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!
Romemu (roh·meh·moo) seeks to integrate body, mind, and soul in Jewish practice. This is a Judaism that will ignite your Spirit. We are a progressive, fully egalitarian community committed to tikkun olam, or social action, and to service that flows from an identification with the sacredness of all life.
“A Light Through the Ages” tells the meaning of Chanukah through story and song. With musicians from Zamir Chorale of Boston, Joshua Jacobson artistic director and original story by Rabbi Howard A. Berman of Central Reform Temple, this event concludes with a dramatic candle light ceremony. A festive reception follows.
A great way for Jewish professionals and volunteers who work with and provide programming for people in interfaith relationships to locate resources and trainings to build more welcome into their Jewish communities; connect with and learn from each other; and publicize and enhance their programs and services.
Last week, Linda K. Wertheimer wrote for the Huffington Post about how a local grocery chain warmed her heart with a grocery bag featuring a menorah and a Hanukkah greeting.Â Itâ€™s a lovely, warm piece about sharing the holiday spirit.Â And I had two responses â€“ first, an impulsive disappointment, as I remembered how I felt when my community â€śput a menorah on itâ€ť as a weak gesture to acknowledge differences.Â After reflecting for a moment, though, I think I get where Wertheimer is coming from, and I can see how her shopping bag can open a door to appreciation and hope.
Here’s an excerpt from the article:
“Then today it happened. The gesture was ever so simple. There, on one side of a local grocery store’s paper shopping bag was a picture of a menorah and the words, “The Wilson Farm Family Wishes Your Family Happy Chanukah!” On the other side of the bag, the greeting was “Happy Thanksgiving,” with a picture of a slice of pumpkin pie. Wilson’s, based in Lexington, a Boston suburb, is an old-style farmer’s market that grew into a large grocery store. They always have been careful to pay homage to Jewish holidays with Jewish-related foods, but I’ve never seen them put Hanukkah on a shopping bag.
Somewhat environmentally conscious, I had taken a reusable grocery bag to the store, but when I saw the Hanukkah bag, I couldn’t resist. I asked for one and gushed about how I couldn’t wait to show it to my 5-year-old son.”
Reaction # 1: Ugh
In her article, Wertheimer talks about feeling like her Jewish lens was invisible in the rural Ohio town where she grew up.Â My first elementary school was 3 miles from the supermarket in Lexington where Wertheimer got her shopping bag.Â 30 years ago, my Jewishness was just a smidge up from invisible in that community.Â In a school of about 300 kids, there were probably 7 Jews.Â Every December, the school erected a tall pine in the lobby, called a â€śholiday tree,â€ť and put a star on top of it. To decorate the tree, the school asked us 7 Jews to color in paper menorahs, as our friends sat beside us and chose from a variety of Christmas symbols for themselves.Â And in the sea of Christmas symbols on the tree, our 7 menorahs hung lacksidaisically, looking lonely and out of place.Â But the school had checked a multi-faith box, and this holiday tree would welcome our parents into the school for the annual â€śholiday show,â€ť a pageant of children performing skits about pine trees and angels and singing Christmas carols.
And that was the end of the story. Â Putting a menorah on the tree each December satisfied their need as a public school to acknowledge other religious traditions. Â With this childhood chip on my shoulder, for years I have bristled at the menorah amidst the Christmas decorations as a weak gesture towards understanding the richness of my faith.
Reaction # 2: Not so fast, Jessie
Fast forward those 30 years, and maybe I can see things a little bit more through Wertheimerâ€™s eyes.Â One of my favorite parts of her article is when she talks about putting â€śHappy Diwaliâ€ť on the shopping bag when the Hindi festival rolls around in late fall, and suggests that we use more opportunities to celebrate religious diversity.Â Maybe the storyline of the December dilemma could be more of a jumping off point, pushing us to open ourselves up and recognize the multitude of interesting, important, and often joyful holidays that happen for different religious groups throughout the year.Â What better way to build community than to focus a little more on the richness of each otherâ€™s cultures, in place of all of the disharmony and bad news delivered through the media every day?
Another thing hit me through the celebratory tone of Wertheimerâ€™s article.Â Iâ€™ve always been hung up on the idea that Hanukkah is a minor holiday, so trying to acknowledge it along with Christmas is a misaligned attempt â€“ why not give Christmas December but talk about Judaism in April when Passover arrives? But I think Iâ€™ve been focusing on the wrong thing.Â Hanukkah may be minor on the Jewish calendar, but it is beautiful. The lit Hanukkiah in the window makes the same gesture as the Christmas tree, to provide more light and invite warmth and cheer into our homes.Â As the days are getting shorter and the weather is getting colder, why not focus on every opportunity we have for more light?
So I think I say Thanks for the Hanukkah bag.Â What do you think?
Sammy, on a happier day, after winning his first tennis tournament
I had no intention of writing two posts on the High Holidays, but something happened the other day while playing tennis with Sammy that was in sync with the spirit of the season.
Sammy has been playing tennis since the age of four. He has progressed from group lessons to private lessons twice a week. He truly loves the sport and started to play competitively last year. His game has improved exponentially and there is no longer a need for Cameron and me to take a little off our strokes when we hit with him.
But while Sammy has become hard to beat, we are still bigger, stronger and more experienced. No matter how close the games are, more often than not, one of us is on the winning side. This is hard for Sammy. We donâ€™t care if we win, but Sammy has an intense desire to beat us.
When I was a kid I too wanted to beat my parents. Winning against them symbolized a kind of independence. It said I wasnâ€™t a baby; I was strong enough to beat an adult. So I understand Sammyâ€™s pursuit of victory. I just donâ€™t like it when the intensity with which he pursues his goal leads him down the path of unsportsmanlike behavior. This is what happened the other day.
Sammy had won the first set 6-2. I was up 2-0, 40-30 in the middle of the third game of the second set. I could see Sammyâ€™s frustration building at having easily given-up the first two games. Now I had the chance to take a 3-0 lead if I won the next point.
I served, he returned the ball and after a short rally he hit it out. Sammy didnâ€™t like the call but instead of asking if I was sure that the ball was out, he exploded, â€śThat ball was in!â€ť
â€śIt looked clearly out to me,â€ť I said. â€śIt landed in the green space behind the baseline.â€ť
â€śNo it didnâ€™t! It was in,â€ť he yelled. â€śYouâ€™re a cheater! You just called it out so you could win!â€ť
â€śSammy, Iâ€™m your mom. I love you. Why would I cheat?â€ť
â€śYou do cheat!â€ť he shouted before he started to serve the next game.
Â As I waited for his serve, I hoped that hitting the ball might help him work out his anger and frustration.
â€śZero serving three,â€ť he said. â€śBut it should be deuce!â€ť
â€śOut,â€ť I called when his serve landed wide.
â€śI donâ€™t even know why I play with you. You make me so frustrated. I hate you!â€ť Sammy screamed. This insult was followed by a cry of â€śUggh,â€ť as he fired his next serve.
The serve was a bullet and the force of the shot made me think that he was channeling his emotions into better play. But I was wrong. I soon saw that rather than raising his game he was spiraling into a complete meltdown. After I won the set, I suggested that we go home and continue the match the next day.
Sammy protested and I agreed to play more, but after the first game of the third set I decided I had enough of Sammyâ€™s unsportsmanlike behavior. The tantrum wasnâ€™t working itself out. It was time to set some boundaries.
â€śIâ€™m done,â€ť I said.
â€śIâ€™m tired of listening to you use hurtful language. Iâ€™m tired of you throwing your racquet and whacking the fence. Iâ€™m going home,â€ť I said in a calm, but stern voice as I picked up balls.
Sammy walked over, sat at the net, put his head in his hands and cried. I went over and sat too. â€śCan I give you a hug?â€ť I asked.
â€śNo! I donâ€™t deserve one,â€ť he mumbled.
â€śSometimes when weâ€™re angry and frustrated a hug is exactly what we deserve,â€ť I replied. â€śI may want to believe this because Iâ€™m your mother, but I donâ€™t think that you really meant what you said today. Your words and actions were your anger and frustration speaking.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m sorry,â€ť he sobbed.
â€śI know you are. Listen, Iâ€™m your mom. I love you. I will never cheat you. Iâ€™m also human and humans are flawed. Sometimes Iâ€™ll get the calls right and sometimes Iâ€™ll make mistakes â€“ just like you. But Iâ€™ll always try my best to make an honest call.â€ť
Sammy inched closer. We hugged. â€śIâ€™m really, really sorry,â€ť he said.
â€śI know. Sometimes we say things that we know are wrong or that we donâ€™t mean, but because we are so emotional we canâ€™t seem to stop the words from coming out. I know you didnâ€™t mean what you said. I forgive you.â€ť I gave Sammy a kiss and then said, â€śI love you â€“ always.â€ť
I didnâ€™t intend to make our tennis game a High Holiday teachable moment. It just happened to be a reminder that as we seek to return to wholeness we not only want Godâ€™s forgiveness, but also each otherâ€™s.Â
This year, we won the lottery. The school lottery. Â We were among the lucky few to win a coveted public pre-kindergarten slot for Ruthie, at one of our first choice schools, no less. This means that last week we celebrated Ruthieâ€™s last day of preschool, and with excitement and a twinge of nostalgia we will become an elementary school family in less than a week.
When I went to line up our fall calendars, I was faced with my first big school decision. Hopefully you have already realized that Rosh Hashanah comes very early this year. On Ruthieâ€™s second day at her new school. Transitions are not easy at four years old, and after months of preparing for school, of trying to get her excited about her new classroom, her school uniform and making new friends, it feels like an unfair jolt to her system to go through the routine for her first day only to break it up by pulling her out on her second. And I have thought a great deal about the possibility of dropping her off at school on the way to synagogue that day â€“ of not mentioning the holiday in the spirit of structure during a transitional time. After all, sheâ€™s nowhere near Bat Mitzvah age, and will spend her time at synagogue in childcare eating honey sticks and making a paper shofar.
As torn as I feel about breaking up her routine, however, she will miss that second day of school. Rosh Hashanah is important, as both a holiday and a time for our family to be together. Ultimately the observance and chance for reflection is more important than the bedtime difficulty the disruption will likely inspire. And in full disclosure, the thing that pushed me over the edge on this decision is the experience of navigating the holiday with my husband, and our annual holiday frustration.
Eric is very committed to raising the girls Jewishly, and began experimenting with observing the high holidays long before we were officially making a home together (like the year he secretly tried out fasting and didnâ€™t tell me until the grumpy 3-oâ€™clock hour rolled around). But for years we have hit a snafu in September. In the weeks before the holidays, we talk about our plans for them. Eric looks forward to services and family meals and the like. When the actual day of the holiday approaches, however, he realizes he has key a deadline the day after Rosh Hashanah, or an essential meeting the day of Yom Kippur, and he forgot about the conflicting dates. He scrambles last minute for what to do, sometimes giving his boss poor warning of his need to miss work and other times missing synagogue.
I inevitably get irked, disappointed, and say something unfair.
I used to blame his forgetting the date on his not caring about the holiday, or just not getting how important it was. Over time, though, Iâ€™ve come to understand that thatâ€™s not the story. It is a classic situation where the big things â€“ whether or not we want to celebrate a holiday together â€“ arenâ€™t whatâ€™s tripping us up â€“ itâ€™s the little things. The little thing here is that for over 30 years Eric didnâ€™t have to stay on top of an ever-changing lunar calendar to figure out when his holidays were. He didnâ€™t need to step out of â€śregularâ€ť life every fall for the holidays. His forgetting was never that he didnâ€™t want to, it was just that he never cultivated the habit. If we were going to be Jewish together, I needed to help him â€“ to let him know as soon as I saw the dates, and to remind him once or twice (or thrice).
As an American Jew, the high holidays have always felt a little more sacred to me because even though â€śregularâ€ť life is going on all around us, we are required to stop and do something different. It is a profound time to sit in the quiet space of silent prayer in the synagogue, or by the water outside, and think about being Jewish, about how to be better people, and about the miracle of God. I was never going to win a perfect attendance award at school, but I was going to get a few extra days with family, and a few extra shots at reflecting on how to be a better me. So I donâ€™t want Ruthie to have a year without that, even if sheâ€™s not old enough to truly get teshuvah (repentance). And I look forward to hanging that paper shofar up on refrigerator next to her first school art project.
I won't be asking for forgiveness for enjoying lobster rolls this summer.
As the High Holidays approach, Iâ€™ve thought a lot about the past year – my successes; my failures; the moments when Iâ€™ve been my best self and those when I havenâ€™t lived-up to who I want to be as a colleague, daughter, friend, mother, sister, spouse and Jew. As Iâ€™ve gone through this psychological housecleaning Iâ€™ve made note of the things big and small that I might want to repent for this year.
Iâ€™ve asked myself which transgressions will I seek forgiveness for and which ones are wellâ€¦minor infractions and not important. Does not observing Jewish dietary laws make the cut? What about walking past litter in a parking lot? Does God really care about what I eat or is the divine more interested in seeing me do a better job of caring for the earth?
As I contemplated these questions I was reminded of a conversation I had with Sammy during Passover. The holiday fell during his spring break. We were on vacation and were not being mindful of the holidayâ€™s food restrictions. Sammy said, â€śWeâ€™ve been really bad at keeping Passover this year.â€ť
â€śYouâ€™re right,â€ť I said. â€śSome years Iâ€™m good at making sure we keep it, and others years Iâ€™m not. Itâ€™s always easier when weâ€™re home. Since weâ€™re away Iâ€™ve let it go. I think God will forgive us.â€ť
â€śI donâ€™t think God cares,â€ť replied Sammy. â€śI donâ€™t think God cares about what we eat. I mean, God wants us to eat healthy food but I donâ€™t think God cares if we keep kosher or keep Passover. God cares about important things like not hurting people, not making fun of people and treating people fairly.â€ť
At the time of the conversation and again as I replayed it in my mind I thought Sammy has a point â€“ eating matzah instead of bread on Passover wonâ€™t repair the world, but showing compassion and gratitude, and honoring others can go a long way to making our society better.
Then I found an article, â€śA Universal Explanation for Religious Atheists,â€ť that I had torn out of the paper back in July. Written by Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald, it is a conversation between the author and God about atheists and the concept of a godless â€śuniversal spirit.â€ť Pitts asks God if the idea of a universal spirit bothers him to which God replies no. God then says, â€śIâ€™ve been called worse. Besides have you seen the things some religious people do, supposedly in my name? They blow things up in the name of God. They stone women in the name of God. They fight in the name of God. They hate in the name of Godâ€¦ I wish, more often they would hug in the name of God. Serve in the name of God. Heal in the name of God. Make peace in the name of God.â€ť
After re-reading Pittsâ€™ column I felt that he was making a similar point to Sammy â€“ care about the things that are truly important, the things that have the ability to make the world a better place. Donâ€™t sweat the small stuff. Because while the small stuff can help us feel closer to God; more connected to our faith, traditions and history; and provide a way for remembering to hug, heal and serve, it can also if weâ€™re not careful, become more important than loving thy neighbor, honoring our elders and caring for the earth.
So as I finalize the list of things I will seek forgiveness for this year Iâ€™ve decided that my food transgressions will not be on it. I donâ€™t think God cares that I ate pizza on Passover or indulged in lobster rolls over summer vacation. But I do think God would like to see me acknowledge that I can do a better job honoring my mother and father, listening to my colleagues, showing patience with Sammy, controlling my temper in disagreements with Cameron and taking care of the environment.
Iâ€™d like to say that my family and I find our deepest spiritual connections in our synagogueâ€™s pews, but we donâ€™t. Thatâ€™s not to say we donâ€™t find any meaning and connection during traditional temple services, we do, itâ€™s just not necessarily divine.
My husband Cameron will tell you that for him this has nothing to do with the services being Jewish. He was never moved in a spiritual way during services at the Episcopal church of his childhood or during the ones he occasionally attended as a young adult living in the Czech Republic. But ask him how he feels about spending time on a lake or in the woods, and he will tell you how that is a different and special experience.
I feel much the same. Communal holiday and Shabbat services fill me with a sense of Jewish peoplehood and community, but not with the same awe, wonder and sense of a larger presence that I experience when spending time in nature.
For us, the outdoors is where we find God. We connect spiritually while sitting in a canoe on a crystal clear lake watching a bald eagle soar overhead, or gazing at the Milky Way and counting shooting stars during our summers in Maine, or on solitary kayaks, or from the summit of a mountain weâ€™ve climbed or watching the glow of a campfire.
Sammy seems to have inherited this spiritual connection to the outdoors from Cameron and me, and I suspect that being in nature and experiencing Shabbat outside at summer camp is part of what makes that experience so sacred.
Connecting spiritually at 11,000 feet in Breckenridge, CO
Nature is our pathway to connect with the divine, but itâ€™s not for others. In my extended family the â€śrightâ€ť way to find spirituality is inside the walls of a traditional religious institution. Itâ€™s OK to refer to a beautiful place as â€śGodâ€™s country,â€ť but for them God does not reside there. He, She, or It is found in a temple.
This difference makes for some very interesting conversations around our Shabbat table when my family comes to visit. Our different experiences and perspectives often lead to healthy debates about God and spirituality, which are, of course, part of finding God too. (See Genesis chapter 32 when Jacob wrestles with God.)
But while these are lively conversations, Cameron and I emphasize to Sammy that there is not one way to find spiritual connection. We want him to understand that whatever way he finds God â€“ be it on a mountaintop or in a building or while building Legosâ€“ itâ€™s the right way for him.
My family has a regular Shabbat observance. We either celebrate at home or attend our synagogueâ€™s family service and dinner. But while we religiously mark the Sabbath in Dallas, we are not very good about practicing this tradition when weâ€™re on vacation. In fact, when weâ€™re away we donâ€™t celebrate Shabbat at all.
My son Sammy keenly pointed out this fact during spring break. As we rode the chair lift to the top of a mountain in Colorado, he said, â€śMommy, its Friday.â€ť
â€śI know, one more day of skiing,â€ť I responded.
â€śNo, itâ€™s Friday,â€ť he said. â€śItâ€™s Shabbat!â€ť
â€śOh yeah,â€ť I said a little embarrassed that I had forgotten the significance of the day.
â€śHow are we going to celebrate?â€ť Sammy asked.
â€śWell, we donâ€™t have candles or matches and even if we did, I donâ€™t think itâ€™s safe to leave them burning in the hotel room while weâ€™re out or asleep,â€ť I answered. â€śWeâ€™ll celebrate next week when weâ€™re at home.â€ť
â€śWe can still say Shabbat Shalom,â€ť Sammy replied.
â€śYouâ€™re right, we can do that,â€ť I said.
â€śShabbat Shalom,â€ť we said together and gave each other a kiss.
It wasnâ€™t the most meaningful observance, but at least it was something.
After we got home and back into our regular Friday night routine I began to think about how we might maintain our ritual on vacation. I was motivated to find a way to do this before the start of our summer travels.
I knew packing candles and matches was out of the question since we would be flying, and buying Shabbat supplies at our destination would require too much effort. I wanted an easy and convenient solution. I wanted an app.
Now, I recognize that a Shabbat app is veryâ€¦un-Shabbat. Itâ€™s not exactly kosher to use an electronic device to mark a holiday on which you are meant to disconnect, but I decided to check my phoneâ€™s app store anyway. To my surprise, I found several options including iShabbat.
Our second vacation Shabbat was observed at Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island
I chose iShabbat because it was simple. It allowed me to â€ślightâ€ť the candles by dragging a â€śflameâ€ť to the wicks and provided the words for the blessing in Hebrew, English and transliteration. A selection of traditional melodies such as Adon Olom and Sholom Aleichem could be played in the background while the candles â€śburnedâ€ť over a two-hour period.
With app in hand we embarked on the first leg of our month-long vacation in mid-July. On a Friday night in Seattle we test-drove iShabbat in a park near Pike Place Market as we watched the sun set over Elliott Bay.
We opened the app, and Sammy lit the candles as we recited the blessing together. Then we played Sholom Aleichem and wished each other Shabbat Shalom as we took in the beautiful view. It was a meaningful way to mark our family tradition and ensure that we carry Shabbat with us on vacation.
My children believe in Christmas elves. And leprechauns. Â They also believe that there are little elves who live in our backyard. Last year when spring came, the elves moved in to our pine tree and set up a mini Adirondack chair, a white picket fence, and a miniature watering can outside. And they nailed a small 12-inch door into the tree trunk. Last weekend, while everyone was taking a nap, they left a little note on the counter announcing they were back and leading the kids on a scavenger hunt around the yard. These are our stretelech, Yiddish for magical little people.
My husband discovered the stories of stretelech at the Conference ofÂ American Jewish Educators conference after seeing David Arfa speak. Later he asked his Yiddish-speaking grandmother about them. She confirmed that as a child she was scared of the shtretelech. Like many fairy tale creatures over the past century, they have morphed from evil trolls into mischievous pranksters.
So who are these little Jewish elves? Apparently they live outside for most of the year, but relocate behind our stoves during the winter. Children are excellent at spotting stretelech in the woods, but adults have trouble identifying their tracks. Some stories identify them as musicians. Others as shoemakers.Â Â One Yiddish folk teller says the Elves and the Shoemaker story about the poor shoemaker who wakes one morning to find that someone has mysteriously made a pair of exquisite shoes, is a stretelech tale.
One of the things I really loved as a kid were fairy tale creatures. I remember chasing the end of a rainbow with a very real belief that there would be a pot of gold, guarded by a mischievous little leprechaun. Â And even though I never really believed in Christmas elves, I loved the idea of tiny people making toys and singing Christmas carols. So I was excited to learn about the stretelech, and since there is so little known about them, I could make their storyÂ whatever I wanted.Â I read (in the Encyclopedia Britannica) that Jewish fairy tales are â€śconspicuously absentâ€ť from Jewish legends, â€śbecause fairies, elves, and the like are foreign to the Jewish imagination, which prefers to populate the otherworld with angels and demons subservient to God.â€ť Well! This just isnâ€™t true, not when I know there are a group of stretelech who live in my backyard.
For a picture of what a stretelech might look like, click here. Otherwise, youâ€™ll have to search for one on your own.
The Jewish calendar year is described as a spiral. Â While we may return to the same point every year, hopefully we’re a bit wiser, more compassionate and understanding. Â How do we reach higher every year? Â By learning of course.
We can learn the hard way…through life’s tests and challenges. Â We can also learn the more gentler way. Â We can take a class, or read a book or listen to a lecture online. Â There are awesome ways to learn Torah online. Â The Torah gives us our foundation for life. It is through the lessons of the Torah we learn how to be good humans.
By learning we can prepare ourselves for life’s tests (and they are ongoing!). We may get angry when something happens, but then a light goes on. Â We stop ourselves a few seconds later, take a breath, maybe even recite a little prayer.
I have much to learn about life, and one of my night time prayers is that I live up to my potential and fulfill my life’s mission. Â I hope by learning, I will gain clarity.
What do you do to learn? Â Are you a student for life?
This post is part of Twitter’s @imabima’s list of writing prompts for the first two weeks of Nissan leading up to Passover.
My 4 year-old son’s BFF is a Christian boy named Connor. The two are not only inseparable; they have been in the same daycare class since 5 months of age.
I’ve been explaining to Oliver that Connor doesn’t celebrate Hanukkah. It’s been a fruitful conversation to talk about how we don’t share all of our holidays with some friends and family. Connor may not celebrate Hanukkah, but he does celebrate Christmas, and we want to be sure to wish Connor a Merry Christmas. So Oliver decided that he wanted to give Connor a Christmas gift, and he specifically wanted to make a Christmas ornament for Connor’s tree. So I pulled out some red felt, cut a large circle, and threaded a piece of silver ribbon through the top. “Ok,” I told him, “Now you have to decorate it.”
Oliver thought for about 10 seconds and then retrieved a marker and started drawing. The Christmas ornament has a giant blue menorah on it. Knowing Connor’s parents, they are going to be touched by Oliver’s Christmas ornament. And I’m sure they’ll hang it on their tree.
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