Nowruz: Celebrating Spring and a New Year
by Susan Leem, associate producer
On this first day of spring, Persian families around the world are greeting each other with “Sal-e No Mobarak!” and “Happy New Year!” in celebration of the holiday of Nowruz, a day of beginnings. Translated as “new day,” the solar-based holiday marks the first day of the first year of the Bahá’í calendar and the falls on the vernal equinox.
The holiday has wider cultural and national significance for modern Iranians who often celebrate with family and friends by sharing meals together, cleaning their homes, buying new clothes, and performing contemporary expressions of ancient customs. Rooted in Zoroastrianism (the prophet Zoroaster himself is credited with creating this festival) in pre-Islamic Persia, Nowruz is also celebrated in surrounding geographic regions influenced by the Persian empire in the countries of Iraq, Turkey, and Afghanistan.
“Everyone lines up, and, one by one, each person jumps over the piles and sings, ‘zardi-ye-man az to, sorkhi-ye to az man,’ the special song means ‘my yellowness is yours, your redness is mine.’ Iranians believe, people give pain and negativities to the fire, and receive the warmth, the health and strength from the fire.”
The traditional haft-seen table is an important part of Nowruz celebrations. Iranians prepare these settings in their homes by gathering seven items that start with the letter “s,” which have positive meanings: the spice sumac for sunrise, seeb (apples) for beauty, and sir (garlic) for health, among others.
Goldfish also make an appearance on the haft-seen table. They are symbols of new life and the end of the astral year associated with the zodiac sign Pisces. They are sold in markets along with other Nowruz accoutrements.
Sabzeh is sprouted wheat grass, symbolizing rebirth and renewal of nature. On the thirteenth day of the celebration, it is customary to throw these sprouts away into running water, as the sabzeh is thought to collect negativity and illness in the household while it grew there. This purging represents purification and new beginnings.
Diwali: The Festival of Lights
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs around the world recently celebrated Diwali, the festival of lights. From an American vantage point, Diwali is a mash-up of Christmas and the Fourth of July; people exchange gifts, gamble, eat sweets, and set off firecrackers all night long. For Hindus, it marks the beginning of the new year.
There are different stories connected with Diwali, but one of the most central is rooted in the Hindu Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana. The holiday marks Lord Rama’s victory over the 10-headed, demon king Ravana and Rama’s return to the city of Ayodhya after a 14-year exile. People illuminated clay lamps, or diyas, to celebrate Rama’s homecoming — a tradition that continues to this day.
In broad strokes, Diwali marks the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil. The holiday’s name comes from the Sanskrit word dipavali, which means “row of lights.”
Chandigarh, India (photo: Harpreet Singh/Flickr)
This NPR interview with the writer Sandip Roy offers helpful, accessible context on the history, lore, and rituals associated with Diwali. Roy recently interviewed interfaith couples here in the U.S. to learn how they’ve shaped Diwali celebrations to complement “mixed masala” family configurations.
In Nepal, Diwali unfolds over five days. On the second day, dogs are the center of attention. They’re lavished with treats and trot around wearing festive marigold garlands.
Major Diwali festivities fell on November 5th this year when revelers took to the streets with candles, sparklers, and other creative forms of illumination.
Chennai, India (photo: Mckay Savage/Flickr)
For our associate producer Shubha Bala, Diwali is a time for buying and wearing new clothes — also for sharing a meal with family.
Growing up in Canada, Shubha remembers decorating the house with Christmas lights. This was the first year her parents didn’t give her money to buy new clothes, which, she says, was a little disappointing. One year, she used her Diwali money to buy shoes. Her parents disapproved of this Diwali acquisition so she bought a t-shirt instead. When Shubha recently followed up to ask why shoes are not a Diwali-appropriate purchase, they didn’t offer up a clear explanation other than “it’s just the way it is.” She likens it to how some people say it’s disrespectful to wear a hat to church.
Do you have Diwali memories, stories, or traditions that have been meaningful to you? We’d love to hear about them.
A suspended sign in Bangalore, India. (photo: Saad Faruque/Flickr)
Photo at top: Delhi, India (photo: nowyou33/Flickr)
One Voice in a Jewish Spiritual Renaissance
by Krista Tippett, host
At the beginning of my conversation with Rabbi Sharon Brous and again at the end, we discuss a seminal prayer-poem of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Unetaneh Tokef. It is a recital of commonplace mortal perils of the year to come:
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die…
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low…
Our culture — human nature magnified — denies frailty and finitude with a million devices. This religious ritual, more realistically, stares them in the face and asks us to make sense of our lives in and because of them.
Our show “Days of Awe” (listen in the audio above) evokes so much that I love about Jewish tradition — like the fact that it is supremely attuned to human nature’s messiness as well as its nobility. It comprehends the fact that we turn a phrase like “living like there’s no tomorrow” into a cliché, an excuse for froth or license. And so, by the calendar, cyclically, Jews both secular and devout are stopped in their tracks by the long blasts of the shofar and rituals of the High Holy Days that cleanse, humble, deepen, anchor, and refresh. In long hours of prayer, liturgy, and fasting, worshipers name and reckon with the transgressions and omissions of the year past — both individual and communal — and wipe the slate clean for the moment in time ahead.
We wanted to find a way to explore the Jewish High Holy Days for years, and we might have interviewed any number of wonderful guests who would have provided myriad windows into the themes and meaning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But as we researched this show, my imagination was caught by Sharon Brous. She is a rabbi in the conservative school of Judaism but spent a number of actively disaffected, secular years doubting the validity of faith in a modern life. She now leads an urban community she helped to found in Los Angeles in 2004 named IKAR — after the Hebrew word for “essence,” or “core.” Her congregation is bursting at the seams, mostly with people in their 20s and 30s. IKAR calls itself both progressive and traditional. Alongside social justice engagement, their Yom Kippur worship will include the ancient spiritual posture of full-body prostration.
Solemn words like “repentance” and “atonement” define the Days of Awe, though these English translations of Hebrew words are resonant culturally with their Christian appropriations. More importantly, they don’t capture the poetic and visual nuances of the Hebrew. Yet Sharon Brous embraces them intellectually and kinetically. In the deepest spirit of Jewish tradition — of midrash and Talmud, of reverent yet imaginative interpretation of text and practice, of sacred and fearless conversation across generations about them — she fills them with new connotations for her generation.
There is a new Zeitgeist that she embodies, and that intrigues me. Sharon Brous could not be more different from other younger guests I’ve had, such as Shane Claiborne or Eboo Patel, but she reminds me of both of them. They are all thoroughly modern, deeply thoughtful, spiritually wise beyond their years — at once fully engaged in modern life and rooted in ancient spiritual soil. They are fierce about making their traditions relevant and as passionate about transmitting the beauty and wisdom their faiths have revealed across the ages.
In one moving part of our conversation, Rabbi Brous speaks about teachings in Jewish tradition that grieve her, as a woman in particular. But she adds that “the wisdom that comes from this text comes from the same place as the excruciating pain that flows from it.” And even the tears she cries over the pages of Talmud or Torah, she insists, become part of the mix of the living tradition that she carries forward into a new year.
The New Year (for Trees)
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
As we’ve mentioned here before, one of the hardest parts of the production process can be deciding what to leave out. For me, sorting through over 70 ancient woodcut illustrations from Scott-Martin Kosofsky’s The Book of Customs for this slideshow was definitely an excercise in leaving things out.
Just as it was necessary to leave out many of the images, there was also wealth of information about the customs they depicted that needed to be pared down into succinct captions. One illustration that intrigued me more than the others was Tu b’Shevat, or “The New Year for Trees.” A New Year for Trees? I was intrigued, so I looked to see what The Book of Customs had to say about it:
This was the date on which the year was determined for tithing of fruit trees during Temple times. Since a tenth of the fruit was obligated to be given to the Levites and Temple each year, it was necessary to calculate from a measurable turning point in the growing season.
At first I was disappointed by this description — to me it sounded like celebrating tax day as a holiday. But as I read further, Tu b’Shevat revealed itself as a great testament to the ability for customs to take on a life of their own. It turns out that many traditions have been built around the holiday — from simply eating fruit to reciting passages in the Bible, Talmud, and Kabbalah related to fruit. More recently, Tu b’Shevat is interperated by many as a kind of Jewish Arbor Day — an occasion for celebrating the environment, planting trees, and raising ecological awareness.
The truth is that many of the customs shown in this slideshow followed a similar historical trajectory, becoming abstracted from their original purpose — and of course, Judaism doesn’t hold a monopoly on this sort of evolution. What kind of traditions have you observed that have expanded out from their origins — for New Years, for trees, or otherwise?