General Assembly: Three Jews in Baltimore


If you’ve ever been to one of those giant auto shows where hundreds of gleaming new car models are lavishly displayed in a convention hall the size of Montana, you’ve got an idea of what it felt like last Sunday morning when I entered the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly (commonly known as the “GA”), which is being held this year at the Baltimore Convention Center.

The scores of booths laid out in giant rows are what the organizers call The GA Marketplace, a modern-day shuk of Jewish causes where advocates seduce you with free chocolate or other goodies so that you’ll hear about some new village they’re building in Africa, or some new Web site that will “revolutionize” Jewish education, or some new movement that will attract the “new generation.”

Not all causes in the shuk are revolutionary. Many booths promote venerable institutions like the “Joint” (JDC) or Hillel, various marketing vendors or even book publishers (yes, they still have those). But regardless of the causes, the larger-than-life quality of the assembly gives the enterprise a certain grandeur and headiness.

You feel this headiness when you attend the GA’s many conferences, which are spread out over three days and attract top speakers from the Jewish world.

You can tell from their titles that the conferences deal only with the big stuff: “Words of Hate, Words of Hope: When External Events Shape Jewish Identity,” “Can the Jewish World Leverage Israeli Expertise in the Developing World,” “Legacy Versus Innovation: A False Dichotomy” and “Connecting the Dots in the Global Jewish Network,” among many others. 

While I certainly enjoyed the conferences, I have to say that what stuck with me the most — besides the fact that I collected a briefcase full of business cards and brochures — was my Sunday encounter in the shuk with three Jews.

These are not the kind of Jews I might bump into in my Pico-Robertson neighborhood. 

One was a Karaite Jew, the other a Humanistic Jew and the third a leader of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews.

I had heard of Karaite Jews, but I had never met one. So, when I saw a Karaite banner over one of the booths, I didn’t need any chocolate to draw me in. The lady behind the booth seemed amused by all my questions. 

“We’re Jews, just like you,” she kept saying.

Well, yes and no. Karaite Jews are a lot more rebellious than I am.

As it says in one of their brochures, “Karaism accepts the Jewish Bible as the word of God and as the sole religious authority,” while rejecting “human additions to the Torah such as the Rabbinic Oral Law.”

In other words, Karaite Jews reject what is generally considered the most important interpretive text of Judaism: the Talmud. That’s one reason, for example, why they allow cheeseburgers and don’t light Shabbat candles.

They believe that theirs is “the original form of Judaism commanded by God” and that “every Jew has the obligation to study the Torah and decide for him/herself the correct interpretation of God’s commandments.” 

After my encounter with Jews who reject our talmudic Sages, I discovered Jews who reject God Himself: Humanistic Jews. (Seriously, how much can a tolerant Jew from Pico-Robertson take?)

Actually, Humanistic Jews do have a sort of deity: His name is Darwin. They don’t go for all that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth …” biblical stuff. They’re the Big Bang Jews, and their big bang is peoplehood.

Language is important to them. Humanistic Jews don’t “pray” in “synagogues.” They celebrate in their congregations. And what they celebrate is the story of the Jewish people and the continuation of that story and culture. They just leave God out of the picture.

By the time I met the leader of a Jewish LGBT rights group, I think I was relieved to meet a Jew who rejected neither God nor the Talmud.

Idit Klein is the executive director of Keshet, a group “working for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in Jewish life.”

She didn’t flinch when I told her I wasn’t raised to be very accepting of things like a man becoming a woman, or vice versa, but she did say, “Let’s sit down and talk.”

We spent a good hour in one of the more honest and difficult conversations I’ve had in a while. This is a very delicate area, especially for a Jew raised in the Orthodox tradition, but her sensitivity and decency in the way she expressed herself (“full acceptance strengthens the core of a community”) is what moved me.

The truth is, it’s only when I meet Jews who are very different than I am — whether religiously, politically or culturally — that my love of “Big Tent Judaism” is really tested.

To pass this test, I have to be at my best — my most curious, my most open and my most honest. How ironic that encountering sharply different Jews can bring out the best in me.

Maybe it’s because it puts me in touch with one of the deepest things we can have in common: simple human decency.

It’s not the Talmud, it’s not God, and it’s not the big stuff you hear in conferences about the Jewish future, but it’s something.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com

Karaite-style Passover recipes


KARAITE MATZAH (From Amy Gazzar)

NOTE: To make sure that dough does not rise, matzah should be put in the oven within 10 minutes of adding water.

2 cups unbleached flour
1/3 cup warm vegetable oil
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup warm water
1 1/2 tablespoons coriander seed

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Mix all ingredients together until dough is soft but not sticky.

Spread on a cookie sheet and cut into squares. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until golden brown.


KARAITE MATZAH USING MATZAH CAKE MEAL (From Remy Pessah)

NOTE: To make sure that dough does not rise, matzah should be put in the oven within 10 minutes of adding water.

3 cups (kosher for Passover) matzah cake meal
3/4 cup oil
1 1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon coriander seed
1 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 400 F.

Mix all the ingredients together and knead dough until soft but not sticky. Spread on 2 cookie sheets, 12 by 17 inches. Cut dough into 2-by-2-inch squares. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden.


PASSOVER ALMOND COOKIES (LOZETTO)

4 egg whites
2 1/4 cups sugar
1 pound almond powder
Whole almonds (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

Beat the egg whites until foamy, add sugar gradually, gently fold in almond powder, and mix with spatula.

Drop by heaping teaspoonsful onto prepared cookie sheet. Top each cookie with a whole almond.

Bake on middle rack for 15 to 20 minutes until lightly browned. Cool

10 minutes and carefully remove from sheets with spatula.


MAROR

1 fresh anise, chopped
1 endive, chopped
1 red lettuce, chopped
1 romaine lettuce,  chopped
1 curly lettuce,  chopped
1 bunch parsley
1 bunch dill weed
2 tablespoons Lemon Juice
2 pickled lemons, diced
1 teaspoon salt

Combine the above ingredients and serve on homemade matzah during the Passover Seder.


ALMOND MERINGUE

5 egg whites
1 cup sugar
4 cups slivered toasted almonds

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Mix egg whites with sugar; add almonds. Refrigerate for a few hours or overnight. Place parchment paper on a cookie sheet and spray with cooking spray.

Scoop out 1 teaspoon at a time, and place the scoops on the prepared cookie sheet, spacing scoops about 1 inch apart.

Bake for 15 minutes.


ORANGE MARMALADE

4 large seedless oranges
2 lemons
8 cups water
8 cups sugar

Cut the oranges and lemons in half crosswise, then into very thin half-moon slices. (If you have a mandoline, this will be quite fast.) Discard any seeds. Place the sliced fruit and their juices into a stainless steel pot. Add water and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring often. Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar until it dissolves. Cover and allow to stand overnight at room temperature.

The next day, bring the mixture back to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer, uncovered, for about 2 hours. Turn the heat up to medium and boil gently, stirring often, for another 30 minutes. Skim off any foam that forms on the top. Cook the marmalade until it reaches 220 degrees F on a candy thermometer. If you want to be doubly sure it’s ready, place a small amount on a plate and refrigerate it until it’s cool but not cold. If it’s firm — neither runny nor too hard — it’s done. It will be a golden orange color. (If the marmalade is runny, continue cooking it;  if it’s too hard, add more water.)

Pour the marmalade into clean, hot Mason jars; wipe the rims thoroughly with a clean damp paper towel, and seal with the lids according to the package directions. Store in the pantry for up to a year.

My family’s Karaite-style Passover


Never mind the gefilte fish and brisket, the mass-produced, cardboard-like matzah and the kosher-for-Passover wine. Instead, Passover seder at my parents’ Karaite Jewish home includes a mouth-watering menu of barbecued lamb chops, crisp homemade matzah, sweet raisin juice and chewy almond cookies that stick to the roof of my mouth.

The yellowing, paper haggadah we use relies on biblical Hebrew verses that recount the Israelite Exodus from Egypt chanted in exotic, Oriental melodies. Ironically, the thin booklet was brought from my parents’ native Cairo during the community’s own exodus from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabist regime, more than four decades ago. Because my sister and I were raised in a Reform temple in the far-flung desert town of Barstow, we eagerly chanted the Four Questions and searched tirelessly for the afikomen. It was only much later that we came to know that those rabbinic, or mainstream, Jewish traditions had been conspicuously absent from my parents’ Passover seder in Cairo.

Karaite Jews rely on the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, as the sole source of religious law, not accepting the Talmud and later rabbinic works as legally binding or divine. Karaites strive to interpret the Bible according to its “plain meaning” and place this duty on each person. Karaites traditionally remove their shoes before entering a prayer sanctuary and often fully prostrate themselves during prayer. Their siddur, or prayer book, consists mostly of biblical passages, including the Shema, but excludes those not biblically based, such as the Amidah.

Observant Karaites are permitted to mix poultry and dairy products. Many also believe it is OK to mix meat and dairy, contending the biblical prohibition refers only to boiling a young goat or sheep in its mother’s milk — not eating meat and milk together.


Amy Gazzar prepares Karaite Matzah. Photos by Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino

Today, my parents enjoy being active members of a mainstream Conservative congregation in South Orange County, where my father participates in Torah readings and sometimes acts as a gabbai on the bimah, or dais. Both say they feel comfortable with the Conservative congregation and consider some aspects of Karaism to be strict, such as the prohibition against menstruating women entering a synagogue and, among the very religious, cooking.

Despite my family’s integration, my parents have also managed to maintain some of their ancient Karaite customs. In addition to commemorating Passover the Karaite way, they gather occasionally at the home of a relative or friend for Sabbath prayers or a yahrzeit conducted while kneeling on clean, white sheets that serve as makeshift prayer rugs.

In America, there are an estimated 730 Karaite families, including a large community in San Francisco’s Bay Area and more than five dozen families in Southern California, according to the Karaite Jews of America. Israel has replaced Egypt as the modern center of Karaite Judaism and is home today to tens of thousands of Karaite Jews, many of whom have also adopted at least some rabbinical or mainstream Jewish customs.


Amy Gazzar prepares Karaite Matzah. Photos by Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino

Karaites trace their practices to the time of Moses, considering their Judaism to be the Judaism God commanded in the Torah.

But Karaism as a formal movement is widely believed to have crystallized in the late ninth century in the areas of Iraq and the land of Israel, with the merging of elements from various Jewish groups that mostly rejected the Talmud, according to Fred Astren, professor and chair of the Department of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University and a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge. “The majority of rabbinic commentators affirm that Karaites are Jews, and that they do not disagree on the fundamentals of Judaism or that the Torah was received by Moses on Mount Sinai, but they do differ in the way they observe the commandments. Where the differences in the commandments could be most pronounced [is] in the calendar and marriage,” Astren said.

Karaite holidays are fixed according to the new moon after the barley in Israel reaches a stage of ripeness, as was done in biblical times; as a result, they can fall on different days from the more commonly used Jewish calendar.

“If you are eating when other Jews are fasting, and fasting when other Jews are eating, that’s pretty strong stuff,” Astren said. Today, however, most Karaites in America (and an increasing number in Israel) follow the pre-calculated calendar used by mainstream Jews.


Amy Gazzar prepares Karaite Matzah. Photos by Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino

Sephardic rabbis have long accepted intermarriage with Karaites. Central Eastern European rabbis traditionally have not, since Karaites did not use a get, or divorce document, in the Middle Ages, though they tended not to get divorced, Astren said. Later, when they did use divorce documents, he added, they were not according to rabbinic halachah.

While living in Israel from 2005 to 2009, I learned that intermarriage between Karaites and rabbinic Jews is common there, as it is here in America. (However, I was told by an Israeli scholar that a Karaite who marries a rabbinic Jew under a mainstream Orthodox rabbi in Israel is required to accept the Oral Law, just as a mixed couple who marries under a Karaite rabbi is required to study and accept the Karaite way.)

Although my older sister and I don’t really practice Karaism, we certainly feel part of this warm and wonderful community that has maintained some of their ancient traditions, teachings and values. My sister married a man of Egyptian Karaite descent, and today their loquacious 2-year-old son chants the Shema in both Karaite and Ashkenazic tunes.


Amy Gazzar prepares Karaite Matzah. Photos by Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino

Karaite Judaism was once considered a serious rival to rabbinic Judaism, inspiring intellectual attacks from great rabbinic minds, such as Saadia Gaon and Maimonides. I find it remarkable that Karaism, particularly in Israel and in the San Francisco Bay Area, has endured in some form and is alive today. Yet, it’s strange and a bit sad to think that despite efforts to revitalize the movement both in Israel and America, many of the Karaite ways are being lost with my generation.

Before my mother left Egypt in 1967, Passover cleaning in their modest Cairo apartment started up to a month in advance and involved rigorously scrubbing their walls, floors and doors with soap and water. If someone mistakenly entered an already koshered room with forbidden food, they would — to my mother’s dismay — have to scrub down the entire room again.

Her predominantly Jewish school, known as the Sybil, which was badly damaged after it was set on fire in the 1950s, would close its doors during the entire week of Passover, she said.