Some Background on the Jewish Tradition

Who is a Jew?
Geographical Differences
Dietary Laws
Women in Judaism

According to an old story, the famous rabbi and scholar, Hillel, who lived over two thousand years ago, was asked by a non-Jew to explain the Jewish religion while standing on one leg, i.e. in a very short time.  Hillel’s answer was simple, beautiful, and still relevant today:  "What is hateful to you, do not unto your fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary." In this section I hope to provide background on Jewish traditions and Jewish customs that will aid in a fuller reading of my novel Double Crossing.

Who is a Jew?

It has been said that there are as many answers to this question as there are Jews.  Traditional Orthodox religious law defines a Jew as:

  1. Someone who was born to a Jewish mother
  2. Someone who has successfully completed a formal Orthodox conversion process

Believing and practicing Jewish law does not make one a Jew.  No longer believing or practicing Jewish law still makes one a Jew.

This seeming paradox was clearly illustrated in Nazi Germany where anyone who had at least one Jewish grandparent was considered a Jew and subject to persecution and extermination.  This included individuals whose parents had converted to Catholicism years before the rise of the Third Reich and had raised them as Catholics.

I once heard a definition that made pragmatic sense to me:  A Jew is anyone who calls himself a Jew, or is called a Jew by someone else. 

So what makes a Jew?  Religion, culture, tradition, anti-Semitism and persecution, ties to Israel, personal history and more ...

For further reading and discussion:

[Back to Top]

To better comprehend the actions and motivations of the characters in Double Crossing, it is useful to understand some of the basic principles of Judaism.  The Jewish religion developed some four thousand years ago, and is one of the world’s oldest living religions.  Many of the basic principles of Judaism were adopted by the early Christians and Moslems, making it a source of these two major religions.

Geographical Differences

Over time, Judaism evolved into different traditions created by geographical separation. These groups created differing interpretations of Jewish law and different Jewish customs. Approximately 42% of modern Jewry are part of the Ashkenazic tradition, which means they are descended from Jews who lived in Europe.  Although Hebrew has always been their language of prayer, like Raizel and her family, they spoke the Yiddish language (a combination of Hebrew and German and local languages) within their families and with other Jews.  Sephardic Jews comprise approximately 37% of Jewish communities.  They are descended from the Jews who were expelled from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition and spoke Ladino, a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew.  They pronounce Hebrew differently from the Ashkenazic Jews and theirs is the accepted pronunciation in the Hebrew spoken today in Israel. The remaining twenty percent is composed of Mizrachi or Oriental Jews who lived in the Middle East and North Africa but are not descended from Spanish Jews, as well as Balkan, Georgian, Persian, Bukharan, Caucasian, and Yemenite Jews.  There are also small Jewish communities in India, Ethiopia and other regions.

Jewish Denominations

Judaism is divided into three major movements in the United States.There are also sub-divisions which will not be discussed here:

  1. Orthodox Judaism – is a continuation of traditional Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jewish practices and beliefs.  Some of its adherents still dress in the costumes of Eastern Europe, but there are also modern Orthodox.  Raizel and her family were Orthodox Jews. Only Orthodox Judaism is recognized in Israel today. This means that only ceremonies, like marriage, performed by Orthodox rabbis are recognized by Israeli law.
  2. Reform Judaism – grew up in Germany during the 1800s as a response to the growing desire for assimilation among the Jewish population. Reform Judaism believes that the individual has the right to adapt religious beliefs and traditions to suit contemporary society, and emphasizes the ethics of Judaism.
  3. Conservative Judaism – also developed in the 1800s but, unlike Reform Judaism, it attempts to conserve Jewish law and tradition, while adapting it to contemporary needs.  The religious practices and beliefs of Conservative Judaism fall in between Orthodox and Reform Judaism.
[Back to Top]

Jewish Beliefs

The following discussion focuses on the beliefs of Orthodox Judaism, which were the beliefs of Raizel and her family.

One God - Unlike many religions, Judaism has no dogma, or formal set of beliefs which one must hold in order to be a Jew.  Central to Judaism is the belief that there is only one God, who created the world and is all-knowing and all-powerful. Judaism is the oldest surviving monotheistic religion.

The Ten Commandments – were given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai and must be observed by all Jews. Five Commandments deal with the individual’s relationship with God and five deal with the individual's relationships with other people.

The 613 Commandments – or mitzvoth.  These are found in the Torah and include the Ten Commandments. Because Judaism focuses more on actions than beliefs, religious Jews are expected to follow all 613 commandments.  In actuality, many pertain to rituals carried out in the First and Second Temples by the priests and are not relevant today.  Some commandments have been adapted to modern times, such as the prohibition against lighting a fire on the Sabbath.  This has been interpreted to include turning on electricity, which is forbidden on the Sabbath even though it was unknown in Biblical times.

Maimonides Principles of Faith – Moses Maimonides lived from 1135 – 1204. He was a rabbi, physician and philosopher who was born in Spain, lived in North Africa and Palestine, and died in Egypt.  He wrote many theological works which remain important today.  He composed 13 principles of faith that are widely accepted. These include the uniqueness of God, the importance of the Torah as God’s law, the coming of the messiah (redeemer), and the resurrection of the dead.

See for elaboration of  these principles.

[Back to Top]

Some Important Jewish Religious Books

  • The Torah – is the Hebrew Bible. It consists of 24 books which are the same books found in the Protestant Old Testament, but in a different order.  The Catholic Old Testament contains six extra books not found in the Hebrew Bible.
  • The Talmud – is a written compilation of rabbinic discussions over the course of several hundred years. It is composed of the Mishnah, primarily the interpretation of oral law, and the Gemara, or commentaries and discussion of the Mishnah.  The Talmud deals with everything from religion to ethics, religious and secular law, astronomy and astrology, history and geography, commerce and trade, politics and social problems.
  • The Kabbalah – is not a specific book but the term used to denote a series of writings which grew out of the tradition of Jewish mysticism

Kashrut, or the Dietary Laws

The Jewish dietary laws deal with foods that may or may not be eaten and how they must be prepared.  Some people speculate that health or environmental reasons were the origin of these laws, but traditional Jews believe these laws were grounded in God's relationship with the Jewish people. The dietary laws are included in the 613 laws in the Torah and are observed by all religious Jews with very few variations.  Food that is not kosher is called tref.  Dietary prohibitions exist in many religions, and while they may seem strange, those who practice them consider them natural and do not view them as a burden, since they fulfil God’s commandments.

Because the laws of Kashrut figure prominently in Double Crossing, I will outline the fundamentals:

  • Only mammals that chew their cud and have a split hoof may be eaten.  This excludes pigs, camels, rabbit, and other animals.
  • Only fish that have fins and scales may be eaten.  This excludes shellfish like shrimp, lobster, and crabs.
  • Rodents, reptiles, amphibians and most insects are forbidden.
  • Animals that have died or been killed by other animals must not be eaten.
  • Animals must be healthy when killed, and slaughtered by a strict method of slaughter by a butcher who is Jewish and has been trained in ritual slaughter.
  •  Blood may not be eaten and must be drained from all food by broiling, soaking, or salting.
  • Certain parts of kosher animals may not be eaten.
  • Meat and milk products may not be eaten together.  Milk may not be used in cooking meat or served on the same set of plates and flatware.  Two separate sets of plates and flatware are used in homes that keep kosher.
  • A reasonable amount of time (between 3 – 6 hours, depending on the source) must pass between the eating of meat and milk products.

Today, all products that are kosher have certification, which means they have been examined by reliable religious sources and found compatible with the laws of Kashrut.   This did not exist in Raizel’s time.  When Papa learns from Raizel that the ice cream was not served by Jews, it is clear to him that she has eaten tref, unkosher food, because kosher food can only be prepared by Jews who observe the dietary laws for preparation.  Although religious authorities do not acknowledge it, there are in actuality different degrees of keeping kosher and not everyone follows the laws strictly.  My mother kept a kosher home but allowed us to eat ice cream for desert shortly after a meat meal, as long as we used the dishware reserved for milk products.  She also ate in restaurants where the food was not kosher, but never ate pork or shellfish or red meat. (She ate fish and poultry, however.)

For more information:

[Back to Top]


Religious Jews are required to say their prayers three times a day.  Most of the prayers can be said alone, but certain prayers require the presence of a minyan, consisting of ten adult male Jews.  In addition, prayers and blessings are recited throughtout the day before eating and drinking and on other occasions.

While praying, Jewish males wrap themselves in a white prayer shawl.  A skull cap, called a kippah or yarmulke, is always worn during prayers and religious Jews wear one at all times. Phylacteries or tefillin, two small leather boxes containing portions of the Torah, are wrapped around the arms and head  by black leather straps during the morning prayers.  Papa continued to pray on the journey to America several times a day, using his own prayer book, prayer shawl and phylacteries.

Jews go to synagogue to pray together.  In Orthodox synagogues, the men and women are separated from each other with a partition.  Services are usually conducted by the rabbi, but members of the congregation can also lead the service, and a rabbi is not required.  The heart of the service is the reading of the Torah portion.   The synagogue acts as a house of study, for Jewish males continue studying throughout their lives.  At the age of thirteen, Jewish boys have a Bar Mitzvah ceremony in which they are called to read the Torah in the synagogue. Bar Mitzvah means 'son of the commandments' and the ceremony follows an intensive period of study.  The boy is now considered a man in the eyes of the Jewish religion and obligated to fulfill the commandments of the Torah.   

[Back to Top]

Women in Orthodox Judaism

Until the modern era, Jewish religious law was considered progressive in its relationship to women.  Women had the right to buy, sell, and own property, as well as to make contracts.  The marriage contract (Ketubah) provided the woman with financial protection in case of divorce. Women had the right to be consulted regarding their marriage, and husbands were forbidden to beat or mistreat their wives.  Although polygamy was permitted, it was not encouraged and was outlawed in the Ashkenzic tradition in the 10th century.  The Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews were not affected by the ban.  Polygamy is forbidden in Israel today, but immigrants from other countries are exempt.  (A friend of mine, whose parents emigrated from Yemen, was raised in a polygamous family in Israel.  Her mother was the younger of two wives.)

Women have held positions of importance in Judaism since Biblical times. Miriam the sister of Moses, Devorah the judge (and warrior), Hulda the prophetess, Esther, who saved her people from destruction, (commemorated in the Purim holiday) are only a few. The Ten Commandments require respect for both one’s father and mother.  Several women are cited for their wisdom in the Talmudic commentaries, but the Talmud also calls women vain, jealous, lazy and other unpleasantries.

Orthodox Judaism today acknowledges the importance of both men and women, but clearly confines women to their roles as wives, mothers, and housekeepers.  Women do not have to observe all the  commandments like men do. They cannot be part of the minyan of ten men needed to conduct public prayer services and cannot lead the congregation in prayer.  They are restricted to a closed area of the synagogue where they can see and hear, but not be seen.  They are permitted to attend services, but not required to do so. 

At the same time, women have religious duties that are connected to the importance of religion in the home.  Three commandments pertain solely to women.  Women were encouraged to learn to read in order to read their prayer book, but were discouraged from further study, which might take them out of the home.  At the turn of the twentieth century, restrictions against advanced study for women began to be lifted, and schools for girls were established. Most girls did learn to read and write in Yiddish. Today, boys and girls whose parents follow the Orthodox Jewish tradition do not study in the same school.

Raizel’s case was slightly unusual.  Her grandmother would most likely have taught her to read if she had lived longer, and her brother Lemel might have taught her if he had been a better student.  If she had lived closer to her rich relatives, she might have studied with her cousins and their private tutor. Neither of Raizel’s parents was opposed to her learning to read.  Papa was only home on the Sabbath, and Mama was too busy with the younger children and the house to teach her.  If Jibatov had been a bigger town, it would have had a cheder for girls where Raizel would have learned to read and write Yiddish and a bit of Hebrew for a few hours. 

[Back to Top]

Giving to Charity

Tzedakah or giving to charity is a fundamental part of Judaism. Traditional Jews give at least 10% of their income to charity.  Giving to the poor is an obligation in Judaism and confers a blessing on the giver.  Raizel mentions that her family was never too poor to give to beggars.  Frau Buchthal welcomes the opportunity to help Raizel and Papa in their time of need, calling it a “mitzvah” or good deed, another meaning for the word mitzvah.

Jewish Holidays

All Jewish holidays begin the evening before the holiday itself. Jewish holidays do not occur on the same date every year because the Jewish calendar is based on the moon’s cycles with each month beginning on the new moon and the addition of an extra month every few years to “adjust” the calendar.  According to the Jewish calendar, the year 2005 is the year 5765. 

  • The Sabbath – is considered the most important of the Jewish holidays.  It is the only one mentioned in the Ten Commandments. The Sabbath is a weekly day of rest lasting from Friday night to Saturday evening. A rest day, even for slaves, was a very radical concept in Biblical times.  Although prayers are said on the Sabbath as they are everyday, it is also a day of rest, study, and celebration.  Thirty-nine different categories of activity are prohibited on the Sabbath, all of which derive from the kinds of work done in the construction of the Holy Ark in the Temple in Jerusalem in Biblical times. A large body of prohibitions has been derived from these categories.  In order to save a human life, these laws must be violated, which is known as pikuach-nefesh. 
  • Passover – commemorates the Jewish exodus from Egypt and the attainment of freedom from slavery.  It is celebrated at home with a family gathering called a seder in which the story of the Exodus is read.  Matzoh is eaten instead of bread during the week-long observance of Passover, and there are other dietary restrictions.
  • Shavuot – or the Festival of Weeks, celebrates the presentation of the Ten Commandments to the Israelites, as well as the time when the first wheat was harvested and brought to the Temple in Jerusalem.
  • Sukkot – commemorates the forty year wandering of the Israelites in the desert after fleeing from Egypt.  It is also the third and last of the agriculturally based holidays (Passover and Shavuot are the other two).  An open walled booth is constructed to commemorate the temporary shelters used by the wandering Israelites.  Families eat their meals in the Sukka during the holiday week, weather permitting.
  • Rosh HaShana – marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year, which usually falls in September or October.  It is also a day of remembrance and opens with the blowing of a ram’s horn. Apple dipped in honey is eaten for a sweet year. It is the beginning of the High Holy Days in which Jews reflect on their thoughts and actions during the year, both towards God and their fellow human beings, and culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
  • Yom Kippur – or the Day of Atonement is probably the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar.  It is a strict fast day.  For 25 hours it is forbidden to eat or drink even water, and the day is spent in the synagogue.  It is the day when Jews pray for forgiveness for their sins  and vow to do better next year. During this time they ask God to forgive them for sins committed against God.  However, if they have sinned against another individual, they must ask that person for forgiveness. Small children, pregnant women, the sick and the elderly may choose to only fast for part of the day or forego the fast altogether, in keeping with their level of health.
  • Other Holidays – which have less religious significance include Hanukah, Purim, Tu B’Shevat, and additional fast days.

[Back to Top]