Miss Out on Your Jewish Childhood?

March 23, 2014
Queen Esther

Queen Esther

Some of us missed out on a Jewish childhood. We were raised in another tradition, or no tradition at all.

Some of us missed out on parts of it, or something happened that messed everything up.

Let me tell you a little secret: it’s never too late to have a Jewish childhood.

  • Want to have a bar or bat mitzvah? Talk to your rabbi about studying for an adult bar mitzvah. Yes, you can have a party, too.
  • Depressed that you never got to play dreidel? Invite people over for a night of Chanukah games and latkes!
  • Mad that you didn’t get to go to Hebrew school? It isn’t too late to take Hebrew classes.
  • Sad that you’ll never ask the Four Questions at the seder table? Host a seder with adults, and schedule yourself to chant them – you can do it!
  • Longing to dress up like Queen Esther on Purim? Or like a firefighter? Why not?
  • Yearning for a bubbe or a zayde? Talk to your rabbi about adopting a “grandparent.” Someone needs you as much as you need them.
  • Envious of youth trips to Israel? Ask your rabbi to help you find an affordable program open to your age group.
  • Wish that someone had taught you how to keep a kosher household, lay tefillin, make matza brei? Ask a friend or take a class!

You are the person in charge of your Jewish experience. If there’s something you want to learn, there’s someone teaching it. If there’s something you want to do, there’s a way. Will it be easy? No, but it might not have been easy as a child, either (ask any bat mitzvah if that Torah portion came easily!)

It isn’t too late. You might be just in time!

Image: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Joe King


Purim to Passover = Preparation

March 16, 2014
Passover will arrive when the moon is full again.

Passover will arrive when the moon is full again.

Purim is over! Put away the masks and take an aspirin if necessary: it’s time to prepare for Passover!

Passover in 2014 begins at sundown on April 14. That’s the “first night” or “first seder.”

Note: In this blog, I assume that my main audience are beginners: people who did not for whatever reason get a Jewish education as children and who are looking to engage with Jewish life as adults. If you are looking for directions for keeping a frum house for Pesach this blog is not for you. However, if you are not sure what “frum” and “Pesach” are, you are in the right place (and you can click the links to find out what those words mean.)

1. WHERE WILL YOU BE FOR SEDER? Traditionally, Jews attend at least one Passover seder every year during which we tell the story of the Exodus and make it fresh again. So, if you do not yet have plans for attending a seder, it’s time to seek one out. If this will be your first seder, do not try to host it. Check with your rabbi or synagogue office: who has a place at the table for you? If you have a mentor  or Jewish friends, you can ask them, too. There may be a communal seder you can join for a fee, but be aware: tickets sell out, so call early! If you will be a guest at the seder table, here is an article about that. If this is not your first Passover, and you are going to host your first seder, here is an article for you.

2. GET RID OF YOUR CHAMETZ! Cleaning for Passover is the main way we prepare for the holiday, and it is a part of the experience of the season. We have to get rid of all our chametz. Chametz is any product with wheat, oats, spelt, barley, or rye that might at some point have gotten wet and swelled. We deal with the “might have gotten wet” part by just getting rid of all products containing those five grains. For instructions on cleaning for Passover, read Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt.

3. SHOP FOR MATZAH: One of the names for Passover is Chag HaMatzot, the holiday of Matzah. We eat matzah during Passover. If you don’t particularly like matzah, you can fulfill the obligation by eating it at the seder, but if you want to have some at home, it’s a good idea to grab a box before they sell out. You can learn more in this article: Passover Shopping Tips.

Some readers may be thinking, gee, party planning, housekeeping, and shopping: is this any way to prepare for a holy festival? Passover is the quintessential Jewish holiday, because the spiritual part is hidden within seemingly mundane tasks. Over the four weeks between now and Passover, I’m going to use this blog to uncover some of the spiritual growth possibilities hidden in those to-do lists.

In the meantime, trust the process! Prepare for Passover! And let’s see where we are when the moon is full again.

Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by Klearchos Kapoutsis 


Purim Sameach from Rabbi Adar!

March 15, 2014
Who IS this guy?

A Freilich Purim to you!


What is Amalek?

March 14, 2014
Yigal Tomarkin statue at Rabin Square, Tel Aviv. Zachor is the Hebrew word for Remember.

Yigal Tomarkin statue at Rabin Square, Tel Aviv. Zachor is the Hebrew word for Remember.

This coming Shabbat, the Shabbat before Purim, is called Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance. We read a passage from Deuteronomy 25  about Amalek, a tribe who attack the Israelites as they go through the desert:

Remember what Amalek did to you on the road as you came out of Egypt, how he met you on the road, and struck the hindmost, all that were enfeebled at the back, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore, when the Eternal your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about in the land which the Eternal your God gives you for an inheritance to possess,  you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget! (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

Amalek is a frequent topic in scripture (the topic comes up again and again: in Numbers, Deuteronomy, Judges, 1st Samuel, Psalms, and 1st Chronicle) and in rabbinic and later writing, right down to the present day. We have identified various characters as “Amalek” throughout our history, from Haman to Adolf Hitler.

But as modern people, as people who have been the object of genocide ourselves, how can we talk about obliterating an entire nation of people from the face of the earth? What are we to make of this?

It is tempting to identify any anti-Semite or even a group who hate Jews as Amalek. However, when we look through the Bible, we see many tribes who warred with the Israelites and later with the Jews, and only Amalek merits this “wipe them out” command. There is no tribe of people who identify themselves as Amalek today; there are no Moabites, no Canaanites, no Philistines, no Assyrians, no Babylonians. There are people who live in those lands, but the Biblical civilizations are dust.

In our time, Amalek is a lifestyle, an attitude: Amalek is the idea that it is OK to prey on the weak. Maimonides taught us, in Guide of the Perplexed, that the commandment to wipe out Amalek is not a commandment to hatred; rather it is a commandment to drive Amalek-like behavior from the world. We can see Amalek in business practices that trade on the desperation of others. We can see Amalek in schemes that prey on the sick and the ignorant. If we read Chapter 3 of Esther, we can see Amalek in those who scapegoat minorities to enhance their own power.

As Rabbi Irving Greenberg has written, “Remembrance is the key to preventing recurrence.” There have been many times in history when Jews have been weak and preyed-upon by the strong. Now in a different time in history, in many ways, we are strong. We are commanded to remember and to act: not for revenge, not for our own satisfaction, but to fulfill the commandment that Amalek shall be blotted out from under heaven.

Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. – Jorge Santayana

Image: LicenseAttribution Some rights reserved by zeevveez


Purim has a Dark Side

March 11, 2014
Esther denouncing Haman / Ernest Normand

Esther denouncing Haman / Ernest Normand

I have been struggling for weeks over a post that I wanted to make about Purim. There’s a dark side to Purim, a very dark side. Its yearly permission to hate Haman and to “blot out Amalek” has borne some evil fruit over the centuries.  Finally, though, someone wiser and more articulate than me has written what I was trying to say. Shaul Magid has published  The Dark Side of Purim  in The Forward, and I recommend it.

Purim can be fun, it can bear good fruit, but it always makes me uneasy, too. Magid articulates this unease quite beautifully.


Purim for Grownups?

March 4, 2014
What's behind your mask?

What’s behind your mask?

Never underestimate the spiritual possibilities of fun!

But let’s say you are in a communal situation where it seems that Purim is solely a children’s holiday, and you want “more.” Here are some possibilities:

1. READ THE MEGILLAH. If you don’t have access to a formal megillah reading, that’s OK. Break out the Book of Esther (it’s in your Bible) and read it, preferably out loud.  Read it with other adults, or read it to yourself. The rabbis of the Talmud felt so strongly about the annual reading of the Book of Esther that they designated the proper time to do it (Erev Purim) and then several alternate times, should it be impossible that evening. Read all of it: not just the familiar early chapters, but the last two chapters, which are bloody and rather unnerving on the first reading. 

2. OBSERVE THE MITZVOT. Purim has four commandments, and they are all suitable for adults. (1) Read the megillah. (2) Eat a festive meal. (3) Give food to the poor, either directly or through an agency. (4) Give small gifts of prepared food (mishloach manot) to friends.

3. CONTEMPLATE MASKS. Masks and disguises are a major theme of the holiday. Take time to think about the masks you wear every day, and what is hidden by those masks. Is there some part of yourself that you disguise? Why? What would happen if you dropped the mask? What is your disguise? What does it cost you to wear that disguise, day after day?

4. WORK FOR JUSTICE FOR WOMEN. While the original writer of Esther probably intended it primarily as a story about anti-Semitism, a 21st century reading of the book reveals a feminist message as well. The king mistreats and then banishes Vashti, but over the length of the story those acts bring chaos upon the kingdom of Persia. Rabbi Arthur Waskow points out in Season of Our Joy that when Haman speaks of the Jews in Chapter 3, “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people,” his anti-Semitic words could just as easily have been describing the situation of women in the kingdom. Consider giving tzedakah to a women’s shelter, or take some action for justice for women.

5. WORK FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE. Megillat Esther is the story of a vulnerable minority who survive an attempt at genocide. Learn about and support organizations that watch out for hate in our society today, such as the Anti Defamation League or the Southern Poverty Law Center. Support or volunteer for organizations that work for social justice in your community.

6. GATHER WITH FRIENDS. Remember the “festive meal” listed among the mitzvot of Purim? Purim is a great opportunity for hospitality: invite some friends to join you in a nice dinner (maybe potluck?) and invite people to wear costumes or have a collection of costume pieces for them to make into costumes when they arrive. Have a silly party and play silly games.  Purim is a holiday against pomposity – if you can find a way to be silly and have fun, then you will be in the spirit of the holiday.

7. UPSIDE-DOWN DAY. Vacation is down time, but Purim is upside-down time. The scroll tells a story about reversals. Make your festive meal silly by reversing things: dessert first, then the meal.  Do things backward. (If there are children in your household, they can be very inventive with this.) Wear silly hats. Reverse roles! You may find out all sorts of interesting things about your family when you start switching things up – you may find new appreciation for someone.

Whatever you do for Purim this year, I wish you a day of laughter and insight!

Image: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Cayusa


The Basics of Purim

February 25, 2014
Purim costumes are usually very informal.

Purim costumes are usually very informal.

If you are new to synagogue, Purim is either a treat or a shock, maybe both. It’s a holiday based in the Biblical book of Esther, a story about the Jewish community in Persia. Here’s what you need to know:

1. WHEN? Purim falls on 14 Adar. In a leap year, it falls on 14 Adar II. There may be something called Shushan Purim on your Jewish calendar, but you only need to worry about it if you live in a walled city such as Jerusalem. For conversion to the secular calendar, check a Jewish calendar.  In 2014 (5774 in the Jewish calendar) Purim falls on March 15.

2. THE STORY For the whole megillah [scroll] read the Book of Esther in the Bible. The short version: The Jewish community in Persia is nearly annihilated when King Ahasuerus’s chief minister, Haman, takes a dislike to them. The king’s queen, Esther, is secretly a Jew and she intervenes to save the day.  The full story, in the Bible, is at least R-rated for both sex and violence, but in most American synagogues what you will hear is the G-rated version edited for children’s ears.

3.  MITZVAH 1 – HEAR THE STORY. We are commanded to hear the megillah read every year. We fulfill that mitzvah either by listening as someone chants the scroll or by seeing it acted out in a Purim Shpiel, with lots of audience participation. It is traditional to drown out the name of the villain, Haman, with noisemakers like groggers or with boos. The booing and noise is what may shock newcomers to synagogue: for many Jews, this is an opportunity to really let out our feelings about the people who have tried to kill Jews.

4. MITZVAH 2 – FESTIVE BANQUET. We are commanded to enjoy a festive meal on Purim. One theme for the holiday is feasting – if you read the story, you’ll notice there are lots of parties in it. Hamentaschen are three-cornered filled cookies associated with the holiday. Holiday cookies and foods are a great way to use up flour and other chametz in the pantry. Remember, Passover is one month after Purim, so the baking for Purim can be the beginning of Passover prep.

5. MITZVAH 3 – GIFTS TO POOR PEOPLE. We are commanded to see to it than even the poorest people can enjoy a festive meal. A donation to the Food Bank in your area or to a Jewish organization such as MAZON works nicely.

6. MITZVAH 4 – MISHLOACH MANOT  (Meesh-LOW-ach man-OHT) are small gifts of baked goods, wine, or other goodies, sent to friends to enhance their feasting.  Ideally we send friends a little package including two or three treats.

7. COSTUMES. Many Jews, both children and adults, wear costumes to synagogue for the Purim festivities.  Often people dress as characters from the Purim story, but pirates, astronauts, and superheroes are good, too.  Some just wear a mask for Purim, because one of the themes of the holiday is secret identities.

8. DRINKING. There is a tradition that one should drink “until one cannot tell Haman from Mordechai” – the bad guy from the good guy. This, too, is a theme from the story but it has too often been taken to excess.  Don’t drink and then drive home from synagogue, or push alcohol on anyone, please. Don’t give alcohol to children. Purim is supposed to be a fun holiday, and overdoing the slivovitz can take all the fun right out of it.

Immediately after Purim, we begin our Passover preparations. Passover is only a month away!

Image: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by maxnathans


Odd Bedfellows (on Valentine’s Day, no less)

February 14, 2014

We continue with this curious Jewish year of 5774: first we had Chanukah/Thanksgiving, now we have Purim Katan/Valentine’s Day, and next month we’ll have Purim/St. Patrick’s Day. Passover will arrive without a pairing, unless you count Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, which would make for a very odd couple, he having been a slaveowner and all that.

Purim Katan (Little Purim) is the holiday that isn’t, a day when we have Purim without the observances, as the Velveteen Rabbi explains in her excellent post for the day. (If you are not acquainted with Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s writing, you are in for a treat.)

Valentine’s Day was originally Lupercalia and not the least bit Jewish, but then, it wasn’t exactly about love, either: more of a combination fertility festival and bacchanal. It has become a marketing bacchanal in our day, with the media blaring nonstop about great deals on roses, candy, diamonds, and other love tokens.

My inner Zionist reminds me that i could skip all this nonsense if I’d just make aliyah already. In Israel, one celebrates only Jewish holidays. But here in Galut we will continue to tumble between two calendars.

 


A Commandment to Rejoice?

February 5, 2014
Some rejoicing is quiet and low-key, like a nap.

Some rejoicing, like a nap, is quiet and low-key.

When Adar enters, joy increases. – B. Taanit 29a

How can rejoicing be a commandment? We are commanded to rejoice on Shabbat and at “appointed times,” and to rejoice during the month of Adar – but how is such a thing possible? Isn’t joy an emotion?

The Torah has many subtle lessons about human psychology. True, when someone is sad, telling them, “Be happy!” or worse yet, “Smile!” is stupid and cruel. However, what the Torah commands is not emotion. The commandment is to engage in activities that bring delight (oneg.) On Shabbat, we are commanded to eat well, to eat three meals, to light candles, to say blessings, and to rest. These are also activities that will help to reduce the stress in our bodies. Good food in reasonable quantities can be enormously restorative. Lighting candles delights the eyes. Saying blessings encourages us to notice things outside ourselves, to wake up to tastes and smells and experiences. And most of all, rest is healing to the whole person, body and spirit.

During Adar, we are preparing for Purim, and after Purim, we are preparing for Passover. The anticipation of holidays can bring joy, true, but as we get ready to perform the specific mitzvot of Purim, our potential for joy increases.  We plan and prepare mishloach manot, small gifts of food for friends and strangers. Thinking about the enjoyment of others can carry us out of ourselves and distract us from troubles that may have occupied our minds.  Tzedakah is a mitzvah of Purim, another mitzvah that takes us outside our own troubles (and it is good to remember that while it is good to give charity, we are forbidden to give beyond our means!) The “festive meal” again involves good food, a restorer of health and energy. And finally, reading the megillah (Scroll of Esther) reminds us of a time when Jews faced a terrible fate, and it did not come to pass. It can be a reminder that our worst fears do not always come true.

Mourners are not expected to party. Rather, days of rejoicing give them a break from the activities of mourning (shiva, etc). When we see a kriah ribbon or a torn jacket, the rest of us know that this person needs to be treated gently, that they are not in a festive mood. Still they participate in the delight of the day, such as the Shabbat meal, because ultimately the purpose of the mourning period is to draw the mourner gently back into the life of community.

When you hear someone talk about oneg Shabbat, the delight of Shabbat, know that it doesn’t necessarily mean “delight” in the giggly, partying sense. Shabbat is not a magic Wonderland. It is a chance to rest, to heal, to gather our resources, to be with friends and family, to be restored. Sometimes that will look like a party and but usually it will be much quieter.

And if you have heard someone say, “When Adar enters, joy increases” but you do not feel the least bit joyful, know that you are not doing anything wrong. This is just the beginning of Adar! So you are starting a little low. Observe the mitzvot of the season: give a little tzedakah, prepare small gifts of food for friends, make plans to hear the megillah, join in the festive activities and meals at synagogue.

Or, if traditional mitzvot are not your thing, try “rejoicing” by treating yourself with love and care. Eat well. Exercise regularly. Look beyond yourself (yes, give a little tzedakah!) But either way, see what a month mitzvot and self-care will do.

We begin Adar in the depth of winter, and we emerge to spring. Let me know how it goes.

Image: LicenseAttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by mhofstrand


Does Two Adars mean Two Purims?

February 4, 2014
Adar Alef and Adar Bet?

Adar Alef and Adar Bet?

5774 is a leap year. The good news is that we have two months of Adar, two months of rejoicing! But does that mean that we also celebrate Purim twice?

The simple answer: no. If you look closely at your Jewish calendar, the first month of Adar (Adar Alef or Adar Rishon) lists the 14th of Adar I as “Purim Katan” or “Little Purim.” This acknowledges the date, 14 Adar, but we do not celebrate Purim on that date: no megillah reading, no mishloach manot, and no festive meal.

You may wonder why the first month of Adar gets such a shabby treatment. Purim is fun! Why put it off? First, tradition: we know from the Mishnah (Megilah 6b) that we’ve been reading the megillah in the second month of Adar since at least 200 CE. Secondly, the Gemara tells us that Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel taught that we read the megillah in the second month of Adar so that we are celebrating the redemption of Purim closer to the redemption of Passover.

This reminds us that Purim is not just about costumes and skits and merriment: it is also a festival of redemption, “warming us up” for the great redemption of Passover.

And as for Purim Katan: we are still forbidden to mourn or to fast on 14 Adar I. In a leap year, then, we have  a warm up to the warm up, a double opportunity to be extremely well prepared for the spiritual growth of Passover.

Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by Alaskan Dude


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