Expired And Inspired

Kavod v’Nichum’s Expired And Inspired: Who may Prepare Whom for Burial?

You may recall that some weeks back I described a new feature of the Expired and Inspired blog; the option to submit a question that would be researched and written up. This is the first response to such a question.

The Question Asked

The question for this blog came up in several ways. It has been a part of the ongoing discussion concerning who should/could be included in a Chevrah Kadisha team, and how a Chevrah Kadisha team might/should deal with encountering a transgender meit/ah. The answer to that issue is not yet fully clear, nor is there universal agreement.

It is fairly widely understood that the traditional practice has been that men could only prepare men for burial, while women could prepare either women or men (in an ‘emergency’). This practice has been used to choose to have teams of women as the Chevrah Kadisha in some instances, for example in times of war, when no men were available, or, more recently, for the preparation of some transgender persons.

The question that is being considered here is not about the transgender concern (I mention that only because that was the context in which the question came up), but simply, how did it come to be that women could serve on/as the Chevrah Kadisha team for men?

Credit where credit is due

I turned to our volunteer researcher, Isaac Pollak, a student of the Gamliel Institute, and a long time, very experienced member of several Chevrah Kadisha teams, who has also studied and participated on Chevrah Kadisha teams worldwide. Thanks and appreciation to him for his efforts on this question.

Please note: I am summarizing Isaac’s work; I have done my best, but it is quite possible that I have misunderstood or misstated something, so if there are any errors, I have introduced them – don’t blame Isaac, it is my fault. — JB


It turns out that there isn’t a great deal of information that supports the custom that women may perform a Taharah for men.

The earliest basic text found to start with is Chapter 12:10 of Evel Rabbati (first part of minor tractate Semachot), which reads:

“A man may shroud and gird the corpse of a man, but not that of a woman. A woman may shroud and gird the corpse of a man or of a woman.

A man may attend another man suffering from intestinal illness, but not a woman. A woman may attend a man or a woman suffering from intestinal illness.”

Other later textual sources such as the Tur (Jacob ben Asher, Arba’ah Turei), the Shulchan Aruch (Joseph Caro, Code of Jewish Law), Nachalat Yaakov (Yaakov ben Binyamin Aharon, on Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah), and the Taz (David Halevi Segal, Turei Zahav) build on this position, and all state that the reason that a man cannot shroud women is because a man has a tendency to have immediate prurient thoughts  upon the sight of a woman’s body, whereas a woman does not.

More, the subsequent responsa literature seems to all repeat the same thing, with no additional information.


The finding is that the early source, Evel Rabbati 12:10, continues to be the basis upon which this allowance of women to prepare men stands, and the only additions after this text are apparently assertions of the (we might think questionable) reason for the allowance.

We can speculate that this was at one time arrived at as a practical answer: I can imagine that in a time of war, when most men were away for extended periods for work or travel, when there were restrictions on the gathering of men in groups, or for other reasons; there may have been times when only women would have been available to perform the essential mitzvot around Taharah, whether the deceased was male or female.

That might have given rise to pressure to find a way for women to be permitted to do this task for men instead of men doing it. Women would have been engaged, even though this could be seen as fulfilling a time-bound mitzvah (one to be completed as soon as possible, and preferably within a day to permit speedy burial); a category of mitzvot for which women are generally not obligated, and some say prohibited, in halachic thought.

This is a fascinating question. We don’t have a complete answer, but the underlying ‘why’ is most intriguing.

If you know any more about this question, please feel free to be in touch or submit an article for the blog.

Do You Have a Question?

And if you have a question you would like us to look into, please send it to me at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Rabbi Joe Blair serves two small congregations in the central Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Bridgewater College, and serves as webmaster and coordinator for Jewish Values Online. He studied at, and was one of the first group of graduates from the Gamliel Institute. He serves as a staff and board member of Kavod v’Nichum, and as a faculty member and Dean of Administration for the Gamliel Institute. He is the editor of the Kavod v’Nichum’s blog, Expired and Inspired, which appears on the L.A. Jewish Journal blogs website. He is involved in several Chevrot Kadisha.

Rabbi Joe Blair

Rabbi Joe Blair



From Here to Eternity: Jewish Views on Sickness and Dying.

In 2017, Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute are again sponsoring a six part “Taste of Gamliel” webinar. This year’s topic is From Here to Eternity: Jewish Views on Sickness and Dying.

Each 90 minute session is presented by a different scholar. Taste of Gamliel gives participants a “Taste” of the Gamliel Institute’s web-based series of courses. The Gamliel Institute is the leadership training arm of Kavod v’Nichum. The Gamliel Institute offers five on-line core courses, each 12 weeks in length, that deal with the various aspects of Jewish ritual around sickness, death, funerals, burial and mourning. Participants come from all over the United States, Canada, Central and South America, with a few Israelis and British students on occasion.

Upcoming Taste of Gamliel Webinars are on February 19, March 19, April 23, May 21, and June 25. Learn from the comfort of your own home or office.

The Taste sessions are done in a webinar format, where the teacher and students can see each other’s live video feeds. The sessions are moderated, ask participants to raise their virtual hands to ask questions, and call on and unmute participants when appropriate. We’ve been teaching using this model for seven years (more than 250 session). We use Zoom, a particularly friendly tool.

Webinar sessions are free, with a suggested minimum donation of $36 for all six sessions. Online sessions are 90 minutes. Sessions begin at 5 PM PST; 8 PM EST.

Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions. Those registered will also reveive access to recordings of all six sessions.

The link to register is: http://jewish-funerals.givezooks.com/events/taste-of-gamliel-2017

You will receive an automated acknowledgement of registration. Information and technology assistance is available after you register. Those who are registered are sent an email ahead of each webinar with log on instructions and information.

You can view a recording of the sessions after each session, so even if you need to miss one (or more), you can still hear the presentation.

More info – Call us at 410-733-3700   

Attend as many of these presentations as are of interest to you. Each session is about 90 minutes in duration. As always, there will be time for questions and discussions at the end of each program. 

The entire series is free, but we ask that you make a donation of $36 or more to help us defray the costs of providing this series. That works out to $6 for each session – truly a bargain for the valuable information and world class teachers that present it.

Click the link to register and for more information. We’ll send you the directions to join the webinar no less than 12 hours before the session.

Suggestions for future topics are welcome. 





Gamliel Institute will be offering course 4, Nechama [Comfort], online, evenings in the Spring on Tuesdays (and three Thursdays – the day of the week will change in those weeks with Jewish holidays during this course). The date of classes will be from March 28 to June 13 2017. Please note: due to holidays, classes will meet on Thursdays on April 13th, April 20th, and June 1st. There will be an orientation session on Monday, March 27th, 2017.


If you are not sure if the Nechama course is for you, plan to attend the free one-time online PREVIEW of Nechama session planned for Monday evening March 6th, 2017 at 8-9:30 pm EDST. The instructors will offer highlights from the material that the course covers, and let you know what the course includes. You can RSVP to info@Jewish-Funerals.org or call 410-733-3700.

You can register for any Gamliel Institute courses online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or look at information on the Gamliel Institute at the Kavod v’Nichum website or on the Gamliel.Institute website. Please contact us for information or assistance. info@jewish-funerals.org or j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or call 410-733-3700, or 925-272-8563.



Looking ahead, hold June 18-20, 2017 for the 15th annual Kavod v’Nchum Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference.

15th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference

At Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, California June 18-20, 2017

Registration is now open. Advance prices are good through the end of February. Group discounts are available.
The conference program will include plenaries and workshops focused on Taharah, Shmirah, Chevrah Kadisha organizing, community education, gender issues, cemeteries, text study and more.

The conference is on Sunday from noon until 10pm, on Monday from 7am to 10pm, and on Tuesday from 7am to 1pm. In addition to Sunday brunch, we provide six Kosher meals as part of your full conference registration. There are many direct flights to San Francisco and Oakland, with numerous options for ground transportation to the conference site.

We have negotiated a great hotel rate with Embassy Suites by Hilton. Please don’t wait to make your reservations. We also have home hospitality options. Contact us for information or to request home hospitality. 410-733-3700  info@jewish-funerals.org


Donations are always needed and most welcome. Donations support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organizations, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).



If you would like to receive the Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent an email link to the Expired And Inspired blog each week by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.


Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.



If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, Shomrim, funeral providers, funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.



USC Trojans march for restored Torah; Backyard tashlich in Fairfax

Trojans Greet Restored Torah
When the Trojan fight song rings out at a Torah restoration ceremony, where else could you be but at USC?

About 100 people gathered Sunday under the shade of sycamore trees in front of the university’s Bovard Auditorium to witness the ceremonial completion of a restored Torah scroll that will become the centerpiece of religious life at the Chabad Jewish Student Center.
“It’s an honor just to be here,” said Kaley Zeitouni, a sophomore. “I really feel like I’m witnessing an important moment in this community’s Jewish history. Every time I see the scroll at services I’ll remember that I was part of this event.”
Rabbi Aaron Schaffier, one of two Torah scribes involved in the scroll’s restoration, said the scroll is between 70 and 80 years old and probably originated in Eastern Europe. Its long journey to USC included a layover in Massachusetts, where it was used for several decades at a synagogue that has now merged with other congregations.
The ceremony was particularly moving for Abe Skaletzky, who was visiting his daughter, Michele, another sophomore at USC.
“I’m a ba’al teshuvah,” Skaletzky said. “So knowing this scroll might help other people return to Torah means a lot to me.”
After the last details of the restoration were complete, Schaffier stitched the scroll to its wooden dowels with kosher sinew. Rabbi Dov Wagner carried the Torah from Bovard Auditorium to the Chabad House under a chuppah to symbolize the scroll’s new life.
And that’s when seven members of USC’s marching band brought the moment to life. They began the procession with a rendition of the Trojan fight song, prompting students in the crowd to hold up the two-finger sign for victory.
During its installation at the Chabad House, the scroll was dedicated to the late Sandra Brand, a Holocaust survivor who established a fund to support the restoration of Torah scrolls to be donated to college communities.
— Nick Street, Contributing Writer
Backyard Tashlich in Fairfax
For a few years on Rosh Hashanah — until the raccoons ate all the fish and the fishpond was turned into a giant planter — members of Ohev Shalom, a small Orthodox shul on Fairfax Avenue, gathered in my parents’ yard for Tashlich.
The “pond,” mind you, is about four feet in diameter and maybe a foot deep. But it’ll do for the landlocked mid-Wilshire residents who don’t drive on Rosh Hashanah and want to participate in the custom of Tashlich, which literally means to cast off.
Orthodox residents across the city seek out small bodies of water in which to throw bread crumbs, symbolizing their sins, as they recite atonement-related prayers on the first day of Rosh Hashanah (unless, like this year, it falls on Shabbat).
Tashlich is a custom, not a law, and can be recited anytime during the 10 Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Ideally, the water should be flowing and have fish in it, but that isn’t always possible, so a small reservoir — or my parents’ fish pond — works, too.
A small slab of the L.A. River runs through Beverlywood, some people gather there on Rosh Hashanah to toss their sins through the chainlink fence into the trickle of water muddying up the concrete cutout.
Maybe not quite what the rabbis had in mind when they based the tradition on the quote in Micah, “And you will all their sins into the depths of the sea.” But then again, if bread crumbs can symbolize sins, why not fish ponds as the depths of the sea?
— Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor

Kick Off the Year Rolling in Dough

As most people know, challah is the braided egg-rich loaf of bread that we traditionally eat on the Sabbath and holidays — two loaves of challah at each of the three Shabbat meals. They help commemorate the miracles that the Jewish people experienced during their 40 years of wandering in the desert. While on weekdays they received one portion of manna from heaven, Friday God sent two portions.

Challah — especially homemade — is wonderful every week, but it resonates with deeper meaning at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, when it is an age-old custom to dip it (at least the first piece) in honey after reciting the appropriate blessing to beseech God to grant us a sweet year.

For Rosh Hashanah, challah is often shaped into a crown or a turban, and raisins are often added to make it even sweeter. Throughout the whole holiday period — through Sukkot — many people follow the custom of preparing or buying round loaves instead of the traditional long, braided ones: a reminder of the cycle of the seasons. Some very ambitious people add a braid in the center in the shape of a ladder, in the fervent hope that we merit both physical and spiritual uplift during the coming year.

The round challah custom is ideal for yours truly: I confess to being braid-impaired. While every preschool child in Israel seems to know how to form beautiful, even braids, I never learned this in Minnesota. Even my three-part braids (I have rarely attempted anything like six or more braids) leave much to be desired in the evenly braided department.

My solution? Round challahs — they always come out nice, look impressive, and no one can believe how easy they are to make. You can either make one long braid and then roll it up, or use the following recipe and baking method. The smell is indescribable. For more details on challah — actually on all aspects of bread baking, see any Jewish cookbook: all the myriad details won’t fit into this article. The mitzvah of separation of challah must be observed along with Jewish law — ask your local rabbi for more information.

Challah should be allowed to cool completely before being well-wrapped for storage. Well-sealed challah can be stored for a day or so on the shelf, or frozen. It defrosts well, and no one can tell that it’s not freshly baked. You can even freeze the ready-to-bake dough. This is good to know in the busy preholiday period.

May this be a sweet year for the entire Jewish people.

Sweet Round Challah

2 tablespoons instant dry yeast

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup oil

Approximately 9 cups of flour (divided), sifted

1 tablespoon salt

5 eggs (divided)

2 cups warm water

1/2 cup golden raisins (optional)

Sesame seeds

Poppy seeds

Combine yeast, sugar and oil in a large bowl. Stir in about 3 cups of flour; combine well. Add salt and four well-beaten eggs, one at a time. Add water and mix in well. Sift in enough flour, 2 cups at a time, to form a dough for kneading, beating well after each addition. Add raisins, if desired.

Knead for eight to 10 minutes, adding a bit more flour if necessary. Place dough in a greased bowl and turn to grease all sides. Cover with a damp cloth and allow to rise in a warm place until double in bulk-about one and a half to two hours.

Punch down, fold in sides, cover and allow to rise for about another half hour. Punch down. Divide dough in half. Coat two 8- or 9-inch diameter pans (look for pans that are at least 3-inches high) with nonstick cooking spray. Form a ball of dough about 3 1/2 inches in diameter and place in center of pan. Divide rest of dough into eight even portions, forming eight balls of dough, and surround center ball of dough. Repeat with remaining half of dough.

Cover pans and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk. Brush with beaten egg. Sprinkle both sesame and poppy seeds on the two middle balls. Sprinkle sesame and poppy seeds alternately on each of the outside balls of each challah. Bake in a preheated 350 F oven for 35-40 minutes until golden brown and challah sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Remove from pans immediately and cool on a rack.

Makes two round challahs.

Love Spelled G-O-L-D

“I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.”

This beautiful expression of commitment from Song of Songs,
is for many Jewish couples the perfect way to say “I love you” every day —
without uttering a word.

Called the “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li” in Hebrew, it adorns many
a wedding band. For other couples, only an exquisite diamond ring will do. And
for the majority, the solid gold wedding band remains, as it has through the
ages, the ring of choice. Though choosing a wedding band is a matter of
personal taste and preference, it is also a matter that Jewish tradition weighs
in on. Most importantly, the ring must be one solid piece, with no stones of
any kind, gaps or perforations. It should be purchased by the groom, or be a
family heirloom from his side. As for Hebrew lettering, engraving or embossing
— that’s a little open to interpretation.

For couples seeking advice, the guidelines concerning
wedding bands are “an easy topic to broach,” said Rabbi Judah Dardik. There are
two aspects, explains the Orthodox rabbi.

The “unbroken circle is a beautiful concept,” he said. Under
the Talmud, “our custom is not to use rings with any stones in them. The woman
has to know exactly what she is getting, with no false pretense.” A stone that
to the untrained eye may sparkle like a diamond might indeed be glass. And a suitor
who would be so disingenuous as to try and fool his bride-to-be is nothing more
than an impostor.

Whether etchings are permitted under Jewish law, “that’s
more of a question,” Dardik said. An etching “takes out some of the metal. Does
that make it difficult to evaluate the value [of the ring]?”

Orthodox Rabbi Jacob Traub said inscriptions and Hebrew
letters are “OK,” and the ring “can be ornate, to a certain degree.”

Traub does share Dardik’s concern: “The main thing is no
stones, because it’s important that the bride know exactly what it is she is
getting.” In his years counseling engaged couples and officiating weddings,
Traub has found that for the “overwhelming majority” of couples, “the plain
band I think is still your band of choice.”

Rabbi Daniel Kohn said the ring is a “minor issue [that] is
only for the wedding ceremony itself.”

Owners of jewlery shops with a significant Jewish clientele
say their selection of bands runs the gamut.

“Given the fact that we certainly live in an assimilated culture,
Jews buy the full range of gold rings,” said Bill Caplan of Topper. His store
carries a large range of finely made modern wedding bands, including ones with
Hebrew lettering, though “religious Jews,” he said, “mainly use simple metal
bands for the ceremony.”

In his family jewelry business since the 1960s, Caplan said
styles have changed somewhat. “In the ’70s, there were a lot of very heavy, big
pieces. Today, they’re more delicate, smoother.”

Ellen Bob of bob and bob in Palo Alto, said even married
couples purchase bands with the “Ani l’dodi,” for a “special anniversary” as an
affirmation of longstanding love.

“It’s sort of like a little intimate secret. It’s not
obvious that it’s words, but it is something that you and your partner share in
a special way.” Jewish couples who come to her store also favor another
selection from Song of Songs, she added: “This is my beloved, this is my

Afikomen’s wedding shop carries a selection of bands with
Hebrew on them, but “these are not the most popular,” noted owner Jerry
Derblich. “People seem to want a more traditional ring.” His bestseller, in
fact, is the narrow gold band.

“The ‘Ani l’dodi’ are fairly wide,” he explained. There is,
however, great variation among the seven to eight vendors he uses.

The owners of Edelweiss Jewelers in Berkeley don’t go far
for their Hebrew bands: husband and wife Robert and Anne Flexer both make them.

Nearly 14 years ago, Robert Flexer said, “one customer came
in and asked me to enlarge such a band. I started asking a lot of questions.”
He said one thing led to another, and “I made one just to see…. Now I have a
whole collection.”

Anne Flexer began crafting them about four years ago.
“People ask for different quotes from the Bible. Their names — his and hers,”
she said of the commissions that come her way. “They prefer Hebrew lettering;
they don’t want something in English. It’s meaningless to them.”

Flexer said she provides a needed service to the Jewish

“Outside of Hebrew letters, very few things, motifs, that
you can use are typically Jewish. How many different kinds of rings can you
make with the Star of David?”

Hebrew letters, on the other hand, “are so unique. Given
that we don’t write the vowels, you can really pack in a lot of text.”

As for her favorite expression of love, the “Ani l’dodi” is
“one of the best that I know of,” she said. Â

My Very Own Chuppah

Hold onto your son’s baby blanket. Don’t give away your daughter’s cheerleading uniform. If they hold precious memories and deep meanings, you may be able to recycle them — as part of your child’s chuppah.

Chuppahs and ketubahs are long-standing Jewish wedding traditions. But Los Angeles couples are now taking their heritage to a more personal place, using chuppahs and ketubahs with intimate, as well as religious, significance. And they are asking their parents to help them create these special wedding fixtures.

With their parents’ assistance, Los Angeles-area brides and grooms are trading in hotel rent-a-coverings and standard flowered archways for chuppahs they can truly call their own. Joan and Joel Schrier of Brentwood helped their daughter and son-in-law produce a patchwork chuppah. Joan Schrier, a Skirball Cultural Center docent, sent out 36 fabric squares to her daughter’s wedding guests, asking the friends and relatives to decorate their swatch with a meaningful illustration.

"Weddings all have common denominators: a white bridal dress, a band and not-so-wonderful food. This was a way to make Kimberly and David’s wedding unique to them," Schrier said. She collected the finished squares and her husband sewed them into the quilt under which their daughter, Kimberly Gowing, married.

Gowing, a pediatrician, attended Palisades High School with her husband David, a singer-songwriter. The former classmates started dating after their 10-year reunion and married on July 1, 2001, at the Skirball.

"It was amazing to stand under the chuppah, glance up during the ceremony and see how many special people contributed to our day," Gowing said. Cherished chuppah panels displayed the handprints of a 6-month-old niece, a non-Jewish friend’s Tree of Life and Joan Schrier’s embroidered Rashi quote. The Gowings, who now live in Seattle and attend Temple De Hirsch Sinai, plan to prominently display their chuppah in their home.

The quilt chuppah is a fast-growing Los Angeles wedding trend. Nicole Jessel Heilman, who attends Temple Judea in Tarzana, also recruited her guests’ talents. "I wanted to get my family and friends involved with our wedding," she said.

Heilman, a teacher, was married at the Bel Air Bay Club under a schoolhouse painted by her kindergarten teacher, photos scanned by a childhood friend and a police car she designed for her husband, Dave, a law enforcement officer. Heilman’s mother, Maxine Jessel, spearheaded her daughter’s chuppah effort. "It’s the way people who shared in their lives could share in their ceremony," said Jessel, owner of The Max Event Coordinators.

Variations on the patchwork chuppah are springing up around the Southland. Some couples turn to themselves, not their guests, for square ideas. Newlyweds-to-be have sewn together fabric swatches from memory-filled clothing like football jerseys, baby blankets, beach towels from a first date at Zuma and even college pennants.

Carol Attia, owner of Under The Chuppah Online, has seen a significant increase in personalized chuppahs during her 10 years in business. She believes these self-designed chuppahs truly enhance a wedding day.

"A wedding is so personal, people want their chuppah to reflect who they are," said Attia, recalling one bride’s chuppah made of white fairy lights. She sewed her favorite chuppah out of the mother-of-the-bride and mother-in-law’s wedding dresses.

"The couple married under this chuppah viewed their wedding not as a union of two people but as a union of two families," Attia said. "It’s wonderful that couples now feel free enough to express their love through creative concepts," she added.

Los Angeles couples and their parents display this same creativity with their original ketubah designs. While ketubah prints and texts can be purchased at Judaic galleries, catalogs and Web sites, many Angelenos produce their own. Original artwork can highlight everything from the couple’s hobbies to their engagement stories.

Jessel recently created a ketubah that incorporated the newlywed’s occupations. A teacher and a veterinarian, the couple’s ketubah was covered with animals and children. "Bride and grooms really want the ketubah art to represent their lives, and their two worlds coming together," Jessel said.

Michah Parker, president of e-ketubah.com, just constructed a ketubah using a grandmother’s painting of the bride and groom at sunset. Parker noted that the number of nonconventional ketubah requests he receives has increased every year since 1995. He credits this trend to technology

"Nontraditional, abstract, even bizarre, ketubah art and language has become more popular. When people surf the Internet, they get new and unusual ideas," Parker said. "Plus, now we can download art files, like the grandmother’s work, or a friend’s painting, so we have the ability to accommodate original ideas," he added.

Gene and Ruth Kirshner, members of Temple Beth El in San Pedro, enlisted modern technology to produce their daughter, Shana Johnson’s, ketubah. Gene Kirshner authored the ketubah text and created the artwork on his home computer. "I once did a sample photo mat that looked like the two tablets. I had that in mind when I designed the art," said Kirshner, who once owned a framing business.

The proud father shaped his daughter’s ketubah like the covenant tablets. "I’ve been putting away ketubah texts and ideas for years, in anticipation of my children’s weddings. A ketubah is more meaningful if it has the exact words and images you want," Kirshner said.

Johnson, a physician’s assistant, and her husband Matt, a Score Learning Center executive, married on March 25, 2001 at La Venta Inn in Palos Verdes. Johnson beams as she talks about her cherished ketubah. "I love it. It really captures our relationship, and it means even more to me and Matt because my Dad made it for us," Johnson said. Their ketubah, written in English, is bordered in the same deep rose color as Johnson’s bridesmaid’s dresses.

"It’s so much more special and personal than the standard ketubah. It was a way to take the Jewish heritage and make it our own," said Johnson, whose ketubah hangs in her living room.

This desire to mesh Jewish culture with personal expression seems to drive these wedding trends. In producing their own chuppahs and ketubahs, couples weave their religious ties with their own lives. And in doing so, perhaps they are starting their own tradition.

Gowing was so moved by her personalized chuppah and her parent’s involvement, she hopes to continue the custom when she has children of her own. "I’d love if they got married under our quilt chuppah, but with an added a perimeter of squares made just for them," Gowing said. Perhaps this new nuptial trend is actually becoming a new nuptial tradition.

Purim in the Land of Esther

Picture Queen Esther. Now, take those golden locks and replace them with thick black tresses, and instead of those big round baby blues, imagine almond shaped eyes the color of onyx. And that creamy white complexion? Try something a little tawnier, a little more olive.

Now you have a closer picture of what the real Esther probably looked like: A beautiful Persian Jewish woman, very likely the same lineage as the beautiful Persian Jewish women who today populate the Los Angeles Jewish community.

Iranian Jews seem to be more amused than offended by the storybook and mask depiction of the Nordic-looking Queen Esther. Persian Jews, after all, never harbored any misconceptions about who Esther was. Purim’s Persian venue makes the holiday and its prelude, the Fast of Esther, an integral part of the Iranian Jewish identity.

"Esther and Mordechai existed in the conscious and subconscious during the whole year," said Rabbi David Shofet of Nessah Israel Congregation and Education Center in Santa Monica. In the shrine- and pilgrimage-focused Middle East, Jews would often make the trek to pray at the tombs of Esther and Mordechai.

"It was the Jewish place to go and ask and pray and cry," Shofet said, "especially when it was difficult to go to Israel and the Kotel HaMaaravi," the Western Wall.

The tombs of Esther and Mordechai are in the city of Hamadan, the site of Megillat Esther’s Shushan, about halfway between Teheran and Baghdad.

According to traditional Jewish sources, the story of Purim took place in the mid-300s BCE, during the rule of the Persian-Median Empire and the Babylonian exile, after the destruction of the First Temple and before the building of the Second Temple.

King Ahasuerus succeeded Cyrus, the Persian king who allowed the Jews to begin rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem that Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed. Ahasuerus and Esther are said to be the parents of Darius, another king who permitted Jews in Persia to return to Jerusalem, something Ahasuerus had prohibited.

But many Jews in the Babylonian exile chose to stay where they had already set down roots and built a community infrastructure that centuries later would produce the Babylonian Talmud.

Today’s Persian and Iraqi Jews trace their lineage back to those communities.

"It is amazing to continuously have communities in this land for 2,700 years. It’s amazing how they kept themselves Jewish and survived," especially in a region that has seen so much war and revolution, Rabbi Shofet said.

While many Jews left Iran after the 1979 revolution, about 25,000 to 30,000 Jews remain in the country — about the same number there are in Los Angeles.

So while the Purim story may seem removed and foreign to AshkenaziJews sitting and reading the Megillah, to Persian Jews the story is about family, and it hits much closer to home.

"I think it has more significant meaning to us," said Fariba Ramin, a businesswoman who is a member of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood. "For those people who come from Europe and have been through the war, through Auschwitz, they probably feel it more than those of us that were away from it," she said. "It’s the same thing with Purim — we probably feel it more than the rest of the Jewish people."

Maybe that’s why Taanit Esther is so widely kept among Persian Jews, observant or not. In the Megillah, Esther proclaims three days of fasting and praying before she approaches Ahasuerus to reveal her identity and foil Haman’s decree to destroy all the Jews in the Persian empire.

Rabbi Shofet says he even remembers effigies of Haman being hung and burned in backyards, with kids poking at the dummy, though he says the practice is not widespread anymore.

Other Haman traditions remain. The custom of drowning out Haman’s name in a joyous cacophony is as strong among Persians as it is elsewhere in the Jewish community. Fariba Sameyach, a preschool teacher at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, says her husband’s family wrote songs about Haman, and he still sings them every year.

In Iran, Purim itself was a festive night and day, fun especially for the kids. Traditional foods were exchanged, and children often received gifts and coins. The custom of giving coins is probably connected to Purim’s proximity to the Iranian New Year, celebrated on the spring equinox, much as western Chanukah has been influenced by the December holiday season.

Wearing costumes is not a Persian custom, but emissaries and educators who arrived in Iran from Israel brought the notion, and Persian children in America today do enjoy dressing up.

Ellie Salemnia, a Realtor who is also a member of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, said while the Persian customs remain central to her family’s celebrations, she always encouraged her children, now 19 and 24, to partake of the American customs.

"We have our own cultural things, and we are getting good things from the American Jewish culture," she said. "The combination is very good for the kids; it gives them a very rich background."

Mishloach manot (a gift of food sent to friends) generally does not come with big puffs of cellophane in the Persian community, but takes the form of a plate of halvah — not the crumbly sesame candy found in the store, but a homemade delicacy that is sweet, perfumy, and, above all other traditions, the strongest association Persians seem to have with Purim.

Wherever Persian Jews go on Purim, there are mounds of halvah that everyone has brought to share with everyone else.

Halvah (see recipes) is made of browned rice, wheat or almond flour and mixed with rose water and any combination of sugar, oil, cardamom, saffron or other spices. It is about half an inch thick, the color of amber and the consistency of cookie dough, and is usually cut into diamond shapes. Spices and ingredients vary by region and family, with some people adding dates or chopped pistachios.

Like much of Persian cooking, says Salemnia, the halvah exchange is competitive and joyful.

"I talk with Persian ladies and say I’m doing this spice, I use these ingredients. It’s part of a competition, but it’s also part of connecting and talking with each other," Salemnia said.

No one I spoke with was able to say why halvah became Purim’s food. It is also eaten by the Muslim Persians, primarily on the nights of Ramadan, when they’ve been fasting all day.

Rabbi Shofet joked that on Purim, "we had so much halvah we couldn’t have a seudah," the festive meal on Purim day. But, he says, even those who did hold a seudah did not get drunk, as is the widespread custom among other Jewish communities.

There is special significance in giving halvah to someone who is in the first year of mourning, "to make them enjoy life again and have a sweet mouth for next year," Ramin said.

Mourners also traditionally do not go to synagogue, and so the reading of the Megillah is done among family and friends in the mourner’s home.

Shofet recalled a similar custom — not so widely practiced now — for newly engaged couples. The groom, if he is learned enough, reads the entire Megillah for the friends and family of the bride in her home.

The tradition of giving charity to the poor, matanot la’evyonim, is central to the Persian celebration of Purim.

Of course, when it comes down to it, Purim actually has a message that is universal to all Jews, no matter where their ancestors happened to land centuries ago in the dispersion.

"It’s kind of a turning point and an alarming point in the year," Shofet said.

Because wherever you are in the world on Purim, whatever your customs, Pesach is just four weeks — four weeks! — away.

Finding Middle Ground

First comes love, then comes marriage. But when baby makes three, an interfaith couple has to face hard decisions about their child’s religious upbringing. Arlene Chernow, who for 16 years has headed the outreach department for the Pacific Southwest Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, believes it’s vital for parents to commit to a single religious identity for the entire family. If the interfaith family rejoices in Shabbat and other Jewish holidays, their youngster will not be perturbed by the fact that some relatives wrap holiday gifts in red and green, and celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. If, from the start, the child knows he or she lives in a Jewish household, Hebrew school can be a strong and positive experience.

Unfortunately, says Chernow, “we see more and more children coming into classrooms not knowing who they are religiously.” In some cases, non-Jewish spouses are resentful of the religious school obligation, fearing the loss of their own religious identity as their youngsters are schooled in Jewish tradition. At times, a child’s enrollment in Hebrew school sparks a tug of war between two parents who can’t articulate to one another their own feelings about their religious inheritance. If parents divorce, the situation intensifies.

Chernow feelingly describes one small boy who was brought to temple religious school weekly by his non-Jewish dad, then went home with his Jewish mother. At first, the child dealt with the turmoil in his home life by disrupting the classroom, making everyone miserable. Finally, he settled on his own private solution. Once he arrived at school, he would duck under his desk for 10 minutes, speaking to no one. Then he’d emerge, saying, “I’m Jewish now.”

When Chernow meets with Jewish religious school educators, she stresses their crucial role in making an interfaith family feel part of the congregation. One challenge for a teacher is reassuring interfaith children that they are truly welcome in the classroom, no matter what non-Jewish customs and attitudes may persist at home. These children often ask tough questions, because they’re covertly seeking to establish the fact that they’re truly Jewish. For Chernow, the three key strategies are “support, respect, refocus.” If, during a lesson on Chanukah, a little girl asks why daddy has a Christmas tree, the teacher should support the girl as a valued member of the class, encourage respect for each family’s individual choices, and — for the benefit of the rest of the students — refocus the discussion on dreidels and Maccabees.
When a child hops into the car after Hebrew school, excitedly displaying an ornament for the sukkah, it’s only natural for his non-Jewish parent to feel intimidated by this unfamiliar holiday. Chernow points out that parents who want to share in their children’s excitement can turn out to be a hidden asset in the classroom. She has met many non-Jewish mothers, in particular, who strongly desire a religious identity for their family. Once they gain a basic knowledge of Jewish practice, they sometimes become the teacher’s best friend.

Such is the case of Patty Lombard, the mother of two daughters at Temple Israel of Hollywood. Though herself a Catholic, Lombard has spearheaded the writing of a parents’ guide called “Celebrations.” This looseleaf notebook — which includes background on each major Jewish holiday along with vocabulary, activities, recipes, songs and blessings — was presented to every preschool family when school began in September. The purpose, Lombard says, is to “try to give parents enough information that they can enjoy celebrating with their child.”

Chernow insists that parent education is the key to turning an interfaith family into a family engaged in raising happily Jewish children. She says, “I really see a child’s Jewish education as something that has an impact on the whole family. The more that a temple and school can do to educate the parent while they’re educating the children, the stronger the child’s identity will be.”

New Year’s Sounds

The number “three” doesn’t play an especially important part in Jewish lore and customs. But the pre-High Holy Day musical rush brought to my desk several trios of related recordings, so it’s fitting to deal with them in groups of threes.

1. Three sets ostensibly inspired by Jewish mysticism:

Dieter Buwen and Günter Priesner: “Die Sephiroth” (Col Legno). Buwen is both composer and organist, accompanying saxophonist Priesner on this rather academic program of duets. An earnest but dull remnant of late high modernism, the title piece inadvertently points up the limitations of classical sax technique, ignoring the expressive possibilities of the instrument almost completely. Buwen is self-effacing in the extreme, content to provide ground figures for Preisner to bounce off. Strange to think that one could write music this bland about a subject so charged with emotion. Rating: Two Stars.

Hasidic New Wave: “Kabalogy” (JAM). This is HNW’s weakest set to date, a rather tepid collection of Jewish jazz-rock cliches, well played but uninspired. Frank London and Greg Wall are incapable of making an album that is without interest, but I expect more from these guys. And the Dead Kennedys remake attacking Rudy Giuliani is just shrill. Rating: Three Stars.

Zohar: “Keter” (JAM). Wow! Zohar is Uri Caine’s Jewish project (as opposed to his hard-bop piano gigs), spearheaded by his incredibly fluent keyboard work and the vocal gymnastics of Sephardi Cantor Aaron Bensoussan, aided immeasurably by percussionist Gilad, among others. A seamless amalgam of Middle-Eastern and Sephardic musics with post-bop jazz and one of the most exciting records I have heard all year. From a flamenco-ish “Eyshet Chayil” to a salsa-rhythmed ode to the temple, this is brilliant stuff. Caine’s powerful two-handed attack echoes McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock, but the results are all his own. A real rarity, a “world music” fusion that preserves the aesthetic integrity of all its parts and that isn’t soporific. Rating: Five Stars.