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By Lela Casey
The first time I really celebrated Purim was when I was 9 years old on vacation in Israel with my family. I remember being in awe of the sea of kids pouring through the streets dressed in colorful costumes and shaking noise makers. It was a party like I’d never seen before and I was thrilled to join in.
My next Purim experience didn’t come until my junior year of college when I did a semester at Tel-Aviv University. The night of Purim, we all piled into an enormous bus which took us to Jerusalem where we drank rum punch and danced with students from all around the world until the sun came up. The spirit of that evening inspired me to be a different person than the thoughtful, fairly prudish girl that I had been until then. By the end of the night my angel costume had shifted into something more like a toga, I was more tipsy than I’d ever been before and I’d lost track of the number of boys I’d kissed. It was one of the happiest, most free-feeling nights of my life.
When my own children came along, I made a point of taking them to Purim festivities. As the Jewish partner in an interfaith marriage, I felt a responsibility to share with them that same freedom, that same lightness of the soul that I’d felt. And, while they did enjoy the celebrations, something about the holiday began to concern me.
Yes, there is a joy and lightness about Purim, but there is a darkness that few people ever mention. Purim is essentially a celebration of the blotting out of our enemies…and not just the infamous Haman. During Purim we drink to the destruction of the entire nation of Amalek, a genocide that is mandated to be read about in the Torah every year. It is, in essence, a celebration of a bloody act of retribution.
The first time that I learned of this part of the Purim story, I began to think back again to that night in Jerusalem. Yes, it was fun and free, but I also did things that I would never have done as my usual self. The spirit of the holiday, along with the alcohol and costumes, took me outside myself. Could the mandate to drink on Purim be, in essence, a way to shut out the “good” voices in your head? Could it be symbolic of how Biblical Jews had to silence those voices in order to commit genocide?
There are a lot of frightening things happening in the world today. People are being categorized by ethnicity and religion and immigrant status and painted as the enemy. There is a sweeping movement across America to blame others for our misfortune—a movement eerily familiar to other dark times in history. Extolling peace and acceptance is paramount on my mind right now.
As Purim gets closer, I find myself struggling with how to justify glorifying genocide with the desire to have my kids enjoy the joyousness of the holiday. Should I simply ignore that part of the story with them and focus on the merriment and hamentaschen (Purim cookies)? Or is it better to discuss the darkness of the day with them and let them come to their own conclusions? Perhaps should we just forgo Purim entirely?
One of my favorite things about Judaism is that it encourages questions and discussions. So, I ask you: Is it possible to celebrate the lightness of Purim while also addressing the dark side?
By Lela Casey
As the only Jewish kid in my small town in Pennsylvania, Christmas was the loneliest time of year. Most of my classmates, and even some of my teachers, were almost entirely unfamiliar with Judaism. Perhaps if I’d been braver, I could have explained to them why I felt uncomfortable singing “Christ the Savior is Born” in music class, or painting Nativity scenes in art or writing notes to Santa in writing class.
But, I was shy kid. And I’d had enough pennies thrown at me and been accused of killing Jesus too many times to speak up. So I laid low, hummed along, asked Santa for a puppy.
Still, the loneliness remained. One of my earliest memories is of driving home with my parents on Christmas Eve. Each time we passed another sparkling house, another lit up Christmas tree, another window full of smiling children, I shrunk a little further into my seat. By the time we got home to our own dark house, I was so heartbroken that I went straight to bed.
To my young soul, it felt like a punishment. It was as if I’d done something wrong to be missing out on all the fun that every other kid I knew got to enjoy.
When I would ask my mom if we could put up a tree or have a special dinner on Christmas, she would get upset. Christmas might seem like an American holiday, but at its heart it was a celebration of the birth of Jesus. Celebrating a man as if he were God would be breaking the first commandment, and perhaps even worse than that, assimilating.
It was difficult, as a kid, to understand what was so terrible about assimilating. What could be bad about getting presents, hanging lights and singing songs? It’s not as if celebrating Christmas would negate being Jewish. It would just be a way to feel part of a world that seemed to include everyone but me.
It wasn’t until college that I met other people who didn’t celebrate Christmas. The first Christmas eve I spent with my Jewish friends was liberating. We ordered Chinese food, watched movies, and reveled in the joy of being together.
I felt a deep sense of belonging and pride and a little bit of confusion to be celebrating Christmas with other people who didn’t celebrate Christmas. Because, really, that’s what we were doing. It may not have been with songs of Jesus or presents from Santa, but there we were, all gathered on the supposed day of Jesus’ birth, having a grand old time.
Was that assimilation? I wasn’t sure. But, whatever it was, it wasn’t lonely.
When I got married to my husband who is not Jewish, my feelings on Christmas were still shaky. By that point I’d experienced several Christmases away from my family—some with my Jewish friends, some with my husband-to-be and his family. Each celebration had been vastly different—but they all included one important element—community. Just being with other people, whether we were eating Chinese food or belting out “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer,” kept Christmas from feeling lonely.
Still, I had difficulty envisioning what Christmas would be like when we had our own kids. Was it important to keep Christmas out of our house completely? Would that alienate my husband? Make my kids feel that same aching loneliness that I felt as a kid?
We have three kids now, and our Christmas traditions have evolved over the years. Some years we go to my in-laws’ house and have a big dinner with family, and some years we stay home and order Chinese food. There’s no talk of Jesus or Santa, but there are presents and laughter and music and it’s never lonely.
It feels sometimes like I’ve copped out—given in to the assimilation that my mother was so fearful of. And, perhaps I have. But, the truth is my kids live in America and have a father who isn’t Jewish. Christmas is not some alien cultural phenomenon that they have to adapt to; it is an integral part of their world, their heritage. Celebrating Christmas is not so much assimilation as it is acknowledgment of the many components of themselves.
I feel confident in the strong Jewish roots I have given my children. They’ve whispered prayers into the Western Wall in Jerusalem, they’ve learned the aleph, bet and stories of Jacob and Isaac in Hebrew School, they’ve helped me clean the house of chametz on Passover and light the menorah on Hanukkah.
My kids are Jewish—and, if one day they chose to take a different path, it won’t be because they enjoyed a joyful night with family at the end of December.
Lela Casey is a mother of three children living in Bucks County, PA. Being raised by a fiery Israeli mother and a gentle farmer in the middle of nowhere lent her a unique perspective on Judaism. She holds degrees from both Penn State University and Rhode Island College. You can find her work on many websites including kveller.com, pjlibrary.com, elephantjournal.com, brainchildmag.com and femininecollective.com.
By Stefani Wiemann
The holiday season is upon us. Christmas music plays in restaurants, Christmas trees are displayed in stores and Santa Clause can be seen in malls. Even as a Jewish mother, I love all of this stuff. I love the holiday season, including all of the decorations, the music and gift-giving madness.
Unfortunately, we have faced some challenging situations at our children’s preschool during this time of year. For example, they have Santa visit the preschool each year in December, which, as a family that identifies as Jewish, we are not comfortable with. They also have a Christmas singalong performance, which they conveniently call a Holiday singalong anytime they are talking to me, but call it a Christmas singalong on their newsletter, calendar and website.
While we have no issue with our kids singing Christmas songs, we chose for our kids to not participate because dressing up like reindeer, elves and Santa feels like too much for us. We simply opt for our children to not attend preschool on those days, in order to avoid our discomfort and our children’s confusion. This year, however, they have added a Polar Express day, in which they are to watch a movie that depicts a boy discovering his belief in Santa, and they also added an activity of writing letters to Santa (they even put a cute mailbox in the classroom that “sends mail” directly to the North Pole).
I would hate for my kid to be THAT kid who ruins Christmas for anyone, by revealing that Santa is not real, so we choose to not tell him that. Instead, we are OK with him thinking that this man exists, with the understanding that he doesn’t visit our home.
Our family is not the only family that doesn’t celebrate Christmas or celebrates more than one holiday. Here are some thoughts I wish teachers would consider during the holiday season:
1. Have empathy when it comes to the underlying meaning of the activities that you choose and have awareness of the different religions represented in your classes. Don’t plan a class activity that implies/expects a belief in a religion that not everyone believes in. Even if you perceive an aspect of the holiday to be secular, such as Santa Clause, doing any activity that is Santa-related implies that the child believes in that character.
2. Try to plan units/lessons that are festive for the season, and not so specific to a religious holiday. There are plenty of winter-themed activities and symbols that are adorable and fun. Who doesn’t love sledding, snowmen and penguins?
3. Don’t feel pressure to make things equal when it comes to religious holiday representation. Anyone who is educated on both holidays can tell you that Christmas and Hanukkah do not hold the same religious significance. In fact, Hanukkah is only considered to be as big a holiday as it has become because it falls in this same season as Christmas. Having an equal number of Christmas and Hanukkah activities may seem like the way to go, but simply toning down the religious specificity will make it easier for kids of all religions including kids who are being brought up with more than one.
This is known as the giving season. Let’s give respect to those around us. It is the greatest gift that one can give.
Well I’ve gone and done it. I didn’t mean to make you mad, but I can tell that I did.
There I was, a Jewish girl from New York, living my life, building a career, being a young adult in a big city, when out of nowhere — BAM — I fell in love with a kind mid-western man.
He was smart and loving and well, raised in a different faith — but frankly, the fact that we were in love trumped anything else.
But I didn’t expect you to be so disappointed in me.
You see, this man asked me to marry him, and there we were, planning our wedding — a Jewish wedding — because that is what we agreed it would be, because it was meaningful to me and I knew, and he agreed, we would keep Judaism in our lives. So I naturally asked a rabbi to be with us on our big day. he said no, he would not, under these circumstances, bless our union. I asked another and another and yet another and the prospect of having our Jewish wedding dwindled. But I struggled through and found a way to have the ceremony we wanted with a cantoral student who helped us create our beautiful Jewish wedding.
And then I got pregnant. A BOY, what a joy to behold! A blessing in our lives! But my husband had questions that I could not answer about mohels and ritual and foreskin and we sought the counsel of a rabbi to help. We called on your synagogues to find some answers. And we kept calling and calling and messages were left from the kind man who married the Jewish girl again and again, but again we were denied access to you. Once again we stood up for our family and the traditions we wanted to uphold and found a mohel that came to our home and we had a lovely bris for our beautiful boy. One fitting for bringing a Jewish boy into the world.
A third time I sought you out… to care for this child and teach him. But as you glared at my tattooed body and asked about my husband’s background, I was told that your community’s children’s programs were reserved for those who were members and perhaps I should look elsewhere.
And somewhere that day, I lost the fight. I gave up on you right then and there, Judaism. You clearly didn’t want me. There are only so many times you can be turned away before you wonder why you are trying in the first place. You did not want my family, Judaism… so I gave up trying.
But I was heartbroken.
I know you’re trying to find a way to welcome us, but you’re not there yet. When we encounter your barriers and your walls we struggle to get through them. And eventually we give up, because it is hard and we don’t want our children to hear your clucking or your message that they are not good enough for you.
Yet, your articles and comments and letters to the editor tell us it is we who are ruining Judaism. It stings to hear that we, the intermarried are destroying Jewish continuity.
But I am stubborn, and there’s something about you Judaism, that’s too important to let go. So after I gave up on you, a friend and fellow Jewish professional told me that my experience was not the Judaism she knew and loved and encouraged me to try again. I found my own way to keep the faith in you. I created a Jewish home and holidays and traditions in my own Jewish way. And eventually, I found a community that embraced me and supported my family for who we are — and doesn’t punish us for what we’re not. There are so many of us out here making our own way… but also so many who gave up, never to return.
You see, when you denounce intermarried rabbis and talk about the declining vitality of Judaism, we, the families are listening to you talk about how these rabbis — whose families closely resemble our own — don’t count for you. We hear you tell us, yet again, that we are not good enough but that you are welcoming in the same breath.
So while some of your newspapers and your blogs and your institutions (and your commenters, oh gosh, your commenters) whisper too loudly behind my back and wonder what to do with a “problem” like my family, my boys will bound through the door this Friday, giddy from the waning of the week and ask “MOM? What time is Shabbat?
Jake loves the Torah. He stands up proudly as he carries it in his arms, declaring “I’m doing it independently!” He places the Torah in the ark with great tenderness, stroking its velvety cover before he says goodbye and closes the door.
Jake loves his classmates. He leans in toward his friends and says hello as he peers at them through his thick glasses. Jake doesn’t seem to mind that one classmate is in a wheelchair, or another struggles to sit still during class; he simply loves them. When Jake goes to a separate room for individual tutoring, he asks where his friends are. And he asks to sit next to friends in circle or during prayer services, where he basks in their presence.
Jake loves praying. When he hears the class begin to sing prayers, he rocks back and forth and flaps his hands with a look of pure euphoria on his face. Now that Jake has learned to sing the prayers himself, he joins in with the same enthusiasm as fans cheering at a football game (and often the same volume). Jake understands that we direct our prayers to God, and has remarked: “I love Eloheinu.”
Jake loves Judaism. The joy he feels when studying, praying or celebrating a holiday is palpable. He wears his kippah (small head covering worn in synagogue) with pride. He feels at home in his synagogue and in his religious school. He gleefully uses Yiddish words, saying “I am a little vantz*” after a moment of mischief.
Jake chooses love, and we, his teachers, #ChooseLove, too. We love teaching Jake and watching him learn. We love the challenge of making lessons and materials accessible to him. But most important, we embrace both Jake’s strengths and his special needs, and we love the unique, mischievous, delightful young man that he is becoming.
*A vantz literally means a louse, and is slang for troublemaker.