You can now read important Jewish texts like the Talmud online

This story appeals to me on so many levels. Perhaps the biggest reason why it excites me is that I’m very much in favour of important works like the Talmud being made freely available online, if anything, as an important cultural and historical resource.

After a prolonged negotiation process, and a substantial gift from the William Davidson Foundation, Sefaria was able to secure the copyright. Then, they ceded their rights and made it available free to the public, a move common to nature conservancies but vanishingly rare in the publishing world, since copyright and exclusivity are major guarantors of revenue.

I’m not even remotely a serious Jewish scholar, but the fact that these resources are available online to anyone who wants to read them, is a powerful way to ensure that our history is preserved for future generations. It’s also a terrific way to accurately communicate who we are as a people.

A return to a sense of belonging and the tragedy that preceded it

Becoming Israeli is a process.
The Israeli flag according to my daughter.

Tanya shared her experiences of being humiliated by the rabbis who granted her a Jewish divorce years ago and her return to a sense of belonging as a member of the Jewish community in her blog post titled “On losing my religion… and finding it“.

It was one of the worst days of my life, and the process of being granted a Jewish divorce by three rabbis caused humiliation and hurt, and I can’t cite many more instances in my life that have made me feel as small and insignificant as that one.

They took a very harmonious divorce proceeding (yes, they do exist), and caused tears and humiliation, and from then, I lost my place in Judaism, mainly because I couldn’t see that I even had a place there. I mean, how could I even feel a belonging when I had been made to feel small, insignificant, and disrespected. And I couldn’t shake it off, or really feel a belonging.

Her story is inspiring, heartwarming. At the same time, it is tragic that she was went through an ordeal that left her feeling as if she didn’t belong.

How many Jews effectively leave the community, never to return, because of experiences like Tanya’s (or worse). There aren’t that many of us left in this world. We shouldn’t alienate each other because of some dogmatic insistence on some “proper” level of adherence or morals.

Sometimes it seems that there is more that divides us than unites us. History has shown us that we are quickly defeated and cast out when we are divided.

Raising a Jewish family is very much a journey

Raising a Jewish family

My wife contributed a post to the All Things Mom Sydney blog titled “The Religious Effect: Raising children within a Jewish Family” which I enjoyed reading (of course I’m biased but you may find it interesting in itself). She wrote about the decisions we have made to ensure that our kids grow up in a Jewish home and the balance we strike between religious practice and a degree of secularism in our lives.

Just over two years ago, we made the decision to emigrate to Israel. While it’s been a rather large adjustment in terms of culture (Israelis are a loud, pushy, obstinate, loyal, happy and friendly bunch) and language, it’s also been easy in that Israel is a Jewish state. This means that we are not in a minority anymore in terms of religion. But, while we are not in the minority anymore, there are still dozens of other religions represented by the citizens of Israel as well as many cultures our children have never been exposed to since there are people from all over the world that call Israel home, Russian, French, American, British, Australian just to name a few. So, we still make a point to explain the differences between people’s cultures and religions to our children.

I think the biggest and most important lesson we have taught and continue to teach our children is that everyone is different and that no person is above or below anyone else. That people have different beliefs and that we need to respect them regardless of religion.

As our children grow up, retaining strong links to our culture and traditions is increasingly important to me. We can’t take living in Israel for granted. Even this Jewish State has strong tugs in different directions: towards complete secularism on one hand and towards stricter religious observance on the other.

We walk somewhere between both. I’d like our kids to be exposed to more of our religious practices because I think there is a lot of wisdom to be gained from many of our practices despite their religious connotations. In addition, much of our culture stems from our traditions and losing that means losing much of what it means to be Jewish.

Where that leaves us remains a bit of a mystery to me. For the time being, we’re mostly figuring this stuff out as we go. I hope that our kids will grow up with a strong sense of pride that they are both Jews and Israelis. We have a long history and there is something special about who we are.

Read Gina’s post: The Religious Effect: Raising children within a Jewish Family at AllThingsMomSydney.

The featured image is from a collection of photos I made during a recent trip to Jerusalem with family. You can see the rest of the photos here.

Ancient Hebrew texts emerges from the ashes

The En-Gedi scroll, digitally unwrapped.

Ars Technica has a fascinating report about how an ancient Hebrew texts has been read for the first time in more than 1 700 years despite being almost destroyed by a fire that consumed the ancient synagogue it was discovered in:

When the En-Gedi scrolls were excavated from an ancient synagogue’s Holy Ark in the 1970s, it was a bittersweet discovery for archaeologists. Though the texts provided further evidence for an ancient Jewish community in this oasis near the Dead Sea, the scrolls had been reduced to charred lumps by fire. Even the act of moving them to a research facility caused more damage. But decades later, archaeologists have read parts of one scroll for the first time. A team of scientists in Israel and the US used a sophisticated medical scanning technique, coupled with algorithmic analysis, to “unwrap” a parchment that’s more than 1,700 years old.

The En-Gedi scroll
The charred scroll from En-Gedi. Image courtesy of the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library, IAA. Photo: S. Halevi.

The recovery process was described in a research article published in Science Advances by William Brent Seales, Clifford Seth Parker, Michael Segal, Emanuel Tov, Pnina Shor and Yosef Porath titled “From damage to discovery via virtual unwrapping: Reading the scroll from En-Gedi”.

The research article is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license. The abstract summarises the reports as follows:

Computer imaging techniques are commonly used to preserve and share readable manuscripts, but capturing writing locked away in ancient, deteriorated documents poses an entirely different challenge. This software pipeline—referred to as “virtual unwrapping”—allows textual artifacts to be read completely and noninvasively. The systematic digital analysis of the extremely fragile En-Gedi scroll (the oldest Pentateuchal scroll in Hebrew outside of the Dead Sea Scrolls) reveals the writing hidden on its untouchable, disintegrating sheets. Our approach for recovering substantial ink-based text from a damaged object results in readable columns at such high quality that serious critical textual analysis can occur. Hence, this work creates a new pathway for subsequent textual discoveries buried within the confines of damaged materials.

I am utterly fascinated by stories like this, especially when it comes to recoveries of ancient texts and artifacts in Israel. These discoveries paint a rich picture of Jewish life in Israel going back millennia.

A timeline placing these ancient Hebrew texts in a historical context.
An estimated timeline for the En-Gedi scrolls, , courtesy of Science Advances. License: CC BY-NC 4.0

I also love how these modern technologies can be used to reveal these ancient artifacts to the world once again. A great example of this is how the Dead Sea Scrolls have been digitised and made publicly available online through the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library.

This is one of the reasons I am a big fan of work being done by the Google Cultural Institute (which powers the Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library). Despite the copyright concerns some copyright owners raise, Google is doing amazing work preserving our collective culture.

These sorts of stories also remind me of the debate about ephemeral digital content that Snapchat popularised. On the one hand, we produce so much content these days and much of that is only really relevant for short time periods. On the other hand, if we don’t capture even the silly things we share in some form, we could be sacrificing an historical archive, the value of which could only be appreciated in centuries to come.

Digital technologies give us the means to store perfect versions of just about everything. The question is more whether we can solve the challenges of format compatibility so that future technologies will be able to access our content?

Everything we share is a thread in the tapestry of our modern culture and small memes can have the tendency to grow into profound cultural transformations. We almost lost the En-Gedi scrolls entirely to a fire. Thankfully we didn’t and the work of these scientists has completed more of the historical tapestry of my ancestors.

Joy and Shabbos candles

Shabbos candles

I love candles in various contexts but, above all, I love Shabbos candles the most (Chanukah candles are a close second). I can only guess it all began as a child, growing up in a not-so-religious Jewish home. We almost always celebrated our Sabbath with a family meal, prayers over the wine and bread. All of this was illuminated by at least two candles that seemed to burn for most of the night.

The joy of Shabbos Candles

Shabbos candles have lit up my home for decades and their light literally lifts my spirits. Even when times are darkest for me, the light from those candles, along with the other rituals we perform on Friday nights, banish that darkness. When those candles are lit, everything feels like it will be ok.

Some nights, while my family is sleeping, I sneak back to our dining room just to experience that light one more time before bed.

Chanukah candles are a close second

Chanukah is, by far, my favourite Jewish festival and it is primarily because of the candles.

Chanukah candles
Chanukah candles towards the end of the eight days
Our tradition is to light Chanukah candles and place them on window ledges so their light can be seen from the street. That was, unfortunately, a little symbolic when we lived in Johannesburg behind two meter high walls and you really couldn’t see much from the street.

Here, in Israel, Chanukah candles are lit in shop windows and placed on balconies for everyone to see. To me, it feels as if joy is passed from shop window to office window and from home to home.

Even though Chanukah candles tend to burn out in about half an hour (if you’re lucky), those 30 minutes are slices of joy spread across the eight days of Chanukah. It’s even better with a Shabbos somewhere in between because, for a brief time, our home is filled with this heart warming brilliance.

It isn’t really a religious thing

We’re not particularly religious. We try to run a Kosher home because it is the way we choose to live. We are pretty infrequent visitors at our local shuls (mostly my fault, I start the week with the intention to go and when the time arrives, I procrastinate long enough to make the walk pointless).

At the same time, a Shabbos meal with my family is not negotiable. I am also pretty particular about our routine.

My weekly happy space in our old home
The starting point is Gina and Faith lighting the candles. I try to be there with them when they do because it feels as if we are welcoming Shabbos together then. Before we eat I say the blessing for our kids (I do the blessing for our kids separately – they argue over who goes first). I then do a version of the Shabbos blessings and blessings over the wine and challah (the Kiddush) and we eat.

Lately I’ve wanted to add something for Gina too and I keep promising myself I’ll learn Ayshet Chayil well enough not to take half an hour to recite it. If you’re not familiar with this one, it is basically a tribute to the wife for all that she does for her family. Just doing the blessings for the kids feels like I am ignoring all that my wife does for us. I’ll get there eventually.

We don’t really keep most of the laws but keeping our few traditions distinguishes this day for every other for me.

The light. Oh, the light.

The Kiddush, the wine, the challah and the meal with my family are highlights of my week. Above all, the candles we light make Friday night the best night of the week. After we’ve eaten, the kids are in bed and we finally turn off the lights and crawl into bed, the remaining light from those candles reaches our bedroom.

Shabbos candles in our previous home
Shabbos candles in our previous home
That light dispels the darkness and grants a respite from it all for at least 25 hours. Even on the nights when I don’t sneak out of bed to watch those candles flicker one last time, a glimpse of their light before I fall into a food coma leaves me a little happier, more content.

Our Holocaust and ancient spirituality

My mother arrived for her first visit to Israel and I took her to Jerusalem. Our first visit was to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. We took the light rail from the central bus station up to Mount Herzl and walked along the edge of the forest to the museum.

Yad Vashem

Yad Vashem
Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center

We decided to do a self-guided tour of the museum and hired two audio guides and entered the main museum. It is shaped almost like a deep prism and your path through the various exhibits is a winding one. You can’t simply walk from one side to the other, you have to cross through all the Holocaust exhibits and be immersed in the unfolding tragedy as you go.

I wasn’t new to the Holocaust. I’ve been exposed to it for most of my life. Just the same, I found the museum almost overwhelming. It was filled with stories of communities that were, at first, sidelined. Later, they were taken from their homes, relegated to ghettos and, finally, shipped to the camps where roughly two thirds of all European Jews were murdered.

Photos of Holocaust victims
Israel Tourism, licensed CC BY SA 2.0

What the exhibits depicted using photos, video footage from the time and collections of victims’ personal effects and writings was just how brutal the genocide was. I found myself fighting back tears for most of the two hours we spent walking through it all.

The view as you exit the museum

We emerged at the other end of the museum and were presented with this remarkable view of the valley. It is a life affirming sight, almost as if the museum’s architect is saying –

Look! After all this tragedy and devastation, this is what we must protect. This is a reminder of what we must never forget and what can never happen again.

The Kotel

David's tower and the Old City walls
David’s tower and the Old City walls

It was fitting that our next stop was the Kotel (also known as the Western Wall). On the other side of the Kotel is the holiest Jewish site – the Temple Mount. This was the site of the two great Temples and is also the object of considerable tension with Muslims who regard the Temple Mount as their third holiest site.

The Kotel
The Western Wall (the “Kotel”) in Jerusalem.

The first time I saw the Wall, it seemed so small. I expected it to be bigger and, as I learned a week later when we return for a tour of the tunnels underneath it, the visible wall we see now was only a small part of the original wall. Visiting the Kotel is a fairly personal experience. To me, it is a monument to an ancient people, my ancestors. It is a reminder of what we have been through and what we fight for every day.

I love this photo of these monks watching visitors to the Wall.
I love this photo of these monks watching visitors to the Wall.

Just the beginning

That day in Jerusalem was just the start of a staycation with my mother. I still had a couple more days to work that week before taking the week of Chol Hamoed off for some downtime, local tourism and quality time with my family. It was also the beginning of what turned out to be a profound personal journey that I’ll share in subsequent articles.

In the meantime, I have published my album from that day to Flickr. You’re welcome to view more photos here:

Jerusalem visit collage
View my gallery of photos on Flickr.

Wisdom from the Buddha: “Try not to be a doos!”

I’m sure this is an accurate translation of what the Buddha said … 😛

If you don’t quite get it, don’t worry. “Doos” is a very South African thing. It basically translates into “idiot” with a little bad attitude.

"… the difference between living as a Jew outside Israel and as a Jew in Israel"

I just read an article by Brian Thomas titled “Yom Kippur, Tel Aviv style” which I really enjoyed. He pretty much sums it up with in these two paragraphs:

That is the difference between living as a Jew outside Israel and as a Jew in Israel: here we can just BE Jewish and the calendar and the customs and the norms of behavior push us into being culturally Jewish even if we don’t want to study Torah for nine hours a day.

Jews don’t want anywhere else to be a little piece of Israel, we just want this one small place in the world to be ours and to feel Jewish.