4000 years of Judaism - years of war, and exile, and return, and peace, and war again - laws and customs - priests and rabbis - persecution and suffering - joy and rebuilding - all can be summed up in a single word: Oy.
It all started 3900 years ago, or so, with a fellow named Abraham. He lived in Ur, in Sumeria - but then, on the command of an invisible God, moved himself and his whole family across his world and across the Jordan river into the land of Canaan.
Abraham's favored son1 Isaac inherited the family estate, and the curious religion Abraham had founded. He passed it on to his son Jacob. These three are known as the forefathers of the Jewish people.
Jacob has 12 sons to four different women. These twelve would be the founding fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel, Jacob's other name. But due to famine in Canaan, they all ended up moving down to Egypt.
Four hundred years later, the Jews had multiplied exponentially - but they had also been enslaved by the Egyptians. Eventually, a man named Moses came along, had some rather nasty dealings with the Pharoah of Egypt, and ended up getting the Jews out of Egypt.
They didn't go straight back to Canaan, though - first they spent forty years wandering the desert. Somewhere along the way, they made a pit stop at Mount Sinai, and recieved the ten commandments - twice. And when the end of the forty years came, they headed into Canaan, which would soon be renamed Israel, under the leadership of one Joshua.
Two hundred years later, or so, the end of a long period of conquering the land and going through turmoil with the restless natives, the Israelites ended up with a king named David. David conquered Jerusalem, made it the capital, drove all the non-Jews out, fought some successful wars, and died relatively peacefully. His son, Solomon, had a number of accomplishments - he built the temple, he built a rather large royal palace, and he built a harem of a thousand women. By the end of all the taxes required to do this, people were getting unhappy - so when Solomon died the kingdom split. The north was Israel, and the south was Judah.
Israel and Judah had loads of different kings, most either evil or powerless. So eventually, the Babelonians came in, exiled all the Jews, and destroyed the Temple. But this exile, unlike the first one, was rather brief - seventy years later they were allowed to go back. Under the leadership of a fellow by the name of Ezra, in the year 586 BC, they rebuilt the Temple as well as providing a single unified copy of the Torah, the five books of Moses. The sources for this Torah are unknown, but our copies go back to Ezra.
All was well with the Jews for a while, having the Babelonians off their backs, until 336 when the Greeks got nasty. Alexander the Great conquered the land, and one of his successors - referred to in Jewish texts as (something-or-other) - made life quite unpleasant for the Jews, attempting to force Greek religion on them. What followed was a successful Jewish uprising, using guerilla tactics to drive out the Greeks. Unfortunately, the leaders of this uprising - the Hasmoneans - were also rather unpleasant and narrow-minded. But eventually life went back to normal.
That is, until 73 AD. The Romans were the next ones to invade, and destroy the Temple. Many of the Jews ended up back in Babylonia, or else farflung corners of the Roman empire. But that didn't stop them - the next three hundred years were spent composing and editing the Talmud, a giant codification of all the minute details of Jewish law. Very important, but it makes very poor reading.
So the Jews went on their various ways. They ended up all over Europe, the Middle East, and Muslim Africa. And all was well, for a while.
Then, in 1492, Spain decided to expel the Jews. Within a few years, many other countries followed suit. This created another round of upheaval, and they ended up spreading even farther - to Jewish communities in China, and in the "New World" that was also "discovered" in 1492. Many Jews also took their families to Poland, which would later cause problems.
So eventually things settled down. And then in the late 1800s, and idea came up - why don't we go back to Israel? A gentleman named Herzl started building a movement that simply grew and grew - Jews from all over were moving into what was then Palestine. At the end of World War I, with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the British were given control over Palestine, and anxiously watched the rising influx of Jews. Eventually they set quotas that severely cut down immigration.
But what really drove that in was what happened next - the greatest tragedy in the history of the Jewish people. Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime murdered 11 million people, because they were different. 6 million of them were Jews. Many tried to get out of Nazi Germany - but could not, becuase nowhere would take them. And they turned towards Israel - but there, too, they were shut out.
So after the war ended, hundreds of thousands of people were sitting in Displaced Persons camps. They had no families to return to. But they could not go to Israel, because they weren't allowed in.
3 years later, after a long struggle, the UN told the British to withdraw from Palestine. On May 8th, 1948, (NOTE TO SELF - Check that date) Britain withdrew. And the State of Israel was declared. And the War of Independance started.
First, and foremost, comes the weekly Sabbath, or in Hebrew Shabbat. Remember, for Jews this is Friday through Saturday nights, not Sunday. Shabbat begins with candlelighting, a glass of wine, and breaking bread, traditionally followed with a family meal. For the duration of Shabbat, from 42 minutes before sunset Friday to 18 minutes after sundown Saturday, one is not permitted to do work. In modern times this also includes driving and using electricity. Then, at the end, another ceremony called havdalah is performed with a candle and wine, and this time a spice box, to mark the end. Then you can go turn on the TV.
Another regular holiday, though less important, is Rosh Chodesh or the festival of the new month. However work is allowed on Rosh Chodesh.
The Jewish new years for the counting of years is in the month Tishrey, generally around September. But for the counting of the months, one begins in Nisan, around April. So the new year is in the seventh month. Whoa.
The first holiday in the first month is Passover, or Pesach. This commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, see above, with eight days of going without leavened bread. Tradition says that the Israelites leaving Egypt had to hurry, as they feared Pharoah would change his mind, so they left before allowing their bread to rise. The unleavened bread, called matzah, is the bitter enemy of many a young Jew. Also notorious, among Pesach observances, are the two seders. These, on the first two nights, combine a sort of feast with a retelling of the whole Egypt story. More Jews observe this custom than any other.
On the second night of Pesach, one begins a counting period knwon as the Omer. Every night you announce how many days it has been, up to 49 days. During this period, there are many modern holidays - Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israeli Memorial Day and Independence Day, a festive day celebrating nothing particular called Lag Ba'Omer, and Jerusalem Day.
On the fiftieth day, which is also the sixth of the third month, Sivan, Shavuot begins. This is a two day holiday, celebrating another harvest, and the giving of the Torah. Shavuot traditions include eating dairy food and staying up all night studying Torah.
Three weeks later is the saddest day of the Jewish year, Tish B'Av. This day commemorates all the tragedies in Jewish history - the destruction of both Temples, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Holocaust. It is a fast day, and prayers are said sitting on the floor, by candlelight. The book of Lamentations is read.
Seven weeks later it is time for Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. The entire month before, Elul, is spent in preparation, asking forgiveness from friends and mentally prepping. And then it comes - two days every where but Israel, where it is just one. The main symbol of this day is the shofar, ram's horn, which is blwon repeatedly. Every Jew is obligated to hear the shpfar blown.
The next eight days, with R.H., make up the Ten Days of Repentance. It's the time for last minute apologies, and for thinking about your year. The day after R.H. is a minor fast day, Tzom Gedaliah, which lasts only from sunrise until sunset.
Then, on the tenth day, is Yom Kippur.