Category Archives: Practices

Where’s Your Tzedakah Box?

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It’s the end of the year and a lot of us are thinking about money—how much we can afford to spend on gifts, vacations, and charitable donations during this holiday season. Many Jewish homes have a tzedakah box in them, a little box with a slot on top for depositing coins and bills that will eventually be given to tzedakah.

Today, this seems like such an old fashioned way of doing things. I do have a bag of change on my dresser that I give to tzedakah once or twice a year, but honestly, I don’t have a tzedakah box per se. Anyway, most of the charitable donations I make are done via credit card and don’t involve any physical money at all.

So if tzedakah today doesn’t look like a tzedakah box, what does it look like? The American Jewish World Service just launched a new blog that talks about how and where and why people decide to give money to tzedakah. They’re also launching an amazing design competition, focused on philanthropy and social change. Where Do You Give? challenges artists to create a 21st century icon inspired by the values and imagery of the traditional Jewish tzedakah box. The organization is encouraging designers to consider the tzedakah box in the context of an increasingly interconnected, global and technologically accelerated world. The grand prize winner will receive $2,500 and a trip to visit AJWS’s partners in the Americas, Africa or Asia. Pretty sweet.

This is an awesome way to combine your love of design with you love of giving and doing good. To learn more about the competition, visit:

Posted on December 14, 2011

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Loneliness on the High Holidays

This entry was posted in Holidays, Practices on by .

One of my family’s traditions has always been to make sure to invite new people to our holiday meals every year. Just as there are many lonely people around the time of Thanksgiving and New Years, there are many lonely Jewish people around the time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The High Holidays come in the autumn, just after many people have moved to a new place for school or a job. Secular New Year, on Jan 1, is mostly artificial. There is not much that really starts anew every January 1st, but many things begin in the fall, around the time of Rosh Hashanah. And these new beginnings can be difficult, intimidating, trying, and they can make us lonely, especially when we’re away from our closest family and friends.

Think of Hagar, Abraham’s second wife, who we read about in the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Sent away from her home, she is adrift in the desert, with only her thirsty child. She is on the brink of death, and is only saved by a miracle. There are people like Hagar in your community—perhaps they aren’t homeless (though they might be) but they are adrift and lonely. Rosh Hashanah is a great time to reach out to new people, make a connection, and offer them a place at your holiday table. Not only is a it a great way to help someone, but it means you’ll be starting the Jewish year with a huge mitzvah already chalked under your name. What could be better?

Shanah tovah!

Posted on September 23, 2011

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Kosher Zombies & Vampires

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Are zombies kosher? Or, more specifically, can zombies keep kosher? Asks a friend, the amazing comic writer Ashley-Jane Nicolaus:

Long story short, a friend of mine moved to a new place next to a really really old Jewish cemetery – so that got us thinking, if the zombie apocalypse were to happen, are brains kosher? Inquiring minds need to know…

I’m no kosher expert, but a few decades of eschewing the swine have prepped me with a little background knowledge. Not to mention thoroughly geeking out with random books of Jewish law. So here’s the deal.

imaginary kosher animalsYou can actually eat the brains of a kosher animal. Well, some kosher animals. My mother-in-law (who, I should note, is a native Australian) LOVES cracking open fish skulls & sucking the brains out. (I’m a vegetarian & i think she does it to psyche me out. It doesn’t work.)

But that’s not what you want to know. If you want to know about zombies, you want to know about REAL HUMAN BRAINS. Well, humans — or any part thereof — is not permissible to eat, regardless of whether you’re talking about kosher-keeping humans or non. (You really wish that whoever started the blood libel rumors had Google access to give them a clue.) In order for any animal to be kosher, it has to have cloven hooves and chew its cud. So basically, if you’re a kosher zombie, you are screwed.

One additional consideration: Kosher vampires are screwed as well. In the process of making meat kosher, the animal’s body has to be completely drained of blood. So you know how, on Buffy, when Angel and Spike became good guys (or impotent), they had to drink the blood of animals? (Just kidding. You don’t actually need to know that.)* Animal blood is out, too. I suppose there’s a case to be made that, when a life is at stake,** Jewish laws such as kashrut don’t apply. Then again, zombies and vampires aren’t technically alive, are they?

If you’re curious for more, you should probably check out Are Dragons Kosher?

* — I believe a similar thing happened in Twilight, but I’ve mostly blacked it out.
** — Notice how I avoided a pun about stakes? Joss Whedon is rolling over in his grave.***
***– Apologies. I know Joss Whedon is not dead.

Posted on September 8, 2011

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Improving Moral Vocabulary

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Eric Greitens is the author of The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

In Tuesday’s post, I talked about how stories give us strength in trying times. Stories also have the power to repair and transform the reader and the writer.

The Jewish word tzedakah is usually translated as charity, but the word actually has a root that is closer to “justice,” and in this sense, tzedakah is understood not as something that is extra, but as something that is required. The allied Jewish concept of Gemilut Chasadim refers to the spirit in which the highest form of tzedakah is given, a spirit of all-loving kindness. We are required not only to repair the world and make it just, but we do this work best when we act with the spirit of loving-kindness.

We often live today with an impoverished moral vocabulary that limits our thinking about charity to questions about what we might do with our spare money, and our thinking about compassion to questions of what we might do with our spare time. If we give the resources of our time, our wisdom, and our wealth in the right way and at the right time, this can save lives. But there is a deeper power still. If we give in the spirit of loving-kindness practiced from one person to another, then we have tapped into an overwhelming power that can change our own lives just as we contribute service to others.

As a writer, the process of writing has allowed me to share stories of Marines hunting al Qaeda terrorists in Iraq and nuns who fed the destitute in Mother Teresa’s homes for the dying in India. Being able to relive these moments has enabled me to see how I’ve developed over the years. I’ve also had many readers tell me that the book has impacted them. Many have told me that they’ve been inspired to serve. And that, for me, is the most rewarding thing a writer can hear.

Eric Greitens’s newest book, The Heart and the Fist, is now available.

Posted on July 29, 2011

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Learning to Mourn

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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 blogWe 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.

Posted on July 21, 2011

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In Defense of Tzedakah

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In this post-Hebrew Hammer world of kitscharama, Jews have their own version of pretty much everything — from Jewish delis to Jewish dating sites and beyond. Case in point (today): the Jewish Groupon site And today’s deal has caused quite a stir:

$38.00 for 40 consecutive days of prayer by a Torah scholar at the Kotel ($95 value)

This was instantly blasted by people all over Internetland. Just on my Facebook channels, here are some of the highlights:

* A coupon for tzedakah? With an expiration date to boot!
* Please excuse me while I microwave my head.

…some of which were persuasive arguments:

Looks like we have a new forum for hawking yeshuot [healing prayers] and tzedakah. And if you read the background, it is worse than hawking tzedakah. Let someone else take over tefillah for you (I think tefillah is something that is difficult for many of us and that we could develop greater understanding and skill in), and believe that we are getting closer to Hashem while our “heart’s desire” is fulfilled.

The concept of having someone else pray for you isn’t a new one. Two of Jacob‘s sons, Zebulon and Yissachar, had wildly different talents — one was a businessman, one was a Torah nerd of considerable rapport; the businessman supported the Torah scholar, and both reaped the rewards. These days, a lot of people in the yeshiva (read: fundamentalist) world use that story as an excuse for not getting jobs and spending their whole lives learning Torah, which does. not. work. — at least within a paradigm of communal self-sufficiency — but I’d never tell someone not to give tzedakah, any sooner than I’d advise someone not to pray.

Yes, we should all pray. We should all give tzedakah, too. (As for what exactly counts as tzedakah, I’ll probably take on some of you in the comments, but a really fascinating article from Rabbi Jill Jacobs answers that question eloquently.)

I’m not gonna do this JDeal. I’ve got my own favorite tzedakah recipients (they fed me while I was a poor scrappy Mission kid, and continue to dish out free Shabbos meals to anyone who wants one), and I’d love to save up the money so that I can one day go back to my yeshiva in Israel and do my own studying.* But if there’s someone out there who can’t show up for synagogue three times a day to say kaddish — or who can’t pray on their own, for one reason or another — why not sponsor someone else to do it for you? It’s not as good as doing it yourself, but it certainly can’t hurt.

* — (plus, I’m holding out for JDeal to do another 2-for-1 offer at Basil Pizza Shop. Nudge, nudge!)

Posted on July 20, 2011

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How To Pray Jewishly

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I became Orthodox under the guidance of someone who advised me to run from it. Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel, the rabbi of the Kesher Israel Congregation in Washington D.C. — whose name you might recognize from the 2000 presidential election, when he was constantly quoted as “Joe Lieberman’s rabbi” and asked deeply-thought questions like, “If a nuclear war breaks out on Shabbat, will Senator Lieberman be allowed to help out in the ensuing battles?”

how to pray jewishIn addition to being a rabbi, he holds advanced degrees in chemistry and biology, and is a fiendishly rational thinker. While many people are attracted to religion through mystical stories and supernatural powers, for me the draw was the exact opposite. I was already totally nuts. I needed something to ground me, a rational set of rules to lead my life by. I started by going to Rabbi Freundel’s weekly halacha shiur — a three-hour class about everything from washing your hands before getting out of bed to whether one needs to tie tzitzit on a rain poncho to what happens if you start eating a ham sandwich, realize it’s not kosher, then get a craving for macaroni and cheese — are you allowed to? (Yes: because ham doesn’t fall under the category of kosher meat.) “Run the other way,” he said. “We are competists.” I’m a masochist. It just made me hungry for more.

Anyway. Rabbi Freundel has a new book, Why We Pray What We Pray, and it’s a doozy. The book is an excellent field guide to Jewish prayers, perhaps the most well-conceived and fully-realized book on the subject in English to come out in years. (And just so you don’t think my opinion is weighted, he is also the man who forced me to type up 112 pages of notes about tefillin. Five times.) What the book lacks in scope, it makes up in depth — choosing just six different prayers, giving their history, previous incarnations,

Which might sound boring under someone else’s wing. The first chapter is dedicated to the Shema — and Freundel picks apart its history step by step, discovering that, in its 3000-year lifespan, the prayer once included several other parts of the Torah — and things that didn’t even come from the Torah, including the second line of its present incarnation — as well as one whole Torah portion (this part was ultimately excised, on the grounds that it would take too damn long for normal people to get through) and the entirety of the Ten Commandments. Later chapters go through other prayers, some of which (like “Nishmat”) have just become known as long and sort of meandering in the present liturgy, others (such as “Alenu”) have become sing-songy and equally meaningless for us. This book is an adventure in the best way, a book that makes us love words again.

Reading Why We Pray, I sometimes wished that Freundel, and not some boring dictionary-like rabbi, wrote the lines of commentary underneath the prayers in my normal old prayerbook. Then I changed my mind. Those little two-line insights are good for ignoring on a day-to-day basis, and jumping right back into the prayerbook. These stories are at their best for actual reading, for paying attention to and for diving into. As Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Lord Sacks says (in this superb video), Jewish people are great at being kind to others and at studying, two of the three pillars on which the world rests. The praying part — taking these words that we say every time we set foot in a synagogue* and giving our prayer meaning, a life beyond our lips, and a meaning above the dullness of mundane routine — is what we need to work on.

And here, folks, is where it starts.

* — every time we set foot in a synagogue and it’s not for a disco Bar Mitzvah party, I mean.

Posted on July 13, 2011

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How to Make a Mezuzah with Kitsch and Class

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A mezuzah case made from a PEZ dispenser is a hoot. And unique, apparently — or so said Google at the moment of my epiphany, despite how inevitable it felt. I loved the idea and the look of repurposing an iconic, candy-enabling toy, and could not wait to share my mezuzah mashup with the world.

But the world–or the tiny corner where some of my hello kitty pez mezuzahJewish friends hang–was not nearly as pleased as I had hoped. A PEZ-uzah, apparently, might not be the thing. I concede it is a bit ironic to post a Piglet PEZ dispenser on the doorframe of my kosher kitchen, but damn, it’s funny. Perhaps a Hello Kitty PEZ-uzah would pose fewer layers of problematic meaning? No, it still creeped my buddies that I’d be touching a shaped, plastic image with reverence, and raising my fingers to my lips. I’d be kissing Hello Kitty like she was the Shema herself. (Which might be true if I actually remembered to touch any of the mezuzot in my house.)

My PEZ problem–for now, my thrilling invention had become a problem–made me ponder mezuzah rules anew. I’ve been obsessed with mezuzot since ran my article on making a mezuzah with kids. I saw potential mezuzah cases everywhere: empty lip balm, the cardboard tube on a dry-cleaner hanger, a toothpaste box, the fat straw in my bubble tea, a HotWheels van and so on. It felt Freudian: anything longer than it was wide could be a mezuzah. But sometimes, a cigar case is just a cigar case.

The PEZ dispenser was a revelation. It co-opted a toy for ritual use, was kid-friendly, cheap, readily available and it assumed the role with minimum modification. It’s an icon of American pop culture and, not coincidentally, irresistible to operate: pull up the head, insert the candy and dispense each piece with a backwards nod. Already similar in size and shape to a standard mezuzah case, a PEZ dispenser even has a built-in cavity for stashing a scroll. Slap some foam tape on the back and bingo: a PEZ-uzah!

But my frum friends made me wonder, is a PEZ-uzah kosher? That’s when I put down my shin stickers and candy and got busy.

Some PEZ candy is kosher, but not every variety: Only the packs distributed by Paskesz Candy, Inc., the worthies who also give us heckshered Haribo gummy bears and Orbitz gum. A PEZ dispenser is kosher, if it’s new. But, edibility aside, is it kosher as the case for a ritual object? What about that endlessly tricky Second Commandment:

“You shall have no other gods beside Me. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth” (Exodus 20:3-4).

Every PEZ dispenser is a “sculptured image,” a “likeness” of an animal, licensed character, object or human. That’s part of what makes PEZ so iconic. But they aren’t real icons in the rabbinical sense, even if they align with the pristine Greek word (eikon means image). PEZ images are kosher because they aren’t meant to elicit veneration, just to eject candy. The big picture is that the second commandment is concerned with the making of idols, not with prohibiting a Visual Tradition. No PEZ dispenser is intended as “a material representation of divinity,” even the 2007 limited edition Elvis Presley.

If your particular minhag (custom) forbids human representation, note well that PEZ makes relatively few human-shaped dispensers, and fewer based on actual people. Another consideration is that the Talmudic injunction against producing faces does not apply to those created by nonJews. I wondered if any of the injection-mold operators at the PEZ factories were Jewish, but after PEZ Candy, Inc. told me they don’t even know if its founder, Austrian physician/entrepreneur Eduard Haas III, was Jewish, I didn’t think it feasible to ask. However, Talmudic faces aside, any mezuzah case made by a nonJew is acceptable.

More significantly, the Shulhan Arukh (16th century code of Jewish law) weighs in on the side of the PEZ-uzah. Yoreh Deah 141-142 sanctions “depictions of the human body that are somehow incomplete.” “Somehow incomplete” certainly describes characters on a PEZ dispenser, human or otherwise: a head on a stick.

Is a PEZ-uzah too irreverent? Yes of course, for some. I mean no disrespect. But to me, a PEZ-uzah is irresistible and Jewish, two modifiers not used in the same sentence often enough. Converting a well-loved, secular object into Jewish ritual art is an exercise in seeing the world through Jewish eyes. Everything is Jewish, one way or another, once you start to look. My favorite book for early childhood educators is What’s Jewish About Butterflies? by Maxine Segal Handelman, whose well-supported answer to the titular question is, “What isn’t?” Jewish values are everywhere. In other words, sometimes, a cigar case is actually a mezuzah case.

The important thing about a mezuzah case is that it protects what is inside: the mezuzah itself, the kosher scroll hand-lettered with the Shema, Judaism’s central prayer (Deuteronomy 6:9 and 11:13-21). Affixing the scroll to a doorpost is a mitzvah, a commandment, and putting it in a case is a practical, protective measure. Traditionally, a case is an anything-goes category. The first ones were probably hollow reeds plucked from the riverbank in Egypt. I remember the startling DIY bivalve-shell version in The Jewish Catalog (treif to eat, but kosher to hang). As long as it is affixed properly to the proper door with the proper blessing, it’s fine. A standard PEZ dispenser can house any scroll up to 2 ¼ inches tall. It also facilitates the mandatory twice-every-seven-year inspection to make sure each letter is still legible. No need to back out screws or pry up nailheads: just slide it open in situ. Love it! Not many cases are such a boon to the observant.

pez mezuzahThere’s a Jewish tradition to beautify a commandment, hiddur mitzvah, and the beauty of the PEZ-uzah is eminently in the eye of its beholders. If a Hello Kitty PEZ-uzah looks good to me in my house, then it works. The only traditional modification a dispenser might require is the addition of the letter shin for Shaddai, one of the names of God. Use permanent ink, a sticker or glitter glue.

True to the spirit and the letter of Torah, the PEZ-uzah innovates the ritual with a cheeky sweetness. Isn’t Torah supposed to be sweet? We still initiate our kids into Hebrew School with honey and Hebrew letters. Spending time with them while making something Jewish—a ritual object, no less—is the best recommendation. Here’s another plus: a PEZ-uzah, being so noticeable, invites passersby to see and touch it, thus fulfilling its function as a reminder of the message within. The original “interactive candy” nudges us toward interactive Judaism, dispensing menschlichkeit instead of mints.

Disclaimer: The ideas and opinions expressed here are not authorized, sponsored or endorsed by PEZ Candy, Inc.

Joanna Brichetto blogs as Bible Belt Balabusta, is the monthly Lifestyles columnist for the national book review BookPage, and is an educator at a Conservative synagogue in Nashville. She has an MA in Jewish Studies from Vanderbilt University.

Posted on June 29, 2011

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

Hosting Meals is No Picnic

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

I inherited my love of hosting Shabbat meals from my mother. Growing up we had company for at least one meal every Shabbat. Friday nights were often a family affair, but Saturday lunches often involved 10-12 people. Preparing and serving a meal for a dozen people once a week is the kind of task that intimidates a lot of people but my mom taught me the skills to make the whole thing very low-stress and rewarding.

I’ve been living in New York for almost three years now, and I still host one meal a week (but I actually think I’m going to cut down to one every other week because wow is it expensive to cook that much!). One thing that has gotten to be more and more of an issue is dealing with guests who have a myriad of dietary restrictions. Not just vegetarians and/or strict kosher keepers, but celiac disease, lactose intolerance, people who “prefer no refined sugar or flour.” It can be very complicated to plan a menu to satisfy everyone.

JTA has an article today about dealing with hosting Shabbat meals with lots of dietary hoops to jump through, and it quotes me (among others).

So yes, allergies and whatnot are a concern when planning meals, but allow me to introduce you to a little thing I like to call The Internet, where you can search for and easily find recipes that you can serve to any permutation of allergy-ridden guests. For instance, have some vegans and a gluten-free friend coming over and want to serve a decadent dessert that doesn’t involve (ugh) tofu? How about this baby—a chilled double chocolate torte that looks amazing.

Looking for some more tips on how to plan and execute a good Shabbat dinner? Look here! And The Kitchn offers some good basic tips for making your guests feel comfortable, a big part of the mitzvah of hakhnasat orhim.

Posted on June 6, 2011

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