I am a Jew. Now What?

Originally posted on Ellen Brazer's Blog:

Ferdinand_Bol_003

Chapter 4

What really happened in that desert?

Now that we have had an introduction to Torah, it is time to find out what happened when the Jews were wandering in the Sinai Desert. It will also include a discussion about the Oral (Spoken) Torah.

King Solomon built the First Temple in 827BCE (that date is controversial). It stood for four hundred and ten years. Construction on the Second Temple began seventy years after the destruction of the First Temple. The Second Temple stood for four hundred and twenty years. Think about that for a moment. The Temples were the center of Jewish life for over eight hundred years!

Both the First and the Second Temples were destroyed five hundred years apart on the exact same day: the ninth of Av. I promise, I will not be throwing dates at you when I can avoid it: I remember too…

View original 1,359 more words

I am a Jew. Now What?

Ferdinand_Bol_003

Chapter 4

What really happened in that desert?

Now that we have had an introduction to Torah, it is time to find out what happened when the Jews were wandering in the Sinai Desert. It will also include a discussion about the Oral (Spoken) Torah.

King Solomon built the First Temple in 827BCE (that date is controversial). It stood for four hundred and ten years. Construction on the Second Temple began seventy years after the destruction of the First Temple. The Second Temple stood for four hundred and twenty years. Think about that for a moment. The Temples were the center of Jewish life for over eight hundred years!

Both the First and the Second Temples were destroyed five hundred years apart on the exact same day: the ninth of Av. I promise, I will not be throwing dates at you when I can avoid it: I remember too well how miserably I did on history exams that had a gazillion dates. But the ninth of Av is a date you should tuck away in your memory. It is an important date in the history of the Jewish people (more about this later).

While the First and Second Temples stood, all the commandments and teachings in the Torah were passed down verbally (Oral Torah) from teacher to student and from father to son.

Here comes a really pitiful truth. I learned about Moses and the Ten Commandments from Charlton Heston. I can still see him holding the stone tablets over his head with the wind whipping and the thunder crashing. Years later, I learned about the Ark of the Covenant from Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. Perhaps these were not the best places to learn about Judaism?

Most of us know that G-d gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai. But did you also know that G-d gave Moses the entire text of the Torah (Five Books of Mosses)? Keep in mind as you read on many of the holidays we celebrate today are related to what happened in this particular time period over two thousand years ago. Those holidays in the Torah are Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the Sabbath.

Let your imagination soar. The Jews have been freed from Egypt (Passover) and are traversing the Sinai desert. Three months into their journey they camp near Mt. Sinai. Moses climbs the mountain, and G-d speaks to him.

So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel. You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and [how] I bore you on eagles’ wings, and I brought you to Me. And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:3)

Moses comes back down the mountain with G-d’s words in his heart. He calls the elders together and repeats G-d’s message. The elders vow to obey and to keep the covenant, without a clue as to what that promise entails.

Hearing their unconditional acceptance, G-d tells Moses to prepare the people for His presence. He warns that no man or beast should even approach Mt. Sinai for that is where He will appear. If they approach they will die. Clouds descend over the mountain, and thunder and lightning fill the sky. A Shofar (ram’s horn) is heard, and then there is absolute silence.

G-d speaks to the Jews, proclaiming His Ten Commandments. The people are terrified of the incomparable power of the Lord, and they beg Moses to become their intermediary. Moses knows that G-d has revealed Himself to the people so that they will fear Him and not sin.

Moses ascends Mt. Sinai for a second time. He remains for forty days and forty nights. In his long absence the Jews lose faith. They turn to Aaron, Moses’ older brother insisting that he make them an idol. He instructs them to bring all their gold and gold jewelry. The gold is melted, and Aaron fashions a golden calf (or small bull) to worship.

When Moses comes off the mountain and sees the people worshiping an idol he is furious. He berates Aaron and throws the tablets of the Ten Commandments to the ground breaking them. Moses burns the golden calf and has the gold ground into a powder. He then has all the people drink it so there is nothing left of their idol. They understand then that it was not a god.

G-d tells Moses that the Jews will die for their sin. After all, He had just appeared before the people, and the Second Commandment was very clear. It began: You shall have no other gods before Me. (Exodus 20:3)

Moses beseeches G-d to forgive the Jews and give them another chance. He pleads: “You brought them out from Egypt. They are yours.” G-d relents but insists that the most brazen idolaters are to pay with their lives.

Moses asks for volunteers to carry out G-d’s wishes. The Levites, who did not participate in the idolatry, offer to carry out the killings in order to prove their total dedication to the one true G-d. Three thousand Israelites were slain.

I promised not to muddy the waters with controversial information. But I think we must be aware that archeological digs have uncovered thousands of small figurines with prominent breasts. These figurines were found in Israelite homes dating from four hundred years after the Jews received the Ten Commandments. It appears that these figures represented fertility. Was this idol worship, or was it simply the cultural norm? Were the Jews punished for disobeying G-d’s commandment to have no graven images? We take a look at this later in the chapter on punishment and reward.

Before ascending Mt. Sinai for a third time, Moses instructs the nation of Israel to mourn the death of their brethren and to repent for their sin of idolatry by fasting from sunrise until sunset every day until his return (Yom Kippur). Moses brings with him two hewed tablets so that G-d can again inscribe the Ten Commandments.

Moses spends another forty days and forty nights without food or sleep. It is said, he had become like an angel. During that time, G-d revealed the entire Torah to Moses, the six hundred and thirteen commandments along with the laws and the interpretations. The Torah was taught to Moses orally by G-d because the written Torah would have been incomprehensible without

G-d’s teachings. Moses comes off the mountain with new tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments (holiday of Shavuot).

I visualize Moses sitting in his tent surrounded by the great Jewish minds of his time. He is teaching them the intricacies of the Torah. This day he speaks of the Sabbath, admonishing that it is G-d’s commandment that we keep and remember Shabbat. He quotes from the Torah that we must rest on the seventh day from work, and our servants and domesticated animals must rest as well. He reminds them that no fire can be kindled on the Sabbath.

I can hear the questions that must have followed: Tell us Moses, what constitutes rest? What are the rules about cooking? Must we dress a certain way? Are we allowed to write? What types of discussions can we have? I see them talking until darkness descends.

Moses answers each question as G-d had taught him. Speaking with great patience, smiling, already knowing that for thousands of years, the ever-resilient Jews will adapt to whatever rules are necessary to maintain the Sabbath and keep it holy.

How did the spoken Torah stay accurate as it was disseminated to millions of Jews?

I remember a game we played as children. We would sit in a circle, and someone would whisper something. The person would repeat what they had heard to the next person in the circle. On and on it would go. By the time the last person heard the message it had changed.

If we could not even keep a phrase from changing, how did the information remain so exact? If Moses received the entire Torah while on Mt. Sinai, wouldn’t that mean that G-d reveled when he would die? After all, the last book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, foretells Moses’ death and tells of our entering the land of Israel.

People of faith would say: G-d created the world. He freed us from bondage in Egypt. He parted the Reed Sea.

G-d can do anything.

You will read and hear various interpretations from rabbis and biblical scholars on much of what I have just shared with you. Many will say that the Torah was not written while the Jews were in the desert. Regardless of the discussions, there is one irrefutable fundamental belief that is the basis for all Judaism:

The Torah and the Ten Commandments came directly from G-d.

 

 

 

I AM A JEW. NOW WHAT

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Chapter 3

Books! Books! Books!

Judaism is a religion. It is also the written history of the ancient world. It’s a tribute to a people that despite all odds continue to strive and survive regardless of past or present travails. What I have learned is that to understand Judaism, we must also understand its history. And that begins with the Torah.

I want to make it perfectly clear, I am not a scholar, and I am not trying to pretend that I am. What I am trying to do is put in plain language the basics of Judaism for the unversed like me. When you get to a section or page that does not go deep enough, and they never will, it is my fervent hope that you will decide to read other books (after you have finished mine of course) that will take you deeper.

We have to start somewhere, and that is why I am devoting a few chapters to the books of Judaism: as much for me as for you. I cannot tell you how many times I have tried to keep it all straight in my head: Torah, Bible, Mishnah, Chumash, Gemara, Tanack, Talmud and the list goes on.

I admit to a lifetime of ignorance about my religion. When I was nine years old, I went to Hebrew School in Rochester, New York. Bible stories were kept to a minimum because who had time? We were there to learn to read and write Hebrew. To this day, that still confuses me. Who learns to read and write a language but never learns how to speak that language?

Then, when I was eleven, we moved to Naples Florida. There were three Jewish families in Naples and obviously no synagogue. In fact, the country clubs were even restricted: No Jews and No Blacks. Why Naples? What else? My Dad went into business there: it was a wonderful opportunity. So I traded my winter coat and my Judaism for warm weather and sand in my shoes. That is how I grew up. But I was always proud to be a Jew. I remember a friend in sixth grade asking me if I were a Jew or an American. It was not asked in an anti-Semitic way; I imagine it was something he heard at home. Today, I would give the same answer I gave to him: I am both.

When I began to write my books, I was embarrassed that the Catholic friends in my writing group knew more about biblical Judaism than I knew. They could even quote scripture. I would be hard-pressed to find even one of my Jewish friends that could do that. As a child, I did memorize the 23rd Psalm when my mother’s best friend died. You know the one: The Lord is my Shepherd. . . .AND I still know it by heart. Truth time: I do not ever expect to be quoting scripture. I have a hard enough time just remembering names.

I will try to avoid writing like you are reading a textbook. But information is information, and there is just so many ways that information can be transmitted. Please keep in mind, I am teaching myself as we go along. Some of this may seem elementary to you. Let me begin by asking: Do you know what the book of Leviticus is about? If you have a clear understanding, then you have a “Get Out Of Jail Free” card, and you can skip this chapter. If not, read on!

Let me begin with the Torah.

Torah—also called the Chumash. I know, I know, I know. Why does it have to have two names? Thing is, you will hear it referred to by both names by learned Jews, and I don’t want you to get confused. I will stick to the word Torah.

The Torah is the Five Books of Moses. Five separate books, all written on the parchment scroll that make up the Torah. Think of Torah as the main event. It is the foundation, the touchstone of Judaism that all else stands upon. Above all else, Torah is a document of faith. I say this because if we start to apply carbon dating, archeology, chronology etc., to the Torah, we will find ourselves lost and confused. For the purpose of this writing I will, and I hope you will join me, suspend my intellectual mind and embrace my spirituality.

The books of Torah are: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Some facts: We always stand when the Torah is lifted. The Torah is read three times a week, Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Moses declared that no more than three days should ever pass without giving honor to the Torah. (Some believe the decision came in the fourth century before the Common Era, BCE). Torah is also read on the holidays; fast days and on the new moon.

The first time I was in services and they announced prayers for the new moon (Rosh Chodesh) I remember thinking, not another holiday to make the services longer? I have now come to love these special prayers for the new moon. It reminds me that another month has passed in my life, and that I need to value each moment that I am given.

Before the Torah is read, it is paraded around the room. People kiss it with either their prayer book or with the fringe on their tallit. (prayer shawl). The Torah is then placed on the bimah (podium) before reading.

Each week a portion (parshah) from the Torah is read in the synagogue. There are fifty-four portions that we read including leap year. Over the course of a year, we read from the book of Genesis through to the book of Deuteronomy. On the holiday of Simchat Torah, we read the last portion in the Torah Scroll. Then the Scroll is rewound, and we begin again, reading the first paragraph of Genesis. The Torah is a never-ending circle.

Whenever the Torah is read, we also read a passage from the Prophets known as the Haftarah. The reading from the Haftarah relates to that week’s Torah portion.

The portion of the week is divided up. Various members of the congregation come forward to participate by saying a prayer before and after the rabbi, cantor or a learned member of the congregation reads. There is a transliteration in English so you can read the prayers, even if you don’t know Hebrew. No vowels appear in the Torah, so even if you can read Hebrew, reading from the Torah is unbelievably difficult and that is putting it mildly.

The first Aliyah, the honor of being called to the Torah, is given to a Kohein or Cohen. Kohein in Hebrew translates to priest. The name Cohen designates someone who is a patrilineal descendent of Moses’ brother, Aaron. Aaron and his descendents were the priests who oversaw the altar and the sacrifices. I know I threw in a word that we don’t see very often. The definition of patrilineal is “descended from the line of the father.”

The second Aliyah is given to a Levi. Levi was one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. When Moses was on Mt. Sinai and the Jews lost faith and they constructed the idol of the golden calf. The tribe of Levi did not participate.

The rest of Aliyahs are given to people who may be celebrating special events in their lives—weddings, birthdays, birth of a child, etc.

Here is a quick overview of the five books of the Torah. Think of it as if you were in your first year of Hebrew school, only this time you are going to pay attention.

Genesis: The beginning of creation. It describes the generations of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the birth of Jacob’s twelve sons and one daughter. We are introduced to murder, the first flood and the first organized rebellion. To quote Rabbi Boruch Clinton: “This is the book about the way the world was built; its rules and purpose, its people, both great and small.”

Exodus: The story of Joseph and his family, the ten plagues, the Exodus from Egypt and the parting of the Reed Sea, (not a typo, it is the Reed Sea, not the Red Sea). Exodus includes Moses receiving the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai and the Jews wandering in the wilderness and building the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was the place where G-d communicated with Moses. It was a portable sanctuary that could be constructed, taken down, and rebuilt as the Jews wandered in the desert.

Passover was born of Exodus: The holiday that celebrates Israel’s liberation from Egyptian slavery. Regardless of where I am on my Jewish journey, Passover has always been a constant. It seems to be the one holiday that even the most assimilated Jews will celebrate. Perhaps it is because the entire Jewish nation of Egypt saw the miracle, when we stood together at the shore of the Reed Sea when the waters parted.

My earliest memories of Passover are as clear to me today as if they happened but a moment ago. I can see my grandmother, my aunts and my mother setting the tables. I can wander back to the scents of bubbling chicken soup, brisket and turkey roasting and tzimis warming on the stove. I can still taste the love.

We were thirteen first cousins—a clan, best friends who never needed other friends. Relegated to the kids table, someone was always breaking the rules by sneaking a piece of matzo before the proper time in the service. Memories return of tasting the apple and nut mixture, and putting horseradish in our mouths and then trying not to gag. Images flash as I write this.

I loved the sound of the Hebrew and then the repetition in English as we dipped our knives into the wine and then tapped the wine onto the plate ten times to represent the ten plagues: frogs, locusts, blood, Ugh!

The youngest child at the Sedar, to make them feel involved and special, recited the Four Questions in Hebrew. The Four Questions expound on why this night (Passover) is different from all other nights?

The youngest always needed help, and that is where I came in. I loved showing off how perfectly I knew the Hebrew! I think it was the only thing I learned in Hebrew School. Even today, although some of my cousins have passed away, and we are spread from Maryland to Pennsylvania to Florida we are still close.

Just last week, the rabbi at the Chabad taught me to think about Passover in another light. The freedom given to our ancestors applies to us today just as it did in ancient times. It is a time to reflect on the choices we have. It is a time to make decisions that will make us happy.

Passover also represents that moment in our history when we became a Jewish nation. Until that point, we were Jews because we were descendants of Abraham. When G-d gave our people the Ten Commandments and the Torah, we united as Israel—a people.

Leviticus: This book serves as a roadmap. In Leviticus we read: Love your fellow as yourself. We are instructed how to live as a holy nation and how to properly worship G-d.

There are several chapters on ritual purity, laws that relate to contact with the dead, and the laws concerning contact with a menstruating woman. (There is a lot to read about that!) Leviticus includes rules for the priesthood, animal sacrifices, dietary laws, (more about that in Deuteronomy), Yom Kippur and all the festivals, ownership of land and indebtedness. There are six hundred thirteen commandments interspersed in the Five Books of Moses—two hundred and forty six of those commandments are found in Leviticus.

Numbers: Numbers is the narrative that starts where Exodus leaves off. The book is the story of the years, the Jews wandered in the desert. It tells of the beginning years and the later years but there is little commentary on the thirty-eight years in between.

It begins with a census. There were six hundred thousand Jewish males between the ages of twenty and sixty. This was not a guess. Each name was listed and every clan accounted for. Add women and children and elders to that number, and we begin to get the picture of just how many of our people were in that desert! Numbers is also about rebellion: the lack of meat, fear of entering Israel, the leadership of Moses, complaints about lack of water and being drawn into the enticements of the daughters of Moav. The Book of Numbers tells the end of the journey that began in Egypt.

We are now coming to the final book of the Torah. Whew! I know it was intense, but I promise you, I did my best to give you a quick overview. It was not easy to do. I had to leave out some really cool stuff.

Deuteronomy: This book covers the final weeks of Moses’ life just before our entry into the land of Israel. Moses gave a long and fiery farewell speech to his people shortly before his death. He beseeched the Jews to follow the commandments in the Torah. “Watch yourselves very carefully, lest you should slip; lest you should fail to keep even the most obvious of commandments.” Chapter 8:11

There are one hundred and ninety nine new commandments in Deuteronomy, but many are ideas mentioned in other books of the Torah. This book stresses monotheism (the belief in one G-d) and the loyalty that Israel (Israel meaning the Jews) owes G-d. Deuteronomy foreshadows our life in the land of Israel, stipulating that sacrifices to G-d may only take place in the religious capital, in a single sanctuary.

There are only two fundamental prayers written in the Torah, and both appear in Deuteronomy: grace after meals and the Shema. The Shema is our fundamental declaration of a belief in One G-d. Hear, Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.

I AM A JEW. NOW WHAT

300px-Tanakh_given_to_Betty_Ford

Chapter 3

Books! Books! Books!

Judaism is a religion. It is also the written history of the ancient world. It’s a tribute to a people that despite all odds continue to strive and survive regardless of past or present travails. What I have learned is that to understand Judaism, we must also understand its history. And that begins with the Torah.

I want to make it perfectly clear, I am not a scholar, and I am not trying to pretend that I am. What I am trying to do is put in plain language the basics of Judaism for the unversed like me. When you get to a section or page that does not go deep enough, and they never will, it is my fervent hope that you will decide to read other books (after you have finished mine of course) that will take you deeper.

We have to start somewhere, and that is why I am devoting a few chapters to the books of Judaism: as much for me as for you. I cannot tell you how many times I have tried to keep it all straight in my head: Torah, Bible, Mishnah, Chumash, Gemara, Tanack, Talmud and the list goes on.

I admit to a lifetime of ignorance about my religion. When I was nine years old, I went to Hebrew School in Rochester, New York. Bible stories were kept to a minimum because who had time? We were there to learn to read and write Hebrew. To this day, that still confuses me. Who learns to read and write a language but never learns how to speak that language?

Then, when I was eleven, we moved to Naples Florida. There were three Jewish families in Naples and obviously no synagogue. In fact, the country clubs were even restricted: No Jews and No Blacks. Why Naples? What else? My Dad went into business there: it was a wonderful opportunity. So I traded my winter coat and my Judaism for warm weather and sand in my shoes. That is how I grew up. But I was always proud to be a Jew. I remember a friend in sixth grade asking me if I were a Jew or an American. It was not asked in an anti-Semitic way; I imagine it was something he heard at home. Today, I would give the same answer I gave to him: I am both.

When I began to write my books, I was embarrassed that the Catholic friends in my writing group knew more about biblical Judaism than I knew. They could even quote scripture. I would be hard-pressed to find even one of my Jewish friends that could do that. As a child, I did memorize the 23rd Psalm when my mother’s best friend died. You know the one: The Lord is my Shepherd. . . .AND I still know it by heart. Truth time: I do not ever expect to be quoting scripture. I have a hard enough time just remembering names.

I will try to avoid writing like you are reading a textbook. But information is information, and there is just so many ways that information can be transmitted. Please keep in mind, I am teaching myself as we go along. Some of this may seem elementary to you. Let me begin by asking: Do you know what the book of Leviticus is about? If you have a clear understanding, then you have a “Get Out Of Jail Free” card, and you can skip this chapter. If not, read on!

Let me begin with the Torah.

Torah—also called the Chumash. I know, I know, I know. Why does it have to have two names? Thing is, you will hear it referred to by both names by learned Jews, and I don’t want you to get confused. I will stick to the word Torah.

The Torah is the Five Books of Moses. Five separate books, all written on the parchment scroll that make up the Torah. Think of Torah as the main event. It is the foundation, the touchstone of Judaism that all else stands upon. Above all else, Torah is a document of faith. I say this because if we start to apply carbon dating, archeology, chronology etc., to the Torah, we will find ourselves lost and confused. For the purpose of this writing I will, and I hope you will join me, suspend my intellectual mind and embrace my spirituality.

The books of Torah are: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Some facts: We always stand when the Torah is lifted. The Torah is read three times a week, Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Moses declared that no more than three days should ever pass without giving honor to the Torah. (Some believe the decision came in the fourth century before the Common Era, BCE). Torah is also read on the holidays; fast days and on the new moon.

The first time I was in services and they announced prayers for the new moon (Rosh Chodesh) I remember thinking, not another holiday to make the services longer? I have now come to love these special prayers for the new moon. It reminds me that another month has passed in my life, and that I need to value each moment that I am given.

Before the Torah is read, it is paraded around the room. People kiss it with either their prayer book or with the fringe on their tallit. (prayer shawl). The Torah is then placed on the bimah (podium) before reading.

Each week a portion (parshah) from the Torah is read in the synagogue. There are fifty-four portions that we read including leap year. Over the course of a year, we read from the book of Genesis through to the book of Deuteronomy. On the holiday of Simchat Torah, we read the last portion in the Torah Scroll. Then the Scroll is rewound, and we begin again, reading the first paragraph of Genesis. The Torah is a never-ending circle.

Whenever the Torah is read, we also read a passage from the Prophets known as the Haftarah. The reading from the Haftarah relates to that week’s Torah portion.

The portion of the week is divided up. Various members of the congregation come forward to participate by saying a prayer before and after the rabbi, cantor or a learned member of the congregation reads. There is a transliteration in English so you can read the prayers, even if you don’t know Hebrew. No vowels appear in the Torah, so even if you can read Hebrew, reading from the Torah is unbelievably difficult and that is putting it mildly.

The first Aliyah, the honor of being called to the Torah, is given to a Kohein or Cohen. Kohein in Hebrew translates to priest. The name Cohen designates someone who is a patrilineal descendent of Moses’ brother, Aaron. Aaron and his descendents were the priests who oversaw the altar and the sacrifices. I know I threw in a word that we don’t see very often. The definition of patrilineal is “descended from the line of the father.”

The second Aliyah is given to a Levi. Levi was one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. When Moses was on Mt. Sinai and the Jews lost faith and they constructed the idol of the golden calf. The tribe of Levi did not participate.

The rest of Aliyahs are given to people who may be celebrating special events in their lives—weddings, birthdays, birth of a child, etc.

Here is a quick overview of the five books of the Torah. Think of it as if you were in your first year of Hebrew school, only this time you are going to pay attention.

Genesis: The beginning of creation. It describes the generations of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the birth of Jacob’s twelve sons and one daughter. We are introduced to murder, the first flood and the first organized rebellion. To quote Rabbi Boruch Clinton: “This is the book about the way the world was built; its rules and purpose, its people, both great and small.”

Exodus: The story of Joseph and his family, the ten plagues, the Exodus from Egypt and the parting of the Reed Sea, (not a typo, it is the Reed Sea, not the Red Sea). Exodus includes Moses receiving the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai and the Jews wandering in the wilderness and building the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was the place where G-d communicated with Moses. It was a portable sanctuary that could be constructed, taken down, and rebuilt as the Jews wandered in the desert.

Passover was born of Exodus: The holiday that celebrates Israel’s liberation from Egyptian slavery. Regardless of where I am on my Jewish journey, Passover has always been a constant. It seems to be the one holiday that even the most assimilated Jews will celebrate. Perhaps it is because the entire Jewish nation of Egypt saw the miracle, when we stood together at the shore of the Reed Sea when the waters parted.

My earliest memories of Passover are as clear to me today as if they happened but a moment ago. I can see my grandmother, my aunts and my mother setting the tables. I can wander back to the scents of bubbling chicken soup, brisket and turkey roasting and tzimis warming on the stove. I can still taste the love.

We were thirteen first cousins—a clan, best friends who never needed other friends. Relegated to the kids table, someone was always breaking the rules by sneaking a piece of matzo before the proper time in the service. Memories return of tasting the apple and nut mixture, and putting horseradish in our mouths and then trying not to gag. Images flash as I write this.

I loved the sound of the Hebrew and then the repetition in English as we dipped our knives into the wine and then tapped the wine onto the plate ten times to represent the ten plagues: frogs, locusts, blood, Ugh!

The youngest child at the Sedar, to make them feel involved and special, recited the Four Questions in Hebrew. The Four Questions expound on why this night (Passover) is different from all other nights?

The youngest always needed help, and that is where I came in. I loved showing off how perfectly I knew the Hebrew! I think it was the only thing I learned in Hebrew School. Even today, although some of my cousins have passed away, and we are spread from Maryland to Pennsylvania to Florida we are still close.

Just last week, the rabbi at the Chabad taught me to think about Passover in another light. The freedom given to our ancestors applies to us today just as it did in ancient times. It is a time to reflect on the choices we have. It is a time to make decisions that will make us happy.

Passover also represents that moment in our history when we became a Jewish nation. Until that point, we were Jews because we were descendants of Abraham. When G-d gave our people the Ten Commandments and the Torah, we united as Israel—a people.

Leviticus: This book serves as a roadmap. In Leviticus we read: Love your fellow as yourself. We are instructed how to live as a holy nation and how to properly worship G-d.

There are several chapters on ritual purity, laws that relate to contact with the dead, and the laws concerning contact with a menstruating woman. (There is a lot to read about that!) Leviticus includes rules for the priesthood, animal sacrifices, dietary laws, (more about that in Deuteronomy), Yom Kippur and all the festivals, ownership of land and indebtedness. There are six hundred thirteen commandments interspersed in the Five Books of Moses—two hundred and forty six of those commandments are found in Leviticus.

Numbers: Numbers is the narrative that starts where Exodus leaves off. The book is the story of the years, the Jews wandered in the desert. It tells of the beginning years and the later years but there is little commentary on the thirty-eight years in between.

It begins with a census. There were six hundred thousand Jewish males between the ages of twenty and sixty. This was not a guess. Each name was listed and every clan accounted for. Add women and children and elders to that number, and we begin to get the picture of just how many of our people were in that desert! Numbers is also about rebellion: the lack of meat, fear of entering Israel, the leadership of Moses, complaints about lack of water and being drawn into the enticements of the daughters of Moav. The Book of Numbers tells the end of the journey that began in Egypt.

We are now coming to the final book of the Torah. Whew! I know it was intense, but I promise you, I did my best to give you a quick overview. It was not easy to do. I had to leave out some really cool stuff.

Deuteronomy: This book covers the final weeks of Moses’ life just before our entry into the land of Israel. Moses gave a long and fiery farewell speech to his people shortly before his death. He beseeched the Jews to follow the commandments in the Torah. “Watch yourselves very carefully, lest you should slip; lest you should fail to keep even the most obvious of commandments.” Chapter 8:11

There are one hundred and ninety nine new commandments in Deuteronomy, but many are ideas mentioned in other books of the Torah. This book stresses monotheism (the belief in one G-d) and the loyalty that Israel (Israel meaning the Jews) owes G-d. Deuteronomy foreshadows our life in the land of Israel, stipulating that sacrifices to G-d may only take place in the religious capital, in a single sanctuary.

There are only two fundamental prayers written in the Torah, and both appear in Deuteronomy: grace after meals and the Shema. The Shema is our fundamental declaration of a belief in One G-d. Hear, Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.

I AM A JEW. WHAT NOW?

I am posting Chapter 2 of my new book. I hope you will decide to follow me on this journey. Simply put in ellenbrazer@wordpress.com and register and you will be updated whenever I put in a new chapter.

Gottlieb-Jews_Praying_in_the_Synagogue_on_Yom_Kippur

Chapter 2

Temple 101

The sky did not thunder, nor did the earth shake

As far as I know, there is no definitive modern-day book that a layperson can read that says start on this page, and then turn to that page and you will learn how to be a Jew. The religion is obscure and complicated, based on commentary, faith and stories, many of them fantastical. I did not begin at the beginning, wherever that might be.

I am still taking baby steps, doubting, questioning, seeking, and hitting the Holocaust wall daily. What do I mean by the Holocaust wall? So often, when I try to accept the daily prayers, I find myself asking: “Where was G-d during the Holocaust? Why didn’t He stop Hitler? Why did six million Jews die?” I will try my best to approach the subject of the Holocaust and Judaism later in the book.

After my beloved father passed away, I went back to that first draft of my book. It now seemed hollow, like grains of sand sifting through my fingers. How could I write about a Third Temple when I knew nothing about the First or Second Temples? I love research and yet I knew that I could spend ten years and still never touch on the meaning of what the Temples meant to the Jewish people.

I decided to write to some universities looking for a Judaic scholar. I received a letter from a professor telling me that one of the great scholars of our time was right in my own backyard at Florida International University. His name is Erik Larson (not the author). I called and made an appointment.

His office was small, a computer on the desk, his bicycle leaning against the wall. He was so young and handsome, I was certain I had the wrong room. I later learned that he spoke 14 languages, one of them ancient Aramaic. More importantly, he was the youngest man to ever work on deciphering the Dead Sea scrolls, brought to Israel by the rabbis. As unimaginable as it seemed, I was about to learn about Judaism from a non-Jew. And it would not be the first time. Two out of three other members of my writing group are Catholic and they knew more about my Judaism than I did.

In a subsequent meeting, Dr. Larson put a rendering of the First and Second Temples on his computer screen. He told me to try and imagine what it must have been like for a farmer or a shepherd to enter Jerusalem and then approach the largest edifice in the world. He was kind and patient as he walked me through the Temple, showing me where the women would have stood, where the Aron Ha’Kodesh, the Ten Commandments were held, where the priests stood, and where the sacrifices were made.

Sacrifices! The word and the idea mortified me. I think I can make this statement and be fairly accurate: most Jews do not know how, why or in what manner sacrifices were made on the Temple Mount. You may feel like this is the last thing you needed to learn about Judaism, and you might be right. But it is fascinating and just think you will learn something you never imaged learning.

Dr. Larson explained that thousands gathered every day at the Temple, and as long as the Temple stood Jews did not pray directly to G-d. We prayed through the priests, bringing our most prized and perfect animal to be offered as a sacrifice to G-d. The animal was slaughtered in the Courtyard, north of the altar. After the animal’s neck was cut with a perfect blade, causing instant death, a special vessel was used to receive blood form the animal’s neck. The blood was then sprinkled in various areas of the Temple according to the laws regulating the designated offering. Those laws are complicated and I will spare you the details.

Only after the destruction of the Temples did Jews begin to pray directly to G-d. When I left the professor, I felt empowered and ready to approach my story again.

I had befriended the young rabbi, Marc Phillip, at the synagogue I attended every morning. Inspired by his commitment and spirituality, I eventually found the courage to ask him to read my book for accuracy as it pertained to Judaism. And help me he did, keeping me from making mistakes like calling a rabbi’s wife from the second century a Rebbitzen.

In 2013 Rabbi Marc went to Israel with his wife and three sons. My book is set in Ein Gedi, an oasis in the Negev Desert. This town that I saw in my imagination is purely fictional as there has never been excavations in Ein Gedi to prove that people ever lived there, (Although many passages in the biblical writings refer to the inhabitants of Ein Gedi). In fact, today Ein Gedi is a glorious nature reserve.

Try to imagine my reaction, when the rabbi contacted me from Israel (Skype of course) to say that he and his family were on their way to Masada when they passed a sign pointing to an excavation in Ein Gedi. “How could we not go?” he said to me.

This is how I remember what he said next. “Ellen, they have uncovered a synagogue. Not just a mosaic floor, but walls as well. And it looks exactly like the synagogue your described in your book!”

My heart pounded in my chest and my breath stuttered. I got off the phone and said to my husband, “We have to go to Israel. I have to see that synagogue!”

Five months later my husband and I were driving through the surrealistic wilderness of Judean desert on our way to Ein Gedi. The topography was both tranquil and fierce. Surrounded by mountains, the sky above is royal blue, the land varying hues of yellow, beige and gold. Following the signs, I remember getting out of the car and thinking that it was not very impressive, this excavation I had come to see. There was a metal table set up and on it was placed some brochures explaining what had been unearthed: an ancient synagogue from the second century.

I followed a path marked by stones and stood on trembling legs in that excavated synagogue. As I stood there, I expected to feel the earth shake beneath my feet and the sky to be filled with lightning bolts. Tears sprung to my eyes. I felt nothing.

Yes, it was true that this synagogue looked like the one I had described in my book. But if this was my synagogue then why did it feel so wrong? I wandered around, touching the stone walls and breathing in the ancient musty sweet scent. I walked every inch and that is when I discovered a small plaque stuck into a corner that dated the building a hundred years after my story.

This was not the synagogue I had seen in my mind’s eye. Still, I believe with all my heart that one-day they will dig closer to the waterfall of Ein Gedi and when they do they will find the city and the synagogue I saw in my imagination.

As we drove from Ein Gedi I had so many apposing emotions. I was thrilled that excavations had begun, knowing that once the Israelis began to excavate they would continue to do so. But I was so disappointed that this was not the synagogue I imagined. Part of me just wanted to go back to the hotel, take a long shower and cry in private. But we were only a short drive from Masada. And I would never visit Israel without visiting that majestic symbol of Judaism that sits atop a rock plateau in the Judean desert, overlooking the Dead Sea. Little did I know that the mystical experience I longed for would happen on Masada.

In 31 BCE, Herod the Great built a great palatial palace as a retreat on the mountain fortress of Masada. Ninety-seven years later the First Great Jewish Rebellion against Rome began. At that time, a group of Jewish zealots managed to overtake the Roman garrison holding Masada. When Jerusalem finally fell to the Romans, and the Second Temple was destroyed, hundreds of zealots fled with their families from Jerusalem seeking refuge on Masada.

As inconceivable as it seems, the Jews managed to hold out against the Romans on Masada for three long years. Then in 73 CE, the Tenth Legion marched against the Jewish stronghold. A siege was implemented and a wall built. Using thousands of tons of stone and thousands of Jewish prisoners-of-war, a three hundred and seventy five foot rampart was constructed. In 74 CE, the mountain walls of Masada were breached.

Two women survived the attack and told their story to Josephus Flavius, governor of Galilee. His is the only written account we have of what took place on Masada. What follows is Elazar’s final speech to his followers and Flavius’ account of what happened.

Elazar the leader of the Jews on Masada: Since we long ago resolved never to be servants to the Romans, nor to any other than to God Himself, Who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind, the time is now come that obliges us to make that resolution true in practice …We were the very first that revolted, and we are the last to fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom.

Flavius the historian’s account: The defenders – almost one thousand men, women and children – led by Elazar ben Yair, burnt down the fortress and killed each other. The Zealots cast lots to choose ten men to kill the remainder. They then chose among themselves the one man who would kill the survivors. That last Jew then killed himself.

In Jewish tradition suicide is a sin. As the Talmud (Talmud explained later) puts it: “Against your will you were fashioned, and against your will you were born, and against your will you live, and against your will you die, and against your will you will hereafter have account and reckoning before the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:29).

The Jews of Masada chose to die rather than be enslaved. Today many inductees into the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces, take their oath to defend Israel on Masada.

As I walked around the fortress, seeing it with older eyes and a different perspective, I came upon a young rabbi who had set up a table. He was writing a Torah scroll. Written on parchment using quill and ink, every scroll is an exact duplicate of every Torah that came before it. There are 304,805 hand-written letters in the Torah and it takes approximately 2,000 hours to complete a scroll. That translates to a full-time job for a year. If a mistake is made when writing the scroll, than that entire portion must be rewritten.

It is said that the Torah was originally dictated from God to Moses, letter for letter. From there, the Midrash Devarim Rabba 9:4 tells us: Before his death, Moses wrote 13 Torah Scrolls. Twelve of these were distributed to each of the 12 Tribes. The 13th was placed in the Ark of the Covenant along with the Tablets.

Midrash is the commentaries written to explain the Torah. I will explain that fuller in the coming chapters.

I waited in line for my turn to have the scribe write a letter in the Torah for me. When it was my turn he said, “Make a prayer first.” I closed my eyes and I prayed.

“What did you pray for?” he asked, his voice gentle as a breeze.

“Peace,” I replied.

He shook his head. “Everyone in the world should pray for peace. Today I want you to pray for yourself.”

A bit stunned, I closed my eyes again. I remember thinking if I am going to pray for myself then I am going to be really selfish.

“What did you pray for?” the rabbi asked again.

“I prayed that I would find the story for my next book.”

“What do you write?”

“Jewish historical fiction,” I replied.

At that moment something undeniably mystical happened. It was as if the rabbi captured me with his eyes. All sound evaporated, I could not feel my body and I was aware only of his presence.

“What you write is important and thousands will read your words.” He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a handful of shekels. He placed them in my hand. “Please send me your books.”

I was crying. I said, “Rabbi, I don’t want your money.”

“If you do not take my money, then I can not accept the books.”

Months later I received this letter. I have not corrected it. His words are just as they were written.

Dear Ellen, 
I read one of your books, “And So It Was Written” and was moved to tears. I must say that I should of held your book from the moment I started reading it, and not leave it until I’m finished, If only I could afford the time. I had to read sections in distant times like Shabbat Afternoon. 
So it became quite a routine part of my Shabbat. 
Along with my presence at Masada, 
I could almost see the characters of your book, hiding in the crevices of the rocks in the desert of Judea and Ein Gedi. 
I’m eager to read the second book,
 my wife gulped it in one week and enjoyed very much. Thank you. 
The book you wrote is really a gift to the people of Israel, so there is no doubt, 
You are some of the messiah breeze. 
May God bless your hands to continue to write books and bring a smile or emotional longing, on our way to a world of peace and love. 
With Love & Blessing,

Rabbi Ariel Joshua 
Louis

 

That letter is the reason I write.

I am a Jew. Now what?

I have not blogged for a very long time. I have been busy promoting my books: And So It Was Written  and Clouds Across the Sun. Along the way I have been experimenting with what I would write next. It has not been easy. I have begun several books but nothing made me want to spend all day writing: until now. I believe there are Jews out there just like me. We were raised Jewish, and we are proud. But we know so little about our religion. Where do we start? My goal is to keep it simple, to learn, listen, teach and grow. I am not a scholar. I am a seeker who loves the traditions of Judaism. As I finish a chapter I will post it. There will be much editing along the way so don’t be too critical. I will honor your opinions.

I am a Jew. Now What? (working title)

Chapter 1

The DNA of Judaism

I was a twice-a-year Jew: I attended synagogue on Yom Kippur and on Rosh Hashanah. Out of a strong feeling of obligation, we always belonged to a synagogue and my sons had a Bar Mitzvah and my daughter a Bat Mitzvah. That was the extent of my Judaic participation.

Then events happened in my life that led me back to Judaism. I say back, because as Jews none of us are ever really that far away. The fog may have set in, and we may have looked elsewhere for answers but in the end we begin to remember that we all stood together at Sinai and that Judaism is in our DNA.

I am on a quest to simplify the understanding of this complicated religion. In doing so, I am reaching my hand out to you, asking you to join me. If you are wondering what I believe, here goes—I embrace the Reform and the Conservative movements and the teachings of Chabad. In other words, I take what I like from each. Some would say that makes me a hypocrite and a heretic. I would say I am just a searching Jew.

Just like we have to put one foot in front of the other to walk forward, I want to tell you how this journey began for me. At 92, my father was still driving at night and was a fabulous golfer. When my brother called at two in the afternoon on my sister-in-law’s birthday to say that daddy had not called her, I knew we were in trouble. I had tried to call him several times earlier in the day and he had not answered. I thought he was probably out for a walk or doing errands from the running list he always kept. Please indulge me and if what comes next makes you sad. I am sorry. But I see now that day was the beginning of it all—not the end.

I was working with my writing group when the call came from my brother. The person who lived closest to my father’s townhouse was my beloved x-daughter-in-law, Randi, the mother of my two granddaughters. I called Randi and said, “Please just drive over to Papa’s house to see if his car is in the driveway.” I could hear her fighting back the terror as she said, “Oh no! What will I do if it is there?” Ten minutes later my cell phone rang. Randi was weeping. “The car is here.” She adored my father and I was and still am so sorry that I put her through the ordeal that ensued. Yet, there is not another person in the world who could have shown the dignity and grace that she showed.

She stayed on the phone with me until the police arrived and broke in the door. From the moment they entered his two-story townhouse they knew my father was dead. She stayed outside relating everything that was happening. I was forty-five minutes away! I knew I could not drive and so I called my husband, making up an excuse for him to come and pick me up, not telling him what had happened—my father was my husband’s best friend.

I am not sure how we managed to drive to the house; the traffic was a nightmare, just like the nightmare we were in. My brother and sister-in-law and my daughter were already at the house by the time my husband and I arrived. My daughter was seven months pregnant. When I walked up the stairs, she was alone in the room with my father. Daddy was on the floor in his boxer shorts. He had passed away the way I hope I will—laying on the floor doing exercises. My husband stayed a few minutes and then he too went downstairs.

I sat beside my father on the floor, staring, talking to him, touching him. With death, his sun-lined face was smooth. He had a Band-aid on his toe. The Band-aid looked so incongruous, so ridiculous: he was dead! My daughter, Carrie and I just sat with him. His body had begun to decompose but neither of us was aware of anything but our great loss. In that few hours as we waited for the funeral home to arrive, I could feel his soul hovering over us. I wasn’t afraid—just so sad. The only person left in the world who would ever love me unconditionally was gone. He was my hero and my heart was broken. Some would say I was so lucky to have him had for so long, and that is so true. But he was always there and now he was gone. I would not trade those three hours that I sat with him for anything. My daughter stayed with me. I think it brought us closer than we had ever been. It made me see death in a different way. I understood that he would always be with me just as my mother has always been with me. My father wore a mezuzah around his neck, and I remember taking it off his cold heavy body and putting it around my neck. I later gave it to my eldest son; he has never taken it off.

Dad was a religious man, going to the Conservative synagogue every Saturday. He was blessed to have my brother and me, seven grandchildren and five great grandchildren. After services every Saturday he would call each of us to wish us a Shabbat Shalom, never pushing his ritual on any of us. When I would call him later in the day on the Sabbath and ask what he was doing, he would always say the same thing: “My Shabbas thing. I am reading and relaxing.”

As I write this, I can still envision my family sitting in a circle in the rabbi’s study the day after my father passed away. As is the custom in Judaism, we took turns talking about my father as the rabbi listened. When it was my turn, I told the Rabbi that my father used to tease me and say, “I want you to say Kaddish for me when I die.” (Kaddish for the dead entails eleven months of going to synagogue every day to say the prayer.) I would retort by saying, “You are not going to die” and then add, “Please don’t lay that on me!” We would laugh. I really expected the rabbi to say, “that’s very nice. I think it would be lovely if you went every Saturday.” What I did not know was that the Conservative movement had changed and that woman were now counted in that minyan of ten Jews needed in order to recite the blessing aloud. The rabbi looked at me and smiled. He loved my father. He said, “I think that it would be wonderful for you to fulfill your father’s wishes.”

I know you are beginning to get the picture. I left that circle knowing that my life was about to change. I also knew that my father knew it needed changing. I write historical Jewish fiction. My last book, And So It Was Written pretends a Third Temple was built during the three years when the Jews defeated Rome and ruled Israel in the year 131 of the Common Era. My father, thank G-d, had lived to read the first draft of that book. I believe in miracles, not coincidence. So many things have happened over the years, so many messages that I recognized and then rationalized away. So, I believe that my father knew I needed to be a better Jew if my book was going to be successful. He was right.

The only Conservative synagogue near my condominium on South Beach that had morning services was the Cuban Hebrew Congregation. Services were at 7:30 am. I remember that first day as if it were yesterday. The doorway into the building during the week is around the back and I could not find my way in or a place to park my car. By the time I figured it out, I was already late and crying. Shoving the tears from my face with an angry swipe I found my way in. I had my father’s tallit, prayer shawl, and his yarmulke with me in the frayed blue velvet bag he had used for over fifty years. I brought the yarmulke to my mouth to kiss it before putting in on my head. I could not believe it! The little round gold embroidered head covering still smelled like my father. I could sense him through his scent. I wrapped that tallit, the prayer shawl, around my shoulders, feeling as though my father was hugging me as I sat down.

Something magical was taking place. But it didn’t last for long. By the time I figured out what book to use and what page they were on, I was frantic—a stranger in a strange land. The Hebrew looked so foreign, it might as well have been written in Chinese. To make things worse, I did not know that on Monday and Thursday they read the Torah, which added a half hour to what I considered an already too-long service.

So now here I was, my sentence to attend seven days a week for eleven months. When the Torah was carried down the aisle and I knew enough to use my prayer shawl to kiss the scroll. A man about my father’s age, a man I later learned was called Rav Malka, began reading the designated weekly portion from the Torah. After he finished reading the old rabbi turned to me.

“You are here to say Kaddish?”

I nodded.

“Come,” he said, beckoning me forward. “What was your father’s name?”

“Irving Glicken,” I replied.

“What was his Hebrew name?”

I was horrified as I shook my head and my eyes filled with tears. I didn’t know.

“Shh. It’s okay,” he whispered. “You can find out. What is your Hebrew name?”

That one I knew and I told him. Then he said a prayer over me, just words in Hebrew that I didn’t understand. But those words swirled around me as if he were taking me into his arms.

It was now time to say the Kaddish prayer. When my mother passed eight years earlier, I said the prayer everyday by myself in my home, just Mom, me, and G-d. Rav Malka led me in prayer, saying each word slowly, allowing me to grieve. When I went back to my seat, I knew I was in the right place.

Before I go on I want to share the words said by my six-year-old granddaughter when she was told of my father’s passing. Randi told her that Papa had died because his heart was tired and it broke. My little Emma said: but my heart was not ready for his heart to be broken.

UNDERGROUND TUNNELS IN ISRAEL 2,000 YEARS AGO!

Originally posted on Ellen Brazer's Blog:

It has been a while since I wrote on my blog. I guess I have been resisting falling into the deep endless hole that is social media. Yet, I feel it is time for me to share my thoughts and feelings. Watching what was going on in Israel with Hamas was so painful that I felt my heart crying. On so many levels, I was concerned, frightened and sad. I had done extensive research for my book, And So It Was Written. After that research, I weaved a fictional story around a time in Jewish history when the Jews defeated the Roman Empire by building underground tunnels. 2,000 years ago the Jews constructed tunnels that were then supplied with enough food and water to sustain them underground for extended periods of time. The Jews would attack the Romans and then retreat to those tunnels and caves. When I wrote my…

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