Saturday, July 31, 2010

Alergic to death

Remember how last time I told you I was a Cohen, and how my wife had to go through some special training for that? Well, the reason for all that is because Cohens are priests (in theory, at least) and need to keep themselves more pure than the average guy. One thing that is the unholiest of them all is blood. Touching blood is a big no-no for Cohens, which is why my wife has (according to Jewish law, that is) to wash herself in the Mikveh after her period. In fact, touching blood is not allowed for anybody, and so Jews are not allowed to have intercourse during or around the time of the menstrual period. Any Jewish woman is required to check herself daily until the period is over, and then go to a Mikveh, and only then she can her husband. When a Jewish woman is working, she will avoid touching people during and around her period. For example, if you go to a store in Israel, and the clerk is a Jewish woman, she will usually ask you to put your money on the counter for her to pick up, so that her fingers don’t accidentally touch yours.

This also applies to food – for meat to be Kosher, it must be completely drained of blood during a special procedure. The side-effect of this is that kosher meat is much less flavorful than the kind of meat non-Jews are used to.

Another thing that is unholy is death, and so a Cohen is not allowed to touch dead people. Even entering a cemetery is strictly forbidden. That’s the stupid part, but here’s the funny one: The state of Israel, like many others, have dozens of ancient cemeteries. Many of them known and marked, but now and then, a new one is discovered. The city of Haifa, where I lived, has had one discovered under major road that crosses the city, and so they had to put a huge sign near it, warning Cohens that they must not drive through that road. Can you believe it? Orthodox Jews will actually have to drive half-way across town to avoid passing over a cemetery!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Thou shalt be clean!

Good chances that at some point in time, you have met or heard of a person with the last name of Cohen (often spelled Coen or Kohen). Perhaps you know one personally, and perhaps you just saw one of the movies by the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel. Cohen is a last name that designates a person who is in direct patrilineal descent from Ahron (also spelled Aaron or Aharon), who was Moses’ brother. Aaron was the first high priest of the Israelites around the time of the story of the exodus from Egypt ( and for further reading). Usually, a person carrying this last name is a Cohen, although there are many people who are so without carrying the name – I happen to be one of them. For a religious Jew, being a Cohen is a great honor – the closest we got to Royal Blood. For a secular or atheist Israeli like myself, this is no big deal, and for most of my life, I didn’t even know of it.

When I was 23, and about to marry my sweetheart, Paula, the issue came up. The Rabbanuth, which is the official body in Israel that governs the state with regards to religious matters, also has full control of marriages. As such, they have records of the entire population, and that includes info on who is a Cohen. Israel has no separation of state and church, as we already discussed, and so the Rabbanuth has absolute power to muck-around with people with regards to marriage. For example, they will not let people get married during certain periods of the year, because it conflicts with some religious holidays ( In my case, since I am of royal descent, this meant that my wife-to-be had to go through special training, so she can become worthy of living with a person of such high status (in case you haven’t detected the sarcasm…this stuff is beyond BS!). During this training course, she was trained in various stupid religious traditions, some funny, some sad and all totally idiotic. She recalls the stupidest and funniest one as the Washing in the Mikveh. Biblical regulations specify that full immersion in water is required to regain ritual purity, because during the monthly period, a woman becomes un-pure. The Mikveh is a public bath-house where all religious women are required to attend after their period ends. The trainer was an 80 year old woman, demonstrating how you should stretch the skin all over your body to get full exposure, thereby reaching the maximum purity. Can you imagine?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Do pigs fly?

Last time, I told you a lot about the way the week works in Israel – how the week starts on Sundays, and then retail closes early on a Friday, and this time, I want to tell you a little about Kosher foods. Many people know that Jews are not allowed to eat pork products. That’s a very simplistic summary of a significant part of Judaism – having to consume kosher products. Kosher means “good”, and the Jewish religion has tons of rules about what is good and what is not. For example, Mammals that both chew their cud (ruminate) and have cloven hooves are kosher, but others are not. Fish must have fins and scales to be kosher, but this is just the beginning. Another rule is that meat and dairy must not be consumed together, and this is why Cheeseburgers are not OK for orthodox Jews. This goes even further – not only are you not allowed to eat the two together, you must protect yourself against accidentally eating the combo, so if a pot is used to cook meat, it cannot be used to cook dairy products. Essentially, you can wash it REALLY well, and then use it, but many orthodox families have two sets of dishes, as well as two sinks. Some richer families even have two separate kitchens. Kosher applies to a multitude of other items. For example, an orthodox person would not eat at a restaurant if he is not sure it stands up to the highest standards, as proven by a certificate. To get it, the place has to prove weekly that it keeps dairy away from meat. The certificate can be revoked if the place is open during a Saturday (because no commerce s allowed on the holy day of Sabbath) and so most of the restaurants in Israel are not visited by religious Jews.

Let’s go back to pigs. Pigs are un-kosher and forbidden, but many other animals are in the same position, only less famous. The history books are full of stories about Jews that preferred to die rather than eat pork. Whatever. I’d kill for a good cake, but OTHERS…not myself.
For more info about Kashrut:

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Walking Distance

Almost everybody in the world enjoys some sort of weekend vacation, even if it’s for only one day, rather than two, but while most of the world rests on Sundays, Judaism dictates that the day of rest is the Saturday. There are even some Christian sects who celebrate this. Israelis who work in the business sector finish their week on Thursday evening, and then dedicate Friday for errands, and rest on Saturday, going back to work on Sunday morning. Another interesting aspect of this religious custom is that a “day” actually starts at the evening time, and ends at evening time of the next day, so a “Saturday” starts on Friday, when the sun sets, and ends on Saturday at sunset.

Since god has rested on the 7th day, according to the story of creation, the Jewish religion interprets this as a day of rest, and rest is mandatory. This means that anything that could be considered “labor” is expressly forbidden for a religious Jew. No working is a DUH, but also no driving, no operating machinery and get this: no operating of any electric device (including turning the light on or off and using the phone), no writing, no handling of money, no walking over 2 miles* and more. Since the Saturday starts with the sunset, which could be as early as 5:30pm during winter, workplaces close early on Friday, to give people the opportunity to get back home before it becomes forbidden to drive. For this reason, on a Friday, most businesses (retail, principally) close down at about 2pm (rarely after 3 pm) and everybody goes home. Entertainment related business do stay open, like restaurants, drugstores, cinemas etc, but one of the big problems in Israel is the fact that most Israelis are secular or atheist, and don’t want things to close down. For example, pubs don’t close, but the bus and train services do, and people have a problem getting to where they want to hang out. The religious parties keep trying to find a way to force every business to close completely, but I’ll talk about that another time. It’s quite a bummer that a person who works 5 days a week has only a few hours to take care of errands on the weekend before most businesses close down, and people who work in the retail business and work on a Friday are even in a tighter spot. Interesting, huh?

*This is actually a rule that dictates you must not walk past a radius of 1 mile from your home. You can walk that area as much as you like, but not farther.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Can Pigs fly?

Having been born in Israel, I’m naturally a Jew. The Jewish religion dictates that if your mother was Jewish, you are one as well, and there’s nothing you can do about it – it doesn’t require a baptism or any other ceremony – you are a Jew, like it or not. I was never a believer, and so seeing a lot of the things Jews do in the name of god makes me laugh, or sometimes angers me.

For example, many know that Jews (as well as Muslims) are not allowed to eat pork. That doesn’t mean that there’s no pork in Israel, as there are many secular Jews, atheists, Christians and followers of other religions that do not limit the consumption of pig products. This does, however, introduce some interesting conflicts in the life of an Israeli.

1st, there is a law that forbids raising Pigs on the soil of Israel. That’s exactly how the law puts it – no pigs on the soil. There are certain places that are exempt, but the Israelis have found an interesting workaround – they do raise pigs, but they are kept on special platforms that keep them from touching the ground. This makes it legal, and so many Israeli are able to enjoy Bacon and other “white meat” foods. Luckily, there’s no law against Shrimp (which, like pigs, are also not Kosher), because cops would have a tough time arresting them at the beach…

Want to learn more? Read here about KASHRUT: