Author Archives: Erica Brown

Erica Brown

About Erica Brown

Dr. Erica Brown is the Director for Adult Education at The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and consults for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. She is an author-winning author and the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award. Erica has served as an adjunct professor at American University and George Washington University. She lectures on subjects of Jewish interest and leadership.

Is Parenting Good for You?

“Grandchildren are the crowning glory of their elders; parents are the pride of their children.”
Proverbs 17:6

We all know the saying “Insanity is contagious; you get it from your kids.” It seemed for a while that research bore this out, at least in part. Psychological studies demonstrated that marital satisfaction decreases dramatically after the birth of the first child and increases only when the last child leaves home. In Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert marshaled evidence to suggest that societal myths that having children makes people happy are actually incorrect. He calls this a “belief-transmission game” where we falsely believe that certain things contribute or detract from our happiness. One of them is money, which has been shown to bring happiness only when it relieves an individual of poverty but above that is inconsequential to life satisfaction. The other is parenting.

Every human culture tells its members that having children will make them happy,” Gilbert contends. People look forward to it with happy expectation. When people are asked about sources of happiness they invariably point to their parent and childkids. But, Gilbert claims, when you chart their actual satisfaction a “very different story emerges.” Women surveyed rated taking care of their kids as a chore less satisfying than eating, exercising, shopping, napping or watching television. But don’t worry, kids. Mom enjoyed you just slightly more than doing housework.

I remember first reading this research and feeling a punch in my stomach. Jewish life is predicated on continuity and regards the family as the sacred unit by which faith and culture is transmitted. Granted, obligation and responsibility top personal happiness within the framework of faith communities generally and Judaism specifically. It is not that happiness is not important. It’s that happiness is not the most significant or sole motivator for our beliefs and practices.

How does this research jive with the statement from Proverbs above? We believe that children are a crowning glory. Actually in this verse, children are a transition between their grandparents and their parents. Grandparents regard children with delight, and children regard their parents with pride.

Blessing on a Fruit Tree

“And a generation will yet arise

And sing to beauty and to life.”

Rabbi Abraham Kook, “The Whispers of Existence”

The sign on a local church this week read: “Spring has sprung. Is your faith blossoming?” Faith does blossom when we see a world regenerating. We hear the birds after a silent winter. We see cherry trees flowering, the weather warming, and we feel the relief of color re-entering and puncturing the drab grey of winter. 

We mark this special time with a holiday also called “The Holiday of Spring” or Hag ha-Aviv. Passover helps us relive the exodus at a time of the year when redemption seems natural. If everything gets a new chance at life, we do too. We blossomed into a nation as the world around us paralleled the process. And to prepare for Passover, we make a special blessing–one of four that is said only once a year–over the flowering fruit trees of the Hebrew month of Nissan: “Blessed are You, Our God, King of the Universe whose world lacks nothing and who made wondrous creations and beautiful trees for human beings to enjoy” (identify the other three for the double jeopardy win or see the answer key below).

The language of the blessing offers us insight into why we make blessings in the first place. The Talmud recommends that we make one hundred blessings a day over everything from human wisdom to lightening to the smell of spices. We take in the sensory world and crown it with a blessing to make an ordinary moment special. We sanctify time and space when we look and listen and respond with a blessing. The text of the tree blessing is not about what we will one day eat but about pausing to note a world created for human enjoyment. Beauty is the handmaiden of spirituality.

I remember driving parallel to an orchard in Israel and seeing a group of schoolchildren sitting around a flowering fruit tree two weeks before Passover. They were obviously on a field trip from school to say this blessing together, and the teacher was clearly using the great outdoors as a wonderful classroom to teach about God and nature.

Breaking Bad Habits

“It is too late to prepare when temptation is actually at hand.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Ger

Sometimes you find yourself dangerously close to a piece of cheesecake. It inches even closer to you, begging to be

eaten. “I can’t help myself,” you find yourself saying, as if an extra-terrestrial being has taken hold of you and forced down the cake. This reminds me of a trouble-maker I went to school with whose yearbook quote read: “Lead us not into temptation. Just leave us alone. We’ll find it.” Kicking the cheesecake habit is hard. But it is not impossible if you will it.

Even though they say that bad habits are hard to break, Charles Duhigg, in his recent book The Power of Habit, argues that the more we know about how we form our habits, the easier they are to change. He amasses scientific evidence to show that difficult tasks repeated multiple times become rote. We may barely think about what we do when we shoot a basket, drive a car or take a shower because we go into automatic pilot. We’ve done things so many times that our bodies engage even if our minds are coasting. David Brooks, writing on Duhigg, claims that, “Your willpower is not like a dam that can block the torrent of self-indulgence. It’s more like a muscle, which tires easily.” It needs to be fortified.

If repetition is the key to habit then recalibrating behaviors and doing them again and again differently becomes one critical way that we break bad habits and willfully choose new ones. When we learn new routines and practice them repeatedly we “teach” ourselves how to adopt best practices. It is awkward at first but still do-able. Research done at Duke University shows that 40% of our behaviors are made through habit rather than intentional decisions. With a little concerted mental effort, we can reshape old habits.

Rabbi Yitzchak Meir (1798-1866) was a Talmudic scholar and the first Gerer Rebbe, a Hasidic sect popular in Poland. Many stories and legends have evolved about the Rebbe’s piety and knowledge. Martin Buber, in Tales of the Hasidim, shares a well-known story about the Rebbe. When his mother died, he followed her bier, begging for forgiveness. He spoke to his mother’s coffin, “In this world, I am a man who is much honored and many call me rabbi. But now you will enter the world of truth and see that it is not as they think. So forgive me and do not bear me a grudge. What can I do, if people are mistaken in me?” Perhaps he understood that those who came to her funeral were doing so out of honor for him, taking away from his mother’s honor. He apologized.


“You shall not steal; you shall not deny falsely, and you shall not lie to one another.”
-Leviticus 19:11

Stealing and lying are put together in this verse for an excellent reason. When caught stealing, a thief’s most instant response may be defensiveness and denial, making stealing and lying causally related. I steal, therefore, I lie. Alternatively, stealing may be another type of lying, specifically when stealing involves intellectual property. In Jewish law, we have a category of deception called “genevat da’at,” the stealing of knowledge. This does not only involve copyright infringement and crimes involving money. Specifically, genevat da’at usually refers to taking another’s idea and calling it your own. We have a word for it: plagiarism.

You steal someone else’s thoughts and lie to others because you make it seem like you are smarter, kinder or plagiarismmore competent than you really are. This has become a problem of immense proportions because of the pressure to succeed combined with the ease of access offered by the internet. How else can we explain acts of mass cheating that have taken place in Jewish day schools recently, where foundational values of honesty and integrity have been comprised for the sake of better SAT scores and college acceptances? Accomplishments are faked on resumes, and more than one journalist in recent years has stolen a story.

A recent New Yorker article, “The Plagiarist’s Tale”(Feb.13-20, 2012) helped me understand the mind of the plagiarist. Quentin Rowan wrote a spy novel called Assassin of Secrets in James Bond style. The style was so much like a James Bond novel that someone realized it actually was heavily excerpted from Ian Fleming’s actual writing. But not only Fleming. Rowan took pieces of multiple authors and strung them together so cleverly that an outside observer found 34 different acts of plagiarism in the first 35 pages. Someone actually thought that Rowan did it intentionally, as a literary art form. 

Truth and Fiction

Credibility is hard to earn and easy to lose. Tell one lie, and a relationship that you have invested in for years may be compromised. The Talmud understood this problem all too well and condemned the liar to the greatest punishment: a tarnished reputation. The liar can speak the God-honest-truth, and we still have our doubts. As frustrating as this is for the liar with truth finally on his lips, we can hardly blame those once subjected to falsehood for harboring questions.

The Path of the Just was written in 1738 by the Italian scholar, Rabbi Moses Hayyim Luzzato as work of ethical guidance and character development. It has a long and illustrious history of study, prepping readers on the intricacies of saintliness and humility. Rabbi Luzzato did not take the Talmudic punishment of liars at face value. Instead, he parsed the “work” of liars into various categories, from the mild to the outrageous, understanding that lying often begins on a continuum of truth. Therein lies its greatest danger.liar

Lying is understandable on many levels. I once caught one of my children in a lie at the age of six. “But why did you lie to me?” I asked, even though the offense was minor. “Because I didn’t want you to be upset.” We often lie because we want to protect ourselves and others. Sometimes we convince ourselves that a white lie never harms; it only helps smooth rough waters. It may even be good to lie. It is not always easy to explain that while a lie may prevent hurt to someone else, it begins to hurt us. We stop being seen as truth-tellers.

Rabbi Luzzato mentions another piece of Talmudic wisdom: that liars are included in a class of people who “are not received into the presence of God.” If honesty is a hallmark of the divine, then lying puts a person outside of God’s inner circle.

Just how wide is that circle? Rabbi Luzzato mentions that there are people who lie for a living, to promote business or to be counted among the wise. There are others who lie, not because they manufacture stories, but because “when they give an account of something true” they interlace it with lies. “They habituate themselves to this practice to the point where it becomes part of their nature,” following the prophet Jeremiah’s warning: “They have taught their tongues to speak falsehood. They have become weary with wrong” (9:4).

Complex Happiness

We are living in a moment of Jewish historic significance, one which embodies the blessing: “Thank you God for helping us arrive at this day.” This Simchat Torah, we express joy not only as we complete the reading of the Torah, but as we come to the end of a five year struggle to achieve the freedom of one Israeli soldier: Gilad Shalit. I will now put away his dog tags that have been near my Shabbat candles, helping me think of him when bringing extra light into my own home. I wonder at how he has changed these past years and how excruciating it must be to leave one painful world and enter another realm entirely, one full of heroic expectations.

Throughout the difficult moral debates of the past weeks, the Jewish unity that people expected has broken down into understandable fractiousness. I have gone back in my mind to one of the most well-known statements in the Mishna: “If a person saves a single human being, Scripture considers it as if he saved the world” (BT Sanhedrin 4:5). We hear this used in all kinds of metaphoric contexts, but now the situation is real and the question is painful. Should we do anything to save one human life? As we read the long list of prisoner names who have and who will be released, we cannot ignore the heinous crimes of most and the fear we have that years in Israeli prisons has only toughened their determination to return to terror. Will kidnapping soldiers become the ticket to prisoner freedom in the future?

There is another Talmudic principle that comes to mind: “If confronted with a certainty and a doubt, the certainty is preferable.” We do not know how to answer the above questions. They are all part of a future landscape we can only imagine but one which has not been actualized. We know for certain now that this lone Israeli soldier is alive and can be freed and so, in our Jewish tradition of redeeming captives as the most important collective commandment we can perform, we will go with that certainty and forgo the doubt for now.

Building a Great House on Sukkot

“We live, each of us, to preserve our fragment, in a state of perpetual regret and longing for a place we only know existed because we remember a keyhole, a tile, the way the threshold was worn under an open door.”
Nicole Krauss

Thousands of years ago, after our first exile in Babylonia, the Jews returned to a land and a covenant that was distant from them. Ezra the Scribe gathered the people and took out a Torah scroll and read to them what they had been missing. And the exiles wept for all that had been lost. Ezra and Nehemiah told them not great houseto cry but to rejoice for it was Rosh Hashanah. “This day is holy to the Lord your God: you must not mourn or weep.” They were told to eat, drink and give of their portions to those who had none. The mood changed from one of guilt and sorrow to one of celebration.

A few weeks later, the people were told to go to the mountains and bring leafy branches to construct sukkot, booths to remind them of life in the wilderness. “The whole community that returned from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths – the Israelites had not done so from the days of Joshua son of Nun to that day – and there was very great rejoicing.” It must have been a remarkable scene, watching the Israelites after years of exile, rejoicing together in their sukkot, recreating Jewish life from fragments.

Nicole Krauss, in her novel
Great House
, captures some of the joy and the pain of a house you once knew that is reconstructed in your memory, the only place in which it exists. We live, she says, to preserve a fragment of a memory and those fragments are made up of the small pieces of our lives that we are trying somehow to return to.

Each year when we build a sukkah, we are trying to recapture the fragments of ancient life in a wilderness, a historical landscape we never experienced. It is a house of our imagination but also built on real memories. We take out the faded decorations that were made by our children years ago. And we understand that building this strange house is the way we erect an altar to layers of memory. We physically put ourselves inside this memory house and live in it for a week.

An Empty Mental Space

Earlier this week, Dr. Erica Brown asked, “What are the Three Weeks, anyway?”, and wrote about learning to mourn. Her new book, In the Narrow Places, is now available.

jewish authors blogJewish law is based generally on the assumption that our emotions follow our actions. If we act charitably, we will become, over time, more compassionate human beings. We don’t wait for a moment of empathy to hit before we obligate ourselves to give. Yet we are commanded when it comes to certain emotions: we are supposed to love God, supposed to refrain from hate towards others and feel reverence for our parents.

During the Three Weeks, the summer stretch of time that is marked by two fasts commemorating the destruction of the Temples and any other persecution of Jews in history, we are obligated to mourn. Our mourning consists of many behaviors designed to minimize our sense of joy. But if you look carefully at the Shulkhan Arukh, the sixteenth century code of Jewish law written by Rabi Joseph Karo, you notice a small but stunning appeal to the emotions.

In addition to the Three Weeks as a calendar marking, there are a set of laws that we are supposed to observe to remind us of the loss of our holy Temples. We break a glass at a Jewish wedding and some have the custom of putting an ash mark on the forehead of the groom. In other words, our happiest moments are tarnished – if just a little bit – because we realize their incompleteness without our ancient spiritual center. These practices are still common today.

Less common is the idea that whenever a woman wears her full set of jewelry, she should leave out one piece. Whenever we set our tables for a holiday feast, we leave one place setting empty and whenever we build a home, we leave a space free of plaster near our front door. All of these practices share one common theme: emptiness.

It is near impossible to mourn something we have never experienced. The closest, perhaps most honest response to loss is to leave a space empty that should not be filled. This approach has characterized many memorials to loss in recent years. The Oklahoma bombings have been commemorated with a field of empty chairs. The 9/11 Pentagon plane crash has been marked in a similar way, with empty benches for the number of people who died in that terrorist attack.

Learning to Mourn

On Monday, Dr. Erica Brown asked, “What are the Three Weeks, anyway?” She will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council’s Author Blog.

jewish authors blog
We have become who we are as a people not only by celebrating our most joyous collective occasions, like Passover and Shavuot, but also by our capacity to mourn as a group for that which we’ve lost or never experienced. This is best embodied by the demands of the season – the Three Weeks – that are bookended by two fasts all grieving over the loss of the Temples, Jerusalem and other tragedies of Jewish history.

I’ve heard people complain that they can’t get worked up about something that happened so long ago and has little relevance to their lives today. But I imagine that pilgrimage to Jerusalem must have been a remarkable sight. Seeing people stream into the holy city from every possible direction with their families in tow must have created an expansive feeling of pride and unity, one that is hard to imagine in today’s Jewish world.

We don’t have many occasions that bring us together, let alone three pilgrimage holidays a year that characterized our ancient service. We should mourn the loss of this collective place of gathering, if only because we know its absence too intimately in contemporary Judaism. We have no such gathering erica brownplace for our collective guilt, tears, happiness and consolation. It must have been special to have a central holy site to bring all of our tears and prayers of thanksgiving, to travel to with all our good and bad news. And even if we were waylaid and couldn’t make it to Jerusalem, there must have been comfort in merely knowing that such a place existed.

One of my beloved teachers calls the Kotel, the Western Wall, God’s office. I laugh every time he says it. But I know that the spiritual world looks different to those who feel that God has an “office” in this world even if you don’t live close by it.

Today, we are so distant from an appreciation of Jewish history that we do not even know how to mourn or even that we are supposed to mourn. The Three Weeks isn’t for “antique” Jews, those who live in some distant and unfathomable past. It is a period for all Jews to take stock of what community and peoplehood means from a spiritual and historic perspective. When we talk about redeeming the future we have to create a picture of what that collective future might look like. As Jews, we do that by looking back at our past first.

Dr. Erica Brown’s new book, In the Narrow Places, is now available. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.

What Are the Three Weeks, Anyway?

Dr. Erica Brown is the author of In the Narrow Places, a daily meditation for each day of the Three Weeks. She will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council‘s Author Blog.

jewish authors blogI recently spoke at a Melton graduation that marked a two year commitment of adults studying Judaism seriously through a global curriculum out of the Hebrew University. The rabbi who introduced me mentioned my current book
In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks
followed immediately by, ‘If you don’t know what the Three Weeks are, please sign up for Melton.” I was happy to be used as an advertisement for the course but less happy with the realization that this time period is virtually unknown outside of traditionally observant circles.

Let’s face it. It is odd to have any commemorative period referred to by the number of days it occupies, and the fact that it happens during the summer does nothing to help its popularity. The Three Weeks is officially called “bein ha-mitzarim” – between the straights or narrow places from the biblical book of Lamentations. This quiet quasi-month of mourning is marked by two fasts: the 17th of Tammuz and the Ninth of Av.

The three week period includes these fasts at both ends and a general mourning period in between which is solemnized by reducing our daily sense of joy. Traditional Jews do not go to public concerts or movies. Many men do not shave. We reduce our personal hygiene somewhat and minimize the role of music in our lives. But these small daily inconveniences have not necessarily added up to the period of introspection that should characterize this time on the Jewish calendar.

The 17th of Tammuz represents the beginning of the siege of ancient Jerusalem and the weeks that ensue take us sadly to the destruction of both the first and second Temples. The Ninth of Av is the strictest fast we observe after Yom Kippur. erica brownIt is 24 hours in duration, and we are also forbidden from wearing leather shoes, washing or perfuming ourselves or engaging in sexual relations. Congregants sit on the floor in the evening, listening to the book of lamentations read in a haunting melody and then recite kinnot the next morning, a litany of complex, mostly medieval poems in acrostic fashion that take us from one calamity in Jewish history after another. It is an emotionally draining day. Adding to the hunger is the fatigue of loss that envelopes the mourners who reflect on how tragedy shapes us and our values.

1 2 3