Category Archives: Travel

General topics of Jewish Traveling

Cuban Jewish Heritage

Cubanidad (Cuban identity)

Cuban Jewish HeritageWhen I think of Cuba, the largest island of the Caribbean sea, a lot of ideas come to mind.  I can picture a repressive communist regime run for decades with an iron fist by the dictator Fidel Castro,  the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Marxist revolutionaries like Che Guevara.  I can also imagine the Havana cigars, endless tropical Caribbean beaches with exotic drinks and pulsating music. The idea of a “Cuban Jewish Heritage” for some reason didn’t fit into that complex scene. Continue reading Cuban Jewish Heritage

A Car Mezuzah and Good Luck

Car Mezuzahs

Have you ever heard of a Car Mezuzah?

Car MezuzahWhen I saw this picture my mind went totally blank. A Car Mezuzah? What’s that? Is it for real???? I started thinking that maybe I’m forgetting an important Law in the contemporary Rabbinical writings. Or maybe this is a modern form of Jewish voodoo… Continue reading A Car Mezuzah and Good Luck

World Travel and the Night of Shavuot

The Night of Shavuot

What’s the connection between world travel and the night of Shavuot? (hint: It depends on your location on the globe…).

A bit of background first:

World Travel and the Night of ShavuotOn the first night of Shavuot (this year, Saturday night, May 23, 2015), Jews throughout the world observe the centuries-old custom of conducting an all-night vigil dedicated to Torah learning and preparation for receiving the Torah anew the next morning. One explanation for this tradition is that the Jewish people did not rise early on the day G‑d gave the Torah, and it was necessary for G‑d Himself to awaken them. To compensate for their behavior, Jews have accepted upon themselves the custom of remaining awake all night.

Source: Learning on Shavuot night – Shavuot

World Travel and the Night of Shavuot

When I was a teenager in Yeshiva staying awake and learning all night was something one did every Shavuot. Never mind that most of us slept during the day before the festival to prepare for the all-night learning. In the morning too we went back to sleep for another few hours following Kiddush and (cheese) cake at 8 AM . This meant that in total we probably slept just as much on Shavuot (if not more) as on any other Shabbat…

The idea of global location affecting Torah study occurred to me during the years I studied in Amsterdam (Holland, not New York). I was accustomed to finishing the evening meal around 10 PM and studying till dawn at 4-4:30 AM, making a nice 6-hour block of focused intense Torah study.

Endless Night or A Moment in Time?

In my first year in the Netherlands I discovered something different. Nightfall (when 3 stars were visible) was close to 10:30 PM. Even if we finished in Shul by 11 PM and gobbled down a delicious Milchig meal in 90 minutes, we didn’t open a book till at least 12:30-1:00 AM. That left only ONE HOUR till dawn at 1:30-1:40 AM ! Of course we could continue learning another hour or two till morning prayers, but the feeling was that the night was over in a flash.

I’m curious about how things are in other places so I checked out the potential learning schedules for two extremes; Stockholm, Sweden and Johannesburg, South Africa. I could have checked out Norilsk, Siberia or Ushuaia, Argentina in South America, but they don’t have a significant Jewish population and probably none of their possible Jews would be up all night trying to decipher a page of Gemara…

In Stockholm, nightfall this year is at 10:42 PM and dawn at 12:45 AM, leaving 45 minutes less time to learn then in Amsterdam; barely a “Moment in Time”.

In South Africa on the other hand, where they don’t use Daylight Savings Time,  nightfall in Johannesburg on Shavuot is 5:51 PM and dawn is 5:15 AM, leaving 9-10 hours of study after a slow leisurely meal, which for some might feel like an “Endless Night”.

Study Smart

World Travel and the Night of ShavuotHow does one occupy themselves during the night of Shavuot? Personally I’ve gone through many stages. When I was younger with a regular Chavruta (study partner) we’d review whatever the Yeshiva was into that month or studied for a major test in Gemara. Those nights passed quickly because we spent the hours standing in front of our Shtenders (study lectern) discussing and arguing the major points.

Later on I usually chose a topic which interested me at the moment (often in the world of Halacha) and hopefully that would keep me going till dawn (with a few blackouts as time went by).

This is great for someone with a bit of Yeshiva background, but what does one do during an “Endless Night” if they haven’t any serious Torah-study experience? In most Shuls there are classes throughout the night, though you have to choose wisely to get an interesting and dynamic speaker. Otherwise you’ll doze off and snore despite frequent pit-stops at the coffee and cake…

Chabad has some great ideas for nocturnal study topics in their article –  9 Mind-Expanding Themes to Keep You Up All Night This Shavuot. They have weird and wonderful titles from “Let the People Speak!” to “That’s ‘Rabbi Doctor’ to You!” to “A Little Bit of Everything”.

Very effective if you are backpacking in South Africa or Argentina or Australia.

On the other hand if you find yourself in  Scandinavia  or Juneau, Alaska where the short night ends right after it begins, what can you learn? By the time you find a comfortable spot to study, prepare yourself with a shot of caffeine and sugar and open the book, it’s already time for morning prayers at sunrise.

The key is preparation and study smart. Even a short study period is effective if you choose an interesting topic in advance. For those who want a ready-made study program to learn on their own in English when you’re South of the equator or just want to get a small taste of Shavuot night, try the YU program of Shavuot To-Go. They put out a new PDF booklet every year with a detailed table of contents so you can pick and choose according to your flavor of the month. Just go into their site, choose, click and download. And, make sure to print it out in advance! 🙂

Chag Sameach and have an enjoyable night of Torah study!

What Do Jews Have In Common?

The past few years I’ve given a lecture to foreign (non-Jewish) visitors on “Basic Jewish Terminology”.  They’re fascinated by how diverse we are as a religion and a culture. Even in the Holy Land we are like a collection of unconnected tribes struggling to find a common denominator.

We argue about everything under the sun, from social issues and synagogue traditions to defining the best Kashrut organization in the country and the right balance between religion and democracy. Nevertheless we share something in common.

Do Jews Have In Common?

What then do Jews have in common  that make us distinctly Jewish? Is it the food we eat? Can’t be. Every Jewish community has its culinary traditions. European Jewish food includes Kugel, Gefilte Fish and Borscht. The Eastern Jew would likely prefer Pita, Hummus and Bourekas. The American Jew eats  Bagels & Lox at the Sunday morning breakfast in Shul and maybe can’t fathom the strange Israeli snacks.

Is it our nationality? Definitely not. Jews carry passports from nearly 193 countries and some have two nationalities with passports to match. Admittedly there are a few million with Israeli citizenship, but there are many Arabs with Israeli passports too…

Jews Have In CommonIs it our clothes? Jews across the globe wear a huge range of styles. Not only those who adapt to the local fashions, but even the very religious and traditional. There’s nothing similar between the garments of a Yemenite from Sana’a and apparel of Hasidim from Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Is it our religion? That should be a no-brainer, but unfortunately it isn’t. There are far more non-religious Jews in the world than those who keep the traditions, yet any Jew irrespective of his or her level of observance is my brother & sister.

The Jewish People are a Family

I liked the description that Tracey Rich gives in his incredibly “rich” website on Judaism – JewFAQ – “The Jewish People are a Family“.

Like a family, we don’t always agree with each other. We often argue and criticize each other. We hold each other to the very highest standards, knowing that the shortcomings of any member of the family will be held against all of us. But when someone outside of the family unfairly criticizes a family member or the family as a whole, we are quick to join together in opposition to that unfair criticism.

With that (not so) simple thought in mind, have a Good Shabbos !


Rollerblading on Shabbat: Worldviews

I saw the following short Q & A article on the Aish Hatorah  – Ask the Rabbi website which I’d like to share.

Rollerblading on Shabbat

Rollerblading on ShabbatMy fiance and I both enjoy rollerblading. I am curious to know if it is okay for us to roller-blade in a park on Saturdays if our intentions are to have fun rather than get in shape. Thank you very much.

The Aish Rabbi Replies: It’s funny you should mention this. I recently had to visit someone in the hospital on Shabbat afternoon, and walked 16 miles in the process. As I was walking, I saw some kids rollerblading, and thought to myself, “What a great idea. This could have really cut down my travel time!” It was too late to do anything about it, but I registered the idea for the future.

In answer to your question, it is permitted to use roller-blades on Shabbat, provided one does not carry them (i.e. when not wearing them) in a public domain. However, if roller-blades are customarily not used on Shabbat by observant Jews in your community, then you should also not use them. An exception could be made in case of pressing need, for example my hospital visit.

Source: Rollerblading on Shabbat: Shabbat – Forbidden Activities Response on Ask the Rabbi

It struck me how much one can get locked into their own worldview without realizing that in a different place and context, something which I might see as forbidden, is actually permissible.

Es passt nicht?

Take myself, for example. I live in a completely religious neighborhood in Israel. Most of the adult men don’t ride bikes even during the week because it’s considered Es passt nicht (Yiddish: “that’s not the way a person should go”). Using roller-blades in my town would probably be considered “not part of mainstream”.  Even for those who do use roller-blades in my district, for a guy to do it with his fiancé would be absolutely inconceivable. It doesn’t happen.  Therefor the image of a local newly engaged Yeshiva Bochur zooming down the main street on roller-blades with his fiancé on Shabbat, is so farfetched that it makes me giggle.

Yet here the Aish Rabbi actually permits it (within limitations of course) without blinking an eye. I write this with great admiration for him, because the Rabbi stripped away the social issues of Es passt nicht to deal with the essential Halachic issues of the Laws of Shabbat according to the worldview of the person who asked the question.

I believe that the Jewish Traveler should keep this idea in mind when visiting Jewish communities with different worldviews then his or her own. What might seem totally unacceptable in my world might be ethical and Kosher in another place. And conversely, when I meet a religious stringency on my journey which doesn’t fit with my tradition, that’s the time to be open and show respect.

Shabbat Shalom and safe rollerblading!


Coping With No Strings Attached

no strings attachedYou know the people who take along a spare for everything they have in their luggage? Extra bottles of soap and deodorant, spare shoe laces, an extra toothbrush and a pile of batteries for the camera, another charger for the phone, all their jewelry, a spare set of prescription glasses…just in case?  Then when they return home they realize that  the extra weight could have stayed behind because the local stuff is just as good and why shlep it all the way when most of what we worry about never happens?

No Strings Attached

That brings me to the issue of taking a spare set of Tzitzit. Not a full Tallit Katan (the four fringed garment worn under the shirt). Just a set of Tzitzit, the eight fringes/strings. If there’s something that worries me while traveling beyond the Jewish Settlement, it’s that one or more strings on my Tallit Katan will tear and the garment will be Halachicaly disqualified. For those who wear their fringes inside the pants/trousers, the chances are small. But for Yeshivah Style travelers who walk around with their fringes dangling in the wind, getting “ripped off” with no strings attached, is a distinct possibility.

We lived in Amsterdam, Holland twenty-five years ago and everybody rode bicycles. Women, men and children. Old and young. Princes and paupers. One of my biggest concerns (besides for G-d forbid crashing into a tram with two kids on my bike), was getting my Tzitzit caught in the spokes. I always kept a few spare sets of Tzitzit strings at home for the nearly monthly ritual of tying on a new corner of fringes.

Cases when you need to replace torn strings – Slideshow

For me, it seems logical that if I go on a long trip I’ll take with an extra set of strings. Of course one can just take another Tallit Katan, but why carry extra when you only need the strings? But…most people (even among religious Jews) aren’t that familiar with tying their own fringes. In fact for years I tied my sons’ new Tzitzit until they grew up and learned the technique themselves.

Fringe Benefits

For those who wear a Tallit Katan (inside or out), and want to save space by only carrying the strings, here’s the DIY video. The video deals with one method of tying the fringes. As you can see in the picture at the top, there are  many systems for making the knots, but for sake of simplicity here’s the most common method.

I believe in traveling with minimum luggage and fuss, since one can replace most things locally. For some articles though, especially those with religious significance like Tzitzit, it’s better being safe then sorry and take a spare set of fringes.

Ultimate Bug-out Bag For a Jewish Traveler

Bug-Out Bags

bug-out bagIf you plan to travel around the world without stopping in any Jewish communities, you’ll need to be prepared with a Jewish version of a Bug-out Bag.

I first learned about Bug-out Bags from books on surviving disasters and disappearing from your past (see my post – If Jason Bourne Was Jewish).

To quote Wikipedia:

“A Bug-out Bag is a portable kit that contains the items one would require to survive for seventy-two hours, when evacuating from a disaster. The kits are also popular in the survivalism and prepper subcultures. Other names for such a bag are a BOB, 72-hour kit, a grab bag, a battle box, a Personal Emergency Relocation Kits (PERK), a go bag, a GOOD bag (Get Out Of Dodge) or INCHbag (I’m Never Coming Home).”

It occurred to me that every Jew who takes to the road, whether for business, vacation, a disaster G-d forbid, or just to escape for a while from the daily grind, needs a “Jewish Bug-out Bag”. I’m not talking about Kosher food (see my post on eating Kosher anywhere), but about all the other ingredients needed to keep a Jewish lifestyle anywhere you go.

bug-out bag
Jewish Chaplain’s Kit

With a bit of research and experience in the military, I compiled a list of all the materials, products and equipment you’ll need for keeping the Tradition throughout the year. Many of them (like apples and honey for the Rosh Hashanah, a boiled egg for the Seder Plate or even the raw materials for a Succah) aren’t inherently Jewish and you can get them anywhere on the globe.  Some of the list, though (like Tefillin or a Mezuza) need to be purchased at a reliable Jewish supplier.

For your convenience you can download the list as a two page PDF for printing on one double-sided page –  The Ultimate Jewish Traveler’s Checklist. Obviously you won’t need them all for every trip. Just check it out before you leave, compare it to your itinerary and the Jewish calendar, get what won’t be available later and you’re good to go.

The Ultimate Jewish Traveler’s Checklist

Kosher Eating
  • Meat / Milk / Parve stickers
  • Blue/Red/Yellow permanent markers
  • Laws of Kashrut
  • Disposable dishes
  • Flour sifter
  • Magnifying Glass (for bugs)
  • Kosher Symbols List
  • Cup for washing before bread
Prayer, Blessings & Torah Study
  • Siddur (Prayer book)
  • Chumash (Pentateuch)
  • Tefillin
  • Tallit
  • Tallit Katan
  • Tsitsit (spare fringes)
  • Kippa (for men)
  • Snood/hair-covering (for women)
  • Torah Scroll (if there’s a Minyan)
  • Halachic Time Charts (
  • Compass for locating Jerusalem
  • Book of Tehillim (Psalms)
  • Traveler’s Prayer
  • Blessing for candle lighting
  • Birkon (prayer after meals)
  • Jewish Daily Laws & Customs
Shabbat & Festivals
  • Laws of Shabbat
  • Laws of Festivals
  • Candlesticks
  • Candles / oil / wicks
  • Blessing for candle lighting
  • Matches
  • Kiddush / Havdallah cup
  • Wine / Grape juice
  • Challah
  • Challah cover
  • Challah cutting board
  • Challah knife
  • Salt
  • Shabbat hot plate / “Blech”
  • Shabbat “Key Belt”
  • Havdalah spices
  • Havdallah candle
Rosh Hashanah
  • Book of Selichot
  • Machzor (Prayerbook)
  • Shofar
  • Honey / Apple / Dates
  • Fish head / Pomegranate
  • New fruit for Blessing
  • Yahrzeit candle
Yom Kippur
  • Machzor (Prayerbook)
  • Rubber / cloth shoes
  • Kittel
  • Shofar
  • Yahrzeit candle
  • Bedikat Chametz Kit
  • Machzor (Prayerbook)
  • Seder Plate
  • Egg / Shank bone / Celery / Potato
  • Marror /Lettuce
  • Charoset (apple /cinnamon/ginger/nuts/wine)
  • Matsah (hand-made)
  • Matsah (machine-made)
  • Kittel
  • Cup for washing at Karpas
  • Yahrzeit candle
  • Machzor (Prayerbook)
  • Lulav / Etrog / Hadas / Arava
  • “Koishiklach” (leaves for tying)
  • Holder for 4 Minim
  • Succah (+ decorations)
  • Aravot for Hoshanah Rabba
  • Yahrzeit candle
Simchat Torah
  • Machzor (Prayerbook)
  • Torah Scroll for dancing
  • Flags (for kids)
  • Yahrzeit candle
  • Machzor (Prayerbook)
  • Tikun Shavuot
  • Cheese Cake
  • Yahrzeit candle
  • Channukah candelabra
  • Channukah candles (oil + wicks)
  • Blessing on candles
  • Ma’oz Tsur Song
  • “Latkes” / “Sufganiot”
  • Megilat Esther (parchment / printed)
  • “Grogger” (noise-maker)
  • Wine (for festive meal)
  • Hamentaschen (Oznei Haman)
Fast of 9th Av
  • Kinot for 9th Av
  • Rubber / cloth shoes
  • Low chair
  • Mezuzah(s)
Sitting Shiva (Mourning)
  • Laws of Mourning
  • Spare shirt/blouse for tearing
  • Rubber / cloth shoes
  • Low chair
  • Yahrzeit candle

Click here for the PDF of The Ultimate Jewish Traveler’s Checklist.

Be prepared!

Kosher Style Food – Authentic Or Not?

Kosher Style Food

Kosher Style Food
Jewish Restaurant in Kazimierz, Kraków, Poland

You know the difference between Kosher food and Kosher Style food? Some people think that Kosher food means generic food of any culture which is prepared with Kosher ingredients according to Jewish Law. Kosher Style food then would mean ethnic Jewish Kosher food like kugel, gefilte fish, cholent, kishke and it’s North African / Asian equivalents.

Absolutely wrong! Kosher Style food is NOT Kosher. Here are a few examples:

Kazimierz, Krakow

In February 2014 I visited the Kazimierz District of Krakow, Poland. For those not yet familiar, Kazimierz was the seat of the Jewish community in Kraków from the 13th century till the 2nd World War.

Among the main landmarks of the area left today are the Old Synagogue, the Remuh Synagogue, the Izaak Synagogue and the Old Jewish Cemetery. Each with its history and traditions.

Today there isn’t much of a Jewish community but the tourist spots try to cater to Jews. For example, check the restaurant in the photo at the top of the post. At first glance its a “Jewish” labeled establishment with a menu in English, Polish and even Hebrew.

Kosher Style FoodTake a closer look at the menu: “Jewish Carp”. What’s Jewish about a carp?

Cheese cake along with roast duck? Isn’t that meat & milk?

The only thing labeled “Kosher” is the wine (though you can’t be sure about it unless you check out the bottles personally).

In short this is a classic “Kosher Style” restaurant. I admire the Polish owners for their initiative to attract the tourists, but this place is absolutely NOT Kosher. It’s not under any Rabbinical supervision and the cooking process and ingredients aren’t according to Halacha.

All this I learned from our Polish non-Jewish guide who incredibly enough was irritated about the “lack of authenticity” of this restaurant. Even for her as a non-Jew she wanted to see something REALLY Jewish, not pretend Jewish.

Kenny & Ziggy’s

I read a lengthy interview in The Times of Israel online newspaper titled “Pastrami on wry with the Texan macher keeping deli culture alive“. The article is about “a new documentary delving into the Jewish delicatessen experience features Houston ‘purist’ Ziggy Gruber”. It goes into detail about Jewish delicatessens in general and about Gruber’s deli in Houston, Texas called Kenny & Ziggy’s. Throughout the interview Mr. Gruber talks about tradition, synagogues, Rabbis & cantors and sprinkles his talk with dozens of Yiddish words. I was sure his deli was Glatt Kosher at the very least.

But lo and behold somewhere in the middle he gets to the topic of Kashrut and says:

Where do you draw the line in kosher-style deli?

In our store we do serve some pork products. That we do. There’s shrimp in there. When I say pork products, we only carry, like, bacon. But for people that don’t want that, I have pastrami bacon that I serve in the store as well. Even though we’re a non-kosher store, I carry some kosher meat — even though we don’t change the slicers or the knives.

Incredible! A totally Jewish sounding gastronomical experience which it absolutely NON-Kosher “Treif Chazer” (non-Kosher Pig)! It’s mind-boggling to my little brain why a person would go to such lengths to create an extremely successful Jewish Style restaurant and not cater at all to those who actually keep the Jewish Tradition…

Like my non-Jewish Polish guide told me, I too believe in authentic Jewish experiences, not pretend ones.

Jewish Airbnb? Not on Pessach!

Jewish Airbnb?

Jewish AirbnbI recently got an email inquiring if there is a Jewish version of Airbnb.

For the uninitiated, Airbnb is a site for finding vacation rentals and travel accommodations in private homes worldwide. They claim to have arranged lodgings for over 25 million people in 190 countries in private homes and even in 600 castles.

The question about a Jewish version of this service is valid for any time of the year, but I find it especially meaningful during Pessach.

Whoever is hungry – come eat with us!

In the early sections of the Pessach Haggadah, we recite the phrase כל דכפין יתי ויכול “Whoever is hungry – come eat with us!”. We don’t say this on any other Holiday; only on Pessach.

Pessach is known as a family festival even in the least traditional circles. We gather together; family, friends and casual guests, to recite the Haggadah, eat Matsah, Marror, feast on a delicious meal and sing the traditional songs. This isn’t a random ethnic development but rather a central part of how the festival is celebrated  since we came out of Egypt over 3300 years ago. From the first Pessach Seder till today we eat as a family group. Not alone. Hospitality is a priority on Pessach.

There is nothing foreign about Jews renting out accommodations for vacation. Just check out how many hotels there are in Israel and in prime Jewish vacation spots like Davos, Switzerland, the Catskills and everywhere else. Private people rent out their homes too. But there’s nothing distinctly “Jewish” about it. It’s pure business. For some reason I don’t connect with the idea of a Jewish Airbnb. The Jewish model of hospitality from the time of Abraham, is central to our collective identity more than any business model.

Here are a few examples:

Jewish Hospitality

Chabad: They have a comprehensive search engine to find nearly every Chabad House on the globe. I write “nearly” because I discovered one Chabad House somewhere that wasn’t publicized on their site for security reasons, but when you contact the administrators about specific locations, they’ll tell you. Meals are usually free on Shabbos and Yom Tov. They only charge during the week to cover costs. Check out their site at Chabad-Lubavitch Centers – Advanced Search.

Jeff Seidel: He has a comprehensive worldwide listing of contacts and places to stay at his Online Jewish Travel Guide. This site is very similar in design to the Airbnb site but you are hosted for free. To quote their site: was established as a Jewish social network to allow people to connect and meet in a safe and friendly environment. Perfect for those traveling for business, backpacking across the country, studying abroad, or simply looking for a little inspiration.

JewGether: Jewgether was started by Israeli students, not necessarily religious Jews, with a mission in mind. To quote their website:

Jewgether is a social network that connects Jewish people from all over the world, allowing them to host or be hosted by one another. Jewgether’s mission is to encourage Jews all over the world to open their homes, hearts and minds to each other. No matter what kind of Jew one is, Jewgether offers an opportunity to get acquainted with and to learn from one another.”.

I’m not personally familiar with their service but the idea is wonderful.

In summary, renting out a place to stay is perfectly legit, but for it to be considered an authentically Jewish act, hospitality is closer to the mark.

BTW, those utilizing the authentic Airbnb services, see my post on Kashering Skills For Residential Vacations.

Chag Sameach!