On Being Tumblr

On Being Tumblr

On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Ushering in Hanukkah with a Song

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

The Maccabeats put together another excellent cover to celebrate Hanukkah with Matisyahu’s “Miracle.” Chag Sameach to all our Jewish friends out there!

Comments

Making Room for Both Traditions of Christmas and Hanukkah

by Meg Smith, guest contributor

2nd night of HanukkahAlthough I was born on Christmas, I feel like I’m slightly part Hanukkah now. Each year since I remarried — an event which brought two Jewish stepchildren into my life — I have anticipated the Festival of Lights with almost as much excitement as my hybrid celebration of the Winter Solstice/Yule and Christmas.

My stepchildren are actually half-Hanukkah and half-Christmas; their mother is Jewish, their father is not. Their parents long ago agreed the children would be raised Jewish, so they are attending the several years of Hebrew school that prepare them to become a bar and bat mitzvah. Having grown up with Christian and Jewish extended families, however, they have honored their heritage from both sides by celebrating Hanukkah and Christmas from the time they were born. As each year draws to a close, they look forward to lighting Hanukkah candles as well as decorating the Christmas tree with their doting, out-of-town Presbyterian grandparents.

Read More

Comments
Nature’s Menorah
by Daniel Johnson, guest contributor
This picture reminds me of a menorah, with the milkweed pods representing tongues of fire and the sunlit trees in the background strengthening the fire imagery. We are midway through the Festival of Lights, which is also known as Hanukkah. This festival is represented by the menorah, a candle holder with 9 branches.
Daniel Johnson is a community volunteer and former executive director of Kinship of Greater Minneapolis, a faith-based mentoring program for kids in need. You can see more of his photography at Savoring Servant.
Nature’s Menorah
by Daniel Johnson, guest contributor
This picture reminds me of a menorah, with the milkweed pods representing tongues of fire and the sunlit trees in the background strengthening the fire imagery. We are midway through the Festival of Lights, which is also known as Hanukkah. This festival is represented by the menorah, a candle holder with 9 branches.
Daniel Johnson is a community volunteer and former executive director of Kinship of Greater Minneapolis, a faith-based mentoring program for kids in need. You can see more of his photography at Savoring Servant.

Nature’s Menorah

by Daniel Johnson, guest contributor

This picture reminds me of a menorah, with the milkweed pods representing tongues of fire and the sunlit trees in the background strengthening the fire imagery. We are midway through the Festival of Lights, which is also known as Hanukkah. This festival is represented by the menorah, a candle holder with 9 branches.


Daniel Johnson is a community volunteer and former executive director of Kinship of Greater Minneapolis, a faith-based mentoring program for kids in need. You can see more of his photography at Savoring Servant.

Comments

Tuesday Evening Melody: “Mazzel” by Leo Fuld

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

I had a She & Him track from their new Christmas album all lined up for tonight. And then I realized that I’d be one culturally insensitive Tumblr jockey if I didn’t cue up something for the first night of Hanukkah. Thankfully, my colleague Nancy Rosenbaum is dialed in, recommending this celebratory song of “good luck” from The Idelsohn Society’s wonderful new album Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set.

We’ll be lighting our menorah tonight. Here’s wishing you all a Chag Urim Sameach!

Comments
Download

Unlikely Sources of “Customs” for Leading a Modern Life and Marking Sacred Time

by Krista Tippett, host

Scott-Martin Kosofsky is a designer of books, an author and editor, and an aficionado of early music. Like many postwar American Jews, he grew up “nonobservant but strongly Jewish identified,” surrounded by family members who had escaped Europe’s horrors. Scott-Martin Kosofsky at work He grew up speaking the Yiddish of the life his parents had led before, but their generation had not yet found words to speak of the Holocaust that haunted the lives that came after.

Still, the Holocaust was real to him, and present. There was no comfort and no hope, he felt, that it would not recur. He realizes, looking back, that he took spiritual solace in the music he came to love, much of it Christian in origin. He worked on several Christian projects before he took on a Jewish one, the creation of the illustrated The Harvard Hillel Sabbath Songbook. And in searching in Jewish history, he chanced upon a handbook of illustrations and instructions that moved and surprised him. What he discovered was a “Customs Book” — a Minhogimbukh — helping ordinary medieval Jewish families navigate the complexities of ritual, prayer, and the seasons of a Jewish life.

For three hundred years, versions of this book of customs translated tradition into daily action and teaching into the vernacular. And then Judaism spawned several competing traditions. The Enlightenment made its mark on Jewish thought. The notion of a single compact guidebook to Jewish practice came to seem impossible, and the Minhogimbukh died out.

When Scott-Martin Kosofsky rediscovered a 1645 edition of the The Book of Customs in the late twentieth century, he did so neither as a rabbi or a scholar, nor as a passionately devout adherent of any strand of Judaism. For him, the different branches of Judaism seemed to have more in common than apart, so he set out to recreate an updated book of customs in English, for modern people. He delved into the structure of Jewish practice, the ancient stories behind its teachings, the rituals and symbols that had seemed dead to him for most of his life. He added historical detail and notes on contemporary application. Jewish life is really all about moments, he realized anew — moments that are set aside to honor God. To his own surprise, he found himself not only chronicling this sensibility but participating in its power.

Here is a passage from the introduction to his updated version of The Book of Customs, the passage that made me want to interview him:

"I did not go back to the traditional customs and liturgies expecting to find lost meaning, but there it was. Even more surprisingly, I found deep meaning in texts that had been dropped or modified by the liberal denominations: the prayers of supplication and confession, the tragic liturgies of the Tishah b’Av, and even the Avodah, the daily call for the restoration of the Temple and a return to the sacrifices of old. What can a post-Freudian person like me find in such things? I found these: a broad and intimate confrontation with myself and with God, a sense of community for better or for worse, an appreciation of God’s greatness, miracles, and ambiguities — all together, a clearer view of the moral and the immoral.”

This week’s episode isn’t strictly a Hanukkah show, but we released it this year as the season of Hanukkah is about to begin. And woven throughout our conversation is rich material for reflection on the meaning of this “minor” and sometimes misunderstood season of Jewish life — and its place in American culture. Hanukkah commemorates an ancient, triumphant Jewish revolt and restoration of the Temple after a period of occupation and desecration. At various times in history — such as at the founding of the state of Israel — this commemoration provided a potent symbol of Jewish identity and strength. In America, by contrast, the rise of Hanukkah was connected with the rise of the Christmas card. Like Christmas, it has become interwoven with cultural and consumer practices.

Still, while naming and holding the ambiguities of culture and religion in tension, Scott-Martin Kosofsky works to recover his own understanding of the meaning of Hanukkah and other rituals he had previously ignored as unmodern, incomprehensible. A palpable sense of the sacred lies behind his words and ideas. He does not convey certainty so much as mystery, but mystery as something you can almost touch and hold in your hand. For example, pondering the story of Hanukkah, Scott-Martin Kosofsky is left with haunting religious questions. He asks himself if God was still in that desecrated Temple — and why would he leave his House in the first place? He concludes that, if all we celebrate in such rituals is the “memory of God,” it is still very important to keep that memory alive.

About the image: Scott-Martin Kosofsky at work in what he calls his sukkah. (photo: Amanda Kowalski)

Comments

A Chanukah Dilemma: Can Dreidels and Gelt Contribute to Stereotypes about Jews?

by Rabbi Rebecca Schorr, guest contributor

New York Children Celebrate Start Of HanukkahSecond-grade students from a public school in New York play with dreidels and gelt after lighting the menorah at the Eldridge St. Synagogue. (photo: Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)

Each December, parents at my children’s public school are asked to contribute candy or small toys that will be used to fill the children’s Christmas stockings. During our first year at the school, though somewhat taken aback at the blatant bias towards one holiday, I decided that this might be a great opportunity to expose the other students to a little cultural diversity and chose to send in dreidels as our family’s contribution.

Wanting my son’s classmates to understand the rules of the game, I enclosed a set of instructions with each spinning top. But in order for the game to be played, game pieces would be required as well. And that is when things got complicated.

See, the dreidel game is traditionally played with delicious foil-enclosed chocolate coins known as gelt. As I was driving to my local Judaica shop, I had a sobering thought: ‘What would the non-Jews think?’ After hundreds of years of the misperception of the Jew as a money-loving, cheap banker, would I be perpetuating this stereotype with the innocent act of including a mesh bag of gelt in the Christmas stockings of my son’s classmates?

Let’s take a look at the history of the dreidel. The party-line that most of us learned in Sunday school is that the origins of the dreidel date as far back as the Chanukah story itself. Antiochus IV, the self-proclaimed divine ruler of the Greek-Syrians, prohibited the Jews from studying Torah. According to legend, the Jews needed a way to hide their Torah learning and so they used the dreidel as a decoy. When they saw the Greek-Syrians coming, the Jews would hide their books, take out their dreidels, and trick the Syrians into thinking they were just playing a game.

While a perfect way to link the holiday’s history to its modern celebration, this is probably not the actual genesis of the tradition. Like so many of our rituals, the dreidel game is more likely a reappropriation of a non-Jewish (or non-Israelite) practice.

Teetotum BruegelA gambling game with a spinning top has been played for centuries by various people in various languages. In England and Ireland, the game of totum or teetotum, first mentioned in approximately 1500 CE, was especially popular at Christmastime. The Germans also liked to play a gambling game with a spinning top.

It is believed that the Jewish game of dreidel is a Judaicized version of the German gambling game. The Yiddish word dreidel derived from the German word drehen, which means “to spin.” The Hebrew word for dreidel is s’vivon. S’vivon comes from the word sovev, which means “to turn.”

The letters on the faces of the gambling toy, which were mnemonic for the rules of the game, varied in each nation. The letters on the English spinning top were: T for Take, H for Half, P for Put, N for None. In the German game, the letters were: N for Nichts (nothing), G for Ganz (all), H for Halb (half), S for Stell (put). The German words would have been the same in Yiddish and so the Hebrew letters on the dreidel correspond to the Yiddish: Nun for Nichts (nothing), Gimel for Ganz (all), Hay for Halb (half), Shin for Stell (put).

In an effort to link the game to the celebration of Chanukah, the Hebrew letters nun, gimel, hay, and shin were said to stand for the phrase Nes Gadol Haya Sham, which means “a great miracle happened there.” In Israel, the letter shin on the dreidel is replaced with the letter pay. Thus, the letters nun, gimel, hay, and pay would stand for the phrase Nes Gadol Haya Po, which means “a great miracle happened here.”

In other words, this game is about money! Or, at the very least, it is about gambling. And we didn’t even invent it.

End result? I opted not to include the chocolate. Figured the parents might be worried about the amount of junk food that their kids would be eating that week.

(Inset image: A clipping from Pieter Breugel’s 1560 painting titled "Children’s Games" shows a girl holding a teetotum.)


Rabbi Rebecca SchorrRebecca Schorr is associate rabbi at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley, California. A lifelong diarist, her numerous essays have appeared in local and national publications. She opines regularly at her blog, Frume Sarah’s World.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

Comments

Hanukkah in the Heartland

Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

Last night was the first night of Hanukkah — the Jewish festival of lights. I’ve been so busy burning the midnight oil (that’s a Hanukkah joke, by the way) for next week’s show on Sitting Bull, I haven’t made any formal plans to celebrate. Last December, a friend organized a Hanukkah throw-down replete with piles of steaming latkes and homemade brisket. But the fried smell of latkes lingered in her home a little too long for her liking, so there won’t be any Hanukkah party reprise this year.

Today, Andy sent around an op-ed by David Brooks about the complicated historical legacy that has shaped our modern-day observance of Hanukkah. Brooks reminded me that Hanukkah is a holiday informed by rabbinic storytelling over the ages. A few years ago I met an Ethiopian Jew who did not grow up with any awareness of Hanukkah because (like Purim) it isn’t written about in the Torah.

As a child, Hanukkah was a way to get in on the Christmas dazzle of presents, lights, and treats; but there was always a feeling of somehow missing out on the magic of Rudolph and opening presents beneath a tree. My parents would not allow a "Hanukkah bush" (the Jewish imitation version of a Christmas tree), although one year they did let me hang a stocking under the fireplace — actually it was more like a stringy sock from my drawer. Fortunately, I grew out of those Christmas longings and came to appreciate Hanukkah for what it is rather than as a proxy for something better I could never have.

Now that I live half a coast a way from family and friends, I realize I need to be more intentional about observing the Jewish holidays on my own. This may mean buying a menorah for the very first time. Maybe I’ll even pick up some latke fixings or listen to our show on Hanukkah with Scott-Martin Kosofsky later this weekend. Somehow I’ll find a way to light the shammas candle and say a little prayer.

Comments

"A Minor American Miracle": Orrin Hatch’s Rockin’ Hanukkah Song
Trent Gilliss, online editor

A quick scan of this morning’s edition of the Tablet Daily Digest e-mail prompted me to read the lead article, "Hanukkah: A Guide for the Perplexed," which was fun and quite helpful. And then I moved on.

It wasn’t until I was checking my inbox this afternoon that I saw what should have been at the top of the page: a video by songwriter and senior senator from Utah, Orrin Hatch. How the song came into being is actually a rather heart-warming story, as Jeffrey Goldberg tells it. I had no idea the Sen. Hatch liked to write spirituals.

But, it is a wonderful testament to the spirit of the season that such things can happen so freely and spread a little joy during an afternoon at work. Also, the idea that an Arab singer backed by the vocals of a the Jewish magazine staff sings a song written by a Mormon politician who “possesses a heartfelt desire to reach out to Jews” gives one hope that year-end holidays can bring out the best in people — and a will to understand one’s own traditions and the rituals of others:

"I know a lot of Jewish people that don’t know what Hanukkah means," he [Hatch] said. Jewish people, he said, should "take a look at it and realize the miracle that’s being commemorated here. It’s more than a miracle; it’s the solidification of the Jewish people."

And, yes, I do consider this another one of my Friday “video snacks.” *grin*

Comments
A New JubileeAndy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
Just when I thought I’d had my fill of historical Jewish customs for the time being (last week I waist-deep in Scott-Martin Kosofsky’s The Book of Customs for our Hanukkah program), I ran into an interesting Financial Times article referencing a tradition of routinely absolving debts described in the Old Testiment and Torah.
Deuteronomy dictates that “at the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts.” After seven of those seven-year cycles (called Sabbatical cycles), comes the jubilee year — a year where material possessions and land are returned to their original owners, and servants are emancipated. The FT article suggests that one solution to the current economic crisis could be to have our own version of the jubilee year — not by absolving debts outright, but by converting them into government-backed, low-interest loans.
I was equally intrigued by the image that was selected to accompany this article: The Moneylender and His Wife, by Flemish painter Quentin Metsys (seen above). According to the description on the Musée du Louvre’s Web site, “the shiny gold, pearls (a symbol of lust), and jewelry have distracted the wife from her spiritual duty, reading a work of devotion.” The objects behind the two figures are also ripe for interperetation, but perhaps the most potent item in this painting — especially for an artist intending to send a moral message — is in the foreground: a mirror “reflecting” the world outside.
Find more of our coverage of the economic downturn, see our Web site for Repossessing Virtue.
A New JubileeAndy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
Just when I thought I’d had my fill of historical Jewish customs for the time being (last week I waist-deep in Scott-Martin Kosofsky’s The Book of Customs for our Hanukkah program), I ran into an interesting Financial Times article referencing a tradition of routinely absolving debts described in the Old Testiment and Torah.
Deuteronomy dictates that “at the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts.” After seven of those seven-year cycles (called Sabbatical cycles), comes the jubilee year — a year where material possessions and land are returned to their original owners, and servants are emancipated. The FT article suggests that one solution to the current economic crisis could be to have our own version of the jubilee year — not by absolving debts outright, but by converting them into government-backed, low-interest loans.
I was equally intrigued by the image that was selected to accompany this article: The Moneylender and His Wife, by Flemish painter Quentin Metsys (seen above). According to the description on the Musée du Louvre’s Web site, “the shiny gold, pearls (a symbol of lust), and jewelry have distracted the wife from her spiritual duty, reading a work of devotion.” The objects behind the two figures are also ripe for interperetation, but perhaps the most potent item in this painting — especially for an artist intending to send a moral message — is in the foreground: a mirror “reflecting” the world outside.
Find more of our coverage of the economic downturn, see our Web site for Repossessing Virtue.

A New Jubilee
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer

Just when I thought I’d had my fill of historical Jewish customs for the time being (last week I waist-deep in Scott-Martin Kosofsky’s The Book of Customs for our Hanukkah program), I ran into an interesting Financial Times article referencing a tradition of routinely absolving debts described in the Old Testiment and Torah.

Deuteronomy dictates that “at the end of every seven years you shall grant a release of debts.” After seven of those seven-year cycles (called Sabbatical cycles), comes the jubilee year — a year where material possessions and land are returned to their original owners, and servants are emancipated. The FT article suggests that one solution to the current economic crisis could be to have our own version of the jubilee year — not by absolving debts outright, but by converting them into government-backed, low-interest loans.

I was equally intrigued by the image that was selected to accompany this article: The Moneylender and His Wife, by Flemish painter Quentin Metsys (seen above). According to the description on the Musée du Louvre’s Web site, “the shiny gold, pearls (a symbol of lust), and jewelry have distracted the wife from her spiritual duty, reading a work of devotion.” The objects behind the two figures are also ripe for interperetation, but perhaps the most potent item in this painting — especially for an artist intending to send a moral message — is in the foreground: a mirror “reflecting” the world outside.

Find more of our coverage of the economic downturn, see our Web site for Repossessing Virtue.

Comments

Hanukkah and a Colbert Christmas
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer

Coinciding with our Hanukkah program is this tasty video snack via Stephen Colbert’s A Colbert Christmas special. In our program on Hanukkah with book designer Scott-Martin Kosofsky, he talks a bit about the perceived “competition” between Hanukkah and Christmas. A little tongue-in-cheek humor here with Stewart and Colbert to reflect that, with Stephen experiencing a bit of Christmas humbug…

Comments