Four New Years Every Year?!

Happy New YearNew Year’s Day comes only once a year – doesn’t it?

In the Gregorian Calendar and most other calendars, that’s certainly true. But this is yet another way that the Jewish calendar is different. We celebrate FOUR New Year’s:

Rosh Hashanah is translated “the head of the year.” In the fall, on the first of Tishrei, we celebrate the most well-known New Year’s Day in Judaism. This is the day that the number of the year changes (5774 to 5775, etc.) It’s the day we remember the beginning of Jewish time (the Creation) and reflect on the end of Jewish time, as well. It is also the Biblical date for starting the sabbatical and jubilee (shemita) years. For American Jews, this is a day for synagogue and a festive meal.

Tu B’Shevat (the 15th of Shevat) is the New Year of the Trees which falls in midwinter. It began as an accounting device, a “fiscal year” for tithing produce from trees (olives, dates, figs, etc.) In the 16th century, the mystical rabbis of Safed were excited to be living in the land of Israel after their flight from Spain, and they began to observe the day with a seder and mystical symbolism. In the 19th century, Zionists celebrated the day as a celebration of the greening of the land of Israel, and in the 21st century, the day has come to be a day of ecological concern and action.

1st of Nisan in early spring is the first day of the first month of the Biblical year. According to Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1, the first of Nisan is “the new year for kings and for festivals.” The reigns of kings were calculated from this date, and the festival of Passover, which falls later in Nisan, is the festival which begins the history of the Jews as a nation.

1st of Elul in late summer was the beginning of the fiscal year for animal tithes in Israel. When the temple stood, people who raised animals were obligated to give a tithe from their flocks. Nowadays this is the date upon which we begin the process of preparation for the purification of the Days of Awe in the following month.

As a Jew living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I live in a place where we also celebrate the Gregorian New Year on Jan 1, the Chinese New Year in the spring, and the Islamic New Year which travels around the seasons, a feature of their lunar calendar!

Every New Year is a moment of hope in the stream of time, reminding us that our days are limited but that what lies ahead is as yet unwritten. As the great medieval Jewish philosopher Bachya Ibn Pekuda wrote,

“Our days are scrolls. Write in them what you wish to be remembered.”

Welcome to Tevet!

Tevet 5775 began last night at sundown, on the evening of December 21, 2014.

6chanukahWelcome to Tevet! It’s the month that begins in the middle of a holiday. We are celebrating Chanukah, and last night, when we lit six candles, the month of Tevet arrived to join us.

Despite its fancy beginning, Tevet is a quiet little month for Jews. The biggest things to happen in it are not Jewish days at all: Christmas and the Gregorian New Year (January 1) usually fall in the month of Tevet.

The only other official Jewish day of observance in this month is Asara b’Tevet [10th of Tevet] on which some Jews fast to remember the day in 588 BCE when the army of Nebuchadnezzar, emperor of Babylon, laid seige to Jerusalem. In the month of Av, a year and a half later, they would enter the city and destroy Solomon’s Temple, which we refer to as the First Temple.

One of the quirks of the Jewish calendar as we know it today is that it is in some ways a hand-me-down from ancient Babylon. Before the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile, we know that Jews followed a lunar calendar that began its months on the new moon and that had adjustments to keep the agricultural holidays in their proper seasons. We have a few month names from that calendar in the Torah, but most of the months seem to have been like modern Hebrew days. They went by number, “In the First Month” etc.

But the names of the months we use today came back from Babylon with our ancestors. Tevet in Babylon was Tebetu or something similar. If you are curious about the Babylonian calendar there are a few Internet sites that explore it, including this one.

Enjoy the last remaining nights of Chanukah and don’t forget to add the greeting, Chodesh Tov!  Happy New Month!

 

In the Mood for Chanukah!

YouTube is a great resource for both how-to’s and for chanukah music and videos. Here are some goodies I gleaned there recently:

The Maccabeats have a new Hanukkah video, “All about the Nes” (Nes = Miracle)

And their “oldies” are still up as well:

And here’s a how-to video that explains exactly how you light the candles:

Now, MORE Chanukah videos for your enjoyment!:

This is just a taste of the variety you can find online!

Chanukah: More Dedication!

4189089032_fa0e037be5_bI’m glad that so many people have been reading my post, A More Meaningful Chanukah. I thought I’d add some more possibilities for dedication, some larger projects that you can launch during the week.  Who knows, by next Chanukah, that aspect of your life may be transformed!

We tend to think of “dedication” as a nice intention or a ceremony, but real dedication is more than a sterile event. When we say of someone “Rachel has real dedication to x” we mean that Rachel spends her time and her money and her nerves focusing on a particular thing. It might be “her art” or “Torah” or “her dog” but the word “dedication” means Rachel is invested. The activities I’m suggesting are meant to give you a chance to invest yourself.

These additional dedications are geared less to families with young children and more to households with teens or households that are all adults. They are larger projects that you won’t finish in a day or a week – but you can make a good beginning.

1. Lo ta’ashok et re’echa – Do Not Oppress Your Neighbor

Read “In the Mississippi River” from the Jewish Women’s Archive blog. It concludes with five ways to join the struggle for racial justice:

  1. If you are white, educate yourself about appropriate and responsible ways to take action and parse your own privilege. Check out the organization Showing Up For Racial Justice, which is posting articles and holding national training calls for white allies.
  2. If you are Jewish, recognize racial diversity in the Jewish community—not every American Jew has white skin or comes from an Eastern European immigrant family. Michael Twitty and Carolivia Herron have shared extremely personal and powerful reflections about their experiences as Jews of color. Reach out to people in your community and talk with one another. Also, take some time to learn about and grapple with the history of the American Jewish community. After this quick article, you may want to read Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folks.
  3. Strive to understand the racist policies and systems that have created the current national crisis around mass incarceration and police brutality. This article by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander’sThe New Jim Crow are easy to understand and fairly comprehensive.
  4. No matter who you are, allow black voices to come to the fore. Follow black folks who are leading the movements on the ground inFerguson, New York, and in your own community, even when it is hard to concede your own knowledge or experience.
  5. Allow yourself to be uncomfortable. Be critical of what you hear, diversify your news sources, and be curious about others’ experiences. Stand and be counted—movements are made of individuals.

2. Bacharta b’chaim – Choose life

Life is full of choices. One set of choices we don’t like to talk about are the tough choices when someone gets sick or dies. Yet those choices can affect our families in profound ways, sometimes for generations. If we want any voice in those decisions, and want to save our families additional pain, we need to think about these things ahead of time.

1. Do you have an advance directive for medical decisions? To whom can doctors look for decisions if you cannot voice your own wishes? You can download the forms for your state at this web site. But filling out a form is not sufficient: it is critical that you discuss your wishes with your family. For more info, read Do You Need an Advance Directive? from the Patients’ Rights Council.

2. Do you have a will? Every adult needs to have a proper will. Otherwise, should you die, the courts decide everything, and they will take months to do so. If you have no children, no real estate, and few assets, maybe all you need is a simple will that you can produce with generic forms. Once you have children, property, or more than a few assets, then it’s good to pay for at least a conversation with an attorney.

3. Have you thought about organ donation? If you’ve thought about it, that’s not enough: you need to talk to family. Even if you’ve marked a box on your drivers license, organ donation requires the consent of family, and it will make a hard mitzvah a lot easier if they have heard that it’s what you want.

3. B’tzelem Elohim – In the Image of God

Look around your life: who is there that you have overlooked? Are there people at your synagogue or at the PTA that you avoid because they are different and talking to them is uncomfortable? Someone in a wheelchair? Someone lesbian or gay? Someone Deaf? Someone with a mental illness? A developmental disability? Someone transgender?

You can dedicate yourself to developing some new skills for relating appropriately with these neighbors:

1. Even if you think you already know plenty about a particular life situation, take time to read up on current information. For instance, many people think persons with mental illness are dangerous, and that’s not true: most people with mental illnesses are dangerous only to themselves, if that. Google the thing you need to learn about, and find a good book or article. That will demystify the situation. But don’t stop there!

2. Acquire small talk skills. Imagine for a moment that you have a magnificent nose, a Cyrano nose. Imagine what it would be like if every new person who said hello to you immediately began talking about your nose. (Hint: you would not enjoy it, if only because it is boring to always have the same conversation.) That is also true for any other distinctive characteristic. So we use small talk as a bridge past the obvious (past the Cyrano nose) to more fruitful conversation. For a primer, read The Power of Small Talk.” The great thing about learning small talk is that you can practice it just about anywhere, on anyone!

3. Be sure to listen as well as talk. Ask questions about the everyday. Get to know this person as a person, not as a category. Find out what they are passionate about. Find out what makes them laugh. Until you know more about them than about their Cyrano nose, you aren’t done.

 

A More Meaningful Chanukah

judaism-152029_640My friend Dawn Kepler* and I were talking recently about ways to make Chanukah more meaningful. How might we use the framework of eight days and make it a real re-dedication to Jewish values?

We decided we’d set up a list of eight Jewish values and give them each one day of Chanukah. We’d plan appropriate activities for ourselves and/or our households. We brainstormed activities that might be suitable for different households (depending on ages and abilities.) The idea of activities is not simply doing for doing’s sake, but doing for the sake of learning. Be sure to reflect and talk afterwards!

Now we invite you to look ahead at your calendar, see what Jewish value might fit each day.  If our activity suggestions are too modest for you, Yasher koach! Go do something that you think would be better.

1. Nidivut – Generosity
a. Go shopping for a needy family.
b. ​Make  breakfast in bed for the family cook.
c. Visit an animal shelter and give them your old towels and sheets for bedding.
d. Give gifts to one another.
e. Shop for a local “Toys for Tots” drive or for the Food Bank.

2. Tzedek – Justice
a. Write a letter to an elected official about some issue of justice.
b. Teach each other about a justice issue dear to us.
c. Make and decorate a family tzedakah box.
d. Write a letter to the editor of the newspaper about a justice issue.
e. Give tzedakah to an organization that works for justice.

 

3. Hoda’ah – Gratitude
a. Write a thank you card to someone who isn’t expecting it.
b. Write a thank you card to another member of the household. Be specific.
c. Make a list of things for which we are grateful. Then make a “bouquet” of those things by making paper flowers and writing the gratitudes on them. Use it to decorate the table next Shabbat.
​d. Play the ABC Gratitude game as a family:  Name something for which you are grateful for each letter of the alphabet. (I’m grateful for apricots. I’m grateful for blankets. etc.)​
e. See how many times you can say “thank you” to people during the day.

4. Kibud Av v’Em – Honoring Parents
a. Give gifts to parents and grandparents.
b. Adopt an elder who doesn’t have children for the evening or more.
c. Tell stories about family, maybe craft projects honoring family who have died.
​d. Make a coupon book of things you will do for a parent or grandparent in the coming year.​
e. Visit the graves of parents or grandparents who have died. Leave a stone.

 

5. Talmud Torah – Studying Torah
a. Play “Torah Jeopardy:” Give the questions to which Torah names and places are the answer.
b. Make a play of the Torah portion of the week (usually part of the Joseph story, very dramatic!)
c. Make Torah scrolls with citations or pictures of our favorite verses of Torah in them, gift to one another.
​d. Draw a picture of how you imagine your favorite biblical hero or heroine looked. Tell his/her story to your family.
e. Download and play “Middot-opoly.” It’s a game for learning Jewish values!
6. Hachnasat Orchim – Hospitality
a. Have a Chanukah party. Invite people over!
b. Have people over for Shabbat dinner & Menorah lighting.
​c. Invite someone who is single to dinner, services or out to coffee.​
​d. Volunteer to be an usher at your synagogue.
e. Provide part or all of the oneg for the Shabbat service that falls during Chanukah.

7. Ahavat Yisrael – Love of Israel (the country or the people)
a. Tzedakah to an Israeli organization
b. Tzedakah to a local Jewish organization
c. Watch an Israeli or Jewish-themed film together & discuss over popcorn.
d. Put on Israeli music or Klezmer and dance!

 

8. Rachmanut – Compassion
a. Volunteer at the Food Bank or similar nonprofit.
b. Give out clean, new tube socks to people on the street asking for help.
c. Visit someone who is shut-in, if possible light the menorah with them.
​d. During the week of Chanukah give one dollar to every person you see begging. (Keep a stash of dollars just for them.) Talk about how it felt at the end of the week.

There are many more Jewish values to choose from​, many more activities that you might try to express and learn about these and other values. Explore the possibilities, and let me know how it goes!

 

* Dawn is the Director of Building Jewish Bridges, a wonderful organization that supports interfaith families. If you are in an interfaith relationship, or have an interfaith family, check out their website!

Chanukah: The Evolution of Holidays

chanukkiahI love the way Jewish holidays change over the centuries to meet the challenges of history. Passover was once a sacrifice and a nighttime lamb BBQ with storytelling. Then we lost the Temple, and had to reinvent the celebration in the form of a Greek symposium banquet, the hottest educational technology of its time. They insured that it wouldn’t get too Greek (or, heaven forbid, Roman!) by taking the afikomen, the after dinner entertainment that often got out of hand, and reissuing it as a broken piece of matzah. Voilá: The Passover seder!

Chanukah lay dormant for centuries, a little festival with fried food and candles. The rabbis of old didn’t want us to make a big deal of it, because we might get the idea that making war on our oppressors was a good idea. They bequeathed us a miracle story and somewhere along the line we began playing dreidel. Then a series of events in the 19th and 20th centuries brought Jews new challenges. For one, after the Holocaust, never again would we dare deal with anti-Semitism by waiting for a miracle. The Maccabees gained new relevance in the shadow of the Shoah and with the foundation of the modern State of Israel. For another, while Christmas had never been any threat to Jewish culture, the 19th and 20th centuries saw the rise of a new festival: secular Christmas.

Christmas, too, had been a relatively minor affair for centuries. It was the feast of the birth of Jesus, layered on top of a popular Roman festival, Saturnalia. Then in the 19th century, British and American novelists and poets wrote about the holiday, recasting it as a holiday of family warmth, goodwill, and compassion, and downplaying the religious aspects. This began a process of popularizing Christmas. When business discovered that trees, decorations, presents and Christmas turkeys could set the cash register bells a-ringing, Christmas became big business. You can see the results in every shopping mall and city center. Devout Christians deplore the commercialization of Christmas (“put Christ back in Christmas!”) but secular Christmas has become a juggernaut.

Secular Christmas is now firmly planted in American popular culture, and it has spawned an entire season of frantic consumption. “Christmas comes but once a year” so there is pressure for it to be perfect, with no unmet desire, no unrequited fantasy. The tree must be brightly lit, the presents piled beneath, and if the credit cards get overloaded, well, it’s Christmas, after all!

 

And yes: I know there are families for whom secular Christmas is a time of warmth and light, who don’t max out their credit cards. I know that Christmas trees and Christmas mornings carry precious freight for many people: they are wrapped up with the fondest wishes for family love. I have no quarrel with them, for that is their tradition and it works for them. But it’s not the Jewish way of doing things.

We don’t have one big day in the year that must be perfect: even Passover, which probably comes the closest, happens over a week, and for most families, there are two seders to attend. We have Shabbat every week for family warmth and love, and for hospitality to strangers. If we really keep our full calendar of holidays, then we get a steady stream of small “Christmases” complete with Kodak moments. There are gifts of food to send at Purim, and a sukkah to decorate at Sukkot. There are festive meals again and again throughout the year. No holiday has to be perfect, because we have Shabbat every week.

In the 20th century in America, Chanukah has flirted with Christmas by experimenting with “Chanukah bushes” and adding gift-giving to the mix. When Chanukah tries to imitate Christmas, it loses both its Jewish character and the Jewish values deep within it. Chanukah at its best is about dedication to Jewish values and a resistance to idolatry, whether that idolatry is the worship of Zeus or the worship of consumer goodies.

Chanukah is equipped to challenge the darker aspects of secular Christmas. It is modest, where secular Christmas can be gaudy. It plays out over a week, instead of a single day that must be (and is seldom) “perfect.” Chanukah calls us to rededicate ourselves to Jewish values; secular Christmas pushes us to get the “best value.”

Chanukah is a big deal at our house, because it is pushback to secular consumer values, and most especially to the dark side of secular Christmas. We light the little menorah and say the blessings. We have an open house for our friends and the neighbors. We’re “advertising the miracle,” as it says in the Gemara, but the miracle we’re advertising is bigger than a jar of oil that lasted for eight days. We’re advertising the miracle that Judaism is still here, despite it all. And we’re dedicating ourselves to another year of living Jewishly.

We’re going to be doing something special for Chanukah at my home this year. More about that in the next post.

Chanukah: Why so minor?

menorah“It’s just a minor holiday.” When someone makes a big deal of Chanukah, someone will step in to remind that it is really no big deal. You seldom if ever hear that about any other Jewish holiday: why?

Chanukah began as the celebration of the rededication of the Temple after the Maccabean Revolt. In the early days it was a celebration of the military victory that established the rule of the priestly Hasmonean Dynasty. The Maccabees threw off the Greek ruler with military prowess, and celebrated by rededicating the Temple with a festival to replace the festival of Sukkot which the Greeks had made impossible that year. The Jews continued to celebrate it for eight days beginning on 25 Kislev every year, and they called it the Festival of Lights. We know this from a book by Josephus, who wrote about it about 250 years later.

The next we hear of the holiday, it is mentioned in passing a few times in the Mishnah, 200 years later. (for example, M. Bava Kama 6:6) but one gets the distinct idea that the rabbis don’t like to talk about it.  Also, it has changed names: now it is Chanukah [Dedication.] When the rabbis finally do talk about it in the Gemara, a few hundred years after that, it has become a holiday based on the miracle story of a single bottle of oil that lasted for eight days.

Why the change? Why no mention of the military festival for several hundred years, and then this miracle story? In the meantime the Jewish People had had two great disasters, both associated with attempts to throw off the Romans with an armed uprising. The disaster was the destruction of the Temple in the year 70. The second disaster was the failure of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 136. As Rabbi Lawrence Schiffmann wrote, “By the end of the [Bar Kokhba] war many Jews had been massacred, the land had been devastated again, and distinguished rabbis had been mar­tyred.”

So it is no wonder that the rabbis did not encourage the celebration of the old Festival of Lights. It celebrated a military uprising, and subsequent uprisings were disasters. They turned instead to the miracle story of the oil, to turn young eyes from the glitter of weapons to the peaceful glow of the menorah in a dark night. That is also why you will hear people insist, “It’s a minor holiday.” There is a tradition for playing down Chanukah.