remember and dramatize the first time that Ezra read the Torah to the returning exiles at the newly built, makeshift second Temple.

Jerusalem represents the homecoming of the soul. At the end of Neilah, as well as at the end of Pesach seder: “Next year in Jerusalem!”

We can understand singing those words at the end of the seder; we have just imagined ourselves leaving Egypt, and about to trek into the wilderness on our way to the land of Israel/

But, why do we say those words at the end of the Day of Atonement? Because, here, Jerusalem is not “really” Jerusalem. It is a metaphor for inner wholeness, forgiveness, and redemption.

Jerusalem ultimately represents God. The Jerusalem Talmud says that in days to come, the name of the city will be “Adonai is there.” “Do not read ‘shama,’ there, but rather, shemah — her name.”

Jerusalem and God will have the same name.

Let us not read this as the deification of a city.

Rather, let us read this as the urbanization of an ideal of holiness.

Let us return to the Christian perception of the heavenly Jerusalem.

Because Jerusalem is not just Jerusalem. It is, properly, Zion – and beyond that, it is the state of Israel itself.

A theology is only as good as the implications that flow from it. Were it not for Christian (more precisely, British) philo-semitism of the nineteenth century, Zionism could never have come into existence. Sir Ronald Storrs – but not only Storrs, Balfour himself – personified that thrust. Christian Zionism is itself a child of this phenomenon – an over-idealization of the Jews and their land.

Over the last fifty years, since the Six Day War, criticism of the state of Israel – its policies, and even its very existence – has mounted. While some of the sharper, more pointed critiques verge on anti-Semitism, not all of them do.

Some, in fact, are the results of a welcome, but ultimately misplaced, philo-semitism. It is the expectation — not that Jews are devils, but that they should be angels. The same should be true of a Jewish state – that it should be angelic, perfect, beyond reproach.

Christian perceptions of the heavenly Jerusalem crowd into the public imagination. It is the problem of a misplaced philo-semitism. Like anti-semitism, philo-semitism relies on distorted, fantastical views of Jews and Judaism. Philo-semitism can become a malevolence, masked in benevolence. In fact, this love-hate relationship with Jews and Judaism is one of the most pre-dominant themes in Christian history.

Philo-semitism is the hope – even the expectation – of the moral excellence of the Jewish people. It is a moral excellence that has yet to be achieved.

The liberal Christian philo-semite does not hate the Jew because the Jew has rejected Jesus. The liberal Christian philo-semite is merely disappointed with the Jew because the Jews have not yet lived up to the advertisements of moral excellence that they have created for themselves. The liberal Christian philo-semite sees the reality of the earthly Jerusalem – an Israel that must still fight, has problematic policies, where the people are far from saintly – and is disappointed, sometimes, radically disappointed — that the heavenly Jerusalem is not yet here. They are not like the fabled Southern anti-semites who used to look for the horns on the Jews they met. They are looking for angel’s wings. And when they do not find those wings, the disappointment can become anger, can become hatred.

That disappointment with the all-too-human, realpolitik failures of the Jewish state has seeped into leftist Jewish critiques of Israel and Zionism. They are addicted to the prophetic ideal, while often forgetting that the Jews and the Jewish state have real enemies who never got that prophetic memo.

That is the paradox. In the Jewish soul, we live with the vision of a heavenly, perfect Jerusalem of our ideals. But, in real life and in real time, we live with the imperfect, morally tainted, earthly Jerusalem. The tension is built into Zionism, and Jewish historical longing – the struggle between being a “light to the nations” or “like all the nations.”

It does not seem likely that we will solve this conundrum and this tension any time soon. Jerusalem – like all of us – is a spiritual work in progress. Reb Naftali of Ropschitz, a Hasidic master, taught: “By our service to God, we build Jerusalem daily. One of us adds a row, another only a brick. When Jerusalem is completed, redemption will come.”

Let that be a new definition of Zionism, in our time – the work of making the earthly Jerusalem look more like the heavenly Jerusalem.

 

Hebrew Word of the Week: miltser


Hebrew Word of the Week: yerushalayim


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A boy’s life and the birth of modern Hebrew


cov-angels-copyA new illustrated children’s book tells the story of a Jewish boy who has no friends and whose parents won’t let him play with anyone, fearful that other children actually may talk to him. He doesn’t speak until he’s 4 years old, and when he does, it is in response to his father’s anger at his mother for trying to soothe the boy by singing a soft Russian lullaby.

It’s a true story, and the boy at the center of it grows up to be Itamar Ben-Avi, son of Eliezer Ben-Yeduda, the founder of modern Hebrew.

Prolific children’s author Richard Michelson chooses well in “The Language of Angels” by focusing the story of the reinvention of the Hebrew language on Ben-Yehuda’s young son. At birth in 1882, Itamar was named Ben-Zion (he later changed it), and his parents wanted him to hear and speak Hebrew exclusively. Their intent was to raise the first Hebrew-speaking child in modern history.

When Ben-Yehuda and his wife, Devorah, immigrated to Palestine in 1881, Hebrew was only a written language and recited solely in the synagogue. But it was clear that as Jews from other countries arrived to Eretz Yisrael in large numbers at the end of the 19th century, they would need a common language, and Ben-Yehuda was devoted to making that happen.

Itamar’s family story is fascinating and unique. As an adult, he wrote an autobiography, from which Michelson takes much of his source material, and it translates well to the picture-book format.

Bright, folk-tinged illustrations by Karla Gudeon are enhanced by clever placement of Hebrew words and letters that seem to fly off the page joyously. Children are at first drawn into a possibly sad story of a boy who has no friends, spending much of his younger years fending off bullies who think he is desecrating Hebrew as the holy tongue. But the excitement builds when Itamar wants ice cream but doesn’t know how to ask for it.

“Because ice cream didn’t exist two thousand years ago, no one in history has ever asked for it in Hebrew,” Michelson writes in the book. After a bit of research, Itamar’s abba makes up the word “glida” on the spot, but, by then, the author tells us, “the glida had melted.”

Eventually, Itamar makes many friends and they compete with one another to make up new words for his father’s brilliant Hebrew dictionary. As Hebrew is taught at school to children as a first language, and easy-to-read newspapers help spread the word to adults, the Ben-Yehuda family experiment served as proof that it was possible to achieve the miracle of reviving an ancient language that had not been spoken for centuries.

Hebrew Word of the Week: tsiyyonut


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Hebrew Word of the Week: pgishah


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Hebrew Word of the Week: Hazeret


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Hebrew Word of the Week: shalom


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Hebrew Word of the Week: barbariyyut


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‘The Story of Hebrew’ is a scholarly, engaging history of the language


kirsch-hebrew-copyOne of the curiosities in “The Story of Hebrew” by Lewis Glinert (Princeton University Press) is that the author manages to write a history of the Hebrew language without using a single Hebrew letter in the text, although Hebrew appears in the illustrations, including a page from Franz Kafka’s Hebrew notebook. Indeed, Glinert announces at the outset of his richly detailed and wholly fascinating book that it is “not much a book about what Hebrew words mean as about what the Hebrew language has meant to the people who have possessed it.”

Another curiosity is to be found in the fact that Hebrew started out as one of the languages of ordinary life in the ancient Middle East, was preserved in the holy texts of the Jewish people, and was reinvented to serve as the lingua franca of the modern Jewish homeland. To be sure, the most observant Jews still regard Hebrew as leshon ha-kodesh, a language so holy that they insist on using Yiddish for everyday transactions. And yet, as Glinert points out, Hebrew is also “the language of secular Jewish culture,” and the revival of Hebrew was one of the great successes of the Zionist project: “Whether religious or national in spirit, or both, creativity has driven the Hebrew language and its literature to ever-new vistas and forms.”

Glinert, a renowned linguist and professor of Hebrew Studies at Dartmouth College, is willing to entertain a pious question: “What language, then, did God speak?”  He points out that Jewish mystics proposed that “God was creating or deploying Hebrew itself, rather than waiting for a human being to do so,” and that Maimonides regarded all speech attributed to God in the Bible as purely metaphorical. History and science, however, offer a different explanation: “Scholars have long insisted that Hebrew was simply one of many Canaanite dialects, albeit one that happened to survive into the Common Era.”

The watershed moment, Glinert explains, was the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century B.C.E. Hebrew disappeared in various places around the Diaspora, and many Jewish communities required Aramaic and Greek translations in order to understand what is written in the Torah. But the leadership of the exiles who later returned to Judea, “in a remarkable textual act of spiritual resistance,” embraced Hebrew as the language in which the Midrash, the Mishnah and the liturgy were to be expressed: “Out of this grew a great corpus of Hebrew literature, embodying the religion and culture of the Jews down to modern times.”

“The Story of Hebrew” is deeply rooted in scholarship, but Glinert is an engaging storyteller, always lucid, wry and accessible. Thus, for example, he explains the intricacies and inner workings of Hebrew liturgy as it developed in antiquity, showing how “the poets were tempted to produce extravagant flights of fancy, building new words from old in ways even native speakers would have been unlikely to attempt.” And then he sums up: “Could the average worshipper fathom it all? Probably not. (Most modern Israelis can’t, either.)”

Throughout the book, the author reminds us that the survival of Hebrew over several millennia of history is remarkable in itself, although we can thank the generations of translators known as Masoretes for what might seem wholly miraculous. “They preserved both the living sound and shape of biblical Hebrew and the biblical text itself as canonized by the Rabbis two thousand years ago,” he writes. “Thus they ensured that Jews across the Diaspora would study from (more or less) identical copies.”

Yet Hebrew itself changed over time. In that sense, “The Story of Hebrew” is actually a story of the Jewish people, both in the Holy Land and throughout the Diaspora. For a thousand years or so, between the completion of the Talmud and the Jewish Enlightenment of the 19th century, “Hebrew was primarily a religious language.” Once the Jews began to leave the ghettos and enter the secular world, Hebrew was reinvented as a modern national language. “It was not only necessary to invent words denoting [the] locomotive, telegraph, or parliament; the language would also need to express such conceptual distinctions as people, nation, and state.”

Hebraists turned to “the lucid, no-nonsense rabbinic style of Rashi and Maimonides” to coin the new words they needed. While Theodor Herzl assumed that German would be the national language of the Jewish homeland, lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, poet Hayim Nahman Bialik and their like-minded colleagues devoted themselves to nothing less than the remaking of the Hebrew language.

Significantly, Glinert always finds a way to make these facts of history come fully alive for his readers, which is why “The Story of Hebrew” is both an eye-opening study of the Hebrew language and an extraordinarily pleasurable reading experience. For example, the author describes how Ben-Yehuda and his first wife, Dvora, resolved to speak only Hebrew when they arrived in Palestine — “an agreement that initially bound her to silence since she knew none.”

The rule was still in place when their first child was born. “Dire warnings by fellow Zionists that the child might grow up retarded seemed confirmed when he turned 3 without yet uttering a word — until one day Ben-Yehuda caught his wife singing a Russian lullaby and flew into a rage, when suddenly the frightened child blurted out Abba, Abba! (Daddy, Daddy!).”

Hebrew Word of the Week: Purim Edition


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Hebrew Word of the Week: hitqarnefut


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Gregory Martayan (right) meets Deputy Knesset Speaker Yoel Hasson of the Zionist Union at the Knesset during a trip to Israel in December. Photo courtesy of Gregory Martayan for Los Angeles Unified School Board

Meet the non-Jew who wants Hebrew and kosher food in LAUSD schools


The most Jew-ish candidate for a local office in Los Angeles right now, it turns out, is not a Jew at all.

Gregory Martayan is Armenian. But the contender for the Los Angeles Unified School District board District 4 seat has a robust slate of campaign promises geared toward the Jewish community.

If elected, Martayan, 33, a public relations consultant, has promised to install Hebrew education in L.A. Unified schools, deliver kosher food to campuses that request it and institute a zero-tolerance policy toward anti-Semitism — all within six months. He professes stalwart support for Israel, having traveled there in December with a pair of campaign aides.

“Sometimes a goy like Greg can be more helpful to Jewish causes than a Jew,” said Andrew Friedman, Martayan’s campaign co-chair and a well-connected attorney in the Orthodox Jewish community.

Martayan’s candidacy pits him against two candidates who are Jewish: incumbent board President Steve Zimmer and Nicholas Melvoin. Both have better funding and name recognition. A fourth contender, Allison Holdorff Polhill, is not Jewish, but she also has raised more money than Martayan.

Yet Martayan is bullish about his chances. A mustachioed man who’s partial to pinstripe suits, he sells himself as a back-to-basics candidate, with three major issues: accountability, transparency and school safety. He makes frequent references to “the people,” specifically to people he says are underrepresented in LAUSD, not least among them Orthodox Jews.

“The Orthodox Jewish community has not been getting support under Steve Zimmer,” he said. “This is just a fact. And they’re not going to get services or support under any of the other candidates.”

Why tailor a campaign message to Orthodox families when many will choose to send their children to religious schools anyway?

“Our platform is to provide services to all communities of the city of Los Angeles,” he said. “And it’s up to them whether they want to utilize those services or not.”

Martayan said he supports school choice, another popular view among Orthodox Jews. “Parent choice is not a right that any government official has the ability to strip away,” he said.

But he’d like to see it get easier for Jewish families to enroll their kids in L.A. Unified. He asserts Jewish enrollment would go up if not for certain barriers, such as a lack of kosher food and a discriminatory atmosphere that he promises to reverse.

Martayan contends that bias against Jews — kids who wear yarmulkes, for instance — is rampant on L.A. Unified campuses. He says these incidents go unreported because of a lack of official channels for dealing with it.

“We have whistleblowers who have given us information,” he said. “However, in terms of documented, archived reports, there is no system in which those are being documented and archived.”

Martayan didn’t provide examples of anti-Semitic incidents in the school district. He said information is hard to come by under “an administration that likes to keep the truth out of the light,” and vowed to seek it out as a board member.

But he said his own campaign has become the target of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel remarks in person and on social media. Recently, someone on the web accused him of being a “traitor and a hypocrite” because of his support for Israel, he said.

Martayan’s affiliation with the Jewish community goes back generations, to his grandfather’s time in New York City, newly arrived from Armenia, sleeping on the floors of butcher shops in immigrant neighborhoods where he worked.

Martayan’s father ran a printing press in downtown L.A., where many of his clients and associates were Jews. And Martayan himself grew up among Orthodox Jews in Hancock Park.

“I grew up eating latkes and applesauce,” he said. “I grew up spinning dreidels.”

Friedman said he met Martayan about five years ago at Congregation Bais Naftali on La Brea Avenue, where Martayan invited him and his wife to a banquet dinner. Friedman responded he would be able to eat only if the food were kosher. Martayan persisted.

“He made the entire dinner kosher rather than just serving me from paper plates, as many times they do,” Friedman said.

Originally, he said, Martayan had planned to campaign on installing kosher kitchens at LAUSD schools, but Friedman persuaded him to scale that plan back. Now, Martayan’s campaign promise is to make pre-packaged kosher food available to students wherever there is enough demand.

“There are more Jewish students in public schools than in parochial schools, and so at least making kosher food available for them would be great,” Friedman said.

His opponents have staked their run on education backgrounds: Melvoin is a former teacher and education activist, Zimmer spent 17 years as a high school teacher and counselor before his 2009 election to the school board, and Holdorff Polhill served as board president for Palisades Charter High School. By contrast, Martayan has had a diverse career outside the classroom.

He started a public relations and local issues firm shortly after graduating from Pepperdine University and later served as an ambassador for the National Crime Prevention Council and a member of the Los Angeles County Commission for Children and Families. But to fuel his hoped-for victory, he cited his support in communities he says are traditionally underrepresented at the school board level — Orthodox, Asian American and Black.

Martayan may be betting on long odds in a sprawling district of mostly white neighborhoods, from Marina del Rey and Venice to Woodland Hills and back east to North Hollywood. Missing from that swath are large concentrations of Orthodox voters — in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. Pico-Robertson and most of Hancock Park are parts of another L.A. Unified district.

Well aware of these demographics, Martayan nonetheless insisted, “We’re going to win.”

“We have a strong coalition, because we’re the only ones who represent the community,” he said. “No amount of outside money is going to be able to buy the race.”

For their part, Martayan’s opponents challenge the notion that he is the only candidate who cares about Jewish constituents.

“As a member of the board, I would support all communities, including, of course, our Jewish community,” Melvoin wrote in an email, citing his many ties to local Jewish organizations, including a Hebrew school education and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ New Leaders Project.

In a phone interview, Holdorff Polhill said she would be open to instituting Hebrew language education and kosher food at LAUSD schools. She said she wasn’t aware of rampant anti-Semitism on L.A. Unified campuses, but that the schools already take a zero-tolerance policy toward hate speech. Additionally, she suggested convening a stakeholder group to better address the needs of Orthodox Jews.

Zimmer, the incumbent, wrote in an email that he works “regularly with the Orthodox community on issues that touch our school system.”

“I have stood against all forms of anti-Semitism and hate every day of my career as a teacher and have been proud to stand even stronger as a district leader,” he wrote. “To suggest anything less is inconsistent with my record and wholly ignorant of fact.”

Yet only Martayan repeatedly presses his pro-Jewish platform at campaign events. In Israel, he ignored warnings from his campaign staff and walked through a minefield near a school at the Syrian border. He did it, he said, “to show the world about how dangerous this region of the world is and what kind of fear these children live in.”

“I will always be pro-Israel,” he said. “I will always stand and fight for the Jewish community, and I will always protect the rights of the Orthodox community in the city of Los Angeles, come hell or high water.”

Hebrew Word of the Week: gas(s)


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Hebrew Word of the Week: hitqarbenut


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Hebrew Word of the Week: biTTaHon


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Hebrew Word of the Week: pasul


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Hebrew Word of the Week: hafTarah


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Jeremy Cowan is the founder of Shmaltz Brewing Co. Photo courtesy of Shmaltz Brewing Company.

Ale to the chief: ‘He’brewery’ wins fans — and awards


On the eve of Chanukah 1996, Jeremy Cowan began experimenting with squeezing pomegranate juice into a batch of his freshly brewed beer. Working out of a small Bay Area brewery, Cowan hand-bottled and hand-labeled 100 cases of what he dubbed He’brew Beer’s Genesis Ale.

The upstart brewer and recent Stanford graduate peddled his product from his grandmother’s Volvo to local retailers in and around San Francisco’s suburbs. His mother helped deliver some cases, too.

“It was a very organic, hands-on beginning,” Cowan, 47, who now lives in Troy, N.Y., told the Journal in a recent phone interview.

Two decades later, Cowan, 47, still is making his Genesis Ale — but that’s not all.

He’s also making beers with names such as “Chanukah, Hanukkah … Pass the Beer,” a dark ale brewed with eight malts and eight hops with 8 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), and “Genesis 20:20,” a barrel-aged, tart barleywine with 16.7 percent ABV. (Before you run to your Torah, don’t worry, Genesis Chapter 20 has only 18 verses.) There’s also “Jewbelation 20th Anniversary Ale,” brewed with 10 malts and 10 hops with 16.8 percent ABV, and “Shtick in a Box,” a holiday variety 12-pack featuring items like “Messiah Nut Brown Ale.”

The brand is known for the Jewish, shtick-laden names gracing its labels.

“Every year, we have to keep trying to be creative, be imaginative and keep putting out quality products, and keep having fun along the way. One of the things we definitely focus on is a whimsy, creativity and sense of shtick,” the craft beer veteran explained.

The “we” refers to Cowan’s team of more than 30 employees helping to produce, promote and sell what his Shmaltz Brewing Co. proudly terms “the chosen beer.” His company operates out of its own 40,000-square-foot, 50-barrel brewhouse — opened in 2013 — in Clifton, N.Y.

For its first 17 years of existence, Shmaltz was a contract brewer, meaning it had to outsource production of its beer to bigger brewers. Now, its upstate New York facility has an annual capacity of 20,000 barrels and boasts a tasting room open to the public. The space frequently hosts events such as weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and even brit milah ceremonies.

Shmaltz sells its beer across 35 states in nearly 5,000 retailers, including Vons, BevMo and Cost Plus World Market locations. In 2016, Shmaltz did $4 million in gross sales — a far cry from the back of the Volvo.

“It’s really astounding,” Cowan said of Shmaltz’s rise to Jewish beer prominence.

Shmaltz recently combined two of Cowan’s eternal loves — pastrami and beer — to create “Pastrami Pils,” a 5.5 percent ABV pilsner brewed with caraway, cracked black pepper and kosher salt, and dry hopped with horseradish and rye blend.

Also a lifelong “Star Trek” fan, Cowan secured an exclusive agreement to create the only officially licensed “Star Trek” beers in the country: “Golden Anniversary Ale: Voyage to the Northeast Quadrant” and “Golden Anniversary Ale: The Trouble With Tribbles.”

Shmaltz isn’t just a success story and it isn’t just Jewish. It’s also high-quality craft beer.  RateBeer.com ranked Shmaltz as one of the “Top 100 Brewers in the World” in 2013. The company has amassed 40 awards, including 10 gold medals and six silver medals combined at the past several World Beer Championships.

Born in Los Angeles, Cowan spent his early childhood in Beverlywood. His father taught special education and English at nearby Beverly Hills High School.

After college and before his prophetic pomegranate episode, Cowan spent time in New Orleans, soaking up the diverse culture and working at one of the oldest breweries in Louisiana.

“I didn’t think about what I wanted to do,” Cowan said of that time. “I just wanted to read, write music and eat good food.” In the Big Easy, he first developed an appreciation for beer, particularly European styles.

When he returned home to the Bay Area, Cowan set out to find his own calling within that region’s bustling beer culture. He sensed his Jewish identity had a part to play. Many beers conjure up a homeland or constitute a point of pride for drinkers — Heineken, for instance, is as Dutch as windmills or wooden clogs. Cowan wanted to forge a place for Jews in the realm of great beers and to dispel what he saw as a myth that Jews don’t enjoy beer.

“When I started, there was no Jewish celebration beer,” he said. “Every group had some beers they could call their own. I wanted to create something that would combine a sense of history, referencing pop culture, literature, traditions and holidays and, of course, a beer that can stand with the most innovative, creative delicious beers in the world. Then putting a bunch of shtick on the beer labels. I thought people would feel a meaningful connection.”

The craft beer industry is cutthroat, particularly because it comprises so many small businesses clawing to stand out. According to Cowan, the field has seen more growth in the past three years than at any point in history, ballooning to more than 5,000 craft brewers operating in the country.

“This is the single greatest time in history to enjoy great beer and to make craft beer,” he said.

The Jewish branding of Shmaltz is unique, Cowan said. Iconic kosher wine companies such as Kedem and Manischewitz — the names most Jews attune to when playing word association with “Jewish” and “alcohol” — are owned by bigger companies. Cowan hopes drinkers of his beer relish Shmaltz’s ascendancy in the highly competitive beer marketplace as a Jewish independent business going on 20 years.

“I hope the Jewish community feels proud,” he said. “We do feel the support at events and on social media. It’s very difficult to maintain a for-profit consumer Jewish business, and I’m very proud that we’ve accomplished that and hope we can for many years to come.” 

Hebrew Word of the Week: ‘almah


Hebrew Word of the Week: urim ve-tummim


Apparently, two objects used by the High Priest (ha-Kohen ha-Gadol) for casting lots, to know “guilty” or “innocent, “yes” or “no” questions (Exodus 28:30; Leviticus 8:8; Ezra 2:63). But also by individuals, as when “Saul inquired of the Lord … either by dreams or by an oracle (Urim) or by prophets” (1 Samuel 28:6).  

Usually translated “Light and Truth,” “Lights and Perfections,” or “Revelations and Truth.”*

Traditionally, Urim is seen as plural of ur “(fire)light” and tummim as plural of tom “innocence” (as be-tom-lev “in good faith”); compare to tam (as the third child in Passover haggadah) or tamim “innocent.” In Israeli Hebrew, Chanukah is often called Hag ha-urim “Holiday of Lights.”

* The seal of Yale University, one of the oldest in America, uses the Hebrew אורים ותומים and the Latin Lux et Veritas, which also is translated as “light and truth.”


Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.

Hebrew Word of the Week: hiqliq


In this age of computers, everyone clicks. That includes Hebrew speakers: maqliqim (מקליקים) yomam valayla “click day and night.” Hebrew’s hiqliq sounds like the English “click” since both are an imitation of the natural sound klik.* (Similar sound-imitating words exist in other languages, such as klikken in Dutch, cliquer in French, klicken in German, klik kardan in Persian, hacer clic in Spanish.) Compare to similar English sounds: clink, clack, cluck and clock (from the Latin clocca “bell”).

To click in the sense of “hit it off, become friendly upon meeting,” is a metaphorical use. Compare it to the informal Israeli phrase nafal li ha-asimon (נפל לי האסימון), “it hit me, I got it, finally understood what was going on,” literally “my (telephone) token dropped in.” Also the English-French word clique, meaning “a party, small group with a common interest,” originally meant people who “click” together.

* Probably based on the sound of a key in a lock, or latching a door bolt. Compare this with other echoic words: Hebrew’s liqqeq (ליקק) with the English “lick”; and girger (גרגר) with “gargle, gurgle.” 


Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.

Burger King Israel introduces doughnut burger for Chanukah


Burger King restaurants in Israel have introduced a doughnut burger for the Chanukah season.

The SufganiKing is a Whopper with savory doughnuts in place of buns. Its name is a play on the Hebrew word for doughnuts, sufganiyot, which are ubiquitous on every Israeli street corner in the weeks leading up to Chanukah.

The burger “proves that miracles still happen,” Burger King Israel said in a Facebook post, a reference to the miracles at the heart of the holiday story.

The SufganiKing will be sold for about $4. It will be available through Jan. 1, the last day of Chanukah, according to reports.

Hebrew Word of the Week: shafel/shafal


A word may develop two opposite, or quite different, meanings, as the English word “nice,” which once meant “stupid, ignorant,” but which currently means “pleasant, agreeable, polite.” Similarly, in Hebrew, shafel has developed a variety of meanings, from a physical “low” to the abstract “base, mean, despicable.”

Some biblical nuances: nivzim ushfalim “nasty and despicable” (Malachi 2:9); shafal “low standing; person of little value” (Psalms 138:6); shfal-ruaH “humble” (Proverbs 29:23); shfal anashim “(God may set as a ruler) the humblest (perhaps sometimes the most despicable?) of men” (Daniel 4:14). 

Modern uses: shiflut “meanness”; shefel kalkali “economic depression”; shefel ba-‘asaqim “business downturn”; shefel ha-madregah “the lowest rung, the worst situation”; hishpil “to humiliate; insult, put to shame”; hashpalah “putting to shame, humbling”*; mashpil “humiliating, insulting.”

Arabic cognates are safil, sufli “hooligan, hoodlum”; in Yiddish, shofel “worth little, common.”

*As (God) is able to humble (hashpalah) those who behave arrogantly” (Daniel 4:34).


Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.

Israel’s justice minister: The more Jewish Israel is, the more democratic it will become


The more Jewish Israel is, the more democratic it will become, the nation’s justice minister wrote in a new journal.

The legal system in Israel should strengthen its Jewish nature, Ayelet Shaked wrote in the inaugural issue of the Hebrew language policy journal Hashiloach, published by the Tikva Fund.

“When we wish to put Israel through advanced democratization processes, we must simultaneously deepen its Jewish identity,” Shaked wrote. “These identities are not contradictory. On the contrary: I believe they reinforce one another. I believe the more Jewish a state we are, the more democratic a state we will be, and that the more democratic a state we are, the more Jewish a state we will be.”

The legal system must take the Jewishness of the state into account in concrete ways, Shaked also wrote.

She also called for more separation of powers, and to strengthen Israel’s legislative branch vis-a-vis the judicial branch.

Hebrew Word of the Week: sliHah


A major concept of the High Holy Days is forgiveness. What do we do when we forgive? The English word “forgive” (German vergeben) meant “give wholeheartedly, grant, allow; remit (a debt completely), pardon (an offense); give up (with no grudge)” and “give in marriage (graciously).” 

The Hebrew salaH “forgive, be indulgent toward” is perhaps related to Semitic root s-l-y “toss aside, shake off, make light, forget about (a grudge, sin)”* and perhaps s-l-l “lift up, pave, cover smoothly,” which is semantically similar to kipper “cover; atone” and nasa’ “lift up, remove (sin).” 

Other derived words: God is known as sallaH “ready to forgive” (Psalms 86:5) and eloah sliHot “God of forgivings” (Nehemiah 9:17 and High Holy Days prayer book); salHan/solHan “forgiver”; salHani “forgiving”; saliaH “forgivable; fit for pardoning”; and sliHot “penitential prayers.”  

*Compare the tashlich ritual to “cast away (sins)”; Judeo-Arabic of Baghdad: ishlikhu binTilah, “cast it away, forget it (at the ritual hand-washing).”


Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.

Hebrew Word of the Week: rimmon


The pomegranate is one of several components of the Sephardic seder for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year holiday. The symbolic reason for eating it is “so that we become filled with mitzvot (good deeds, religious observations), as the pomegranate is filled with seeds.” Interestingly, the English word also means “apple/fruit full of grains (seeds),” from French-Latin pomum granatum. Compare to Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruits.

The etymology of the Hebrew word rimmon is not clear. Some connect it with rimmot “worms” (the seeds look like a swarm of worms?); more likely it comes from r-m-m /r-u-m / ramah “hillock.” Indeed, several places in the Bible are called Rimmon (Joshua 15:32; Judges 20:45-47). In Song of Songs 4:3, the beautiful face of the beloved is compared to a luscious and shining split-open pomegranate, and she promises her lover to let him drink of her pomegranate juice (8:2).

Hebrew Word of the Week: mitslalah


In hot sharav/Hamsin, scorching summer days in Israel, people are desperate to find a shady outdoor spot. So the municipalities have been providing mitslalot “public shaded areas.” The word is obviously related to tsel “shade; shadow; protection”* (plural tselalim). The mi- is a prefix that usually indicates a place where something is done, as with mis’adah “restaurant” (from the root s-’-d “to eat”); mikhbasah “laundry” (k-b-s “launder”). 

Other related words include tsalal “become shady, dark” (Nehemiah 13:19); tselalit “silhouette”; hitslil/hetsel “cover with shade”; hatslalah “shadowing”; tselali “shady, shadowy.” Closely related are tselem “(dark) image, likeness”; matslemah “camera obscura”; tsalmavet “shadow of death” (Psalms 23:4); tsalah “to roast, grill, make dark (red meat).”

*As in “God is your shade / protection (tsillekha) at the right hand” (Psalms 121:5), betsal’el “Betsalel” (in God’s shelter), and perhaps Tsillah/Zillah (“God’s protection”). 


Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.

Why Bill Clinton’s Hebrew Hillary button resonated


There was a thrill ride on Jewish Democratic social media Wednesday night when Bill Clinton was spotted at the Democratic National Convention sporting a button backing his wife – in Hebrew.

Robert Wexler, a former Democratic congressman, indulged in a little partisan kvelling when he appeared Thursday with Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer on a panel.

“What a remarkable statement for America that a former president of the United States could wear that,” said Wexler, who now directs the Center for Middle East Peace.

Wexler’s enthusiasm was telling: As a prominent Florida lawmaker, he was the first major Jewish political figure in 2007 to endorse then-Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Most of the rest of the unofficial Jewish caucus in Congress went with Hillary Clinton.

Yet here he is nine years later sounding almost wistful about the Clintons.

Democrats will vigorously defend Obama’s record on Israel, and they are able to cite a formidable array of facts: the launch of the Iron Dome missile defense system – U.S. funding originated not in Congress, but in the administration – and unprecedented levels of military and intelligence cooperation. Stuxnet, the virus that disabled Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity, is widely believed to be a U.S.-Israel operation, and happened on Obama’s watch.

Yet, there is the “kishkes” thing, which drives Obama and his partisans nuts. The subtle – maybe not so subtle – messaging from the organizational Jewish side: Bill Clinton got Israel! Hillary Clinton gets Israel! What’s with Obama? The frustrated reply: Of course he gets Israel, he’s been to Sderot, and made the threat its residents face from the Gaza Strip personal when he said he could imagine his daughters facing it. He visited the grave of Zionist founder Theodor Herzl. He gets it!

And yet. Clinton was the first Democrat to mention Israel on the main stage on Tuesday night, and it came up not in the emphatic “best U.S. ally” way it did repeatedly at the Republican convention in Cleveland last week, but utterly organically, recounting Hillary Clinton’s role as Arkansas’ First Lady.

“Hillary told me about a preschool program developed in Israel called HIPPY, Home Instruction Program for Preschool Youngsters,” recalled the former president. “The idea was to teach low-income parents, even those that couldn’t read, to be their children’s first teachers.

“She said she thought it would work in Arkansas. I said that’s great, what are we going to do about it? She said, oh, I already did it. I called the woman who started the program in Israel, she’ll be here in about 10 days and help us get started.

“Next thing you know I’m being dragged around to all these little preschool graduations.”

Clinton reference to the Israeli program was so casual that might as well have been referring to a preschool program founded in Illinois. It’s the unforced familiarity that melts pro-Israel activists, and there it was on display Wednesday evening in the pin he wore.

(The button was also a nice contrast to an event from the day before, when activists outside the arena burned an Israeli flag. Some pro-Israel activists spent Wednesday demanding that the DNC send out an official condemnation of the burning, although Hillary Clinton had already denounced the act, through a spokesperson.)

Obama also had a Jewish moment in his speech Wednesday night, but it was telling in that its reference was purely American. It came toward the end, when he spoke of his Kansan grandparents and how they welcomed the stranger:

“They knew these values were exactly what drew immigrants here, and they believed that the children of those immigrants were just as American as their own, whether they wore a cowboy hat or a yarmulke; a baseball cap or a hijab,” he said.

The reference no doubt resonated with many Jews. But the relief and joy triggered by the button on Bill Clinton’s chest suggests many are still looking for something more.