This booklet explains the history of Hanukkah, the symbolism and significance of lighting candles for eight nights, the blessings that accompany the lighting of the candles, the holiday's foods, the game of dreidels, and more!
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A question was asked on Ask a Rabbi, a project of JewishBoston.com. Quite simply put, “Is there anything in Jewish tradition about losing baby teeth? Prayers, folk stories or customs? My 6-year-old wanted to know if there is a Jewish tooth fairy.”
Great question. When I think of the Tooth Fairy, I associate her/him/zir with Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny. Very firmly, to me they live in the realm of Things That Do Not Exist.
A good friend of mine was raised in a lapsed Christian home. Her family celebrated holidays, but mostly Christmas (Santa) and Easter (Mr. Bunny). Even as a kid, she knew that this wasn’t a religious approach; when asked her religion, she replied they were Commercialists. When we were housemates, and she was about to have her wisdom teeth removed, her mother called me to explain the inner workings of their family’s Tooth Fairy beliefs and practices. As her parents were not local, it would fall to me to supply the money ($20/molar!) and a note (dictated by her mother – er, the Tooth Fairy herself). Even as a 20something, my friend maintained her pretend belief in the Tooth Fairy, Santa and the Easter Bunny. (Don’t get me started on the treats I had to leave out for her the year we were traveling abroad during chol ha’moed Passover [the middle days of Passover] and Easter!) The three characters were a core of her family’s not-so-religious practice. As such, I’ve come to associate the Tooth Fairy as being Christian (even if a lapsed Christian).
Given my belief that a pretend character is not Jewish, I was rather impressed with the answer Rabbi Toba Spitzer of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek gave:
While many cultures have different traditions about losing baby teeth, Judaism has not traditionally marked this childhood experience. However, that wouldn’t necessarily imply that there is no Jewish tooth fairy. If in fact multiple tooth fairies carry out this particular duty, it seems reasonable to assume that among the multitudes of tooth fairies visiting children around America, at least a few are Jewish!
From my own experience, I have learned that Jewish tooth fairies do not appreciate skepticism. My mother recently showed me an exchange of notes that I had with the Tooth Fairy when I was about eight years old. Apparently I had been heard to doubt the Tooth Fairy’s existence, the result being that no money was left under my pillow, in its place a note chastising me for my disbelief. I then had to write a note in response, professing my sincere conviction that the Tooth Fairy did indeed exist. Apparently that did the trick, as the exchange ended, and I got my quarter (and a complete set of adult teeth). From this I would surmise that it is entirely possible to engage — and perhaps even bargain with — the Jewish tooth fairy, and that, in good Jewish form, dialogue and debate are always encouraged.
If you are seeking a new Jewish ritual around losing baby teeth, I encourage you to visit Ritualwell.org, a wonderful source of contemporary rituals and resources for all manner of life cycle events. There you’ll find a few suggestions for blessings and related practices to make the moment of losing a tooth an opportunity to instill Jewish values.
Maybe my friend’s upbringing was more religious than I’d thought…
A few interesting articles crossed my desk this morning, all about Passover.
The Four Questions
The Four Questions hold a central spot in the Passoverseder. Why is this night different from other nights? Reform Judaism, the magazine for the named denomination, asks in its spring issue, “What’s your favorite language for reciting the first question?” They include 20 examples of that first question asked in different languages, from Phoenician to Thai to Klingon.
¿Por qué es diferente esta noche de todas las otras noches?
Qatlh pimlaw’ ramvan rammey latlh je?
I’ve signed the Four Questions before (both in ASL and LSQ) and recited them in French. Which languages does your family ask them in? Have you tried having each person at the table ask one of the questions in a language that they know? It’s an interesting way to make the questions both universal and accessible in new ways.
One view is that the plagues are “political allegory that is part of Exodus, the Israelites’ ‘birth of a nation’ story.” But that there weren’t ten, they didn’t happen in that order; there wasn’t this unnamed Pharaoh. Instead, the plagues represent the “systematic dismantling of the Egyptian socio-economic system, which was based on agriculture and the Nile.” In other words, they were formed so that the story is, “Our God brought Pharaoh of Egypt to its knees. That’s why we Israelites have the right to live independently.”
The opposing view could be summarized as more faithful. “Having not found proof of the plagues doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. It means the proof has not yet been found.”
“Are there acts of nature that can account for some of the plagues? Yes,” Rabbi Albert Gabbis, who lived in Egypt, says. “For example, the plague of blood in the Nile. We know that sometimes, the Nile turns red. When I was a child, I saw it with my own eyes. The rain brings the red clay from the mountains of Ethiopia into the Nile. But I would say this: In either case, the hand of God is there.”
Then there’s the confusing matter of kitniyot (legumes, corn, rice, soy/tofu, etc.). Last year, we offered a concise guide to Passover food guidelines via our pals at JewishBoston.com. This year, the Jewish Journal (greater Boston area) expands on that guide with Corn, Rice? Yes, No? – and some often contradictory answers:
Rabbi Baruch HaLevi of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott has advocated for the consumption of kitniyot on Passover for those who are comfortable with it.
“I believe in making Judaism more, not less accessible, and it makes Passover a heck of a lot easier if we can have corn products,” HaLevi said.
The important thing is that people understand the difference between a Jewish law and a custom. Chametz, like bread, is forbidden by Jewish law. Corn products depend on your custom, he said. Each year, he gets questions as people try to sort out the differences.
Rabbi Deborah Zuker of Temple Ner Tamid also receives questions, especially from people who visit Israel during Passover. She follows the Ashkenazic tradition of not consuming kitniyot.
“In Israel, you can find products marked ‘kosher for Pesach’ for people who eat kitniyot, but here we can’t know if the kitniyot have been mixed with wheat,” Zuker said.
She believes the Ashkenazic practices are old enough to be considered law in some communities, but added that different communities have different practices.
Dessert: the Afikomen
Not every seder is lucky enough to host Jake Gyllenhaal (sorry!), but you can enjoy his company for a few moments:
As far as “new thoughts” goes, this one might be a stretch. But come on – who doesn’t love Jake?
Hopefully some of these thoughts will help liven the discussions at your Passover seders this year!
Colbert introduced the segment – an interview with author Jonathan Safran Foer – with a joke that the only Jew in the audience chuckled at (a reference to the four questions).
But the interview itself was fun and included some good questions for the author of the New American Haggadah. Watch for yourself as they talk about the tradition of retelling the Exodus story each Passover, and what Safran Foer hopes people will experience with his new haggadah (hint: he hopes it makes you “feel” not just “read”).
Of course, Colbert being, well, Colbert, he couldn’t resist a jab or two: “You think you can improve on Moses?” He continued, “You got some matzah balls, buddy.”
What is Judaism? At first glance, this question seems simplistic. Judaism is, of course, a religion. Yet, what religion has its own language (Hebrew)? What religion has generated hundreds of cookbooks? Well, we might say, Judaism is a culture. Culture, however, is an inherently vague word, and how does one create schools and synagogues around a culture? The truth is that Judaism does not fit into traditional sociological categories. It is a religion, a culture, a philosophy, and much more. Its many dimensions have made Judaism a subject of serious exploration in a variety of scholarly fields, including those centered on identity formation. Scholars and rabbis have sought to address the issue of what establishes and creates Jewish identity. What does it mean to be Jewish?
A recent volume brings together a variety of voices on this question. Edited by three eminent sociologists, and including essays from a variety of disciplines, Dynamic Belonging: Contemporary Jewish Collective Identities offers few answers. It does, however, offer some new insights into the contemporary Jewish community. For those of us who work with and in the field of interfaith families, we can take comfort in knowing that scholars better understand that Jewish identity does not fit in fixed categories. Marrying someone who is not Jewish, for example, does not mean a personno longer has a place in the Jewish community. Judaism, rather, has a deeply subjective aspect to it. It is not something externally imposed by a traditional authority. It is a faith, a people, an approach to life that we embrace, and through which we can find both personal meaning and vibrant community.
This view is not without opposition. Those who study the divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish communities, as well as differences between Jewish life in America and in Israel, have identified the issue of authority as a core tension. Many in the Orthodox community and in Israel identified Judaism as defined within a larger communal framework of authority. For Orthodoxy, that framework is Jewish life. For those in Israel, it is the Jewish national culture.
Those in America, and in non-Orthodox communities around the world, tend to see Judaism as an autonomously chosen way of life. It is something more fluid than fixed. It changes and evolves over time, and we look at differently depending on where we are in the journey of our lives. WE are our own primary authorities.
Both approaches have their dangers. For those in the camp of communal authority, Judaism can easily become frozen. It can appeal to a smaller and smaller subculture of the Jewish world. For those in the individualist camp, Judaism can become so subjective that we lose any sense of boundaries or communal cohesion.
These are questions we address every day. This book helps us understand and appreciate our own story.
In speaking to the community’s sense of “reverence” and “faith in God,” she said,
“The power of God in your life… the sense of honoring that with the – what is it, the word that starts with an M, when you come in-?”
The Chabad rabbi offers the word for her, “Mezuzah.” She continued,
“Mezuzah. When you come in the door. The sense of reverence for acknowledging that there is something, not just something but the power of God, that is greater than yourself, that we’re all here in service of that, is what I think has endured [in Jewish communities over the ages].”
“In the [family's] home, they had a mezuzah in their doorway. And I love the very idea of a reminder every time you walk into the space, walk through the doorway, you touch it and are reminded that this isn’t just my home, it belongs to God. One of the things I’m always trying to do is to get people to look inward and to discover the path for themselves that they need….”
Oprah, if you think your path needs a mezuzah as a reminder of a greater good, of God, of sacred space, I’d be happy to show you how to affix one to your home’s doors. Call me anytime.
Among the many decisions involved in raising children, how to educate them is one of the crucial ones. It will influence their growth – intellectually as well as socially and morally. It will also orient them toward a certain set of values, identity, skills, and sense of community.
For Jewish parents, there is an additional layer of consideration in educational decisions: how to ensure your children grow up with a Jewish sense of values, identity, skills, and sense of community.
Jewish day schools of all types – Orthodox as well as Reform, Conservative, and community day schools – provide one answer to this conundrum of how to raise kids Jewishly. Non-Orthodox parents have a wide array of choices and factors in choosing schools for their children. They consider geography, finances, culture, math and science excellence, arts options, plus Hebrew School on top of a public school education.
The conversation is not just for Jewish parents, but intermarried couples too. How does a Jewish education, be it day school or supplemental/after-school/weekend Hebrew or religious School factor in? Why have the conversation? Their blog post continues:
[T]he AVI CHAI and Steinhardt foundations are wondering how to make day school an option that rises farther to the top for more non-Orthodox families.
What would convince more non-Orthodox parents to decide in favor of day school? Is it an issue of a need to boost the schools’ image to align it with what the parents are already searching for to instill their children with Jewish identity? Is it a problem of marketing and reaching the target audience most likely to sign up? What ways are there to take advantage of existing trends, social networks, or current day school constituencies in recruitment efforts? Are there incentives that would be meaningful?
This blog post kicks off an exciting thought experiment. We are asking you, our readers, and people across the social web, to answer the question: What would make day schools more attractive to non-Orthodox parents? More specifically, without changing the core educational program, what characteristics, features, selling points, functions, additional program offerings, or other ideas do you have that could make day school an attractive independent school choice for non-Orthodox parents?
Do you have ideas that could influence parents’ decisions on these questions – from your own experiences as a parent making them, as a child who was influenced by them, or as someone simply interested in issues of Jewish education? What strategies do you think will work? Please respond here on this blog, on your own blog, or in the AVI CHAI Facebook page.
I suspect the interfaith community has a lot to suggest here. Did you decide to send your kids to a Jewish school? Why or why not? What factors went into your decision? If you decided against a Jewish day school, what factors would change your decision? And, specific to our community, did you find day schools to be welcoming of your interfaith family? Was the non-Jewish parent welcomed into the school, when touring campus, while meeting faculty?
InterfaithFamily/Chicago co-lead the Community Foundation for Jewish Education (CFJE) Principal’s Kallah on Sunday and Monday, January 29 and 30. About 20 Chicagoland Jewish educators (including directors of lifelong learning, religious school principals and early childhood directors) from the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative denominations gathered at the Schaumburg Hyatt Place on Sunday evening. Anita Diamant was the key-note speaker; she spoke about the American Jewish family in the 21st century. She taught us about the growth in number of conversions to Judaism. Did you know that the rate of conversions to Judaism has not been this high since 500 C.E.? She talked about how the rabbinic codes and laws concerning conversion were written at that time to be open and welcoming.
Today, American Jews are so successful and assimilated into every aspect of American culture (including the outspoken and proud Jon Stewart), that marrying someone Jewish seems like a realistic and wonderful choice for someone who grew up a different religion and is not practicing, or even for someone who still practices another religion. American Judaism is open, flexible, adaptable, and so young couples think intermarriage “works.”
She said that it is now statistically normative to be intermarried, which is a powerful statement with many ramifications. She spoke about how labels can impact our sense of identity. She said at the end that she is optimistic about the future of American Judaism and wouldn’t want to live at any other time than now.
On Monday, Karen Kushner (who lives and works in San Francisco) and I ran three workshops for the Kallah participants.
The first workshop involved getting to know each other and starting to think about the most welcoming language for synagogue membership forms. Filling in a form should leave one with the feeling that this synagogue is inclusive and respectful of all backgrounds. All of the educators at our conference said that they work with interfaith families. Many said that they were sure they had students in their classes who felt that they were “half and half” or confused about their religious identity. Many affirmed that they have children from interfaith homes who feel proud to be Jewish, love their family and feel whole and secure. So, we spoke about how interfaith families come through our doors with different needs, issues, desires, backgrounds, questions and more.
It was so interesting for the educators to take a good look at their own congregation’s website and their school forms. Many confessed that they hadn’t read through the language in quite some time and were either pleasantly surprised by how inclusive their language was or turned off by the lack of specific mention that interfaith families are welcome in their community. We had the educators circle or highlight every Hebrew or Yiddish word on their forms, all “insider” language terms and references to synagogue lingo that some parents may not “get.” We debated if one should actually translate the words, “Shabbat,” “matzah” and “Torah” for example as “everyone knows what these words mean…” Interestingly, many may not know the origins of even these Hebrew words. For instance, Shabbat comes from the Hebrew word for rest; Torah has the same etymological root as horim and morim (parents and teachers) and means learning.
We ended Monday with a session on how children form a sense of self and gain a Jewish identity. We spoke about the challenges to having a “full” Jewish identity when a parent is bringing Christianity or another religion into the home.
We talked about how these issues aren’t black and white, but full of grays. For some, a Christmas tree or Easter egg hunt are purely secular, so adding these elements into a Jewish home doesn’t feel like they create theological problems. I see this, for example, when I meet with couples who are preparing for their weddings. I usually start by saying, “Tell me your life in a nutshell…” I sometimes ask myself what children growing up in interfaith homes will they tell their rabbi before they get married. Will s/he say that their Jewish story is that they grew up going to a temple, attended religious school, celebrated Jewish holidays in the home and that mom or dad also celebrated another religion’s holidays, and they occasionally went to church with family members but that they want a rabbi at their wedding because they feel a core inside connection to Judaism…? It will differ for each child.
We do know, however, how important a connection to a synagogue is. We do know how important it is to have positive, joy filled, meaningful Jewish experiences that touch the senses. These experiences stay with us, and we want our children to experience them too. This is how we pass on our values, our memories, and live with and through our children fully.
There was definitely a lot of discussion. Many people asked questions. Many answers, suggestions and opinions were shared. The most important thing is that 20 Chicagoland educators devoted two days from their hectic schedules – juggling childcare, work obligations and more – to think about the precious subject of the American Jewish family today and how we can best bring interfaith families into the tent of Jewish living. It was an honor to be part of such a workshop.
A video has been making the rounds that explores what Jewish identity can mean – maybe you’ve seen it on Facebook already. It took me a while to get past the opening montage; I’m not a fan of “Jewish” being tied to Holocaust imagery, and the song from Schindler’s List is a little heavy-handed. But I stuck with it and found it interesting.
Watch it through, and let me know: Were you to create a video, poem or rant about how you relate to Judaism as an individual, what would you say? How would it differ from Andrew Lustig’s (that’s him in the video)? Would you mention your interfaith family, extended family, being a Jew by choice?
A difference between Christians and Jews, one could say, is that Christians believe the Messiah came (you might have heard of him – a fellow named Jesus?), while Jews are still waiting for the Messiah. Over the years, this basic difference has become, amongst some sects, more confusing:
[list][*] – some Orthodox (Chabad or Lubavitch) Jews believe their late-rebbe is the messiah;[/*]
[*] – Jews for Jesus and other Messianic Jews usually identify themselves as Jews who believe in Jesus as Messiah and as part of the Trinity, though they are Christians.[/*][/list]
But, Messianic Jews and some Chabadniks/Lubavitchers aside, the broad distinction remains; Jews and Christians view the role and level of importance of Jesus, as it pertains to their own theology, quite differently.
Boteach said he regrets that Jews allowed Jesus “to be ripped away from them without even a fight.”
“We just accepted a Christian interpretation of his life and narrative,” he said. “One of the most influential people of all time is seen as a Christian who loved the Romans and said about the Jews that they are all the children of the devil.”
But “Christian ideas of Jesus as divine messiah emerged as a savvy adaptation following the destruction of the Second Temple,” Boteach explained. Once Jews understand that, he writes that they “can take inspiration from Jesus’ often beautiful ethical teachings and appreciate Jesus as a devoted Jewish son who became martyred while trying to lift the Roman yoke of oppression from his beloved people.”
The excerpt, from an interview with Ha’aretz, continues. Let me quote Shmarya Rosenberg of FailedMessiah.com:
Enter Jesus, the latest subject of Boteach’s ‘scholarship.’
Boteach is about to publish a new book called “Kosher Jesus.” To be sure, there is no shortage of hucksters and delusional messianic types writing books about the man-god, but most of those less than honest writers don’t command the media audience our slurping egomaniac does. That means Botech has the potential to do more good or, more likely, more harm, than they do.
Ha’aretz interviewed Boteach about his latest ‘scholarship’ which, Ha’aretz says, is based primarily on another non-expert, the late British author Hyam Maccoby. Maccoby’s works are based on outdated science and were rejected by scholars almost out of hand when they were originally published because Maccoby has a tendency to make the facts fit his theories rather than letting the facts shape his theories. And this bodes poorly for Boteach’s book.
That said, Ha’aretz reports that Jewish-Christian relations expert Rabbi Jeremy Rosen likes Boteach’s book, so perhaps Boteach has managed to avoid doing any serious damage.
On the other hand, Alan Dershowitz endorses the book (but not necessarily its content) and the unber-crazy, uber-irresponsible hard right radio show host Glenn Beck endorses it. Make of this what you will.
Here’s some of what King Shmuley the Self-Anointed told Ha’aretz:
“This book is telling the Jews to reclaim Jesus, the authentic Jesus, the historical Jesus, the Jewish Jesus” and to be inspired by his “beautiful” teachings, the U.S.-born author and TV show host told Anglo File this week in Jerusalem. “It’s asking Christians to make an effort to enrich their Christianity through an understanding of the Jewishness of Jesus.”
“Suddenly we have evangelical Christians emerging as the foremost supporters of the state of Israel,” he said. “We have this political alliance. What is a lacking is a theological bridge.”
“Christians don’t know the Jewish Jesus,” Boteach continued. “They know the Christ-divinity but not the Jewish man Jesus. There’s a need to discover the humanity of Jesus.”
“Kosher Jesus” amalgamates research (mostly by Hyam Maccoby ) which suggests that the gospels give the wrong impression of Jesus. “There was a lot of embellishment and editing,” Boteach said. “We have to remember Paul [the apostle] never met Jesus. He cannot offer us a first-hand account of Jesus’ life.”
Christian scripture “doesn’t add up” when it portray Jesus as a self-hating Jew, or when it lists sins that allegedly led Jews to condemn him, Boteach said. Jesus never declared himself God or meant to abolish Jewish law, he asserts.
And the fact that Jesus thought of himself as the messiah shouldn’t bother Jews, he insists: “I could declare myself the messiah right now. There’s nothing blasphemous about this,” Boteach said. “I even encourage people to have a certain messianic tendency in their lives, a desire to redeem the world.”
The article notes that Elana is best known for is coordinating outreach programs specifically for interfaith families and couples. Elana is quoted as saying, “One of the great challenges and opportunities of the current and future Jewish community is to provide a warm and welcoming environment for interfaith families and extended family members who aren’t Jewish… Interfaith families are searching for ways to connect with the Jewish community and Judaism in ways that are comfortable as well as meaningful.”
Jewish communities don’t often enough single out for praise people working to engage interfaith families in Jewish life and community. It’s significant that both the Hartford federation president and JCC executive director sing Elana’s praises in this article. And the honor couldn’t happen to a nicer and more dedicated and capable person. Congratulations!
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