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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.

A Nigerian Easter in the Midwest

Woman in Gele, Iro, and Buba

From the front door she calls, “He has risen!” Her children respond, “He has risen indeed. Let’s eat!”

I dodged church Easter Sunday this year. My mother Gbeme, however, worshipped at the Baptist church she’s been attending twice weekly for the past 20 years.

Raised Catholic in Nigeria, my mother’s Easter begins the seasonal swap from heavy wools to floral prints and pastels. She wears a beautifully vibrant gele — an intricately fashioned tie around the head worn by Yoruba women — and iro and buba — the matching outfit traditionally worn by Yoruba women — to church. She exchanges compliments with the other congregants about their upbeat clothes and steady health. For two hours the pews fill, the choir sings, and for the larger Easter crowd, the young new pastor delivers an especially rousing sermon. Soon thereafter, church dismisses. Time to eat.

For many Americans, Easter is synonymous with the egg. But in my bicultural household, Map of Yoruba and Igbo Peoplecreamy frejon is the signature Easter week delicacy. The bean soup is made of smoothly blended brown beans called ewa ibeji and steeped coconut, then sweetened with cane sugar to taste.

In the mid-1980s, my mother left metropolitan Lagos to attend college in rural Wisconsin — and made necessary modifications to the original frejon recipe. Back then international foods weren’t as integrated. In lieu of traditional Nigerian dishes, my mother observed her first few Easters amid sweet friends, sweet rolls, egg salad, and hearty Midwestern casseroles. After she graduated, she moved from Wisconsin to Minnesota, reuniting her with city dwelling, a dense Nigerian immigrant community, specialty grocers, and Easter frejon.

Read more of Caroline Joseph’s essay on Yoruban Catholic tradition.

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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.

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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)

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Autumn Harvest Festival Pays Homage to the Moon

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Traditional Moon CakeThe egg yolk inside the moon cake evokes the full harvest moon. (photo: Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images)

For many Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese, the moon festival or mid-autumn harvest festival falls on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month. That is, today, September 12th, 2011.

Legend says the wife of a great archer flew to the moon after drinking a powerful elixir that was meant for him as a reward for shooting down extra suns that were scorching the earth. It’s a time to join with family to share a traditional moon cake, a bean paste-filled sister to the American fruit cake meant for giving rather than actually eating. Families also gather to watch the scheduled full moon. The Hong Kong Observatory has even made a chart of recommended viewing times.

Harvest MoonA harvest moon. (photo: beaumontpete/ Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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Anonymous asked:
The very subject discussed today was pivotal in my walking away from fundamental evangelicalism. No grace, no reverence. I am searching for individuals who are seekers of truth, not willing to accept pat answers from non thinking individuals. Any suggestions on a denomination that will allow me to question and think outside the box? I am not ready for Buddhism, even though some of the teachings resonate with me. I am at a crossroads and could use a little direction.

Anon, although we are mere journalists and not spiritual counselors, perhaps I could offer some words of wisdom from a former guest, Rabbi Sandy Sasso, who offers this advice in "The Spirituality of Parenting":

"Don’t let the people who gave you a bad impression of your religious tradition be the only ones to define it. You, too, are a part of that tradition, and you’re not just a descendent, you are also an ancestor, and you helped to create the future of that tradition. So give it a second chance. Many times we have bad experiences with particular religious tradition, but that is not the best of the tradition. We need to look to the best of the tradition, because there are wonderful things within religious traditions, and they give us this language that allows us to speak."

If this advice is not helpful, perhaps I can echo the suggestions of several wise elders I’ve heard over the years: simply put, “try on” a religion for a while and see how it feels and fits. Perhaps it’s doctrine or ritual that’s important to you or maybe it’s the individuals within a community that matter most.

I’d like to solicit our readers for their guidance and experience; please share your wisdom for this individual in the comments section.

~answered by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

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Steve and Cokie Roberts Discuss the Importance of Ritual for Christian and Jewish Families

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

"Marrying a Catholic, in some ways, made me more Jewish."
Steve Roberts

"When I was pregnant for our first child, I understood the meaning of Passover and wanted to have that celebration in our home and didn’t know how to go about it."
Cokie Roberts

Steve and Cokie Roberts WeddingWho knew that listening to two veteran power journalists discuss their “mixed” marriage, the meaning of Passover, and the importance of the Seder could be so delightful and entertaining? If you’re looking for apleasant 20 minutes to spend this weekend morning, listen to Sara Ivry’s interview with Cokie and Steve Roberts for Vox Tablet. Ivry’s style and demeanor are relaxed and comfortable, which makes you feel like you’re participating in a dinner table discussion rather than a question-and-answer session.

For me personally, I know that as my wife and I transition our boys from preschool at a Jewish community center to a Catholic elementary school (both foreign worlds to me), I don’t want to lose some of the gifts and rituals present in both of these faiths and people. This conversation is a refreshing, uplifting perspective that I found quite helpful in making the most of one’s own journey.

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Hindu Celebration of the Brother-Sister Bond
by Shubha Bala, associate producer
Today is Raksha Bandhan, or Rakhi, a North Indian, Hindu holiday celebrating the bond between siblings. One of the many legends reported to be the origin of the holiday comes from the Hindu epic, the Mahabaratha. Queen Draupadi once tore a strip of silk off her sari and tied it around Lord Krishna’s index finger to stop the flow of blood. Krishna found himself bound to her by this action of love and promised to repay the debt to her. He had this chance when her husband lost her through gambling. Krishna, using his powers as a God, indefinitely extended her sari as they tried to strip her naked so it could never be removed, thus saving her pride and being her ultimate protector.
Raksha Bandhan, as with most Hindu holidays, can be celebrated differently or with different names depending on one’s region of India. In essence, a woman ties a thread, or bracelet, on a brother, blessing him and praying for him to have a long life. In return, the brother vows to protect the sister and gives her sweets, gifts, or money. The traditions have evolved so that the people celebrating are no longer just siblings but often cousins, family-friends, or really anyone that can be considered to have a brother-sister-like bond. In fact, one Twitterer today complained, “Oh man I’m broke giving out envelopes to all my ‘sisters’.”
If you’re interested in hearing more about this holiday, including a story from the 15th century of Rakhi saving a queen’s life, listen to this interview on Radio Canada International.
In the photo above, a man shows off multiple bracelets received for the North Indian Hindu holiday Raksha Bandhan (Vishweshwar Saran Singh Deo/Flickr).

Hindu Celebration of the Brother-Sister Bond

by Shubha Bala, associate producer

Today is Raksha Bandhan, or Rakhi, a North Indian, Hindu holiday celebrating the bond between siblings. One of the many legends reported to be the origin of the holiday comes from the Hindu epic, the Mahabaratha. Queen Draupadi once tore a strip of silk off her sari and tied it around Lord Krishna’s index finger to stop the flow of blood. Krishna found himself bound to her by this action of love and promised to repay the debt to her. He had this chance when her husband lost her through gambling. Krishna, using his powers as a God, indefinitely extended her sari as they tried to strip her naked so it could never be removed, thus saving her pride and being her ultimate protector.

Raksha Bandhan, as with most Hindu holidays, can be celebrated differently or with different names depending on one’s region of India. In essence, a woman ties a thread, or bracelet, on a brother, blessing him and praying for him to have a long life. In return, the brother vows to protect the sister and gives her sweets, gifts, or money. The traditions have evolved so that the people celebrating are no longer just siblings but often cousins, family-friends, or really anyone that can be considered to have a brother-sister-like bond. In fact, one Twitterer today complained, “Oh man I’m broke giving out envelopes to all my ‘sisters’.”

If you’re interested in hearing more about this holiday, including a story from the 15th century of Rakhi saving a queen’s life, listen to this interview on Radio Canada International.

In the photo above, a man shows off multiple bracelets received for the North Indian Hindu holiday Raksha Bandhan (Vishweshwar Saran Singh Deo/Flickr).

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How Did You Become a Unitarian Universalist?
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

Following up on last week’s video post, here’s a 3½-minute video snack where a mix of UUs explain how they came to this tradition. Listening to these voices, it’s clear that each person’s journey is unique and doesn’t necessarily follow a linear path. Some arrived through predictable channels — friends, marriage, family — while others had more surprising stories — and why they decided to stay.

Later this week we’ll be posting a longer-form piece that caps this video series of interviews from the Unitarian Universalist 2010 General Assembly. And, next week, a video showcasing a sped-up procession of beautiful quilted banners for the opening day festivities!

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Children Help Us Embrace the Mystery

by Krista Tippett, host

The notion of God as father is a metaphor, of course, like much religious language. It is necessary approximation and analogy. When I became a mother myself, I was stunned at how little we have filled this metaphor with meaning from the real experience of parenting. The Heavenly Father of my childhood was implacable, inscrutable, all-powerful. But to become a parent in reality is to enter a state of extreme vulnerability. “To become a father,” the French theologian Louis Evely aptly put it, “is to experience an infinite dependency on an infinitely small, frail being, dependent on us and therefore omnipotent over our heart.”

Raising a new human being in this world is a monumental spiritual task, yet we so rarely call it that. This does not become easier when, at some point, our offspring become little theologians and philosophers. They begin to ask huge questions about life and the universe — basic questions about how we got here and where God lives and why people die and why people hurt each other and what it means to be good and to be happy. These questions are the building blocks of religion and ethics. We refine them all of our lives, but at heart they remain the same. What changes is our ability to articulate and act on them.

Pure JoyAs parents, we want to support this part of our children’s natures. With other mundane aspects of parenting — like how to help them sleep, or how to feed them, or how to teach them to read — we know that we need help. We seek maps, books, and counselors. But when it comes to these personal, existential questions of meaning, we often feel that we should intuitively have the answers. In my own life, and as I’ve spoken with different people across the country these past years, the spirituality of parenting is often a source of anxiety. It provokes a feeling of inadequacy. This is heightened in our age by the fact that so many of us are less connected to specific religious traditions and institutions than the generations that preceded us. And many of us inherit a mix of spiritual practices in our own histories, marriages, and extended families.

As we prepared to create our show titled "The Spirituality of Parenting," we put out a call for the reflections and questions of our listeners and newsletter subscribers. Many, many parents wrote in, as well as grandparents and ministers and teachers. You can hear some of their voices and stories, and see their pictures, on our website. Each contribution has been wonderful to read. The breadth of spiritual searching and the diversity of spiritual moorings among them is startling, reflecting the plurality of the culture we inhabit. And more than a few who are deeply rooted in a particular tradition stressed that even they need guidance on how to teach and model a vocabulary of words and practice for exploring religion and meaning and ethics as they share ordinary life with the children they love.

I don’t believe I could have found a better conversation partner than Rabbi Sandy Sasso. Her ideas have kept me pondering, and I’m delighted to send them out into the world. She encourages us to begin with what we know, and also to let our children lead us on a new journey of questioning and learning. We can seek out maps and books and counselors on this part of their development too, and we should. She also urges parents to explore the place they come from, the communities or traditions in their family and background, even if they have left it behind at another stage in life. Don’t let those who modeled the worst of your faith, she adds, define that faith for you. Understand yourself as an ancestor to the next generation, as part of tradition’s unfolding story.

Most of all, we should attend to our children’s musings about life’s wonders and injustices, their grief at the death of a pet or a loved one, their response to a homeless person encountered on the street. It is all right not to have answers for their large moral and existential questions. Unlike adults, children are not afraid of mystery. But they do need us to help them develop vocabularies and ways of living to keep those questions alive and growing. They need to hear how we think about large questions of meaning, and about what experience has taught us. They need to hear our questions and our stories. Stories are the vocabulary of theology for children. They also crave and will use ritual and routine, and we can form these from daily life and commonplace experiences.

I return to the insight I began with — that children can make the essence of religion come alive. They may ultimately teach us far more than we teach them. “Children open windows for us,” Sandy Sasso says, “or can crawl through windows that we can’t crawl through, and they open part of our life that maybe has been dormant for a long time.” The rest is mystery, and our children will help us embrace that more joyfully too.

(photo: Renata Baião/Flickr)

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What’s Your Hindu Star Birthday?

Shubha Bala, associate producer

A couple of weeks before my birthday, my mom sent me an e-mail reminding me when my “star birthday” was — March 14th, by the way — and saying she was donating to a local temple on that day so they can provide free food for the congregation. Although I’ve always been told when my star birthday was, this was the first time I went on a quest to find out what it was.

Simply put, your star birthday is your birthday using the Hindu calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar. Hindu calendars are traditionally used to derive entire individual horoscopes, which are culturally consulted for just about everything — from determining a baby’s name to finding the best wedding location (and person!)

Your birth star, or Janma Nakshatra, is just one component of the calendar. If you draw a line from where you were born, at the time you were born, to the moon, the Janma Nakshatra is the star constellation that the line would pass through. Each month has 27 Nakshatras, which means some Nakshatras will occur twice in a month.

As with most aspects of Hinduism, there is no rule as to what significance a star birthday has. For example, I spoke to Narayanan Kandanchatha, who grew up in the Indian state of Kerala and is from the sub-caste Nambudiripad. He said that each year they would have to do an important prayer on their star birthday. In his case, the star was so critical that if it was missed, rather than do it the next day, they would wait until the Nakshatra of the following month. He also said that in his culture, in order to do a Upanayanam ceremony (the male coming of age ceremony for the Brahmin caste), a boy must have conducted a special ceremony on his Nakshatra 36 times.

For my mom, her tradition was to wear new clothes on her star birthday. Then she mailed me a new shirt to wear. Some people believe naming your baby with the same first syllable as their star is auspicious. My parents didn’t intend it, but in researching this blog I discovered that I coincidentally ended up with an auspicious first name!

Finding your star birthday

  1. Find your Janma Nakshatra when you were born by using this calculator and your birth year (mine is Satabhisha.)
  2. Next find the Hindu month in which you were born. Scroll to the table of Hindu months here to find the start and end dates for that month. For example, I was born March 5, which would be the month Phalguna, starting on February 20.
  3. Then, go back to this first calculator, and for the date range enter your full Hindu birth month (e.g., February 20 - March 19) for the current year. It will give you a table with all the Nakshatras for the month. Find the date your Nakshatra lands on, and that is your star birthday this year (March 14 for me). If your Nakshatra occurs two times in that month, the second time is when you would celebrate your star birthday.

Since Hinduism is a religion composed of diverse cultures and history, the details in this procedure can change. Many cultures define their months differently. Also, some people don’t use the Nakshatra at all, using instead the Tithi, a completely different aspect of the calendar. But I’ll leave you to investigate these varieties on your own.

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A Humble Offering

by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer

Krista Tippett meets Ernie LaPointe, Sitting Bull's great-grandson(photo: Nancy Rosenbaum)

Last week, I traveled with Krista, Trent, and Mitch for a production trip to the Black Hills in South Dakota. We’ve been planning a program about the spiritual legacy of Sitting Bull for years. Finally the pieces of this production puzzle have started to come together.

After landing in Rapid City, we drove through the snowy Black Hills until we arrived at the cozy home of Sitting Bull’s great-grandson, Ernie LaPointe. As we prepared for this trip, several people (including Ernie’s wife Sonja) advised us to bring him a gift of tobacco. Some of you responded to an earlier blog post, including David Born who once served as chair of the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota.

He suggested where to buy the traditional pipe tobacco, or kinnikinnick, and recommended that we wrap it in a red (a sacred color for the Lakota) cotton cloth. What mattered most, he advised, is that Krista should present the tobacco with humbleness, humility, and respect. Here are some notes from our conversation:

"You can let him know that you understand it’s traditional when seeking the advice/wisdom of an elder to present a gift. You want to acknowledge that the information he’ll be sharing is important and sacred and you want to honor that. You can acknowledge your own ignorance about his customs and let him know that you’re not trying to be Native, stereotype Natives, or romanticize them. The gift of the tobacco is a way of both making a request and expressing appreciation — not just of Ernie but of the Lakota nation. What matters most is that the tobacco is given with "a good heart."

A quiet hush descended over Ernie’s living room when Krista formally presented a pouch of tobacco wrapped in red cloth. She spoke quietly and with grace. As I reflect back on this moment, it seems like this singular exchange set the tone for the two-hour interview that unfolded between them — one of respect and intimacy.

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