Monday, December 3, 2012

Are Hanukkah Gifts Really Jewish?

A couple of years ago, a student in my Introduction to Judaism class asked me why Jews gave gifts for Hanukkah. I told her I had no idea but my guess is that the custom is primarily borrowed from Christmas. I told her I would investigate and get back to her. As I started to research, I discovered that there was not a direct answer to her question. I was shocked. All Jewish rituals have a story, or more accurately, many stories. How could it be that Hanukkah gift giving, a widespread ritual, is simply borrowed from Christmas. As I set out to uncover the Jewish background behind gift giving for my rabbinic thesis I discovered that my initial hypothesis is actually mostly correct; the contemporary custom of wrapping presents of toys, clothes, and jewelry arose in conjunction with Christmas. That said, many aspects of the gift giving ritual have distinctly Jewish roots, each of which has helped set the stage for the development of the ritual into what it is today.

The first way we can understand gift giving as a Jewish custom is in the connection between giving gifts and offering sacrifices at the Temple. The original story of Hanukkah, as told in the first and second books of Maccabees, is entirely centered on sacrifice. The Greeks in this time replaced sacrificial worship with pagan worship, which then led to rebellion and war. When the Jews unexpectedly defeated the stronger and bigger Greek army, they set out to restore the Temple and altar that the Greeks destroyed. They established the festival of Hanukkah as a way to celebrate the rededication (hanukkah in Hebrew) of the altar that enabled them to once again offer sacrifices to God.1

Yes, that is correct. The original story of Hanukkah is all about sacrifice. It’s not all about the miraculous victory of the Jews over the Greeks, it’s not all about the miraculous oil. It’s just a celebration for the return to sacrifice. Though the text in the book of Maccabees does not detail what the rededication of the altar looked like, we can postulate that it resembled the dedication ceremonies described in the bible, particularly the dedication of the Tabernacle in Numbers 7. In this chapter, we learn that the chieftains of Israel brought various presents to the Tabernacle. Among the presents they brought were physical items used in facilitating sacrifice, including silver basins, bowls, and ladles.2 A hanukkah gift is therefore a gift that enables us to worship God, and this is precisely how the Jews celebrated the festival of Hanukkah in the years following their victory over the Greeks.

Everything changed after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Sacrifice was no longer possible and the understanding of how to worship God shifted from sacrifice to study and prayer. For this reason, the festival of Hanukkah could have transformed as a gift giving holiday. Instead of giving gifts to facilitate sacrifice, one would give gifts to facilitate acts of study or prayer. Instead of giving a silver basin, one might give a tallit or a chumash. As we know, however, the rabbis took the celebration of Hanukkah in a different direction. They introduced the miracle of the oil and focused on the laws surrounding the lighting of the menorah.

The second way we can understand gift giving as a Jewish custom is with the introduction of Hanukkah Gelt in Europe during the 18th Century. Many believe this custom developed because of the etymological connection between Hanukkah and education. Chinuch (education) shares the same Hebrew root (Chet/nun/chaf) as Chanukah (dedication). For this reason, education and specifically Torah study became a central practice during Hanukkah. Historian Eliezer Segal suggests that families began to use these Torah study sessions during Hanukkah as an opportunity to give small amounts of money to teachers, who were otherwise prohibited from accepting money for teaching Torah. Parents would give children money to give to their teachers, and eventually, Segal suggests, the children began to expect it themselves. This, he says, might be the origin of the practice of giving Gelt during Hanukkah.3

There are some, however, who date the practice much earlier. In The Original Chanukah Gelt, Marvin Tameanko argues that this custom dates back to the very first Hanukkah festival celebrated by the Maccabees. He points to the then common practice of taking war booty: when the Jews destroyed the Greek armies, they took weapons, armor, horses, and coins.4 These coins were distributed to victorious soldiers, widows, and orphans of the dead, as well as the general population, including children. Tameanko suggests that this could be the origin of Hanukkah Gelt.5

The third way to understand gift giving as a Jewish custom is by reinterpreting Hanukkah as a holiday that has always celebrated the interplay between Judaism and the dominant culture of the time. In his book The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays, Irvin Greenberg says that “Hanukkah is the paradigm of the relationship between acculturation and assimilation where each generation has interpreted Hanukkah in its own image, speaking to its own needs.”6 He discusses how the story of Hanukkah began because of the blending of Greek and Eastern cultures. Hellenism attracted the Jewish elite, and in fact, there were some Jews who favored aggressive assimilation.7 Gift giving is the prime example of a custom that was, and still is, borrowed from the dominant culture.

In addition to Jews using foreign coins as Hanukkah Gelt, gift giving was generally practiced in Greek culture during the time of the book of Maccabees. There are three examples in the books of Maccabees that describe Greeks engaging in the practice of gift giving. In the first example, King Anthiochus’ officers tell Mattathias they will give him gold, silver, and gifts if he makes a pagan sacrifice.8 In the second, King Antiochus realizes that his wealth diminished during the war, and he laments that he will no longer be able to give gifts the way he used to.9 In the third example, the King of Persia turns a holy site into a shrine and uses the money he makes from it to give gifts to his friends.10 Each of these examples speak to the fact that gift giving was a prevalent practice in Greek culture during the time of the story of Hanukkah. It sets the stage for a discussion about how Jews borrow from and engage with the dominant culture of their time. If Hanukkah is a time for thinking about what it means to be a free people who also live and participate in greater society, it is a perfect opportunity to think about what it means to share practices with others and whether a borrowed ritual can still be considered Jewish.

These are the questions that are on my mind as I embark on the second part of my thesis, which explores the development of contemporary practices in relation to Christmas. Part of my study will include a look at how people engage in the practice today. I invite you to help me by taking this survey! In the meantime, I encourage you to reflect on the Jewish story behind your gift giving rituals. Do you give as a way to help others worship or serve God? Do you give as a way to celebrate the victory of the Jews over the Greeks? Do you give as a way to engage with and be part of larger society? No matter what you do, I urge you to think about these questions and discuss how gift giving relates to your understanding of the holiday.

Happy Hanukkah and Happy Gift Giving!

1 I Maccabees 4:42-56

2 Numbers 7:1-8:3

3 Rosenstock, Natasha. The ongoing Chanukah gift dilemma

4 I Maccabees 3:41

5 Tameanko, Marvin. ‘The Original Chanukah Gelt’

6 Greenberg, Irving. The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays. 277

7 ibid.

8 I Maccabees 2:15-28

9 I Maccabees 3:30

10 II Maccabees 1:34-35

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Vayera: And God saw that all was not okay.

This week’s Torah portion is filled with horrific stories about the state of a world at the brink of devastation. God nearly destroys Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham nearly kills his beloved son, Isaac.  In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, God becomes enraged by the immorality of a few and sets out to destroy entire towns in his fury.  Abraham sees God in this low place and responds by arguing with him to save the people on behalf of the innocent.

Later on in the Torah portion, Abraham sets out to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah.  God sees Abraham’s pain and suffering and at the very last second, intervenes by sending an angel to stop him.  Abraham and God served as witnesses for one another at each end of the Torah portion.  They saw that all was not okay with the other and found a way to bring each other out of a place that they could not bring themselves. 

This week, all is not okay in New York City.  Every single New Yorker is in a low place, including those of us who were fortunate enough to not be directly affected by the storm.  I happen to live in a neighborhood in Brooklyn that had very minimal damage.  A few trees are down, that’s it.  Shops have been open since Wednesday and people are out and about.  On the surface, everything appears to be okay.  In reality, nothing is okay. 

This is my 5th, and most likely my last, year living in Brooklyn and I finally feel like I can call myself a New Yorker.  When I first moved here I was a nice midwesterner who said good morning to people when I went for runs. I had the impression that New Yorkers were cold, loud, and mean.  The more time I’ve spent here, the more I’ve realized this stereotype couldn’t be further from the true.  Yes, New Yorkers walk quickly and many don’t smile at people they pass on the street.  That’s because walking is not a leisure activity here, it’s a commute.  Even in the midwest we don’t roll down our windows to make small talk to the random person next to us at a stoplight. The truth is that I’ve met some of the kindest and selfless people in the world during my time in New York.  It wasn’t until this week, however, that I understood what it really means to be a New Yorker, and that is to be a witness of pain and to respond with all your being.

This week, I have witnessed some of the most extreme pain I have ever seen in my life.  I have volunteered at Brooklyn Tech High School, in the center of the Fort Greene neighborhood in Brooklyn, which is currently serving as one of the many evacuation centers.  It is housing hundreds of evacuees from various homes in Brooklyn, many of whom are elderly, and have mental health, and/or medical issues.  

The pain in this shelter is abundant. Many of the evacuees spent 12 or 13 hours in an ambulance during the evacuation and arrived with only the clothes on their back.  They didn’t have a lot to begin with and now they have nothing.  They don’t have family or friends to call and pick them up.  If they did, they wouldn’t be there.  They are poor and they are in need, but more than any of that, their biggest complaint is boredom.  They sit on cots, or roam around the halls of the high school for hours on end with nothing to do.   

The response to help the people in this shelter has been both frustrating and inspiring at the same time.  On the one hand, it is obvious that the city was  not prepared for this type of situation.  There is almost zero organization.  There is no number to call for information, you have to either show up, or talk to others who have been, to find out what the current needs are.  There is no such thing as a volunteer coordinator, at least there wasn’t when I was there.  When I showed up I had to ask multiple people what I could do to help and everyone gave vague answers like, “ummm... why don’t you try the seventh floor.”  When I found my way to the seventh floor I discovered at least thirty volunteers standing around the cafeteria that was about to serve dinner.  Nobody gave instructions and when I asked people who looked like they knew what they were doing they always responded, “I don’t know, I’m not in charge.”  So what did we do?  We spread out, helped where we could and sat down with people while they ate to keep them company. 

On the second floor, I witnessed a volunteer trying to help a man who had come to try to find a family member who he thought was in this shelter.  One of the staff members (from a team of medical staff from North Carolina) told the man that they didn’t have any lists of who was in what room.  He said, “We’re just here from North Carolina to help with medical needs.  Unfortunately we don’t know anything about the people who are here, not their medical history, nothing.  We barely know their names.”  They told the man he would essentially have to walk the halls and look from room to room to find his loved one.  So that's what he did, and a volunteer went with him.

Despite what can only be described as utter chaos, the warmth, love and compassion that I witnessed in the shelter could literally not be stronger.  Volunteers who have no experience assisting grown adults go to the bathroom, took on these roles.  People who have no experience in chaplaincy, were sitting with evacuees and listening to their stories, keeping them company and nourishing their souls.  Volunteers were feeding people who couldn’t feed themselves and cleaning up after them in ways that usually only a nurse or close loved one would do.  I was blown away by the number of people who came to help and their willingness to do any task, no matter how challenging or mundane.   The volunteers at Brooklyn Tech are in no way unique.  This week I have witnessed some of the most unbelievable compassion and kindness and it makes me proud to call myself a New Yorker, or more appropriately, a Brooklynite. 

The needs of the evacuees at Brooklyn Tech HS are a very small example of the great and varied needs of people across the city and across the northeast.   Thousands have lost everything and unfortunately some have lost their lives to this terrible storm.  It is a horrible week in our parasha and it has been a horrible week for my neighbors.   In our Torah portion, Abraham and God teach us to be a witness to our neighbor’s pain and respond appropriately.  I have witnessed so much this week and we are only at the very beginning of what will be a long and difficult recovery.  The need is real and extensive and the response is underway.  If you are in New York, I know you are already doing what you can. You all inspire me and you make me proud. If you are outside of New York, I pray that you will see our pain and respond with whatever support you can provide.  

If you want to donate, but don’t know where, I’d like to suggest you support one of my friends and classmates, Rabbi Rachel Grant Meyer, in her effort to bring blankets to those in need in Brooklyn.  Read Below:

"It started yesterday. I asked my partner how we could get a bunch of water from downtown Brooklyn to Red Hook. She said "shopping carts." I called Trader Joe's on Court Street. They lent us two carts. We walked from downtown to Red Hook and pushed cases of water, peanut butter, and baby food. When I got home, I posed on Facebook and told friends they could send some money if they wanted to help out. Less than 24 hours later, we've raised over $2200 for #blankets4brooklyn. This morning, we purchased 250 blankets and friends drove them to a distribution center in Sunset Park Brooklyn. We are going to continue buying the most needed goods (next up: coolers to keep much-wanted hot food warm) and getting them to the directly affected. You want to help out? We'll take whatever you'll give. Just log in to PayPal (easy to create an account if you don't have one). Click the navy blue "Send Payment" button and submit however much you want to give to I can't give you a tax write-off but I can assure you it'll get to those who need it most and I can send you a GIGANTIC Brooklyn hug!"

Friday, July 20, 2012

Breaking News: Babies Are Pretty Amazing

I turned on the TV this morning to watch the coverage of the shooting in Colorado.  Ariella loves TV.  The second she heard the noise, she turned her head to stare into the bright, shining lights on our brand new, 47 inch LED TV.  Matt Lauer is in the middle of interviewing a seventeen year old witness to the shooting.  Ariella stares straight into this teenager’s eyes and starts giggling.  


“No, Ariella.” I tell her in the soft, sing-song baby voice.  “This is a sad story. Something very sad happened.”  She turns away from the TV, looks into my eyes and gives me the biggest grin you can imagine. I can’t help but smile back.  How can I not?  This precious little child has absolutely no ability to comprehend what happened (thank God). She just wants to look at all the bright lights and she wants me, her trusted mommy, to affirm this desire. “Hi.  I know.  That is a TV.”

What a weird moment.  I’m smiling and talking nonsense while watching a teenager fight back tears after experiencing a horrifying tragedy.   Parenthood: forcing adults to hide emotions since forever. 

An hour later, Ariella and I are sitting in the waiting room at the vet as our dog is getting his nails clipped.  Berlin hates getting his nails clipped with the same level of intensity that Ariella loves watching TV.  I hear him crying in the other room and pretend that nothing is happening as I play with Ariella. Two minutes later, the vet comes out and tells me she needs my help to hold Berlin.  In we go.  I hold Berlin down as the vet clips away.  Berlin cries a Shiba cry and squirms as if this is the most excruciating thing that has ever happened to him. It might actually be the most excruciating thing that has ever happened to him. I turn to see how Ariella is doing and sure enough, she is watching intently with a look of pure terror on her face.  She is a witness of pain and reacts as though she is in pain herself.  No tears, just a look of horror. 

Luckily, I don’t think the incident caused any lasting damage, at least not for Berlin or Ariella .  Berlin pranced all the way home and Ariella went back to playing with her stroller toy, happy as can be.  I, on the other hand, feel horrible.   I’ve already decided that John will be taking Berlin to his next nail clipping appointment and I can’t stop thinking about the shooting.  What a horrible, awful day.

I can’t wait for Ariella to be able to think the way I can think.  One day, she’ll be able to make fun of Berlin for being such a wuss and she’ll actually understand what Matt Lauer is saying.   For now, though, I think I’m okay with having a sweet little baby who feels empathy for her doggy and has no idea how crazy and irrational the world is.  Oh, to be 5 months old again.  Babies are pretty amazing.