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I am a rabbi and I love Christmastime. I love the twinkling lights in the cool dark nights. I love listening to carolers sing of joy and hope as I sip my spiced cider or hot chocolate. I love that everyone greets each other more than any other time of the year. (I am, however, terrified of Santa Claus because of a run in with a mall Santa as a child.) And one of my favorite songs is “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” It’s not my favorite because of its religious theme, or even because of its references to snow (I’m an Arizona kid after all). It’s my favorite because it was my dad’s favorite.
Here’s a little backstory on my family: My dad converted to Judaism when he married his first wife, decades before I was born. All my life he was extremely committed to being Jewish and for the last several years of his life he was dedicated to Jewish study and worship at his local synagogue. But he sang that song like it was his personal anthem. We even had it playing on the stereo during the luncheon after his funeral. I’m pretty sure that was the first (and last) time his synagogue has had Christmas music playing at a funeral… and maybe the only time it’s ever played at any funeral in August. But it was his favorite, and now that it’s Christmastime again I’m hearing it on the radio every day and thinking of my dad.
This year the first night of Hanukkah falls on Christmas Eve. Some people are very excited about this since it means that for the first time in decades Hanukkah has similar “status” as Christmas. To some people it means that Jews still get to take advantage of Christmas shopping sales, which doesn’t happen when Hanukkah falls in November. But for some interfaith families it is a source of a lot of conflict.
When the holidays are separate on the calendar it is easier to separate their celebrations. For my family, it doesn’t matter that Hanukkah is on Christmas because Hanukkah is always on Thanksgiving for us. Growing up in a family that was geographically dispersed, Thanksgiving was the one weekend that we were all usually together. No matter when Hanukkah fell on the calendar, you could find us eating latkes and exchanging gifts on the Friday after Thanksgiving. In my family, Hanukkah was primarily about spending time with family, eating delicious food from family recipes, and presents.
To me, Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday from a religious perspective and does very little to define my Jewish identity. Which means that loving Christmastime does little to threaten my Jewish identity.
Because of my relationship with Hanukkah, when a friend recently asked me if it was OK for Jewish people to like Christmas movies and music, I chuckled thinking about my own annual tradition of watching “Elf” and my childhood memories of driving around town to see Christmas lights. And then I thought more closely about the question: IS it OK for Jewish people to like Christmas movies and music? What about lights? Trees?
As a Reform rabbi I do not feel it is my place to tell people what’s “OK” for them to do Jewishly. I do feel it’s my role to guide people along their path and offer expertise and opinions where appropriate. It is not my job to tell people not to listen to Christmas music, or not to have a tree or to keep kosher. It is my job to help people see how positive Jewish experience can impact your life and shape families’ lives.
When it comes to the winter holidays, there is so much more at play than religious beliefs. To one family Christmas music may symbolize songs of hope for a savior or faith in God. To another family it may symbolize beautiful melodies and joyful tunes. To me, it reminds me of my father who sung those songs with a huge smile and especially now that he’s gone, I want to listen to that music to remind me of him. I spoke with an interfaith family recently whose kids identify as Jewish, and who have a tree to honor one parent’s family tradition. They feel no guilt and they do not feel that having a tree in any way compromises their Jewish identity, but rather that it helps them represent their entire family.
Meanwhile, I hear rabbis and others tell scary tales of Christmas trees leading to diminishing Jewish communities and threatening Jewish identity. I’ve heard the sermons from rabbis who are committed to the survival of the Jewish people. I’ve read the articles describing how Jewish families (or interfaith families) having a Christmas tree is a threat to Jewish identity. I understand the argument that Jewish identity is important and the survival of Jewish community is essential. However, I believe that when many of our families are already embracing the tradition of the Christmas tree, despite the best efforts of some to discourage it, the real threat to our Jewish community is the dismissal and judgment of these families.
I think that if our Jewishness is defined by a tree or a movie or a song, we need to rethink our religious identity and spend the rest of the year strengthening it. There is more to a religious identity than physical symbols. It is about a way of life, a set of values and a tradition, and the ways in which we enact that tradition.
On Sunday, January 10, 2016, InterfaithFamily/Atlanta hosted a fabulous open house at our new office space in Ponce City Market. Over 100 Atlantans celebrated with us as we blessed our new home. After reciting the Shehecheyanu prayer, guests shared their blessings for IFF/ATL and our board member, Rebecca Hoelting, hung our new mezuzah from Atlanta’s own Modern Tribe Jewish gift shop. We enjoyed music from the Pussywillows, thanks to the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival, ate delicious food from the markets in PCM, and hung out in our cool new gathering spaces like the meditation room, the green room with picnic tables, and a secret room that looks like the inside of Jeanie’s bottle. Everyone left with a florescent green Shalom Y’all tote bag full of goodies and IFF resources.
We are looking forward to more exciting events in 2016!!
This guest blog post is by my husband, Andrew Garnett-Cook
Recently, I went to see Phish, one of my favorite bands. Over the course of 20 years, I’ve been to many of their shows. I was first introduced to Phish while in college and, despite a long period where I virtually stopped listening to them, I still enjoy their music and the community that surrounded them.
One thing that one must understand about Phish is that there is a tribal quality to its fans and their love for, and knowledge of, Phish music. Within the Phish world, there are stories, legends, unspoken understandings and a profound sense of shared experience borne of years of having spent time following the band from place to place during their sometimes extensive tours.
Even more interesting is the relationship of the band to the music. Phish fans spend a great deal of time examining and scrutinizing Phish’s live music, dissecting jams and comparing them with some of the best versions of particular songs ever done live. Certain live versions of their songs are considered classics among the fans and are spoken of with reverence that might seem excessive to anyone not familiar with the world of Phish.
However, once you step even an inch outside the tribal world of Phish and its community of fans, songs that are instantly recognizable classics are virtual unknowns. How many of you have ever heard of “You Enjoy Myself”? Or “Down with Disease”? Or “Ghost”? These are to Phish fans what “Hey Jude” and “Stairway to Heaven” are to the larger world of fans of rock music.
In short, fans of Phish have a shared community united around a shared past, common experience, rituals and intimate knowledge of the band and its music, though all of these things are foreign to the outside world.
For me, this is not unlike Judaism. As someone who is not Jewish, but is married to a Jew, entering the Jewish world meant being exposed to a community who also have a shared past, common experiences, rituals and intimate knowledge of the language, practices and songs associated with religious gatherings. Like the person who is not a fan of Phish, these things would be unfamiliar to someone who is not Jewish and has never been exposed to that world.
The thing to remember is that both the world of Phish and the Jewish community are, in my experience, inviting and supportive communities. A newbie at a Phish concert would be welcomed warmly and some dedicated Phishhead would be all too happy to walk them through the history of each song. Likewise, for me, introduction to the Jewish world has been at the heart of a supportive community at our synagogue, led by a rabbi who has embraced interfaith couples and made them feel welcome in the community. Because of this, I have had time to relax, become familiar with Judaism and feel like the Jewish community is one to which I can contribute.
My advice to other interfaith couples? Even if something seems unfamiliar at first or inaccessible to you, do not conclude it must be so. Like entry into the world of Phish, entering into the world of Judaism and becoming comfortable in that world takes time, commitment and a willingness to be a little uncomfortable for a while. But, a good community will welcome you in and give you the time and space to find your way.
Psychology Today has an article on the December holidays, Deck the Halls for Chanukah, in their problem-solving section.
The author talks about growing up with a strong Jewish identity, but celebrating Christmas. (“Caroling in our New England town was a moving spiritual experience even for a young Jewish child.”)
Hanukkah Lovin’ Michelle Citrin is back with a new holiday tune of love and latkes. (And it features my super awesome red Hanukkah dreidel cardigan — I’m wearing it today!)
Eight Nights is a Hanukkah parody mashup of “Some Nights” by Fun, “Die Young” by Ke$ha, “Live While We’re Young” by One Direction. (Stand Four is former members of the Maccabeats, now with their own group.)
Shine is the new, original song from the Maccabeats, released today.
Fire Is in the Air comes from the Bible Raps team, connecting lighting the Hanukkah candles to fire to Torah.
Happy Hanukkah is new from Matisyahu (though not as catchy as his last Hanukkah song, Miracle).
Nice King Hanukkah Song is Jonathan Mann’s addition, part of his “make a new song every day” ongoing project. (This was the contribution for day #1428.)
Let’s Celebrate from Alexandra Kelly, who wrote this because growing up Jewish surrounded by Christmas, she felt Hanukkah songs were lacking.
But it’s not all music…
Puppet News: Hanukkah Edition interviews folks in Times Square about Hanukkah.
Rube Goldberg Machine from Technion (university in Tel Aviv), lighting the menorah with a robot.
In the Kitchen: Chanukah Sweet and Sour Cabbage Soup with Dill, teaming up with the chef/owner of the New England Soup Factory, JewishBoston.com shares a great soup to serve with latkes.
Dreidel: Understanding the Game is our new Hanukkah video, explaining the symbolism of the dreidel game and what the letters mean.
Y-Love Speaks Out for LGBT Inclusion in Jewish Community, using the light of Hanukkah as his launching point. (Turn on the closed captioning (the “cc” button at the bottom right of the video) if you want English subtitles as the video is in Yiddish.)
And, with a nod to our friends and family who celebrate Christmas, a video for you.
All I Want For Christmas Is YouAs a friend said, “It’s the second-best collaboration between Jimmy Fallon, The Roots, classroom instruments, and a solo female artist singing a well-known pop song!”
As many of you know, all the best Christmas songs were written by Jews. But what about Hanukkah songs? Many of us might be able to hum a few bars of Adam Sandler’s parody or “I Had a Little Dreidel,” but surely there must be more, right?
The Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation (I hadn’t heard of them either), has just announced the release of an album that will highlight both Christmas and Hanukkah music, but with a twist: it’s bringing listeners through the holidays’ dueling history.
I just listened to Dreidel, and was super impressed to find a Hanukkah tune that I hadn’t previously known.
The two disc album, ‘Twas the Night Before Hanukkah: The Musical Battle Between Christmas and the Festival of Lights, comes out November 15, and might be a fun way to lighten the December dilemma in our homes.
With a big thanks to our friend David at JewishBoston.com.
Our friends over at Jewish Holidays in a Box just posted this to their blog. And, because it’s now November 1, and, because there’s less than 6 weeks until Hanukkah, and, because the post is filled with great ideas for all sorts of families, we’ve decided to cross-post it here. (It was written by marketer/teacher/writer Ellen Zimmerman, who founded Jewish Holidays in a Box to support families who want to lead more joyous home holiday observances with less stress.) Enjoy!
Our expanding, diverse family just expanded again. Mazal tov to the newlyweds! So as each Jewish holiday rolls around, I wonder what this huge mix of ages, interests, and backgrounds might enjoy.
For the first time at Rosh Hashanah dinner, for example, we used Bugles (the salty, crunchy snack food) to pretend that we were blowing the shofar, through a series of tekiahs, shevarims, and teruahs. Everyone at the table, except the baby, played along.
One Passover, we wrote new lyrics to a popular tune (“You Are My Sunshine”) as a welcome-to-our-Seder song, then played it on banjo and guitar. We handed out song sheets, so everyone could sing along with us at what might have been the first-ever bluegrass Seder.
As you think about celebrating Hanukkah this year, what does your family care about most? And how can you draw on their talents and interests to create a rich, multi-textured holiday? Do you have:
There are endless ways to draw on their unique abilities – from simple, quickie projects to more complicated ones. In bringing them into the preparations through their passions, you add to the joy.
Hanukkah cookies, quick or fancy
If you have bakers in your group, find a recipe for classic Hanukkah sugar cookies or just slice some rounds from ready-to-bake cookie dough. To decorate, use blue and silver sprinkles, a mixture of cinnamon and sugar, or colored sugar.
Or use the fun and easy stained glass painting technique: mix egg yolk with a little water and add a few drops of food coloring to small batches of the yolk mixture. Provide new watercolor paint brushes for each bowl and watch the creativity bloom. After the cookies are painted, pop them into the oven.
Got ambitious and experienced bakers? Try making your own jelly-filled doughnuts, sufganiyot. (Try this yummy-sounding recipe for sufganiyot.) [For those of you who follow my blog, you’ll know that this is far above my current abilities. One day. Maybe.]
Capturing the moments
Ask family photographers and videographers to preserve holiday prep, candle lighting, and games. For example, budding videographers can capture, then edit a three-minute show featuring baking, table setting, drawing, and present wrapping. Invite them to present their show one evening after you light the candles.
We haven’t gotten organized enough to do this ourselves, but I want to start getting a group shot at family gatherings. The key is planning ahead to identify a place in the house where everyone can fit into the shot, get the camera and tripod ready, and review how to set the timer. Is the best moment at the beginning, before the flow of food and games and candles? Or with everyone surrounding platters of hot latkes, just before they’re served? If you have a technique that works for this, please share. I love the idea of taking an annual shot that becomes a Hanukkah history of your family.
Building with Legos and wood
Do you have a passion for woodworking and some tools? You can make your own wooden menorah. My husband experimented with a prototype using a piece of red oak, but you could make it from a piece of a 2 x 4. Here, he drilled holes for the nuts with a Forstner bit, then glued nuts into the holes. To create the shamash (the higher candle), he used a piece of 7/8-diameter wooden dowel. First, he drilled a 7/8” hole in the wood to hold the dowel, then glued in the dowel, and finally, drilled a hole in the top of the dowel for the nut. (NOTE: This prototype is far from perfect. And I apologize to my husband for showing it here. See how one of the holes cuts into the beveled edge? I didn’t, but he sure did. Still, you get the concept. He donated the other, more perfect menorahs he made to soldiers serving abroad.)
Want some other ideas? Just do an online search for “make your own menorah.”
Decorating for Hanukkah
All of these are ways to call out the artistic spirit of your family.
In our Hanukkah in a Box , we provide coloring pages, plus orange, blue, and white curling ribbons to make your home festive, as well as other decorating ideas. We also include Hanukkah napkins. Just dressing up your dinner table with these says, “It’s a party!”
In our Hanukkah Games Box , we have a menorah cut-and-color activity that little hands can color and “light” every night. There’s also a design-your-own banner that can end up a dramatic six-foot-long piece of art, suspended from ribbon. It can be decorated simply, just with crayons. Or it can be masterfully designed and layered with fabrics, buttons, glitter glue, holographic papers, origami, markers, or any other design tools that your artists prefer.
Musicians lead a songfest
If you are lucky enough to have singers or musicians in your midst, you can do a little advance prep and get them a CD of Hanukkah songs or sheet music. Music teachers will often help recommend music at the right level of complexity. Or explore www.jewishmusic.com. I’ve purchased some of my favorite books of Jewish and Israeli music from them, like “Harvest of Jewish Song” and “The Ultimate Jewish Piano Book.”
Your musicians can then lead the group in singing the classic tunes and introduce you to new songs.
Got songwriters? Ask them to come up with new lyrics to a tune everyone knows or pen a whole new creation to unveil.
Bottom line: you can showcase many of the talents in your family to make this a DIY Hanukkah, filled with warmth and bright memories.
For more free holiday ideas, sign up at www.JewishHolidaysInABox.com.
As I heard the rhythmic song begin its first beat, I knew this song was not going to be funny or clever. This morning, Howard Stern introduced his listeners on SiriusXM 100 to an anti-Semitic song created by pseudo-celebrity Andy Dick. Howard Stern, who often jokes on the radio about being “half-Jewish,” is actually the child of two Jewish parents, Ben and Ray Stern. Stern has been doing an outstanding job of defending against the anti-Semitism that Andy Dick has been spouting all over the airwaves. In an interview several weeks back, Dick ranted and raved about his distaste for Jewish people, and how he felt as if Stern only hired Jewish people. He also referred to Stern as a “shallow, money-grubbing Jew.”
While Stern has allowed callers to call him a “hook-nosed Jew bastard” and other derogatory terms, he seems to uphold the philosophy that if you are going to make fun of someone, then make fun of everyone. But with Andy Dick, it’s different. His anti-Semitism is spiteful and anything but funny. It’s personal.
Andy’s song, entitled “The Jews are out to get you,” includes the lyrics: Go home Jews, Hitler’s after you… Hitler’s hanging out in the shadows… he’s looking for you.
There is one good thing: Andy has pulled the song from his personal website. The bad thing – you can still listen to it here (warning: you may find this song offensive; Benjamin and I sure did):
I can’t wait to continue to listen to Stern defend Judaism.
It’s been a while since I’ve rounded up some favorite links, but what better excuse than Passover? There’s something for everybody!
Let’s start with Passover and Easter in a Box. For your convenience, you can now get Passover standards (matzah, a seder plate and grape juice) packaged with Easter treats (candy, chocolate bunnies and Easter cookies).
Sweets aren’t your thing? Is that skewed a little young for your tastes? There’s always the Sipping Seder, a seder in cocktail form! If this isn’t a great way to introduce Passover to your friends and family (of legal age), I don’t know what is.
Looking for the 2011 version of the Passover story? Check out this video:
This year we found a great crop of Haggadahs for all tastes and styles:
Following her recent post on religion, exploration and making Passover kid-friendly, Galit Breen has blogged about more ways to make Passover fun for kids.
My buddies at JewishBoston.com are to blame (or be thanked) for this punk seder cover song:
That’s it for now…. Enjoy!
Justin felt that if it was something that Jesus would have said, he wanted to say it as well. (-Jewlicious)
We’re talking, of course, about Justin Bieber saying the Shema before each of his concerts.
But the Biebs isn’t Jewish. His mother, a single parent, is an Evangelical Christian. Before concerts, Bieber and his crew would form a prayer circle. His manager, “Scooter” Braun, and his music director, Dan Kanter, are Jewish.
Bieber’s mother, Pattie Mallette, is a single parent and a devout evangelical Christian. She would lead the prayers, which would end, “In Jesus’ name, Amen.” Scooter, an alumnus of Camp Ramah, along with Bieber’s music director, Dan Kanter, are Jewish; and they decided to add in their own prayer to the circles, the Shema.
If you have a ‘tween girl in your life, or, really, pay attention to the media at all, you know that Bieber’s movie, Never Say Never, opened this weekend. In it,
Bieber is seen reciting the “Shema” prayer in Hebrew prior to the big concert, but the sound is drowned out, and only the most astute listener would be able to figure out what is being said. This scene actually ended up on the “cutting room floor,” but was reinserted into the film at the request of Justin’s mother.
And it’s not just Braun and Kanter reciting it:
By their third pre-concert prayer circle, Justin added his voice to Braun’s and Kanter’s prayer as well. Shocked, Braun asked Justin how he knew the Shema.
Having already cribbed this blog post from Jewlicious rather heavily, I’ll leave you with this final excerpt:
Justin replied that he had looked it up online and memorized it. Justin felt that if it was something that Jesus would have said, he wanted to say it as well. It would also connect him more to his manager. Braun, one of the teen idol’s de facto parents and father figures, explained to him what the prayer meant, the oneness of the Lord, and its centrality to modern Jewish worship. Thus began the tradition of Justin reciting the Shema prior to going on stage. (Of course, one can quibble and argue that in the year zero CE, prayer books were not in use and the order of personal prayers differed from the modern selections and patterns. But who am I to quibble?)
And, for fun, check out the Biebs joining forces with Kanter at Kanter’s wedding in Toronto (Oct. 2010):
And, if that wasn’t enough…