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,

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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,

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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 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, 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

Because He’s Jon Stewart

Many on the internet are so filled with glee about this Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert Hanukkah song that they are making comparisons with Adam Sandler. Here it is, hope you think it’s funny. If not, at least you were among the first to find it on the internet:

Holiday Cheer?

Other people are not thinking about the December holidays. I am, though. I am soliciting, writing and editing material for our website about what it’s like to be in an interfaith family in December, when Christmas is. (Did you know that? Christmas is in December.) I’ve also been writing about Hanukkah, which is comparatively small potatoes. (Potatoes, get it? Potatoes? Waka waka.)

Fozzie and RowlfI’ve been thinking about different ways that people can make each other feel included, wanted and loved when they celebrate different holidays. I have read many moving and lovely stories about families making this work and I expect more in my inbox. So many people love their families and want to do right by them.

One thing I do not recommend if you’re trying to be welcoming is that you buy this Christmas ornament. Go ahead, click it, I’ll wait.

Does that look to you like a flaming cross, of the kind that racists burn in people’s front yards to frighten them? Maybe it doesn’t look like that in person, but… in the photo, it really does.

Nope, not inclusive. Buying Hanukkah stamps for your holiday cards is a good idea. Testing potato latke recipes in advance of the holidays, good. Flaming cross, not so good.