God has more important things to do – marriage and kashrut

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The thing about marrying into a family of Orthodox-in-the-shul-but-not-in-the-home Jews, is:  it’s not always clear which religious traditions they hold sacred, and which they let go of completely. Or why. And so it took awhile for me to understand how my husband Andy and his family followed the rules of kashrut, or keeping a kosher diet/home.

Andy quotes his his beloved Jacobs grandmother (pictured here) often. According to family lore, Grandma Alice, whose husband and sons faithfully attended an orthodox shul (synagogue) in New Haven, disdained the practice of kashrut in her home. “God has more important things to do than worry about what’s in my pots!

But the story may be apocryphal. Andy’s Dad — Alice’s youngest son — and Andy’s older brother eat no pork but enjoy a good cheeseburger or Connecticut Lobster Roll. Andy and his other two brothers have no problem eating pork or shellfish or mixing meat & cheese — after all, why walk away from a fine New Haven apizza, whether clam or pepperoni?

Also, for many years after we were first together, Andy wanted to follow his family’s tradition of keeping strict kashrut during the eight days of Pesach (Passover). Which is to say, we not only avoided the traditional chametz (leavened wheat products and other “bread substitutes”) during that time, but suddenly it also mattered that all our meats, canned and dairy goods during that time carry a rabbinic “kosher-for-Passover” seal, and that we have dairy-only or meat-only meals. Suddenly, margarine – which we never otherwise ate – was the choice over butter in all our main meals.

It made my Unitarian, rational-argument brain hurt. Why does your brother avoid pork but not shellfish, if the Torah says both of these are treyf (non-kosher)? And I understand that part of the Passover holiday is to eat matzah instead of bread, but why do we suddenly care whether a Rabbi has observed the grinding of our coffee beans? Sure, that ice cream contains corn syrup, but can you honestly tell me that ice cream is a substitute for bread?? Margarine is full of unhealthy transfats and it tastes crappy! And if Sephardic Jews can eat rice during Passover, why can’t we?  Who decided we’re following Ashkenazi rules, anyhow? Doesn’t that mean we’re following medieval eastern European rules for eating – we sure don’t follow their rules about everything else in our lives!

What’s more, the fact that our son’s birthday is in April and often fell over the Pesach holiday apparently meant that we had to go without giving him a birthday cake. This made my mother’s heart hurt. Yes, I know, there is such a thing as flourless, or kosher-for-Passover sponge cakes, but have you really ever tasted a good pesadik (kosher for Passover) cake? Couldn’t we make a 1-day birthday exception for our kid, given that we seem to make other exceptions to the dietary rules all year long?

Eventually in our young marriage, we realized we were fighting two battles at once. The first battle, of course, was one of how to build our own married life together as a separate and unique thing from that of Andy’s parents (or for that matter, mine). Just because mom and dad’s Jewishness looked one way, didn’t mean Andy & Karen’s couldn’t look…a different way. A way that we chose consciously, respectfully, together.

The second battle was…how exactly did we feel about Jewish dietary laws? Not just during Pesach, but…do we think God cares about what’s in our pots?

Over time, we learned and practiced in our marriage what my friend Rachel has dubbed “values-clarifying” — as in, “We would have bought/done/decided that thing X, but Harry and I values-clarified yesterday and decided Y instead.” Values-clarifying generally entails having an intentional, respectful conversation about a tough decision, acknowledging each other’s perspectives, consulting the wisdom of other sources, and then reminding yourselves of your shared values and deciding together how to best reflect those. It’s a fantastic relationship practice, best done over a good meal or a long walk. I also think it’s kinda Jewish — similar to p’sak halacha, which is the process by which rabbinic scholars consult Torah and Talmud in order to make a ruling on a specific question concerning halachic (Jewish religious) law. The difference, of course, is that halachic decisions are, for observant Jews, binding, and the sources consulted are strictly religious.

So as we’ve values-clarified, again and again over time, we’ve decided:

  • God cares about our Earth and all the Life within it. So our “dietary rules” mean we seek out and support farmers, markets, restaurants and gardens with organic and sustainable practices. We compost. We recycle. We re-use. We avoid water bottles and other take-out or packaging waste where we can (working now on remembering to ask for “no straws please!”). We try not to waste food.
  • God cares about how we treat other living beings, with fairness and compassion. So we also seek out producers, markets and restaurants with fair and compassionate labor practices, and who support community, equality and justice. We buy local. We tip servers generously and thank the kitchen staff. We support organizations who feed the hungry.
  • God cares about how we welcome others to our home. So we are conscious of letting guests know about our own (non-kosher, non-vegan, etc…) kitchen and taking whatever steps we can to accommodate their diets so they feel comfortable with us.
  • God cares about our bodies and asks that we respect them. So we try to follow “Reb” Michael Pollan’s food rules:  “Eat real food. Mostly plants. Not too much.”
  • God cares about our spiritual growth, and there’s a reason that Jewish tradition has developed as it has and nurtured the Jewish people for so long. So we use the Jewish holidays as opportunities for reconnecting on the regular. That means, yes, over Passover we eat matzah and not bread, or any of the obvious bread substitutes. We’re not so worried about whether other food during that time has the hechsher (mark of rabbinically-approved kosher status), but we’re actively aware of the choices we’re making and especially if we’re with guests, we’ll err on the conservative side. We fast on Yom Kippur (though I personally make the non-halachic choice to drink water on that day). We choose and celebrate traditional holiday foods on other holidays — latkes, donuts & chocolate gelt for Chanukah; apples & honey for Rosh Hashanah; all the traditional foods for our Seder table (though I personally draw the line at matzah brei, but that’s a matter of great family controversy and best-suited for a separate blog post).
  • God cares about our experience of beauty and joy in the world. So we welcome others to our home for meals, as often as we can (my sister says this Cab Calloway song is the Karen & Andy theme music…). We enjoy our food! We use food to get closer with friends and strangers, to learn new things about our own and others’ cultures, to mark moments of celebration and life passages. While we’ve gotten away from it in recent years, I’ve an intention to return to having a special, distraction-free Friday night Shabbat meal, and saying the blessings over food and wine, as often as we can.
  • We still don’t eat margarine (pretty sure it’s not something God would ever dream up).

 

Would the Rabbis recognize these all as rules of kashrut, or does anyone else even see how I can think of them all as dietary rules? I guess not. And we’ll keep values-clarifying.

But we’ll try to keep living in a way that I can be proud of, should God ever stop by to take a look inside our pots.

 

Modah Ani מודה אני – a gratitude beginning

The Modeh Ani (Modah being the female form of modeh, to give thanks) prayer is traditionally recited by (traditional) Jews upon first awakening each morning. Our Jewish ancestors apparently considered a night’s sleep to be a kind of “death” and each morning a resurrection of sorts, or at least a return of the soul to its body. The prayer is a simple one, expressing gratitude for awakening with our soul returned/intact and being able to experience a new day.

The prayer can be literally translated as “I give thanks to You, ever-living Sovereign, for restoring my soul to me in compassion; how great is Your trust.” In Hebrew, it sounds like this — or transliterated: Modah ani lefanecha, melech chay vekayam, shehechezarta bi nishmati bechemla raba emunetecha.

In Hebrew letters (without the markings for Hebrew vowels as I’ve no idea how to make those work yet with a Hebrew keyboard):

 מודה אני לפניך, מלֹך חי וקים, שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה רבה אמונתך

Here’s the thing. While I love studying Hebrew language, Torah and Jewish text, I have always found the act of prayer to be a bit of a challenge. I confess to having some “prayer FOMO” when other people talk about how spiritually fulfilled they are when they take up regular prayer. But most traditional “God-language” sends me in the opposite direction: images of Fathers and Sovereigns feels medieval, made-up and not-at-all how I imagine a Universal Power or Presence to be manifest in the world or in my spirit. I often find myself feeling either disconnected or argumentative when I’m set in front of a traditional Hebrew prayer or blessing. I want to say the words, but only if they mean something to me. It’s not enough to mumble things I can’t understand; and it’s not okay to say things I don’t mean.

So when I heard friends in my Mishkan conversion cohort talking about how they’d incorporated this simple blessing into their morning routine, as a gratitude practice, I felt FOMO pangs again and decided it was time to do some work. Fortunately, I found a source on my very own bookshelf that turns out to be exactly what I needed. Poet, translator and scholar Marcia Falk wrote The Book of Blessings: New Jewish Prayers for Daily Life, the Sabbath, and the New Moon Festival in 1996. She has used her talent and her study to carefully reconstruct blessings in a way that honors their intent and tradition, but invites new images for divinity into the theology. I was excited to learn that her work has been adopted and adapted across a spectrum of Jewish liturgy and communities, notably feminists and progressives.

Falk’s rendition of the Modeh Ani goes like this:

נשמת חיי תברך וקרב לבי ישיר:  כל עיד נשמה בקרבי מודה אני

Nishmat chayay t’vareykh v’kerev libi yashir:  Kol od n’shamah b’kirbi modah ani.

The breath of my life will bless, the cells of my being sing:  In gratitude, reawakening.

 

Ahhhhh. My gratitude practice begins tomorrow.

 

Malchuyot, Zichronot, Shofarot – A Rosh Hashanah 5773 reflection

This is a reflection I was asked by Rabbi Marc Belgrad to make to the congregation of B’Chavana, on Rosh Hashanah 5773 (September 17, 2012). I think it still accurately reflects the challenges I have sometimes with liturgy and the formality of traditional Jewish prayer-language. But also how I can find it meaningful when I take the time to engage with the words and ideas. Unfortunately, this kind of engagement, for me, happens best outside of shul. Note to self, right?

Intro: The prayers of the Holy Days are always hard for me. I know the service and this liturgy are meant to move us through certain spiritual steps, to feel ourselves in relationship with God and to motivate us to do the work that will inscribe us in the Book of Life. These prayers are the poetry of our ancestors and universal to every Jew in the world, this day:  That’s powerful stuff. But they are still hard for me. I lapse into “auto-mumble.” I pageflip. I have little silent arguments with myself about their relevance. So it may be the high school teacher’s instinct that led Rabbi to ask me, the daydreaming kid staring out the window, to make a personal reflection on the Shofar Service this morning. As I studied and put my thoughts together, I found new context for Malchuyot, Zichronot, Shofarot – the three sections of this service. As it turns out, taking time to reflect personally on the words does, in fact, make them more meaningful!

Malchuyot. Sovereignty. During these holiest of days, our liturgy is especially replete with imagery of God as sovereign: King, Ruler, Reigning, Be-throned and Majestic.

But I… am not one who has ever been comfortable with, or comforted by, images of God as King. Paternalism! something inside wants to shout. Autocracy! Oppression! I look for the ramparts; I ready my words, my weapons; unconsciously, I sit up taller and draw a fuller breath to make myself big for battle.

And yet…these are Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe. Malchuyot calls us to acknowledge God with Awe. Awe does not make us big, but rather: small. Small and at a loss for words. Small and breathless. Small and weak at the knees. Small and dazed with wonder.

I may not bow before Kings, but I have bowed to the sovereignty of moments, moments when I have known how very small I am. Holding the newborn baby or the hand of a dying man; a lightning storm over the Lake; certain art and certain trees; there are times when I have been awe-struck at the power of life before me – so much bigger than me.

Malchuyot, then, I am awe-struck by the majesty of this moment. I climb down from my ramparts; I drop my words, my weapons; I breathe out and I open my eyes and my heart to Awe, to the Sovereignty of God.

Zichronot. Remembrance. During these holiest of days, God remembers the work of creation; God remembers the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; God remembers leading our ancestors from Egypt and renewing the covenant at Sinai. The machzor calls me to remember these things, too. Indeed, the rabbis say that all of Judaism does not command me to believe, but commands me to remember.

But I… don’t recall any of these miracles. I am quite sure I wasn’t there. I’m not even sure how much I trust others’ memories of these times – there are so many stories, and the imagery is beautiful but the mythology so large. How can I remember what I did not share?

And yet…memory separates humans from animals. We use it to carry information from one time and place to another; but it also carries feelings. Without memory, relationships are simple, shallow, transactional. With it, we build deep emotional meaning into the world around us. There can be no “past” without memory – logically, there can also be no “future.” Zichronot calls us to acknowledge our never-ending relationship with God.

I may not recall the miracles, but I can remember the relationship. I’ve seen creation; I’ve known the blessings of promises kept; I’ve felt deliverance from many Egypts in my life. I know that I keep my part of the covenant when I share such miracles with others in God’s world.

Zichronot, then, I honour and share and remember the miracles. I honour and share and Remember that which makes the miracles possible: Our Relationship with God.

Shofarot. Revelation. During these holiest of days, we are reminded to celebrate the revelation of God in our lives: God was revealed to us at Sinai through the giving of Torah, and God will be revealed again at the end of days. Revelation, then, is at once a thing of the past and of the future. One midrash holds that the shofar blown at Sinai was one horn of the ram sacrificed by Abraham when God spared his son Isaac, and that ram’s other horn will be blown at the coming of the Meshiach.

But I… don’t know what to think about the end of time. I am troubled by the story of Abraham and Isaac. The sound of shofar is awkward to my ears: harsh, primitive, barbaric. Its foreignness unsettles me. I find it difficult to celebrate what I do not understand.

And yet…we are commanded to hear the shofar call. Not to blow it, but to hear it. So often, in my life, I come up against a sound or sight or experience that is unsettling or weird. It’s frightening to face the foreigner and it’s hard to hear his humanity, when I don’t understand. Revelation takes work: not just for the Revealer, but for the Receiver of the message. To receive, we must make ourselves small, and open. We must honour the relationship. We must trust ourselves to hear God in all the places and practices and voices that seem strange to us.

I may not understand Revelation, but I can celebrate connection. I can welcome the Stranger to my table and my Sukkah. I can hear the weird, lonely blast of the shofar and listen for the human breath that fills that horn. I can hold another’s hand and imagine us together in the wilderness, listening together for God’s voice.

Shofarot, then, I celebrate human connections and the all-times, all-places presence of God in my life. Even when I do not understand, the shofar blast wakes me from my unconscious ways and calls me to Hear God’s blessings.

“The Plates” – or, How I Learned to Love New Year’s Resolutions

Intro: This is a reflection I was asked by Rabbi Marc Belgrad to make to the congregation of B’Chavana, on Kol Nidre 5775 (October 3, 2014). I think it reflects my growing Jewish-ish-ness, i.e. my acknowledgement that my internal spiritual calendar aligns more closely with the Hebrew calendar and Jewish cycle of holidays than with a secular or Christian calendar.

10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1. And: Happy New Year!!

Every year of my adult life – with rare exception – I have spent New Year’s Eve – you know, that *other* New Year – in the same place, with the same group of friends. These friends are the closest-of-the-close, really they are family, and since our special place to be together is in Michigan, it’s with a wink that we refer to ourselves as “The Michpacha.”

I’ve got props tonight for this little talk, and here’s the first one. It’s a ceramic plate painted with picture of a beach and the word MICH PACHA: my daughter’s artwork and I’m pretty sure she thought at the time – maybe still does – that the word “michpacha” was something we made up, that only referred to our special group and our special place along the Lake Michigan beach. (Of course, mishpacha or משפחה is actually the Hebrew word for “family.”).

Other things have become expectations and even highly ritualized over our years together with the michpacha: the night-time sledding, the beach bonfire, the bowling day, watching the Rose Bowl parade in pajamas together, the Girls Walk and the Boys Walk that each happen along the lakeshore no matter the weather, the party we throw together there on New Year’s Eve and the food, which is abundant, extreme, not-very-kosher and which, in deference to this fasting occasion, I will say no more about here.

We even created a second ceramic plate together: this is our “Shehechiyanu plate.” It has been with us across many years in Michigan and also as you might imagine, across many b’nai mitzvah and other simchas (joyous occasions).

I love it all, I wouldn’t change a thing about any of it, nothing. Well…except one thing. There is this thing my friends are always psyched to do, and for years the peer pressure bothered me and I participated…but uncomfortably. You may already be guessing…what all the “cool kids,” my best friends, started doing over our New Year’s holiday.

They make “New Year’s Resolutions.” Oh, how I dread them each January 1st. Of course, we are doing it the day after an all-night all-out celebration, and to me, it just feels…Fake. Lazy. Guilty. Like I’m making up things to say but without any real insight, and no real intention. I never seem to be in the right place to be making promises to myself or to even my closest-of-close, my michpacha, about the coming year. About being a better person, about changes I wanted to make.

I began to rebel quietly against the Resolutions ritual – I didn’t want to take it away from everybody else, but I did find my ways of non-violent resistance.

[Third prop] I’m not proud of this, but I share with you here an actual example: among the admirable resolutions my friends committed to, via red Sharpie and a paper plate in 2009: “I will lose 30 pounds” “I will regard busy-ness as a blessing” “I will spend more time with my family” “I will enjoy life whatever direction it takes” “I will take lessons and get my motorcycle license!” And here’s mine: “I will eat more bananas.”

And I’ve argued to my friends: I just don’t “do” resolutions. I don’t “believe” in them. “This whole exercise is meaningless.” “I mean: great that it’s working for you…but…not for me,” I’ve said. “I’m trying to live in the moment, with authenticity and intention. This just gets in the way.”

So imagine my surprise, as I began working on this little D’var Torah (speech), when I caught myself, this weekend, in Michigan no less, making…New Year’s resolutions. And then it occurred to me, I’ve been doing this every year for a long time – ever since I decided, long ago, to marry and to live Jewishly and to adopt a new “New Year” and its rituals into my life.

The rituals of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, the month of Elul before it and the days that follow it, leading up to Yom Kippur – are meaningful to me. And I come out of this season each year feeling that I have made real commitments to myself and to my relationships with others. When I engage fully in the High Holy Day traditions, I am refreshed, optimistic, energetic and intentional.

So, one ritual resolution-making event versus another: “Nu…why so different?” What makes this New Year and its resolutions feel so much more meaningful than those on January 1st?

It turns out that “living in the moment” doesn’t mean not thinking about and planning for a good year, or a “good me” in the year ahead. But to do all these things authentically and b’chavanah, with intention, I have learned that that living in the moment requires a letting go of other moments – a letting go of expectations, of distractions, of fears and hopes and sometimes promises.

The letting go – ah ha! For all the New Year’s rituals of my michpacha, of Times Square and Auld Lang Syne – we count down the clock and let one year pass into the next, but at least for me, the letting go is incomplete. Here is where I find the wisdom and blessing of the Jewish New Year and the High Holy Days.

The mahzor (prayer book) reminds us at this time of tefilah, teshuvah and tzedakah – awareness through prayer, repentance, and charity & just action. To coin a term, I find these ideas ideally “pre-resolutionary.” In other words, these are exactly the steps we must go through to prepare ourselves for the most meaningful kind of New Year’s resolutions. We make an honest spiritual assessment of the year we are leaving behind. We come to terms with what we’ve failed at – resolutions and promises made last year that missed the mark. We acknowledge the impact that each broken promise, explicit or implied, big or small, intentional or accidental, has had on ourselves and on others.

Our tradition demands that we set aside this time to make amends. Together here, this time each year we repeat the Al Cheyt, at once a personal and collective confession for having fallen short in ways we may not even know or 100% remember, but for which we have responsibility nonetheless.

And on this night, in particular, we together chant an ancient and peculiar formula – the Aramaic Kol Nidre, prayer, which asks that we be legally, ethically, utterly released from all the promises and obligations of the last year, and by some translations, the year to come, as well. Rabbis have talked about this recitation as an enigma. Indeed, in my research for this talk I read that the Reform and Reconstructionist movements for a time each deleted it from their service, it was so controversial! Why ask to be released from our oaths at the same time we are making amends for not having met them and preparing ourselves to make them again? How does this make sense?

For me, the Kol Nidre has always made sense. I think it’s part of what I now see as a thoughtful path to authenticity. I suggest that this request to be released, this acknowledgement of our imperfect humanity – despite best intentions and promises, whether last year or in the year to come – is the last bit of “letting go” that we must do – a sort of 10-9-8 spiritual countdown. We have been honest with ourselves about falling short, we have honestly worked to make things right with others. And with Kol Nidre we are allowed the blessing of a clean slate – otherwise, we might start the New Year with resolutions much too modest or foolish to be proud of. With all due respect to the benefits of more bananas in one’s diet.

So I make my New Year’s Resolutions now, and each year, coming out of the Days of Awe. And it feels right, more right now than it ever has on January 1st. It feels right to do my turning as the leaves are also turning. It feels right to commit myself to, and wish for others, goodness and sweetness as the apples ripen. It feels right to make my promises after a spiritual journey of tefilah, teshuvah, tzedakah, of atonement, of letting go and of feeling the blessings of that release before beginning anew.

I invite you to do the same, and l’shanah tovah tikatevu, “may you be inscribed for a good year” in the Book of Life and also in red Sharpie on a paper plate. May you find many occasions to be with your Mich-Pacha. May this next day be an easy fast, but may you do the hard work and make the resolutions that will fill your Shehechiyanu plate with authentic joy this year.

Amirah Ruth – choosing my name

An important part of formal conversion to Judaism is to choose a Hebrew name. It’s been more challenging for me than I would have thought. First of all, it’s a weird thing to name yourself. It feels oddly vulnerable to tell someone else you picked this name for yourself and know that they are wondering, or even asking you, “Why? Why that name? What does it mean to you?” Part of me feels like this should be a private thing, and yet by definition a name exists for other people, right? For other people to use, to call you, find you, bless you (curse you), whatever or however they use it…but one rarely calls oneself.

It’s even more challenging to name oneself in a foreign language, of course. I’ve studied enough language to understand that it’s easy for a non-native speaker to focus on one translation or meaning of a word, and miss entirely the nuance or context or additional meanings that might be attached to it. This is why Google Translate still has a ways to go, and why “Chinglish” or even old people using slang, can be so amusing.

So I started by scouring books and websites on Hebrew language, and baby-naming books, and Biblical references. I emailed Rabbi Ally (Allison Tick Brill), who is facilitating our Mishkan Conversion Cohort and who has patiently responded as I’ve bounced around from one idea to the next. I finally realized my best resource was to ask friends who know and love me and also happen to have lived in Israel and speak fluent Hebrew — Ilana listened patiently as I shared some of my thinking with her, and then she and Mark came up with a wonderful list (Hebrew Names) that built on what we’d talked about.

As I shared with Ilana, I’ve always felt spiritually connected with trees. All kinds of trees, though I’m particularly fond of apple trees — both because of where I grew up, where apple orchards are plentiful — and because I happen to love apples and the time of year (fall) when the tree boughs are gorgeous and full of fruit.

Mark told me the Hebrew word for “apple tree” would be Tapuach – but since apples aren’t really a native fruit to Israel, there’s no Biblical reference point. What’s more, when I googled the word, I learned that there’s an Orthodox settlement in the West Bank that’s name Tapuach…that’s not something I want as my namesake.

So we thought some more about “tree” and also words that are associated with trees – branches, boughs, seeds, roots, fruit.

The name that feels right is the word I chose to name this blog site now – Amirah אמיוה. Hebrew is a gendered language, and the masculine form of this word, Amir אמיר, means “treetop.” The feminine form Amirah אמיוה means “a statement, saying or personal truth.” I’ve also seen it translated as “One who speaks.” I like that. I think it both describes me and challenges me in a good way.

It’s common to pick a second name, as well — I guess that’s kinda like a middle name in our secular tradition. So I’ve chosen the name Ruth רות. In the Torah, Ruth is actually the “first convert to Judaism” and the story of Ruth and Naomi is read each year on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which this year fell just last month on the day I began this blog. As it happens, Ruth is also the given name of both one of Andy’s grandmothers, and one of my own. And in a perhaps beshert (Yiddish for “meant to be”) coincidence, my grandmother Ruth Layman told me years ago that her grandmother was…wait for it…Jewish. Which, if true, means that my mother’s mother’s mother’s mother was Jewish and if I could ever prove it, that matrilineal line of descent would supposedly mean I’m already “officially” Jewish! Of course, I don’t have such proof and I suspect the rabbis would take issue with the idea given that none of these generations (until my own daughter…) were raised Jewishly. But still…it makes my heart happy to think about 🙂

Is Chanukah the Jewish Christmas?

Several years ago, a Jewish friend posed this question to me and some other friends, via email. Not having grown up Jewish, but as part of an interfaith couple, I’ve participated in a lot of discussions (not all pleasant) about this topic over the years. So I wrote him a really long answer.

Is Chanukah the Jewish Christmas?

What this question really asks us to consider is “the true meaning of Chanukah,” which is of course also a way to ask about the meaning of Judaism in our lives.  These are great things to talk about, and what better way to start the conversation this time of year than to do a compare/contrast between Chanukah and Christmas?

But to do justice to the question, we also have to be careful with our assumptions about “the true meaning of Christmas.”  Which isn’t an easy thing to get your arms around in contemporary America.  You need to think about “which” Christmas you’re comparing to:

  • the secular holiday?
  • the retail/economic/consumerist phenomenon it has become in America (and increasingly, around the globe)?
  • the pure religious celebration of (Christian) God’s greatest gift to mankind, a miracle?
  • the (most likely pagan in origin) traditions that have become integral to its celebration, involving trees, and the celebration of light and warmth and bounty?
  • the (not pagan, but pulled from many diverse cultural sources and mythologies) other traditions that have become integral to its celebration, involving family togetherness, giving and receiving gifts, St. Nicholas/Santa, special holiday music, holiday foods, holiday stories, holiday colours and clothing?

Depending on which of these Christmases we use as a comparison point, there are so many different answers to the question!

Which doesn’t even begin to get into the question of “which Chanukah?” since I’m also pretty sure that both Jewish leaders and Jewish communities over time have reinterpreted and re-directed the emphasis of this holiday in response to societal context and needs.

The discussions I’ve had in the past which are unpleasant are those in which I feel people oversimplify and reduce their definition of Christmas to its most public, media-driven, consumerist common denominator, e.g. “Christmas is about buying stuff and getting presents.”  The discussions which have been the most enlightening, and fun, are those in which the group has been able to look without defensiveness  at how much these two holidays do, in fact share… and where they differ, why/how?

I’ve perhaps tipped my hand, but for me, the two holidays share a great deal, and both are quite beautiful and meaningful.

There is celebration of light at the winter solstice — literally the time of year when nights are longest:  Chanukah candles, Christmas candles/lights and the Christian symbolism of Jesus as a light among mankind, the symbolism of the star of Bethlehem lighting the way to his birthplace.

There is celebration of warmth in the dead of winter — the special foods each holiday embraces are warm, both gather around candles or oil lamps (Chanukah) or in the case of Christmas, the fireplace or the tree (wood = source of heat).

There is a celebration of hope and a miracle – for Chanukah, the story of the oil that burned eight days and sustained the Maccabees; for Christmas, a miraculous birth, and the gift of God’s only son to save mankind.

There is a celebration of family – neither holiday explicitly demands it, and yet both implicitly require it…you cannot play a dreidel game alone, nor can you exchange gifts with yourself.  Songs sung, stories told and special foods prepared all make most sense when they are shared, not when they are experienced alone.  And it’s interesting that the mythology of both holidays feature family:  The Maccabeean Brothers, The Christian Mother Mary/Father Joseph/Baby Jesus.

And yes, there are gifts.  I know it’s popular, almost de rigueur, to bemoan the creep of consumerism into Chanukah, whose traditions and stories have historically not included gift-giving…that is, until Jews in America found themselves “competing with Christmas” and over time and with the happy cooperation of capitalism, increased their emphasis on gifts.

I do bemoan it (while at the same time I give in to it, let’s be honest…) for both Chanukah and for Christmas.   The traditions of Christmas, as I grew up understanding them, were not as much about getting gifts, but rather giving them, with care and thoughtfulness.  The religious symbolism goes back to God’s gift (of his only son); the diverse Christian cultural stories and myths had much to do with behaving (being good girls and boys) and giving as a way to emulate Jesus and/or Saints (in the Catholic tradition).

And to the extent that the giving of gifts reminds us to think of others before ourselves, to appreciate others and to show that appreciation, while the receiving of gifts reminds us to be grateful to and for the loved ones in our lives, I think there is still something beautiful and worthwhile in this.

So, I not only think there’s no turning back (i.e. bemoan as you might, Chanukah in America has been reconstructed to include gifts…) but I think there can be real value in accepting with wisdom and clarity the adoption of this part of the meaning of Christmas into our Chanukah.

The challenge then, for those who celebrate Chanukah (and for those who celebrate Christmas, but perhaps Christians are best-suited to tackle that one…), is how to find/keep our values in the giving and receiving of gifts — i.e. how do we make sure we’re celebrating appreciation, love, gratitude VERSUS materialism, consumerism, greed?  Can we choose “which Christmas” we’re competing with?  Accepted wisdom in the sports and business world is that competition makes you stronger — can Chanukah in America be strengthened by this new tradition, or are its other values simply weakened?

Finally, both holidays have powerful stories behind them – different stories, one military in nature, one almost fairytale – but both are, upon reflection, highly political stories and at times throughout history, I suspect also highly politicized.  It would be interesting to study them from this perspective:  what was the “spin” of the day behind each of these stories, how did the stories change with time, and what impact did they have?

Love, and Happy Holidays of every kind, to all of you —

Karen

 

 

Spiritual moments of reckoning

Fulcrum: the point on which a lever rests or is supported and on which it pivots. Or:  a thing that plays a central or essential role in an activity, event, or situation.

There is a conversational game I like to play with close friends sometimes, where we challenge each other to view our lives as stories and call out the top 3 points in the story when “everything changed.” You know, where you thought the plot might go in one direction but bam! the storywriter inserts a thing, a moment, an epiphany, and there’s a shift, and then our protagonist heads off in a completely new direction. This game is best played with drinks in hand, btw, if you ever want to try it. It can be a great ‘get to know you’ game, played at a surface level, but it can also be a deeply bonding exercise when played with vulnerability and those you trust completely.

I thought about what to name these moments and the word fulcrum came to mind, so I looked it up. The definition does not surprise me, but as sometimes happens when you research the meaning of a word you’ve been using forever, I suddenly saw something new about it.

I was thinking about fulcrum moments because, as part of my Jewish journey, I need to articulate “why.” Why now? Why at all? Why move from being comfortably Jewish-ish to affirming a fully, formal Jewish identity? Where is the pivot point in my story?

Any good writer knows there are two ways to write about character change. There is the slow build, cleverly woven into scene after scene in such a way that the reader has only a vague sense of something afoot, but doesn’t really see it coming, until there is a quiet acknowledgement and then they have to go back and review all the evidence that it was happening all along, Mystery and romance stories use this method all the time.

And then there is the shock & awe approach, almost always created by an external force, in which the character makes a proactive decision (good or bad, intentional or un…) to address something, and the reader can immediately see the character shift. Adventure tales use this method. I think mainstream tragedies and comedies make use of both methods, though I tend to admire most those writers who have perfected the slow build, perhaps because it demands more of me as a reader.

When I think about my Jewish pivot point, I want so much to identify the shock & awe. Because it’s easier, right? It’s easier to explain to someone, it’s easier to write a paragraph than it is to write a book, it’s easier to demand less of the reader and simply point to the obvious, earth-shattering thing that happened and the obvious response my soul made. And I can indeed point to two huge external events in my life where I have had moments of spiritual reckoning.

The first was September 11 2001, when, on what was supposed to be a quick overnight business trip to New York City, I found myself grounded in mid-Manhattan, without friends or family or a working phone line. I set out from my claustrophobic hotel room and the unfolding horror on every TV screen, thinking I wanted something to eat. Of course all the restaurants were closed. But also, as I walked, I realized I wasn’t really hungry. What I was looking for was people — my people — Andy, my kids, my friends & family, someone I could hug and cry with and yes, pray with. And then, I was suddenly looking for a synagogue, thinking, “It’s New York, there’s gotta be a shul here somewhere and that’s where I’ll find my people.

The second reckoning came soon after November 8 2016. The campaign and election of Donald Trump was shocking, disheartening and frightening to me, but I did not anticipate the ferocity and speed with which I suddenly felt on shaky ground. It wasn’t even the political loss that shook me – it was (and continues to be) the apparently winning attacks on values I hold most dear. Truth matters. Compassion matters. Learning matters. Hard work and hard decisions matters. Respect for life, every life and all of Life, matters. And, being in conscious community with those who share my values — whether we disagree on other things or not — matters.

As I readied myself to be part of the Women’s March in Chicago and and began to follow ever-more-closely the news of rising anti-choice, anti-science, anti-journalism, anti-immigrant, anti-muslim, anti-POC, anti-LGBTQ, anti-semitism happenings across the country, I was thinking about where and when I would best be an ally to various communities. I suddenly realized that when it came to anti-semitism, I didn’t feel like an ally, I felt like I was already part of the community. And not just because my husband, my children, my friends…but because, me. Because I suddenly saw the very bright line connecting my own deepest values with the values of Jewish faith and Jewish history. And once again, this phrase, “that’s where I’ll find my people” came to me.

I spoke with a friend, a rabbi, at the time, and I told him I was ready to convert. He asked me why and all I could articulate then was that I was ready to remove the footnote from my name — you see, I still have to say I’m Jewish-ish, but not really Jewish, not really, well mostly, yeah pretty much, yeah more than a lot of actual Jewish people in terms of how I live my life, but still, not really. But now I want clarity, for myself and others. No waffling, no second-guessing. Columnist Leonard Pitts, recently said this so much more elegantly: “These times demand to know who you are and what you believe. You can’t run from that. You can’t split the difference.”

***

But here’s the thing:  When I go back to the definition of fulcrum and I think about it less as a pivot point, and more as a point upon which my spirit rests, I don’t see the shock & awe. Rather, I see all the small moments over the past 30 years that have built to “quiet acknowledgement” of my Jewish identity. I’ve become Jewish the way a quilt is stitched, thread by thread and knot by knot and some parts smooth and easy and others lumpy and difficult. I became more Jewish:

  • that time I made our wedding chuppah
  • that time my heart swelled as my (non-Jewish!) father made the toast at our wedding and ended with, “L’Chaim!”
  • that time I made my first matzah ball
  • that time we accidentally, magically found the oldest synagogue in Provence (The New York Times found it later that same year) and I asked the elderly French attendant there about the tiny chair along the wall. She looked at me and asked whether I was Jewish and when I demurred, she smiled and said, in French, that I had une âme juive, a Jewish soul
  • that time I stayed in the sukkah in our backyard, and watched the stars come out
  • that time I listened to my daughter sing “Elohai, elohai” with her Kolit (children’s choir) and realized I’ll never hear that song again without crying (still true)
  • that time I worried about whether my son could keep up with his schoolwork while he was traveling to Milwaukee to be with his best friend in hospital, and he told me it was okay because it was a mitzvah and he was doing the right thing
  • that first time I stood and said Kaddish for a dear, dear friend
  • that time I grabbed my dear friend’s hand, with a full heart, and pulled her into the middle of the hora dance at the celebration of her daughter’s bat mitzvah
  • that time we planned and hosted a Seder for 40, oops now it’s 50, oops, the neighbors have no place to go and now it’s almost 60 people
  • that time we were in Maine for the holidays and we walked into the woods and blew shofar and sang by the river
  • that time I wasn’t sure whether we could afford the time or money to travel for someone’s wedding and then I reminded myself of the commandment to share another’s simcha (joyous occasion)
  • that time the kids’ high school choir sang “Hatikva” as part of their program and I teared up
  • that time I decided that at every Passover and every Rosh Hashanah we would make donations to both Mazon ( a Jewish organization fighting hunger) and the Greater Chicago Food Depository
  • that first time my mom asked if we would be lighting the Chanukah candles at their house while we were there with them over Christmas
  • that time I fell in love with Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book The Sabbath, and realized this was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever read:

A thought has blown the market place apart.  There is a song in the wind and joy in the trees.  The Sabbath arrives in the world, scattering a song in the silence of the night:  eternity utters a day.”

 

My Jewish story isn’t an adventure tale. It’s a romance.