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.

 

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.

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