Sunday, December 30, 2007

Chanukkah, Hanukkah, Chrismanukkah

This year, lots of people asked me to explain why everyone spells Hanukkah differently. More importantly, some asked why everyone seems to celebrate it differently.

This year, Ryan and I made a point to light the candles each night (though, I must be honest: we forgot to light them the last night). We were not able to light them at nightfall, which is probably not surprising as we don't tend to do anything the way we're supposed to. We also were not able to attend any services.

But out of any holiday, this one in particular has me intrigued and asking lots of questions, particularly about the Christianization of the Jewish life.

I really don't like the holiday season, mostly because of the rush to buy gifts. Yes, everyone knows that I love to buy gifts, and I love to think of the perfect gift. Finding the perfect gift is my way of communicating to the person: "Yes, I love you and know you almost as well as you know yourself. I listen to you in order to understand you and make you happy."

But in the month of December, we buy out of obligation as much as out of love. We worry whether we have to buy a gift for a certain family member because they might get us something. We worry if our wrapping and bows match. We have to get the gift tags to complete the ensemble.

It gives me pause that this secular mentality, which has become pervasive in Christian life, has seeped into Jewish life, too.

While I'm not excusing Christians for the glutton that is gift-giving, at least gift-giving is rooted in religious tradition. The three wisemen, according to the Christian bible, brought jesus gifts. Yes, I know it is traditional for Jewish children to receive gelt and use it as a wager while playing with a dreidel, a traditional Hanukkah game. But a large part of the gift-giving was done to assimilate into the extensive Christian culture in this country. And, of course, to show your friends and family love and all that jazz.

Jews want their children to not feel left out when their son's or daughter's after-school playmates talk about their wish list and piles of gifts at home. (Anyone remember Ross Gellar on Friends creating the Holiday Aardvark when his son told him of his affinity for Santa Claus?) But it's a slippery slope. Is it OK for me to put up an evergreen with all blue and white ornaments? I can find plenty of Hanukkah tinsel on the Internet after all...

I've read a lot of articles on this, and rabbis of all branches seem split. Some point out that Jews have been adopting other cultures for all of their long history as wanderers. Others say assimilating goes against the very message of Hanukkah when the Jews refused to take up the Greek and Syrian way of life.

Here is an article Ryan and I both read when we were discussing this.

I am not saying one way is right or wrong. Who am I to judge a religion that I am just beginning to practice? But as a relative newbie, I see things with brand-new eyes and I'm filled with all kinds of questions.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Kosher Living (our way)

Ryan and I have been trying to keep kosher since our two-year anniversary on Oct. 16. What does this mean for us? We don't eat pork, and we do our best not to mix meat and dairy.

Keeping kosher means very different things for everyone. Many Jews who keep kosher avoid meat altogether in order to follow the strictest kosher guidelines.

From Judaism 101 (one of my go-to Web sites):

1. Certain animals may not be eaten at all. This restriction includes the flesh, organs, eggs and milk of the forbidden animals.
2. Of the animals that may be eaten, the birds and mammals must be killed in accordance with Jewish law.
3. All blood must be drained from the meat or broiled out of it before it is eaten.
4. Certain parts of permitted animals may not be eaten.
5. Fruits and vegetables are permitted, but must be inspected for bugs
6. Meat (the flesh of birds and mammals) cannot be eaten with dairy. Fish, eggs, fruits, vegetables and grains can be eaten with either meat or dairy. (According to some views, fish may not be eaten with meat).
7. Utensils that have come into contact with meat may not be used with dairy, and vice versa. Utensils that have come into contact with non-kosher food may not be used with kosher food. This applies only where the contact occurred while the food was hot.
8. Grape products made by non-Jews may not be eaten.

What are the forbidden animals?

According to the Torah (Lev. 11:3 and Deut. 14:6), animals must have split hooves and chew its own cud. Also fish must have scales and fins, so lobster, shrimp and other shellfish are forbidden.

So why are we doing this?

Ryan and I have always talked about trying to keep kosher for at least a set amount of time for the experience. But, truly, Ryan and I often struggle with ways to live Jewishly. This is something that we can do that reminds us of our religion and way of life.

As I said before, Jews keep kosher in very different ways. The vast majority of Jews do not. The rabbi who is leading our classes keeps kosher, but also eats vegetarian because he is unable to procure kosher meat where we live. The rabbi who will marry us in eight months (!!!!) mixes meat and dairy, but refuses to eat pork. She explained to us that keeping kosher in this way was effective for her because when she goes to the grocery store and to a restaurant she is doing so as a Jew, and not buying or ordering pork products is a daily reminder of her faith.

Ryan and I are still stumbling around on the subject. We make mistakes every once in a while and eat a buttered roll with our roast beef. We don't know if we'll register for separate plates, cookware and utensils. This is truly an ever-evolving thing for us.

But so far, this has been one of the most rewarding experiences for both of us. It helps us challenge each other and when people ask us questions and challenge our beliefs, it helps those beliefs grow even stronger.