Jewish Holidays and Practices
A Guide for Newcomers
Click here for more »
Basic Holiday Info
Click here for more »
Think Pieces and Sermons
Click here for more »
Going through our blog entries over these past twelve months, one thing stands clear: 2008 turned out to be a pretty good year for outreach. Institutions and organizations lowered or removed barriers to participation, and we saw more access points open up for all those seeking a welcoming and inclusive Jewish community.
In the face of the bigger issues that dominate the news cycles, like the overturned conversions in Israel or the recent Bernie Madoff disaster, itâs easy to forget the lesser known accomplishments, like Hillel adding a LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) Resource guide for their professionals to use on campus or new option for intermarried couples to experience Israel.
Thatâs why JOIâs Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and I wrote an opinion piece for the New York Jewish Week highlighting not only everything that went right in outreach in 2008, but also areas where there is still need for improvement. Who knows what the next year will bring, but in 2009 âletâs take advantage of every opportunity to welcome people in and strengthen our community.â
Now that Hanukkah is over you probably hope nobody puts another potato pancake or jelly donut in front of you for at least a year.
But weâll always have another Jewishly-gastronomic event around the corner, and it is important to remember that just as Hanukkah is a time to âcome outâ of whatever closet youâre in, it is also a time to uncover the diversity of Jewish food.
Jewish food canât be reduced to kugel and matzo balls, just like Jews donât all look alike or come from the same place. Never has this been clearer than during Hanukkah. Thatâs why the âTwo Saucy Chicksâ of Join Us at the Table, a blogtalkradio.com show, invited JOI to join them last week and share the cultural traditions of Hanukkah and the many edible delights individuals eat in observance of the holiday.
And this year we heard some great new recipes. On our various free listserves, including Mothers Circle and Empowering Ruth, people shared all sorts of colorful versions of traditional food for this holiday â from gingerbread dreidels to green chili latkes.
Click here to listen to me talk about some surprise Hanukkah foods (my segment starts about 16 minutes in) and hear why THIS vegetarian prefers the fried foods of Hanukkah to any other holiday.
This year, JOI has taken the oil out of the Hanukkah story and into the supermarket! Eight Days of OilSM, Hanukkah Olive Oil tasting, is a Public Space JudaismSM opportunity for local Jewish organizations to share some gourmet olive oil with folks in their local communities who are going about their grocery and specialty shopping. Itâs also a chance to share information about the holiday of Hanukkah, and connect shoppers to upcoming events.
With a pilot cohort of 8 communities, from Knoxville Tennessee, to Barrington RI, to Pittsburgh, PA, professionals and lay leaders are reporting back with great results! Pittsburghâs Jewish community met about 40 passers-by at their local William Sonoma, and Sarasotaâs Jewish community collected 40 names. Federations arenât the only organizations trying eight days of oil. The Hillel at Miami University in Ohio participated in the pilot group, and met 150 students, 140 of whom were new to the Hillelâs database! Professionals who coordinated the program in New Bedford, MA shared that âThis was excellent for community relationsâŠâ and âall of the volunteers had a marvelous time.â We look forward to working with these these communities to help them cultivate and nurture relationships with these individuals and to help deepen their engagement in Jewish life.
Interested in trying the program next year? Let us (email@example.com) know and weâll help you get started for next year!
More pictures after the jump.
Can interfaith families successfully celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas? Every December, hundreds of thousands of interfaith families find themselves asking this question and looking for guidance. Over the last ten years, as intermarriage rates have reached nearly fifty percent in the Jewish community, the number of families who struggle with this question has steadily grown. Often called the âDecember Dilemma,â the debate is especially relevant this year since the fourth night of Hanukkah overlaps with Christmas Eve.
Thatâs why JOI’s executive director Rabbi Kerry Olitzky has come up with a few suggestions to help interfaith families move smoothly through the holiday season and beyond:
- Supersize Hanukkah. Make sure you âdo Jewishâ regularly during the overpowering Christmas season. Starting at Thanksgiving, retailers and radio stations are stuck on a Christmas loop. Luckily, Hanukkah lasts eight nights. That gives families eight chances to celebrate and express Hanukkah through lighting a Menorah or putting up decorations.
- Celebrate the holidays at your in-lawsâ homes if you can. Grandparents, extended family, and friends will be happy to share their celebration with you over a holiday dinner, and it can remove tension from your own home.
- Be open. This sounds easy, but itâs frequently a lesson overlooked. If you are going to celebrate the holidays together, make sure you have talked this through ahead of time. One simple rule is that talking about things works, and not talking about things doesnât work. Youâll be surprised how far a little dialogue will take you.
- Acknowledge the compromise your partner is making. When a spouse casts their lot with a new religion and a new set of traditions, even if they arenât converting, the holidays can be a reminder of the traditions that spouse is giving up. If you have agreed to celebrate Hanukkah, let your partner know that there is room if they want to carve out space for a token of their faith.
- Have a sense of humor. Between dinners, decorating and family obligations, trying to navigate through Hanukkah and Christmas has the potential to cause an undue amount of stress. Taking a few minutes to find something funny in the holidays can relieve the pressure and remind you that this is a time for celebration and joy.
These suggestions are only a place to start. Volumes could be written on how interfaith families have dealt with the issues that arise not only in December but throughout the year. Each family is different, and each has to find the best path to create a successful and meaningful holiday season.
Still considering how youâre going to celebrate Hanukkah this year? Does your new diet force you to look beyond latkes (fried potato pancakes) and other oil-saturated delicacies?
Well, Jay Michaelson, editor of Zeek: a Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture, suggests another way to enjoy the 8-Day celebration of Hanukkah: âCome out!â
Writing in The Forward, Michaelson reflects on his own personal struggle coming out as a gay and observant Jew, and he also understands that there are many others on the periphery whose differences are not celebrated but merely tolerated. The holiday season makes this ever more apparent; with Christmas front and center, some in the Jewish community might be inclined to just, âput on the dumb red hat and wait until itâs over.â Michaelson writes:
To celebrate Hanukkah today is thus a form of coming out: admitting difference, recognizing that one is not the same as everyone else and, hopefully, celebrating the unique gifts that being different offers.
Michaelson draws the connection between Jews who defied Hellenism by not conforming (read: assimilating) and the modern-day imperative to embrace difference, be true to oneâs self and âcome out.â
Stop repressing and stop equivocating. Whatever closet youâre hiding in, whether itâs sexual, religious, professional, cultural, or just plain dull and repressive, light the Hanukkah candles (or donât!), celebrate nonconformity â and, for Godâs sake and yours, come out, please, wherever you are.
For some of us this might mean more publicly celebrating Hanukkahâputting that electric menorah in the window and inviting friends (non-Jewish and Jewish) to a feast of latkesâor embracing our personal differences within the Jewish community and the world at-large.
âWill You Merry Me?â the Lifetime channel made-for-TV holiday movie, aired last Saturday. For an overview of the plot, click here to take a look at my earlier blog post. I can almost picture the studio pitch: A newly-engaged interfaith couple spends a holiday weekend with both sets of in-laws! Christmas and Hanukkah overlap! Madness ensues! A Christmas light-related slapstick injury occurs! Comedic gold!
While at times a festival of stereotypes, I found âWill You Merry Me?â to be a rather sweet, if ham-handed, introduction to the basic themes that some interfaith families face. Rebecca, a Jew from LA, and Henry, a Christian from small-town Wisconsin, get engaged six months after meeting and never talk about their plans for the future, their religious identities, or the ways that they want their upbringing to be reflected in their home â until their first holiday together forces these issues. In true made-for-TV fashion, the characters were hilariously undeveloped and the drama was supposed to be driven by external traits and actions: Rebecca is a vegetarian from a big city; Henry went hunting as a child and played Joseph in the Christmas play. The Christian in-laws drive a van that plays carols, put a stuffed fiddler on their roof, and give their Jewish guests a Hanukkah gift of matzah (a food eaten during Passover). Meanwhile, the Jewish in-laws accidentally kill the townâs beloved reindeer, Rudolf, destroy their hostsâ light display, and exclaim, âThis is the Jewish version of hell!â My favorite line is when Rebecca cries âWeâre just too different!â
Despite these broad strokes, the movie did try to introduce genuine issues that come up for interfaith families. When the young couple announces that they want a small, secular ceremony, both parents realize that their dream of holding the wedding in their own religious tradition wonât be possible. The sadness and loss that the characters express is an emotion that can be hard for parents and children to talk about and I liked the idea that an honest conversation might be spurred in a non-threatening way by the film. These are serious issues, and it disappointed me that the movie didnât do a great job of exploring these themes â it instead chose to stick with gags about marshmallow laden Jell-O salad.
In the end (spoiler alert!), the Christian mother-in-law breaks a traditional Christmas holiday decoration that sheâs always hated. This symbolizes that every couple has to find a religious life that fits their new family. Everyone learns to get along, and thereâs even time for her to say, âItâs a Christmas miracle!â before the credits close on the now-at-peace interfaith extended family.
âWill You Merry Me?â is no âCitizen Kane,â but it might be a nice way for families who are struggling to start a conversation about interfaith life to find a way to begin. Did you see the movie? What did you think? Do you think it would help start dialogue in your family?
This Saturday, the Lifetime Channel is showing a full day of made-for-TV holiday movies. One in particular caught our eye at JOI: âWill You Merry Me?â about a Christian man and Jewish woman who announce their engagement during a family holiday gathering. Hereâs the nytimes.com description:
In the spirit of Meet the Fockers….Rebecca, from an upper class Los Angeles family, and Henry, from choir-singing, tradition-bound Midwestern roots, are in love. Henry pops the question just before Christmas and the kids plan on gathering their families for the holidays in order to surprise them with the good news. The families collideâoopsâmeet the week of Hanukah just before Christmas in Madison, Wisconsin. Itâs a wild, whacky ride of good intentions and missteps as the two families try in vain to respect each othersâ traditions. It’s not long before Rebecca and Henry learn the hardest part about being married might be dealing with each other’s in-laws.
I have conflicting reactions to this program. Iâm glad to see an interfaith family depicted on mainstream TV alongside the usual Christmas slate of titles like âCall Me Clausâ (Whoopi Goldberg saves Christmas) and âA Divaâs Christmas Carol,â (Vanessa Williams plays a pop star named âEbony Scroogeâ). âWill You Merry Me?â was added to the schedule with the same packaging as any other holiday program â down to the gimmicky plot and cheesy name.
Iâm planning to tape the show because Iâm curious how this interfaith family will be depicted. My worry is that the story will lean on stereotypes about Christians and Jews, implying that any interfaith interaction is implicitly antagonistic. My hope is that the program gives people watching the feeling that an intermarried holiday visit is as normal as an inmarried holiday visit, normal enough to have its own made-for-TV movie. In American life, is a made-for-TV movie the first sign of reaching âmainstreamâ status? Reactions to the movie are welcome â youâll get mine next week.
âWill You Merry Me?â will air on the Lifetime channel on Saturday, December 13 at 9 PM and midnight.