Be it brie, mozzarella or feta, I, like just about everyone, love cheese.
There are so many reasons to love cheese, be it grilled between two buttery pieces of toast, cascaded over a ramekin of onion soup, shredded over a bowl of fresh-made pasta — or enjoying some of the Southern specialty known as Pimento Cheese.
But what if I told you that there was yet another reason to love cheese?
One found in the Torah, no less?
Good news, y’all!
The Hebrew word for cheese is g’vinah, and also happens to be my favorite hapax legomena of all time.
A hapax legomenon is a word that occurs only once within a context. Forgive me a second while I go completely “College Classical Civilization major” on you and explain the Greek. ἅπαξ (hapax) means “once” or “one time” and λεγόμενον (legomenon) – “the place something occurs.”
(Thanks for allowing me to geek out!)
Although the word g’vinah is widespread in Modern Hebrew – we only hear the word once in the entire Tanakh: in the book of Job. Job is pretty much a bummer book. A disgruntled Job, frustrated by the loss of just about everything, rattles off a bunch of questions, asking God why God would oppress the people who are loyal to the Almighty.
In Job 10:10, we read Job’s question: “Have you not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese?”
First of all, I am loving the vivid albeit twisted imagery. But more importantly, although this word only occurs once – that doesn’t mean it is insignificant. After all, nothing in the Bible is there without reason, right? Using this image to address Job’s feelings about God shows how fascinating one’s relationship to divine presence can be. If we can have complicated feelings about this relationship, and be allowed to even question the divine, it teaches that all our relationships benefit from creative questioning.
IT’S ALSO THE ONLY TIME THE BIBLE MENTIONS CHEESE. Which is kind of cool, all on its own.
When I’m preparing to travel the South and share Jewish learning with students in even the smallest of towns, I love finding nuggets like these. It’s these fun moments of learning that keep us all interested and engaged in a tradition that always seems to have some new discovery, just waiting for us to find it.
Thanks for letting me get a little cheesy!
In this season of Thanksgivukkah, I’ve started to think a lot about cultural syncretism. I’ve come to the conclusion that, as a Jewish banjo player playing Hebrew prayers, I’m a very good example of cultural syncretism.
Cultural syncretism can be defined as combining aspects of two different and separate cultures, traditions, or belief systems. Some good examples of cultural syncretism in Jewish life would be the Passover seder being based on a royal meal in Ancient Greece, Ashkenazi challah being a Jewish take on German sweet bread, or the convenient similarities between Purim and Mardi Gras.
So how is a Jewish banjo player an ultimate example of this phenomenon? This calls for a brief history lesson:
The banjo began not in backwoods America, but in medieval Africa. During the colonial period, the banjo was brought over to the Americas by enslaved Africans who found similar materials easily available in their new environment. Soon enough, European Americans soon learned about the banjo from the enslaved African Americans, and by the mid-18th century, European Americans were touring around the country playing banjo in rural and urban settings (typically in minstrel fashion, including the infamous blackface). They also merged it with other musical traditions they were familiar with such as Irish, English, and Scottish music. Everyone was doing it!
Although the banjo waned in popularity in the early 20th century, it was re-popularized in the 1940s with the advent of bluegrass music (a combination of jazz and blues), most Jewish players of the banjo didn’t begin to learn it until the folk revival of the 1950s and 60s. And nowadays, these Jewish players also have brought the banjo into many modern Klezmer bands, combining it with our own old-time Eastern European traditions. They’ve also created their own genre – Jewgrass. Check out Lucky Break, Banjo Billy, and The Sinai Mountain Boys!
It’s one of those ideas that it is hard to wrap my head around. When I’m playing Debbie Friedman’s Havdalah on the banjo, using chords and lyrics from the handy Shireinu, I’m not combining just African and Jewish traditions. Instead, I’m really combining African, Jewish, Irish, English, Scottish, American, and Eastern European musical traditions into one.
If that’s not cultural syncretism – I’m not sure what is. Bring it on, Thanksgivukkah!
This piece is by Education Fellow Amanda Winer.
As I was flying home from a recent trip to one of the amazing communities I get to visit as an ISJL Education Fellow, a hilarious thought came to my mind: sometimes, the only DOWN time I get is when I’m UP in the air.
That seemed meaningful – and made me think of what other meaning I might find if I put my mind to it. So I grabbed my pencil and started jotting down a list of all of the trips I had been on. And I feverishly tabulated. That’s when I realized that since beginning my fellowship in June 2012, I’d been on 88 individual airplanes.
88 apple juices with no ice in 88 tiny plastic cups. 88 pretzels or peanuts, though I usually choose the latter. 88 take offs and 88 landings. 88 times the flight attendant asked to turn off all electronics because the door was closed.
Since I was suspended 10,000 feet about the air with no cell phone reception to distract me, I kept just thinking. 88 is a pretty significant number in my life. First, there’s the fact that I love music, and there are 88 keys on the standard piano keyboard. Then, as is typical, I turned to my Jewish educator roots.
One of the many tools Judaism gives us to find meaning is gematria, a sort of “Jewish numerology,” which explores the significance of numbers and uses that to find meaning in the seemingly mundane. Now, seven is an important number in Judaism and gematria. It is a number that signifies perfection, wholeness. God created the world in an order of seven days. We rest on the seventh day. The omer, or the counting of days between Passover and Shavuot, is seven weeks.
So, what about eight?
Eight is a number that symbolizes what is beyond whole; something amazing and miraculous. Hanukkah, the holiday in which we celebrate miracles, lasts eight days. There’s the tradition of performing b’rit milah when a baby reaches eight days old – to celebrate the miracle of life. Eight is a miracle-number, and I like to think that miracles serve as a device, to remind us not to take life too seriously. Miracles are something to remind us how special and holy our lives are, and sometimes to distract us. Like magic! Therefore 88, two of these “magic” numbers side by side, must be significant.
The reality is, numerology is the same as anything: if you make the time to find the Jewish connection – it’s there! And as I continue traveling, the number of planes and visits will continue to grow and change, but the trips will all be meaningful… as will the numbers surrounding the journeys.
What do you think about gematria/numerology? Are there any numbers that have particular significance to you?