Question Thread

I promised this thread on social media. It’s open for 8 days altogether – use the date on the post as a guide. How am I counting the days? It’s seven days for my timezone and eight days to allow people on the other side of the dateline to also get their seven days of questions.

This is open to anyone who has questions to ask and anyone who can answer. If you ask and the question is hurtful, I will try to answer it if I can but if it contains too much hatred I’ll probably delete it. If you answer someone else or reply to me and the answer calls for it, I may explain your answer back to you. I’ve taught for 30+ years and am very emotional this week, so think back to your high school days and to a passionate teacher who’s in a bad mood but trying really hard to be helpful. That’s me this week.

This question thread is not about the murders this weekend. This is your chance to ask Judaism 101 questions and Jewish history questions and talk about those things more comfortably so that people who are hurting don’t have to deal with them as well as their own pain. This is also not about the Shoah/Holocaust. This is not about mass murders of any kind of any period after 1600, in fact.

It’s for the questions to which you suddenly need to know the answer, because you’ve not thought about how Jewish boys get given names, or whether anyone in your community is likely to have suffered antisemitism without you knowing, or what 1290 looked like to English Jews, or what the stuff Assassin’s Creed (the film, not the game) ignored looked like for those who had to endure it, and what ‘kosher’ actually means, and how I can still be Orthodox and seldom go to synagogue, and whether I agree with Christian afterlife beliefs and … all the stuff you have stored and want answers to but that you can’t let flood social media because you need to respect peoples’ pain.

I am particularly good on the subjects of food and of history and of food history. I am not an expert in the religious side, but can answer most of the basics, because I was well brought up (which in my branch of Judaism means something quite specific), and because I do a lot of work with non-Jewish writers who want to write Jewish characters. I also wrote the Jewish chapter in The Middle Ages Unlocked. If this isn’t clear (for it’s written under emotion – my mother’s at a funeral right now for someone who died a natural death after a long life but spent her youth in Nazi Europe, while everyone she loved die around her) ask me questions about asking questions.

For anyone who has been sent in this direction and who has no idea who I am: I’m a novelist and an historian. I used to do work with the Jewish community, including the guides at the Jewish Museum in Melbourne and with the women of the National Council of Jewish Women. I work far more with the wider community than the Jewish community these days, and am the person who wrote the first ever (as far as we can find out) Australian Jewish fantasy novel.

Why am I opening a question time? Because every time virulent antisemitism has raised its head in my life, non-Jews have used this as a reason to ask me basic questions. At a time when I need support, they turn to me for help. I’m not American. If you are, then every simple question you ask me, here, won’t be asked of those who may need your support. If you aren’t, then you’re adding to your understanding of things Jewish which is not a bad thing.

For those who want my chicken soup recipe, for this is a time for chicken soup… ask away.


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    • Sally Beasley on 28 October 2018 at 23:27
    • Reply

    Is “funeral” the right word for the memorial service for someone’s death?

    1. Funeral is when the body is buried, and is pretty standard across Judaism, but the level of formality of the rest of it isn’t quite as uniform. In Orthodox Judaism (my branch) there is a week of formal memorial services and special mourning custom. It goes back a long way and every time I have to skip it or reduce it due to the limits imposed by Australia… it’s difficult. The memorial services require a minyan (10 adult Jewish men in Orthodox Judaism, ten adult Jews in Reform/Progressive) and thee are some times of the year they don’t take place. It’s complicated, but it’s exceptionally effective at helping people deal with an impossible time. After the week there’s a month, and then mourning stops technically at a year but in reality at eleven months. We still have memorial services (kaddishes) throughout our lives with special ones and memorial candles associated with specific festivals.

      I hope this is clear!

  1. How *do* Jewish boys get given names? And Jewish girls, come to that?

    1. First, our names are written on our birth certificates. How parents decide on the specific name is up to them, but families and regions have traditions. Mine was “Do not name after anyone living” so my middle name is my great-grandmother’s first name. The names use for religious purposes are a bit different. In Orthodox Judaism (the Judaism I know best, but a lot of the critical stuff is common across the vast majority of branches of Judaism kinda like the Church of England having a book of Common Prayer), girls’ Jewish names simply get announced in synagogue the Saturday after they’re born. Mine was based on my great-grandmother’s first name and then “daughter of” and my father’s name was added to it. In Progressive Judaism it’s “daughter of” and the names of parents (ie daughter of person1 and peson2).

      For boys, it’s more normal to announce the name at a bris (circumcision plus party). I went to an Ultra-Orthodox one once, because… nephew, and I was in the right city for a change. It was all the epople closest, family and friends. In Ultra Orthodox, the men were in one room and the women in the other. My nephew (age 8 days) started to think about crying and then stopped because the mohel rocked him in the exact right way. Until the 13th century this gender separation wasn’t observed for any branch of Judaism that I know of. It was still mostly a male event, but instead of someone godfathering the baby, the mother used to bring the baby in and sit on a special chair and was a key part of the ceremony. The rise of misogyny in the 13th century affected all the monotheistic religions and one thing it did to was exclude the mother. (I haven’t seen reports about Squirrel Hill that say the event was a bris – it might have been an announcement with a bit of food to celebrate after the regular Saturday service. Given what happened, I’m not going to interfere with the fmaily’s privacy by trying to find out.)

    • Anna Hepworth on 31 October 2018 at 22:56
    • Reply

    I have heard you mention changes in the way Melbourne/Australian Jews interact with food rules regarding what does and doesn’t eat. While I specifically remember you talking about ham (and possibly other pork products) I don’t think you’ve mentioned anything else in any detail. I’m always interested in hearing you talk about food and people and their history.

    1. I’ve sen a few (not many) dishes that use various pig-related products in older Australian Jewish recipes. Lard was used in cooking, too. I don’t know how widespread this was. I’ve not had access to recipes from families outside Melbourne. There are three things this could be. The first is a change in the proportion of Jews who eat kosher from the late 1940s. The second is that some jewish culture support some foodways and others support others (which is very true in the US – Louisianan Jewish food is full of seafood). The third is that the people who talk loudest about Jewish foodways are the epople who keep kosher and that when people write Australian cookbooks they listen to those voices. I began research into this, which is how I have so very many recipes and quite a few cookbooks and how I discovered exactly what book the first Australian Jewish cookbook as plagiarised from. I gave a conference paper on one small element of it. Then life caught up with me and I simply didn’t have the time to do the research that sorting it would’ve entailed. I also lost track of who else was working on Australian Jewish foodways, so I don’t know what new research there is. Add to this that Australia as a whole likes to think that Australian jewish culture is a single thing and that the organisations who represent the formal Jewish community speak for everyone, Australian Jewishness is as diverse as the rest of Australia. There are foodways that are shared because of the pressure to all be the same, but each and every family also has their own versions of things. Years ago I celebrated this by collecting recipes for charoseth (a Passover dish – looks like mortar and, in more than one recipe, tastes divine): I stopped at about 30. I have honey cake recipes from two grandmothers and another from an aunt, and that was without even thinking of collecting honey cake recipes. There are shared recipes for festivals, but there are also amazing differences. Where an Ashkenazi family makes latkes for Chanakah, a Sephardi one is more likely to make a fried pastry or doughnut. Given the cultural spread of Sefarad (all the Jews who were expelled from Spain – given the expulsion was in 1492, they went across a large chunk of the world) I could make four different foods for each Chanukah for the rest of my life and still not cooked them all. For some years I did just that, but then I missed the latkes and then it was too hot to cook anything, so I bought doughnuts.

      I don’t know if this explains anything, but next time you’re in Canberra remind me to introduce you to my Jewish foodways books. Most of them survived the theft. Not quite all, but all the ones I’ve reached for to use since it have been there, so I suspect I’ve still got the critical ones.

    • April G on 1 November 2018 at 15:41
    • Reply

    I hold no religious or spiritual beliefs. I happen to be friends with 3 families in my local area who have pretty strong ties the Jewish community and specifically, to Squirrel Hill. How can I respectfully offer support and empathy to them when they are aware of my own views as an atheist? Out of respect for them, and vey honestly you as well, I have refrained from blasting my social media with posts about the event (you know well my tendency to do so in other situations). I have seen suggestions on blessings to offer, etc, but I feel like they would find it fake, nothing more than lip service, coming from me because they know my religious views, or lack thereof. Is it better at a time like this to back off, when they need the comfort of their faith and are getting it from others? I have all the compassion in the world for what this act of hate has done to others, but I have no doubts that I can’t truly comprehend what it means to my Jewish friends, either. I’m honestly afraid of giving offense when I intend to offer support.

    1. I was taught that Judaism doesn’t condemn other religions, beliefs, and is not (generally) concerned about atheism – these are not our views, on the whole, but they are yours and we respect them. You should not consider doing anything that hurts you by contradicting deep feelings and cultural values of your own, to support us. You should find out what works for you, without judging us and telling us we are lesser beings or trying to control the world or any of the amazingly bizarre stereotypes that flood lives like mine. Challenge the racism and remain true to yourself. This is the best approach from a Jewish point of view, and especially from my Jewish point of view. We don’t convert others, and you should not compromise yourself to support us.

      What we ask (the religious side of Judaism, what it wants from non-Jews in a perfect world) is that people be good human beings. Some of the people who have caused offense (to my mind) are those who have offered Christian blessings of the kind that Jews for Jesus guy used, because they pushed the concept that the murdered people are damned, through not being true believers. This means that it can be cruel (often intentionally, but still cruel) to use key blessings from some other religions in this situation. If you’re an atheist, though, you don’t need to use religious blessings at all. Emotional support and love come from the heart, and you can offer them without offense. We care about them a great deal.

      We don’t need comfort only from other Jews. We need to know that the world doesn’t support us being murdered. We need to know that it may be safe to be Jewish again one day, and the only way we can know that is if those who don’t hate us for existing speak out and let the rest of the world know how very wrong the hate is.

      I’m suggesting two things – emotional support to anyone Jewish, and speaking out to non-Jews and making it clear just how much you hate what was done and what is still being done. So many Jews hide or lose culture because it’s not safe to be publicly Jewish. Others, like me, live in fear. I stopped going to synagogue years ago because of the Molotov cocktails and the feeling of danger that came with religious place and because it turns out I do not handle fear at all well.

      The wonderful thing about belonging to the wider community is that you personally can reject all those who want us to die, to live in fear or to remain hidden. You can make it possible for minorities to live with the same confidence as majority culture/religion people. To do that, you need to speak out.

      We can’t be safe until those who hate understand very clearly that what they’re doing is wrong. They need to know that they should not be making us follow their views, forcing people into hiding, killing people… being antisemitic.

      I hope this helps!

      This is something all of us can do for other people. Change the public mood so that it’s safe for those of us who are in danger right now.

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