Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Holiday Lights: Reconciling Traditions from a Non-Jewish Childhood for My Jewish Kids

Photo by Adriaan Greyling from Pexels

Well, it’s officially my favorite time of year! I like to think I have reverse seasonal affective disorder — I love cold, cloudy weather. I love snow and layering and giant chunky sweaters and hot drinks. I love winter, glittering lights, and everything that comes along with this time of year.

When I was a kid, this time of year was the one time of year that I truly felt like my family was fully in-sync. We’d get out the boxes and boxes of Christmas ornaments and set up the Christmas tree with painstaking precision. My mother and her Christmas tree were unlike anything I’ve ever encountered to this day. Her tree was white, silver, and glass. It was a small child’s worst nightmare, and every ornament had a story. I can’t remember breaking a single ornament on my mother’s tree for fear of destroying the symbol of a memory that she held dear. After white lights came the strings of beads, then the ornaments, and finally the tree topper. After Christmas, taking down the tree was a chore, because every ornament had to be carefully re-wrapped and placed carefully in a very specific order back into the storage boxes.

I loved it. I loved every minute of it, even as a child.

Another tradition was that we’d pick a night to drive around and look at all of the lights in their glittering glory. These were the days before programmed lights that danced around houses to Mannheim Steamroller. My parents liked driving us to the neighborhoods with the largest houses because they lined their streets with luminaries and the lights were classic white and stunning. When we lived in Southern Missouri, a short drive from the Precious Moments Park & Chapel, we’d drive out every year for Christmas to see the light displays there and go through a drive-through display at a large Catholic Vietnamese institute run by a group of priests.

Lights were an essential part of my childhood and, for me, signaled what a family did in December.

The only other tradition my family had was that, on Christmas Day, if we could afford the expensive meat, my mom would make rouladen. This dish is honestly the only “ethnic” dish my mom ever made, and I don’t know our family history with it other than my mom’s family is German-French. With its expensive, thinly sliced beef with onions and pickles rolled up inside, it was then stewed in tomato sauce, and I grew up hating this dish (pickles are delicious, but not warm). But my mom? Much like the extravagant tree laden with delicate ornaments, my mom looked forward to it every year and it became part of the Edwards family Christmas.

But now? I’m Jewish. Even though Christmas never meant church or Jesus or anything religious, I stopped celebrating Christmas or anything that resembled it back in 2006 after I graduated college and moved out East to pursue my dreams and live Jewishly. My mom slowly stopped setting up the tree because there was no one to help her, and it broke my heart. One year, when she finally decided she was done with Christmas and the tree, she sent me one of her mirrored ornaments shaped like the Star of David, so I could always have a piece of the family tree with me. She joked that, maybe they always knew I'd be Jewish and thus, they had a six-pointed star. It made me sad, it made me wonder what this time of year meant for me and my future children.

Now, I’m lamenting that I can't sit in my favorite independent coffee haunts because of the pandemic. I miss listening to the tunes echoing through the cavernous spaces, with classics such as “Silver Bells” and “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” — songs that swung me back to a different time in my life. In high school, this time of year meant solos in the choir Christmas concert, so I can’t help singing along with the tunes. They make me smile, they make me feel. The concepts or meanings are not what do it, but the simple beauty of the voices and the melodies.

When I had my first child in December of 2013, I was living in Israel and this time of year was strange, but easy. I didn’t have to worry about Santa Claus at the mall or all of the lights or the trees or kids in daycare who weren’t Jewish talking about the holiday. It was easy. But now that we’re in Denver, and kids have questions, I’m constantly assessing how I should tackle this time of year in a way that makes sense to my three littles, yet somehow honors my own upbringing.

I will admit that it's easier this year with the pandemic. We aren't going to the mall where there's large displays of Christmas, and we're not going into grocery stores or Target where everything is red and green. I’m obviously not making rouladen (yuck), and I’m most definitely not putting up a tree.

So? This leaves us with lights. Homes around ours are stringing up lights in all colors and styles, and it reminds me of those evenings out in the minivan driving through the ritzy neighborhoods with my parents and brothers. It’s such a simple thing, but such a meaningful thing — for me — and I want to be able to share that with my kids.

‘Tis the season, after all, because light is what Chanukah is all about. The world emerged with the words “let there be light,” and light is often understood in the Torah to mean knowledge or wisdom. Since creation, we’ve fought to bring those sparks of light back into the world and to bring ourselves out of darkness. As a Jew, I yearn, pursue, and seek that light every day, even as I relish in the cloudy cool of winter in Denver.

During Chanukah’s eight days, the world is illuminated with the light of the chanukiyah. These lights are special because we can only gaze upon them, we can’t use them for any personal reasons. They serve as a message to all who pass by that “darkness can be dispelled with wisdom, obscurity can be illuminated with truth.”

I look at my neighbors' holiday lights much in the same manner. Giant inflatable Santa Clauses and nativity scenes aside, the lights are bringing a beautiful light into the darkest time of the year, and it’s an innocent way I can bring my children into a space that for me has great meaning and history. I can’t wait to pack up my kids and drive them around the nearby neighborhood filled with giant houses to look at the lights. We won’t be listening to Christmas tunes on the radio, but I might pop on some of The Leevees to set the mood.

We'll call them holiday lights and talk about how in the darkest months of the year during a pandemic, more light is what we all truly need. That said, several years ago, Asher did ask, “Mommy, why don’t we have any lights up on our house?” I happily responded, “We will, sweetie. As soon as Chanukah comes, we’ll have eight days of special lights to share with our neighbors.”

Monday, November 16, 2020

Do Jews Celebrate Thanksgiving? Is Thanksgiving a Kosher Holiday?

photograph of people celebrating Thanksgiving with pumpkin pie and challah


One of the biggest questions this time of years for Jews is whether Thanksgiving is a kosher holiday. Can (and should) Jews celebrate Thanksgiving? How does the secular, American holiday fit into the Jewish experience?

Thanksgiving's Origins

In the 16th century, during the English Reformation and the reign of Henry VIII, the number of Church holidays was drastically decreased from 95 to 27. However, the Puritans, a group of Protestants that fought for further reforms in the Church, sought to completely eliminate Church holidays in favor of replacing the days with Days of Fasting or Days of Thanksgiving.

When the Puritans arrived in New England, they brought these Days of Thanksgiving with them, and there are many documented celebrations of thanks during the 17th and 18th century following the end of bad droughts or successful harvests. Although there is much debate about the specifics of the first Thanksgiving as we know it today, the commonly accepted belief is that the first Thanksgiving occurred sometime in September-November 1621 as a feast of thanks for a bountiful harvest. 

After 1621 and until 1863, the holiday was celebrated sporadically and the date varied from state to state. The first national day of Thanksgiving was proclaimed by President George Washington on November 26, 1789, to be a "day of public thanksgiving and prayer" in honor of the forming of a new nation and new constitution. However, despite this national declaration, the holiday was still not celebrated regularly or consistently. 

Then, in 1863, at the prompting of a campaign by author Sarah Josepha Hale, President Abraham Lincoln set the date of Thanksgiving officially to the last Thursday in November. However, even with this proclamation, because the Civil War was in full force, many states refused the date as official. It wasn't until the 1870s that Thanksgiving was celebrated nationally and collectively. 

Finally, on December 26, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt officially changed Thanksgiving Day to the fourth Thursday in November as a means of boosting the U.S. economy. 

The Issues

At first glance, it appears that Thanksgiving is a religious holiday founded by a Protestant sect, even though they were attempting to minimize the role of Church-based holidays. Although in the 21st century Thanksgiving has become a largely secular holiday chock full of football and belt-busting feasts, because of the holiday's potential origins as Protestant, there are several issues that the rabbis address to decipher whether celebrating this holiday presents a halachic (Jewish legal) problem. 

In medieval Talmudic commentary, the rabbis explore two different types of customs that are forbidden under the prohibition of "imitating Gentile (non-Jewish) customs" from Leviticus 18:3:

  1. idolatrous customs
  2. foolish customs found in the Gentile community, no matter whether the origins are idolatrous

The Maharik and Rabbenu Nissim conclude that only customs based in idolatry are prohibited, but secular customs that are considered “foolish” are permitted with a reasonable explanation. 

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a leading 20th-century rabbi, published four rabbinic rulings on the issue of Thanksgiving, all that conclude that it is not a religious holiday. In 1980 he wrote,

"On the issue of joining with those who think that Thanksgiving is like a holiday to eat a meal: Since it is clear that according to their religious law books this day is not mentioned as a religious holiday and that one is not obligated in a meal [according to Gentile religious law] and since this is a day of remembrance to citizens of this country, when they came to reside here either now or earlier, halakhah [Jewish law] sees no prohibition in celebrating with a meal or with the eating of turkey. … Nonetheless it is prohibited to establish this as an obligation and religious commandment [mitzvah], and it remains a voluntary celebration now.”

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik also stated that Thanksgiving was not a Gentile holiday and that it was permissible to celebrate with turkey. Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, on the other hand, ruled that whatever the origins of Thanksgiving, the establishment of a holiday based on the Christian calendar is closely tied to idol worship and thus is prohibited. Although he advises Jews to distance themselves from these customs, this is not widely practiced in the greater Jewish community. 

Giving Thanks

Judaism is a religion devoted to the act of gratitude from the moment an individual wakes up and recites the Modeh/Modah Ani prayer until he or she goes to sleep. In fact, it is believed that the Jewish lifestyle provides for the recitation of at least 100 prayers of gratitude every day. Many of the Jewish holidays are, in fact, holidays of gratitude and thanks -- like Sukkot -- which makes Thanksgiving a natural addition to the Jewish year. 

How To

Believe it or not, Jews celebrate Thanksgiving just like everyone else with tables overflowing with turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce, but likely with a bit of a Jewish touch and attention to the meat-milk balance (if you keep kosher). 

Even Jewish Americans living in Israel get together to celebrate, often ordering turkeys months in advance and going out of their way to find American staples like canned cranberry sauce and pumpkin. I personally prefer to pick my kosher turkey for roasting up at Trader Joe's and serve it alongside my childhood favorites: 

  • Watergate Salad (made with Cocowhip)
  • Green bean casserole (which I make with portobello mushrooms, French green beans, Imagine creamy mushroom soup, and gluten-free fried onions)
  • Mashed potatoes or no potatoes at all
  • Pumpkin pie in a gluten-free crust

If you want a more formal approach to your Jewish Thanksgiving celebration, you can always check out Rabbi Phyllis Sommer's "Thanksgiving Seder."

BONUS: The Thanksgivukkah Anomaly 

In 2013, the Jewish and Gregorian calendars aligned so that Thanksgiving and Chanukah fell in sync and was coined Thanksgivukkah. Because the Jewish calendar is based on a lunar cycle, the Jewish holidays fall differently from year to year, whereas Thanksgiving is set on the Gregorian calendar as the fourth Thursday of November no matter the numerical date. Also, Chanukah is a holiday that lasts eight nights, offering a bit of room for overlap. 

Although there was much hype that the 2013 Anomaly was the first, last, and only time that the two holidays would ever coincide, this isn't exactly true. In fact, the first occurrence of the overlap would have been on November 29, 1888. Also, as late as 1956 Texas was still celebrating Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November, meaning that Jews in Texas got to celebrate the overlap in 1945 and 1956!

Theoretically, assuming no legal holiday changes (like that in 1941), the next Thanksgivukkah will be in 2070 and 2165. I'll be long dead for the latter, but for the former, I'll be 87 and ready to parrrtayyy! 


What about you? Do you have any Thanksgiving traditions that marry Judaism with Turkey Day?