Entries for Category: How We Celebrate
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If we are teaching kids that there is an ima (mom) for Shabbat and an abba (dad) for Shabbat, then what happens when both parents are men or both parents are women or some other combination that isn’t strictly a hetero union?
I didn’t go to Jewish day school and I know that might mean to some readers here that I’m barely Jewish. But I was thinking about Shabbat the other day – we barely-Jews sometimes do that – and I couldn’t figure out a really good reason why the woman lights the candles and the man blesses the wine. And yet, according to this article from Tablet, almost every single religious school classroom is teaching gender-segregated roles.
I owe my Jewish identity to the Shining Lights. For most of my childhood, I participated in a Jewish youth singing and dancing group. We wore red mock turtlenecks, black skirts, and silk vests with musical notes on them. We sang songs about Jewish holidays and stories. We performed at Jewish Community Centers, Jewish senior centers, synagogues, and Jewish festivals. We sang solos, showed off our jazz hands, and step-ball-changed our way through the Jewish calendar.
The Shining Lights brought together a bunch of Jewish kids from across the Chicagoland area to perform together. Singing and dancing about Jewish themes excited and connected me in a way that Sunday School and Shabbat services never did. It allowed me to continue participating in the Jewish community when Hebrew school was over, my Bat Mitzvah was behind me, and my homework, part-time job, and after school activities conflicted with confirmation classes. Perhaps most importantly, it introduced me to other people who were like me. Performing with the Shining Lights was my “spark moment,” that activity or experience that leaves an impression forever.
In a way, the Big Tent Judaism Concierge is in the business of creating spark moments. Public Space Judaism offers a taste of Jewish culture through food, through an activity, or simply through a meaningful conversation. The taste of charoset (chopped fruit and nut salad) at Passover in the Matzah Aisle or the sampling of hamantaschen (traditional holiday pastries) and wine at Purim Pastry Pairing may provide the spark moment that brings Jewish individuals and families one step closer to exploring other Jewish experiences.
“But there is another woman at the table, ebony-skinned and saffron-robed, holding a piece of matzoh. Too finely dressed to be a servant, and fully participating in the Jewish rite, the identity of that African woman in saffron has perplexed the book’s scholars for a century.”
The American Jewish community grows increasingly diverse. It can be easy to look at that diversity and assume that it’s a new phenomenon. However, even in a largely white western European-descended Jewish community, there are signs of the Jewish community’s unexpected history of diversity lurking all around us. For instance, I recently learned of an illustration of a black woman attending a Passover seder (ritual meal) in the Sarajevo Haggadah, a famous haggadah (book used during the seder) written in the 14th century.
I am reading People of the Book, a historical novel by Geraldine Brooks about a contemporary manuscript restoration specialist working on the Sarajevo Haggadah. Weaved throughout that story, Brooks also includes several brief narratives of the journey of the Sarajevo Haggadah from 14th century Spain to 20th century Sarajevo.
Families are like geodes - those rocks full of crystals. Each member of the family represents its own unique crystal, and when assembled, they form a beautiful stone. Like geodes, families are fragile. Pressure can either bring the crystals closer together and strengthen, or it can create fractures and undermine the integrity of the unit. For my family, the passing of my father-in-law was such an event.
My father-in-law, who we affectionately called “Nonno,” - the Ladino term for Grandfather - was the patriarch of our modern Jewish family. (Ladino is the language of western Sephardim, a mix of Hebrew and Spanish) Born in pre-state Palestine in 1942, my father-in-law had a complex relationship with his heritage, and everyone around him. Diagnosed with stage IIIa lung cancer this past January, Nonno fought and lived bravely. He was meticulous and had an eye for detail. Faced with his mortality, Nonno sought to wrap up the details of life. From the purchase of his final resting place to the details of his burial, Nonno helped to ensure that the bond between his precious crystals would be strengthened when stressed.
I recently indulged in tween fiction and read My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, the story of Tara Feinstein, your average Indian Jewish American middle school girl. The book, written by Paula Freedman, follows Tara in the lead-up to her Bat Mitzvah, as she struggles with friends, boys, parents, and her identity as both an Indian American and a Jewish American.
Tara’s connection to her grandparents figures prominently throughout the novel. Nani and Nanaji, her Indian grandparents, live large in her heart and memory. Her Jewish grandmother, Gran, lives 15 blocks away. In her quest to be “a normal Jewish kid—with a healthy sprinkling of masala [a delicious blend of Indian spices] on top,” Tara doesn’t want to alienate either parts of her family.
Thankfully, both sides of the family, led in spirit or action by the grandparents, are supportive and welcoming. When Tara accidentally damages the beautiful heirloom sari (draped fabric worn by women) that originally belonged to Nani, her Indian grandmother, it is Gran who takes her to the tailor to transform it into a dress. The two sides of Tara’s family come together for both the Diwali (Hindu festival of lights) celebration—with Gran bringing the traditional vat of matzah ball soup—and (spoiler alert!) Tara’s Bat Mitzvah at the end of the book.
With the recent New Year’s celebrations, I found myself thinking back to a different New Year—the Jewish New Year, and an experience I had while in Ukraine several years ago. Growing up in a Russian Jewish household, I always felt like a bit of an outsider, not being part of the Christian-centric society in which I lived and being an immigrant. But I also took great pride in being unique and believe that being able to look at things from the outside gave me a better perspective and allowed me to see things more clearly.
It had never occurred to me that I was also an outsider from the Jewish community. My family had never been very active in the local community and when we did participate we still felt set apart from the rest of the community, being Russian Jews and therefore having our own way of doing things. Not growing up part of a strong Jewish community, I was always excited when I encountered other Jews, not realizing that my lack of involvement, and my Russian background, set me aside from them. The realization came to me over many years, but really became a dominant part of my consciousness while I was living in Ukraine as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Everyone has their own Christmas story. When I say Christmas story, I am referring to what you do on December 25th. Regardless of your religion, if you live in the United States, the day has its own story for you.
Growing up in Houston, TX Christmas was the day that I spent with my friends who were not celebrating Christmas with their families. We attended a gathering of the same people for the better part of my childhood. As we all got older, the gathering became an opportunity for me to connect with friends and acquaintances that I did not see any other time.
As an adult, the first time I participated in anything for Christmas was with my husband’s family. It was my first opportunity to meet my mother-in-law of blessed memory and her family. Though my mother-in-law had converted to Judaism before my husband was born, Christmas was still a time for her family to get together. Each family member came on Christmas Day to say hello, and to share in the holiday. I remember thinking how much this reminded me of the Rosh Hashanah open house my mother had every year. For many years, even after my mother-in-law passed away, we attended Christmas Day with my husband’s family. My children looked forward to seeing their cousins, to eating macaroni and cheese, and to being part of the bigger family.
While a few weeks have passed since Hanukkah, I am just now reflecting on the experience it was this year. For Thanksgiving, as I have done almost every year, I flew to my hometown to spend Thanksgiving with my parents. However, this year was going to be different for several reasons: it was the first time my fiance would experience Thanksgiving with my family; it was also the first time she would experience Hanukkah with my family, or anyone else’s family for that matter, being raised Catholic. But what was most exciting was that it was the first time any of us had experienced, and will ever experience, both holidays at once.
At my parents’ house, Thanksgiving involves inviting over my brother, his wife, his two kids, and my sister-in-law’s family— none of whom are Jewish. This dynamic normally wouldn’t make any difference: for Jewish holidays my brother, my sister-in-law, and their kids come over, but my sister-in-law’s family does not, although there have been exceptions; on secular holidays my sister-in-law’s family comes over en masse. This made me wonder what my family would do this year with the two holidays converging.
It has become popular in the engaged core of the Jewish community to look down on Hanukkah. It is an unimportant holiday, some say. Others say that celebrating Hanukkah in a big way compromises Jewish values, worrying that it is emphasized only because of its proximity to Christmas. We beg to differ. There is nothing wrong with fun holidays like Hanukkah and Purim. In fact, they’re a great opportunity to engage those who have become bored with or alienated from Jewish life.
The “unimportant” holiday of Hanukkah has a lot going on, something for everyone: Inspiring miracles, military campaigns, a controversial revolt, the fight against assimilation, a connection to other cultures’ winter light festivals – not to mention delectable fried foods and fun parties and games. On top of that, its wide popularity (regardless of whether its popularity stems from the proximity to and association with Christmas) make it a perfect gateway holiday: Less engaged Jews and their families may already be thinking more about their Jewish background at this time of year because of Hanukkah’s high name recognition in the broader culture. Instead of sneering at Hanukkah, we should embrace it as a chance to meet less engaged Jews and help them become more involved in the Jewish community.
To that end, we have created this list of Eight Values for Building an Inclusive Jewish Community on Hanukkah. We hope this list will help you see Hanukkah for the important outreach opportunity that it is – and the deeply meaningful holiday that it can be.
- Warmth: Share the friendly warmth of the Jewish community as the weather turns colder.
- Light: No matter how you got here, no matter what road you took, the light will illuminate your way to the Jewish community.
- Faith: Many cultures have a winter light festivals of light, making this a great holiday to share with others from different backgrounds.
- Communal Memory: See yourself as part of the collective story of the Jewish people, see how it unfolds in the story of Hanukkah, and claim it as your own.
- Rededication: There is a place for you in the Jewish community no matter how long you’ve been away or even if you’ve never been a part of it before.
- Reconciliation: Leave behind internal conflict within the Jewish community as your community celebrates Hanukkah.
- Accessibility: Make sure that all are not only welcome to celebrate, but able to celebrate as well.
- Renewal: Adapt old Hanukkah traditions so that they continue to live and have meaning in your life.
Written by Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky and David A.M. Wilensky. Published in the New Jersey Jewish Standard Friday, November 21, 2013.
Parents and doting relatives of young children, take note: a new collection of Jewish stories has arrived just in time for Hanukkah. The Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales by Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand transforms rich Jewish tradition into accessible stories for a new generation of children ages four and above.
Stories like “The Prince Who Thought He Was a Rooster” and “Clever Rachel” are gorgeously illustrated by Amanda Hall and feature a more gender-balanced representation of role models than Jewish tradition can sometimes provide. As a trained outreach professional and an experienced babysitter, I also appreciate the glossary of signs and symbols in the last pages of the book; while explanations are offered throughout, they are rather vague and too subtle for younger readers.
The tales collected here convey Jewish values—compassion for others, being clever and kind, the importance of human choice—that every family will find worthwhile.
Read the New York Times review here.
Jewish grandparents whose grandchildren are being raised in intermarried households can play a big role in shaping the Jewish identities of their grandchildren. And they’re more likely to get the chance to share the fun and meaning of Hanukkah with their grandchildren this year because of the once-in-a-lifetime convergence of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.
If you’re a Jewish grandparent who often gets to spend Thanksgiving with your grandchildren, but rarely Hanukkah, can you introduce a menorah-lighting before or after the Thanksgiving meal? Or whip out a dreidel for a little fun during halftime of the Lions game? Or maybe you can add latkes to the usual Thanksgiving dishes?
Careful! Just because this year’s holiday conflict is with Turkey Day instead of Christmas, it doesn’t mean you can disregard the sensitivities of your adult children and children-in-law. Broach the subject beforehand. Keep it lighthearted and fun. Don’t let the season’s joy get gobbled up by any preexisting tensions!
To talk it out beforehand with your peers who are also thinking about this opportunity, and to address other challenges and opportunities of being a Jewish grandparent of children being raised in interfaith families, join the free Grandparents Circle email listserve at www.GrandparentsCircle.org. We welcome your voice in the conversation!
And Happy Thanksgivukkah from the Grandparents Circle and everybody at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute!
Usually we think of the annual challenge facing American Jews—and especially interfaith families—as the conflict between Christmas and Hanukkah. I have gone on record and said many times, “Hanukkah is not a minor festival. In North America, it is a major holiday.” By now, many people have realized that this year’s calendar conflict will occur in November rather than in December: between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. While these two holidays seem never to have been in conflict with one another, it will nevertheless challenge the religious mindset of folks as they consider which celebration will take precedence over the other, especially since Hanukkah has become the national Jewish holiday. One enterprising young man has already weighed in with his Menurkey, a Hanukkiyah that looks like a turkey. I am sure that as we leave this string of fall holidays behind, more ingenuity and practical solutions will emerge.
Admittedly, the Jewish holiday cycle and calendation, that is, figuring out when holidays take place and for how long (in the soli-lunar Hebrew calendar), is among the most challenging for those on the periphery of Jewish life. It gets even more confusing when you add the Israeli interpretation of the holiday calendar (slightly different and mostly followed by the Reform movement, as well). (I’ll let you in on a little secret: it is also challenging for those on the inside.) That’s among the reasons why people often find it difficult to get in sync with the rhythm of Jewish life. As a result, especially when a creative environment is not built for them, they simply opt out.
There are basically two primary holiday cycles in the Jewish religious calendar. The fall holidays actually begin toward the end of the summer, at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul. This initiates the period of intensive introspection that includes Rosh Hashanah and culminates in Yom Kippur. But the seasonal cycle doesn’t conclude until the holiday that is the end cap for Sukkot: Simchat Torah, which celebrates the year-long cycle of reading the Torah. The spring holidays begin with Pesach (Passover) and after a period of counting down toward the barley harvest (called Sefirat Haomer) and the giving of the Torah at Sinai, this period concludes with the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the spring harvest, or more specifically, the barley harvest.
Admittedly, the building of a sukkah is what I usually call a high barrier ritual experience. Even with the growth of prefabricated sukkot (the plural of sukkah), and a growing number of people who install them, it is still a relatively small percentage of people who actually build sukkot in their backyards. As a result, most sukkot are limited to synagogue yards, some kosher restaurants, and, of course, the infamous Chabad sukkah-mobile, which is driven through major cities offering people the opportunity to step inside.
Over the past few years, we have seen some sukkot in public spaces such as Reboot’s “Sukkah in the City” project held in New York City’s Union Square last year. (This has recently been issued as a film, just in time for Sukkot.) Although this holiday epitomizes the Jewish value of “welcoming guests,” fewer people are invited into sukkot than invited around the Passover seder table, for example. Thus, I am proposing that we bring back the notion of Sukkot as a “pop-up” experience and actually install temporary sukkot—even more temporary than the festival itself, which lasts eight days—in public spaces for all to enjoy. At Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI), we advocate a theoretical construct called Public Space Judaism, actually taking Judaism outside—from the four walls of community institutions—to public spaces so that people can “stumble over Judaism,” as I am want to say.
How well are you able to share the meaning and value of the Jewish High Holidays with your family?
Here’s how NOT to feel lost and confused during the High Holidays, and truly find the benefit, even if you didn’t grow up celebrating Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We invite you to join us for High Holiday Highlights.
High Holiday Highlights is a FREE one-time webinar (interactive online session) from the staff of Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute and Kit Haspel, a Mothers Circle Coordinator at the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.
This webinar will empower you to better understand the value and meaning of the holidays, and provide the opportunity not only to learn, but to interact with fellow participants about blessings and prayers, food traditions, and activities you can do to share the beauty of the holiday with your family.
• When: Wednesday, August 21 at 2:00pm EDT.
• Where: Via phone and any computer connected to the Internet!
• How: RSVP to JOI Communications Manager Amanda Kaletsky here to receive the link.
• Who: Anyone who wants to learn more about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Please feel free to invite any friends, family, or colleagues who may be interested!
High Holiday Highlights is brought to you by The Mothers Circle, a program for women of other religious backgrounds raising Jewish children.
I have always rejected the theology of sinat chinam (literally, senseless hatred), the notion employed by classic/traditional Jewish theologians that suggests Gd used the agency of the enemies of ancient Israel to destroy the ancient Temple in Jerusalem and send the Jewish people into exile. Thus, it troubles me when contemporary thinkers suggest that sinat chinam (in this case referring to the animus that exists between various streams in the Jewish community) will once again lead to dire consequences (without regard to the implicit correlate that Gd would once again use others to “teach the Jewish people a lesson”).
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, suggested that ahavat chinam (which I translate as “unconditional love”) is the only way to mitigate sinat chinam. Of course, he implied that such a posture would lead to the messianic era, something that I can accept, with its various complements, such as the building of the third Temple (something that really doesn’t interest me at all).
According to the very complicated Jewish religious calendar, it is three weeks after Tisha B’av (literally, the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av) which marks various calamities in Jewish history, including the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. As a result, each Shabbat we read one of a succession of Haftarot of consolation, whose prophetic words are supposed to bring us comfort after such vast catastrophes, as if it were even possible to do so. And now, as we approach the Hebrew month of Elul, which begins this week, anticipating the fall holidays, particularly the healing implicit in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are to add on the element of personal introspection.
In our latest edition of The Mothers Circle-Shalom Sesame holiday resource guide, we take a look at the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, which begins at sundown on Tuesday May 14th, and ends at sundown on Thursday May 16th.
Shavuot is a spring holiday that celebrates the first harvest, the ripening of the first fruits, and most importantly, the giving of the Torah. The holiday can offer a wonderful entry point into Jewish life. Entry points, in fact, are at the very heart of this holiday, particularly because of its connection to the Book of Ruth, which is traditionally read on Shavuot during late-night (or even all night!) study sessions. Shavuot is also known for the delicious foods eaten, including blintzes and cheesecake.
For more about this unique holiday, including activities, video and discussion questions, and more, click here to download the free Shavuot resource guide. And please feel free to share!
Also, be sure to visit The Mothers Circle Facebook page to share how you will be celebrating Shavuot with your family, by leaving us a comment on the post about this fun guide. You can even share photos of the tzedakah boxes you make!
I’ve recently returned from a long-awaited vacation in Israel, where I had the pleasure of celebrating the Passover seder (ritual meal) at an Upper Galilee kibbutz (communal settlement) with my immediate family and… five hundred other kibbutz members, affiliates, and invitees. The cafeteria-style dining hall was filled with long tables arranged around a central stage on which local talent sang, recited, and performed segments of the Hagaddah (the text traditionally read on Passover, retelling the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt). The kibbutz first graders sang the Four Questions with the entire crowd responding with the refrain. Four child-and-parent pairs, dressed in appropriate costumes, acted out the story of the Four Children.
Aside from the size of the event, a sharp-eyed North American Jewish observer would have noticed some other differences between this celebration and a traditional seder. For one, there was virtually no mention of God. The kibbutz hagaddah - now close to a century in existence - removes God from the text and enhances it with content thought to be more relevant to life in Israel, such as songs about spring, renewal, and rebirth. Other sections considered problematic (such as the plea to “pour Your wrath on the nations who do not know You”) were replaced with statements about hope for peace. All during the week of Passover, the communal dining hall serves matzah AND bread. This bread is bought and frozen before the holiday (buying bread during Passover in Israel is possible, but entails driving the extra mile or two to the nearest Arab village. Freezing is easier). I grew up celebrating Passover in this way, so I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to come back to it, even more so now that I could share it with my young son.
When I was a student, I worked as an archivist at the American Jewish Archives. It was there that I got into the habit of reading as many Anglo-Jewish newspapers as possible. This allowed me to keep up on the various activities in local Jewish communities. It also helped bolster my interest in American Jewish history and the contemporary American Jewish community, an interest that I maintain to this day. I also continue to read all of those Anglo-Jewish newspapers, although there are fewer today than there were 35 years ago when I was a student. And while on-line news is eclipsing print newspapers very quickly, there are still many things that I can glean from a print newspaper that I don’t always catch when reading something on-line. Perhaps it is a generational thing or perhaps it is the difference in media.
Each year, about this time, I review all of the coverage of Hanukkah events. And usually the photos that I see are what I expect; bearded rabbis lighting giant menorahs (hanukiyot) with local politicians. While I have nothing against these rabbis and generally celebrate their work and their methods, I am always disillusioned, feeling that the American Jewish community has defaulted the public celebration of Hanukkah to a small group of American Jews and their rabbis.
Until this year.
This year, more people will celebrate the holiday of another religion with friends and family than ever before, largely due to intermarriage and our increasingly multicultural society. When helping others to celebrate their traditions, it may be fun and useful to know a little about how the two main December holidays are similar, and how they differ. The below tidbits may add to the appreciation of the other’s holiday, or enable you to better explain your own traditions—or simply provide a good ice-breaker over eggnog or latkes.
Did you know the holidays are similar in that…
1. Both Hanukkah and Christmas have roots in the Winter Solstice. The shortening of the days was the basis for many holidays that pre-date Hanukkah and Christmas. In ancient Rome, December 25th was considered the birthday of the sun, and many cultures who celebrate the Winter Solstice do so by lighting large bonfires both in public and near their homes. Others see it as a purifying holiday and incorporate ritual cleansings into their celebrations.
The staff of Big Tent Judaism / The Jewish Outreach Institute wish you a Happy Hanukkah!
How are you sharing the light this Hanukkah? Click here tell us below!
In the spirit of opening the tent, our staff are opening their doors and sharing the light this Hanukkah in many ways– through both their work here at JOI, as well as at home and in public spaces with family and friends. We invite you to leave your comment about how you plan to share the light this Hanukkah, and we wish everyone a safe, bright, and happy holiday!