Monthly Archives: May 2010

Shavuot Calorie Counter

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

Say hello to the fun police!

While you might love Shavuot for all of the amazing dairy sweets that you will eat over the next few days, here is a just a reminder to all the people who are dieting. As much as you and I might love this holiday, it is not the healthiest.

So without further adieu, here are some quick calorie facts (according to for your favorite Shavuot treats:

– Cheesecake: 350 calories

– Low fat cheesecake: 200 calories

– 2 cheese blintzes: 320 calories

– Lox/bagel/cream cheese: 600 calories

– Vanilla ice cream (1/2 cup): 137 calories

– Lasagna: 1050 calories

– Noodle kugel: 300 calories

Enjoy your run on Saturday!

Posted on May 18, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Last Minute Rugelach Deliciousness

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

It’s only a few hours until Shavuot, so now is the best time to share with you my new recipe for Rhubarb Rugelach. I came up with the recipe because I had extra rhubarb left over from Shabbat and Holy God are they good. Not too sweet, with a tart and tangy kick, they completely knocked my socks off. The recipe was an experiment, really, but now I can’t wait to make them again. And again and again and again.

Also, now I just want to add rhubarb to everything. Does anyone know of a good rhubarb pancake recipe? Rhubarb French Toast sounds like it would be awesome, too. And I even have rhubarb syrup, which combined with rum and seltzer make an amazing mixed drink.

Have a happy (and rhubarb-filled) Shavuot!

Posted on May 18, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

DIY Challah Cover

This entry was posted in Holidays, Parenting on by .

One week when I was living in Dublin I went to a party in a professor’s apartment on a Friday night. It was a potluck, so I made challah and brought it. The (non-Jewish) professor saw the challah and said, “Oh hey, I found a knife in the kitchen [he was subletting another professor's apartment] that I think might have Hebrew on it.” So he brings out this bread knife and it says Likhvod Shabbat [To Honor Shabbat] on it in Hebrew. And even though I might have been the only Jew there, we all said hamotzi together, and I sliced the challah with the knife.

Adorable, right?

That’s my favorite challah-themed anecdote. Another favorite is how my family made our own patchwork challah cover. Using scraps of fabric left over from Purim costumes, old t-shirts, and an heirloom blanket that had some unfortunate holes due to moths, my mom sewed together a mini-patchwork quilt. In the middle she painted the word Shabbat with fabric paint and voila–a challah cover with family history. In fact, that challah cover became so popular that we demanded she make another one so we’d be able to share them when we grew up and wanted to take them with us. We made those covers in 1994 and I still use mine all the time.

Posted on May 17, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Innovating to Preserve Tradition

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

Lisa Lepson, the Executive Director of the Joshua Venture group, writes in her piece “Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow:”

The Judaism that is evolving before our eyes isn’t really new or innovative. In fact, the whole concept of evolution is at the core of Judaism. What our social entrepreneurs are doing is making tradition relevant to us once more, fusing them with contemporary values and bestowing upon them new life. They are leading a vibrant “re-generation” of our cultural and spiritual heritage.

The holiday of Shavuot, a pillar in the Pilgrimage Festival series that also includes Passover and Sukkot, illustrates the Jewish dance between innovation and tradition, and embodies the concept of “making tradition relevant to us once more.”

The holiday has multiple names, revealing its multiple identities. Shavuot, which means “weeks,” refers to the fact that the holiday takes place seven weeks after the beginning of Passover (Deuteronomy 16:9 – 12); the Torah tells us to count from the time of the barley, or Omer, harvest, until the time of the wheat harvest, which we celebrate on Shavuot. The holiday is also called Chag HaBikkurim (Numbers 28:26), the Festival of the First Fruits. This time of year marked the ripening of Israel’s first fruits, and the Mishnah in Tractate Bikkurim describes how people from all over Israel marched to Jerusalem with their fruits in beautiful baskets to give to the priest in the Temple. Shavuot is also known as Chag HaKatzir, the Festival of the Harvest (Exodus 23: 16), since Shavuot marks the summer harvest in Israel.

Interestingly, none of these names reflects what we actually celebrate on Shavuot today. Yes, we continue to count the days from Passover to Shavuot, and refer to it as Sefirat HaOmer, the counting of the Omer, but most Jews have no idea when the barley or wheat harvest is in the land of Israel, and what, if anything, it has to do with Shavuot. What, instead, do we celebrate? Here’s where Shavuot, cloaked in an entirely new name, emerges with its new identity: Chag Matan Torateinu – the Festival of the Giving of our Torah.

We celebrate the receiving of the Torah, though nowhere in the Torah does it explicitly say that this holiday has anything to do with Torah. We speak of counting-down the days from our liberation from the bondage of Egypt to our time of true freedom, when we committed ourselves to God’s law. In synagogue, we re-enact the experience at Sinai, decorating the synagogue with greenery, and standing, as the Israelites stood, when the Ten Commandments are read. We have a custom to stay up all night engaged in Torah study, to make up for the fact that the Israelites overslept on the morning of Matan Torah. And, in all of the Shavuot liturgy, the holiday is referred to as “zman matan Torateinu,” the time of the giving of the Torah, to reinforce this identity of the holiday.

Where did this name, and this aspect of the holiday, which has completely replaced the Torah’s description of what we should be celebrating, come from? A group of social entrepreneurs, otherwise known as the Tanaim – the group of Rabbis who were forced to grapple with the challenges that emerged for the Jewish community after the destruction of the Second Temple.

Unlike the other pilgrimage festivals, Shavuot is completely land-dependent. On Sukkot, no matter where Jews reside, they can build a Sukkah and wave the four species, as dictated by the Torah. On Passover, matzah can be prepared and eaten anywhere. But the Rabbis quickly became aware that when Jews were uprooted from the land and deprived of the Temple and its rituals, Shavuot would, as Rabbi Irving Greenberg writes in his book The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays, “have withered on the vine.” They therefore, creatively, and with deep grounding in tradition, wove a new identity for this holiday, an identity which, essentially, allowed them engage in the radical act of transforming a sacred tradition. They hi-lighted the calculation that the Torah must have been given approximately seven weeks after the Exodus from Egypt, and inspired the Jewish people to re-imagine the count-down from the barley sacrifice to the wheat sacrifice as a countdown from the Exodus to the full redemption – the receiving of the Torah.

According to Jewish tradition, God gave Moses the Torah in two forms – the written form and the oral form – Torah She’Bichtav, and Torah She’b’al Peh. One, etched in stone, was revered as God’s own words, given to Israel to guide and direct them. The other, by definition malleable and in constant flux, was a system of translating, interpreting, and making those words meaningful. According to the Rabbinic tradition, the realm of the oral Torah should have stayed oral, open to reinterpretation. It was never to have been written down: “R. Aba son of R. Hiya son of Aba said in the name or R. Yochanan: Those who write halachot (laws of the oral Torah) are like those who burn the Torah, and one who learns from them receives no reward.”  (Babylonian Talmud, Temurah 14b). The Rabbis feared that if the realm of the oral crossed into the realm of the written, it would devalue both realms, cheapening the eternal sacredness of the written Torah, and etching in stone that which should have been more informal and ephemeral in nature.

And yet, necessity demanded that the oral law be written down; later on in the same excerpt from the Talmud, the Rabbis conclude that “it is better for Torah to be uprooted than for Torah to be forgotten in Israel.” Their argument is profound: it is better to change the very nature of our system, the very essence of our traditions, in order to preserve that system, and maintain those traditions.

This concept is what the Rabbis are asking us to celebrate on Shavuot. When we observe this traditional, Torah-based holiday in this radically non-traditional, oral-law based way, calling the holiday by the name the Torah has given it, and celebrating it as the Rabbis re-imagined it, we are celebrating the paradox that is our religion. We are celebrating the complex, intertwined system of the oral and written traditions, and acknowledging that, in Judaism, the very purpose of innovation is to preserve that which is traditional and sacred, which in turn actually requires that the very nature of the tradition must be flexible and malleable.

This Rabbinic tradition is being carried out by today’s Jewish social entrepreneurs. The challenge we all face as a community is to ensure that our innovations are indeed preserving our traditions, and that those cultivating innovations have the respect, depth of knowledge, and humility to engage in this sacred dance.

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

Posted on May 17, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

First Person Grief

This entry was posted in Life on by .

Last year I wrote a lot about my experiences mourning for my mother. It was an intense and exhausting year, and it still feels very raw to me, though her yahrzeit was in August. Last night I was babysitting a baby who threw up, and then was given the baby equivalent of Ensure. When my mom was sick she was constantly vomiting and then I would give her an Ensure or a Boost to make sure she didn’t lose all of the calories. The child I was caring for was fine, but I the whole scene was a real trigger for me of all of the painful times immediately before and after her death.

Grave image of tree being cut down too early

A gravestone in a Jewish cemetery in Suriname shows a tree being cut down too early.

I knew all along that grieving was a long term thing, but I don’t think I realized how it creeps up on you the way it did last night, leaving me in tears as I tried to clean up a baby and a high chair.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about grief because I read a wonderful interview in the Philadelphia Jewish Voice about a family coping with the loss of their teenage daughter. The interview talks about a lot of the tough choices we make in the immediate aftermath of a loss, and also the helpful and hurtful things people say and do.

Rabbi Milgram: First, let’s talk about what kind of support those experiencing such a trauma need, then how you resolved the Jewish ritual and ethical issues.

Amy: The hardest thing for me was, and is, people giving advice, often unwanted, about how and how long we should grieve and what is considered normal. The victim’s unit of the state police was ineffective; the only resource they left us with was information about a self help group that meets once a month. Friends and family were very helpful in driving us where we needed to go and easing our burdens, but we also needed someone who could understand what we were going through. The woman assigned to us from the victim’s unit was young and didn’t have children. How could she possibly even begin to understand how parents feel when they learn they must outlive their child? This isn’t something we can get over or recover from; our anguish is a reflection of our love.

Jewish tradition provides an important framework for grief: seven days, then thirty, then a year. It at least allows us a way to see our way from one day to another. If you are suffering in pain, you want to know when it will end. The pain of the loss of a child doesn’t ever end, but the spaces between periods of wrenching agony do become longer. The indescribable pain of losing a child is equal in intensity to our love for her or him.

Professionals and non-professionals said such thoughtless things to us, so hurtful and insensitive. Shauna had an accident; there was no alcohol, no distractions. She made a bad turn on a wet road and died in a car crash that no one witnessed. It was just a horrible mistake.

Rabbi Milgram: You needed immediate support, compassionate listening, someone’s full attention, not advice. You were in no position to help family, friends or neighbors to integrate their own difficult reactions either. Do I have that right?

Amy: Exactly. My family now lives daily with death; it has become a part of who we are. We have seen both the good and bad in people. Many want to distance themselves, telling themselves that this couldn’t happen to them. It is understandable, but we do live in a world where terrible things happen, often in just an instant. On the other hand, there are many who have embraced our family and our pain, and it means so much. How we treat mourners is a reflection of what kind of society we live in. Unfortunately, on this aspect, Americans do not score well.

Read the full interview here.

Posted on May 14, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Best of the Week

This entry was posted in General on by .

We are almost at my favorite holiday of the year. That’s right! July 4th is less than two months away. I can barely contain myself. AND my favorite Jewish holiday of the year is in less than a week. Woohoo! Go Shavuot! Dairy! Only two days! Beginning of summer! You’re amazing, boo.

Before we get to all things Shavuot, read our really cool new article about using a Mikveh. I’ve never actually been inside a mikveh, but I did go a dish mikveh once. One of the weirder, more fascinating destinations in the Jewish world. There is nothing like ritually bathing a bread plate. Made me feel holier than on Yom Kippur.

On to Shavuot. Did I mention it’s my favorite holiday? Because it is. Read all about why we eat dairy, and why so many Jews are lactose intolerant. There must be a correlation.

On the first night of Shavuot, you are supposed to stay up all night studying. Now here is my question. The Lost producers claimed that they knew from the very beginning what the show would be about and where it was going to end. So are you telling me that they purposely planned the second to last episode ever when they KNEW I would be in synagogue? If so, I’m angry. Very, very angry.

Hope you all have a good Shabbat and a good weekend!

Posted on May 14, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Wise Fridays: On Suffering

This entry was posted in Beliefs on by .

wise fridays: sharpen the     reception on  your WiFri

Rabbi Yochanan once became ill, and Rabbi Hanina went to visit him. He asked him, “Are your sufferings welcome to you?” Rabbi Yochanan replied, “Neither they nor their reward.”

–Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 5b

Find more Wise Fridays wisdom on MJL.

Posted on May 14, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Kosher Texting

This entry was posted in Culture, Practices on by .

Sometimes I’ll see a link to a website and just assume that it will be terrible. And most of the time I’m correct. Today though, I was only half-right.

There are many hilarious elements to the website,

1) It exists. I can’t believe this is a real website.

2) It is .org and not .com. I thought .orgs were usually reserved for websites that you should be taking seriously. I still haven’t determined whether or not wants to be taken seriously. I sure hope they do.

3) They have a fake advertisement for something called “Rabbi Survivor.” If you think I wouldn’t go to rabbinical school just so I could be a contestant on this, then you don’t know how much I love Survivor.

But what got my attention was their page on “Kosher Texting.” Now, I’m not sure the word kosher is the appropriate way to describe it. Maybe just “Jewish Texting” would work better, but I’m no ad wizard.

I was surprised that I actually laughed at a couple of their examples. Namely, GFS (Gone for Shabbos), 2MN (Double Mitzvah Night), NAMN (Need a Minyan Now), and, of course, my favorite, RU/C (Are You a Kohen).

As much as I don’t want to laugh at dumb Jewish jokes, sometimes, for some weird reason, they still get me.

Posted on May 14, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

What Shavuot Teaches Us About Women

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit

The first verse of Megillat Ruth reads like the headlines of a tragic and all-too-familiar news story. The defective and unstable government of the judges leads to famine. Bethlehem—the city of bread—becomes the city of starvation. Lack of food security results inevitably in forced migration—a journey of sorrow characterized by homelessness, vulnerability, health risks and ultimately, death.

The second verse of Megillat Ruth reminds us that famine, forced migration and their associated risks are not only the stuff of this particular story, but are perennial struggles in the Torah: Mention of Efrat calls to mind the tragic death of Rachel when fleeing from Lavan (Genesis 35:16); Elimelekh’s name evokes that of Avimelekh, the king of Gerar—villain of the famines and consequent wanderings that threatened the patriarchs and matriarchs (Genesis 20 and 26). Hunger and homelessness are not one-time events of the megillah, nor the lot of strangers in a distant land; rather, Megillat Ruth reminds us that they are part of our national heritage during the periods in which we have lacked just and effective rule.

But the megillah also suggests a solution to this recurring plight: the inclusion of women in the work of building a strong family, society and the eventual establishment of good government. Ruth’s selfless heroics bring salvation not only to herself, her mother-in-law Naomi and her family, but also to the Jewish people as a whole. By leaving everything she knows behind and courageously starting a new family, Ruth turns catastrophe into a vibrant future. By giving birth to Oved (Ruth 4:17), the grandfather of David, Ruth paves the way for the Davidic dynasty—a government of “justice and righteousness” (II Samuel 8:15) that not only represents the kingdom of Heaven but also brings in its wake the ability for every individual to dwell “safely, each man under his grape vine and under his fig tree” (I Kings 5:5). At the hand of Ruth, famine has the potential to be abolished, replaced instead by security, sustainability and justice.

In taking on the unknown and forging a new nation, Ruth employs the tools available to a woman at the time—her sexuality and her fertility—to secure the future of the nation that she knows is her destiny. She descends to the threshing floor and challenges Boaz to break with accepted norms to marry a Moabite and become her partner in nation-building. By both working within and challenging the norms of her society, she proposes inclusion as a model for communal advancement.

Pulitzer Prize-winning writers Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn advance a similar thesis in their recent book, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. According to them, in many Global South communities women are considered among the most effective changemakers, perhaps because they are able to shift the trajectory of their societies from within the home—as Ruth did.

Empowering fellow women and advancing their status not only frees women from oppression, but also allows them to—as the authors put it—“hold up their half of the sky,” contributing to their nations’ overall economic growth. Money in the hands of women, Kristof and WuDunn suggest, is also more likely to be directed to family welfare, nutrition and education than that earned by their male counterparts. And including women at all levels of society has been demonstrated to reduce conflict and strengthen stable governments—both of which the Bible tells us are so essential to personal security. Thus, empowering women is perhaps the single most important factor in improving the situation of a community as a whole.

Megillat Ruth is a precursor to this idea, demonstrating that the visionaries who transform societies need not be kings, strong male leaders or even patriarchs. Indeed, the book makes repeated parallels between Ruth and Judaism’s founding father, Abraham, suggesting that her role is equally important as his in forging a strong future. Both are characterized by tremendous chesed—kindness; and both are portrayed as courageous migrants who leave the land of their fathers to embark on unknown journeys for the sake of God and the Jewish people. By replacing the archetypal patriarch with a woman in this story, Megillat Ruth reminds us of the “half the sky” that is borne by women, and gives hope that by including women at all levels of society, a familiar script can be rewritten.

Posted on May 14, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Never Met Peter Chamor

This entry was posted in Practices on by .

I got a pretty strange text today: “What is Peter Chamor? And why are donkeys dressed up?” Obviously, my response was exactly what anybody else would have responded with: “What are you talking about?”

It turns out that I’m not as learned in weird Jewish customs that I thought I was. Because, the word isn’t Peter, like “my uncle Peter.” It is actually “PEH-ter,” the Hebrew for initiation. With that much knowledge, I could figure out that this question was “What is a donkey initiation?”

But still, that is a pretty weird question to ask. So I did a little bit of googling and found out that I was not the first person to ask this. I came across this response from that gives a pretty good description of what can best be described as the Pidyon Haben for donkeys:

Peter Chamor is to first-born donkeys what Pidyon Haben is to first-born Jews. If the owner disowns ‘em, they go to the Temple. If he wants ‘em, he gives the Temple a sheep or goat instead. Positive Mitzvah #81.

Before “holy cow!” there was “holy donkey!” This mitzvah distinguishes donkeys to pay tribute to their critical pack-animal role in the Egyptian Exodus.

How do I redeem my donkey?

1. Qualifying Criteria

Donkey must be the first born to Mr. and Mrs. Donkey. He must be male. He must be born naturally. He must belong to the Democratic Party. Just kidding. Owner must be an Israelite—Kohanim and Levites are exempt.

2. Hand it Over

Today, the kohen serves as donkey collector in the Temple’s stead. Give him a sheep or goat (as long as it’s not dead, slaughtered or Caesarian-born), and Donkey’s yours to keep.

3. Make a Statement

A special blessing is recited when the exchange animal is designated, even if it hasn’t yet been given to the kohen.

Now all I want is to buy a donkey. And I don’t want some second-rate middle child donkey. I need a first born!

Posted on May 13, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy