Monthly Archives: February 2010

How Do I Become an Empowered Jew?

This entry was posted in Life, Practices, Texts on by .

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, the Executive Director of Mechon Hadar, has written a new book called Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities. It’s an impressive book, and one that’s worth picking up if you’re involved in Jewish communal leadership of any kind, or if you’re constantly worrying about Jewish continuity. (Though this is tangential, I feel I should mention that the design of the book is particularly good. It makes for a remarkably smooth and easy reading experience.)
I can’t give a straight up review of the book, because I’m hugely impartial. I met Elie at a Simchat Torah meal in 2006, and learned with him for the first time at LimmudNY 2007. I was living in Nashville at the time, and was starved for Jewish learning opportunities, so my time at Limmud was especially important to me. After experiencing Elie’s shiurim (classes) at Limmud I decided to apply to the yeshiva he was opening, and ended up spending that summer learning for 14 hours a day at Yeshivat Hadar. At the end of that year I went back to Nashville to finish grad school, and then moved to New York, where I now attend the minyan Elie co-founded, learn with other alums of the yeshiva, and visit the yeshiva for classes. Clearly, Elie’s model of Empowered Judaism has had a big impact on my life.

In his book, Elie talks about how independent minyanim, and institutions like Yeshivat Hadar are creating meaningful spiritual experiences for young urban Jews, and how this experience can, and has been reinvigorating Jewish life. The book is part explanation–why are young Jews feeling so uninspired by Jewish life? What is missing?–and part prescription–how to build new meaningful communities without lots of capital, a building, or a rabbi. He’s able to lay it all out and make it look simple. People will start new communities when their needs aren’t being met elsewhere. Young Jews are looking for a meaningful spiritual experience, and they’re willing to step up and volunteer their time and resources if what they get out of it is a community that speaks to them, and a prayer experience that transcends what they’re accustomed to. When reading this book you will likely think to yourself–hey, I could do this. It’s not just the communities that Elie’s talking about that are empowering–the book itself is an empowering tool.

At the root of Elie’s work is an experience–usually through prayer or Jewish learning–that’s transformational and transcendental. If you can create an atmosphere that’s really inspiring to a lot of people, they’ll be enthusiastic about carrying the atmosphere further, and to other related realms. In the book, Elie writes about how moving and important the davening was at the minyan he co-founded, Kehilat Hadar. “From that first Shabbat morning service, the minyan awoke a sense of passion, mystery and awe I didn’t know I could ever feel.”

Elie was not the only one to have this reaction to the creation of Hadar. Over and over, my friends and relatives (my older sister was a gabbai at Hadar before I moved here) have spoken with me about how meaningful they found davening at an independent minyan to be. But here is my deep dark secret: I never feel that kind of passion, mystery, and awe when I’m in shul. Even at Hadar.

I have gone to shul almost every Shabbat of my life. In the year after my mother died I was at shul every day, and I have davened in synagogues of all kinds all over the world. I have had good prayer experiences, and I enjoy most of the time that I spend at shul, particularly at Hadar, but I never have the kind of prayer-inspired transcendence that Elie does.

This is obviously some kind of weird personal defect that doesn’t allow me to feel “spirituality.” And it’s somewhat depressing. But what I realized as I was reading Elie’s book is that even though a big part of my reaction was jealousy that Elie, and so many others, have this intense, and wonderful emotional reaction to davening that I don’t, something about the community still gets me out of bed every Saturday morning, sloshing through rain and sleet and snowstorms to pray with the community.

Maybe we can’t all be as spiritually plugged in as dreamers and entrepreneurs like Elie. But I think we can all benefit from empowered Jewish communities.

To learn more about how that might work, I suggest you buy the book.

Posted on February 26, 2010

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Wise Fridays: Young Leadership

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wise fridays: sharpen the   reception on your WiFri

The Jewish people, ever since David slew Goliath, have never considered youth as a barrier to leadership.
–John F. Kennedy
Find more Wise Fridays wisdom on MJL.

Posted on February 26, 2010

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A Travel Tip

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In his last posts, David Rosenberg, whose latest books are A Literary Bible: An Original Translation and An Educated Man: A Dual Biography of Moses and Jesus, wrote about the possibility of a Judeo-Christianity bookstore section and writing about writers. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

A little gem, the Hotel St. Michel is where we used to stay before we moved down to Florida. It was recommended by poet Yehuda Amichai, who called it “old Tel Avivi.” Around the corner from Books&Books, the most author-centric store in Florida, its owner, along with the manager of the St. Michel, both friends, teamed up to provide a copy of A Literary Bible: An Original Translation for each hotel room, in lieu of a Gideon’s Bible. (You can google the Miami Herald story.) Although I’d rather recommend the original hotels in Tel Aviv (and wish we were there, too), my point is that literary risk-taking is somewhat out of fashion. It’s stuck to the page, not to real life; it’s not to be found in Bible-less hotels. It’s even hard to imagine anything you can put into a memoir that would seem risky these days; for instance, a literal Oedipus-complex confession—sleeping with mother and killing father—is rather routine, and probably wouldn’t get you on Oprah. The real life of the author is most often bought and spent in university classrooms, so a real risk might be to imagine the ivory tower as nightmare or Kafka’s castle. We’re still waiting for that.

In a recent piece in the L.A. Times, the wonderful writer Dani Shapiro describes “the writer’s apprenticeship” as a soulless slog through “uncertainty, rejection, and disappointment.” Still, although there’s a safety net in academe, Shapiro neglects to mention it, arguing that lawyers and doctors have it easier upon graduation, while “writing school guarantees [writers] little other than debt.” If that were all too true, we might get some riskier writing—and thinking about writing—that walks the edge of financial ruin. Writing that goes against the grain, like the Bible’s Psalm 6, where the poet finds himself in the gutter through no fault of drugs or crime. The authenticity of his or her voice is so startling because the reader who is appealed to is something completely other—God or a soul. What kind of a writer is that, who can create such soul-shaking contrasts

I’d say he was a lost writer, deeply lost to our culture. A biblical writer whose original Hebraic culture has been erased by tradition, but that a love of real history can begin to restore. Not long ago, after the Holocaust, not only individuals had been erased but also European Jewish culture. And far deeper into the past, after the destruction by the Assyrians of the first Jewish kingdom, the fountainhead of Hebraic culture and its great writers—fundamental to Western art—were erased. So I would ask: Should restoration not be properly called “the Jewish art?” And should not the ironies of loss, as in the Prophets and the great Jewish moderns, be called “Jewish Soul?”

Furthermore, doesn’t the writer of today need the lost Hebraic culture as classical bedrock for contemporary imagination? And isn’t Western culture today, as it is built upon the Renaissance of ancient Greco-Roman culture, or humanism, missing its counterpart: a classic Hebraic culture in need of restoration? If we call it “Judeo-Christianity,” can it become vital again? Or, as David Gelernter responded to me: “If the author of Job were named Sophocles, our whole understanding of classical antiquity and Western civilization would be different.”

I’ve also had a dialogue on this with poet Reginald Gibbons, who teaches classics at Northwestern and who has recently published a translation of Sophocles’ poems, many of them extracted from his dramas. You make a case for the sensibility of Sophocles, I said to Reg, and you’re able to locate it in both the poems and the dramas. Yet when it comes to the Bible, the assertion of an author’s sensibility is considered chutzpah. Instead, it is all explained away as aspects of the “text,” not of human beings.

“Now imagine that there was no Sophocles,” I continued, “but only an anonymous author to the poems you translated. Imagine too that the age of composition, not to mention the methods, was in doubt over a six century span. And further, imagine that Sophocles was mixed in with Euripides, Aristophanes, Plato, Sappho,, with no names, and that it was all considered part of ‘the biblical tradition.’ So you begin to have an idea of what happened to the Hebraic classical period in retrospect, to the degree that a tradition of pious anonymity was invented to take its place.”

And here is one vivid example from the major reviews of the past few weeks: the current fiction bestseller, The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason, enters into the Homeric text at a level of psychological interaction (and reverence) that no secular Jewish writer is known to attempt with biblical text (as in the manner of passages in the Midrash). Surely Agnon, Singer and other lesser writers revere biblical “stories” and text, echoing and retelling, and there can be complexity and “spirit” there, but the complement of Hebraic culture is missing — not only the writers but their colleagues in other arts and ancient intellectual fields, including translators and historians.

Isaac Bashevis Singer tried to account for this—only half-humorously—in the disarming essay I barely coaxed out of him on Genesis (included in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible). Singer identified the Creator as the author of all of us, yet far from writing God out of the Bible, Singer put him more deeply inside, by empathizing with all the mishigas that the Creator endures, when it comes to humans as his collaborators. So there it is, Singer’s trace of lost Hebraic culture, the author-as-creator and the collaborators of history. Today, whatever meshuganah misinterpreters of our own work that we writers have to endure, according to Singer, it’s nothing compared to Genesis, let alone what came after.

An Educated Man, as in my biblical translation of A Literary Bible, I hoped to build upon Singer’s intuition and evoke the sensibilities of our original Jewish writers. By considering the biblical figures of Moses and Jesus (and the historical authors behind them) as seriously as we consider major writers today, I’m perhaps risking too much. But it’s a risk like a wish: Philip Rieff’s posthumous wish for a bridge of reading between the sacred text and the secular.

So how do you encourage risk—as a writing instructor might wonder—without danger? You can make risk “successful” by turning it into a critique of success, constantly testing it. We have only to look at the Israelis, to consider how any Israeli in their lifelong army service has assimilated risk into his or her normal life. An Israeli “writer” transcends genre: she can be a software writer as well as a poet, yet in either case failure is honored, as it is in the sciences, when a greater success is risked—as it is often in the name of survival. We in North America now seem to honor success in the arts first and foremost; we may have lost our taste for risky failures. Consider the Israeli poet Michal Govrin’s latest book, And So Said Jerusalem: Poems and Hymns, (Hebrew), published by Devarim/Carmel. It comes complete with subtle drawings by Orna Millo and an attached CD of Michal reading her work. That CD is necessary because her voice risks the allegory of the “Voice of Jerusalem” speaking, echoing the biblical voices of Rachel’s lament, for instance—but more importantly, in Michal’s own physical presence suggesting the flesh and blood Jerusalem authorship of the Bible. I believe she succeeds, though the risk itself is breathtaking enough.

Finally, I’m ready to answer the question I posed in my last post. What we should expect of a general reader’s education is no more nor less than a religious believer expects from the Biblical text: truth, honor, art. The difference for the secular reader may be simply that we tolerate failure to a greater degree. And yet that is something we can transform into sublimely human experience when we risk imagining the struggles of the original writers of the Bible. But allow me to leave you with a travel tip: check your hotel drawer and prepare to deal with failure, whether a Bible is missing or it is there, complete with the buried authors.

Read Jonathan Kirsch’s review of Rosenberg’s An Educated Man in the Jewish Journal here.

David Rosenberg’s newest books, A Literary Bible: An Original Translation and An Educated Man: A Dual Biography of Moses and Jesus, are now available. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Posted on February 26, 2010

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Holy Hot Pants

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Yes, I have several Mormon friends, and yes, they do make fun of each other for wearing what the more playful adherents of their religion have dubbed holy underpants.

The link between ritual undergarments and religious purity didn’t start with Joseph Smith. In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, there’s an extensive description of exactly what clothes — material, color, and otherwise — the High Priest should wear:

Exodus 28:2 And thou shalt make holy garments for Aaron thy brother, for splendour and for beauty. 3 And thou shalt speak unto all that are wise-hearted, whom I have filled with the spirit of wisdom, that they make Aaron’s garments to sanctify him, that he may minister unto Me in the priest’s office. 4 And these are the garments which they shall make: a breastplate, and an ephod, and a robe, and a tunic of chequer work, a mitre, and a girdle; and they shall make holy garments for Aaron thy brother, and his sons, that he may minister unto Me in the priest’s office. 5 And they shall take the gold, and the blue, and the purple, and the scarlet, and the fine linen.

The Torah goes even further, and actually discusses what type of undergarments the High Priest should wear. Earlier this week, when I was reading the daily Torah portion, my mind was blown, and — as per norma — I ran to my wife, who grew up Hasidic. As per norma, she laughed at me. What kind of a Jew am I, not knowing about holy underpants?

(28:42) You shall also make for them linen pants to cover their nakedness; they shall extend from the hips to the thighs. They shall be worn by Aaron and his sons when the enter the Tent of Meeting or when they approach the altar to officiate in the sanctuary, so that they do not incur punishment and die. It shall be a law for all time for him and for his offspring to come.

“What kind of pants start at your hips and go to your thighs?” I said. “That sounds like hot pants.”

“They’re underwear,” said my wife, totally calmly, as if this sort of confusion happens to us on a daily basis — which, by a much looser definition, it might. We don’t always talk about holy underwear, but we did have a conversation the other day about why our kid frequently wears underpants on her head.

I did some digging and checked around with the commentators. They all seemed to be in agreement: this was, indeed, the Tabernacle’s modernized version of a fig leaf. Rashi notes that Moses is commanded by G*d to suit up Aaron and his sons in their ritual uniforms, which includes this; a bunch of other commentators say that, because of the placement of the verse in the flow of the Torah (this particular item of clothing is listed last, after the commandment is given), Moses was not required to dress them in these particular lederhoisen. Ohr HaTorah, another Torah commentator, adds, “Were not Aaron and his sons perfectly capable of putting on their own underwear?” It’s as near verbatim as the translation lets me get.

So, there you go. Jews and hot pants — we did it first.

And, while my G-dcast co-producers and I didn’t peek beneath the holy vestments, we outlined basically everything else from the parsha in this week’s episode. Just in case, you know, you ever get appointed High Priest and the invitation didn’t include a dress code.

Parshat Tetzaveh from
More Torah cartoons at

Posted on February 26, 2010

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Merry Purim to All

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

I don’t know where this picture came from, but it’s doing the email rounds. If anyone has any background on who took it, pass the word to me and I’ll give due attribution (and either a high five or an air-high five, depending who you are). It reminds me of my yeshiva, which was in a tiny Sephardic synagogue in Jerusalem. One day they bought a reel of red-and-green plastic lights attached by green wire. They strung it around the ark, not realizing at all that they were meant to be hung on a Christmas tree.

santa claus in meah shearim on purim

Posted on February 25, 2010

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And Who Said No One Likes Cantorial Music?

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I guess people like Jackie Mason. Good for them? I’m not really sure what the appeal is, nor do I think anyone really cares what his political views are.

But sometimes, the guy is just too funny. I mean, not on purpose, but funny nonetheless. Mason, who has a blog, which I can only assume he has so he has an excuse to wear makeup, posted a pretty amazing video bashing my man, Barack Obama and his liberal friends.

But that’s old news. Mason has been bashing the Democrats for years! Oh, but has he ever done it to the tune of some old school cantorial music? I’m shocked this video only has 1,800 views. I thought Mason was a star!

Please enjoy.

Posted on February 25, 2010

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Sympathy Fast for Esther

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Today is the Fast of Esther, the fast that comes the day before Purim, since Purim is happening two days from now.

Uh, whut!?

In the story of Purim, before Queen Esther goes to talk to her husband, she fasts for three days. Which might sound weird, but who am I to judge other people’s relationships? Then again, I’ve fastingnever had to ask my spouse for a favor as big as stopping the genocide of an entire people…so I really don’t have much perspective on the situation. Anyway, in honor of her fast, we fast today.

There are some minor fasts that get passed by or dismissed when other circumstances intervene — anyone who’s supposed to fast for the Fast of the Firstborn but attends a joyous occasion is exempt from fasting. There are also a bunch of laws about when you’re not allowed to fast, too — which might be a surprise to people who think that Judaism throws so many of these no eating/no listening to music/no using electricity days at us. Fasting on Shabbat and holidays, for instance, is forbidden. You’re also not supposed to fast coming into Shabbat — so Fridays are out as well.

Which is how we end up preempting the Fast of Esther for two days.

And how I ended up having a huge bag of jalapeno potato chips sitting on my desk that I was going to finish for breakfast today, thinking, “Gee, it’s great that Purim isn’t for another couple of days”…and getting, so to speak, foiled again.

Posted on February 25, 2010

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The OTHER Jew in Ice Dancing

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Ah yes. Everyone is paying attention to the Israeli ice dancers because they dressed like Jews and danced to Hava Nagila on Sunday night. I really wasn’t planning on writing about them because I didn’t think you wanted to hear me rant about how terrible they were. Don’t wanna go bashing the Israelis now (Yeah, yeah. They were cute, beautiful, etc. Got it).

But why focus on the Israelis when we can chat about a winner! Well, not a winner. But in the Olympics, for some reason, we praise the guy who came in second place. And this year, ice dancing’s “winner” (code word for second place) was a Jew. Yeah! Go Charlie White!

But I cannot take the credit for finding this out. Last week, WAY before he won his medal, our friends at were covering his story. What fascinates me most about him is that he is 22, and he has been dancing with his partner since 1997. If I was any good at math, I’d be able to tell you how young he was when they started dancing together. Yeah…Charlie! You’re a baller!

Congrats to him and (I guess) the Israeli team.

Posted on February 24, 2010

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VeNahafoch Hu: The Force of Creative Destruction

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Purim is a celebration of reversals. The Book of Esther, which is traditionally read twice on the holiday, states in Chapter 9 verse 1:

Now in the twelfth month, which is the month Adar, on the thirteenth day of the same, when the king’s commandment and his decree drew near to be put in execution, in the day that the enemies of the Jews hoped to have rule over them; whereas it was turned to the contrary, that the Jews had rule over them that hated them.

This notion, of things being turned on their heads, called “venahafoch hu” in Hebrew, is at the core of this lively, raucous little holiday. The very purpose of our celebrating is intertwined with this overturning “from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a holiday” (Esther 9:22). As Rabbi Irving Greenberg  puts it in his essay “Confronting Jewish Destiny: Purim,” in his book The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays:

Part of the dizzying paradox of Purim is the extraordinary and capricious reversals it reflects. Vashti is deposed as queen for showing modesty. Esther wins favor for the queenship because of her modesty…Mordecai, in one day, is raised from gallows candidate to prime minister. The very name of the holiday – Purim (meaning lottery) – suggests the absurdity and vulnerability of historical events when a turn of the wheel, a night’s insomnia, a moment of jealousy on the part of a drunken king, spells the difference between degradation and exaltation, between genocide and survival.

On Purim, we wear costumes, get drunk, and let go of the daily inhibitions – the cloak of order – that characterizes our lives, in order to acknowledge that our lives can change on a dime, and that a situation that looks devastating and grim can in fact become uplifting and celebratory.

But what is lurking beneath this notion of “venahafoch hu?” And what does it have to teach us, as a Jewish community, about our relationship to innovation and change, and those who turn, and sometimes overturn, the strictures of our community?

The Jewish Bible uses the term “hafach,” often translated as “turned,” in a number of different ways. Often, it is used to convey a reversal from one state to its opposite state, as in the case of the Megillah, or, as in Deuteronomy 33:6, “God turned the curse into a blessing for you.” It is also used to indicate any change, and not always necessarily as predictable as from a state to its opposite. Exodus tells of Moses’ staff, which turned into a snake (7:15) and of the water in the Nile river, which turned to blood (7:17), and the psalmist reminds us of God’s having turned the rock into a pool of water (Psalms 114:8).

The term is also used to convey destruction, as in Jonah’s warning to the people of Ninveh: “Another forty days and Ninveh shall be overturned” (Jonah 3:4). This is not only a change from one state to another, but a change from a state of order to a state of chaos, from civilization to destruction. And, finally, the term is used, simply, to convey movement. Lamentations refers to the heart that spins and turns within our midst (1:20), and Genesis describes the Garden of Eden as being guarded by the cherubim, holding a flaming sword “turning every which way” (3:24). This is not simply motion, but implies a spinning that is just barely in control, hovering at the edge of turmoil.

On Purim, then, we are not simply acknowledging that despair can turn to joyous exaltation. That is merely the tip of the Purim iceberg. The holiday, in fact, is intensely sobering. It reminds us that the world is spinning beyond our control, and, despite what we think, we cannot predict its direction, nor can we be certain that it won’t spin into a state of total destruction. This, perhaps, is why joy must be dictated during this month: mishenichnas Adar marbim be’simcha – when the month of Adar arrives we abound in joy (Talmud Megillah 29a) – because it is counter-intuitive to face the notion of “venahafoch hu” and to celebrate.

Perhaps this understanding of Purim can shed light on the Jewish community’s complex relationship to its innovators.

Our innovators keep us spinning. Paul Light, in his article “Social Entrepreneurship Revisited” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, describes social entrepreneurship as “a wave of creative destruction that remakes society.” Innovators are involved in all levels of the “venahafoch hu” process, changing things from one state to another, sometimes to their opposite states, and keeping the world in motion, even sending it into turmoil. Jewish social entrepreneurs, as they spin and blow through the community, hover on the brink of overturning the Jewish world as we know it.

The field of Jewish innovation, like the holiday of Purim, may appear celebratory and joyous on its surface. It marks the possibility of renewal, which, in the Jewish community, ultimately means survival. But, like Purim, there are cold depths beneath this surface. There is something profoundly threatening about the field.

New Jewish ideas and institutions often, and sometimes by definition, threaten traditional modes of operating and thinking in the Jewish world. In creating something new, Jewish social entrepreneurs sometimes destroy the old. In painting a new portrait of our community, they sometimes eradicate the faces and images that have defined us over time.

This Purim, perhaps our challenge as a community is to approach this field of innovation, this realm of “venahafoch hu,” with the same simultaneously tremulous and unwavering joy we bring into the month of Adar. Light writes: “social entrepreneurs are driven by a persistent, almost unshakable optimism.” This attitude of hope in the face of potential adversity is a very Jewish notion, one of which we are reminded during the month of Adar.

When we face the spinning world, the possibility of unending turmoil and the potential destruction of all that we hold dear, we are reminded to approach it with joy and hope, with an eye towards redemption and possibility, with merry-making and feasting. With a celebration of our innovators, and the belief that, ultimately, when the book ends, we will have survived, flourished, thrived, and come out stronger for all the motion.

Maya Bernstein works as the Director of Education for UpStart Bay Area, which supports Jewish innovation in the Bay Area. She blogs regularly for Lilith Magazine and, where this essay is cross-posted. 

Posted on February 24, 2010

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Explaining Kashrut to an Ignoramus

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“You know I don’t eat kosher food,” my friend David responded when I asked him if he wanted to come over for fresh-baked brownies. Um, FAIL.

When I asked David (who isn’t Jewish, by the way) about his no-kosher food policy he said that he heard kosher food tastes different. He explained that he likes “regular food.” But he added, “I like bagels, though. Those are kosher, right?”
Suddenly, I had to figure out how to explain the laws of kashrut to someone who was woefully misinformed. And though I wanted to just sit David down in front of a computer and pull up MJL’s Kashrut section, he was not interested in reading anything. It was time to see if I could condense all of Judaism’s dietary laws into a 45 second synopsis.

Here’s what I said: The Torah contains laws about the things we cannot eat, like pigs, for instance. If something doesn’t contain anything that’s not allowed, then it’s okay, or kosher. That is, kashrut is really the absence of anything problematic. When someone tells you they only eat kosher food they’re really saying they don’t eat unkosher food. Packaged food that’s marked as kosher does not contain any special ingredients, and doesn’t get blessed by a rabbi. Instead, the facilities where the food is made or packaged are checked by people trained in Jewish law to make sure that nothing non-kosher is getting into the food.

I think I did okay, in the end, but David still, of course, has a lot to learn. More than anything, I found I was really shocked at just how ignorant so many people still are about the laws of kashrut.

I was reminded of this today when Jeremy sent me a link to the Midtown Lunch blog, which this week profiles a woman who keeps kosher. The woman doesn’t seem like a very adventurous eater, but what’s really amazing are the comments on the post, which range from David’s level of ignorance, to overt anti-Semitism. Gah!

Posted on February 24, 2010

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