Author Archives: Ruth Abusch Magder

About Ruth Abusch Magder

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD. is the Rabbi-in-Residence at Be'chol Lashon and the editor of the blog Jewish&. A culinary historian and mother of 2, she lives and meditates in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter @rabbiruth

Should Women Rabbis Be Humble?

“He has told you, O man, what is good, And what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice And to love goodness, And to walk humbly with your God”
-Micha 6:8

This verse reverberated in my head recently as I prepared for a recent rabbinic retreat. Each rabbi was asked to fill out a questionnaire meant to assess our character strength, such as bravery, creativity, love of learning, logic and so on. In theory, there were no ‘right’ answers; every trait has its place in making the world go round. But surely there are some traits, that should come together for certain professions, should there not? Surely a teacher must love learning, a judge fairness, a healer compassion and so on.

As we read in the Bible, humility is a positive when it comes to walking with God. And walking with God is at the core of my understanding of the role of the rabbi. Humility is essential to keep rabbis from confusing the work we do in the service of God with being as great as God.

But at the same time, I’m not just a rabbi, I’m a woman rabbi.

And when it comes to women, humility gets complicated.

Humility is freedom from pride or arrogance. It comes from the Latin word humilis, which literally means low, and also suggests modesty or a lower sense of self-importance. But what passes as pride or arrogance is often judged more harshly in women than men. And when women do not push through the modesty thrust upon the by societal expectations of womanhood, they are unlikely to get noticed. In other words, for women being humble can get in the way of doing God’s work, or any work for that matter.

Take for example Dorothy Vaughn, played by Octavia Spencer in the movie Hidden Figures. Vaughn was one of a group of female African-American mathematicians who worked as human calculators at NASA in the 1960s. In the movie, left without a supervisor, Vaughn took on organizing the group and distributing assignments. Given the double burden of racism and sexism, humility would have been the end of the line. Instead, knowing her worth, she approached a white female supervisor and clearly stated her capacity to become a supervisor. When that failed, she persisted, daringly pioneering and training other black women in computer programming. Under her leadership and innovative visioning new realities became possible. Humility would have been a hindrance; only a healthy ego and sense of reasonable entitlement by Vaughn made any of this possible.

A Purim Menu That is Food for Thought

Purim is all about the hiding. Esther hid her identity from King Ahashverosh. Haman hid his evil side from the King. And as our tradition teaches, the name of God does not appear in the written account of Purim, because even God is hidden in the Purim story.

When is Purim 2017? Click here to find out!

As a result, Jews have a custom of wearing costumes on Purim. Dressing as Darth Vader or as Harry Potter gives us a chance to either give voice to a part of ourselves that might be hidden on more typical days or conversely the costume might hide away parts of ourselves that we prefer not be seen.

Hiding carries over into Purim foods as well. Across many cultures, Jews developed customs of eating foods that had a surprise hidden inside. These foods pick up the theme and remind diners that there is usually more than what we see on the surface. Like the costumes, these foods remind us not to assume too much from what we see on the outside, because there may be a bigger or more important truth hidden just out of sight.

This Purim truth about identity is one that is relevant year round. We should not make assumptions about people based on their skin color or ethnic identity. We should make the effort to see what lies below the surface because like Purim foods, there are likely to be some wonderful surprises.

This Purim you can cook up a global feast of hidden culinary treats that not only put a smile on people’s faces but make them think. Ask your family or friends to share in a meal that draws on tradition but also invites conversation. We have included some questions for discussion with each food suggestion.

For more Purim recipes, click here or visit The Nosher, My Jewish Learning’s food blog!

Though not all the foods on our Hidden Foods Purim menu are traditional for Purim, they are global Jewish food, and will be a welcome addition to the Purim table. Make one, some or add your own!


Soup with Kreplach: Kreplach are a traditional Eastern European Purim food. Similar to the more familiar wontons, these soft dough dumplings are white on the outside but contain a meat center. Kreplach are usually served in clear chicken broth. The wrapping is bland but the filling is loaded with flavor and adds so much to the taste of the soup.  Question for conversation: Was there ever a time in your life when you hid a part of yourself? Why?

When Faith Overcomes Baggage: A Family's Journey

Though they did not start off life as Jews, Puah Millsaps and her multiracial family have never felt more welcome than they do in the Jewish world. Be’chol Lashon caught up with this busy mom between homeschooling lessons to hear more about her family’s unusual journey, their joys and challenges.

Team Be’chol Lashon: Tell us a bit about your family.

Millsaps: We have five children and one on the way this summer.

BL: Is it a challenge to be such a big family?

Millsaps: Of course. Especially when my husband Brett is at work, and I am doing the parenting on my own. When it is the two of us it is easier. Now that we have older kids, it’s easier. It flows. We have our routines.

When we go out without Brett, the most common comment is “you have your hands full.” Today’s society is not set up for big families. With both parents working, most people can’t have big families. We don’t have family-oriented homes. It is not as intimate as it once was. There are not used to seeing big families. In Asheville, [where we live] we get lots of positive comments about a beautiful family.

BL: Are there any challenges because you are a multiracial family?

Millsaps: Being a multiracial family has not really popped up. When we got together, [me and my husband] we were living in West Virginia in a small town and they had no diversity, except the college kids. So a couple times we got looks, but we didn’t really pay attention. We do know that there are places out there that will do that. We have not run across that. We have never had discrimination in housing or jobs. In the Jewish community, the concern is more about us being converts and having so many children.

BL: How did you come to Judaism?

Millsaps: I grew up in Christianity with my family. My father and his lifelong best friend moved to West Virginia when I was 13 and when I turned 22 they were into a movement of finding their faith. It was all within the Christian tradition. When I was 18 they started looking for a church of their own and I went with them. We were Pentecostal for about six years and then my dad’s friend found a Hebrew Roots movement because in our small town there were no synagogues there was no way to have a broad Jewish affiliation.

A Guide For Talking Race in Jewish Space

How can Jews talk about race? How can Jews not talk about race? Race is part of all of our lives no matter the color of our skin or Jewish background.

Throughout the country and the Jewish community, discussions about race, racism and how to navigate the legacies of slavery and civil rights as well as the complex contemporary landscape are as important and challenging as ever. At Be’chol Lashon, these issues are on our mind all year round, as they are for many Jews.  But we recognize that there is heightened attention and concern as we mark the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

At our offices, we frequently get calls for help facilitating conversations about these topics. Often these requests are hoping that we will be able to provide a singular insight into the experience of Jews from all backgrounds. However, the experience of ethnically and racially diverse Jews is anything but monolithic. It is as rich and complex as the many multicultural Jews and their families. It is an Orthodox rabbi, and a snapchat rabbi. Jewish diversity is a Korean mom, a Sephardi mom, and also a teen with a sense of humor, and a Nordic American teen, as well as an Ethiopian attorney, and a poet. To really make change happen, we need to hear them all. And while it is essential that the voices of diverse Jews be the starting point for such conversations, change within the Jewish community will only take place if all Jews, including white and/or Ashkenazi Jews, examine their own experience of race.

For this reason, we have just published a discussion guide about diversity in the Jewish community. This guide is published in conjunction with Repair the World ahead of the MLK weekend. Our intention is to help Jews of all backgrounds listen more actively, to the stories of others and to the way each of us tell our own stories. Listening is an essential skill if we want to avoid making assumptions about what it means to be Jewish and how we express ourselves as Jews and as people. This guide is meant to facilitate conversation informed by multiple points of view and to allow everyone, regardless of background, to get personally involved and invested in the conversation.

Better Living and the Daily Do-Over

New Year’s resolutions are hard to keep. So in the past I did not bother at all. This year, is different, I’m all in. But I’m relying on the do-over.

The idea of a do-over is at once so enticing and completely ridiculous. If only it were possible, there are so many things in my own life I would change, like that W that I shaved at the back of my hairline in the 1980s or the bright green shag rug I chose for my childhood bedroom. But, sadly, those days are long gone, and, wish as I might, I am stuck without the ability to do it over.

Yet Judaism offers us a model of spirituality in which the do-over is front and center.

Traditionally, upon waking, Jews are meant to recite the Modeh Ani prayer, the core of which says that “I am grateful before You, God, that in Your compassion You have returned to me my soul.”

From most of my life I have seen this prayer as one of general gratitude, setting a mindset for the day ahead. But this year I attended the Atlanta Jewish Family & Career Services luncheon, and my whole approach to this prayer shifted.

One of the main speakers at the luncheon was Eric Miller, the program director of HAMSA, a program for those in recovery. He spoke of being clean for nearly eight years, but talked not of the years as a whole but the cumulative daily count. Each day sober and clean being its own accomplishment. The possibility of falling off the path is not a distant one, he reminded us, but close at hand — it could come today, it could come tomorrow.

Listening to him, I heard the words of the Modeh Ani in a new light. The Torah relates that in the beginning, God blew into the first being nishmat chayim. That phrase, often translated as the breath of life, can also be understood as the soul. It is a variation of neshama, which we are grateful to God for returning to us. While we cannot go back and do over the past, each day the divine source breathes our neshama into us and miraculously allows us to begin anew.

In this past year, I have embarked on a new approach to living more healthfully. This is no easy task. While I have found ways to make it work for me, some days are more faithful to my new vision than others.

Resisting Hate By Coming Together at Hanukkah

Hanukkah is a time for celebrating the power of light to dispel darkness, so this year I’m setting aside the Maccabees of old, in favor of a thoroughly American and timely Hanukkah story.

Like the ancient tale, the story of Hanukkah in Billings, Montana 1993 bears repeating and reconsideration.

When is Hanukkah 2016? Click here to find out!

That year a group of white supremacists moved into town. It was part of a larger broader movement to make the region one that was ‘safe’ from gays, blacks, Jews, and all the other groups that did not fit into the narrow bigoted vision these racists were trying to make a reality. Not content to simply think these ideas, the white supremacists began covering Native American and African American gathering places and churches with vitriolic graffiti.

The good folk of Billings would come together to wash the sites and show solidarity with those under attack, but the general trend of hatred continued.

The turning point came when a 5-year-old Jewish boy by the name of Isaac Schnitzer displayed a drawing of a Hanukkah menorah in his window, and a brick was thrown through into his bedroom. His mother reported the incident to the local paper and they printed a paper menorah along with an editorial requesting people of all faith to display them in their windows.

READ: Why I Light My Menorah in the Window — And You Should Too

The majority of the population of Billings, Montana was and still is white and Christian. Their personal safety was not under threat. Their humanity was not under assault. Yet they understood that there was something much bigger at stake.

Across Billings, people of all backgrounds began to display either the paper menorahs or other versions fighting against a narrow vision of their community.

There was pushback. Some churches and Christian homes had their windows broken. Signs promoting tolerance were shot at. But in the end, the violence abated and the general attacks ceased.

While both the ancient Hanukkah story and that of Montana 1993, share the theme of light triumphing over darkness, I’m unwilling to give into the temptation to call the people of Montana ‘modern day Maccabees.’

Answering the New Antisemitism

When I studied for my PhD in Jewish studies, I often had occasion to engage with antisemitism as a historical subject and intellectual exercise. However, since the election of Donald Trump, antisemitism has become a contemporary concern with practical implications and a frequent topic of conversation.

There are those who are worried, aware, some for the first time, that being Jewish might really separate them from other Americans.

There are those who are scared, collecting escape money or buying guns for self-protection. Not surprising given how essential the migration has been to Jewish survival.

There are those who see no threat at all. Not surprising given the general power and influence the Jewish community has achieved in the United States.

To ignore the shift in tone about antisemitism is to bury our heads in the sand. There has been a shift.

The negative tone of the Trump campaign encouraged hatred more generally and stripped back the façade of civility that disguised currents of antisemitism that were hidden in my lifetime.

What has been revealed is ugly and clearly frightening to many. Twitter is awash with attacks on Jews. Jewish reporters have been targeted. Swastikas have appeared in peaceful neighborhoods.

It is easy to lay all of this at Trump’s feet but there is concern on the left as well. On college campuses, left leaning students have increasingly felt comfortable marginalizing Jewish students and denying the historic experience of antisemitism. Some of this has been tied to anti-Zionism and disagreements with specific policies of the Israeli government but not all of it.

Since the election, many liberal and progressive groups have been putting out lists of groups with whom they stand, and my left-leaning Jewish friends have been feeling uncomfortable because despite the rise in antisemitism often Jews are left off these lists.

Jews are both being seen and not being seen. And many of us are uncomfortable.

We should not ignore that discomfort.

Adding A Global Influence to Your Sukkot

At Sukkot the custom of Ushpizin, offers us a chance, to be as welcoming and as inclusive as we would like to be. Traditionally, the Ushpizin are biblical figures who we symbolically invite to join us in the sukkah, bringing their legacy in to guide us in the here and now. Whether or not you have a sukkah, we invite you to get in on the fun. We have created a list of global Jewish figures who we can invite to join us at the table during Sukkot (October 17-23). Have one ‘visitor’ join you each day, or have them all come together! We think their stories are worth celebrating and will remind us of how the historic diversity of Jewish life can enrich our modern lives.

Lady Judith and Sir Moses Montefiore –This 19th-century couple were a ‘mixed’ marriage. Lady Montefiore was born into a prominent Ashkenazi family and he into a prominent Sephardi family. In coming together they formed a formidable team that not only socializing at the highest levels of British society but also advocating for Jews around the world. In 1840 they went to Damascus to defend the community against a Blood Libel (accusation that Jews murdered Christian babies). In 1846, they went to Russia to protest expulsions of Jews from borderlands. Additionally they were frequent visitors and strong supporters of Jewish life in the Holy Land. They are a timeless model of the global nature and value of Jewish community.

Rabbi Moses Maimonides – “From Moses to Moses, there was none like Moses.” So reads the epitaph on the tombstone of Moses ben Maimon , whose extraordinary rabbinic wisdom made him stand out among generations of Jewish scholars and leaders. Maimonides or The Rambam, as he was also know, also made strong contributions as a physician and philosopher and was well known among the Muslims of his time as well. His legacy of exceptional Jewish intellectual religious thought as well as connection with non-Jewish scholars provides a model for generations of Jewish learning and community engagement to this day.

The Right Tools For Self Improvement

I’ve learned my lesson. I’m just saying no to The Container Store.

The Container Store is an amazing place. They stock every kind of container, gizmo and gadget you might need to help get yourself, your family or your work organized. The neat lines of jars, the array of hooks and endless options for shelving are not only a work of art, they hold within them the promise that my life too can look this beautiful. By the look of it, I can tell that buying these products will make me a better person, more organized.

And I want to be more organized.

Staring at the rows of nesting boxes that goal seems in reach.

Yet when I get home, reality sets in. This approach is never going to work. I know from experience, if I’m ever going to get more organized, it won’t start with the containers. After all, if I already knew how to use them, I would probably already have all my stuff in containers well organized.

Aspiring to be better is good, great even. We all have room for improvement, in our personal lives, in our connections with others, in our connection to community, in our connection to the environment. There is lots of need for improvement all round.

But if we are not careful, aspiring to be better can also be soul crushing. Looking around at the pretty color-coded hangers on sale, I am reminded of what I am not. I am not as able to find things in my closet as other are. I see not only the potential for improvement but a reminder of my own shortcomings. These products fit into my aspirational self. But the ultimate failure of these products to be the cure-all only serves to make me feel that my shortcomings are deep failures of which I ought to be ashamed.

When looking toward self-improvement, we need to be wary of the snake oil sellers in the market place. This is not to say that The Container Store don’t have what to offer. My teen daughter, for example, would love nothing more than to win a shopping spree in the organizational Disneyland, which would undoubtedly turn her room into an even more structured work of art. But these are not the tools for me. With self-improvement there is no one size fits all and there is no singular measure of success.

5 Global Recipes for Rosh Hashana

The summer is over, the school year has started, and so it follows that Rosh Hashanah can’t be too far away. The holidays are a month away which gives us all enough time to plan and try out a few new recipes to add to our Rosh Hashanah table. Here are five of our favorite multicultural Jewish food recipes that we are sure will certainly add flair the Rosh Hashanah celebrations. Don’t take our word for it, make them yourself, now or any time of year!

When is Rosh Hashanah 2017? Click here to find out!

For more Rosh Hashanah recipes, click here or visit The Nosher, My Jewish Learning’s lively food blog!

Challah: This timeless classic got a makeover at the hands of food blogger Molly Yeh. Her Chinese take on this dish is a great addition to any Shabbat or Rosh Hashanah table. Growing up in a Chinese-Jewish household, Yeh knows from experience how to blend cultures to create extraordinary outcomes. This is one of our most popular posts to date and if you haven’t made this challah yet, what are you waiting for?

Chicken: Though beef might not be the first thing that we think of when we think of Rosh Hashanah, this recipe for Afro-Ashkefardi Chicken deserves consideration. In the greatest American culinary tradition, Chef scholar Michael Twitty has brought together disparate elements of cuisine to create something that both draws on tradition and innovates at the same time. Could there be a better symbolic way to transition from one year to the next? Probably not.

Soup: What happens when a nice Ashkenazi girl marries a nice Moroccan boy? To judge by Natasha Cooper Benisty’s experience, the matzo balls and gefilte fish get set aside to make room for some amazing Moroccan chickpea-pumpkin soup. Not ready to set aside your matzo balls? No worries, I’m sure Cooper won’t mind if you float a few in your bowl, but you may not feel the need once you’ve tasted this Rosh Hashanah classic. The bonus? Cooper Benisty’s carrot salad which is not to be missed.

Mojitos: They may not be traditional Rosh Hashanah drinks but this classic Cuban cocktail from Cuban Reuben blogger Jennifer Stempel deserves a place on the Rosh Hashanah. Stalled for many years, relations between the United States and Cuba have recently opened up, this is a perfect Rosh Hashanah reminder to all of us that we need not be stuck in our old patterns. Beyond that the refreshing and bright flavors of this classic drink will set the right tone for the New Year to come!

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