It’s Kislev!

Image: A chanukiah (menorah) lit for the final night of Chanukah. Photo by kevindvt/pixabay.

I missed the first of the month, so I can’t say, “Rosh Chodesh Tov!” but it’s not too late to remind you that the last two days were Rosh Chodesh Kislev.

The most famous thing about Kislev is that on the 25th of the month, we will begin the celebration of Chanukah.

The name “Kislev” (KEES-lev) comes from the Akkadian word kislimu, which means “thickened.” Since it’s a month in which rains come to the Middle East, perhaps it’s a reference to the mud that come with heavy rain. The Akkadians were an early civilization in Mesopotamia, and much of the modern-day Jewish Calendar comes from Mesopotamia.

Why Mesopotamia? Because that’s where our ancestors were exiled after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 BCE. There was an earlier calendar, with its New Year in the month of Nisan in the springtime; remnants of that calendar may still be found in the Torah, which speaks of Nisan as “the first month.”

This month we remember a struggle between the Maccabees and the Hellenizers that took place in the 2nd century BCE (Before the Common Era.)  For that story, check out the summary in MyJewishLearning.com.

 

What in the World is Shemini Atzeret?

Image: Stanford University Hillel students enjoying a meal in their sukkah, October 2009. (Stanford University Hillel, via JTA.org)

Shemini Atzeret means “Eighth Day of Assembly.”

It is mentioned in the Torah in Leviticus 23:39, “and on the eighth day [of Sukkot] there shall be a solemn rest.” This is a little complicated, because Sukkot has seven days. So what is the eighth day?

Think of Sukkot as a great party (because it is a great party, after all.) Ancient Jews called it “HaChag,” THE Holiday, because it was the most joyful holiday of the entire year. Now, think about the last great party you attended. Did you leave early, or find yourself staying long after the official ending?

Shemini Atzeret is one more day of rejoicing before the rains start and fall comes and things get cold and dark. In the Diaspora, for reasons I’ve discussed before, it goes on for two days, the second of which is Simchat Torah.

For a great take on the holiday read Rabbi David Evan Markus’ article on the JTA website, On Shemini Atzeret, Just Hang Out.

This year (5777, or 2016, if you insist) Shemini Atzeret starts on the evening of Sunday, Oct 23, continuing until sundown on Oct 24.

I hope you’ve had a great Sukkot! Enjoy one more day of fun!

My Sukkah is Soggy :-(

Image: A rain-soaked pergola. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar.

My sukkah (soo-KAH or SOOK-uh) is soggy. Actually, the sukkah-stuff is still in the garage; what you see in the photo above is the very wet pergola that becomes my sukkah every year with a bit of presto-change-o.  A big storm is blowing through the Bay Area, with heavy rain and strong winds, and bits of it are going to blow through for a couple of days more.

On the one hand, frustrating: NOW is the time to set the sukkah up, and frankly, unless I want the walls and the rugs and so on to blow down the hill and over into the neighbors’ yards, it’s better to wait. On the other hand, my back is still out from Yom Kippur (too much sitting in synagogue) so maybe this is a gift in disguise. Anyway, I am a Californian, and it’s against the law here to complain about water that falls from the sky for free!

 

What is Sukkot?

Image: A sukkah in New England, in the USA. Public Domain via wikimedia.

After the intensity of the High Holy Days, Jews celebrate a completely different kind of holiday. (What, more holidays? Yes!)

Beginning on the fifth day after Yom Kippur, we celebrate Sukkot, the “Feast of Booths.” It’s a holiday of celebration, rest, and hospitality, when we build little shacks in the back  yard or on the roof of the apartment building and have friends over to eat for seven days. The first and last days are solemn days of rest.

It began as a harvest celebration, held at that nervous moment in the Middle East when the summer crops were in and the rain had not yet begun to fall. Winter rains are crucial not only for crops, but also for the survival of animals and people when the cisterns have run dry. In the climate of Israel, summer rains are rare; the year’s moisture falls in autumn and winter. Without water, everyone and everything dies.

So there they were, desperate for rain, with the last of the harvest in their hands. No surprise that the people prayed. The interesting thing is that our own story, the Exodus, is woven into the holiday as well. This is a holiday with a double meaning, and a doubled set of commandments:

You shall observe the festival of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the festival of ingathering at the turn of the year. – Exodus 34:22

You shall live in booths for seven days; all that are citizens in Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the Eternal your God. – Leviticus 23:42-43

So Jews all over the world take the days right after Yom Kippur to build a sukkah, a little booth, in their yard. on their balcony or on a roof, to “dwell” (eat and sleep) in to remember our tenuous existence in the wilderness.  For those in a cold climate, that means building a sturdy little sukkah and bundling up to sit there. For those in warmer climes, it’s a laid-back time of outdoor living. For all of us, it is a reminder of the fragility of life, of our vulnerability, a time of closeness and friendship, appreciation and joy.

For the tachlis [practical information] about the holiday and how to celebrate, see 7 Questions about Sukkot and Sukkot Hospitality.

 

 

 

Unforgettable

Image: A person diving in deep water. Photo by unsplash via pixabay.com.

Two Days of Atonement I shall never forget.

One was my first Yom Kippur after ordination. I officiated at my first funeral about 1pm in the afternoon before Kol Nidre*. The deceased woman’s name was Ruth. Although I did my best to focus on her and her family, I could not shake the feeling that I was officiating at my own funeral, reciting the prayers in my own name. That feeling clung to me that evening and all the next day.

The second memorable Yom Kippur was last year. The morning before Kol Nidre I suddenly felt desperate for air. The feeling worsened, and I lay across my kitchen table gasping for breath. It crossed my mind that I might be dying, and as we sped towards the hospital all I could think was that I was not ready, definitely not ready to die. The ER staff ascertained that my lungs were riddled with blood clots; they administered medicine and treated my family gently. Later I learned that the survival rate for pulmonary embolisms is low; I am fortunate to be alive.

Every Yom Kippur we rehearse for our own deaths, eschewing physical pleasures to focus on the meaning of our mortality. The prayer Unetaneh Tokef reminds us that life is terrifyingly unpredictable. Those two Days of Atonement drove these messages home in a way even prayer and fasting cannot. I felt heaven saying, “Pay attention!” Perhaps it takes a brush with mortality to help us fully appreciate the time we have and value life’s potential. May we each rise from prayer after the holy day with a renewed sense of the urgency of life, the preciousness of every moment.

*Kol Nidre is the name of a recitation in the evening service that begins Yom Kippur. It has also come to refer to the whole service, and the evening it is recited.

Mental Illness and Yom Kippur

Image: A well-dressed woman sitting bent-over on a bench. Photo by RyanMcGuire via pixabay.com.

Before I learned to read Hebrew, Yom Kippur could wreck me. The language of “sin” and “repentance” that I learned as a child sent me into a tailspin of despair.  Avinu Malkeinu [Our Father, Our King] was a fearsome image before which I cowered, a failure. A whole day of that, plus fasting, sent me into a black pool of depression.

The years that I was in otherwise good emotional shape, I’d be OK. But I remember a couple of years when Yom Kippur coincided with a round of depression, and I shudder. What should have been a holy day became a spiritual battle.

For me, and for others who suffer from a mental illness or affective disorder, holy days and holidays can carry an extra punch. There’s no shame in that; it’s also true for anyone who has had a recent trauma or whose close friend or relative has died.

Here are some things I have learned. I share them for the benefit of anyone who needs them this week:

PIKUACH NEFESH (pee-KOO-ach NEH-fesh) means “preservation of life.” It overrides nearly every other commandment. Do whatever you need to do to take care of your body/soul this week. If that means go to the beach for your Yom Kippur “service,” do it. If that means eat, take your meds, go to a meeting,  or call your therapist, DO IT.

FASTING – Fasting isn’t good for everyone. It’s bad for diabetics, pregnant women and people with a history of eating disorders. If there is some reason fasting isn’t good for you, DON’T FAST on Yom Kippur. (Again, pikuach nefesh!) All you have to say to anyone is “health reasons.” (Really, they should not be quizzing you anyway.) One strategy for dealing with feeling left out of the fast is to take one or more meals with someone else who doesn’t fast. Trust me, there are many Jews in that category. You are still welcome at the Break-the-Fast, don’t worry!

MEDICATION – If you are on medication, take your meds and take them properly. If you are supposed to have food or water with meds, eat or drink. Medications do not solve everything, but they can be a huge help. There is no shame to taking them, and they have saved lives. I take mine every day, and I say a blessing when I do it.

LANGUAGE – If you grew up in a Christian household, the language of prayer of the High Holy Days can be intense. “Sin” is an English translation for a range of Hebrew words, which mean everything from “mistake” to “malicious wrongdoing.” “Repentance” is the English translation for teshuvah, which covers a much larger concept than merely being sorry. It means turning, changing course, and sometimes, coming home.

If you find the language of the High Holy Days upsetting, I can suggest two things to do, one immediate and the other long-term. The first is to schedule some time with your rabbi (after the holy days!) to talk about “sin” and “repentance.” The long-term solution that worked for me was that I studied Hebrew and set myself free from clumsy translations.

DON’T BE SHY – Don’t be shy about taking whatever action you need to take about your self-care. Remember it is a mitzvah, a commandment, to take care of yourself and to stay alive! If services are too upsetting, don’t go. Go for a walk, go to the beach. Maybe this year your teshuvah, your turning, will be to give your rabbi a call after the holy days are over and get the name of a good therapist.

Whatever your situation, know that you are not alone! Many of us deal with some mental health issue over Yom Kippur. Help is available if you reach out for it.

This is an updated version of a post I wrote three years ago.

Southern Comfort

Image: “The Seven Days of Creation” by Laurie Gross Studios of Santa Barbara, CA. These tapestries hang in the sanctuary at Congregation Ohabai Sholom in Nashville, TN. Read more about them on The Temple website.

I had the pleasure of observing Rosh Hashanah in Nashville with Congregation Ohabai Sholom, also known as The Temple. One aspect of the service moved me beyond all others, and it caught me completely by surprise.

I arrived early and found a seat. The rabbis tell us that before prayer, we should pray that we pray well, so that’s what I was doing – at least, that’s what I was doing until jet lag caught up with me and I began to doze. I rested in a place between awake and asleep, relaxed and floating.

People began to enter, and as always happens with a big holiday service, they greeted one another and chatted: “Shanah tovah!” “How’s your mama doing?” “Oh my goodness, he’s grown so much!” “Can you believe this weather we’re having?” It was just small talk, but as I sat with my eyes closed, I began to cry.

They were southern voices, speaking with southern accents. They were in fact Nashville accents, the men’s slightly different from the women’s, all with a musical quality that sang to me. I cried because they were Jewish southern voices.

I have lived in California for 30 years, but I still have a strong Southern accent. At one point I tried to lose it, and someone tried to congratulate me on dropping “that ignorant sounding accent.” I immediately resolved that I would go to my grave sounding this way! After all, I spent the first 30 years of my life in the South; for better and worse, it is a part of my identity.

Jews seem particularly bothered by the accent. Some respond by complimenting me on my “cute twang” (I HATE that phrase) or tease me with exaggerated imitations of my accent. All of it serves to remind me that I’m Other, not one of the gang – even when it is intended as a joke or a compliment, it is distancing. I realize this is only a minor taste of what Jews of Color and other “others” encounter, but it wears on me. So far I’ve managed to be polite.

Sometimes it is funny. When I lived in Israel, Israelis would be puzzled by my insistence that I was m’Artzot-haBrit [from the United States.] They associated Americans with coastal accents from New York and Los Angeles. I learned to say that I was mi-TehnehSEE and then they’d ask if I knew Johnny Cash. That always made me laugh.

I internalized the idea that there are no Jews with southern accents. Certainly I didn’t know any rabbis with much of one (maybe the teasing got to them, I don’t know.) But on Rosh HaShanah morning, with my heart breaking over my brother, suddenly I was surrounded by a sea of beautiful soft southern speech, my mamaloshen [mother-tongue,] and all of it indubitably Jewish Southern speech. I wept, and was comforted.

Shanah Tovah,  y’all.