The Philadelphia Board of Rabbis has been sharing resources for things like virtual seders. I thought this was a beautiful blessing crafted by Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, which she shared with the group and invited us to share with others.
I have taken the liberty to change a few lines, both to make them more ideologically consistent with the secular humanist communities I often serve, as well as to fulfill my own punctilious, borderline OCD focus on the most precise words that impart the kavanah, or precise meaning, I wish to impart.
In doing so, I mean no criticism of R. Ayelet’s beautiful creative work, nor do I imply that my wording satisfies the desires of every person who identifies with the secular humanist movement.


Thank you, Rabbi Ayelet, for your beautiful contribution to the corpus
of Jewish liturgy, love, and blessings.
A Prayer for Health Care Workers and Fruit Sellers

May the descendants of our ancestors,
Band together to support those who put themselves at risk to care for the sick,
Physicians and nurses and orderlies,
Laboratory workers and home health aides,
EMTs and pharmacists
Grocery store clerks and fruit sellers
(And bless especially _______)
Who navigate the unfolding dangers of the world each day,
To tend to those who have committed to heal, feed, and sustain our communities.
Bless them in their coming home and in their going out.
Calm their fears. Sustain them.
May we band together in these difficult days to support them,
their strength, and maintain their hope.

Communal response
Hazak Hazak Ve-Nit’Hazek

Let us strengthen them so that we may be strengthened;
May we keep them in health so that they may bring healing to others,
and keep all the communities of the world fed and strong in these perilous days to come.
May we steady these hands of our very salvation so that they know again a time when they can breathe without fear.
Precious is their selfless work — work that even puts those dearest to them at peril.
May this plague pass from among us, speedily and in our days.
— Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen, March 2020
adaptations by Rabbi Joysa Winter in italics


The following are a few afterthoughts on the evolution and content of the preceding prayer. I opted to add it below the prayer itself, so as not to lose any readers with shorter attention spans! 🙂
heb trav

For any who are not aware, R. Ayelet’s prayer to me seems inspired by parts of several traditional prayers: The prayer that is placed in the mezuzah, on the doorpost of our homes, which is a passage from Deuteronomy and recited every Shabbat; the ancient blessing for travelers called Tefillat HaDerech or “The Travelers Blessing” (as those traveling for most of human history was a perilous attempt indeed!); and it seemed inspired by wording from the MiSheberach, the traditional prayer for healing.
In modern Israel, many drivers carry a copy of the travelers’ blessing in a small scroll dangling from their rearview mirror or a key chain as pictured here. 
This Traveler’s Prayer is similar to my own, which I picked up the first time I lived in Israel. I liked it because it was mostly made of wood and stone, which reminded me of the Earth and also my connection with the tribal people of the world — because in my mind, that is what we Jews ultimately are: a tribe bound together under a canopy of stars.
[I also figure the day my Tefilat HaDerech quits working its magic — that was where I’m headed anyway — to the earth! LOL ] Similar portable blessings can be ordered on Etsy for the Prayer for Healing (in either Hebrew of English), as well as mezuzahs galore, which are typically hung on every doorpost of a home, excepting the bathroom…
That probably requires no explanation.
While I do not personally believe these amulets contain magical powers, they remind me of the Middle Ages when our people DID believe in them. So for this reason, they are very precious to me. (They also make a beautiful, inexpensive gift memento to pick up if you ever happen to travel to Israel and have many people to bring back gifts for!)
One final comment: I felt compelled to add a line about grocery workers to both the prayer and the headline (which in the headline especially creates a wonderful linguistic dichotomy that echoed something Yehuda Amichai would do) after reading this article in today’s NYT’s about all the grocery store workers who are falling ill because they are perhaps in the greatest contact every day of hundreds (thousands?) of people, and yet there has been really no talk in any government about providing protective gear for them.

Today I awoke to the shocking news that Noah’s Event Venue, a bargain-priced wedding and corporate event venue begun in Utah (of course!), has declared bankruptcy. Most couples, Business Insider reports, will never get their deposits back, which often ranged from $7000 to $12000. 

Some of these couples had ceremonies only a few weeks away, 260 guests who have bought plane tickets, and have no venue!

That is a true “nightmare” — in every sense of the word.

If you wonder why I say “of course!” in relationship to the company’s Utah origins, early reports are saying that the whole place was basicallya Ponzi scheme that benefited a tiny select few. And because of a close family friend I have who has spent his career as a lawyer specifically fighting consumer fraud exactly like this one — I happen to know that Utah is the state that, per capita, has the largest number of illegal businesses, overall consumer fraud (especially targeting the poor and elderly), and Ponzi schemess, than any state in America.


My offer is simply a modest one. If YOU have been robbed of thousands of dollars from Noahs Event Planning (proof of a deposit and contract will be required) — I am willing to officate your ceremony for free. As I typically charge $1200 for a wedding, this is just a modest token to try to help repair a terrible injustice perpetratrated by fellow professionals in my industry.

I can offer Jewish, interfaith, or “spiritual but not religious”-type ceremonies. (Or purely secular). Whatever category they fall under, my overall emphasis in all my ceremonies is on love, your unique love story, and the importance of love, family, and community to make a meangful life.

My ceremonies are pretty mutch the antithesis of the classic church service — with two people incidentially getting married in the middle of a lot of God talk …

I can also only offer this for weddings in the Philadelphia area or South Jersey, unless you cover any added travel expenses.


Check out my dozens of reviews on Wedding Wire under “Secular Jewish Irish Intrerfaith weddings.” If you’d like to learn more, contact me through that site or through here.

Best of luck to you all!


**In red are more extraneous thoughts safe to skip — for those who prefer a shorter read . . .

Like most modern Jews who even know what it is, I have a fairly meh attitude when it comes to the Talmud.*

[For a definition, skip to the end. Cliff Notes version: The Bible is maybe 10% of what has created the Judaism we have today. The Talmud has had vastly more influence than the Torah on Jewish life, yet it is a text so complex, even adults struggle to study it. Hence literacy among lay American Jewry about the Talmud remains nearly nonexistent.]

daf yomi sampleI had the — let’s say — requirement to study Talmud for two semesters, one at an American rabbinical college and another at an Israeli co-ed yeshiva that was, relative to all the other options in Israel in 1998, about as progressive as a person could hope to get. And it was the ONLY one, first in the world in fact, to be co-ed! (Separate is never equal; sorry folks. Especially when it comes to women’s yeshivas, at least at that time … .)

But no matter which continent I was on, I found the entire process suffocating.

Before I share my story, I’d like to state my appeal upfront:

I’m looking any online teacher of Daf Yomi who approach it from a modern, progressive, humanist, secular, and scientific, scholarship-based approach. In other words, the exact opposite way it has pretty much ever been taught!

Does such an online learning opportunity exist out there? In English? That is what this blog post is hoping to uncover!

What is “Daf Yomi” you might ask? Why thank you for asking! Daf Yomi is a practice that began, for the first time ever, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5684 (11 September 1923), when tens of thousands of Jews in Europe, America, and Israel decided they would all study one page of Talmud one day. If you stick with it, the entire cycle takes 7.5 years.

Up until now, it is a practice done faithfully by Orthodox men, and outside of that, largely only by non-Orthodox rabbis, doctoral candidates, or uber-Jews who have a lot more time on their hands than I ever have …

Now, in case you’d care to read more of the story, I’ll continue …

Both of these study halls where I studied Talmud were always abuzz at certain times each day with the murmuring sounds of students studying in chevruta (pairs of 2, sometimes 3) — as they struggled to merely decipher the byzantine words of a text that is 35 volumes long, 2,000 years old in thought and ideology, and which alternates between Aramaic and rabbinic Hebrew without any warning at all (including punctuation that is surprising helpful. Thing like, say, quotation marks and periods!)

The only significant difference between my two study experiences was the study hall in Jerusalem had no heat. You’d be amazed how cold that gorgeous white Jerusalem stone can get by November. I’d wear a down coat, a hat, and gloves with the fingertips cut out, and I’d spend those 3 tortured hours each morning downing hot cup of tea after hot cup of tea, which conveniently gave me an excuse to go to the bathroom every 35 minutes, no doubt lingering in there longer and longer as the months went by …

In each place I studied — and neither were Orthodox keep in mind — there were those handful of odd birds who just LIVED for these classes. I’ll admit, an alien would have been less peculiar to me.

To what felt like the majority of others, my sense was that my fellow students’ curiosity for what all this historical hubbub has been about for all these millennia — the sheer POWER they have held over Jewish life, action, and thought for literally 2,000 years — it was a curiosity that appeared to make the pain of the process somehow less painful. Or, at least enough less painful they were able to keep it themselves.

I’ve never been so great at keeping my thoughts to myself.

[I’ve also, by the way, also heard about this mysterious thing called a “runner’s high”. I have run fruitlessly for years in search of this elusive high. My most serious attempt was at age 18, when I ran 5 miles a day (okay I admit, mostly downhill) 4 or 5 days a week. After four months, I threw in the sweaty towel.

I had to admit it, I just didn’t have enough rage left in me about the boyfriend who had cheated on me to power my legs through the agony, and there’s only so long you can listen to raging tracks from the Indigo Girls. That was an honest attempt, wouldn’t you say readers out there? Shouldn’t I have experienced something of this supposed “high” ?!? 

It is now firmly in the category of the Yetti and the Lochnesss Monster at this point in my life …]

But I digress…

Alas, when it came to Talmud study, I fell in that third disgraceful camp that you don’t DARE admit to any of your classmates: That one where, in all I honestly, all I REALLY wanted to do was to study the Talmud in English and have tons of notations by some rabbinic-era scholars telling me off in the marginalia:

“Okay, this is what they were really saying:

  • The rabbi who wrote this one sentence inserted it about 300 years AFTER the sentence that followed it because the community had changed their mind about X;

  • This discussion at Y was about the larger historical problem they were grappling with at the time — the way the Russian Army kept forcibly conscripting Jewish boys as young as 14 into the army for 25 years, never letting them visit home even once, and not even informing their parents when they died, in an effort to effectively force all religious and cultural allegance out of them. Kind of like what Europeans did to American Indians; and it largely worked.** OK this example is totally out of the timeline. That historical reality didn’t happen until 1500 years later. But I don’t even know enough about the historical reality of 400 CE Jews in Babylonia to even come up with an example appropriate to that time period.

    Now that I think about it, I DO remember spending a tortured month trying to dissect some mysterious text about kings’ armies taking by force Jews’ donkeys on their warring campaigns and then if it was a hill donkey taken to the mountain and it died, was that different as far as damages than if it was a mountain donkey taken to the countryside and it died? That’s honestly the most memorable passage I can relay from an entire year of this stuff.

    But hey, this is actually a beautiful illustration of my point! If the right scholars could annotate the Talmud, for example, I no doubt WOULD know a whole lot more about the everyday lives of Babylonian Jews in 400 CE and have much more compelling stories to relay — and also be able to answer why the kings kept taking everyone’s donkeys …

  • As for that debate in section Z — it was probably inspired by a terrifying plague that we know from Akkadian/Assyrian/Egyptian sources swept through the Levant around that time. These reflect a group of people living in a world, which, it’s so EASY to forget how tenuous and terrifying simply being alive truly was! These statistics are NOT made up: In most of the world in this time, 25% of all people born died before age 5; 50% died by age 15; and the “average” lifespan of those who survived all of that was around 40. We know this from a cemetery excavation done in Jerusalem dated to around the year 0.

    Later on, by the Middle Ages, the statistics for Jews were undoubtedly far lower, especially Ashkenazi Jews living in the Christian-dominated lands of Europe vs. the Sephardim living in Muslim-dominated Middle Eastern/north African lands. The Muslims were, historically, far less oppressive as oppressive overlords to their minority populations than the Christians were, when you look at it through the broader span of history at least …;

  • And as for that mortifying sentence or two you just ran into at the end of the page — let’s just try to remember all that we know today is the accumulation of 2,000 years of human insight, study, and research — insights these people did not have. Like everyone of all ages, they were imperfect; and their views reflected the eras they came from … 

Then, wrapped up nicely in a bow, this dream, imaginary Talmud of mine would be wrapped in a simple: “So in a nutshell, maybe this one little nugget buried in all this page of minutiae is worth remembering — and might even make a nice quote someday in a sermon!” 

Ahhhh, a rabbi can dream  …

* * *

And just in the highly OFF chance you were left wondering why it would possibly matter what rabbi wrote his thoughts when matters — well, it didn’t matter at all in the “progressive” Conservative yeshiva where I studied Talmud. And it continues not to matter in the circles that are the only places that continue to treat the Talmudic legacy with real devotion — in orthodoxy. But this, to me, is a grave mistake because it is so patently, historically dishonest.

Fortunately, in my later Talmud study at the seminary, we paid lots of attention to who said what and when because more than anything, the one principle that bound this seminary (and the Reconstructionist movement together in general together) is THE TRUTH. How close to the REAL ACTUAL TRUTH can we get, even thousands of years later? And that commitment was 100% why I went there to study. If you’ve been a journalist 25 years, how can one choose any differently?

But I digress … so in the seminary, we all owned a very thin but very expensive book that had as much biography historians have been able to piece together about every rabbinic author quoted in the Talmud’s volumes. For the most part, and at a minimum, we usually know their lineages: who was son of whom, which century the person was writing in, etc.

Don’t forget, all 35 volumes of the Babylonian Talmud really were written by the elitest of the elite, which largely ran like expanded family trees. And knowing that something was a later insert by several hundred years, rather than reading the Talmud straight through, acting as if it were all put down in direct chronological order — well there is nothing that will more quickly lead a serious learner astray than that!

An insertion made several generations later is clearly meant to rectify a previous line of thinking or clarify something that was leading to confusion, or …. the list is endless for why redactions happen.

But anyone who wants to REALLY understand the true history of the Talmud, how it came to be, what it was trying to do, it’s nothing more than a fool’s errand to ignore the crucial reality that it was a hodgepodge of ideas pasted, recopied, remastered god-knows how many times and by how many hands, so it can hardly be read like this chronical masterpiece of unwavering coherence…

Scientific_Method_Trans1[One thing I try to remind folks when talking about content from the Talmud is that you must remember one thing: These words, these ideas, were written by people who lived 0 to 500 CE. These were folks who still thought the world was flat, the sun revolved around the Earth, and bloodletting sounded like a totally reasonable form of medical care!

So seriously, how much can we really ask of them, expect of them, when it comes to answering the ‘Big Questions’ in life now that we have the scientific method, and not just superstitions, fears, and fairytales, to try to answer such questions for us?

Don’t go to the Talmud to find those answers. Go to the Talmud because you love (or are at least curious) about our history. How our traditions, rituals, and ideologies evolved the way they did after the catastrophic end to the 2nd Temple. Study it because you are curious — and try to give them a little slack for the many, many cringe-worthy missteps a Daf Yomi experience will inevitably reveal to you.  The only reason you and I even know to cringe was the sheer dumb luck of being born NOW, not THEN, so keeping some humility in this enterprise is a good idea …]


The reason I’m inviting you to begin studying the Talmud now — you will need to do a wee bit of catchup at this point, to be honest — is because as Jewish-Nerds-In-The-Know know, NOW is the start of the next 7-year-cycle known as “Daf Yomi”, or the practice of reading one page of Talmud per day.

Up until now, I’ve never considered it, because the practice has been dominated by the Ultra Orthodox. Even if I could follow their online lectures (which I can’t, because they use so many Yiddish-isms and insider references I can barely make out what they are even talking about — despite it being in English — their refusal to look at any of it from anything remotely approximating an approach worthy of the post-Enlightenment era frankly makes their teachings irrelevant in my mind.)

How can I learn about any passage from the Talmud if the person teaching it believes:

a) it comes from the literal word of God;

b) it is infallible and the people who wrote it are superior to us because they lived closer in time to a person, Moses, who in most likelihood is a fictional, literary character; and

c) it fails to accept ANY of the insights we might glean from the science of modern scholarship — everything from archaeology, to linguistics, to comparative literary research of the ancient Mesopotamian world?

WRJ - Torah - TWC - 1 col_0It is for this same reason the Jewish Study Bible — now that it has finally come out — is the ONLY book I would never leave behind for a Torah study. It provides exactly this kind of “dream Talmud” I am talking about, but for the Hebrew Bible: A total translation filled in the marginalia with everything that theologians and top scholars who teach theology at the top universities in the world can add to the text based on this beautiful, wonderful gift brought to us by the Enlightenment and Haskalah: scientific discovery!!

(The Jewish Study Bible‘s only shortfall is the absence of the original Hebrew text. I bring UHC’s A Women’s Torah Commentary for those times seeing the original words in Hebrew are key to digging deeper into the stories …).

Alas, to my knowledge, this “dream Talmud” does not yet exist, and given how vast the text is, I can’t imagine it ever being made in my lifetime. BUT, to my delight this year, as I see my rabbinic friends contemplate whether THIS is the year to take on the 7-year commitment of doing the Daf Yomi tradition — of studying ONE page of Talmud each day — I have learned for the first time that there ARE folks out there now who have strived to take on the endeavor from a modern and secular perspective.

A Humanist Jew, Adam Hirsch, took on this challenge during the last 7-year cycle and wrote about his journey in The Tablet.

He did it the way I would — in translation. Often cramming a whole week’s worth in one day when he got behind.

In other words, he did it the way any person who actually has a life to live would do it: reasonably, and by according it the proper priority such a challenging endeavor should take in one’s life. As in: If the wife or kids are sick, or the bills need paid, or the poison ivy is about to overtake your backyard, sometimes other things just need to take priority.

That’s an approach strategy I can accept.

[Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle in August 2012. To read the complete archive, click here. Adam is a poet and literary critic whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.]

I didn’t read Adam’s articles over the past 7 years, but as he has just published a siyum, a conclusion, to the experience, I have now learned that they exist, and I am going to endeavor to go back and read them.

Technically, this isn’t really ME doing Daf Yomi. This is me reading about another person doing Daf Yomi. But unless and until I can learn about an online teacher who is offering a secular, humanist, scholarly approach to Daf Yomi on Youtube (and yes, of course I would be willing to subscribe and pay for the teacher. I believe more than anyone that teachers should be PAID for their knowledge), Adam’s articles are probably the best I can do right now.

So, my question to you loyal readers is this: Do you know of any humanist, progressive, scholarship-oriented teachers offering Daf Yomi lessons anywhere online that I can subscribe to and join?

* * *

The symbolism of finding such a teacher in existence out there in the stratosphere would be hugely exciting to me because it would mean that this literary world is no longer tied up in a community whose values are simply too contrary to my own to participate. (Which does not mean I don’t embrace the people of these communities of course — they are my tribe, my people — but I cannot embrace too many of their ideas, their values.)

For the very Orthodox, the very fact this kind of study actually mall who goakes up the bulk of their study for their entire childhoods is in itself a travesty — for the great disgrace and disadvantage it leaves legions of young adult ultra-Orthodox men.

You can’t make a living being a Talmud scholar, and most of them who grow up in these closeted enclaves graduate with the knowledge and life skills equivalent to a 6th-grade education. And state lawmakers in those regions of New York secure their votes by catering to these Hasidic clusters and looking the other way when their state-funded “schools” produce students who fail year and year in the kinds of standardized competency tests that are supposed to ensure “free, public, excellent education for all” by American jurisprudence.

For a first-hand account of just how damaging this is, I invite you to read the fantastic memoir by Shulem Deen called All Who Go Do Not Return. (Suffice it to say, if you are a woman who dares try to leave the enclave and then survive on such piddling education, their fate is even harsher …)

If you’d like to learn more about this issue, check out the movie Unorthodox, available in its entirety on Youtube. Another excellent option is One of Us, released in 2017 on Netflix.

 Just to reiterate my appeal. If anyone out there knows of some online Daf Yomi learning with a progressive, humanist, scholarship-oriented teacher anywhere online — payments would be made willingly — do please share what you have discovered! And Hazak Hazak v’NitHazek!

May we all go from strength to strength these next 7 years!

* * *

* The Talmud is the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewish religious law (halakha) and Jewish theology. Until the advent of modernity, in nearly all Jewish communities, the Talmud was the centerpiece of Jewish cultural life and was foundational to “all Jewish thought and aspirations”, serving also as “the guide for the daily life” of Jews.

The term “Talmud” normally refers to the collection of writings named specifically the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli), although there is also an earlier collection known as the Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi).

The Talmud has two components; the Mishnah ( c. 200), a written compendium of Rabbinic Judaism’s Oral Torah; and the Gemara ( c. 500), an elucidation of the Mishnah and related Tannaitic writings that often ventures onto other subjects and expounds broadly on the Hebrew Bible. The term “Talmud” may refer to either the Gemara alone, or the Mishnah and Gemara together.

The entire Talmud consists of 63 tractates, and in standard print is 2,711 double-sided folios. It is written in Mishnaic Hebrew and Jewish Babylonian Aramaic and contains the teachings and opinions of thousands of rabbis (dating from before the Common Era through to the fifth century) on a variety of subjects, including halakha, Jewish ethics, philosophy, customs, history, and folklore, and many other topics. The Talmud is the basis for all codes of Jewish law, and is widely quoted in rabbinic literature.

Originally, Jewish scholarship was oral and transferred from one generation to the next. Rabbis expounded and debated the Torah (the written Torah expressed in the Hebrew Bible) and discussed it without the benefit of written works (other than the biblical books themselves).

This situation changed drastically as a result of the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE and the Jewish Commonwealth, the subsequent dispersal of Jews into the “diaspora” — the lands outside the Levant.

As the rabbis were required to face a new reality—mainly Judaism without a Temple (to serve as the center of teaching and animal sacrifice) and Judea, the Roman province, without at least partial autonomy—there was a flurry of legal discourse and the old system of oral scholarship could not be maintained. It is during this period that rabbinic discourse began to be recorded in writing.

The process of “Gemara” proceeded in what were then the two major centers of Jewish scholarship, The Galilee, north of Jerusalem, and Babylonia, which is modern-day Iraq. Correspondingly, two bodies of analysis developed, and two works of Talmud were created. The older compilation is called the Jerusalem Talmud or the Talmud Yerushalmi, compiled c. 4th century. The Babylonian Talmud was compiled c. 500, although it continued to be edited later. The word Talmud, when used without qualification, usually refers to the Babylonian Talmud because it ended up becoming a more complete document that travelled with Jews as they ventured ever-further into the lands of Eastern Europe and the Arabia.

While the editors of Jerusalem Talmud and Babylonian Talmud each mention the other community, most scholars believe these documents were written independently; Louis Jacobs writes, “If the editors of either had had access to an actual text of the other, it is inconceivable that they would not have mentioned this.”

Today I wanted to share a beautiful writing a fellow lover of words passed along to me. It turns out, she has an extensive collection of published writings of her own on a site I will link to below.

By Sarah Tuttle-Singer
Writer for The Times of Israel

Jerusalem is not a sound bite.

Jerusalem is sound.

Early in the morning, Jerusalem is the clang of the blue metal doors that open one by one, the hiss of the tea kettles, the sound of worn fingers turning newspaper pages, the shopkeepers calling out to one another Salaam Aleikum in Arabic or Shalom Alechem in Hebrew — Peace be upon you, and you and you.

It’s the jackhammer fixing the sewer, the plumber unclogging a drain. It’s the roar of my friend Wassim’s Harley Davidson as he drives through the Christian Quarter to open his tattoo parlor — which may be the oldest tattoo business in the world. It’s the buzz of his tattoo needle, a modern version of what his grandfather once used when he dipped his needle into ink made of soot and wine, and tattooed the faithful on their pilgrimages.

Jerusalem is the clatter of loose change in the beggar’s cup just inside Jaffa Gate.

Jerusalem is the Cat Lady from the Jewish Quarter feeding the cats. It’s the alarm clocks going off, and kids grumbling In Hebrew, Arabic, and Armenian: “Noooo, I don’t wanna go to school.” It’s mothers answering, “Too bad, it’s time to get up.”

It’s the jangle of metal keys locking doors, and unlatching bicycles, the waif officials feeding the birds and the cats on the Temple Mount, the Greek Orthodox priest and the Catholic priest both trying to out-pray the other in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the rabbi’s wife weeping against the Western Wall for her son to return safe and unharmed from his military service.

It’s the sound of the border police on their patrols through the quarters, standing guard at the intersections, the sound of their boots scuffing the stones, the static from their radios, the wail of an ambulance when a new mother gives birth.



Jerusalem is the beating of doves’ wings when they take flight.

In the afternoons, Jerusalem is much louder — a warble of so many languages, in the flow of things, of visitors and merchants, holy men and madmen. Some sing, some pray, some haggle over the price of a menorah or a stuffed camel or an olive wood cross, some laugh. I’ve seen grown men drop to their knees in humble supplication and weep, just like it’s always been since Jerusalem became a thing — that place that grew from legend, that grew through prayer, that grew because we set our sites upon it, and so it was: a holy city.

Jerusalem is church bells peeling several times a day. It is the call to prayer echoing off the stone from the minarets — each one has its own recorded voice and each one of those voices is different — some are higher, some are lower, one guy sounds like maybe he’s from New Jersey, although he probably isn’t, another sounds like he studied opera with Pavoratti. They’re all beautiful apart, and even more beautiful together, although they all start at different times so some moments are harmonious and others dissonant, but that’s Jerusalem. On Friday, Jerusalem is the Sabbath siren that sounds just before sundown and ushers in the Jewish day of rest.

Jerusalem is yeshiva boys singing on the way to the Western Wall, it’s the Armenian musician playing the duduk, and Palestinian hip-hop or Nasif Zeytoun blasting from the shops and stands. Pilgrims sing in harmony, sometimes they bang drums, sometimes they strum guitars, and even when they’re off-key — which is often — it’s still beautiful to hear, and just as beautiful as everything else.

Jerusalem is the guy who runs a currency exchange shop in the Muslim Quarter who lost his voice box, but he’ll press on his windpipe and sing something by Fairouz.

Its the thud of a basketball in the Muslim Quarter and the sound a soccer ball makes on wet grass in the soccer field tucked way in the Armenian Quarter.

It’s the click-click of high heels even on those old stones in the Christian Quarter, and God bless the women who wear them.

Its the sound of children laughing while they hang by their knees off the jungle gym in the Jewish Quarter.

Jerusalem is “Freeze or I’ll shoot!” in Hebrew.

Jerusalem is “Death to the Jews” in Arabic.

It’s is a young father’s anguished cry when a Border Police officer beat him for no other reason, other than not having the right papers.

It’s the young mother’s anguished cry when her husband is murdered in a terror attack in front of her and sinks to the ground in a pool of blood, while the nearby merchants kick her and spit on her, until the Border Police come to rescue her.

Jerusalem is the boom of a stun grenade, and the sound my own flip flops make when I’m running.

Jerusalem is the clang of pipes, and frantic shouts — the scrape of a match and the hiss of a cigarette, all this during the riots around the Temple Mount last summer, and its the sound of my own heart beating until I looked up and realized that it was a group of Palestinian men, a nun, and a few tourists trying to dismantle a pipe where a newborn kitten was trapped inside.

Jerusalem is the kitten meow when they pulled him out — a tiny, hopeful sound, and then of all of us cheering, loud and joyful, in Hebrew in Dutch, in Arabic, in English, all together now.

Jerusalem at night is an echo — footsteps on the ancient stone. It’s couples bickering or making love, a laugh. A sigh.

Jerusalem is a colicky baby crying in the middle of the night and Jerusalem is the footsteps of the mothers and fathers who walk the floor back and forth, and the whisper, Shhhhh shhhh shhh my little one, sleep.

Jerusalem is the rooster that never sleeps and crows at midnight, especially full-throated and proud when the moon is full. It’s the wind. It’s an old man snoring, an old woman praying, and the late-night news broadcast, and the click of the radio when I turn it off and listen to her silence as she sleeps fitfully under the restless sky.

Sarah Tuttle-Singer, Times of Israel’s New Media editor, lives in Israel with her two kids in a village next to rolling fields. Sarah likes taking pictures, climbing roofs, and talking to strangers. She is the author of the book Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered. Sarah is a work in progress.


It’s hard to explain — or contain — the excitement I felt  when I ran across this news article today that explained how the word “partner” is becoming the growing preference for romantic couples.

What I also loved was this paragraph, buried way down in the middle:

“For a long time, a wedding was the only way to signal the depth and seriousness of a romantic relationship, said Amy Shackelford, founder and CEO of the feminist wedding planning company Modern Rebel.

“But we work with couples who get married six years, nine years, 12 years, after they started dating,” she told me. “You think they weren’t serious before then?” The word “partner,” she said, gives couples the power to publicly announce a lasting adult commitment, without an engagement or a wedding. If the couple does decide to get married, the ceremony itself serves not to solidify the relationship, but to celebrate it, surrounded by family and friends.”

I couldn’t have found a better of describing what MOST wedding ceremonies I officiate these days are like. They aren’t what solidify the relationship; they are what celebrates it!

I first was introduced to the “partner” idiom in 2004 when I was applying for rabbinical school. As always a very pro-GLBT seminary, the Reconstructionist Rabbbinical College had a concrete, unified pattern of always referring to people’s romantic partners as ‘partners’ whether they were married, cohabitating, just dating, gay or straight.

Once I got immersed in the culture, it became second nature and I never though twice about it. But I recall several instances when, talking to a stranger outside my little cultural bubble, I experienced a rude reawakening just how much of a bubble I was in.

On several occasions I remember speaking to someone out in the “real world” and almost referring to my partner as my “partner” and then having to stop myself and say “husband” because I knew if I didn’t — they would assume I was gay.

There’s nothing wrong with that assumption, of course, but if you are trying to get to know someone and reveal yourself and your life — saying something that would create such an obvious misinterpretation of that life does nothing to further the social transaction. Instead, all it does is create some awkward moment in the future when that person invariably would refer to my “he” as a “she” and I would then have to correct them with a … “oh by the way … I’m not actually married to a ‘she’ … “.

That’s the funny thing about living in social bubbles. It’s easy to forget how the rest of the world does things!

There was another time I remember making that bumble on the other side of the table. In 2005, I had been admitted to RRC but was still living in Denver — I hadn’t moved out yet to Philly. I met an RRC-grad, we were having dinner, and she made a reference to her partner (assuming, understandably, that I was “hip” to the shared understood RRC lingo.) Alas, I was not. (I mean, I knew it in my head, but it hadn’t made its way into my kishkes yet and become second nature.) Not 5 minutes later, I asked her some question about her “wife’ and she took a measured breath and had to calmly say … “Well, umm, my partner is a “he” actually”.

Whoops. Duh. Of course. But see, I hadn’t been immersed in that culture long enough for it to be second nature.

What’s COOL to me now though, is to find out that 15 years later, what was once this small little linguistic quirk — this one tiny little act of solidarity to our GLBT brethern in a tiny liberal seminary in suburb Phliadlephia — that this little “quirk” is now going mainstream.

In case the reasons aren’t yet obvious, here is why EVERYONE should use the word partner: No. 1: Because we should never ASSUME that the beloved a person is talking about is a member of the opposite sex. There’s just no reason why we have to speak in a way that constantly makes GLBT people feel like the “other.”

No. 2: In a world where legal marriage often says very little about the actual emotional reality of a relationship, designating whether any two people have legally signed a marriage document is beside the point. Why should that small legal fact alter the very language we use to describe the relationship between two people?

So let’s all just agree, here and now: Partner it is! For the good ol’ tried and true “husbands” and “wives” of yesteryore — we thank you for your years of stalwart service.

Now, if you would so kindly retire yourselves to the rafters, we have a world to transform!


118b1da2d9a6c0d2fa61a19bbc348d4a--the-map-ancient-egyptRecently I heard about a fascinating community of Hebrews who lived on a small island in southern Egypt around the years 495–399 BCE.

They are a tremendously important community to anyone interested in early Israelite history because of how much we have been able to learn about the inner-workings of their society, their legal codes, and their Jewish practices, thanks to the near-perfect preservation of thousands of papyrii written in Aramaic, buried when the community was wiped out, and slowly unearthed over the last century.

The presence of the community is also narrative-shattering for Jewish historians because of the fact the Hebrews there unabashedly built a temple to YHVH in a time when building any place of worship for the Hebrew god outside of Jerusalem was utterly forbidden (think of the angry admonitions by Ezra and Nehemiah—same time period).

I began reading a great scholarly book on the topic The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD and then bee-lined for Youtube hoping to find a video that might show pictures of everything I was reading. That is how I found one lone video on the topic, produced by a British video company NWTV. They pride themselves in being the first “free-to-view TV channel online”.

I must say, however, that I was quite dismayed by the casual anti-semitism and sexism of the narrator, who never identifies himself. Suffice it to say, he’s basically the kind of old white man who that gives all the decent white men of the world a bad name.

Oh Those Stiff-Necked Jews

First, our narrator  describes the destruction of the Jewish temple in Elephantine by their Egyptian neighbors with the remark, oh those “Jews often have a knack of upsetting people.” (9:20) “The Jews here at Elephantine also made themselves unpopular with their fellow mercenaries.”

At the time these events took place, around 500 BCE, there had been a fraction of the anti-Judaism that would later flourish around the world. So to suggest this is just another case of Jewish victimization is historically completely incoherent.

But what is worse is this: If the narrator were to do even the most cursory scholarly research, he would discover that there are three very simple explanations for why these two particular groups got into conflict—and none of them have to do with any notion of “pesky” Jews reigning destruction on themselves.

No 1: The act of a majority group rising up against the minority group living among them is found in every corner of every country in the world for all of human history. It is truly endemic.

Human beings are profoundly xenophobic; even today, hundreds of years after the Enlightenment and the birth of DNA and genetic science and the scientific understanding that all human beings are interchangeably the same, we humans are still killing, marginalizing, or demonizing the “other” among us, every chance we get. (Anyone care to notice what happened in the US presidential election in 2016!?!?)

The Bible is filled with stories of one group sacking another group—oftentimes it even being the Israelites doing the sacking. That’s what human societies do. Is it so hard to imagine why, for various political reasons, the Egyptians might suddenly turn on the tiny minority living among them? Of course it isn’t.

No. 2: In the case of these two groups—the Egyptians and the Israelites—there are particularly simple explanations for the enmity.

bible-archeology-Elephantine-Egyptian-papyrus-letters-Bagohi-governor-Judea-Sanballat-governor-Samaria-Delaiah-Shelemiah-Arsames-Vidranga-rebuild-YHWH-temple-site-plan-536-410BCAt the time of the temple’s destruction, the entire region was ruled by the massive Persian empire; southern Egypt was the outer-most region of its empire. We don’t have any records of what brought the Israelites to the region initially—they were probably the poor remnants who had been left behind when Babylonia sacked the Jerusalem Temple and carted the intelligentsia off to Babylon. Rather than live under severe oppression, the survivors probably fled south.

But whatever the reason for their initial migration, what we do know is that their main purpose in Elphantine was as mercenaries—hired militiamen living in a military garrison alongside their wives and children, hired to defend Persia’s rule.


The Egyptians’ Khnun Temple.

The two communities co-existed peacefully for 200 years. In time, however, Persia’s power began to wane, and Egyptian nationalism and desire for self-independence began to blossom. The Israelites were then perceived as just a “tool”—hired guns helping prop up an occupying force. Is it really any surprise, then, that the Egyptians would turn their swords against the Israelites – the hired army that was keeping them from self-independence?

Put another way: What else could the Egyptians have done, in light of these new desires? Kindly ask them to quit their jobs and just leave!?

Then there is an important No. 3: The main form of Israelite worship and practice at the time was to sacrifice animals, mostly bulls, which, in a terrible coincidence was the same animal their Egyptian neighbors revered as gods!

The book The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD explains it like this:

“It wasn’t as if the Jewish rites were easily ignored. There would have been constant activity from within the walls of its compound: smoke, blood, chants. And as if angrily elbowing their irreverent neighbors, the priests of Khnum [the Egyptian temple right next door] were expanding their own premises, pressing against the narrow boundary separating the two ritual houses …

At some point the priests of Khnum mobilized resentment against the Jewish troop as the hirelings of the Persians to be rid of their temple, if not of their soldiers and families. They compelled the “wicked’ commander of the island to act …”

Yet our narrator ignores all of this. Instead of pointing out how this was yet one more example of religious leaders using their faith as an instrument of terror, to grab land and resources from another group, instead he would have the audience believe this is just another case of those stiff-necked Hebrews pissing everybody off!

Khnoum temple

Because the settlement was so swiftly destroyed, the archives left behind have been a treasure trove for historians, much like the Cairo genizah.

The question of why Jews have been so maligned and targeted for so long in Western civilization is certainly a valid one—but it is one that is incredibly complex. Scholars have devoted many full-length books to the topic. To reduce such a complex question to little more than a victim-blaming statement akin to “Oh, those Jews are so good at making others hate them!” – well, it is flat-out grotesque.

It’s even more obscene given that the bulk of the real answer to that question rests with the scriptures that Christianity and Islam revere. For the narrator – a man I can only presume is a believing Chrisitian—to point the finger at the victims rather than his own church’s scripture and institutions—well, its gross. And inexcuseable.

“Oh What A G-I-R-L”

Given that bigotry usually goes hand-in-hand with other types of prejudice, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to hear what this jackass would then have to say about women. But alas, I was unprepared for his next verbal bombshell …

When speaking about the ability of Elephantine’s Hebrew women to divorce their husbands—a concept pretty novel for the Ancient Near East and not something their sisters over in Palestine could do—this anecdote is relayed with both dismissiveness and contempt. (22:20)


The rocks lining the Nile look a bit like elephants, hence the modern name of the island.

With a smirk on his face, the narrator recounts the case of one woman, Mitbahiah, who is reported to have married three times, making the snide remark that she “must have been quite some girl!” (22:37) Oh what a nightmare she must have been to go through so many men! he implies. (And a “girl” not a “woman” no less.)

Well Herr Jackass, Mitbahiah is also written about in the above-cited book and you have your facts wrong. Yes, she married three times, but she divorced once, not twice. Her first husband died. It was only her 2nd husband she divorced, thus leading to a 3rd marriage (the documents of which were found among the Elephantine papyrii.)

But even if she had divorced twice, what of it?! Is it so hard to imagine that a person could make a bad choice in marriage more than once?! That never happens with women who grow up in abusive households especially, right … the pattern of being abused as a child, so then you get into a series of abusive marriages as an adult. Who has ever heard of that phenomenon, right!? (And yes dude, that is SARCASM.)

The point is: Would you have EVER made such a snide remark about a man who is recorded as having divorced twice?

Of course you wouldn’t.

It’s a completely sexist double standard.

51BHqWS7Y1L._AC_US218_(Oh and one more thing: The name of the Hebrew month isn’t Chisleu—it’s Kislev. Given you English-ized all the other words from Aramaic, I can only imagine leaving the Aramaic name for the month was an editing error).

The saddest part of this video is not that the narrator alone could be so pig-headed to make remarks like these—it’s all the script writers and editors who processed this film and did nothing about it along the way. How many people went through the process of making the film and thought nothing of these bigoted statements?

I don’t know when this video was made, but it was uploaded only 2 years ago, and by NWTV itself, so it’s a reasonable guess it was made around 2016. If this were made in the ’60s, heck even the ’80s, it would be too unremarkable to warrant comment. But it wasn’t. Not even close.

Dear NWTV: You folks really need to join the 21st century. Take a serious look at your implicit biases and prejudice, because they destroy whatever credibility you might otherwise have.

Dear Readers: Run out and buy Schama’s book today. It’s a wonderful, exciting read!

The Willows Radnor Township.jpg

The Willows historic mansion is visible in the distance. A bridge connects the park to a small peninsula that juts into the lake, shaded by a gorgeous willow tree. It’s the perfect spot for an intimate wedding ceremony.

If you are looking for a short and sweet wedding ceremony with just you, your beloved, and a handful of guests, The Willows is one of the most perfect, picturesque places to do so in Philly’s western suburbs.

Radnor Township has a park called The Willows (430 Darby Paoli Road; Villanova PA 19085). If you type the address in Google Maps, and select Satellite view, you will see that the park is centered around a small lake with a view of a historic mansion.

Jutting out into the lake is a small piece of land with an enormous flowering willow tree (hence the park’s name, presumably!) It’s all the space you need for a group of 3 to 10 people to stand in a semi-circle and watch you become married!

Here is The Willows on  GoogleMaps.

The Willows park is a 47.5-acre estate purchased by Radnor Township in 1973 from the Zantzinger family. Situated at the end of a long, winding driveway is the beautifully restored three-story mansion. The mansion was built in 1910 by John Sinnott Jr. and Rose Garland.

The mansion still contains many of the original architectural features that add to the historical value of the property. The cottage (or gatehouse) was a multipurpose building. It housed estate employees, stabled horses and other animals of the estate, as well as cars. It was the first point of contact visitors made to the estate.

Today, the property also contains a nature trail, picnic areas, and restrooms open to the public.

For more information on visiting the park, as well as information on reserving the park for a larger more-formal event, visit the township website here: www.radnor.com/Facilities/Facility/Details/The-Willows-29.


The Willows Radnor Township.jpg

chuppah2As a wedding officiant, one of the first questions couples ask me is where they can find a chuppah — the wedding canopy that is used traditionally in Jewish weddings.

Chuppahs remain a popular element in Jewish weddings, including interfaith weddings, and for very good reasons.

For starters, they are beautiful! They create a picturesque “frame” around the couple and carve out a visual space for the ritual events to unfold.

Secondly, the meaning of a chuppah works in so many different types of weddings. Although it is clearly a Jewish tradition, there is nothing Jewishly “exclusive” about it — meaning, it works perfectly well for Christians too.

The idea of a chuppah is that you are symbolically creating the new home that the couple is making together. Like a home, it has a cover, to provide shelter, but unlike a home, it is open on all sides. This symbolizes the idea that all couples need the help, love and support of the people around them; by keeping the walls open, they are inviting all of this love inside.

You may have noticed that there is nothing theistic about anything I have just said. The majority of weddings I officiate are for couples where at least one person self-identifies as an agnostic, atheist or secular humanist — and chuppahs work perfectly with these kinds of ideologies too! Inviting in the love of friends and family into your new home has nothing to do with an omnipotent being.

How To Find a Chuppah: The Nuts and Bolts

All of that said, allow me to return to my previous point, which is the literal question: Where do I find a chuppah? Here is some advice that I have culled from couples whom I have married:

1) Start with your wedding venue. They may have chuppahs they can rent you, or they may have an “arch”-type piece of decoration worked into their grounds, which you can use as a symbolic chuppah.

2) Next stop is a florist. Many florists also rent chuppahs. If you have a florist and they don’t offer chuppahs, move to point 3.

3) Third stop is looking for vendors who are strictly in the business of renting chuppahs. Keep in mind, the closer the vendor is located to the location of your wedding, the better the price they can offer. Travel time is often the biggest time drain for every person you are hiring to do your wedding! You will also pay more on a Saturday in May, when folks in the wedding business are booked out to the hilt, than you will on a Thursday in December.

4) Last idea: For those crafty inclined — or for those on a budget — or both, buy a chuppah starter kit (about $125 from one website I like, called www.galleryjudaica.com) and get handy. These kits will give you the basics of what you need, and you will usually need to figure out the polls.

I officiated a wedding for a couple who chose Organza Chuppah Silver for $125, free ground shipping, from Gallery Judaica. They invested a fair amount of time making polls with matching fabric and gold ribbon hanging off the end; I loved it!5-27-12 Alanah & Scott (5).jpg

Another couple I married went the super-simple route and just bought four matching poles and then tied a tallis (prayer shawl) over the top. The tallis they used was an old one, which had been passed down in the family. Here is a picture of how theirs came out (at right). As you can see, it’s gorgeous! You don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a chuppah, especially if you are willing to work with the type you hold.

One of the best chuppah-making secrets I’ve learned about of late is a guy who sells on Etsy full-sized birchwood polls, fashioned to hold a fabric top on one end. The price? $51 for four polls! (How he makes any profit at that price, I have no idea!)

Buy some birchwood polls on Etsy, add a family tallis on top, and you’ve got yourself a gorgeous handmade chuppah for under $100! Right off the bat, you’ve carved $900 off your wedding budget; not too shabby, I’d say!

Below I have listed a few vendors that have been recommended to me personally, and at prices that strike me as reasonable. Keep in mind, you can pay upwards of $1,000 for a chuppah, depending on how fancy you want to get.

** Philly Event Rental (http://phillyeventrental.com/) offered a price quote of $450, with an additional $50 for lights. Their warehouse is located in the NE Philly / Port Richmond area. “We were very happy with how it turned out.”

* A florist in South Philly, Baileflor, recently offered a price of $350, which included draping, flowers and hanging crystals. But she was also being paid separately for larger floral work at the ceremony, so it’s not a straight comparison in the price department. “She can also customize depending on your budget,” my source told me, and the couple “seems to be very pleased with her thus far.”

Her contact info:
Leah Reinhard Albarouki
MD wedding (3).JPGbaileflor

Of course the best place to go these days to just scope out ideas is Pinterest. There, you will find thousands of pictures of chuppahs that people have uploaded to the site.

For example, check out this beautiful chuppah one of my couple’s made, overlooking a lake in Delaware. It is nothing more than unadorned tree branches, with a large piece of lace draped over the top. Simple, yet perfect!

Have you rented a chuppah in the Philly area and liked the service you received? If so, please email me the name of the provider, the price you paid, and whatever other details are helpful to know, and I will add them to this list!

Honoring the death of a person who was difficult to love

– A combo memorial service / shiva minyan can help you do so

 A few months ago, I had the complicated privilege of helping a family plan a memorial/shiva service for their father, who had died after a long illness, and after an even longer period of pain of estrangement from his four adult children, their spouses, and his grandchildren.

“Andy,” as I will call him, was a complicated persotombstonen, which is why I described my job, as the rabbi, to be “complicated.”

Andy was in his 80s and was hard to get along with, perhaps even abusive at times to his children. He played favorites in a way that the adult children had learned to cope with, but which had surely created much pain and heartache when they were younger and less mature. Andy had divorced his kids’ mother and she had no interest in attending any kind of memorial. None of the women he had dated since  the divorce cared to attend any kind of service either. It appears he had no friends.

Jewish burial practices were clearly made with a different kind of person in mind. Jews and non-Jews alike, including the world of psychiatric research, has a great deal of admiration for the way Jewish tradition handles end-of-life mourning practices. People have written many books about the wisdom of Jewish mourning traditions, and how they seem designed to gradually lead the survivors through the stages of mourning, and eventually back into the world of the living.

I agree. They are brilliant. And I encourage Jews who never do more Jewishly in their lives than appear at Kol Nidre services to take the time to familiarize themselves with the Jewish ways of mourning when a loved one dies. Together, they betray a keen awareness of how we humans process loss, and how marking intervals of time over this mourning process with specific rituals and prayers can help us move through our grief.

I won’t go into the various elements now – you can read them many places. Rather, what I would like to talk about here are those deaths that we feel a need or desire to ritually acknowledge in some way, but for a variety of reasons, the Jewish script on how to do so doesn’t fit quite right.

• The death of someone who is very old, and thus leaves few survivors, is one whole category of cases where classical Jewish mourning practices don’t entirely make sense.

• The death of someone who was, essentially, a hard person to love, is another important category. This is the situation “Andy’s” family found themselves in.

 *   *   *

Before we explore what alternatives might work best in these types of situations, let’s first review what a “typical” series of events would be following the death of a beloved, when Jewish tradition kicks in with a set of clearly prescribed actions:

1.         Call the funeral home.
2.         Plan for either a burial or cremation.
(40% of Jews today are being cremated; it’s the hush-hush secret no on talks about.)
3.         Schedule a date and plan on 100+ people coming to the funeral home for a service inside the funeral home.
4.         A portion of those mourners will then drive to the graveside, where thtexte rabbi will read a few more psalms or poems, and conclude with the mourner’s kaddish. The final act is the throwing of dirt on the casket or the urn that is being buried. You can assume steps 1-4 will take about 5 hours out of your day, much of it in travel time, since the funeral homes and the burial grounds are often located very far apart. In Philly, most of them are located in the far outskirts of the city.
5.         Then comes shiva. Traditionally, it is 7 nights, but most families outside Orthodoxy observe only 1 or 2 nights. The rabbi who led the funeral usually leads the shiva as well, unless you have an educated friend or family member who can lead the service. (This is one way of saving some money, if that is an issue.) While a shiva service itself usually takes just 40 or so minutes, it is essentially a daylong event, emotionally speaking. Folks almost never go to work during shiva, and many families feel obligated to have food on hand for those attending — even if it’s food that others have brought.
6.         Then, about 6 months after the death, immediate family members gather graveside for the unveiling of the tombstone. This is a brief ceremony, 15 minutes tops, but people often have lunch together afterward. Due to travel time, this often takes another 3-4 hours — so in other words, another half day spent.

The average cost for all this (assuming a burial and not a cremation) is $35,000, according to national statistics. The rabbi makes a miniscule fraction of this sum, by the way. In Philadelphia, the fixed rate for a funeral is $600 for the rabbi; (shiva minyans and tombstone unveilings are negotiated separately, and vary depending on travel time.)

At the end of the day, this “whole big megilla” of a traditional Jewish burial is a whole lot of money, (and time, and emotional latitude.) It’s especially a lot of money if you suspect few people will even attend the funeral, the graveside, or a shiva, either because the deceased had outlived his social circle, or because the deceased did not endear himself much to others.

But forget the money for a moment and just focus on the emotional costs. When the relationship was strained, you can’t help but ask yourself honestly whether you want to invest 10 or 20 hours of your life memorializing someone who, despite their kinship, caused you unmitigated grief or heartache.

How much time do you want to spend formally mourning a person who caused you to spend years of your life on a therapist’s couch?

I’m going to take a wild guess here and say: Probably not much.

And that also doesn’t mean you want to do nothing at all, either.

After all, a memorial event, however it is done, is done for the living, not for the dead. So, more than anything else, the event needs to meet the needs of those who are left behind. In the case of this family, the many layered, time-consuming, and expensive Jewish traditions usually done upon the death of a beloved was not what Andy’s family needed.

Although the death of a difficult family member, like Andy, is a different kind of loss than the death of someone close, but it is still very much a loss. Sometimes, quixotically, it can be an even harder loss because it can bring up all sorts of feels of regret, thoughts of “If only…” and “What if…?”

The death of a person with whom you had a broken relationship means this relationship can NEVER be repaired. Of course it couldn’t have been repaired by any means, because the man who died was himself too broken of a person, but having the window close of even an imaginary opportunity is its own sort of terrible finality. You, the survivor, is left with the shards of this broken vessel, and a memorial service, done the right way, can be your own first step to making peace with that fact.

Fortunately for me, Andy’s surviving children and spouses were an incredibly wise bunch. While they didn’t know exactly what they wanted as far as a formal ceremony or event marking Andy’s passing, they had figured out — intuitively really — that doing the traditional Jewish funeral rites was not what they needed. It would have been, pardon the expression, overkill. But they intuited that they needed to come together in some manner as a family, and in some way mark the passing of this person who had, for better and worse, made such an enormous impact on their lives.

After speaking at length with one of Andy’s daughters, and learning the details of their story, we concluded that having a modest, in-home memorial service with just immediate family members would be the best way to help them do that. So, working together, here is what we did, (I think of it as a Jewish funeral/shiva combo). It was inexpensive; it was respectful; and it served its purpose of helping the mourners mark the loss of their father and grandfather.

It was almost like building a new foundation out of the rubble: By making peace with the brokenness, they could then move forward in their own unbroken lives and relationships with each other.

 *   *   *

Combined Home Memorial  / Shiva Minyan Service

(in lieu of the traditional memorial service at funeral home /
ide service / and then shiva minyan)

Timing: Andy had died and been cremated about one month earlier. An in-home memorial was planned for a few weeks after his death to give relativmosaices from out of town time to buy plane tickets at a reasonable price and prepare time off from work and school (in the case of the grandchildren).

Location: At the home of one of Andy’s daughters in the Mainline PA.

Time: Late morning or early afternoon on a Saturday or Sunday seemed to make the most sense. This minimized impact on their own work/school lives, while also making it possible to follow the home memorial with a meal together, which they had at a restaurant. (I led the service, but did not join them at the meal).

In Attendance:  Four surviving daughters, their four spouses, and all but one of the grandchildren (the missing grandchild was in college and had only met his grandfather once, so in his case, it didn’t seem to make sense that he would incur the cost and headache of missed collegiate work.)

Our Service:

We sat in chairs in a circle in the living room, where we could all face each other.

Rabbi: I began with a favorite reading from Albert Einstein, where he reflects on the meaning of life. I concluded by saying:

“Thank you to all of you who have come here today, to stand in comfort and support of the Smith family, as they mourn the passage of their father, father-in-law and grandfather, Andy Smith. Please turn to page 4a.

 Rise for the Shema.”

Rabbi: After group recitation of the Shema, service-leader reads a brief writing from Chaim Stern.

Mourner #1: Reads an English rendition of Ma’ariv Aravim.

Everyone: Recites the Shema together.

Mourner #2: Reads an English rendition of V’ahavta.

Rabbi: “There are times when each of us feels lost or alone, adrift and forsaken, unable to reach those next to us, or to be reached by them. And there are days and nights when existence seems to lack all purpose, and our lives seem brief sparks in an indifferent cosmos. Fear and loneliness enter into the soul. None of us is immune from doubt and fear; none escapes times when all seems dark and senseless. Then, the ebb-tide of the spirit, the soul cries out and reaches for companionship.”

Please turn to 13a as we rise and recite together the first three blessings of the psalmnatureAmidah. For the 15 remaining blessings, I invite you to recite them silently, or simply take this time for quiet personal reflection.

Group: Recites the Amidah (Also called “The Tefillah”).

Conclude the Amidah by singing together Oseh Shalom.

Rabbi: Shares a reading from Marge Piercy.

Rabbi: Shares some highlights from Andy Smith’s life: where he was born, raised, what kind of work he did. Mention his strengths and those things he did well in life.

Then open the circle to anyone else who would like to share some memories. Three members of the family shared some brief positive memories they had of Andy. (We all knew that these thoughts did not reflect the larger arc of his life, but that was okay. It was an act of love, really — one final unrequited gift that they gave him — by choosing to focus only on the positive and the joyous.)

Mourner #3: The circle closed with a recitation of the poem by Albert Fine: “Birth is a Beginning, Death is a Destination.” (The poem had been suggested by one of the daughters; she had heard it at another funeral and liked it.)

Rabbi: Sings/Chants El Malei Rachamim – a chanted prayer of mourning filled with beautiful allegory whereby the petitioners ask that the soul of the departed carry on into the next world on the wings of angels.

Rabbi: Leads the concluding Mourner’s Kaddish.

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Shavuot: Let's keep it the harvest holiday it was originally meant to be!

This is just one of many ways a combined at-home memorial / shiva service can be conducted. The readings and content was selected after speaking with the family members. In total, the service lasted about 40 minutes.

Every death is different, and the needs of every family of mourners is always different. The service outlined above, for example, assumes that those attending have a basic understanding of core Jewish liturgy, and that the mourners are in favor of references to God in Hebrew. What the right service might be for your family could look very different.

To discuss what kind of service might meet the needs of your family, please give me a call. There is never any charge for a consultation, and if I feel I am not able to meet the needs of your family – for whatever reason – I am happy to help you find someone who will.

Every death, even the most difficult one, deserves to be honored and recognized in some way. Working together, we can make this happen for you. I am an ordained rabbi with formal training all across the non-Orthodox spectrum: Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Secular-Humanist. (I’ve been a quintessential “Wandering Jew” in my learning and life; hence the name of this blog! 🙂 ).

We can craft a ceremony that reflects your relationship with the deceased, however it might have been.

I’m not always checking my electronic devices, so if you have a time-sensitive inquiry for a funeral, a memorial service, or a shiva minyan, please text my cell and send me an email. I will be in touch as soon as I see one of the other. If possible, please give me a general sense of what day you either must or hope to have your gathering, and how much flexibility you have on that scheduling.

To reach me, please fill out the contact form found at SecularJewishFunerals.com

In 2014, I had the pleasure of officiating a wedding at the most unlikely of places: a downtown antique auction house and furniture store called Material Culture. Located in north Philadelphia, just east of East Falls at 4700 Wissahickon Ave., the store promotes itself as “A spacious emporium carrying an array of global antiques, arts & crafts, plus other unique finds.”

Unique indeed! Built in 1920, the 60,000-square-foot store occupies a former train station of the Atwater Kent Radio Factory. With towering ceilings, expanses of glittering light, and galleries adorned with architectural elements and artwork from around the globe, the store provides an amazing backdrop for any couple looking to bring a Pier One-aesthetic to their wedding day.

Here are just a few shots I captured that day. The smudge on all of them came from a toddler’s fingerprint that I didn’t know what there! 😦 You can view much better photos from a variety of events in the store’s photo gallery, which you can find here. 

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From the outside, Material Culture looks utterly commonplace. It isn’t until you go inside that the real magic begins!

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Looking down at the reception.

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One of the funky furniture pieces for sale.

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The colorful chuppah under construction before the ceremony.

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The carpet room provides lots of places for folks to sit down and enjoy cocktails. 

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The tech-savvy couple had fun jumping online right after the ceremony and registering the change from Dating to Married on their relationship status on Facebook!