Rich Garcia, head of security at Sinai Temple, is a Jew by Choice and a military veteran. Photo by Ryan Torok

Rich Garcia: Stepping forward for Marines and Judaism


When U.S. Marine Sgt. Rich Garcia was on a mission in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, an improvised explosive device destroyed the vehicle he would have been on had he not moved to another to take over for a Marine who was ill.

He credits a siddur, of all things, with keeping him safe.

“That was the first time I carried a siddur out on patrol,” Garcia told the Journal. “After that, I carried that siddur everywhere.”

Garcia, 33, was a Marine from 2002 to 2011, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was raised by a Jewish father, who also was a Marine, and a Catholic mother. They separated when he was young and he lived with his father.

As a Marine, Garcia went to Shabbat services at boot camp and wore a Star of David necklace under his combat gear. He began converting to Judaism in 2014 through the program Judaism by Choice. Today, his connection to Judaism is not just spiritual but professional as the head of security at Sinai Temple.

“I think since he has chosen Judaism, he has made a connection with our families, and it’s more than just a job,” Sinai Temple Rabbi Erez Sherman said. “It is a sense of duty.”

Born in Corsicana, Texas, Garcia grew up outside of San Diego, raised mostly by his father, Richard Levine. Garcia said his father encouraged him to go to synagogue on Shabbat at a Conservative congregation.

“He pretty much said, ‘Hey, you can pick whatever religion you want … but let’s go to synagogue,’ ” Garcia said at Sinai, a handgun holstered at his side.

On Sept. 11, 2001, his father woke him up to watch on television as the second plane flew into the World Trade Center. A high school senior, he skipped school that day and visited a military recruiter.

“I grew up in a very patriotic household,” he said. “Honestly, I probably knew what terrorism was when other high school kids were not even thinking about it.”

During boot camp in San Diego, he participated in Shabbat services. It was then that a rabbi on base gave him the siddur he would carry with him throughout his service.

After his discharge, Garcia moved to Los Angeles, drawn to its large Jewish community and the job opportunities in private security. He began working at Sinai Temple last year, around the time that he completed his conversion coursework, led by Rabbi Neil Weinberg.

“He is a single man who wanted to become Jewish because he loves the Jewish religion and the Jewish people. He did all the requirements in our program — keeping Shabbat every week, going to synagogue weekly and keeping kosher,” Weinberg said in an email. “I am very proud that he converted to Judaism through our Judaism by Choice program.”

At Sinai, Garcia runs a team of former military men. He said providing employment to military veterans is a way of helping them after their service. “Give them a role, make them feel like they’re needed, because in the military we were needed, we had a role,” he said.

Garcia, who lives in the San Fernando Valley, is an employee of Centurion Group, a full-service security company that serves houses of worship, among other clients. A member of Sinai Temple, he holds a degree in criminal justice from the University of Phoenix and he plans to earn an Emergency Medical Technician certification.

His Sinai team attends the annual High Holy Days security briefing organized by the Anti-Defamation League. He works closely with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles in keeping abreast of security threats.

As a Marine, Garcia went to Shabbat services at boot camp and wore a Star of David necklace under his combat gear.

Gone are the days of discovering improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan. These days, he is more likely to order an evacuation after a suspicious package is spotted at a bar mitzvah. Recently, a spate of threats targeting Jewish community centers put his team on higher alert. 

“It kept my guys on their toes — we took it personally,” he said. “This is our home, and we’re not going to let anybody destroy our community.”

In March, he traveled to Israel for the first time and participated in the Jerusalem Marathon as part of a delegation that included Sherman as well as other Sinai congregants . He ran in memory of Marcus Preudhomme, a fellow Marine who was killed in action in Iraq in 2008. Preudhomme’s name is inscribed on a bracelet on Garcia’s wrist.

During the trip, Garcia became a bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. Sherman was by his side as he recited an aliyah — Parashat Vayakhel.

Though he spends his free hours at the gym, he ran the half-marathon instead of the full.

“I ran the half, I’m not going to lie to you. Oh, my gosh, that was hard,” he said. “It was hills. I’m in the Jewish community. I wish they would’ve told me Jerusalem is all hills — they knew I was going. But it was great.”

Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS

Shavuot session uses biblical holiday to teach about refugees


The star of the Shavuot liturgy is Ruth, celebrated as the first convert to Judaism. But a late-night study session held by seven synagogues and two Jewish advocacy organizations recast the holiday’s main character as a prototype for today’s refugees, fleeing conflict across Africa and the Middle East.  

The groups met at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) on May 30, the first night of Shavuot, for an evening of learning about Torah — and asylum and immigration policy.

“The American-Jewish community is a refugee community,” Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, the Jewish refugee resettlement organization, told the crowd of some 350. “And now that we’re in, we owe it to [today’s] refugees to ensure they’re treated the way our ancestors were treated, or the way our ancestors should have been treated.”

A program called “Refugees, Immigration and Jewish Responsibility” drew together members of VBS, Temple Beth Hillel, Temple Isaiah, Adat Ari El, Congregation Kol Ami, Stephen Wise Temple and University Synagogue.

Later on in the evening, the crowd broke up into individual study sessions led by the rabbis of the various synagogues present. Sitting in a circle of some two dozen guests during one of them, VBS Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein connected the theme of refugee relief with the biblical plight of Ruth, whom Feinstein called “the quintessential stranger.”

In the text, the widowed and wandering Ruth, having followed her mother-in-law back to Bethlehem, is redeemed by a Jewish man, who marries her and gives her a son.

Feinstein argued that only through accepting the stranger can the Jewish people bring about their own redemption: Ruth’s great-grandson is King David, from whose lineage the Messiah is prophesied to come.

Hetfield likewise turned to Torah to encourage the crowd to welcome the stranger — a commandment repeated 36 times in the text, he said.

HIAS opened its doors in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to assist Jewish immigrants, mainly from Eastern Europe. But in the late 20th century, the stream of Jewish refugees began to recede.

Although the group was “founded to welcome refugees because they were Jewish,” Hetfield said, “today HIAS welcomes refugees because we are Jewish.”

He noted that in 1939, around this time of year, the passengers on the German ocean liner MS St. Louis celebrated Shavuot before it was turned away from North America and sent back to Europe. Many of the Jewish refugees onboard eventually were murdered by the Nazis.

The incident had a lasting impact on Jews in the United States, as well as its immigration policy.

Hetfield recalled that when he was an official at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, a branch of the State Department, one of his superiors used to say, “Every policy that the United States has should follow one rule when it comes to refugees, and that is, ‘Would this policy have saved the passengers on the St. Louis, or would it turn them back?’ ”

After Hetfield, Janice Kamenir-Reznik, a VBS member and co-founder of the anti-genocide organization Jewish World Watch, urged those present to take action.

“There’s so much noise and chaos in Washington that this issue will get lost if we’re not constantly reminding them that it matters,” she said, calling on those in the audience to write to their members of Congress to take action on the global refugee crisis.

After her remarks, the crowd met in five groups for text study.

“Tonight, you get an opportunity you don’t normally get,” Feinstein said, “which is to learn with a rabbi who’s not your rabbi.”

The Shavuot holiday, which commemorates the handing down of the Torah, was a fitting occasion to bring together different synagogues, said Rabbi Sarah Hronsky of Temple Beth Hillel, noting that the synagogues gathered “shoulder to shoulder, as if we were at Mount Sinai receiving the Torah. What could be more beautiful than that?”

June 3: "Jackie"

What to do in Los Angeles this week: June 2-8


SAT | JUNE 3

“JACKIE”

Experience the screening and the world-premiere live performance of the score from “Jackie.” Composer Mica Levi’s soundtrack for the 2016 film about Jacqueline Kennedy garnered the first Academy Award nomination for best original score by a female composer in 20 years. Told through the eyes of the iconic first lady, “Jackie” is an intimate portrait of a woman going through one of the most tragic moments in American history, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The music will be performed by the Wordless Music Orchestra, led by conductor Jayce Ogren. Presented by Nederlander Concerts and Wordless Music. 8 p.m. Tickets starting at $29. The Theatre at Ace Hotel, 929 S. Broadway, Los Angeles. (213) 623-3233. wordlessmusic.org/jackie.

SIX-DAY WAR ANNIVERSARY SERVICE

In observance of the Six-Day War’s 50th anniversary, attend a special Shabbat service and lecture honoring the war’s heroes and celebrating Israel’s victory. Presented by the Jewish Platform for Advocacy and Community Engagement. Service led by Rabbi Danny Cohen of Hebron and Cantor David Caytak of Jerusalem. Lecture by David Suissa, president of TRIBE Media and the Jewish Journal. 9:30 a.m. service; 11:30 a.m. lecture. Free. The Beverly Hills Hotel, 9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills. beverlyhillsjc.org.

“EINSTEIN!”

The one-man drama “Einstein!” returns to the Santa Monica Playhouse for six performances. The drama explores Albert Einstein’s years as a young father while he was trying to prove his theory of relativity during World War I. Directed by Tom Blomquist. Followed by Q-and-A with writer-performer Jack Fry. 3 p.m. $40. Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. (310) 394-9779. einsteintheplay.com.

“THE MERCHANT OF VENICE”

Alan Blumenfeld stars as Shylock in William Shakespeare’s tragicomedy about a merchant who must default on a large loan given by a Jewish moneylender. The 16th-century play continues to raise questions about racism, religion, mercy and justice. Directed by Ellen Geer. 7:30 p.m. Tickets starting at $25; discounts for seniors, students, veterans, teachers and children. Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. (310) 455-3723. theatricum.com.

SHAVUOT WHITE PARTY

Adults ages 50 and older are invited to celebrate Shavuot with dairy appetizers, wine, dancing and live music at this event sponsored by the Israeli-American Council. Bring your favorite dessert to share. Performance by singer Hodaya. 8:30 p.m. $20 online at eventbrite.com; $25 at the door. IAC Shepher Community Center, 6530 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills. (818) 505-4920. israeliamerican.org.

SUN | JUNE 4

“FROM BROOKLYN AVENUE TO CESAR CHAVEZ”

Celebrate the summer installation of this exhibition that explores Jewish histories in multi-ethnic Boyle Heights and reveals the urban, social, economic and cultural changes inscribed in its layered past. Part of the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies’ digital project Mapping Jewish L.A. (mappingjewishla.org). There will be musical performances and refreshments from local vendors. 2 p.m. Breed Street Shul, 247 N. Breed St., Los Angeles. Free. RSVP to cjsrsvp@humnet.ucla.edu. (310) 267-5327. cjs.ucla.edu.

“HOW TO BEGIN YOUR GENEALOGY”

Whether you are new to genealogy or a seasoned genealogist, there is something for everyone to learn at this program presented by Jan Meisels Allen, president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of the Conejo Valley and Ventura County. Learn about family documents, timelines, census records, immigration and naturalization records, family photos, interviewing techniques, newspaper research and more. 1:30 p.m. Free. Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. jgscv.org.

“BROKE AS A JOKE”

Comedian Danny Lobell performs his one-man show, “Broke as a Joke,” about the crazy things he’s done for money and the hilarity they have produced. 9:30 p.m. Additional shows June 8, 10 and 11. $10. Sacred Fools Theater Studio, 1078 Lillian Way, Los Angeles. hollywoodfringe.org.

MON | JUNE 5

FILMMAKER MARCEL OPHULS

Documentary filmmaker Marcel Ophuls — best known for his films dealing with the atrocities of World War II, including “The Memory of Justice” and “Hotel Terminus” — will be in conversation with Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, scholars and students. Part of Shadows of the 20th Century: Ophuls Film Festival, with screenings and lectures through June 8 at various locations. 4 p.m. Free with required pre-registration. UCLA Meyer and Rene Luskin Conference Center, 425 Westwood Plaza, Los Angeles. (310) 267-5327. cjs.ucla.edu.

AUTHORS MICHAEL CHABON AND AYELET WALDMAN

On the anniversary of the Six-Day War, husband-and-wife authors Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman discuss their new book, “Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation,” with Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence and Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR. The book features numerous authors who visited the West Bank and Gaza, reporting on what they saw. Sponsored by Breaking the Silence, HarperCollins, New Israel Fund and IKAR Culture Series. Free. Pico Union Project, 1153 Valencia St., Los Angeles. 7:30 p.m. doors open; 8 p.m. program. Reception to follow. (323) 643-1616. Tinyurl.com/LDZJOAM.

ISRAEL BONDS SOCIAL

Join Israel Bonds Los Angeles New Leadership, in conjunction with the Israeli-American Council Los Angeles and American Friends of Magen David Adom, for a summer social. Open bar for three hours. 8 p.m. $25; $36 at the door. Register at conta.cc/2rkc7uJ. At Now Boarding, 7746 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. israelbonds.com.

TUES | JUNE 6

TOP PRODUCERS PANEL

IAC Real Estate Network presents the “Nadlanist Top Producers Panel,” where multimillion-dollar real estate producers share success stories. Doron Zilbermintz, explaining new building ordinances and more, will kick off the event. Enjoy an evening of insight, connections, drinks and food. Panelists include Adi Livyatan, Sheri Bienstock, Lisa Cutman, Michelle Hirsch, Tsafrir (Jeff) Aviezer, Ron Feder and Richard Schulman. Co-sponsored by Arletta Insurance, L.A. Fixers and The Livyatan Group. 7 p.m. $50. IAC Shepher Community Center, 6530 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills. israeliamerican.org/megapanel.

THURS | JUNE 8

STEPHEN TOBOLOWSKY

Character actor and storyteller Stephen Tobolowsky shares stories from his latest book, “My Adventures With God.” This funny, introspective collection explores love, catastrophe and triumph. Book available for purchase. Book signing and Q-and-A to follow. 2 p.m. Free. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.

PETER WORTSMAN

Peter Wortsman with Marjorie Perloff will discuss Wortsman’s book of stories “Footprints in Wet Cement.” The author also will sign copies of the book. 7 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. booksoup.com.

How to make blintzes: A video tutorial


 

FOR THE BLINTZES:

– 1 cup flour
– 2 tbsp. sugar
– 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
– 1/2 tsp. salt
– 3 eggs
– 1 1/4 cups whole milk
– 1 tbsp. vegetable oil

FOR THE FILLING:

– 1 lb. ricotta cheese, at room temperature
– 2 tbsp sour cream or mascarpone
– 3 egg yolks
– 3 tbsp. sugar
– 1/2 tsp. lemon zest
– 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

1.  Combine crepe batter ingredients in blender or bowl and mix until smooth.  Let rest a half hour.

2.  Combine filling ingredients in mixer or bowl and blend until smooth. (Use good quality ricotta.  If very moist, drain in cheesecloth-lined colander; set inside pan for a few hours or overnight in refrigerator)

3.  Heat a non-stick crepe pan or 8 inch skillet.  Rub with oil or butter.  Add ¼ cup batter and tilt pan to spread batter thin.  Cook until set then flip.  Cook until dry, then turn out onto plate.  Repeat until all the batter is used.

4.  Spread 2 or 3 tbsp. of filling along bottom of crepe.  Roll up into a cylinder, tucking ends in before you finish rolling. Repeat until all the crepes are filled.

5.  Heat one tbsp. vegetable oil in a skillet, Add crepes 2-3 at a time and cook on each side until golden. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and fresh berries.

Makes 10–12

 

 

 

Not pictured: freezer burn. Photo by Tess Cutler

Frozen blintzes are for cowards, so here’s how to make them from scratch


Don’t get me wrong. I have at least four boxes of (Streit’s?) cheese blintzes gathering a third layer of permafrost in my freezer right now. I bought them before the glatt marts could jack up the prices because this is not my first go-round, folks. This is my life.

However! I do not expect to unpackage them this holiday. Or, perhaps, ever. That is because after making my own blintzes with the following recipe I have settled on the conclusion that frozen blintzes are for cowards. You can whip up a batch homemade so easily that to buy the little kosher hot pockets from the store would be to impugn—nay, swear off—your integrity in the kitchen.

Not to mention that the frozen kind never cook evenly and don’t taste that great to begin with. Have I ever had a positive frozen blintz experience? The short answer is no. The long answer is, has anyone? Nothing like biting into a blackened potatoey crust that you are certain is cooked all the way, only for the cool dispassion of stubborn icicles to greet you in the interior. Come on now. Let’s just make them from scratch.

First: go shopping!

Here’s what you need that you might not have: good ricotta cheese, sour cream, a lemon, and blueberries. (I take it you have vanilla.) Everything else is below:

You will need:

…for the crepes

1 cup flour
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
3 eggs
1.25 cups whole milk
1 tbsp vegetable oil

…for the filling

1 lb ricotta cheese (get the good stuff)
3 tbsp sour cream or mascarpone
2 egg yolks
3 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

…for the win

hella blueberries
a tablespoon (or less!) of sugar

Also get out: a big round frying pan, a saucepan, a mixing bowl, a strainer and a stick of butter to play around with.

After you have all your ingredients together, start by making the crepe batter. Take all the ingredients from the first half and whisk them together in a bowl. This should be a relatively thin liquid, thin enough to drip off the whisk when you hold it over the bowl but thick enough that it doesn’t all run off immediately. Okay, now let it sit.

[The life hack here is to double this part of the recipe and save half the batter for breakfast, when you can cook up crepes any other way you like. Thank me later.]

Next, take a look at the ricotta. Is it good and wet, dripping like a baby fresh out the bathtub? In that case, let it towel off in a colander to drain some of that excess liquid. (You can also dry it out in the fridge.) We’re not trying to make soggy blintzes. That’s what Big Kosher wants us to do.

[It’s important, here that we’re pronouncing ricotta “ree-coatt-ah.” It enhances the taste, I guarantee it. Make sure to get that double ‘t’ sound.]

When the ricotta is ready and at room temperature, combine the filling ingredients in a separate bowl and blend until smooth. You should have a nice, heavy whip going.

Okay, now you’re ready to make the crepes!

Heat a non-stick crepe pan or 8 inch skillet.  Grab that stick o’ butter and slather the pan with it. The pan should froth about it as you are merely teasing the main event. So, deep breath at this point. Next is the part where you showcase your elegance and prove your worth as a chef: pour about a quarter-cup of batter into the frying pan as you tilt the pan to spread the batter thin. You’re making broad, thin circles here, about seven or eight inches in diameter.

It should cook in a flash — no more than twenty seconds on each side if your pan is hot enough. Throw it on a plate to cool and repeat. Make a bunch of these and kill the batter, unless you wisely doubled the recipe for later, in which case kill half of it.

All set? Now take the action to the countertop. Spread a crepe out onto a flat surface (cutting board is fine), and drop a couple of tablespoons’ worth of filling into the bottom third of the crepe. Don’t worry about spreading it out—it’s easier to roll up into a lil’ burrito this way. Roll the bottom flap over the filling and tuck it under, then fold over the side leaves, then roll the whole thing forward like a sleeping bag. Honestly, just make a lil’ burrito. Repeat until all the crepes are filled.

Now heat up that pan and smother it with butter again. (Hey, diets don’t count on chag!) Throw your Hungarian blintzes on there 2-3 at a time and cook on each side until golden. Then you’re done.

Oh yeah! Blueberry sauce: take all those blueberries, throw them in a pot, and throw some sugar on top of it, and then just cook it until you get this oozing pot of succulence that looks like it does on the frozen box of Streit’s blintzes. That takes like 10 minutes? Tops.

I have no idea how many this makes because I eat them as I go. Rob, whose recipe this is, says it’s good for about a dozen. Happy Shavuot!

Edited to add: this recipe makes about eight blintzes.

The gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery are graced by U.S. flags on Memorial Day. Photo by Kathleen T. Rhem (via WikiCommons)

A Single Soul


In 1971, by act of the United States Congress, the last Monday in May officially became the Federal holiday known as Memorial Day. Its roots, though, go all the way back to just after the Civil War when General John A. Logan, the leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a day of remembrance for all those who had fallen in the war to be held on May 30th of that same year.

By 1890, all of the Northern states had decided to observe what was then called “Decoration Day,” and soon after World War I, the Southern states joined as well.

It’s understandable that in the decades immediately following our bitter Civil War, a conflict that resulted in over 600,000 deaths, the two sides couldn’t even agree to remember and honor their dead together.

This year, Memorial Day falls immediately before Shavuot, Z’man Matan Torateinu – the Time of the Giving of Our Torah.

Here’s the lesson: immediately after pausing to remember the more than 1,300,000 Americans who have fallen in battle, we celebrate Torah, whose essence, according to Rabbi Akiva, is: וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ – “Love your neighbor as yourself.” For many interpreters, the last word of the verse is the key to understanding: kamocha (“as yourself”). The big idea is the realization of how much we are all alike. Ultimately, there is no distinction between self and “other.” We are, all humanity, a single soul: North and South, man and woman, black and white, Jew and Gentile.

It took sixty years for Americans to agree to remember their dead together.

It will take time, I know, and I’m sure it seems naive and hopelessly unrealistic given the state of our world, but my prayer is that someday, soon, we will so fully and universally recognize our shared humanity that war itself will be nothing more than a memory. We will gather on Memorial Day to mourn the fallen and give thanks for the realization of the Prophet Isaiah’s vision:

לֹא-יִשָּׂא גוֹי אֶל-גּוֹי חֶרֶב, וְלֹא-יִלְמְדוּ עוֹד מִלְחָמָה.

“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore.”


Yoshi Zweiback is Senior Rabbi at Stephen Wise Temple and Schools.

What is Shavuot?


May 30 (evening) to June 1

BACKGROUND

Shavuot (literally “weeks”) takes place on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, seven weeks after the first day of Passover, when wheat was planted. It marks the day God gave the Jewish people the Torah at Mount Sinai, as well as the first fruits of spring. Shavuot is one of the ancient pilgrimage holidays — along with Passover and Sukkot — when offerings were taken to the Temple in Jerusalem.

TRADITIONS

On Shavuot, we read the Ten Commandments and the Book of Ruth, about the convert Ruth and her acceptance of God. Ruth was an ancestor of King David, whose lineage is to give rise to the Messiah. There’s also a special reading of a liturgical poem called Akdamut, which highlights God’s mighty power.

Many Jews stay up on the first night of Shavuot studying all night (Tikkun Leil Shavuot), a practice with roots in the midrash that when it was time for the Israelites to receive the Torah, they were all asleep and had to be awakened by Moses. The idea is to make up for their mistake with our modern enthusiasm and readiness.

SPECIAL FOOD

For various reasons, a popular Shavuot tradition is to consume dairy foods, such as cheesecake, ice cream and blintzes. In The Song of Songs, it says, “honey and milk are under your tongue.” Rabbis have stated that the love between God and the nation of Israel is like “honey and milk.” Another explanation is the Jews didn’t have kosher meat to eat since they weren’t given the laws of kashrut yet on Shavuot. It is a practice among some to have a meat meal later on Shavuot.

Sources: HebCal, My Jewish Learning

Amelia Saltsman’s silan recipe for Shavuot


SILAN

Results will vary depending on how dry the dates are and the variety used. Unfortunately, deglet noor dates, the most commonly available variety, produce beet-red silan and honey dates turn purple when cooked. You can halve the amount of dates and cut your prep time, but I don’t recommend multiplying the amount unless you’ve got extra hands to help.

– 2 pounds dates, such as barhi, medjool or khadrawy
– Water

Soak: Place dates in a large bowl. Add water to the bowl to cover dates by one inch, about 6 cups for 2 pounds of dates. Cover bowl and set aside, away from direct sunlight, to soak at least 4 hours or overnight.

Cook: Lift dates out of soaking liquid and shred them with your fingers. Place them, along with the pits, into a wide pot. Stir in 4 cups fresh water. Bring to gentle boil, uncovered, over medium heat, about 10 minutes. At this point, the tan-colored mixture will start to thicken. Skim off any scum that rises to the top. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the date mixture has reduced by about one-third, is shiny, thick and jamlike, and its color has deepened to a medium brown, about 50 minutes longer. As the mixture thickens, after about 40 minutes, stir more frequently to prevent sticking. Remove date mixture from heat and cool.

Extract: Place a strainer over a large bowl and place a nut-milk or jelly bag in the strainer. Transfer some of the cooked date mixture into the bag. Drain date “juice” into the bowl, wringing the bag to extract all liquids from the date solids. Discard solids and repeat with remaining dates, working in batches. You’ll have about 4 cups of bland “date juice.”

Reduce: Place date juice and 1/2 cup fresh water in a medium pot. Starting over medium heat, bring to a good simmer; reduce heat as needed to keep liquid at a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until reduced by more than half to a deep brown rich-tasting syrup the consistency of honey, about 1 hour, stirring more frequently to prevent scorching as the syrup thickens. The silan is ready if it stays parted briefly when you run a spatula through the pot. (If it has thickened too much, turning almost taffy-like, stir in 1/4 cup water, and cook briefly.) Turn off the heat. The silan will continue to thicken as it cools.

Pour into clean jars, cover tightly, and store at room temperature away from sunlight. The silan will keep at least 4 to 6 weeks, although complex flavors may flatten over time and sugars crystalize. Heat silan briefly to dissolve crystals.

Makes about 2 cups silan.

TOASTED NUT AND SILAN SQUARES

Toasted nut and silan squares

These chewy bar cookies taste better the day after they’re baked and keep well for several days.

– 1 cup walnuts or pecans
– 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
– 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
– 1/2 cup (1 stick) cold butter, cut into 1/4- to 1/2 -inch pieces, plus 2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
– 3 tablespoons sugar
– 1/4 tsp salt
– 1/2 cup silan
– 1 tablespoon water
– 1 teaspoon lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Place nuts on sheet pan and toast in oven until fragrant and lightly browned, 7 to 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Make the crust: In a mixing bowl, toss together the flours, 1 stick of butter, sugar and salt. Using your fingers or a pastry cutter, crumble the ingredients together to the texture of coarse cornmeal. Pour mixture into 8-inch-square pan and gently press evenly over bottom and partway up the sides of the pan, giving extra attention to where the bottom meets the side of the pan to keep thickness even. Bake until light golden, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from oven and gently smooth the crust with the back of a soup spoon to seal any cracks, pushing gently along sides if crust has slumped during baking.

While the crust is baking, prepare filling. Place silan, remaining 2 tablespoons butter, water, lemon and pinch of salt into heatproof or microwavable bowl (I like to use a 1-quart glass liquid measuring cup). Heat in microwave just until butter melts, 30 to 45 seconds, or place bowl in a pot of simmering water just until butter melts. Stir to blend.

Chop nuts and stir them and any “nut dust” into silan mixture. Pour filling evenly over crust. Return pan to oven and bake until edges of crust are golden brown and filling is bubbling and thickened, about 20 minutes. Filling will continue to set as it cools. Cool several hours or overnight before cutting into squares. Store covered at room temperature up to four days and refrigerate up to six.

Makes 16 2-inch squares

SPICY SWEET GRILLED ROOTS AND TUBERS WITH SILAN,
HARISSA AND SHANKLISH

Spicy Sweet Grilled Roots and Tubers With Silan, Harissa and Shanklish. Photo by Tess Cutler

Use a mix of sweet potatoes, carrots and beets, or all of one kind of vegetable. Served with freekeh or rice and lentils, this makes a hearty vegetarian main course. For a vegan version, substitute tahini sauce for the shanklish. Accompany with pickled peppers, okra or onions. Note: If using red beets, keep them separate during preparation to avoid staining the other vegetables.

– 3/4 pound sweet potatoes
– 3/4 pound large carrots
– 3/4 pound tennis-ball-size beets
– 1/2 cup healthy oil, such as olive, avocado or safflower
– 1/4 cup silan
– 2 heaping tablespoons harissa
– 2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt
– 2 cups labneh
– 2 cloves garlic
– 2 tablespoons za’atar spice blend
– 1/2 to 1 teaspoon Aleppo, Maras or Urfa pepper
– Chopped parsley, cilantro or thyme leaves, optional
– Cooked freekeh or other grain, optional

Scrub or peel carrots and cut on the diagonal into largest possible oval slices, 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick. Scrub sweet potatoes and cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick wedges. Scrub beets and cut on diagonal into largest possible disks, 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick

Have a bowl filled with ice and water ready near the stove. Cook carrots in generously salted boiling water until their color brightens and carrots are slightly flexible, 2 minutes. Lift carrots out with a spider or slotted spoon and drop into the ice water bath to stop the cooking process and preserve color. Repeat with the sweet potato wedges. Lift carrots and potatoes out of ice bath and drain on cloth or paper towels. Repeat blanching process with beets and place on separate towel. Pat vegetables dry. Vegetables may be prepared a day ahead to this point and refrigerated covered.

Prepare the shanklish. Crush garlic through a press into the labneh and add za’atar and Aleppo pepper to taste. Stir vigorously to blend. Labneh may be prepared a day ahead and refrigerated.

Heat a gas or charcoal grill to medium. Place oil, silan, harissa and salt in a microwavable or heatproof bowl. Heat briefly in microwave oven or place bowl in a pot of simmering water to soften ingredients. Whisk to blend.

Toss silan mixture with vegetables to coat generously (toss red beets separately to prevent staining the other vegetables). Grill vegetables, reserving silan mixture, until nicely scored and tender, 4 to 6 minutes per side. Adjust heat or move vegetables to cooler part of grill as needed to avoid burning. As vegetables are done, return them to the remaining silan mixture and toss to coat.

Arrange vegetables on a platter, top with chopped herbs, if desired, and accompany with the shanklish. Vegetables may be grilled several hours ahead and served at room temperature. Serve warm or at room temperature and accompany with freekeh, if desired.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

"Yossi and the Monkeys" and "The Greatest Ten" are two Shavuot-related children's books.

Shavuot inspires children’s books


Shavuot — the celebration of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai — is not often associated with the variety of children’s literature inspired by other holidays, such as Chanukah or Passover. This year, however, one of the main publishers of Jewish children’s books, Kar-Ben, is offering two new holiday-themed titles.

And in another book, a Los Angeles author tackles the difficult task of explaining the Ten Commandments to a pre-school audience and creates a lovely, inclusive read-aloud story, appropriate for Jewish families of every denomination.

The Art Lesson: A Shavuot Story” by Allison and Wayne Marks. Illustrated by Annie Wilkinson. (Kar-Ben, 2017)

This story is based on Eastern European Jews’ custom of decorating their windows with Jewish-themed papercuts during the Shavuot holiday. Children should enjoy this cleverly imagined tale of a girl who loves spending time doing art projects with her talented grandmother. Young Shoshana dresses in her treasured artist’s smock and black beret for her weekly visit to the home of Grandma Jacobs, who stocks an art studio that would enchant any child. Calling her granddaughter “My little Chagall” or “My little Modigliani,” she stirs creative juices as she instructs Shoshana how to make papercuts — “something my bubbe taught me how to do when I was a little girl.” When Shoshana gets frustrated with what she believes are meager efforts, her grandmother encourages her to use her imagination to define success and states lovingly that “Every papercut is special. Just like you.” Adults will appreciate the various references to famous artists’ styles that the illustrator has hidden among the pages, helped by an author’s note explaining Grandma Jacobs’ use of nicknames. Simple instructions for a Star of David papercut are included.

“Yossi and the Monkeys: A Shavuot Story” by Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod. Illustrated by Shirley Waisman. (Kar-Ben, 2017)

Fun, colorful and off-kilter comic illustrations set the tone for this Ashkenazi-flavored folktale, an echo of the children’s classic, “Caps for Sale,” by Esphyr Slobodkina. When Yossi tries to sell his wife’s lovely handmade kippot at the local market, he meets a mischievous monkey who steals the merchandise. But Yossi and the monkey join forces when he realizes the animal’s antics charm customers. Yossi names the monkey “Zelig” (“Blessing”), and his business flourishes until rains come and Zelig is nowhere to be found. When Yossi realizes a circus is in town, he knows where to go find his new friend. The title, however, is a bit misleading as the Shavuot content is rather sketchy. In the final pages, Zelig joins Yossi and family at a festive Shavuot meal of blintzes as Yossi presents Shavuot flowers to his wife. A short author’s note explains a bit about the holiday.

The Greatest Ten” by Janice Surlin. Illustrated by Rivka Krinsky. (Hummingbird Jewel Press, 2017)

Los Angeles author Janice Surlin has been writing stories for Jewish children for years, and this first effort in self-publishing is a great success. She takes pains to show respect for all denominations of Judaism in the text and illustrations. Examples include depicting figures dressed modestly and all males wearing kippot, while the theme of universal ethics as depicted by the Ten Commandments is appropriate for all. The commandments are explained by a rhyme scheme that can be delightfully sung to the tune of “This Old Man,” such as the first verse, “I am God, I am One, I am God for everyone.” When dealing with the commandment not to commit adultery, readers observe a wedding couple under a chuppah and sing this verse:

When you love someone who

Cares about and loves you too,

How you act is the only way for your love to show

And be loyal, God says so

The bright watercolor illustrations will engage pre-school children at Shavuot and any other time of year.

Amelia Saltsman's silan. Photo by Tess Cutler

In the land of milk and silan


The Bible drips with mentions of honey. There’s the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey; its symbolic use at Rosh Hashanah for a sweet new year; and at Shavuot, coming next week, to represent the sweetness of the gift of the Torah. And then there are those sensual lines in The Song of Songs: “Sweetness drops from your lips, O bride; honey and milk are under your tongue.”

But what sort of honey? Historians now believe that most biblical mentions of honey refer not to the golden nectar produced by bees, but to a syrup prepared from dates. This makes sense. Reducing bushels of dates — one of the revered seven biblical species — into amphorae of “honey” turns out to be a perfect preservation method. Not to mention, those long-lasting jars of the region’s first sweetener were immensely portable just in case of an expulsion, say, to Babylon.

[Recipe: Silan recipe for Shavuot]

Creating date honey, dibs in Arabic (also translated into English as date molasses or syrup), was, and is, a processing technique common to all date-growing regions of the Middle East and North Africa. For Jews, the culinary tradition is most associated with the Jews of Iraq (ah, Babylon), who spoke Judeo-Arabic. They called it silan, the term adopted into modern Hebrew.

According to Jewish food scholar Gil Marks, Iraqi silan-based charoset, halek in Judeo-Arabic, is the original “mortar,” a logical deduction, given the abundance of dates in early Jewish civilizations and the absence of apples. (The Ashkenazi apple-based version is a mere thousand or so years old.) Traditionally, silan was made once a year after the date harvest in early fall, giving dates and date honey first-fruit status at Rosh Hashanah.

Over the millennia, silan has never been out of production, whether at home or in date-syrup manufactories. (Date presses were found in the ruins at Qumran and elsewhere; modern Israeli commercial production didn’t begin until the early 1980s). The sweetener always has been highly regarded by locals for its antibacterial and antioxidant properties and thought to aid a variety of conditions, including lowering blood pressure and enhancing sexual prowess.

With today’s growing interest in Middle Eastern cuisines, silan is having a well-deserved moment. The ancient recipe is pretty much the same one used today: one ingredient plus water subjected to four basic techniques in sequence — soaking, cooking, extracting and reducing — that require no kitchen inventions beyond fire. The result is something of a miracle: silky smooth, rich brown that glows auburn when the light catches it, and complex notes of deep caramel, citrus and even coffee revealed through long, slow cooking. And, once upon a time I imagine, there were hints of smoke as the date extract slowly reduced over live embers.

I wanted in. I needed to join the ancient lineage of cooks in a process little changed by modern technology. My fascination with silan began with my paternal grandmother, Rachel Yochanan Ben-Aziz, who came from many generations in Iraq before she, my grandfather Ezekiel, and six of their seven children, among them my father, immigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine in the early 1930s. Although I learned a lot about Iraqi cooking from Safta Rachel during our visits to Israel and hers to us in Los Angeles, I somehow missed the bit about silan until after she had died.

A few years ago, my cousin told me about our safta’s delicious silan-and-toasted-pecan charoset. I immediately added it to our Passover traditions, using ready-made syrup I bought at the Iranian market in my neighborhood. Then, one day, my Aunt Hanna let slip that safta used to make her own silan. Wait, what?!?

I had little to go on. From Hanna, I knew only that my grandmother had soaked a lot of dates in water and enlisted her nephews to vigorously wring, that is, extract, the “juice.” Initial research in cookbooks and online didn’t offer much more. In fact, I discovered some pretty wild attempts to re-create silan, including the addition of copious amounts of sugar. This would have been unlikely in the original process, since, at 60- to 80-percent sugar, dates were the regional source for sugar production, not sugar cane or beets. And besides, how would my grandmother have had access to all that sugar in those early lean years in Israel? My guess is that the use of cane sugar is a modern shortcut to thick syrup, and that the missing ingredients lost through the years were a couple of steps plus time and patience.

But, the misguided sugar shortcut offers clues. Because date solids are very dense, water must be introduced to release the sugar, resulting in diluted flavor. A second step was needed — cooking the soaked pulp — to begin reconcentrating the sugars and start caramelization.

Then, using what I know about making clear caramel syrup by slowly heating, melting and reducing cane sugar with a little water to keep it liquified, I applied those principles to Safta Rachel’s extracted “date juice.” That was it; a slow reduction was the fourth and final step to gorgeous silan.

So, not exactly a recipe. Just four rudimentary techniques that ask a cook to slow down, pay attention and develop a feel for the process. Making silan never ceases to surprise me. I’ve learned something new with every batch I’ve made these past few months. I suspect it will always be thus. Perhaps by the time I will have been at it as long as my grandmother was, I’ll be OK with that.

Amelia Saltsman

Here’s what you need to know about making silan at home. It requires a lot of dates. Two pounds net a scant two cups of syrup, which is actually an ample amount of honey. Any number of date varieties will work, such as barhi, medjool, halawy or khadrawy. Each imparts its own color and flavor characteristics to the finished silan, and each particular batch of dates affects the cooking time and final yield, depending on how fibrous or dried it is. Avoid the deglet noor variety, the most commonly available cultivar; it changes color when exposed to heat and yields beet-red silan. And the honey date variety, I learned from Chef Jeremy Fox, turns purple when cooked.

Start soaking the dates the night before you want to make silan, and figure on a half day of intermittent work to finish. There’s not a lot of active work other than the extraction step; plan on puttering around the house as the dates cook, cool and reduce in turn.

Invest in a nut-milk bag to simplify the extraction step, but don’t bother to spend money on pitted dates or take time to pit them, since you’ll discard all the date solids anyway. The uncracked pits may even add flavor — there’s a traditional date-pit coffee substitute made from roasted and ground seeds.

The syrup is rather forgiving. If you’ve reduced it too far and it’s turning into taffy, stir in a little water and cook briefly to restore. After you pour the finished silan into jars, deglaze the pot with water for a small, second round of thin silan that is the cook’s reward.

And here’s what you should do with silan. Drizzle over almond butter or tahini and toast for a breakfast of champions. Spoon over thick yogurt or vanilla ice cream and top with strawberries, bananas or orange segments, and chopped nuts (a little crumbled halvah couldn’t hurt). Use silan instead of molasses or brown sugar in pies and cookies. Mix it with harissa for a spicy-sweet mop for grilled vegetables. When served with shanklish — a Lebanese way with labneh with za’atar and garlic — and the green wheat known as freekeh — “new ears parched with fire” — this main dish becomes a Shavuot homage to both milk and honey and the spring wheat harvest we’ve been so anxiously awaiting.

Ready-Made Silan

Let’s get real. Silan is too wonderful and versatile to enjoy only when you have time to make your own. Ready-made silan is a fantastic convenience condiment to have in one’s pantry — if you buy a good-quality one. Now you know to look for those that contain dates and nothing else (some ingredient lists include water; some don’t). Various brands have long been available at Middle Eastern, Iranian and Israeli markets. Silan has gone mainstream enough to show up at Whole Foods and other high-end supermarkets; Date Lady, an American brand selling imported silan, is the most commonly found. My favorite commercial Israeli brand is Kinneret Farm, the country’s largest producer of high-quality silan. It is available online at makoletonline.com and on Amazon. I haven’t yet found it on grocery shelves in the Los Angeles area.

From barley to holiness in 49 days


We have a tendency in the Jewish world to jump very quickly to the meaning of things. A good example is the tradition of counting the Omer, the 49 days from Passover to Shavuot. This odd ritual is loaded with symbolic meaning. You can read many commentaries on how the 49 days are a period of spiritual preparation for the awesome experience of receiving the Torah on Shavuot, how each day represents an opportunity to repair our impurities, and so forth.

But while I do enjoy the jump from ritual to meaning, there’s also something to be said for the value of a story itself. Where does this unusual ritual come from? And what can it tell us about our people and our tradition?

It turns out it all started with a little barley.

The Jews were very much a people of agriculture during biblical times. Their Whole Foods was really whole foods. Their ability to work the land, especially for the making of bread, was a matter of holiness and survival. It was an elaborate process: Oxen helped plow the land, seeds were sown by hand, grain was reaped with a sickle and brought to a threshing floor, where it was ground and then winnowed of debris, and so on until a beautiful loaf of bread was born.

There was a sense of miracle about all this. Our ancestors were intimately aware that growing food could never happen without the raw gifts from God, from rain and earth and wind, to the sun, fire and animals. Finding ways of thanking God was a dominant theme of the time, and bringing sacrifices to the Temple was one of the holier ways. It’s not well known that many of these sacrifices did not involve animals but agricultural produce.

The tradition at harvest times was to bring as an offering a part of that harvest. Each Jewish farmer, for example, was required to bring to the Holy Temple the first of each fruit that ripened on his farm.

Which brings us back to barley, the crop harvested at Passover at the beginning of the harvest season. To show gratitude to God and pray for continued blessings, on the second day of Passover, our ancestors would bring an omer (“sheaf”) of barley to the Holy Temple.

Forty-nine days later, on Shavuot, the kohanim (priests) would bring two loaves of bread as an offering to God. These loaves came from wheat, which was considered a higher-grade crop than barley. One interpretation for the ritual of counting the 49 days is that it was a way of ascending from the humble barley crop to the majestic loaf of bread.

It makes sense, then, that Shavuot would be the time to celebrate the receiving of the Torah. The Torah is God’s ultimate gift to our people — the spiritual loaf of bread that has kept us nourished for millennia.

The Jews were very much a people of agriculture during Biblical times. Their Whole Foods was really whole foods.

The power of this gift is not just that it is full of fascinating stories and moral ideas,  but that these stories and ideas are embodied in concrete rituals that keep us connected to God and our ancestors.

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., the Jews were faced with perhaps their greatest challenge: How do you continue a tradition of rituals without the physical structure upon which so many of these rituals revolved?

How do you suddenly shift to a new way of thanking God after doing it the same way for centuries? And who decides on this new paradigm?

The sages of the Talmud did. It was the centuries of talmudic debate and argument that created Judaism 2.0 and enabled the tradition to survive without its physical core.

One of the ways we bring offerings to God in our days is through prayers and the recitation of blessings. It’s not the same, of course, as bringing a sheaf of barley to a magnificent structure in Jerusalem, but that’s not the point.

The point is this: Holy Temple or not, can we still strive for holiness? And can we honor the rituals that help us strive for that holiness?

Finding personal meaning when we practice the rituals is one way to honor them. Another is to delve into the stories in which these rituals are rooted.

I love seeing how far our ancestors went to honor God. I love imagining the elaborate process they went through as they trekked from the fields to the Temple to thank their Creator for the simple miracle of barley.

And I especially love that a few thousand years later, we’re still talking about it.


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

Forced to pick between observance and graduation, Jewish Bruins choose both


Aaron Ebriani was 11 when his father, Eli, died, and the event inspired him to honor his memory by fulfilling as many mitzvot as possible — and by helping others do the same.

So when he realized a few months ago that all of UCLA’s departmental graduations fell on Shabbat or the holiday of Shavuot, he saw a chance to commemorate his father by helping some fellow students keep the faith.  

“I jumped on it,” he said onstage June 9, standing in front of about 80 other Jewish undergraduates during a ceremony he instituted. “This entire graduation was done in [my father’s] name.” 

Ebriani’s realization was followed by a flurry of emails and hours of meetings to organize a Thursday afternoon graduation that Jewish students could attend without violating proscriptions against driving or carrying objects on a holiday.

To demonstrate the need for such an event, he circulated a petition to present to UCLA’s administration that gathered more than 300 signatures. Later, Rebecca Zaghi, a graduating senior who directed the event, went through each of the names on the petition to send an invitation via text message.

Although Shabbat-observant Jews could attend a class-wide graduation before dusk on June 10, they would have had to break Shabbat or Shavuot to attend the smaller ceremony in the following days associated with their individual majors.

“The whole idea was that departmental [graduations] are more small and intimate,” Zaghi told the Journal. “They’re the people that you’ve taken classes with and grown with.”

Statistics from UCLA and the Jewish student organization Hillel International suggest that most of the approximately 450 Jewish UCLA seniors did not attend the ceremony. But, using Hillel at UCLA’s status as a registered campus organization, along with $1,000 in Hillel funding, the June 9 graduation nearly filled each of the 505 seats in the auditorium of UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall with friends and families.

“You have 80 Jewish students who for the first time ever self-organized a graduation so that they could observe our traditions,” said Rabbi Aaron Lerner, executive director of Hillel at UCLA. “It’s amazing. It’s really amazing.”

Zaghi said that at her and Ebriani’s urging, UCLA administrators have made note of the next year when Shavuot would interfere with graduation — 2024 — and are taking steps to avoid the conflict. But she said now that the tradition has started, moving forward, “Why shouldn’t the Jewish community have their own graduation?”

“If it wasn’t for Shavuot and the whole conflict with graduation, none of us would be here today,” Ebriani said at the event. “So let’s take a moment to appreciate that.”

The ceremony began after the graduates filed in to “Pomp and Circumstance.” Then Heather Rosen, the UCLA student president, who is Jewish, called for a moment of silence for William Klug, the professor slain on campus the previous week in a murder-suicide, along with the four victims of a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv the day before. The sound of raucous cheers and air horns blown with abandon quickly died out as audience members bowed their heads.

Toward the end of the ceremony, when UCLA Dean of Students Maria Blandizzi asked the crowd to hold its applause until she finished conferring degrees, her request predictably fell on deaf ears, as celebratory cries and air horns sounded nearly throughout, despite a visibly irate usher who confiscated the noisemakers.

When Ebriani marched across the stage, it was a culmination not just of a UCLA degree, but also months spent to put the event together. “It really wasn’t the easiest thing,” he said in an interview the next day. “But I’m glad we did it.” 

IKAR’s progressive Shavuot learning experience


IKAR, a politically liberal Jewish community with a focus on social justice, went progressive in another sense during a June 11 Shavuot Torah study program. That’s when about 130 participants started at one member’s home and, over the course of the night, walked to the backyards of two other IKAR members to continue studying. 

At each stop of the IKAR Shavuot Street Crawl, attendees basked in the warmth of heat lamps, consumed vegetarian chili and mini-desserts of the brownie and cheesecake variety, and got down to studying source sheets with some of the community’s leading teachers. 

Upon arrival at each location, guests were asked to wear a sticker that answered a question; these were then used as icebreakers. For instance, at the first stop — the home of Steven Rubenstein and Laura Spitzer — people were asked whom their dream dinner date would be: Barbra Streisand, Moses, Larry David or Ruth Bader Ginsberg (whose stickers disappeared quickly).

To launch the evening, IKAR Cantor Hillel Tigay and his trusty guitar led the assembled in a rousing Havdalah marking the separation between the holiness of Shabbat and the holiness of Shavuot, the day which commemorates the Jewish people’s receipt of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Under slightly cloudy skies, participants took seats in dozens of folding chairs all over the backyard, some of them adjacent to rosemary plants that filled the air with their distinctive fragrance.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies at American Jewish University, launched the learning with an exploration of the kabbalistic sefirot, the 10 attributes or emanations of God, charging participants to consider which sefira — crown, wisdom, understanding, power, love, beauty, splendor, eternity, foundation or presence — best described the manner in which they received their own personal Torah. Artson also guided participants through texts that explored the relationship between God and the Jewish people.

Tigay provided musical transitions between elements of the evening, playing diverse tunes like “Norwegian Wood” and “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” as people took their seats or availed themselves of refreshments.

Stop No. 2 was the home of Amy Slomovits and Jeremy Goldscheider, where the arrival stickers featured favorite inventions — like telephones, the internet and ice cream makers — and the presenting rabbis stood in front of a wooden swingset as they spoke. 

IKAR Associate Rabbi Ronit Tsadok charged attendees to think about a time when they were absolutely convinced that they had all the right information, only to discover that they were absolutely wrong, and discuss it with a partner who had the same sticker; some conversations focused on information that comes over social media and is widely distributed, only to be proven to be false later. 

Then Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of the Miller Introduction to Judaism program at American Jewish University, led the group in identifying anxieties about participation in prayer, including not knowing the prayers, the tunes, the language, the expectations of the community. Greenwald suggested, based on an idea by writer Anne Lamott, that there are three ways that everyone can pray: “help,” asking for something that’s needed; “thanks,” acknowledging the things for which we are grateful; and “wow,” an expression for something amazing in the world. 

For the 50 or so people with the stamina to last beyond midnight, the final stop of the night — with stickers asking guests to designate a “spirit animal,” an animal with which they felt a particular affinity, like a mouse, a unicorn or a giraffe — was at the home of IKAR Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous and David Light. 

As chocolate-covered strawberries made the rounds, guests paired up (designated by finding another person with the same sticker) to study some formative texts about Moses: his birth and extraction from the Nile; his encounter with the Egyptian beating a Hebrew; and his involvement in defending the daughters of the priest of Midian.

After Brous concluded, the group dispersed, and while a few stalwart students (and a few of the teachers) made their way to Temple Beth Am for all-night study, most returned to their homes for some well-deserved rest, having brought in the holiday with both study and sweets.

A Shavuot all-nighter at Temple Beth Am


Charlie Carnow showed up at Temple Beth Am on June 11 with big plans. A paper in his pocket listed all the synagogues he wanted to visit on Shavuot: Beth Am, B’nai David-Judea and LINK Kollel & Shul.

But, midway through the evening, he gave up on his temple-hopping ambitions and decided to stay put at Beth Am, which, like numerous area congregations, held an all-night learning session in celebration of the holiday that marks the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The importance of attending the program, “The Torah of Me: How Do You Receive Torah,” was simple, said Carnow, a member of IKAR.

“It’s escaping the world of work, and devoting yourself to Torah,” he said.

The Shavuot experience at Beth Am began with afternoon prayer, followed by a light dinner. It continued with an opening session at 9 p.m., “Torah Through Our Multiple Intelligences,” featuring songwriter Craig Taubman, sans guitar, leading attendees in song.

Taubman also discussed current events, specifically the broadcast of the Muhammad Ali memorial that had aired the previous day. He read aloud some of the criticism that had been lobbed at Rabbi Michael Lerner, a progressive rabbi who protested the Vietnam War with Ali and whose remarks at the memorial denounced the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

“I was more critical of the criticism of him, than his actual remarks,” Taubman said in an interview after the holiday. “I don’t have to agree with his remarks, but I do have to agree with the right for him to speak his Torah, and that’s what Shavuot is about, that if everybody receives Torah, then everybody should have the right to speak their Torah and not be edited or chastised for having a point of view that’s not yours.”

Other speakers at the kickoff session included Rabbi Aryeh Cohen of the American Jewish University Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and his wife, Andrea Hodos, part-time program director at NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, along with Dan Messinger, owner of Bibi’s Bakery & Cafe in Pico-Robertson, who spoke about operating the cafe and how it affords him the opportunity to interact with Jews of all backgrounds.

Breakout sessions followed, and around midnight, about 25 people gathered in the Temple Beth Am Pressman Academy Lainer Library to discuss how to make God more prevalent at Jewish summer camp. Camp Ramah in California staff members Dani Kohanzadeh and Ami Fields-Meyer led the session, during which attendees grappled with quotes about God from the likes of Martin Buber and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Outside the library, attendees munched on brownies, fruit and vegetables and filled their cups with caffeinated drinks. They also indulged in cheesecake — like learning, it is customary to eat dairy foods on Shavuot.

While adults enjoyed the intellectual stimulation that was occurring on the upper floors of the congregation’s campus, students of Pressman Academy, the synagogue’s elementary and middle school, had a different kind of experience on the lower floors: a sleepover party.

Supervised by Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman, director of youth learning and engagement at Beth Am, pajama-clad kids wandered around the hallways or played table tennis and foosball in the campus recreational room. (Hoffman managed to find some time to dedicate himself to pursue learning, sitting in the back of the room during one session with his head buried in a book.)

Without question, some of the students could have used the caffeine available upstairs. “I’m so tired right now,” one Pressman student told a friend while walking like a zombie down a hallway.

The helpful reply: “Go to sleep.”

The Hottest Summer in Baghdad: 75th anniversary of the Farhud


The festival of Shavuot, which this year took place June 12-13, commemorates a time when Jews received the Torah at Mount Sinai. It also marks the beginning of a new agricultural season, Chag Hakatsir (The Harvest Holiday). It comes seven weeks after Passover.

Shavuot in Baghdad marks the beginning of the brutal summer heat and dry weather. The temperature during the day reaches up to 110 degrees, and at times even 120 degrees. Air conditioning and refrigerators were unheard of when I was growing up in the 1930s. At night, it cooled off a bit. Everyone slept on the roofs of their houses. Poor people slept outdoors.

After a joyful celebration of Passover with family and friends, I remember we children anxiously waiting for the new and different celebration of Shavuot.

On the eve of Shavuot, my uncles and distant relatives would come to our house. They prayed and chanted throughout the night, reading the book of Ruth and studying Torah. Grownups and children would stay up late all night, enjoying delicious festive foods and sweets, and light candles for the departed.  One of my fondest memories is gathering around the kindled lights with my cousins collecting the wax and making different figurine and animals.

On the actual day of Shavuot, many families went on a Ziara (Pilgrimage) to visit the grave of the biblical Prophet Ezekiel, on the Euphrates River, some 50 miles away from Baghdad. This was a great time for us children to play with others in the community and picnic with many of my Mom’s treats such as chicken rice with almonds and raisins, along with other snacks, such as mango and cucumber pickles.

The Shavuot of 1941 fell on June 1 and 2. On April 13, 1941, a pro-Nazi Coup was headed by Rashid Ali Algailkani and plotted successfully by the German attaché Dr. Fritz Grova and the grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin Al Husani. This inextricably lead King Faisal, the Regent Abdyl Illah and the Prime Minister Taha Al Hashimi to flee Baghdad.

Radio Baghdad, the government’s mouthpiece, along with other media outlets, began a steady stream of anti-Jewish propaganda. On the Daily, public hatred increased as the summer heat and shook up every Iraqi Jew to the core. Many stayed home fearing for their lives. I distinctly remember my father and my older brothers not being able to hide their sadness and worries of what was to come. They tried to put on a happy face, thinking that would protect me, 11 years old, and my 8-year-old brother, Nory. We were restricted from leaving the house, which made things worse for us. I began to have nightmares and sleepless nights. I found myself crying for no reason at all.

The Iraqi coup leaders in Baghdad, decided to do the next best thing — exterminate the Jewish population in a single blow. Jews were ordered to stay in their homes. The “proto-Nazi youth movement,” Al Futuwwa, marked the doors of the Jewish home with a red Hamsa (shape of a palm, a symbol that allowed the rioters to identify Jewish homes.

On May 31, the British forces arrived with fresh troops from Nepal and India on the outskirts of Baghdad. The extermination plot fell apart. The coup leaders fled, which created a power vacuum.

Bands of soldiers in concert with police in civilian clothing, and common criminals along with nondescript mobs, rampaged through Baghdad hunting for Jews. They were easy to fine. Hundreds of Jews were cut down by sword and rifle, some even decapitated. Babies were sliced in half and thrown into the Tigris River. Girls were raped in front of their parents. Parents were mercilessly killed in front of their children.

Hundreds of Jewish homes and businesses were looted and then burnt. The official government count shows that 180 were killed and 240 wounded; private estimates indicate as many as 400 were killed and 2,100 injured. There were no arrests, convictions or sentencing. Jews were afraid to report or file a complaint against any Muslim, for fear of retaliation and threats to their lives.

For almost two days, June 1-2, the carnage continued unabated. If it weren’t for some righteous Muslim men standing in front of Jewish homes with knives, daggers, and swords preventing the rioters from breaking into Jewish homes, the carnage would have been much more devastating. Those were the decent and honorable Muslims, the Righteous among the Nations.

We began fortifying our house. We reinforced the front door by stacking heavy furniture against it. My brother Eliyahoo electrified the chicken wire fence atop the stone wall on our side of the garden. I helped carry buckets of boiling water to the roof, ready to toss on marauders if needed. From the second-floor window, I saw looters on the street carrying away clothes and boxes. We stayed awake all night. Two of my brothers maintained contact with the neighbors via the roof, bringing any news downstairs. By afternoon the next day, June 2, the British soldiers had entered Baghdad and quelled the riots. We were safe.

My family was fortunate; we had moved a year earlier from the old city to Bab el Shargy close to the Tigris River. My Uncle Moshi and Uncle Meir’s houses in the old city were totally emptied. They escaped by jumping from their roof to the neighbor’s and then to another. They were lucky; they sustained minor injuries —twisted ankle and scratches.

This Holocaust-era pogrom became known as the Farhud. In Arabic, it means “violent dispossession.” The Farhud left bitterness and hopelessness in the hearts of the Iraq Jewish community. Many wanted to leave after the Farhud, but there was no place to go to or a country that would take us in.

After the establishment of the State of Israel, in 1948, most of the Iraqi community, including my family and I, fled to Israel. We became refugees. We stood in line for free meals, slept on a steel bed anchored in the sand during scorching hot summers.  We had left behind our homes, our stores and other businesses, our land, buildings, schools and other property.

The memory of a few, decent and honorable Muslims’ and their deep friendship was overshadowed by the long history of fear, pain, suffering and humiliation. I doubt if there is one Jew from an Arab land or Islamic country who would ever entertain the idea of going back to live there again permanently. We are lucky to be out and lucky to be where we are.

In 1948, there were some 135,000 Jews in Iraq. Baghdad’s population was nearly 25 percent Jewish. By 1953, some 80 percent had left for Israel. The rest stayed, deluding themselves that they would be seen as loyal Iraqis. Over the years, they have faced systemic pauperization — their bank accounts were frozen, and they have faced trumped-up charges and forced confessions through torture.  In 1969, seven Jews were hanged in Baghdad’s public square, accused of spying.  At present, this 26-century-old Jewish community has now totally vanished. Only 8 Jews are reported to remain.

This Shavuot marks the 75th anniversary of the Farhud. It was commemorated in four cities — London, New York, Washington and Jerusalem — by lighting 27 candles, one for each century the Jews inhabited the land. It is also commemorated annually by the survivors, their descendants and every decent freedom loving person, I know.


Joe Samuels is a native of Baghdad who served in the Israeli navy from 1950 to 1953. He has been living in Santa Monica for the past 36 years with his wife, Ruby, and his family. He is a retired real estate developer and currently serves on the board of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, Los Angeles.

After Orlando: Heartbroken, but with resolve


My heart is broken. I woke up Shavuot morning inspired by a night of study with my Reform colleagues and our communities. I was ready to receive the Torah at our morning service as we stood at Sinai again and then celebrate the continuation of gay pride weekend the same day.

Yet, I awoke to horror and tragedy. The Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., was targeted by a madman, a terrorist who murdered young people dancing the night away. He murdered LGBTQ young people because of their gender identity and sexual orientation. He murdered people because he was taught to hate. He terrorized our nation and me because of his radicalization that has gone unchecked.

And then the texts came in from community activists that a man had been detained in Santa Monica on his way to West Hollywood’s LA Pride parade armed with weapons and materials for an improvised explosive device.

I am still shaking. Young people ought to be out on a Saturday night dancing. Celebrating the gift of their youth, with the pulsing beat of the bass line all that they should hear. Not the sound of rapid, automatic gunfire and bullets tearing through flesh.

Shavuot morning services should have lifted us up as we received the Torah again. I could not wish my congregation a chag sameach on this blood-stained morning. I couldn’t help but focus on the sixth commandment, “Lo Tirzach,” “Thou shalt not murder.” Has our world gone so mad that it enables murder to be committed in such wholesale ways?

This is not the first time that the LGBTQ community has been attacked. The gay pride movement got its start as a response to a police raid on a gay bar in New York City in 1969.  And the LGBTQ community remembers only too well the fire in 1973 at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans, and the murder and torture of Matthew Shepard in Fort Collins, Colo., in 1998, or the hundreds of violent deaths of transgender people, gay men and lesbians each year. Even this year, in March in Los Angeles, a young man was shot by his father because he was gay. This kind of hatred and violence is not isolated to some remote small town or a particular region of our country.

This heinous crime committed in Orlando rings across our nation. For me, it must be a wake-up call. Gun violence is an epidemic. Those who oppose background checks for gun buyers or removing assault weapons from the streets are sorely misguided. How many more have to die? We said it after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and the murders at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. We said it after Virginia Tech and just two weeks ago at UCLA.

Our Jewish community knows only too well the consequences of terror and guns in Israel and here. We have experienced firsthand the horrific moments at the North Valley Jewish Community Center and the murders at the Jewish Federation offices in Seattle and the cafes in Tel Aviv. We as a community must work hard to change the national conversation about gun violence.

The hate-filled rhetoric that surrounds us must be silenced. There are too many political leaders and religious leaders who teach that the LGBTQ community is less than human.

The backlash against the LGBTQ community since last year’s Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality is vicious. With the introduction and passage of so many legislative bills across the United States that take away basic human rights, even to use a bathroom, the environment against LGBTQ people has become even more toxic than before. Many of those bills give businesses and individuals the right to discriminate in the public square. This coordinated attack on the LGBTQ community gives permission to continue to dehumanize gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender people. Why are they so afraid of us? Of me?

We must not give in to our fears, but must live our strengths and act as our God teaches us to act in the belief that all people are created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. I believe we must insist on better from ourselves and those who want to lead — be they clerics, politicians, teachers, celebrities or journalists.

The LGBTQ revolution began as an effort to be left alone. It began as a way to say “Stop harassing us. Let us be ourselves, and we will speak up and march for and with our dignity and for our rights.” That is really the idea behind pride.

When we talk about this past weekend — and the pride celebrations of the LGBTQ community — this, my friends, is what we are striving for. The freedom to be ourselves. To stand strong in our abilities. To assert our equality and speak our truths. And even when they try to strip us of our civil rights, to fight not with anger, but with dignity, love and strength.

We, the Jewish people, have always been an “or lagoyim,” a “light to the nations.” We have just received our Torah once again at Sinai in the wilderness. The great Babylonian rabbi, Rava, taught that when people open themselves to everyone like a wilderness, God gives them the Torah.

It is time to teach and lead that openness to all. Our Torah teaches us, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This must be our commitment to changing the rhetoric and hate focused at the LGBTQ community. It must be our commitment in thought and deed and, yes, in the House and Senate, and state legislatures and everywhere.

Today I am still mourning the deaths of these young people in Orlando. Young people whose lives were cut short. I send my consolation and condolences to the families and friends who have lost someone in this violent tragedy. I pray for healing for all those injured and give thanks for the responders, the doctors, nurses, police and fire departments, ambulance drivers and people who helped rescue and treat the victims.

But when the time of our mourning has ended, I will redouble my efforts to eradicate discrimination and violence against the LGBTQ community. I will work for safe and sane gun regulations and reach out to those that are perceived as “other” in friendship and love.


Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and the current president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Shavuot and Pride Week: A double holiday turns to grief


Jewish mysticism holds that every year at around midnight on Shavuot, the skies open up, as they did in the Torah story over Mount Sinai, for prayers to ascend to God.

Not long after the skies were supposed to have opened this year, 49 people were murdered by a terrorist in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., and 50 more were wounded — the deadliest mass shooting in American history. 

On the opposite side of the country in Los Angeles, news of the massacre instantly transformed what would have been a festive, double-holiday weekend — Shavuot and pride week — into a community-wide exercise in grief, courage and solidarity.

Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood learned about the massacre in a text from the shul’s rabbinic student as she was preparing for the Sunday morning holiday service. The devastating news came after a long night at a Shavuot teach-in with seven other Reform synagogues at Stephen Wise Temple.

The news quickly put a damper on a weekend that began at Kol Ami with a Friday evening gay pride service.

“We prayed for the welfare of lesbian, gay and transgender people; we prayed for our straight allies and friends,” Eger said in a phone call with the Journal. “And then you wake up the day after Shabbos in the midst of supposedly a holiday where we’re wishing each other ‘chag sameach’ [happy holiday].”

She added, “I said to my congregation this morning, ‘I don’t really feel like I can do the joy part this morning.’ I can’t wish them a happy holiday.”

By the time the pride parade was starting in West Hollywood on June 12, the news was beginning to percolate through concerned calls, texts and social media posts.

Neil Spears, a board member at JQ International, a Jewish LGBTQ support and educational organization, read about the massacre before he even got out of bed. But the news suddenly became personal when he got a call on his way to the parade from a friend who had been at the nightclub that evening.

The friend was calling to tell Spears about a man who’d been heading to the L.A. pride parade when he was arrested in Santa Monica with weapons and supplies for explosives. 

He also mentioned that a friend of his had been killed in Orlando, and another was unaccounted for.

“I just had to sit down on the sidewalk,” Spears said. “I just had to stop and pause, because it hits really close to home.”

When he arrived at the JQ International office, which is on the parade route, he found that security had been stepped up because of the Santa Monica incident. He was supposed to lead a meeting of the Jewish Queer Straight Alliance (JQSA), a group for teens, but entry to the office was restricted to minors. So they met on the sidewalk with the parade in full swing.

At one point, Ron Galperin, L.A.’s city controller and the first openly gay person elected to citywide office, came by on a float while Spears was meeting with the teens.

“I said to them, ‘That guy up there is gay and Jewish,’ and then they cheered,” he said. “They were happy to know that.”

In advance of the parade, Galperin released a statement saying, “The parade is a chance for the LGBT community to come together in the name of love — love for one another and for ourselves. Today we extend that love to our brothers and sisters in Orlando and march in solidarity with them.”

Tami Miller, JQ International’s development director, who marched in the parade with people from her organization and other Jewish groups, said that the number of marchers was lower than in years past because of the holiday.

She said she hadn’t heard about the massacre until after she arrived at the pride parade — by which time, fortunately, she had a group of friendly faces to help her cope.

“Today was our vigil,” she said. “And the way we did our vigil is to be proud and be strong.”

Miller added that the organization will be looking to expand its program, offering inclusion training for Jewish organizations on how to interact with LGBT issues and vice versa.

At the corner of La Cienega and Santa Monica boulevards, Beth Chayim Chadashim Cantor Juval Porat and Rabbi Heather Miller stood alongside a banner reading “World Congress of GLBT Jews.”

Speaking from the parade by phone with the Journal later that day, Porat said events such as the shooting in Orlando should galvanize the community around LGBT issues.

“Today, LGBT people and their allies should march prouder and louder and more colorful, and just shout out the values upon which I believe society can be healthy — and that is love and acceptance and inclusion and, most of all, less focused on fear and less focused on bashing others and judging others. … It might sound banal and trite, but this is what it’s about. It’s not easy; we’re trying to model that,” he said.

Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet, a national organization that works toward LGBT inclusion in the Jewish community, said in a statement that she had been contacted with messages of solidarity from Christian and Muslim leaders. 

“When the shooter opened fire, many Jews were observing the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates when the Jewish people stood together at Mt. Sinai,” the statement read.

It continued, “So, too, we stand together in solidarity with the people of Orlando and with LGBTQ people and allies everywhere.”

Rabbi Zach Shapiro, who leads Temple Akiba in Culver City and is married to Galperin, offered his thoughts in an email to the Journal.

“Ecclesiastes teaches, ‘There is a time to be silent and a time to speak,’ ” he wrote. “While a moment of silence may feel appropriate in memory of the precious souls that were murdered — silence won’t make the very real issues we face disappear.” 

He added, “It is a time to speak to each other. We can only face these issues when we engage in earnest, and often difficult, conversations.”

The Torah of female power


Men had their chance. 

I’m even willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and say maybe they didn’t rule the world as badly as it seems they did. Because the truth is, we do not yet know what an equal world looks like, let alone one in which the world’s women might hold a disproportionate balance of power. So the notion that a better world than the one we have now might exist remains strictly speculative. 

But if the wildly unpredictable U.S. election has taught us anything about the direction of our future, it’s that change is not only necessary, it’s imminent. 

Like her or loathe her, this week Hillary Clinton became the first woman in U.S. history to clinch the Democratic nomination for president. And you know what? That’s f—–g cool. 

In the same week, Forbes released its annual list of the world’s most powerful women, with Clinton coming in second behind German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Last year, Merkel stunned the international community when she dared to invite hundreds of thousands of refugees inside Germany’s borders, demonstrating the courage to do something many believed unimaginable and dangerously unpredictable. Perhaps it takes a leader who comes from outside the conventions of power to make choices that defy convention. 

But even with modern, wind-tunnel forces like Sheryl Sandberg and Melinda Gates, Oprah Winfrey and Anna Wintour, Christine Lagarde and Michelle Obama, “Statistics on women in positions of power remain bleak,” Forbes noted. Citing the nonprofit tracker Catalyst, a survey found that women occupy only “a measly 4% of corner offices at S&P 500 companies. And they hold only 25% of executive or senior-level jobs in those same firms.”

The fact that this list exists at all is a triumph; it is a public nod to women’s impact on the engines of our world, and it is evidence of a spreading, worldwide contagion.

In the Jewish community, the Jewish Women’s Archive in partnership with Jewish Women’s Theatre recently launched an online database of women rabbis that explores how female leaders are transforming Judaism. Since 2009, the organizers surveyed women rabbis from across the denominational spectrum, and their testimonies describe risky, experimental and innovative choices that are revitalizing Jewish life to the point of “renaissance.” 

And yet, we live in a world of contradictions. For every bit of progress — in every sphere — inequality remains. We see it in Jewish liturgy and communal life, and in the wider world. Ordaining women rabbis was a good first step in expanding the unharnessed potential of Jewish possibility; but how many women run our community’s most important institutions? And how much are they paid in comparison with their male counterparts? 

Liberation is a process still unfurling. We know that for every Forbes woman of power, there are tens of millions of women around the world who suffer the daily indignities of utter powerlessness. What does female power even mean if those with newly realized strength do not uplift those who are weak? 

As Shavuot teaches us, liberation alone is not enough. You can leave Egypt and become free, but freedom is meaningless without a system for living that ensures freedom for all. The only thing that could stop newly freed slaves from repeating the mistakes of their oppressors was to give them Torah — a system of laws that could shape a just and fair society. 

Isaiah Berlin famously taught that there are two kinds of freedoms: freedom from and freedom to. What good is freedom from oppression without the will to make a better world? 

So I say to the world’s powerful women: Liberation is only the first step. It is now up to you to use your newfound power to enact the values that feminism has always promised. Electing a woman to the highest office in the land is meaningless unless that woman ensures that all the things she’s talked about become real — including women’s reproductive rights, paid maternity leave for families, equal pay for equal work and rebuilding the middle class. To be able simply to call someone “Madam President” is a mark of liberation, not transformation. Without the will to change, it would be like leaving Egypt without ever getting to Sinai. 

I want to believe that shifting the balance of power could mean new ways of exercising it. Liberian activist and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Leymah Gbowee once told a story about her father, who was a respected community leader, but was demoted when he refused to subject his daughters to female genital mutilation. His defiance of tribal custom cost him, and he lost the respect of many in the community. But his courage to act preserved his daughters’ dignity. Real power, Gbowee learned, was not about keeping it all for yourself, but having the strength to give some power away. 

The power structure of every lasting system, from religion to government, can become antiquated. But survival depends on an ability to adapt to the needs of an evolving populace. What will women bring that will improve upon institutional foundations? How will the memory of oppression shape the experience of female power? 

In Judaism, ultimate power resides in partnership with God, a shared responsibility for the well-being of the world. Female leadership should reinforce the idea that greatness comes from empowering others. 

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Jew-by-choice Mandie Davis also chooses homeless children


Mary “Mandie” Davis is passionate about a number of things: her husband, Ari Kadin, helping homeless children feel special and loved, and her Jewish identity.

It’s estimated that nationwide, 2.5 million children are homeless. But thanks to considerable effort from Davis and Kadin and their organization, Worthy of Love, the homeless children of Los Angeles can experience a party that makes them feel normal, special and loved. 

Each month, Worthy of Love throws a birthday party for homeless children, complete with DJ, dancing, cake and presents. Davis organizes and emcees the parties, calling on children with birthdays and presenting them with their gifts, and boogies with them on the dance floor. Her energy is infectious and elevates the downtrodden, both spiritually and, since the parties are on a rooftop, literally, as well. 

In an interview with the Jewish Journal, Davis recalled one child who started crying at her party. The girl explained she was happy: This was her first birthday party ever. The girl’s mother later revealed that she had terminal cancer; her medicine had bankrupted them to the point that they had to seek out a shelter. But for this one night, the daughter had a reason to celebrate, and at the photo booth, mother and daughter took their first photos together, as an emotional keepsake.

Davis grew up as a Southern Baptist in Georgia, and, by her own accounts, never knew a Jew. Living in Los Angeles, she was volunteering with a Skid Row theater group called Los Angeles Poverty Department when she met Kadin, and they fell in love. Davis became pregnant but miscarried three months later.

Through their devastation, they found a way to channel their loss and love into a positive space: If they couldn’t plan a birthday party for their own child, they would create birthday parties for the homeless children who desperately yearned for them.

They started volunteering at the Union Rescue Mission, which allows kids, holding birthday parties for the youngsters. They bought a cat mascot suit, creating a character called Skiddy Kat (named for Skid Row). The cat “gets called names because of where she lives and what she looks like but has to learn how to be the great lioness she was born to be. And ‘Ari’ also means ‘lion,’ ” Davis explained. They held their first party in January 2013.

When Kadin proposed in 2014, Davis had already decided she wanted to take the introduction to Judaism courses at American Jewish University’s Miller Program; Ari decided to join her for classes. The more she learned about Judaism, the more Davis realized that she wanted to become a Jew. 

“It had nothing to do with Ari – it was about how I felt. I was born with a Jewish soul. None of it made sense until I found Judaism, and now it all makes sense.” 

That Judaism encouraged questions was a bit of a culture shock. “In Christianity, you take the Bible so literally — the word is the truth, and there’s no other way.” With Judaism, she was finally “able to express how I feel and see a whole gray area that I love. It doesn’t have to be so literal. I have a million questions.” 

She says Shabbat has been one of her most meaningful practices. “Lighting the candles was this moment of unspeakable peace for me. Having that as a couple together, where we first started connecting as a couple and to God. As a Christian, you couldn’t connect with [both] God and husband. A ritual we could do together attracted me so much. It was powerful as a woman, lighting the candles in my home” — Davis made a motion of bringing in light in with her hands — “was addicting. I can’t wait to raise Jewish children.” 

In 2015, a month after her conversion and their wedding, Davis and Kadin took their first trip to Israel with Honeymoon Israel. Davis had always expected an emotional response to seeing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but when she got there, “something I’d known my whole life felt foreign,” she said. “Something in my spirit was different now.” But at the Western Wall, she “felt so connected because I’d been saying the Shema and to do it in Jerusalem … tears were shed. I’m more religious than [Ari] is, and he’s been a Jew his whole life.”

She knows that Judaism isn’t all celebration. For instance, learning about the Holocaust is “more intense than when I was learning about it ‘happened to them’ —  now ‘it’s happened to us’ — I’m emotional about it in the worst way. Knowing that anti-Semitism is real, I’m taking a risk on my own life to become Jewish because people might hate me now.”

Davis noted that “conversion stories make me light up all over again. My friends from Honeymoon Israel who converted — we all do Shabbat and validate each other.” Also, “having an aliyah for Yom Kippur [at IKAR] made me feel so validated and so important. I’m not just a bystander, but as family. That’s all we [Jews by choice] want to do is belong.”

Since 2013, Worthy of Love has served 3,600 kids at a cost of $3,000 per party, most of it raised through sponsors or donations of food and party goods. In the fall, Davis will be back at AJU, studying for her MBA, which, she hopes, will help her identify sustainability options for the organization. 

When people ask her how they can support Worthy of Love, she recommends birthday fundraisers, asking for donations instead of gifts, and volunteering at one of the parties, especially with their kids. (Underground parking and security is provided for volunteers and participants.)  

“Poverty is not TV. It’s 10 miles down the street,” she said. “On the rooftop, you don’t feel like you’re in Skid Row. There’s beautiful sky, but peek over the edge and you’ll see tents, mental illness, you’ll see it all. If you can make the drive and put yourself in these kids’ shoes — those who don’t have a choice to be there — that’s making the kid feel more normal and important, that you actually care enough to come down and make a difference.” 

Although they don’t currently have the financial support they’d need to expand, Davis said, the emotional support from the Jewish community “changed the way I looked at Judaism.” In one example, Miller Program Director Rabbi Adam Greenwald volunteered to help Davis and Kadin create a Worthy of Love Chanukah party: Greenwald presided over candle lighting and explained that Chanukah is about light in the darkness. 

“The kids really liked that,” Davis said. “They didn’t know what Chanukah means. These kids are looking for a miracle on Skid Row — to know that it’s possible is huge.” 

Because most of the groups helping the homeless are Christian, Davis also charged Los Angeles’ Jewish and civic leadership to step forward in a major way. “We’d love for Mayor [Eric] Garcetti to come to the party. We need organizations that aren’t going to put a religious label on it. And we need the Jewish community to say [to the homeless], ‘We’re here for you, too.’ 

Taglit for two: Honeymoon Israel growing as ‘Birthright for couples’


Standing in the Western Wall plaza at the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City, Alex and Bianca Ross discussed the religious and spiritual roller coaster that brought them there.

“I never asked her to become a Jew for me [in order] to marry me,” said Alex, a tall, gregarious redhead from Northridge. “That was never part of our understanding.”

But once Bianca, a Mexican American who grew up Catholic, converted to Judaism, she had reasons all her own to want to visit the Holy Land.

“This is not for him,” she said. “This is very personal.”

The pair traveled to Israel in March with a group of 20 young couples from Los Angeles on a trip led and heavily subsidized by a year-old program called Honeymoon Israel.

For the Rosses, it was also literally their honeymoon: The two married on Jan. 30 and headed to Italy after their nine-day stint in Israel. It was her first time in Israel and his second — he originally visited six years ago on Taglit-Birthright Israel.

If finding love in Israel is the dream of many Birthright participants, for Honeymoon Israel, having a committed partner is a prerequisite. 

The group leads trips of up to 20 couples at a time from around the United States who are either interfaith, have one member who has converted or are figuring out how to incorporate Judaism into their new relationship. Last year, its first year in operation, the organization took six trips. This year, it plans on taking 16.

“Our message is, ‘Welcome to the family,’ ” Mike Wise, the organization’s co-CEO, told the Journal during an interview in Jerusalem.

Wise first conceived of an Israel trip for interfaith or ambivalently Jewish couples after reading the results of the Pew Research Center’s 2013 report “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” which showed high rates of intermarriage. Young Jews were leaving the Jewish tent, so Wise decided to make the tent bigger.

“It isn’t about getting people to convert,” he said. “It’s about welcoming young couples who are the future of our community.”

Wise has held a number of leadership posts in Jewish organizations, most recently serving as the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo. He began blogging about his idea after reading the Pew report. Avi Rubel, then the North America director of Masa Israel Journey, which offers internship, study and volunteer opportunities in Israel, read something Wise had written and reached out.

The two joined forces, obtained funding and launched the first trip from Atlanta in 2015, charging couples $1,800 for a trip they estimate costs more than $10,000. (Wise declined to name the benefactor organization, which committed to a three-year funding agreement, saying it prefers to remain behind the scenes.)

The Honeymoon Israel trip is much like Birthright in that it tries to hit all the major tourist attractions, such as Masada, Old Jaffa and the Western Wall. But the itinerary also includes some items specifically catered to its crowd: Couples on the March trip took a sunset cruise on the Red Sea.

Rabbi Adam Greenwald, a Conservative rabbi who runs the Miller Introduction to Judaism program at American Jewish University, accompanied the Los Angeles cadre in March. The trip affords him the chance to work with interfaith couples and “ambivalent Jews” in a casual and nonjudgmental setting, he said. 

His job is to “sit over dinner and talk to people about what they believe and what they’re doing with their interfaith family,” he said.

Honeymoon Israel relies heavily on local partner organizations to keep the ball rolling when the couples come home. Locally, that means the likes of Greenwald and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles are responsible for keeping the couples involved in the Jewish community. Greenwald said the previous Los Angeles trip in May 2015 has led to “a new, incredibly tight inclusive community in Los Angeles.”

The March trip the Rosses participated in shows signs of a similar success. Diana Lovati, who went on the trip with her wife, Karen Lovati, was worried beforehand they might be isolated because they were the only same-sex couple.

Diana Lovati and her wife, Karen, in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park adjacent to the Western Wall.

“I didn’t think I would connect with anybody,” said Diana, who grew up Catholic but doesn’t practice. “I’ve found a connection with every single person on this trip.”

The sense of acceptance she felt after arriving, both from her fellow travelers and members of Karen’s Israeli family here, has even made her consider converting to Judaism.

“It wasn’t a thought in my mind, but after this trip it has crossed my mind a couple of times,” she said, adding that she often felt shunned by the Catholic community for being gay.

For Bianca Ross, it was her fraught relationship with the church that led her to leave the Catholic faith. The 30-year-old, easily a foot shorter than her husband, has the manner of a fierce free thinker who rarely speaks without something significant to say.

Right about the time she started dating Alex, leaders of her local church in Los Angeles gathered the congregation to announce the removal of a priest. They made a point of emphasizing his dismissal didn’t have to do with sexual abuse. 

“I don’t want to be associated with an organization that feels the need to clarify something like that,” she said.

But she had deeper, philosophical problems with the Catholic faith, saying it carried a sense of fatalism and hopelessness that turned her away. When Alex took her to High Holy Day services, she read a very different message in the Jewish prayers, one that embraced personal responsibility and openness to change.

When she was ready to convert, she chose a Hebrew name that reflected what she found in Judaism that Catholicism couldn’t provide her: tikva, the Hebrew word for hope.

Coming to Israel, that concept took on new meaning at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where she learned about how Jewish statehood emerged from the crucible of war and on the heels of the Holocaust.

“It really speaks volumes of the Jewish people and how they continue despite all the atrocities that have been committed with them,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion. “I love that hard idea: Just keep going.” 

Shavuot, revisited: Five thoughts


This week, Jewish communities around the world celebrate Shavuot. Compared with Sukkot and Passover, the two other pilgrimage holidays, Shavuot is not nearly as well known, let alone observed. While rabbinic in its origin, the one-day festival commemorates the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Here are five insights derived from Shavuot to better acquaint you with this important day.

First:  We Jews are the People of the Book. Can you think of another group of people who kiss their religious texts after dropping them? When the Torah’s paraded around, everyone stands and frequently kiss it as it’s brought near. If it’s dropped, they fast, or give tzedakah as a form of expiation. Within many synagogue prayer books, and bound copies of the Torah, you’ll commonly find lipstick remains on meaningful pages of these holy texts. 

My advice is not to worship the Torah, but to live by it. Spare your kisses for your family and friends. Don’t pray to the Torah; pray to God — its author. Shavuot is a good time to start.

Second: Shavuot teaches us to “number our days.”  We count seven weeks (49 days), plus one, from the second night of Passover to Shavuot. Each day is measured.  Psalm 90 instructs us to “number our days wisely, so that we may acquire a heart of wisdom.” 

Shavuot teaches us to make every day count. That we are conscious of our mortality makes life more precious. With Torah — celebrated and received at Mount Sinai on Shavuot — we are given the tools to better navigate through life. With Torah, we can more fully understand the ultimate purpose behind our existence.

Third: Shavuot is a complement to Passover. You can’t have one without the other.  Physical liberation, as it’s celebrated on Passover, is a necessary first step. But what do you do after you’re physically free? On Shavuot, we’re given spiritual freedom, intellectual liberation. Life needs structure, not enslavement. The most creative human beings rarely depend on spontaneity. They adhere to a discipline. On Shavuot, we receive the Torah with the hopes it can teach us how to live more meaningful, disciplined lives within the bounds of physical freedom.

Fourth: Shavuot is a joyous time. That the seven-week period between Passover and Shavuot, referred to as the counting of the omer, has become associated with a quasi-mournful time in the Jewish calendar is a pity.  

Popularly linked to the second-century rabbinic leader, Akiba ben Joseph, whose 24,000 students were either killed fighting alongside Bar Kochba against Rome; killed as the result of a plague; or treated each other so poorly, they became irrelevant and died out.  

That observant Jews customarily refrain from listening to music, cutting their hair or getting married during the time leading up to Shavuot (with the exception of Lag b’Omer), reflects a dour mindset filled with martyrdom and needless restriction.

Each day, if not each week, between Passover and Shavuot should be cause for boundless celebration and anticipation. We should be chanting Hallel during the daily morning service. Like Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot is a holiday filled with great festivity. The days leading up to it should be, as well.

Fifth: The gates of Judaism are wide open to non-Jews; Jews by choice are welcomed, deeply appreciated and admired.

On Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite woman who converted to Judaism. The Moabites were described in the Bible as longtime enemies of the Jewish People — that’s not insignificant.

The point being, whoever is sincere in wanting to become Jewish, regardless of one’s background, gender, race, ethnicity, etc., is welcome. Jews by choice are among the Jewish people’s greatest gifts. They bring fresh insight into our traditions.  They have a love for God, Torah and Israel.  

A great American sociologist, the late Egon Mayer, predicated by the year 2020, more than 10 percent of the American-Jewish community will be composed of Jews by choice.  I’d love that number to increase to over 50 percent. So exceptionally valued are Jews by choice, so important are they to the vitality and depth of Judaism.

Shavuot’s religious significance is on par with Passover and Sukkot. The holiday is filled with insight and meaning, far more than just five. Many more await you when you engage in Shavuot’s observance. Take it seriously. You won’t regret that you did. 

RABBI MICHAEL GOTTLEIB is the spiritual leader at Congregation Kehillat Ma’arav, a Conservative congregation in Santa Monica.

A holiday unmarked by date, unconfined by space


The literal translation of Shavuot is the “Festival of Weeks” because of the holiday’s connection with Passover. In rabbinic Hebrew, this festival is called Atzeret because it is similar to Shemini Atzeret, which follows the festival of Sukkot. However, unlike Shemini Atzeret, which is celebrated immediately after Sukkot, Shavuot is celebrated only seven weeks after Passover. Even so, these two holidays have one and the same meaning: emphasizing the significance of the festival that preceded them.

Passover’s meaning is simple and straightforward: It is a festival of freedom, celebrating the beginning of our national existence and focuses — especially in the context of the Exodus — on the significance of freedom. The primary, most basic meaning of freedom is the removal of shackles, the end of bondage. But even without shackles, an existence without purpose is meaningless. For even with the best of intentions, one cannot liberate a thing or a person that does not have a will of its own. One can sever the chains that tie a chair to its place, but this will not grant it freedom, because freedom means the possession of inner will and aspirations. 

When they left Egypt, the Children of Israel were liberated from slavery, but still did not have a will of their own. More than that, in their first weeks of desert wandering, they were not yet freed from the vicissitudes of life: They experienced hunger and thirst, and learned not all of their wishes can be fulfilled. Although they walked in the desert with full Divine protection, they had very little awareness. The People of Israel were just like an infant, aware only of its most basic feelings.

At the end of this fuzzy period of searching for meaning, of attempting to reach awareness, comes the Giving of the Torah. Indeed, Shavuot marks the end of this primal, childish era. It is a transition into a totally different stage. An Exodus from Egypt without the giving of the Torah would be deliverance without liberty, a purposeless shattering of fetters, and an end to slavery without the beginning of freedom. The Giving of the Torah, surely the most significant event in Jewish history, endows sense and meaning not only to the Exodus but also to Jewish life in general. This moment sets up the great framework toward which the entire Jewish nation is moving.

Our Sages point out that Shavuot is the day in which the Torah in its entirety was given to us — but it is not the festival of the receiving of the Torah. Receiving the Torah comes through our individual and collective understanding of its contents, aspirations and goals. We receive the Torah when we accept it within ourselves, as part of our thinking, experiences and desires. 

This is an extended process that takes not weeks, months or years, but many generations. It also does not happen for everyone simultaneously. The Jewish people encompassing all generations — as individuals and as a nation — are still in the process of the receiving of the Torah. This is our greatest existential challenge, and it is not an easy one. Indeed, not everyone embraces it with understanding or with serenity and joy: Some approach it out of a profound ecstatic experience. Many feel the elation of finding a solution, while so many others merely plod along. But all of us are in it.

That is why Shavuot has a unique status among the three Pilgrimage Festivals. In Passover, in addition to its special rites, there are also special foods; in Sukkot, there are many rites, as well as all the limitations stemming from living in the Sukkah. On Shavuot, however — which is the only pilgrimage festival that lasts only one day — there are no special rites, either food- or lodging-wise. This is because Shavuot is, itself, the opening to the sphere from which everything else flows and stems. 

Perhaps this is why the Torah was given in a place that is not a place — an indistinct point in the desert — and at a time which is not a time — because the precise date of the Giving of the Torah is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah. In fact, the Torah does not state anywhere that Shavuot is indeed the time of the Giving of the Torah! 

This festival expresses, then, how the Torah — which is not confined or limited by time or space — is given to human beings who live within time and space. The Giving of the Torah is a sort of “sleeve” from a higher world to a lower world; and after being there for a short while, the Children of Israel are called upon to take the memory of this encounter with a higher reality, so totally different from our existence, and live it. This is no simple feat; and indeed, as individuals and as a nation, we have been grappling with this question for millennia: How can we, in the reality of our existence, attain eternal freedom and be members of a “nation of priests” that is God’s “special treasure,” a nation that throughout its history is struggling to be holy? 

RABBI ADIN EVEN-ISRAEL STEINSALTZ is the author of more than 60 books. He is best known for his groundbreaking commentary on the Babylonian Talmud and is working on a forthcoming commentary on the entire Bible.

The holiday of diaspora Jewry — a suggestion


Shavuot — the Feast of the Weeks — is a modest holiday. It is one of the three biblical pilgrimage festivals, though not as central and celebrated as the two others — Passover and Sukkot. Content-wise, it is a classic Jewish combination of agriculture and theology. It marks the all-important wheat harvest in the Land of Israel (Exodus 34:22), and it commemorates the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah — or, more accurately, the Ten Commandments — to the entire nation of Israel assembled at the bottom of Mount Sinai. Its timing stems directly from that of Passover; the holiday’s name, Shavuot, means “weeks,” and it marks the completion of seven weeks of counting in the wake of Passover. According to Jewish mythology, the people of Israel were freed from their enslavement to Pharaoh on Passover. Seven weeks later, on Shavuot, God gave them the Torah, making them a nation committed to serving God.

Shavuot also tends to be less celebrated than other major Jewish holy days, except by more observant Jews. Nonetheless, it has potential for more, and I would suggest it’s time to rebrand it as the holiday for Diaspora Jewry. In an era when our society is no longer bound by the cycles of agriculture, and the Bikkurim ceremony (the offering of first fruits to God) has become mostly obsolete, it is Shavuot’s spiritual and theological components that remain compelling. And the Ten Commandments given on this very day, according to our tradition, remain relevant in modern times. The holiday and the commandments together offer a profound alternative to the current Diaspora identity.  

There is no doubt that the State of Israel was, for decades, the center of gravity for many of the Jewish people. But now, almost seven decades after the establishment of the Jewish state, Israel’s attraction — its magnetism —  has dimmed somewhat. Many studies show that fewer Jews in the Diaspora are committed to the well-being of Israel than was the case just a few decades ago. And younger Jews are even less bound to it. There are many explanations for this phenomenon — differences in value systems, cultural divergences and, perhaps, disparate political priorities. 

But there is something that connects us: The Ten Commandments are the only body of text in the Torah explicitly given by God. We love quoting the values named therein: Observe the Sabbath; respect our parents and the sanctity of life (“Thou shalt not kill”). In these commandments, we feel an intimacy between God and us, particularly through the directly personal and unique language of “thou” and “thy.” But the most interesting content of the commandments is not named. This God-given constitutional covenant, the nucleus of Judaism, never names the Holy Land or the temple; there is no shrine or Kohanim (priests), not even a kingdom or sovereignty or government. The Ten Commandments are an abstract set of rules, with no grounding in institutions. 

Why is that? 

If we travel back in time, we are reminded that the revelation at Sinai occurred just seven weeks after the miracle of the Exodus. From the top of the mountain, God, via Moses, proposed to the people a far-reaching, comprehensive alternative to the “Egyptianism” they had just escaped. The Egypt of the Bible is the embodiment of top-down tyranny. At Sinai, God offers an alternative, a bottom-up political philosophy of everything that is not Egyptian: No central government. No single ruler. No state-enforcing institutions. No privileged classes, not even sacred social strata. The new nation is a liberated one, based on the individual (thou). It consists of many individuals inspired by the eternal call of freedom: “Let my people go.” 

Every member of the new nation is equal to the others, and the heck with any human despotism. And as such, this ancient text is a timeless stand against any manifestation of Egyptianism, by any people, us included. 

The current, third Jewish commonwealth, the Israel of today, is fully defined by land and government, religious institutions and privileged classes. And that is one of the main reasons it no longer is the defining connector of the Jewish Diaspora. Diaspora Judaism today is a totally different Jewish corpus of ideas and content than in Israel. It is almost a different Judaism, much closer to the original version of Sinai. 

Diaspora Judaism celebrates the individual, and in that, Shavuot is its most representative holiday. 

Chag sameach.

Avraham Burg is an Israeli author and social activist, a former speaker of the Knesset and former chairman of The Jewish Agency.

The rabbi and the yogi


My husband, Jeremy, and I first met Rabbi Moshe Greenwald and his wife, Rivky, at a Chanukah candle-lighting ceremony in Pershing Square in 2010, when we were just dating. Two years later, when we talked about getting married, I decided to convert to Judaism. Jeremy was born Jewish and I was eager to join the tribe. So, I looked up Rabbi Moshe (the only rabbi I had ever met at the time). I was prepared for a very traditional experience — like Charlotte from “Sex in the City” — with the three refusals and all. But that’s not what I got. 

The rabbi and I met, and he heard me out, and then he suggested I set aside the idea of conversion for the moment and start by learning as much as I could about Judaism. 

But then I mentioned I was a yoga teacher. He said he was trying yoga for the first time in hopes of getting in shape. He’d chosen Bikram yoga — a practice completely void of any religious teachings with an emphasis on physical stamina. For those who aren’t familiar, Bikram yoga is intense. And he was struggling with it.

He proposed a trade. He would make himself available to answer all of my many, many questions if, in return, I would act as a kind of yoga consultant, offering him explanations, tips and context to help make the practice more accessible. This sounded like a really good deal to me. He would offer me guidance in whatever I wanted to learn — prayers, Hebrew, Jewish culture, whatever. And I would help him deepen his yoga practice.

But here’s the thing: I’m me. And he is an Orthodox Chabad rabbi. 

So there would be rules. I would just have to figure out what they were. 

I had no way of knowing this agreement would evolve into a limitless exchange of emails, texts and sidebar conversations during Shabbat dinners. And in those exchanges a friendship was born. We shared experiences as a way of cracking open the wisdom and traditions in which we were each versed. 

He taught me about the importance of drawing spirituality into the physical world.

And I taught him to be patient and compassionate with himself. 

This wasn’t like any friendship I had ever known. Usually, when you become friends with someone, you are drawn together by a common experience — like school or work. We seemed to come from two polar-opposite worlds. And yet, when we shared yoga and Judaism, our very different worlds didn’t highlight the ways in which we were different. They did the opposite — they showed us how much we were alike. I was a daydreaming, soon-to-be-engaged, L.A. yogi. He was family man leading a congregation in one of the most diverse communities in Los Angeles. 

But, at the end of the day, we were just two people trying to figure out life in the best way we knew how — two people trying to balance obligations and forgive ourselves for being imperfect. 

Despite connecting on a very human level, there were these rules that seemed to draw boundaries around our relationship. Like, touch. In case you aren’t familiar with the rules of Orthodox Judaism, an Orthodox man will not touch a woman unless he’s married to her. To Rabbi Moshe, touch was reserved for his wife only. 

But I’m a really affectionate person. I hug my friends. A lot. Shoot, I’ll hug a complete stranger. In the time we spent together, I felt the impulse to hug him as I would any of my friends, male or female. Because touch wasn’t allowed, and my primary concern was always acting out of respect, I became clumsy and stupid around him, literally leaping out of the way when he passed by, or dropping books because I couldn’t figure out what to do with my fingers when handing one to him. Over time, I was able to relax because I realized it wasn’t all that hard to live within this boundary. 

There’s this other rule. As an Orthodox Jew, not only was Rabbi Moshe prohibited from officiating at my wedding, he couldn’t even attend the ceremony because I ended up converting to Judaism under the tutelage of a Conservative rabbi, not an Orthodox rabbi. I learned this long before my husband and I were engaged, so I never even asked. Though when we finally announced our engagement, he called to congratulate us and wish us a lifetime of blessings. He expressed a desire to be there. But he couldn’t be. 

Though I wasn’t surprised at all by this, I was disappointed. People asked if I was offended. I wasn’t. 

I don’t need to be an Orthodox Jew to relate to one. I don’t need to live in that world or follow those rules. 

To take this one step further — I don’t need to be gay, or Asian American, or transgender, or living below the poverty level to connect to those experiences. I only need to be human. 

I may not agree with all the rules of Orthodox Judaism. But I can respect them. And that’s enough.

The truth is, we all have rules we live by. We may not be wearing outward signs of them everywhere we go, but they’re there. And sometimes we hate the rules. Ask any teenager, and she’ll tell you rules suck. But without them, we wouldn’t know what’s important, what’s sacred, what’s worth drawing a boundary around. Whether we’re standing on the edge of a cliff, or speeding down a highway or exploring a relationship, without rules, we might not know when we’ve gone too far until it’s too late.

This year, on the first night of Passover, my family gathered in the ballroom of the Alexandria hotel to celebrate with the entire downtown Jewish community, with Rabbi Moshe at the helm. I witnessed one of the sweetest sights I’ve ever seen — Rabbi Moshe swooped up my toddler son in his arms and began to sing “Oseh Shalom.” My husband joined, and very soon a small group of men were circling in the center of the room. 

But then a young woman approached the circle of men to join in. So, right — women cannot dance with Orthodox men. Without missing a beat in the song, my rabbi kindly told her the circle was only for men. It was an easy mistake to make. She was moved by the spirit of the moment and wanted to join. Her only mistake was in not knowing the rules. 

An embarrassing moment for sure, but a human one. Looking back, I wish I had jumped up to dance with her. Women can start their own circles and dance separately.

But it was OK. She’s learning the rules. We’re all learning the rules. And in doing so, we often come right up against the edge of our comfort zones. Sometimes we even step out of them. 

Shoot, I practically live in that space, teetering on the edge of my comfort zone. And I’m happy for it. Because as a result, I have a lifelong friendship with, yes, an Orthodox Chabad rabbi that both thrives within the boundaries and transcends them. 

Jazmine Aluma is a Los Angeles-based writer, yogi and mother. Her blog, WritingInBold.com, is where she explores and shares all the ways in which she gets life wrong and the truths she discovers along the way. Her work has been seen in The Huffington Post, Bust.com, LA Weekly and LA Yoga magazine, among others.

The defense of (converting for) marriage act


Last July, I converted to Judaism after five years of studying and undergoing major lifestyle changes: I moved to a Jewish neighborhood, started keeping kosher, took off for Shabbat and the holidays, joined an Orthodox synagogue and learned with a chavrusa

Today, my observance has grown, and I keep taking on more and more mitzvot. I feel closer to Hashem than ever. 

None of that has stopped the outside world, however, from questioning just how legitimate my conversion actually was. At times throughout the process, and even after, I’ve been asked, “Did you convert for your husband?” and then was told — yes, told — that I only converted because I was in love. 

As if that’s a bad thing. 

As a writer, I’ve covered conversion a lot, profiling the spiritual journeys of others and offering my own personal essays. I know how tough it can be to go through the process, and I want to show support to my fellow gerim. When I’ve told my own story, though, I’ve gotten my fair share of negative feedback, which ranged from passive-aggressive to downright venomous. 

On a recent piece I published, one of the comments posted online read, “So you fell in love with some guy and decided to start living your life by his club’s rules and regs. Not exactly a shocker. Lots of women do this.” Another lovely commenter stated, “I would’ve appreciated this more if she had just admitted that she was doing it pretty much entirely for her husband.”

Internet trolling aside, there is a huge stigma in Jewish culture and society at large surrounding the concept of converting for love. But, given the right circumstances and right person, I think it’s entirely OK.

With Shavuot approaching, I found myself thinking about the story of Ruth, perhaps the Torah’s most famous Jew by choice. She converted to Judaism after following her widowed, impoverished mother-in-law, Naomi, to a strange new land — Bethlehem. 

According to Dina Coopersmith, a writer for

The everyday deity


I was not a Jew; now I am. 

I did not believe in God; now I do.

In 2009, I was an atheist. By 2013, I was a theist and a Jew. Today, my beliefs live among the other things that, while miraculous, are routine. When I need to breathe, there is air. When it’s time to walk or lie down, I have gravity. Food grows from the earth. There’s God. I’m a Jew.

We read about the Israelites at Mount Sinai seeing God as smoke and hearing God as thunder. I relate to that mountain vision. While looking at the ocean makes me wonder about planet Earth and tremble at its power, when I look out from my car at the 405, God shines at me from the broad hillsides of the Sepulveda Pass. Maybe what I see there is something like God’s immanence at Sinai. 

I never used to see that. 

Telling this story is tricky. Talking about belief in God can be difficult even among co-religionists. There’s an awkward feeling that the person giving such testimony may be a nitwit, or an evangelist, or a demagogue. It’s also easy to get into trouble. Many of us carry wounds that were inflicted by someone who invoked God. 

My story is not one of white lights, or miraculous coincidences, or disaster averted. 

I’ve told parts of the story, but never the whole thing.

In 2009, I stopped drinking and found recovery from alcoholism in Alcoholics Anonymous. I hit no obvious bottom — I emailed a sober friend, he told me to try not drinking and to start going to meetings, and I did.

A few months later, someone asked me what had gotten me to stop drinking. My reflexive answer was that it was random. Very shortly thereafter, I realized that this answer was not intellectually satisfying to me. I am an alcoholic, more than a habitual drinker. I’m an addict. I don’t just randomly stop.

It was something beyond me that lent me the ability to stop drinking. 

It was God.

This realization did not come from some extreme moment. Rather, God’s existence presented itself to me as the only satisfying answer to the question, “Why and how did I stop drinking?” In this way, at the age of 40, God became a part of my understanding of the world.

Two years later. I arrived early to Yom Kippur services. Not a Jew. I went because my wife is Jewish, and we are raising our son as a Jew. Yom Kippur was the one day a year I went to shul. This had been the arrangement for 10 years. I sat close to some observant Jews wrapped in tallit and davening. As in previous years, I stayed at services all day and had a terrible time.

Over the next few days, I thought about those daveners. Two years of not drinking had, predictably, given me a sober mind. While I am an introvert and a misanthrope, I also knew I wanted community. I wanted a life that, even if I did not pray, included space for prayer. Then I thought about my family. My wife, a Jew. My son, a Jew. Me, wanting community and prayer. I can also be a Jew.

I started attending Shabbat morning services almost every week. A year later, I decided to pursue a formal conversion process. This time, I knew that randomness was not at play. 

God helped me find my place among the Jews.

I mentioned earlier that describing my new belief in God would be tricky, and here’s the trick. Getting sober and finding my way to Judaism are amazing experiences I had, and I just credited God with providing them. And that is how I understood it at the time. It’s difficult to explain finding God without describing some substantial experience that can be credited to God. But I honestly don’t think that God is much concerned with whether I drink, or whether I’m a Jew. I don’t think God truly intervened in my life to make those moments happen. 

God’s existence has been manifested to me in the form of other people’s actions. The sober friend who got me to meetings. The fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. And, most important, the Jews who have welcomed and supported every aspect of my conversion and participation in the Jewish community. Without these human actors, I could not have become a Jew, and God would never have become so apparent to me.

I converted three years ago and I pray every Shabbat morning. My prayer is very simple. I stand, with tallit on and eyes closed, rocking this way and that. I get to be the same person I am every other time of the week, but I get to be this person among my fellow Jews.

John Crooks converted to Judaism in 2013 through the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University. Originally from Boston, he worked as a bassist in New York City and Los Angeles for many years. Now he is a software developer and multimedia designer primarily in the field of motion picture music and sound design.

I lost my mom but found a family


In 2003, I was 20 and living on the South Side of Chicago, in a dirty 10,000-square-foot warehouse with six roommates and four cats. There was a mysterious fungus, shaped like a human ear, growing in the corner of my room, and I did nothing about it. A typical day consisted of waking up around noon and smoking weed until I went to sleep. On the weekends, we’d throw raves in the warehouse. The place had a huge empty room, and we’d smash fluorescent lights against the walls and shatter them for fun. Life was going great.

When the phone rang on the morning of May 6, I was sound asleep. It was from Michigan, and it was the police. The cop on the phone was cold and gruff.  He said my mother, Nancy, had gotten into a car accident, that she was dead and I had to get to the morgue immediately to identify her body. 

I hung up the phone and screamed — a guttural howl that ran through my entire body. I thought people would come running, but none of my roommates heard me, because we lived in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse. I had to walk into my best friend Jeff’s room and continue screaming. We got into his car and drove the four hours from Chicago to Grosse Pointe, Mich., the town where I grew up. I was in complete shock — sobbing and staring out the window, hoping we could either get there faster or never get there at all. It didn’t seem real. I felt bad because my mother was gone, but also for so many other reasons. I had taken her for granted. After all, at 20, I had my own super-fun, selfish life to worry about.

I felt bad that it was about to be Mother’s Day, and I could never give her the gift I’d been planning to give her. I felt bad that she’d died on the side of the I-94 freeway on a rainy night and I was miles away.

My parents divorced when I was 5, and my relationship with my father at the time of my mother’s death was strained. When I arrived and walked into my childhood home, my mother’s sister was sitting in the living room, Dewar’s in hand, with several of her girlfriends, discussing the memorial service. They kept talking about how the ceremony would be held at The Little Club, a private tennis club none of us could afford, because they had “great little sandwiches.” 

“Little sandwiches?!” I screamed. “Who gives a s—? What the hell are you talking about?!” 

I was furious that they were smoking in the house, too. I felt like they were erasing my mom’s smell.

Forever.

When I think back to that time, it seems like one long day, but it must have been at least a week or more. The memorial service took place as planned at The Little Club. All of my aunt’s friends were there. It basically felt like a homecoming party for my aunt. Open bar. Nothing my mother would have ever wanted. People kept saying, “This is so fun! We have to do this again! I mean … without the funeral part.” I read a eulogy I’d written, and several people came up to me after and told me that I’d made them cry, as if to say, “How dare you spoil the party with your bummer speech.”

For the longest time, I convinced myself that my mom was in Florida. The last time I saw her alive, I was dropping her off at the airport. She was on her way to Fort Lauderdale to see my aunt and grandmother. She wasn’t dead, she was just in Florida and I wouldn’t see her for a while. I mean, to be honest, death and being in Florida kind of seem like the same thing, anyway, but that’s me. I was in denial. I was lost. I had no guidance from anything or anyone in my life, and I didn’t know how to mourn. I hadn’t grown up religious at all, so I also had no spiritual handbook. In fact, it was a running joke that my parents had taken me to get baptized, but when they found out that they’d have to take a class in order to do it, they bailed. So I was alone and didn’t cope well. 

I quit smoking weed because my mother had always hated it, but then just compensated by binge drinking. At one point, I was buying a fifth of Maker’s Mark each night. I would draw a line on the bottle, in an attempt to police my drinking. “Do not cross the line.” But I’d always end up crossing the line, literally and figuratively. On the outside, I appeared to bounce right back. Laughing hard and making jokes, even the day after she died. But inside, there was turmoil. This continued for almost 10 years. Ten years of increasing isolation, quitting school, getting angry, getting sober, falling off the wagon, and being in a deep depression. 

Basically, not living.

Putting everything on pause and not being part of the world. And there was no one to lean on, either. My mother’s death had made an already-small family practically microscopic. I swallowed the mistreatment from my dad and aunt because I desperately wanted family, but I was empty.

In 2005, I moved to New York. I started to pursue a dream of performing and writing comedy.  It was there that I met my husband, Gil. 

We met at a show called “The Dirtiest Sketch Show,” where people would perform horribly obscene sketches. It was great. Our eyes first met over a nude man doing something wrong with a turkey baster. It was the perfect place for love to blossom.

A couple of weeks into dating, though, we were eating at a sushi restaurant, and Gil told me he wouldn’t marry someone who wasn’t Jewish. I was devastated. And then, right after he dropped that bomb, three men walked up to our table and sang “Happy Birthday.” I burst into tears out of shock. One of the waiters patted Gil on the back and said, “Wow, she had a great reaction!” assuming I was crying tears of joy.

A few months later, Gil took me to meet his parents for the first time — at Passover! It’s pretty intense to meet your boyfriend’s parents, but meeting them at a seder, when you’re not Jewish, is a whole other experience. I felt extremely awkward. Do they all hate me?

Do they think I’m stupid? What the hell are bitter herbs? I felt completely ignorant for not even knowing the most basic Bible stories. Gil seemed to know everything, though now I know he’s usually just talking confidently and has no idea what he’s saying. 

But once I got out of my own head, I realized this was a unique experience. My very limited exposure to religion had left the impression that questioning it in the slightest was wrong, but here was a large table of people doing just that. Questioning and analyzing everything. Having heated debates and praising one another for their theories and interpretations. There was a level of comfort in Gil’s family that I’d never experienced. He was close with his great uncle, they were friends, whereas, in my family, I avoided my elders because I was never pushed to be close to them. 

It was the first time I thought about converting. I found the idea of how Shabbat and the holidays unite a family incredibly appealing. 

There was only one thing that gave me pause, and that was giving up Christmas. It was my mother’s favorite holiday, and by letting it go, I felt as though I’d be losing a huge piece of her. In retrospect, I realize, I clung to Christmas because it was the only tradition my family had — the one time my house felt warm, bright and full of love.

I started conversion classes in 2014. In the first session, I felt like the dumbest person there, but every class got better and better, and they led to deep conversations between Gil and me, as well. Long talks about God, tradition, religion and things we might not discuss otherwise. Quite fittingly, the class that affected me most was about Jewish customs and rituals dealing with death. We learned about sitting shivah, walking around the block and re-entering the world no longer a mourner. We talked about shloshim and the unveiling. I realized that Jews had the guideline that I had looked for when my mother passed: a plan for mourning. 

At first, I was distraught. I was upset that I couldn’t go back in time and do all these things for my mom. That I couldn’t go back and help myself. But that regret eventually turned into relief because I also learned that there were other traditions that would connect me to her.

I finished my conversion that April, right before we went to Israel to meet Gil’s extended family. As they say, “I couldn’t go a shiksa, so I hit the mikveh.” I chose the Hebrew name Hanna for myself in tribute to my mother, as Hanna is a root for Nancy. I’d also always wanted a sister and there, sitting in the mikveh room as I dunked, was my beautiful, amazing, soon-to-be sister-in-law, Alexandra. 

I was pronounced a Jew and was left alone in the mikveh to reflect.

Without thinking, I began talking aloud to my mom. Laughing and crying about how life takes you to the craziest places. I don’t doubt for a second that my mom was in that room with me. It seems ironic now that I ended up “taking the class” that my parents never took in order to dunk myself and become a Jew. 

Upon landing in Israel, my small family became enormous. Gil’s Israeli family is huge. More than 150 cousins, uncles and aunts joined us at an engagement party we held there. Gil’s family is Yemenite, so we celebrated a very special ceremony they have called a Henne. We dressed in traditional garb; I wore a 3-foot-tall headpiece. My costume weighed more than 70 pounds. I sat with Gil as a procession of his tiny, adorable aunts approached and kissed me a million times, blessing me and telling me they loved me in Hebrew. “Todah,”  (thank you) I responded, like a clueless idiot. I was mystified by how quickly these people whom I couldn’t even communicate with accepted me with open arms. They seemed to see me as a good, loving, genuine person. That may sound strange to say about myself, but it’s something I have a hard time seeing. Especially after feeling selfish for so many years. I didn’t realize I’d been doing it, but I had been praying for this family for a long time, and I got what I’d wished for in the most unexpected, overwhelming way.

The most profound part of our trip to Israel coincided with Yom HaZikaron, which happened to fall on May 5 that year, the 11th anniversary of my mother’s death, to the day. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in Israel for Yom HaZikaron, but at some point during the day, they blast loud air horns for a minute straight in memory of soldiers that have died. Everyone in the entire country stops what they’re doing and takes a moment of silence to remember the fallen.

Even those driving on the road pull to the side, exit their cars and hang their heads to remember. We happened to be on the freeway on our way to Jerusalem when the horns blasted. We, along with all the cars around us, pulled to the shoulder of the freeway and got out of our car. The side of a freeway, exactly like where my mom had passed away 11 years earlier. It was incredibly eerie, and meaningful and special. It felt a little too coincidental that I would be there, forced to face the reality of what had happened to my mom. I cried uncontrollably, but it was cathartic, and I felt more supported than ever before — strangely, it felt, by the entire country of Israel. United by loss. After the horns stopped sounding, we got back into the car and finished our drive to Jerusalem. There my new aunt, Zehavah, would be waiting with a yahrzeit candle, which we’d light together. That night we celebrated Yom HaAtzmaut, partying in the streets, and in a way I was finally re-entering the world, no longer a mourner.

I now light a yahrzeit candle every year on May 5. We’ve also added to that tradition by playing my mom’s favorite game, Yahtzee, looking at photos of her and listening to music that she loved. I didn’t realize how much Judaism would help me to finally make peace with my mother’s death. For those 10 lost years, I wanted to do something to honor her, but I built up so much pressure about it that I ended up doing nothing. Judaism kind of forces you, in a helpful way, to deal with things you might otherwise avoid. It’s a guideline. The yahrzeit candle, the Mourner’s Kaddish, reflecting on how you’re doing and what you’d like to change at Yom Kippur. All these things have allowed me to heal. 

Last month was the 13th anniversary of my mom’s death. I usually refer to May 5 as “Stinko De Cryo,” but this year, for the first time, I felt good. Sure, I cried, but I also had a great time with my family. The traditions we’ve established help me to be proactive in a time when I want to avoid thinking altogether. At this point, my mother has been dead for more than half of the time I actually got to spend with her alive. It’s hard to remember what she was like, especially when you push it out of your mind to protect yourself. But this annual check-in reminds me of my mother’s joyous spirit. 

Judaism gave me a prescription to grieve my mom and the blessing of a family to help me do it with, and her memory will be passed down to my kids through those beautiful traditions. 

Emily Strachan has been performing and writing comedy since 2005. She’s written for such TV shows as “Comedy Bang! Bang!” and “Filthy Preppy Teen$.” She was also a staff writer for “Funny or Die.” She has been a house team member at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and can be seen performing in various shows around Los Angeles.

On Shavuot, who (or what) will get the first fruits?


As we approach Shavuot, there’s a battle going on in our garden over who — or what — will get our first fruits.

In ancient days in Israel, beginning at Shavuot — the holiday that marked the wheat harvest as well as the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai — people brought to the Temple in Jerusalem an offering from their first harvest. The practice is reflected in one of the holiday’s alternate names, Yom Habikkurim, the Day of the First Fruits.

In Deuteronomy, there is an entire ceremony for offering these first fruits. Farmers are required to say a prayer as a reminder that God “brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Though intended for an ancient audience in Israel, this idea of gratitude still resonates today.

Though synagogues today more commonly celebrate Shavuot with confirmations, all-night study sessions and services in which the Ten Commandments are read, many Jews keep in touch with the holiday’s harvest side (Shavuot, which this year begins on Saturday night, is also known as Chag Hakatzir, Festival of Harvest). At Shavuot last year in Israel, President Reuven Rivlin and his wife were presented with two baskets of fruit and vegetables from the nation’s farmers. In the U.S., organizations such as Adamah have held bikkurim parades, and this year, Congregation Kesser Israel in Portland, Oregon, is having a Bikkurim Parade and Fruit Drive for schoolchildren.

My wife and I like to embrace the harvest theme, too. But this year we kept putting off planting day, so unfortunately our first fruits — cucumbers, squash, eggplants and several tomato varieties — won’t be ready by Shavuot. Still, we were looking forward to sharing the bounty of our garden with members of our minyan at our Shabbat potluck lunches.

That is until a raccoon began digging up our garden beds every night searching for grubs.

One morning, as we sorted through havoc in the garden — some plants were uprooted, others were buried — I began to wonder if this was all worth it. After all, there is a huge supermarket five minutes away from my home. We also subscribe to a farm service that delivers a box of organic veggies twice a month.

With so many convenient ways to get fresh food — and so many other things to worry about — did we really need to be at war with nature over cukes? Couldn’t we offer a different kind of first fruit for Shavuot? If the modern interpretation of bikkurim includes sharing and showing gratitude, couldn’t we transpose that idea to another medium of the non-garden variety?

For the past several years, our minyan celebrated a unique night of first fruits. Though decidedly non-agricultural, it was an evening where people could offer up something new: a book they had read, music they recently found, a project they were undertaking at work. One woman even showed clips from a film she was working on.

It was an enjoyable tradition, one that connected us to the holiday’s roots. But I’ve found there is something about growing living things that makes you particularly grateful and mindful of the potential and fragility of life.

As a journalist, I am always grateful to cultivate a thoughtful phrase. But when it comes to both immediate and lasting gratification, that can’t compete with growing a tasty tomato or sharing those tomatoes with a friend.

Shavuot, with its harvest ritual, seems to tell us to be not just consumers but conscious consumers and producers. Growing edible crops makes us aware of the conditions that put food on the table: There are the things over which we have control, like the spacing between plants or how much fertilizer and water to use, and those that are out of our hands, like the weather.

Sometimes I’ve found that the insects, viruses and animals that also want our first fruits are things I can control. Last year, white flies attacked the leaves of the eggplants, so we sprayed the hibiscus plant where they lived with a mixture of rubbing alcohol, liquid soap and water. To scare off the birds that were pecking the tomatoes, we strung up old CDs. Their glint did the job perfectly.

But this year, what to do about the raccoon? First, we tried protecting many of the plants in tomato cages, only to see them pushed aside the next morning. Then, looking for advice on the Humane Society’s website — a few inhumane solutions had crossed my mind as well — I read that turning on a transistor radio in the garden overnight might scare them off.

So, one night, I took a radio out to the garden. I tuned it to an all-night call-in show about health and hoped for a garden miracle.

Growing and harvesting crops is something of a miracle. My wife and I have worked hard to bring in those $10 tomatoes — but we also understand that without a little help, everything can wither on the vine. Some might call a successful harvest the result of luck or great planning, or credit it to that most intangible of human qualities: a green thumb.

But for me, by the time Shavuot rolls around, I’m ready to give some thanks. After months of carefully watching, tending and coaxing, when your labor does bear fruit, you want to acknowledge where your mazel comes from. It’s time to celebrate and show gratitude for another season.

That, to me, is the meaning of Shavuot: giving thanks for being able to fill our baskets once again and sharing the bounty.

As for the radio in the garden, it worked for a week. Then one morning, my wife found an eggplant uprooted. But I am not deterred. On the night of Shavuot, when the heavens are said to open, I will change channels and try an all-night religion show, hoping the raccoon will get the message — or, at least, show some gratitude.

Shavuot: a holiday unmarked by date, without ritual, unconfined by space


The literal translation of Shavuot is the Festival of Weeks” because of the holiday’s connection with Passover. In Rabbinic Hebrew, this festival is called Atzeret because it is similar to Shemini Atzeret, which follows the festival of Sukkoth. However, unlike Shemini Atzeret, which is celebrated immediately after Sukkot, Shavuot is celebrated only seven weeks after Passover. Even so, these two holidays have one and the same meaning: summing up and emphasizing the significance of the festival that preceded them.

Passover’s meaning is simple and straightforward: it is a festival of freedom, celebrating the beginning of our national existence and focuses – especially in the context of the Exodus – on the significance of freedom. The primary, most basic meaning of freedom is the removal of shackles, the end of bondage. But even without shackles, an existence without purpose is meaningless. For even with the best of intentions, one cannot liberate a thing or a person that does not have a will of its own. One can sever the chains that tie a chair to its place, but this will not grant it freedom, because freedom means inner will and aspirations.

When they left Egypt, the Children of Israel were liberated from slavery, but still did not have a will of their own More than that, in their first weeks of desert wandering, they were not yet freed from the vicissitudes of life: they experienced hunger and thirst, and they also learned that not all of their wishes can be fulfilled. Although they walked in the desert with full Divine protection, they had only very little awareness. The People of Israel were just like an infant, aware only of its most basic feelings.

At the end of this fuzzy period of searching for meaning, of attempting to reach awareness, comes the Giving of the Torah. Indeed, Shavuot not only marks the end of this primal, childish era: it is a transition into a totally different stage. An Exodus from Egypt without the giving of the Torah would be deliverance without liberty, a purposeless shattering of fetters, an end to slavery but without freedom. The Giving of the Torah, surely the most significant event in Jewish history, endows sense and meaning not only to the Exodus but to Jewish life in general. This moment sets up the great framework, towards which the entire Jewish nation is moving.

Our Sages point out that Shavuot is the day in which the Torah in its entirety was given to us – but it is not the festival of the receiving of the Torah. Receiving the Torah comes through our individual and collective understanding of its contents, aspirations and goals. We receive the Torah when we accept it within ourselves, as part of our thinking, experiences and desires.

This is an extended process that takes not weeks, months or years, but many generations. It also does not happen simultaneously for everyone.  The Jewish people encompassing all generations – both as individuals and as a nation — is still in the process of the receiving of the Torah. This is our greatest existential challenge, and it is not an easy one. Indeed, not everyone embraces it with understanding or with serenity and joy: some approach it out of a profound ecstatic experience. Many feel the elation of finding a solution, while so many others merely plod along. But all of us are in it.

that is why Shavuot has a unique status among the three Pilgrimage Festivals. In Passover, in addition to its special rites, there are also special foods; in Sukkoth, there are many rites, as well as all the limitations stemming from living in the Sukkah. On Shavuot, however – which is the only pilgrimage festival that lasts only one day – there are no special rites, either food- or lodging-wise. This is because Shavuot is, itself, the opening to the sphere from which everything else flows and stems.

Perhaps this is why the Torah was given in a place that is not a place – an indistinct point in the desert – and at a time which is not a time – because the precise date of the Giving of the Torah is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah. In fact, the Torah does not even state anywhere that Shavuot is indeed the time of the Giving of the Torah!

This festival expresses, then, how the Torah – which is not confined or limited by time or space – is given to human beings who live within time and space. The Giving of the Torah is a sort of “sleeve” from a higher world to a lower world; and after being there for a short while, the Children of Israel are called upon to take the memory of this encounter with a higher reality, so totally different from our existence, and live it. This is no simple feat; and indeed, both as individuals and as a nation we have been tackling for millennia with this question: how can we, in the reality of our existence, attain eternal freedom and be members of a “nation of priests” that is God's “special treasure,” a nation that throughout its history is struggling to be holy?


Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz is the author of more than 60 books. He is best known for his groundbreaking commentary on the Babylonian Talmud and is working on a forthcoming commentary on the entire Bible.

5 insights derived from Shavuot to better acquaint you


This week Jewish communities around the world celebrate Shavuot.  Compared to Sukkot and Passover, the two other pilgrimage holidays, Shavuot is not nearly as well known, let alone observed.  While rabbinic in its origin, the one-day festival commemorates the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Here are 5 insights derived from Shavuot to better acquaint you with this important day.

First:  We Jews are the People of the Book. Can you think of another group of people that when they drop religious texts kiss it upon picking it up?  When the Torah’s paraded around, everyone stands and frequently kiss it as it’s brought near? If it’s dropped, they fast, or give Tzedakkah as a form of expiation?  Within many synagogue prayer books, and bound copies of the Torah, you’ll commonly find lipstick remains on meaningful pages of these holy texts.

My advice is not to worship the Torah; live by it.  When it’s paraded around, spare your kisses for your family and friends.  Don’t pray to the Torah; pray to God—it’s author. Shavuot is a good time to start.

Second: Shavuot teaches us to “number our days.”  We count seven weeks, (49 days) plus one, from the second night of Passover to Shavuot.  Each day is measured.  Psalm 90 instructs us, “To number our days wisely, so that we may acquire a heart of wisdom.”

Shavuot teaches us to make every day count.  That we are conscious of our mortality makes life more precious. With Torah—celebrated and received at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot—we are given the tools to better navigate through life.  With Torah—we can more fully understand the ultimate purpose behind our existence.

Third: Shavuot is a compliment to Passover.  You can’t have one without the other.  Physical liberation, as it’s celebrated on Passover, is a necessary first step.  But what do you do after you’re physically free?  On Shavuot we’re given spiritual freedom, intellectual liberation.  Life needs structure.  Not enslavement. The most creative human beings rarely depend on spontaneity.  They adhere to a discipline. On Shavuot we receive the Torah with the hopes it can teach us how to live more meaningful, disciplined lives within the bounds of physical freedom.

Fourth: Shavuot is a joyous time. Why the seven-week period between Passover and Shavuot, referred to as the counting of the omer, has become associated with a quasi-mournful time in the Jewish calendar is a pity. 

Popularly linked to the second century rabbinic leader, Akiba ben Joseph whose 24 thousand students were either killed fighting alongside Bar Kochba against Rome; killed the result of a plague; or treated each other so poorly they became irrelevant and died out. 

That observant Jews customarily refrain from listening to music, cutting their hair or get married during the time leading up to Shavuot (with the exception of Lag B’omer), reflects a dour mindset filled with martyrdom and needless restriction.

Each day, if not each week, between Passover and Shavuot should be cause for boundless celebration and anticipation. We should be chanting Hallel during the daily morning service. Like Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot is a holiday filled with great festivity.  The days leading up to it should be as well.

Fifth: The gates of Judaism are wide open to non-Jews; Jews by choice are welcomed, deeply appreciated and admired.

On Shavuot we read the Book of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite woman who converted to Judaism.  The Moabites’ were described in the Bible as longtime enemies of the Jewish People—that’s not insignificant.

The point being, whoever is sincere in wanting to become Jewish, regardless of one’s background, one’s gender, race, ethnicity etc., is welcomed.  Jews by choice are among the Jewish People’s greatest gifts. They bring fresh insight into our traditions.  They have a love for God, Torah and Israel. 

The late great American sociologist, Egon Mayer predicated by the year 2020, more than 10% of the U.S. Jewish community will be comprised of Jews by choice.  I’d love that number to increase to over 50%, so exceptionally valued are Jews by choice, so important are they to the vitality and depth of Judaism.

Shavuot’s religious significance is on par with Passover and Sukkot.  The holiday is filled with insight and meaning, of which these are just five.  Many more await you when you engage in Shavuot’s observance; take it seriously.  You won’t regret that you did.