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Over the past month, there has been much conversation about veterans: the observance of our annual Veterans Day, the lack of visits by our sitting president to current military overseas or to Arlington Cemetery on Veterans Day, and the death of a United States President who himself was a veteran.

I have a different perspective this year on veterans.

I feel quite honored and privileged that I am often able to help families say goodbye to their loved ones by presiding at their funerals. For many years, I was quite moved when we would bury a veteran of the United States Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard. The families would typically share their loved one’s connection to the military, and the emotion of the military part of the ceremony added to the emotion of the day.

There are always two or three military men or women present at these funerals with military honors. The individuals present are in uniform, play Taps, and then proceed to present the American flag to the next of kin. One of the military representatives will say to the family members,

“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States military and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”

I have been a rabbi for over 20 years. For 18 of those years, regardless of who was sitting in the office of the President, regardless of whether or not I had voted for them, I never blinked when these words were spoken. The office of the President was the highest office in the land, and our veterans deserved the gratitude of the President of the United States, the entire military body and our full nation. However, over the past two years, each time those words have been uttered, I now cringe. Not because of my own personal feelings toward the President, but because I had recently learned the story, the character of the individual who had died, the veteran who was being honored. Often, I learned about their very strong political views.  Even more often, though they would appreciate the very special and moving military honors being presented to them in those sacred moments of honor and remembrance, I know that the words shared would not have settled well with them.

Does the language need to change, to say: ‘On behalf of the Office of the President of the United States,’ or simply leave that part out, and say ‘On behalf of the United States military and a grateful nation….’ Will families begin to opt out from having military honors at the funerals of loved ones, because they don’t want condolences from a particular President?

Honestly, I hope not. I hope that we will never again have a President who does not earn the respect of the vast majority of our country. Veterans deserve our utmost honor, especially in their final moments on this earth, and I hope, very soon, our military will be able to share the words: “On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States military and a grateful nation…” with true honor and utmost respect.

The post When Veterans Die – Do the Words Still Have the Same Meaning? appeared first on My Jewish Learning.

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The story of Hanukkah is a compelling tale.  The fight of good versus bad, the underdog minority overthrows a powerful and disruptive national government. A family comes together to save the day.  And that’s just the backdrop against which the real drama takes place: The destruction and rebuilding of the Temple and the miraculous discovery that what seemed like it would never be enough, is.

This year, as I think about Hanukkah, I am especially thoughtful about what we fight for. I think about the Maccabees, this slightly rag-tag band of brothers, throwing in their lot together against all odds, ready to navigate the consequences, come what may.  This is not the fight one fights when there is another way.  This is the fight of absolute necessity.

I think about Judah and others we think of as heroes.  There is no hero training.  Being heroic, standing up, being courageous, happens because it has to.  We may wonder, What would I do if I were in that situation? when we hear of the ordinary everyday hero.  The person who jumps on the subway train tracks to save the one who had fallen in as the train approaches.  Would I be the bystander? Would I be the hero? Truthfully, we do not know, cannot know, until we are standing there.

Did Judah Maccabee know he had the necessary fierce-determination to defeat the Greek-Assyrians before he was in the middle of doing it? Perhaps, this is not how it works.  Perhaps that bright flame of intensity and strength does not even exist until it is needed.  These characteristics may not be ones which we dig deep to find but rather things we create on the spot, in the moment, only when we need them.  And that capacity exists within all of us. The question is just, will we be able to spark the spark when the time comes?

I recently heard Tom Hanks being interviewed for a new collection of stories he had written.  In the piece, he said he believed that people are villains, heroes or victims.  There are no bystanders.  This may be a stark assessment of the essence of our human experiences.  However, who we are, or who we think we are may be defined by these moments. And as we practice small acts of heroism, we become more confident that the spark necessary to fight for what we believe in is there; that when we need the audacious bravery of Judah Maccabee, it will be there.

Because, I believe, we live in the space of hero-villain-coward more often than we think these days.  If you want to know if you could be a Maccabee- to fight the necessary battle, know this: opportunities to practice being heroic, for standing up, for saying yes or saying no present themselves to each one of us daily.  Saying something or not saying something to the random passerby who throws trash on the street, telling or not telling the kids running on the playground too fast that they may hurt the little kids, saying or not saying something when someone makes an off-color, inappropriate or just plain rude remark.  These moments are practice for when it really matters and remind us that each moment really matters.  They push us to recognize that who we are as individuals or who we are as communities are forged in the fire of the necessary battles we fight-or don’t-every day.

Because you always never know what the underdog, the outlier, or even little ole’ you can do.

So as we wind our way through the days of Hanukkah, as we add our lights to the darkness, even the smallest, most unlikely, ordinary person has within a small spark just waiting to ignite.

The post What would you fight for? appeared first on My Jewish Learning.

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Let me make the quick case for putting a little more goofy, glitzy fun into the festival of lights.

First off, I know, I know – it’s not the “Jewish Christmas,” we don’t want to get too commercial with the whole shebang, our heritage is about the stories and the values and the big ideas.

But here’s an important big idea: when a holiday can be fun, it should be fun. Let’s not get so caught up in avoiding commercialism that we wind up reducing joy.

Especially because I’m currently seeing the winter holidays through the eyes of my two-and-a-half-year-old, let me tell you… there are seasonal delights all around us, and I want to corner more than a little of that celebratory spirit.

She already knows about Santa and Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph, not because they’re in our house but because we go shopping and listen to the radio and, you know, exist in America. She knows how fun her friends think these things are. She sees their beautiful Christmas trees in their homes, and thinks they’re amazing (guess what? They totally are).

I want her to be dazzled by the dreidel side of things, too. I want her to be able to amaze her friends with our holiday fun.

So this year, we threw a big Hanukkah party, with multiple kinds of latkes and lots of decorations, and I finally sprang for the T-Rex Menorah (AKA: Menorahsaurus!) I’ve been eyeing since before I even had a kid.

And you know what?

We’ve been having a blast.

Our friends loved the big ol’ Hanukkah party experience.

We did the party on night one – and perhaps not coincidentally, this has become the first year in a while that we’ve been hurrying home to light the lights every single night. The kiddo asks if we can “do Hanukkah” as soon as it gets dark out. Today, she’s sporting a dreidel dress at school.

We light the menorahsaurus, open presents, laugh, share the best thing that happened to us today, and are consciously amping up the joy all week long.

It’s pretty awesome.

So if it means getting the dino Chanukiah, cooking up some fancy new latkes (my gruyere and leek creation was a huge hit, y’all), adding some twinkling lights outside to welcome folks to the flickering flames within… to me, it’s worth the extra effort and the risk of “getting a little too commercial” to have my kiddo tell everyone she sees this week, “IT’S HANUKKAH AND I LOVE IT!”

The post Joy Isn’t Just For That Other December Holiday appeared first on My Jewish Learning.

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As part of a marketing campaign for Amazon Prime’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the network has teamed up with iconic Jewish delis across the country to serve free pastrami sandwiches.

Yes, you read that correctly: free pastrami sandwiches! And The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel! Together!

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a comedy that premiered last year on Amazon Prime, centering on a Jewish housewife, Midge Maisel, in the 1950s who stumbles into the world of stand-up comedy after she finds out her husband is cheating on her. It won 8 Emmy Awards earlier this year (it was nominated for 14!), and it’s arguably the most Jewish show on television.

Here in New York, we had the opportunity to try the sandwich (nicknamed the “The Maisel”) at the Carnegie Deli pop-up in downtown Manhattan. The pop-up, which re-opened the closed Carnegie Deli for a week, had a waiting list of over 6,000 people.

It even got write-ups in publications from Vogue (“For those fantasizing about the fifties or sixties, a new pop-up will help you live out your nostalgic fever dream”) to Forbes (“The temporary restaurant…was designed to immerse today’s screen-obsessed New Yorkers in a New York perhaps before their time.”)

The prices of the sandwiches were 99 cents — and proceeds were donated to The Lower Eastside Girls Club.

The pop-up menu had six items — two sandwiches, a knish, a black and white cookie, a cheesecake, and pickles — but we’re here to talk about the pastrami sandwich, a.k.a. “The Maisel.” “The Maisel” sandwich is on rye bread, with pastrami, salami, slaw, and special sauce.

Here’s what our sandwich looked like:

Shannon Sarna, The Nosher‘s editor and our resident pastrami expert, tried the sandwich. Her take? “It’s no wonder Americans were thinner 50+ years ago — there was significantly less meat than a typical deli sandwich boasts today,” Sarna explained. “While some people prefer that mile high piled sandwich, I loved the pastrami-meat and coleslaw to bread ratio and thought it was a perfect combo sandwich.”

But “The Maisel” sandwich isn’t just for New Yorkers. At new Jewish deli Mamaleh’s in Boston, 50 visitors will get “The Maisel” for free each day between December 9 and December 14. In Los Angeles, at Canter’s Deli, 50 free sandwiches will also be given away daily between December 9th until the 16th and the same deal is will be offered at Manny’s Deli in Chicago.

So, if you live in New York, Boston, Chicago or Los Angeles, go try “The Maisel.” It is, as advertised, a “sandwich worth the schlep.”

Header Image via Amazon Prime Video

The post Jewish Delis Are Serving Up a ‘Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ Inspired Pastrami Sandwich appeared first on My Jewish Learning.

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There’s no rule that says Jews are required to eat chicken on Shabbat — that is, no rule was ever handed down from a rabbi or written in the Torah. But it is a long-standing practice for many Eastern European Jewish families to serve roast chicken on Friday night.

Why did it become the iconic Shabbat dinner? Probably because meat is considered a luxury, and therefore a fitting centerpiece for the most sacred meal of the week. While chicken may not have the cachet of beef or lamb, maybe that’s the point: It is sumptuous, and yet much more affordable and more widely available than other kinds of meat.

In the shtetls a family might own a cow, but who would ever think to slaughter an entire cow and the precious source of milk and cheese? On the other hand, there were always a few chickens clucking around the yard. Chickens mature and reproduce quickly, assuring an ample supply of eggs and also a plump bird for a Shabbat dinner.

There’s this, too: Chicken is flavorful but mild. It takes to almost any seasoning. It’s hard not to like because you can cook it so many ways. The great Julia Child — who could cook anything — said it was her favorite dinner. “Roast chicken has always been one of life’s great pleasures,” she said.

But how do you make perfect roasted chicken? It is one of those deceptively simple recipes, not elaborate or difficult, and more about what not to do. You can season it the way you like, stuff it or not, baste it or not, make gravy or not — just don’t overcook it. Overcooked chicken is dry and chewy, “a shame” according to Child.

First, begin with a plump, at least 4-pound, preferably kosher chicken (because they are brined and immensely flavorful). Keep it whole, because that helps keep the meat moist. There is such a thing as a true “roasting chicken” — which is an older, more flavorful bird — but most markets simply sell a whole chicken. It could be a broiler-fryer or a roasting chicken and you simply can’t tell. A good butcher will know the difference between a roasting bird and you can always ask.

Rinse the bird, discard any debris inside the cavity, and remove the package of giblets (which you can cook with the chicken or save for stock).

Next, dry the surface, rub the skin with vegetable oil or olive oil, and season it with spices of your choice (my master recipe keeps the seasoning simple). You can stuff the bird if you wish, but if you do, increase the cooking time. I don’t bother trussing the legs together. That may make finished chicken look better, but it keeps the dark meat from cooking as quickly and the white meat may dry out before the dark is done.

To help keep the skin crispy, use a pan that holds heat well: metal, ceramic, or pyrex as opposed to disposable aluminum. In addition, place the chicken on a rack. A rack allows all surfaces to be exposed to the dry heat and also prevents the chicken from sitting in its own rendered fat. If you have a vertical poultry roaster, use that.

Start the roasting at 400 (F) degrees, which helps set the skin to proper crispness. Turn the heat down after some initial cooking, otherwise the meat can dry out too quickly.

Basting isn’t necessary; it doesn’t make the meat moister, but it does add flavor. Use whichever basting fluids suit your fancy (stock, wine, fruit juice). Let the bird cook for about 20 minutes before the first basting, so the seasonings will stay on the skin, then baste every 20 minutes or so until about 20 minutes before you expect the bird to be done. Basting after that point will make the skin soggy.

Roasting time for chicken depends on the bird’s weight. I suggest using a meat thermometer to be sure the chicken is fully cooked. Place the thermometer into the thickest part of the inner thigh. The USDA recommends cooking chicken to 165 degrees (F).

To lock in the bird’s delicious natural fluids, let it rest for 15 minutes before you cut it into pieces.

The post How to Make Perfect Roast Chicken, According to an Expert Bubbe appeared first on My Jewish Learning.

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When I lived in New York, I prayed daily at a large synagogue, but I found it to be a chore — an important and meaningful chore, but a chore nonetheless.

I consider praying in synagogue part of my obligation to God, who I believe commanded me to pray three times a day — preferably with a minyan, or prayer quorum, of nine other Jews. It wasn’t always easy. Sometimes it was cold out, sometimes hot. Other times I was tired or busy. I would push myself out of a sense that going to shul provided me a way to fulfill my religious obligation that was superior to praying alone at home.

But sometimes, for a variety of practical reasons, I prayed instead at a small synagogue closer to home. Unlike the large synagogue, which had multiple services all day and was teeming with worshippers, the smaller congregation needed help making a minyan. After a while I came to feel an obligation to my friends there — and especially the gabbai, a kindly man charged with ensuring the daily minyan — and so I would go nearly every weekday morning.

During this time my wife and I lost our first pregnancy. A routine ultrasound revealed that labor was beginning early and my wife was rushed into emergency surgery. The pregnancy lasted another three weeks until her water broke and a dead baby came out.

I was furious at God. I felt betrayed, abused and alienated. Until then, my relationship with God had felt fairly straightforward, but now it was in tumult and I was not sure where things were headed between us.

Even more than my anger, I was exhausted. The trauma had left me depleted. For a month, my wife and I laid in bed ensconced in our own little world, the two of us bruised and battered. I avoided synagogue and all the other places I used to go and just huddled in hiding in our apartment.

After a month, I began to take slow, halting steps back into the world, but I still couldn’t bring myself back to shul. I had no interest in fulfilling my obligations to God in the optimal way. I would pray at home while surfing the internet, paying no attention to the words.

One day, as I was headed to the grocery store, I crossed a parking lot and saw the gabbai of the small synagogue near my house. He had no idea what had happened, but he had certainly noticed by absence for a month. He gave me a smile, which I returned, and said: “Do you think we’re going to get you back?”

The last two months flashed before me — the rage, the loss of grounding, the exhaustion, the uncertainty of it all. But I couldn’t let this good man down. “Yeah,” I said. “We had some health issues, but I’ll try to make it tomorrow.”

I didn’t make it tomorrow. But I did the next week. It would be a few more weeks before I became a regular again. I would still sit there every morning furious at God, refusing to engage or pray with much concentration. And when even that got too painful, I would just stop praying altogether. But I still went every day.

As I healed over the next few months, my fellow worshippers at that morning minyan were invaluable. None of them knew what I was going through, but every morning they reaffirmed that I was needed and valued, an integral part of their community, someone they couldn’t pray without. They depended on me and I couldn’t let them down, despite whatever turmoil and pain I was experiencing.

The members of that synagogue offered me a lifeline and they didn’t even know it. I refused to go to any of the larger synagogues for months, but every day I would go to that little shul, heal a little more, and prepare for the day when I could again confront God — older, sadder, maybe a bit wiser, but ready to engage again.

Each of us struggles to find a place in the world where we are needed, cherished and loved simply for being who we are. Judaism has enshrined that experience at the very heart of our prayer ritual. We cannot pray as a community without reaffirming that we need each other, that every single one of us is infinitely valuable. Only once we have done this can we property express ourselves to God. Sometimes it takes a group of strangers to remind us of this truth.

I often think about that conversation in the parking lot. At the time, it struck me as odd that the gabbai didn’t ask any questions about what had happened. He simply asked if I was coming to shul again. I suppose I could have been offended by his lack of concern, but the truth is few things helped me heal that year as much as that conversation.

The gabbai didn’t express himself as fully as he could have, but he told me something I needed to hear. In his own way he expressed that whatever difficulty had struck me, I was and continued to be needed. He and eight other people couldn’t start their day properly without me. He affirmed that I am cherished simply because I am, and he pledged to reiterate that fact every day if I came to shul.

So yes, they got me back at the minyan. But the greater gift was that I got myself back.

Rabbi Elisha Friedman was ordained at Yeshiva University and serves as the rabbi of Congregation Kesher Israel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

The post The Power of Minyan appeared first on My Jewish Learning.

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Though not as elaborate as other Jewish holiday services, there are some special additions to daily worship services on Hanukkah.

Each day of the holiday we read from the Torah (Numbers 7:1-8:4) about the offerings brought by the chieftains of each tribe for the dedication of the Tabernacle. The rabbis in the Talmud stipulated that we should recite Hallel, the verses of praise, during daily worship services. Additionally, there’s a paragraph that we insert into the Amidah and the Grace After Meals called Al Hanisim (“Of the Miracles”) throughout the duration of the holiday.

And yet, Hanukkah is not considered a holy day where we must take off from work and spend our mornings in prayer. We don’t chant the Haftarah during the week nor do we add the additional Musaf service.

This may because Hanukkah, unlike many Jewish holidays, is a home-bound ritual. It is meant to be practiced in the home — with our families or, even if we’re alone, on our own at home.

That is most likely one of the reasons that Hanukkah has maintained its strength over the years. You don’t have to go to synagogue. That’s not the main part of the celebration.

Eating and drinking and lighting the candles and being together on Hanukkah — that’s the real celebration, and it’s not focused so much on prayer. Hanukkah is not a biblical holiday. It’s not in the Torah. So in some sense it doesn’t carry the same weight as the Jewish festivals, where it’s forbidden to work or use money or any of the other restrictions. In fact, there are no restrictions on Hanukkah. It’s just a celebratory time.

Since there aren’t a lot of rules we have to follow on Hanukkah, we can own it a little bit differently. When people are at home practicing the holiday, they can be a bit more creative with it, which perhaps better reflects who we are today as Jews.

For more, watch this:

Rabbi Danielle Upbin teaches widely on Jewish spirituality, meditation and yoga. She is also the associate rabbi and prayer leader at Congregation Beth Shalom in Clearwater, Florida. Her musical release, “Reveal the Light,” is available on Amazon, iTunes, and Spotify or through her website, danielleupbin.com.

The post Are There Special Synagogue Services During Hanukkah? appeared first on My Jewish Learning.

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On the second night of Hanukkah, I was gifted something I never knew I needed: a video of a Jewish drag queen frying up latkes.

Miz Cracker, the stage name for 34-year-old Maxwell Heller who was a fan favorite on RuPaul’s Drag Race, joined Bon Appétit food director Carla Lalli Music in the test kitchen to cook one of Hanukkah’s most symbolic foods — potato pancakes. And yes, it was as fabulous as you’d expect.

Dressed in a tight, glitzy dress with a Jewish star printed on the chest, Cracker started off the segment by dropping some serious Jewish food knowledge. “The thing about Jewish cooking, especially Russian and Eastern European, is that it’s made by people who were put down, and didn’t have a lot of money, and who were often on the run,” she said. “So being creative and using ingredients that are easily accessible and in season is a big part of Jewish cooking.”

Miz Cracker and Carla Make Chanukah Latkes | From the Test Kitchen | Bon Appétit - YouTube

Although her family’s classic recipe only called for potatoes and onions, Cracker listed off a variety of optional latke — “lat-kuss” as she says — ingredients (you can find an array of recipes that don’t use potatoes here).

While Music squeezed excess liquid out of the pre-fried latke mush, Cracker became verklempt thinking about traditions that bring people together, like cooking holiday dishes.

“Judaism is one of those great things where it’s a religion and a culture, so we’re not just a religious group, we’re a family,” she said. “Doing stuff like this and celebrating family feels good, and even when you’re not with your Jewish family, you’re celebrating them.” Amen, sister!

The final product looked absolutely mouthwatering, so I don’t blame the chefs for stuffing their faces immediately. And it’s like Cracker said, “Latkes are like french fries: very good right away, but if you pull it out from your car seat a day later, not so good.”

Here’s hoping Cracker returns next year with a sufganiyah recipe.

Head image via Bon Appetit/YouTube

The post This Jewish Drag Queen’s Latkes Just Won Hanukkah appeared first on My Jewish Learning.

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When I was studying for the rabbinate at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College back in the ’90s, I decided to take a year off every two years to explore my own curriculum. Though my studies at RRC were wide and intense at an intellectual level, I had some questions about my work as a rabbi that wasn’t being addressed. One of those questions involved the process of spiritual retreat. I took a “year off” to explore those questions, and in the process discovered the core purpose of my rabbinate.

 I studied and experienced Hermitage, Pilgrimage, Native American Vision Quest, Sufi Alchemical Retreat, Christian Ignatian Retreat, Buddhist Vipassana Meditation Retreat, and Shamanic Journey… all the while asking the question, “What would it mean to do a practice of retreat as a Jew drawing on the richness of my lineage and inheritance?”

The reason that I was asking this question was that I was coming face-to-face with the requirements of three essential elements of a balanced, ever-deepening spiritual life. The first was a daily, moment-to-moment practice; the second was a connection to a spiritual community, and the third was a deep dive into retreat. Judaism seemed to carry a rich potential with the first element, even from my post-halachic perspective. I could reinterpret each of the mitzvot as opportunities for awareness and the deepening of reverence for, and connection to, all life. I understood the second element of community, as a place where we could support each other’s practice, join forces in healing the world, and care for each other at times of need.

And yet the third element seemed to run counter to a Jewish taboo, and to a myriad of western consumer values about how to acquire things quickly without too much pain or effort.

First, for the Jewish taboo. Pirkei Avot 2:4 Hillel says, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” There are many prayers that require a minyan (a quorum of ten) and this seems to imply that certain prayers won’t “work” if you say them on your own. Why the necessity of ten?

Psalm 82:1 says, “God stands in the Divine Assembly.” (Adat-El) That same word for assembly connects us back to a story in Numbers 14:27 where the ten spies return from the land of Canaan and give a very scary and discouraging report. And then God says to Moses and Aaron, “How long will this evil ‘assembly’ provoke to complain against me?” From this, it is deduced that an assembly is comprised of ten men. Judaism evolved prioritizing a communal experience over the personal dimension… perhaps because there is strength and safety in numbers. The response to oppression was to “circle the wagons,” and stay close to each other, no matter what the cost.

In my experience of Jewish communities, I suspected that some of the dysfunction I witnessed was due to the fact that people looked to the community to fulfill the spiritual needs that only a direct and personal experience of the Divine could fill. When those needs were not filled by communal experience, disappointment led to blame and alienation.

I imagined a different kind of community that would send me to my own highest and deepest quest so that I might bring back those treasures that I discovered to my community. This is how we could enrich each other and keep our tradition alive, dynamic and vital.

For that quest, we would need opportunities to dive deep, move through resistances, break free of rigid expectations and open to the unknown. Providing those opportunities has been my calling as a rabbi.

I once met a man who was hosting a yard sale in Berkeley, CA. He was obviously selling all his possessions, and I was curious about his story. It turns out that he was leaving civilization for good to live in a remote Buddhist monastery in Thailand. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “I’m going to back myself into a corner and face the questions that I have been avoiding my whole life.”

I was so moved by his commitment, his determination, and his courage.

Though we don’t necessarily need to go to Thailand or sell all of our possessions, leaving the world we know, even for just a week, to step into who we are becoming does require courage. My calling is to hold the container for transformation with love, patience, and trust in the process of retreat.  When we dare to leave the community, we can return bearing gifts from the soul.

I think that another reason we have trouble taking the leap into the adventure of retreat is that we are conditioned by Western consumer values to try to acquire things quickly without too much pain or effort. But the truth is that short classes, or getting information online are so much different than immersing in spiritual practice. The process of retreat guides us through the crumbling of our defenses that we have built up to protect the status quo. This work takes time and requires a loving container.

In the retreats that I lead – SOULIFT, Ecstatic Meditation, Pilgrimage or Wilderness Journeys, I have seen such amazing miracles. I have watched people let go of old and destructive habits of mind and heart. I have witnessed the beginnings of new and powerful commitments to authenticity, core values, activism and the depth of heart wisdom. I have seen the efforts of spiritual practice bear the delicious and precious fruit, that can then be shared with this hungry world.

To learn more about retreat opportunities, please visit www.RabbiShefaGold.com

The post Why Go on a Retreat, Anyway? appeared first on My Jewish Learning.

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The history of Hanukah may be fixed for all time. But the meaning we find in Hanukah? That changes, year by year. Place by place. Person by person.

Remember the year that Hanukah and Thanksgiving coincided? That year, we celebrated gratitude. The year terrorist attacks were in the news? We worried about Maccabean violence and wondered what we were teaching our children.

Do you live in a small place, a town with few Jews? Where Christmas is a big deal? Maybe Hanukah is your way to celebrate Jewish identity. A winter feast with lights, gifts, and a Jewish theme. And a bit of culture to share proudly with your neighbors.

Maybe, one year, partying at Hanukah was hard for you personally. Perhaps you were sad, but quietly found a bit of hope in the holiday. As you watched the candlelight grow each night, you knew that, over time, you would gradually heal.

Religion is part of life. Life changes; new meanings emerge; our religious understandings deepen. Right now, my own life is changing fast. Just last week, I became a citizen of Canada. I’m acutely aware of the place I live. In this new context, familiar things seem strange. Even children, if they grew up here, know many things I don’t.

In fact, just yesterday, a child taught me a deeper meaning hidden in Hanukah practice.

This child grew up on the west coast of Canada, where I now live. Here, environmental sustainability isn’t just a slogan. Instead, our daily lives depend on it. Forestry, fishing, and mining are important industries. So is recreational tourism. Businesses cater to skiers, hikers, kayakers, bird watchers.

Here, we learn to love the outdoors. We experience spirituality in nature. We learn from our local Indigenous teachers to support the environment because it supports us. We reduce, recycle, re-use, compost, and avoid driving because – well, it’s obvious.

So, this child of western Canada saw in Hanukah a teaching about sustainability.

He was part of a group learning with me about Hanukah. Together, we lit the candles. I explained that we light one candle the first night, two the second, and so on, through the eighth night. Then, I told the Hanukah story. A child-friendly version, with lots of repetition, a fun phrase to sing, and a question at the end. “When the people realized they only had enough oil for one night but needed the menorah to burn for eight days, what do you think they did?”

To this child, the answer was obvious. “They lit one oil candle the first night, then two the second…”

Of course! Religious faith, for this child, is all about sustainability. If you’re spiritual, then you love nature. When you’re ethical, you show your love in action. You don’t use more fuel than you need. It would be wasteful to burn up all your resources just to have a big party. That would harm your community and insult your Creator. Hanukah reinforces these values. Obviously!

Until yesterday, I saw the daily increase in candles as a symbol. Increasing holiness, beauty, and joy. That’s how our historical instruction manual, the Talmud, explains it. But now I see another meaning, too. It’s a way of learning by doing, a ritual practice that shows us how to live well on the land.

And that is something that people need to learn, in this time, and this place.

The post Sustainability: The New True Meaning of Hanukah appeared first on My Jewish Learning.

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