Cool Things Jews Do — a Tishrei Rant

written in Oct 2017

For countless times I have seen that “you Jews are weird” expression.

Sometimes friends are disappointed with the “ultra-plain dry crackers” that I explained to be our specialty for the festival of Passover. Sometimes it’s how I struggled to explain that my friend got engaged weeks after meeting his soulmate.

So I thought I could make a non-exhaustive list of cool/weird/[insert politically more correct adjectives] Orthodox/Yeshivish/ [insert stereotypical denomination that is politically correct] things that we do, which all have a lot of profound meaning behind by the way, but should at least give us all a laugh for this joyous festival of Sukkot.

  1. We leave our phones for at least 1 day per week, to “call the Sabbath day a delight”. We do that for 2–3 consecutive days in certain weeks. It is, by the way, a true delight. Would you not leave your phone when you are on a date with your lover? We’re on special dates with G-d on Sabbaths.
  2. We can leave makeup on for 3 days in a row — and in the years when we do, we repeat that for 2–3 times that year. Which is why many of us own waterproof makeup. 24 hours make up? Elementary. You’d be surprised how good some of our skin is.
  3. So much of a people of the Book, that we dance with our holy Book and dedicate a special festival to that. Quoting below from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Parshas Re’eh:
On 14 October 1663 the famous diarist Samuel Pepys paid a visit to the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Creechurch Lane in the city of London. Jews had been exiled from England in 1290 but in 1656, following an intercession by Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam, Oliver Cromwell concluded that there was in fact no legal barrier to Jews living there. So for the first time since the thirteenth century Jews were able to worship openly.
The first synagogue, the one Pepys visited, was simply a private house belonging to a successful Portuguese Jewish merchant, Antonio Fernandez Carvajal, that had been extended to house the congregation. Pepys had been in the synagogue once before, at the memorial service for Carvajal who died in 1659. That occasion had been sombre and decorous. What he saw on his second visit was something else altogether, a scene of celebration that left him scandalised. This is what he wrote in his diary:
… after dinner my wife and I, by Mr. Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles (i.e. tallitot), and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press (i.e. the Aron) to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle. Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew. And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing … But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.
Poor Pepys. No one told him that the day he chose to come to the synagogue was Simchat Torah, nor had he ever seen in a house of worship anything like the exuberant joy of the day when we dance with the Torah scroll as if the world was a wedding and the book a bride, with the same abandon as King David when he brought the holy ark into Jerusalem.

4. Our “national dance” often consists of putting our hands on each other’s shoulders and hopping left and right or tromping vigorously in circles. It is often performed spontaneously after a few shots of whiskey on a festival.

5. At an Orthodox wedding, with separators between men and women, we raise the bride and groom on chairs over our heads so they can see each other while we dance underneath. Now that’s a real work-out. The couple secretly hopes they are in good hands.

6. We are commanded to cry or laugh together on specified days and we need to combine that with everyday life. There are those who cannot take leave for the day of mourning about our Temple’s destruction. They may be found standing for a whole morning, or sitting on a low stool in the office crying about the Temple.

7. As a New Yorker innocently put it, we shake a beautiful “lemon” and a “giant asparagus” in Sukkot (which is by the way a source of the Thanksgiving festival). It’s called the etrog and lulav. They represent our People.

8. Every year we do 1 big fast for 25 hours straight, without even water. And we pray for around (at least) 40% of the day — which is actually major help to surviving the fast.

9. Rabbis and courts discourage converts — it’s required by law. Conversely, many of us are happy when others leave us in peace with our practice and observance.

10. “Do you speak Jewish?” …… Well I do if you meant Yiddish. Yiddish literally means Jewish. And it’s a combination of Hebrew and German. But many more of us speak Hebrew. And yet more speak English. “So is ‘Jewish’ a race or a religion?” How many books and research papers would you like to read? We are a People.

11. We make trouble for each other, but we also know that we have each other’s back in the end. Like most siblings in the world.

Moadim l’simchah to all!:)

May we all rejoice in our mitzvos.

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