Sunday, December 23, 2018

How Should a Jew Respond to “Merry Christmas?”


How should a Jew respond to ‘Merry Christmas’?

Here's a one-word answer that is far better than saying 'I'm sorry, I don't observe Christmas'
Q: It’s that time of year, when everyone everywhere is saying “Merry Christmas” to me, even people who know that I am Jewish. Should I simply smile and repeat the greeting or politely correct the greeter and say, “I’m sorry, I don’t observe Christmas.”
A: Now I know why Lenny Bruce said that Christians celebrate while Jews observe. We never get to be happy, even at this most celebratory time of year. We’re always observing. And in December, we’re always agonizing over how to find our little niche in this annual Yuletide cultural bombardment.
The key is to come up with strategies that affirm Jewish distinctiveness and pride while not adding to the already tense, politicized atmosphere of the Christmas – er, holiday – season in public life. How can we reply in a manner that does not invite retaliation and resentment?
There is nothing wrong with wishing a non-Jewish neighbor “Merry Christmas,” just as it would not be a betrayal for her to wish you “Shabbat Shalom” when leaving work on Friday afternoon. In the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Moses Isserles notes the need for being good neighbors in a society where Jews and non-Jews mingle and do business together, even regarding problematic greetings. It’s all done for the sake of peace. The idea is to reduce tensions, not increase them.
It’s even halachically OK to mention a holiday whose name includes the name of a foreign deity. At least it is in this case, since the word “Christ” is not really a name at all, but the Greek translation of the Hebrew term for “Anointed One.” If the holiday were called “Jesus-fest” or “Zeus-mas, there might be cause for concern. So when I speak with my Christian clergy colleagues, I have no problem acknowledging their holiday in my seasonal salutations.
Ironically, Jews tend not to label our festivals when extending greetings. We traditionally just say “Happy Holiday” on Passover or Sukkot (“Hag Sameach” in Hebrew or “Gut Yomtov” in Yiddish). The only exception to that rule happens to be Hanukkah. We say “Hag HANUKKAH Sameach” in order to distinguish this minor non-biblical festival from the more significant biblically mandated holidays.
A greeting should be seen as a verbal embrace, the extension of blessing, rather than as an assertion of xenophobic power. In a perfect world, “Happy Holidays” would not be seen as a cheapening of the meaning of Christmas, but as an enhancement of its deepest spiritual message.
So, let’s try to get beyond the clichéd salutations that have backed everyone into a corner. If you feel that someone is deliberately trying to impose upon you the hegemony of Christmas, wishing you a “Merry Christmas” while knowing that you are Jewish, let’s look for a reply that is both respectful of diversity yet deeply spiritual, something that could be uttered simultaneously to Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly without blinking an eye. Here are my nominations:
“Wishing you a Blessed Season!” (Sounds too much like Red Skelton, or a Debbie Friedman song, not that there’s anything wrong with Debbie Friedman songs.)
“May the Light Increase” (Sounds a bit too Star Warsy)
“Peace” (A little too ’60s, especially if you are wearing a Nehru jacket)
Think about it. Shalom is perfect. These days, everyone knows what it means – like schlemiel and chutzpah. The reply is spiritual, identifiably Jewish yet increasingly universal. Listen to a parade of Christian leaders lining up to speak at a conclave supporting Israel. You’ll hear more “Shalom”s uttered there than in the hallways of the Knesset, where the politicians are more likely to be spitting at one another.
So the next time someone who knows you are Jewish says “Merry Christmas” just to get a rise out of you, take the high road and elevate the conversation by replying “Shalom.” But if it’s simply a total stranger on the street, movie theater or supermarket, “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” would be equally fine.
Anything but, “Oy vey. My children never call!”

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Shabbat-O-Gram for December 14

Teens leading Kiddush at our multi-generational service last Shabbat 

Shabbat Shalom!

With Hanukkah behind us and winter on our doorstep, join us on Friday night for our musical Kabbalat Shabbat and to hear Rabbi Geoff Mitelman talk about "Sinai and Synapses." Then come back on Shabbat morning for another "Shabbat in the Round," our renewal-style alternative, meditative experience, beginning with breakfast at 9:30.  

It has been another challenging week, for our community, with several untimely deaths, and for Israel as well, with multiple terror attacks, including one that took the life of a mother and her baby, and the killing of a woman in another domestic violence incident. Over 24 women have died in such incidents this year, a trend that has caused great concern among Israelis.


If you are looking for a snappy new source of basic info on Jews and Judaism, geared especially to those who feel a little (or a lot) uncomfortable in Jewish settings, check out  You can peruse their new Ten Commandments or be inspired by their selection of life wisdom readings.  This site was recommended to us by our mentor at Interfaith Family's Interfaith Inclusion Leadership Initiative (IILI).  We are part of their nationwide cohort of about a dozen synagogues and the coaching has been very helpful.  Our Keruv (Inclusion) Committee plans on sharing some of what we've learned soon, but meanwhile, just know that "JewBelong" (Jew really do!) - and check the site.

Here's one of the wisdom readings that they feature:

To open eyes when others close them. To hear when others do not wish to listen. To look when others turn away. To seek to understand when others give up. To rouse oneself when others accept. To continue the struggle even when one is not the strongest. To cry out when others keep silent. To be a Jew it is that. It is first of all that. And further, to live when others are dead and to remember when others have forgotten.
-Emmanuel Eydoux

"The Jews are not Disappearing"

Two weeks ago, Middle East analyst Marc Schulman spoke here, and we received a noteworthy shout out in his Newsweek column this week.  I highly recommend that you read the entire column (what's here is a preview of the Newsweek piece), but here's what relates to us:
"On Sunday, Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing religious Jewish Home Party and Minister of Education and Diaspora Relations stated:

"There is an unprecedented crisis between Israel and the Jewish diaspora. They like to say it's because of the Western Wall, or the Palestinian question or other ideological problems. That's not true. The reason is a major problem of assimilation and that more and more Jews around the world don't care about their Judaism and don't care about Israel. That is the whole story."
...On the off-chance Bennett happens to be reading. Forty years ago (in my youth, before I first moved to Israel), I believed that diaspora Jewry would indeed assimilate and disappear. However, a week ago, on a Friday night, I stood in front of a full room in a Conservative synagogue in Stamford, CT packed with people who had come to both celebrate their Judaism, through participation in a Friday night service and hear me speak about American Jewry and Israel in the Trump era. Those Jews are not assimilating and disappearing. They have not stopped caring about Israel and their Judaism. However, they are having a tough time identifying with an Israel that has so identified with President Trump. They are having a hard time connecting with a country that is being pulled ever further to the right by your party, and they are having an impossible time understanding why your party has consistently worked to block their stream of Judaism from being recognized. ...Minister Bennett, perhaps you should look in the mirror before you criticize diaspora Judaism."  
You can take Marc's assessment of the political mood of American Jewry as you will (Marc spent a lot of time speaking with congregants after the service), but I was especially pleased to see his comments on the vibrancy of the congregation and our service.  Yes, he's right. We "celebrate our Judaism."  We don't just go through the motions and call it Judaism.  Lenny Bruce used to joke that Christians celebrate holidays, while Jews "observe" them.  No, Lenny, and yes Virginia, Jews celebrate our Judaism - and we are constantly reinventing it to keep it vibrant.  So, Naftali Bennett, we invite you to come to Stamford and check us out.  Thank you for the shout out, Marc Schulman!  

Oh, and for those who were here that night, did you notice that much of what Marc spoke about regarding Prime Minister Netanyahu's legal challenges suddenly burst into the headlines the very next day?  He gave us some valuable background to what is undoubtedly going to be a major story through 2019.

The Good People Fund

Some more follow-up on Marc's visit.  For my final question of the Q and A, I asked him for positive suggestions as to how to revitalize the relationship between American Jewry and Israel.  He suggested that people think small, that we find projects that are near and dear to us. So for instance, those who love dogs (a random suggestion for me) and who are concerned about helping those with disabilities might want to support the Israel Guide Dog Center, which since 1991 has dramatically improved the quality of life for visually impaired Israelis, including wounded soldiers. We've even helped some of those dogs learn Hebrew, when they've visited us.  


For the past ten years, The Good People Fund has called to our attention hundreds of mitzvah opportunities, here and in Israel. Download their new Annual Report and see for yourself how you can help to repair the world. With people especially attuned to tzedakkahat this time of year, let The Good People Fund be your guide and inspiration.  It's a great resource for mitzvah projects - or just for the family to sit around the table and discuss how they want to share their bounty this year.

As we mark the first official day of winter next Friday, we recall the 50th anniversary of an image that changed everything, the Apollo 8 color shot of the earth rising over the moon's horizon.  

See the story behind that famous photo:

Earthrise: The Story Behind William Anders' Apollo 8 Photograph | 100 Photos | TIME
Earthrise: The Story Behind William Anders' Apollo 8 Photograph | 100 Photos | TIME

See also a recent documentary that premiered in the Tribeca Film Festival, seeking to explain that event to those who were not yet alive fifty years years ago.  Astronauts experienced (and through them, so did we) what author Frank White first dubbed "the overview effect" - a psychological effect that occurs when seeing the Earth from a distant vantage point shifts a person's perspective.

Those who were alive will recall the deep impact of our seeing the moon up close for the first time, as the Apollo 8 astronauts recited the opening words of Genesis on Christmas Eve.  You can watch it here, as it happened (the reading is about five minutes in):

CBS News Coverage of Apollo 8 Part 37 (Christmas Eve Reading Of Genisis)
CBS News Coverage of Apollo 8 Part 37 (Christmas Eve Reading Of Genesis)
So here it was, fifty years ago, that arguably the greatest scientific achievement of all time became simultaneously a moment of profound spiritual meaning, and the words chosen to encapsulate that moment were from the sacred text that so many humans share.  How was such a partnership so smooth then, and yet now so many perceive science and religion as being in perpetual conflict?  That was the question I raised in my Kol Nidre sermon this year.  

Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman is founder of the startup, “Sinai and Synapses,” whose goal is to bridge the religious and scientific worlds, offering people a worldview that is both scientifically grounded and spiritually uplifting.  I am hoping that Rabbi Mitelman’s visit will just be the beginning of a lengthy and fruitful dialogue and I’m calling upon people of science in our congregation to step forward and participate. “Sinai and Synapses” is fostering dialogues in a number of congregations; we'll hear about them on Friday night.  

We saw with Apollo 8 just how religion and science are indeed partners in this expanding universe of knowledge and questioning.  We should be wary of any groups, including Jewish groups, that refuse to accept the validity of science.  The future of our planet is at stake. The unbounded search for truth can bring us together and should never be allowed to drive us apart.

I close with a poem by the great Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, Heavenly Parent, let my country awake.
Finally for this week, sign up (flyer below) for a new adult ed class beginning in January, based on my upcoming book, Mensch·Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times. 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Friday, December 7, 2018

Shabbat-O-Gram for Hanukkah


Hebrew School students preparing for our Hanukkah Shabbat, 
and then bringing Hanukkah to the residents of Brighton Gardens  

and check out this spectacular  

(video taken by Deborah Lander Netzer)


Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah!

Did you have a chance to listen to Cantor Fishman's Shabbat album, which was sent to the congregation as a Hanukkah gift via email this week? Now we can have those lovely Shabbat melodies in our head all week long!  A never-ending Shabbat sounds like a good idea to me.  Also a special thank you to Beth Styles for her assistance on the album, and her continued help at services.  I hope you can join us for tonight's dinner and service.  Note that the service begins at the early time of 7:00 PM (dinner's at 5:45) and our students will be participating.  We also welcome BBYO teens to our service tonight. 

Also, once again, I want to thank those who support our morning minyan.  We continue to have at least 10 every day - some days many more - and this is not simply because we have an inordinate number of people in mourning right now, who have committed to being here regularly.  (We should give our little club a name - but I'm thinking that "Dead Parent's Society" might be a little unnerving).  In fact, it's those who are not currently in mourning who are the real heroes here.  Like so many in our congregation, they understand the supreme power of "just showing up."  It's that manner of kindness that is bringing large numbers of new congregants to our door.  Which reminds me, if you look around at services this evening and see someone who looks like a visitor, a smile and 'Shabbat Shalom" will go a long way!  And if someone is sitting alone, they shouldn't be.  

Finally see the flyer at the bottom for info on a new adult ed class beginning in January, based on my upcoming book, Mensch·Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times.  

..from the Hammermans

Piercing the Darkness
This weekend, Rosh Hodesh ushers in the new month of Tevet, which combines with Hanukkah and Shabbat to give us the rare trifecta - we read from three Torahs on Shabbat morning (which is partly why, to simplify matters, services will be in the chapel).
It is also the darkest Shabbat of the year - not necessarily the longest night, but the deepestnight. The darkest one. No moon in the sky combined with a very short day makes this the darkest Shabbat and just about the darkest night.
A popular Israeli Hanukkah song is entitled, "Banu Choshech L'garesh."
We come, the darkness to expel -
In our hands, light and fire.
Each one is a small light,
And all of us together - an immense light!
Flee darkness! Begone black!
Flee before the light!

Banu Choshech -- Banot and Noah Aronson
Banu Choshech -- Banot and Noah Aronson

"Ba'nu choshekh" depicts what a lot of people imagine when they think about Hanukkah - we are celebrating the triumph of light over darkness.
This imagery can be inspiring but also problematic. For one thing, we use darkness to mean ignorance. We typically depict our own beliefs from the perspective of light. Politically, that's always been a framework one people uses to justify colonizing and erasing another people's culture, as the Europeans did when they brought the "light" of Christian civilization to the "dark" continent of Africa. The Hellenists of the Hanukkah story also thought of themselves as bringing light to benighted peoples like the Jews, who were held captive by their failed god(s).
But there's also a deeper problem than the questions of politics and morality. Darkness can be good. It gets a bad rap. After all, it gives us the glory of the night sky. Without darkness, the Milky Way, the shining path that inspired our ancestors to look up and wonder "who created these?" (Is. 40:26), is all but obliterated by the light spilling from our cities and suburbs. Moreover, as Rabbi Fern Feldman teaches, the darkness is what Moses needed to enter in order to receive revelation. (Ex. 20:17)
Western civilization has all but worshiped light as a symbol of God. In the process of extolling light, we have lost touch with the immanence of God, with what we call Shekhinah. To speak in theological poetry, the darkness of the Shekhinah is the womb-space that gives birth to the world. The Zohar calls Shekhinah the "beautiful maiden that has no eyes" - meaning, having no light of her own, nurturing us by feeding us darkness, mystery, yearning. Much like the moon, which reflects light but doesn't generate it. This is the darkness in which the seed begins to grow, and the baby starts to form. Darkness is the Earth, that brings growth and sustenance to all. If we ever needed to honor darkness, it's now, when we need to fight for the Earth.

So what should we be teaching about the "festival of lights"? If darkness nurtures the light, then Hanukkah is a time when we are planting seeds of light. That is what the tiny flames of the Hanukkah candles really look like, after all.

Rabbi David Seidenberg points out that no one sits in front of the menorah thinking, "I can't wait for these candles to grow so bright that there's no more darkness." Darkness is the condition that makes the candles beautiful and sweet. Light has its greatest significance only where there is darkness.  In total darkness, a tiny candle can dazzle the eye.

As nature writer Henry Beston has written, "With lights and ever more light we drive the holiness of the night ever back to the forests and the sea; the little villages, the crossroads even, will have none of it.  Are modern folk perhaps afraid of the mystery of infinite space, the austerity of stars?  Having made themselves at home in a civilization obsessed with power, which explains its whole world in terms of energy, do they fear at night for their dull acquiescences and the patterns of their beliefs? Be that answer as it will, today's civilization is full of people who do not have the slightest notion of the character and poetry of the night, who have never seen night."
We can understand the meaning of Hanukkah starting from that experience. Hanukkah should be a celebration and savoring of the darkness, as well as an appreciation of the turning of the light.

We still need the story of the oil - maybe now more than ever, when we need to think about using energy in the purest way possible.

But if there's an illusion that needs to go, it's the idea that we are the fiery light fighting the darkness. The story we need now is about winter darkness nurturing the light.

Shabbat Shalom, happy Hanukkah and a good month of Tevet!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman