Interfaith Challenge: When December isn’t Wonderful

Right about now (late December) the world seems full of Christmas, and many liberal Jewish publications seem full of stories about interfaith families that are having a wonderful December.

But what if your interfaith household is having a tough time this year? Here are some tips for you, in this moment:

  1. Know that you are not alone. The holidays hit a lot of people hard. Your particular issue may be “interfaith” but there are also people in single-faith households that get stressed out, fight, or feel horrible this time of year. Depression is not unusual, either. So even though the marketing on TV tells you that everyone else is happy, don’t you believe it.
  2. Kindness is more important than holiday spirit. We can’t control how we feel, but we can choose what we do. Choose kindness whenever you can.
  3. Keep your agreements if you possibly can. Let’s say you have agreed to something, and now you find that it is uncomfortable. You can say to your partner, “This is harder than I thought it would be.”  You can renegotiate for next year after December is over (see #7 and #8 below) but for now, keep the agreements you’ve made. It will make any future renegotiation easier.
  4. This year is just this year. It isn’t how it’s always going to be. Next year might be completely different.
  5. Make a little time and/or space for your tradition. If the house feels too Christmasy, this might be a time to go to synagogue, mosque, or temple. If it feels not Christmasy enough, it might be a time to go to church, or to any of the places where Christmas is in abundance.
  6. Make a little time and/or space for yourself. What restores you? Go do that. Go for a run or to the gym. Get that pedicure. Meditate. Listen to your music. Be kind not only to others, but to yourself.
  7. Don’t try to process December during December. If it’s already December, the Christmas goose is in the oven, and the Chanukah fat is in the fire. Yes, you and your beloved may need to have a conversation, maybe even a conversation with a skilled counselor helping, but now it’s all too raw. Be as kind to one another as you can, survive to January, then have a conversation when you aren’t in the middle of it.
  8. Know that help is available. If that conversation is going to be tough, or you don’t know where to begin, call your rabbi or minister and ask for help. That may be enough, or they may refer you to an individual or couples counselor who can help. One thing: you want a counselor with experience in interfaith issues. It’s OK to ask for what you need.
  9. Take depression and other mental health issues seriously. Sometimes the only issue is December, but sometimes December can highlight deeper troubles, like mental health issues or addiction. Don’t brush those things under the carpet and hope they’ll go away. Seek treatment for mental health issues. If the sick person won’t seek treatment, other family members need the support of counseling, Al-Anon, or a NAMI group.
  10. December will not last forever. I promise.

Love My Neighbor


One of my neighbors has the brightest, most colorful light display imaginable. Last year I found out why he does it: he lives in that house with his 90 year old mother. Years ago, everyone in that cul-de-sac had holiday lights. Now most of them are elderly and he has gradually added to his light show as theirs have become too burdensome. He enchants the whole street, including me.

This year I noticed something else: the first lights he puts up are all blue and white. It’s only after Chanukah that the red and green lights are lit. That can’t be a coincidence.

I am fond of my neighbor: he’s a good man. I smile every time I round the corner and see his light display. It isn’t my holiday, but I love to see his lights shine.

Intro Class, 5th Night of Chanukah

Image: Ten menorahs on a table, each with 6 candles lit. 10 people sit behind the table in the dark. 

The final meeting of the Fall session of Intro fell on the 5th night of Chanukah, so I invited the class to bring their own chanukiot to class. (Thank you, Lisa Hanauer, for the great suggestion.)

We sang the blessings, then paused for a quick class photo with the glowing candles, before we turned the lights back on to learn.

I was still glowing on the drive home – what a lovely, lovely memory of a wonderful group of students!

Sixth Night: Shabbat Convergence!

Tonight we celebrate a Jewish convergence:

That means the longest Birkat Hamazon of the year tonight and tomorrow, as Rabbi David Wolpe pointed out on Twitter today.

Rabbi Wolpe didn’t mention that this will also add bits and pieces to the service tomorrow morning, all of it special:

We add Al HaNissim to the Amidah during Chanukah. It’s a prayer of thanksgiving for the miracles of Chanukah. This version is a lot more entertaining that merely reciting the prayer, but I can’t resist posting it:

For a translation and an explanation of the prayer, here’s an explanation from the Orthodox Union website.

Because it is also Rosh Chodesh Tevet, we recite a short Hallel (Praise) prayer tomorrow morning. This is a recording of Hallel sung by the Women of the Wall on Rosh Chodesh Shevat 5771, but it’s pretty close to what you will hear in a liberal synagogue tomorrow morning:

The video starts sideways, I don’t know why, but bear with it – the Hebrew is clear and beautiful. Hallel is a set of hymns of praise that likely go back to Temple times. Houston Congregation for Reform Judaism has a lovely piece on the Meaning and History of Hallel.

Finally, there are also special Torah readings for Chanukah, from the Book of Numbers.

This is the liturgical equivalent of a Chanukah party: we’re celebrating, praising, telling stories, and most of it comes with rousing tunes. I hope you enjoy your Chanukah convergence: I plan to do so!

Fifth Night: Dedication

To what shall I dedicate myself this Chanukah?

Time is growing short. There are only three unlit candles on the menorah tonight.

To whom shall I dedicate myself this Chanukah?

Once upon a time, and still in too many neighborhoods, Jews are despised among all the peoples of the earth. There’s a rich irony there, since our Torah is emphatic about a command to love the stranger, to be fair with the one who is not like us.

This command, like many of the mitzvot in Torah, runs counter to human nature. It is natural for us to love those like ourselves. It is easiest to hate and mistreat those who are different. We have suffered from this psychological fact not just in Egypt, but in Europe and America as well. We who have suffered from difference know it all too well.

Tonight I read an article in the Los Angeles Times that reminded me of the mitzvah. The headline reads “After terror attacks, Muslim women say headscarves have made them targets for harassment.” I found the headline alone very interesting: do we know this only from Muslim women? Are there no police reports? Is no one gathering data? Does anyone care?

As a feminist and as a Jew, I am horrified by this news, but I am not surprised. After all, hijabi women (women who wear head coverings) are noticeable in a way Muslim men are not. It probably doesn’t help that photos of one of the San Bernardino murderers show her wearing hijab. However, Westboro Baptist Church members wear crosses and carry crosses and we manage to distinguish between them and Christians who mean us no harm.

I posted the article to facebook, hoping to find ideas for supporting hijabi women (for Chanukah is a festival of religious freedom, is it not?) and was pointed to an article on the subject, also from facebook and reprinted in the Stranger. Sofia Ali-Kahn writes that there are things we can do to support Muslim women. Here are her suggestions, paraphrased a bit:

  1. If you see a someone being harrassed, intervene or call for help.
  2. On public transportation, sit next to the hijabi woman and say asalam ‘alaykum (That means ‘peace to you.’).
  3. If you have a Muslim work colleague, check in. Tell them that the news is horrifying and you want them to know you’re there for them.
  4. Teach your children. Tell them how you feel about this issue, and what to do if they see bullying.
  5. Call out hate speech. This is most important when you are among people who may not know a Muslim.
  6. Learn about Islam, and organize such learning.
  7. Write Op-Eds and letters to the editor.
  8. Call your elected officials, and encourage them to speak out against hate speech in all its forms.
  9. Out yourself as someone who won’t stand for Islamophobia. Speak up. Be public about your support for religious freedom.
  10. Engage the Muslims in your life. Make sure you really feel comfortable standing for and with your Muslim friends, neighbors, coworkers.

There have been times, and still are times, when Jews feel isolated in the world, when people have not spoken up for us. We know what it feels like to be anxious and wary, afraid of what cruelty may come at us out of nowhere.

Torah calls us to treat the stranger with kindness. The Chanukah story reminds us that we have been persecuted for our difference. Let us stand with our neighbors against the voices of darkness. Let us light the fifth candle and dedicate ourselves to love.

Image: The image with this article is by Robert Couse-Baker, some rights reserved. For more information, visit his Flickr page.


Fourth Night: Thou Shalt Not Rush

Two great teachers had an argument about lighting the menorah. Shammai argued that we should light all the candles on the first night, and then decrease by one candle each night. Hillel disagreed, saying that we should begin with just one candle. Hillel’s view prevailed. Later his students taught that we light that way because in matters of sanctity, we always increase.

Tonight we will be at the middle point, where light is balanced with the dark. We have seen the lights increase for the past four nights, but there are still as many empty sockets on the lamp as there are candles burning. Chanukah takes its time! We are not allowed to rush, forbidden to light more candles than the day provides.

We are accustomed to speed; Chanukah calls us to slow down. We light the candles, and we may not perform work by their light. So life stops for a little while, and we pay attention to one another, or we play. For eight nights, we have to stop and enjoy ourselves: poor things! We have to stop working!

In the age of smartphones, this is no small thing. Perhaps the best gift of Chanukah is the habit it offers us: for a little while, every night, we pause–  to play.


This is a new version of an older post.

Third Night: Three’s a Crowd

There is something in the human psyche that is attracted to groups of three. Research shows that three examples form the most powerful argument for persuasion. Comedians use groups of three to make us laugh. The U.S. Marine Corps uses the “Rule of Three” for all levels of organization, because it is their experience that an effective Marine can attend to three things at once, no more.

  • Two is a coincidence. Three is a pattern.
  • Two have a disagreement. Three has decision-making power.
  • Two is a couple. Three is a crowd.

Three also shows up in Jewish practice and tradition. A beit din [rabbinical court] consists of at least three rabbis. In modern times, a beit din is composed of three rabbis, and usually it is convened to authorize a conversion.

Three also has special significance at mealtimes. While we say blessings before we eat food to take note that it comes from God, we say a blessing of thanksgiving after a meal. That blessing is called the Birkat Hamazon, the Blessing for Satisfaction, from the passage in Deuteronomy:

And you shall eat and be satisfied, and bless the Eternal your God for the good land which God has given you. – Deuteronomy 8:10

It’s a long and beautiful blessing. It is a “thank you” blessing, but it doesn’t stop with a private thanksgiving. It goes on to thank God for sustaining all creatures, for sustaining the Jewish People, asking that God sustain the Jews in the future (sort of a thanks-in-advance) and then a fourth blessing gives thanks for the many happy relations between God and Israel.

If three or more Jews say or sing it, there is a special introduction, called the zimmun, an invitation to the group to say the blessing:

If three Jews eat together, they have an obligation to invite one another [to say the blessing after a meal.] – Mishnah Berakhot, 7.1

What does this have to do with Chanukah? Chanukah is a feast of dedication. Dedication is public, not private. We advertise it. And because it is not private, we invite other Jews to celebrate it with us.

As the nights go by, the light grows. Tonight, with three candles lit, we advertise the miracle and invite other Jews to celebrate, to dedicate themselves, to grow in relationship with the Jewish people.