Friday, October 22, 2021

You Know You're Raising a Jewish Kid When ...

As you all know, I didn't grow up Jewish. The first 20 odd years of my life were spent living a generally midwestern Christian/secular lifestyle. So, watching my three kiddos grow up Jewish is fascinating to me. There's a lot that people who grew up take for granted when they look at the world, and I imagine things that are special or weird or amusing to me don't even faze my husband. 

Here are a few examples (yes, really) from today:

You Know You're Raising a Jewish Kid When ... 

Tirzah was sitting at the table coloring (this girl is as into art as I was at her age, which makes me so proud) and held up two markers. 

"Which blue should I use Mommy?" 

Me, knowing that she's still figuring out her left and right, pointed to the one in her right hand. 

"The one in my Shema hand?"

Yes, my 5-year-old daughter referred to her right hand as the Shema hand instead of saying "this one" or "the one in my right hand?" (Note: The Shema is a special prayer that pops up throughout the daily prayers and at bedtime.) I'm schepping nachas over here. (Or, if you like my autocorrect, "scheming nachos.")

You Know You're Raising a Jewish Kid When ... 

I took Zusha to get his flu shot this morning. The other two got their shots a few weeks ago, and it was an utter disaster. Luckily, Zusha was chill, didn't wiggle, make a peep, cry ... nothing. It was amazing. But because I'd bribed the other two with a Target gift card, I had to deliver with Zusha, too. (Had I known he wasn't going to freak out, I wouldn't have even brought the bribe!)

So we headed to Target and he picked out his Paw Patrol toy. We went to self-check out (obviously) and while I was ringing us out, a nice man checking out behind us asked if Zusha had a piggy bank. I answered that he did, and the man handed him about five little coins amounting to something like 36 cents. We hopped in the car and were driving home when ...

"Mommy, I want to open them!"

"Open what?"

"These! I want to open these!"

"Mommy's driving Zush, what are you holding?"

"The coins Mommy!"

"Sweetie, those aren't chocolate." 

Yes, Zusha, my little 3.5-year-old thought they were gelt, those foil-wrapped coins you get at Chanukah. He was legitimately disappointed that they weren't. But, we see so few coins and paper money these days, that he thought they had to be Chanukah gelt. Ah! I was giggling the rest of the way home. 

Do you have a "You know you'er raising a Jewish kid when ..." story? Share in the comments!


Thursday, October 14, 2021

Ask Chaviva Anything: The LuLaRoe Documentary

It's been a long time since I answered an Ask Chaviva Anything question, but this one came in and I thought, "Well, it's about time!"


Q: Have you watched the Lularoe documentary? If so, was it surprising/ upsetting/ validating/ etc. Thanks!


A: Yes. I watched LuLaRich. I binged every last minute of it, with the line "Oh my Gd, we're in a cult" ringing uncomfortable and accurately true. 

For those of you who forgot (or repressed), I drank the Kool-Aid. Yes, I sold LuLaRoe from August 2016 through August 2017. In fact, my LuLaRoe Instagram page is still up and so is my (overly) emotional "Why?" video. Yipes. 

I first heard about LuLaRoe in late 2015/early 2016 in one of the modest fashion groups I'm in on Facebook. Suddenly, Jewish women everywhere were talking about this affordable, fun, and fashionable clothing line and how they were making money as a side hustle. (Funny that they now sell shorts and crop tops!)

The company's model and fashion piqued my interest and I found a local seller in Spring 2016. She urged me along and I finally signed up, despite all the red flags and everything else that came along with it. 

When I was in it, I loved it. I loved the fashion and the ownership and I felt beautiful in the clothes. But it was a lot of work for very little return. Very little. As in no return. I was drowning in clothes no one wanted to buy because they were ugly. But I kept telling myself that it was worth it, that I was an independent, empowered women. And every time I was told that I wasn't working hard enough, I worked harder, because I'm a perfectionist! I was so deep in it ... getting out was a battle and it left me angry and frustrated. 

So, watching the LuLaRich documentary was definitely validating, with very little in the way of surprising. I did like finding out just why I kept getting bleached skirts (they sat out in the sun, ew). I also found it amusing just how completely detached Mark and Deanne pretend to be from the rest of the company. But what I found most upsetting was the whining and complaining from people who made bucketloads of cash on the backs of people like me. Yes, I feel bad that they suffered, but at the same time, they knew exactly what they were doing. 

But, truth be told, I'd go through everything (including the thousands I lost) with LuLaRoe again over ever doing Optavia again, because the latter caused more lasting and irreversible harm.

Honestly, it's amazing how I got duped into not one but two schemes that saw my insecurities and used and abused them. I keep telling myself: "Chaviva, you're a smart person! Why'd you let two toxic schemes suck you in!?" 

You see, both LuLaRoe and Optavia do the same thing: They tell women that if they don't see success, it's their own fault. If you can't hit your financial or weightless goals, obviously you're not working the system correctly. Nevermind that one is robbing women and the other is selling eating disorders. 

Anyway ... I could go on and on. But ultimately, I was glad to see the reality of LuLaRoe brought to the forefront. I'm glad that the world can see how this company is built on the backs of people who just want to get ahead and support their families but who end up drowning. I was elated that people could see how all of the "experts" running the company are beyond unqualified to do the jobs they're doing. I was happy to see that the true colors of LuLaRoe were revealed. 

All of that said ... sometimes, just sometimes, I really miss some of the clothes. I even poked around to find out my former mentor/coach is still selling and I almost bought one of the dresses. But. I didn't. Because, I'm still a little angry. 

Have a question? Ask your question here

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Let's Talk About Conversion to Judaism and Whether a Conversion Can Be Revoked

conversion to Judaism Star of David necklace

For converts to Judaism, one of the ongoing topics that crops up every now and again is the risk of having their conversion question, revoked, canceled, or retracted after the fact. There is a lot of hype and misinformation on this topic, especially in recent years as Israel and Diaspora rabbinic courts vie for control over the challenging, confusing, and often mysterious world of conversion to Judaism. 

How a Person Converts to Judaism

There are a multitude of paths for conversion to Judaism, no matter whether that conversion is through a Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox bet din (rabbinical court). There are even more reasons that someone chooses to convert to Judaism: 
  • They grew up in a Jewish neighborhood or surrounded by Jews and felt a pull to join the Jewish people. 
  • They discover they have Jewish ancestors and feel the pull to realize their ethnic and ancestral religion and people. 
  • They have a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother and want to be part of the Orthodox community (patrilineal Jews are not considered halachic Jews in Orthodox Judaism and in some Conservative circles).
  • They have no connection and don't know a single Jew but learn about Judaism and feel like they're finally at home (hey, this is what happened to me!). 
No matter what draws an individual to Judaism or what stream of Judaism they choose, there are basic steps to complete the conversion process:
  • Learning: studying the laws, traditions, holidays, observances of Judaism based on whichever movement an individual chooses to convert within
  • Living in the Jewish community: most Orthodox conversions require that you live within a community for at least a year so you experience the full cycle of holidays and the Orthodox lifestyle
  • Bet din: meeting with a rabbinic court whose members' statuses vary from movement to movement, as some require three Shabbat-observant men while others simply require three individuals be they men or women (I had four rabbis on my bet din!)
  • Brit Milah or hatafat dam brit: for men, an actual or symbolic circumcision is required by some movements and not by others
  • Mikvah: a dip in the ritual bath is standard among all movements
Fun fact: When the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, conversion also included an animal sacrifice (Keritot 8b-9a)! Makes you wonder if, when the Temple is rebuilt, whether that requirement will be re-upped, right?

The Controversy About Converting to Judaism

Among the many difficulties with conversion to Judaism are the realities that Orthodox Judaism does not accept conversions that take place in Reform, Conservative, or other movements as halachic (legally binding).

The reasoning behind this is that conversion to Judaism, according to Orthodoxy, requires the basic commitment to the mitzvot (613 commandments of the Torah). Non-Orthodox streams of Judaism do not adhere strictly to following the mitzvot, so Rabbis Moshe Feinstein and Yaakov Ariel argued that non-Orthodox conversions are unacceptable according to halacha

There are also many complexities involved with the Orthodox conversion process, with standards varying from community to community. Some Orthodox rabbinic courts will accept conversion for marriage, while others will turn away an individual based on the desire to convert to marry a Jew (this goes back to the Talmud, Yevamot 24b).

For all intents and purposes, someone who converts with an Orthodox rabbinic court is fully and completely a Jew from the moment they visit the mikvah at the culmination of the conversion process. They're even considered a Jew if it turns out they did marry strictly for marriage or they stray from Judaism later. In the latter case, the individual should be treated as any other sinning Jew (Bechorot 30b).

However, in recent years there have been cases in which a conversion or a series of conversions performed by a certain bet din or rabbi are called into question. In these cases, an authoritative body has gone through the process of "reviewing" the conversion to determine whether it is, in fact, halachically valid.

The problem with this, unfortunately, is that — according to halacha (law) — only in very specific cases can a conversion be questioned and revoked. In many of these investigations, there is no grounds for an investigation, let alone talk of revocation.

Modern Cases About Revoking Conversions

Up until Emancipation (late 18th to late 19th century) and well into the 20th century, conversion to Judaism was rare and largely unheard of because, in many places, it was illegal to convert to Judaism. In most cases, a non-Jew converted to Judaism in order to marry a Jewish person, but, even still, it was rare. 

Following the Holocaust, conversion to Judaism blossomed and has continued to gain steam well into the 21st century, especially within Orthodox Judaism.

The entire issue of modern conversion nullification has an interesting background that stems from a revocation of a conversion 30 years after the fact so that two individuals with questionable Jewish legal status could legally marry. You can read more about this in the Rabbi Goren case.

Then, in the 1970s, Rabbi Betzalel Zolty nullified a conversion after the rabbinic court discovered that a certain group of individuals were Christian missionaries trying to move to Israel under the Law of Return. Rabbi Yisrael Rozen nullified a conversion after the Israel Interior Ministry found out that a convert was romantically involved with a non-Jewish woman during and after his conversion process.

In 2008 in Israel, a senior rabbinic court headed by Rabbi Avraham Sherman nullified a single conversion performed by a different Israeli rabbinic court. This nullification called into question thousands of conversions performed within the context of the Israeli army and began an investigation into conversion courses established by Israel and overseen by Rabbi Chaim Druckman.

So can you revoke a conversion or not?

Ultimately, the law on conversions and annulment is such:
  • If an individual converts under non-ideal circumstances (e.g., for marriage), he or she is still Jewish and the conversion is valid (Yevamot 24b). 
  • If an individual converts and sins or strays from the path of Judaism, he or she is still Jewish and the conversion is valid (Bechorot 30b,Yoreh De'ah 248:2). 
  • If the rabbinic court fails to investigate the intentions of the convert or even failed to give the individual a proper education prior to the conversion, he or she is still Jewish and the conversion is valid (Yoreh De'ah 248:12). 
The only way that a conversion can be nullified is in cases of fraud. In these types of cases, the individual converting knowingly misleads the rabbinic court regarding their intent to convert. Usually, these types of cases involve Christian missionaries attempting to convert for nefarious reasons, such as moving to Israel under the Law of Return to do missionary work. Talk about shady!

Although there are plenty of terrifying cases that have created uncomfortable situations for converts around the world in recent years, it is very rare and, in fact, highly unlikely that a conversion can or will be revoked.

Yes, plenty of conversions are questioned regularly by individuals who do not know the laws of conversion and how to treat a convert. In these cases, an individual may stray from Judaism following a conversion or do something that calls their knowledge/commitment to Judaism into question. 

But questioning a conversion and nullifying a conversion, are two very different things.

Have questions about converting to Judaism? Let me know! I'm here to help. 

For more about the topic of the nullifying of conversions, check out Shlomo Brody's A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates and read Rabbi Gil Student's article "Conservative Annulments."

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

This Truth? It Hurts: Michael and Amanda Elkohen

Well. The truth is often a hard pill to swallow, and this has been one of the hardest. Nay, most frustrating. Nay, most infuriating. This blog article is all about this earth-shattering news that came out a little over a week ago: Haredi ‘rabbi’ accused of being a covert Messianic missionary

For more than a decade, I'd called Amanda and Michael Elkohen friends. I "met" Michael online way back in 2010 (possibly earlier?) on the Jewish blogging circuit. We emailed. We became friends. 

When I traveled to Israel, I ate at their Shabbat table. 

Michael gave me and my ex-husband guidance on a family Torah scroll that was being fixed and checked. He was, after all, a scribe. A Jewish scribe. A sofer.

When I got divorced and struggled to find my place in the Orthodox world, Michael supported me. He even wrote a blog article about the treatment I was suffering at the hands of other converts. 

When I made aliyah, Amanda was there every step of the way. She offered to stock my kitchen with groceries, she checked in on me almost daily, and, again, I ate at their Shabbat table. 

When my stepson was to become a bar mitzvah, I immediately thought of Michael and Amanda, who, by then, in 2016 was going through chemo. I thought, we can support them financially and put Michael's skills as a sofer to work. We would all win! We paid more than $1,000 for those tefillin.

And then? For the past week I've read and re-read through emails, Facebook messages, blog comments, as many communications as humanly possible to try and answer the question:

How did I miss it? How did I miss that they were Christians in Jewish garb parading as something they most certainly were not? How did I miss that they were trying to missionize and convert Jews?

I grew up in the Bible Belt of Southern Missouri and then in Nebraska, where practically everyone is white and Christian or brown and Christian. I have a Mormon uncle. I have Evangelical friends. I know what missionizing looks like, and I've experienced a Christian intervention. 

So how did I miss this? 

Listen: This isn't about Judaism vs. Christianity. I've always said that we're all on our own journey and can't possibly know what's true and right for everyone. We only know what is true and right for ourselves. For me, that's Judaism. That's Orthodox, Torah-true Judaism. For others, that may be Christianity. 

But this? This is about lying, cheating, stealing. It's about being my friend and telling me you're one thing but you're another. It's about me giving you a bunch of money for religious items that are then completely null and void because the person who made them isn't even Jewish. That's lying, cheating, stealing. 

And for what?

While digging through old messages, I started to wonder if Michael's support after my divorce and subsequent foray into dating a nonJew for a short time was nefarious. Was he supporting me to pull me to the other side? 

I looked at the Facebook messages where Tuvia and Amanda arranged the tefillin and noticed that Michael originally added "Amanda Elk" to the chat before fixing it and adding "Amanda Elkohen" to the chat. Then I wondered: Did I not wonder why she had two accounts? 

No, I didn't. Because I trusted them. I trusted these people who said they were nice, good, Torah-abiding Jews. 

And it was all a lie. 

Now, all I can think about is those kids. Those children who grew up living a lie and lost their mom and now have no community. Will they be embraced by the Christian world? Will they be shunned by both worlds? Will Michael Elk end up in prison for all of the pain and suffering he's caused and all the money he's stolen? Will those children end up in the foster system and convert to Judaism or end up lost forever? 

I was so broken-hearted when Amanda died. She was young, she had a family, she suffered chemo for years. And the moment this story broke a week ago, my immediate thought was, "Thank Gd she's not alive to see this." But she was just as much a part of this as Michael was. 

So, I'm torn. I'm shattered. I've fallen down the rabbit hole every day for a week and started wondering if you can ever really know a person. Throughout the pandemic, I've realized that people I thought I knew and whose values and priorities I thought I knew ... well, I don't know them at all. 

Because you can never really know a person. Or can you?

This blog has graced the internet for 15 years. For 15 years, I've put my heart and soul on the internet and when I meet people who read my blog in person, the one thing they always say is this: Wow! In real life, you're exactly who you are on your blog. And that's always been my goal: To show you who I am, who I really am, because I want to relate to you and for you to relate to me. 

Do I share everything here? No, I haven't written extensively about my lichen sclerosis diagnosis or my anxiety or how the past year has shattered me, but that's less because I don't want you to see and understand me for who I am than it is about time and energy to sit and write. Are there things I don't write about and will never write about? Yes. Things like what really happened in my previous marriage, about Tuvia's stepson and his previous marriage, about my relationship with my parents, and other things that are, well, truly and undeniably private. 

And I thought that Michael and Amanda were those people too. They were so like who they were on Michael's blog and Facebook and other social channels. They were real, honest, relatable, down-to-earth people who you just couldn't help but love and root for. 

So I reached out to Michael:


I'm still waiting for the "truth" to come out. Because, based on the dozens of articles and the people I've spoken with who are close to the investigation ... neither Michael nor Amanda are descended from Jews based on America's very well-kept ancestry records. He's tied to multiple Christian organizations. They had duplicate Facebook accounts: one for Jews, one for Christians. 

I don't know if the "truth" will ever come out. I'm still sad that Amanda died from cancer. I'm still sad about those children and what the future holds for them. I'm sad about a lot of things. Where I was angry, I'm just sad now. Disappointed, defeated, and confused. 

How could someone lie, cheat, and steal for so long from so many people? All in the name of religion.


Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Ner Chanukah: A Mitzvah Chaviva

I wrote this little d'var Torah (thoughts on the Torah) for Chanukah for one of the local synagogues and thought I'd share here, too! Enjoy.

Rambam says that the Chanukah lights are a mitzvah chaviva hi ad meod, or an exceedingly precious or cherished mitzvah (Hilchot Megillah v'Chanukah 4:12). This description didn’t strike me just because, well, my name is Chaviva, but because this type of language isn’t used for other mitzvot (commandments). So why is lighting the Chanukiyah considered a mitzvah chaviva? We have to start by looking back at Aharon and the Menorah.

Bonus: What's the Difference Between a Menorah and a Chanukiyah?

In Parashat Behaalotecha, we’re told that Aharon is commanded to light the Menorah in the Mishkan, and that “he did so” (Numbers 8:3). Although Aharon’s tribe had been the only one not to participate in gift giving to the Mishkan, the Kohen Gadol had many other vital responsibilities and, let’s be honest, Aharon did sacrifice his sons in the process. But perhaps he still felt a little jilted. After all, the Midrash says that each gift was spiritually specific and significant to each tribe. Perhaps Aharon felt that others were more whole after giving, perhaps in a way that he couldn’t be despite his service. Enter HaShem, who tasks Aharon with the Menorah.


Aharon saw this mitzvah as chavivut and did exactly as HaShem commanded, which, according to Rashi, was a compliment to Aharon and signified that he was uniquely qualified for this job. Just as the Menorah is made from a single block of gold, so, too, do all Jews originate at the same source. By taking on the mitzvah of the Menorah precisely as HaShem commanded, Aharon embodied and delivered on the essence of what the Menorah symbolized — the unity of the Jewish people. As Pirkei Avot 1:12, says, “Be of the disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and drawing them close to the Torah.” 


woman lighting a Chanukah menorah

From Aharon and the Menorah to the miracle of Chanukah and the rededication of the Holy Temple, we have the Chanukiyah. Although the mitzvah of lighting the Chanukiyah could be performed through a spouse, partner, or shaliach, it's such a precious and cherished mitzvah that — like Aharon with the Menorah — we each want to perform it ourselves and thus are commanded to do so. We each want to feel responsible for this mitzvah and to embody what the Chanukiyah symbolizes. After all, this is the one time in the Jewish calendar that we can be a literal light unto the nations!


On this Chanukah, more than any other in recent memory, we must be a light and bring about the unity that this holiday symbolizes. We must light every night, with a care for our fellow — for their health and safety as well as our own. We must pursue justice and peace through a fire that brings light and guides all on the path forward and not a fire that burns down the world around us, leaving us in darkness and chaos. We must be the disciples of Aharon and fulfill the mitzvah of ner Chanukah — this mitzvah chaviva hi ad meod — with a sense of collective responsibility and the pursuit of a unified Jewish people.


May we all be safe, healthy, and content as we enter the darkest months of the year. Although we can’t be together as we would all love to be, everything comes from HaShem and everything that comes from HaShem is good. This, too, must be for the good. Chag Sameach!







Monday, November 30, 2020

The Difference: Menorah versus Chanukiyah

Every November or December, whenever the 25th of the month of Kislev falls in the Jewish calendar, Jews around the world celebrate Chanukah, the festival of light. Although many know Chanukah because of it's fried jelly donuts and games of dreidel, the main religious tradition of the holiday is the week-long lighting of a special item known as the chanukiyah (ha-new-key-uh).

Many know the chanukiyah as a menorah, but there's actually a large difference in the two pieces of Judaica. 
Both items are a type of candelabra, but the chanukiyah has nine branches while the menorah has only seven. The chanukiyah has eight candles in a row with a ninth candle separated or raised (depending on the style of the candelabra) and they come in all shapes, sizes, and themes. The chanukiyah represents the miracle of Chanukah when, during the rededication of the Temple, the oil that should have lasted just one night lasted for a miraculous eight nights. 

The ninth branch, known as the shamash ("helper" or "servant"), on the chanukiyah is used to light the other branches during each night of Chanukah. Each night of Chanukah the shamash is lit first and then the candles are lit one by one for each night, from left to right (unless you follow another tradition or opinion). 

The other candelabra, known as the menorah, is more of a symbolic object in Judaism. Dating to the time of the First Temple in Jerusalem, it comprises seven branches and does not have a shamash. The menorah was lit by the priests (kohanim), using olive oil every evening in the Holy Temple. 
"And you must make a lamp-stand of pure gold. Of hammered work the lamp-stand is to be made. Its base, its branches, its cups, its knobs and its blossoms are to proceed out from it. And six branches are running out from its sides, three branches of the lamp-stand from its one side and three branches of the lamp-stand from its other side. Three cups shaped like flowers of almond are on the one set of branches, with knobs and blossoms alternating, and three cups shaped like flowers of almond on the other set of branches, with knobs and blossoms alternating. This is the way it is with the six branches running out from the lamp-stand. And on the lamp-stand are four cups shaped like flowers of almond, with its knobs and its blossoms alternating. And the knob under two branches is out of it and the knob under the two other branches is out of it and the knob under two more branches is out of it, for the six branches running out from the lamp-stand. Their knobs and their branches are to proceed out from it. All of it is one piece of hammered work, of pure gold. And you must make seven lamps for it; and the lamps must be lit up, and they must shine upon the area in front of it. And its snuffers and its fire holders are of pure gold. Of a talent of pure gold he should make it with all these utensils of it. And see that you make them after their pattern that was shown to you in the mountain." (Exodus 25:31-40) 
This candelabra became known as a symbol of Judaism and can be found in nearly every synagogue around the world in the form of the ner tamid or everlasting light. In most synagogues, above the arc where the Torah is kept there is a light that is always kept on that represents the holy menorah from the Temple period. The ner tamid reminds us of the Holy Temple and the sadness of its destruction. Whereas it used to be a constantly lit flame, it is now typically an electric lamp that stays on at all hours of the day. 

As you can see, the difference in the two items is significant. Whereas the chanukiyah is used for the celebration of a specific festival, the menorah is more of an everlasting symbol of the Jewish religion.

What else do you want to know about Chanukah? 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Holiday Lights: Reconciling Traditions from a Non-Jewish Childhood for My Jewish Kids

Photo by Adriaan Greyling from Pexels

Well, it’s officially my favorite time of year! I like to think I have reverse seasonal affective disorder — I love cold, cloudy weather. I love snow and layering and giant chunky sweaters and hot drinks. I love winter, glittering lights, and everything that comes along with this time of year.

When I was a kid, this time of year was the one time of year that I truly felt like my family was fully in-sync. We’d get out the boxes and boxes of Christmas ornaments and set up the Christmas tree with painstaking precision. My mother and her Christmas tree were unlike anything I’ve ever encountered to this day. Her tree was white, silver, and glass. It was a small child’s worst nightmare, and every ornament had a story. I can’t remember breaking a single ornament on my mother’s tree for fear of destroying the symbol of a memory that she held dear. After white lights came the strings of beads, then the ornaments, and finally the tree topper. After Christmas, taking down the tree was a chore, because every ornament had to be carefully re-wrapped and placed carefully in a very specific order back into the storage boxes.

I loved it. I loved every minute of it, even as a child.

Another tradition was that we’d pick a night to drive around and look at all of the lights in their glittering glory. These were the days before programmed lights that danced around houses to Mannheim Steamroller. My parents liked driving us to the neighborhoods with the largest houses because they lined their streets with luminaries and the lights were classic white and stunning. When we lived in Southern Missouri, a short drive from the Precious Moments Park & Chapel, we’d drive out every year for Christmas to see the light displays there and go through a drive-through display at a large Catholic Vietnamese institute run by a group of priests.

Lights were an essential part of my childhood and, for me, signaled what a family did in December.

The only other tradition my family had was that, on Christmas Day, if we could afford the expensive meat, my mom would make rouladen. This dish is honestly the only “ethnic” dish my mom ever made, and I don’t know our family history with it other than my mom’s family is German-French. With its expensive, thinly sliced beef with onions and pickles rolled up inside, it was then stewed in tomato sauce, and I grew up hating this dish (pickles are delicious, but not warm). But my mom? Much like the extravagant tree laden with delicate ornaments, my mom looked forward to it every year and it became part of the Edwards family Christmas.

But now? I’m Jewish. Even though Christmas never meant church or Jesus or anything religious, I stopped celebrating Christmas or anything that resembled it back in 2006 after I graduated college and moved out East to pursue my dreams and live Jewishly. My mom slowly stopped setting up the tree because there was no one to help her, and it broke my heart. One year, when she finally decided she was done with Christmas and the tree, she sent me one of her mirrored ornaments shaped like the Star of David, so I could always have a piece of the family tree with me. She joked that, maybe they always knew I'd be Jewish and thus, they had a six-pointed star. It made me sad, it made me wonder what this time of year meant for me and my future children.

Now, I’m lamenting that I can't sit in my favorite independent coffee haunts because of the pandemic. I miss listening to the tunes echoing through the cavernous spaces, with classics such as “Silver Bells” and “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” — songs that swung me back to a different time in my life. In high school, this time of year meant solos in the choir Christmas concert, so I can’t help singing along with the tunes. They make me smile, they make me feel. The concepts or meanings are not what do it, but the simple beauty of the voices and the melodies.

When I had my first child in December of 2013, I was living in Israel and this time of year was strange, but easy. I didn’t have to worry about Santa Claus at the mall or all of the lights or the trees or kids in daycare who weren’t Jewish talking about the holiday. It was easy. But now that we’re in Denver, and kids have questions, I’m constantly assessing how I should tackle this time of year in a way that makes sense to my three littles, yet somehow honors my own upbringing.

I will admit that it's easier this year with the pandemic. We aren't going to the mall where there's large displays of Christmas, and we're not going into grocery stores or Target where everything is red and green. I’m obviously not making rouladen (yuck), and I’m most definitely not putting up a tree.

So? This leaves us with lights. Homes around ours are stringing up lights in all colors and styles, and it reminds me of those evenings out in the minivan driving through the ritzy neighborhoods with my parents and brothers. It’s such a simple thing, but such a meaningful thing — for me — and I want to be able to share that with my kids.

‘Tis the season, after all, because light is what Chanukah is all about. The world emerged with the words “let there be light,” and light is often understood in the Torah to mean knowledge or wisdom. Since creation, we’ve fought to bring those sparks of light back into the world and to bring ourselves out of darkness. As a Jew, I yearn, pursue, and seek that light every day, even as I relish in the cloudy cool of winter in Denver.

During Chanukah’s eight days, the world is illuminated with the light of the chanukiyah. These lights are special because we can only gaze upon them, we can’t use them for any personal reasons. They serve as a message to all who pass by that “darkness can be dispelled with wisdom, obscurity can be illuminated with truth.”

I look at my neighbors' holiday lights much in the same manner. Giant inflatable Santa Clauses and nativity scenes aside, the lights are bringing a beautiful light into the darkest time of the year, and it’s an innocent way I can bring my children into a space that for me has great meaning and history. I can’t wait to pack up my kids and drive them around the nearby neighborhood filled with giant houses to look at the lights. We won’t be listening to Christmas tunes on the radio, but I might pop on some of The Leevees to set the mood.

We'll call them holiday lights and talk about how in the darkest months of the year during a pandemic, more light is what we all truly need. That said, several years ago, Asher did ask, “Mommy, why don’t we have any lights up on our house?” I happily responded, “We will, sweetie. As soon as Chanukah comes, we’ll have eight days of special lights to share with our neighbors.”

Monday, November 16, 2020

Do Jews Celebrate Thanksgiving? Is Thanksgiving a Kosher Holiday?

photograph of people celebrating Thanksgiving with pumpkin pie and challah


One of the biggest questions this time of years for Jews is whether Thanksgiving is a kosher holiday. Can (and should) Jews celebrate Thanksgiving? How does the secular, American holiday fit into the Jewish experience?

Thanksgiving's Origins

In the 16th century, during the English Reformation and the reign of Henry VIII, the number of Church holidays was drastically decreased from 95 to 27. However, the Puritans, a group of Protestants that fought for further reforms in the Church, sought to completely eliminate Church holidays in favor of replacing the days with Days of Fasting or Days of Thanksgiving.

When the Puritans arrived in New England, they brought these Days of Thanksgiving with them, and there are many documented celebrations of thanks during the 17th and 18th century following the end of bad droughts or successful harvests. Although there is much debate about the specifics of the first Thanksgiving as we know it today, the commonly accepted belief is that the first Thanksgiving occurred sometime in September-November 1621 as a feast of thanks for a bountiful harvest. 

After 1621 and until 1863, the holiday was celebrated sporadically and the date varied from state to state. The first national day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed by President George Washington on November 26, 1789, to be a "day of public thanksgiving and prayer" in honor of the forming of a new nation and new constitution. However, despite this national declaration, the holiday was still not celebrated regularly or consistently. 

Then, in 1863, at the prompting of a campaign by author Sarah Josepha Hale, President Abraham Lincoln set the date of Thanksgiving officially to the last Thursday in November. However, even with this proclamation, because the Civil War was in full force, many states refused the date as official. It wasn't until the 1870s that Thanksgiving was celebrated nationally and collectively. 

Finally, on December 26, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt officially changed Thanksgiving Day to the fourth Thursday in November as a means of boosting the U.S. economy. 

The Issues

At first glance, it appears that Thanksgiving is a religious holiday founded by a Protestant sect, even though they were attempting to minimize the role of Church-based holidays. Although in the 21st century Thanksgiving has become a largely secular holiday chock full of football and belt-busting feasts, because of the holiday's potential origins as Protestant, there are several issues that the rabbis address to decipher whether celebrating this holiday presents a halachic (Jewish legal) problem. 

In medieval Talmudic commentary, the rabbis explore two different types of customs that are forbidden under the prohibition of "imitating Gentile (non-Jewish) customs" from Leviticus 18:3:

  1. idolatrous customs
  2. foolish customs found in the Gentile community, no matter whether the origins are idolatrous

The Maharik and Rabbenu Nissim conclude that only customs based in idolatry are prohibited, but secular customs that are considered “foolish” are permitted with a reasonable explanation. 

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a leading 20th-century rabbi, published four rabbinic rulings on the issue of Thanksgiving, all that conclude that it is not a religious holiday. In 1980 he wrote,

"On the issue of joining with those who think that Thanksgiving is like a holiday to eat a meal: Since it is clear that according to their religious law books this day is not mentioned as a religious holiday and that one is not obligated in a meal [according to Gentile religious law] and since this is a day of remembrance to citizens of this country, when they came to reside here either now or earlier, halakhah [Jewish law] sees no prohibition in celebrating with a meal or with the eating of turkey. … Nonetheless it is prohibited to establish this as an obligation and religious commandment [mitzvah], and it remains a voluntary celebration now.”

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik also stated that Thanksgiving was not a Gentile holiday and that it was permissible to celebrate with turkey. Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, on the other hand, ruled that whatever the origins of Thanksgiving, the establishment of a holiday based on the Christian calendar is closely tied to idol worship and thus is prohibited. Although he advises Jews to distance themselves from these customs, this is not widely practiced in the greater Jewish community. 

Giving Thanks

Judaism is a religion devoted to the act of gratitude from the moment an individual wakes up and recites the Modeh/Modah Ani prayer until he or she goes to sleep. In fact, it is believed that the Jewish lifestyle provides for the recitation of at least 100 prayers of gratitude every day. Many of the Jewish holidays are, in fact, holidays of gratitude and thanks -- like Sukkot -- which makes Thanksgiving a natural addition to the Jewish year. 

How To

Believe it or not, Jews celebrate Thanksgiving just like everyone else with tables overflowing with turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce, but likely with a bit of a Jewish touch and attention to the meat-milk balance (if you keep kosher). 

Even Jewish Americans living in Israel get together to celebrate, often ordering turkeys months in advance and going out of their way to find American staples like canned cranberry sauce and pumpkin. I personally prefer to pick my kosher turkey for roasting up at Trader Joe's and serve it alongside my childhood favorites: 

  • Watergate Salad (made with Cocowhip)
  • Green bean casserole (which I make with portobello mushrooms, French green beans, Imagine creamy mushroom soup, and gluten-free fried onions)
  • Mashed potatoes or no potatoes at all
  • Pumpkin pie in a gluten-free crust

If you want a more formal approach to your Jewish Thanksgiving celebration, you can always check out Rabbi Phyllis Sommer's "Thanksgiving Seder."

BONUS: The Thanksgivukkah Anomaly 

In 2013, the Jewish and Gregorian calendars aligned so that Thanksgiving and Chanukah fell in sync and was coined Thanksgivukkah. Because the Jewish calendar is based on a lunar cycle, the Jewish holidays fall differently from year to year, whereas Thanksgiving is set on the Gregorian calendar as the fourth Thursday of November no matter the numerical date. Also, Chanukah is a holiday that lasts eight nights, offering a bit of room for overlap. 

Although there was much hype that the 2013 Anomaly was the first, last, and only time that the two holidays would ever coincide, this isn't exactly true. In fact, the first occurrence of the overlap would have been on November 29, 1888. Also, as late as 1956 Texas was still celebrating Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November, meaning that Jews in Texas got to celebrate the overlap in 1945 and 1956!

Theoretically, assuming no legal holiday changes (like that in 1941), the next Thanksgivukkah will be in 2070 and 2165. I'll be long dead for the latter, but for the former, I'll be 87 and ready to parrrtayyy! 


What about you? Do you have any Thanksgiving traditions that marry Judaism with Turkey Day?

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Fun Puns and Alliterations for Celebrating Sukkot in 2021

Yes, Sukkot has come and gone this year, but after many years of creating alliterative names for the nightly meals in the Sukkah, I thought it might be fun to compile a ton so that when next year rolls around and we're hopefully gathering with friends and family ... you can have some fun, alliterative meals!

For those not in the know, a sukkah is a temporary structure that is also called a booth or a hut or a tabernacle (the latter most often outside of Jewish circles). With that, I give you the alliterative options:

In the sukkah ...

  • Sushi in the sukkah (served with sake in the sukkah)
  • Spaghetti in the sukkah
  • Make-your-own-salad in the sukkah
  • Make-your-own-sandwich in the sukkah
  • Sabich in the sukkah
  • Sausages in the sukkah
  • Smoothies in the sukkah
  • Subs in the sukkah (as in, sub sandwiches)
  • Sambusak in the sukkah (think: middle eastern samosas)
In the shack ...
These could also be used for "in the sukkah."
  • Shakshukah in the shack
  • Schnitzel in the shack
  • Shakes in the shack
  • Shepherd’s pie in the shack
In the booth ...
  • Beers in the booth
  • Brews in the booth
  • Burgers in the booth
  • Bagels in the booth
  • Banana splits in the booth
  • Bibimbap in the booth
  • Blintzes in the booth
  • Burritos in the booth
  • Bourekas in the booth
  • Hummus v'basar in the booth

In the hut ...
  • Hot dogs in the hut
  • Pizza in the hut (this is not alliterative, but a nod to Pizza Hut!)
  • Hamburgers in the hut
  • Hot pot in the hut
  • Herring in the hut
  • Heroes in the hut (as in sub sandwiches)
  • Hamin in the hut (hamin is similar to cholant)
  • Huevos rancheros in the hut
  • Hummus in the hut
In the tabernacle ...
  • Tacos in the tabernacle
  • Tequila in the tabernacle
  • Turkey in the tabernacle
  • Make-your-own-toast in the tabernacle
  • Tajine in the tabernacle
And a few more:
  • Pancakes in the palapa
  • Pancakes in the payag 

Another one that I came up with was cholent or chile en la choza (chili in the hut), but I was told that choza in Spanish is actually more of a hovel than a hut. If you speak Spanish and can let me know, I'd love to hear it in the comments!

Want to share one I didn't think of? Post in the comments and I'll add it to the list!


Thursday, August 13, 2020

True Story: I'm on an ISIS Hit List


Note: This story was original published on Medium in February 2019. I don't know why I chose to post it there instead of here, but I did. But now, I want to share it here, where people know me best. Can't wait to hear what you think about this one, friends!

When I was a kid, I wanted to be one thing: an artist. As I got older, this “future me” strove to be a photographer, poet, copy editor, and, ultimately, a writer.

Of course, one thing I never followed up “When I grow up I want to be …” with was “A target on an ISIS hit list.”

I’ve been an online blogger since the dark ages of LiveJournal, parlaying my love of storytelling into a blog back in the mid-2000s focused on my journey into and through Judaism. Yes, I’m a small-town girl from southern Missouri whose family relocated to Nebraska during my formative years. I went to and graduated from a Midwestern school, converted to Reform Judaism in 2006, and then I lived here, there, and everywhere around the U.S. Several years later, I converted to Orthodox Judaism, got a Master’s degree, got married, got divorced, moved to Israel, got married again, had a kid, moved back to the U.S., had another kid … you get the idea.

And all of this? It’s online. My life is quite literally an open website. I’ve always been an early adopter, and every digital space I find online is a medium for me to share my story — not for selfish reasons, but because I’ve found that my voice gives other converts a voice and I’ve got hundreds of outreach emails from people around the globe to prove it. I used to speak on panels, make good lists like “Top XX Jewish Women on XX,” and be the go-to for all things Jewish and social media on the web. I lament that my days are now filled with poopy diapers and scut jobs needed to pay the bills, but my digital life is still very much active.

My truth is that I have nothing to hide, so I don’t have to hide. The government can pop my laptop camera (or microwave, of course) on and watch me if they feel like it, because everything in my life is safe, legal, open.

But let’s be honest. What you see out there in TV land is the “Candyland version” of my life (props to Rivka Malka Perlman for this concept). Although I like to think that everyone sees and experiences my life exactly as it is, that’s not the truth. It’s not even close to the truth.

So here I am, one year out from an incident that shook me to my core and made me question everything I thought I knew about being a super-public Jewish blogging mommy, and I still haven’t written about it — until now.

I usually leave my house in the morning, because if I attempt to do my various contract jobs from home my day becomes all about the laundry, the dishes, the cucumbers and potatoes embedded in the carpet, the filthy fish tank, and all of the things that distract a working mother from, well, working. But one day last summer when my baby was still a newborn, I came home mid-day for something, I don’t even remember what, and found a business card stuck in the iron screen door of our small home.


I plucked the card out, and it was just a blank card, with the handwritten words, “Please Call Me” and an arrow. I turned the card over and saw that it was from an FBI Task Force Officer. My first inclination was that someone was playing a joke on me, because the shiny gold seal looked absolutely fake as can be.

Me being me, I Googled the information on the card, half expecting to get a dozen links about some prank or phishing scheme.

The officer on the card was real.

My next inclination was that they obviously wanted to talk to my husband my husband, the British-Israeli Green Card holder, for some kind of immigration hangup. He had, after all, gotten stuck outside the country from October 2014 to July 2015 thanks to the bureaucratic mess that is immigration.

I sent my husband a text with a picture of the front and back of the business card and suggested he call the number because, it only made sense, they needed to talk to him.

A few seconds later, he texted me back: “They want to talk to you.”

Me being me, again, began to panic. I couldn’t fathom what the FBI would need from me, and then my husband followed up with, “A threat has been made.”

I started racking my brain. I thought about all of the online spaces where people bashed me, devoted entire threads of forums to talking trash about me and my life choices, and wondering if one of the trolls had actually turned into violent. But these were just anonymous whackjobs hiding behind their PCs in Suburbia, not the type to elicit a response from the FBI. Right?

my husband told the officer he could come over and then he came home from work because I was, understandably, a bit panicked. When the officer arrived, he came in, sat down, and got to it.

“You’re on an ISIS hit list.”

In a fog of WTF is happening to my life, the officer went on to tell me how easy it was to find me, physically, that day, despite the fact that my divorced name was on the list. The officer also said that there are a lot of these lists and that I don’t really need to panic. Not too much, the officer said. The list, I was told, was geared toward lone wolfs, extremists who want to do their individual part by knocking off a single person — me.

When I asked how I ended up on a list, the officer didn’t have a great answer. Was it because I’m Jewish? A blogger? On Twitter?

The officer left, saying that if we see anything suspicious or alarming, to be in touch with him immediately. He also reminded us that we had a good friend in the community at the FBI (“I should have just asked him where to find you, it would have been even quicker!”), and that we were in good hands.

So. There I was, in my single-family starter home, counting down the moments until I needed to pick kids up from daycare, wondering when I was going to get assassinated in the name of a Holy War I really don’t understand.

I reached out to the local ADL, just so they’d know they had an ISIS hit list member in their midst. The response I got: “There has not yet been a case of violence resulting from any of these lists, but it is very important for everyone to be smart, alert and vigilant.”

Even my rabbi seemed unphased. My neighbors, on the other hand, asked if they should relocate, move, perhaps go into witness protection. I think they were half joking (they have a dog named ISIS, which made for some fun jokes), but maybe they weren’t. Who wants to be associated with someone potentially in the crosshairs of a militant terrorist group?

I basically spent the next two months being completely irrational and paranoid. There was one day where someone came to my door that I didn’t recognize, so I hid and called my husband, who told me to call the FBI. The person outside the door started to peek in the windows of my home and I was pretty sure he was an operative sent to end it all. I felt silly calling the FBI about it, so my husband came home from work quickly and when I re-described the person outside the house to him he quickly said, “Oh, that’s our new neighbor! Maybe he lost something over the fence?”

I genuinely thought I was losing my mind.

Every time I’d be walking across an intersection and a cab driver was edging slowly into the intersection I was convinced that he or she was sent by ISIS to commit vehicular manslaughter. I realize now, outside the fog of irrational shock, that assuming every cab driver is either Muslim or an ISIS operative is pretty crazy. Probably racist, too. Being on an ISIS hit list was making me a paranoid racist who was losing her mind.

The worst part about it all was that I couldn’t talk about it. I didn’t tell anyone except my immediate family, my rabbi, my kids’ daycare director, and our neighbors. It wasn’t safe to write about it, to talk about it. And writing about it was my natural form of self-therapy. Storytelling is my drug.

And then? I woke up one day and had all but forgotten about it. Most days, I don’t even think about it. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m not likely to be tagged and bagged by a lone wolf out to fulfill his ISIS mission. There has to be a statistical analysis of the likelihood, doesn’t there?

But every now and again, the fear and paranoia sneaks up on me. Sometimes, like this week, when I open Twitter and I’m being trolled by a “Muslim cleric” who liks approximately 30 of my Tweets in quick succession, I start to fear for myself, my husband, my kids. I fall down the rabbit hole Googling the name, location, trying to figure out if it’s a credible threat or just a zealous Twitter user showing me some legitimate love.

Last week I got a series of emails from someone trying to “meet up” with me to discuss something. They even called me, although I don’t know how they got my number. Luckily, I hate talking on the phone and never answer. I Googled the name, the email address, any identifying information, and what came up was not what the email sender provided and I began to panic again. I cut off communication and am hoping it wasn’t a legitimate request to meetup that could help me make millions.

At this point in my life, I can’t hide. What I’ve put out on the web is there for all eternity. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t delete even a single step in my digital footprint, just like I can’t delete my name from that looming ISIS hit list.

And I know what the comments will say: “You’re crazy! You’re writing about it? Now they’re going to find you!”

Storytelling is my drug, remember? My reality is that, for better or worse, the only way to overcome being on an ISIS hit list is to write about it.