Jewish Holidays and Practices
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Shavuot begins at sundown Thursday. In my home, we follow the tradition of what is called a tikkun layl Shavuot (an all-night study party). We invite lots of friends over, no matter their pattern of practice or observance. We always have lots of good food—dairy foods are particularly popular on Shavuot since, according to one tradition, it predates the giving of the Torah and its dietary laws. So on Shavuot dairy is served just to be safe. Some suggest that it is in keeping with the text from the Song of Songs, attributed to King Solomon, which describes the Torah as “honey and milk are under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11). Still others think that just as a baby cannot immediately eat all kinds of foods and has to begin by nursing milk, we cannot take the entire Torah at once and have to slowly prepare ourselves for it. Milk products (like cheesecake! and blintzes) aren’t a bad way to prepare.
And then we study. We invite people to prepare whatever they want in whatever form they feel comfortable. In this regard Torah is not just the Five Books of Moses. It is the literary expression of the people and it comes in many forms. I like to study the Book of Ruth, which is traditionally read on Shavuot. Perhaps it is because Ruth cast her lot with the Jewish people without condition. And even more important from my perspective, she was accepted without condition. Not only did she raise Jewish children but her grandchild was King David, the forerunner of the Messianic line in Judaism.
There are other Shavuot traditions too. Flowers and first fruits. So our house is filled with the fragrance of both—and there is always at least one fruit that is new to the season and usually one that we have never tasted before. So we spend the night imbibing the sweet nectar of Torah all night long. Its hold on me—one that captivated me as an adolescent and has not let go—is hard to explain. All I know is that it elevates me heavenward in a way that no other experience in the calendar year is able to approximate. It is a lot like love. Can’t explain it. Can’t touch it. But I know it when I feel it or when I am its beneficiary.
Lots of rabbis are showing “Keeping Up With The Steins” to their bar and bat mitzvah students and families, ostensibly to demonstrate what can happen when a bar/bat mitzvah celebration gets out of control. (The film’s producers were astute enough to get the imprimatur of Rabbi Harold Schulweis, certainly one of the leading rabbis on the West Coast, if not in all of North America.)
This is not the first time in Jewish history that we’ve seen high levels of ostentatiousness. During the Middle Ages, the rabbis were motivated to issue laws about conspicuous consumption in order to control the excesses of some Jewish people. Too often, today’s celebrations put all the focus on the bar and none on the mitzvah. It is the same thing that persuaded our friends at Jewish Lights Publishing to issue “Putting God on the Guest List” authored by my colleague in Atlanta Rabbi Jeff Salkin.
So here’s what I’m wondering: we know that bar and bat mitzvah is a powerful experience for kids and their families that is often overlooked while we who work as professionals in the Jewish community are busy criticizing the excesses of the celebration. And we know that for those children of intermarriage who experience a bar or bat mitzvah, it is of key importance in nurturing their nascent Jewish identity. Without condoning the excesses, let’s also recognize that the blow-out bar/bat mitzvahs are attractions that may lead those on the periphery to deeper engagement with Judaism. (We’ve all heard stories of even non-Jewish kids wanting a bar/bat mitzvah party!) This movie will only increase that attraction, as the celebration becomes more mainstreamed. Are we as a community ready to capitalize on this modern phenomenon, by providing easier access—at least to the meaningful aspects of the ritual?
For example, when a 12- or 13-year-old suddenly decides s/he wants a bar/bat mitzvah, can we accommodate? Or do we require a three year commitment, asking them to postpone the celebration until all their friends are having Sweet Sixteens? Let’s find other options. Even for the kids that may be coming to us for all the seemingly wrong reasons, they may be transformed by the ritual in ways that they weren’t anticipating.
It certainly takes an adventurous spirit to hit the downhill slopes of Colorado, even with a rabbi at your side. Rabbi Jamie Korngold, Colorado’s “adventure rabbi,” has been leading Jewish ritual experiences outdoors for years. The Houston Chronicle reported on one such program: Shabbat services on the ski slope. The true adventurousness in this story is not in the skiing, but in Rabbi Korngold’s creativity and willingness to step out of the box on behalf of the people she wishes to engage. Her goal is “to reconnect young people to Judaism.” She asks not what this population can do for the Jewish community (increase its numbers), but what the Jewish community can do for young people (meet them where they’re at and help them access Judaism in order to deepen their lives). Rabbi Korngold says that she doesn’t expect them to become synagogue members; rather, her goal is to create a positive, meaningful Jewish experience for them.
These kinds of “adventurous” programs are sometimes met with criticism as “not serious in nature” because they aren’t held in a traditional place of worship or because they don’t follow the traditional prayer service. But there is nothing about a Jewish experience outdoors that makes it less serious or less worthy than other experiences; it’s just different, and different people need to be engaged by different means. There should always be an avenue into Judaism, but that avenue is not going to be the same for all people. We need to promote more programs such as this one that take place in alternative spaces and engage people using alternative models if we actually want to reach the unaffiliated and interfaith populations. Creating opportunities for Judaism “on the downhill slopes” should be anything but an uphill battle.
If you’re married to a Jewish guy, but you’re not Jewish yourself, what’s the greatest barrier to making a Shabbat dinner for your family? The Hebrew? The ritual? Not according to one woman who attended a model Shabbat dinner sponsored by The Mothers Circle in Atlanta. Her problem was the brisket:
“I don’t know how to make a brisket,” she explained, “so I was always too intimidated to cook a Shabbat dinner.”
I don’t think it was really making brisket that intimidated her. (OK, it wasn’t only making the brisket.) The problem was everything that brisket represents, especially tradition. Brisket is such a grandmotherly dish that it seems to have been handed down from mother to daughter for generations. It’s as if Moses’ wife created the first brisket recipe at the foot of Mt. Sinai and carved the recipe in stone, creating the little-known Eleventh Commandment: “Thy meat shalt thou cook for many hours. It shall be grey, and neither shall there be any pink in it.”
With all that tradition and authenticity wrapped up in brisket, how could a novice ever make the recipe her own? That’s like asking: How can a woman possibly pass on the Jewish tradition to her children if she wasn’t raised in it herself?
What’s the difference between Crayola Crayon’s blue-green and green-blue? And what’s a JuBu (or a BuJu)?
According to an article in The Los Angeles Times, there are a large number of Jews represented in American Buddhist Centers, and perhaps more than 30% of all newcomers to Buddhism are Jewish. Of course, this statistic doesn’t tell us what percentage of Jews have turned to Buddhism, but it is not an insignificant number. Much higher is the number of Jews interested in Buddhism and drawn to its practices, even if they do not become Buddhist or part-Buddhist (ie., a JuBu or a BuJu). The first question I have is: what drives this phenomenon? And the second question is: why does the fusing of Judaism and Buddhism, or the assimilation of certain Buddhist practices into Jewish tradition, not rub the Jewish community in the same way that it’s rubbed by the assimilation of Christian practices into Jewish tradition?
At JOI we often speak about three different calendars that guide the American Jewish community. Yet the Jewish community’s programming efforts generally focus on only one of them, namely, the Jewish calendar. But the others—the secular calendar and the cultural calendar—play an important part in our lives as well and demand that we program around them too, especially if we want to “reach people where they are” (in this case metaphysically as well as physically). The Jewish calendar includes dates this time of year like Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and Yom Ha-Atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day). The secular calendar includes dates like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. And the cultural calendar includes dates like the opening of baseball season and the end of school. What if we were to use one to inform the other?
Beginning with the second night of Passover, we begin to count down to Shavuot for a variety of reasons. It is called the “counting of the omer” (sefirat ha-omer in Hebrew). The custom probably originally emerged in an agricultural context so that farmers could count down to the harvest. A mystical overlay was placed upon this counting so that each day exposes us to a nuanced perspective on the emanations of God and their impact on our spiritual journey. I have a simple omer counting calendar that I keep on my dresser. And years ago I developed a more spiritual counter for use by participants in Synagogue 2000 (now Synagogue 3000).
Through the years creative liturgists have come up with all kinds of Omer calendars, such as the Homer Simpson Omer Calendar (get it? [H]omer Simson!). This year’s crop include two that speak directly to those whose calendar lens is either sports seasons (note the uniform numbers!) or the release of new films. While the counting of the omer is an easy ritual, it is not high on the list of introductory rituals that those new to Jewish practice generally undertake. Nevertheless, were all Jewish rituals so innovative and enjoyable, perhaps we might do them a little more.
Shavuot has become a defining moment in the history of the Jewish people since the rabbis chose to link the holiday with the giving of Torah on Mt. Sinai. Perhaps it is because of its timing or perhaps it is because of its history, but until recently Shavuot was one of those holidays observed by few outside of the traditionally observant. Even the bolstering of the holiday by the Reform movement—by associating it with Confirmation—had diminished over time. Lately, however, the reintroduction of a Kabalistic tradition of tikkun layl Shavuot (a mystical custom to remain awake all night studying sacred Jewish texts) has breathed new life into a totally under-appreciated holiday. Even in small Jewish communities like Canton, OH, their late-night community-wide Shavuot program called “The Gathering” reached large numbers of people who normally don’t participate in such events. (I was thrilled to be part of that program last year.)
So what do we do with those on the periphery? How do we help them to mark Shavuot? A few years ago, JOI applied its Public Space Judaism model to the late-night celebration of Shavuot and developed a program which was to utilize three local secular establishments: a coffee shop, book store, and the arts space of a local college. Wanting to use this as a demonstration project, we applied to a local Jewish community for funding. We met all of their concerns (concerns perhaps more relevant to community insiders than the very people the program was intended to serve): Will the food be kosher? How will you handle funds on the holiday when doing so is prohibited by Jewish law? Etc. Nevertheless, we had the entire program worked out. In the end, we were not funded for the event, and instead all communal Shavuot events were held inside Jewish institutions.
While it is fine to run programs serving a primarily already-engaged Jewish population, we at JOI are still interested in applying the Public Space Judaism model for Shavuot programming by staging a tikkun at a Starbucks or local coffee house. Bookstores with in-house coffee stands work well too. After all, if you are going to be “Up All Night” (the name of our original Shavuot program proposal), what better place than a coffee house and bookstore? Perhaps we can together build this model and then share it with communities around the country—as we did Passover in the Aisles. Please let us know your ideas for building this program and we will add them to our own and then share them across our outreach professionals network.