Old Book Revisited

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Don’t we all have books we like to revisit once in a while? Books that have inspired us, that we have enjoyed and read several times. They are sitting on our bookshelves ready to be picked up and enjoyed again. For me such book is How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household by Blu Greenberg. I picked it up last night for reference and realised that I had never written about it on this blog.

How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household deals with religious observance from a Modern Orthodox point of view. Blu Greenberg explores the different mitzvot and how she and her family observe them. It falls into three parts. The first one is devoted to regular observance such as Shabbat, Kashrut and prayers. The second one examines the life cycle while the last one covers the Jewish year.

Don’t be put off by the title; How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household is certainly one of the most inspiring books I have ever read. I discovered it by chance via the Internet and have read it several times. It reads like a novel and is thought-provoking at the same time. Blu Greenberg’s approach is extremely sensitive and has none of the holier-than-thou tone of more recent right-wing Orthodox writings. This is a great book which encourages people to be more observant by showing that it is possible to incorporate meaningful practice into one’s life.

Blu Greenberg is the co-founder and first president of JOFA, The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and an outspoken woman on the position of women in Judaism.

How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household was first published in 1985 but has not aged one bit. Obviously it has become a treasured and authoritative reference as there now exists a Kindle version of this book.

A Practical Guide to the Laws of Kashrut

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A Practical Guide to the Laws of Kashrut by Pinhas Cohen is a short and user-friendly guide which mainly deals with the technicalities of keeping kosher.

The book was written by Rabbi Pinchas Cohen, a faculty member at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut, Israel and is published by Koren Publishers in Jerusalem. His teachings are based on the classes he gave to foreign students at the Yeshiva.

A Practical Guide to the Laws of Kashrut is organised along clear topics:
– Meat and Milk
– Immersing Utensils
– How to Kasher a Kitchen
– Using Appliances in a Kosher Kitchen
– Insects in Food
– Gelatin
– Food of Non-Jews
– Glatt Kosher Meat
– Kashering Liver
– Kashrut of Eggs
– Separation of Challah
– Separation of Tithes

In addition there is a glossary at the end which provides definitions for most of the Hebrew terms used by the author. And footnotes are found at the bottom of each page for references and sources; a clever layout since notes at the end of a book often prove to be impractical.

The author provides guidelines that are both clear and comprehensive without ever getting wordy. When poskim differ, the author shares the various alternatives, including more lenient options when the latter are available within the boundaries of Halakhah. Moreoever he distinguishes between Sephardi and Ashkenazi minhagim when this is relevant.

The book does not deal with the very basics of kashrut but covers a range of questions that frequently arise in the home or to the modern traveller. Rabbi Pinchas Cohen also tackles more complex issues, some of which I know I’d find find useful to accommodate a more observant host.

A Practical Guide to the Laws of Kashrut by Rabbi Pinchas Cohen belongs to the Jewish bookshelf. This book is a perfect gift to the student who leaves home for the first time to go to college. It is also a very accessible guide for every day use or intelligible references.

Living a Year of Kaddish: A Memoir

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The day after he celebrated his 50th birthday, Ari Goldman got a call from Israel announcing his father’s death. Goldman could not attend the funeral but he tore his shirt and began the Jewish bereavement process. He sat shiva for his father for only one day, since Sukkot started the following day but decided to undertake the mourning ritual of saying kaddish for his father (as required by Jewish law). He also proceeded to write the story of his year of kaddish in Living a Year of Kaddish: A Memoir.

In traditional Judaism, as part of the Jewish mourning ritual, the sons (and some argue the children) of the deceased are expected to say kaddish (a prayer praising God) every day during the morning, afternoon, and evening prayer services for 11 months, with a minyan (a group of 10 men in Orthodox Judaism).

Ari L. Goldman is a professor of journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, a former New York Times journalist and the author of three books, including The Search for God at Harvard.

The book is broken into sections for each season of Goldman’s kaddish. He writes about his family, his beliefs and his thoughts about death and about being survived by his own children.

‘For me, kaddish, was as much of a chain as it was a prayer. It was a chain that in some way continued to connect me to my parents, and will some day connect me to my children.’

His relationship with his father was complex. As his parents had divorced when Goldman was a young child, they had never been very close. In addition Ari’s father had moved to Israel when he was 70 years old but because his father had been a devout jew, Goldman is aware of how much he owes him.

The divorce had had a strong impact on Goldman and he was still trying to come to terms with it even as an adult.

‘I was, for the first time in forty-years, no longer the child of divorce. Being the child of divorce had significantly shaped the person I had become (…). I clung tenaciously to Orthodox Judaism, the faith of both my parents, as one would cling to an ancestral home, because, with divorce, there is no ancestral home.’

Goldman had lost his mother four years before, and during his year of saying kaddish for his father, he compares and contrasts the grieving process for each of them; he also looks at how his mourning affects his role as a father, a brother and a husband.

Living a Year of Kaddish: A Memoir is not just about mourning a deceased father, it is about being the member of a religious community, about your responsibility in being part of a minyan so that your fellow Jews can fulfill this mitzvah too, about the other people you meet because they are also saying kaddish for a parent – including a Conservative woman.

‘Every one of the people I got to know in my year of kaddish has stayed with me. Each experience shaped me…each person and each experience helped mold my consciousness about life and death and prayer.’

Living a Year of Kaddish: A Memoir is a profound and touching personal narrative about mourning a parent. It is also book that strongly emphasises the relevance of this traditional Jewish ritual for today’s Jews.

‘To me, kaddish is more for the living than the dead.’

For more information on kaddish:
Kaddish, a Memorial Prayer in Praise of God, by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
Women and Kaddish, by Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen
Women and Kaddish, by Barabra Gaims-Spiegel

Jewish Ethics and Social Justice

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I was privileged to receive a review copy of Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz‘s first book, Jewish Ethics and Social Justice. Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek, the first and only Orthodox Jewish social justice organization and a columnist for a number of Jewish publications.

Jewish Ethics and Social Justice is an anthology of articles. They were written over the past few years and many have been published in various publications such as The Jewish Press ,The Jewish Week, Conversations, HaAretz, etc.

All the essays are deeply rooted in our every day life. Rabbi Yanklowitz writes about a variety of subjects such as child labor, the role of women in Judaism and in the world, vegetarianism, globalization, the Davos World Forum, life in prison, hotel workers, and so much more. He starts by presenting a topic, then explains what the Jewish tradition has to say about it – drawing from the Talmudic sages, Medieval commentators as well as contemporary Jewish leaders. He then brings his own conclusions on the topic and shows immediate and concrete implications in our post-modern society.

In addition, Rabbi Yanklowitz encourages us to act as a community and constantly reminds us of our collective responsibility as a unique people, making sense of our presence in the diaspora as “light to the nations”. Thus, he never shuns disturbing topics such as the Rubashkin scandal or money laundering among the Orthodox community.

Obviously, what appeals to me may not appeal to other people, but I found that most essays are thought-provoking, engaging and easy to read.

The 54-essay format is also a great idea because s it means the book could be used by reading groups – as well as individuals – on a weekly basis following the Torah reading cycle.

Those who are familiar with this blog know how important it is to me to stress the relevance of Judaism in our time and within our environment, what Rabbi Yanklowitz calls “Street Torah”. This is exactly what this book does. It challenges the reader and won’t leave you indifferent.

The Search for God at Harvard

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I ordered this book after reading Rabbi Fink’s review on his blog. A New York Times journalist, Ari L. Goldman took a sabbatical to study religion at Harvard Divinity School. Being a Jew in a mostly non-Jewish environment I thought that Goldman’s account as an Orthodox Jew living at Harvard and learning about world religions would resonate with my own struggles; and it did.

Ari L. Goldman had been working as a religion writer for some years before he asked for a sabbatical to broaden his knowledge. The Search for God at Harvard recounts this very special year but also provides the background which enables the reader to understand the reasons for this unusual quest: his religious education in various Jewish schools (including a Crown Heights yeshiva and Yeshiva University), his secular education in high school, his parents’ divorce when he was 6 and his first years at the New York Times.

I respect people who steadfastly stick to their views but I deeply admire those who confront different people and beliefs. Ari L. Goldman is such a person. He knows that some of his former rabbis and teachers would disapprove but he sticks to his decision and studies Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, African religions and Christianity, or even of a course on Judaism by Louis Jacobs.

The Search for God at Harvard is not so much what these religions are but rather what they mean to him and how they help him strengthen his own beliefs.

Thus Ari L. Goldman contrasts Judaism – where God choses his own people – and Hinduism where believers choose a personal god among a pantheon of several million deities. He sees Buddhism’s attraction for many Jews who are alienated from judaism as a religious alternative that is not Christianity. “As disillusioned as many of these Jews were with their own faith, they had been conditioned by their upbringing to seeing Christianity not merely as a substitute for but as a repudiation of Judaism”.

A course on the different Protestant denominations sheds an interesting light on Fundamentalism.

“The White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant America the Fundamentalists say they are trying to get back to never really existed. From the beginning, this country had American Indians, Jews and catholics, as well as Protestants. They had red skin and black skin and white skin. To be sure, not all these groups were treated equally. It was most often the whites who were subjugated the others; maybe this is the America to which the Fundamentalists want to return. But, for most Americans, the thought of returning to slavery, anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism or anti-American Indianism represents America gone awry and not “America Back to Our Roots. “”

They are poignant moments when Ari L. Goldman struggles between his desire to remain an observant Jew while aspiring to become a New York Times reporter. Surprisingly it is his mother – a religious Jew – who encourages him not to give up.

He also recalls painful episodes when choosing a community as a young couple not long after the Harvard experiece. His wife once tells guests at a Shabbat meal that she and her husband look forward to situations where not everyone around them is an Orthodox Jew because they consider them broadening and a challenge. Sadly they soon realize that they are not on the same wavelength as these people when they become the synagogue gossip.

The Search for God at Harvard is a book I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend.

Interviewing a Rabbi

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Interviewing rabbis is not easy; we all know how busy they are so when Rabbi Josh Yuter agreed to take part in this new series and replied to my questions, I felt honored. I hope that you will all enjoy this interview as much as I did. Thank you Rabbi for your participation.

Can you introduce yourself in a few words?

My name is Josh Yuter and I have been the Rabbi of The Stanton St. Shul in New York’s historic Lower East Side since 2008. I’ve also worked professionally as a computer programmer primarily with web application development.

I’ve been blogging since 2003, now at www.JoshYuter.com, and I created and currently manage www.JewishGuitarChords.com archive. I have diverse interests, many of which I incorporate into a Jewish context, and I make horrible and often esoteric puns.

Can you tell us about your congregation and/or job?

The community of The Stanton St. Shul is one of the most diverse I have ever encountered, which is quite remarkable due to its relatively small size and being an Orthodox congregation.

Our membership ranges from recent college graduates to seniors who have spent most of their lives in the Lower East Side. We have members who have grown up observant and attended yeshivot and others with virtually no background and who might not be observant in their private lives. On a typical Shabbat you can find someone in a suit and tie sitting next to someone in jeans and a t-shirt, and no one is particularly bothered.

The motto of the synagogue is “all are welcome; all will feel welcome” and the true uniqueness of the community is its ability to live up to this standard.

What is your religious background (if any)? Is there a rabbinical tradition in your family? When and why did you decide to become a rabbi?

My father has been a pulpit Rabbi for most of my life, though I would not categorize him as a “typical” Orthodox affiliated rabbi. For the purposes of this interview I would best describe his approach as “academic” in that religious texts must be understood critically and their interpretations must fit within the rules the grammar and philology. Perhaps more controversial is the formalistic approach to Jewish law which often challenges the accepted status quo and encourages others to do the same.

Being raised in this environment, my initial interests in going to rabbinical school was not professional, but practical. Most of the subjects learned in rabbinical school such as kashrut, Shabbat, niddah, etc. are laws which are relevant to any observant Jew. My intent was to learn the primary sources with the guidance of experts and the accountability of examinations such that at the end of my program I’d feel confident that I’d either know the halakha or I’d be able to find the answer with relative ease.

Where did you study? Any particular reason you chose this rabbinical school? Is being a rabbi very different from what you expected?

For rabbinical school I studied at Yeshiva University, primarily because there were no other options at that time for a “modern orthodox” rabbinical school. YU’s main competition today is Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, but YCT only came into existence in my second year of rabbinical school and there was absolutely no reason to switch. Not only was YCT still in the process of figuring out its full curriculum, but in terms of complete rabbinic training, YU provided a better overall program for future rabbis.

The most significant and underutilized advantage of Yeshiva University is that it is in my opinion the most pluralistic institution of Orthodox Judaism in the world, defining “pluralistic” as the number of different ideologies and approaches to Judaism under one roof. I had the pleasure of studying Talmud in different styles – including “academic Talmud” in YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School for Judaic Studies and learning halakha from different perspectives. Even if I did not agree with an approach or a conclusion, being exposed to contradictory ideas is crucial for religious development. On a personal level I could be proven wrong in which case I’d correct a mistake or at the very least I’d have a better understanding as to why I would reject one idea over another. Furthermore, such exposure is crucial for anyone to be an effective Orthodox Rabbi since at some point, any Rabbi will have to confront people whose opinions and perspectives differ from his own, and the more one understands how another side operates, the better a rabbi can respond.

What do you like best about your job? / What do you like least about it?

Like any job, being a pulpit rabbi can alternate between the frustrating and the gratifying depending on the day. The most gratifying aspects about being a pulpit rabbi for me are times when I can engage with members Jewishly either through teaching classes or simply by being a part of their lives. Obviously this is much more pleasant in better times. I cannot imagine anyone enjoying grief counseling or officiating a funeral, even though to be the religious representative in such a time is less a responsibility than it is an honor.

What sort of misconceptions do people have about your job?

In terms of The Rabbinate in general, people often assume that my synagogue operates like theirs. Meaning, many people assume that the mutual relationship between a congregation and its rabbi are uniform when in truth every community is unique and what might be “normal” for some could be harmful elsewhere.

In my own shul I’ve worked hard to “lift the veil” so to speak about being a Rabbi, or at least how I operate. Part of this is that I think transparency is beneficial and hopefully will preempt misconceptions in the future.

Do you have some sort of contact with rabbis from other Jewish denominations or other religious leaders? Why or why not?

In 2000-2001 I participated in a fellowship program run by Clal which brought together rabbinical students from other denominations, though my exposure since then has been limited to individual colleagues. This is not so much an ideological decision but a practical one. Above all else, my primary focus is, and I think must be, the development of my own synagogue. Even with my Orthodox colleagues on the Lower East Side, we are all preoccupied with our synagogues that we do not have the time to dialogue regularly. However, I have found my local colleagues to be phenomenal professional resources, and I try to provide whatever assistance I can be to anyone regardless of their denomination.

Do you use the Internet in your job? How?

The internet has been instrumental for my synagogue. Given our limited resources, the internet has been the most efficient cost effective method to engage our membership. Between our email newsletter, Facebook, Twitter, we can readily communicate with our membership and our website allows us to reach out to others. The reality is that people, especially those under 35, use the internet as their primary source of information and we have had numerous people who have found our shul simply by searching Google. Getting people in the door is the hardest part, especially if people don’t know you exist.

What are your plans for the future concerning your job and/or congregation?

In terms of the future of the shul, my goal is to continue our sustained growth. As tempting as it can be to simply fill seats, without a sense of community people can leave just as easily. The biggest challenge I see myself facing is being able to reevaluate where we are in the present and to adjust accordingly. We’ve made extraordinary strides in the past two years to the point where it would not be a stretch to say we are a different shul entirely. While it’s a challenge to see the synagogue anew, all things considered, it’s a wonderful problem to have.

Sunday Musings

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– Our Swedish collegues and their students are arriving tonight. We are busy cleaning the house and cooking. I’ll probably test a few Pesach recipes on the teacher who will be staying with us as a rehearsal for the big days!

– Yesterday I read another essay from Conversations – the print journal of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. It was written by Jeremy Rosen, a graduate of Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem and Cambridge University and now a Manhattan rabbi. Since it is online I urge you to read it; a very enlightning approach to Orthodoxy past and present.

– As Pesach is approaching and we are all feeling the strain of cleaning and cooking I have found two articles which have slightly altered my perception of the holidays. One was posted on The Jew and the Carrot while the other one was written by Mimi of Israeli Kitchen. I plan to prepare a mainly vegetarian – as in lots of vegetables – festival in an effort not to feel alienated by the pressure of overwhelming and costly preparations.

Jean Ferrat, a French singer, has just died. I suppose he isn’t well-known outside France, except maybe to those whose French teachers admired his poetical songs. Since his death, journalists have been repeating over and over again that his father was Jewish and “died in deportation” or that he “was deported to Auschwitz during the war, where he died.” I hate this .self-censored use of language. “Died in deportation” seems to imply bad luck, poor health or old age while like millions of other Jews Ferrat’s father was killed/assassinated by the Nazis.

New Issue of Conversations

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The latest issue of Conversations – the print journal of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals – has just been published. It discusses major issues in contemporary Orthodox and general Jewish life. This time the focus is on Orthodoxy: Faith, Science and the Pursuit of Truth.

I have only read a few essays so far and particularly enjoyed one on biblical criticism and one on science education and Torah. I highly recommend this book which is an ode to intelligence and emphasizes that one can be an observant Jew without turning one’s back on reason.

A few essays can be found online:
Faith, Science and Orthodoxy by Menachem Kellner
O Tempora O Mores by Jeremy Rosen
The Music of Chance: On the Origin of Species from a Jewish Perspective by David G. DiSegni
The Fertility Dilemma by Richard V. Grazi

Women and Tallit

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If you are Jewish and interested in what happens in the Jewish world, you must have heard that two weeks ago a woman – Nofrat Frenkel – was arrested for wearing a tallit at the Kotel.

Although I don’t wear a tallit myself, I know some women who do and have read a few things on the topic. Thus, two weeks after the event, I have chosen to post a few links on this issue; feel free to comment and/or provide more links.

Tallit, a piece of writing by Rabbi Louis Jacobs

The Road to Wearing a Tallit: Why an Orthodox Woman Wears a Tallit, found on JOFA’s website

– Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, the spiritual leader of Ohev Sholom National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. devoted last week’s Dvar Torah to Women and Tallit from a halakhic point of view; well worth reading

Today’s Jewish Thinkers

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I am currently reading Rabbi Marc Angel’s Maimonides, Spinoza, and Us: Towards an Intellectually Vibrant Judaism.

In this book, Rabbi Marc D. Angel discusses major themes in the writings of Maimonides and Spinoza as a means of exploring how modern people can deal with religion in an intellectually honest and meaningful way.

After Stéphane Moses last week, I find it inspiring to read Jewish thinkers who encourage us to think and make sensible choices while not turning off our brains. Similarly I also enjoy what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes.

What about you, who are the contemporary Jewish thinkers that stimulate you?