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?)

Survey: 60% of Progressive Rabbis Officiate

Sixty percent of rabbis at Reform, Reconstructionist, Jewish Renewal and unaffiliated congregations officiate at interfaith weddings, according to a new transdenominational survey by Dr. Caryn Aviv and Dr. Steven Cohen, reports JTA.

I haven’t seen the survey yet–it only was presented yesterday as part of a conference on best practices for engaging LGBT Jews–but if that number is correct, then it’s an astonishing development. The only comparable historical survey I know of is a 12-year-old rabbinic survey conducted by the Jewish Outreach Institute. That 1997 study showed that only 20 percent of rabbis across the denominations officiated at interfaith weddings, and even among the Reform rabbinate, only 36 percent officiated (although 85 percent of Reconstructionist rabbis did). Those numbers aren’t directly comparable to the reported number from the new study since the new study aggregates rabbis across several movements. But my guess is that officiation numbers are up across the board within movements that permit officiation at interfaith weddings.

The new survey polled 1,221 North American rabbis, synagogue directors and presidents in attempt to learn about how synagogues approach and engage gay and lesbian Jews. Among the other reported numbers: 73 percent of these leaders felt their synagogue did a good job welcoming gay and lesbian Jews; 33 percent said they held programs explicitly for gay people; 73 percent of synagogues had rabbis who officiated at same-sex ceremonies; and 47 percent of synagogue leaders said their attitudes toward gays and lesbians had become more favorable over the last decade.

I will let you know more once I get my hands on the report, but early signs suggest that the research will show that synagogues have become more welcoming towards gays and lesbians AND interfaith couples over the last decade. That’s a welcome development.

The Rap on Rent-a-Rabbis

Independent rabbis without congregations get a bad rap. There seems to be a general cultural assumption that unless you have a congregation–or you’re famous, the great reprieve of American culture–you are somehow not a “real” rabbi. Somehow the fact that a small group of volunteer leaders at a synagogue decided to pay you a salary confers more legitimacy on you than if you write, do freelance projects and travel the country to officiate at weddings and other life cycle events.

An otherwise quite thoughtful article in the Baltimore Jewish Times about changing attitudes toward intermarriage in the religious movements is marred by this prejudice:

Rabbi [Bradd] Boxman arrived at Har Sinai in 2003. Up until then, he had not officiated at a single interfaith ceremony. He had been thinking about it and, he felt, if he were going to make a change, this would be a good time.

Continue reading

The Associated Press and Officiation

Associated Press religion writer Rachel Zoll recently wrote an article about
the difficulties interfaith couples can face trying to find a rabbi to
officiate at their wedding. She gives examples of rabbis whose status as
rabbis is questionable, who do not respect Jewish tradition in the weddings
they conduct, and who charge unreasonable fees for their services.

Rabbi Lev Baesh and I were interviewed and photographed for the article. We
told her that there is a trend for more and more legitimate and respected
rabbis who do respect Jewish tradition to officiate at intermarriages
without charging unreasonable fees.
Continue reading

Ay, There’s the Snub

Leave it to Julie Wiener of The Jewish Week to come up with an original take on Noah Feldman’s The Orthodox Paradox.

Rather than use her column as an opportunity to critique or praise Feldman, she ponders the value of the snub–both Maimonides School’s snub of Feldman and Feldman’s snub of the school and the Modern Orthodox community. Does the snub work? Does it lead to a desired change in behavior, or does it just piss people off?

Wiener certainly leans toward the latter option. Feldman’s case provides a double dose of evidence that the snub doesn’t work: Feldman intermarried and was unashamed of his life decisions despite his exclusion from the announcement section of his day school’s alumni newsletter while the Modern Orthodox community has responded to Feldman’s essay not by reconsidering some of its policies but by counterattacking Feldman with often virulent force.
Continue reading

The Rising Tide on Officiation

Not to toot our own horn, but we appear to have tapped into something with the hiring of Rabbi Lev Baesh as the director of our Rabbinic Circle and rabbinic officiation referral service. Julie Wiener of The Jewish Week has written her most recent “In the Mix” column on the growing interest in officiation at intermarriages. At last year’s convention of Reform rabbis, Rabbi Jerome Davidson, of Temple Beth El in Long Island, advocated for the Reform rabbis’ association to change its position on officiation; currently its official line says that intermarriage “should be discouraged,” but leaves the decision on officiating to the discretion of individual rabbis.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Erica Greenbaum, a recent graduate of Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical seminary, recently completed her senior thesis on rabbinic officiation at intermarriage.

Rabbi Greenbaum, who is director of Jewish life at the Jewish Community Project Downtown in Lower Manhattan, says the research for her thesis was heartening overall.

“There continues to be a perception in some parts of the non-Reform community that any rabbi officiating at intermarriages is a shady character just doing it for the money,” she [says]. “That’s not a fair characterization. Certainly there are those people, but lots of rabbis on both sides are doing what they’re doing with a lot of integrity.”

Further, we’re aware of two studies in different stages that look at the impact of rabbinic officiation on Jewish involvement.

To all this, we say “Mazel tov!” We’ve long been of the opinion that the Jewish community is missing a golden opportunity to attract interfaith couples to Judaism through officiation at intermarriages. Nobody yet knows whether a rabbi’s involvement in an interfaith wedding makes it more likely for an interfaith couple to engage with Judaism, but it certainly can’t hurt. A rabbi’s involvement in an interfaith wedding gives a couple a personal, emotional connection to the Jewish community that they might otherwise not have. We have received numerous thank you notes from couples who we’ve helped find a Jewish officiant.

In the coming months, I suspect we will hear even more about this issue.