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Archive for the ‘Holidays’ Category

This is a somewhat scattered Mother’s Day post. To start off, I’d like to say thank you, Kristof:

By United Nations estimates, 215 million women worldwide have an “unmet need” for family planning, meaning they don’t want to become pregnant but are not using effective contraception. The Guttmacher Institute, a widely respected research organization, estimates that if all the unmet need for contraception were met, the result would be 94,000 fewer women dying of pregnancy complications each year, and almost 25 million fewer abortions each year.

Read the rest of his column about how family planning could save lives across the globe and why we need to press our government for it here–it’s a lesson we should all be thinking about this Mother’s Day.

And, while you’re at it, instead of buying your mother, grandmother, step-mother, or any other kind of female maternal figure in your life flowers, chocolates, or a card, consider making a donation in her name instead. The Mother’s Day Movement was created last year after a group of women decided that the $14 billion that Americans spent on Mother’s Day flowers, cards, and meals could be better spent–they started a campaign to raise money for a charity that improves the lives of women and children. This year, they are raising money for Shining Hope for Communities, an organization that runs a community center, health clinic, and school for girls in Nairobi, Kenya. If this organization doesn’t strike your fancy, Kristof (in another column) gives some suggestions for many other organizations that help women, like The Fistula Foundation, an organization that helps women suffering from obstetric fistulas, a horrible condition that begins at birth that causes women to leak out waste, here. This year, my sister and I decided together to celebrate our mother (in addition to talking to her and expressing our love) by doing something to help women around the world–she’s always taught us to care about other people, especially women in suffering, and we knew she’d appreciate it a lot more than flowers.

And finally, Happy Mother’s Day! I hope that whether you live near, with, or halfway across the world from your mother/maternal figure (my current situation), you find a way to say thanks for all she does for you.

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I’ve been MIA here for a while because my group went on a trip down to the south of Israel for two weeks, leaving me computer-less and wifi-less (but it was a lot of fun, so that wasn’t really an issue). No worries, I’m back just in time for Passover!

This morning I happened upon an interesting and relevant piece in The New York Times by Andre Acimano, a Jew raised in Alexandria whose family was forced by Nasser to flee Egypt in 1965. On the eve of Passover, he reflects on the discomfort and strangeness he feels as a disbeliever at Seders today, and how every Seder he attends brings him back to his last Seder in Egypt on the night before his family left the country.

I found these passages to be particularly poignant:

After almost three centuries of religious tolerance, we found ourselves celebrating Passover the way our Marrano ancestors had done under the Spanish Inquisition: in secret, verging on shame, without conviction, in great haste and certainly without a clear notion of what we were celebrating. Was it the first exodus from Egypt? Or maybe the second from Spain? Or the third from Turkey? Or the fourth, when my family members fled Italy just before the Nazis took over?

Or were we celebrating the many exoduses that went unrecorded but that every Jew knows he can remember if he tries hard enough, for each one of us is a dislodged citizen of a country that was never really his but that he has learned to long for and cannot forget. The fault lines of exile and diaspora always run deep, and we are always from elsewhere, and from elsewhere before that….

Tomorrow night is the night for it. For on that night all Jews remember the night when Jewish memory began. That night each one of us thinks back to that private Egypt we each carry with us wherever we are. We may not always know what to remember, but we know we must remember.

I, too, often feel that I’m not sure what I’m celebrating or remembering; I know what story or event relates to every holiday, but I also know that any feelings that stir inside me could not possibly be related to those events because I feel so distant from them. And yet, just as he so poetically describes, I feel that I must remember, and so I try, and often do remember something.

Recently, I’ve realized how easy it is for my generation (myself included) to forget about modern exoduses. Being on my program here in Israel has led to a lot of conversations and arguments among my friends about Zionism, Judaism, the reasons for a Jewish state, and what a Jewish state actually entails–too many things to discuss here. And over the course of the conversations, people have often questioned the need for a Jewish state, arguing that Jews live peacefully and happily in the Diaspora. Personally, I think that Judaism can and does thrive in the Diaspora, and has done so for thousands of years; however, I often feel the need to remind myself that throughout history–and more importantly, within the last 50 years, even after the Holocaust–Jews have been exiled from their homes and left without a place to go. In the case of Andre Acimano, his family left for Italy; before and during the Holocaust, Jews scattered across the globe. Whether this is justification for a Jewish state is another issue entirely, and not one that I want to engage with here; the point I am trying to make is that because so many Jews live securely in the Diaspora, it is often easy for us to overlook Jews who recently did not, or do not now. We forget that exodus is not simply an ancient term.

Perhaps this year, as I struggle to figure out what exactly I’m remembering, that is what I’ll remember–as we recall the Jewish exile from Egypt thousands of years ago, I’ll remind myself of the many
modern exoduses of my people. And in doing so, perhaps the idea of exodus, both the dusty and foreign kind that I read about in the Haggadah and the raw and visualizable kind of the 20th and 21st centuries, will become real to me, distancing me from the comfortable and safe lifestyle that I lead and forcing me closer to what has made up much of the history of my people. (And, just to throw it out there, the history of many other peoples, as well–Jews are not the only ones with a history of exile. Can anyone say Armenians?)

On that somewhat depressing note (but at least maybe it’ll give you something to think about while the verses of Chad Gadya go on and on and on?) I’d like to wish you a Happy Passover. May you stay awake throughout the whole Seder, not get too drunk, and find, in whatever way you can, a way to feel that “you yourself were there”.

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Yes, this is a “video for Hanukkah.” However, I still feel it is fitting to share on Christmas Eve.

First, because it’s catchy and fun. And second, because it brings up some of the things that American Jews experience during the holiday season: “I may not be filled with good old Christmas cheer, but calling me a scrooge just enhances seasonal fear.” I’ve never heard of “seasonal fear” before, but it seems to be a good term for the anxiety that some Jews have around Christmas time. Personally, I love Christmas lights and carols, and am perfectly comfortable spending December 24th eating Chinese food–I’ve never felt that Christmas was something I have to compete with or even have strong feelings about. Although, even by eating Chinese food, Jews have created a counter-tradition to compete with Christmas–so perhaps I’ve fallen prey to “seasonal fear” myself. Either way, this video is a nice, cheery reminder that even a Jew can appreciate the holiday season, even though it is essentially centered around Christmas.

That being said, I’m not advocating that all Jews go out, buy a Christmas tree, and decorate it, as the singer does in the video. To me, there is no reason why a Jew should have a Christmas tree–just because Hanukkah is “just for the kids” doesn’t mean that it has to be replaced with Christmas. Even though Christmas is a federal holiday and the US Embassy states that “some Christmas traditions have become American traditions,” Christmas is still, and certainly originated as, a religious holiday, and celebrating it as a non-Christian seems strange to me. To me, an American holiday is something whose premise is based in American history, like July 4th, not something whose premise people have forgotten or choose to ignore. I think there’s a value in having separate traditions for different religions, and not needing to blend them all into “American” traditions. It’s great to learn about and appreciate each other’s holidays, but I do not think that it’s necessary to actually celebrate them yourself–there’s nothing wrong with being different.

Even though I’m not celebrating Christmas, I’d like to say Merry Christmas to any reader who is–and to those who aren’t, I wish you a Shabbat Shalom, or simply, a good evening.

A final note: a favorite family tradition of mine is to participate in the DCJCC’s Day of Service on Christmas. This year, it was on Christmas Eve because of Shabbat, and I did not sign up in time to get a slot today. However, my entire family has volunteered in the past at homeless shelters and soup kitchens across DC, and it’s a great way to help ensure that someone else can have a great Christmas. I’d highly recommend looking into it if you’re in the DC area next Christmas.

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Today’s the last day of Hanukkah, and I wanted to mark that by sharing a video that has been sent to me by a different person almost every day of Hanukkah.

It’s called “Candlelight,” and is sung by the Maccabeats, a male A Capella group at Yeshiva University. I find the video to be really funny (the first half features the guys dressed up in sheets, fighting like the Greeks and Maccabees), but I also think the song does a good job of covering a wide spectrum of Hanukkah activities: the actual story behind it, eating latkes/jelly donuts, spinning dreidels, lighting candles, singing Maoz Tzur, and getting together with friends. Judging from the popularity the song has gained at my school (probably because of the catchy tune, Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite”), it seems that this song is relatable for modern audiences, and able to get them excited about Hanukkah. It’s good to have a Hanukkah song that feels fun and new and is easy for kids today to learn, I think “Candlelight” serves that purpose very well. A new Hanukah song to add to the repertoire, perhaps? Plus, who doesn’t love A Capella?

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Happy Hanukkah! Or Chanukkah, or Hannukah, depending on how you choose to transliterate.

I feel that it is necessary to address Howard Jacobson’s opinion piece in the New York Times, which am only able to describe as grumpy–-he essentially tries to argue against Hanukkah. And so, as a lover of the holiday, I am going to defend it on all accounts.

Jacobson starts out by saying that the Hanukkah story, when compared with those of other Jewish holidays, is severely lacking–that Jews love Passover and Purim because of their great stories, but that no one today really cares about the Hasmoneans. I’m not really sure how to address the lack of interest in Hasmoneans, as it’s a very personal opinion (I’ve never found the name to be a deterrent), but I would like to say that when I was a little girl, the story of Hanukkah was one of the favorites among myself and all of my friends, just as much as, if not more than, the stories of other holidays.

The author continues to say that the story of Hanukkah is simply not very believable. Here’s my problem with that: if the idea of defeating the Syrian-Greeks seems a little far-fetched, it certainly does not even compare to dubiousness of splitting of an entire sea. The story of the Hasmoneans is, simply, the story of guerrilla warfare–of a small group of people strategically attacking and wearing down a large army. We see it today all the time, and it has proved to be a potent strategy. Whether or not it actually happened is up for speculation, but I think it certainly could be seen as believable.

The author (and this is where he gets to me the most) says that Hanukkah songs just don’t compare to Christmas songs. Now, I take issue with this for many reasons. First, Hanukkah songs are great; I look forward to hearing my school’s A Capella group sing Hanukkah songs every year. I have so many happy memories of singing “Hanukkah, Oh Hannukah” and “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel,” even if they aren’t “musically complex,” as he says. (Now, I do find “Maoz Tzur” to be unnecessarily gruesome and violent, and so often I choose not to sing it, but that’s another story.) Second, has he ever even heard of Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song”?

Finally, the author says that Hanukkah isn’t good enough because it simply is out-shined by Christmas–Jewish kids don’t get presents and are stuck with dreidels, and we have no Christmas trees or lights. I know that, especially at a young age, some Jewish kids feel that they’re missing out by not having Christmas. But personally I’ve come to appreciate how nice it is not have to deal with Christmas shopping and its expenses, mad rushes, and stress. I think it’s nice to not have to be a part of what Christmas has become, meaning a very much commercial holiday. Exactly for the reason that the author hates on Hanukkah is why I love Hanukkah: it’s a beautiful winter holiday, unique from Christmas in that it has its own story and meaning but close enough to it on the calendar that Jews don’t feel left out from winter fun. Presents are nice, and I was always glad to receive a few small ones as a kid, but I’m glad that presents aren’t the focus of Hanukkah (not that they have to be of Christmas, either).

The reason that I think Hanukkah has become such a popular holiday today (besides the fact that it’s near Christmas) is because Jews all around the world can relate to the fear of destruction, and the pure joy that would come at escaping it. As Rabbi Avi Shafran writes in a letter responding to this piece, “as the special prayer we recite on Hanukkah puts it, we thank God for handing ‘the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few.’” Survivors of the Holocaust are still alive today, and Iran is a powerful threat to Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people–memory of near-destruction is very much alive. Even though the author writes off its modern meaning (although at the end he suggests dedicating candles to more recent instances of almost-destruction in Jewish history, like the Holocaust or Inquisition), I think that we should not. To me, Hanukkah’s beauty and power grows as the years go on and the holiday becomes even more of an opportunity to be thankful that Jews, often the few and the weak, have somehow managed to survive for all of these years.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I wanted to say Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

While Thanksgiving is not a Jewish holiday (there’s an argument among rabbis on whether Jews should even observe it—the majority say we can, since it’s a secular holiday), it’s a significant day here in the United States, even if that just means people eat a lot today. Which it often does.

But, there are a lot of other things that happen on Thanksgiving, too. Like families coming together, and cooking together, and seeing people they haven’t seen all year. So, enjoy whatever tradition you do, and, even though this is kind of trite by now, spend a few minutes thinking about what you’re thankful for. There are a lot of things that are wrong with the world, and this blog ends up being a place to write about a lot of them, but even though discussing issues is important, it’s also important to step back and think about the good that we have in our lives. Personally, I’m thankful for a lot of things, including the fact that unlike many people, I have an abundance of food sitting in my refrigerator today, waiting to be eaten. But even regarding this blog I have things to be thankful for. I’m thankful to be privileged enough to be able to write about gender issues instead of living through most of them. I’m also thankful to have family and friends that support me in all of my endeavors (even those that fail), especially this blog.

So, Happy Thanksgiving!

PS: This is somewhat unrelated to the rest of the post, but I wanted to put it out there anyways. Today is a holiday revolving mainly around food, turkey in particular, and many people believe that without the turkey, Thanksgiving could not be Thanksgiving. However, I wanted to take a cue from Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and say that we should choose what we want holidays to symbolize. Thanksgiving does not have to just be about turkey—we can create our own customs and personalize the holiday the way we want to. There is a cruel and harmful meat industry out there, one that is not necessarily the best thing to support on a holiday about giving thanks for the good in the world. Not having a turkey on Thanksgiving does not have to seem like something is being omitted—it can serve as a starting point for conversation, for talking about how we want to live our lives in a compassionate and caring way. Millions of turkeys do not have to be killed in order for us to enjoy Thanksgiving; Thanksgiving can be a day for creating personal customs, customs that are more aligned with what we believe and want to teach others. So, even if you’re not a vegetarian and not interested in becoming one, I’d say take time today to think about the food you’re eating, and talk to the people around your table it. Foer talks a lot about how we become attached to food because of the stories we attach to them; changing our eating habits does not have to get rid of these stories, but rather can serve as a chance to create new ones.

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This post is cross-posted at JWA

I wanted to write this post about women and Yom Kippur, as I often have done for other Jewish holidays, on topics such as what roles women should play during the holiday, stories about women associated with the holiday, etc. But I searched, and was kind of surprised that I found nothing in particular to write about.

There were no particular women to be found in the Torah and Haftorah readings for the day. The morning Torah reading is about the Kohen Gadol’s (high priest) Yom Kippur service in the temple, and the afternoon reading is about forbidden sexual relationships (a topic for a different time)–neither features anything particularly special for women. Similarly, there is nothing to be found in the Haftorah portions: the morning Haftorah is from Isaiah, and talks about sincere repentance (like fasting), while the afternoon Haftorah is from Jonah, and talks about how through repentance, the people of Ninveh were able to prevent themselves from being destroyed (and, you know, a whale.) None of these readings are about specific women or their roles. But the thing is, these stories aren’t really about men, either; sure, the prophets and the high priest were male, but when you step away from one of them, you’re not left with a lasting impression about the specific males, but rather about the messages of the story. There’s no Abraham or Isaac here–just repentance, repentance, repentance.

On Yom Kippur, it’s not just the stories that don’t differentiate between men and women. Women have the same prohibitions as men throughout the holiday: no food, no drink, no sex, no leather shoes, and no creams/oils. While there are exceptions for women in labor or who just gave birth, even pregnant women are supposed to fast (but encouraged to stay in bed if going to synagogue would cause them to feel ill.)

So, I’m didn’t end up writing about women today. Or men, really. I think maybe that’s because Yom Kippur, often regarded as the holiest day of the year, is not about women or men or gender–it’s about people. People repenting, people trying to step back from earthly habits and objects–we’re supposed to be like angels–and people trying to look at themselves from outside of their normal selves. And maybe a part of that is stepping away from gender lines and the way we normally associate ourselves with female or male roles, and instead just thinking about who we are as people.

I wish you all an easy and meaningful fast.

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