Five steps to studying and learning from the Torah

Observing my kids playing, I notice how the same toy, no matter how many times they play with it, can reveal the most remarkable things. My daughter, with the vocabulary befitting a 1 1/2-year-old, will bring her ball over to me and point to a mark on it with a delighted grunt.

“How remarkable!” I will say with (feigned) enthusiasm. But to her it is remarkable; she had never noticed it before.

When I hear the phrase from Pirkei Avot (the Teachings of our Fathers), “Turn it around and around, for everything is in it” (5:21), the image of a toy jumps to my mind.

The rabbis of the Mishnah, however, were writing at the beginning of the Common Era in the Land of Israel and not in 21st century playrooms of North America, so I’m not sure they share the same association. Surely they were referring to the Torah and the revered text’s limitless insights and wisdom.

There is, however, something playful about the phrase. If we studied the Torah the way a child plays with a toy—repeatedly and open to the possibility of discovering something remarkable—then perhaps we would discover something remarkable.

Why should we make this ancient scroll our own? For starters, the Torah tells us we should.

In recounting the story when the Torah was revealed to Moses, the text begins by describing the journey of the Israelites to Mount Sinai.

“In the third month after the children of Israel went out of the land of Egypt, the same day [‘bayom hazeh’] they came into the wilderness of Sinai,” it says in Exodus 19:1. If the Torah were retelling something that already took place, it should say “on that day” not on “this day.” Rashi, the 12th century French commentator, says we should look to the Torah as if it is being given on this day. The Torah is being given, and revelation has the potential to happen anew each day.

Nice words, but how might we really experience this? While Shavuot offers us a moment to focus our attention on Torah study—all-night learning tikkun style awaits at many area synagogues and JCCs—the esoteric musings of a Talmud scholar at 3 a.m. may not be the kind of revelation we seek.

Try this activity (which I learned from dear friends Rabbi David Ingber and Ariel Rosen.) It’s called “Find your (Uni) Verse.” Here’s what you do:

Step 1: Open the Torah (the scroll, book or even an online version).

Step 2: Randomly point to a verse (this may be easier with a book version).

Step 3: Read the verse a couple of times. The first time is to understand the plain meaning. The second and third times are to play with different interpretations of what the verse might be saying. Consult commentary on the verse if you like.

Step 4: Consider the lesson that you might learn from this verse. What wisdom might it impart?

Step 5: Try to apply the lesson to your life in the coming weeks.

Some Torah verses may have immediate relevance to you than others. “Honor your father and mother” and “Love your Neighbor as Yourself” may be clear at face value and easy to apply. Other verses from Leviticus, like ones that speak about people stricken with tzara’at, may take a bit more parsing. (Luckily, commentators understood tzara’at as “motzi shem ra,” one who does not speak truthfully about another person, an aspect of gossip to which we may relate more readily.)

Even (or especially) if you don’t think the verse relates to you on face value, sit with it for a while. I promise, you will find some meaning.

My husband and I did this activity last year with our community. We just had a disagreement about some household matter and were a little tense going into the holiday. The verse he selected was “Together with your households, you shall feast there before the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 12:7).

The lesson was clear: Don’t let the everyday stresses of your life cloud the experience of these precious holidays. Safeguard them, honor them. You can get back to your stress when the holiday is over, but for now, let it go and rejoice!

How a verse selected at random can be personally relevant speaks to the power of the Torah and the potential for its wisdom to be revealed to us.

“Your Testimonies are my delight/play thing, they are my counselors,” it says in Psalms 119:24. On Shavuot, turn your selected phrases of the Torah around and around in your mind. The words will become for you a beloved toy.

Campus groups offer students cash for Torah study

Several years ago, Rabbi Shlomo Levin hit on a new way to attract students from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to classes at his nearby Orthodox synagogue. Instead of spending money on eye-catching advertising, Levin reasoned it would be simpler just to give the money directly to the students in exchange for attendance.

Though the sums involved were relatively modest, the initiative was a success.

“My thinking was very, very practical,” Levin said. “Instead of spending all that money on elaborate publicity, just give the money to the people who come to the program. They’ll be happier.”

Not everyone was happier. Some board members at the rabbi’s Lake Park Synagogue were uncomfortable from the start, Levin said, and after the local newspaper reported on the project, the synagogue shut it down.

But the idea of paying college students to attend Jewish studies classes has not only survived, it has expanded to more than 70 campuses across the country and attracted support from major Jewish philanthropists.

And though the programs are justified in terms similar to Birthright Israel — the massive philanthropic undertaking that provides young Jews with all-expenses-paid trips to Israel — they provide not only a free service but cash rewards to students who complete them.

“This was an idea to get students involved in learning Judaism, learning about their heritage, and as an incentive, in order to give them the amazing knowledge and to give them right mind-set, it’s to lock them in,” said Fully Eisenberger, an Orthodox rabbi at the University of Michigan who runs the Maimonides Fellowship program on the Ann Arbor campus.

The program, which was launched in 2001 by Jewish Awareness America and is supported by the New York City-based Wolfson Family Foundation, offers participants $400 or a free trip to Israel.

In exchange, Eisenberger said, students “have to commit to 10 classes and come to weekend getaways,” including a trip to Toronto — all expenses paid.

Providing financial support to students who engage in Torah study dates back more than a century. In Europe, kollels provided an annual salary to married men who studied full time, a practice that has continued among the Orthodox in the United States and elsewhere.

Organizers of the college student fellowships describe their programs in similar terms — as “stipends” to enable Torah study free from the pressures of earning supplementary income. But payments are being used increasingly to attract unaffiliated Jews who may not otherwise attend a Jewish class.

“I had a friend who was doing it,” recalled Elise Peizner, who participated in the Sinai Scholars Society, a program run by the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, as a sophomore at Boston University. “But to be quite honest, I heard there was a $500 check that went along with it. So it sounded intriguing — the check.”

Founded in 2005, Sinai Scholars will be offering students at more than 40 universities $500 to attend classes in the upcoming semester. The program is supported by the Rohr Family Foundation and developer Elie Horn.

One of the leading non-Chasidic Orthodox outreach programs, Aish Hatorah, also has adopted the pay-the-participants approach. In an article last week, The Associated Press reported that AishCafe, a Web site run by Aish Hatorah, offers students $250 cash or $300 toward an Israel trip for completing its program and passing two tests.

Rabbi Avraham Jacobovitz, who started the first Maimonides Fellowship at the University of Michigan, said he screens participants in his program to weed out financially motivated students.

“The financial offer was only an additional incentive,” he said. “Someone that comes only for the financial benefit is not really the quality student we’re looking for.”

Still, Jacobovitz acknowledged that the payments have boosted participation in his programs. Indeed, that was precisely why he founded the fellowship after noticing that a federation stipend program was drawing students to a combination of Jewish studies and leadership classes.

Andrew Landau, a sales representative for Google who completed the Maimonides Fellowship during his sophomore year at Michigan, said he was looking to advance his Jewish education and meet new friends. The money, he said, was not a prime motivator.

“It’s sort of like a coupon,” Landau said. “Why does a pizza place offer a buy one, get one free? It’s to get them in the door, and then if they like it, they’re going to stay.”

Both Landau and Peizner, neither of whom are Orthodox, said they are glad they took part in the program, though they added that they haven’t made any lifestyle changes as a result.

Eisenberger, the rabbi running the initiative at the University of Michigan, said that alumni of his fellowship program have become more observant, and he believes he has even prevented some intermarriages. He also claims that about a third of students donate the money back to the program.

“This thing works,” Eisenberger said.

Defenders of the programs note that the payouts are not that different from college scholarships, which also provide cash incentives unrelated to financial need. They also note that providing free food is a time-honored method for attracting hungry college students.

“God forbid you give them cash, that’s very, very bad,” Levin said sarcastically. “But if you give them this gigantic food thing, like some of the organizations bring in a Chinese food chef and have a whole Chinese thing, that’s not seen as unseemly or a bribe. I really don’t understand totally the difference.”

Neither does Randy Cohen, who writes The Ethicist column for The New York Times Magazine. Cohen said he saw little difference between offering food and offering cash.

“Ethics, like most law, makes no distinction between incentives in the form of cash or cash equivalent,” Cohen said. “Some corporations, for example, forbid employees from accepting gifts from suppliers above a certain cash value. Some campaign law does likewise. When it comes to food, I’d be particularly wary of any diamond-encrusted chicken legs.”

But Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, an Orthodox author and host of the TLC television program, “Shalom in the Home,” said that while providing refreshments is an accepted social norm, money crosses a line.

“It trivializes Judaism, and it portrays secular Jews as people to be bought off,” said Boteach, who once ran a popular campus outreach program at Oxford University. “It’s insincere. It sends all the wrong signals, that we don’t think the material alone would be compelling, that we need to buy you off.”

Before and after

While studying this Torah portion several years ago, I enjoyed one of those peculiar delights vouchsafed to those who learn to study great Jewish texts in the Hebrew original — the discovery a great mistranslation. The concept is “ein mukdam u’m’uchar ba’Torah” — usually mistranslated as “the Torah [often] is not written in chronological order,” or more literally, “there is no before and after in the Torah.”

The term is used when Torah scholars, in their careful analysis of passages from the Torah, see that certain events seem out of order. They often resolve this problem by teaching that the way the Torah presents a series of events or teachings is often by an inner logic other than chronological (for those of you who like non-linear thinking, this is a concept for you).

We see this concept of “no chronological order” displayed well in our parashah, Yitro. In Exodus 18, the b’nei Yisrael arrive at Har Sinai, and Moshe is greeted by his father-in-law, Yitro, the Midianite priest. Yitro blesses God for all good done for the people Israel; Yitro makes offerings to God, and Moshe, his brother Aharon and all the elders feast with Yitro (verses 18:1-12). Starting in verse 13, we see Yitro correcting Moshe for trying to judge all the people by himself, all day long, making known one by one “the statutes of God and God’s teachings.” Yitro has Moshe appoint a judiciary, saying that Moshe will impart “the statutes and the teachings … the path they should follow, the deeds they should do,” but that those whom Moshe will appoint will decide the lesser cases. The problem is, Moshe is adjudicating legal cases, making known the statutes and teachings of God in Exodus chapter 18, but the Ten Commandments aren’t given until Exodus chapter 20, and the main body of the laws of the Torah until after that.

Most traditional commentators agree that Exodus 18:12-27 is a narrative that actually took place where we see Exodus chapter 35 today — when Moshe came down from Mount Sinai with the second tablets. It is hard for the tradition to conceive of Moshe teaching law before the law was given — hence ” ein mukdam u’m’uchar ba’Torah.” But in today’s spoken Hebrew, the phrase would be understood as “there is nothing early or late in the Torah.” In other words, things happen right on time. So if things happen right on time, why does the Torah want us to know that Moshe was teaching law right before the Torah was given?

First of all, they had to know law already, and virtually all the Ten Commandments. We already know murder is wrong, because we know that Cain killing Abel was wrong. We already know you don’t steal, hence the protestations of Jacob’s brothers that they did not steal Joseph’s divining cup. We already know you don’t commit adultery — witness God’s displeasure when a Pharaoh in Genesis wants to sleep with Sarah. In short, the main contours of the law were already known — promulgated into the heart of every moral and rational human being.

Here is what was happening, in my mind. After the brutality of slavery — imagine the pent-up rage for justice, the need to settle scores, the rage to finally get your own. Imagine the moral chaos that was taking shape. One thing I have learned from counseling others is that wounded people wound people — and in some way, we are all wounded. What stops wounded people, who are only trying to get some justice in their lives, from clawing at others with whom they have conflict? Only the prior commitment to virtue, to principle, a commitment that overrides the wounds we suffer in life.

I imagine a crisis. I imagine Moshe suddenly discovering the pent-up moral rupture and the outpouring of people seeking redress. Moshe follows his father-in-law’s advice and appoints others to help him. And I imagine a tragedy that every counselor has seen — a person so hurt, or better put, a person so conscious of only their own hurt, that the law makes no difference to them. A commitment to virtue and principle becomes an obstruction, an abstraction, a mere impediment to saying or doing whatever they feel. “Teaching the path that they should follow” does little good.

When does transformation occur? I know from my own experience and from working with others that true transformation happens when a teaching becomes an epiphany, a light shining through from within. I can teach over and over again — “it doesn’t matter what the other person said; what matters is this: what kind of person do you want to be?” — and it will do no good until a person experiences a moment of enlightenment and knows what kind of person they want to become.

I imagine the people, people like us, not able to hear the teachings of Moshe and the judges he has appointed; I imagine a welling sea of moral chaos beginning to erupt into a storm (as it did in the story of Molten Calf, the story of the Spies, the story of Korach….) when God forces an epiphany through creating a Theophany — the Divine shining through. “The way in which we should go” is not advice we can accept or reject; it is a divine law that will guide us into our realization as human beings. The law becomes Revelation — the Divine yearning its way into our hearts.

Our work as Jews is to evoke that holy light that rests in Torah and coax it out into our lives, a light that can guide us to our fulfilled nature as human beings.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr HaTorah Congregation, and provost and professor of mysticism and liturgy at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California campus.

Torah study builds unshakable conviction in faith

As the ’07-’08 school year is well under way, are you sure you’ve got everything you need? Pens? Check. Cool new backpack? Check. New makeup set? No need, I go to an all-girls school. Cute shoes? Check. A real understanding of the significance of a Jewish education? Eh, not so much.

With a modicum of disbelief, I have embarked on my senior year at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles. While printing out applications for colleges and seminaries in Israel — which will likely stay on my desk until immediately before their due dates — I ran across an interesting question: “What do you believe to be the most essential thing you’ve learned throughout your high school career?” I was truly puzzled. They see my grades and SAT scores, and now they actually want me to remember what I learned?

I have been fortunate enough to attend Orthodox private schools for my entire life, privy to an in-depth study of scripture. As I entered high school, and the learning became both more challenging and fascinating, I wondered whether my rapid note taking was simply in order to pass a test or for true spiritual enlightenment. The lives of Abraham and Sarah? The importance of lighting Shabbat candles? The mitzvah of buying new clothing for a holiday (which for any Jewish girl is almost every day)? What is the most important thing I have learned?

Suddenly, it dawned on me. On Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the book of Yonah, a minor prophet with a major message. All too well do we know the story of Yonah being swallowed by a whale and saved from the fury of a terrible storm. But right before Shamu entered this story, the sailors who suffered due to Yonah’s indiscretions cast lots to find the perpetrator who caused this storm to befall only their ship. As each lot fell on Yonah, the sailors asked what big “no-no” he had committed to incur the wrath of God. “Tell us now, because of whom has this evil befallen us? What is your trade? And from where do you come? What is your land? And of what people are you?” (Jonah 1:8). In Yonah’s reply, I found the answer to my intriguing question and a potentially great college essay.

“I am a Hebrew and I fear Hashem, the God of the heavens, Who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9).

I know what you’re thinking: How is that an answer? Was Yonah’s seasickness affecting his thought process? Nope. Before understanding the brilliance of this answer, think for a moment about how you would answer these questions. “Well, um, I didn’t follow what God told me to do. I’m, um, a student and I hail from the Valley. And, oh yeah, I am of the Jewish people.” That’s all I’ve got. But no, in Yonah’s answer he searches within himself to find who he truly was — a God-fearing Jew.

Our sages pass down the idea that only through concentrated learning of the Torah and other books in scripture can we truly understand our world and how we must survive within it. By means of learning we come to understand laws, philosophy, and develop a true pride in being a son or daughter of Israel; thus, becoming more than just what we are, we can become who we are.

As I begin my college search, there is one question I can’t help but ask myself: Will living in a world where language, fashion and food are constant battles lead me to forget my upbringing? Will I be just another addition to the melting pot? No, I assert, I will not. And I know why — because of everything I learned throughout my long years in Jewish day school.

Voila! I finally had an answer. Through myriad hours of learning, I have managed to cultivate a strong conviction in the Jewish faith that I am sure cannot be damaged. Every time that I open the Torah and learn the secrets that lie behind each word, I feel a great surge of pride that I can call myself a Jew.

So, what will I tell the seminaries (when I finally get around to filling out my applications)? There is not one thing that has changed me or led me down a God-fearing path, but, rather, it is the accumulation of my many years of Torah study that have come together to define my true persona, that of a modern Jewish woman.

My advice to teens and adults alike is to take advantage of every moment you can learn, whether through speaking to someone knowledgeable, reading a book, or even taking a quick peek at the explanation of the week’s Torah portion online. You will be surprised how quickly these fragments influence your daily life and improve the foundation of your faith and Jewish identity.

Now, equipped with new notebooks, a laptop, and an understanding and appreciation of talmudic study and my role as a Jewish woman — I’m off.

Jina Davidovich is a senior at YULA Girls 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 November issue is Oct. 15; Deadline for the December issue is Nov. 15. Send submissions to

Guide to Torah fleshes out flat characters in stories

“Between the Lines of the Bible: A Study From the New School of Orthodox Torah Commentary,” by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom (Yashar Books)

Besotted with Torah.

That’s the phrase that springs to mind when reading Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom’s “Between the Lines of the Bible: A Study From the New School of Orthodox Torah Commentary.”
The title is somewhat academic, and I have to admit that it does not make the book sound user-friendly. But make no mistake, this lovely and lively volume is a valuable addition to traditional Torah study and to the layman’s library.

One of the first maxims any budding Torah scholar learns is: Aseh L’cha rav — find yourself a teacher. For it is understood that no one can study Torah alone. The corridors of Torah study are an endless maze that can only lead to confusion and frustrating dead ends. Everyone needs a guide, and even the most brilliant talmudic students in the finest yeshivas must have a study partner.

Etshalom’s book cannot replace a study partner; no single book can do that. I’m sure that Etshalom would agree with me on this point, but his book is not meant to do that. Etshalom’s book is meant as a sort of introductory field guide to Torah.

Let’s admit something right away: When we read the narratives in the Torah, we often say to ourselves, “Gee willikers, this story is really weird; this narrative makes no sense. Do people really act this way? Did people ever act this way?”

This is why you have to study with a teacher. This is why you have to scrutinize the text using Rashi (Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of 11th century France), the greatest of all commentators, so that you can, as Etshalom says, read between the lines.

I’m a screenwriter and novelist. I think in terms of fully realized characters. I insist on the primacy of characters that act and think in coherent ways, with what’s called in the trade: internal logic. I’m also conditioned to think in terms of plots that work in three acts and have setups and payoffs. I look for stories that end with neat fades to black; stories that are tidily resolved with no narrative problems left dangling.
This rarely happens in the Torah.

Thus, reading the stories in the Torah can be a frustrating experience. So much is left unsaid. Biblical dialogue is so spare it makes Hemingway look positively chatty.
But in truth, the bare bones tales are without literary peer — the basis for almost all Western literature. Etshalom uses traditional Torah sources, plus some of the newer disciplines of archaeology, philology, Assyriology, Egyptology, anthropology and literary theory to disclose the internal logic of the characters and to reveal the full magnificence and truth of the Torah narratives. He’s like a hugely gifted screenwriter filling out a skimpy outline stage by stage (on occasion, Etshalom even refers to the biblical characters as “actors”) so that finally the director can see the epic that he is going to shoot.

In his passionate and eye-opening second chapter, “Entering the Character’s World,” Etshalom analyzes the story of Joseph and his brothers. Here Etshalom introduces the reader to his principal methodology of parshanut — understanding the portions:

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Nourish Your Soul With a Helping of Jewish Learning

Torah study in its broadest sense is the path to the divine. The Chasidim and their spiritual descendants traditionally reach toward God through ecstatic music, with the mediation of their rebbes.

The more straitlaced Mitnagdim found God in the intricacies of halacha, the “path” that constitutes the Jewish legal system and defines almost every aspect of what a Jew says and does.

Many Reform Jews express their connection with the divine through social action and tikkun olam, fixing God’s world. While all of these are also part of my own life as a Jew, it is study that nourishes my rationalist-traditionalist soul and links me to another realm.

In Deuteronomy 30:11-13, Moses assured the Jewish people that the Torah was neither “too baffling” nor “beyond their reach.” He poetically anticipates their objections — that the words of God are too far way, either “in the heavens” or “beyond the sea,” for a mere human to even approach.

Moses reassures them in verse 14 that Torah is indeed accessible and attainable: “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”

When Torah is in your mouth, when you are studying aloud and in the company of other Jews, you are “observing” the Torah, creating a path to God through study.
For adult Jews today who want to study Torah, in its broadest sense of any Jewish learning, the possibilities are manifold. You can pursue as much or as little as possible, finding something that matches your own time and inclinations.

Fairly early in my life I committed myself to learning Hebrew — not just decoding the letters, which I learned in kindergarten, but as both a mode of communication and a tool for Jewish study.

I made this decision many years ago while sitting in a women’s section in an Orthodox shul and using a Yiddish-Hebrew prayer book. With those two languages of my tradition side by side, I felt deeply the power of language as a force that binds Jews as it conveys our tradition, culture and religion. At that moment, I vowed to become fluent in both languages, but I only managed to succeed in Hebrew.

It was a long, hard slog — college and graduate school classes, tapes, easy Hebrew newspapers and two ulpanim 22 years apart. But the paybacks have been manifold.

Hebrew is a compact language that packs a lot of bang in a small space; an English translation of a Hebrew passage, for example, requires many additional words to express the same material. Hebrew words also echo across the Jewish tradition, accumulating meaning across time — through Torah, rabbinic and medieval commentary, and the flourishing modern Hebrew language. And, as the framework of Torah, the letters themselves are said to have a mystical power.

But these same letters sometimes feel like an impossible wall to many adults, keeping them on the outside, mystified rather than mystically moved. I’ve seen them in the adult b’nai mitzvah classes where I teach Hebrew reading. Fear of making a mistake, a terror that “maybe I’m too old to learn,” worry that “everybody but me knows what they’re doing already” — all of these are bulwarks that maintain ignorance. Yes, learning to read Hebrew requires a commitment and time. But as learners make their way to the other side, they’ll find themselves on the inside looking out and feel connected instead of alienated.

Although being able at least to read Hebrew is an important step for Jewish educational self-confidence, much Jewish learning is available without knowing a single word of Hebrew or even the alef-bet, the Hebrew alphabet.

The format that works best for me in Jewish study has been to learn with a cohesive group that studies together for a period of time. When studying with the same group of people, you get to know them personally as well as intellectually. You benefit not only from the knowledge of the group leader, but from both the Jewish and personal experiences of the individuals around the table (and, I mean specifically around a table — this kind of learning doesn’t happen with rows and a dais — although that kind of learning has its place too).

I owe my awareness of this kind of study to the havurah movement, whose tenet for Jewish study is that everyone has something to contribute, be it from their secular work experiences, their personal relationships or their own Jewish learning.

Some subjects work better than others to really ignite this type of study. For beginners, it’s often an adult b’nai mitzvah class or perhaps a conversion class where participants are taking tentative steps toward Jewish understandings by connecting new ideas to their own life experiences.

For more advanced learners, certain texts may work better to unlock personal sharing. I once studied midrashim, or ancient commentaries and stories, on the near sacrifice of Isaac in the book of Genesis with a class of university professors and townies. The rupture of relationship between father and son and extreme demands of loyalty by God brought latent emotions to the surface and promoted acknowledgement of these feelings and personal responses. In my women’s study group we recently studied selected Psalms where the raw feelings, the suffering and the ambivalence toward God’s actions evoked resonances that created meaningful connections between the people present.

Jewish learning also can work well in a class where the leader’s role is more teacher than facilitator (although both are certainly important for any successful learning experience).

The last leg of my own Jewish learning is the Internet, which offers a realm of possibilities. One fantastic resource is, which covers Jewish learning — from Jewish life, practice, and culture to history, ideas, and beliefs, to Jewish texts — in bite-size chunks. The articles are tailored to an Internet audience that wants good information quickly and at the depth required, offering both broad-based introductions to material and nuanced essays on particular aspects of a field.

Through the Internet I also receive several divrei Torah each week — although I have to admit I seldom read them immediately but rather save them in portion-specific files as resources for future use (both for myself and for parents of my b’nai mitzvah students who want to learn about their children’s Torah portions). I also subscribe to the Bet Midrash Virtuali of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel and every few days receive text and commentary of Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. The interpretations come not just from the facilitator of the group, but also from other participants who email their own comments.

Not only are there multiple venues where adults too can participate in Jewish education, but books are being written to specifically aid the process. Barry Holtz’s “Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts” (Simon & Schuster) has been a resource since 1984, but a more recent amazing aid to serious adult Jewish Torah study is “The Commentator’s Bible” by Michael Carasik (Jewish Publication Society, 2005). This book translates the medieval Bible commentators into accessible English, with the commentators basing most of their comments on either the new JPS translation of the Torah or the more literal old JPS translation.

Jewish education has connected me to the soul of Judaism. I keep kosher, I observe the holidays, I go to services regularly, yet I find study to be my most dependable spiritual connection to the Jewish tradition. I think the rabbis knew that no single path works for everyone, yet their own pursuit of study and discussion is certainly one they have encouraged us to emulate. It is not a mistake that Torah in its broadest sense of both study and practice is one of the three goals for each Jewish newborn, along with chuppah (marriage) and ma’asim tovim (good deeds).

When Torah is in your mouth, when you are studying aloud and in the company of other Jews, you are “observing” the Torah, creating a path to God through study.

Michele Alperin is a freelance writer and a former lifecycle editor for She has a master’s degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Uncircumcised Blessings

While on a summer vacation on the East Coast, my family and I visited some spectacular sights in northwestern North Carolina, especially near Ashville, N.C. On our way to Ashville, we stopped and asked directions from a fine gentleman who turned out to be a Methodist minister.

During our conversation he told us that four years ago he received “the calling from above” to leave his law practice of 20 years to join the ministry.

Upon hearing this my wife remarked, “That’s strange because I’ve been praying that my husband would receive a calling from above and become a lawyer.”

Confused, the minister asked, “But what does your husband do that you want him to become a lawyer?”

When my wife told him that I am a rabbi, he was astounded and said, “Oh no, your husband is working for the right law, and his boss is honest. Make sure he stays a rabbi.”

Whenever I read this week’s Torah portion, I think about that blessing from the Methodist minister because the portion also contains blessings from a non-Jew, Balaam, worthy of our consideration. The sages of the Midrash link the name of Balaam with a contemporary heathen philosopher of their time, Oenomaus of Gadera, claiming that Balaam and Oenomaus were the two greatest philosophers that the non-Jews ever had.

Oenomaus was a member of the younger school of Cynics who lived in the second century CE during the latter part of the reign of Hadrian, after the Bar Kochba War. He is mentioned in classical Roman literature as having successfully attacked pagan superstition, and he is identified in rabbinic literature with befriending the great Rabbi Meir. As a result of his close relationship with Rabbi Meir, he became familiar with Judaism, and the Midrash (Eicha Petihtah 2) records that the Romans therefore turned to him, just as Balak turned to Balaam in the Torah, and asked for advice on how to defeat the Jewish people.

We must appreciate that this request was presented to Oenomaus not only after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, but also after the Bar Kochba revolt in 132-135 CE. The Jewish nation was beaten and almost destroyed, yet the Romans wanted to know the secret of our amazing survival.

Oenomaus answered, “Go through their synagogues; if you hear a hum of children’s voices studying Torah, you cannot prevail over them; otherwise you can.”

Alluding to Isaac’s blessing of Jacob instead of Esau as recorded in the Book of Genesis, Oenomaus commented: “As long as the voice of Jacob persists in synagogues and houses of study, the hands are not Esau’s hands; but whenever synagogues and houses of study miss the hum of those voices, Esau will prevail. The hands become Esau’s hands.”

The rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash realized that Oenomaus had discovered the secret of Jewish survival. They therefore accorded him the distinction of being the greatest philosopher the non-Jewish world had produced. With Balaam, he had probed and revealed the truth about our faith.

How sorely we need to recognize that truth today when so many Jews believe that the Jewish mission is synonymous with social action. “Save the Whales,” they say, but they permit Jonah to drown. When our community leaders recognize that only commitment to Jewish values will insure Jewish survival, only when children study Torah; only when the voices of both children and adults reverberate in our synagogues, will we once again be worthy of the blessings that both Balaam and Oenomaus bestowed upon us.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.


Sixteen years ago, Mark Borovitz was in prison for the second time. A Cleveland native, he began selling stolen goods for the Cleveland mob out of his high school locker, then graduated to con games and hustles. In prison, he came under the influence of Rabbi Mel Silverman and began a return to faith that culminated, after his release, in his earning a rabbinical degree. Today, Borovitz is rabbi of Beit T’Shuvah in Culver City, the first Jewish residential recovery center that uses Torah, the 12 steps and psychotherapy.Following are a series of excerpts from “The Holy Thief” by Borovitz and Alan Eisenstock (Morrow, 2004).

This book is my t’shuvah. It is my return.

For 30 years, I lived a life of illusion. I was a magician of sorts. I specialized in cheap tricks, quick hits and sleight of hand, especially when it came to writing checks.

I got my audience’s attention, then lured them into wanting to hand me their trust. I got them to believe in small miracles, if just for a moment, which was all I needed. And then I struck.

I know I cannot give everything back to everyone I have harmed. Even if I could, I know it would never be enough, because I have stolen a part of people’s souls. I know also that I cannot undo what I have done. I stand humbly here before you, any of you who have been my victims, and offer you a piece of my soul to take as your own.

In the end, there is no amount of money, no degree of apology, no amount of prayer that can repair the damage I have done to those souls. I can only attempt to repair my own soul, fill in the holes that have pierced my being and return my refurbished soul into the world as evidence of the value and power of t’shuvah, of repentance.

Forgive me, oh Lord, for I have sinned. And sinned. And sinned … I am redemption’s son….

I was a thief. Every thief uses a weapon, usually a gun or a knife. My weapon of choice was a checkbook.

Someone once told me that as long as you have a check, you’ll never go broke. It’s true. I discovered this early on, when I first forged my mother’s signature on a check and watched the bank teller count out five crisp $10 bills right in front of me. I smiled, she smiled, and I walked away.

Forging checks was a lot easier and more lucrative than stealing a wad of ones from my mother’s purse.

I began to devise more elaborate scams. The simplest, of course, was writing a check from my account and bouncing it. Sometimes I’d make it good, sometimes I wouldn’t.

I meant to make it good. I just wouldn’t get around to it, or I’d forget about it, or I’d be too drunk to move or too pissed off to bother.

Other times, I’d open an account in a bank in another city or even another state and a second account in a bank in Cleveland. I’d put a $100 in each account. Then I’d write a check for a large amount, say $2,500, from the out-of-town account and deposit it in the city account. The next day, I’d write a check for cash out of the city account for $2,000.

Back then, it took two weeks for a check to clear from an out-of-city bank. I’d get to know the people at the banks in Cleveland, get them to recognize me. I’d —— — with the guy tellers about sports and flirt with the female tellers.

They never checked picture IDs; never wrote down license numbers; and they had no problem cashing my $2,000 check. This was called a float. Also known as check-kiting or splitting. All fancy names for stealing.

I was living a dream. Nothing was real. I was a character in my own life, a gangster, a high roller with a bulging billfold. Nothing made sense, so I’d drink to shut out the real world.

I didn’t want to have to deal with reality. Even when reality reared its ugly head at me time and time again. Like when I’d get fired from job after job, because I was drinking, coming in late, —— — off. Or when I’d beat someone in my family.

I didn’t care. One time the mail came, and there was a credit card addressed to my brother, Neal, who was away at college. I took the credit card, activated it and started banging out cash. I didn’t care if I was running up a mountain of debt and that my mother was the one who would get stuck. Did not care.

I wasn’t the good Jewish boy she thought I was. That was a myth. That was her dream, not mine.

I couldn’t stand the thought of winding up stuck in a Jewish suburb with a dead-end job, a nagging wife who belonged to the synagogue sisterhood and a house full of screaming little kids. That wasn’t me. I wasn’t going to end up being an ice cream maven like my cousin, even though he invited me to be his partner. Ben, Jerry and Mark? Never.

My mother found out about my drinking the hard way. One New Year’s Eve, when I was drunk out of my head, I borrowed my aunt Nettie’s car and drove it into a tree. I walked away with a couple of bruises and scratches. The car was totaled, and my mother was beside herself.

She found out about my check-writing a few weeks later, when the bank called her and told her that her account was overdrawn by several hundred dollars. She didn’t understand.

My mother balanced her checkbook meticulously every month. She knew what she had to the penny.

Her hands quivering on the steering wheel, she drove to the bank. A bank officer sat her down in his office and pulled out a stack of checks, all of them made out to cash, all bad, all forged by me.

My mother recognized my handwriting. She lowered her head and in the bank officer’s cubicle, she began to cry. He lowered the blinds.

Eventually, I paid her back. My mother didn’t know how to react to me. When she saw me, she turned cold. She couldn’t help herself. She felt pummeled with emotion.

What I had done was beyond the scope of her imagination. It was as if I was a stranger living in her house. She did not recognize the man I had become. She did not know who I was.

I can understand that.

I didn’t know who I was either.

I knew that I couldn’t climb out of the pit alone. I needed somebody who would help me up, who would wrestle with me, who would wrestle with my soul. Someone who would force me to face the lies I was telling myself.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that one of the great passions of human beings is our ability to deceive ourselves.

I was a master at deceiving myself. I had a gift for it. I could deny the obvious even when it was shoved right in my face.

Mel Silverman was the one who made me wrestle my own soul, and he made me wrestle with him. He made me confront all the — — in my life, and he made me see that my life wasn’t all —-. He was a master wrestler himself because he was tenacious and he was kind, and once he saw that this time I wasn’t going to give up, he never let me go.

I know there were guys in prison, inmates, who were suspicious of me. I can understand their doubts. There are a lot of con men in prison. Lot of guys trying to figure ways to get plum assignments.

They saw being a religious newborn as a way out. I heard rumblings that I wasn’t for real. They called it hiding behind God’s cloak. "Borovitz is using this religion thing. It’s just another one of his hustles."

I couldn’t do anything about what they were thinking. I found myself more and more alone. I did my job, hung out with the Jewish guys, tried to keep my focus. I got very charged, very energized. I wanted to learn.

That became my action and my fight. I fought to replace my self-deception with self-discovery. That’s what it was all about for me. Hearing the music of my soul. Hearing the music.

I could hear God speaking to me. I’m serious. Dead serious. In the Torah, God speaks. How do we know? We just know.

So there I was in prison doing my time for crimes I had committed, and I knew that this was not a moral problem. It was a spiritual problem. I knew that this was deep in my soul, not in my psyche, in my soul.

I began to work on my soul. I started the search for my essence. I had to learn to listen to my soul instead of listening to my mind and to the —— — I could sell myself.

I knew this was no overnight thing. I knew that I wasn’t going to just hear some truth and it would be "Abracadbra! Wow! I’m changed! I’m a new man!" I knew that nobody was going to slap me on the forehead and yell, "Heal!" and that would be that.

It doesn’t work like that. It is a life process. It began for me in prison, and it continues to this day and will continue all my days, a constant and messy and difficult wrestling. And I have to keep a constant awareness. I have to always be on high alert. We all do. Both internally, our unconscious or subconscious, and externally, our deeds….

I left prison for the last time on my birthday, Nov. 1, 1988. I was 37 years old. I had served almost two years of my four-years, four-months sentence….

It took me a while to find Beit T’Shuvah. A 45-minute bus ride deposited me downtown, and a short, meandering walk brought me to Lake Street.

There it was. In the middle of the block. A large house looming in front of me, partially hidden by an immense, swaying palm tree. A rickety air-conditioning unit protruded from the left side like a giant nose. The main entrance was off to the right, up a few stairs, at the back of a wide porch. Heavy metal — Metallica or Guns N’ Roses — roared out of an open second-floor window.

The house was a wreck. The roof was splotched, and shingles lay scattered over its peak like a bad toupee. The porch steps creaked as I climbed them. The screen in the front door was torn, and the paint on the walls was peeling away.

I walked in, and the first sound I heard was Harriet’s deep, melodic voice. I followed it down a hallway and found her in her office, talking on the phone. I waited until she finished her call, then I knocked on the open door. She turned to me, and her mouth dropped open like a puppet’s.

I said, "I’m here to help."

She looked at me blankly.

"Remember? You said I should come see you when I get out. I’m out."

She started to say something, stopped, tried again. "Nobody’s ever -"

And then I blurted out: "I need a job."

She hesitated. "Well, I could use someone to run the thrift shop. It’s a mess."

"I’ll take it."

"I can only pay you minimum wage. Five-sixty an hour."

"I’ll take it."

"I can’t afford to pay you full-time. It’ll have to be part-time for a while."

"I’ll take it."

She smiled. "You said that, didn’t you?"

I stepped all the way into her office. I looked out her window. Or tried to. It was entirely smudged in dirt. Looked as if it were smeared with chocolate.

"This place," I said, "is a dump."

"I know," Harriet said.

"I kind of like it…."

I began losing myself in the study of Torah. I read the English translations, commentaries, related books, anything I could get my hands on. I struggled to find meaning in the vastness of the text, in the textures of the story.

My study inspired and baffled me. Some of what I read spoke to my soul, and some of it infuriated me.

I wrote and called Mel Silverman. He did his best to teach me in his letters and over the phone. It was hard working with Mel this way, from a distance.

The study of Torah doesn’t work so well as a correspondence course. And the more I studied, the more questions, contradictions and insights burned inside me. I wanted more.

At the suggestion of a friend, Harriet and I went to Hillel at UCLA one morning to hear a teacher named Jonathan Omerman.

As soon as Jonathan spoke, I fell in love with him. He had a quiet, gentle manner. He was British and spoke with an intoxicating lilt. While his speech was soft, his thoughts were full of fire. He was dynamic, intelligent, and original. I was riveted.

I went over to Jonathan afterward, and I introduced myself. I briefly told him my story. I saw his eyes fill up with sympathy and interest.

I asked Jonathan if he would teach me, one-on-one. He agreed. We began meeting at his house. I would continue studying with Jonathan every week for the next five years.

Jonathan changed the way I looked at life. He made religion personal. All of my studying started to click.

I began to relate to God and Judaism in a way I had never envisioned. I saw my whole life – my past, my present, my losses, my loves, my failings, my successes, my sins, my good deeds, my rage, my empathy, all of it, all of me – as part of a whole. And I saw that all of these things, the good and the bad, were validated. As I worked with Jonathan, I felt an energy shift. An awakening.

One of Jonathan’s lessons that resonated with me concerned the difference between essential pain and voluntary suffering. When you stub your toe, you experience pain, real pain, and that pain lasts however long it lasts. Depending on who you are, the bitching about the pain lasts a lot longer. The bitching about it is voluntary suffering.

As long as we allow voluntary suffering to exist, we remain victims. We don’t allow ourselves to experience the essential pain in proper measure and then move on.

I certainly knew all about voluntary suffering. I’d been suffering that way since the day my father died. It was time now for me to let go. Time to take the next step. I was no longer going to be a victim….

Excerpted with permission.

Philosophical Blessings

While on a summer vacation on the East Coast, my family and I visited some spectacular sights in northwestern North Carolina, especially near Ashville. On our way to Ashville, we stopped and asked directions from a gentleman who turned out to be a Methodist minister.

During our conversation he told us that four years ago he received "the calling from above" to leave his 20-year practice of law and join the ministry. Upon hearing this my wife remarked, "That is strange because I have been praying that my husband would receive a calling from above and become a lawyer." Confused, the minister asked, "But what does your husband do that you want him to become a lawyer?" When my wife told him that I am a rabbi, he was astounded and said, "Oh no, your husband is working for the right law, and his boss is honest. Make sure he stays a rabbi."

Whenever I read this week’s Torah portion I think about that blessing from the Methodist minister because Balak also contains blessings from a non-Jew, Balaam, worthy of our consideration. The sages of the Midrash link the name of Balaam with a contemporary heathen philosopher of their time, Oenomaus of Gadera, claiming that Balaam and Oenomaus were the two greatest philosophers that non-Jews ever had.

Oenomaus was a member of the younger school of Cynics who lived in second century C.E., during the latter part of the reign of Hadrian, after the Bar Kochba War. He is mentioned in classical Roman literature as having successfully attacked pagan superstition, and he is identified in rabbinic literature with befriending the great Rabbi Meir. As a result of his close relationship with Rabbi Meir, he became familiar with Judaism, and the Midrash (Eicha Petihtah 2) records that the Romans therefore turned to him, just as Balak turned to Balaam in the Torah, and asked for advice on how to defeat the Jewish people.

We must appreciate that this request was presented to Oenomaus not only after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., but also after the Bar Kochba revolt in 132-135 C.E. The Jewish nation was beaten and almost destroyed, yet the Romans wanted to know the secret of our amazing survival.

Oenomaus answered, "Go through their synagogues; if you hear a hum of children’s voices studying Torah, you cannot prevail over them; otherwise you can." Alluding to Isaac’s blessing of Jacob instead of Esau as recorded in Genesis, Oenomaus commented: "As long as the voice of Jacob persists in synagogues and houses of study, the hands are not Esau’s hands; but whenever synagogues and houses of study miss the hum of those voices, Esau will prevail. The hands become Esau’s hands."

The rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash realized that Oenomaus had discovered the secret of Jewish survival. They therefore accorded him the distinction of being the greatest philosopher the non-Jewish world had produced. With Balaam, he had probed and revealed the truth about our faith.

How sorely we need to recognize that truth today when so many Jews believe that the Jewish mission is synonymous with social action. "Save the Whales," they say, but they permit Jonah to drown.

When our community leaders recognize that only commitment to Jewish values will insure Jewish survival, only when children study Torah; only when the voices of both children and adults reverberate in our synagogues, will we once again be worthy of the blessings that both Balaam and Oenomaus bestowed upon us.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Journey to Judaism

"I want to be the first Jewish country singer," Mare Winningham says. "Actually, Kinky Friedman was the first. But I want to be the next."

It’s the kind of easy banter the actress-singer proffers between nightclub sets of her country-tinged folk music. But the setting on this Thursday afternoon is the chapel at the University of Judaism (UJ), where Winningham sits at an upright piano after completing her three-hour Hebrew class. In her pure, open voice, she launches into her "Convert Jig," a country-ish ditty she wrote to honor her "Introduction to Judaism"teacher before her conversion last year.

"He has organized the notes for life and given me the tools to turn my tiny insignificance into something big," she croons, as her eyes crinkle into a smile. "I will be a Jew like all of you … and never eat a pig."

If the levity is unexpected, the actress thinks she is, too.

"Look, my last name is Winningham, and that in itself is funny," she says. "I joke sometimes that I’ll open ‘Winningham’s Kosher Bakery’ and throw everyone for a loop."

Indeed, the 45-year-old actress is better known for the decidedly American (read: non-Jewish) roles she’s portrayed in 70 films and TV movies than, say, for the challah she bakes on Friday afternoons.

She won a 1980 Emmy for playing a farmer’s daughter in "Amber Waves"; received a 1996 Oscar nomination for her role as a country music star in "Georgia"; and starred as Kevin Costner’s common-law wife in "Wyatt Earp." Winningham will also appear as a Catholic single mom in the upcoming CBS series, "Clubhouse," and a stalwart prairie resident in the Hallmark TV movie, "The Magic of Ordinary Days." (She’s perhaps best known as the virginal Wendy from the Brat Pack flick, "St. Elmo’s Fire.")

As she leaves the piano to munch some kosher almonds, she says she’s happy to be back at the UJ after the four-week "Magic" shoot near Calgary, Canada.

"We were in the middle of nowhere, so I knew I was going to miss Shavuot," she says, ruefully.

Shavuot, which celebrates converts, is Winningham’s favorite holiday, because it’s the first she observed after converting in March 2003. For that Shavuot, she stayed up all night studying at Temple Beth Am; in Calgary, she improvised by studying Jewish books such as "The Midrash Says," a five-volume set she’s vowed to complete this year. Also in her suitcase was her trusty Shabbat travel kit, which includes candlesticks, a prayer book, a Havdalah candle and spice box.

"I’ve been known to light Shabbat candles in a Honeywagon trailer," she says of her experience on various sets.

Her observance has been "a real conversation starter," especially among fellow Jews. Larry Miller, her co-star from CBS’ short-lived "Brotherhood of Poland, N.H.," recalls his surprise upon learning that Winningham rushed home to bake challah one Friday afternoon.

"It was like having Grace Kelly say, ‘By the way, what time is Mincha?’" he says, referring to afternoon prayers.

Winningham wouldn’t forget the time.

"She takes her Jewish studies very seriously," Beth Am’s Rabbi Perry Netter told The Journal. "It’s part of her incredible desire to be part of the Jewish world, not for any other motive than she feels so deeply and passionately Jewish."

The actress traces her spiritual journey to her Catholic childhood in Granada Hills. Her great-uncle, "Father Dave" Maloney, was bishop of Wichita, Kan.; her devout mother, Marilyn, sent Mare and her four siblings to catechism at the cathedral across the street.

"My mom influenced me greatly with her beautiful devotion to her faith," Winningham says. But that came later. By age 14, Mare says, she had developed problems with religion in general and "the idea of someone dying for your sins."

A 12th-grade comparative religion course fueled her budding agnosticism; after graduating from Chatsworth High — where an agent discovered her in a production of "The Sound of Music" — Winningham began "a resolutely secular existence."

In 1982, she married her now ex-husband in a non-denominational ceremony; she raised their five children (today ages 15-22) in a household where holidays were celebrated in an irreligious, if flamboyant fashion.

"I cooked for days," she says about Christmases past.

It wasn’t until her children were nearly grown that Winningham found herself reading works by Jung, Joseph Campbell and others in an attempt to sort out nagging religious and psychological questions. In summer 2001, she visited a "creation of the world" exhibit at a science museum and made an announcement to herself: "I don’t think I believe in God."

"But that night, I had the most remarkable dream, which told me, ‘If you’re going to reject something, at least find out what it is you are rejecting,’" she says. When a friend told her about the UJ’s Introduction to Judaism class, Winningham thought, "OK, I’ll begin by studying the Jews, since they started the one-God thing."

While she intended to approach the class from a historical, intellectual perspective, the epiphanies began the day she stepped into Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s UJ class in November 2001.

"There I was, struggling with God, and one of the first things he said was, ‘Israel means struggle with God,’" she says.

"When Mare started, she seemed to be checking Judaism out," Weinberg recalls. "But before long, she enthusiastically embraced the values of Judaism and Jewish family life."

The actress says she began celebrating Shabbat and fell in love with an observance that included "ritualizing, literally, the breaking of bread…. Shabbat fed me literally and figuratively, and I found myself finding my way to God through this very earthly endeavor of feeding my family."

Although her children are not Jewish, they helped her rate brisket recipes, participated in Torah discussions and invited their Jewish friends to her Shabbat table.

Winningham’s attraction to Judaism deepened as she read the Bible: "Everything one needs to know about behavior here on earth is manifest in these stories," she says. "Anything one could find confusing or morally challenging is answerable. When the most important thing about a religion is how you behave here, and not about what happens after you die — these are the things I believe my soul was longing for and rejecting in other religions."

By December 2001, she was regularly attending Netter’s Bait Tefillah minyan at Temple Beth Am.

"Mare drank everything in," Netter recalls. "There was a certain intensity in the way that she concentrated, both on the siddur and on the Torah discussion that would take place."

After Winningham observed her first Yom Kippur that year, she knew she had to convert.

"There was something about petitioning God, as a community, for forgiveness," she says. "I knew then that Judaism was something I couldn’t live without."

On March 3, 2003, an entourage of friends and relatives accompanied Winningham to the official ceremony at the UJ.

"Sitting in on her beit din [rabbinical court] was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had of conversion," Netter said. "It was apparent to me and to the other rabbis that this was a woman who was born a Jewish soul, in terms of the depth of her feelings and the rawness of her emotion."

Cori Drasin, a former Beth Am vice president, says she was especially touched by the ritual immersion part of the ceremony.

"I stood behind the curtain as Mare chanted the blessing in the mikvah, and the walls just resonated with her beautiful voice," Drasin says.

A friend placed a Star of David around Winningham’s neck (she’s still wearing it) and "I cried a lot," she says. She was moved not only to become Jewish, but because her family has been so supportive.

"When I told my mother I was going to become Jewish, she said, ‘You know Mary, they were the first,’" Winningham recalls.

The actress’ children have also been accepting, which, Winningham says, "is lucky, considering that it must be weird for your mom to embrace a new religion when you’re a young adult."

The performer also feels lucky to have been embraced by the Beth Am community, where she recently chanted from the Torah for the first time.

"Everyone in the minyan rejoiced," Netter says. "It was as if one of our children had become bat mitzvah."

Winningham isn’t content to stop there. A self-prescribed "cheerleader for the Torah," she intends to read the entire Bible in its original language, which is why she’s taking that Thursday Hebrew class at the UJ.

"I don’t care if it takes decades, I’ll finish it eventually, I really will," she says. "I may be 80 when I finish, but that would be a beautiful thing."

Winningham sounds more like a scholar than the world’s second Jewish country singer when she adds, "Judaism for me is like a mystery novel. I just can’t stop reading; that’s what it’s like for me."

Winningham will perform in concert July 24, 10:30 p.m. and Aug 21, 10:30 p.m. at Genghis Cohen restaurant, 740 N Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. For information, call (323) 653-0640.

"A Convert Jig"

(Mare Winningham wrote this to honor her "Introduction to Judaism" teacher, Rabbi Neal Weinberg, and she performed it during a tribute to him at the University of Judaism.)

Guard your tongue, love your neighbor

Help someone to help themselves

It’s required — it’s not a favor

That is what my teacher tells us

Don’t be late — you’ll miss the prayer aerobics

Ancient melodies you need to know

How to sing the holy songs — to add your voice where it belongs

And how and when to lift up on your toes

That is what my teacher tells us

That is what I’ve come to learn

He has organized the notes for life

And given me the tools to turn

My tiny insignificance into something big

I will be a Jew like all of you

and dance a convert jig

Take the time to learn the Hebrew

Memorize your holidays

Keep kashrut — and study on the Torah

You’ll reap rewards forever and always

Cut your flowers, set your table

Light your candles and say your prayer

Then you’ll know how you are able

To feel you’re Jewish, anywhere

That is what my teacher tells us

That is what I’ve come to learn

He has organized the notes for life

And given me the tools to turn

My tiny insignificance into something big

I will be a Jew like all of you — your tree has grown a twig

I will be a Jew like all of you — and never eat a pig

I will be a Jew like all of you — and dance a convert jig!

C’mon, a Bat Mitzvah Is, Like, So Uncool

Everything was going wrong. First, her best friend moved. Not just to another town, she moved to another state.

Also, she was starting a new school this year. Middle school was scary to think about, though she would never admit it out loud. She was too cool for that.

And now her parents were talking about moving to another town, with a better school district. She, of course, saw nothing wrong with this one. And what was worse, they would probably move after she had become used to the new middle school.

OK, now add to all of this: her bat mitzvah.

"I don’t want a bat mitzvah," she told her parents. "It’s just for you and your relatives. You don’t even need me there. So why don’t you just throw your own party?"

"Don’t be silly," they answered. "This is for you, it’s about you."

So how come no one would listen to her?

Lessons with the cantor were OK, but then the cantor is a cool guy. He never lies, never says you did a good job when you know you stank.

But what goes over well in the cantor’s study isn’t likely to go over well in front of a whole mess of people.

"I’ll be a bat mitzvah automatically at 12 anyway," she said. "Why do we need the fancy ceremony?"

"We’ll keep it simple."

"Why can’t we just go to Israel for my bat mitzvah?" she asked.

"Would you like that? We could have the ceremony on Masada."

"Oh," she responded. "I thought we would just go and, y’know, kinda sightsee."

"That’s not what this is about," they answered.

"Then what is it about?" she replied.

"If you don’t know that, you’ve wasted all your years in Hebrew school."

Well, no duh! She had slept through most of it.

She asked the cantor, "So what is it all about?"

"L’dor v’dor," he said.

From generation to generation?

"Tov me’od," he said. Very good.

From generation to generation. From your parents generation to yours. From your grandparents to your parents. From your great-grandparents to your grandparents. All the way back, and all the way forward.

Throughout history, as long as there are Jews on earth, we will all be connected through things like the bar or bat mitzvah, Shabbat, brit milah, lighting candles, fasting on Yom Kippur, eating matzah and retelling the Passover story.

Sharing the stories of our ancestors with our children, as you will do someday, God willing, with yours. That’s what it’s all about.

That’s why she liked the cantor. He answered her in words she could understand.

So she entered middle school, and did just fine. She studied her parshah and learned the prayers.

She thought about what the cantor had said, and pictured herself listening to her own son practice. She imagined her grandfather, now in his 70s, as he must have looked up on the bimah.

And then it was time.

She sat on the bimah, a demure young lady with ankles crossed and tissues in hand. She read her parshah, sang the blessings, led the service and gave a dvar Torah.

As she stood behind the pulpit, she looked into some of the faces in the sanctuary. And when she led the congregation in the prayer, "L’dor v’dor," she sang it with feeling.

She imagined the family members she had never met, going back generations. She thought about those who could not have a bar or bat mitzvah before they were sent to the concentration camps. She thought about those who would have one after her.

Then she looked at her younger brother sitting in the first row, with her parents.

"I wonder if he’ll feel the same way I did," she thought.

"Well, at least he’ll have me to help him."

Mothers, Daughters Bond Over Torah

Netivot, the women’s Torah study institute, will begin a program next month on a subject not often associated with Orthodoxy: bat mitzvah.

Beginning Nov. 16, Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills will host a “Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah Seminar,” in which girls ages 11-13 and their mothers are invited to explore aspects of being a Jewish woman through text study, creative expression and areas of social action.

Educator Marcie Meier will lead the six-week course, joined by specialists who will facilitate projects in music, drama, art and dance. In addition to female characters in the Bible, seminar participants will discuss historical and personal role models.

Although Meier recognizes that “there’s always been a more public role for young men … there’s no reason girls shouldn’t achieve as much as boys in Judaism.”

Attaining the age of bat mitzvah, Meier told The Journal, involves “growing into a more responsible role in Judaism” — not just fulfillment of commandments incumbent on women such as lighting Shabbat candles but also saying daily prayers and carrying out acts of chesed (lovingkindness), what Jews often refer to as tikkun olam (social action).

Text study, Meier said, allows girls to understand their responsibilities as adult Jews “on a deeper level.” Orthodox from birth, Meier embraced the importance of study for girls as a young adult after reading an essay in an Orthodox journal in which a woman wrote, “Women sometimes confuse motherhood with washing floors…. Anyone who can study should study.”

At Beth Jacob, girls celebrate their coming of age as Jewish adults by offering to the congregation a d’var Torah, or commentary, on the weekly Torah portion, though, consistent with traditional practice, they do not lead prayers or read from Scripture.

But Steven Weil, Beth Jacob’s rabbi, downplays the “public performance” component of bar mitzvah as a latter-day American phenomenon. For centuries, he said, bar mitzvah was nothing more than a boy being called to recite Torah blessings on a Thursday morning.

To Weil, the close study of text and Jewish values that leads to the d’var Torah is the core of the rite of passage for girls and boys.

“Our goal is that the focus is on a real, substantive intellectual growth experience,” he told The Journal, “learning for six to 12 months with a first-rate mentor.”

Weil cites Meier as such a mentor, someone knowledgeable in Bible, rabbinic texts and traditional practice. A product of Los Angeles Jewish day schools, Meier, 51, attended Stern College for Women in New York and UCLA. She has prepared girls to deliver divrei Torah at Orthodox congregations and at non-Orthodox synagogues such as Temple Beth Am.

Michelle Rothstein, a seventh-grader at Pressman Academy in Pico-Robertson, has been working with Meier since last year to prepare divrei Torah for her bat mitzvah celebrations this month at Beth Jacob and at Beth Am, where she will also lead a weekday service.

With Meier, Rothstein explored Torah in both Hebrew and English.

“She knows a lot, and she’s really nice,” Rothstein said of her teacher.

Meier is looking forward to working with mothers and daughters together.

“For some mothers, it will be a first opportunity to study things they didn’t have an opportunity to study as they grew up,” she said.

She also sees it as a chance for women to spend “quality time” with their middle-school daughters.

Netivot (Hebrew for “paths”), founded in 2000, opens its fall schedule on Nov. 2 with “Weaving Beauty Into Our Everyday Lives,” an afternoon-long program combining Torah study with interactive arts workshops. All of Netivot’s programs are open to women at all levels of knowledge and from all Jewish denominations.

The seminar is “really going to be able to reach all levels,” Meier said. “It’s such a positive thing to bring our girls into the next step of Judaism.”

To find out more about the “Mother/Daughter Bat Mitzvah
Seminar” or Netivot’s other fall offerings, call (310) 286-2346, visit or e-mail .

Learning Together

In the fall of 1989, I began the process of pursuing rabbinical ordination. Although I would eventually be ordained at Yeshiva University in New York, I did commence my studies as a Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) student, opting to do my first year at the University of Judaism (UJ) in Los Angeles (this was pre-Ziegler School, when the UJ served as a feeder school to JTS in New York).

I entered the program with full confidence that it was the right place for me. I was not really looking to become an “Orthodox rabbi” or a “Conservative rabbi,” rather, I was looking for the place where I felt I would study the most Torah in the next four to five years of my life. So I entered the JTS/UJ program, looking forward to an intellectual and spiritual environment where students would have the opportunity to explore Torah to its fullest potential, both within the classroom and beyond.

During the first few weeks of the semester, the majority of the students were complaining that the program was academically overloaded, and that the atmosphere on campus was void of spirituality. We convened a students meeting to address these issues, and a group of us came up with a solution that we felt would solve both the academic and spiritual problems. We felt that the opening of a beit midrash (a study hall dedicated to Torah study, where rabbinical students would study texts in chavruta [study pairs]) would not only allow students more quality time to tackle the difficult texts they were studying in class, but would also enhance the spiritual environment on campus through lively Torah study. We suggested that a rabbi be made available to sit with us in the beit midrash to answer any questions we may have on the texts we were studying.

Excited by this prospect, we approached the director of our program with our proposal. His answer still rings clearly in my mind 14 years later: “My dear students, this is an academic seminary, not a yeshiva. In academic seminaries, we do not have a beit midrash; we have research libraries. Students do not study in chavruta, they conduct individual research. We do not engage rabbis who sit around waiting for any questions you may have. Instead, we have professors who are available during their office hours or by special appointment. I remind all of you that you are graduate students in a graduate program, not yeshiva students in yeshiva. To those who would prefer a program with all of the trimmings of a yeshiva, I suggest you go to a yeshiva.”

The next morning, I announced to the director that I would be following his sage advice.

P.S., In the Spring 2003 edition of the JTS Academic Newsletter, Rabbi William H. Lebeau, the current dean of the JTS Rabbinical School, writes: “Chavruta study in the Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Beit Midrash of JTS has become a centerpiece for the study of sacred texts by JTS rabbinical students. An extensive study of the impact of the JTS beit midrash on the rabbinical students and the larger culture of the JTS student community revealed that chavruta study that takes place in a comfortable environment where open conversation and debate are encouraged — and support from fellow students and skilled teachers is readily available, not only increases the student’s productivity and understanding but their enthusiasm for text study as well.”

Chavruta study in a beit midrash has been the intellectual and spiritual heart of Torah study everywhere in the Jewish world for the last 2,000 years. My most precious moments of Torah study were never in the classroom, but with my chavruta in the beit midrash. I am genuinely thrilled to learn that JTS has added this time-honored dimension to its program.

Chavruta study should never be classified as belonging to an “Orthodox yeshiva” vs. a “Conservative seminary.” The beit midrash belongs to the whole House of Israel, and chavruta study belongs to every Jew, including the non-yeshiva, non-seminary student, who just wants to “sit and learn.” Chavruta study in a beit midrash intellectually empowers you and reminds you that the Torah is the spiritual heritage of the entire Jewish community, irrespective of denominations.

As we celebrate Shavuot, the day when we all received the Torah together, consider setting up a chavruta with somebody and studying Torah on your own. You can turn your own living room into a beit midrash, or you can choose one of the local batei midrash. Yeshiva of Los Angeles on Pico Boulevard just built a sparkling new beit midrash, and, I am pleased to say, the UJ’s Ziegler School now houses the beautiful Sara and Simha Lainer Beit Midrash.

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.