Celebrating 18 years of progressive Judaism on the South Shore

CSH Announcements 12/17 - 1/5

A Song for Each Night!

by Cantor Lauren Phillips

Thanks to Adam Sandler, the Maccabeats, Peter Yarrow, and others, we are blessed with a plethora of Hanukkah songs. Whether silly, sentimental, or some other style, many are based on non-liturgical sources, no doubt because liturgical texts focused on celebrating Hanukkah are few and far between.

So where do all of our beloved Hanukkah songs come from? Some come from Yiddish or Sephardic folk traditions, while some are based on medieval poetry. Others were inspired by the special foods and symbols of the Festival of Lights. In the spirit of this season, we offer insights into eight of the most beloved Hanukkah melodies - a song for each night!

"Maoz Tzur" ("Rock of Ages")

"Maoz Tzur" is the quintessential Hanukkah melody. Based on a Jewish liturgical poetic form known as a piyyut, it was written in the 13th century and contains six stanzas. We generally only sing the first and last ones during Hanukkah because these contain texts that relate directly to the holiday. The others address additional challenges Jews have faced throughout the years.

Although the composer of the piyyut is unknown, the stanzas' first letters form an acrostic that spells "Mordecai," leading many to believe this was the author's first name. The English translation we typically sing is based on the German version by Leopold Stein (1810-1882), and was written by Talmudic linguists Marcus Jastrow and Gustav Gottheil. Like many piyyutim, there are multiple melodies that have become popular. This version, performed by the group Tzimmes, by Benedetto Marcello was composed in Venice in 1724 - long before the lyricist of the English version we know today was even born!

"Mi Yimaleil" ("Who Can Retell")

"Mi Yimaleil" was written by Menashe Rabinowitz (1899-1968), who also was known by the Hebrew last name Ravina, and was among the earliest creators of Israeli folk music. In this song, Ravina fuses sacred and secular texts, demonstrating an interesting relationship between Jewish folk and liturgical music. Although the song was not designed for a specific religious purpose, its words are drawn from Biblical psalms. Singer-songwriter Shira Kline arranged "Mi Yimaleil" in tandem with the most popular melody for "Maoz Tzur," creating a medley of beloved Hanukkah folk music that she incorporates in her ShirLaLa Hanukkah album.

"I Have a Little Dreidel"

It is impossible to know who wrote this silly Hanukkah classic because the English and Yiddish melodies are exactly the same. However, the English song is about a dreidel, and in the Yiddish song, the singer is a dreidel. In the Yiddish version, the dreidel is made from "blay" (lead), which, historically, is accurate, and in the English version it is made from clay. The song has spawned countless parodies about dreidels made from wood, plastic, and foam. The song even has been recorded by the popular rock group, Barenaked Ladies.

"Ocho Kandelikas" ("Eight Candles")

This Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) Hanukkah song was written by Flory Jagoda, a Sephardic folk singer who devoted her life to reviving the music and language of her childhood. Although the song has a folk-like, through-the-ages quality, it wasn't written until 1983. Reflecting Jagoda's musical training, which began in the small village of Vlacenica, in Bosnia, where she grew up singing with her extended family, the lyrics describe a child's joy in lighting the Hanukkah candles, and provide a delightful lesson in conversational Ladino as we repeatedly count the holiday's eight candles.

"I Am a Latke"

This clever song by Debbie Friedman, z"l, tells the story of Hanukkah from the perspective of the potato latke, one of the holiday's most beloved delicacies. But the song isn't all silliness; it includes a basic recipe for latkes, and also teaches about Jewish foods for other holidays. ("Matzah and charoset are for Pesach…blintzes on Shavuot are delicious.") Included, too, is a stanza about social justice and the importance of helping people who are less fortunate, especially amidst our own celebrations.

"Y'mei HaHanukkah" ("O Hanukkah")

This Hanukkah classic, sung by Paul Zim, has Hebrew, English, and Yiddish versions. The Yiddish version, "Oi Chanuke," includes lyrics by Lithuanian Mordkhe Rivesman (1868-1924). The English and Hebrew versions are poetic translations of the Yiddish by E. Guthmann and Avraham Avronin, respectively. The song's Chasidic melody references many Hanukkah traditions and celebrates the happiness and joy of the holiday.

If the melody sounds familiar to classical music lovers, it may be because the Society for Jewish Folk Music, in St. Petersburg Russia, published two classical compositions which make extensive use of "Freylekhs" for solo piano, by Hirsch Kopyt (published in 1912) and "Dance Improvisation" for violin and piano, by Joseph Achron (published in 1914 in Kharkov).

"Haneirot Halalu" ("We Light These Lights")

"Haneirot Halalu," a chant mentioned in the Talmud (Soferim 20:6), reminds us that the Hanukkah lights are sacred and are lit to commemorate and publicize the miracles experienced by our people in the past. The text - often recited after lighting the newest candle each night - reiterates that the lights are symbolic and decorative, and are not to be used except to show gratitude for the miracles and wonders of the season. Although the text simply can be chanted, there are several choral arrangements that incorporate the Talmudic passage. Jewish composer Stacy Beyer has created a contemporary version that includes both Hebrew and English.

"Light One Candle"

The lyrics of this folk-rock song by Peter, Paul, and Mary connect two Hanukkah themes - the hanukkiyah and freedom - in a moving way to remind us that lack of freedoms still exists today. In addition to observing Hanukkah at home, we also must act to encourage freedom in the world. In a 1983 interview in the Christian Science Monitor, Mary Travers recalled the song's premiere in Israel, which coincided with the Lebanon War: "We didn't want to be against anything specific like Lebanon or the occupation, but for something - the moral ethic, which is the essence of Israel."

Wishing you a Hanukkah that is filled with much light, love, and music.

A version of this article originally appeared in the November-December 2014 Newsletter of Congregation Sinai, Milwaukee, WI.

Cantor Lauren Phillips serves Congregation Sinai, Milwaukee, WI. She was ordained from the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College and is a member of the American Conference of Cantors. Her love of Jewish music and her affinity for Hanukkah songs began during a third-grade Hanukkah play at Temple Israel of Great Neck in Great Neck, NY.

CSH Announcements 12/10 - 12/16

This article by Rabbi Cohen was originally published in the DuxburyClipper

Truth, Fact and Holidays

            It is that time of year when many of us turn off the part of our brain that analyzes, critiques and interprets history. Instead of dealing with facts, data and ancient text we indulge in fanciful, pleasure inducing mythic stories and push aside historical data. What am I talking about? Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas, of course! Each one of these holidays purports to celebrate a foundational historical event. Yet, what we teach and celebrate about these holidays is almost diametrically opposite from the historical truth. Paradoxically, this does not seem to diminish the spiritual and metaphorical power of these special days.

            Let me offer just one or two factual errors for each of these three holidays to make my case. Fundamental to the Thanksgiving myth is the erroneous notion that the pilgrims came to the New World in pursuit of religious freedom. In fact, and this is all well documented, the pilgrims first went to Leiden, Holland where they found an extremely tolerant and welcoming society. However, their ultimate goal was not just to find a religiously tolerant place. They left England (and Leiden) and came to the new world because they believed their own correct view was being repressed.  They believed the Church of England was wrong and ungodly and so was religious tolerance!  In fact, the Pilgrims did not believe that all people have the right to practice a religion of their own choosing.

            Hanukkah is another holiday that is taught and celebrated largely divorced from historical facts. The most often cited detail of the Hanukkah story is how a cruse of oil that should have lasted only one day “miraculously” burned for eight days. The well-documented fact is that this little detail did not make its way into the historical records until hundreds of year after the event it commemorates. More importantly, thanks to the existence of several different texts that described the aftermath of the Maccabean revolt it is possible to trace the development of the idea of the “miracle” of the cruse of oil. Again, thanks to extant text from the time of the Macacabees another even more important wrong truth taught about Hanukkah is that it was a war fought for religious freedom. In reality it was a mainly a war between the Macacabees, Jewish zealots (today we would call them fundamentalists) and Hellenized Jews (today we would call them progressive or liberal Jews).

            Fact, in the early centuries of Christianity the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. It was not until the fourth century that church officials decided to institute a holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Unfortunately, the Christian Bible does not mention a date for his birth (a fact Puritans later pointed out in order to deny the legitimacy of the celebration). It was Pope Julius I (died 12 April 352) who chose December 25 as Jesus’ birthday. This date was probably chosen in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. Another interesting “truth” is that the “traditional” Christmas celebration depicted in movies, TV shows and in our imagination is how the holiday has always been celebrated. In fact, the observance of Christmas has under gone many changes over the centuries, included a period from 1659 to 1681 when it was outlawed in Boston! The way Christmas is celebrated today was largely shaped by the preternatural influence of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol. When Dickens died in 1870, a young girl in London asked a question that demonstrated just how strongly Dickens' writings were associated with the holiday season and modern Christmas traditions. She asked, "Mr. Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die, too?"

            What is one to make of the reality that the historical facts underpinning these three essential holidays do not align with what is taught about them today? Does this undermine their value? I think not. Myths, metaphors, fables and story telling are essential vehicles for conveying complex truths (not necessarily historical facts), values, morals, and ideas. Each of these holidays has evolved from its historical roots into an important vehicle for inspiring, teaching and guiding us forward. Let us all endeavor to embrace the best of what each of these holidays offers and be remind that humanity seems to possess a natural desire to want to evolve in ways that increase love, compassion and sharing in the world.


Candle Lighting Procedure and Blessings

One candle is added to the menorah each night. The first night, you light only the shammus (the one at a different height) and one Chanukkah candle. By the eighth night, you light all of the candles.

Candles are added to the menorah from right to left (like Hebrew writing). The shammus candle is lit first. While holding the shammus candle, recite the following blessings.

Blessing over Candles

Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam asher kidishanu b'mitz'votav v'tzivanu l'had'lik neir shel Chanukah. (Amen)

Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the lights of Chanukkah. (Amen)

Blessing for Chanukah

Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam she'asah nisim la'avoteinu bayamim haheim baziman hazeh. (Amen)

Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe Who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days at this time

Shehecheyanu (first night only)

Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam shehecheyanu v'kiyimanu v'higi'anu laz'man hazeh. (Amen)

Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season (Amen)

After reciting the blessings, use the shammus to light the Chanukkah candles from left to right (newest to oldest).

CSH Announcements 11/26 - 12/2

Why There is Such A Close Bond Between

Shirat Hayam & the Duxbury Interfaith Council

In 1996, Congregation Shirat Hayam was founded and chartered in Duxbury.  We were invited to attend a meeting of the then, Duxbury “Council of Churches.”  Along with our “new” Temple there were also two new religious retreat centers in the Duxbury community.

With these new changes taking place, the Council of Churches, after much deliberation, in 1997 became the Duxbury Interfaith Council to be more in tune with the religious changes taking place in the community.  The mission statement of the new Interfaith Council was changed to be “a visable example of the tolerance and respect between all faiths.”   We changed how religion was looked at in Duxbury!  Click here to continue reading and learn how in 2000 this new relationship was tested because of an ugly anti-Semitic incident.

In 2000, the Duxbury community was stunned with a horrible hate crime against a Jewish family in the community who were also members of our Congregation.  The entire community bonded together in support of our Temple and the family.  Letters of support came from all over the world after the UP and Associated Press published the story.

At that time the Anti-Defamation League was starting the No Place for Hate Program and Duxbury became one of the first of 13 communities, along with Norwell, to be a part of this program.  The program was put under the direction of the Interfaith Council.  Both the Duxbury and Norwell committees were headed by members of Shirat Hayam.  I became Co-Chair of the New England region 7 years ago.

Today the Interfaith Council includes helping those in need in our community.  Over $75,000 is raised annually to support our programs.  Through our existence, we changed the face of an entire community.  Both Laura Neprud and Harry are representives to the Council.  There is room for two more representatives from our Congregation so if you are interested please contact Harry at harrybkatz@gmail.com.

Briyut:  Health / Healthiness

  Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, aka Rambam or Maimonides  taught that keeping our bodies healthy is an integral part of our worship of God, “for it is impossible for one to gain any knowledge of the Creator when one is ill.” (HilkhotDe`ot 4:1).
  Theology is probably not the best motivator for many of us when it comes to taking care of our bodies.  Factoids such as regular physical activity reduces the risk of dying prematurely from cardiovascular disease, helps prevent the development of diabetes,  maintain weight loss, and reduces hypertension, however, might make us pause and consider starting an exercise program.  

  Taking care of our health and cultivating a healthy lifestyle is not only good for us, it is even more important for our loved ones and other people who depend on us, such as co-workers.  In activity on our part is both unhealthy and selfish!

  So what to do?  First, start an exercise program.  This can be as simple as taking a walk 3 or 4 times a week; walking stairs instead of taking an elevator or escalator or choosing a parking space at the shopping center that requires a little longer walk to to and fro.  If you feel you want or are ready for a more structured exercise program I highly recommend the website fitnessblender.com.  This is a free site with all levels of workouts to fit any schedule.  I stumbled upon this site about a month ago and I love it!  If you become a member (it is still free) I'll be happy to share my workouts with you. 

  I can also personally recommend Insanity and T-25,  two workouts produced by the trainer Shaun Thompson you can do at home.  These programs require dvds which you must purchase.  Of course, if you like a more social scene then you can always join a local gym.  If you are new to exercise I recommend you spend sometime with a qualified trainer to create an appropriate training program for your needs.

Summer Camp Opportunities

One Happy Camper Program

Summer Camp Grants Up to $1000

At camp, kids get the chance to explore who they are and who they want to become in an in an inspiring, fun-filled environment. Whether they're playing basketball, ziplining, or dancing with their friends, Jewish camp creates a community of campers-and young leaders-who feel sure of themselves, are better able to communicate and play well with others, and are proud of their heritage.

Through the One Happy Camper program, families can access incentive grants of up to $1000 toward transformative summer experiences at one of 155+ nonprofit, Jewish overnight camps for the first time, regardless of need.

One Happy Camper is a program of the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), in partnership with Jewish federations, foundations, PJ Library, and camps across North America. Grants are available on a first come, first served basis. Families can find camps and secure their grants by visiting www.OneHappyCamper.org today!

Learn about the upcoming launch of FJC's new affordability initiative BunkConnect, and how you can make summers at Jewish camp a reality for every child in your community! Join our upcoming webinar,"The Summer of a Lifetime: Ensuring Jewish Camp is for EVERY Child", on Jan. 22ndRegister today!

Camp For A Day - December 7th-

Jewish Overnight Camping is holding a Camp For Day event created in collaboration with congregation professionals, camp directors and community partners for families with children between the ages of 5 and 11. It will be fun with science projects, menorah making, an obstacle course, rock climbing, Israeli dance and hip hop (to mention just a few of the activities). There will also be 15 camps attending.

There will also be information there about One Happy Camper grants and our new affordability program BunkConnect (which includes day school students).

Camp For A Day is free but there is limited space so we are asking families to register in advance. They will be entered to win great prizes when they do (including Celtics tickets, Tickets to the Omni Theater and more).

Please contact Claire Winthrop if you want to attend or have any other questions.

Claire Winthrop

Consultant, Jewish Overnight Camping
Combined Jewish Philanthropies | 126 High Street | Boston, MA  02110-2700 | www.cjp.org
email clairew@cjp.org| 857.928.4467


Tzedakah  Programs Worthy of Support

AJWS Emergency Response to Ebola Fund

Despite reports of recent progress in Ebola prevention and containment in West Africa, the numbers are still staggering... 13,540 total cases... 4,941 deaths... and still rising every day.

Your special gift to the AJWS Emergency Response Fund can make that happen.  Click Here to Donate Today.

Duxbury Interfaith Council Tzedakah Programs

Thanksgiving Basket Project

The Outreach Committee of the Duxbury Interfaith Council is planning the preparation of Thanksgiving food baskets to over 100 recipient families.  They need your help.  They are accepting donations of:


Please make check payable to the Duxbury Interfaith Council P.O. Box 1161, Duxbury, MA  02331.


Please drop off all non-perishable items at Holy Family Church, 601 Tremont Street, on Saturday, Nov. 22nd from 9:00 to 12:00 pm and Sunday, Nov. 23rd from 2:00 to 4:00 pm.  Baked goods should be dropped off on Sunday, Nov. 23rd and Monday, Nov. 24th. Please, no food in glass containers and within expiration dates.

Other Ways to Help

Packing and Sorting: Any amount of time is helpful, and parents are welcome to bring children on Sunday, Nov. 23rd from 12:00 to 4:00 pm (sorting only); and on Monday, Nov. 24th from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm.                                      

Basket pick-up and deliveries:  Most recipients pick up their baskets.  We need help loading the baskets into cars on Tuesday, Nov.  25th from 12:00 – 5:00 pm (Strong adults only, please) Deliveries begin at 3:00 pm.

Marshfield Food Shelves Need Restocking

Please collect food items and deliver to the Marshfield Food Pantry, 1981 Ocean St, Marshfield, MA 02050 or contact Harry Katz (harrybkatz@gmail.com) for food donations for the Duxbury Food Pantry.


Boston Medical Drivers
Meals On Wheels Drivers
Congregate Dining Assistants
Front Desk Reception
Bus Escorts to Assist Shoppers
Activities Hostesses For Special Events
Special Skilled Instructors and more.....
Consider donating a few hours weekly here at the

Marshfield Council on Aging. We also provide mileage reimbursement for Medical and Meals On Wheels Drivers.

For more details, contact the Senior Center/Council on Aging,
Ask for Donna Weinberg, Project Coordinator for Volunteers,
230 Webster Street, Marshfield, MA 02050.
(781) 834-5581, X 20.

Also, you may visit the Town of Marshfield website,
www.townofmarshfield.org under the Volunteer section.

Hanukkah Music, Story Telling and Fun

Rabbi Lawrence Silberman from Congregation Beth Jacob will share some Hannukah traditions on Thursday, December 11 at 4:30 p.m. in the Merry Room of the Duxbury Free Library.  Rabbi Silberman is a masterful storyteller who will delight participants with his Hannukah tales and songs. This event is designed for families and children of all ages.  Registration is appreciated and may be done beginning Wednesday, November 26 via the library website online calendar, by phone, 781-934-2721 x5632 or in person at the children's help desk.

Stories Matter: Shared Histories, Sharing Stories

 An Invitation from Facing History and Ourselves:  If you are a survivor, child or grandchild of survivors, become part of our network and be invited to attend Facing History and Ourselves sponsored events by responding to this email.  

A First Event
Conversation with Joseph Polak
Date: January 13, 2015, 4:30-6PM
Location: Facing History and Ourselves                
Professional Development Center
16 Hurd Road , Brookline, MA.

If you would like to learn more about how we can help you share your family story and its impact on you, please contact judi_bohn@facing.org.

CSH Announcements 11/19-11/25

(Sylvia Corwin wrote a brief essay for an assignment in a non-fiction writing class on a powerful experience she had has a young woman during the war.  With her permission we are sharing it here.  The writing prompt was the question "how did religion play a part in your upbringing? HAC)


By Sylvia Corwin

  I was ill prepared for the event that precipitated my epiphany. It was not until I was 24 years old that I perceived the full meaning of growing up Jewish.

  My grandparents came to the USA along with the major influx of European Jewry in the late 1800’s, bringing their Orthodox faith and traditional customs with them. My mother’s wedding gift to her new husband was a worn, two-volume, ancient Hebrew prayer book. She established a strictly kosher kitchen, involving different cooking and serving utensils for Passover, meat and diary fare.

  Dad was tutored for his Bar Mitzvah after public school classes, learning to read from the Hebrew language Torah scroll, as the ceremony mandates. His adult approach to religion seemed casual. As expected, once a year he participated in the Young Israel Synagogue High Holy Days services. My younger sister was an invalid, chronic rheumatic fever from age nine. Mom was so overwhelmed by Helen’s care that she no longer “kept kosher”, or supervised me. I was enrolled in a Sunday morning Hebrew class in a nearby Settlement House. My attendance was sporadic; I just was not motivated. My public schoolmates, friends, neighbors, dentist, and doctor, storekeepers and neighbors were all Jewish, like me.

  Somehow, maybe by osmosis, I absorbed the essential tenets of Judaism – the ethics and priorities. I spoke neither Yiddish nor Hebrew; I was knowledgeable of only the rudiments of my religion.

  Fast forward to a bright Monday morning in the luxurious office of the esteemed Art Director of one of “The Big Ten” New York Advertising Agencies – BBD&O. During World War II, as civilians, my husband and I worked for the War Department. Len was based in the Pentagon: I was assigned to Headquarters, classification: “chartist”, in Washington, D.C. Every Friday, from my drafting table to the desks of President Franklin Roosevelt, and the Secretaries of War and Supplies, I sent bar charts and graphs of the war’s casualties, tonnage delivered and lost, ordnance and personnel and so forth.

  The Art Director of R.H. Macy volunteered to serve as Dollar-a-Year General. His mission was to update the old-fashioned, antiquated instruction publications for military servicemen. General Sanford’s fame was built on the bold red star he designed as Macy’s logo. My training and skills, enhanced by the part-time expert’s guidance, qualified me to visualize his concepts and improvements. He was so delighted by our efficient collaboration that he promised: “When the war is over I want you to work for me. No need for you to bring a portfolio. Just be there and we’ll pick up where we left off.” Deliriously happy to have achieved the dream of every art school graduate – working for a Madison Avenue Agency – I was in his office soon after WW II.

  His warm greeting and hugs were followed by his request to make myself comfortable, while he dashed to the Personnel Office to retrieve the papers to be signed.

  I waited, wondered and waited, and waited some more. He returned, paperless, and informed me that company policy did not permit Jewish staff. I dried my eyes and vowed to build a wall of self - defense. Being good at what I did was not good enough. At that moment it appeared that I would be shut out of much of the world so I reasoned that to cope with that loss I’d compensate by becoming a better Jewess, a “woman of valor”, even.

  I still have a lot to learn. Today, I am the oldest member of Congregation Shirat HaYam, a Reconstructionist synagogue that shares a beautiful space with a non-denominational church in Marshfield. My spiritual guide is a prayer I discovered when my beloved died:

Teach me to live wisely and unselfishly, in truth and  understanding, in love and in peace, so that those who come after me will likewise remember me as I do my husband, who is unto me a blessing. Amen

 I assume my elders would be content, if they knew. As for me, my gratitude is best expressed by Andre Malraux, “Evening of life carries its own lamp with it”.

Pikuach Nefesh

  Fall is the time of year when fire services throughout the country recommend that everyone check the condition of their smoke detectors and review your family's plan for what to do if your alarms become activated and/or there is a fire in the house.

  In the spirit of pikuach nefesh I want to remind you to not only do this but also urge you to replace ionization smoke detectors with photoelectric ones.  Ionization detectors are designed to respond to flaming fire.  Photoelectric ones, on the other hand, are designed to respond to much finer particles produced by smoldering fires and the kind of particles that are carried in the fumes of a fire burning in another part of the structure. 

  What this means is that if you are in your bedroom and there is fire in another part of your house and the smoke detector nearest you is an ionization type it will not activate.  By the time the fire is close enough to set it off you will most likely already be overcome by the fumes.  Fumes are what kill most people in house fires, not the actually flames. The photoelectric detector, however, would have activated.  Click here to watch a very compelling news report on why it is important to have photoelectric smoke detectors in your home.

  It is easy to tell them apart.  Generally they will say what kind they are right on the device.  If it doesn't say then look for the radioactive symbol.  They are only on the ionization ones.  Also,  photoelectric detectors are built with 10 year batteries you don't change.

  Also, review the basics dos and don't when there is a fire.  This is especially important to do with kids.

  If you hear smoke detectors going off and your door is closed DON'T rush to open it.  DO feel if the door is warm.  If is not, open it slowly and look to see if there is fire nearby.  DON'T try to hide under a bed or in closet.  If you can't exit through your door DO go to the window and DO your best to let people know you are trapped in the room.  If you can exit your house DO have an agreed upon meeting place outside.  If your room is filling with smoke DO get down as low as possible.  The temperature difference at the floor and head height can be as much as 300 degrees.

 Keep in mind that on average a house fire doubles in size every 2 and half minutes.  This is why it is so important that your smoke detector reacts very quickly to the slightest hint of fire.  HAC


Sukkot, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, the Story

Rabbi Howard A Cohen 

  The next two holidays on the horizon are Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.  Perhaps surprisingly these two celebrations have more in common than you might expect.  Specifically, both are roughly, but intentionally, modeled on the holiday of Sukkot and both are surrounded by myths, which, arguably seem to deliberately obscure the historical realities of the original celebrants.  A close examination of these holidays is worthwhile, if for no other reason, because they are both so important to our lives as Jews and Americans.  Of course, the fact that this year Hanukkah actually starts on Thanksgiving provides us with another reason to look at the relationship between these holidays.

  The evolution of Hanukkah as a holiday is revealed through a close reading of different text dating from around 160 B.C.E (around the time of the actual revolt) through somewhere between 300 C.E. and 500 C.E.  In 1 Maccabees, believed to have been written fairly soon after the Maccabean revolt for a Jewish audience because it was written in Hebrew, we find:

Our enemies have been defeated. Let us go up to Jerusalem to cleanse the Temple and to rededicate it.  [Note, the meaning of the name Hanukkah is dedication.]…They purified the Temple…rebuilt…and restored its interior…Then, early on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, the of Kislev, it was rededicated with hymns of thanksgiving… then Judah, his brother and the whole congregation of Israel decreed that the rededication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness…for eight days.

  In 2 Maccabees, written about forty years later, the connection between our holiday called Hanukkah and Sukkot is stated explicitly:

This joyful celebration lasted for eight days; it was like Sukkot, for the recalled how only a short time before they had kept that festival while living like animals in the mountains, and so they carried lulavim and etrogim, and they chanted hymns of thanksgiving

From these texts we see that the original Hanukkah was a kind of second Sukkot, in other words, a time to rededicate the Temple. Note there is no mention of a cruse of oil in either of this text, not to mention lights miraculously lasting 8 days.

  Thanksgiving is also modeled after Sukkot.  One of the original biblical themes of Sukkot is expressing gratitude for the fall harvest.  Indeed, on of the reasons we are instructed to build our own sukkah is remind ourselves of our agricultural roots.  But let’s not forget that the Pilgrims were in fact very religious people.  They imagined themselves to be much like the ancient Israelites.  Like the Israelites they crossed a dangerous body of water to flee a country that they felt imposed upon their religious freedoms and eventually came into a “promised land”.  Thus, when the Pilgrims celebrated their first fall harvest they certainly had Sukkot in mind.

  Another similarity is that both holidays actual obscure the historical realities of the events surrounding their origins.  From extant text we know that Hanukkah lost most of its connections to Sukkot and instead became a holiday celebrating an event that has no grounds in historical reality.  True, the story of the cruse of oil miraculously lasting eight days did not enter the Hanukkah story until somewhere between 400 and 500 years after the event.  There is no mention of this “miracle” until we read about it in the Talmud.  Moreover, the real “miracle”, defeating the mightiest army in the world at that time was greatly downplayed.  Why did this happen?

  There are two compelling reasons for shifting the focus of the Hanukkah story.  It is generally believed that the militaristic origins of Hanukkah were obfuscated as a result of a disastrous rebellion that took place 50 years after the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E.  This revolt against the Romans, led by Shimon Bar Kochva, was an utter disaster for the Jews.  With Jerusalem destroyed and the Jews dispersed throughout the Roman Empire Jewish leadership was fearful of instilling false hopes that they could ever reclaim sovereignty over Israel without God’s direct intervention.  Hence, the emphasis of Hanukkah was shifted from the military successes of the Maccabees to a “miracle” about a cruse of oil.  The second reason often cited is that Hanukkah was originally a second Sukkot, that is, a period of celebrating the rededication of the Temple.  With the pain of the loss of the Temple still relatively fresh in their minds Hanukkah was at best a painful reminder of what was lost.  As evidence that at the time of the codification of the Talmud Hanukkah was not well known the short passage where it is mentioned begins with the question “what is Hanukkah”. 

  As for Thanksgiving, we were all taught, and no doubt our children are still being taught, that the reason the Pilgrims risked the hardships of settling in a new and wild land was because they were seeking religious freedom.  In fact, these Puritans fled from one of Europe’s most religiously tolerant countries.  What the Pilgrims sought was not greater religious freedom but rather the opportunity to create a religious state according to their religious beliefs and practices.

  Regardless of their respective histories, Hanukkah and Thanksgiving are both great times to reflect on themes such as religious freedom, gratitude, and identity.  So this year, instead of mashed potatoes with your turkey have potato latkes instead!



My Brother’s Keeper

 Jacob Stern

  "HaShomer aḥi anokhi?" הֲשֹׁמֵר  אָחִי  אָנֹכִי “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  replies Cain to God when God questions him about his brother’s whereabouts after Cain murders Abel (Genesis 4.9).  Cain’s infamous response to God has come to represent a person’s reluctance to accept responsibility for anyone else’s welfare other than one’s own. More often than not, people lack the duty and the courage to act for someone else’s benefit. But throughout history there have been instances to contradict this—when one man’s actions on behalf of his fellow man have had an enormous impact and changes the course of history. Are we our brother’s keepers? Sometimes we must answer in the affirmative.

  The 1960s were a decade for social action. Inspired by the civil rights movement, in 1964 a man by the name of Jacob Birnbaum took it upon himself to answer this question. Because of his work with Holocaust survivors in England, he realized that there were Jews living in the Soviet Union who were still being persecuted. This inspired him to start a grassroots movement to raise awareness and fight for their release.  Initially, he acted alone, coming from England to New York and going door to door enlisting the help of others, mainly college students.  With a small group of recruits, he formed an organization called the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry (SSSJ).  One student who joined was neither in college nor in high school.  His name was Yossi Klein Halevi, the twelve year old son of a Holocaust survivor. Jacob, in the course of a few years, began a national movement on behalf of Soviet Jews, raising awareness and calling for action, with Yossi always by his side.  Action took many forms—rallies, sit-ins, fasts, and marches—all inspired by the theme of redemption from the Old Testament. 

  One of these demonstrations took place in New York City in 1966 and was called the Great Redemption March of Passover. People held signs advocating for religious freedom and equality for Soviet Jews.  Some signs read, “Stop the Abuse of Jews”, others read “Let Them Live as Jews or Let Them Leave” and “Let our People Go”. Yossi Klein Halevi, then 14 years old, stood in the front lines. He had attended all the rallies and demonstrations with Jacob Birnbaum, and now held a sign half his size with both hands, which read, “I AM MY BROTHERS KEEPER”. This message was the basis for Jacob Birnbaum’s philosophy.  He advocated for a non-violent approach to activism. Everything Cain was not, Jacob Birnbaum and his supporters were. SSSJ was not willing to use violence, and they understood and accepted the responsibility to act on behalf of others.  In fact, twelve thousand supporters were at the Redemption March in 1966, all affirming that they were their brother’s keepers. Jacob Birnbaum, his leader and mentor, photographed Yossi, at the front of the line holding this sign, sending a powerful message that Judaism teaches us totake responsibility for our fellow man, and that we are indeed our brother’s keeper. 

  In the late 1960s Soviet Jews were unaware that a grassroots movement was forming on their behalf in the United States.  They thought that they were alone in the struggle for religious freedom.  My mother’s family was living in the Soviet Union at the time, oppressed because of their religious identity, not even dreaming that one day they could live in the United States. Because of Jacob Birnbaum’s activism and his thousands of supporters (Yossi Klein Halevi one of the most prominent among them), my mother and her family were allowed to immigrate out of the Soviet Union in 1978, over a decade after the Great Redemption March. The formation of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry was one of those instances in history where one man’s answer in the affirmative changed the course of history.

 Jacob Birnabaum gave me this photograph when I first met and interviewed him in 2007 in his tiny apartment in New York City. He is still alive and still as passionate about his cause at age 86 as he was fifty years ago. Later that year I traveled to Israel to meet and interview Yossi Klein Halevi, who became a famous author and journalist.  He has proven throughout his life that he is his brother’s keeper. The reason I had the privilege of meeting both of these men is because for my bar mitzvah I made a historical documentary called Let My People Know, chronicling the exodus of Soviet Jewry and my mother’s journey to America.   The most important thing I learned from Jacob and Yossi is that it is our obligation to be our brother’s keeper.  One person has the ability and the power to change the world if we as individuals accept the fact that we are responsible not just for ourselves but for others.