Thursday, February 6, 2014

Joyful Living

I've been thinking a lot about joy lately.  I guess that's not surprising since the title of this blog is "A Joyful Jewish Journey." I've also been thinking a lot about my grandmother's Mandel bread recipe (food is always on my mind!).  

When I started this blog, I envisioned a place where others could find something to encourage them on their own journey, whether it's a great recipe, homeschool tip, or a simple nugget of truth to remind us why we're doing what we're doing (in the midst of the chaos!).

My own personal journey has oftentimes been bittersweet.  There have been many losses and trials along the way and everything I believe in has been shaken, but one thing I am finding more and more...when we turn our sorrows over to G-d (especially the ones that don't make any sense), joy is the gift he offers back to us and there is an indescribable kind of joy awaiting us at the end of this journey. 

So, in keeping with the Joyful theme, I thought we could go on another kind of journey to discover what the bible says about joy and what it means in Hebrew thought. But, first I want to tell you a little about why the word "Joy" is kind of special to me...   

When I was a little girl, my grandmother Shoshana used to say to me, "Allison, I know when you grow up, your life is going to bring us lots of "Nachus" (that's Yiddish for Joy).  I'm sure at the time, my grandmother meant I would somehow do "great things" that my family would be proud of, and she was probably also referring to the meaning of my Hebrew name, Avigayil (my father's joy).  

As an Orthodox Jew, Grandma probably didn't envision me becoming a believer in Yeshua (Jesus)!  By the time that happened, she was in an advanced stage of Alzheimer's, so I really don't know how much she understood about my decision to follow the first century Rabbi who captivated my heart.  What Grandma couldn't have known was how hard it would be to lose the support of my family, deal with physical and emotional pain, lose a child, experience persecution, and walk a lonely road much of the time.  But, Grandma must have known something no one else did at the time...that through it all, I would find the greatest joy ever to behold. 

So, what is joy?   Where does joy come from?  How do we find it? How can we lose it?  And, if we lose can we get it back?

Joy is mentioned over 150 times in the bible.  It is the antithesis of stress, worry or depression.  Even though the dictionary definition of joy is simply: "the state of happiness", it is much more than just feeling good. 

In Hebrew, the word for joy is "Simcha". "Simcha" comes from the root word "Sameyach" which means happy.  In Jewish culture, a "Simcha" can refer to any joyous or happy occasion, like a Bar Mitzvah, Wedding or Brit Milah (Circumsicion), and both major and minor Jewish holidays. 

But, even these joyous occasions can have a somber side to them. 
At a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, we celebrate a young person coming into adulthood, and if you're like a typical Jewish momma, you cry a little too because, well...this young adult isn't your baby anymore (sniff, sniff).  Jewish weddings, while full of celebration and joy, are also marked by the "breaking of the glass ceremony".  The  practice of wrapping a glass in a cloth napkin and stepping on it at the conclusion of the wedding symbolizes the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the many persecutions the Jewish people have endured throughout history.  It is done in accordance with Psalm 137:5 which states, "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill."

And, if you've ever been to a Brit Milah (Circumcision), then you know that while it is a wonderful celebration of a Jewish boy coming into the Hebrew covenants, there are some tears involved (both by Baby and Mom!)

When it comes to the Jewish holidays, joy is part of every major holiday except Yom Kippur (The day of Atonement).  We rejoice at Passover that G-d redeemed us from slavery, at Shavuot that G-d brought us up, out of Egypt and gave us the Torah to guide us, and at Sukkot (Tabernacles) that G-d provided for us in the wilderness. 

From each of these illustrations, you can see that a "simcha" or joy in Hebrew thought is not just "feeling good".  It comes from a realization that in our times of distress and trouble, G-d has still been good to us.  The source of our joy is G-d himself.  Yeshua (Jesus) taught his followers that through obedience to him, their joy would be complete and he would take delight in them. (John 15:10-11)

If we want to find true, lasting joy, it isn't going to be through obtaining what the world says is success.  It isn't going to come from following a certain program or reading a particular book, or having a lot of friends.  It can only be found through knowing a specific person-Jesus the Messiah. He is the only one who has walked this road before us, fulfilled the necessary requirements of the law, and been exalted above all else.  

But, what if we know Jesus and the joy he gives, but suddenly find ourselves in a place of no joy? With today's fast-paced, technologically driven world where it is so easy to be plugged in to everything and everyone but G-d, that's easy to do!

The answer, of course, is in the Bible (John 15) and simple: We have to remain connected to Yeshua!  Turn off the computers, T.V., cell-phones, and whatever else is a distraction, and talk to the greatest friend we will ever have. Tell him what's going on instead of facebook, send him an instant message of our heart's cry, and let him pour out his love and healing grace that satisfies!

When we are in the midst of circumstances (sometimes longstanding) that have threatened to suck the joy right out of our lives, we have to stop and take time to remind ourselves of the truth in James 1:2  "My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience."

When enemies come against us because we stand for truth, we have to meditate on Psalm 27:6 "Then my head will be exalted above the enemies who surround me; at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the Lord."

How about when the kids are bickering and fighting?  We can pray  1 Thessalonians 1:6..."May my children be filled with the joy given by the Holy Spirit." 

Or when relationships around us are less than satisfying and we are longing for intimacy, that's the perfect time to make Psalm 71:23 our song.

And when loneliness  and confusion overwhelms us, the words of Psalm 16:11 can bring us comfort and direction. "You will make me know the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy."

And while these passages can be a source of great comfort, there is something more that is required of us if we want to experience a life of's that scary word that I used to have a complete misunderstanding know...OBEDIENCE! It's what we don't want to do when we know we should, and what we shouldn't do when we know we shouldn't...or something like that.  It's the most difficult thing to do, because it involves laying down our rights, what we feel we deserve.  Simply put, IT'S NOT FAIR!
But, Jesus said in John 15:20 "A servant is not greater than his master," and if we are running after the joy that Jesus did, we have to obey.

My grandmother, Shoshana, may not have professed a faith in Jesus, but one thing is for sure: She was a devout woman of faith who loved G-d and all those around her better than anyone I've ever met, believer or not.  She found the secret to happiness: to love G-d and keep his commandments. She was the most joyful, happy person I've ever known. Her life makes me think of what Jesus said when he saw Nathaniel, "Behold, now here is a genuine Israelite, a person of complete integrity!" John 1:47 

While I can say I have found the true joy-giver in this life and joy is something that is ever-increasing on my journey, I am continually striving to do what my grandmother did: find joy in obeying G-d's commands and loving and serving others.

In honor of her memory, I am sharing the absolute best Mandel Bread recipe...Prepare, serve and eat with joy! (and a cup of your favorite hot drink)

Grandma Shoshana's Mandel Bread

Makes 2 Dozen
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 2 sticks butter or 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil)
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 2/3 cup dark chocolate chips (or milk chocolate, whatever you prefer)
  • 3/4 cup pecans (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons cinnamon-sugar (combine 2 tablespoons sugar with 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon)

      1.   In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking

  2.   In a large bowl, combine the melted butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla extract and almond extract. Beat on medium speed until creamy and pale yellow, a few minutes. Add the dry ingredients and mix on low speed until just incorporated, then mix in the chocolate chips and nuts. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator to chill until firm, 1-2 hours (you can speed this up in the freezer if you'd like).

     3.   Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet          with parchment paper. Shape the dough into 2 logs about 2 inches wide, making sure they aren't too close together or too close to the edges of the pan. (If they are sticky, dust your hands with flour.) Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until lightly golden. Turn the oven down to 250 degrees. Let the baked logs cool for about 15 minutes, then slice them diagonally about every 3/4-inch. Flip the cookies on their sides, then sprinkle half of the cinnamon-sugar over top. Flip the cookies over and repeat with the remaining cinnamon-sugar. Place the pan back in the oven and cook until golden and crisp, 25-35 minutes, depending on your oven. Let cool, then store in airtight container. Enjoy!


  1. Shalom! I was excited to see your linkup post on Wise Woman. I linked up with the party too. I found another Messianic homeschooling Mama! I am following you on FB now. I enjoyed this post and recipe. Looking forward to reading more.
    Blessings to you and your family.

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  3. Shalom, Rosenda! I'm so glad you stopped by! It is always nice to hear from other like-minded moms. I tried finding your blog, but wasn't sure which one was yours. So glad you enjoyed the post and recipe. Let me know how I can find your blog. I would love to visit! Many blessings to you :)