Encounters that Can Make Us Become Better Jews

YITRO, EXODUS 18:1–20:23

Jews are good at nostalgia. We remember with fondness the tenements of the Lower East Side when our community was tight knit and intact. We remember the quaintness of shtetl life untouched by outsiders. We yearn for the sovereignty of Ancient Israel where we controlled our own fate, unmolested by other nations.

But as Rabbi Rachel Adler reminds us, “there never was a time when ancient Israelite religion or the Judaism that succeeded it were not being influenced by the cultures and religions they encountered.”1

To be Jewish is to mix with others. In our early days, we called ourselves Hebrews, iv’rim — boundary crossers. For most of the last two thousand years, we have wandered throughout the world, adopting elements of our host cultures as our own. Today, we engage the question of a more complete assimilation with non-Jews around us. At every stage, we have been defined by how we engage with others. And it makes us nervous.

We may yearn for a time when we were free of outside influences. But “a nostalgia for such a time is a nostalgia for what never was.”2

Enough with the nostalgia for a simpler era.

We should stop seeing these encounters with “the Other” as problems and start seeing them as opportunities. What if the story we told ourselves about the Other was one in which our encounters made us stronger?

We have substantial precedent for that narrative with Moses in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Yitro. Moses struggles to the lead the Jewish people. He finds himself exhausted listening to a litany of cases as the only judge for the entire Israelite community. He cannot dig himself and his people out of this rut, and he doesn’t even know how to start trying. It is an encounter with his non-Jewish father-in-law, Yitro that enables his breakthrough. He embraces the recommendation of this Midianite priest in how to structure the Israelite community.

Yitro tells Moses, “Make it easier for yourself by letting them [additional leaders] share the burden with you. If you do this — and God so commands you,” you and the people won’t be so tired. “Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he said” (Exodus 18:22-24).

A non-Jewish pagan priest saved our community from implosion and gave us a blueprint for how to function.

In that moment, Moses could have rejected his father-in-law’s advice. After all, what does an outsider know about our community that gives him the credibility to weigh in?

Moses teaches us that our encounter with “the Other” can be an asset for our evolution, not an obstacle to our survival. That interfaith encounter made Moses a better Israelite leader. Sometimes, we need insight from the outside to demonstrate what else is possible for us.

I had my own transformative “Yitro” encounter a few years ago. In December 2015, I attended Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, six months after a white supremacist opened fire and killed nine members of their community. I was shocked to witness a church united in forgiveness. They drew strength from the fact that Jesus forgave his tormentors. They applied his model in their own lives to forgive a murderer. They refused to allow hatred into their hearts.

I envied that spiritual disposition to forgiveness. It made me recognize the utter pettiness of grudges I held in my own life.

That Christian community facilitated a spiritual breakthrough I was not going to reach on my own. It made me take more seriously the language of forgiveness that already exists within Judaism. I dug into Jewish texts. I studied. I did my best to implement changes in my life. That encounter with Christians made me a better Jew.

In my interfaith work, I have witnessed so many Yitro encounters. I have witnessed Jews yearning for the deeply personal relationship with God that Muslims speak of so naturally. I have witnessed Muslims hungry for the culture of argument lived out in the Jewish sacred texts. The phenomenon is a kind of “holy envy.” It is the idea that our own lives and tradition can be enriched by learning from the faith, spirituality, and action of “the Other.”

We have grown accustomed to telling ourselves a bad story about our history with the Other. The Other has tried to defeat us, expel us, extort us, and kill us. There is truth to that narrative historically, but it’s only half of the truth. And I think that we would benefit from drawing out the untold good that has come — and can come — from encounters with the Other.

Moses’ relationship with Yitro reminds us that transformation by the Other is not peripheral to our tradition. It is the very core foundation upon which our community was built. For too long, we have told ourselves that the Other should be a source of fear. That fear blinded us from the possibility that we actually need the Other to become better Jews.

1 Rachel Adler, “‘To Live Outside the Law, You Must Be Honest’ — Boundaries, Borderlands and the Ethics of Cultural Negotiation” The Reconstructionist, Spring 2004

2 Ibid.

Rabbi Sarah Bassin is the associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, in Beverly Hills, CA, and former executive director and board member of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.


Seeing the Other as Revelation


Two hands reach for each otherThe Rabbis knew what they were doing when they divided the Five Books of Moses into portions. It was no accident that they joined the giving of Torah with the story of Yitro. They could have started the parashah with chapter 19 calling it Bachodesh, which is the first word of that chapter. Instead, their choice to begin with chapter 18 means that when we speak of Sinai, we often do so quoting from Parashat Yitro. Our source of Revelation is forever linked to the name of a Midianite priest. As Rabbi Bassin teaches, our interconnected relationship with the Other is core to our essential way of being in the world.

How could it be otherwise?

It would be shortsighted to say we have nothing to learn from outside our community. Moses realized this. He likely didn’t even question it. In his environment, he was immersed in many worlds even as he championed the rights of one.

What did he learn? Yitro taught him how to manage his business of justice better. Yitro was masterful in making sure Moses could “hear” his advice. He offered greeting (Exodus 18:6-7), gratitude (Exodus 18:10), and graciousness (Exodus 18:12) before offering a clear critique, “The thing you are doing is not right” (Exodus 18:17).

While Moses learned from Yitro about management, Yitro “rejoiced over all the kindness that the Eternal had shown Israel when delivering them from the Egyptians” (Exodus 18: 9). Moses shared his own story of God’s goodness, opening Yitro’s heart to the teachings of the Eternal. In this way, the learning went both ways.

Could we say their encounter was even revelatory? Jewish French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas explains: “[T]he Other faces me and puts me in question and obliges me.”1 “[T]he face is what forbids us to kill.” 2 Yitro and Moses model in the human dimension what will be revealed in the divine dimension two chapters later. The Rabbis reinforce this reading by naming it Parashat Yitro.

1. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), p. 207

2. Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo, (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press,, 1995, p. 86

Rabbi Adam Stock Spilker is the rabbi at Mount Zion Temple in St. Paul, MN.


English Wedding Cake for Tu B’Shevat

By Jessica Halfin January 2018

One thing that Julia Child and I have in common is that we both dealt with culinary figures of authority who didn’t believe in us. Child’s was Madame Brassart, owner of Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Mine was Miriam, my baking teacher at Dan Gourmet in Haifa in 2010, where I studied intensive baking. I followed Miriam’s every movement, learning from her a solid knowledge of baking—especially bread baking—that I call upon every day of my life. But when it came down to it, she just didn’t think I had it.

When she gave me a mark of 70 for my classroom studies, I was floored—gutted you could even say. I went to her office to contest the grade to no avail. If I was certain of anything in the world, it was that I could bake. I knew the techniques and executed them well, but sometimes it’s not just about ability. I was the quiet, studious American in a classroom filled with raucous and warmly charming Israelis, and my shell of formality irked her.

Despite the setback, thumbing through my old Hebrew recipes from Miriam’s class, I still experience waves of nostalgia. And though I have expanded my knowledge over the years in a never-ending quest of self-improvement, I still refer to my former instructor’s recipes when I’m looking for Israeli inspiration with a twist.

The following is a version of one such recipe—a classic English wedding cake of all things—that manifests itself as a light fruit cake. Each year in the runup to Tu B’Shevat, it crosses my mind to make the cake when I see stores start to fill up with displays of dried fruits. Made in the style of a classic pound cake—which originally required a whole pound of eggs, butter and sugar for two cakes!—it is filled with sugary dried fruits as well as home-made candied orange peels. (Take the extra time to make the candied orange peels yourself, don’t use store bought.)

The cake, which also contains pieces of finely chopped yellow raisins, dried cranberries and dried apricot, makes a pleasant snacking cake that will perk up any afternoon tea or coffee break during the dark winter months. Chag sameach!

Candied Citrus Peels
This recipe makes more candied peels than you will need for the cake. Store the remainder in an airtight container once fully dry, or dip the ends in melted chocolate to create classic orangettes.

The peel and pith of 4 large oranges cut into half-inch-thick strips
4 cups sugar, divided
3 cups water
1 cup sugar, for rolling

Bring a large pot of water to boil, add orange peels and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain and set aside.
Bring 3 cups sugar and water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook the sugar has just dissolved. Add the orange peels let cook for 40-45 minutes, or until tender.
Place peels in a strainer and rinse off, draining the excess syrup and then cool by washing with cold water.
Dry peels completely, then roll in the remaining 1 cup sugar to coat.
Lay candied peels flat on a cooling rack placed over a parchment paper-covered tray and let air dry until set (a few hours to overnight).
Fruited Citrus Pound Cake
Makes 2, 12-inch loaf cakes

The method in which this cake is formed is very important to a successful outcome. That is because most of the leavening work is done by whipping air into the butter-and-sugar mixture, which is then supported by the slow emulsification of the eggs entering the batter one by one. That said, this sacred process only requires you to have a bit of patience—not a special baking skill. The cakes themselves are very rich, and taste even better when aged for a few days. They slice and freeze well and hold up wonderfully in transport. A nod to the good old days—when the only thing considered healthy was a good appetite!

Scant 1/2 cup golden raisins
Scant 1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup dried apricots
3 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon rum (optional)

Using a food processor, pulse the dried fruit until finely chopped. Add to a small bowl and top with orange juice and rum if, using. Stir to mix, and let set at least 1 hour before baking. (This step can be done the night before.)

3 1/4 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
Pinch salt
2 1/4 cups sugar
2 cups butter
Zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1/2 orange
8 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup sour cream
Heaping 1/2 cup candied orange peels, finely chopped
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
In a stand mixer, beat sugar, butter, lemon and orange zest together for 10 minutes, until pale in color and fluffy.
On medium low speed, add eggs one at a time, incorporating each egg completely before adding the next. When all the eggs have been incorporated, add the extracts and beat to mix.
Add 1/3 of the flour mixture, and beat until just combined. Add 1/3 of the sour cream, and beat until just combined. Continue in this pattern ending with the last of the flour mixture.
Fold the dried fruit and orange juice mixture and chopped candied orange peel into the batter.

Split the batter between two large loaf pans, and bake for 55-60 minutes, until a toothpick comes out with a few dry crumbs attached. Let cakes cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then gently dump out of the loaf pans, to continue cooling. Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar using a small sieve to decorate just before serving.


Polish Olympian Raising Funds to Repair Jewish Cemetery

Dariusz Popiela at the 2009 European Canoe Slalom Championships in Nottingham, England, May 30, 2009

WARSAW, Poland (JTA) — A Polish Olympian is raising money for the construction of a monument dedicated to Jews from a village in southern Poland.

Dariusz Popiela, the Polish champion in the canoe/kayak slalom and the silver medalist at the European Championships, both last year, is working to commemorate the Jews of Krościenko.

Popiela, who participated in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and a group of friends have spearheaded a project to restore the memory of “the forgotten neighbors” as part of the Shtetl of Tzanz project of the Nomina Rosae Foundation.

Last year, he said, he accidentally found himself near the Jewish cemetery in Krościenko, which was devastated during World War II and remains in poor condition.

“Why?” Popiela asked on the crowdfunding site Pomagam, where he is raising money for a monument to the Jews of the town. “Probably multiple reasons are responsible, but the fact is that there are many people in Krościenko who are trying to change this state of things and have already taken some effort to save this only sign of the late citizens’ existence.”

Research has made it possible to collect a list of the Jews murdered in the village between the second half of 1939 and August 1942, when the last Jews left there. Part of Popiela’s project includes a monument erected at the Jewish cemetery in the shape of cracked gravestone featuring the names of those victims. He and his friends also plan to build a new fence around the cemetery; the current one is rusted and falling apart.

Popiela wrote that the shape of the memorial is essential since almost no original gravestones have survived. He said there are only two that have been replaced on their foundations, and the rest were used by the Nazis to make floors and foundations.

The group has collected nearly 25 percent of the $3,000 needed to complete the project, according to his crowdfunding page. Popiela wrote that the project is a “private and spontaneous action.”

“Every penny, every cent will be spent to renovate this place,” he wrote. “Each, even the smallest donation will be a valuable contribution to our project. Let’s show the world together that it can and must be done!”