ESER 2014

Ten Best Kept Jewish Secrets


This year’s Eser theme is “Ten Best Kept Secrets,” an intriguing focus that promises engaging conversation on a number of little-known and fascinating topics. More than an opportunity to poke around in curious corners of Jewish life, each topic functions as a gateway to a specific set of important and deep issues, generating the kind of exciting and thought-provoking conversations that make Eser unique.   

The Eser committee, comprised of enthusiastic Eser alumni, chose the topics. These will be presented in Eser 2014 by a group of dynamic young rabbis and Jewish educators, who meet a number of times before Eser begins to strategize best ways to bring the curriculum to life in the intimate, friendly settings that are a hallmark of the program. Below is a sampling of some of the topics that will be discussed.

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Tattoos – Today some Jews proudly sport tattoos (even tattoos of Jewish symbols), yet the Bible explicitly prohibits permanent body markings.  Exploring traditional Jewish perspectives on tattoos, and how these have been received today, can teach us a great deal about historically changing conceptions of, and feelings about, the human body.

Secret: You can be buried in a Jewish cemetery if you have a tattoo.


Eating – Jewish rules and customs around food constitute, in many ways,   the foundation of Jewish culture. Discussing these approaches to diet, ritual foods, treatment of animals, feasting and fasting can help reveal unsuspected and deep insights into the meaning of the most basic human activity. 

Secret: There’s a lot more to kosher than some bearded guy blessing food.


Alcohol – Over the years wine and alcohol became an integral part of Jewish celebration. We’ll investigate how this happened, and look at how it shaped Jewish views on moderation, excess, abuse, and drunkenness.  What can we learn from Judaism’s “carefully crafted ambivalence” toward alcohol and intoxication? 

Secret: Judaism requires you to drink at certain times.


Sex – Tantalizing tales found in the Bible and Talmud, taken together with the work of Jewish legal authorities, has led to surprisingly progressive Jewish attitudes towards sexual pleasure.  We’ll track down the origins of these attitudes, in the process clarifying why certain repressive myths about sex still persist, and how Judaism connects sex and spirituality.

Secret: No, observant Jews don’t have sex through a sheet.


Far-flung Jews – How did Jewish communities, living in radically different circumstances and geographic locations, adapt to the cultures around them?  Borrowing and transforming rituals, altering traditional recipes, acculturating, assimilating – Jews did all of these and more in order to survive.  We will delve into this diverse legacy, and ask what it can teach us about our own complicated, modern identities.

Secret: There are 400 Jews in Kenya, and they hold Shabbat services every week.


Intermarriage – Experts estimate that 30-50% of all married Jews are intermarried.  We will examine how the denominations grapple with acceptance of interfaith families, and how these families navigate issues of identity, choice, values and belief.  We will also discuss how the denominations, and different Jews, view the decision to date (or to marry) people who are not Jewish.

Secret: Sixty percent of interfaith families inBoston are raising their kids to be Jewish.

Gender and Sexuality – There is evidence in ancient Jewish texts of non-heterosexual relationships. We will study the background of and context for these relationships, and try to assess the extent to which these relationships resemble today’s LGBTQ relationships.  In what ways are thoughtful people, across Jewish denominations, challenging the Biblical prohibition and traditional attitudes against same-sex intimacy today?

Secret: Over three-quarters of Jews support gay marriage.

End of Life – Judaism’s unique attitudes toward and practices connected with death can teach us much about life. Interestingly, these include not only rituals for how we treat a dead body, but also certain Jewish conceptions of the afterlife.  Both of these can, in turn, impact ethical issues involving organ donations.  How can certain such beliefs inform our understanding of life and death?

Secret: One of the greatest mitzvahs is to stay with a body from the time of death until burial.


Organized Prayer– How and why do Jews pray the way they do?  Jewish prayer began as a substitute for offering animal sacrifices. Ever since, Jews have debated the ultimate purpose of prayer. Intensifying these debates, 19th century European Jews radically changed the synagogue service by incorporating sermons, organs, and pews. We will discuss changes in history that re-shaped the experience of prayer and explore innovative proposals for making prayer inspiring and relevant for contemporary Jews.

Secret: Jews pray in many different ways, and understand it in variety of ways:as meditation, as ecstasy, as a tool for self-knowledge, and so on.  

Superstitions – The Bible prohibits magic, and modern Jews assume that their ancestors rejected such practices. Nonetheless, throughout Jewish history Jews have been interested in the supernatural and held superstitious beliefs.  Where did these practices come from and what purposes did they serve? Have the challenges of living in the modern world made us more or less open to the coping strategies of our ancestors?

Secret: Some Jews today wear amulets that they believe have protective powers. 


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