You Will Be Assimilated, Part Deux

During this winter holiday period, it seems to me that we Jews are not the only ones at risk of assimilation and losing our distinct rituals. Our non-Jewish friends are experiencing something like this as well. It seems that Christians have almost completely adopted a uniquely Jewish tradition, which threatens their own observance of Christmas.

Not too long ago, it was assumed that all non-Jews would be home during Christmas–opening presents, having a Thanksgiving-like meal together, bickering with family members–you know, the stuff of Hallmark. This left the rest of us with only 2 viable options on how to spend the day: go see a movie and eat at the only restaurants that would be open (i.e. Chinese food). We would sit in an almost completely deserted movie theater–a couple other people scattered throughout in comfortable isolation. Some very quick eye contact, a barely perceptible nod–and you easily established that the Jews were in da house.

Then after the movie we’d head over to the local Chinese place and see the entire membership of the temple. It was a comforting, familiar, and distinctly Jewish tradition.

But now? Fuggedaboutit. In an egregious example of cultural appropriation, the movie theaters and Chinese restaurants have been taken over by the gentiles. You now have to go online and buy movie tickets in advance or risk showing up to a sold-out movie. You need to make a reservation days in advance just to have some beef and broccoli. Isn’t anyone sitting at home eating Christmas dinner and falling into an egg nog-induced coma anymore? Has General Tso waged a war on Christmas? What’s next–will all the non-Jews overwhelm the local pizza place as soon as Passover ends? Is nothing sacred?

I say we make Christmas great again. Everyone stay home, spend time with your families, and figure out which presents you’re keeping and which are getting returned tomorrow.

We Jews would like to have our holiday back.

 

You Will Be Assimilated

Some of our most well known and beloved holidays are filled with irony.

Purim, a violent, Machiavelian, Tarantino-esque story of attempted genocide has become transformed into a fun dress-up holiday for little kids.

Passover, the festival which celebrates our people’s liberation, has become the most back-breaking, labor-intensive period of the year.

And now Chanukah. The holiday which marks the Jewish people’s fight against assimilation is itself an amalgam of disparate customs and traditions of various host countries that have been pasted together over the past centuries. Chanukah might not even exist if it weren’t for assimilation.

What could be more iconic than the dreidl? Chanukah lore would have us believe that after the Greeks outlawed the study of Torah, some intrepid Jews hid out in the woods determined to study Torah. When the Greek enforcers came near, the Jews would whip out their dreidls and start playing. Apparently, the mighty Greek army was easily fooled into thinking that large numbers of their citizens were sitting in distant fields so that they could spin tops together. “Ok folks, you carry on with that fun game. Let us know if you see any Jews out here.”

In fact, the dreidl, along with its four letters on each side, is based on an identical game in Germany from the 1500s which used a 4-sided top called a trundl. Just like our Chanukah version, each letter instructed the player to perform a certain action.

Maybe all that spinning is making you hungry. Time for some potato latkes. It’s traditional to eat foods prepared in oil, as a nod to the Chanukah miracle story, and to help pay for your cardiologist’s condo in Boca. But why potatoes? This custom originates from a time when so many Jews lived in Eastern Europe–they used what was cheap and plentiful. That’s one reason why we not only eat potato latkes on Chanukah, but enjoy potato kugel and tzimmes throughout the year. It doesn’t explain gefilte fish though.

Finally, the ubiquitous and sometimes controversial tradition of giving gifts on Chanukah, often seen as the most blatant act of assimilation, and a direct copying of our Christian neighbors’ celebration of Christmas. Not so fast there. Because Chanukah is at its heart a holiday celebrating Jewish nationalism, it became traditional very early on to exchange coins–a powerful symbol of national identity. Enter the custom of Chanukah gelt. It turns out that giving money as a gift on Chanukah predates all the other things we do, and is probably the one authentic tradition that is not borrowed from another culture.

So when you get that Target gift card, you’re actually continuing an almost 2000-year old custom.

However you spell it, Happy Chanukah to all!

 

Time to Face the Music

Put down the dreidl, stop eating the latkes, and take a break from giving gifts. It’s time for a much more profound and significant Chanukah tradition:

Chanukah music on Sirius XM. This year you can find it on Channel 77.

I have no idea who runs that channel over there and decides what music to play. I suspect it’s the same person who tells every supermarket manager to display matzah, gefilte fish, and Kedem grape juice on the aisle end cap for every Jewish holiday. They just throw some Jewish stuff on and figure they’ve got it covered.

Yet, I can’t look away. I find myself tuning in just to see what disaster awaits me. Last night I turned the radio on in the middle of a song. It was slow and somewhat subdued, and I was trying to figure out what they were playing. I soon picked out some Hebrew words: …eilech b’gei tzalmavet….

That translates to “…though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death…”

OMG. THEY WERE PLAYING THE 23RD PSALM.

They think that Jews all over North America, their cars and minivans full of kids, will have their enjoyment of Chanukah enhanced by listening to the words of the 23rd Psalm.

Then there are the many tired parodies–putting silly Jewish-themed words on Christmas carols. (Ha ha, isn’t that really clever? See, it’s like Christmas, but we made it about Chanukah.) But at least those songs have words. If I hear one more chorus of ay ay ay or yada dada dai, I might punch my radio. Today’s winner? A song entitled La-la-latkes. Hearing that over and over again made me want to drive off the ro-ro-road.

Interspersed among all this musical brilliance are the miscellaneous Jewish songs that they use to fill programming time. Anything from Fiddler or Yentl will do.

But why do I keep listening? Because every now and then, maybe once or twice an hour, they play a really good song. Some quality piece of music written by a contemporary artist which actually reflects some of the holiday’s themes. And because the Jewish musical world is pretty small, I often get to look at the radio display and say, “Hey, I know them!”

I always wonder what the non-Jewish world thinks about this music and our celebration of Chanukah. But trust me, we’re the only ones who would willingly subject ourselves to this station.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Chanukah.

Generations of Hebrew school kids have been bombarded with the repeated message: “Chanukah is not the Jewish Christmas.”

True–in fact, Christmas is more like the Christian Chanukah since it came afterwards.

Here’s what both holidays have in common:

  1. They both occur sometime near the Winter Solstice.
  2. They both involve lots of lights.
  3. They both have an exciting or important back story, infused with religious significance, that eventually came later.

Both Chanukah and Christmas have their origins in pagan winter festivals. Because this was the darkest and coldest time of year, it was customary for ancient people to light lots of fires for heat and light. Throw in some human sacrifice for good measure and you’ve got yourself a real party going–just not the type of soiree that early religious leaders wanted or approved of.

But how do you get people to stop when they’re having such a good time?

In a pretty clever example of “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” these religious leaders used the existing winter solstice festivals, but gave them religious significance. Christians connected this time of year to a pretty important birthday. What did we do?

The holiday of Chanukah originally marked the Maccabees’ victory and re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem after its desecration by the hands of the Greeks. The narrative (as told in the Book of Maccabees) speaks about an unlikely but inspiring victory of a small band of rebels over a huge and formidable army, but includes not one word about any oil or miracle. Chanukah’s 8-day duration was likely reminiscent of King Solomon’s 8-day festival upon the completion of the First Temple. There’s also a connection to the 8-day festival of Sukkot which was originally delayed but then celebrated immediately upon taking back the Temple.

If Chanukah had simply remained a commemoration of a military event, it probably wouldn’t have endured for too many generations. (Don’t believe me? Do we still call November 11 “Armistice Day”?)

Then the rabbis of the Talmud came up with a brilliant idea–they “invented” a cool story to go along with Chanukah. In the Talmud, they asked themselves the question, “What is Chanukah?” and then proceeded to answer it. And here, hundreds of years after the historical events, do we read for the first time about finding only one container of oil with which to light the Temple’s menorah. This small quantity of oil then miraculously lasted for 8 days, enough time to produce a sufficient supply of pure oil to keep things going.

The rabbis’ story was brilliant in every way:

  • It used a humdrum story about a war (the guys loved it, but the ladies were channel surfing) and completely transformed it into a story with God, miracles, and special effects.
  • The story took a familiar piece of Temple equipment–the menorah, a 7-branched candelabra which was routinely lit all year round–and turned it into the identifying symbol of Chanukah.
  • Chanukah now provided a rationale for all the lights that people were using as part of their winter solstice festivals. Now those lights had a religious significance. Hanerot halalu kodesh hem. These candles are holy.
  • Bonus: this Talmudic story, written with the benefit of hindsight, took the focus off of the Maccabees and put it squarely on God performing a miracle. Not commonly known is that the Hasmonean dynasty themselves ended up mostly assimilating after a few generations. The rabbis weren’t big fans.

 

Teaser for my next entry:
Rather than copying a modern custom of Christmas, gift giving on Chanukah is in fact one of the most authentic customs we have. Stay tuned.

[shameless plug] Oh, and by the way, if you just can’t wait, you can read about this and every other interesting facet of Chanukah as well as all the other holidays in my book, Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays. [/end shameless plug]

 

Deconstructing Bar Mitzvah

This week’s Torah portion marks the 38th anniversary of my bar mitzvah. (Go ahead, I’ll give you moment to do that in your head). What struck me is how much and how little things have changed in that period of time.

On the one hand, synagogue life couldn’t be more different. The Conservative Movement has embraced total egalitarianism–no more second class treatment (such as those sorry Friday night bat mitzvah services) for the girls in our congregations. Women are full and equal participants in our services and synagogue leadership. Same sex weddings are accepted and commonplace. The music of the liturgy has evolved as well–appealing to a more modern ear while still preserving the rich history of past generations. Even the liturgy itself has changed to become less patriarchal and more inclusive.

But what about bar and bat mitzvah training and services?

In many ways, all aspects of the bar/bat mitzvah service and preparation have not changed much at all–not only since I put on that late 70’s-era 3-piece suit, but going back a lot longer than that.

We are still preparing kids to become 1950’s adult Jews. Put another way, this is your father’s bar mitzvah service. (Your grandfather’s as well).

So I hereby present the following exercise:

  1. Forget everything you know about bar or bat mitzvah!
  2. What would the ideal bar/bat mitzvah experience or preparation include? What would we stop doing? What would change?
  3. Nothing is off the table. For instance, should we even have a service? Should we still do it at age 13?

As you think about this, I want to give you one important piece of information: there is nothing required or halachic about a bar/bat mitzvah service. No one “gets bar mitzvahed”. It simply is a commemoration and celebration of the fact that a kid has already become old enough (age 13) to be obligated to observe Jewish laws and rituals.

I’d love to get a conversation going about this, and include as many past, present, and future b’nei mitzvah parents as possible. Please post your comments below so that we can all see and respond. As you can imagine, I have many opinions on this subject, but I’m waiting to hear from you first…

A God by any other name…

We Jews seem to spend an inordinate amount of time and effort avoiding ever saying God’s name. That has always struck me as strange.

The rationale is that God’s name is so holy, even uttering the word should be reserved for similarly sacred occasions. Praying. Making a blessing. Hoping those police lights in your rear view mirror aren’t for you.

Therefore, people often take the most common Hebrew word for God—Adonai—and substitute a word like Adoshem or simply Hashem (literally, “the name”).

It’s a nice idea—I’m a big fan of acknowledging the proper levels of holiness. The problem is that the word Adonai is itself a way of avoiding saying God’s name. It functions exactly the same as when we modern Jews say Hashem.

We deal with this whole subject every Yom Kippur, during the Service of the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest). Because God’s name was so unbelievably, incredibly, and awesomely holy, the High Priest would wait all year, put on his best priestly outfit, go into the inner chamber of the Temple in Jerusalem and….say it out loud. The rest of the crowd, assembled outside, would be so afraid of even just hearing it that they’d cover their ears like little kids and chant over the High Priest’s voice. Maybe as a result of that, or because nothing was written down back then, we don’t actually know the word the High Priest said. God’s real name is lost to us forever.

That’s one reason why every Prayer Book has different ways of referring to God in print. Sometimes they use the so-called tetragrammaton—a four-letter word that kind of looks like “Jehovah” but is actually a made-up mixture of the various tenses of the verb “to be.” Other print editions might use Hebrew letters like a double-Yud. In any case, the reader knows to pronounce those placeholders as “Adonai,” which itself is a perfectly good Hebrew word meaning “Our Lord.”

I have never felt the need to avoid saying Adonai when that word is used in context—teaching, singing, practicing, or any of the other numerous occasions that a person might bring God into a conversation. Having sung in various choirs over the years, I have observed the many tortured ways that singers have gone out of their way to not say Adonai when singing liturgical texts that are in fact all about Adonai. Some choirs will sing “Adomai”—figuring the audience won’t really hear the difference and at the same time they’ve avoided the word. A bit ridiculous in my opinion. What could convey a higher level of holiness and be imbued with sanctity more than a choir singing Jewish texts?

And now we come to my own silent fingernails-on-the-blackboard issue—writing the English word God as G-d. (Some equally unfortunate related examples are Gd or even L-rd.) Sometimes I picture God listening to humanity, doing His best Robert De Nero impersonation, squinting and saying, “Are you talking to me?”

The word God is a plain old, nothing special English word. Just like any other. Old English, Germanic, Anglo-Saxon origins—like most of the words we use. There’s nothing intrinsically holy about that word.

However, if you get yelled at when you’re trying to enter Olam Haba, you can just blame it on M-tt.

The Binding of Isaac–The Deleted Scenes

Is it possible to know an iconic and beloved story of the Torah so well and realize that for generations, despite everything that we’ve been taught and thought we understood, we’ve been completely and utterly missing the point? The narrative of the Akeida, the near sacrifice of Isaac is one such story. Supposedly a text which paints Abraham as an obedient servant of God, this story instead serves as a disturbing and powerful polemic on religious fundamentalism and the damage that it causes.

Read the familiar story–the words in bold represent the original text as taken from Genesis Chapter 22, with the other passages describing the behind-the-scenes action:


One day, God asked His angels whether they thought that a good and moral man would actually commit murder just because he was told to. They weren’t sure, so some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to Abraham, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” 

God thought to Himself, “This is Abraham, the man who argued with me over and over again, looking for a way to spare the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah in case there were just a few good people living there.”

And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” God fully expected Abraham to protest, or at the very least to bargain about the intended victim. Perhaps Abraham would agree to sacrifice his less favored son, Ishmael.

But to God’s surprise, early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants, and his son Isaac. Abraham even snuck out of the house quietly so as not to disturb his wife Sarah or to let her find out what he intended. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and he set out for the place of which God had told him. On the third day, Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar. God was fairly certain that Abraham would abandon this ridiculous demonstration of devotion when he saw the outrageous distance that he would have to travel. Even putting aside what he intended to do once he arrived there, it would be cruel to force the innocent servants and the poor animal to travel so far by foot. Then Abraham said to his servants, “You stay here with the ass. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you.”

God couldn’t believe what He was seeing. “He cares more for his servants than for his own flesh and blood. What have I started?”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac. He took the firestone and the knife; and the two walked off together.  Isaac had no concept of what his father intended for him. Then Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he answered, “Yes, my son.” And he said, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering? Are we to sacrifice another animal instead?” And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep for His burnt offering, my son.” Isaac wondered whether they would be able to find a proper sheep for sacrifice in the place where they were going. And the two of them walked on together.

They finally arrived at the place which God had told them. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he surreptitiously crept up behind Isaac, and overpowered him before Isaac knew what was happening, for surely Isaac would have resisted his father’s intentions. He bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.

“Father! What in God’s name are you doing? Let me go!”

And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. Isaac shouted, “Help me! For the love of God, help! Madman!” God heard the cries of Isaac, called an end to this horrible “test” and at that moment, God vowed that He would never again speak to Abraham. He turned to His angel and said, “Get him to stop this already. I can’t even bring Myself to look at his face.”

Therefore an angel of the Lord called to him from heaven: “Abraham! Abraham!” Abraham wondered who the voice was that was calling him, and he answered “Here I am.” And he said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from me.” When Abraham came out of his trance and looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son. Meanwhile, Isaac finally managed to free himself from the ropes binding him to the altar. He spoke quietly to his father and said, “Father, why have you done this to me?”

Abraham didn’t answer Isaac, as he was intent on dealing with the ram that he had sacrificed.

Isaac again pleaded, “Father…”

Finally, Isaac turned and began to walk away by himself. He knew then that he too would never speak to his father again.

Abraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together. It never occurred to him that Isaac was nowhere to be found.

For the rest of Abraham’s life, neither God nor Isaac ever spoke another word to Abraham again.

 

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