WHO ARE THE JEWS?
The name Jews comes from the name Judah, one of the sons of Jacob, also known as Israel (literally, "fighter for God"). See how it all comes together?. Derivatives of the name include Yehudim (from the root of the Hebrew name for Judah -- Yehuda).
There are an estimated 13 or 14 million Jews in the world, about six million of whom are in Israel and five million in the United States. There are about 300,000 Jews in Canada, about 10 per cent of whom live in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.
A LITTLE HISTORY
The Patriarchs of the Jewish people are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who are considered the founders of the Jewish religion.
Tradition says that Abraham was born around 1800 BCE. It was to Abraham that
God spoke, offering him a great nation if he would make a covenant
with God. This covenant is at the root of Jewish tradition: the
belief that Jews and God have a mutually binding contract, symbolized
by the brit milah or ritual circumcision of infant males.
As the first test of this covenant, Abraham was compelled to leave his city and adopt a nomadic lifestyle. As Abraham and his wife Sarah grew older, they were still childless. Sarah offered Abraham her maid-servant Hagar, for Abraham to continue his bloodline. Hagar, a daughter of Pharaoh, gave birth to Ishmael, who would become the father of the Arabs, according to both Jewish and Muslim tradition. But even later in life, God miraculously gave Abraham a child with Sarah, named Isaac (or Yitzhak in Hebrew, which means laughter -- the story being that Abraham and Sarah laughed when God told them that they, at such an old age, would have a child). Isaac would become a patriarch of the Jewish people, too.
The schism between the two sons of Abraham -- Isaac the Jew and Ishmael the Arab -- would resonate forever.
Abraham's last test in his covenant with God was to sacrifice his son Isaac, a common enough practice at the time. But an angel intervened and, lucky for Isaac, assured Abraham that he had proven his devotion to God and his son's life could be spared. Jewish tradition views this incident as a Divine message that God no longer wants to see children sacrificed.
Isaac grew up to marry Rebecca, who bore Jacob and Esau. If you thought Isaac and Ishmael were an odd pair of brothers, wait till you meet these two. They started fighting while they were still in the womb. Esau became his father's favorite, while Jacob was the favorite of Rebecca.
Esau sold his birthright to his brother, Jacob, for a bowl of potage.
Because Isaac was growing old and had difficulty seeing, he didn't
realize that he was blessing Jacob and not blessing his favorite,
Esau. Eventually, Jacob married four women, who bore a dozen sons
and a daughter.
Jacob's 12 sons are the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel, which are named for them: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Zebulun, Issachar, Dan, Gad, Asher, Naphtali, Joseph and Benjamin.
As fans of musical theatre are well aware, Joseph was the favorite son of Jacob and Jacob gave him a coat of many colors. Out of jealousy, the brothers sold Joseph into slavery and told their father that Joseph was killed by a wild animal. They even covered the coat with blood to prove their point.
Wouldn't you know it, though, Joseph ended up in the court of Egypt's Pharaoh, where his ability to interpret dreams provided a very useful transferable skill that took him from the lowliest palace job to a position as a senior advisor.
As generations went on, though, the Egyptian rulers changed and they didn't appreciate all that Joseph had done for them. Eventually, the descendants of Joseph becoming slaves, along with all the other foreigners in Egypt. Then the big stuff started to happen.
God never forgot his covenant with Abraham and, after centuries as slaves, Joseph's descendants were led out of Egypt by Moses, with God's help. God spoke to Moses through a burning bush, calling on him to lead his people to freedom. God brought down a series of plagues and disasters upon the Egyptians and, amid the melZe, the Israelites made their escape. That wasn't the end of God's help. He parted the Red Sea to allow them to pass through, closing the passage behind them and making it impossible for their oppressors to follow them. They wandered in the wilderness until they reached Sinai, God renewed his covenant and provided Moses with the Torah.
This escape -- the Exodus -- and its inherent message of freedom and deliverance is celebrated every year in the Passover festival.
The land that God promised to Abraham and his descendants is said to be a land "flowing with milk and honey." The barren, rocky dessert might not have looked like much, but it was home to them. Jewish law places an important emphasis on the land and living outside of the land of Israel is considered under this interpretation to be an unnatural status for a Jew.
So it was the monumental tragedy of Jewish history when the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE and then officially expelled the Jews from the Holy Land in 135 CE. A small number of Jews continued living there, keeping a vigil and studying Torah on the sacred ground, but always under the control of foreign powers, including the Romans, the Ottoman Turks and, finally, the British. (Jews would not have control over the land again until 1948.) When they were expelled by the Romans, Jews travelled to almost every part of the world. There, they maintained their ancient traditions while adapting in various ways to the world around them. Although a small people, they have had inordinate influence on the societies in which they have lived.
The major divisions among Jews are the Ashkenazi Jews (from Eastern and Northern Europe) and the Sephardi Jews (who tended to populate the Mediterranean areas of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East).
Division among Jews is hardly new. As early as the Maccabean revolt (in the second century BCE), which is celebrated at the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, there was a philosophical split between the traditionalists and those who were Hellenized -- influenced by the worldly outlook of the occupying Greek forces of the time. Eventually, the Jews united -- as they often do during times of crisis -- during the war against Greek oppression, but the Jews divided again when peace came, battling over their internal differences.
Later, when Judea was controlled by the Romans, another group appeared -- the Zealots -- who were nationalistic in nature and determined to battle for sovereignty over the land against the Romans. The famous story of Masada represents the last stand of the Zealots, who defended the mountain for months in opposition to Roman armies, then committed suicide rather than surrender.
Judaism became fairly united about the time the Common Era began. This had as much to do with the fact that the Romans killed pretty much all the sects of Jews except one as it did with any new-found unity among Jews. The Pharisees survived that era to maintain what we now call Judaism.
The religion of Judah was centred around the Second Temple, in Jerusalem. The destruction of the Second Temple by Roman forces (a First Temple was destroyed about 500 years earlier by the Babylonians, but that's another story) figuratively and literally caused the dispersion of the Jews. From their ancient home, most Jews spread out north and west to Europe or into Asia and Africa. The geographical diversity would lead to substantial differences in Jewish traditions, including foods, festivals and even styles of worship.
Religiously, though, things remained fairly steady despite the occasional divergences in form. For many hundreds of years, Judaism followed what we generally refer to now as the Orthodox tradition.
The first significant challenge to traditional expressions of Judaism came in the 18th century, a time of great change within Judaism as well as in the larger world. Chassidism was founded by the Ba'al Shem Tov (Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer), in Eastern Europe during the early 1700s. It emphasized spiritual mysticism and education as ways to improve one's personal relationship to God.
Today, Chassidim are very active in outreach around the world, encouraging
non-observant Jews to renew their commitment to observance. This
is especially true of the large and well-organized Lubavitch Chassidim.
Shortly after the advent of Chassidism, there came a monumental schism in Judaism.
As the European world was experiencing the Enlightenment, so some
Jews were deeply influenced by the Enlightenment's emphasis on secular
learning, science and involvement in the world around them. The
Jewish enlightenment is known as the Haskalah and the people who
led it were known as Maskillim. It is generally considered to have
begun around 1720 and continued until about 1880.
REFORM VS. ORTHODOXY
During this time, the influence of modernism on the Jews was immense. Although the movement was less influential in the shtetls (Jewish villages) of Eastern Europe, the enlightenment changed the way many Jews viewed themselves and their role in the world. Debates raged about the value of tradition versus adapting to modern European ways.
One group, led by some rabbis and intellectuals, argued that Jews should adapt by using European vernacular languages and wearing clothes more similar to those of their non-Jewish neighbors, as opposed to the old-fashioned clothes they wore and the Yiddish spoken by most of them. This was based in large part on the view that if Jews appeared less different than other Europeans, they would be subjected to less violence and discrimination. This school of thought could be said to be the forerunner of what is known today as Reform Judaism.
On the opposite side of this argument were the Orthodox traditionalists. They maintained that the reforms -- especially the liturgical changes such as the introduction of music into religious services -- were a rejection of tradition and, by extension, of God. Over the years, even the Orthodox have developed varying degrees of observance, from modern Orthodox, who dress in modern clothing but observe ancient rites, to the Yeshivah Orthodox and the Chassidim.
In the middle of the debate came a movement that tried to bridge the gap between those who wanted major changes and those who steadfastly rejected any reforms. These people, during the 1800s and early 1900s, tried to find a compromise by adapting some new reforms, while maintaining certain aspects of tradition. This stream evolved into what we now know as Conservative Judaism.
Over the past 100 years, various permutations have developed under different names, such as Reconstructionism.
In North America today, most Jews belong to the Reform or Conservative streams. Only about seven per cent are Orthodox. In Israel, the reverse is true. Religious Jews are overwhelmingly Orthodox, while the Reform and Conservative movements are not nearly as strong as they are in North America. About half of Israelis describe themselves as secular.
Though services in synagogues of all streams bear similarities, some Orthodox Jews will not attend the services of the more liberal streams because they deem them not sufficiently religious or because women and men sit together -- which is not permitted in Orthodox synagogues -- or because some liberal prayer books cut out some prayers that are required by the Orthodox.
In Israel, the split between the streams is particularly stark and entrenched.
This has led to the ongoing debate over "who is a Jew" under Israeli
law. Because of the Law of Return, which allows any Jew to move
to Israel and become a citizen, the debate over who is a Jew takes
on a very tangible significance. Only the Orthodox rabbinical council
in Israel can solemnize religious marriages, authorize conversions
or sanction divorces, so they possess a great deal of power in society.
ASHKENAZIM AND SEPHARDIM
There is another differentiation among Jews that is not defined by religion. The Jews of Northern and Eastern Europe are known as Ashkenazi Jews (from the Hebrew word for Germany). Those from Spain, Portugal, North Africa and the Middle East are called Sephardi Jews (from the Hebrew word for Spain). Much smaller groups are those who do not fit into the categories of Ashkenazi or Sephardi, including Ethiopian Jews, Yemenite Jews and Oriental Jews. Most Canadian Jews are of Ashkenazi descent.
Yiddish, which is rooted in Hebrew and German, is the traditional language
of the Ashkenazim. The Sephardim traditionally speak Ladino, which
originated from Spanish and Hebrew.
Jews never gave up the hope that they would return en masse to the Promised Land. This was primarily a religious concept: that Jews would assemble in Jerusalem when the Messiah came. But in the late-1800s, that religious idea became a political one, with people like Theodor Herzl expressing the hope that a diplomatic agreement could create a Jewish state in what was, by that time, known as Palestine. Herzl was a Viennese journalist whose quixotic diplomacy and early death galvanized the idea of political Zionism.
For several decades, an informal migration took place, with small clusters of Jews travelling to Palestine to redeem the land and try to bring into reality the Zionist dream. These people were a combination of the very religious and the non-religious Jews who hoped to set up communal farms and create a revolutionary new world, free of the oppression brought about by the Industrial Revolution in Europe and free of the hatred that manifested itself in the pogroms of Eastern Europe.
Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, Palestine came under the control of the British. Zionists lobbied the British authorities to establish a Jewish homeland there, but were put off repeatedly. It was only after the catastrophe of the Holocaust, during the Second World War, that the dream of a Jewish state became a reality. Even then, it was not the British who made it so, but the new United Nations, which developed an elaborate partition plan, in which Palestine would become two states: one Jewish and one Arab.
The Arabs rejected the plan, however, and when the state of Israel was proclaimed
on May 14, 1948, Israel's neighboring Arab countries immediately
attacked the new state. Miraculously, the Israelis managed to fight
off the attackers, even expanding their territory -- an issue that
remains at the fore of political debates today.
RIGHT OF RETURN
Immigration to Israel is known as aliyah -- literally, going up -- which also has religious connotations, as this is also the term used in synagogue to go up to the bimah (the dais of the synagogue). Under Israel's Law of Return, any Jew can make aliyah and become a citizen of the state. However, again, the definition of who is a Jew has become political in the past several years, with some Orthodox authorities challenging the validity of some non-Orthodox conversions.
There are still a tiny number of religious Jews who object to the existence
of Israel, because they maintain it contradicts the assumption that
the Jews will return to Palestine only when the Messiah comes.
WHAT IS KOSHER?
Part of Jewish law is kashrut: the rules dealing with which foods may be eaten and how they must be prepared. Many Jews follow these rules only loosely now and some disregard them altogether. However, Orthodox Jews observe these regulations strictly, as do some Jews from the other streams of Judaism.
Some aspects of kashrut (commonly called "keeping kosher") are simply common sense, involving the treatment of foods, such as meats. In the desert culture from which the Jews originated, proper maintenance of food was a matter of life and death. Similarly, prohibitions against eating shellfish may relate to the fact that they are bottom-feeders and therefore not proper (treife -- improper; the opposite of kosher.)
On the other hand, some rules clearly have nothing to do with health at all. In fact, the health or moral reasons for certain kashrut rules are not obvious, but the rules are adhered to by traditional Jews because they are contained in the text of the Torah (or the Five Books of Moses -- which include the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy -- and is said to be the word of God, as transcribed by his prophet Moses).
There are a few primary rules of kashrut. Certain animals cannot be eaten at all -- pigs, lobster or shrimp, for example. Here's a real crash course in which foods can be eaten: those that chew cud and have cloven hooves, yes. Swarming rodents, no. Fish with fins and scales, sure. Birds of prey, stay away.
Even of those animals that are permitted to be eaten -- cows and lambs, for example -- certain parts are forbidden. As well, those animals that are permitted for consumption must be prepared in a carefully codified manner, including the way in which they are killed. All of the blood must be drained from or boiled out of the meat before it is ingested, as Jews believe that people were given the right to nourishment but not to the basis of life (and blood is central to life).
Meat (known as fleishig) cannot be eaten with dairy products (known as milchig. (See? These words sound like "flesh" and "milk" -- Yiddish is really just English in disguise.) The reason for this is because, in three different places, the Torah states that people should not seethe (boil) a kid in its mother's milk.
Foods that can be eaten with either meat or dairy are known as pareve and they include fruit, vegetables and grain. Under some interpretations, this also includes fish.
In a place like Vancouver, keeping kosher can be difficult and expensive. There are few places where people who observe the rules of kashrut can go out to eat and also only a few places where kosher meats and other foods can be obtained. Over the last few years, however, it has become increasing easier to find kosher products -- such as canned goods and packaged items -- in an average grocery store. The kosher authorization of a product is identified by a hechsher, a tiny mark somewhere on the container that identifies it as a product approved by one kashrut body or another, depending on the mark.
Households that observe kashrut keep separate cutlery and dishes for meat and dairy. Many also have two refrigerators and sometimes two dishwashers. If you're not sure which is which, don't offer to help clean up after supper.
It is far more complicated than this, of course, but you get the idea. There
is plenty of information on kashrut available online and in the
Kosher is the hard part. Food is the good part. To Jews, food is almost as important as, well ... let's not push our luck. But it is true that, when Jews gather there tends to be a lot to eat. Every simchah (celebration) has its own food and there are joyous and ritual aspects that accompany it, in addition to the joy of eating it.
There are specific prayers for food and wine and certain foods are associated with -- indeed, requisite parts of -- specific holidays.
As for the cuisine, however, Jewish food constitutes a range of world flavors. Because Jews have lived in all parts of the world, cooks have tended to draw from local ingredients, seasonings and traditions to create their own amended style of Jewish cooking.
Because North American Jews mostly have roots in Europe, the concept
of Jewish food here has been the mainstays of European Jewish cuisine:
chicken soup with matzah balls, blintzes, roast chicken, brisket,
knishes and so on. Typical foods of the Jews of North Africa and
the eastern Mediterranean, however, bear resemblance to the kind
of fare one sees in Greek restaurants and shares more in common
with the food of the Arab countries. These are things like falafel
and hummus. Interestingly, what Canadian Jews might refer to as
homey, Jewish foods like brisket are rarely found in restaurants
in Israel. The reality is that the food of the European Jews, such
as those in cold climes like Russia, just don't go over in hot climates
like the Middle East. Still, yum.