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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This year, we won the lottery. The school lottery. 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 Ruthie’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 Ruthie’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 – of not mentioning the holiday in the spirit of structure during a transitional time. After all, she’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 didn’t tell me until the grumpy 3-o’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, I’ve come to understand that that’s not the story. It is a classic situation where the big things – whether or not we want to celebrate a holiday together – aren’t what’s tripping us up – it’s the little things. The little thing here is that for over 30 years Eric didn’t have to stay on top of an ever-changing lunar calendar to figure out when his holidays were. He didn’t need to step out of “regular” life every fall for the holidays. His forgetting was never that he didn’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 – 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 “regular” 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 don’t want Ruthie to have a year without that, even if she’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.
When you are a mixed-faith couple, you loose the ability to assume from the get go. The question is not when we celebrate Yom Kippur, with whose family will we break fast? We need to start from more basic questions: Will we celebrate Yom Kippur? Will we both fast? And now that we have kids, how will we celebrate with our kids?
This inability to assume, and therefore the need to have an intention about our practice, is one of the greatest things about being from different faiths. In my marriage and co-parenting, I think this sometimes gives us a leg up, and its something that I wish was celebrated more.
When my husband and I were first thinking about marriage, we went to meet with a rabbi who ran a course for interfaith couples. Before he told us about the class, he asked us if we thought we’d have a Jewish home. We told him we thought so, but we hadn’t figured everything out yet. With this in mind, he recommended that rather than taking his interfaith class, we take his Intro to Judaism class, to figure out if we were going to be an interfaith family or a Jewish family (he had marriage classes for both).
So we took the class. It was a great class. We learned that we loved to study together. And the class triggered a long series of conversations, about what holidays we wanted to celebrate, and how, about how we imagined marking life cycle events, and, at the core, about what it meant that we would create a home and life together, a nuclear family that melded the two individual histories we brought to the coupledom.
[As an aside, InterfaithFamily has a great online workshop for interfaith couples called "Love & Religion" that you can learn more about here.]
This is where the “leg up” comes to bear. All pairings, whether you were raised next door to one another or in different countries, bring two separate perspectives on life to the table when they marry. In an interfaith pairing, the separation between the perspectives is pronounced, highlighted by the difference in two easy to identify components of family history. This can be a gift – a gift in that the differences shout out to us, and demand attention. For Eric and me, it meant the dialogue about how “he” and “I” would become “we” started before our engagement, before we were thrown into trying to make a wedding that was fun for everyone (it was!), building a home together, and raising kids. It demanded a way to talk about things, to identify difference, and to navigate it.
I’m not saying we’re perfect at it, but sometimes in same-faith couples, the differences are subtle, and they whisper until they need attention, often coming as a surprise. While our life together is not without our share of these surprises, I am thankful, particularly as we try to parent a 4-year-old who is as strong-willed and self-determined as I know I was at 4, that the interfaith dynamic of our relationship made negotiating differences a part of our life and commitment from day one.
Being interfaith is often talked about as a challenge, a barrier that separates you from the rest of the community. While I won’t deny the challenges, I think perhaps we have a few positive things we can teach to those who “in-marry.” Can you name some others?
My name is Jessie and I am very excited to have my very own blog on InterfaithFamily. My bio will tell you some of the following: I live in Boston with my charming husband and my two (fascinating, and almost always charming) daughters. I was raised in a Reform Jewish home, and my husband was raised Protestant. We are raising our children Jewish.
I look forward to sharing some thoughts about our life as a family for two reasons. One is because we are always retooling, reassessing and renewing our path, and I hope to explore that with others who might be doing the same. Second, I think that the fact that we were raised in two faiths has strengthened our relationship and spirituality, and is generally a plus – an often-unsung bonus of being “interfaith” (more on that in future posts, which I hope will be helpful to you).
Today, though, I wanted to start out by reflecting on this concept of being an interfaith family, something that I have been pondering for a few years now. Because of the two reasons I just described, I love the idea of blogging here. But I almost didn’t answer IFF’s call for bloggers, because after 8 years of marriage, interfaith doesn’t fit right for me.
In common definition, I guess “interfaith” is a category we inhabit, but it doesn’t feel like it tells our story. Eric and I agreed early on that as parents that it was our responsibility to choose one religion, and to partner in weaving that tradition into our family life (something I also hope to talk about with you). So we are Jewish, but of course nothing is straightforward.
I think the best explanation of my family is that we are a Jewish home in a loving multi-faith family. I am lucky that my husband and I have come from two great families with strong values and dedication to being families, and maintaining those connections has always been at the forefront of our decision-making. Our extended family includes a multitude of spiritual practices, both within Judaism (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox), and Christianity (Episcopal, Presbyterian, Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Christian). We have family members who don’t practice any religion. And we have some family members who practice more than one faith in their home. So the bottom line is that we deal with lots of questions that are often categorized as “interfaith,” but I don’t use that term for my nuclear family.
Because our story is multi-layered (whose isn’t?), so is my goal for my children. I hope that they will grow up as Jews with a deep respect and curiosity about the faiths of our family members, an ability to help grandparents and cousins and friends celebrate religious holidays with joy, and an understanding that all people of faith are struggling with the same questions – what it means to be a good person, how to find purpose in life, and how to connect with others. I’m looking forward to reflecting on that with you.
There’s something about that age, for my kids, anyway. Three is where they start to get a concept of God – and I find it absolutely magical.
When Jessica Mary was three, she was so fascinated by the concept of God that I started looking much more seriously at Judaism, because I wanted a strong religious foundation for her. There was no Church of Melissa that I could send her to for formal instruction, and when I looked at raising her in my spiritual tradition or Marc’s – Marc’s was the clear winner. On the theological bones of it, Judaism was such an easy fit for my beliefs – and Judaism had the added bonus of already having a huge community waiting to welcome her. She loved the rituals, lighting the candles and making the blessings, and explaining that something was a mitzvah was the quickest way to ensure her cooperation. As a three year old, her spirituality was already so defined.
When Samuel Earl was three years old, he was the same way. He wanted to have a birthday party, just him and God for his fourth birthday. Part of that was that he didn’t like people all that much and at least God wouldn’t be looking at him and making him talk – but part of it was also that he had a profound connection to nature and trees and being outside. I called him my little Druid – he was intensely connected to nature. I remember him sobbing after a really bad storm came through and so many trees were lost. It was painful for him on a level that was hard to watch. For Sam, his belief in God has always been intense and natural and easy. God is his friend, God made the trees and when there is damage done to nature, Sam is devastated, not just for him, but also for God.
And my Julianna Ruth, who turned three in April… Last night, I started reading her a book that I had picked up for Sam for summer reading. First Book of Jewish Bible Stories - and I just read the beginning of it, where God first created the world. She was fascinated. It was a story she’s heard before, because she goes to preschool services at the synagogue, and she knew the song about the days of the week, ending in Shabbat. She was so excited about it, reading about her friend God. She announced that he was her new best friend, and how he must have created people so that they could be his friends – and I thought about what a fascinating way children have of boiling down theology to their level. And how safe and reassured she was – God was out there, and God loved her and she loved God, and it was so exactly what I wanted her to take away from the story.
I struggle sometimes with Judaism. I don’t feel at home with the culture all of the time. I don’t like gefilte fish, and don’t understand Hebrew. But what I love about it is that the Jewish God is my God. He (or She) is the one that I’ve been connected to for as long as I remember, and I have always felt as though we have a very personal, individual relationship. And when I’ve struggled the most is when I’ve felt cut-off from that relationship. But in the end, I believe what my kids believe. I think three year olds know it all already, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to understand it: That God loves us, and gave us tools to make it easier to connect with each other and with God, that the natural world is intimately a part of God and that in the end, the world is a better and brighter place because of our relationship with God.
Yom HaShoah starts on Sunday night and ends on Monday at sundown.
I haven’t taught the kids about the Holocaust yet. Other than in the most general of terms – they know about WWII, and they know that Hitler and the Nazis were terrible, terrible people, and they did awful things to the Jews. They even know that a lot of Jewish people died during the war, and that’s part of why Jews are such a minority.
But the details… yeah, I can barely bring myself to think about them, how do I talk about them with my kids? And by kids, I’m talking mostly about my ten year old, Jessica. My six year old and three year old are still little enough so it’s not an issue.
I wonder how old I was when I read the Diary of Anne Frank. Junior high? I feel like I remember some sort of presentation down in the cafeteria. I’m guessing it was seventh or eighth grade.
Jessie and I were talking earlier on the way to her slumber party, and I told her that she was going to be going to the religious school class on it on Monday. She knows about the Holocaust, but really has no idea. She asked if it was as bad as 9/11. Worse, I said. It was much worse. Then she asked what they did all day in the concentration camps, and I really stumbled over my answer. I don’t even know exactly what I said… something about it being like a prison, and that it was horrible beyond words. I started to think about the pictures I’ve seen, and actually started to say that people starved, and then I stopped. Remembered that she’s only ten.
I don’t know that I’m old enough to really understand the Holocaust. Are you ever really? And if you aren’t – then when do I tell her? How do you tell your child what happened? This was her family. If we had been alive then, and living in Germany, it would have been us. That’s terrifying – and for a sensitive kid, for any kid, hell, for any adult, that’s … I don’t have words.
We’ll light the candle together on Sunday night, and we’ll talk a little about it. General terms, avoiding any graphic descriptions, and reassure her, and her brother and sister, that we live today in America, and that we’re safe. And we’ll tell her, and her brother and sister when they’re old enough, that they have a special obligation to remember, to make the world better, in whatever way they can. To make the world a place where the Holocaust never happens again.
What is the point of the Brachah or blessing, anyway? The first word in a Bracha, Baruch, is related to Brechah, or spring (as in water source). By saying a Brachah, we acknowledge that G-d is the source of everything in our lives. It’s a way of saying thank you.
Every night at bedtime, part of the routine with my son is to pray for the people we care about. The last part of the prayer is to tell G-d we’re thankful. I say thank you for all of our live’s “Blessings”, whether it’s an invitation for a Shabbat meal, some hand me downs from a friend or the opportunity to do a Mitzvah. One day soon, my son will add to our list.
This post is part of Twitter’s @imabima’s list of writing prompts for the first two weeks of Nissan leading up to Passover.
Passover requires an intense amount of cleaning. I have read numerous articles about how it really should only take a few hours of cleaning. Dirt isn’t Chametz.
Chametz can make it’s way around the house though. The office is upstairs, a plate of crackers and a coffee while working on the computer. A snack downstairs while watching a little TV. The living room is connected to both the dining room and the kitchen.
I also have a very cute, very adorable little 18 month old son, who manages to get food every where. He munches on a cracker and sets it down for later. He finds it and then mashes it up (sound familiar?)
I need many hours to clean the house of Chametz because there are so many areas to clean. I also have the regular every day stuff to do too. It isn’t like life gets put on hold while Passover cleaning takes place. There are dinners to make, laundry to clean and put away, bathrooms sadly, do not clean themselves.
I used to do a full on Spring cleaning when I did my Passover cleaning. It just seemed to make sense. That was B.K. Before Kids. Now that I have my adorable son, I’ve limited the cleaning to actual Chametz only. But it still takes me a few weeks, working a few hours hear and there, until it’s all done.
How do you plan the Chametz Detox in your house? How long does it take?
This post is part of Twitter’s @imabima’s list of writing prompts for the first two weeks of Nissan leading up to Passover.
One of the themes of Purim has to do with the hidden becoming revealed. Esther hid her identity as a Jew within Achashverosh’s castle. When the time was right not only did she reveal her true self, but she revealed Haman’s evil plot to destroy the Jews. All the coincidences within the story of Esther all come together in the end and reveal a rich and interesting story. G-d’s name is not mentioned at all in the Megillah (Scroll) of Esther, but is hidden within Esther’s name itself, which means Hidden.
My husband and I celebrated Purim with a local Jewish organization. I dressed up as Time Flies (I had wings and clocks) and my husband dressed up as Father Time. Father Time was a priest with clock picture on his chest. We felt this was funny on a few levels, since my husband isn’t Jewish. I think he appreciated being dressed up as a character that is distinctly not Jewish. He could be his non-Jewish self openly when all through the year he feels like he has to downplay and maybe hide the fact he isn’t Jewish.
We had agreed that our son would be raised in an entirely Jewish environment and my husband isn’t/wasn’t very religious so it didn’t seem like a big deal. It does mean though that he gets submerged and swallowed with Jewishness. Kosher food, Shabbat meals, Jewish holidays… he’s surrounded all the time.
We celebrate Purim by hiding behind masks and pretending to be what we aren’t (or briefly live a fantasy of who we would like to be), just as Esther pretended she wasn’t Jewish. My husband got to enjoy the party being openly non-Jewish.
My first exposure to Purim came when my husband and I brought our then two year old daughter to the synagogue he attended through his childhood. I had her dressed as a fairy, and she was so stinking cute, waving her little wand and clutching her tiara. The rabbi jumped out from behind something and roared at her – he was dressed in a giant gorilla costume. He was delighted and happy, everyone laughed. My toddler was distinctly not amused, she was terrified. I was even less amused – I was just furious.
Fast forward a few years, and Purim didn’t really get any better. When my second child was born, Purim was a disaster. He wasn’t a fan of crowds anyway, and taking him to the Megillah reading, with all the noisemakers – he screamed louder than any of them. I’d pull him out of the service, but we could still hear the loud noisemakers and every time Haman’s name was read, not only would his name be drowned out, the noise of the noisemakers was drowned out as well, by the hysterical sobbing of a terrified boy.
The more I read about the Purim story, the less impressed I was. Queen Esther seems to be held up as a pinnacle of bravery. But she really didn’t do much more than be pretty and do as she was told. On the upside, discussion of it did inspire a lot of conversation around here about the role of women and generations of learned Torah scholars interpreting the story to highlight the qualities that were most conducive to keeping women in a submissive position in society. Esther was the king’s wife, not because she was smart or brave, but because she was beautiful. And she saved the Jewish people not because she knew it had to be done, not because she independently made the decision to risk her own safety by appearing before the king without being summoned, but because she listened to the male head of her family and did as she was told.
And I don’t like hamentaschen. Prune filled cookies are confusing to me, I’d much rather a nice chocolate chip cookie
I get weekly emails from my synagogue, and, a few weeks ago, I noticed that there was a little paragraph tucked in between notices from the Sisterhood and requests for coat donations. A bar/bat mitzvah meeting for parents of kids fourth thru sixth grade. It took me a minute, but I realized quickly that it meant me. My daughter is in fourth grade. It’s that time already? Really? Wasn’t it a week ago that I was pregnant with her and couldn’t fathom how she’d be able to have any kind of clear religious identity with a Jewish father and me? Wasn’t it just the other day that I realized that while she was self identifying as Jewish the way she considered herself Irish but because I hadn’t converted, according to our synagogue, technically, she wasn’t Jewish? I didn’t think she’d really remember the mikveh, she was only five or six, but I remember it so vividly. And suddenly – we’re there already. A bat mitzvah.
And the more I thought about it, the more emotional I got. Which isn’t surprising, I cry at pretty much every milestone. Dance recitals, preschool graduations, her first real report card. But a bat mitzvah seems like it’s so important. Not only because she’s the first in my husband’s family, of her generation, to read from the Torah. Not only because my family will come, of course they’ll come, but won’t have the foggiest idea what we’ll be doing. But also because the bat mitzvah has so much meaning attached to it. It’s coming right when I’m starting to realize that this baby girl, this tiny little baby of mine isn’t always going to be mine. She’s her own person – and that’s terrifying and wonderful and, yeah, I’m welling up with tears as I’m writing. I’m going to be in so much trouble with this…
That’s what the bat mitzvah is – it’s a public acknowledgement that we’re Jewish, and that Jessica is Jewish. That she’s responsible for herself now, that she’s going to take ownership of her own religious identity in a way that I’ve been worrying about since before she was born. What will her religious identity be? She’s Jewish, yes, but not only Jewish. She’s inherited a rich family tradition dating back thousands of years. She’s also the product of my side of the family, a family filled with people who have no strong tie to any organized religion but a very strong and heartfelt connection to God.
She’s all intellectual questioning rules and ritual on the one hand, and on the other, she’s got a sincere and absolute relationship with God that, as far as I can see, she’s never doubted. She blends both of us, the Jewish side from her father, and the spiritual intensity from me. She’s got an extra dash of drama and wonder and intensity that’s all her own. And it makes me cry. I’m not sure if I’m crying because I’m grieving the loss of the little girl who’s growing up so fast, or if I’m crying because I’m so incredibly proud of the woman she’ll be.
When she was born, my husband picked out her Hebrew name. It means “beautiful celebration.” That’s what she’s always been for us, a celebration of love and life and so much joy. And on her bat mitzvah, she’ll stand in front of our friends and family, and she’ll read from the Torah. She’ll be exactly who she is. And that’s amazing to me.
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