Judaism, Uncategorized

Pew and Me (part 1)

When I met my husband, I was astonished when he told me his sisters were intermarried.  I loved being Jewish, and as far as I am concerned, becoming a Jew is the best thing I have ever done.  However I did not realize how badly many Jews felt about their own religion.  As someone on the outside, I thought that Jews had this great pride and belief in themselves and G-d, and as such would never consider a non-Jewish spouse. I believed that the Jews had the box seats and the rest of us had general admission.  I was raised that the Jews had a special relationship with G-d and the rest of us should be so lucky.

When I met his family, it was a rude awakening.  My mother in law had sent all of her kids to “Hebrew school,” and my husband and his brothers had Bar Mitzvah’s, but she refused to educate herself about her religion.  She was “too educated” to worry about religion.  It was something she didn’t need. She was a “happy” assimilated Jew, and her harshest words were for Jews and the religion she knew nothing about. never educated herself.  That is something she has in common with every assimilated Jew I have ever met. 

I didn’t visit my in-laws in California very often.  I knew I was not welcome. We kept kosher and she went out of her way to serve pork when I was there.  It bothered her that I had found something in “her” religion that was special, and wanted a closer relationship with G-d.   She caused unbelievable fights between my husband and I and she enjoyed it.  She made him choose between her and me, and without exception, he chose her.  However, she was upset when I finally threw in the towel and told her she could have her son.  I no longer wanted him.  After that she left us alone.   When my husband realized she just wanted to control him, he became a better husband.  This is not an indictment of Jewish mothers.  She didn’t want him married to someone who who was more Jewish than she. 

As distant as we were, she would confide to me her feelings about her family.  I think it was because she didn’t have anyone Jewish to talk to.  She told me that her grandmother, Sarah, was the most religious woman she knew.  She adored her, and spoke of her with pride.  She gave me an article published in the San Francisco Chronicle that was an interview of her father.  In the article, she pointed out that her great-grandmother, Leah, would go to a frozen river in Latvia, and her son, (my mil’s father) would punch a hole in the ice so she could use it as a mikveh.  She showed me the sentence where her Leah wore a sheitel (wig), because “as a married woman,” she said, “she covered her hair.”  Then she told me how it broke her heart that her daughters had married out.  I was stunned.  I thought she was a self hating Jew.  She went on about how she never thought it would happen to her.  “I raised them better than that. I sent them to afternoon Hebrew school and gave them a good Jewish education. My boys had Bar Mitzvahs.”  Then she went on to recite the mantra of millions of Jewish parents  with her last comment in our conversation, “at least their children will be Jewish.”  When I got up the nerve to ask her why she didn’t make her expectations clear, she replied, “I thought they knew what was important to me.”  When I asked why she participated in the marriages, she replied, “I didn’t want to lose my daughters.”  What she didn’t (or refuse to) understand, was that by marrying out, she had already lost them.  They didn’t give a rip about their parents.  She raised her baby boomer children to be selfish and spoiled.

She felt she really tried.  She had received no Jewish education at all. It was hard to feel bad for my mother in law, but as she emptied her heart out to me, mine broke for her.  She would spin a cartwheel in her grave if she could read the Facebook page of her granddaughter. “Having a Christmas tree makes me happy!” My niece (her granddaughter) announced that each year, her sons get a new ornament they will hand down to their own children.  So much for “at least the grandchildren will be Jewish.”

Next the Pew study.

Six braid challah

Six braid challah

The first person mentioned in the Torah for her challah making skills was Sarah. The commentaries go on to say that her challah (a braided bread served on the Sabbath and holidays) stayed fresh and warm from week to week. After her death, those miracles disappeared until Rivka (Rebecca) came into her tent.  One of the ways Isaac knew Rebecca was the right girl for him was the return of the miracles of his mother.  Today, we rely on freezers, bread makers and our good friend, Kitchen Aid, to help us make tasty challahs.  I hope Sarah would approve!

I make challah for our shalosh seuda (third meal of Shabbat) because I want to make enough to recite the special blessing that goes with baking it.   When I make it at our shul, I also make sure to use Yoshon (flour that is not from a recent wheat crop) because an individual in our community observes that particular mitzvah. I like the large Kitchen Aid mixer the shul has, and since I lead a very boring life, it is a thrill.  I usually make about 10 challahs at a time, and freeze them.  I do this on a monthly basis.

When I bake for my family, I use a bread maker.  This is the recipe people ask me for.  It is my adaptation of the Sharon Strassfeld challah adaptation from the First Jewish Catalog.

It makes one nice size challah.  When my family (there are six of us) is through, there isn’t a crumb left.  If we have guests, I have to have more than one loaf.

Donna’s Bread Machine Challah Dough

1/2 cup warm water

1 tablespoon yeast

1 tablespoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla (yes, I know vanilla is not a traditional ingredient).

2 eggs

3 cups flour

1/2 stick pareve margarine

3/4 t kosher salt

3 tablespoons honey

Place the water, sugar and yeast in the bowl of the breadmaker.  Let this mixture proof for a few minutes.  In a large bowl combine the flour and cut the margarine into it with your fingers or a pastry cutter.  Add the salt to this mixture. Check the eggs and save the yolk of one of the eggs for the glaze.

Add the 1 1/2 eggs and flour to the bread machine bowl and add the honey.  Start the machine on the dough cycle.  Check the dough from time to time and add a little bit of water or flour as needed.

When the cycle is finished, braid the dough. I use a six braid, but a four braid is lovely too.  If you want to learn a four or six braid, visit my dear friend, Youtube. There are several excellent videos.  My favorite is Maya.  It is the one I used to learn how to make a six braid.

Place the challah on a parchment lined cookie sheet.  Let it rise at least an hour or more in a draft free place.  Mix the egg yolk with a little water and “paint” your challah.  Top with sesame or poppy seeds if desired.  Bake in a pre-heated 325 degree oven until it is a lovely brown.


Challah Day

Judaism, Uncategorized

I am not Ruth

I am not Ruth.  The commentaries explain say she was a princess from Moav.  My family was working class and lived in Denver.  Dad was a WWII veteran, and my mom’s family had come to these shores in 1632.   They married the local Native Americans and assimilated into the fabric of American life.  Think Norman Rockwell with attitude.

My parents were not deeply religious, but took us to Sunday school each week.  I was in second grade Sunday school when I  heard about,  “the Jews.”  There was no anti-semitism, just admiration.   For whatever reason, I decided then and there I wanted to be Jewish.  I would have years to think about my decision, but nothing would change it. Being assured of eternal damnation by my cousins, didn’t sway me.   I knew that we all have a direct line with G-d was direct and no intermediary was necessary.

The same year, I received my library card from school, as an incentive to read.   While my friends were reading, “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” I was reading the only book on Judaism I could find, called “Why I am Jewish.” It was a short book, and I have no idea who the author was.  It was more of a synopsis of Jewish history and the traditional view of G-d.  It was a big step when I could drive and visit the main branch of the Denver Public Library.  In my mind, that was a collection.

In learning about Judaism, I learned that it was not a “closed” religion.  Judaism did not seek converts, but accepted them (often  begrudgingly).  I read about the journey taken by Devorah Wigoder, who broke a lot of barriers when she wrote, “Hope is My House.”  She wrote about her life, conversion, marriage and immigration to Israel.  She wrote of her challenges, and determination with warmth and unwavering commitment.

I was 19 and in college when I found a rabbi who was willing to study with me.  Potential converts are supposed to be turned away until they demonstrate their commitment to the religion.  After hearing my story, and picking up his jaw upon learning that this potential convert had decided she wanted to be Jewish since she was seven, he decided my commitment was sincere.  I was told to purchase some books including a prayer book, and work with him.  A few months later I went to the mikvah and received a Hebrew name.  Since my English name was Donna, it was suggested I choose a name that began with a “dalet,”  the Hebrew  equivalent of “D.”  The two most popular names are Devorah and Dina.  I decided on the latter.  This was about the time that Chabad established a presence in Colorado.  Although the rebbitzin had never met someone who was in the process of conversion, she was convinced I needed the Rebbe’s blessing when it came time to take a name.  Dina was agreed upon, and since my conversion was about to take place near the time of the birthday or yahrzeit (I don’t remember which) of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe’s  mother,  I decided on her name, Nechama Dina.  The name means “compassionate judge” and fits my personality.

Hebrew names are important to Judaism.  All Jews are supposed to have a Hebrew name and their full name is whomever bat (daughter) or ben (son) and their father’s Hebrew name.  Since converts are considered  children of  Abraham the first Jew, they take his name.  If they are receiving tehillim (psalms) because of illness they are “ploni(t)” bas or ben Sarah. If your mother is Jewish and your father is not, you receive a Hebrew name and then are called bat or ben and your maternal grandfather’s Hebrew name.

It is good that G-d created an open religion, but many people don’t realize that Judaism is matrilineal.  It was Sarah who passed on Judaism to her son, Isaac, not Abraham.  Women in Judaism have real power.    For some reason this bothers intermarried Jewish men, because their children are not Jewish.  Patrilineal descent has been much discussed and endorsed by the Reform movement, but that doesn’t change anything.  Calling an apple an orange doesn’t make it one.  To be a Jew you either have to have a Jewish mother or convert.  Case closed.   My children are Jewish because of me, not because of their father (who is a nice boy from Gary, Indiana).   As I look at my children, and enjoy the warmth and love of my community and friends, I am grateful for the journey that G-d gave me and the people I am now a part of.

Judaism, Uncategorized

Do not urge me to leave you…

And so it begins, the lament of lovers recited in a thousand Hollywood movies, and books.

Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people, and your G-d is my G-d; where you die, I will die and there I will be buried.

– Ruth 16-17

These are not the words of two people madly in love with other, they are the words of a Moabite woman, Ruth, to her mother-in-law, Naomi.  With these words, Ruth binds herself body and soul to the Jewish people.  And with her example, she defines the love a Jew is supposed to have for G-d and their people.  She also sets the bar for anyone who wishes to convert to Judaism.

Ruth was not the first convert.  That honor is accorded to Abraham.  His wife, Sarah, follows him as does Ketura (formerly known as Hagar) and many others.  The commentaries to the Torah tell us that when Abraham moved to the land of Israel, he converted the men and Sarah converted the women.   This is why the traditional name taken by a male convert is Abraham.  The traditional name taken by a women is not Sarah, but Ruth.  Sarah is known as “Sarah Immenu,” or Sarah our mother.  We learn many things from Sarah.  She was smart,  resourceful,  and fiercely protective of her only son, Issac.  She knew that the survival of this new, monotheistic people, was predicated on the decisions she made, not those of her husband.   Abraham is told to listen to her.  She sends out Isaac’s brother Ishmael into the desert because he is a bad influence on Isaac and therefore a bad influence on the people who are to become a “light into nations.”  Her role is bound up with Abraham.  Sarah is not an independent story.

Ruth is the opposite.  She fights as only she can, to become a part of the people of her mother-in-law, Naomi, and her dead husband.  She is rejected by Naomi and told to return to Moav with her sister, Orpah.  Orpah kisses Naomi goodbye, wipes her tears, and reluctantly returns to Moav.  Ruth could have gone “home” as well.  She could have returned to her biological family, and been assured of a good life.

Ruth stubbornly resists.  She would rather be a “ger” (stranger) in the House of Israel than a princess in the land of Moav.  In her lifetime, she will live the history of the Jewish people.  She will suffer hunger, and humiliation. She will barely survive by “gleaning” fields to feed herself and Naomi.  She will love Boaz and bear a son.  She will become a widow and raise her son alone.  She will be shunned by the people she so loves, but not the G-d she has chosen to serve.   She will live to see the epitome of the Jewish world under her descendent, Solomon.  She will follow her adopted people, and do what G-d asks of her.  She will do this without question and resistance.  She will do this with love, faith and reverence.  Abraham’s acts of responsibility; moral, personal and collective will be required if the Jewish people are to accept the Torah and obey its laws.   Abraham defines the Jewish nation.   Ruth, with her acts of devotion, determination, love and compassion,  defines the Jewish people.

We read the story of Ruth when we celebrate festival of Shavout.  Shavout is the festival when we celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.  The Jewish people had been released from slavery and was now ready to accept G-d’s law.  The people, like a convert, had to immerse in a mikvah and agree to accept the Torah without preconditions.

In each generation, every Jew must make the same decision as Ruth.  Jews choose to leave the Jewish people everyday.  They intermarry or grow complacent.  They become ignorant and unfeeling.  Sometimes, they follow other religions.  They can also decide to stay, keep their lot with their people and grow.  There is no “racial purity” in Judaism.  Anyone can choose to become a Jew, and there are Jews of every race and background.  However, every Jew whether born into or a convert,  must make the conscientious decision to become either the  Jew in the woodpile or a link in the chain.

There was a recent study on Jews in the U.S. According to the naysayers, the news is not good.  But when you think about it, we don’t hear much from the Hittite Ambassador.  Babylonia and Rome long ago stopped being world powers.  There is a Yiddish saying, “Man tract und Gott lacht.” Man makes plans and G-d laughs.  People and societies have been predicting and counting on the demise of the Jewish people for a few thousand years.  The Romans were so determined to destroy the Jewish people, that they sewed the land around Jerusalem with salt so that if they returned, the Jews could not farm and therefore could not exist.  Rome disappeared, the Jews survive.  The Romans didn’t learn lesson one. Don’t mess with G-d.