Friday, December 9, 2016

Shabbat-O-Gram for December 9

Shabbat Shalom

This is Human Rights Shabbat, as Dec. 10 is International Human Rights Day, which originated in 1948 as a response to the Holocaust, when the United Nations General Assembly adopted Declaration of Human Rights.   This remains one of the most important documents of the twentieth century.  It has never been more relevant. Read the full text of the declaration's thirty articles here.  Also, see how each of the declaration's articles is supported by Jewish sources.  We'll be exploring this in greater detail on Shabbat morning.

I hope you can join us this evening for our wine and cheese at 6:30 followed by a Shabbat mood-setting mini concert by the acclaimed band Banot, and then services at the regular time of 7:30. It's great to have Cantor Fishman back this Shabbat, as we begin to count down the days to Hanukkah.

Meet Banot!
Meet Banot!

光明乐 "Happy Hanukkah" in simplified Chinese

Speaking of which, have you made your reservations yet for next week's Hanukkah dinner. The Chinese food dinner and service following will be geared to all generations, and lots of fun.   Read about it here and click here to RSVP for the dinner.  Also, this Sunday, our eighth grade youth group will be meeting at my house for Chinese food and a movie. 

So what's this about Hanukkah and Chinese food?  My guess is that it has something to do with Antiochus' connections to the Ming Dynasty.

Seriously, Jews in China take great inspiration from the Maccabees, according to the Times of Israel. As one representative of that community puts it, "Even in far-off Kaifeng, the light of Jewish survival continues to burn brightly." Scholars believe the Kaifeng Jewish community was founded in the 8th or 9th century by Persian and Iraqi Jewish traders along the Silk Road. At its height, during the Ming Dynasty, from the 14th to 17th centuries, it numbered some 5,000 strong, with a synagogue, rabbi, educational institutions and a cemetery.

Oh yes, and how appropriate it is that potatoes are fast replacing rice and noodles as staples of the Chinese diet.  Even without fortune cookies, this could be a fortunate or latke day for Chinese Jews (I've now used up my quota of bad puns).

So that explains the Jewish obsession with Chinese food on Hanukkah, although someone just whispered in my ear that the Chinese food thing is really more about Christmas...which brings us to our next topic:

Is the December Dilemma Still a Thing?

There's a new twist to the December Dilemma this year: Christmas Eve and the first night of Hanukkah are perfectly aligned, for just the fifth time in 111 years.  This can be a very convenient thing. For instance, if your true love gives you five golden rings, you'll know that it's the fifth night of Hanukkah.  If people at the mall wish you a "Happy Hanukkah," at least this year that greeting won't be for a holiday that ended two weeks before.

For interfaith families, of which we have a growing number in our congregation (including grandparents of interfaith families), this year presents unique opportunities and challenges.  For those who prefer to keep observances of both holidays distinct and separate, it's harder to do that when the celebrations coincide.  On the other hand, there is something poignant about sharing simultaneous celebrations with neighbors. 

When we go to the homeless shelter on Christmas Eve this year, I'll bring along a menorah as well. 

For some of our children, the combination of holidays is confusing, especially with schools becoming less and less sensitive to the feelings of those who are from religious minorities.  Some of our TBE kids, who at times are the only Jews in their class, have found themselves uncomfortable as teachers obsess over Christmas themes.  I would have hoped this no longer was happening, but in schools at least, the December Dilemma still most definitely is a thing.

I mentioned our growing number of interfaith families, and for them especially, I recommend this "Guide to Hanukkah for Interfaith Families," courtesy of  I find it to be most sensitive and honest in how it deals with this season.  In that guide, they frown on usage of the term, "December Dilemma."  As they state:

"We think a good starting point for interfaith families is not to begin their December holiday discussions with the assumption that they're mired in a dilemma. Remember, a true dilemma is a deeply vexing, intractable problem for which there is no good solution. But many interfaith families do find good solutions that make sense for their families and create beautiful enduring memories for their kids.

The point is well taken.  The "dilemmas" often have less to do with this time of year, which should be filled with joy and light from all perspectives, and more to do with unresolved or underlying concerns.

I know that for many families, both interfaith and otherwise, the question of a Christmas tree can become a source of tension.  Some consider this a litmus test of Jewish identity ( I even wrote a column once called "The Litmus Tree"), though, given the proliferation of interfaith families, I think it's much more complicated and no longer subscribe to such simplistic generalizations.  After all, back in the '40s and '50s, as Jews tried to assimilate - it was fashionable to have "Hanukkah Bushes" in homes, which seems rather strange now, but no one could question the degree to which that generation identified as Jews.

It's interesting to note that often it's the kids themselves who see the tree as a litmus test of Jewish loyalties.  This can sometimes cause needless tension among Jewish kids who have a Christmas tree and those who don't.   I can't emphasize enough how important it is to not pass judgment on others, but simply to be proud of who you are and comfortable with your own practice.

As I've written before, there are a number of ways to respond to a child who wants a tree, but where the parents have decided that it would not be appropriate.

In Susan Sussman's popular children's book "There's No Such Thing as a Chanukah Bush, Sandy Goldstein," a young Jewish girl named Robin pines (OK, one more pun - couldn't resist) for a Christmas tree, and matters only get worse when she discovers that her classmate Sandy Goldstein has a Chanukah bush in her home. Eventually Robin is comforted when her grandfather teaches her how she can help her non-Jewish neighbors celebrate their festivals, as long as it's outside of the home.

In other words, as long as the Evil Evergreen doesn't sneak past the mezuzah, Jews can have their fruitcake and eat it too.

This year, with the holidays starting at the same time, our response should be to bring on the light.  If you add together all the tree lights and the menorah flames on your block on Dec. 24, throwing in a Yule log or two, it will be quite a light show.  Yes, the Christmas lights may be just a bit more noticeable in most neighborhoods around here, but come back again eight days later and see who's lighting up the block.  If we Jews have nothing else, we've got staying power.  And isn't that one of the key messages of this holiday.

This might be the perfect year to invite the neighbors to do the winter holiday version of a "Sukkah hop."  Go from house to house; some will have menorahs and some will have trees - and yes, some will have both.  And let's share the light.

I'd like to think that this joyous juxtaposition of holidays can be fun. Here are some of the more popular versions of "Twas the Night before Hanukkah." You can go with ones dripping with Yiddish shtick.   And here's one with a sleigh being pulled by a moose.  And here's a video by Aish that includes "visions of Walmart dancing in my head."  Oy. And try this clever one, for the kiddies.

Here's my own version:

'Twas the 7th night of Hanukkah and all through the shul
Not a word was included of a holiday called Yule
It's not that we're trying to defy old Saint Nick
It's just that it's now time to go and Bensch Lick!

This year, the 7th night of Hanukkah is a Friday night.  On that night we light the  seven Hanukkah candles, and then two more candles for Shabbat. Bensch Licht is Yiddish for lighting Shabbat candles. My point is that we have so much love and warmth and light in our own Jewish rituals that "To tree or not to tree" might not have to be the question, at least for the child whose entire year is filled with the warmth and wonder of Shabbat. We just need to spread the wealth around.  If we focus less on December alone, there's less likelihood that there will be a dilemma.

So let's think of ways we can better share and intensify the light this year.
You might recall how last year I collected and shared photos of TBE families' Hanukkah lightings) check them out here). I'd love to see some more. 

And one other thing.   TBE member Tamara Duhov suggests that we focus a little less on getting and more on giving this Hanukkah.  If we can make our holiday celebrations more about giving and less about getting, all the dilemmas will quickly slip away.

See her note below about Fifth Night.

Dear Beth El family, 

I recently came across a very exciting initiative for the holiday season that I'd like to share. It's called Fifth Night and I would love for you to look into it and see if you'd like to participate in it. Thanks and Happy Hanukkah to all,


About Fifth Night
In 2009, Fifth Night was officially launched.  Fifth Night is a charitable gift-giving event that brings families together to celebrate Hanukkah and to give back to our communities. The goal of Fifth Night is to help children better understand and appreciate the importance of their donations by learning about the charity and the families who will be benefiting from their gifts. By giving in a group setting, there is a shared energy and enthusiasm that makes Tzedeka fun and rewarding. Together, we are also able to make a more significant impact. Since its initiation, Fifth Night has partnered with organizations across the country to bring this spirit of giving to more communities.  Each year the positive effects of the event have grown and its founders are committed to its continued growth.

About The Founders
Robert and Rachel Glazer, and Amy Finn, the founders of Fifth Night, are Needham parents who wanted to help enrich the holidays by extending their children's spirit of giving beyond their own families, to the greater community. As their kids grew older, they explored the concept of having them donate one of their Hanukkah gifts, but never really knew how to make it meaningful.  They talked to many other families who felt the same way, and these discussions inspired the creation of Fifth Night.

Fifth Night 2016
This year, Hanukkah falls over the winter break and it is a somewhat tricky time to hold events. Therefore, Fifth Night will look a bit different, but the lessons and the mission are very much the same. Families, friends, and communities are being encouraged to think of Fifth Night when planning Hanukkah celebrations. Here's how:

Plan a party! Host a Hanukkah party for your family and friends. In the planning stages, select a charitable organization where you can donate toys and other items for children. Have the children select a gift, and forgo one night of receiving a Hanukkah gift in favor of giving to a child in need. It could be a small get together with just your family, or a larger celebration - whatever works for you.

Give! If possible, go with your children to bring the donations to the organization of your choice, and to meet the people who work there! Hearing "thank you" and seeing how their gifts will be used has a tremendous impact and helps the children better understand the importance of giving to others.
If you have any questions about Fifth Night, or if you would like to make an even bigger impact by coming together as a TBE family, choosing one specific charity, and then presenting the gifts to said charity, please contact Tamara Duhov at or (203) 663-3388 (after 4:00 pm).

Shabbat Shalom

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