White Poinsettias and Blue Foil

This is a guest post by Ruth Nemzoff who, in addition to being on InterfaithFamily’s Advisory Board, is the author of Don’t Bite Your Tongue: How to Foster Rewarding Relationships with your Adult Children and Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws into Family.

Last week I walked into the lobby of my apartment and found it filled with white poinsettias wrapped in blue foil. “How lovely,” thought I, “and how brilliant of the management to include and please both those who celebrate Hanukkah (the blue and white colors) and those who celebrate Christmas (the poinsettias) while not offending the Buddhists and Muslims in the building. A creative idea indeed!”

Later that same day, walking down the street, I overheard two women chatting: “…and it has gotten so politically correct at school that we can’t even wrap the presents in red and green.” I suppose some of their friends who were celebrating Hanukkah might have had similar complaints. Each one of us has a choice. We can enjoy these solutions or we can complain about every minor change or unmet expectation.

It occurred to me that every special occasion, religious or not, gives us that choice. We can pick and poke and complain about this detail or that. We can mock the host and hostess for some minor deviation from our dream and raise it to an egregious error. Or we can decide to admire the attempts to blend the old and the new, the familiar and the unfamiliar.

At weddings, the arenas for supercilious disparagement are enormous. The dresses, the colors, the flowers, the food, the band, the music, the wine — or lack thereof. As Lincoln said, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.” Let’s make a resolution this holiday season to try to applaud those who try. Give the bride credit who includes her in-laws and siblings in the ceremony, even if she does so with customs different from yours, and give the groom credit as he honors both his traditions and those of his bride. None of us will get everything we want at the wedding, but appreciating what we do get just might help us reach the real prize: families who can get along, who manage to enjoy the joys that life brings, and who support each other when the troubles come.

So lighten up, this holiday season, if I might use a tired pun. Treasure what good will any group has to offer. And, as you attend those holiday weddings, think good thoughts not critical ones. Religion is meant to make us better people not rude ones. It’s a lot more fun and definitely in the spirit of the season no matter your beliefs.

The Power of Prayer – Helping Children through Anxiety and Stress

I couldn’t stop thinking about Connecticut, the 26 people killed, 20 of whom were children. My children are in elementary school. I was scared to tell them because I was afraid they’d never want to go to school, but with media everywhere and emotions so raw, they found out about the tragedy. I struggle with what to tell them. I struggle with letting them leave the house. I want them to go out into the world without fear. I worry that they won’t want to go to school and that they won’t want to go to sleep.

Several years ago, my second son, Sam, was scared and having trouble sleeping. When Sam used to fear monsters, I could calm his fear with helping him control his imagination. But this time the fear was real. My older son, Rob, had nearly been hit by a car while his brother was two steps away. Rob walked into the street as a car came around the corner and he walked into the side of a moving car and bounced back onto the sidewalk. Fortunately, Rob was fine physically, but emotionally, we were all affected. Sam saw it happen and became anxious all the time. The school noticed the problem too. I spoke with the school psychologist and she suggested prayer. My inner agnostic didn’t take her seriously at first, but I quickly realized that this idea had some merit. My kids already knew the Jewish bedtime prayer, the Shema. Religious Jews say it several times a day but at night, it seems to have special meaning. The translation is “Hear o Israel, The Lord our G-d, the Lord is one.” I explained to my kids that we should say this prayer together every night. It is our way of letting go of the fear and stress we have and having some faith that G-d will take care of us. As a parent, I noticed that the kids immediately relaxed and were able to get some sleep.

After the incident in Connecticut, I began to think more about prayer. I thought about the concept of saying a prayer before we eat — Hamotzi. We eat all the time, why should we take a second to say thanks? Today I realized that the act of prayer makes us realize that we can’t take the simple things for granted – like our kids will be safe when they are at school. We should say thank you for what we have. The agnostic voice in my head says that if there is a supreme being, he doesn’t have time to listen to my prayer for the food that we eat. I now realize that prayer isn’t just for G-d. Prayer is for us; to save our sanity in an insane world, to give us a moment of calm and appreciation of the good things. I feel that if we have the balance of appreciation, we can ride out the tougher things like a bad day or a human tragedy with a little more strength. Prayer gives us calm, focus, and a little bit of inner peace. Oprah Winfrey used to recommend keeping a journal of appreciation — write down the good things in your life every day and it will help you avoid depression. I now realize that religion is way ahead on this concept — appreciate what you have and it will save your soul today, tomorrow and in the future. It can get you through a bad day and help you sleep at night.

In a few months, InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia will be offering a class called “Raising a Child With Judaism in Your Interfaith Family.” These online classes (with two in-person sessions) teach about various Jewish rituals such as the Shema and Hamotzi. As a parent, I realize how meaningful these small prayers are toward helping us all function and appreciate the life we have. As we share more details about the class, including how to register, in the coming weeks, I hope you will spread the word about this class and encourage even the most cynical to look into it. When we watch tragedy take place in the world, I find prayer to be one of the more powerful weapons in our parental arsenal. In the meantime, I say a prayer for the families in Connecticut. I am so sorry for your loss.

Music and the December Holidays

Psychology Today has an article on the December holidays, Deck the Halls for Chanukah, in their problem-solving section.

The author talks about growing up with a strong Jewish identity, but celebrating Christmas. (“Caroling in our New England town was a moving spiritual experience even for a young Jewish child.”)

With our yearly Hanukkah music video posts, we’re trying to help show that Christmas isn’t the only holiday with music. And it seems like that’s the point of this article too:

Singer-songwriter Julie Geller, for instance, in the video below, sings an updated version of one of my favorite traditional tunes, Al Hanisim, “On the Miracles…”

Julie’s song centers on the miracle that traditional rabbis have encouraged Jewish people to focus on in the Chanukah holiday. This central miracle of the holiday was that light from a small vessel of oil lasted for a full eight days and nights. Light stands for learning, for studying the Jewish wisdom tradition, for spiritual growth, and for joy that can penetrate even the deepist times of darkness.

At the same time, Chanukah celebrates also a military victory, a miraculous victory of a small band of Jewish citizens who stood up to the tyranical Greek-Assyrian armies that had invaded and were ruling over the country that now is called Israel. The Jewish resistance fighters were fighting for the right of Jews to sustain and celebrate their traditions and customs.

How appropriate at this time of year for all of us to treasure our cultural heritages. Given that so many Jews and Chrisitans have formed intermarried units, it’s all the more vital to remember the importance of Christian and Jewish traditions. Both celebrate joy, light, festivity, and celebration. Each religious tradition carries its history and conveys its moral lessons through its holiday activities.

Hanukkah Is Not The Jewish Christmas

One of my friends got me thinking with his post on Facebook:

Contemplating the irony of Hanukkah, which largely serves as a substitute for Christmas here in the US, being a holiday about resisting assimilation. Thoughts?

Responses ranged from saying this is an opportunity to educate others about Judaism, to valuing the freedom to practice our religion, to comments about solstice, to humorous quips.

I see the prominence of Hanukkah as our attempt to show that we haven’t assimilated — that we have a separate holiday. If we had fully assimilated, we would all be celebrating Christmas. Sure, we’ve adopted some practices from Christmas, such as the emphasis on gift giving, but Jews have been adopting (or influencing) parts of the cultures in which we’ve lived for thousands of years.

Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas. The holidays celebrate very different events, but I’m glad to live in a society where everyone has the freedom to celebrate how they see fit. Being in an interfaith marriage, I am especially thankful for this and value the opportunity to gather with family and friends to honor what is important to each of us. My husband and I celebrate Hanukkah at home and join his family for Christmas at my mother-in-law’s house.

I’m also glad to be part of a Jewish community that invites me to learn about the origins of Hanukkah and find the parts that are meaningful to me in today’s world. I would not have wanted to live under the dogmatic dictates of the Maccabees.

So would Hanukkah be a major holiday if it weren’t for Christmas? No. Are the two holidays equivalent? No. But I’m glad to live in a pluralistic society where both can exist.

Get Some Torah In Your Pocket

Hopefully by now you’ve started following the newest blog on our site, the Animated Torahlog presented by G-dcast. Not quite sure what it is? It’s a place to engage with the weekly Torah portion (part of the Torah is read each week, divvied up throughout the year, so that each autumn we start in Genesis and make our way through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy then start again the next fall).

Screenshot from the G-dcast eBook

Screenshot from the G-dcast eBook

As we started Genesis this fall, with the Creation story (Adam, Eve, the garden of Eden), team G-dcast wrote their first blog post for us. (Well, technically not the first – they started with the posts for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.)

But it’s not all words — the blog’s called “animated” because each post is accompanied by a video explaining part of the week’s Torah portion, focusing on a particular theme or story.

If you haven’t been following along, I encourage you to do so. If you have been, you know that these first several weeks of Genesis have been full of oh so much family drama!

Now, I know you love how the posts also relate to our lives and interests; they often include music videos, poems, and/or visual art, and they always include questions about how these topics and themes relate to our lives today, in 2012.

But if you’ve been wanting to read ahead, or get other perspectives on the Torah portions, you might want to download the snazzy new eBook from G-dcast. For $14.99, it’s available for download on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch with iBooks and on your computer (Mac only, I think) with iTunes. What is it?

Welcome to The Five eBooks of Moses — where the Bible can be experienced as never before… digitized and animated!

What did Noah say to the lions when the rains started? Just how colorful was Joseph’s coat? Why did Sarah laugh when she learned that she would become a mother at the age of 90? Read the full Biblical text, watch the 55 animated short videos, engage with discussion questions for further learning and exploration, and find out!

This eBook is a delightful resource for anyone who wants to learn more about the Hebrew Bible in a unique and engaging way — individuals, families, teachers, and kids alike.

The Five eBooks of Moses is produced by G-dcast, a non-profit production company dedicated to raising basic Jewish literacy using media and storytelling styles that speak to today’s youth. Since 2006, G-dcast has created over 75 animated films enjoyed worldwide by hundreds of thousands of people from diverse religious backgrounds.

If you get the eBook for your iPhone/iPod/iPad, let us know what you think of it! Then make sure to read along with their Animated Torahlog, here on InterfaithFamily, to share all your new discoveries and insights!

Bringing Hanukkah to Camp

Hanukkah’s underway, and we’re all looking for ways to keep the holiday fresh for our friends, families, children… I mean, you’ve already made latkes and spun the dreidel. What more is there to do for the remaining 6 nights?

If your kids love summer camp, or if you did and want to share that joy with them, you might check out the Hanukkah booklet from our friends at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. With the tagline, “Eight nights of fun to heat up your winter… and make you dream about the really cool days of summer,” it’s packed with games and activities, like a word search, origami dreidels, easy ideas for creative and quick menorahs (see below) and a contest.

That’s right, a contest. Make sure to flip through to the last page for an opportunity to win some prizes. And follow OneHappyCamper.org/Winter to find a camp that’s the perfect fit for your family, and you could by eligible for $1000 off when you register for camp!

A happy Hanukkah indeed.

My Jewish December

This is a guest post by Sara Beth Berman, the Nadiv Educator at The Davis Academy and URJ Camp Coleman. Nadiv is a program through the Foundation for Jewish Camp, funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and The AVICHAI Foundation. The Davis Academy is a large Reform Jewish Day school in Atlanta, Georgia, with students in Kindergarten Prep through 8th Grade and URJ Camp Coleman is a Reform Jewish summer camp at Cleveland, GA. Sara Beth has worked at many Jewish summer camps and is excited to be doing experiential Jewish education at the Davis Academy during the year.

“It’s like that latke that wouldn’t stop screaming,” a Davis Academy Middle School student stated, when talking about media clips in their Beit Midrash presentation today.

The Davis Academy Beit Midrash (DABM) is a monthly experience for all Davis Middle Schoolers, where they take a day out of their Judaic Studies curriculum to engage in “Torah Lishmah” — learning for the sake of learning. In the DABM, learners engage with texts, both modern and ancient, while experiencing an educational methodology that addresses multiple intelligences.

This month’s DABM was focused on our students’ Jewish December. For our Reform Jewish Day school, questions about Chanukah and Christmas — and about Judaism and Christianity — can pepper class discussions in all grades. Many of our students come from interfaith households. Their observance of non-Jewish holidays covers the entire spectrum from zero knowledge to attending mass with their Christian family members. Some of our kids have Christmas trees or Chanukah bushes.

The students started the activity by watching a video of Hazzan Matthew Klein reading Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story. Set off by the loud and frustrated fried potato pancake, our learners were ready to talk! The discussion was heated and excited, as the kids were finally getting their chance to ask questions about Christmas. Why do we celebrate this — or that? Do we combine holidays? How are the holidays different? How do *I* feel about being a Jew during this time of year? Why can’t I have a tree? What does going to church with your family mean to you? Would you ever wear this sweater?

They also had a chance to voice their issues and beliefs. Students talked about their experiences visiting church, how they feel when they’re wished a “merry Christmas” around town at this time of year, and how nice it is for them to celebrate Christmas with their non-Jewish parent. They aired frustrations and asked for clarity. What is the whole presents thing all about, after all?

One student said, “I am not forced to celebrate Christmas with my dad. I choose to celebrate with him.” Her explanation gives great hope. Being an educator at a Reform Jewish Day school, we’re trying to teach informed choice based on study of Jewish laws and texts. How wonderful that our students, who are Jewish, show such respect to their non-Jewish parents, as it is written in the Torah.

Interested in the conversation? Check out the Prezi, put together for use at the Davis Academy today, as an introduction to the conversation. How would you respond?

Hanukkah Can Be Hard!

Here are some of the challenges I hear from interfaith couples about Hanukkah:

  1. Lighting the menorah is too complicated. Do you agree that it is easier said than done to light the Hanukkah menorah (also called a hanukkiah)? You have to put the candles in from right to left but light them left to right. In order for this ritual to have meaning, one has to know why this is done so that we can explain it to our children and our guests. (It’s about lighting the current night’s candle first.)
  2. Blessings for lighting the candles are tricky. The first night there are three blessings to sing and they are all in Hebrew. The other seven nights there are two blessings to sing, and we have to remember the tune! Luckily, we have a guide to the blessings in Hebrew, English, and transliteration (Hebrew written with English letters) to help, and a video too.
  3. Even playing dreidel can be hard! The letters on the dreidel are in Hebrew. They each stand for a Hebrew word that is part of a Hebrew sentence, which, unless understood in context, might make little sense — nes gadol haya sham — “a great miracle happened there.” Which miracle? Where? And if you are lucky enough to play dreidel in Israel, the letters form an acronym to say that “a great miracle happened HERE!” Learn more about the dreidel game with our video.
  4. Grating potatoes after a long day at work and with young children running around may seem overwhelming (at least it does to me). Luckily, many stores make delicious frozen latkes, which makes at least one Hanukkah tradition easier.
  5. To give presents or not to give presents? How big should the presents be? This isn’t a Jewish Christmas! What is Jewish about giving presents on Hanukkah? Actually, there is precedence for this!
  6. What do we do with decorative lights? Can lights be strung outside the home? Is it okay if the lights are only white? It’s beautiful to have lights at this time of darkness… right!? There are many right answers.
  7. It’s hard to keep the momentum going for 8 nights. It’s fun, exciting and new for 2, 3, 4 nights… but how do we keep Hanukkah special and memorable for ourselves and our children each night? Try creating a family-focused celebration with different theme nights!
  8. The greater meaning of the holiday isn’t clear. The story of Hanukkah is confusing with different versions told over time. One part of Hanukkah is a historical military conquest, other parts are religious, and there’s a tie-in to the holiday of Sukkot. It is not easy to succinctly tell children the Hanukkah story. There are many aspects of the story that have to be explained, such as what the Great Temple in Jerusalem was. And, if telling the story isn’t difficult enough, making sense of it as assimilated Jews in American society can be tricky (because this figures into the Maccabean revolt — they were fighting against assimilation, for the right to retain their religious identity and freedom). Not to mention that it is only if one understands the Hebrew root of the word hanukkah (h/n/k – dedication, consecration) that one begins to really understand the depth of the meaning of the holiday and to contemplate what we are most dedicated to. Why do you think the Modern Hebrew word for education (hinukh comes from the same root as the word for Hanukkah? How does a sense of dedication play into education? Especially when thinking about Jewish education?

Yet, all hope is not lost. There are ways to fill in the missing pieces for steps 1-8 to make Hanukkah “doable” and meaningful! Check out all of the resources on our December Holidays Resource Page to learn about all of these aspects and more. Let us know if these challenges resonate for you and how you overcome them. Here’s to a happy Hanukkah!

Watching Hanukkah 2012

You’re right. Hanukkah is almost here and, unlike in years past, I haven’t thrown many videos your way. Sorry about that. Here are some of the news ones making the rounds:

Hanukkah Lovin’ Michelle Citrin is back with a new holiday tune of love and latkes. (And it features my super awesome red Hanukkah dreidel cardigan — I’m wearing it today!)

Eight Nights is a Hanukkah parody mashup of “Some Nights” by Fun, “Die Young” by Ke$ha, “Live While We’re Young” by One Direction. (Stand Four is former members of the Maccabeats, now with their own group.)

Shine is the new, original song from the Maccabeats, released today.

Fire Is in the Air comes from the Bible Raps team, connecting lighting the Hanukkah candles to fire to Torah.

Happy Hanukkah is new from Matisyahu (though not as catchy as his last Hanukkah song, Miracle).

Nice King Hanukkah Song is Jonathan Mann’s addition, part of his “make a new song every day” ongoing project. (This was the contribution for day #1428.)

Let’s Celebrate from Alexandra Kelly, who wrote this because growing up Jewish surrounded by Christmas, she felt Hanukkah songs were lacking.

But it’s not all music…

Puppet News: Hanukkah Edition interviews folks in Times Square about Hanukkah.

Rube Goldberg Machine from Technion (university in Tel Aviv), lighting the menorah with a robot.

In the Kitchen: Chanukah Sweet and Sour Cabbage Soup with Dill, teaming up with the chef/owner of the New England Soup Factory, JewishBoston.com shares a great soup to serve with latkes.

Dreidel: Understanding the Game is our new Hanukkah video, explaining the symbolism of the dreidel game and what the letters mean.

Y-Love Speaks Out for LGBT Inclusion in Jewish Community, using the light of Hanukkah as his launching point. (Turn on the closed captioning (the “cc” button at the bottom right of the video) if you want English subtitles as the video is in Yiddish.)

And, with a nod to our friends and family who celebrate Christmas, a video for you.

All I Want For Christmas Is YouAs a friend said, “It’s the second-best collaboration between Jimmy Fallon, The Roots, classroom instruments, and a solo female artist singing a well-known pop song!”

Has This Product Solved The December Dilemma?

Let me set the scene. David Levy, Managing Editor of JewishBoston.com, declared:

If Manischewitz can market Chanukah gingerbread houses, I declare the “December Dilemma” officially solved.

What do you think? Will this kit, complete with white and blue icing and decorations, solve your gingerbread house needs? Would you make one with your family? Would your in-laws approve?

Just between you and me, I kinda love it. And maybe wanted to buy it a few months back when I first saw it in stores. And, because I’m a bit of a Jewish nerd, I love that the kit includes a mezuzah to affix to the vanilla cookie home’s doorway.

And, for the next day or so, JoyOfKosher.com is giving away a kit to one lucky winner. Enter now!