Articles From February 2015

Income Taxes 2015


In my last article I discussed some last-minute tax law changes that were expected. They indeed came through in December, and they are not earth-shattering. Teachers can deduct $250 in expenses, and college tuition gets a $4,000 deduction or a tax credit, whichever you prefer. And mortgage insurance premiums are now deductible.

Another mortgage-related change is a big deal. It is called “exclusion from income for discharge of mortgage debt,” and here is what it means: Say you are underwater in your mortgage, owing the bank more than what your residence is worth. The mortgage company might “write off ” some of the debt, and you now officially owe less principal. Normally, if someone forgives debt that you owe him, you have to claim the forgiven amount as income. This included home mortgages that were renegotiated, which could become a disaster. This new provision saves people who are in that situation.

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Israel in the Crosshairs The Current Threat and its Possible Outcome

israeli flag

A curious headline appeared online last summer: “Turkey Captures Bird, Accuses It of Spying for Israel.” (The Blaze, July 28, 2013) This headline was not a joke. Rather, it is but one of many bizarre accusations that are daily fare in many parts of the world, and reflect the only-too-real perceptions of its peoples. Nor is it merely a war of words. The headlines are accompanied by increasingly frequent violence against Israel and Jews in general.

As Purim approaches, the Jewish people once again finds itself in the crosshairs of its enemies. Purim also reminds us that attacks on Jews and Israel are nothing new. But, as if to counter the frightening reality of being surrounded by enemies, the Megillah’s hope-inspiring subtext also reveals that those who attempt to destroy the People of Israel are the ones who in the end disappear.

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Have Your Pancake and Eat It Too: A Healthier Take on a Breakfast Favorite


On the list of iconic breakfast foods, pancakes and waffles have to be right near the top. Surpassed in popularity only by the cold crunch of cereal and milk, a stack of steaming hot pancakes or waffles, fresh off the griddle, can brighten a cold winter day like nothing else.

Maybe they’re a special treat in your house, reserved for weekends or holidays. Or perhaps the griddle or waffle iron is the most important appliance in your kitchen. Either way, we’re not the first society to have enjoyed this comfort food. In his book Feast: Why Humans Share Food, archaeologist Martin Jones suggests that pancakes were probably the earliest and most popular cereal food of prehistoric society. The earliest recorded references to pancakes are in fifth-century, BCE, Greek plays. The Greeks called their pancakes tagenias, from the word tagenon—frying pan. (Note the similarity to the Hebrew letagein, to fry!) Waffles are not quite as ancient as pancakes, but food scholars believe they have been around since the early Middle Ages, with the earliest known recipe from a 14th-century French manuscript.

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Ask the Shadchan


To the Shadchan:

My son, who is in yeshiva, just turned 21. Like me, he has seen the ads and articles in various publications about the shidduch crisis, including the idea that boys should get married at a younger age. (The assumption is that eliminating the age gap between boys and girls would help equalize the numbers of boys and girls in the “market.”)

He is not asking me to help him find a wife, so maybe he is not ready yet – although I get the feeling he is worried about it. I, too, am not sure he is ready to get married. But looking ahead, I am thinking about what to say if he does bring it up. Normally, I would encourage him to wait until he is older, but I am wondering whether these ads apply to him. How would I know if he is ready to get married? What kinds of qualities in him should I be looking for? How can he and I know when would be the right time to start searching?

I occasionally insert the topic of “what kind of girl are you looking for” into our conversations. Should I continue that, or should I avoid it, so as not to encourage him to pursue marriage at this time? Any guidance you can give me would be appreciated.

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Behind the Scenes at the Jewish Deafblind Shabbaton

shabbos table

Before Baltimorean Sara Leah Kovacs read about the first Jewish Deafblind Shabbaton, which was held in 2010, she assumed you had to be totally deaf and totally blind, like Helen Keller, to participate. When she found out that it was open to people with varying degrees of dual hearing and vision loss, she eagerly signed up for the 2011 and 2013 Shabbatons. At those events, she led tefila (prayer) classes, and is now also the Deafblind delegate to the planning committee for this year’s Shabbaton, along with Deaf delegates David and Sheryl Michalowski.

Mrs. Kovacs will make the 17-mile trip to the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center, in Reisterstown, where the Shabbaton will be held this year, from June 12 to 14. Others come from farther away. Mordy Weis will travel 5,817 miles to attend the Shabbaton for a third time. “I gain from the Shabbaton by meeting different people with different backgrounds and different vision issues,” says Mr. Weis, who works for a fabric design company in Holon, Israel. “My favorite part is the ‘panel,’ which debates various issues. At the last Shabbaton, I was asked to help interpret in shul by tactile signing for a Deafblind male, because his female support service provider (SSP) could not accompany him in the men’s section.”

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Venahapoch Hu: From Purim-Pooper to Purim Queen

delivering shalach monos

As the winter wanes and Purim draws near, my family begins to hear comments wherever we go:

“So what are the Raczkowskis dressing up like this year?” or “Can’t wait to see what the Raczkowskis come up with this Purim….” 

Most people have the one Yom Tov that they especially love or identify with. Mine has become Purim. To explain how this came to be, I have to take you back to the beginning. So make yourself comfortable and listen to the whole megillah.

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E-Commerce: Shop Until You Drop…Your Mouse!

online shopping

Online shopping has become so pervasive that I wonder if actually entering a store to make a purchase will someday be called “offline shopping.” I must confess that, before I began researching this article, I had purchased nearly nothing online. But after finding out about the sites that will be mentioned below, two thoughts occurred to me: I may never have to leave my home again! And where can I find another source of income?

I clicked, mesmerized, through bargain after bargain and all kinds of “special deals.” Many items are offered at the same or lower prices than in the store, and can be obtained with much more ease. Electronics, kitchenware, clothing, toys, groceries – anything you can buy in the store and many things you cannot – are found find online, often with free shipping.

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The Queen You Thought You Knew A Book Review

the queen you thought you knew

We all know the Purim story. Year after year, we encounter its familiar cast of characters: the foolish King Achashverosh, the wicked Queen Vashti, the villain Haman, and, of course, the heroes: the beautiful Queen Esther and Mordechai the Tzadik. But, as Rabbi Dovid Fohrman explains in his book, The Queen You Thought You Knew: Unmasking Esther’s Hidden Story, the story is not as simple as it seemed to us when we were children. In his eye-opening account, he explores many questions that are obvious once he points them out but that never occurred to us. We have heard the story so many times that we have become blind to the nuances that give depth to the story. I can’t rewrite the book in this review, but I will bring up some of the questions. If they intrigue you, you can follow up by reading from the source.

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A Peek Behind the Curtain What Goes into a Simchas Esther Purim Shpiel

purim play

I have had the great pleasure and privilege to be one of the Simchas Esther Purim Shpielers in five of their last seven performances. Thanks to the tireless efforts of so many devoted women, along with a hefty dose of hashgacha pratis, we merited to hear more than 700 ladies laughing out loud last year as they “met the mechutanim.” With Hashem’s help, we’ve come a long way since the first play, performed in 2003 for approximately 250 women at Khal Ahavas Yisroel Tzemach Tzedek.

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Lowering Our Expectations

cell phone

The other day, while driving carpool, I took a wrong turn. Annoyed with myself for having made a mistake, I sighed. This prompted one of the children behind me to ask what was wrong. Exasperated, I replied to her, “I made a wrong turn.” She quickly responded, “There’s no such thing as a wrong turn.” My amazement at her ability to see the situation in such a positive light quickly turned into bewilderment when she added, “Because the world is round.” Now, even if there were no oceans or dead ends along the way, I don’t think she was suggesting that I travel across town via Australia. Rather, it was more of an observation that you can always find another way to go, even if you choose the road less traveled. I started pondering this thought and realized that the only reason I got annoyed at myself to begin with was that I had created an expectation of which route I would take and then unwittingly took a different one. This made me realize that maybe I am “expectationally challenged.”

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Renting Cars: What You Need to Know


Travel ain’t what it used to be. In the “olden days,” people traveled by train and arrived at magnificent train stations – just look at the architecture of Baltimore’s Penn station (built in 1911, around the time the Model-T came out). From the train you took a taxicab (horse drawn, perhaps) to your downtown hotel, and everything you needed was close by. Nowadays we arrive at airports far from the city center, and we have to be able to get around to tour, shop, or attend to business: hence, the marvel of the rent-a-car business. You can land at any city in the U.S. and within an hour drive out with a shiny new car. Wow!

But wait – it is not so simple; nothing good ever is. Navigating our complicated and constantly changing world of personal economics and shopping requires a lot of know-how. This is especially true in car rentals, where no two customers pay the same price, and where rental companies try, and often succeed, in selling you unneeded extras that can be called rip offs.

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Life’s Most Important Skill


We’ve all been there, haven’t we? We take our seat at an important dinner and realize we know absolutely no one at the table. It feels awkward, intimidating, downright uncomfortable – what do we do or say now? If we have life’s basic people skills, we’ll be fine. The awkwardness will pass in seconds, we’ll assess the situation, tell ourselves it’s an opportunity to meet new people, and begin the introductions. Within seconds, our social skills will kick in and we can even have a good time.


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Learning from our Past, Building our Future: How Jewish History Teaches Us to Create a Positive Community for Tomorrow


There is a story told about a Bais Yaakov girl in Poland in the 1930s. She met a local man in the community who criticized her for being Torah observant. You’re so old-fashioned, he said, you must be the only girl in the 20th century who is still so meticulous about religious observance. The Bais Yaakov student answered back to him, I may be the only one in the 20th century, but I won’t be the only one in the 21st century.


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Snow Small Thing

snow in jerusalem

My father likes to say that snow is a major generational divide. Does the fluffy falling stuff ignite in you a desire to run out and play in the cold, or do you give a little shiver and hug yourself tight? If you’re among the former, then you’re probably under 20. If you are among the latter, well, there is a reason why Florida is filled with “snowbirds”!


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Liberté, Egalité, Émigré?


With a Jewish population of about 500,000, France is home to the third-largest Jewish community in the world. In comparison, it is estimated that there are between six to seven million Muslims, in a total population of over 66 million. The recent terror attacks in France have been among the most horrific in decades, although anti-Semitic incidents have been occurring for years already. In response, aliya figures for French Jews have been increasing at a phenomenal rate. But, while every French Jew is concerned about the terror level, opinions differ on the future of the Jews of France and whether they should be seeking a new life elsewhere. Let’s meet some of these Jews, who describe the Paris attacks and give us a glimpse of life in France.

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Musing about Names


A story is told about a father who wanted to name his son Pinchas. Both his father and his wife’s father were named Pinchas. His father was a bank robber and his wife’s was a horse thief. The couple went to the Rav and asked, “Since both of our fathers have the same name, how will we know whom he is named after?” The Rav, said, “Don’t worry, when you see how he turns out, then you will know!”


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Labels, Literally


I’ve noticed an interesting phenomena in recent years: Everything you purchase seems to come with instructions. Twenty years ago, you expected instructions to come with your appliances and other complicated items. I guess people were smarter back then. Nowadays, they need to put labels, warnings, and instructions on even the simplest of products. It almost seems like a gratuitous insult to our intelligence. Take a look around your house and you’ll see what I mean. 

Look at a jug of bleach, for example. What’s plastered on the side of the bottle? “Not edible.” Gee, thanks for pointing that out. You see, I ate one of my kid’s Berry Tie-Dye fruit-by-the-foots, and my insides were feeling kinda stained. I thought some bleach might do the trick. No, seriously. The only one in my house who may actually consider drinking the bleach is my nine-month-old, who crawls around looking for things to put in her mouth. So, thank you very much Mr. Bleach Bottle Producer. I appreciate that you wrote on the bottle “not edible.” Unfortunately, my nine-month-old doesn’t even know how to read. But at least I now know not to drink bleach to counteract the fruit-by-the-foot.

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Lessons from the Pickwick Apartments Fire

house on fire

Vestiges of yellow police tape and a metal fence to ward off trespassers still surround the charred remnants of the November 29th Shabbos morning blaze. The heavy fire broke out at 4:30 a.m. on the third floor of 2701 Jenner Drive, in Baltimore’s Pickwick Apartment complex, and spread from the roof to the adjacent 2703 Jenner Drive.

Four of the six apartments in building 2701 that were damaged by fire, smoke, and/or water were occupied by young Orthodox families, including five children under the age of three; the other two were inhabited by elderly people. Baruch Hashem, all the residents evacuated in time, thanks to the gallant heroism of one of the young residents, who was awoken by the fire, and knocked on everyone’s doors. Kudos also go to another young man who, when rushing out of his apartment with his wife and child, noticed that an elderly neighbor was frozen on the landing, in shock, and saved her by carrying her down the stairs to outdoor safety. The fire was under control by 6 a.m. and the three elderly residents were treated for minor injuries.

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