7 haiku for parsha Shelach (it’s our own personal fringe festival) by Rick Lupert


I
Spy instructions: Check
out the land we may invade –
Also, bring back fruit

II
Any excuse to
go back to Egypt – Life was
hard but familiar

III
Once again God is
talked out of killing us all
by a mere human

IV
Seize the day or you
could end up wandering the
desert forty years

V
A recipe to
serve bull to God is
here if you need it

VI
Even the Lord likes
the smell of homemade bread as
much as the next guy

VII
These hanging fringes
keep the light of the righteous
always by my side


Los Angeles poet Rick Lupert created a the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 20 collections of poetry, including “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Tallis

Why are Jews traditionally buried in a Tallis? By Isaac Pollak


[Ed. Note: The tallis, also pronounced tallit, is the name for the Jewish prayer shawl. Its purpose is to help remind the wearer of the commandments that are to be followed. It comes in two basic forms; the tallit gadol, often worn as an overgarment or wrap, and the tallit katan, usually worn as an undergarment, beneath the coat or shirt. The purpose of both is similar: they serve as the base on which the attachment of the fringes, the tzitzit or tzitzis – pl. tzitziot, is accomplished. These are the fringes mentioned in the Torah, Bamidbar/Numbers 15:37-41. The fringes are strings that are wound and tied to create knots and windings in specific patterns that are intended to represent the totality of the mitzvoth or commandments, and thereby serve as a visual reminder. — JB]

Why are Jews traditionally buried in a Tallis?

This question is touched on in two places in the Talmud. Our first indication that men are buried in a Tallis is from Talmud Bavli in Tractate Bava Batra 74:A which reads as follows:

Rabba bar Bar Chana related that an Arab merchant showed him the burial spot of the Israelites who had died during their 40 year trek in the desert. Rabba said he dug up one of the bodies and removed a corner of the fringed garment (Tzitzis) to take back home to determine the proper method of producing a Tallis and its fringes. However, he was divinely prevented from taking it with him.

Here is our first indication that one is buried in a Tallis. (See also Tractate Samechot, Chapter 10.)

Tosofos [also spelled Tosafot] (early Medieval commentaries on the Talmud) remark that this is not necessarily proof, because the Midrash says that the people in the desert (Midbar) knowing they were fated to die, would lie down in their graves annually (on the ninth of Av) wearing their Taleisim [Ashkenaz; plural of Tallis] and await their death. Tosofos concludes that this doesn’t necessarily prove that a deceased person should be wrapped in a Tallis before burial, as this annual event was a unique occurrence.

Tallis with Tzitzis

Tosofos, however, also infers from another Tractate, Talmud Bavli Menachos 41:A, that the dead should be buried in a Tallis with Tzitzis. This is the second source in the Talmud.

The relevant discussion in Tractate Menachos asks whether a four cornered garment needs fringes on its own even if it’s not worn; in other words, is the obligation on the wearer or is the obligation on the four cornered garment?

Rabbi Tove bar Kisna says in the name of Shmuel that fringes are obligatory on each four-cornered garment whether it’s worn or not, as long as the garment remains ready to be potentially worn; articles of clothing left in a drawer are still subject to the requirement of having fringes. The proof text is from Deuteronomy 12:12, “You shall make yourself braided fringes of the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself.”

  אשר תכסה בה

The stipulation is that as long as it would be potentially possible to cover yourself with it, or it has the potential to be used as a garment, it needs fringes. A garment made for a living person to wear at some time in the future, whether used for that purpose or not, must have Tzitzis.

Garment Made NOT for the Living?

Shmuel, the Talmud continues, concedes, regarding an elderly person who made a four-cornered garment for his personal shroud, that it is exempt from Tzitzis. Even though the Tallis/Shroud may upon occasion be worn by a living person (to be fitted, for example), it’s still exempt because it’s made for a purpose other than being worn by a living person. It is not defined as a garment with which you cover yourself, rather it is by definition a shroud; it was produced with the intention of being worn by a deceased person.

Burial in a Tallis!

This is the basis that to this day Jewish men are buried in a Tallis!

Tzitzis on a Shroud?

Now the question arises whether the Tallis/Shroud needs Tzitzit?The Talmud continues that when a person dies we most certainly affix fringes to the four-cornered burial shroud because of the verse in Proverbs 17:5 “one who mocks a pauper insults his maker”.   לעג  לרש וחרף

The Talmud continues that when a person dies we most certainly affix fringes to the four-cornered burial shroud because of the verse in Proverbs 17:5 “one who mocks a pauper insults his maker”.   לעג  לרש וחרף

עשה

This is as if to say that clothing a deceased in a four cornered garment that has no Tzitzis appears to be a form of mockery of the deceased, because it draws attention to the fact that the deceased is no longer obligated to follow God’s commandments, and it seems to be mocking him by saying ‘we can continue to observe the commandments, but you, the deceased, can’t continue and are unable to follow God’s commandments’.

Why invalidate the Tzitzis?

Tosofos (in TB Bava Batra 74:A and TB Brachos 18:A) questions why there is a prevailing custom (in medieval Ashkenaz – France and Germany) to remove, cut off, or invalidate the fringes in some form?

Rabbeinu Tam (Rashi’s grandson) responds that wrapping a dead person in fringes not only signifies that he fulfilled the commandments of Tzitzis, but that he was faithful to all 613 positive commandments, because the numerical value of the word Tzitzis is 600 combined with the eight strands of the Tzitzit and the five knots that are attached to the Tallis, which added together equal six hundred and thirteen.

Adds the Ri (Tosofos) that in the days of the wise, all men in the community observed the commandment of Tzitzis and therefore they were buried with a Tallis and all its fringes, but in this current time (13th-15th century) many people are not scrupulous about wearing Tzitzis during their lifetime, and it was considered deceitful to wrap such people in Tzitzis only after their death; therefore one of the fringes is cut off.

In short – it’s a compromise. Everyone is buried in a Tallis, however, because many were not careful in the observance of the Mitzvoth in their lifetime, the Tallis remains in place, but in an invalid state. (See Talmud Bavli Nidah 61:B Tosofot Avel for a detailed treatment of the issue of removing or invalidating the Tallis by cutting off or removing one of the Tzitzit .)

Eventually, it became customary to bury ALL people in a Tallis with invalid Tzitzis in order not to openly distinguish between those who wore Tzitzis during their life time and those who did not.

This is codified in the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreah Deah, Siman 351:2 (see the long Ba’ch on the Yoreah Deah which offers a detailed explanation of the custom as it evolved) and is done so by the vast majority of Chevrei Kaddisha worldwide.

How do we invalidate the Tzitzis?

Various traditions have arisen, and the most popular involve:

  • Cutting off one of the 4 fringes (which seems to be the most popular) but leaving the removed Tzitzis in the casket.
  • Opening the sides of the Tallis pocket where the Tzitzis are attached and rolling the Tzitzis into the pocket thus temporarily invalidating the Tallis.
  • Making additional knots besides the five knots on the fringes, therefore invalidating the Tallis, but still easy to unknot and re-validate.
  • Hanging the Tzitzit outside the coffin so they are physically separate.
  • Making 2 fringes out of the four by knotting two and two together.
  • In some Chassidic communities it’s customary to lay the body in the ground wrapped in a Tallis, and once it’s in the ground to then remove the Tallis, or put a Tallis on the deceased, lay him in the coffin and put the coffin in the earth and then to remove coffin lid and remove the complete Tallis.
  • Some prominent Medieval and later Rabbis instructed their students to bury them with Tzitzis in their hands (and not invalidate them in any way) as if they were saying the prayers on Tzitzis.

Other Questions

Another dimension is raised, leading to some questions that are not fully resolved.

If a person had a weekday Tallis and a Shabbos (Sabbath) Tallis, which one should they be wrapped in for burial?

Here again there is a difference of opinion. Some say (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch) the Shabbos Tallis has a higher level of showing one’s faithfulness in keeping the commandments; whereas others claim that the one used more frequently – the weekday Tallis – has a higher level of holiness.

What of Women?

There is a tradition among some Sephardic communities and some of the Naturei Karta groups of Jerusalem that a woman is also buried with a Tallis Katan without Tzitzis (small Tallis; not full size). This may be based on Shulchan Aruch Orach Hayim, Siman 17, that a woman who wore a Tallis Katan in her lifetime should be buried in one, and the same principle as above; in order not to make a distinction between women who wore them and women who didn’t, these communities decided that all would be buried with a Tallis Katan, but without Tzitzis.

Are we causing a Potential Problem by removing the Tzitzis?

Another question arises whether there will be an obligation of Tzitzis (or any other commandments) when we achieve Techias Ha’Maisim (resurrection of the dead) after the arrival of the Messiah.

If there will be an obligation to follow the commandments, then all those who rise from the dead will have non-kosher Taleisim (with invalidated fringes). [What a business bonanza for Tallis manufacturers when we all arise from the dead!]

For a related concern, see TB Niddah 61:B and the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreah Deah 301:7 for a fascinating discussion of Shatnez – the forbidden combination of wool and linen – which is allowed in Shrouds, which to some degree is based on the issue here of whether there will be an obligation to fulfill Mitzvot after the Resurrection of the Dead – techiat hameitim.

On the other hand, if there is no obligation to observe Mitzvoth once one is deceased, and there will not be an obligation when we all arise from the dead, then why invalidate the Tallis?

The concept of Lo’ag Larash (mocking a disadvantaged person or ridiculing the helpless) is no longer valid as the deceased has no obligation to observe any commandments now or in the future. However, the concept of Lo’ag Larash may be that we are feeling sorry for them now that they no longer can, and no longer have any obligation to perform any Mitzvoth.

What about the Mitzvah Against Wasting/Destroying?

Removing the Tzitzis leads to another question, that of Ba’al Tashchis (a Torah prohibition against wasting, taking a perfectly good item that can be used for holy purposes or other purposes as well, and making it totally unusable –unfit for holy use or other uses). Invalidating the tzitzis seems to be a clear violation of this principle. How can we justify it?

Taeku

No answers were found to resolve these additional questions. It seems we will need to await the Messiah’s coming for answers to these and others.

Isaac Pollak is the Rosh/Head of a Chevrah Kadisha on the upper East Side of Manhattan, NYC and has been doing Taharot for almost 4 decades. He is fascinated by and a student of customs and history concerning the Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish burial and mourning ritual. He is an avid collector of Chevrah Kadisha material cultural items, with over 300 historical artifacts in his own collection. He serves as chairperson of the Acquisition Committee for Traditional Material Culture at the Jewish Museum in NYC, and is CEO of an International Marketing Company. He is a student and participant in Gamliel Institute courses.

Isaac Pollak

Isaac Pollak

[Ed Note: Isaac Pollak has agreed to serve as a ‘researcher’ for the Expired and Inspired blog, providing us with information that is pertinent and interesting. If you have a question, please submit it to the editor. — JB]

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KAVOD v’NICHUM CONFERENCE

Registration for the 15th North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, next week on June 18-20, in San Rafael, California, is still open, and you can attend..

Our conference will have intensive workshops on Introduction to Taharah, Infection Control, Communicating about difficult Taharot, Modifying Taharah, Taharah Stories as well as exploring traditional Taharah liturgy, Navigating Taharah Liturgy – A Play, and Taharah liturgy in Maavar Yabbok.

We’ll have an exciting series of workshops on Jewish cemetery issues, including Green Cemeteries, Cremation, Perpetual Care Fund Investments, Record Keeping and Acquiring New Cemetery Property.

What’s different this year is an evolving theme – expanding the work of the Chevrah Kadisha and the Jewish Cemetery by encouraging conversation about end of life plans with the Conversation Project; end of life decision-making with Dr. Jessica Zitter, and communicating about how we die with Dr. Dawn Gross.

There’s much more – see our Preliminary conference program.

Consider a Sunday morning pre-conference field trip to Gan Yarok – an environmentally conscious Jewish Green Cemetery.

Sunday afternoon from 2-5, Sam Salkin, Executive Director of Sinai Memorial Chapel, will facilitate an intensive session on starting & managing a community funeral home. Let us know if you are interested in this session. Attendance is by advance reservation only.

Tuesday afternoon after the conference Sinai Memorial Chapel will facilitate a tour of Gan Shalom Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery with an interfaith section. Again, let us know if you are interested – Attendance by advance reservation only.

And there is an extension to the conference! Gamliel Institute students, and others by approval, can remain for an additional day to participate in the Gamliel Institute Day of Learning. We will have three extraordinary teachers presenting on a variety of texts and concepts that are of interest. This is a fantastic opportunity to study with some of the very best instructors in a small group setting during a twenty-four hour period. Students, contact us to RSVP; if you are not a Gamliel student, contact us to seek approval of the Dean to attend.

Register for the conference now.

We have negotiated a great hotel rate with Embassy Suites by Hilton, but rooms are limited; please don’t wait to make your reservations. We also have home hospitality options – contact us for information or to request home hospitality. 410-733-3700, info@jewish-funerals.org

Questions? Email info@jewish-funerals.org or call 410-733-3700.
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TASTE OF GAMLIEL

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

Each 90 minute session is presented by a different scholar.

The June 25th session is being taught by Dr. Laurie Zoloth, well known author, teacher, and scholar.  

Taste of Gamliel Webinars for this year are scheduled on January 22, February 19, March 19, April 23, May 21, and June 25. The instructors this year are: Dr. Dan Fendel, Rabbi Dayle Friedman, Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow, Rabbi Richard Address, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, and Dr. Laurie Zoloth.

This series of Webinar sessions is free, with a suggested minimum donation of $36 for all six sessions. These online sessions begin at 5 PM PDST (GMT-7); 8 PM EDST (GMT-4).

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

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

More info – Call us at 410-733-3700 or email info@jewish-funerals.org.    

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

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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

Gamliel Institute will be offering course 2, Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah, online, afternoons/evenings, in the Fall semester starting September 5th, 2017.

CLASS SESSIONS

The course will meet on twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in those weeks with Jewish holidays during this course). There will be an orientation session on Monday, September 4th, 2017.  Register or contact us for more information.

REGISTRATION

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

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.

____________________

DONATIONS:

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

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

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

___________

MORE INFORMATION

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

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

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

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

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

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SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

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

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Ahead of New York Fashion Week, the Jewish prayer shawl goes chic


Has the Jewish prayer shawl become a fashion statement?

An unidentified New York Fashion Week: Men’s participant wore a real tallit — not of the faux H&M variety— to a Tommy Hilfiger presentation last Thursday, Racked reported on Monday.

Vogue photographer Phil Oh captured the fashion enthusiast wearing a black wool coat and a black beanie to go with the dark-striped prayer shawl.

The tallit has long been referenced in retail fashion. Last month, H&M offered a near-tallit scarf that it subsequently apologized for. The company also sold a tallit-esque poncho back in 2011. Old Navy had avery similar cardigan last year.

But now a legit tallit has appeared at a major men’s fashion showcase in New York — not to mention in the webpages of Vogue. (New York Fashion Week itself runs Feb. 10-18.)

Next year, maybe we’ll see tefillin on the runway. After all, Jean Paul Gaultier made Hasidic chic work in 1993.

H&M pulls tallit-like scarf from Israel, apologizes ‘if we have offended anyone’


Swedish retail chain H&M apologized for marketing a Jewish prayer shawl-like fringed scarf  and said the item will no longer be sold in Israel.

“We are truly sorry if we have offended anyone with this piece. Everyone is welcome at H&M and we never take a religious or political stand,” the retailer said, according to Women’s Wear Daily. “Our intention was never to upset anyone. Stripes is one of the trends for this season and we’ve been inspired by this.”

The striped, beige scarf drew attention earlier this week, when its resemblance to a tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl sparked debate on social media. The company also sells a similar poncho, and in 2011 marketed another tallit-like poncho.

The scarf, which retails for $17.99, will still be available outside Israel, but “the quantities were small and the products are no longer available in some markets,” including Israeli stores “following a local decision of removal,” H&M said, according to Women’s Wear Daily

H&M: Your source for cheap & chic Jewish prayer shawls?


H&M is at it again — they’ve made a scarf that looks remarkably like a tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl.

Racked is reporting that the fast-fashion retailer is currently hawking a beige scarf with black stripes on its website for $17.99. “H&M even incorporated its own version of tzitzit, the knotted fringe you’ll find on every tallit,” the story notes.

The Stockholm-based chain also has a matching fringed poncho for $34.99.

This isn’t H&M’s first foray into prayer-shawl chic: In 2011, they issued a similarly-styled women’s poncho. (Three years later, the brand was accused of anti-Semitism when it issued a tank top with a skull superimposed atop a Star of David.)

H&M is hardly the only major fashion retailer to wade into Jewish (or anti-Semitic) territory. Notably, in the summer of 2014, the Spain-based chain Zara sold a children’s striped “sheriff” T-shirt that looked alarmingly like a concentration-camp uniform, complete with a six-pointed yellow star on the left breast.

Amidst a social media firestorm, the brand apologized and pulled the item from stores.

“Fashion changes, but style endures,” Coco Chanel famously once said. Clearly, observant Jews were onto something: In July 2015, Old Navy sold a  Women’s Handkerchief-Hem Open-Front Cardigan that strongly resembled a prayer shawl.

B’nai Mitzvah @ 50… and beyond


Trisha Roth completed two years of study in order to be ready for her recent bat mitzvah. When the big day came, she wore a tallit that belonged to her late brother. But something else made the experience particularly special.

She was 67.

A grandmother of seven — her youngest had her baby naming the same day as Roth’s ritual — Roth was one of four adults to become b’nai mitzvah at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills on June 29. For baby boomers and others long past the rite’s traditional age of 13, these ceremonies have become a popular option as they seek a deeper, more meaningful connection with Judaism. 

“What you get from this experience is the ability to decode Hebrew and the familiarity with services so communal prayer can be part of your life. It’s a door to a deeper connection to Jewish tradition and to the synagogue,” said Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel. 

And it’s a door that, when opened later in life, comes with different ramifications and perhaps a deeper sense of meaning, gratitude and humility. Roth, a pediatrician and substance abuse specialist, said she “always wanted to be able to understand Hebrew and wanted to explore the connection between religion and spirituality. Now I feel more open to what it all is.” 

She noted that sisterhood — within her extended family and in the congregation — is important to her. She’ll join Geller and classmate Ruth Weisberg on a trip to Jerusalem in November to mark the 25th anniversary of a law giving women the right to wear tallitot and pray aloud at the Western Wall.

Class participants in the two-year program (in other synagogues, it may be less) study together and conclude with a joint ceremony, but each reads a different Torah portion and writes commentary that is personal. 

Like many boomer women, Roth didn’t have the opportunity to become a bat mitzvah when she was 13. Neither did Sandra Babcock, 66, who was 52 when she had a bat mitzvah at Temple Emanuel. 

Deprived of a Jewish education growing up in New York and New Jersey, Babcock felt that she wasn’t a whole Jew. So she gave her daughter a Jewish day and Hebrew school education and bat mitzvah, and then, “After she was off to college, it was my turn!”

Still working as CEO of a nonprofit while attending weekly classes, the now-retired Babcock said she made a very personal commitment to study Torah, the prayers and the Hebrew language. 

“I learned, I chanted, I got my tallit, which I treasure. I feel part of the community,” she said. 

At Temple Israel of Hollywood, adult b’nai mitzvah classes tend to be filled with women, as bat mitzvahs weren’t being done in the 1950s and ’60s, according to Rabbi John Rosove. (Historically, things didn’t start to change until the women’s movement hit in the ’70s.) 

With the worldliness, education and life experiences that they bring to the table, boomer students — male and female — approach their studies from a different perspective than do their younger counterparts, he said.

“They realize that to be at the core of Jewish tradition they have to study Torah, understand Hebrew and need more knowledge. They want that window into Jewish tradition that they didn’t have before,” Rosove said.

Rabbi Steven Fox, chief executive of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, said the attraction to mature adults goes beyond intellectual learning to include the spiritual and emotional aspects of Jewish life.

“Often, as kids, we’re not ready for that. What are the rituals? What do they mean? How do I make them meaningful for me and my family? That is part of the power of the experience,” he said. 

For people like Jill Jupiter, a 62-year-old personal trainer who had a bat mitzvah earlier this year, having the ceremony as a boomer wasn’t about the rite of passage her two daughters experienced as youths; it was about validating and extending an already strong connection to Judaism.

In secular life, she waited until her children were adults, she was divorced, and she had gone into business for herself. And in congregational life, she was already an active member of Temple Israel’s choir and a minyan attendee. While she loved the music and liturgy, she said she would have felt like an impostor by putting a tallit on before having a bat mitzvah. 

“Now I don’t,” she said.

Jupiter added that what began as a common goal ended up having a special meaning for each individual in her class.

“Even though it was a group effort and we studied and did mitzvah projects and planned a party together, every one of us is on their own personal spiritual path. I’m definitely continuing to study, pray, observe the holidays and stay involved with the temple.” 

For Nancy Gorman, 60, a retired teacher from this year’s b’nai mitzvah class at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino, the process allowed her to expand upon previous life experience.

“I’d started going to minyan every night for a year after my dad passed away three years ago. That made me feel more Jewish, and the bat mitzvah was a continuation of that,” she said.  

Having married a “Conservative bordering on Orthodox” man, she raised her three children with more observance than she had in her youth. VBS ritual director Yossi Dresner led their b’nai mitzvah ceremonies and taught her, too. 

“That’s what made it perfect,” said Gorman, who still goes to Friday night minyan.

Rich Slavin, an insurance broker and financial planner in his mid-50s, felt he missed out by not having a bar mitzvah as a boy, when few of his Jewish friends were having them. While his family celebrated Jewish holidays, “We were very assimilated,” he said. College courses and religious friends kindled his interest in Judaism, and he eventually decided to take “the next step in the journey” as a bar mitzvah, which he celebrated this year at VBS. 

Slavin said he enjoyed having the group support and gained an increasingly great appreciation for Judaism. He hopes that his 23-year-old son, who quit his studies just shy of 13, will one day follow suit.

Other boomers, like Frank Navi, missed out on taking part in the ritual earlier for other reasons. For him, it was because he grew up in Iran.

“In those days, it wasn’t easy to do,” said the 61-year-old accountant, who immigrated to the United States at 25. 

He’s been thinking about taking classes ever since, “But the timing wasn’t right until now.” An active member of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the father of two children who had b’nai mitzvah, he said he’s grateful for the “high level of spirituality” the experience provided last year.

Then there’s Barbara Lloyd Bailey: She’s a Jew by Choice. Catholic by birth, the 51-year-old consultant married her Jewish husband in an interfaith ceremony in 1999 but knew she was going to convert and began the process the following year. She had her bat mitzvah last year at Sinai Temple, where her son will have his bar mitzvah this year. 

“My objective was a certain amount of learning so that I could feel comfortable and participate fully as a member of the community. I went in seeking a deepening spiritual connection and understanding, and once we started reading our portion of the Torah, the more meaningful it was to me,” Lloyd Bailey said. 

Another byproduct of going through the process was developing supportive connections with her synagogue and her b’nai mitzvah class, she said.

“It makes every aspect of participation in the religious community more accessible once you’ve reached this milestone.”

Letters to the Editor: Jews should get offended, Web Tsuris


More Than One Way to Deal With Obstacle to Peace Process
 
Feelings carry greater impact in communication than thought or logic (“Jews Should Get Offended,” June 21). As a mediator, I witness that routinely. When Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas denies any Jewish connection to Jerusalem, David Suissa suggests Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu respond by simply calling it insulting and offensive. That makes sense and, even more so, it feels right.
 
Daniel Ben-Zvi
Los Angeles
 
David Suissa’s article in a nutshell: Jews — good, reasonable, only want peace; Arabs — bad, unreasonable, obstacle to peace.
 
Ah, the same old, same old.
 
On the other hand, settlement building is a genius idea that will naturally lead to peace. A wonderful display of us Jews saying “no” to peace also.
 
David Avram Wright
via jewishjournal.com
 
I believe that Palestinians at heart are bullies. In my neighborhoods, the slums of St. Louis and East Los Angeles, you did not let bullies push you around. You kicked their ass and then they picked on someone else. Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Egypt have all lost wars to Israel, but not the Palestinians. Arafat rejects a two-state solution and we give them the Oslo Accords, with guns, taxes, control over their territory. What does Israel get from these bullies? Nothing but heartache.
 
Ilbert Phillips
via jewishjournal.com
 
Tsuris for Sale on the World Wide Web
 
Dennis Pager should auction the gold tallit to pay for the silver one  (“The Israeli.com and Me,” June 21).
 
David M. Davis
via jewishjournal.com
 
So I’m waiting with bated breath to hear the continuation of this saga. Please keep us posted (pun intended).
 
Jules Stein 
Ambler, Penn.
via jewishjournal.com
 
Buy locally, my friend. You won’t have these problems.
 
Sofer Ronnie Sieger
via jewishjournal.com
 
I had a similar issue when I ordered a T-shirt from Israel. When I received the shirt it was the wrong color and two sizes smaller than I ordered. After a couple of e-mail exchanges, in which they asked what color and size I had ordered (don’t they keep records?), they graciously offered to credit me the price of the shirt on my next purchase. In my wildest dreams, I can’t imagine why they think I would ever buy from them again. Now that I read Mr. Prager’s experience, I don’t see myself ever buying from an Israeli company again. 
 
Ted Salmons
via jewishjournal.com
 
I so appreciate your situation. While in Israel, we shipped purchases home ahead. We were met with similar preposterous problems, which we never solved, and we never got our items. We gave up, totally flabbergasted. I commend you for your not giving up.
 
Mary Ann Griffin
via jewishjournal.com
 
They have had several opportunities to make amends. Please publish the name of this company so justice and fairness can triumph. 
 
Jeff Marder
via jewishjournal.com
 
Appreciation for a Remarkable Physician
 
I was delighted to see the article on Dr. Wayne Grody’s efforts in overturning the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office policy on DNA patents (“Patient Ruling Could Aid Women,” June 21). Dr. Grody is a remarkable person, always standing up for what’s right for the health-care consumer and doing something about it. I know that personally because he was able to diagnose my son with familial Mediterranean fever at the FMF Clinic at UCLA using DNA testing after multiple specialists were unable to do so. When the FDA proposed increasing the cost of my son’s medication tenfold, Dr. Grody went to Washington to lobby for all those who need to take the medication on a daily basis for the rest of their lives. Thank you for featuring Dr. Grody and all that he does. The world could use a few more committed people like him.
 
Leila Cohen
Los Angeles
 
Corrections
 
Due to an editing error, an article on local reaction to the Iranian presidential election (“L.A. Iranian Jews Pessimistic About New Iranian President,” June 21) omitted the full title of local Iranian-Jewish leader Sam Yebri. He is president of 30 Years After, an Iranian-Jewish organization based in Los Angeles. 
 
A.J. Kreimer’s title was listed incorrectly in an article about Boy Scout troops in synagogues (“Opposition Continues Despite New Scout Policy,” June 21). He is the Area 5 president of the Northeast Region.

The Israeli.com and me


For the amusement of readers and to publicize what is probably the most absurd treatment by a retailer I have ever encountered — I am publishing the e-mail dialogue (to the extent that “dialogue” is the apt term) with an Israeli Web site from which I recently purchased a tallit. 

When possible, I prefer to support local businesses, but given my height (6 feet, 4 inches), I needed the largest tallit made. I assumed that an Internet site in Israel would offer the widest choice of tallitot.

On May 3, I ordered a silver and red tallit from —.com. Although quite tempted, I refrain from publishing the actual of the name of the company. 

On May 4, I received the confirmation:

Thank you for your interest in —.com products. Your order has been received and will be processed once payment has been confirmed. Order Details; Order ID: 77; Date Added: 04/05/2013; Color Wool Talis; Size: 60”x80”; Color: Red – Silver 1 $138.98; Regular Shipping: $10; Total: $148.98

A little more than two weeks later, I received a lovely tallit. Unfortunately, it was red and gold, not red and silver. 

So, on May 22, I informed the company of its mistake.

Re: Invoice ID: 77, I ordered red and silver, but the tallit I received is red and gold. How do I go about exchanging it for the correct one? Thank you.

In America, one would typically receive a response such as this:

“Please accept our apologies for sending the wrong tallit. Please use the attached pre-paid postage/FedEx/UPS label to return it to us, and upon receipt of the unworn tallit, we will immediately ship the one you ordered or issue a full refund of your money.”

That was not the response I received.

Indeed, as of June 15, I still have the wrong tallit. The only thing to which I can compare my ongoing dialogue with this company is the famous Monty Python dead parrot skit. In this skit, a man tried to return a parrot that had died on arrival at his home to the pet store where he had purchased the bird, but the store owner kept trying to convince the man that the parrot was not, in fact, dead.

Here, then, is the e-mail exchange — thus far:

A little more than four days later, I received this response:

Sun, May 26, 2013, at 7:40 a.m. Subject: Question from —.com To: Prager Dennis 

Please send me picture of the tallit.

If you have any further questions please do not hesitate to contact me anytime,

With kind regards

Refael  Y—

Sales Department

Expecting to receive a Returned Merchandise Authorization number or some other instruction on how to return the tallit, I found this response strange. Did they think I was lying? Or that I was color blind? But, I did what they requested and sent a photo taken with a superb full-frame camera.

Dennis Prager, Thu, May 30, 2013, at 6:43 p.m. To: —.com

Here is a photo of the wrong colored tallit you sent me.

Dennis Prager

Once they had the photo, I was certain they would offer an apology or at least offer to send a new tallit. So, it was —.com’s next response that made me realize that I was entering Monty Python territory:

sales@—.com Sun, Jun 2, 2013, at 11:04 a.m.

To: Dennis Prager 

Hello

Please send me the order number

If you have any further questions please do not hesitate to contact me anytime,

With kind regards

Refael Y—

—.com Sales Department

The truth is that I did have “further questions.” For example, how did they manage to stay in business? And did they think their business practices were fitting for religious Jews? But I preferred to let my new pen pal, Mr. Y., know, as gently as I could, that we had reached a certain level of absurdity, given that the order number was listed in the subject line on the very first piece of correspondence and appeared in the body of the email he replied to.

Dennis Prager Sun, Jun 2, 2013, at 3:24 p.m.

Dear Mr. Y—:

First, your company sent me the wrong tallit.

Then, after waiting a week for a reply, I was told that I had to take a picture of the wrong tallit.

And now you need me to tell you what the order number is. You don’t know?

Would you like the name of the mailman who delivered the tallit?

As you can see, it has been, shall we say, an odd experience dealing with —.com. 

Here is the order number: Order ID: 77

I received a response immediately, and, the grammar, punctuation, spelling and general incoherence notwithstanding, it gave me reason for some optimism:

sales@—.com> Mon, Jun 3, 2013 at 12:27 AM To: Dennis Prager 

I am sorry you are right do you want to keep its and get credit for the site or some refund or replace it

If you have any further questions please do not hesitate to contact me anytime,

With kind regards

Refael Y., —.com Sales Department, sales@—.com

On further reflection, however, the e-mail was mystifying. Why would I choose to keep the wrong tallit? Hadn’t I made clear in my very first e-mail that all I wanted was the tallit I had originally ordered? And now that he had the order number and a photo of the wrong tallit, why was he not telling me how to return it? 

So, I wrote back:

Dennis Prager Mon, Jun 3, 2013, at 1:05 a.m. To: sales@—.com>

Dear Sir:

Weeks ago all I asked was to be sent the correct tallit while I return the wrong one.

Dennis Prager

Having made my wish clear — yet again — I finally received a 160-word directive on what to do:

sales@—.com> Mon, Jun 3, 2013, at 4:39 a.m. To: Dennis Prager 

Please follow our return instructions when returning your order.

1. Please write on the package “return merchandise”.

2. Please return the package to: —.com, Yavne, 81510 Israel

3. Please ship the item by standard mail (USPS) as items arriving with other services are more likely to get stuck in customs. Please note that we won’t cover any costs for custom clearance for items not arriving by standard mail.

4. We can offer you a credit for our website or refund of up to $15 by Paypal for shipping costs of returning broken items or in cases you have to return an item as a result of a mistake on our side. However, please note we can only offer you that credit or refund if the item is sent by standard mail (USPS).

5. Please keep a tracking number for the returned package.

We will handle your return request, refund or exchange, as soon as we receive the returned item.

Thank you for your cooperation

If you have any further questions please do not hesitate to contact me anytime,

With kind regards

Refael  Y.

—.com Sales Department

So my wife went to the post office to follow their instructions. However, their instructions were not doable. One cannot mail an item the size and weight of this tallit to Israel — even in the cheapest way suggested — and get a tracking number for $15. 

At this point, I was beginning to suspect there was a method to —.com’s madness. At best, they were simply trying to wear me down, hoping that I had better things to do with my time than to keep responding to their non-response responses. At worst, they were being dishonest, peppering me with requests and questions and now giving me impossible directions for returning their tallit. 

They were right about my having better things to do with my time. But by now curiosity as to how this whole thing would be resolved, if ever, had taken over. 

So, I wrote to them about what transpired at the post office. 

Dennis Prager, Fri, Jun 7, 2013, at 12:26 a.m. To: sales@—.com

My wife went to the post office to mail the tallit and was told that the cheapest possible way to send the tallit (first-class postage is the least expensive option) would cost $27. and that is without any tracking, meaning that if the tallit got lost, I would be out the cost of the tallit and the $27 shipping. 

With tracking it would cost $40. You have stated you will cover only $15 of the return shipping cost. 

Please explain why I should have to pay the difference, given that I made no mistake, and your company did, sending the wrong item. It is unheard of for a company to penalize the customer for a mistake the company made.

Moreover I am not even asking for a refund. All I want is the tallit I ordered.

Dennis Prager 

You would think that by this point the company would be embarrassed. You would be wrong.

Here is Mr. Y’s response:

sales@—.com> Sun, Jun 9, 2013, at 9:51 a.m. To: Dennis Prager 

Hello

I will check it

If you have any other questions please let me know. 

Looking forward to hearing from you,

Sincerely, 

Rafi Y.

The e-mail concluded with this hilarious new message:

Thank you for choosing —.com! 

Needless to say, I didn’t respond, since I was assured that Mr. Y. “will check it.”

And so he did, with this terse response two and half days later:

sales@—.com> Tue, Jun 11, 2013, at 11:50 p.m. To: Dennis Prager 

Please send in 27$

If you have any other questions please let me know. 

Looking forward to hearing from you,

Sincerely, 

Rafi Y.

Thank you for choosing —.com! 

And that is where it now stands. I don’t even know what “Please send in 27$” means. 

I can only say that the purpose of the tallit — to remind the Jew to keep God’s laws — seems to be lost on a company that sells them.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Ten women arrested at Western Wall for praying with prayer shawls


Ten women participating in a women's prayer service with hundreds of worshippers and supporters at the Western Wall were arrested for wearing prayer shawls.

Those arrested Monday morning included Israeli-American Rabbi Susan Silverman, sister of comedian Sarah Silverman, and her 17-year-old daughter Hallel Abramovitz; Anat Hoffman, chairwoman of the Women of the Wall, who has been arrested several times in recent months; and two U.S. rabbis, Debra Cantor of B'nai Tikvoh-Sholom in Bloomfield, Conn., and Robin Fryer Bodzin of the Israel Center of Conservative Judaism in Queens, NY.

The women had gathered at the back of the women's section, as they have at the beginning of every new Jewish month since 1988, for Rosh Chodesh services for the new Jewish month of Adar. It was the largest number of participants for the monthly event since its inception, organizers told Israeli media.

The women were joined on the other side of the mechitza, the barrier which separates the sexes at the Wall, by a number of male supporters, including six former Israel Defense Forces paratroopers who had been among those that liberated the Western Wall during the Six Day War in 1967.  One of the paratroopers was Dr. Yitzhak Yifat of Jerusalem, who is famous as one of the three paratroopers in the iconic photograph of three soldiers standing at the Western Wall shortly after its liberation. Yifat is the middle paratrooper in the photo by David Rubinger.

The arrests reportedly were made at the end of service, after most of the participants and media had left the Western Wall Plaza. Police had stood on the sidelines as the women prayed and then danced in a circle holding their prayer shawls, according to Haaretz.

The women's prayer group moved its Torah reading from the Wall to outside the Old City of Jerusalem police department, where the arrested women were taken.

In 2003, Israel's Supreme Court upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin or tallit prayer shawls, or reading from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall.

Women participating in the Rosh Chodesh service have been arrested nearly every month since June for wearing prayer shawls or for “disturbing public order.”

Women praying to be heard at the Western Wall


We approached the entrance to the Kotel Plaza a little before 7 a.m. on Rosh Hodesh Tevet. In my bag was my tallit, the beautiful purple-and-blue one that was hand woven as a gift from the students and faculty at USC more than 20 years ago, when I completed my time there as the Hillel rabbi. Several women were in line in front of me; the security guards checking bags told them they couldn’t bring their tallitot into the Kotel Plaza. As of 6 that morning, a new decree had been issued by the “Rabbi of the Wall” forbidding women from entering the plaza with Jewish holy articles like tallit and tefillin. 

This week’s Torah portion continues the story of Joseph. It begins: “Vayigash eilav Yehuda …” “And Judah approached him (Joseph) …” The midrash (Bereshit Rabba 93:6) asks what “approach” means, what are the different strategies one might use to approach those who hold power. It offers three options: One is to approach in conciliation, the second is to approach in battle, and the third is to approach in prayer.

I wanted to approach in prayer. I learned long ago of the power of tallit and kippah to help me move from the secular to the sacred, spiritual tools that begin the transformation that opens my heart to prayer. I took my tallit out and wrapped it around my neck like a scarf. When it was my turn to go through security, a guard pointed to my neck. “Does that scarf have tzitzit? Take it off. You must leave it here.” I tried to explain: “But I am coming to pray. In the mornings, I pray with a tallit. This tallit is very symbolic to me — it was a gift from the students I taught that there is more than one way to be a Jew.” But as he was going through my purse and holding my kippah in his hand, he didn’t seem interested in a conversation. “You can take this,” handing me the kippah, “but not that tallit.”

I unwrapped the tallit and left it in the pile of tallitot other women had been forced to leave behind. Four women who wore their tallitot under their coats were able to pass through security. When they reached the women’s section of the Kotel and our prayer began, they put on and wore their tallitot and were soon summoned by the police and told they must take them off or leave. Subsequently, they were arrested. 

There is no halachic prohibition against a woman wearing a tallit. At most, the prohibition is against saying a bracha that indicates she is fulfilling a commandment. We actually have evidence in rabbinic tradition that some daughters of certain prominent rabbis wore tallit and tefillin. So why is my wanting to approach the Kotel in prayer, the way I pray, a problem for the authorities who control the Kotel? If I can’t approach in prayer, in what for me is real and authentic prayer, the only options left are to approach in conciliation or in battle.

I could approach in conciliation. I could argue that Women of the Wall have been given what we need — we are “allowed” to convene 11 times a year in the women’s sections for public prayer, as long as we move to Robinson’s Arch for the Torah service. There we can wear tallitot and tefillin; there it is possible to have women and men pray together. But Robinson’s Arch, while technically part of the Western Wall, is not the “main” Kotel, not the iconic symbol that so many Jews consider sacred. The Kotel is sacred space that should belong to all Jews. It is, in fact, a national monument. The problem is that government legislation has turned it into an Orthodox synagogue where public prayer can only be led by men. It disenfranchises me, along with the vast majority of Jews in the world. It says that my expression of Judaism is not authentic. Conciliation means giving up my own voice and my own truth. 

So the only approach that is left is battle. Women of the Wall will continue to fight, not only for reclaiming the Kotel as public space, but also for all the other issues of religious pluralism that are so important. The women and men who support Women of the Wall will continue to speak truth to power, raising our voices and our prayers to challenge the Orthodox monopoly on issues of personal status —marriage, divorce, burial and conversion — and to work for parity in government funding for non-Orthodox religious and educational institutions, and for recognition of liberal rabbis. And we will continue to act on our conviction that there is more than one way to be a Jew.


Rabbi Laura Geller is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Reviving Biblical blue


Blue and white are the traditional colors of the tallit, and, for that reason, the colors of the flag of Israel. And yet the ancient craft of making blue dyes for use in sacred garments was lost to the world for centuries. Just as the Jewish people longed for Zion, they also longed to reclaim the long-lost secret of the blue thread that the Bible commands us to wear on the corners of our garments.

So we learn in “The Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Color Lost to History and Rediscovered” by Baruch Sterman with Judy Taubes Sterman (Lyons Press: $24.95), which can be enjoyed as a mystery, a travelogue, an adventure story and a work of scholarship. Sterman embarked on a search through history and around the world for the secrets of the Murex trunculus, a marine snail whose entrails were used in antiquity to create a unique blue dye — “the sacred, rarest blue,” as they put it.

The mystery began in late antiquity, when the use of dyes in vivid colors, all produced with shellfish, began to fade. “By the fall of Constantinople in 1453,” the authors explain, “[t]he secrets of the highly developed art, its significance once immeasurable, were lost.” Another four centuries would pass before a French zoologist rediscovered the arcane uses of the Murex trunculus and other marine snails.

The mystery deepens because the ancients did not distinguish the color blue from a “whole range of colors from blue to red,” all of which were described by the same word — purple. We know that these colors were regarded as symbolic of royal rank and imperial power throughout the ancient world, but the Israelites reserved an even more exalted place for them: “To the ancient Israelites, however, these dyes possessed a holiness not by imperial fiat but because God Himself commanded their use in His worship.” 

The point was made in the biblical commandment that a single thread of blue — tekhelet is the Hebrew word — should be affixed to the corners of a garment, a passage that resulted in the wearing of the tallit in later centuries. “In the Roman world, the use of distinguishing colors became increasingly exclusive, reserved for the elite,” the authors explain, “whereas in Jewish culture, the tekhelet string bound people together, an expression of social equality.” Yet the loss of blue dyes meant that ritual fringes could conform with the biblical law. “And now we have only white,” the compiler of the Midrash complained in the eighth century, “for tekhelet has been hidden.”

Modern chemical dyes allowed the use of textile dyes in a fabulous array of colors, but Jewish purists still longed for the authentic color of blue that was mandated in the Torah. So, too, do the authors of “The Rarest Blue,” who explain in fascinating detail how colors were deployed throughout the ancient world as status symbols, expressions of political iconography and repositories of the sacred. They move forward in history, as they described how politics and archaeology were fused in the imperial ambitions of the Western powers and, of course, the Jewish people, and a thread of blue runs through the whole account.

The priests of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, for example, wore garments of tekhelet, including a 16-meter sash that was worn around the waist. Today, the pious Jews who look forward to the building of a Third Temple are fashioning the requisite tools, vessels and elaborate priestly vestments, all according to scriptural specifications. “The Temple Institute has made 120 full sets of these garments that hang today in the closets of Jews of priestly lineage around the world,” the authors report. “Those priests dream of the day when they will don the uniforms to perform their service in the Temple.”

Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, Chief Rabbi of Ireland and then of Israel, as another example, was among the founding fathers of the Jewish state, a man who was fully engaged in the politics and diplomacy of his era. But he was also a lifelong student of “Hebrew porphyrology — the term Herzog coined for the study of the ancient biblical dye tekhelet” — and conducted his own exacting investigations into contemporary efforts to reproduce it. “The dream of this modern, intellectually sophisticated, utterly devout rabbi,” the authors insist, “[was] to restore the possibility of fulfilling the ancient commandment of wearing tekhelet.”

The story in “The Rarest Blue” ends on a note of triumph that can be understood variously as an affirmation of piety or as the success of a scientific enterprise, or perhaps both. “For more than a millennium, no eye had seen threads of genuine tekhelet,” the authors conclude. “Today hundreds of thousands around the world wear the tekhelet strings on their prayer shawls. To paraphrase the words of the ancient Midrash: Now we no longer have only white string, for tekhelet once again has been revealed.”

The Jews of Kaifeng, China


Jewish liturgy and ritual frequently remind us that the Israelites were scattered to the “four corners of the earth,” as symbolized by the four fringes of the tallit, or prayer shawl. The extent of the geographic dispersion of the Jews over millennia has been vast, ranging from Baghdad to Burma, Marrakesh to Melbourne, Jerusalem to Los Angeles. 

But it wasn’t until I arrived in China for a two-and-a-half week stint to teach Jewish history that I realized just how dispersed these “four corners” are.

In Kaifeng, where Jews once lived — and still do — I witnessed the past and present of one of those dispersed “corners.” I also learned what it is like to teach Jewish history in China, where the field of Jewish studies is undergoing a surprising growth spurt.

The absence of a firm trail of historical evidence leads some to maintain that reports of a medieval Jewish presence in China are unfounded. I tend to agree with another group of scholars, who believe that there was such a presence — and that Kaifeng (pronounced “Ky fung”), in Henan province, is the oldest known Jewish community. This group argues that Jewish merchants, most likely originating in the Middle East, traveled along the vaunted Silk Road and made their way to and through China as early as the seventh century C.E. A document written in Judeo-Persian detailing business activity dates Jews in China to the early eighth century. Meanwhile, scholars surmise that sometime between the 10th and 12th centuries C.E., Jewish traders — likely of Persian origin — laid roots in Kaifeng. Kaifeng was no mere station along the Silk Road, and surely no backwater. It was one of the “Seven Ancient Capitals of China,” serving as the administrative center for five dynasties. Even more remarkably, Kaifeng was reputed to be the largest city in the world in the 11th and 12th centuries, with a population estimated at between 700,000 to 1.5 million. The list of other leading urban population centers in this period includes Córdoba (Spain), Constantinople (Istanbul), Cairo and Baghdad, all of which were or would become home to large populations of Jews. In fact, the Jewish romance with the city was not a modern invention. In a city, one could find a spirit of openness, new ideas and, of course, abundant commercial opportunities. In this sense, it would be no surprise that Jews made their way to medieval Kaifeng.

Kaifeng in its golden age was a masterfully designed city, with three sets of city walls, at the center of which was the elaborate Forbidden City where the emperor and his court were located. The Jewish community lived within the city walls, dwelling in close proximity to the community’s first synagogue, built in 1163, whose construction was commemorated in a stele dated to 1489. Unlike many of their medieval co-religionists, the Jews of Kaifeng, it appears, were largely unscathed by discrimination or persecution. The Song Emperors, based in Kaifeng, held the Jews in high esteem. And the Jews maintained good relations with their local Chinese neighbors. 

It is reasonable to assume that amiable relations hastened the pace of cultural integration. Within several hundred years, many of Kaifeng’s Jews, who at their peak numbered several thousand (some estimate as high as five thousand), lost knowledge of the Hebrew language. And yet, a key feature of traditional Jewish life remained throughout the entire existence of the community, even up to today: Jews in Kaifeng abstained from eating pork. Another distinctive feature of the Kaifeng community also survived: One of the Song Emperors, who could not pronounce the Hebrew names of the Jews in his realm, bestowed on them seven Chinese family names that are still in use today.

The existence of this community was unknown to the West until 1605, when the intrepid Jesuit scholar and missionary in China, Matteo Ricci, received a visit from a Kaifeng Jew in Beijing. After an initial confusion in which the two thought they belonged to the same religion, Ricci recognized that he was dealing with a previously unknown phenomenon: a native Jewish community in China. This well preceded the later communities established in the late 19th century in Shanghai and Harbin. 

A model of the Kaifeng synagogue at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Some decades later, the city of Kaifeng, including its Jewish community, confronted a major disaster. In 1642, a devastating flood of the Yellow River wreaked massive destruction upon the city, killing large numbers of residents, including Jews, and laying waste to much of the city’s infrastructure, including the synagogue. The glory days of Kaifeng as a world center of commerce were over.

After the flood, the Jews did manage to rebuild their synagogue, distinguished, like the original one, by a large Chinese-style roof, along with a number of other distinctive Chinese features. But the community’s best days were past. Fewer and fewer Jews attended the synagogue or had familiarity with Jewish ritual. In 1841, another major flood hit Kaifeng, again destroying much of the city, including the second synagogue. And this time, no communal institutions were available afterward to provide support or services to Kaifeng Jews. 

One might assume, on the basis of this story, that the history of Kaifeng Jewry has come to an end, a victim not of anti-Semitism but of Chinese hospitality. My visit to Kaifeng suggests otherwise. My host in China, professor Xu Xin, one of the founding figures of Jewish studies in China (about whom more later), took me to visit Esther Guo Yan, a woman of about 25 or 30 who preserves one of the seven Jewish family names. Esther is the granddaughter of the last renowned Jewish notable from Kaifeng, and she runs a tiny, rough-hewn shrine to the history of Kaifeng Jewry. She waits for the occasional tourist to find her home, which is located in the historic Jewish quarter. Her interests are both to recall the old Jewish community and to bring knowledge about Chinese culture to what she refers to as her “hometown,” Jerusalem.

Indeed, a strong connection to Israel marks the larger group of Jewish descendants whom I met in Kaifeng. I first visited them at the end of their weekly four-hour study session of English and Hebrew with their ebullient, chain-smoking Israeli teacher, Shulamit Gershovich, who had been sent by Shavei Israel, an international group that seeks out lost Jews. She is concluding a six-month stint teaching the Kaifeng group and lives in one of the two rooms that now serve as a kind of community center under the name Beit HaTikvah (House of Hope). This name was bestowed by the center’s founder, a young American Jew named Eric Rothberg, who began to work with and teach the group two years ago. 

On a Thursday evening, I met with a group of eight students, some of them bearing the ancient names of Kaifeng Jews who, thus, are “descendants,” and others who have no Jewish blood but are married to descendants. Here in Kaifeng, as in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, the most important criterion of Jewishness is not the rabbinic standard of matrilineal descent. Rather, it is the willingness and desire to be a Jew. Against remarkable odds, the members of Beit HaTikvah are assiduously studying what it means to be a Jew. Though a small number of younger family members have been sent off to Israel or the United States to study and undergo formal conversion, the majority of the 25 or so attendees at Beit HaTikvah are on their own path of Jewish self-discovery in China, where they likely will remain. (I should add that, in the ancient and venerable ways of the Jews, there is another group of a similar size studying at a different locale in Kaifeng with a Messianic Jew named Tim Lerner, though I did not get to meet them.)

Without a doubt, the highlight of my time in Kaifeng, and a reflection of the group’s indomitable spirit, was the Shabbat I spent at Beit HaTikvah. I was brought to the Friday night gathering by Ari Schaffer, an Orthodox undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University, who is conducting research on the community. The small, nondescript room was filled with some 25 people, ranging in age from 16 to 75. On one wall was an unusual array of symbols: the flag of the State of Israel on the right, the flag of the People’s Republic of China on the left, and in the middle, the Shema prayer flanked by a pair of Hebrew words, shemesh and kamon.  

Shemesh means sun. Kamon’s meaning is a matter of dispute; some scholars believe it refers to an angel, while others maintain that it connotes moon. In any case, this pair of words seems to have served a sort talismanic function for the community.

After candlelighting, Gao Chao, the leader of the small community, began to sing “Yedid Nefesh,” the medieval poem sung at the outset of Kabbalat Shabbat. Typically enough for this community, Gao Chao is not of Jewish descent. He is married to a descendent, but has taken on the responsibility of learning Hebrew and Jewish prayers so as to serve as the prayer leader on Friday nights. He led the community through Kabbalat Shabbat, with members joining in in their Chinese-inflected Hebrew (which was rendered into Chinese characters for them to follow). The degree of ritual fluency for a community that does not include a single halachic Jew and has been studying Hebrew intensely for only two years was remarkable. The community chanted with gusto and competency many of the standards of Jewish liturgy and custom on Friday night: “Lechah Dodi,” “Ve-shamru,” and “Shalom Aleichem.” It was particularly moving when the congregation joined with Gao Chao to sing the penultimate line of the Friday night Kiddush: “For You have chosen us and sanctified us from among all the nations, and with love and good will given us Your holy Shabbat as a heritage.”

After services, the entire group sat down to a potluck vegetarian Shabbat dinner, my first with chopsticks as the utensil of choice. Dinner was tasty and spirited, but a mere prelude to the memorable post-meal singing. We sang the grace after meals and then spent several hours singing zemirot and other Hebrew and Israeli songs at the top of our lungs — aided, it must be said, by a potent Arak-like beverage native to the region. One member of the community — not herself a Jewish descendant, but married to one — had assumed the Hebrew name Netta. She seemed to know virtually every Hebrew song sung. She had an infectious smile, beautiful voice and a true sense of oneg Shabbat — the joy of the Sabbath. Other members did not know many of the songs, but added their own enthusiastic and well-timed rhythm by clapping and pounding the table.

The one song that all knew was the one whose name adorns the current Kaifeng community: HaTikvah. At a certain point in the midst of the cacophonous frivolity, the group rose as one to offer a sonorous version of “Hatikvah” — in Chinese! Those of us who knew followed in Hebrew. It was another stunning moment in an evening of stunning moments. Few of the community members are likely to make aliyah, but somehow they have managed to develop a strong bond with and sense of pride for Israel. There was also a strong sense among all of us present of the past and future shared by Jews. Assembled at a long Shabbat table in Kaifeng, we experienced, in the rawest and purest form I’ve ever witnessed, the unbroken spirit that links Jews scattered over the four corners of the world, from California to China.


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Woman praying in tallit detained at Western Wall, questioned by police


Israeli police detained a woman wearing a tallit at the Western Wall and later questioned her for four hours.

The woman was participating Thursday in a rosh chodesh prayer service held monthly at the Wall by the Women of the Wall organization. Police were present during the service and filmed it, according to Women of the Wall.

Wearing a traditional white prayer shawl with black stripes, the woman was approached by police during the service and asked to wear the tallit as a scarf rather than a shawl. The woman complied with the request, according to Women of the Wall.

As she left the Western Wall plaza she was detained by police, who said the woman returned to wearing the tallit as a shawl, and taken to police headquarters in the Old City, where she was questioned for four hours.

Upon her release she was ordered to stay away from the Western Wall for seven days.

In 2003, Israel’s Supreme Court upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin or tallitot, or reading from a Torah scroll at the Western Wall.

Last month, three women from Women of the Wall were stopped for questioning after praying at the Wall in prayer shawls. They also had been asked to wear the tallitot as scarves rather than shawls.

[UPDATED] Highway construction downs L.A. Eruv for Sabbath


The Los Angeles Community Eruv, which allows observant Jews to carry items within its restricted boundaries on the Sabbath, will not be in operation on the Shabbat that starts at sundown today, June 15 due to a break caused by construction on the 405 Freeway, according to a posting on the eruv’s website.

A rabbinic work-around to the prohibition of carrying in public spaces on the Sabbath, an eruv symbolically transforms the area it encloses into a space where carrying is permitted, allowing parents to push children in strollers, synagogue-goers to carry prayer shawls and youth to play basketball in a public park, if they so choose.

While many such enclosures are often simple constructions of fishing line or wire, Los Angeles’s eruv, which has a circumference of about 40 miles, uses a 10-mile section of the 405 as its Western boundary. With construction on parts of the 405 ongoing for the past three years, the fences and guardrails that make up parts of Los Angeles’s eruv have occasionally been altered in ways that have put the entire eruv out of commission for a Sabbath on a few occasions.

Highway construction last downed the eruv for one Shabbat in late-October 2011, according to the Los Angeles Eruv Facebook page. In that case, though eruv administrators had thought the boundary might stay down into November, the eruv was back up and running again the following week.

Signs have been posted around the heavily Orthodox Hancock Park community – including at La Brea Kosher Market in Hancock Park and at synagogues Bais Yehuda and Kehilas Yaakov – that read, “Due to the ongoing construction on the 405 freeway, the eruv is down. Please spread the word.”

Community members, shopping for Shabbat groceries at La Brea Market, expressed frustration.

Story continues after the video.

“My friend is making [her son’s] bar mitzvah this Shabbos, so I know she has a lot of friends coming in from of town with babies, and it’s going to be complicated,” said Faigie Brecher, who was shopping with her 18-month-year-old son and lives around the corner from the market. “All of us would like to go…and we’re going to be stuck at home having to make arrangements to watch our children.”

Adinah Mahfouda, a cashier at the La Brea market, sent text messages to her friends to notify them.  She said she also her rebbetzin whether a certain stoller could be used by a friend, and was told it wasn’t kosher.

Elly Rubin, 57, a member of Congregation Or Hachaim, had a different take on the situation. “It’s actually a good thing occasionally when the eruv is down,” he said, “so people remember the rules and how it works.”

Eruv adminstrators could not be reached for comment on Friday.

 

Looking upon the flag


Sammy Schatz delivered this speech Sept. 28, when the Israeli flag was raised for the first time in front of the Israeli Consulate on Wilshire Boulevard.

“Ure’item oto uzechartem.”

“Looking upon it, you will be reminded.”

When I traveled to Poland last year with the Poland-Israel Seminar of Camp Ramah, I saw more Israeli flags than Polish flags. The blue-and-white fabric seemed to blossom freely out of ashes. The symbol of Israel’s independence, struggle and survival now whips in the winds that blow through the crematoria of Auschwitz; the Shield of David now confronts the grown-over death pits of Tykocin. The flag stands as sentry, guarding our memories in order to protect our future. And in a very different place and time, in a separate universe of freedom, security, comfort and happiness, we raise the flag of Israel over the Israeli Consulate. Our city and community, our region and all its peoples are protected by this declaration of Israeli presence and conscience.

“Ure’item oto.” Looking upon it, you will be reminded of connection. Deep within the blue intertwined triangles that form the Magen David is the symbol of connection. The flag is like a tallit. The tallit envelops us in a physical connection to God and to the Jewish people. So too is the Israeli Flag a constant reminder of our connection with the land of Israel. In fact, David Wolfsohn, the friend and successor to Theodore Herzl, said at the birth of the Zionist flag, “We have a flag — and it is blue and white. The tallit that we wrap ourselves in when we pray: that is our symbol. Let us take this tallit from its bag and unroll it before the eyes of Israel and the eyes of all nations.” Every time a Jew sees this flag flying here, high over Wilshire Boulevard, he/she will be reminded of that connection. And the place in which we raise this flag symbolizes the steadfast and magnificent connection between Israel and this great nation, the United States of America. As we raise this flag, let us celebrate this bond of brothers and work to support and strengthen it.

“Ure’item oto.” Looking upon it, you will be reminded of responsibility. Deep within the blue, rigidly spaced stripes are symbols of responsibility. We as Americans and as Israelis in America have a responsibility, a duty that this flag represents and reminds us of. We must support Israel in every way. We do not always need to agree with its actions, but we must at least recognize the significance of its existence. It is because of Israel that this flag can wave freely at Auschwitz.

“Ure’item oto.” Looking upon it, you will be reminded of hope. The background, the canvas on which our star and stripes are set, is plain and white, a symbol of hope. Though darkness fills our world with the constant threat of utter annihilation, the pureness of the flag’s white emboldens us to hope. This too is a responsibility of sorts. We must carry on our ancestors’ tradition of hope. Hope is in our blood, in our song and in our flag. Remember “Hatikvah,” the hope, for survival, peace and happiness. We will continue to survive with the hope that is embodied in the flag of Israel.

Just as the tallit comforts us in its protection, the flag represents the protection that Israel provides for the Jewish people against the harm of hatred, persecution, lawlessness and homelessness. Just as we wrap the four corners of our tallit together on our finger in preparation for the Shema, our rallying declaration of faith, so too does the flag gather Jews around the world to a singular place and a unique promise. The flag is not holy. But the meanings of it are holy.

“Ure’item oto uzechartem.” Look upon it and be reminded. Blue and White. Kachol v’Lavan. Star and Stripes. Connection. Responsibility. The hope of a nation for the welfare of its people and the world. Herzl said, “With a flag to help, you lead people wherever you want, even to the Promised Land. For the sake of a flag, the people live, and for it they die.” Am Yisrael chai! The State of Israel lives!

Sammy Schatz is a senior at Milken Community High School.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the December issue is Nov. 15; deadline for the January issue is Dec. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Sukkot: the beauty of fragility


Nine years ago, my wife and I returned home from lunch in a friend’s sukkah on the first day of Sukkot. The phone was ringing as we walked in, and since we’d only
just arrived in Los Angeles we didn’t have an answering machine set up yet. Since we don’t use the phone on Shabbat or holidays, I did nothing as it rang four, five, six times.

I had gone to lie down for a nap when the phone started to ring again. Figuring it was a persistent telemarketer, I rolled over and tried to ignore it. The phone stopped again after another five or six rings. But a few minutes later, the phone rang again. This time I was worried.

I answered the phone and on the other end of the line was my sister, an internist in San Jose.

“Grandma is in the hospital; she is really sick. You should come,” she said.
Since my sister deals in matters of life and death, I knew it was serious.
I don’t travel on Shabbat or Jewish holidays, so after I hung up the phone I walked a few short blocks to Rabbi Elliot Dorff’s home to discuss my options.

If I waited until the end of the first two days of the festival, and then Shabbat, which followed immediately thereafter, I would likely be too late. We decided that, although we observe the second day of Jewish festivals, since the second day of Sukkot has a different status according to Jewish law than the first day and Shabbat, when the first day of the festival ended that night I would take the last flight out of LAX.

When I arrived that night in San Jose, I went immediately to the hospital to visit my grandma Lillian (z”l), who was in a coma. I made arrangements to spend Shabbat in the hospital, in her room at her side, an intimacy that the stringencies of Jewish law gifted to me.

Friday night, I prayed Kabbalat Shabbat at her side and made Kiddush with her. The next morning I donned my tallit, prayed the morning prayers and studied the weekly portion to the rhythm of a ventilator and heart monitor.

That afternoon, after one of many visits to my grandma’s side, my mother, sister and I, along with other close relatives, walked away from her door toward the waiting room for a few minutes of relief. As we headed past the nurse’s station, a nurse called out, “She is fading — you should come quickly.”

We hustled back to the room. I knelt down, took out my siddur, and began to recite the Vidui — the Jewish deathbed confessional — and concluded with the Shema. Before I finished those words, she had died.

I am grateful for many things from that weekend. I am grateful for the guidance and compassion of a wise teacher and friend in Rabbi Dorff. I am grateful for the gift — as Rabbi Ed Feinstein, a teacher of mine, would describe it a few weeks later — of holding my grandmother’s hand as she slipped from this world into the next. And, as the years have gone by, I am even grateful that she died during this season, on the third day of Sukkot, for through her death she taught me the true essence of what it means to dwell in a sukkah.

Martha Nussbaum, author of a book titled, “The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy,” once wrote, “Part of the peculiar beauty of human excellence just is its vulnerability.”

Part of what gives this world its beauty, its goodness, is its vulnerability. Beauty in this world cannot be made invulnerable. We cannot be invulnerable, even though we try. We try so hard to protect ourselves, to protect our children. We build walls. We build strong, comfortable houses with roofs and heat for shelter and quiet. But we cannot be made invulnerable; we cannot keep ourselves safe and truly celebrate the beauty of this world.

On Sukkot, the time tradition tells us is zman simchateinu, the season of our joy, we dwell in a fragile hut, open to the winds and rain and cold of the world, to remind ourselves that our joy is enriched, is deepened, when we glimpse, if only for a moment, how weak and fragile we are.

Rabbi Israel Mayer HaCohen asked why it is that we celebrate Sukkot in autumn. Leviticus 23:42-3 teaches: “You shall live in booths seven days, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I am Adonai your God.”

If Sukkot commemorates what God did after the Exodus from Egypt, let us celebrate Sukkot in the spring. Alternatively, if Sukkot commemorates the clouds of glory with which God sheltered us in the wilderness (as Rabbi Akiba argued in the Talmud), let us celebrate Sukkot in the summer when the clouds protected us most from the searing midday summer sun.

Why autumn?

The Chafetz Chaim answers that we were not commanded to make Sukkot during the spring or summer because that was when most people would make sukkot for shade.

Instead, we make them specifically when the rainy season begins and the weather grows colder during the fall to remind others and ourselves that what we are doing is a mitzvah, a commandment from God. This mitzvah asks us to see and feel the world in all our weakness and vulnerability. The sukkah invites us to make our home amid the elements, to experience the chill of autumn, to get damp and wet and cold. After that we can feel the true joy of having lived another year in God’s beautiful world.

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Max & Pauline Zimmer Conference Center at the University of Judaism.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah – A Postmodern Coming-of-Age Guide


“Bar Mitzvah: A Guide to Spiritual Growth” by Marc-Alain Ouaknin (Assouline, $24.95)

When a book on bar mitzvah opens with a poem by Rudyard Kipling and a quote from French ethical philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, it’s clearly not your usual bar mitzvah book, of which there are many.

“Bar Mitzvah: A Guide to Spiritual Growth” by Marc-Alain Ouaknin is thoughtful, poetic, challenging, mystical, sometimes puzzling, stylishly designed — maybe the first postmodern book on the subject. It could be a model for how to write an introductory work: A French philosopher and a rabbi, Ouaknin assumes a certain sophistication on the part of readers and gently raises them up, rather than talking down, and at the same time, provides perspectives that will enlighten readers at all levels.

Young men and women approaching bar and bat mitzvah, their parents and those who teach them will find much of interest. In addition, readers seeking a portal to understanding Judaism and a fine teacher will also be drawn to this work, which covers Jewish identity, prayer, tallit, tefillin, reading from the Torah, the speech and more — each subject opening up to wider issues — with brief notes on the party and bar mitzvah celebrations around the world. Ouaknin opens each section with a quote drawn from philosophers, poets and Chasidic masters.

Ouaknin’s field is the ethics of interpretation. His previous books include “The Burnt Book: Reading the Talmud” (1995), “Mysteries of the Kabbalah” (2000) and “Symbols of Judaism” (1996). He divides his time between Jerusalem and Paris, where he directs the Aleph Center for Jewish Studies in Paris. In Israel, he teaches comparative studies at Bar Ilan University.

In a telephone interview from his home in Jerusalem, where he spends three weeks per month, he apologizes repeatedly for his French-accented English, which needs no apologies. To speak with him is to experience the depth and playfulness of his mind, and the width of his vision.

For Ouaknin, the principal act of the bar mitzvah, the essence of Judaism, is not putting on tefillin or a tallit, but reading the Torah — and not simply reading but interpreting. He speaks of a dialectic between text and interpretation, that to grow involves understanding and reading and creating, following tradition but not repeating the ways and words of one’s parents.

“To innovate, to create, is to be free,” he said.

“After reading this book, I hope the child will be open to Talmud, Midrash, kabbalah, philosophy and literature, and to make the book a friend — to understand or feel when seeing a book that he’s also receiving a smile, not just the letters,” he said.

But he cautions against being enclosed with books.

“The most important thing in life is to meet the other,” he said. “I have said that love is the meeting between two questions. The man is for the book, the book is for the man. The link is the true aim — to meet the other, and also to meet God, to be able to enter in the way of transcendence, to be better and higher.”

Born in 1957, the author grew up in Paris, the son of a rabbi and a professor. His father’s family is from Morocco; his mother’s from Alsace and Luxembourg. He says that these two different traditions, Africa and Europe, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, inform the way he thinks and lives. His father still serves as a rabbi, and his mother is a professor. That work is more of a passion than a job is something he inherited from them.

Ouaknin studied at yeshivas in France and spent two years in Gateshead Yeshiva in England, where he thought he would pick up English, but instead learned Yiddish and tennis. He went to medical school for two years before shifting to the study of philosophy at the Sorbonne while attending rabbinical school.

In the section on prayer, he discusses structure, time of prayer, the siddur, how prayers are gathered as they rise from human lips, prayer as an outpouring of the heart, prayer and meditation, prayer and psychoanalysis. He quotes Kafka, whom he teaches at Bar Ilan: “Art, like prayer, is a hand stretched out in to the dark, seeking to catch something from grace in order to transform itself into a giving hand.”

In writing about tefillin and tallit, he draws on kabbalistic and other teachings. He explains that the fringes on the tallit “compose a text made by the knotting of the threads, by a process of weaving and twisting which cannot fail to evoke a form of intelligence not satisfied simply to perceive, understand, and analyze things, but which must connect, weave and twist them together, to offer a complex texture of thought.”

The idea that this French philosopher would turn his attention to the subject of bar mitzvah was initiated by Prosper and Martine Assouline, the husband-and-wife team who run the French publishing company, known for their finely designed illustrated books, with offices in New York and Paris. Prosper Assouline was grappling with questions of how to transmit ethics, values and meaning, as his own son, Alexandre, was approaching his bar mitzvah. The book, intended as a gift for the young man, was to be a heavily illustrated volume in the publisher’s “Symbols” series. But as Ouaknin began the project, he realized that the subject required a more text-centered approach. And, he felt that he didn’t want to draw only on the world of books, but wanted to have direct contact with teenagers.

He then began working on the book with Francoise Anne Menager, a history and literature teacher in a vocational high school with whom he had worked on projects related to the culture of the written word and its transmission. When he had spoken earlier about Jewish literature at her school, to a group of girls mostly of Muslim and African backgrounds, he experienced true encounter, the essence of literature.

After the manuscript was complete, he would meet with Alexandre Assouline to discuss the work and measure its pertinence, and they’d engage in sincere dialogues about theological and psychological questions. As Ouaknin, the father of two sons and two daughters who all read Torah at their bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, writes in the book’s preface: “I was no longer writing a book about bar mitzvah, I was actually experiencing the responsibility of passing on, not words, but a power which gives the other the possibility of growing.”

Eleven Things to Know Before You Go


Congratulations! You have been invited to the bar/bat mitzvah of a friend or family member. Now what? What are you supposed to do there? How do you act? Whether you are Jewish or not, the following is a brief guide to help you feel more comfortable at the worship service and enjoy the events as they unfold. It includes appropriate synagogue behavior, major sections of the service, the synagogue environment and service participants. Because customs vary from community to community, please contact the host family for further clarification.

General expectations for synagogue behavior include:

1. Dress

Guests at a bar/bat mitzvah celebration generally wear dressy clothes — for men, either a suit or slacks, tie and jacket; for women, a dress or formal pantsuit (depending on the congregation where the ceremony takes place). In more traditional communities, clothing tends to be dressier.

2. Arrival Time

The time listed on the invitation is usually the official starting time for the weekly Shabbat service. Family and invited guests try to arrive at the beginning, even though the bar/bat mitzvah activities occur somewhat later in the service. However, both guests and regular congregants often arrive late, well after services have begun.

3. Wearing a Prayer Shawl

The tallit (prayer shawl) is traditionally worn by Jewish males and, in liberal congregations, by Jewish females. Because the braided fringes at the four corners of the tallit remind its wearer to observe the commandments of Judaism, wearing a tallit is reserved for Jews. Although an usher may offer you a tallit at the door, you may decline it if you are not Jewish or are simply uncomfortable wearing such a garment.

4. Wearing a Head Covering

A kippah (head covering) is traditionally worn by males during the service and also by females in more liberal synagogues. Wearing a kippah is not a symbol of religious identification like the tallit, but is rather an act of respect to God and the sacredness of the worship space. Just as men and women may be asked to remove their hats in the church, or remove their shoes before entering a mosque, wearing a head covering is a nondenominational act of showing respect. In some synagogues, women might wear hats or a lace head covering.

5. Maintaining Sanctity

All guests and participants are expected to respect the sanctity of the prayer service and Shabbat by setting your cell phone or beeper to vibrate or turning it off, not taking pictures, not smoking in the synagogue or on the grounds and not writing or recording.

6. Sitting and Standing

Jewish services can be very athletic, filled with frequent directions to stand for particular prayers and sit for others. Take your cue from the other worshipers or the rabbi’s instructions. Unlike kneeling in a Catholic worship service — which is a unique prayer posture filled with religious significance — standing and sitting in a Jewish service does not constitute any affirmation of religious belief; it is merely a sign of respect. There may also be instructions to bow at certain parts of the service, and because a bow or prostration is a religiously significant act, feel free to remain standing or sitting as you wish at that point.

7. The Service: Try to follow the service in the siddur (prayerbook) and the Chumash (Five Books of Moses), both of which are usually printed in Hebrew and English. Guests and congregants are encouraged to hum along during congregational melodies and to participate in the service to the extent that they feel comfortable. During the Torah service (described below), the entire congregation is encouraged to follow the reading of the weekly Torah portion in English or Hebrew.

Major sections of the Shabbat morning service include:

8. The “Shema”

“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” This passage from the Book of Deuteronomy and the three passages that follow constitute a central part of each morning and evening Jewish prayer service. Probably the most important single sentence in the liturgy, the “Shema” is not a prayer but rather an affirmation of the unity of God.

9. The “Amidah”

“Standing Prayer.” The “Amidah,” a series of prayers recited while standing in silent meditation, is the major liturgical piece of every synagogue service throughout the year. On a weekday, the “Amidah” contains prayers for the physical and spiritual well-being of the one praying as well as of the entire community of the people of Israel; on Shabbat we praise God for the joy of the Shabbat and the rest that we enjoy. It is perfectly acceptable and even desirable that people recite the “Amidah” in English, and worshipers are also encouraged to pray from their hearts if the printed words do not speak to them.

10. The Torah Service

Following the “Shema” and the “Amidah” is a transition from prayer to study. The primary study text is from the Pentateuch, or Five Books of Moses. This text has been written on the parchment of the Torah scrolls by a specially trained scribe.

The Torah is divided into — and read in — weekly portions, according to a prescribed calendar, so that the entire Torah is read in the span of one year. The cover and accouterments of the Torah scrolls recall the priestly garb of ancient Temple times.

Usually the rabbi, and sometimes the bar/bat mitzvah child or another congregant, delivers a d’var Torah, a word of Torah, that comments on the weekly Torah reading.

Once the Torah reading is over, another person — usually the bar/bat mitzvah child — chants a portion from the prophetic writings of the Torah. The haftarah (concluding teaching), is usually chosen to reflect a theme or literary allusion in the Torah portion. The purpose of the haftarah is not only to provide an opportunity to teach from a different section of the Bible, but also to assert that prophecy serves to reinforce the laws of the Torah.

11. Mourner’s “Kaddish”

Although there is no mention of death in this prayer, the “Kaddish” is recited at the end of all worship services by family members who have lost a loved one in the past year or who are observing the anniversary of a death in years past. Despite sorrow and pain, the mourner rises to declare continuing commitment in praising God’s name, to which we all respond, “Amen.”

Reprinted from

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