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Yom Rivii, 6 Adar 5778

Jewish Women Say Celebrating Purim in the #MeToo Era is Different

When Meredith Jacobs was taught the Purim story as a little girl in the 1970s and '80s, Esther was made out to be its heroine, while Queen Vashti was its "evil queen.” According to the Book of Esther, Vashti was banished by her husband, the Persian King Ahasuerus, for refusing his order to display herself wearing her crown in front of his male guests. A body of traditional commentary depicts Vashti as disobedient and a fraud.

As an adult, Jacobs started to reject that interpretation. Vashti, she realized, was standing up for herself in disobeying her husband’s command to expose herself to his guests. (The king’s request is often interpreted to mean that he asked Vashti to come out wearing nothing but her crown.) This year, Jacobs said, the new interpretation feels even more relevant to her.

“It resonates more powerfully through the voice it’s been given through the #MeToo movement and the Time’s Up movement,” Jacobs, vice president of communications and marketing at Jewish Women International, told JTA.

Jacobs helped organize JWI’s #IAmVashti campaign urging people to share their thoughts on the Purim narrative on social media. She said she doesn’t think the campaign, which launched this month, would have worked prior to this year.

“I think #MeToo and Time’s Up created a way for women to have a conversation and a platform in a huge way and empowered them,” she said.

Themes relating to gender are especially relevant this Purim, female rabbis and community leaders told JTA. The holiday, which begins on Feb. 28, comes as sexual harassment and assault allegations against high-profile men continue to emerge months after dozens of women accused Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct.

The carnival-like holiday is based on M'gillat Esther, the Book of Esther, which describes how the Jewish queen Esther used her influence in Ahasuerus' harem to avert a slaughter of his Jewish subjects. In recent years there has been a slew of feminist interpretations both rehabilitating Vashti and pondering the tensions between Esther's subservient role in the king's household and the power she asserts as his queen.

“I’ve always thought of Purim as a bit of a feminist holiday in that there was always strong female role models in this particular narrative, but it is especially striking this year as we’ve watched the #MeToo movement just explode, that there is such a precise parallel right here in our own Bible,” said Rabbi Leora Frankel at the Community Synagogue of Rye, a Reform congregation in suburban New York City's Westchester County.

Together with the synagogue’s cantor, Melanie Cooperman, Frankel is organizing a women’s event highlighting women’s voices from the Purim story in a skit. The Megillah Monologues, named after the feminist playwright Eve Ensler's acclaimed Vagina Monologues, will take place Feb. 25 and is being framed as a way to promote discussion about gender and celebrate Purim in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

“How can we lift up both Vashti and Esther as role models of women today? How can we celebrate their courage and draw inspiration from their story?” Frankel recalled asking herself when she came up with the idea for the event.

Rabbi Denise Handlarski at Oraynu, a Humanistic Jewish synagogue in Toronto, said the themes relevant to #MeToo have always been in the back of her mind while reading the Purim narrative.

“If you read Megillah, it’s quite clear that Vashti was victimized in all kind of ways, and much like we see with some of the things that have been happening recently," she said. "But we have also seen throughout history, when a woman stands up for herself, there are unfavorable consequences.”

Although Esther is able to attain a position of power, she is still limited by the fact that she is a woman, Handlarski said.

“She is able to capitalize on her position, but her position is not particularly full of great choices,” she said. “She uses her femininity to help her people in story, but she has to use her femininity because that’s the only location of power for her.”

While these themes are not new to Handlarski, she said the #MeToo movement may prompt those who have not previously shared her perspective to do so.

“It’s a challenge to rabbis who don’t always seek the perspective of women in Jewish texts to center those perspectives a little bit more,” she said.

Channa Pinchasi, director of the Be’eri School for Teacher Education at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, says Vashti represents the first time a character in the Purim narrative stands up to Ahasuerus.

“She is the first #MeToo,” Pinchasi said.

But Esther, who remains with the king at the end of the Megillah, also represents a #MeToo moment, according to Pinchasi.

“We are asking ourselves in the end of story, there was salvation for the Jewish people, but I can hear Esther calling [out to] us ‘Me too, me too! I want to be part of the salvation, but I never got the chance to get out of the palace!'” she said.

B’nai Jeshurun, a non-affiliated synagogue on Manhattan's Upper West Side, is hosting Purim events with the theme “reveal yourself,” including a ball for Jewish LGBTQ teens.

“The obvious connection between the theme that we’ve chosen and the #MeToo movement is the importance of creating communities and a society wherein people feel empowered and safe to reveal the truth of their identities and their experiences, and to feel supported in both telling their truth and living their truth,” said Rabbi Adina Lewittes, the part-time interim rabbi.

Rabbi Mary Zamore, executive director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, said the holiday provides an opportunity to think about Judaism and gender more generally.

“Purim gives us an opportunity to see how these problems have played out throughout our history, but also how we’ve brought our understanding of gender to our texts in the past and how we can have a fresh view of our texts with a new understanding of gender and women’s experience,” Zamore said.

At the Megillah Monologues event, Frankel hopes to strike a balance between addressing issues of gender and power dynamics and embracing Purim’s festive and lighthearted atmosphere.

“Purim is a night that’s supposed to be a little irreverent and frivolous, so [I want women] to be able to come together in safety and female solidarity but [also] to celebrate and not just to protest and not just to lament the state of things,” she said.

Josefin Dolsten writes for JTA, where this piece originally appeared. It is republished with permission.

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I Want Hamantaschen to Be Like When I Was a Kid

I’m in Machane Yehuda – the big shuk or market in Jerusalem – just like I am every week. The “oznei Haman” have arrived. In Israel, hamantaschen are called “Haman’s ears” and with a bit of imagination, I can almost make sense of that. Every year, I wander from bakery to bakery during the weeks preceding Purim, and I end up carbohydratedly disappointed. My search for the hamantaschen of my youth are nowhere to be found.

The bakeries in Jerusalem, and especially in the shuk, make amazing hamantaschen. You want hamantaschen filled with halvah? We have that. Chocolate dough hamantaschen filled with chocolate? Yeah, we have that too. How about date filling? Poppy seed? Yup, they’re all here. But like Proust taking a bite of a madeleine, I want that hamantaschen that takes me back. Way back. I’m thinking I want to travel back about 50 years.

When I was a child growing up on the South Shore of Long Island, all the way out in Suffolk County (Yenevelt (a faraway place), as my grandfather called it) our community was a tight knit enclave of Jewish migrants from Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, all seeking a suburban life far from “the city.” My parents were deeply involved in the synagogue: my mother was Sisterhood president and my dad taught the confirmation class and was the youth group director of Temple Sinai of Bay Shore. As youth group director, the annual Purim carnival was his and the teenagers’ responsibility. Games were devised, booths were constructed, prizes were purchased, food was ordered.

To play games or obtain food, tickets had to be purchased. “Five dollars’ worth is all you get,” my mother would tell us. But I was not going to waste my precious tickets on mundane activities like “Shave-the-Balloon” or a terrifying Senior Youth Group “Fun House” that would culminate in me putting my hand in a bucket of pitted olives and being told they were eyeballs. I spent my money on the hamantaschen.

Fresh from Stanley’s Bakery (which is still on Main Street), were platters of hamantaschen that were the real deal. No halvah. No chocolate. And they were huge. The filling – cherry, prune, apricot – oozed out from the seams. And the dough? The dough was a golden yeast dough and not this crumbly cookie stuff that tries to pass for hamantaschen. Like the Danish my father always brought home on Sunday morning – only better.

Without warning or announcement, the yeast dough hamantaschen simply fell out of fashion. They disappeared, never to be found again. Like those Long Island Purim carnivals, they became a distant memory.

Nonetheless, I persevere in my search. Like a relentless explorer, I wander through Jerusalem’s alleys and byways in search of a cherry filled yeast dough hamantaschen.

Recently, at one of my favorite bakeries in the shuk, I asked the owner (in Hebrew): “You ever make hamantaschen with a yeast dough?” And with a wave of his hand, he responded: “You want a yeast dough? Buy a challah.”

This year, the search is over. I’m making them at home.

Happy Purim!

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Roots and Branches of the New Year of the Trees

Perhaps I first heard of Tu BiSh’vat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees – marked on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat – back when I went to religious school in the 1960s and 70s. 

Perhaps…but I certainly didn’t retain the information. 

Fast forward to college in the early 80s. I was majoring in environmental studies and simultaneously rediscovering my Jewish heritage. Being outdoors and celebrating the natural world was an important part of my spirituality, so I sought out any hints that other Jews felt the same way.

Imagine my thrill and surprise when I first read about the mystical “Tu BiSh’vat seder,” a ritual dating back at least to the early 1700s. Marked by a celebratory meal with four cups of wine and three categories of fruit, it was both a sensual pleasure and deeply moving to sample a wide variety of exotic fruits and, as we ate, to contemplate our connections to both the physical world and to various mystical realms. What a fabulous way, I thought, to honor Tu BiSh’vat, trees, and – at least I hoped – all things environmental. 

Well, not quite.

To the mystics who devised the first Tu BiSh’vat seders, trees were mostly a metaphor for the flow of divine energy and presence. As much as we may wish it, for them, Tu BiSh'vat was not some sort of proto-Earth Day.

Regardless, these rituals were a creative, inspiring strand in a complex web of Jewish traditions, including many that demonstrate a profound understanding of the best way to relate to and sustain the natural world that surrounds us.

For example, the Tu BiSh’vat seder was a creative reimagining of the earliest hints we have of Tu BiSh’vat itself – a very brief mention in the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1) about a “new year” for the trees. The date for that new year was apparently in dispute, and in response, Rav Hai Gaon, one of the leaders of the Babylonian Jewish community in the 10th and 11th centuries C.E, writes “at [the] time the sap begins to flow upwards and the trees begin to drink and come alive” (Answers of the Gaonim,1:4 page 119). 

This idea – that seemingly dormant trees are quite awake, alive, and getting ready for spring – was well known to me from my high school days of tapping maple trees and boiling down their sap to make maple syrup. How fabulous that this piece of nature lore was well known to the leading rabbi of 1000 years ago! And how wonderful, too, that it inspired other rabbis, 700 years later. These mystics leapt from the physical to the metaphorical, to a contemplation of the very flow of life itself, the possibility of us becoming connected to the divine flow that, whether we acknowledge it or not, surrounds us all the time, even in our spiritual “winters.”

As I learned more about Tu BiSh’vat, I realized that many generations of Jews have taken the metaphorical leap of the mystics as the starting point for their own journeys, connecting to the earth, our traditions, and the divine flow. These journeys range from the intense connection to the land found in the Zionist writings of A.D. Gordon, to a growing number of Jews who, like me, make connections between their faith and traditions on the one hand, and solving modern environmental crises on the other. Whenever we see a mountain and pause to say a b’rachah, a blessing, when teens at camp learn about sustainable gardening, when synagogues cut their energy usage or buy “green” electricity, we are all taking the next steps on that journey.

The Reform community, led by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), has played a huge role, not only in teaching about that connection, but also in moving us from study to action on behalf of the poor and the planet. In fact, I served as the RAC’s congregational relations director back in 1993, when we helped launch the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). Now, some 25 years later, I am back at COEJL as its new executive director.

COEJL and the RAC want to work with Jews and Jewish communities to learn about Jewish environmental teachings and put them into practice. As we celebrate Tu BiSh’vat this year, may we all join in the most literal sense of tikkun olam, healing our world, by acting to protect the many wonders of Creation.

You can do this by:

Learn more about the Reform Jewish community's environmental work by visiting www.rac.org/enviro

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What Tu BiSh’vat and Sam the Pickle Man Have in Common

In Joan Micklin Silver’s 1988 cinematic gem, “Crossing Delancey,” the actor Peter Riegert portrays Sam, the humble mensch and pickle man who woos Amy Irving’s snobbish but sympathetic character, Izzy. So excited about the promise of a long-awaited date with her, Sam confesses, he uttered the Hebrew blessing for planting trees. This line has always melted my heart, although, in fact, there is no such blessing.

Because blessings release divine gifts into the human realm, the ancient rabbis did compose a blessing to mark the exact moment we appreciate trees in bloom for the first time each spring: Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech haolam sheh-lo chee-sahr b’olamo kloom u’vara vo beriyot tovot v’ilanot tovot l’hanot bahem b’nai adam. (Blessed are You, Eternal Sovereign of the Universe, Who has made a world which lacks nothing, and Who has fashioned wondrous creations and fruit trees of goodness for humans to enjoy.)

In Israel, that moment of appreciation is now, but here in the Northern Hemisphere, we celebrate Tu BiSh’vat, the new year of the trees, during a bleak, cold season. Bereft of blossoms or leaves, the trees, poking out of the dull, ice-covered earth, appear asleep if not dead. Despite their appearance, though, sap is rising in these much-alive trees, true miracles of nature.

Scratch the surface a bit, and you’ll find that even though both Sam and Tu BiSh’vat are somewhat mundane and predictable, they also are filled with wisdom, poetry, hope, and faith.

Tu BiSh’vat, originally one of four different new years on the Jewish calendar, was a fiscal marker or an accounting construct to separate earnings from one year to the next on fruit grown on trees. Later, when Jews ceased to be farmers in their homeland, the festival took on new, symbolic features and meanings.

Poetry surrounded the metaphor of the Tree of Life, and mystical connections grew around the custom of eating distinct types of fruit on Tu BiSh’vat: higher levels of holiness for more exposed fruits such as grapes, and lower levels of spirituality for nuts with tough, inedible shells. The festival also became associated with the seven species of fruits and grains grown in the Land of Israel and mentioned in the Torah – wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates – and Zionists celebrated the value of working the soil of the Jewish homeland to grow them.

Likewise, in “Crossing Delancey,” Sam works diligently to transform the lowly cucumber into a crunchy, spicy treat, repeatedly dipping his hands into brine-filled bins and later soaking them in vanilla to remove the scent of garlic and vinegar. Complementing his work ethic is his devotion to his family, his respect for his Jewish heritage, and his unending faith that love will bloom.

Like Sam, Tu BiSh’vat, originally a modest and practical day on the Jewish calendar, also teaches us important lessons. In the depth of winter, the holiday reminds us to appreciate the natural world that sustains us and helps us value our connection to the land of Israel. Although it is too early in North America to recite the blessing over blossoms, on Tu BiSh’vat, as we mark a day for planting seeds for future blessings, we can say appropriate blessings as we sample various nuts and fruits that are gifts from the trees.   

This year on Tu BiSh’vat, as you enjoy fruits and nuts (and maybe even a pickle or two), listen for the echo of the voice of Isaiah the Prophet as he rejoices and celebrates the trees: “The mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12).

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This Tu BiSh'vat, May We Begin with the Trees

Science can now confirm that hugging trees is good for you. 

If the idea of hugging a tree makes you a little uncomfortable, rest easy. You don’t have to hug them to derive benefits. Just being in their vicinity can positively affect your health. 

In a recently published book called Blinded by Scienceauthor Matthew Silverstone explains that the vibrational properties of trees can improve many health issues, including concentration, reaction times, depression, stress, and other forms of mental illness – even headaches! 

Although the term “vibrational properties” sounds complex, it’s actually quite simple: Everything vibrates, and different vibrations can affect our biology. Thus, when you touch a tree, or spend time in close proximity to one, the tree’s rate of vibration – which differs from your own – can affect you in positive ways. 

It’s pretty fascinating. What’s even more fascinating, though, is that science is only recently understanding what religions have known for thousands of years.

In Jewish tradition, a tree is one of the most potent symbols we have. Trees symbolize a bridge between heaven and earth, as well as Torah, human beings, and God’s Divine structure. 

But it is now clear that trees are more than just symbols of power. Trees have power – transformative power. 

Even the first humans sensed this. Adam and Eve were drawn to the Tree of Knowledge long before anyone could scientifically explain why.

“Once upon a time,” writes Rabbi Daniel Swartz  in an article about Judaism and nature, “we knew less about the natural world than we do today. [Yet] we understood that world better [for] we lived ever so much closer to its rhythms.” Rabbi Swarz reminds us that the Bible is a story about people with intimate knowledge of the land, knowledge that is reflected in the language and poetry of our prophets, psalmists, and wisdom literature.

When Isaiah compared Israel to a terebinth oak in the fall, his audience could immediately appreciate the double-edged nature of his metaphor, for while the terebinth is at its most glorious just before all its leaves drop away, it is also one of the hardiest of trees and can even re-sprout from a stump. To our modern ears, though, the metaphor is lost. Most of us aren’t intimately familiar with the characteristics of the terebinth. We live among trees, if we’re lucky, but how many of us really take the time to learn about them? And how many of us stop to notice whether or not we feel differently around them?

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, in the 18th century, knew that he felt differently when surrounded by trees. He wrote this now-famous prayer: 

May it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees (and) enter into prayer…may all the foliage of the field –  all grasses, trees, and plants …send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer so that my prayer and speech are made whole through the life and spirit of all growing things…

Rabbi Nachman knew the transformative power of trees. They transformed him and his ability to pray and connect with God. They transformed the prayers themselves. 

We know now that Rabbi Nachman, a great teacher, scholar, and spiritual seeker, struggled with mental illness throughout his life. He experienced mood swings and bouts of paranoia – but under the trees, it seems, he felt better. 

How many of our daily aches and pains, how many of our daily sorrows and woes, how much of our unhappiness, could be alleviated by spending a little more time around trees?

Rabbi Swartz writes, “We have set ourselves apart from the world of the seasons, the world of floods and rainbows and new moons…” 

But our Torah, our very own Tree of Life, urges us to engage with nature, to care for trees and to learn from them. In a war, we can destroy just about everything except for fruit trees, and even if the Messiah himself arrives, should we be in the middle of planting a tree, we must finish planting before going to greet him. 

That’s how important trees are! Adam and Eve knew it. Our psalmists and sages knew it. Rabbi Nachman most certainly knew it. Children know it. Maybe you knew it, too, once?
 
Rabbi Swarz questions whether “we can move from our discord with nature to an informed harmony with this, God’s universe.”

If we can, it begins with hugging trees.

May each of us, at this Tu BiSh’vat – the New Year of the Trees – refuse to be complacent in accepting the ills and sorrows of our lives. May we seek out ancient and modern cures alike – and may we begin with the trees. 

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What College Has Taught Me About the Power of Shabbat

Growing up, my family usually didn’t celebrate Shabbat at home. We would go to our local synagogue some Friday nights, but other than that, we treated Shabbat as just another day. At sleepaway camp, however, the experience was much different.

Shabbat at my Reform Jewish camp is a wonderful experience. On erev Shabbat (Friday night), everyone gets dressed up in white and at dinner, we can sit anywhere in the dining hall. After dinner, there is a beautiful service followed by an energetic and spirit-filled song session. On Saturday morning, we get to sleep in, and then rest after the morning service. I have always had a deep connection to camp and I love Shabbat there, but I was never able to find a connection to Shabbat beyond camp.

Then I went away to college.  

The Jewish community at Rutgers University is thriving. With more than 6,000 Jewish students, a beautiful new Hillel building, and a warm and welcoming community, it was easy to find a Jewish home.

Every Friday night during the semester, Rutgers Hillel hosts student-run Shabbat services and a dinner that is free for all Rutgers students. Services for three different communities – Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox – are held upstairs, where each group prays in its own space, next to the rooms where the other services are going on.

Following services, a catered dinner is held downstairs for 300 to 400 students. They include Jews of different identities, as well as students of other faiths or no faiths who love experiencing dinner with the community. A lot of students continue celebrating Shabbat at the Chabad House down the street after dinner at Hillel.     

When I first started a Rutgers, an extremely large university with more than 36,000 undergraduates on the New Brunswick, NJ, campus, I didn’t celebrate Shabbat at all. Then my cousin convinced me to come to dinner one Friday night. Saying yes was the best decision I could have made, and since then I never miss celebrating erev Shabbat. In fact, as one of the Reform community co-chairs for Hillel, I help lead services for the Reform community each week.

There is something wonderful about celebrating Shabbat each week with hundreds of other Jewish students. Relaxing after a stressful week and praying with members of the community give me a much-needed spiritual renewal, and enjoying Shabbat dinner afterwards reminds me I am part of a diverse and vibrant community.

What I find even more gratifying is being exposed to people with Jewish identities different from my own. Before I went to college, I knew very few, if any, Conservative Jews, and no Orthodox Jews. Now, I confidently call many non-Reform Jews close friends, and have learned about the diverse ways my friends observe Judaism and celebrate Shabbat, all of which has strengthened my own connection to Judaism.

Shabbat at college has – and will continue to be – an essential part of my Rutgers experience. No matter how hard my week is, no matter how much I miss my friends (even if they are only on the other side of campus), I can count on Shabbat as a time to take a break and see familiar faces that brighten my week. Most of all, I have learned that Shabbat is an incredibly powerful experience that, no matter one’s Jewish identity or affiliation, can bring strength to a diverse community.

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Trees and Hope: A Tu BiSh’vat Reflection

There is hope for a tree;
If it is cut down it will renew itself;
Its shoots will not cease.
-- Job 14:7-9

The wind and the smell of smoke woke us. We stumbled out of bed and joined our neighbors in the cul-de-sac to stare at the raw, red glow lighting up the hills behind our houses. Forty miles per hour gusts of wind fanned the flames, like billows blowing into a cosmic furnace.

We grabbed family photos, medications, important papers, and, inexplicably, gym clothes. Emmy, our German Shepherd mix, knew something was up and never left our side. We made it out; the fire stopped about a mile short of our neighborhood.

Others were not so lucky. The ravaging beast we saw approaching, the Tubbs Fire, proved the most destructive wildfire in California history, part of a barrage of four fires in our area last October. The Tubbs Fire alone killed 22 people, including a past president of our congregation, Marnie Schwartz, z”l. Homes, businesses, schools – 5,643 structures – were destroyed, along with almost 40,000 acres of parkland, forest, and wilderness.

We first evacuated to the synagogue, opening it up to anyone else fleeing the flames. Having served as Congregation Shomrei Torah’s rabbi since 1996, I have loved Santa Rosa and the natural beauty of “the wine country” from the start. My wife, Laura, and I bought a home, raised our kids, and helped grow the congregation, which built its first synagogue just over a decade ago. From there, we watched in shock as the fire gobbled up more and more of the city. In the morning, all we could see were clouds of black smoke.

At first, I was in shock, immobilized, unable to do more than manage what was right in front of me. As time passed, shock morphed into mourning for those lost to the flames, for the 32 families in our community that lost their homes, for our pre-fire sense of safety, and for the landscape – parks, fields, hills, mountains, trees – that makes Sonoma County such a beautiful place to live.

For 22 years, barely a week has gone by when I haven’t spent time in the wilderness around my house. An avid birder and animal tracker, I have developed an intimate relationship with the flora and fauna around me. Now, where once there was green, the ridgeline is black and brown. Lower down, the underbrush is gone, but the trees, for the most part, though singed, are still there. I mourn the devastation I can see, and worry about the red-shouldered hawk that hunts in the grassy meadow near my house, and the colonies of acorn woodpeckers that constantly battled over their acorn granaries. They too have lost their homes.

The Kabbalists of 16th-century Safed in Israel imagined the s’firot, the emanations of Divinity that animate our reality, as a cosmic tree with its roots in the heavens and its branches on earth. Trees play an essential role in Jewish life, beginning with the description of the Torah as Etz Chayim, the Tree of Life.

Tu BiSh’vat (the fifteenth of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat), our New Year of the Trees, begins this January 30th at sundown. The holiday dates back at least 2,000 years, to when the upkeep and support for the Second Temple in Jerusalem depended on tithing; its name reminds us of the date that the tithing of the first fruits of the trees was calculated. In Hebrew, the number 15 is represented by the letter yud for 10 and the letter hey for 5. But yud and hey together spell one of God’s names, Yah, which we are not supposed to speak except in prayer. In other words, the name of God is hidden in Tu BiSh’vat.

It has been difficult to see God in the fire. So much was lost. But the devastation left behind does not tell the whole story. Here in California, wildfires are a familiar part of the natural cycle of life, death, and renewal; while some life is destroyed, new life emerges. The rains finally arrived as the fires ended, and soon after, little green shoots began to appear from the scorched earth. Even my friend’s olive orchard, burned badly by the same fire that took his home, is showing new growth. Those trees that don’t revive will fold back into the earth and nourish the soil around them.

They say it will be a decade before we fully recover from the fire. Hope is sometimes hard to find, and we need patience. Yet, amongst the trees, even those badly damaged by the flames, new life and the hope they embody are beginning to emerge. Life is returning.

Baruch atah, Adonai, m’chayeih hameitim. Blessed is the Ground of All Being, who revives the dead.

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In Search of the Perfect Donut: My Hanukkah Tradition in Jerusalem

The Jewish holidays always fall “early” or “late” – never “on time.” That, of course, is because as Jews we follow both the Hebrew calendar with its special holidays and the Gregorian calendar with its own special days. In some years, therefore, Hanukkah arrives early – around Thanksgiving (remember Thanksgivukkah a few years back)?  And other years, Hanukkah arrives late – coinciding with Christmas or even extends into the secular New Year. This year, Hanukkah arrives “on time,” with the first candle on the hanukkiyah (nine-branched candleholder used during Hanukkah) lit on the evening of December 12th.

Here in Jerusalem, Hanukkah has fallen victim to little of the commercialization I’ve seen in the United States: no Hanukkah sales, no advertisements extolling the benefits of extravagant gift-giving. Rather, the emphasis is on food – and the food that appears all over is the famous Israeli jelly donut: the sufganiya (sufganiyot is the plural). These fried dough balls rolled in sugar and stuffed with any assortment or combination of jelly and custard start to appear in bakeries, supermarkets, and specialty shops about a month before Hanukkah. Their early entrance serves as a gastronomic warning: Prepare your stomach! Guard your gut! Their colorful icing and gaudy sprinkles serve as a gastronomic siren call: Buy me! Eat me! Savor me!

But here’s the truth about most of the sufganiyot here in Israel: many of them are attractive and beautifully decorated – but they don’t taste great. As an American oleh (a transplant from the U.S. to Jerusalem), I really miss American style donuts. I miss those fluffy, pillowy donuts, overflowing with strawberry jam, raspberry jelly, flavorful custards, and more. 

Each year, as Hanukkah approaches, I do a donut tasting, wandering from bakery to bakery, searching for donut bliss: those fluffy, sweet donuts of my youth. My donut tasting has now become a tradition and since I’m the known maven of donuts, friends and acquaintances regularly inquire where are this year’s best donuts. Two places in Jerusalem get my attention: Roladin, a large bakery with branches in many cities in Israel, gets awards for creativity for its donuts filled with jelly, jam, chocolate, and one of my favorites: pistachio cream. Some sufganiyot even come with syringes to inject more filling into the donut’s cavity. But the prize for best sufganiyot, year after year, goes to Kadosh, a bakery and café in downtown Jerusalem. These are donuts worth traveling for: the dough is sweet and light with a hint of orange and vanilla and the fillings cascade out of the donut. Hands down, the crème caramel is the best.

The Festival of Lights might last only eight nights – but the festival of donuts goes on for a month or more. And just when those last sufganiyot disappear – that’s right – the hamantaschen make their entrance. Wishing you a happy Hanukkah and plenty of sufganiyot overflowing with delectable fillings.

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The Hanukkah Tradition From My Christian Mother-in-Law

Sometimes we create our own traditions, sometimes we carry on a tradition we inherit, and sometimes a tradition can come from unexpected places.

Ours began with a cut-crystal dreidel. My mother-in-law, Sue, gave it to me the first time I went home with my then-boyfriend for their family Christmas. My Jewish upbringing didn’t include holiday decor of any sort, beyond lighting the Menorah or weekly Shabbat candles. Our traditions comprised mainly of food, presents, food, family, observance, and food. Mmmmmmm fooooooood. I received the crystal driedel in the spirit intended; a loving and thoughtful gesture, as well as a recognition of my heritage.

I had no idea in 1996 that what Sue actually handed me was a family tradition, especially because in 1996, I did not yet know we would become family. I suspect Sue had an inkling.

Despite our best intentions, not all of our traditions take hold. On Tuesday night – the first night of Hanukkah – we unwrapped each driedel. Our display numbers 19 and counting, one for each year of our union. As we marveled over the artistry of each one, I told my 11-year-old that someday, when he and his brother live in their own spaces, they could divide up the collection. Of course, he began staking his claim immediately, arguing about who would get first pick.

I don’t tend to brag about my children’s developmental milestones, but this one seems advanced in arguing with siblings over heirlooms. May it serve him well.

My favorite part about our dreidel collection is that it comes from the Christian side of our family, and that Sue (aka “Grandma”) takes time every year looking in galleries and museum shops to find yet another unique Hanukkah gem to add to our collection.

From the inside of a culture, it’s easy to take it for granted. Sue has not only given us a new tradition, but has helped us elevate the Hanukkah spirit in our home.

This year, Grandma gave each boy a dreidel fidget-spinner.

Thank you, Grandma.

Happy holidays, everyone!

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Lamps Within: A Meditation for Hanukkah

This meditation for Hanukkah focuses on bringing the light we carry inside ourselves into the world and lighting the lamps of awe and wonder in our children. My friend Rabbi Karol wrote this beautiful melody for this prayer.

Lamps Within

A lamp glows inside your heart,
With eight ways to light it,
Eight ways to keep it shining,
Eight ways to keep its glow.

Light it with your joy.
Light it with your tears.
Light it with this song.
Light it with the works of your hands.
Light it with hope.
Light it with service.
Light it with this prayer.
Light it with praise to God’s Holy Name.

Bring the lamp of your soul out into the street
So that all who have forgotten
The miracles around us
Will remember the beauty within,
So that all who have forgotten
The miracles of old
Will remember to rejoice.

A lamp glows inside your children.
Keep it shining.
Watch it glow.

Light it with your joy.
Light it with your tears.
Light it with song.
Light it with the works of your hands.
Light it with hope.
Light it with service.
Light it with prayer.
Light it with praise to God’s Holy Name.

© 2017 CCAR Press from This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day

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