Judaica 101: Essential elements to building a Jewish home

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The wedding date is set, the celebrations for the big event have begun and the gifts are starting to arrive. While china and stemware settings are still appropriate wedding gifts, for newlyweds intent on creating a Jewish household, the wish list just got a little longer.

What to get? To assist both the couple heading to the chuppah and the guest wanting to give the right gift, j. turned to some Bay Area rabbis for advice. They offered a few guidelines as to what’s essential, what’s the purpose and how a specific Judaic item helps in establishing a Jewish home.

A good place to start, says Rabbi Daniel Pressmen of Saratoga’s Conservative Congregation Beth David, is with Shabbat items, such as candlesticks, a Kiddush cup, challah cover and cutting board. “Shabbat is a very, very important practice and value,” he said. “It is a sacred time for the couple, especially in terms of sanctifying the home as well as their time together.”

It’s a matter of creating a physical space in the home for Shabbat, says Rabbi Margie Jacobs of Richmond’s Reform Temple Beth Hillel. “It’s also a part of creating a space in time in the midst of one’s busy week, where you can invite Shabbat into your home and put aside those demands of the week in order to focus on each other.”

Another equally regarded essential is the mezuzah, which Rabbi Judah Dardik of Oakland’s Modern Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation, says represents transition. “We put a mezuzah on our doors because doorways are a transition from one space to another and at every transition we want to remind ourselves of the essential beliefs that are contained in the writing of the mezuzah.”

Rabbi Dana Magat of Reform Congregation Temple Emanu-El in San Jose describes a mezuzah as a commitment to the Jewish heritage. “It is a statement of identity, an acknowledgement that as part of the Jewish people, we are part of something larger than ourselves.”

To that, Pressman adds, “a mezuzah is a statement not only to yourself, but to the world, that this is a Jewish home.”

In addition, Jacobs points out, “a mezuzah creates a sense of home as a sacred place, as well as a place of protection from the demands and stresses of the outside world.”

A third component in creating the Jewish home is the tzedakah box, which Dardik says should remind us that our homes are not an island. “We’re not alone in this world and therefore we need to think about those beyond the threshold of our home as well.”

Other recommended Judaica include sacred texts for couples who want to study together, and holidays items such as seder plates, haggadahs, chanukiahs and Jewish art — “items which bring forth a certain spiritual feeling to a home,” says Jacobs. She also suggests displaying one’s ketubah as a reflection of the values, intentions and hope that brought the newlyweds together in the first place.

And don’t forget Jewish books, adds Dardik. Jews are not only the people of the book, but “we’re the people of the books,” he says. “It is hard to imagine a couple beginning a spiritual journey and not having as part of that journey Jewish books such as the Chumash or a basic introduction to Judaism. Learning is one of our most essential values, which, as a people, makes us who we are.”

Magat recommends the book, “On The Doorposts on Your House” (published in 1994 by the Central Conference of American Rabbis), because of its clear and concise coverage of lifecycles, including painful events in life, times of anxiety, benedictions for weddings, daily worship, and readings for reflection and inspirations.

And the list doesn’t end here. Gifts of Judaica can translate into a wide variety of items including shofars, lox-and-bagel platters, handcrafted jewelry, Israeli music, children’s puzzles and games, and honey-and-apple specialty plates for Rosh Hashanah.

Receiving more than one of a kind is never a problem, adds Jacobs, who recommends sharing items with others in the family. Most items can be saved or passed down from generation to generation along with the values and traditions of the family. “An extra tzedakah box, for example, can be passed along to a child or children in the family, teaching them at an early age what it means to be human from a Jewish perspective.”

Now that gift registries have become de rigueur in most Judaica gift stores and synagogue gift shops, shopping is downright easy.

Nurit Sabadosh, owner of Alef Bet Judaica in Los Gatos, says she sees lots of registry requests for mezuzahs, candlesticks, challah boards and covers, and a plethora of holiday items for Chanukah, including dreidels and children’s holiday books, as well as Passover items such as seder tablecloths and napkins, seder plates, and Elijah’s and Miriam’s cups. “My customers don’t want to just buy secular gift items, they tell me they want to get something Jewish for the couple,” she said.

Gift-registering makes that concept easy and painless, says Eva-Lynne Leibman, co-owner of Dayenu gift shop in the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. “What’s been popular over the last 15 years are the basic items, such as mezuzot, candlesticks, dreidel stand or chanukiah, all with tubes attached into which the newlyweds place the shards from the glass broken at their wedding. It’s been a big seller for weddings.”

While all of these items are important elements in a newlywed’s spiritual journey to create a Jewish home, one more ingredient is necessary.

“What’s really important for the couple to have,” says Pressman, “is an attitude that states, ‘we have a Jewish home. We’re both going to try to grow Jewishly, and even though we may not be in the same place [spiritually] all the time, we’re going to be supportive of each other as we take this journey together.'”