Thursday, October 2, 2014

Sukkot Is Jewish Camping Under the Stars

A requested repost from September, 2013. 

We are doing it here in Calabria and many of you are doing the same thing all over the world.  When my daughter was a little girl she always called this holiday Jewish camping.  For Jewish families, many of us will be “camping out” this coming week as we eat our meals under the little temporary huts called (and this is where the holiday gets its name) “Sukkot.”

So here’s the question. What is the only building that is authentically Jewish?  The only real, true Jewishly Jewish structure?  If our answer is “synagogue,” or even “temple,” then we’ve run into a problem.

Think about synagogues you’ve seen.  Some are built in the round, others are square. In the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv there is a synagogue display – tiny miniatures of synagogues from all over the world. There you can see Spanish synagogues designed in the Moorish style, western models that come from Germany and bold and experimental types from Australia and America.

Why all the different architectural forms? Because nowhere in the Torah or in any other of our holy books is there any explanation of just exactly what a synagogue should look like. 

So, if the answer to our question about the most Jewishly Jewish building is NOT the synagogue, then what is it.  What’s the most Jewishly Jewish building you could ever have? It’s the Sukkah.

In all of the Torah, the Sukkah is the only building we are told we absolutely must build.  And as far as buildings go, the sukkah is kind of strange.  For one thing we are told to build it so that you can see through the roof and look straight up to the stars.  That’s not all. The sukkah has to be made so that its sides aren’t very sturdy. Open space is gently corralled within its wispy walls.

The sukkah is a building, if you can even call it that – a building that, more than it separates us from the outside, a building that links us with the outside.  For eight days a year our sukkah makes us one with the great outdoors. 

Our sukkah calls us back to the time when we lived in the wilderness.  It is a building that reminds us how fragile and temporary all buildings really are -even those made out of bricks or cement. 

That’s why, once every year, we go out of our “permanent” buildings into our temporary shelters so that we get a hands-on experience with how fragile all life really is.  If you don’t believe that just talk to anyone who lost a home to the ravages of “Sandy” or the tsunami in Japan. 

As Jewish families build their sukkahs and spend time eating, maybe even sleeping in them, these little temporary huts seem to be saying to each of us …  don’t shut yourself off from the world outside.  Because the walls are wide open, our sukkah demands that we connect with each other. Our sukkah asks us to remember the words of our sages; “The closest that anyone on this earth ever gets to God is our relationships with other people.” 

So as we Calabresi enjoy our mountain top  sukkah, built beneath the “pergola,” the grape arbor where we regularly make our Shabbat Kiddush blessings, even we Italian B’nei Anousim, who are only now reclaiming our Jewish roots, understand that regardless of where we live, our homes and our hearts need wide open spaces. We need to remember that regardless of the structure, we live under roofs that are gentle and fragile, just like the roof of our sukkah.

The Jewish holiday of Sukkot says to us that we need to stop for a moment and take time to look up.  It’s curious how, in shaky temporary lean-tos, we can feel God’s presence even more keenly.  And how important it is for us to know that when we sit in our ancient flimsy sukkah, it is here where we can truly see the stars. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Hebrew Month of Elul: Facts, Tips and Actions

The Month of Preparation

On the secular calendar it’s nearly the end of August while on the Hebrew calendar a new month has begun. It’s the month of Elul, the only month that does not feature a holiday, a feast day, a fast day or a memorial. And that’s no coincidence. Our sages understood that we Jews need time to prepare spiritually for Rosh HaShanah, the new year, when we are asked to make our apologies and amends and to accept, with a forgiving spirit, apologies made to us.

So nu, what do you do during Elul? Below you will find 29 the FACTS, TIPS and ACTIONS to help you prepare your head and heart to receive the blessings and joys of Hebrew year  5775.

1. The month of Elul begins this year at sundown, Tuesday, August 26.

2. Elul is the only one of the Hebrew months where there are no festivals, memorial days, fast days or days of simcha.

3. Elul is the month of preparation. In fact the name Elul originates from the Babylonian period. In Aramaic it means, “to search.”

4. Thus, Elul is the month for Jews to search their souls.

5. The word, Elul (Hebrew letters “alef, lamed, vav, lamed”) is thought to be an acronym of “Ani l’dodi v’dodi li,” which translates to “I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.” (Song of Songs Chapter 6: 3)

6. he “beloved” is believed to be the “One God,” and the “I” represents the people of Israel.

7. The word, “Elul” first appears in the Hebrew Bible in the book of Nechemiah (chapter 6 verse 15)

8. During the month of Elul it is traditional to sound the shofar each weekday morning

9. The shofar serves as a spiritual “alarm clock,” to remind us to take time each day to examine our behavior, ask for forgiveness and prepare to change.

10. Our great sage and teacher, Maimonides (Rambam) taught us in Hilchot Teshuvah about the symbolic meaning of the sound of the shofar: 

11. “Awake all of your who are asleep. Search your ways and mend them in repentance.”

12. The shofar, or ram’s horn, that is sounded during Elul and for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, is the oldest musical instrument in continuous use in the world.

13. The person who sounds the shofar is called “Ba’al Tekiah” or (in the feminine) “Ba’alat Tekiah,” which means “master of the sound.”

14. The shofar can be made from the horn of any kosher animal.

15. Around the world the horns of the ram, goat, antelope, sheep, gazelle, ibex and kudu can be used to make a shofar.

16. The horns of cows, calves or oxen to do not qualify as shofarot because they are connected with false worship in the time of Moses while the horns of oxen are called “keren,” and technically are not “shofarot.”

17. The original Sephardic shofar is straight with no curves while the typical Askkenazi shofar is curled or bent. In Poland the rabbis taught that this bending symbolizes the human heart, which should be bent before the Lord on that day.

18. The shofar can be sounded once a day for the month of Elul and during Rosh HaShanah services for a total of 129 blasts.

19. The names of the shofar sounds are “tekiah,” “shevarim” “teruah” and tekiah gadolah.”

20. The original name for Rosh HaShanah was Yom Teruah, the day of  the sounding of the shofar.

21. “Kolel” The Adult Center for Liberal Jewish Learning, reminds us that there are specific things each Jew can do during the month of Elul.

22. Make time every day for personal reflection, meditation and prayer. These things prepare us for “Cheshbon HaNefesh,”  - “the accounting of the soul.

23. Think of the people you have hurt during the past year. Meditate on what you have done.  Find the person and make an apology.  Ask for forgiveness.

24. Think of those things that you should have done but did not do.  Did you borrow a tool or a book from a friend and fail to return it?  Did you forget to send greetings for a birthday or special occasion?  Make your apology for these sins of omission.  Return the item and make a belated greeting.

25. Hear the sound of the shofar each day during the month. Find a synagogue where the shofar is sounded or invest in a shofar and sound it yourself each morning.

26. Read Psalm 27 each morning. 

27. Give Tzedakah.  Now is the time to give charity to those in need.  Now is the time to make a special donation to the synagogue.

28. If you can, make a visit to the burial place of your loved ones. 

Apples and honey for a sweet new year.
29. Find your Tallet. Take it to the drycleaner for cleaning and pressing.  Polish and shine the Mezzuzot at your doors.  If you don’t have a mezuzah, now is the time to purchase one and hang it proudly on the right side of your door frame, point inward..

The best way to assure a “Shanah Tovah” a Good New Year, is to begin now in the Month of Elul.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Soul Searching for Rachela

Rabbi Barbara welcomes guest blogger, Marcia Colagiovanni.  

Marcia and Rabbi met via the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria (IjCCC) when Rabbi helped Marcia discover the Jewish roots of her family's Italian surnames. Marcia describes her remarkable Jewish journey which includes a deeply spiritual experience at the Hayim Mayim Mikveh in Boston, USA.​ You can also access this post on Marcia's blog, The Mikvah Lady Has Left the Building.

Left to Right: Marcia Colagiovanni, Robin Weintraub,
Rabbi Barbara Aiello, Florence Preisler, and Ellen Paderson.
It was an honor to introduce Rabbi Barbara Aiello to Mayyim Hayyim during her February 2014 Boston visit to serve as a Scholar-in-Residence at Temple Beth David of Westwood. While all annual Scholar Programs at my temple have enhanced my ongoing Jewish learning, this one was particularly personal for me.  I am an Italian American “baby boomer” raised Catholic who has discovered and embraced her Jewish ancestry.  Both Rabbi Aiello and Mayyim Hayyim represent the beginning and ending of my spiritual journey “home” to Judaism.

Rabbi Aiello is rabbi of Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, the first active synagogue in Calabria, Italy in 500 years since Inquisition times.  She is the first and only woman and non-orthodox rabbi in Italy.  Born and raised in Pittsburg, Rabbi Aiello traces her roots back nearly five centuries to Serrastretta in Calabria.  Hers was one of five Jewish families who founded the town 460 years ago as they fled persecution.

My ritual conversion took place on January 23, 2012, at Mayyim Hayyim.  Simply put, it was a highly dignified and profoundly validating experience.  My spiritual journey to Judaism had begun decades before.  I always felt strongly connected to Judaism especially when I learned from my many Jewish friends and colleagues about its teachings, and I comfortably shared with them its practices.  I was often told that I possess a Jewish soul.  But it was not until 2010 when I met Rabbi Aiello after I decided to convert to Judaism that I fully understood my lifelong attraction to and affinity for the faith.

In 2007, Rabbi Aiello founded the Italian Jewish Cultural Center of Calabria (IjCCC), an organization that helps Italians and Italian Americans discover the Jewish heritage of their surnames.  She is also founder of the B’nei Anousim (a Hebrew phrase that means “children of the forced ones”) movement in Southern Italy, an initiative to help the “hidden” Jews of Calabria and Sicily whose ancestors were forced into Christian conversion return to Judaism.

Archival research conducted by the IjCCC reports that individuals with the surname of my great grandmother “Rachela” (Rachel) who was born in Southern Italy: 1) are listed in Inquisition records of those brought before the Inquisition authorities under suspicion of practicing Jewish ritual in secret after they had been forced into conversion to Christianity, 2) are listed in Nazi Deportation Records, and 3) appear on the rolls of those recognized today as Jewish by the Italian Jewish Community.  And analysis of my DNA finds my ancestry to be Middle Eastern (Jewish) and European (Spanish and Italian).  Remarkably, this profile traces the centuries-long geographic journey of some of my ancestors: Jews originating in the Land of Canaan who migrated to the Iberian Peninsula, Jews expelled from Spain during the Inquisition who sought refuge in Southern Italy, and Jews who settled permanently in Southern Italy and eventually became B’nei Anousim.  Until Rabbi Aiello’s groundbreaking research began to uncover the “hidden” Jews of Southern Italy, many of us with Southern Italian roots had no knowledge of our Jewish ancestry.

When Rabbi Aiello toured Mayyim Hayyim, she learned that it is a 21st-century creation rooted in ancient tradition and reinvented to serve the Jewish Community of today; a resource for learning, spiritual discovery, and creativity where women and men of all ages can celebrate milestones such as conversions and weddings; and a place where survivors of trauma, illness, or loss can find solace.

As I immersed in the “living waters” of Mayyim Hayyim, my eyes filled with tears.  They were an expression of my overwhelming joy and peace to have finally returned home to the Jewish faith of my ancestors.  In memory of my great grandmother Rachela, I choose Rachel as my Hebrew name.

Recently retired from a 30-year career as an Immigration Legal Specialist in Washington, D.C. and Boston, Marcia enjoys spending more time with family and friends, volunteering, and traveling the world.  

Monday, April 28, 2014

Lag B' Omer: An Opportunity for Interfaith and Inter-denominational Understanding

The festival of Pesach is behind us. We’ve wiped the wine stains from the Haggadot booklets or, if we used special dishes, they are now put away. Finally the bread and cookies are back in the pantry and with a smile of satisfaction and relief, the most popular of all the Jewish holidays is a pleasant memory.

But between now and the Festival of the Ten Commandments or Shavuot, which falls this year in early June, there is a little holiday that can make a big difference for interfaith and inter-denominational families. “Lag B’Omer” is its name and it carries with it the possibility of building bridges between and among Jewish partners and families who share their lives with those of different Jewish denominations or with those of different faiths.

Let’s start with the basics. Between Passover and Shavuot there is some counting going on. The counting began on the second day of Passover and continues for 49 days when it stops at the holiday of Shavuot. This activity has a special name. It’s called “Counting the Omer.”

Back in ancient times, an “omer” was particularly important because it was an important unit of measure to determine the size of a stalk of barley.

Author Francine Klagsbrun, in her book, “Jewish Days – A Book of Jewish Life and Culture around the Year,” offers an anthropological explanation for the Omer period. Klagsbrun writes, “Many (ancient) peoples had similar periods of restraint in the early spring to symbolize their concerns about the growth of their crops.” These periods were less joyful and were often characterized by rites of sadness or mourning.

Indeed it makes sense that back in ancient times farmers might obsessively measure the girth of their barley crop each and every day, counting, and counting, then waiting and hoping that the crop would survive.

Later on the Counting of the Omer and the festival that occurs on day number 33 or “Lag B’Omer” took on a different meaning.

Incidentally, “Lag” is not really a Hebrew word. It is a Hebrew acronym formed by combining the Hebrew letter “lamed” which is the number 30 with the Hebrew letter “gimel” which indicates the number 3.  So Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day in the Counting of the Omer, a day, following a terrible tragedy, that later took on a spiritual aspect.  

In the Talmud we read that during Omer period twenty-four thousand of Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed by a mysterious disease. There was only one day when lives were spared.  On the 18th day in the Hebrew month of Iyar, which was the thirty-third day of the Omer or, “Lag B’Omer,” incredibly no lives were lost. Naturally there was great rejoicing since apparently the horrible plague had ended. To commemorate what seemed to be a miraculous event, our sages decreed that “Lag B’Omer” become a day of celebration.  

Rabbis interpreted the tragedy as God’s way of admonishing us Jews for our serious lack of respects for one another. According to the sages, the miracle that occurred on Lag B’Omer was God’s reminder that genuine respect and appreciation for the differences among us can change the course of history.

This year the 18th of Iyar, or the festival of Lag B’Omer, falls on Sunday, May 18 – a perfect day to set aside the denominational differences that separate us and focus on a new idea, grounded in Jewish pluralism, that maintains that “labels are for the jelly jars, not the Jews.”

For traditional Jews, Lag B’Omer is the only day in the 49 day Omer period when weddings are permitted.  Given the meaning behind the festival, Lag B’Omer is a wonderful day for modern Jewish families to celebrate an interfaith wedding or the anniversary of an interfaith event.

But even if nuptials are not on your calendar for May 18, a variety of activities can mark the special significance Lag B’Omer has for inter-denominational or interfaith families.

In Israel, Lag B’Omer is a day for picnics and bonfires. In fact, some of these fires are so huge that they can be seen by the satellite cameras thousands of miles up in space. Throughout the world, interfaith and inter-denominational families can light their own fires – literally, with the bonding of a camping experience or figuratively by lighting the fire of acceptance and appreciation e among Jews of different backgrounds.

Synagogues can set aside their denominational differences so that conservative, orthodox and reform congregations along with humanistic or secular groups can share a common event.

Within families interfaith partners can be warmly embraced, asking that, in honor of Lag B’Omer, everyone put to rest any residual animosity related to children or grandchildren “marrying out.”

Could it be that on Lag B’Omer God saved the Jewish people in order to remind us that there is only one thing worse than the oppression of the Jews by others, and that is the oppression that one Jew does to another Jew through gossip, slander and disrespect? If so, it is indeed a timely lesson.

Today it is not necessary to understand that an Omer is a way to measure a barley branch. It’s more important that we understand the meaning behind the custom. 

The little festival of Lag B’Omer reminds us that when Jewish families treat everyone within the family circle with love and respect, we will be rewarded with the blessing of “Shalom Bayit,” peace in our homes.  Lag B’Omer gives all of us the opportunity of moving forward or making a brand new start.