Taking Time for Holy Days

I’ve always been a bit of an overachiever—someone who takes on one too many things. In college it was double-majoring, studying abroad and captaining the crew team. In my professional life, in addition to my job, I publish articles and stories in my free time, read non-stop and blog about the books, fiercely dedicate an hour on most days of the week to the gym and cook as many of my own meals as possible. Not to mention making time for friends and family.

But this year is different. As we near the very early High Holy Days, just a mere three weeks away, I find myself already reflecting on the year behind me and the year to come. That’s because it’s been a special year—one in which I fell in love with a very special person who has interrupted my “plow through” model of living and captured not only my attention, but my time.

I don’t know about you, but time is probably the number one thing that stresses me out. There are only so many hours in a day, and I plan on sleeping for at least eight of them. So when you’re already feeling like you can’t do it all, how do open up your life to fit someone else in?

You want to, so you just do it; that’s how. And in doing so, I have found myself spending a greater percentage of my time on things like cooking dinner (my boyfriend is a great cook, but that means we spend more time preparing delicious meals together than I would alone), taking weekend road trips without my laptop, making plans with twice as many friends and family members (his and mine) and generally spending more time enjoying life.

Ireland

On our trip to Ireland, we spent plenty of time driving along the countryside and stopping to enjoy the view

I also find myself reflecting on our time together. Being in the moment. Feeling gratitude. Sharing it with those around me. As long as I’m still doing the things that are important to my daily wellbeing (cooking healthy food, going to Pilates), I find that the other, more stressful items on my professional to-do list still get done, but with less energy spent worrying over them.

I don’t believe many of us are meant to multi-task (or at least that’s what my neurologist father tells me). I believe I get more done when I’m busy, but I also find I have more creative space in my mind when I break up my schedule every now and then with a day at the beach, a day at home, an evening with friends or family.

My resolution for next year is to continue on my journey toward the appreciation of time. I hope to accept it, rather than fighting it. (Guess who will win?) I resolve to enjoy my glass of wine or my company and not think about the blog I could be writing or the looming article deadline. Call that long-distance friend who I don’t see nearly enough. Try not to look at the clock during a class at the gym, thinking about all the things I need to do before tomorrow; but get the most out of what I’m doing at that moment for my mind and body.

This holiday season, I will be surrounded by my boyfriend’s family members—some I’ll be meeting for the first time. And he’ll be surrounded by mine. I’m thankful for the new people in our lives who will be sharing their time with us now and in the year ahead.

What are you thankful for this year?

Looking for helpful High Holiday how-to’s? Try our booklet. 

How Jewish New Year Resolutions are Different

According to a website called statisticbrain.com, the top five New Year’s resolutions people made for 2012 were:

  1. Lose Weight
  2. Get Organized
  3. Spend Less, Save More
  4. Enjoy Life to the Fullest
  5. Stay Fit and Healthy

When calculated for types of resolutions, they found that 47% of resolutions made were related to self-improvement or education; 38% were related to weight; 34% were related to money; and 31% were related to relationships. (The total comes out to over 100% because people made multiple resolutions.)

Like most Americans, I make New Year’s resolutions in December (or, in years that not procrastinating doesn’t make my list, I sometimes make them in January). And this time of year, in the Jewish month of Elul, I also engage in making resolutions.

MeditationElul is the month that leads up to the Jewish new year, and it is the month in which Jews are supposed to be involved in the process of cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of the soul – our spiritual preparation for the new year. It is a time to look inside of ourselves and engage in the process of teshuvah. Teshuvah is usually translated as “repentance” but it literally means “turning” – we seek to turn toward wholeness in our relationships with others in our lives, with God and with our true selves.

When I make my resolutions in the month of Elul (this year Elul occurs from August 7 – September 4), unlike in December, my resolutions aren’t about being thinner, healthier, wealthier and happier (not that I would mind any of those things!). Instead, I make resolutions about how I will relate to my family, friends and community and how I will engage in the world. I contemplate not just my physical wellbeing, but more important, my spiritual wellbeing.

One of the great things about the process of cheshbon ha-nefesh is that it’s something that everyone can do, regardless of their own faith tradition or lack thereof. (I don’t know of any religion or culture that wouldn’t encourage individuals to look inside of themselves and contemplate ways that they can be better people in the year ahead.)

If you are not Jewish, you may or may not be comfortable accompanying your Jewish partner or family to synagogue for the High Holy Days. And you may or may not feel connected to the at-home rituals that are part of these holy days. But you can still find meaning in the process of reflection in which Jews engage at this time of year.

I hope that as the Jewish New Year approaches, all of us will give ourselves the gift of taking time for cheshbon ha-nefesh, for the accounting of our own souls. May we recognize and be grateful for our generosity and goodness; and may we be honest with ourselves about those qualities that we need to improve – and may we seek to do so in the year ahead.

Are you taking time for yourself during the month of Elul to engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh?  Have you made any resolutions for the year ahead? If so, please share them below.

Is There a Jewish Prayer for Thanksgiving?

There’s a great feature on JewishBoston.com called “Ask A Rabbi.” And you needn’t be in the Boston area to benefit from this column! Today’s seem particularly apt to cross-post to our blog, given that the question posed was:

My wife grew up Christian. For her family, Thanksgiving always starts with a prayer. I’ll be joining my in-laws for Thanksgiving this year, and they’ve asked if I’d like to share a Jewish prayer. I want to pick the right one; what should I say?

Here’s how Rabbi Baruch HaLevi responded on JewishBoston.com:

Dear Friend,

Great question and obviously a timely one for us all, since the majority of us have family members of other faiths and will likely break bread with them this Thanksgiving. 

Thanksgiving is perhaps the perfect intersection of our two great religious traditions in Judaism and Christianity. Unlike Christmas vs. Chanukah or Easter vs. Passover, where there are clear theological conflicts and a myriad of real-life complications, Thanksgiving is conflict-free (unless you talk politics, in which case you’ll probably need more than prayers to navigate that terrain with grace and peace). 

Thanksgiving, on the other hand, contains the best of what it means to be an American — gratitude for abundance, inclusivity in our society and around our table, open hands, open arms, open hearts. Thanksgiving is, in many ways, the summation of the heart of both Judaism and Christianity — faith, gratitude, peace and brotherly love.

Too easily, however, it turns into just another meal, another family gathering, another seemingly ordinary day. The religious mission, however, is to elevate the mundane into the sublime, to remind us that the ordinary can and should become the extraordinary. That is one of the reasons we might choose to bring religious readings to the table and something I applaud you for doing.

created at: 2012-11-20

There are so many prayers in both of our traditions which bring to light these themes of gratitude and abundance, welcome and compassion. With that said, I think it’s important to choose some that bring you a sense of integrity. One should never speak words in prayer or in life which don’t reflect your beliefs, your integrity, your soul. One should also take into consideration both the nature of the day and the others around the table. In this case, with your in-laws being Christian, there are plenty of prayers to be drawn from our shared tradition of the Hebrew Bible, specifically the latter part of the Hebrew Bible, known as “the Writings” and “the Prophets.” I encourage you to peruse these sections of the Bible — but most likely you will end up within the Psalms.  

The Psalms, attributed to King David, express a soul’s longing for God, gratitude for living, uncertainty about the future and the quest for faith, compassion and goodness.  Here are some Psalms you might want to consider, though I’d encourage you to read through them all and choose what speaks to your soul the most. Also, there are many different versions of these, so Google until you find a translation that speaks to you. 

Psalm 118 – Thanksgiving Day Prayer: God is Good

Psalm 100 – Thanksgiving Psalm: Praise     

Psalm 111 – Thanksgiving Psalm: Nourishment

Psalm 30 – Thanksgiving: Give Thanks Forever

Psalm 28 – Psalm for Thanksgiving: Let God be Your Strength

Psalm 150 – Thanksgiving Day Psalm: Every Soul Rejoice

Beyond the Psalms:

Thanksgiving Prayer by Rabbi Maralee Gordon

A Thanksgiving Prayer by Rabbi Naomi Levy

A Thanksgiving Prayer (author unknown)

We Pray For Children by Ina Hughs

In addition, here are a few more “edgier” but interesting selections (tread lightly with these at your in-laws’ table):

Pray For Peace by Ellen Bass

Love Is The New Religion by Brian Piergrossi

Hope this helps. Enjoy your turkey. Watch your football. Stuff yourself with pie. Talk politics if you must. But above all else, remember that love and peace, and gratitude and celebration, are what this is all about. Thank you for reminding us that this holiday is an expression of the great Judeao-Christian ethic upon which this great country has been built. Eat, drink and be merry, and read some Psalms as well.

The Trees Are Coming!

Tu Bishvat is two weeks away!

As I said last year, “It’s a minor holiday and, as such, I think it gets lost among the bigger, better known holidays. But there’s a lot to it – and it’s a great way to gather friends and family in your home on a cool winter’s night to remind ourselves that, if nothing else, spring will soon be here.”

If you haven’t already, check out our beautiful new booklet on Tu Bishvat. It explains the historical roots of the holiday and Judaism’s long-standing sacred connection to trees and the environment. You’ll also find suggestions for activities for young children and ideas for hosting a Tu Bishvat seder.

And don’t let the spelling confusion prevent you from trying out this holiday!

It’s less than three weeks away, and you’ve started getting emails about Tu Bishvat events. You’re probably also getting emails about Tu B’Shvat and Tu B’Shevat, whatever those are. This blog has previously explained why “Tu Bishvat” is correct, while “Tu B’Shvat” and “Tu B’Shevat” are WRONG WRONG WRONG.

If you’re curious as to why Tu Bishvat is often spelled differently, or why this isn’t a difference of opinion (like the Hanukkah/Chanukah debate), check out The War on Tu Bishvat on the Mah Rabu blog. Why is proper spelling of this transliteration important?

Safeguarding the Earth’s future requires being prepared to accept inconvenient truths, whether that means the dangerous effects we are having on the climate, or whether that means that the first vowel in “Bishvat” isn’t the vowel you thought it was.

And, bonus!, we got a shout out on a subsequent Mah Rabu blog post for being among the few, the proud, the knowers of proper Tu Bishvat spelling.

Ready? Check out our collection of resources for hosting your own seder (festive meal) this year. Do you celebrate Tu Bishvat another way? Let us know! (I can’t be the only one thinking outside the box (or, rather, getting inspiration from TV’s How I Met Your Mother) by hosting a Tu Bishvat Pajama Jammy Jam…)

This Year Be One of the 1,800

It’s December 14.  Do you know what that means? 

Yes, it means 11 more days until Christmas, 6 more days until Hanukkah and 12 days until Kwanza!

But, it also means 17 more days to get your end-of-the-year contributions in to your favorite charity (InterfaithFamily.com, perhaps?). Last night, I went online and made my personal contributions. In addition to volunteering my time at local nonprofits, I give what I can. Why? Because I know that every gift can make a difference, no matter the amount. So, if you like what we do, please consider making a small donation. Believe it not, a $5 contribution can make a difference, and, even better, when we get a bunch of $5 donations, they add up! 

This year, InterfaithFamily.com is aiming to receive contributions from 1,800 supporters. Please help us reach our goal.

Why give to IntefaithFamily.com? Your contribution, no matter what amount, will be have a tremendous impact. In the last twelve months, 563,0000 people visited our website. Over 2,040 people requested clergy to officiate their lifecycle event. 172,000 people accessed our “Jewish Holidays Cheat Sheet.” Talk about impact!

Thank you for making a contribution to InterfaithFamily.com. We look forward to continuing to support interfaith families exploring Jewish life in the year to come.

Happy Holidays to you and yours.

The Shavuot Hodgepodge

Getting ready for Shavuot, which starts tomorrow night, I thought I’d share some of the interesting, amusing, and helpful tidbits I’ve found online in the last little while. That’s right, it’s time for the Shavuot Hodgepodge!

One of my favorite Storahtellers, Naomi Less, teamed up with G-dcast to bring us The Ten Commandments – A Song for Shavuot:

If a musical ten commandments isn’t your speed, you might prefer the Butter Ten Commandments, which combines the “eat dairy yumminess” of the holiday with the ten commandments, resulting in butter sculptures of each commandment. (Seriously, who comes up with this stuff??)

On DovBear (a blog I’ve been reading for, oh, 8 years now?), there are two interesting looks at the story of Ruth. The first examines how, in the Book of Ruth, the betrothal story does not follow the pattern of other biblical betrothals. The second follows up on this premise, wondering if the reversed betrothal is in response to the story of Judah and Tamar. Interesting. And something new to bring to your up-all-night learning sessions Tuesday night…

Over on Jewschool, a video “about revelation” called “Mountain Day” by the posted, but titled Shavuos on YouTube, was posted. It didn’t seem too popular with their readers (check out the comments) but the universal ties between the revelation of the Torah at Mt Sinai (one of the themes of Shavuot) and other revelations (like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) might speak to some of you:

Tablet has a bunch of great stuff for Shavuot. There’s the Field Study of why Shavuot is such an ignored holiday in America:

“They used to say that Jewish holidays needed mazel,” or luck, Sarna says. Hanukkah and Passover—located next to major Christian holidays that Jews want an alternative to—have mazel. Shavuot, marooned in the long stretch between Passover and the High Holidays, has the opposite. “Passover is the last Jewish gesture of the year before you disappear into summer camp, Memorial Day, et cetera,” Bachman says.

And At Sinai, an article about why a recent convert to Judaism loves Shavuot. It also includes this great line:

“Shavuot!” she said scornfully. “Of all the Jewish holidays! It’s like the ugly girl at the party that everyone feels obliged to dance with.”

Then there’s Mother’s Little Helper, on holidays and raising a Jewish child; Got Milk, looking at the complicated history of Jews and dairy; and All Night Long, an audio interview with novelist Nathan Englander, musician Alicia Jo Rabins, Rabbi Phil Lieberman, and theologian Avivah Zornberg about what they’ll be studying this Shavuot.

Now you’re armed with all sorts of fun to kick the holiday off tomorrow (Tuesday) evening. Chag sameach!

Slacker Hamantashen

Our friends at JewishBoston.com have been hard at work. Well, as “hard at work” as “slackers” can be. You see, they’ve come up with the simplest hamantaschen recipe ever.

It’s so simple, all you need are two ingredients. Seriously. It’s great for making hamantaschen at your office (as they did) or in a dorm room. And if my count is correct, you only need five other items in addition to your two ingredients: a paper cup (“cookie cutter”), a paper plate (serving double duty as a “spatula” and a “plate”), a can opener (optional, depending on your hamantaschen filling), a spoon (optional, depending on the filling type) and a toaster oven. Done.

Watch their video for the recipe and instructions. (You might recognize Liz from our Hanukkah video!)

If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, you might also check out our other hamantaschen recipes, submitted by InterfaithFamily.com readers like you.

Enjoy!

Valentines Day 2011

I know that in some parts of the Jewish community, participating in Valentine’s Day is frowned upon, because the Valentine involved was a Christian saint. That made a recent article by Rabbi Everett Gendler Don’t Dismiss the Jewish Origins of Cupid, all the more interesting. For one thing, the Catholic Church declared in 1969 that Valentine’s Day is not a saint’s day. For another, there is a lot of archeological evidence of Cupid’s Jewish character, including appearing above the door of a synagogue. And for another, there is a lot about love in the Hebrew Bible — check out the article to learn more.

Match.com recently released a survey about, well, love. The take-away lesson, according to Time Magazine, is that men are just as interested in commitment as women. Buried in the Time article was a factoid of more interest to IFF: 83% of men and 62% of women are flexible on their date’s religious beliefs. If you go over to the  Match.com site itself, you find that only 17% of men and 28% of women must have, or say it is very important to find someone, of the same religion. Of course these are aggregate figures and don’t tell you about particular groups – but it looks like a safe bet this Valentine’s Day that interfaith couples are likely to keep on falling in love.

I hope yours is or was a happy one!

Tu Bishvat

Tu Bishvat is just a few days away, a one day holiday starting Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011, at sundown. It’s a minor holiday and, as such, I think it gets lost among the bigger, better known holidays. But there’s a lot to it – and it’s a great way to gather friends and family in your home on a cool winter’s night to remind ourselves that, if nothing else, spring will soon be here.

I feel like there are some basics that could be explained for many of us.

For starters, why are there so many different spellings of the holiday name? I’ve seen Tu B’shvat, T’u B’shvat, Tu Beshvat, Tu Beshevat, and more. On this website, we use Tu Bishvat. Why? Check out Mah Rabu, a great blog, for the explanation.

One of the ways people celebrate Tu Bishvat is by having seders. The Jew and the Carrot explained,

Over the last decade, seders for Tu Bishvat have spiked in popularity. This growth is largely due to the contemporary Jewish community’s interest in “greening” ritual and holidays. Every year, the number of organizations turning to Tu Bishvat to inject some sustainability-awareness into their annual programming grows, as does the collection of environmentally-inspired haggadot for Tu Bishvat available online. (Like this one from My Jewish Learning, this one from Hillel, and this one from Hazon.)

The downside is that some people shy away from celebrating the holiday precisely because it feels too “hippie” or eco-spiritual. But while the Tu Bishvat seder, which was originally developed as a mystical celebration by kabbalists in 16th century Safed, provides a helpful structure for celebrating Tu Bishvat, there are no official rules for the holiday. The lack of halakhic requirements means that seders can be tailored to meet their hosts’ personalities–even if they happen to prefer fine china over bicompostable dishware.

The Seder Structure

Borrowing from Passover’s four cups of wine, the kabbalistic seder for Tu Bishvat is divided into four parts that correspond to four “worlds.” This notion of the importance of the number four repeats itself in multiple ways: through assigning a season and mystical attribute to each world, through drinking four cups of wine, and by dividing the foods eaten during the seder (generally a feast of fruits and nuts) into four categories that reflect human nature. Each of these components attempts to coax another level of contemplative thought, creativity, and wonder from seder participants.

You can also check out this quick video I made, explaining a basic Tu Bishvat seder structure:

The Jew and the Carrot continues, listing example menus for different Tu Bishvat seder types: the hippie, the sophisticate, the newbie, the multi-culturalist and the chocolate lover. Check them out.

You can also check out a few other organizations for their accessible and easy to follow (or adapt) seders: Hillel, My Jewish Learning, Hazon, nfty.org/_kd/Items/actions.cfm?action=Show&item_id=5275&destination=ShowItem:uhj5fnxk">NIFTY (pdf), JOFA or NeoHasid.

Another option, which I’ll be doing this year, is straight from television:

“I’d like to make an impression on those guys. Man, I love the Office Halloween Party. It is so much sluttier than the Office Christmas party. Though, not as freaky as the Office President’s Day Rave. Or the Office Tu Bishvat Pajama Jammy Jam.” – Barney Stinson, How I Met Your Mother

If, like me, you’re a fan of the show How I Met Your Mother, you might have caught this reference back in October, 2010. My housemate and I were watching when we heard Barney (played by Neil Patrick Harris) mention a Tu Bishvat Pajama Jammy Jam. None of the characters on the show are Jewish, and yet they all just nodded, as if this was a totally normal holiday (and normal way to celebrate it). We knew we had to host our own. So this year, in addition to a seder, we’ll be inviting our friends to show up in their pajamas, we’ll be watching fruit-themed movies (like The Apple and James and the Giant Peach). See? Tu Bishvat really can be celebrated in many ways…

So gather some friends and family and give Tu Bishvat a try this year!

Comfort? Or Causeless Hatred?

I fasted yesterday for Tisha B’Av. It’s often hard for me to do that, because as a Jewish historian, I wonder whether we would have evolved this amazing religion and culture if the Romans had not destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E., so how sad can I be? On the other hand, the fast day is also to commemorate the sinat hinam, the causeless hatred, that the rabbis believed enabled the Romans to quell the Jewish rebellion and burn Jerusalem. In my job, I monitor Jewish news, and believe me, there are more than enough stories of causeless hatred in the Jewish community to motivate a person to fast.

I’m not even sure how many of them to bring up here. After all, this is a site where we work hard to encourage interfaith families to affiliate with the Jewish community. But if we respond to these divisions, we can find the seeds of comfort, which we are meant to find this week on Shabbat Nachamu.

Aliza Hausman wrote a response to racism against Jews of color inside the Jewish community, in “A Lesson for Jews in Gates’ Arrest?”. It’s really time for Jews to end this particular variety of causeless hatred.

"AlizaHausman" wrote:
“How can a people that has experienced the Holocaust be so racist?” a young black prospective convert asked me, wringing his hands in total heartbreak. And on a regular basis, a white Jewish friend tells me “You’re too sensitive about race” and “I’m not racist, but…” So I have created a network of Jews of color, of white allies. With them, I know I can safely discuss the latest racist Jewish encounter that has left me raw, exposed, dying from the inside out.

There is hope for the Jewish community to be more inclusive to everyone: to interfaith families, GLBT Jews, Jews of color, people with disabilities. But it’s not something someone else is going to do for us. Do you ever say “I’m not racist, but…”? It’s time to take stock.

Right now the Jewish community is riven over how to react to crimes committed by Orthodox Jews. These crimes, if the accusations are proven, constitute a major sin in Judaism–a desecration of God’s name. As an Orthodox rabbi, Moshe Rosenberg, wrote in A Light Unto the Nations Or a Cautionary Tale? yesterday in the Forward,

"MosheRosenberg" wrote:
Are we worse than other ethnic groups when it comes to white-collar crime? No, but we are obligated to be much better — the commandment “You shall love the Lord, your God” is explained by the Talmud to mean, “The name of heaven must be made beloved through you.”

It’s really easy for Ashkenazi Jews to point fingers at Syrian Jews or for Reform and Conservative Jews to mock the hypocrisy of supposedly ultra-Orthodox Jews. Yet we are one people and we have responsibility for each other. Certainly when Bernard Madoff ripped off Jewish charitable foundations, he hit all kinds of Jews. We were all angry that someone ripped off the tzedakah box and we were all worried that all Jews would be targets because of damage to our reputation. This is the same thing.

This is the period in the Jewish calendar when we move from mourning our historical tragedies to hope for the future, and an intention to reform ourselves personally. That’s the other plus of reading a lot of difficult stuff. It gives me a personal direction.