Tag Archives: Hanukkah

Embracing Rosh Hodesh

By Scott Fox

I love Hanukkah: the presents, wintertime, dreidels, candle lighting. I love all of it. I was born on the fourth day of Hanukkah (28th of Kislev), which makes the holiday particularly special. I lament the beginning of the month of Tevet because it signals the coming end of that special time and the return to normal life. As a semi-celebratory day, Rosh Hodesh (the beginning of the new month) seemed just as perfunctory as Tevet. It is a time that is marked but not especially noteworthy.

Two years ago, however, Rosh Hodesh Tevet completely changed my relationship with that time of the year. On that two-day Rosh Hodesh, I lost a woman who shaped my practice of Judaism, and also discovered new women Jewish heroes who would inject Rosh Hodesh with a newfound importance for me.

In December 2009, I went on a winter break program to study modern Israeli literature and religion with students and professors from my college. The best part was being able to spend Hanukkah in Israel. One of the people we spoke to on the trip was Anat Hoffman, executive director of the advocacy group Israel Religious Action Center and the leader of a protest movement called Women of the Wall. She told us about how religious customs function as de facto law in Israel, reducing the rights of women and non-Orthodox Jews.

Women of the Wall organizes groups of women to pray on the women’s side of the Western Wall every Rosh Hodesh. There, many of the women read Torah and wear kippot, talitot and tefillin, even though the holiest site in Judaism forbids women from praying in any way that could resemble a man. Much of what Hoffman said surprised me—this was not the Israel that I grew up learning about that welcomed all Jews with open arms. To me, the Kotel seemed like a solemn place where all Jews could come together to worship at the spot that united Jews for more than 2,000 years in their longing to return.

With two days left in Israel, I got a call from home—my grandmother had unexpectedly died. It was 30th of Kislev but the news made it feel like time had stopped. Her condition had been deteriorating since the summer. Nevertheless, her death was a shock.

The next day, Hoffman suggested that we attend the next Women of the Wall gathering on the first of Tevet. Like many of the other students, I felt both apprehensive and a bit energized about encountering the situation. I had already been to the Kotel a few times on the trip to respectfully worship. Now, I was returning, in a way, to denounce those who worship there. It almost seemed wrong to disrespect such a holy place, especially since my family was beginning a burial and mourning process that was meant to convey deference to God’s master plan. But somehow it still felt like the right thing to do for her.

My grandma was perhaps the biggest religious force in my family. She insisted on keeping a kosher home and having her children and grandchildren attend Jewish day school because she believed the structure was necessary to keep future generations practicing Judaism.

She was also far from a Lubavitcher rebbe. She was a sophisticated, ardent liberal who lived in a secular world. She was continually abreast with the latest political developments or art exhibits. While embracing the structure of Jewish tradition, she could also be very combative toward anything she did not approve of. She always fought for what she believed. As a Conservative Jew, she believed that all Jews had the right to practice religion as they desired. At her funeral, the rabbi of the synagogue praised her for doing something rare today: raising a family committed to observance of Jewish tradition while avoiding any sort of fanaticism.

That Friday morning, the first of Tevet, a cold, relentless rain fell on Jerusalem. We were already soaked as our group walked up the hills into the Old City. The women in our group went into the women’s section and joined a larger group under a colorful array of umbrellas that hid a Torah underneath.

Although it was too wet for the women to read from the Torah that morning, Orthodox men on the other side were still outraged by their presence and began yelling “Asur” (“forbidden”), throwing things at them and calling them transvestites and other derogatory words. Shockingly, this seems tame compared to what recently happened to an eight-year old girl.

Ultra-Orthodox men are forbidden from hearing women sing, especially while praying, because it will be a distraction to their religious devotion. That day it was the opposite. The men were so disruptive that I was unable to focus on praying for my grandmother over on the men’s side. Police separated the enraged men from the women who did their best to drown out all of the haranguing directed at them. I still cannot believe what I witnessed in what seemed like such a hallowed place—my grandmother would have been outraged. Supporting Women of the Wall was my way of continuing my family’s tradition.

This year, Rosh Hodesh Tevet fell on my birthday, meaning that I would honor my grandmother by saying Kaddish as I began a new year of my life. It’s easy to celebrate a new year but celebrating a new month was more difficult for me to understand until I encountered Women of the Wall demonstrating the true spirit of Rosh Hodesh. Rosh Hodesh is meant to be a shake-up from the laws of the status quo in hopes of provoking a more righteous month to come.

The Dybbuk of Christmas Past

By Matthew Kassel

Christmas doesn’t mean much to me anymore, though for the first ten years of my life, it was my favorite holiday. Pretty standard, even for a Jewish child, to be drawn in with eager spirit by that yuletide festivity. But you might wonder: why only ten years?

In my fourth year of elementary school, my parents decided that our family would stop celebrating Christmas, and that abrupt halt, to me, signaled the end of an era. Why were we, a secular Jewish family, celebrating this holiday in the first place? Well, as a child, my mom adored Christmas; she celebrated the holiday every year with her paternal grandmother. (My grandfather, her dad, converted to Judaism for my grandmother, a child of Depression-era Brownsville.)

Growing up, my mom was drawn in by the whole Christian aesthetic—not the Jesus stuff, but the sentimentality, the songs, the cookies. I think she wanted to share that with me and my brother and my dad, because it was a part of her.

We observed Hanukkah as a cultural rite, with a menorah and prayer and latkes. (We still do.) But I remember savoring Christmas more—the mystery and excitement of it all—and it’s hard for me to explain why my parents put an end to it. There was the obvious monetary challenge of doing two gift-heavy holidays at once. Then there remained the more ambiguous reason. We were becoming a Jewish family—my brother had just had his bar mitzvah—and celebrating Christmas didn’t seem to make sense anymore. That’s not to say I wanted it to stop at the time, but I don’t remember putting up any sort of fight.

My mom has a funny and slightly sad anecdote from her childhood. As a young girl, she asked her mother if their family was “church” or “temple.” When my grandmother authoritatively replied with a “temple,” my mom got upset, telling her that wasn’t what she wanted.  Too bad, my grandmother replied. That’s the way it is.

I remember waking up the first morning without Christmas and feeling this sort of emptiness that, in retrospect, reads as slightly funny and slightly tragic at the same time. The mystery was gone. It was too bad, as my grandmother might put it. But a new mystery had been put in its place.

For a few years after my parents put an end to Christmas, we still put stockings on the mantle the night before. It wasn’t the same without the tree, the morning excitement, the gleeful gentility of it all. I figured, with some regret, that we couldn’t go back. But frankly, I’m not sure if I’d want to now, even though I still envy the holiday.

Christmas is, however tenuously, a part of my past. I can’t ignore it.  I’m still drawn in by the anticipation, the cozy insularity of the holiday.  The difference for the last thirteen years of my life has been that Christmas now makes me feel like an outsider.

What I didn’t know that first morning I woke up without Christmas was that the combined absence and presence of a holiday I had come to love, the push and pull of two opposing yet highly enmeshed worlds, could have, for the first time in my life, presented me with a clue to what being Jewish might mean.

O Come, All Ye Chosen

Mid-November means that it’s officially pumpkin spice latte and peppermint mocha season at Starbucks. (What, you don’t measure time by the seasonal offerings of national coffee chains? You don’t know what you’re missing.) That also means that it’s time for the Starbucks holiday cups, those red, snowflake-bedecked beacons of wintry tidings. A Moment employee who spends many of her non-working hours lugging her laptop from one DC Starbucks to another, dismayed that the cups teetered into Christmas territory, sent the following email to Starbucks:

I love the seasonal coffee cups – when I was at school in Boston it made the winters a little more festive, and red is admittedly my favorite color. But I was wondering if you’ve ever considered doing a Hanukkah themed cup – maybe in metropolitan areas where there are large Jewish communities? The Jewish people have contributed much to the American ethos and American history – I think it would be a wonderful thing to acknowledge the festive traditions of an American community that has played such a role in our nation’s history. And while certainly not everyone in large metropolitan areas is Jewish, I know a lot of friends of mine of various faiths would be delighted by the idea and the inclusiveness, and it would be a great way for parents to introduce the topic of different religions to their children. Just a thought!

Yes, folks. Coffee cups at Starbucks: this is what keeps Moment employees up at night.

But, look! Starbucks wrote back! Will the Hanukkah miracles never end?

I think that your request for Hanukkah cup is a great idea.  What I am going to do is forward this to our Marketing team for their consideration.

We definitely want to provide items for a wide variety of customers, and we always want to hear what you think would improve your experience with Starbucks.  I appreciate you letting me know how much customers would enjoy this.

Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to improve what we do.

So if you see any blue-and-white, menorah-spangled cups at Starbucks, you’ll know who to thank.

My First Christmas, Again

by Steven Philp

This past Saturday my family sat around the Christmas tree to unwrap presents. We have a particular system when it comes to opening gifts; it takes careful timing and distribution to make sure that each person has something to open, that no one runs out of presents before anyone else. However, this year my pile was conspicuously small. The thing is, I had already opened most of my gifts earlier that month when my mother sent me a few things for Hanukkah. We had saved a few so that I wouldn’t be left out of the festivities. Yet, this was my first Christmas as a rabbi-certified Jew-by-choice; I was bound to be a little out of place.

While most Jews spend December 25th eating Chinese food with their friends and families, there are a handful of us who schlep across the country to visit relatives who observe the Christmas holiday with religious fervor. And unlike other converts who have started their own Jewish families, we make these trips alone: the only Jew among a crowd of Christians. This trip can be daunting; my own family was not excited about the prospect of my conversion. In fact, my mother had let the cat out of the bag the year before, during our traditional Christmas brunch. After arguing for a couple of hours, we agreed to disagree; the conversation was tabled for a later date, and I was sent home with a pile of books arguing for the saving power of Jesus.

That this particular Christmas coincided with Shabbat made it particularly appropriate for the negotiation between my new identity as a Jew and my desire to spend time with my family. If I went to services on Friday night, I was going to be late for Christmas Eve dinner. And if I wanted to daven the next morning, I was going to miss opening presents. My mom and I developed a compromise: I would attend ma’ariv but not shacharit.  Even then, I wasn’t looking forward to explaining to my evangelical Christian relatives why I was showing up late for dinner.

I’m always a little nervous going to a new synagogue alone; nobody likes to be the stranger in a strange congregation.  Thankfully, Temple B’nai Israel in Tustin, CA welcomed me with warm curiosity. I fended the usual questions: where I was from, what I do to keep myself busy, who I was visiting in the area. And then: why wasn’t my family here with me? Well, I explained, they are back home celebrating Christmas. I was met by blank stares, so I continued, because my family is Christian. A few of the older congregants looked confused, if not a bit uncomfortable. So I decided to come clean: I’m a Jew-by-choice. The confusion gave way to a bevy of comments, good-natured and congratulatory, which had to be interrupted by the cantor because we were already ten minutes behind schedule.

The next morning my mom, stepfather and I arrived at my uncle’s house for Christmas brunch. Looking at their front yard, you would think that they had taken it upon themselves to unilaterally keep the “Christ” in “Christmas”: between the lights and the plastic reindeers were reminders of the holiday’s spiritual significance, captured best by a large sign staked in their front yard reading: “Happy Birthday Jesus.” In fact, this particular message was echoed throughout their house, even framed in the guest bathroom next to the red-and-green hand towels. I made myself useful by helping my aunt in the kitchen. The year prior, she had been particularly resistant to the idea of my conversion. So you can imagine my surprise when she asked if I was keeping kosher, in addition to being a vegetarian. I explained that I was the former insofar as I was the latter.

After clearing piles of wrapping paper and ribbons from the living room floor, we sat around the table to enjoy another December tradition: my great-grandmother’s chipped beef. That is, all of my relatives ate it; you don’t need a rabbi to tell you that chipped beef – a viscous puddle of aged beef, cream and butter – is not kosher.  Couple that with the fact that I haven’t eaten meat in five years, and I was relegated to eating the side dishes. But then, from the kitchen, my aunt emerged with a bowl of fruit and yogurt. She apologized for not having something better for me to eat. But the food mattered less than her effort to accommodate my needs. I realized that this experience – my first Christmas as a Jew – was not only my own, but shared among my family. As I was negotiating the space between my faith community of choice and that of my birth, so too were my relatives. And just as I was nervous about coming to the table that year, I suspect that each of them felt a bit of trepidation as well. Yet this is what Christmas is all about: to celebrate the birth of Jesus, a Jew – divine or human – who taught us to love the stranger as ourselves, even when that stranger is in your own family.

Maccabeats Suffer “Wardrobe Malfunction”

By Doni Kandel

The Yeshiva University Maccabeats, the university’s a capella group that has taken the United States by storm, received one of their first ugly lessons in stardom Monday morning. While taping a performance on the CBS Early Show, Maccabeats vocalist Nachum Joel suffered a wardrobe malfunction after one of his beat-mates bumped into him, knocking his yarmulke to the ground, exposing the top of his head. Joel frantically picked up the fallen skull cap and slammed it back on his head but the CBS cameras had already caught every second of his nude scalp on tape.

This, of course, was not the first time CBS has been victimized by unfortunate garment error. CBS was the station that covered Super Bowl XXXVIII when Janet Jackson was briefly exposed by co-performer Justin Timberlake during their half-time performance. CBS-Daytime Senior Vice President Barbara Bloom told reporters Monday that “Kipa-gate”, as it has come to be known, has been far worse. “I have had phone calls from just about every single high school rabbi in the country. They are upset with our handling of the situation and for some strange reason many of them have tried to convince me that talking to boys is bad for my spiritual growth as well as trying to convince me to go to a seminary in Israel for a year. My insistence that I am almost forty did very little to deter them.”

The FCC has joined up with the JCC to discuss an appropriate fine for the television station as well as the appropriate actions to be taken with the young singers.

A number of Rabbis who teach at Yeshiva University claim to have warned the fledgling stars of the potential pitfalls of achieving fame and fortune. Rabbi David Hersh, a rabbi in the YU Yeshiva Program lamented that, “I told them up and down something like this would happen! What’s next? A gig at a treif [non-kosher] restaurants? An office Christmas party? Hashem yerachem!”

Although he is newly engaged (mazal tov!) Joel has admitted his skull cap mishap has earned him some extra female attention. “I’m not gonna lie to you,” he told reporters outside the YU campus in scenic Washington Heights, “The shidduch proposals have been flowing in by the hundreds. It’s pretty flattering once you weed out all those strange top-of-the-head enthusiasts.”

While Joel has managed to find the lighthearted side of the mishap, other Maccabeats members have been unable to share his calm. A number of the group’s members who plan on visiting Israel over winter break are now fearful of being met at Ben-Gurion Airport by a sea of Ultra-Orthodox garbage burning protests. Maccabeats member Immanuel Shalev issued a plea to the Haredi community to “please just let my family get from the Airport to Big Apple Pizza, the Kipa Man on Ben Yehuda Street  and then to the David Citadel Hotel, in peace.”

Similar to the Janet Jackson fiasco, a number of conspiracy theories have materialized as to the real nature of the yarmulke gaffe. There have been whispers amongst the Jewish a capella community that while the Maccabeats knew that the inappropriate exposure would be frowned upon at their own university, they may have orchestrated the bare-all in order to find favor in the notoriously more raucous University of Maryland Jewish Community. Another popular theory places the blame on famous Jewish Reggae artist Matisyahu.  Matisyahu is alleged to have replaced Joel’s yarmulke clips with far weaker ones before the live on-air appearance, insuring that the whipping New York early morning wind would launch his head covering sky high. Proponents of this conspiracy claim that the motive for the Reggae sensation is apparent bitterness over the Maccabeats receiving almost two million more hits on YouTube for their hit song “Candle Light” (2,251,391 at press time) than Matisyahu’s own new Chanukah song “Miracle” (367,552), despite the a capella group’s performance as the opening act for Matisyahu at YU’s Chanukah Party a week ago.

When asked if they would ever consider performing with Timberlake now that they are forever linked in pop culture, Joel told reporters he certainly would, “as long as he promises to keep his hands away from my tzitzit.”

 

An Ancient Synagogue in Damascus

By Samantha Sisskind

If you go to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Damascus, Syria, you’ll find hardly any obvious traces of Jewish life.  There remains a school that is unidentifiable as a Jewish institution, a few doors with the Star of David engraved in the granite lintel of the doorways, a small unobtrusive synagogue, abandoned houses and storefronts and some dusty narrow streets.  If you didn’t know it was there, it would be virtually unrecognizable as a relic of a once-vibrant Jewish community with a heritage and history centuries long. However, the major monument to Jewish life in the country lies in the National Museum of Syria, just a few minutes outside of the Old City. At the very end of the classical period wing, past the Greek, Roman and Palmyrene exhibits, you’ll find a reconstruction of a third century synagogue from the initially Syrian Greek city of Dura Europos, a trading hub along the Euphrates River. Not only will you see beautiful clay wall and ceiling tiles painted with flora and fauna, but also frescoes from the walls of the synagogue depicting scenes from the Torah and portraits of Abraham, Ezra and Moses.

The frescoes from the synagogue at Dura Europos tell a fascinating story of one of the first synagogues erected in the Jewish Diaspora. Hidden under a ramp built by the Persians at the end of the third century C.E., the synagogue’s frescoes were undisturbed for over fifteen hundred years afterward until its discovery by the British military in 1921. The style and character of the frescoes at the synagogue borrow from Hellenistic art, and the architecture draws from the dominant Byzantine religious art culture of the time of the temple’s construction. Of the four frescoed walls, the best preserved is the Western Wall, which benefited from the ramp’s direct protection and faces Jerusalem. Surrounding a permanent ark niche carved into the wall are paintings of David as the King over Israel; the Red Sea crossing; the infancy of Moses; the anointing of David; Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; the sacrifice of Isaac; Moses receiving the tablet and many other biblical stories. The lack of any archaeological evidence for a gender separation barrier in the prayer room makes the worship culture of the Dura Europos Jews even more curious and divergent from the traditional Jewish practices.

While artistic renditions of animals and scenes from the Torah have been found on Jewish artifacts from that time period, nothing of this magnitude and detail has ever been discovered.  Some scholars maintain that the Jews in Dura Europos were influenced by the decorated Christian churches in the same city and Dura Europos was home to several religious groups and tolerant of the faiths of all its residents.  Yet the more prevalent theory is that the synagogue was decorated and painted to resemble a Roman temple so that worshippers could avoid religious persecution.

On the surface, it appears that the Jews of Dura Europos diverted from their faith in order to avoid punishment from the Romans. However, upon second glance, they seem more like Hannah and her sons in the Hanukkah story, who refused to break the commandments or apostatize, even when faced with execution. Like them, the Jews of Dura Europos prayed under the Romans’ noses and defied Roman law in order to stay true to their Jewish heritage while they were far from the Holy Land.

The Dura Europos Jewish community’s beliefs and interpretations of the Torah remain a mystery to this day, but the synagogue is a monument to the development and transition of Jewish faith and practices in the Diaspora. It is a testament to the existence of Jewish life outside the Holy Land, and a rare example of the resilience of a Jewish community in the face of unfriendly foreign occupation.

Traveler’s Note: If you are able to pay a visit to Syria and you’d like to go to the National Museum in Damascus to see the frescoes from the synagogue at Dura Europos, don’t plan your trip for the upcoming year. The entire classical wing is currently closed for renovations, and a few other exhibits are closed for renovations as well. Visiting to the ruins themselves may be slightly disappointing as little remains but rocky foundations, and would require much imagination to picture the city as it once was. However, viewing the museum in Damascus first and then traveling to the historical site near the modern town of Salhieh will give you more context and insight, and would be a much more educational and beneficial experience.

This article referenced the book “Dura Europos,” written by Bashir Zahdi and published by the National Museum of Syria in Damascus, as well as a very well synthesized and researched article analyzing the historical significance of the art and architecture of the synagogue.

Recipe: Sumac or Za’atar Latkes

Both sumac and za’atar (hyssop) were biblical spices, the former used to impart a lemony flavor to food, and the latter to season almost anything. During the time of the Macabbees’ revolt in late autumn, and lemony sumac berries had just been harvested, and za’atar grew wild in the hills.

Today, the word za’atar refers to a spice blend of hyssop, salt, sumac and sesame seeds, popular on bread, in salads, and over yogurt cheese. You can find sumac and za’atar in Middle Eastern and Persian markets. This recipe was created by Nadav Granot, chef at the biblical gardens of Neot Kedumim, in Israel.

SUMAC OR ZA’ATAR LATKES

Makes about 8-10 (Serves 4-5)

  • ½ cup virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped onion (1 medium-large)
  • 2 tablespoons crushed garlic
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt (slightly less if using za’atar)
  • 1 tablespoon prepared za’atar mix or dried crushed sumac
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 2 – 2 ½   tablespoons hot water
  • Thick Yogurt or Sour Cream

Pour ¼ cup oil into a frying pan and sauté the onion and garlic till lightly golden, stirring occasionally. Set aside.

In a bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the sumac or za’atar.

Stir in the onion and garlic mixture and beat in the eggs. The batter will be thick and sticky.

Add 2 tablespoons water (or more if necessary) so that the batter is the consistency of pancake batter.

Heat the remaining oil and use a small cup or soup ladle to form 3-4 small latkes each time. Fry on both sides till golden. Serve with a dollop of thick yogurt or sour cream.

Adapted from The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking, by Phyllis Glazer with Miriyam Glazer (Harper-Collins 2004).