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.

The Ninth of Av

It’s difficult to explain Tisha B’Av, a fast day that starts this evening and goes until tomorrow evening. In our Jewish Holidays Cheat Sheet, I described it,

"JewishHolidaysCheatSheet" wrote:
This fast day commemorates the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. In the medieval period, Jews began attaching other calamities to the day, including the expulsion from Spain in 1492, making it an all-purpose day of mourning.

I think it’s hard for people in our generation to appreciate the level of trauma that the Jewish people experienced when the Romans destroyed the holy Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. I’ve been able to enhance my historical understanding as I read Yonah Lavery’s Talmud Comics. Even texts I’ve actually read before come alive because of the art work. Lavery does a great job presenting berachot%2056b.jpg">the psychological impact of the loss of the Temple, and helped me to see, through her art, how this sense of loss was made real through study to Jews throughout our history.

In the 20th century, Tisha B’Av lost a lot of its punch. First, because of the Holocaust, and second, because of the creation of the State of Israel. When Israel was created, the majority of the Jewish people there and in the diaspora chose to commemorate the destruction of European Jewish communities with Yom Ha-Shoah, rather than following the older tradition of tacking all catastrophes onto the destruction of the Temple. After Israel retook Jerusalem in 1967, my husband’s grandfather, an Orthodox Jew, began to follow a minhag (custom) of fasting for half the day. After all, Jews had access to the Holy of Holies. A recent op-ed piece in Haaretz makes a persuasive case for the half-day fast–though not on Jewish textual grounds.

In my Reform congregation growing up, we didn’t mark the 9 of Av. I learned about it in the wider Jewish community–at JCC overnight camp, and elsewhere. It’s always felt awkward to me. Mark Washofsky, a professor at Hebrew Union College in Cinncinati, a Reform rabbinical seminary, wrote “Why We Mourn on the Ninth of Av” for the Forward. He says,

"MarkWashofsky" wrote:

We have learned to read the traditional liturgy of Tisha B’Av — the biblical book of Eicha (Lamentations), the day’s Torah readings, the kinot (dirges) — not as an effort to explain or to justify the destruction but as a call to respond to it by redoubling our commitment to search our souls, to purify our conduct and to renew our shaken-but-not-shattered faith in the ultimate triumph of good over evil. This way of response permits us to acknowledge tragedy in all its darkness, but it forbids us to yield to a sense of helplessness and despair.

General Hospital celebrates the holidays!

I admit it, I watch daytime TV.  I have been watching General Hospital since the 5th grade.  No, I am not going to tell you how long ago that was…

I have been looking for an opportunity to link my General Hospital habit to something Jewish. Finally, it happened last week!   It was both good and bad.

I was tickled to see a scene in which the character of Bernie, the mob lawyer,  speaks to his colleague about how Hanukkah is the celebration of light and symbolizes faith over tyranny.  I even related to his discussion of how he takes comfort in Hanukkah. Even though he is separated from his family, he takes solace in knowing that everyone would be lighting the menorah that night. He encourages his non-Jewish colleague to seek out common traditions with her partner so they could truly enjoy the holidays together.  This entire scene seemed to put the holiday season into perspective.  Continue reading

Jesus and Christmas

It’s our busiest time of year again at InterfaithFamily.com. I’m writing this on December 24th at 9:00 am — and we’ve already broken the record for the highest number of monthly unique visitors to our main website, with 30,831 so far. There is something about Hanukkah and Christmas that stirs up everything about interfaith relationships — and front and center in that swirl is Jesus.

Two weeks ago, Cathy Grossman, USA Today’s terrific religion writer, called about her December holiday story for this year. She said she was writing about the “taking Christ out of Christmas” phenomenon. In addition to the usual theories that Americans are more secular and more materialistic, she wondered if increasing intermarriage was a cause. Continue reading

Hanukkah Comes Up From the Minors

I wrote a Guide to Hanukkah for Interfaith Families. Originally, I mentioned in the opening line of the guide that Hanukkah is a minor holiday. Our publisher told me, “To our readers, it’s not minor.”

I think that I have joined the ranks of the people for whom Hanukkah is not minor. Why? Because I am the parent of a school-age child now.

My son, super kindergarten kid, goes to public school, which ends long before my workday here at IFF. After school, he participates in two different afterschool programs: one at his public school for three days a week, and a nifty Hebrew afterschool program for two days. It’s like Hebrew school, only mellow and relaxed, which is good because he’s just a little guy.

All the children at the Hebrew program are excited about Hanukkah. It’s their favorite. Some come from households with two Jewish parents, some from households with one Jewish parent. So?

They are learning to sing some of the songs we sing here at home: “Maoz Tzur,” which I first learned in English as “Rock of Ages,” and Ner Li Ner Li. (“I have a little candle.”) The Israeli teachers got all the children singing “Banu Hoshekh L’Garesh,” We Have Come to Banish the Darkness, an old Israeli song about cooperative action. “Each one of us is a little light and together we are a great light.” I can get behind that! Continue reading

More Presents for You, Darling

First of all, I was reading the enormous stack of Jewish newspapers that I surround myself with at my office, when I found this article in the Jewish Journal Boston North about a company that sends “The Intermarriage Holiday Special,” which is Hanukkah gelt, Christmas candle and a half gallon of chicken soup with noodles and/or matzah balls.

I also saw a great new iPhone application, iMenorah. It’s not a free one but they are going to give some of the profit to charity.  I would have embedded the video if they had said which charity. My husband is the one in our family with the iPhone. He’s got the ocarina app. He does sometimes let us use his iPhone, but I don’t think you can fulfill the mitzvah of lighting virtual Hanukkah candles so I’m going to stick with the old wax-and-matches-method.

If you are trying to calm yourself from purchasing all the adorable little tchochkes that are out there, the folks at the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life have suggestions for simplifying Hanukkah. I had never thought of “cheap gift night,” which sounds really fun, but of course in our house “book night” is going to be the most popular.

How Do You Spell That Jewish Holiday in December?

How do you spell Hanukkah?

At InterfaithFamily.com, we spell it H-A-N-U-K-K-A-H. But search our site and you’ll find references to CHANUKAH (157 search results), HANNUKAH (72), HANUKAH (46), CHANUKKAH (13) and HANUKA (5).

HANUKKAH is the spelling of choice at non-Jewish websites like Wikipedia and Blue Mountain and tends to be the preferred spelling of transdenominational or progressive Jewish organizations, like My Jewish Learning, the Conservative movement and the Reconstructionist movement. Meanwhile, more traditional organizations–like Chabad, Aish HaTorah and the Orthodox Union–go with CHANUKAH. But there is one big exception to this division between traditional and progressive: the progressive Reform movement prefers CHANUKAH. Meanwhile, Judaism 101, one of the oldest and most frequently cited Jewish reference sites, goes with CHANUKKAH.

Continue reading

Lights On PBS

I just saw a notice that there will be a Hanukkah special on PBS this week, and it features some Jewish musicians whose work I really like. It’s called Lights and you can find the local listings for your PBS station on Craig Taubman’s website. The most exciting to me is the Klezmatics, who are going to sing one of the songs from Woody Guthrie Hanukkah album that they did, Happy Joyous Hanukkah. Other performers include a well-known African-American Jewish gospel artist, Joshua Nelson, the adorable Brooklyn singer-songwriter Michelle Citrin, and a famous Sephardic cantor, Alberto Mizrachi. Continue reading