The Choosing People

On Yom Kippur this year, I had the pleasure of listening to a personal, heartfelt and inspiring sermon by Rabbi Rachel Saphire of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA. The sermon got my family thinking and talking and I thought you might enjoy it too. Rabbi Saphire has been kind enough to allow us to share this excerpt of her sermon, which is approximately the first half. Enjoy.

Whether you see it or not, you’ve made a choice to be here today.  You may be thinking, “I don’t have a choice whether or not to observe Yom Kippur.  It’s just what I do.  It’s what I’ve always done.”  You may observe in order to support your loved one or your family.  Maybe you’re a teenager or child and your parents have simply told you, “You’re coming.”  Either way: you’re here and that’s a big deal.  And even if you may not realize you have, you’ve made that choice and THAT is a big deal, too.

Our Torah portion for Yom Kippur comes from Parashat Nitzavim from the Book of Deuteronomy.  In just a few verses, God puts a big choice before us.

“You stand this day, all of you, before God —[leaders], elders, all the men, women and children of Israel, and even the non-Israelite living among you… to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God…

Surely, this Instruction that I command you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach.  [This Instruction] is not … beyond the sea – that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the Intruction is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity… Choose life — that you and your offspring will live”

I find this text to be symbolic.  It is not only about choosing life in the physical sense (preserving our health), but I actually think it’s about choosing TO LIVE JEWISHLY in a meaningful wayFor, the commandment to choose life is given as an instruction to connect to that which is sacred.   Perhaps what’s most important is the fact that this strong charge does not explicitly say HOW we should choose to live Jewishly in a meaningful way.  The text only states that this choice is not far out of reach “it is very close to you – in your mouth and in your heart.”  What I think this really means is that the choice is within each and every one of us.  It is upon us to choose for ourselves, from within our own being, how it is that we want to express our Jewish identity or connect to the Jewish community.  And if that is the case, the pathway to choosing Jewish life may be different for each one of us!  The point is that we each actively have to make the choice.  Making this choice is a big deal.

The Torah portion also mentions that all of us stand before God on this day – every single one of us, no matter who we are – men, women, and children.  The text also mentions that even the ger, the one who is not from the Israelite community and is not Jewish stands among us.  Today, a ger tzedek, also refers to one who makes the choice to convert or join the Jewish community. We affirmatively call him/her a “Jew by Choice.”  I think the Torah is teaching us that WE SHOULD ALL BE JEWS BY CHOICE!  What would it look like if each and every one of us consciously took hold of our choice to be Jewish?

I’ve thought about this question from a very young age.  I grew up in an interfaith family.  My mom is Jewish and my dad was raised as a Christian.  My parents made the decision to raise my twin brother and me as Jews.  My mother also wanted my father to feel comfortable observing his own customs.  What did that mean?   Culturally, we celebrated Christmas at home.  I have fond memories of decorating the tree, hanging holiday lights, putting up a stocking, listening to and singing carols, laying out cookies for Santa Claus, sitting down for a Christmas Eve dinner, and waking up to open presents.

I also remember my mother sharing her strong Jewish identity with us and teaching us to take pride in being Jewish.  We celebrated Passover and Chanukah at home with active rituals.  A few times a year, we lit the Shabbat candles.  In my hometown, being Jewish was also ‘something different.’  My brother and I were the only Jewish kids in our grade and my mom was our school’s “Jewish mom.”  She would go from room to room to teach about Chanukah and sometimes she even invited the class to our house.

All of these practices brought me joy.  I knew that I was Jewish, but I also knew my father and his family members were not.  I also liked to fit in among my classmates.  And so, I matter-of-factly and quite simply called myself and considered myself to be “half-Jewish.”

Then, something began to change my perspective midway through elementary school.  A new kid came to town.  He was in the same grade as me, his grandparents lived up the street, and HE was JEWISH!  Besides my brother, I had made my first Jewish friend.  I began to learn about his family and their deeply-rooted Jewish practices.  With joy and excitement, their extended family gathered for holidays, including festivals I had never experienced.  Their traditions and rituals spanned generations.  They went to temple together.  Being Jewish even informed the way they ate and the things they talked about.  I was fascinated by this new-found meaning and beauty that I experienced by having a Jewish friend.

I began to explore my own identity.

“Who am I really and what is important to me?”

And then the deep Jewish questions came up, too.

“If my friend is Jewish and he goes to temple, then why don’t I?”

“Can I celebrate the ‘new’ Jewish holidays that his family celebrates?”

And then a bit later as I began to visit religious school and temple functions with my friend…

“Mom, can I attend religious school, too?”

“Can you help me learn Hebrew?”

“Can we go to services?”

“How about a field trip to the Jewish gift shop?”

And then things like…

“Mom, why do we have a Christmas tree if we’re Jewish?”

“Can we have a youth group just like the Christian kids do?”

“Can I skip my soccer game on Yom Kippur?”

“Can I become Bat Mitzvah even if I’m now 17?”

“Can I study with the rabbi more?”

And so I did – all of these things.  My brother and I formed a youth group at our temple.  And there we built our own sense of Jewish community.  And I became Bat Mitzvah on my 17th birthday – With a new year of life came a new understanding of the depth and richness of Torah.  And I decided that I would find my own sense of peace by attending Shabbat services every week if I could – that even meant skipping THE high school football game on Friday night.

These choices were my own, ones that I was proud to make and explore.  Some choices were different than the ones my brother made and many were different than the ones my school friends made.  But, they were mine -my own conscious and meaningful choices – ones that allowed me to explore my passions and the things that were important to ME.  These choices brought me joy, connection, a sense of purpose and even the feeling of being known and loved.  Even though I was born a Jew, it is for these reasons that I am a Jew by Choice.  And it is because of my Jewish journey that I want each of you to have the same opportunity to make your own conscious Jewish choices today, every day, in the year ahead.

Instead of thinking of ourselves as the CHOSEN people (people for whom our destiny is chosen and dictated), we could become the CHOOSING people.  We could choose to create a new Shabbat ritual for ourselves every week.  We could choose to read more Jewish texts or books or explore the world of Jewish music.  We could act in more concrete ways that heal our world.  Or we could visit those who are lonely and in need.  We could commit to teaching our children something of our own Jewish interest.  We could share our own family’s history.  We could question and explore our faith.  If we could choose to do any of these types of things (the choices are endless)…Then, we would not be passive inheritors of our tradition, but rather active participants, consciously acting upon our choice to live Jewishly. 

Who Was I to Judge?

I admit it – I was raised to think that intermarriage is wrong. It has taken awhile but I now am embarrassed by some of the comments I might have made when friends told me they were marrying someone who wasn’t Jewish. I was insensitive. On this Yom Kippur, I want to ask for forgiveness from those whom I have offended. In many instances, I may not have said anything, but the negative thoughts crossed my mind and an expression of disapproval may have crossed my face. Again, I apologize.

In my defense, we all are evolving. We all say things that might have been inappropriate. I don’t lose sleep over insensitive comments I may have made 10 years ago. I was young. I was immature. I am not perfect. I try not to let guilt consume me, but there is a fine line between being conscientious and guilt ridden!

But here is something I hadn’t thought of until a few months ago: Our comments leave scars. I know that I offended some people and that they remember my comment or look of disapproval. So, even though I have evolved, I may have hurt their feelings and I suspect they still remember it. In fact, my act of disapproval may be the last (and only) thing they remember about me. Who was I to judge?

Book illustrationThis reminds me of the old Kabbalah story where a child says bad things about someone to a friend. Madonna and Loren Long have rewritten this story for today’s family in Mr. Peabody’s Apples. In this story, Mr. Peabody is an elementary school teacher and baseball coach, who one day finds himself ostracized when a child misinterprets an incident and then spreads rumors through their small town. Mr. Peabody silences the gossip by teaching the child how we must choose our words carefully to avoid causing harm to others. The child is told to take a pillow to the baseball field and tear it open. The wind is blowing and all of the feathers fly everywhere.  Mr. Peabody asks the child to collect the feathers and put them back in the pillow. The child tells him that it is impossible. Like feathers in the wind, we can’t put our words back in our mouths.

Since we can’t take our words or acts back once they are out there, this Yom Kippur I want to say:

1) I apologize for any words, actions or thoughts that may have been insensitive.

2) To anyone who might have offended me, I forgive you and know that we are all evolving. Hopefully, we can all evolve a little faster before we hurt anyone else’s feelings.

I wish for all of us that our personal journeys take us to a place of kindness and understanding. Happy New Year. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.

What Deathclock.com and Yom Kippur Have in Common

TimeNot long ago I was sitting at my computer playing around on the Internet and I found myself at deathclock.com, which bills itself as “the Internet’s friendly reminder that life is slipping away … second by second.” All you have to do is enter your date of birth, your gender, your “mode” (whether you’re normal, pessimistic, sadistic or optimistic), your height and weight, and your smoking status. Then you click a button that says “Check Your Death Clock” and it calculates your date of death.

I didn’t put in my information to “check my death clock.” I was so freaked out by the thought of knowing my date of death (or at least what deathclock.com predicted as my date of death) that I quickly left the website, and promised myself I’d never go back again.

But the reality is that even though I don’t want to know WHEN I’m going to die, I do have to accept the fact that I AM going to die. Rabbi David Wolpe tells the story of a man at age 93 who continues to be comforted by the consoling words that his mother had said to him while lying on her deathbed, seventy years earlier: “Don’t be afraid. It happens to everyone.”

It’s a fact of life. …We’re all going to die.

And while I may never go back to deathclock.com, the reality of my mortality is something that I can’t avoid thinking about this time of year. Confrontation with death is one of the significant themes of the Jewish High Holy Days, and especially of Yom Kippur.

On Yom Kippur, some Jews wear a white kittel (burial shroud) over their clothing, which serves as a reminder of our mortality. And in synagogue on Yom Kippur, Jews confront death when we recite the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, describing “who shall live and who shall die, who shall live out his days and who shall not live out his days.”

What I love about Yom Kippur is that this “confrontation with death” isn’t morbid or creepy. Rather, we confront death so that we can be more fully present in life. When we recognize and acknowledge that life is precarious, we realize how truly precious it is.

Every year at this time I ask myself: What would I do if I were going to die tomorrow? How would I live my life? How would I treat the people I love? Is there someone to whom I would apologize? Is there someone with whom I’ve lost touch who I want to reconnect with? I try to use the answers to questions like these to inform how I act during the High Holidays and in the year ahead.

These questions and others that help us to become better people and lead more meaningful lives are ones that we should all be asking ourselves throughout the year. And for Jews and those who are part of Jewish families, they are questions on which we should especially focus this time of year.

Hopefully, all of us can use our answers to the question “What would I do if I were going to die tomorrow?” to inform how we live TODAY.

What about you? Are there questions you’ve been thinking about this time of year? I’d love to hear what you’re thinking.

10Q: Reflection for All

The following is a guest blog post by Dina Mann, National Marketing and Outreach Coordinator for Reboot, an organization that engages and inspires young, Jewishly-unconnected cultural creatives, innovators and thought-leaders who, through their candid and introspective conversations and creativity, generate projects that impact both the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds.

Reboot logoEvery Yom Kippur, Viduy (Confessions) is recited by congregations around the world as a way to reflect on sins we did. Most of them do not apply to many of the readers here (we hope!) and can often seem a little off-putting. (We stole, we have transgressed, we have sinned…) The siddur literally creates a poem about sinning that goes from A to Z.

With 10Q, Nicola Behrman, Ben Greenman and Amelia Klein sought to do something a little different. To create a space of personal digital reflection where the important things in life could be measured from year to year.

How does it work? Sign up for 10Q and receive 10 questions in your inbox over the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. After Yom Kippur the answers to your questions will be put in a vault and returned to you the following year before Rosh Hashanah. Measure how far you have progressed and how far you have to go in your life goals. Your answers can be made private or public.

That’s it.

Since 2008, thousands of people have had the opportunity to reflect from year to year, and the response on Facebook and Twitter spans from heartwarming to heart breaking. Take the time to read through other people’s past responses at doyou10q.com.

We encourage people of all faith traditions and backgrounds to sign up for 10Q to reflect, react and renew. You can even bring it to your community or attend a live 10Q event.

As 5774 approaches, take some personal time to weigh your year and add more meaning when we come together to reflect.

Moms and Membership

Moms

I recently had the honor of meeting five women who are due with their first babies in the fall (one brought her four week old). While none of them grew up Jewish, they are married to Jews and they want to create a home with Judaism (traditions, holidays, values) for their growing families. They all felt that their spouses did not have the literacy or resolve to accomplish this goal alone. They are seeking fellowship among other women in the same boat, and they are eager for their own Jewish learning and for ways into Jewish communal life.

Sitting with these women reminded me of a core truth of the work we do: Intermarriage is not the end of Judaism. Intermarriage does not mean the Jew is abandoning Judaism. Partners who aren’t Jewish are often open and ready to take on aspects of Jewish living, even though the learning curve is often so darn steep.

One of the moms-to-be said that they are ready to join a synagogue but that she “heard” the membership dues were $3,000. Someone else chimed in that there must be a lower rate for a new family or first time members. The first mom seemed hesitant to call the synagogue to find out.

On the High Holidays, synagogues will be filled with non-members. This is not a great term. InterfaithFamily suggests trying to avoid “non” in any kind of description about someone. We advocate saying “not Jewish” verses “non-Jew.” The people who are not dues paying members may be friends and family of members or they may have no connection to the congregation other than they bought a ticket. How can we tell all of these people that they already “belong?”

One idea is to have members say aloud the following words and to write them on literature that is handed out and on the homepage of every synagogue website: If you are interested in learning more about this open and warm community, please call (give the name and title of the membership person with his or her direct line and email). It is helpful to have a real person to call rather than have to search a website for membership information which is anonymous. We want our words to reflect a sentiment of welcome. If I were writing something, I would say:

If you are on this website looking for information about a place to come for Shabbat, to celebrate holidays, for classes and religious school, to meet friends or to do social justice work, join us. If you want to build a relationship with clergy who care about you, join us. Joining us isn’t about writing a check. It is about showing up when you want inspiration and fellowship, support and grounding. Whether you grew up with Judaism or not, whether you want introductory classes or higher level learning, whether you can read Hebrew or have never been to a synagogue, join us. We are a diverse group and this gives us strength and purpose. All are welcome. You can help support our congregational efforts at every level and means of giving.

I know there are lots of people studying new dues structures. This is not about a dues structure–fee for service, voluntary donations, etc. This is about the feeling of what it means to be a “member.”

Each of these five women and the new faces in synagogues over the next few weeks will make great synagogue members.

It’s Raining Coconuts!

CoconutsI have some really strange memories of childhood and unusual events. One of these memories is about the celebration of the first fruit on Rosh Hashanah. The custom is to enjoy a new fruit to celebrate the New Year and say a special blessing (Shehecheyanu) recognizing the blessing of arriving at this moment.

Our family would stay at my Grandmother’s (Gran) for Rosh Hashanah and eat our meals there. My mother always made sure there was a new fruit at the table so that we could say the Shehecheyanu. The tradition is that it should be a fruit that you haven’t had in many months.

One year, the new fruit was a coconut. With the chaos of five kids and several meals, my mother didn’t realize that we didn’t have any way to open the coconut. One of my brothers decided it was a good idea to throw the coconut from my Gran’s balcony onto the busy street. The rest of us thought this was a great idea. One of us went out to the sidewalk to make sure there was no traffic coming to give the “OK.”  (About now, you may be wondering where our parents were at this time and I have no idea, but I am sure they were busy with something.)

“All clear!”

“One. Two. Three.”

BOUNCE with a thud and a roll into the street!

The coconut didn’t break! We couldn’t believe it. We were laughing and watching for traffic. I come from a very determined family, so we threw it back up to the second floor balcony and tried again two more times with the same result. On the fourth time:

“All clear!”

“One. Two. Three.”

CRACK!

We did it! The coconut broke open into several sections. I don’t remember how we cut it up but I assume it involved some sharp knives and minimal supervision. Our parents may have been paying attention at this point but thought the whole scene was clever and funny. When we sat down for dinner, we said our Shehecheyanu blessing giggling and smiling the whole time. I’m not sure if Gran knew what we had done but she never said anything.

Every year after this inaugural event, my mother bought a coconut. Each year we hurled it off the balcony, laughing while watching for traffic. I love this memory and so do my four siblings. It reminds us of family, holiday and custom. The Jewish holidays have some customs that you may think are a little wacky in our American culture but the wackiness is what creates the memories. My siblings and I all laugh at our respective homes when we eat our “first fruit” of the New Year…especially if someone has a coconut.

To this day, I must admit I really don’t like coconut. But I do try to make every Rosh Hashanah out of the ordinary in hope that it becomes an “extraordinary” memory for my family.

I wish you an extraordinary holiday season with many wonderful and wacky memories. Share your wackiest below!

Joyous Yom Kippur

I wasn’t expecting to find many (read: any) Yom Kippur parody music videos.

For better or worse, Yom Kippur is seen by many as a solemn, somber, serious holiday. Upbeat spoofs of top 40 songs don’t tend to match that theme.

But, and here’s the kicker, the Talmud (a canonical text of Judaism) actually describes Yom Kippur as the most joyous day of the year! Here’s what it says:

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says, “There were never happier days for the Jews like the fifteen of [the Hebrew month of] Av and Yom Kippur, for on those days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothing so that they should not embarrass those who did not own such. These dresses required immersion in a mikvah. The daughters of Jerusalem would go and dance in the vineyards and say, ‘young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose. Do not look for beauty, look for family as it is stated in Proverbs (31) ‘grace is deceitful and beauty is vain, a woman that is God fearing is to be praised’”…

Today, in some communities, people still honor this joyous tradition by wearing all white to synagogue on Yom Kippur. But for many of us, the haunting Kol Nidre service (Max Bruch’s arrangement for cello is played here), chanting the words of “who by fire, who by water” (as sung, in English, by Leonard Cohen), fasting for 25 hours and sitting in synagogue all those hours is far from joyous. So how might we see Yom Kippur as joyous this year? I polled some friends and colleagues and received these answers:

[list]
[*] – After fasting and asking for forgiveness, we are spiritually released from the strains of strife and pettiness – a cause for joy! [/*]
[*] – Our sins have been forgiven – of course it’s joyous![/*]
[*] – Having been sealed in the Book of Life for another year, we are optimistic and joyous![/*]
[*] – A favorite moment is when we dance during services on Yom Kippur, a custom I first found odd then came to love and look forward to each year. It comes at the point when I’m low energy from the fast, needing something to push me over the hump, and then we dance during the afternoon service and I’m back in there, reminded that the words in the prayers, my community, my religion can be – and is – joyous![/*][/list]

You might be a little puzzled at this point. Did he just mention dancing, during services, on Yom Kippur?!? Yes! Going back to that excerpt from the Talmud, the women would don their white dresses and dance on Yom Kippur. Some (admittedly, few and far between in North America) communities honor this tradition by dancing. The services I’ve attended that have included dancing put it during the afternoon Musaf service, during the Avodah section, to the Mareh Cohen (this tune, minus the accordion).

All of which is to say that Yom Kippur can indeed be a joyous day. In other words, this Lady Gaga parody is totally acceptable: 

[sub]Glossary: Hashem – literally “the name,” a name for God; Spock – his hand sign was actually taken from that of the ancient Israelite priests; Asseret Y'mei – Ten Days (of Repentance); T'shuvah – literally “return,” it means repentance; Tashlich – a service on Rosh Hashanah afternoon in which bread crumbs (symbolically representing our sins) are cast off into a body of moving water; Haba aleinu l'tova – it's up to us to do good; v'esarei, vacharamei, v'konamei, v'chinuyei, v'kinusei – first line of the opening chant on Kol Nidre. [/sub]

And, yes, I might just have pulled some Talmud out in order to post some Gaga…

Videos for Rosh Hashanah

If, like me, you’re nowhere near ready for Rosh Hashanah next week, and just need a fun way to get in the holiday mood… or you just want to have a little fun, hear some sweet tunes, and maybe learn a bit along the way… here are some Rosh Hashanah videos to enjoy.

Some are new (and going viral quickly!) others a bit older, but I think you’ll enjoy the selection.

A musical parody for Rosh Hashanah, based on “Waka Waka” (the World Cup 2010 song) by Shakira:

Another musical parody, based on Party Rock Anthem by LMFAO:

[sup](Glossary: fish head – a superstitious custom of eating fish heads at Rosh Hashanah to ensure wealth in the new year; shuckling - swaying while praying.)[/sup]

Todd & God: learning about the tradition of eating a new fruit on the second night of Rosh Hashanah:

Shofar Callin’, hip hop by Y-Love and the folks at Shemspeed, explaining some of the religious, biblical themes of the holiday:

The Maccabeats (remember their catchy Hanukkah song?) offer up Book of Good Life, a parody of Good Life by OneRepublic:

A story you can share with your family about an apple tree…

Want to get ready for hearing the shofar? JewishBoston.com has been blowing the shofar each day this month and posting the videos online (you might recognize this cute video starring our own Roni!). MyJewishLearning demonstrates the different shofar blasts. There was a shofar flash mob in Chicago at Wrigley Field.

And for those of you who like the Muppets and songs that get stuck in your head, Shana tovah!

A New Year With You In It Will Be Happy

My dear friend contacted me this past week and asked,

When you get some time in the next week, will you share with me some of your holiday traditions and things? I feel like I’m trying to build a Jewish family from basically scratch here, and need some help with ways to make  in terms of holidays, all my knowledge is liturgical and theological, and none of it is practical how-does-a-family celebrate kind of thing.

I immediately directed her to the Guide to the High Holidays for Interfaith Families that I wrote last year.

We’ve also published a lot of other pieces on the site with Rosh Hashanah customs, including several stories with recipes, including Recipes for a Happy Jewish New Year, which has a list of some of the foods traditionally eaten to symbolize a good year. I love Teresita Levy’s pieces for our site which always combine her Puerto Rican culinary heritage with her observant Judaism, and this one, Feliz Ano Nuevo has some great alternative New Year’s recipes. We also ran an article on Tunisian Jewish recipes for Rosh Hashanah.

I was glad to get a reminder from Amy Meltzer’s blog Homeshuling that I own the children’s book that tells how to make a Rosh Hashanah seder. Doesn’t that sound cool?

I think if I had to make a list of the customs of this season that don’t always make it into Jewish education, they would be:

–new clothes
–New Year’s cards
–symbolic foods with obscure Hebrew puns–beets for the win!
–honey cake
–other cakes and cookies, I don’t want to forget or diss any!
–fancy meals with relatives
–round hallah with raisins. My husband insists they must be yellow raisins. My mother says raisins “symbolize money.”
–apologizing to people for hurts done in the past year in the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur
–visiting the cemetery between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and lighting a yahrzeit candle before the holidays if you are going to memorial services

Can you think of any that I missed? Any that you think a person who is new to the holiday would like to know?

If you are new to a Jewish family or to Judaism, this is a good time to bring insights from your past into your future together. That’s not just food (though of course, Jewish people want your unique cake recipes.) No, this is really the time to bring yourself to the table.

Ahoy Mateys

I know there aren’t many people who are terribly worried about this, but I am deeply amused that this year, Talk Like a Pirate Day falls on the first day of Rosh HaShanah.

“Shiver me timbers, it’s time to sing Avinu Malkenu and blow the shofar, mateys! Arrrrrr, me hearties, if you don’t pass me the teiglach, I’ll make ye walk the plank! Smartly with the grog, me beauties, ’tis kiddush we’ll be havin’!  L’Shanah Tovah! Arrrrr!”

My husband doesn’t think this is funny. 

(I know, we won’t be blowing the shofar or singing Avinu Malkenu this year on the first day of Rosh HaShanah, because it falls on Shabbat. But would a pirate know that?)