Meet Aaron: DC’s Jewish Coffee Guru of the Week!

Aaron Wallach is kind of living the DC young professional dream. After bonding with his friends at The University of Maryland over college drinking…of coffee…he and his friends went on to start their very own organic coffee company JavaZen. Today, he is JavaZen’s Chief Wellness Officer, current (though soon to be former) Moishe House Bethesda resident, Boca Raton aficionado, and chicken soup connoisseur. Get to know him!


Allie: A little birdie (AKA: my coworker) tells me you started a company called JavaZen. First off, mazel. Second, how did that that came about?

Aaron: My 3 second pitch – JavaZen is organic coffee in a compostable tea bag. Its truly brewed coffee on the go. Check it out on Amazon prime, Mom’s, Wegmans, and at camping stores across the country.

The JavaZen journey began four years ago at the University of Maryland. My co-founders and I wanted better coffee than what was being served to us.  So, we went about working on solutions to make coffee better and healthier for ourselves and for the world.


Allie: What’s your go-to coffee order?

Aaron: Easy. A single origin organic coffee bean brewed in a french press for four to five minutes with 8oz of purified spring water. However, this is hard to find since most “coffee bars” are more focused on selling milk and sugar than on coffee.

One free pro-tip: when going to Starbucks, they have a sugary matcha tea drink for pretty cheap. It’s my go to order.

Allie: Any special plans for the High Holidays?

Aaron: I’ll be hitting the clubs with my grandma down in Boca Raton, FL. This means, Sunday brunches, early evening dinners, tennis lessons – all while wearing nice khaki pants and a collared shirt of course. It will truly be something special.

Allie: What’s your favorite Jewish food?

Aaron: Chicken Soup made with a special heritage kosher chicken. For the past two years, I’ve lived in a Moishe House in Bethesda.  Over the summer, my house did a series of meals and events which focused on ethical kosher eating. For many of the meals, we went around the table asking each participant what it meant to keep kosher. For some, the ethics of how food was made is important, and for others is was an afterthought.  

As a young Jewish leader and professional, I see the connection between Judaism and food becoming a central tenet of what it means to be Jewish for our generation.

Allie: Complete this sentence: When Jews of DC Gather…

Aaron: …we all talk about the food.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

10 Ways Broad City taught me #Adulting

Anyone else have these feels? Learning how to adult is a skill, and sometimes it’s not that easy. Especially when you’re in a new city. Need a little help getting into the groove? Sign up for coffee with me or my pretty cool coworkers.

With the premiere of the new season of Broad City tonight, I thought I’d share. YAAAS.

1. Talking about getting older, even though I’m only 23.


2. Loving my female friends more than anything.


Want more than a listicle about the power of friendship? Check out another article about friendships in Judaism.

3. Living off an entry level salary means sometimes cutting corners.


4. Having random crushes on cuties you see around even if you’ll probably never see them again.


5. Waking up in the morning on weekends getting ready to start the day… or, you know, dreading the idea of going to work.


6. Rolling away from my problems like…


7. Being weird in public can be really fun.


8. Spending all day binging on Netflix and then realizing you haven’t spent any time outdoors. (Don’t lie. We’ve all been there.)


9. Loving Bed Bath and Beyond a little too much. Totally normal.


10. Wanting unhealthy food all the time. Sorry, mom and dad.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

What Broad City Teaches Us About Next Level Friendship

I don’t watch nearly enough TV to know for sure, but it’s hard to imagine there’s a better pair of friends on-screen right now than Broad Citys Ilana and Abbi. So with the new season starting tonight (9/13), and with the High Holidays just a week away, I figured it’s a good time to address the topic of friendships.

Given the importance of friendships (the Talmud says: “friendship or death”), it’s surprising how rarely we reflect on our relationships with friends – what qualities we look for in a friend, what we expect from a friendship, how we can deepen a friendship, how we can be a better friend, etc.

We spend a lot of time thinking about friends as “possessions” – the ones we have, the ones we no longer have, the ones we wish we had – and less time on what it means to be a friend. We often focus more on quantity of friends than quality of friendships.

Quantity isn’t really a Jewish value when it comes to friendship. As Ethics of our Fathers states: “Acquire a friend for yourself.” Just one is sufficient. But what about quality? Thanks in part to Facebook, the word “friend” has lost a lot of its meaning. Besides, there are different tiers of friends. (“Best friend is not a person, it’s a tier.” – Mindy Kaling.) So, what type of friend must we acquire?  


Based on this idea from Ethics of our Fathers, Maimonides, arguably the most famous Jewish philosopher, explains that there are three types of friends:

1) a friend with benefits (yup, he actually uses that term)

2) a pleasant friend

3) a friend for the good

He explains that friends with benefits, or “useful friends,” are like business partners. They each do something for the other in this transactional relationship. As it says in Ecclesiastes (4:9-10): “Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him that is alone when he falls, for he has not another to help him up.” While we associate “friends with benefits” to a particular type of relationship today, sadly, this may describe more of our friendships than we’d like to admit.

Pleasant friends, the second tier according to Maimonides, “inspire full confidence, so that you do not need to be reserved with them in action or in speech. Rather, you will be able to reveal to them all your concerns, the good and the ugly, without fear that it will bring you harm before them or anyone else. For when one achieves this level of confidence in another person, s/he will discover great pleasantness in speaking with that person and the intimacy of that friendship.” This perfectly captures the friendship of Abbi and Ilana, and it describes the type of friendship we crave for in a society that obstructs intimacy.

But interestingly, there is a higher tier than this – “friends for the good” – and this is the type of friend that Maimonides believes we should acquire. He describes this type of friend as follows:

When both friends yearn for and are directed toward one goal, namely, the good. Each one will want to be helped by the other in achieving that good for both of them together… This kind of friendship is like the friendship that a teacher feels for a student and a student feels for a teacher.

As opposed to the second tier, which is defined by absolute acceptance, this higher-level friend pushes and challenges the other to grow. This type of friendship requires honest communication and receptivity to hard truths. It might not be as fun, or as “pleasant,” but it does move us toward greater self-actualization.

This top-tier of friendship is not easy to build or maintain. Many of us may not even want it; growth is painful, and maintaining a second-tier friendship is hard enough (especially when your friend, like Ilana, wants it to also be a “friends with benefits” relationship). But, as we head into the high holidays -traditionally a time for self-reflection – next week, it’s worth considering who pushes us to be our best selves. If you don’t have such a person, perhaps it’s time to acquire a top-tier friend for yourself.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Jewish Short Filmmaker of the Week – Ivan!

Ivan Kander, 32, of Silver Spring, MD “did a little dance” when he found out he got into DC Shorts Film Festival. His short film, Getaway, is an Official Selection at this international, critically-acclaimed film festival. It’s playing until this Sunday, September 17th in venues all around DC. We sat down with Ivan to ask him about his filmmaking, Jewish upbringing, and what he recommends doing at the festival….other than seeing his film, of course!


GatherDC Staff: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Ivan: I’m a freelance video producer and motion designer. I write, curate, and edit for Short of the Week, the best place to watch free narrative short films on the web. And if you need an awesome video made for your company or organization (live action or animation), I’m your guy.


GatherDC Staff: What is Getaway about, and what was your inspiration for making it?

Ivan: The film revolves around a couple determining what they mean to each other. The audience is forced to wonder, as the sun sets, if their relationship will make it another day. After making my previous short—a viral Spider-Man/Miles Morales fan film complete with stunts, VFX, and a big crew—I wanted to do something that was simpler and character focused. Getaway is the result: a single, unbroken take with two people talking. It’s a character driven piece with minimal crew and even less distractions. I wanted to find out if I could tell an interesting story without all the cinematic “tricks” that allow you to manipulate an audience’s emotions. There’s no musical score to remind you to feel sad, no close-up cutaways to remind you to focus on an actor’s facial expression. The hope is to capture the moment in a relationship that it starts to fall apart.

GatherDC Staff: Is DC a good place to be a filmmaker?

Ivan: Absolutely! Obviously, the network isn’t as big because it’s not New York or LA. But, that also means we feel more like a family. Everyone is often willing to work together and help one another out to make something cool, especially amongst the indie film crowd. Some of my best friends are fellow film-people in the area.


GatherDC Staff: We see you did a film about Rob Jones, which was narrated by Gary Sinise.  That’s kind of awesome. How did that happen?

Ivan: Rob is my best friend. We both grew up Loudoun County, VA. He’s also the most inspirational person I know. He lost both his legs serving as a Marine Corps. combat engineer in 2010. During his recovery back home, I started to document his life. The result is a 30 minute profile piece called Survive. Recover. Live, which won the Sgt. William Genaust Award from the Marine Corps. Heritage Foundation. After the completion of that film, Rob decided he wanted to challenge himself even further while also raising money for Veterans charities by cycling across the country on a stand-up bicycle. So, I made a follow-up doc about this particular journey. 

GatherDC Staff: How do you connect to the DC Jewish community?

Ivan: I grew up in Waterford, VA and had to travel to Winchester, VA to go to synagogue. Now, I’m active in the DC Jewish community, but not as much as I’d like to be. I’m a member at the Bender JCC of Greater Washington, but currently not attached to a particular synagogue. I go to their family Shabbats, various events, and, of course, use the gym and exercise facilities.


GatherDC Staff: So, what are your tips for people who make a trip to the DC Shorts Film Fest?

Ivan: I’d highly encourage people to go to the mixers and parties. It’s a great way to meet people and forge connections that can often blossom into rewarding, creative relationships. I met my current screenwriting partner at a small short film festival in Nevada. You truly never know who you’re going to meet.



GatherDC Staff: Complete this sentence…When Jews of DC Gather…

Ivan: The food is always good!


The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Spotted in Jewish DC – Rosh Hashanah Pop-Up Bakeshop

This week in #SpottedInJewishDC: we talked to Alex Levin, renowned DC pastry chef at restaurants like Tico, Alta Strada, Casolare and the Riggsby. To ring in the Jewish New Year, Alex is set to debut DC’s most — and only? — mouthwatering Rosh Hashanah pop-up bakeshop at Alta Strada complete with honey raisin challah, apple-butter honey cake, apple pie, rugelach…need we say more?

Oh, and NBD or anything but as a GatherDC insider, you can get 5% off your order with promo code NOSH.


Allie: How did you come up with the idea to create a Rosh Hashanah pop-up bakeshop?

Alex: It is a dream come true to be able to bring delicious food into people’s homes for the holidays. Last summer, I was filled with so many memories of my beloved grandmother; I decided to honor her memory by bringing many of her delicious treats that we made together into the homes of as many people as I could find. With Alta Strada having so many wonderful neighborhood regulars, we thought it would be the perfect spot to host the pop-up.

The first pop-up, in 2016, was wildly popular. I was very tickled to see one of my challah breads and honey cakes at a table at a home that I was graciously invited to – a coincidence really because I came as someone’s “plus one.” I saw how much of an impact I was able to have – in action. This year, I decided to try and make an even bigger impact with a larger offering and continue the tradition going forward.

I am so grateful that I work as a chef today and am supported by restaurants that allow me to participate in a broad scale in the holiday feasts of so many people.

Allie: Tell me about some of your favorite desserts that the pop-up is offering.

Alex: It’s so hard to pick favorites! I love challah – I love rugelach – I love apple pie – I love apple butter honey cake — but the newest noshis the hazelnut chocolate crunch rugelach. It’s made with Nutella and Dark Chocolate Crunchy Pearls from Valrhona. It’s pretty fabulous…

Allie: How can I get my challah once I order it?

Alex: For all orders, you can have everything delivered to your home on Wednesday 9/20 in the afternoon (if you live within the beltway), or you can stop by Alta Strada DC (465 K St. NW) on Tuesday, 9/19 or Wednesday, 9/20 from 3-6PM. Just visit the website for details!

Allie: What is your favorite Jewish dessert?

Alex: Hands down my favorite Jewish dessert is Rugelach. I hope that everyone will find my take it on here to be special and delicious!

Allie: What inspired you to become a pastry chef and start baking Jewish food?

Alex: My grandmother spent Friday afternoons with me every week when I was 4 years old and until I was a teenager. She prepared lavish feasts every Shabbat and Yom Tov (the Jewish High Holidays), and I was by her side helping her and learning from her. She instilled a special love of food in me, while also cultivating an unusually beautiful bond between grandmother and grandson. I feel that all that I do today is a testament to her memory and our relationship.

Allie: You must get pretty busy running this pop-up and making pastries at top restaurants across the city…how do you like to spend your free time?

Alex: The musician Marc Anthony said “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Changing careers 6 years ago enabled me to turn what I do into what I love. That being said, I prioritize making time for my family and friends, love the restaurant scene, my gym routine, and traveling around the world when I can. I am grateful to live in Washington, DC which is so rich in culture, entertainment, and politics. I hope to settle down one day with a special guy and build a family together.

Allie: Who is your Jewish food role model?

Alex: Besides my grandmother, Martha Hadassah Nadich, I constantly am inspired by my mother, Shira Nadich Levin…and also icons like Joan Nathan and Bonnie Benwick both of whom are friends that I adore. I also love my other Jewish buddies in the food world in Washington, DC – particularly Nick Wiseman (owner, DGS Delicatessen).

Allie: Is there a discount code our GatherDC readers can use when they order the baked goods?

Alex: Input promo code NOSH for 5% off your order.


NOTE: The foods prepared for this pop-up bakeshop are not certified Kosher.

Photos courtesy of Alex Levin.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Jewish TV Producer of the Week – Sally!

I recently ran into my friend Sally at a Metro Minyan Shabbat dinner where I got to hear all about her awesome adventures with Chuck Todd. On top of having a pretty cool job, she also happens to be a pretty cool girl. Get to know Sally, her love of kugel, and her exciting journey to DC from New Orleans.

Allie: I hear you have a pretty cool job with Meet the Press. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Sally: Yes! I’m a producer for NBC News’ “Meet the Press with Chuck Todd,” which means I have my hand in every part of production: research, writing, more research, and logistics.

During an average week, I produce one of our guest interviews and our “Data Download” segment, where we use numbers and polling to look at different political issues: How stressed are people about politics? Where do Democrats and Republicans go shopping? How do President Trump’s poll numbers compare to his predecessors? On Sunday mornings, I’m in the studio with our moderator, Chuck Todd, doing last-minute research and making sure he has everything he needs before the show goes live.

Allie: What inspired you to become a news producer?

Sally: I’ve always been fascinated by politics, but I didn’t know I wanted to be a news producer until the summer I interned at MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” at 30 Rock in New York City. It was an incredibly eye-opening experience. The producers there are so smart and driven. They really care about storytelling and helping the public understand complicated issues. Plus, I loved the adrenaline rush of being in the control room of a live news show every night. I’ve been with NBC News ever since!

Allie: What brought you to DC?

Sally: My job at “Meet the Press” is actually what brought me to DC nearly two years ago. I was working for MSNBC in New York for two years after graduating college, and I was looking to make the move to Washington. The stars aligned, and I ended up at “Meet the Press” right as the presidential primary season was starting to pick up in the fall of 2015. It’s been a nonstop rollercoaster ride ever from that moment on.

Allie: What’s your favorite part about living in this city?

Sally: Even though I miss my New York bagels, DC has really started to feel like home! What I love more than anything is its history, whether you’re walking along the National Mall or the cobblestone streets in Georgetown. I grew up in New Orleans, so living in a place with a rich history and culture is really important to me. I’ve definitely found that in DC.

Allie: Who’s your favorite Jewish journalist?

Sally: It’s a tie between Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent. Working so closely with Chuck, it’s nice to be able to share and talk about our religion. I love knowing that around the fourth day of Passover there’s someone else in the office I can rely on to complain with me about our dwindling matzoh supplies.

Andrea has been one of my role models since before I even met her. She’s a trailblazer in political journalism and inspires me everyday. Plus: we share an alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania (Go Quakers!).

Allie: What’s your favorite Yom Kippur Break-the-fast food?

Sally: My mom’s sweet noodle kugel! The first year I made it myself — WHILE FASTING — on Yom Kippur was when I knew I’d be a great Bubby one day!

Allie: Complete the sentence: When Jews of DC Gather…

Sally: There’s ten people…and 15 opinions. Oy!


The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

When Fasting and Praying Becomes Distracting and Weighing

Two years ago, I wrote about how American Jews tend to overemphasize fasting and synagogue on Yom Kippur – tools that help some people connect to the purpose of the day but for many others have the opposite effect. Often, fasting and formal prayer end up being a distraction. X number of hours until the fast is over. X number of pages until the service is over. X number of tiles on the ceiling of the synagogue.

Inspired by the desire to shift the focus toward the actual meaning of Yom Kippur, this year I’ll be leading an alternative Yom Kippur experience. My goal isn’t only to challenge people to reflect on why we do the things we do on Yom Kippur. It’s also to make Judaism more accessible by prioritizing personal meaning over uniform practice.

Of course, it’s not inherently either-or. With a lot of study, a traditional Yom Kippur practice can be very personally powerful. But the meaning that comes from these practices is not self-evident and doesn’t just happen experientially. Therefore, most Jews – who have not spent years learning Hebrew, exploring the background of the prayers, and studying the intention behind fasting – wind up choosing unfamiliar and unhelpful practices without realizing there is another option.

These practices – intended as means to an end – have become the end. The path, for many, has become a roadblock. Shouldn’t there be another option for people who still want to address the themes of the day?

Yet, I’ve received some pushback regarding this idea. Why do some Jews give so much weight to the means? My sense is that there are two main reasons.

The first is that there is something powerful about knowing that Jews across the world are all engaged in the same practice, like fasting or praying in synagogue. Acknowledging that shared practices don’t work for everyone potentially threatens this feeling of unity and peoplehood.

But engaging with the purpose of Yom Kippur does not need to threaten that experience of unity and peoplehood. In fact, that can become the new unifier. I believe it is equally powerful, if not more so, knowing that Jews across the world are all meaningfully reflecting on their lives – even if that reflection takes on a variety of different forms – doing what needs to be done to rectify their past mistakes and commit themselves to be better in the year ahead.

The second reason people may be afraid to let go of prayer and fasting is a fear of shedding what makes us uniquely Jewish. Without those practices, do we just become regular humans engaged in ordinary reflection?

But that represents a misunderstanding of what makes Judaism unique. While we do have unique practices, we also have a unique calendar, history, and culture with unique texts, perspectives, and wisdom. The void caused by letting go of a unique practice that isn’t working may be filled by another unique aspect of our identity that is more personally resonant.

Besides, what ultimately matters on Yom Kippur is not what makes us unique, but rather what makes us human. Highlighting the importance of having unique Jewish practices will distract us from the more fundamental human questions we should be asking ourselves on Yom Kippur. Questions like “Am I living the life I want to be living?” “How can I bring more love into the world?” and “Where have I messed up?”

What is Yom Kippur really about? I’m afraid we’ve spent too much time fasting and praying to properly explore this question. Will you find a personally meaningful answer at a beer garden? Maybe. Maybe not. But, if you’ve been to a bar more than you’ve been to a synagogue this past year, then it might not be a bad place to start.

Click here to sign up for GatherDC’s Alternative Yom Kippur on Saturday, September 30.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Meet the Newest GatherDC Staff Member – Allie!

Get ready, DC – you’re going to start seeing a lot more of our newest team member, Allie! She’s just come on board as our Communications Director, and she’s SO excited about her new role. From her background in marketing with The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, to her unparalleled passion for the DC Jewish community, Allie is the perfect addition to our Gather team. Learn more about her path to Gather (and her obsession with all things Halloween).

P.S. Read more from the last time we checked in with her as the Jewish Girl of the Week 3 years ago! #WayBackWednesday

Shaina: Tell us about yourself!

Allie: My name is Allie of House Cossman, Friend of Bubbies Everywhere, Queen of Young Jewish Professional Events, Breaker of Fasts. My lifelong passion for Jewish culture, tradition, community, and spirituality have followed me from the faraway land of Potomac, Maryland, to Ann Arbor, Michigan (go blue!), and now to our nation’s capital. When I’m not enthusiastically promoting or attending Jewish community events, I love hiking, whipping up new vegan recipes, unwinding in Bethany Beach, practicing my downward dog, and spending time with friends and family. I also proudly maintain a ferocious obsession with (the not so Jewish holiday of) Halloween, and anything spooky, mystical, or related to the best season in the world – fall. This autumn in particularly will be a wee bit extra special because my wedding “falls” in 53 days, but who’s counting?

Shaina: What most excites you about working for GatherDC?

Allie: Well, my very favorite things in the world are meeting awesome new people, being a part of our incredible Jewish community, and letting my creative brain soar. So, being able to meld these passions as the GatherDC Communications Director is one of the most extraordinary opportunities I’ve encountered in my life thus far. I can’t wait to get to know the phenomenal Jewish young adults across DC, and help each and every one find their niche and discover a deep sense of belonging. Moreover, I hold a profound admiration for all GatherDC has done – and continues to do – to strengthen our local Jewish community and cannot wait to be a part of this remarkable mission.

Shaina: I heard you met your fiancee in a pretty cool way. Do you want to tell us about that?

Allie: Many, many years ago (3 to be exact), on a Wednesday evening in our great District of Columbia, the sun was shining, the drinks were flowing, and the Jews – were Gathering. Gather the Jews (AKA GatherDC) was hosting its May happy hour on The Brixton rooftop. Allie thought (why yes, I am telling this story in the third person. I think it gives the drama a little boost), this would just be like any other happy hour – she’d schmooze, nosh, gather, and head on her merry way. That all changed the moment she spotted one Mr. Andrew, house of Friedman, Lord of the Avocadbros, across the bar. His blue eyes glistened in the sunshine, his dimples made her swoon, and the moment he said “hey, what’s up?” she knew….she knew that one day he would become her lifelong Bachelor in Paradise viewing buddy, and also her husband. So, it’s safe to say GatherDC holds a pretty special place in my heart (back to first person now) and my Jewish journey, and I can’t wait to share this “Gather” love with others.

Shaina: What’s your favorite Jewish holiday or event?

Allie: Shabbat! I mean, yes, Chanukah latkes are quite delicious and it’s always fun hanging out with Elijah come Passover, but let’s be real…you can’t beat a holiday that happens EVERY. SINGLE. WEEK. You just can’t! Plus, challah. No phones. It’s Friday – meaning the best excuse to jam out to Rebecca Black. Most of all, it is a sacred responsibility to set aside our stresses, worries, and anxieties; to power off our devices; to sit back, eat, sing, be present, and RELAX. I’m truly grateful to have this miraculous opportunity, every week, to be free from the frenzy of daily life and present with the beauty of life’s simpler things.

Shaina: What is something not a lot of people know about you that you’d like to now share publicly with thousands of our readers?  

Allie: I am very much into practicing – and learning about – mindfulness. I love listening to Tara Brach podcasts, meditating, taking yoga classes, and doing what I can to live each day as presently, fully, and wholeheartedly as I can. It’s a tall order, but I may as well give it my best shot!

Shaina: Complete the sentence: When the Jews of DC Gather…

Allie: they have lox of fun.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

How Jewish are the Religions in Game of Thrones?

Warning: this article includes spoilers, plot points and lines of dialogue from Game of Thrones episodes, through the most recent one on August 20th. But, like, you should be caught up by now.

While there are a few articles that highlight the Jewish trivia related to Game of Thrones (example: its two creators are both Jewish), I haven’t seen any article analyzing the actual religious content of the show as it relates to Judaism. With around 20 unique religions in the GoT world, this task is too much to take on in one rabbi rant. But in honor of the season seven finale coming up this Sunday, I thought I’d rank the show’s six religions that seem the most “Jewish.”

#6 – The Old Gods of the Forest

At first glance, this religion isn’t very Jewish. First of all, it involves many gods. Also, praying is centered on trees with a face carved into the bark. This type of tree-based idol worship is explicitly prohibited in… (gotta love the timing here!…) this week’s Torah portion: “Do not plant an asheira (an idolatrous tree) of any kind of tree beside the altar of the Lord your God.” (Deut. 16:21). As Maimonides explains: “This was an idolatrous practice; they planted trees near their altars so that people should gather around it.” (6:9).

Still, there are some resemblances to Judaism. Both place a strong value on welcoming guests – “the guest right,” as it’s known in this religion, or as it’s known in Judaism, hachnasat orchim. This is part of why the Red Wedding was such a terrible crime: “Walder Frey committed sacrilege that day. He shared bread and salt with theStarks. He offered them guest right. The gods will have their vengeance…” (04×03). Also, the idea of going out into the woods to meditate more or less resembles the chassidic practice of hitbodedut. And apparently the old gods are felt in the gentle breeze (01×08), which is reminiscent of Elijah’s encounter with God: “There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of Adonai; but God was not in the wind. After the wind–an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake–fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire–a still, small voice.” (I Kings 19:11-12)


#5 – The Hound’s “Religion”

It’s not clear what, if anything, Sandor Clegane believes in. But one touching moment in the first episode of season seven reveals that he has not only a heart but perhaps a religion too.

When the Hound comes across the dead bodies of the farmer and daughter who had hosted him three seasons earlier, he feels compelled to bury them. Something about that whole scene felt extremely Jewish to me. First, the very impulse to not wait until morning to bury them is straight out of the Talmud: “Anyone who leaves his deceased overnight without burying him transgresses a prohibition.” (BT Tractate Sanhedrin 46a). Second, despite being a man of few words, he feels the need to eulogize them. This reflects the Jewish obligation to eulogize the dead, as it says: It is a great commandment to eulogize the dead person appropriately. And the commandment is to raise one’s voice to say over the departed things that break the heart, so that there will be much crying” (SA Yoreh De’eah 344:1). I know anyone who watched that scene is with me on this one – mission accomplished, Sandor, mission accomplished.

More generally, the Hound surprisingly seems to model true teshuva – repentance. In season 6, episode 8, Beric Dondarrion tells him, “You can still help a lot more than you’ve harmed, Clegane. It’s not too late for you.” This echoes Maimonides’ description of teshuva: “Even a person who was wicked his whole life and repented in his final moments will not be reminded of any aspect of his wickedness” (1:3). Or, if you’re looking for a similar sentiment through more Games-of-Thronesian language: “Even if a sharp sword rests upon a person’s neck, he should not prevent himself from praying for mercy.” (BT Tractate Berachot 10a). This idea, that it’s never too late, is a powerful message as we enter the month of Elul (which begins today) and start our own teshuva process. And it’s one that the Hound has internalized, transforming from a nihilist to someone who lives for a purpose.


#4 – The Faith of the Seven

Judaism loves the number seven, representing wholeness and holiness (examples: shabbat, number of blessings at a wedding, number of days of shiva, etc.)… but not when it comes to number of Gods.

On the surface, the biggest similarity seems to be the focus of both religions on guilt. But shame is different than guilt, a distinction that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains nicely:

In shame cultures, what matters is the judgment of others. Acting morally means conforming to public roles, rules and expectations. You do what other people expect you to do. You follow society’s conventions. If you fail to do so, society punishes you by subjecting you to shame, ridicule, disapproval, humiliation and ostracism. In guilt cultures what matters is not what other people think but what the voice of conscience tells you. Living morally means acting in accordance with internalised moral imperatives: “You shall” and “You shall not.” What matters is what you know to be right and wrong.

The Faith of the Seven is clearly a shame culture, while Judaism is a guilt culture. Nevertheless, there are still many parallels between these two religions. Both feel “institutional” – with similar frameworks of clergy, laws, and trials. They also both have similar rituals around lifecycle events, such as weddings and funerals. For example, each partner at a “Seven” wedding recites the line: “I am his/hers and she/he is mine,” which is almost an exact translation from the classic Song of Songs line recited at many Jewish weddings: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” (6:3). They both emphasize faith over material possessions, as it says: “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion.”  Finally, they both have the concept of communal prayer – with a similar focus on atonement and mercy. So while the Faith of the Seven resembles a more old-school, formal Judaism that we may not connect to, it certainly looks familiar.


#3 – The Many-Faced God of Death

Now we’re getting closer. Unlike most religions in GoT, this is a monotheistic religion like Judaism. But even if it’s one God, it’s a God with “many faces.” Surely that is an idolatrous idea antithetical to Judaism… or so you might think! That is, until you come across this incredible text about the moment of Divine Revelation to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai: “Rabbi Levi said: The Holy One appeared to them as though God were a statue with faces on every side” (Pesikta de Rav Kahana 12:25). Turns out this idea of a “many-faced” God is rooted in our traditional sources.

There are also two key aspects of this religion that resemble Judaism. The first is the idea that we only say one thing to death: “Not today” (01×06). This is more or less the idea articulated at the end of the Torah: “I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life.” (Deut. 30:19). Second is the ideal of being “no one.” While self-negation, known as bitul, is not a Jewish practice most people are familiar with, it was indeed championed by many musar and chassidic masters. For example: “A person must nullify himself completely before God… Everything must be nullified as if he is nothing and zero before God” (Netivot Shalom, Parshat Tezaveh). The spiritual motivation behind this practice is that, by reducing our own self, we can become more intimately connected to God. If you’re interested, maybe the House of Black and White should be the next on your spiritual journey. Though I hear it’s hard to get in.


#2 – Daenerys Stormborn’s “Religion”

It seems Dany doesn’t have a religion. “Do you know what kept me standing through all those years in exile? Faith. Not in any gods. Not in myths and legends. In myself” (07×03). But still, there is something deeply Jewish about holding onto faith in returning during many years of painful exile. As it says in Israel’s national anthem “Hatikva,” about the Jewish people’s return from exile: “Our hope is not yet lost, it is two thousand years old.” As Jon tells Dany (07×04), she is able to make “something impossible happen.” This is the story of the Jewish people’s improbable survival against all odds.

Also, one of her many titles is “breaker of chains.” Similar language is used by the Prophet Isaiah in a subversive passage that we read on Yom Kippur: “This is the fast that I desire: to loosen the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6). As someone vehemently against slavery and any form of oppression and unjust law, she is a perfect expression of the type of religiosity that Isaiah demands of us. So while she doesn’t avow a particular faith, her value system may be the best expression of Judaism’s core principles and values.


#1 – The Lord of Light

OK, so the whole child sacrifice thing isn’t Jewish – in fact, it is the worst sin condemned several times throughout the Bible, as in: “They have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind” (Jeremiah 19:5). RIP, Shireen.

Still, Judaism and this religion share a mutual belief in “the one true god” and a mutual love of burning down false idols, as in: “You must tear down their altars, smash their pillars, and cut down their sacred posts; for you must not worship any other god” (Exodus 34:13). Also, the belief in the coming of “the Prince that Was Promised” sounds a lot like the Jewish belief in the Messiah. As in Jewish history (see: Shabbtai Zvi), this can lead to “false Messiahs” like Stannis.

There are many other similarities between the two religions – the idea of a commanding God, the prominence of prophecies, the acknowledgment that the night is dark and full of terrors (see Psalms 91:5: “You will not fear the terror of night”). But the clearest articulation of its belief system, and where its similarity to Judaism is most pronounced, came from Beric Dondarrion in the most recent episode (07×06):

“[I’m fighting for] life. Death is the enemy. The first enemy and the last… We can defend those who can’t defend themselves”

This is a perfect distillation of Judaism. It goes a step further than the “not today” attitude of the followers of the Many-Faced God; this isn’t just about personally choosing life. This is about a religion that is centered around the promotion of life. Amazingly, we see almost identical language from Rabbi Irving Greenberg in his description of Judaism (The Jewish Way, p. 182 – 183):

“Judaism is a religion of life against death… In a world growing toward life, death is a “contradiction” to God, who is pure life. In the end, therefore, death must be overcome. “God will destroy death forever. My Lord God will wipe the tears away from every face.” (Isaiah 25:8). Judaism’s ultimate dream then, is to vanquish death totally… Death is treated as the enemy.”

At its core, Judaism is about promoting life and human dignity, not just for ourselves, but especially for “those who can’t defend themselves.”

Could Game of Thrones be more Jewish? Of course. (Just think: dragons lighting a big menorah, Hot Pie baking delicious challah, Samwell Tarly getting into an argument with the Maesters over a Talmudic text…)

But with so many different religions featured prominently in the show, it’s hard for this rabbi not to see the Jewish parallels. Were they intended by George R.R. Martin? Probably not. But I’m still holding out hope that Dany is Jewish. And if things don’t work out with her and Jon… I’m around.

Do you disagree with my analysis? With my ranking? Did I miss other Jewish connections? Other ideas for how Game of Thrones could be more Jewish? Feel free to share in the comments below. Just no trolling, or you’ll pay the iron price.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Jewish Foodie of the Week – Hilary!

Shaina: Not to be “too DC,” but what do you do?

Hilary: I currently the Head of Development for Plum Relish; we are a women-owned and managed “corporate catering” concept currently in the DC area. Our concept is geared to make the catering process super seamless, knowing the orderer is dealing with a handful of other tasks.

Shaina: What’s your favorite place to eat in DC?

Hilary: The hardest question!  My answer will probably change depending on the day or neighborhood I am in, however one of my every day “go-tos” is Glen’s Garden Market. It’s a block from my house, they already have great prepared food at a decent price. and I am way comfortable drinking a beer there alone.

Shaina: What do you see as the intersection between Judaism and food?

Hilary: For me, food is Judaism.  All of my favorite memories surrounding my culture are all food related, eating hamantaschen at the Purim Carnival as a kid, trying chopped liver at the Passover Seder at my Grandma’s house– or more recently throwing my first break-fast and scouring DC for good bagels (for those who are reading this Heckman’s in Bethesda sells an awesome product).  I love that every celebration involves gathering friends and family to eat foods that our people have eaten for centuries.

Shaina: What’s your favorite Jewish food?

Hilary: An over-sized everything bagel with way too much schmear and a mountain of lox.

Shaina: Explain your ideal Sunday in DC.

Hilary: Sleeping in (that’s until about 8:00 am for me) heading to the gym then coming back home to lounge for the day, finally ending the weekend with a dinner with friends.

Shaina: Complete the sentence: When the Jews of DC Gather…

Hilary: multiple days worth of calories will be consumed…at least that my DC Jewish friends.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.