Magic Jewball

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Jew & A – organ donation

Filed under : Jew & A,Judaism
On August 11, 2009
At 11:00 pm
Comments : 4

Oh look, Jew & A! Maybe you vaguely remember this concept. Anyway, I received two questions, one last week and one this week. Let’s start with last week’s. One should not assume that we’ll have to wait till next week for this week’s but stranger things have happened.

Dear MJB,

I recently overhead an acquaintance say that she and her husband could not be buried together in the Jewish cemetery because she had signed her organ donor card, and removal of her organs would prevent her from being buried in that cemetery. Is this correct? Is this why the klezmer is so popular?

On a side note, is this why there is so much care taken to retrieve body parts following a catastrophic death?


Dear Deas,

This is an interesting question because it pits two big principles of Judaism against each other. Two principles enter! One principle leaves! Or something, I don’t really watch that show. And of course, since this is Judaism, there are varied interpretations of which principle trumps the other. Let’s start with our contestants, shall we?

#1 is 25, likes moonlight walks, and is looking for a man to understand her.

Wait, let’s start again.

#1 is called “nivul hamet” or “insult to the dead.” A dead person should be shown great respect, and we would never want to embarrass or dishonor him or her. For example, he or she is never left alone all the way until burial; there is always a living person sitting with the body. This may sound creepy but is an important mitzvah (commandment). If it is your loved one, it can even be comforting. Also part of this rule is making sure that all parts of the body are buried, this honors the person by making sure their remains are not unnecessarily mutilated. Similarly, the body is purified, prayers are said, and he or she is buried right away, usually within 24 hours.

#2 is called “pikuach nefesh” or “saving a life.” This is really the overarching principle of Judaism and almost nothing nullifies the obligation. For instance, if driving on the Sabbath, usually forbidden, could get someone to the hospital to get treatment for a life-threatening condition, it is permitted, and actually required.

You can probably see where I’m going here. But let’s start with a different question. My, I love questions! So, is an autopsy permitted? Cutting open a dead person is certainly a disrespect; have you never seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High? The answer is, sometimes. A routine autopsy is not permitted but one that would establish a cause of death that might help someone else live is OK. But an organ transplant is always done to heal a living person and therefore, most authorities would say it is not only all right, but should be encouraged.

Now, as with all things Jewish, it depends on who you’re asking. You, of course, are asking me and I would tell you that everyone should sign up to donate their organs and perpetuate life. But some Hassidic and other groups within Judaism argue that #1 is just as important and a dead person must be buried whole. Therefore, autopsies and organ harvesting are never allowed, according to them. Does your acquaintance typically wear long skirts, long sleeves, and a wig? If not, the cemetery she’ll most likely be buried in will gladly accept her and her money. I mean, her and her body.

Not to mention, there’s always a lot of talk about Jewish cemeteries not accepting people, it’s kinda weird. I’ve heard, “I can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery if I have tattoos,” “I can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery since I intermarried,” “I can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery if I commit suicide,” and now “I can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery if I donate my organs.” Who knew that Jewish cemeteries were a tougher get than Harvard? Personally, I’ve never heard of this happening, maybe it’s a Jewish urban legend. Where’s JewSnopes when you need it? I can’t say with total authority that it never occurs (particularly the intermarriage one), but at the funerals I’ve been to, the dead person arrives in a plain wood coffin and is buried, spit spot. I’ve never seen anyone peek inside and make sure the body looks pristine.

And yes, when you see official personnel in Israel after a fatal event collecting human remains, this is why. They are mostly from an organization called Zaka, which does search and rescue, as well as this horrific task. In Judaism, making sure a person receives a proper burial and is treated with honor after life ends is considered one of the greatest things one can do, because there is no reward for it in this lifetime. It is called “chesed shel emet” or “true kindness.” My cousin told me once that she had served time on a committee at her synagogue that prepared and purified a person for burial. It was hard at first, but after a while it became routine. You could be called at a moment’s notice, too, even in the middle of the night, and you wore special garments. I was awed and impressed, but she is a truly kind person, so there you are.

Relatedly, no one really knows why klezmer is popular. Many grants have been funded to study this issue. I kid! Of course this is why klezmer is popular! Life is short, death is sad, let’s make music and dance!

Thanks for writing!

Elton John – Someone Saved My Life Tonight


Jew & A questions, but no, I’m serious this time

Filed under : Jew & A
On January 14, 2009
At 2:50 pm
Comments : 8

Hey! What’s the most cliched thing a blogger can do? Besides gazing at her own navel? Publish a book, of course! I have been asked to put together a proposal for a Jew & A book. I know, how crazy/awesome is that! But the fact is, I don’t have enough questions. Without questions, there are no answers, my friends. So, in actuality, we’ll be writing a book. You and I. Except you won’t be paid. That’s a legal phrase that means, “you won’t be paid.” Especially if my proposal isn’t accepted. Then no one will be writing a book.

So! Please do think of some pressing questions about Judaism, Jews, Jewey things, etc. They don’t have to be PC, I am rarely offended except if you tell me these pants make my butt look big. But that’s not a question so I’m not concerned. You can send me questions in three ways:

1. Email me at becca (at) magicjewball (dot) com
2. Use this form (also under Pages on the right).
3. Put it in the comments.

Don’t forget, you may be published in a book but possibly not on the actual blog. Except if your question intrigues me so much I feel the need to answer it this second. Luckily, you’re all intriguing. I know this because I’m always intrigued that anyone would read this blog.

So thanks and don’t forget Becca’s favorite phrase, “don’t be afraid to ask!”*

*may or not be Becca’s actual favorite phrase.

Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Every Day I Write The Book


Jew & A: Hannukah

Filed under : Jew & A,Judaism
On December 17, 2008
At 11:00 pm
Comments : 11

And now, for the promised explanation-rich Hannukah post, wherein I tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the holiday but were too busy putting up ornaments to ask.

Let’s start with some quick background before we get to the questions. Hannukah is an eight-day festival that celebrates the victory by a small band of Jews against larger Syrian-Greek forces who sought to conquer Israel in the 2nd century BCE. This is the popular history, and it’s accurate to a degree, but what isn’t usually discussed and what is vitally relevant to the struggles the Jews endure today, is that it wasn’t just a battle of military and territorial importance but also of spiritual and cultural hegemony. Not only did the foreign forces wish to bring the Jews over to their ways, but many Jews were already under the Hellenistic spell, and it was a victory over them as well. This is ironic in so many ways it would blow Alanis Morrisette’s mind.

When the invaders were gone, the temple in Jerusalem, which had been defiled, was rededicated. Sadly, there was only enough oil to light the menorah (menorahs were just the regular candelabras before Hannukah came along) for one day. But crazily, the oil lasted eight days! YaY, miracles!

So, the first question I received was from IrishCardinal and is actually several in one. I’ll begin there.
I’ve heard that Hanukkah, or however you wanna spell it, is a very minor holiday in the Jewish calendar. But since it’s close to Christmas, it has succumbed to a lot of hype and consumerism so as to compete with Christmas. You aren’t that old, Becca, but have you noticed a lot of changes in your lifetime in the way Hanukkah is marketed and celebrated? Like, do they sell big ugly sweaters with sequined menorahs and dreidels on them? I know for a fact they sell teddy bears that, if you press on their paw, they sing “I Have a Little Dreidel” and Stars of David on their feet light up.

Hahahahaha, that’s awesome. But I’m glad you worded your first lines that way because this is something that is a terribly large misconception, and understandably so. And it’s going to allow me to expound a lot on this topic and get up on my soapbox, so sorry about that! Not a lot of people, especially Jews, seem to know this, but you are absolutely correct, Hannukah is a minor holiday. How do we know this? It’s not in the Torah but arose in the period afterwards and we aren’t commanded by God to observe it. Thus, there aren’t the usual “holiday” rules about not working or using electricity, etc.

Christmas, as we all know, is the biggest Christian holiday there is. Coincidentally (or maybe not when you realize they’re probably both based on pagan Winter festivals), Christmas and Hannukah fall around the same time on the calendar. This has sort of turned Hannukah into something it is not. And what it has become, depending on how you look at it, is either “not Christmas, because I’m not Christian” or “Jewish Christmas.” I am not sure why this is so hard for many Jews to accept, but the Christians have Christmas and we don’t. There is no Jewish Christmas. There is Passover in the Spring and there is Rosh Hashanah in the Fall. But that’s as close as you’re going to get. There are no decorations except the menorah itself and that is supposed to be displayed prominently so as to “advertise” the miracle which happened to the Jews in their defeat of the enemy and having the oil last eight days.

Believe me, I understand the desire and hunger to do what everyone else is doing, to fit in, to belong, to put up fun decorations and get presents from Santa. But the answer is not to turn your holiday into someone else’s. That’s when you lose what is lovely and unique about your own. The other thing people do, and I’m more understanding of this, is to hold up Hannukah as an “I don’t celebrate Christmas!” shield. When I go to work and the lobby is decorated with a giant, fully decorated tree, with huge wreaths and red, green, and gold ribbon, and next to them is this little menorah, I get it. I get that what they are saying is, “we see you.” They know that not everyone celebrates Christmas and I appreciate that. I guess if you celebrate neither Christmas nor Hannukah you’re out of luck, though.

Recently, on a kitchen/decorating forum I have been going to (shut up!), people were showing off their Hannukah decorations. If you will, please imagine Christmas decorations except in blue and white (by the way, there are no Hannukah colors – blue and white are the colors of the Israeli flag and thus have become the de facto Hannukah colors). One person even had a Hannukah bush. This made me cringe. Show some pride! This is not your heritage; you have stolen someone else’s and passed it off. If you are so jealous of non-Jews, to my mind, just celebrate Christmas itself. Why go with an imitation?

This is the moment to remember the True Meaning of Hannukah. Ready? Drumroll…. we didn’t assimilate! Still want a Hannukah bush?

Personally, I love watching non-Jews celebrate Christmas. I love the trees and the lights and the magic and the movies and the music and the commercials and the spirit. I’m glad to be part of it as an observer.

This is not to say that Jewish holidays do not adjust to their surroundings. Originally, presents were not a Hannukah tradition, just gelt (more on that later). But, I’m not mad that we picked up this fine addition.

None of that was really for you, Irish. But you did have a question in there, didn’t you? Ooops. Anyway! Thank you for calling me not old. I almost missed that. I honestly do not see any more Hannukah marketing than there used to be but it may be because I have almost always lived in Jewish areas where it’s heavily marketed already. Thank God, no light up sweaters yet. The teddy bear sounds OK. I’ll take three.

I also think Hannukah is less prone to consumerism because before any presents are given, you light the menorah, say blessings, and sing hymns. So the spiritual is part and parcel of each evening.

Oh, and as for the spelling! There are many acceptable spellings since the Hebrew alphabet doesn’t always have corresponding letters in English. Hannukah comes from the word for dedication since the Temple was rededicated after its defilement. Thanks for letting me use your question for my own agenda! You’re a good sport. Unlike that Jonathan Papelbon.

Average Jane asks:
If it is truly our holiday that is the festival of lights, why didn’t we jump on that pretty-twinkly-light phenomenon way before Santa got his hands on them? Sooooo pretty. Sooooo twinkly.

So true. It is the Festival of Lights. We totally should have. However, I do love picking out the colors of candles each night. The first night that I have to repeat colors is such a drag. One year I’m going to find a box with enough colors to have nine different ones.

JennyPA asks:
What’s the significance of Hanukkah gelt and how did it turn into chocolate?

Gelt (Yiddish for money) is pocket change that it is traditional to give to children on Hannukah. One explanation is that it was a kind of bribe/reward to re-educate them in Judaism after the period of foreign influence. Another explanation is that it was the original alternative to gifts that non-Jewish neighbors gave to their children. Either way, the chocolate version is a modern invention and quite a delicious one, boy howdy.

Alex asks:
I think that this year, Christmas is on the 28th of Kislev. Why does it keep moving around?

Oh, Alex. You’re such a kidder. As everyone knows, the Jewish calendar is a lunar one which is why things fall differently on the secular schedule year to year. This year, of course, Hannukah begins at sunset on December 21st. As always, it also falls on 25 Kislev on the Jewish calendar. Christmas falls on “Jewish Family Day” or so my Yeshiva calendar used to call December 25th.

Sam asks:
Do I have to get the Jews in my life a present for each day, or can I get them each one present and bestow it on any day within the eight day window?

Have no fear! As I mentioned, presents are a recent innovation to the Hannukah celebration. So the answer is, everyone does it their own way. In my house growing up, each night was different. One night was “uncles & aunts night,” one was “grandparents night,” one was “book night,” one was “tchotchke night,” etc. But, unless you’re a member of the Kushner family or something, you probably end up with the same number and value of presents per capita as Christmas-celebrators do, just spread out. So, my answer would be, you can either get them eight small gifts, one on each night, or one regular gift given on any day in the eight day period.

Thanks for asking, everyone! Personally, I am hoping for a Law & Order DVD set after my hymn-singing. Also, world peace. In no particular order.

Styx – Lights


Got Hannukah….. questions?

Filed under : Jew & A
On December 11, 2008
At 10:25 pm
Comments : 6

I’ve been mind-crazingly, body-exhaustingly busy this week but I did have this sort of hazy idea of doing a self-written FAQ for the upcoming Hannukah holiday. By that I mean I would come up with both the questions and the answers. But while I was out getting drunk with colleagues (work is hard), someone sent me some of the very questions I had been considering! (Cue Twilight Zone music). It occurred to me, since I have been so lame about posting lately, that there is still time to get your questions in, in case there might be some burning query in your mind other than “how will I pay for my holiday?” and “will I have a job in January?” So send them on in! You can either throw them in the comments below or use the handy “Submit a Jew & A question” link in the sidebar under “Pages.”

In the meantime, while I try to make it through these last weeks before the Big Break the music business takes at the end of the month, please enjoy this bit of holiday cheer. See, it’s going to be awesome when this guy shows up with his missed connection to the family Christmas. Because I’m 100% sure this boy’s parents are going to be thrilled to see her.

“Uh, I’ll pour….”


Jew & A: Sukkot

Filed under : Jew & A,Judaism
On October 20, 2008
At 11:00 am
Comments : 6

As I mentioned yesterday, this week is the holiday of Sukkot (it began last week, actually) and we have a timely question on the topic. Actually, if you would like me to handle your question without a months long delay, this is an excellent method of making that happen. And away we go!

Irishcardinal asks:

Tell me about Sukkot. I saw a family on campus the first day of Sukkot. The father and small son wore embroidered yarmulkes,and had strings showing below their vests. The mom was carrying what looked like a wooden spear,about the size of a baseball bat,with some greenery attached at the bottom of it–is that anything related to Sukkot? In past years, I have seen a Sukkot hut on campus, but it wasn’t in plain sight this year. My sister wants to know what do people in big cities living in high rise apts. do for Sukkot huts?

The first year I wrote this blog, I described most of the holidays to an extent and then didn’t really want to repeat myself but of course, no one who was reading the blog on day one is still here (I believe they all shot themselves) and most of my regular readers now weren’t around the first year. I have no scientific proof of this but everyone knows that 78% of people like to make up statistics.

Anyway, if you would like to read the first year Sukkot post, it is here but if you don’t, I’m happy to expand upon it in this space plus answer your specific questions.

So! First things first. Sukkot is an eight day (seven in Israel) holiday that commemorates the time spent in the desert after the exodus from Egypt and before reaching the land of Israel. During that time, the Israelites lived in sukkot, or temporary booths. Like the other two main festivals (this doesn’t include the high holidays), Passover and Shavuot, it also has an agricultural component. Sukkot is a time of special rejoicing and is also called the “Festival of Joy.” One reason for this is that there was much trouble when the Israelites reached the promised land and they looked back at the time in the desert as a simple life and a more innocent time.

The yarmulkes and strings are actually daily things and probably had nothing to do with Sukkot. Some yarmulkes do have embroidery. They come in all kinds of fun designs. For instance, the one at left. The strings were probably Tzitzit, which is a four-cornered garment with strings attached at the end that Jews are commanded to wear to remind them of the commandments (all 613, not just the ten big ones). Most denominations that follow this commandment interpret that to mean just men, so few women do this. Most do it just during prayers, as a kind of shawl (Tallit), but many more religious people wear it as an undergarment even outside daily services. Many people let the strings hang out, Modern Orthodox businessmen tend not to. This allows me to tell Brothers 1 & 2, “you have a tzitz hanging out.”

The strings have all kinds of special knots that mean special things. Too many to list here but if you are interested, here is a description from Wikipedia.

The wooden baseball bat spear was probably a lulav and was no doubt accompanied by a baseball sized fruit (OK, it’s smaller but I wanted to carry along the analogy, forgive me) which looks like a lemon and is called an etrog. Together, these constitute the four species (the lulav has some other species attached) which are used in various ceremonies and for certain blessings on Sukkot. The four species are: palm, willow, myrtle, and citron (that’s the etrog). This is based on the Biblical verse, “On the first day you shall take the product of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook (Leviticus 23:40).” The Talmud, which is the place where the Rabbis asked all the “but what does the Torah mean by blah blah?” questions, is where we learn which plants that line means exactly. The palm branch, or lulav, is the biggest and why the whole thing is called a lulav. The branches of myrtle (hadasim) and willow (aravot) are attached at the bottom and tied together with strands of palm. The citron (etrog) is separate.

As always, there’s the “because the Torah says so” aspect and the, “but what could be the meaning behind this?” question. There are a couple of different common interpretations, other than the fact that, as I mentioned, Sukkot is an agricultural celebration. The first is that the four species represent parts of the body:

Palm (that’s the tall, straight one) = spine
Myrtle (oval shaped leaf) = eye
Willow (long oval shaped leaf) = mouth
Citron = heart

This is interpreted to mean that all parts of the body must come together in the worship of the Lord.

The second is that each represents a different kind of Jew:

Citron, which has a good taste and a good smell, is the person who is both learned in Torah and performs Mitzvot (commandments), i.e., is a good person.
Palm, which has a good taste but no smell, is the person who is learned in Torah but performs few Mitzvot.
Myrtle, which has a strong smell but no taste, is the person knows little Torah but still performs Mitzvot.
Willow, which has neither taste nor smell, is the person who knows no Torah and performs no Mitzvot

All the species are held together closely so as to represent the unity we desire for the Jewish people – all types. But both of these demonstrate essential themes of unity and interdependence. If you’ve ever built a sukkah, you know that this theme is pretty important. I used to hold the nails. The other available job was sitting on the roof and throwing branches onto the top of the sukkah. Yes, I doled out the nails.

So, good segue for the next topic: the hut, which is called a Sukkah and why the whole holiday is called Sukkot. It’s the other main thing about the holiday; the title role, shall we say. As I said, it represents the temporary dwellings in which the Israelites lived in the desert on the way to the promised land. In balmy Israel, it’s a lovely outdoor thing. In the Northeastern US, it’s a reason to buy leggings and a new sweatshirt. The requirement is that you eat every meal possible in the sukkah and even sleep there if you are able. If you live in a big city, there are several options.

1. Some buildings do have sukkahs. Pious B’s does. If you have a courtyard or roof garden and a willing building management, it can be done. You see them quite often.
2. You go away to your friends and family who live in the suburbs. If not for the whole holiday, than the holy days at the beginning and end or the sabbath in the middle. That’s what I did!
3. Most synagogues and many Kosher restaurants have sukkahs. Since there’s pretty much a synagogue on every other block in Manhattan, this isn’t very difficult. Other large cities like, say, Dublin, may not have this convenience.

In conclusion, Rays in six.

Thanks for asking!

Peter, Paul & Mary – Lemon Tree