Out with kitniyot, in with a singular custom? and Colorado Jewish Community is ‘Shaken to Core’ After Mass Shooting in Boulder and Pfizer CEO: Why we picked Israel to be the first and In Eastern Europe, historic synagogues are sold for the price of a used car BY CNAAN LIPHSHIZ and What Does the Jewish Last Name Cohen Mean? and finally Happy April Fool's day
Yehuda Lave is an author, journalist, psychologist, rabbi, spiritual teacher, and coach, with degrees in business, psychology and Jewish Law. He works with people from all walks of life and helps them in their search for greater happiness, meaning, business advice on saving money, and spiritual engagement.
April Fools' Day or April Fool's Day is an annual custom on April 1 consisting of practical jokes and hoaxes. Jokesters often expose their actions by shouting "April Fools!" at the recipient. Mass media can be involved in these pranks, which may be revealed as such the following day. The day is not a public holiday in any country except Odesa in Ukraine, where the first of April is an official city holiday. The custom of setting aside a day for playing harmless pranks upon one's neighbor has been relatively common in the world historically.
The Three Musketeers at the Kotel
Out with kitniyot, in with a singular custom?
Passover: Is kitniyot on the wane, does it presage a unified Jewish custom?
Perhaps because of the pushback against the custom, its observance of it has actually waned significantly.
Passover is without doubt the most culinarily challenging of Jewish holidays due to its outright ban on any leavened products, hametz, which prohibits all bread together with a vast array of foods made with wheat flour, or indeed barley, spelt, rye and oats.
But alongside this prohibition is another restriction which although strictly speaking is more of a custom than a law, further restricts what food can be consumed over the holiday: kitniyot.
Kitniyot, broadly speaking, are legumes as well as corn and rice which the Medieval rabbis in Ashkenazi Jewish communities prohibited owing to their similarity – when ground – to wheat flour.
Modern food production means that many processed foods include varying amounts of kitniyot or their derivatives, such as oils from such products.
Since most Sephardi Jews never adopted the custom of refraining from kitniyot on Passover, and because a slight majority of Jews in Israel are Sephardi, it has become increasingly difficult to obtain products which are not made with kitniyot.
Numerous products have become difficult to find without kitniyot, which in recent years has led to a backlash against the custom, including rabbinic rulings and social media campaigns such as "Kitniyot Liberation Front."
Finally, in 2007, three rabbis from Machon Shilo, an institution dedicated to the study of Jewish law and custom as practiced in Israel, issued a ruling permitting Ashkenazi Jews to eat kitniyot.
Rabbis David Bar-Hayim, Yehoshua Buch, and Chaim Wasserman of the Machon Shilo organization argued that citizens of Israel are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi but have become "Jews of the Land of Israel," and therefore should abide by the customs and practices of the country and not by previous customs.
Despite this ruling, many Israeli Ashkenazi Jews continue to observe kitniyot restrictions, first and foremost the ultra-Orthodox community whose rabbinic leadership has steadfastly insisted that the custom of avoiding kitniyot must be observed.
And similarly many rabbis in the religious-Zionist community also insist that the custom remain in place.
But some prominent religious-Zionist rabbis have ruled that derivatives of kitniyot, especially oils, should not be included in the prohibition.
Rabbi Dov Lior, for example, one of the most authoritative arbiters of Jewish law in the religious-Zionist sector, ruled that only kitniyot which were customarily prohibited should be included in the ban, meaning that many food products labeled as kitniyot could be consumed over Passover.
Perhaps because of the pushback against the custom, observance of it has actually waned significantly.
According to research published by the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in 2019, only 53% of Ashkenazi Jews in Israel who observe kashrut abide the kitniyot ban.
The study found that even a majority of the conservative wing of the religious-Zionist sector, of which Lior is a leader, do not refrain from eating kitniyot on Passover. The only sector where it is still observed in the majority, some 71%, is among the ultra-Orthodox haredim.
Senior JPPI researcher Shmuel Rosner said at the time that, outside of the ultra-Orthodox community, the custom could die out within one or two more generations.
But Prof. Jeffrey Woolf, an expert in the history of Jewish law in the Talmud Department of Bar-Ilan University, underlines the significance of custom in Jewish life and in Jewish law, and points to historical efforts to abandon observance of the prohibition on Kitniyot as an example of the importance of preserving Jewish customs.
Woolf said that the Reform movement in Europe in the 19th century sought to "chip away" at various minor traditions to justify more substantive changes to Jewish practice in the future.
One of the customs the Reform movement deemed obsolete was the prohibition on kitniyot over Passover, which in fact created a strong backlash by the Orthodox European leadership who regarded the fight over the custom as a line in the sand which should not be crossed, explained Woolf.
"Tradition obligates because it is tradition. It is a very formative and formidable aspect of every religion and it ties you to family and to your co-religionists. And in Jewish law it has tremendous legal weight," said the professor.
"The power and charisma of custom in traditional society is heavy. It has an aura of sanctity to it."
Woolf acknowledged that the kitniyot custom creates difficulties especially for families of mixed Sephardi and Ashkenazi heritage, when eating at the homes of family members for example.
The professor says immigrants from Anglophone lands rarely experienced kitniyot problems in manufactured kosher for Passover foods until moving to Israel, and they also chafe against the custom.
The rise in people suffering from celiac disease as well as the rise in vegetarianism and veganism leaves those people without much to eat at all on Passover if they cannot consume kitniyot, and constitutes another demographic of "kitniyot malcontents."
Ultimately, inter-communal marriage in Israel between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews could erode the kitniyot custom as well as other traditions relevant to only one of the two ethnic groups, says Woolf.
"This could result in a spectrum of a mixing of traditions from both sides; and so a 'Minhag Yisrael' (accepted tradition) might develop over time, although I don't think it will be totally homogenized," Woolf said.
"Something new will grow but it will take time. All religious shifts take time, and there is no question it will have an impact."
Pfizer CEO: Why we picked Israel to be the first
By David Isaac, World Israel News Staff
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla revealed why his company chose Israel as the first country to be vaccinated with its coronavirus vaccine in an interview with Channel 12 on Thursday.
The reasons were a combination of three factors that made Israel stand out from the pack, including the relatively small population, Israel's health care infrastructure system and the data collection that system provided.
"We knew it would be good for humanity if we chose one country where we could demonstrate what the vaccine of the population could contribute to the health of its people, and also to the economy – because the economy could be reopened," Bourla said.
"Of course I talked to several heads of state, including Netanyahu, and he convinced me that Israel is a place with the right conditions for experimentation," he added.
Although Israel was only ranked 54th out of 195 countries in a 2019 Johns Hopkins study in terms of its readiness to handle a pandemic, it's semiprivate Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) with their digital databases was perhaps the key reason Pfizer chose Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted the important role those HMOs played, which he said "cover 98% of the population" in a Fox News interview last week, in vaccinating so many Israeli citizens so quickly.
The HMOs served as a ready made infrastructure Israel used to distribute the vaccines.
Bourla noted in the interview that "not many countries have such a system."
He was clearly pleased with his choice. "We gambled on Israel. We are very happy that the way you did it is beyond what we imagined," he told Channel 12.
It was reported in January that another reason Israel was chosen is that it agreed to hand over key data to Pfizer, including the results of the vaccinations, side effects, efficacy, and the amount of time it took to develop antibodies to fight the virus.
The data was to be sorted by patient data including age, gender, preexisting conditions and other data points, but would be provided anonymously to protect patient privacy.
Speaking of the rise of corona variants, Bourla told Channel 12 that the goal he has set for his team is to develop a vaccine for a variant marked as worrisome within 100 days.
The Wall Street Journal reports on Thursday that other vaccine companies that have developed corona vaccines, including Moderna, Novavax and Johnson & Johnson, are also developing what are called multivalant vaccines that would target multiple strains of the virus.
Colorado Jewish Community is 'Shaken to Core' After Mass Shooting in Boulder
The Jewish Community Center of Boulder and area synagogues will hold a vigil on Tuesday evening so local residents can connect and grieve following a mass shooting at a supermarket not far from the University of Colorado.
Ten people, including one police officer, were killed when a gunman attacked a King Soopers supermarket in the Colorado city 30 miles northeast of Denver. All the victims have been identified; the youngest was 20 and the oldest 65. Police arrested the gunman, identified as 21-year-old Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa from Arvada, Colo.
A Facebook post by Rabbi Fred Greene of Congregation Har Ha-Shem noted that his synagogue includes those who live in the neighborhood of the shooting.
"I know that we are feeling shock, fear, anger and so much more. I am sorry that as people were beginning to feel hopeful for [coronavirus] vaccines and a new beginning, another act of violence has shaken our community," wrote Greene. "We are thinking of you who go to that area to shop. We are praying for the healing of those who are experiencing fear and trauma."
Rabbi Marc Soloway of Congregation Bonai Shalom posted on Facebook: "Friends, I am sure we are all so shaken and frightened by how close today's horrible shooting was to us. A store that so many of us have been in multiple times. While we wait with terror and sadness to learn more about the victims, I hope and pray that you and your loved ones are safe."
Leaders of the Boulder JCC also expressed their sorrow and dismay regarding an incident of violence so close to home.
"Our hearts are with the Boulder community as the shooting at the King Soopers has unfolded before our eyes. We are shaken to our core, and we mourn the loss of life. Our thoughts are with the families of the victims, law enforcement and first responders who put their lives on the line for our beloved community," said a social-media post signed by Jonathan Lev and Lee Strongwater, JCC's executive director and board president.
"We are traumatized," it continued. "This is our home, this is our grocery store. We have been there for each other throughout an incredibly difficult year. While we still don't have many details on the shooting, we know there is more information to come in the hours and days ahead."
The name Cohen is common among both Sephardim and Ashkenazim, making it one of the most widespread Jewish names of all time. In fact, it is the most common family name in Israel today, followed by Levi, Mizrahi, Peretz, Bitton, and Dahan.
Its meaning is fairly straightforward, as the Hebrew word kohen means "priest," indicating that the bearers of this name are (usually) members of the priestly clan, descendants of Aaron the High Priest.
Depending on where one's ancestors lived, spellings can include Cohn, Kogan, Kagan, Kahan, Kahn, and Cohan.
Among Ashkenazi Jews, this name is often accompanied by patronymic suffixes, stretching into Kahana, Kahane, Kahanov (or Kaganoff), Kahanowitz, and Kahanaman, each of which can be splintered into several alternative spellings.
The native English-speaker can sometimes wonder how Cohen becomes Kagan, which are pronounced so differently, but the mystery is cleared up when one realizes that the names of many of our ancestors were recorded in Russian.
Russian has no /h/ sound, so the /g/ is used instead. Also, in Russian, the difference between the "o" and the "a" is often blurred. Thus, Kohen can easily become Kagan, which we English speakers further mangle by pronouncing Kay-gan instead of Kah-gan.
Among Persian Jews, Cohen sometimes appears as Cohen-Zada, as the suffix "zada" means "son of" or "part of," denoting that the bearers are part of the priestly Kohen clan.
Is Every Cohen a Kohen?
Is the fact that one bears the last name Cohen (or one of its variants) proof of priestly ancestry?
No! Due to the reasons outlined here, it is not uncommon for someone bearing any of the above names to have no tradition in their family that they are of priestly stock. Indeed, only those who have reliable reason to believe that they come from a direct male priestly line are to be considered Kohanim, last names notwithstanding.
In traditional Hebrew, used when one is called to the Torah and other instances (including headstones), a bona fide Kohen has the appellation "ha-Kohen" affixed to his name. Thus, Yosef Cohen, the son of Yaakov and Rachel, would be referred to as Yosef ben Yaakov Ha-Kohen.
On a visit to the city of Slonim in Belarus, Ilona Reeves fell in love with a 380-year-old dilapidated building that used to house one of the area's largest and oldest synagogues.
Reeves, a 40-year-old author who lives in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, is a Christian, like virtually everyone who lives in the country. And the synagogue hadn't been operational since before the Holocaust, when three quarters of Slonim residents were Jewish. Virtually all were murdered by the Nazis.
Still, Reeves looked at the structure, which had fallen into disrepair after years of use as shops, and saw something she wanted to save.
"Standing outside the Great Synagogue of Slonim, I felt how small I am, we all are, in the face of such architectural monuments and traditions they represent," she said.
With money that she'd freed up by selling her apartment in Minsk — partly to buy the synagogue — Reeves bought the synagogue in December for about $10,000 from the Slonim municipality on the promise that she restore it. She was the sole bidder.
The Slonim synagogue is just one of a number of similar structures to hit the market across Eastern Europe in recent years, and Reeves is among a small group of people who have committed to their upkeep.
"Buildings, including old buildings, that used to be synagogues appear on the market pretty regularly in Eastern Europe, and for relatively affordable prices," said Michael Mail, founder of the U.K.-based Foundation for Jewish Heritage, which helps restore historic Jewish structures across Europe.
"But there's often a catch, which is that restoration is complicated and costly," Mail added.
Reeves knows that firsthand. She is now working on raising $2 million for the restoration project, which she hopes will take a decade but some professionals have told her might go on for 25 years.
The city of Vitebsk, located about 130 miles farther northeast of Minsk, recently offered essentially for free the hollowed remains of the Great Lubavitch Synagogue — where the family of the painter Marc Chagall used to pray — to anyone willing to restore it.
In 2016, a coffee shop called Synagoga Café opened in the old synagogue of Trnava, Slovakia. A non-Jewish contractor, Simon Stefunko, bought the crumbling building some years earlier, renovated it according to the city's strict preservation requirements and reopened it as an upscale hangout.
Financially, creating Synagoga Café didn't make any sense, Stefunko said. The renovations cost millions of dollars that the coffee shop didn't begin to mitigate even before it was shuttered last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. But he did it anyway "so something would remain from the Jewish community here," Stefunko said. "I think it's beautiful."
The offloading of restoration costs represents the latest strategy for managing a glut of historical Jewish structures that have fallen into disrepair since most of Europe's Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
Before the genocide, Europe had an estimated 17,000 synagogues. Only about 3,300 of the structures remain standing today. Among those, only 776, or 23%, are being used as synagogues, according to the Foundation for Jewish Heritage.
Most of the surviving synagogues are located in Eastern Europe, where most of the structures that remained standing were nationalized following World War II by communist authorities who were anti-religious and often anti-Semitic.
Decimated by the Holocaust and the wave of emigration that followed the fall of communism, Jewish communities in places like Slonim and Vitebsk had virtually disappeared, leaving their former institutions in government hands.
In Belarus, which has a dictatorship with no laws for restitution of confiscated Jewish property, many of these structures were listed for protection by local authorities that lack the resources to restore them. Making structural changes to buildings that are listed for protection is difficult and often illegal, requiring special permission from the state or municipality. The protected status often brings down the market price of the buildings because developers have no way of turning a profit by purchasing them.
But many buildings that had housed historical synagogues in Eastern Europe are not listed, meaning once they are sold to private owners they can be altered and even demolished.
The former Great Synagogue in the small town of Ostrino, in western Belarus, is on sale in an auction where the minimum bid is about $40. The new owner will face some requirements to preserve it, but may use parts as a warehouse or residential unit.
And in 2019, a 19th-century building that once was a synagogue in the village of Porazava, near Slonim, was sold for $6,000 to be used as a warehouse.
Similar situations occur also in Western Europe. In 2018, a 200-year-old synagogue in the city of Deventer, in the eastern Netherlands, became a restaurant after its upkeep became unaffordable to the local community, which includes a handful Jews.
Local governments in Eastern Europe have given back many properties that communist regimes had confiscated from Christian and Jewish faith communities.
Christian communities have been able to reclaim, restore or trade up many of the structures returned to them, sometimes with funding from the Vatican and the Orthodox Church.
Similar movement has also happened with some properties given back to local Jews, though with far less deep pockets of support.
In 2002, the municipality of Babruisk in eastern Belarus handed back to the local Jewish community a former synagogue that had been used as an army warehouse and later a tailor shop. The building, the only one of the city's 42 synagogues still standing, was restored and inaugurated as a synagogue thanks to the fundraising efforts of an energetic local rabbi, Shaul Hababo.
In Moldova, Rabbi Shimshon Izakson is hoping to pull off a similar transformation at the former Rabbi Yehuda Ţirilson yeshiva and synagogue compound — a massive complex in downtown Chisinau that is so dilapidated that only the external walls remain.
But other times, Jewish communities that inherited historic former synagogues stolen from them when they were much larger were not able or willing to preserve them to the satisfaction of their own members.
Earlier this month, a massive chunk of the roof of the 18th-century Great Synagogue of Brody in western Ukraine collapsed. Another part of the building, which is government-owned and listed as a monument for preservation, imploded in 2006. Severely damaged in World War II by German troops who tried to blow it up, what remains of the synagogue is held up by structural scaffolding. No Jews live today in Brody, which used to have thousands of Jewish residents.
The Jewish community of Satu Mare in northern Romania consists of about 100 members. Following restitution negotiations in the 1990s, it owns an impressive 129 cemeteries and four synagogues, which are falling into disrepair because the community cannot afford to maintain them.
"In truth, this building is a drain on our resources, as are the hundreds of graves we need to preserve and fence," Paul Decsei, the community's pointman for managing the assets, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2017 from inside the city's main synagogue, the Decebal Street Synagogue, an imposing but crumbling 19th-century structure. "But on the other hand, we can't walk away from any of it. It's our heritage and we have a responsibility toward it."
That has also been the case with the Chevra Tehilim prayer house in Krakow, Poland. In 2016, the community-owned structure, which features culturally significant decorations on its walls, was leased by the Jewish Community of Krakow and reopened as a trendy nightclub called Hevre, despite protests by some community members who said it ruined the structure.
Reeves, who bought the building in Slonim before she had even seen its interior, cited its beauty as her reason to go ahead and make the purchase. She envisions a cultural or community space where Judaism would have a prominent place.
As a practicing churchgoer who grew up during communism, Reeves' decision was rooted in her religious sentiment.
"I've always had a dream to build a church. Even a small, wooden one," Reeves, a mother of one son, told JTA. "With the Slonim synagogue project, it feels like I'm halfway there. Or perhaps I've already met the goal."
Don't get pranked on this April fool's day. Or if you do, enjoy it!
See you tomorrow, bli neder on the final day of Chul Hamoed. Today is day four