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Judaism facts and fallacies Judaism facts and fallacies
by Joseph Gatt
2020-08-11 06:02:34
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Some “fun” facts about Israel, Judaism and a lot of things connected to the Jewish world.

Fallacy: all Hebrew speakers are religious Jews. The Hebrew language is spoken by Orthodox Jews.

Fact: 2-3 million Hebrew speakers in the world are not Jewish. Some are Christian Zionists, others are Arab Israelis, and others are non-Jewish immigrants to Israel such as Russian immigrants and Indian and Filipino immigrants. However, only a handful of non-Jews speak Hebrew as their first language.

Most Orthodox Jews, even in Israel, speak Yiddish, not Hebrew. There have been problems in Israel recently amid COVID-19 because doctors and soldiers could not communicate with some Orthodox Jews who don't speak a word of Hebrew.

jud001_400Fallacy: Jews hate the Arabs and don't speak Arabic.

Fact: Around 500,000-700,000 Jews speak Arabic as their first language (but they are mostly older Jews). They mostly migrated to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s from Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya. Moroccan, Tunisian and Algerian Jews were mostly French speakers and few spoke Arabic. Arab Israelis and Jewish Israelis get along just fine, as long as they don't discuss politics, religion or history. They usually discuss food and other “light” topics.

Fallacy: Judaism is a religion based on “sins.”

Fact: In Buddhism, “desire” is viewed as a sin. In Hinduism, not keeping some promises or lewd behavior are considered a “sin.” In Islam, blasphemy, lust, and violating dietary restrictions or religious obligations are considered “sins.” Christianity has a long list of “sins.”

Judaism had to adapt to thriving in the diaspora, so Judaism focused more on “community life” and “harmony within the community” than on keeping track and keeping count of other people's sins.

So there is a large degree of tolerance when it comes to the individual's choice to follow (or not to follow) certain rules and traditions. Parents and family and friends tend to tolerate liberal or conservative choices when it comes to religion.

That is unlike Islam where you could get whacked on the head for blasphemy (or worse) in Judaism you either cover your ears (or you laugh the thing out).

Fallacy: Judaism is a religion based on “serving God.”

Judaism is indeed a monotheistic religion, based on one God.

But, if you read the scriptures, God is very present in the Torah, then God's presence is more intermittent in the Kituvim and Nabi'im (the other sacred books). God is rarely mentioned in the Talmud, and the Talmud is specifically about human application of God's laws.

That is, to many Jews, we find God's perfection in science, in the Bible, in coincidences, in destiny.

BUT. Judaism is more about community and tradition than about trying to impress the man above and gain access to heaven.

In sum, in most Jewish circles, you serve the community, and God will take care of you.

Fallacy: Jews around the world all have the same rituals, holidays, traditions, celebrations, rites of passage.

Fact: Let's go through some examples.

Hanukah: Hanukah used to be considered a “minor holiday” where you lit a candle every night and ate “latkes” (fried grated potatoes) and sufganiyot (basically donuts).

Sufganiyot today are more like sweet, Dunkin' Donuts type donuts. But in many communities, the original recipe is used, and it looks more like “oily chapatti” or “fried fudge-like bread” than a dunkin donuts-type donut. The original recipe had no sugar, marmalade or other stuff in it. And the Arabs also have their sufganiyas they call “sfenj” and their version is closer to the original recipe.

In many Jewish communities in Canada, the US, France, the UK and Europe, gifts are exchanged during Hanukah, and kids receive gifts. But in many circles, the holiday is more about lighting candles, playing games and singing songs at night. In Israel, Hanukah is not a bank holiday, and people go to work on Hanukah. And there are no Hanukah decorations other than the Hanukah (8 branch Menorah).

Other example: the Mimoonah! In most Jewish communities, Passover lasts for 8 days, and when Passover is over, what is “mandated” is that a 6-week mourning period that starts where you should refrain from “fun” activities and remember those who have gone too soon and those who have suffered. This mourning period ends of Shavuot, which is 6 weeks after Passover.

But! Many exceptions to this rule. In Israel, Independence Day is celebrated during that mourning period, and people celebrate!

Also, to celebrate the end of Passover, there was a tradition in Morocco where Jews would open the doors of their houses and welcome anyone to join in. Neighbors visited each other, and chatted with each other.

In Israel, the Mimoonah is now celebrated by most communities, and usually involves drinking beer, eating lots of bread, karaoke, and fun.

In France, where there is a sizeable Moroccan Jewish community, many younger Jews will head to night clubs on the Mimoonah, and some night clubs even advertise special “Mimoo-nights” where the idea is you spend the entire night going crazy. Speed dating events are also organized in some circles.

Final example: Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs.

In the old days, and in Orthodox communities, when boys are about to reach the age of 13, they start studying the Torah more seriously, and in many cases take an examination. If they pass the examination, they are considered “adults” and that means the laws in the Torah apply to them.

That was the tradition for centuries. But today, where many Jews are secular, the “examination” is very symbolic.

Among diaspora Jews, teenagers are not even taught the Hebrew alphabet, and the Bar Mitzvah examination usually involves the kid repeating verbatim what the Rabbi is telling the kid, without the kid understanding a word of it.

Then the kid is usually in charge of organizing a feast (with the help of adults). In Israel, most kids will celebrate at a restaurant, take a few tables, invite close family and friends and that's it. A lot of times the meal is not even Kosher.

More lavish parties can be organized, especially in the diaspora, and involve an entire night of partying. But in most circles the kid has to write a speech. In the old days the speech used to be about “trying to be a good Jew” but these days it's more about “what I plan to do in life.” Humor and cracking a few jokes tends to be encouraged, and the kid usually writes to speech completely unassisted.  In either case, kids do receive generous cheques from family and friends (the rule tends to be around 100 dollars from distant friends and around 1,000 dollars from close relatives) and the money tends to be withdrawn in adult life (or saved for college, or in Israel, used to backpack around the world).  

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