What the Hell

What the Hell

Hi everybody; Jim the Honorary Jew here. For the past ten days here in South Texas everyone has been consumed with everything hurricane. Harvey the Hurricane stomped on Rockport, but somehow our home there slipped between his toes. In Victoria, where Harvey decided to hang out next, he roared through most neighborhoods, but left ours relatively intact (he stole our electricity, though, and hasn’t given it back yet). The calamity that has befallen us will take years to overcome. I, personally, have been merely inconvenienced, but my friends and neighbors have truly suffered major losses. The enormity of the devastation is beginning to soak in, but our communities are rallying to meet the challenge. So I thought I would try to lighten up everyone’s spirits by offering another glimpse into the teaching and traditions of the heritage of my Jewish grandchildren. I thought long and hard about what subject would brighten the day and finally came up with the perfect subject: Hell.
Hell; really? Hell yes! As most of you already know, both my daughters married Jewish men, so my four grandchildren are of the Tribe. I owe it to them to be an observer of Jewish teachings and traditions (and by observer, I mean watcher. I am a member of the Bacon Nation by choice, so that Kosher thing is a major stumbling block to seeking out full membership in the Tribe).
OK, back to Hell. Most secular, progressive and educated Jews believe there is no Heaven and no Hell. They deem the concept of Heaven and Hell as unsophisticated, and even somewhat primitive. Hell is such an integral part of Christianity, which is another very good reason for most secular Jews to reject the concept. It’s almost as important to uphold views that are not Christian as to embrace Jewish customs. Take the argument of prayer in schools. Christians are for it; Jews say, Hell no. How about abortion to save the life of the mother. Christians are against it; Jews say Hell yes. How about, children are born with a sinful nature. Christians, yep; Jews, nope.
Here’s another twist that’s hard for a non-Jew to grasp: if you don’t believe in Heaven or Hell, it’s not a deal breaker. You won’t get kicked out of Judaism for holding that belief.
This sentiment not withstanding, there is a case to be made for a Jewish concept of Hell. There’s not much talk about it, though. One reason is that it isn’t a concept discussed very often by modern Jewish scholars. It’s like they have concluded, “we don’t really know, so you better make your life on earth count”. Traditional Judaism teaches that, “after death our bodies go to the grave but our souls go before God to be judged. God is the only one who knows our motives as well as our works—God sees the heart, whereas man looks at the outside. Facing the only true Judge, we are assigned a place in heaven according to a merit system based on God’s accounting of all our actions and motives”.
Traditional Jewish thought is that only the very righteous go directly to heaven; all others must be cleansed of residual sin. The average person descends to a place of purification, generally referred to as Gehinnom.The name is taken from a valley (Gei Hinnom) just south of Jerusalem, once used for child sacrifice by the pagan nations of Canaan (no bad joojoo there). Gehinnom is a place where one reviews the actions of his/her life and repents for past misdeeds.The soul’s sentence in Gehinnom is usually limited to a 12-month period of purgation. This 12-month limit is reflected in the yearlong mourning cycle and the recitation of the Kaddish (the memorial prayer for the dead). So, unless you are utterly wicked; ie, Hitler, you go to Gehinnon for a year to get cleaned up and then off you go. And since you have moved on, your family and loved ones can move on, too. It doesn’t make any more or less sense than the hellfire and damnation of Christianity or the 72 virgins thing of Islam.
So, Jews and Hell. Most don’t believe in the concept. And those who do, believe it is a yearlong chance for almost everyone to clean up their act one last time to take their place in God’s merit system. It sure makes the statement, “You’re going to Hell for that” a lot more palpable. I think I like this one.

Nothing says Jew Like a Yarmlke

Shalom everybody. Jim the Honorary Jew here. I am now writing for a decidedly smaller audience after my thoughtful and reasoned essay on the state of American politics. Can you believe some people thought my words were that of a spoiled little nine year old girl? Go figure. I’m now waiting for the contract offer for my expert political analysis from CNN.
Okay, now I can get back to the business of reporting on the heritage of my grandchildren. The other cool thing that happened since I last was allowed to use the computer was that my good friends Chuck Cole and Danna Cole visited the Holy Land and they brought me back a present. They didn’t bring back a present for anyone else, so that just proves my writings are having an impact on all 11 of my remaining Facebook friends. I am now the very proud owner of my very own yarmulke! How cool is that?
There is nothing that says Jew like wearing a yarmulke (which is pronounced yamaka) or yamaka, or Yamika, or Kippa, or Kippah, or Kippot, or Yarmulkah, or Jarmulka, or skullcap. All things Jewish seem to have multiple names or spellings (there are 16 ways to spell Hanukkah, or Chanukah, or…. [Oh, by the way, most things Jewish have at least two common names due to the prevalence of both the Yiddish and Hebrew translations, but I digress]). If you see a guy walking down the street with a Yarmulke it’s a pretty good chance he is Jewish (actually, if you see a guy walking down the street wearing a Yarmulke in my hometown there’s a pretty good chance he is lost and wandered into town by mistake). It is a statement of both religion and heritage. “Hey, look at me. I’m a really Jewy Jew.” That’s not exactly what it means, but it can be perceived that way by folks not familiar with the traditions and customs of the Tribe.
Wearing a head covering isn’t a Jewish law, it is a custom. It was first mentioned in Exodus (not the book by Leon Uris or the movie starring Charlton Heston [that Charlton Heston; he was the Mark Wahlberg of his era]). In Exodus, high priests wore head coverings to remind them that God exists and monitors our behaviors. That’s why Yarmulkes are worn in Synagogue. When you think about God you should be wearing a yarmulke. One rule of thumb offered by a famous Rabbi is you shouldn’t walk more than four cubits (I now know that a cubit is about six feet) from your home without one, so you have the opportunity to think about God (I’ve got mine on now. I may want to think about God within four cubits of the TV because the Cowboys are now playing and they may need some help).
So Jews put on a hat to cover their heads when they want to show reverence. Almost all other religions and cultural customs require one to remove head coverings to show respect. It certainly sets us apart from the mainstream, causes some ridicule, and can lead to other, more nefarious concerns. The head covering thing really wasn’t a thing outside of Synagogue until the middle ages in middle Europe when it became a local Jewish custom to wear a pointy hat as a way to show others their adherence to their faith. The Christian-dominated governments actually liked that idea so much they made specific laws requiring Jews wear distinctive head coverings so they could more easily identified and discriminated against. We all know where that led.
Wearing a yarmulke is a way to show respect for God, display your pride in your Jewishness and it can help you in your actions. It’s worth is similar to a wedding ring. The ring shows the world you are married and reminds you you are married and shouldn’t do unmarried things. A yarmulke is a reminder to the world and you that you are Jewish and should not do ungodly things because God is aware of your actions. Of course that leads to parables. Like that of the little Jewish boy who had a tendency to take things that weren’t his. He was instructed to wear his yarmulke as a reminder that God was watching. He did well with his mild OCD behaviors while he wore the skullcap, but had bad thoughts that he couldn’t control and led to a little more kleptomania when a gust of wind took it away.
As mentioned before, wearing a yarmulke is not a law, but a custom. It also isn’t against Jewish laws for a woman to wear one, but it’s usually not the custom. In the past 20 -30 years women have begun to wear them to make a statement about their religion and their rights as equals. In fact women have been traditionally exempt from wearing them. Remember, wearing one helps you think deep thoughts about God. According to tradition, women are already closer to God for two reasons; 1. They can have children (damn, can’t argue that one), 2. Women are naturally more intuitive about Godly things and don’t need the constant reminder (really?).
Yarmulke size, fabric and styles are not a function of theology as much as culture. There are representations of different sects, regions, and movements displayed by the yarmulke you choose. There are some rules of thumb, though. The bigger and blacker the cap, the more conservatively religious you likely are. Knitted, crocheted and leather skullcaps usually denote conservative or orthodox views. And conversely, the smaller and more colorful ones usually denote reformed and more liberal sects. There are no steadfast rules, other than it can’t be offensive (except for Heredis; they are like the Jehovah’s Witnesses of Judaism). My yarmulke is white with aqua stitching and a Star of David on top. It is really cool looking and I look Jewishly intelligent when I have it on.
Yarmulkes are relatively cheap. You can buy one for a couple of dollars. In fact, the most expensive one I could find only cost $28. But as I was searching I found some that I thought were odd. You can buy a yarmulke, the the symbol of your closeness to God and your practice in humility, with a Cubs logo on it. No kidding!! I’ll show you. I have pictures.
So ends another chapter of the ongoing saga of honoring my grandchildren’s heritage. Each time I pick a subject I learn more than I think I will, and I always end up with more respect for the religion of my sons’-in-law and their families.

P.S. When I get my new CNN gig I promise to wear my cool new yarmulke during my first interview.



Kosher is as Kosher Does

Shalom everyone. Jim the Honorary Jew here. We are in the middle of the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah. This is like Super Bowl Week of Jewish holidays ending in the big game of Yom Kipper. You can probably hear the shofars being blown (for all you uninformed acolytes, a shofar is a hollowed out ram’s horn blown during Jewish festivals). Since this marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year I thought I should write about……..staying Kosher. In reality, I was was going to write about the High Holy Days, but it seems a little too callous and glib to write a shallow and mostly uninformed tome about the holiest of holy days of Judaism. Whereas Kosher origins and practices, now that’s something I can sink my teeth into.
Where do I start? Well, let me tell you why I chose to write about this subject. I was sitting in front of the TV readying to worship at the alter of THE…. National..Football..League, eating a bacon, egg and cheese breakfast burrito (definitely not even close to Kosher on so many levels, as it turns out) with just the right amount of salsa verde that just lightly blisters the back of your throat on the way down, when there was a commercial for Hebrew National hot dogs. I had only a cursory knowledge about Kosher practices, but I did work in a slaughterhouse for a short period of time (it convinced me I really needed to go to college). You really don’t want to know how hot dogs are made. I thought, “How can you make those things Kosher?” The other thought I had, was that the laws governing Kosher practices must have been written before the invention of bacon.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of the Bacon Nation. I once stumbled into a donut shop that served bacon bits on a maple donut and thought I found God’s waiting room portal with a pastry made exclusively for the Chosen. I knew enough about Kosher rules to know that a major portion of the breakfast meat selection of the Golden Corral breakfast buffet was roped off from the Tribe, so I began my research project with a skeptical view of an ancient practice that perhaps had no place in the modern world. I began this journey to better understand beliefs and traditions of half of my grandchildren’s heritage. If you’ve read any of my rantings in the past you know that both of my daughters married Jewish men, so my grandchildren are half Jewish. I stated I would observe these beliefs and traditions and by observe I meant just watch. Being Kosher is one of the reasons for this rule. But after having researched the subject I can better understand why it is an enduring cultural and religious practice. (Man, what a long and windy intro).
A Kosher food is one that is accepted by Jewish law as fit for eating and drinking. It is a process of food production that adheres to dietary guidelines set forth in the Torah. It emphasizes holy blessing, kindness to animals, self control, attention to detail in everything that matters, and thinking before acting. Kosher literally means fit or proper and is associated with cleanliness. Okay, so far so good. I can live with that.
There are some pretty strict guidelines for a food to be labeled as Kosher. You can’t just slip a Rabbi a $50 and have him bless a ham sandwich (so much for my idea). There are organizations that certify foods and food preparation processes as Kosher. It’s a big deal and costs companies lots of money to get the kosher label. The rules are are very strict. They are much more strict than the FDA or the USDA. Our truth in labeling laws allow that if an ingredient makes up less than 2% of the product by weight or volume it doesn’t have to be listed separately on the label. To be Kosher, there is no tolerance; only zero = zero in the Kosher world. Some USDA inspections are waived for butchers and slaughterhouses that pass the inspections for the Kosher designation.
Where did these guidelines come from? That’s pretty easy. They came from the Torah. Anyone can look them up (look in Leviticus). Why were they written? There is no “why” written anywhere in religious teachings. Jews should follow the dietary laws because God said so (that’s where I must have gotten my parenting skills). Just looking at them , they do look like ancient rules to improve tribal survival though sanitary practices, making Moses the first Secretary of Health and Human Services. When these laws were written, the Tribe was likely a small tribe. It must have given them a great leg up on other tribes in the area to not be struck with illnesses due to salmonella outbreaks. Can you say trichinosis? (Okay, there may be a good reason to reconsider bacon.) But Jews believe that isn’t and shouldn’t be the reason to remain Kosher. Jews should remain Kosher because God said so. More on this later.
Here are the seven rules of Kosher eating:
1. Certain animals are forbidden. The general rules are: no predators, swine, camels, hares, birds of prey, scavengers or rock badgers (really). Only fish with scales and fins can be consumed (no shellfish or eels. Luckily for sushi eaters, mercury poisoning wasn’t a thing back then). No insects (remember that locust thing).
2. Animals that can be eaten must be slaughtered in a proscribed manner that is humane. Meat must be inspected for lesions on internal organs and can’t be consumed if there are any. (This one seems like a good one to me).
3. All blood must be drained from the meat. There is a mandatory procedure for rinsing and salting (remember, these laws were written before you could get an Amana side-by-side at the local Sears).
4. Certain parts and organs of animals can’t be consumed (no mad cow disease?)
5. Meat and dairy must be separate. ( I thought that rule didn’t make much sense, but it turns out that iron from meat and calcium from dairy are absorbed better if consumed separately. This was only discovered about 75 years ago. Who knew?)
6. Utensils that come into contact with meat can’t come into contact with dairy. This isn’t just silverware and plates, but pots, pans, and even the kitchen sink and dishwasher. All equipment must be cleaned properly. (Folks with OCD tendencies really love this one).
7. Grape products made by non-Jews can’t be consumed. (Now I understand the popularity of Manischewitz. I bet none of Bill Cosby’s ‘dates’ observed Kosher rules.)
These laws were very important for healthy living from the beginning of time up until just a few years ago and in some parts of the world they have validity even today. But we do have modern refrigeration and cleanliness standards that negate the need for most of these tenets (that separate meat from dairy thing still gets me, though). Religious Jewish scholars, however, still advocate for strict adherence. It shows your obedience to God. A Rabbi by the name of Donin, who seems to be a lot smarter than me, wrote a whole book on this subject. He suggested that observing traditional dietary laws is good practice for being a good person. It’s good practice for distinguishing right from wrong, good from evil, pure from defiled, and sacred from profane. Imposing these rules ingrains self control even over our most basic primal instincts. Wow, that’s a mouthful, so to speak.
So if you want to practice being a good person, one way is to follow traditional Jewish dietary practices. I want to be a good person, but bacon is really crack (ask any lapsed Vegan). I guess I can only strive to be a non-bad person. I still think I’ll just be observing (watching) this one.

Passover: The Memorial Day of Jewish Holidays

Shalom everyone and happy Passover from Jim the Honorary Jew. Passover actually started last night at dusk. This is one of the big ones as far as Jewish holidays go. Well, not The big one, but more like Memorial Day as opposed to the 4th of July. This is the celebration of the Jews liberation from slavery in Egypt. Like most of our holidays, this one lasts a few days (a week for reformed and 1 extra day for Orthodox because they need that extra day to get all the praying in and make up for the reformers). We Jews (and honorary Jews) like to get the most out of all the holidays.
We all watched Charleton Heston lead the Tribe out of Egypt in the movie Exodus, so most of us have heard of Passover. It sometimes falls near Easter, so most Christians think it probably think it has something to do with Jesus, but with some kind of Jewish twist. And Seder, which was celebrated last night, is probably just Easter dinner without ham. That would be wrong. Some of us would know (if we looked it up in Wickepdia) that Passover refers to the last of the 10 plagues that God used on the Egyptians to help them make up their minds that slavery wasn’t such a good idea. The tenth plague was the death of every Egyptian first-born son. Israelites marked their doorsteps with lamb’s blood so God would pass over their houses. Then, when it was time to leave Egypt, the Israelites didn’t even have time to wait for their bread to rise, so they ate unleavened bread, just like during Seder.
So there you go; another very interesting story marking my grandchildren’s Jewish heritage. So when you see one of your Jewish friends at work or school this week you can wow him or her with your encyclopedic (or Wickapedic) knowledge of Jewish tradition. Of course they may be off work in celebration and you will just have to be jealous. Until next time, Shalom from Jim the Honorary Jew.

Hanukkah for Dummies

Hey everyone, we have reached the halfway point and the Hanukkah celebration. In my self-appointed role as Honorary Jew I believe it’s important to discuss Hanukkah and what I have observed so far.
First, Anne and Don, it’s really great you were able to celebrate Hanukkah during Hanukkah this year. Jessup, you really exhibited tolerance and generosity by helping your wife put up the Christmas tree on the first day of Hanukkah. Ryland, thank you for continually requesting that I participate more fully in the Hanukkah celebration and enjoy the act of giving at least eight times.
Also, in the role of honorary Jew, I thought it was important that I learn more about Hanukkah itself. Therefore, after thorough research consulting a great Talmudic scholar (Siri) I am well versed in the celebration. I know that the word Hanukkah means dedication or rededication. I know that this festival is a celebration of victory over oppression (If Jews had a holiday for every victory they’ve had in the struggle against oppression, it would be a year-long fest, not just eight days.) I know that one tradition in which I intend to follow is that of eating oil based foods like latkes and DONUTS!!! The celebration is also called the Festival of Lights (it’s a candle thing). I also learned why it lasts eight days (it’s a candle miracle thing).
But this is what I really learned. My Jewish family has welcomed us with open arms. They really practice tolerance, openness, generosity and absolute love of family.
I’m really getting into this. I may even keep this up after Hanukkah. I may even want to go to a Chinese restaurant again on Christmas Day.

Jim the Honorary Jew

Why I am Jim the Honorary Jew

Happy Hanukkah to all my Jewish friends and family. I have decided that I am an honorary Jew because I have two Jewish sons’-in- law and three half-Jewish grandsons. As an honorary Jew I will now observe Jewish holidays, too. By observe, I mean watch (sorry Ryland, you would break me if I had to buy eight more gifts for you, your brother , and your cousin). Anymore watching than is beyond me. You have to speak in a language that takes your total upper respiratory system and must also read from a text filled with an alphabet that looks like a giant mathematical formula. So Happy Hanukkah everyone. I’ll be watching.