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Don't be afraid

"The entire world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to be afraid." — Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

This is the first post of my very first blog. Most of you who read this probably know me already, so I don’t have to do a lot of introduction. I’m a Reconstructionist rabbi and a cantor; I live with my husband, Spencer Gill, and two cute dogs in Virginia Beach, VA, and lead a little congregation, Tidewater Chavurah, with no building but nice folks. I’ve been thinking about starting a blog for years.

Lately there have been a few people in my life who have suffered physical trauma or emotional pain and didn’t let on until they’d been suffering quite a while. When I asked, “Why didn’t you let me know?” they gave the exact same response: “I didn’t want to bother you.” This would be followed by an exasperated exhalation on my part and a real or virtual hug.

I used to be like that, not wanting to bother people with my problems. Then Spencer contracted flesh-eating bacteria during a beach vacation in 2008 and almost lost part of a leg. All help extended was gratefully accepted: from airport personnel while getting him home to Los Angeles, from friends who sat with me into the night when he had surgery, from neighbors offering dog walks. When Spencer’s arrival home from the hospital coincided with the beginning of the High Holidays and I had to be at the temple when I was cantor, I reached out. Because almost all our friends were not only Jews but shulgoing Jews, I got my parents to drive out from Arizona to hang with Spencer over Rosh Hashanah. For erev Yom Kippur, Spencer’s best bud overcame all his phobias (illness, caretaking, neediness) to spend the evening in our condo, and the next day an Orange County pal gave up temple to stay for like ten hours. When I got home that night to break the fast, she greeted me with a plate of warm brisket. From then on, I made two promises: I would give help when asked, and I would ask for help as needed.

So many people can’t do the latter. Has it been ever thus, that a high proportion of folks think it unseemly to ask for as little as a shoulder to cry on (while a smaller number not only need but demand rescue on a regular basis)? Is the unwillingness to reach out for support exacerbated in some way by the 24-hour news cycle and social media; do we see footage of wildfires and mass murders and Aleppo and decide our problems don’t matter? Has asking for help become institutionalized? (“Please send healing prayers on behalf of Ploni ben Ploni…” “Please sign up for the temple’s Bikur Cholim committee.” “Don’t worry, my insurance will handle it.”) Will the next generation, with its members’ reported reluctance to engage in face-to-face conversation, be able to give hugs, let alone receive them?

Most of us, as we grew up, were exposed to the John Donne poem that begins, “No man is an island, entire of itself,” and the West African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.” Both are wise sayings and should be taken to heart, but they don’t go far enough to encourage us to reach out to others when we’re in need. Accordingly, I invite you to turn to the words of that noted young philosopher Demi Lovato, who said, “The best advice I can give to anyone going through a rough patch is to never be afraid to ask for help.” (Thank you, Google and goodreads.com.) You don’t have to have gone through drug addiction and rehab to take that advice, either. Take it whenever you need a hot meal, a word of praise, a bear hug. If you run out of people to bother, by all means bother me.

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Don’t be afraid that I died or something.

blank tombstone

Oh, dear, I thought it had been three months since I posted in this blog, and it’s been four, hasn’t it? Actually, FaceBook friends know I’m around, and it was one of them who asked recently when I’m going to add to my blog, repeating the question at kiddush a few days ago. The gentle reminder and positive reinforcement are much appreciated.

So an explanation is probably in order for anyone who cares. There was some big stuff, such as Passover, for which I spent two weeks cooking and trying to finalize guest lists for two pretty big s’dorim at our house. And issues around my mother in Arizona, whose kidneys have been failing. A visit out there just after Pesach, planned in February, wound up being three days of sitting in Mom’s Scottsdale hospital room and three evenings sitting with my dad watching episodic TV dramas at volume level 60. I don’t begrudge a minute of the time with my mom — we did some wonderful reminiscing. But it wasn’t conducive to up-to-the-minute blogging.

My mother was hospitalized in April because she was retaining a dangerous amount of water, and the docs were trying to figure out a pharmaceutical solution that would jump-start her kidneys while not endangering her heart, with which she also has issues. That solution didn’t work out, and Mom went on dialysis the following week. I’ll write more about that soon when I post something about how it feels to have parents who are no longer aging but old, an experience many of you have gone through, and yes, I realize how blessed I am that both my parents are not only still around but compos mentis and functioning, all things considered. Mom is tolerating dialysis quite well and has lost a ton of water weight, so she’s actually feeling much better than she was six weeks ago.

Another thing that has impeded my blog-posting has been a moderate case of PTSD: President Trump Stress Disorder. (Severe is when you behave in a way that gets you thrown off an airplane.) As the bad behavior and planned depredations pile up, so has my consumption of news, mostly via MSNBC and the Washington Post, the latter of which we get online for free because we subscribe to the local Virginian-Pilot. (Please, no cracks about MSNBC being left-wing; it consistently interviews conservative politicians and commentators and is starting to tug its lineup of hosts to the right.) I get WaPo headlines every morning, a loooong feed called The Post Most every afternoon, and an inside-the-Beltway analysis, The Daily 202, five days a week. There’s plenty of overlap among the three, but I spend at least an hour every day reading news stories and op-eds. Plus pieces from The Nation, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist that people post on FB. And I’m thinking of getting the Sunday edition of The New York Times because it comes with daily online access. What’s the threshold for news junkiehood?

Overconsumption of verifiable news, of course, leads to knowing too damn much about stuff going on in the world, which then leads to a desire to put a foot up the ass of any number of government officials and pundits, a desire that, as a rabbi, I can’t indulge. Even righteous anger turned inward becomes depression, so while I don’t spend a lot of time curled up in the fetal position, I spend a lot of time thinking about being curled up in the fetal position. That, too, cuts into my potential blogging time. (But so does phone banking, which I’m doing this year and next for Virginia Democrats.)

I also spend a lot of time sleeping during the day, which is mostly about untreated sleep apnea. (I’ve tried CPAP twice and can’t deal with the machine and the mask.) On the plus side, if I’m sleeping, I’m not eating.

The last factor in what’s been keeping me from blogging is a slight uptick in work, some of it rabbi work, but (more lucratively) also copyediting and proofreading for a company that helps people self-publish books, mostly business titles. I’m hoping to start very soon on an actual ghostwriting gig for this outfit, which would be interesting and involve some real money, maybe even enough to pay for a few months of health insurance if the ACA goes bye-bye.

So that’s my list of reasons I didn’t post anything on this blog for four months: Passover, worry about my mom, overconsumption of news, depression, sleeping, and work. But I pledge to do better in the coming months, as I replace sleeping during the day with caffeine abuse and depression with, I don’t know, maybe yoga, maybe reruns of Cybill.

Don’t be afraid about how holy your rabbi’s language is.

When I got on the bus to go home from the Women’s March on Washington, I vented briefly about my physical condition on Facebook: “My knees would like me to eff off and die.” The next day, a Facebook friend posted, rather disingenuously, “What do you mean by eff off?” I ignored the question, figuring she knew perfectly well what I meant, and the next day she made it clear that she expected me, as a rabbi, to hold myself to a higher standard of conduct regarding language than other people.

This was mildly annoying, for a couple of reasons:

• I had posted the comment about my knees on my general FB page (and by the way, ten years ago I would have spelled out the f-word), but the FB friend responded on my professional page, which I reserve for rabbi-related stuff.

• Her response was typical of Jews who want their rabbis to do all the Jewish things they don’t want to do and model all the fine behavior, at all times, that they don’t want to bother exhibiting themselves.

The fact is, as a lot of people do, I use salty language sometimes. I’ve been cussing since I was 14, and while I try to limit my use of cuss words to the privacy of my own home and the company of my spouse, I find them useful sometimes in conveying strong feeling or underscoring a point in conversation. The word “salty” in context of language probably derives from sailors’ reputation for cursing, but I think of cuss words more as spice: used sparingly, they add flavor to self-expression, though it’s important not to overpower one’s speech with them.

Don’t forget that the language associated with Jewish prayer, Hebrew, has its share of rudeness. For example, the Hebrew word for “female,” n’keivah, shares its root with the Hebrew word for “hole.” And the language associated with European Jewry, Yiddish, can win most contests for spicy vocabulary, to the extent that it sometimes gets sanitized in translation out of politeness. The word bupkes, used to mean “nothing of worth” or “almost nothing of worth,” literally means “goat poop.” Similarly, I don’t ever refer to an elderly man as an alter kocker, because kock comes from the same place ca-ca does, and I think it’s impolite to call someone an “old shitter.” Yiddish has lots of ways to call someone a fool, and several of them invoke body parts generally kept hidden.

Of course we expect clergy to stay away from acts that hurt or embarrass people and/or institutions, which include everything from hiring a hit man to murder your spouse because you’re infatuated with a congregant to showing up to give a civic invocation on behalf of your congregation dressed in a torn T-shirt and flip-flops. Nor would I use salty language during an invocation, on the bimah, during a lifecycle event, or in front of children. But I feel I have the prerogative to go off-color occasionally on the Facebook page I use to recommend movies, rail about spineless members of Congress, and post cute doggie pix. And I reserve the very occasional right, when teaching adults, to refer to a biblical character as a douchebag when the word “douchebag” describes him best. Of course I could call the same character an arrogant putz, but that would be even ruder.

When someone jumps my case for using profanity in a casual, colloquial context, that person certainly has the right not to like it, but she needs to understand that she’s denying a bit of my essential humanity and self-expression. (And please don’t haul out the old saw about how people who use cuss words don’t know the proper words; I’ll match my working vocabulary with anyone else’s, any time.) According to Torah, God wants all of us to be holy and doesn’t list extra requirements of conduct for the biblical priests. Maybe that’s why, at least in theory, Judaism expects its clergy to be human beings and live like other human beings: to be more learned, maybe, but not necessarily more holy. Actually, I think that’s pretty effing cool.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By now you’ve seen lots of news photos and video from the Women’s March on Washington and its sister marches around the country and the world. I got on a bus at 5 a.m. to go to DC; while I’d been to a few rallies and marches in Los Angeles focused on LGBT and immigration issues, Saturday’s was the first really big event I’d been to in almost 25 years. And I have to admit, there were times when that deathless line from Lethal Weapon ran through my mind: I’m too old for this shit.

It wasn’t just the leg pain, either. (My knee braces proved ineffective by noon, and the Aleve might as well have been Skittles.) I mean, there were women there with walkers and wheelchairs, so I just kept hobbling along. It was more about being happy to be there, to have shown up, to be counted, but not being thrilled. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I was always excited to be at a mass rally, to know that I wasn’t alone in my protest and that I lived in a country in which thousands of people could gather in one place to make their voices heard.

This time I couldn’t get as excited. I didn’t spend much time in the most crowded six blocks of the rally on Independence Avenue; it was claustrophobic even for someone not normally afraid of crowds or tight places, and I slowly moved back to where there was some milling-around space. By the time the rally became a march down Constitution Avenue, my knees hurt too much to join it; I sat on some stone steps and watched younger women walk by chanting “We need a leader, not a creepy tweeter!” while a millennial ran back and forth trying to start a wave among the folks on the steps. Finally, I tottered up to Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, which had programming all day, and dozed off during a session on community organizing.

Another thing that bothered me, and I don’t know if this is age or rabbinic formation, was the relentless sexual undertone and the uncreative salaciousness of some of the signs. I get the pussy hats, and they certainly made an impressive sea of pink, and yes, the event was billed as a women’s march, and DJT’s attitudes toward women are egregious, but I got a little tired of placards reading “This pussy grabs back,” and other (male and female) genital references. I don’t want to come on as a prude, but I don’t like my identity as a woman to be reduced to a single body part. Also, if you can’t come up with a sign more clever than “FUCK TRUMP,” you’re not an asset to the movement.

That said, I witnessed a lot of beauty and life-affirming spirit in DC. Posters and banners focused on love were ubiquitous, as was a full-page image from Friday’s Washington Post, showing a woman wearing a hijab patterned after the American flag and captioned, “We the People.” Besides the sheer numbers, the diversity was pretty darn good: age ranges from babies to seniors, lots of men and boys, a good representation of POCs, though Pallid Americans did predominate. People on the Metro made room, offered seats, talked to strangers. The D.C. police and National Guard members made me feel safer, not threatened. Rainbow flags and “All fired up — ready to go!” never get old. All the crazy had happened on Friday; by Saturday there was no violence, no acting-out, no panic. There was a wonderful sense of unity that I hope keeps up and turns into a left-of-center version of the Tea Party that will hammer at state and local institutions. Just please don’t call it the Pussy Party.

Next time I might stay close to home and go to a local rally; my body will appreciate it. But my soul will never forget January 21, 2017, in Washington, DC. There’s nothing like being there.

A few photos:

Don’t be afraid to learn your prayers.

Last Friday night I did something I never thought I’d do: I conducted a Shabbat service entirely in English. Not because I think it’s a good idea, and not because I was pressured by a Hebrew-hating congregation. I was trying to prove a point and wound up discovering a couple of different ones.

The very small “congregation without walls” that I lead is unaffiliated but uses Reform liturgy and, while it includes some members who had substantial Jewish educations as children, the majority of the people who come to services don’t have much Hebrew background. (All of them are strongly committed to Judaism and are lovely, menschedik people, and many are eager learners.) We have a Friday night service just once a month, though I’m trying to nudge the steering committee to double that. A few members have kept up a drumbeat of wanting more English and less Hebrew in the services because they can’t read Hebrew, despite the usual comebacks:

“But Hebrew is the traditional language of Jewish prayer.”

“It isn’t our language, and I never had to learn it.”

“You could learn it now. I’m happy to teach you.”

“I’m too old/busy/uninterested.”

“But everything the congregation sings is transliterated just below.”

“It’s still Hebrew. I don’t know what it means.”

“But an English translation is right there on the page.”

“It’s distracting to read the English while people are singing in Hebrew.”

“Anyway, it isn’t all about understanding what the words mean. It’s the sound of the Hebrew, the rhythm of the Hebrew …”

“I get that, but I still want to know what I’m singing.”

Understand that I regularly include lots of English in my services: responsive readings, passages that aren’t transliterated, outside readings that I ask congregants to recite, spontaneous kavanot and discussions. But yes, most of the sung liturgy is in Hebrew. I sounded out members from Reform backgrounds about perhaps using a couple of English-language settings from the old Union Prayer Book days, but the only one they know is the call-and-response “Let us adore … the ever-living God …” for Aleinu, and that isn’t in the siddur we use.

Finally, after this issue came up at a membership meeting last month and we’d had the exchange described above, I said, “You know what? Next month’s service is going to be all-English. You probably haven’t heard a lot of our prayers sung in English. Maybe if you hear the things we sing with English words, you’ll get why they’re meant to be sung in Hebrew.” My theory was that they’d find the English, sung to the tunes we use regularly, so clunky or even silly that they’d understand why some of the passages don’t even have English-language settings and be okay with the traditional Hebrew. I figured even the Hebrew-averse congregants would be uncomfortable with a mourner’s Kaddish in English when they’d heard “Yitgadal v’yitkadash…” all their lives, and by the time they were singing the boilerplate of Adon olam (“Eternal One, who reigned supreme…”) they’d have had enough.

Predictably, the congregants who knew Hebrew or wanted to know Hebrew were not happy at the prospect of an all-English service, while others were intrigued. I described it as an experiment, but I made my position clear at the beginning of the service when I announced that our thematic text for the evening was not the Torah portion of the week but rather Numbers 11:18-20: “You have kept whining before HaShem and saying, ‘If only we had meat to eat! Indeed, we were better off in Egypt!’ HaShem will give you meat and you shall eat. You shall eat not one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils.” (Happily, that got a nice laugh.)

As it turned out, I probably did too good a job. I fit the English in the prayerbook to the tunes so that it scanned nicely for most of the passages. For Adon olam, for which the translation in the book was unusable, I pieced together rhythmic translations from three different siddurim (and three different movements!) to get a singable English version. More congregants sang along throughout the service than I’d ever heard before.

Afterward, the consensus was that Bar’chu and the first line of Sh’ma always need to be chanted in Hebrew, but different congregants had different views of what worked in the vernacular and what didn’t. Their opinions were really helpful and have given me ideas for future services that I think they’ll like. The really interesting comments, though, were the ones that revealed how oblivious some of them were to what’s in the prayerbook and what we do at services. One member said she never noticed that the prayers were translated into English in the siddur. Another appreciated reciting the mourner’s Kaddish in English but seemed somewhat annoyed by the fact that it doesn’t mention death. A third said she liked a certain prayer translation, forgetting that we read that blessing in English at every service.

It became clear that there isn’t just a Hebrew problem among my congregants; there’s a mindfulness problem. (And the latter is my problem, too: going on autopilot is the bane of clergy as well as congregants.) My task is to try to bring the kahal to an understanding of what they’re reciting or singing, regardless of language, so that, whether in English or Hebrew, it constitutes more than sounds coming out of their mouths. I have ideas about that, too.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying I have no intention of drastically reducing the Hebrew of our chavurah services or of giving up trying to get Jews to learn prayerbook Hebrew. Although the rabbis of old have said it’s okay to pray in the vernacular because understanding the prayers is important, that doesn’t mean pushing away such an integral part of Jewish tradition. We Jews are a unique faith community, and reciting prayers in Hebrew is one of the most particularistic things we do. The use of Hebrew in prayer and sacred text is one of the most important things that makes us Jews and places us in connection with Jews around the world. “There is an emotional element that reciting prayer in Hebrew can add even to those who do not comprehend every word,” writes Rabbi Reuven Hammer, a noted scholar of liturgy. “There is nothing magical in Hebrew, but there is something culturally meaningful that is lost when traditional prayers are said in other languages.” (See more at http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hebrew-prayer/)

Accordingly, I’ll be starting a basic prayerbook Hebrew class soon. Really, anyone can learn how to decode Hebrew. If you can learn a bunch of text emojis, you can learn the Hebrew alef-bet. If you can remember social media initials (SMH, FWIW, ICYMI, etc.), you can learn some Hebrew prefixes, suffixes, and roots. But my class won’t be just about decoding. It will definitely include learning what we say when we speak to God, and why we say it.

Don’t be afraid to be politically correct when it means “having good manners.”

We just came through an election season during which the phrases “politically correct” and “politically incorrect” were used ad nauseam: the first to indicate a rigid adherence to language that offends no one in the least way, the second as a label for saying what you want, when you want, where you want, to whom you want. (Full disclosure: I’m recycling most of this blog post from one of my 5777 High Holidays drashot.)

Let me say up front that I’m n0t an absolutist when it comes to political correctness. Some of the reports I’ve read of college students having the fantods because someone spray-painted the name of a political opponent on a campus sidewalk or needing to be warned before a professor mentions a historical event that might upset them give me a swift pain. I mean, part of maturity is being able to deal with uncomfortable speech and subject matter.

I thought the kids in my generation who grew up with white privilege and enough money were sheltered, but we’re right off the streets compared to some of the students entering college today. By all means, nail the spray-painter for vandalism and suggest to instructors that they give students a heads-up concerning, I don’t know, graphic images and descriptions. But one of the reasons you go to college is to experience people who don’t necessarily think like you, to live outside a completely safe space. A demand for extreme political correctness, like extreme anything else, doesn’t make sense to me.

But the other end of the spectrum, the claim that a person’s right to say whatever he or she wants supersedes whatever discomfort that person’s words inflict, is much more dangerous in a civil society that’s becoming less civil with each passing year. Like many of you, I grew up with the jingle “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But language can hurt. It can kill, if it’s powerful enough to incite violence.

Even if language used isn’t used in a hostile, purposely hurtful way, it still can inflict pain. These are the faux pas, the “microaggressions” that I’ve seen described online and in magazines: small, often unthinking or even well-intended words or actions that make the recipient feel less-than. They can be based on race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, gender. They are everywhere, and whether or not you think they’re silly, trivial, or confusing, or someone is being oversensitive, these microaggressions are sincerely felt and should be acknowledged.

Many Americans take pride in being direct and outspoken, in contrast to other national cultures in which a veneer of obfuscation or politeness masks opposition. We have the right to say what we want and print what we want, and by God we’re gonna do just that. But there can be a very thin line between being outspoken and being tactless, between “telling it like it is” and lashon hara, which literally means “evil language” and represents not just malicious gossip but any derogatory speech about another person or group, even when it’s true.

Words are like a stone thrown into a still pond: the ripples flow out from the stone in ever-growing concentric circles that eventually go all the way to the water’s edge. Positive speech can carry someone through tough times. Negative speech can poison a relationship, with an aftertaste that lingers sometimes for decades. I know this because I have dropped such stones into the pond and, horrified, watched the circles spread.

This doesn’t mean you can’t ever advise, criticize, even rebuke someone. But your words can come from a place of love, not just self-righteousness or condescension, from real concern for the recipient, not just for your own agenda. It all comes down to thinking before you speak. Or hit Post or Send.

One of the easiest ways we can care for one another is to refrain from unnecessary speech that does harm to someone else; to point it out — kindly, lovingly — when it occurs; to develop enough empathy to imagine ourselves on the receiving end of what we say. Were everyone to do that, we would have a society that goes beyond civility to real understanding.

(If you recognize the creator of the cartoon above, please name so I can give credit.)

Don’t be afraid of 2017. Be resolute.

My Facebook feed for the past two weeks has been full of messages bidding good riddance to 2016, and for every “Let’s hope 2017 is better,” there’s been someone else posting “And [I’m afraid] things are only going to get worse in 2017.”

It’s easy to understand why people are facing this new year with dread. Via a perfect storm of well-documented and chewed-over factors, our nation is about to inaugurate a president who is a 21st-century American version of Benito Mussolini and who is absolutely capable of trying to mold U.S. government and society into even more of an oligarchy — a polity in which a powerful cadre of individuals and corporations dictate to the rest of the populace — than it already is.

The dangers of a Trump presidency, backed by a Republican Congress and a host of Republican-dominated governorships and state legislatures, are obvious. His Cabinet choices show not just disregard for but hostility to environmental protection, civil rights and liberties, public education, expanded access to health care, and any boundaries for financial institutions. Trump, I have no doubt, will continue to make scapegoats out of Muslims, immigrants, and people of color and will continue to lie to the victims of corporate greed who comprise much of his base.

People will die because of his actions. More and more children who live near sites of unfettered pollution will develop debilitating illnesses such as asthma and fatal cancers. When the Supreme Court, after Trump appoints a couple of new justices, overturns Roe v. Wade, women and girls dying from septic abortions will once again become a common occurrence in America, because at least half the states are ready to recriminalize first-trimester abortion the following day. Thousands of people will perish because they will no longer have access to doctors and life-saving therapies. And although the possibility is more remote, there is no guarantee that someone of Trump’s immaturity won’t be provoked into sending U.S. troops into combat or even using — or inviting — nuclear weapons.

So yes, the Trump presidency is a scary prospect. But we who oppose what Trump stands for and what he’s likely to do in office won’t form an effective bulwark against his administration’s worst depredations if we react by hiding, lashing out, despairing, or even hoping that Trump’s presidency will implode or be stopped by the realities of American law and global economics. This piece by a Hungarian academic lays out the parallels between his country, now a populist autocracy, and ours: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/i-watched-a-populist-leader-rise-in-my-country-and-that-is-why-i-am-genuinely-worried-for-america/2016/12/27/6b4cf632-cc65-11e6-b8a2-8c2a61b0436f_story.html?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.e05f665a293f. We need to start learning what to do and what not to do from people who have confronted, to use Fareed Zakaria’s term, the “illiberal democracy” in which we may be about to live.

Our anger must not be helpless; it must be channeled into resistance and practical aid  to  land and waterways and institutions and especially individual people who are being harmed by new or renewed government policies. The aid will involve donating money, because, to give two examples, money will be needed to feed hungry kids and help women travel to places where they can terminate pregnancies safely. But it will also include being present, showing up, for meetings, phone banking, lobbying, mass protests. It will include gathering the nerve on occasion to confront, on social media and face-to-face, not only people we know but people we don’t know whom you catch relying on fake news or letting their bigotry pollute civil discourse — always listening to why they think the way they do and responding by modeling love and compassion. It also means acting locally when local issues come up that endanger progress.

And we need to be very aware that our responsibility is to all human beings, not just the people who are like us, and that our activism has to include people who don’t necessarily look or live like us. For example, the current spike in anti-Semitic vandalism is upsetting and must be dealt with (see “acting locally”), but that doesn’t mean Congress is going to pass a new set of Nuremberg Laws next month. Rather than fear how illiberal democracy may affect us in an undetermined future, let’s fight against possibilities such as registries for American Muslims and internment camps for undocumented immigrants, not just because we could be next, but because we believe in an America in which every resident has equal protection under the law.

To wish you “Happy New Year” would border on the fatuous, so I wish each of you a new year in which awareness and inspiration bring the potential for joy.

Don’t be afraid of Christmas, even if you’re Jewish

A few years ago, a Jewish FB friend posted that she had been at some civic luncheon and was sitting next to a non-Jewish woman. One of them was wearing red and the other hunter green, and the Gentile woman said, “Oh, look! Together we make Christmas!” The FB friend reported that she was flustered and didn’t know what to say.

That level of discomfort seems a little out of place to me, living as we do in a nation in which red and green pretty much take over the place for six weeks each year. “Together we make Christmas” would be an unusual remark in, say, downtown Riyadh or at Kol Nidrei services, but it’s a perfectly natural observation in religiously mixed company in the U.S. of A. I mean I like to play a computer game that involves dropping virtual marbles, and I think fleetingly of Christmas every time I see a red and a dark green marble together. All year round. That’s how 62 years of life in America can shape your neural pathways.

The “war on Christmas” imagined by certain right-wing commentators is well-known and completely bogus, but at this time of year, a few of my fellow Jews also seem to imagine a Gentile community that is ganging up on them with verbal greetings of “Merry Christmas” and obliviousness to any other faith community’s seasonal holiday. But we have to expect that. We Jews comprise about 2 percent of the American population (significantly less where I live, maybe up to 10 percent if you live in a major city or one of its suburbs), but unless you reside in one of this nation’s few Jewish enclaves, Christmas is going to be the predominant civic theme between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, and Chanukah is never going to get equal time or even a whole lot of recognition.

There are non-Jewish folks who do want to know about Chanukah — I explained the holiday to a bunch of at-risk kids at a very Christian residential facility on Wednesday and next week will light a chanukiyah at a huge senior living center in which the Jewish residents can be counted  on one hand. But Chanukah can’t compete with Christmas in the marketplace of American culture. That’s why Chanukah is so fraught with tension for Jewish parents of school-aged children. It’s a big reason that the December Dilemma looms so large for the intermarried. It’s why Chanukah became a gift-giving holiday, and why I wish the American Jewish community would adopt almost any Jewish holiday other than Chanukah for exchanging presents. (I’ve been on the record about that last point for years: http://www.jewishjournal.com/cover_story/article/a_modest_proposal_20001215)

Maybe I’m just lucky: old enough to have experienced singing Christmas carols in public school as seasonal rather than religious music, and young enough not to have been chased down the street by anti-Semitic schoolmates. But Christmas doesn’t pose any kind of threat to this rabbi. Christmas is powerful, but it can’t damage our Jewishness; it can’t even detract from the joy we derive from celebrating Chanukah unless we let it.

On Christmas morning my husband and I will open gifts with my Presbyterian mother-in-law and pagan sister-in-law, neither of whom ever bothers to find out when Chanukah actually falls, so it’s always nice when it coincides with Christmas. Tomorrow night I may go to late Christmas Eve service at the Episcopal church that’s been hosting my Torah Study for Skeptics class because the music and liturgy are lovely and I have friends there now. I’ll skip this year’s Messiah sing-along because it falls on erev Shabbat, but I may go next year, because the fact that Handel wrote such glorious music outweighs his co-opting Isaiah to celebrate Jesus and his being a massive anti-Semite. And I’ll answer anyone’s greeting of “Merry Christmas!” with “You too!” because I know it’s meant as fellowship, not proselytism, and my neighbors’ neglect of my holiday is as benign as their plates of red-and-green cookies.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

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