Monday, October 25, 2010

Swastika - Is It Still a Hate Crime?

Dear Tanta Golda,
Recently a former member of our Temple community was the target of a hate crime. Someone carved a Swastika on her car. How concerned should I be? Should I stop telling people I’m Jewish or take my Mezuzah off my door?
Concerned and a little petrified.
My dear Concerned,
First let me tell you that Tanta Golda shares your concern, but she also wants to stress that you need to keep this in perspective.
This was one incident visited on a family who is not very out in the community as being Jewish. Wait, don’t jump to conclusions. Tanta Golda is not saying that they should be forgotten - they are after all - members of our community. I’m pointing out that there are other members of our community who display a more public face, who have not, G-d forbid, been the victims of hate. If anti-semitism were growing in our community, would they not also have been targets by now? Remember, perspective.
We cannot, we should not, ignore this vile act. We need to speak out in support of the family and against hate in any form.  I’m merely stating that there is no need to start wringing our hands and rolling up our sidewalks (or mezzuzot) either.
In Tanta Golda’s humble opinion, these young punks most likely were just out looking for mischief. (There was another incident in the same neighborhood against non-Jews.) In all likelihood they have no real understanding of the symbolism of the Swastika, but just know it as a symbol of hate.  Keeping perspective - the ADL came out recently saying that because the swastika now shows up as a generic symbol of hate, it will no longer automatically considered an act of anti-semitism. 
Rabbi Cooper, a nice man - the dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said in response to the ADL’s announcement, “The swastika is shorthand for every racist and bigot on the planet.” Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League stated, “Today it’s used as an epithet against African-Americans, Hispanics and gays, as well as Jews, because it is a symbol which frightens.” And it has done its job here. Is has frightened a number of us.
Now darling, you asked about keeping  a low profile. When we hide who we are, the haters win. If Jews world-wide had hidden and kept quiet after the Holocaust, wouldn’t the Nazis have won after all? When we hide, we open ourselves up to more victimization. We become the silent, hidden minority.  When we make ourselves known it gives non-Jews an opportunity to see that we are just people like them. (As Shylock in Merchant of Venice says: If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh?) Tanta Golda feels very strongly that when people reach out to each other, misconceptions break down. I applaud the family for making this incident public.
By making the community aware of incidents of hate we allow them the opportunity to stand with us. And history in the Redding area has proven that people of good conscience abound here. And we are not alone. The story of what happened in Billings MT in 1993 is another wonderful example of people coming together to stand up against hate. (You should check out the wonderful book: The Christmas Menorahs, by Janice Cohn.)
This horrible act provides us the opportunity to discuss with friends and neighbors the moral and ethical issues inherent in bigotry. My kreplach, we must see this as an opportunity to stand together, an opportunity to teach acceptance, an opportunity to open our arms to others so they see that we are not something to fear, or ridicule. This is a time to be strong and proud.
With a warm, protective embrace,
Tanta Golda

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Priestly Caste - Reform View

Dear Tanta Golda,
I know that Reform Judaism considers someone Jewish if either parent is. What is our take on the priestly castes?
In priestly limbo, R.
My dear Priestess,
As you know, since the time following the destruction of the second Temple, one’s Jewishness was determined matrilineally, that is to say, if your mother was Jewish - you were considered Jewish. (You may be as surprised as I was to find out that this was not the case before then.)
The determination of one’s priestly cast however was passed on through the father’s side. Tanta Golda assumes that this was because men were the ones obligated to fulfill the various ritual duties,including sacrificial offerings of animals and schlepping the Tabernacle, while we women folk took care of the kinder and housework and telling our husbands what a wonderful job they were doing fulfilling the mitzvot.
Reform Judaism has always opted for the more egalitarian way of ritual participation. It has eliminated almost all of the ritual distinctions between women and men and between the castes of Kohen, Levi and Yisrael (non-priestly Jews). Most Reform communities do not call up a Kohen for the first aliyah, or perform the rituals of dukhenen (blessing the congregation on festivals) and pidyon ha-ben (redemption for a firstborn Jewish boy). I say most, because at the synagogue Tanta Golda attends, Temple Beth Israel, we are honored to have Jan Cohen come up and hallow us with the priestly blessing during the High Holy days. I would therefore think that there are other Reform Temples who still give out this honor as well.
Since most liberal communities do not observe the distinctions at all, regarding them as obstructing, rather than furthering modern spiritual elevation, there is no credo in Reform Judaism regarding the dissemination of caste status. In other words my dear, according to most scholars Tanta Golda checked with, the point is moot. However, I see no harm in bestowing the honor on your daughter if you feel so inclined.

May you be a blessing to your forebearers, whatever their distinctions. 
With love as always - Tanta Golda

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Head Covering for Men & Women

Dear Tanta Golda,
As I was reflecting during services last week, I looked around the congregation and noticed the variety of head coverings worn.  Most of the men were wearing yarmulkas as were some of the women. At my cousin’s synagogue, most of the women wear doily things on their heads, and some wear hats! What is the deal? Does one have to cover one’s head?
Baffled Beanie Boy
My darling Baffled,
You have brought up two issues for us to look at, head covering for men and hair covering for women. First to clarify terms: yarmulka is yiddish, probably Polish in origin, meaning cap. Kippah (plural kippot)  is Hebrew, meaning dome. Either term is acceptable.
The sources for wearing kippah are first found in the Babylonian Talmud, meaning that it is rabbinic in origin, not Torah based. Halakhic experts (experts on Jewish law) agree that it is a minhag, custom, albeit one that has taken on something like a force of law. From a strictly Talmudic point of view, however, the only moment when a Jewish man is required to cover his head is during prayer. Any form of head covering is acceptable, though Tanta Golda has learned that some religious movements use certain colors or materials to distinguish themselves from others. 
In Shabbat 156b (Talmud) it states: "Cover your head in order that the fear of heaven may be upon you." Rabbi Shlomo Chein wrote that when we wear a reminder on our head it is not because we don’t believe so inside, but rather to turn our thoughts into an action, just like we wear a wedding ring, even though we know we love our spouse. Reasons given today for wearing kippot include: recognition that G-d is above us; acceptance of the commandments; and identification with the Jewish people.
Now, my curious friend, women traditionally wear head coverings for a different reason. This custom originates from the laws dealing with the sotah (suspected adulteress.)  A woman’s hair is seen as a key to her beauty, and the role this plays in married life. In the Talmud (Berachot 24a), a married woman's hair is defined as ehrva, those parts of the body that are kept covered for reasons of modesty. In the past, this was a societal norm, as it still is in many cultures.
In some communities, women only cover their hair in synagogue, or during times of ritual, such as lighting the Shabbat candles. In others, usually orthodox and Chassidic, married women wear head coverings all the time. This ranges from wearing a scarf of some type, completely covering the hair, to those who cut their hair quite short and then wear a wig and/or a hat.
In its early beginnings, the Reform movement did away with head covering for men and women, but over time many people - men and women- have opted to cover their heads while in shul. I hope that this has answered your questions my sweet baffled. Perhaps you can request a kippah for Hannukah!
Tanta Golda

When to Light a Yahrzeit Candle

Dear Tanta Golda,
My friends and I were admiring a new yahrzeit candle holder from our sisterhood gift shop the other day, and the question came up about when one is supposed to light a yahrzeit candle. Some thought it had to be on the anniversary of the family member’s death by the Hebrew calendar, some thought the secular date was okay, and someone at the table thought that we should also light it on certain holidays! What does tradition say?
Burning with Desire to Know
Dearest Burning
Such a learned group you dine with, Talmudic scholars beware! But you asked a serious question.

First, yahrzeit is Yiddish for “anniversary (of a person’s death)”. The reason given for the lighting of a candle to mark this comes from the book of Proverbs 20:27 where it states, “The soul of man is the candle of God.” So, the flame of the candle helps us honor our departed’s soul. Yahrzeit candles

Tradition would have it that the candle is lit on the anniversary as reckoned by the Hebrew calendar. If you are not sure what the Hebrew date is you can go to: and click the on ‘yahrzeit, birthday, and anniversary calendar’. You’ll be asked to enter the Gregorian date of your loved one’s death (that’s our current secular calendar) and it will calculate the yahrzeit dates for the next ten years. Now remember my desirous one that in the Hebrew calendar system a new ‘day’ starts at sundown, so you’ll actually light the candle the evening before. (“There was evening, there was morning, day one.”) If you forget the night before, it is okay to light the candle in the morning.

Among the Reform, it has become common practice to honor a person’s yahrzeit on the anniversary of the secular date. e.g. June 7th. So Tanta Golda would advise that you follow the practice that feels most respectful to you.

As for other dates, your friend was correct! Yahrzeit candles are also supposed to be lit whenever a Yiskor (remembrance) service is said in synagogue. This would be, Yom Kippur, and the last day of the three pilgrimage holidays: Shemini Atzeret (the 8th day of Sukkot), Passover, and Shavuot. Oye, that’s a lot of candles! *Candles are lit in the evening 

Some people also use the yahrzeit as a time to visit the gravesite, give tzedakah, perform acts of kindness, study Torah, and even fasting.

Burning, I hope that you and your friends continue to hold such thoughtful discussions and come up with more questions for Tanta Golda!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Jewish Belief in Heaven

Dear Tanta Golda,
Recently a boy in my son’s class told him that he (my son) was going to hell if he didn’t accept Jesus. My son was more annoyed than upset. I can’t say the same. Once I calmed down, I began to wonder if Judaism believes that only Jews go to heaven? Can you help us out?
 Protective Jewish mother and son.
My darling Protective (and what good Jewish mother isn’t?),
According to my sources, Judaism places a great deal of emphasis on the way a Jew must live, and the rewards that come with good living. In fact, making a good life in the here and now is much more important than the world to come. 

While we have laws that set us apart from the rest of the world, such as kashrut and the keeping of Shabbat, the Torah does not ignore non-Jews.
Unlike the many other religions, who feel their way is the only way-period, the Torah says that Jewish law is the correct way for Jews to live. Other people may still be able to receive reward in the next world by faithfully following the Sheva Mitzvot Bnei Noach, the Seven Laws of the sons of Noah. These are:
1. Prohibition of idolatry
2. Prohibition of murder
3. Prohibition of theft
4. Prohibition of sexual immorality
5. Prohibition of blasphemy
6. Prohibition of eating flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive

7. Requirement to have an effective judiciary to establish civil laws and enforce the preceding six laws fairly
So, being non-Jewish does not bar one from the rewards of the next world. Perhaps your son can use this opportunity to teach his classmate that Judaism believes that heaven is open to all faiths and he hopes to see him there some day a long, long time from now.

Tattoos and Jewish Burial

The other day my son and I were listening to NPR when a caller to the show stated that a person with tattoos could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery. My son turned to me and asked, “What about all of the Holocaust survivors who have numbers on their arms”? I gave him my opinion, but we decided to check with you. What is the Halach (Jewish law) on this?
Seeking an more than an inkling, G
Dearest ink,
According to my niece, this caller’s assertion has generated a lot of chatter on the Jewish websites. I too had only an inkling of an answer. I was told growing up that one reason Jewish culture opposes tattoos is that Jews were involuntarily marked in concentration camps, and therefore tattoo by choice was at best abhorrent, at worst disrespectful to the survivors. But, Tanta Golda wants to provide you with facts, so I checked with my sources and this is what I was found:
Eight rabbinical scholars interviewed by the New York Times, from institutions like the Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University, said it’s an urban legend, most likely started because a particular cemetery had this prohibition. This then got passed on and became generalized to all cemeteries.
Mr. Klaven, a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati is writing his thesis on tattooing in the Jewish tradition. Rabbi Mark Washofsky, one of his thesis advisers, said Mr. Klaven’s work opens up a Pandora’s box of mixed feelings. Historical context is key. When Leviticus 19:28 was written, “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead nor incise any marks on yourself…” tattooing was largely a pagan practice, done to mark slaves or to show devotion to a pharaoh, according to Mr. Klaven. Since tattooing has evolved, he thinks the rule may be outdated. Ear piercing, he added, is not controversial. (This too seems to be open to interpretation by different rabbis.)
Another Rabbi, Bruce L. Gottlieb, of Sinai Temple, Michigan City, IN wrote on, that Judaism teaches us that our bodies belong to God. They are on loan to us and we are responsible for caring for them. Any sort of mutilation of the body is, therefore, prohibited. Tattooing is prohibited, as are some forms of elective cosmetic surgery.

There are criminal offenses that are so heinous as to bar someone from being buried in the Jewish cemetery. A tattoo is not one of those offenses. There is no prohibition against burying someone with a tattoo in the Jewish cemetery.
I hope my darlings that my rabbinical cohorts and I have answered your question. Keep listening, and asking!
Tanta Golda

When Do We Wear Tallism?

Tallism recommended on amazon

Hello my bubeles, I’m pleased to have this opportunity to introduce myself. I’m Tanta Golda. I’ve asked those sweet people at eblogger if I could perhaps have a small corner of the Internet to write an advice column. Now, let me clarify, this is not aitzeh (advice) on boyfriends, in-laws (don’t get me started…) or children. No, this will be a place to ask advice on Jewish customs, rituals, and other Jewish “How-tos” that perhaps you’ve been too shy to ask.
To get us started this first time I’m going to answer some questions I’ve overheard during services:
Tanta Golda,
I have two questions about Tallit, who wears them and when? Everyone seems to do it differently. Baffled on the Bima
Dear Baffled,
An excellent question! Here at Temple Beth Israel, when Tanta Golda attends services, anyone, male or female, 13 or older, is welcome to wear a tallis. Among traditional conservative Jews however, only men over the age of 13 wear tallit. In addition, many orthodox Jewish men wear a tallit katan, which is like a vest, under their clothing whenever they are dressed.
As to when – Tallit are worn on days when the Torah is read. In larger congregations the Torah is read on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. This goes back to ancient times when people only came to town on “market days,” making it easier to grab 10 men for a minyan.
At TBI we ask out of respect, that anyone 13 and older wear a tallis when they are called up for any honor at the Torah. It is like standing during the national anthem, respectful.
We do not traditionally wear tallit on Friday nights. In fact, the only evening service when a tallis is worn is on Erev Yom Kippur. (Also referred to as Kol Nidre.) Tallism
Tanta Golda,
I’ve noticed that there is something different about the Shema we say when we take the Torah out of the Ark, or am I just imagining things? Spiritually Surprised
You’re paying attention – Mazel Tov! There are two important differences in the Shema we say during the Torah service.
The first has to do with how we say it. Unlike all the other times we recite the Shema, we do not say this one in unison. The Rabbi, or whoever is leading the service, says the first line-alone. Then the rest of the congregation repeats this line. Next, the leader chants the second line – once again solo. Then the congregation repeats this line. Tanta Golda hasn’t been able to find out why we do it this way, but it may have to do with separating the Sacred from the ordinary.
This brings us to our second difference. The second line of this “special” Shema is not the same as usual. Instead we say, Ehad Elohaynu, gadol Adonaynu kadosh shamo. (Our G-d is one, our Lord is great; holy is G-d’s name.) Great observation!
Remember the advice my dear Bubbie used to give me – the only foolish question is the one you don’t ask…