Recognizing that going to synagogue for the first time can be a challenge, we offer you our booklet, What To Expect At A Synagogue. In it, you will find an overview of what Shabbat is, and how it is celebrated in synagogues. Language is explained, the prayer services are broken down, and many common questions are answered.
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This is a guest post by Dr. Steve Moffic (my father-in-law, a Milwaukee psychiatrist). It was originally posted on his blog which deals with ethics.
How did a Jewish psychiatrist end up playing Santa Claus for his daughter 35 years ago? Is it possible that this could connect in any way to this same daughter now being a Sunday school teacher? And, even more of a possible stretch, even connect to her younger brother becoming a Rabbi and who also married a Rabbi? A blog just written by this psychiatrist begins to consider how Christmas, self-disclosure, and cross-cultural respect all come into play in trying to answer these questions. God, indeed, may work in mysterious ways.
The idea to play Santa for our young daughter was not mine. I was early in my career as a psychiatrist. Being a psychiatrist at that time would have led me in the other direction. At that time, the view of Freud, who of course came from a Jewish background, was that religion was like an opiate for people at best, a neurotic belief at worse. He could have been called an ethnic Jew, though we don’t for sure know if he turned more to religious beliefs as he was dying of cancer.
However, my wife wanted to do this and I wanted to please her. Moreover, it seemed like fun and I was just getting interested in masks, so I put on the mask and clothes of Santa. It worked, at least in its deception and enjoyment of our daughter. We later did this with our son, who was 8 years younger, though by then our daughter knew of the deception, so this time it wasn’t the same.
My wife recollected wanting to do this because it was a family tradition on her side. She felt it fulfilled a desire of her family to adapt to American values and traditions, while at the same time remaining strongly Jewish. She and her sisters all ended up marrying Jewish men and having long marriages. All of their children have married other Jews to date.
As I learned more about being a psychiatrist and how to help patients, I found out that self-disclosure on my part was filled with complexity and, despite any temptation, had to be done with utmost care and concern for how this would benefit my patients, not me.
In the field of psychiatry, the analysis of religion seemed to mature beyond Freud over the years. Religion could later be seen as a sound and normal social and cultural activity. At its best, at least in my opinion, it could not only complement the mental understandings of psychiatry, but take up where psychiatry left off and probe into the deeper questions of spiritual sustenance and the meaning of life. Psychiatry also didn’t have thousands of years of helping people cope with the challenges of life; we could certainly learn from religion.
I tried to apply this knowledge as best I could with being a parent as these same years went on. So that when my wife began to have thoughts and desires that our son should become a Rabbi, I didn’t tell her (or him) that she was “crazy”. Now that it happened, I think this, as well as our daughter teaching in a Jewish Sunday school, is one of the most wonderful legacies imaginable of being a parent.
Much later, after our son became firmly dedicated to becoming a Rabbi, I became more interested in Jewish religion and history. I finally succumbed to my wife’s request for us to attend weekly Torah study at our Reform synagogue. And, lo and behold, what did I find is that the Torah depicted human nature in all its successes and failures, that it could be analyzed in a depth even greater than Freudian interpretations, and that it left questions for us to ponder for the rest of our lives.
Self-disclosure in Torah was a prominent theme. Just consider God. God only reveals the qualities of God slowly and depending on circumstances. We are never allowed to see the “face” of God directly. God has an eternal mask of sorts, at least for us.
Jacob, with the direction of his mother, deceives his father by trying to disguise himself as his brother Esau. Was that really necessary to obtain the birthright? Did it lead to problems with Esau’s progeny over history all the way up to today? Interestingly, Jacob later is very open with his own children, conveying obvious favoritism to Joseph and somewhat berating all his children on his deathbed. Not what I would recommend as a psychiatrist. You may naturally have favorites as a parent, but that is best kept to yourself and try to treat all the children as having equivalent value in the image of God. And, before dying, it is psychologically best to resolve old animosities, if time and illness allows, rather than to disclose without time for discussion and better resolution.
Of course, Jacob’s father Isaac had already been subject to – a psychiatrist might say traumatized by – his father Abraham’s getting all set to sacrifice him. Was that what God really wanted, for Abraham to keep this from his son? Why not let Isaac argue with him, just like Abraham did with God once upon a time? Psychological trauma tends to repeat over family generations unless processed, reframed, and mistakes admitted and forgiven.
Then there is Moses. What is self-disclosed to him about his origins by his sister and other family? Perhaps all that can be concluded is that he likely learned of his background at the right age, at the right time, and with the right explanation for being “given up” for his own benefit.
As I specialized in treating patients from many different cultures, I learned that several things were essential for success. I had to respect other cultural values, even if I didn’t believe in them and even if I thought they were harmful. There were there for a historical reason. I had to not only empathize with the values of other cultures, but sometimes experience them directly, whether that be visiting those from other cultures or attending many of their cultural events. And, I had to be careful as to when I revealed my own cultural background and values. Timing was – and is – essential, for psychiatrists and parents. It needed to be when, as best as I could ascertain, and sometimes with the consultation of colleagues, that it should benefit the patient. Fantasy, imagination, and transference (what we call the projection of feelings to parents onto the psychiatrist) are all important – and inevitable – for a patient to experience in their relationship to a psychiatrist. Treatment, of course, had to be consistent with what their cultural identities valued. Over time, I developed multi-cultural holiday events for patients and staff at this time of year. I brought the Menorah and information about Hanukah.
An essential part of the development of any child is for them to know that they are a separate person from their parents, and that they have control over how much they may reveal of their own thoughts. Too much or too little can prove costly.
So, clearly, playing Santa Claus many years ago did not harm my Jewish identity. Nor did it not harm that of my children. And, who knows, could it have paradoxically helped? Surely, it is impossible to tease out the influence of this one activity over 35 years. But, now, as I write this, our adult children are most capable of considering the reasons I did this, the complexity and even anguish of our parental decisions over time, and how they can do better. Someday, when our four grandchildren seem ready, we will tell them this family Santa story.
The holiday season is rife with analyses of interfaith families that celebrate both Christmas and Chanukah, but none have I found more offensive than Debra Nussbaum Cohen’s “Interfaith Mom Is Wrong About Chrismukkah” on The Forward’s Sisterhood blog. If you’re like me, you’ve already bristled at the title – and it’s only downhill from there.
Having chosen to fully educate our children about both family religions, the [December Dilemma] essentially disappears and December becomes primarily a delight. We celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, with all of the trimmings, and seek to help our children to understand the religious meanings of both holidays.
Sounds open-minded and welcoming – the perfect sort of interfaith family, right? Not so, says Cohen: Because Chanukah is a celebration of the Jews’ triumph over a majority that sought to oppress and assimilate them, Cohen writes, Jews who celebrate Christmas essentially degrade the miracle of Chanukah “by advocating for that same assimilation.”
In a bulleted response to Miller’s description of her family’s holiday traditions, Cohen uses language so patronizing and condescending (“Hate to sound so maternal,” “Um, okay,” etc.) that it becomes difficult to see her point through her disrespectful tone. Ultimately, her point seems to be that interfaith families that do not opt for 100 percent Judaism at all times are subjecting their children to a lifetime of confusion and lack of connection to the Jewish faith.
I was raised in a household that celebrated both Christmas and Chanukkah, though the former was “Daddy’s holiday.” My agnostic father never went to church or tried to instill in me any sort of Christian values or beliefs – but my mother, a proud Reform Jew, felt he should not have to give up his traditions. Today, I am a committed, active Jewish adult who has spent four years working for a major Jewish organization. I would hardly say I grew up to be confused, disinterested or (horror of all horrors, Ms. Cohen!) assimilated.
While I recognize the history of both Chanukah and Christmas (as well as the many stories of the Jews’ oppression under majority rule), I simply fail to recognize how celebrating a secularized Christmas is a danger to me or my Judaism. When Christmas is over, I will return to my job as a Jewish professional, where I will continue to work to strengthen the future of the Jewish community. I’m even leading a Birthright trip in February! The idea that my childhood – being raised to respect and understand the traditions of my father – somehow damaged my Judaism is downright offensive. In fact, I think it would only be more offensive if my mother had insisted upon banishing my dad’s traditions from our home entirely, despite his commitment to raising a Jewish child.
Anti-interfaith voices like Cohen’s – and yes, I believe this piece qualifies her as such – think children of interfaith families are so fragile and confused that they will never choose Judaism unless essentially forced to; that they should be raised in such a delicate, careful manner that they are not permitted any connection whatsoever to their non-Jewish parents’ heritage for fear they may choose that path over Judaism. Cohen could benefit from actual interaction with interfaith families in an attempt to understand their struggles and choices. And frankly, whether she feels Chrismukkah-celebrating families are wrong for their chosen traditions and celebrations is not the complete issue – her blatant disrespect of differing views is. I wish the Sisterhood blog would think twice before publishing pieces that display such intolerance toward other Jews’ religious and cultural choices.
While I disagree with the views espoused in Cohen’s post, I recognize that they represent the opinion of a large segment of Jews toward interfaith families. Sadly, it’s attitudes like these that lead interfaith couples and their children to feel alienated from, and unwelcomed by, the larger Jewish community – which is the exact opposite of their stated goal. If you ask me, that’s a much bigger problem than the Christmas tree in my living room.
In the last Hanukkah blog post, I pointed out JWA’s request for progressive, Jewish holiday videos. And they’ve followed up, suggesting that the Fountainhead’s “Light Up The Night” might be the answer:
Our goal is to produce fun and meaningful music videos that put smiles on people’s faces and help them connect with their Jewishness in new ways. We also want to showcase the diverse, vibrant and highly-engaged Israeli-Jewish identity that is emerging in our generation of Israelis today.
The Jewish federation of Chicago (Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago) took a different approach in their video, asking you to show your “inner Maccabee” this year. Thankfully, they actually want you to do good deeds, be kind and practice tikkun olam, and not actually emulate the Maccabee’s religious fanaticism, violence or frequent parricides.
I want to like the premise of this one except… Hanukkah’s not actually a major holiday. The significance of Hanukkah for the Jews doesn’t compare to the religious significance of Christmas for Christians. (Minor holiday elevated to fill the dark nights of winter versus the birth of Christianity’s messiah? Not really on the same level…) Nonetheless, it has some amusing moments:
Also for kids? Behrman House has published a Hanukkah story, Too Many Latkes, as an interactive iPad app! It’s full of fun features, and your little kids can press a button to have the app read the story out loud in the pre-recorded voice – or in yours! You can check out their video introduction to the app or head over to the app store to download it yourself.
But back to the videos. When I first saw this one, I didn’t get why folks were hatin’ on it. But then I kept watching… There’s someone in blackface. (Not ok!) But on the other hand, it’s probably the most accessible in terms of language… But… I don’t know. What do you think?
Pella busts out some boy band a capella moves in their “Holiday Party” (to the tune of Hot Chelle Rae’s “Tonight Tonight”), which goes through not only Hanukkah, but all the Jewish holidays.
This one’s an older tune. I think I first heard Eric “Smooth-E” Schwartz’s Jewish parody tunes in 2001; one of his Passover songs made the rounds for years, falsely attributed to many different people. Anyway, here’s his ode to Hanukkah gelt, “Chocolate Gelt.”
And let’s end with a video that came out oh, I don’t know, about three minutes ago. My buddy Naomi Less singing her new “8 Nights” song. She prefaces the video with
This winter 18 Jewish social entrepreneurs from several countries worldwide shared images about their personal meanings of Hanukkah – seeing a miracle inside of someone during the season
I admit that I recognize too many people in the video to not be biased in its favor…
If you’ve seen other Hanukkah videos you think we should share, post them in the comments or email them to me (email@example.com). Bonus gelt if they include interfaith families!
Thanks to all of you who responded to our December holidays survey.
The results are in! Earlier this morning, we sent out the following press release – let us know what you think of the findings.
Interfaith Families Participate in Secular Christmas Activities While Raising Jewish Children
BOSTON – December 14, 2011 – Interfaith families raising their children Jewish are continuing at high and stable levels to participate in secular Christmas activities, to keep their Hanukkah and Christmas holiday celebrations separate, and to believe that their participation in Christmas celebrations does not compromise their children’s Jewish identity. These trends emerged from the eighth annual December Holidays Survey conducted by InterfaithFamily.com, an independent non-profit.
InterfaithFamily.com has surveyed how interfaith couples raising their children deal with the “December dilemma,” the confluence of Hanukkah and Christmas, annually the past eight years. Some observers of intermarriage have cast a skeptical eye on interfaith families raising Jewish children participating in Christmas activities, arguing that interfaith families can’t impart a strong Jewish identity to their children and celebrate Christmas. The results of InterfaithFamily.com’s surveys suggest that they in fact are doing so.
This year the percentage of interfaith families raising Jewish children who participate in Christmas celebrations increased to 83%, from 76% last year. These families still make clear distinctions between the holidays and are giving clear priority to Hanukkah over Christmas, as both a family celebration and a religious holiday. The overwhelming majority celebrates Hanukkah at home, while less than half celebrate Christmas at home.
Hanukkah is much more of a religious holiday for this population than is Christmas. Only 13% attend Christmas religious services and only 3% tell the Christmas story. While more families will give Christmas gifts in their own homes this year (60%) compared to last year (53%), and slightly fewer (46%) will have a Christmas tree in their own homes than last year (48%), ninety percent view their Christmas celebrations as secular in nature.
Many families celebrate Christmas at the home of relatives, suggesting that Christmas is largely centered around the extended family.
Eighty percent of interfaith couples who participate in Christmas celebrations keep them separate from their Hanukkah celebrations, and 77% think that their Christmas celebrations do not affect their children’s Jewish identity.
“Interfaith couples raising Jewish children and participating in Christmas is now common,” said Edmund Case, CEO of InterfaithFamily.com. “These families see their Christmas celebrations as secular in nature and not confusing to their children’s Jewish identity. We noted somewhat more Christmas celebrations on a variety of measures this year, but not of a religious nature.”
This year Christmas falls on the fifth day of Hanukkah. Despite this overlap, 62% said their holiday observances would not change. “We find it heartening,” Case said, “that many respondents noted they would bring their Hanukkah menorahs and light them at their Christian relatives’ homes.”
Other key findings on interfaith families raising Jewish children include:
Ninety-seven percent plan on celebrating Hanukkah at home, compared to 48 percent planning on celebrating Christmas there. Seventy-one percent plan on celebrating Christmas at the home of relatives.
Seventy-seven percent of the respondents participating in Christmas celebrations believe it will not affect their children’s Jewish identity.
Only 3 percent plan on telling the Christmas story at home while 48 percent plan on telling the Hanukkah story at home. Only 13 percent plan on attending religious services for Christmas.
Ninety-nine percent of respondents plan on lighting a menorah and 93 percent plan on giving gifts as part of their Hanukkah celebrations at home.
Forty-six percent plan on putting up a Christmas tree and 60 percent plan on giving gifts at home as part of Christmas.
The families are opposed to blending the two holidays. Eighty percent plan on keeping the holidays separate or mostly separate.
Six percent of the families will participate in Hanukkah celebrations in the office, versus 25 percent that plan to celebrate Christmas there.
InterfaithFamily.com is the premiere web based resource for interfaith couples exploring Jewish life and making Jewish choices, and the leading web based advocate for attitudes, policies and practices that welcome and embrace them.
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InterfaithFamily.com has developed a resource page for interfaith families dealing with the December holidays that includes resources such as “Handling the December Holidays: Ten Tips from InterfaithFamily.com” and numerous articles that help interfaith families have a more enjoyable and meaningful holiday season. For more, visit http://www.interfaithfamily.com/decemberholidays.
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Do check out that full report, and let us know your thoughts!
Some very different videos to start getting you ready for this holiday season.
Let’s start with the basics. How do you spell the name of this holiday in English? And what’s the deal with latkes? From the senior citizens at the Los Angeles Jewish Home, some of the more pressing questions of the season:
A mashup of top hits from decades past (a different era for each night of Hanukkah?), rewritten to explain the history, story and rituals of Hanukkah:
Christmas time in our family is spent with my in-laws. Church for a 4:30 p.m. mass on Christmas Eve and then back to my in-laws’ house for an extended family, buffet-style, Christmas dinner, complete with Portuguese-style cocktail weenies and finger sandwiches. We eat around the Christmas tree while the kids (5 of them – all boys!) run around downstairs. For the past couple of years, Santa has visited after dinner, ringing the doorbell and coming inside with gifts for the kids. They seem to love this and are in awe of the large man in a red suit. While I never grew up with Santa, and I don’t have the nostalgic feeling that comes from a visit from him, it is neat watching the kids get all excited. And it’s fun to look forward to their reactions.
This year, however, I’m worried.
About a month ago, my six-year-old said, out of the clear blue, “I think Cousin Johnny is Santa.”
Shocked and stunned, I had no idea how to respond. “Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Well, he’s never around when Santa comes to the door.” Again, I am shocked. I can ask my son 100 times to put his dirty clothes in the laundry room and not drop them on the floor, and he is incapable of doing this. But he’s perceptive enough to realize that Cousin Johnny is not in the room when Santa comes and remembers it 11 months later!
I’m not worried that by answering this I’m going to ruin Christmas for my son. I’m worried that my response is going to be repeated to my nephews and end up ruining Christmas for them. I never had to answer questions about Santa or the Easter Bunny before! I can’t check in with my mom and see how she responded. What do I do?!
I ended up mumbling something under my breath and changing the topic. This worked for the time being, but I needed to nip this one in the bud before I single-handedly ruined Christmas for my extended family.
As soon as possible, I consulted the expert, my sister-in-law. After all, her kids were the ones who would be potentially scarred for life (depending on my answer). She helped me out by telling me how she responded when her kids got confused when they saw Santa standing in front of the grocery store ringing a bell after they had just taken pictures with him at the mall. “I tell them Santa has a lot of helpers around Christmas in order to get everything done. But, he’s always watching to see if you’ve been naughty or nice.”
The threat of the omnipresent Santa looking down on the kids aside, I think the “helping Santa out” response may work. For now, I’m hoping that the question doesn’t come up again. And, if it does, maybe I can quickly shove a cocktail weenie in my son’s mouth as Santa comes in the door this year…
It’s that busy time of the year (is there ever not a busy time of the year?). Hanukkah’s over but we’re still celebrating the December holidays with friends and family, colleagues and communities. You need a break, we need a break, time for a hodgepodge of links. Happy reading!
Take a break…
In The Forward, Edgar Bronfman opines on the rising profile of interfaith discussions in the Jewish community. My favorite excerpt? “Intermarriage today can even be an opportunity for a stronger embrace of Jewish identity… [My nephew] became engaged to a non-Jew, and when his fiancée decided to convert, he decided to join her in study. In the old paradigm, the community would have lost one uneducated Jew; instead, it has gained a Jewish family.”
To my joy and surprise, we’ve had a few comments on our discussion boards over the last week about the Jewish or Hebrew calendar and its often confusing and complicated particularities. So for those calendar geeks (myself included), The December Dilemma: 10 Tevet on Friday.
For something a little different, Cake Wrecks shared a bunch of disastrous Hanukkah cakes, including the one seen in the video below. (I don’t know about you, but I won’t be making that for my Hanukkah party this weekend!)
With the festival of lights starting this evening (are you ready to light the menorah? Check out our new video for candle lighting instructions, below, if you’re unsure or just want a refresher), this week I’m bringing you a Hanukkah hodgepodge.
Let’s start with the folks at BBYO/Panim, who have a great new resource. In Those Days, At This Time links the history of Hanukkah to the virtues of service and advocacy today – and tomorrow! Be sure to watch their video guide and start a conversation as you light the candles in your homes.
And, lastly, I leave you with this video, below, made by teens of the Gay-Straight Alliance at the A. J. Heschel School in New York, shared by Keshet, encouraging us all to make our communities more welcoming as we light the menorah tonight.
David Brooks wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times, The Hanukkah Story. He finds the story of the Hasmonean ascendancy which Hanukkah celebrates troubling and ambiguous. It’s a surprising position from Brooks, who identifies as a conservative. (That’s with a small c–I don’t know whether he’s also a Conservative Jew) though he also takes some social positions that other conservatives don’t. In any event, it’s a provocative piece.
David Brooks’ Op-Ed, “The Hanukkah Story,” is disturbing on many levels- beyond the scrooge-like pall it seems determined to cast on the celebration of a beloved holiday. One would hope that Mr. Brook’s academic and journalistic credentials would encompass an understanding of the complexities and nuance of history – which is never the literal, objective, factual account of actual events, but rather the way human experience has been interpreted – reflecting the political or philosophical agenda of both the original chronicle and the evolving national, cultural or religious traditions that emerge from those transforming developments. The Maccabean revolt of 165 BCE reflected the debates and passions of every revolution – the tensions between noble ideals and pragmatic action, as well as the timeless conflict of “traditionalists” and “reformers.” These dynamics have been at work in the history of Christianity ( especially at the time of the split between Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy in the 10th century and later, in the violent Protestant-Catholic conflicts of the Reformation); certainly in Islam ( the endless Sunni-Shiite battles); and in the history of America ( especially in the passionate partisan controversies among the Founding Fathers and later, in the Civil War)… no less than they were in Hanukkah’s story of an oppressed people’s revolt against tyranny. One might ask whether Mr. Brooks would have written such an attack on our Nation’s founders for publication on July 4, charging that Independence Day’s meaning is diminished because patriots tarred, feathered and hanged Tory “traitors” who did not share their Revolutionary zeal. Or, if he would attack Christmas, since the subsequent unfolding of history that resulted from its original story was filled with such violence and oppression in the name of the babe in the manger.
The major point is that Hanukkah, like all religious holidays and traditions, has evolved over the centuries. It came to be understood – and celebrated – and loved – by subsequent generations of Jews, far more as an affirmation of faith in the face of oppression, and courage in the struggle for justice and freedom. It is the later legend of the miracle of the oil that is remembered in popular perception -more than the military victory and the political complexities of the original events – emphasizing the spiritual themes of the festival, and reflecting Hanukkah’s even more ancient roots in winter solstice celebrations of light. In our time, Hanukkah has become a very universalistic affirmation of diversity – embodying in contemporary America a meaning that is arguably very different from the narrow interpretation Brook’s focuses upon. Today, the menorah shines as a symbol of Judaism’s confident engagement in our broader culture, rather than what may have been the Maccabee’s rejection of a tyrannically enforced imposition of alien religious values. I would invite David Brooks to shed his critical cynicism and embrace Hanukkah’s creative power as a vehicle for the celebration of Jewish identity and ideals, that also shares in the broader celebration of this season’s most universal and inclusive themes.
The eighth night of Hanukkah is tonight! If you have a minute as you’re frying up that last batch of latkes, weigh in on Rabbi Berman’s guest post, Brooks’ original essay and the meaning the holiday. We would love to hear what you have to say.
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