Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Assimilation Cycle

Throughout our history, Jews have experienced a cycle of dominance, persecution, and freedom. There have been times where Jews have ruled their own land and been in charge of their own people. This is almost inevitably followed by a period of having been conquered and living under the auspices of some empire or another, usually one who does not tolerate Judaism and promotes persecution or exile and forbids Jewish practice. Then, Jews were often lucky enough to come under the rule of a different empire who tolerated or even encouraged Jewish practice and a generally “free” way of life.

What’s interesting about this cycle is how the level of Jewish practice among average Jews fluctuated within this cycle.

When the Jews were in charge of themselves, the spiritual leaders often had a heck of a time getting Jews to be strictly Jewish. See the Prophets in the Bible for plenty of examples of the Jews falling into idolatry – which really basically means, they started acting like the non-Jews around them. When the Jews were living in a “free” society, where they were free to practice Judaism or not, where the Temple was still standing and operating, or later when the government of whatever country they lived in allowed the free practice of religion, many Jews assimilated into the larger culture, becoming Greek or Roman or – dare I say it? – American.

But, when the Jewish people in a particular location found themselves under a persecutory rule, when the Jews found themselves victims of pogroms or systematic persecution or blood libel, that’s when the Jewish communities banded together to be the best Jews they could be, to defend themselves and their practice and their religion and their culture. One needs an Other to define the Self, right?

Maybe the pattern doesn’t hold exactly, but I think we get the gist of the problem. And we American Jews are suffering the same kind of lack that the Greek Jews under Alexander the Great did: There is no one trying to stop us.

Not that I’m saying that I wish there was! Far from it. What I’m saying is, shouldn’t we be grateful to live in a country where we can practice whatever religion calls to us? Shouldn't we give thanks every single day that we don’t have to worry about armed vigilantes breaking down our doors and raping our wives and daughters, killing our husbands and sons? Shouldn't we strive to be the best Jews we can be in recognition of the fact that we live in a place where we can do exactly that?

And yet, the allure of the secular, the American (or the Greek or the Roman or the Israeli) calls to us. It’s easier to assimilate. It’s more fun. We can do what everybody else is doing. We don’t have to worry about Judaism dying out, because there are still the religious ones there to carry on the traditions, and we don’t have to worry about anything happening to them (G-d forbid!) because we live in a country where they are free to be strictly Orthodox. Right? And if we wanted, we could always start being Orthodox, because, again, there’s no one trying to stop us.

Believe me, I understand that philosophy. I can hardly claim to be a religious Jew. But I’m an American Jew, and I have a healthy respect for the thousands of years of persecution, compared to, say, hundreds of years of freedom, our people has endured. I think it’s so important to put down in words, in print, that I am so grateful to live in a country where I am free to be a Jew. I am so grateful that the six million or so Jews living in the United States don’t have to look over their shoulders every time they recite the Shema or light the Shabbos candles. We are so blessed to have found a place where we are safe.

I learned an interesting story today, regarding the Alter Rebbe, the first Chabad rebbe. When Napoleon was bringing his army to Russia, the Jews rejoiced that they could be free under French rule, instead of oppressed under the czars. But the Alter Rebbe said they should not rejoice, because if they were freed from this oppression by the ideals of the French Revolution, the Jewish communities of Russia would lose their cohesiveness, their spiritual health.

Was he right? Very probably. After all, look at me. Look at many American Jews. And French Jews. And British and Canadian and Australian and Israeli Jews. We are free from oppression, sure, but how’s our spiritual health?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Why Be Different?

I have mentioned briefly the idea of the “spectrum” of Jewish practice in America. There aren’t just “religious” and “non-religious” Jews. There are completely secular Jews who do very little or nothing at all to acknowledge their Jewishness. There are very religious Jews who live their lives in a way very similar to the shtetls of Old Europe, immersed in as many laws and traditions as possible. But in between are the rest of us, who acknowledge our Judaism but don’t do everything.

Individuals at both ends of the spectrum – the totally irreligious/non-religious/areligious and the extremely religious – might be inclined to call the rest of us somewhat hypocritical. After all, how can we steadfastly keep some laws while skipping others? If we’re going to be religious, they might say, then we should go ahead and be religious.

I am willing to concede that I sometimes wonder how one can justify going out to breakfast on Saturday morning and then go to services and spend the next several hours trying hard not to break Shabbos. Or how one can be totally insistent on not eating pork or shellfish but then drive to a steakhouse for an early dinner on a Saturday? It does seem somehow contradictory, maybe hypocritical.

For this, I have two explanations.

The first is simple. Every mitzvah a Jew does stands alone. Lighting candles on Friday evening is a mitzvah. Saying kiddush and motzi (over kosher wine and bread, of course) is a mitzvah. Not eating pork is a mitzvah. So every time I do something that is a mitzvah, I am contributing to my own spiritual health. Of course, the more mitzvot I do (and the fewer laws I break), the greater my spiritual health. The goal is to perform as many mitzvot as I can, with the philosophy that the spiritual gain will entice me to perform more and more mitzvot as time goes on. Maybe I will never be Orthodox, but I will certainly be more actively Jewish than I was.

The second explanation is also simple. Anything we as Jews do to set ourselves apart from the non-Jew is good. I don’t mean this in a xenophobic sense. I mean it in a self-preservation sense. As long as we acknowledge that we are different, and as long as we continue to do things that our Gentile neighbors do not, we are contributing to the perpetuation of the Jewish people.

I live in a place with a very small population of Jews and a very large population of devout Christians. When we put up a mezuza, set the Hanukah menorah in the front window, wear a kippah, buy kosher meat, we feel very strongly, very noticeably different from these Gentile neighbors. It is often awkward, often difficult. But this is how we know that each thing we do is so important. Because it makes us different. It reminds us that we are Jews and keeps us connected to those who came before us, who preserved Judaism for us so that we can preserve it for our children.

So, sure, I drive on Shabbat and eat out at restaurants, but I also try very hard not to mix milk and meat, not to eat nonkosher meats, to keep Passover, to light Hanukah candles and count the Omer, when appropriate. And if I do these things with joy and communicate that to my kids, then they’ll also grow up knowing that every mitzvah they do is good, and every law they follow contributes to the overall survival of their people. And who wouldn’t take pride in that?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Picking and Choosing

Except for the strictly “Orthodox,” frum, religious folk, who carry the torch of traditional Judaism on into the 21st century, most American Jews find themselves somewhere along a great spectrum of Jewish practice.

For some, their Judaism is mainly expressed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and maybe on Passover. Others admit to their Judaism on Saturdays and holidays. Some just say, “I don’t celebrate Christmas and Easter.” Others do celebrate Christmas, but also Hannukah and Yom Kippur.

Differences between Jews abound. There is an internal struggle to set ourselves apart as Jews while at the same time trying to fit in to the secular or largely Christian America in which we live. From this struggle was born the Reform movement (due to a similar struggle in 19th century Germany), the Conservative movement, the Reconstructionists.

We dress like our Gentile counterparts. We go to restaurants with them, attend their schools, watch their television shows and movies, benefit from pre- and post-“holiday” sales in the stores, enjoy our day off on December 25. Some of us even date Gentiles, marry Gentiles, raise our children as “half-Jewish” or both Christian and Jewish, or with no religion, to save them the same struggle.

But on the other hand, we want to be different. We have our own jargon, some of which has worked its way into common usage. We have our own foods, like gefilte fish and matzah ball soup. And we want children to sing Hannukah songs in school (as if teaching “I Have A Little Dreidel” counts as sharing Jewish culture) and to see the “Rugrats” Passover on TV. We laugh about Ross’s Hannukah Armadillo on “Friends”, we revel in Adam Sandler’s spoofs. We have an innate desire to seek out our own kind, to share that which makes us different from the others, just as we long to participate in all those things which make us the same as those others.

Thus, we end up picking and choosing from the codes of Jewish Law, the halacha. If we’re not going to do it all, then we are instead going to figure out how much we “can do” and still be comfortable in our own American skins. We’ll keep kosher in our own homes but not outside. We’ll go to services on Saturdays. We’ll fast on Yom Kippur, light Hannukah candles, and eat matzah on Passover. But it’s just too hard to pray three times a day, every day, or never to eat out at a restaurant, and how can we explain to our kids that they can’t play soccer because the games are on Shabbat?

I’m not here to pass judgment on those who pick and choose. I’m guilty of the same. I am of a mind that every mitzvah a Jew does adds to the holiness of the Jewish people and encourages the perpetuation of Judaism. I am also of a mind that the more mitzvot a Jew does, the more likely he is to continue to do mitzvot and to pass along Judaism to his children.

But there’s that desire, that need, to be the same: to be able to discuss the Oscars and what Meryl Streep was wearing, to be able to go out for lunch with our coworkers, to buy those cute jeans on sale in J.C. Penney, to have our kids participate in the extracurricular activities that call to them, to attend the company retreat.

The only thing I can say, then, is that it is important, too, to be different, and it is good to be different. Because being different from others makes us the same as each other. And the more we assimilate, the more obligations we cast off rather than undertake, the faster our 3000+-year-old religion, culture, heritage will die out. And I fervently hope that no Jewish person honestly wants to see that happen.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Kosher for Passover

And now, as promised, what does it mean to keep “kosher for Passover” and how is it different from normal kosher?

I guess that means we have to start with regular kosher (kashrut). There are millions of pages of text dedicated to this topic, so please don’t use my brief overview here as “Kashrut for Beginners” or anything. There’s WAY more to it than what I’m about to say. But all disclaimers aside, here are the basics of kashrut:

  1. Meat: Kosher mammals must have cloven hooves and chew their cud. This basically includes cattle, sheep, goats, deer, and bison. They must be slaughtered in a specific manner, then butchered in a specific manner, then drained of all their blood. There are certain parts of the animal we are not allowed to eat. We are not allowed to have meat and dairy products in the same meal. If one eats meat, one should not have any dairy products until a specified amount of time has passed, usually 3 to 6 hours, depending who you ask.

  2. Poultry: The Torah gives a list of clean and unclean birds. Essentially, we are allowed to eat chicken, turkey, duck, and goose. They must be slaughtered and butchered in a certain way. They must be drained of blood. We are not allowed to have poultry and dairy products in the same meal, but we are allowed to have poultry and meat in the same meal. It one eats poultry, one should not have any dairy products until a specified amount of time has passed, usually 3 to 6 hours, depending who you ask.

  3. Fish: All fish must have fins and scales. This rules out all seafood that is not fish (i.e., lobster, oysters, shrimp, other shellfish and mollusks) as well as fish such as sharks. They do not have to be slaughtered or butchered in any specific way. We can eat fish with dairy to our hearts’ content, but we cannot eat fish and meat at the same time. However, we can begin a meal with fish and then continue the meal with meat, as long as the fish and meat are not on the same plate.

  4. Reptiles and Amphibians: We do not eat any reptiles or amphibians, such as snakes, turtles, or frogs.

  5. Insects/Bugs: There are four types of locusts named in the Torah as the only kosher bugs. We don’t know exactly what these are, so we just don’t eat any bugs (including snails, grasshoppers, ants).

  6. Eggs: Any egg from a kosher bird is kosher. Eggs can be eaten in any preparation and with either meat or dairy. They are considered “parve,” neither meat nor dairy products. Eggs should be checked to make sure they were not fertilized and have no blood spots before using them.

  7. Dairy: Any milk from any kosher mammal is kosher. Cheese must be made without the use of animal-derived rennet, as that would be mixing milk and meat. Dairy and meat cannot be eaten in the same meal. However, one can eat dairy (except for hard cheeses), then wait a short time, such as 30 minutes, then eat meat.

  8. Vegetables and Fruits: All vegetables and fruits are permitted to be eaten, but should be inspected to make sure there are no bugs in them, as bugs are not kosher. Usually, one soaks vegetables such as lettuce or broccoli in saltwater before use to loosen dirt and kill bugs.

Okay, that’s the basics of what foods may be eaten. There are additional rules about dishes and appliances so that one avoids any possibility of mixing meat and dairy, such as having a separate set of dishes and utensils and separate cookware for meat and dairy. I’m not getting into all of that, because, as I said earlier, millions of pages already exist on the subject, and I’m not out to give a full lesson on kashrut, just the basics.

So, then, what’s kosher for Passover? Well, obviously, food must be kosher for everyday use before it can be kosher for Passover. But there are additional laws that apply just for the eight days of Passover. These laws are derived from the commandment not to eat any leavened foods (chametz) during Passover, in memory of the matzah eaten when we fled Egypt.

Okay, so what’s leavened food (chametz)? Bread, obviously. Then we expand on that. Anything made with wheat flour, except matzah, is considered off limits. This is because we want to avoid any chance of leavening – rising – when the flour is mixed with water and then cooked. Matzah is made under very strict supervision so that no more than 18 minutes pass between the moment the flour is mixed with water and the moment it comes out of the oven. To be safe, we don’t eat cereals, cookies, cakes, pitas, tortillas, crackers, pasta, etc. Ashkenazim (Jews descended from communities in northern France and Germany and Eastern Europe) also do not eat what we call “kitniyot,” which are basically legumes (peanuts, peas, beans), rice, and corn. (This means that we can’t have any products sweetened with corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup!) The reason behind this is when these are ground into flour, they might be mistaken for wheat flour. The rabbis wanted to be very careful. Sephardim (those descended from the Jewish communities of Spain before the Inquisition) do eat kitniyot, as they follow a different set of rabbis on the subject.

In order to avoid all this possible leavening, we eat a lot of products made from potatoes. We always joke that on Passover, we pretty much eat potatoes and eggs, potatoes and eggs. Because, well, we kind of do.

On the other hand, all kosher meats are kosher for Passover, and most vegetables except those listed above. So it’s not like we can’t eat anything, but we are limited.

Oh, but there’s more! We are not supposed to have ANY chametz in our possession during Passover. It’s not just about not eating it, it’s about not owning it. This is impractical, of course, if we take it literally, but we have ways of symbolically not owning chametz without actually throwing it away. I’ll explain in a minute.

First of all, in the weeks and days leading up to Passover, we thoroughly clean our houses, top to bottom, left to right, wall to wall, under furniture, inside books, all the toys, under the rugs, vacuum, sweep, clean. Then we replace all our dishes with those reserved specially for Passover. We replace all our cookware. We replace all our utensils. Some even have special appliances, although most clean them thoroughly and then “kasher” – that is, go through a process to make it kosher – their oven, stove, microwave, fridge, etc. These processes are too long to get into and vary by which rabbi you follow, so I’ll beg off the task of describing it all. (Most families purchase all of these extra dishes, cookware, utensils, etc. just once and then store them for use each year. You don’t have to buy new every year. You just have to make sure you have ones that were only ever used for Passover before.)

Then we pack away all our chametz and tape off the cupboards where it is stored. Refrigerated stuff can either go into a different fridge or can be double-wrapped/double-bagged and sealed off and then put back in the fridge/freezer. Then we “sell” our chametz to a non-Jew for the duration of Passover, then “buy” it back at Passover’s end so we can use it again. Thus, we do not have to throw away all the chametz, just not “own” it for a week.

Finally, to ensure that all the foods we buy for Passover are in fact kosher for Passover, any packaged products we buy must be marked as specifically kosher for Passover. This means a rabbi watched it being made and certifies that no chametz was used in its production. There are lots of “replacement” foods, like cereal made from matzah meal (matzah meal is just ground up matzah), cake mixes made from matzah meal or potato flour, pastas made from potato flour and potato starch, candies sweetened with cane sugar or potato syrup, and so on.

I think that about covers the basics. You can see why this needed to be its own article!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Passover In The News

On Tuesday morning, we were watching our local Fox station’s morning “news” broadcast. I use the term “news” lightly, because these news people have to be the least professional newscasters on morning television. They spend most of the time bantering, advertising a local product, restaurant, or service, and asking asinine questions during “interviews.” We watch it because they do the weather and traffic pretty often, and it’s nice light fare to accompany our scrambled eggs.

I mention Tuesday specifically because it was the first day of Passover, and apparently a producer thought it would be a great idea to do a series of segments on Passover throughout the morning show. I caught one of them, I think the second of the series. The reporter was talking to someone – she didn’t say why they chose him – at a local New York-style deli called DZ Akins. I’ve never been there, but I have it on good authority that it is quite tasty. It’s a Jewish-style/kosher-style deli (but NOT kosher), so maybe the news show figured it would be a good place to get the low-down on Passover.

They were discussing the Seder plate. The interviewee mentioned a few of the items – the shank bone, the horseradish, and then the charoset. The reporter then attempted to pronounce “charoset,” to bouts of hilarity and little success. The man explained what charoset is made from – apples, walnuts, etc. – and mentioned that it represents the mortar used by the Hebrew slaves while building the Egyptian cities. He then moved on to gefilte fish. While this is a fairly traditional food served at many Jewish feasts, including the Passover seder, it is hardly part of the seder plate. He tried to describe what gefilte fish is, and then the reporter attempted to pronounce “gefilte,” to more bouts of hilarity and still little success. The interviewee then felt obligated to add that a lot of people don’t like gefilte fish.

Then it was back to the studio.

The fact that a religious Jew really wouldn’t have been watching TV on Tuesday morning notwithstanding – the first day of Passover being a “chag,” or holiday requiring rest much like the Sabbath – this segment left me open-mouthed. First of all, while San Diego County’s Jewish population isn’t exactly enormous, surely the station or the reporter could have thought to contact a rabbi – I can think of a few Chabad rabbis who would have been happy to appear, as long as it wasn’t on a chag – to explain Passover and the Passover symbols in more detail and with more authority. I don’t know who it was they were interviewing, but he wasn’t even wearing a kippah.

This brings me to the larger problem. When your religion is the subject of a few somewhat humorous news segments, even in the interests of education and not ridicule, you realize just how small you really are. I had always taken for granted that people knew what a Jewish person was and the holidays they celebrated. It hadn’t really occurred to me until recently that people might view me askance for my Jewish practice, or find the names of my ritual foods a source of hilarity.

I did find myself reticent on the subject of my religion with some of my tutoring students from my local city, though. None of them is Jewish, and I got the feeling most of them don’t realize there are any Jews in their midst. When I told them I wouldn’t be seeing them on Tuesday, they naturally asked why. I said I had a holiday, but I was reluctant to tell them which holiday. For some reason, for the first time in my life, I didn’t want people around me to know I am Jewish. It’s certainly not that I am ashamed. Rather, I think, it was because I knew I would then have to explain and educate, and sometimes I just don’t feel like doing that. It’s been a long time since I was surrounded by people who don’t know what Passover is. Indeed, my student today asked me what holiday I had been celebrating, and I told him Passover, and he said his teacher said it wasn’t Passover that day. I told him Passover is eight days long and it most certainly was on Tuesday and still is, which prompted the very reasonable question of why I could work today but not last Tuesday.

See? I was right. I had to explain. And I didn’t want to. Besides, I was supposed to be teaching long division. (Yes, really.)

I think my next post will discuss what it means to keep kosher for Passover. Stay tuned!