Jews Enter a Palace in Time


Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907—1972) gave us the metaphor of  the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat) as a “palace in time.” Shabbat offers the  opportunity to withdraw from our daily blur of achievement and acquisition. In a Jewish home, Shabbat dinner becomes the culinary and social vestibule of Heschel’s palace in time.

Not all Jews have Shabbat dinner and for those who do, each weekly celebration reflects the values and priorities of those around the table.  Every Shabbat dinner, however, has these three hallmark blessings: over candles, over wine, and over two braided loaves of bread (challah.)

When I light the Shabbat candles, it is a powerful connection to Jewish women across time and space who have done and continue to do the same, bringing spiritual and loving light into our homes each week.  The blessing over the wine declares the sanctity of the Sabbath, acknowledges the Divine’s ceasing from Creation on the seventh day, and offers gratitude for this weekly opportunity to withdraw into this palace of time. Motzi — the blessing over the challot (plural of challah) — praises God who brings forth bread from the earth. There is much rabbinic discussion about this reference since it is grain, not bread, that is harvested from the earth. In addition to being a blessing of gratitude, the Motzi refers to the messianic age when bread will be plentiful to all and none will go hungry.

When our children were little, we shared Shabbat dinner with other families. These round robin potluck gatherings became part of the rhythm of our days. Each week there was conversation and ritual, great food, laughter, occasional sleepovers for the kids. Week after week we built a community that is now extending into the third generation as our children (geography permitting) share an occasional Shabbat dinner and their children have begun to form friendships.

For now, it’s just my husband and me for Shabbat dinner. Sometimes we share blessings with our kids and grandkids via Zoom; eventually we will be able to gather with our friends once again. Until then, this weekly tradition sustains us as it has sustained Jews for centuries. Amen.

artwork, 1997, courtesy of Emma Darvick

Wisdom from Rebbe Nachman

All the world’s a narrow bridge and the most important thing is not to be afraid.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov


I don’t remember this quote often enough, but I should. All of life is a narrow bridge. We constantly navigate from here to there, bridging relationships, professional reckonings, creative endeavors. Even when the crossing is planned and happily anticipated, uncertaintly (fear diluted) can nip at our heels the entire way across.

Rebbe Nachman reminds us that fear is as ubiquitous as the bridge itself.  We have a choice about the fear. If we are to get anywhere in life, we have to cross the bridge.

This teaching comes to life in many musical renditions.  This one  is quite active and energizing.  This one is more soothing likeHere’s one that is .  

photo by Supermaci1961 licensed by Creative Commons.


What I Wish I’d Said Then

Strange, the things that arise from the subconscious as we awaken. Recently, a memory surfaced of a high school classmate who, “had  a joke for me.” I was instantly on alert.

“Why do Jews have big noses?” he had asked, all jazzed to get to his punchline. I stayed mute, trapped, knowing what was coming wouldn’t be funny.

“Because air is free!” he crowed. Bada bing bada boom. If I coulda punched him, I woulda. Instead I stayed mute and left for my next class.

Some fifty years later, an answer to this pernicious slur came to me: “To make good use of all that free air that surrounds us all.”  Air is the very breath of life. Air is the Divine gift; it’s absence is the great leveler. Breathless we are all the same.  

Ever since the God of the Jews pronounced, “I put before you life and death, therefore choose life” we have internalized this command, using this free air to give thanks for life by living, by prevailing, against all odds.  We have breathed that free air into every creative discipline; every sphere of science and business, every aspect of philanthropy, politics, and yes, regretably and thankfully less pervasive, crime. 

Air is free. Some Jews have remarkable noses. What we do with our breath is what distinguishes not only the Jew, but each and every one of us fortunate enough to be given breath.


Photo credit: “Barbra Streisand” by oneredsf1 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


















Fellow Jew, Ben Sales, Nails It

This story, written by Ben Sales, originally ran in the Washington Post, October 13. 2020 under the headline ‘Jew” Isn’t a Slur.You Don’t Have to Avoid Saying it.

‘As Jews around the world prepared for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, President Trump wished his “Jewish brothers and sisters” a happy holiday. 

In 2019, he extended a version of the same greeting to “those observing Rosh Hashanah.” In 2018, it was “Jewish people.” In 2017, it was “Jewish families.”

With one exception, a word was missing from the texts of all four annual greetings: “Jews.”

The syntax speaks to a strange phenomenon: People often seem to be afraid of using the word “Jew,” a word that, simply, describes the people they’re talking about.

Discomfort with the word “Jew” exists across the political spectrum. In 2015, a Democratic official chastised Sen. Rand Paul, the Republican from Kentucky, for a campaign sign he advertised reading “Jew for Rand.” Recent articles about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on CNN, USA Today and elsewhere described her as “the first Jewish person” to lie in state. (Notably, Jewish newspapers felt fine calling Ginsburg the “first Jew” to be given the honor.)

Why such aversion? “Jew” is not a slur. It is a descriptor most Jews will use without a moment’s thought. It’s just who we are. Derived from the Hebrew word “Yehuda,” the name of the foremost of the 12 tribes of Ancient Israel, it’s a cognate of the Hebrew word “yehudi,” which means Jew or Jewish.

Of course, for as long as anti-Semitism has existed, people have used the word “Jew” as a pejorative. The most famous example is Nazi Germany, which made Jews wear yellow stars bearing the word “Jude,” German for “Jew.” William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and other writers have called characters “Jews” — without meaning it as a compliment. As a verb, rather than a noun, it’s more obviously fraught: The phrase “to Jew down” unfortunately persists in some corners as a bigoted synonym for aggressively bargaining or cheating, based on the anti-Semitic stereotype that Jews are cheap.

Plenty of people, particularly non-Jews, avoid the word “Jew” for that reason, says Sarah Bunin Benor, who researches American Jewish language. “Many people assume that it’s a slur because they know that Jews are historically a stigmatized group, so they’re concerned about using it because they don’t want to sound offensive,” she said.

Jews were also once reticent to use the word “Jew” in describing themselves. Early generations of American Jews, sensitive to how non-Jews could think the word was a slur, opted instead for “Hebrew” or “Israelite” when they named their organizations. Those words harked back to a biblical heritage Christians could appreciate, says Eric Goldstein, a historian of American Jews.

That’s why the country’s first association of Reform synagogues was initially called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and why Reform Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise founded the American Israelite, the oldest English-language Jewish weekly newspaper in America (which is still running). The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, established in 1881, helped waves of Eastern European Jews settle in the United States. The American government used the word “Hebrew” as a way to identify Jewish soldiers as late as the 1940s.

The dynamic shifted after the Holocaust, when, Goldstein says, Jews worried “Hebrew” sounded too much like a racial category (and “Israelite” felt antiquated). Many postwar Jews were eager to assimilate into White America, and the 1955 book “Protestant, Catholic, Jew,” by Jewish author Will Herberg, argued that Jews should be seen as another religious group with equal claim to America, rather than as a different race or ethnicity.

Still, the word “Jew” does feel different from, and somehow more powerful than, “Jewish.” “Jewish” is an adjective, one of many that could describe someone who may also be American, tall, athletic or anything else. “Jew” is not that. It’s an identity, something that speaks to the core of a person.

At the Jewish day school I attended growing up, my teachers used to ask my classmates and me whether we were “Jewish Americans” or “American Jews.” If someone said they were an “American Jew,” it implied their Judaism was most important. “American,” in this case, was the modifier, while “Jew” was who they really were.

Of course, like other words that describe a minority, “Jew” can still be used offensively today if it’s intended to denigrate someone or to advance anti-Jewish stereotypes. A good tell, said Benor, is if the word “Jew,” a noun, is used as an adjective or a verb. Anti-Semites, for example, may refer to a “Jew banker” or use the expression “Jew down.”

But “Jewish” can be used in anti-Semitic ways pretty easily, as well. Thomas Lopez-Pierre, an unsuccessful candidate for New York City Council, told me in 2017 that a cabal of “greedy Jewish landlords” was working with Israel to ethnically cleanse Harlem of people of color and that their misdeeds were being covered up by the Jewish media. In case it wasn’t clear, that’s a whole smorgasbord of classic anti-Semitic stereotypes.

If we avoid saying “Jew” because anti-Semites might use it, we’re giving them veto power over a word that has defined us, in one language after another, for millennia. In fact, experts say, anti-Semites need not use the words “Jew” or “Jewish” at all to attack Jews. People who study hatred of Jews are now keeping an eye on QAnon, the growing pro-Trump conspiracy theory accusing powerful globalist elites of kidnapping children, abusing them and harvesting their blood.

Few QAnon posts include the word “Jew,” but the theory is based on age-old anti-Semitic tropes that rich Jews control the world and kill non-Jewish kids for their blood, a canard known as the “blood libel.” Putting all of those ideas together means that “even without mentioning Jews, you can definitely get that kind of implicit anti-Semitic message,” Magda Teter, who wrote a book about the blood libel, told me.

Anti-Semitism doesn’t hinge on using the word “Jew.” And the word “Jew” has neither a positive nor a negative connotation. As long as you’re not saying anything hateful, feel free to call me a Jew.

If you don’t believe me, take it from Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In a 1996 essay, she wrote, “I am a judge born, raised, and proud of being a Jew.”


Jew or Jewish? Which, if either makes you squirm? Why?