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Baklava and the Jewish Question
Yom Kippur Morning
October 9, 2008  10 Tishri 5769
Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso
Once a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim sailed from Izmir to try their luck in Istanbul.
When they reached Istanbul, they found a gold coin in the street. They agreed to buy baklava
with the money and decided that whoever had the best dream would get to eat the entire pastry.
They proceeded to an inn for a good night’s sleep, each hoping for a wonderful dream.
When they awoke in the morning the three went to the coffeehouse in the marketplace to
tell their dreams to the people gathered there. They wanted those present to judge who had the
best dream.
The Christian began: “I dreamed that Jesus came to me in Nazareth, carried me to
Paradise, and showed me the saints sitting there.”
The Muslim recounted his dream: “I dreamed that Muhammad came to me in Mecca,
bore me on his shoulders and showed me Paradise.”
The audience at the coffeehouse was impressed. How could any dream be more beautiful
than those!
Then it was the Jew’s turn. “My dream is not on the level of yours, for I didn’t get to
Paradise. Instead, our teacher Moses came to me and said, ‘The Muslim is with Muhammad in
Mecca, and the Christian is with Jesus in Nazareth. Who knows when they’ll return, or whether
they’ll return at all?” And he advised me, “The baklava will get stale. Eat it yourself.”
“Did you eat it?” asked his companions in a single voice.
“What do you think?” thundered the Jew. “Would I ignore the advice of our teacher
(from Folktales of the Jews: Volume 1 Tales from the
Sephardic Dispersion, ed. By Dan Ben-Amos)
This past summer Dennis and I, along with several other members of the Jewish
community, traveled to Turkey, hosted by The Holy Dove Foundation, whose mission is to
promote cultural exchange, interfaith dialogue and an appreciation of Islam. As we journeyed
through a fascinating country, we took off shoes and wrapped scarves around our heads in
mosques. Days and nights were punctuated by the call to prayer resounding from minarets. We
ate dinner with devout Muslim families whose home hospitality was warm and generous. We
came to know Islam’s five pillars of faith, not as prescribed in a textbook, but as lived out in the
life of ordinary Muslims with whom we shared good food, lively conversations, great stories and
hearty laughs.
As we moved from city to village, from the Bosporus to the Mediterranean, from Europe
to Asia, we began to wonder what was it that we wanted to tell our new found Muslim friends
about Judaism. Turkey was once home to the largest Jewish community in the world. Jews
escaping the Inquisition in Spain were welcomed in the Ottoman Empire. Throughout the 16th
century the Jews in the Ottoman Empire enjoyed remarkable prosperity both economically
through their trade partners in Europe, and culturally, with the flowering of Jewish learning and
mysticism. The decline of the Empire in the 17th century, the influx of Christian minorities who
took over the role of the Jewish merchants, resurgent anti-Semitism and the allure of the
European enlightenment resulted in significant emigration and the weakening of Jewish life. Our
Jewish friend and guide in Izmir lamented: “Once there were 55,000 Jews here; now there are
With 99% of Turkey’s population being Muslim, our Turkish guide and host knew little
about Judaism. He brought us to Turkey to show us a peaceful face of Islam that had been
overshadowed by terrorists and extremists.
I asked him why most of his dialogue had been with Christians, why the previous trips he
had accompanied to Turkey rarely visited a synagogue. He related how he once had called a
rabbi in another American city where he was living and invited him to be part of a
Muslim/Jewish conversation. The rabbi declined. So our host surmised that the Jewish
community wasn’t interested in dialogue with Muslims. After spending 10 days in Turkey with
an almost entirely Jewish group, he saw a different face of Judaism as we were able to see a
different and gentler face of Islam. He said, “On most of my trips I do all the teaching, on this
trip, I also learned something.”
While many Spanish Jews found refuge from the Inquisition in Turkey, others were
forcibly converted to Christianity. They continued to practice their Judaism in secret. They
were the “conversos” or “crypto-Jews”. Never totally free from the suspicion that their
conversion was insincere, many emigrated to other countries. I recall a story once told me by a
converso woman living in the United States. The woman related how her mother, who professed
to be Catholic, used to light candles every Friday evening. Before she did, she would turn
around the picture of Jesus that hung in her dining room to the wall. On the back side of the
picture was a mirror. The mother secretly told her daughter, “I do this, so that at least once a
week, I will know who I really am.”
Who are we really? At least twice a year during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we
come to synagogue, and for a few moments, we hold that mirror up to ourselves. What do we
see? What does it mean to say, “I am Jewish.” What would we want to teach and share with our
Muslim and Christian neighbors about Judaism? And what does it all mean to us during the rest
of the 363 days of the year?
Let us return for a moment to the story of the baklava. There is more than a good laugh
in the rabbi’s decision to go ahead and eat the honey laced delicacy while his friends lingered in
Paradise. Judaism is a this-worldly religion. The Talmud teaches that you will be held
accountable for every permissible pleasure you are given to enjoy and you decline to do so.
“Indulge yourself in all things permitted to you,” says the Talmud. Desire and pleasure are
divine gifts. Judaism does not tell us to sublimate and deny them, only to discipline and sanctify
In other words, if you are offered a good piece of baklava- don’t discuss theology. Eat it
and savor its sweetness. We welcome the Sabbath and holy days with wine; we are commanded
to recite blessings over a beautiful tree, a rainbow, on seeing an ocean, on tasting a fruit for the
first time. There are good things in the world; they are not traps, not placed there to lead us into
temptation, to avoid for fear they will corrupt us or ensnare us. They are there for us to enjoy
and appreciate.
All through our travels in Turkey our Muslim friends would tell us that they perform
certain deeds because of the reward. Women are not required to wear a headscarf, but those who
do will have a greater reward. You can pray alone wherever you are, but for those who pray in
the mosque with others, the reward is much greater. When I inquired further what the nature of
this reward was, I was told that the afterlife would be all that much sweeter.
Jewish sources also talk about the afterlife. The prayer book tells us that God resurrects
the dead. Mystical texts even discuss reincarnation, the transmigration of souls. Yom Kippur is
also referred to as Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. The rabbis speak of a Garden of Eden,
heaven and Gehinnom, their name for hell. Interestingly, Gehinnom is not some ethereal
netherworld but the name of a valley outside the walls of Jerusalem, where pagan cults sacrificed
children. Perhaps the rabbis were telling us that we have the power to make either heaven or hell
on earth.
Judaism visits various ideas about the afterlife, in some historical periods more than
others, but it doesn’t live there. Judaism lives in this life, and it asks that we make the most of
each day, not for the sake of some distant promise, for some greater reward, but for its own sake.
I am reminded of another story of a priest, a minister and a rabbi. They ask one another
what they would like said of them at their funerals. The priest says- “I want people to say that I
was devout in prayer, that I was a man of faith.” The minister says – “I want people to say I
followed God’s ways; that I was a good preacher.” The rabbi says – “At my funeral, I want
people to say – “Look, he’s moving!”
This life is to be treasured, celebrated, not merely endured. Many of my non-Jewish
friends remark positively about the open and candid way in which grief is expressed at a Jewish
funeral. Rarely does the rabbi say that we should be happy because the deceased is going to a
“better place” to be with God. We mourn. We say that to lose one life is like losing an entire
world. We say when a human being created in the image of God dies, even God weeps. We
speak of the sadness of loss, even as we recognize the joys and blessings of the life that was.
When I explain this to my Muslim friend, when I tell him that I believe that immortality
is what we make of life on this earth, the memories we leave behind, the people and the places
we have touched, the world we have changed because we were in it, our connection to timeless
things of the spirit, he says, “That is not enough. Why should I be good, if that is all there is?”
And I respond – “I believe that is all there is, and that is a lot when you think of it, it’s a lot to
find paradise in yourself and in others.”
When I look in the mirror, the Jewish face that looks back is the one that says – For
God’s sake, do something! For the sake of humanity, engage in tikkun olam. Transform the
Judaism is not about getting out of this world for a better place, but about changing the
world for a better life. There is something inherently optimistic about Judaism. It affirms that
human beings are not born sinful, capable of being saved only by grace. Human beings may be
capable of sinning, but not because they are inherently sinful. They are created in the image of
God; they make free choices for bad or good. Salvation is more about deed than about creed,
about communal redemption than individual deliverance.
It is not that we as Jews don’t share some common beliefs with Christianity and Islam,
but that we are defined less by doctrine and more by mitzvot, less by what we believe than what
we understand ourselves as obligated to do. When I look in the mirror, the Jewish face I see tells
me: live a life that is worthwhile.
We learn a lot about who we are from the stories we tell about ourselves. There are two
core Jewish stories: one is the Exodus from Egyptian bondage; the other is the receiving of the
Torah at Sinai. We begin telling who we are as a people with two props – freedom and a book.
Despite all the audio-visual fireworks, the Exodus is ultimately less about God
intervening in the course of events to perform a miracle and more about the imagination of a
people to envision a better way of life and the faith and courage of a community to make that life
a reality. For the first time in history, a people said: the way things are – master and
slave/oppressor and oppressed – is not the way they ought to be. What is most important about
the Exodus narrative is not the legend of the sea splitting but the audacity of a community to
believe that things could be and should be different, and then to have the courage to walk into
that sea without knowing for sure what the future held.
Jewish sources move away from relying on supernatural intercession and toward
depending on human intervention. It is not that Jews have not flirted with messianic ideas. In
fact, there were many messianic pretenders throughout Jewish history. In 17th century Turkey,
Shabbetai Tzvi, attracted thousands of followers who were willing to sell their homes, unearth
loved ones’ graves and carry their remains with them to Israel on the belief that Tzvi was the
Messiah and the end time was imminent. Even Shabbetai Tzvi’s eventual conversion to Islam
did not deter all of his supporters.
Christianity didn’t invent the idea of a Messiah; they took it from Judaism. The
difference is that in Christianity the Messiah became God, and belief in him became the central
tenet of faith. What took center stage in Judaism was not a person, but a book. What Jesus is to
Christians, Torah is to Jews.
In Christianity the word becomes flesh; what is central is incarnation.1 In Judaism, the
word becomes more words. What is central is interpretation.” All religious traditions tell
legends about God. Ours tells about God studying. Learning is godly. Discoveries in academic
disciplines, whether literature or science, history or anthropology, don’t challenge Jewish faith;
they enrich and expand it.
I don’t look in the Jewish mirror because I believe that Judaism will give me certainty; I
embrace it because it helps me live with uncertainty. I don’t want simple and absolute answers
Handleman, Susan. The Slayer of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory.
to complex questions, because they don’t feel honest. I want to join with generations of my
ancestors who understood doubt as the beginning of wisdom, who lived their lives with question
marks, who kept searching for meaning and all the while made a life worth remembering. I want
to join with a people who despite hardship would still eat the baklava, taste its sweetness and
find joy.
I look to Judaism to give me the community, past and present, which connects me, an
individual with a finite number of years, with something infinite and eternal. The Jewish mirror
tells me that I am not complete by myself, that it is through and with others that I develop a
richer and fuller sense of who I am. I look to Judaism to give me the words and the rituals, the
drama and the music that sanctify the ordinary events of living from birth to death, from week to
week, causing me to pause and consider what is passing and what, after all, really matters.
I traveled all the way to Turkey to learn more about another faith and tradition, and in the
end, the journey invited me to take a look in the mirror for a better understanding of my own.
Later in the summer Dennis and I travelled with the Jewish Federation to Spain. There
we toured Cordoba with a guide who had discovered in her ancestry, Jewish roots. She told us
that many people who lived in Spain had similar histories. I asked her whether she thought that
the Jewish life that had been lost, mostly forgotten, would somehow be reclaimed. At first she
said, “I don’t think so. People are too busy; too preoccupied just making a life.” But then she
hesitated and whispered, “You can’t erase a memory.” God knows, it has been tried.
But maybe she is right and maybe it is true – maybe you can’t erase a memory. Maybe it
remains just waiting – waiting for someone to turn the picture to the wall and look in the mirror.
In the days ahead, no matter how busy or how preoccupied we are, let us look into that
mirror and see who is the person that looks back.
Don’t erase the memory. Do not allow it to fade. Sharpen it. Brighten it. Give it new
life in the year that has just begun.