Blessing Part 1

Growing up, I always loved playing with Magic 8 Balls. There was something so enticing about trying to predict the future. I loved the idea that a tool could clue me in to what might be in store. 

This week, we complete the Book of Genesis, the very first book in the Torah, with Parashat Vayechi. Jacob, our patriarch, reaches the end of his life and tries to predict what the future will hold for his children and grandchildren. He gathers them around his deathbed and says: “Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come.” 

Some of the predictions are harsh: Reuben will be “unstable as water” and will “excel no longer,” and Shimon and Levi will live with anger. Some of the predictions are exciting: Judah will give rise to kings, and Asher’s food will be bountiful. 

It feels very meaningful to read these predictions on the first Shabbat of a new year. As 2023 stretches out before us, we ask ourselves what the year might bring. Many of us feel an increased sense of agency, committing to resolutions and behavior changes so that we can achieve our goals as the year unfolds. What do we foresee for ourselves as we gaze into the unknown future? 

But before outlining what’s in store for his children, Jacob gives a special blessing to his grandchildren. He says: “The Angel who has redeemed me from all harm—Bless these children. In them may my name be recalled, And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.” 

It’s a beautiful blessing that has become a popular Hebrew lullaby. In sharing this blessing, Jacob brings the past and the future together. He hopes that the memories of his father and grandfather–-those who came before him–-will inspire and shape the lives of his grandchildren and great grandchildren—those who will come after him. 

In honor of this blessing for the future, and to help us bring blessings into this new year, I am excited to spend the next few weeks exploring some of my favorite Jewish blessings. A blessing is a prayer that begins with the formula: “Baruch Atah Adonai,” and Jewish tradition teaches that we should recite at least 100 of them each day! 

May the new year bring bright futures and countless blessings. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Deena 

Hannukah Part 3: The Age-Old December Dilemma

The question of what it means to be Jewish in America never feels quite as important as it does during the month of December. For the entire month, we are surrounded by symbols of Christmas: Santa (both in figurine and live action form), Christmas music, trees, tinsel, and more. Christmas is part of the cultural landscape of America. 

I remember the first time I was faced with the question of how to participate in a Christmas ritual. I was six years old, and my family took me to an exhibit at a local museum during the holiday season. The museum was decorated with gorgeous Christmas trees and twinkling lights, and I felt the magic of the moment. At a certain point in the exhibit, a man dressed as Santa invited all the kids to take turns sitting in his lap and telling him our Christmas wish. 

I was ambivalent…I knew that as a Jew, I didn’t celebrate Christmas. Yet, I was excited by the prospect of telling Santa my wish and hoping it would come true. I think I passed on the opportunity, probably less out of a desire to avoid participating in a Christian activity, and more out of a desire not to share my secrets with a stranger. But from then on, I knew that Christmas would be part of my life. 

Interestingly, Hanukkah is a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar. It does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, and it lacks the work restrictions that govern other major festivals. There are very few rituals: Some additional prayers in the daily service, a candle lighting each evening, and some customary foods. But because of its proximity to Christmas, Hanukkah has become a major Jewish holiday in America, and has been branded as the Jewish alternative to Christmas. 

So how do we navigate the prevalence of Christmas? This is a major question for Jews, other non-Christians, and interfaith families. The good news is that this is not a new question. Throughout history, Jews have responded to the Christmas holiday in a variety of ways, from quietly staying out of the way of celebrations to full-on embrace. For more history of Jews and Christmas, check out this article from My Jewish Learning.

Many parents feel worried that somehow, Hanukkah will “lose” to Christmas. The concern is that compared to decorating a tree, putting out cookies for Santa, and waking up to a mountain of gifts, lighting Hanukkah candles and eating latkes will feel a little lackluster. 

It can be helpful to remember that there are no winners or losers when we think about both holidays as opportunities to bring light into the world. It’s no coincidence that, during the darkest month of the year, many faith traditions responded with festivals of light. We each do so in different ways, but ultimately, the winter holidays allow us all to celebrate the triumph of hope over despair, and to share our light with others. 

With this in mind, being exposed to another faith tradition can be deeply rewarding for children. It teaches them to be open to new experiences and to find beauty in diversity (see below my signature for a great example!). And it can be empowering for Jewish children to teach friends of other faiths about their Hanukkah traditions. For interfaith families, it can be very meaningful to celebrate not just one, but two holidays that capture the spirit of introducing light into the darkness. 

Of course, each family needs to decide how to navigate these issues; there’s no right or wrong way to handle anything related to the December Dilemma. We hope you’ll see us as resources to help think it all through. Don’t hesitate to reach out!

Though different, these holidays remind us that we have the capacity to bring light into the world—through ritual, learning, and action. Maybe December doesn’t need to be filled with dilemmas after all. 

Shabbat shalom,
Deena 

Hanukkah Part 2: Protecting Jews and Judaism

It’s been a tough few months for the Jewish community. From antisemitic tweets and statements made by well-known athletes and celebrities—public figures whose platforms reach millions—to credible (and thankfully, thwarted) threats to synagogues and Jewish communties, the years-long rise in antisemitism is in full force.

In her book, People Love Dead Jews, Dara Horn shares a theory about why we are seeing more antisemitic vitriol in the US than we ever have before. Her answer is simple…and disturbing: 

“The last few generations of Jews had been chagrined by the enormity of the Holocaust—which had been perpetrated by America’s enemy, and which was grotesque enough to make antisemitism socially unacceptable, even shameful. Now that people who remembered the shock of those events were dying off, the public shame associated with antisemitism was dying too. In other words, hating Jews was normal. And historically speaking, the decades in which my parents and I had grown up simply hadn’t been normal. Now, normal was coming back.” (pp. 217-218). 

After the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in October 2018, I remember thinking, with great sadness, that Jews in America had just joined Jewish history in a new way. Mourning violent attacks against our communities, and fearing subsequent ones, had rarely been part of our experience in this country. Now, tragically, it is. 

So many people have asked me how I am dealing with this new reality. I always remind them of our strong security procedures at JCP, and about how many organizations, including the ADL, are constantly and diligently working with law enforcement to protect the Jewish community from harm. I am so deeply grateful to the people who keep us safe. I am also thankful for friends and allies who reach out with messages of support. 

But I am also concerned. It seems that so many people—Jews and non-Jews alike—become animated about Judaism only when Jews are threatened. When antisemitism rears its ugly head, Jewish identity suddenly becomes not about the richness of text study, or the beauty of holiday celebrations, or the joy of imparting our ancient wisdom to the next generation. Instead, sadly, it becomes about how much people hate us, and always have. 

As Horn points out in her book, the Syrian Greeks of the Hanukkah story did not want to kill Jews. Instead, they wanted to wipe out Jewish identity and traditions by inserting their own religious practices in their place (p. 57). Jews weren’t allowed to study Torah, they weren’t allowed to circumcise their sons, and they weren’t allowed to worship in their sacred Temple (a statue of Zeus had been placed on the sacrificial altar). In the Hanukkah story, the goal of the antisemitism was not to kill Jews, but to kill Judaism. And in our current environment, we can’t let antisemitism accomplish either of these horrific goals. 

We must, at all costs, protect ourselves when our communities are threatened with violence. And we must make our voices heard when people spread this dangerous and most ancient form of hatred. 

But we must also remember—as the Hanukkah story reminds us—not to let antisemitism define Judaism. If antisemitism is the sole force that shapes Jewish identity, that’s just another victory for hatred. Judaism is so much more than reacting to antisemitism. Our Jewish lives can and should be shaped by all of the beauty and meaning of our tradition…not just by the forces that want to destroy it. 

One of the Hanukkah traditions is to display the menorah in the window in order to “publicize the miracle” of Hanukkah. During a holiday where we remember how Jewish tradition was almost wiped out, we respond by proudly and publicly displaying the symbols of our faith. 

So when people ask me how I am dealing with this new reality, and what I am doing to fight antisemitism, I feel excited and empowered when I share that we at JCP help our community live as proud and joyful Jews. There’s no better antidote to hatred than witnessing our community at its best. 

Shabbat shalom,

Deena 

Hanukkah Part 1: The Holiday Spirit 

Though it feels like our Jewish High Holy Day season ended not so long ago, the next holiday season—the American one—has just begun. It’s officially December, which means that the classic holiday songs are playing, the Starbucks cups have turned red, and the cheer is spreading. 

The holidays can be a time of cognitive dissonance for Jews: On the one hand, the holiday season is fun! Our ever-bustling city slows down a bit and is engulfed by coziness and warmth. It’s hard not to feel the sense of hygge, the perfect Danish term meaning “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being” which permeates the city. Kids are off from school, work is quieter, the rigorous schedules we keep are a bit calmer. It is a time to gather with loved ones (especially meaningful after so much isolation over the last few years), a time for generosity, and a time to enjoy increased patience and kindness that seem to pervade our society during this magical season. 

On the other hand, the holidays can feel tough. For anyone going through a hard time, the onslaught of so much good cheer can be challenging to face. It can also feel like a time of maximum consumption, with the emphasis on consumerism and copious gift-giving. 

And for many Jews, it can feel isolating to be Jewish in a country whose supposedly secular calendar is defined by a different faith. It can feel difficult to explain to children why we might not participate in the fun and beloved traditions of their friends. And for families of more than one faith, it can be tough to make sure that both Christmas and Hanukkah feel sufficiently fun and festive so that one holiday doesn’t “win out” over the other. 

But just as our experience of the holidays can be complicated, so too is the story of Hanukkah itself. Though we might immediately think about the miracle of oil, the historical story of Hanukkah is really about a struggle between assimilation and the maintenance of tradition. When the Syrian Greeks, ruled by Antiochus, introduce Greek culture into Jewish society, many Jews are thrilled. They want to partake in the sophisticated culture of their Greek neighbors. 

But the Maccabees, the classic heroes of the Hanukkah story, want to ensure that Judaism is not “tainted” by Greek influences. So not only do they fight against their Greek overlords, they also fight against their fellow Jews who want to integrate an outside culture into their sacred traditions. And yet, when the Maccabees emerge victorious, they celebrate by instituting an annual military parade…one of many Greek customs that they fought so vigorously against.

For the next month, I will share reflections on all things Hanukkah, from how the holiday can help us think about contemporary antisemitism, to some strategies to navigate the tension between Hanukkah and Christmas (often called the “December Dilemma”), to ways that we can share more light in the world. 

For now, I hope you will join us for our Hanukkah celebrations at JCP, which you can find below. And I wish you a cozy Shabbat, filled with warmth and joy. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Deena

Our JCPodcast for Thanksgiving!

Welcome to the second episode of the JCPodcast! Every few weeks, in lieu of a written D’var Torah, Rabbi Deena and Rabbi Jacob will share a brief discussion about an interesting and relevant Jewish topic. This week, in honor of Thanksgiving, we’re talking about Jewish practices that help us cultivate and express our gratitude. Listen to the podcast here and check out the animated version on our Youtube channel!

If you’re looking to give back during this season of gratitude, we hope you will join us to volunteer. Check out our community service opportunities here! 

We hope that you and your loved ones had a meaningful Thanksgiving. We’re so grateful for our JCP community. 

Shabbat shalom, 

Deena & Jacob