Archive by category "Exploring God's World"

A Shofar Sounds In Venice!


by Rabbi Corinne Copnick


From the harbor where we disembarked, my daughter and I had walked almost the length of the Venetian canal to reach the Old Jewish Quarter. In Barcelona, we had found only an extinct Jewish community, memorialized mainly by a few inscribed cemetery stones inserted into a wall, tales of what used to be, and white-washed stories of the Spanish Inquisition. In the ports we visited in Croatia, we had discovered a small synagogue but little else that warmed the heart of Jewish life. In Albania, we found nothing. By contrast, the Old Jewish Quarter in Venice it was restored, vibrant, and alive with the sound of young, black-clad and hatted, Chabad students showing interested tourists how to lay tefillin – and how to blow the shofar (a ram’s horn traditionally used to herald the Jewish New Year). Scattered on a long table were shofarot of various shapes and sizes. In preparation for my Guest Rabbi stint on a Mediterranean cruise over the High Holy Days, I had carefully packed a small, whitish, bubble-wrapped, Israeli ram’s horn – chosen over my black Yemenite antelope’s horn, curlier and harder to fit in the suitcase. I didn’t know that I would be able to find a shofar – from such a plentiful array — in the Village Square of the Old Jewish quarter in Venice. You have to hand it to Chabad (even if they don’t accept women rabbis!)

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The long table was set out in front of a storefront synagogue, a comfortable prayer space for travelers that Chabad had set up, and right next to it was – yes, a small kosher restaurant. Both were full. Klezmer music played, and it was next to impossible to keep my feet from dancing. The joyful atmosphere was infectious. It was old Jewish Venice revived.  

In the Judaica shop, I was drawn to and almost purchased a good-sized Torah scroll (available in a smaller size, too, but harder to read) that featured a continuous, brightly-colored comic strip to tell the story of the Five Books of Moses. The balloons emanating from the characters in the story were in English (other vernacular languages may have been available), and bannered directly above each comic strip was the Hebrew text. It was a beautiful creation, not garish at all, not sacrilegious. A good teaching tool to interest bar/bat mitzvah candidates, I thought.  And I’m not one to be thrilled by comic books (even though I did devour Wonder Woman comics and plenty of others when I was a kid).

Torah Scroll: Michal Meron

“How much?” I asked the kind-faced Hasidic man who seemed to be supervising the store. That’s when I found out that the price was $1,000. That’s why there were donation pages preceding the text to record the names of the givers. Probably the scroll was intended as a bar/bat mitzvah gift. I still wavered – it was so unusual. Where would I ever find such a scroll again?

In Florida, that’s where! The truly excellent artist, Michal Meron, lives in the U.S., and the scrolls were produced there, too. “It takes her a year to make each scroll,” the Hasidic man said gently.  He was a great salesman, but now he wanted to close the sale. The Judaica shop would ship it to L.A. for me, but the price was the price.

“Hmmm,” I prevaricated. Buying it would decimate my shopping budget for the entire, three-week trip. “I think we’ll take some time to think about it. We want to visit the restored synagogue first.”

So my daughter and I climbed the steps to the moderately-sized, Sephardic synagogue on an upper floor overlooking the square and listened to an informative guide explain its history, and how it had, like everything else in the quarter, been so lovingly restored.

Then we returned to the Judaica store where I regretfully told the Hasidic man, who eyes still smiled at us, that we couldn’t afford the comic book Torah, but the Hanukah dreidels (miniature tops that spin and are used for a children’s game) were also compelling. So we settled for several really beautiful dreidels crafted in Murano glass.

I haven’t been to Florida in years, but the next time I visit there, I’ll look up the inspired artist who creates Torahs for bar/bat mitzvah kids.


Seeking Jewish Life in Spain?


by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Photo credit:×380.png


500 Years Ago


Despite the fact that the Spanish government, a democratic monarchy now headed by King Juan Carlos’ son, Felipe VI, has tried to redeem the ugly facts of the long ago expulsion of Spain’s Jews. It happened 500 years ago. Amazingly, in 2014, the well-meaning Spanish government decided to offer full citizenship to Jews whose ancestors were once expelled from Spain. Better late than never. Yet, despite this enticement to come back, the number of Jews living in Spain still remains small.

As history reminds us, the Jewish presence in Spain effectively ended with the decision of the devoutly Catholic monarchs of Spain, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, to to establish what was known as the Spanish Inquisition in 1478. Officially it was called The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition.  There were to be no heretics in Spain.

Some 15 years later, The Edict of Expulsion, issued in 1492, compelled all Jews, rich or poor, either to convert or to leave the country within a four-month window.(1) There were some 300,000 Jews in Spain! Many of their families not only had been living in Spain for centuries but had also contributed largely to the country’s brilliance and prosperity. Of these, 40,000 to 100, 000 (estimates vary) Jews, refused to convert. Consequently, they were forced to liquidate everything they owned —  if indeed they could — and flee.

The majority of the Spanish Jews, however, wished to remain in Spain; in order to do so, they were forced to convert to Catholicism. Forever after, they were known as Conversos (or derogatively, Marranos, meaning pigs). Although many Conversos adhered to Judaism in secret, it was a dangerous practice. They were constantly suspected of “Judaizing.” Discovery of secret practice or Jewish associations incurred severe punishments, such as torture or burning at the stake. Confiscated holy books were burned. Assets were seized.

Despite the efforts of a prominent, wealthy, Jewish scholar and businessman, Don Isaac Abravanel – who reportedly had financed the three ships for Columbus’ voyage to the New World (the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria) in order to influence the rulers to delay or rescind this order, the rulers remained firm. They were under the indomitable sway of the Grand Inquisitor, Torquemada. No Jews in Spain. In addition, it was undoubtedly to the rulers’ economic advantage to seize Jewish properties and other valuable assets that could not be transacted within the four-month deadline.

Many Spanish Jews fled in terror to nearby Portugal (where, unfortunately, their safety was very brief) and to the other countries of the Mediterranean. Others fled across the Mediterranean to Arab lands. They carried their culture, their Spanish language, and their haunting Ladino songs with them.  Some also carried the keys to the old synagogues and passed them down. Always, these Sephardim hoped to return. For the first time in centuries, they can.


A Period of Transition: 1975


The first time I visited Spain was in 1975. It was a period of transition from the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, which had begun in 1939 after he led his right-wing Nationalist party to victory in the the fiercely fought Spanish Civil War. During World War II, Spain leaned toward the Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy.

By 1975, when Franco died and the dictatorship ended, local people still seemed guarded, reluctant to converse with foreigners. Policemen helmeted in the curious Spanish manner were still evident on the streets of Barcelona, Catalonia — the first city in southern Spain on my tour’s itinerary. While the beautiful Costa del Sol was being developed as a resort area, reflecting the political uncertainly, stalled projects, reflecting the political uncertainty, could be seen along the beaches. The whole country, it seemed, had warily assumed a waiting posture as the process of establishing a democracy had begun under a monarch, King Juan Carlos, as head of State.

The Spain I was revisiting four decades later in 2016 was a happy, bustling place.(2) People had welcoming smiles for visitors and, in Barcelona, there was great pride in the extravagantly joyful, out-of-the-box (even weird), Gaudi architecture that is the pride of this lovely city; the icing on the cake is that there are beautiful beaches too.

Barcelona, however, has a noticeable paucity of Jews:  According to the Jewish Virtual Library, about 5,000 live in Barcelona now, while some 12,000 Jews live in Madrid (the Conservative Beit El synagogue is there), Malaga, and Barcelona combined.(3) There is a small synagogue converted to a museum in Toledo. However, depending on the source, estimates for Jews living in Spain today vary considerably, anywhere from 13,000 to 50,000. A handful of Jews live in Valencia and Marbella, as well as in two North African enclaves.  Once there were so many more.

Back in Los Angeles, I had researched the old Jewish synagogue still standing in the center of Barcelona. Its name, Sinagoga Major de Barcelona, suggests its past importance. Dating back to the 6th century CE, with sturdy Roman foundations and the remains of arched Roman walls, it may well be the oldest synagogue in Europe. In fact, it is one of only five medieval synagogues that have survived. Its two rooms – that’s it! — are pictured on the Internet.(4) Since I had already viewed the photographs, the Sinagoga’s rooms seemed familiar when I arrived in person, except that they seemed so much smaller than I had anticipated. In order to enter, I had to descend a flight of stairs. Of course! Because of its great age and the fact that it had been unearthed, the little synagogue was very considerably lower in the ground than the surrounding buildings.

I had the sense of entering a dimly-lit cave. That’s what it felt like – a smallish cave with a structure held up by enduring Roman walls. Two ladies (Jewish?) sat there in folding chairs, ready to impart information to visitors. They told us that there was probably a mikvah buried under the adjoining building, but it could not be excavated because it was the private property of other people (who understandably didn’t want their café dug up).


Good Will and Then Some…


Given the good will of the current Spanish government, the efforts to rebuild Jewish life in Spain continue. Unfortunately, there is also a strong and very disturbing anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian feeling pervading the country – a new kind of anti-Semitism, even though few Spanish people have ever met an actual Jew. Or even have a true understanding of what happened to the Jews in Spain 500 years ago.

Unfortunately, what passes for the old Jewish quarter in Barcelona is really a figment of the imagination. It’s not even a good stage set. In reality, it consists of a bunch of engraved plaques attached to tall brick buildings constructed long after the original buildings were demolished. The plaques identify where the original buildings in the narrow alleys of the Jewish quarter ONCE stood. None of the brick buildings were the original buildings. Consequently, our visit there was a disappointment.

Until. One of the walls of a building – possibly identifying the site of the quarter’s long ago cemetery – had individual names in Hebrew letters etched in them. What??? Salvaged stones from the old Jewish cemetery had been built into the new wall. I kissed the Hebrew names etched in each marked stone within my reach. Even centuries later, those who visit this quarter-that-isn’t can still honor the Jews who once were there.

Even though, as Daniella Levy writes in her excellent article about her own, more extensive visit to Spain (5), she found a pro-Palestinian slogan (Palestina Libra)  — scrawled maliciously across the Hebrew letters identifying the site of the old Jewish quarter.

As I wrote in the Guest Book of the Sinagoga Major, “I am still here.”

(1)The full Edict can be read online at and other sites.

(2)It reflected my own feelings as, once again, a Guest Staff Rabbi on a Cruise Ship, this time to the Mediterranean.



(5)“Dear Spain: Want to Attract Jews? You’re Doing It Wrong,” Scribe: The Forward’s Contributor Network, Forward, July 24, 2017.

Carnival – a Lifeline in Rio


by Rabbi Corinne Copnick


All the way along the coast to Rio de Janiero, we could see the progress of the world-renowned Carnival in the small towns and cities near our ports-of call. Early on, stands were already being constructed; a little later, decorations were being added, parts of costumes tried on, carried on hangers, even worn in the streets in each of the places we stopped. Every Brazilian town of any size, at least on the east coast, has its own Carnival.

Photo credit:×543.jpg

It’s not just a once a year performance that’s at stake; it’s a progression towards the ultimate by the inhabitants of Brazil, toward maybe being the best samba dancers, musicians, and artists in the land. The Rio de Janiero show will be attended by thousands of tourists — and, of course, proud Brazilians.  

As we sailed up the coast of Brazil, we could see the grim signs of poverty too, the ugly graffiti that deface once beautiful buildings and the grey, broken-down favelas (miserable slums occupied by squatters) that, ghostlike, ring big cities like Rio. Of course, the city also boasts areas where the rich live, like the luxury apartments and big hotels surrounding the fabled Copacabana Beach (reminiscent of Miami) or the magnificent mansions around the site of the historic Imperial Palace. As the English Charles Dickens wrote in a Victorian context, it’s a tale of two cities.

However, in Brazil you can’t always tell the income level of an area by what appears outside. It’s common for residents not to keep the exteriors in good repair to avoid paying extra taxes. Inside the apartments may be very nicely furnished and well kept.

The favelas, though, are completely run-down; the front lawns are rubble, where children play and teenagers flirt.  Because these areas are a jumble of lanes without addresses where mail can be delivered (at least, at the time I was there), the socialist government (no longer in power) was providing free telephone service and Internet access to the residents. Despite the pervading poverty, it seemed like everyone had – or had access to — a smart phone.

Portuguese-speaking, local taxi drivers who couldn’t speak English used them as portable translators; the customers spoke English into the phone, and it was translated into Portuguese; and vice versa.

“I’m sorry I don’t speak English,” the driver apologized.

“I’m sorry I don’t speak Portuguese,” I replied (that is, Portuguese Brazilian style, whose guttural sounds are far removed from Portuguese, Portugal style!)

Yet somehow we communicated very well. It’s amazing how far cell phones and hand gestures can take you. Plus the limited phrases from our guide book (and the couple of classes in getting-to-know Portuguese that we took on the ship) helped us as we drove around the city.

Rio is undoubtedly well guarded.  Standing over Rio, its huge, art-deco-style dimensions and outstretched arms protecting the city, is the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer. Standing atop a pedestal on the summit of Mount Corcovado, and made of reinforced concrete covered with 1000s of triangular soapsones, it is 98 feet tall; the reach of its extended arms is 92 feet. Since 2007, it has been considered one of the Seven New Wonders of the World. Although it’s by far the largest statue of Christ in the world, Catholic Churches of varying sizes and splendor can be found everywhere throughout Brazil.

“Thank God that the people have the Church and Carnival,” I remarked to the cruise ship’s Catholic priest. “I think they would explode without them.” The tension in the country, centering on the need for jobs in the face of big projects stalled every where for lack of money, is palpable. At each of the ship’s stops, young men stood in groups, arms grimly folded, eyes devouring us, hoping for work that wasn’t there for them.

It is a syncretic kind of religion, though, that colors Carnival. Some Brazilian natives (especially in the north of Brazil, closest to the U.S.) had been slaves, transported to this country from Africa by colonial powers to work in the plantations and mines. Despite the best efforts of Christian missionaries, though, Brazilians throughout the country still retain vestiges of the native religions that once permeated the jungle areas. Although eventually most converted to Christianity, they superimposed their native deities on top of the Christian trinity and saints. It makes for a very vibrant, transposed religion in many keys that dances its way to the competitions of Carnival.

Carnival is so integral to the spirit of Brazil that I had always thought it was run by the government, but this is not so. Apparently, it is a private, year-long enterprise. It organizes samba clubs all over Brazil that develop their own routines, different each year, and practice hard and long to enter their own club’s “show” in competition. Eventually twelve and then six samba clubs are chosen. These are invited to design their décor and sew their costumes in a specially constructed complex in Rio.

It is these six clubs that finally perform at Carnival, and thousands of people attend. Each club performs for an hour and a half in one night’s frenzied entertainment. So with six clubs performing, that’s a total of nine continuous hours that audiences sit on concrete benches to applaud the frenetic dancers and musicians. (By the time we got to Rio, tickets were $500 per person to sit on the backless benches; if you wanted a reserved seat with a back and a little closer to the entertainment, the tickets were $1,000 apiece.) The very next day there is a Carnival parade for the populace led by the winning club.

Our ship had arranged for local dancers and musicians to put on a private, onboard show (beautifully costumed dancers, shaking their almost bare backsides to frenetic rhythms, delighted some of the older men on board by dancing with them). Rather than brave the crowds and continuous alcohol consumption late at night, my daughter and I opted for this shipboard arrangement (it was terrific)! In addition, since many smaller towns also put on a dynamic show, we attended one at the next stop, Parintins; it was well worth the price ($150 per ticket).

As it happens, the revelry of Carnival takes place close to the time of Purim, the Jewish festival where young and old kids dress up as Queen Esther and King Ahasuerus and hiss and shake noise-makers at the villain, Haman, who wanted to kill all the Jews in long-ago Persia. The Festival of Purim, too – the one night of the year Jews are supposed to get drunk! – has acted as a safety valve for the many years that Jewish people suffered persecution at the hands of various countries. People need to let off steam in difficult situations, and a festival of this kind is a joyful way of doing it.

Whatever your religious belief, thank God for Purim, and thank God for Carnival. These festivals continue to allow for a reprieve of happiness in the midst of miserable conditions; the concentration of working towards a collective, bigger-than-oneself goal; and the opportunity to be grateful for the vibrancy of life while we live it. They can be a lifeline to better times.

Follow the Mikvah!


by Rabbi Corinne Copnick


Have you ever immersed yourself in a mikvah? Probably not, unless you are an orthodox woman. Modern mikvahs look like what would be a very tiny swimming pool in Los Angeles. Yet going to the mikvah is an age-old requirement for Jewish women, as a kind of ritual purification after menstruation or an illness. Immersion in the mikvah – you have to be squeaky clean before you descend its steps into the water — can be a celebratory ritual, too – before a wedding, or after the birth of a child, or as part of a conversion ceremony. There are attendants to help you, like a spa. You recite beautiful prayers and feel wonderful afterwards. I immersed completely – not a strand of hair can show above the water — in the mikvah the day before I was ordained as a rabbi. I’m not orthodox. You don’t have to be orthodox to go to the mikvah. If you can’t swim, the attendant will kneel beside the pool and hold your hand.



Men can go as well, separately, and religious Jews often do – as bridegrooms perhaps or before the Sabbath. If it’s a conversion, the supporting Rabbi will accompany you.

There are strict standards to maintain, though. The mikvah’s water must be natural, spotlessly clean, and constantly circulating from a fresh source (oceans, rivers, spring-fed lakes, even rainwater or ice or snow collected to meet specific transport and handling regulations). It is usually housed in an enclosed space either built into the ground or attached to a building. It can’t be a portable arrangement. Most mikvahs today have water-purification and filtration systems, which makes the plumbing expensive to maintain.

Alternatively, you can simply immerse yourself completely in the sea three times and say the prayers, but there is the danger of currents sweeping you away, and the weather doesn’t always cooperate. So mikvahs are indoors. Of course, with indoor plumbing, hot water, and even luxury bathtubs available in North America today, many Jewish women no longer feel the need to go to the mikvah. Like an appendix, it seems unnecessary, an anachronism.

But the mikvah is not just about cleanliness of the body. It’s not a bath. You have to take a bath or shower and clip your nails BEFORE you enter the mikvah squeaky clean. There is a strong spiritual dimension involved. It’s a Jewish RITUAL bath, in which you immerse ALL of you. Three times, and with each immersion you say a special prayer, ending with the core Hebrew prayer, the Shema (“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord I One”). Guests may sit behind a screen and offer prayers and blessings, even songs, as well. It’s an occasion.

And where there is a mikvah, you can be sure there will be a synagogue. Some people say, “Follow the money!” In this case, you can say, “Follow the mikvah!” That’s why people in Brazil were so excited when a centuries-old mikvah was discovered in Recife in the year 2000. Interested archeologists, who already possessed old maps and records, had started to dig – eight floors down — beneath a building in the old Street of the Jews (Rua dos Judeus). And they found it! So they knew. That’s where the oldest synagogue in the Americas had once been.

Yes, it was the site of the old Kahal Zur Israel synagogue, founded in 1630. A congregation of Jewish refugees from the Inquisition in Europe had prayed there until the conquering Portuguese banned Judaism in Brazil. So by 1654, the Jews were forced to flee again. Or else to hide their religion as conversos, sometimes in the interior wilds of Brazil. Eventually, they created prosperous sugar plantations and other thriving businesses and are credited with building up the economy of Brazil in many ways.

Although many Brazilian Jews left for Israel in 1948, about 120,000 Jews still populate Brazil today, largely centered in the big cities of Sao Paulo or Rio de Janiero, home of Carnival. Unfortunately, in latter years, there has been some anti-Israel sentiment in Brazil, with its recently deposed President holding strong pro-Palestinian views.

But the Jewish community is still strong. And today, directly across the street from the recently rebuilt Kahal Zur Israel (which means “Rock of Israel”) synagogue in Recife stands a Jewish museum and cultural center. What makes the complex extraordinary is that part of the excavated mikvah is on display right there — protectively covered by glass. It was this ritual bath’s discovery that reactivated philanthropic interest in rebuilding the old synagogue in the spot where it once stood.

Although the museum and cultural center are stunningly beautiful, throughout the time I was there, my eyes kept returning to the excavated mikvah; my heart was in the mikvah, my thoughts spilling into its protected waters.

In Los Angeles, where I live, I serve from time to time as one of the dayanim – one of the three rabbis that make up a rabbinic court known as a Beit Din (House of Justice). After a conversion acceptance, it is a joyful part of our task to accompany the applicant to the mikvah to complete the conversion process. For me, each time it is a mystical moment, connecting all of those present to the Divine. Each time I have tears in my eyes, just as I did looking into this mikvah dating back to the 1600s — and excavated at the very beginning of the third millenium in what, for me, no longer felt like a foreign land.


May you find only beauty and fulfillment

Within the embrace of Judaism.

May it illuminate your path, enrich your life,

And elevate your soul.

May you bring to the diverse people of this world

All the sweetness and goodness you have to offer.

May you continue to grow from strength to strength,

And may you always be a blessing for the Jewish people.


The Sands of Time


by Rabbi Corinne Copnick


During 2016, I spent 100 days at sea as Guest Rabbi on several cruises to disparate parts of the world – and consequently was out of the United States of America. I have now conducted all the Festivals/Hags as well as many Shabbats and some Interfaith services on the ocean in many lands, and it has been a life-changing experience in terms of my feeling of connection to Jews, past and present, in so many parts of the world.

Credit :Dantadd (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

It was so moving, for example, to stand in the beautifully restored old synagogue (rebuilt in 1636 as the Kahal Zur Israel synagogue) in Recife,* Brazil. Originally

, the synagogue had sand floors, one of five in the world. I realized that I was standing where, centuries ago, 23 courageous Jewish people departed from this congregation, fleeing persecution from the Inquisition that had travelled from Europe to Brazil. It was the second time they were fleeing the Inquisition; in 1497, they had already escaped the Inquisition in Portugal for what they hoped was safety in a new, faraway land. That land was Brazil (colonized by the Dutch until the Portuguese defeated them).

The Jewish refugees came in the guise of New Christians or conversos, but secretly most of them practiced Judaism and married only within their own group. Now, with the emergence of this threat of the new Inquisition, a small group risked sailing to Peter Stuyvesant’s fledgling New Amsterdam, where they pleaded for admittance as refugees. That is how Jewish people who did not want to live in hiding or masked as Christians, as many others did, but rather continue to conduct their lives by the Holy Laws of Judaism, came to dwell in what was to be New York in America.

Other secret Jews fled to Curacao, where there is a second sand-floor synagogue in Willemstad, where I also visited (Mikve Israel Emmanuel).

Photo by Brennan Linsley/AP Photo

With about 200 congregants today, it was built in 1732 by the descendants of the Jews who fled there). Some fled to areas of the Caribbean.

In fact, three more synagogues with sand floors can also be found in Kingston, Jamaica; Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands; and Paramaribo, Suriname (the latter is technically in South America. They still maintain the sand-floor tradition.

Why did these Portuguese secret Jews fleeing the Inquisition put sand on the floor of their synagogues? The reasons given are symbolic. First of all, the sand was to remind them of the 40 years the biblical Israelites had spent wandering in the desert. Secondly, it was a reminder of how their Portuguese ancestors had placed sand on the floor of their basement synagogues in Portugal to muffle the sound of their sacred rituals.

In 1665, the Portuguese, who had by now defeated the Dutch, closed the Kahal Zur synagogue in Recife and expelled 1,200 Jews. Judaism was banned. Although since the early 1900s, Jews have once again prospered in Brazil, it was not until 2002 that, funded by the Safra banking family, the synagogue’s doors reopened for the first time since the 17th century.** It had been closed for 347 years. It is said to be the oldest existing synagogue in the Americas. (In North America, the oldest shul is the Touro synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island.)

And in the winter of 2016, when I traveled from Brazil to Willemstad, Curacao, where other members of old Recife congregation had fled, I took my shoes off in the sanctuary of Mikve Israel Emmanuel and stood gratefully in prayer. On the sand floor.


*In Recife the name is pronounced as Hecife. The “R” at a beginning of a word is pronounced as an “H.” When you get to Rio de Janiero, Recife is pronounced the way it is spelled, with an “R” sound.

**See http://www.Jewishvirtual and multiple other sites on the Internet.