Thursday, March 31, 2016

Sand, Sun and Jewish History

Ninety-nine years ago today, Saint Croix, Saint John and Saint Thomas (as well as the smaller surrounding islands) were transferred from the dominion of Denmark to the possession of the United States. As territories previously controlled by the Danish, the islands that are now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands had a Jewish history dating back to the seventeenth century. Not only were there Jews living on the Island of Saint Thomas, but in 1684, King Fredrick III appointed Gabriel Milan, a Jew, as governor of Saint Thomas. He did not hold the position long, or well - after 16 months he was recalled, put on trial for abuse of powers and executed.

Saint Thomas maintained a Jewish population that peaked at around 800 families, making Jews a significant part of the entire population at the time in mid-1800s. The first synagogue was founded in 1796, and is considered to have been in continuous use since then (making it the oldest continuous-use synagogue on American soil). There were, however, several fires that interrupted the schedule and caused rebuilding (1804, 1831). It was last rebuilt in 1833. Located in the city of Charlotte Amalie, the architecture of the  St. Thomas Synagogue (originally known as  Beracha Veshalom Vegmiluth Hasidim, currently The Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas) reflects the beautiful traditions of the Sephardic Jews who originally founded the congregation. It is one of the few synagogues that still has a sand floor, a practice believed to have originated with the secret meeting places of the Jews in post-expulsion Spain. Since 1833, the only week that Shabbat services were not held was during Hurricane Marilyn in 1995. St. Thomas now has a steady and active Jewish community that also includes a Chabad Lubavitch Center.

Saint Thomas’ sister island, Saint Croix, also has record of early Jewish settlement. While it is known that the oldest grave in the cemetery dates back to 1779, it is believed that there was a synagogue as early 1766. Currently, the island is home to Congregation B’nai Or Synagogue.

Famous American Jews connected to the Virgin Islands include David Levy Yulee and Judah. P Benjamin.

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Simple Places

While exotic locations are interesting, explore the history of the Jewish community in your own locale.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Parts of the Soul

Have you ever wondered about the idea of a soul? It is a word that implies something metaphysical, something spiritual, and yet ‘soul’ is a word that is used so frequently that the very concept of a soul is often taken for granted, and rarely dwelled upon. According to Jewish tradition, the human soul is an incredibly complex aspect of the human being. In its most simple explanation, Judaism ascribes five aspects to a human soul.

At the dawn of time, God created the first human by forming the being out of earth. God then breathed into the creature’s nostrils “the breath of life, and the human became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). The living soul, known in Hebrew as a nefesh, is the level of the soul that modern society might call “the spark of life.”

The breath of God that was blown into the nostril of Adam gave humanity ruach. The ruach aspect of the soul is commonly associated with emotions. This may be why the Midrash describes Jacob as having lost his ruach haKodesh (Divine insight) during the many years that he mourned for his son, Joseph.

The third, and most commonly referred to level of soul, is the neshama. A person’s neshama defines and distinguishes him/her from all creature. One might simplify the concept by saying that the neshama is a person’s spiritual being.

Chaya, is the soul living God’s will. The chaya is the part of a person that strives to submerge itself in the Divine.

The fifth aspect of the soul is referred to as yechida, and it is the part of the soul that is  completely and utterly committed to God’s will. It is almost impossible to attain consciousness of this part of one’s soul.

This Treat presents a very simplified overview of a fascinating and complex topic.

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Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Grow Your Soul

Try to make choices that are good for all parts of your soul.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

For Seafood Lovers

If a fish dish is something that tantalizes your taste-buds, you might wonder how creatures of the deep blue sea fit in to Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws. First and foremost, not all fish are kosher, as it clearly states in Leviticus 11:

“These may you eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever has fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them you may eat. And all that do not have fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that swarm in the waters, and of all the living creatures that are in the waters, they are a detestable thing to you, and they shall be a detestable thing to you; you shall not eat of their flesh, and their carcasses you shall have in detestation. Whatsoever has no fins nor scales in the waters, that is a detestable thing to you” (Leviticus 11:9-12).

Noting how strongly the Torah emphasizes the need for both fins and scales, the scholars of the Talmud were puzzled because it is considered a fact that any fish that has scales also has fins. In fact, if one goes to a store and sees a piece of cut fish that still has scales on it (but no fins), one may buy it. One may not, however, simply rely on the store label or the clerk declaring that the piece of fish comes from a kosher species. The Talmudic discussion concludes that the requirement of fins is meant “To make the teaching [of the Torah] great and glorious” (Niddah 51b), and until today no fish has been discovered that has scales but no fins.

One might also wonder at the seemingly long-winded, extra language in the above verses. One would think that stating “all that are in the waters” does not need to be clarified with “in the seas and in the river,” and vice versa. This repetition, however, clarifies that the prohibition includes all the creatures of the sea, even animals like clams that are not technically fish. Sorry, no calamari!

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Fish List

If you enjoy fish, ask your local rabbi for a list of kosher species.

Monday, March 28, 2016

No Foretelling Death

The Talmud in Pesachim 54b lists the day of one’s death as the first of seven items that are hidden from humankind. As obvious a statement as this may seem, it is important to remember that, originally, humankind was not intended to die. Mortality was introduced only when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (which God warned them “for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die" - Genesis 2:17), thus introducing death.

Since that fateful day so many centuries ago, many have sought ways to predict the day of their own death. None have succeeded, although God did reveal to King David that he would die on a Shabbat. Many others have vainly sought the means to overcome death.

Mortality goes hand-in-hand with the knowledge of good and evil, since the fear of one’s own demise helps a person choose how to act. This idea is touched upon in the Talmud:

"Rabbi Eliezer would say: Repent one day before your death. Asked his disciples: Does a man know on which day he will die? Said he to them: So being the case, he should repent today, for perhaps tomorrow he will die; hence, all his days are passed in a state of repentance.” (Shabbat 153a).

Although sincere repentance can wipe one’s slate clean, a person can never really be certain that there may be additional time to amend his/her ways.

This Treat was last posted on November 30, 2011.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved.

Each Day

Live each day to the fullest in kindness and gratitude. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Purim Again

Unique to the Jewish calendar, Purim is actually observed on different days depending on location.

The majority of the Jewish people celebrate Purim on the 14th of Adar (yesterday). However, Jews living in the city of Shushan (now the city of Shush, Iran, which is also sometimes referred to as Susa), Jerusalem and all the cities that had walls at the time of Joshua's conquest of Canaan, celebrate Purim on the 15th of Adar (today).

The delay in the Purim celebration is based on Esther 9:16-17.

"And the rest of the Jews in the states [not Shushan] of the king grouped together, protecting their lives, and were relieved of their enemies...on the 13th of the month of Adar, and they rested on the 14th, making it a day of feasting and joy. But the Jews in Shushan grouped together on the 13th and 14th, and rested on the 15th, making it a day of feasting and joy."

The majority of the Jews were able to stop defending themselves on the 13th, and so rested on the 14th. In the capital city, however, where Haman's evil plot had aroused greater hatred, the Jews were forced to defend themselves through the 14th as well, and rested on the 15th.

Mordechai and the great sages of the time felt that it was important to separate Shushan's celebration from that of the rest of the people. Because they were still in exile, however, the sages wanted to make certain that the people remembered the holy city of Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. It was therefore declared that, in addition to Shushan, any city that was surrounded by a wall at the time of Joshua's conquest of Canaan would celebrate Purim on the 15th of Adar
This Treat was last posted on March 6, 2015.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

Aishet Chayil and Esther

On Friday nights it is customary to sing a selection of verses from the final chapter of the Book of Proverbs (31:10-31) known as Aishet Chayil, A Woman of Valor. At this time of year [pre-Purim], one particular Jewish heroine stands out: Queen Esther.

Which verse of Aishet Chayil best defines Esther? Here are a few selections:

1) Proverbs 31:17
She girds herself with strength / and invigorates her arms.
Even after hearing of Haman's plan to kill the Jews, Esther was hesitant to appear unbidden before the king (an action punishable by death) and beg for mercy. But Esther girded herself with strength...the strength of both the Jewish people (whom she asked to fast and pray) and of her own prayers.

2) Proverbs 31:11
His heart trusts in her / and lacks no treasure.
Achashverosh, however, is pleased to see Esther and offers her anything that she wishes, "even half his kingdom." But all she requests is that the King and Haman join her for a feast.

3) Proverbs 31:12
She does him good, never bad / all the days of her life.
When Esther reveals Haman's plan, she puts all of the blame on Haman. In truth, Achashverosh, like Haman, also had evil intentions. But since Achashverosh was both the king and her husband, Esther allowed him to make the decision to overrule the plan, rather than embarrass him.

4) Proverbs 31:30
Grace is false, beauty is fleeting / it is for her fear of God that a woman is to be praised.
Had Esther only been a beautiful Jewess chosen to be queen by Achashverosh, an entire book of Scripture would not be named for her. Esther's true glory was that she overcame her circumstances, remained devout to her faith, and risked her life to save her people.

This Treat was last posted on February 27, 2015.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

Shabbat Joy

Take the joyous spirit of Purim into your Shabbat celebration.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Power of Propaganda

In the last decade, there has been a noted increase in anti-Semitism, especially in Europe. But, attacks against the Jewish people are hardly new. Even the authors of the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, however, were not original in their intentions.

The first great anti-Semitic “big lie” came from Haman. Not only did he tell the king that the Jews ignored civil law and followed their own Jewish law, but, according to the Midrash Esther Rabbah 7, Haman wrote a letter of classic propaganda in King Achashverosh’s name to convince the local citizens to slaughter the Jews. The following are some interesting excerpts from the Midrash:

...a contemptible people who are arrogant, seek our harm and who curse the king. And how do they curse us? They say (Psalms 10:16): ‘God reigns forever; the nations shall be banished from His land.’ They also say (Psalms 149:7): ‘To inflict vengeance upon the nations, reproof upon the peoples.’ They acknowledge no gratitude to those who have bestowed good upon them...

Haman demonstrated his knowledge of Jewish texts and then took the quotes out of context in order to create a mythology that the Jews were blood-thirsty.

The letter goes on to refer to the historic events of the Bible (Enslavement, the Canaanite General Sisera, the defeat of Amalek, etc.) turning them into events of Jewish aggression and inferring that the Jews used sorcery to win battles against their enemies. Regarding the Holy Temple, The Midrash says that Haman wrote:

...I do not know what they had inside that house. When they prepare to wage war, they enter it and practice sorcery, and when they emerge they slaughter and destroy the world... 

Additionally, Haman reassured the Persians that God had turned against the Jews, and he then encouraged their animosity by stating that the Jews “ridicule us and the faith we place in our gods.”

Without question, Haman was a master propagandist.

Translation of Midrash Rabbah 7 taken from The Book of Our Heritage by Eliyahu Kitov.

This Treat was last posted on March 4, 2015.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

The Purim Story in Under 300 Words

At the end of a 180-day feast, the King of Persia-Medea, Achashverosh, banished (some say executed) his wife, Vashti, for refusing to appear at his banquet. He then staged an elaborate beauty contest to find a new queen.

Esther lived with her uncle, Mordechai, in Shushan, the capital city. She was chosen for the contest because she was particularly beautiful, and was selected to be queen. Mordechai instructed her not to reveal her Jewish identity.

Achashverosh’s new Prime Minister, Haman, asked for and received permission to destroy the Jews. A royal edict was issued saying that on the 13th of Adar, the Jews in all 127 provinces were to be killed and their property kept as plunder.

Mordechai told Esther of the plot and asked her to seek mercy from the king. Esther agreed, but requested that all the Jews fast for three days and repent for their sins while praying for the heavenly decree against them to be reversed.

Esther, welcomed by Achashverosh, simply requested that Achashverosh and Haman join her for a private feast--at which she requested that the three of them return for a second feast on the next day.

After the first feast, Haman went home and built a gallows on which to hang Mordechai.

That night, Achashverosh instructed Haman to reward Mordechai for revealing an assassination plot by immediately leading him through town, dressed in royal robes, on the royal steed.

At her second feast, Esther explained to the king that Haman’s evil plan for the Jews included her.

Haman and his 10 sons were hanged and Mordechai became Prime Minister.

The Jews celebrated with great feasts, and Esther and Mordechai codified all the practices of Purim for future generations: the reading of the Megillah, the festive meal, gifts of food and charity to the poor. 

This Treat was last posted on March 5, 2015.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

Happy Purim

NJOP and Jewish Treats wish you a wonderful Purim.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

May His Name Be Erased

“Purim Holiday/Purim Holiday/A big holiday for the Jews
Masks and noisemakers/Songs and Dance/Let’s make noise rash rash rash.”
(Classic Hebrew Purim Song - Chag Purim)

Although noisemakers are not mentioned in the Book of Esther, they are one of the items most frequently associated with the holiday of Purim. Most English speakers refer to these noisemakers as groggers (also spelled graggers), and they can best be defined as the musical instrument known as a ratchet. In modern Hebrew, a noisemaker is called a ra’ashan. As implied by the Yiddish origin of the word grogger, these noisemakers are of Ashkenazi origin, although they have, with few exceptions,  become common in most Purim celebrations.

It is not clear when the grogger in its current form became popular, but it appears to be a derivative of the custom noted by Rabbi Moshe Isserles (16th century Poland) of writing the name Haman on two smooth pieces of wood or stone and banging them against each other until the name was no longer legible.

It is known that the custom reflects the mitzvah that one should “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget" (Deuteronomy 25:19). In connection to Haman, there are numerous ways in which this commandment was fulfilled:

1) After saying Haman’s name, the phrase Yimach Shemo, His name should be erased, is stated.

2) Writing the name Haman on the bottom of one’s shoe and stamping out his name.

3) An effigy of Haman is either hung, pelted with stones and/or burned. (This was a custom in the Babylonian Gaonic period and in some old European communities, and may not be acceptable within the context of modern western society.)

It should be noted that many Sephardi, Mizrachi and Yemenite synagogues do not permit noisemaking during Megillah reading itself as they consider it a violation of appropriate decorum. In those synagogues where noisemakers are permitted, it is important that the noise end on cue, so that the Megillah reading may continue in a fashion in which all congregants will be able to hear each word of the reading.

This Treat was last posted on February 21, 2013.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

Purim Commitment

What does the holiday of Purim have to do with Jews reconnecting to their Jewish heritage? Purim is more than a celebration of the victory of the Jews over an enemy who wished to annihilate them. At the end of the Book of Esther, one verse subtly informs us of a most significant event of the Purim holiday: "And the Jews took upon themselves to do as they had begun" (Esther 9:23). This verse perhaps refers to the customs of Purim, but it is also understood to be a statement of rededication to tradition by the Jewish people.

In the Persian-Medean empire, the Jews were a scattered minority. The eldest of the Jews had witnessed the destruction of the Temple, the sacking of Jerusalem and the oppressive reign of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. In the era of Achashverosh, however, Jews were finally starting to feel settled and secure. In fact, they were starting to feel so welcome that the Jews of Shushan the Capital even “enjoyed the banquet of that wicked man” (Talmud Megillah 12b) when Achashverosh threw a week long party for the citizens of the city.

The sages do not speak favorably of the Jews of Shushan. It appears that they were so emotionally detached from their Jewish identity that they did not care that Achashverosh’s great party was celebrating what the king believed was the passing of the 70th year, by which Israel’s prophets had foretold that the Temple would be rebuilt. (Achashverosh had miscalculated).

When Mordechai donned sack-cloth and ashes, however, the Jews of Persia-Medea realized how far they had deviated from the ways of their ancestors. According to tradition, as noted by Raba, the Jews “re-accepted [the Torah] in the days of Achashverosh...[meaning that] they confirmed what they had accepted long before” at Mount Sinai.

This Treat was last posted on March 5, 2015.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

Night Reading

Find out what time your local synagogues are reading Megillah tonight and make plans to attend.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Fast of Esther

"Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast for me, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day; I and my maidens will also fast in like manner; and so will I go into the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish" (Esther 4:16). So responded Esther to Mordechai when he requested that she present herself, unbidden, before King Achashverosh.

In commemoration of Esther's declaration, Jews around the world observe Ta'anit Esther, the Fast of Esther, on the 13th of Adar, the day before Purim. (If the 13th of Adar occurs on Shabbat, the fast is observed on the Thursday prior.) This year Ta'anit Esther will be observed tomorrow, Wednesday, March 23, 2016.

The fast begins at dawn (aloht hashachar)* and ends at nightfall, during which time eating and drinking are prohibited. (Pregnant and nursing women, and others with health restrictions may be exempt from fasting--please consult your rabbi).

On Ta'anit Esther, as on other fast days, special prayers are added to the synagogue services:

1. Selichot (Penitential Prayers) and Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King) are recited during the morning and afternoon service.  When Ta'anit Esther is observed on the eve of Purim, Avinu Malkeinu is not recited in the afternoon.

2. At the morning and afternoon service, excerpts from Exodus 32 and 34 are read from the Torah. These include the 13 Attributes of God's Mercy. At the afternoon service only, the Torah reading is followed by a special haftarah for fast days.

3. The Ah'nay'noo prayer, which asks for special forgiveness, is added to the morning and afternoon services by the prayer leader. An individual who is fasting includes Ah'nay'noo in the blessing of Sh'ma Koh'laynu (Hear Our Voices) when saying the afternoon service.

*Some people will get up before dawn and have an early morning breakfast (but this is permitted only if a decision to do so is verbally expressed the night before).

This Treat was last posted on March 3, 2015.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

Viewing Vashti

She was raised a royal princess, he was raised in the stables. Vashti the daughter of the great Babylonian king, Belshazzar, and Achashverosh the son of Darius the Mede, were a match never meant to be. When Darius assumed the throne after assassinating Belshazzar, however, the new king took pity on the young girl. He spared her life, but insisted that she wed his son, Achashverosh. This is the history of Vashti and Achashverosh according to the Midrash.

But Vashti was no sweet innocent victim of her husband’s drunken tantrums. Indeed, the Midrash tells us that Vashti insulted her now royal husband, publicly reminding him that he had once been her father’s stable boy (Talmud Megillah 12b).

Upon reading the first chapter of the Book of Esther, one might feel sympathy for Vashti. Her only crime appears to be refusing Achashverosh’s command to come with the royal crown and show off her beauty. Even more to her credit, one Midrash maintains that when Achashverosh demanded that she appear wearing the “royal crown,” he meant wearing only the royal crown and nothing else!  Vashti, the granddaughter of Nebuchadnezzar, certainly expected to be treated with a great deal more respect than to be shown off as a ”trophy wife.”

An alternate Midrash maintains that she wasn’t upset about appearing naked. In fact, she was more than willing to partake in the implied immorality, but she would not, according to tradition, present herself to her husband because she had been suddenly struck with leprosy and refused to be seen in public with the shocking physical blemishes.

While her refusal to attend her husband’s party is Vashti’s only scene in the Book of Esther, the Midrash portrays her as a woman who thrived on cruelty and who held a particularly fierce grudge against the Jewish people. “The wicked queen used to bring Jewish girls, strip them naked, and make them work on Shabbat” (Talmud Megillah 12b). Because of this, the Talmud notes, Vashti’s disgrace and fall from power occurred on Shabbat as well.

This Treat was last posted on March 10, 2014.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

Bottoms Up

In preparation for tomorrow's fast, drink extra water today.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Hamantashen History

If you are active on Jewish social media, whether on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or other, you have probably been inundated with a thousand and one ways to take hamantashen baking to a new level. These once simple cookies are now stuffed with everything from brownies to shredded brisket. These hamantashen recipes are not only delicious, but they are a continuation of Jewish culinary creativity. 

Hamantashen are also an excellent example of the way in which Jewish food traditions can evolve. The cookies themselves appear to have become popular in the middle ages, and, over time, different aspects of these tasty treats were connected to the holiday itself.

1) Shape - There are many reasons proposed for the triangular shape of the hamantashen. One idea connects the three cornered cookie to the three sided table at which Esther hosted Achashverosh and Haman. More commonly, however, hamantashen are connected to Haman himself, representing either his supposedly pointed ears or tri-cornered hat.

2) Filling: Although today hamantashen are filled with just about anything, there are several flavors that have their own history. For instance, the original poppy flavor is the most probable source for the word “hamantashen,” derived from the Yiddish moon tashen or “poppy pockets.” Another traditional flavor is prune (lekvash), which supposedly became a common filling for hamantashen after a Czechoslovakian Jewish jam merchant was acquitted from an accusation that he had poisoned his plum preserves and his community celebrated by filling their hamantashen with this same jam. 

3) Pocket: Significance is also given to the fact that hamentashen are cookies in which the filling is stuffed and “hidden,” just as God’s presence was concealed (God’s name is absent from the Megillah) during the events of the Purim story.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

Her Other Name

Do you have a Hebrew name that’s different than your legal name?

The custom of giving children both secular and Hebrew names is not a modern tradition, but rather goes back to ancient times. In fact, it even occurs in the biblical text of the Book of Esther, where scripture states: “And he [Mordechai] brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther” (Esther 2:7).

Why does scripture share the fact that Esther, the title character of the Purim story, was also named Hadassah? 

Jewish tradition asserts that a person’s name is usually connected with a person’s character. The sages therefore looked to understand more about Hadassah/Esther from the meaning of her names.

Hadassah (Hebrew word for myrtle):
It has been taught: Esther was her proper name. Why then was she called Hadassah? After the designation of the righteous who are called myrtles [hadassim]...Ben ‘Azzai said: Esther was neither too tall nor too short, but of medium size, like a myrtle. Rabbi Joshua ben Korha said: Esther was sallow, but endowed with great charm” (Talmud Megillah 13a). 

Additionally, the sages note that “Just as a myrtle has a sweet smell and a bitter taste, so too Esther was good and listened (“sweet”) to the righteous Mordechai, and was adverse (“bitter”) to the wicked Haman” (Esther Rabbah 6:5).

Esther (Hebrew for hidden or concealed):
Rabbi Judah says: Hadassah was her name. Why then was she called Esther? Because she concealed the facts about herself, as it says” Esther did not make known her people or her family. Rabbi Nehemiah(offering an additional reason) says: Hadassah was her name. Why then was she called Esther? All peoples called her so after Istahar (a reference to the planet Venus, alluding to Esther’s beauty) (Talmud Megillah 13a).

This Treat was last posted on March 4, 2015.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

Try It

Try your hand at baking hamantashen, and don't hesitate to be creative with the filling.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

It Was Bashert

Bashert, which in Yiddish means “predestined,” is most commonly applied to the concept of one’s intended soul-mate. This idea that, when dating, one is searching for his/her bashert, his/her divinely intended life partner, stems from Talmud Sotah 2a, which states: “Forty days before the creation of a child, a Heavenly Voice issues forth and proclaims: ‘The daughter of A is for B.’”

The concept of bashert implies that one's choice of marriage partners is preordained even before conception. There are a great number of discussions that stem from this concept: questions concerning dating, marriage, bad marriages, divorce, second marriages....But the question Jewish Treats wishes to address today is the broader understanding of the concept of bashert.

The quote from Talmud Sotah 2a goes on to state that just as a Heavenly Voice calls forth intended marriage partners, it also calls out “...the house of C is for D; the field of E is for F!” The Jewish idea of predetermination versus free-will allows that certain points in one’s life are set, but how one gets there is determined by one’s free choices.

Those pieces of our lives that are “pre-determined” may be related to one’s wealth, the country in which one lives or the person one marries. And while we may never know why these points of bashert happen, they are often important aspects of a greater story.

The story of Purim is a perfect example of a mysterious match that made sense only in heaven. Nothing, not even the words of Mordechai her guardian, could have comforted Esther when Achashverosh chose her to be his queen. He certainly was not the type of man she expected to marry. Yet, had she not been queen, she would not have been able to undo Haman’s decree, and save her people.

This Treat was last posted on March 11, 2014.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

Costume Time

Those who first hear about the custom of wearing Purim costumes might assume that the tradition began as an imitation of Halloween. Research, however, places the origin of Halloween costumes in the 18th century, while Purim disguises are mentioned in rabbinic texts as far back as the 13th century.

Masks and disguises are a popular means of expressing some of the most important themes of Purim. For instance, “Ve'na'haphoch Hoo," "and it was reversed" (Esther 9:1)--on Purim we celebrate the idea that what one perceives as reality can easily be reversed. This theme is also one of the sources for the custom of drinking on Purim. The Talmud states that “One must drink [on Purim] until one does not know the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordechai’” (Megillah 7b); disguising one’s self is another means of creating this same effect.

A second important theme of Purim related to the custom of wearing masks/costumes is hester panimHester panim refers to the idea that God conceals His involvement in human affairs. God is not mentioned even once in the Book of Esther, yet it is clearly Divine providence that determines events. This is hester panim, when God “hides” Himself from the world so that we can only see hints of His Divine plan. So too, on Purim, our true selves are hidden behind masks.

Although some people wear Halloween left-overs (Purim shopping begins November 1!), the characters of the Purim story are perennial favorites. (Of course, it doesn’t hurt that there are two queens--Esther and Vashti).
This Treat was last posted on March 1, 2015.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

Aware Every Day

Choose to be aware of Divine intervention in the world.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Sabbath of Remembering

This Shabbat is Shabbat Parashat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembering.

The Torah portion that is read as the Maftir (additional) portion, after the conclusion of the regular weekly Torah reading, commands the Jewish people to remember that the nation of Amalek attacked our weak, tired and elderly shortly after the Jews crossed the Red Sea (Deuteronomy 25:17-19). Therefore, there is a mitzvah to destroy Amalek. Parashat Zachor is always read on the Shabbat before Purim.

The Amalekites traveled many miles in order to attack the Jewish people from behind, attacking the weak and the stragglers. Miraculously, the Jewish people defeated the Amalekites in a one day war. This attack underscored the evil character of the Amalekites. God had just performed great miracles for the Israelites and no nation dared attack them, except Amalek, who hit them from the rear.

The nation of Amalek is known for its all-consuming love of self, and reliance on violence to prove its superiority. The Midrash (Sifrei 296) tells us that the wording in Deuteronomy 25:18, "Asher kar'cha ba'derech," literally means that Amalek "happened" upon the Jews. This, the rabbis explain, is a description of the personality of Amalek: Amalek represents the belief in chance, of the haphazard dictates of "fate," which opposes the Jewish belief in Divine providence. Amalek's philosophy negates the concept that there is a purpose to humanity or to creation itself--again the antithesis of Jewish philosophy.

Parashat Zachor is read on the Shabbat before Purim because Haman was a direct descendant of Amalek. Like his forefathers, Haman was the archenemy of the Jews. He wanted to wipe them out. Neither begging, bribery nor debate would have changed Haman's mind because the Jewish nation represented a spiritual force which he abhorred.
This Treat was last posted on February 27, 2015.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

Light and Happiness

What is the connection between the holiday of Purim and Havdalah, the ceremonial conclusion of Shabbat? The simple answer is the single verse from the Book of Esther that is recited by the officiant during Havdalah: “La’yehudeem hayetah orah v’simcha v’sason v’yikar; And for the Jews there was light, happiness, joy and honor” (Esther 8:16). Not only is this verse recited as part of Havdalah, but, both on Purim and on Saturday night, it is customary for the verse to be recited both by the reader/reciter and by the people listening. 

In fact, Esther 8:16 is one of four verses that are traditionally recited by both the reader and the congregation during Megillah reading on Purim. The other three verses are:
 "There was a certain Jew in Shushan the castle, whose name was Mordecai the son of Jair the son of Shimei the son of Kish, a Benjamite"(2:5).

"And Mordecai went forth from the presence of the king in royal apparel of blue and white, and with a great crown of gold, and with a robe of fine linen and purple; and the city of Shushan shouted and was glad" (8:15).

"For Mordecai the Jew was next unto king Achashverosh, and great among the Jews, and accepted of the multitude of his brethren; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all his seed"(10:3).

These verses are frequently referred to as “verses of redemption.” The custom for them to be recited by the public as well as the reader appears to be sourced back to the Geonic period (c. 600 - 1000 C.E.).* It has been suggested that these verses mark positive turning points in the fate of the Jews. (There is a separate custom  for congregations to read aloud the names of the 10 sons of Haman, preferably in one breath.)

The origin of the custom for pausing during the Havdalah ceremony to allow all present to recite this line from the Book of Esther is unclear. However, it is likely that this custom was a cross-over from the custom of reciting it aloud during the reading of the Megillah.


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Just Listen

Make every effort to attend synagogue this Shabbat and listen to the verses of Parashat Zachor read aloud from the Torah.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Four Mitzvot of Purim

This year, Purim will be celebrated on Thursday, March 24th (beginning Wednesday evening, March 23rd, after sunset). Four mitzvot are associated with the holiday:

Megillah Reading - Book of Esther - The Megillah is read twice on Purim, once at night and once during the day. In order to properly fulfill the mitzvah of Megillah, it is necessary to hear every word during the reading. For this reason it is imperative that people not speak during the Megillah reading.

Mishloach Manot/Shalach Manos - Sending Gifts - On Purim day, every Jew should give at least one Mishloach Manot gift containing at least two different types of ready-to-eat food items.

Matanot La'evyonim - Gifts to the Poor - Giving to the poor is a mitzvah all year round. However, the mitzvah to do so on Purim is in addition to the general mitzvah of tzedakah (charity). To properly fulfill the mitzvah of Matanot La'evyonim one must give to two poor individuals. Although one may fulfill this mitzvah by giving a minimal amount of money to each person, the sages noted that the highest form of fulfilling this mitzvah is by giving enough money for a meal, or the equivalent in food. This mitzvah may be fulfilled by donating beforehand to an organization that will distribute the money or food on Purim day.

Seudah - Festive Meal - One should partake in a festive meal on Purim day. The minimum to fulfill this mitzvah requires that one ritually wash one's hands (netillat yadayim), eat bread and then recite the Birkat Hamazon, the Grace after Meals.

The Purim seudah is often associated with drinking. The Talmud says "A person should drink on Purim up to the point where they cannot tell the difference between 'Blessed is Mordechai' and 'Cursed is Haman.'" (Megillah 7a and Shulchan Aruch--Code of Jewish Law) - generally, this is interpreted as drinking more than one usually does or enough to make one sleepy.

(While drinking on Purim is often seen as a mitzvah, risking one's life is never permitted. Whether host or guest, it is important to be responsible:
1-Do not drink and drive.
2-Beware of underage drinking. While Purim is a religious holiday, and underage alcohol consumption is allowed for religious occasions, adults are still responsible for minors. Please do not give young people any alcohol beyond the bare minimum of wine, if at all.)
This Treat was last posted on March 1, 2015.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

The Whole Megillah

Whether it’s a long-winded tale, or a story overloaded with details--it’s called a “whole megillah!” (In “the old country” they would have said “a gantse megillah!”)

So what exactly is a “megillah”?

Technically, a megillah is a rolled scroll. Specifically, the term megillah is used to describe the five canonical works from the Ketuvim (Writings) section of the Bible that are read in the synagogue on different holidays. The five megillot are:

Shir HaShirim - The Song of Songs - written by King Solomon and read on Passover.
Ruth - The Book of Ruth - written by Samuel and read on Shavuot.
Eichah - Lamentations - written by Jeremiah and read on Tisha B'Av.
Kohelet - Ecclesiastes - also written by King Solomon and read on Sukkot.
Esther - The Book of Esther - written by Mordechai and Esther and read on Purim.

When preceded with a definite article, however, “the Megillah,” refers specifically to the Book of Esther. Megillat Esther is the only one of the five megillot which one is obligated to read/hear. In fact, on Purim, one should hear it read both at night and during the day.

As for the catchy phrase “the whole megillah”--according to, it came into the English vernacular in a variety of forms through its use by Jewish entertainers. The specific wording of “the whole megillah,” however, had its first recorded colloquial usage on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in 1971.

This Treat was last posted on March 14, 2014.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

Calendar Tick

Mark your calendar and make plans for celebrating Purim next Wednesday night-Thursday.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

West Point

Last spring, the Jewish news media delightedly reported that Rachelle David was the first female graduate of an Orthodox Jewish High School to be accepted to West Point. It is a distinguishing feat, without question. It might surprise you to know, however, that the history of Jews at this elite military academy is as old as the institution itself. 

West Point, which sits on a promontory overlooking an S-curve in the Hudson River, has been occupied by the American army since the Revolutionary War. On March 16, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson signed the Military Peace Establishment Act of 1802, which formally established the garrison as the United States Military Academy. In October of that same year, it graduated its first class, a class of two: Joseph Gardner Swift and Simeon Magruder Levy (1774 -1807). The first class of West Point was 50% Jewish!

Levy, who had distinguished himself in the Northwest Indian War in the 1790s, served as officer engineer, but his career was short-lived. Failing health forced the young soldier to resign his commission in 1805, and by March 1807, he had passed away.

Levy’s class may have had the highest percentage of graduating Jews, but there has been a consistent Jewish presence among the ranks since then. There have been over 900 Jewish graduates of the Academy and, since 1984, the campus features the strikingly elegant West Point Jewish Chapel.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

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History and Heritage

Never presume that there is a professional limitation because of one's Judaism.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Jews In Maine

The state of Maine, which on this day in 1820 became the 23rd state of the United States of America, is not known for its bustling Jewish population. Small as the state's Jewish population may be, it is nevertheless, a community of determined pride - as can be seen by movements currently underway to track their history and connect the diverse elements of the community.

The first known Jew in the colony of Maine was Susman Abrams (1743-1830). Abrams is noted for using Hebrew for his business records, but he also set an all-too-familiar pattern of assimilation. According to one account, he abstained from work on Shabbat, but was lax in his observance of kashrut.

As in many states, the Jewish population came to Maine as peddlers. In the 1820s, the German Jews began establishing themselves in Bangor, even opening a Jewish cemetery, but the first congregation, Ahawas Achim, was not formed until 1849. A decade later, few of these settlers still remained in the city. However, as the original German Jewish settlers either left Maine or assimilated into the general culture they were replaced by the arriving Eastern European Jews. By the end of the 19th century, Portland, rather than Bangor, became the hub of Maine Jewry. Some records even refer to Portland as the “Jerusalem of the North.”

Fortunately, Maine was not a place of rabid anti-Semitism. Indeed, hate groups, such as the Klu Klux Klan, focused instead on Maine’s Catholic population. However, there was a great deal of ethnic snobbery that specifically excluded Jews from the larger society. The state was known for its popular resorts such as the Poland Springs House, which refused entry to Jews and other minorities. However, Jews created their own resort spots, such as Summit Springs, which was located directly across from Poland Springs. Discriminatory policies were not outlawed until the late 1960s. 

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Truly Proud

Be aware of the right times/places to assert your Jewish pride.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Portuguese Dreyfus

The deathbed confession by his grandfather of a secret Jewish identity had a profound and life-changing effect on Captain Artur Carlos de Barros Basta (1887 - 1961). He began to educate himself, learned Hebrew and sought out the small Jewish community that existed in Lisbon. Eventually, Barros Basto made his way to Morocco, where he studied for a formal conversion to Judaism (completed in Tunisia).

Following the 1910 revolution (in which Barras Basta took part) that overthrew the Portuguese monarchy and established the Republic, Barras Basta believed his country was now ready for the free and public expression of Jewish pride. Barras Basta settled in the city of Porto and began encouraging marranos (secret Jews still in hiding, even though the Inquisition had ended) to reclaim their heritage. Many of them did.

In 1929, he began gathering funds to build the Kadoori Synagogue (also known as the Mekor Haim). The four story art-deco building was inaugurated in 1938. A yeshiva and a seminary were also built. In an effort to publicize his efforts and teach marranos, Barras Basta published a newspaper, Halapid (The Torch).

Alas, political winds were changing. Portugal soon came under the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar, and the church regained much of its pre-Republic power. The man seeking to revitalize the Jewish community became an anathema. Using “evidence” gained from private reports (by noted antagonists of Barros Basto) and manipulative questioning, the church managed to portray Barros Basto as a “degenerate,” mostly based on his performance of brit milah (circumcision) on grown ups and youths. His reputation was so besmirched that the military stripped him of his commission (captain) that he had earned fighting in World War I. Barros Basto became a persona non grata and was shunned. His marrano revival movement soon disintegrated. He died a broken man in 1961. Although petitioned by his wife, and later his daughter, it took the municipal government of Porto until 2012, in response to a petition from his granddaughter, for Barros Basto to be declared innocent of all charges and have his commission reinstated.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

Generous Hand

Keep extra change on hand so that you can give charity when asked. 

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Stolen Child

From the perspective of Jewish history, the story of Edgardo Levi Mortara was a minor event in a long history of Christian persecution. Nevertheless, it had an important impact on world history.

Salomone and Marianna Mortara were a Jewish couple who lived in Bologna, which was then part of the Papal States. On June 23, 1858, they were completely unprepared when a troop of police came to their home, seized 6 year old Edgardo and took him to the local House of Catechumens, an institute dedicated to convert Jews. Edgardo was brought there because the family’s former maid (whom it had been illegal for the Mortaras to have employed since Jews were not allowed to hire Catholic domestics) told her priest that she had baptized the boy during a serious infantile illness. According to Papal law, a Catholic child, even one baptized by a lay person in such strange circumstances, could not be raised by Jews. The story of young Edgardo caught the attention of Pope Pius IX, who then took a personal interest in educating the boy.

When the Mortaras begged for their child to be returned, the Pope offered to do so if the whole family would convert. They refused. When they publicized their plight, there was a wave of international pressure for Edgardo to be released. Even Napoleon III of France and Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, both Catholic, spoke out for his return to his family. The Pope’s response was: “I couldn’t care less what the world thinks.”

The effect of the Pope’s attitude was to incite the already high emotions of those who felt that the church had too much power. It was one more spark in the already burning desire for revolution. In 1859, a revolution began that ended with a unified Italy and Papal power limited to the City of Rome. The Mortara incident also instigated the creation of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, which served as an advocate for Jewish rights in many countries.

Taken when he was young and impressionable, submerged in church doctrine and personally  doted on by the Pope, Edgardo chose, when reunited with his family at the age of 19, to remain Catholic. In fact, he became a priest and often preached to Jews with the intent to convert. Edgardo Mortara died on March 11, 1940.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

Shabbat Free

Celebrate Shabbat and express your gratitude to be able to do so without fear.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Magen David Adom

The opportunity to save a life (hatzalat nefashot) is one of those unique events that may never occur in a person’s lifetime. Today, Jewish Treats salutes those who often risk life and limb to perform the mitzvah of hatzalat nefashot by paying tribute to Magen David Adom.

Magen David Adom (MDA, translation: Red Shield/Star of David) was founded in 1930 in Tel Aviv as a volunteer medical organization in response to the Arab riots of 1929. By 1935, with branches in Haifa and Jerusalem, a national organization was formed. In addition to providing medical services to the public, MDA was considered a branch of the Haganah (the underground Jewish defense force) and provided first aid training to its members.

On July 12, 1950, two years after the founding of the State of Israel, the Knesset passed a law recognizing MDA as Israel’s Red Cross, making it responsible for providing auxiliary medical services to the army during war, providing emergency first aid and shelter in emergency situations and maintaining a civilian blood bank. MDA also acquired a fleet of ambulances (often donated by Jews living in the diaspora).

While the MDA requested membership in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (ICRC) in 1931, it was not accepted until 2006. The ICRC claimed that no new symbols were allowed subsequent to their 1929 conference. Compromise was finally reached when MDA agreed to use the six-pointed red star only within Israel and to use the Red Crystal symbol when working internationally.

This Treat was last posted on July 12, 2010.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Forgiven Love - A Parable

The last parasha (weekly Torah reading) of the Book of Exodus focuses almost exclusively on the conclusion of the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Already though, a fair number of biblical chapters have been dedicated to the commandment to make the Mishkan and the detailed instructions therein. So, what is the purpose of describing everything that had been done and (as is recorded in the second half of Exodus 38) how much of each material had been used?

Within the Biblical commentaries, there are many discussions regarding the meaning of the Mishkan. One of the most poetic may also be seen as an explanation as to why this concluding description is significant enough to mark the end of the Book of Exodus. The Mishkan is referred to in Exodus 38:21 as Hamishkan Haeidut, the Tabernacle of the Testimony. Rabbi Shimon ben Rabbi Ishmael explains that the “testimony” of the tabernacle serves as witness to the whole world that God forgave the Children of Israel for the transgression of the Golden Calf (Exodus Rabbah 51:4). Rabbi Isaac explains it with the following parable: “ A king took a wife whom he dearly loved. One day, he became angry with her and left her. Her neighbors taunted her, saying that he would not return. Then the king sent her a message asking her to prepare the king's palace and make the beds there, for he was coming back to her on such-and-such a day. On that day, the king returned to her and became reconciled to her, entering her chamber and eating and drinking with her. Her neighbors at first did not believe it, but when they smelled the fragrant spices, they knew that the king had returned” (Ibid.).

While God was angry with the Israelites, He had them make the Mishkan as a physical sign to all the other nations that He had forgiven the people and had returned to dwell among them. The purpose of the constant repetition of the details of the Mishkan, and going so far in the biblical accounting to record  the amount of each material, is to show how the Jewish people continually express their joy that God forgave such a grave sin and that Israel remains His truly beloved nation.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

To Forgive Is

Don't hesitate to forgive another person for their mistakes.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

An Organizer of Women

The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911, in which 146 workers died, was a major turning point in labor organization in the United States. The terrible tragedy brought public attention to a fight in which then 24 year old Clara Lemlich (Shavelson) was already involved.

Born in Gorodok, Russia (Ukraine), in 1886, Lemlich came with her family to the United States in 1903, following the Kishinev Pogroms. Lemlich began employment in one of the many sweatshops of the garment industry and found herself working 11 hours a day, six days a week. As is now well-known, the conditions were terrible and the workers had, as Lemlich noted, “the status of machines.” She joined the executive board of a local chapter of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWA).

Lemlich quickly discovered that the Union’s title described the type of factories in which they organized, not the workers for whom they fought. Her push to increase the involvement of women workers in the union met with great resistence. In November 1909, Lemlich proved the power of the working women when she led what is now known as the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand - a multi-week general strike. It is noted that her rousing speech was in Yiddish, and the crowd joined her in declaring in Yiddish: “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise.”

While the Uprising brought some concessions, they were not enough to prevent the Triangle Factory tragedy. Lemlich found herself blacklisted as a union organizer. She then transferred her political zeal to the suffrage movement and founded the Wage Earner’s Suffrage League. After she married Printer’s Union Activist Joe Shavelson, Lemlich remained an active organizer, even as she raised their three children. She organized housewives against overpriced butchers and created the United Council of Working Class Women (associated with the Communist Party and later called the Progressive Women’s Councils).

Lemlich was involved in numerous other causes, such as protesting nuclear missiles and the Vietnam War, and also fought for tenant’s rights. It is reported that she even organized a union at the Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles, where she lived her last few years.

Clara Lemlich passed away on July 12, 1982 at age 96. This Treat was written in honor of International Women's Day, which was  originally called International Working Women's Day.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved. 


Appreciate the work that the people who are in your life everyday do for you.

Monday, March 7, 2016

King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

Based on popular lore, when people think of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, they envision a romance of epic proportions. The true nature of their relationship, however, is far from clear. 

The visit of the Queen of Sheba is recorded twice in scripture, first in I Kings 10 and then in II Chronicles 9. The two accounts mirror each other. The basic story goes like this: When the Queen of Sheba heard of Solomon’s great wisdom and wealth, she traveled to Jerusalem with a great entourage and an enormous number  of presents. When the two met, they spoke at great length. “She spoke with him of all that was in her heart” (10:2). Solomon answered all of her inquiries and showed her his palace. The text then records that he showed her his household staff and, it seems, how well cared for they were. After seeing it all, the Queen admitted that she had not originally believed what she had heard said of Solomon , but now that she had seen that it was true and then some, she praised him, lavished him with gifts, accepted gifts  herself  and then returned to her own land. 

The first source describing her visit states that she came to test him with riddles. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Divrei Hayamim II 1085) lists the riddles she asked and the answers that Solomon gave. When the great wisdom of Solomon is discussed, stories of the Queen of Sheba’s admiration are often included.

Much folklore is recorded about the relationship. According to Ethiopian tradition, Solomon and the Queen had a son, Menalik, who became the first king of Ethiopia. Some Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews) believe that their people are the descendants of this union as well. Alas, any written records from so long ago have been lost to time. The full extent of the relationship between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, however, is now left to the imagination.

Copyright © 2016 NJOP. All rights reserved. 

Listen and Ask

When you ask a question about Jewish life, listen to the answer...and don't be afraid to ask more questions. 

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Friday Night Feast

With candles burning brightly and fine wine for kiddush, Friday night dinner is a meal that is designed for “atmosphere.” However, the actual fare of Shabbat dinner varies, depending on custom and personal taste. Many people simply serve their favorite foods, while others stick to the traditional Shabbat cuisine. A typical, traditional Shabbat menu includes: 

Fish: Considered both a reminder of the creation of life (since fish were the first animals created) and of the Messianic Age (when it is said that the righteous will feast upon the Leviathan, a giant fish), fish has almost always held a special place of honor at the Shabbat table. In the Talmud (Shabbat 118b), fish is specifically mentioned as a way in which one can demonstrate delight in Shabbat, even if it is simply a bit of chopped up (gefilte) fish. Generally served as an appetizer, fish, which is never eaten together with meat, is served on separate plates and eaten with separate “fish forks” in accordance with the prescription of Maimonides. 

Soup: While there is no specific source for serving chicken soup on Shabbat, it is a Friday night staple in many traditional homes. 

Meat/Chicken: It is a mitzvah to enjoy Shabbat. The sages often relate the feeling of oneg (enjoyment and pleasure) to eating meat. Since meat was often financially prohibitive, chicken became a frequent substitute. 

Rice/Kugel: In Sephardic homes, it is customary to have a dish that is made with rice. In Ashkenazic homes, one is often served kugel, traditionally lokshin (noodle) or potato. Kugel, similar to “pudding,” is a dish that varies greatly in its ingredients, depending upon family preferences. 

This Treat was originally posted on August 26, 2011. 

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