Category Archives: religion

Express Yourself: Reveal Rather Than Mask

Since the age of two, my four-year-old daughter has been obsessed with Spiderman. On rainy days, she proudly sports her Spiderman umbrella, her last two birthday cakes have both featured Spiderman, and given an opportunity to dress up (either at home, a friend’s house, or at a gymboree), she will opt for the Spiderman/superhero costume rather than more girlish choices. Her only exposure to Spiderman has been indirect through friends at daycare and kindergarten. We don’t have satellite TV or cable, and she has no siblings who have ever shown any interest in Spiderman.

Tzofia first discovered Spiderman two years ago, during a trip to the States. We spent one rainy morning at a local gymboree, where there was a dress-up area with an array of costumes. Tzofia was instantly drawn to the Spiderman costume, and asked to put it on. Up until that point, she had been exclusive to Tigger and Dora. Once dressed up as Spiderman, she jumped up and down, started growling, and began chasing her older sister around the room. When we asked her why she was growling, she said that she wanted to be “scary like Spiderman.”  We found it both interesting and amusing that her perception of Spiderman was that of a scary and intimidating figure, and since that day, has maintained that character when dressed up as him. Perhaps her image of Spiderman as being scary and “bad” gives her an outlet for any pent-up anger or frustration she is feeling.

A couple of months ago, when we were blessed with a couple of rare but welcome rainy days here in Israel, Tzofia left the house excitedly, more because of the opportunity the rain afforded her to use her Spiderman umbrella. When we arrived at gan, a few girls standing by the door chanted (in Hebrew): “Spiderman is for boys!” I have to say that one of my proudest moments occurred right then when Tzofia marched proudly right past the girls, and hung up her umbrella next to her friends’. I prayed to myself that for the rest of her life she should be as confident in her individuality as she was right at that moment.

With the onset of Purim, our family conversations have inevitably centered around Purim costumes, and Tzofia asked us if Spiderman is only for boys. At some point our free-spirited and strong-willed four-year-old became aware of her surroundings, and somehow internalized the message that Spiderman isn’t every girl’s cup of tea. Our heavily weighed answer was: “Spiderman is for whoever likes him.” I thought hard about Tzofia’s question afterwards. My instinct was to encourage her to stay loyal to Spiderman, regardless of what the girls around her say or do, but upon further thought, I realized that perhaps her question indicated emotional maturity and awareness of her environment. However much we want to encourage her individuality, it is inevitable that at some point she will have to make the choice whether her form of self-expression comes with too heavy a price. And that is part of growing up. Also, is it fair to encourage her to be Spiderman when we all know that kids can be cruel, and she may be the butt of her friends’ jokes?  Fast-forward two weeks later, and Tzofia’s choices ranged from Spiderman to a bear (“because bears scare people more”) to Ironman – to finally Superman. She ultimately decided to stay with the superhero.

My first reaction to these changes of heart was frustration, till it dawned on me that Purim for children represents one day of the year when they can reinvent themselves before their family, their teachers, their friends; that Purim is not just about disguising themselves and putting masks on, but rather taking them off, giving those around them the ability to see them how they want to be seen. A vehicle for self-expression. On this day, when children can parade the streets in their mask, tutu, or superhero costume, they are subconsciously teaching themselves that they can be whoever they want to be. There are no limitations other than those they set for themselves.

Period suppression pills – what will the rabbis say?

In medical news, women around the globe might be interested to hear about a new birth control pill which the FDA has just approved: Lybrel is the first pill that is supposed to put an end to women’s menstrual periods INDEFINITELY. No one can dispute the benefits of such a pill for many women whose lives are turned upside down once a month at the onset of a period, but the question that is preying on my mind relates to the halachic ramifications of taking such a pill.

Taharat HaMishpacha is a mitzva, a commandment, that is given to women. For two weeks of the month, at the onset of a woman’s period, a married couple are supposed to refrain from physical contact. During this time, a woman is considered to be a “niddah,” meaning “to be separate.” Seven days following the end of her period, a woman immerses herself in a mikvah, a ritual bath, after which time she can resume physical contact with her husband. These laws of family purity are designed to enhance the physical and spiritual relationship between a married man and woman.  

I am wondering what the rabbis will say about the permissibility of taking such a pill that will suppress the period, thereby rendering the laws of family purity irrelevant. Although taking birth control pills is not ordinarily permissible according to the Jewish law, exceptions are frequently made when couples are not capable, for either emotional or financial reasons, of having more children at that stage of their lives. But I can’t imagine what the Jewish Orthodox perspective would be regarding a pill that puts an end to the menstrual cycle altogether.

Any thoughts?

Female Mohelet – a personal touch

Female mohelet

Yeah, I know, this is my fourth post of the day, but who’s counting?

I read in the Jerusalem Post this weekend about a female Mohelet, Rochelle Schwartz, who came to Israel recently to perform a ritual brit milah, circumcision, on a newborn boy. The article reveals:

With over 25 years of medical practice under her belt, Schwartz has provided non-ritual medical circumcisions as a family doctor to many of her patients and their new young family members. She has developed, over the past 15 years, a unique pain prevention protocol. The technique includes topical and local anesthetic, pain medication and sugar pacifiers (for the newborn to suck on along with the wine), all of which help to virtually eliminate the pain involved in the circumcision procedure.

Schwartz, 53, finally acted on her feelings nine years ago, when she became one of three practicing female mohalot in Canada. Rochelle had studied the Halachot of brit mila with a rabbi for a year prior to becoming a mohelet. She had a Conservative upbringing and currently belongs to a Reform synagogue in her Jewish community in Toronto.

“I always had a love and passion for my Judaism,” she says. “I began to think that being a mohelet would be a way to combine my love for Judaism, my surgical [skills] as well as my spiritual life.”

I can’t deny it sounds great – it seems very logical that women, who by nature are more compassionate than men, should work as mohelot, but as an Orthodox Jew, the first question that entered my mind when I read this article was: what does Halacha have to say about this?

The article addresses this very question:

While according to Halacha, the obligation to perform brit mila falls on the father, there is a biblical precedent for a woman carrying out the act.

According to traditional sources, Jewish tradition does not recognize that the mother has a mitzva to fulfill; that is, the responsibility falls upon the father to recite the blessing of the brit mila. “The mother is encouraged to recite the bracha [blessing] with the father or without the father present following the circumcision,” says Sacks.

Theoretically, he says, women may circumcise. He also mentions Tzippora in the Book of Exodus, in which she performed a brit mila. However, according to tradition, Moses is said to have taken the flint from her hand and completed the brit, thus ultimately retaining male dominance in the performance of this traditional Jewish practice.

The male dominance is also seen in Orthodoxy, which adopts the view that since it is not normative practice within Jewish communities, permitting women to perform brit mila would only erode the power of custom and tradition. Rabbi Shaul Farber, a practicing Orthodox rabbi, and founder and director of Itim, the Jewish life Information and Advocacy Center, says that there is an ongoing debate within the Orthodox community on whether women can function as mohalot.

The Shulhan Aruch, the universally accepted legal code book of Jewish law, includes the basic laws of brit mila. The legal code, which was compiled by the great Sephardi Rabbi Joseph Caro in the mid 1500s, combines both the differing customs and laws of Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jewry. It is a reliable legal source of Jewish laws and practices.

The male dominance is also seen in Orthodoxy, which adopts the view that since it is not normative practice within Jewish communities, permitting women to perform brit mila would only erode the power of custom and tradition. Rabbi Shaul Farber, a practicing Orthodox rabbi, and founder and director of Itim, the Jewish life Information and Advocacy Center, says that there is an ongoing debate within the Orthodox community on whether women can function as mohalot.

The Shulhan Aruch, the universally accepted legal code book of Jewish law, includes the basic laws of brit mila. The legal code, which was compiled by the great Sephardi Rabbi Joseph Caro in the mid 1500s, combines both the differing customs and laws of Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jewry. It is a reliable legal source of Jewish laws and practices.

Halacha is not set in stone – each generation confronts a new set of circumstances, and while we endeavor to adhere as closely as possible to Halacha, it has to change with the times and needs of new generations. The root of the word “Halacha” means in English, “to walk, to go,” denoting physical movement. We live in a generation where women’s talents and special qualities are no longer going unnoticed, and while it is true that some mitzvot apply to men and some mitzvot apply to women, if there is a biblical precedent for female mohalet, I don’t see the problem. If it was OK for Tzipporah to circumcise her son, why should Jewish women not train for this, if they so wish?

It seems to me that the only real Halachic objection against female Mohelot is the fact that “since it is not normative practice within Jewish communities, permitting women to perform brit mila would only erode the power of custom and tradition.”

This line of reasoning begs the question: Is our tradition not strong enough to withstand POSITIVE change? Why are we, as Orthodox Jews, so petrified of making changes that will allow women to play a more participatory role in Jewish rituals and communal life?

On the other hand, people might question Rochelle Schwartz’s sincerity. I know I did when I read the article. She writes that she performed a brit milah in Israel for the following reason:

I wanted to come to Israel to perform the brit mila, because this has traditionally been performed by an Orthodox mohel and just as I was a pioneer in Canada performing brit mila there, I wanted to become a pioneer in changing the way people feel about brit mila in Israel and be one of the first women to perform it in Israel.

It seems that Rochelle’s motivation is to go down in history as being a pioneer, to be one of the first women to perform brit milah in Israel. While I obviously understand her desire to be famous, if she were truly genuine about performing the mitzvah of brit milah, why couldn’t she have continued to perform other brit milot in the US, without needing to seek the limelight?

I am interested in hearing your thoughts.

Finally, cheesecake season has arrived!

With the holiday of Shavuot fast approaching, I am searching for new, fun, and easy recipes for cheesecake. I myself am crazy about the classic New York cheesecake, but for some unbeknownst reason, they can’t be found in supermarkets or bakeries in Israel. They have cheesecakes with berries, cheesecake with chocolate, cheesecake with oranges, but alas, no good old-fashioned NY cheesecake.

Any ideas?

Whoever is hungry, come and eat

Pesach of 2001 was a very special year for me. What distinguished this Seder night from all previous Sedarim (pl. Seder) was that the Shlomo Carlebach Haggadah that I was using was edited by none other than yours truly. I have since edited two other Haggadot, but this particular year stays fresh in my memory.

Before I began working on this project, I had been a big Shlomo Carlebach fan, and had even met “the singing rabbi” personally a couple of times in my childhood. I must have been about ten years old when he first stayed at our house during one of his trips to our colorless city (that would be Manchester, England). My father’s close friend was responsible for organizing his performances in Manchester, and asked my father if he could stay overnight at our house – how could you possibly say no to Shlomo Carlebach? Well, anyway, that’s my claim to fame. Shlomo Carlebach stayed at our house when I was a kid.

It’s gotta be said that Shlomo Carlebach’s singing voice is pretty dire – as those of you who are familiar with his music will be able to testify – but his tunes (niggunim) are so uplifting that they leave you soaring in the clouds. It’s other-worldly. All the petty worries and fears that weigh you down on a daily basis are suddenly removed – at that moment, it’s just you and G-d. To this day, I really feel that Carlebach music is therapy for the soul.

So you can imagine my excitement when the Carlebach Haggadah manuscript landed on my desk. Before I began reading it, I knew it would be a success. The idea of relating Rabbi Carlebach’s teachings and stories to the Haggadah and Seder night was ingenious. His insights into the human condition and his profound lessons on the meaning of true freedom raised the Seder night to a whole new level.

A few weeks before the Haggadah went to print, I had to select an excerpt to appear on the back cover. Considering there were hundreds of stories and messages from which to choose, this was not an easy decision. Since food is perpetually on my mind, I eventually opted for Rabbi Carlebach’s interpretation of the words in the Haggadah which translate as “Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat.” The words do have a Michael Jackson feel to them, but nonetheless I felt that this excerpt encapsulated Rabbi Carlebach’s philosophy on life:

Friends, this is our generation. This is you and I, but most of all it’s our children. There’s such a hunger in the world for something beautiful, something holy – a hunger for one good word, one holy word, one message from God. People are hungry for something lofty, glorious. So this is my wish for all of us: Let the hungry people get together – everyone who’s hungry for holiness, friendship, for love – with the people who are hungry to give their children one word from God. Let’s get together! Let’s you and I fix the world!

Guilt baskets – an ingenious way to feed off armchair Zionists

There are some things in life that are constants. Some of them good, some of them not so good. Almost every chag (Jewish holiday), we are the unlucky recipients of the aforementioned Guilt Basket from a person we know in the States. If you peruse this website, the baskets contain items that can be purchased from our supermarkets for less than 50 shekel, but which costs the naive American over $50. Every chag, Josh and I keep telling ourselves that we should just phone her up and say, “Listen, it’s really sweet ‘n all, and I know you think that you are supporting the Israeli economy, but you are being ripped off good and proper, and the company is taking you for a ride with your guilt gift basket.” But we don’t have the heart.

Just a few days ago, this person told us that she wouldn’t be sending us the guilt basket, and that she would give us money instead. Hallelujah!! But as we got off the phone, and had a good laugh about it, we realized that these companies who market their gift baskets to Americans are sitting on a goldmine. How many American Jews are there who do not want to make Aliyah and relinquish their creature comforts, but who want to make themselves feel good by supporting the Israeli economy?

In plain English, what these sites are really saying is the following:

For $50, give yourself a pat on the back, and send your loved ones who are sacrificing their lives in Israel on a daily basis some Telma date spread and some stale cookies. They will be eternally grateful.

For $100, you will go down in the books as nothing short of a hero. With some choice Cabernet Sauvignon wine and some Elite chocolates, no one will ever wonder again why you are over 10,000 miles away sitting in front of your plasma TV instead of making sacrifices for the future of the Jewish people.

Ingenious.

Quite comical really….

This evening, as we sat down as a family to eat dinner, I tried to engage my three-year-old in conversation about Pesach. Purim was such an anti-climactic experience – Eliana was crying most of the day, she didn’t quite get the concept of reciprocating when it came to Mishloach Manot – I thought it would be smart to get her in the Pesach spirit ahead of time. I asked her what she had learned in Gan about Pesach – it better be extremely profound for 2000 shekel a month, I thought to myself – and she replied, tilting her head to one side, “I don’t know.”

Not one to be deterred, I pressed her further. “Did they talk to you, sweetie, about what happened to the Yehudim (Jews) in Mitzrayim (Egypt)?” Bingo. I had used the correct targeted keywords. Her eyes widened and her expression became animated.

“Yes, Mummy, Tzvika [the ganenet’s husband – don’t ask – it’s a really long story – if you really want to know why the ganenet’s husband was doing his wife’s job, send me an email and I will explain] told us that Haman HaRasha (Haman, the wicked one) was a really naughty man, and all the peoples were so scared!”

Josh responded, “No, honey, that’s a different chag (festival)! On Pesach, the Jewish people are scared of Pharaoh!” That basically summed up in a nutshell our experience as the Jewish people. We go from one baddy to another!

God is a Mob Boss

Posted by The Husband

If anyone is reading this blog then let me warn you that the following post will be heretical, heathenly, and hopefully, hilarious.

This weekend on shabbat, I was pondering the parashat hashavua and I decided that God has a lot in common with Tony Soprano. This (past) week’s parasha was parashat Ki Tisa. In that portion of the Torah, there are a few passages that relate how God will punish the Nation of Israel if they do not follow His Law. Concurrently, though not on shabbat, I was reviewing the last season of The Sopranos in preparation for The Last season of The Sopranos which will return to television (and my computer) around the middle of April. For anyone unfamiliar with The Sopranos, the show is about a mob boss named Tony Soprano and his relationship with his family, therapist, and crew.

In the last episode that I watched, there was a side story about how one of Tony’s front companies, Barone Sanitation, was being sold by the son of the owner. The owner had killed himself thereby passing on the business to his son. The son was never informed of his father’s connection with organized crime and only wanted to sell the business for his mother. The part of the story that is germaine to this particular discussion is that the son gets involved in the shady business side of his father’s business and ends up getting threatened, beaten, and then shaken down by one of Tony’s own captains. Of course, at the same time, Tony is assuring the kid’s mother that “nothing is going to happen to him, I swear.”

So how is God like Tony Soprano? I’m glad you asked.

Go back a few thousand years. God does a favor for the Nation of Israel. They are slaves in Egypt and pretty miserable and God offers them a way out. “I’ll take care of the Egyptians,” says God, “and I will make a nation of you.” Pretty good offer. “All you have to do,” God says, putting His (figurative) arm around the pathetic slaves, “is promise to worship me and obey my laws.”

Now the slaves, who probably were ready to do anything about that time, say, sure, what the hell, we’ll obey, we’ll listen, just get us the hell out of here. So God does. He sends a couple of His goons to break a few kneecaps, smash a few windows, and smite some firstborn sons. Israel rejoices and runs like hell to get out of Dodge. God sends one of his captains, Moses, to lead the newly freed slaves to the mountain of Sinai where God explains his business plan. Along the way, God gives the nation some seed money, in the form of manna, and helps them with some pesky legal troubles by splitting the Red Sea and drowning the opposing council.

God business plan is simple. “Here’s My rules. 10 basic rules and 603 more to come. Follow the rules, do what I ask, and I’ll protect you and make you prosperous. If you have a problem, don’t take it to any other god. Don’t go outside the family. Take it to me. I will take care of it. At some point in the future, I might ask you to do Me a favor. There’s this nasty other family called the Amalekites who are trying to bust in on My action and I may need you to clean up that mess. Don’t go to the cops, they won’t help you. Other nations won’t listen to you and will turn their hearts and hand against you. But I am your God. I will help you. I will make it alright. Of course, if you should happen to go against my wishes, I will smite you and your children and your children’s children until you come back to Me and beg My forgiveness. But don’t worry, I’m sure you are smart enough to do the Right thing.”

So here we are, the children of the Nation of Israel who made a deal with God to protect and deliver them. God doesn’t really talk to us anymore, but we’re still obligated to Him. He hasn’t done much in the protection racket lately, although occasionally He steps in and stops us from being totally annihilated. But we’re still paying our dues and paying for the deal that our forebears made with God. And, according to the terms of the deal, if we don’t kick up to the Big Boss, we are gonna wish we were never born.

The previous comments do not necessarily reflect the views of the management of Double Take. Thank you for your understanding.

Pesach – Enforced Slavery?

The holiday of Pesach (Passover) is fast approaching, and this year, the concept of deliverance from slavery will take on a new personal meaning. I have to meet three deadlines in the week before Pesach, so when Seder night comes round, I will not have to work very hard to summon up emotions of relief as I experience my own delivery from bondage.   

I do feel pangs of guilt when I speak to my family abroad. While they have been slaving away, and cleaning their houses from top-to-bottom since January, I have spent more time on the computer than I have taking care of my husband, my girls, and my home. (Luckily for me, my husband is actually far more domesticated than I am and actually enjoys cooking, cleaning, etc. – I know, he was a rare find.)

I thank G-d for giving us the holidays, because we are not just celebrating historical events, but are reliving the highs and lows that accompany each festival on a personal level. Each person, on whatever level, has experienced in their lives their own Exodus, and it is in this way that we can infuse personal meaning into each chag (holiday).

The holidays enable me to stop and smell the roses. Lately I have found that time has been passing by too quickly for my liking; I am not sure why this is, but before I catch my breath, another weekend is upon us. The presence of the Jewish holidays on my calendar force me to stop and think about myself and my connection to G-d.

Over the last seven years of my career, I have edited a number of works about Pesach, two haggadot and various compilations of thoughts on Jewish holidays. One perspective on Pesach which I found to be particularly refreshing was provided by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner in his work, Moadim LeSimcha: Explorations into the Jewish Holidays. (No pressure, but if you order the book off my website from Amazon, I get some sort of [monetary, I think] reward.) I very much enjoyed editing this book, because it was a break away from the typical thoughts you hear about the chagim.

Here is a quote from his book that I identified with so much that I decided to place it on the back cover. I think the women out there who are gearing up for Pesach will particularly get a kick out of this:

It shouldn’t take more than a day to clean the whole house, including the kitchen. Anything more than that is a stringency. If we are not capable of dealing with the extra workload we decide to take on, we deplete our energy and take out our exhaustion on our families. Not only is there increased tension between husband and wife, but we show our children a very negative example by shouting at them things like: I told you not to go into this room anymore. Why did you go in?! Eat on the porch! Eat standing up! Don’t touch! The whole kitchen looks like it was overturned by vandals – the husband and children will tremble in fear, eating in some corner, while the woman of the house glares at them like a drill sergeant. Is this preparation for Pesach? Is this educating children? No, it is a reign of terror with the mother as Pharaoh presiding.

So, not only is excessive Pesach cleaning unnecessary, you run the risk of becoming a Pharaoh yourself! I like this man. A lot.

Shabbat is wonderful, amazing, and meaningful, but restful?

A member of our community asked me recently if I would be interested in attending and committing to a series of shiurim (lectures) taking place in the holy city of Modiin. My first reaction, to be honest, was to laugh out loud. It is hard enough for me to function as a mother, wife, editor, and hygienic human being who needs to brush her teeth, take out her contact lenses, but to attend shiurim? You gotta be kidding. Would love to, but just not on the cards. I conveyed as much to this woman in my email back to her, but I have to give her 10 out of 10 for perseverence – the same day, she came back at me with an alternative offer: What if the shiur was on Shabbat? Would you be interested?

It sounds like a reasonable suggestion on the surface, but anyone who is a mother – correction, parent – will be able to identify with the following sentiment: Shabbat is anything but restful! It may be spiritual, it may be laden with meaning, and it may be an opportunity for the family to connect and spend quality time together, but restful it is not, and wasn’t from the minute your oldest child was born! Once your child turns three, nap times are a thing of the past, and then there is the challenge of coordinating multiple naps so that you are not up with one kid while another child is sleeping.

The way I see it, the Shabbat that I can actually read one article (or one page, if it is a book) without falling asleep is the day that I can start entertaining thoughts of shiurim. Until then, it’s back to reality.