After all the research I did on my two Rav Hisdaís Daughter novels, "Apprentice" and "Enchantress", I consider myself an expert on ancient Jewish magic. Which is why I was particularly intrigued by an opinion piece in todayís Los Angeles Times by Diana Wagman about the proliferation of people casting binding spells on Donald Trump and the abettors of his administration.
In ancient, and not so ancient, times people believed that illness, death in childbirth, and pretty much any misfortune were caused by three things: demons, curses and the Evil Eye. In order to prevent these afflictions, or to heal someone so afflicted, one hired a sorceress to prepare a protective amulet. Indeed, the vast majority, above 90%, of Jewish spells and incantations were for defensive purposes. Many of these called upon secret names of God and Jewish angels to bind and expel the demons responsible for the clientís suffering.
But there were a few spells to bind a specific person, to prevent them from performing some evil against the client. These were typically inscribed on a tablet that was buried, often in a cemetery. A short one from John Gagerís Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, which Iíve updated for modern purposes, would go as follows: ďI bind Donald Trump and climate change deniers, who are with Donald Trump, and their tongues and words and deeds; and if they are planning or doing anything, let it be in vain. Beloved Earth restrain Donald Trump and climate deniers and make them powerless and useless. Beloved Earth, help me; and since Iíve been wronged by Donald Trump and his climate deniers, I bind them.Ē The metal tablet, pierced by a nail, with the original spell dates from the third century BCE.
Jewish binding tables were to be buried at sunset just after the full moon, thus the spellís object's power would wane along with the moonís brightness. The ritual Ms. Wagman describes is to be performed once a month at midnight the night of a waning crescent moon, so those who wish to follow it should do so tonight, May 23. For detailed instructions, visit this link
Last post was how not to ask for a blurb; here is what I suggest you should do. So youíre a writer with a complete manuscript and hope a published author or small press will like it. First prepare a synopsis, following the format that any good book, or website, for writers will provide. With a small press, go on their website and see if they have submission guidelines. If so, follow them exactly. If not, email [do not call] them and ask for the guidelines.
With authors, email to ask if they read unsolicited manuscripts. You should be able to get an email address from their business card if youíre meeting them in person or from their website, which may have an alternate way of contacting them online. Include the short [1-page at most] synopsis of your novel and why you think the author would be interested in it.
Should an author express interest, find out if she prefers a print or e-version. If the former, mail it to her with a cover letter and the synopsis. If the latter, email her a pdf. Email once to ask if she received it and how long she expects it to take to get back to you. But understand that she will only read your manuscript if something hooks her in the beginning. Donít assume she will slog through an entire book that bored her in the first chapter. Understand also that it may be weeks or months before you hear from her, if at all. If she likes your story, youíll hear from her. If you donít, assume she didnít want to hurt your feelings or spend any more time on your work.
Remember youíre not paying her, sheís doing you a favor. Donít bug her for explanations or critiques. And donít expect her to return your manuscript. Sheís spent/wasted enough time on it. To learn more check out this article on Writers Digest
Every so often I am approached, usually at a book talk, by a woman who wants me to read the manuscript sheís written. My stock response is to give her my card, ask her to email me with some information about the book, and say Iíll get back to her. Unfortunately, most of these encounters end with me not wanting to read the work. Perhaps the synopsis isnít compelling or the story deals with topics I donít want to read about [i.e. adultery, intermarriage, sexual abuse]. These criteria also apply to inquiries from published authors who want me to blurb their next novel. I try to reply with a non-judgmental statement along the lines of their story idea just isnít my cup of tea.
Yes, Iím very picky about reading draft manuscripts by unknown writers. Nobody is paying me for my time, and a 400-page novel might take at a minimum an entire day to read. I know plenty of authors who refuse to read anything unless a publisher or literary agent sends it to them. But because best-selling author Naomi Ragen took a chance and read my first Rashiís Daughters novel before it was published, and then liked it enough to give me a wonderful blurb, I feel an obligation to play it forward by doing the same for others.
But recently I had the unpleasant experience with a woman who apparently doesnít use email because she kept calling about how to get her manuscript to me in person. Heaven forbid she should merely mail it to me, and she insisted that I lived too far away to drive it to my home. We finally agreed for her to drop it off at my synagogue for me to pick up the next time I was there. Then she called me every few days to see if Iíd gotten it yet, as well as harassing the staff there so much that they called me to hurry up and get her off their case.
You can imagine how eager I was to read this nearly 350-page tome [not!]. The one-page single-spaced synopsis described ten characters whose lives were interconnected, but I couldnít discern a plot. In fact, I couldnít tell if this was a novel or memoir. I had no idea when or where the story took place. I figured that if the synopsis was so poorly written, I wasnít about to read what followed.
Months later, the woman called me and demanded to know why I had taken so long to read her manuscript. I prevaricated by saying I was busy, and admitted I was unlikely to have more time in the near future. Furious, she lit into me for not getting back to her in a timely fashion. I tried to be nice, but finally I felt forced to admit that I didnít like what little Iíd read and I wasnít going to read any more. Then she insisted that I return the manuscript to her; remember, she thought I lived too far away for her to come and get it. I wasnít about to pay to mail it to her, not to mention the hassle to going to the post office. So I suggested that she should just print out another copy if she needed one. She continued to complain until I hung up.
This is exactly the reason many authors never read anything an unknown writer asks them to. Although Iíve also heard tales of authors receiving an unsolicited manuscript and then getting sued by the writer for plagiarism, who accused the authors of stealing their idea. Next post will be about how a newbie writer should approach an author about reading their work.
Read How to Ask a Famous Author for a Blurb for another look at this.
Passover may be behind us, but weíre still counting the Omer. I have blogged previously that according to the Talmud, women are exempt from any positive commandment that is time-bound. This means any to-do mitzvah that is assigned to a specific time, such as tzitzit, which are only worn during the day, or lulav, which is only taken on Sukkot. The Mishna gives no explanation for this exemption, but the usual excuse is because of their heavy household and childcare responsibilities.
However, women are obligated to perform some time-bound mitzvot, such as lighting Chanukah candles, hearing the reading of Megillat Esther, and various Passover rituals, because the Talmud says women were part of those miracles. And women are obligated to observe Shabbat and fast on Yom Kippur, obviously time-bound, because there are also negative commandments associated with those days. These days women have taken on two additional time-bound mitzvot, dwelling in the sukkah and hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, to the point where some rabbis consider women obligated perform them. After all, women attend services on Rosh Hashanah and if their home has a sukkah, they will eat there along with the rest of their family.
But women are still considered exempt from counting the Omer, for the Omer is only counted during a specific time of the year. Yet this mitzvah takes only a minute or two, and can be done at any time during the 24 hours, so it surely wonít interfere with a womanís household responsibilities. For those women who wish to take on these mitzvot, being exempt doesnít mean forbidden. We can thank Rashiís grandson Rabbeinu Tam (Rosh Hashanah 33a), who has written not only that women may in fact perform mitzvot that they are exempt from, but if they do so, they should say the blessing.
For those interested in the subject, I give you a link to a thorough explanation of which Seder rituals are incumbent on women and why. The discussion includes matzah, Pesach offering, four cups of wine, maror, telling the Exodus story, Hallel, and reclining. Click here to read it.
The Torah portion Acharei Mot [Leviticus 16-18], along with previous weekís portion Tazria, are two sections of Torah that bnai mitzvah students most fervently hope to avoid. Luckily Acharei Mot is often read together with portion Kiddushim [Lev 19-20, aka the Holiness Code] on the same Shabbat, giving the 13-year old an opportunity to read from the latter instead of the former. This decision is also a relief for the childís parents, since Acharei Mot details a long list of prohibited sexual behaviors, some of which a younger teenager might not be aware of yet [at least the parents hope not].
First come the laws of incest, which are specific in their detail. Children shall not uncover the nakedness of their parents, nor their siblings or cousins or aunts or uncles or grandparents. Parents shall not uncover the nakedness of their children, nor their childrenís children. Nakedness of in-laws and relatives shall not be uncovered. Also a man may not come near a woman during her period of uncleanness to uncover her nakedness. Nor may he have carnal relations with a neighborís wife and defile himself with her. Next comes the infamous prohibition of male homosexuality: ďDo not lie with a man the 'layings' of a woman,Ē followed by, ďDo not have carnal relations with any beast.Ē
When speaking about "Fifty Shades of Talmud", I always mention this piece of Torah as one of the reasons the Talmudic rabbis had so much say about sexual relations. Modern readers certainly donít know what exactly it means to ďuncover the nakednessĒ of someone, and the Sages werenít sure either. Clearly it is some kind of sexual activity, but since there are bad consequences for doing it, the Talmud needs to define this activity in detail. This is particularly important for adultery, which is a capital offense. After all if youíre going to execute people for engaging in adultery, you better all agree on what precisely the two witnesses need to have seen the couple doing. And the Talmudic rabbis do precisely that, in explicit detail, apparently using their own sexual practices for reference.
In contrast the Rabbis do not define exactly what it means for a man to lay with a man the ďlayingsĒ [note plural] of a woman, which is the literal translation of Leviticus 18:22. Indeed they discuss instead that there are two different ways for a man to lay with a woman, vaginal and anal, and this Torah verse teaches us that if he does either one with a forbidden woman, he has sinned. In plain words, if a man has anal sex with a another manís wife, he has still committed adultery.
I am now settled in at my cousinís house in Potomac MD. Today is a rest day, and after speaking at three different synagogues yesterday I need a day off. Tomorrow/Tuesday I will be at my cousin's shul, Rodef Shalom, followed by another break until I take the train up to Baltimore for my scholar-in-residence weekend at Congregation Beth El.
I noticed an interesting coincidence between my Shabbaton in DC last weekend and my upcoming scholar weekend. As always when I speak on Shabbat, I checked the Torah portions so I could refer to them in my talk. Usually it takes me several days, in consultation with Rashi, to find a link, but this time I saw the connections immediately.
Last weekís portion was Tazria, where in Leviticus 12:1-10 God instructs Moses about the purification rituals for mothers following childbirth. Here we learn that a woman who bears a boy is impure for 7 days, and if she has a girl, she is impure 14 days. To my immense gratification I actually address this inequity in my new book, Fifty Shades of Talmud: What the First Rabbis Have to Say about You-Know-What. Some feminists object to the longer impurity for girls as demeaning since it implies that males are more "pure" than females. But the Talmudic rabbis explain the disparity because boys must be circumcised on the eighth day, and if the mother were still impure at this time, she wouldn't be able to join in the celebration. So this is a good thing for women.
Even better for feminists, the very name Tazria, literally "she bears seed," shows us how progressive and egalitarian the Talmudic sages were. Back in those days, over 1500 years ago, nearly every other culture believed that a manís semen contained a homunculus, a tiny yet fully formed human being from which a baby developed. The mother contributed nothing except nourishment; in other words, she was the dirt in which the fatherís seed was planted. But Rabbis teach, correctly, that both the man and woman provide seed.
In Niddah 31 we learn that here are three partners in a child: God, the father and the mother. The fatherís seed forms the babyís white parts such as the bones, sinews, and brain; the motherís seed forms the red parts such as the flesh, hair, and blood; and God provides the soul, the ability to see and to hear, and the child's intellect. When a person dies, God takes back Godís share and leaves those of the father and mother.
I often share this beautiful piece of Talmud when I speak about my new book, and it was wonderful to get the opportunity to do so in synagogue when we read from Tazria. My next post will address this weekís Torah Portion, Acharei Mot.
Whoa. I just realized that I havenít posted anything about FIFTY SHADES OF TALMUD: WHAT THE FIRST RABBIS HAD TO SAY ABOUT YOU-KNOW-WHAT actually winning the Gold Benjamin Franklin Award in the Religion category. And I didnít even realize that my book had been a finalist in that category.
The awards were announced at a gala banquet in Portland on Friday, April 7. I hadnít gone for two reasons: 1] that was the weekend right before Passover started and I needed to be home to prepare for the Monday-night first Seder, 2] I never expected to win anyway. So I was at Shabbat services at synagogue that Friday evening when, to my horror and embarrassment, my cell phone rang. The few people who call me on my cell know better than to call me then, so I hadnít remembered to silence the ring, which is a loud, lively klezmer tune my husband recorded for me. I find the unique ringtone quite useful to distinguish other cell phones from mine when one goes off in a crowd.
I pushed the quiet button so quickly that nobody, except my husband, realized whose phone had rung. The rabbi made a cute comment about the Jewish music and services continued. A good friend had just undergone emergency bypass surgery the day before, so I checked to see who had called Ė just in case. At first I was confused to see my book shepherd Sharonís number. Then it dawned on me that she was at the Ben Franklin awards and that the only reason she would call me would be because Iíd won.
I went outside to call her back and it was true, Fifty Shades of Talmud was a Gold Winner. I was astounded, and immediately sorry I hadnít attended. But Sharon gave a cute speech to accept the award for me. Iím not sure how Iím going to use this to help publicize my book, but as soon as possible Iíve got my web mistress to find a place for it on my website. The beautiful crystal trophy arrived in the mail a few days ago, so at least now I can post a photo on Facebook, Google+ and my blog. Plus I have 1000 fancy gold award stickers to put on my book covers.
For more info see the IBPA Ben Franklin awards website
This last week Iíve been finalizing the details of my pre-Motherís Day book tour to the Washington DC area. Friday morning I catch a 6 am flight to Baltimore, and that evening I start with a Shabbaton for Bet Mishpacha. Then comes a hectic Sunday with 3 events in VA, DC, and MD Ė although I admit theyíre closer together than one would think for being in 3 different states [yes, I know DC isnít a state]. For those of you who live in those 3 areas, or have friends who do, here is my schedule below. Please come hear me speak about "Talmud After Dark."
April 28-29. Shabbaton at Bet Mishpacha. DC Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St NW [at Q St], Washington, DC 20036
April 30 - 9:45 am. Olam Tikvah, 3800 Glenbrook Rd, Fairfax, VA 22031
April 30 - 3 pm. Temple Sinai, 3100 Military Rd NW, Washington, DC 20015
April 30 - 7 pm. Temple Shalom. 8401 Grubb Rd, Chevy Chase, MD 20815
May 2 - 7 pm. Temple Rodef Shalom, 2100 Westmoreland St, Falls Church, VA 22043
May 5-7 - Scholar-in-residence weekend. Beth El Congregation of Baltimore. 8101 Park Heights Ave, Pikesville, MD 21208
May 7 - 6 pm. N Virginia Hebrew Cong Sisterhood, 1441 Wiehle Ave, Reston, VA 20190
May 8 - 6 pm. Greater Baltimore Hadassah region dinner. Location tba near Baltimore MD
May 9 - 7:45 pm. Beth Shalom Cong, 8070 Harriet Tubman Ln, Columbia, MD 21044
For links to the venues, see my website schedule
After posting about placing an orange on the Seder plate, I learned that there are plenty more non-traditional items that one might want to use in addition to the orange. An article in the Jerusalem Post in 2011 mentions olives and an artichoke.
In 2008, Jewish Voice for Peace promoted putting an olive on the seder plate as part of its Trees of Reconciliation project, which sought to donate 3,000 olive saplings to Palestinian farmers to replant trees torn down to make room for Jewish settlements in the West Bank. After that, olives started showing up on Seder plates as a call for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The Shalom Center recommended that celebrants include olives "Because for millennia the olive branch has been the symbol of peace, and we seek to make peace where there has been war." Why an artichoke? Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael suggested this prickly vegetable with the soft heart for the interfaith-friendly Seder plate. "Like the artichoke, which has thistles protecting its heart, the Jewish people have been thorny about this question of interfaith marriage."
By 2012, chocolate began showing up on some Seder plates [or actually was the Seder plate] as part of a campaign by Fair Trade Judaica to protest child slave labor in African cocoa fields. Recently the tomato made an appearance to symbolize solidarity with ill-treated and underpaid farm workers.
And this year concerns about refugees have led to not one, but two new fruits on the Seder plate: pineapple and banana. "In American colonial times, the pineapple was a symbol of welcome and prosperity," Rabbi Deborah Waxman, the president of Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, says in a YouTube video. "They were special gifts because of the great labor and expense required to ship them from the tropics. As we think about those in the midst of crossing through danger and into unknown lands, we aim to bestow upon them the gifts of hospitality and a sweet welcome." Other Passover observers have started adding bananas, in memory of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015 and whose father said bananas were his sonsí favorite treat.
Ironically, many ultra-Orthodox Jews will not eat bananas, tomatoes or pineapples during Passover because their rabbis have not approved these new world foods as kosher lípesach. Somehow this had not led to a ban on chocolate for Passover, only on milk chocolate, since meat is traditionally part of the Pesach meal. Which is why Jewish dark chocolate aficionados like me look forward to this holiday all year. For more info see these articles from the Jerusalem Post and JTA.
My previous post focused on the afikoman, a Passover item first mentioned in the Mishna. Eating the afikoman to end the Seder meal was an innovation necessitated by the Holy Templeís destruction, but the custom only became popular in the Middle Ages. Today, when there are thousands of different Haggadot, one of the newest innovations, popular among liberal Jews only in the last twenty years, is to add an orange on the Seder plate.
Itís one thing to differ on when to eat the afikoman, a practice whose origins are lost in antiquity. You would think that everyone would agree on the source of such a recent custom as the Seder plate orange. But many Jews, myself included, first placed one there because we heard the apocryphal story of Susanna Heschel [daughter of rabbi/scholar/author/theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel], who was speaking at a synagogue in Florida. After, or during, her lectureódepending on the storyóa man stood up and angrily declared that a woman belongs on a bima like an orange belongs on a Seder plate. To support women rabbis and their place on the pulpit, Jewish feminists put oranges on their Passover tables.
Later I heard that Susanna Heschel herself had disavowed this tale, and that the man, not necessarily from Florida, had shouted that a woman belongs on the bima like bread on a Seder plate. This statement is even more offensive to women rabbis since Jewish Law forbids the very ownership of bread during Passover. Not wanting to violate halacha, Jewish feminists used an orange instead of bread. But as I learned recently, the second story is closer to the truth.
The truth, from an article by Susanna Heschel herself in the 2003 "The Womenís Passover Companion," has a story from a 1980ís feminist Hagaddah about an outraged Rebbe shouting, "There's as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the Seder plate." Heschel was inspired, but she couldnít follow it literally because "its symbolism suggested that being a lesbian was being transgressive, violating Judaism, which isnít true." She wanted to "call attention to the links between the homophobia that has made the lives of gays and lesbians so difficult and the gender discrimination experienced by Jewish woman." So she put a tangerine on her Seder plate.
Thus, while she originally placed an orange on her familyís Passover table for a combination of reasons that were indeed related to womenís marginality in Judaism, her fundamental message was to express solidarity with gay and lesbian Jews. She was appalled when she eventually heard the dubious tale where her idea and words were attributed to a man and her goal of affirming lesbians and gay men was erased.
The first Seder is Monday evening, and Jews all over the world will finish their meal by eating a small piece of matzah called the ďafikoman.Ē But what is the afikoman actually and when should one eat it? As with all Jewish holiday traditions, there is no one right way to do them. Today, the afikoman is seen as a substitute for the Pesach lamb sacrifice, which was the last thing eaten at the Passover Seder during the eras of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.
The Mishna in Pesahim 119b, which assumes the Holy Temple is still standing, states, ďWe do/may not conclude after Pesach with afikoman.Ē Clearly Pesach here means the pascal lamb sacrificed and eaten by families in Jerusalem on the first night of Passover. But the Talmudic sages disagree about the afikoman, as is seen in various translations of the Mishna. Rav says it means uprooting oneself and moving from house to house, which is why afikoman is sometimes translated as ďrevelry.Ē Shmuel, and several other rabbis, say it means dessert, which in Rashiís time were matzah sponge cakes, matzah wafer/crepes, and matzah fried in oil and honey. Rav Yosef explains, however, that Shmuel means that we may conclude the Seder with dessert.
After much discussion, the Sages agree that afikoman means dessert, and move on to the real problem: what to do in post-Temple times when there is no Pesach lamb sacrifice. Rava concludes that the remaining Biblical obligation for the first night of Passover is to eat matzah. Therefore one should not eat the afikoman-dessert after eating matzah, so that the taste of the matzah eaten during the meal remains in our mouths. Clearly this was a problem once it became the tradition to eat matzah, and say the blessing for bread, before the meal. So the custom arose of designating a special piece of matzah as the afikoman and not eating it until later, after dessert.
But at many Seders today, some people leave after dessert without staying to drink the full Four Cups. Thus we established a new tradition at our house. During the meal, the children search for the afikoman that my husband has hidden, and after they find it we continue with the Seder without eating dessert. By the time we finish all the songs and say the closing prayers, everyone has room for goodies, which are then served. A plate with afikoman pieces sits inside our front door so guests can take one just before they leave, thus ensuring that when all is said and done the taste of matzah does indeed remain in their mouths.
Lately False News and Alternative Facts have been a very hot topic of discussion, demonstrating that people will believe all sorts of things they read on the Internet. On this subject, Iíve noticed several FaceBook posts in the last few days that say, "It's National Book Week. The rules: Grab the closest book to you, turn to page 56, post the 5th sentence as your status. Don't mention the title. Copy the rules as part of your status."
Iíve seen this fun exercise in the past [I always quote from one of my own books], but this time I wondered if it really was National Book Week. Lo and behold, according to two Internet sources , January is National Book Month and the third full week in January is National Book Week. Suddenly it was not so fun to realize that this was a perfect example of how Fake News proliferates and spreads via social media. OK, so getting the date wrong for National Book Week is not a big deal and is unlikely to lead to horrific unintended consequences, but I still found it a little scary to see how many of my literate friends didnít bother to verify it.
So which is False News? When is the REAL National Book Week? Actually this is a trick question, since different countries have ďnationalĒ book weeks at different times. But the last week in March does not seem to be anybodyís national book week, except maybe FBís.