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Alcohol and Judaism: Can Wine Really Be Holy?

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09/18/2009

Well, my friends, a new year is upon us. Celebrations are inevitable: reunions with old friends and familiar temple-going faces, parties to break the fast, and prospects of starting with a clean slate. But how much celebration is allowed? And what exactly constitutes a holy celebration? In this installment, I will be exploring the question of whether or not consuming alcohol is considered holy, or even allowed, in the eyes of the Jewish faith.

To begin, there are an abundance of both positive and negative references to alcohol and, more specifically to wine, throughout the Old Testament and even in our rabbinic traditions. In ancient times, every sacrifice offered in the Holy Temple was accompanied by a wine libation. Because wine is considered to be the "king of beverages," the rabbis coined a special blessing to be recited exclusively on wine: the Hagafen blessing. Jews use wine for kiddush and havdallah on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Many, many mitzvot are accompanied by a cup of wine. Blessings are recited on a cup of wine beneath the chupah (wedding canopy), at a circumcision, at a Pidyon Haben (the "Redemption of a Firstborn Son"), and let's not forget the four cups of wine we drink at the Passover seder! However, there are some pretty ugly stories as well. According to an opinion expressed in the Talmud, the Tree of Knowledge was actually a grapevine, believing that it was the fruit of the vine that tripped up Adam and Eve, causing them and their descendents untold hardship and misery. Nadav and Abihu, Aaron's two holy sons, entered the Holy of Holies while drunk, and were instantly consumed by fire.

When I asked some Jewish experts about this topic, I had a few different responses. Many pointed to the passages in the Bible about the negative effect of wine on the body and the insignificance of earthly temptations in opposition to becoming closer to God. From a close Orthodox friend, I learned something very unique about the relevance of alcohol in Jewish traditions. He begins by explaining to me that each of us (humans) has a body and a soul, and that our body is usually interested only in the material pleasures – good food, exciting entertainment, money, comfort and instant gratification. The soul, however, has higher aspirations than the body. In addition to seeking higher truth, it also seeks true love, meaning, inspiration and a meaningful connection to what's holy. So, essentially each person has an ongoing internal conflict that can convolute one’s true purpose in life.
 
“But how is this unique to Judaism?” I ask. “I know that the Muslim faith forbids all forms of alcohol in order to testify to its followers that earthly desires will deter one from achieving total spirituality with God.” He replies, “Well, all religions attempt to give us access to our souls, but as long as the body continues to follow its path towards the earthly desires, the soul becomes inherently trapped.” This explains why Muslims forbid alcohol consumption, to clear the mind and cleanse the body in preparation for holiness.

He goes on to say that there are two major methods to free the soul that are offered by different religions. First, by suppressing our bodily temptations, we can allow the soul to become free to explore its own path. Taken to its literal extreme, it will create a life of ascetism and abstinence, avoiding the pleasures of this world and concentrating only on achieving oneness with the holy.

Alternatively, by using restraint, we can find spirituality within the mundane itself by being involved with the physical world in a holy and refined way. Once we achieve that balance, he concludes happily, the body no longer opposes the soul but rather serves as a vehicle to express the soul's needs.

Then he turns to me and says, “Now, which method sounds more like us Jews?” I thought about it for a moment, then mumble, “Probably the second one, right?” He claims that Judaism insists on the second approach. Rather than suppress the body, refine it. Don't be celibate, but save sexuality for marriage. Don't fast all day, but only eat foods that are spiritually pure. Essentially, work with the body and not against it.

As I walked away from our conversation, I couldn’t help but start to think about how this philosophy about body and soul relates to Jews drinking wine on the holidays and even on Shabbat. Then I realized that there are some things about wine itself that parallel many Jewish traits. For instance, wine improves with age, much like our souls and lives learn and improve with each passing moment. Wine also embodies a unique property that demonstrates the fact that we need not afflict our bodies in order to tap in to our souls. While most foods decompose as time goes on, as most physical things do, the one exception is wine. Although it is physical, wine has the spiritual property of improving with age. Wine therefore represents what is at the fundamental core of the Jewish faith: fusing the holy and the mundane, the spiritual and physical, the body and soul. 
 
My cocktail for this blog had to embody the themes of our holiday, so this refreshing drink has some wonderful flavors and can be a great addition to any party or a night out, if your bartender is flexible enough to pull it off. Best of all, it’s 100% kosher! Chag Sameach!
 
A Sweet New Year 

2 oz. Apple Vodka (Smirnoff Green Apple is kosher)
½ oz. Apple Pucker
½ oz. organic honey/agave nectar
Or
½ oz. Koval Chrysanthemum Honey Liqueur
1/4 oz. Grand Marnier/Cointreau/Triple Sec
Splash fresh lemon juice
1 thinly sliced apple wheel
Optional: splash of butterscotch schnapps

Add ingredients to shaker filled with ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass or highball glass. Garnish with an apple wheel dipped in honey or agave nectar and serve. Also try with a splash of club soda or San Pellegrino.

L’Chaim!

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''A Taste of Honey''

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09/18/2009

With the High Holidays fast approaching, it must be noted that perhaps the most culturally significant contribution to popular music has Jewish roots. No, I’m not referring to Matisyahu, whose dominance in the vast world of Jewish rap is pretty much unparalleled. (No offense meant to early 1990’s rap legends “Two Live Jews” and their smash hit “Fiddling with Tradition”. Any of you who think I’m making this up need to get to iTunes immediately, and spend .99 on “Mertyle the Matchmaker”.)

I’m of course referring to The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, the lost Jewish link to the Fab Four. You don’t hear much about Mr. Epstein these days. And frankly, you won’t hear too much about him in this article. I’ve merely used him as an obligatory Jewish reference to justify this article’s place on a Jewish website. Sneaky, right?

But really, does religion even matter when referring to the single greatest band of all time? That claim isn’t entirely subjective, either. To wit: they broke up in 1970, but during the week ending September 13, sold a staggering 500,000+ copies of their newly re-mastered back catalog. On their re-release date, 9/9/09, I was first in line at my local Borders (a moment of silence for bygone, real record stores like Tower and Rose Records) to purchase them all. In stereo. And in mono. Despite already owning all of them many times over, on every conceivable format. (Yes, I’m that guy who has every Beatles 8-track tape. If you’re too young to know what an 8-track tape is, I’ve probably written you on J-Date. Sorry about that. And please don’t tell your dad.)

Speaking of J-Date, allow me to relay a story which should illustrate my life-long relationship with the music of The Beatles. A few years ago, I experienced a genuine connection while trolling for love on J-Date. She and I exchanged the requisite 2-3 e-mails, and then went on what was shaping up to be a fantastic first date. After a two-hour dinner, we hit a local wine bar, and began to connect in ways clearly unique for a first date. As the wine flowed, and we began to discuss what our interests were, she spoke lovingly of her many years playing tennis. I’m not a tennis player – though the incessant grunting of random Russian women on TV never seems to get old— but found her interest in the sport really endearing; and told her as much. When she asked me what my interests were, I explained that as a musician, my passion was The Beatles. She appeared stone-faced for a moment, then began to smirk, and said to me (this is verbatim, by the way), “I never understood the whole Beatles thing. I mean, they’re not that great”.

Well, in the immortal words of White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson, “She Gone.”  Our fate was sealed. She might have been the most giving, caring, loving woman in the whole world and might have gone on to be the ideal mother of my kids. Who knows? And who the hell cares? We were incompatible. She didn’t love The Beatles. That’s like Joe Wilson’s wife not loving the confederate flag.  It wasn’t going to work, and the date ended shortly soon after. I don’t need to date a die-hard, but is it too much to ask that my girlfriend knows the difference between the British and American versions of “Rubber Soul?” (Don’t answer that.)

Flash forward to 9/9/09. After a grueling work-out, done to punish myself for the forthcoming day of sitting on a couch and holding my own version of Beatlefest in my condo, I spent nearly $500 on the stereo and mono re-mastered boxed sets of every Beatles album ever released. Many friends, mostly casual fans of The Beatles, have asked, was it worth the purchase? Was it worth the purchase? “Of Course!” Ok, so the mono versions are clearly for diehards like myself, or for that grouchy old guy in your apartment building who lives alone and is still angry that they cancelled “Touched By An Angel”.

But the stereo remasters, all available as individual CD’s as well as a fancy boxed set, are an absolute revelation. The initial Beatles CD’s came out in 1987, back when digital was in its’ infancy. Accordingly, the old CD’s have never sounded very good, and have in fact dated the band in ways unfair to a new generation of fans. (This didn’t seem to stop music buyers in 2000, who made the greatest hits compilation “Beatles 1” the number one album of the year, and one of the biggest sellers of the decade. Again, this was mostly due to dummies like me who felt it incredibly necessary to own “Penny Lane” for the 92nd time.)

The remastered CD’s? Night and day from the old ones. The guitars in “Revolution” tear through the speakers. The harmonies in “Paperback Writer” have never sounded clearer. Paul sounds like he’s sitting right next to you during “Blackbird;” which may or may not be a good thing, depending on how much you want to hear him kvetch about his dreadfully dour ex-wife, Heather. (She was also, I might add, not a fan of The Beatles. Bad move, Sir Paul.) The early stuff (“Twist & Shout,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” etc…) sounds fresher & crisper than ever, and the later stuff reveals the instrumentation & harmonies to be even more sophisticated than ever before, if that’s even possible. In short, each new CD will open the eyes and ears of any Beatles fan, of any interest level. I should know. I listened to them all on 9/9/09, from their first, “Please Please Me”, to the last one recorded, “Abbey Road”. My new downstairs neighbors must either think I’m Ringo Starr’s uncle or Dick Biondi; who may or may not be the same person.

Sure, I’m a little biased. My friends who’ve known me for years have another word to describe my Beatles fandom: “nuts.” Maybe they’re right? But at least I’m not alone. Bands like Pearl Jam, Wilco, the Beastie Boys, Ben Folds, Guster, and countless more continuously cite The Beatles as an immense influence on their work. And the literally hundreds of thousands of CD’s sold in one week indicate that “Beatlemania ’09” hasn’t just afflicted me. Plus, they’re a gift to a sagging music industry which now relies on such cutting edge “artists” as Susan Boyle; who’s new album, “Showtunes to Make You Suicidal” is unfortunately coming soon.

But I’m not looking for validation here; just to immerse myself in some of the greatest rock & roll music ever recorded, by a band that continues to inspire generations both new and old. Don’t believe me? Forget about all of the Beatles-related hype for a second, and pick up the newly issued “Revolver” or “Help!” Chances are, you’ll be hooked right away. If not, I happen to know a tennis fan you might like.

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