The Person Behind The Posts

Thursday, September 09, 2021

Dip The Apple In The Honey And Other Rosh Hashana Witticisms


There is an almost universal custom of dipping a slice of apple in honey on the first night of Rosh Hashana. There's a popular children's song about the custom that our kids learned in pre-school...

Dip the apple in the honey
Make a bracha loud and clear
Shana Tova u'Metuka
May you have a sweet New Year!

Somewhat less well-known but still widely practiced is the custom of simanim - symbolic foods that are associated with a wish for the new year.  For example, pomegranate seeds are often eaten, and the accompanying prayer asks God to grant us as many merits in the upcoming year as a pomegranate has seeds.

Some of the traditional simanim use a play on words in Hebrew. For example, a date in Hebrew is a tamar. As we get ready to eat a date, we ask that our enemies should perish. The word for perish in Hebrew is sheyitamu, which sounds (a little) like tamar.

There are about 8-10 traditional simanim, but many families incorporate amusing simanim that go way beyond the traditional ones into their Rosh Hashana celebrations.

The most common one is a plate of raisins and celery, which express the wish that this year, Hashem (God) should give us a raisin celery (raise in salary).

I know. Groan, groan. But truly, the Jewish people excel in puns and other Rosh Hashana witticisms.

Our South African friend Alvin serves biltong, a kind of South African beef jerky, at his Rosh Hashana table and expresses the hope that the Third Temple be biltong (built on) the Temple Mount speedily in our days.

Yehudit L. serves her family, "tiny Bounty bars so it should be a bountiful year, candy hearts to learn Torah with love, chocolate coins for parnassa (livelihood), chocolate rocks for a rockin' New Year and gummy bears to help us bear any difficulties sweetly."


Anitra K. finds her inspiration in the produce section of the grocery store. Her simanim include:

French melon - May we go on vacation and stay at a beautiful French milon (milon is Hebrew for a hotel)

Kale - Hashem should yaKale (lessen) our sins. 
Apricot in Hebrew is mishmish which sounds like mamesh which in Hebrew means really, truly as in, "Hashem should mamesh make our dreams happen."
Figs - may we have the  wisdom to FIGure out the secrets and ways of Hashem.

Anitra added her spiritual insight to the custom of creative simanim. "I believe  the true essence of making these blessings with word play is to understand the power of the spoken and written word. The alefbet (Hebrew alphabet) is made up of 22 letters.  Our Torah is a combination of these 22 letters. The world is in the Torah. 

"Hashem  is Creator of the world. Yet we mangle words and letters to create new meaning and expression to our lives. We, together with Hashem, create our world. Playful, funny, spiritual  blessings. Words can break you, even kill your spirit and declare war. Yet they have the power to lift your spirits, build you up, heal you and proclaim peace."

Back on the lighter side of simanim, Emma S. creates new ones each year. This year, she created the idea of smashing the beads on candy necklaces to "smash bead-ud" (bidud is Hebrew for quarantine).

She also employs donuts in the hope that, "this year, 'do nut' be mean or judge anyone" and red candies to "make sure you are 'red'y to excel in all you do."

Michal S. gives her kids marshmallows, so they should be soft-hearted, gummies so they will show flexibility in the coming year, meringue or Hershey kisses so the year will be filled with lots of kisses and affection and smile cookies so they should have a year of happiness.

At our meal on the first night of Rosh Hashana, Reuven Ashenberg shared a whole slew of extra simanim. They were crafted together with Rabbi Meir Weiner and definitely flow in a wholly spiritual direction. Here are a few from their collection.

Figs - Let's FIGure out ways to come closer to Hashem.
Let's FIGure out ways to come closer to one another.

Nuts - We are NUTS about Hashem.

Lotus cookies - Let us (Lotus) do chesed (kindness) for one another.
Let us have a good and better relationship with You Hashem.

Raisin - Hashem gives us a raisin (reason) for a purpose in our lives.

Lettuce - Let us always remember Hashem loves us.
Let us all be together in achdus (unity).

Pickles - Hashem should help us get out of our pickles we get into.

Abi M.'s kids love when she serves cola as one of their simanim - shenishma et kol Hashem (so we should hear the voice of Hashem). Kol in Hebrew means voice.

Perhaps my favorite siman also involved a bottle of cola. A woman named Sarah gave her husband a bottle of Coca-Cola because, in the Biblical story of Avraham and Sarah, God tells Avraham that whatever Sarah says to you shema b'kolah - listen to her voice. (Genesis 21:12)

Also from the Ashenberg-Weiner team, orange you glad Hashem will forgive you? Orange you glad to be living in Eretz Yisrael?

Now, orange you glad I shared some of these with you?

Monday, August 30, 2021

Kfar Chabad: A Photoblog with Commentary


With summer drawing to a close and many responsibilities of the New Year looming, my husband and I took a few hours off and drove north to visit Kfar Chabad (also known as Kefar Habad :-) today. Neither of us had ever been there and we love exploring new places in the Land of Israel.

As we entered Kfar Chabad, my first thought was, "All Rebbe. All The Time."

Our first stop was the replica of 770, the World Headquarters of Chabad-Lubavitch movement, located at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Here is a close-up of the front entrance. It's hard to see in this photo, but it says 770 in the white tile on the lower right, two tiles up from the top step. If you're reading this on a phone you can pinch the photo to get a closer look.

Below the stained glass window above the front door, it says Beis Agudas Chasdei Chabad - Ohel Yossef Yitzchak Lubavitch in Hebrew then in English.

We weren't sure if we were allowed to enter, but a kind man who was headed inside told us it was fine. Turns out there's a sort of guest reception room as you enter on the right. The man in charge of welcoming guests told us that the Rebbe instructed his followers to build this replica in 1986. He invited us to sit down and watch a video of the Rebbe speaking about the importance of Eretz Yisrael and of him giving brachot to people from Israel who went to see him during Sunday Dollar Days.

I was especially moved by the clip of a family who approached the Rebbe during Sunday Dollar Days during the Gulf War in 1991. The father said the family was supposed to visit Israel for their son's Bar Mitzvah but the boy's mother was afraid to go. The Rebbe urged them to have no fear. That advice truly resonated with me, given the precarious state of affairs in Israel today.

In the same room as the video, in between welcoming guests, our host, who was also a sofer, was writing a Sefer Torah.

He offered us a very special privilege. Although the Rebbe never visited Israel and never physically entered this building, there was a room set up for him that they call "The Rebbe's Room." Our host unlocked the room for us and allowed us to sit in there and recite a few chapters of Tehillim and just speak to Hashem.

Even though I know the Rebbe was never actually in that room, I felt an unanticipated sense of awe and reverence entering the otherwise empty room, and a sense of real privilege to be allowed to pray there for a few minutes.

Since it's so close to Rosh Hashana, our host offered us another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to write a kvittel (a note) that would be brought to the Rebbe's grave in New York. In my husband's hand, we asked for healing for family members who are ill and for blessings of health, shalom and parnassa (livelihood) for us and those we love in the upcoming New Year.

Before we left 770, our host had one more chavaya (experience) for us. He returned to the table where he had been writing a Sefer Torah and asked for our Hebrew names. My husband's Hebrew name begins with the letter alef, and the very next letter he was writing was, indeed, an alef.

He wrote two more words and then asked me my Hebrew name. When I told him the first time, for some odd reason, I left off my second name. He asked again, and he showed me that the last word he wrote had a resh and a yud which are my Hebrew initials. The word also has a gimmel and a lamed, which are initials in my father's (A"H) Hebrew name. This is the word he "just happened" to be up to while we stood next to him at his writing table.

Talk about chills.

I knew there was a bee farm in Kfar Chabad because I had written about it years ago when I did some work for an Israeli tour company.  We weren't so interested in the children's activities (or seeing bees up close and personal to be honest) but we wanted to visit the honey store on the site of the bee farm, so from 770, we drove around until we found it.

The store is in a quite unassuming location and is filled with honey-themed gifts for the New Year, like these honey-filled candlesticks and beeswax candle gift packs.

We ended our visit with a quick lunch at Zalman's Pizza Bar where we saw a young boy wearing a Yechi Adoneinu kippah. Hamaven yavin is all I'm going to say about that.

One final image. Across the road from Zalman's was another dairy restaurant called Gitteleh...

... as in Shtiseleh.*

The whole excursion, including travel time, took us five hours and we left feeling that, however briefly, we had entered another world, one where God and Torah and tzedaka and acts of kindness are palpable. All in all, a fine outing for Elul. Highly recommended for locals and for tourists, as soon as Hashem allows the borders of Israel to reopen.

* Just kidding. There's no connection. I was just trying to be clever.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Dark Nights of My Soul

There have been segments of time during which I read Holocaust memoirs obsessively. I would close the cover of one and, in one smooth motion, open the cover of the next. Many are structured similarly, beginning with descriptions of the author's carefree life before the Nazi party came to power and transitioning into the very gradual intensification of restrictions.

"During the first six years of Hitler’s dictatorship, government at every level—Reich, state and municipal—adopted hundreds of laws, decrees, directives, guidelines, and regulations that increasingly restricted the civil and human rights of the Jews in Germany." - The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The days through which we are living, and what has happened to the social fabric of society, are positively dystopian. Life, at least here in Israel, has become characterized by government control, loss of individual freedoms, medical tyranny and the absolute squelching of divergent opinions.   

The level of invective directed at people who advocate alternative ways to treat COVID-19 has sunk to shocking, truly shocking, lows. I've begun to amass appalling examples of verbal tirades flung at individuals who think differently. 

Fellow citizens have actually suggested that unvaccinated people should no longer be admitted to hospitals. They have accused them of being "selfish idiots" and uncaring individuals who are responsible for the decimation of the Jewish people. There's an "academic study" that suggests that individuals who believe there is something more to the COVID-19 story than is being reported in mainstream media are suffering from psychopathy, Machiavellianism and collective narcissism

Meanwhile, voices expressing other perspectives are comprehensively banned.

The Israeli government has imposed more than a dozen draconian restrictions on citizens, beginning at age 3, who have not had multiple doses of the COVID-19 shot, prohibiting them from participating in many ordinary aspects of society such as accessing libraries, gyms, public pools, eating at restaurants and attending academic institutions. Even gatherings in private homes are being regulated.

Businesses and non-profit organizations that violate these prohibitions are subject to enormous fines. Police resources are being diverted to monitor the heavy-handed restrictions that have been imposed on ordinary citizens.

All this for a virus that is named as the identified cause of death for .0007% of Israel's population.

And it's about a million times worse in Australia where there is a nightly 8 PM curfew, stiff fines for people who are outside without "a valid reason," where weddings are now illegal and only one person per household can leave the house a day to shop for groceries, among other relentless restrictions. This is happening in a country where there have been 999 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the past 18 months, among a population that exceeds 25 million people. 

To put it simply, as a friend who has gotten the first two doses and is now hesitant about getting the booster wrote to me privately very late one night: "Something is definitely wrong."

For every fact shared, there is someone claiming the precise opposite. We are literally living in the time the gemara (Sotah 49b) describes as, "In the period preceding the coming of Moshiach... Truth will be lacking." 

And I haven't even touched on the political and social chaos that reigns in other countries.

If I follow the links I receive every day, if I watch every video, listen to every voice note and read every article analyzing the calamitous present and the fearsome social future we face, I would have no time to do anything else. I worry that I would descend into a kind of spiraling madness. How does one retain one's sanity in the face of so much evil?

Like many, I have suffered through my share of dark nights of the soul.

I can try to escape reality by immersing myself in meaningless novels or watching endless clickbaity videos on Facebook about amazing desserts you can make with stale popcorn or what shoes are now out of style or how to cut your own bangs.

Or I can get real with God.

I can accept the only explanation that makes sense to me - that God is accelerating evil in the world in order to bring geula faster.

When I gave birth to my second daughter, she was in some danger and the medical staff was anxious to get her out. I was given Pitocin in order to accelerate my labor. It made the labor much harder, but also faster.

When Moshe went to Paro and asked for the Israelite slaves to be set free, Paro responded by taking away the slaves' straw and requiring them to make as many bricks. It made slavery harder, but it also ended it faster.

"You shall not continue to give straw to the people to make the bricks like yesterday and the day before yesterday. Let them go and gather straw for themselves.
But the number of bricks they have been making yesterday and the day before yesterday you shall impose upon them; you shall not reduce it, for they are lax. Therefore they cry out, saying, 'Let us go and sacrifice to our God.'
Let heavier work be laid upon the men; let them keep at it and not pay attention to deceitful promises.” (Shemot 5:7-9)

The principle is the same here. We are being pressured at a rapidly increasing rate, in order to get us to the finish line sooner.

In the meantime, staying connected to Torah has been my lifeline.

Over and over again in Tehillim, David HaMelech reminds us that God will vanquish evil, judge evildoers and bring them to justice.

Chassidut reminds me that what we see is only the minutest percentage of God's playing field. 

The promises of the messianic era soothe my soul in the darkest nights.

And ultimately, it is only emunah that sustains me.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Watching The World Fall Apart


Lately, when someone asks, "How are you?" I often reply that I don't know how to answer that question. I'm not being flippant. I'm expressing the fact that, these days, I feel like I'm simultaneously living in two levels of reality.

On one level, despite some minor inconveniences and daily, cringe-inducing news updates, I am well. The Facebook Watch algorithm feeds me a steady diet of videos about people with truly mind-boggling health challenges and I thank God every moment that I have none of these. There is no end to the blessings Hashem has bestowed upon me.

On another level, in some inchoate manner, I feel like I am watching the world fall apart. And that, naturally, leads me to thoughts of redemption.

A few weeks ago, I put some thoughts together and gave a talk about seeing current events through a geula lens. And I keep thinking about one of the points that I made.

In order to prepare ourselves for the arrival of Moshiach, which will be a more spiritual form of leadership than we have ever experienced, we have to bring an end to our reliance on anything that is not Hashem. This includes the government, the medical system, the education system, the media and even daas Torah.

COVID has proven to be an excellent tool for decreasing reliance on every one of these systems of authority. This becomes ever more clear, as they continually deliver a string of lies, censorship and manipulations. If you're feeling bewildered, it's because you're being lied to.


Think about how the rules change so often that ordinary, law-abiding citizens cannot figure out how to work within them.

Think about how the mainstream media tells one story and the alternative media has a completely different narrative.

Think about how polarized we are, how we have been divided, how impossible it is to talk to anyone who doesn't share your opinion.

Think of how much is in perpetual flux.

That makes it easier to understand why sometimes I feel like I'm walking through glue.

Paradoxically, if I can stay focused, I recall that evil intensifies before redemption. There are three main reasons for this.

we are taught that, toward the end of the final exile, God will hide His Face even more. Recall that labor pains are the most intense just before delivery. In the spiritual world, the increase in evil is a sign that evil is about to give way to the redemption that is waiting to emerge.

Second, when evil increases so much that it’s easy to see, this is good news - because many people will identify it for what it is. Having recognized it, they will abandon evil and turn to good.
This is the rectification of the sin of Adam in Gan Eden when evil was joined with good. Now, at the End of Days, good and evil must be once again separated.

Third, when people contend with evil, they become stronger. Think of the evil as a counterweight that forces people to exert effort to overcome it.

In a talk called Why There is Darkness Before The End?”, Rabbi Mendel Kessin taught:

The world’s envelopment in darkness means that the struggle is greater and so the potential reward, the merit is greater. Truth is concealed and yet one still struggles to do a mitzvah, to have emuna—faith, bitachon—trust in G-d? In an environment where most have abandoned G-d, the one who prevails has great merit. The reward is so great, it can 'fill up the amount of tikkun left (to do).'"

The challenges are meant to push us to do teshuva - to come closer to Hashem in preparation for the era of the leadership of Moshiach.

Further, we are meant to lose faith in anything that isn't Hashem. That means that all human institutions have to fail us. It's part of the plan.

The more we strengthen ourselves spiritually during this time of darkness, the more we are doing to prepare for the world of Moshiach and the greater will be our personal reward - davka because it's hard!

    Don’t get too wrapped up in the news cycle. See the revelation of evil for what it is – the beginning of the end.